Thursday, July 29, 2010

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

This moring I joined Tony Kornheiser for his newest version of The Tony Kornheiser Show at 11:05 ET.  Click the permalink, then the link below, to listen to the segment from this week. Among the topics we discussed were my golf game, some books I've been reading and more relevant topics like Bob Huggins and his broken ribs. Lastly, we discussed Mike Kryzewski and his coaching of USA Basketball and Duke, and finished off with a little talk on Tiger Woods.

Click here to listen to the segment: Tony Kornheiser Show


Yesterday I joined The Sports Reporters in the normal timeslot (5:25 ET on Wednesday's).   In it, we discussed the Redskins, including the situation with Albert Haynesworth, and training camp hype in general.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Sports Reporters


Also, I joined The Gas Man show on Wednesday evening in my normal 8:25 ET spot. This week was hosted by Elise Woodward, and we spent a great deal of time discussing this weeks US Senior Open Championship at Sahalee Country Club, why the PGA Tour doesn't have a regular stop in the Seattle area and Larry Scott and his branding campaign of the PAC-10.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Gas Man

The Orioles and Pirates - two of baseball’s great, traditional franchises are going on their 13th and 18th straight losing seasons

The other day I vented about The New York Mets and their unwillingness to admit to their mediocrity and clean house in an effort to actually be, well, good. That night, watching the Mets (surprise) win a game, I noticed the Blue Jays-Orioles score as it flashed across the screen. I think it was 8-2 Blue Jays in the fifth inning—something along those lines.

Of course the Blue Jays went on to win and then they won against last night. In fact, Toronto is now 12-0 against the Orioles this season and has outscored them by a margin of 68-23. That’s simply embarrassing as is the Orioles record of 31-70. It is entirely possible that they will be mathematically eliminated before Labor Day, which is extremely difficult to do.

If you’re a baseball fan on any level this is very hard to watch. Right now, two of baseball’s great, traditional franchises have become utterly pathetic: the Orioles and the Pirates. The Pirates are, if possible, worse, even though their current record is marginally better than the Orioles. For one thing, they play in a weaker division. Worse than that, there are no signs that they have any interest in actually rebuilding. This will be their record-breaking 18th straight losing season and there is no sign that streak will end anytime soon.

The Orioles are experiencing ‘only,’ their 13th losing season in a row. I tend to pay more attention to their travails for two reasons: my daughter Brigid remains a diehard fan for reasons I can’t completely fathom (she liked the mascot when she was little and still loves going to Camden Yards even now) and because I have been going to games in Baltimore on a regular basis since I was in college.

I loved Memorial Stadium. It was a great old ballpark filled with terrific fans and, to be honest, I saw no reason for the Orioles to leave. Of course I was wrong. Camden Yards was the first of the new-look ballparks and even now, in its 19th year, might still be the best of them although PNC Park in Pittsburgh is spectacular as are the parks in Texas, Seattle and San Francisco—I have trouble keeping up with the corporate names on them.

Camden Yards was a miracle when it opened in 1992 and it revitalized both the ballclub and downtown Baltimore. The Orioles had been awful in 1991; they won 89 games in 1992 and were in the pennant race until the last 10 days. Every night was a sellout back then, the team routinely drew well over 3 million fans a season even though the ballpark seated no more than 45,000 if you squeezed everyone in very tight.

It was the Orioles, in the form of Cal Ripken Jr., who helped bring baseball back after the strike of 1994-1995. Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played and the way he handled it made people believe in the game again. And, unlike the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run spree of 1998, it was real. The night of September 6, 1995 was one of the most joyous nights in sports I’ve ever witnessed.

For the next two years the Orioles made the playoffs, losing in the ALCS both years—to the Yankees in 1996 and the Indians the next year. There were storm clouds forming though: Peter Angelos, the new owner, was dubbed ‘Steinbrenner South’ (the pre-suspension Steinbrenner) because of his meddling. He ran off Pat Gillick—as good a general manager as there was in baseball. He feuded with Davey Johnson and ran him off too, losing one of the game’s best managers. He even fired Jon Miller (!!) as good a play-by-play man as there was in the game because Miller wasn’t enough of a homer.

Well, with the exception of Jim Palmer (who is untouchable because of his iconic status in Baltimore) Angelos has a bunch of homer announcers now. I certainly hope he’s happy listening to them cheerily describing one loss after another. (To be fair none of them can touch Rob Dibble in Washington when it comes to being homers, but that’s another story).

This was supposed to be the year when Andy McPhail’s work rebuilding the farm system and the franchise around young pitchers began to pay dividends. It wasn’t as if anyone expected the Orioles to challenge in the ridiculously tough American League East—remember the Blue Jays are in FOURTH place right now—but the thought was they’d be respectable; that they’d get 6-7 innings a night from the kids and maybe if everything fell right, they could break the 12-year losing skein.

Not so much. The team has been awful from the start—everyone included. Adam Jones was an All-Star a year ago; he’s hitting .273 with an OBP of .305 right now and 42 RBI’s. That’s still better than Nick Markakis, who has a solid batting average (.295) but just 33 (!!) runs batted in. The supposedly future All-Star catcher Matt Wieters was hitting .251 when he went on the disabled list earlier this month. The two most productive hitters have been journeymen Luke Scott and Ty Wigginton.

Worse though has been the pitching. The young guys have had some moments but they’ve been few and far between. They’ve all been on a shuttle to and from the minors all year long. The question is this: Growing pains or are they just not that good? If you think about it, pitching often comes down to scouting. Scouting is easy when you have the No. 1 pick and Stephen Strasburg is in the draft. The real challenge is finding guys later in the draft who become solid Major Leaguers.

Once, the Orioles were famous for finding pitching. They’re still the only team to ever have four 20-game winners on the same staff in a season in the modern era (1971). Even in the 90s they were able to sign a guy like Jimmy Key and draft a guy like Mike Mussina. They even had Jamie Moyer on the team but gave up on him a little too soon.

Plus, everything they did was done with class. There was something called, “The Orioles Way,” which meant you played the game hard and well every day, you conducted yourself with dignity as a player or a member of the organization and you were part of a team that almost always contended. About the only person who ever violated any of that was Earl Weaver and his famous temper but Weaver was so good and such a unique personality he was forgiven. When the late Johnny Oates managed the team, you couldn’t have a classier person representing you. Gillick was the same way and, arguably, the game’s best general manager of the last 30 years. All he did was build winners in Toronto (expansion team), Baltimore, Seattle and Philadelphia.

Now the Orioles are about to lose 100 games. Camden Yards is a ghost town except when Yankee and Red Sox fans show up to watch their team. There’s no guarantee the young pitchers will ever become good young pitchers.

Jon Miller was inducted into the Hall of Fame last Sunday. Gillick is a lock to go in someday soon. Even the Rays, who didn’t come into existence until a year after the Orioles last had a winning season, have built a solid team on a shoestring budget.

The Orioles, who made a proud baseball city so proud for so many years are an embarrassment. It is really a sad thing to watch.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Time to sound off on the Mets, and time for changes at the top

As I have said here many times, I grew up in New York City and have been a life-long New York Mets fan. Actually, that’s not completely accurate. In 1992, when I was working on my first baseball book, “Play Ball,” the Mets clubhouse was filled with such a bunch of surly jerks—led by the always delightful Vince Coleman and Bobby Bonilla—that I found it impossible not to root against them. To know that Mets team was to hate them and their play lived down to their personalities.

It actually took me a few years to get past that experience and, to be honest, I wasn’t completely back on the bandwagon even in 2000 when they made The World Series. I thought Bobby Valentine was an excellent manager and certainly didn’t dislike him as much as some people dislike him but he wasn’t exactly Joe Torre, who is one of the most admirable men I’ve ever met in sports.

Somewhere along the line, boyhood memories kicked back in and I became live-and-die with the Mets again. Certainly by the time I worked on, ‘Living on the Black,’ in 2007 I was all the way back. The last 17 games of that season were torture, not just because they were bad for the book—which they were, especially when Tom Glavine blew sky-high on the last day of the season—but because I was a suffering fan.

I have tried—TRIED—really hard not to whine on this blog about the travails of the Mets during these past 13 months. I kept my mouth shut most of last year because they were devastated by injuries. I bit my tongue and said nothing about their consistent stonewalling on how serious injuries were and tried not to second-guess the medical staff because, seriously, what in the world do I know about how to treat a knee injury or, the latest in-vogue injury, the oblique. Is it just me or is EVERY baseball injury now an oblique injury? Remember for years no one had ever heard of a rotator cuff? Then every pitching injury was to the rotator cuff.

Steve Somers, easily WFAN’s best and smartest host, took to calling the Mets the “Medicalpolitans,” last winter when Carlos Beltran announced in January that he’d decided to have surgery on his knee. January? What happened to October? God knows the Mets weren’t playing any baseball that month. I was actually in my car, driving back from a basketball game in Charlottesville on the night the Mets announced the surgery. As usual they were optimistic about his recovery. They were figuring eight to ten weeks. He MIGHT miss the start of the season but he’d be back by the end of April at worst.

I remember saying to myself as I listened, “All-Star break.” That’s when I figured he might be back. Of course he didn’t come back until after the All-Star break and he now looks a little bit like Willie Mays in centerfield—in the 1973 World Series. There’s really only one position he should be playing right now: DH. Oh wait, they don’t have that in The National League.

Okay, okay, I’m sounding like a frustrated fan. Sorry. I AM a frustrated fan. I watched much too much of the west coast trip—my friend Frank Mastrandrea, who really should be committed, watched EVERY inning. To quote the great Lefty Driesell, ‘I may be dumb, but I ain’t stupid.’ I watched a lot but not all of it. I WAS in bed at the end of the 14-inning game in Arizona because I KNEW what was going to happen.

Here’s what bothers me the most: The Mets went 2-9 on the west coast trip and scored 23 runs. They were shut out four times. They aren’t going to make any big moves at the trading deadline and I’m actually okay with that because I honestly don’t think they’re going anyplace this season. What’s bothersome though is that I believe they aren’t going to make a big move because the Wilpons can’t afford to add payroll or won’t add payroll. Why they paid $66 million for Jason Bay to prove they still had money this offseason when they needed pitching I’ll never know.

Of course the pitching hasn’t really been the problem. Johan Santana has been mostly great and they’ve caught lightning in a bottle with R.A. Dickey. Mike Pelfrey was great, then bad and I think will bounce back. Jonathon Niese has been good. They need a fifth starter. They also need a closer. When a pitcher nicknamed K-Rod can’t get anyone out with his fastball, you’ve got problems.

But, I’m sorry, the time has come for change at the top. Has Omar Minaya done an awful job? No. He’s done some things well, some things not so well. The same is true for Jerry Manuel. Some of his moves are baffling, but he has done a decent job.

But decent and not-awful are synonyms for mediocre. The Mets are much too willing to accept mediocrity. The Wilpons aren’t good at admitting mistakes, which is why Oliver Perez, the $36 million anchor around their necks, hasn’t been released and Luis Castillo, who has the range of a beached whale, is playing second base. They held meetings on Monday after the road trip—which would have been 1-10 if Phil Cuzzi wasn’t a complete incompetent—and say things are fine, we’re okay at 50-49 with the ship sinking fast.

I’m not saying that promoting Wally Backman from Brooklyn because he’s fiery and an ex-Met is the answer. In fact, I think it’s NOT the answer. But some thing has to be done right now, even if it is only to release Perez and Castillo to let the world—and the rest of the clubhouse know—that the days of claiming the Emperor has beautiful clothes are coming.

At season’s end, everyone has to go. Sorry, nothing personal, but it is time. The Mets need to find a Theo Epstein to be their general manager. Maybe Mark Shapiro would leave Cleveland. Maybe, for big dollars, Billy Beane can finally be lured out of Oakland. But Minaya’s time has come and gone. He has to take the hit for the Perez and Luis Castillo contracts; Bay too. He gets credit for Dickey, but that was a throwaway move that turned into gold.

I don’t think Joe Torre wants to come back and manage in New York at the age of 70. My preference would be an aggressive young up-and-comer type, someone who fits the profile of Willie Randolph six years ago. Don’t gag. Randolph brought life to the clubhouse, came within an inning of The World Series in 2006 and wasn’t the guy who crumbled completely at the end of 2007 although it did ultimately cost him his job. I wouldn’t mind seeing Ozzie Guillen in the Mets dugout or Terry Pendleton, the Braves hitting coach who is one of the bright guys in the game.

Finally, every doctor has to be fired. Seriously. I don’t see how any player can have confidence that he’s going to be treated properly at this point. John Maine just went and found his own doctor for shoulder surgery. Who can blame him? Jose Reye’s ‘oblique,’ injury was botched (again) from the get-go. He was in, he was out. He was going to be ready in a day, then it was ten days. The beat goes on.

Okay, I’ve vented. I’d fire the Wilpons too but that isn’t possible. I guess I should be happy that Vince Coleman isn’t playing centerfield—even if he might be faster than Beltran NOW.

John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases

Monday, July 26, 2010

Does anyone really care about A-Rod hitting his 600th home run? Hall of Fame questions continue as well

Sometime soon, Alex Rodriguez is going to hit his 600th home run. It might be as early as tonight in Cleveland, it might be a week from now—A-Rod tends to tighten up in any and all big situations—but it is going to happen.

If you were at Yankee Stadium this past weekend, you will no doubt say this is a big deal; that this is historic. Only six men in baseball history have hit 600 home runs so clearly Rodriguez will be entering an exclusive club. This past weekend, every time he came to the plate when the Yankees were playing the Kansas City Royals, specially marked baseballs were put in play and flashbulbs went off all around the ballpark on every pitch.

They went home disappointed. They did not get to see history.

My question is this: Who among us believes that A-Rod IS about to make history? Who among us—other than loyal Yankee fans—really and truly cares. Rodriguez is a confessed steroid user. He says he used during three seasons (2001-2003). Even if we believe his version of the story he is still tainted. The argument being made these days among my seamhead friends in the media is this: You can claim that everyone who has ever played the game is tainted in some way. Babe Ruth played in an all-white sport (not his fault) and Henry Aaron and Willie Mays played in the amphetamines era and, of course Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa and Rodriguez have all been sullied by steroids.

So, since everyone is guilty, no one is guilty. Right?


The greatest myth about the steroid era is that there were no rules against them until the union and owners finally got together on drug-testing in 2003. In fact, Fay Vincent banned steroids in 1991 after they were declared illegal by the government but the ban was toothless since there was no testing and the government wasn’t exactly storming clubhouses demanding that players be tested. The players knew the drugs were illegal and against the rules. They also knew they weren’t very likely to get caught.

Of course a lot of players have been caught: some by good reporting and some by The Mitchell Report. Others have simply been considered guilty due to overwhelming circumstantial evidence—which, given that this isn’t a court of law and we aren’t talking about sending people to jail in most cases—is evidence enough.

So, back to the question: Does anyone really care about A-Rod hitting his 600th home run?

My answer is no. I didn’t care when Bonds hit 756 and I was horrified when Henry Aaron showed up on that video congratulating him. It was bad enough that Bud Selig trailed him for a while during the chase; bad enough (though hardly surprising) that ESPN glorified him but really depressing when Aaron gave in and did the video.

Now, A-Rod isn’t as surly a guy as Bonds. He tries to say all the right things—though he often fails. But he’s just as tainted as far as I’m concerned and just as un-deserving of the Hall of Fame down the road as Bonds is undeserving of it now. Here’s my bet: A-Rod will make the Hall on the first ballot; second ballot at worst. Why? Because the excuse-makers are already coming out of the woodwork on his behalf; because there will be a greater passage of time and because people will by the argument that only 136 of his 868 career home runs were steroid-induced. And let’s not forget the ever-popular, “how many of the pitchers he faced were juiced?” argument.

Here’s what I think and have always thought: None of these guys should ever go in. Not Bonds, not Sosa, not Clemens, not A-Rod, not McGwire, not Palmeiro—none of them. If there’s any evidence at all (and in most of these cases there is plenty) then they’re guilty. My 600 home run club is Aaron, Ruth, Mays and Ken Griffey Jr. That’s it. Forget Bonds, forget Sosa and forget A-Rod whenever he gets there.

If you want to make the argument that eliminating all bad guys from the Hall of Fame would remove about 90 percent of the guys who are in there, that’s fine. But there is a difference between being a bad guy and being a cheat. These guys cheated the game and they damaged the game. Baseball is going to be talking about steroids for years to come. Rodriguez will probably play at least another five years and then it will be another five years before he’s on the Hall of Fame ballot. That guarantees that steroids will be talked about for at least 10 more years—if not longer.

So let’s drop the, ‘everyone’s guilty, so no one’s guilty,’ argument. If you think Ken Griffey Jr. is guilty of something, prove it. The same with Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn—some have made the argument that we don’t KNOW they were clean, thus they could be dirty, thus we should treat them as dirty. Seriously, people have said that.

So when A-Rod hits No. 600 I know it will be played and replayed everywhere and people will call it historic and wonder when No. 700 will come. John Sterling will practically bust a gut screaming, ‘A-Rod hit an A-bomb,’ (I truly hate that call and find it offensive) on Yankees radio and ESPN will probably do an hour long special called, “The Homer,” with A-Rod --on the 16th question--saying he plans to celebrate in…Miami.

Fine. I hope everyone has a good time. I’ll be watching the Mets not score any runs while Jerry Manuel insists that they are right on the verge of a breakthrough.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Colleges have long had problems with agent-player contact -- time for NCAA, NFL and NBA enforcement to change

Back in 1981, I was the Maryland beat writer for The Washington Post. Lefty Driesell had two clear-cut first round draft picks on that team: Albert King and Buck Williams. King was a senior; Williams a junior.

After games, when I was in the locker room talking to players, I frequently saw two men who very clearly weren’t members of the media circling the room, glad-handing the players. Often, they would wait until those of us on deadline finished and then swoop in to tell King and Williams how wonderfully they had played.

The two men were David Falk and Donald Dell. In those days, they were still partners, Falk working for Dell at ProServ, which was then one of the mega-agencies in sports, trailing only IMG for prestige, power and name clients. I remember saying to Driesell back then, “why do you let agents in your locker room?”

Lefty shook his head and said. “If I don’t let ‘em in, the players will be upset. They’ll think I’m trying to keep them away.”

“You SHOULD keep them away,” I said. “Agents shouldn’t be talking to players during the season under any circumstances and you shouldn’t be sanctioning it by letting them in the locker room.”

Lefty didn’t listen to me just as 99 percent of the coaches alive would not have listened to me. Like most coaches, he was afraid that if banned the agents, they would tell the players (which they would) ‘your coach isn’t looking out for your best interests. He’s only worried about what you can do for HIM.’

At the end of that season, Buck Williams left Maryland a year early and turned pro. The agent who guided him through the process of making that decision was—you guessed it—David Falk. (Dean Smith once told me that the first time Dell introduced him to Falk he said to his assistants, “I don’t trust that young one.” Boy did he have the one right).

Years later, agenting had become more sophisticated. The big-shots like Dell and Falk only made their presence felt when they truly needed to do so. Falk spent a lot of time in the 90s traveling to Duke to woo Mike Krzyzewski. He didn’t spend much time with the players. Instead, he would go in to see Krzyzewski after games to tell him what a great job he had done that night. Eventually, Krzyzewski hired him as his agent and a lot of Duke players landed with Falk—just as virtually every Georgetown player has landed with Falk since John Thompson became a client of his thirty years ago.

In 1994 I was on a trip to Hawaii with Maryland. Joe Smith was a sophomore and a lot of people thought he had a chance to be the first pick in the NBA draft if he turned pro that spring. Throughout the trip there was a guy hanging around the team who was clearly bird-dogging for an agent. He was outside the locker room waiting whenever the bus pulled up and would hug most of the players as they walked inside. One afternoon I saw him walking on the beach with Smith.

Later that day, just prior to a game he walked up to Chuck Walsh, who was Maryland’s sports information director and said, “Hey Chuck, my man, you got a media guide for me?”

Gary Williams was standing no more than 10 feet away and his face was chalk white as Walsh went to get the media guide. He said nothing. As soon as the bird-dog walked away, Gary went off on Chuck. “What are you doing?!” he screamed. “Why are you helping him? Don’t you understand—he’s the ENEMY! You don’t help him in any way.”

Gary was exactly right. He WAS the enemy. Smith turned pro at the end of that season and there was nothing he could do about it. If he had told Smith to stay away from the bird-dog or any other agenting types, just as Lefty had said, Smith would have seen the order as selfish and self-serving and the agents would have reinforced that every chance they got.

That’s what makes this latest spate of NCAA investigations into player-agent relationship so difficult to deal with as an outsider. It’s very easy to say, “police the agents,” but how? To begin with, the NBA and NFL would have to work with the NCAA and that almost never happens. Beyond that, most agents are smart enough to not leave a trail behind. As Digger Phelps once said about coaches paying recruits: “it’s tough to prove cash.”

It’s tough to prove anything—especially given that the NCAA has always been monumentally understaffed in enforcement and seems more concerned with not talking to the media than with actually getting anything done.

Look, I’m not making excuses for anybody. The agents and the people who work for them shouldn’t be anywhere near college athletes and if they go anywhere near one, coaches should have the guts to tell them to get the hell away. If a player gets upset about it, you explain to him why he cannot be associated with an agent or anyone who has even been breathed on by an agent. If they don’t understand that, chances are they already have their hand out and you (the coach) have a serious problem.

Any agent caught dealing with a college athlete should be banned. And if it someone who works for him in any way, same thing. By banned I mean he can’t be registered with the NFL or the NBA or negotiate a contract with a team on behalf of an athlete for at least two years. I don’t mean if he’s caught giving a kid money, I mean if he shakes hands with a kid.

Years ago, when Eddie Fogler was still an assistant at North Carolina, I was standing with him on the court at University Hall at Virginia about 45 minutes before a game. All of a sudden, Eddie said, “oh dammit, now I’ve got trouble.”

I looked up and saw a man walking in his direction, hand out, smile on his face. I honestly don’t remember the man’s name but Eddie began waving his arms and saying, “Mr. Jones (made-up-name) nothing personal, but I can’t even shake your hand, I’ll be breaking the rules.”

The man was a potential recruit’s father. The last thing Fogler wanted to do was be rude. But the no-bump rules back then meant even accidental contact could be a violation.

Did Fogler act that way because I happened to be standing there? I don’t think so, but even if he did—fine—those are the kind of rules agents needs to be forced to live under. We all know all these excuses are, to put it in polite terms, hooey. The agents are friends of the family; they’re trying to help a kid out (that’s the biggest lie of them all); they just happened to have a house they could rent to a kid’s parents for $25 a month—and on and on. Just say none of those excuses wash. If it WAS an innocent mistake, well, too bad, you lose.

And the notion that the players don’t know they’re doing something wrong? Oh please. They’re all told the rules and they’re all told to stay away from three groups of people: agents, gamblers and the media. (We’re bad guys too because we ask questions). Here’s what I’ve heard coaches say to players: “If ANYONE wants to give you something for free, come tell me. Do NOT accept it, not even a movie ticket.”

The players know the rules but they’re also taught that they’re above the rules. And most of the time, even when they get caught—see Bush, Reggie; Mayo, O.J. et al—they don’t pay the price, the next generation of players and coaches pay the price. That’s another problem with NCAA enforcement: it moves so slowly that the guilty parties are usually out of dodge by the time the posse gets to town. (See Carroll, Pete and Floyd, Tim—who is somehow coaching at UTEP this coming season with no penalty while USC is still under NCAA sanctions).

The bottom line is this: It’s a hard problem for everyone. But the solution is NOT to do nothing. The solution is to understand that no answer is perfect but try to find one that sends a clear message to players, coaches and agents that this behavior won’t be tolerated. And if that behavior upsets a player—tough. Gary Williams was right—agents (and their surrogates) ARE the enemy. In college athletics it isn’t some of the time that they’re the enemy it is ALL the time.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Baseball continues to have too much bad umpiring, time for changes

Forty-one years ago today Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. You would think by now the sports world would have replay figured out.

Only it doesn’t. In football, replay grinds games to a complete halt at both the NFL level and the college level and there is no guarantee that the call is going to be correct when all is said and done. Basketball is the same way. I was at a game last season where the officials went to replay on four consecutive plays because they didn’t think the clock had been set correctly. The game may still be going on for all I know. Hockey’s closer: Usually replay can determine if a goal has or has not been score fairly quickly or if a player was in the crease or had his stick above his shoulder. Even so, there are times when it takes a lot longer than it should to get the call right.

And then there is baseball. Bud Selig said last week at The All-Star game that there is, “little appetite,” for replay among people in the sport. That may be because baseball people have seen what replay has done to football and basketball and want no part of it. I actually get that although I also think if baseball were to add replay for safe-out calls like the one Phil Cuzzi so clearly blew on Sunday in San Francisco—not to mention the now infamous Jim Joyce blown perfect game call in Detroit earlier this season and for fair/foul calls—like the one Phil Cuzzi so clearly blew in the playoffs last October on Joe Mauer in the 11th inning of game two of Yankees-Twins (anyone see a pattern here?), it would be good for the game.

Actually there is another problem baseball has that has only a little to do with replay: there’s a lot of bad umpiring out there. One thing I do on vacation is watch a LOT of baseball; flipping from game-to-game most nights. Cuzzi was god-awful throughout the Mets-Giants game on Sunday but you can bet both MLB and the umpire’s union will defend him just as both almost always defend bad umpires.

My biggest problem is the strike zone. A few years ago when QuesTec was first used, umpires were virtually forced to start calling the high strike again. Until then, pitches at the belt were routinely being called balls. It now appears to me—and others—that they’ve gone back to squeezing pitchers on an almost nightly basis. I don’t know about you but I sit there all the time and watch a pitch and say, ‘that’s a strike,’ and the umpire never moves. I know those pitchtrax things are fallible but let me ask you a question: how often do you see a pitch outside that box called a strike? Almost never. How often do you see a pitch inside the box called a ball? Often.

On the night that Stephen Strasburg made his debut in Washington, I was sitting in the Pittsburgh dugout with Pirates pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and ESPN’s Jayson Stark (one of ESPN’s good guys). We were talking about pitch counts and the length of games. Kerrigan commented that the average game in 2010 required about 30 more pitches to complete than an average game did 20 years ago. Why, he asked, did we think that was the case.

“A lot of hitters are working counts more,” Stark said.

“Strike zone,” I said.

“Bingo,” Kerrigan said. “NO ONE calls the strike zone that’s in the rulebook. When was the last time you saw a pitch just below the letters called a strike? How about never. Check the rulebook. That’s a strike.”

There are other issues too—batters stepping out on every pitch; pitchers slowing down to an almost complete halt with runners on base—but the strike zone is an issue too. Not only does it mean more pitches are required but it means hitters are working with favorable counts far more often, leading to more hits, more walks and more runs—and more time. The only thing that has balanced some of that the last few years is drug-testing. There’s a lot less power in the game and a lot more warning track fly balls.

The first thing MLB should do is start firing bad umpires and let the union sue if it so desires. Why is Phil Cuzzi still working? He’s a proven incompetent with a bad attitude. So is C.B. Bucknor, who one pitcher described to me a couple of years ago as not being good enough to work in Double-A. There are plenty of others. Players get fired for not doing their job and so do managers. Why not umpires? The easiest game to officiate is baseball. The only serious challenge is balls and strikes about 99 percent of the time. If the other three guys have one tough call in a game, it’s a lot. A basketball official can have five block-charge decisions in the first five minutes of a game. Football officials have to decide what is or is not holding on almost every play. Hockey officials have to be on the move constantly and decide when physical contact is legal and when it’s not.

Umpires have the easiest job and the worst attitudes—generally speaking. It was too bad that Joyce, one of the best umpires and a very good guy, was in the middle of the blown perfect game. At the very least though, that call and that game and Joyce’s response to it should have sent a message to Selig that more replay—competently managed--is needed in the game.

You do NOT send the umpires into their locker room every time a replay is needed—the way they now do on home run calls. You have a replay official—not another umpire—in the press box who can hit a button to tell the home plate umpire he wants to look at a play when something appears blatantly wrong—like Joyce’s call in Detroit or Cuzzi’s call on Sunday. It would have taken under 30 seconds to get those two calls right. If the replay official needs more than 90 seconds to make a decision, the call on the field stands. Move on.

Of course baseball will continue to huff and puff and do nothing about any of this. Bad umpires will continue to umpire and there will be no replay anytime soon. On a different level it is sort of like drug-testing. MLB doesn’t want to wrangle with a union on something that is clearly needed so it will continue to duck the issue and say that all is well and, hey, look at our attendance!

Maybe they should call NASA for help. There doesn’t appear to be a whole lot going on over there these days.

John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases

Monday, July 19, 2010

Oosthuizen has special performance, is ‘the champion golfer of the year’

Anyone who has read this blog at all knows how much I hate to fly. I find the entire experience exhausting, demeaning and, at times, frightening. Even taking drugs I feel every bump.

Since I made the decision after 9-11 to only fly when there was absolutely no choice in the matter, I haven’t really regretted it very often. I really don’t mind the long drives, in fact I almost look forward to them because I enjoy the solitude. Sure, the phone rings at times, but it is my option to answer it or not. And when I think ahead to a trip and realize I don’t have to deal with all the hassles of flying because I’m going to drive I sleep a lot better at night.

Twice a year I wish I didn’t have a flying phobia. The first comes when I watch Wimbledon. The second comes when I watch The British Open—or, as real golf geeks call it, The Open Championship. That feeling multiplies by about 10 when The Open is at St. Andrews.

The other Open venues are all terrific in their own way. There’s nothing more spectacular than Turnberry; Muirfield is a wonderful golf course and Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s, even though it lacks the romance of being in Scotland is in a lovely seaside town and is a superb test of golf. Carnoustie is, quite simply, the hardest golf course I’ve ever played. The first time I played there one of the guys in my group turned to his caddy on the 13th hole and said, “when do we get to the easy holes?”

The caddy never missed a beat: “When ya get to St. Andrews,” he answered.

He wasn’t kidding.

Without wind, as we saw early last Thursday, St. Andrews isn’t that difficult. Of course that can be said to one degree or another about all links courses. Look at what Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus did at Turnberry in 1977 or what Greg Norman did in the final round at Troon in 1989 when he played 20 holes (unfortunately for him he needed to play 22 if he was going to win the four-hole playoff) in ten-under-par.

The first and 18th fairways at St. Andrews are 100 yards wide and the 18th has become little more than a long par three for most of the pros. And yet, I DID see Ian Baker-Finch hit his tee shot off of No. 1 across the 18th fairway and out-of-bounds in 1995. The ninth is also driveable—as Louis Oosthuizen proved so emphatically on Sunday—and the 12th can be too.

But St. Andrews is St. Andrews. Playing the golf course or just walking it is an experience like no other if you care about golf. You don’t have to be Tom Watson to get tears in your eyes crossing The Swilcan Bridge, you can be a hacker like me. You can get your scorecard framed from the first time you played there with a big circle around the 4 you made on The Road Hole.

The town of St. Andrews is just as historic as the golf course and would be a joy to visit if you had never played golf in your life. But if you are a golfer, when you start back in the direction of the clubhouse on The Old Course the feeling that comes over you is almost indescribable. And the feeling comes back, even when you are just watching on TV, memories washing over you.

I’ve been lucky enough to play The Old Course on several occasions. The first time I played there my caddy told me on the first tee he’d been there 26 years and he’d help me out of any situation I might get myself into. On the third tee, I aimed, as I always did, well right to play for my hook and the wind and proceeded to hit a push-slice across the road onto The New Course. There was no out-of-bounds so I walked to the ball, turned to my caddy and said, ‘what have I got from here?’

The caddy looked at me as if I was from Mars and said, “I dunno, I’ve never been HERE before.”

And you thought only Tiger Woods made history at. St. Andrews.

Actually Woods made no history this weekend. In fact, he barely made any noise at all except for his usual litany of muttered profanities and his now familiar refrain: “I’m hitting it great, just can’t putt.” (Jeez, he IS starting to sound like a lot of people I know).

But history WAS made and it was made by Oosthuizen. When I saw his name pop onto the leaderboard after his 65 on Thursday I barely paid attention. This is what I knew about him: he was South African, had won recently in Europe and had a name I wasn’t sure how to pronounce. Then he led by five on Friday. Here was my thought: The real lead in the golf tournament is six-under-par, because I didn’t think 50-year-old Mark Calcavecchia, who was in second place at seven-under, was going to hang around to contend on Sunday either.

Here’s what I thought when he led by four on Saturday and I watched him hit every shot (note to the R+A: I don’t care how much money ESPN is paying you, a 4:40 tee time for the lead group on Saturday is outrageous. I know they play far later in other sports and you’ve got light until 10:30 but give some consideration to the players who just sit around waiting and waiting to play) in the third round: this guy can play. I also thought all the ESPN comedians needed to give up the shtick about how to pronounce his name. It might have been funny ONCE.

On Sunday I knew I was witnessing something special. My guess is the TV ratings were lousy because it was a runaway and Phil Mickelson (again) was nowhere near contention and neither was Woods, whose new putter lasted three days. That whole episode was strange, Woods claiming pre-tournament he had never putted well on slow greens. He’s won the British Open THREE times, how poorly could he have putted on slow greens?

Those who didn’t watch missed an historic performance. If Oosthuizen goes on to become a star in golf, great. He’s clearly a very nice man with a wonderful golf swing who dealt with the pressure of contending in a major for the first time—heck, he’d made ONE cut previously and finished 73d—with amazing calm. But if he NEVER contends in a major again his weekend at St. Andrews will be worth savoring forever.

And if you didn’t choke up at least a little bit when he opened his victory speech by wishing Nelson Mandela a happy 92nd birthday then you have no sense of history at all.

The awards ceremony at The Open Championship is like no other in golf. No one thanks sponsors and there are no self-congratulatory pats on the back by the guys running the event. Peter Dawson, the head of the R+A, introduces the low amateur, the runner-up and then, “the champion golfer of the year.”

Again, if you don’t get a few chills when those words are spoken, you should be watching baseball at that moment.

I’ve been lucky enough to be standing a few yards away when those words were spoken on 11 different occasions. I hope I find a way to do it again. No doubt the Open will go back to St. Andrews in 2015. Maybe by then I’ll figure out a way to get there.

John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases

Friday, July 16, 2010

Can’t escape the Redskins; Winning will fill diminished bandwagon

One of the many pleasures about being on the eastern end of Long Island at this time of year is that I’m not bombarded every time I turn on a radio or a TV with talk of The Washington Redskins.

To be fair, Washington has improved as a sports town since the arrival of The Nationals, because a baseball team—even a bad one—gives people something to talk about and write about every day from March to October. This year, with signs of hope and the arrival of Stephen Strasburg, there has been interest in the Nats that goes beyond the hard-core baseball fans. Even the usually Redskins-obsessed sportstalk radio hosts in D.C. are willing to talk baseball on occasion.

That’s a major improvement. I still remember going on vacation to Boston in September of 1978. That was the year, of course, of the classic Yankees-Red Sox race that culminated in the Bucky Bleeping Dent one-game playoff won by the Yankees. Being in Boston that week was thrilling. Reading The Boston Globe every morning was fabulous. One Sunday afternoon a friend of mine and I drove to Salem and Gloucester. Along the way we switched back and forth between the Red Sox game and the Yankees game—picking up the Yankees signal on a Connecticut station. I think BOTH teams won in extra innings that day.

When I went back to Washington I walked into sports editor George Solomon’s office. He asked how my week off had been. “It was great,” I said. “The baseball writing in Boston is SO good. You know, it’s sad, you can’t really be a good sports town without a baseball team to write about.”

George went ballistic, told me I didn’t know what I was talking about and banished me from the office. I went back to my desk, picked up the sports section and counted EIGHT Redskin stories. There were brief wire stories on the Yankees and Red Sox. Case closed.

How important were the Redskins then—and now? My friend Terry Hanson was the publicity director in those days for The Washington Diplomats, the NASL soccer team—which was my first beat at The Post. Needless to say ANY publicity from The Post was a big deal for the Diplomats. The Diplomats offices were in RFK Stadium, a few yards away from the press box that was used for both soccer and football. It was just a little bit more crowded on football game days.

One morning Terry was in his office when his secretary came in to say George Solomon was on the phone. Terry practically jumped out of his chair. Maybe The Post wanted to do a long story on new coach Alan Spavin? Whatever it was, this was BIG—the sports editor of The Washington Post was calling HIM.

Hanson picked up the phone. George was almost breathless. This really was BIG he thought. “Terry I need a favor,” George said.

Trying to sound cool, Hanson said, “Well George, if I can arrange something, I’ll certainly try to help. What is it?”

“The Redskins play their first exhibition game tonight. I need to be sure our phone in the press box is working. Can you walk out there and check it for me?”

It was at that moment that it occurred to Hanson that George had probably never HEARD of Alan Spavin.

Even though I’ve lived in Washington since graduating from college, I’ve always felt somewhat adrift because I’ve never been able to wrap my arms around the local teams. I have come to like and enjoy the Capitals even though the Islanders will always be my hockey team—unless they move to Kansas City because the politicians on Long Island refuse to cooperate on a desperately needed new building—and I enjoy any success the Nats have unless it involves beating the Mets. I’m ambivalent about the Wizards because the last time I really cared about the NBA, Willis Reed and Walt Frazier were still suiting up for the Knicks.

Nowadays, with the internet and TV packages, someone like me can easily keep track of the Mets and the Islanders even while living in DC. What’s different being here (Long Island) versus being in DC is simple: the Redskins. Being in DC there is no escaping from them 12 months a year. They are a monolith and they know it, which is one reason why owner Dan Snyder can treat the media with disdain 90 percent of the time and get away with it.

Snyder came onto my radar—sadly—yesterday when I was in my car after hosting Jim Rome from a studio in Southampton and flipped on WFAN, expecting to hear talk about whether the Mets were going to trade for a starting pitcher. Instead, for some reason, the hosts were interviewing new Redskins coach Mike Shanahan.

I was about to hit a button to change the station when one of the hosts asked Shanahan about his decision to go work for Snyder. Look, there are about eight million reasons (a year) why Shanahan went to work for Snyder. Nothing wrong with that. Of course Shanahan wasn’t going to say that so he reverted to the old, “you know no one wants to win more than Dan Snyder,” line.

Almost all owners want to win. Some don’t have the kind of money Snyder has but they all want to win. Snyder wants to win for Snyder; for his ego and for no other reason. Clearly he has no respect for his fans because he has gouged them every chance he’s gotten since day one and last year, when they finally turned on him after 11 years of mis-management, he had his security people treat them like suspicious-looking characters trying to board an airplane.

The Redskins will be better this year—they pretty much have to be after last year’s 4-12 debacle. Donovan McNabb is a clear upgrade at quarterback; they finally drafted a left tackle and made improvements in the offensive line and Shanahan is an upgrade at coach. It finally occurred to Snyder that being the most hated man in Washington wasn’t really a good thing and he has been trying to rehab his image this offseason—staying in the background during free agent signings; talking to the media on occasion (almost always at a charity event so people HAVE to mention that a billionaire is doing charity work as if that somehow makes him a good guy) even jettisoning his long-time pit-bull PR guy who loved threatening the media members with banishment from Redskins Park if they didn’t behave properly.

I know if the Redskins start to win this fall, people in DC will jump back on their bandwagon so fast it will make heads spin. George Steinbrenner went from constantly booed to canonized in New York not so much because he changed—although he clearly did—but because the Yankees became winners. Snyder has none of Steinbrenner’s charm OR his sense of humor. But if his team wins this fall, few in Washington will care.

Maybe I’ll take another vacation in Boston in September.

John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases

Thursday, July 15, 2010

This week's radio segments; guest hosting The Jim Rome Show today

Quick note for today: I will be guest hosting The Jim Rome Show today, from 12-3 ET.

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 from this week.  In it, we discussed today's upcoming changes to the NCAA tournament, including the 'First Four,' which includes 8 teams, Tiger Woods and his change of putters, and various other topics.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Sports Reporters


Also, I joined The Gas Man show on Wednesday evening in my normal 8:25 ET spot. This week we discussed Paul Goydos and his 59, why shooting that number is so elusive, and Navy football.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Gas Man

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Washington Post column - The silver lining in the NCAA's cloudy format

There's a very old joke about a funeral. The rabbi stands in front of the congregation and says, "I know you all have something you want to say about our dear departed friend. So instead of a eulogy, I'd like you each to stand up and tell us what you loved best about him."

Complete silence.

"Don't be shy," the rabbi says. "I know this is hard. Who's going to go first?"

More silence.

Finally, the rabbi says, "Okay, I'm going to get this started. You, Adam, in the first row, you start us off."

Adam reluctantly gets to his feet, shrugs and says, "His brother was worse."

That joke came to mind Monday when the NCAA men's basketball committee finally got around to revealing how the new and un-improved 68-team tournament will work next March.

It could have been worse.

Of course, it could have been a lot better.

And because the NCAA is the NCAA, we still don't know all the details. One can only hope that by Selection Sunday, the committee will figure out exactly where it is going to send teams to begin the tournament.

Here are the basics:

Click here for the rest of the column: New NCAA 68-team tournament format could have been worse

George Steinbrenner, a larger-than-life figure; Bob Sheppard

When I heard this morning about George Steinbrenner’s death, I thought right away about something a good friend of Bob Knight’s once said about college basketball’s winningest coach: “He’s a jerk. But he knows he’s a jerk and he tries to make up for it.”

I didn’t know Steinbrenner 1/100th as well as I know Knight—I met him once, in 1985 when the late Shirley Povich took me into his box at Yankee Stadium and introduced me—but my sense is the same could be said of Steinbrenner.

He was a bully; an ego-maniac; a man who threw tantrums when he didn’t get his way; a man who hired and fired people on a whim and someone who could be absolutely impossible to deal with. Forget that he hired and fired Billy Martin five times, he made YOGI BERRA so angry that he stayed away from Yankee Stadium for years.

He was also someone who believed in redemption and second chances; who actively sought out people he had wronged to try to make things right; who was generous to employees or former employees in trouble and who had a sense of humor. He enjoyed the ‘Seinfeld,’ parody and took part in more than one commercial mocking his ego and willingness to do anything to win.

Certainly he was a larger-than-life figure. In fact, when I think of him I also think of something Eric Sevareid said on the day Lyndon Johnson died: “He was a great man with great flaws.”

That was Steinbrenner. Of course in death, as so often happens, he will be sainted by many. You can bet a year from now he’ll be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame even though he will be no more or less deserving in death than he was in life.

A lot of people will forget that this was a man who subverted federal law in making contributions to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign and later gave a sleaze bag named Howie Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on Dave Winfield. The latter may have been worse because it was so monumentally stupid.

Those same people will probably forget too that the best thing that happened to the Steinbrenner Yankees was Steinbrenner getting caught in the Spira caper. He had spent most of the 1980s mis-managing the team, constantly trading young players for old ones in search of instant gratification. The Yankees of the 1980s were best summed up by Frank Costanza: “How could you give up Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps?! What were you thinking?”

Because of Spira, Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball (initially for life, eventually for three years) by then-commissioner Fay Vincent. It was during the time that Steinbrenner was NOT in charge of the Yankees in the early-90s that Gene Michael and Buck Showalter rebuilt the team. The most important things they did were what they didn’t do: They did NOT dangle prospects Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada as trade bait to try to get good again fast. They were patient. They dealt with mediocrity for a few years and then, soon after Steinbrenner returned, those young players began to mature.

At the same time, Steinbrenner made two moves that he was castigated for, both of which turned out to be brilliant: He fired Showalter as his manager after the Yankees flamed out in the 1995 playoffs—their first postseason team in 14 years—and hired Joe Torre to replace him. Showalter probably did nothing to deserve getting fired but Torre’s calm approach, which was far different than the tightly-wound Showalter, proved to be just what the Yankees needed. From 1996 to 2000 they won four World Series and during Torre’s 12-year tenure they never missed the playoffs.

Torre was pushed out after the 2007 season, technically not fired since he was offered a one-year contract, but clearly pushed, as much by Steinbrenner’s sons as by Steinbrenner. The fact that he lasted as long as he did was a tribute to Torre but also to the fact that Steinbrenner had learned at least a little bit of patience after his exile from the game.

The first time I had a clear inkling that all wasn’t well with Steinbrenner came in February of 2007. I was at spring training working on, “Living on the Black,” the book I wrote on Mike Mussina and Tom Glavine. I was in the Yankees camp a couple of days after the players had reported and had spent some time with Mussina and Torre. I went upstairs to the press box to pick up some paperwork—media guides et al—and, after chatting with some people for a few minutes, headed to the elevator to leave.

There were several other reporters at the elevator. “They’re not letting us leave right now,” someone told me. “We have to wait a couple of minutes.”

“Why?” I asked.

“George,” was the answer.

Apparently Steinbrenner had visited the stadium—that was named for him two years later—that day. Mussina told me later he hadn’t come into the clubhouse to see the players. When he exited the building, the lobby area was sealed off—apparently The Boss didn’t want people to see him in his weakened condition. Once he was gone, we were free to leave. It wasn’t long after that day that the rumors began circulating that he wasn’t well.

Steinbrenner’s death means that two Yankee icons have died in the last three days. On Sunday morning, Bob Sheppard, who was the voice of Yankee Stadium for 56 years—“The voice of God,” Reggie Jackson famously called him—died at the age of 99.

I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Sheppard—through basketball. For many years, he did the PA at Alumni Hall at St. John’s, where he taught speech and diction. Whenever I was at St. John’s I would try to spend a few minutes before he had to go to work just listening to him talk and tell stories. People talk often about the way he pronounced the names of famous Yankees and visiting players but I always enjoyed hearing him say, “and the coach of the Redmen is Lou Carnesecca.” He didn’t stretch it out, no ‘Looooo,’ and he didn’t say, ‘Con-a-seca,’ the way so many in New York did. He said it exactly the way it was spelled. But it still gave you a chill when you heard him say it.

As it turned out, 2007 was his last year doing the PA at Yankee Stadium. He had his own table in the dining area in the bowels of Yankee Stadium and, when I had the chance to sit with him on a few occasions, he looked very frail—not surprising at 96. But when he would get in that PA booth, his voice was as majestic as ever.

Steinbrenner’s story will be the talk of the All-Star game tonight and it should be. There’s no doubting his impact on baseball and on the city of New York. But I certainly hope people won’t forget to honor Bob Sheppard too. For a lot of those lean “Ken Phelps,” years he was the one Yankee who never lost a step.

John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases

Monday, July 12, 2010

Not wanting to break the story, I can now discuss Dean Smith

I knew the day would come when I would have to write about Dean Smith’s health. I made the decision last fall that I would not be the first one to write about it or talk about it because I felt my understanding of the situation had come about because of Dean’s willingness to cooperate with me on a biography. We had started working on the book last August.

I had known before then that Dean wasn’t Dean anymore. By that, I mean he no longer had the most remarkable memory of anyone I had ever met. As far back as 2005 he had commented to me when I was researching ‘Last Dance,’ that he knew his memory wasn’t what it had been. Back then though it was still better than most.

There were plenty of stories that he was struggling after he had knee surgery three years ago, that the surgery had not gone that well and there had been neurological issues. A number of people I knew at North Carolina had said to me at times, ‘it’s not good.’ It really hit me that he must not be well when he didn’t come to The Final Four in Detroit to watch the Tar Heels win the national title in 2009.

That was when I sat down with Rick Brewer, who has been one of Dean’s confidants at Carolina for almost 40 years and told him I thought the time was now or never if I was going to do the book on Dean I had always wanted to do. Rick agreed and that led to the meeting I had with Dean in May of 2009. Was it apparent he wasn’t the Dean Smith I had covered dating to my days in college, someone who remembered everything, had an answer for anything and who was always the smartest guy in the room but never felt the need to prove it?

Yes. But he was still Dean; still smart and still funny even with the memory lapses. I was absolutely convinced there was still time for me to do the interviewing I needed to do to write the book, especially since I had spent so much time with him in the past and knew so many of the people who had played important roles in his life. When Dean said yes to the book, I was thrilled.

The sessions I had with him in August were difficult—more difficult, to be honest, than I anticipated. There were still moments when he was classic Dean. His description of the night he met his first wife, Ann, was hysterical: “It was the graduation dance. She came with a football player I didn’t like. The guy was really cocky. I decided to ask her to dance and we hit it off right away.”

Typical Dean; his competitiveness led him to the altar.

But there were other moments when he simply couldn’t remember things. When I asked him to talk about Bob Spear, his first boss at the Air Force Academy, he said, “you tell me about him. Maybe it will come back.”

I left knowing two things: I was going to need more time with him than I’d thought because, unlike in the old days when the only thing that slowed down an interview was Dean asking you something like, ‘why would you ask that question? I don’t see why that’s important,’ there were now long stretches where he simply couldn’t remember details that once came easily to him. And second, I was going to need more help from his friends than I had initially thought.

I talked to both Roy Williams and Bill Guthridge about the sessions I’d had with their old boss. Neither was surprised. “It’s an important book to do,” Bill said to me. “People down here understand what he accomplished that has nothing to do with basketball but I’m know there are a lot of people who don’t understand. It should be done. He’s such a remarkable person.”

Roy, of course, felt the same way. They both said they’d help in any way they could and told me that if I was patient, they were convinced it could get done. That was exactly what I planned to do.

Dean, through his long time assistant Linda Woods, had provided me with phone numbers for all his family members. It was when I started contacting them that I realized I had a problem. They were, understandably, concerned with how the time involved would affect Dean’s health.

I had a long talk with Dean’s son Scott, who at one point offered to sit in on the sessions. That would do two things: it would allow him to make sure his dad was doing okay and not getting too fatigued and it might help him jog his dad’s memory on certain things. I thought it was a great idea. One thing was clear in my dealings with Scott and with Linnea, Dean’s wife: they understood why those who cared about Dean wanted to see the book done and, I think they knew that Dean trusted me to do the book the right way. But I think their concerns about his health out-weighed all of that.

Which I completely understand. After a number of conversations with them and with Rick Brewer and Roy Williams and Bill Guthridge I came to the conclusion that I would be pushing an envelope, which, since I’m not a doctor, I really didn’t completely understand if I kept trying to move forward. I thought briefly about suggesting that I do the project without interviewing Dean any further. Given all the past interviews I had done with him, if I had the cooperation of everyone else involved, I could still write the book. But that didn’t feel right: the agreement Dean and I had was to work together on the book. It was what I had always wanted to do. Going forward with him only being peripherally involved felt wrong.

So, regretfully, I decided not to go forward.

Naturally I’ve been asked about the progress of the book by a lot of people since then. I’ve simply said that Dean’s health became an issue—an honest, but incomplete answer. As I said, it has hardly been a secret in North Carolina for a long while but it wasn’t until last week when The Fayetteville Observer published a story about Dean’s memory problems that it was really talked about in the public domain.

As I said, this was one time when I had absolutely no interest in breaking a story. That’s in part because of how and why I knew the story but also in part because the story is so sad. The Fayetteville story said Dean has good days and bad days. At the very least he had some very good moments last August.

And there was one moment I will always cherish. At one point we took a break. While I was waiting for Dean to come back, my cell phone buzzed. I wasn’t going to answer it but when I looked at it I saw Lefty Driesell’s number come up. I thought Dean would get a kick out of talking to Lefty. When Dean came back, I told him I was talking to Lefty and handed him the phone. (I then had a brief notion that I’d screwed up because he might not remember Lefty. But he did).

While they were talking I could hear Lefty say, clear as a bell, “Dean I can’t believe you’re gonna do a book with a Duke guy.”

Dean laughed. “I don’t think of him as a Duke guy,” he said. “I just think of him as a good guy.”

It only took me 32 years to get him to say that. It was worth the wait.

John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases

Friday, July 9, 2010

A day of the sublime and the ridiculous

Today is a day to write about both the sublime and the ridiculous.

The sublime came early yesterday when my good friend Paul Goydos shot 59—FIFTY-NINE!—in the first round of The John Deere Classic. For those of you who don’t follow golf, Paul was the fourth player in the history of The PGA Tour to shoot 59 in an official tour event. In all likelihood, he won’t even win this weekend—although he’s off to a pretty decent start—but he is now a part of golf history.

The ridiculous, of course, was ESPN’s LeBron James infomercial/love-athon. Let me just say two things quickly now: 1. ESPN flat out lied about when James would actually announce where he was playing. It insisted the public would know, “in the first ten minutes,” of the show. Jim Gray FINALLY stopped asking questions about the ‘process,’ at 9:27. I’m not good at math but 27 is considerably more than 10 last time I checked. 2. Some ESPN suit named Norby Williamson proudly declared yesterday that ESPN was in complete control of the show, “other than what comes out of his (James’s) mouth.” If so, everyone involved should submit their resignations this morning. ESPN at its best is very good; at its worst completely awful. This went beyond anything it has ever done for horrific.

Okay, let’s get back to Goydos because it is a far more pleasant topic. I make absolutely no secret of the fact that I’m in the tank for Paul and have been almost since the day I met him at The Buick Open in 1993 when I was researching “A Good Walk Spoiled.”

On that day, his opening line at a press conference was, “Most of you have never heard of me. There’s a reason for that. I’ve never done anything.”

My kind of guy. He ended up being the cult hero of the book and we’ve been friends ever since through a lot of ups and downs in both our lives. If you follow golf, you know that Paul’s wife Wendy got hooked on methamphetamines years ago trying to find some relief from constant migraine headaches. She ended up in and out of rehab but never was able to get completely clean. Paul ended up a single dad, dropping off the tour for a year to be with his teen-age girls. Then, a year ago in January, Wendy died of an apparent overdose.

I still vividly remember Paul’s phone call that day. I was driving home from a basketball game at Bucknell. I knew he had missed the cut at Hawaii but as soon as I heard his voice I knew he wasn’t calling to complain about his golf. Wendy was 44.

What makes Goydos a unique character is his sense of humor, which is about as dry and self-deprecating as I’ve ever seen—his opening comment that first day I met him being a good example. Later he was explaining how he plays his best golf when he gets his slice going. “I know when you’re on The PGA Tour you’re supposed to call it a fade,” he said. “But when you hit a seven iron and it goes 20 yards to the right that’s not a fade, that’s a slice.”

Paul has always described himself as “the worst player in the history of The PGA Tour.” Given that he’s been out there 18 years, has won twice and lost a memorable playoff to Sergio Garcia at the 2008 Players Championship even before yesterday, he’d have trouble making that case.

But he’s certainly not your typical golfer. He’s got a homemade swing and kind of slumps around the course, looking like a guy you might run into at the local muni on Saturday morning. He grew up on a muni in Long Beach and went to Long Beach State. When a problem with one of his hands—he couldn’t grip a club—seemed to end his golf career he did some teaching in the Long Beach school system, often working at inner city schools. That background has certainly given him a different view of life than most of his fellow pros.

Rarely does Paul get openly excited about a round of golf. I remember years ago when he played a U.S. Open qualifier at Woodmont and shot 63 the first 18 holes.

“Great playing,” I said.

“I didn’t make a single putt,” he answered.

“And shot 63?”

“Well, I guess I hit it pretty well.”

Yesterday was different. When I talked to him on the phone yesterday afternoon, he’d done hours of media because he’ll never say no when people want to talk to him. “Actually it caught me by surprise,” he said. “I mean, I know 59 is an iconic number, I was fully aware of what was going on the last few holes. I wasn’t going to sit there and pretend it wasn’t a big deal. I remember thinking on the 16th tee, ‘okay, lots of guys have the chance to shoot 59 but only THREE have actually done it. Let’s do everything possible to be number four.’”

He made three birdies to do it, holing a seven-footer on 18. “That’s the most nervous I think I’ve ever been over a putt in my life,” he said. “I KNOW winning is a bigger deal than shooting 59 but I also know people will remember me for this more than for the two wins or even The Players—which was a pretty big deal when it happened.”

Of course he had a memorable line which he had been repeating all day: “Most people dream of shooting their age. I shot my height.” He is 5-9 so shooting his height isn’t easy.

The irony is that a week ago when I’d seen him in Philadelphia he’d been legitimately down about his game—not just Goydos, worst-player-in-history down, truly down. He’d had a chance to win at Pebble Beach in February before making a nine at the 14th hole on Sunday. Since then, he hadn’t played well.

“I probably let that get to me more than I realized,” he said. “On the other hand, a four month slump for me isn’t exactly big news. I have one just about every year.”

I hope he’s out of it now. The day after a great round is the toughest one there is for a golfer. The good news is he starts out five shots clear of the field except for defending champion Steve Stricker, who went out in the afternoon and shot 60. “To start your round 12 shots behind the leader and finish it one shot back is pretty impressive,” Goydos said.

To shoot 59 is more impressive. And trust me, it couldn’t happen to a better guy. I hope he can keep it going through the weekend.

Okay, back to the ridiculous. We all knew the so-called, “Decision,” would be bad TV but did anyone imagine how bad? The painful stalling with more mindless chatter and a Stu Scott narrated paean to The King—in which he called him the greatest player in the game—was brutal. I can’t wait for Stu’s next conversation with Kobe Bryant. Even Chris Broussard, who had the story, hedged. “I hear Miami but it could be Cleveland, New York or Chicago,” he said.

I wonder: Was he ORDERED by ESPN to hedge to stretch out the “suspense.”

There were commercials galore; reminders who was sponsoring the show and then the five minutes of torturous questions from Gray—again, no doubt under orders from the suits. No one—NO ONE—cared about the damn process at that point.

Michael Wilbon, after the opening silly, “how tough was this,” question tried to get James to say something but he was strictly on message. Everyone in Cleveland was a great guy. He just wanted to win, blah-blah-blah. It was funny how he kept talking about, “everything I’ve done for the city.” Yeah, there are all those championship banners he helped hang. Oh wait, that’s not The King, he’s hung ZERO banners. Look, he has a perfect right to go wherever he wants but please don’t sit there and tell people in Cleveland how much you’ve done for them. The last thing they saw you do was wimp out against the Celtics.

Worst of all though was after the announcement finally was over and Wilbon’s attempts to get James to answer questions had failed, was Scott saying, “And the King has ANOTHER big announcement to make.” The big announcement was that someone ELSE was giving a bunch of money to The Boys and Girls Clubs. The only thing missing at that point was Jerry Lewis. Then again, Scott posing as any kind of journalist is funnier than Lewis and Martin at their peak.

I’m a little embarrassed that I watched but it was a little bit like trying to drive past an accident without rubber-necking. My new favorite owner is Dan Gilbert.

By the way, the NCAA announced—AGAIN—yesterday that it is ALMOST ready to announce what it is going to do with the 68-team NCAA Tournament format. (They called it the “enhanced,” 68 team field). I think they’re negotiating with ESPN for a special called, “The Decision."

John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases

Washington Post - Eighteen-year tour veteran Paul Goydos shoots a 59 in first round of PGA John Deere Classic

The first time I ever laid eyes on Paul Goydos was at the Buick Open in 1993. He was a 29-year-old PGA Tour rookie, and he had shot 66 on Thursday afternoon. Because he was the only player to go low in the late wave, he was brought into the interview room. I was about to leave, but for some reason -- kismet? -- I wandered into the back of the room on my way out the door.

The first thing I heard Paul say was this: "I'm guessing none of you have heard of me. There's a reason for that: I've never done anything."

He certainly can't make that claim anymore.

Goydos has had a very solid career. This is his 18th year on tour. He has won twice (Bay Hill in 1996; Sony Open in Hawaii in 2007) and been a very consistent money-winner. He's one of the game's most respected people: Corey Pavin asked him to be an assistant captain on the Ryder Cup team this fall, and he was just elected by his peers to the PGA Tour's policy board.

On Thursday, though, Goydos went beyond all that. Teeing off early at TPC Deere Run in the first round of the John Deere Classic, he shot a 12-under-par 59. To put the round into some perspective, here is the list of players who have shot 59 in the history of the PGA Tour: Al Geiberger, Chip Beck, David Duval -- and now, Paul Goydos.

"Most people try to shoot their age," he said afterward. "Today, I shot my height."
Paul is, in fact, 5-9.

A 59 is -- obviously -- a remarkable round of golf under any circumstances, but this one is perhaps more amazing because Paul has been playing lousy golf since February. Back then he had a chance to win at Pebble Beach before a quadruple-bogey 9 at the notorious 14th hole blew him back into a tie for fifth.

Click here for the rest of the column - Eighteen-year tour veteran Paul Goydos shoots a 59 in first round of PGA John Deere Classic

Thursday, July 8, 2010

‘The Decision” of LeBron -- breaking through new barriers of narcissism, aided by his sycophants

I really didn’t want to touch LeBron James or the NBA free agency circus again until it was over and it was possible to write about where the players had landed and how that might change the landscape of the league.

But the whole thing is so comically out of control at this point it can’t be ignored. The last week has been an embarrassment to just about everyone involved and it will reach a crescendo of Saturday Night Live parody tonight during the one hour “special,” which is apparently being called, “The Decision.”

When President Obama makes a decision on what to do next in Afghanistan that will be worthy of capital letters and an hour of TV time. This is a basketball player, one who has won zero championships up until this moment, finally getting around to telling people where he’s going to play basketball the next few years.

Please-PLEASE—do not tell me for one second that any of this is excusable because James and company are going to throw a few dollars at Boys and Girls Clubs. He can write that check any day he wants to and ask Nike to match it and not put everyone through this ridiculous sideshow tonight. One funny note: Apparently ESPN, embarrassed by the notion that the first half of the show would be some kind of tribute to LeBron, has insisted the announcement come in the first 10 minutes. I would love to see what happens to the ratings during those last 50 minutes. Do you think anyone other than people in the city James decides to anoint are going to want to stick around to hear Stuart Scott lob softballs at him?

“LeBron, my man, just how tough has the last month been for you and your family?”

Of course ESPN isn’t the only guilty party in all this by a long shot. James has always had the classic star athlete’s massive ego, that’s hardly a scoop or a surprise, especially given the way he’s been treated since high school. I still remember the first time I saw him in person. It was at one of those high school all-star camps in New Jersey and even then he had an entourage worthy of Andre Agassi at his best/worst. Even then ESPN was already trying to make him into a marketable, larger-than-life star, putting his high school games on TV to cash in a little bit on his teen-age mystique but also to align itself with him since he was probably going to be a big star in the NBA.

Which he has been. At his best, the guy is absolutely brilliant. But because of the over-marketing and hype of the 21st century he has been built into more than he is. Yesterday, Mike Gastineau, one of the smart guys in sportstalk radio started a question by saying to me, “If the city of Cleveland loses the greatest player of all time…”

“STOP!” I screamed. “STOP!”

“Okay,” Mike said, “maybe he’ll BECOME the greatest player of all-time.”

“STOP!” I screamed again.

You see I’m not prepared to declare James the greatest player in the game NOW. Until James starts winning championships, Kobe Bryant has that title. I’m not 100 percent sure that, when healthy, Dwyane Wade isn’t at least in the conversation for number two. That’s an argument for another day as is the fact that James isn’t close to Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson right now. Don’t talk to me about skills or dunks, talk to me about making plays that win big games. Big games, for the record, don’t take place in February. Hey, when it really matters, I’d take Walt Frazier or Jerry West over James in a heartbeat. Julius Erving wasn’t bad either.

Of course that may change. He may grow into a champion. Jordan didn’t win a title until his seventh season and ended up with six.

For now though the issue is what we’ve had to watch for the past week. Forget the now ONE MILLION times we have heard the words, “From what I’m hearing James is…” Heck, before this is over he may announce he’s going to play for Cleveland STATE. He’s got eligibility left.

Honestly, I do not care where he plays. Unless he goes to Miami, I don’t think any of the teams he might play for next year will be better than the Lakers or for that matter the Celtics (if healthy) or the Magic. If I’m wrong, fine, good for James and his teammates—although my sense is if and when a James-led team does win a title it will be all about LeBron. Apparently that’s his view of the world.

We’re all guilty. Someone asked the other day if I was so sick of the LeBron hype why did I keep writing about him? Because, sadly, it’s a story, just like the whole tawdry Tiger Woods affair (the whole thing not the individual affairs) is a story. I like to go off the beaten path as much as anyone and more than most. But when people are asking you about something on a minute-to-minute basis and you can’t escape it whenever you turn on TV, radio, the internet or pick up a newspaper, you sort of have to write and/or talk about it.

But let’s understand what the story is: It’s the story of an athlete who, even by today’s standards, is breaking through new barriers of narcissism, aided by his sycophants (ESPN included); the media, the public and an NBA system that has always been about stars not about teams for as long as David Stern has run the league.

There’s an old saying that the truly great players care first about the name on the front of their uniform not the one on the back. It may well be that James will turn out to be that way next season: Part of his deal may be to put, “LeBron,” on the front of his new uniform.

This week's radio segments (The Sports Reporters, The Gas Man)

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 from this week.  In it, we discussed today's upcoming LeBron show, the Athletic Director scenarios at Maryland and Tiger Woods.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Sports Reporters


Also, I joined The Gas Man show on Wednesday evening in my normal 8:25 ET spot. This week we discussed the upcoming choice of formats for the NCAA on the new 68 team tournament, LeBron James and ESPN, the NBA in general with this summer process, and several other topics.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Gas Man

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Yesterday is proof I’ll watch just about any basketball game on -- Welsh, Gonzalez talk

It was just too hot to be outside yesterday, even on Shelter Island where the temperature is usually about 10 degrees cooler than in New York. The thought of playing golf, or even just hitting golf balls, made me feel slightly ill. No one in my family disagreed.

So we holed up inside—Thank God the air conditioning was working—and everyone did something different. I worked for a while but, having worked out in the morning and having been out in the heat for some time doing errands, I ran out of gas around 4 o’clock.

I plopped down on the couch and turned on our newly installed TV—its an old TV but the first time I’ve ever had one outside my office in this house for a number of reasons—and began flipping around. Nothing. If I heard one more report about where LeBron James or Dwyane Wade might or might be going I was going to throw a rock through my beloved new TV.

I flipped over, finally, to ESPNU. To be honest, I’ve appeared on ESPNU (Patriot League basketball) more often than I’ve watched it. I won’t pay the extra money it costs back home and I didn’t even know it is part of my basic service out here until recently.

The U (that’s what they call it, right?) was showing the entire NIT over the course of the day. Hey, it’s July. There isn’t even spring football to ruminate about. I’ve said this before and it remains true: There is almost no basketball I won’t watch. Years ago, I had some time to kill in New York one afternoon and wandered down to the park where I grew up. I found myself sitting on a bench next to the old basketball courts I had played on as a kid.

There was only one full court in the playground and that was always the game you wanted to be in because that’s where the best kids played. The court was nowhere near regulation size—maybe 70-feet—but the thrill of going up-and-down, trying to beat the defense back or make a steal and going the other way, was about as good as it got when I was about 12-years-old.

Nothing had changed. The best kids were playing on the full-court. As I watched, I noticed one kid who reminded me of a kid I’d grown up with. All I remember is his name was Moey. He wasn’t necessarily the best player we had, but he was the toughest. He always won, in part because he’d cheat if he had to. He’d grab you and deny it; call a foul when there was none; call his when the ball had clearly gone off his hand. No one challenged him.

This kid must have been Moey’s son. As I watched—and I sat there for a solid hour and watched—I got ANGRY. I came thisclose to telling Little Moey to knock it off before I remembered how old I was and how stupid I’d look.

Back to yesterday. When I flipped to the U, they were showing the Virginia Tech-Rhode Island game, a quarterfinal in Blacksburg that I knew Rhode Island had won late to advance to Madison Square Garden. I sat there transfixed, watching a game that had taken place more than three months ago, one where I knew the outcome. Didn’t matter. It was basketball—pretty good basketball at that—so I watched.

As the game wound down, two things ran through my mind. Tim Welsh was doing the color on the game. I like Tim Welsh but we had a bad falling out a few years back. He was coaching at Providence and had a very good team, led by Ryan Gomes. He committed to come play in the next year’s BB+T Classic, then backed out—in late March when finding a team was going to be, to put it mildly, extremely difficult.

Maybe I take the charity work I’m involved with too personally—but I’m really not going to apologize for that. Welsh handled the whole thing badly: first his scheduler began ducking calls from our tournament director (the deal had been completely agreed to on both sides and we’d sent out the contract) and then when I tried to call Tim to find out what the hell was going on he ducked my calls. When I finally got him on the phone he tried to claim some assistant AD was forcing him to blow off the event, which I didn’t believe for a minute. He was better-dealing us for a bigger payday, taking advantage of Gomes’ decision to return for his senior year.

I began referring to Welsh every chance I got as, “the aptly named Tim Welsh.” He wrote me a note asking what he could do to make up for the, “awkward position,” he had left me in. I told him not to bother. Welsh was fired a few years later and, like most fired coaches, ended up doing games on ESPN.

And, like most fired coaches, Welsh wanted to coach again. He got that chance this past spring when he was hired at Hofstra—a good job in a good league for good money. Then he made a bad mistake: getting stopped for DUI within a week of his hiring. Within 72 hours he had resigned.

None of us condone DUI. There are also very few of us who haven’t made the mistake of getting behind the wheel at some point when we shouldn’t have and been fortunate enough not to be stopped. Welsh was both dumb and unlucky. Now, he’s out of coaching—and probably untouchable—and who knows if ESPN will take him back. God knows the four-letter folks have brought back people who have done worse, but Welsh isn’t a big star. So, with his first child due next month, Welsh is out of work.

As I watched the game, feeling badly for Welsh, I saw something on ESPN’s crawl—which may be the most annoying thing every created since 90 percent of the time it gives you information you absolutely don’t need while you wait around for the 10 percent you do need. The crawl note was about Bobby Gonzales, the recently fired coach at Seton Hall.

Gonzales has apparently been charged with shoplifting some kind of expensive satchel from a high-end clothing store. I have no idea if there’s any truth to it—his lawyer, as you might expect says it was all a misunderstanding—but, again, I feel badly.

I know there are LOTS of people who can’t stand Gonzales. I was, to be honest, stunned when The New York Times ran a piece on him in March quoting people at Manhattan College talking about how they couldn’t stand Gonzales when he was there. He’d been gone FOUR years and, by the way, completely rebuilt the program, going to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments in 2003 and 2004; beating Florida in the first round in ’04.

Gonzales came very close to turning Seton Hall around. His team was on the NCAA Tournament bubble all season and had some heartbreaking losses in The Big East. But close doesn’t count in coaching and Gonzales was fired with people at Seton Hall saying, ‘good riddance, he was nuts.’

I’m not prepared to argue with that but I always liked Gonzales. I’m affected, no doubt, by the fact that he always treated me well dating back to his days as a Virginia assistant coach. Early in his Manhattan tenure I was at a Manhattan-Army game while researching, “The Last Amateurs.” Bobby knew I was there to see Army and write about their kids but he sought me out after the game. “I just want you to know how much guys like me appreciate the fact that you try to stand up for the little guys in this game,” he said.

Naturally, I was flattered by the comment and I was pleased for his success and the fact that he got a shot at The Big East. It didn’t work out. Now, whether these charges have merit or not, he’s been publicly disgraced.

It’s remarkable how quickly you can go from hero to bum in coaching—or, I guess any job where you’re in the public eye. Chances are it will be very difficult for either Welsh or Gonzales to coach again—or even get TV work. There’s no doubt they both made mistakes. There’s also no doubt in my mind they deserve another chance somewhere, someplace, sometime.


John recently appeared on The Jim Rome Show ( to discuss 'Moment of Glory.' Click here to download, or listen in the player below:

John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for NCAA wisdom; Discouraged by Islanders, encouraged by Mets

Some time later this week the suspense will finally be over.

No, believe it or not, I’m not talking about LeBron James or any of the other NBA free agents. I’m talking about the new NCAA basketball tournament format.

I know this because last week I received an e-mail from the NCAA announcing that the basketball committee had, in fact, reached a decision on how to deal with the new 68 team format. The press release basically said this: the committee has reached a decision but we’re NOT telling you what that decision is until next week. It went on to add that none of the committee members would DISCUSS the decision or what went into it until next week.

Full radio silence.

Imagine if the committee had been making a decision on something that was actually important. They might have been locked in hotel rooms with no access to TV, cell phones or the internet until the announcement was made.

What’s strange about the remarkable self-importance of the committee through the years is that I’ve had the chance to know most of those who have served on it dating back thirty years. I LIKE most of them individually—there have been notable exceptions, led by Jim Delany, college athletics’ answer to Darth Vader—but when they gather as a group it gets almost scary.

Years ago, after the committee had done an especially horrific job seeding the tournament I said to Tony Kornheiser on his radio show: “They should all be lined up and shot.” (Okay, I get a bit carried away sometimes).

Noting this Tony said, “But Jack Kvancz (the AD at George Washington and then a committee member) is a good friend of yours.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Just shoot him in the leg.”

Jack, who was listening, told me later he was grateful.

Now, I’m all for giving credit where it is due. The committee did NOT decide to expand the tournament to 96 teams beginning next year as most of us believed they would this past spring. I think when they realized they could still get huge money from CBS/Turner for a new long term contract without getting pilloried—as they knew they would—for rewarding mediocrity by going to 96 teams—they backed off. How long that back off will last none of us knows but at least they held off for now.

But seriously folks, a press release announcing that you’ve made a decision on a minor issue but you aren’t announcing it for a week? Is there some curiosity among those of us who love college hoops about the new format? Sure. But there really aren’t that many options out there.

The committee will either make the last eight automatic bid qualifiers play-in against one another to reach the round of 64 as No. 16 seeds or it will make the last eight at-large teams play-in to the round of 64 as No. 12 or No. 13 seeds—which is the right thing to do. You might wonder why not compromise and have four at-large teams play four automatic bid teams. That really can’t work because you can’t say if the at-large teams win they’re No. 12 seeds but if the automatic bid teams win they’re No. 16 seeds. It just makes no sense.

The committee then has to decide where to play the four games. It can send all eight teams to Dayton, which has been an excellent host for the dreaded play-in game for nine years or send the eight teams to first and second round sites. My guess is eight automatic bid teams to Dayton, but we’ll see.

My other guess is, if I’m right, the committee will try to make the announcement the same day James makes his, in the hope that it will be completely buried in the James hype. No doubt it will be. Then again, if it had made the announcement last week, it probably would have been a five-paragraph story most places rather than a four-paragraph story. I’m surprised the committee didn’t also announce that it had decided to designate the coming weekend as The Fourth of July.

As I said, I like most of these people individually although I did almost gag out loud last April when Texas San-Antonio Athletic Director Lynn Hickey tried to explain during the annual Final Four meeting between selected committee members/NCAA staff and the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association that we writers needed to understand that everything the committee did was, “for the good of the student-athlete.”

And it don’t rain in Indiana in the summer time. I realize that a lot of people don’t have much respect for the media but did she really think we were THAT stupid. Apparently so.

Anyway, I’ll wait to see what the committee announces this week. Maybe it will announce that it has decided to make a final announcement next month.


I know most people were focused this weekend on Wimbledon (exciting finals, huh?); World Cup soccer, the announcement of the baseball All-Star teams (Omar Infante?) and the pennant races but I was on the edge of my seat waiting for Ilya Kovulchuk to make a decision.

For those of you who aren’t hockey fans, Kovulchuk is a perennial 40-goal scorer still in his 20s traded by Atlanta to New Jersey last winter. On Saturday, Newday reported that The New York Islanders might have a shot at Kovulchuk. On Monday, the Los Angeles Kings dropped out of the bidding. By late morning, I was hearing Kovulchuk might actually be headed to Long Island, giving them the kind of scorer they haven’t had for years, the star they desperately needed to take some pressure off John Tavares.

I almost got excited. Then a few hours later The New York Post reported Kovulchuk was going back to New Jersey. The Post doesn’t get hockey stories wrong. It didn’t when I was a kid, it doesn’t now. Of course Kovulchuk’s agent would only say he had “narrowed,” his choices. Maybe he’s angling for a spot on the NCAA basketball committee.

Having read that several other free agents backed away from the Islanders because The Nassau Coliseum is so outdated and there is no sign that a new building is coming along anytime soon—it is completely mired in political muck in Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead—I am completely and utterly discouraged.

I’m amazed at my age and having seen what I’ve seen through the years that I still care about a hockey team, but I do.

I also still care about the Mets and I’m encouraged by what they’ve done the first half, especially without Carlos Beltran, but I’m still skeptical. If they actually pull off a deal for Cliff Lee, then we can talk.

Maybe they’ll announce that they’re going to make an announcement about a deal. If it is next week, that’ll be fine. In the meantime, I’ll sit here on the edge of my seat waiting for the basketball committee to share its wisdom with the rest of us.


John recently appeared on The Jim Rome Show ( to discuss 'Moment of Glory.' Click here to download, or listen in the player below:

John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases