Thursday, July 28, 2011

List of Demands

Did you hear the NFL lockout is over?

The most nauseating and pointless lead story for the past two weeks...three weeks...month...four months finally came to an end.  But don't worry - when you wake up tomorrow, you'll hear about free agents and 10-year CBA marriages and shortened training camp workloads and Brett Favre.  I have a migraine just imaging the speculation and impending chaos.  You might be lured to the stories of Albert Haynesworth and OchoCinco joining the Patriots or the drama that is "where will Kyle Orton end up," but it's just offseason fodder and fools gold.

September 8th can't get here fast enough.

I haven't spoken to anyone of my friends or family that has cared about the lockout.  In fact, I wrote my buddy Robby back on March 12th to ask if I should cancel my Sunday Ticket.  His exact response: they'll get a deal done...cancel nothing. 

There wasn't a fan in their right mind that thought we'd lose football the way we lost a World Series or an entire NHL season. The NFL's imminent start was just that, and fans were just bludgeoned during the news cycle like a dusty carpet with a stain on it. Those dozens of people that followed the lockout, I would imagine, are overjoyed that free agency is here. The rest of us can at least start watching players in pads push each other around instead of hopping off a bus and hold a briefcase on their way out of a revolving door.

Doesn't it make you just a little upset, though, when the players and owners mention "getting a deal done for the fans" or "now the fans can enjoy football" or "it's all about the fans."  Really?  All about us...awesome.  Football is back?  I'm sorry - did someone lose it? 

I'm glad the game is about the fans.  If this really is the case, Mr. Commissioner and Mr. Dee Smith, why not take action to make the game better for the fans.  Here are five simple demands that we the fans have for the next 10 years:

1) Please lock the league out after every draft and don't open shop until July 25th.  You can make it a national holiday of sorts.  Since the players have negotiated an ultra-sensitive practice limitation workload and since players have whined and lobbied for fewer team-run offseason workouts, then please do us all the favor of not getting in our way for a good three months.  You've proven you can negotiate terms for labor peace in five days, even though you were allotted five months.

2) No Thursday Night Football.  You are not bringing more exposure to the most popular sports league by shoving it on a cable package that few households own and relegating those households to enjoy 49ers at Seahawks.  Save Thursdays for Opening Night, Thanksgiving, maybe a Thursday special in December, but nothing more.

3) Expand the playoffs by one team.  Home field advantage is not the prize it once was (see 2010 Green Bay Packers, 2007 NY Giants, 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers.)  Players crave time off and more money.  Give the number one seed the luxury of the only bye week in the conference playoffs and have seeds 2 through 7 duke it out with Saturday and Sunday tripleheaders!  More games on television means more revenue and more playoff bonuses.

4) Free Parking.  Yes, it sounds a bit crazy and near impossible.  But try it for a couple games and watch what happens.  Your stadium experience will immediately be improved when fans start their game day ritual without having to worry about dropping $30 for parking.  Attendance will improve, fans will be rowdier, and season-ticket waiting lists will become special, again.  It's a small gesture to the fans that, no longer how poorly or wonderfully your team is playing, we want you here.

5) Please fix overtime.  My plan - (1) 10-minute overtime quarter - play the entire 10 minutes with regular rules.  If the game is tied after the 10-minute overtime, the team with the ball retains the ball, but must begin on their own 30-yard line.  Now the game is sudden death - no clock needed.  The coin toss no longer decides most of the outcome, it eliminates any tie games, it places value on overtime in the regular season, and it rewards teams for keeping possession of the football, not just lining-up for a field goal.

I doubt any of these will happen, but if the league were truly devoted to the fan experience, including more play on the field without expanding the schedule to 18 games, it will consider alternative ways to make its product better without watering it down. 

Here's hoping we don't have to suffer through another NFL offseason like 2011.  If we do, I don't think the masses will be as quick to embrace the league like we are currently.  Maybe Goddell and others will take the necessary steps to make the product for the fans better rather than posturing through the business of the league.
Don't you dare...

Monday, July 18, 2011

(Feelin' Good) x 12

How about those British Open picks I made on Wednesday: Jason Day ... +9, tied for 30th
Mahan, Quiros, Karlsson ... cut

Hey, it's not like the answer was right under my nose.  Like the rest of the planet, no one had Darren Clarke winning the Open Championship this weekend.  Sure there were other dynamic names racing up the leaderboard in pursuit of the title. As the wind howled and took it's turn on stage with rain, fog and sun, Thomas Bjorn caved on Friday, Chad Campbell croaked on Saturday, Dustin Johnson crumbled on Sunday, and Phil Mickelson tickled our imagination for 10 holes before returning to Planet Phil on Sunday's final eight. Clarke, native to the elements and refreshed with perspective, was the only entrant to fire four rounds at or under par. Seems like a rather simple formula for success, no matter who thinks you can win or not.

Clarke's is a story of tremendous triumph that we can play over and over if we wanted to teach lessons in fortitude, fundamentals and functionality.  There has been one exquisite piece after another about his capture of the Claret Jug in the cacophony of weather in Sandwich and how Northern Ireland is now the epicenter to the game of golf.  Or is that just to story we crave?

Here's a little quiz for yourself as you ponder how awesome it must be to win a golf tournament: Can you recite the last 12 major champion winners in the game of golf (preferably in order, please?)  If the answer is yes, what do you notice about these dozen names?
1) None of them are repeated.
2) None of them are named Tiger.

We have spanned three full calendar years witnessing some of the best golf in the world from many of the games up-and-comers.  Some have been thickened with drama (Stewart Cink's '09 British Open title) and others have been runaway clinics (Rory McIlroy's US Open stranglehold in June.)  All have been coated with a story of the individual that, if it doesn't tug at the heart a bit, it at least teaches us the foundation for that man's success.

So now we are left to make this fundamental decision: is this what we want?  Matt Crispino - good friend, future frequent reference and sidekick for the weekend - and I debated many sports topics that ranged from Jay Cutler's legacy to Syracuse Orange fans IQ to whether Hartford Whaler fans should be Carolina Hurricane fans.  Crispino stumped me with this query: What golfers do I root against?

I could not think of any.

So many of the stories that have garnered my attention are worth rooting for.  I would imagine there's plenty of ego, wealth and circumstance that all successful professional golfers possess that may be tagged unattractive, unpopular or uninspiring.  I enjoy the theatre that unfolds on the back nine of any golf tournament and further enjoy the recipe for that player's ascension.  Certainly it's heightened in major championships and tournaments with slightly higher stakes, like the Players Championships, the Accenture Match-Play and the Ryder Cup.  Winners accelerate their level of focus and execution; let's hear how it happened.

Now that Woods is not in the picture - and will stay that way until he wins something - more golfers are taking the bull by the horns, even if the bull is resting passively in his stable.  I enjoy it.  The field is wide open.  But most casual fans want to latch-on to a story or rivalry, eager and hopeful McIlroy and/or Mickelson win 10 more times this year.

Darren Clarke's victory, close to his 43rd birthday, at 150 to 1 odds, an afterthought to his countrymen's charge up the rankings, is just what golf needs.  The twelve most recent major champions have stamped their names on trophies and in history books as it becomes more and more challenging to prognosticate the champ. 

Here's hoping we can make it 13 in a row one month from now.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bold Prediction Wednesday

I was fully prepared to give you a score-by-score breakdown of who I thought was going to win the British Open and two players that I think will finish in the top 10 this weekend at Royal St. George. 

A new story, though, has taken away some of that thunder, so I'll just tell you who I believe will have a good showing in the English town of Sandwich:

Winner: Jason Day
Top-10 Finishers: Alvaro Quiros, Hunter Mahan, Robert Karlsson

While driving home today, radio reports on the different outlets had James Harrison in the news for critical comments he made about Roger Goddell in the August issue of Men's Journal.  By the way, doesn't the name 'Men's Journal' sound like something I would carry in my satchel to record my rendezvous with Richard Gere?  This is not a shock.  No one on the players side of the negotiations probably thinks fondly of Mr. Goddell.  After all, Goddell is meant to be the impartial face of the league, but in these negotiations, he has become the face of the owners.

I did enjoy the part about Harrison referring to Goddell as both a puppet and a dictator.  I will detail on what platform the words "puppet" and "dictator," are used simultaneously, unless Harrison told Men's Journal something like, "Goddell acts like a dictator to the players.  Do you like this hand puppet I made?"

Harrison took the time, though, to criticize Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers quarterback who has made plenty of bad decisions in his life.  Rashard Mendenhall also could not escape Harrison's blame, calling him a "fumble machine." 

Mendenhall responded with, "I don't have a problem with what [Harrison] said because I know him."

OK, glad that's settled.

Roethlisberger is a different matter.  Here is a list of people that don't care for Ben Roethlisberger:
* the AFC North
* Georgia and Nevada
* all women sans fiance (Additionally, checkout the intense reporting here by James Walker - thanks James.)

Teammates should not make that list.  Teammates have disagreements and we as fans should have learned by now, those players should settle their own matters privately.  Roethlisberger has already had his captaincy rightfully removed from his list of responsibilities.  Whatever Ben's problems were off the field, he's looked to remedy them.  On the field, he has been nothing less then a great player, no matter what you think of his character.

It's difficult to pinpoint what Harrison's motives are for making these comments - as well as the possible questions the reporter conjured to get such abrasive remarks.  For now, the NFL really can't react to these comments with the labor bickering still ongoing.  It does create some fodder for a day or two about how crazy Harrison is, how the Steelers gave Green Bay three touchdowns and how Goddell is an evil super-genius.

The lockout, however, will end.  I'm not sure what the commissioner will do because Harrison is, after all, just ranting and hasn't committed a crime except for first degree hurt feelings. However, I have an idea what Mike Tomlin and Art Rooney II might be looking to do.

Harrison will be 33 this year and is under contract by the Steelers through 2012 with options through 2014.  He, like Roethlisberger, is a valuable member to the Steelers, but at what point does the verbal baggage finally stop?  Steelers fans have their varying opinions on both men, whether to discard them or offer forgiveness, but both are undeniably top talents at their profession

Tomlin and Rooney are going to meet with Harrison about his comments and get to the bottom of his angst.  At the end of the day, I can see Tomlin and Rooney giving Harrison the choice of how he wishes to proceed:
* Contribute to the team at come to us with your problems
* Leave

I think Harrison, when he weighs his options, will ask for a new team.  It's not going to be something the organization wants, just like they don't want Hines Ward drinking and driving, Santonio Holmes getting high, Mendenhall damning bin Laden haters, or Roethlisberger in Georgia dive bars.  Tomlin and Rooney are not reactive to these many mishaps, just like they won't succumb to media and fan scrutiny at the drop of a hat.  But after weighing the facts of the case and advocating for what's best for the team, they will attempt to trade Harrison and he will not be in a Steelers uniform when they tee it up this season.

The sad irony is the two guys largely responsible for winning Super Bowl XLIII will be exiled unceremoniously.  I hope Harrison decides to take the upstanding path and meets with the team, Mendenhall and Roethlisberger.  I just don't think it's in his nature.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How I'd Fix the All-Star Game

I vividly remember attending the 1994 MLB All-Star game - arguably one of the greatest and most dramatic all-star contests in the game's history.

Three Rivers Stadium and it's cookie-cutter artificial turf laden backdrop served as the perfect stage for this 13-year old and his dad.  The excitement of seeing all of the best players together in one showcase was more than I could have imagined, even if we were in right field up against the foul pole.  The joy of hearing Carlos Garcia's name as the lone Pirate and looking at all of the banners with the players names scripted horizontally across the stadium levels brought a real sense of majesty to the event.  Hearing the chorus of boos as Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek were announced and finally getting to watch Ken Griffey Jr., Kirby Puckett and Paul Molitor for the first time brought addition pageantry that I never experienced with any other contest.  It was very special.

True baseball fans have an interest in the Midsummer Night's Classic, even if that fan doesn't get the opportunity to have "their" player inserted into the line-up.  When else would I hope for Fred McGriff to do well in a game (it should be noted that McGriff and maybe Vinny Castilla on good days are the only Atlanta Braves I had any respect for - obviously for no good reason.)  We didn't need a "this game counts" or "let's win it so the Red Sox can have home-field in the World Series."

Unfortuneately, more television exposure, interleague contests, and free agency have all made baseball a better product at the cost of watering down the All-Star game.  It's still fun for me just how it is, but not everyone is programmed to win a game just to say he won a game.

And since there MUST be an incentive for everything we do and we can't function on the premise of autonomy, mastery and purpose, here's a blueprint for how to fix the Midsummer Night's Classic:

1) Each team has 30 players.  Wouldn't this following sequence be nice for Little Leaguers and travel baseball squads?  "Timmy, we'd like you to join the Springfield Little League All-Stars...but only because Kevin, Jake, Peter, Carlos, Kevin B., Sampson, all the kids on Main Street and Rodrigo said they weren't up for it.  Whatta ya say?"

Timmy is not an all-star and, the best part is, Timmy knows it.  We shouldn't add more all-stars to the gaem two days before it takes place; that's not fair to the players or the fans.  Fans elect the starting nine.  Ballots open Memorial Day weekend and close on July 4.  That leaves 21 spots: 8 back-up position players and 13 pitchers - or however you'd like to organize it.  But how would you choose the reserves and pitchers?

2) Hall of Fame Captains.  Take the burden of the managers - who run their teams and organizations on a 24-hour cycle - and off any captains that are currently in the League.  If you want to continue to honor the game's tradition and the players that made it so special, don't just parade them on the field.  Have the captains chosen - like Ryder Cup captains - during spring training and they can acutely following the first 90 games of the baseball season to determine the All-Stars.

Could you imagine if you're a major leaguer and Hank Aaron or Joe Morgan or Cal Ripken calls you and asks you to be on your league's all-star team?  Even the wealthiest of players would find that memorable.

3) Not every team is represented.  As a Pirate fan, I am still incredibly embarrassed that Mike Williams was an All-Star in 2003.  Not only was he terrible, he was a clubhouse cancer.  Mr. Commissioner might think it is great for baseball to have all 30 organizations on the field, but the honor of knowing that you're an All-Star and not just an "everybody gets a trophy all-star" has real merit.  The players and fans know it, too.

4) Play the game on Wednesday.  No other All-Star game plays their exhibition two days after their season takes a break.  Most teams in the NBA and NHL have four days off between games (Wednesday through Sunday) and then continue league business on the following Tuesday.  That's a real break - now it's more of a pit stop.  Put the Future's Game and Celebrity Softball on Monday - start the "Fastest Man Around the Bases Competition - Individual and Relay" as well as the Home Run Derby on Tuesday - play the game on Wednesday - break down and travel on Thursday.

Now that we've solved some house cleaning problems, let's get to the heart of the matter: Is this just an exhibition or are their stakes?  Here's how I see it:

a) Very soon, Major League Baseball will be realigning, most likely with 15 teams in each league (I propose we contract Atlanta and the Mets, but that's unlikely.)  With the realignment, there will be an interleague contest every series.

Greats gather for MLB All-Star GameEvery final weekend in August will be the only stretch of three days on the MLB calendar where all games will be interleague (it's possible, I did the breakdown.)  The league that wins the All Star game gets this series at home.  The season schedule would continue to be announced at it's normal winter date, but the American Interleague Weekend would either be in all NL parks or AL parks.

b) The winning league can have a 33-man roster for next year's all-star game.

c) Each All-Star captain selects a charity for that league.  All of the "charity jackpot" would go to that elected organization.

The great thing about baseball's All-Star game, no matter what the stakes might be, is that players will continue to put on a show without looking like they aren't trying.  It's a terrific exhibition that I will continue to follow and hope that, as the game evolves, everyone elected or invited has earned the honor and understands its value to the history of the game.