Friday, April 30, 2010

Mets, Nationals fans emerge from April baseball with hope

There’s an old saying in baseball: Don’t believe too much of what you see in April or September.

It is not uncommon for lousy teams to get off to a good start in April only to be worn down by the grind of the 162 game season. There are lots of off days in April—some caused by poor weather—and the need for five starting pitchers (or more later when injuries kick in) isn’t there yet. The bullpen is still fresh and someone destined to hit .260 might be hitting .400.

In September, when teams have been eliminated from contention and bring players up from the minor leagues, there are always a couple who catch people’s eye with their play. Sometimes there’s a reason for it—Derek Jeter was a late call-up in 1995—sometimes it’s just September baseball.

So I sit here on the last day of April caught in a conundrum. The New York Mets, the team I grew up with, after what appeared to be a predictably terrible start, has reeled off seven straight wins and sits atop The National League East at 13-9. The suspect starting pitching, which appeared to be Johan Santana and whomever wanted the ball next, has suddenly been world-beating. Mike Pelfrey hasn’t given up a run since about 1994 and the team is winning WITHOUT centerfielder Carlos Beltran.

So, do I get excited? Or do I still to the old baseball axiom and check back in June?

The same question is being asked in Washington, where the Nationals, coming off back-to-back 100 loss seasons, are 12-10. Unlike the Mets, whose winning streak came entirely at home, the Nats have just gone into Chicago and won two-of-three from the Cubs, causing Lou Piniella to lose his mind, which is always entertaining.

Like the Mets, the Nationals are pitching better and, perhaps as important, they’re catching the ball much better. Last year their defense was so bad you had to avert your eyes on routine ground balls unless you were extremely brave. Now, the Nats are not only making routine plays, they’re making some spectacular ones too.

What’s more, the Nationals best pitcher is currently pitching in Harrisburg. Stephen Strasburg, the phenom picked No. 1 in last year’s draft has looked every inch of The Next Great Thing since spring training began. In his last outing he pitched five innings of no-hit baseball. He will probably be moved up to Triple-A Syracuse in the next couple of weeks and his pitch count will be carefully monitored as he is allowed to pitch more innings. He should be in Washington by June and if you put him at the top of the current starting group, the Nationals could be—dare I say it—pretty good.

Of course there’s a strong sense of foreboding based on disappointments of the past in both places. On their last homestand, the Nats played two playoff teams from last year, the Rockies and Dodgers, and struggled to draw 20,000 most nights. The Mets played in front of half-empty ballparks most of the time on the just-ended homestand. It may be that if both come back from road trips still playing well that the crowds will pick up. Baseball fans are like all other fans—they’re frontrunners. Fans of these two teams have lots of reasons to be skeptical though, regardless of their April records.

Still, it’s nice to see some hope. It’s better than being a fan of the Baltimore Orioles, who won two games in a row earlier this week to improve their record to 4-16. They’re now 4-18 and even with the Yankees in town this week, Camden Yards wasn’t close to sold out. Attendance was 26,439 on Thursday night—most of them Yankee fans. If the Orioles aren’t playing the Yankees or the Red Sox their attendance these days is brutal. Next week, they play the Minnesota Twins at home and the Twins have one of baseball’s more entertaining teams. They currently lead the American League Central. Do you think there will be a single crowd of more than 20,000 people?

Not likely. This in what is still as nice a ballpark as there is in baseball, even in its 19th year. And yet, with the Orioles clearly headed for a 12th straight losing season, they are down to die-hards only except when the Yankees and Red Sox show up and turn the ballpark into Yankee Stadium-south or Fenway Park-south. It is sad to see such a proud franchise in this state.

Team President Andy McPhail thinks the young pitchers the team has are going to get things turned around and it’s entirely possible that they will. Good pitching is like good goaltending in hockey or good putting in golf—it can hide all your other weaknesses. Right now, the Orioles pitching just isn’t good enough to hide anything. Maybe that will change.

The Mets are another story—at least at the moment. They go into Philadelphia this weekend on a roll. Most people had conceded The NL East title to the Phillies for a fourth straight year before the first pitch was thrown earlier this month. There still isn’t much reason to believe that isn’t going to be the case. That said, the team that was given the best chance to chase the Phillies was the Braves and they are off to an awful start. The Mets swept them last weekend in New York.

I can imagine what the talk shows are like in New York right now. They are probably discussing what the ticket prices will be like for a Subway Series in October in the two new ballparks.

I’m not ready to get that carried away just yet. It IS nice, whether you live in New York or Washington, to see the calendar turning from April to May and not be wondering what players your team might unload at the trading deadline. Think about this: in Baltimore, in Kansas City, in Pittsburgh, in Houston, the hopeful part of the baseball season is already over.

At least in New York and Washington right now, there’s hope. If that feeling still exists a month from now, it might be time to get serious. For now, I’m just going to sit back and enjoy.

God knows Mets fans and Nats fans are both entitled to a little bit of fun.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

New NCAA President Emmert – will it be business as usual?; Stunning fall of the Capitals

Some days it is hard to know where to begin. Yesterday, a number of people I know with ties to Seattle and the University of Washington urged me not to be my usual judgmental self (me, judgmental?) on the subject of Mark Emmert, the newly-named President of the NCAA. Emmert was the President of Washington and apparently did an excellent job of fundraising (always a college president’s primary job) and was well-liked by people out there.

That’s fine. And I will try to reserve judgment until I see what sort of action he takes on various issues going forward. I was encouraged to read this morning that he plans to contact NBA Commissioner David Stern about the one-and-done rule. Maybe he reads the blog.

Then again, maybe not.

Emmert was quoted two years ago as saying that a college football playoff was, “inevitable.” It took him about 15 minutes to start back-pedaling from that comment once he was named to succeed Myles Brand. All of a sudden he’s saying that the NCAA has no say in the BCS and that his personal views aren’t really relevant as NCAA President.

Really? They’re not? Why in the world is he about to be paid something like $1.7 million a year (Brand’s annual salary) if his views on critical issues aren’t relevant? What’s he being paid to do, look good in a suit? Excuse me for being judgmental but I am pretty sick and tired of people being paid big bucks to allegedly be leaders who claim that it isn’t their job to lead. If the President of the NCAA, who is on record as saying that a playoff is the right thing to do, won’t try to do something about it, who will?

One almost wonders if Emmert was told he wouldn’t get the job if he didn’t back off on the playoff issue because he couldn’t wait to stake out the, ‘we have no say in this,’ position.

That’s one of the great copouts in history. In fact, after the NCAA’s Final Four press conference a few weeks back when Greg Shaheen and I had our now famous (or infamous depending on your point of view I guess) exchange on the 96-team basketball tournament, I made a point to Shaheen that it was ridiculous for the NCAA to try to shove a 96-team tournament down people’s throats when it could make all the extra money it wants or needs by creating a football playoff—which would NOT cause, ‘student-athletes,’ to miss any more class time.

“But we have no authority in football,” Shaheen said.

Oh please. If the NCAA wanted control of football it could acquire it in about a 15-minute meeting with the BCS commissioners and presidents. Here’s how it would go:

NCAA: “We are starting a football tournament next season. We are going to sell the rights to corporate America and the TV networks the way we sell the rights to the basketball tournament.”

BCS goons: “We have the BCS. We won’t participate.”

NCAA: “No problem. You can turn down the invitation to the football tournament. By the way, any school that doesn’t participate in the football tournament can’t participate in or receive revenue from the basketball tournament.”

Now, the BCS will scream and yell and threaten legal action. Fine. To begin with, the NCAA already set this precedent years ago when it told basketball teams it had to play in the basketball tournament if invited. It’s known as the, ‘McGuire rule,’ because it was put in place after Al McGuire took Marquette to the NIT in 1970 because he thought his draw in the NCAA’s was unfair.

What’s more, the NCAA is a private organization. Membership is voluntary. It can make any rules it wants (and does) and any member has the right to drop out if it doesn’t like the rules. Aha, you say—the BCS schools will drop out and form their own organization. Not as easy as it sounds. For one thing, the basketball contract for the next 14 years is with the NCAA. And, even if they formed their own superpower tournament the magic of the tournament would be completely lost. Butler makes the NCAA Tournament a must-see event. So does Cornell. The superpowers are semi-pro teams with zero romance attached to them other than by their own fans. The BCS would be cutting off its nose to spite its face if it went rogue. The easiest and best way would be to go kicking and screaming into an incredibly lucrative—for all—football tournament.

Emmert seems to have no stomach for that battle. So, my friend Bill Hancock and his PR goon Ari Fleischer will continue to put out disinformation on how the bowl system would be hurt by a playoff (bologna, to use a polite word Bill might use) and how the regular season would be devalued by a playoff. (Hooey, to use another Bill word). By the way, how ironic is it that the NCAA, which uses the regular season argument as much as the BCS folks do, was thisclose to throwing the entire basketball regular season overboard?

Anyway, I’ll wait and see what Dr. Emmert does going forward before passing judgment. But my gut feeling is he’s going to spend a lot of time looking good in a suit. Business as usual in Indianapolis.


I would be remiss as someone who has lived in Washington for more than thirty years if I didn’t take a moment to bemoan the stunning defeat of The Washington Capitals Wednesday night in the opening round of The Stanley Cup playoffs.

My hockey team, as people know, is the New York Islanders but when the Islanders are a non-factor (as they have been for the past 17 years except for an occasional blip of being a tad better) I do pull for the Caps. Like everyone else in town, I like and respect owner Ted Leonsis. I also like general manager George McPhee and have enjoyed watching their climb from a non-playoff team to having the best record in the league this past season.

The Caps have a history of playoff collapses. Give them a 3-1 lead and you have them right where you want them. This one was different though and worse than anything in the past. Not only did they have a 3-1 lead but they were the top seed in the playoffs and they were playing the bottom seed. After winning two games in Montreal to get that 3-1 lead, they came home for game five and came out as if they were out for a morning skate.

The Canadiens, who haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1993, jumped to a 2-0 lead that night and basically let Jaroslav Halak do the rest. He made 131 saves on 134 shots over the next three games—meaning the Caps averaged just under 45 shots per game but only scored once in each of those games—and the Canadiens somehow won the series. In fact, the Caps never led during the last three games and Halak held the Caps scoreless on Wednesday for almost 58 minutes and kept the puck out of the net with the Caps playing six-on-four during the last 1:44.

As my mother might say ‘ov-vah.’

Washington is a town that doesn’t get to cheer a lot. The Redskins were good during Joe Gibbs Era 1—three Super Bowl wins in 10 years—but have been decidedly mediocre since Dan Snyder rode into town on his constant wave of bad feeling. The Wizards won their only NBA title in 1978 and were a national laughingstock this season when they became—literally—The Gang That Shot Empty Guns. There was a 34 year gap between baseball seasons and only now, in their sixth season, are the Nationals starting to show some potential. The Caps had the worst record in NHL history in their first season (breaking the record set by my Islanders two years earlier) and have been to one Stanley Cup Final—in 1998 when they were swept by the Red Wings. Heck, even the once powerful soccer team, D.C. United has fallen to the bottom of MLS.

This was supposed to be a spring of celebration ending in a parade. It ended in embarrassment and frustration Wednesday night. No knock on the Canadiens, who played their hearts out to beat a team that finished 33 points in front of them in the regular season, but this was inexcusable. For now, the Alexander Ovechkin-Sydney Crosby argument is off the table. Crosby has one Cup, one Olympic Gold medal—and counting as the Penguins take on the Canadiens in the conference semifinals. Ovechkin has scoring titles. Last I looked, no one engraves the name of the scoring champion on The Stanley Cup.

Updated -- This week's radio segments (The Sports Reporters, The Gas Man, Tony Kornheiser Show):

Yesterday I joined The Sports Reporters' Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin in the normal timeslot (5:25 ET on Wednesday's). Click the permalink, then the link below, to listen to the segment that previews the Capitals-Canadiens Game 7, my 'relationship' with hockey, the PGA Tour's Quail Hollow Championship and other golf odds and ends.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Sports Reporters


I also made my weekly appearance with The Gas Man on Seattle's 950 KJR on Wednesday night at 8:25 ET. This week we spend a great deal of time talking about this week's Quail Hollow Championships, the rivalry between Tiger and Phil and much more.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Gas Man


Thursday, I made my regular appearance on Tony Kornheiser's newest Tony Kornheiser Show Thursday morning at 11:05 ET.  This week, we spoke about my work with The Golf Channel, the upcoming luncheon that Tony will introduce me, and other sports topics.

Click here to listen to the segment: Tony Kornheiser Show

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Seventeen years later, Jim Valvano’s memory lives on

It was 17 years ago today that Jim Valvano died after a bout of a little less than a year with cancer. I can still remember the day vividly. I was teaching at Duke back then and I’d flown down early in the morning (in those days I still flew regularly) and I was in a rental car driving to campus when I heard the news on the radio.

It wasn’t a shock. I had last seen Jim when Duke played North Carolina in Chapel Hill in early March and you could almost feel the life seeping out of his body. By then, he had made the two speeches that came to define his last days—one at a 10-year reunion for his 1983 NCAA championship team at North Carolina State (click here: reunion speech); the other at the ESPY’s (click here: ESPY speech), the first and last moment that the ESPY’s had any value at all—and had clearly made peace with what was to come.

Jim and I had been close for a long time. I had seen him play at Rutgers (he was part of a superb backcourt along with a great shooter named Bob Lloyd) and had first gotten to know him when he coached at Iona. I had spent many late nights sitting with him after games when he was coaching at State. Like most coaches, Jim couldn’t sleep after games—he was never much of a sleeper to begin with—and he would always head up to his office after doing his postgame press conference in Reynolds Coliseum and order pizza, wine and beer. His coaches would come in and hang out and so would various friends. I always stayed until the end because I knew when the room cleared out, Jim would stop telling stories and get serious. As hysterically funny as his stories were—I still re-tell some of them when I speak—the best parts of the evening always came well after midnight.

Jim would put down his wine glass and often stretch out on the couch in his office and say things like, “I need to figure out what I want to do when I grow up.”

He was constantly restless. He had spent his life dreaming about winning a national championship and then when he won one at the age of 37, in the most dramatic fashion possible, he felt unfulfilled. You could almost hear the famous line from the old Peggy Lee song, ‘Is that all there is?” playing in his head on a constant loop.

He chased The Next Thing for a while, flying to New York on Monday mornings to appear on CBS’s ‘Early Morning,’ Show; doing color on occasional games IN season; hosting that awful sports bloopers show; doing a pilot for a variety show in Hollywood (seriously); selling memorabilia; becoming the athletic director at State. Anything to avoid being JUST a coach.

Everyone knows what happened: he stopped paying enough attention to his program and enough bad kids seeped bad kids seeped in to bring the program down. A book, written with the (paid) cooperation of a former manager, helped bring about an NCAA investigation—even though there were so many in-accuracies in it on simple things like what day of the week Thanksgiving fell on (I’m not joking) that it should not have been taken seriously. Still, the investigation led to probation and to Valvano being forced to resign after the 1990 season. Twenty years later I think it is fair to say that State still hasn’t recovered from that episode.

Valvano quickly rebuilt his life through TV, which wasn’t surprising. He was smarter and quicker and funnier than anyone who had been given a microphone in a long time. He was a more direct version of Al McGuire: very smart, very funny but you didn’t have to unravel what he was saying to see the genius in it. It was right there in front of you.

As close as we had been—I was the first writer Jim talked to about the various accusations in the book—and I think it is fair to say someone he confided in often, he wasn’t happy with what I wrote when things fell apart at N.C. State. Basically I said I was disappointed because he seemed to be taking the route most coaches took when they had let standards slip in the program: It’s not my fault. It’s the administration’s fault or my assistant’s fault or the players fault or the NCAA’s fault.

Jim certainly wasn’t alone in doing this. And I wasn’t inconsistent in writing what I wrote: If you take the credit for success, you take the blame for failure. He and I were both working a game in St. Petersburg the year after he stopped coaching (I was doing radio, he was doing TV) when we had it out in a back hallway of what is now known as Tropicana Field.

Basically he said this: How could YOU of all people do this to me. YOU are my friend. He was in a place I hate going: raising the issue of where the line is drawn between a professional relationship and friendship. Years ago I believed you should NEVER be friends with people you covered. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that’s impossible. How can you know someone for 20 or 30 years, watch their families grow up, see them go through joy and tragedy and not have feeling for them? Similarly, when they are there offering help when you have issues in your life, how can you not be grateful?

I told Jim exactly that: I considered him a friend and I did not think I had violated any trust in what I’d written. But as someone covering college basketball, how could I not write about what had happened? As someone who KNEW he’d neglected his coaching job how could I say I didn’t know it? And, if I simply covered up for him, what credibility did I have when I defended him—as I had done when the book came out because it was so clearly full of mistakes on issues big and small.

We agreed to disagree—loudly.

The next summer he was diagnosed and it was apparent quickly that what he had was terminal. We had exchanged letters that never referenced our disagreements. On the early March afternoon when Duke played at Carolina, Jim was sitting at the broadcast table with Brent Musburger, who was on headsets taping some pre-game billboards. Jim was surrounded by security because so many people wanted to stop and wish him well. As I walked by, heading for my seat, I heard Jim’s voice: “John, come sit with me for a second.”

I turned in that direction only to be shoved backward by an over-zealous security guard (they breed them, I think, in Chapel Hill). “Hey pal, let him go,” Jim said. “Let my friend go.”

I smiled when I heard the word friend. I sat down in an empty chair next to Jim, the one where the floor manager would sit in a few minutes.

Jim was direct. “I don’t know when I’ll see you again,” he said. His voice was soft, very un-Valvano-like. “I was hoping you’d be here. I owe you an apology.”

“No you don’t.”

His hand was on my arm. “YES, I do. I was mad at you because I wanted you to be my apologist and that’s never been who you are. What you did, really, was an act of friendship because you wouldn’t let me off the hook. I needed more of that back then.”

I didn’t know what to say. I was certain—certain—this was going to be the last time I talked to Jim. I wanted to go back to his office, have him lie on the couch again and explain to me why ‘Perestroika,’ was a brilliant book as he’d done one night a few years earlier. That wasn’t going to happen.

“It means a lot to me you’d say that,” I said.

“I’m glad I got the chance,” he said.

I hugged him and could feel just how much his body had shrunk. I remember shuddering. He must have sensed it.

“Pretty scary isn’t it?” he said.

“There’s about a zillion people pulling for you,” I said.

He smiled. “I know,” was all he said.

I patted him gently on the shoulder as I stood up and he put his hand on my hand for a moment. I never spoke to him again.

Seventeen years later, thanks in large part to the millions of dollars raised by ‘The V Foundation,” which Jim started in his final days, people remember Jim. I remember him too. And, especially on days like this one, I miss him a lot.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

One things is clear, one-and-done rule doesn't work -- time for players and owners to change rule

You may or may not have noticed this but the deadline for underclassmen to declare themselves eligible for the NBA draft was Sunday. The list of players who put their names into the draft was officially released yesterday.

There were 61 names.

There are two rounds in the draft. A total of 60 players will be drafted. I understand that some players will withdraw between now and May 8th when they find out they aren’t going in the first round—where the money is guaranteed—or that they may not be drafted at all. But most of the big-name players whose names are on the list will stay on the list. And quite a few players will leave their names in, not get drafted and then begin nomadic lives that may take them overseas; may take them to the NBA’s Development League and, in a few cases, will land them in the NBA.

I will grant you that this year is not a good one to use as an example because some players have been convinced by agents that they MUST get into this June’s draft because a player strike or lockout is a virtual certainty in the summer of 2011. Even so, I have reached a conclusion that isn’t based solely on the number of underclassmen who have put their names into the pool, but was crystallized when I read the list yesterday morning: The one-and-done rule doesn’t work. It has to go.

I say that not for the reason that some people do: that it makes a mockery of the term, ‘student-athlete.’ That shipped sailed so many years ago that I’m not sure Columbus had learned to sail yet. In fact, in some ways the one-and-done has cut DOWN on the hypocrisy. Now, when someone who is clearly in college only because the rules say he must be there for a year, doesn’t go to class and makes little or no attempt to even stay eligible in his second semester, there’s no faking involved.

Years ago, the work that went into keeping players eligible for three or four years often involved things like having others take tests and write papers for them; getting grades changed and sometimes sending them to bogus summer school classes so they could keep playing—among other things. With one-and-done, it’s a whole lot neater because you don’t have to keep someone afloat academically for more than a semester. Sure, there’s still cheating going on, but less of it involves the very best players.

They’re in, they’re out and then they’re replaced by the next group. John Calipari won 35 games at Kentucky this season with four freshmen whose names are in the draft pool. He’s gone out and signed a brand new crop, most of whom will probably be in next year’s draft pool after Kentucky wins another 30+ games next season. If you don’t like it, don’t blame Calipari. He didn’t make the rules, he just taking full advantage of them. He’s well worth the $4 million a year Kentucky is paying him. My only request is that he not use the term, ‘student-athlete,’ when talking about his players.

Here’s why I initially thought one-and-done was a good idea: In my own naïve way, I believed it was better for kids to be exposed to college for a year, regardless of how many classes they actually took part in. I thought it was better for them to spend a year on a campus as opposed to a year on charter airplanes. I thought exposing them to other teen-age kids was better than exposing them to 30-year-olds who had been bouncing around basketball for 10 years or more.

I still think that’s all true. But I don’t think this is the way to do it. The NBA and the players’ union—remember these are NBA rules, not NCAA rules—need to fish or cut bait in the next collective bargaining agreement. The old CBA has one year left. Sadly, getting this done appears not to be a priority. NBA commissioner David Stern has been pleading owner poverty since the All-Star Break and, naturally, the players don’t want to hear it. So, a money war—which may or may not lead to a work stoppage; my bet is it won’t—is going to break out. The issue of when a player may try to enter the NBA is likely to be an afterthought.

It shouldn’t be, especially for the union, which is supposed to protect basketball players--past, present and future. Basketball needs to put in the same rule that currently exist in baseball: When a player graduates from high school he can put his name into the draft. If he is drafted he can sign with the team that drafts him or he can go to college. If he DOES go to college though, he can’t go back into the draft for three years.

What that does—especially in a two-round draft—is ensure that an NBA team must REALLY want a player to draft him. It should be the player’s option to choose between the NBA and college rather than forcing players to commit to the draft without knowing whether they will be drafted or not. If, however, he makes the decision to go to college, he can’t jump back in the pool again after one year. He has to stay in college and has to pass enough courses to stay eligible through his junior year.

Will there be some fraud involved in keeping some players eligible? Sure. No system is ever going to be perfect. In many cases though, players will at least be somewhere close to a degree if they leave after three years or if they stay for four. What’s more, they will have a much better idea of their real NBA potential after three years in college. Some will find out they weren’t quite as good as they thought they were in college and might even understand that they NEED a degree.

What’s more, it will put a stop to colleges being revolving doors, one-year way stations en route to the NBA. If a player is good enough to be drafted coming out of high school and that’s his dream, why delay it for one year of college he will see only as a burden? In the case of the occasional kid who really wants to continue his education after turning pro, no one will stop him from enrolling in summer school classes and he’ll certainly be able to afford to pay his own way. In most cases, the kids will end up in college and, like their brethren in football and baseball, will stay at least three years. In 95 percent of cases, that will be a good thing. And, if the players and owners sign off on that sort of rule, it will almost certainly stand up to any court challenge.

I thought one-and-done was a step forward when the rule was passed. It was, in fact, a step sideways. It is time for the players and owners to put an end to the current charade and at least attempt to take a step forward.


A couple of notes based on posts and e-mails from yesterday: A few people asked if The Big Ten’s money per school would go down if it went from 11 to 16 teams. Probably not because the revenues would go up so much: More schools will mean more people paying for The Big Ten Network; more ad revenues; more cable systems taking on The Big Ten Network; a more lucrative national TV contract. It will mean The Big Ten can hold a championship game if it so desires. All that will probably double the gross revenues, which will almost certainly mean more than $22 million net per school each year.

As for Notre Dame, it makes far more than that on football each year between NBC, the BCS—remember it doesn’t have to split any BCS or bowl revenue it makes with other conference members--and neutral site games. Plus, it can control its schedule so that if Brian Kelly is even a decent coach it is almost impossible not to win at least nine games a year.

And finally on the Anna Kournikova-Natalie Gulbis comparison: If anything I was being hard on Kournikova, kind to Gulbis. Yes, Gulbis has won an LPGA event, but Kournikova was a Wimbledon semifinalist who was ranked in the top ten on a number of occasions. If Gulbis goes on and wins a major, I’ll change my assessment. As of now, I think the comparison is more than fair.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Lorena Ochoa's retirement; Conference expansion – he who has the checkbook has the power

Here’s the first question of the day: Is the NFL draft over yet? The answer, if you include the endless analysis that goes on in every city, is no. Here in Washington you would think the Redskins decision to (finally) draft an offensive tackle was roughly as brilliant as the founders decision to ask Thomas Jefferson to write The Declaration of Independence.

Let’s face it: in April everyone has had a good draft—even the Raiders. Check back in October and things will look a bit less rosy in a few places. Of course by then ESPN’s draft experts will be telling us who is going to go in the first round of NEXT year’s draft. Talk about the circle of life.

Moving on to far more interesting topics. The biggest news of the past few days actually involved golf—but not Tiger Woods or even Phil Mickelson. It involved Lorena Ochoa, who has decided to retire from golf—apparently to start a family—at the age of 28. This is NOT good news for the LPGA; to put it mildly.

The last few years have not gone very well for women’s golf. Some of the issues have been completely out of control of the people in the game: Annika Sorenstam retired, the economy tanked and Michelle Wie, even though she made great strides last year, still has not become the breakthrough star people thought she was going to be when she showed up as a prodigy at the age of 13.

Unfortunately those events happened, for the most part, while Carolyn Bivens was the LPGA’s commissioner. Bivens was to being a commissioner what Dan Snyder has been to owning a football team: she did everything wrong and then tried to blame everyone else. She had lousy relationships with her players, her sponsors and with the media. She tried to make English the official language of the LPGA Tour—speak it or be gone. Other than that, she did fine. She was finally fired by the players last summer but the damage had been done. Tournaments were going under left and right and, even though Ochoa had emerged as a superstar and a number of young players had flashed potential, interest in the LPGA was tanking.

The tour has since hired Michael Whan, who is young and eager and seems to want to rebuild some of the bridges blown up by Bivens. But the key for any commissioner is having a product the public cares about and the best way for any sport to do that is through great rivalries. Maybe Wie or Morgan Pressel or Paula Creamer or Brittany Lincicome (sadly, Natalie Gulbis does not appear to have the game to be much more than golf’s version of Anna Kournikova—a reasonably good player who is a star because of her looks) might have emerged as Ochoa’s great rival.

Now, that’s not going to happen. Does it help, by the way, for at least one of the world’s best players to be an American—yes. That’s not me being Bivens and demanding that everyone on earth learn to speak English, that’s a fact of life in sports. When there was a lull in great American male tennis players between John McEnroe/Jimmy Connors and the emergence of Pete Sampras/Andre Agassi/Jim Courier, Ivan Lendl, among others said bluntly: “We need an American star. We need American television ratings and corporations and American stars drive those things.”

The same is true in golf—men or women. When Tom Watson began to fade as a star and neither Phil Mickelson nor Tiger Woods had arrived yet, golf ratings went down. Greg Norman helped because he was ‘Americanized,’ if not American but Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros as the world’s best players didn’t drive ratings.

Neither Sorenstam nor Ochoa is American, but Sorenstam had lived here for a long time and Ochoa is from close to here and has a unique sort of charm that bridges borders. Still, a rivalry between her and one of the Americans would have been terrific for the sport. Now, unless she has a baby, gets bored and makes a comeback at 30 or 31 (certainly possible) it won’t happen.

What’s sad is we may never see the best of Ochoa. Sorenstam didn’t become dominant until she was 30. She had won two majors—the same number as Ochoa—prior to turning 30 and 23 tournaments. After 30 she won eight more majors and 49 (!!!) more tournaments. She became a star who transcended her sport, which was—needless to say—good for the women’s game. There was never more focus on women’s golf than in 2003 when she played against the men at Colonial. The only bad thing about that week was it put the idea that you could make more money by playing against the men into the heads of Wie and her handlers and led to her multiple ill-fated attempts to play against the men BEFORE she had even won a tournament playing against women.

The other story of last week was the growing drumbeat on the issue of conference expansion in the NCAA. There have been almost as many meaningless words spoken and written on this subject as on the NFL draft. Here’s the deal: The Big Ten—unfortunately—holds all the cards here because of the success of The Big Ten TV network.

That means Jim Delany, the Big Ten commissioner, is wielding most of the power and influence right now. I can tell you two things about Delany: he’s smart and he’s ruthless. He could care less about anything other than what’s best for him—and, thus, his conference—which makes him a very good commissioner if not someone you would want to trust to tell you where the sun will rise tomorrow.

A lot of people sneered when he started The Big Ten network but it has, for all intents and purposes, made him the unofficial commissioner of college athletics. Why? Because the success of the network means that every Big Ten team takes home a check for $22 million at the end of every football season. No one else is making half of that, except for the SEC—which is the one conference Delany hasn’t talked (privately, he never says anything that has any meaning in public) about raiding.

Now, if the college presidents cared anything about doing the right thing, conference expansion wouldn’t even be an issue right now. There are already too many conferences that are too big because of the constant money grab going on. Sixteen Big East basketball teams? Twelve ACC football teams? That’s good for competition, for rivalries, for fans? There are Big East teams that don’t visit another Big East home court for two or three years at a time. Round-robin play, the fairest way to decide a championship in basketball? Gone from all the major conferences except the Pac-10. Every team playing every league team in football? Gone—except in The Big East, which is fighting for survival.

Now, Delany may want to make The Big Ten into The Big Sixteen. He may try to entice schools like Syracuse, Rutgers, Pittsburgh, West Virginia (all Big East) and Missouri into his league. He’d love to add Notre Dame—which will NEVER give up its exclusive TV money from NBC—or Texas. If Delany goes on a raiding mission, the leagues raided have to try to raid themselves in order to survive. Why would someone like Syracuse leave The Big East? Again, do the math: $22 million vs. $7 million. Those numbers will trump tradition is any college president’s office any day. The same is true of the other candidates for expansion.

All of this, frankly, sucks. It is also bound to happen. Because he who has the checkbook has the power. And right now, unfortunately for college athletics, no one has a bigger checkbook than Jim Delany.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Thursday’s NCAA decision – why it happened, and what it means; NFL draft

Something important happened on Thursday—and it wasn’t the NFL draft. I’m always amused when I flip to the draft, especially on ESPN, how no matter what happens, the experts claim they knew this was coming and this is a great pick for whatever team is involved. Every once in a while Mel Kiper will question a pick—usually whomever the Oakland Raiders draft because that’s a pretty safe bet—but for the most part every franchise is doing a great job and every player drafted is a wonderful person.

If I had a dollar for every time someone said, “quality kid,” on Thursday night I’d be making almost as much money as the NCAA is going to make on its new basketball TV contract.

Which brings me to the important news of Thursday: The NCAA basketball committee actually did something right. Instead of going forward with plans to expand to a ridiculous 96 team tournament, the committee reigned itself—and the ever-greedy presidents, commissioners and athletic directors—in at least for a while, recommending expansion for next season to 68 teams.

Let’s not pretend for even a second that this was done for any of the right reasons: preserving the integrity of the regular season and the conference tournaments; allowing a tournament bid to continue to have meaning; continuing an event that may have been as good as it has ever been in 2010. This happened for a couple of reasons: there were logistical issues in terms of changing existing rental agreements to add another round of games (two more days in the building) as early as next spring. Plus, the NCAA took a pounding in recent months when the plan to go to 96 teams leaked out and looked especially bad at The Final Four when NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen literally refused to answer a simple question about missed class time that would have been caused by the extra game.

I was the one who asked that question (repeatedly) and the exchange received a lot of attention because Shaheen simply wouldn’t admit in that public forum that OF COURSE there would be more missed class time. A number of people have pointed out—correctly—since then that the issue is a minor one since the players already miss lots of class time and a lot of them have no intention of returning to class once the tournament is over.

I knew that when I brought the issue up. The only reason I did it was to point out the hypocrisy and basic dishonestly of the NCAA dishing out all the ‘student-athlete,’ garbage it dishes out. In fact I got a bit nauseous when I read the canned quote yesterday from acting NCAA President Jim Isch saying, ‘this is a great day for the 400,000 NCAA student athletes.” Memo to Isch: Shut up and cash the checks.

I’ve had a few people say that my exchange with Shaheen in Indy somehow played a role in this. My ego’s big, but not that big. I DO think the drumbeat across the country from people saying that 96 teams was bad for basketball and a CLEAR money-grab did have an affect because the NCAA is, if nothing else, ultra-image conscious. What’s more, even though the new TV agreement with CBS and Turner is for 14 years, I don’t expect the number of teams to stay at 68 for the life of the agreement. I think it will go up either in one fell swoop in a few years or gradually, the way it went from 25 teams in 1974 to 64 in 1985 with stops along the way at 32, 40, 48 and 53.

The addition of three teams probably means four play-in games in Dayton instead of one. Undoubtedly the committee will ship the eight lowest-seeded one-bid league teams there instead of doing the right thing and sending the last eight at-large teams to play. (You seed the four winners as No. 12 seeds). Sending the at-larges means better TV—more name teams—and it is fairer since the tournament is probably the zenith for most of the one-bid league players while the players from the name schools are mostly looking forward to pro careers or being back in the tournament again before their college careers are over. Don’t think for a second the committee does the right thing on this one. Additionally, the adding of the three teams means the one-bid teams get their seedings pushed down a little more: the added three teams will all be seeded ahead of most of the one-bid schools. Consider this: Cornell was NOT seeded ahead of a single at-large team this season. Nice job by the committee there.

The real winner in all this is Turner. CBS could not have outbid ESPN for the rights without a cable partner. What’s more, ESPN was pitching the NCAA on the fact that it had the outlets to televise all games rather than regionalizing the first three rounds as CBS has been doing. Turner’s presence with three networks of its own---TBS, TNT and truTV—will allow the new partnership to do what ESPN was proposing to do.

Clearly, Turner is putting up a lot of the $10.8 billion the contract is worth because beginning in 2016 it will alternate televising the Final Four with CBS. No way CBS gives up any part of that event without a lot of money being involved. Regardless, we should all be happy on two levels: The tournament bubble will not be expanded—at least for now—to include the 12th place teams in The Big East and the ACC—and the ESPN takeover of all sports is slowed at least for a little while. Consider this: if ESPN had gotten the deal your main studio host for the entire NCAA Tournament would have been Chris Berman—guaranteed. He might have brought Mel Kiper and John Gruden with him too.

Speaking of which I did watch some of the draft last night—switching frequently over to watch Johan Santana pitch and the New Jersey Devils flounder. First of all, what’s with the players hugging Roger Goodell? I mean, enough with that. Second, I know it is a live event but is it just me or was ESPN completely out of synch most of the night? There were all sorts of awkward silences on the main set and the kicker came when Goodell introduced all the military folks—which to me, as much as I respect all those people, is nothing but pandering by the NFL—and no one on the set other than Tom Jackson seemed to know what was going on. Steve Young kept rambling, then they showed Goodell briefly and then Young, Kiper and Gruden kept talking to one another as if they were off mike. It was highlighted by Berman—on camera—trying to give them all the ‘cut,’ sign to let them know they were on camera and on mike.

When Berman tried to recover by saying, “this is always the highlight of the first round…” it was pretty much falldown funny. Even so, the worst TV of the night was on the NFL Network. I love Deion Sanders, really enjoyed getting to know him when I did my book on the Ravens a few years ago. But his interviews with the players just drafted were brutal: “Dreams come true, they can expect hard work from me in (fill in the city). Greatest thrill of my life.”

Back to you in the booth. Time for another shot of a player and his posse talking on a cell phone while Goodell waits for him to hug 43 people, put on a cap and come on stage. I think tonight I’ll stick to the Mets.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled Golf

I’ve been getting a lot of questions recently about my new book, which is coming out in three weeks. It is called, “Moment of Glory—The Year Underdogs Ruled Golf.” It is about the 2003 majors when almost everyone who seriously contended was either little-known or completely unknown (Ben Curtis, Shaun Micheel for example). Tiger Woods had fired Butch Harmon—that split is described in the book—and was struggling to remake his swing.

What inspired me to do the book was Mike Donald, who people may remember came within one roll of the golf ball of winning the U.S. Open in 1990. I worked with Donald in 1993 and 1994 while researching, ‘A Good Walk Spoiled,’ and couldn’t get out of my mind how completely different his life would have been had he won the Open. When Mike Weir and Len Mattiace played off at the 2003 Masters, I was struck walking down the 10th hole how different life was going to be for the winner as opposed to the loser. That was really the genesis of the idea.

Fortunately, the guys I worked with were terrific and did have fascinating stories to tell about what happened to their lives after their win or their near-win. Some of the near-winners—specifically Mattiace and Thomas Bjorn who probably should have won The British Open that year—are still haunted by what happened and have trouble talking about it. Overall, it was as much fun as I’ve had doing a golf book perhaps since ‘A Good Walk Spoiled.’ I see it as sort of ‘A Good Walk Spoiled,’ meets, ‘Tales From Q-School.’ Two of the characters have been BACK to Q-School since their ‘Moment,’ in 2003.

I think you can find it on Amazon for pre-order now. Obviously I’ll be talking and writing about it more as we get closer to the publication date, which is May 13th.

Note: Please check with your favorite retailer for details, or click here to pre-order from Amazon: Moment of Glory: The Year Underdogs Ruled Golf

Updated -- This week's radio segments (The Sports Reporters, Tony Kornheiser Show)

Yesterday I joined The Sports Reporters' Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin in the normal timeslot (5:25 ET on Wednesday's). Click the permalink, then the link below, to listen to the segment that takes a look at the Ben Roethlisberger suspension along with college basketball topics including Kyle Singler returning to Duke and the potential CBS/Turner bid for the NCAA tournament.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Sports Reporters


And once again on Thursday, I joined Tony Kornheiser's newest The Tony Kornheiser Show in my normal slot at 11:05 am ET Thursday morning.  This week the topics included Bob Woodward, the World Cup, Tiger Woods and college basketball.

Click here to listen to the segment (starts within the 1st minute): Tony Kornheiser Show

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Media access in the NFL and other sports continues to shrink

This past Monday I was making my weekly appearance on Washington Post Live, which airs here in town on Comcast Cable. Because of some kind of sponsorship deal the show has a segment EVERY day on the Redskins (and then later airs a show called, ‘Redskins Nation,’ which is so god-awful you would fall down laughing while watching it if its presence on the air—ANY air—wasn’t so downright sad).

Anyway, with the draft coming up and the Redskins having just completed their first mini-camp under new Coach Mike Shanahan, we actually did two Redskin segments. One of the other guests was Jason Reid, who does an excellent job covering the team for The Washington Post. Covering the Redskins for The Post is such an awful job I once left sports for two years rather than accept the assignment. (More on that in a moment).

During the mini-camp ‘discussion,’ (what the hell is there to discuss about mini-camp?) Jason casually mentioned that the media was not ALLOWED to be at the Redskins facility on Friday and Saturday. Only on Sunday did Shanahan grant them a few moments with the God-like figures who inhabit Redskins Park.

At first, I was literally stunned. No media at a mini-camp? What are they doing, plotting an invasion into Afghanistan? It then occurred to me that this lack of access, although it varies from team-to-team, is the way the NFL does business. Why does it do business this way? Because it CAN.

Even with a potential strike or lockout looming in 2011, there is nothing bigger in American sports (I throw in American only because of the soccer World Cup which occurs every four years and just about brings the rest of the world to a complete halt) than the NFL. I mean look at all the hype going into the draft, which is now a ‘prime-time,’ event. I mean, has there been enough speculation yet? What amuses me most is that with all the speculation—much of it usually flat out wrong—even after the draft takes place no one really knows what they have, who will be a true impact player and who won’t.

A draft usually becomes a good draft in the third round and beyond. If you blow your first pick—see the Oakland Raiders—then you’re going to be awful because even those guys who never stop talking on ESPN aren’t likely to screw up the first round. Heck, even the Redskins picked a good player in the first round last year. The best teams and general managers do their most important work in the late rounds and in signing college free agents. The teams with the most depth win in the NFL and depth is built in the late rounds of the draft and through free agent signings that usually rate one paragraph. You don’t get good by signing Albert Haynesworth—or for that matter Terrell Owens—you get good by signing Torry Holt and having him catch 70 balls for you on a one-year contract. Things like that.

Okay, back to the NFL and the lack of access the media has. I know most people reading this will say, ‘who cares about your access.’ Well, if you are a football fan YOU should. Look, watching practice or mini-camp doesn’t really matter a lick. I watched most Ravens practices (and mini-camps, which WERE open to everyone in the media) during 2004 and was mostly bored doing so.

Years ago, shortly after I had stopped working at The Post fulltime, I was doing some work for The New York Times. I had a contract with Sports Illustrated but liked keeping my hand in at daily journalism and Neil Amdur, then the Times sports editor, allowed me to do it.

The Redskins were playing the Giants and Neil asked me to go out to Redskins Park to write a couple of features during the week. I was standing on the practice field while the Redskins warmed up talking to Richard Justice, who was then The Post’s Redskins beat writer. Joe Gibbs walked over.

“John, I’m really sorry but we only let our local writers watch practice,” he said. “You’re going to have to leave.”

“Gee Joe, thanks,” I said.


“Yeah, thanks. Thanks for thinking for one second that, even if I cared, I’d have any clue what you guys were doing. And thanks for giving me an excuse to go write while you’re practicing.”

Gibbs actually laughed. I happily went off to write.

Nowadays, most NFL practices are shut tight—mini-camps apparently included. When Brian Billick coached the Ravens, he was about as open with the media as any coach that ever lived. All his pre-season practices were open. Once the season started he’d let people watch the beginning but once the team actually started scrimmaging or putting in a game-plan, everyone was shooed inside. Nowadays, ANY access to players on or off the field is extremely limited.

Access in almost all sports—golf is the notable exception—has been cut back greatly in recent years. Hockey locker rooms used to be open pre-game. No more. Baseball clubhouses are still open but for less time and players spend far more time in the off-limits areas, which have been greatly expanded in new ballparks. College basketball is the worst offender: Once, almost every college hoops locker room—even Georgetown under John Thompson the elder—was open postgame. Now, except during the NCAA Tournament (all credit to the NCAA on that one) most are closed and a few ‘selected,’ players come to an interview area. One notable exception? Duke. Maybe some of the coaches who complain so bitterly about Duke getting good publicity all the time should think about that for a moment.

The shame of it from the public’s point of view is that it is so much harder to get to know players when you have almost no access to them. I’ve always found that the best stories usually occur when you’re standing around casually talking to someone. It certainly benefits me in golf where I spend a lot of time hanging out on the range and the putting green just talking to players.

There is no casual time with NFL players for most guys in the media. I had the chance to spend casual time with the Ravens in ’04 and the best stories I found were about guys most people in the public never hear much about: the long-snapper; the punter brought in for a couple of weeks because of an injury; a backup offensive lineman who had played his college football at Williams.

But NFL coaches don’t care if the public hears those stories. They care about controlling everything in their little world on a day-to-day basis and they are allowed to do so by the league, by the media (which has little wherewithal to change anything) and by the public whose only real concern isn’t a good story about a backup lineman but whether last year’s 4-12 team can make itself over into a playoff team.

I get all that. Which is why, back in 1982 when George Solomon, then The Post’s sports editor called me into his office and announced, “congratulations, I’m making you The Redskins beat writer,” I said no. I was very much enjoying myself covering national college football and basketball and I knew that, even then, covering the Redskins beat was basically being a hard-working stenographer: who was injured, who didn’t practice, what did Coach Gibbs think of next week’s opponent? (Greatest team in history every single week).

That’s not to say I wasn’t flattered being offered the most read beat in the newspaper. I just thought life was too short to waste even one season doing that. I told George, with all due respect, I didn’t want the beat. He told me he was the boss—he was right—and I’d do what he said. I walked straight to David Maraniss’s office. He had just been promoted to Metro editor, replacing Bob Woodward. Both had told me I had a standing offer to come back and cover Maryland politics for them anytime I wanted.

“Does the offer still stand?” I asked.


A week later I was in Annapolis. I never covered the Redskins. When I went back to sports two years later it was to cover national college basketball and tennis. I was reminded again on Monday just how lucky I was to never spend one day as an NFL beat writer. Back then, it was lousy. Now, it’s a lot worse.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Stories of growing up a fanatic Knicks fan; These days the NBA playoffs aren't for me

I wish I could make myself care more about the NBA playoffs. I just can’t do it. They go on much too long—especially the first round which goes on for about a month—and they’re entirely too predictable. Oh sure, upsets happen every once in a while, but not nearly as often as in hockey and when they do—like Orlando over Cleveland last year—you don’t get a handshake line, you get LeBron James stomping off and then insisting he was RIGHT not to shake hands.

It’s more than that though and, to be fair, a lot of it is just personal bias.

I grew up a Knicks fan, a fanatic Knicks fan at that. I was fortunate to come to basketball just when the Willis Reed-Walt Frazier-Dave Debusschere-Bill Bradley-Dick Barnett-Cazzie Russell Knicks were about to take off. (I could name the rest of the 1970 championship roster: Dave Stallworth, Phil Jackson, Mike Riordan, Nate (the Snake) Bowman, Bill Hosket, Don May and John Warren but that would be showing off).

When I was REALLY young, the Knicks often played Tuesday night doubleheaders—seriously—with two teams playing at 6:30 and the Knicks playing at 8:30. Since it was a school night I often went to the 6:30 game and then had to go home and listen to the Knicks (Marv Albert at the mike) on radio before going to bed. In those days, game actually took under two hours. The first time I ever saw the Celtics was in the first game of a Garden doubleheader.

When the Knicks got really good in 1969, I became a blue seats denizen, sitting as often as possible in section 406, which was right at center court and, just as important, right behind what was then Marv’s broadcast position. (He was moved downstairs not long after that). That meant my buddies and I could position ourselves to actually speak to the great man when he made his way to his location. He was never anything less than friendly, often asking us what WE thought about that night’s game. We always thought the Knicks were going to win.

After games, we would wait outside the player entrance to get autographs. Needless to say I had ALL the Knicks (DeBusschere was the toughest because he would go straight into the bar next door for a couple of beers and then would sign afterwards for those who waited him out) including the trainer, the immortal Danny Whelan.

The damn Celtics beat the Knicks in the ’69 playoffs and went on to win their 11th title in 13 seasons. Bill Russell retired (Thank God) that summer and the Knicks won 60 games the next season, including an 18-game win streak that broke the Celtics all-time record of 17. They were the No. 1 seed in the playoffs but it was never easy. They needed seven games to beat The Baltimore Bullets, who had some pretty good players themselves in Wes Unseld, Earl Monroe, Gus Johnson, Jack Marin and Kevin Loughery. The Milwaukee Bucks were scary because, even as a rookie, the player then known as Lew Alcindor was almost impossible to stop, but the Knicks won that series in five.

Then came the epic final with the Lakers that included Jerry West’s halfcourt shot at the buzzer to tie game three (the Knicks won in overtime even though DeBusschere fainted when the shot went in); Reed getting hurt in game five and the Knicks somehow winning with Bowman, DeBusschere and Stallworth surrounding Wilt Chamberlain as best they could; Chamberlain going off for 45 in game six and, finally, the Willis Reed game on May 8th, 1970 when Reed hobbled onto the court long enough to hit two jump shots to start the game and never scored again.

It didn’t matter. Frazier scored 36 (and also had, I think something like 19 rebounds and 13 assists) and the Knicks won 113-99. I can still see DeBusschere holding the ball over his head as the clock went to zero and I can still hear Marv’s call (I brought my radio with me): “It is PANDEMONIUM in the Garden!”

The Knicks lost the finals in 1972 to the Lakers team that won 68 games and completely destroyed the Knicks record winning streak by winning 33 (!!!!) games in a row. But they came back a year later and beat the Lakers again, Monroe taking Barnett’s place in the backcourt and Jerry Lucas filling in admirably for Reed who was never quite 100 percent again after his MVP year in 1970.

It was 21 years before the Knicks made it back to what were known by then as The Finals. Bird and Magic and Jordan had taken the league to new heights of popularity by then but I never really jumped on their bandwagon. It wasn’t that they weren’t brilliant, I just never warmed up to Phil Jackson—yes, an ex-Knick but all the Zen-stuff never took for me—or to Pat Riley. In fact, it was Riley’s presence as coach of the Knicks in ’94 that made it impossible for me to get excited about their finally getting back to The Finals.

I’ve often told the Michael Jordan/Riley, “you media guys just don’t understand basketball,” story (Note: click here to read the story from a previous post) but it went beyond that. Riley really DID think he had invented the game and I couldn’t stand his style of play as the coach in New York and then later, after he quit the Knicks by sending a FAX (!!) announcing he was leaving, when he coached in Miami. I’m sure Stan Van Gundy loved the way he shoved him aside a few years back when he saw a chance to win another title as coach.

I was actually glad the Knicks lost game seven to the Rockets in ’94 if only because I didn’t want Riley in the same sentence with the great Red Holzman. I had no such problems with Jeff Van Gundy or the ’99 group that made The Finals but that almost didn’t count because it came in a lockout-shortened season.

Nowadays, I just can’t get into the impossibly long playoff season (yes, the NHL is almost as long but there’s more suspense in the early rounds and you aren’t constantly pounded by ESPN with one promo after another and the networks see-no-evil coverage of all things NBA. Not that this is unique to the NBA on the four letter network, it just feels smarmier on the NBA because it is so non-stop.)

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the artistry of the league’s best players. James is amazing to watch, but I still can’t get past his behavior after the loss to Orlando last year. For the record, winning this year won’t change what he did last year. Only a genuine apology might do that. Kobe Bryant is fabulous but hard to love given his past—no, he wasn’t convicted of rape but HIS version of what happened that night in Colorado is none too flattering. Steve Nash is an absolutely freakish shooter but still hasn’t been to The Finals once. I love the potential of Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, who are mega-talented and appear to be really good guys too.

So, I’ll keep an eye on the playoffs and hope for an upset or two—although the first weekend hasn’t been too encouraging has it? Part of me would like to see the long-suffering fans of Cleveland (in all sports) get a title, part of me would like to see if LeBron is callous enough to leave after not delivering a championship.

And the Knicks? I like Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni. They have lots and lots of cap room this summer. If they use it to sign Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, I might get interested again. If it’s LeBron, well, call me when he apologizes.

Friday, April 16, 2010

NHL playoffs begin – most dramatic in professional sports; One note on baseball broadcasters

It didn’t take long for hockey to remind us why its postseason is better and more dramatic than any other in professional sports. Two nights in, both No. 1 seeds have already dropped a home game—one of them in overtime. The No. 2 seed in the east is also down 1-0 to a team that needed a shootout in the last game of the regular season just to get into the playoffs. And the defending Stanley Cup champions are also down 1-0, having lost their opener at home. Even when the favorites did win an opener—Buffalo over Boston and Vancouver over Los Angeles—the games were one goal, down-to-the-wire finishes.

Danny Gare, the ex-Sabre who now does TV in Buffalo was so excited after Ryan Miller had (again) rescued his team that his opening comment on the postgame show was: “It’s always important to get two points on a night like this.”

I get what he’s saying, but we aren’t counting points anymore—just wins.

The fact that the Colorado Avalanche and Montreal Canadiens opened the playoffs with wins is certainly something for people to take note of even at this very early stage of the two-month grind that’s ahead. I think that’s especially true in the case of the Avalanche and the San Jose Sharks. A year ago the Sharks were the best team in the league in the regular season, then lost in the first round to the Anaheim (Mighty) Ducks. They have a history of playoff failures after sterling regular seasons. So I have no doubt that semi-panic is already setting in out there and, regardless of what the players say about this being a different year and all the clichés athletes spit out, they have to be doubting themselves just a little bit.

Of course in Washington there’s already mass semi-panic. One local radio host wondered this morning if the Capitals would be ‘blown up,’ if they lost this series to the Canadiens. This about a team that easily won The Presidents Cup this season (best regular season record) and is still one of the youngest teams in hockey. Plus, even though losing the opening game isn’t encouraging, there really isn’t any reason for the Caps—unlike the Sharks—to be all that nervous yet.

A year ago, the Caps dropped the first two games at home in the first round to the New York Rangers and trailed the series 3-1, largely because Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundquist was off-the-charts for four games. But Lundquist finally wore down under the barrage of Washington shots and the Capitals won the series in seven. They then lost in seven to the Penguins, who went on to win The Stanley Cup.

This is a better Washington team than a year ago. Jose Theodore had a much better year in goal and isn’t likely to be yanked again (as he was after one game last year) in favor of a 21-year-old kid with no playoff experience. They have more experience because of a couple of trades made by general manager George McPhee and their stars are a year more experienced.

All of that isn’t going to keep DC fans from getting into a state every time the Caps lose a postseason game. This is a town that has endured the worst owner in sports for 11 years in football; a star player who knocked himself out for a season because he thought guns were toys in basketball; and a baseball team that has gone through back-to-back 100-loss seasons. The hockey team is the town jewel right now and the thought of not making it AT LEAST to the Cup finals makes people around here a little bit ill.

Of course upsets happen in the hockey playoffs all the time. In fact, a No. 1 seed has lost to a No. 8 seed three times in the last 10 years. A seven seed beating a two seed isn’t uncommon either. Upsets like that almost never happen in the NBA. The reason is goaltending. A great goalie can make an inferior team competitive and an average goalie can make a superior team vulnerable. That’s why home ice seems to mean so little in hockey. I sometimes wonder if a road team wouldn’t struggle more if the fans simply sat silently throughout the game. Athletes get used to noise, in fact, even when it’s hostile, they enjoy it. Most will tell you that the hardest thing to do—home or road—is play in front of empty seats or a dead crowd.

One reason I believe The Philadelphia Flyers (the No. 7 seed that needed the shootout just to make postseason this past Sunday) can beat The New Jersey Devils is goaltending. Now THAT really sounds stupid doesn’t it? No one has been better in goal in the NHL the last 15 years than Martin Brodeur and he had another brilliant season at the age of 37 this year.

But I think he’s been overplayed—77 games. And I think the Devils are TOO dependent on him. He has to save 37 of 38 shots (or 38 of 38) just about every night for them to win. He’s certainly done it in the past but the Devils haven’t been a good playoff team for a while now (last Cup in 2003) and I think that has a lot to do with it. If they DO survive the Flyers I just don’t see how they can go deep unless Brodeur is even more superhuman than he’s been in the past.

Regardless of who advances—I still think the Caps beat Montreal in five or six in case anyone cares—the next two months are going to be fun. One thing I love about this time of year is finally being off the road for a while and getting to switch back-and-forth at night between the hockey playoffs and baseball—although I have to admit, as much as I love baseball it is tough to take your eyes off a hockey game that is either tied or a one goal game. On the rare occasion of a blowout, then you move over to the baseball. The last two nights I haven’t seen a lot of baseball—although I did get to see some of the Mets win over the Rockies yesterday afternoon. My guess is they will never lose another game. Omar has a plan.

That’s an issue for later. For now, I’ll look forward to seeing if the favorites can bounce back in their game twos (they usually do but not always) and I can’t wait until—almost inevitably—there are game sevens. There’s nothing quite like a game seven in a hockey playoff in sports EXCEPT a game seven that goes into overtime.


One note on my Vin Scully/baseball broadcasters column on Wednesday: I would NEVER slight Ernie Harwell, who was wonderful to listen to (I used to be able to pick him up on WJR 760 at night when I was younger) and an absolute mensch—as my mother would say—as a human being. I was focusing on guys who are still working on Wednesday but completely agree with all the comments on Ernie. And for the guy who confused SKIP Caray with CHIP Caray, SKIP was one of the great characters both behind a microphone and in person. I once asked him how old his dad (Harry) was and he said, “Well, ten years ago dad was 74. Now I think he’s 72. I figure I’ll go past him in another dozen years or so."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Updated - This week's radio segments (The Sports Reporters, Tony Kornheiser Show)

Yesterday I joined The Sports Reporters' Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin in the normal timeslot (5:25 ET on Wednesday's). Click the permalink, then the link below, to listen to the segment that takes a look back at The Masters as well as other tidbits in the sports world.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Sports Reporters


And once again on Thursday, I joined Tony Kornheiser's newest The Tony Kornheiser Show in my normal slot at 11:05 am ET.  We spent a great deal of the time this week discussing the request for Tony to introduce me at a luncheon, and the 'issues' surrounding it, before moving on to discussing The Masters and upcoming golf.

Click here to listen to the segment (starts within the 1st minute): Tony Kornheiser Show

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Great baseball broadcasters, led by Vin Scully; Addressing comments

A few weeks ago, when Vin Scully took a fall getting out of bed and was hospitalized briefly, a friend of mine who is a big baseball fan shook his head and said, “You get to a certain age, you should just hang it up and go home.”

In a lot of cases, that’s true. It isn’t true of Scully. I was reminded of this yesterday afternoon when—thanks to the baseball package, one of the great inventions of this century—I was able to sit and watch Scully work his magic during the Dodgers-Diamondbacks game. For a baseball fan, listening to Scully broadcast a baseball game is like someone who loves classical music listening to Mozart or Beethoven.

Some of it no doubt is familiarity. Although I never got to hear Scully work Dodger games as a kid, he was there every Saturday for many years doing the NBC Game of the Week and he was also around a lot doing the NFL and golf on CBS. Part of it also is that unique cadence of his: the way he draws out ‘one and one,’ can be imitated but it is unique to him. It also seems as if every Dodger broadcaster who has followed him—I’m thinking mostly of Ross Porter and Rick Monday—has ended up picking up on Scullyspeak. The Dodgers are never the Dodgers they are the ‘Daaadgers,’ and Daaadger Stadium is almost always referred to as Chavez Ravine—which for those of you under 40 is the area where it is located.

I’ve written before about how much I enjoy listening to great baseball broadcasters. Bob Murphy was a huge part of my boyhood and I get a big kick out of listening to Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling on the Mets telecasts now. I don’t enjoy watching the team very much, but the broadcast is terrific, especially since there’s no covering up the team’s deficiencies in the booth. If you’d like to experience the opposite end of that spectrum tune in the Orioles or Nationals sometime. (Disclaimer: Cohen is a friend. Having said that, I don’t think you have to be his friend to appreciate his work).

There are plenty of other baseball broadcasters who are great fun to listen to: Joe Castiglione in Boston; Marty Brenneman in Cincinnati (also a friend though we agree on almost nothing); Dave Niehaus in Seattle and Howie Rose on radio for the Mets (okay, I have a Mets bias) come to mind. The game really misses Skip Caray and Harry Kalas.

But there’s still only one Scully. His calls are lyrical and his familiarity with the players and the game is still astonishing even at 82. Yesterday when the camera showed a shot of injured Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon Webb, he basically went through Webb’s entire life story in about 90 seconds. He wasn’t reading from the media guide either, you can tell when someone is doing that. Webb popped up on camera in the dugout and Scully just started talking.

There’s another thing about Scully: he’s a genuine star—he’s only been doing Dodger games for 61 years (!!!) now—who never acts like one. Although he doesn’t travel east anymore in the regular season, he does during the playoffs. Last October I ran into him—almost literally—in the press box in Philadelphia. We were walking through a door from the dining area to the press box area.

When I stopped to open the door for him, Scully said to me, “Aaah yes John, a man who believes in age before beauty, something I can admire.”

I told him I wasn’t sure if he was right on either count but that I was honored to open the door for him. He laughed and said, “We’re all just honored and lucky to be here aren’t we?”

I’m pretty sure he was 100 percent sincere when he said that which might explain why he still sounds so happy to be in the broadcast booth even after all these years. I hope he keeps doing what he’s doing for as long as he can do it because the day he isn’t doing Dodger games is the day that the ‘Daaadgers,’ won’t really be the ‘Daaadgers,’ anymore. Someone will sit in Vin Scully’s chair, but no one will ever replace him.

I am SO glad it is baseball season.


On a far less pleasant topic I am going to go over this Tiger Woods issue one last time and then people like ‘anonymous,’ who kept insisting on the posting site the last few days that there is some deep, dark secret I am hiding can either accept what I’m saying or not accept it and we’ll all move on.

I have never had any sort of personal run-in with Woods and he has never ‘done,’ anything to me that has caused me to dislike him. When Mike Wilbon said a few months ago I was angry with Woods for not talking to me for the book I did on Rocco Mediate and that’s why I was criticizing him for his behavior, he was, quite simply, mistaken. As I said before, I told Rocco when he first called about doing the book that I KNEW Tiger wouldn’t talk to me for the book and doubted, quite honestly, he’d talk to anyone but he’d have a better shot at it if someone else did the writing. The person who was upset was ROCCO because he’d done a number of favors for Tiger post-U.S. Open. If you don’t believe that, ask him sometime. He’s a very approachable guy.

‘Anonymous,’ sort of wants it both ways: On the one hand he says he bases his disbelief in what I’m saying on the Wilbon theory—which Mike has since withdrawn by the way after we talked the whole thing through. On the other hand he says I’ve disliked Tiger for years. How can both be true? Then he throws in John Hawkins silly comment about my ‘lack of a relationship,’ with Tiger because I don’t cover golf ‘fulltime,’ like he and some others do. I responded to that too: I’ve never claimed to have a ‘relationship,’ with Woods although I’d bet I’ve spent more one-on-one time with him than a lot of the guys he calls by nicknames in press conferences. That isn’t a lot of time but it is probably more than almost anyone other than Jaime Diaz, who may be the one writer who has some sense of who Woods is, having known him since he was 15.

My objection to Woods has more to do with the way he has treated people through the years than anything else: I’ve seen him blow by kids looking for autographs consistently since the day he turned pro (and the excuse that he can’t sign for everyone so therefore he signs for no one is not only tired and worn out it isn’t true; you have one of your flunkies cut off the line at some point and say, ‘Tiger has to go, but he’ll be signing again tomorrow.’ Sure, he might disappoint a couple kids but he’d thrill a hundred of them. Phil Mickelson, for the record, signs every single day for 45 minutes. Most players plan some time into their day to sign).

Woods has also been disdainful and condescending in most of his dealings with the media; he does almost nothing if it doesn’t involve money; he tells TV networks who he will or will not talk to based on how much they have or have not sucked up to him during broadcasts and his on-course behavior has been lousy from day one. (I’m not talking the profanity as much as the club-throwing and club-pounding. By 34 you should have that under control).

Tiger and I have had one major disagreement from day one and it is something we have discussed on a number of occasions: I always saw his dad as just another pushy stage-jock parent who got lucky that his kid was the one with ridiculous talent. Obviously—and understandably—he didn’t see his dad that way.

We had a lengthy conversation about this years ago over dinner in San Diego—yes, we had dinner—during which I said I objected to Earl cashing in on Tiger by writing not one but TWO autobiographies. “He wrote the first one because people kept asking him how he did it,” Tiger said.

“Okay,” I said, “Even though I don’t buy that he did anything, I’ll accept that. Why’d he write the second one?”

Tiger smiled. “Okay, good point,” he said.

So we agreed to disagree and we’ve done that through the years. I know the people around him—except for Glenn Greenspan who I knew for a long time before he joined ETW Inc. two years ago—think I’m the devil because I have consistently not bought into the Tiger off-course myth. Ironically, I thought Tiger was headed in the right direction a couple years ago (I wish I could remember exactly what he did, but there was something that impressed me. It may have been—sadly—his seemingly changed demeanor after he became a father) and actually wrote to Mark Steinberg to tell him that. Turns out I got that one wrong.

Bottom line: I don’t hate Tiger and he’s never ‘done,’ anything to me. I just disagree with a lot of what he’s done and feel like there are enough cheerleaders and apologists out there for him that I don’t need to be another one. I felt that way before November 27th and still feel that way. If cringing when Nick Faldo says, “after all Tiger’s been through,” means I’m ‘out to get Tiger,’ in some people’s minds, so be it.

And, to quote Forrest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Masters puts a cap on an amazing two weeks in sports

So what did we learn from The Masters?

First—and foremost—Phil Mickelson has put the ghosts of Winged Foot behind him once and for all. He put on a remarkable display on the back nine on both Saturday and Sunday to win going away after it appeared likely the tournament would be decided on the 18th green or in sudden death.

Second, Tiger Woods is still Tiger Woods: for good and for bad. There is not another player on the planet who could have come back after a five month layoff and all the self-created tumult in his life and figured out a way to tie for fourth in a major championship. He’s still the same golfer. He’s also still the same person: pitching himself to corporate America during his Monday press conference; authorizing the release of a creepy ad in which his dead father is used to try and sell product; slamming clubs and barking profanities (but no f-bombs) and then getting upset when Peter Kostis asked him about it.

If you expected different, I hope you weren’t disappointed. Those of us who didn’t expect different just sort of shrug, move on and focus on all the truly wonderful stories that made for a remarkable week at Augusta.

The weather was beyond spectacular, which—along with some very inviting pin placements—made for very low scoring. Think about this for a second: Mickelson’s winning score of 272 was two shots higher than Woods’ winning score of 270 back in 1997 when the golf course was 500 yards shorter. I wonder if The Lords of Augusta will lengthen the golf course to 8,000 yards before next year.

Actually, I doubt it. I think they learned a lesson when they went too far with their course alterations that—along with cold, windy weather—led to Zach Johnson winning with a one-over-par 289 three years ago. That was about as dreary a Masters as anyone could remember (no knock on Johnson) and I think the green jackets enjoyed all the roars echoing off the trees on Saturday and Sunday. So don’t expect anything more than the usual tweaks the club makes every year if only to figure out how to spend some of its endless supply of money.

The golf tournament had almost every possible story line imaginable: Tom Watson, who hadn’t made a cut since 2002, shot 67 the first day and finished tied for 18th with his son Michael caddying for him and reminding him constantly that he could still play the golf course even at 60. Fred Couples was in contention almost until the end, looking for all the world as if he was playing a casual round at dusk back home. It looked as if the most serious thing on his mind Sunday afternoon was wondering who was going to win the Rangers-Flyers showdown for the last playoff spot in The East.

Of course that’s not true. One thing people tend to miss about Couples is how competitive he is. Because he looks and sounds casual about his golf game, people think he’s just strolling around making birdies. I remember back in 1998 when I was working on “The Majors,” I spent a lot of time with Couples. That was the year he led The Masters almost the entire week before losing by a stroke to Mark O’Meara. I remember talking to him a month later at The Memorial and he still wasn’t over it.

“A bunch of us went to dinner that night (after The Masters) and I remember no one said a word,” he said back then. “I kind of felt bad because everyone was looking at me to see how I was doing and I was just too down to talk at all.”

You don’t win as much as Couples has won without caring. You don’t have to slam clubs or scream, “goddammit Tiger you suck,” to be competitive. I’m the last person in the world who should or will give anyone a hard time for using profanity. Those of us who use it too much try to control it and sometimes we fail—which is our fault. But when we’re called on it, the best thing to do is not to say, “I don’t think it’s a big deal,” especially if you’ve said a few days earlier that it’s a big deal.

Back to Mickelson: A lot of people, myself included, wondered if he’d ever recover from the Winged Foot meltdown and win another major. He was 36 at the time, two years older than Arnold Palmer was when he won his last major and three years older than Watson was when he won the British Open in 1983. Clearly, the loss scarred him and his attempt to declare his win at the 2007 Players a major win came off as kind of silly.

But he hung in there. One thing people miss about Mickelson is that he’s a grinder. For all the talk about his great talent and ability to pull of magical shots (or not pull off magical shots) he is constantly trying to figure out how to get better: changing swing coaches, bringing in different people to help with his short game and his putting, trying different routines to prepare for majors.

Of course everything in his life changed last year when his wife Amy and then his mother were diagnosed with breast cancer. If he had managed to win the U.S. open at Bethpage last June they would have started filming the movie the next day. He took a break from the tour while Amy underwent surgery and when he came back in August—to slightly less fanfare than Woods at Augusta—he lingered in the press room in Akron after his first meeting with the media, thanking people for their good wishes and trading jokes with writers he IS friendly with as opposed to his long-time rival.

“You know I hate to say this,” he said at one point, “but I think I actually missed you guys.”

He hadn’t played well this year prior to Augusta. Whether it was the genuine distraction of Amy’s continuing struggles to feel well because of the side-affects of her medication or missing the emotional jolt he gets when Woods is playing, he never seriously contended. In the end, none of those tournaments mattered and they certainly don’t matter now. He played memorably down the stretch and it is probably fair to say that his hug with Amy behind the 18th green will be replayed a lot more in the future than Woods’s hug with his father back in ’97 which feels a lot different now to many people than it did prior to November 27th.

In all, it was an amazing two weeks in sports. The Final Four produced a national championship game for the ages and The Masters had so much shot-making your head needed to be on a swivel to keep up. I’m always exhausted when I get home from The Final Four/Masters trip but I remind myself on the way home how incredibly lucky I am to get to go to both events every year.

This year, especially after what happened to me last June, I’ve never felt that way more than I did last night.


Now that I am finally home after 29 of the last 42 days on the road, I’m going to try to take some time to get my life back in order. (You should see my office right now). So, I’m going to skip the blog on Tuesday and Thursday this week unless something monumental occurs—like a two-game Mets winning streak. I hope everyone understands.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Remarkable first day at the Masters -- Woods emphatically returned, Couples leads and Watson still on a roll

Well, no one ever said the guy couldn’t play golf.

All of those who wondered if Tiger Woods could come back and play well after a 144-day layoff from competition got a swift and emphatic answer yesterday. Miss the cut? How about he might win the tournament?

At the climax of one of the more remarkable first days anyone has ever seen at The Masters, Woods shot the best first round score in the 16 Masters he has played, a four-under-par 68. The round included two eagles—one at the eighth where he caught a break with a good hop on his second shot, the other at the 15th where he hit two perfect shots to about 10-feet and drained the putt. He also hit one of those shots that he seems to have invented: a twisting, draw-hook around the trees at the 9th hole. The ball somehow stayed on the green, sucked back to about 10-feet and he made a remarkable birdie.

His behavior wasn’t perfect—there were a couple of club slams—but overall was more subdued, as he had promised it would be. As the round went on and his play improved, the crowd warmed to him more and more. To say he was in a good mood when the round was over is an understatement.

If he puts on a green jacket here on Sunday evening, which is entirely possible, he will be re-deified by most.

And yet, he and his friends at Nike managed to do exactly what Woods said he didn’t want to do: take the focus off his golf. By airing the new Tiger-‘Earl,’ commercial on Wednesday they reminded everyone about the events of the past few months that turned golf from a sport into a soap opera.

Woods was asked about the ad after he finished his round and said this: “Well, I think it’s very apropos. I think that’s what my dad would say. It’s amazing how it—how my dad can speak to me from different ways, even he’s long gone. He’s still helping me. I think any son who has lost a father and who meant so much in their life, I think they would understand the spot.”

Really? I’m a son who has lost a father who meant a lot to me and I don’t get the spot. I certainly don’t get the timing, coming at the precise moment when everyone—EVERYONE—is ready to focus on Woods as a golfer again and put all that’s gone on at the very least on a backburner for a while.

Nike has always gone for edgy ads and it has worked for the company, especially in terms of calling attention to itself. This one may backfire. My sense is that people are offended by the notion of Tiger and Nike somehow trying to cash in on what’s occurred especially NOW. On the one hand he says he wants to move on with his life—which he should be able to do—on the other hand he’s making a commercial that is somehow supposed to rehabilitate his image by saying, ‘Earl would have known better.’

Okay, I’m not even going to get into that. But the timing was bad and the ad is already being parodied on the internet. Enough said.

Meanwhile, even if Woods had NOT been in the field, the Thursday leaderboard would have been fabulous. Fred Couples at 50? Tom Watson at 60??!—again? Not to mention Phil Mickelson—remember him, pretty good player I think—Y.E. Yang, Ian Poulter and Ricky Barnes. All are on the leaderboard, led by Couples who shot his low round ever at The Masters—a 66—to take the lead.

Okay, it’s only Thursday, but it was still pretty cool. I’m biased, but the story of the day for me was Watson. For a long time now he has talked about not being able to play this golf course anymore since he’s not as long as he was years ago and the golf course has been super-sized. He’s only made one cut here since 1998—in 2002—and missed the cut by one two years ago when he played the last three holes in four-over-par.

This year, his son Michael is caddying for him. Michael is a very good amateur player in his own right, in fact father and son finished second in the Pro-Am at Pebble Beach two years ago which Watson called one of the bigger thrills of his career.

Michael Watson works in commercial real estate these days but he’s taking his job this week very seriously. Over the weekend he gave his father a serious talking to, telling him he needed to stop talking about where he USED to hit the ball from before the golf course was lengthened and his drives were shortened. “Okay, you aren’t hitting seven iron anymore, but you can still hit a four or five iron really well,” he told him. “You can still play here if you believe you can play here.”

Both Watsons were in great spirits on Thursday morning. On Sunday afternoon, by pre-arrangement, Tom hit his second shot on the 13th hole way left, using a four iron. On Sunday, families can walk inside the ropes when players go out to practice since there are no fans on the grounds, so Michael’s girlfriend, Beth Lindquist, was walking along.

When everyone walked over to try to find the ball, Michael stunned Beth by taking out an engagement ring, dropping to a knee and proposing.

“The first thing I said was, ‘are you kidding?’” she said on Wednesday. “He said, ‘I’m on one knee, I’m holding an engagement ring do you THINK I’m kidding?’”

So, the week got off to a good start in more ways than one.

In spite of his great round Thursday, Watson’s realistic. He pointed out to the media that he had made two 30-foot bombs on putts that were moving fast when they hit the hole and had gotten it up and down five straight times from the 10th to the 14th holes. Still, it was a great way to start The Masters and it is pretty clear that Watson is still on the roll that began last July with his near miss at Turnberry.

“There’s been a glow since then,” he said. “It’s come really from people coming up to me and saying, ‘hey, you showed me I’m not too old to still do things.’ That’s meant a lot to me.”

If Watson and Couples can somehow stick around the leaderboard through Sunday, it would mean a lot to a lot of people.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Masters has begun, Billy Payne’s comments and the annual Golf Writers dinner

Finally, they’re playing golf.

Of course that doesn’t mean the ‘Tiger Talk,’ is over and it doesn’t mean it will stop when he tees it up at 1:42 this afternoon. I’m now convinced it may never end. Yesterday there was another story about another woman, this one a 21-year-old neighbor in Isleworth. Then there was the new Nike commercial which includes Earl Woods saying to Tiger, ‘Have You Learned Anything?’ Oh please. Nike needs to drop the notion that Tiger is a great person and focus on the fact that he’s a great golfer. The rest is now myth. Period.

There was also the surprise of Augusta National chairman Billy Payne criticizing Woods during his annual, ‘State of the Masters,’ address to the media.

In case you missed it, here is what Payne said several minutes into his prepared remarks, most of which usually centers on what a great job the club has done spending money on itself.

“Finally, we are not unaware of the significance of this week to a very special player, Tiger Woods. A man who in a brief 13 years clearly and emphatically proclaimed and proved his game to be worthy of the likes of Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. As he ascended in our rankings of the world’s great golfers, he became an example to our kids that success is directly attributable to hard work and effort.

“But as he now says himself, he forgot in the process to remember that with fame and fortune comes responsibility, not invisibility. It is not simply the degrees of his conduct that is so egregious here; it is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grand kids. Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children.

“Is there a way forward? I hope yes. I think yes. But certainly his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par; but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change. I hope he now realizes that every kid he passes on the course wants his swing, but would settle for his smile.

“I hope he can come to understand that life’s greatest rewards are reserved for those who bring joy to the lives of other people. We at Augusta hope and pray that our great champion will begin his new life here tomorrow in positive, hopeful and constructive manner, but this time, with a significant difference from the past. This year, it will not be just for him, but for all of us who believe in second chances.”

There are some people who have accused Payne of ‘ripping,’ Tiger. Read what he said. The words are very careful and—as he points out—mirror a lot of the things Tiger has said about himself, except in milder language. Some of what he says is eloquent—‘every kid he passes on the course wants his swing, but would settle for his smile.’

I think what shocked people is that almost no one in golf has dared say anything even mildly critical about Woods since the whole debacle began. Only two players—Jesper Parnevik and Ernie Els—have publicly criticized him for anything. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem has been hiding under a rock ever since this began which is why Payne’s comments caught people off guard.

What I think is this: If there is one entity in golf that doesn’t care what Tiger or anyone else thinks it is Augusta National. That’s always been their attitude: it’s our club and our tournament (or as Hootie Johnson used to say, ‘toonamint,’) and if you don’t like us or our rules, you’re welcome not to take part. If Tiger read Payne’s comments and threw a fit and said, ‘that’s it I’m never playing again,’ the CBS people might have a heart attack; the ESPN execs might need shock therapy but the green jackets would just say, ‘next on the first tee….” and move on. That’s just the way it is.

In the meantime, if it is true as Mike Tirico and Jim Nantz have indicated to people this week that neither network is even going to ADDRESS the Tiger issue, they should both be ashamed of themselves. Personally, I think there will be a brief mention and that will be it. The green jackets may not be afraid of Tiger but just about everyone else in golf is.

A few other Tiger tidbits: Good news: He came to the annual Golf Writers dinner last night to accept his player-of-the-year award and, unlike in past years, stayed until the dinner break—even watching Els accept an award. He has never done that in the past. (Why my colleagues felt obligated to hire a bunch of sheriff’s deputies to check people in and turn the dinner into yet another security headache I don’t know. I was told, ‘we’re afraid the paparazzi might show up.’ So what? What are they going to do, take pictures of Tiger walking in and out of the building with Mark Steinberg and Glenn Greenspan? Since when is it OUR responsibility to ‘protect,’ Tiger or anyone else?)

Bad news (or at least disappointing): He opted not to play in the par-three yesterday. No big deal, but I think it was a mistake. It is the most fan friendly event of this week and he could have shown his fun side (which does exist) AND could have auctioned off getting to caddy for him. (Something a number of players do). The dollar figure would have been huge and he could have donated the money to the charity of the winner’s choice. Maybe next year.

And finally: Over the past few months a few posters and e-mailers have said a couple of things that just aren’t true: 1. I’ve never approached or been interested in a book on Tiger or with Tiger. I was not the least bit upset, disappointed or surprised when he didn’t talk to me for my book on Rocco Mediate. I told Rocco when he first called me it was unlikely he’d talk to anyone; but certain he wouldn’t talk to me. ROCCO was angry, I wasn’t. And, for the record, the book was on the New York Times bestseller list for three months and got as high as No. 8 so it did just fine.

2. I have NEVER claimed to ‘know,’ Tiger or have any relationship with him at all although I’d bet the one dinner I had with him years ago lasted longer than the total time many of my colleagues in the golf media who claim to ‘know,’ him have spent with him. I do know that there’s a fascinating and complex person buried inside there but that person isn’t going to be revealed to me or anyone else in the media anytime soon.

More pleasant topics: My pal Dave Kindred received The PGA of America’s ‘Lifetime Achievement Award,’ last night at the Golf Writers dinner and gave a funny, touching acceptance speech. Padraig Harrington was the other star of the night talking about the relationship between the media and players and why it should be a good one on both sides and why there’s no reason it can’t be. He also told a funny joke about Tiger playing a round of golf with Stevie Wonder (with Tiger in the room). The joke was long. The punch line was Wonder saying, “I’ll play you any night this week.”

Finally, as I sit here and write Tom Watson is two-under-par for five holes with his son Michael caddying. Watson hasn’t made the cut here in years and, by his own admission, has become psyched out by the length of the golf course. Michael has been on him since they arrived to forget about where he USED to hit his second shots from and just worry about where he’s hitting them from now. Michael also proposed to his girlfriend on the 13th hole on Sunday afternoon. The whole thing was a set-up: Tom hit a four iron into the trees on the left and when they all walked over to look for the ball, Michael pulled out the ring and dropped to one knee. How cool is that? Here’s hoping Watson makes the cut. It would put a smile on a lot of people’s faces.