Thursday, September 27, 2012

K's for the A's

The Oakland A's are just plain weird. Weird in a cool, not-like-everybody else way.

The team of no-names is on the verge of making the playoffs, probably as a wild card team but possibly as AL West champs. The A's are succeeding despite injuries, suspensions, offensive ineptitude, name it.

I wrote hopefully earlier in the season about their pursuit of the all-time lowest team batting average. Since then, the A's have cranked up their offense and will not become the worst-hitting team in baseball history. However, their .237 team batting average is almost 20 points below the AL average, and leads only woeful Seattle in the league standings.

Yet we can still celebrate a record for the 2012 A's. When Chris Carter struck out against the Rangers last night, the A's broke the all-time American League record for strikeouts in a season, and kept on fanning. As of this writing, they've made the U-turn to the dugout 1333 times this year (although someone might have taken a called third while I was writing that last sentence).

It's probably too much to ask for the A's to break the all-time MLB record for strikeouts in a season. The 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks fanned 1529 times, a remarkable 9.43 whiffs per game. Of course, the D-backs employed the King of K, Mark Reynolds, who struck out 211 times that year. He was aided and abetted by Adam LaRoche (172) and Justin Upton (152).

The A's, in keeping with their "little engine that could" approach, don't have a true strikeout standout. Josh Reddick (137) and Yoenis Cespedes (100) are the team leaders, but in true A's fashion, everyone has chipped in here and there.

In order to catch the D-Backs, the A's would have to rack up 28 strikeouts a game over the final week of the season. Sure, it seems impossible, but everything about the 2012 A's seems a little impossible.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The NFL's Waterloo

Bert Bell was the NFL commissioner who uttered the immortal line about pro football parity: "On any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team."

Roger Goodell is the NFL commissioner who has seen this come home to roost, and it's not a good thing. The episode some are calling "Clueless in Seattle" makes it clear that the NFL's lost its battle with its referees. The lockout has to end, and it has to end soon.

You can go elsewhere for micro-dissection of the last-second end zone call that gave Seattle a 14-12 win over Green Bay in front of a home crowd and the big "Monday Night Football" TV audience. I'll leave the call to speak for itself (although, as the last dyed-in-the-wool opponent of instant replay, I can't help but note the irony here--the God-awful call wasn't reviewable under NFL rules).  

What I want to talk about is how this incident affects the NFL's very essence. The multi-billion dollar industry that is pro football (and the massive TV audience that's a part of that) relies on one underlying belief: the game itself is a fair competition.

Now, the belief is shattered. Who can say what'll happen next? We're seeing players and coaches griping about the good calls, because they've lost faith. It's like when the wimpy substitute teacher walks into the unruly classroom. Once you've lost the room, you're screwed.

The NFL takes its image seriously. Very seriously. The "No Fun League" worries about what kind of baseball cap Alex Smith wears and once told 49er coach Mike Nolan he couldn't wear a coat and tie on the sideline. Yet the lords of the sport have been willing to gamble with the very foundation of their game.

Speaking of gambling, it's often been said that the reason pro sports organizations put so much emphasis on enforcing rules against gambling by players and coaches is that wagering raises questions about the integrity of the game. Back in the 1960's, the NFL even suspended one of its biggest stars, Packers running back Paul Hornung, for an entire season for gambling on NFL games, though there was no evidence that Hornung tried to throw any games.  With all due respect, chronically-inept officiating is no better for the integrity of the sport.

I'm not alone in this line of thinking. No less a fan of the NFL than Pro Football Hall of Famer John Madden said today, "The way it's going now--that's not NFL football." And a far more damning comment from Madden: "You have no confidence in the outcome of the game."

Enough. If the NFL gives a damn about itself as a sport and not just a spectacle, it has to fix this. John Madden is calling on the owners themselves to step in, and as stewards of a tradition, they need to do exactly that. Soon.

Monday, September 10, 2012

One Down, Fifteen To Go

What can you say about a game where your star tight end gets rejected by the crossbar while attempting a post-TD celebratory dunk...and your placekicker's end-of-the-half 63-yarder hits the same crossbar...and goes over?

You can say the odds are in your favor. And if you're the San Francisco 49ers, you're feeling pretty good about things after going into Lambeau Field and beating the Packers 30-22.  The 49ers were simply the better team and Alex Smith continued to prove that he has arrived as a first-tier NFL quarterback. Is he Aaron Rodgers' equal? Let's not go there; it's a pointless debate. Can the 49ers win behind Alex Smith? Well, they've won 15 of their last 19 games with Smith at the helm. Case closed.

The 49ers won with execution and with creativity. Fullback Bruce Miller was deployed as a wide receiver on one play. A first-quarter blitz brought both cornerbacks and gave Carlos Rogers the first sack of his career. Second-half defensive packages often took star linebacker Patrick Willis off the field. Colin Kaepernick's one play produced a 17-yard sprint for a first down.

Questions were answered. Newly-acquired wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham combined for 8 catches, 76 yards, and a TD (Moss), proving that the 49ers now have a fleet of wideouts to go with Vernon Davis. Playoff goat Kyle Williams was flawless on punt duty; he caught everything and picked up 20 yards the only time he eschewed the fair catch. Frank Gore hasn't lost a step entering his 8th pro season; he ripped Green Bay for 112 yards, including a dagger-to-the-heart 23-yard TD blast in the 4th quarter.

It would be safe to bet that these two teams will see each other again during playoff season. If--and it's always a big "if" in the NFL--everyone stays healthy, you have to think the 49ers would have the edge. And that sure beats the alternative.