Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Avery in hospital?


Just saw this update from the Globe's David Shoalts. Apparently, Sean Avery was rushed to a New York hospital this morning in cardiac arrest. I detest the guy, but you don't want that to happen to anyone. Get well soon, Avery: the league depends on you to get it some headlines. It says a lot about him that there aren't any hockey pictures of him other than fights until the third page of Google Image Search (Photo credit: Ed Betz/AP, from New York Times site).

Update, 7:23 PM: Not a heart attack, an apparently ruptured (or maybe not ruptured?) spleen. Still very severe, but it seems difficult to mix up the two, particularly as Avery apparently walked into the hospital under his own power instead of being carried in unconscious and not breathing. Serves me right for believing a report published by that paragon of journalism, the New York Daily News. In fact, as Alanah and Eric McErlain have pointed out, the Daily News hasn't even admitted their mistake yet and just changed their story without bothering to tell anyone or call it an update. David Singer of hockeyfights.com has a nice screen capture of the original (since-removed) story and a good post on the subject. As he writes, "The NY Daily News post about Avery is all sorts of different now. There are subtractions, additions, and not one mention of an edit. I understand a story like this breaks, and everyone can’t nitpick all the facts as there’s a race to report, but the original sourced story around the web right now is from the News and it looks like we’ve all quoted phantom material. The timestamp is different, that’s about it. It’s alright to post edits and updates, it doesn’t make your organization look weak, it makes you look like you’re continuously reporting, and certainly helps your readers understand what’s correct." Looks like some mainstream media (if you can call the Daily News that) could benefit from blogger ethics.

Update, 10:20 AM May 1: The fallout from Averygate continues: check out the pieces at Regret the Error and James Mirtle's blog. The Daily News may have wanted attention, and they got it in spades, but perhaps not of the kind they'd have liked.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Good moves, bad moves, you know he's made his share

It sounds like the days of John Gibbons as the manager of record for the Toronto Blue Jays may be numbered. Consider the opening paragraphs of Jeff Blair's Globe column after today's 5-2 win over Kansas City:

"John Gibbons had to do something because, let's be honest, there will come a time when the decision making is taken out of his hands.
He knows it, and has become increasingly open about how much longer he will or won't have to manage the Toronto Blue Jays. He's down to the short strokes, in other words, so it was only right and proper that he pull off a massive lineup shuffle Sunday."


This time, the lineup shuffle worked, the Jays came through with some key hits and the Royals gave them the game with several terrible errors. Thus, Gibbons may stick around for a while longer, but you can bet he's still on a short leash. I'm not entirely convinced firing him would make a huge difference, though.

Granted, Gibbons has made several very questionable moves lately. Refusing to use John McDonald, the appropriately-named Prime Minister of Defense (thanks Drunk Jays Fans) as a late-innings defensive replacement for David "Short and Scrappy" Eckstein is certainly one of them. Benching Frank Thomas for a slow start in order to use a stellar Rod Barajas at DH (which, of course led to the inevitable parting of the ways with Frank the Tank) is another, although there are questions about how much of that was contract-related pressure from above. Similar questions abound on the subject of Adam Lind's extended time in the minors after Thomas's departure, and whether it was a managerial move by Gibbons or a contract-related decision by J.P. Ricciardi.

We haven't gotten to one of the worst yet, though: Friday's decision to have Scott Downs intentionally walk Tony Pena Jr., he of the .156/.179/.203 numbers this season, to pitch to David DeJesus (.364/.405/.455) and set up a lefty/lefty matchup. DeJesus is actually hitting for a better average against lefties than righties this year (.412 vs .313), but his OPS drops from .921 against righties to .801 against lefties This is a small sample size, so let's look at his career numbers: .266/.343/.380 against southpaws versus .290/.366/.430 against right-handers. Sure, there's a drop there, but it isn't that huge. Pena, on the other hand, has hit slightly better against lefties than righties (.257/.276/.341 versus .251/.270/.338) over his career.

On the surface, both players seem to show that they follow the conventional wisdom of left-handers hitting better off righties and vice versa. Even with that, though, DeJesus is still hitting .266/.343/.380 against lefties over his career, compared to Pena's .257/.276/.341. Using the stats from this season, the discrepancy is even more glaring: Pena is hitting .125/.167/.188 against southpaws, while DeJesus has put up .412/.389/.412 numbers against LHP. Thus, Gibbons walked a guy with a .354 OPS against LHP this year to pitch to someone whose OBP and SLG numbers are both better than that! As Joe Posnanski wrote, "And finally, I’d say most of the intentional walks I see are INCREDIBLY STUPID strategic moves. The kind that make my teeth hurt. I’ve never seen a more offensive walk than Friday night. Never."

This one is pretty bad. It's overthinking on the level of Mr. Burns removing Darryl Strawberry to pinch-hit Homer Simpson instead, despite Strawberry's nine home runs ("It's called playing the percentages!"). Incidentally, Neate, Tyler and I agreed the other day that "Homer at the Bat" is one of the greatest Simpsons episodes ever, so apparently the universe can survive agreement between Tyler and myself (as long as it's only on minor points). Posnanski went on to say that he would have fired Gibbons on the spot: "I’m just telling you … I’d have fired somebody. I’m just telling you that intentionally walking Tony Pena Jr. or any other light-hitting middle infielder hitting .150 would be a fireable offense on my team. I’d have that written on a clubhouse sign."


(Brain Massage Images)

However, I'm not of a mind to fire Gibbons yet. Sure, he's made some bad decisions, but he's also made some very good ones. I liked the hit-and-run calls today to force the issue, and one had the nice side effect of snapping Vernon Wells out of a slump. As Darrin Fletcher (the baseball player and Sportsnet commentator, not the Manchester United winger) pointed out on today's broadcast, you don't usually call a hit and run with someone like Wells at the plate, but when they're in an 0 for 15 slump, it sometimes makes sense. I know from my own playing days that you're often overthinking and trying to do too much when you get into a protracted slump, and the manager creating a situation where you're aiming to just get contact (and have pressure on you to do so) seems like an inventive slump-breaker in my books.

As Blair points out, there are some good things about the new lineup as well: Alex Rios did very well out of the leadoff spot, and Scott Rolen turned in a great performance batting third. Gibbons also can't really be blamed for many of the team's struggles to this point, which, as Mike Wilner points out, have had much more to do with their terrible batting performance with runners in scoring position. Better minds than I, including Blair, Wilner and Dustin Parkes have come to the conclusion that Gibbons isn't at fault and shouldn't be fired yet, so I'm inclined to agree. Managers make a hell of a lot of decisions every day: some work out brilliantly, some are passable, and some are horrendous failures. Gibbons might need some more brain massaging to avoid moves like walking Tony Pena Jr., but unlike Posnanski, I wouldn't fire him purely for that. Until we see far more managerial moves in the "horrendous failure" category, firing Gibbons would be a move that's purely for show and highly unlikely to right the ship.

As an aside: Alex Rios proved today why speed and good decision-making on the basepaths are still valuable assets, as he managed to score from first on a Scott Rolen single when Jose Guillen threw to second base. It was a great call by third-base coach Marty Pevey, but he doesn't even have the chance to make that call if someone slower, say Matt Stairs, is on first base, as they might not even get past second on that hit. Speed isn't the be-all and end-all, but it's a nice tool to have. Baseball Prospectus' Nate Silver made a strong case for the value of speed a while back, so I'll leave the summary to him.

"The last question, of course, is how much baserunning really matters. And the general rule of thumb is that it can make about a win’s worth of difference at the extremes: a really fast/skilled baserunner will produce about 8-10 extra runs for his team on a going-forward basis as compared with a really slow/terrible baserunner. Or, if you prefer, a great baserunner will produce about an extra half-win for his team (4-5 runs) per season versus an average baserunner.

This is nothing to sneeze at. Baserunning is another in that category of things that might be overrated by the mainstream media, but has nevertheless been underrated by sabermetricians. "


Couldn't have said it better myself.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Irony, thy name is Stern

I was perusing the Sports Illustrated Vault (greatest way to kill time ever) and came across this great profile of David Stern, written in November 2006 by Jack McCallum. It features some great unintentional comedy, as many things written about Stern then seem hilarious in retrospect. Consider the following examples:

"Over the past months the NBA drafted a mission statement of which Stern is exceedingly proud. It talks about values and social responsibility, and it pledges that NBA employees will "conduct ourselves in accordance with the highest standards of honesty, truthfulness, ethics and fair dealing."

Commentary: Guess that was before Clay Bennett joined the club.

"Now, there is plenty of room for cynicism when bottom-liners start talking altruism. And the many NBA haters in the U.S. would suggest that players such as Stephen Jackson are living repudiations of the league's mission statement. But Stern holds that the document has had a 'profound effect' on him and on those who work for him. He hardly gets through a day without mentioning the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program, which each summer sends dozens of players to conduct clinics in far-flung and often impoverished parts of the world, and he fumes when the league is criticized for too often airing its NBA Cares spots. 'We're going to keep right on showing them," the commissioner says pugnaciously, "because social responsibility is extremely important to us.'"

Commentary: Apparently, social responsibility permits stealing deeply-entrenched franchises away from fans who have loyally supported the league for generations while falling over backwards to help sleazeball corporate raiders.

"It troubles him, then, that the league is increasingly doing business in countries with abhorrent or at least questionable government policies." ... "China presents an even greater conflict for Stern because it has both colossal business potential and a terrible human rights record. The commissioner has traveled throughout the country, both for business and to satisfy his intellectual curiosity, and there is no doubt that China is critical to the global future of the NBA. Yet its repressive policies fly in the face of the league's mission statement."


Commentary: Yeah, that hasn't stopped him from seeing "more of a need for new pro basketball teams in China than in North America."

"'Believe me, the China situation bothers me,' Stern says one day, traveling between Paris and Cologne. 'And a voice at home [he means (his wife) Dianne, who is more outspoken about politics than he is] reminds me about it all the time.' He sighs heavily. 'But at the end of the day I have a responsibility to my owners to make money," he says. "I can never forget that, no matter what my personal feelings might be.'

Commentary: Stern can play the self-effacing political martyr all he wants, but I've got a feeling the cash is more important to him than he lets on here. We do get a bit of truth here though: Stern lets out that it is the bottom line behind every NBA decision.

There is one image from the piece, though, that makes it possible that Stern has merely been played as a pawn by Bennett, who, after all, considers him "just one of my favorite people on earth." "Though Stern's inner compass in leading the NBA has been largely unerring, he has trouble finding his way back from somewhere if his wife is not along," McCallum writes. "As he enters hotels, for example, he invariably makes the wrong turn to get to the elevator, though he makes it decisively. 'He has no sense of direction,' says Dianne, 'yet he always knows where he's going.'" That damn-the-torpedoes attitude that doesn't allow for admitting that you're wrong may have doomed Stern to the wrong side in the Sonics situation: enticed by Bennett's flattery, he jumped onto the Oklahoma bandwagon and promptly refused to entertain the notion that Clay and co. could be lying out of the sides of their faces, going so far as to say that he hadn't even studied the e-mails in question before the crucial relocation vote.

However, that kind of naivety doesn't seem to fit with the workaholic, obsessive, detail-oriented character McCallum describes.

"He has been traveling abroad for so long that he knows not only the names of international basketball officials and TV executives, but also their kids' names. Stern's attention to detail is astonishing. As he greets Coca-Cola officials in Barcelona, his first question is, 'How's Sprite Zero doing?' Perusing a notebook full of bar graphs and sales-figure charts during a meeting in Rome, he stops and points to one. 'You left a percent sign out here,' he says to Umberto Pieraccioni, Adidas Italy's managing director. Before the tour's final doubleheader, in Cologne on Oct. 11, the commissioner's eyes run over the seating chart. 'How about if you move George Bodenheimer over here?' he says. The ABC Sports/ESPN honcho is duly moved. On planes and in cars Stern usually decides who sits where, calling for a reporter to sit near him on occasion and, on others, exiling the scribe to a different seat or different vehicle, depending on whether or not he feels like answering questions."

It sounds like a disservice to that sort of man to suggest that he's unaware of what each and every one of his owners is up to, and he's clearly paid some attention to what's going on in Seattle, as evidenced by his fine of Aubrey McClendon for telling the truth. That leaves two possibilities. The first is that he was deceived by his first impression of Bennett, is loath to change his mind, and thus conveniently blames everything negative on the others in the group.

The second possibility is that this shifting of blame is merely a PR tactic to appease the factions calling for Bennett's head, and that Stern has secretly been backing the move all along. As I pointed out earlier today, the NBA may lose a large media market, but all of their owners gain substantial leverage in negotiating with local governments. They can threaten to move elsewhere if the pursestrings aren't loosened, and use the Sonics as a key example: "Look what happened to Seattle."

It's the old extortion tactic, but it makes perfect sense for a sports league: no one wants to be known as the politician who let the local team walk, so you can bet that there will be a considerable amount of enthusiasm for publically-funded arenas in NBA or soon-to-be-NBA markets. As TrueHoop's Henry Abbott wrote, "The more I see the situation play out in Seattle, the more I see that David Stern is really good at his job. His current assignment: getting as many dollars as possible from taxpayers and to NBA owners. Oklahoma City stepped up to the plate, with public dollars to remodel the public building they built some time ago."

That kind of Machiavellian manipulation sounds like a project worthy of a brilliant workaholic like Stern. Perhaps his comments about social responsibility, honesty, truthfulness and the like are merely spin. What would be even worse, though, is if he actually believes in those laudable goals and somehow thinks he's serving them. At the end of the day, he's sold his soul and his ethics to the almighty bottom line. It may be ironic, but after further reflection, it isn't all that funny, especially if you're one of the Seattle fans he's trampled on in the process.

Sonics: The unravelling

Things are looking better and better for the Sonics. The array of lawsuits against their ownership are demonstrating that even more evil lurks in Clay Bennett's computer than previously thought. As I wrote a while ago, "Given that the e-mails came out of discovery in the city lawsuit, who knows what other dirty laundry might show up to aid the various cases for keeping the Sonics?" Some more dirty laundry has in fact come tumbling out of the closet, which should push the credibility of Bennett and his group into negative numbers if it wasn't there already.

The best of the newly-released e-mails, which came as part of Howard Schultz's lawsuit to unwind the sale, showed that two days before he bought the team, Bennett was already contemplating a "sweet flip" to obtain another team and move them to Oklahoma City if by some chance an arena solution materialized in Seattle. ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson had a great column stating that the new information gives Schultz a substantial case (thanks to Seth Kolloen for the link). As Munson writes, "The allegations against Bennett and his group are serious and seem to indicate a fraud at the time of the sale. The chronology of the e-mails is compelling evidence that will allow Schultz to push Bennett and his group into a bad corner." This might even be enough to make fighting this lawsuit out all the way better than using the leverage it provides, as I advocated previously, but there's still the risk of a loss taking away all the city's bargaining power, and you can bet that the NBA won't be in a hurry to negotiate with a city that tried to take it out in court.

The best aspect of Schultz's lawsuit is that it advocates revoking the sale and turning the team over to a "constructive trust," administered by a judge, which would then sell the franchise to local ownership. Thus, Schultz isn't in it to get the team back, which strengthens his case: it allows him to argue that the sale was fraudulent without him benefiting if it is voided. Munson called the "constructive trust" language "a brilliant idea," and considered it one of the key components in making the case "more than a public relations stunt."

Another fantastic e-mail that came out later in the week showed that the NBA itself questioned Bennett's "good-faith efforts" after Aubrey McClendon's ill-advised comments to the Oklahoma Journal-Record. The Seattle Times has a great list of the key e-mails that have been released so far: reading those, it becomes even harder to understand David Stern's assertion that "Clay, as the managing partner and the driving force of the group, was operating in good faith."

As more information comes out, it's looking increasingly likely that there's still a chance to keep the Sonics in Seattle, particularly with the Schultz lawsuit. Hopefully, this will prove that pro sports franchises and their owners can't just selectively pick and choose which laws to adhere to. This kind of blatant lying to facilitate a potentially fraudulent purchase wouldn't be acceptable in the corporate world, so it shouldn't be acceptable in the sports world. The sad thing is, though, this situation was pretty obvious ever since Schultz sold the team to Bennett. Just about everyone knew he would do anything to get a team to Oklahoma, but if he hadn't slipped up by revealing such in detailed and indiscreet e-mails, he'd likely already be there. This should serve as a warning to sports fans everywhere: be very, very careful with out-of-town owners, particularly if they have interests in another market without a team. Many of them will try to move, and it's unlikely that they'll all prove as incompetent as Bennett has.

Despite all this incriminating evidence about Bennett's intentions that should cause concern among NBA management, Stern is still sticking to his guns about moving the team. That demonstrates that this isn't entirely about relocation, or media markets: it's really about the public paying for teams' arenas, a huge goal of Stern's. Oklahoma City is willing to throw public money at the NBA, while Seattle is more reluctant: in Stern's view, that seems to make up for its other obvious deficiencies, such as being the country's 45th-largest media market. As Henry Abbott pointed out in this excellent TrueHoop piece, "Right now, the way it commonly happens is that teams ask for a sweetheart deal, and if they don't get it, they leave for somewhere that will give a sweetheart deal. All that happens with the blessing of the NBA, an organization that serves the owners." The lawsuits, the incriminating information, and the court proceedings will undoubtedly help the case to keep NBA basketball in Seattle, but in the end, the city and the state will still have to come forward with some money. It doesn't have to be a ridiculous plan like Bennett's $500 million arena in Renton: the Ballmer alternative keeps sounding better and better, but in the end, there will still need to be public money involved. The amount, the source and the terms are up for debate, but public funding of arenas to some degree is a necessary evil these days: if your town isn't willing to pony up the cash, some other city inevitably will.

Related:
- Henry Abbott has more on how this case is casting a shadow over an otherwise great playoffs.
- Abbott on how Aubrey McClendon's honesty makes him "4% more likable than the other owners" (a comparison to Josh Howard recently admitting to smoking marijuana).
- A hilarious-in-retrospect October 1, 2006 piece from the Tacoma News-Tribune's Frank Hughes, which features Clay Bennett serving lamb testicles to unsuspecting Seattle businessmen (is that ever a metaphor!), and also the following paragraph: "Ask anyone who knows Clay Bennett, and most say he is straightforward, a "straight shooter" as they say down here. He might not always give you an answer, they say, but he does not lie. He is a tough negotiator, but fair. He knows when he has leverage, and is not afraid to use it to his advantage, but does not necessarily take advantage of people."
- Seth Kolloen on Clay Bennett's inferiority complex over at Enjoy the Enjoyment.
- Greg Johns of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on how the city plans to pursue its lawsuit.
- Seattle Times columnist Jerry Brewer has a hilarious mock e-mail exchange with David Stern and Clay Bennett.
- The Times' Percy Allen has a good piece on Richard Yarmuth, Howard Schultz's lawyer, who was involved in the city's lawsuit against the American League after the Pilots left town that resulted in the league granting the town the Mariners franchise (the same lawsuit current city representative Slade Gorton spearheaded).
- A post at Hotdog and Friends showing that Bennett was happy to hold a gun to Oklahoma legislators' heads as well. They also have a good post on how David Stern defies logic. (Thanks to Deadspin for the link).

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Round Two Playoff Predictions

Well, I went 4-4 in the first round of the NHL playoffs, which puts me on a level with the Globe's David Shoalts and slightly behind Maggie the Monkey and the Globe's NHL scout, who were both 5-3. Hey, a little better and I could have a job in this league! Let's see if I can channel Allan Maki or Eric Duhatschek instead, who were 8-0 and 7-1 respectively. Here's my thoughts on Round Two.

East:

Montreal versus Philadelphia: Habs in six


The Canadiens slept through much of the first round and let Boston take them to seven, but they turned it on when it counted, winning the decisive seventh game 5-0. Rookie goalie Carey Price appears to be back in world-beating form, and you don't want to bet against Montreal with a hot rookie goalie (see Dryden, Ken; Roy, Patrick). Montreal also has reasonable depth on both offence and defence.

Pittsburgh versus New York: Penguins in six

The Rangers did better than I expected in the first round, knocking off always-dangerous New Jersey. They're in good form, and "Swedish King" Henrik Lundqvist looks to be at the top of his game, but I think Pittsburgh's tremendous offensive firepower will prove too much for them.

West:

Detroit versus Colorado: Avalanche in seven

This will be the series to watch: the greatest rivalry of the 1990s is back for Round Two, with many of the same names and faces (Foote, Forsberg, Sakic, Osgood, Lidstrom, Draper and McCarty, to name just a few). Jose "Hair Loss" Theodore's back in Hart Trophy form for the Avalanche, which gives them an edge over Detroit and their aging netminder Chris "Still in the league?" Osgood, who actually looks like a spring chicken next to Dominik "Washed Up" Hasek. Both sides are full of wily veterans, but Colorado's balanced offense should push them over the top.

San Jose versus Dallas: Dallas in seven

This should be billed as the "Battle of the Choke Artists": both teams have been hovering around the edges of contention for a while, but haven't been able to make that last jump. For Dallas, goaltender Marty Turco's proven that last year's strong performance against the Canucks wasn't a fluke with his spectacular play against the Ducks. For the Sharks, I'm not sure if Patrick "Not Clutch" Marleau and Evgeni Nabokov can overcome their normal playoff deficiencies. This could be close, but Dallas knocked off the defending cup champions last round, who I (along with many others) had picked to repeat. Thus, I have to go with them here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A helluva column

I should preface this by stating that I respect the Globe and Mail's William Houston as a writer who's been doing a tough job for a long time, and I frequently read his columns. He does a fantastic job as a reporter who digs up interesting details on media coverage of Canadian sports, and his takes on the competition among the various channels and the TV ratings of different events are always worth a look. However, his analysis of networks' on-air coverage is much more hit-and-miss. Some of it is bang-on, such as his analysis of the different networks' trade deadline shows. I don't agree with many of his other ideas, particularly about what makes good and bad commentary, but I can usually at least understand where he's coming from. On occasion though, he'll drop in something that's so absurdly out-of-the-blue that I can't even begin to fathom the thought process he went through in constructing it.

A great example of the latter is his column from yesterday's Globe criticizing Hockey Night in Canada's coverage of the playoffs. Personally, from the games I've seen, I think Hockey Night's been doing their usual stellar job, but I can respect someone who disagrees with me and can support their reasoning. Unfortunately, Houston's effort does not meet this standard. Just look at the first couple paragraphs of his piece:

"The Hockey Night in Canada telecast of the San Jose Sharks-Calgary Flames game last Sunday was weak in spots, but helpful in identifying some of the show's problems," he writes. Okay so far: we still disagree that it was weak, but I'm looking forward to his explanation.

"Let's start with host Ron MacLean, an excellent broadcaster and a popular hockey personality."

Interesting. If he's such an excellent broadcaster, why is he the primary problem? We're about to find out.

"On a semi-regular basis, MacLean uses "hell of a" to describe something exceptional, such as "a helluva third period." He uttered "helluva" once on Sunday."

Good Lord! I had no idea my tax dollars were going to fund such gross profanity! We clearly need a censorship law for the CBC: it can come in right alongside the new Bill C-10 set to deny tax credits to films and videos "deemed offensive to the public", which star director Ang Lee points out is more state censorship than he ever experienced in China, that noted haven of free speech. Hey, if we're going to destroy Canadian cinema, we might as well take out Canadian TV while we're at it so we can replace it with the bland, inoffensive entertainment that Houston apparently prefers. No one had better send him a Trailer Park Boys DVD: he might have a heart attack just from reading the box!

Seriously though, how can "helluva" be considered offensive in this day and age? It's a short form for "hell of a", a commonly used superlative for a strong athletic performance. What's so offensive, the word "hell"? Well, it occurs fifty-five times in the Bible, so clearly all copies of that book need to be burnt instantly. It's also the name of a town in Michigan, so we should wipe that off the map as well. The Hells Angels? Gone. Hells Bells? Toast. Hell freezing over? Better burn those Eagles CDs. Never mind the following Wikipedia entry:

"The word "Hell" used away from its religious context was long considered to be profanity, particularly in North America. Although its use was commonplace in everyday speech and on television by the 1970s, many people in the US still consider it somewhat rude or inappropriate language, particularly involving children.[15] Many, particularly among religious circles and in certain sensitive environments, still avoid casual usage of the word. In British English and some parts of North America, the word has fallen into common use and is not considered profane; often considered to be a safer and less offensive alternative to swearing, as in the phrase, 'Go to Hell.'"

Well, I guess Houston still lives in a time before the 1970s and still considers hell profane. As he excitingly goes on about MacLean, "Last week, he used damn and hell in the same breath. They're minor expletives, but CBC Sports is the only place we know where a host is allowed to swear on the air." You can feel the implied exclamation marks, and the shock he expects to arise as millions of Canadians spill their morning coffee reading such tales of horror and instantly flee to their 1970s-style typewriters to bang out indignant letters to the editor over the degradation of society and the absence of any and all morals. As Macdonald Hall's Bruno Walton might say, "Our world is crumbling around us!" Damn and hell in the same breath? On the airwaves? Forget the censorship bill, you might as well just burn MacLean at the stake right now. Oh, rats: I just used damn and hell in the same breath. William Houston, if you're reading this, you're welcome to come burn me as well for violating your sacrosanct media sphere of morality.

The funny thing is, it's not just the times that Houston is out of touch with. I've been reading "best-of" collections of great Canadian sportswriters like Jim Coleman and Milt Dunnell recently, and they spent much of their time at horse tracks and boxing rings. I sincerely doubt if either man ever recoiled when they heard a "damn" or a "hell" from the legendary characters they hung out with. Sure, it's somewhat different when it's in the media, but should it really be? That's what makes sites like Drunk Jays Fans so refreshing: those guys don't bother to take the rough edges of their passionate commentary, regardless of who they offend. Slipping in a "helluva" really shouldn't offend anyone these days, anyways,(except for those hopelessly behind the times).

The trend's starting to catch on: at our own humble paper, we're certainly not reticent to use "damn" or "hell" when quoting people, and even occasionally in our own writing. We're also not afraid to throw in even naughtier words when someone says them. This is especially important in sports: I know I'd much rather hear "We put up a hell of a fight" than the clich├ęd, sans emotion comments like "We went out there and did our best." In an era where most athletes and coaches are taught to spin everything in the blandest way possible, the occasional outburst of pure passion should be lauded, not censored.

This isn't to say that language should be used just for pure shock value. There's a point where it's real, and a point where it's just contrived, where you lose the passion that made pushing the boundaries great in the first place. However, particularly in sports, there's a lot of emotion involved, and the fans who read/watch/listen to them are better able to connect with the game and the athletes if coaches, players and even announcers can truly express what they feel than if they're forced into politically correct language. Even the mainstream media's starting to get this: Houston's colleague Jeff Blair had a fantastic story today about the Jays' loss, which started off with manager John Gibbons dropping three consecutive "fucks". Of course, the paper didn't actually print the word in question, but Blair didn't condemn Gibbons for his language, and he came through as a guy who was genuinely passionate and frustrated about his team. I know I'd rather have a character like him or Ozzie Guillen managing my club than a dull figure who sticks to Houston's rules. There's other great examples, such as Joe Posnanski, my favorite Kansas City Star columnist, who recently held a fantastic swear-off between Scott Raab and Pat Jordan. Now, those guys might fall into the category of "swearing just to draw attention", but I can say that that was one of the funniest things I've read in a long time.

In any case, I don't want to return to the "Leave it to Beaver" world espoused by Mr. Houston. I prefer my athletes and commentators as real people, who curse when they miss a shot or complement something amazing with "that was a hell of a play". So don't worry, Ron: I'm sure there are plenty of people who have moved on from the old days and can actually handle a little helluva here and there in their media. Unfortunately, none of them happen to write the sports television column for the Globe and Mail.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Sonics: Levers and places to stand


Photo: Clay Bennett after rustling some Sonics off to Oklahoma City. Yee-haw!

I came across some interesting ideas about possible ways to save NBA basketball in Seattle yesterday from columnists Art Thiel of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (thanks to Neate for the link) and Steve Kelley of the Seattle Times. Both have a similar basic premise of the city, the state and various interests like the Ballmer group sitting down with Bennett and the league to work out a way for the NBA to exist in Seattle in the long run. It's a classic "I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine scenario": in return for a guaranteed expansion franchise within the next couple of years, the city agrees to drop its lawsuit and let the team go, probably convincing Howard Schultz to give up on his suit as well. This is actually a pretty good idea, given the embarrasing e-mails that showed up as part of discovery in the city's case and prompted the Schultz lawsuit: who knows what other evil lurks in the heart of Bennett's computer? The Shadow might know, I'd love to know and David Stern doesn't want anyone to know, which could be easily accomplished if he decided to promise to replace the "bleeding ex-Sonics", and not with a slug either. Thiel and Kelley both also make the good point that the city shouldn't scrap the suits until a promise of a new team is firmly in hand: given Stern's sliminess of late, I wouldn't trust him at any distance farther than a free-throw line.

As Thiel writes, "Anything less than unambiguous commitment is meaningless, because Stern is slippery. Obscured by the legal posturing he shrouds in belligerent commentary toward Seattle is this action of true intent: In August, Stern fined one of Bennett's partners, Aubrey McClendon, for telling an Oklahoma newspaper that the group never had any intention to stay in Seattle. In other words, Stern so feared further exposure that he took $250,000 from one of the lodge brothers for telling the truth. His personal animosity toward Seattle's political leadership has so clouded his normally acute business judgment that Stern's mere word is simply not to be trusted in future dealings about the NBA in Seattle."

The city needs to show Stern and Bennett that they can do this the easy way or the hard way. Behind Door #1 is a new franchise for Seattle, a substantial decrease in bad press for the resurgent league, further league success found by maintaining a solid market and a bunch of happy Oklahoma hicks who finally get to play with their new toy. Behind Door #2, everyone's unhappy. Stern's upset because the further revelations in the lawsuits strain the league's already shaky credibility, because he'll be taking heat from fans and the media every time something happens in any of the court cases, because his bosom buddy Clay keeps calling to find out when he can get his team and because the Oklahomans who just gave the NBA a vast truckload of free public money for arena improvements and a new practice facility. Bennett's upset because he's tied down in a three-way war of attrition in court and can't yet become the hero of the Dust Bowl Division. Sonics fans and local lawmakers aren't in the greatest of moods because they're limited to a lame-duck team that's likely to leave at the end of the court proceedings. Clearly, that seems like a losing proposition all around.

That's not to say that the legal fight is hopeless, though: it seems like the city and Schultz both have decent cases, and the season-ticket holders' suit may have potential as well. It's just that a guaranteed team beats a chance of having one every time. The city and Schultz can certainly tar and feather the NBA's reformed image with their lawsuits, but in the end, the team might still be able to sneak out of town. As much as I'd like to see Bennett and Stern punished in the court of public opinion for their shady dealings, I'd rather see NBA basketball remain in Seattle: resorting to realpolitik to save the team is one of the rare cases where the ends justify the means. These lawsuits give Schultz and the city a good deal of leverage against Bennett and company: if they get a decent place to stand, they might be able to stop one of the epicentres of the Seattle sporting world from moving.

Related:
- Another Thiel column on how Stern's Friday press conference was ridiculously full of lies and exaggerations: Thiel does a great job of taking Stern to task here.
- Jerry Brewer of the Times on the pain of losing the team and who's ultimately responsible.
- Famed Times sports humour writer Dwight Perry quoted a nice jab at Oklahoma City from a Sporting News writer. "As a longtime NBA traveler, I'd much rather see the SuperSonics in Seattle," wrote Sam Smith of The Sporting News. "It's a beautiful city with phenomenal restaurants and culture and a quirky populace that makes you wonder at times if the country tipped in the late 1960s and the hippie movement landed there and stayed. It's a place unlike any in the U.S. Among the best last meals has to be the Copper River salmon available in the late spring. It hardly compares with my favorite IHOP in Oklahoma City."
- The Times' Percy Allen has a great blog post showing Stern's hypocrisy: it features a video clip of a televised interview with a local reporter at a Nov. 4, 1995 Sonics game where Stern raves about how good KeyArena is after the latest remodelling. A bit of a contrast to Friday, where he said, "It's the smallest footprint in the league with one of the lowest amounts of suites, the smallest amount of additional amenities and generally is not viewed in its current state as an arena that can support team on a going forward basis." Note to Clay: don't think Dave will be happy with the Ford Centre for too terribly long, even with the new taxpayer-funded renovations.
- Seth Kolloen of Enjoy the Enjoyment has a good post on the leadership shown by Governor Christine Gregoire throughout this fiasco, which can be summarized as "too little, too late."

Hockey: So long to the Big Bad Bruins

With everything on the line, the Montreal Canadiens recovered from their dismal play in the last couple of games to beat the Boston Bruins 5-0 in Game Seven of their first-round series and move on to the Eastern semifinals. After taking an early 3-1 series lead, Montreal looked terrible in a 5-1 thrashing in Game Five and not much better in a 5-4 loss in Game Six Saturday, where they gave up four third-period goals. Tonight, they played cool and composed and proved that they were clearly the better team. They also showed that they can play tough defensively, blocking 23 shots, dishing out 38 hits and killing off all six penalties they took.

It was a particularly good performance from some of the Canadiens who had struggled lately. Rookie goalie Carey Price was back to his normal unflappable self, with the Globe's Tim Wharnsby describing his performance as the "best hockey" he'd played to date. Mark Streit, normally an offensive defenceman who has played up front in the last couple games, recorded his first career playoff goal, and the reunion of brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn on the same forward line paid significant benefits: the two combined for three goals and five points. Alex Kovalev, who had been one of the Canadiens' few bright spots offensively so far but still hadn't produced at the expected level, also had a good game and set up the first two goals.

Credit should go to Boston for stretching this to seven though. As James Mirtle wrote before the game, "Despite the injuries, the lack of scoring depth and the fact they have a 34-year-old starting netminder who hadn't played a postseason game until this series, they've persevered, and it's far from a lock that the Habs will be able to regroup at home." The Bruins truly epitomized the hard-working, crashing and banging "lunchbucket" hockey team epithet one of the CBC commentators gave them early in the series, and no one symbolized their heart and desire more than former Vancouver Giant Milan Lucic, who had a far better series than his two goals give him credit for. He's already drawing comparisions to former Bruins star Cam Neely (who rightfully should have been a Canucks star if someone hadn't got the brilliant idea to trade him for Barry Pederson), including one from famed Boston Sports Guy Bill Simmons.

Speaking of Simmons, he managed to jinx his second Boston team of the year with today's column, the first he'd written on the NHL all year. It's a credit to this Bruins team and this great series that they can draw in someone jaded with the way the organization and league have been going. He also had some great thoughts on the current state of the NHL and how it could be fixed (apologies for the long quotation, but this is bloody good stuff):

"Look, sometimes a sport can just evolve in the wrong direction," he wrote. "It happened to tennis, it happened to pro wrestling and it definitely happened to hockey. This was a sport that thrived on rivalries and feuds -- Montreal and Boston, the Rangers and Islanders, Philly and Washington, Montreal and Toronto, Montreal and Quebec, Montreal and everybody -- so by moving key franchises and adding too many other ones, fundamentally, they were killing the one thing that made the sport so great. As a Boston fan, how am I supposed to get fired up during the regular season for a steady stream of Nashville, Columbus, Carolina and Anaheim? It's insane. It's illogical. Hockey should never have more than 22 teams, and half those teams should be playing in Canada, where it's the national sport and the citizens truly care about the game. It's the only way to bring the sport back -- rivalries, bad blood, back-to-back games and everything else -- and as soon as they jettison a few franchises and move a few others back to Canada, I could see caring about the league again. You know, as long as the Bruins are sold."

"You can't say the damage from the Bettman era was incalculable, because you can calculate it -- hockey barely has an American TV contract right now, and it drifted into the second tier of professional sports for good after the devastating lockout. I write about sports for a living and couldn't tell you who won every Stanley Cup this decade. Even worse, if I quizzed my friends -- all of whom care about sports except for one -- I don't have a single friend who could rattle off those Cup winners except for my buddy Dave Dameshek, a Penguins fan who didn't get pushed away because of "Sixty-six" (his nickname for Mario Lemeiux) and then Sid the Kid and "Geno" Malkin. So that's not good. The NHL has evolved into a sport with all die-hard fans and no casual ones. They need to get the casual ones back. They need to bring back people like me."

Right on. Forget the Bucks GM job, my vote's for making Simmons NHL president. He could hardly be any worse than Bettman, and I think he'd be a lot better: he seems to be one of those Americans who gets the game and why so many of us up here are nuts about it. Rivalries are key to the sport, and bringing them back would be great: also, who wouldn't love to see teams in Winnipeg and Quebec City?

Final thought from the Simmons column: he seemed to be somewhat aware of the fact it would probably jinx his team, as most of it was about the tremendous whippings the Canadiens have put on the Bruins over the years. The really eerie part was when he talked about hating the Montreal fans for singing "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" whenever they were about to knock Boston out: wouldn't you know it, shortly after I read this, I watch the entire Bell Centre break into the song for a good five minutes of the third period. Poetic justice, and a proper send-off to a great series that briefly rekindled the great days of the NHL.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Jays: Adios to Frank the Tank

The Blue Jays released designated hitter Frank Thomas today, one day after he expressed disappointment at being benched. Jeff Blair has a great column up about how the real reason was due to Thomas' well-known contract, which would have automatically given him an extension for 2010 if he recorded 304 more plate appearances this year. Of course, J.P. Ricciardi, that paragon of truth, absolutely denied that the contract came into it.

"That never came up," Ricciardi told the Canadian Press with regards to the contract issue. "I told Frank our decision is based on performance and his decision is based on not being able to be in the lineup." Pull the other one, J.P., it hath bells on. It would make these decisions a lot easier for Jays' fans to accept if their general manager would tell us the truth once in a while instead of lies that blatantly insult the fanbase's intelligence.

I'm conflicted about this decision. From a financial point of view, it makes some sense, especially for next season: this allows the Jays to perhaps bring Adam Lind along sooner and also potentially creates an opening for Travis Snider, rather than blocking their path to the majors with a 41-year-old DH. It also lets them get Matt Stairs' bat in the lineup on a more regular basis without dealing with his slowness in the field. However, I think this might weaken the Jays this season. Sure, Thomas has struggled so far, but he's always been a poor hitter early in the season: last year, he hit just .250 in April and .193 in May before recovering late in the campaign to lead the team in both homers (26) and RBIs (95). Even in his great 2006 season with Oakland (.270/.381/.545, 140 OPS+, 39 HR, finished fourth in MVP voting), he hit .190 in April and .268 in May. That year also came after Kenny Williams and the White Sox got rid of him, invoking a "diminished skills" clause and bringing in Jim Thome to replace him, so he had plenty of motivation to get going early.

Thomas has just never been able to hit early: even in what was probably his best statistical season in 1994, when he won his second MVP in a row and hit a ridiculous .353/.487/.729 with a OPS+ of 211 and 38 HR in only 113 games, he batted .295 in April, his lowest average for any month in that year (except August, where he hit .211 in only 9 games before injury forced him out for the rest of the year). Thus, even though Blair raises doubt about his current batting mechanics, there's every chance he'll sign on with another team and have a typically strong second half. Next year is a bit more of a question, and is probably why the Jays made this move, but Thomas certainly has plenty of motivation now to prove he can still play. It may not have been wise to light a fire under him this way, especially if he winds up with a team that can challenge for the wild card and further reduce the Jays' post-season chances.

Leaving behind the logic and stats for a moment, I'm disappointed in this move from a purely emotional fan's perspective. Thomas has always been my favorite player, ever since I got Frank Thomas Big Hurt Baseball for Super Nintendo back in the day (by far the best baseball game I've ever played). My admiration for him has only grown over the years, and his signing with the Jays made it easy for me to switch my primary allegiance to them after I moved out this way. He's constantly been willing to speak his mind, even on controversial issues like steroids, and was the only active player to voluntarily talk with the Mitchell Report investigators. In this era of uncertainty, he's one player I can feel confident in admiring without having to worry about future revelations of steroid abuse. I hate to see a good guy treated this way due to financial concerns, especially when Ted Rogers is rolling in the dough. I also loved how he went out to Oakland and showed Williams and the White Sox up with his play. He got kicked around in Chicago, but he managed to prove his detractors wrong: I've got a feeling he may do the same here, which isn't good news for the Jays.

Related:
- Neate's take at Out of Left Field
- Bergkamp weighs in at Drunk Jays Fans
- White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen tells MLB.com's Brittany Ghiroli what he thinks of the decision
- Some support for the move over at The Tao of Steib
- Joanna from Hum and Chuck is also disappointed over how this went down

Saturday, April 19, 2008

TFC: Thoughts from the home opener

Earlier today, I made the pilgrimage down to the soccer shrine known as BMO Field to watch Toronto FC’s home opener against Real Salt Lake. It was a pretty awesome experience as always, and is highly recommended to anyone who hasn’t yet been. TFC claimed the win 1-0, and Larry Millson has a good story on what happened over at globesports.com. Here’s the breakdown of my own observations in true Clint Eastwood style.

The Good:
- Laurent Robert: Former French international Robert made several stunning runs down the left flank and delivered quality crosses in consistently. He also fired a first-half free kick directly through the Salt Lake wall for the only goal of the contest and was rightfully named the man of the match.
- Amado Guevara: The 2004 MLS MVP proved he’s still got what it takes to play in this league,
- Danny Dichio: The former Preston North End striker and firmly entrenched TFC legend contributed a strong performance as always, scrapping for every ball that came near him and creating several solid chances, particularly with his play in the air.
- Maurice Edu: Edu, the reigning MLS Rookie of the Year, showed why he’s such a valuable midfield player, threading passes through almost imperceptible gaps at will and making several key tackles.
- Marvell Wynne: Wynne turned in a great performance at right back, shutting down the Salt Lake wing attacks while surging forward at the right times with runs of his own. An excellent two-way player.
- Greg Sutton: Sutton looks to have fully recovered from the concussions that kept him out of much of last year’s inaugural campaign. His experience in the net brings a crucial confidence to his defence, and he made full use of his tremendous 6’6’’ height with fearless aerial ventures to intercept crosses.
- The atmosphere: The TFC fans were in fine form as always, saluting their heroes with chants and songs while jeering the opposition and bombarding them with streamers. The Salt Lake players seemed somewhat intimidated by the hostile atmosphere, particularly in the first half.

The Bad:
- Rohan Ricketts: The former Derby County man came in with high expectations. He delivered on some of them, showcasing his great speed at times on penetrating runs, but his crosses were abysmal, often nowhere near any fellow attackers. He also made several questionable decisions with the ball, including taking on a defender from a bad angle on a four-on-two rush instead of passing to any of his wide-open teammates, thus nullifying a solid scoring chance.
- The second half: TFC dominated the possession and the chances in the first, but they seemed to lose some of the urgency in the second, and appeared content to primarily knock the ball around in the middle of the park instead of surging forward in quest of an insurance marker. It worked today, but attempting to win 1-0 is a difficult proposition, especially in a league like MLS that’s full of quality offensive talent. I’d much rather see the team keep their foot on the pedal and drive for the extra goal to clinch the lead: there have been far too many stoppage-time comebacks for a one-goal lead to ever be completely safe.

The Ugly:
- Wait times at the concession stands. It took far longer than it should have for the staff to process orders, and they often struggled with various ways to ring purchases in and such. A certain amount of that is expected at a home opener, but they really should have had more staff working: it took almost half an hour to get some food at halftime, which resulted in us missing the first fifteen minutes of the second half. Also, they pipe radio commentary into the concession area, which is nice, but it wasn’t loud enough to really make out what was happening. They had TV sets in the concession area, but they weren't turned on, making it difficult to follow the action.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Sonics: A super-sized challenge

Today, the NBA owners voted 28-2 to allow Clayton "Buccaneer" Bennett to relocate the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City. The only franchises opposed to the move were Mark Cuban's Dallas Mavericks and Paul Allen's Portland Trail Blazers, which is disappointing: you'd think Bennett's blatant lies might have caused a few other owners to question the wisdom of this move, especially given that the idea is to relocate from the 14th largest media market to the 45th.

Of course, Bennett is now claiming that it's all a big misunderstanding. As the Associated Press reported, "When he wrote, 'I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can,' he meant he was determined to find a way for the Sonics to remain in the city, Bennett contended." That might fly if your name is David Stern and you don't find it necessary to actually study e-mails by one of your ownership groups that could show misrepresentation and fraud in their purchase of a franchise. Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of the owners have the same attention to detail as Stern, as Stern told Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Greg Johns. "I would say none among the 30 owners questioned the good faith of Clay Bennett as the leader of this franchise and accepted his assurance that he'd acted in good faith," Stern said.

Apart from the irony of an overly pompous man like Stern who prides himself on acting smarter than everyone else making a grammatical slip-up (none among the owners accepted his assurance?), this also seems to indicate that the NBA owners aren't especially interested in Bennett's underhanded dealings. Of course, it's in their advantage to favour him: if robber barons like Bennett can simply pack up and leave for more favorable climes when they aren't given free arenas at public expense, it gives each owner more leverage in their negotiations with their own cities. Helping Bennett isn't good for the league, but it's advantageous for many individual franchises, particularly those looking for new arena funding from the public purse. That doesn't make for good optics, though: as Basketball Prospectus contributor Maury Brown wrote last November, "Watching an ownership group purchase a team with the transparent means of hijacking them to another city, or using relocation as an extortion ploy to get a new arena, is enough to make any fan nauseous."

In the end, though, basketball in Seattle isn't irrevocably doomed: the challenges have just gotten bigger. There's always the chance the city will receive an expansion team, and Bennett seems amicable to leaving behind the team name and history. What would be even better, though, would be retaining the current team. That's still possible, especially with the tri-pronged array of court battles yet to be fought: Howard Schultz's lawsuit to get back the team, the city's lawsuit to enforce the team's lease through 2010, and a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Sonics' season-ticket holders who feel Bennett misrepresented the team's plans to stay in Seattle to them to convince them to buy tickets. Given that the e-mails came out of discovery in the city lawsuit, who knows what other dirty laundry might show up to aid the various cases for keeping the Sonics?

Also, Bennett seems to be feeling the strain: in a recent brief in the city case, he accused Seattle leadership of a "Machiavellian plan" to force him to sell the Sonics to local ownership. Bennett accusing anyone else of being Machiavellian is quite humourous: as Seth Kolloen of Enjoy the Enjoyment wrote, "This is like the Unabomber accusing his brother and the FBI of conspiring to get him arrested." If Bennett continues with this wave of ridiculous protests, he might hurt his own case and damage the league's image of him, making a forced sale more palatable.

Kolloen also makes the excellent point that the Sonics have Slade Gordon on their side, a man whose lawsuit was responsible for the city receiving the Mariners after the Seattle Pilots fled town. Gordon has a vast array of experience, including serving as the state's attorney-general and a U.S. Senator: he's a good man to have in your corner in this kind of dispute.

Even if Schultz can't get the team back, it's worthwhile to keep in mind that Seattle has a powerful group of owners-in-waiting as well. Steve Ballmer, Jim Sinegal, Matt Griffin and John Stanton are the kind of owners this league wants, with plenty of cash to throw around. They've also made an excellent proposal for a refurbishment of Key Arena, and are willing to commit substantial amounts of their own money to the task: $150 million of the $300 million total, which is far better than the $100 million Bennett offered towards his ridiculous $500 million arena plan in Renton. I'm quite sure that plan was nothing more than an elaborate facade to try and show good faith, as the $300 million Bennett was asking for in money from the state (note: I know the numbers don't add up, but Bennett didn't specify where the extra $100 million was to come from in the story I found: perhaps the city of Renton?) was patently ridiculous given his own miniscule contribution. By comparison, the Ballmer plan looks fantastic. Additionally, the city of Seattle was on board with their contribution, and the state didn't reject the proposal out of hand, but rather said they would form a task force to study it next year. The offer is officially off the table, but Griffin told Seattle Times reporter Jim Brunner his group might still be interested if the state comes through with the money.

Despite the above reasons for minor optimism, this is still a very dark day for Seattle, and the NBA as a whole. As ESPN's Tim Keown pointed out, it's unfortunate that this situation developed during one of the most exciting NBA seasons in years. It's as if someone drew a moustache on the Mona Lisa, and it makes it difficult for multi-sport fans like myself to wholeheartedly commit our interest to the NBA when they allow these ridiculous acts of piracy. Bill Simmons perhaps summed it up best in the "Note to David Stern" he inserted into the middle of his MVP picks column. "This was your Bay of Pigs," he wrote. "This was your Watergate. This seedy, incomprehensible saga stained your legacy -- it did -- and the sooner you publicly admit that you handled this situation appallingly from start to finish and do your best to make amends, the better off you will be. I'm speaking for all of us here: We don't want to follow a league in which anyone's franchise can be basically hijacked on a billionaire's whim. You need to fix this. You need to fix this right now." Truer words were never spoken.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Campus Corner: Ding dong, Hitchcock's gone

Queen's principal Dr. Karen Hitchcock announced her resignation earlier today, which came on the heels of some severe criticism of her by student leaders, professors, and even our own paper.

It's no secret that I haven't been the biggest Hitchcock fan, especially given her treatment of the athletics review. Back in June, three months after the review's initial release date, she wouldn't even speak to our paper about why it was delayed or when it could be expected out. Instead, we got a statement from one of her plethora of spokespeople that she'd been considering it for a month and would release it in the near future. Well, that near future turned out to be nearer than expected: the day after we went to press, she suddenly released the review (perhaps prompted by our editorial criticizing the delay, or perhaps with the knowledge that any criticism of it would be delayed until our next print issue a month later, as we operate on a slower schedule in the summer months). In any case, her momentous decision that took over a month to come up with was the bold and shocking claim that the report needed further review. She dragged the process out for another six months in the name of soliciting additional feedback (mostly from the same people who gave their opinions before the generation of the review), and then made her final decision over a month after her own deadline.

In keeping with the vein of her bold decisions, the stunning conclusion that took so much time to come to was that parts of the review should be gradually implemented, but the most important recommendation (cutting funding to some teams to fund others at higher levels) should be put off until another review in April 2009 reranked the teams. It certainly seemed a political decision calculated to try and keep both the pro- and anti-review camps happy, perhaps not surprising given how the timing lined up with her quest for reappointment. There are parts of the review I disagree with, but on the whole, it's a pretty solid work and it outlines a compelling vision of excellence in a few sports. The anti-review forces also have a compelling vision of Queen's succeeding in a wide variety of sports. Hitchcock's attempt at a diplomatic response alienated both sides and prevented any solid progress in either direction. As we pointed out in an editorial the next issue, her response effectively nullified the review's chance to accomplish much in the coming years.

"Hitchcock has erred so much on the side of caution she has effectively made no changes at all," we wrote. "With a whole school year nearly passed before her haphazard response, Queen’s athletics hardly seem to be a top priority for Hitchcock.
The Athletics Review had the potential to improve Queen’s athletics and do so within a foreseeable timeframe. Hitchcock’s call to review interuniversity and competitive teams in another year renders that aspect of the initial report useless and doesn’t say anything concrete about the teams’ futures. It seems ridiculous that so much time and money went into the Athletics Review, only for it to be reviewed again."

Hitchcock followed up this lack of concern for athletics with an even more prominent display of her disregard when she skipped the annual end-of-year athletics banquet, sending vice-principal (academic) Patrick Deane instead (as she seemed to do for anything remotely controversial). She did address the assembled crowd via a creepy Orwellian pre-recorded video message, however. This wasn't a lone example of Hitchcock's lack of engagement with athletics, which was starkly different from her predecessors. A Queen's coach I was speaking to the other day told me about a recent encounter she had with ex-principal Bill Leggett, who not only remembered her, but discussed her team's recent successes in detail. It's hard to picture Hitchcock being able to do that, as she rarely attended games. When she did bother to show up, it was usually for a quick photo op at the start, and then she'd swiftly take off to do more important things. Contrast that with a university president like David Naylor of the University of Toronto, who, as James Mirtle wrote about in a Globe feature last fall, sees athletics as important to the school's overall success. Naylor, a former basketball Varsity Blue himself, told Mirtle he fully supports strong varsity teams.

Naylor's approach is hardly unique. In a time when universities are becoming less distinguishable from each other academically, sports play a huge role in both developing tradition and selling your brand. Consider the following quote from Michael Grange's story about the role the success of Carleton's basketball program played in shedding the school's "Last Chance U" reputation. "Their success has changed our outlook," said Dr. Samy Mahmoud, Carleton's president. "Sports are no longer an ancillary activity here. It's at the core of what we do." Wouldn't it be nice if Queen's new principal thought the same way? Sports should be one of the crucial parts of a university: not necessarily neglecting academics for athletics (a la the NCAA), but using athletics to build community spirit and attract people (and donors) to your school. Hitchcock never understood that: let's hope her successor does.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Canucks: The axe falls

Yesterday night, the Canucks fired general manager Dave Nonis. Owner Francesco Aquilini told the Vancouver Province's Ben Kuzma the decision was largely due to missing the playoffs.
"I think this important change in leadership is critical to the future of the team and the direction we need to take," he said. "It's not acceptable to our fans or to us as owners that our team isn't in the playoffs." Aquilini also seemed to indicate that the defence-first style favoured by Nonis and coach Alain Vigneault didn't meet with his approval. "As owners we made a commitment to deliver the kind of hockey our fans deserve," he said.

I've thought about this overnight, and I'm still conflicted. On the one hand, Nonis' teams missed the playoffs two out of his three years: on the other hand, they fell short by small margins each time. This year, a lot of the problems were due to injuries to the defence corps, which on paper at least looked like one of the deepest groups in the league, and injuries can't really be blamed on a general manager. On the other hand, the Canucks have struggled with the same lack of offence almost since Nonis took over, and he hasn't done much to address the problem. James Mirtle, who's in favour of the firing, has a good look at the acquisitions Nonis made: notable ones include Marc Chouinard (now in the Swiss A-League!), Steve McCarthy (getting limited playing time on a terrible Atlanta team), Mika Noronen (playing in Russia for AK Bars Kazan) and former almost-All-Star Rory Fitzpatrick, now playing for the AHL's Philadelphia Phantoms. There isn't too much in that list that screams "Great talent evaluator!" As I wrote in my Canucks post-mortem, "One of the big problems with this team was how they were built and the almost-complete lack of scoring depth. Responsibility for that has to fall on the GM's desk. Granted, he hasn't had all that much room to work so far, and has made some nice moves (Luongo, Willie Mitchell and Aaron Miller come to mind), but he hasn't done much of anything to improve the offense."

This off-season's going to be critical, as the Canucks actually have some room to play with under the cap and can remake the team. In a lot of ways, it would have been nice to at least give Nonis a chance when he has some cap space, as he's never had a lot of cash to work with. Still, the actions taken this year are likely to define the team for years to come, and thus, they should be made by a GM who the owner has confidence in (Aquilini inherited Nonis from John McCaw) and who plans to be around for the long term. In the end, I guess I'm probably in favour of the firing, as long as Nonis is replaced by someone better.

The timing absolutely stinks, though. From Kuzma's story (linked above), it sounds like Aquilini made a snap decision to fire Nonis based on what transpired in their year-in-review meeting yesterday.

"Dave Nonis was asked to defend the season in a 3 p.m. meeting Monday," Kuzma writes "Francesco Aquilini didn't like what he heard and three hours later, he acted in a swift and decisive manner. The Vancouver Canucks chairman and owner fired Nonis as general manager of the NHL club largely because it failed to advance to the playoffs for the second time in the last three years."

Aquilini should have been less "swift and decisive" in making his decisions, and thought about the timing involved. Impulse firings are never a good idea. First off, the Canucks were reportedly about to lock up Fabian Brunnstrom, who would have been a great fit with the Sedin twins and added some desperately-needed offense. Now, Brunnstrom's apparently reconsidering joining the Canucks, and may even go to Detroit, according to the Detroit Free Press. Could Aquilini not have waited until they had Brunnstrom locked up?

The timing is highly unusual, as the CBC's Elliotte Friedman points out. "It’s rare – extremely rare – for anyone to fire a general manager by statement, in the evening, while playoff games are going on. Public relations firms will tell you that the best time to release bad news is Friday night. In the hockey world, this has got to be a close second, although there’s no way Aquilini can expect this to go under the radar in B.C." Friedman suggests that the timing might be to allow Vancouver to make an offer to Brian Burke if the Ducks are knocked out this week, but even in that case, there was no need to pull the trigger this quickly.

The other timing issue is with respect to the quickly upcoming draft, one of the most important moments each year in building a team. The Canucks need to get a GM in place by June, hopefully earlier so that they can familiarize themselves with the minor-league prospects and pick out the holes. However, two of the candidates proposed so far, Brian Burke and Ken Holland, are both still with their current teams. If their clubs make a run, they may not even be available until just before the draft, and then you're bringing a GM in to one of the most intense parts of the year with little preparation. This is less of a factor if they go with an internal hire like Steve Tambellini, but it could still be a challenge to adjust to the top job that quickly. Let's hope that whichever way the Canucks decide to go, they wind up with the new GM by then: you don't particularly want an interim GM running the draft and making decisions that will drastically affect the team's future.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Sonics: Lies throughout history

November 17, 1973: "I have never profited, never profited from public service. I have earned every cent. And in all of my years of public life, I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I can say that in my years of public life, that I welcome this kind of examination because people have got to know whether or not their President's a crook. Well, I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got." - Richard Nixon to a televised audience

June 23, 1972: "Of course, this is a, this is a hunt, you will-that will uncover a lot of things. You open that scab there's a hell of a lot of things and that we just feel that it would be very detrimental to have this thing go any further." - Richard Nixon to chief of staff H.R. Haldeman


January 26, 1998: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." - Bill Clinton to the White House Press Corps

August 17, 1998: "I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that." - Bill Clinton to the nation


April 17, 2007: Tom Ward: "Is there any way to move here [Oklahoma City] for next season or are we doomed to have another lame duck season in Seattle?"
Clay Bennett: "I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can. Thanks for hanging with me boys, the game is getting started!"
Ward: "That's the spirit!! I am willing to help any way I can to watch ball here [in Oklahoma City] next year."
Aubrey McClendon: "Me too, thanks Clay!"
- E-mail exchange among Sonics owners

August 17, 2007
: "As absolutely remarkable as it may seem, Aubrey and I have NEVER discussed moving the Sonics to Oklahoma City, nor have I discussed it with with ANY other members of our ownership group, I have been passionately committed to our process in Seattle, and have worked my ass off. The deal for me has NEVER changed: we will do all we can in the one year time frame (actually fifteen months) to affect the development of a successor venue to Key Arena, if we are unsuccessful at the end of the timeframe, October 31, 2007, we will then evaluate our options. I have never wavered and will not. Further I must say that when we bought the team I absolutely believed we would be successful in building a building." - Clayton Bennett to David Stern


A lie just doesn’t carry the same weight any more. Nixon? Damned to eternal public vilification, more because of his efforts to cover up crimes than what he actually did. Of course, being caught in a lie on tape played a major role. Clinton? Got off on a technicality, became a best-selling author, and is now a key spokesman for his wife’s presidential campaign. Bennett? Well, nothing’s happened to him yet, and the sordid tale of how he’s been lying through his teeth for the last several years didn’t even crack the front pages of the sports sections outside of Seattle. That doesn’t mean their crimes were equivalent, but it does seem to suggest that the value of the truth has gone down.

On the sporting side, consider Rafael Palmeiro, caught on tape wagging his finger at a congressional committee and insisting he’d never used steroids, less than five months before his positive test. What was his punishment for promising to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? An even better example is Blue Jays’ general manager J.P. Ricciardi, who told the media complete fabrications about an injury to B.J. Ryan last year, and then uttered the gem “They're not lies if we know the truth?” Surely, a high executive caught in such a sleazy act would have been demoted or forced to resign, right? Nope: as we speak, Ricciardi continues to slither his way through life as a major-league G.M. What about Sepp Blatter and his cronies, whose underhanded dealings journalist Andrew Jennings has done a great job of exposing?

There are countless other examples, but the point is made: there’s no public outrage over lies in sport any more. The same is true in the business world. In an Forbes article I read the other day, over half of the human-resources personnel interviewed said they'd caught someone lying on their resume. The same survey showed that 18 per cent of applicants were estimated to have lied. More shocking, though, was that seven per cent of the managers who caught lies still hired deceitful candidates. Lying's all over the place in the corporate world as well: just look at executives like Kenneth Lonchar of the ironically-named Veritas Software or RadioShack's Dave Edmondson.

Perhaps the largest reason for the devaluation of the lie is a widespread intense cynicism that doubts if anyone still tells the truth. The media itself has been frequently called into question, and on many occasions, it has been found wanting. Consider the cases of Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Stephen Glass of The New Republic, or Patricia Smith of the Boston Globe, who completely fabricated stories, people and quotes. They were eventually caught, but their outing perhaps caused some to wonder who can still be trusted.

It's been pointed out by eminent personalities such as Slate's Jack Shafer that the vast majority of journalists are telling the truth, but these kind of scandals cause people to wonder. There’s also pseudo-newspapers like the British tabloids or the American celebrity sheets that routinely print fabrications and exaggerations, reducing the trust quotient of the medium. Even serious papers, radio and television programs mess up frequently, further damaging the reputation of the press: check out Craig Silverman's terrific list of the best errors of last year for more examples. Thus, many people doubt what actually is true. As George Orwell cynically predicted, "The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history."

Another aspect may come from the promotion of the liars in popular culture. Frank Abagnale Jr. spent a lifetime lying, impersonating doctors, airline pilots and lawyers. His reward? Well, he wound up being played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can. Blair wound up writing a book about how he deceived the Times, and Glass' story was turned into the movie Shattered Glass (although it remains to be seen if having Hayden Christensen play you is a good thing). In light of these examples, it would seem more profitable to lie your way to the top than struggle to the middle by telling the truth. As Terry Pratchett wrote in his excellent novel The Truth, "A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on."

I don’t want to get dragged into nostalgically reminiscing about the morals of the good old days, as there were still plenty of liars back then too. I’m not crusading for greater morals in sports, either: athletes can have all the sex, (non-performance-enhancing) drugs and rock and roll they like in my books, and Dock Ellis is one of my heroes. However, truth goes beyond morality, and should be valued above it. Lying used to be a significant offence. Now, it’s as if no one’s interested in the truth, and people aren’t bothered to find out that someone’s been lying to them. I’m undoubtably biased, coming from a profession that still aims to seek truth, but it’s awfully disillusioning when you get the story, you catch them in the act, and nobody cares. That doesn't mean we should stop trying, though: as Orwell once said, "In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act."

Hopefully, David Stern and the rest of the NBA will come to their senses before April 17’s meeting. If they've got any brains, they might realize that it isn’t a fantastic idea to have an owner in their exclusive club who’s been lying to them all along. In the best-case scenario, Bennett would be forced to sell the franchise to Ballmer and co. and slither back to the Oklahoma City grass where he belongs sans SuperSonics. We’ll have to see if repeatedly and blatantly deceiving your business partners still deserves punishment, or if that too is now part of the game.