Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What is a Dynasty?

  Two weeks ago the San Francisco Giants won the World Series for the third time in the last five years when they beat the Kansas City Royals in seven games. This has led to a lot of talk about whether or not the Giants are a dynasty. Cliff Cocoran from Sports Illustrated wrote an article that makes a compelling case for calling them a dynasty and goes as far as to call their current run as being in the top ten runs of baseball success. New York sportscaster Mike Francesca thinks that a team can’t be called a dynasty unless they win back to back championships. I think ‘dynasty’ as applied to sports is something far too easily attached to a team by commentators to give themselves a ‘talking point’ and by sports fans so they can feel they are watching something special like the oxymoronic ‘Instant Classic’. I don’t believe the San Francisco Giants are a dynasty and in doing my research for this post I uncovered very few sports dynasties and one current team that is on the cusp of one.

  A dynasty is defined by many dictionaries including FreeDictionary.com as ‘A family or group that maintains power for several generations’. In sports I would see the team is the family or group and the generations are the different groups of players that win the championships. A core group of players winning a series of championships cannot be a dynasty because the championships don’t span generations – it is a great group of players surrounded by a capable supporting cast. My definition of a dynasty is a team that wins a string of championships with no single player involved in ALL the championships but with enough overlapping players that there isn’t a complete turnover of personnel from one championship to the next one.

  By my definition there have been few dynasties in professional sports. The Yankees won 20 championships between the 40 year span from 1923 to 1962, never going more than three years without a championship. The Yankees turned their core players over multiple times during that span but there was plenty of overlap. The Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig era transitioned to the Gehrig/Joe DiMaggio era which in turn transitioned to the Dimaggio/Bill Dickey/Tommy Henrich years and when Dimaggio neared the end of his playing career Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford were established stars with Mickey Mantle on the horizon. As a generation of stars faded out another generation had been groomed and ready to take their place. The Boston Red Sox have come close to a dynasty with their three championships during the period of 2004-2013 but there was one player (David Ortiz) who was on all three teams so I am happy to deny the filthy Red Sox a place on my dynasty list. The 1955-1965 Los Angeles Dodgers won four championships and are a team that I would consider a dynasty. The only player on all four World Series was the Hall of Fame left hander Sandy Koufax but Koufax was only on the 1955 team because the rules of the time dictated that players that received large signing bonuses had to stay on the major league team for two years ('the bonus baby rule'). Koufax played in 12 games for the 1955 Dodgers and did not appear in the World Series. In case you’re interested the San Francisco Giants have had eight players on their three championship teams so I can hardly see how they can be a dynasty.

  In the hockey world the Montreal Canadiens had a dynasty from 1953 to 1979, winning 14 Stanley Cups in that 27 year span. Much like the Yankees, the Canadiens had a rotation of superstars with each generation slowly giving way to the next group. Jean Béliveau and Maurice Richard led the way in the 1950’s, Béliveau and Yvan Cournoyer in the 60’s, and Cournoyer and Guy Lafluer in the 1970s. There have been other great hockey teams like the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders of the 1980s and the Detroit Red Wings of the 1990’s and 2000’s but they weren’t able to continue the championship tradition after their core players retired or left the team. There have been a number of NFL teams that won multiple Super Bowl Championships in a short time. The 1960’s Green Bay Packers won five championships in seven years, the 1970’s Steelers four Super Bowl championships in six years, the 1990’s Dallas Cowboys and 2000’s New England Patriots three in four years. These are all great teams and all had the same core group of players and maybe most importantly the same quarterback. The Washington Redskins won three Super Bowls from 1982-1991 with three different quarterbacks but they did have three players (Hall of Famers Russ Grimm and Art Monk and perennial All-Pro Joe Jacoby) on their championship teams and three Super Bowls in 10 years hardly seems dynastic. To my mind the only NFL dynasty was the San Francisco 49er’s run of five Super Bowls from 1981 to 1995. The entire team turned over with Joe Montana quarterbacking the first four title teams and Steve Young the last one after serving as backup on the previous two. Jerry Rice(The greatest receiver of all time) was present for the last three Super Bowls but the 49ers managed to win Super Bowls without him and even without the great Montana. This to me is the very definition of a dynasty when no one player or core group of players can be pointed to as the key to a team’s run of championships.

  The NBA has had one dynasty – the 1956-1976 Boston Celtics which won 13 championships in the 20 year span. The team’s legendary run of 11 championships in 13 years were all anchored by center Bill Russell who coached the last two championship teams as well as starred. When Russell retired in 1970 the team missed the playoffs the next two seasons but obtained Dave Cowens in the draft and were back winning the division by 1972 and were the 1974 and 1976 champions. The players that bridged the 1969 and 1974 teams were Hall of Famer John Havlicek and regulars Don Chaney and Don Nelson. I don't count the Celtics three championships from 1981 to 1986 as part of the dynasty because there are no players that bridge the 1976 and 1981 teams. Without the two post-Russell championships, I wouldn’t consider the Celtic run a dynasty – they would be like the Chicago Bulls run of six titles in eight years during the 1990s which was anchored Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The Bulls were a great team but when Jordan and Pippen left the winning left also.

  I’ve talked to a few people about my idea of what a sports dynasty is and the consensus is that I’m old fashioned and that makes sense since I didn’t talk to anyone older than me. Someone told me that my idea of a dynasty is old-fashioned because by my definition there hasn’t been a dynasty in 20 years. That’s true but to my mind a dynasty should be a rare occurrence. If the Yankees had been able to properly rebuild to championship contender status during the end of the Jeter/Rivera era they could have created a new dynasty go along with the one they had over 50 years ago but that chance has been squandered and that team will be remembered like the current Giants – a great team that had a great run.

  Sports leagues have consistently changed the rules to prevent teams from stockpiling talent or even keep the talent they develop. Revenue sharing and salary caps either prevent teams from signing multiple superstars or make it cost-prohibitive to do so. Baseball teams can’t trade for other teams draft picks to stockpile young players and the NBA prohibits teams from trading their top draft pick in consecutive years. This doesn’t just hurt big market teams – last year’s NFL champion Seattle Seahawks built a deep roster of talented young but had to let many of them go in the off season because they couldn’t afford to give them all raises and stay under the salary cap. Even if the current American League champion Kansas City Royals had the money to pay their talented group of players once they become eligible for free agency they wouldn't be able to afford the accompanying luxury tax. A modern day dynasty can’t be built by outspending the competition or being able to identify and develop talented players. Only by being consistently better than the competition in the areas of drafting and player development and convincing players to take less money than they could get elsewhere can a dynasty be created in the current sports climate. The San Francisco Giants have shown they are an intelligent organization and they may well be able to replenish their core and keep winning championships and if so I’ll be the first to agree that they have become a dynasty but for now I’m keeping my eye on another potential dynasty in San Antonio where the NBA’s Spurs have won five championships in the 15 year span from 1999 to last year. Tim Duncan is the only player to have been on all the Spurs championship teams and is nearing the end of his career. The Spurs have proven they are well ahead of the curve. They were one of the first teams to successfully draft and develop European players. Last year none of their players averaged more than 30 minutes a game and were fresh for the playoffs and now other teams are following suit by managing minutes and giving key players games off to not only rest their players but to give their backup players a chance to develop and be ready to contribute if called upon. When Duncan is gone, the Spurs will still have top players like all-star point guard Tony Parker and last year’s finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and with the NBA salary cap poised to increase significantly due to the massive TV contract the league just signed the Spurs may be able to attract one or two top flight free agents and become the next sports dynasty.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Birthdays, Stressors, and Relaxers

It's time to once again get up to date on the happenings of the planet's most prolific beagle bloggers - Baxter and Daisy.

  We had our birthday on Saturday. Happy Birthday, Daisy!  Happy Birthday Baxter! It was a great birthday. We went for 5 beef stick walks and had premium dog food out of a can for dinner.  YUM!! I love beef sticks and premium dog food out of a can. It was the best day ever, Daisy.  Yes it was. And we should thank all our friends and fans for their birthday wishes, Baxter.  I like getting birthday wishes but I like getting beef sticks and premium dog food out of a can better! YUM!!  I like beef sticks and premium dog food out of a can too but I think I appreciate knowing we have so many friends and fans thinking about us on our birthday even more. 

Premium dog food out of a can!! YUM!!

  We were lucky to get anything after all the bad things you did this year, Daisy. On Easter you bit Grandma Mary and then she passed away.  She passed away months after Easter and it wasn’t because I bit her.  You bit her finger when she tried to give you some Easter ham.  I didn’t mean to bite her finger. It was just too close to the ham. And she didn’t bleed too much.  No one gave us any Easter ham for the rest of the day all because you bit Grandma Mary.  I was sorry I bit her and I miss Grandma Mary a lot. Last year she brought a half a smoked turkey for Christmas and Kathy made a whole turkey too.  And Hank is the only person in the house that eats turkey so there was plenty of turkey for us! YUM!! I love turkey!! 

  Biting Grandma Mary was nothing compared to the trouble I got into over the summer when I bit Kathy.  That’s right! We were sitting on either side of Kathy and we got into a fight and when Kathy tried to break us up you bit her chest.  I didn’t mean to. I was trying to bite you and I missed. Kathy was mad at me for a long time but I was extra nice to her and she forgave me.  Now when we even start to get into a fight she spanks us both.  We don’t like getting spanked so we try not to get into too many fights any more. 


Sorry, Mr. Feathers...
  Last week Mr. Feathers (one of our cockatiels) started flying around and when he landed near you, you snapped at him and bit him and he died.  He startled me. I felt really bad about that because I like the cockatiels. At least we still have Harry the cockatiel.  For now…I like the birds because we get to scrounge the bird food they knock on the ground. You better leave Harry alone, Daisy!  It’s all Hank’s fault I bit Mr. Feathers.  How can that be, Daisy? Hank wasn’t even home.  Didn’t you read Hank’s last blog post? Two Sundays ago he went out to get us some chicken from the Pizza Ranch.  I didn’t have to read it, Daisy. I was home. He called the Pizza Ranch and ordered SIXTEEN PIECES OF FRIED CHICKEN. YUM!! Then he left for almost an hour but when he came back he didn’t have any fried chicken for us.  Well Baxter, it seems the Pizza Ranch was very late getting our fried chicken and Hank made a big fuss about wanting his money back.  I’d make a big fuss too. This is fried chicken we’re talking about. Hank should have brought you there to bite them!  I would have been happy to. But the Pizza Ranch people gave Hank his money back AND gave him the fried chicken.  Then why didn’t we get any fried chicken?  Because Hank told them to keep the fried chicken!  You should have bitten Hank! That was our fried chicken too!  That’s right Baxter. It wasn’t fair for him to call us his fried chicken consultants and then not consult us about whether or not to take the fried chicken. I think I had chicken on the brain when I snapped at Mr. Feathers. 

The rising cost of beef sticks at Kum & Go(left) and Casey's is very stressful.
Last year they only cost a dollar for 2 beef sticks.

  We’ve been watching ‘Criminal Minds’ with Hank when he gets home from work and you remind me of some of the criminals on that show, Daisy. I think you’re a serial biter.  I think it’s because we have so much stress in our lives, Baxter. In the TV show the criminals start acting up because of some stressful incident. They call it a ‘stressor’.  I don’t have any stress, Daisy. I take lots of naps and get lots of fresh air and exercise taking Hank and Kathy on long walks.  I take naps and go on the same walks you do Baxter, but that doesn’t mean we don't have a lot of stress. The rising price of beef sticks has me very stressed out.  That’s right, Daisy. Casey’s raised the price of their beef sticks from 2/$1 to 2/$1.08 (we wrote about it here) and then the Kum & Go raised their prices from 2/$1 to 3/$2.  The Kum & Go betrayed us. Raising their prices right after getting their 2014 Daisy and Baxter convenience store beef stick award was very rude. We went to the Kum & Go for our birthday and the beef sticks are still 3 for $2.  We went for our birthday lunch at Casey’s and the beef sticks are 3 for $2 there also. Only the Jiffy has 2 beef sticks for a dollar any more.  Hank played chess in Jackson earlier this year and he said the beef sticks were 2 for $1 there. Maybe Hank will move to Jackson!  I hope so but until then we have to live here with high priced beef sticks. I think you're right, Daisy. Just thinking about it is making me stressed out. 

What if murdering beagles named Daisy becomes a new trend thanks to the 'John Wick' movie?

  Another thing that stressed me out is this new movie that came out with Keanu Reeves. You know him, Baxter - the handsome man in the Matrix movies.  I saw the commercial. The movie’s called ‘John Wick’. Why’s that so stressful, Daisy?  In the movie John has a beagle named Daisy and some bad guys kill his dog.  So what? It’s just a movie.  That’s easy for you to say – they didn’t kill a beagle named Baxter in the movie.  I think it would be pretty cool to have Keanu Reeves killing a bunch of bad guys to avenge me.  That part is cool but I don’t want to have to be avenged. Now every time I hear anything I get all jumpy and start barking.  You’ve always barked at anything that moves, Daisy.  I know but now I’m especially on edge because I know there’s a bunch of bad guys trying to do bad things to beagles named Daisy. 

Thinking about Monica and Katie visiting us is very relaxing...
and filling when they bring beef sticks! YUM!!

  Maybe instead of thinking about stressful things we should think about things that make us happy. Like when Monica and Katie come to visit.  That’s right Baxter! I always feel better when we see Monica and Katie. Sometimes Katie brings us beef sticks!  YUM!! And not just any beef sticks. She brings us giant Slim Jims or giant Squatch beef sticks. YUM!!  They’re the biggest beef sticks I’ve ever seen. Hank cuts them into bite size pieces and Katie gives them to us.  Then Katie and Monica both pet us until they have to leave. I wish they could visit us every week. 

All my worries melt away when we visit Lee in Traer!
I inspected his pumpkins and guarded his potato patch!

If there’s one thing I like better than getting a visit from Monica and Katie is when we get to see Hank’s friend Lee Gordon Seebach.  Lee came to visit us in the spring and we went to visit him twice this summer. We got to eat pizza both times!! YUM!! I Love pizza! YUM!!  Lee spends the winters in the southwest but the rest of the year he lives on his land in Traer where he works on his garden and paints.  That’s right, Daisy. Lee’s a famous painter. He had an exhibition in Omaha last month. You can see his website here He grows pumpkins and potatoes on his land. He gave us a bunch of red potatoes and pumpkins to take home the last time we visited.  The pumpkins are still on our front steps but Hank and Kathy ate the potatoes. We got to eat some but they weren’t as good as the pizza. YUM!! I love pizza!  The pizza came from the Pizza Palace. The crust was thick and fluffy. Kathy got a cheese pizza and Hank and Lee shared a Ham and Pineapple pizza! It was really good!  When we visit Lee we all stay outside but the weather was really nice both times. Did I mention that we ate pizza both times we went there! YUM!!  You might have brought it up, Baxter. 

It's hard to be stressed at the duck pond!

  Another relaxing activity is taking walks to the duck pond. We just started doing that this year, Daisy.  I like the duck pond, Baxter. We never went there before but one day in the spring Hank took us there so he could take pictures of all the duck and geese.  Now Hank and Kathy take us there every Sunday. Kathy feeds bread to the ducks and geese, Hank takes pictures, and we try to scrounge bread and goose poop.  One day at the pond we saw Levi. Levi is a high school classmate of Matt’s and was dropping his pet goose off at the pond.  The goose’s name is Mr. Goose. He’s 14 years old and when his mother died at Levi’s farm he was very lonely so they brought him to the duck pond so he could make some friends.  Hank take pictures of Mr. Goose every week and puts them in our weekly photo album so Levi can see Mr. Goose. I don't really like sharing our photo album but I suppose it's for a good cause.  I don't mind Mr. Goose and the rest of the duck pond animals in our photo album but I wish the duck pond wasn't in the middle of a cemetery. It gives me the creeps sometimes.  I know how scared you get when Hank watches The Walking Dead, but don't worry about the cemetery. If any zombies start coming out of the graves, I'll tear right through them. I bet zombies taste great! 

It's always fun to visit with Bill, Marilyn, Becky, Mary, and Abby!
Especially on our birthday when Becky gives us a present!

  Another thing that makes me happy is when we get to see our friends Bill and Marilyn and Becky and Mary and Abby from down the block.  That’s right, Daisy. When we take our evening walk and we see them on their front porch we get to sit and visit with them.  Bill and Marilyn are really old and don’t get outside much in the winter but we see them almost every day when it’s warm out.  They all pet us and then Hank and Kathy talk to them while I take a nap.  I don’t nap. I’m keeping an eye out for cats, squirrels, and those bad guys from the movie.  There you go again, Daisy – thinking stressful thoughts again.  You’re right Baxter –I’ll try to take more naps.  There’s one thing I didn’t nap through Daisy!  What’s that?  Becky got us a box of 28 Slim Jim’s for our birthday! OH BOY!!!  Wow! I’m feeling less stressed out by the minute. How long will 28 Slim Jim’s last, Baxter?  I don’t know – let’s see…28 divided by 2, carry the 1, remainder of 8…A LONG TIME, Daisy.  Maybe even longer than that. Happy Birthday Baxter!  Happy Birthday Daisy! 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Pizza Ranch Chicken Blues

  My birthday was last month and the Pizza Ranch of Marshalltown sent me their annual birthday letter with ‘buy one get one free’ coupons for their pizza buffet, 8 pieces of chicken, and a pizza. Last year I took my birthday off from work and used the buffet coupon to take Kathy to the Pizza Ranch for lunch to celebrate. We got there a little before noon and while we liked the salad bar, the fried chicken was greasy, the pizza so-so, the mashed potatoes crusty, the staff non-existent, the ice cream runny, and there was this group of people two tables over that were loudly discussing how much they drank and vomited the night before, occasionally interrupting their reminiscences with impromptu belching contests. The best part of my birthday lunch was that I didn’t pay full price.

Happy Birthday to me!

  Since that unfine dining experience, I hadn’t been to a Pizza Ranch until I went to the one in Jackson, Minnesota in August when I accompanied a group of chess players after we finished playing in the Jackson Open. It was late and the buffet was closed but we were hungry and it was the only restaurant in town still open after 8pm. Everyone else had a personal pizza but I was worried about falling asleep on the 4 hour drive home with a pizza in my gut so I ordered a side of garlic cheese bread instead. The garlic cheese bread was great – thick soft bread with a generous layer of gooey pizza cheese on top. It was so awesome that the next weekend I dragged Kathy to the Pizza Ranch in Marshalltown so she could have some of this great garlic cheese bread I discovered at the Pizza Ranch. Unfortunately, Marshalltown, Iowa is not the equal of Jackson, Minnesota when it comes to Pizza Ranch garlic cheese bread. Kathy’s garlic cheese bread was dry with a thin layer of burnt brown cheese on top and she thought I must have been so crazed with hunger in Jackson that anything I ate would have been the best food ever.

  My birthday came and went and the Pizza Ranch coupons sat by my computer unused until 2 weeks ago when I decided to take Kathy out for dinner at the Pizza Ranch. We got there during the dinner hour. The place was packed and there were Pizza Ranch workers everywhere. We paid for the buffet and found a table. I got some fried chicken and Kathy had some pizza. The chicken was fresh and not greasy like it was every other time I’d eaten it. I had some mashed potatoes and they were also fresh. I got more chicken and some salad from the salad bar and enjoyed everything. Kathy had some salad and some more pizza. The staff was buzzing all over the restaurant picking up empty plates and offering hot fruit covered desert pizza to the customers without them having to get out of their chairs. We each had some ice cream from the soft-serve machine and it was so thick that we could hold the cones upside down and nothing would spill out.

A well deserved outstanding review!

  It was a great dining experience and changed my mind about the Pizza Ranch 100%. I wrote a very complimentary review on Google+ about my experience. I spent the next week looking at my two remaining Pizza Ranch coupons. I thought quite a bit about getting the chicken. On Sunday I consulted my two fried chicken consultants who were unanimous in encouraging me to go ahead and order the chicken so at 4:15 I called the Pizza Ranch to find out how much eight pieces of chicken cost.

My fried chicken consultants nodded their heads so fast at the thought of getting 16 pieces of fried chicken I could hardly get a clear picture!

  I was told that eight pieces of chicken cost $11.99. This seemed a little high to me but I had the buy one get one free coupon and 16 pieces of fried chicken at $11.99 is quite a good deal so after verifying that my eight pieces of chicken was going to be an entire chicken and not a mutant chicken like the kind I get at Haley’s Deli (three legs, four wings, no thighs, and one breast) I asked if I should just head down to the Pizza Ranch or if I needed to let them know in advance. The Pizza Ranch phone person said I should let them know in advance so I wouldn’t have to wait. I ordered the 16 pieces of chicken and the Pizza Ranch phone person took my name and number and said I could pick up my chicken in 20 minutes.

  It was 4:20 so I watched some football for 15 minutes before heading the three miles south to the Pizza Ranch. I arrived at 4:40 and got in line behind a group of three couples that were getting the buffet. Finally it was my turn. I gave my name and the cashier said ‘Oh, you ordered the chicken.’ She said it would just be a few minutes and gave me a cup and said I could have a free soda while I was waiting.

  I took a seat at a small table close to the cashier. The Pizza Ranch dining room was pretty full and there was a birthday party in the large privte room. Staff members were buzzing all over the restaurant bringing out fresh food from the kitchen and picking up empty plates and glasses. The buffet seemed to have an ample amount of chicken. There was an older lady at the table next to me holding a bag containing two takeout boxes. She didn’t look very happy. A staff member asked her what she was waiting for and she said ‘I’m still waiting for my chicken’. It was almost 4:50 and I suspected I might have a problem. The staff member said he would check on her chicken and I set the alarm on my amazing iPod to 5:05 and started doing chess puzzles from my Chessimo app. In a couple of minutes a staff member gave the old lady at the table next to me a box of chicken and she was on her way with a mutter and a grumble.

  At 5:05 my alarm went off a full 45 minutes after I ordered my chicken over the phone and I was still sitting at this small table. I didn’t see any point in making a scene so I went to the counter, waited behind some people paying for the buffet, and when it was my turn I told the cashier that I was very sorry but I had to go and I wanted my money back. The cashier offered to check on my chicken. I said I was very sorry but I needed to go and I wanted my money back. The cashier then said she had to ask the manager and disappeared into the kitchen.

  After a few minutes the cashier and the manager both came out. The manager had two boxes of chicken. I was about to tell the manager that I wanted my money back but she went straight to the register, started counting money out, and said “I’m giving you the money back and you can have the chicken too.” I wasn’t mad at Pizza Ranch. I kind of felt sorry for them being so incompetent they couldn’t manage frying a couple of chickens and putting them in a box in less than 45 minutes. When I worked at the Roy Rogers fast food restaurant we had two chicken fryers with 16 piece baskets. The chickens took a couple of minutes to prep and 9 minutes to fry. No one ever waited a half hour for their chicken.

  There was no reason not to have my chicken ready except someone forgot to make it and once I arrived at the restaurant there was no way I should have had to wait 25 minutes to get my chicken and even then it only made an appearance after I said I wanted my money back. I thanked the manager for giving me my money back but told her that she could keep her chicken. The cashier held up the chicken and waved it like I wave Daisy and Baxter’s beef sticks in front of them to get their attention and said “Are you sure you don’t want the chicken?”. I was pretty tempted to say a lot of things, but I just said “Keep the chicken." The manager rolled her eyes and gave me my money and I was out the door and home at 5:15, almost a full hour after I decided to order the chicken in the first place.

I wish I could have added more good comments to my review instead of 'The Rest of the Story'...

  My fried chicken consultants were disappointed when I didn’t come home with the chicken and will probably be apoplectic when they discover that I not only could have had the chicken but I could have had it for free. I was pretty proud of myself for not blowing my top at the Pizza Ranch. If I had taken the free chicken it would have given them the impression that their customer service wasn’t important since they could just buy someone off with some free food whenever they dropped the ball. I like to think I saved at least a few future Pizza Ranch customers from waiting for their chicken over the next few weeks. And besides it would have taken me and my consultants a week to eat all that chicken and I’ll get another coupon next year.

My fried chicken consultants were very disappointed that I didn't bring home any chicken.
Hopefully they won't read this post and find out I could have had it for free.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Getting Good by Being Bad

  The NBA season began yesterday and it promises to be one of the more fascinating seasons in many years. There are many intriguing storylines. LeBron James has rejoined the Cleveland Cavaliers and is part of a new ‘Big 3’ along with perennial All-Star Kevin Love and 2014 FIBA World Cup MVP Kyrie Irving. The Cavaliers have surrounded their Big 3 with capable role players like Shawn Marion and look to be a lock to get at least to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Chicago Bulls have a supposedly healthy Derrick Rose for the first time since his MVP season on 2011. I think the surprise team in the Eastern Conference will be the Charlotte Hornets who have assembled a talented roster and have an excellent coach in Steve Clifford. They look poised to build upon last years’ second ever franchise playoff appearance with an extended playoff run as long as they can recover from an injury plagued preseason.

  The Western Conference has already been shaken up by the broken foot suffered by Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant which will cause him to miss the first two months of the season. Durant’s injury opens the door for teams like the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, and Golden State Warriors to grab a top two seed in the conference and avoid the defending champion San Antonio Spurs until the conference finals. I think the Rockets have the best chance for a breakout season. Center Dwight Howard seems to have finally recovered from the back and shoulder injuries that plagued him over the past three years and may be motivated to remind the basketball world what a great player he was with the Orlando Magic before he injured his back and became the fall guy for the end if the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty.

  I like to predict which NBA teams will contend and perform above expectations and I enjoy watching the best teams in the league play each other but as the season goes on I always find I’m much more interested in following the worst teams in the league and this year it looks like I’ll be keeping a close eye on the Philadelphia 76ers as they pursue the strategy of getting good by being bad.

  In May 2013, the 76ers hired Sam Hinkie as their General Manager. Hinkie is a Stanford MBA who specializes in advanced statistics and was the assistant GM with the Houston Rockets. HInkie took over a mediocre team that barely made the playoffs in 2012 and barely missed the playoffs in 2013. He immediately set about the task of rebuilding the team by trading All-star point guard Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel (the #6 pick in the draft who was recovering from knee surgery and didn’t play all year) and a first round pick in the 2014 draft. The 2014 76ers started with a respectable 5-5 record, lost 26 of their next 36 games to drop to 15-31 and then lost an NBA record 26 games in a row en route to the second worst record in the league at 19-63. In the midst of the losing streak, Hinkie traded starters Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner for second round draft picks instead of players who could help the team win games. In the 2014 NBA draft Hinke had two of the top 10 draft picks (the 76ers third pick in the draft and the pick he received in the Holiday trade) and selected Kansas center Joel Embiid and Croatian forward Dario Saric. On paper this looks to be two solid picks but there will be no immediate help from these two since six days before the draft Embiid broke a bone in his foot and will be likely be out the entire season while Saric is under contract to his team in the Turkish league for two more years. In addition to their two ‘non-draft’ picks, the 76ers acquired journeymen players Luc Mbah a Moute, Alexy Shved, and Marcus Teague. None of these three players have ever averaged even ten points a game in any season during their NBA careers.

  The 76ers payback from trading their All-star guard in 2013 is a player who won't play for them for another two years and the draft pick awarded them for finishing with the second worst record in the league was spent on a player who won't play this year. Without any new talent being added to a 19 win team, how do the 76ers expect to improve? Their only hope is that their top draft pick from last year (Noel) will be ready to play and capable of performing like a top ten NBA draft pick but perhaps the 76ers plan isn't to improve at all for the moment. The suspicion around the league is that the 76ers have no intention of getting better this year and Hinkie’s master plan is to have another disastrous season to gain yet another top five draft pick. The 76ers can also use their $20 million in unused salary to take on other team’s unwanted contracts in return for more draft picks, and eventually build a powerhouse team in the future with all their top draft picks.

  This strategy is commonly called ‘tanking’ but has rarely been done as blatantly as the 76ers current attempt. The last time a team blatantly tanked was in the early 1980’s when the Houston Rockets won the coin flip (back then the worst team in each conference flipped a coin to determine the top draft pick) and selected Ralph Samson. The next year the Rockets sat their better players over the last month of the season, lost 14 or their final 17 games, finished last in the conference by one game, and won another coin flip that allowed them to select Hakeem Olajuwon. Led by their two #1 draft picks the Rockets were in the NBA finals two years later.

  The NBA reacted to the Rockets strategy by instituting a ‘draft lottery’ in which all the non-playoff teams had an equal chance of getting the top draft pick. This system has evolved over the years to giving the worst teams the best chance of getting the top draft pick and only deciding the top three picks by the lottery. That last change ensured the worst team in the league would get at least the fourth pick in the draft. Hinkie’s strategy spawned a proposal to change the draft lottery by deciding the top six picks by lottery but the change was defeated last month.

  I think a better way to prevent tanking would be to prohibit any team with a top three pick in one draft from getting a top ten pick the next year so a team like the 76ers could only get the 11th pick in next year’s draft no matter how bad they were. All the same I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the draft lottery and I’m glad to see the change was defeated. There’s a good reason more bad teams don’t tank and that reason is that it rarely works as a multi-year strategy. A team can occasionally strike gold like the Rockets did with Olajawon or the Spurs with Tim Duncan but more often than not top draft picks just don’t turn into superstars and sometimes don’t even become anything more than answers to trivia questions. The top draft pick may turn out to be Tim Duncan or Magic Johnson but it could also turn out to be Greg Oden or Michael Olowokandi. No one will know for years and no one can know ahead of time.

  Hinkie’s strategy is based on his belief in his drafting ability. His other first round pick in 2013 (aside from the injured Noel) was Michael Carter Williams and Williams won the 2013-2014 Rookie of the Year Award so I would have to judge Hinkie's confidence as having some basis for being well-founded. I would have strong reservations before continually picking players that are injured before they even get to the professional level. College teams play between 30 and 45 games in a season which is only half as many the NBA teams. If a player’s body can’t withstand the rigors of a 40 games schedule it seems unlikely to last through an 82 game schedule with back to back and 4 games in 5 night stretches.

  Hinkie is betting on himself and his ability to correctly identify and draft the pieces that will build his team into a championship contender and the collateral for his bet are lost seasons for his franchise. The 76ers had the second lowest attendance of any team in the league last year and this coming year promises to be no better. This is millions of dollars in revenue that the 76ers aren’t getting but if Hinkie’s gamble pays off attendance will skyrocket and the lost revenue will be recouped multiple times over. I believe that Hinkie will be able to put together a strong playoff team if not a championship contender but I also believe the 76ers ownership will not put up with being the doormat of the league for very long. The question in my mind is if Hinkie’s plan will come to fruition before his employer’s patience runs out.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Yankee Thoughts and a Book Review of 'Driving Mr. Berra'

  It’s been a bad year to be a Yankee fan. The team failed to make the playoffs for the second year in a row. This hasn’t happened in 20 years. I understand that this may not seem like a big deal to fans of teams that get to the playoffs once or twice in a decade if that often when your team spends more money on players than almost every other team getting into the watered down baseball playoffs by finishing with the fifth best record in a 15 team league should be a given. The Yankees payroll this year was 209 MILLION DOLLARS. This was second in baseball to the Dodgers 235 million dollar payroll and 34 million more than the third biggest spender, the Philadelphia Phillies. For their 209 MILLION DOLLAR payroll the Yankees had the 13th best record of baseball’s 30 major league teams.

  If you owned the steak house with the second highest expenses in town but were judged as only serving the 13th best steak what would you do? I would think very hard about getting new management for my steak house. Faced with a similar situation Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner extended the contract of General Manager Brian Cashman for another three years. Cashman has been the Yankee’s General Manager since 1998 and presided over the caretaking of the championship squads of 1996-2000. As that team broke up, Cashman spent millions of dollars on ‘hot’ free agents like Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Bobby Abreu, steroid user Alex Rodriguez, Mark Texieria and veteran pitchers like CC Sabathia, Mark Mussina, and Randy Johnson. In the last 14 years, this strategy has yielded exactly one World Series championship, two World Series losses, three AL Championship series losses, and five first round division losses to go along with the three playoff misses.

  Any General Manager with a fat checkbook can sign free agents but to use this strategy to win championships the free agents must supplement home grown players from the farm system and that’s where the Yankees have been lacking. In the last 15 years, the farm system has coughed up one all-star everyday player (Robinson Cano) and one all-star pitcher (reliever David Robertson). Cashman hasn’t shown he can build a farm system that can even produce pedestrian players and yet he is still the General Manager and Joe Girardi is still the manager and the team is in their third longest stretch since 1921 of not being in a World Series (much less winning one) and I see no end in sight. I’m not saying because the Yankees spend twice as much as teams like the Baltimore Orioles, St. Louis Cardinals, or Kansas City Royals they should win twice as many games but when they can’t win at least as many games as these low spenders there’s a problem somewhere and when Cashman’s recent performance is rewarded with a contract extension I have to think the problem starts at ownership.

  Last month I was at the ‘Books-A-Million’ store in Ames and picked up a copy of the 2012 book ‘Driving Mr. Yogi : Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry, and Baseball’s Greatest Gift’ by Harvey Araton. The book advertised itself as a collection of stories about Berra and Guidry’s adventures as spring training instructors for the Yankees over the last decade and a half where one of Guidry’s assignments was to watch over the octogenarian Berra. It looked like some easy reading about a pair of Yankee legends. Ron Guidry was a starting pitcher on the Yankees championship teams of the 1970’s and had one of the great seasons of all time in 1978 when he went 25-3 with nine shutouts and an ERA of under 2. Becayse he was from Louisiana he had nicknames like ‘Gator’ and ‘Louisiana Lightning’ and was portrayed as a Cajun country boy. He was a consistent winner for around 10 years before arm troubles ended his career and had a brief stint as the Yankees pitching coach in the mid-2000’s. The Yankees of the 1970’s were nicknamed ‘The Bronx Zoo’ and the 1980’s version was just as crazy with Billy Martin coming and going as manager and getting into fights with players and strangers in bars. While many of the other players of that era wrote tell-all books and left the team on bad terms, Guidry left the team without any recriminations or hard feelings.

  Yogi Berra is one of the greatest players in baseball history. He won three MVP’s in the 1950s and was on 10 world champion Yankee teams from the 1940’s to the 1960’s. Berra was short and squat and was constantly made fun of by the press early in his career but when it became apparent what a great player the press shifted their focus and treated him as the ‘idiot savant’ of baseball. Anything he said that was slightly off kilter was picked up on and reported on. Yogi was once asked what time it was and he said “Do you mean now?” and when asked about the restaurant he worked at in the off season replied “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded”. These became called known as “Yogisms” and further endeared him to the public as the innocent purveyor of common sense sayings wrapped in contradictions.

  As much as he was portrayed as an idiot savant, Berra was no dummy. He was the Yankee manager in 1964 and took the team to the World Series but fired when the team lost to the Cardinals in 7 games. He then became a coach for the New York Mets, took over as manager after Gil Hodges died of a heart attack and took that team to the World Series in 1973, losing in 7 games to the Oakland A’s. After being fired by the Mets in 1975, Berra went back to the Yankees as a coach and in 1984 was given the manager’s job. The 1984 season was over before it started when the Detroit Tigers bolted to a 35-5 record (this was before the days of wild card teams) but the team finished strong and expectations were high for 1985 when future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson was acquired in a trade with the Oakland A’s.

  Owner George Steinbrenner said Berra would be the manager all year, but when the team started with a 6-10 record (including a three game sweep at the hands of the Red Sox) the promise was broken and Berra was fired. It wasn’t the firing that rankled Berra – he knew as well as anyone that all managers were fired – it was that Steinbrenner didn’t tell him in person or even on the phone but instead had one of his lackeys tell Berra the news. All the other Yankees that trashed Steinbrenner and the team on their departure eventually came back to be on the coaching staff or appear at Old Timers day or receive a plaque or award but not Berra. He vowed to never return to Yankee Stadium until Steinbrenner no longer owned the team. And he stuck to his principles until 1999 when Steinbrenner went to the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair to apologize in person. Yogi was already a legend to Yankee fans and being the one man that wouldn’t knuckle under to Steinbrenner only further cemented his legendary status.

  The book starts out with Guidry picking up Berra at the beginning of Spring Training in 2011 and then drifts into a story about how Yogi had to miss the previous year’s Old-Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium because he tripped on his front steps and how the fall caused him to spend time in the hospital and how the time spent recuperating from his fall kept him inactive and slowed him considerably once he was fully recovered. After that downer of a start, the book heads back to the genesis of Guidry and Berra’s friendship in the 1970’s with Berra telling Guidry how to get George Brett out by encouraging him to throw the first pitch up and in and then throw sliders away.

  The majority of the book alternates between Guidry and Berra’s spring training routines and baseball stories from their pasts. In spring training Berra insists on adhering to routines like eating at the same rotation of restaurants and arriving at the ballpark at the same time every day which Guidry goes along with and Guidry cooks an annual feast of Cajun frog legs. There are some spring training stories that show how even in his eighties Berra gives useful and welcomed advice to the current players while Guidry passes on his knowledge to the younger pitchers and how both men have a blast just hanging around in Florida talking baseball with the rest of the old timers for a few weeks every spring.

At the 9:20 mark of this video you can see the famous Billy Martin-Reggie Jackson confrontation

  There were a lot of older stories I remembered and some I hadn’t read about before. An entire chapter was devoted to Steinbrenner’s reconciliation with Berra in early 1999 and another to Yogi Berra day at Yankee Stadium in 1999 where David Cone pitched a perfect game. Guidry gave his account of the famous dugout confrontation between Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson in 1977 with a different spin, talking about how former catchers Berra and Elston Howard knew to get between Martin and Jackson. The book was a great read but got more and more depressing as it continues. Berra and Guidry’s stunned reaction to the 2004 collapse against the Red Sox, the Yankees failure to win a playoff series, the firing of Joe Torre (and Guidry as the pitching coach), and the death of Steinbrenner are backdrops for Berra’s aging and increasing enfeeblement. Only the 2009 championship brings relief from the maudlin tone of the second half of the book. By the last few chapters Berra has aged to the point of infirmity and is living in an assisted living facility and asks Guidry for permission not to get into his uniform for their 2011 spring training and eventually has so much trouble walking that when preparations for the annual Old-Timer’s day are made it is arranged for the Yankees that are Hall of Fame members to be driven by cart for their introductions to mask the fact that Berra is for the most part wheelchair bound. Thankfully the book ends before a new chapter detailing his further infirmities and the death of his wife Carmen in 2014.

  So what started out as a fun book ended up being depressing journey into old age. Berra and Guidry’s friendship is genuine enough and it is cool to read about the passing down of the Yankee traditions but I could have lived without reading how one of the greatest American success stories of the 20th century ages and becomes infirm to the point of debating to wear dark slacks in case his bladder gives out. It is a real life view and a fairly heartwarming story of a friendship but where Araton attempts to bring out a poignancy in Berra’s health problems he only brings me depression. A far better Yogi Berra book is one written by the man himself “Yogi: It Ain’t Over” which ends in 1989 and has a much more positive tone.