The Astros Reality Is Beginning To Sink In

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We’ve come a long way in a month. On opening night in Texas, the Astros beat up on the Rangers 8-2. Following the preseason prognostications as to how bad the Astros would be (I had them at 45-117), that one game inspired an absurd belief that they wouldn’t be all that bad. There were orgasmic reactions to GM Jeff Lunow’s in-game interview on ESPN with the response being, “He has a plan!!! He…has…a…plaaaannnnnnn, ohhhhhhh!!!!”

Owner Jim Crane made some arrogant and obnoxious statements in a Wall Street Journal article that went largely unreported and uncriticized (except for me); he was lauded for providing every player with an I-Pad like his players were a group of Unfrozen Caveman Lawyers given a “frightening new information machine.” Luhnow made an absurd projection that manager Bo Porter might be managing the club for decades. On and on.

From the time Luhnow was hired, the media has squealed in pre-teen girl delight as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert at the new metrics permeating the organization from top to bottom. They’re a pure stat guy club complete with the bizarre titles (Sig Mejdal—Director of Decision Sciences); multitudes being hired from various stat guy sources (Baseball Prospectus); a mutually beneficial “interview” of Keith Law for a position in the front office in which the ESPN “expert” made a great show of “choosing” to stay at ESPN when a job may not have even been offered; and the new, unapologetic manner in which the Astros are shunning any and all old-school techniques preferred by veteran baseball people.

There won’t be any inter-organizational squabbles and questioning of Luhnow’s credentials as there were while he was with the Cardinals and Tony LaRussa played sharp-elbowed politics to mitigate Luhnow’s influence and win the turf war. He’s in charge. It’s his baby and, admirably, he’s doing it his way and hiring people who will implement his vision.

In the end, it’ll work or it won’t. If it does, it will have more to do with the team accumulating years and years of high draft picks because they were so historically awful than because of any undervalued finds on the part of the front office. That’s just reality. It was so with the Rays, will be so with the Astros and is a fact that those looking to anoint the next “genius” will conveniently brush to the side when embarking on an archaeological dig for reasons to twist the narrative in their preferred direction—exactly like Moneyball.

Now the mainstream media—especially those who are unabashed stat guys who defend Bill James’s most ludicrous statements regarding Joe Paterno and think Billy Beane’s bowel movements are objects of worship—are not only catching on as to how bad the 2013 Astros will be, but are speculating as to whether they can rival the 2003 Tigers and 1962 Mets in terms of historic awfulness. The Astros are this bad with a few useful veterans on their roster. Imagine what they’ll look like in August once they’ve dealt away Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Wesley Wright, Jose Veras and maybe even Jose Altuve. They’ll have a legitimate chance to reach the depths of the Cleveland Spiders of 1899. And I’m not kidding.

The media can present the contextualized explanations as to what the Astros are doing (“What’s the difference between winning 40 games and 60 games?”) and they’ll kindasorta be right. It doesn’t make much difference. But to the fans of the club who’ll have to endure this and listen to the mantra of “trust us, we’re smart” from Crane, et al., it’s going to get tiresome quickly as they’re being abused. Crane is going to need a thick skin to get through the amount of cow refuse he’ll have flung at him as the season moves along. As a loud and brash Texan, he talks like he’s ready to withstand the criticism, but when it starts coming from those who were supportive as part of their own personal agenda and they leap from the plummeting rocketship in self preservation, we’ll see if he lashes out or stays the course. I have a hunch that it will be both. Then there will really be some good stuff to write about as Crane is saying derogatory things to critics/fans because his team is so dreadfully, embarrassingly bad. He’s used to people kissing his ass and they’ll be kicking it instead. That adds up to an explosive response that will come sooner rather than later.


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.


The Red Sox Should Just Fire Valentine Now

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The Red Sox 2012 season is a washout. We all know that. More importantly, they know that. Already they’ve publicly said that Bill James is going to take a more prominent role in the evaluation of players. Whether that’s to keep him from commenting about current events as he stupidly did regarding Joe Paterno or that they want his increased input is known only to them, but it sounds as if they’re looking at what went wrong not just in 2012, but also in 2011, 2010, and 2009.

In fact, the mistakes can be seen to have extended as far back as to 2005 when the cohesive chain-of-command took a hit with Theo Epstein’s tantrum and “resignation” amid a power struggle (which he won) with Larry Lucchino. The Red Sox were not intended to be a team that tossed money at all their problems in an effort to win every…single…season, but to build an organization that was a moneymaker, that developed their own players, that signed free agents that fit into their on-field template and off-field budget, and endured the valleys that came along with the decision to plot their own course rather than look for every star that was on the market and pay for it.

The winter of 2006-2007 can be lumped in there too. Even though they won the World Series in 2007, it was the checkbook that was perceived to have been the “why” for their second title in four years. In reality, the players they signed—Julio Lugo, J.D. Drew, and Daisuke Matsuzaka—didn’t do all that much to help them that season. In the long-term, Drew was of use, but the Red Sox would presumably have preferred do-overs on the other two as well as Eric Gagne, whom they acquired during the season. In subsequent years, the still had notable success, but the developmental train became secondary to signing free agents. Any season not culminating in a World Series win was a disappointment and nothing they did—losing game 7 of the 2008 ALCS; making the playoffs in 2009; overcoming endless injuries in 2010 to win 89 games—was good enough. So they spent, spent, spent on players who were essentially mercenaries and poor fits for Boston.

They dumped manager Terry Francona when the team collapsed; Epstein left; and they became a case study for the logical conclusion of the mistakes they made in incremental stages to create the nightmare of 2012. Manager Bobby Valentine is the epitome of everything that’s gone wrong even though a majority of the poison had infected the organization’s blood. They’ve dispatched Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford; Valentine isn’t going to be back in 2013. They’re getting back to their roots from over a decade ago.

For right now, however, there is an opportunity to salvage this season and make it memorable for something other than a disaster: They can do to the Yankees what the Orioles, Rays, and to a certain degree the Yankees, did to them a year ago by knocking the Yankees out of the playoffs.

The Red Sox are playing six games against the Yankees with a 3-game series in Boston beginning on Tuesday and the final three games of the season at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees are reeling; their fans and media sycophants are panicking and cuddling one another in a delusional group therapy session, counting the days until the season is over and hoping that their condescension and arrogance isn’t reverberating on them in the most cruel and ironic way by authoring a collapse similar to those experienced by their two most hated rivals, the Red Sox and Mets.

I can tell you right now that if the Yankees don’t win the AL East, they’re not making it to the Wild Card play-in game. The Red Sox can take part in that if they win half of those games against the Yankees. Can they do it? Not as they’re currently constructed, and by that I mean with Valentine as manager.

He’s going to be fired; he’s become the embodiment of this organizational downfall in spite of him having nearly nothing to do with it; after his interview on Wednesday in which a joke was blown out of proportion to sound as if it was an “ugly confrontation” with an obnoxious radio host, his time in Boston is coming to a merciful end. It makes no sense to move forward with him after tomorrow, especially with the Yankees series starting on Tuesday. The Red Sox talent level and effort is currently that of a last place team, which is what they might be by Monday. The Yankees are fighting for their playoff lives. The current Red Sox players presumably know they’ll have a new manager in 2013, but there’s a rampant disinterest in how they’re playing now; an expectation to lose. A portion of that might be not wanting to play well enough to leave any possibility that Valentine is going to return. They’re not tanking, but they’re not enthused either. Firing him now and replacing him with an empty uniform to run the team could provide a spark and wake them up for the last three weeks and those six games against the Yankees.

Would it feel better going into the winter laughing at the Yankees and their fans for enduring a collapse that’s worse than what the Red Sox and Mets suffered? Of course it would.

Keeping Valentine postpones the inevitable and could help the Yankees, so just pull the plug now. They could leave a better taste going into the winter by dragging the Yankees into the same abyss that they’re currently in. If they pull that off, most of 2012 will be forgotten.


You Can’t Have It Both Ways With Paterno

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Either Joe Paterno was an increasingly detached figurehead or a cold, calculating, self-interested manipulator.

Which is it?

The latest story is that Paterno, cognizant that the Jerry Sandusky arrest and subsequent revelations were likely to explode and take a large chunk of his program with him, renegotiated his contract to insulate his perks and those used by his family.

You can read the NY Times Story here.

Could Paterno take that strong a hand and look ahead with such ruthlessness that he was concerned about those issues? Or was it the people around him—his children and wife—who were insulating their benefits for the aftermath when Paterno might not have had that much longer to live anyway?

What we’re supposed to reconcile is that Paterno didn’t grasp the gravity of the Sandusky allegations in 1998-2011, but following his grand jury testimony he knew enough to shield his liability and ensure his contract wouldn’t be torn up if his part in a coverup was discovered.

It’s a bit farfetched.

Only those that were around the program and Paterno on a day-to-day basis knew whether he was totally in control of the team or was the old man on the sideline with his assistants handling things day-to-day. They’ll come up with funny JoePa stories of how he was still in charge, but who believes it other than those invested in the myth? It sounds like age discrimination to suggest that he wasn’t entirely aware of his surroundings and able to process all that was placed in front of him, but when someone is in their eighth and ninth decades on the planet—no matter how lucid and feisty they are—there’s going to be a decline in their faculties and speed of comprehension. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any man or woman in their mid-70s-mid-80s that can oversee a program as large as Penn State’s with the vigilance of a coach 20 years younger.

When he was informed of the Sandusky behaviors in 1998 (if that was indeed the first time he’d heard about them—a shaky premise) he could clearly have done more than he did. In his 70s and with so much to lose, was he capable of acting as an objective boss and do what needed to be done for those children even at the risk of sending his beloved program into disarray? Could he conceive of what would happen if they did nothing and allowed Sandusky to keep operating with clear impunity in the interests of Penn State and the Paterno “I’m better than you” legacy?

When someone is treated as if they’re above the fray and not subject to the human condition, the inherent danger is that they begin to think they have to bolster that lie at the expense of common decency. This 1950s style, Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, Happy Days in Happy Valley perfection is drilled into the students of Penn State. Part of Paterno’s appeal was his insistence on doing things the “right” way. But that “right” way is always a matter of perception and, in many cases, it’s based on what the architects of the tale were able to hide and how effectively they hid it. The amount of good he did is now being obscured by the failure to act when he was informed of what was going on with one of his longtime assistants. And it should. That concept of the nuclear family with the mother and father in a loving home; with the 3 children who all go to school and behave themselves; who join the boy and girl scouts; call their mother ma’am and their father sir; and play football simply for the thrill of competition and the sporting ideal is not real. It never was. Don’t be surprised if more information comes out that the people at Penn State knew or suspected this despicable information about Sandusky long, long, long before 1998 and, in the interests of Paterno and the university, that it was swept under the rug.

No, there were no grade and recruiting violations at Penn State; no “bad seeds” hired as players because they could help the team win but would be terrifying presences around the campus; no compromises by the coach on the field and with the players he led to glory on Saturday afternoons. But there was this. It all fed into itself; it fed the monster until it grew too big to let die. The image-the ethics-the success-the money, the image-the ethics, the success, the money—a cycle that wouldn’t, couldn’t end.

The indoctrination of anyone and everyone who enters Penn State led to the riots when he was deservedly fired last December. Of course Paterno was still trying to stay on as coach. “Let Joe finish the season,” was the lament as if it mattered. It’s the same as any cult where the demagogue is not to be questioned, disciplined and, most importantly, dispatched. Dictators never leave their dictatorship willingly. They’re dragged off and many die during the transference of power or shortly thereafter by causes natural and not.

If they’d acted preemptively, would the cash cow that Paterno was have stopped that cash forever if this was addressed in 1998 or before? If they’d gotten in front of this whenever it was truly understood exactly what was going on, the story would’ve been devastating, but would’ve passed. Sandusky would’ve been a poison name for the university, but also would’ve been in jail and countless children would’ve been saved. If that were the case, Paterno and the people in charge of Penn State would’ve had the moral high ground that was the foundation of the Paterno legacy in the first place.

Now no one’s going to remember Paterno’s supposedly clean program or all the good that he did because of the mistakes he made (or was advised—poorly—to make) as he allowed a child molester to roam freely around his campus in the interest of personal gain and “protecting” Penn State as if it couldn’t exist without the idolatry lavished on Paterno.

The excuse of Paterno being too old to comprehend the severity of what Sandusky was doing can’t be valid when he wasn’t too old to coach a team of 18-22 year-olds every Saturday and reap the rewards of that responsibility as if he was better than the average human because he didn’t give his players a little pocket money; didn’t cover for them when they cheated on tests; didn’t look the other way at any little or big liberties they took because they were football players at the university.

In the end you have to look at what he did.

So was he able to calculate the consequences once Sandusky was arrested and take the action he did with his contract on his own? Or was he steered in a certain direction by his family? A direction not to salvage his legacy—only a delusional person isn’t taking an 85-year-old person’s life in short increments rather than the long-term—but his contract sweeteners that would have been in jeopardy and his widow and children would’ve lost if the scandal engulfed him as it eventually did?

That would shift the blame to the living; to those still dealing with the fallout; to those who stand to lose the perks that the contract renegotiation covered.

I doubt they’re going to permit that. What they’ll do is try to shift the goalposts of the legend of Paterno even if it’s a legend similar to those TV sitcoms from the 1950s and has little-to-no basis in reality.

Was he an out of touch old man? Or was he running the program and able to maintain enough mental acuity to renegotiate his deal so his wife could use the campus spa?

It can be one or the other. But it can’t be both.

Either way his supporters can’t win. If it’s the former, then there’s an open admission that they kept him around as a prop when he was past his sell-by date. If it’s the latter then he was a severely flawed individual who put his own interests above those of the children that Sandusky was abusing.

You tell me which one it was.


Simple Questions and Complicated Non-Answers With Sam Hurd

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The main question surrounding the arrest of Chicago Bears wide receiver Sam Hurd is the simplest and shortest: Why?

You can read the details of Hurd’s rise and possible fall here in this NY Times article, but the one question we may never receive the answer to is why.

Why would an outwardly decent person, one who remembered his roots and donated his time and money with an attitude of truly wanting to help be leading a double life that has led to allegations of cocaine distribution and an apparent desire to be an outright drug lord?

It’s a simple and short question and in spite of the rampant speculation from amateur psychologists and would-be insightful writers, the final answer can only be that we don’t know.

We may never know.

What explains the duality?

It defies explanation to risk a lucrative career playing a sport to involve himself in an endeavor that is more lucrative and more risky to both his life and freedom than football could ever be.

Was Hurd trying to use his involvement in children’s camps, his dedication to the church, and seemingly sincere efforts to help others a mere cover for his dark activities?

It’s understandable for those caught in sex scandals; extramarital affairs; (multiple) paternity suits; PEDs; DUIs; gambling; who lose their money in shady and ill-advised deals; and even domestic incidents. Sometimes public shame even scares the transgressor straight. But what Hurd is accused of being involved in isn’t a case of someone who introduced one friend from his neighborhood to a nightclub acquaintance and got caught up in a sting while having done nothing of consequence other than making an introduction; this is a man who’s accused of making the decision to become a rising star in the drug business while he was an active NFL player.

So was it fake?

Was Hurd playing a part to make himself look like an upstanding member of the community who was grateful for his good fortune and wanted to pay it forward to others?

Or was he a hardened criminal for whom jail was a part of doing business and whose selfish interests trumped common sense?

Drug dealers don’t think of themselves as public enemies; their logic is such that they’ll say, “No one’s forcing my customers to buy my product; and if I don’t sell it to them, someone else will; at least I’m doing something positive with a portion of the money by giving back to people who need it.”

There’s occasionally a logical reason behind it when they say they can’t support their families any other way. Sometimes it’s used to make a better life for future generations.

Agree with it or not, it’s logical.

Then the slope becomes even more slippery with such “upstanding” entities like Enron; Bernie Madoff; Bill Conlin; Joe Paterno—legal and respected people, oblivious to the destruction in their wake as they shun consequences and moral propriety by hiding unspeakable awfulness for their own interests, consciously blurring the lines between perceived right and wrong.

Is Hurd an evil entity? Did he get a buzz from the rush of not playing by the rules? Was he thinking he wouldn’t get caught? Or was he trying to accumulate wealth by any means necessary and use a portion of it positively?

The downfall of every gambler and drug dealer is greed.

Because the subsets to the question why are so vast and variable, any response is going to be justifiable in some way whether societally acceptable or not.

And we may never know the full answer.

Because there isn’t one.