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MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro

In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on May 27, 2011 at 7:12 am

As I watched the “60 Minutes” report on Lance Armstrong’s use of performance enhancing drugs last Sunday, I couldn’t help but think back to a conversation on the subject of performing enhancing drugs I had many years ago with a lineman on the Washington Redskins teams I covered back in the 1970s.

Back then, the pharmaceutical of choice in pro football was amphetamines, black beauties some called them, even if they often were purloined from the medicine cabinets of wives and girlfriends using the diet pills to help them lose weight. There was no drug testing at the time, and plenty of players were looking for any advantage they could get.

In any case, when I asked the player why some guys would feel the need to use such stimulants, he looked at me and smiled. I don’t have the notes from that conversation, and will paraphrase here. He said something to the effect that when he looked across the line at the man he had to block and saw him wild-eyed and frothing at the mouth, clearly high on something beside adrenaline, he had little choice than to match him pill for pill, the better to stay in the starting lineup, the better to keep his job.

He didn’t like doing it, knew it was against the rules and probably hazardous to his health, but that was the price he was willing to pay to play at the highest level of the game, no pun intended.

I suspect that Armstrong, if given a healthy dose of truth serum, might also say the same, particularly in a sport where doping has been part of the Tour de France and long-distance culture seemingly forever. Think about it. Would you try to ride a bicycle over the Alps if you didn’t have a little extra help in a bottle or from a needle?

Armstrong has become a true American hero, if only because he conquered the cancer that very nearly killed him and then built himself into a human diesel engine capable of beating everyone in his sport in the world’s most famous bike race. Does the fact that he was probably fueled with substances just about everyone else he was racing against also was taking diminish his accomplishment?

You could argue the point either way. Of course it was wrong for any of them to be using drugs now obviously banned. Then again, wasn’t it also a level playing field? After all, as my friend and former Washington Post colleague Mike Wise wrote last week, “in the seven years Armstrong won the Tour de France, just one cyclist on the podium beside him from 1999 through 2005 was never connected to performance enhancers. That means every rider — save one, who placed second or third – was dirty.

So, in a cycling culture that employed synthetic chemists like masseuses, the only other rider who didn’t use was the guy who won all the time?”

The most troubling aspect of all of this is Armstrong’s repeated denials in the face of a wave of evidence, circumstantial as it might be, against him. I’m tired about hearing how he never failed a drug test as evidence that he was clean, when we all know how easy it became for the athletes to almost always stay a step or three ahead of the testers, in every sport.

His publicists keep insisting his accusers have ulterior motives, book and movie deals, publicity for themselves. But really, they’re now coming clean because they don’t want to lie under oath and risk perjury charges followed by jail time. It’s time Armstrong did some of the same.

Ebersol Out: I always used to joke that I had a program key on my laptop that automatically wrote in “the smartest man in sports television” whenever I typed in the name Dick Ebersol, the long-time and powerful major domo of NBC Sports

Now that needs to be amended, because Ebersol is no longer in sports television, at least for NBC. He resigned last week when he could not come to terms on a new contract with his new bosses at Comcast, the cable giant now large and in charge of an operation that includes The Golf Channel, Versus and a dozen regional sports networks¸ including a Washington division.

The timing of a move that sent shock waves throughout the industry seems a bit odd, considering that bidding on the television rights for the 2014 Winter and 2016 Summer Olympic Games is set to begin on June 6. Ebersol would have led the NBC team, as usual, and almost certainly would have been favored to secure the Games for his new employers, if only because of his longtime profitable relationship with the International Olympic Committee.

Now, clearly all bets are off, and don’t be surprised if the ESPN/ABC juggernaut comes out the winner in all of this, even if the revolting prospect of having Chris Berman fill the Jim McKay/Bob Costas host role will definitely come into play.

Ebersol did not look all that smart in overbidding for the last two games in Vancouver in 2010 and London in 2012. The package cost $2.3 billion and Vancouver lost $223 million, with London likely to do the same. Still, over the years, Ebersol made his company many more millions than he lost, particularly with groundbreaking deals with the NFL, the U.S. Golf Association, the PGA of America, Notre Dame football and all those other Olympics that turned a tidy profit on his watch.

What’s next for Ebersol? Wouldn’t it be something if the IOC hired him as a consultant in the bidding process, or later put him in charge of producing the international feed for the Games? Stranger things have happened, don’t you know, for still the smartest man in sports television.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at badgerlen@aol.com or at badgerlen on Twitter. His new book, Golf List Mania, is now available at local bookstores and on Amazon and Kindle.

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SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan

In THE SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan on May 26, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Mets fans will never see number 7 painted over a pinstriped circle on the outfield wall of Citi Field next to No. 41 and No. 37. Jose Reyes might be playing in Citi next year but it’ll be in a visiting jersey. Ditto for Carlos Beltran.

Owner Fred Wlpon’s comments in The New Yorker were the buzz in New York but not inaccurate.

The Mets are in last place WITH Reyes and Beltran. The only choice is to shop them now for prospects. Given Wilpon’s financial distress, he can’t afford not to, especially with Reyes seeking big dollars. Consider that Reyes is injury-prone. In ’09, he played 36 games and in ’10, he played 46. Beltran – while hitting big so far – is old and hurting, still unable to run at full speed, thus the move to right field.

Wilpon should say he’s building for the future and spending little in the process. Fans would buy it. Reyes will bring a can’t-miss prospect or two. Beltran will bring an immediate contributor.

The Mets desperately need pitching and catching. Johan Santana is a question mark upon his return. Mike Pelfrey is a No. 4 starter at best. Jon Niese is talented for a few innings, then implodes. R. A. Dickey has been figured out by hitters, as evidenced by his ballooning ERA. Behind the plate, neither Josh Thole or Ronny Paulino are long-term answers.

In left, Jason Bay remains in a funk. He missed the start of the year with an oblique and recently, may miss more time due to a calf. Think Lou Gehrig or Cal Ripken ever beefed about a sore muscle?

David Wright – superstar or not – will be at third for a long time and Ike Davis will anchor first. Angel Pagan is the center fielder, Daniel Murphy can play somewhere and Reuben Tejada might be the choice at second. The team has core elements that cost little – perfect investments for the Wilpon portfolio.

Sandy Alderson, not Omar Minaya is doing the shopping, so contracts will be frugally tendered. The focus is on scouting and the minor leagues, not the big-name splashes of the past – a la Bobby Bonilla, Mo Vaughn and Cliff Floyd. The Mets will let other spenders pay the Jason Bays and Johan Santanas.

Santana won two Cy Youngs for the Twins but has never won 20 in a season for the Mets. In three seasons in Flushing, he’s averaged 13 wins. Bay slugged 36 HRs and drove in 119 RBI with the Red Sox in 2009. This season, he’s projected to sock 8 HR and drive in 32 runs – all for $16M per season.

Wilpon was right, just ill-timed in his comments. The Mets have taken so many punches lately, this one put the club’s psyche on the proverbial canvas. After the smelling salts wear off, Reyes and Beltran will be gone and the team will be fortified with prospects. Given that Wilpon isn’t going free-agent shopping, how else do you climb out of the cellar?

MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro

In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on May 18, 2011 at 6:39 pm

The first time I ever traveled to Bristol, Connecticut to do a story on a then-fledgling new cable network called ESPN, I found myself interviewing Keith Olbermann one-on-one, before he really was Keith Olbermann.

That is to say, before he and Dan Patrick had actually become household names anywhere else but their own households. I found Olbermann to be charming, brilliant and hysterically funny. But as a former editor dealing with plenty of outsized egos at my own newspaper, I also knew this was one guy who surely was going to be a thorn in the side of anyone who had the unenviable task of being his immediate or even distant supervisor.

Olbermann spent a good portion of our time together moaning about not having an office, about not having a secretary, about being paid far less than he deserved and about being treated shabbily by the boobs in the executive suites who sometimes just never got his act – even if viewers were then falling in love with the SportsCenter tag team of Olbermann and Dan Patrick – far and away the best duo in the network’s history.

And now, along comes a new oral history by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, the long-time, Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic for The Washington Post that confirms everything I ever witnessed up close and personal more than two decades ago. The book’s title tells you everything you need to know: Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN.

Here’s a sampling from an excerpt published in GQ Magazine:

Olbermann: “When I was at CNN, we used to look at ESPN as our comic relief, because for a long time, in terms of sports news, CNN was a ten-times-better product than ESPN. I used to look at my old friend [Chris] Berman sweating away in the studio without a teleprompter, trying to read his notes. I thought, Thank God that there’s somebody on the air in worse shape than we are. And then I finally figured out how they survived for nearly a decade with no funding: They were in the middle of nowhere. Across the street was a McDonald’s, what was always reputed to be a toxic-waste area, and cows. So unless you’re a free-lance dairyman, there was no place else to go.”

ESPN Producer Bill Wolff: “Chris Berman made that place. But the guy who made ESPN a household word, the guy who made ESPN mean something in the market to everyone, was Keith Olbermann. God, he was a genius. He just reinvented sportscasting by being the smartest guy who ever did it. And watching him in the mid-’90s was a pleasure. It was appointment viewing: What was Olbermann going to say that night.”

Dan Patrick: “I remember [producer] Gus Ramsey and Mike McQuade would always say, “Are you still in the life raft?” If they had screwed up with Keith, then they would be excommunicated. You didn’t know from day to day if you were on or off, and it was tough for them, because they didn’t have the power to say to Keith, “Hey, stop; grow up.” Everything he did was personal. And that was what made him great. And if he felt like you had just turned on him, then you had actually turned on him, and that was something that was very, very deep to him.”

Herb Granath, ESPN Chairman:“I was enraged by Olbermann. Guys like that just piss me off, you know, because there’s no loyalty. It’s just me, me, me. There was no choice but to get rid of him.”

Wolff: “Keith and authority don’t get along—ever. But he can also be one of the most loyal employees. Do not take a shot at Keith’s guys; he will protect them, always. But he was hard to manage—I mean hard! Keith is a dark guy. If you take everything Keith says at face value, you will find your reason for living diminished.”

More ESPN: The Worldwide Leader recently announced new endorsement guidelines for its on-air talent in the wake of major criticism of so many seeming conflicts of interest. They were best exemplified by Erin Andrews, a so-called sideline reporter, having a deal with Reebok which she will now have to give up.

They’re also going to make SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt end his deal to promote Titleist golf, something that never should have been allowed in the first place. In reading over the lengthy memo explaining the new procedures, nowhere did I see Chris Berman’s name mentioned, a travesty for a guy who never met a commercial endorsement he couldn’t embrace – from beer companies to restaurant chains and weight-loss products.

Until Berman, who often anchors a news desk during major events, stops plugging products, the new policy won’t be worth the paper it’s written on.

Dr. Jack Ramsay…A long drive back home from a road trip to Pennsylvania was made oh so much more pleasant when I heard the familiar voice of  Dr. Jack Ramsay providing the color analysis on the national ESPN Radio broadcast of the seventh game of the Memphis-Oklahoma City playoff game Sunday night.

Dr. Jack piled up 864 victories in his Hall of Fame coaching career in the NBA, including the 1977 world championship with the Portland Trailblazers. He’s now 86, but judging from his prescient and precise commentary, he clearly hasn’t lost a step. Just for old times and old timer’s sake, wouldn’t it be nice if ESPN/ABC or TNT assigned Dr. Jack to a game in the conference finals over the next few weeks?

Tough Talk… Former PGA Tour player Brandel Chamblee is becoming one of the most outspoken voices on The Golf Channel, a man who’s not afraid to speak his mind, particularly when it comes to Tiger Woods.

In a conference call with reporters the day before The Players started, he said, “I think there’s a really good chance that he’ll be gone before he was last year (when Woods missed the cut). Even though he said yesterday that his knee was fine, Tiger Woods has been all over the map, we know that and this is a Pete Dye golf course that’s all over the map. There are bunkers, there are mounds. So it’s not very hard to imagine Woods in a situation where one knee is two feet higher than the other and he’s got to make a golf swing. It’s fairly likely he’s going to re-injure himself playing this golf course.

We’ve watched Tiger age so rapidly right before our eyes,” he said. “Right before our eyes we’re watching him where he’s shuffling off the course. It’s really sad to watch what’s going on with Woods on the range where this phenomenal athlete with the former best swing perhaps of all time is now in a sense kind of an old man out there . . . going through all of the moves that look like he’s handicapped . . . trying to reverse the moves that don’t come naturally to him. It’s really sad to see someone of that talent going through what he’s going through right now.”

The next day, Woods played nine holes, shot 42 and left the premises.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at badgerlen@aol.comor badgerlen at twitter. His latest book, Golf List Mania, is available at local bookstores and Amazon.com.


SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan

In THE SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan on May 16, 2011 at 6:50 pm

Home mortgage foreclosures are at an all-time high. Ditto for credit card defaults. The national unemployment rate of 9.6% isn’t so bad considering it was almost 20% in Nevada and 15% in northeast Ohio. In California and Connecticut, state workers were required to take unpaid furloughs. Parishoners at one Northern Virginia church number five a day, asking for financial aid in this recession.

What about the auto worker in Michigan who is “riffed” at 55? Where does he take his riveting skills at that age? People have seen their investment portfolios dwindle to the point they don’t open the envelopes anymore. Others have flat-out lost their jobs. Some get so frustrated with the job market, they take something they’re far-less qualified for. Or settle for something part-time, So much for a college degree. Or an advanced degree. Or years of experience.

Hello Major League Baseball. Are you listening?

Still, game patrons are expected to wait in line to park a car for $30. Or $50 in New York. Or belly up to pay $90 for a mezzanine-level seat. Or $8 for a hot dog, $5 for Cracker Jack or $9 for a warm beer. Or $100 for a team-replica jersey.

The national pasttime? Puh-lese. Try taking your family of five to the ball park. That figures to a mini-vacation, financially. Do clubs forget that most games are televised for free?

Know why it’s so expensive? Look at the salaries paid to players without the credentials of a Willie Mays, Hank Aaron or Ernie Banks. Guys you’ve never heard of draw $5-6-7M a year. Guaranteed! So much for incentive. Just where’s the motivation to perform when that check is direct-deposited at the bank, win or lose, home run or strikeout.

Consider these contract busts that the “ordinary Joe” is paying for.

Jayson Werth of the Nationals is hitting .231 after 38 games. This, after signing a 7-year deal for $126M. The Nats are barely ahead of the Mets, who reside in the cellar of the NL East.

Carl Crawford of the Red Sox is hitting .208 with 1 HR and 10 RBI in 154 at bats. Plus, he’s fanned 28 times in 38 games. All this after signing a 7-year deal for $142M. Boston is 17-20 and in third place in the AL East.

Jason Bay of the Mets is hitting .216 with 2 HR and 6 RBI in 74 at bats. He’s in the second of a 4-year, $64M contract. Last season, he amassed 6 HR and 47 RBI while hitting .259, before having his season end prematurely due to a concussion. A year before he signed, Bay clubbed 36 HR and drove in 119 runs for Boston. Can someone say “Green Monster?”

John Lackey, signed by Boston last year to a 5-year, $82.5M, is a blazing 2-5 with an 8.01 ERA. That projects to 8 wins for $16-plus million this year, or $2M per victory on the Lackey front.

Derek Jeter, hit .270 last year, his worst performance since his rookie year. Months later, he wanted a 5-year, $105M contract. So much for Yankee pride. The Yankees balked and settled for 3 years at $51M. So far, Jeter’s hitting .260 with a whopping five extra-base hits in 150 at bats. That figures to 20 extra base hits for the season.

The Red Sox will battle the Yanks for a wild card spot but the Mets and Nationals are going nowhere except the golf course come October.

So why would Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo fork over so much money for one player who probably won’t get the Nats out of last place?

Don’t ask fans – they won’t know whether they continue to attend games or not.

LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT Ross MacCallum

In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on May 14, 2011 at 9:12 pm

It’s been an interesting spring in the D.C. college basketball community. Three… count ‘em… three major coaching changes. Maryland, George Mason, and George Washington all have new head coaches for the 2011-12 campaign.

And I seriously doubt that anybody saw this coming. Oh sure, Karl Hobbs’ future at G.W. was in some doubt at the end of the season, but there were folks who felt he should have gotten at least one more go-round to try and right the Colonials’ ship. As for Gary Williams and Jim Larranaga, I think most folks pretty much figured they’d never leave Maryland and Mason respectively. In fact, I was pretty much convinced that Gary would coach right up until he either stroked-out or died from dehydration in the second half of a nail-biter with Duke.
The changes gave us a rare opportunity to see how three different athletic directors handled their toughest job – headhunting and hiring a head coach in their most visible, moneymaking sport. (Quick aside here – Maryland is a basketball school–sorry, Randy Edsall.) So, who did the best job? It could be 5 or even 10 years before we know the answer.
Theoretically, new G.W. athletic director, Patrick Nero, had the least pressure of the three. (Or is it outgoing Colonials A.D. Jack Kvancz? It’s hard to tell how much of a role he played in the firing/hiring process with newcomer Nero.) The Colonials aren’t as highly regarded as they once were. Mason has passed them on the “respect meter,” and even American U. has been in the NCAA Tournament more recently than G.W. All that means is that Nero didn’t absolutely have to hire a BLOCKBUSTER name like Maryland needed to hire, and like Mason seemed to think it needed to hire.
G.W.’s choice of Mike Lonergan was an easy one. Local guy. Local ties. Successful head coach at Vermont. National championship at Catholic University. Former assistant under Gary at Maryland. The Colonials could afford to take a chance on a “rising star” kind of guy to replace the former “rising star” Hobbs. Lonergan is old enough to understand where G.W. basketball once was, and young enough to have the time to get them back to their winning ways and regain the respect they once enjoyed in D.C. and among the mid-majors. Plus, the cupboard’s not bare. Lonergan will only lose one starter from Hobbs’ last group.
More critically perhaps for G.W. and Nero is that Lonergan sees G.W. in the “Dream Job” mold. That means if he’s successful, he could enjoy a long run in Foggy Bottom.  I’m not so sure that’s the case with the new guys at Maryland and Mason. Not yet, at least.
And, that brings us to the folks in Fairfax – George Mason.
Patriots A.D., Tom O’Connor, might have placed himself on the proverbial “hot seat” with his (mis?)handling of the Larranaga to Miami/Paul Hewitt to Mason deal.
O’Connor was clearly caught off guard by the obvious “win-win” situation for Larranaga with the Hurricanes, created, in part, by the quantum shift in the pay scale of coaches in the Colonial Athletic Association. (Please see: VCU/Shaka Smart new contract.)  At age 61, Larranaga was probably just angling for a way to cruise towards retirement at Mason, and unexpectedly, the Miami job fell right into his lap. But, rather than taking care of the man who put George Mason basketball on the national map, O’Connor gambled and lost him to a school that was willing to guarantee the money that O’Connor was only willing to dangle as a carrot. Money that would only have to be paid to Larranaga if certain incentives were reached.

So much for loyalty to the guy Mason higher-ups always called a “great ambassador.”  Where’s the love?  Where’s the money to show the love? You can’t just talk a big game. You have to back it up with cash these days. And, Mason seems content to leave the calendar and payroll set at 2006.
Sure, Larranaga has thrown himself into the jungle of the ACC, and at a football school to boot. But, this is the important part, EVEN IF HE FAILS, HE WINS. Four years at Miami will pay him the equivalent of 10 to 12 years of the guaranteed money at Mason. Jim could get bounced by the ‘Canes at age 65, retire to ESPN or the speaking circuit, and laugh all the way to the bank. Somehow, O’Connor missed that point, or more likely, just didn’t want to believe it was possible.
In an effort to recover face, O’Connor opted for the big name replacement in ex-Georgia Tech coach, Paul Hewitt. Tom crowed that Hewitt was willing to take the money that Larranaga passed on. Naturally, O’Connor avoided delving into the reality of the monstrous $7 million payout that Hewitt is getting from Tech to simply walk away. A payout that effectively allowed Mason to “offer” more money to Hewitt without actually paying anymore than they would have paid Larranaga had he stayed in Fairfax.  Nothing like living on someone else’s dime.
Money aside, there’s now a ton of pressure on O’Connor’s man, Hewitt, to deliver and deliver quickly. Mason must be careful not to slip into the second division of the extremely competitive CAA. (You know that VCU and ODU are lying in wait to replace Mason at the top of the conference heap.)  Hewitt will have to adjust rapidly to recruiting and coaching CBA-caliber players instead of the NBA-caliber guys he had in Atlanta. He’ll also have to adjust to recruiting in an area where he’s not the first, or even the second choice.

And, with the already dialed-in Lonergan at G.W., Hewitt might have been bumped into fourth place in the local recruiting wars. Sure, Hewitt has pulled some top talent out of this area like Jarrett Jack. But, the top talent from around here plays in the ACC and the Big East, not at George Mason.  And, Hewitt’s first order of business will be making sure he doesn’t lose the talent already on the Patriots’ roster. Luke Hancock is not a lock to be around next winter. And, then there’s that little detail about following in the footsteps of a legend. Good luck with that, Paul. Of course, Hewitt won’t be alone in wearing the legend’s shoes.

That’s also the fate of Mark Turgeon at Maryland. Gary Williams stunning decision to retire left first-year athletic director Kevin Anderson with his second blockbuster hiring decision in a matter of months, which, depending on who you ask, might have been his plan all along. Anderson pretty much forced football coach Ralph Friedgen out, and there are conspiracy theorists in the Terps community who think that Gary was kicked to the curb, too. Despite the happy face that everybody has put on the Williams retirement.
A larger factor in the Gary retirement decision, however, had to be Jordan Williams’ decision to turn pro early.  No Jordan. No serious run at the 2012 ACC Championship in College Park. No desire from Gary to build from square one. No desire to find a way to squeeze a winning season out of a .500, or worse, kind of team. That leaves us with a rather empty cupboard at Maryland for Turgeon. It kinda feels like 1989 all over again in College Park. Okay, 1989 with a lot less drama and no NCAA sanctions.
Gary ultimately made lemonade out of the lemon of a program he was left with in the wake of Bob Wade’s mishandling of the “post-Len Bias death” era.  Turgeon will be expected to do something similar. Yes, the circumstances are less dark than 22 years ago, but no less stressful for a new coach with no ties to Maryland, the local recruiting scene, or the ACC. And, add to that, the pressure from those Terps fans who didn’t see Mark as the first choice to replace Williams.
Still, Turgeon could actually be a shinier version of Gary himself. Mark “The Surgeon” Turgeon was Larry Brown’s gutsy point guard in the mid-80’s at Kansas. He was a winner as head coach at Wichita State. And, had the Shockers not lost to George Mason in the Sweet 16 in 2006… Wichita maybe beats #1 U-Conn… and… well… you can imagine the rest.
Back to reality!
Turgeon won at Texas A&M — a football school. He won at Texas A&M — a program and a state where he had no prior ties. He won at Texas A&M — a school that should never have been able to run with the big boys in the Big 12. He won at Texas A&M — four NCAA Tournament appearances in four years. He won at Texas A&M — of all places.
I suspect he’ll eventually be able to win at Maryland, too. But, as long as Coach K is at Duke and Coach Roy is at Carolina, winning ACC titles will be a real stretch. And, the bigger question for Turgeon is the same one we always asked Larry Brown, “Will you still be here in 5 years?”
Granted, Turgeon is nowhere near the coaching nomad that Brown was (is?).  But, will rabid Maryland fans give him the time to build a program and a comfort zone that could lead to a two-decade run in College Park? Can he build a team quickly enough that will be able to compete with and ultimately beat the likes of Duke and North Carolina. Can he deliver an NCAA Tournament berth every year like he did at A&M? Can he sprinkle in enough ACC Championships to keep the Terps faithful happy? Can he deliver the most coveted of all prizes — the NCAA Championship?
In five years, will Turgeon be the best of the three new hires of 2011? Or will it be Lonergan? Or Hewitt? The clock is already ticking on all 3 coaches… and their A.D.’s… .

Ross, the creator of Throwback Baseball 1.0, also blogs about sports memorabilia at: www.aberdeentradingco.com