Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sandy makes you dandy

Dear Diesel: Please get off my dick. — Sandy

Depression's setting in: I've only got a month or so of baseball left before I shut it down and start watching 20 hours of soccer a week. And, since I know none of you assholes want to read anything I have to say about soccer (but if you do, check out Booked! Link to it! MAKE IT YOUR HOMEPAGE!), I better get in the licks while I can.

Anyway, former TGWNA punching bag Tim "Gerund" Sullivan wrote a little ditty about Sandy Alderson, the Padres, and finances. It's not a long column, but it gets to the point and makes it well: Most criticism of the Padres, at least in terms of payroll, doesn't take into account the reality of the team's situation.

I'll cop to being one fan who has wondered this season why the team still pleads small-market now that PETCO is open and drawing well. In fact, I distinctly remember the organization selling the new ballpark to the city by saying that the additional revenues would result in a better product on the field. Clearly, if you look at the Padres' payroll this season ($58 million, seventh-lowest in the majors), the team is still not spending money on par with its rivals to the north. And if you read the Sullivan column, Alderson gives us a fairly believable account as to why that is.

But the funny thing is that the Padres have put a better product on the field. Say what you want about the offense, this team has won two straight NL West titles (even though 2005 wasn't anything to brag about), and is the leader in the NL Wild Card race right now. The pitching staff is the best in the National League. The team's best players are locked up through their arb-eligible seasons, so one can expect this core to stick around for a while.

Regardless, shit's getting marine-layer thick out there. Peavy, in case you haven't heard, publicly questioned both his future with the team once he becomes a free agent, and the team's willingness to make large financial commitments to free agents in general. Look, Peavy seems like an OK enough guy, and I don't think he's doing anything but sharing his feelings honestly here. But, honest does not equal correct. Peavy associates the club's de facto policy of not signing long-term contracts with stinginess (and/or the dreaded "unwillingness to do what it takes"), as opposed to proper business sense. And proper business sense — something the Padres' front office does not suffer for — is the reason that Peavy is correct in saying that he won't be with the club after 2009, unless he decides that he loves the Friars so much that he's willing to sign a three-year deal for roughly $25 million per year (I'm adjusting for the slew of insane pitching contracts to come on the heels of the Zambrano extension). And if Peavy does sign that deal, his agent should be shot in the fucking head.

Hey, Peavy is awesome. He's the best pitcher in the NL, even with a healthy Ben Sheets in the picture (That Webb guy is awesome, too, but he's no Peavy). He's only 26, and despite what appears to be a stressful delivery and arm angle, has managed to remain relatively healthy in his five full seasons. And he clearly digs playing in San Diego, which I suppose isn't earth-shattering but important nonetheless.

But, as much as I love the guy plying his trade in PETCO, I absolutely do not want the Padres to sign Peavy to a Zambrano-like extension. Not even a little.

Here's a list of pitchers who have signed FA (or the extension equivalent) contracts for more than four years:
  • Bartolo Colon: 4/$51
  • Roy Oswalt: 5/$73
  • AJ Burnett: 5/$55
  • BJ Ryan: 5/$47
  • Mike Hampton: 8/$121 (can you believe this is the penultimate season of that deal?)
  • Tim Hudson: 4/$47
  • Jeff Suppan: 4/$42
  • Chris Carpenter: 5/$63.5
  • Ted Lilly: 4/$40
  • Derek Lowe: 4/$36
  • Barry Zito: 7/$126
  • Jarrod Washburn: 4/$37.5
  • Pedro Martinez: 4/$53
  • Billy Wagner: 4/$43
  • Kevin Millwood: 5/$60
  • Daisuke Matsuzaka: 6/$54 (+$51 posting fee)
  • Gil Meche: 5/$55
  • Mark Buerhle: 4/$56
  • Carl Pavano: 4/$40
  • Kei Igawa: 5/$20 (+~$20 posting fee)
This list would have been insanely long if I included three-year deals, so I'm glad I didn't.

Anyway, most of these deals are fairly young, so it's not really possible to draw any firm conclusions. But look over that list again, and tell me which of those pitchers you really want on your team in four seasons. There's maybe three, including Oswalt, Matsuzaka and (maybe) Meche. On second thought, we'll make that two, and both come with a not-small degree of injury concern: Oswalt is perpetually dinged up, and sub-six-foot power pitchers don't exactly have the most sterling track record. Matsuzaka has thrown a TON of innings and pitches at a fairly young age, and is on pace for 223 this season while coming in second in Pitcher Abuse Points (and guess who's first? Everyone's favorite market-setting batshit-crazy right-hander for the Cubs!). And that's it. I don't think there's another guy on that list that any rational baseball fan thinks will be a highly effective pitcher in four years.

The reason for that sentiment is that almost all of them will be in or past their mid-30s in four years. And what makes intuitive sense also ends up making baseball sense; very few pitchers are worth $10-plus million in their late 30s, and if they do, they'll probably be signed by the Yankees.

I know lots of people in Minnesota are wringing their hands over Johan Santana's impending free agency (after next season), but the truth is that it's probably best to let him walk; odds are they've already had him for his best years. And, yes, he'll probably be a great pitcher for a while, maybe even for the five-to-seven years he'll sign for. But the odds are almost staggeringly against that being the case, and franchises like the Twins and Padres can't afford to make hard-way bets with 1/5th or 1/4th of the team's payroll.

And, even if they could afford it, they probably still shouldn't. Yes, pitching is expensive, and the predominant thought is that if you're not willing to play ball in the free agent market — and pay according to the terms being dictated by the Zambrano/Zito signings — you'll be left, like the Nationals, with no pitchers worth a damn. That's the case if a franchise's farm system is as broken as the Nationals', but that's really the exception to the rule. In fact, most teams would be just fine if they concentrated on developing pitching and spent the extra $20-$25 million per season on free agent hitters. Why's that? Because you'll probably get more extra wins out of a $20 million free agent outfielder than a $20 million free agent pitcher.

Johan Santana, the most valuable pitcher in the majors last season, was worth 8.4 wins over a replacement level pitcher last season, according to SNLVAR (remember that by definition, replacement level is what a team could reasonably expect to be able to call up from the minor leagues; in the case of the Twins, replacement level is actually higher, owing to the handful of excellent pitching prospects they had/have waiting in the wings, so that number in reality is probably even a little lower). So, if you're hypothetically paying Santana $20 million last season, which is on the low end of free market approximations for his services, you'll end up paying a little more than $2.3 million per marginal win.

Last season, Alfonso Soriano put up a WARP3 of 10.4 (and is en route to a 7.4 this year, despite the injury issues). He makes a little less than $18 million on average, which puts his cost per marginal win at $1.73 million. And this is as an outfielder, which means replacement level is higher than it would be if he were still a 2B (assuming he ever really was a 2B).

Now, this isn't to say that I think the Soriano deal is a good one — way too many years for a guy who plays execrable defense right now, when he's still young — but it's more worthwhile than the deal that will be given to Peavy or Santana when the time comes. The attrition rates for hitters is much lower than pitchers, and at the end of the day, an elite position player has more opportunity to help one's team than an elite pitcher.

This was a long way of saying: I think Sandy Alderson is dead-on.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Other Stretch Run

I'm a little disenchanted with baseball at the moment, since the best five sports months of the year begin next Thursday, and also because the Astros just fired the only MLB general manager I've ever had dinner with. But with this blog's two favorite baseball teams playing big four-game series right now, this is a pretty big baseball week here on TGWNA. The Pads are fighting for the division, the Phils are trying to keep pace in the Wild Card, and both of them just won the opener, thanks at least in part to their second basemen: Geoff Blum and Chase Utley each homered today.

Forgive me, Pads fans, if I focus more on Utley. Chase made a great sliding play to get Reyes on the second pitch of the game, then waited all of three ABs to shake 31 days of rust by jacking a homer to left-center. He followed that with an RBI double to the same gap and a bloop opposite-way single. The guy who, a month ago, was odds-on favorite to be your 2007 NL MVP is back.

The question is, can he still win it? Any other year, after missing a solid month, the answer would probably be, "No." But this year there's more of a logjam among the senior circuit's elite than I can ever remember. As I see it, we've got the following:

The frontrunners:

Prince Fielder -- probably has the best case right now. Leads the NL in HR and SLG. Although it's worth mentioning that he's ninth among this group in VORP -- his .376 OBP probably has something to do with it -- and if the Brewers tank, he loses a lot of that feel-good vibe.

Hanley Ramirez -- has everything you could want, offensively: 23 HR, 43 SBs, .331 AVG, .558 SLG. But he's also probably the worst defensive shortstop in the NL. Still, despite that, he leads the league in VORP. But his team sucks. If the award were really about the best player, he'd probably win.

Albert Pujols -- Well, he is Albert Pujols. And he is going to be an NL MVP candidate for the foreseeable future. But he's not having his best year, and his team isn't very good, either.

The "one hot month" guys:

Chase Utley -- Was the clear leader when he got hurt. Still leads the league in hitting and is sixth in VORP despite missing a month. And he's the best player at his position by leaps and bounds. But his power totals will suffer from the missed time. He essentially needs to have a monster month and lead the Phils to the playoffs.

Miguel Cabrera -- good in every category (except defense), but not clearly better than anybody else here in anything. Plus he's the second-best player on his own team, a team which happens to suck, and he's gotten a lot of bad pub about his weight and attitude.

Chipper Jones -- stats are virtually identical to Utley's, including games played, which is a problem. But he plays third base, a more valuable position than most of these other guys, though not Utley.

Ryan Howard -- thanks to Utley (and MVP pitch-dark horse Jimmy Rollins [racist!]), he still leads the league in RBIs, despite missing most of April with injuries and pretty much every single pitch he's swung at in August. Also third in homers. And you could make a case that he's the third-best player in the Phillies' infield. But he is the reigning MVP, and he is capable of incredible months. He'll need another one to seriously contend, and the Phillies making the playoffs wouldn't hurt (although that would probably give it to Utley).

David Wright -- If we wiped April off the books, he'd win it in a walk. He hits for average and power, steals bases, plays great defense, anchors a first-place team, the works. But he was so bad early on that his final season totals probably won't be good enough.

The dark horses, including one white person who keeps me from sounding racist!:

Jose Reyes -- depends how much the voters value speed and defense. He's exceptional in both categories, and he plays a valuable defensive position, but he has no pop, and I have a hard time believing we're going to see an MVP with 12 homers, 60 RBIs, and a sub-.450 SLG.

Matt Holliday -- good player across the board, plays for a mediocre team in a bad market, probably not quite exceptional enough in any area to stand out.

Jimmy Rollins -- go ahead, call me a homer. Then look at his stats. He leads the league in runs scored, is fourth in hits, first in triples, great on defense, and he has an outside chance at being a 30/30 guy, all while leading the league in at-bats. If the Phils make the playoffs, you're telling me he shouldn't get more credit than Utley or Howard?

Their teams are just too bad:

Carlos Lee -- see Holliday, Matt, except substitute "terrible team that just fired its entire staff" for "mediocre team."

Adam Dunn

The pitcher: (usually, this would be just about impossible, but I don't think so this year)
Jake Peavy -- Leads all pitchers in VORP, Ks (by 31!), wins, 2nd in ERA, all-around the best pitcher in the NL this year any way you slice it, and pretty clearly, to me at least, the best in baseball. If a pitcher wins it, it's gonna be him. But still, he's a pitcher, and I don't think a pitcher will win it, unless he's really stellar down the stretch and the Pads win something.

And we're done. Sorry that was exhausting, but that's the whole point -- I just mentioned 14 guys, eight of whom shouldn't surprise anybody if they win the MVP.

And, yes, three of whom are Phillies. You suckas are lucky I didn't include Pat Burrell!

Why won't this story die? You know, like the dogs?

I'm posting about Michael Vick again. Kick me in the nuts the next time you see me. But apparently, it's all anybody wants to talk about. Every Vick post on this blog has a bunch of pissed-off comments. ESPN has a different Vick-related story top dead center every day. Right now, it focuses on the future of the dogs in question. (And the front page headline steals one of my story titles, goddamnit.)

Since apparently suggesting this in my last post irked so many people, let me just say it: nobody involved in the Vick case cares about the dogs. Not Vick (obviously), not the prosecutors (who care about their careers), not the media (big story), not even PETA and all the "dog lovers" who are up in arms (it's an excuse for self-righteousness).

And you know what? I don't. I don't fucking care about the dogs. There, I said it. I don't care. I don't want to hear about it anymore. Those dogs are going to be euthanized, and I don't care. Eights others were killed by Vick and/or his codefendants, and really, when it comes down to it, I don't care. He's pleading out, and he'll get sentenced, and that's all I need to know. I don't need all this goddamned hypocritical outrage.

(This is really beside the point, but to tell the truth, I think those pit bulls ought to be euthanized. They're never going to make suitable pets. I don't think pit bulls in general should be pets, either, but I deleted a long aside that used to be here because that issue's not really relevant and I don't want to get off track here.)

But whatever. Like I said, the pit bull thing is beside the point. If you're outraged by the Vick situation, or if you're outraged that I would say that I don't care about the dogs, you might be saying right now, animals were killed in gruesome fashion! I care about animals!

Bullshit. You care about dogs. And you care about dogs for two reasons: because they're cute, and because they make you feel important. It's not just the cuteness -- horses are far better-looking and more majestic than dogs, but they don't come when you call them or fetch a tennis ball, so far fewer Americans love or own them. A horse loses its utility -- breaks a leg, say -- and you kill it or sell it to a slaughterhouse, and nobody says a thing. Trust me, I've seen it happen. You kill Fido because he loses his sense of smell, and you're inhuman.

Or maybe you want to try the brain-size argument. Dogs are smarter than cows, so their pain is worse, and their lives are more important. First of all, that's asinine, because you have no way of knowing what the pain of any animal is like, and you have no authority to place importance on it. Second, even if you did, dolphins are a whole lot smarter than dogs, and most of you dog lovers don't give a rat's ass where your tuna fish comes from. So save it.

The food thing is where people often get pissed off at me (I'm thinking of a person, and his name rhmes with Lyan), because I think you can't honestly wring your hands over Michael Vick's pit bulls unless you're Vegan. "Oh, oh, but you're not Vegan, Pepe, you hypocrite!" Well, I'm not pretending to care about the dogs! I eat a steak, I realize the cow suffered and died ... OK, now this sounds too much like Mass, but you get the idea. I know the chicken didn't want to die to feed me. And I'm OK with that. I don't get outraged about the chicken, I don't get outraged about the dogs. I don't think either one is morally correcter.

"But the dogs suffered! Cows don't suffer!" First of all, yes they do. I'm not going to link you to the videos because I don't want to hear how shrill I'm being. But you can find them. Just because you want to think all the cows and chickens and turkeys and pigs you eat die instantly from a shot to the head and go to livestock heaven doesn't mean it's true.

It's been mentioned here on the blog that beating a dog to death is sadistic, whereas eating meat is not. What a load of shit. So it's really so morally superior to eat the flesh of an animal that somebody else killed by stunning it with a bolt gun applied to its forehead, or by electrocuting it (fitting, considering so much of the Vick uproar regarded the electrocution), then slitting its throat while it was still alive and hanging it up to bleed to death? Why is that better? Because it's feeding you? I've got news for you -- the cow doesn't feel better because it's serving your purpose. And your purpose of enjoying a dead animal's flesh is no nobler than Michael Vick's purpose in killing dogs that were no longer useful to him.

(And by the way, we don't know that he did it sadistically, as some have so hyperbolically stated. We don't know that he enjoyed doing it, or that he tortured them. His plea agreement admits to killing dogs, and the indictment said that eight dogs were killed, using various methods, by a group of three people. This whole hyperbolic notion of him slamming a dog against the floor and laughing has no basis in fact at this point in time. Read the documents. Yeah, maybe shooting them would be more humane, but shooting cows and horses would be more humane, too! Oh, but now I'm defending Michael Vick, because if you don't act outraged and exaggerate what's actually known, that means you must be defending his actions. That's right, I love dogfighting! Sort of like I'm a traitor because I've never supported the Iraq war.)

Would I want Michael Vick to dogsit for me? No! But neither would I want my local slaughterhouse worker to do it! And I know this concept is just absolute anathema to America, but just because you make somebody else do your dirty work doesn't absolve you!

But here's the last and biggest reason I don't care about Michael Vick killing dogs, and I don't want to hear anything more about it, not another word, not another raised indignant voice. Leonard Little killed a 47-year-old wife and mother while driving drunk, did 90 days in a work house, got another DUI years later, and still plays in the NFL. And you've probably never been this outraged about that. Rae Carruth played in the NFL and had his wife murdered. It was in the news, but the outrage was nothing compared to the Vick response. Dwayne Goodrich, a former Cowboy, was speeding in his BMW and mowed down three men who were trying to free a person from a burning car. Two of them died. Very little outrage. Giants DE Jeremiah Parker and his girlfriend beat her 4-year-old son to death, and you've probably never heard of him. The list goes on: 46 domestic violence arrests for NFL players since 2000. NFL players hurting people, killing people. Not dogs -- humans.

And there's been scant national outrage over that. So please, everyone, shut up about the fucking dogs.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Lehigh, we have a problem

So Jeremiah Trotter got cut, and now lots of people, Eagles and otherwise, have ruffled feathers. Many of the fans hate the move. Most of the people I know who follow the NFL, but not the Eagles, have asked me about it with some degree of incredulity. The guy was a big-name player, once the best middle backer in the league not named Ray Lewis, had his name dropped in rap videos, four Pro Bowl appearances. He was the Axeman. He couldn't get cut.

Well, here's what I think: I don't hate the move, but I sure don't like it. And what I don't like about it goes way beyond Jeremiah Trotter -- it has to do with Donovan McNabb.

But first, the deal with Trotter. I love Jeremiah Trotter. I own his jersey. I bought it during his first stint with the Eagles, when he went from a third-round nobody out of Stephen F. Austin, drafted by an atrocious team, to one of the best middle linebackers in football. He was one of the pillars of the defense that, along with the drafting of McNabb, brought the franchise back to respectability in 1999, and, one year later, ushered in an era of consistent success unmatched in modern Eagles history. Dawkins, Trotter, Hugh Douglas, Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor -- all Pro Bowl players, all Ray Rhodes guys, too young to save his job, but a hell of a dowry for Andy Reid and Jim Johnson to inherit. (It's interesting to note that as they've slowly left -- Dawkins is the only one left -- the defense has deteriorated. And yet Jim Johnson gets all the credit for the good years.) That defense deserves just as much dap as McNabb does for reviving the franchise. And Jeremiah Trotter was behind a lot of the defense's success -- as was starkly evident when the Birds failed to replace him with a pair of disasters, Levon Kirkland and Mark Simoneau. I've heard a lot of Eagles fans say that letting Trotter walk in 2002 cost the Eagles a Lombardi. He was the best Eagles linebacker since Bednarik.

So I don't think a lot of Eagles followers expected him to get cut outright, but everybody who watched the team last year knew he was a liability on passing downs. He has been his whole career, and the last few years, as he's played in pain on oft-repaired knees, it's become painfully evident that he just can't cover anyone. Rich Hoffman breaks down Trotter's decline very well in his excellent column (seriously, Rich, can't you take Bill Conlin out for a Rusty Nail or two and talk some sense into him?), and Iggles Blog offers up some relevant selections from Football Prospectus on the matter, but all you really need to do is remember that Saints game last year. It wasn't all his fault -- the tackles really sucked, so Trot had o-linemen in his grill on every run play -- but the fact was that he couldn't make the plays he used to, the plays that changed games and saved seasons. I've never seen a single player turn around an entire defense like Trotter did in 2004. The man was an absolute menace. There's a reason Tiki Barber cited him by name as one of the reasons he retired early.

But he's not that player anymore. McNabb said he'd looked good in camp. Others disagree. Nobody, not even the Axeman himself, claimed that he wasn't past his prime. The only reason the cut comes as such a surprise is because of the Eagles' other linebackers. I could write another entire post about this, and might in the future, but to sum up the situation, they have Takeo Spikes and a bunch of guys you've never heard of. Their starting strong-side linebacker, Chris Gocong, was a defensive end at a D-II school two years ago and has never played a regular season game. Gaither, Trotter's heir apparent, has never started an NFL game at MLB.

Which might explain why the move was not very well received. The only remaining member of the aforementioned defensive unit, Brian Dawkins, said the news hit him "like a ton of bricks." Andy Reid did not look like a happy man in the press conference. And, most significantly, neither did Donovan McNabb, who took the opportunity he shunned when the same thing happened a half-dozen times over the last six years, with Duce and Vincent and Douglas, et. al, the old guard being slowly cut or pushed aside. Finally, he decided to go to bat for somebody. He questioned the front office's decisions in the media. And he even wondered aloud whether he was next.

The plot thickens.

The fact that McNabb finally spoke up for Jeremiah Trotter, one of TO's biggest supporters during the Year We Do Not Speak Of, should tell us something about D-Mac's intent. He didn't do this for Duce Staley, a guy who saved his ass a hundred times when he was learning the offense. He didn't do it for Brian Westbrook, the best weapon he's ever had. I don't think he cares much about losing an aging middle linebacker. This isn't the first time this offseason that he's fired a shot across the bow. It's not even the first time he's been "shocked" by something they did or said. First there was the much-discussed drafting of Kevin Kolb with their first pick. Then D-Mac's first public comments in response came during a press conference his publicist set up outside of the team's authority -- his newly hired publicist, who happened to have just been fired by the organization. There's been a situation brewing at the NovaCare complex for a while now.

In other words, this isn't really about Jeremiah Trotter. McNabb, as he has a way of doing with everything involving the Eagles, has made this about him. This could be very bad for the team, very good, or something in between.

Why this could be very bad for the Eagles:

It’s never good to have your franchise QB and head coach feuding. Donny's obviously feeling slighted by the Kolb pick, and he's itching to shed that "company man" rep he's rightfully gotten over the years. He is, after all, the highest-paid Eagle, as has been repeatedly observed by the players and the press, during every contentious contract negotiation (TO, Westbrook, Duce, Douglas, etc.), but especially during the TO situation. There have been an awful lot of rumblings about how good he would look in his hometown Bears' uniform next year, or the year after, when his backloaded contract gets very, very pricey. I wouldn't be surprised if he really is anticipating a similar move by the Eagles sometime in the near future -- I wouldn't be surprised if he's preparing to be dealt or cut, and auditioning for other teams already, at least to some degree. If you don't know the Philly sports milieu, you probably think I'm talking crazy. But I'm telling you, I'm not. Philly never embraced McNabb, and it never will, for the same reason the locker room never has: he's the golden boy, and nobody loves that guy. Ask A-Rod. Or ask Jeff Garcia, who got more love across the board, from the locker room comments to the papers to the fan message boards, in six games than D-Mac has in eight years.

In other words, McNabb's play at leadership could further estrange him from his own teammates, who have never seemed to like him much to begin with. It could further estrange him from the coaching staff, the organization, and maybe even from the whole city. If people read this move as purely self-serving, they'll have another reason to question McNabb.

Why this could be good:

First of all, if Andy has a beef with Donovan, maybe he won’t fucking throw the ball 70% of the time! The single biggest, most intractable, cancerous, ridiculous, egregious, fucking astoundingly asinine attribute of any football coach I've ever seen is Andy Reid's absolute refusal to run the football. I will never understand it. Mentioning it makes my heart rate spike -- it has taken years off of my life. It's not just me -- ask Diesel, who mentioned it to me after watching the preseason game today (which I missed because I was at the beach -- sue me, I've gone Californian on you.) That single shortcoming has cost the Eagles a dozen games in the last four years, and that is not an exaggeration. It may have cost them a Lombardi. There are a dozen ways I could support this, but the easiest is to simply look at the last six games of last season, those games everybody in the world blew Jeff Garcia for winning. The fact was, as soon as D-Mac went down the Eagles starting running the ball more than 45 percent of the time. They won six straight games. It's not a coincidence, folks. There's a reason I and half of the Eagles fans alive want the most successful coach in franchise history fired, and swiftly. But maybe if Andy's got a grudge, he'll give the ball to the best running back corps this franchise has had since Duce/Westy/Buckhalter. Maybe he'll finally pull his head out of his enormous ass. Maybe, but I doubt it.

Second, maybe McNabb really did take the Kolb pick to heart. Maybe he really is sick of being a "company man." Maybe he really is auditioning. And all of those things would likely result in him playing like a man with something to prove. The guy's 31 and coming off another major injury. He's played like an MVP whenever he's been healthy for the last three years, and yet he's never won one. Maybe Kevin Kolb finally provided the chip on McNabb's shoulder that Rush Limbaugh and TO couldn't.

I've said before in this space that I think McNabb's going to have a historically good year this season, if he can stay healthy (of course, that's a big "if"). I think he can be the best quarterback in football, and I'm not excluding anybody. But increasingly, I'm also beginning to think that he won't be an Eagle two years from now. The window's closing faster than anybody thought.

The Higher Education Myth

J.A. Adande is not a bad sports writer. To be fair, I'm not sure he's a great one, either; I haven't read enough of his stuff to say that. But he's not the kind of guy I ever expected to blog about saying something dumb.

But, he had to go and suggest that Eddie Griffin might not have been such a self-destructive headcase if he had gone to Seton Hall for more than one year.


Adande clearly, is trying to provide some context — maybe even a reason — for what superficially appears to be a senseless death. And he correctly speaks to Griffin's troubled history with substance abuse and mental illness, which (I believe) serve to offer a credible explanation as to why this young man was so self-destructive. But that's not what Adande hinges his piece on; instead, he uses a quote from an anonymous ex-player ("(Griffin was) a perfect example of a kid who shouldn't have went to the NBA early.") to try and make some larger point about how his early entrance into the NBA somehow nailed his coffin shut.

That's unfortunate, because it's insulting to readers to suggest that college basketball — part of the most corrupt sports organization in America — serves as some maturing force on its own merits. Adande mentions the "socialization" that takes place in college, but there's a complete dearth of evidence to support the idea that college is any less an constructive atmosphere for head-cases than the NBA. At least the NBA doesn't pretend to be anything except a professional sports league.

The bottom line is that fucked-up people are fucked-up people because they were predisposed to being fucked-up people. At every stage in his life, people overlooked Griffin's problems because they had something to gain from his basketball talent. It was only once his talent diminished — or his off-the-court issues made his talent irrelevant — that Griffin was forced to confront his problems and take responsibility for them. That would have happened in college as well; Seton Hall would have covered up things as long as he was useful to the team, and cast him off once he wasn't. Perhaps you believe I'm being unfair to the institution in this case, but I have yet to witness a college basketball team treat players as anything except assets for making money and increasing exposure.

Griffin was doomed from day one, looking back. Perhaps if he had been a gifted student instead of a basketball player, things would have turned out differently. But in the world of sports — high school, college and professional — your only utility to anyone is as a player. Championships are not won by an altruism run-off.

Multiple choice:

Question: Why are we not going to hear nearly as much bleating about this as we did about Vick?

a) Because everybody with a computer has already exhausted their wrists typing out their righteous indignation at dogfighting.
b) Because dogfighting is obviously worse than eating meat or hurting people, but letting dogs die from neglect isn't.
c) Because DMX isn't as famous as Michael Vick, although he is more famous than Qyntel Woods.
d) Because it was only three dead dogs this time.
e) Because DMX doesn't play football.
f) Because it was never really about the dogs.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

It's Carol!

Ryno forwarded this to me this morning, and I've probably watched it at least five times. Without question, one of the 10 best SNL skits ever.

I've got a bigger post coming about Eddie Griffin's death (I know what you're thinking), but I'm too hungover to write anything even remotely interesting right now.

On the bright side, Tim McCarver just said Jose Reyes is one of the 10 best baseball players of the last 50 years. If I had the energy, I'd slit my wrists. But I don't, so I'll end up watching the entire Dodgers-Mets game in a state of persistent rage.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Oh, snap!

Looks like I'm going to have to put the Carroll discussion on the shelf for the time being. I just saw some of the articles coming out of Eagles camp in the wake of Trotter's release. And it ain't pretty. All of a sudden, Lieutenant McNabb is tossing grenades into headquarters.

This could potentially be as interesting as the TO situation, although it definitely won't get as much press. Much more on this tomorrow.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Predictions for the NFL Season; or, Things You Can Later Make Fun of Me For Saying

Now that the preseason has begun in earnest, fantasy drafts are happening everywhere (I've got one going right now, another Sunday, and a teleconference live draft at the end of the month), Seth is spamming us incessantly with stupid Seahawks fluffing, and the best four months of every year have come into sight, it's about time for the first annual TGWNA NFL predictions post. Yeah, predictions are stupid, but what else do you want me to post about? The Phillies?

I was going to go team-by-team, but really, who gives a dead pitbull's ass about squads like the Dolphins and Chiefs and the entire NFC North? Instead, I'll just offer up my playoff brackets with brief blurbs and then some assorted musings. Then I'll wait for Diesel to disagree for all sorts of incoherent and irresponsible reasons. I'm also only doing the NFC, in hopes that he'll take care of the AFC, home of his beloved Bills/Chargers/whatever other team he's decided to adopt.

NFC Division champs:

North: Lions. I'll start this off with a bang. No, I'm not just pandering to B! (If I wanted to do that, I'd get a tan.) I know, I know -- it's the Lions! But they have a solid veteran at QB, four or possibly five decent options at running back, the deepest receiving corps in football, and ... well, one of the worst defenses in the league. But I think Martz can do the same thing he did in St. Louis -- I mean the brief success, not the general assholishness (actually, I guess I mean both) -- and win a terrible division with a bad defense. The winner of this division might well go 9-7.

East: Eagles. Yeah, I'm a homer. But they have the best QB, RB, and O-line in the division, as well as what was statistically the second-best D (by a hair) in an off year. They drafted well, Kolb notwithstanding, and they finally fixed the linebacker situation. They also added more depth to the D-line with Scott, Reagor, and Bunkley, who barely played as a rookie but is penciled in to start. The only person they lost is a fast receiver who plays nine games a year, and they replaced him with a more durable, if probably less talented, option. They won the division last year without D-Mac, and they did it in resounding fashion, by kicking the living shit out of the Cowboys twice. If D-Mac stays healthy -- a big if -- they're the best team in the NFC. If he gets injured, they probably make the Wild Card with Feeley or Holcomb.

South: Saints. They have the best offense in their division -- probably the best in the NFC -- and they're well-coached. I don't think they'll be as good as they were last year, because their defense still has some pretty gaping holes (namely, Mark Simoneau and most of the secondary). They'll also lose some of their feel-good story vibe. But I don't buy the Panthers -- never have -- and the Bucs and Falcons won't seriously threaten.

West: Rams. Exactly who we thought they were. A turf team with a bad defense and probably the best all-around RB, QB, and WR in the NFC. But the Niners are still a year away and the Seahawks are two years past their sell-by date. And the Cardinals are still the Cardinals.

Wild Cards:

Cowboys -- If an aging Philly team breaks down, they'll win the East. They might anyway. They have all the pieces to be the class of the NFC, provided Romo returns to the form he showed the first half of last season.

Niners -- Yes, they're still young, and yes, their defense has some issues. But they've drafted well and filled holes with free agents. I'm not sure Banta-Cain is the answer at LB, and I'm positive Michael Lewis isn't at SS -- ask me how I know -- but Clements gives them a shutdown corner, which they badly needed. Maybe the Panthers and/or Seahawks are better, but I'd rather go with the young, unproven team than a pair of teams that have proven to be too old.

Who's going to Chandler? My head says Dallas, but I'll take the Birds.

Regarding Donovan McNabb: Since I just picked the Eagles to go to the Super Bowl, and since this is what everybody always asks me when they find out I'm an Eagles fan (now that TO is thankfully long gone), I'll weigh in briefly, although I've covered all this shit for the last two seasons on my other blog. Diesel and I just finished discussing this as it relates to our fantasy draft -- it started with my observation that D-Mac is invariably taken two rounds too early for a 31-year-old QB with a significant injury history, and then he said projecting possible injuries is a fool's errand, which is news to me, and then proceeded into me trying to convince him for five minutes that I didn't want to take Willie Parker, in vain hopes of him falling to me on the rebound pick. Of course, I wound up taking Willie Parker. Diesel's not a sucker for the sweet talk unless you get him high off hash.

(An aside: I recently moved to California, and last night I had an experience which cemented California, for me, as the land of sunshine and bliss and opportunity: I smoked prescription marijuana. Out of a vaporizer. And God bless me if it wasn't wonderful. I haven't gotten high on a regular basis since about 1995, and back then it was dirt weed and cored apples or bent Coke cans. This is an entirely different experience, my friends. Changed my whole perspective on shit. I gotta get me a prescription.)

Anyway, here's the thing with D-Mac: theoretically, this could be the year. He's been on an MVP-level pace for the last three years, when he's been healthy. He's put up some stretches in which he's been among the most effective quarterbacks, statistically, in NFL history. If he did that for a whole season, like he did in 2004, he is literally capable of having the greatest single season by a QB ever. He's got that kind of talent, and has for a while now. He also has his best receiving corps ever this year.

But that's in theory. In reality, he's finished two years out of the last five, and he was (supposedly) shaken up in the final game of two others. Early in his career, he got injured a lot because he ran a lot and took hits -- hence the broken leg, the thumb, the sternum problems. Legit stuff. But then two years ago he got a sports hernia sometime in the offseason. Last year he blew an ACL running out of bounds practically untouched. Maybe he put on too much weight -- please, Seth, can we get another insightful comment about how "fat" he is? Or are you saving that for his blog? -- or maybe he's just been unlucky. Either way, all you can really count on out of him is that he'll be ridiculous for the first ten games.

Whether he'll have a successful season will come down to one thing: the Eagles' run/pass ratio. The main reason I hate Andy Reid and probably always will, even though he revived my favorite franchise and has won something like 65 percent of his games as head coach, is because his play selection defies any kind of logic or reason. When McNabb was trying to play through the hernia, he threw the ball 70 percent of the time. On third and goal from the 2, he runs play-action passes. He just hates to run the ball.

If he finally pulls his head out of his prodigious ass and runs the ball even 45 percent of the time -- still not exactly conservative -- then McNabb could be your MVP, and the Eagles could make the Super Bowl. But judging by precedent, I'm predicting he doesn't. McNabb will somehow get hurt, the backup (Holcomb or Feeley) will play pretty well for a few games, the Eagles will make the playoffs in an average division. From there it's a crapshoot.

The Seahawks -- OK, Seth, you wanted more Seahawks talk. Here's what I think: Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander have both played their best football. (Also, real quick: tell me who the best Seahawks receiver is. It ain't easy to do, and I don't mean that as a compliment.) Alexander's breaking down already, will be 30 in two weeks, and has a ton of miles on him -- Bama ran his legs off even before his rookie year. They could both have enough left in the tank to get the Hawks to the playoffs, but even that isn't a guarantee. With the resurgent Rams and Niners, they can no longer pencil in five wins against a terrible division.

If I had to predict, I'd say 9-7. That might get them a Wild Card -- it might even win that division -- but I don't see them making the NFC championship game.

The Panthers --
Somebody explain to me why people still think the Panthers are a good football team, three full seasons after they made that improbable run to the Super Bowl? They've made the playoffs exactly once since then, as a Wild Card, and they beat two pretenders to earn the honor of getting trampled by the Seahawks back when they were good.

Jake Delhomme shares more than a first name with Jake Plummer. They have two running backs with lots of potential, but nobody on their roster has ever rushed for 1,000 yards. Their defense is good, including a great D-line, but as a unit they're hardly elite -- they ranked seventh last year, just ahead of the Vikings. Yes, Steve Smith is an animal, but who cares? He's a wide receiver!

It pisses me off that people always mention the Panthers in the preseason, as if they're some kind of contenders. They'll be lucky to make the playoffs, even in that division.

Apropos of nothing: I had the Packers penciled in to win the North most of the time I was writing this post. I don't know why, but I kind of think they might be good.

You're up, Diesel.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Reach for the sky, honky!

Friends, this is Bud Selig. Bud — also known as "Silky" to his close, personal friends — wants us to believe his pimp hand (foreground) is strong, albeit liver-spotted. It's an ongoing theme with Bud pretty much since he created the Wild Card; because most people thought that was a good idea, he took it as a sign that he had been granted a mandate. And, ever since, he's done as much as possible to convince every rational baseball fan that Ford Frick wasn't so bad after all.

State's evidence No. 1,263: Bud's "big idea" for the amateur draft.

I recently wrote that Scott Boras was "single-handedly responsible for destroying the slot system in the MLB draft," which is probably an overstatement (I know what you're thinking: Not you, Diesel!). Truth is, Boras hadn't destroyed the slot system so much as he had managed to convince large market teams to defy it, and small-market teams that weren't weren't willing to pony up over-slot bonuses to lay off the best prospects in the draft (for those who may not know, the slot system is nothing more than a "suggestion" by the MLB front office as to what should be paid to each draft pick; it's non-binding, and a team that goes above slot has to put up with angry phone calls from Bud's stooges who scream and yell and threaten to hold back goodies like money from the league's discretionary fund and the possibility of hosting future All-Star Games).

But the bottom line is that the vast majority of draftees still signed for slot, if they signed at all.

In the most recent CBA, Bud negotiated some changes to the draft system with the intention of striking at the bargaining power of draftees, ultimately in an attempt to make it easier for teams to stick to slot. The two most important changes were:

1) Moving the signing deadline up to August 15th, which eliminates the year-long negotiations that used to take place between players and teams, sometimes right up until the following draft;

2) Granting compensatory picks of roughly equal value in the subsequent draft for teams that were unable to sign their first-round picks (eg: If the Royals hadn't signed their No. 2 pick this season, they would have had the No. 2A pick in 2008, or the third pick overall.)

Then, just because he figured he could, Bud did something truly incredible: He actually set the slot bonuses 10 percent lower than they had been the year before. That, my friends, is the business equivalent to "Suck it, Trebeck."

One can only imagine the gigantic smile that stretched across Bud's face when this potion of the CBA was inked. Sure, this past offseason saw the San Francisco Giants sign perhaps the worst contract in the history of baseball (not to mention the Dodgers' and Astros' valiant attempts at the honor) and some of the most profligate free-agent spending, relative to the value of the dollar, in the game's history. But the idea of a prospect getting a couple of million really seemed to piss this guy off, and he had finally managed to rig the system as to make sure these heedless whelps would take what he said they should take.


Total amount spent on first-round bonuses: $57,017,093
Average amount spent on first-round bonuses: $1,900,570

Total amount spent on first-round bonuses: $62,942,500
Average amount spent on first-round bonuses: $2,098,083

Increase in spending on bonuses: 10.39 percent
(Figures courtesy of BP minor-league guru Kevin Goldstein)

That, my friends, is what I call poetic justice.

Among the "Fuck You, Bud" highlights were:

Boras client Matt Wieters (No. 5, Baltimore) was given a $6 million bonus, the largest in the history of the league for a draft pick;
• No. 27 pick Rick Porcello signed a four-year deal worth more than $7 million, the largest ever guaranteed compensation package for a prep player;
• The K.C. Royals, who have obeyed the slot more than a henpecked man throughout the years, ended up giving No. 2 pick Mike Moustakas a $4 million bonus, almost a full million over slot;
Boras got a $1.1 million bonus for fifth-round pick Jake Arietta;
• The Yankees gave a major-league contract that could be worth $13 million total to No. 30 pick Andrew Brackman, a 6-foot-10 pitcher who's getting Tommy John Surgery in a couple of days.

In all, 14 first-round picks signed above-slot deals, though a handful of those were simply deals that didn't include the 10 percent discount from the 2006 slot recommendations.

My favorite tidbit from the entire ordeal, however, was what Dave Dombrowski reportedly said to Selig, who called to give him shit about the over-slot signing of Porcello: "At least we didn't spend $50 million just to talk to a pitcher from Japan." Now that is some hot smack.

The point isn't that Bud made things worse — Porcello, Wieters et al. would have signed record-setting deals no matter what — so much as he simply proved how hopeless he is as an administrator. His hard-on for draftee bonuses is inexplicable in the face of the kind of money being thrown around for players these days, but even if his concerns were justified, it's clear that he simply is incapable of understanding the consequences of his actions. All he managed to do this year was piss off everyone involved in the amateur draft process, including many of the teams who once followed slot recommendations as gospel. It's one thing, as a boss, to have all your employees hate you, but to have your peers and employers hate you as well is the hallmark of a man who simply can't do anything right.

Quoth an unnamed scouting director to BP's Goldstein: “You don’t roll back the clock in this business, not when there are $100 million contracts floating around. Everything is up, and then MLB tells teams to cut signing bonuses by 10 percent? Reasonable people don’t accept that.”

Thursday, August 16, 2007

TGWNA Salutes the "Quality Start"

I just asked a good friend of mine, who also happens to be a professional sports reporter (we'll all pretend that we don't know who he is), what one stat he would look to, if he could only choose one, to judge the quality of a starting rotation/pitching staff (I realize the two aren't the same thing, but I don't want to make this such a narrow qualification.

His response: Starter's WHIP, or team ERA.

A week ago, I probably would have agreed with the team ERA part, but WHIP's a little too narrow as a metric to be something I'd look at to give me a "general quality." Unfortunately, team ERA lacks for context; it tells us what happened over the entire season, on average, as opposed to what happened in smaller trials, like the games the team in question actually needed to actually win to actually get to the actual playoffs.

If I may, an aside: I was reading something on some site from earlier this year that was talking about the Yankees and their massive differential between their actual record and pythagorean record. The person writing about this — unfortunately, I cannot remember who — commented that the reason for the divide was that the Yankees were "losing a lot of close games and winning a lot of blowouts," or something to that effect. My reflex to these kinds of statements is "Quantify that, cocksucker," but I thought about it for a second, and realized that this probably happens more than most stat-heads are willing to admit. Teams with awesome offenses tend to have huge variances in game-to-game performance (eight runs one night, two the next) whereas teams with shitty pitching staffs always seem to get shelled.

But here's where I'm going to sound almost like I'm admitting that Joe Morgan is right about something: The goal of any individual pitcher, and a pitching staff as a whole, is to create winning situations. That doesn't mean that wins, as a stat, are useful. It does mean, though, that the most important thing a starting pitcher can do is give his team a reasonable chance of winning, and the best available statistic for measuring that is the quality start.

Apparently, few agree with me, since finding quality start numbers on the web is surprisingly difficult. The venerable ESPN has the QS numbers from 2006 and this season to date, but nothing before. I can't find an older database anywhere, which makes it a little harder to prove my point by the numbers. But I'll try anyway.

While watching the D'Backs continue to mount one of the strangest pennant runs I can remember, it occurred to me that, for a pitching staff that was considered so good, the D'Backs were light on pitchers I would consider being worth much (excluding Brandon Webb, of course). If you asked me, at the beginning of the year, what word came to mind when I thought of Livan Hernandez and Doug Davis, I would have immediately said "walks," followed by "losses," and "justifiable homicide." It would not occurred to me that both would be among the most reliable starters in the NL when it comes to delivering eminently winnable games for their teams. In fact, Davis and Hernandez have been as reliable as Webb has been.

Brandon Webb: 25 starts, 16 quality starts
Doug Davis: 25 starts, 16 quality starts
Livan Hernandez: 24 starts, 15 quality starts

That's certainly not what you'd expect without looking at the numbers.

The beauty of the quality start is that, instead of attempting to eliminate noise like many advanced statistic, it embraces an Occam's Razor-like approach to distilling each individual start into something simple and meaningful: did the pitcher give his team an excellent chance of winning with only a pedestrian amount of offense? Any time, in today's game, a starter can hold a team to three or fewer runs while throwing at least six innings, it's a borderline crime for that starter to not get a win.

In the case of the D'Backs, people have trotted out a lot of reasons as to why they've been able to keep winning despite a run differential that compares (un)favorably with a team like the Marlins. The Snakes' bullpen is excellent, which is a big factor, and it appears they're acting as a converse to the Yankees, by losing big (22 losses by five or more runs) and winning small (26 one-run wins). And it's worth mentioning that not many people think Arizona can continue to defy the pythagorean gods; BP's Joe Sheehan said in Thursday's column about the Snakes, "The Diamondbacks are simply unlikely to keep playing at a 90-win pace while also being outscored, no matter how good their bullpen performs. They will likely see either their run differential improve, or their record sag, because run differential is a more powerful indicator of team quality and future performance than actual record is."

But I really think the biggest factor this year has been the steadiness of the staff's top three starters, who have enabled a team with a fledgling offense (read: inconsistent and low-scoring) to be in a ton of games where a modest offensive output could earn a win. Webb has done this by being the awesome pitcher he's been for the last three seasons, while Hernandez and Davis have done this despite mediocre "standard" statistics like ERA, WHIP and K/BB.

Here is the quality starts top-10 for 2007 so far:

LA Angels - 68
NY Mets - 68
Cleveland - 67
San Diego - 67
Oakland - 66
Arizona - 65
Chicago Sox - 64
Toronto - 62
San Francisco - 62
Chicago Cubs - 61

Not surprisingly, this list includes most of the best teams in the league. The Angels, Mets, and D'Backs lead their respective divisions, while the Indians, Padres and Cubs are all either the WC leaders or within a game or two of a playoff spot. The A's and Blue Jays are mediocre teams, and the Sox & Giants are downright horrible. But in the cases of the A's, Sox and Giants, you're talking about three of the five worst offenses in the major leagues; they're the very definition of teams that could drop a 20-game-loser on Walter Johnson himself.

But, in addition to the D'Backs, I want to point out the presence of the Mets at the top. The Angels, co-leaders in quality starts, are constantly lauded for having one of the best pitching staffs in the majors. The Mets' "pitching woes" are a regular subject of debate on Baseball Tonight. The reason is name recognition and expectations: Most everyone expected the Mets' starting rotation to be horrible this year, while seeing that the Angels' staff is good simply confirms what everyone expected.

It's taken long enough to get this up, and while I have more to say on the subject, I'll post this now and write more later.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Sports Briefs, 8/13

We need to fill some space here, so I'm hearkening back to the Wildcat days and busting out Sports Briefs. Got a few things that might be overlooked:

The world's first $24 million long reliever: The Phillies are considering yanking Adam Eaton from the rotation. (And can you believe that other note about Jose Mesa being sort of good?) Please do! More room for J.D. "the Real Deal" Durbin, who apparently nicknamed himself in A ball! (Scroll to the fourth paragraph.) He also got his first win on my birthday and recently shut out the Pads.

The Eagles open the preseason tonight in Baltimore: D-Mac's not playing, thank goodness. They ought to just treat him like the Chargers are doing to LT: no preseason snaps whatsoever. He's in his ninth year and he popped an ACL last season while running out of bounds: he doesn't need the reps.

However, tonight does offer the first look at Kevin Kolb (pronounced to rhyme with cob, by the way -- remember that, in case McNabb and Feeley both go down with injuries this year. Another thing to remember if that happens: I don't want to be resuscitated.) I never thought I would say this, but I'm glad the game's in Baltimore. The last thing he needs is to throw a few picks and get booed off the field at home.

Personally, I'm much more interested to see the rookies who might play this year: Stewart Bradley, Tony Hunt, Brent Celek, and, dare I dream, Nasty Nate. The Birds are also relying on a lot of second-year guys who need to perform: Bunkley, Avant, Baskett, and Gocong. And it'll be nice to get a glimpse of their big free-agent signings, Kevin Curtis and Takeo Spikes.

My prediction: Philly 28 Baltimore 17.

Friday, August 10, 2007

What are you talking about?

I'll try to be as brief as I possibly can here. Your criticisms of both me and Easterbrook are based on the notion that "(Rowling's) non-discussion is simply her default position on religious matters."


When an author starts quoting the Bible, she's bringing religion into the discussion. And do you really think that Gregg Easterbrook is the only person of the millions who read the book capable of recognizing a quote from one of Paul's letters to the Corinthians? Or Matthew 6:19? We're talking about two relatively well-known passages in two of the most often-read books in the most widely distributed, studied, and taught document in the history of the world. And you're seriously going to claim the following???:

"No one knew they were Bible quotes. Not the reviewers, more than likely not the children, and as far as we know, no one besides Easterbrook."

I really hope you're just searching for premises on which to base your disagreement, arguing for the sake of arguing, because that's one sorry-ass piece of support. Two sentences later, you say it's the most widely read and quoted book in the history of the world -- but none of the literally millions of people who read Harry Potter can recognize well-known quotes from it? None of those legion children who attend Sunday school every week? None of the book reviewers who probably had to study Paul's letters in Lit classes (I did)? Only Gregg Easterbrook? Come on. Even most of your baseball arguments make more sense than that.

Other issues:

-- In terms of spiritual content, quoting the Bible is always a whole hell of a lot different from quoting Shakespeare. That's because there's a religion with hundreds of millions of followers based on the Bible. With Shakespeare, not so much.

But rather than acknowledging that she's pretty clearly invoking the Bible in those passages, you'd have us believe that, after writing a few thousand pages of an incredibly successful series of books for children and making millions of dollars while not mentioning God, J.K. Rowling decided to throw a couple of direct Bible quotes into the final one not because she was trying to get something across, but because "the quotes sounded good and fit the scenes she was trying to create." Or that she didn't know they were Bible verses, and just happened to quote them verbatim, anyway.

This is the kind of argument on which D-level literary analysis papers are based. Things like Biblical quotations don't happen by accident in books. Successful authors tend to be a bit more selective than writing whatever sounds good and seems to fit.

-- I never said most 200-page novels discuss god at some length. I said they mention him in some sense. There's a big difference. But you know that, since you so love semantics.

In other words, it's a significant absence when a book doesn't mention God at all. Moreso when a multi-thousand-word series doesn't. If you'd like to contend that point, please do.

-- I'd like to respond to this, which I'm quoting here lest I be accused (again) of misquoting your argument.

However, what really made no sense to me — honestly — was you additional take on children's books and religion. Are you saying that religion should be addressed in children's books (as Easterbrook suggests)? Or are you simply saying that any religious material should be well-documented so parents are aware of what's being fed to their children (a position I whole-heartedly support)? Part of my confusion here stems from the fact that Rowling made no real mention of religion or god in her books — I'll get to the Bible passages in a second — so there's nothing really here for parents to worry about in that regard (the mystical/supernatural/whatever stuff is another story, but I think(?) everyone's at least anecdotally familiar with that aspect of the series by now, so it's not like parents are flying blind here). The only person who brought up religion visa vis the Potter series is Gregg Easterbrook. It's an invention of his, not Rowling's. Thus, Rowling need not concern herself with disclosing anything about religious content with her books; there is none.

This is really puzzling. Where did I (or Easterbrook, for that matter) say anything remotely like "religion should be addressed in children's books"? Or that religious material should be "well-documented"? Find me a place where I said that. You're pretty blatantly putting words in my mouth for effect.

And you really support requiring "documentation" of religious material in books? What kind of documentation? Do you want warning stickers, a la Tipper Gore, or do you want Yellow Stars on the covers of Jewish books? A pretty strange stance for a Libertarian, no?

Your confusion stems from your stubborn, illogical belief that Rowling made no mention of God. Once again: her books have no religious content EXCEPT FOR THE FUCKING BIBLE QUOTES! I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!

My "take" on religion in children's books was stated pretty succinctly in my original post: The issue of God and religious belief is even more important in children's books, I think: parents should understand and appreciate whether and how their children are being indoctrinated by what they read (and watch, and hear, for that matter).

So no, I don't think there should be warning labels on children's books that say "Parental Advisory: Religious Content." And I don't care one way or the other how (or whether) their authors choose to address God -- that's their prerogative. What I think is that parents should read with their children and discuss the books so that they can be aware of and counteract any possible indoctrinating effects. I know that's probably a pipe dream in contemporary America, but I think it's the most reasonable solution.

-- I don't want to belabor it too much, but your use of "mystics" was a stretch at best. The world is almost invariably defined in relation to religious knowledge. TV psychics don't have that, and most of them, I would assume, don't even claim to communicate with a god. And since you're an atheist, and don't believe in god, using the word to defend psychics from a guy you're calling a zealot is a particularly odd choice.

Yes, this is ostensibly a sports blog, but ...

It's not every day one can be accused of being both "incoherent" and "irresponsible" — criticism that seems tailor-made for Jesse Jackson — but while I take no offense, I do think you quite missed the boat completely here. The bottom line is that Easterbrook did make the "controversy" surrounding Rowling's non-inclusion of religious content out of whole cloth.

First, let's be clear: Easterbrook was making no simple observation here. He clearly accuses Rowling — using the lame "perhaps" qualifier that you and I have both criticized other writers for using in the past when making accusations they can't prove — of avoiding the issue of god and religion because she doesn't want the controversy involved. Had Easterbrook simply noted that, in contrast to the two other series, the Potter books have been free of religious content, I would have no objection.

But he didn't stop there, and your defenses of Easterbrook end up being as "incoherent" as anything I wrote. First, I fail to see how the fact that most other 200-plus page discuss god at some length — a point I'd contend, though this could simply be an issue of different experiences and literary histories — somehow means that there exists an obligation to do so for all authors who write more than short stories. I'm sorry, but that's asinine. It's not only acceptable for any author to bypass all religious/god discussion in his or her work, it's actually welcomed, particularly if he or she doesn't have anything beyond the trite or cliché to offer readers.

When you use the word "skirt," much like Easterbrook suggested that Rowling made a conscious decision to not get into the topic for feat of controversy, you ignore the possibility that her non-discussion is simply her default position on religious matters. Neither of you know what Rowling was thinking while writing (besides "I'm going to buy a baby cash!"), and I think it's irresponsible to present the assumption that she actively avoided the subject with no evidence outside of your (misguided?) assumptions about what children's books should be.

However, what really made no sense to me — honestly — was you additional take on children's books and religion. Are you saying that religion should be addressed in children's books (as Easterbrook suggests)? Or are you simply saying that any religious material should be well-documented so parents are aware of what's being fed to their children (a position I whole-heartedly support)? Part of my confusion here stems from the fact that Rowling made no real mention of religion or god in her books — I'll get to the Bible passages in a second — so there's nothing really here for parents to worry about in that regard (the mystical/supernatural/whatever stuff is another story, but I think(?) everyone's at least anecdotally familiar with that aspect of the series by now, so it's not like parents are flying blind here). The only person who brought up religion visa vis the Potter series is Gregg Easterbrook. It's an invention of his, not Rowling's. Thus, Rowling need not concern herself with disclosing anything about religious content with her books; there is none.

As for the Bible passages bit, I think that Easterbrook himself correctly identified the reason why they don't serve to make his criticism appropriate: No one knew they were Bible quotes. Not the reviewers, more than likely not the children, and as far as we know, no one besides Easterbrook. Beyond complementing him for a sharp eye and an encyclopedic knowledge of biblical verse, is there really anything else here to say? While the Bible is clearly and ecclesiastical work, it's also the most widely read and quoted book in the history of the world. Quoting the bible, in this situation, isn't all that different from quoting Shakespeare, in terms of spiritual content. Rowling quoted two fragments of larger biblical verses, didn't identify them as such, and in the context of a larger work that deals with religion not at all. She may have intended for this to be an "Easter Egg" for astute readers, but she could just have easily thought the quotes sounded good and fit the scenes she was trying to create. Or, maybe she didn't know they were bible verses at all; point is, I don't know, and neither does Easterbrook. But, suffice to say, these two lines alone don't justify harping on the author for the religious content of her works, or lack thereof.

Two notes:
- I refer to anyone who makes any claims of supernatural abilities as a "mystic." This includes TV psychics, palm readers, horse whisperers, or religious figures like priests or rabbis who claim to serve as conduits of some god. Hell, I even call people who believe in the intercessory power of prayer "mystics." I believe, further, that my using the term "mysticism" in this case is semantically correct. I thus fail to see how I am guilty of "pap" in this regard.

- I didn't hit on it in my letter, but you're right to point out that Easterbrook of all people should be the last to do something so stupidly glip as refer to anyone as a "jihadi." I think it further underscores his inability to reconcile his religious views, which appear to have been the cause of both this overstatement and his previous forehead-slapper about Jews that almost cost him his career. Not that I think that kind of reaction is justified here, and I'm less concerned with an apology than perhaps him using this as an opportunity to intelligently explain to everyone why statements like that can not only undermine one's credibility, but serve to further lower the level of discourse in this country, which is already subterranean.

Wasn't it nice writing about something else than the Phillies?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Friday Morning Referee

Diesel seems to want me to do a travelogue, but I'm not sure what else there is to say that's sports-related other than that we went to games at Chavez and McAfee and enjoyed both of the parks immensely, even if the games themselves were pretty boring. So I'll take up the Easterbrook issue instead, since it interests me more.

I've also liked Easterbrook's stuff in the past, and I also have a number of problems with the latest TMQ offering. For one thing, this installment seems notably more prolix than usual. He's always written long, but he usually keeps me reading, and this time I found myself scrolling past paragraphs at a time. Part of it is the subject matter; the preseason has not even started in earnest, and so he's left to ruminate on things neither I nor, I imagine, many other of his readers care a whole lot about: the player's union, Harry Potter, the AFL, lawnmowers, and so on. I understand that his broad expertise and interests are supposed to be part of his appeal, but still, I think this is a big mistake on his part: just because it's the preseason doesn't mean you have to bombard us with all of this irrelevance. If you're not generating any interest from me -- one of the more academic and longer attention-spanned football fans you're likely to find -- it's probably safe to say you're boring the shit out of pretty much everybody. The answer's simple: cut it short. Of course, much of this points toward the biggest problem with Page 2, which is that there's apparently no editorial oversight whatsoever, except for the censors watching out for anything that could be construed as anti-Disney. I've covered this at length before.

His stances on a lot of the topics also strike me as gratuitously contrarian, in some cases bizarrely so. The Sopranos critique, for instance, simply baffled me: he blasts a mafia series for being too violent and too breasty? Then he rips it for not being realistic enough, basing most of his claim on obscure details like the botany of the Pine Barrens and the intricacies of liquor licenses in New Jersey? Spare me. It's drama, not reality television. Don't be such a technical dick.

And it only gets worse from there: He even goes so far as to call anybody who claims to like the Sopranos for the family scenes a liar. Here's an idea, Easterbrook: I think the Sopranos was so innovative because it was perhaps the first phenomenon-popular TV series that dealt with crime and social issues without designating the good guys and the bad guys. Maybe it's such a great show, such a cultural institution, not because it has a lot of violence and tits -- you can get both on late-night Showtime (or so I hear...) -- but because David Simon created some of the most interesting and complex characters television has ever seen. Maybe it was considered so innovative because it was really the first successful foray by a premium cable channel into multi-season dramatic series, and because it turned out to be such a high-quality show. It had great actors, great directing, spectacular writing -- it was essentially an 80-hour-long good Mafia movie. That's never been done before, and it paved the way for even better stuff, such as the single greatest television series ever made, The Wire.

He seems to be basing a lot of his judgments, against the Sopranos and elsewhere, on staunchly moralistic grounds. So, yes, I do think he's starting to sound preachy. Actually, he's starting to remind me too much of a preacher: one minute he quotes the Bible, and the next he's quite lecherously discussing thongs and making cracks about the natural hair color of cheerleaders. It's all a little weird to me, a little creepy and repressed, and it smacks of everything I hate about born-again-ism: the judgmental worldview, the superiority, the hypocrisy, the evangelism.


I've also got some real problems with the first half of your letter to Easterbrook. It's ridiculous to claim that the man's "rational worldview is being seriously compromised by (his) religious zeal." Speaking of arguments being compromised by zeal, how about comparing Easterbrook to Ann Coulter? If you want to talk about writing pap, how about referring to TV psychics as "mystics"? I mean, the dude's a fellow at probably the single most respected think tank in America. He's also an editor at one of the smartest magazines extant. He's a multipublished author, a respected thinker, and, what's more, he's one of the few public figures in the contemporary tsunami of self-righteousness who's brave enough to admit when he is wrong. For that last, especially, I admire him. I hardly think questioning his very commitment to reason is justified here.

I also think your entire Harry Potter argument is incoherent and irresponsible. Easterbrook makes a completely reasonable -- and, I think, astute -- observation that the Harry Potter series skirts the issue of religion and/or God. If true (I have no idea), that's a notable absence: you won't find many 200-page novels that don't mention God in some sense, much less a series of a half-dozen books, some of which weigh in north of 700 pages. The issue of God and religious belief is even more important in children's books, I think: parents should understand and appreciate whether and how their children are being indoctrinated by what they read (and watch, and hear, for that matter).

And what you conveniently fail to mention, Diesel, is that the religion issue arises not because Easterbrook artificially holds Harry Potter up against other children's series -- as both you and your selective quotation of the column suggest -- but because Rowling decided to directly quote the Bible multiple times in the final book.

Easterbrook's observation of this phenomena remains exactly that: an observation. He soon drifts off into a critique of the Golden Compass series and anti-Christian books in general (more on that later). He never commends Rowling for including Biblical quotations; he just points them out and discusses them. By so doing, he's actually empowering any parents who may read the column to make their own decision regarding the religious content. So to accuse him of inventing the issue in order to "bully" anybody, much less atheists, is both disingenuous and irresponsible. I understand that you're very attuned to the precariousness of the atheist position in an increasingly religion-dominated world, but I think you're inventing the oppression in this case.

However, again.

The second half of your letter could not be more accurate. I absolutely and vehemently agree with you about Easterbrook's use of the word "jihadis" when describing the three other "anti-Christian" authors. That is hyperbole at its most asinine, and it shocked me when I first read the word. I expect much better from a mind like his. He does have some history of head-up-assedness when it comes to his choice of words, especially when critiquing movies and books, and this latest column -- especially the "jihadi" -- seems like the kind of thing he might wind up regretting. Respected intellectuals simply can't go around comparing their rivals to terrorists in an international forum. It's indefensible, it's stupid, and it's wrong. Further, I think it warrants an apology.

If it does, though, I bet he gives that apology. I'll give him that much credit, and to me, that means an awful lot.

An Open Letter to Gregg Easterbrook

Dear Mr. Easterbrook,

For some time now, I've really enjoyed your Tuesday Morning Quarterback columns, and I know I'm not alone in this regard; your work is wildly popular, because I think you do an outstanding job of writing erudite and entertaining commentary pieces on the NFL. Hell, you do better straight game analysis than half the hacks that ESPN employs to, ostensibly, do straight game analysis.

However, I've got to say that your most recent offering was, at best, pure pap, and at worst the kind of abrasive (and paranoid) Christian rhetoric that our airwaves are already saturated with.

It's no secret that you're a Christian with strong beliefs, both when it comes to your personal faith and your view that faith is an important component in society. Since non-football-centric quips are a part of your routine, I've always been fine with the religious content, as relatively scarce as it was.

But in your most recent column, about 1/12th of which actually dealt with football, it appears you have made a conscious decision to begin banging the same drum that luminaries like Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter have made ignominious careers of percussing. The pro-Christian rhetoric was voluminous — you use the terms "christian" or "christianity" nine times, quote two bible passages, take two different digs at psychics (whose brand of mysticism you conveniently dismiss), and state the "worship service-attendance figures" of Europe are "troubling" — to the point where I was wondering if you had lost a bet to your pastor/priest/reverend (in spite of your anti-gambling stance). Is this what you think intelligent football fans want to read?

Two things you said, in particular, led me to believe that your otherwise rational world view is being seriously compromised by your spiritual zeal.

• In your apropos-of-nothing "review" of the latest Harry Potter book, I quote:

The postwar United Kingdom has produced three blockbuster young people's fantasy series, the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, the "Golden Compass" series by Philip Pullman and now the Potter volumes. All feature astonishingly capable English schoolchildren with magic powers. The Narnia books are explicitly Christian; the Golden Compass books are explicitly anti-Christian; what about Potter? Though J.K. Rowling's 4,000 pages concern supernatural forces, the soul and communication with the dead who exist in an afterlife, religious issues are missing from the series. The wizards and witches of the Potter world celebrate Christmas, but otherwise seem to have no religious views and never pause to reflect on where their power comes from or what the spirit world might be. Perhaps Rowling concluded that in the contemporary milieu, it's totally fine to market a children's story containing numerous scenes in which children are tortured or murdered, but mentioning God would be too controversial. (Emphasis mine)

I understand that you see the Potter series as part of a larger body of U.K.-based children's works, but I fail to see how the religious content of the first two have any bearing on the latter. Did it ever occur to you that Rowling may not have considered herself a part of this group, and thus saw no reason to add the variable of religion into her stories? I, as one, did not realize that the onus was on children's authors to make definitive statements regarding the worthiness, veracity, or societal role of religion. Yet, as opposed to simply assuming that Rowling saw no need to involve such content in her works, you infer that is in fact the author's desire for a lack of controversy that serves as motivation for the omission. This is precisely the kind of bullying that the Jesus jackyls have been laying on the American public since the Clinton years; the second anyone disregards religion, it's an automatic condemnation of it, or the result of some fear of running afoul of the "massive" anti-Christian population that accounts for roughly five percent of the population. For a man of your considerable intellect, it's a particularly indefensible position to take. Remember, it's you, not Rowling, who introduced the subject in the first place.

• Later in the same section, in reference to Golden Compass author Philip Pullman:

I found Pullman's arguments against Christianity puerile -- like recent anti-Christian books by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, the "Golden Compass" volumes resort to the cheap subterfuge of cataloging everything bad about religion while pretending belief has no positive qualities. Pullman, Dawkins and Harris are anti-faith jihadis: they don't just want to argue against the many faults of Christianity, they want faith forbidden.

I will not insult you by claiming that you haven't read the works of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, both of whom recently authored books taking different angles in the argument against religion and a belief in God. However, I wonder if the same perspective that causes you to view Rowling's non-involvement in the debate as either condemnation or cowardice has also influenced the conclusions you've drawn of those clearly anti-Christian works. Both state they believe religion is a destructive force on both a personal and societal level, but to state that either of them wish to have religion "forbidden" is an outright lie. The furthest either of them go is to state that theocracies, like the ones that exist in the middle east, should be fought against at all costs. Your routine mockery of blitzes involving more than five defenders does not suggest you think the NFL should outlaw them. Likewise, Harris' and Dawkins' mockery of religious faith does not suggest they believe faith itself should be against the law.

Furthermore, to refer to both of them as "jihadists" of any kind is the kind of flippant rhetoric we expect from your intellectual lessers, no different than the idiocy of people who refer to strict school administrators as Nazis. Agree or disagree, these men have written books in an attempt to add to the ongoing conversation about religion and society. They have not killed anyone, coerced children into becoming suicide bombers, or threatened the life of those who dare to disagree with their theological stand. One wonders if, upon reflection, you would be willing to consider the writing of either Harris or Dawkins as being equivalent to the kind of hatred that's spawned the murder of Theo Van Gogh, to name one victim of Islamic jihad.

However, it's your criticism of Harris' and Dawkins' methodology in defending their arguments that really struck me as stunning, particularly when you were guilty of using the same tactic in your "defense" of the NFLPA later in the column. You claim both authors were guilty of "... the cheap subterfuge of cataloging everything bad about religion while pretending belief has no positive qualities," which isn't an entirely unfair assessment. I'd argue with you as to whether either had an obligation to actually do so, as neither claimed to be presenting a "balanced" assessment of religion or belief in god, and I can imagine that had either attempted to do so, the books would have been so onerous as to be unreadable. Anyone with a single brain cell to his or her credit can find plenty of works that attempt to justify religion or prove the "positive qualities" of spiritual faith. I doubt a single one of those books treats the opposition with any more concern or respect than those of Harris or Dawkins.

(And, anyway, the authors didn't so much pretend that belief has no positive quality, as much as challenge that particularly trite justification. Believe it or not, there's an argument to be had that all supposed "positives" of religion are overstated and scarcely substantiated. I can argue that I once saw a seven-man blitz work for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2002 against the Giants; does that mean that I can say you "ignore the positive qualities" of the seven-man blitz?)

But considering your view on Harris' and Dawkins' work, I found your cherry-picking of the NFLPA's "accomplishments" with respect to player contracts to be ironic. I'll assume everything you say is true, and concede that the recent barrage of criticism directed toward Upshaw and Co. is both unfair and exceedingly shrill. However, when discussing the average contract figures, percentages of revenue, and growth of the salary cap, you completely fail to mention one huge factor: NFL players' contracts aren't guaranteed. I know you know this, Mr. Easterbrook, so I'm forced to conclude that you felt the inclusion of such information would dilute your argument.

This issue is the easiest source of derision for the NFLPA (the disability benefits issue notwithstanding, since you've correctly pointed out that we really don't have a clear view of whether or not that many legitimate cases are being denied). No sport is more loaded with occupational hazards than the NFL, nor does any sport chew up and spit out players like the NFL. Currently, the players assume all of the risk when it comes to career length; owners can cut ties with damaged goods at any point (or at least until the end of the season in which the injury has taken place), even though it was for the franchise's benefit that the player became hurt in the first place. Of the football/baseball/basketball troika, the most dangerous sport of the three is the only one that doesn't offer guaranteed contracts to players. That the NFLPA hasn't managed to advance further in this cause is the union's biggest black eye, and I'm pretty sure football players wouldn't mind taking the MLBPA's smaller cut of revenues in return for the security offered by guaranteed deals.

Quibbling aside, I don't suppose to tell you what to write or not write, Mr. Easterbrook, and I certainly wouldn't wish to do any more censoring of your columns than what's currently taking place. But I do hope that you can see why the content of this particular work is so bothersome to people like me, who already spend too much of their time dealing with the vitriol spewed by a society of people who use god as a bludgeon against their enemies, and act as if non-belief is a sin against America.


Phoenix, AZ