Monday, November 26, 2012

Getting Wally Pipped

As the Great 49ers Quarterback Controversy of 2012 continues to boil, allow me a few observations:

  • The new girl in school always looks hotter
  • We've seen this sort of thing around here before. More than once, as a matter of fact (Montana/Young, Brodie/Spurrier, etc.)
  • This is a good "problem" to have
For those who've been spending their sports-fan time awaiting an NHL settlement, welcome back. While you were away, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith was concussed. Backup Colin Kaepernick played well in consecutive wins over the Bears and the Saints, and now the debate threatens domestic tranquility.

Smith or Kaepernick? For the last two weeks, there was no debate: it had to be Kaepernick, because Smith was injured (he did suit up for the Saints game but hadn't had any meaningful practice time). But now, Smith is back at work and the question is: should he be back in the lineup?

For me, the decision is simple. A starter doesn't lose his job due to injury. This assumes, of course, that said starter is back to 100%. He gets his job back until he loses it, and that, of course, can happen at any time. But those of us who subscribe to this view are firm in the belief that if a guy was good enough to be your starter when he got hurt, he's earned the right to return when he's healthy.

Plenty would disagree, and of course, the only decision that matters here is Jim Harbaugh's. You won't see me trying to predict what he'll do; that's a fool's errand. 

The "bench Smith" crowd is justifiably wowed by Kaepernick's performance as a stand-in. He's an arresting presence; as Harbaugh says, he has a "special ability". But before you anoint Kaepernick as The Franchise, it's probably worth taking a deep breath. He has all of two NFL starts under his belt. The Saints win was a big one, for sure, but it was a huge day for the defense. Take nothing away from Kaepernick, but we're still dealing with a limited data set here.

Smith, on the other hand, is 20-6-1 as a Harbaugh-era starter. He leads the NFL in passing percentage, and his 104.1 passer rating (please don't ask me to explain the passer rating) is in the company of Rodgers (105.6), Brady (105.0), Peyton Manning (104.8), and RG3 (104.6). It's ahead of such luminaries as Brees, Ryan, Eli Manning and Romo. In short, maybe he isn't the flavor of the month, but Alex Smith is most assuredly not chopped liver.

Those who mock the "you can't lose your job through injury" point of view are always quick to invoke the name of Wally Pipp. He's the poster child for their perspective.

Pipp had been the Yankees first baseman for 10 seasons when he called in sick that fateful day in 1925. Young Lou Gehrig got the start and the rest is history.

Except it's not really that simple, and it doesn't really help the "bench Smith" argument. Pipp had been a decent player, but he was slumping badly in 1925 (hitting a good 50 points below his career average). He was on his way to falling out of the starting lineup anyway; his headache just hastened the inevitable, and gave the sports lexicon the phrase "getting Wally Pipped".

Even if the analogy isn't perfect, Alex Smith appears to be on the way to joining the Wally Pipp Society. Just reading the tea leaves, it sure looks like Kaepernick will be running the show next Sunday in St. Louis against the Rams. The week after that,  the Niners host Miami, and the Sunday after that is a Sunday night showdown against the Patriots. If Kaepernick runs that table, Smith is this year's Pipp Society Man of the Year. 

Look, the 49ers have a happy problem. No other NFL team can honestly say it feels confident in a big game with either of two QB's. Unfortunately for Smith, there's really only room for one quarterback to run the offense during practice and so, despite his success, he looks like the odd man out for now. Unfair? Probably, but it's a cruel business and Alex Smith has already seen more than his share of it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Records Are Made To Be Broken

As soon as I heard about Jack Taylor's NCAA-record 138 point scoring performance for the Grinnell College basketball team, I thought about Bevo Francis.

Bevo Francis? Yep. He's probably the best sports story Hollywood never heard of. Francis came out of nowhere in the 1950's to put up some stunning numbers, including the 113-point game in 1954 that stood as the NCAA record until Jack Taylor came along.

And after Francis' two epic years at tiny Rio Grande College (now the University of Rio Grande), he pretty much went back to nowhere.  He spent a couple of years playing for a team that barnstormed with the Harlem Globetrotters, turned down a chance to play with the Warriors in the NBA, and wound up back home working in a steel mill.

I grew up fascinated by the notion of a guy scoring that many points in a basketball game--more than Frank Selvy's 100 for Furman (adjudged the NCAA Division 1 record); more than Wilt Chamberlain's 100 for the Warriors (the NBA mark). I loved the guy's nickname: "Bevo", the name of a "near-beer" sold during Prohibition (and apparently, a favorite beverage of Clarence Francis' father). And I thought I had some special inside knowledge because I knew how to pronounce the name of his alma mater: "RYE-oh Grand".

What I didn't really grasp as a kid was that Bevo Francis was more than just an oddity. He burst upon the scene as college basketball was stumbling out of the terrible point-shaving scandal of the early 50's. Rio Grande College had fewer than 100 students when Francis arrived in 1952. He actually had a 116-point game in the '52-'53 season but it came against a junior college. His 50.1 points per game average that season was ignored by the NCAA because Rio Grande played so many two-year schools.

So the next year, Rio Grande upped the ante, and America paid attention. The Redmen played all of their games on the road--places like Madison Square Garden (they drew almost 14,000) and the Boston Garden, opponents like Wake Forest, Villanova, Providence, and North Carolina State. They won their share; Francis averaged 46.5 a game, and capped it with the 113-point night against Michigan's Hillsdale College.

That night, Francis was 38-of-70 (54.3%) from the floor and 37-of-45 (82.2%) from the line, stats that compare favorably with the 52-of-108 (48.1%) floor and 7-of-10 (70%) line numbers put up by Taylor. It's worth noting that Francis didn't have the 3-point shot at his disposal while Taylor hit 27 treys on the way to his 138 points.

Jack Taylor, of course, set his record in the instant-communication era. Tweets were flying even as he was jacking up jumpers en route to the record; Facebook lit up with posts as soon as the game ended. Francis, playing in the pre-Telstar world of 58 years ago, was always a sort of gauzy figure, almost more myth than reality.

No offense to Jack Taylor or to Grinnell College, which plays an exciting brand of press-and-fire basketball that has turned the Pioneers into a reliable 100-plus-per-game scoring machine. But I still like the Legend of Bevo Francis, and that will always be the scoring record I treasure.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Don't Bother Me With the Facts

We're into baseball's post-postseason silliness now. It's Awards Week (presented by somebody-or-other, no doubt).

Look, I know the whole debate about who should win the Cy Young or the MVP or the Fireman of the Year (do they still have that one?) is mostly meaningless--unless you're the ballplayer with the fat postseason award bonus in your contract.

But baseball fans love nothing more than a good loud debate, and nothing says "sports bar argument" like the battle over something like an MVP award.

All cards on the table: I still think one of the all-time great ripoffs was in 1972, when Phillies pitcher Steve Carlton was denied the NL MVP award. Oh sure, they gave Lefty a Cy Young after he won 27 games and posted a 1.97 ERA. But I've always argued: who could have been more valuable to his team than a guy who won 46% of his team's games? That's right, the Phillies were awful in '72. They won only 59 games, and Carlton won 27 of them! Apparently, the voters were swayed by Johnny Bench's league-leading HR and RBI numbers, and the fact that his Reds won the pennant.

So yes, I may march to a different beat on this issue, and it's probably a good thing I don't have a vote.  Still, the notion that a Most Valuable Player should come from a winning team is deeply-embedded in the mythos of the sport. I don't get it.

Take this year's AL MVP award. It's basically a two-man conversation: Detroit's Miguel Cabrera and Anaheim's Mike Trout. Yes, I know: Cabrera won the Triple Crown and the Tigers went to the World Series while the Angels didn't even make the playoffs.

But you don't have to dig very deeply to at least challenge the notion that Cabrera was the more-valuable player in 2012. For starters, Cabrera beat Trout in the batting average race by .004, which means that a swing of 3 hits between the two players would have given Trout the batting title and denied Cabrera that gaudy crown.

Take away that magical phrase, and what does that leave us? A slow third baseman with maybe-average defensive skills vs. a game-changing baserunner who's already among the best centerfielders in the game.Trout stole 49 bases in 54 attempts, led the major leagues in runs scored (129 in just 139 games), and established himself as the scariest leadoff hitter in the business--at age 21. Cabrera? Well, he did lead the majors by grounding into 28 double plays.

In short, a big, plodding masher against a five-tool guy. You can go a lot deeper on this with the advanced baserunning and fielding stats now available (in fact, Nate Silver does so here), but you're just adding frosting to the cake. If you think Cabrera should win the MVP, you're buying (on some level) into the old "his team was a winner" idea and maybe (on some level) into the mythological thrill of a Triple Crown.

Two final thoughts (and yes, I am aware that Cabrera will undoubtedly win this thing): the Angels did win more games than the Tigers (89 to 88).  And really, who would you choose if you could only have one of them on your roster? That's my MVP.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Romo Nails It

It's the calm after the storm, the morning after the crazy party you never really wanted to see end.

The confetti's been swept up, the barricades have been taken down, the circus has left town.

Yet as I drove into San Francisco before dawn this morning, the orange lights still bathed numerous buildings and the neon  sign blazed away on the brick building down by McCovey Cove: "AT&T Park, Home of the San Francisco Giants."

Look, pro sports franchises are big enterprises which employ a few millionaires so the rest of us can enjoy ourselves. It's often dangerous to go any deeper than that.  But the Giants--from their 32 largely-local owners to their remarkably diverse roster--do seem to have an uncommon connection to their community.

Leave it to resident imp/provocateur/pitcher Sergio Romo to nail it.

The hyperkinetic Romo couldn't be confined to an automobile during the World Series parade. He hopped, skipped, and jogged his way down Market Street, providing as much joy as he seemed to be experiencing himself.

And when he got to the stage in front of City Hall, Romo followed the theme expressed by numerous teammates: "You fans helped us win this." But he went farther. This Mexican-American guy from the border town of Brawley stood there, sporting his "I Just Look Illegal" T-shirt.

It was a nakedly political moment in a town where left-of-center politics is as common as expensive coffee or high-priced parking tickets. When Romo talked about Giants fans, he didn't just say, "You're loud! You're the best!" No, he said, with apparent emotion, "Look at the diversity--the different faces from different places, the different strokes for different folks."

Romo's observation was a fastball down the middle, just like that final pitch of the World Series to Miguel Cabrera. He gets the essence of The City (and much of the Bay Area): a place where a whole bunch of people with a whole bunch of different stories generally manage to get along and sometimes thrive.

The Giants themselves are quite a patchwork quilt, from the stolid Buster Posey to the camo-capped Madison Bumgarner to the yoga-hip Barry Zito to those energetic Latinos Romo and Pablo Sandoval to....well, Brian Wilson.  A face and a story for everyone.

It's one thing to root for the home team because they're from your town.  It's bigger and better to feel some kind of cultural connection. And to know that the objects of your affection understand that? Priceless.