A Football-Free Fall?

Will there be college football in the Midwest this autumn?  It’s become such a huge part of fall in the heartland that it’s almost unimaginable that the leaves could change and the air could chill without the clash of shoulder pads and helmets, tailgating, and the roar of crowds in huge stadiums.

ohio_stadium_2But it is 2020, and the coronavirus is still burning its way through America, and we’ve just got to accept that things may well be different this ugly, star-crossed year.

The Mid-American Conference, which traditionally provides early season opponents for Big Ten schools, has postponed its entire fall sports season, including football, and apparently hopes to play games in the spring of 2021.  The Mountain West Conference has followed suit.  And yesterday there were news reports that the presidents of the colleges in the Big Ten Conference, the grandaddy of Midwestern college football conferences, had voted to cancel football and other autumn sports — although reports are conflicting, and some news websites are saying an official vote and announcement will be forthcoming today.

Of course, this possibility sends a collective shudder through the stalwart members of Buckeye Nation.  We love our football, and every year we look forward to seeing the Men of the Scarlet and Gray head out onto the gridiron.  Every year seems filled with special promise, and this year — with many Ohio State players returning from a team that came within a whisper (and a few dubious referee calls) of playing in the national championship game — was no exception.

But even a huge fan like me realizes that this is not an easy decision.  Many of the coaches and players are urging the league to go forward with games.  They want to play, and they note that football is a dangerous game even during normal times.  But, obviously, there is a unique health risk during a pandemic where disease transmission is so easy, and playing football — with players repeatedly in direct physical contact with each other, touching the same ball, huddling together, and breathing heavily, inches apart from each other, on the line of scrimmage — seems like the riskiest sport of all.  The colleges need to decide for themselves whether games can be played with a proper margin of safety, or whether the risk of players suffering permanent harm for the sake of playing games is just too great.

We’ll have to see, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we experience a football-free fall this year.  And I really couldn’t blame the colleges if that was their decision.

If so, it will give us another reason to remember 2020 with regret and disgust.

A New “Value Proposition”

As July nears its end, the 2020 Major League Baseball season has finally begun.  Teams are playing before empty ballparks to try to avoid further spreading the coronavirus.  Soon the NBA and the NHL will be playing, also with no fans in the arenas.  And if the NFL and college football start up, the teams will almost certainly be playing in front of thousands of empty seats.

471768148.jpgCOVID-19 has obviously affected our lives in more ways than we can count, but one of the interesting potential effects will be a changed perspective on the value of large, taxpayer-funded stadiums and arenas in towns with major league sports teams.  In the B.C. (“before coronavirus”) years, professional sports team owners argued that there was a significant “value proposition” in professional sports venues that made them worth the investment of tax dollars.  But the assumed presence of thousands of fans in the stands was a crucial element of the “value proposition” equation.

Fans were supposed to come in from out of town, fill up the hotel rooms, and pay the absurdly inflated hotel guest taxes into city and state coffers.  Fans were supposed to buy merchandise and food and beer — lots of beer — at the stadiums and arenas, paying sales taxes and creating jobs for hundreds of security guards and concession stand workers and parking lot attendants and fan entertainment teams, who would also pay taxes.  And, after the games were done, the happy fans were supposed to go out to restaurants in the city to celebrate their team’s victory, and the disappointed fans were supposed to drown their sorrows in a cold one — Keeping the city’s food and entertainment and hospitality sector healthy, and paying still more taxes.

Now games are being played with no fans, and who knows when fans will be permitted back to cheer on their teams.  None of those contemplated tax revenues are being paid.

COVID-19 might be a once-a-century pandemic, or it might be the harbinger of a new norm of social distancing and mask wearing and fewer fans in seats — if any are permitted at all.  The next time a professional sports team owner tries to convince a city to spring for a new, even more lavish venue, how receptive are city officials going to be to the “value proposition” message?

A Future Of Dancing Robot Dogs

Sports franchises across the globe have struggled with how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.  In some places, like the United States, sporting events for the most part haven’t occurred at all.  In other places, like Japan, the games have been going forward, but without any spectators due to contagion concerns.  And that raises a question:  what do you do, if anything, to substitute for the fans in the stands?  Do you play the games in eerie, empty, silent stadiums?  Or, like some Korean teams have done, do you put cardboard cutouts of fans in the seats?

A Japanese team, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, took a different approach: dancing robots and robot dogs.

The YouTube clip above shows a recent performance of the choreographed moves of jersey-wearing robots and a number of ballcap-wearing, four-legged, black-and-yellow machines (which are supposed to be dogs).  The annoying song they are “dancing” to is apparently a kind of theme song for the Hawks, and the moves they are performing are normally performed by human fans.  The whole thing comes across as pretty creepy to me.  Is the future of live sports a future of dancing robot dogs?  And I thought furry mascots like Slider were annoying!

One good thing about this:  after watching the robots and robot dogs cut a rug, I’ll never feel embarrassed to dance at a wedding again.

A Summer Without Baseball

Major League Baseball is tying itself in knots over the decision whether to have some kind of baseball season this year.  So far this summer — and we’re more than two-thirds of the way through June, the third full month of the normal baseball season — we’ve had no games, and the baseball coverage has been all about fitful negotiations between the players and the owners.

brj-2010-summer-060It hasn’t exactly been a rewarding season for a baseball fan.

The current proposals don’t really resemble baseball as we know it.  The players and owners are debating a season that will have somewhere between 50 and 70 games, whereas the normal season has 162 games.  The owners apparently have withdrawn their proposal for expanded playoffs and also are offering a universal designated hitter for 2020 and 2021, which means National League fans won’t be able to watch pitchers at bat or the managerial strategery that flows from the fact that most pitchers can’t hit worth a lick.  And all of the wrangling is happening against a backdrop of the country opening up after the coronavirus shutdowns, with some states experiencing increases in the numbers of cases and hospitalizations.  Already there are stories about how some players are testing positive for COVID-19, and we can expect to see more of them.  Ultimately, if the players and owners can’t negotiate their way out of a corner, baseball’s commissioner may have to unilaterally impose a dramatically shortened season — which some players could simply refuse to participate in.

It’s a mess, and it raises a fundamental question:  should there be a baseball season at all this year?  What’s the point of playing a truncated, gimmicky season that will amount to a small fraction of the normal season?  On the other hand, can baseball afford not to play, when viewership and attendance have been declining for the past few years and the stench of the Houston Astros cheating scandal remains in the air?  If there is no Major League Baseball this year, will the sport be able to recover in 2021?

I enjoy baseball and follow the Tribe, but I find I am not missing watching games or following the team this year.  2020 has been such a weird year already that not having baseball just seems like another, easily accepted feature of this masked and misbegotten period we are experiencing.  We can expect that money will call the tune — it always does in professional sports — but if I were the Commissioner I’d just call the season off and plan for baseball’s return, for a real season, in 2021.

And by the way, there is still some baseball being played in 2020.  My Facebook feed features pictures of little kids’ games.  If you like summer baseball, there’s still a way to get your fix.

Enforcing Distancing

During the first few weeks of the shutdown, it wasn’t unusual to see people shooting baskets at the Schiller Park basketball courts, or even playing a small pick-up game.  Some people objected to it, and made a big stink about it on social media sites.  Now the authorities have taken steps to make sure that no one can play basketball there — even if they bring their own ball and are shooting hoops by themselves, without anyone else within six feet.

During these extraordinary times, is sending some worker out to put wooden blocks on a basketball goal to prevent people from playing the game or shooting baskets a prudent health care initiative, or a weird government overreach?  Does anyone know how likely you are to contract coronavirus from playing a game of basketball?  How many of the older people with multiple health care conditions, who statistics show are most at risk of serious health consequences if they contract COVID-19, are out at the park shooting hoops and ready to be selected to play in a pick-up game?

Of course, you can argue that the young kids who were shooting hoops and playing in those three-on-three games might bring the virus home, where it might infect at-risk people.  Still, blocking the hoops seems awfully Big Brotherish to me.  What’s next?  Removing the picnic tables and their benches because people might congregate there?

South Korean Baseball

Because there are no live American sports to be broadcast — and people can only watch that Michael Jordan documentary so many times — ESPN has decided to start broadcasting games from the Korea Baseball Organization, the South Korean major leagues.  ESPN is hoping that American sports fans who know nothing about the Korean league or teams will nevertheless tune in to provide that taste of live sports they have been craving.

download__2_I don’t know beans about the KBO, but I enjoy reading about sports teams in other countries and, especially, the team names.  My favorite foreign sports name is the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, a Japanese team that doesn’t contemplate battling hams, but instead is managed by the Nippon Ham company — which is the cause of the curious name.  The Korean league apparently has a strong corporate element, too, with team names that include Samsung and Hyundai.

If you’re inclined to watch a game and are trying to decide who to root for, here’s a list of the teams in the league:  Doosan Bears, NC Dinos, Samsung Lions, Lotte Giants, LG Twins, Kiwoom Heroes, KIA Tigers, SK Wyverns, Hanwha Eagles, KT Wiz, and Hyundai Unicorns.  I like the rugged confidence of the Kiwoom team self-describing its players as “heroes,” and I also was intrigued by the Wyverns, the Unicorns, and Wiz, who obviously don’t care that they have the same name as an old Broadway musical and movie starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.  But if I’m going to watch a game I’m going to be pulling for the NC Dinos, just because their mascot is a formidable, long-necked dinosaur who looks like a cross between Godzilla and a bodybuilder.

Will American sports fans tune in the KBO — where games, apparently, will be played in empty stadiums with banners stretched across the seating area that depict fans wearing masks?  I’m guessing yes.  Baseball is baseball, and South Korea has produced a number of players who have made it to the American major leagues, so the talent level is undoubtedly pretty good.  And the players might be trying even harder than usual if they know that American fans, and American scouts, will be watching.

Go Dinos!

 

The Hardest Comeback

Many businesses are going to have challenges when they return after the state shutdown orders expire — a process that is increasingly occurring across the country.  People who have been lectured repeatedly about social distancing and who have refrained from shaking hands or having any close proximity interactions with anybody who isn’t already living in their house may be skittish about throwing that all aside and, say, sitting right next to total strangers and sharing a public bathroom at a basketball game.

635667958347229965-bowlingI think one business may have the biggest challenge of all:  bowling.  When you think about it, it’s just about the most communal activity for the general public that we’ve got.  It’s indoors.  You bowl on a lane right next to people you’ve never seen before and will never see again.  And– get this, germophobes! — you share alley balls and their hard surfaces with other members of the general public, and you stick your fingers into the same finger holes that other unknown people have used.  All of those balls travel on the same lanes and go through the same ball retrieval devices.  Even more, you share shoes with total strangers, too!

In short, bowling has a potentially dizzying amount of communication vectors.  It makes you wonder if Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx, dazzling scarves flying, have ever gone out to the local alley to try to throw a strike or pick up a spare.

Bowling isn’t alone, of course,  Any bars that have communal games — like bocce, or cornhole — are going to see the same issues.  How are people going to react to going to the community swimming pool and jumping in the water that’s also occupied by some germy-looking kids and that dubious guy lurking over at the pool’s edge?  Will people go to concerts, or participate in that fun trivia night at their local tavern?  Are cheering parents going to be maintaining social distancing in the stands at their kids’ baseball and softball games, and are they going to insist that the kids can’t give each other high fives?

The health experts want us to remember these social distancing rules and continue to adhere to them, even if coronavirus goes the way of the dodo, because it will help to prevent the spread of the flu — a yearly occurrence that is deadly for some but that we’ve all come to accept as a risk.  Lots of businesses, on the other hand, hope that we promptly forget all that and get back to having fun with people in crowds.  Something’s gotta give.

 

The Squirrel Game

Yesterday morning I took a double lap around Schiller Park.  It was a bright, sunny morning, and lots of neighborhood dogs had brought their human pals to the park for a romp through the bright green grass.  Many of the dogs were off the leash.  That meant I got to watch some of the Squirrel Game.

For those not familiar with it, the Squirrel Game is played at Schiller Park on any sunny day.  The contestants are dogs and squirrels.  The squirrels venture out onto the grass.  The dogs see the squirrels and then take off in hopes of actually catching one of the furry critters.  The squirrels see the dogs coming and easily make it back to the safety of the trees, sit on a tree branch, and then taunt the dogs with a death stare like you might see in the NBA after one player posterizes another with a particularly nasty dunk.  

I would be willing to bet that, in the  storied history of Schiller Park, no dog has ever actually caught a healthy adult squirrel.  Nevertheless, their DNA compels the canines to keep trying, not matter what — which makes the Squirrel Game pretty entertaining to watch.  In fact, with people suffering from severe sports deprivation these days, what if there were a live broadcast of the Squirrel Game to help fans try to scratch that sports itch?

Play-by-play announcer:  Welcome to Schiller Park in Columbus, Ohio, for week three of the Squirrel Game!  It’s a beautiful day for squirrel chasing, and we’ve got a full slate of contestants ready to engage in a fruitless interspecies exercise.  Jim, do you think that this just might be the week where a dog actually catches a squirrel?

Color guy:  Not a chance, Frank!  But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a bunch of representatives of man’s best friend who don’t believe that this will definitely be the day when they actually catch a squirrel, and they are willing to run themselves into panting exhaustion in hopes that their dreams will be realized.

Play-by-play announcer:  Well, hope springs eternal!  And we’ve got our first contestants ready to go.  Bosco and Skippy have moved away from their tree out onto the grass, and Missy, an overly groomed Shih Tzu wearing an embarrassing pink bow in her fur, has just been let off the leash by her human.

Color guy:  Our audience will remember Bosco, of course.  Like every squirrel in the park, he’s never been caught or even put into remote physical peril by the neighborhood dogs, but Bosco is a crowd favorite because of his exceptional taunting moves.  He’s been training Skippy, so we’ll get a chance to see how that is going.

Play-by-play announcer:  The squirrels have moved pretty far away from their tree to give Missy extra hope.  Bosco has dug up some kind of nut and is munching away on it, while Skippy is twitching her tail, hoping to attract Missy’s attention.  That’s one of Bosco’s patented moves, and it looks like Skippy has mastered it.  Wait a minute — I think Missy has seen them!  Yes, and she’s taken off!  Here we go!

Color guy:  Really bad form by Missy, Frank!  She’s started running much too early, and she’s not very fast, anyway.  You’d think dogs would have learned by now that if you really want to catch a squirrel, you need to sneak up on them.

Play-by-play announcer:  Well, they are dogs, Jim.

Color guy:  Yes, they are, which is why they never have a chance but still happily try.  Bosco and Skippy have noticed Missy heading their way, and Bosco is calmly taking a few extra nibbles on that nut and waiting until the last minute, giving Missy even more hope that this might actually be the day that she catches a squirrel.  And Missy has taken the bait, and is running at top speed.  Look at that pink ribbon fly!

Play-by-play announcer:  That’s why Bosco is one of the true all-stars.  He always gives the dogs hope before crushing their expectations like a discarded soda can.

Color guy:  You’re right of course, Frank!  And now Bosco and Skippy are engaging in some very nifty broken-field running to get back to their tree.  Some great moves from the savvy veteran and the rookie there!

Play-by-play announcer:  They’ve easily made it to the tree, leaving Missy back in the dust.  And now Missy has finally reached the tree trunk and is yapping and acting like she’s protected the human world from the scourge of the squirrel menace.

Color guy:  You’ve got to give Missy credit for trying to put a happy face on a pretty dismal effort, Frank!  She didn’t even come close, not by a long shot, but her posturing and irritating yapping shows she’s a real pro.  

Play-by-play announcer:  Bosco has caught Missy’s attention again, and is giving her that famous Bosco stare.  Jim, I’ve seen it countless times, and it still gives me chills.  And wait, Skippy is joining in!  A double stare!  And now Bosco is going back to munching on that nut, showing Missy and our viewing audience that he is totally undisturbed by the entire episode.  You’ve got to give him credit for showmanship!

Color guy:  Of course, Missy doesn’t realize she’s been dissed.  Being a dog, she’s pretty much oblivious to everything except the chase.  And now she’s trotting back to her human with a very self-satisfied air, having seemingly forgotten Bosco, Skippy and the entire embarrassing episode.

Play-by-play announcer:  Time for a commercial break.  When we return, we’ll be seeing Shultzie, a morbidly obese dachshund, try to catch Tinkles, a fan favorite with a white streak in her tail.

Color guy:  Ha ha!  I love to watch fat dachshunds try to run.  Don’t miss it, folks! 

Starved For Sports

Yesterday the National Football League draft broadcast set an all-time record for viewership.  And it didn’t just sneak past the prior record, either — it obliterated it.  Some 15.6 million people tuned in to watch the draft, which is 37 percent more than the number of people who watched the 2019 draft.

5ea250d00ec19.image_Gee, I wonder why the viewership numbers went through the roof?  After all, the NFL draft is normally one of the most overhyped, boring events imaginable, with a bunch of delays between picks and countless talking heads yammering about the best player still “on the board.”  And this year, where all of the participants in the draft were carefully maintaining social distancing and sheltering in their different houses, there was even less drama than normal.  No rational person would spend hours watching the NFL draft — unless it turns out to be the only live event for a major sport in, say, six weeks, and a bunch of sports-starved Americans are dying to watch something, anything, that wasn’t recorded in 1988.

I’m guessing that the rest of the NFL draft will set records, too — because what else are you going to watch?  And if some of the lesser sports want to increase their fan base, they might just decide to put on some made-for-TV event that allows Americans to satisfy their lust for sports.  Badminton?  Curling?   Bocce?  They all allow participants to maintain some appropriate distance, and yet also involve that essential element of competition.  At this point, the true sports nuts would probably be willing to watch two geriatric guys at some retirement center in Florida play a death match on the shuffleboard court.

The interesting thing about the NFL draft is whether the extraordinary ratings mean anything about what fans are going to do when the restrictions are lifted and sports begin to actually be played again, in arenas and stadiums.  Will they go watch live, or has weeks of social distancing caused them to want, instead, to only watch the games on TV?  I’m guessing that there’s a fair number of people who will happily don their masks and go to see their favorite team play — especially if its an event that is played outdoors.

Mayor Mike’s Super Bowl Selfie

Facebook can be pretty jarring these days.  You’re scrolling through posts about your friend’s great trip to Italy, or the impressive honor a colleague received from her alma mater, or the fine paintings other friends have created, or pictures of kids and dogs and home remodeling projects . . . and then suddenly you’re confronted with overt political ads.  They stick out like a sore thumb.

Consider this Facebook ad for former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg that appeared on my news feed recently.  He apparently has bought ad time for the Super Bowl game, but he wants to encourage people to go to some other page to see the ad even before game time — and as a result the friends on Facebook have to see this crudely photo-shopped image of a grim Mayor Mike staring into the distance, sleeves rolled up as politico sleeves always are, towering over a football stadium, with his foot on a football.  It’s like a gigantic political selfie.  (And it might be tone deaf, besides — if you’re a football fan, you certainly don’t think that anyone is bigger than the game itself, and if you’re not a football fan, you probably don’t want anyone to remind you that the Super Bowl will be dominating water cooler conversations come Monday.)

Facebook has always been a political forum of sorts, as people have posted comments and memes about the political events of the day.  But we seem to have moved into a new era where it’s not just Facebook friends posting their political views, but also the candidates themselves barging into your news feed.  It’s like a group of people standing and talking and minding their own business when an overly caffeinated campaign volunteer butts in and starts pushing fliers into your hand and talking about how awful the opposing candidate is.  To me, at least, overt Facebook political ads like Mayor Mike’s Super Bowl Selfie seem awfully intrusive, and not effective for that reason.

As time has passed Facebook has become a lot more commercialized and ad-oriented, and now it’s becoming more politicized, too.  I prefer the old dog and kid photo days.

 

Best In The State

What makes a great sports bar?  You know, the kind of place where you want to go watch your favorite team play a game?

screen-shot-2016-06-04-at-2.58.35-pm-470x220-1Clearly, there are some basic elements.  Great sports bars aren’t white tablecloth and fine china venues.  You’re looking for tasty food favorites at reasonable prices, an ample selection of beers to stoke your competitive spirit, and a friendly and attentive wait staff that won’t leave your glass bone dry during the key part of the game.  You want to have plenty of TV screens in the room, so any table or chair will have good sight lines to the screen carrying your game of choice.  And, equally important, you’re looking for an energetic atmosphere and a setting with lots of fans watching their games, where you won’t be shushed for letting out a cheer, giving a few high-fives, or blurting out a random curse at a bad play.

Whatever the qualities that make a great sports bar, JT’s Pizza & Pub here in Columbus clearly has them all.  The MSN website just named JT’s the best sports bar in Ohio.  Given the sports-obsessed culture in Ohio, that’s incredibly high praise, but it’s really not surprising.  JT’s has great pizza, appetizers, wings, and sandwiches — exactly the kind of fare you want from a sports bar — an extensive beer and drink menu, and a raucous atmosphere come Game Day.  Stop by for an Ohio State game, an NFL Sunday, or March Madness if you don’t believe me.

Congratulations to my nephew Joe, the proprietor of JT’s, and my nephew Danny, who works there, for making JT’s into a sports bar that has won Best in the State honors.

Kobe Bryant

The reaction to the tragic death of basketball great Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and others in a helicopter crash on Friday has been amazing, and overwhelming.  The crash, and the reaction to the crash, has been the lead story on many news websites over the past few days, featured even over stories about the spread of coronavirus and coverage of the ongoing impeachment trial in the Senate.

https3a2f2fcdn.cnn_.com2fcnnnext2fdam2fassets2f160414010423-kobe-bryantI’m not an NBA fan, and I didn’t really follow Bryant’s career, so I would not have predicted the outpouring of often emotional responses to Bryant’s death.  The Los Angeles Times, for example, has a continuously updated page with links of dozens and dozens of articles giving multiple reactions to the tragedy and Bryant’s death from fans, celebrities, American athletes, international sports stars, cultural figures, politicians, and others, as well as coverage of the crash and stories about other aspects of Bryant’s life.   To give you an idea of the depth of the coverage, one of the Times articles posted on the page notes that the chaplain of the United States Senate spoke of the death of Bryant, his daughter, and others in his prayer before the start of yesterday’s impeachment trial proceedings.

Bryant’s legacy is complicated by his criminal case and the perception by some that he was a selfish player, but the reaction to his death shows that, for some people at least, he became a lot more than that.  His impact on basketball was undeniable — even now, playground players evidently call out “Kobe!” when a player makes a clutch or seemingly impossible shot — and he obviously was an inspirational figure to his fans.  His support for women’s basketball and the WNBA, his outreach and encouragement to fellow athletes in basketball and other sports, his sponsorship of a studio, and his other political and social activities broadened his impact still more.  He obviously touched many people in a special way, and the fact that he died young, and in a tragic accident, compounds the impact of his death.

As I read the articles about Kobe Bryant, I found myself wondering how many other sports figures, or cultural figures, or celebrities, would elicit that kind of response.  I’m guessing not many.

Mascot Madness

In Philadelphia, police are investigating a complaint that “Gritty” — the mascot of the Flyers hockey team — punched a 13-year-old kid after a photo shoot last year.

hi-res-999ed1323129c7ca5ddd46c81d3a67c4_crop_northThe kid’s father claims that after the kid patted “Gritty” on top of his furry orange head, the bug-eyed creature took a running start and punched the kid in the back, leaving a bruise.  The Flyers say that they conducted an investigation and concluded that “Gritty” did nothing wrong and there was no evidence to support the assault claim.

I suppose one could argue that the combination of circumstances — the fact that the incident allegedly happened in Philadelphia, where sports fans are notorious, involved a goggle-eyed mascot named “Gritty” for a team playing a sport where dropping the gloves and taking a few swings is an accepted part of the game, and a franchise that recently unveiled a “rage room” to allow frustrated fans, and “Gritty,” blow off steam by wrecking various household items — should be factored into the investigation, but clearly we need to let normal police investigative techniques take their course.

The more important lesson here is that all anthropomorphic mascots should be given as wide a berth as possible, whether they are found at a hockey game, a ballpark, or an amusement park.  Unless you’re a “furrie” — that is, somebody who gets his or her jollies wearing a fuzzy or hairy costume depicting some kind of character — being a mascot would be one of the worst jobs imaginable.  You’re stuck in a hot, probably smelly costume with inadequate breathing capabilities, you’ve got the heavy burden of engaging in “zany” behavior at all times, and the fans around you undoubtedly aren’t respecting your personal space in any way.  Pats on the head, and for that matter kicks in the behind, are probably a regular occurrence.

I’m guessing that, in the professional mascot world, “Gritty” isn’t alone in wanting to use a “rage room” now and then.

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.