Saturday, September 22, 2007

5.5 random things: random things numbering 5.5

5.5. This post is dedicated to Panera Bread, whose wi-fi and limitless coffee have provided me an office away from my office (for the record, I don't really have an office...yet).

5. In all the writings about Cameragate (and there are far too many), I read 2 that were particularly awful. The worst was Gregg Easterbrook's piece on ESPN, which I've heard (rightly) blasted by some in the media. Two aspects stand out to me as especially heinous. First, his insistance that Bill Belichick was "stonewalling" investigations, an accusation for which he offers no proof. Belichick, by all accounts, did comply with Commissioner Gooddell's request for all videotaping and has been cleared of any further charges. Doesn't sound like stonewalling to me. The only thing that Belichick may be stonewalling is the media's desire to know all information. Unfortunately, "freedom of press" for some members of the media means that they are entitled to total access to the thoughts and actions of public figures. I'm proud of Belichick on this one. Second, his column is full of terms like "perhaps", "maybe" and "might be." The Patriots might be stealing offensive calls by installing microphones on their defenders' jerseys. The Chargers defensive coordinator used to coach for the Bills and Jets, and he may have been using the same exact signals last week as he used years ago and the Patriots knew them all (of course, if he hasn't varied his signal calling over the years, he's an idiot). Let's quit with the "potentials" and stick with the facts. Easterbrook, you're an idiot.

4. The second worst article I read came from an otherwise good football writer (also of ESPN) and member of the Hall of Fame's media wing: John Clayton. He argued that the punishment on the Patriots ($500,000 personal fine for Belichick, $250,000 fine on the team, loss of 1st round draft choice) was too lenient. His premise: "Here's the problem with Goodell's decision: Whether by design or not, the Patriots had themselves covered for such a penalty because they are so good at what they do. They acquired the 49ers' first-round pick in a trade that enabled the 49ers to select Joe Staley. They have an additional third-round pick from the Raiders in another trade. They have enough draft choices to survive the loss of one first-round choice." The problem with Clayton is that he's wanting to punish the Patriots for more than their cheating, he wants to punish them for being good. Look, the penalty for cheating ought to be the same no matter how good or bad the team is. The Patriots are the best franchise in football and have been since the beginning of the decade. Don't punish them for being better, the punishment fit the crime just fine.

3. Josh Beckett is well on his way to winning the Cy Young Award this year. It's certainly not a lock, but he'll probably be the only pitching with 20+ wins and is trailing in the ERA lead by only .11, with probably one more start before the end of the season. He's been the only consistent starter this year for the Sox, wrestling (without much of a fight) the position as ace of the staff from Curt Schilling. Terrific season.

2. Danny's Fantasy Football Update: 1-1, with my loss coming only by 1 point. I'm never happy about losing, but when you consider that LaDainian Tomlinson has only rushed for 66 yards in 2 games and Drew Brees has only thrown 1 TD, that's not too bad. Both guys are too good to keep down for very long, eventually they'll play well and my team should be doing fine. In the meantime, I'm thankful for the midget receiver named Steve Smith, who has 217 yards receiving and 4 TDs in only 2 games. My best decision of the draft was picking him up.

1. Upcoming book release alert: Rediscovering Paul, coauthored by one of my former professors, Rodney Reeves. Reeves is a quality professor, and a strong man of God who insisted on making NT studies (with all its focus on Greek Grammar, cultural backgrounds and theological insights) applicable to the church today. The book is geared more towards and undergraduate audience, rather than an upper-level textbook, which plays right into Reeves' strength (I don't know the other authors, so I can't comment on them). Craig Blomberg gives it a good review, which is enough to put it on my wishlist.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Wild Card Baseball: Stealing the Heart of September

The Red Sox are currently manufacturing a terrific collapse. All season long, they have dominated the American League East. Their lead over the Yankees in late May was 14.5 games; it's been in double digits for most of the season. On July 5 their lead was 12 games (Toronto was in 2nd place at that time). Yet here they are, on the morning after being swept in Toronto, with only a 1.5 game lead. In less than 4 months, their lead has dropped 13 games.

And they don't really care.

I'm not saying they want to lose or anything like that. But there's one major reason why they don't have to worry about losing this lead to the Yankees: they will still make the playoffs. Thanks to our friendly wild card playoff system, the team with the best record that doesn't win their division will still go to the playoffs. I remember when this was instituted, the argument was that it would create more excitement because it allows for another race to make the playoffs. In my mind, it was the "race for the best 2nd place team."

Now, I know there are some who will point out that the Red Sox would never have won the World Series in 2004 if it weren't for the wild card system. In fact, they wouldn't have made the playoffs in over a decade if it weren't for the wild card system. So do I think the Sox' World Series championship is invalid?

No, I don't. And here's why: the wild card system is necessary because of the arrangement of the leagues. With a 3-division format, you need the wild card for at least two reasons. 1) You have an uneven number of playoff teams and 2) there's no guarantee that the 2nd best team is one of the 3 division winners (in fact, this has often been the case with the Sox, in '99, '03 and '04). With the current system, the wild card has to happen. It does help in making sure the top 2 teams get into the postseason. In 2004, there is no doubt the Red Sox were one of the top 2 teams in the AL (in all of baseball, actually). They had every right to be in the postseason. But the wild card also assures us of the possibility that a team will take 2nd place rather than fight it out for 1st place.

And that is exactly what is happening this September. The Sox don't have any real reason to fight the Yankees for the division. Sure, they could get homefield advantage. There's always pride in beating the Yankees. But honestly, if you ask Terry Francona (and if he's being honest), he'd rather rest his guys and have them ready for October rather than risk wearing them out, even if that means losing the division.

You can't blame him, of course. He's just taking advantage of the system. Major League Baseball has arranged the leagues in such a way that the wild card is a necessity. Short of dropping teams, the wild card must stay. But this year, it hasn't created another playoff race, it's created apathy.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

cheaters never prosper...unless you're the Patriots

I have to be honest, I found the whole CameraGate scandal funny. When I found out about it, I laughed because the Pats got caught doing something that every team does in some form or another, namely, stealing signals from the other team. It's funny because that stuff happens in every sport, and everyone knows it. It's funny because the Patriots were dumb enough to get caught, which is astonishing for such an intelligently run team. Even more astonishing when you consider that they were specifically told not to do this during the off-season by the league. Gosh, Bill, you didn't think anyone was paying attention to that guy standing on the field pointing a camera directly at the other team's coaches after they told you they were going to be looking for it? Strikes me as a bit arrogant, to be honest.

But I find this less funny as time goes on, though not because of the crime, but because of the reaction. Listen, folks, there are worse problems going on in sports. Stealing a signal, which has to be deciphered accurately and quickly in order to work (which would really take quite a while, given the complexity of NFL defenses), is far less cheating (if you'll permit me gradations of cheating) than taking steroids or punching guys in the groin in the middle of a pile. It is far less worrisome than chop blocking a guy, a move which could potentially wreck a man's legs.

I'm not trying to excuse it with the "everyone's doing it" cry, although everyone is doing it (like I said, in some form or another). I'm not sure how this could taint the Patriots legacy. Check out this Bill Simmons article where he chats with Aaron Schatz of Pro Football Prospectus about this and other cheating scandals. Shoot, the Broncos have two major ones: they cheated to get around the salary cap in their 2 Super Bowl championship seasons, and their coach, Mike Shanahan, admitted to having people on staff who specifically use binoculars to steal opposing teams signals and lip read. Where's the outcry? Where's the tainted legacy of John Elway?

What bothers me the most, and this is what Simmons gets to, is that this gives folks even more reason to hate the Patriots. I hate the fact that many people treat them like they treat the Yankees- people hate dominate franchises. These two franchises are completely different. The Yankees won because they outspent everyone and changed (some say "ruined") the financial situation of Major League Baseball. The Pats have the same salary cap as the rest of the NFL, yet manage to win. They have the same restrictions, they just have better coaching and better scouting. Hating someone because they win by writing checks is one thing (though there are plenty more reasons to hate the Yankees); hating someone because they are better than your team playing within the same rules reeks of jealousy (speaking of jealousy, check out Andrew's post on Brady .

The Patriots deserve to get punished. I'll be willing to bet that the league will handle this appropriately. They cheated, they got caught, they should face the penalty without complaint. But let's not go crazy, they haven't been winning all these years because of their ability to interpret hand signals. They've won because Tom Brady can engineer a game-winning drive with time winding down, because Adam Vinatieri can't miss a clutch kick if he tried, because Belicheck can get the most out of his (sometimes average) players.

Seriously, you'd think that Ellis Hobbs was able to run the second half kickoff 108 yards only because they stole the Jets' signals and discovered they were going to be kicking off to the Patriots. What if they didn't steal signals, would Hobbs known to have run? Did stealing signals tell the Patriots to be patient with Tedy Bruschi as he made the slow adjustment from a small defensive end to middle linebacker? Did stealing signals tell them that Mike Vrabel, dwelling on the practice squad and special teams in Pittsburgh, would turn into one of the most intelligent and most underrated linebacker in football?

They didn't need to cheat, but unfortunately, they did. And they deserve to be punished. But let's not go witch hunting.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Legend of Jason Varitek

I suppose there are probably some around the country who look at Jason Varitek and wonder why a .260 hitting catcher with average power numbers is in the middle of a 4 year, $40 million contract. Why would you spend that much money for someone who produces so little.

If you watched Clay Buchholz's no-hitter last night (in only his 2nd game), you'd understand why. This is the 3rd time Varitek has called a no-hitter, the other two being Hideo Nomo and Derek Lowe (in 2001 and 2002, respectively). The Nomo game sticks out because it was his first start in a Red Sox uniform, yet he didn't shake off Varitek until something like pitch number 63. Buchholz knew better than to question Varitek. If Varitek calls the pitch, chances are it's well-informed. His preparation is unparalleled. He studies the hitters, their tendencies and their weaknesses. He knows the opposing lineup better than anyone else on the field.

Consequently, he gives the Red Sox an advantage every time they take the field. The pitchers and coaching staff can have the confidence that the pitches called by Varitek are more than likely the correct call. Granted, the pitcher still has to make the pitch, as Varitek is known to say, "I just drop the fingers, they have to make the pitch." And I'm sure Varitek has made his share of mistakes, but there is no other catcher in all of baseball who can call a game like Varitek.

Take the example of Curt Schilling. He has always been known for his preparation, with multiple 3-ring binders of notes on hitters he's faced. When he came to Boston, however, even he had to defer to Varitek. On occasion, he does not, but I think he's learning his lesson. As noted, Varitek has caught 3 no-hitters, but he should have had a 4th. Earlier this season Schilling was one out away from recording his first career no-hitter. He shook off Varitek, thinking he knew the opposing hitter better than his catcher. He proceeded to lose his no-hitter, and chances are slim he'll get that close again.

In my opinion, Varitek earns his money. His leadership is unquestionable- being named captain of the team a few years back (I believe he's one of only 4 captains in all of baseball). Sure, he won't blow too many away with his bat, though it's not like he's useless at the plate. But he gives a competitive advantage to his team with every game he pitches. He's valuable to the younger pitchers because the can ease into learning the opposing hitters. At the same time, the veterans can take comfort in knowing that their catcher knows their repetoire and how that matches the scouting reports.

Clay Buchholz knows firsthand the benefit of pitching a game called by Jason Varitek. He joins an elite group of only 2 other rookies who have thrown a no-hitter in their 1st or 2nd game. He ought to be commended for having incredible command of all 3 of his pitches, and if he can throw like that he'll have a long and successful major league career. But I'll bet when his career is done, he'll look back and be thankful he had the chance to let Jason Varitek call his pitches. He's in the record books because of it.