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Archive for August, 2011|Monthly archive page

LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT Ross MacCallum

In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on August 29, 2011 at 4:36 pm

It’s been a week full of shocks… and aftershocks. You would have thought an earthquake followed by a hurricane would have been enough of a jolt for folks who don’t typically live through either event in a decade let alone a single week. But, in some ways, the weather and the seismic activity weren’t the most stunning events of the past seven or eight days.

I’m still staggered by the death of longtime Oriole, Mike Flanagan. Self-inflicted gunshot to the head. A suicide. He was 59.

I seriously doubt that anyone who knew Mike saw this coming. I hadn’t seen him in person or interviewed him since 2007 when Cal Ripken was elected to the Hall of Fame. ‘Flanny’ was then, as the stories you’ve been reading about him since his death have indicated, a nice guy. My memories of him are of someone who always seemed to have time for you; someone who took care to give you an intelligent quote or a nice soundbite—often with a humorous twist.

The police report suggests “financial troubles” as the major contributor to his death although several news agencies reported there was no outward sign of money problems, bankruptcy, foreclosure, etc. Of course, Mike didn’t leave a note, so we’ll probably never know the whole story. WBAL-TV in Baltimore reported that sources strongly suggested that the Orioles struggles on the field over the past 14 years weighed heavily on Mike. The O’s haven’t had a winning season since 1997 and their wire-to-wire run to the A.L. East title.

WBAL quoted a source as saying that Flanagan was “despondent over what he considered a false perception from a community he loved of his role in the team’s prolonged failure.” Even after the police report seemed to discount that, WBAL issued a statement saying that it “stands by its story.”

I can’t imagine anyone holding Mike Flanagan solely accountable for the Orioles current losing ways. Frankly, he’s among the least likely targets of the fans’ ire. Owner Peter Angelos is the most-hated baseball man in Baltimore for a reason. And, even though Flanagan was a key player in the O’s front office for several seasons, he’s just one of six men who have served as a de facto G.M. under Angelos. And, Flanagan never served alone. He never wielded solo supreme power. He was either paired with Jim Beattie or Jim Duquette during his days as a Vice President of Baseball Operations, so the blame (if there must be blame) is to be shared by many in the Orioles franchise. Trust me, this mess isn’t Flanagan’s fault. Yes, the Beattie-Flanagan combo gave us a past-his-prime Javy Lopez, but it was the sainted Pat Gillick who signed Albert Belle.

You can never know what someone really thinks about himself or others. On the surface, Flanagan was a popular player, coach, executive and TV analyst for the Orioles; a member of the Orioles organization in some capacity since the mid-70’s. It’s a shame, if the WBAL report is true, that the team’s on-field struggles led to Flanagan’s off-field struggles. Struggles that he felt he could not win.

Speaking of a struggle that will be, at best, difficult to win, we shift the focus to Tennessee women’s basketball coach, Pat Summitt.

The 59-year-old Summitt has announced that she has been diagnosed with early onset dementia—Alzheimer’s.

Pat told the Washington Post and her hometown Knoxville paper that she became concerned with her cognitive abilities last season while she was “trying to coach and figure out schemes… and it wasn’t coming to me.”

I can’t picture women’s college basketball without Pat Summitt prowling the sideline. And, yet, that day will come, and sadly, sooner than expected. She has no immediate plans to quit coaching, nor should she. She told the media and Volunteer fans that she will “rely on her assistants” more than ever and will work hard to keep her mind sharp.

Folks who know Pat will all say that if somebody can take Alzheimer’s head on, it’s her. But, the track record of this disease does not bode well for Summitt or anyone who receives this diagnosis.

My last contact with Pat was several years ago when she was a consultant to the WNBA’s Washington Mystics during the Chamique Holdsclaw-era. But, I’ll never forget the first time I met her. It was the summer of 1984. She was the head coach of the U.S. Women’s Olympic team. I was doing a story on her point guard, Kansas-grad Lynette Woodard, and caught up with the team at the San Diego Sports Arena just ahead of a pre-Olympic exhibition game.

All I really knew about Pat was “The Stare.” Before Jon Gruden developed “Chucky,” Pat Summitt gave us the “The Stare.” In a word—intimidating. And, I was expecting the worst. Curt answers. The “I have to prepare for the world, and I don’t have time for you” attitude.

The interview had been scheduled on the fly, and the best Team USA could offer was a concrete storage room in the basement of the arena near the locker room. My photographer struggled to light it and make it look like anything other than what it really was. I struggled to pare down a list of questions to fit the 15 minutes I had been granted.

Long story short. Pat Summitt stunned me with her warmth. She actually asked me questions to get to know me a little better. She double-checked the pronunciation of my name. The interview, albeit brief, was wonderful and added a great dimension to my piece on Woodard. I never forgot that night (in part because men’s team coach Bob Knight swore at us because our TV lights were too bright), and anytime people called Pat ‘cold’ or were intimidated by ‘the stare,’ I recalled for them my first meeting with her.

In the many years since that night in San Diego, Pat was won more games than any coach in college basketball history, man or woman. She’s won eight NCAA titles. Appeared in 18 Final Fours. Been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Coached some of the best players in Tennessee and NCAA history.

We’ll never forget her. But, there may come a time when she’ll not be able to remember her 37-plus years at Tennessee. For her, the titles, the players, the winning moments will be lost. And, that will truly be a loss for us all.

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

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MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro

In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on August 24, 2011 at 12:05 pm

On Brett Haber…

A few random thoughts on the departure of Channel 9 sportscaster Brett Haber, who announced a few weeks ago he was leaving the station to pursue other opportunities, particularly in the field of sports play-by-play.

For one, Haber was never one of my favorites. I thought there were times he came across on the air as smug and slightly condescending toward his audience, perhaps one reason he was never able to gain widespread popularity in the market.

Don’t get me wrong. He was prepared, he usually asked good questions and he tried to do the best he could despite his constantly shrinking minutes on the air, especially at 11 pm. Maybe it was just me, but I never felt he added very much to the discussion, maybe because he hardly ever had the time.

Haber cited the diminishing importance of sports coverage in local newscasts as one of the reasons for his decision to look at greener pastures. It’s been a national trend for most of the last 10 years, given the rise of local and regional sports networks that can give viewers 30 minutes of sports news and highlights every night, compared to Haber’s two or three minutes.

But other people in the industry I’ve spoken to in the last few weeks also had another theory as to why he’s leaving Channel 9. One highly connected source speculated that Haber’s contract was probably up, and the powers that be at the station were not prepared to match or exceed the financial terms of his expiring deal, if only because sports coverage will not be a major priority at the station in the years to come.

Rather than take a substantial pay cut, the source said, Haber may well have decided he could do better elsewhere, while also pursuing his passion for play-by-play announcing on a larger stage, like the Tennis Channel.

That being said, Haber should also be saluted for taking on petulant Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder a few months ago, strongly criticizing Snyder’s frivolous lawsuit against an unflattering City Paper story over the air. Maybe Haber knew he would be leaving the station anyway, but going head-to-head with the owner of a team that could make it very difficult for Haber to do future business was a gutty decision on the sportscaster’s part.

On Rupert Murdoch…

Here’s another reason to take a heavy shot at media mogul Rupert Murdoch, in addition to the mostly unfair and unbalanced Fox News Network and current English phone-hacking scandal that involved one of his trashy tabloid newspapers.

Last week Fox Sports, another Murdoch property, announced it has reached an agreement on a seven-year deal to air mixed martial arts on the Fox network and FX cable. They’ll have four shows on Fox and 32 on FX, including an Ultimate Fighter reality television show.

MMA followers would like to think the so-called sport has come a long way from its brawling, bloodbath days of old. But whenever I happen to surf in to a match, why does it always seem as if one guy has the other guy in a headlock and keeps pounding away at his face? It’s still a street fight, and really unfit for national television, especially when you recall the words of Fox Sports chairman David Hill to USA Today in 2008.

In explaining why his network would not air MMA at the time, Hill told the paper “what’s totally abhorrent about it—and I’ve said this to people running it—is that one guy will be down and the other one can keep hitting him.”

Now however, Fox will pay the Ultimate Fighting Champion ship organization $100 million annually to air the carnage, and Hill has clearly changed his tune.

The importance of this deal is the 18 to 34 year old make demographic that wavers and moves on” to other televised choices, Hill told USA Today. “There’s no yesterday in TV. (It’s) all about the next big thing.”

This is the next revolting thing. Shame on Fox, which apparently has none.

 

SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan

In THE SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan on August 9, 2011 at 10:10 am

One hundred and twenty million dollars over six years is a steep investment for a ball club. Especially the New York Mets, whose owner faces a one billion dollar lawsuit stemming from a private investment.

That kind of money buys a superstar or a couple B-level players. Spend it on a pitcher and the guy contributes every fifth day. Spend it on position players and the impact is doubled on a daily basis.

In Flushing Meadow, N.Y., Mets’ General Manager Sandy Alderson and Manager Terry Collins are dwelling on these options. So is owner Fred Wilpon. The triumvirate will decide if shortstop Jose Reyes stays or goes.

Wilpon sounded like a miser this spring when he told New Yorker Magazine, “Jose Reyes won’t get Carl Crawford money from me,” alluding to the $140M the outfielder received from the Boston Red Sox. But lately, Wilpon sounds wiser. All the man seeks is a return on his investment. Can you blame him after what he’s gone through with Bernard Madoff?

For the second time this season (and seventh of his career), Reyes is on the disabled list, courtesy of his tender hamstrings. Every time he moves, he’s in sprint mode – leaving the batter’s box, pivoting before firing to first base or turning into fifth gear as he scampers for a triple.

And don’t think the Mets’ braintrust doesn’t wince every step of Reyes’ way. One tweak – and there have been many – and it’s Buffalo’s Reuben Tejada taking over at shortstop.

Mets’ brass has to think…“If we invest in Jose, will we get another Carlos Beltran, Mo Vaughn, Bobby Bonilla, Billy Wagner, Mike Cameron, Jason Bay, Luis Castillo or Johan Santana – top-flight players who underperformed or became physically fragile for most of their Met playing days?”

Reyes has been selected to four All-Star games. Three times, he was hurt and unable to play.

If Met scouts can pinpoint a right fielder and catcher with which to spend $140M, why not consider it? At least Tejada can field and run. And he’s young with no injury history. OK, he’ll hit .250 but so do a lot of MLB shortstops.

Look at the Mets record. The team is .500 WITH Reyes. In late July, the club was one game above the Nationals who were in the NL East cellar. So if you’re paying one player to win games, how do you justify paying Reyes big bucks? The Mets have a ton of heart and fail to quit, no matter how many of their starters began the season in Buffalo. But they aren’t winning. Or challenging the Phillies or Braves. They may hope for a wild card but at the moment, they’re 9 games back – a mountain climb when those red-hot clubs never lose.

But Reyes’s agent, Peter Greenburg sees it differently. In the New York Post, he said this: ““We’ve done studies and over the last four years, we feel Jose’s injury-proneness is a little bit exaggerated. Early in his career he had some hamstring problems. The hamstring tendon issue really was just a misdiagnosis for a while, unfortunately.”

Exaggerated?” “Early in his career…?”

No, Peter, it’s reality and it’s happening now. Once again No. 7 is missing in action from the Met lineup, which just can’t afford to lose another quality player.

Tony Gwynn, now a San Diego Padres radio announcer, said Reyes deserves big money because he’s a “game-changer.” Really? Last time I looked, he wasn’t a “standings-changer.”

In a muted endorsement, Collins said of his prized infielder: “He’s a leader and brings energy and fun to this team, besides his ability.”

OK, but he doesn’t bring wins in excess of losses. Or the post season. The smile, giggling and “claw” signal after reaching base are fan-friendly but winning is what really matters and the Mets aren’t doing it enough.

For the Mets’ braintrust, that, alone should be the determining factor.



LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT Ross MacCallum

In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on August 4, 2011 at 12:45 pm

It was probably the trade with the Broncos that brought wide receiver Jabar Gaffney to the Redskins last month that first sent my mind reeling back to the summer of ’02. The ‘Summer of Love’ for Dan Snyder and Steve Spurrier and the infamous “Fun-n-Gun.”  (I’m guessing the flashback was courtesy of the fact that Gaffney actually played for the “ol’ ball coach” at Florida back in the day). The re-signing of Rex Grossman (another former Gator under Spurrier) has had a similar effect on me.

It was all good for the ‘Skins at the beginning of August nine summers ago. Spurrier was a college offensive genius, and he and Dan were sure his system would work in the NFL. So sure, in fact, that Snyder gave Spurrier the richest contract in NFL history; 5 years, $25 million. So sure, in fact, that nobody seemed to care that Spurrier was stockpiling the Redskins roster with ex-Gator quarterbacks and receivers whose only claim to fame was that they “knew the Spurrier system.”

Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel, Jacquez Green, Chris Doering, Willie Jackson, Taylor Jacobs….

Names that today garner a collective yawn from ‘Skins fans. Assuming, of course, that those names even trigger the slightest glimmer of activity in any synapse on any fan’s “recollection meter.” In reality, the ex-Gators didn’t trigger much in the way of any offense after their flashy pre-season debut when they beat the 49ers, 38-7, in Osaka, Japan.  On this side of the planet, they were a mediocre 7 and 9 team in year one, and by the end of a 5 and 11 campaign in ’03, Spurrier’s “Fun-n-Gun” was “Done-n-Gone.”

So, you’re asking yourself, just where is this guy heading with this tale of seasons preferably forgotten?

And, the answer is, “I just can’t seem to shake this feeling that Mike Shanahan could be heading down the same path as Spurrier.”

Say what? Shanahan is Spurrier II? Maybe… Kinda… Sorta… Hopefully not…

Maybe it’s the “father-son thing.”

Spurrier had Steve Jr. along for the ride in ’02-’03 as the ‘Skins’ receivers’ coach. Mike Shanahan has Kyle as his Offensive Coordinator, a much more critical role than the one the young Spurrier played. I always feel like those “dad-offspring” coaching combinations tend not to work well. At what point would a father be willing to fire his son? How quickly the Redskins offense improves in ’11 (or fails to do so) will tell us much about the Mike-Kyle bond, and its future in D.C. Last year, father and son played blame the quarterback and ultimately benched Donovan McNabb. This year, both John Beck and Rex Grossman are “Shanahan’s guys.” Sooooooo… the fault-line might be a little more blurry if things don’t go well this go-round.

Maybe it’s the concept of “the system.”

Both Spurrier and Shanahan have employed sophisticated offensive schemes that were successful someplace else. Granted, Mike’s a Super Bowl champ from his days in Denver, but the knock is he’s never really proved he could do it without John Elway. Both Shanahan and Spurrier loaded up with “their guys” at quarterback. Matthews and Wuerffel then. Beck and Grossman now. But, it remains to be seen if “knowing the system” can be fully translated into “executing the system successfully” over 16 games. So far, the on-field performance comparison is remarkably similar. Shanahan’s 6 and 10 in ’10 virtually mirrors Spurrier’s first year in charge of the ‘Skins.

Maybe it’s the quarterbacks themselves.

Back in ’02, nobody, and I mean nobody, was hot for Shane Matthews or Danny Wuerffel (Heisman winner ’96) except for Spurrier. Shane and Danny knew the “Fun-n-Gun.” They ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner in their days in Gainesville. Today, the connection to the Shanahan system is not quite as inbred for John Beck or Rex Grossman (Heisman runner-up ’01). Rex was a back-up QB under Kyle in Houston. Beck was somebody that Mike liked from John’s college days at BYU. But, just like the Spurrier Gator QB combo, Beck and Grossman are not exactly in high demand anywhere other than Redskins Park. Heck, Grossman delayed re-signing with the ‘Skins in hopes of landing a better deal somewhere else, but nobody other Shanahan was even remotely interested in giving Rex a shot at starting. This despite the fact that Rex took the Bears to the Super Bowl five years ago. Sure, Grossman had a couple of 300-yard games after replacing McNabb last season, but it hardly translated into success as the ‘Skins lost both; including one to a Dallas team that did everything it could to blow the game. Grossman’s lone win was in overtime and featured a “middling” performance against Jacksonville. Oddly, the key for Grossman might be watching video of himself from the second half of the loss to Dallas. If he could simply bottle that 23 point performance and repeat it for about two dozen halves this fall, the Redskins could easily find themselves atop the NFC East.

The comparisons between Spurrier and Shanahan do diverge a bit when you look at the rest of the offense from a personnel standpoint. In 2002, Spurrier had the likes of Stephen Davis in the backfield with Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels at the tackle slots. Shanahan, meantime, is dishing up his first season without the oft-injured Clinton Portis, and he does have a rep for finding diamonds in the “running back rough.”  But is either Ryan Torain or Tim Hightower the answer?  (It’s pretty much a rookie parade beyond those two and third-down back, Keiland Williams.) Torain showed flashes of potential last year, but he injured his hand and will likely miss a couple of weeks of practice. So now, it’s Hightower, a local product who was picked up in a trade with Arizona that figures to have the upper hand. He’s started 36 NFL games in the past three seasons and has the ability to both catch passes out of the backfield and block. And blocking (a Portis specialty) might be the real reason the ‘Skins are high on dressing Hightower in burgundy and gold this season.

If there is an area that was NOT improved this off-season, it’s the O-line. Other than releasing veteran center Casey Rabach, there’s not much “change” here. Sure, Jammal Brown, Trent Williams, Kory Lichstensteiger, etc. have been immersed in the “system” for over a year now, but this is where the damage from the lockout might really be evident. Mini-camps and OTA’s are the perfect time to help quarterbacks and their blockers get in synch. This is where the experience of a Grossman gains an advantage over a Beck in a battle for starting QB, but three starts in the Shanahan-system behind this line is hardly the foundation of a playoff contender.

There is further divergence between Spurrier and Shanahan on the “coaching experience” front. College players want to play for Spurrier, but pro players want to play for Shanahan. My memories of Spurrier as Redskins head coach are of a deer in the headlights; a man whose bumper sticker read, “I’d rather be golfing.” Shanahan has more of a reputation as a hardworking coach who takes care of his players. His system also has the benefit of being truly “NFL-tested;” even if it is a few years removed from its greatest successes.

On the bright side for Shanahan and the Redskins in 2011, the guaranteed locker-room headaches are gone. Albert Haynesworth is in New England and Donovan McNabb is in Minnesota, but we’ll see both of them this December courtesy of the NFL schedule.

Shanahan also added to the experience level at wide receiver which could be a big plus for both Beck and Grossman. Jabar Gaffney and Donte’ Stallworth are solid acquisitions in light of health concerns revolving around Malcolm Kelly and Brandon Banks. And, they still have the reliable Santana Moss in the slot. This will give the passing game a fighting chance to get going while the running game and the O-line get their acts together.

Best of all, the ‘Skins avoided unnecessarily splashy free agent signings. (Is Favre still retired?) Former Giant, Barry Cofield, was probably the biggest fish to be reeled-in, and he fills a critical need at nose tackle in place of Haynesworth. And this new “substance over flash” thought process could help Shanahan and the ‘Skins in the long run as they begin to build from within instead of gambling (and frequently losing) on quick fixes in the free agent market.

So, how does Shanahan avoid becoming Spurrier II (or Zorn)?

First, he hopes that either Beck or Grossman emerges as a leader and does it quickly. Then he hopes that a running attack and a line with less “name” talent than nine years ago gels into a unit that can control the ball and actually find the end zone four or five times a game. But, it might come down to Shanahan simply proving that he, in fact, is a better coach than Spurrier was at the NFL-level. He’ll certainly prove it if he wins with his current crop of players, an unproven lot to say the least.

The most realistic goal for Shanahan in 2011 is to show that the Redskins are evolving from the team that always “wins the off-season” into the team that “wins when it really matters.”

The way it used to be.

NOTE: The Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation and Redskins Alumni Association will host the 50th annual Redskins Welcome Home Luncheon on Wednesday, August 24th from 11am to 2pm at the Marriott Wardman Park in DC.  A limited number of tickets are on sale at www.redskins.com/community. Tickets are $175 each and benefit youth programs.

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