Sign-Stealing Scandal

The baseball world has been rocked by the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, and this week it was further rocked by the punishments handed down by the baseball commissioner.  For implementing a process to systematically steal signs and convey them to Astros batters, the general manager and the manager of the Astros were suspended for a year, the team was fined the maximum of $5 million, and the team lost first-round and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021.  The manager and the general manager were then fired by the team’s owner.

tlqy3-1578949177-155192-blog-houstonastrosThere’s a lot of anger about the scandal, and the punishments.  The Astros won a World Series title in 2017, after a post-season run in which Major League Baseball determined that the Astros were cheating by stealing signs.  The Astros get to keep that tainted title.  The owner of the team wasn’t disciplined beyond paying the fine.  And even though the baseball investigators determined that the whole scandal was “player-driven,” no players have so far been punished.  The awards the players won for their performance, the hits they got after being tipped off about the pitches to come, and the accolades and bonuses and salary increases they received all are so far undisturbed.  Among some people in the baseball world, there’s a feeling that the Astros and their players got off easy, with only a few fall guys punished for an institutionalized cheating process that had to have involved virtually everyone in the franchise.

From a fan’s perspective, it’s the breadth and scope of the cheating that really takes your breath away.  To the extent that anyone still clings to the notion that baseball is the pure sport depicted in Field of Dreams, the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal has crushed that notion, once and for all.  And because everybody in the Astros organization seemingly was in on it, the impact of the scandal goes beyond past scandals involving individual players who might have taken illegal substances, or thrown spitballs, or flouted the rules in other individual ways.  The sign-stealing scandal also makes you wonder about things like Pete Rose’s lifetime ban.  Long-time readers of this blog know that I despise Pete Rose, but is the fact that he bet on games really worse than what the Houston Astros did?

Nobody on the Astros apparently cared that the team was breaking the rules, cheating, and getting an unfair advantage — and that’s pretty disillusioning.  It makes the fan wonder just how widespread  the cheating mentality, and the cheating itself, really is.  How do we ever assure ourselves that the winners won, fair and square?

Cleaning Out The Kitchens

The Cleveland Browns fired head coach Freddie Kitchens yesterday, after the Browns dropped a game to the woeful Cincinnati Bengals and finished the year with a 6-10 record.  It was another dismal showing for the Browns and capped off a farcical year — a year which began, amazingly, with at least one pundit picking the Browns to go to the Super Bowl.  Instead, they chalked up another losing season.

freddie-kitchens-browns-head-coachKitchens had to go, really.  He was picked to be head coach because he was supposed to be some kind of offensive mastermind who would be able to fit together all of the offensive talent on the roster into a point-scoring powerhouse — but the Browns ended up decidedly mediocre on the offensive side of the ball, finishing 22nd in the NFL in points and yards per game.  The red zone offense was terrible, the team’s performance was wracked with crucial penalties and turnovers, and Kitchens’ game management decisions were consistently wrong-headed, causing the Browns to give away games they could easily have won.  Add in a total lack of discipline on the team — highlighted by an embarrassing brawl against the Pittsburgh Steelers that cost the team its best defensive lineman — and you’ve got a simple story of a rumpled guy who was overwhelmed by a job that clearly was far beyond his capabilities.

The best argument for keeping Kitchens is that the Browns coaching carousel has to stop if the team is ever going to succeed, so . . . why not keep Kitchens and see if he can learn on the job?  It’s not much of an argument for a coach, but it has a kernel of reality to it.  Since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999 — only 20 years ago — they’ve had 11 head coaches, including Kitchens.  There is no hope for long-term success if a team needs to constantly deal with new coaches and coaching staffs, learn new offensive and defensive schemes, and adjust to new playbooks and play-calling.  From a continuity standpoint, the Browns are like a pee-wee football team compared to perennial contenders like the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

So, now the Browns look for another new savior to come in and turn a disastrous franchise around.  Already people are speculating about the recently fired NFL head coaches, hot NFL assistant coaches, and college head coaches who might be candidates — including former Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer.  Since 1999, the Browns have tried hiring head coaches from each of those categories, and they’ve all been canned after short periods.  Maybe this time the Browns will make the right decision and find a coach who can meld the team into a disciplined unit that plays smart, tough football and can figure out how to win big games.  I’m confident Urban Meyer, who has a clear coaching philosophy and proven track record in many different programs, could do that — but would he want to coach for a franchise that has been so dysfunctional?

Given the Browns’ track record, good things probably aren’t going to happen — but if you’re a Browns fan, hope springs eternal.  In fact, hope is just about all the Browns Backers have.

The Context Of A Season

Tonight the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Clemson Tigers in the first round of the College Football Playoffs. As a lifelong Buckeyes fan, I’ll of course watch the game, and I’ll be doing my part to move the karma dial in favor of the Men of the Scarlet and Gray by wearing the lucky hat I wore when I witnessed Ohio State beat Oregon for the National Championship and carrying two lucky buckeyes I picked up at our place in Maine.

Of course, a game like this is about players and coaches, not fans. Ohio State has released an epic hype video for the game that is so good even people who hate Ohio State are raving about it. The video is an adrenaline-pumper that does a great job of capturing the game in the context of a season — a season that, for the players and coaches, covers off-season conditioning, spring practice, fall camp, and three months of games leading up to this one. It’s been a fabulous season, and you know in your heart that the players and coaches will make every effort to see that season extended to include one more game.

No doubt Clemson players and coaches feel the same way. They’ve won a ridiculous 28 games in a row and are the defending national champions. That’s why the game tonight promises to be a classic.

In the context of a season, it’s a game, but it’s also another step in a long journey marked by hard work, effort, practice, and teammates helping teammates. May the Ohio State journey continue!

On To The CFP

It was nail-biting time for members of Buckeye Nation at about 9:30 ET last night.  A talented and gritty team from Wisconsin came out swinging in the Big Ten championship game, and when the Badgers scored an improbable touchdown to go up 21-7 at the end of the first half Ohio State fans had visions of past disasters against Iowa and Purdue dancing in their heads.  But the Buckeyes made adjustments at halftime and righted the ship, scoring 27 points and shutting Wisconsin out in the second half to win, 34-21, and take home their third straight Big Ten crown.  Although the Buckeyes ultimately won by double digits, the Badgers fought until the final minute, and held the high-powered Ohio State offense to two field goals when touchdowns would have put the game out of reach.

ohio-state-2019-big-ten-championship

As the seconds ticked down to zero, I thought that Ohio State had been truly tested by a very good football team, and that the Big Ten championship game had taught us something about this Ohio State team — they don’t wilt in the face of real adversity on a big stage, the coaches and players are adept at making adjustments and game plan modifications under pressure, and the whole team can draw upon an ample reserve of inner toughness and guttiness.  And we also learned, again, that head coach Ryan Day has a bit of riverboat gambler in him, as his fake punt call showed.  Ohio State should be grateful to Wisconsin for making the Buckeyes draw deep and for providing a very stern test that will foreshadow what lies ahead.  Last night’s game showed why fans of the Big Ten like the conference and its particular, hard-hitting brand of football — which continued up until the final play, when the Ohio State defense gave the Wisconsin quarterback a tooth-rattling hit as the clock ran out.

Although things looked dicey at halftime, by winning Ohio State undoubtedly punched its ticket for the College Football Playoffs.  The big question to be answered by the CFP Selection Committee in a few hours is whether the Buckeyes will go in at number one or number two — or even number three, and that’s what the talking heads on ESPN and Fox Sports will be debating this morning.  I may be alone in this, but I really don’t care where the Buckeyes end up.  Ohio State clearly is an excellent unbeaten team, but so are LSU and Clemson — and I think all of this talk about “resumes” and “performances against Top 25 teams” and various weird computer metrics is kind of silly when the questions about who is more deserving will be resolved with actual games in about three weeks.  I also think such argument just puffs teams up — and that might not be good in the long run.  If I were Oklahoma, the likely number four seed and a great team in its own right, all of the talk about how important it is for other teams to make it to number one so they can play the Sooners rather than somebody else would be doing nothing except providing motivation and some prime locker room bulletin board material.

The reality is that there are many very good, well-coached teams in college football — Wisconsin is one of them, by the way — and if you’re going to win the national championship you’re going to need to beat a bunch of them.  Regardless of exactly who the top four teams are or where they are ranked, they’re going to need to beat two more great teams to get to the ultimate goal.  If Ohio State ends up playing Clemson in the first playoff game — and thereby lines up with a team that is the defending national champion and has never lost to the Buckeyes and pulverized them in the playoffs a few years ago — there is no chance that Ohio State will not go into that game emotionally pumped and ready to play.  That’s what I want to see.

So the selection show and final seedings announced today will be interesting, but I’m more focused on the fact that the Buckeyes won a very challenging game, are Big Ten champions, maintain their perfect record, and are moving on with a chance to get to their goal.  The members of Buckeye Nation are grateful that we get to watch the Men of the Scarlet and Gray continue their quest to be the best.

Enjoying The Day After

There’s something magical about the day after the Ohio State-Michigan game — when your team wins, that is.

michigan-fans-2015This year, the Buckeyes crushed the Wolverines, 56-27.  And, they did it at the Big House, in a game where Michigan came in playing their best football, with a chance to ruin Ohio State’s season and atone for years of losses.  For a time, Michigan looked like it could play with the Buckeyes . . . but eventually the Michigan mistakes piled up, the Wolverine defense had no answer for the multi-dimensional Ohio State offense, and before you knew it Ohio State had sprinted to a 20-point lead and the game was effectively out of hand.  By the end of the game, the camera was showing sad Michigan fan faces, and the “OH – IO” chant was reverberating around Michigan Stadium thanks to the hardy members of Buckeye Nation who went to support their team in enemy territory.

For Michigan, it’s the kind of brutal loss that sticks with a team and a program and a fan base, and leaves them searching for a way forward and wondering when — if ever — the pain will end.  For Ohio State fans who spent their own time in the desert during the ’90s, those shots of sad Michigan faces, and the message board and YouTube rants of disappointed Michigan fans, will always be sweet.

As I watched The Game with Russell, I mentioned how different the rivalry is now from when I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s.  In those days, the Ohio State-Michigan game was typically a tough defensive struggle between two evenly matched teams.  In the last two years, in contrast, Ohio State has scored 118 points and beaten Michigan by more than three touchdowns each year.  Ohio State has now triumphed over the Wolverines eight years in a row and 15 out of 16.  It’s amazing.

I’ll take it.

Let The True Season Now Begin

Kudos to the Penn State Nittany Lions for playing a very tough, gutty game today in cold, rainy Columbus.  Fortunately, for Buckeye Nation, Ohio State was able to overcome lots of turnovers and sloppy play and continue their quest for a slot in this year’s College Football Playoff.

osu-michigan-banner-1024x700But that’s for another day.  As the seconds ticked down this afternoon, all true Ohio State fans felt a little shiver in their spines and a quickening of their pulses.  With the Penn State game behind us and a W secured, we knew deep in our guts that the greatest rivalry week in college football — really, in all of sports — is now upon us.  And we also know that this year The Game is set up to be an absolute classic.  Ohio State hopes to continue its march to the National Championship, and Michigan — which has an excellent team — knows that it can derail those hopes, and break the hearts of Buckeye fans everywhere, if they can just win this year’s edition of The Game.

Next week Ohio State will head to That State Up North to take on the Maize and Blue.  The teams and their fans despise, but somehow respect, one another.  Players who have taken the field in The Game say that it is one of the hardest-hitting, but cleanest, games they’ve ever experienced.  Both teams want to win, but they want to win the right way.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Michigan Week.  Brace yourselves!