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.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

This Should Be An Easy Call

Anywhere else on Earth, the chance to host a world-class event like the America's Cup would have the civic leaders abuzz.

But in case you haven't been paying attention, San Francisco may or may not be on the same planet as the rest of us. Side story that says a lot about the political realities of San Francisco: let's go back to 1983. Mayor Dianne Feinstein is facing a recall election after she proposed a handgun ban--and was targeted for recall by a leftist group. She was dismissive of the recall, and my colleague Mike Sugerman pressed her by saying, "But Mayor Feinstein, more than 20,000 people signed the petition!"

Feinstein's reply summed up San Francisco realpolitik: "Mike," she sighed, "This is San Francisco. You could get 20,000 people to sign a petition calling for open-air sewers on Market Street." Further side story: Mike took her up on that assertion and did get several people to sign such a petition.

Back to the main thread. The carping from elected (and formerly-elected) officials has been consistent and can be summed up thusly: "We don't want to make anything easy, and we sure as heck don't want to make anything easy for a bunch of rich guys."

Political posturing aside, can someone show me exactly how the just-completed America's Cup regatta was a loser for San Francisco (and, in a broader sense, the Bay Area at large)? There's been an insane fixation on a probably-inflated "economic benefit" number floated way early in the process. So what if the event didn't generate $1.4 billion in economic impact (as if anyone can actually prove such a number anyway)?

You don't have to wait for the final numbers to come in to know that the America's Cup attracted a lot of people to The City. It'll seem a little strange not to hear the New Zealand accents that became such a part of the cityscape over the summer. Make no mistake about it: tourism is a huge economic engine in San Francisco. Visitors spent millions of dollars a day, and tourism pours a half-billion dollars a year worth of tax and fee money into the City treasury.

As they take down the signs and banners, Cup organizers will leave behind a cleaned-up setting at Piers 27 and 29, two of the many underutilized eyesores along the San Francisco waterfront.  "The City That Knows How" has been notably slow to capitalize on its remarkable waterfront and the Cup events did far more good than harm.

Without question, billionaire Larry Ellison's side overreached in choosing the wickedly-expensive AC-72 catamarans. A cheaper boat would have kept more players in the game, probably triggering even more tourist visits (and long-term stays by competing teams). But the game-changing speed developed by sailboats that ride on foils instead of hulls is a "no-turning-back" proposition. Wherever the next America's Cup is held, it'll be an amazing spectacle. Give naval architects, sailors and the people cooking up broadcast technology another three or four years and who knows what they'll come up with?

Which brings us back to San Francisco. There are few places on the planet where you can stage a sailboat race within full view of crowds that can watch for free. It's a city already blessed with the infrastructure to handle throngs of visitors. And you'd think any place with those blessings would be thrilled to host the next America's Cup.

But this is not just any place. It's San Francisco. Ellison's win will merely begin the next round of backbiting and posturing. The boat-loving billionaire can help his case by declaring early and often that he's not in this to score a real estate coup along the waterfront. He won't win over the usual suspects, who play the political game as a full-contact sport. He can't expect logic to prevail, because that's not how San Francisco rolls.

He needs to find a way to make the yacht races feel like a gift to the City and not a billionaire's scam. And he needs to be ready for the reality that winning the Cup twice might be easier than winning the hearts of San Francisco politicians.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

How To Make a Problem Worse

Look, everyone agrees that football needs to do something about the head injuries.

But I think that pretty soon, everyone is going to agree that the NCAA's new "targeting" rule is a complete disaster.

The first weekend of the college season brought a number of penalties for violation of the new rule, put in place this season in an attempt to make the game safer. In the NCAA's own language, the rule "requires that players who target and contact defenseless opponents above the shoulders will be ejected. The change increases the on-field penalty for targeting by adding the automatic ejection to the existing 15-yard penalty."

That automatic ejection sounds like a swell idea. After all, if you really want to take the headhunting out of the game, it stands to reason that you should get the headhunters out of the game, right?

Not so fast. The clumsy implementation of the rule includes a requirement that the ejection portion of the penalty be reviewed by a video-replay official  (there's no overturning the 15-yard marchoff); the replay officials must have "conclusive evidence" that the on-field ejection decision was wrong in order to rescind it.

Yikes. At least one of the weekend's ejections (in the Texas A&M-Rice game) was probably a late hit, but probably not "targeting". Ergo, the Texas A&M defender should not have been tossed.

And then there was the Cal-Northwestern game, in which Bears linebacker Chris McCain leveled Wildcats QB Trevor Siemian after Siemian delivered a pass. A violent hit? For sure. A late hit? Possibly. "Targeting"? Well, that's where it gets dicey.

For starters, McCain stands 6'6" to Siemian's 6'3", so even a "clean" hit runs the risk of contact around the head. Video replays showed, at worst, McCain's helmet riding up toward Siemian's chin as the play ended.

Those replays should have been seen by an official to decide if the on-field decision to eject McCain was warranted. There was plenty of confusion at Memorial Stadium before McCain was led off to the locker room, but it turns out the one thing that didn't happen was an official replay of the video!

Two days after the game, the Pac-12 conference issued a statement. I quote in part:  "because of a technical failure and resulting breakdown in communication, the play in question was not actually reviewed after the replay official was made aware that McCain had been ejected for Targeting.
Because the Targeting penalty was not reviewed at the time, the Pac-12 Conference has reviewed the play and determined that McCain should have been reinstated into the game."
Yikes again. "Technical failure"? "Breakdown in communication"? And the net result is the ejection of a key player?
The NCAA's attempt to police headhunting is laudable, but the cure is questionable. Any time there's this much uncertainty about a decision with such dire consequences, you have set up a recipe for disaster. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Dempster Achieves The Impossible

I didn't see this coming: I'm sitting down to write a piece defending Alex Rodriguez.

While the Lords of Baseball (and certainly the New York Yankees) wish A-Rod would just go away, the boneheads of Boston have managed to render him at least a mildly sympathetic figure.

Numerous members of the Red Sox issued public complaints about Rodriguez' continued presence in the Yankees lineup while he appeals MLB's 211-game suspension. Bad enough, since every last one of the complainers is also a beneficiary of the same Basic Agreement that affords Rodriguez the right to appeal his suspension.

But then pitcher Ryan Dempster decided to play target practice with Rodriguez, with a full house at Fenway roaring its approval. That it took four pitches for Dempster to finally hit Rodriguez says volumes about a guy in the twilight of a mediocre career. Angry Yankees manager Joe Girardi noted that Dempster doesn't hit many batters; maybe it's because he's usually walking them (an average of 4 per 9 innings throughout his career).

Rodriguez wasn't hurt and he gained his retribution later in the game with an emphatic home run in a Yankees comeback win. I'm not here to scold Dempster for the mere act of throwing at an opposing hitter.  Baseball has long existed with a delicate balance on this issue, though it has been twisted in the American League, where the designated hitter rule frees pitchers from facing their own music.

No, the bigger problem here is this: Dempster (and one must assume the Red Sox were in on the deal) took an off-the-field issue onto the field. There's a process in place: MLB investigated Rodriguez' dealings with the tainted Biogenesis clinic, handed down its punishment, and A-Rod appealed. Everything by the book.

Until the Beantown Vigilante Committee decided to get involved. What next? A player's outspoken comments on a political matter make him a target of a harder-than-necessary slide at second base? Or an anti-DUI crusader decides to "make things right" by spiking a player busted for drunk driving?

What Dempster did crosses a very dangerous line. It's of course ironic that a player would decide to mete out rough justice to another player simply for exercising the rights guaranteed to every player facing MLB discipline.

And it's just plain bizarre than the master of the Just Plain Bizarre, A-Rod, would be the sympathetic figure in all this.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Get Used To It

Giants fans, it's pretty bad right now. That sweep at the hands of the Cubs--all one-run losses, all marked by painful moments of failure--is the low point of 2013. For now.

So pardon me for rubbing salt in those open wounds. But have you been keeping an eye on the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig?

The 22-year-old Cuban has put up eye-popping numbers since he arrived in LA in early June. Not coincidentally, the Dodgers have gone from last to first with Puig manning right field. They were 9 games under .500 the day before he arrived. Since then, the Dodgers have been playing out of their minds. They're 17 games over .500 (33-16) in The Puig Era.

But it's not just wins and losses and stats. With Puig, you're talking about a bona fide Big-Time Star. This guy elevates showboating to a level you don't see very often. His latest exploit: the punctuation mark on his first-ever walk-off home run. Check it out:

Puig conducts his interviews in Spanish, so it's possible things get lost in translation. But here's what he said afterward about his unusual arrival at home plate: "Some people jump, some people slide, some people run."

Really? Because I don't remember ever seeing a major-leaguer end a game by hitting one over the wall and then sliding home.

It's the part of Puig's game that gets opposing fans red in the face and causes opponents to grind their molars. It's probably not a coincidence that Puig was in the middle of the big Dodgers-Diamondbacks donnybrook in June, a few days after his arrival in the big leagues.  Old-school guys like Kirk Gibson and Matt Williams have very little use for Puig-style cavorting.

Yep, it annoys people (including, it's been reported, some of Puig's own teammates). Nope, it's not likely to go away. This guy is a singular talent whose backstory is still being revealed (this excellent Yahoo! Sports piece brought new details to light). Puig is...well, he's Yasiel Puig. And he's made it clear he's damned well going to do what he's going to do.

As long as he's hitting .372 and swaggering with the hottest team in baseball, don't look for him to suddenly go all Buster Posey on us.

Better get used to it.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Best of Times, Worst of Times

Let's roll the calendar back a few months. Here we are: it's the fall of 2012. The two Bay Area big league baseball teams are in tall clover: the Giants have followed a 94-win regular season with Mr. Toad's Wild Ride through the postseason to a second World Series title in three years.  The plucky A's have posted 92 regular season wins, surprised both Texas and Anaheim to win the AL West, and extended the big, bad Tigers to a 5th and deciding playoff game.

Wow, the future looked bright, didn't it?

Turns out it was only half-bright.  The A's have gone from plucky to scary and lead the AL West again (with the league's second-best record). The Giants? Well, they're summoning up memories of the Bad Old Days. Sure, they're only 6-1/2 games out of first--but that's only because the NL West has but one team over .500, and division-leading Arizona would be 6-1/2 games behind the A's were they in the same division.

What the heck happened here? Essentially, the A's just kept being the A's, adding a few pieces here and there (Eric Sogard, Jed Lowrie) and watching young talent like Josh Donaldson blossom into a budding star. Of course, the A's continue to parade out young pitchers--although the ace is Bartolo Colon, an old man with a PED stain in his past and the shadow of another one looming (the Florida Biogenesis case).

The Giants? Well, if it could go wrong this year, it probably already has. Let's go back to spring training, where Brandon Belt went on a homer binge--then got sick in time for Opening Day and has never really recovered. Injuries? Plenty of them: Angel Pagan, Pablo Sandoval, Marco Scutaro, Ryan Vogelsong. Subpar work from Matt Cain. Barry Zito's bizarre home/away split (a home ERA of 2.45 vs. a road ERA of 9.38; opponents hitting .241 against him at AT&T Park and .423 elsewhere). And on and on...

To a man, Giants players say they aren't giving up. But you can see they don't have an answer (if they did, wouldn't they have tried it already?) and GM Brian Sabean has been hinting very strongly that the Giants are more likely to be a seller than a buyer in the trade-deadline sweepstakes. In short: the odds grow stronger with each loss that 2013 will be a Lost Season in San Francisco.

And across the bay? Call these the Best of Times and enjoy the ride.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Baseball's Replay Mess

Open letter to Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig: This isn't that hard to do.

I'm talking about baseball's absurd approach to the use of video replay.

As I've written before, I'm not in the replay camp. I'm just fine with umps blowing calls (after all, the players screw up and don't get re-do's), but I recognize that I'm in the minority. And the battle's been lost anyway; baseball already employs video replay on some home run calls and plans to expand it next year to include fair/foul calls and caught-or-trapped calls.

So, since the sport seems so intent on expanding the use of video replay, is it too much to ask that they get it right?

Bay Area baseball fans have seen the current flawed system in use way too often in 2013, and the year isn't even halfway over. Exhibit A was the May home run-that-wasn't in Cleveland, where Oakland's Adam Rosales hit one over the wall. It bounced off a black-painted railing, rebounded onto the field, and was ruled a "live ball".

The A's complained, and that's when Selig's Folly kicked in. The original call had been made by Angel Hernandez, an umpire who is not exactly beloved by players and managers for his acumen or his demeanor. But Hernandez is the "crew chief", so he was in charge of deciding whether to overrule himself. He didn't, making him the only person on the planet who didn't get the call right.

There are two problems here.  First, why is the guy who made the call asked to rule on his own work? And second, why does it have to take so long to sort these things out? Baseball's replay system involves the entire umpiring crew leaving the field and peering at a video monitor somewhere under the stands.

The Giants played two straight games in Pittsburgh this week in which home run calls were reversed. In one game, the Pirates' Neal Walker bounced one off an empty right field seat at PNC Park. In real time, the umps missed the call, but correctly ruled it a homer after watching the replay. The next night, Giants rookie Nick Noonan circled the bases with his first big-league dinger, but was sent back to second base after a closer look showed the ball had bounced back off the top of the center field fence.

Both of those Pittsburgh decisions were correct, but both took far too long to make. Casual television viewers knew the truth long before the umps returned from their video lair.

The solution is simple, and it's already in use in the smallest of North America's Big 4 pro sports. The National Hockey League uses a central video replay room to make very fast calls on goals.  The Toronto "war room" gets feeds from every arena.

The NHL system removes the Angel Hernandez factor from the process and leverages technology in the service of speed and accuracy.  It's about time baseball got with the program.

It'll only get worse when the use of video replay expands to more calls. Before MLB games start looking like NFL games, complete with on-screen timers showing the length of the delay, it's time to adopt the NHL system. If it's important to get it right, there's no reason not to get it right fast.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Another Shot to the Head

It's happened again in baseball: a pitcher hit in the head by a line drive, crumpling on the mound as the stadium goes silent.

This time, it was Toronto's J.A. Happ, struck by a ball off the bat of Tampa's Desmond Jennings. The sound of the ball hitting Happ's skull was as audible as its impact with the bat.  Jennings wound up at third with one of the stranger triples you'll ever see.

Happ didn't see it. He was on his knees, head cradled in his hands.  Eight minutes later, he left the field on a paramedics' backboard.  It looks like he escaped the fate of former A's pitcher Brandon McCarthy, who sustained a potentially-deadly subdural hematoma when he was hit last season.

But how many more of these do we need to see before baseball does something? A pitcher takes the mound wearing a New Era 59Fifty cap on his head: a few ounces of fabric that may protect his eyes from the sun but certainly don't protect his skull from batted balls.

Those balls get there in a hurry. The ESPN Home Run Tracker provides data on the ball-off-bat speed of home runs. 100 MPH is routine; some leave the bat as fast as 111 MPH. Remember: the pitcher, after striding toward home plate, is maybe 54 feet away from that bat. I've seen studies that show a pitcher can react and deflect a ball in .368 second. Yes, that's just over a third of a second.  But a ball that leaves the bat at 111 MPH gets there sooner--something like .345 second.

Numerous researchers have suggested the best thing a pitcher can do to protect himself is to finish his delivery the way the old-timers did: in a balanced "fielding position", facing home plate. Watch a few games today and see how many guys do that. Wait--I'll save you the few hours.  The answer is: not many.

There are no rules prohibiting a pitcher from wearing some kind of protective liner inside his cap. Yet nobody at the big-league level is wearing one. Don't expect them to; athletes are notoriously slow to adopt the very protective gear designed to keep them whole.

If change is to come, it will probably have to be mandated.  I think of hockey and cycling, both of which essentially had to drag their professional participants kicking and screaming into wearing helmets (and the NHL still doesn't mandate eye protection, despite some awful incidents over the past few years).

Major League Baseball says it is working with a number of companies large and small on a protective cap liner. But baseball also says if anything is developed, it wouldn't be mandatory, partly because the sport is afraid to, in the words of one official, "give a false sense of security".  Translated: we're afraid of getting sued.

It's time to get past this. Do we really need to wait for someone to be killed or maimed for life?

Friday, May 3, 2013

Yellow For Courage

I'm not really a fan of the made-for-TV bit of theater in which the home team gets all its fans to wear the same color. White, red, orange, black...we've seen it all and it always seems a bit hokey to me.

But I'm making an exception for the yellow T-shirts the Warriors have been handing out to their playoff crowds. Yellow is the color historically used to denote cowardice. This basketball team is far from cowardly.

The shirts say "We Are Warriors" on the front and sport a variety of hortatory words on the back. The fans, of course, aren't warriors. They're just loud and energetic.  The Warriors aren't always perfect practitioners of the basketball arts. They're just exciting.

The close-out Game 6 against Denver showed the W's at their best and worst. On the plus side: Andrew Bogut's ferocious 21-rebound effort, punctuated by 4 blocked shots before halftime. Bogut is one of several wounded Warriors, playing on a less-than-full tank but gunning the engine hard.

Also on the plus side: Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes, a couple of rookies who played with courage and savvy amid a fourth-quarter unraveling that saw the Warriors barf up all but two points of an 18-point lead. 

Another plus: David Lee, whose stat line (0-1 field, 1 rebound) was meaningless (Nuggets coach George Karl called Lee's brief appearance "weird") but whose very presence was enormous. Most everyone had assumed Lee's next appearance for the W's would be next season after he tore a hip flexor in Game 1 of this series.

On the other side of the coin: guards Steph Curry, Jarrett Jack, and Klay Thompson. Curry's flurry at the start of the second half helped the Warriors build the big lead they nearly squandered, but his ragged play near the end took some of the shine off his heroics earlier in the series. Neither Jack nor Thompson could shoot (a combined 5 for 23 from the floor--though credit Jack for nailing 9 of 10 free throws) and Jack, in particular, made questionable decisions at the offensive end.

The Warriors face an enormous challenge in the next round. San Antonio is a veteran team that can pounce on disarray and weakness. It would be an enormous upset were the Warriors to win the series. But let's not kid ourselves here: the last time the Warriors won two playoff series in a season was the year they won the NBA Championship, back in 1975.

This team has already exceeded expectations. Of course Jackson and his players want more. But in their Warrior hearts, these guys know they've made enormous strides. The future looks better than it has in a long time, and nobody who follows pro hoops associates the color yellow with cowardice anymore.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Big Out

It's tempting to compare Jason Collins with Jackie Robinson; after all, the biopic about Robinson, "42", is a hot movie ticket right now and both are pioneers.

Yet Robinson's breaking of baseball's color line still seems like a bigger deal than Collins' first-ever announcement by an American major-sports player that he's gay. I say that because Robinson was demonstrably the first black big-league ballplayer, while Collins is certainly not the first gay pro jock. He's just the first to say so while still playing the game.

Make no mistake, though: this is a big deal. It's a big deal because men's sports remain riven with homophobic attitudes. Anti-gay slurs are still commonplace on the playing fields and the sidelines.  When Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice recently lost his job, the videotaped spewing of homophobic insults was widely aired. Sadly, those of us who've been around the sports scene were hardly shocked.

Nor were we really shocked when 49ers defensive back Chris Culliver made his widely-reported pre-Super Bowl comments, saying he wouldn't accept an openly-gay teammate. The reality, of course, is that Culliver probably already has played with gay teammates--he just didn't know it.

And that's what's significant about Jason Collins. From now on, there's a face and a name to go with the hazy notion of the gay jock. The next Mike Rice who wants to demean someone by calling him a "fag" will have to come to grips with the hardnosed, intelligent, dignified image of Jason Collins.

Collins is listed in the roster as standing 7 feet tall.  He's even bigger than that today.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Cruel Shoes

Nice kicks, eh? Those are Nike's "Lunar MVP Pro Pregame" shoes and they're very popular among San Francisco Giants players and coaches. Of course, they come in other colorways too, so you can bet other teams are sporting them as well.

Those are the cleatless models, ideal for jogging in the outfield during spring training or for a starting pitcher on his off-day to wear while lounging in the dugout and spitting sunflower seeds.

Nike makes a similar-looking metal-cleated model worn by many big-leaguers, including the Giants' Angel Pagan. He may want to re-think that part of his game-day wardrobe.

Pagan was hit on the right foot by a pitch from San Diego's Eric Stults in the first inning of Sunday's Giants-Padres game. Pretty much everyone in the ballpark knew it and television viewers could easily see the pitch glance off Pagan's toe. But home plate umpire Bob Davidson missed the call and no amount of pleading from Pagan or Giants manager Bruce Bochy could get him to re-think the situation. Pagan ended up grounding out

Fans of a certain age had to be clamoring for the Giants to track down the ball and show it to Davidson; surely, the smudge of shoe polish on the ball would convince Davidson to change his mind.  After all, shoe polish had played a similar role in two legendary World Series games. Nippy Jones of the Braves in 1957 and Cleon Jones of the Mets in 1969 were both awarded first base after umps were shown shoe polish-smudged balls.

Ah, but that was then and this is now. Those shiny Nikes never see shoe polish. Progress? You be the judge. But if I was Angel Pagan, I'd be re-thinking my footwear choices.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Golf's Goof

Take nothing away from Adam Scott. His playoff win over Angel Cabrera at the Masters was gripping drama and Australians are rightfully celebrating the first-ever Augusta win by one of their own.

Sure, there'll be some downstream grumbling about Scott's use of one of those goofy "anchored" putters, which could end up being outlawed by the Lords of Golf.

But a putter kerfuffle is nothing compared to the real issue facing professional golf: the sport can't get out of its own way when it comes to something very basic. Golf is having a rules crisis.

The Tiger Woods drop on Friday's 15th hole is just the latest highly-visible reminder that the gentle old game of golf is having real trouble adjusting to the Age of Instant Media.

Some have written that golf's rules are too complicated and that's why Woods committed (or didn't commit) a violation.  Nonsense. Golf's rules are no more puzzling than those of baseball or football, and both of those sports move a heck of a lot faster. The difference is that baseball and football employ real-time referees who spot infractions and mete out justice on the spot.

Golf relies on a quaint old notion of self-policing...until it doesn't.  In this case, all was well until somebody called Masters officials to say they'd seen Woods drop his ball improperly after his approach shot rebounded off the flagstick and into the water. And then Woods himself told reporters he'd made an improper drop--a 2-stroke penalty.

After that, it gets even crazier. Since Woods had signed a scorecard without taking the penalty strokes, he could have been disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard (that's how Roberto DiVincenzo lost the 1968 Masters). But Masters officials decided to let him play on. It's a good thing he didn't win the tournament; if he had, the debate would never end.

But there still needs to be a serious discussion within the sport. Sure, the old "call your own" gentleman's code was fine way back when. But in a world where amateur officials are perched in front of their high-def TV's and super-slo-mo DVR's, ready to pounce on every perceived violation, golf has a problem. It's one thing for the Twitterverse to debate whether a referee blew the call. It's entirely another for the Twitterverse to be the referees.

Golf can easily fix this. Empower rules officials to assess penalties on the spot. If Woods' drop was improper, he should have been hit with the penalty as soon as he hit the ball. Stop accepting phone calls from TV viewers. Does the NFL do this? Restore some certainty to the proceedings. A bad call or non-call is better than a call that takes hours to happen.

Sure, the game of golf can be slow.  Judging its rules doesn't need to be.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

On Coaching

It's been a bit amusing to watch the handwringing and indignation surrounding the Mike Rice story. In case you've missed the endless video replays, he's the Rutgers University basketball coach who was fired this week after video surfaced showing him engaged in a variety of manic and abusive behavior during practices.

The reaction of many brought back memories of Captain Renault in the film Casablanca: "I am find that gambling is going on in here!" Was anyone paying any attention to Rice's sideline behavior during his tenure at Rutgers? If so, how could they not have been asking questions about what he was doing away from the live crowds and TV cameras?

Let's go deeper here and ask some hard questions about what it is to be a coach today. Full disclosure: I grew up as the son and grandson of coaches. Both my father and his father were credentialed teachers who also coached high school teams. Both coached a variety of sports. My grandfather's legacy as "The Coach" at Kingsburg High School south of Fresno was such that years after his retirement, I could walk into that town and invoke his name; people recalled him as a pillar of the community.

In fact, the honorific "Coach" is itself emblematic of the esteem in which coaches were held. I have vivid memories of a retired NFL star who had briefly played for my father in high school spotting my dad at a football game. As they shook hands in greeting, the quarterback didn't call him "Mr. Bunger" or "Jim". He called him "Coach". It's a sign of respect, both for the person and the position.

As I mentioned earlier, both Dad and Grandpa were teachers, both in the literal and figurative sense. To them, coaching was an extension of teaching: they saw themselves as molders of young minds. Of course they wanted to win when their teams competed, but that wasn't Job One. First and foremost, they were teachers--and they had the gradebooks and lesson plans to prove it.

Sounds quaint, doesn't it? Let's fast-forward to this week's poster child for Out-of-Control Coaching, Mike Rice. Nothing in his resume' suggests "teacher". He wrapped up his basketball playing career at Fordham and immediately became an assistant coach at his alma mater.  There followed a series of brief stays as he worked his way up the college hoops food chain, eventually becoming a head coach before he was 40. Nowhere is there evidence of him teaching anything beyond an inbounds play or a zone trap.

Make no mistake: Mike Rice was employed to win basketball games. Until his methods became an embarrassment to all, he remained employed.  Nobody spent much time worrying about whether he was helping build good citizens.

It goes a lot deeper. Stop by your local high school and ask how many of the coaches are also teachers. No matter what the answer, it'll be a smaller number than it was 10 or 20 years ago. The days of the math teacher/football coach or civics teacher/basketball coach are rapidly disappearing.  Heck, it's getting hard to find P.E. teachers who want to coach.

What's going on? Let me offer a few thoughts:

  •  Money. The Oakland Unified School District just posted an opening for a head basketball coach at Oakland Tech High School. The pay? About $2800 a year. You do the math.
  • Administrative and community support.  You'll find no shortage of stories about coaches beset by pushy parents and left dangling by spineless administrators. I will never forget the day I watched a father call his daughter over to the backstop during a high school softball game and direct her to ignore what the coach had just said. 
  • A cultural shift. There was once general agreement that high school and college sports existed to impart valuable lessons about effort, teamwork, sportsmanship and the like. Now? College sports are a multi-billion dollar business and high school (or lower) teams seem to function as feeders to that system. 
In my unspectacular high school sports career, every single one of my coaches was a faculty member. Many of my teachers coached other teams. The school was a web of interlocking relationships between the classrooms and the playing field.  Teaching and coaching weren't separated; they were joined at the hip.

Perhaps my hazy memories are laughable to you. Or maybe you agree that something's awry. I don't know if the trend can be reversed; it would take general agreement that teaching matters and that coaching is a form of teaching. It would require a generation of my-kid-first parents to back off and let school sports become something more than an audition for a mythical college scholarship. It would require communities to see beyond a win-loss record to measure the value of a man or woman named Coach.

If you ask the men who played for the legendary John Wooden at UCLA what they learned from the "Wizard of Westwood", they won't talk about the wins and losses. They'll talk about the life lessons he imparted, about his Pyramid of Success.

In an era where we seem to want to measure a teacher's value by how her students perform on an annual test, maybe it's not shocking that we've allowed coaching to come to this. But before you dismiss me, ask yourself: would you rather see your kid coached by his history teacher or by Mike Rice?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Somebody Else's Fantasy

It's that time of year: workplaces and campuses everywhere are abuzz with the frenzy of the fantasy baseball draft. Fantasy-league managers are scouring various sources, looking for the hidden gems that will give them bragging rights all summer long.

Me? I'm sitting it out. Again.

Every year, I try to explain to my fantasy-smitten friends why I think these leagues are a pox, a blight, a blasphemy. And every year, more people play and more words are published and broadcast about fantasy baseball. I'm losing this battle.

My antipathy toward fantasy baseball has its roots in a tragedy in the summer of 1979. An enterprising young journalist named John Genzale had coaxed me and a few other baseball nuts into playing a new game: we'd submit a roster each week and score points based on the stats racked up by the players we chose. In those pre-Internet years, we tallied our numbers from newspaper box scores.

I've since learned that we were probably pioneers; the "Rotisserie League" created by Daniel Okrent in New York didn't launch until the following year. But we were way out in the woods of South Lake Tahoe and had no idea we were trailblazers.

Anyway. I was in the "newsroom" at KTHO Radio in South Tahoe on August 2, 1979 when the bells on the AP teletype machine started ringing (yes, children, bells really did ring when big news broke, even when your "newsroom" was formerly a bathroom in the converted motel that housed the radio station). The bulletin told of the death in a plane crash of Yankees star Thurman Munson.

My first thought: "This is big news!" My second thought: "Wait...isn't Munson my catcher?"

Naturally, I assumed I'd be able to replace a dead catcher in my lineup.  Wrong. Genzale, who would go on to a remarkable career in journalism and academia, acted "in the best interest" of our little game and forced me to wait until the weekly roster change.

It seemed wrong then and still does, 34 years later. I've used the Munson Incident as my excuse for avoiding fantasy baseball ever since. But the reality is that I have much deeper reasons for steering clear of fantasy baseball.

There are basically two flaws in the fantasy world. First, I'm a lifelong San Francisco Giants fan. I love the game of baseball, but once the season begins, I bleed orange and black. In fact, I don't really trust folks who say they're fans but don't make the emotional investment in a team. Sure, I keep track of how other teams and players are doing. But I damned sure don't want to be watching Matt Cain facing Joey Votto in a key at-bat with a little voice reminding me that Votto is on my fantasy roster and a three-run homer would be good for my team. Not!

My other problem with fantasy baseball (and fantasy sports in general) is that they reduce complex games to small sets of data. They tend to focus on a few statistics (hits, RBI's, home runs, ERA, strikeouts, etc.) while ignoring the broader sweep of the game.  Notably, most fantasy leagues ignore the role of defense. If they pay any attention, it's often the token inclusion of a stat like "outfielder assists"--hardly a true measure of an outfielder's overall defensive value.

As a consequence of the above, fantasy players tend to fixate on one-dimensional big-leaguers: mashers who can't play defense. This is why folks in our newsroom are horselaughing one colleague who used a second-round choice to take one of her favorites, Brandon Crawford, when Hanley Ramirez was available. His current injury aside, history says Ramirez is an offensive threat but a defensive liability. Fantasy ball cares not a whit for Crawford's defensive prowess.

I like to tell my fantasy-besmitten friends that I love baseball too much to reduce it to fantasy baseball. I feel differently about baseball strategy games (I grew up on Strat-O-Matic, APBA, and Gil Hodges' Pennant Fever); these simulations attempt to include all of baseball's nuances.

There's always a chance, of course, that the flood of modern advanced stats will find its way into fantasy leagues. (Vanessa, you'd feel better about your Brandon Crawford choice if "Defensive Runs Saved Above Average" was included; he was almost 20 runs better than Hanley Ramirez last year). If that happens, perhaps I'll be back. But I'll still be ticked off about that Thurman Munson deal.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Classic In Name Only

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig's bombast to the contrary, the World Baseball Classic is little more than a transparent attempt to add some hype to the normally-lazy days of spring training (and you'll note, I refuse to use the capital letters--Spring Training--that baseball has adopted in yet another effort to aggrandize itself).

Four years ago (and quick: tell me who won the 2009 World Baseball Classic), Selig was moved to declare, "I think this is tremendous. Long after I'm gone this is going to get bigger and bigger and bigger, and you can count on that." Hard to know if he's right since he won't go away, but if you define "bigger" as "being flogged mercilessly by the poobahs of baseball", Selig may have a point.

The weekend brawl between Mexico and Canada (and we always thought our US neighbors were so peaceful) gave the whole enterprise a black eye, figuratively and literally. It happened because a Canadian batter bunted for a base hit with a 6-run lead in the 9th inning. That's a breach of baseball etiquette, except this isn't really baseball. 

Apparently unbeknownst to some of the Mexican players, notably Dodgers third baseman Luis Cruz, the World Baseball Classic uses run differential as a tiebreaker.  Cruz strongly suggested that Mexico's pitcher throw at the next Canada hitter. He finally nailed Rene Tosni on the third try, and that's when the fight started.

You could blame Cruz, or pitcher Arnold Leon, or any of the players who duked it out. But how about blaming the Lords of Baseball, who created a format that looks like the game these guys play for a living but isn't exactly the same? To amplify: had Mexico been sitting on a 9th-inning lead, logic would have dictated Sergio Romo be on the mound. But WBC rules forbade that, because a pitcher can't pitch for three straight days in this tournament.

Of course, the MLB teams that lend their players to this enterprise do so unwillingly. Does anyone really think Bruce Bochy and Brian Sabean are thrilled to see a third of their starting lineup, one of their starting pitchers and their closer exposed to full-bore baseball midway through training camp? God forbid one of these guys gets hurt, and of course, nobody can really guess how this will affect them come September or October.

Selig and his crowd think baseball needs boosting overseas. Really?  The sport seems to be doing just fine in the places where it's taken hold. Japan, Korea and Taiwan have active pro leagues, and of course many Latin American countries have a deeply-embedded beisbol culture.  Naturally, Major League Baseball benefits greatly from this: 28% of the players on Opening Day MLB rosters last year were foreign-born.

The reality is that the world serves as a giant farm system for the Big Dog, Major League Baseball. Any kid anywhere who wants to really make it big wants to play in The Show, and the WBC does nothing to enhance that.

At the end of the day, I'm left with the sneaking suspicion that the whole enterprise is yet another way to sell a few shirts and caps and tickets. No problem there, but please, let's not pretend  otherwise.  This whole charade in which ballplayers dig up their grandparents' birth certificates so they can play for, say, Italy just adds to the silliness.

I wouldn't miss the WBC if it just faded away. But Bud Selig is nothing if not relentless, so I doubt this thing is going anywhere.  So, a few suggestions:

  • Use minor-leaguers, amateurs and college players. If the real goal is to develop the sport, use up-and-coming talent.
  • Set it up more like the World Cup in soccer, where countries qualify over a period of several years (the US is automatically "in", of course). Then play the 8-team "finals" over the course of a week or ten days in one city, like the College World Series.
  • Do away with this "run differential" idiocy. That's not baseball. 
  • Require participants to actually be from the country they represent. Grandpa's not good enough.
With these changes, the biggest problem the WBC faces--its interruption of spring training--would vanish. It would become a nice little sideshow to the start of the Major League season.

And Canada and Mexico could still have a fight if they wanted to.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Midseason Form

To those who think baseball spring training games are just a way for ballclubs to shake off a little rust before hitting the golf course, I offer two words: Dusty Baker.  Oh, and two more: Kirk Gibson.

You may have heard that the two got into it at home plate while exchanging lineup cards before a Cactus League game. Seriously: before a Cactus League game.

What the heck? When you hear what ticked them off, it seems so petty: Baker's Reds were playing Gibson's Diamondbacks at the D-backs' Salt River Fields complex.  The location is important because that made the Diamondbacks the home team and gave them the option, under Cactus League rules, to use the designated hitter--or not.

And this is where things start to go off the rails. Typically, in the first couple of weeks of exhibition games, National League teams will use the DH, waiting until the last few games to give their pitchers a few at-bats. But Gibson has a new starter, Brandon McCarthy, who is not only imported from the American League but is also coming back from that skull fracture sustained when he was hit by a line drive.

So Gibson, understandably, wanted his guy to see some live pitching. Baker had his own issue: outfielder Shin-Soo Choo has a sore leg and Baker wanted to let him DH so he could avoid any extra wear-and-tear in the field.

Remember: it's Gibson's decision. He made it, notified the Reds, and the sparks flew when Baker produced a lineup card with a DH penciled in. A mild Scottsdale afternoon got ugly as the two exchanged unpleasantries. And Baker, who never met a grudge he couldn't carry, kept the flames burning. He ordered star pitcher Johnny Cueto to stand stock-still and take three strikes when he batted.

What do I think? I think Baker is still searching for a new nemesis now that the longtime burr under his saddle, Tony LaRussa, has retired (the two were frequent combatants as Baker managed the Giants, Cubs and Reds while LaRussa ran the Cardinals). And I think Gibson's hard-guy routine is designed to build some esprit de corps on a team struggling for identity in the Giant-and-Dodger-dominated NL West.

And I think I will make a note of June 21st: the first regular-season meeting between the Reds and D-backs this year.

By the way, Dusty: it's in Phoenix. And yes, the pitchers will hit.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Subtle Charms of Spring Training

The secret about spring training got out a long time ago. Nowadays, the quaint ballparks of Arizona and Florida fill up with sun-seeking fans and the teams charge regular-season prices. I've already expressed my dismay about this trend.

But I'm here to tell you that there is still a way for real fans to have a meaningful (and reasonably priced) spring training experience. It's simple: show up before the teams start playing exhibition games.

Sure, you'll have to actually know Angel Villalona's backstory to know how remarkable it is to see the young Giants prospect taking ground balls with the big club. Or, staying with this photo, recognize Ricky Oropesa as a guy who put up huge numbers in his college days at USC.

And yes, you'll have to find enjoyment in watching the likes of Brandon Crawford and Marco Scutaro rehearse their double play turn, over and over again.

If all you care about is the final score, this isn't for you. But if you appreciate the finer points of the game, come on down. In the week between "first full-squad workout" and "first exhibition game", you'll see teams work on the little things that win or lose games in the heat of summer.

I watched Giants third base coach Tim Flannery working with everyone from relief pitchers to veteran outfielders on baserunning. How many times has a Hunter Pence or an Angel Pagan been through this before? Yet it's important; that extra base gained from a good read on a line drive could be the difference in a game in August.

Batting practice? Sure, everyone loves the long ball (and when big first baseman Brett Pill hits them, they stay hit). But watching Scutaro and Buster Posey hit line drive after line drive to right-center gives one fresh appreciation for their singular talents. And you don't have to know anything about Kensuke Tanaka to recognize a Japanese import: just look at his batting stance and swing.

This first week of workouts has a languid feel to it. There's plenty of room to stretch out in the nearly-empty ballpark. Kids gently badger players for autographs ("Mr. Posey...pleeeeeease!") but otherwise, it's quiet. Just the snap of ball into glove and the rap of the fungo bat. Oh, and Shawon Dunston's laughter--a constant.

Sure, you'll need a roster to identify all these guys, but somebody will offer you one. For free. The kindly folks who work at the ballpark will recognize you by your second day, and you'll wind up meeting somebody who tells a funny story about the sleepy Colorado Rockies players staggering into a nearby coffee shop each morning before their workouts ("nobody orders decaf").

Yes, it can seem a little weird sitting in the stands to watch ballplayers stretch. But the experience is, I think, humanizing for both fans and players. You'll never hear someone boo or jeer; the intimacy of this setting renders that sort of behavior unthinkable. You might see a lady call out to Andres Torres, "Welcome back!" and watch Torres spin around with a big smile on his face and say, "Thanks! It's great to be here!"

I couldn't agree more.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Bargain of the Century

Long ago, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell famously said, "on any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team." It's worth noting that Bell died in 1959, long before the current edition of the Oakland Raiders took the field.

But that's just mean. My actual goal here is to salute the Raiders. Pro Football's Dynamic Organization, as the late Raider boss Al Davis liked to call his team, has just dropped some season ticket prices to an astonishingly low level.

As part of a plan to shrink capacity at the Coliseum to about 53,000 (and make TV blackouts less likely), the Raiders have cut some season ticket plans to $250. That's $25 a game (the NFL continues its rapacious practice of making buyers pay full price for exhibition games).

You read that correctly. Sure, these are up in the top deck at the Coliseum, but still: $25 for an NFL ticket.  The league average is almost $80. Just for kicks, I ran some numbers. Let's say that instead of paying for that Raiders ticket, you grabbed a seat at the bar at Pican in Oakland's Uptown and watched on TV. A couple of tasty mint juleps will set you back $24, and you haven't even tipped the bartender. Or eaten.

In fact, a $25 Raiders ticket is a bargain of historical proportions. My esteemed colleague Steve Bitker recalls his family held Raiders tickets when the Coliseum opened in 1966. They cost $6.50 a game.  Adjusted for inflation, that's about $46 today, or almost twice what the Raiders are now charging.  

The Raiders say they are hoping to create a "vibrant game-day environment with a community of season ticket holders." Good for them. A full stadium beats the heck out of a swath of empty seats. Of course, a winning team really helps with that "vibrant game-day environment" thing and the Raiders haven't been one of those in a decade. The last time the Raiders had a winning record, they went to the Super Bowl.

These low prices come as the Raiders face a 2013 home schedule that will include visits by the Broncos, Steelers, Redskins (hey, maybe RG3 will have a miraculous recovery!) and Eagles (come see new coach Chip Kelly import his brand of madness to the NFL!).

The fact of the matter is, ticket sales matter less and less to NFL teams every year. Teams already get close to 2/3 of their revenue from the NFL's TV packages, and that particular pot of gold is about to get a lot heavier. Annual NFL TV revenue will jump to around $8 billion starting next year when new contracts kick in. The Raiders get exactly the same share of that as any other team.

With that kind of money from TV, the league can almost afford to ignore actual paying customers. The Raiders may be on to something here: if the NFL wants to keep its product from being a purely television spectacle, it's going to have to look at ways to convince people to abandon their HDTV's and come to the stadium. A cheaper ticket sure helps.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Another Meaningless Record

Is there a more hollow phrase anymore than "That's one for the record book"?

I ask this in the aftermath of the bizarre game between the Warriors and the Rockets that saw Houston tie the NBA record for 3-point goals in a game. The Rockets were winning in a blowout on a night where the Warriors had apparently made up their mind not to let guards Jeremy Lin and James Harden beat them by driving to the basket.

The Warriors packed their defense all night to prevent the drive, and the Rockets responded by kicking the ball out for three-point attempts. It worked.  They tried 40 and hit 23 for a crazy 57.5% long-range shooting percentage.

So far, so good. Just another example of two teams engaged in the kind of physical chess match that is at the heart of sports.  And then, the record book got involved.

By mid-4th quarter, Rockets coach Kevin McHale had cleared the bench. But this time, "garbage time" was accompanied by chants from the crowd for "one more three!". See, they wanted to say they were there when a record was set (that's a whole lot more fun than saying you stayed to the end of a blowout win).

So now, the Rockets' benchwarmers get busy trying to hoist up threes. And the Warriors, who have let Houston gun away all night, suddenly decide they need to guard against the three.  And then, Houston scrub Patrick Beverley is handed a free path to the basket. He accepts this largesses by slamming home a dunk and then mugging his way past the Warriors bench.

And then it's really on. Warriors coach Mark Jackson makes it clear Houston will not get that record-setting 3-pointer. The Warriors accomplish this by committing a series of hard fouls on Houston shooters. Predictably, there's jawing, shoving, etc.

In the aftermath, Jackson defends his team's approach, saying he's "old-school". "If you're going to try to get the record," says Jackson, "we're going to stop it."

Silly me.  I thought the point of the whole exercise was to win the basketball game. You're playing a Western Conference opponent, and your big concern is the record book? Mark Jackson is a smart guy, a good basketball coach. He should know better.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Culliver Affair

Please don't take this the wrong way, but I'm having a hard time getting all worked up about what Chris Culliver said.

I know it's supposed to be an outrage, but is it really news that someone in the insular world of pro sports  would say he's uncomfortable with the notion of a gay teammate? After all, in the entire history of the Big Four pro sports in North America (football, baseball, basketball, hockey), there has never been one single player whose homosexuality has been public knowledge during his playing career. Not one.

In a society where even the most conservative estimates say there are at least 10 million gay Americans, something doesn't add up. Either pro athletes are exclusively heterosexual to a statistically improbable degree--or somebody's been hiding something, and for a very long time.

When the 49ers' defensive back got into his riff with former Howard Stern sidekick Artie Lange at Super Bowl Media Day, he did so with that as his professional background. And speaking of background, it might be worth taking a few moments to look at Chris Culliver's.

He is a 24-year-old African-American man who was born in Philadelphia to a teenaged mother. That mother was wounded (and Culliver's stepfather and a cousin killed) in a barroom fight when Culliver was 8. Culliver eventually graduated from high school in North Carolina and played football at the University of South Carolina.

I mention all of this because it paints a picture. It is always dangerous to generalize, but statistically, Culliver's background makes it more likely than not that his views on homosexuality will differ significantly from those of, say, a white college-educated Bay Area resident.  I'm not just assuming this: there is a wide body of research on attitudes toward homosexuality.  As recently as two years ago, the respected Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported 64% of black Americans believed homosexuality was immoral. By comparison, the same survey found 48% of white Americans held the same belief.

There are clearly signs of recent movement on the issue, but deeply-held attitudes and beliefs do not change overnight. Be completely honest with yourself, if you're a straight person:  were you always perfectly OK with the notion of homosexuality? Or did your attitudes evolve as you got to know gay people in your family, circle of friends, or workplace?

Speaking of "evolving" I find it interesting that Culliver used the word "gay" in his comments. 11 years ago, when another 49er, Garrison Hearst, was asked the very same question ("what would you think about having a gay teammate?" is a remarkably common thread when you look into the history of athletes being pilloried for their views on homosexuality), he dropped the homophobic "f-word". Twice. In 2001, former Giants pitcher Julian Tavarez did the same when referring to the Giants fan who booed him.

Am I approving of what Chris Culliver said? Certainly not. In fact, I think he's been misled; the odds are pretty decent that, through the course of high school, college and pro football, he has already played with and dressed next to a gay man.

To those who mock his hastily-issued statement of regret as hollow and manufactured, give it a rest. See it as an opportunity to educate one more person, to raise consciousness one more notch. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice."  

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Jim Harbaugh, Comedy Star

Ever since he burst on the Bay Area's collective radar as Stanford's head coach, Jim Harbaugh has been a bit of a puzzle to many people.

Competitive? Well, yeah. Innovative, energetic, bright? Check, check, and check.

But what people have been trying to figure out about Harbaugh is this: is he a funny guy or, you know, just a bit funny? Even when he gets laughs, we're often unsure of whether he really meant to be funny.

We've all sort of wanted to know about him what Harbaugh famously asked then-USC coach Pete Carroll during a postgame dustup in 2009: "What's your deal?"

Well, I think we're now seeing the answer, and it's being revealed in the unlikely crucible of Super Bowl week. Don't tell anyone, but Jim Harbaugh is a laugh riot.

Harbaugh's first three days in New Orleans haven't produced a Bill Walsh-as-hotel-doorman moment, but he's been relaxed with the media. And by "relaxed", I don't mean he's been a reincarnation of Bum Phillips, whose homespun humor is still funny years after the fact ("Earl Campbell may not be in a class of his own, but it don't take long to call the roll" was a classic).

But still, watching Harbaugh's bit about his son (he started riffing on little Jack's head size after a question about football safety) showed there really is a funny guy in there. When he wrapped it up with this, he had the reporters eating out of his hand: "As soon as he grows into that head, he's going to be something. It's early, but expectations are high for young Jack."

Well, expectations are high for Jack's dad, too. And now that Harbaugh has let the comedy cat out of the bag, there's no going back.  I don't think we're going to see a laugh riot with Coach Harbaugh, but the Bay Area is fine with all sorts of offbeat characters. We just want to know that you're a character

Oh, and taking your team to the Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years tends to improve your reviews, too.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Caught Between Two Geniuses

I'll say it right up front: I have a great job. I'm the grown-up version of the kid who was curious about everything, read every scrap of paper he could get his hands on, and never stopped asking questions.

So anchoring the news at KCBS is pretty cool. The John Madden thing?  Well, that puts it over the top.

For more than a dozen years, I've been lucky enough to be the guy who greets the legendary coach and broadcaster and moderates a 7-or-8-minute chat. It's usually about sports, often about football, and always unpredictable. We don't script anything. Heck, we don't even choose a topic in advance.

Every now and again, we'll book a guest to join the conversation.  As you can imagine, it's not hard to convince sports figures to spend a little time with John Madden.

This morning, we had what broadcast producers call "a good get":  Jim Harbaugh. My colleague Steve Bitker made the request; despite the mad pressure on his time, the Super Bowl-bound Harbaugh said "yes".

You can hear the whole segment here. What you can't hear or see is what it felt like to sit in the middle of this. Madden has been saying for two years now that he's a huge fan of the job Harbaugh has done with the 49ers, arriving after the 2011 lockout to push the Niners to the brink of the Super Bowl--and then going one step beyond this year.

So Madden told Harbaugh how much he respected Harbaugh's coaching. To which Harbaugh replied, "Bullcrap!" We're all pretty sure that's the first time we ever heard that word on KCBS. Just to be clear, Harbaugh repeated it.

His point: Madden was "The Man" in this conversation.  And as if to prove it, Harbaugh asked Madden, whose Raiders won the Super Bowl  36 years ago, for advice. So Madden offered, "The team that complains the most usually loses. The other thing that I know is, you haven't done anything yet."

That's when Harbaugh said, "Hang on. I'm writing this down." And judging by the silence on his end of the line, he was writing it all down.

Unaccustomed as I am to shutting up, this seemed like a good time to do so. Here was a true legend handing a few pearls of wisdom to the hottest coach in the business--and Harbaugh was listening. It was like having a front-row seat to a moment in sports history. Of course, I couldn't leave well enough alone and asked a question, probably a lame one, and Harbaugh put me right  in my place, saying "Hey, we have Coach Madden here!" In other words: back off, Radio-Boy.

We did get inside his busy mind a bit: Harbaugh shared his thoughts on what he likes to see in a good team meeting (everyone engaged) and on his recent posting of high school photos and scouting reports on players' lockers (a fun way to remind them of how their football careers began).

But what we'll always remember is the self-assured coach of a Super Bowl team asking for advice from an elder, and writing it down.

No bullcrap there.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Littlest Niner

You could easily walk past Chad Hall on the street and never guess at his occupation: NFL player. As the photo he Tweeted while flying to the NFC Championship game shows, Hall looks more like a snowboarder or the young guy working at your local sporting goods store.

He's only 5'7", the shortest guy on the 49ers roster. He weighs 187 pounds, so he's pretty solid but gives up plenty of poundage to most everyone else on the field. There's a tendency to assume a guy that size must be really fast, but not so much; Hall's 4.6 40-yard-dash time is nothing special.

So he's not big and he's not fast, but what Chad Hall is is shifty--and tenacious as hell.  The Atlanta native was a standout high school quarterback who was ignored by big-time college recruiters. He arrived at the Air Force Academy in 2004 and spent that fall quarterbacking the JV team (how quaint is that...a JV team!) before starting his varsity career in '05. He ran for 344 yards that year, 784 in '06, and then went wild in 2007.

In his senior season at Air Force, Chad Hall ran for 1449 yards and piled up another 784 receiving yards, becoming the only college player in the country to lead his team in both rushing and receiving. He also returned punts and kickoffs for the Falcons. The undersized Air Force squad went 9-4, capping its season with a 42-36 loss to Cal in the Armed Forces Bowl. That Cal team was loaded: future NFL players included DeSean Jackson, Jahvid Best, Justin Forsett, LaVelle Hawkins, Alex Mack, Thomas DeCoud, Syd'Quan Thompson and Tyson Alualu. They all went away impressed by the stubby Air Force running back.

Of course, those Cal players were pretty sure they'd have a shot at NFL riches. Chad Hall? He was an Air Force 2nd lieutenant headed for duty at a base in Utah.

Fast-forward a couple of years. Hall managed to get a tryout with the Philadelphia Eagles. It led to a contract and--while he dressed in the same locker room as DeSean Jackson--he led a very different life. Hall existed on the margins of the NFL, a too-small, too-slow former quarterback and running back trying to make it as a wide receiver. There were a few catches, a couple of touchdowns, and a lot of time on the practice squad.

The 2012 season? Hall was cut by the Eagles at the end of training camp. The 49ers signed him to their practice squad after a rash of wide receiver injuries. He got into the NFC Championship game in his hometown, even had a pass thrown his way (it was deflected). It looks like he'll be active for the Super Bowl.

You just know that Chad Hall is a Jim Harbaugh kind of guy--gritty, tough. His versatility gives offensive coordinator Greg Roman a few new toys--how about an option pass?

However it turns out, the Chad Hall story is a terrific sidebar to the 49ers' Super Bowl run. There's only one glitch: he arrived with the Twitter handle @chadhall16 (he wore #16 with the Eagles).

Uh, in the Bay Area, that number is taken.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Lonely Life of the Placekicker

In a world of behemoths, the placekicker is usually the average-sized guy (we'll excuse the Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski at this point in the discussion). But the reality of pro football is that the little guy has a huge role. That's why there's so much concern surrounding the 49ers' David Akers.

The highlight shows are full of clips showing NFL wide receivers, running backs and quarterbacks finding the end zone.  When they score, they dance and preen and spike the ball.

But here's the reality:  week in and week out, the placekicker is the engine of an NFL offense.  The league's top 20 scorers this past season were kickers. 30 of the top 31 (please excuse Houston running back Arian Foster for crashing the party at #21). And in a weird confluence, Akers and Super Bowl opposite number Justin Tucker finished in a virtual tie. Akers made two more extra points; Tucker made one more field goal.

So both of these guys are top-10 scorers. But nobody's wringing their hands each time Tucker lines up a kick. It's Akers and his late-season slump that are making headlines.

49ers coach Jim Harbaugh tried to settle this down by announcing the day after the NFC Championship game that Akers is his guy for the Super Bowl. But while Akers nailed a 36-yarder in the Green Bay playoff game, this is a "what have you done for me lately" business and the 38-yarder that whacked the left upright in Atlanta is the one everyone remembers.

What's up with Akers? Who knows? We know he underwent double-hernia surgery less than a year ago and required followup treatment two months ago. We know his leg strength isn't the problem; the Falcons never got a chance to return an Akers kickoff because he drove them so deep. We know he's generally been missing left--pushing the ball--so we wonder if he's physically having trouble pulling through the ball.

Or is it "all in his head"?  Bay Area News Group reporter Cam Inman tracked down the guys who kicked for the Niners in their five Super Bowl wins. All of them back Akers. And Ray Wersching put it in words: "It's all mental".

Wersching and his fellow kickers would know. They're the little guys who play a high-stakes game. They know the pressure of being the fellow in the clean shirt whose few seconds of work each weekend have so much to do with the outcome.

Pro golfers like to say you "drive for show and putt for dough". It's kind of like that in the NFL. The 49ers have to hope for one of two things: either see Akers snap out of it, or put the ball so close to the metaphorical hole that it won't matter.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The New Guys

Colin Kaepernick's story doesn't need any more hype. His ascension from backup curiosity to Super Bowl starting quarterback will surely generate untold amounts of media attention over the next fortnight. I hereby lay odds that somebody will ask Kaepernick at Super Bowl Media Day to pull off his shirt and provide a tattoo tour.

Then there's the other newbie in the 49ers backfield. He's mostly been flying under the radar, but if I had to pick one guy most likely to surprise at the Super Bowl, it would be LaMichael James.

They say patience is a virtue.  That must make James a pretty virtuous guy.

The 49ers running back had to learn how to wait, in more ways than one. James was a bona fide star coming out of the University of Oregon's high-powered offense. He ran for more than 5,000 yards in three seasons at Oregon and finished 3rd in the Heisman Trophy balloting as a sophomore.

The 49ers took him in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft--and that's when the fleet-footed James started to see things slow down.

Nobody expected him to supplant the durable and effective Frank Gore as the Niners' featured back. But James was so deep on the depth chart, he wasn't even on it.  For the first 13 weeks of the NFL season, James never touched the ball--because he wasn't even on the weekly roster.

By the time the 49ers activated James in Week 14, all of the backs drafted ahead of him had seen plenty of game action; one of them, Doug Martin, had already gained 1,000 yards rushing.

What happened? It turned out James had a few things to learn about the craft of carrying the football in the NFL.  For one thing, NFL backs need to do something James was never asked to do at Oregon: block. Watch Gore and you'll see a guy who commits himself fully to the least-glamorous aspect of his job.

So James had to add "blocking" to his skill set.  But to hear Gore tell it, the speedy kid also had to learn to slow down. We tend to focus on how fast a guy is, but for an NFL runner, the art is in knowing when to light the afterburners. A headlong dash into a hole that hasn't opened yet gets you nowhere.  Again, watch Gore to see how it's done.

So LaMichael James had to work on his patience. Now, he's ready. He scored his first NFL touchdown in the NFC Championship Game. He's averaging almost 7 yards a carry in the postseason games and he's become the team's kickoff return specialist (that 62-yard return against the Patriots in mid-December hinted at his explosiveness).

But for me, the proof that the waiting is over came on a three-play sequence in the playoff game against Green Bay. James caught a pass, picked up a nice gain on a read-option running play...and laid a block. He also displayed a clever capability to play-act when he doesn't get the ball on the read-option. Linemen and linebackers can be frozen by a good fake, and James does it well.

In short, the waiting is over. Patience is being rewarded. It seems as though every Super Bowl produces a surprise hero, but if it's LaMichael James, I won't be surprised.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The New Look

Remember the old days--oh, about two months ago, when there was a raging debate in the Bay Area about who should be playing quarterback for the 49ers?

Taking nothing away from Alex Smith, who will be taking the snaps for some other NFL team next year, but that debate is so over. There's no looking back now, no lingering uncertainty. Colin Kaepernick is The Man.

Man-Child is more like it. The guy is barely 25 years old. Heck, if he didn't have this gig, he could still get health coverage on his parents' plan. And once in a while, he seems to reveal that youth.

The first evidence in the Packers playoff game came early. On the Niners' first possession, after the team had racked up 42 yards on its first 4 plays, Kaepernick appeared to get greedy. He tried to wire a pass to Vernon Davis in the left flat, and Green Bay's Sam Shields read it like a "Dick and Jane" book. Packers 7, Niners 0.

Later in the first half, Kaepernick punctuated a scramble to the Green Bay 9 yard line by spiking the ball and barking at the Packers' defense. Flags flew, and the stunt erased the 15 yards San Francisco had gained on the play. It's important to remember a couple of things here: the game was tied at the time, and the Niners have been a bit nervous about their kicking game. Moving the ball backward is not the percentage move.

Ah, youth. The pick-six interception looked to be the work of a young guy in full thinking, a la Nuke LaLoosh, "he hasn't seen my fastball yet." Kaepernick owns a million-dollar arm, but he'll have to learn his limits. The taunting penalty: just plain dumb. Getting into a chirping match in an NFL playoff game is not something you want to make a habit of.

Some will be put off by Kaepernick's touchdown pose: the Tat-Smack. Heck, some are put off by the tattoos in the first place. They'd better get used to it because this guy isn't going away.  His mastery of the read-option, the golden arm, the blazing speed and the cockiness combine for a potent package.

In fact, I would wager that there is no one in the NFL getting more attention in film rooms right now than Colin Kaepernick. His skill set and yes, his youthful exuberance/naivete make him a unique threat. And what's scariest of all: he's not getting any younger.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Spring Sticker Shock

I am not one of those cranky oldtimers who always thinks things were better in the good old days.

Really, I'm not. But I'm having a hard time swallowing what's happened to the once-quaint institution known as Cactus League baseball. It used to be a place where you'd go stretch out in the sunshine, grab a beverage (maybe from The Lemonade Man), and watch a bunch of guys wearing number 83 try to make The Big Club.

I've watched as spring baseball became big business in Arizona and Florida (though it's clear that the Grand Canyon State has taken the high ground in this). New ballparks and training facilities have sprouted and the fans have followed. Cactus League attendance set a new record at 1.7 million last spring (up more than 7%) and the boom shows no sign of slowing.

That's not what bugs me. Sure, I liked it better in the old days when you could stretch out a bit. But there are still lazy backwaters where you can beat the crowds (if you like peace and quiet, go watch the Brewers at the Maryvale Ballpark).

No, what's griping me is the price of a ticket.  Yeah, I know, nothing's getting cheaper. But does it really seem right that the Giants would charge $54 for a grandstand seat? I'm not kidding. That's what they're charging for a March 23rd date against the A's at Scottsdale Stadium. That same day, you can pay 32 bucks to plop your butt on the grassy hill behind the outfield fence.

The two-trophies-in-three-years Giants will undoubtedly sell every seat they offer this spring.  And to be fair, they're not charging those sorts of outrageous prices for every game; you can go see the Indians on a Tuesday afternoon and pay 7 bucks to sit on the grass or $24 for a box seat. That's "variable pricing" at work; the Giants have been among baseball's leading proponents of the idea that all tickets are not created equal.

Still, when a ticket for an exhibition game costs as much as (or more than) a ticket to a real game, something's out of whack. Sure, Scottsdale Stadium has the advantage of being a stroll away from a great concentration of bars and restaurants, but we're talking about a spring training game here. That's a lot of pressure on whoever's wearing number 83.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Kicking Desperately

The 49ers approach Saturday's NFC playoff game against the Packers with a real problem: they don't know who'll be their placekicker.

Well, maybe they do, but it's not something they're all that sure about. Else, they wouldn't have trooped a bunch of folks up to Candlestick Park on Monday to see rent-a-kicker Billy Cundiff take his first-ever swings at the Niners' home stadium.

How desperate it is it to bring in a guy who's never kicked at the 'Stick and whose missed playoff 32-yarder last year let New England beat Baltimore, ending the Ravens' season and sending the Patriots to the Super Bowl? You make the call. Oh, before you answer: Cundiff is available because he was let go three months ago after missing 5 of 12 field goal attempts for the Redskins.

This has come to pass because incumbent kicker David Akers has gone from Mr. Automatic to WTF?!?  Akers nailed an NFL-record-sharing 63-yarder earlier in the season, but fell on hard times later. Akers' misses of makeable field goals in both St. Louis games cost the 49ers a chance to go 13-3 and match Atlanta for best record in the NFC (although I'm pretty sure, after going deep into the NFL playoff tiebreaker rules, the Falcons would still have the top seed).

It may be a while before we know whether Akers hit a career-threatening patch of the "yips" or is suffering deep aftereffects of the double-hernia surgery he went through during the offseason. Akers and the 49ers kept quiet about that until recently; finally acknowledging that he sought followup treatment in November.

Maybe none of this will matter. Since the turn of the century, there have been 52 Divisional Round playoff games, and 10 of those (19.2%) have been settled by a field goal or less. In other words, in most of these games, one field goal made or missed wouldn't have changed the outcome.

So the odds say a kicker won't be the difference-maker on Saturday. But does that really make you comfortable?