Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Latest Can't-Miss Kid

The San Francisco Giants have done it again. Another year, another baby-faced phenom.

This time, it's 22-year-old first baseman Brandon Belt. Giants management waited until after the final exhibition game to make the announcement: Belt is the team's starting first baseman, shoving incumbent Aubrey Huff to right field.

It's a bittersweet moment: the annointing of Belt ends the Giants career of Travis Ishikawa, a Giants draftee whose defensive skills and pinch-hitting prowess made him a valuable piece of the World Championship team. But the truth is harsh: Belt appears to be Ishikawa's defensive equal, and the offensive upside is obvious. Ishikawa is a class act, and I hope the closing of this door opens another one for him.

In the glow of the World Series win and a spring that saw the Giants post the best exhibition record in baseball, it's easy to forget the harsh reality of the sport: moves don't always work out. Belt has exactly one year of professional baseball under his, uh, belt. His meteoric climb through three minor-league levels means exactly nothing to Ubaldo Jimenez, Clayton Kershaw, Mat Latos, and the other big-leaguers who'll be staring at him from 60 feet away.

The Giants have made the easy decision in giving Belt the first-base job. The harder decisions could come in a few weeks. What do they do if he struggles at the plate? How about when Cody Ross comes off the DL and is ready to return to the right-field job now slotted for Huff? Do the Giants bench Belt or ship him back to Triple-A Fresno?

For now, those are just nagging little thoughts. The thrill of a new season drowns them out. Belt becomes the latest "Kid" to join a Giants team already full of 20-something stars: Posey, Lincecum, Cain, J. Sanchez, Sandoval, Wilson. Remember: each and every one of these players was drafted and groomed by the Giants organization. Belt is in damned good company.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Way It Ought To Be

Now THIS is March Madness.

All of the number 1 seeds sent packing. A championship game that will include either longshot Butler or longer-longshot VCU. A bracket contest that produced only two correct "Final Four" selections out of 5.9 million entries.

Oh sure, if you're a Kansas or Duke or Ohio State fan, you're having a hard time seeing the beauty.

But this is what college sports should be all about. Passion, exuberance, unpredictability.

In the past, I've advocated a truly radical plan for the NCAA tournament: put every team in the nation in the field and make it random. No seeds. Just shake up the barrel and pair the teams up and let them play. My argument has always been that it would make for a less-predictable and more exciting tournament than the annual coronation of one of the sport's traditional heavyweights.

Of course, my idea will never come to fruition. Most people say they want excitement, but what they really want is a semblance of order. They don't want the interlopers to shake things up too much.

Well, guess what? The party's been crashed this year. I'll never get my wide-open winner-take-all tournament, so I'm enjoying this March while I can.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Yet Another NHL Nightmare

The fact that Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara continues to suit up and play is an ongoing indictment of the National Hockey League's commitment to making a dangerous game safer. It's also a reminder that thuggery is alive and well in a sport that celebrates ritualized fisticuffs.

Chara ended the season (and perhaps the career) of Montreal's Max Pacioretty with a vicious late hit. Pacioretty suffered a severe concussion and a broken neck. If you must, you can see the play in the video clip here--but note that the clip is provided by a website called Yes, you read that correctly.

Full disclosure: 33 years ago, I sustained an injury nearly identical to Pacioretty's: a non-displaced fracture of the C-4 vertebra. Let me tell you, when the doctor enters the room and says "fractured vertebra", your world gets shaken. I got mine by rolling a car off an embankment; Pacioretty got his by having his head slammed into the side of a hockey rink by an opponent who showed no regard for him.

But it's worse. Not only did Chara show no regard for Pacioretty's life and limb, the NHL doesn't much seem to care either. The league hasn't even suspended or fined Chara for the hit (he was ejected from the game in which it happened), but NHL brass is thumbing its nose at Air Canada.

What did Canada's airline do to get involved in this? Basically, it threw down the gloves, to steal a hockey concept. Air Canada told the NHL that if it didn't see the league move aggressively to make the sport safer, it would stop sponsoring hockey. Commissioner Gary Bettman's response, essentially, was "screw you, Air Canada" (read more in this excellent piece by CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen).

Look. It's been 7 years since Todd Bertuzzi assaulted Steve Moore, breaking his neck in one of the most vicious attacks ever seen on a North American field of play. Bertuzzi served a year's suspension and continues to make a fine living playing for the elite Detroit Red Wings. The message: you can try to kill a man on a hockey rink, but sooner or later, the game will welcome you back.

It was easy for many to demonize Bertuzzi. But what he did, and what Chara did the other day, are not isolated acts. The hockey culture promotes right-to-the-edge aggressiveness, rewards those who practice it, and fails to adequately punish the truly shocking incidents. In short: the NHL doesn't care about player safety. And judging by commissioner Bettman's willingness to blow off a responsible corporate partner like Air Canada, it may not care much about its own relevance either.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Jocks and Crime: So What?

CBS News and Sports Illustrated magazine are making a big splash out of what they're calling "an unprecedented six-month investigation" into the criminal records of football players on Top-25 college teams. Their big finding: 7% of the athletes had been charged with or cited for a crime.

Well, pardon me for not getting all hand-wringy about this. Let me explain why this is a classic case of making a mountain out of a statistical molehill:

  • CBS News and SI use reports of arrests and citations--not convictions--to build their case. You don't have to be a criminal defense lawyer to recognize that not everyone who gets arrested or cited is actually guilty of anything. In fact, the report says more than 40% of the incidents uncovered by the investigation did not result in a conviction or fine.
  • The news organizations say more than a third of the offenses were for drugs or alcohol. That covers a lot of ground. Do we really think a kid with an open-container citation in his past is a danger to decent society?
  • Even if the 7% number shocks you (and it apparently does shock CBS News correspondent Armen Keteyian, who went on the air to describe the report as a "game changer"), is it really that big a deal? The adult US population (18+) is around 250 million. I've seen credible estimates saying anywhere from 45 million to 64 million Americans have a citation or arrest on their records. Using the lower number, that's still somewhere around 18% of the adult general population!

CBS News and SI trot out appropriately hair-raising stories of football players breaking bad--ugly stories of aggravated assault, armed robbery, weapons, reckless endangerment, resisting arrest and the like. But curiously, we don't read about any shoplifting arrests or drunk-in-public citations which one has to assume are part of the dossier.

Look: I'm not condoning bad behavior by anyone. But in case you haven't been paying attention, kids do screw up. CBS News and SI appear to be lobbying for colleges to conduct criminal background checks on athletic recruits (they take pains to point out that in Florida, for $24, you can get a criminal report on anyone--including many juvenile arrests). So then what? Should we tell a kid who got in a fight at the mall that he can't play college football?

By overplaying these statistics, the news organizations risk burying the real lead here. There remains a pervasive sense of entitlement among many athletes, aided and abetted by institutions which profit from their athletic exploits. Without question, colleges should take a firm stand against bad behavior by their jocks. Some already do: BYU may have just destroyed its shot at a national basketball championship by suspending forward Brandon Davies for violating the school honor code.

But who benefits if the institutions become unnecessarily punitive when assessing a recruit's background? How long should a youthful indiscretion remain a burden to a developing adult? Society has long agreed that, except in the most egregious and violent cases, juvenile crime is treated differently from the crimes of adults. A key component of that philosophy is the belief that young people can grow and change for the better. Let's hope this report is eventually seen for what it is: a bunch of numbers that don't really add up to much.