Week of April 19, 2019

Did not give up popcorn for Lent.

Reminder: Tiger Woods Won The Masters

It’s not even a week old, but Tiger’s unlikely Masters win, his fifteenth major victory, feels like such old news. We’ll get into why people care about this so much in a moment, but the sleazeball actually made it all the way back after his life and his body fell apart. Say what you want about the type of person he is, or has been (I don’t know; is he a ‘good guy’ now?), but it’s undeniably incredible that he came back to win another major after over a decade of setbacks – injuries, surgeries, infidelities, arrests, and just bad golf. Through it all, people held out hope to see this performance. We just kept waiting, long after we should have, and then it finally happened.

Tiger Woods is undeniably bland and boring and captivating and unique. The regular sports fan cares about Tiger playing golf; the regular sports fan doesn’t care about golf. I haven’t experienced an athlete with that much gravity in his or her sport. I’m guessing Ali was like that and maybe Babe Ruth. Whoever’s on that list, it’s a short list.

Needless to say, there was a few columns written about Tiger’s win at Augusta. I found this Drew Magary paragraph in particular to be the most resonant:

Athletes are measuring sticks. You measure their ability against yours and you measure their ability to handle pressure against your own, naturally. But you also measure their lives against your own. Their history is your history. They’re personal markers, just as certain movies and songs and pictures evoke moments from your youth that have grown warmer and fonder and perhaps more unattainable over time. I was rooting for Tiger yesterday, but to be more accurate: I was selfishly rooting to relive my own past. I was still in college and away on a semester abroad when Tiger Woods won his first Masters, back in 1997. I read all about his win in a hard copy of USA Today I got from a newsstand in England, because reading news online wasn’t a thing most people did back then. He was already the biggest name in golf even before he won that first title, and he has remained the biggest name in the sport—perhaps all of sports—as he’s toiled for the past 11 years and change to assume his throne once more.

Magary’s onto something here. I was absolutely pulling for Tiger, and afterwards I wondered why. I really wanted him to win, and it just might be because no other golfer serves as personal marker on my life. I also just want to witness historic moments in sports. There are very few events when you know something historic is taking place in the moment. – PAL

Source: Un-Fucking-Real”, Drew Magary, Deadspin (4/14/19)

Pesky Morality

We’ve posted a lot of stories about CTE over the years. Heartbreaking personal stories, medical stories, political stories; this issue flows into so many facets of culture and very well could be the defining sports story of our generation.

This week, Michael Powell wrote about another scenario in which CTE cannot be ignored. When a college wants to hire a coach, that needs to be approved by a board of regents, as was the case at the University of Colorado recently. Mel Tucker’s five-year, $14.75MM contract went to the board for a vote. That vote comes with some culpability.

The nation’s universities face a more ticklish problem known as morality. These institutions were founded with the purpose of developing and educating young minds. It is difficult to square that mission with the fate of those like running back  Rashaan Salaam, who ran so beautifully for the University of Colorado and then as a pro, and like Drew Wahlroos, a fearless, rampaging Colorado linebacker. Both men suffered emotional and cognitive problems that friends and family and even university officials related to thousands of hits taken over the course of their careers. Each killed himself.

In what I’m sure would be seen as high comedy on the campuses of Ohio State, Clemson, or Alabama, two regents at Colorado voted against the hiring. It wasn’t as much about Tucker as it was about their belief that football is an unsafe game.

Regent Linda Shoemaker: “I really thought at first that we could play football safely with better rules and better equipment; I drank the Kool-Aid. I can’t go there anymore. I don’t believe it can be played safely anymore. I want these young men to leave C.U. with minds that have been strengthened, not damaged.”

Wherever you come down on CTE and football (or any sport connected to CTE), what this story highlights is the fact that this issue touches all of us. It’s not just isolated to locker rooms and athletic departments; we vote and pay taxes that go schools that field football teams. Those institutions, and the student body, are our responsibility, and that – man, that really hit home reading this story. – PAL

Source: At Colorado, a Breach in Football’s Wall”, Michael Powell, The New York Times (4/18/19)

Video of the Week: More of this, please.

Tweet of the Week: 

PAL Song of the Week: John Prine – “A Good Time”


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With all due respect, Officer Berg, you are not bald. You’ve chosen to shave your hair and that’s a look you’re cultivating in order to look fashionable, but we don’t really consider you part of the bald community…with all due respect.



Week of April 12, 2019

25 Years Ago, Michael Jordan Played Double-A Baseball, That’s Insane

Here’s a great read with an interesting angle on Michael Jordan’s season playing minor league baseball, which is – I can’t believe this – twenty-five years ago.

First, let’s take a moment to appreciate how insane this scenario was. Michael Jordan, the best basketball player on the planet, who has just completed back-to-back-to-back NBA titles, retires from basketball in his prime to go play baseball for the first time since quitting early on in his senior high school season. His reason for retiring has long been a topic of debate (gambling issues is one theory, and another is to honor his dad, who had been recently murdered, and who had thought Michael could’ve been a two-sport star). It would be like LeBron retiring after his Cleveland title to go play football in the CFL, or like Tiger Woods calling it quits at the height of his dominance to become a Navy Seal…but bigger.

Second, the writing is great, and the writer – Steve Wulf – matters. His story from this week is in some ways a correction to the story he filed for Sports Illustrated back in ‘94. In the earlier story, Wulf really goes at Jordan’s baseball ability after watching him in spring training, and now, all these years later, Wulf admits he was wrong, with the help of the coaches and players who were with Jordan that summer.

The manager, Terry Francona (ever heard of him?), still thinks Jordan could’ve made it to the Majors with 1,000 more at-bats. Others felt the same way, but we remember that .202 batting average and still categorize it as a lark. The guys that were there insist it was not. I honestly had no idea.

And then there are all the wonderful anecdotes about Jordan – remember, this is the most famous athlete on the planet – being one of the guys on a minor league team for the season. At 31, he was much older than most, and so he spent some of his time hanging with the coaches and some of the time hanging with the players. And while he arranged for a nicer bus, he was still playing cards with the crew. He was in the clubhouse going nuts on ping pong and giving English tips to Rogelio Nunez. This was when he wasn’t in the batting cage 3-5 times a day. Oh, and there were a few pickup basketball games thrown in there, too. Can you imagine?

Jordan would occasionally deign to play hoops with the mortals. “I can safely tell you this now,” Francona said, “but if I told you back in ’94, I might’ve gotten fired.

“We had just come back to Birmingham after a Sunday morning game in Huntsville [a 5-4 win on May 22, in which Michael went 0-for-5]. We decide to play a 4-on-4 game at Rime Village, where a lot of the players stayed. The three coaches plus Michael versus four of our better basketball players.”

Scott Tedder, a 6-foot-4 outfielder who was the all-time leading scorer as a shooting guard at Ohio Wesleyan, was one of the players. “Let’s see,” he said from his office at Hibbet Sports in Birmingham, where he’s a real estate manager. “It was me, our catcher Chris Tremie, outfielder Kevin Coughlin and pitcher Brian Givens, who was like 6-6. The game was to 16, win by two. One point for a basket, two points for a three.”

“Nobody was watching us at the start of the game,” Barnett said, “but by the end, there were hundreds of people ringing the court.”

“This was back in the day before cellphones,” Tedder said. “Word traveled fast.”

“Me and Barney were just along for the ride,” said Kirk Champion, who was the pitching coach and still works in the White Sox organization. “Once you gave the ball to either Tito or Michael, you weren’t going to see it again.”

“Scott was a really good shooter,” Barnett said.

“I hit maybe four 3s,” said Tedder, who’s now in the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame. “But you could tell Michael was holding back. When we get up 15-11 — one more basket to win — Michael says to me, kind of matter-of-fact, ‘Kid, you’re not going to score any more.’ The next thing we know, we’ve lost, 17-15, and the coaches are celebrating.”

Maybe this story is written for someone exactly my age, but reading it reminded me how incredible Jordan’s baseball detour was, regardless of the reason. It also gave a bit more insight into how serious he took it, and it really seems like he thoroughly enjoyed competing at a game without the circus that surrounded him as a basketball player. That picture of him playing what sure looks like a game of 500 during batting practice (a flyball shagging game where you compete with your teammates to catch the BP ball), sums it up best. That’s a dude not worried about the pressures of being the best of all time; that’s a dude just playing. – PAL

Source:The True Story Behind Michael Jordan’s Brief-But-Promising Baseball Career”, Steve Wulf, ESPN (04/08/2019)

TOB: Wow, what a really good article. I got chills! I knew some of this stuff, having watched the 30 for 30 “Jordan Rides the Bus”, but it’s a good reminder. Also, while he hit .just 202 for Birmingham, that was in Double-A, which is a top prospect-heavy level. Plus, after the season the Sox placed him in the very highly regarded Arizona Fall League, which is full of top prospects. He hit a much more respectable .255.

25 years, though? Geeze. I remember where I was when I found out*. It was Summer 1993, and we were on a family road trip to a dude ranch in Idaho. We had stayed the night at a motel in Jackpot, Nevada, right on the Idaho border. I think I had stayed back while my family got breakfast, and as we headed to the car my older brother told me Michael Jordan retired, almost as a taunt. I didn’t believe him. Bullshit. No way. Michael Jordan? Retired? Nah. I looked at my mom and I remember she had this nervous look, like she didn’t want to confirm. I made them get me the paper, USA Today, which I read in disbelief in the car.

*OR SO I THOUGHT. Funny how memories work. The details are mostly correct, but I just found out my long held belief that we were in Jackpot, Nevada on the way to Idaho is wrong. I tried to find the cover of that USA Today I mentioned, and when I did I found out that Jordan retired on October 6, 1993. Well into the school year, and we were not heading to Idaho at that time. But we were heading to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to meet my dad’s long lost cousin. I remember we did miss some school for that trip. I also remember we went to a big hot air balloon festival on that trip, and I confirmed the event occurred in early October.

Lukewarm Take: Major League is the Best Baseball Movie of All Time.

Field of Dreams? Very good, but only baseball-adjacent, plus you really gotta be in the mood. Bull Durham? Sorry, I think it’s overrated – sorta funny, but not that funny. And really dated. Sandlot? Very good, but I think you needed to be a kid when you saw it to really love it (I’m open to other opinions). Rookie of the Year? Garbage. Angels in the Outfield? Garbage. Little Big League? Fantastic, still very funny (even for adults), still holds up, and the baseball action is top notch, because they used a lot of professional players. I’ll watch it whenever I see it on. But it’s a close second to Major League, which has great baseball, is still funny and entertaining, and had an excellent cast of characters (and actors).

I happened to see Major League was on TV a few weeks back, just before I was set to go to bed. I thought I’d turn it on for five minutes and then head to bed. I was immediately sucked in and watched the Whole Fuckin’ Thing (give me an A+ for that reference, don’t mind the language).

It even gave me a quote I love to use whenever I watch a game (“Too high! Too high!” when the opposing team hits an obvious homer).

This week is the 30 year anniversary of the movie’s release which is wild because I turn 37 next week, and I remember my dad taking me to see this movie in the theatres (pretty sure, anyways), and when I was watching it recently I couldn’t believe my parents let me watch that as a still 6-year old. There’s a ton of profanity. I don’t think there’s nudity but there’s a lot of near-nudity and near-sex. I’m not complaining, but my oldest son is almost five and I don’t know when I’d be ready to show this movie to him but I don’t think it’s until he’s…11? In my dad’s defense, he probably didn’t know how bad it’d be. In his not-defense, the movie is rated R. Moving on.

Given the anniversary, The Ringer has done some coverage on the movie. There was a good Rewatchables podcast with Rembert Browne, who pointed out how insane it would have been for a woman to go home with Willie Mays Hayes and find a collection of dirty black gloves nailed to the wall. Also, I had no idea that the actor who played one of the movie’s villains, Clue Haywood, the big slugger for the Yankees, was Pete Vuckovich, a former major league pitcher who won the 1982 AL Cy Young. WHAT!?

Anyways, it’s a great movie. If you haven’t seen it in a while, do so. You might notice something you never had before. For example, The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh points out that in the one-game playoff against the Yankees that closes the movie, Cleveland batted out of order in either the 8th or 9th inning, which allowed them to win. Click the link to see how he figured this out. It’s fun.

Source: The Dramatic Ending of ‘Major League’ Never Should’ve Happened”, Ben Lindberg, The Ringer (04/10/2019)

PAL: Man, Field of Dreams is pretty damn good. I’m a sucker for it all: the Berkeley folks back-to-earth premise. The farmlands of the midwest caught in all its poetic, dusky beauty, building a baseball field. The curmudgeon writer sidekick. And (quiet weeping) the goddamn game of catch. Field of Dreams is the romance in baseball; Major League nails the idiocy of baseball:

But also the game action is outstanding in this movie. They somehow legit captured the emotion and excitement of a big baseball game better than any other baseball movie.

That idea of Willie Mays Hayes taking a date home, only for her to see a bunch of dirty black gloves nailed to the wall is the funniest thing I’ve heard all week. I was laughing so hard. Also, Randy Newman’s song, ‘Burn On’, which opens the movie, is excellent. Excellent baseball movie. Probably taught me how to use the f-word creatively, which can’t be ignored.

More on Jordan’s Baseball Pitstop

Sorry! Yes, more. But I read that 1994 article by Wulf written during Jordan’s lone spring training and there was just too much to comment on, so I broke it out here.

What’s interesting reading Wulf’s 1994 story is that he was so incredibly harsh: “So shame on them for their cynical manipulation of the public. And shame on them for feeding Michael’s matchbook-cover delusion—BECOME A MAJOR LEAGUER IN JUST SIX WEEKS!” It was still only Spring Training. Michael hadn’t yet hit just .202. But I’d like to take a moment to note that, for the average human, .202 in Double-Freakin-A would be incredible. .202 wasn’t even the worst on the team! Ok, it was second worst. But still, another guy hit .191. And Wulf was shaming the White Sox for giving Jordan a spot.

This passage especially amused me:

The huffing and puffing over Jordan’s supposed sacrilege is so intense you almost want to root for the guy, just to prove all these baseball snobs wrong. But they are right about one thing: He will never, ever hit. “It’s called bat speed,” says one American League scout, “and he ain’t got it.”

He ain’t got experience, either. Next to his name and vital statistics on the official list of 1994 White Sox, where his ’93 batting stats should be, it reads DID NOT PLAY. It should read HASN’T PLAYED IN 15 YEARS! Says one American League Central manager, “What’d he hit in high school, .280? Pathetic. I’ve got players in my clubhouse who are only now starting to hit after living and breathing baseball for 15 years, and this guy thinks he can become a hitter in a couple of months. It’s a disgrace to the game. All I know is that I wouldn’t want to be [White Sox manager] Gene Lamont, having to tell a Mike Huff or a Warren Newson that they didn’t make the team because Michael bleeping Jordan did.”

Indeed, either Huff or Newson would have to go in order to make room for Jordan. The 30-year-old Huff isn’t a great hitter, but he has made only two errors in 217 major league games, and no player has been more helpful in teaching Jordan to play the outfield than Huff. Newson, 29, isn’t much bigger than Muggsy Bogues, but last year, between Triple A Nashville and Chicago, he hit .333.

So there was some poetic justice at work in the second inning of last Thursday’s intrasquad game, the most heavily covered intrasquad game in baseball history. Jordan lined prospect James Baldwin’s fastball into left centerfield, and Newson made a diving, backhanded catch to rob him of a double.

Wulf spends three paragraphs tearing down Jordan for not having the bat speed or the ability to ever hit, and then relays a story where MJ damn near lines a double off a top prospect! That pitcher, James Baldwin, would finish second in the Rookie of the Year race two years later and even made an All Star team. In Wulf’s story this week, he owns up to how harsh he was. But still, the 1994 was hard to read. No one likes a grumpy jerk.

One final thing: Man, baseball players were corny as hell. Here are two quotes from Wulf’s 1994 story:

While the White Sox try to rationalize Jordan’s audition, baseball’s other uniformed personnel are almost irrational about it. “He had better tie his Air Jordans real tight if I pitch to him,” said Seattle Mariner fireballer Randy Johnson. “I’d like to see how much air time he’d get on one of my inside pitches.”

“Be like Mike?” scoffed one Houston Astro. “Hell, Mike right now only wishes he could be like Frank.”

I couldn’t roll my eyes hard enough. Corny AF. -TOB

Source: Err Jordan”, Steve Wulf, Sports Illustrated (03/14/1994)

Air Density and Barometric Pressure: The Mind of Golfer Bryson DeChambeau

I am not the biggest golfing fan, but, man, I love me some majors. I had this story about Bryson DeChambeau (that’s the best golf name of all-time) linked here before he jumped out to a share of the lead after the first round of The Masters. For those of you who know a little about golf, DeChambeau is the guy whose irons are all the exact same length (a peculiarity in golf).

DeChambeau is an over-thinker. Always has been. He’s a why guy. When he was a kid golfing with his dad, and his dad told him the green broke one way, DeChambeau wanted to know why. His mind never stops, and so thinking about golf differently isn’t a way for him to look for a competitive advantage; rather, it’s a way to relax his mind.

Having a brain that never stops, and hating surprises led his dad to idea of having his son work with a radical golf coach in the Clovis, CA area. Mike Schy had been developing a different approach to golf. It was a much more scientific take on the sport, one that had no time or patience for “feel”, and that was perfect for a young DeChambeau.

“Feel is the enemy,” Schy said. “You get to the first tee and there’s water left and 1,000 people right. How do you feel now? That was why he bought into the whole process. When you look at everything he does on [the] course, it all makes sense. It gets him out of that moment of trying to guess or feel something.”

There was some real risk to adopting this philosophy, which is based off a book published in 1969 called The Golfing Machine, which looked to science, not hand-me-down tips, to build a golf swing.

Before working with Schy, DeChambeau had interest from a number of college golf programs and beautiful traditional swing. When they came back, they saw he completely retooled his swing. Some programs were scared off.

He won in college, became an easy story on the PGA tour (‘hey, look at this weirdo), but also became a legit contender. He’s currently ranked sixth on the world, so all of the goofy clips of him talking about air density or some other rando tidbits aren’t just amusing.

What gets lost is what DeChambeau gets out of the way he plays. For him, The Golfing Machine is a way of thinking about and working on the game. It satisfies his interests and relaxes his mind. Jon said that if Bryson weren’t a golfer, he would build things for a living, similar to how he’s built his golf swing.

He’s challenging how we play the game, and there are few sports more up its own ass about “the right way to play” than golf, which almost makes me want him to beat Tiger. Almost. – PAL

Source: Why Is the Golf World So Scared of Bryson DeChambeau?”, Tully Corcoran, Bleacher Report (4/11/19)

TOB: BEAT ELDRICK! This article is great. I love DeChambeau already. Here’s my favorite part of the article:

Broadcasters and golf pros and caddies and other golfers have come up with all sorts of reasons why DeChambeau shouldn’t be playing the way he does, despite his rise from 153rd in the world in 2017 to No. 6 today. Some of the most common complaints are that he plays too slowly and his methods will never win at the highest level.

Hahahahahahahaha. Yeah, 6th in the world. What a terrible golfer. He should really change his game. Also, I’m with him on the length of irons: someone will need to explain to me why they should be different lengths. That always bugged me as I was learning to play.

PAL: Update – he’s nearly holed this one on 18:

How to Standout in a Crowded Sportswriting Field

In a short amount of time, Eno Sarris has become one of my favorite writers. I try to read almost everything he writes because his mind seems to think differently than most sportswriters, so he always has an interesting angle from which he approaches a story. His article this week on San Diego Padres rookie Chris Paddack is a good example. Sarris saw Paddack throw a high, inside front door breaking changeup for a called third strike. The pitch was unlike anything Sarris had ever seen, so he went to work. He interviewed Paddack, his manager, his catcher, his Double-A manager, and even Padres great Trevor Hoffman, who made the Hall of Fame on his changeup. He used advanced stats, charts, and video, to explain how rare the pitch is, and why it’s so effective.

Eno does such a good job of blending traditional sportswriting with advanced stats, and I always learn something when I read one of his articles. I’d say he’s worth the subscription fo the Athletic all on his own. -TOB

Source: How a Single Pitch Could Launch Chris Paddack’s Career”, Eno Sarris, The Athletic (04/11/2019)

Video of the Week

(Action starts at 00:45)

Tweet of the Week

Gif of the Week


PAL Song of the Week – Randy Newman – “Burn On”

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Week of April 5, 2019

The face of a guy getting pulled in the 7th inning of a no-no.

Russell Westbrook’s Tribute to Nipsey Hussle And Why I Still Say Westbrook is Cool as Hell

On Sunday, rapper/entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle was shot and killed outside his clothing store in Los Angeles. He was 33. Hussle made his name releasing mix tapes over the course of the last decade, before debuting his first full album in 2018. It was a commercial and critical success, and it was nominated for a the Best Rap Album Grammy.

It is here that I must admit that before news of Nipsey’s Hussle’s murder got out, I had never heard of him. In fact, when I first read the news I thought it was referring to Nipsey Russell, and I wondered, “Isn’t he really old?” (Yes, in fact, Nipsey Russell died in 2005 at the age of 87). But Hussle’s name was suddenly all over the internet and I figured I should figure out who he was. He seems to have been a great guy.

(Also, it turns out I had seen him in an episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend a few years back, where he was very funny – but caution – NSFW language):

Last year, Hussle did a video with Steph Curry where they discussed life, business, basketball, hip hop, and even potty training.

Hussle made enough of an impression on Curry that Curry was quite emotional about Hussle’s death after the Warriors game Sunday night. I also found this cool interview with Hussle from 2006, where he discusses how he was going to save money, invest in land/property, instead of cars and other things that depreciate in value.

What an interesting dude. To his credit, Hussle kept his word. As I mentioned, he had a clothing store in his hometown, in front of which he was shot. But he opened a barber shop and a general goods store in his community, too, and he hired and supported people in his community to get that all done.

So, what’s Nipsey Hussle have to do with Russell Westbrook? I’m getting there.

On Tuesday, Russ went off for 20 points, 20 rebounds, and 21 assists. It was just the second ever 20-20-20 game (unsurprisingly, Wilt Chamberlain had the other). 20-20-20 is incredible, and after the game Russ dedicated it to Hussle.

Russ is also from L.A., so I would not be surprised if they knew each other well. At the end of the video, he says “20+20+20”, an apparent reference to the Rollin’ 60s gang that Hussle had once been involved with.

I am generally an analytics-friendly guy. So I understand that Russell Westbrook compiles counting stats due to extremely high usage, and I understand that he’s not a terribly efficient player. Still. He’s a dynamo and I love him and he does cool stuff like get only the second ever 20-20-20 and then dedicate it to a guy who was doing great things in his community. RIP, Nipsey. -TOB

Source: The Unfinished Marathon of Nipsey Hussle”, Micah Peters, The Ringer (04/02/2019); Russell Westbrook Dedicates Historic 20-20-20 Triple-Double To Slain Rapper Nipsey Hussle”, Chris Thompson, Deadspin (04/02/2019)

PAL: A few weeks ago at work there was talk of interviewing Nipsey Hussle for a playlist covering songs from throughout his career. It was the first I’d heard of him, and I didn’t completely understand the outpouring until I read Peters’ excellent story. TOB nails it on his Westbrook assessment: he can be a frustrating basketball player, but I don’t doubt his earnestness. His post-game dedication might seems like a small story, but it’s also an amplification to a national audience of Hussle impact on his community. Again, I knew nothing of him other than these stories, but it sure sounds like the guy committed to making his neighborhood a better place to live, and that’s worth a dedication.

Hitting Optional: The New Era of Big League Catchers

Dammit, I was born in the wrong time. In recent years, MLB teams are putting a premium on defensive catchers, especially catchers whose impact on the game is most felt in their pitch-framing capabilities. In an era when offense is yielding 300MM contracts, there is also a market for journeymen catchers making millions hitting right around .200.

Catchers like Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, or even Joe Mauer are some of the rarest talents in the game. Excellent defensive catchers that also (for a time) hit in the middle of the lineup.

The Red Sox won a world series with a catching unit hitting .194 and a paltry .533.

And these defensive specialists are not just rentals for contenders:

It is no coincidence that one of Arizona’s catchers last season, Jeff Mathis, attracted the attention of the team that ranked worst at framing, the Texas Rangers. Mathis hit .200 and has a .198 average across 14 seasons, but his exceptional defensive skills earned him a two-year, $6.25 million deal from the Rangers.

Why is this? For one, a Gold Glove catcher that can handle the bat is damn near a Hall of Fame level player. Two, improved analytics allow teams to actually quantify pitch framing, which has a major impact on the game outcome. Three, a catching prospect that can really swing it, e.g., Bryce Harper, is moved to another position to preserve the bat. Catchers’ offensive numbers tend to fall off a cliff in the last third of their careers.

For those who are unaware of what framing is, it’s the art of catchers making pitches that aren’t strikes look like strikes. Here’s one awesome example (look where he catches this ball at the very end of the webbing…incredible):

Excellent article about the forgotten guys on a roster that are enjoying an extended career for their contributions due to defensive expertise. – PAL

Source: How the Slugging Catcher Became an Endangered Species in the Majors”, Tyler Kepner, The New York Times (04/01/19)

Why the Assist Shouldn’t Be So Limited

Thankfully, Trae Young is awesome again, as he’s been lighting it up the second half of his rookie season. Check out this awesome game winner he had last weekend against the Bucks.

The Ringer did a nice profile on him. I enjoyed it a lot, and you should read it. But I wanted to highlight one cool thing revealed in the story: Internally, the Hawks tally player “assists” – and not just the traditional assist you see in the box score:

On their “assist board,” the Hawks keep a running tally of the team’s assists, and not just the traditional ones. The spreadsheet, which they first used at last year’s summer league, also includes hockey (or secondary) assists, space assists, dive (or roll) assists, and screen assists. Young received a traditional assist for his dish to Len, but Collins also earned a space assist for positioning himself behind the 3-point line and opening a lane for the easy bucket. Young is the overall leader this season.

“There’s other ways of assisting,” Lloyd Pierce says. “If John gets a lob, guess what: They’re not gonna let him get a lob the next four positions, so Kevin [Huerter] may get three 3s now. We gotta reward John to make sure he continues to roll.”

That probably takes a long time to tally, but it’s a great way to help quantify the little things in basketball that do so much to help a team win a game but don’t show up in the box score. I approve! I’d also like to hear more things that teams track that we don’t know about.

Back to Trae Young: He’s awesome, and I really love this highlight video where Trae repeatedly jumps along with the ooper to his alley:


Source: Passing With Flying Colors”, Paolo Uggetti, The Ringer (04/01/2019)

Phil Mickelson Continues to Reveal Himself as a Degenerate

When I was a kid, Phil Mickelson was portrayed by the golf media as Golden Boy – rich, handsome-ish, successful, good looking wife.

But in the last few years, he has revealed himself as a degenerate gambler and kind of an a-hole, and that all comes together in this story.

Back in November, Jordan Spieth got married. Phil was there. It was the week after Phil’s PPV match against Tiger, which was reportedly underwhelming. Also in attendance was some Country Music Guy I’ve Never Heard Of, who had paid for that PPV and wasn’t happy about it.

“So I walked over to him,” Owen said on the podcast. “I was like, ‘Hey Phil, you owe me f—ing $29.99!’ I was like, ‘For wasting four hours of my life with the s—tiest golf I’ve ever seen! You guys hype this whole thing up about the big match? You guys couldn’t even make three birdies between the two of you? I want my $29.99 and apologize to me for some s— golf!'”

In a story that he confirmed via Twitter, Mickelson, 48, took out a wad of $100 bills, put one down and said, “I won 90,000 of these things yesterday. Take a 100 and go f— yourself!”

I mean, I called him a degenerate a-hole, but that is really funny. Mickelson reportedly earns over $50M per year, including tour earnings and endorsements. So if you were wondering, $50M is officially “eff you” money. -TOB

Source: Owen, Mickelson Let F-Bombs Fly Over The Match”, Bog Harig, ESPN (04/02/2019)

PAL: My favorite line from the story: “Owen has been a partner of Spieth’s at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and other golf events and said alcohol played a role in approaching Mickelson.”

Video of the Week

Holy heck.

Tweet of the Week

PAL Song of the Week – Willie Nelson – “I’m A Memory”

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“Truth be told, I think I thrive under a lack of accountability.”

-Michael Scott

Week of March 29, 2019

Bryce Harper with the advanced level pandering.

Entertainment Almost Always Matters More

A few baseline statements before we get into yet another NCAA scandal story, because I can all but feel you rolling your eyes and considering if this one’s worth your time:

  • NCAA football and basketball players are absolutely getting paid under the table
  • These payments are pervasive. This isn’t a bad apple brand or booster or AAU coach; this is happening all over.
  • Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, and any other brand that fancies itself a player is paying kids

I appreciated this story because it underscores the exploitative scum is on all sides. It’s not just a shoe company, or the AAU weirdos, or the coaches; it’s also the folks on the other side making a gross situation even more despicable.

In case you haven’t heard, Stormy Daniels’ lawyer is in a bit of trouble on this one. Michael Avenatti tried to threaten Nike into a big payout, and it did not go according to plan:

According to federal prosecutors, Avenatti told the billion-dollar company that he represented a former AAU coach who had proof of Nike paying players and he would keep quiet about it, for a price. The charging documents read like Avenatti had watched too many mob movies. They say he wanted $1.5 million for his client, and $3 million for himself. Then he wanted $5 million, then $7 million, then $9 million, then between $15 million and $25 million. After a negotiation that was secretly recorded, Avenatti allegedly lowered his price to $22.5 million to get rid of it in “one fell swoop.”

“I just wanna share with you what’s gonna happen if we don’t reach a resolution,” Avenatti said, according to the unsealed complaint. “As soon as this becomes public, I am going to receive calls from all over the country and all kinds of people—this is always what happens—and they are going to say I’ve got an email or a text message or—now, 90 percent of that is going to be bullshit because it’s always bullshit 90 percent of the time, always, whether it’s R. Kelly or Trump, the list goes on and on—but 10 percent of it is actually going to be true, and then what’s going to happen is that this is going to snowball… and every time we got more information, that’s going to be the Washington Post, the New York Times, ESPN, a press conference, and the company will die—not die, but they are going to incur cut after cut after cut after cut, and that’s what’s going to happen as soon as this thing becomes public.”

In another recording, as described in the complaint, Avenatti tells Nike he is going to “take ten billion dollars off your client’s market cap.”

Doesn’t that make you feel all warm inside? Ever since the threat of a huge NCAA basketball scandal surfaced last year, I’ve been waiting for the crossroads moment when it becomes impossible to ignore the scam that is big time college sports. I wait, and while I wait I consume both the games and the criticism of the system. I watch the games. I read the stories. I share the stories. I embed the highlights.

NCAA basketball is an awesome scam, and Zion Williams highlights are awesome, too, so we consume both. Sports became entertainment the moment each of us realized we would never play for [insert your favorite childhood team]. It’s odd to say this, but the entertainment matters much more than almost any terrible truth.

Millions of people still watch football when we all know there’s at a fair chance it causes brain trauma in a lot of people who play it. Most of us believe that pretty much any big time college basketball player is getting paid under the table. A lot of athletes take PEDs. Tennis has a match-fixing issue. Greyhounds are jacked up on god knows what so we can gamble on a m-f’ing race, only to be killed whenever they are no longer useful at the track. All of that absolutely matters less than our entertainment.

With that in mind, of course the public just doesn’t give a shit when shitty people like Michael Avenatti go after shitty companies like Nike, especially when March Madness is on and the great entertainment of a massive single elimination tourney takes place.

Dan McQuade sums it up far more eloquently:

In theory, this could lead to broader discussions in politics and law enforcement of the NCAA cartel and the expected result of black markets when anything (be it drugs or “earning power from basketball”) is restricted. The NCAA helped create this situation, where players or players’ families and handlers are paid in secret by shoe companies in order to steer them to universities. Sneaker companies exploit it. Avenatti allegedly tried to weasel some money out of the system for himself, too.

Avenatti might have tried to style himself as a hero, but all he did was allegedly use the same corrupt system for himself too.

Can I still claim to care about the fairytale of amateurism represented by the NCAA, or is the threat of its collapse is just another bit of entertainment? – PAL

Source: Whatever Michael Avenatti Has On Nike, No One Really Gives A Shit”, Dan McQuade, Deadspin (03/27/19)

TOB: The headline is so true. I heard about this story when Avenatti was arrested this week, but didn’t hear a single whisper of his tweets last week where he hinted he’d be revealing some big scandal involving Nike. The Adidas story got a lot of coverage when the arrests were made, but the trial ended with barely a ripple.

I just can’t believe it’s 2019 and college players still can’t be paid. You may have read about or seen Tom Izzo’s explosion at one of his players during the first round of the tournament. After the game, Izzo defended himself in part by saying this:

Ohh, now it’s a PROFESSION? College basketball players have a JOB!? I don’t know about YOU, Tom, but if I wasn’t being paid at my “job”, I wouldn’t be too concerned with being held accountable. What a joke.


On the surface, this story is about a niche group of folks, known as chasers, who go to great lengths in pursuit of seeing a game in every baseball minor league stadium (there are 149 in all). Like most snapshots of extreme hobbyists, this is a story full of random oddities that seem a bit foolish to regular people. I love baseball, but eagerly awaiting minor league schedule announcements in the offseason so I can plan a complex road trip peppered with cheap motels (is there any other kind?) and gas station food is not my idea of time well spent.

Logistics and obsessive pursuits aside, these chasers are onto something special: a pretty comprehensive mosaic of America and convincing evidence that baseball remains America’s pastime. Per Joe DeLessio:

A tour of Major League parks takes a traveler exclusively to stadiums in or near major cities. But an attempt to hit all 159 affiliated Minor League parks — for the record, that number includes the one in Jupiter, Florida, that’s shared by two teams — effectively forces a chaser to explore towns big and small, all across the country. Chasers initially set out on these trips because they like baseball, but the pursuit means that they wind up seeing the country in ways that most people never will.

“If every Minor League team is a reflection of its community, then there’s 160 teams that taken together are a reflection of America,” says the Brooklyn-based writer Benjamin Hill.

Later in the story, this point resonated:

The idea of baseball as the national game—something fundamentally and uniquely American, and rooted in something deeper than branding—is much more persuasive at levels where the stadiums are not named for major financial institutions or tech concerns.

Isn’t that something? Maybe this has been obvious to many of you for some time. Not to me. It’s a relief to read a fresh thought in an era of sports writing so constipated with reactions to reactions to reactions. – PAL

Source: “The Best Way To See America Is To Visit Every Last Minor League Ballpark”, Joe DeLessio, Deadspin (03/27/19)

TOB: I would love to find myself in a place in life where I had the time and financial security to try this. Because I really love minor league baseball. Last summer, we had to end our stay at the Lair of the Bear early due to all the smoke from the Yosemite fire. We had time off work, but the places we could go that weren’t blanketed with smoke were few. We stopped for lunch in a small town and eventually I thought, “We should find a minor league game!”

I scoured the schedules of every minor league level, and somehow my only options that night were the Stockton Ports and the Visalia Rawhide (the A-ball affiliates for the A’s and Diamondbacks, respectively). Because we were much closer to Stockton and it would set us up better to finish the week in Santa Cruz as we’d decided, we went with the Ports.

What a night! And so cheap! For $8 a ticket we got front row seats behind the Ports’ dugout. Front row! $8! And there were just a few other people in our section – grizzled locals who love baseball so friggin much that they come to Class A games by themselves on a Wednesday night. The Ports had a fun kids meal deal – for like $10 the kids got vouchers for different items to be picked up at various junctures of the game (hot dog in the 2nd, ice cream in the 5th, etc.). The stadium was right on the river, and we got a hotel room right next door, so we could walk there. Jack got a foul ball, and a player even handed him a ball at the side of the dugout.

Which is all to say: I get this story. I get it completely. I get why “chasers” do it. And I totally agree with the thesis – that it’s a hell of a way to see America – even if that isn’t consciously in the “chasers’” minds when they start. I don’t feel a compulsion to see all of the minor league stadiums, but if I’m somewhere new and I don’t have anything to do, I’m always wondering if there’s a baseball game to go see. Great read.

Video of the Week

Tweets of the Week

PAL Song of the Week

Bob Dylan – Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts (More Blood, More Tracks version)

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“I have got to make sure YouTube comes down to tape this.”

-Michael Scott

Week of March 22, 2019

Pretty much sums up everything great about going to a game. Photo: Al Bello

The Best Baseball Player Is Paid A Lot, But Is It “Enough”?

On the heels of the Phillies’ signing Bryce Harper to a 13 year, $330M contract ($25M per year, which is frankly a relative bargain), came news this week that the Angels had come to an agreement on a massive extension with Mike Trout, the best baseball player in the world.

The total: a 10 year extension for $360M ($36M per year), and on top of what Trout is owed the next two seasons, he’ll be paid $426.5M over the next 12 years. It’s the biggest total deal in American sports history, and so much more than Harper got, fairly.

But was it as much as Trout could have gotten? When Harper signed with the Phillies, I joked that the Giants should go after Trout when he becomes a free agent in two years with an unfathomable sum:

(Pardon my language!) A billion was obviously never going to happen. But what is a “fair” amount for Trout, who has been the best in the league pretty much since he was called up in 2011. First, a caveat from Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer:

We’ll stipulate something that hardly needs to be said: If making $426.5 million is a problem, it’s one we’d all like to have. It’s never easy to argue that an athlete is underpaid even though he’ll make far more money in a decade than most of us can imagine making in multiple lifetimes. Admittedly, in a world where earnings were parceled out by an all-knowing entity based on societal utility or Good Place points, not even Trout would make so much more than the average citizen. In this world, though, the money that’s now going to Trout wasn’t going to go to teachers or ticket buyers or hungry minor leaguers, but to Angels owner Arte Moreno. Begrudging Trout the millions he’s making is akin to being upset that Moreno isn’t making more.

Seconded! Got it? Good. Ok. So, how good has Trout been? Well, Trout is the best player ever through his age-26 season:

Or how about: this winter, Harper and Manny Machado signed for a combined $55M per season. Since their rookie years in 2012, though, Trout has been better than Harper and Machado combined (Trout: 64.0 WAR; Harper+Machado: 60.9 WAR). So is Trout worth $55 million per year? Maybe! He’s projected to produce something around 80 WAR over the next ten years, and he only has to produce 44.5 WAR to make this deal a win for the Angels:

In other words, Trout will be paid a lot, but it very likely won’t be nearly enough. As Lindbergh says, “The problem for Trout is that he’s too good to be paid exactly what he’s worth.”

I’ll also add this: after mostly seeing him on highlights and box scores the last 8 years, I was very excited to watch him Trout for three days in a row when the Giants traveled to Anaheim last season. He did not disappoint: He hit 6/12 with three dingers and two doubles, a walk and a stolen base, good for a batting average of .500 and an OPS of 2.129 (!!). Every time he came up I was terrified. It was Bondsian. -TOB

Source: Mike Trout Isn’t Worth $430 Million – He’s Worth Much More”, Ben Lindbergh, The Ringer (03/19/2019)

PAL: This is the first time I wish I was an economist. TOB highlights the key caveat to Linbergh’s article: yes, $426MM is an unfathomable amount of money, so the rest of this is more or less an fun exercise on quantifying how good Trout is at baseball. But for the greatest of the greats, I wonder if we can quantify their value in dollars relative to what other players make. There’s something more to it, and I’m going to try to put my finger on it here. These are half-baked:

  • At what point is the dollar the wrong unit to measure the value of an asset? My dad likes to say, “A buck’s a buck.” At some astronomical number, does the value of a dollar mean less than it does at a lower point? And at what point is that? 
  • $1,000,000 is a huge number unless it’s $1,000,000 within $500,000,000. More specifically, it’s .2%. That is a relatively miniscule amount. There is no felt difference between $426MM (Trout) and $360MM (Harper) to everyone on the planet except for about 5,000 people.
  • How could Mike Trout truly be worth $1B really over the course of his career if the Angels franchise is worth maybe $2B? In comparison to other players – sure – he’s undervalued. In comparison to asset of a team he seems he would be overvalued?
  • The last five years of this contract will still suck. Players don’t decline at a consistent rate.  He’ll likely earn the money in the first chunk of the contract (can any single person “earn” that amount of money?), but I bet this gets painful to watch.
  • God, it really sucks he plays for the Angels.

TOB: When you consider Trout is as productive as Machado and Harper, then you are essentially getting production from two fringe-MVP level players at one position. That allows an incredible flexibility – they can pay Trout and then fill the second spot with a light hitting defensive wizard, or a cheap replacement level player, or they can go big and try to sign another good/great player for an embarrassment of riches. That’s why I think Trout is “worth” something along the lines of 90% what Harper+Machado are paid (allowing for around $5M to go to that second player). And, keep in mind, in terms of average annual value, Harper’s deal was well under market.

So, even given the slow market this year, Harper and Machado still did get big deals. If Trout were a free agent this year or next (which he won’t be and wouldn’t have been even without this deal), I do think somewhere around 8 years, $400M was in play, and he might have talked someone into 10 years, $500M.

Regarding the team’s value vs what he could be paid: First, a billion was never going to happen. But I do think your question is comparing apples and oranges. “Value” isn’t the same as revenue. The Angels will certainly pull in multiple billions of dollars over the course of the deal. This is simplified, but in 2018, MLB teams pulled in a collective $10.3 billion. That’s roughly $350 million per team. Over the next 12 years, that’s $4.2 billion, and that’s not assuming any increases in inflation or revenue.

Retirements Let The Writers Sing

When a true great retires, one treat we get is a great sportswriter showing what they can do with an entire career from which to pull. Barry Petchesky is one of my favorite sportswriters. We featured a lot of his articles on 1-2-3 Sports!. Ichiro’s retirement – in Japan after a MLB game – is the type of occasion for Petchesky to bring his fastball (emphasis mine):

For that he can thank his insane training methods and commitment—he once claimed he swore off taking vacations after a weeklong trip to Italy in the winter of 2004 threw off his exercise schedule. Again, it’s kind of hard to believe that’s true—but Ichiro apocrypha is one of baseball’s treasures. We expect foreign players to arrive attached to legends too good to check, but Ichiro created his own myths, even here, before our eyes and cameras and notepads. How he was reliably a beast in batting practice and could’ve hit 40 home runs a year if he wanted to be that type of player. (Barry Bonds once said Ichiro could win the Home Run Derby.) How he could instantly discern a good bat from a bad bat by tapping the barrel once with his fingernail. How he had no idea who Tom Brady was. How he would shit-talk opposing players in their own language, English or Spanish. Were these stories true? Does it matter? For Ichiro as for no other player, certain things felt possible.

That’s the good stuff.

If it’s hard for you to understand just how much Ichiro meant to baseball (it was for me) – not just Japanese baseball, but baseball – look no further than this clip:

Yusei Kikuchi is a 27 year old rookie. That’s what happens when you meet a legend in real life.

Consider this: Ichiro has been playing professional baseball since I was a freshman. In high school. Great writing, and – damn – Ichiro can still throw for a 45 year old. Let’s get him a manager job in MLB right now.  – PAL

Source: Ichiro Forever”, Barry Petchesky, Deadspin (03/21/19)

TOB: That video was fantastic. Kikuchi said he grew up idolizing Ichiro:“Mr. Ichiro is kind of a person in the sky, a legend. I don’t know if he really exists.” Masahiro Tanaka, who played with Ichiro for a year with the Yankees had a similar sentiment: ”

“He is a legend in Japan. To me, he was in some other category, out of reach, out of reality. When I was small and I would watch TV, he was one of the biggest superstars in Japanese baseball. It wasn’t something that I could realistically relate to. But for me, he was always somebody unreachable, like somebody above the clouds.”

I also want to point out how emotional Felix Hernandez is in the video, just before Kikuchi appears. King Felix’s career is winding down, but he came up as a 19-year old in 2005, and played the next 8 seasons with Ichiro. You can imagine how much he looked up to Ichiro. What a cool thing.

How A Minor Move May Actually Be a Large Domino, Or: How to Be a Great Beat Writer

Andrew Baggarly is one of my favorite beat writers (really, Giants fans have an embarrassment of riches feeding them info – in the booth and on the page). He’s whip smart (he won Jeopardy, you know!), funny, and knows what he’s talking about. The story he wrote about a trade the GIants made this week involving two minor leaguers is a perfect example of how well he sees the big picture.

The Giants traded minor league pitcher Jordan Johnson to the Reds for minor league utility man Connor Joe. 

Looking at this on a transaction log, I wouldn’t even blink. But Baggs grabs you right away:

[I]f those names don’t trigger an emotional response, then perhaps this will: Pablo Sandoval’s chances of making the Giants’ Opening Day roster just took a major hit.

Wait, what? Then he tells you why the trade for Joe is important:

Last December, the Reds plucked Joe away from the Dodgers at the Winter Meetings. Now that the Giants have acquired Joe, the same Rule 5 provisions apply: he must remain on the 25-man big-league roster all season or be offered back to the Dodgers for half the $100,000 claiming price.

At this late stage, it’s hard to imagine the Giants sacrificing a durable minor-league pitcher like Johnson, who made 26 solid if unspectacular starts between Double A and Triple A last season, if they didn’t intend to carry Joe on their Opening Day roster.

Then he breaks down the math of the Giants’ Opening Day roster and why Panda might be impacted:

If the Giants carry 13 pitchers and limit themselves to a four-man bench, they’d need spots for:

— Joe

— backup catcher René Rivera

— at least one backup outfielder (Cameron Maybin? Mike Gerber? Henry Ramos?) capable of spelling Steven Duggar in center

— and at least one backup infielder (Alen Hanson? Yangervis Solarte?) capable of spelling Brandon Crawford at shortstop

Hanson is out of options as well. He cannot be sent to the minors without exposing him to waivers.

Sandoval does have a minor-league option, actually. But he has enough service time to refuse an assignment and immediately elect free agency.

Then he breaks down some deeper ramifications for losing Panda:

It’s a move that would come as a shock to some of their core players. Prior to Thursday’s pregame workout, one of their stars appeared dumbfounded when I raised the very real possibility that Sandoval would not survive to Opening Day.

And if Sandoval, the 2012 World Series MVP, loses his place to a 26-year-old newcomer who hasn’t played a day in the big leagues? It’s going to be a tough one for the clubhouse to understand or accept.

There’s more, and I recommend you read it. It’s to smart, informative, and to the point. Like I said, that’s some damn good beat writing. -TOB

Source: Why the Giants’ Minor Trade with the Reds Could Become a Much Bigger Deal Within the Clubhouse”, Andrew Baggarly, The Athletic (03/21/2019)

PAL: The Red Sox are paying Pablo $18MM to not play for them this year. Suck it, Rabeni. I know your Boston Sports kids expect to win every title every year, but still, suck it.

How To Use (And Not Use) New Information in Baseball: A Case Study

As baseball teams continue to get smarter and continue to use modern technology to gather new information previously unavailable, they are faced with a challenge: how do you present information like launch angle and spin rate to players in a manner that allows them to digest it and put it to good use.

Likewise, players are faced with a challenge: how do you react to new information, especially when it contradicts something you believe? There are hundreds of big leaguers, and many hundreds more minor leaguers and college players, and the reactions to how players accept the new information undoubtedly run the gamut.

In a recent article in the Chronicle on the topic, two stark reactions were placed in contrast. In my opinion, one of those was Good; the other was Bad.

First, the Good, from fringe major leaguer Ray Black, who touches 99 MPH on his fastball but has struggled in his short career to consistently locate his breaking balls:

On the pitching side, Black can cite specific ways tracking data have helped him.

He recalled an encounter last season with Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who kept fouling off sliders until Black threw another and got the strikeout. Moments later, Schwartze asked Black what he did differently on the final pitch because the spin was better.

“I went back to the video trying to see exactly what it was that got the swing and miss,” he said. “I got some extra spin rate on it. It had to deal with a little bit of extension and staying on top of the ball a little better.”

That sent Black into study mode.

“How can I try to mirror that?” he said. “How can I throw that pitch more frequently and consistently so I have tighter spin, more spin, and have better depth on my slider instead of side-to-side movement?”

Black showed an excellent attitude toward new information and an even better job of understanding that new information and then implementing what he learned.

And, now, The Bad, from Jeff Samardzija:

“They can bring anything new in and odds are I’m just going to keep it at arm’s length because I want to keep it as simple as possible,” Samardzija said. “To me, it’s a simple game and I don’t want to make it any more complicated than it is.”

Hey, Jeff. You’re 33 years old and you have been better than league average (100 ERA+) just once since 2014. Maybe you could try an open mind, instead of getting paid millions to suck, buddy. -TOB

Source: How the Giants are Elevating Baseball Innovation in S.F.”, Hank Schulman, San Francisco Chronicle (03/19/2019)

Video(s) of the Week: So cool

And this one, c/o Pep from work:

Tweets of the Week

PAL Song of the Week: YEBBA – ‘Evergreen’

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I had a very good thing going with David Wallace. He was a good guy, was somebody I could trust. There he is. [picks up a framed photo of him and David] You can really see that he is ok taking a picture with me. Even though I was there for disciplinary reasons.

-M. Gary Scott

Week of March 15, 2019

Up, up, and away!

College Admission Soft Spot: Sports No One Cares About

Comment: If you’re going to cheat, take a little pride in it and use the correct hand!

I didn’t fully understand just how quickly this story would turn into an ongoing national discussion, but holy hell, it’s sure taken off. In case you’ve been on vacation on some remote island, here’s the gist:

The alleged scam focused on getting students admitted to elite universities as recruited athletes, regardless of their athletic abilities, and helping potential students cheat on their college exams, according to the indictment.

Authorities said the FBI investigation, code-named Operation Varsity Blues, uncovered a network of wealthy parents who paid thousands of dollars to a California man who boosted their children’s chances of gaining entrance into elite colleges, such as Yale and Stanford, by paying people to take tests for their children, bribing test administrators to allow that to happen, and bribing college coaches to identify the applicants as athletes.

While I’m not surprised people are taking shortcuts to get their kids into colleges, it’s interesting to see how secondary athletic teams were identified as a weak link in the admission chain. And the amount of coin going into this operation is insane – $25MM!

For every one of these rich, underachieving kids whose parents couldn’t stand the thought of telling their other rich friends that little Jimmy is going to Chico State, there is a deserving kid who busted his or her ass, only to be rejected. College is supposed to be a way for people to move lower class to middle class, from middle class to upper class. College should be the glowing, unassailable beacon of meritocracy. This whole operation is a blowtorch to that idea.

Of course, this is not the dawn of rich people getting their kids into colleges by way of a check, but there’s something more transparent about a rich asshole cutting a check for a new library at the school.

With all that said up front, let’s have a little fun with this. Some observations:

  • USC…hahahahaha! When’s the last time this school wasn’t neck deep in an athletic scandal?
  • USC – Good school, but $500K good, Aunt Becky?
  • I can understand these coaches being on the take. How sick are they of constantly standing aside and letting the football and basketball programs (winning teams or losing teams) have the run of the place. They got paid simply to list kids as recruits to ease the admission process; the students never played on the actual teams.
  • A Yale soccer coach was paid $400K (what the f*&$) to list a girl as a recruit. That has to be at least 3x the coach’s yearly salary. The ‘recruits’ family paid $1.2M (again what the f) to get their daughter into Yale.

Lastly, I’d like to note that neither Augustana University nor Cal have been linked to this scam in any way…yet. – PAL

Source: Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman among 50 charged in college admissions scheme”, Tom Winter, Pete Williams, Julia Ainsley and Rich Schapiro, NBC News (03/12/19)

TOB: Two things I want to get out of the way before addressing the admissions scam. First: Stanford has a SAILING team? What kind of WASPY crap is that? Classic Stanford.

Second: I must take umbrage with two things Phil said about USC. First of all, you can take the “athletic” qualifier out of his question and just ask when is the last time USC wasn’t involved in a scandal? Last summer, USC’s president Max Nikias resigned amid a sexual abuse scandal involving the school’s longtime gynecologist George Tyndall, not unlike the one occurred at Michigan State involving Larry Nassar. From the LA Times:

The Times reported that in a career spanning nearly three decades, Tyndall was the subject of repeated complaints from staff and patients about inappropriate comments and touching. The university barred him from treating patients only after a nurse, frustrated that her complaints had gone ignored, reported Tyndall to the campus rape crisis center.

An internal investigation concluded that Tyndall had sexually harassed students and performed pelvic exams that departed from current medical standards. Yet administrators and USC’s general counsel struck a secret deal with Tyndall, allowing him to resign with a financial payout.

Next regarding the quality of USC as a university: Over the last thirty years, as the US News and World Report college rankings (whose methodology is extremely biased in favor of private schools) have grown in popularity, USC has done all it could to game the system. The rankings began in 1983, and USC didn’t make the list until 1996, when they debuted at 44. By 2007, they had jumped to 27, and presently sit at 23. How did they game the system? Here is a partial list of how USNWR computes their rankings and the percent of weight each category receives: Student Retention/Graduation (22.5%); Faculty Resources (income and faculty/student ratio) (20%); Dollars spent per student (10%); Alumni Giving Rate (5%). As the Forbes article I linked above notes:

Relatively affluent institutions that bring in relatively affluent students will simply perform better in these rankings. This fact puts public universities, which have historical drawn from a wider socioeconomic range of students than their private counterparts, and whose funding per student has been increasingly cut by state legislatures, at a marked disadvantage.

USC gamed the system by intentionally raising their scores on those categories. The goal was not making the best university but increasing their ranking. Gross, and so very USC.

Back to the scandal. At first I thought it was really funny (and some aspects, like the athlete photoshopping details are very funny), but the more I think about it the more insidious it is.

It’s a perfect microcosm showing how the elite stay elite on the backs of everyone else. Lori Loughlin’s kid had no business being in college. She didn’t even want to be there, except to party. But she took a spot from someone who desperately wanted to be there and who had worked hard for it.

I don’t know why it shocked me that the Stanford sailing coach would accept a bribe to give a fake scholarship, but it did. I don’t know why it shocked me that people would fake athlete profiles to admit students through the side door. I don’t know why it shocked me that people have been able to bribe SAT proctors to allow students to cheat, and to even allow someone to come in after a test and change the student’s answers, but it really friggin did.

From NY Mag:

Wealthy parents don’t usually have to resort to rigging college admissions through fraud, or even through charitable giving. They don’t need to. Their advantages are broad. In the United States, people with millions in the bank can always afford a side door — to private high schools or wealthy neighborhoods with better public schools, to test prep and tutors. They can afford to visit doctors when their children are sick and pay professionals to treat learning disabilities. Their children don’t need to work on top of going to school. They have such an edge, in so many different categories, that it is often impossible to catch up with them at all.

We all know our society is not fair, and the wealthy have so many advantages, on a sliding scale, over everyone else. Even in college admissions. I wanted to believe that, even as the NY Mag excerpt above notes the inequities in college admissions, that there was some semblance of meritocracy. But this really lays bare that it isn’t. And that’s why I stopped laughing about this story.

The Cathedral Is Empty

I was surprised to find a NY Times article about University of Minnesota hockey. The Gophs aren’t typical fodder for a global news source. What’s more, the article is about how the once all-powerful U (for real, that’s what we call the University of Minnesota) hockey program has become an also-ran in the state of hockey. And that’s just the way legendary coach and Minnesota icon Herb Brooks wanted it.

I posted about another story detailing the unlikely detour Herb Brooks took in coaching a D-III St. Cloud State team in 1986 as the program transitioned to D-I. I’m still struck by how remarkable his time at St. Cloud St. truly is. This guy had already won three national titles with the iconic University of Minnesota, the 1980 Olympic gold over the USSR in what is considered the greatest game/moment in sports history, and coached the New York Rangers. This dude comes back to coach a D-III after all of that. One of the reasons Brooks took the job was to create more opportunities for Minnesota kids to play college hockey. Until then, there were two options – University of Minnesota and UM, Duluth. The college hockey landscape has changed a lot since then.

Last year, Bob Motzko left St. Cloud St. to take the head coach job at UM. As writer Pat Brozi characterizes it, this was a lateral move. It’s correct, and it’s also insane. College hockey is alive and well in Minnesota, but Gopher hockey has fallen hard. There are several factors to consider:

  1. Moving conferences – from the WCHA to the Big 10 – eliminated pretty every rivalry that fans cared about.
  2. Mariucci Arena – an incredible college hockey venue with luxury boxes and all the modern accommodations – was opened in 1993. The same year the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas. The Wild, the current Minnesota NHL franchise, didn’t start playing until 2001. For 8 years, the Gophers had a brand new arena, were the biggest hockey game in town featuring the best home-grown talent playing in WCHA rivalries. Gopher season tickets were hot!
  3. Up until 1999, UM coaches emphasized recruiting Minnesota natives (Doug Woog, 1986-1999, only recruited Minnesota players) – this grew the sport at the high school level. The dream wasn’t to play in the NHL; the dream was to play for Gophers. The Minnesota State High School tourney was essentially a debut of the best players, almost all of whom would be playing for the Gophers in the years to come. This is no longer the case.
  4. After they ditched the “Minnesota-only” recruiting rule, the Gophers made a habit out of recruiting very high NHL draft picks (in hockey, a player can be drafted and still play in college). Awesome talent, no continuity from year to year. They were the hockey version Kentucky basketball.

Now, the Gophers are an unranked rebuild while St. Cloud State, Minnesota State (Mankato), and UMD are all in line for number one seeds in the NCAA tourney. The Gophers aren’t alone. As Pat Borzi writes:

The change in Minnesota reflects a nationwide trend of newer programs usurping traditional powers. Of the seven teams with five or more N.C.A.A. titles, only Denver and North Dakota are ranked. Conspicuously absent: The Gophers, Michigan, Boston College, Boston University and Wisconsin.

What happened? More schools are benefiting from an expanded pool of players, coming from Europe and nontraditional American markets like California and Florida. And recruits have discovered more paths to the Frozen Four and the N.H.L.

Over the last eight years, Minnesota Duluth, Union, Providence and Yale won their first national championships. Since 2009, the five Minnesota Division I programs (Bemidji State rounds them out) combined for seven Frozen Four appearances. Only Minnesota State failed to make it, even as a No. 1 seed in 2015.

I’ve been thinking about what the football or basketball equivalent of this situation would be. Alabama being unranked while UAB wins multiple national titles. Duke missing out on the NCAA tourney for five years while UNC-Wilmington racks two Final Four appearances.

Look, I understand there’s a good chunk of our readers that don’t care about college hockey, but I can’t get over it. Gopher hockey is part of the of the Minnesota lore. I just can’t believe that in my lifetime we built the cathedral to Minnesota hockey, and now the cathedral is empty. – PAL

Source,Move Over, Gophers: Balance of Power Shifts in Minnesota Hockey”, Pat Borzi, The New York Times (03/13/19)

TOB: Here’s a football equivalent for you: Miami, Florida State, and Florida were three of the top 5-7 programs in the country from roughly 1980 to 2005. Now, all are relatively down, while University of Central Florida of all schools has gone from I-AA in 1996 to 25-1 over the last two years and a claim at a national title in 2017.

I liken this to what would happen to Cal rugby if more programs started taking rugby seriously. Now, Cal rugby has been incredibly dominant for almost 40 years, winning 28 national titles since 1980. Seriously: 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2016, 2017. I typed those all out because it is dizzying to look at. But you’ll notice a slow down recently, including a 4 season drought from 2012 through 2015.

What happened there? It sounds similar to what Phil described with Minnesota hockey. More programs and a wider pool of players. BYU started recruiting players from the Southern Pacific Islands (they often also have an age advantage as many of their players play after returning from their missions). Other schools like St. Mary’s (who beat Cal during the regular season last year) are also nipping at Cal’s heels, as are schools you’ve probably never heard of like Life University (2018 National Champions!) and Lindenwood University (2018 Rugby 7s National Champions!).

I’ve always thought Cal Rugby’s dominance was cool, but a bit boring. They still beat teams by scores like 100-3, like they did Santa Clara last year. But they also face stiff competition that pushes them to be better. In that vein, I’m guessing Minnesota Hockey turns it around in the next few years.

Video of the Week

The last Hockey Hair video. It will be missed!

Tweet of the Week

PAL Song of the Week

Blaze Foley – “Clay Pigeons”

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It’s purely carnal, and that’s all you need to know.

-Dwight Schrute

Week of March 8, 2019

Friggin’ lefties.

Baseball Scouting Is Hard Yet Fascinating

The Ringer obtained 73,000 scouting reports from the Reds from 1991-2003, analyzed them, and this week rolled out a series of stories.

Part 1 opens with a perfect illustration of how hard it is to scout. In 1999, the Reds traded for Ken Griffey, Jr., the best player of the 90s. Ahead of the trade, a number of scouts filed reports:

“Outstanding tools across the board!” one scout wrote. “A future Hall of Famer. Is only active player with a chance to break Hank Aaron’s home run record and would like to see him do it in Cincinnati. Has ability to carry a club to the world series. Tremendous fan appeal, will sell tickets. If have a chance, would acquire.”

Another scout was even more effusive. “Best all-around player in baseball. Can do it all. IS THE MICHAEL JORDAN OF BASEBALL. Will personally sell more tickets than McGwire or Sosa. Can hit, hit with power, run, field & throw. Get 25 of this guy and you will have the best team in the history of baseball. Is a true franchise player. If you can acquire him, go get him! One of the best players in baseball that I would recommend paying top dollar for.

Look at that swing. Almost no one at that time would have disagreed with those reports. The Reds acquired him for three prospects, and almost everyone thought the Reds got a great deal. BUT!

Griffey was 30, had some worrisome injury history, and was coming off his worst statistical season. After the trade to the Reds, Griffey only played one more great season. In exchange, the Reds had given up outfielder Mike Cameron, along with two pitchers. The pitchers never amounted to much, but Cameron himself was more valuable the the Mariners in four seasons than Griffey was to the Reds in eight seasons.

Part 1 is full of interesting statistical analysis on what traits scouts seem to predict well, and which are more of a crapshoot.

Part 2 is fascinating, too. I’ve read Moneyball and seen the movie, so I understand many scouts look at, to paraphrase Billy Beane (at least in the movie; I forget if it’s in the book) how a player looked in jeans, as opposd . But this part is still pretty eye opening:

Keith Law, the ESPN prospect evaluator who worked for the Blue Jays from 2002 to 2006, says that while there may not have been big gaps between clubs in the skill of their scouting staffs in the era covered by the database, “scouting philosophies varied a lot across teams.” Sargent says that when he arrived, the Reds were “exclusively a run-and-throw organization. You draft a guy who can really run and really throw, and we’ll teach him how to hit.” The Reds, he adds, were notorious for conducting tryout camps and signing the players with the best arms and times in the 60-yard dash.

Hitting a baseball is often called the toughest thing in sports, and the Reds were like, “It’s easy. We’ll teach ‘em. Just give me a guy with a good 40-time.” That’s wild! And even wilder may be that the Reds produced a lot of talent back then. The scout referenced, Hank Sargent, was hired by the Reds in 1997. If we assume they had this “run and throw” philosophy for at least 15 years prior, the Reds produced a lot of talent in that time – Barry Larkin, Eric Davis, Chris Sabo, and Paul O’Neill, to name a few. (But maybe that wasn’t a fair assumption, because after being a consistently good team (including a World Series sweep over the A’s in 1990) from 1985 through 1995, the Reds fell off a cliff starting in 1996, only winning more than 81 games twice until 2010).

I highly recommend you read part 2, where The Ringer interviews four former players – Travis Hafner, David Ross, Ben Davis, and Jeff Schmidt – and talks about what the scouts got right about them, wrong about them, and what they couldn’t possibly have known. It’s fascinating.

The Ringer also published some funny actual scouting reports. Maybe my favorite so far is this one on Albert Pujols:

Laid back approach to game. Lazy out of box. No hustle. Has some show boat in him. Lacks hard work. Don’t put in quality time in pre-game work. Ball jumps off bat. Strong swing. Hard solid contact. … Attacks ball. Shows playable carry on throws from 3B. Makes plays at 3B. Shows quick reactions. Has soft playable hands. Drifts thru stroke on swing. Will get out front and reach for balls. Still learning situations while on base. Struggles with throwing acc. when on the move. Likes pitches low in zone. Struggles with belt high and up, breaking balls away. Value to Reds in minors. ML tops. Regular on 2nd division team. Role: 3B.

That was filed one year before Pujols got to the bigs and hit .329 with 37 dingers as a rookie. What’s interesting is that the scout saw some really good things – ball jumps off bat, strong swing, solid contact, attacks, strong harm, soft hands – those are all really important skills. But he couldn’t get beyond his initial surface-level observations, that may or may not have been accurate or may or may not have been influenced by cultural differences. And even if those initial observations were accurate, they were made of a guy who was at that time just 20-years old.

(If part 3 is any good, we’ll feature it next week) – TOB

Source: “Part 1: We Got Our Hands on 73,000 Never-Before-Seen MLB Scouting Reports. Here’s What We Learned“; “Part 2:MLB Scouting Is Hard. These Four Players Prove It“; Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur, The Ringer (03/04/2019); (03/06/2019)

PAL: Really enjoyed scrolling through this scouting time capsule. For, instance, I haven’t thought about Travis Hafner in what feels like a decade, but he was a serious masher for Cleveland for a handful of years. The Jamestown, ND native always had power, but he was slow, couldn’t field and couldn’t throw. Hafner even admitted that it’s hard to scout a guy with only one skill, because it is so rare for one tool to pay off at the highest level.

Scouting a number is much more cut-and-dry approach. A 60-yard sprint time translates – it doesn’t matter how good the competition is or where someone is from. There’s no nuance to a guy that throws mid-nineties. He has Major League arm strength, period. Those numbers translate. The number of home runs Travis Hafner hits at some midwest Junior College is much harder to compare than a 60-time or a radar gun reading.

Which is why scouting catchers must be hard. The article breaks down David Ross’ scouting report. This guy played sixteen big league seasons as a catcher. Guess how many hits he has. This shocked me: 521 career hits! You don’t stick around for sixteen years, earn over $22M (that’s over 40K per hit), if you don’t bring a lot of value in other ways. Ross was a solid defensive catcher, above average thrower, but he was an excellent framer of pitches and managed a pitching staff well and had a little pop at the plate. None of the talent that kept him in the game for so long would jump out at a scout.

The flipside of David Ross is Ben Davis.

Another catcher who fits all the old scout cliches. The classic “looks good in jeans” guy. While he had a great arm and an athletic frame, Davis could never hit big league pitching. It got so bad that guys wouldn’t even bother giving them their best stuff. How about anecdote:

Davis remembers facing Mike Mussina in a game in 2002. “I was scared to death of the knuckle-curve,” Davis recalls, but Mussina threw him nothing but fastballs. Davis struck out looking twice before doubling in his third at-bat. Four years later, Davis was in Yankees camp, catching Mussina. “Hey Moose,” he said. “You’ll never remember this, but you always just threw me all fastballs. Why did you never throw me the knuckle-curve?”

“Honestly, man?” Mussina said. “I never thought I had to.”


All of this comes down to projection, but a lot of times the qualities that keep an average big leaguer around are not obvious. As Ben Lindbergh puts it:

An insatiable desire to be better, buried within an unathletic-looking frame (Hafner). A difficult-to-quantify skill set out of step with its time (Ross). A jaw-dropping, deceptive physique (Davis). Poor player development (Schmidt). These are among the many reasons why a scout might miss.

Such an interesting baseball read.

TOB: Glad you got to that Mussina/Ben Davis quote. Geeze, man. That made me laugh and wince at the same time.

Nik Mittal Was Left Open

Man, what a great story. Nik Mittal is a father of three, recipient of a couple knee surgeries, a serious Carolina Tarheels fan, and the owner of some pride.

Now, at age 47, I am a New York City dad who watches Carolina basketball obsessively with his three sons and who, after a 15 year hiatus (thanks to a couple of knee surgeries) decided to play pickup again. But on the court recently, I came to a shocking realization.

My ugly but effective left-handed heave was no longer effective. I had become the player in the pickup game who everyone leaves open from a distance.

Call it ego, but I really didn’t want to be that guy. So I turned to the only expert I knew — my 10-year-old son’s basketball coach.

Mittal swallows his pride and hires a shooting coach. More specifically, he hires a youth coach to re-teach him how to shoot.

Turns out, he has some serious work to do, because his shot is butt-ass ugly. It was embarrassing. 

But Mittal and Coach Macky work at it, starting close to the hoop and getting in a bunch of reps. Before long, there’s some recognition and improvement:

For one, I was landing with one leg practically a foot in front of the other. Macky had me stick a soccer ball between my legs and practice a series of jump shots while squeezing it between my knees.

This was surprisingly hard — either I’d brick the shot, or the soccer ball would pop out — until I focused on taking really small jumps, landing like I was on train tracks. Kavi even sort of complimented me, calling this an “advanced drill” that only the teenagers do.

I love this. Mittal isn’t grunting out 225 on the bench so he feels better looking in the mirror. Instead, his improvement has a point. Or at least more of a point. He doesn’t want to suck at the local game. Dropping a few shots in a weekend game is athletic success, and he wants that feeling playing the game he’s always loved. Go Mittal!

After some sessions with Coach Macky, Mittal goes back to the pickup game, and he’s shooting for the last spot in the next game. Read the article to find out how it ends for Mittal. – PAL

Source: “Can a Middle-Aged Dad Still Perfect His Jump Shot”, Nik Mittal, The New York Times (03/08/19)

TOB: Loved this, but especially loved when Phil called me an athletic success.

The Warriors Should Fire Bob Fitzgerald, Amen

My godddddd, I’ve been waiting years for someone to write this story. Bob Fitzgerald is a sports talk radio host on KNBR and, for some reason unknown to everyone I’ve ever talked to about him, the TV play by play announcer for the Golden State Warriors. He’s absolutely insufferable. He has zero redeeming qualities as an announcer – he doesn’t describe the action well, he doesn’t seem to have any great understanding of the game, he has a whiney voice AND he constantly whines, and on top of all those swell qualities, he’s an arrogant prick. If you’ve ever listened to his radio show, I pity you. He’s condescending to callers and overall a jerk.

This week, The Athletic’s Danny Leroux opened both barrels, with an open letter to Warriors owner Joe Lacob, calling for Lacob and the Warriors to leave Fitzgerald behind when the team moves to the Chase Center next year. Oh man, did I love it. Here’s the part I nodded along to most vigorously:

He has a penchant for turning anything that goes against the Warriors into something more nefarious than luck or the bounce of the ball, from referees that are out to get them to lucky shooters. While it is an easy trap to fall into, that mentality has been uncomfortably prevalent in the fan base for years and it may be largely explainable by having a broadcaster who speaks in those terms so frequently.

Sometimes referees just miss calls and sometimes 30-percent 3-point shooters make a few of them in a row and, like every team, the Warriors are on the positive end of those fortunate bounces frequently as well, something Fitzgerald rarely acknowledges. Thankfully, Jim Barnett notes it more often. That sets both a divisive and frustrating tone that gets some fans more aggrieved and alienates those watching the broadcast from any other perspective, including fans of the NBA or high-quality basketball more broadly. Fitzgerald’s rants on official broadcasts give the franchise a more aggressive and less professional perception without any coherent benefit, especially for one of the league’s best teams.

Amen!!!! -TOB

Source: An Open Letter to Joe Lacob — the Warriors Deserve a Better Play-by-Play Man Than Bob Fitzgerald“, Danny Leroux, The Athletic (03/08/2019)

Video/Tweet of the Week: What the hell…

PAL Song of the Week: Oddisee – “Skipping Rocks”

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I’m trying to elevate small talk to medium talk. 

-Larry David