Washington Bureau

April 28, 2009

“They” are the Washington Nationals, after losing a 13-11 calamity in Philadelphia tonight, leaving them 4-14 to begin this baseball season

“They have a lot of pieces that have to be put back together.  They’ve got to develop pitching, they’ve got to change the culture.  The culture is really important.  They were left with a mess. ” – Peter Gammons, Baseball Tonight, April 27

The mess was the work of Jim Bowden.  Gammons threw a few token laudable players in the middle of those slices, but the Washington Nationals have a tall, tall road to climb.  It should make them one of the more interesting baseball teams to follow over the next three years.

Jim Bowden was a Major League Baseball general manager for 16 years and was always been considered one of the worst executives in the game.  As much as I understand baseball, I’ve never understood how Jim Bowden kept a job.

His teams were never competitive: he took only one team to the playoffs, the 1995 Cincinnati Reds (Barry Larkin, MVP).  He made a series of roster moves that were widely criticized and left his teams in prolonged impotency.  These would take a while to break down, but in his day, Bowden made 168 trades and make the playoffs once.  Yet he continued to be employed, year after year.

Perhaps you tolerate someone at your job that you just don’t think contributes.  My roommate occasionally works with someone in IT that he thinks is absolutely incompetent and can’t work a computer.  But you let it slide, the guy is nice enough, he probably lives with his cousin.

But that person is probably not a public figure, like the general manager of a baseball team.

No, his wikipedia entry also has this gem: “Bowden has been involved in several controversies,” and goes on to duly list.  There’s really no reason to paraphrase, it’s worth taking the whole thing.

  • In 1993, he fired Reds manager and former star player Tony Pérez after just 44 games. Coming on the heels of racially charged comments by Reds owner Marge Schott, the firing prompted criticism of Bowden and the team for treating Pérez, one of the league’s few minority managers, unfairly.
  • In 1998, he traded All-Star reliever and Cincinnati native Jeff Shaw to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Shaw claimed at the time that Bowden had agreed not to trade him as part of a contract that involved Shaw taking less money from the Reds than he could have gotten elsewhere. “We had a handshake deal that he wasn’t going to trade me,” Shaw said. “Three months later, he traded me. … If I had been in the room with him, I would have killed him.”
  • In 2000, Reds coach Ron Oester reportedly was offered the job of manager by Bowden, but that when Oester didn’t accept immediately, Bowden offered the job to Bob Boone without contacting Oester.
  • In 2003, he was fired as general manager of the Reds following comments comparing the MLB players union to the terrorist organization al Qaeda. Commenting on the possibility of a strike by the players, he said, “If they (the players) do walk out … I encourage all of them, “Make sure it’s Sept. 11th. Be symbolic about it. Let [union head] Donald Fehr drive the plane right into the building, if that’s what they want him to do,'” Bowden later apologized for the remarks.
  • On April 17, 2006, Bowden was arrested for drunk driving in Miami, Florida.
  • As the GM of the Nationals, he made a deal with the Reds in mid-season 2006 involving Gary Majewski, who received a cortisone shot shortly before the trade. In May 2007 the Reds filed a grievance claiming they didn’t know they were getting damaged goods. However, after an indepth and time-consuming investigation, MLB cleared Bowden and the Nationals.
  • As of February 23, 2009 Bowden is being investigated by the FBI for skimming signing bonus money from Latin American baseball players. He resigned from the Nationals on 1 March 2009.

As a baseball nut, Jim Bowden’s employment record means I have a chance.  Is it any surprise that they were left with a mess?

The measly old Nationals, Gammons continues, are changing their culture this season.  Mike Rizzo is the new GM.  They’ve demoted Lastings Milledge, they’ve sat down and lectured Elijah Dukes and given him a kind of ultimatum, saying “we might trade you, we might send you down, we can lose with you or without you,”, and they’ve emphasized character within the team.

I normally wonkishly attack baseball through the metric lens, but I think this is the best move forward.  When you have no talent, you have no risk, and the Washington Nationals have no talent.  They have some great players (Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Dukes) and have brought up a pitching prospect (Jordan Zimmermann) that scouts and analytic-types are high on, but there’s nothing in Triple-A, nothing in the middle infield.  So when you can’t statisically go up, you can only go up in spirit.

We’re watching this unfold, and in June, the story will alter its course.  The Nationals will pick first in the 2009 draft, where they are eligible to select, and play host to, the lore of Stephen Strasburg.

(For the lesser wonks, clarity: in baseball, unlike basketball, but ever-so-slightly similar to football, teams do not always draft the “best player available.”  This is because draftees join up with agents and survey the competition, demanding what they consider to be appropriate signing bonuses, deterring teams from drafting players that they can’t afford to sign.  The best amateur players often fall to the late teens and twenties in the baseball draft until a well-capitalized team (Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers) drafts them and meets their bonus demands.)

Strasburg is represented by Scott Boras, the most successful baseball agent of all time.  Boras has done more to change baseball in the last decade than anyone else.  And according to Peter Gammons, Strasburg is reportedly asking for record $50 million over six years.  This will put Washington in a serious economic conundrum.  They are a smaller-market team, and spending was down throughout baseball this offseason.

All signs point to Washington still drafting and signing Strasburg, and you have to hope they swallow the cost and take the plunge.  Strasburg is arguably the most hyped right-handed pitching prospect to hit the draft; Buster Olney reports a scout calling him “the best I’ve ever seen.”

The worst team in baseball is about to inherit one of the best pitching prospects in the history of baseball, who throws 102, who could be in the majors this very year, who is going in the 23rd round of fantasy drafts this year, ahead of top-10 guys like Madison Bumgarner and Travis Snider.  He is the savior.  He is better than any pitcher this scout has ever seen.

The only thing that keeps Nationals’ fans short-breathed is Olney’s follow-up question:

“Better than Mark Prior?”

Football

April 24, 2009

I owe this blog (and its three readers, perhaps there’s one with a surname not “Chaparian”) a recap of the last four months of my working life, from when I started at Anomaly in December to the completion of a beautiful, inspiring ad campaign for Umbro on March 28th, but that will come later. I started working at Anomaly with zero interest in football  (ne soccer from my youth league disinterest) but knew I’d have to love it, on my own accord or not, to contribute to the Umbro team.

There was no strong-arming needed; I gradually became more interested in the game as I read more about it, watched more football, and spent time with colleagues who breathe football like I breathe baseball. I can identify a few reasons why it grew on me:

– The Premier League is one of the most competitive, engrossing, and textured leagues in sports, with teams playing for various goals, and others fighting for survival. It has four historically dominant teams (Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool), a number of talented squads just below that, and a spate of teams at the bottom of the table (this season: West Brom, Newcastle, Middlesborough) fighting just to stay in the Premier League and not be demoted to the Championship (the second-level field). This is a new and unique storyline for me to follow. The Boston Red Sox never have to worry about being demoted out of Major League Baseball if they have a bad season, and they’re also not playing for various league trophies or international tournament births while trying to win the World Series.

– I root for Liverpool, a team that happens to be having a fantastic season, has produced two classic 4-4 draws in the last week (one a heroic Champions League performance at Chelsea) and has traditions and spirited fans that strike similar to the Red Sox. Consider the congruous singing: Liverpool fans wailing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” before every match, and Red Sox fans singing Neil Diamond before the bottom of the eighth inning at Fenway Park. But I root for Liverpool because I lived with an English roommate my sophomore year of college, and he was a Liverpool fan.  That was the year that Liverpool completed a historic comeback in the 2005 Champions League final against A.C. Milan; that same school year, my boys came back from a 3-0 hole in the ALCS versus the Yankees.  Each was unfathomable (but the Red Sox comeback has to be considered the most unbelievable comeback in sports).

– The level of play in the Premier League is incredible. It’s hard not to be awed by good football, and plus, football players are admirable for their agility, endurance, and scene-stealing acting when trying to burn seconds of stoppage time.

– Being around colleagues and watching them love football. Two colleagues in particular, Johnny and Magnus, teach me new, but different, things about the game every time I watch it: Johnny more of the human element of the game, fans, stories, fables, and Magnus a more strategic approach, enduring my questions about the business of the game and league. I must be a nuisance.

– How can I not root for Shrewsbury Town in League Two?

It just so turns out that I’ve taken a liking to football that I know will outlive my (hopefully long) life at Anomaly. In fact, I actually stopped on an MLS broadcast on ESPN tonight and remembered that there’s pro football in the United States.

But apparently, I’m not alone. A lot of people are stopping and noticing. To wit:

– The New York Red Bulls are completing work on the $200 million Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ.  Teams in Dallas, Chicago, Denver, Toronto and Salt Lake have built new football-specific stadiums in the last five years, and new fields in Philadelphia and Kansas city are expected shortly.  Some of these stadiums come with dozens of youth/community football fields to spur the game’s growth.

– The MLS has a clear goal: they’re not trying to convert other sports fans to football fans, they’re trying to convince the already existing football fans to become MLS fans.  There are millions of entrenched football fans to target, and the MLS is happy to spend to get them: two more expansion teams, consideration of more international players, and a savvy web presence.

– The sport seems to be growing on Americans.  Seattle introduced a new team this season and sold every one of the 22,000 season ticket packages it marketed.

The recession noticeably impacted baseball this year, as the free agency period was easily the most thrifty in years, but surprisingly, the MLS  thinks the time is right to keep building and spending.  Yes: baseball is tightening the reins, but soccer is making it rain.

It’s surprising that more Americans don’t take to this sport, but I think the primary reason is the track young athletes take.  In Europe, the best young football players, in their early to mid teens, are poached by football clubs and built to become the next Wayne Rooney.  In the United States, there’s still no such path for a young soccer star; the most lucrative offer for a young athlete is a college scholarship, and that comes through football, baseball and basketball.  The NCAA is, no doubt, an elephant’s leg on the game’s trachea.

But if the competition in Europe (and in England) continues its renaissance; if more and more supermoguls buy Premier League teams and spend spend spend to bring in players, build a fanbase, and vacuum more revenue; if the MLS continues its expansion, building modest, but beautiful stadiums with youth pitches; it’s entirely possible that the world’s game could ourtank a more American sport in ten years.

March Madness

March 15, 2009

Caught up in March’s annual college basketball bacchanal, once again surprised at how much I’m enjoying this, I think I’ve figured out my love/hate assessment of the sport.

College basketball has the most diametrically opposite structure of any sport that we watch.  During the regular season, single games are meaningless.  They separate the best teams from the great teams, and the great teams from the good teams, but are merely a function for teams to accrue wins and losses, and for a number of teams to enter their conference tournaments.  Here, things get a bit more interesting.

The conference tournaments get really hot during the semi-finals, when an underdog team is emerging to steal the tournament and, with it, a birth to the NCAA tournament.  So, yesterday, you had #9 Baylor playing #3 Missouri in the SEC Championship game.  Missouri is in the NCAA tournament and with a win would solidify a #3 seed for the Tigers.

Missouri isn’t going to win the NCAA Championship.  Neither are Tennessee or Ohio State, two other teams that excelled in their conference to play in its tournament championship game.  So walking away with the conference title is the goal.  You’ll never buy a beer on campus again.  You can always rely on local insurance companies and public appearances to make a little extra cash, as long as you stay in Columbus or Knoxville or Columbia.  And you know that you can go to the big dance and compete, destiny always exists whether you reach it or not, but it’s probably not going to happen.

The underdog is playing for even more.  They’re not going to the dance, the #9 seed in a competitive conference or the #6 in a weaker one (this year’s SEC, which is only putting two teams in at-large).  So they’re playing for the conference title and for the chance to reach the dance, to extend their season and start spelling a second Cinderella story.

There’s no other sport where you play a series of meaningless regular season games to gain entry into a high-stakes tournament, where the victor guarantees entry into another, even higher-stakes tournament.  That one starts on Thursday.

My role will expand with the Rockies coverage for FSN Rocky Mountain. I will continue to write for foxsports.com, adding a second weekly column. My role at Baseball America will continue. And if the internet is the future then that might be worth a try.

Keep an eye out at IWantZMyRocky.com for eventual details.

With this absurd quip, Tracy Ringolsby began the conclusion of his final column for the Rocky Mountain News.  Ringolsby is a former president of the Baseball Writers Association of America (this is their official website) and for years was loathe to accept internet writers into his guild, allow them any praise or recognition or consider the medium for advancement within baseball journalism.

Ringolsby contributed to Baseball America, a popular and highly regarded website for minor league prospects, but one that is also in many ways aligned with the traditional scouting community and not the more progressive, analytic groups on the web.

One of the emerging sabermetric websites is Fangraphs, which follows the Baseball Prospectus mode of linking solid writing with projections and analytics to create a sort of baseball heaven for readers.  David Cameron of Fangraphs wrote today on the closing of the News:

Much like the open source movement in software, there’s been a revolution in the baseball community. The best content available isn’t being written in books or newspapers, or even behind subscription walls that require payments to access – the best knowledge available is free to everyone who wants it.

Ringolsby’s parting shot typifies baseball’s entrenched beat writer.  He is long in the tooth, steady in his ways and hasn’t evolved as the game has in the last ten years.  Neither has his medium, the newspaper.  But maybe there’s hope for the tenured sportswriter.  After all, baseball has followed a strange trajectory as certain winning teams (Boston, Oakland, Cleveland, Arizona, Tampa) have embraced new schema for roster construction, but have run alongside successful traditionalists (Philadelphia, New York, Chicago) at the same time.  Good sportswriters will go the way of the Phillies and represent tradition the way Peter Gammons and Bob Ryan have.  The rest will be like Tracy Ringolsby, or, in league phrasing, the Royals.

Solo Dolo Super Bowl

February 1, 2009

A pound of sirloin, a pound of ground chuck, a bottle of beer, two jalapenos, a poblano, a fresno chili, and its accoutrements created a heaping amount of Super Bowl chili, and I’ve thought to liveblog the game as I sit retired to the couch.  Football and advertising, two things about which I spend a lot of time thinking.

6:27 The spectacle of the Super Bowl: the Commander of the United States Army tosses the coin.  Despite 2000-1 odds, the NFC wins its 12th straight flip.

6:29 Hines Ward, outspoken team leader goes through ad hoc, risky medical procedure before playing biggest game of his life.  Sound familiar?

6:42 High drama to open the Super Bowl.  Ken Wisenhunt challenges Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulderblocking TD run and wins by the closest of margins.  4th and goal from the 1 yard line, and Mike Tomlin kicks.  That’s a win for the Cardinals but a crazy sequence to open this game.  This should be a great contest.  Oh, and I should have noted earlier, that this blog is written through a lens of “Steelers, fuck yourselves.”

6:52 I think I will see any movie with Michael Cera in it.

6:59 Cardinals have held the ball for only 3 plays.  This is not good given their strengths and weaknesses.

7:07 I feel like I’ve had the silliest things removed to get network clearance for spots.  How on Earth does that GoDaddy ad make it through?

7:30 The Darnell Dockett story was unbelievable.

738 “Up” looks pleasantly surreal.

7:41 It looks like the Steelers are the better team, so Arizona really needs breaks like that.  They need their speedy defense to win the turnover game and benefit from a short field.  That might prove to be the most significant play in the game — there should be stats out later.

7:54 WOW.  This is incredible — the NFL Defensive Player of the Year either makes a 100 yard return for 6 points, or a 99.5 yard return for 0, and the end of the 2nd half.  This call is bigger than the tuck rule.

8:37 Bruce Springsteen’s halftime show was filled with hope and emotion.  It always amazes me that he, apparently, was never considered for this before.  Didn’t Nelly perform during the Super Bowl once?  And yet there’s Springsteen, singing his American songs of hope.  Seems to be a common theme around these parts lately.

8:45 If Arizona isn’t the first team to score in the second half, this game could get really boring, really quick.  We need that Arizona offense to pick up a play.

8:56 Wow.  The Arizona defense stops the Pittsburgh offense twice on first-and-goal situations to hold the Steelers to yet another field goal.  It’s crazy that they are in this game given that Pittsburgh has been so deep into their territory, but hasn’t scored a TD out of it.  Everything in this game turns on the 14-point turnaround play by James Harrison.

9:11 Arizona hasn’t thrown the ball down the field once today.  Has Pittsburgh’s secondary coverage just been that good?

9:17 Two nice plays back-to-back by my man Dockett.  Meanwhile, Mike Tomlin could be the youngest head coach to ever win a Super Bowl.  We’ll be hearing his name a lot in the next decade.

9:18 Cash4Gold — best spot of the game.

9:26 Larry Fitzgerald and his amazing hands get their Super Bowl highlight.

9:30 7:11 to go, and the Arizona Cardinals defense has stepped up throughout this game, holding the Pittsburgh offense to only 13 points.  The entire game turns on the Harrison play.  And the defense forces a three-and-out; the ball goes right back into Warner’s hands.

9:48 Oh my God.  The stars come out, Warner to Fitzgerald.

9:46 Incredible sequence now, with Pittsburgh backed up to their 1/4 yard line.  It looks like Warner will get the ball needing the end zone to win it.  WOW!  A 21 yard completion to Santonio Holmes is negated by a safety!  Holy shit, we just saw a crazy sequence of events — and the safety is actually bad for Arizona, if compared to stopping Pittsburgh at the 1.  Warner will, indeed, get the ball to win it.

9:51 The tables turn to Roethlisberger.  Can he lead his team to victory during the final drive?  The game on his arm, and we see a VERY interesting sitation.  Roethlisberger rushes his team up to the line and they run an unsuccessful play on 3rd and 6.  Pittsburgh rushed the ball to the line to take advantage of a clock stoppage, rather than take time to plan out the play.

9:58 Roetlisberger has eluded a few sacks and has brought his team to the Arizona 6 yard line.  This is incredible — we are either going to overtime or going to see an unbelievable ending to regulation.  This game has been great.

10:09 The game is once more taking a very heavy influence by replay.  It’s going to be interesting to see if anything is made by the Cardinals or the media about not reviewing this final fumble.

10:27 Fuck it, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ll always respect Roethlisberger for that final drive.

Lazy Sunday

December 28, 2008

Friends (and former readers) know that I love baseball.  That can be phrased slightly differently for emphasis.  Baseball is one of my great loves.  I love its steep tradition and strategy.  I’ve loved baseball for as long as I can remember.

I only started paying attention to the NFL around 2001 and have closely followed the Patriots ever since.  But over the past few years (largely due to a fascination with fantasy football) I’ve come to love the whole league and started watching more games.  By extension, I’ve really come to appreciate football.

Football carries a palpable beat that baseball lacks.  More so than football, baseball is a game that is made off the field.  Teams don’t have salary caps, so large-market teams spend outrageously and buy up the best players.  There are hundreds of objective, almost rigid metrics by which talent is evaluated in baseball.  And acquiring this talent most often presages success on the baseball diamond.

But in football, there are no numbers that a statistician would call “analysis.”  Football teams are governed by a complex, but strict salary cap.  Owners put a team on the field that is chiefly evaluated with eyes and ears, and when numbers matter, they are 6’3 220 lbs for Larry Fitzgerald, an elite wide receiver, or 5’11 200 lbs for Chris Johnson, running back.  40-yard dash times, 225 lb bench-press reps, and 3-cone drills rule the NFL scouting combine, where players are known by the number on their back.

I also think football is a lot like war, and you can’t say that about baseball.  Baseball is like a war simulation: you put 9 guys on the field and you don’t change the squad until it’s over.  In football, you cycle soldiers in and out.  You have generals watching from above who call in circuitous formations to confuse your opponent.  The Wedge.  The I-Formation.  The Shotgun and the Wildcat.

Yet by far the most intriguing element of football is how offenses and defenses unite on one team.  Unlike any other sport — hockey, baseball, basketball, soccer — football is the only team sport where players exclusively play one side of the ball, and have to helplessly rely on the second half of the roster to excel to achieve overall success.  I love this element of the game, and it is so much different than every other team sport, where athletes compete on both sides of the ball and share skills (i.e. fielding, rebounding, hitting).

Just a thought on America’s Sunday ritual.