Saturday, November 28, 2009

Facing hard truth: This 'Bud' not for you

He made mistakes -- egregious mistakes over the years. Yet his mistakes never cost Bud Selig his job, which was a pity.

So please excuse me now for standing and yelling "Hallelujah!" after hearing reports Selig is stepping aside in 2012 as baseball's czar. He should have quit 10 years earlier, because he has lorded over baseball like "Bozo the Clown."

The game should be better served under whomever the 30 owners select as Selig's replacement.

For it has been under Selig's leadership that owners and baseball fans have watched the "Steroids Era" flourish; it has been under his leadership that the ban on Pete Rose, an iconic figure in the game's history, has become a lifetime one; and it has been under Selig's leadership that the playing field has become uneven: The rich teams rule.

It is the latter that disappointed me most about Selig's reign. Not that I grant him a pass for allowing steroids to taint sacred records, but no good comes from dwelling on Selig's myopia on this subject. He's tried to bury what steroids did to the game in a hole deeper than the Pacific. It hasn't worked, not with purists. The sanctity of these records matters.

But if pressed on it, I could live with the taint on the record books if the alternative was a playing field that allowed all teams to compete. People can end all the talk about small-market teams having won here and there; the facts remain that teams with the deepest pockets are the teams that compete, from year to year, for championships.

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

In battle of two mutts, Browns almost win

Two dogs, and one of them had to win Sunday -- one of the two had to prove it was the better of the two mutts.

But better was hard to judge in these dogs, which explains why the Browns hooked up with the Lions to produce one of the most entertaining NFL games of the season. Two even teams thrilled.

Was their game inside Ford Field an instant classic?

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Well, maybe this 38-37 game, which the Browns lost, won't be looked at that way. An instant classic ought be a game that matters, and this game didn't matter a lick. Two dogs can't play NFL games that go down as classics.

All the Browns and Lions did was show that two lousy teams can keep their fans glued in front of a TV set.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Browns need 'great' mind now, not later

I hope Jim Brown wasn't lying. I mean, just the thought of a "great football mind" talking to Browns owner Randy Lerner, as Brown claimed the other day, is almost too delicious to consider.

You hope that's the case, if you consider yourself a Browns fans. You keep all your fingers crossed that Lerner will, finally, put his beleaguered franchise in the hands of a "great" mind who won't mismanage it.

Yet you find yourself saying: Haven't we heard all of this before? Weren't Phil Savage, Romeo Crennell, George Kokinis and coach Eric Mangini supposed to be great football minds, too?

And look at what they wrought.

Nowhere in this process of resurrecting the storied franchise that Art Modell had spirited off to Baltimore has the Lerner family, which was complicit in the team's leaving town in the first place, done well in putting together a quality organization. The family might know banking and credit cards, but the Lerners have no clue how to build an NFL team.

If they did, we wouldn't be here again. Essentially, the Lerners have returned Browns fans to 1999, the season the reincarnation of the Browns returned to town.

The franchise came back with great promise, rekindling an affair with a city that loved them as much ever. There was no ill-will toward the franchise. No one bemoaned what the Ravens, the old Browns, had become.

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Will Yankees buy another title? Some say yes ...

I met Ted, a venture capitalist and an Obama supporter long before I found a seat on the bandwagon, in Argentina early last year. Ted was taking his wife, his son and his daughter on a whirlwind tour around the world. They were seeing sites that would stay with a lifetime.

Part of their purpose was to take baseball to the unschooled. Every place he and his family went they left their love of the game there for others to share. Ted’s a Red Sox fan, unabashedly. So if you see a boy in Chile or South Africa in a Red Sox cap, blame Ted.

He loves baseball the way I do, and he infused that love of the game into his son Gibson, whom I watched play against a group of Argentine youngsters on a well-groomed ballfield in Buenos Aires.

I’m not trying to revisit the adventure in South America, although it's certainly worth sharing with people. I’m only mentioning Ted and his son now because of an e-mail he sent me the other day.

“He and I made it to Game 3 of the Red Sox-Angels series, and got to see our beloved Sox disintegrate in the ninth inning to get swept,” Ted wrote of he and Gibson. “And we thought about you all playoffs since Cleveland’s former players were so successful.”

Did you have to remind me, Ted?

I can’t dispute the role of formers Indians. I mean, how much better were manager Charlie Manuel’s Phillies after picking up left-hander Cliff Lee, a Cy Young winner, in a midseason trade? And the Yankees signed the best free-agent pitcher available last offseason when CC Sabathia joined them in a $161 million deal.

And where did Sabathia, a Cy Young winner, build his reputation?

In an Indians uniform, of course.

Even Ted’s beloved Red Sox had a high-profile Indian in catcher Victor Martinez, a linchpin in their journey into the postseason.

Ted was less concerned about the past than he was about next season. He looked into baseball's future and didn’t like what he saw. Not that he begrudged the Yankees and their success, because he didn’t.

What Ted lamented was the system that allowed New York to build the best team money can buy. With revenue streams from a new ballpark, the Yankees should become stronger this offseason as they jettison old pieces and add new ones, a point not lost on Ted.

“Some of the reporters stupidly argued that the Yankees’ World Series win wasn’t about the money, since they failed to win in the past when they made really bad signings,” Ted said. “That’s about as weak an argument as you can get.

“Take away Sabathia, (A.J.) Burnett, and (Mark) Teixeira, and the Yankees might not have made the playoffs again.”

He was right, despite what some sportswriters have claimed. The Yankees are a store-bought team, using the financial wherewithal at their disposal to outbid any team for a player they want.

I have long ago moved past decrying how the Yankees organization builds successful teams. It’s not the Steinbrenner family’s fault that it was blessed with a cash cow, and the family is willing to spend that cash to succeed.

That’s what seems to frustrate Ted and a legion of baseball fans elsewhere. It seems unfair to let deep revenue streams, not astute talent evaluation, decide which teams will be the most successful.

“Baseball sorely needs to revise its system, since the Yankees will now go out and buy two or three more All Star/future HOF players to get even better next year,” Ted lamented.

He’s right here, too. The Yankee dynasty is back, more prepared than ever to spend money and to bludgeon the competition into submission.

And what can anybody do about it?

Absolutely nothing.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Court declines to hear 'Redskins' case

The article on The Washington Post website this morning was short, perhaps a dozen or so paragraphs that didn't do anything more than what the headline did. And the headline did plenty in putting the words underneath it into context.

The eight words in the headline read: "Supreme Court refuses to hear Redskins' naming case."

There, it's done. Native Americans have lost what might be the final fight in their efforts to strip the Washington Redskins of the trademark attached to the team's nickname.

That's no small matter, because if stripped of the trademark, the franchise would have jettisoned this disparaging nickname faster than a stripper peels off clothing. For the team would be unable to market the nickname exclusively, which would allow anybody else to peddle merchandise freely with the team's nickname and logo on it.

In essence, it would make no "cents," as in dollars and cents, for the NFL franchise to keep a nickname that had no commercial or marketing value, despite its public appeal.

The U.S. Supreme Court made no comment, The Post article said, about its decision not to hear the case, which had wound its way through lower courts since 1992. It then landed in the high court's hands.

Now what?

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Dull by design: All part of Tressel's plan

I hate it when my alma mater loses, and my hatred jumps two niches in intensity when the Ohio State Buckeyes lose a game they’re supposed to win (think Purdue).
But, man, does victory need to come wrapped in such ugly packages?
I exhaled in relief Saturday afternoon after walk-on kicker Devin Barclay, a one-time professional soccer player, sent the Buckeyes to the Rose Bowl with his 39-yard field goal in overtime. Barclay’s kick sailed into OSU folklore, the difference-maker in what surely was a Big Ten game that the Buckeyes should have won handily.
They squandered a 24-10 lead, and when Iowa tied the game in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, coach Jim Tressel made no effort to win in regulation; he turned to his no-mistake brand of football to wind down the quarter. He refused to allow Terrell Pryor, the magical talent Tressel recruited to lead the Buckeyes to a national title at some point, to play the gambler.
That title won’t come this season, of course. Tressel’s Buckeyes have one loss too many to get into that conversation, and their 27-24 victory over Iowa didn’t create the impression they were an elite team.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Rembrandt? No, LeBron just being LeBron

His was an unremarkable performance for three quarters. For nothing LeBron James had done last night during those 31 minutes he spent on the floor against the Utah Jazz looked like much.

The Cavs, though, didn't need remarkable from LeBron -- not at that point.

But without Shaquille O'Neal (he was sidelined with a bad shoulder, or so the Cavs told the media), all eyes inside The Q focused on King James, because three quarters don't decide a basketball game. And to think the Jazz, a team crippled with injuries, wouldn't make a late run would be to confuse the Jazz with the Knicks and not understand its brilliant mastermind, Jerry Sloan.

Few teams in the NBA are as well coached as Sloan's Jazz. Even without Kyle Korver, Ronnie Price and Deron Williams, perhaps the best point guard in the universe, the Jazz remained a team the Cavs would have to reckon with. The reckoning began with 1:56 left on Carlos Boozer's two free throws.

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Cavs look like a team that's 'clicking'

The Cavaliers return Saturday night to The Q. They're returning to town to face the Utah Jazz with a cockiness and the tough guy's swagger that seemed to be missing in the first five or six games of their season.

Winning has a way of putting the strut back into pro athlete's step, and to perform in victory the way the LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal, Mo Williams and the rest of their gang have done lately is reason enough to predict their early-season troubles were behind them.

In a display that looked like midseason form, they showed offensive versatility during their two-game road trip.

Coach Mike Brown figured out how to use Shaq, and Brown's decision to start J.J. Hickson over Anderson Varejao was coaching brilliance. It was risky business to bring Varejao off the bench as a sixth man, but Hickson's athleticism complemented Shaq's powerful inside game better than Varejao's does.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Tyson's rage: Tired act lasted too long

I don’t know how anybody in America can be surprised at what Mike Tyson does. Tyson’s thuggish behavior had stopped engendering sympathy long before the turn of this new century.

He has had more brushes with the legal system than any professional athlete whose life plays out under the white-hot glare of the global spotlight, and, for whatever reason, despite his lack of penitence, Tyson fascinates some people who see him for what he isn’t: a decent man.

His life is one misstep after another, a life lived much the way that Britney Spears has led hers. No scandal is too big to sidestep; no rumor too embarrassing to disprove. Trouble has trailed Tyson like a bloodhound, as his latest arrest demonstrated.

Now, I can only imagine what a photographer was trying to accomplish in taking a picture of Tyson at an airport. I know the prying eyes of a photographer’s camera have access to a celebrity wherever he travels. From Buenos Aires to Bombay, a pro athlete of Tyson’s fading stature is still a good subject for any photographer to shoot.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Revenge for Cavs? Nah, just a good win

To think about revenge in November makes as much sense as checking your Christmas list in early May. For anybody whose name is on the list will have plenty of days left to show Santa if he's been naughty or nice.

So LeBron James and the Cavaliers could dismiss the talk of revenge, giving it not a minute's thought last night in Orlando. Payback -- or revenge -- needed to wait until the games meant something more than a first-weeks-of-the-season win did. To exact revenge, the Cavaliers must beat the Magic in May or June, not in November.

At this point, they were more than willing to settle for this 102-93 win -- a win in Orlando, too.

In that win, the Cavs showed what they weren't able to show when Orlando eliminated them in the Eastern Conference Finals last season. They proved they could handle Magic star Dwight Howard in the paint.

And that's one thing the Cavs have to do: now and in their future. They went into the off-season with that as their goal, because LeBron could never hope to bring a championship to Cleveland if he and his teammates couldn't figure out a way to match up better against Howard.

At its essence, basketball between elite teams is a game of match-ups, and the addition of Shaquille O'Neal has given the Cavaliers an effective counterpunch to Howard, although no one knew with certainty beforehand how Shaq's presence might work against the Magic.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

For Browns, No. 3 can be best of all QBs

What I'll remember most about the Browns' 30-6 nightmare 11 days ago in Soldiers Field will be a pass play in the fourth quarter: Quarterback Derek Anderson, under siege in his end zone and trying to escape the rush, cocks his right arm and floats a pass nowhere near anybody wearing a Browns uniform.

Defensive back Charles Tillman dives for Anderson's floater, catches the ball while tumbling to the turf, scrambles to his feet and races toward the goal line. Tillman fends off tacklers along the way before rumbling into the end zone. It was another touchdown for the Bears, and another interception for Anderson.

More interesting to me, the pass was Anderson's last. Coach Eric Mangini, frustrated, pulled Anderson and replaced him with the prodigal son Brady Quinn.

It seems now as if Mangini's switch to Quinn will become permanent. He couldn't do worse than Anderson. For whatever else Anderson might be in life -- a good son, a solid citizen and a first-rate teammate -- he was a pathetic excuse for an NFL quarterback.

Look, Mangini could only trot out a disaster like Anderson for so long. At some point, the dour, dim-witted coach had to realize that a quarterback who ended a game with a QB rating of 10.5 wasn't good enough to stand behind center.

All of Anderson's performances this season had been noteworthy for their ineptitude, but his sorry play hit rock bottom against the Bears. In my mind, it was fool's thinking to keep using Anderson and then expect a better result.

To steal a few words from retired NFL coach Denny Green, Anderson was who I thought he was: a scatter-armed quarterback who couldn't hit the Gulf of Mexico if he stood on a dock in Key West, Fla.

I'm not, of course, an NFL coach; don't play one for TV either. What I am is someone who has watched and written about enough NFL games to know ineptitude when I see it. I have witnessed plenty of it while rooting for the Browns.

They have gone through more QBs than Madonna has gone through lovers. From Tim Couch to Trent Dilfer to Jeff Garcia to an endless line of others whose play fell below mediocre.

Browns fans have never made peace with mediocrity, despite the fact that's all they've witnessed since the team's rebirth a decade ago. They won't make peace with it now.

Their shouts to bench Anderson had been louder this week than they were in the bye week, and the tone-deaf Mangini couldn't ignore them.

Under ordinary circumstances, his decision would have been easier. He'd have let the job stay in Quinn's hands without much thought.

Quinn, no star in the marking, isn't the answer. He had opened the '09 season with the job, but he showed he didn't have the skills to hold on to it.

Did his skills somehow improve while tethered to the Browns bench? How much better is Quinn now?

Well, that's a separate question altogether, and the answer collides with a bigger concern for Mangini: using Quinn could end up costing the team $11 million in contract incentives.

On a team with more holes than a brick building in Baghdad, Mangini can't afford the salary-cap hit playing Quinn might cost the team. He won't do markedly better than Anderson, anyway. Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or Tom Brady might be unable to play well for this collection of talent Mangini has at his quarterback's disposal.

Quinn isn't Manning, Brees or Brady. He never will be. Neither will Anderson, which is the damnable part of it for Browns fans. They want better, but better was never going to come with Anderson at quarterback.

Nor with Brady Quinn.

After observing another dispiriting loss, Mangini should keep Quinn on the bench next to Anderson and put his faith in Brett Ratliff, the team's No. 3 QB. Ratliff's the horror show in orange and brown that nobody has seen yet.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Browns owner looks for a 'real' GM

The rumored names are intriguing: Bill Cowher, Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden, Mike Holmgren, maybe others. All have the authority of success behind them. Each of these men has a Super Bowl ring, plus an aura of credibility coming with them.

But a couple of their names have been thrown around before. Not even a year ago, they were delicious thoughts for Browns fans to eat up like a mountain of Hershey's chocolate. The names sounded too surreal to be more than a maddening tease. And they were. The chocolate melted, leaving Browns owner Randy Lerner to sell Ex-Lax as an alternative.

Now, Ex-Lax might be what Lerner, the billionaire sportsman, needs for the franchise he inherited to excrete the pile of dung that runs it.

Fans here are inured to the rot inside the Browns organization, and they are hopeful, finally, that Lerner will start to sate their appetite for winning football by building an organization on a sturdier foundation. He can only do so with enlightened leadership at the top -- with a real football man to run all aspects of Lerner's football organization.

The man to do so is not named Eric Mangini, the ineffectual coach and Lerner confidant. Mangini is plunging the organization to depths not seen in the NFL since the early years of the Tampa Buccaneers. He's doing it with the openness of a KGB operative, using his players and the public as if they were pieces in a private chess match.

Nothing marks incompetence like secrecy, and with the turmoil inside the Lerner's franchise these days, transparency is the proper approach to prevent a public insurrection.

As much as Lerner and fans might not want to admit it, the Browns are starting from scratch -- again. There will be no one-season turnaround for this disaster of an NFL franchise. Its revival is a four- or five-year project, and Lerner can't count on fans sticking around if he doesn't take bold actions now.

No reason to dwell on the George Kokinis affair; the firing was a bold move, if not altogether sensible. His hiring was botched as well. Kokinis didn't look like a bad hire; by all accounts, he was a capable football man. But from what insights there are into the Browns organization, Lerner never handed Kokinis the reins. The owner left Mangini to guide the football side of the team, the same mistake Lerner made when he hired Butch Davis, a first-time NFL coach, and let him run the franchise into the turf.

Lerner made a different mistake when hiring Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel so maybe that indicates he's growing into the role of a owner. Now, however, he has no room for another mistake. He has no goodwill in the bank to rely on in a community weary of his mistakes and his team's futility. The fans in Cleveland want to see good, solid NFL football. A winning record would be nice, too.

Can winning football even be thinkable under Lerner's stewardship?

It is difficult to know what Lerner's plans are. Rumors about his intentions trickle out here and there. Most of the recent talk has been aimed at discrediting Kokinis, a strategy that might make legitimate candidates to run the franchise hesitant to consider the job. They won't want to worry about an owner with an unclear vision; they don't need a meddlesome owner in the background either; and they shouldn't be saddled with a coach who has been the problem, not a solution.

Cowher, Dungy, Gruden, Holmgren ... one of those names might be a chance for Lerner to get it right. Each person has his appeal. But to Browns fans, each promises what Mangini never could: hope for the future.

If fans don't have hope, they have no reasons to spend their cash on a lousy team. For they can watch a lousy sports franchise for a lot less money at nearby Progressive Field.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Andre's right: He had to be 'Open'

I owe Andre Agassi an apology, not that Agassi needs to hear an apology from a sports journalist -- particularly from one he's never met and likely will never meet.

Still, I need to ask his forgiveness for questioning why he broached the subject of drug abuse in his soon-to-be-released book "Open." As he discussed the book Sunday on "60 Minutes," Agassi convinced me that had he kept his abuse of crystal meth out of his autobiography, he would have needed to re-title it, perhaps slapping the words "Half Open" on its cover.

For just as his candor about his violent father, his baldness and his thoughts about his marriage to movie star Brook Shields needed airing, so did the despair that drove Agassi to abuse drugs in the first place.

His interview was revealing beyond his explanation about why he included his drug problems in the autobiography. Certainly, he had to expect his saying he used drugs would be a titillating revelation; it's the kind of introspection that ensures bold headlines -- and criticism.

Agassi got both.

He talked about both of them as well, pointing out that he hoped his critics would understand that he turned to drugs at a nadir of his life in 1997. Agassi had lived most of that life in the spotlight, the prince of tennis, the game's heartthrob, the image of style and daring and beauty.

He had the world -- wealth, recognition and talent. Oh, did Andre Agassi have talent. He had worn the title of No. 1, which he fit him like an Ermenegildo Zegna sports coat. He could have modeled the garment himself and would have looked at home in it.

Wealth and fame doesn't come with a guarantee of happiness, and Agassi, 39, said he was unhappy playing a sport he never loved. It didn't matter to him that he was great at it -- better than almost anybody else of his era. What did matter was that he couldn't push himself to play it at a level he needed to play it, and he couldn't do that because he simply didn't love it. He never obsessed over his tennis the way his father, a domineering force in his life, wanted him to.

So Agassi, an eight-time Grand Slam winner, was left to find comfort in places where so many people go for it. He turned to illegal drugs.

His abuse of crystal meth didn't turn into tragedy, a sobering saga that we had seen before in the lives of men like Len Bias. Agassi would eventually settle into his fame and into his place in sports history.

I should have appreciated that history instead of condemning a man's public honesty. I should have thanked Agassi for showing the human side of a great athlete, a side that's becoming increasingly more difficult for journalists to see.

Image, as he once boasted in a TV ad, might be everything, but it isn't the only thing in an athlete's life. He has to live with all the good, the bad and the ugly

that comes from living in the public's eye -- or in that part of living he allows the public to see.

I can't rightly criticism him for that. I should salute him for reminding me -- and everyone else -- that even a golden boy doesn't necessarily live a perfect life. Agassi deserved the compassion from me that he asked from his peers in professional tennis.