Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The 26th Man

Midwest baseball. Summer rain. Nothing unusual there.

Except for the stunningly inept performance in Chicago by the Wrigley Field grounds crew, leading to last night's 4-1/2 inning victory by the Cubs over the Giants. Yes, they played half a game in Chicago (and took longer than the typical Yankees-Red Sox game to do it), and when it was over, nobody was talking about Anthony Rizzo's home run.

The rules of baseball say this: "A regulation game consists of nine innings, unless extended because of a tie score, or shortened (1) because the home team needs none of its half of the ninth inning or only a fraction of it, or (2) because the umpire calls the game."  Well, (2) is what happened in Chicago. And the way it happened is what left the Giants and their fans seething.

Let's review how baseball deals with weather issues. The home team is in control of the decision to play or not play until the game starts. Once it does, the umpires take charge. But--and this is crucial to the discussion here--the grounds crew and the flow of weather information are under the control of the home team.

Yes, it rained hard for a few minutes at Wrigley Field last night. Unfortunately for the Giants, the skies opened up about five minutes too late. If the umpires had waved the teams off the field before Buster Posey made the last out in the top of the 5th, and if the grounds crew had screwed up just as badly, the game would have been a rainout. Not a suspended game, to be picked up at a later date. A rainout, since it wouldn't have been an official game.

Oddly, baseball's rules permit a game to be suspended if a mechanical tarpaulin fails, but not if a human grounds crew screws up, specifically allowing a suspension under the following circumstances: "Light failure or malfunction of a mechanical field device under control of the home club. (Mechanical field device shall include automatic tarpaulin or water removal equipment)".

The preceding rule seems to make one thing clear: The Lords of Baseball didn't want home teams monkeying with mechanical things like lights and tarps in order to gain an advantage. Perhaps there was a noble assumption that the hard-working men of the grounds crew were beyond reproach. 

Look, let's not kid ourselves here. Baseball lore is full of stories like the Giants' own groundskeeper Matty Schwab soaking the Candlestick Park basepaths to slow Dodgers speedster Maury Wills. The grounds crew works for the home team, period.

Am I saying the Cubs tarp-haulers created that swamp on purpose to guarantee a Cubs win? I'm not going that far. I have no evidence of malfeasance, and Cubs management and the umpiring crew are all saying the right things.

But it doesn't look good. The essence of sport is the belief that the playing field is level. Baseball's rules, perhaps unwittingly, hand the home team an added advantage by allowing a situation like this to occur. It turns out playing at home doesn't just mean you get to bat last.

The solution is actually pretty simple. The umpiring crew--or in this era of "eye in the sky" replay, the MLB head office--should be given the discretion to decide if a situation is unusual enough to warrant suspending the game rather than calling it. The rules already permit it if the lights go out.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Are We Going To Be Americans About This?

America is going gaga over soccer. All of a sudden, we're painting our faces and destroying workplace productivity so we can follow the men's national team at the World Cup.

So now that the USMNT (that's insider-lingo, apparently required of anyone who REALLY knows what's up) has reached the Round of 16 by losing to Germany, it's time to start acting like Americans.

For starters, why do red-blooded Americans suddenly go all Euro when talking about the score of  a soccer game? "Two-nil"? Please. "Two-to-nothing" is the way we talk here. Try going to AT&T Park and talking about the "four-nil" final score of Lincecum's no-hitter. See how that works out for you.

The list seems endless. We already offend foreign ears by calling the game "soccer" (because we all know what "football" really is), so why do we feel compelled to call the surface on which it's played a "pitch"? It's a "field", same as it is when you play anything else on it.

And for crying out loud, when someone scores a tying goal, they "tied" the game up. "Leveling" is for building contractors.

If you insist on using un-American sports language, then why not go all-in? The Brits call a game a "fixture". Here, we keep our fixtures in the bathroom or kitchen. They also refer to the "standings" (as in, "Who's in first?") as the "table". Here in this country, a "soccer table" is that game in the basement of the frat house.

I could go on, but by now, I hope you get the point. It's bad enough that the greatest country on Earth saw its citizens dancing in the streets after its national team lost its way into the next round of a soccer tournament. Must we surrender our sporting language, too?

America, we have a few days to sort this out. Let's get ready for some football.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Peak Football?

The phrase "peak oil" was in vogue a few years back. Geologist M. King Hubbert theorized the world was about to hit the peak of its petroleum-extraction capabilities and it would all be downhill after that.

Well, now I'm wondering if we're nearing "peak football". The list of problems facing the NFL gets longer all the time. The league's attempt to settle a lawsuit filed by those who suffered brain damage after playing football has been rejected by a judge who's concerned that the $765 million won't be enough. Youth football registration is down as concerned parents keep their kids away from a sport they think is dangerous.

And now, eight former players, including Cal and 49ers alum Jeremy Newberry, are suing the league, alleging it operated as little more than a drug pusher. Newberry's description of life in the NFL, as told to KPIX 5's Dennis O'Donnell:

"The general public wouldn't believe. It’s almost like a cattle call when you have 20 to 25 guys standing with their pants half down, waiting in line for a doctor who’s got a hundred different syringes lined up and you walk through, they’re sticking you one at a time, you walk in and out, takes all of a couple seconds, they've got the needles pre-loaded and they’re shooting up half the team in some cases.”

Newberry is 38 years old. As an offensive lineman, he may well be suffering from the repeated-concussion syndrome that is believed to have irreparably damaged the brains of many other NFL veterans. We don't know that yet.

But we do know that Newberry says his kidney function has been reduced by 70 percent, and he blames years of Toradol injections. The painkiller is widely used in the NFL. Many players have described how a jab with Toradol is what allowed them to play the violent game with reckless abandon, literally feeling no pain.

The NFL is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. It dominates the national consciousness and fuels the television and media industries. Millions of Americans spend billions of dollars every year on tickets, wearables, fantasy leagues and more.

I know I'm not the only fan who's feeling queasier all the time about this love affair. I'm past the age of having to answer the  "would you let your son play this game?" question. But I'm having a harder time getting fired up to watch a game that uses its players up and spits them out as broken hulks.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Venture Capitalist In The Corner Office

The Warriors' decision to fire Mark Jackson after three successive seasons of improvement in the win-loss category will be debated ad nauseam. Right move? Wrong move? Of course, time will tell: if the Warriors wind up in the Western Conference finals next year, management will look like geniuses.

Rather than pick apart the decision, I'd like to focus on the environment in which it was made. Warriors owner Joe Lacob spent more than 30 years in the venture capital game. He's a partner emeritus at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a firm that is among the best-known in the VC world.

Full disclosure: I spent several years covering technology and even waded in the startup company waters myself. I spent a lot of time, both as a reporter and an entrepreneur, around young companies and the people who invest in them.

Here's what I learned: VC's think a lot of themselves. If you bought the PR, you'd think all the wealth of our modern boom times had been created by a few smart guys on Sand Hill Road.  You'd also think they're in the game to create jobs, improve communities and cure society's ills.

The fact is, they're motivated by one thing: ROI. That's business-speak for "return on investment", and it's really the only thing that matters to a VC. Their business model is pretty simple:  round up a lot of investor money, throw it at The Next Big Thing, and hope for a few enormous wins. That's usually achieved with a "liquidity event": an IPO or sale that generates an enormous return for the VC's investors.

Venture capitalists have little interest in actually running a company for the long haul; that's not the way their business works. They have a lot of interest in short-term decision-making aimed at the biggest possible profit. They don't fool around: they put their people on the boards of companies in which they invest, they bring in executives with whom they're comfortable, and they generally get things done their way. Or else.

Another thing you'd think if you believed venture capital PR: they're wildly successful. Well, let's examine that. They certainly do hit home runs for their investors. Everyone can recite the names of VC success stories: Kleiner Perkins can boast of hitting the jackpot on Netscape, Google, and Amazon, among others. But little is said about the deals that go under. Harvard professor Shikhar Ghosh has done some digging and reports a different story: 75% of VC-funded companies go under. And if you broaden the definition of "failure" to mean "didn't meet projected ROI", the number is more like 95%.

Well, then. In Lacob, we have a leading figure from a leading company in an industry that hits it big on 5% of its decisions. In a highly-illuminating discussion with three Bay Area sportswriters, Lacob drew heavily on his venture capital background in explaining why Jackson is out.

He said Jackson "probably needs to do a better job of managing up and sideways", a reference to how the coach handled relations with the Warriors front office. And most tellingly, he referenced his VC philosophy in saying, "there is the right CEO, the right leader for an organization at different phases or stages of its growth cycle."

Leave aside the question of whether a basketball coach is really analogous to a CEO (I would strongly dispute this, but that's how Lacob thinks). What you're left with is the very VC-like belief that nobody can run an organization through various phases. That's why the brilliant mind who launches a company seldom gets to keep the corner office; the investors insist on "adult supervision".

In their pursuit of the big win, venture capitalists set very high bars, because they're not just interested in profit. They need a HUGE profit to support their business model. Thus, it's not surprising to see Lacob tell reporters that "a reasonable expectation" for the Warriors this year would have been a top-4 Western Conference finish. I would argue that Lacob has confused "goal" with "expectation". Was it really "reasonable" to "expect" the Warriors to reach that goal?

Lacob may well succeed in running the Warriors according to his VC model. But if that's his plan, he might want to remember what's at the heart and soul of every one of those companies he and his partners found worthy of an investment: people with passion, energy and ideas. Sports may be a multibillion dollar business, but it's played and coached by human beings, not business plans.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Donald Sterling's Uncomfortable Truth

In all the fury about Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling's ugly comments, and in all the backslapping about the NBA's unprecedented sanctions, very little has been said about the uncomfortable truth of the matter: Donald Sterling is hardly the only American whose vision isn't colorblind.

Sterling's "crime", of course, was being caught on tape saying the sorts of things that make many of us uncomfortable. Most people, no matter what they really think, have learned that there are some things you just don't say where it can come back to haunt you. But just because folks don't say these things, do you think they don't believe them?

LaSalle University professor Charles Gallagher chairs his school's sociology department and teaches the subject. In a KCBS interview today, he told us about a fascinating and revealing assignment he gives his students. He asks them to spend three weeks noting everything their friends, roommates, teammates, dorm acquaintances, and family members say about race and ethnicity.

Most of what Gallagher's students hear isn't coming from 80-year-old billionaire white guys. It's coming from young, educated Americans. But a lot of it isn't that different from what Sterling said. The real difference: their comments are being made in the context of a confidential, private relationship. The people saying these things are comfortable with the person to whom they're saying them.

In other words: just like Sterling, who didn't call a news conference or issue a press release requesting he see fewer black people in his inner circle. Instead, he made the comment in a private conversation with an intimate friend--a "safe" place that didn't work out so well for Sterling.

Whether you're white, black, Asian, Hispanic or something else, the stark reality is you probably hold beliefs or feelings about race and ethnicity that, if exposed to international scrutiny, might not pass the Sterling test. You're probably aware enough not to blurt them out in a meeting at the office or post them on Facebook.

Ten years ago, Paul Haggis' movie "Crash" won the Best Picture Academy Award. It delved into questions of race and ethnicity in a Los Angeles sliced and diced into enclaves. Many of Haggis' characters glibly dropped the kinds of comments that could get an NBA owner in trouble. Whatever you thought of the film, it opened a conversation about racial attitudes.

Clearly, that conversation hasn't ended. And as Charles Gallagher's students are learning, there are no magic wands you can wave to change what people say and think when they're out of the spotlight.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Cue Captain Renault

To paraphrase Captain Renault's immortal line from the film "Casablanca": "I'm shocked, shocked to find that a sports team owner is a jerk!"

It is laughable to watch pundits far and wide demand action right now against the buffoon who's owned the Los Angeles Clippers since 1981. He's been an embarrassment pretty much since Day One. It doesn't take much digging to find the long record of allegations against Sterling--or the things he's said and done on the record.

But now, suddenly, not only are we shocked to hear what appears to be Sterling's own voice uttering this garbage--but the people who work for him are supposed to have done more? Really?

It's not as if we haven't seen this act before in the history of pro sports in America. Marge Schott. Calvin Griffith. George Marshall. Heck, even the felon George Steinbrenner. There are others, of course, for in America, we seldom apply a morals test to wealth. Every now and again, the insular world of pro sports will block someone from the club (Major League Baseball repeatedly prevented reputed organized-crime figure Edward DeBartolo from acquiring a franchise before the NFL let him buy the 49ers), but in general, money talks.

Let me be clear: I don't condone what Sterling is reported to have said in the present controversy any more than I condone his past behavior. He's a boor, a jerk, an embarrassment. When his behavior becomes actionable, it's appropriate to make him pay for it. Former Clippers GM Elgin Baylor sued Sterling five years ago, alleging ace and race discrimination, and lost in a jury trial.

But I question the notion that those who work for Sterling are somehow aiding and abetting his behavior. Plenty has been said and written since this story exploded about how Clippers coach Doc Rivers and his players should be taking more of a stand. Many have suggested that Rivers--widely considered to be a decent man and a brilliant coach--somehow compromised his integrity by accepting Sterling's money to coach the Clippers.

My response: what a crock. Ask yourself if you'd really be prepared to walk away from your job because your company's CEO was a jerk. Do we expect actors, musicians, carpenters or auto salespeople to take a moral stand about their bosses' behavior? Are they somehow complicit because they choose to accept a paycheck to ply their trade?

What should happen now? Obviously, the NBA needs to suspend Sterling (as baseball did with Schott). Beyond that, President Obama's advice seems worth heeding. "When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance," said Mr. Obama, "you don't really have to do anything, you just let them talk."

Or maybe Pete Townshend got it right when he wrote the last line of "We're Not Gonna Take It": "Let's forget you better still."

Monday, April 7, 2014

How To Fix Replay

A week into the Major League Baseball season, it's already clear that the new replay rules need some work.

From the bizarre wait in Oakland while Coco Crisp's walkoff homer was confirmed, to the travesty in Phoenix where an obviously blown call at the plate couldn't be challenged because Bruce Bochy had already lost an appeal, to the uneven application of replay on the new "blocking the plate" rule...I could go on.

But I won't.  Instead, let me offer a few quick suggestions.  If we're going to be stuck with the intrusion of video replay, let's at least make sure it's an aid to umpiring and not what it has already become: a strategic weapon.

First, eliminate the ridiculous idea of having an unseen employee lurking in the background tell a manager whether to challenge a call. Who thinks this is a good idea?

Dumping the "video adviser" job leads to my next suggestion: end the silly sight of a manager easing out of the dugout after a close play, constantly looking over his shoulder while he awaits his video guy's thumbs up/thumbs down recommendation on whether to challenge the call. My recommendation: if a manager steps on the field, he just triggered a challenge. Isn't the whole goal here to catch the obviously-blown calls? If so, a manager (aided by his players on the field) should be able to make an instant decision.

The "blocking the plate" call is a new one for plate umpires. The Giants should have been awarded a run in their season opener when Arizona's Miguel Montero clearly violated the rule.  As it turned out, it didn't matter because Brandon Crawford scored anyway. But Crawford was forced into an awkward sprawl, exposing himself to injury because of Montero's violation. The play was never reviewed, but given the relatively small number of tag-at-the-plate plays and the potential for injury, shouldn't all such plays be reviewed?

We've learned that video review has its limits. The pickoff play in Phoenix that Bochy unsuccessfully challenged is a case in point. Giants video adviser Shawon Dunston told fans the next night that he still believed Matt Cain had the runner picked off. Several angles seemed to confirm that, but one was inconclusive. Is that enough to uphold a call?

I'm also troubled by the notion that the very possibility of a play being reviewed will alter the way the game is played. Case in point: Braves outfielder Justin Upton says he made a mistake by trying to play a ball that got stuck in the outfield padding. On that play, Nationals hitter Ian Desmond roared around the bases for an apparent inside-the-park home run. After review, he was sent back to second base; the unseen umps deciding the ball had been stuck in the padding. Right call--but it could have been made by a conference of umpires at the stadium. Instead, the message to Upton (and others) is: expect help from New York.

Replay advocates keep telling us the system will get better.  Let's hope so. I think we'd all prefer to see managers worrying about late-inning matchups or defensive shifts rather than waiting for the video adviser to tell them which calls to challenge. Isn't any game better decided on the field?