A World Cup Interlude

I recently had a discussion with a friend over social media in which he made a joke about the entertainment value of soccer. It’s well-worn territory. People have speculated about why Americans don’t embrace the game for a long time. Despite the vast number of kids who have grown up playing youth soccer over the past forty years, it still seems like an imported sport.

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Maybe that’s because when you see kids playing pickup games, they’re usually recent immigrants. If you see American-born kids playing, it’s almost always in matching uniforms on a manicured field with adults running around trying to control things. Even in high school soccer, I recently overheard a coach trying to explain his offense to the team by using basketball terms.

My son blames organized soccer for the futility of the U.S. Men’s team. He believes the dearth of pickup games leads to a lack of creativity when split-second decisions are required, which leads to a predictable offense and rigid defenses that can’t react to unexpected decisions by the opponent.

I played soccer as a youth, but only for two years in junior high school. I competed with my parish school team, even though I attended public school. Our new, young, assistant pastor started the program, and all of the schools we played were several miles away. We practiced in an open field, where our goal consisted of two large trees about twenty feet apart. My parish was located in a lower-middle class neighborhood on the south side of Louisville, and most of the other teams were situated in the more prosperous east end of the city.

I don’t know what compelled Father Ryan to start the team, but he created a lot of opportunities for kids in our parish, especially in sports and music. Maybe he saw it as an evangelization effort. He later left the priesthood, got married and started his own family, working as an advocate for kids in the Jefferson County Court system. One of my fondest memories of him is when he was watching our B-team basketball game, quietly asking the coach when he was going to put the bench players in. (Of course, one of the bench players was me.)  

Anyway, my high school didn’t have a soccer team, so my playing career ended in eighth grade. Nobody I grew up with played soccer after that, either. My own kids played youth soccer, and two of them played in high school. So I’ve watched a fair amount, and when NBC began broadcasting English Premier League (EPL) games, I became even more of a fan.

I like watching the incredible moves the player make, the distance and accuracy with which they play the ball, the raw foot speed, and the passion of the fans. The parts I don’t like are the faked fouls (“diving”) and constant carping at officials. (I know, I know. Taking up for referees is kind of my own provincialism.) But most of the parts I don’t like are common in other sports (especially my first love, basketball) and there are other positive aspects to pro soccer that the others don’t have. Like relegation.

In the NBA, there are teams that are just plain bad, year after year. The Los Angeles Clippers have never been to the NBA finals. The Kings haven’t even made the playoffs (a low bar for success in the NBA, to be sure) since 2006. The Milwaukee Bucks haven’t won a playoff series since 2001.   

In EPL if you don’t finish in the top 17 of the twenty-team league, you’re banished to the next lower level of soccer. It’s as if you’re the Miami Marlins. MLB comes to you at the end of the season and says, “OK, if you’re not even going to try, your MLB franchise now plays in triple-A. Good luck in the International League.” Then the top three teams in the (lower) Championship League get to come up and try to win in the Premier League.

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There is also no salary cap in the EPL. For a country that claims to value free enterprise and achievement of personal success, it’s always surprised me that Americans don’t object to salary caps. Nobody limits the amount owners can make; why do we want to see restrictions on player earnings?

Maybe it will take sustained success by the U.S. Men’s Team in World Cup play for America to embrace “the beautiful game”. Or maybe it’s that we have too many other sports entertainment options to pay attention to something we didn’t grow up with. But I like it. Especially the World Cup, which is one of the true World Championships in sports. I’ll watch a lot of games over the next few weeks, enjoying both the goals and the play in between.

Besides, I have a bet on Argentina to win the thing.   

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Velcro me to a wall? Yes, please…

One way minor league and independent professional baseball clubs differ from MLB is in their willingness to commit to innovative (some might say goofy) in-game promotions. As much as I love the baseball at Frontier League games, it’s clearly not major-league caliber. In addition, the players would really rather not be here; their goal is to get to the show. And in the affiliated minor leagues, the primary team goal isn’t even to win (though I’m sure they all want to). The main focus is to develop players for the major league team.  

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All of which leads the sub-majors (defined here as minor league affiliates and independent pros like the Frontier League) to come up with ways to get fans in the gate and, once there, keep them entertained so they’ll come back.  The Freedom haven’t just committed to promotions; they’ve moved there and burned their passport.

I pulled into the parking lot of UC Health Stadium on a cloudy Friday night and looked up at the video billboard to find I’d chosen “Super Hero Night”, missing “Martial Arts Night” by a couple of days. The promotions schedule relies heavily on discounted booze, with “Thirsty Thursdays” (one dollar draft beers), “Taco Tuesdays” ($2 tacos and Mexican-style lagers), and “Whiskey Wednesdays” ($1 off bourbon cocktails). Like many other parks, UC Health has a bar area in one corner of the concourse. Unlike the others, there is an attached smoking area. Because Kentucky.

For several innings during this game, one lucky fan won the right to be attached with velcro to a billboard just outside the right field fence. Armed with a baseball glove, he was trying to catch a home run ball, in which case he’d win $8,110. Boone County sponsors the promotion to encourage home owners to call 811 before digging on their property and damaging utility lines. I guess they figured nobody would do it for $811. (But I would. Hell, I’d pay $811.)  

At one point between innings costumed characters (presumably interns clutching very short straws) raced around the infield. This is a common promotion in the majors, with racing presidents (Washington Nationals), sausages (Milwaukee Brewers), pierogies (Pittsburgh Pirates), etc., etc., etc.

But the Freedom chose to envelop the contestants in inflated eyeballs. The costumes were about four feet across and caused a lot of stumbling which was – of course – the point.

Later, all of the kids in the ballpark were gathered just outside the third base line and suddenly loosed to run across the field at the end of an inning. The interns were trying to herd them in one direction and get them back in the stands within thirty seconds. It was a valiant effort, but four-year-olds don’t have the sense of urgency required to accomplish the task, so the staff chased kids around the field for a minute or two as the pitcher warmed up.

The ballpark sits right next to interstate 75, the main north-south artery through Cincinnati, Ohio. You can hear the roar of traffic from anywhere inside. The stadium was neat and well-kept, with artificial carpet instead of real grass. The usual playground is located down the left field line, but a multi-story inflatable slide is added at game time.

The concession stands feature several Cincinnati-area staples, including Montgomery Inn Ribs, chili, Christian Moerlein beer, and – gulp – goetta sliders.  IMG_20180601_194147099

If you aren’t from Cincinnati, you probably don’t know what goetta is. Well over 90% of all U.S. goetta sales take place in and around the Queen City. I’ve tasted it before, and I’m not a fan. It’s basically sausage with steel cut oatmeal mixed in. I like sausage and I like oatmeal, but not together. It’s like mixing beer and maple syrup. They both need to stay in their own country.

Aaron Brodie serves as Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations for the Freedom, and he arranged several interviews for me.  We met on the concourse during batting practice, and he gave me his take on the team and players’ personalities. Two of the players scheduled for an interview were Xavier Turner and Jose Brizuela.

Both had successful college careers and were drafted by major league organizations. Turner was drafted out of high school but chose to play college baseball at Vanderbilt. After his sophomore season he was again drafted, and this time signed a contract with the Texas Rangers. He bounced around in A ball for two years, ending up on the disabled list three times. Then at the end of the 2016 season, the Rangers released him shortly after MLB mandated a 100-game suspension for failing a test for a “drug of abuse”.

A suspension of that length means that he failed drug tests at least three times. If any MLB organization signs him to a contract in the future, he’ll have to serve the suspension before playing  a single game.

Turner was out of baseball completely in 2017, working for his father at a baseball academy in their hometown of Sandusky, Ohio.

“I was depressed and didn’t know if I wanted to play baseball anymore,” he said. “I was going through a lot off the field. But then I entered the real world and found out how real it was.”  

Being out of the game and wondering what might have been convinced him to give professional baseball another shot. Florence manager Dennis Pelfrey contacted him after seeing some video posted by an amateur scout, and Turner signed with the Freedom in February of 2018.

Turner understands that the suspension is a big hurdle for affiliated teams to overcome. They’d have to sign him and then essentially wait for an entire season before seeing him on the field.

“It only takes one out of 32 teams to like you, but I know (the suspension is) playing a big part in how they feel about me. But all I can do is control what I can control, and do the right things on and off the field.”

Brizuela was also drafted out of high school but deferred signing until the Oakland Athletics drafted him after three years at Florida State. He played at the A level  for two years, never hitting above .270. Oakland released him during 2017 spring training, and he signed with the Freedom. In Florence he hit .321 with 13 homers and got a contract from the Dodgers. In sixteen games at the end of the 2017 season, he hit .353 with single-A Rancho Cucamonga, then was inexplicably released during the 2018 spring training.

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Brodie had warned me in an email that Brizuela was “media shy”. I asked him if Brizuela had ever mentioned why the Dodgers released him after he hit .350 in A ball. Brodie said that he wouldn’t really give an answer, just saying it was “one of those things”. He also told me that it was hard to get the player to even agree to promotional videos. I asked whether there was a language barrier since Brizuela was born in Venezuela, but that’s not an issue since he’d grown up in Miami.

Players have avoided or declined interviews with me before, and this sounded like what was going on. I assured Brodie that it wasn’t a big deal if I didn’t get to talk to him. A player (or anybody else, for that matter) who grudgingly gives up a few minutes to talk is unlikely to say anything interesting anyway. If you’re on deadline and a player affects the game in a significant way, you have no choice and have to press the issue. But I’ve never goaded anybody into good quotes. Maybe that’s a professional failing of mine, but in this context I can do without awkward interviews.

In a game they lost 5-4, the Freedom had a chance to take the lead in the eighth inning. Brizuela doubled with one out, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate. Andres Mercurio singled to right field, but Brizuela ran through the manager’s stop sign at third and was thrown out at home. Mercurio tried to take second on the play, but he was thrown out as well to end the scoring threat.

A few days after I left, Florence sold Brizuela’s contract to the New York Mets and he was assigned to their short-season A team in Brooklyn. For his part, Turner was activated from the disabled list and hit two home runs in his first six games back. It’s hard to imagine a team giving Turner another chance. But, like all pro sports, baseball is a bottom line game. And certainly stranger things have happened. Like attaching somebody to a wall with velcro.  DSC_0172

Sauget Wind

It’s a long way to heaven

It’s a short way to hell

Painkillers won’t help

When the weight’s not yourself

They’re poisoning the air

For personal wealth

It’s a long way to heaven

It’s a short way to hell”

       Sauget Wind –  Uncle Tupelo, 1991
One might be tempted to say that the Gateway Grizzlies play “just across the river” from the River City Rascals. But that would be misleading. O’Fallon does lie just west of St. Louis, and the Grizzlies play in Sauget, Illinois, which is on the eastern banks of the Great River. But it’s a 45-minute drive through downtown St. Louis to get to Sauget, and the difference is stark.

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While O’Fallon sits in a relatively prosperous suburb with rolling hills, Sauget….uh……does not. It’s not exactly urban, not really rural or even ex-urban. The ballpark is surrounded by interstates, warehouses and industries like chemical plants and the company that makes deodorant disks for urinals. It’s about fifteen minutes south of gritty East St. Louis, but I can’t imagine anybody feeling unsafe around the ballpark. Unless your idea of danger is an inability to get Starbucks or fill up your gas tank.

In addition to being home to the Gateway Grizzlies, Sauget (pronounced “So-zhay”) is also the Frontier League headquarters. Deputy Commissioner Steve Tahsler pointed out his office in a large building outside the left field fence. He told me that the league settled on the location because the commissioner was raised in the area.

Sauget was originally incorporated as the town of Monsanto, named after the chemical company. From the beginning, the city fathers spared no effort to lure business by allowing newcomers to do use the area as a chemical toilet. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency designated the town as a Superfund clean-up site due to “three closed waste disposal areas …. a closed construction debris disposal area, a backfilled impoundment, an inactive borrow pit and about 3.5 miles of Dead Creek”.

But GSC Credit Union Ballpark, built in 2002, is an island of fun and innocence in the midst of all the industry, warehouses and interstate ramps. The field is artificial turf installed in 2012, but I’m starting to get used to that. The concession stand features “Baseball’s Best Burger”, which is a bacon cheeseburger with a Krispy Kreme doughnut serving as the bun. (Fun fact: Tahsler told me that former MLB All-Star Dmitri Young ate thirteen of them over a three-game series, establishing a modern-day record.) If you venture out to the right right field stands, “Country Bob’s Grill House” offers pulled pork or chicken, beef brisket and other barbecue favorites.

The Grizzlies’ radio guy Nate Gatter set me up with interviews with several of the players the afternoon of the game. The schedule was tight because the position players were having a “hitters meeting” before batting practice. At any level of baseball, meetings are never a good sign. Teams don’t have meetings when they’re winning.

As a result, I spent most of my time with pitchers (who, to be honest, are generally more interesting to talk to anyway). But one position player I met was Blake Brown.

Brown was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of high school, but chose to play collegiately at Missouri. For his college career he hit .294 and was drafted in the fifth round by Atlanta after his junior year. For comparison, some of the other players drafted in that round in 2012 were current major leaguers Chris Taylor (2017 NLCS MVP), Max Muncy, Mallex Smith, Ty Blach and Rob Refsnyder. If you’re drafted as high as the fifth round, a lot of people expect you to play in the major leagues someday.

Brown bounced around the Atlanta minor leagues for three years with stops in Danville, VA, Rome, GA, and Lynchburg, VA, never rising above single-A and never hitting above .261 for a season. The Braves finally released him in 2015, so he signed with Gateway. This summer, he’ll turn 27 and exhaust his Frontier League eligibility after this season. I asked if he thinks he got a fair shot with Atlanta.

“I absolutely do,” he said without hesitation. “I played every day for two-and-a-half years, and, honestly, it was all on me. I lost my swing and tried to make the game too technical instead of just playing the game. Even my first year here, I had some success but I never got comfortable with my swing and my game until last year (.300 batting average with 18 home runs in 93 games).” So far this season, he’s hitting .309 with two homers and five steals over twenty games.

Brown told me that he was close to finishing his bachelor’s degree, and he isn’t entirely bereft of options outside baseball. According to his college bio, he participated in several national student leadership conferences in high school. I asked him if he was still trying to get picked up by an affiliated team.  

He shrugged. “I’ve pursued it, but there’s only so much you can do besides play. I’ve had friends who went overseas or to other leagues and they end up being fourth or fifth outfielders, so they don’t get seen anyway. I feel like this is a better place to showcase what I can do. I’m comfortable here.”

Other players have told me that sometimes getting drafted by the right team – one without a surfeit of players at a particular position – can help with advancement in the organization. I asked Brown if he thought that might have made a difference for him.

“The coaching you get is different everywhere, and you can hear the same thing a thousand times, but somebody just says it a little different and it clicks. Maybe I could have heard something a little differently. But I got plenty of instruction and plenty of opportunities, I just didn’t capitalize on it.”

During the game, I walked around the ballpark and sat in several different seats to get different perspectives. From the third base line, you see cars and trucks flashing by on I-255. Looking in from the outfield, it’s all green and brown carpet enclosed by the brick walls and concession stands. Finally, I climbed to the top row of bleacher seats down the first base line and looked west. Across the flat plains and industrial pipework of Sauget, you can clearly see the St. Louis arch, just a few blocks from the Cardinals’ Busch stadium. It occurred to me that there’s more than one kind of distance.DSC_0134

  

Next stop: O’Fallon, Missouri

I drove into O’Fallon, Missouri just west of St. Louis around noon on a Tuesday. My first Frontier League trip was starting with the River City Rascals.  It was a really hot day, and, deferring to my usual paranoia about being late for meetings, I was three hours early for the interviews I’d scheduled.

Carshield Field sits in the middle of a residential neighborhood, with left field abutting an apartment complex. The housing in the immediate vicinity looks to be upper-middle class, but manufactured housing and sketchy apartment complexes are  just a few blocks away.

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The Rascals started Frontier League play in 1999, and the ballpark is clean and well-maintained. Like a lot of minor league facilities, CarShield features a play area to keep little kids occupied that also contains a full-sized adjustable basketball goal. The team installed artificial turf in 2017, which is a little off-putting (though consistent with most teams in the league). Not only is the grass part of the field replaced, but the dirt part is covered with dark brown carpet.

River City’s manager is Steve Brook, and he also serves as Director of Baseball Operations.

“All that means is that I make all the player decisions,” he said. “There are some managers in this league who only manage the team. They don’t have to worry about paying people or making transactions.

“It’s a burden, but it’s kinda fun, really. It’s like playing fantasy baseball with real people.”

We were talking in his cramped office in the clubhouse, which is a brick outbuilding beyond the right field fence. An overworked air conditioning unit labored to keep up with July-like heat outside. Brook sat at a desk making out a list for his clubhouse manager to make a run to Subway. I sat in a chair to his left while assistant coaches Josh Ludy and Alex Ferguson slumped on overstuffed couches just a couple feet away.

Ludy, a squat, bearded ex-catcher and current Rascals hitting instructor sat looking at his phone, his lower lip puffy with dip. Ludy played over 300 games for the Rascals between 2014 and 2017. We were talking about how Brook finds players to field his team. He said it’s an everyday process of talking to coaches in both pro and college programs and close monitoring of the waiver wire.

“I rely heavily on these two guys (Ludy and Ferguson), and all my former and current players. And a lot of it is just emailing people. For instance, if a high-A or double-A guy gets released who spent three years at Georgia Tech, I’ll email all the contacts I have at Georgia Tech and ask for the kid’s phone number.”

Ludy stirred from the depths of his couch. “Where’d you get my name from? I don’t think I ever asked you that.”

“You were with the Phillies?”

“Yeah.”

“Zack Sterner.”

Ludy stared at Brook. “I have no idea who that is.”

“He was a right-handed starter from the Phillies who played for me in 2011 and 2012.”

Ludy shook his head. “Had no idea.”

After managing in independent baseball for years, Brook demonstrates an encyclopedic recall of players in both his own league and affiliated baseball. It’s one result of nearly constant focus on finding, evaluating, and acquiring players each year.

“It’s non-stop,” he said. “It’s a burden that never goes away. I mean, Christmas morning I’m thinking, ‘Who do I have at short this year? Who do I have a at second? How am I gonna get this guy? How do I outbid all the other managers around the country doing the exact same thing when I have the second-smallest salary cap in all of independent baseball?’ Plus, we have organizational restrictions that are tighter than other teams in our own league.”

“But a lot of it is getting the right people who want to come and enjoy baseball and have a shot at getting picked up by an affiliated team.”

As game time approaches and the sun sets, the heat eases a bit as the ballpark starts to fill. Brook had mentioned that River City and Gateway are the two smallest ballparks in the league. There are no ushers, so seat selection is apparently on the honor system. I settle into a spot five rows from the field down the first base line in front of Raskie’s Bar and Grill, a brick building in right field that offers relief from heat and kids along with cocktails and beer.

Frontier League Deputy Commissioner Steve Tahsler had mentioned to me that each ballpark in the league developed its own unique concession menu. In addition to the usual fare of peanuts, popcorn and hot dogs, CarShield Field offers “The Boomstick” ( a 24” hot dog with cheese and jalapeno peppers), “The Catcher’s Mitt” (a huge soft pretzel that surrounds cheese, fruit, and candy), and other specialties that can feed small families or large fans.

Brook’s comment about the team’s frugality didn’t sound too much unlike what I’ve heard in triple A. But several times the PA announcer mentioned that anyone turning in a foul ball would get a coupon for a free haircut from Great Clips.

The play on the field was surprisingly energetic and competitive. Some of the players told me that there is a lot more focus on winning games in the Frontier League than in affiliated baseball. At the triple A level, you sometimes get the impression that players are mostly interested in getting their at bats or innings and not getting hurt. But in this contest against the Schaumburg Boomers, players were sliding on the hot turf to knock down grounders and crashing into outfield walls with abandon. The home team clobbered three home runs and held the Boomers scoreless on their way to a 10-0 win that came in under two-and-a-quarter hours. IMG_20180522_183804536

I think I’m going to like this league.

Roaming the Midwest looking for baseball

Sometime around 2005, I discovered that there was a Frontier League team in Richmond, Indiana. The Frontier League is an independent professional baseball league. (That is, the teams are not affiliated with any Major League Baseball franchises). The League started in 1992 and originally contained teams from Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio. Over 20 Frontier alumni have appeared in major league games, with Brendan Donnelly (Angels), Jason Simontacchi (Cardinals), and Brian Tollberg (Padres) among the more familiar names. Over the years, a number of teams have folded, been sold, and started.

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None of the original eight teams still exist. (At least not in the same city. Figuring out whether the same ownership group moved one of the teams elsewhere would require research. Which will happen at some point this season, but not yet.) I remember that the Richmond team was purchased a couple years after I noticed them and moved to Traverse City, Michigan, where they still play. I took Conor and Eamon to a couple of Richmond Roosters games, though I don’t remember much about the ballpark. What has stayed with me is the sight of their hideous green and orange uniforms.

But, sartorial objections aside, I started thinking about independent pro baseball again a few weeks ago. The Frontier League now numbers twelve teams with three in the Chicago area, two more close to St. Louis, and the farthest one from Indianapolis being just outside Cleveland. It’d be much easier to visit all of these teams over the course of one season than to try to make an MLB circuit. So, in order to write (definitely) and sell (pinkies crossed) several magazine articles, I’m planning to visit each ballpark between May and August.

The Frontier League office graciously sent me a “VIP” ballpark pass that will get me in to the games. I’m now in the process of coordinating visits with each team, hoping to interview players, coaches, fans and host families. I don’t see a book coming out of this, but you never know. Even if I don’t sell many articles, how many people can say they’ve seen every ballpark in the Frontier League?……Huh?…….Anybody?….OK, I’ll admit maybe there’s no widespread desire to want to say that, but, still…..   

My first trip will be to St. Louis because I want to interview the league officials early in the process. That’ll also allow me to see home games for the River City Rascals (O’Fallon, MO) and Gateway Grizzlies (Sauget, IL).   

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I fully expect to see the same types of players I saw when I was covering AAA baseball. A number of hopeful, younger guys still chasing a dream of playing in the majors and older players giving this thing one last shot, rounded out with in-betweens who can’t say why they’re here; they’ve just played baseball every summer for their whole lives and don’t know how to quit.

But I hope I’ll find some interesting personal stories. One thing the last year has taught me is that in any group of 10-15 people, at least three have a history or a motivation that you can’t read on their faces or guess by their situations. So for the next few months of this blog will reflect those travels and games, with the occasional break from sports forced by whatever is occupying my thoughts at the time. Other than Hamilton lyrics. Because everybody I know is tired of hearing me talk about that.  

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Louisville basketball and betting the Final Four

The University of Louisville has hired Chris Mack as head men’s basketball coach. News reports describe the contract as seven years at four million per. I haven’t seen any numbers on how much he’s getting from Adidas.

Some people would say the Rick Pitino era ended when he was fired last fall after a succession of scandals. I don’t think it ended until the University announced that interim coach David Padgett would not be retained a few weeks ago.

As I’ve written before, I’m a 1980 alum of U of L and I was a serious fan of the program before the University hired Pitino. I won’t belabor all of the cogent, tightly-wound, and correctly-spelled arguments for that. If you’re interested, you can see them here: https://wordsbymattroberts.com/2017/09/29/we-have-met-the-enemy-and-it-is-us/

So what about Chris Mack? Is this really a house-cleaning, high-integrity hire?

Mack came from Xavier, which consistently posts excellent Academic Progress Rate (APR) numbers. He’s almost a Louisville guy, having married a Louisville native and residing in Northern Kentucky while he coached at Xavier. It appears he has no ties at all to Ricky (The Prince of Darkness) Pitino, and he apparently ran a clean program in Cincinnati.

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One minor concern is a reference to one of Mack’s players in the burgeoning shoe money scandal that forced U of L to finally cut ties with Pitino. The player reportedly received $7,000 from an agent while playing at Xavier. But that’s a far cry from systematic corruption or the repeated scandals that Louisville is trying to escape. And it’s at least plausible that Mack had no knowledge of the payment.

He can certainly recruit Indiana players. Over the past few years, two of the best in the state (Trevon Bluiett and Paul Scruggs) have played for him at Xavier. Scruggs concerns me a little. While writing Thirty-Two Minutes in March I learned that Scruggs was in the Crispus Attucks program in Indianapolis before suddenly appearing at Southport High School for his freshman year. With Indiana’s open enrollment law, there’s nothing improper about that. But then for his senior season he left Southport and enrolled at Pro Prep in California, which isn’t even a school. It’s a basketball program that arranges for classes elsewhere.

Again, nothing improper about this. Necessarily. But it smells like everything that’s wrong with college basketball.

Then again, I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not 1954. The high school and college athletics landscape isn’t what it used to be. What is?

I don’t know if I’ll ever be as much a fan of UL basketball as I once was. I’ve sent three of my kids to Indiana University and spent more on their education in one semester than I did in four years at Louisville. But I won’t actively root against the Cardinals at this point. If Mack proves to be the stand-up guy he appears to be, and the University shows that they’re committed to running a clean program, I can support them.

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We made our annual March Madness trip to Vegas for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The basketball betting was up and down, but we went 3-2 on our sweet sixteen wagers we made before heading to the airport. We cashed on Villanova -5.5 vs. West Virginia, the Loyola moneyline at plus-120 against Nevada and Syracuse plus 11.5 versus Puke. Our losses were a moneyline bet on Clemson against Kansas and Purdue minus 1.5 versus Texas Tech.    

Photos taken at Las Vegas.

In the Final Four this weekend, Loyola is getting five and a half against Michigan, and Villanova is a five-point favorite over Kansas. I could present a detailed statistical analysis for picks here, but that kind of thinking put me into a -1200 unit hole during our NCAA pool. I only started to recover when I picked games based on gut instinct. So that’s what I’m doing here.

Loyola’s a great story, but I think Michigan is the kind of team that would give them trouble, so I’d lay the points before I’d take them. Nova looks unstoppable to me, but I don’t think they’re five points better than Kansas. Which sets up a Michigan-Villanova final. I’d like to pick a Big Ten team here, but I think Nova is just too good. A final of 80-72 sounds about right.   

 

Pass the clipboard

I may have mentioned that I grew up in Kentucky. Consequently, when our family gathers for the holidays, we don’t usually argue about politics; we argue about basketball. Which recently led to another argument about the University of Louisville and its recent troubles.

After finally firing Rick Pitino, UL hired assistant coach David Padgett to run the program as interim coach. For $800,00 per year. I’ve said that my preference as an alum is that the University shut down basketball completely for 3-5 years and then start over. I understand that’s probably unrealistic. But I do think the university should at least wipe away all traces of the Jurich/Pitino regime until a new, squeaky clean coach can be found. Not that there’s any evidence that Padgett was involved in all the skullduggery; but the program needs a completely clean sweep.   News reports indicated that the University president said (paraphrasing here) that they wanted to appoint somebody who was already familiar with the players because UL expected to be good this year.

The points presented to me were that UL went as far as it should go in house-cleaning, and bringing in an interim coach from outside the program would penalize the current players who – so far –  have not been accused of any wrongdoing. And that a coach unfamiliar with the players and their program would have little chance to effectively lead the team.

Regarding the last observation, I countered that it’s just basketball. Nobody has invented new plays or defenses in a long time. Most teams run pretty much the same stuff. Danville coach Brian Barber told me that his team runs one out-of-bounds play called “America”.

“We call it that ‘cause everybody in America runs it,” he said.

All of which started me thinking about the relative importance of coaching in basketball. I’ve been playing, watching, coaching, and refereeing basketball my whole life (though, obviously, well below the major college level).   Robert_Timmons_(basketball_coach)

What are the major recent innovations in the game? The Pack Line Defense? Land sakes, it’s so complex. You have to play off your man to within 16 feet of the basket unless he has the ball. That’s it.

The VCU “Havoc” defense? Um, it’s a press. You play defense for 90 feet instead of 45. Thirty years ago Arkansas ran the same thing, but they called it “Forty Minutes of Hell”. Quick, somebody run some computer simulations!

The Triangle and Motion offenses are like fifty years old. They’ve been running the pick and roll for about a hundred years, and, when executed properly, it still works.

One time I asked veteran Indiana high school coach Ron Hecklinski how you tell the difference between a good basketball coach and a bad one. He said it basically comes down to who can get his team to play harder. Whether it’s through fear of running sprints after practice or adoration of the coach doesn’t matter. If two teams are equal in talent, the team that plays harder usually wins. If they’re not equal in talent, then the lesser team has to play a LOT harder to win.  

I’ll concede that some coaches make better in-game adjustments than others, but I also think it’s really hard for an outsider to make that assessment. Just judging the effectiveness of a strategy move based on results is dicey. It’s awfully tough to isolate the variable. Did the coach change defenses? If so, was the other team ready for it? How did they adjust? If it was such a stroke of genius, why didn’t the team start out in that defense?  

I think coaching has a much greater impact on football and baseball. In the latter, the manager is potentially making decisions prior to every single pitch. Moving fielders, calling pitches, considering pinch hitters on both his or her own team as well as the opposition. In football, the playbooks run to hundreds of pages, with blocking schemes changing every play.

None of which necessarily makes these games more compelling to watch than basketball. It’s not that much fun to watch somebody think. I do believe that basketball coaches in particular get too much credit and too much blame for team performance. The game just moves too quickly for coaches to make the micro-changes during each play that might accumulate over the course of the game.   

  Bill_Blakeley

 

Basketball handicapping 101

Over the past two years I’ve run a college basketball pool for some of the poker/fantasy football group. We each post an entry fee and then pick five college basketball games each week against the spread. The winner and runner-up split the pot.

In a desperate effort to avoid repeating my futile and embarrassing performance, I started developing my strategy early this year. Like, a week ago. After re-reading a book on sports betting, I calculated my own power rating for each of the 351 NCAA teams in order to cipher point spreads for each game.

Photos taken at Las Vegas.

There was an interesting blog entry on Kenpom.com recently about the differences in home court advantage between teams. At the end of the day, Pomeroy said you can’t calculate this with much certainty, then he proceeded to list his HCA for each team. Which feels like a tease. But, like any degen gambler, I’m going to ignore his warnings and use it as an adjustment anyway. At least for a few weeks to see how it goes.

I also decided to concentrate on four conferences. Big Ten, since I watch a lot of those games anyway. And then three mid-major leagues in the Missouri Valley, Mid-American, and Ohio Valley. I’m hoping that the point spreads won’t be as accurate for the smaller schools. I don’t plan on betting any games where the sportsbooks’ spread is close to mine; I’m looking for games where there’s a disparity.

So I plan to post some of my spreads for games in these pages. If I start winning, maybe I’ll finally get my dream job: hanging around Churchill Downs and giving my selections to other people to bet on.

For Friday, November 10, here are the spreads I’ve calculated:

Indiana minus 16 vs. Indiana State

Southern Illinois plus 5.5 at Winthrop

Ball State even at Dayton

Miami (Ohio) plus 4 at Fordham

Bowling Green plus 9 at Drexel

Missouri State minus 2 at Western Kentucky 

                                                                                        *****

With the opening of basketball season, it’s time for me to start showing up at book fairs and basketball tournaments to try to sell some books while avoiding eye contact with strangers. First up is the Christmas Hobby and Gift Show November 8-12 at the Indiana Fairgrounds.

Other writers have told me that this is a great venue for local authors, and especially books about sports. The attendance skews heavily female, and one guy told me that they frequently want to buy books for husbands/fathers/sons so they’ll read more. Because men are dumb and have short attention spans. So I’m hoping I can get rid of the last copies I have to sell. I’ve been thinking more lately about another book, and selling out* would get me to the break-even point financially.

I think I’ve learned a lot about the publishing process, but I’m still not willing to write on topics just because a book might be a money-maker. Writing fiction would be convenient, because I could do it all from home. But even though I don’t need book sales to make a living, I would like for at least a few people besides my family to buy copies. I’ve also been reading a lot of Richard Russo lately (“Nobody’s Fool”, “Everybody’s Fool”, “Bridge of Sighs”, etc.) who sets the bar impossibly high for fiction. That guy is just so good, I feel like anything I could write would be embarrassingly bad by comparison.

My sports-themed book idea would require a lot of travel. Fun, but expensive. My other non-fiction idea is completely removed from sports, so maybe I’ll go that way.    

 

*Selling out of books, yo. I’ll never sell out on certain strongly-held positions. Like opposition to the designated hitter rule, or the superiority of rye bread over white.

  Rye_bread,_Poznan,_Poland

 

Baseball season fades into basketball

So it comes down to this. Final week of the baseball season, and we have the Houston Astros against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Serious. (For some reason I always think of the Astros as the Rastros. Evidence of my early and ongoing obsession with the Jetsons.)

Orbit_Houston_Astros_mascot_preseason_2014

I’m contractually obligated to root for the Dodgers since they’re a National League team, though the Astros are a great story. From 2011 to 2013, they lost 100 games in each season, but then built their team patiently and slowly. They have only the 18th largest payroll in MLB and many of their key players rose through the Houston farm system (including Correa and Altuve). They made key free agent deals this season only when it was obvious they could contend for the championship.

In contrast, Los Angeles has the highest payroll in baseball. The Dodgers are generally around middle of the pack in free agents. They’re not as much fun to watch since Vin Scully retired, and they enjoy a huge media market. All of which makes them a less compelling rooting interest.

But the pitchers bat. It says here, Dodgers in six.  

 1916WorldSeries

                                                               

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                         *****

I’ve been interviewing the head basketball coaches at Butler and Ball State in the run-up to the start of hoops season for magazine articles. Frankly, I’ve never been a big fan of Butler. I’ve never had any real connection with the school, other than living in the same city.  

But over the past twenty years or so, Butler coaches have consistently won there without any hint of scandal, and then moved on to bigger jobs. Thad Matta to Xavier and Ohio State. Todd Lickliter to Iowa. Brad Stevens to the NBA. Chris Holtmann to Ohio State.  

After Holtmann left, Butler hired LaVall Jordan as head coach. Jordan played at Butler, then assisted at Butler, Iowa and Michigan before becoming head coach at Milwaukee. After a single season there, the Butler position came open and he won the job at his alma mater.

When I met with him in his office at Hinkle Fieldhouse, he acted like he had all day to talk. As usual, I’d asked his staff for 15-30 minutes, but Jordan didn’t seem to be watching the clock. He asked about my family, talked easily about the transition, and spent about 45 minutes with me.

The only time he seemed uneasy was when I asked him whether Butler’s playing style would change. Over the last fifteen seasons, kenpom has rated the Butler offensive tempo higher than 200th in the NCAA only once.

He shifted in his seat. “Well, what do you mean by style?”

“In terms of offensive tempo,” I said.

“Well, we’ve always been opportunistic here,” he said. “But valuing the basketball has been a staple. We’ve always been rated pretty highly in fewest turnovers, and that won’t change. If it does, we’ll have to have some conversations.

“And playing unselfishly has always been a staple, I don’t see the way we play changing that much.”

Which sounds like a “no” to me.

He was much more comfortable talking about the variety of experiences he’s had as an assistant, and giving credit for his development to other people.

“I’ve been fortunate with the type of people I’ve been around,” he said. “They’re all great human beings. With Barry Collier, it was instilling values and holding people accountable. Thad was an unbelievable motivator, who just had a gift for getting guys ready. Todd was terrific at team building…..he got lot of respect from the locker room because players knew he cared about them. Brad’s (Stephens) organizational skills are off the charts. Coach Beilein is a great tactician. I really learned how to run a program from him.

“I still lean on them all now. The nice thing is, they’re just a phone call away.”

Bulldogs_Basketball_tipoff_UW-GB

By the end of the interview, I was starting to warm up to Butler a bit. They play in a great venue (Hinkle Fieldhouse), and they’re a lot closer to my home than Bloomington. While it’s clear that Jordan has no intention of becoming Horace Broadnax (who still hasn’t returned my call), I still think I’ll try to catch a couple of games.

We have met the enemy, and it is us

We’re not the team. You’re the team. We’re only the equipment – like the jockstraps and the helmets.”

Phil Elliott in “North Dallas Forty

 

It’s easy to demonize Rick Pitino for what he’s done to the University of Louisville. Especially for me. I never liked the man, and haven’t been a fan of UL basketball since he arrived in my hometown. But I can’t say I saw this coming. I just hated that 1) he was a University of Kentucky guy, 2) he had prior NCAA problems, and 3) in replacing Denny Crum, the school chose to go with a quick fix “star” instead of growing the program with an up-and-coming coach or Crum assistant. To be perfectly candid, it probably also had something to do with the natural animus a Kentucky boy holds for a slick-haired, fast-talking New Yorker.

Particularly galling in his case is all the “shock” he voices at every scandal. He was shocked when the woman he had a ten-minute affair with on a bar table wanted more money after he paid for her “health insurance” (which was just enough to pay for an abortion). He was shocked that strippers and prostitutes were provided to recruits in the athletic dorm. He was shocked that shoe company money was being passed to a recruit.

the-yum-center

But the source of tawdry behavior in organized sports goes much deeper than a few desperate, greedy coaches. It’s also easy to blame summer basketball. It’s relatively unsupervised. Sure, there are coaches and tournament/team coordinators. But most of those people have a profit motive in getting the best teams, the best players on their team or to their event. I’ve heard more than a few calls for abolition of “AAU” basketball.

But even this is somewhat misplaced. AAU is a different animal than the elite shoe company sponsored events. While I was writing the book, several coaches told me that AAU is now considered more of a second-tier summer basketball program. Some highly ranked teams may appear in a few AAU-sponsored events. But If a kid is truly a Division 1 prospect, he typically plays on the Adidas/Nike/Under Armour circuit because there’s more exposure.

So how about the shoe companies? Ah. There it is. Filthy lucre. According to ESPN, Louisville has a ten-year, 160 million dollar contract with Adidas. That’s a lot of money, and it’s not even in the top five. Pitino has the richest college basketball coaching contract in the country, good for 7.76 million per year. Over $2 million of that comes directly from Adidas. So why wouldn’t he think of them as his employer?

Fact is, the shoe companies are doing what businesses do. Spending money (on grassroots and college basketball) to make money (selling shoes and apparel). I’m no lawyer, but apparently the ones at the Department of Justice believe passing laundered money to a recruit is a crime. Nobody seems to object to shoe companies paying colleges and coaches to advertise their product, though. And, on the surface, it seems like an open, honest exchange between the shoe company and the school would be a win-win. The product gets exposure, and the college gets money that it could – theoretically, at least – pass on to students in benefits or lower costs.  

What about the players and/or their families who are trying to get an advance on their anticipated pro career? To be sure, there are a lot of grown-ups with their hands out. One coach told me that many elite players have “handlers” as they travel the summer basketball circuit. The handlers – sometimes family, sometimes not – control access to the kid and influence financial decisions. There is no structure for monitoring or supervision of those people.

Reporters contacted the mother of the recruit apparently involved in the Louisville scandal, and she said “I don’t know anything about that.” Wouldn’t you expect an innocent person to deny that it happened? Something like, “Hell no, we didn’t get any money”?

But if I was a top-tier athlete seeing everybody around me making money from my talent, I think it’d be easy to justify taking a piece of the action. Coaches, shoe company employees, tournament organizers. Even the school recruiting me – especially the school recruiting me – is making money hand over fist. And I can’t have an I-phone out of it?

So who does that leave to blame, and what do we do about it? This commercial exchange of talented kids ends up debasing the player, the institution, and all of the adults scrambling to grab a scrap that falls from the table.

This week I refereed a youth soccer game with a guy from Holland. Before the game we started talking about youth sports and the differences between the US and Europe.

“You guys take it so seriously over here,” he said. We were putting on our thirty-dollar referee shirts, adding our badges to the pocket (annual renewal fees of $60 and $80 for high school and US Soccer, respectively). We watched as kids in uniform warmed up for their game ($300-$500 annual league fee). We each had envelopes in our bags with $50 cash for officiating sixty minutes of youth soccer.

Youth-soccer-indiana

“You know what you get for refereeing in the Netherlands?” he asked. “You get a coupon for a free beer. Half the time the referee doesn’t show up, and a parent officiates with a couple of volunteer linesman. Everybody has played the game over there, so it’s not a problem to find somebody.

“Most people play for ten or fifteen years, then referee for five years after they stop playing. I mean, the really good players are identified and go to academies. But not most kids.”

Maybe the enemy is us. I say this fully acknowledging that I am a part of the problem. I write about and referee sports, and get paid for both. I don’t know that I’d do either one for a beer, though I have on occasion done them for free. But maybe we shouldn’t be making youth sports so formal. Maybe kids don’t need $150 basketball shoes. Maybe they shouldn’t be traveling to other cities to play soccer when they’re eight years old. They see parents yelling at coaches, coaches yelling at players, and everybody yelling at the officials. What are they supposed to think? That it’s play time?