Mattitude?

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The Nationals are reportedly going to name Matt Williams as their next manager. This comes as no surprise since Williams has long been rumored for the job due to his relationship with Nats GM Mike Rizzo from their days together with the Diamondbacks when Williams was a player and Rizzo was their Director of Scouting. Let’s look at what the Nats can expect from Williams.

Running the games

In 2007, Williams managed very briefly for the Diamondbacks organization in Double A. He managed in the Arizona Fall League last year. He’s been a coach in the Major Leagues with the club for four years. As much as experience is routinely ignored in the hiring of managers today, it matters.

Williams doesn’t have much managerial experience. For a team like the Nats, a concern for an inexperienced manager will be handling the pitching staff and making pitching changes – something Williams has never done and initially might not be adept at. He’ll need an experienced bench coach and pitching coach who he’ll trust and listen to and not men who are selected for the oft-mentioned “loyalty to the organization.” Those guys are generally there and will be there whether the manager succeeds or not creating the potential for mistrust.

It hasn’t been decided whether pitching coach Steve McCatty will return and Randy Knorr, who was passed over for the managing job, was the bench coach for Davey Johnson over the last two seasons. One would assume that both will stay.

The relationship with Rizzo

Rizzo has had high-profile dustups with the two managers he hired as Nats GM, Jim Riggleman and Johnson. Riggleman quit after 55 games in 2011 when he wanted his contract option exercised and Rizzo refused. Johnson disagreed with the Stephen Strasburg shutdown, openly chafed at the overseeing he had to endure in today’s game and threatened to quit/dared Rizzo to fire him. Had Johnson not been retiring at season’s end, it’s likely that Rizzo would have done just that at mid-season and replaced him with Knorr.

If Williams is thinking that the prior relationship between the two will put him in a better position than Johnson, he’s mistaken. Rizzo is in charge and he lets the manager know it. Considering Williams’s quiet intensity as a player, a disagreement between the two could become a problem. He’s not going to simply nod his head and do what he’s told.

The team

Williams is walking into a great situation that probably won’t need much hands-on managing. With the Bob Brenly-managed teams that Williams played for with the Diamondbacks, there wasn’t much for Brenly to do other than write the lineup and let the players play. The veterans policed the clubhouse and Brenly was sort of along for the ride. The same holds true for the Nats. Apart from tweak here and there, the lineup is essentially set. The starting rotation and bullpen are also going to be relatively unchanged.

The one mistake Williams can’t make is to walk in and decide that he has to put his stamp on the team by doing “something” like deciding they’re going to rely more on speed and inside baseball. Writing the lineup will be more than enough. The decision to consciously keep his hands off what doesn’t need to be changed is a window into a manager’s confidence. While Brenly wasn’t a good manager, his style was similar to that of Barry Switzer when he took over the powerhouse Dallas Cowboys in the mid-1990s – he knew enough not to mess with it. It worked and the team won. Of course, no other team was going to hire either man to manage/coach for them, but that didn’t have a bearing on the job they were hired to do and they did it.

Williams is going to benefit greatly from the improved health of Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos; he’ll be free of any constraints with Strasburg; the team is loaded. All he needs to do is be the serious, stern competitor he was in his playing days and he’ll be fine. Saying it and doing it are two different things and with a brand new manager who’s never done it before, there are still a lot of traps he could fall into and won’t know how to get out of. That’s what he has to look out for. Apart from that, it’s a great opportunity…as long as he doesn’t screw it up.




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Belichick Won’t Be Blamed For Hernandez’s Mess

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Bill Belichick is one of the few coaches who won’t get any of the blame for the current predicament that Aaron Hernandez is facing. You can read about the latest with Hernandez here, but at best it sounds like another player who got involved with “associates” who he would have been better served not to have been involved with. At worst, he’s in a lot of trouble.

Regardless of that, what would be said if this were another incident in the long line of incidents that occurred with the Dallas Cowboys under Jerry Jones and company? What would be said if it was Rex Ryan and the New York Jets with their overt lack of discipline and seemingly fundamental need to embarrass themselves with loud talk and little on-field action? The Cincinnati Bengals have had their share of off-field turmoil. The Oakland Raiders have a long history of actively seeking out players who would be in jail if they couldn’t play football—and they might be in jail anyway.

Fairly or not, there are organizations for whom the players’ behaviors are seen as an entity unto themselves with no responsibility doled out on the team or the men who signed them, tacitly agreeing to take the personal problems in order to try and win. That the Patriots, under owner Bob Kraft, were the team that drafted Christian Peter claiming not to know his history of misogyny and then chose not to sign him once they “found out” about them created the image of a team that doesn’t do it “that” way meaning the Jones way or the Al Davis way in not caring about personality as long as the player can help them.

The image failing to jibe with the reality is meaningless. If the coach of the Patriots were a Barry Switzer-type outlaw, then of course the blame for Hernandez’s predicament would be dropped on the desk of the coach because he couldn’t “rein in” his player as if that’s even possible with grown men. Since it’s Belichick, he has the power to do the things he wants and if that includes dumping a player who can still produce because he’s mouthy and violates team rules, so be it. Other coaches without Belichick’s resume and the organizational track record of success would have to make certain compromises and bend the rules to try and win to keep their jobs and have the fans come to the games. Belichick has the best of both worlds: he can dump the player or he can sign the player and no one will say anything either way.

Belichick can sign Randy Moss, Chad Johnson, Albert Haynesworth and other players who’ve had on and off-field issues and see if they’ll fit into his program. He can sign Tim Tebow and not worry if it’s going to lead to a huge media circus around his team, nor be frightented of Tebow’s legions reacting negatively if he cuts him. If these players don’t help his team, he can dispatch them with no harm, no foul. If they do, it’s more evidence of Belichick’s “genius.” In truth, it’s still a compromise, but the compromise doesn’t have to be buttressed by putting up with the same behaviors that got the players in trouble and made them available to the Patriots on the cheap in the first place.

No matter who the coach is, how scary he can be and the rigid discipline he displays to keep his house in order, there will always be players for whom trouble is a magnet. Some skirt it and rejuvenate themselves, dodging the bullet sometimes literally and figuratively, as Ray Lewis did; sometimes they end up in jail for the rest of their lives like Rae Carruth. When dealing with grown men making the money amid the fame that NFL players are today, there’s nothing a coach can do to keep his players completely in line during their off-hours. Nor should it come as a surprise if a vast majority of professional athletes are carrying firearms. In fact, given the history of people seeking out athletes to rob because their salaries are so prominent, they’re irresponsible if they don’t take steps to protect themselves. Given today’s debate regarding guns, it’s not politically correct to say that, but there’s a difference between a person who has a need to protect himself and a mentally unstable person who is able to acquire weapons for the express purpose of committing mayhem.

A coach can’t tell a player not to take steps to keep himself safe and no one—not even Belichick—has such omnipotent powers to shield a key to his team like Hernandez from what happened in this case. Belichick has protection as well: the championships absolving him from any questioning and blame. Other coaches don’t have that. That’s his weapon if he chooses to use it and, unlike what might have happened with Hernandez, it’s not going to get him sent to jail if he does.

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From North Dallas Forty To Biogenesis

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Major League Baseball’s ham-handed investigation into the Biogenesis Clinic and the players who might have been involved in PEDs after being named as clinic clients is an attempt to appear as if they’re on top of the situation done in a way similar to how the National Football League would’ve done it. Except the way in which MLB is handling it is the way the NFL would’ve handled it in 1970, not 2013.

The tour-de-force account of how the NFL operated back then was the 1979 film North Dallas Forty as the protagonist, Phil Elliot is struggling through injuries and the refusal to “play the game” and the “game” isn’t football—it’s going along to get along, taking shots of painkillers, playing injured (different from playing hurt), being used and willing to be used to fill the masochistic need to play the actual on-field sport.

In the movie, the North Dallas Bulls with their megalomaniacal and exceedingly wealthy owner, iconic and cold-blooded coach, and hard-partying teammates (*wink wink* at the “similarities” to the Dallas Cowboys) prepare for the next week’s game. Early in the film, Elliot experiences a break-in at his home and catches the perpetrator in the act who threatens Elliot with a gun and flees. In the penultimate scene, the break-in was revealed to have actually executed by a private eye who had been hired by the club to get dirt on Elliot with the complicity of the league to catch disposable, independent-minded players like him smoking pot and using an excess of painkillers in order to exploit the violation of league rules not to pay their salaries when they’re dumped as Elliot eventually was. Left out of the equation was that Elliott was smoking pot with the team’s star quarterback, but the club couldn’t very well function without the star quarterback and cutting Elliott filled the dual function of sending a message to the rest of the team that they’d better behave or suffer the same fate of not only being cut, but also having their reputation sullied throughout the league and face a suspension for drug use if they didn’t do as they’re told.

Elliott’s quote regarding his marijuana use, “If you nailed every guy in the league who smoked grass, you wouldn’t have enough players left to field the punt return team,” still resonates today in every sport and with every drug—performance enhancing and otherwise.

MLB is trying the same type of thing sans the illegalities (that we know of) with the Biogenesis case in their over-the-top show of trying to extract information from the head of the clinic Anthony Bosch to the degree that they’re paying him and, according to other potential witnesses, “bullying” with threats and empty promises of help in a legal case if they cooperate. The problem for MLB is this when thinking about the tactics similar to those used in North Dallas Forty: the movie was from 34 years ago and it was adapted from a book published 40 years ago about the way the game was run in the 1960s.

And that’s what MLB is doing. They’re using methods from the 1960s to garner information in 2013.

The problems with the way in which MLB is reportedly running this investigation is manifold and goes far beyond the Cold War-era strategies. Let’s just say, hypothetically, that this Biogenesis clinic was used by players in today’s NFL and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell who was at the top of the hill in this new scandal instead of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. Would the entire structure be handled differently? Better? More competently?

Selig is essentially seen as a doddering figurehead whose main job descriptions is that of a functionary. It’s not far from the truth. His performance as commissioner has been a byproduct of what is good for the owners’ pockets rather than what is promoted as good for the game. While the PEDs were rampant throughout baseball and were used with the tacit approval of everyone in an effort to draw fans, restore the game’s popularity following the 1994 strike, and accrue money for the owners and players alike, there was Selig with a faraway gaze either clueless as to the reality or willfully ignoring it. Perhaps it was a combination of the two.

Selig’s performance in front of Congress along with the players who showed up that fateful day was humiliating in a myriad of ways. From Rafael Palmeiro’s finger-wagging lies; to Sammy Sosa’s “me no speaka the Inglés”; to Mark McGwire not being there to talk about the past; to Curt Schilling clamming up after his yapping for days before and after the fact, baseball has never acquitted itself well when self-preservation came to the forefront at the expense of stating the facts.

Has baseball improved since then? Has Selig gotten the message? Let’s just compare Selig with his NFL counterpart Goodell. Only people inside baseball’s front office know how alert Selig is to the Biogenesis investigation or anything else. Perhaps it’s a matter of, “Don’t tell me what I don’t want to know so I don’t have to lie about it later.” But this is an indicator that MLB should’ve tossed someone overboard when the entire PED scandal initially broke to send the message that a new sheriff was in town and things weren’t going to be done the old way. And I use old in every conceivable context of the word when discussing Selig. That would’ve meant that Selig had to go a decade ago, and he probably should’ve.

Would Goodell be so disengaged to not know every aspect of what’s going on with an investigation of this magnitude? Would he not take steps to control the message and how it’s framed as politicians—like Goodell and Goodell’s father Charles, a former United States Senator from New York—do and did? This is the fundamental difference between MLB and the NFL. Goodell is smooth, smart, and cagey. He’s available yet insulated; touchable but unknowable; protected and in command. Selig on the other hand is cadaverous and scripted, but unable to follow the script; he’s anything but smooth and the disheveled clothes, $10 haircut and bewildered countenance that was once somewhat charming lost its luster as he had to get to work to restore the game’s validity. What makes it worse when having a figurehead as commissioner is that baseball doesn’t appear to have taken steps to place competent people behind the scenes to pull the levers to keep the machine greased and running well. It’s people charging headlong into each other and having the bruises to prove it.

If Goodell makes the implication that the witnesses will be assisted in a criminal investigation as was alluded to in the ESPN piece linked above, you can bet that the NFL and Goodell himself will have the connections to follow through on the promise.

MLB? What are they going to do about it? Are they even capable of helping anyone? Would they know who to call and would that person even take the call as he would if he heard, “Roger Goodell is on the phone,” instead of “Bud Selig is on the phone,”?

Not much thought was put into any of this going back to allowing of players to get away with PED use and then the about-face due to public outcry, the banning of substances and the potential fallout of doing so. They want to clean up the game, but keep it entertaining to the fans. Did it ever occur to them that the reason that so many man games are being lost due to injury stems from the tendons and ligaments becoming weakened from carrying the extra muscle built through chemical means? That players can’t play 150 games and toss 225 innings and maintain performance without chemicals? That they aren’t going to be able to beat out a dribbler on the infield in August by chugging cups of coffee and cans of Red Bull as they would from their trusted amphetamines (greenies)? That the risk/reward for players like Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Melky Cabrera and anyone else whose name was caught up in Biogenesis was such that there was no reason not to do it?

What’s 100 games in comparison to the half a billion dollars in contracts—just for playing baseball alone and not counting endorsements—A-Rod will have made once his career is over? What’s 100 games in exchange for Braun’s MVP and the minute risk (Braun’s just unlucky, arrogant and somewhat stupid) of getting caught? What’s 100 games in exchange for a slightly above-average talent like Cabrera being given a contract for $16 million almost immediately after his humiliating suspension and public lambasting?

Until MLB does something about the laughable penalties, players will keep trying to navigate their way around the tests and punishments because it’s worth it for them to do it given the likelihood that they’ll get away with it.

Attendance and TV ratings are down all around baseball. In large part it’s because the fans who jumped on the bandwagon at the excitement of the home runs have little interest in watching Joe Maddon outmaneuver Joe Girardi with tactical skill. They want homers and if they’re not getting them, they won’t bother to watch. This new “get tough” policy is falling flat not just because of the maladroit manner in which it’s being implemented, but because there’s no integrity behind it. The owners are interested in one thing: the bottom line. Many are as blind as Selig was to the PED use and only came around when the evidence was plunked on their desks with the widespread demand to “do something” about it to “save the game.”

Using the 1960s as a guideline for running the Biogenesis investigation in 2013 forgets that back then, there wasn’t the constant flow of available information with real time stories, opinions and criticisms appearing immediately and going viral. Back then, MLB would’ve been able to get in front of the story using friendly, like-minded reporters who were willing to do the Max Mercy thing from The Natural and “protect” the game. In other words, they would protect the people who owned the game against the ephemeral presence of the players who come and go and who were using drugs to undeservedly place themselves in the stratosphere of legends that was once rightfully limited to Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Bob Feller. Now there are bloggers, reporters and networks gathering information as it comes in. It can’t be controlled.

For MLB to put forth the pretense of being all-in for the Biogenesis investigation is the epitome of wasteful hypocrisy. They can pound on doors, stand on rooftops and proclaim their commitment to stopping PED use. They can threaten, cajole, demand and make empty promises, but that’s not going to alter the reality that the changes to the game have to be foundational and not a self-serving attempt to clean up a game that has been infested from the top to the bottom due in large part to the inaction of MLB itself.

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The Astros Blueprint Begins To Fade

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For the Astros, all of a sudden the blueprint isn’t as simple as plugging a bunch of numbers into the machine and achieving the desired result. With the resignation of CEO George Postolos there’s speculation that the Astros “united front” of rebuilding by detonating the entire organization isn’t as united as it was portrayed to be. There’s also talk that Nolan Ryan now has an opening with the Astros to be the team president since the Rangers have mitigated his CEO role and he was unhappy about it.

To put an end to the speculation on both ends, Postolos is not a baseball guy. He’s a business guy who assisted Astros owner Jim Crane in getting the franchise. Losing him is irrelevant.

Ryan has ties to the Astros fans from his days pitching for them, but think about it logically: He would be leaving the Rangers because his say-so was supposedly undermined by the promotion of GM Jon Daniels to head of baseball operations and Ryan is now seen as a figurehead, but going to the Astros and working for GM Jeff Luhnow and placating the fans who are angry at the team being so supernaturally terrible would be the epitome of a figurehead move. Luhnow certainly wouldn’t listen to Ryan’s old-school baseball theories and the stat people in the front office would roll their eyes at him when he was out of the room. It wouldn’t be a lateral move, but a step down into the “old man” status he so clearly loathes. In actuality, the one place aside from public relations in which Ryan could help the Astros is on the mound. Since he could throw 90-mph years after his retirement, there’s a pretty good chance that he could still throw in the 80s even at age 66 and would have the pitching savvy to do better than what the Astros are currently tossing out there.

Dismissing the departure of Postolos and the talk of hiring Ryan, the Astros are coming to the inevitable conclusion that the fans being onboard with this expansion-style rebuild was fleeting. They’re not going to pay to see a product that is so blatantly and intentionally not of Major League quality, nor are they going to sit happily while the owner scoffs at the fans wanting him to spend more money to at least make the team cosmetically better. It’s easy to draw up the plan for a teardown and reconstruction without accounting for the blowback from such a decision. There’s support for what Luhnow and Crane are doing and that support will not waver in places like the halls of Baseball Prospectus and Keith Law’s house, but that doesn’t mean they have carte blanche to do whatever they want with the fans merrily going along with it sans complaints. Ryan might quiet them briefly if he was hired, but how long would that last while his suggestions were being ignored and Crane was trotting him out as a human shield to protect him from fan and media vitriol? Fans don’t go to the park to see the team president do his presidenting. Most probably didn’t know who Postolos was and while they’d know Ryan, that wouldn’t perfume the stink that these Astros are generating.

The key for Crane is twofold: 1) can he stand the constant attacks he’ll be under as the team gets worse before it gets better? And 2) Can Luhnow find the talent to make the club viable again?

On the first front, Crane is probably not accustomed to people talking to or about him the way they currently are. Rich, successful businessmen aren’t pleased about criticism and when it’s an alpha-male Texan where any small concession is seen as a sign of weakness and can cost money and clients, it’s magnified.

Regarding Luhnow, because the Astros are going to have so many high draft picks and are pouring most of their resources into development, it will be hard not to get better and show signs of significant improvement eventually. Whether that will yield the results that are expected in a replication of the Rays or the new “genius” in the Moneyball sense remains to be seen and it’s not guaranteed to happen. Already there should be concerns that their hand-picked manager Bo Porter is starting to look overmatched and was rightfully mocked because he didn’t know a fundamental rule of the game last week against the Angels. To make matters worse, his coaches didn’t point out to him that what he was doing was illegal either. That he got away with it only made it look worse.

There are similarities between another Texas team that was purchased by a brash rich man who didn’t want to hear what didn’t work in the past as Jerry Jones bought the floundering Cowboys from Bum Bright in 1989. Jones said some stupid things as Crane has, but he also had the foresight and guts to fire Tom Landry and hire Jimmy Johnson to put him in charge of the entire on-field operation. Of course it helped that Troy Aikman was sitting there as the first pick in the 1989 NFL Draft and that Johnson was a ruthless wizard with moving up and down the NFL draftboard and dispatching those who couldn’t or wouldn’t help him achieve his goals as rapidly as possible. But the key for those Cowboys was the Herschel Walker trade in which Johnson fleeced the Vikings for a bounty of draft picks that he used to put a Super Bowl team together in four years.

Jeff Luhnow is not Jimmy Johnson in terms of personality nor intensity, can’t trade up and down the MLB draftboard, and he doesn’t have a Herschel Walker equivalent on his roster to trade. Porter is not Johnson in terms of on-field strategic skill and in threatening and pushing his coaches and players to get it done or else.

Unless there’s some past business animosity between the two, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones has called Crane as Al Davis used to call Jones during the Cowboys’ 1-15 season in Jones/Johnson’s first season running the team and told him to keep his chin up. By “chin up” I don’t mean Jones is suggesting to Crane to have the ill-advised, multiple plastic surgeries Jones has had as he’s aged, but to keep his chin up in response to the raking he’s getting for the atrociousness of his team. Not only does Crane need to keep his chin up, but it had better be able to take a punch as well because they’re starting in earnest now and won’t stop until there’s a marked improvement in the on-field product. And that’s a long way away.

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The Implausible Image Reconstruction of Joe Paterno

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The Joe Paterno image reconstruction has entered the last vestiges of rebuilding a myth that was undone months before Paterno’s death. For a man who dedicated his life and put forth the pretense of doing things differently—and “right”—while crafting an unassailable persona of delineating between what he did and what the likes of Barry Switzer did at the University of Oklahoma, the memory of decency and adhering to principles is all that’s left and the family is taking great pains and presumably undertaking significant expense to salvage whatever’s left of that crumbled persona.

Paterno took pride in not recruiting the type of player who wouldn’t go to class; who couldn’t read; who was passed through because of his skills on the football field and the money he could bring in by helping the team win; who would commit crimes and get away with them. He did all of this while allowing a pedophile, Jerry Sandusky, to work as his defensive coordinator and stalk his campus even after he was no longer the defensive coordinator. Which is worse?

In this New York Times piece discussing the report commissioned by the family to defend Paterno, it’s noted that Paterno and Sandusky didn’t have a personal relationship; that Paterno didn’t like Sandusky. If that’s the case, why didn’t he fire Sandusky? I don’t mean for the child abuse allegations, but years before just because he felt like it? Even if Sandusky wasn’t accused of these heinous crimes, Paterno was under no obligation to keep Sandusky around if he didn’t want him. Was Penn State’s on-field dominance and recruiting going to suffer without Sandusky? Highly unlikely. Was Sandusky an irreplaceable defensive wizard? The consensus is that Sandusky was a good defensive coordinator, but this isn’t the NFL where there has to be a scheme to suit the players and the head coach’s job was dependent on the performance of his assistants. They could’ve found someone else to install as the defensive coordinator and there wouldn’t have been a noticeable difference on the field.

Did Sandusky have something on Paterno that necessitated keeping him around and letting him run free with his nefarious activities? It’s a viable question. Paterno was so powerful at Penn State that he was able to control the entire campus if not the entire state of Pennsylvania. His power was so vast that could’ve named his wife as defensive coordinator and gotten away with it and, given the talent levels they had, the team would’ve won anyway. In fact, he could’ve put a headset on a monkey and stuck him in the booth with a hat that said, “defensive coordinator” and there wouldn’t have been a marked difference between Sandusky or Sue Paterno doing the job.

This was not a professional sports situation in which a coach has to accept certain mandates in hiring his assistants because of owner desires or other factors. Paterno was basically the “owner.” He could do what he wanted. There are circumstances in professional sports where a manager is told which coaches he’s going to have. We saw it last year to disastrous results with the Red Sox and Bobby Valentine not speaking to his bench coach Tim Bogar, who he saw as an undermining spy (and was right), and not having a relationship with his pitching coach Bob McClure, who was fired during the season.

Veteran managers like Jim Leyland and Joe Torre have had coaches thrust upon them in the past. In all of Leyland’s jobs, there have been “his” guys Milt May, Gene Lamont, Lloyd McClendon and Rich Donnelly. He trusts them and they’re his aides-de-camp. With the Pirates, though, he had Ray Miller as his pitching coach. Leyland and Miller weren’t buddies, but Miller was a fine pitching coach and Leyland had little choice in the matter because Miller was hired by the front office.

In the end, Leyland was going to do what he wanted with the pitchers no matter what the pitching coach said so it didn’t matter who was sitting next to him on the bench and the same was true with Paterno. It was his show. When the aforementioned Switzer took over the Dallas Cowboys from Jimmy Johnson, he essentially inherited an entire coaching staff, many of whom wanted his job and were still loyal to Johnson. Switzer wanted to be Cowboys coach and that was a concession he was forced to accept to make it happen.

This is not unusual. Front offices don’t want managers hiring their buddies and managers don’t want people they don’t trust in their clubhouse. The front office always wins out. Paterno was not in the position where he had to be agreeable about anything. He was the front office and he made the final call.

Much like the saying that there’s nothing more useless than an unloaded gun, what purpose did Paterno’s accumulated power serve if he was more concerned about his legacy and pretentiously ensuring that the image surpassed the reality than with dealing with what Sandusky was doing? I get the impression that Paterno was told about Sandusky and didn’t truly understand what it was he was being told. Whether that was due to old age; a compartmentalized wall he’d built in his mind not to acknowledge that people—especially someone with whom he’d worked for decades—would do terrible things to children; a desire to protect himself, his legend and Penn State; or all of the above was known only to Paterno.

On both sides of a legal argument, anyone can find an “expert” to say whatever needs to be said to bolster the viewpoint of the person who requested the testimony and investigation. They’ll have “proof” regardless of how ludicrous and farfetched it sounds. The family collected credible names in former United States Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and attorney Wick Sollers to provide the defense. These men have lots of credentials, impressive resumes and letters after their names. Not to impugn their impartiality, but since they were paid by the Paterno family, what were the odds they would find fault in what Joe Paterno did? That they would agree with Louis Freeh’s conclusions? You don’t have to come up with a number because I can tell you what it is: zero.

Freeh, the former FBI Director and lead investigator hired by Penn State’s board of trustees in the Sandusky case, had no obvious vested interests. Agree with him or not, it made little difference to him whether Paterno was complicit in any part of the case. If he was innocent, what difference would it have made for Freeh to say so?

In such a public pronouncement and presentation as that of the Paterno family, there are no parameters for the defense. Paterno’s dead and the only dissection and finders of fact will be done and made by the public. Their judgment is not legally binding nor does it have worse consequences than what the Paterno family is currently fending off. They’re saving a monument, not keeping someone out of jail.

Some will be searching for justification of Paterno’s innocence; others seeking confirmation of his ignorance and/or guilt. Each side has their own versions of the facts and individual desires to have them seen as the “truth.” We’ll never know the answer. But if the Paterno family thinks that this report will rebuild “Paterno” as the totem and not the man, they’re as ignorant as Paterno himself was when Sandusky operated with impunity with Paterno the man, wittingly or not, contributing mightily to Paterno the totem’s downfall.

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ESPN Is To Blame For Rob Parker

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Rob Parker is a symptom, not the disease. In spite of ESPN’s decision to suspend him for his absurd comments about Robert Griffin III, Parker’s presence or absence from the network is not going to cure the malady that infects any sports fan who has no choice but to use ESPN because it has such a wide-ranging hand in every sport.

Is Parker to blame for pushing the envelope with comments that were designed to provoke? Isn’t that the ESPN mandate? To get people to pay attention to them not with legitimate sports news and analysis, but by doing the equivalent of screaming “FIRE” in a crowded theater with impunity? So entwined with every aspect of sports, there’s no escaping ESPN. This makes Parker and his inept ilk in their employ all the more galling. They get away with this silliness, so why couldn’t they get away with deciding not to partake in this fire-stoking, and chose to provide quality and substance instead of resorting to antics like a bad Madonna outfit?

Parker maintains the inexplicable combination of knowing nothing about sports and writing in an amateurish, clumsy fashion. Yet he’s employed by ESPN and treated as one of their “signature” voices with a prominent platform. It’s just easier to find a stable of Rob Parkers than it is to find people who will be able to express themselves in a manner befitting such a pulpit.

Of course Parker’s responsible for what he says, but those claiming he should be fired for his offensive and borderline incoherent statements are missing the point of the entire Parker package: Why is he employed by ESPN in the first place? How can it be that the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports” is so incapable of hiring talented, intelligent, knowledgeable people who can draw an audience without having the content secondary to numbers they’re able to accumulate through cheap tactics.

ESPN need only look at the foundation of today’s NFL to understand the narrow difference between “look at me!!!” to accrue a brief burst of activity like staring at a train crash, and attracting a consistent viewer/readership.

The late Hall of Fame NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was a public relations man and knew how to create a business that would provide thrills and watchable sports action without turning it into a circularly ridiculous entity doomed to fail. Tex Schramm was also in publicity (in fact, he hired Rozelle with the Rams) and knew that in order to succeed, he also had to sell. With the Cowboys, that’s what he did: he sold an image. Tom Landry was the football guru; Gil Brandt the personnel “genius”; the Cowboys, with their space-age uniforms, unique style implemented by the religious, stoic Landry and moniker of “America’s Team” wouldn’t have gone anywhere if the product wasn’t high quality. In addition to creating an image and making money, the team won, so Schramm wasn’t tricking anyone with trash. There’s a fine line between sale and scam and ESPN crossed that line long ago. Whether or not they’re aware of it is the important question.

ESPN could learn the separation between entertainment and rubbernecking by examining how the NFL became what it is today in large part because of Schramm and Rozelle.

Rather than emulate the NFL, ESPN has chosen to copy the doomed Vince McMahon project the XFL in which pro wrestling announcers were shoved into a “professional” football broadcast booth and Jesse “The Body” Ventura (then Governor of Minnesota) tried to start a pro wrestling style feud with Rusty Tillman, one of the head coaches who wanted to coach football and not undertake a starring role in McMahon’s carnival. It didn’t work. There has to be something to cling to for the fans to stay and watch. Like McMahon’s main moneymaking venture, the WWE, you know what it is when watching it and if the viewer chooses to suspend disbelief and become invested in the canned nature of professional wrestling, it’s a wink-and-a-nod contract made with the show itself. There’s something dirtier about ESPN when they’re hiring the likes of Parker and encouraging these types of comments, then hanging Parker out to dry when the comments are deemed as “offensive.”

The difference between what Schramm and Rozelle built in the NFL is that if you pull back the curtain behind all the hype, there’s substance for the old-school football fan to still watch the game if they’re not interested in the sideshow. Is that the case with ESPN? Do they have anything substantive—from their intentions to their implementation—left? What is their long-term purpose apart from ratings, webhits, and the higher advertising rates that come along with it?

For every quality person ESPN has working for them, there are ten who shouldn’t be allowed to write a personal blog, let along have a forum on ESPN. Parker is one of those people. The only time people care about what he says is when he says what he said yesterday; they’re certainly not going to him for sports insight because he doesn’t have any, nor does he have the skills to present his non-existent knowledge in an engaging way. If he was able to do that, he’d be due a certain begrudging credit for being able to write. But he can’t, so there’s no reason whatsoever for him to be there.

Firing him will placate the masses who are calling for his dismissal as if it would accomplish something, but Parker isn’t the problem. ESPN is. If they fire Parker, they’ll simply replace him with someone else. I’d say whomever it is that replaces Parker couldn’t possibly be worse, but this is ESPN and if any company has the skills and history of discovering the newest-latest in lowest common denominator, it’s them.

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Melky Cabrera’s Dream Season Is Just That

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Melky Cabrera’s batting average on balls in play (BAbip) is .413 and that’s not going to continue.

It won’t.

So forget it.

He’s been smoking hot this season and is putting up numbers that, on the surface, look like he’s turned the corner. The perception that he’s playing up to his potential is leading to a misplaced belief that Cabrera is now a “star” player for the Giants.

Well, he’s not. His numbers are what they’ve always been and he’s benefiting from the aforementioned inexplicable and unsustainable luck.

Cabrera’s a useful bat with speed and versatility in the outfield; he has some pop; is a switch-hitter; and when he’s committed can produce. He’s not an MVP candidate unless he’s extremely lucky which is what he’s been this season.

This isn’t an assessment based on stats of visual analysis. It’s a combination of both.

It wasn’t long ago that the Braves non-tendered Cabrera after one season in Atlanta because he showed up out of shape, played like he was in a cloud and aggravated Bobby Cox and the Braves’ veterans in a similar fashion as he aggravated the Yankees into getting sent to the minors in 2008. A hallmark of Cabrera’s career has been the dialing down of his effort when he felt secure in his job. When he’s comfortable he gets lazy. After signing with the Royals, Cabrera appeared to realize that his life as a baseball vagabond was never going to be as lucrative as it would be if he showed up to play every day with the necessary commitment.

He has 15-20 home run power, can steal 20+ bases and play all outfield positions competently. But he’s not a star. He’s not going to win the batting title. And he’s not worth the amount of money someone is going to blindly throw at him when he hits free agency after this season based on his luck on balls in play and other attributes. Yankees’ fans in particular are soon going to use Cabrera’s numbers as a bludgeon to attack GM Brian Cashman for trading him to reacquire Javier Vazquez. Cashman’s obsession with Vazquez was blockheaded, insistent and foolish, but trading Cabrera to get him wasn’t a mistake. It was the same with the Royals. They needed an arm for their starting rotation, Cabrera was due a big raise in arbitration and they made a move for the talented and flighty Jonathan Sanchez. It hasn’t worked for them so far. That’s the way it goes.

I liken Cabrera to the former NFL cornerback Larry Brown who won the Super Bowl XXX MVP for the Cowboys by intercepting two passes from Steelers’ quarterback Neil O’Donnell. Brown didn’t make any brilliant athletic maneuvers on those plays. He was standing there, O’Donnell threw two balls to him and he caught them. From that he became a budding “star” and parlayed that misplaced credit into a lucrative contract with the Oakland Raiders that was a ghastly mistake. Cabrera is in shape; is playing hard; and is maximizing his abilities. But like Brown, he’s been in the right place at the right time. A huge contract will be a misjudgment for the team that signs Cabrera just as it was for the Raiders when they signed Brown. They’ll be paying him for what he was at his best and for good fortune and not for what he actually is.

Cabrera deserves the attention he’s getting now, but few should be surprised when he reverts back to form—that form is of a pretty good ancillary player. That’s it.

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Francona-Red Sox Parting Is Mutual And Amicable…For Now

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The Terry Francona-Red Sox divorce didn’t take the road of the humiliating cuss-fest of Jimmy Johnson-Jerry Jones with the Dallas Cowboys in 1994; nor did it include a public spitting match as did the Jeffrey Loria-Joe Girardi parting in 2006.

For every contentious parting of the ways between manager/coach and his bosses, there are situations that end “mutually” as did Francona and the Red Sox.

It’ll be quiet for awhile.

Eventually Francona will want his side of the story out there. As he hears industry whispers from “anonymous” sources as to what really happened in the Red Sox clubhouse to expedite his departure, he’ll retort. Yes, Francona’s a classy, professional baseball man—but he’s also a competitor who won’t want his reputation sullied by circumstances that he doesn’t feel were his fault.

If it starts to float around that someone’s saying, “Terry did this; Terry didn’t do that; Terry lost the clubhouse, etc”, Francona will likely reply with, “Yeah, I wasn’t the one who brought <blank> into my clubhouse; I told them this guy was a problem; and I didn’t need to deal with <X> player.”

Watch.

It happened with Joe Torre and the Yankees and it’s going to happen with Francona and the Red Sox.

You can read the details and spin here on NESN and ESPN among other places. I have little interest in either side’s story because it’s always twisted and generally contains a grain of truth from all sides.

What I saw in Francona was a man who was tired of dealing with the crisis-a-moment atmosphere and ridiculous expectations that accompany a big money team that had become a powerhouse and star-factory; where anything short of a World Series win was seen as failure.

The Red Sox have become the Yankees.

They don’t want to admit it perhaps because they can’t face that reality, but it’s the truth.

In defense of Theo Epstein, Larry Lucchino, Tom Werner and John Henry, if they’re spending the ludicrous amounts of money they’ve spent on that team and the team underachieves, they have a right and duty to assess everything within the organization including their manager.

The concept of a “great” manager is contextualized.

Was Francona a “great” manager when he got the Red Sox job to replace Grady Little?

Not judging by his record of 285-363 managing the Phillies he wasn’t.

In retrospect, the hiring was inspired; but there were logical reasons behind it that I elucidated recently when saying blaming Francona for the club’s collapse was idiotic.

He got the job because he was willing to do as he was told by the front office and follow stat based strategies; he’d take short money for the opportunity; he was agreeable to Curt Schilling, whom the Red Sox were trying to convince to accept a trade from the Diamondbacks; and Francona wasn’t Little.

He won two World Series championships and became a popular figure within baseball because he’s a good guy. Players wanted to play for him.

But that doesn’t equate into being a strategic genius or indicate the ability to handle any and all issues that pop up in running a team in the Boston market with the around-the-world pressures and demands on and off the field.

This 2011 Red Sox clubhouse was said to be poisoned and divided. It’s absolutely stunning how the “gritty, gutty” Red Sox from 2004, 2007 and even 2009 degenerated back into the classic “25 players in 25 cabs” from the losing Red Sox teams of yesteryear.

This didn’t happen overnight and if they’re going to complain about the clubhouse chemistry, then they needed to take care of it during the season whether they were in first place or not; and after the manner in which this team fell apart, Francona clearly wanted some major changes made to the club or faced the prospect of being someone other than Terry Francona. It’s hollow if Francona walks into the clubhouse after being Mr. Affable for eight years and starts flipping food tables and screaming like a pre-image-rehabilitated Terry Collins.

It wouldn’t work.

Francona couldn’t be someone he’s not and clearly some of the problems—if he was going to come back and fix them—stemmed from players with immovable contracts; players who aren’t going anywhere.

So he chose to leave.

Did he see the writing on the wall that he was going to be fired and wanted to avert that from happening by being the “breaker-upper”? It’s possible.

Or maybe he just wanted out.

He seemed exhausted while talking about the meetings and relieved when it was over.

It was time for a break.

Once this sinks in, then the sniping will start. We’re going to get nuggets from those “close to” Francona, Epstein and ownership. They’ll go to their friendly reporters and leak things. Class and professionalism have nothing to do with it; they’re human beings and this is what human beings do—especially baseball human beings.

As for Francona’s replacement, the Red Sox have to bring in a manager from the outside.

The following is definitive and you can take it to the vault: Joe Torre is not going to manage the Red Sox. At 71-years-old, he doesn’t need the aggravation of managing again period and he’s not going to detonate the last sliver of a bridge remaining with the Yankees. He’d demolish his legacy completely and even if he wanted to do it, his wife wouldn’t let him. Forget it.

Considering the people already with the Red Sox, if there was a problem with the clubhouse chemistry, then what sense would it make to hire DeMarlo Hale, who was on the coaching staff while the chemistry problems were going on? You get rid of the manager who couldn’t reach segments of the room and replace him with the guy who was sitting next to him and has been with the club as long as Francona and clearly couldn’t get through to them either?

And at this point, I doubt Francona’s enthusiastic endorsement will go very far with the front office. Forget Hale.

It has to be an outsider; someone who’s going to crack some heads and won’t care about what’s been done in the past. Pete Mackanin‘s name has been mentioned and he deserves a shot after acquitting himself well in two interim jobs with the Reds and Pirates and a long minor league managing and big league coaching career. Ken Macha doesn’t take any garbage and is a former Red Sox minor league manager; Don Wakamatsu is essentially in the same position Francona was when Francona got the job.

If they’d like to trash the place, then Bobby Valentine would have the star power, managerial skills and fearlessness to do it. I doubt Epstein will want to deal with Valentine, so if that happens, it’ll come from ownership.

Some are putting out the suggesting that Jason Varitek take over as manager.

In the same vein as the hiring of Hale, what the Red Sox are supposed to do is take a team that underachieved—by their estimation in part because of disconnect in the clubhouse and that players were out of shape—and hire to manage it the leader of that clubhouse and a player who was out of shape?

Is that right?

I don’t think so.

The “captain” not only shouldn’t be the next manager, he shouldn’t be on the coaching staff; and forget about continuing his career as a player. They have to get Varitek out of the clubhouse.

Jonathan Papelbon is gone; Tim Wakefield has to go; David Ortiz is talking a lot about how he wants to come back and will miss Francona, but that says to me that Ortiz is concerned about his own job prospects. He’s limited in his options because he can’t play the field and not many teams are going to bring him in as a DH with the rampant concerns that much of his success is a product of being a Red Sox and hitting at Fenway. If the Red Sox tell him to beat it, he’s going to have trouble finding a lucrative spot elsewhere.

I’d let Ortiz leave as well.

If the clubhouse is poisonous, bringing in a new manager and maintaining the same personalities is only going to create a timebomb that’s going to explode fast.

Maybe that’s something the front office will want to use as an example that the new manager is in charge. If they retain a Varitek or Wakefield with the intention of releasing them early next year to sacrifice them, it’s a tactic right out of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu. It’s risky, but it could work. I’d consider it.

This story isn’t over.

It’s a honeymoon of sorts following the deep breath of the divorce. No one’s at fault…yet. But it’s not over. When huge egos and the blame game is involved, it’s rarely a nice neat process of mutually agreeing to split.

We’ll see that in the coming weeks.

And it’ll get ugly.

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