Thursday, March 12, 2009

WBC - A work in progress

Having attended all six World Baseball Classic games in Toronto, it's clear that there are three major issues that need addressing.

1. Better Pitching - There's an argument to be made for better players all together, but most teams in the WBC have been able to field reasonably good hitters.

However, in 2009 every national team has been refused by at least one high profile pitcher.

According to local radio broadcasts, Team USA had to make 60 phone calls to patch together their rotation. Fortunately, the United States has the largest population base of any country participating, and they were still able to turn up the likes of Jake Peavy, Roy Oswalt and J.J. Putz.

Other teams were not so fortunate.

Venezuala would undoubtedly be stronger with Johan Sanatana as their anchor, and it was apparent to all that the absence of Jeff Francis, Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden and Eric Bedard led to the early dismissal of Team Canada.

The lack of high-calibre pitching hurt the quality of the games. Instead of seeing great hitters battle through at bats, most outs came from ground balls and pop flys. Not exactly gripping drama.

2. Shorter Games - Major League Baseball is trying to sell baseball to the rest of the world. The targets aren't the United States, Cuba or Japan where baseball is already loved, but Australia, Canada, Italy, South Africa and the Netherlands. Bud Selig wants the sport to take off in countries that have disposable incomes but baseball is not popular.

But a four hour game between Italy and Canada? Six, seven, eight pitching changes per team? Brutal.

Long, boring games will not capture people's imaginations. Marathon games are no way to sell a sport to fans of fast-paced games like hockey, soccer and basketball.

3. Better Umpires - In fairness, the officiating at the SkyDome wasn't biased.

It was just bad in general.

Phantom tags. Fluctuating strike zones. The calls were inconsistent for all four teams, that I can only assume the players were pulling their hair out.

In particular, Marvin Hudson, the home plate umpire for the Italy/Canada game was troublesome. With him at the plate, pitches in the same location were called as both balls and strikes.

Again, if the WBC is meant to be an introduction to baseball, shouldn't the officiating be at the highest level as well?

The World Baseball Classic is a great concept and, with tweaking, should become a major global event. But before that can happen, these three issues need to be addressed.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Okay, one last lacrosse video...

Ryan Powell and Kyle Harrison put on a shooting clinic reminiscent of Larry Bird and Michael Jordan's classic McDonald's commercial.

I'll get back to some real content soon, I promise.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Cool lacrosse tricks

The National Lacrosse League season is just around the corner, so I thought I'd post a sweet video I found today of professional lacrosse players doing stick tricks. The music is kind of loud, so you might want to turn it down a bit before starting it up!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Book Review: The Fix by Declan Hill

Sports fans like to see their favourite athletes giving it their all. Even in a lost cause, even against all odds, fans want to be inspired by all-out effort and exertion. That, I think, is one of the quiet appeals of March Madness; the players are going all out for an entire month, with (supposedly) no financial benefit. Fans want to see their heroes leave it all on the field.

Anything less is anathema.

Just ask Vince Carter. A team's supporters will turn on anyone who doesn't give 100% in a game. That is, after all, why the phrase "giving 110%" has become a sports cliche.

Declan Hill's The Fix shows that that core value is under attack and proves that sometimes the heart, the effort that your favourite player is exhibiting on the soccer pitch is an illusion.

It certainly is a bitter pill to swallow, but Hill conclusively proves that match fixing is reaching epidemic proportions in the world of soccer. His investigation reaped a shockingly large amount of circumstantial and conclusive evidence that soccer games at levels as high as the World Cup and Champions League have been fixed. By the end of The Fix his message is crystal clear: no level of soccer is safe, except perhaps the most impromptu of pick-up games.

The body of evidence he's compiled is impressive in its breadth and detail. Interviews with players, coaches, managers and owners as well as convicted and active match fixers. Statistical evidence. Memoirs and police reports. Photos of match fixers and confessions of guilt. It's an overwhelming deluge of information that will rock any fan of soccer, or of pure sport in general, to the core.

This is the only real flaw in the book.

It's hard to take. Hard to read. The first fifty pages left me so thoroughly disgusted that I wanted to fling the book down and never pick it up again.

The stories Hill has uncovered left me uncomfortable at first, and then increasingly cynical. I began searching for a silver lining and, eventually, I found several. For starters, I was relieved to note that my favourite side, Glasgow Rangers, is never mentioned. (Although, in my now cynical mind, that does not place them above suspicion.) Hill also included several stories of brave men and women standing up to corruption. Reporters in Malaysia exposing far reaching corruption as well as the uplifting story of girls amateur soccer in Nairobi are just two examples of people standing up to corruption. There is still a lot of good in the world of soccer. Hill leaves his readers with the sincere hope that these bastions of honesty and character can hold out and continue to fight the good fight.

The most important of all the good to come forward in The Fix is the book itself. The Fix gets the word out, putting Football Associations worldwide on notice that something is rotten in the state of soccer. As Hill points out in his blog: "We can do something about the corruption in football. The first thing is to ensure that there are effective well-staffed and well-resourced security departments in not just UEFA, but also at FIFA and in every National Football Association around the world. "

I've read a lot of books on soccer and sports, and The Fix is the first book that does more then earn a recommendation. It makes me want to sit soccer managers and Football Association administrators down and read the entire book to them. It makes me want to get involved and help stop the moral decay of the Beautiful Game.

I highly recommend this book to anyone, not just soccer fans or sports fans, but anyone with a passing interest in organized crime, corruption or globalization. It's a fascinating, ableit unsettling, read that is well written and incredibly informative.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Sweet Science has Soured

I know I am on the verge of being a curmudgeon, what with my complaints about the Canadian Football League, but being on the eve of the bout between Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao. The Dream Match, I feel I need to address boxing's downward spiral.

As Yahoo! Sports' Kevin Iole points out in his article "Boxing needs best-of-the-best bouts", there is definitely something wrong with the sport of boxing:

"The [Mayweather Jr. v. De La Hoya] match sold nearly 20 percent more on pay-per-view than the previous record and generated more than $170 million in gross revenue, or a ballpark amount the Yankees are willing to pay CC Sabathia to pitch for them over the next few years.

Ticket revenue alone counted for $18.4 million, with an average ticket sold at $1,078.53."

Despite the marquee match-up, and the huge bank the fight did, boxing is still in a serious state of decline. In Iole's words: "If anything, U.S. boxing in 2008 is in worse shape than it was in 2007. There’s less television, there are more empty seats and even relatively big fights are going unnoticed."

Iole offers a few ideas as to why the sport is suffering. As the title of his article implies, he sees the lack of big cards as the biggest problem. He wants big names on big cards to draw more attention to the sport. One of the promoters he interviews, Bob Arum, points out that it's because there's not enough boxing on free television.

I think they are, in part, both right. As Cheapseats reader Maria pointed out in her comment on my CFL article: "My big complaint is that the Grey Cup is broadcast on TSN, not on one of your basic cable channels. I only pay for basic cable. I was not able to watch the Grey Cup." Maria is right. Making events available to a wider audience is crucial to the success of the sport. Pay-per-view cards doesn't just limit your audience, it alienates them. I've never heard of Manny Pacquiao before, because he's rarely, if ever, mentioned on television.

Why are boxers not well known? I think it's because there's no major league of boxing. The best football players in the world play in the National Football League. The best hockey players (except Jaromir Jagr) play in the National Hockey League. In boxing? I have no idea which league is the "major" league. Do you? Likely not.

Instead, the talent is spread around and thinned out. Iole can't get his "big name, big card" because there is not a single boxing federation that has all the top stars. A fan trying to familiarize themselves with the sport can't follow just one promotion - - they need to follow three or four.

This disorder spills over to television as well. No major network wants to pick up boxing events because none of them can truly lay claim to being the best. All of the heavyweight championships that are floating around have lost their value because there are three others like them.

For boxing to get back up on its feet, to beat the count out decision, they need to start unifying events, promotions, and most importantly, the belts. Only then will fans be able to figure out whether or not a match is actually a competitive contest, and then boxing will be able to make it on to prime time network television. Without unification, boxing will continue to decay.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Why the Canadian Football League just does not appeal

Yesterday the Calgary Stampeders won the 96th Grey Cup from the Montreal Alouettes in Montreal in front of 66,308 screaming fans. It was the second largest Grey Cup crowd in the championship's historic existence.

I was having a nap.

The Stamps had something of a vendetta against the Als - - they had been slighted by the CFL when they received no awards, while the Als had been met with critical acclaim. Although the Stamps' QB Henry Burris had had a career season, the Als' Anthony Calvillo was given the nod for Most Valuable Player in the CFL's regular season. The Stamps played with a passion rarely seen in any sport.

Or so I'm told. I was watching Charlie Wilson's War.

As you can tell, the CFL just does not appeal to me. A shocking but true fact as I am their ideal target audience. After all, I'm a middle class male between the ages of 18 and 45. Everyone wants my attention. If I may be so bold: I am the perfect CFL demographic. I love sports. I love football. I love Canada. I'm an ardent fan of all things Torontonian, and would naturally become a hardline fan of the Argos.

But the CFL just doesn't stick with me.

I absolutely love Canadian football, at least on paper. I think the game and rules of the CFL are far superior to the American game with higher scores. The three downs emphasize efficiency and speed, while the bigger field lets individual players shine. Unfortunately, most of the best football players in the world play in the NFL or NCAA. The cream of the crop in the CFL are always in danger of being scooped up by an NFL team for more money.

What immediately ruins the CFL for me are the television broadcasts. The production values are so low, and in particular, the commentators are so bad, that it is almost impossible to watch. On TSN's SportsCentre, the CFL analysts were interviewing a jubilant Henry Burris who was holding the Grey Cup at the table. Former CFL Quarterback and current grillmaster Matt Dunigan asked him how he felt after winning the championship and the Grey Cup MVP trophy. Seriously. Do we expect anything other then happiness from Burris? Is he going to break down into tears and apologize for an interception earlier in the game? Come on. He's won the championship, the MVP, and has a huge grin plastered on his face. Ask a tougher question.

The CFL has to operate on the assumption that there is little familiarity with the game, its players, and even its teams. At the same time, they have to make sure they do not condescend to the fans. I appreciate it's a fine line to walk, but it's a reality of sports today that all fans will become familiar with their product on television. If your television product isn't informative, entertaining and polished, people will flip the channel to something that is. The CFL is admittedly up against some tough competition in the form of America's National Football League which is as slick as it comes, but Chris Schultz meathead-esque explanations of plays can surely be refined.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Book Review: Everything They Had by David Halberstam

I am trying very hard to fill out my collection of sports writing books. I want to be able to get a feel for all the different kinds of writers out there. Old, new, and different. To that end, I've read Stephen Brunt's Searching for Bobby Orr, John Feinstein's Living on the Black, Sam Sheridan's A Fighter's Heart and the classic Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger amongst many others.

They've all been very different, but enjoyable reads. Friday Night Lights stands out amongst the rest for the sheer intensity of the narrative, but they all had something to offer. A Fighter's Heart was surprisingly philosophical and sophisticated. Searching for Bobby Orr had a dark sense of mystery as Brunt tries, and in some ways, fails to illuminate Bobby Orr's life. Living on the Black is educational but light fare, despite the bulk and thickness of the book.

Everything They Had is, again, very different from these other books. It's not one continuous narrative, but a collection of articles and essays by Halberstam through out his life. The text smells of cigar smoke and Old Spice. Many of the stories amount to "things aren't the way they used to be, and I'm not sure I like it." But there's also a real sense of nostalgia, particularly articles like "The Good Old Days - for Baseball Owners" and "Maybe I Remember DiMaggio's Kick". Many of his most recent articles address Halberstam's post-9/11 reality, and how for him sports no longer hold the power they once did. His work has been dated by the passage of time. For example, as he writes in praise of Pedro Martinez, he talks about the astonishing longevity of Roger Clemens. Obviously, Clemens has been discredited thanks to the Mitchell Report. Similarly, he writes in praise of Steve Belichick and how he instilled such an impressive work ethic in his son Bill, the coach of the New England Patriots whose name has been tarnished by accusations that he video taped other teams' practices. However, this is not a criticism of Halberstam. Hindsight is 20/20, and Halberstam was writing in what were less cynical times.

Halberstam's writing doesn't focus on the games themselves. Indeed, I can't think of a single statistic he cites. Rarely does he provide even a specific date for an event. The minutiae of the games are covered with broad brush strokes. The real focus of his narratives, his tales, are the people. The athletes lives, who they are and what they've experienced are Halberstam's preoccupation. Stories about Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and especially Jackie Robinson abound. In all honesty, he covers the three of them so much, his stories begin to repeat themselves and run together in my memory.

It reads like a conversation with your grandfather.

But that, is a good thing. A great thing, even. Halberstam is one of the great American journalists of the twentieth (and twenty-first) centuries, and to see him at work is excellent. His style is very different from anything I've read and really creates a sense of timelessness not just to his favourite sports, but to all his sports. As dated as some of his references may seem, they also ring true. As his father loved Christy Mathewson, he loved Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson and contemporary New Yorkers love ARod and Derek Jeter (okay, maybe not). Because his tone is so conversational, you can forgive the repetitive nature of the book, and enjoy the true love and craftsmanship in every article.