Saturday, May 31, 2008

The NHL: Where Gary Bettman Happens

(Photo from The Red Line)

Gary Bettman's most recent interview with Ron MacLean, which just aired on CBC's pre-game show, clearly is deserving of its own place in history on the Unintentional Comedy Scale. I recommend at least a 78: better than the Super Bowl Shuffle but not quite up there with Bill Clinton's denial. Credit to MacLean for going after Bettman with both barrels blazing, instead of throwing the softballs usually delivered at the commissioner's public appearances (often by broadcasters from his league's own network) or by callers to his radio show.

A key topic of conversation was sports business columnist extraordinaire Rick Westhead's piece in the Toronto Star yesterday, which revealed that the six Canadian teams (20 per cent of the league, if you're keeping track) account for a staggeringly disproportionate 31 per cent of the league's gate receipts. This provoked incredible hilarity, as Bettman tried to bash the piece as sensationalist journalism without actually denying any of the numbers or statistics cited. One of the greatest moments in the interview came right at the start, when Bettman attempted to reverse the spin of the numbers (an effort that must have made Nick Naylor proud), saying, "It is a little disproportionate, and I think that that may be a very good thing." He went on to talk about how the Canadian teams were struggling back in the late-1990s, and how it's supposedly healthy to have it the other way now.

Um, hello? Is Bettman's brain on? First, most of those struggles were due to a Canadian dollar that was in the dumps during the 90s and hit an all-time low of U.S. $0.61 as late as 2002. When your main expense (salaries) is in U.S. dollars and your main income streams (gate attendance and TV) arrive in a currency that's almost 40 cents below even, but the prices don't tend to be that different for TV deals and seats, that's a severe problem. The dollar's rise to parity has had far more to do with the recent success of Canadian clubs than any league initiatives. Second, any economist worth his salt could tell you that it isn't healthy to have 20 per cent of your clubs (and the 20 per cent that experiences only minimal marketing, as most of the league's efforts are focused on growing the game south of the border) bringing in 31 per cent of one of the significant revenue streams (and it's not unreasonable to think that the TV and corporate sponsorship numbers are similar).

It got even better from there. "Frankly, revenues are growing all across the league," Bettman said. "Any suggestion to the contrary is someone trying for a headline." Uh, sure they're growing, but not all across the league. The ever-excellent James Mirtle did some calculations and figured out that 60.3 per cent of the $119 million in ticket revenue growth came from the six Canadian teams. Sixty per cent of the growth! That's even worse than the 31 per cent overall. When you factor in that a huge amount of that supposed "growth" is really just additional revenues from the rise of the Canadian dollars, it paints a portrait of a league that is in pretty dire straits financially. As the Globe's Stephen Brunt wrote yesterday, "In a league that in the absence of significant national television money in the United States relies heavily on live gate, 31 per cent of ticket revenue is generated by Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa and Edmonton. Even those at the small-market end of the Canadian spectrum are bringing in more than twice the gate receipts of at least eight U.S.-based franchises. Take away the exchange rate bump, and a passion for the game in this country that only increased after the great labour war, and you have a sports business that is close to stagnant."

Bettman continued on in this fine vein of form, growing more flustered and blustery with each passing moment. His quotes also began to make even less sense. "The Canadian clubs are somewhat in the mid-twenty per cent range." What does that even mean? It sounded like he was trying to suggest that Canadian franchises are middle-of-the pack economically, but that's in sharp contrast to Westhead's numbers, which are actually the NHL's own numbers (he got them from a secret league document). When MacLean suggested that the game's in trouble south of the border, Bettman responded with "Trouble's a funny thing," which tells you absolutely nothing. He then continued with the always-reassuring "Everything's going to be fine," said in "We've just hit an iceberg" tones, and the ever-popular "We're in the best shape we've ever been in," which not only elevates him to the Liars' Hall of Fame with such luminaries as Clay Bennett, but also makes me even more disillusioned with this league: if this is the best it's ever been, maybe we should just let it die, as there's little worth saving at the moment.

The interview continued to get even better. Bettman went after MacLean for only talking about gate receipts, saying that they'd seen huge attendance jumps in the U.S. MacLean quite rightly saw through this smokescreen and asked Bettman if that wasn't only due to the sharp discount on tickets in most American markets to try and get to the magical 14,000 number needed to receive revenue-sharing. Bettman knew his bluff had been called, and awkwardly responded with "That's one part of the equation. You have to have a certain portion of paid attendance." He then went on a wild stream-of-consciousness rant about "people" having "agendas" that made Buzz Bissinger look positively lucid.

Bettman then continued in fine form when MacLean asked him about the ongoing federal investigation of Nashville part owner William "Boots" Del Biaggio III, who's pretty much only in the group to move the team to Kansas City. Del Biaggio is now being sued for "complete fraud" in relation to his business dealings, as opposed to his supposed intentions of keeping the team in Nashville. Bettman first asked MacLean about the terms of the investigation (which you'd expect he'd know, as it affects one of his owners, but I'll give him a bit of a break here as this is pretty late-breaking). Afterwards, he said, "Nobody in Nashville should worry. The Predators will be absolutely fine." He also seemingly refuted the possibility of the team moving. Hey, at least he's on the same page as the team management, which said that the investigation "will have no impact whatsoever." As Greg Wyshynski points out, Bettman might actually be right on the team staying in Nashville for a while longer: if Del Biaggio's out of the picture, there's less of a push to jump to Kansas City. As another interesting thing, Del Biaggio is one of at least three NHL owners currently under some form of investigation: the Anaheim Ducks' Henry Samueli is being sued by the SEC and accused of fraud, and their 2007 Stanley Cup final opponent's owner, Eugene Melnyk of the Ottawa Senators, is fighting both the SEC (which his company paid $10 million in a settlement) and the Ontario Securities Commission. Sounds like we might be back to the days of Bruce McNall and John Spano.

(Aside: Kansas City? Seriously, what's with the rush to move into the Midwest? Does the NHL want to start a "Dust Bowl Division" before the NBA can? The only good thing that could possibly come out of an NHL franchise in Kansas City would be Joe Posnanski writing about the league.)

Bettman continued with a fine comment on the state of the league, "There's been a lot of suggestions, a lot of allegations that we're doing something wrong." Hmmm... maybe those suggestions are arising because you're actually doing A LOT OF THINGS wrong. As Brunt wrote, "There are a couple of ways one might describe the Gary Bettman era in the NHL. Unequivocal failure would be one."

Coming soon: ways to fix what Gary hath wrought upon the league.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Hold the Crosby, please.

(Photo from (gasp) AveryNation. Makes me question who I hate more, Crosby or Avery. I think Avery wins by a nose, due to the Vogue internship and the whole Elisha Cuthbert thing, but Crosby's pretty close).

I don't want to make it seem like I'm always ragging on the Globe and Mail's William Houston, but his column today annoyed the hell out of me. Here's the highlights (lowlights?).

"Let's see. He's the youngest player to be appointed as the captain of an NHL team. This is his first Stanley Cup final. Hard to tell, but he may still be hurting from an ankle injury that sidelined him for 29 games in the regular season.
On Wednesday, Sidney Crosby scored two of the Pittsburgh Penguins' three goals and logged almost 20 minutes of ice time to lead the Penguins back into their series against the Detroit Red Wings. It was a terrific performance.
But guess who received the attention during the Hockey Night in Canada postgame coverage? Gary Roberts.
The show's grudge against Crosby has gone well beyond ridiculous. Yes, host Ron MacLean interviewed him last Saturday, but the show's most influential commentator, Don Cherry, doesn't like him. And MacLean certainly defers to his elder.
If Cherry mentioned Crosby in his postgame commentary, we missed it. Instead, he enthused about Roberts, the Penguins' veteran, who played 8 minutes 45 seconds and earned an assist. And he praised the team's Jordan Staal, who also had a solid game, but no points.
“He's only 19 years old,” Cherry said.
Yes, and Crosby's 20."

Grudge? How the hell can you say that the CBC has a grudge against Crosby, and that it's gone well beyond the ridiculous? As Houston admits, he was interviewed by MacLean last Saturday. Later in the column, he talks about how Crosby was named the first star, chosen for a post-game interview by Elliotte Friedman and praised by Craig Simpson. That seems like quite a bit of coverage (and praise) for someone the network supposedly has a grudge against. Houston goes on:

"The ABC rule (Anybody But Crosby) had MacLean toeing the line. When he read off the three stars of the game, he said Crosby had been selected as the first star for scoring the opening goal and picking up another.
That understated Crosby's impact on the game about as much as saying Tiger Woods is occasionally noticed on the PGA Tour.
When Cherry did his postgame spot for ESPN, he continued to ignore Crosby and wax lyrical about Roberts. Finally, ESPN commentator Barry Melrose said, “What about the Crosby kid?”
“Oh,” Cherry said. “I forgot. Yeah, he played a great game.”
Crosby should be a Cherry favourite. He's a Canadian, he's tough and he has been in at least one fight. But the two got off to a bad start when Crosby was in junior hockey and was rapped by Cherry for being a hot dog because he used a lacrosse-style stick manoeuvre to score a goal. For his part, Crosby has a bit of an edge and he probably hasn't been appropriately deferential to Cherry.

First off, comparing Sidney Crosby to Tiger Woods is blatantly ridiculous. Tiger Woods is by far the most dominant athlete in his sport, and some, including ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski, have even anointed him as the greatest individual athlete of all time. That's up for debate, but at least he's in the running. Crosby? He wasn't even the best player on his own team this year (that honour goes to Evgeni Malkin, with a nice 47-59-106 goals-assists-points mark). Sure, he was injured for a lot of the year, and still put up 24-48-72 numbers in 53 games leaving him 31st in the league in scoring. However, even using a points-per-game reference, he finished third in the league behind Peter Forsberg (13 points in only 9 games, so a helluva small sample size, but he can still play when his foot isn't acting up) and Alexander the Great, who led the league with 65-47-112 and will be named the Hart Trophy winner if there is any justice in the world. Crosby's turned it up in the playoffs, putting up 6-17-23 in 17 games, which ties him for the lead with Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg (who has a more impressive 12-11-23). That still doesn't make him the clear best player in the league or even a lock for the Conn Smythe Trophy. It puts him in the conversation, but he's as close to being Tiger Woods as Tony Pena Jr. is to being Alex Rodriguez. Clearly, Houston's been drinking the Gatorade Crosby's (er, the league's, but the two are indistinguishable these days) marketing team is selling.

(Note: This site does not like Alex Rodriguez, and has not ever since he left the Mariners and became overpaid. However, he is still one of the best hitting shortstops in the game (even if he plays third base now) and he's the highest-paid player in baseball, making him suitable for this comparison).

Second, an Anybody But Crosby rule? Really? As Houston himself points out, the CBC named him the game's first star, interviewed him after the game, talked about his performance in glowing terms and had him interviewed by MacLean after the previous game. What more does he want? If he hasn't got his fill of Crosby adoration from the numerous pre-game shows and all of the coverage by CBC, Sportsnet and TSN, there's always the American telecast, where most of the broadcasters seem to think Crosby with a puck is like Michelangelo with a paintbrush. The CBC still shows far too much Crosby coverage for me (one of the reasons I'm not watching these Stanley Cup finals: I'll have more on that later today, though), but apparently it's not yet at the John Madden on Brett Favre level that Houston wants.

Third, consider this quote: "Crosby should be a Cherry favourite. He's a Canadian, he's tough and he has been in at least one fight." Anyone who calls Sidney Crosby tough must not be watching the same player I am (perhaps he tuned in to the practice where Maxime Talbot wore Crosby's jersey)? Crosby makes Manu "The Best Argentine Diver Who Didn't Play Soccer" Ginobili look tough. Crosby's diving has gotten so bad that he was called out by one Jaromir Jagr. The point is, diving is bad for sports (ask any soccer fan who's tried to convince North Americans to give the game a chance). Most leagues realize this: in fact, the NBA's even going to crack down on flopping next year. However, the NHL continues to market Sidney Crosby, a flopper who makes Cristiano Ronaldo look like an amateur, as the only hockey player in existence, so it's unlikely diving will leave the league any time soon. This aside, there is absolutely no good reason to call Crosby "tough" or suggest that Cherry should endorse him: his play is absolutely antithetical to everything Cherry stands for.

Here's how Houston concludes his column:

"Whatever the case, his performance on Wednesday ranked as one of the big NHL stories of the year and it deserved raves.
True, Hockey Night put him on the air for a postgame interview with reporter Elliotte Friedman. How could it not? And analyst Craig Simpson said a few words, chosen carefully, about his rising to the occasion.
But as a whole, the Hockey Night response to Crosby's effort was dismissive and small – a disservice, not to Crosby, because he receives plenty of kudos and doesn't need them from Hockey Night.
It was a disservice to the telecast and the viewers."

This is one of the things that bugs me the most about Houston and his ilk of sportswriters who make a living writing about what's on television: they automatically assume that everyone shares their preferences. Engaging in a reasonable amount of coverage, rather than the Crosby love-in Houston proposes (which can regularly be seen on most Penguins telecasts anyways, especially if Pierre McGuire's involved) is hardly a disservice to the telecast: it's actually a service to the telecast to provide information on what actually happened in the game as opposed to an overly-large focus on one man. In total, Crosby played 19:41 in that game, or just under a third. That includes a grand total of three seconds on the penalty kill. Thus, there was a lot that happened apart from Crosby, although you'd never know it from stories like this, this and this. Yes, Crosby was the best player in that game, which is why he was named the first star and interviewed afterwards. However, the last time I checked, hockey teams had twenty players dressed for each game. Houston and the League of Extraordinary Crosby-Adulaters would have you believe it's a crime against humanity (or at least that insignificant portion of it that watches the Stanley Cup Finals) to praise any of the other guys, but it's far more accurate in terms of reporting what actually happened. No matter how much Crosby "put the Pittsburgh Penguins on his 20-year-old shoulders", he still wasn't even on the ice for two-thirds of the game! Yes, he's a good player, and yes, he deserved at least some of the coverage he got from that game, but please stop asking for more: you're only further alienating those of us who are tired of having Crosby shoved down our throats, further mythologizing a decent game into a new verse in the never-ending "Ballad of Sid the Kid" and further removing coverage of the playoffs from actually reflecting reality, as opposed to the manufactured tales of one savior's heroism churned out by Gary Bettman's PR cronies.

In conclusion, the top five reasons to hate Sidney Crosby:

- The Diving: He consistently out-Ginobilis Ginobili.

- The Overexposure: Not only does he shill for Reebok, Gatorade and Tim Hortons, if you listen to the NHL's marketing campaigns, he's apparently the only player left (seeing as you never hear about anyone else).

- The Silver Platter: He was anointed as the NHL's saviour long before he'd even been drafted.

- The Captaincy: What did he ever do to be named an assistant captain as a rookie and the youngest captain in team history the following year? Sure, he's good, but skill as a player does not equal leadership skills (just ask Pavel Bure).

- The (Pitiful Excuse for A) Mustache:
Please leave the facial hair for those of us who can actually grow it. His "mustache" looks like he stole his mom's eyeliner pencil.

(Photo from (AUGH!)

Look, Crosby is a pretty good player. He's certainly in the upper echelons of the NHL, but can we please reduce his coverage to something approximating his status? I'd happily take Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk over him any day, as they can play at both ends of the ice and kill penalties (plus they score goals instead of just setting them up), but there's probably about a tenth of the copy written about them as there is about "Sid the Overhyped Kid". To conclude, as the Gatorade commercial says, "Crosby doesn't stop... annoying the hell out of people, flopping, serving as an overhyped saviour the NHL doesn't need and drawing people to his overfilled bandwagon." NHL, if you ever want me to return to your restaurant, please reduce the Crosby portions to a more appropriate size. The CBC should be commended for portraying Sid in a reasonable and fair way, not vilified by Houston and his fellow scribes who want hockey games turned into "The Crosby Show". In the end, it's not going to matter, as the team-first Red Wings will eventually triumph over the Penguins and their overhyped superstar. Now, I hate the Red Wings with most of the bones in my body and I was actually cheering for the Penguins before this, but the Crosby Hype Machine's kick into overdrive after Game Three forces me to opt for the lesser of two evils.

Postscript: Like it usually is, Houston's actual reporting in the column (buried after his rant about how there wasn't enough Crosby love) was pretty strong. The most interesting tidbit was his mention that Setanta Sports has acquired the rights for the FA Cup broadcasts in Canada through 2011-2012. That's a big loss for Fox Sports World Canada, as that was one of their signature properties and the only top-level English soccer they had left (they lost the Premier League to Setanta/the Score/Sportsnet last year, Setanta already has the Carling Cup and TSN's owned the Champions League for a number of years). Thus, soccer fans in Canada will have to shell out the $15/month for Setanta if they haven't already. Soccer obsessives like myself will probably find it worth their while (I love the channel), but it may turn off some casual fans unwilling to pay the extra cash, which could be bad for the growth of the game in Canada.


- Mike Halford of the superb Orland Kurtenblog (if you don't get the joke, you're clearly not a Canucks fan) has a great take on this. An interesting tidbit:

"That being said, I'm sure there's some media backlash involved with this. Every media outlet in the country was transfixed with El Sid's first tour through Western Canada ("Route 87" was the clever nomenclature, I believe) and the hype surrounding his return from a high ankle sprain was on par with The Beatles coming to America. There's no way HNIC, TSN, Sportsnet and The Score could actually look back on those moments and not cringe a bit with the overzealousness of their coverage. Hindsight being 20/20, it was probably too much too soon. Perhaps these same media outlets are now waiting for Crosby to, you know, win something before lavishing him with even more praise?"

- Houston's column drew some attention from Sports Business Daily south of the border (registration required)
- Houston's original column.

Campus Corner: Amoroso and Zeeman named to National Junior Team

Photo: Mike Amoroso prepares to serve at the OUA finals in Hamilton (Andrew Bucholtz photo).

Some interesting news on the volleyball front. After a four-day selection camp that wrapped up Wednesday, Gaels' right-side hitter Joren Zeeman and middle hitter Mike Amoroso were both named to the Canadian Junior National Team. Both were able to crack the Queen's starting lineup as rookies this year and played major roles in the team's OUA silver medals. Zeeman finished fourth in OUA competition in points per game (3.95) and sixth in kills per game (3.30). He also recorded 17 service aces, thirteenth amongst OUA athletes and third on the Gaels behind veterans Jeff DeMeza and Devon Miller, and he earned the Alfie Pierce Trophy as Queen's top male rookie and was named the OUA rookie of the year in men's volleyball. Amoroso led the Gaels' hitters with a 0.430 kill percentage, which was the 13th-best recorded in OUA competition. He had an excellent year, and managed to earn his way into the regular starting lineup after the Christmas break, no easy feat considering that the Gaels had a pair of fifth-year veterans (Chris Vandyk and Nick Gralewicz) at middle as well.

This is a pretty significant honour for both guys. As the Volleyball Canada press release states, "The purpose of the Junior National Team Program to identify, select and train a group of young athletes who have future Senior National Team potential and offer them the opportunity to train and represent Canada in international competition at an earlier age." Thus, both Zeeman and Amoroso could eventually crack the full national team and have the opportunity to represent Canada at world championships or the Olympics.

Here's the full lineup of athletes selected:

Josh Lichty – St. Catherines, ON
Marc Howatson - Victoria, BC
Jason DeRocco - Winnipeg, MB
Gord Perrin - Creston, BC
Frederic Mondou - Longeuil, QC

Joren Zeeman - Cambridge, ON

Mike Amoroso - Toronto, ON
Graham Vigrass - Calgary, AB
Rudy Verhoeff - Calgary, AB
Stéfan Savoie - Winnipeg, MB (alternate)

Ciaran McGovern - Grand Prairie, AB
Jay Blankeneau - Edmonton, AB

Pierre-Alexis Lapointe – La Malbaie, QC
Ryan Munt - Winnipeg, MB (alternate)

Head Coach: Chris Green – Winnipeg, MB
Assistant Coaches: Paul Armbruster – Lethbridge, AB
Luke Harris – St. John’s, NL

It's an impressive group. Four members of the CIS All-Rookie Team cracked the lineup: Zeeman, McMaster's Josh Lichty (brother of Queen's Luke Lichty), Thompson Rivers' Gord Perrin and Calgary's Ciaran McGovern. Amoroso will be competing with Calgary's Graham Vigrass and Trinity Western's Rudy Verhoeff at the middle position, while Thompson Rivers' Stefan Savoie will serve as an alternate. Zeeman is the only natural right-side hitter, meaning that one or more of the left-side hitters will likely be transferred to that side as a backup for him, but he should get a lot of the minutes there.

The main focus of this summer's program will be the 2008 NORCECA Junior Continental Championship, which takes place June 28 – July 6 El Salvador. The team will train together in Winnipeg until then.

-Volleyball Canada press release
-Queen's press release

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Luc Bourdon killed in motorcycle crash

Another tragedy has struck a promising hockey prospect with a great future in front of him. Not even four months after the death of Calgary Flames' prospect Mickey Renaud, Canucks' defenceman Luc Bourdon dies in a motorcycle crash in New Brunswick. According to the Globe and Mail's story, the police have said that a motorcycle hit a transport truck head-on. They didn't release the victim's name, but Bourdon's sister confirmed it was him.

This is terribly sad. Bourdon, a first-round draft pick (10th overall) back in 2005, had so much potential, and really seemed to be entering a phase of his career where he could be an everyday NHL defenceman. In fact, if he hadn't been in the Canucks' organization which boasts one of the deepest defence corps in the league, he probably would have played a full season at the NHL level last year. It's a big loss for the team, as he was probably their most promising minor-leaguer last year. More importantly, though, it's a reminder of our own mortality and a loss of a talented young man to the world. Bourdon was only 21, one year older than me.

Obviously, this is a different situation from Renaud's death, where exactly what happened still doesn't seem to be clear. This is perhaps even more sad, because it easily could have been avoided if Bourdon wasn't out riding his motorcycle, or if any number of things had gone differently on the road. As such, it's probably going to lead to a flood of renewed calls to ban athletes from riding motorcycles (similar to those heard after Ben Roethlisberger's crash). However, I'm not sure if that's warranted. Sure, riding motorcycles can be dangerous, but shaking hands, ironing shirts and looking both ways can also cause injuries. As much as most general managers would probably like to, you can't encase your athletes in protective glass bubbles. They're young, they're rich, and of course they're going to live on the edge and make some bad choices, but that's their right.

Motorcycles are like many other things in life: used properly, they can be a great deal of fun, but there's always the potential for disaster. An older, early-twenties acquaintance of mine was killed in a motorcycle crash when I was in high school, and of course it was a tragedy. It didn't inspire me to become an anti-motorcycle crusader, though: in fact, I hope to own my own motorcycle some day, and I still do after this crash. In some ways, it's like flying: far less people are killed in plane crashes than car crashes every year, but many people are more worried about disaster in the air because it's big news whenever a plane goes down, but auto accidents have become so commonplace that they're barely reported any more. Similarly, motorcycle crashes are big news, particularly when they involve famous athletes, but the dangers of more mundane travel options like cars are overlooked. I'm not arguing that motorcycles are inherently safe: clearly, there's a lot of potential for things to go wrong, and you don't have much of anything in the way of protection. The point is just that we shouldn't go overboard and start proposing bans on all motorcycles for athletes or the general public because of a tragedy like this.

Related: Neate, Alanah, James and Sean all have good posts up on this.

Update: 4:41 P.M. ET: Jason Botchford of the Vancouver Province has more details.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Use the Stern button, David!

(Photo from SLAM Online)
The end of tonight's Spurs-Lakers clash featured a use of the Stern Button (credit for which goes to the brilliant Matt McHale of Basketbawful) if I've ever seen one. The Spurs were down by two with a couple seconds left, grabbed the ball under their own basket and quickly called timeout, giving them possession in Lakers' territory. Robert Horry inbounds the ball to Brent Barry, who is in excellent position for a three, but can't get it off cleanly while receiving a flying elbow to the head from one Derek Fisher of the Lakers. He still chucks it up at the buzzer, expecting the foul, but then turns in disbelief to see the officials with their whistles already returned to their jewel-encrusted cases in preparation for the trip to L.A. for Game Five, perhaps subtly prompted by a couple shocks from the Stern Button. Now, instead of a 2-2 series where anything could happen, the Lakers have an almost insurmountable 3-1 lead, and Emperor Palpatine, er, Stern, will sleep easy at night knowing half of his dream final is almost in place. His battle station is almost fully operational. I'm not entirely convinced that the whole playoffs is rigged, but it's calls like this one that really make me wonder if there is a big conspiracy to drive towards a high-ratings finals. I'm not a Spurs fan: in fact, I hate the franchise for knocking off my Suns two years in a row, and I admit that they play seriously boring basketball (plus they flop way too much), but they should have won this game. The fact that they didn't means questions need to be answered. The truth is out there, and sometimes even crazy ideas are partly right.

Pieces to ponder:

- John Walters of last Wednesday: "Spurs-Lakers. This is the series we all wanted. The defending NBA champs versus the league's Most Valuable Player and its best team (you heard me, Boston). As well as its most glamorous. A few years ago, NBA commissioner David Stern was asked to name his dream championship match-up. He replied without hesitation, "Lakers vs. Lakers."" (emphasis mine)

: Lakers vs. Lakers, eh David? Bet you'd sure hate to have those pesky, boring Spurs in the finals. Now, that could never impact a call or non-call, could it? After all, NBA referees are known for their honesty and incorruptibility.

- The L.A. Times' T.J. Simers in an opinion piece after Game Six of the Lakers-Jazz series:
"NBA Commissioner David Stern stopped by the press room before the game and said he had just met with the referees, I presume to remind them how excited he is about the upcoming Boston-L.A. Finals.
For some reason when this game started, the refs called four fouls on Utah, none on the Lakers, and then tagged Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan with a technical foul.
No need to make it so obvious, guys.
If Stern is worried about a Lakers-Celtics matchup, he ought to be spending most of his time with Boston." ...
"Utah shot the ball well early, but once the referees got into the game, it began to tip toward the Lakers. No doubt Tim Donaghy would have bet as much.
Stern's crew took Utah's best player, Carlos Boozer, out of the game with a pair of first-quarter fouls, and then added another 19 seconds after he returned to start the second quarter. Boozer finished the half with no points, the refs doing the best job of defense on Boozer in the NBA this season.
Bryant also picked up two fouls, but his second came with the Lakers up by 15 with less than 30 seconds left in the first quarter and Bryant probably headed to the bench anyway for a rest.
Final first-half stats, the Lakers making 15 of 19 free throws, the Jazz going four for six from the line and Stern being treated to a 14-point Lakers advantage.
The Lakers had 27 free-throw attempts, Utah eight after three quarters, and the Jazz still managed to keep it close. But that's the NBA for you, every game seemingly arranged so it will somehow remain close going into the final two minutes -- like that really happens.
The Lakers won, Bryant got his Podoloff, and all in all, a good night for Stern and the NBA."
(emphases mine).

: Some interesting stuff to consider here. First, Simers is a member of the mainstream media, usually slow to jump on such conspiracy theories. Second, he's a Los Angeles columnist, so it's tough to accuse him of anti-Lakers bias. A provocative piece. Also, a question it raises: if things were so unfair in Lakers-Jazz, where there's still a lot of interest in the other team, what are they going to be like in Lakers-Spurs, where the opposition is likely one of the most hated basketball teams on the planet?

- Jon Friedman of MarketWatch in a May 21 piece:
"NBA Commissioner David Stern flashed the tiniest of smiles when I asked him if he looked forward to the possibility of a championship series consisting of those time-honored rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics.
"Never think of it," Stern said. "Never think of it."
Yeah, right, Commish.
A few minutes later, I told an executive of one of the league's franchises what Stern had said. The official didn't even try to play it straight.
"He doesn't 'think' about it -- he dreams about it," the executive said good-naturedly, underscoring one of the topics of conversation at the annual NBA lottery on Tuesday night in Secaucus, N.J.
So do the executives of ABC, which will be televising the NBA finals this year." ... "That faint sound you hear right now is ABC executives collectively drooling at the prospect of Boston playing Los Angeles in a final series. ... The NBA is a glittering marketing machine. The lottery party was a shining example of how hard the league tries to put on a show for the media and the fans watching at home on TV. ... [T]hese days the stars burn brightest in Boston and Los Angeles.
(emphases mine)

: Hmm... an all-powerful commissioner dreaming of a matchup involving two massive metropolitan areas, two giant fanbases and a chance to rekindle the showpiece rivalry of the NBA? ABC executives "collectively drooling" at a Lakers-Celtics Finals? The "glittering marketing machine" of the NBA? Nothing but good can come from these ingredients!

- Will Brinson of FanHouse has an interesting commentary on Friedman's piece:
"David Stern is a funny and very sly gentleman. But if he wants people to stop yapping about conspiracies, he should probably not make snide grins when reporters ask him if he would enjoy a Celtics-Lakers matchup in the NBA Finals." ... "Oh yeah, and since the Spurs and Pistons are the other two teams currently alive, one would expect Stern is a touch nervous about seeing that ratings nightmare again. Of course, just the fact that the Spurs have won four rings in recent years should say something about the lack of conspiracy in the NBA. But Stern making sly grins about playoff matchups sure does not help anything."

Comments: Brinson has something here. Even if there isn't an actual conspiracy, Stern sure isn't doing much to dispel the widespread notion that there is. This is touched on more below.

- An ongoing survey by ESPN's Page 2 on the state of officiating in pro sports has some interesting results so far:
- 77.2 per cent of respondents think the NBA's officials "wrongly influence a game the most". The next-closest league is the NFL, with a mere 11.9 per cent of the vote.
- When asked "Given the Tim Donaghy scandal, how much trust do you have in the neutrality of officials?", 22.5 per cent chose "I have serious doubts that creep into every game I watch" and 57.4 per cent picked "I think there are other Donaghys out there, but it's isolated". Only 20.2 per cent chose "I have little doubt that the majority of officials are uncompromised."
- When asked "Do you believe a league office would ever influence its refs to affect the results in a desired way?", an astounding 66.4 per cent of respondents said "Yes."
- 70.3 per cent of respondents cited "Flopping in the NBA" as the tactic most in need of reform (other options were "Umps with differing strike zones in MLB", "Holding in the NFL" and "Fighting in the NHL").

Comments: This is the crux of the issue here. Even if the league isn't actually encouraging officials to influence the results in terms of what would make a better finals, 66.4 per cent of respondents to ESPN's poll think pro sports leagues are willing to stoop to that. Sure, those numbers aren't scientific, but given the huge differences in TV ratings and the resulting cash influx when negotiating new deals, it isn't hard to see why a lot of sports fans think that way. The NBA is also one of the most subjective leagues in terms of officiating: it's tough to differentiate a charge from a block (23.4 per cent), and there's often a wide range in what gets called: this is why Tim Donaghy's scam was so successful. The Donaghy cloud is still hanging over the league as well: that was just last summer after all. More about that below.

- A May 20 Associated Press piece on comments by Donaghy's attorney. Here's the highlights:
- "Donaghy told investigators about the gambling activities of other NBA officials and about a referee that passed 'confidential' information to an unidentified coach."
- "Disgraced basketball referee Tim Donaghy told investigators in the NBA betting probe that relationships among officials, coaches and players 'affected the outcome of games,' his attorney said."
- "The attorney, John F. Lauro, wrote that the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District agreed to plea agreements with other defendants in the case, even though his client told investigators about NBA matters outside of the government's initial investigation. Lauro said the disparity in treatment could not be fully explained because prosecutors have 'surrounded this case with a cone of silence.'"
- "In a footnote, the attorney suggested that the NBA might have "pressured" the attorney's office 'into shutting down this prosecution to avoid the disclosure of information unrelated to Tim's conduct'"

Comments: Now, granted, these comments must be taken with a grain of salt, as they are from Donaghy's lawyer. Still, that doesn't sound too much like an isolated case to me. The NBA spokesman issued just a standard "move along, nothing to see here" denial, which raises suspicions of if we've seen everything from this case. It again comes back to perception: even if Donaghy was a lone gunman, the NBA's portrayal of the case makes it look like they have something to hide, even if they don't.

- Finally, Henry Abbott from the excellent TrueHoop is rightfully incensed:
"OK, there, big ol' NBA, let's be honest: You were on notice. No funny business! We have had our referee scandal, we have been accused of fixing games, and we have promised that such things would never never never no not ever happen again.
You bounced back pretty nicely. But you promised transparency. You talked about a sacred trust.
And in that context, with everyone and their brother suspecting that the League would prefer to have the ratings monster Lakers in the Finals, and with a notorious anti-Spur referee assigned to the game, how can a key Western Conference final game end like this?" ... "That's a foul in my pickup game. That's a foul in high school. That's a foul in college. And, at just about every moment of NBA basketball that I have ever seen except this one, that's a foul in the NBA.That just simply must be called a foul, if nothing else to allay the fears that the League may be fixing up the Finals for big ratings." ... "I actually do not think that the NBA is rigged (if it was the shot clock would have been reset on the play before, when Derek Fisher's shot appeared to touch the rim). But a lot of people do, and that's a problem. The way to solve that problem is to be scrupulously fair, which this was not." ... "And then, do me one last little favor: Look us in the eye, and tell us just one more time that the sport we love is not rigged.

Comments: Henry nails this one. If the NBA isn't fixed, this is the kind of situation it absolutely has to get right. You have to call an obvious foul like that consistently, regardless of when in the game it takes place. Anything else only gives ammunition to the die-hard conspiracy theorists, and makes other, usually reasonable people like myself wonder if there isn't something to what they're suggesting.

And a photo of the Stern Button from Basketbawful:

Happy birthday, Big Hurt!

In unbelievably perfect timing, Frank "The Big Hurt" Thomas turns 40 today, and his Oakland Athletics take on the Toronto Blue Jays this evening. Everyone remember how shabbily he was treated by the Jays' organization, including being benched for the supposed crime of not producing in April (which probably had more to do with his contract, despite the denials by J.P. Ricciardi, who is known to be as truthful as Clay Bennett)? Well, I didn't like the move then, and wrote that I thought it might weaken the team this season for purely penny-pinching reasons. Also, the logic is somewhat stupid, as the Jays are now paying Thomas almost $8 million this year to tear up the league for Oakland, who got him for the bargain-basement price of $337,000.

Anyways, let's look at some stats to examine the impact of the move. As I pointed out in my post on Thomas' release, April had always been his worst month, and he'd always come around. Before leaving the Jays, he went .167/.306/.333 (average/on-base percentage/slugging for the non-sabermetrically inclined) in 60 at-bats over 16 games. With Oakland, he's hit .315/.415/.506 in 89 at-bats over 27 games. His OPS+ has jumped from a lousy 77 to an awesome 161. In fact, he's on an even hotter streak right now, hitting .389/.450/.722 in his last five games (all the usual warnings about small sample size apply, but the point is, he's clobbering the ball). That, combined with his well-known propensity for proving general managers wrong about him (see Williams, Kenny), suggests that the Jays may be in for some Hurtin' tonight.

Now, how about those Jays? Well, they released Frank the Tank on April 20. They won 5-3 against Detroit later that day, but then lost six in a row. Three of those losses were to the Tampa Bay Rays, who are currently leading the AL East with a 31-20 record, but the other three came against Detroit and Kansas City, who are tied for last in the AL Central with identical 21-30 records). The Jays pulled off one win against the Royals on April 27, but then lost 1-0 and 2-1 to the Red Sox to end the month by wasting a couple of great pitching performances (what else is new?). Ironically, the Big Hurt played better against the Red Sox than anyone else he faced with the Jays this year, putting up two homers and eight RBIs in the season-opening series. With him in the lineup, that could mean a couple of extra wins instead of losses against the team most expect to win the AL East, which could be huge down the road.

The Jays' record improved a bit in May, but their hitting still wasn't great. As a team, they've hit .250/.338/.360 this month. By contrast, Thomas hit .348 /.429/.561 in May. Wouldn't it be nice to have him putting up those numbers for Toronto, instead of paying him almost $8 million to bat for the A's? Billy Beane must be rubbing his hands with glee at the moment.

Not convinced yet? Let's look at the Jays' replacements for Thomas at DH, Matt Stairs and Shannon Stewart. In 86 at-bats at the DH position, Stairs has hit .267/.337/.407 with three home runs, eight walks and 19 strikeouts. Now, those are acceptable numbers, and I love Matt Stairs, but I would much rather have him as a platoon outfielder and have Thomas cranking the ball from the DH slot. His production also declined in May, hitting .238/.314/.429 as opposed to the .315/.354/.452 he put up in April. There's also a good reason he's intended as a platoon guy against right-handed pitchers: he's .301/.356 /.480 against them this year, but just a pitiful .077/.143/.077 against lefties. Granted, that's in a small sample size of 13 AB in 9 games, but you don't want this guy hitting against lefties, which makes him a bad choice as an everyday DH. Career, he's .237/.330/.415 against LHP and a much better .274/.365/.503 against RHP.

Shannon Stewart, the other guy to take a fair number of reps at DH, has been abysmal (and Shannon Stewart should never be a DH in the first place). In the admittedly small sample size of 19 AB, he's .263/.364/.263. That's a nice OBP, but his lack of power from that slot is brutal.

The fun isn't complete yet. Removing Thomas and using Stairs/Stewart as a DH meant that other guys had to be brought in to fill the left field slot. Adam Lind was given an unacceptably brief trial, which further erodes the supposed logic behind getting rid of Thomas. It might (emphasis on the might) have been a defensible move if he was released to pave the way for a young, promising prospect in Lind, but that clearly wasn't the case. Instead, the Jays got Brad Wilkerson, who was hitting so poorly that he got released by the Seattle Mariners, the 24th-worst hitting team in baseball, and Kevin Mench, who wasn't even in the majors this year. Wilkerson hit .232/.348/.304 in Seattle this year in 56 at-bats, and you can't even argue that it was that much of a down year for him: that's better than his last two seasons, where he put up the pretty horrendous lines of .234/.319/.467 and .222/.306/.422 with the Texas Rangers. Really? A "Moneyball" team wants a guy who had a .306 OBP last season? Apparently, that makes him supremely qualified to be a leadoff hitter for the Jays. Since he got to Toronto, he's been even worse, hitting an appalling .179/.242/.304 in 56 at-bats and striking out 15 times while collecting only 5 walks (that would be a 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio, for those of you keeping score). His career numbers are a little better (.248/.352/.445), but most of that's behind some solid early years with the Expos, and he's gone downhill ever since he left Montreal.

Mench isn't much better. Career, he's .269/.325/.462, which is okay, but nothing special. Last year with Milwaukee, he hit .267/.305/.441. Hmm... another guy with a terrible OBP to add to Eckstein, Wilkerson and the like. Maybe J.P.'s decided to abandon Moneyball in favour of grit and scrappiness? Anyways, he too has been even worse in Toronto, going an atrocious .136/.208/.136 in the admittedly small sample size of 22 at-bats.

So, here's the executive summary. Thomas was released, and promptly signed with Oakland, forcing the Jays to pay him almost $8 million to play for another team. In doing so, he's hit .315/.415/.506 in 89 at-bats over 27 games. His main replacements at DH, Stairs and Stewart, have hit .267/.337/.407 and .263/.364/.263 out of that slot. The guys brought in to play left field for them, Wilkerson and Mench, have hit .179/.242/.304 and .136/.208/.136 respectively. Does getting rid of Frank the Tank look like a bad idea yet?

Besides all the previous logic, axing Hurt was a classless move from a classless organization. The man has shown he can still produce, and he has always been a slow starter, so releasing him in April was absolutely brainless. It would have been nice to let him finish out his career where he hit his 500th homer, and Lord knows the Jays could use his hitting. Thomas has always been a classy guy, and he really is one of the best hitters of all time (read this excellent Andy Behrens piece from a couple of years ago if you're not convinced). Moreover, in an age of steroid-fueled skepticism, Thomas was the one slugger everyone knew to be clean: in fact, he was arguing against the 'roids back in 1995, long before most people had any idea what was going on. He was also the only player to voluntarily talk to George Mitchell for his report on steroid use in baseball, which deserves a thumbs-up of its own. He's a feel-good story in a sport where they've become exceedingly rare, and he also has his name on possibly the best baseball game ever. I'm not sufficiently jaded to cheer against the Jays tonight, but as a birthday present, I hope Thomas goes something like 4 for 4 and drives in all the Oakland runs in a 7-6 loss. It would be nice to see him wipe that godawful smirk off J.P. Ricciardi's face.

- ESPN The Magazine's fantastic birthday ode to Thomas
- Andy Behrens' 2006 ESPN Page 2 feature on the Big Hurt's greatness.
- An interesting win-share analysis of Ricciardi's tenure as Blue Jays' GM, which suggests that releasing Thomas isn't his only bad move: according to this, he's cost the team 91 wins since he came on board.

Some updates, 11:51 P.M. ET, May 27:
- AthleticsNation has a great interview with Billy Beane where they discuss this situation. Here's some of Beane's quotes:

"We’re always going to look for opportunities. If we find something that we perceive as a great value, we’re going to jump at it. You always try to do both. It’s not a zero sum game where you’re either this or that. You can accomplish this while still trying to do that. You can try to get young players and rebuild and create a good situation and also try to be competitive. Quite frankly, Frank was such a positive influence when he was here. The thing I like about having Frank around the younger players is how he prepares himself. He prepares himself similar to how Barry Zito used to prepare himself to pitch in a game. That’s good for young guys to watch. And I have such a soft spot for Frank. He had such a great year (when he was here). And you can’t beat the price for a guy who brings all he does. ... Our history suggests that if you can make incremental improvements, you should. Yeah, it’s hard to imagine not being interested in Frank." (emphases mine).

So, Thomas is seen by at least one GM (and one of the best in baseball, in my opinion) as a good clubhouse influence (contrary to what J.P. and co. would have you believe) and an incredible bargain. That sure makes the Jays' handling of this look even better.

- A bit of a discussion on Thomas over at the always-excellent Drunk Jays Fans. Dustin Parkes made a good point on Mench: he was brought in specifically to hit LHP, and he's been pretty good at it over his career (.302/.358/.553) He isn't great against RHP though (.254/.310/.419), and many of his better seasons were earlier in his career. There's still hope for him though, unlike Wilkerson.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Stanley Cup Final Predictions

Just to continue on with the Stanley Cup playoff predictions: the Detroit-Pittsburgh series kicks off tonight, so I thought I'd put a quick post up with my pick. I love Pittsburgh's offensive firepower, and I have more faith in their goaltending (Fleury instead of Osgood), but I don't trust their defence. Also, Detroit has the experience, they have the scoring depth, and they have some amazing defencemen in Lidstrom, Rafalski and Kronwall. I've been going against the Red Wings all playoffs long, thinking that someone would be able to expose their flaws of only average goaltending and a high collective age, but no one in the West was able to handle them. It should be an interesting series, and I'll be rooting for Pittsburgh all the way, but my prediction is Wings in six.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Burning the wrong witch

VILLAGER #1: We have found a witch. May we burn her?
CROWD: Burn her! Burn! Burn her! Burn her!
BEDEVERE: How do you know she is a witch?
VILLAGER #2: She looks like one.
CROWD: Right! Yeah! Yeah!
BEDEVERE: Bring her forward.
WITCH: I'm not a witch. I'm not a witch.
BEDEVERE: Uh, but you are dressed as one.
WITCH: They dressed me up like this.
CROWD: Augh, we didn't! We didn't...
WITCH: And this isn't my nose. It's a false one.
VILLAGER #1: Well, we did do the nose.
BEDEVERE: The nose?
VILLAGER #1: And the hat, but she is a witch!
VILLAGER #2: Yeah!
CROWD: We burn her! Right! Yeaaah! Yeaah!
BEDEVERE: Did you dress her up like this?
VILLAGER #2 and 3: No. No.
VILLAGERS #2 and #3: No.
VILLAGER #1: Yes. Yeah, a bit.
VILLAGER #3: A bit.
VILLAGERS #1 and #2: A bit.
VILLAGER #3: A bit.
VILLAGER #1: She has got a wart.
RANDOM: [cough]
BEDEVERE: What makes you think she is a witch?
VILLAGER #3: Well, she turned me into a newt.
VILLAGER #3: I got better.
VILLAGER #2: Burn her anyway!
VILLAGER #1: Burn!
CROWD: Burn her! Burn! Burn her!

[From Monty Python and the Holy Grail]

Much has been made of Boston Herald writer John Tomase's apology and explanation for the Spygate story about the Patriots supposedly taping the St. Louis Rams' walkthrough before Super Bowl XXXVI. Deadspin has a reasonably fair take on Tomase's piece, while the Boston Globe had a decent piece on the Herald's overall apology. However, the real vitriol (perhaps as expected) comes in from the mostly-anonymous commenters, which must be making Buzz Bissinger as happy as a kid in a candy store. The 827 comments included such gems as "You are a complete idiot. May the fans never forgive you...I know I wont [sic]." and "It's not going to wash Mr. Tomase!!!!! You committed news falsification. There is no journalistic requirement to protect a source that provides a lie!!!!!!!!!! Maybe the government's witness protection program may provide you some shelter but Boston sports fans will not!!!!!!!! A reckless "reporter" added to negligent editors equals NO CREDIBILITY!!!!!!"

As Terry Pratchett famously wrote in Eric, "Multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind." Beyond that, though, my general sense is that people are coming down on Tomase far too hard and making the real villains into heroes. Here's what he actually wrote in the original story (via Boston author Seth Mnookin's blog):

"One night before the Patriots face the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, new allegations have emerged about a Patriots employee taping the Rams' final walkthrough before Super Bowl XXXVI. …
According to a source, a member of the team's video department filmed the Rams' final walkthrough before that 2002 game. …
When contacted last night, Patriots vice president of media relations Stacey James said: ‘The coaches have no knowledge of it.’
After his state of the NFL press conference yesterday, Goodell was asked if the league's investigation into the Pats included allegations that they recorded the Rams walkthrough in 2002.
'I'm not aware of that,' Goodell said.
'We have no information on that,' seconded NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. …
According to a source close to the team during the 2001 season, here's what happened. According to the source, a member of the team's video staff stayed behind after attending the team's walkthrough and filmed St. Louis' walkthrough. …
Asked yesterday if he believed the Pats used similar films to achieve their three Super Bowl victories, Goodell was adamant. ‘No,’ he said. ‘There was no indication that it benefited them in any of the Super Bowl victories.’"

Consider what's actually here for a moment. The story makes it clear that these are allegations from a source close to the team: it never claims to represent them as fact, and it also includes one denial from the Patriots and three from the league, including two from Commissioner Goodell. That's certainly giving both sides. Moreover, all of the denials are fairly weak. Stacey James doesn't say that it didn't happen, she says that the [current] coaches have no knowledge of it. Keep in mind that this is a good six years later, and there's been significant turnover in the coaching staff: for example, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, defensive backs coach Eric Mangini and defensive assistant Brian Daboll have all moved on to other positions in the NFL or with colleges. Thus, taping could have gone on and been authorized at any level up to the offensive or defensive coordinator, and James' statement would still be perfectly truthful. That's not to say that this happened: it merely shows that her denial isn't particularly strong, and not likely strong enough to scare anyone off from a story. Also, she said that the coaches "have no knowledge of it": that sounds a lot more like an attempt to distance themselves from any controversy rather than denouncing the story as a lie.

The league's denials are also weak (they're "not aware" and have "no information" on the matter). This is also not out of the ordinary: it just means that they hadn't received whatever information Tomase did, which you wouldn't expect them to have given the highly controversial nature of the allegations. There's nothing here that tells inquisitive reporters or editors "move along, no story to see here". As Mnookin writes, "Neither the Pats’ PR head nor the NFL issued a categorical denial…and in the ever-evolving dance between reporters and the people they cover, “no knowledge of that,” “not aware of that,” and “no information on that” are all the type of hedges that set off alarms."

Additionally, Tomase got this information from multiple sources, even though the final piece only referenced one anonymous source. He writes that "The story mentioned only a single, unnamed source because in the end, while I had multiple sources relating similar allegations, I relied on one more than the others." In my mind, it would have strengthened the story considerably to have the weight of multiple anonymous sources, but that's their newspaper's call. These also weren't all at one time: it started with a 2006 conversation with a trusted source, then was strengthened with a 2007 comment from a "stronger" source after the original Spygate scandal. Later, around Super Bowl week, two of his sources said they had been told that the walkthrough was taped. He also confirmed that members of the team's video staff (including the notorious Matt Walsh) were present at the walkthrough, and that a camera had been set up. It's hard to know exactly how much stock to put in this without knowing who his sources were, but the dots don't seem that hard to connect, and if those four sources are all separate, that's pretty compelling evidence. As Tomase points out, his crucial error was not checking if the cameras were in fact rolling during the walkthrough, which is why the story had to be retracted. Still, consider the ingredients present:

A. One team known for its spying on opposing signals.
B. A shady video guy who the New York Times had spoken to earlier in the week when the story broke, claiming to have more information on Patriots' taping and suggesting that it went back many years (it's now come out that Walsh taped his first signals in 2000 and the Patriots went to great lengths to keep his taping under wraps)
C. Said shady video guy being confirmed as present at the aforementioned walkthrough, along with other members of the team's video staff.
D. Team video cameras confirmed as set up during this walkthrough.
E. A heavily-favoured (14 points!) Super Bowl opponent that might lead a clever coach to think he could use every edge he could get.

It's hard not to envision that mix as a recipe for a spying scandal. When you throw in the weak denials offered by the team and the league, it seems almost assured. Yes, the story was flawed, but the brunt of the responsibility shouldn't fall on Tomase: the majority of the problem came from his sources. It's also not his job to kill a piece: that's where editors come in. The way I see it, his failings were not specifically confirming the most important detail (if the cameras were rolling), and not giving the Patriots adequate time to respond. The latter is tough to do: you don't want to even suggest those allegations unless the story is practically green-lighted, as that kills your relationship with the team, but you also don't want to get scooped by anyone else. This is especially difficult in the lead-up to something like the Super Bowl, where everyone from every paper imaginable is looking for things to write about. Many of them have their sources as well, and they're likely to hear that someone's been sniffing around the old Super Bowl story. Wait too long, and you lose the story: jump too soon, and you're off base. Thus, Tomase was under a lot of pressure and walking a narrow tightrope. Yes, he screwed up, and he admits it, which takes a lot of courage. He doesn't deserve the lambasting he's taken from the commenters on that story, many of whom have probably never had to deal with that kind of pressure while writing a sensitive story, and he definitely doesn't deserve to be fired. Unfortunately, he'll probably be forever linked with this in the public perception. In our fantastic society, it's okay for superstar athletes to be delinquent fathers or have relationships with 15-year old country singers, but a journalist who makes a mistake doing his job clearly deserves a burning at the stake.

The worst thing out of this is that the Patriots come up smelling like roses. All of a sudden, they're shouting "Vindication!" from the rooftops. Just check out these comments from owner Robert Kraft.

"I felt very good seeing this paper, because we've worked very hard over the last decade and a half to establish a strong bond with our fans," Kraft said on CNBC. "This story coming out the day before the Super Bowl . . . was very damaging and put a cloud over us for the last 3 1/2 months. I'm glad it's finally come to an end."

The story, and the cloud, shouldn't have come to an end. All the apology shows is the Patriots did not tape that specific walkthrough (in a way anyone can prove, anyways). According to Walsh, they were still taping, often clandestinely, ever since 2000. They may have started even before he arrived. The taping isn't even the big thing: as the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan points out, the key element is the Nixon-esque cover-up.

"Here is what Bill Belichick has done: He has placed Patriots fans on the defensive for the rest of their lives," Ryan writes. "He has been exposed as being monumentally disingenuous at best and utterly duplicitous at worst. There can no longer be any doubt that he engaged in a practice he knew was against the rules.
The big question we cannot answer is how important it all was, really. Did his illegal practice of taping opponents' defensive signals aid his team's chances of victory in certain games by 20 percent? Ten percent? Three percent? One-10th of 1 percent? Not at all? No one will ever know.
Right now, it doesn't matter.
It doesn't matter, because the only thing that does matter now is the image of the New England Patriots. The sports community now associates the Patriots with cheating. The three Super Bowl championships are, and forever will be, under suspicion. The thought will never go away.
Let Mike Martz, coach of the vanquished Rams in the 2002 Super Bowl, absolve the Patriots all he wants. A year from now, five years from now, 50 years from now, who will know or remember what Mike Martz said? The Patriots have been irrevocably stained. They will be, in the eyes of many, the reverse Black Sox. They will be the team that broke the rules. Their three Super Bowls will be regarded as ill-gotten gain.
And Bill Belichick still hasn't fessed up."

Indeed. Many more questions remain, and the digging into Spygate should continue until they've been settled and Belichick has been either suspended or fired. It's him, not Tomase, that weighs the same as a duck, but this time around, they decided to publicly execute the wrong witch.


- A great defence of Tomase by Keith Law.
- Bob Ryan's column on the cover-up.
- Seth Mnookin's post defending Tomase.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Vancouver's recipe for MLS

To make a Major League Soccer franchise, you will need:

- One (1) large metropolitan area with a long soccer tradition
- One (1) billionaire owner committed to building a soccer-specific stadium at his own expense
- At least three (3) natural rivals either in the league, entering the league, or pushing for an expansion slot.
- 48, 172 fans who come out for a mere exhibition game against an MLS side (granted, one with a noted superstar)
- One (1) prominent and highly recognizable Canadian soccer player, national coach, Hall of Fame member, club coach, star executive, team president, spokesperson, TV commentator and newspaper columnist to helm the franchise bid.
- One (1) soccer-specific waterfront stadium
(NOTE: Highly desirable, but can be replaced temporarily by the following concoction: one (1) aging stadium that's shown it can handle high-level soccer matches, one (1) provincial premier willing to step into the breach left by local authorities and spend money on sports facilities even after the 2010 Olympics and one (1) league willing to consider the stadium as a temporary home with renovations. This replacement will substantially increase baking time, however.)

Directions: Place in oven and bake on low heat for several years. MLS entertainment should be ready to serve by 2011, but full soccer-specific quality may not be achieved until 2016.

So, yesterday's conference about the B.C. Place retractable roof went down pretty much as anticipated. Some interesting details came out of it, though, and it looks as if the Whitecaps may now be on the path to an MLS franchise. As mentioned above, it's not a perfect path, but at least it's a path, and Vancouver's MLS chances look much better than they did before, which is great news for soccer in this country.

- Jim Jamieson's story in the Vancouver Province.
- Province columnist Ed Willes has a great piece on how this isn't the ideal solution, but it's the best one currently available (complete with Iron Man analogies)!
- Ben Knight has an excellent take over at the Globe on Soccer blog.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Whitecaps to push for MLS status?

Some interesting news came out today. The Vancouver Whitecaps, who have been trying for ages to give the city a privately-funded new showcase stadium (supposed to be paid for entirely by Vancouver multi-millionare Greg Kerfoot, the team's owner who has been a key financial backer of the growth of soccer in Canada) with little success, may have finally made the breakthrough needed on a stadium of suitable size to support their Major League Soccer ambitions. However, the potential breakthrough has come from an unexpected direction that may cause as many problems as it creates. According to local radio station CKNW, both the Whitecaps and Lions will be represented tomorrow morning at a news conference called by B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, which is believed to be on the subject of a new retractable roof for B.C. Place. The Whitecaps told CKNW last week that they'd consider playing in B.C. Place with the new roof if it helped their chances of landing an MLS franchise.

On the face of it, this seems like it may be a problematic proposition for the Whitecaps. B.C. Place was opened in 1983, and it's appeared to show its age recently, most notably when the roof collapsed in January 2007. It also goes against the soccer-specific stadium model so desired by MLS. However, the idea makes a lot more sense once you consider comments from Whitecaps president Bob Lenarduzzi in a April 30 Vancouver Province article by Jim Jamieson.

"The club is still 100 per cent committed to building a soccer-specific, natural grass stadium on the Vancouver waterfront, but would consider B.C. Place as a temporary venue if major renos are announced shortly as expected," Jamieson writes. 'Our priority is still the waterfront stadium, but given that it's taking as long as it has, we need to have alternatives if the opportunity to move to a higher level is available,' said Lenarduzzi. 'It would be a short-term solution, as we're looking at the waterfront stadium being our permanent solution but of course we're mired in that process right now.'

Now, that makes a lot of sense. The key goal here is for Vancouver to get into MLS, and the window is rapidly closing. MLS has said it will cap expansion at 18 teams. There are currently 14 teams, and two more franchises have already been approved (Seattle next year and Philadelphia in 2010). The Montreal Impact already have a bid on the table, backed by their brand-new natural-grass Saputo Stadium, and St. Louis is apparently applying as well. Given the rapidly expanding popularity of MLS, it's hard to believe that these are the only other cities interested. If both those clubs make it in and the league sticks to its previous comments, Vancouver would be on the outside looking in. Time is clearly of the essence, so a move to a newly-reinvigorated B.C. Place (which MLS has deemed acceptable as long as there's a long-term plan for a soccer-specific stadium) would dramatically boost the team's
chances of cracking the exclusive MLS club.

B.C. Place also can handle soccer. It played host to the old NASL Whitecaps for several years, and staged the last Soccer Bowl before the league folded. More recently, 48,172 soccer fans packed the joint for last November's clash between the Whitecaps and David Beckham's L.A. Galaxy. It isn't the ideal outdoor stadium the Whitecaps have been dreaming of, but with a new roof, it would make a great interim venue until the new stadium gets finished. The capacity's also a tremendous advantage: far better than the 6,868 seats in Swangard Stadium (the Caps' current home) or even the 20,500 at TFC's BMO Field. If the Whitecaps make it into MLS, there will be likely be tremendous ticket demand similar to what happened with TFC. The Vancouver area has long been very supportive of top-quality soccer, and the old NASL team used to regularly sell out Empire Stadium (32,000 capacity). With B.C. Place, fans wouldn't have to sell their soul for a ticket the way you have to for a TFC game at BMO Field.

There are other alternatives coming out of the woodwork as well for the long-term stadium solution, which should put some pressure on the Vancouver bureaucrats who have dithered for five years over accepting a free stadium (ironic that this is happening just up I-5 from where a team is about to be stolen due to the lack of a publicly-funded stadium). One compelling one is the idea of building a new stadium in the suburbs out in Surrey, just off the SkyTrain rapid-transit line, floated by my esteemed father a while ago and promptly followed up on by the Vancouver Province with a story by Kent Spencer (which included Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts offering support for the proposal) and an editorial backing the idea. A downtown stadium would be more desirable, but Surrey is a viable alternative (especially due to the easy access provided by transit to the western part of Surrey, where the stadium would likely be located), and its inclusion in the mix should give Vancouver council a little pressure to hurry up on the downtown proposal for fear of losing out. Suburban stadiums have worked out well in other MLS locations, notably Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts (home of the New England Revolution and the NFL's New England Patriots) and Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey (home of the New York Red Bulls, and the NFL's New York Giants and New York Jets).

As the Globe's Matthew Sekeres wrote in his excellent article last month, the team is quite happy to look at different stadium solutions.

"Maybe I underplay it, but I don't think it would make a difference," Lenarduzzi said. "What we're saying is, 'We can build it anywhere, just tell us where.'"
Five years later, that question awaits an answer.
In other communities, with a smidgen of political will and dollop of pressure from the local millionaire, an answer would've come in five minutes.

Perhaps the presence of political backing in Surrey (where landing a pro sports franchise would be a huge coup for the city) will be enough to get things done, or perhaps the idea of competition will produce new will in Vancouver to keep the team downtown (even though they currently play in another suburb, Burnaby). Either way, at least the team looks to have some options now.

Regardless of where the new soccer-specific stadium is located, one (and a preferably natural-grass one) is still desperately needed. However, this announcement on B.C. Place is very promising: it should give the Whitecaps a good jump on their bid for MLS by providing a suitable high-capacity venue for them to play in. In turn, the team gaining MLS status would put more pressure on local officials to get things done on a new stadium. It's rather a reverse of the normal model of stadium, then team, but a similar manuever worked for the Blue Jays many years ago: they got into Major League Baseball with the terrible confines of Exhibition Place on the promise that a new stadium would be built down the road, and then they were able to use that leverage to forge the political and financial support needed for the SkyDome. Let's hope stadium history can repeat itself in Vancouver.

Update: 7:42 P.M.: Jim Jamieson has a new story up on the expected deal.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The greatness of soccer songs

Some of the finest things about soccer are the inventive anthems each team's fans come up with. They can reference a past triumph, immortalize a particular player, or mock rival players, teams, fans and even the referees. They're also one of the prime reasons why soccer is so much more interesting and interactive than other sports: most North American pro sporting experiences involve blasting canned music (occasionally all right), doing "The Wave" (see Drunk Jays Fans for a great takedown of that one), running stupid animations on the scoreboards (Ben Knight had a nice rebuke of those), or trying to pump people up via the stupid NoiseMeter (no outside destruction of this is needed).

Songs have always been a hallmark of the European soccer experience, but they've caught on in North America as well: the Whitecaps have long used "White is the Colour" (a takeoff on the popular Chelsea song "Blue is the Colour"), and TFC supporters have come up with some fantastic new variants. My favorite TFC one is below, traditionally used after a call goes against the Reds (note: language warning. To the tune of "My Darling Clementine"):

Who's your father, who's your father, who's your father, referee?
You don't have one, you're a bastard, you're a bastard, referee
Who's your girlfriend, who's your girlfriend, who's your girlfriend, referee?
You don't have one, you're a wanker, you're a wanker, referee.

The other great thing about songs is everyone can get involved in creating them. With this in mind, I figured that Sunday's Premier League title was a deserving occasion to add a couple of new verses to the old standard, "Glory, Glory, Man United" (to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic: note, these are in the style of the original song's verses, not the modified verses often used in the Man United version). Here they are:

The pie-eaters are crying at the rugby pitch in vain
The Blues are jumping off the Bridge, much to their mothers’ shame
The Gunners fired blanks all year, the Scousers did the same
As we go marching on!

Glory, glory Man United
Glory, glory Man United
Glory, glory Man United
The Reds are marching on!

Ronaldo boldly stepped up to convert the penalty
Ryan Giggs drilled home a strike, passed good old Sir Bobby
Rio, Vidic and Van der Sar kept our own net ball-free
And we’ll keep marching on!

Glory, glory Man United
Glory, glory Man United
Glory, glory Man United
The Reds are marching on!

Now we’re marching off to Moscow seeking European glory
Where France and Germany have failed, we can complete our story
We’ll beat Roman on his home turf; tell Uncle Avram sorry
For we’re still marching on!

Glory, glory Man United
Glory, glory Man United
Glory, glory Man United
The Reds are marching on!

Great Moments in Sports: One-athlete teams

Most of the time, an athlete being called a one-man or a one-woman team is pure hyperbole; a compliment to the superstar player, but an insult to their teammates and an exaggeration of their role. It's extremely rare to actually see one person win a game in a team sport by themselves. Even some of the best athletic performances of all time that come close to this status eventually fall short: the example that comes to mind is Diego Maradona's performance against England in the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup, where he scored possibly the greatest goal of all time (slo-mo version with classical musichere) as well as the most controversial one (consider yourself lucky if the words "Hand of God" don't evoke sporting memories). Maradona needed very little help on either goal, as it was a mishit clearing attempt from England's Steve Hodge that produced his "divine intervention" rather than a pass from a teammate, and he dribbled through most of the England team on his second and greatest goal (which, unfortunately, has been overshadowed by the Hand of God). However, even though Argentina won 2-1 over a great England side on the strength of Maradona's play, it wasn't a true one-man performance: the rest of the team turned in a solid defensive effort and created their own chances, and it took an 87th minute save from Julio Olarticoechea to put Argentina through.

In the last couple weeks, however, two performances worthy of the one-athlete team label were recorded. Jobi Wall of Faith Christian High School pitched a perfect game (over five innings) and hit for the cycle (in only four innings) in the same game, an 18-0 victory over Coal Ridge. Wall's performance literally was enough on its own to win, as his home run supplied the only run his team would have needed with his pitching. Neate also found an amazing story about Bonnie Richardson, a Texas high-school track and field athlete who was the only member of her school's team to qualify for the state championships, but yet wound up taking home the team title.

Sure, both only happened at the high school level, but those are incredible feats. Even Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game wasn't enough to beat the Knicks: the Philadelphia Warriors won that one 169-147 (aside: wouldn't it be something to see an NBA game like that again!). Are there any athletes I haven't thought of who really have singlehandedly won a match for their teams?