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We all go through our ups and downs in life, but imagine being an ESPN executive. All your highs and lows are played out in public, with an entire blogosphere sharpening their knives to tell you about it. Just look at the last few weeks. ESPN gave us universally praised World Cup coverage and then gave us the universally derided “Decision”. Erin Andrews came back (yay!) and so did the Home Run Derby (aww!). Then I guess something else good happened that I didn’t see (strong WNBA coverage?) and we got The Espy’s. They giveth and they taketh away, or they giveth and they giveth over and over again until we don’t want it anymore. It’s a cycle more familiar than the temperature of Stuart Scott’s bedding.
So if this is what the “Worldwide Leader” is, and seemingly always has been, why should we care? The obvious answer is that ESPN is unavoidable if you like sports. They’ve got the rights to just about everything, and they’re a staple of half the bars in America. But I think it goes beyond that. If you love sports (and you’re over the age of 13), there’s a chance at one point, you genuinely liked ESPN. You looked forward to Sportscenter or Gameday or something that spoke to you. A 24-hour sports channel (or 4 of them) should be heaven, and no one’s idea of heaven involves Skip Bayless. Consider this a 10-point plan to get the channel on the path to righteousness:
1. Fix Sportscenter.
D: By my unofficial count, each Sportscenter is 11% highlights, 14% news items, 10% stalking of the scandalous athlete du jour (you’re next, Brett Favre!), 30% “experts” arguing about stuff, and 35% promotional fluff. That last category is easy to spot, simply look for the sponsorship. The Budweiser Hot Seat, Coors Light Cold Hold Facts, and The Massengill Uncomfortable Moment are all great examples. Have you ever seen one of these pieces and thought “wow, I really learned something!” I thought not. Meanwhile, highlights, which are the actual reason we tuned in, generally get the short shift. Showing at least a quick clip of every game should not be too much to ask. In fact, it should be a basic expectation, along with “Top 10 Plays” and Hannah Storm’s tight sweaters. And while we’re at it, can we find a few more guys who aren’t just doing impressions of the guys from 10 years ago?
K: For what its worth, Sportscenter has made some improvement over the years. I thought Live would be silly, but it has been a great edition, especially in those early morning episodes where there is no news. Sportscenter is now mired in sponsored segments and cross promotions. It was Derek who pointed out a highlight where they plugged the Home Run Derby, as if I didn’t know it was going to happen during All-Star Weekend. While we’re fixing the flagship and centerpiece of sports reporting, can we get some better fluff? I swear, if they do another hypothetical tournament for Best Team Ever or Best MVP Ever or Best Mascot’s Toe or god knows, I will personally write them a very angry letter.
2. Put the old guys out to pasture.
D: I’ll take a moment to give Berman his due. He’s been there from the beginning, and came up with some phrases that are part of the general sports consciousness. Unfortunately, those things all happened before Keith was born. Since then, he’s been a sad caricature, all too happy to put himself and his cliches in front of whatever he’s doing. The Home Run Derby becomes an avalanche of “BACKBACKBACKBACK”. The Two-Minute drill is actually 7 minutes of “The RAY-duuuuhhhs” and Eagles references. And golf … well, there’s just no way I’m watching Chris Berman do golf. A studio host should showcase the highlights, the game, the talent he’s working with. Berman showcases … nicknames. Recently he’s heard some of the criticism (check out the link, it’s full of “in my day” references) , and asked “Did I get bad all of a (sic) sudden?” Unfortunately, Boomer, it wasn’t all of the sudden. It was about the time you lost track of current popular music.
K: I can accept Berman and company being icons and respected. Please don’t make me watch them. Madden is finally gone, and Berman and Dick Vitale should be close behind them. Your stick is only good for so long fellas and the expiration date has long since passed. I don’t even know young people who like those characters anymore. They seem like they have wondered out of SNL skits. Just as bad of an offender? Lou Holtz. Look, the guy has a decent track record (along with some screw ups) as a football coach and who doesn’t love his old school sayings, but seriously, he has nothing useful to tell us when it comes to analyzing football. He has a garish lisp and is so absurdly Notre Dame biased. Dr. Lou? Are you kidding me? Bring back his pep talks (admittedly awesome). Keep him away from a camera or microphone otherwise.
3. One show with sportswriters arguing is enough, thanks.
D: I enjoy, Pardon The Interruption, and I’m guessing you do too. Kornheiser and Wilbon share a special bond, are interesting and original, and have a capable stable of backup hosts at the waiting. Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave room to stock Around The Horn, Jim Rome Is Burning, First Take, etc. The result is an all-day echo chamber of less-than-telegenic people prattling off successively louder and more-over-the-top rants. If you have trouble knowing where to draw the line, just remember, any forum that gives Jay Mariotti the chance to speak is not a a good one.
K: I hate to admit this, but Derek’s “all-day echo chamber” is the perfect phrase. It is so repetitive, each voice shriller and louder until we finally get to Skip Bayless’s banshee calls, and suddenly a good idea seems awful. I don’t want to watch sports talk radio, which is essentially what ESPN2 asks me to do for the majority of my day. No wonder these people write and don’t speak. At least SportsNation is doing something mildly different and has Michelle Beadles. Once you get past Kornheiser and Wilbon, proceed with caution.
4. Step the commentary up a notch.
D: Take a cue from the World Cup. To their credit, ESPN learned from their last World Cup experience and decided to hire experienced, mostly British commentators to be their crew on this year’s version. The result was not just a smashing (British adjective!) success, but a refreshing antidote to some of the dull conventions of American play-by-play announcers. The Brits displayed an incredible gift for inventive wordplay, a willingness to be critical or blunt when called for, and generally stuck to the game they were actually watching. I propose we take the current ESPN play-by-play crew, strap them to a chair, tape their eyelids open, and make them re-watch the Cup until it sinks in. Let’s grab Joe Buck too, while we’re at it.
K: There was, admittedly, something pure about non-American commentary. Commentators we’re used to seem to want to be the stars, filling dear air with opinions on random things or stories we don’t care about. Just speak convincingly, creatively, and honestly. I can’t harp on that last one enough. I get ESPN needs to protect their properties, but trying to explain to me how awesome everyone is just annoys me. If a guy makes bad plays, talk about it like I’m watching it, not how your marketing department instructs you to. There isn’t shame in criticizing a performance. There is shame in hiding behind your logo so you don’t have to.
5. A little more honesty and transparency would go a long way.
D: These days, the biggest stories, like NBA Free Agency or college football conference expansion, have a steady stream of rumor and innuendo gushing around them. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a national sports news organization with a small army of reporters who could separate fact from speculation? I wonder who would have those kinds of resources? One more thing here, when you’re a part of the story, you need to mention that. We still have questions about your involvement in “The Decision”. And anyone who knows college football knows that these conferences are expanding to strengthen their negotiating position with… ESPN! Just come clean about it!
K: I don’t want to call into question the journalistic integrity of ESPN as a whole or anything, but it does feel like this is being done wrong. There is such a large gap between the fan and the organization - be it the team or the league - and we count(ed) on ESPN to bridge that. They were our connection to the closed door meetings, to the agent comments, and to the grumbles in the clubhouses we just can’t hear from our stadium seats and our couches. Instead of giving us the facts and what they know, we’re treated to an extra layer of mystery, subject to the same rumor mill mistakes as we, the fans, are.
6. Hockey and MMA are sports, poker and the spelling bee are not.
D: I understand the need to find new sports to fill all those channels with programming, but surely there are actual athletic contests for people to watch. Yes Keith, even ultimate Frisbee would be preferable to guys playing cards or pre-teens awkwarding it up for our amusement. The rights to hockey are coming up, bid on them. Shell out the cash and partner up with the UFC. In fact, you’ve got the money to actually unite all the boxing titles into one. You could probably do it with the money you’re paying Berman.
K: There is no shortage of sports. There is, in fact, Ultimate (super exciting!), but there is skateboarding, endless baseball games, surfing, wrestling, MMA, etc. I feel like I’m going to have an aneurysm every time I see Poker or Scripps on my ESPN screen. Are you going to show the Cup Stacking Championships next? Or perhaps some MLG (Major League Gaming)? There aren’t leagues or titles out of reach of your monolithic, Yankee-like budget. Get us more sports and less guys with sunglasses flipping pieces of paper over.
7. More about the strategy of the games.
D: Ever see that Sportscenter special where Jon Gruden breaks down game tape with incoming NFL QB’s? Not only was it fascinating, but it was one of the few times it seemed like ESPN was teaching me about these sports we watch all the time. I’d love to see a version of this in almost any sport I watch. Then there’s the excellent NFL Matchup show, which breaks down team gameplans using actual coaches tape. ESPN airs that at 3:30 am on Sundays here. Maybe this stuff is for the hardcore, but when you have all these channels, isn’t there room for that? Or did I just create ESPN6?
K: I remember seeing a College Football Live segment where Desmond Howard was out on the field with Mario Manningham. Desmond asked Mario to break down a couple of touchdown passes he had in a recent game. Mario literally deconstructed it into the steps he took, the moves he made, and what the defense was giving him and how it responded. My jaw was dropping. Sports at this level are endlessly complicated, and listening to Gruden or Jaws break down the tiny details that let Chris Johnson get 65 yards into the endzone or Doug Gottlieb explain the how effectively Georgia Tech works high post screen-n-rolls is the stuff some sports fans dream about.
8. Kill The Excess.
D: The Espys’ are useless. Here’s the thing about sports. When the game is over, we know who won. When the season’s over, we know who is crowned champions. We don’t need to give athletes more awards. And I’m pretty sure we don’t need to put them in a room with a bunch of celebrities, either. They can handle that on their own.
K: There is just so much stuff we don’t need. A little fluff is ok. I don’t care, however, what Lil’ Wayne or Snoop Dogg thinks about football. I certainly don’t want to watch the most popular (not always the best) athletes stroke their egos in a huge masturbation session with the world’s celebrities and sports anchors. Want to reward stuff? Cool. Want to throw it on TV for a few hours, advertise the heck out of it, and regurgitate most of the flaws we’ve outlined? Not so much.
9. Stop beating the dead analytical horse.
D: My background is in radio, so I understand “playing the hits”, and playing them often since your audience is constantly switching in and out. But ESPN has taken this to a whole new level. They’re like a radio station that only plays one song for a days on end until it changes to a new one. “Hope you like this ‘Tiger Infidelity’ jam, cause we’ll be spinning it, until we move on to ‘Kobe Is The Greatest Laker of All-Time’!” What’s worse is that they can’t even offer nuance to the over-analysis. I mean, did anyone ever bother to mention that Kobe played like crap the last three games of the finals? Wouldn’t that be worth discussing in that context? People want the big stories, but believe it or not, they care about other things. Like last night’s results. If their news department could put their tabloid gossip jones on hold for a bit and remember the ACTUAL GAMES, we’d all be better off.
K: How often does CNN focus on a single event for an entire day? Now how often does ESPN do it? LeBron being the most immediate example of the chronic over-analysis of ESPN, it doesn’t take much to recall the Brett Favre saga and the constant talk about it or NFL Drafts “Tebow Watch”. Well, I recall avoiding it because I didn’t care. However, many of poor saps listened to report after report after speculation and so forth. It doesn’t have to be this way. Insightful analysis once or twice is all we need. There are more games to talk about, more teams to discuss, and more players with stories to be told.
10. Find us some new talent.
D: Name the last new Sportscenter anchor you gave a damn about. Or the last new commentator. ESPN has gotten pretty good at finding charismatic babes (hello, Michelle Beadle!), but I think we can all agree that they can do better.
K: I can hardly remember what makes a good Sportscenter anchor any more. Amidst trying to create their own Stuart Scott-isms (don’t get me started on this guy) and their sort of copy and paste appearance, I’m mostly only able to identify them by hilarious Sportscenter spots. That ain’t good.
That’s the recurring theme here, right? They can do better. ESPN controls the games, and they’ve gotten lazy. As sports fans, we don’t have a lot of options, and we deserve it. And don’t get us started on CNN!
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There are few modern male kids who didn’t, at some point or another, idolize an athlete. Past generations sought out their trading cards or put up their posters; our generation picks their team on XBox or selects the guy in Fantasy Baseball (or if you’re a desperate weirdo trying to impress somebody, buys his Fathead - LeBron James still on sale). Sometimes, it isn’t a guy, but a whole team. We say we wanna be just like him or play for them. I remember running around my driveway’s basketball hoop, trying to perfect Reggie Miller’s foul-drawing, leg-kick jump shot, and there is a cartoon portrait of me in my dad’s house wearing a Pacers jersey. Derek probably even idolized the stars of his youth - guys like Honus Wagner and Red Grange. The point is, we want to believe the best about these guys, on and off the field. We want them to be the heroes we see in movies and read about in magazines.
We know they aren’t. And with the 24 hour news cycle, we know exactly when they aren’t. What is a fan to do when the image they hold dear and the image of reality are incongruent? Besides blind denial?
We’ve been there. Maybe you’re one of my college roommates and find out Andy freakin Pettite has been on the juice. Maybe you’re my brother and find out Michael Vick is into canine violence. Or maybe you’re a fan of a certain team we won’t name whose former star lineman is under scrutiny for taking money before he was allowed. You can separate the player from the team, saying he’s a rotten apple, a lone speck of dust in an otherwise tidy household. You can turn on the player. You can defend the player with accusations against others. You can even try to reason away with excuses. But somewhere, you have to figure out just how to feel about it, besides a little betrayed and disappointed.
Last year, Brandon Spikes, a guy whose play had been a definite point of my Gator Pride, did something very ugly. While I’d love to believe he was just trying to adjust that Georgia guy’s contacts to increase his overall comfort, I have to face that Spikes was being a huge jerk and certified cheaterhead. I tried to scorn him with proper shame and openly stated that the discipline he received was not sufficient for the crime. He’s talented, but he’s lost some of my allegiance to him. It is sad.
That’s just my approach. I try to find some reasonable level of thought in the realm of sports fandom, in which we are rarely guided by reason. Cause why use reason where passion will suffice, yeah? I can’t tell you the way - each fan picks his own - but I can tell you that you have to figure it out for yourself (to all of you sarcastically thanking me, I’d like to sincerely say “you’re welcome”). College football - the most ethically challenged sport - is almost here, and it is a little something to think about. When the sports police come knocking on your team’s door and you’re left with a whole bunch of questions for yourself as a fan, you can at least have a way to deal.
At about this team each year, thermometers in the Southeast begin to boil, Dan Haren starts pitching like a back of the rotation guy, and the sports nation starts to think about Saturdays only a couple of months away. The day when EA releases its newest iteration of NCAA Football kind of marks it for me - it is time to start counting down to football season. Baseball and our powerful imaginations are all we have to hold us over until then. Baseball is admittedly a pretty good distraction, with at least 15 games pretty much every night, and video games can create lasting memories (ask Derek about the time that he started celebrating after he scored with a few seconds left, running around the house chanting his own name, while I audibly vowed to return the kick to win it. Then I did) and let us start fictionalizing the awesomest of scenarios (like Colin Kaepernick winning the Heisman).
Well, here’s a little something to make you wish Week 1 would get here all that faster:
Thursday, Sept 2 - Sure, Southern Miss plays South Carolina, the team who turned what should have been a super exciting kickoff Thursday into a snoozer against NC State, and USC plays Hawaii so you can get your late night fix, but if you can find it to watch it, Pittsburgh opens at Utah. Both are Top 25 possibilities.
Friday, Sept 3 - If there is a time to care about small teams that could make noise, its when you’re fiendin’ for more football and need a fix. Arizona takes on Toledo, and their spread offenses should give us some pretty fun action through the air and Arizona always has speed in the backfield (and possibly at QB if Matt Scott gets on the field).
Saturday, Sept 4 - While I’ll be up early to watch John Brantley debut, the rest of you will probably be tuning in a little later to watch Purdue take on the Golden Domers, UConn at Michigan, UCLA at K. State, or Texas pummel Rice on the four letter network. We aren’t done yet. After that, Oregon State will battle TCU, Heisman-hyped Jake Locker will lead Washington to try and correct last year’s ref error and beat BYU, and of course, LSU will take on UNC’s monster defense in what should be a Top 15 battle. Even after that, Cincinatti goes to Fresno St. and UNLV plays Wisconsin.
Sunday, Sept 5 - You thought it was over, huh? Nah, Sunday has Tulsa vs. ECU, but more importantly SMU vs. Texas Tech. Why? These two teams air it out more than anyone on Earth so expect gaudy QB numbers as the score pinballs higher and higher. 150 total is within reach, kids!
Monday, Sept 6 - A revived Navy and a floundering Maryland continue their state rivalry, and finally, and this makes me sport-ually aroused, its Kellen Moore and Boise State up against Ryan Williams and Virginia Tech, in Atlanta.
I think I just got a contact high.
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Hey, If I need to point at the work of some of America’s great ink-stained wretches to take Keith down a peg, I’ll do it!
Here’s SI’s Tom Verducci on the general mishmash that is the all star game
I believe he goes on to say Keith’s post was a farce, but I’m not quite sure,
Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle is as good a TV critic as you will find. And yes I would have told you that before he caught World Cup Fever
No - no matter how much the NBA has become a joke and how dull the games have become, we’ll probably have as much continued interest in soccer after the World Cup as we do in hockey after the Winter Olympics.
And yet, hockey is on an upswing, viewer-wise, in this country.
With the World Cup scoring impressive ratings, there could be more people scouring their cable and satellite plans to see if they can pick up some European soccer or even, gasp, our very own Major League Soccer.
Conversions come slowly and, like a lot of Americans, it took a number of years and a month of great television to finally hook me on soccer.
I’ve logged so many hours watching the World Cup - even on vacation - that keeping up with all my regular viewing has taken a real hit. But I found that the drama inherent in soccer completely blew away any scripted series I had waiting on the DVR.
And I know what some of you are thinking - what drama in soccer? Listen, I was there. I have so many “boring soccer” jokes involving the phrases “nil-nil” and “extra time to avoid action” that I could do 20 minutes of stand-up comedy no problem.
Total immersion probably helped the switch go off in my American-sports-saturated head while watching the World Cup. Suddenly understanding the strategies in the beautiful game became easier to define.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Tim Goodman! A real live human being who enjoyed the hell out of the World Cup and will be watching more soccer. He has kids and a home that’s not in the West Village! Get ready to meet a lot more people like him.
So there you have it. Professional writers say I’m brilliant. And don’t worry Keith, I found a homeless guy outside of Walgreen’s who thought your take on Lebron was dead on.
So Bros Before Pros just couldn’t resist the fun of Midseason Awards, because there are few better platforms to argue in circles. Let’s start ours with the AL, because it’d be nice to see the Mariners complimented for something, which leads us to…
Cy Young: Cliff Lee over David Price, and Felix Hernandez. It speaks to just awesome Cliff Lee (and Felix) are to have 8 and 7 wins – respectively – on that horrendous Mariners team, which has no bullpen or offense to speak of. The newest Ranger’s numbers are eye popping, with a 2.64 ERA and an absurd 91 to 6 K/BB ratio (he has the same number of complete games as walks issued… THINK ABOUT THAT). He wears 0.95 WHIP well, too. Some people, like Derek, are sheep and pick those obvious AL Easters. Way to stand out, bro.
MVP: Miguel Cabrera is just so obvious. Try as I might to find reasons to pick Josh Hamilton and reasons to call Derek dumb (just about this – there are many other ones), I could not. Miggy is basically doing it all. It’s like he’s addicted to…awesome. Yeah, I said it. And RBIs. He’s got almost one a game.
Rookie of the Year: Brennan Boesch, in a year filled with shiny new toys like the Jay-Hey kid and Stephen Strasburg, has put together an impressive first half. Derek is right, you’d have to be a moron not to pick this guy since he leads AL Rookies in like every batting category. You could say he’s like the Joey Votto of AL Rookies!
Cy Young: Josh Johnson is a tough choice. Ubaldo has the perfect game and a fantastic 15-1 record. Roy Halladay has dominating performances. Wainwright has consistency. It has been a wild year, but JJ’s 1.70 ERA, sub-1 WHIP, and dude is averaging over a K an inning. I love Ubaldo’s record and BAA, but JJ is working at an impossibly awesome clip.
MVP: Joey Votto is your MVP. He’s even Derek’s MVP (though he doesn’t know that). Summarizing Derek’s argument, Votto is having a better year, but he is in that devastating Reds lineup. Possibly on his way to the triple crown, Votto has carried the Reds in pretty much every way (he even stole 7 bases cause he felt like it). I actually agonized over Votto vs. Gonzalez, but then I saw Derek picked Gonzalez and knew then that it was clearly Votto. David Wright can also suck it.
Rookie of the Year: Jaime Garcia beats out Strasburg, and that’s only because Stephen just couldn’t get to the bigs fast enough. Stras’s K numbers are freakish (61 already), but Jaime’s K’s per 9 are nice when compared to another human being’s (7.2). For a rookie pitcher with almost 100 innings to only have given up four HRs? His ERA hovering around 2 (and lower than Strasburg’s – and one of his games is against the Pirates). He’s having an All-Star year of his own.
Hey, kids! It’s midseason awards time! They’re fun, they’re hypothetical, they’re a chance to make Keith look silly. Who can resist, right? So let’s get to it!
I’m going to do the National League first, so that they finally get to be first in something (hey-oh!).
Albert Pujols. Oops. I just wrote that out of habit. I’m going to go with Adrian Gonzalez. This was by far the toughest choice for me. Joey Votto is clearly having the better season statistically. If you’re into the traditional stuff, he’s better in all the triple crown categories. If you’re into advanced stats - and it’s 2010, you should be - OPS+, WAR, VORP all favor Votto, if only slightly. And yet I can’t shake this one question: name the 2nd best player in The Padres lineup. You can think about this for a while (I did), and names like Nick Hundley, Will Venable, and Scott Hairston legitimately enter the discussion. The Padres have 52 wins and one hitter! So he’s my MVP. It might not be fair to Joey Votto, but so far award snubs have been the best thing to ever happen to the guy, so what’s one more?
Cy Young- Josh Johnson. That’s right, Josh Johnson. This is one of those instances where I’m glad that we’re doing hypothetical awards. In real life, a guy who’s 9-3 (Johnson) is not winning the Cy Young over a guy that’s 15-1 (Ubaldo Jimenez). But the second you look beyond wins and losses, a stat that has almost nothing to do with what a pitcher can control, the numbers favor Johnson. Do you like old-timey simple stats like strikeouts, ERA, or WHIP? Johnson is better. Into more advanced ones like ERA+ and FIP? Johnson again. If your case for Jimenez rests on The Rockies hitting for Jimenez more than the Marlins hit for Johnson, then your case sucks. I’d even make the case that Roy Halladay has had a better 1st half than Jimenez, but then I’d have no shot of getting Jon Heyman to return my emails anymore.
Rookie of the Year - Stephen Strassburg. Man, did I want to write “Jason Heyward” here, and I fully expect to be able to at season’s end. But it’s hard to deny what Strassburg has done from both a tangible and intangible standpoint so far this year. Between these two and Gabby Sanchez, Jaime Garcia, Mike Leake, Buster Posey, Ike Davis, and David Freese, it’s been a pretty damn good year for rookies, huh?
MVP - Miguel Cabrera. Joe Posnanaski wrote a good column making fun of Joe Girardi picking Paul Konerko for the All-Star team because he had a couple of more RBIs than Kevin Youkilis. But that’s the kind of thing you have to do to separate Cabrera and Justin Morneau. Miggy has one extra point of batting avg. He’s two points better in OPS+. But in the end, Cabrera has four more homers, and possibly the disadvantage of hitting while drunk. So he’s the guy.
Cy Young - Jon Lester. Frankly, you could have just picked a starter from the Yankees, Red Sox, or Rays rotation at random and done pretty well here. There’s a case for Price, Bucholz, Sabbathia, Hughes, even Andy Pettite. But I went with Lester, because he keeps showing up in the Top 5 of whatever number I looked at. Need something more sexy than that? He had cancer, dammit!
Rookie of the Year - Brennan Boesch. Leads AL rookies in Average, On Base, Slugging, Homers, and probably a bunch of other stuff I didn’t bother to look up after seeing that. I’m just hoping Keith picked someone else so I can call him a moron. In fact, I’m not going to wait. Keith, you’re a moron!
You see that gentleman up there? For a few days he was one of the most villainous in all of baseball. Seems kind of weird, right? I mean look at that face! What’s weirder still is that the man in question, Omar Infante, didn’t actually do anything. He didn’t take steroids, or get in trouble with law, or step on Dallas Braden’s mound. Omar’s big sin was essentially taking a call from Charlie Manual announcing he’s an All-Star.
You may have been surprised to hear Infante made the NL All-Star Team. In fact, Omar was surprised too. When Braves GM Frank Wren called to tell him the the news, he thought he was about to be traded. But once word got out, the baseball world wasn’t exactly surprised, they were angry. Omar Infante, a man who doesn’t start for his own team, was the worst selection of all-time. A man who came to represent all that’s wrong with the selection process. And in a way he is; it’s just not the way that you think.
The problem with the process is that we don’t actually know what an All-Star is. This is not some sort of Clinton-esque type wordplay or some comment about how the game isn’t as good as it was when Mickey Mantle was allowed to play hungover. We don’t know what an All-Star is because we don’t know what the game is for. Is it an exhibition showcasing baseball’s brightest lights? Is it an actual game that “counts”? A test of league superiority? A reward for players who had good first halves? I have no idea, and I’m not sure MLB does either.
Just look at the voting process. You have the fans, and probably a healthy number of computerized bots, voting starters. Then the players vote a few guys in. Then the manager fills out a few more spots. Then when he screws that up, we have the fans go back in and vote one more time. It’s indicative of the game in the Selig era. Desperate to be so many things to so many people, but in the end signifying nothing.
The process brings us back to Omar Infante. Infante and Ty Wiggington are All-Stars this year because the league asked managers to select one-multi position player who would be allowed to re-enter the game multiple times. Basically a guy who can fill in if the manager starts to run out of guys. In typical fashion, MLB didn’t tell anyone and two players who were added to the roster to save MLB from an embarrassing situation wound up creating an even more embarrassing one.
The irony is that, if you’re trying to win a single game, Omar Infante is a pretty good guy to have on your team. He’s skillful at 5 different positions, and is hitting at a .326 clip this year. Would you take him in a season over Hanley Ramirez or even Steven Drew? No. But for one night, as a guy off your bench or a defensive, he’s rather useful. If you’re trying to win a game, that is.
Which gets us right back to knowing what the game is. If leagues were actually trying to win the All-Star Game, wouldn’t the best guys (notice I didn’t say “starters”) play pretty much the whole game? Wouldn’t teams pitch the hottest starter and ride him until he got into trouble? Aren’t these the things you do in a game that “counts”? If you want a build a roster to win a game, you’d have a utility, and a setup man, and Left-handed, One-Out Guy (LOOGY!), a really fast guy, and probably a whole bunch of guys who can actually play defense. You know this because this is how YOUR TEAM tries to win games every day, unless your roster was constructed by say, Brian Sabean.
If having the best specialists on the team doesn’t sound like fun to you, I get it. Then let’s go back to calling this an exhibition. Let’s invite the brightest stars. People wanna see Strassburg throw to, or even at A-Rod? Great! Wanna invite Derek Jeter in the hopes that Minka Kelly will show up? Super! I’d enjoy that game just as much as a serious one. As long as we don’t let if affect the out of the WORLD FREAKING SERIES.
In theory, the baseball All-Star Game should be the only one that actually works. The players can go just about full out without hurting each other. The game happens while the season is actually going on. It takes place during a three day stretch where there is literally nothing going on in the sports world, thus getting our undivided attention. And we don’t let Chris Berman hang around past the first day. All in all, it’s a recipe for success. And the fact that every year it manages to leave us bitter and confused suggests that maybe there’s a little more work to do in Bud Selig’s kitchen.
Derek wishes we knew what an All-Star was, and Major League Baseball certainly makes it hard to figure it out. What qualifies someone as one of these stars? Is it having a great first half of the season? Is it playing for Yankees or Red Sox? Is it being a hot, marketable, exciting big name? If C.C. Sabathia has a solid, but not great year, is he an All-Star? If Matt Holliday does the same, what about him? Analysts aren’t quite sure, but fans seems to know dead on: yes.
The fact is that MLB SHOULD have the best All-Star Game in town, that much we agree on Big Bro. The NFL’s is an abject horror that Michael Bay’s direction couldn’t make exciting (and I will push hard to get to post my theory on how to fix that game) and that is in great part because of the sport. The development of superfreak, superstar, big money athletes in basketball has rendered half of the sport obsolete (you know, that defense thing) at its All-Star event, which is far more of an “event” than a game anyway. Baseball has many of the right tools to make the All-Star game interesting – a dominating pitcher vs. the best hitters in baseball with the best defense in baseball behind him, the best Umps calling the game, maybe even the best peanut guy in the stands.
I see Derek’s point: that the All-Star game is a mish-mash of all these things and when they try to please everyone, they please nobody. However, I think this balancing act is a necessity. Want your ultra competitive, “it counts” game, Der? Let the managers pick the best roster and let’s go. Want to reward your players? Let THEM pick. Want to reward the fans with super fun happy time game? Just have the Red Sox play the Yankees and call it a day…or fine, let the freaking fans vote. Want to get some of each? Try them all! Players understand the fan vote, and while being an All-Star is an exciting honor to them, they get the system. Despite some snubs or weird choices (this article would be a lot more hateful if Votto ((above)) didn’t get in), if you look at these rosters, they are both strong as hell and loaded with talent. Nobody who sucks made it into the game and the fact is that the game will be played by mostly the most talented and productive players in the league.
And the hardcore fans vs. the softcore casuals? I read a discussion about Konerko vs. Youkilis vs. Swisher on an online baseball forum, where one guy said he, as a Yankees fan, voted for Swisher a bunch of times even though he thought Konerko and Youkilis deserved it more. Some other guy challenged this notion. The resounding side all those hardcore baseball nuts took? “Dude, it is the fan vote, no point in complaining” was the prevailing opinion. The guy, figuratively, sat down and shut up. Everyone moved on. In the end, it is just one game and they all had more important baseball to concern themselves with.
Derek, you should know by now that no system is perfect. You can’t please everyone all the time, but you can make concessions to help give everyone their say. In the end, the product isn’t the absolute most competitive, nor the absolute most popular players, nor a collection of the most honored and revered names. What it is, however, is a group of skilled, popular, and respected players that seem to cover a lot of the bases (I don’t even know if that pun was intended).
So let’s stop worrying about this foolishness, watch and enjoy the game, and get back to what MATTERS: normal fans complaining about the Yankees and Red Sox.
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U-S-A! U-S-A! Derek, that was exhilarating, being in a hot and crowded bar whilst cheering on the red, white, and blue. I was competing with other people (in Ultimate – durr), but I remember saying “Hey, in a few hours, we’re all on the same team.” And it was true. It’s a great feeling being in a team bar, everyone wearing your squad’s jerseys, rooting for the good guys, but it all fades as you step back into the real world. Well, for a few weeks, every bar was the team bar, and the real world was all on your side. Even casual fans knew to appreciate when Landon Donovan made a great run or Clint Dempsey pushed a good through. We all agonized through Coulibaly’s blunders and through Ghaniain fake-injuries (“Hey man, I’m pretty tired, I’m just gonna lie down. That’s an injury right? Fatigued boredom?”) and we did it together.
Oh well, it’s over now right? How many average Americans can even name the final four (which is now two) of the World Cup? How many people even knew that the Dutch were some of the favorites to advance this far, with their awesome oranges, hot women, and brilliant offensive studs like Robben and Sneijder? How many could identify Puyol or know that “Xabi” starts with an X? Even during the US games, I can name two separate instances where someone nearby asked how come we don’t put Freddy Adu in. The World Cup quickly fell from a must-see event to a cool international tournament, in American eyes. We’re sore losers, Derek, and we can’t deal with defeat well, so we’ll just pretend we didn’t care about your dumb sport anyways. We’re still the best as basketball and baseball, right? Uh…right?
There are quite a few people who are with you, Der, in seeing this being soccer’s chance to break into the limelight. Landon Donovan put on a hell of a show while Tim Howard won hearts, we scored more than one goal, we “beat” England, and we also bought the most tickets! But we already had our soccer boom and it didn’t really get us that far. It didn’t really stick. Why now? Will the US continue to improve as an internationally competitive soccer entity? Yes. Will that be accompanied by increased domestic interest in (translation: people spending more money on) soccer? No. Our players will get brighter spots on European club teams and our team will get better. The MLS will stay mired in the limbo of having some great hardcore fans and very few casual ones.
I will concede to you that there is opportunity. Oh, there is most certainly opportunity. If there was a perfect storm of MLS marketing, US players or marketable international names coming here (Christiano Ronaldo’s son is an American citizen!), and something exciting on-field here, then I could see it happening. If another soccer boom was manufactured here in the youth, it could help boost it. If Premier League teams somehow capitalized and marketed to American fans or generated interest here, then I could see it coming to fruition. Soccer could gain some ground in Stateside and you could proudly retell exploits of your high school soccer career, Derek.
It is sad to crush your little hopes like this, but it won’t happen. Hockey is clinging to relevance, MMA is trying to break through, and hell Poker is just coming down from its high. There isn’t a lot of room and no evidence to support the translation of US World Cup soccer excitement into a long term deal. Certainly, some fans have been gained, but so many more will have become wasted opportunities. We will continue to be the one country that both calls the sport by some random name and doesn’t care when we aren’t playing. What’s next, Derek, the metric system? Royals with cheese?
You have a lovely dream, big bro, but it’ll be forced to remain one.
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Ok, before we get started, take a look at this …
I know a lot of people are (unnecessarily) feeling down about sports a couple of days after Lebronukkah. Some are even questioning why we watch sports in the first place. Well, that moment is why. We put up with all the crap - the bad behavior, the contract squabbles, the Worldwide Leader- because we want that thrill, the chance to come together in unbridled joy. We are junkies for it, and we will come back again and again and put up with years of suffering and misery while we wait.
No sporting event has provided as many sheer moments of ecstasy as this World Cup. When I think of my 10 most thrilling sporting moments this year, I’ve got Tracey Porter’s INT, Artest’s putback, The US’s goal to send the gold medal hockey game to OT, Brooks Conrad’s Grand Slam to beat the Reds (hey, it’s my list), and FIVE AWESOME PLAYS FROM THE WORLD CUP. Sports fans just don’t give up on something that produces like that.
When Americans complain about soccer, you hear a lot of the same criticisms people who don’t watch baseball level. “It’s slow”, “there’s not enough scoring”, “long stretches go with nothing happening”. If you watch baseball you know that’s not the case, there’s always something happening, you just have to understand the game to see it. The same is true with soccer, and as Americans have more exposure to the game, they see more things they like: extraordinary skill and athleticism, no timeouts and commercials, announcers who are unafraid to comment honestly about the teams they are covering, an emphasis on passing and team play, the tension of watching your team hold a lead, the need for constant focus and intensity, and unbridled fanaticism. Combine these with glorious HD, and you will absolutely see people stay with the game.
Yes, we all know the World Cup is special. It’s a perfect storm of athletic excellence, nationalism, and high stakes. Its once-in-four-years-elusiveness is an intrinsic part of the appeal. And yes, without those things a regular season MLS game is going to seem lacking by comparison. Hell, the MLS Championship Game is going to seem lacking by comparison. And now, you’ve hit upon the problem. You’re looking in the wrong place!
The success of soccer in the US is NOT the same as the success of MLS in the US. If Americans are watching sports, we want to watch the best. The MLS is simply not that. At the beginning of this season, I attended an exhibition match between Chivas, a storied Mexican power, and FC Barcelona, the most talented club team in the world. The match was preceded by a regular season MLS game. Barca was so much better they seemed to be playing a different sport, or at least the same sport at a much different speed. And remember, the MLS teams were playing in the game that actually counted! The league serves a purpose - it’s a great place for top American players to develop before they go to Europe and an excellent landing spot for international talent looking to finish out their careers - and it’s got some very devoted pockets of fans, but unless hundreds of millions of dollars start pouring in, it’s going to grow slowly.
So no, Americans are not going to suddenly start flocking to a lesser domestic league. The difference between now and all the other times soccer was supposed to “make it” is that we don’t have to. We have options! Thanks to cable and Fox Soccer Channel and Gol TV, you can watch the best soccer in the world - The English Premiere League, La Liga, Serie A, The Champions League - every weekend. If those channels are too obscure, ESPN is showing them too, in glorious HD. Want to follow your heroes from the US National Team? ESPN shows almost all their matches. And you can watch them play for their club teams abroad. I saw nearly every match of Landon Donovan’s six week stay in Europe, and it didn’t require much beyond programming a DVR. If you need to wrap patriotism into the mix, there are friendlies, World Cup Qualifying, Copa America, Euro 2010, and The Confederations Cup, to enjoy. There are already tons of people gathering in pubs on Saturday mornings (!) to watch these games and their numbers will grow. Next time you make it out here, I’ll point out a few if you want. You might even meet a girl there
People are excited about this World Cup, and they will take advantage of these opportunities. I know, because I did. Yes, I grew up playing the game and am predisposed to liking it- something I have in common with about a hundred million Americans - but I never really had a chance to put that anywhere until the ‘06 World Cup came along. When that ended, I wanted more. So I became an Arsenal fan, watched loads of EPL and Champions League, read “Fever Pitch”, played tons of FIFA (EA’s 2nd most popular sports game), found a bunch of soccer blogs, and was ready to go when World Cup 2010 came around.
And the numbers suggest that I am not alone. More Americans watched this World Cup than the last, and more watched the last than the one before. By the time, it’s held in the US again, most likely 2022, the world will not be asking whether Americans “get” soccer and wondering if we’ll show up for the games. They’ll know.
There’s plenty of room in our lives for more sport. When I was growing up there were four major sports, now there are three (sorry, hockey). Of those, only the NFL has a solid, unassailable place in our hearts. Baseball fans are aging, and tv ratings are in general decline. Attendance and revenue in the NBA are down. The economic downturn has even hurt NASCAR (maybe you haven’t noticed down there in the Deep South). More than likely, labor issues will dictate that neither the NFL nor NBA will even have a season in 2011. And guess what sport will be around to fill the void?
Keith, I’ve seen things during this World Cup. Things I’d never thought I’d see from Americans. I’ve seen hardened sports radio hosts go from questioning the game to hosting World Cup barbecues. I’ve seen women who looked they just came from the Jersey Shore house crying when Italy lost. I’ve seen friends who never watched soccer before giving a tactical breakdown of the third place match. I’ve seen an entire gym erupt on the Suarez handball and Gyan’s missed penalty kick. I’ve seen women yell at ESPN for not showing the post match shirt exchange. I’ve seen singing in the streets. I’ve seen a woman bear Christiano Ronaldo’s child. Ok, I didn’t personally witness this, but it happened.
These are things you can’t unsee. And who would want to, really? Anyway, I have to go. My friends are making plans for the finals. They’re not Dutch or Spanish, but they will be wearing face paint. Write the future, indeed.
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