Knicks, Oakley and organizational estrangement

Basketball, MLB, NFL, Uncategorized

madison-square-gardenThe incident at Madison Square Garden in which former New York Knicks player and longtime fan favorite Charles Oakley was arrested for a confrontation with arena security has yielded a visceral reaction from fans and media members who see Oakley as the epitome of what the current Knicks are missing. As a player, he did the dirty work, protected his teammates and was the “lunch pail” guy – the ones no team or business in general can function successfully without and whose work is largely appreciated in every context but the stat sheet. Long since retired, Oakley does not have an official role with the organization.

Given their current plight with team president Phil Jackson viewed as a disinterested observer of a team he was tasked – and received a contract for close to $12 million annually – to rebuild and owner Jim Dolan’s perceived ineptitude, it’s no wonder that the anger is reaching explosive proportions.

Regardless of the negative views of Jackson and his commitment and Dolan and his competence, is Oakley to be granted the benefit of the doubt for his behavior when no one seems to know what the dispute was even about? There must be a separation between what a player might have represented to the organization in the past and what is good for business in the future.

Every sport has these uncomfortable situations of trying to respect the past, granting deference to those who played an integral role in it and doing what’s right for the organization in the present and future. Not all reach the level of embarrassment as Oakley and the Knicks, but they’re everywhere. Legacy jobs are often harmless as long as there’s no actual decision making involved with them, but when a person is given a role without the ability to function in it effectively, it’s like a virus.

Sandy Alderson’s New York Mets regime has faced passive aggressive criticism from former Mets stars Howard Johnson and Mookie Wilson among others for their abandonment of the team’s past, but the biggest name that has elicited an over the top reaction is Wally Backman. This in spite of the Mets giving Backman a job as a minor league manager when no one else would; in spite of him repeatedly angering Alderson and his lieutenants for going off the reservation, for self-promoting, and for being the last thing anyone wants in a minor league manager: visible. In September of 2016, Backman either left the organization of his own accord or was fired – it’s still fuzzy – smothering his supporters’ lingering hopes that he would be given a chance as, at a minimum, a coach on Terry Collins’s staff.

By now, it’s clear to anyone who can read between even the flimsiest of lines that Backman only lasted as long as he did with the Mets because of his popularity with the fans and that the Wilpons were protecting him from Alderson’s axe. There are still conspiracy theories speculating about the real genesis of Alderson’s issues with Backman and whether Backman has been blackballed or not.

The only thing we have to go on is what’s happened. With that, if Backman truly is the managerial genius his fans purport him to be, it only worsens the practical reality that no affiliated club will hire him in any capacity. That Backman, for lack of big league opportunities, needed to take a job in the Mexican League is conveniently ignored in the narrative of negativity that still surrounds the Mets even as they’ve won a pennant, made the playoffs as a wild card and are a favorite to contend for a World Series in 2017, all under Alderson and Collins.

Ozzie Smith was angry with the way Tony La Russa reduced his role in 1996 and basically forced him out when Smith wanted to keep playing after that season.

Smith is royalty with the Cardinals and was treated as such by Whitey Herzog and his successor Joe Torre. By the time La Russa arrived, he was unattached to the Cardinals’ past. The club had been declining for several years, sparking the hiring of La Russa to begin with. Was La Russa supposed to enter the 1996 season relying on a 41-year-old Smith who had batted .199 the previous year? Or should he have pinned his hopes on what Smith had been five years before to keep from angering fans who want to have a winning team but also want to continue treating their stars with blind loyalty?

In his lone year playing for La Russa, Smith had a solid comeback season showing a portion of his fielding genius and batting .282 in 82 games, sharing the job with Royce Clayton. Could he have maintained that over the course of the season at that age? Could La Russa bank on that? Deferring to the past has its place, but when there are substantive changes made, collateral damage is unavoidable. La Russa didn’t go to St. Louis to mess around with what was already there and had finished 19 games below .500 in 1995. Caught in the crossfire was Smith. He’s still bitter about it, but who can argue with the success the Cardinals had under La Russa? Now had the club been worse under La Russa than it was under the prior, old-school Cardinals front office or Clayton fallen flat on his face, then there would have been a larger contingent of angry fans and media members standing behind Smith just as Knicks fans are doing with Oakley.

Tom Landry was unceremoniously fired by Jerry Jones in 1989 when Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys. When Jones made the clumsy and necessary decision and subsequently walked face first into a public relations buzz saw, no one on this or any other planet could have envisioned that less than three decades later, Jones would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame to take his place among the sport’s luminaries along with Landry.

In retrospect, the same fans and media members who were outraged at the crude dispatching of Landry had been privately saying that the coach needed to go and a full overhaul was needed. Jones, in telling his predecessor Bum Bright that he was not buying the team unless he was able to replace Landry with Jimmy Johnson, was setting the conditions that many advocated but few had the guts to follow through upon. By the time the Cowboys’ rebuild was completed four years later and culminated with a Super Bowl (and two more in the next three years), no one cared whether Landry would acknowledge Jones or still felt embittered about his dismissal.

The insular nature of sports front offices is exactly what owners sought to get away from when they hired outsiders from other industries to take charge. Before that, a large percentage of former players who rose to upper level positions in a front office did so not because of competence or skill at the job they were hired to do, but as a form of patronage. That is no longer the case and invites a backlash. When Jeff Luhnow was hired to run the Houston Astros and gutted the place down to its exoskeleton, the on-field product was so hideous and former Astros stars so callously discarded that the response was inevitable: he had abandoned luminaries and made the product worse. The Astros are contenders now and the groundswell is largely muted even if the anger is still there.

Giving former star performers a ceremonial title is not done to grant them sway with the club. It’s a placating measure to engender goodwill with the fans and media. When that comes undone, incidents like the Knicks and Oakley exacerbate current problems and provide evidence of ongoing and unstoppable turmoil.

The issue for the Knicks is that they’re in such disarray that this type of incident involving a player who was a key component of their glory years will be magnified.

The Oakley incident can be viewed as the nadir of the Knicks under Jackson and Dolan based on nothing more than Oakley having been a favorite of the fans and the media during his playing career and representing a past that is so far in the rearview mirror that a large bulk of younger fans are unlikely to believe it even existed in the first place. It occurred directly on the heels of a typically cryptic Jackson tweet that seemed to disparage Carmelo Anthony and sent the team president and “Zen master” into familiar spin control only contributes to their perceived dysfunction. If the Knicks were riding high and this happened, the reaction would have been that Oakley needs to know his place. Since they’re not, it’s symbolic of that which ails the club.

Adhering to the past might be palatable, particularly when Oakley-type incidents take place, but there needs to be a separation between what’s happening within the organization and its outskirts even if they appear to be inextricably connected.

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The Dodgers and Keeping Mattingly

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The Dodgers have yet to make it official, but reports state that the club is planning to bring Don Mattingly back as manager in 2014. In what would normally be an automatic move for a manager whose team won the division and a playoff series, it was in doubt as to whether Mattingly was going to return due to strategies that even have some players complaining about them. If the team goes on to win the World Series, obviously they won’t make a change. If they make it to the World Series, it’s exceedingly difficult to fire the manager no matter how poor an on-field job he’s perceived to have done. But if they lose this NLCS (they’re currently trailing 3 games to 2), are they right to look at their payroll, roster and expectations and say another manager would be a better option?

In sports, it’s not unprecedented for a manager to be fired even after he had what could only be described as a “successful” season or run. Winning a championship doesn’t necessarily imply managerial excellence. Bob Brenly won a World Series with the Diamondbacks, won 98 games and a division title the next season and hasn’t gotten close to getting another managerial job since because he’s not viewed as a good manager. Cito Gaston won two World Series with the Blue Jays, was fired four years later and didn’t get another managing job until the Blue Jays rehired him.

Dodgers part owner Magic Johnson is no stranger to coaching controversies and getting the boss fired if he didn’t agree with his philosophy. In the 1979-1980 NBA season, Paul Westhead won an NBA championship for the Lakers with the rookie Johnson leading the way. They won 54 games in 1980-81 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. In 1981-82, the team was 7-4 when Johnson – unhappy with the strategies employed by Westhead – helped usher him out the door to be replaced by Pat Riley. The Lakers won another title that year. If the players are complaining, the one person in the Dodgers organization who’ll be receptive is Johnson.

As for GM Ned Colletti and CEO Stan Kasten, they’re experienced baseball men who are well aware of Mattingly’s pluses and minuses. If they equate his ability to keep the players playing hard for him and that the ship didn’t sink while the team was struggling early in the summer as more important than negligible strategic choices, then they should keep Mattingly. If they want someone with a better strategic resume, a more iron-fisted disciplinarian style to rein in Yasiel Puig and who will command respect in the clubhouse, perhaps they should consider bringing back the manager who should never have been fired from the Dodgers in the first place, Jim Tracy. Or they could hire Tony LaRussa, Lou Piniella, Dusty Baker or anyone who has more experience than Mattingly does and they’ll know what they’re getting with the star power the Dodgers want.

While hockey is run far differently than any other sport with coaches often fired almost immediately after the season starts as happened with the Flyers and Peter Laviolette last week, there might be a lesson the Dodgers can take from Devils boss Lou Lamoriello.

Lamoriello is entrenched in his job and built the Devils up from nothing to become one of the dominant teams in hockey for a vast portion of his tenure. While accumulating three Stanley Cups and two other finals appearances, he’s hired, fired and rehired coaches 19 times, twice taking the job himself. He has fired coaches right before the playoffs have started and fired coaches who won Stanley Cups for him. If he believes a change is needed, he makes that change. He doesn’t give a reason because he doesn’t feel as if he needs to give a reason and it’s not due to a bloated ego and public persona as has been seen in baseball with the managerial changes made by Athletics GM Billy Beane.

Beane’s managerial changes were based on him and the image that was cultivated through the creative non-fiction of Moneyball that: A) the manager doesn’t matter; and B) he’s an all-knowing, unassailable genius for whom every move is a testament to ingenuity.

He pushed Art Howe out the door in favor of Ken Macha. Macha got the Athletics further than any of Beane’s other managers with an ALCS appearance in 2006 and Beane fired him too. He hired his “best friend” Bob Geren and kept him on through years and years of win totals in the mid-70s, then only fired him because of the attention that his job status was receiving – not because he’d done a poor job. He hired a highly qualified manager who knows how to run his club on and off the field in Bob Melvin and, lo and behold, Beane’s genius returned with back-to-back division titles. Melvin has lost in the first round in those two division-winning seasons and hasn’t been fired. Yet.

There’s a difference. Lamoriello hires and fires for a team reason. Beane did it to shield himself. Lamoriello gets away with it because of the hardware. Beane gets away with it because of a book.

So what’s it to be with the Dodgers? Will Colletti’s loyalty, Kasten’s slow trigger or Magic’s understanding of player concerns win out? They could exercise Mattingly’s contract for 2014 with the intention of making a change if they team gets off to another slow start. Or they could just fire him and bring in a new manager.

Worrying about how it’s going to “look” is a mistake. If they don’t trust Mattingly as manager, then he shouldn’t be the manager. If they’re willing to accept his strategic fumblings because the players overcame adversity, then they should keep him. The best interests of the club are more important and need to take precedence. Make the commitment to Mattingly with all his baggage or make him disappear. It’s one or the other.




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Francesa’s Angel Is The Centerfold

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MattHarveypics

The ESPN Body Issue is a clever and creative response to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Rather than try and create a copy as other magazines have done, ESPN went one step further using athletes naked as an “ode to exceptional athletic form.” That it’s done to spur sales and create buzz goes without mention.

Mike Francesa sounded like he was about to burst into a teary rendition of Centerfold by the J. Geils Band when discussing Matt Harvey’s participation. It’s no secret that Francesa has developed a borderline disturbing man-crush on Harvey. One can only wonder whether Andy Pettitte feels like a member of the first wives’ club as Francesa is throwing him over for the younger, stronger Harvey.

Francesa couldn’t hide his disappointment in Harvey taking part in the ESPN Magazine Body Issue going so far as to say that Harvey’s demeanor had been Derek Jeter-like in not making any stupid and embarrassing mistakes in his young career. Harvey’s rise has been meteoric, but is this as much of a misstep as Francesa implies?

Much like it’s preferable for a young pitcher like Zack Wheeler to come to the big leagues and scuffle rather than dominate making the game look easy only to be jolted later on, it’s also preferable for Harvey to be the person he is rather than transform himself into the mythic idol that Jeter has become. For Jeter, his position as the ideal for so many has resulted in a level of expectation that no one could match. He’s almost been deified to the degree that when something, anything happens that could possibly tarnish that image, it evolves into a giant story where, if it were another player, it would either be shrugged off or ignored.

In short, the Jeter image has shunned any pretense of reality. When he first started in the majors, Jeter had the guidance from his parents as well as baseball people Don Zimmer, Joe Torre and Buck Showalter. It also helped Jeter that, as a rookie, he was surrounded by players like Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden from whom he could learn and ask questions of what precisely not to do. His supposed playboy lifestyle with one starlet after another is winked and nodded at because he’s Derek Jeter. That it’s more of a show than anything else is beside the point.

With Jeter there has never been a public paternity question; never been a DUI; never been a bar fight or incident captured on cellphone camera of Jeter acting the fool. He’s guarded and careful with that image. In some instances it has turned into ridiculous expectations such as when he feigned being hit by a pitch against the Rays and took first base even though he hadn’t been hit. Parents were wondering how they could explain to their children how Derek Jeter could be so cavalier about fair play. This isn’t a carefully camouflaged, Christianity-tinged commercial from The Foundation for a Better Life in which the high school basketball player admits he touched the ball before it went out of bounds as a show of sportsmanship and Jeter was under no obligation to say he wasn’t hit when the ump told him to go to first base. The idea that he was “supposed” to do that because it was the “right” thing is ludicrous.

The one play that helped launch Jeter occurred in the 1996 ALCS against the Orioles when his deep fly ball was ably assisted out of the park by young fan Jeffrey Maier. It would not have gone out of the park if not for Maier and the Yankees might not have won that ALCS. Who knows how history would have been altered had they not won that first championship in 1996? Would Jeter turn the homer down in the interest of “fair play”? Of course not.

Jeter’s legend has grown to the level where it’s gone from he won’t take a misstep to he can’t take a misstep. That’s not an easy way to live. Harvey has the supermodel girlfriend and appears to be enjoying his success. He did the ESPN shoot and doesn’t need to explain nor apologize for it. Perhaps it would’ve helped Jeter if he’d pulled a Charles Barkley at some point and gone into an “I am not a role model” rant. Harvey probably wasn’t thinking that the appearance in the ESPN photo shoot would take a hammer to this image that the likes of Francesa were thrusting upon him, but it will have that affect. In the long run it’s a good thing.

There’s no question that Jeter is a player to emulate. For young stars including Harvey, he’s someone whose lead to follow, but that doesn’t mean the self should be superseded toward that end especially to live up to the dreamy expectations of someone like Mike Francesa.

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MLB Inches Closer Toward The Trading Of Draft Picks

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The trades that were completed yesterday were a distraction for a slow day. Righty pitcher Scott Feldman was traded from the Cubs along with catcher Steve Clevenger to the Orioles for righty pitchers Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop and cash. The cash in a trade is usually to offset contracts or provide a sweetener to complete a deal, but in this case the cash is international bonus money that the Cubs will use to accrue extra wiggleroom to sign free agents. They also acquired more bonus pool money from the Astros in exchange for minor leaguer Ronald Torreyes. They traded away some of that money in sending Carlos Marmol and cash to the Dodgers for veteran reliever Matt Guerrier.

The trades are secondary to the money exchanges. You can read about the ins-and-outs of why the Cubs, Dodgers and Astros did this here and the details of trading bonus slot money here. What the shifting around of money says to me is that MLB is experimenting with the concept of trading draft picks, something I’ve long advocated. That they’re trying to implement an international draft to shackle clubs’ hands even further from spending makes the trading of draft picks more likely.

With the increased interest in the MLB draft, one of the only ways to turn it into a spectacle that will function as a moon to the NFL draft’s sun and NBA’s Earth is to allow teams to trade their picks. Because amateur baseball pales in comparison to the attention college football and college basketball receive; because the game of baseball is so fundamentally different when making the transition from the amateurs to the pros, there is a finite number of people who watch it with any vested interest and a minimum percentage of those actually know what they’re looking at with enough erudition to accurately analyze it. It’s never going to be on a level with a Mel Kiper Jr. sitting in the ESPN draft headquarters knowing every player in the college ranks and being able to rattle off positives, negatives and why the player should or shouldn’t have been drafted where he was with it having a chance to be accurate. MLB tries to do that, but it’s transparent when John Hart, Harold Reynolds and whoever else are sitting around a table in an empty studio miraculously proclaiming X player of reminds them of Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Matt Harvey, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez or Dustin Pedroia when they’ve seen (or haven’t seen) a five second clip of him; when Bud Selig takes his mummified steps to the podium to announce the names of players he couldn’t recognize if they were playing in the big leagues now. And don’t get me started on the overall ludicrousness of Keith Law.

There’s no comparison between baseball and the other sports because in baseball, there’s a climb that has to be made after becoming a professional. In football and basketball, a drafted player automatically walks into the highest possible level of competition. With a top-tier pick, the football and basketball player isn’t just a member of the club, but he’s expected to be a significant contributor to that club.

With baseball, there’s no waste in a late-round draft pick because there’s nothing to waste. Some players are drafted to be organizational filler designed to complete the minor league rosters. If one happens to make it? Hey, look who the genius is for finding a diamond in the rough! Except it’s not true. A player from the 20th round onward (and that’s being generous) making it to the majors at all, let alone becoming a star, is a fluke. But with MLB putting such a focus on the draft, that’s the little secret they don’t want revealed to these newly minted baseball “experts” who started watching the game soon after they read Moneyball and thinks a fat kid who walks a lot for a division III college is going to be the next “star.” Trust me, the scouts saw that kid and didn’t think he could play. That’s why he was drafted late if he was drafted at all. There’s no reinventing of the wheel here in spite of Michael Lewis’s hackneyed and self-serving attempts to do so.  Yet MLB draft projecting has blossomed into a webhit accumulator and talking point. There’s a demand for it, so they’ll sell it regardless of how random and meaningless it truly is.

So what does all this have to do with the trading of the bonus slot money? MLB allowing the exchange of this money will give a gauge on the public reaction and interest level to such exchanges being made to provide market research as to the expanded reach the trading of draft picks would yield. If there’s a vast number of websearches that lead MLB to believe that it’s something that can spark fan fascination, then it’s something they can sell advertising for and make money. It’s a test case and once the results are in, you’ll see movement on the trading of draft picks. It’s a good idea no matter how it happens. Now if we can only do something to educate the masses on how little Keith Law knows, we’ll really be getting somewhere.

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Draft Day Rant Understated

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I’m not going into my usual rant about the attempts by Major League Baseball to turn the draft into an extravaganza along the lines of what the NFL does. The differences are obvious and conveniently glossed over. The most glaring being:

  • The game of football from college to pro is essentially the same.
  • The players are recognizable to a vast majority of people who follow both versions of the sport.
  • It’s easier to project what a player is going to be when he gets to the NFL than it is for a baseball player transitioning from amateur to pro.
  • And in the NFL (and NBA for that matter) the player is walking out of the amateurs and into the highest level of play he can achieve—there are no minor leagues and evolutionary climb along with the favoritism that’s shown to a higher draft pick who has a lot of money and hype invested in him in the other sports.

In addition, most of the “scouting reports” you get from the “experts” in the media is regurgitated trash that they’ve heard from someone else or have accumulated by watching a five minute clip of a player and using buzzwords and catchy phrases designed to make the statement sound in-depth when it’s anything but.

The most refreshing thing I read today regarding the draft came from a GM the stat guys have grown to loathe, Dan Duquette of the Orioles. Duquette was asked about the draft age son of the player he signed for the Red Sox, Manny Ramirez, and Duquette replied, “I don’t know much about Manny’s boy.”

If it were a GM with a pretentious reputation to protect like Billy Beane or a media draft “expert” like Keith Law, a load of facts, figures and analysis would’ve been rattled off as if it was only a matter of flipping through brain files, finding Manny Ramirez Jr. and providing a biography, a comparison to his dad, his positives and negatives, and projection of what he can be. Most of it would’ve come from the aforementioned brief clip of film, information from someone else that was memorized because they knew they’d be asked about him, or foundational statements that couldn’t be proven or disproven due to their all-encompassing randomness.

Here’s the truth: while a GM for a big league club follows the amateur players who are the potential high draft picks, the grunt work is left to the lower level scouts who find the players. They send information up to the cross-checkers to sift through the recommendations and verify what the scouts are saying. It’s then sent up through the ranks to the upper level of the organization to give a yay or nay to the top picks. Once it gets down to the later rounds, the players who aren’t in the top echelon become names in a barrel with some kind of skill or attribute—a searing fastball, a good eye, speed, home run power, a great glove—that makes it worth drafting them knowing that a player drafted from beyond the tenth round probably isn’t going to make it past Single A and if he does, it’s a fluke.

Duquette’s personality (or lack thereof) isn’t such that his ego has to be stroked with others marveling about what he “knows” because he’s perfectly willing to admit what he doesn’t know about the son of a player he himself gave $160 million to join the Red Sox. There is simply too much for a GM to do running the organization to watch every single draftable player and come to an assessment. There aren’t enough hours in the day. The GM will go and look at the top tier players, but apart from that, it’s left to the underlings. It reflects on the GM who he hires to be the scouting director and the methods in which they find players, but to blame the GM or give him credit? Not even the scouting directors are able to look at every single player past the projected first ten rounds and come to an ironclad conclusion as to what a player will be. It comes down to talent, development, opportunity and luck.

You’ll hear a lot of names today and vanilla scouting reports from the draft-watchers that they got from a guidebook, magazine, website or via the whispers of someone who’s supposed to know what the players can do. Most of those names you’ll never hear again. Then we’ll start the process all over again next year with the same wasted time and energy listening to people who are making money quantifying the unquantifiable exercise known as the MLB Draft.

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Donnie Baseball Is Not The Problem With The Dodgers

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Not being the problem doesn’t necessarily mean that Dodgers manager Don Mattingly won’t take the fall for the club’s 19-26 start with a $217 million payroll and flurry of expensive moves they’ve made since the group fronted by Magic Johnson took control of the club from Frank McCourt. The media is not-too-subtly pushing the Dodgers to fire Mattingly so there will be a juicy story to write about for a few days. I can guarantee you there are writers and bloggers who have already written their epitaph on Mattingly’s managerial tenure with platitudes as to why Mattingly failed: “Great players don’t make great managers.” “He didn’t have any managerial experience.” “The players weren’t afraid of him.” “The team isn’t that good.”

There’s an argument to be made for all of these assertions I suppose, but it comes down to the players. For the same reason rotisserie fanatics and computerized predictions don’t work out in practice, putting a team together by just buying a load of stuff simply because of name recognition, price and the ability to do so doesn’t work either. Like the nouveau riche who have no taste, concept for cohesiveness, nor sense of what will fit together, since the Johnson group took command, the Dodgers have bought or traded for Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett, Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon League and Hyun-jin Ryu. They purchased Mark McGwire’s services as hitting coach and made clear that they’re all in for the now and are also stocking up for the future by tossing loads of money around on international signings.

Mattingly was presented with a group of players that he was entrusted to jam together whether the puzzle pieces were from the same box and fit or not. The front office said, “Here. Win with this,” and expected him to do it immediately. And he hasn’t. Therefore he’s the one on the firing line.

Mattingly’s statement yesterday was taken by many as a “Go ahead and fire me,” announcement to the front office. I don’t think it was that. I think it was Mattingly trying something different from enabling and being Mr. Gentility. Blaming Andre Ethier and treating him as if he’s the root of all the Dodgers’ ills was grabbed and run with because he was the one who was benched yesterday and there has been the implication that he’s going to be platooned and the Dodgers would love to be rid of him and his contract. It’s ignored that during the Dodgers slow start Matt Kemp has been far worse than Ethier; that Gonzalez has admitted his power swing has been altered because of shoulder issues; that the entire pitching staff apart from Clayton Kershaw and Ryu has been hurt at one time or another; and that the only name player doing what it was they brought him in to do is Crawford.

If the Dodgers had a name manager in the wings to replace Mattingly—if Tony LaRussa or Lou Piniella wanted to manage—then they’d have fired him already. Who are they replacing him with? Bench coach Trey Hillman? He couldn’t handle the media in Kansas City, what’s he going to do with the worldwide scrutiny of managing the Dodgers? Larry Bowa? They’d tune him out immediately the first time he flipped the food table and rolled his eyes at Beckett for giving him 4 1/3 innings of 8 hit/5 run ball.

Who then?

Nobody. That’s who. They’re only six games out of first place with all of this dysfunction, so a few wins in a row will make the world look much rosier than it currently does.

If the Dodgers turn their season around and Mattingly’s managing the team when they do it, the outburst yesterday will be seen as the turning point. If they don’t and he’s fired, it will be seen as his parting shot at a group of underachievers to whom he gave a long piece of rope and they choked him with it. If they bring in a new manager and win, Mattingly will get the blame for not “reaching” the players; if they don’t, he’ll be exonerated and the players will be seen as a group of fat cats who have their money and no longer care.

In reality, it’s the players who haven’t performed and the front office who brought them in. Blaming Mattingly is easy and he does deserve a portion of it, but don’t think getting someone else will fix the Dodgers current mess because it won’t.

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Amway Sponsors Sports Teams Other Than The Mets

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You may recognize the logo below. It’s one of the most respected sports franchises in the world with an owner who is universally known for being a nice, generous man and committed sports owner.

The Red Wings are the team and Mike Ilitch is the owner. The Amway logo is on the team’s practice jerseys.

How about the gentleman below?

A case study in perseverance; deeply religious; involved in noble causes; a three-time Super Bowl participant, two-time NFL MVP and probable Hall of Famer, Kurt Warner works for Amway promoting their nutrition products.

One of the founders of Amway, Richard DeVos, is the well-liked and philanthropic owner of the Orlando Magic, a consistently successful NBA franchise.

The Mets have reached agreement for Amway to be a sponsor. Yet because it’s the Mets and the media took Amway’s business model as a “pyramid” scheme, the perception became a reality. It was repeatedly said, therefore it must be true. None other than Mike Francesa, in his customary flying off half-cocked without knowing what he’s talking about, doled out authoritative advice based on nothing and said the Mets should consider advertisers like Disney.

Walt Disney was affiliated with American interest groups in the 1940s that were considered anti-Semitic. How would that play out today and is that better or worse than Amway?

How about, for some context, we look at the beacon-like franchises in sports today and list some of their sponsors, searching for signs of wrongdoing, real or not.

The New England Patriots and New York Yankees have Bank of America as a sponsor. In many ways what Bank of America has done in the interest of their shareholders and amassing cash was worse than anything the Wilpon family is accused of doing with the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.

Manchester United has Nike as a sponsor. Nike has long been accused of using child labor to make their products.

The point isn’t to perform a rudimentary websearch to find examples of other teams whose business dealings could be put under scrutiny and presented as an example of wrongdoing. All companies can have their inner workings scrutinized specifically to find evidence of moral repugnance and used to cast them as “evil.” But facts shine a light on reality. The Mets are not doing anything wrong by going into business with Amway. The current positives with the franchise—Zack Wheeler, Matt Harvey, David Wright, Travis d’Arnaud—are referenced with a caveat implying, “but it’s the Mets, so they’ll screw something up. Oh, and they’re in business with Amway. AMWAY!!!!

It’s a manufactured controversy by the ignorant and those with an agenda.

Perhaps after the smoke clears and the media finds a story that they think is even more salacious, this truth will be pointed out as an “oh, yeah,” mention in the lower corner of a newspaper or website, but it’s the splash that’s remembered and not the droplets in its aftermath. The Mets’ image of cluelessly evil like a buffoonish villain from Austin Powers sells, therefore it will continue as long as it remains useful to the narrative whether it’s accurate or not.

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Darren Oliver’s Been Retiring For Six Years

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Darren Oliver is the Brett Favre of useful journeyman middle relievers.

For individuals like Favre, Michael Jordan, Bill Parcells and Oliver, retirement is a state of mind, state of being, alluring option, threat, or all of the above.

But there are differences in status and need.

The Packers had to take Favre’s annual vacillation because they had no choice. The last time he tried it with them in 2008, they walked away, shunning Favre and avoiding the organization-wide distraction that had the potential to split the club into destructive factions. If they let him do it again, they knew it would repeat in 2009, 2010, 2011 and possibly never end until Favre was carted off the field once and for all. Most importantly, the last time Favre pulled the trick (with the Packers anyway—he did it twice more with the Jets and Vikings), Aaron Rodgers was ready and they finally told Favre to take a hike.

Jordan’s return with the Bulls was understandable considering that he retired at age 29 and did so, in part, because of his father’s death. When he came back again, it was with the Wizards and he was a part owner of the club with the biggest selling point he had to make more money for himself was…himself.

Parcells’s personality and energy levels were such that a team could only deal with him for 3-4 years and he’d only last there for 3-4 years. It was a trade they made for his acumen at rebuilding moribund franchises in exchange for the public insubordination, power struggles and behind the scenes complaints about the one thing that was always first and foremost in his mind: money.

Oliver isn’t in the conversation with the above examples and isn’t as costly. He’s a reliable, versatile veteran reliever who’s well-liked by his teammates and by baseball in general. The Blue Jays would miss him, but would there be a drastic difference in the clubhouse or on the field if he’s not there? Probably not.

But Oliver is making an unreasonable demand/threat to be traded to Texas to pitch closer to home for the Rangers or he’ll simply retire from the Blue Jays. It’s nervy of Oliver to make a request for a raise when he signed the contract with the Blue Jays for a guaranteed $4.5 million after 2011 and was leaving the club he wants to rejoin, the Rangers. He made $4 million in 2012, had a buyout for $500,000 and an option for 2013 at $3 million. Oliver equates this as a paycut, but would he not have signed if the deal was reversed and he got $3 million in 2012 with $4 million in 2013? He could have stayed in Texas after 2011 if he wanted so badly to be in Texas. That he went all the way to Canada isn’t the same thing as him having signed with, for example, the Cardinals. He went to the Blue Jays for the money. Now he wants more money or to be sent back to the Rangers. There’s no harm in asking, but it speaks of an entitlement that, in other industries and for a non-essential cog, would be responded to with an angry frown and a “get outta here” reply. In sports, it’s seen as nothing unusual.

With the new thinking in baseball having been imported from other industries using data, corporate terminology and separation of channels, the one remaining obstacle to that complete transformation is the athletic ego and short-term nature of an athlete’s ability to contribute. In banking, Oliver’s age of 42 is judged as in his prime; in sports, it’s ancient. As lucrative as his contract seems, perhaps he’d like to go back to Texas to take advantage of the no-state income tax and not have to pay to live away from home, amid other factors that are costing him more money and giving him less take-home pay.

Oliver has “retired” and unretired when it’s suited him. Now he’s again telling the Blue Jays that he’s not going to pitch for them one way or the other, so they might as well trade him to Texas.

It’s an empty threat that the Blue Jays aren’t going to bow to. In fact, given his history and that he’ll have the option of collecting $3 million plus the very real opportunity at a post-season share or going home, he’ll shrug and pitch for the Blue Jays and then sign with the Rangers again after the season after “contemplating” retirment.

There’s no reason for the Blue Jays to entertain this somewhat absurd request because, in the end, Oliver will likely be sitting in their bullpen on opening day.

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Zack Greinke Reverberations and Madness

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Zack Greinke has reportedly agreed to terms with the Dodgers on a 6-year, $147 million contract. Let’s look at the reality and reactions.

The money

For those looking at the Greinke money, comparing him to pitchers from years past and wondering what they would’ve earned had they entered free agency at the same age as Greinke, it’s a stupid question and argument. What would Sandy Koufax get? What would Pedro Martinez get? What would Greg Maddux get? What would Randy Johnson get?

Does it matter? Had they been free agents at age 29 in 2012, they would’ve gotten more money than Greinke. But they’re not. So it’s meaningless speculation.

Then there are the complaints that it’s “too much” money—not in context of pitchers who were better than Greinke, but in context, period.

The pitchers listed above weren’t available. As for the contract itself, how is “enough” quantified? Would $120 million be acceptable? Why is $147 million “too much” and what amount is “just right?”

Greinke is the best pitcher on the market, found a team willing to pay him, and he got the most money. If and when Justin Verlander is a free agent (and he probably won’t be), he’ll set the market. That’s capitalism. That’s baseball.

The media

Joel Sherman exemplifies the half-wit media by saying the following on Twitter:

I know timing/supply-demand determine $, but if you had to pick 10 SP to win game for your life, would Greinke even be in the 10?

First he says essentially the same thing I said and made perfect sense in saying it regarding supply and demand. Then he ruins it by making a ridiculous assertion about a “game for your life” that there’s no way to prove its veracity one way or the other until after the fact. Greinke pitched poorly in his one post-season chance, but he was no Kenny Rogers—a thoroughly overmatched, frightened, and non-competitive performer for both the Yankees and Mets who no one could’ve thought he’d turn in the masterful work he provided in the 2006 playoffs and World Series when he was all but unhittable.

Was Dave Stewart a post-season ace before he became one? Was Curt Schilling?

You don’t know until you know. It’s not as if Greinke is tricking people with a pitch that could abandon him at any moment. Like the aforementioned Johnson and Martinez, they know what’s coming and can’t hit it.

This type of “analysis” is a desperate search to be contrary and not based on fact at all.

For the rest of baseball

The “haves and have nots” argument no longer applies as teams like the Athletics and Rays have shown the way of keeping their players or trading them away at their high value to maintain realistic cost while contending. The idea that Billy Beane’s strategies stopped working is accurate. Other teams caught onto what he was doing, souped it up and spent money for the undervalued assets he was able to get on the cheap before. The Rays adapted and overtook the A’s as the team that maximized what they had and could afford with new data and not the old “on base percentage as the Holy Grail” and “counting cards in the draft” idiocy.

The big money clubs who’ve spent wildly haven’t distinguished themselves with annual championships; in fact, many of the clubs have turned into overpriced embarrassments who, like the Yankees, are paring down to avoid luxury tax penalties and are rapidly heading toward a collapse because they tried to copy the Rays and even the Red Sox in development and failed miserably. The Red Sox, Angels, Marlins, and Phillies spent madly in the last several years and the results varied from disastrous to mediocre.

Teams that want to prevent Greinke-like contracts have to take the risk and do what the Rays have done with Evan Longoria, the Pirates have done with Andrew McCutchen, and the Rays and Mets have done with Matt Moore and Jonathon Niese—sign them early and hope they make it worth the team’s while to do it.

For the Dodgers

The Dodgers spending spree doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win in and of itself, but they do have some semblance of continuity backed up by the new money their ownership is spreading around, much to the anger and chagrin of all observers due to jealousy or the simple desire to complain.

It made no sense to pay $2 billion and then try to create a winner with an $80 million payroll and prove how much smarter their baseball people are than everyone else. It made no sense to hire Stan Kasten as team president and have Magic Johnson as a front man and not let them do what they do the way they know how to do it.

Kasten is a professional dealmaker and, unlike Randy Levine across the country with the Yankees, isn’t despised and openly meddling with the baseball operations implying that he knows more than he does (and Kasten is a qualified baseball man, unlike Levine). Kasten helped build the enduring Braves playoff dynasty using development and Ted Turner’s money to keep his own players, trade the minor leaguers for veterans, develop youngsters for the Braves’ use, bolster the club with Maddux-like stars, and let his GM John Schuerholz be the GM and the manager Bobby Cox be the manager.

He’s repeating the process with the Dodgers, Ned Colletti and Don Mattingly.

Comparisons to the aforementioned clubs that spent insanely is not accurate as a “that didn’t work, so neither will what the Dodgers are doing.” The Dodgers spent a ton of money and are asking their manager Mattingly, “What do you need?” whereas the Angels, with a new GM Jerry Dipoto who didn’t hire Mike Scioscia had different theories on how a team should be run; the owner Arte Moreno betrayed what it was that made the Angels a beacon of how to put a club together as he spent on players who simply didn’t fit and created a glut and altered identity, leading to the image of dysfunction and disarray.

The Red Sox made a mess in 2011, compounded that mess in 2012, and are getting back to their roots with questionable decisions currently being made by Ben Cherington when the jury is still out on whether he’s one of those executives who was better off as an assistant.

Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria has the countenance and behavior of a character straight out of a Dickens story with barely concealed greed and unrepentant evil, while Magic is the charming frontman to bring the fans in and impress the players with his star power.

Star power.

Magic was a Lakers star with a star coach Pat Riley and a glittery style that inspired the moniker “Showtime.” It wasn’t just a show. The Lakers were a great team with star talent surrounding Magic in the form of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, underappreciated stars like James Worthy, and gritty tough guys like Kurt Rambis. Magic is the epitome of cool who knows everyone, gets invited to every party, has access to all the trappings of Los Angeles with the age and wisdom to advise players what and whom to avoid. He’s got an eye not just on winning, but winning in the Hollywood fashion with stars and style. He’ll fill Dodger Stadium and make it the cool place to go again; he’ll recruit the players; he’ll represent the team to make everyone money; and he won’t overstep his bounds into the baseball ops.

They didn’t buy it as an investment to flip in a few years; they bought it to turn it into a greater financial powerhouse and increase its value. That’s what they’re doing and Greinke is a cog in that machine to achieve the end.

And for Greinke

No one will ever know whether Greinke, whose past emotional problems are given far too much weight considering they six years ago and haven’t cropped up since, could’ve dealt with New York, Boston or Philadelphia.

Going to the East Coast with the pressures and expectations inherent with the Yankees/Red Sox/Phillies wasn’t a good fit. But the Angels weren’t matching the Dodgers’ cash and the Rangers were the main competition for the pitcher’s services and were a winning, positive locale for him and his former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader wife. But they were outbid and have other, more reasonably priced options via trade.

That left the Dodgers. It’s a laid back atmosphere as a matter of course; they already have an ace in Clayton Kershaw so the pressure won’t be as great for Greinke to win 25 games; and no one will bother him as they would in New York, Boston, or Philly.

He got his money; he’s a great pitcher; and will continue to be a great pitcher for a Dodgers team that is a legitimate championship contender.

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A-Rod, Ibanez, and Changing the Culture at Closer

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Watching for the reaction from Alex Rodriguez fits neatly into a narrative of the player’s struggles. Would he accept the unprecedented maneuver to pinch-hit for him with Raul Ibanez, or would he pull a Scottie Pippen and throw a public tantrum? Would A-Rod have negative things to say in spite of the move working? Would it be all about him?

This aspect is a non-story. A-Rod hasn’t acted like a diva since his opt-out in 2007 and subsequent return to the Yankees. He’s eager to help his younger teammates and contemporaries and is smart and self-aware enough to know that he’s not getting the job done. While he would have liked to have gotten a shot to do what Ibanez did? Yes, but logic and current reality dictates that had it been A-Rod at the plate against Orioles’ closer Jim Johnson, he would have failed. He’s still smart and savvy as a player (evidenced by his run-saving deke of J.J. Hardy in game 2), and while the traps he once set for pitchers by looking intentionally awful at a pitch just so the pitcher would throw it again when the situation called for it and A-Rod could crush it, he knew Joe Girardi did the reasonable—and gutsy—thing before Ibanez’s heroics.

On that same theme of game-knowledge, I find offensive the implication that managers as smart and experienced as Buck Showalter and Jim Leyland are unaware of the faults that lie within the concept of the one-inning closer who’s inserted into the game simply because it’s a save chance regardless of the hitters scheduled to bat or possibilities on the bench.

They know.

Johnson has been brilliant this whole season, but prior to 2012 he had zero experience pitching for a contender and zero experience in the playoffs. He’s blown two of the three games this series. Did Showalter have a better option than him? No. And it’s irrelevant to this argument that Johnson’s numbers are very good against both righties and lefties. It’s the era that’s the problem.

In order to change the culture of the “closer,” there has to be a team that does what Tony LaRussa did when he implemented the one-inning save with Dennis Eckersley. What LaRussa did was innovative and based on what he had; what others have done in years since is simply copying LaRussa so they don’t have to think on their own and risk being criticized. “I had my closer in the game,” is an excuse, not a reason. It’s a shield against reasonable questioning as to why a manager does what he does.  

LaRussa’s idea was bastardized and has evolved into the unrecognizable and mindless zombie it is today when that wasn’t LaRussa’s intent at all. LaRussa defined the roles for his relievers because he had the relievers to fill those roles effectively; Eckersley was more durable and effective in his mid-30s when he didn’t have to pitch more than one inning. It was cold-blooded analysis rather than an effort to reinvent the game.

The most ludicrous thing about the one-inning closer pitching against all comers is that prior to the ninth inning, the managers engage in a duel from the sixth inning to the eighth, mixing and matching their pitchers to specifically face certain hitters based on numbers, stuff, history, and other factors; then when the ninth comes around, for the Tigers, it’s Jose Valverde; for the Orioles, it’s Johnson, and no one dare interfere with the closer’s realm whether it’s the smart baseball move or not.

To think that Leyland is comfortable with Valverde on the mound and that some guy with a website or column on ESPN has the knowledge and nerve to make a change in the hierarchy, possibly upsetting the entire applecart, is the height of arrogance and cluelessness of how a baseball team is handled off the field. Johnson is effective against both righties and lefties, but if it was the seventh inning, would a righty have been pitching to Ibanez? Or would Showalter have brought in a lefty to face him?

The idea of an “ace” reliever is similar to the “ace” starting the first game of a playoff series. You want to have your best out there on the mound when it’s most important and, in the case of the Orioles, Johnson is the best they have. But in other cases, such as Valverde, is he the “best” choice or the choice to keep the peace among the pitchers by having it known, “You’ll pitch here; you’ll pitch there; you’ll pitch against X; you’ll pitch against Y.” During the regular season, if the team is good enough, it makes the manager’s life easier because the closer designate is likely going to convert his save opportunities, but in the playoffs, as we’re seeing now, it’s not a guarantee.

Mariano Rivera is considered the “greatest” closer in history because he’s gotten the big outs in the post-season, not because he’s accumulated the highest save total. Amid the saves he’s racked up in the playoffs—the vast number of them due to the opportunities accorded by pitching for a team in the playoffs just about every year—have been three high-profile gacks that cost his team a shot at the World Series title. In 1997, he allowed a game-losing homer to Sandy Alomar Jr.; in 2001, he blew game 7 of the World Series; and in game 4, it was a Dave Roberts stolen base that undid him and the Yankees. If Rivera hadn’t accrued the capital from the games he’s closed out, these would be defining moments in his career just as blown saves are for Trevor Hoffman, Neftali Feliz, and others.

What I would like to see is a team that is willing to try something different, has a manager willing to stand up to the scrutiny from the media and the complaints of the pitchers, and a front office that backs him to say, “Enough of this,” with the designated closer. Not in the way the Red Sox did, to disastrous results, in the 2003 season, but by having a group of pitchers—sidearming righties and lefties; specialists with numbers or a pitch that is effective for matchups—and use these pitchers in a similar way in the ninth inning as they do in the earlier innings.

A team that could experiment with this is the Rockies. Already trying a different tack with their starting pitchers and relievers rotating with a set number of pitches and the management unconcerned about stats; with an atmosphere not conducive to starting pitchers being successful; and a closer, Rafael Betancourt, that is in the role just because he’s there and not because he’s got a long history of doing the job, they could alter their relief configuration in the same way they’re trying to do it with starters. If it works, other clubs will copy it.

The save stat is ravaged as meaningless. In and of itself, it is meaningless. But until the mentality is changed from the top of an organization all the way through the entire system, there will still be calls for the “closer” even when a sidearming lefty who can’t get anyone out but lefties would be preferable to the guy who’s “supposed” to be out there because it’s “his” inning.

It’s not “his” anything. It’s the team’s thing. That’s what A-Rod proved by being a professional and an adult, and that’s what managers should strive to prove in the future with their bullpens.

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