Saturday, December 30, 2006

Hello, Columbus

Given not one but two separate columns on the fine pages of The Cleveland Fan linking Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel to a possible slot next year as the Browns latest man in charge, someone has to be the contrarian.

Both Cris Sykes (see column here) and Rich Swerbinsky (see column here) lay out a decent argument in support of a potential Tressel departure, but in the end I’m not sure it amounts to much more than a hill of beans, or buckeyes.

Take, for example, the argument that Tressel has nothing to prove at Ohio State. At this juncture, he’s won one national title and is playing for another. The Buckeyes are heavily favored, but so too was Miami in 2002. But even assuming that the Buckeyes win, why does that automatically translate into the popular conclusion that there is nothing left to prove? The unique aspect of college football is that every year brings its own set of challenges, particularly considering that your raw goods are immature 18-22 year old young men. It’s this particular allure, I think, that has kept other coaches with nothing to prove, like Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno, firmly entrenched in their respective jobs for decades.

In fact, the analogy to Paterno is probably the most apt. Tressel may be revered in Columbus, but he’s still only been there for five years. He hasn’t even come close to achieving the myth-like status that Paterno enjoys in Happy Valley. Paterno, like Bobby Knight, is an educator at heart. His challenge each year comes in molding young men to be not just good athletes, but good students and, ultimately, good citizens. Paterno is one of the key fundraisers for Penn State whose influence has permeated the entire student body at Penn State. The good he has done for his university and his sport extends well beyond what happens each Saturday in the Fall.

The sense I get is that Tressel fashions himself as an educator in this same mold. He, too, consistently displays a rare and sincere interest in the welfare of his players. Recall, for example, that one of the last people convicted felon Maurice Clarett called before being arrested was Tressel. This speaks volumes to the fact that Tressel did his best to remain a positive influence in a former player’s life, even after that former player tried to bring Tressel’s program down. If Tressel has a coaching hero, I suspect it’s Paterno and not Paul Brown.

When viewed in this manner, it is never a question about proving to some unknown or unnamed “them” that you’re a good football coach. It’s all about shaping lives and contributing to society in a way more lasting than a fleeting victory in a bowl game. This is the kind of opportunity that only college sports presents. The nature of the pro game in any sport is so transient and the players are so different that having this kind of influence is more an accident than anything else.

But even moving beyond the intrinsic value that coaching major college brings, I’ve never bought into the argument that being an NFL head coach is the final summit to be scaled for a college coach. I’ve written about this before, but in summary most NFL coaches are products of the NFL system, meaning that while they may have had some college experience, most of their coaching experience was gained at the pro level through various assistant’s positions. In other words, NFL owners don’t typically embrace college coaches as their saviors, save, for instance, the painful failed experiment in Cleveland. In fact, the trend these days seems to be the reverse, with Pete Carroll and Charlie Weis being prime examples.

There are other compelling arguments as to why Tressel won’t leave Columbus for Cleveland as well. Toss out any talk of a monetary award. Tressel already makes plenty in Columbus and doesn’t seem to have adopted or embraced a lifestyle that requires a few more millions. He has a lucrative contract and lucrative perks already at his disposal. In short, there’s no financial play to make that would likely turn his head.

You can toss out, too, the “challenge” of restoring the Browns to their glory. Given how pro teams operate, this is a challenge with several variables that are out of your control, especially if you’re a “young” coach. Whatever happens with the Browns and Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage, it seems clear that at least at the outset, Tressel’s input into personnel moves would be limited, at best. If Savage is tossed, it just makes room for a new GM.

Over the last several years, it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that no NFL head coach can also effectively act as his own general manager. The demands of each job are too great and every time it’s been tried, it’s failed. Thus, Tressel essentially would be asked to coach the players his GM has obtained, much like Crennel. Contrast that with his present gig. Right now, Tressel has very limited constraints on his ability to recruit and sign the kinds of players he wants. Some argue that recruiting is the biggest hassle for a college coach and this is likely true. But it beats the heck out of getting stuck with overweight nose tackles, uninspired linebackers, and high draft choice wide receivers whose personal agendas have nothing whatsoever to do with winning. Besides, Tressel has proven to be an incredibly effective recruiter and seems to revel in his ability to continuously restock.

Finally, you can toss out the Cleveland connection. Undoubtedly Tressel has a soft spot for his hometown pro team. We all do. But why that automatically means he’d rather abandon what seems to be his dream job in favor of the Browns escapes me. If that’s the most compelling reason for assuming that Tressel would leave Columbus, why aren’t people making the same argument with regard to, say, Urban Meyer at Florida. He’s from northeast Ohio as well. In fact, Meyer seems more likely given his vagabond ways. Whereas Tressel’s career has been characterized by his lengthy tenure at Youngstown State (when other, larger opportunities likely presented themselves after any one of his national championships there), Meyer is fast becoming college football’s version of Larry Brown. Meyer, unlike Tressel, comes across as someone with something to prove and every move he has made in his rather short career underscores that notion. That’s not to criticize Meyer at all, it’s just to point out that he’s at least as likely a candidate for Columbus as Tressel, maybe more so.

Of course, Tressel could prove me completely wrong on this score. I’ve been wrong before. But I have a good feeling about Tressel and what makes him tick. And it doesn’t seem to be the time bomb that is permanently ensconced in Berea.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Some Scapegoat!

When it comes to sports, there rarely are absolutes. Mostly it’s a matter of perspective and opinion. Mark Melnik’s reply to my recent post about Braylon Edwards (Mark's column can be found here) is well reasoned and provides an excellent diversity of perspective necessary for a forum like this. Suffice it to say, however, I couldn’t disagree more.

The problem we have in Cleveland is that we expect so much but demand so little--of our teams or our players. By minimizing or excusing the abject misconduct of jerks like Edwards and his ilk only creates the kinds of team we deserve.

With Edwards there appear to be two school of thoughts: his actions are the result of his caring so much or his actions are the result of his caring only of himself. On what basis anyone could conclude that Edwards is part of the former and not the latter eludes me, no disrespect to Mark intended.

It’s not a question of whether Edwards was simply late for work that makes him a bad guy. That happens to anyone. It’s the manner in which he goes about his business that speaks more about his character than his rather pedestrian receiving statistics, particularly when you include all of the dropped passes. His transgressions shouldn’t be glossed over, particularly since he is a second-year player with such a limited track record of NFL success.

Going to the Michigan-OSU game? In doing this he defied his teammates and, more importantly, his coaches. Technically they didn’t have veto power since he was on his free time, but where is the judgment? Not listening to his co-workers and his boss loudly says that their opinions don’t matter and that he’ll do what he wants when he wants. That’s the definition of prima donna right there. And then, of course, he was late getting back, making the whole incident an admixture of comedy, tragedy and fecklessness.

Calling out, publicly, a fellow player for a legal hit? This violates nearly every unwritten rule for being a good teammate. Moreover, it was coming from someone whose slate wasn’t exactly clean to begin with. If anyone thinks this went over well in the locker room, they haven’t been around pro athletes. It would surprise me, in fact I’d be wildly disappointed, if Brian Russell didn’t confront Edwards by shoving him up against a locker and telling him that the next time he has a problem, talk to him directly. More likely, Edwards just hid in the trainers’ room.

The bigger problem with Edwards is that his mouth runs when he has something to say about a coach or a teammate that furthers his cause but he was amazingly silent after last Sunday’s game when he turned in still another dismal performance According to a Plain Dealer report, Edwards was encouraged by the team yesterday to address the situation. He declined once more. In doing so he demonstrates that he not only has thin skin for slights, perceived or otherwise, but he’s a coward to boot.

I’m realistic enough to know that the Browns would never simply cut Edwards. He was, after all, the third pick in the draft. But it’s increasingly clear that he’s average, at best, and is never likely to live up to his draft status. More importantly, he's simply not a winner. Cutting ties as soon as possible would be addition by subtraction in many ways large and small.

Head coach Romeo Crennel yesterday reportedly likened Edwards to another loudmouth, Keyshawn Johnson, saying that after Johnson grew up he eventually became a good teammate. Really? Crennel may want to check his facts.

Everyone will recall that Johnson was a malcontent almost from day 1 in New York. Johnson put up decents stats, for sure, but essentially talked his way out of New York, something that is difficult to do. Tampa Bay took a chance on him and he repaid the favor by creating enough turmoil that the Bucs actually fired Johnson, sending him home for the last six games of the 2003 season. Johnson found himself in Dallas, which is quickly becoming the foster home for wayward receivers. Though Johnson put up decent numbers the Cowboys, they deemed him unworthy of a $1 million roster bonus and a relatively meager $1.5 million salary for 2006 and released him to make room for an even bigger headache, Terrell Owens. Eventually, he found his way to Carolina, mainly to protect the far superior Steve Smith. Johnson, who claimed he was reborn in Dallas after the fiasco in Tampa Bay is now on at least his second rebirth. Oh yea, he was fined recently for throwing his helmet during a game. Crennel's right, Johnson has turned into the model teammate.

But all this being said, it is a fair point that Edwards shouldn’t bear the full brunt of what is wrong with the offense or with the team in general and I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. The Browns are ranked 31 of 32 teams both offensively and defensively. That certainly goes well beyond one player and speaks to a team and organization deficient in both talent and direction. But I do know this: Edwards isn’t helping any, either on the field or the locker room. If he wants to be part of the solution then he should act the part. Unfortunately, like Keyshawn, he makes it clear every day and in every way that fulfilling his personal agenda remains his only priority.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

What Pedigree?

These days, most NFL owners approach hiring a coach the same they’d approach buying a racehorse. First, they examine the bloodlines. In the past, tracing a new coach’s lineage to Bill Walsh was the fashion. Now, of course, the proper pedigree for a NFL head coach is to be a progeny of Bill Belichick.

When current Browns head coach Romeo Crennel was introduced to us, there was no shortage of touting his past association with Belichick. How many times were we told, for example, that Crennel was the defensive genius behind of all those champion New England Patriots teams? This was Crennel’s calling card and his currency. Even the players constantly refer to Crennel’s former job as the main reason no change should be made.

When owner Randy Lerner and General Manager Phil Savage pulled the trigger on the Crennel hiring, they were really just following the rubric followed by so many before them, including the befuddled former majority owner, Art Modell when he gave Belichick his first crack at the head sport.

And, wouldn’t you know it the hiring of Crennel has worked out just about as well as Modell’s hiring of Belichick. Looking back, the hiring of Belichick was really just another in a never-ending series of examples as to how things play out for Cleveland sports. Belichick, ascending to the head role slightly before he was really ready for it, proceeds to essentially alienate an entire fan base through one misstep after another. Modell, on the verge of bankruptcy (again) and worried that his idiot son wouldn’t ever get the chance to personally ruin the franchise, opts for the quick dough dangled by Maryland’s desperate governor and relocates the franchise. Belichick loses his job in the process and after learning the last few tricks from sensei Bill Parcells becomes, arguably, one of the greatest coaches of all time.

But there is a major difference. Whereas Belichick was young and ill-equipped to handle the job when he was first hired, he at least had an infamous work ethic even then that eventually allowed him to succeed. Crennel was one of the oldest coaches in the NFL when he was hired for the head coaching position and simply lacked the same hunger or desire to succeed.

This isn’t to suggest that Crennel is ambivalent about winning or success. It’s just that he’s at the tail end of an already lengthy career and his need to prove himself in order to secure his upcoming future or even is legacy is simply not the same as guys like New Orleans’ Sean Payton, NY Jets Eric Mangini or even Belichick himself when he was first hired. In retrospect, how could Lerner and Savage have missed this fact? And why does an increasingly passive and disinterested mainstream media continue to ignore this story line?

When one looks at the overall portrait of these last two years the picture that emerges is that of a team being led not by a coach but by a caretaker. If the Browns were a high school class then Crennel would be the substitute teacher hired to fill in while the real teacher is on pregnancy leave. He often seems clueless about the guys in the back of the room smoking and writing on the walls.

Sure, we’ve all heard the players talk fondly of Crennel. But increasingly, their words seem hollow, more akin to ensuring that the principal, in the form of either Lerner or Savage, take your pick, doesn’t actually go out and hire someone who might pull the plug on their shenanigans. If they truly cared for Crennel, which they don’t, it would be reflected in their performance. To say that this team is bad and getting worse doesn’t even begin to do justice to how out of control the situation really is.

Crennel’s latest treatment of team cancer and malcontent extraordinaire Braylon Edwards shows how little control Crennel really has. We’ve chronicled this before but it bears repeating. Edwards was specifically told by Crennel (and fellow classmates) not to attend the Ohio State-Michigan game taking place the day before the game with the Browns chief rival, Pittsburgh. Edwards lit up anyway, taking a helicopter and arriving home late. He went unpunished. When Edwards was late for still more meetings last week, Crennel finally laid the wood to him and told him to stand in time-out for a quarter. Ouch.

Perhaps even more frustrating is the fact that Crennel won’t even discuss what’s obvious to most. Sure, he’ll talk in generalities that some players are still a little on the wrong side of the maturity curve. But why not call out Edwards by name? Why not publicly embarrass Edwards the way Edwards continuously publicly embarrasses his coach, his teammates and the people still dumb enough to financially support this sinking endeavor?

More than likely, Crennel would simply shrug his shoulders to such questions and ask what good could come from that? The truth is a lot of good would come from it. It would show that this coach feels the same frustrations in dealing with Edwards that the fans feel. More importantly, it would be the necessary public acknowledgement that serious problems exist, a necessary prerequisite to getting them fixed. Instead, Crennel is like the alcoholic trying to convince everyone that he’s only a social drinker. He remains in deep denial and leaves the rest of shaking our heads and wondering, if he hasn’t reached rock bottom yet, how much further could he possibly have to go?

It still seems unlikely that Crennel will be sacrificed at season’s end. Lerner and Savage appear poised to favor stability even at the expense of success. But make no mistake about it this franchise has never been less stable or further away from the ultimate prize. And another year in the hands of a substitute teacher promises only to make it that much harder for the real teacher to clean up the mess.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Character Counts

It wasn’t that many years ago when Wayne Embry was the General Manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers. He made it a priority to draft and sign “high character” guys. That philosophy, while it didn’t quite bring a championship to Cleveland did bring us high quality basketball practiced by high quality individuals. In fact, it was the best sustained basketball this town has enjoyed to that point.

It also wasn’t that many years ago when Phil Savage, current General Manager of the Browns, rode into town essentially promising the same thing. That philosophy, which hasn’t even yet brought respectability, at least has brought us guys like Joe Jurevicius, Kamerion Wimbley and LeCharles Bentley. Unfortunately, when a sport requires as many players as pro football, compromises will get made. That’s how you end up with guys like Braylon Edwards.

In case anyone is still paying attention, players like Braylon Edwards and his ilk are killing this team. His latest transgressions were on full display this past Sunday at what’s becoming a Cleveland tradition—the holiday beat down. Head Coach Romeo Crennel reportedly benched Edwards for showing up late, again, at a team meeting or two earlier in the week. Edwards also reportedly faces fines for wearing a non-conforming uniform during the game. Edwards was a non-entity on the field dropping still more passes and playing still more uninspired ball. And for his final act, he showered quickly and refused to talk to the media. All this only demonstrated what has long been suspected—Edwards is a low character, me-first coward with absolutely no concept of what it takes to be a team or be a teammate.

The temptation is to simply explain that he’s a “Michigan guy” and heck, what can you expect? He grew up playing under LLLLLoyd Carr who, near as we can tell, loses key games and then whines about why his team isn’t getting the respect it deserves. In fact, that’s actually an apt description of Edwards as well. But it goes well beyond painting Edwards with such a large swath.

Edwards isn’t so much the product of a system but the manifestation of all that is wrong with the modern pro athlete. He wants, as one character told another in the new movie, “Dreamgirls,” “all the privileges without any of the responsibilities.” That’s essentially what Jurevicius said during his rather pointed post-game comments directed squarely at Edwards.

If Edwards isn’t quite like his former coach, he’s quite clearly one of the biggest prima donnas to wear a Cleveland uniform in many, many years. Rarely has a player accomplished so little and demanded so much from a team that is so bad. Edwards walks as if he deserves all the riches and privileges that come with being a top-caliber player without having first paid the price. He’s not even the best receiver on this pitiful team, let alone a premier player in the league. Yet he carries himself as if he’s on his way to his 10th Pro Bowl appearance. He refuses to accept any responsibility for making the Browns better. He sets the worst possible examples, both inside and outside the locker room. For a team trying desperately to rebuild itself to the once proud franchise it was, the last thing it needs is guys like Edwards.

Harkening back to Embry and the Cavs, it should be noted that Embry was mocked for his philosophy. Particularly when the Cavs couldn’t get past the best player to ever play, Michael Jordan. In fact, those same people, many in the media, made the same jeers at Savage. But the truth is that character counts, particularly in close games. It’s exactly why the military conducts basic training. The whole intent is to root out and rid your unit of soldiers of low character who can’t be relied upon when the shooting starts. The same holds true in any team endeavor.

This is not to suggest that talent doesn’t play a key role or that teams don’t win with low-character guys. Talent matters and you can point to countless examples of teams that achieved the ultimate success with unsavory characters. But in the end, character does count. A few examples from this NFL season without even breaking a sweat: The Dallas Cowboys, having sold their soles by acquiring the league poster child of low character, Terrell Owens, are paying the price. In last night’s key game against the Eagles, Owens dropped several passes, again, continuing a trend that has caused the Cowboys to ultimately underachieve. The Cincinnati Bengals, a team many figured to be a Super Bowl contender, won’t likely make the playoffs. In fact, the only thing they’ll lead the league in this year is most arrests during the season. It may be a coincidence, but we don’t think so, that the Bengals couldn’t convert on a simple extra point with their playoff lives on the line on Sunday. Who’s to say that all of the off-field distractions didn’t eventually take their toll at that one key moment?
The point is you can only go so far with talented troublemakers. This year’s Browns team has been an abject failure. In fact the holes are so huge, that it appears as though they are years away from even playing .500 ball. That being said, if the Browns were smart, and they’re not, they’d simply cut their ties with Edwards and soon. He’s not worth the trouble that accompanies his limited talent. The temptation will be to hold on to him in order to extract some sort of value from another failed high draft pick. Resist that temptation. He’s not worth anything. If some team will give the Browns anything—a bag of balls, a roll of tape, or the unthinkable, a draft pick—take it and don’t look back. If no one bites, put him out in the public domain and pray that one of someone in the AFC North picks him up. Edwards is a loser of the first order and having him on this team will do nothing but eat away what little team chemistry remains.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Real Fake News

If there is anything scarier than a slow news day at the Plain Dealer sports desk, it’s a bored Plain Dealer sports reporter with not much to write about.

True, that sort of sums up PD columnist Bill Livingston’s everyday existence, but it’s clear that the malaise is spreading to the rest of the staff as well. Today, we were treated to another front page non-story, this time from OSU beat reporter Doug Lesmerasis. With the kind of uncanny reporting that only comes with finally getting around to reading the fine points of head coach Jim Tressel’s contract that were reported over a month ago in the USA Today, Lesmerasis tells us that if Tressel wins the national championship, his contract will get redone. And, in paranoia that only the Plain Dealer can invent, you know what could happen? Tressel could leave. Queue the consternation.

Of course, even in spreading this kind of paranoia, Lemerasis is playing second-fiddle to colleague Tony Grossi who, several weeks ago, suggested that Tressel was seriously being considered as a replacement for the increasingly overwhelmed Browns head coach Romeo Crennel. But the fact that readers of the Plain Dealer were treated to another Tressel might be leaving story is really more of a story than what Lemerasis actually wrote about.

It wouldn’t be so bad if their fake news was meant to be funny. But the Plain Dealer is not the Daily Show and Doug Lemerasis is not Rod Corddry. If either were true, that would be a business model worth embracing by the PD brass. No question, the financial pressure on newspapers like the PD is real and significant. With increasingly more sports outlets on television and the explosion of sports information on the web, including from sites like these, the newspaper business has undergone much volatility, both locally and nationally, in the last few years. Consolidation, layoffs and decreasing ad revenues are squeezing profits like never before. While newspapers are unlikely to become extinct, ask yourself this: when was the last time you saw someone under age 35 buy a newspaper at the store?

What all this means, of course, is subject to great debate, but it seems clear that the PD sports section has responded to this downward pressure by opting, at times, to be provocative, even if falsely, in the quest for more sales. Cleveland has been essentially a one-newspaper town for so long, that the arrogance displayed by the PD as a result of this status is hardly a new development. But the fact that this arrogance has turned into abject sloth is a rather new development. Particularly on the sports side, the Plain Dealer seems beset with the kind of laziness that leads to “stories” like that from Lemerasis or the one from Grossi several weeks ago.

You can almost hear how a “story” like this comes into existence in the first place. An editor, looking at the potential Friday front page sits around scratching himself. Realizing that once he runs the Cavs game story, the obligatory Friday pre-game Browns story, something about the Indians, he’s still left with a bigger hole to fill than the one in Livingston’s head.

The only other thing happening, he surmises, is the Buckeyes national championship preparations, but the game is still a few weeks away and, besides, how many more stories can you run about practice?

Editor: Hey, Lesmerasis, anything else going on over at OSU with the football team?

Lesmerasis: Nah, not much.

Editor: Well, we need a story and we just run our 14th profile on Troy Smith and Ted Ginn, Jr. last week.

Lesmerasis: Well, then, I’m tapped out of ideas.

Editor: Didn’t I see some story or another about Tressel’s contract in USA Today a few months ago? Maybe we can do a story on that.

Lesmerasis: Do you know where I can get a copy?

Editor: I don’t know, try going to USA Today’s web site.

Twenty minutes later.

Lesmerasis: Found it.

Editor: Anything interesting?

Lesmerasis: Not really. Here take a look.

Editor: Hmm. What about this? It says that if they win the national championship game, OSU has to re-do Tressel’s contract.

Lesmerasis: So? That just means he’ll get more dough.

Editor: But what if Tressel uses that as leverage to leave?

Lesmerasis: For where? Why would he do that?

Editor: Who cares? Let’s take that angle. That will get every one talking about us.

Lesmarisis: Sounds good to me. I have some Christmas shopping to do anyway.

To say that readers deserve better from the PD is like saying fans deserve better from the Browns. It’s something we all know and it’s something we don’t expect to happen.

It may be that Tressel someday leaves Ohio State. But to periodically raise the specter without anything more than connecting dots that were never meant to be connected is simply bizarre. Tressel has neither done nor said anything since he first arrived in Columbus that even hints that his eyes are on a different prize. To the contrary, the Buckeyes job seems to have been what he desired all along.

Why then is that concept so difficult to understand? Surely the job of a good journalist is not to simply accept what he’s fed. But it’s not a case of Tressel saying one thing and doing something differently. And it’s not as if Tressel has ever pulled a Jim Mora, Jr. and openly mused about another job. In fact the only other job that Tressel has been rumored for is the Browns job and the only source of that rumor was the PD’s Tony Grossi, at least until Grossi can affirmatively establish otherwise.

It would be nice to think that newspapers have better things to do with their time than use their increasingly diminishing power to settle personal grudges, real or imagined. But with the hatchet jobs done on Tressel by Livingston recently and the phony suggestions about Tressel’s potentially limited tenure at OSU, it’s starting to look like the PD sports staff won’t be happy until they have a different coach in Columbus and a newspaper upon which no one dare rely.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Race Card

Is there anything more tiresome than a highly-paid, high profile athlete, in the midst of a mess, playing the race card? And no, we’re not talking about O.J. Simpson this time. Instead we turn the glare of this most serious of charges to New York Knicks guard Steve Francis and NBA Players union chief Billy Hunter.

In case you missed it, the injured Francis was widely quoted as suggesting that the coverage of the Knicks-Denver Nuggest brawl was somehow racist and that race played a part in the penalties assessed. Of course Francis also strongly suggested that Nuggets head coach George Karl was essentially a coward for graphically referring to Knicks coach Isiah Thomas as a jackass because the Nuggets have no more games at Madison Square Garden this year. It seems that Francis is essentially playing into stereotypes by making such a suggestion, but that misses the larger point.

The least racist of all sports is professional basketball as practiced in the NBA. Countless franchises have African-Americans in key management positions, including ownership. The NBA’s record of inclusion at all levels far exceeds any other professional sport anywhere. Playing the race card in that context is so monumentally ridiculous that Francis risks playing into an even more common stereotype—the lunkhead jock.

The problem with guys like Francis is that they’ve grown up in an entitlement culture because of their athletic prowess. No request is too minor to make and no measure of disappointment is too small to endure. In his bubble, bad things are what happen to other people. If misfortune befalls his tender little universe it must be someone else’s fault. It’s no surprise, then, that Francis sees the chilly specter of racism lurking over the coverage of this rather ugly incident or the punishment meted out by white commissioner David Stern. Clearly, the participants, whatever their color, weren’t at fault.

We’re pretty sure that racism is carried out every day in every corner of the globe. Some of it is overt, most of it subtle. But the goal of rooting it out and eliminating it once and for all is dealt a serious blow when boneheads like Francis toss out unsupported, ridiculous allegations. Nonetheless we are all forced to reflect on such charges, even if it’s to dismiss them summarily. But in the process, we inevitably end up cheapening the next charge, which may actually be legitimate and risk the chance of actually addressing and eliminating a true instance of racism.

We listened, too, to NBA Players union head Billy Hunter essentially back Francis’s statements. Hunter said that the coverage of the Knicks brawl was more intense because of the race of the participants and that other sports, like hockey, aren’t subjected to similar treatment. Where to begin, where to begin?

While we will never understand it, there is no question that in this country at least the NBA is significantly more popular than hockey. This may change, of course, if that hockey strike ever gets settled (they’re still on strike, right?), but for now hockey gets covered in the local newspaper or television station if, and only if, your town actually has a franchise and/or there is a six-inch column space or 45-second hole to fill. If that’s the best argument in support Hunter can muster, hopefully Carmelo Anthony gets the opportunity to hire his own representative in the upcoming arbitration over his suspension.

Hunter seems to forget, too, that the brawl took place in the nation’s media capital. If that means that what happens there is likely to get more play than it otherwise might, so be it. That’s the price for playing your games in New York.

We doubt that Joe from Brunswick was more interested in the brawl because it involved black participants. More likely, what drew him in is what drew us all in—the fact that the brawl spilled into the stands and featured an increasingly image-conscious Carmelo Anthony apparently landing a sucker punch and then duck for cover.

We all would benefit from a serious examination of racism in society and the important work that still needs to be accomplished to ensure equal opportunities. But every once in awhile we need to be jolted back to reality and understand that these kind of athletes and their representatives are so removed from the reality of every day life, it’s dangerous to even invite them to the forum.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Running in Place

“Progress might have been all right once, but it has gone on too long.” Ogden Nash

We are on the cusp of another Cleveland Christmas and give Browns head Coach Romeo Crennel credit for one thing: he does know how to get fans in the Christmas spirit. During his latest Monday morning autopsy, Crennel offered reassurance that the Browns are making progress, even in the midst of losing their 11th game in 12 tries against their AFC North “rivals,” thereby giving everyone something to be thankful for this holiday season.

Although Crennel admitted that the Browns may not be making progress in the more tangible areas such as wins, he sees progress in the areas of “structural things” and how the Browns “want to do things.” Sure, a cynic might gently suggest, for example, that these are rather amorphous concepts that are difficult to measure. Maybe that was his point. But since it is Christmas, we’ll show some good will and assume that Crennel meant that progress is being made in the kinds of things that don’t show up in the box score, like hitting behind a runner on his way to second in baseball. Eventually, the theory goes that kind of play should translate into wins.

And that, of course, is where we find ourselves always, don’t we? Living, once again, for something good to eventually happen to a Cleveland team.

So, like Linus searching for the true meaning of Christmas, we’ll search for the true meaning of progress and hope, against hope, that it doesn’t end up like the search for the Great Pumpkin.

Given the way football schedules fluctuate each year, one decent way to measure progress is to look at the constants. In this case, that would be the six games the Browns play each year against their “rivals” in the AFC North. (Quick aside: Putting “rivals” in quotes seem appropriate because, at this point, it is more concept than reality. Frankly, the Browns are rivals with the AFC North teams in the same way that Northwestern is a rival of Ohio State.)

By now, of course, everyone knows that the Browns have gone winless in their division for the first time in their history. And in the most appropriate of honors, as they were doing so Sunday they also pitched a shutout in third down conversions as well. Thus, just on purely wins, as Crennel noted, there hasn’t been progress. In fact, there’s been slight regression since the Browns eked out a victory against Baltimore in 2005 on the last game of the year. (And no devaluing that meaningless win on the last day of the season with both teams playing out the string. A win’s a win)

But since this franchise seems more concerned with the intangibles, we’ll forget about wins and instead focus on “structural thing,” like points, yardage, turnovers, third-down conversions and the like to see whether there has been any progress evident during Crennel’s two seasons. The good news is that we found the spirit of progress, if not actual progress. Unfortunately for the Browns, as is their wont, no progress, spiritual or otherwise, goes unpunished. For every half-step forward taken, they took at least a half-step back in other ways.

In 2006, the Browns scored 75 points against their divisional rivals. In 2005, it was 77 points. Slight regression there. But the Browns gave up 157 points each of the last two years. No progress, but no regression either. Overall, they’re running in place.

This year, the Browns have gained 1624 net yards against their “rivals.” Last year, it was only 1480. Put this one in the progress column. But that success is short lived. The Browns have given up 2,498 yards this year as compared to 2,155. Definite regression. Overall, put this one, too, in the “running in place” column. See the trend?
Breaking down the yardage a bit further, this year, the Browns have rushed for 331 yards this year as compared to 418 yards last year. Not good. But by signing designated run stuffer and buffet line destroyer Ted Washington, the Browns have given up only 867 yards rushing, as compared to 980 last year. True, the Browns rivals are still averaging 144.5 yards rushing per game, but last year it was 163.3 yards per game, a 19-yard per game improvement! Put this one proudly in the “running in place” column.

Looking at the passing yardage, the Browns have had a healthy Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards all season. It’s not a surprise, then, that the Browns have passed for 1293 yards this year, as compared to 1061 last year. More progress. Of course and unfortunately, our friends in the North have passed for 1581 yards this year as compared to 1175 last year. More regression. Call this one “running in place” as well.

Finally, in the statistics that often tell the real story of a game, turnovers and third-down conversions, the trend is no different. On the turnover front, the Browns are only -6 in the turnover ratio this year. Last year, they were -9. Progress, or sorts. But alas, there is the third down conversion statistics. Last year the Browns were successful 33% of the time on third down while allowing their rivals to convert 39%. This year, the Browns have only been successful a scant 30% while their friends in the North have been successful a staggering 50% of the time. Consider this a very shaky running in place.

Whatever one wants to make of this, the best that can be said is that in some ways the Browns have found a way to stop some of the bleeding. Still, this is a patient that’s down two quarts of blood with only one quart left in the ‘fridge. As fans we may not be privy to the structural and other things that Crennel must see as he measures progress, but by any way measurable and discernable, we’re reminded of what Crennel’s mentor, Bill Belichick was fond of saying, “we can only go by what we see.” Or, as that more prescient of seers, Bud Carson, once noted: “we’ve progressed to the point where we’ve stopped progressing.”

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Shapiro Interrupted

It’s always been apparent that Indians GM Mark Shapiro rubs some people the wrong way. Some find him arrogant and others find him to be just so much the spin master. In that regard, such folks equate Shapiro with former Browns president and part-owner, Carmen Policy. That seems unfair.

Policy, in his short time here, went from beloved to bemoaned. When the Browns first came back to the league, a guy like Policy almost seemed necessary because, like Kevin Bacon’s character in the movie “Animal House”, we needed to be told to remain calm and that all was well while the train was careening unabated off the tracks. But after the sheen of the Browns return began to wear off through one colossal personnel screw-up after another by the Policy-led Browns, most grew tired of his act. In short, he lacked credibility. But Policy at least had the moxy and insight to know that he was wearing out his welcome and thus jumped shipped before he was pushed.

Shapiro, on the other hand, is a much more substantive guy. He may come across like Policy at times, but Shapiro at least knows from where he speaks. He can talk in depth about the 38th best prospect in the Indians farm system, for example. And while he tries to put the best face on most things, you often can tell between the lines that he’s really doing the best he can with the cards being dealt by the Dolans.

The radio “interview” WTAM sports troll Mike Trivisonno “conducted” with Shapiro earlier this week was classic Shapiro. (When referencing any on-air exchange between the buffoonish Trivisonno and a team official, it is difficult to use the words “interview” and “conducted” unless it is well understood by all that such activities consist alternatively of offering up fawning praise and softball questions.) It was in-depth and substantive in a way no other team official would dare allow and yet so full of spin as to make one question, upon reflection, whether he said anything at all.

Not to continue to beat a dead horse, but the exchange regarding traded closer Bob Wickman was particularly frustrating. It satisfied our urge for more information about this failed trade in the way that cotton candy satisfies a person’s hunger for food. Shapiro said, as he has said previously, that even with Wickman the Indians would only have won 5-7 more games. The tone is dismissive in the sense that a mere 5-7 more victories this last season would hardly have mattered. While a few more wins would not have gotten the Indians into the playoffs by a long shot, it may have given the fans a bit more optimism about this season, particularly if someone with the track record of Wickman was still closing games.

But the bigger problem with Shapiro’s dismissal of this fiasco is that it only tells part of the story. The truth of the matter is that this past year’s Indians team gave the closer shockingly few closing opportunities. If anyone was underutilized it was Wickman. The Tribe was either getting blown out or blowing someone out and save opportunities were generally few and far between. We tend to think of last year in that regard as an anomaly. In a more typical year, the closer would have been called on much more often. Consider, for example, that Wickman was traded with a little over a third left in the season and yet appeared in only one less game with Atlanta than he had with Cleveland. The point is that each time Shapiro tries to massage the facts to minimize Wickman’s impact, the facts get in the way. Wickman created a hole that is just not being plugged with lesser talents.

But the more entertaining portion of the “interview” was reserved for Shapiro’s plan undertaken in 2002 to make the Indians a long-term competitive team capable of winning 88-90 games a year. According to Shapiro, what he didn’t fully factor into the equation was how good the Central Division would be and how good the American League as a whole would be. It’s as if he is shocked that the rest of the Division and the League didn’t just lay down for the next four or five years and let the Indians play catch-up.

But, as we said, this is where you have to read between the lines with Shapiro. A sharp guy like Shapiro obviously knows that every other team is trying to get better. Likewise he knows that many other teams, like Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota, were spending more money than the Tribe to get and remain competitive. He can read the same statistics that we do and probably has them broken down in more ways than anyone in their right mind should. So what Shapiro is really saying is that he’s doing the best he can with the budget dollars available. And as has been well chronicled, the Indians continue to fall well short on that scale.

In the end, Shapiro basically confirmed what even the casual fan can observe: the Tribe is never likely to be that perennial competitor capable of winning 90 games every year. Because the budget dollars will always be less than optimal, the team will be in constant flux. Holes filled one year will re-open the next, only to be filled with second and third tier free agents with spotty track records and likely health problems. In other words, given how he is forced to operate, it’s almost inevitable that a year like 2005 will be followed up with a year like 2006.

But to channel our best Shapiro, to all of that we’d say that while this modus operandi may play havoc on the mental and physical health of the fans, at least it gives us all something to complain about.

Friday, December 08, 2006


We were dripping with ambivalence about the outcome or even the contest last night between the Browns and alleged rival Pittsburgh. Ambivalent mostly because it’s late in the season, it’s cold and the game means absolutely nothing to anyone outside of Romeo Crennel’s realtor.

But we were shaken from our doldrums by the headline in this morning’s Akron Beacon Journal which had to temerity to call the 27-7 pasting an “embarrassing” loss. To suffer embarrassment one must have done something incredibly stupid or ridiculous in front of someone else. In other words, there has to be an audience to witness the act. And if there is anything that’s accurate about last night’s loss is that whatever took place was not, fortunately, witnessed by anyone.

Sure, from what we could tell when we flipped over to Fox 8 during commercial breaks in “Grey’s Anatomy” there were a few people actually sitting in Heinz Field last night. But from our view it didn’t look like any of them were actually watching. Like any good Pittsburgher, they seemed more pre-occupied with the simultaneous tasks of trying to stay warm and playing “pull my finger.”

And we’re guessing that there were a handful of media types in the press box that felt compelled to occasionally check in on the score while they choked down brats or Primanti Brothers sandwiches or whatever the heck they serve in the buffet line. But outside of these pathetic souls, and the news team at Fox 8 that had to eyeball the game occasionally while they waited that extra hour or so before delivering the 10 o’clock news, certainly no one was watching the game.

We can only assume that’s what the NFL had in mind when they decided to play a Thursday night game in December in Pittsburgh between two teams going nowhere on a network that most people can’t get. Which is why, we believe, that whatever else you may call last night’s loss, it wasn’t embarrassing.

But if we can suspend reality and accept for the moment that people actually watched and were embarrassed by the Browns performance, we can only say we’re embarrassed they’re embarrassed. Surely, to anyone still paying attention the outcome of last night’s game was so predictable it hardly warranted actually being played. The Browns have now played the Steelers 14 times since the return from the Art Modell-imposed hiatus. They’ve been folded, spindled and mutilated in 13 of those games. (Actually, in the golden years of 2001-2003 the games were pretty competitive. Still, we lost 5 of those 6 games). These last two seasons have been particularly brutal.

Thus, if the outcome was predetermined, it makes no difference to us how they played. Sure, when the Browns lost earlier in the season we had folks like WTAM sports troll Mike Trivissono bootlicking owner Randy Lerner the next day on the air by saying that at least it was a good loss and that the Browns were making progress. (True compared to 2005 Christmas Eve massacre but at odds with the relative competitiveness of the games played between 2001 and 2003) But outside of munchkins like Triv whose idea of a tough question was to ask Carmen Policy what kind of wine he drank the night before, trying to differentiate between good and bad losses is so much a fool’s game for it obscures the fact that results still aren’t being achieved.

Professional sports is the ultimate meritocracy. The reward for a coach who wins is that he keeps his job. Losers become analysts. From a fan’s perspective, winning cures all ills and there is no such thing as a good loss. So excuse us if we feel no different about last night’s loss than we did about the loss two weeks earlier. The fact remains that the Browns have, once again, spent most of this season trying to convert a football town into a basketball town.

Still, if you must get embarrassed about what your team did last night in Pittsburgh, then have at it. There were plenty of moments to choose from and plenty of suspects to pick on. Braylon Edwards proved he can’t take a hit and Dennis Northcutt proved he can’t stand cold weather. The defensive line proved it can’t shed a block and Derek Anderson proved that no matter how bad the line, the best way to avoid a sack is to get rid of the ball quicker.

We’d observe that there may be a quarterback controversy brewing, but really, how much controversy exists over who is better suited as next year’s back-up to the free agent that will inevitably be signed? We’d observe that if there’s a bigger poser in football than Steelers head coach Bill Cowher we haven’t seen it, just as we’d observe that Steelers linebacker Joey Porter is giving Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis a real battle for biggest jerk in the AFC. (We’d say the league but until Terrell Owens retires, the award is his.)

But such observations, and any others we’d note like the continuing inability of this defense to stop any team on third down, would indicate a level of interest in last night’s game that we’re still having trouble mustering. But on the plus side, last night’s game gave Time Warner no reason to sign on to the NFL Network anytime soon, thus sparing us next week’s scintillating San Francisco at Seattle match up. Oh yea, and with last night’s loss this now opens up our Sunday.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Bigger Picture

One unfortunate off-shoot of the controversy surrounding the selection of the second participant in this year’s BCS National Championship game is the intense criticism that Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel has endured from nearly every corner of the country. The knock on Tressel is that he abdicated his responsibility as a voter in the USA Today/Coaches poll by refusing to weigh in on whether Florida or Michigan deserved the nod.

It’s interesting that Michigan head coach LLLLLoyd Carr found the time to publicly criticize Tressel on his non-vote but didn’t have the time to campaign to voters on why his team was worthy of the number 2 spot. Carr claimed that such politicking was undignified, but calling out another coach, indeed your white whale, isn’t? Talk about being slick. Is there anyone left who doesn’t seriously understand exactly why Carr can’t get Michigan over the hump?

It was also interesting to note the flip-flop that the Plain Dealer’s Bill Livingston made today regarding Tressel. Livingston claims he originally supported Tressel’s call but now, when considering the bigger picture, finds much to criticize. Disregarding the more pertinent question (and, more importantly, the most obvious answers) as to why Livingston didn’t put more thought into his original column, his new opinion is just simply more of his Tressel bashing. It appears as well thought out, frankly, as his original column.

We’ve noted previously how ridiculous Livingston can be, especially when it comes to Tressel. But what caught our eye was that Livingston’s rationale for his flip-flop is really nothing more than a rehash of why he felt Tressel was ill-suited for the pro game. This convinces us that even Livingston’s editors have stopped paying attention, but we digress.

Our previous observation about Livingston remains pertinent today. Livingston’s intent is not to analyze the situation objectively but instead to try and strip away what he believes is the veneer coating Tressel. In both columns (the initial column is available here) Livingston continues to criticize Tressel for a supposedly too light suspension of linebacker Robert Reynolds in 2003! Even assuming that the penalty wasn’t stiff enough, that hardly seems like an appropriate launching pad from which to extrapolate greater meaning as to why Tressel abstained from voting last week. Hopefully, for Livingston’s sake, no one, particularly his editor, is actually tracking his body of work. We’d hate to think anyone would conclude that Livingston is even less than he appears to be.

As for the current criticism of Tressel, we think he’s being pummeled not for his actual actions but more as the tangible and convenient embodiment of the ills that underlie the BCS system. Most who have criticized Tressel have fairly noted that he exercised his vote every week, thus helping position the teams for that final, fateful vote. Having done so, the argument goes, to abdicate his responsibility because he was in a tough situation is, at best, weak and, at most, an act of cowardice.

But this criticism comes at the expense of the bigger issue: why we allow a system designed to decide the participants in the college national championship to put any coach in that position in the first place. The Tressel situation highlights the inherent conflicts of a coaches poll when it is used for anything but interesting conversation. Indeed, the whole selection system is a Gordian knot of inherent conflicts of interest.

Personally, we have no major problem with Tressel’s actions. Vote for Florida and risk giving an emotional edge to that Team Up North for the next hundred years. Vote for Michigan and risk giving bulletin board material to the Florida team he knew he was likely to face. It’s easy for others, like LLLLLoyd Carr, to weigh in because, of course, they weren’t faced with the dilemma. We would have done the same thing and, we suspect so too would most other coaches looking down the barrel of that gun.

Another point that most critics have glossed over is the fact that Tressel’s vote, either way, would have had no impact on the outcome. While that may not excuse what he did, it is a fact. More importantly, it is a fact that Tressel well knew when he made the decision. We’re pretty sure, too, that Tressel knew that the outcome in Florida’s favor was already secured. Put it this way, if he didn’t then Athletic Director Gene Smith isn’t doing his job very well.

What we do think, though, is that there probably was a slightly better way to handle all of this. Tressel should not have just abstained, he should have resigned as a voter and publicly proclaimed that the system is broke and should be reformed and that he’ll lead that charge. This at least would have blunted most of the criticism being tossed his way. But this is just arguing on the margins anyway.

Tressel is not, of course, perfect and never claimed to be. But knocking him in this instance as an excuse to not attack the bigger issues is like blaming the radio for playing a Brittany Spears song.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Save the Tears

It’s tempting to write about the Browns improbable victory yesterday against a decent Kansas City team. But if we did so, we’re afraid we’d find a way to cheapen the win by, for example, noting that Kansas City head coach Herm Edwards is at least a little nutty for not blitzing the rawest of rookie quarterbacks. Either that or note that the Browns defense is having an awful time getting off the field lately. In the last two games, the defense has been on the field for 9 very lengthy touchdown drives that look like this:

14 plays—69 yards
10 plays—82 yards
6 plays—56 yards
10 plays—70 yards
4 plays—25 yards (following turnover)
10 plays—85 yards
11 plays—80 yards
9 plays—77 yards
14 plays—99 yards

So we don’t want to cheapen yesterday’s win with any facts that might paint us as a cynic and instead we’ll rejoice in the kind of victory beleaguered head coach Romeo Crennel has been waiting for since he took over this moribund franchise.

Instead we took a look around all the controversy surrounding Florida’s selection to play in the BCS Championship game and ask: what’s the big deal? You can take a tour around the internet at all manner of websites and find somebody playing the contrarian and complaining about how Michigan was robbed.

Exhibit A is Gene Wojciechowksi at In an ill-considered piece (available here) Wojciechowski attempts to lay out the better case for Michigan playing in a rematch against Ohio State. He can’t complaint about strength of schedule because, well, technically that favors Florida. So he whines that, basically, Michigan didn’t get any worse in the last two weeks and yet teams were able to jump over them, first Southern Cal and then Florida.

But that logic, which you’ll hear repeated from many sources, starts from a faulty premise: whatever happened after the OSU/Michigan game is irrelevant. If that was the case, why even play out the rest of the season?

As things stood two weeks ago, in the view of the voters (media and coaches) Michigan was the second best team even after being dispatched by the Buckeyes. But while the season may have been over for the Wolverines, it wasn’t for the Trojans or the Gators and to judge their merits on a less than complete schedule seems pretty unfair as well. Each team still had signature games left on their schedule and thus had the opportunity to convince voters of their merits as the nation’s second best team. And that’s exactly what happened.

Southern Cal’s handling of vastly overrated near-fraud Notre Dame essentially took the gloss off of Michigan’s victory in South Bend earlier in the season. At that point, voters could rightly notice that Michigan has only one other decent victory to claim as its own—Wisconsin—and a relatively close loss to the Buckeyes. With Michigan thus exposed, it wasn’t a surprise that Southern Cal overtook them following the Notre Dame Victory. Michigan no longer looked like the second best team to most voters. In other words, what happened that week wasn’t irrelevant.

This past weekend was basically a replay, only with Florida in the starring role. We all know what happened to Southern Cal, of course, and Florida’s impressive win in the SEC title game over a strong Arkansas team, one of several strong teams Florida played this season, convinced most that they, too, were better than Michigan.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that Michigan got worse. It’s just that two other teams, given the opportunity to actually complete their schedule, the same opportunity Michigan had, presented a body of work that was slightly more impressive. That hardly sounds unfair, let alone robbery.

Wojciechowski’s other main theme is that no one wanted to see a rematch, particularly Buckeye coach Jim Tressel. But that is so much a red herring. As for Tressel, why wouldn’t he want to see a rematch? He practically owns LLLLLoyd Carr at this point. If there is anyone who shouldn’t want to see a rematch it would be Carr, not Tressel. But more to the point, Michigan had its opportunity and came up short. People may look at the final score and diminish the Buckeye’s victory because it was only “three points.” But only a poor interference call kept a late Wolverines drive alive and allowed them to score that final touchdown. There wasn’t any point in that game where the Buckeyes weren’t in complete control.

We won’t debate the merits of the BCS system. It certainly has its flaws. But save us the tears for Michigan. In our mind, their claim for the National Championship Game isn’t even as good as the Louisville Cardinals. One could argue, for example, that but for an unfortunate offside penalty against Rutgers, the Louisville Cardinals would be undefeated and playing against the Buckeyes. In fact, we’d argue the point that this year the Big East was a tougher league than the Big Ten and Louisville nearly came through unscathed, save for that offside penalty that nullified a missed field goal by Rutgers. Given that reprieve Rutgers then made the kick sending Louisville to the most bitter of defeats for a team that has been pretty impressive itself.

The bottom line is that when Michigan had a chance to take matters into its own hands, it did not. Having thus put the decision to others, it seems disingenuous now to complain that the others blew it.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Groundhog Day, Again

It’s early Sunday morning, a crisp 28 degrees. The first Sunday of December. And in the Cleveland sports world, not much has changed, again.

The Indians signed two free agent pitchers. There was a time when this kind of signing would make the front page of the Plain Dealer sports page. Indeed, there was a time it would make the front page of the Plain Dealer news section. But that in a day when the Indians actually went out and signed premier free agents to large contracts.

When Larry Dolan decided to empty his bank account and overpay Richard Jacobs for the privilege of owning the Indians, those days essentially came to a crashing halt. John Hart saw the writing on the wall before most and headed to “retirement” which ended, not surprisingly, when another big-time spender, in the form of Thomas O. Hicks, thought he needed more help in spending his millions. Hart packed for Texas taking with him his calculator, his laptop and his six cellphones.

Since then, the Indians have been reduced to losing their top players via free agency and forced, by frugal ownership, to sign re-treads. That’s why the signings of Roberto Hernandez and Aaron Fultz have been greeted with a large shrug and relegated to page C11 in our section of the PD sports page.

We heard the spin: Hernandez is an “ageless wonder.” Fultz has a knack of getting out lefties. But the truth, as everyone knows by now, is that both are stretches that may or may not stabilize a shaky bullpen. Hernandez has a decent track record, but he is, for God’s sake, 42 years of age. When you think about it, the only surprise is that GM Mark Shapiro didn’t sign him for three years. And Fultz, well, he has exactly the kind of spotty track record, particularly of late, that makes him a perfect fit for a GM who, through necessity, is forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

We’ve complained at least as much as most about the lack of activity by Shapiro in addressing the team’s needs. So from that perspective, we give Shapiro an E for Effort in at least appearing to get some bullpen help. But in terms of actual help, these signings are closer in comparison to the Browns signing, say, Hank Fraley then to their signing of Dave Zastudil. In other words, there is nothing here to be excited about and, fortunately, no one seems to be. We are well deep into the Dolan ownership phase of this franchise and as fans we now understand how they operate. In other words, if either Shapiro or the Dolans thought these signings would sell more tickets then they are more clueless than Brittany Spears at a Fellini movie. Heck, they’re more clueless than Brittan Spears at a Disney movie for that matter.

The actual bigger news for the Tribe is that they continue to be snubbed by most free agents, even when the Tribe offers appear to be better. We had kind of gotten used to the fact that the premier free agents don’t even consider a viable option. That’s an obvious byproduct of the Dolans reputation. But now even the second and third tier free agents are staying away. Craig Counsell stayed with Milwaukee (!) despite a supposedly better offer from Cleveland. Moises Alou, who, if signed, would have joined Shapiro’s ageless wonder club, took less money to sign with the Mets.

This is probably the development most worth watching because it truly is a “man bites dog” story when a free agent starts taking less money. And while there is a stated reason in each case (Counsell’s agent, said, for example, that Counsell wanted to be closer to his young children), it’s all spin. The truth is that neither these free agents nor their agents see Cleveland as a first tier club willing to do and spend what it takes to get back to the World Series. The agents are more than happy to dump reclamation projects on the Tribe’s doorstep for a year of career rehab, but that’s no way to build and sustain contender, the Dolans oft-stated goal.

We’ve said it before and we’ll continue to say it until it comes to fruition: the only real hope for this franchise in the long-term is for the Dolans to sell. They simply lack the financial wherewithal to build a winner. And when they luck into one, which they did in 2005, they lack the style and class to live up to their commitments to spend enough to put the club over the top. That’s why the Indians in 2006 fell faster than the price on a Braylon Edwards’ jersey last week at the Browns team shop.

We’ll remain ever hopeful, of course, because that’s what we do. But as we’ve also said many times and will continue to say with respect to the Indians business plan: hope is not a strategy.