Saturday, January 29, 2005

Heartbreakers

"The saddest thing in the world is wasted talent." -- Robert DeNiro, "A Bronx Tale"

Darryl Strawberry was recently elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and I couldn't be more proud of him. Darryl was the straw that stirred the Mets for 14 years, leading the boys from Queens to three World Championships; in 1986, 1989 and 1990. He was the team's all-time home run leader, with 503, and retired fourth on the all-time list with 621. I went to Cooperstown for his induction and he was nice enough to sign my Mets #18 jersey (which, of course, was too small for me by now, since I got it 12 years, 6 inches and 75 pounds ago).

Had you asked me back in the late-1980s, the above passage is what I would have expected to write about Strawberry five years after his retirement. Growing up a Mets fan during that time, I KNEW Strawberry would go down as one of the greats of all time. I didn't think this, I was absolutely certain of it. By now, of course, we all know the real truth to be completely different. Strawberry obviously did not, and never will, make the Hall of Fame (unless it's as an example to others) Back then, I knew Straw had a drug problem, and I didn't give a damn. This attitude, however unhealthy, still sticks with me today. I am a total hypocrite when it comes to athletes and their off-field activities. Nonetheless, it was only after leaving the Mets that Strawberry began to have huge problems. Take a look at these career numbers:

8 years with the Mets: .262, 252 HR, 733 RBI, 191 SB
9 years with the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees: .248, 83 HR, 267 RBI, 30 SB

The pressure of playing in New York affects all players. Most poorly, but some positively. There is zero doubt in my mind that Strawberry benefited tremendously from the pressure of playing there. It kept him focused and attentive. The moment he cashed in and went back to his laid-back boyhood home of Los Angeles, all his problems came to the forefront and affected his play. Some people think that drugs wrecked Straw's career. They certainly didn't help, but leaving New York was what really hurt him. Drug problems would have caught up to him eventually (they certainly did when he was a Yankee), but not, I suspect, before he had built up a healthy Hall of Fame resume, and maybe added some more jewelry to accompany his 1986 World Championship ring.

No athlete, not even the Running Back Formerly Known as #34, has ever broken my heart quite like Darryl Strawberry did. Here are some other examples of wasted talent that were personally difficult for me...

Ricky Williams - I can't even discuss this rationally. Let's put it this way; one of my students asked me if I hoped Ricky would come back to the Dolphins, and I responded, "no, I hope he puts a shotgun in his mouth and pulls the trigger." Upon further review, I'd just as soon see him and Strawberry drive over a cliff in a car packed with explosives. Like I said, I still can't discuss this rationally.

Len Bias - There's something about the power forward position in the NBA, and I don't know what it is. Bias, Roy Tarpley, Shawn Kemp, Derrick Coleman and Chris Webber were arguably the most gifted "fours" to be drafted over the last 20 years. Any one of them could have been the greatest power forward of all time. Coleman and Webber didn't want it bad enough, but at least they stayed clean, carved out solid careers and didn't ruin anyone's life along the way. Kemp and Tarpley blew it all with drugs, but at least they made some cash and had some fun. And at least they're still alive. Not so with Len Bias.

Dwight Gooden - Gooden's story doesn't hurt me as much as Strawberry's, for a couple reasons. His drug issues are, of course, well-documented. But what we didn't know back then was that he was pretty much washed up by 1990, his arm dead from too much work at too young an age. He threw 744 major league innings by the time he was 22. Managers today would be fired on the spot for that sort of thing. Moreover, Doc never turned his back on his team. He never quit on the Mets. If anything, the Mets failed him by abusing his arm and shortening his career.

Mike Tyson - Could have ruled the heavyweight division for 15 years. Instead, like many athletes who come from absolutely nothing, Tyson got too fat on the newfound good life. Too much money, too many women, too many suckups who told him that he was great just the way he was and didn't need to train any harder for that Douglas bum. He lost his belt, which SHOULD have been the wakeup call he needed to get back on track. But instead, he took out his anger on a young woman named Deseree Washington, and that was that.

These are my "favorite" examples; please feel free to post some of yours as a comment.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Return of The Rivalry

"I hate the 'Cuse," said Kev.

"I used to hate Georgetown," I responded.

"Used to" hate Georgetown. That's an important distinction. It's not easy to hate a team that's been irrelevant for so long and hasn't ruined your favorite team's season in well over a decade.

In 1980, Georgetown visited SU's Manley Field House, home to the nation's longest home winning streak: 57 games. Manley would give way to the Carrier Dome the next season, so this was the final home game there. Syracuse was ranked #2 in the country, and Georgetown was still a second-rate team. Georgetown fell behind early, but rallied in the second half for a tremendous upset victory. Georgetown coach John Thompson loudly proclaimed, "Manley Field House is officially closed!"

Back in the 80s and through most of the 90s, there was no rivalry in college hoops (save perhaps North Carolina-Duke) quite like Syracuse-Georgetown. The list of greats from the days of The Rivalry reads like a who's-who of Big East basketball: Patrick Ewing, Reggie Williams, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Charles Smith, Pearl Washington, Sherman Douglas, Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens and Rony Seikaly. And most importantly: John Thompson vs. Jim Boeheim.

Somewhere along the way, The Rivalry lost some luster. Thompson, the consummate villain for Syracuse, Villanova, St. John's and other fans everywhere (the late, great Ralph Wiley had an incredible piece on this: http://espn.go.com/page2/s/villains/wiley.html), faded in his last few years and then retired, and Hoya Hoops was handed over to the singularly unworthy Craig Esherick. Esherick was a mediocre coach and a worse recruiter. Where the Hoyas once had primacy in the greater DC area, suddenly Maryland was stealing the cream of the crop, with other Big East schools raiding Hoya Territory. Syracuse nabbing Carmelo Anthony was a great example of this. Save Mike Sweetney, can you name any really quality Hoya over the last five years? Heck, one can probably go all the way back to Allen Iverson, for that matter.

Where Georgetown ruled much of the 1980s (with three Final Fours in four years; they were Duke before Duke was Duke), SU had the edge in the 90s and 00s, and went on to the 2003 national title. By this time, Syracuse-Connecticut had become the Big East's best rivalry. With Esherick fumbling his birthright (he was a Georgetown player and Thompson's longest serving assistant) like a modern day Fredo Corleone, Georgetown had become almost irrelevant in the 00s. Finally, John Thompson III took over this year and brought the best recruiting class in a decade. A strong start and a big victory over Pittsburgh ensured that Georgetown would be relevant once again.

On Tuesday night, Kev and I went to the Syracuse-Georgetown game at the Carrier Dome. It was a back-and-forth battle reminiscent of the best days of The Rivalry. The Hoyas pushed the seventh-ranked Orange to their absolute limit before going down 78-73 in overtime. The Hoyas lost this one in part because of a lack of depth, and in part because of a lack of experience (they started two freshmen and had a third, Roy "Dr. Julius" Hibbert, playing most of the game) that showed up on missed assignments and dumb fouls. A more experienced team probably would have pulled the upset. Nonetheless, the message from this one was clear: Georgetown is on the way back.

And in a way, a particularly strange and twisted way, I'm glad. The Buffalo Bills could go the rest of their existence without winning a game, and I'd be fine with that. I enjoy the games against Connecticut, but it's not the same. John Thompson brought out the absolute best in Jim Boeheim in a way that Jim Calhoun never could.

Life's just more interesting with the Hoyas involved. Every hero needs a villain, after all.

Friday, January 14, 2005

What Happened Today?

Today, of course, is the fourth-holiest day on the Roman Catholic calendar: Philsmas. Unfortunately, history hasn't been real kind to Jan. 14 over the years...

1741 - Benedict Arnold is born. Not to be confused with Darryl Strawberry or Ricky Williams.

1896 - Carlo Ponzi immigrates to America. Ponzi would soon initiate the infamous "Ponzi Scheme", which you may know better as a pyramid scheme. Mussolini, genius that he was, actually made this guy a top dog in the Italian ministry of finance. That would be like an American president giving jobs to people who suckered some folks from back home in Arkansas on a real estate deal...oh wait...

1953 - Marshal Tito (aka Josip Bruz) becomes dictator of Yugoslavia. I suppose it could have been worse.

1954 - Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio marry. Yeah, that worked out real well.

1963 - George Wallace, racist, segregationist and all-around jerk, is inaugurated Governor of Alabama.

1964 - Gen. William Westmoreland, better known as the Guy Who Lost Vietnam, is appointed deputy commander of American forces, priming him for the top job.

1980 - Gold prices hit a record of over $800 per ounce. Admittedly, this was in response to the gold standard being revoked, but still, not a good sign.

The news wasn't all bad, though...

1943 - Roosevelt and Churchill meet at the Casablanca Conference, paving the way for the invasion of Europe.

1973 - The Miami Dolphins cap the first, last and ONLY perfect season in NFL history with a 14-7 win over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII.

1990 - "The Simpsons" premieres on TV.

And finally, most importantly of all...

1977 - Philip Unwin is born in Saranac Lake, New York.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

This Weekend's Picks

Minnesota at Philly - Kudos to the Vikings for leaving it all on the field last week. I didn't give those guys a snowball's chance. Unfortunately for him, Brett Favre did. Brief digression here: was anyone else furious at the double-standard the announcers have for Favre? Never has this more clearly manifested itself than last week. Favre was five yards past the line of scrimmage and threw a forward pass. Even John Elway would blush at that sort of thing. Favre cost his team field position and the down, not to mention the fact that he probably would have made a first down had he hung onto the ball. Ultimately, he cost his team points and gave Minnesota momentum. Did the announcers pound him for the stupid play? No, they laughed it off. If that were AJ Feeley, or Carson Palmer, or probably any other NFL QB, for that matter, they would have ripped him mercilessly for the remainder of the game. But it's Brett Favre, so he slides, despite the fact that he almost singlehandedly cost his team the game with that play and half a dozen other boneheaded moves.

Remember what I said about the Vikes having an inferiority complex? Well, I just spent 2/3 of a section on their playoff game talking about the Packers. So there you have it. Anyway, I think the Vikes left it all on the field last week, and I don't know what they're going to take into Philly. The Eagles will need a quarter or more to shake off some rust (they haven't been playing serious football for a month), so if the Vikings can score quickly, they've got a shot. But I don't see it.
Eagles 27 Vikings 17

St. Louis at Atlanta - Whether the Rams were better off playing the Falcons or Eagles is a matter of debate. Some think that playing in a dome is a huge edge for them, others (like me) thought they matched up far better against Philly, a team that might have been ripe for the upset. In any event, I don't think Jim Mora is dumb enough to reprise Mike Holmgren's "throw, throw and throw some more" game plan. The Falcons have been winning all year by running the ball, and that's where the Rams are weak on defense. Also, I think Michael Vick will give the Rams fits with his scrambling, because: 1. he's Michael Vick, and 2. Mike Martz isn't smart enough to put a spy on him.
Falcons 28 Rams 24

Indianapolis at New England - For all the smack that's been talked about how the Colts are going to win this game, the Pats are still a 2 point favorite. Possibly because when money, and not mere credibility, is on the line, people think harder. Did anyone actually watch last year's playoff game between these two? Peyton Manning fell apart at the seams. Granted, the refs had no small role in that, and further granted, the Patriots have a secondary that's in abysmal shape right now, meaning that the five yard illegal contact penalty might be the best play they make all day. On paper, the Colts SHOULD win this game, but the Patriots are like Rasputin. I'm not counting them out until I see proof that they're dead.
Patriots 31 Colts 28

NY Jets at Pittsburgh - This won't be close. I don't care how many playoff games Bill Cowher has blown, there's no way he botches this. The Jets advanced because of Martyball, but the Steelers are too good and too talented to drop this one. Unlike the Eagles, they're rested instead of rusty. Every divisional playoff weekend has at least one blowout. This is it.
Steelers 30 Jets 10

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Ranking the Coaches

In watching yesterday's Rams-Seahawks game, we spent at least 1/3 of the game ragging on Rams coach/mad scientist Mike Martz (the other 2/3 was devoted to ragging on the announcers, Mike Patrick, Paul Maguire and Joe "The Barking Seal" Theismann). Since we all know that good coaching usually prevails at playoff time, I thought I'd take my shot at ranking the 12 playoff coaches (and admittedly, this would have been a better post before yesterday's games, but oh well). In doing this list, it struck me that there's a fairly clear division between the good coaches and the lousy ones, although Herm Edwards could be in a gray area. Top to bottom...

Bill Belichick - Two rings in the last three years. Until further notice, that's enough for the #1 spot on this, or any, list.

Andy Reid - Yes, the Eagles have dropped three straight NFC Championships, and yes, they've been favored heavily in two of those. That's a mark against him. But he's gotten the absolute most out of his personnel. Think about how good the Eagles were once they got a real wide receiver. Before Terrell Owens' arrival, you could make a good argument that this team had the worst receivers in the NFL, and yet, they annually have an excellent offense. Reid is one of those coaches who knows what he doesn't know, and leaves the defense to the very capable Jim Johnson. That counts for a lot.

After Reid, there's a big dropoff...

Mike Shanahan - His stock has been dropping steadily, but still, he's got two rings. If you doubt me, look at the rest of this list and ask yourself this question: "if I had one game to win, would I definitely take any of these guys over Shanahan?". I can't find one that I can definitely say I would, so the two rings win out. For all the "but he's got zero without John Elway", it also warrants mention that Elway had zero without Shanahan, despite being absolutely unstoppable while at the peak of his powers. Moreover, Shanny's Super Bowl XXXII game plan was one of the best of modern times. Yes, it's disturbing that I have to go back 7 years to make a great argument for him, but that's the state of NFL coaching right now.

Tony Dungy - Tough call between him and Bill Cowher, but Dungy's teams don't seem to have those mental lapses that lead to stupid defeats in the playoffs. His stock went up a lot last season when the Colts made the AFC Championship. He's been to two conference championships (1999 NFC Championship was the other, with Tampa Bay), and his teams have played tough against big favorites every time (not to mention getting screwed by the refs both times).

Bill Cowher - Either he's a Hall of Famer, or he's the most overrated coach of all time. There's no middle ground. And no, I haven't made up my mind on which is the case. His teams just keep having awful mental lapses in the playoffs, and until those are cured, he stays out of the top level of guys. That said, a Pittsburgh Super Bowl win this year moves him up with Belichick and settles the issue once and for all.

Jim Mora, Jr. - Did a fantastic job with Atlanta this year, but let's see how he handles the playoffs.

Another big dropoff, as we move from "good coaches" to "bad coaches".

Herm Edwards - The worst clock management skills since Dennis Green was in his prime. I used to think Edwards was an excellent coach, but the Jets' collapse this season, coupled with an awful 2003, has convinced me otherwise. That offense is too talented for it to struggle like it has, and Edwards is an absolute lightning rod for controversy, to boot.

Mike Martz - Amazing that he's even this high on the list. However, unlike many of the coaches below him, Martz actually has a discernable skill. Sure, he's arrogant, obnoxious, and knows defense about as well as I know Sanskrit, but his teams can move the ball. Martz has put together the best looking passing attack of anyone but Colts offensive coordinator Peyton Manning. In an ideal world, he's working as an OC for a strong head coach who can separate Martz's good ideas from his brain farts (or as I've taken to calling them, Brain Martz). You know, like Dick Vermeil was.

Marty Schottenheimer - Gets voted AP Coach of the Year, and comes in this low? Anyone who's watched Martyball in the playoffs knows why. The legacy of playoff failure with this guy is absolutely staggering, and he's earned every bit of that stigma. Last night's debacle just adds to that; an awful example of "playing not to lose".

Mike Holmgren - Put it this way: Mike Martz outcoached him three separate times this year. Shaun Alexander set a record for most rushing yards in one year against one team, so of course Holmgren saw to it that Alexander got all of 15 carries on Sunday. Is it too late to take away his Super Bowl ring and just let Brett Favre put it on another finger?

Mike Sherman - I don't even know what this guy does well. He threw a competent defensive coordinator to the wolves to quiet the public outcry over "4th and 26", and as a result, the Packers played some of the least disciplined football on defense I've seen since Bryan Cox was in his prime. At least Holmgren was able to ride Favre's right arm to a Super Bowl. Sherman can't even do that right.

Mike Tice - I'm willing to revisit this ranking depending on how today's game turns out. But so far, his teams have shown a ridiculous tendency to collapse at the end of the year, and the only reason he seems to be employed by the Vikings is the fact that he'll work cheap, which appeals to tightwad owner Red McCombs.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Most Important Play in College Football History

In the 1984 Orange Bowl, Miami led Nebraska 31-24. The Huskers faced 4th and 8 from the Miami 24 with under a minute left and no timeouts. Turner Gill rolled right on an option, and an instant before being tackled, pitched to running back Jeff Smith, who galloped in for a touchdown. 31-30 Miami, 48 seconds left.

A brief digression is in order here, because this is college football before the BCS and before overtime. A tie at the end of regulation was just that, a tie.

Coming into this game, Nebraska was the #1 team in the country, and it wasn't even close; the Huskers averaged nearly a point a minute (52 points per game) and were the nation's lone unbeaten team. Texas was #2, but had been upset in the Cotton Bowl. Auburn was #3, but squeaked by a weak Michigan team in the Sugar Bowl, 9-7. 10-1 Miami was #4, thus this game was effectively for the national championship. If Nebraska settled for an extra point, the game would, barring a miracle, end in a tie. This would seal a national title for the Huskers, who, at 11-0-1, would still be the only unbeaten team in the country.

In an act of profound courage or stupidity, depending on your point of view, Nebraska coach Tom Osborne chose to go for the win, and sent his offense out for a two-point conversion. NBC announcer Don Criqui exclaimed, "this is for the national championship for Nebraska!" Gill rolled right, found Smith and let the ball go. Miami safety Kenny Calhoun broke for the ball immediately and dove, arms outstretched.

If Smith catches the pass, Nebraska wins the national title. Miami probably drops a couple spots in the final poll. If Osborne elects to take the PAT and the tie, Nebraska wins the title, and Miami probably finishes #2 or #3 in the nation. In either case, it is unlikely that Miami gains more than a moral victory from the game. The Miami football program, which was nearly eliminated by the university as recently as five years before, would likely have faded back into obscurity, or at best chugged along as one of the dozens of good-but-not-great programs around the country, along the lines of a Clemson or Texas A&M. They would not have received the national attention we now know, and in turn, they would not have been the wellspring for playing and coaching talent that the school would ultimately become. Without Miami as a major power, it is probably Florida State that emerges as college football's pre-eminent team, as the Seminoles wrap up their annual battle well before placekickers become a factor. Or maybe it's the annual Nebraska-Oklahoma battle that serves as the de facto national title game, or Michigan-Notre Dame. Washington doesn't share the 1991 national title, and the 2001 Oregon-Nebraska-Colorado morass perhaps results in a college football playoff, rather than yet another tweaking of the BCS. In the NFL, Jimmy Johnson never rises to prominence, and the Cowboys stumble around after the end of the Landry Era. Players like Michael Irvin, Ray Lewis and dozens of others go to other colleges, and may or may not develop like the stars we know.

Calhoun got no more than a couple fingers on the ball, but it was enough. Incomplete. Miami wins, 31-30. The next day, they are voted national champions, beginning a two-decade run as the most dominant program in college football: five national titles, two other seasons in which they played for the title, and enough distinguished alumni to create a Pro Bowl team.

Monday, January 03, 2005

So, Who's the Newest Cursed Sports Franchise?

With their World Series title, the Boston Red Sox have finally shed "The Curse", and not a moment too soon. Finally, they can be "just another team", rather than having fans and pundits alike regale us with tales about how unfortunate they are and blah blah blah.

Anyway, we need a new whipping boy. One of the Chicago baseball teams would seem the likeliest target. No one gives a hoot about the White Sox, so forget them. How about the North Siders? After all, the Cubs haven't won an NL title since 1945, or a World Series since 1909. But they've been so hapless for so long that it's part of their charm. And that's another problem. The Red Sox kept losing because of lousy breaks: Pesky holding the ball too long, Dent's improbable homer, pulling Willoughby for Burton, Buckner's error (though to this day, Mookie Wilson swears he would have beaten Buckner to the bag anyway, and the millions of replays show that he might have a point), Boone's homer, getting stuck in the same division as the Yankees, etc. They didn't lose because management was inept. Rather, you could make a convincing argument that only the Yankees and Dodgers have been better-run franchises over the last 30 years. Not so with the Cubs, who have frequently nickel-and-dimed their operations despite having a revenue base rivaled only by the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets and Dodgers. Can we really move the title of "Most Cursed Franchise" to a franchise that cares about winning only when the spirit moves them? Still, it's hard to ignore a nearly-century-old World Championship drought, particularly with an extremely loyal fan base. We'll tentatively give them the title of "Most Cursed Baseball Franchise" for the time being.

Based on recent history, the Oakland Athletics are an inviting possibility. As my friend Jason (please visit him at hammersla.com, and wow, it's taken me way too long to pimp his website) once said, "watching the A's in the playoffs is like watching The Godfather and hoping that Sonny doesn't get killed this time." Still, we're looking beyond the last 10 years, and A's fans have glory days from the late 80s and the 1970s to look back on. In fact, this whole paragraph was really just a vehicle to get that quote in, because it remains one of my all-time favorites.

Since baseball has, by far, the richest history of any American sport, it's tempting just to look at baseball teams and go with the Cubs for "Most Cursed Franchise". But let's take a look at some other sports. Hockey has ceased to be relevant. Basketball presents no obvious possibilities (in large part because the same 6 teams have traded the title back and forth over the last 25 years, beating each other in the playoffs). College sports are too complex to figure out, since teams that are cursed in football are often very good at basketball (like Syracuse, UCLA and Michigan State) and vice versa (like LSU and Florida State). That leaves the NFL.

There's one possibility that stands out to me, among NFL franchises. The Minnesota Vikings. This team is in playoff contention almost every single year. Every single year, they have one of those teams that's just good enough to make you think "hey, with a break, they could make the Super Bowl". And every single year, they're just flawed enough to fall short, often in spectacular fashion. Think back to last season for one example: they lost to the Cardinals on the final play of the game, on an absolutely ridiculous catch (of debatable legality, no less). And yet, if they'd made the playoffs, they could have easily gone to the Super Bowl. They choked again this year, but backed into the playoffs anyway, which just prolongs the agony (does anyone seriously believe they've got the stones to win at Lambeau in January?) for their fanatical fan base. They've got four Super Bowl losses under their belts, and an inferiority complex against no fewer than three teams: the Packers, the Cowboys and the 49ers. If not for their dramatic decline in the post-Ditka era, you could have added the Bears to that list, too. They have no period in history that fans can look back on and say, "yup, those were the days". They just keep looking forward to next year, hoping that This Time, it'll be better.

That, my friends, is a Cursed Franchise.