Friday, August 31, 2007

A Real Riot

Apparently hell really hath no fury like a woman college president scorned. No sooner had former Ohio State University president Karen Holbrook opened her mouth to the trustees of Florida Gulf Coast University about the, ahem, “culture” at Ohio State than did Buckeye nation come down on her, and hard.

Holbrook, who supposedly voluntarily retired from Ohio State this past June, has spent most of her time since trying to land another job, this time at FGCU, a school a decade old and about half the size of Bowling Green.

Perhaps because the prospective new job was in Florida, the Buckeyes white whale of last season, Holbrook felt a need to pander to the locals, telling them that one of the hardest things she had to do was reign in a “culture of rioting.” According to Holbrook, "I was told that was the culture and I was ruining football,” she said. “I don’t want to be at a place that has this kind of culture as a norm.” They must have loved hearing that.

And there was more: “Any good excuse gets some of the people on the street and they think it’s fun to flip cars and have absolute drunken orgies.” While most assumed her comments were in reference to a variety of football-related incidents, the most notable of which was the fan reaction following the Buckeyes victory over Michigan in 2002, Holbrook wasn’t so confining. Holbrook essentially claimed that European-style soccer hooliganism was engrained throughout the campus, saying “When you win a game, you riot. When you lose a game, you riot. When spring comes, you riot. African-American Heritage Festival weekend, you riot.”

Though Buckeye fans are enraged by Holbrook’s recent remarks and the publicity they’ve drawn, it’s worth noting that she essentially said the same thing while she was president of OSU. Last year, the Columbus Dispatch ran a story analyzing drinking-related issues at various Big Ten schools. (Note, the article does not appear any longer on the Dispatch web site, but a copy can be viewed here) At that time, while still president, she said that when she first got to OSU “there was a culture of, 'That’s what we do at Ohio State; we riot.”

The contrast between her use of the “R” word then and now is as interesting as the differing fan reactions. But in the end, what is clear is that the real purpose of Holbrook’s drama on both ends was the aggrandizement of Holbrook herself. A year ago, she was patting herself on the back about how all the strides she had made in this regard since 2002, telling the Dispatch that there had been various initiatives underway that were working, including some by student groups working hard to change the perception.

Now, her purpose seemed to be to leverage her escape from a withering culture as a means of securing a new job. Both uses seem just a tad sordid, don’t they?

For an academic with some level of accomplishment, Holbrook displayed an amazing lack of savvy if not outright ignorance, and I’m not talking about her interpretation of various incidents of inexcusable conduct by students and others. If she didn’t think that her comments were likely to find their way back to Columbus or anywhere out of the cocoon that is Naples, Florida, then maybe someone ought to introduce her to this new fangled technological innovation called the internet.

Now, predictably, she’s in damage control mode. She told the Columbus Dispatch that she was, perhaps in retrospect “a little melodramatic” in her depiction of Ohio State. She even went as a far as to say that she really didn’t mean to imply that this was the norm at every football game. But hey, what’s a little drama and fudging if it will help in a job interview?

As an interesting postscript to all of this, Holbrook took herself out of the running for the job, likely sensing that she wasn’t going to get the job anyway. Maybe, in retrospect, laying it on a little thick and telling the trustees that she presided over a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah wasn’t such a good idea.

It’s hard to know what possibly could motivate Holbrook to bite the hand that fed her so generously for the last seven years and even gave her a tidy $250,000 bonus on her way out the door. But having done so, it raises all manner of other questions, not the least of which is if things were so bad in Sin City, why didn’t she do more to change it?

Part of the answer to that is that Holbrook did try to quell the public drinking and drunkenness that surrounded the football games and other events. The other part of that answer is, as Holbrook belatedly admitted, things may not necessarily have been as bad as she portrayed. As with most things, the truth is in the middle.

This isn’t of course, to excuse what can’t be excused. But it is a matter of putting it into perspective, something Holbrook sorely lacks at least when it comes to her own self-interests. By publicly and nationally trashing Ohio State recently as if it is the exception that necessitates a new set of rules, she has contributed mightily to undoing much of the good she was attempting to accomplish on this score while she was president.

For Buckeye fans, and I’m certainly one of them, just shooting the messenger might feel good, but let’s also recognize that as we’re doing so we run the risk of ignoring some underlying truths. Ohio State has had their share of incidents, none of which put the university, its students or its sports teams in the most flattering light.

But here’s a news flash: college kids drink. Here’s another news flash: college kids are immature. Thus when these two elements mix, which they often do and have probably since the first time a group of 20-year olds parked their chariots outside the Roman Colosseum to watch that week’s lineup of the Christians vs. the lions, misbehavior is likely to break out.

Unfortunately, the NCAA also isn’t helping much on this score, something Holbrook could have pointed out. As the Dispatch story from last year noted, the majority of issues at Ohio State and elsewhere in the Big Ten occurred when games started at 3:30 p.m. or later, even though the majority of games actually start earlier. In other words, given more time until kick off, fans will do what fans do—use the extra time to drink.

Fans, particularly college-age fans, are going to drink no matter when the game starts. But it’s one thing to start drinking at 10:30 or 11 for a noon kickoff and an entirely other matter to start drinking at noon for a 3:30 kickoff. And don’t even get me started on the kind of damage a kid can inflict with an eight hour start on an 8 p.m. kickoff. The point is, the earlier the game starts, the less likely fans will be drunk when they enter the stadium, plain and simple.

Eliminating the late games, which are mandated by the television networks, is not so plain and simple and never will be. The unfortunate spinoff of the increasing popularity of college football is that such feature games will be more and more common and thus, too, will be an increase in alcohol-related incidents.

Holbrook may have been wrong, and she was, that Ohio State has a culture of rioting. She’s also even more wrong to single out Ohio State for her own self-interests. But she isn’t wrong that this is an issue that needs to be addressed. It would be nice, but naïve, to believe that the issue is self-policing and that eventually fans will tire of stepping over piles of discarded beer cans or puddles of vomit on their way to the game.

But the one undeniable truth in all of this is that if the fans don’t take care of it someone else will and soon. Whether it’s Holbrook or new/old OSU President Gordon Gee or any one of the other college presidents across the country wrestling with these issues, there will come a tipping point. And when that’s reached, the response isn’t likely to be simply increasing the police presence in and around the various pre-game activities. More likely it will come in the form of an all-out prohibition on such activities, something no one wants to see.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


It wasn’t too many years ago that the NFL referred to the “preseason” as the “exhibition” season and it was six games long, not four. Back then and even now you had the feeling that the only ones who really embraced it were NFL coaches who, if they had their way, would play an endless series of exhibition games in order to give them even more time to pick the 51st, 52nd and 53rd players on the roster.

So it’s not a surprise that, like the buzzards returning to Hinckley or the crabgrass returning to your lawn, fans have returned to their annual debate about the preseason in general and the cost of attending such games, in particular. The cost debate is somewhat fascinating in that there are far more fans than actual season ticket holders and it is they who must bear the true burden of underwriting four scrimmages a year.

It wasn’t always this way of course. Back in the early ‘80s, when I first became a season ticket holder for the Browns (Section 5, Row L, seats 3, 4 and 5), buying tickets for preseason games was discretionary. I usually bought them anyway but I always had the sense that I was in the minority on that one, particularly given the rather slender crowds these games attracted.

I’m not quite sure whether the notion of forcing season ticket holders to buy the preseason games started with Art Modell, but if it didn’t he certainly was an early adopter. A letter appeared simply showed up one off-season outlining the new requirement and, as you can imagine with all things Modell, there was the typical backlash and complaints about Modell using the fans to once again bail him out of financial straits.

But to Modell’s credit, he at least tried to package the two home preseason games into an event instead of the typical night out they’ve become since the Browns returned. Modell would generally have a pre-game concert with someone like the Beach Boys and a post-game fireworks show, the kind of which you didn’t typically see from your local community, in order to try to deliver some value.

At this juncture, though, Randy Lerner and his fellow NFL owners make no such pretense. Believing that any game, including a preseason game, is sufficient value in and of itself, the Browns and the rest of the league treat these almost like any other game. The only problem, of course, is that the only resemblance a preseason game has to a regular season game is the fact that a clock is used and there is a half time. The starters play sparingly and rarely into the second half because if there’s one thing NFL coaches fear worse than making a mistake on the 53rd player on the roster it’s getting a key starter hurt during the preseason.

Thus fans are left with the Buck Ortegas and Efrem Hills of the world wearing their team’s colors and getting significant playing time. If there is a worse value in professional sports, good luck finding it.

This isn’t to suggest that teams take a different approach to the preseason in order to give the fans something for their ticket price. Most fans are fine with the concept of the preseason being used for what it should be, an evaluation tool. Most fans likewise readily accept that what goes on in these games generally has little relationship to what will take place when the games start counting.

But what continues to grind is the fact that the NFL establishment, meaning the owners, treat their most ardent fans, or at least the ones most willing to make a serious financial commitment to the franchise, like they’re idiots by trying to package these games as something they are not. Putting a gloss on a preseason game to set the illusion that it is just like a regular season game doesn’t make it so. Neither does having both NBC and ESPN bring out the regular announcing crews for Sunday and Monday football mean that anyone is buying the notion that an Indianapolis/Chicago preseason game is a legitimate Super Bowl rematch.

But there is hope, in the form of Roger Goodell, the NFL’s commissioner and the best thing to happen to the league since the superimposed first down line on the TV screen. Word is that Goodell has fixing the preseason on his radar screen. Of course, he’s also got a potential rookie salary cap and a boatload of player conduct issues on his radar screen as well so it’s hard to say when he’ll get around to the preseason. But the fact that Goodell at least recognizes that there might be a problem is good news. The hard part, as with anything involving the NFL, is getting something constructive done.

One idea being floated is to cut the preseason by two games and expand the regular season by two games. A variation of that would be to eliminate one preseason game in favor of a 17th regular season game. In a sense, each of those ideas addresses, albeit incompletely, the cost issue. Season ticket holders would still pay for the same amount of games only more of those would be regular season games something most fans presumably would embrace.

But neither of these ideas is particularly popular with other constituencies. NFL coaches are reluctant to give up any more preseason games and it’s easy to understand why. The stakes are particularly high these days for coaches and the impatience of the fans and owners alike means that coaches are being given even less time to make their mark before finding themselves out of one job and looking for another. Having four games allows for more evaluation time and, arguably, helps eliminates roster mistakes. Of course, when your cupboard is bare to begin with, like that of the Browns since 1999, no amount of evaluation time is going to make much of a difference.

The thought behind dropping just one preseason game may appear to be a compromise position, but the biggest problem with it is that it creates a season with an uneven number of games, meaning some teams will end up with an additional home game each year while others will have one less. Goodell’s goal, though, appears to be to take some of these games and play them in Canada, Mexico or Europe as part of his efforts to extend the brand worldwide. Preseason games played in these countries in the past have been somewhat popular, but even fans who like their footballs round and not oblong understand the difference between Petyon Manning and Jim Sorgi. Thus, the thinking is that if the NFL is going to extend their brand, particularly given what has taken place with NFL Europe, it’s going to take regular season games with big-name players appearing in both halves to really capture the imagination.

One idea not being floated, of course, is the complete elimination of preseason games. Somehow colleges manage to make do without them but in addition to the howl that would get from the coaches, NFL owners simply aren’t going to completely eliminate any revenue stream.

It’s probably rather unlikely that much will happen with the NFL preseason for the next few years. Indeed, while it’s a problem, it’s hardly the biggest plaguing the league. As mentioned, Goodell knows he needs to fix the persistent problem of hold outs by first round picks. Goodell rightly points to the NBA as a league that has figured out that a rookie salary schedule is the better approach.

Goodell knows, too, that player disciplinary issues are never going away. Just this summer Goodell has had to juggle the twin tsunamis of Adam “Pacman” Jones and Michael Vick. And despite the high-profile nature of these two cases, too many players can’t grasp the message. The bizarre case of Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs and his late night encounter his car had with a light post is but the most recent example.

But when Goodell gets around to fixing the preseason, he need not do anything as dramatic as cutting it in favor of more regular season games or halt the practice of forcing season ticket holders to pay for scrimmages, which is never going to happen anyway. Instead, he just needs to convince the owners to charge less.

According to the USA Today, the average cost of a NFL ticket in Cleveland is around $46. For season ticket holders, the average cost is likely much higher, probably closer to $60. But just cutting that cost by a third ($20) for preseason is probably all that is needed to quell fan dissatisfaction. It would be an overt recognition that the preseason games are glorified scrimmages with a time clock.

Of course it has a slight hit to the bottom line. Cutting the cost by a third in Cleveland amounts to about $40 less revenue per ticket for the preseason or somewhere around $2 million. But if there’s one thing we all can have faith in, particularly with Art Modell out of the league, is that this group of owners knows how to make a buck. Finding a way to generate the “lost” $2 million would hardly be a meaningful challenge to them. Heck, they have harder challenges just figuring out where to park their private jets for away games. But if the interests of the fans means anything, it’s something that will at least be seriously considered.

Monday, August 27, 2007


If you’re feeling just a bit like your sports world had gone slightly askew, you aren’t alone. While it’s not quite as if we’re walking through the looking glass, there still is enough strangeness taking place to make one feel like he has to grab hold of a table just to steady himself from time to time.

First off, of course, was the site of one of the most high profile NFL players standing outside a courthouse in Atlanta shortly after pleading guilty to various charges surrounding his involvement in dogfighting, simultaneously apologizing to everyone he lied to while referring to himself in the third person as if the heinous acts were actually committed by someone else.

You can play the Michael Vick saga out in your mind any way you like. If you want to wear Vick’s number 7 jersey in support, like some did yesterday, have at it. If you want to delude yourself into thinking that Vick suddenly found Jesus, as he proclaimed, it’s a free country so have at that, too. But if you decide to compare the words of his day late/dollar short apology to the legal document to which he actually plead guilty, you will come to understand that Vick’s primary concern was not about what he had done, who he had hurt, or who he lied to, but instead was about making one last stab at salvaging an existence in professional football.

But the Vick case is taking place in Atlanta and while a curiosity everywhere, most sports fans in Cleveland are more concerned about what’s taking place in Berea and at Jacobs Field these days. And the events of the last several days from both corners are enough to give you vertigo.

The crispness and efficiency with which the Browns opened the game Saturday night against the Denver Broncos was not just unlikely but almost completely unexpected. With fans, the media and even the coaching staff practically begging either Charlie Frye or Derek Anderson to grab hold of the wheel and not let go, the two have spent most of the preseason like the annoyingly over polite chipmunks from the Looney Tunes cartoons trying to give the job to the other guy. But on Saturday, Frye finally demonstrated, if just a bit, that he finally got the message. While the play of Frye was certainly unexpected, it’s also more than fair to suggest that head coach Romeo Crennel’s belated revelation that a quarterback is better prepared to play if he knows in advance and not minutes before the kickoff he is starting also may have been at least partially responsible for Frye’s improved play.

But what really was askew, ultimately, was the simple fact that the Browns took the opening kickoff, marched the full 80 yards and finished the task by scoring a touchdown. This is simply something Browns fans are not accustomed to seeing. Though this isn’t a new phenomena since the return in 1999, given that most fans sense of history spans about two seasons, it’s also worth mentioning that first quarter efficiency has hardly been part of the Crennel era either.

The last time the Browns scored a touchdown on their opening drive was on December 3, 2006 against Kansas City. It was their twelfth game of the season. It was also the only time all season that the Browns did score a touchdown on their opening drive. In fact, including the Kansas City game, there were only five games all of last season when the Browns scored any points on their opening drive. The other four occasions were field goals.

Prior to last year’s Kansas City game, you’d have to go all the way back to the second Cincinnati game on December 11, 2005, essentially a season’s worth of games, for the last time the Browns scored a touchdown the first time they had the ball. Even more telling, perhaps, is the fact that the Browns were shut out in the first quarter in nine of their 16 games last season. In just two games, only one of which ultimately resulted in a victory, did Cleveland even hold a first quarter lead and that was, again, the Kansas City game. Three other times, they were tied after one quarter, 0-0. In fact, if you want to get really picky, in the Crennel era the most points they’ve ever scored in a first quarter were 10 points, against Houston, which was the seventh game in 2005.

Thus, to be charitable, getting off to a quick start hasn’t exactly been a trademark of the Browns under Crennel. With this sort of macro picture as context it would hardly be unwarranted, even if unwise, for fans to be just a bit giddy over the emerging prospects for this year’s edition of the Browns. To this point, though, they’re probably just awe struck, the same as they were last week when Brady Quinn successfully executed a two-minute drive.

And if the oddness of the Browns actually looking like a team with a plan from the opening kickoff forward wasn’t enough, consider also that Quinn, the putative quarterback of the future, didn’t fall flat on his face after his stunning debut. If anything, Quinn did what most fans in Cleveland thought impossible when it comes to the Browns: he followed up one good performance with another.

But if fans expected Crennel to acknowledge what everyone has observed and simply anoint Frye as the opening game starter and Quinn the backup, not so fast. Crennel, demonstrating the full range of his abundant leadership skills, testily, almost angrily, refused to make his thoughts known on the subject. Indeed, he seemed almost puzzled, a recurring theme with Crennel actually, as to why there was such an interest in the topic, almost forgetting that it was he who made it such by declaring prior to training camp that there would be an open competition for quarterback.

Crennel did allow that he had an idea as to who it might be, however, but didn’t offer much else apparently because he hadn’t yet had the chance to consult his Magic 8 ball or find his lucky coin.

Still, if the players use the preseason to ready themselves (and in the past that has been an assumption that hasn’t necessary been valid), the fans do the same thing. The optimism of the opening of training camp generally fades as the opening of the season beckons and you’re left staring head-on at a likely 1-4 start, again. While this isn’t to suggest that a 2-1 preseason is cause to reconsider whether to bet your pension on a Browns playoff run, the level of professionalism on the offensive side of the ball, as a result of the hiring of offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, gives us all a chance to steady ourselves whiling giving pause to consider that even if Crennel can’t pull it all together, the Browns won’t have to go outside, again, to find their next coach. Which at least means that there is some reason, as incongruous as it all sounds, to believe that the Browns probably are actually pointed in the right direction. The question, as always, is how long will we have to wait until better results follow?

And if the Browns didn’t leave your head completely spinning on Saturday night, surely the Indians victory on Sunday finished off the job.

Out of the gate, even the most optimistic fan knew that an Indians/Royals match-up is hardly cause for celebration. For reasons that make about as much sense as ESPN Classic, the Indians can’t seem to completely handle this doormat of a team. Over the last two seasons, the Indians are 17-13 against the Royals, which is respectable, but hardly dominating, particularly since the Royals are otherwise 56 games under .500 over that same period.

And while the lack of run support for either C.C. Sabathia or Fausto Carmona this weekend was disturbingly predictable, what was much less so was how the Indians managed to pull out a victory from the jaws of defeat on Sunday.

Down to essentially one pitch, the Indians did something that’s been in short supply for much too long. They showed uncharacteristic, at least as of late, resilience and found a way to tie the game at 3-3 in the ninth. Grady Sizemore blooped a double and Asdrubal Cabrera, playing like the Indians expected Josh Barfield to play, hit a clutch single to bring Sizemore home. Of course, the Indians couldn’t finish the job in the ninth, but on display for everyone to see, even if for only a few moments, was the realignment of the stars. The Indians suddenly looked like a team with a bit of swagger while the Royals, were remembering they were the Royals by sleepwalking through the extra innings just waiting for defeat which came, mercifully, incongruously, when Travis Hafner hit a solid single up the middle to plate the winning run. And as if the planet realignment was not quite enough, nearly incongruously Joe Borowski worked a completely uneventful bottom of the 11th for his 37th save.

On Monday night, it was refreshing and, as of late, rather unexpected as well, to see the Indians carry over that swagger against the Minnesota Twins. It was a third straight win and, as importantly, a third straight game in which they actually scored three or more runs. This will either be the beginning of another chapter or a mere smudge on the same page that they’ve been unable to turn for the last six weeks. This homestand will provide the answer.

Ultimately, though, whether the jolt to the equilibrium that both the Browns and the Indians provided to their fans over the last few days will turn out to be a pleasant buzz or a raging hangover depends on each team’s ability to make such performances less incongruous and more commonplace. In each case, though, that may be a case of asking more than either has the overall talent to deliver.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Better Question

It was probably sometime around Brady Quinn’s second completion last Saturday night that the debate began in earnest: what to do with the kid? As the game ended and Saturday night grew into Sunday and Sunday into Monday, the debate has taken on a life of its own. It seems that the only person who hasn’t yet weighed in on whether Quinn should start or see significant playing time against Denver this Saturday or Pittsburgh on opening day is the Plain Dealer’s Bill Livingston and that’s only because he’s waiting until everyone else has gone on record first.

But lost in all this debate is a deeper, darker question: does anyone trust that Browns head coach Romeo Crennel can actually handle the situation appropriately? Personally, I do not. And it’s not that I’m totally anti-Crennel. As a head coach he makes a fine defensive coordinator. But nothing he has said and done to this point in his career as a head coach even suggests that Crennel can make the right decisions when it comes to the offensive side of the field.

There are any number of examples, of course, but just take a stroll down memory lane, all the way back to last season and how poorly Crennel handled the situation with former offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon and you can begin to understand why the chances are virtually nil that the quarterbacking situation now will be handled any better.

With Carthon, there were any number of troubling signs early and often. Carthon in many ways was the football coaching equivalent to Eddie Murray as a hitting instructor. Uncommunicative and prickly, Carthon did precious little to forge a relationship with anyone other than Crennel and it showed both in the results and the comments by the players thereafter.

Maybe it was too much to ask of any coach to control serial loudmouths like Braylon Edwards or Kellen Winslow, Jr. Certainly Crennel hasn’t been able to do that fully. And maybe it’s just coincidence that two of the least quoted players since the arrival of new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski are Edwards and Winslow. But what was at least clear is that Edwards and Winslow, to the extent that they respect anyone anyway, had little affection for Carthon and vice versa. Carthon’s inability to reach these two strong personalities was as much a problem with the offense as was Carthon’s stubborn insistence that the fullback be the focal point.

But rather than recognize that Carthon was, at the very least, about 10 feet in over his head, Crennel continued to back the troubled coordinator in ways that are still puzzling. As most will recall, it wasn’t until things were really spinning out of control that Crennel said that he might have to start spending more time with the offense in order to make sure things were going in the right direction. In making this statement, Crennel unwittingly admitted that Carthon, so overmatched and underprepared, basically had the kind of free reign with the offense that he neither earned nor deserved.

Crennel did, however, show that he at least has a better survival instinct than, say, Charlie Manuel, and eventually stopped covering for the inept Carthon and sent him packing. While it didn’t save the season, not even close, it did demonstrate that Crennel wasn’t willing to put his own job on the line by standing behind Carthon, George Bush-like, all results to the contrary notwithstanding.

But it is instructive to go back to that sordid history in order to rightly wonder whether there is any chance that Crennel might handle the quarterback situation any better than he handled last year’s debacles. The early signs aren’t promising even for the most optimistic among us.

Based on the late play of Derek Anderson last season, it seemed fair that Crennel would open up the competition for the starting job this year. And it likewise seemed fair that Quinn would be part of that mix when he was first drafted and just as fair when Quinn was not after he voluntarily took himself out of that mix by foolishly holding up his own progress over little more than pocket change for the first 11 or so practices of training camp. But since opening up the competition Crennel has seemed mostly paralyzed by indecision, a state not necessarily self-inflicted but a state he’s found himself in nevertheless.

Unable to muster any command presence whatsoever, Crennel essentially made himself a national laughingstock by admitting he’d just flip a coin to decide who would start—Charlie Frye or Anderson—against Kansas City in the first preseason game. It’s doubtful that’s the kind of attention either owner Randy Lerner of GM Phil Savage wanted to see for their struggling franchise. It’s understandable why it was a difficult decision for Crennel (or anyone) given Frye and Anderson’s performance in camp to this point. But as the head coach, Crennel owns that decision and it’s his to make. Leaving it to fate may seem whimsical but it’s really cowardly. It’s hard to imagine Bill Belichick or Tom Landry or Bill Cowher doing likewise.

Crennel offered the lame excuse that he wanted to see how the quarterbacks would respond to such uncertainty as the reason for flipping the coin. What he really did was ensure that neither quarterback was fully prepared. Though Crennel abandoned his coaching by coin-flipping strategy for the second preseason game, he refused to make his decision on which quarterback would start known either publicly or privately until just before kickoff, again using the same “let’s see how they respond” excuse. Maybe it was just coincidence that Anderson fumbled the opening snap.

As the Browns enter this week’s game against Denver, Crennel has essentially admitted his mistakes and has named Frye as the starter. Crennel told the media at his press conference yesterday “I’m naming him early because I think both guys-not knowing who the starter is going to be and when they’ll play, it began to wear on them.” It took Crennel two games to figure that out?

One could fairly argue that the onus is on Frye and Anderson to be ready, irrespective the inane obstacles thrown in their way by the head coach. Perhaps. But adjusting to unforeseen circumstances within a game is one thing, being kept in the dark about your overall status by the head coach is quite another. It doesn’t matter whether you are a NFL head coach or the floor supervisor at Wal Mart. Employees respond best when they understand what is and is not expected of them. Keeping them in the dark and then dropping them in the deep end of the pond to see if they can swim to shore is hardly the enlightened view of any high performing organization. Put it this way: if Eric Wedge didn’t reveal to his pitchers who would be starting until just before the opening pitch, would it be fair to criticize the starter if he wasn’t effective?

One of the key responsibilities of a head coach is to know his personnel. The reason Bill Parcells was such an effective head coach for so many years is that he knew which buttons to push on each player. What worked on Terry Glenn might not work as well on Tony Romo and so on. But Crennel has never been able to grasp that simple concept, even if its execution is deceptively difficult, and his handling thus far of the Frye/Anderson conundrum is Exhibit 672.

It’s hard to know whether a different head coach might be able to ring more out of either Frye or Anderson to make any discussion of Quinn’s status moot. But it is at least as clear as anything else with the Browns these days that the quarterback quagmire is as much a manifestation of Crennel’s abject mishandling of the entire affair as anything else.

Which is what really makes all this discussion about Quinn foreboding. How much Quinn should play Saturday night or going forward, based simply on his performance last Saturday, is a nice debate but its resolution hinges on an incredibly shaky platform and that is Crennel himself. It’s highly unlikely that Crennel will suddenly become adept at handling tricky situations and, whatever else one might think of the troubles with Crennel had with resolving the Carthon situation, that will seem like a day at the casino as compared to what he currently faces right now with Frye, Anderson and Quinn. But given all that’s come before it, is there really any chance that Crennel won’t roll snake eyes again?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The First Impression

Quibble about the circumstances if you must, but give the kid his due, he makes a heck of an entrance.

On a night that featured its share of ironic moments including the release of former franchise savior Tim Couch earlier in the day by the Jacksonville Jaguars, future franchise savior Browns quarterback Brady Quinn did something Saturday night that neither fellow quarterbacks Charlie Frye nor Derek Anderson have been able to accomplish: seize the moment. When former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar, providing color commentary, uttered what even he called an overused cliché—“you never get a second chance to make a first impression”—it all seemed set up for such failure. Would Quinn stand behind the right tackle instead of the center on his first snap? Would he forget the play and call time out? Would he pull back from center too quickly and fumble the snap?

But for once, just once, it all went right. The first impressions in this case will be forever etched. Quinn dropped back for a short, confidence-building dump-off to last week’s hero, Chris Barkley, who proceeded merely to scamper 30 yards. Virtually everything thereafter continued to go well for Quinn as he drove the Browns down and then did something neither Frye nor Anderson have been able to accomplish to this point in the preseason—punch the ball in for a touchdown.

The contrast between Quinn’s first appearance and Anderson’s start could not have been more stark. Ever since Anderson appeared late last season as a viable contender to the starting role, Head Coach Romeo Crennel and a win-starved fan base have been craving for either Frye or Anderson to step forward and take the reins. But to this point it just hasn’t happened. For every step forward, there are two steps back. On the first Browns play from scrimmage it was Anderson who looked every bit the scared rookie as he dropped back to pass and in his carelessness, had the ball stripped, leading to a relatively easy Detroit Lions field goal.

Anderson regrouped enough to make it clear that his future is in a back-up roll, whether in Cleveland or elsewhere. Leading the team on its next drive and standing on the precipice of the first touchdown of the preseason, the Browns under Anderson suddenly crumbled into the mess of a team it was so much of last year. By the time the offensive linemen were finished false starting and Anderson was finished either ignoring the time clock or burning enough time outs to make sure he didn’t blow the opporunity, he then did just that, failing to recognize that there was confusion in the middle of the field as Kellen Winslow, Jr. and Steve Heiden seemed to be running the exact same route, unfortunately in the exact same spot. Instead of throwing it away, he tried to force the issue with an ill-conceived pass late over the middle for the inevitable interception. It would be hard to script two worse possessions for Anderson personally or two more telling possessions, from the coaches’ perspective assuming the question being asked of them is whether Anderson is the answer. He’s not.

Frye, was, well, Frye. He completed his share of passes, as usual. And he made his share of mental mistakes, as usual. The fourth-and-2 play from the 35-yard line was the most instructive. It was a situation in which a team does one of two things. It either tries the old “see-if-we-can-pull-the-other-team-offsides-with-a-hard-count” which worked once about 38 years ago, or a quick quarterback sneak which requires the element of surprise. Generally, teams expect the former, which is why, if you want to pull off the latter, you need to get the team set in a way that looks like instead you’re just trying to pull the other team offside. Frye, showing all the composure of a high school boy on prom night, had the ball snapped before even half the team was set. The inevitable penalty would have been fine had Frye gained the two yards. Unfortunately, he failed in that, too, and 20 seconds later Detroit had finished off a four-play 66-yard drive for their first touchdown of the night.

While not as obviously abysmal as Anderson, Frye nonetheless showed that pedigree does matter and his years with the Akron Zips taught him little about taking over a room. Whether it’s the pressure of the competition that is wearing on him or a talent level that is insufficient really doesn’t matter. What is becoming clear is that for all his heart and grit, Frye is less Drew Brees and more Ty Detmer.

In evaluating Quinn, the post game comments of Crennel were as predictable as the befuddled looks he shows on the sidelines every time something bad happens on the offensive side of the ball. Crennel made sure everyone put Quinn’s performance in perspective. It was late. It was against (and with) players who won’t be playing pro football in a few weeks and the playbook was understandably limited. All true, of course. But what couldn’t be hidden was the poise Quinn showed during that final two-minute drive. It was textbook in every facet. It started at the Browns 8-yard line with no timeouts remaining. One minute, 52 seconds later, the 13th play of the drive, Quinn threw a six-yard pass to Jerome Harrison for a touchdown. In between, Quinn made all the right reads, all the right moves and left everyone scratching their head trying to remember the last time they saw that happen.

It’s both easy and proper to keep the night in perspective, as Crennel cautioned. But if you don’t think that Quinn’s performance made a deep impression on Frye, for example, just watch a replay of what happened following the end of the game. As Quinn was accepting congratulations from teammates and several Lions players as well, Frye was walking around, baseball cap backward, with an expression that that seemed to say, to paraphrase Jon Landau, “I saw Cleveland quarterbacking future and its name is Brady Quinn.”

This doesn’t mean, of course, that Quinn should be the anointed starter. There is still much work to do. The performance of Quinn and, to a lesser extent, Ken Dorsey, who came on in the third quarter and led the Browns to their first touchdown of the preseason, were surely not enough to cause GM Phil Savage to dump either Frye or Anderson. At least not yet. But if, as conventional wisdom holds, the third preseason game is the most important of the four, then both Quinn and Dorsey deserve the bulk of the primetime reps. The books on Frye and Anderson and, perhaps even Dorsey, may not be complete, but there are certainly enough chapters written in each at this point for most to have a pretty good idea how the stories come out. Maybe there is a surprise or two still left, but the question facing Savage and Crennel is how much more time they want to invest finding out. And as they ponder that question, hopefully they’ll come to the conclusion that no one ever got rich investing in the past.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Scribbles in the Notebook

While scribbling in my notebook or writing off my cuff or whatever:

Here’s what I think about Terry Pluto leaving the Akron Beacon Journal for the Plain Dealer: good news for readers of the Plain Dealer, bad news for readers of the Beacon Journal. Oh yea, really bad news for Bill Livingston and Bud Shaw. Unable to restore credibility organically, the Plain Dealer went out and bought some by its re-acquisition of one of the most respected sportswriters anywhere. Nothing wrong with that and, in fact, much to applaud. At least the Plain Dealer recognized the hole it needed to fill and went about filling it in a meaningful way. If only Indians GM Mark Shapiro could accomplish the same thing. Put it this way, the re-hiring of Pluto is more like the Detroit Tigers filling a need in their lineup by signing Gary Sheffield and less like the Indians filling a need in their lineup by signing Trot Nixon.

While Pluto, Livingston and Shaw will never challenge the heyday of the Plain Dealer when it had Hal Lebovitz, Russ Schneider and Chuck Heaton, the hiring of Pluto does at least give folks a reason to read the Plain Dealer sports pages again. Certainly that wasn’t happening with either Livingston or Shaw.

The truth of the matter is that the reason fans read sites like this is that we offer the kind of refreshing perspective that just isn’t offered very much locally anymore. We don’t feel as constrained by the established conventions of the profession, meaning that we don’t have as great an issue bringing a sense of urgency to our views.

Livingston, for example, seems much more concerned with the well-turned phrase than with thoughtful insight or analysis. His opinions are safe, established and often come well after others, including the writers on this site, have weighed in. The next time he puts his neck on the line with an opinion will be the first time.

Shaw just seems lost these days not knowing what to write anymore. Take for example, his column a few days ago about Tiger Woods. Demonstrating virtually no understanding of the game or those who play it or it’s history pre-Woods, Shaw simultaneously observed that Jack Nicklaus faced greater players in his “tight competition circle” (whatever the heck that means) while also saying that Woods’ accomplishments, particularly in majors, is all the more impressive because he’s playing against a field of far greater depth. Huh?

In professional golf, greatness tends to be measured by what a player accomplishes under the most stringent tests, not what he does in the Greater Greensboro Open. When Nicklaus was in his prime so too were some of the greatest players in the history of the game. If Nicklaus wasn’t winning the majors, they were. In the case of Woods, that just isn’t true. Among Woods’ contemporaries are some Hall of Famers to be sure, but virtually since the day Woods’ arrived, no one has stepped up on a consistent basis to challenge him the way Lee Trevino, Gary Player or Tom Watson challenged Nicklaus. There are a number of good players around today, but the gap between them and Woods is far greater than the gap between Nicklaus and his counterparts. That’s just a fact and Shaw just casually concluding, without even bothering to back it up, that these days there is greater depth, is at least uninformed and at most lazy.

What Pluto brings to the mix is, in part, what attracts readers to this site. He’s a writer who is also a fan and isn’t afraid to offer that confession. He wants the local teams to do well and is as frustrated as anyone when they don’t. His ability to offer an objective view of why things went wrong is his particular talent because when he does offer that view, it has context.

This isn’t to repeat the oft-repeated criticism of Livingston in particular that he is simply a carpetbagger. Livingston has been in the community for years now and at some point the statute of limitations expires on holding it against him that he’s not from here. Instead, the bigger issue with both Livingston and Shaw is that they don’t appear to be fans of much of anything or anyone. Their observations thus lack a critical element that comes through in virtually everything Pluto writes—passion. That’s why the Shaw column on Woods seemed particularly empty.

As for the Beacon Journal, it may not be time to actually cancel that subscription, but that moment is growing ever closer. It’s no secret that the newspaper business, in general, is struggling. But as one of the flagship papers in the Knight-Ridder chain, the Beacon Journal, to those who knew better, always ran circles around the Plain Dealer. But since its sale and the subsequent cutbacks, it is a shell of its former self. There is still talent there, in particular Brian Windhorst who covers the Cavs, but the departure of Pluto is a serious blow to a newspaper that has been trying to convince its community that it is still relevant even as its content begins to resemble that of a newsletter.

No sooner did we run my column demonstrating that the Indians can’t score runs without hitting home runs than the Indians went out and proved that point again, this time against Detroit on Tuesday night. Grady Sizemore’s two-run home run did nothing to awake the rest of the lineup and, not surprisingly, the Indians didn’t otherwise score. The Indians also proved, again, that they can’t play small ball when necessary. In the ninth inning, manager Eric Wedge didn’t even have Jhonny Peralta attempt to bunt Chris Gomez over to third. Wedge knew that Peralta didn’t have that skill, raising the question as to who exactly is at fault for that. But in any event, lacking such skills, the team faced what was surely the insurmountable task of getting a hit with a runner in scoring position. Predictably, three straight strike outs ensued. Just as predictably, the Tigers scored four runs in the top of the 10th, although one would have been plenty and another loss was booked.

As the Indians struggles continue, both Wedge and GM Mark Shapiro in recent days have resorted to the well worn “if you would have told us in spring training that come the middle of August we’d be in first place, we’d have taken that” approach. More often than not, that’s the tact of the truly desperate. While meant as a reality check to the increasingly frustrated, it contains more than a whiff of the suggestion that somehow the Indians have overachieved to this point and that the fans should be grateful. But in truth, most fans did figure that come the middle of August the Indians would be in first place or at least close to it. Any fans who believed otherwise did so figuring that Wedge would find a way to get this team to underachieve instead of play up to expectations. Trying to convince either group that despite all the problems they should be happy never works and won’t work here.

In some ways what Wedge and Shapiro are really saying is that fans aren’t smart enough to keep the present skid in perspective. Maybe. But fans are smart enough to know that the current struggles seem institutionalized at this point and that the chances are dwindling that the team will pull out of this death spiral anytime soon and management is powerless to stop it. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that the fans are smart enough to take the same critical look at the lineup that surely both Wedge and Shapiro are doing and realize that offensively, anyway, we all overestimated its abilities.

And speaking of Wedge, the criticism of him grows louder with each loss but for those calling for his scalp, here’s where perspective would be more useful. It’s not Wedge’s fault, for example, that Trot Nixon is on this team. He can only play those whom Shapiro has given him. If Wedge were being completely honest, he should be saying “if I told you that come the middle of August we’d be in first place with a bullpen made up of Aaron Fultz, Jensen Lewis, Tom Mastny and Edward Mujica and an outfield in which both Trot Nixon and Kenny Lofton have more or less become the regulars, you would have taken it.” Put that way, he’s probably right.

Finally, it seems that Wedge just isn’t fiery enough for the talk show callers. As Rome continues to burn, Wedge appears to some like Kevin Bacon’s character near the end of “Animal House” fruitlessly imploring the crowd to “remain calm” because “all is well.” But if all it took to turn this team around was to peel back Peralta’s scalp because he fell asleep on the base paths last Sunday or because he can’t lay down a simple bunt, I’m sure Wedge would have done just that. You can’t yell someone into competency. Still, it would be nice to have heard that on at least one or two occasions lately Wedge turned over the tables in the locker room holding post-game food spread, if not to make us feel better than at least for him. If he holds his emotions in check much longer, Joel Skinner will be back coaching this team on an interim basis while Wedge recuperates from the inevitable stroke.

Monday, August 13, 2007


When looking for deeper meaning, often we overlook the obvious. Exhibit A is the state of the Cleveland Indians these days. Exhibit B is the state of the Cleveland Browns these days.

The Indians are currently mired in the kind of slump that makes you wonder if they’ll ever win another game. They can’t seem to bunch any hits together. Game after game, they don’t advance runners. They strike out with such regularity it’s as if they have a team aversion to putting the ball in play. They fail so often with runners in scoring position that even being down one or two runs amounts to an insurmountable hurdle. And now, they aren’t even playing fundamentally sound. I’d research the last time a player got picked off first with the bases loaded and no outs, like Jhonny Peralta on Sunday, but I wouldn’t no where to start. Although I’m sure it’s happened before, suffice it to say though that if anyone can find another example, whether in little league, American Legion, minor leagues or Strat-o-matic, email me.

But that’s the thing about this particular run with the Indians. Slump is just the generic term we put on it because it’s far easier to describe it in one word than to undo what is surely a Gordian Knot by this point. But there are a few obvious points before getting all twisted up overanalyzing. Consider, for example, the notion that the Indians have suddenly stopped hitting. Travis Hafner’s struggles have been well chronicled, but the Indians’ run-scoring prowess is actually more myth than reality.

True, the Indians were scoring a lot of runs prior to the All Star game. But only a few bothered to notice that the biggest contributor to all of that was the fact that the Indians were hitting a ton of home runs and not much else. They really haven’t been very good at any point this year, except perhaps for April, in situational hitting. Advancing runners, playing small ball is not Manager Eric Wedge’s make-up and thus the team has very little experience with it. That’s why they can’t seem to make it work now when it’s needed most.

But the home runs aren’t coming nearly as frequently. Prior to the All Star game, the Indians were averaging more than one home run per game. During the 20-game stretch between May 20 and June 9, they hit 33. In fact, the only 20-game stretch during the season when they didn’t hit at least 20 home runs was June 10-June 30 and then they hit 19. But in the 30 games since the All Star break, they’ve hit 25 home runs overall. In the last 10 games, they’ve hit only five. In other words, the Indians ability to score was tied to the long ball and as that has become less and less frequent, so too has their ability to score runs in general.

Another way to look at it is to consider the team’s on-base percentage. From mid-June through the All Star break, it was holding very steady at around .352. Since then it has been in a freefall and is now at its lowest point, .341. When combined with the lack of home runs, which had been their salvation, one can see why the Indians can’t score runs. They don’t get on base and thus the occasional hit they do get is almost always for naught. As for putting the ball in play and advancing runners, just know that in the 18 games since July 25, they have had double-digit strike outs seven times and two other games when they struck out nine times each. One could draw the same conclusion as well by pointing to the fact that they have only 12 sacrifice hits since the All Star break. Of course, they didn’t have all that many prior to the All Star break, either, but it just points to the fact, when combined with all the strike outs, that the Indians can’t manufacture runs when they are otherwise struggling.

All this circles around back to the more obvious point: the Indians really haven’t been a run-producing machine, despite what many might otherwise think. The patch they are going through now owes as much as anything else to the surprising lack of power. Perhaps that’s the reason GM Mark Shapiro traded for Kenny Lofton in the first place. He needed someone to hit something other than a home run.

As for the Browns, so much kvetching is taking place in the media about the play of the quarterbacks. But simply wanting Charlie Frye or Derek Anderson to “step up” and seize the opportunity presented doesn’t mean it will actually happen. The underlying assumption is that either or both have the talent to do exactly that. But that disregards what is probably more obvious: neither actually does.

One of the problems with pre-season games is that they are called “games” rather than scrimmages. They have a look and feel of a real game. There’s a coin toss. The quarters are timed. There is a half time, a two minute warning and all of the other vestiges of a regular game. The Browns even charge for them, much to the chagrin of season ticket holders. The expectation is thus created that what is taking place is a game to be won and in a way that has some meaningful impact on what will take place during the regular season. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Never forget that preseason games are a forum for evaluating players and not a game to be won. Any team, including the Browns, can go 4-0 if that’s their goal. All they need to do is play their starters all game. They’ll win. Guaranteed.

But that’s not what teams do nor should they. Filling out the 45-man roster with the best available players is the goal and simulating game conditions is really the best way coaches have to accomplish that. But these are only simulated game conditions, at best. The established starters hardly play into the second quarter anymore and often don’t make it past the first few series. That’s true even for a team like Cleveland where the phrase “established starters” is more or less an oxymoron. When Frye is lining up with Syndric Steptoe and Josh Cribbs as his wide receivers, Buck Ortega as his tight end and Jerome Harrison is in the backfield this may be the best way to evaluate Steptoe, Cribbs, Ortega and Harrison, but it isn’t necessarily the best way to evaluate Frye or Anderson, for that matter. The only way to properly make that evaluation is with extended play by the starters and alternating quarterbacks. Unfortunately, that isn’t likely not only because of the risk of injury but, more importantly, it makes evaluating the rest of the team extremely difficult.

That all being said, it still amazes the amount of attention the so-called quarterback evaluation has gotten. Is Frye ahead? Is Anderson? How many throws did they complete in practice? Who looked better in the 7-on-7 drills? Put it this way, if GM Phil Savage really thought either Frye or Anderson was the long-term answer, he never would have traded next year’s first round pick in order to get Brady Quinn. Even if he isn’t saying it publicly, Savage already knows what should be obvious to the rest of us: neither Frye nor Anderson is the future. When Quinn is ready, and probably before that, he’ll play and continue to play until he’s hurt or proves he can’t play in this league.

When the season opens on September 9 against Pittsburgh, it will probably be Frye at quarterback, if only because he was the starter last year. Frye performed on Saturday pretty much like he performed all of last year. He completed a lot of short passes, tended to throw behind his receivers as the length of the route increased and was good for a brain cramp or two. The real surprise was Anderson. He simply looked lost. But again, that’s just stating the obvious, which is actually necessary these days. As more and more people look for answers below the surface, in the case of the Browns (and the Indians) the real ones have been staring them in the face all along.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Struggles

When Indians GM Mark Shapiro was ticking off the prospects for the upcoming season, he told everyone with a microphone or a notepad that Jhonny Peralta’s ability to hit like he did in 2005 and not 2006 was one of the keys. When Shapiro made that statement, it was with the unstated assumption that Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner would continue to hit as they had in the past. Martinez has fulfilled his end of the bargain. And indeed, when Hafner got off to a fast start in April, it really never occurred to anyone that come August, it would be Hafner’s bat and not Peralta’s that is likely to make or break the season.

But that is exactly where the Indians find themselves on August 10, entering an important home series with the hard-charging Yankees. Peralta has responded to the challenge laid down by Shapiro, hitting .280 with 19 home runs and 59 RBI heading into the Yankees series. Hafner, unfortunately, hasn’t lived up to the assumptions made based on the expectations created over the last three years.

You can slice Hafner’s statistics in whatever detail you’d like and it’s still a struggle to find even a sliver of positive news at this point beyond the fact that he is drawing a fair number of walks. He’s hitting a robust .254 to this point, which places him just ahead of Josh Barfield and just behind Trot Nixon. And while his 70 RBI are second on the team, he should have 100 RBI by now if he was hitting even close to what his statistical norms have been. He is hitting under .200 with runners in scoring position, at trend that is growing worse with each game, which tells you all you need to know about why the Indians are finding it increasingly more difficult to score runs. Hafner leads the team in number of plate appearances with runners in scoring position (146) but has just 21 hits to show for it for a batting average of .194. Using just last season as a comparator, Hafner batted .304 with runners in scoring position.

While the working assumption is that Hafner is merely mired in a slump, the better question is whether or not that working assumption is correct. Perhaps pitchers have caught up with Hafner or maybe, like Austin Powers, he just has temporarily lost his mojo.

When you look at Hafner’s relatively brief career, the last time he hit (or didn’t hit) like this was his first year with Cleveland in 2003. Hafner played in 91 games and batted only .254, exactly his average today. And while his on-base percentage then of .327 is well below his ever-sinking on-base percentage this year (.380), the comparisons between those two seasons are eerily similar. Although Hafner batted mostly in the sixth, seventh and eighth spots in the lineup in 2003, he had the same inability to hit with runners in scoring position then, hitting only .230. His ability to hit with runners in scoring position and two outs, a measure of his ability to hit in the clutch, was abysmal at .094. This year it is a mere .188. But what is most telling about 2003 is that it begins to show the emergence of what kind of hitter Hafner was going to be.

Looking at the statistical splits of that year two trends were emerging that are back this year. In 2003, he hit .233 against ground ball pitchers, defined as pitchers who statistically, over a three year period, get consistently more ground outs than fly outs, by a ratio of less than .83 fly outs to ground outs. He also hit only .200 against so-called power pitchers, defined as pitchers who either strike out or walk a batter more than 28% of the time, as opposed to a finesse pitcher who either strike out or walk batters less than 24% of the time. An average pitcher falls in between. Looking at 2007, Hafner is struggling against groundball pitchers vs. fly out pitchers (.250 average vs. .294 average) and is really struggling against power pitchers vs. finesse pitchers, .192 vs. .292.

Compare those to what most consider to be his breakout season of 2006. Last year, Hafner pretty much hit whatever was thrown at him. He hit .291 against ground ball pitchers and .318 against fly out pitchers. He still struggled a bit against power pitchers with a .257 average but more than made up for it against finesse pitchers by hitting .348. But the truth is that what Hafner did in 2006 was really similar to the previous two seasons as well. For those three years he was a remarkably consistent hitter, with the only trend being that he doesn’t hit power pitchers all that well. (He’s a career .290 hitter overall but a career .240 hitter against power pitchers) This leads to the inevitable question of whether or not Hafner is simply facing more groundball and/or power pitchers this year (or in 2003) than he did in 2006. Unfortunately, the answer is no. The percentages in each of those years, not surprisingly, is about the same. In fact, those percentages are about the same every year. In simple terms, this season is a replay of 2003 only played out over even more at-bats.

But despite what might appear to be less of a slump and more like cold-hard reality, there are plenty of reasons to believe that this really may be a case of mojo temporarily misplaced. The hitter Cleveland fans often compare Hafner to is Jim Thome, mostly because of their physical presence. But the comparison is more apt than most fans might imagine and Thome’s career is instructive in placing Hafner’s current struggles in context.

While most fans remember Thome as someone who seemed to hit for a high average and incredible power, he actually only hit over .300 for the Indians three times in his 11-year career, which includes his first three seasons when his playing time was limited. In actuality, he’s a career .281 hitter, decent, but not as high as most fans would guess if asked. Thome’s equivalent to Hafner’s 2003 year was 1994 when he was an emerging hitter and ended the season with a .268 average. Just like Hafner in 2003 Thome in 1994 was developing certain trends that have carried through in subsequent years. For example, in 1994, Thome, like Hafner, struggled more against both fly out pitchers and power pitchers, just as he does today and throughout his career. And, just like Hafner, during Thome’s best years, for example 1995, it didn’t matter what pitcher he faced. He hit well against whatever was thrown at him and from whoever threw it.

But what fans might find the most comfort in is that despite his overall success, Thome’s career wasn’t just a straight line upward. He has had similar ups and downs. For example, in 2000, Thome hit only .269 and it was the first time in five years that his on-base percentage was below .400, though by just a fraction. Although Thome did finish with 37 home runs and 106 RBI, figures that appear to be well be out of reach for Hafner at this point, his average with runners in scoring position and less than two outs as well as with two outs, like Hafner this year, were well below his career averages. Thus, had he not been struggling, Thome should have had closer to 120 RBI.

While it may be of less comfort in the near term, it is also nice to note that whatever Thome’s struggles were in 2000 they didn’t continue into the next two seasons. Like 1995, iThome hit pretty much everything thrown his way during those two seasons. On the strength of his career in Cleveland in general and those two seasons in particular, Thome was able to hit the lottery with Philadelphia and he’s been most persona non grata in Cleveland ever since.

It seemed that barring injury, Indians manager Eric Wedge wasn’t going to sit Hafner down for a prolonged period of time, despite his struggles. Maybe that speaks to Wedge’s hard-headedness as a manager or maybe it was just wishful thinking. But with Hafner now nursing a sore knee owing to an awkward slide into second against the White Sox on Wednesday, Wedge may not have much of a choice. It worked out well enough on Thursday night against the Sox and it would be hard to imagine that things could get any worse with the offense with Hafner out of the lineup for a few more days.

While Hafner is looking more like Gorman Thomas these days than Thome, the truth is that even with his struggles, Hafner is following the sometimes circuitous route to superstardom that many others before him have faced. It may be best for the Indians to sit him down now and play him less often for the remainder of the season, but only because it looks like this is a season-long slump and not just a few bad weeks. Overall, though, it really doesn’t appear near the time for Shapiro or the fans to change their working assumptions about Hafner for future years. If Thome’s career is any indication, and it should be, Hafner will re-emerge, if not now soon anyway.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Unfortunate Indifference

For however long Barry Bonds plays baseball and perhaps forevermore, steroids and baseball will go together like pizza and cheese. And if that’s how it must be then so be it. But just as any baseball record related to hitting and set during the so-called steroids era will always be suspect in most fans minds, it also beg a rather interesting question as to why those same fans shrug when it comes to steroids and other sports, particularly pro football.

For proof, look no further than the news that Cleveland Browns starting offensive lineman Ryan Tucker tested positive for the euphemistic “banned substance” late last week. It caused a bit of a ripple locally but was a complete non-story nationally. And the local ripple was due not to the fact that Tucker tested positive for steroids but more for the fact that the line will be that much thinner for the first four games of the season, a sort of “it figures” resignation from the local fans.

The reason steroid use by pro football players isn’t as big of a story is likely related to two key factors. First, football got out ahead of the issue and without any acrimony. It has been random drug-testing players since 1987. Baseball, on the other hand, pretty much had to be bludgeoned into a credible testing policy by Congress, a policy that only went into effect at the beginning of the 2005 season. To most fans, starting testing in 2005 was mostly a case of closing the barn door long after the horses, in the persons of Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, among many others, had left the stable.

Second, while football has literally had scores of players who have tested positive since 1987, most have been offensive or defensive linemen and the occasional linebacker, none particularly high profile, save for Shawne Merriman last season. Moreover, because of the types of players involved, like Ryan Tucker, there is at least an understanding, if not an expectation, that these players need to bulk up. It’s part of their job description.

Though baseball hasn’t caught anybody of note in the two years it has been testing, unlike football some of it’s highest profile players have nonetheless been implicated including Jose Canseco, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and the aforementioned Bonds, McGwire and Sosa. And these aren’t just mere implications either.

Canseco has been extremely forthcoming about his use, even if it was for profit. Giambi seems to have been tortured by his use and his admissions have come slowly and begrudgingly, but surely nonetheless. Sheffield is an admitted user, though he claims it was unintentional. McGwire got out of the game before he could be tested and then refused to answer any questions about his past while testifying before Congress, thus raising suspicions in the minds of those who were previously uncertain and confirming for those who figured as much anyway. Sosa took a sabbatical from the game as the spotlight got hotter, even claiming a sudden loss of his command of the English language in front of Congress to avoid answering tough questions. In the process, Sosa and his inflated head became a national joke. When he did come back to baseball a few years later he was literally half the man he was before he left. Bonds, like Sheffield, has copped to the unintentional use of the “clear and the cream.”

But it’s not just the implication of high profile players that has fans in knots; it’s the association of those players with some of the most sacred records in all of baseball, home run records that has fostered the deep dissatisfaction. When it comes to these records, fans are incredibly protective. For years, Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in 1961 was a record with an asterisk because he set the record in a season that was eight games longer than when Ruth set the record in 1927. Though no such asterisk has ever accompanied Hank Aaron’s setting of the career home run mark, he was nonetheless subject to racist death threats as he was closing in on Babe Ruth’s career mark of 714 home runs. That’s a pretty volatile environment and these involved players who were never suspected of cheating.

At the time McGwire and Sosa were engaging in their chase of Roger Maris’ single season home run record (which both broke), it was a feel-good story after a contentious strike and performance-enhancing drugs were not really part of the conversation. But the revelations since have clearly tarnished fans’ memories of both players as well as that season, to the extent that they even think about that season at all anymore. By 2001 when Bonds reset the mark with 73, steroids were being openly whispered about but Bonds also had other problems, mostly related to a cranky personality that made him only slightly more fan friendly than Hitler. As the whispers about Bonds grew louder, the fans became even more suspicious and disdainful, except of course for the Pollyannaish fans in the Bay Area. Even as he sits on the precipice of the most cherished record of all, he’ll never escape the cloud.

In this context, it’s no wonder that baseball suffers from such a sordid reputation with steroids while football has mostly been given a pass. This is unfortunate.

It may be true that in football, the players involved in steroids aren’t themselves breaking any records, sacred or otherwise. But it’s also true that a steroid-enhanced player is probably helping contribute to the achievements of a team’s skill players who are breaking records, which in some fashion makes those records suspect. But fans aren’t apt to make such connections and until a high profile skill player, say a Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or LaDanian Tomlinson is linked with steroids, football fans are never going to see the impact steroid use has in football like they do in baseball.

Instead, what you will continue to see is the general indifference on display in the case of Tucker. To his credit, Tucker hasn’t torn a page from the Sheffield/Bonds playbook and claimed any sort of unintentional use. He’s been pretty forthcoming, actually. But the fact that he used and is now suspended was not the kind of distraction that the Browns needed in what is shaping up to be a make or break year for the franchise.

Tucker, like the many other football players who have come before him, will pay the price of their use through a suspension. But when it’s over, it will mostly be forgotten. Heck, fans and players alike were so forgiving in the case of Merriman, he made the Pro Bowl last year despite his four-game suspension. The NFL may have instituted the “Merriman” rule to keep that from happening again, but the truth is that when it comes to steroids in football, fans aren’t holding players to the same standards being applied to Bonds and his cohorts. In the end, this is why, despite the fact that football has had its program in place for so long, players continue to get caught and steroid use continues to plague the NFL just as much as it does baseball. And, like they do with football, it’s time for football fans to hold the players and the league more accountable. After all, only the credibility and the integrity of the league are at stake, if that means anything anymore.

Friday, August 03, 2007

On the Dotted Line

The two worst things in life are often not getting what you want and getting what you want. So it is with two seemingly separate but oddly connected figures in Cleveland sports: Eric Wedge and Brady Quinn.

On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much in common. They come from differing sporting paths. Wedge manages a baseball team and Quinn hopes to quarterback a football team. Wedge is almost 40 years of age and, while young for a manger, he still has significantly more miles in his rear view mirror than does the 22 year-old Quinn. But yet each has managed to find their ways into the hearts and minds of Cleveland fans for much the same reason, their contracts. And in much the same way, the fan consternation over each, while singularly different, is every bit as puzzling.

In Wedge’s case, there are a good number of fans still upset with Indians GM Mark Shapiro’s decision last month to extend Wedge’s contract through 2010. As most will recall, this was Wedge’s last year under his existing contract, although the Indians held options for the next two years. When Shapiro didn’t exercise those options at the beginning of the season, many felt that Wedge was being left to dangle, that this was a make or break year. Shapiro didn’t do much to quell that suspicion, either.

But it turned out that Shapiro wasn’t all that interested in using this season as the benchmark for determining Wedge’s future. Instead, in mid-July Shapiro essentially exercised the options and added an additional year, meaning that Wedge is now signed through 2010.

At the time, fans were all over talk radio, egged on by the likes of Kenny Roda at WKNR and others, into expressing their abject displeasure with Shapiro’s decision. That talked has resurfaced as of late with the Indians recent swoon. While Wedge certainly has his detractors and thus any extension, in their view, was completely unwarranted, most who are just lukewarm on Wedge simply couldn’t understand why the issue needed to be dealt with during the season. To their thinking, this season should be a make or break year for Wedge and if the Indians don’t make the playoffs, Wedge should be sent packing.

This kind of thinking has a certain amount of surface-level logic. But that’s about it. When you scratch below the surface, it’s kind of hard to figure why fans even care about it all that much and, to the extent they do, their thinking is almost completely backward.

Like it or not, the Indians under the Dolans are not going to be financed like the Chicago White Sox or the Detroit Tigers. For now and the foreseeable future, it is going to be made up of mostly underpaid younger players, veterans who are on the verge of potential superstardom and a smattering of more seasoned veterans with medical histories. There will be, as there has been, a fair amount of turnover every year. With that kind of built in instability already, the last thing that the franchise needs is instability in either the front office or in the dugout.

The Dolans have been rightly criticized for all manner of action and inaction, but when they extended Shapiro’s contract, it was the right move and was done to bring stability to a franchise that, by design, will always be in flux with its players. The same thinking holds true with the decision to extend Wedge. Whatever perceived value there may be in having him manage with his job supposedly on the line, it is completely undercut by the huge distraction of having a manager with an uncertain future sit in the dugout. Having a lame duck manager works no better in baseball than it does in your office. Players being players, meaning they are people first, if they don’t think the manager is in it for the long term, they will shut him out. They always do. Always.

Besides, it’s simply a fallacy that somehow Wedge will manage different, better, with more passion, take your pick, with his contract status in flux than with it more certain. Insecurity may be a powerful motivator for some, but that’s truer for a player than a manager. No matter how “hard” a manager manages, the players still have to play the game.

Moreover, if the decision on whether Wedge should stay hinges on his performance over what would amount of half a season rather than considering his whole body of work, the Indians would be the least well served of all in that equation. A desperate Wedge might try to eek out an extra inning or two out of Sabathia or Carmona in a given start instead of going to the bullpen, which might actually be the better move. The temptation might be to not rest Victor Martinez until he literally drops. Those moves and others might work well in the short term, maybe, but they could have devastating effects long term. Look no further than to how a desperate Billy Martin managed the Oakland As in 1980 and ‘81. His decisions to drain the last ounce of effort out of Mike Keough and Matt Norris in order to achieve a short term goal literally ruined their careers and, in the process, set the franchise reeling until Tony LaRussa showed up six years later.

As a final point, what’s ultimately the difference anyway? It’s not as if Wedge can’t be fired before his contract expires. While it can get expensive for an undercapitalized franchise like the Indians to hire and fire managers willy nilly, it will hardly be a devastating blow to the finances of the team if Wedge is let go early either. He doesn’t make that much.

Thus, while the fans are fretting over the fact that Wedge has signed a contract, there is at least equal if not more fretting over Quinn’s failure to yet sign a contract. That’s puzzling as well.

Just Friday morning, Terry Pluto of the Akron Beacon Journal wrote an open letter to Quinn urging him to sign his contract. It was the kind of column that read like a transcript of what most everyone’s thinking anyway. But as with Wedge contract situation, this one ultimately leaves me puzzled as well as to why the fans care so much.

In this regard, there is no question that it is better for the Browns and for Quinn that he sign, the sooner the better. But standing back and surveying the landscape, if the Browns are to improve this season, Quinn will be among the least likely reasons why. Stated differently, if the Browns need Quinn at all this season in order to show progress than the franchise is even further in the abyss than originally imagined.

Everyone already knows the outline on these issues so it hardly bears repeating. But it’s always best at times of stress to review the basics.

The chance of a rookie quarterback, even one with the pedigree of Quinn, having an immediate impact is virtually nil and that assumes he didn’t miss a minute of practice from the moment he was drafted. Even the players on the worst NFL team were still among the best players on their college teams. To a rookie quarterback, it’s like facing an all star team each and every time out. Because the talent level is so significantly different than faced at any level in college, it often seems to the young quarterback like the defense is playing with 20 players on its side of the field. Quinn may be special, but he’s not that special as to be immune to the demands of the NFL.

Thus, even if Quinn were the top pick of the draft, and he wasn’t, there still was little likelihood he’d start until the season was already irretrievably out of reach. Just from that standpoint, when he signs is not only not worth getting excited about it’s actually pretty irrelevant.

While it is entirely understandable, if nonsensical, why the fans get so excited about when a draft pick signs, at least as interesting and as puzzling is the socialistic nature with which everyone looks at these negotiations. Apparently, it’s OK to make gobs of money, but even to most fans living in a capitalistic society there still is a limit as to how much is enough. And when it comes to Quinn, apparently that limit is the pay commensurate with his draft position.

Quinn and his agent may be delusional to think that they can bleed more money out of the Browns than Quinn’s draft position might otherwise suggest, but it hardly makes either of them a villain for trying. Negotiations are always about leverage and whether they are right or wrong, Quinn and his agent, Tom Condon, believe that the have it over the Browns at the moment. It doesn’t help the Browns cause, by the way, for GM Phil Savage to get prickly in the media about the state of the negotiations. Savage would do well to take a page from Condon’s notebook and not return the next call Condon makes to him and to otherwise simply make himself unavailable for several days. When Quinn signs will ultimately come down to who is more desperate for it to happen. If it’s Quinn, he’ll have to learn to get by on a 5-year deal with a shade over $6 million guaranteed. If it’s the Browns, Quinn will have even more in his bank account.

Make no mistake about it: Quinn will sign just as sure as head coach Romeo Crennel will look befuddled the next time Braylon Edwards does something stupid. It’s not a question of if, but when. And that’s the great irony. It really doesn’t matter when, particularly at this point. Savage and Browns fans would do well to just relax and let the globe spin a few more times on its axis.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Waiting Game

It’s such a fine line between a slump and a trend that sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. But anyone watching the Cleveland Indians sleepwalk their way through the current homestand probably doesn’t care which it is. They just want it to change.

The questions, as always, are how and how soon. As it stands, the Indians made no moves at the trade deadline, so we now know that any change will come from within, barring some sort of waiver wire deal between now and the end of August. What remains is the more problematic question of how soon.

The failure to make a trade has likely unglued many of the faithful most of who see the Indians failures, particularly of late, as more indicative of a trend and not a slump, meaning that left undisturbed, things aren’t likely to magically turn for the better. For those in that camp, there is plenty of ammunition.

For example, it might be useful to update the numbers from the analysis provided a few weeks ago (see article here) detailing the offensive problems of this team, despite its overall run total and record. On the other hand, that update isn’t really needed. There is nothing that’s occurred in the last 10 days that suggests any improvement. If anything, the numbers are worse, meaning that the Indians of the last 10 days are hitting worse in every key situation—runners in scoring position, runners in scoring position and two outs, bases loaded, etc.

Anyone who watched the Indians play the Texas Rangers on Tuesday night knows this is true. Travis Hafner was 0-4, again, and looked bad doing it. His off-balance whiff at a high fastball for the third strike in his first at bat was typical, just as was the two pop outs that followed. Yet manager Eric Wedge keeps putting Hafner in the fourth spot in the order hoping, against hope, that things will change. They haven’t for awhile.

But Hafner was hardly alone in making Brandon McCarthy look nothing like the pitcher who, until tuesday, had failed to make it to the seventh inning in any start this season. The Indians had four hits and looked completely disinterested and uninspired, despite having had the previous day off. For fans in the camp of change is needed, nothing provides greater fuel for that argument than a team seemingly stuck in neutral.

For those who don’t necessarily think the Indians needed to make a move, there is plenty of ammunition for them as well. For example, it is true that even the best teams are flawed in some respect and thus can always use reinforcements. But having failed to obtain those reinforcements need not be fatal to the Tribe, particularly this year as pretty much every top tier team is flawed as well. Moreover, none of the contenders in the AL Central made a move either so in that regard, the Indians stand no differently vis-à-vis the competition today than they did, say, last Wednesday.

There also is the fact that despite how much he is hurting the team presently, Hafner’s career stats are still more suggestive of a prolonged slump than anything else. His lack of production this season in every key category is so far below where he has been historically that more patience seems a reasonable approach for even minimal improvement now is likely to make a noticeable difference in the offensive direction of the club.

But whatever camp you may be in as a fan, it’s pretty clear where Shapiro clearly stands. Believing that the price to be paid for reinforcements was too great, by default he put himself in the category of believing that internal adjustments are likely to yield sufficient results. We’ll see. So far the minor adjustments that have been made have been inconclusive, to say the least.

The trade for Kenny Lofton last week ultimately is of minor significance but the thinking behind the acquisition is still puzzling. For one thing, Lofton, at his age, is no longer an everyday player and if this team has anything in spades, it’s platoon players. Second, he’s a classic leadoff hitter, a role being ably filled by Grady Sizemore. Going into Wednesday’s game, Lofton has had a total of 7,979 at bats during his 17-year career. Of that, 6,926 have been as a leadoff hitter. He’s had 776 at-bats from the second slot in the order and a smattering of at-bats elsewhere in the lineup, but clearly Lofton’s career has been built on batting leadoff.

No question that the Indians need an impact hitter, but it’s hard to figure Lofton for that role since he’s never really played it at any point in his career and he isn’t likely to begin playing that now.

The other adjustments Shapiro has made, sending struggling Cliff Lee to Buffalo and the outrighting of Fernando Cabrera after Tuesday night’s game to allow for the return of Aaron Fultz are simply too new to have had any impact.

But standing back and allowing more time to assess what’s been done so far isn’t the answer, either. Adjustments need to be made, now. For example, given a piece he didn’t necessarily need, Wedge now needs to rethink his decision on where to bat Lofton. It’s somewhat easy to understand why Wedge bats Lofton second, but in doing so it takes Lofton out of his comfort zone and, incidentally, has negatively impacted Casey Blake. Blake’s current batting average of .268 is nine points higher than his career average. But interestingly, most of that uptick happened when Wedge moved Blake to second in the order. Since the acquisition of Lofton and the subsequent dropping of Blake to the bottom of the order, Blake is hitting only .190.

This isn’t to suggest that Lofton move to the leadoff spot, either. Nothing that disruptive needs to be done. Instead, a potentially better move might actually be to have Lofton bat ninth. This would allow Wedge to bat Josh Barfield eighth and move Blake back to the number two spot. This also would put the Indians in the position of having three hitters with good speed in succession for most of the game batting in front of hitters like Blake, Victor Martinez, Hafner and Ryan Garko, all of whom can drive the ball. As it stands, with Blake batting eighth, the Indians lineup lacks a theme and is out of sync.

Wedge also needs to rethink Hafner’s spot in the lineup. At a minimum, he needs to switch Garko and Hafner. Though Garko of late is struggling like the rest of his teammates, he did hit .369 in the last month. Of his 24 hits during that stretch, half were for extra bases (7 doubles, 5 home runs). By comparison, Martinez is hitting .241 during that stretch with 8 doubles and 3 home runs. Hafner is hitting .250 with 3 doubles and 4 home runs.

Following Tuesday night’s loss, Wedge told the media that his offense needs to put better at bats together, be tougher outs. He challenged each of his hitters to step up and make a difference. All true, but that same advice applies to Wedge as well. Right now, he has to put the offense in a position to get better, something he hasn’t done yet. The lineup needs to be shaken up and now. With the most critical part of the season upon them simply waiting for better results isn’t the answer.