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?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Not "Jerry Maguire"

The headlines scream about State Senator Leland Yee and Chinatown mobster Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow.

But there's a fascinating--and perhaps horrifying--story deeper in the massive criminal case unfolding in San Francisco.

It's the tale of a young man named Marlon Sullivan. On the one hand, there's the Marlon Sullivan who became one of the youngest licensed contract advisers for NFL players (at the age of 24), who speaks warmly of his upbringing in San Francisco's Western Addition, whose Twitter profile describes him as "Sports Agent, Entrepreneur, All around great human being! Putting the Personal back into Personal Service..."
Marlon Sullivan, from @msully_84 Twitter profile

That Marlon Sullivan poses with one of his preschool-aged sons and gives interviews in which he praises his girlfriend for helping him "maximize his full potential".

He's the Marlon Sullivan who says he taught himself computer programming as a teenager and wound up with a master's degree in sports management from USF.

But, according to the lengthy affidavit filed by the US Attorney's office, there's a very different Marlon Sullivan occupying the same man's body and mind.

This is the one accused of dealing drugs, illegally selling firearms, and offering to commit a murder for hire.

FBI agents say Sullivan was right in the middle of a number of illegal activities in this case. They say he cranked out counterfeit credit cards (using software bought from Russian criminals with Bitcoin virtual currency), ran major amounts of illicit pot from California to other parts of the country, and readily agreed to a murder-for-hire plot proposed by an undercover agent.

This Marlon Sullivan, according to the federal affidavit, told undercover agents he'd have no trouble pulling off a "hit", saying "I got a hundred niggas, I still got my ties to the street. I got young boys who love me."

Presumably, he wasn't talking about his own boys, who he identified to an interviewer last year as Armani and Tristan. But the same Marlon Sullivan who briefly advised out-of-the-closet football star Michael Sam earlier this year and has a role in the career of up-and-coming San Francisco boxer Karim Mayfield seems to have a much darker side.

How could a young man who appears to be on the up-and-up, whose future seems bright, be living such a shockingly dual existence? The federal affidavit quotes Sullivan as saying he didn't worry about prison time because he had a clean criminal record, bragging "Ten is the max I'll get."

But the telling comments may be these. Quoting from the affidavit, Sullivan told a federal undercover agent, "living a criminal lifestyle was more of a 'power and challenge thing', that Sullivan didn't have to manufacture fraudulent credit cards, but it was fun.'"

from @msully_84 Twitter feed
Just days before the case blew open, Sullivan posted photos from a room at San Francisco's upscale W Hotel, saying, "No special occasion, just felt like it cause I could."

As I write, Sullivan's whereabouts are unknown. He did not appear at the hearing where more than 20 of the defendants were arraigned. Mayfield, who is preparing for a light-welterweight title bout in Atlantic City on Saturday night, told SFWeekly he hadn't heard from Sullivan (with whom he had been planning to sign a management contract) and "is appalled at these charges."

There's clearly much more to Marlon Sullivan than many people knew, and if the FBI and US Attorney are right, none of it is good.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Dodger Experiment

Much of the attention the Los Angeles Dodgers have been getting focuses on their drunken-sailor-level spending.  The Dodgers will enter the 2014 season with the biggest payroll in the big leagues at over $220 million. That's $75 million more than the Giants and a staggering $160 million more than the A's.

But a much bigger story about money may be playing out in the Southland.  The Dodgers have launched their own TV network, SportsNet LA, and are trying to charge the highest rates ever for a regional sports channel.

The Dodgers open the season in about a week (March 22 in Australia against the Diamondbacks), and a rough estimate shows only about a quarter of the households in the LA market will be able to tune in Dodgers games on TV.

That's because only Time Warner Cable, a partner in the new Dodgers network, will be carrying it. There will be no over-the-air TV broadcasts, and neither Dish Network, DirecTV, nor any of the smaller cable providers will be carrying the games.  Why? You already know the answer.  Money.

The Dodgers reportedly want pay-TV companies to pay more than $4 per subscriber to carry the network, a price that's likely to increase in the future. You should understand that in the murky accounting of the pay-TV world, these "per-sub" fees mean the carrier has to pay that price for each and every household, whether they want or use the channel or not.

Essentially, that means cable and satellite TV prices would go up for every home in the LA area, whether the customers want to watch Dodgers games or not.  Pay-TV companies say they don't have anything against the Dodgers, but they'd rather let individual customers decide if they want to pay for the channel.

This standoff over ever-pricier sports programming isn't unique or new. Millions of DirecTV subscribers have been frozen out of the Pac 12 Network's offerings in a similar battle. Regional sports networks in other markets are testing their muscle too.

It's a big wager by each side. Teams like the Dodgers are betting that their product is so desirable that subscribers will lean on their pay-TV carriers to pay the price, raising rates for everyone. The pay-TV companies think they're being strong-armed and say complaints and cancellations are minimal when they stand their ground.

Magic Johnson and his fellow investors may have put together baseball's edition of Showtime, but it looks like the majority of Angelenos will be left in the dark.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Nothing To See Here, Move Along

One athlete came off the bench to nearly foul out while scoring zero points in 10 minutes of playing time in an NBA game.

The other wasn't even playing a game; he'd shown up for the increasingly-weird spectacle known as the NFL Scouting Combine.

Yet both Jason Collins and Michael Sam made history over the weekend. Now, let's hope what they represent becomes ordinary enough that it's unremarkable. Let's hope the phrase "first openly-gay" is only attached to their names in history books.

Neither man shrinks from who he is; both went out of their way to tell the world about their sexual orientation and display full awareness of the weight of their revelations. Neither is a superstar. Collins just signed a 10-day contract to make his first NBA appearance since coming out last summer; Sam had a fine college career but isn't on anyone's short list of can't-miss NFL defensive line prospects.

Are their stories newsworthy? Of course. Has either man been held back by his sexual orientation? Very hard to know; Collins is a journeyman at the tail end of his career while Sam is just starting. There's certainly no indication that either has suffered for his frankness.

Which leads me to my point: it'll be nice when whoever the next gay NFL prospect or veteran NBA benchwarmer is doesn't need to be identified as "openly-gay" any more than he needs to be identified as "tall" or "fast".  67 years after Jackie Robinson's debut, do we still need to mention a baseball player's race? Of course not.

American society isn't all the way to where it will eventually be on many issues. Race and sexual orientation are among them. But there has been progress, and the truest measure of that will be when Collins and Sam are not so unique.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Earth to NFL: Time To Get Serious

Let's not kid ourselves here: football is dangerous, and the NFL brand is very dangerous.

But if the NFL really and truly wanted to make it less dangerous, it would get more serious about the rules surrounding headhunting.

Sure, the "targeting" rule gets enforced and 15-yard penalties and fines get handed out.

But all too often, the headhunter gets rewarded even though he's penalized. How's that?

Let's look at the second-quarter play in Oakland yesterday. Raiders tight end Mychal Rivera made a diving catch over the middle and as he went down, Titans safety Michael Griffin roared in and delivered the kind of hit that should be used to illustrate the textbook "targeting" foul: he led with the top of his helmet and drilled a defenseless Rivera in the head.

The blow knocked two things loose: River'a helmet and the ball.

The officials flagged Griffin for the foul, but ruled the pass incomplete. In other words, a 30-yard gain for the Raiders became a 15-yard gain on the penalty. Griffin stayed in the game, the Raiders stayed out of the end zone, and Tennessee went on to win. Not a bad deal, right?

The NCAA is taking some heat for its new anti-headhunting rule, which would have seen Griffin ejected on the spot. "Too harsh," some complain. Indeed, there have been some ejections that didn't hold up well when seen through the lens of replay.

But let me suggest that even the NCAA rule isn't enough. Here's my modest suggestion: when a defensive player commits this kind of foul, give the offense the yardage AND the penalty. It's ridiculous to allow a player to perform an act of mayhem and have his team benefit from it.

You might ask, "But how would the refs know if the player would have held onto the ball?" My answer: doesn't matter. Assume that he would have, give him the yardage, and march off the penalty from there. This would have turned that Raiders pass play into a 45-yard gain instead of the 15 they ended up with.

Same thing on turnovers. In the Broncos-Patriots game, Denver safety Duke Ihenacho earholed Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount. Blount fumbled and Denver recovered. In this case, the refs blew the call: Ihenacho should have been flagged but wasn't.  Again, because his team got to keep the ball, the bad guy wins. Under my new rule, the ball stays with the Patriots and the 15-yarder gets tacked on.  And Ihenacho watches the rest of the game from the locker room.

This head-injury thing isn't a joke.  Until the NFL stops treating it like one, things won't change.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Hits Keep Coming

America's two biggest professional sports are facing the same problem: they've become too violent.

It's a real quandary for the NFL, which has marketed its brand of sanctioned mayhem for many a year. Now, the league is trying to ease away from the madness a bit, imposing heavier fines on players who deliver blows to the head. The unintended consequence may be more injuries to the knees of players as tacklers aim lower.

Baseball's danger zone has been around home plate, where baserunners have been more and more willing to mow down catchers. The Buster Posey incident in 2011 forced a conversation about the practice of blasting into a defenseless catcher. Former catchers like Bruce Bochy and Mike Matheny fueled that conversation, which gained volume when Tigers catcher Alex Avila was mowed down by Red Sox runner David Ross during this year's ALCS.

Baseball is moving forward with a rule that should drastically reduce these crashes at the plate. It's pretty simple, really. College and high school rules already tell the umpire to call a runner "out" if he smashes into the catcher, unless the catcher is holding the ball and blocking the plate--and even then, the runner must make an effort to touch the plate.

But catchers will still face an elevated risk of concussions from foul balls. Matheny retired young because of the repeated head injuries, and nobody has truly solved this problem.

Both the NFL and MLB (and, to be honest, the NHL as well) are reaping a bitter harvest of seeds planted long ago. In glorifying "action", these sports created an environment in which high-speed collisions and contact became ever-more-important parts of the game. Unfortunately, as players have gotten bigger, stronger and faster, the results of those collisions have become uglier, both in the short term and over the long haul.

The dilemma is this: can high-speed action sports be played more safely? Is it even possible to play football and hockey without accepting a frightening risk of head injuries? And as fans, would we accept changes to the sport that might increase the margin of safety for its players?

Would we still love football if defensive backs simply tackled receivers, rather than trying to "blow them up" and knock the ball loose? Would a hockey game without body checks be as satisfying?  And what will baseball fans and pundits think the first time a play at the plate results in a slide-and-tag, rather than a collision?

How we answer these questions may well decide the future of our pro sports scene--or at least the lives of those who play those sports.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Not So Hard, Was It?

Baseball is joining the headlong rush toward video replay.

But the Beantown Blooper in Game 1 of the World Series is proof that many, if not most, of the bad calls in baseball don't require replay to resolve.  All they require is a quick meeting of the umpires.

When Dana DeMuth missed the call at second base (Cards shortstop Pete Kozma dropped a feed while trying to turn a double play), pretty much everyone in the stadium and watching on TV knew it. In DeMuth's defense, the call is trickier than it looks: he's trying to make sure Kozma's foot hits the bag before the baserunner gets there and simultaneously trying to see him catch and hold the throw.

It's the kind of play where mistakes often get made by umpires because the natural rhythm of the game is disrupted.  Second baseman Matt Carpenter's feed was awkward, leading to the flub.

But the bottom line here is much ado was made of nothing.  DeMuth got it wrong, the Red Sox squawked, the umps huddled and got it right.  End of story.

Especially in postseason play, where foul-line umpires boost the umpiring crew to six, there are always plenty of extra eyes on every play. The problem has never been seeing what happened. It's historically been a cultural problem: baseball umps simply wouldn't countenance any implication that they were less than perfect.

Dig into the history of the game and you'll see why.  Umpires had to establish themselves as being firmly in control of the game and its players and managers. The first thing any young umpire learns is that his body language and demeanor matter a lot, because players and managers will challenge him early and often.  What other sport allows the level of on-field complaining and arguing that baseball permits?

The "code of silence" forbade any ump to pipe up and overrule a member of the brotherhood. Don't you think first-base ump Jim Joyce wishes one of his crewmates had spoken up when he missed the call that cost Armando Gallaraga a perfect game in 2010? Surely someone saw the mistake but no one did anything about it.

It's encouraging that umps are now putting their heads together. It's a shame that it took this long, and a bigger shame that it may be too late to rescue fans from the endless delays brought on by video replay. A call reversal like we saw in Game 1 should have become commonplace long ago, rather than becoming a headline-generating incident.