Sports In Briefs

Sports rants from an industry exec who maintains the passion of a fan

Stepping In It: Baseball’s Recent PR Blunders

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I’ve worked in baseball for quite a while, and much of my work has been dedicated at least in part to public relations. At the minor league level, PR responsibilities are very different than in the major leagues. Nevertheless, I find myself at times like these shaking my head at several high-profile missteps.

The Boston Red Sox have been embroiled in a PR nightmare since their epic collapse in September. (Type the words “fried chicken and beer” into Google and the top four results are about the Sox.) And it seems with every step, they manage to find another puddle. (Disclaimer: I’ve been a Red Sox fan for nearly 30 years.)

John HenrySaturday morning, one sentence from Red Sox owner John Henry gave an interview the tone of defensiveness and arrogance. When asked to explain his comments about Carl Crawford back in October, which has prompted a spring training apology from the owner, Henry said, “I don’t want to go through it again… I explained it and people seem to not want to hear the explanation.”

Would it have been difficult to just say, “I had a misconception about the makeup of our lineup, but our baseball operations team clarified it for me,” or even, “I stay out of baseball decisions and it was a knee-jerk opinion simply colored by the difficult month we went through”? Or he could have shown his support for Crawford by telling the press, “I think the world of Carl and we look forward to him having an excellent season.”

Instead, his answer expressed a defensive contempt for the media that journalists aren’t very fond of. Yes, we know they were digging for some more dirt and hoping Henry would put his foot in his mouth. The Red Sox owner, who is seeing the goodwill earned by two World Series titles after 86 years of pain slowly erode, effectively said to everyone, “Leave me alone!”

Pushing fans and media away with a “this is my team” attitude will alienate Henry and his partners just as much as those two championships endeared him.

Speaking of pushing people away, Josh Hamilton recently told the press, “I don’t feel like I owe the Rangers.” The comment was one of several eye-opening statements made by the former AL MVP about his stalled talks for a contract extension with the Texas Rangers.

Hamilton made headlines three weeks ago when reports surfaced that he was seen drinking at two Dallas-area establishments. For most players this is a non-story, but for a former first-overall draft pick whose substance abuse problems threatened his career, it was bound to be front-page news.

Josh HamiltonBoth the content and the timing of Hamilton’s comments were suspect. He is trying to put the most recent incident behind him, but aggressively suggesting his value to the team over the last few years begs media and fans to examine both sides of the ledger. Right now, the public wants to see a humble man working hard for their favorite team. The organization needs to see a player who understands the damage his latest incident does to both Hamilton and the team, not someone trying to paint over it with past achievements.

What is most troublesome about this is, Hamilton has an agent, so why didn’t he use him? He is going through a difficult period of his own doing, and he is embarking on a contract year. He has a person in his employ who is paid to represent him, especially when the business relationship between the player and organization is strained.

Players too often get suckered by the siren call of the microphones. They fail to realize the value of an agent isn’t always in the negotiations themselves, but in plausible deniability. An agent should be the hard-talking media magnet, the guy who takes the slings and arrows when the player’s stance might be unpopular. When the press shows up for the player’s reaction to his agent’s comments, he can draw inspiration from the clichés listed in Bull Durham: he’s just there to work hard and help the team.

Hamilton pays someone to be the bad, so let him be the bad guy.

Speaking of bad guys, no player has been more demonized in recent months than Ryan Braun. His reputation as a rising star and good guy took the hardest of hits when it was reported that he failed a drug test. The MVP award was being bestowed to a cheater, read the headlines.

The mandatory 50-game suspension was overturned, though, in a decision that crashed down on the baseball world this week. Braun arrived at spring training immediately after the announcement, holding a press conference that many have hailed as a lesson in crisis management and image recovery.

The trouble I have with it all is that the “vindication” Braun experienced is the result of a technicality. A procedural mistake got the positive test tossed out because it opened the door to either tampering with or degradation of the sample.

Ryan BraunIf this was a victory for anyone, it was for conspiracy theorists everywhere. There are those who believe Braun was let off the hook because he plays for the Milwaukee Brewers, the team formerly owned by commissioner Bud Selig. Others speculate baseball simply couldn’t handle another tarnished MVP.

Major League Baseball, for its part, was furious. It was the first time a player successfully appealed a suspension for performing enhancing drugs. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency called it “a gut-kick to clean athletes.”

Regardless of the arbitration result, a cloud of guilt still hangs over Braun. He continues to express that he has never taken a banned substance, but there has been no explanation as to how exogenous testosterone, or testosterone from outside his body, entered his system. His representatives did a great job of avoiding that point, because it wasn’t necessary to argue their case.

The result is a player who has been proven not guilty, but he is by no means innocent. A cloud will continue to hang over him, even as he does and says all the right things. He has no reason to revisit the issue or argue its details because he was already exonerated by baseball. The court of public opinion is not swayed by technicalities, though.

The commissioner’s office suffered a black eye that won’t heal any time soon, either. Its system was proven faulty, which will cast some doubt on any positive test, at least in the near future. The game once again has to suffer the whispers about whether one of its stars is breaking the rules. And if a perceived “good guy” like Braun can have a positive test, who else out there might as well?

This is the one case where I don’t have any PR advice except this: move on. The commissioner’s office needs to learn from its mistakes and not make them again. The press may ask about the procedure for every positive test in the next few years, and it needs to answer them politely and appropriately. It made a mistake, after all, and getting defensive like Henry will do no good whatsoever.

And Braun just needs to continue trying to be the good guy. He held his press conference, he answered the questions. Eventually, the questions will slow, though they may never stop. For his benefit, I hope he has a good season, because a drop in production will simply fuel discussion that he was an MVP-caliber player only until he was caught cheating.

But sometime soon, another player or executive will put his foot in his mouth, and my PR antennae will go up just as quickly as my fan’s heart sinks.

Written by sportsinbriefs

February 25, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Should We Expect Star Athletes to be More Socially Responsible?

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An ESPN.com headline yesterday directed me to a story about Kobe Bryant and the video game “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” but from a decidedly different point of view. Interviewed for the piece was Todd Walker, a youth football coach in northern California who also happens to work at a funeral home. In the context of an urban gun culture that claims the lives of far too many young people, Walker argued it’s irresponsible for Bryant to actively promote a game that Walker believes glorifies gunplay.

Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant shooting an automatic weapon, complete with his "Mamba" customization, in a commercial for "Call of Duty: Black Ops"

And with that, I had to ask myself: Just how socially responsible should we expect our athletes, and by extension entertainment celebrities, to be?

On the one hand, it could be argued that Bryant is just another person, allowed to think, speak, and behave as freely as any of us. Friends of mine let the world of Facebook know they’re spending all night playing Black Ops, so why can’t Kobe do the same? If those same friends were told they could make a few bucks promoting the game, they’d do it in a heartbeat. So why shouldn’t Bryant be given the same opportunity?

Critics like Walker contend that as a celebrity who is emulated by fans young and old, Bryant has a responsibility to set a good example. Happily supporting a game that focuses on guns and death effectively romanticizes the violence that plagues the very inner cities many of his fans populate. Opponents add that while people spend money on tickets and merchandise, ultimately benefiting Bryant, he is promoting a violent culture which claims the lives of those very same fans.

It’s been 17 years since Charles Barkley’s famous Nike commercial, which boldly opened, “I am not a role model.” In the 30-second, black-and-white spot, Barkley added, “Parents should be role models,” then ended with the statement, “Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”

Now Barkley made a career of being his own, speaking his mind with quips like, “I can be bought. If they paid me enough, I’d work for the Klan.” And Nike has evolved into a cultural icon with provocative and artistic 30- and 60-second features. But none has sparked a debate like the Barkley spot, a debate that resurfaces again and again with stories like Bryant’s.

Do fans, particularly young fans, really emulate their sports and entertainment figures? Just because we are swayed to buy a pair of Air Jordans because Michael Jordan used them to soar to new heights, does that mean we’re going to gamble just like he did? We copied his tongue-wagging, his on-court swagger, but will we follow his off-court example?

The answer is no, but that doesn’t mean he, Barkley, or Bryant are free and clear to do whatever they want.

David Gelman discussed the Barkley commercial and the broader issue of social responsibility in Newsweek shortly after the spot debuted in 1993. Social science research, he said, demonstrates that children rarely adopt the behaviors of their sports role models. Gary Alan Fine, then the head of the sociology department at the University of Georgia, said in the article that children are “fairly sophisticated by the time they reach the preadolescent years,” and so they aren’t overly swayed by celebrities.

Interestingly, the impact of a celebrity’s missteps is far greater for adults. Children are far more likely to excuse a popular figure’s mistakes by simply dismissing the star and adopting a new one, a sort of free agency of celebrity. Adults, on the other hand, let the disappointment linger. In Gelman’s article, Dr. Gerald Dabbs, then the spokesperson for the New York Council for Child Psychiatry, recalled Paul Reubens’ (Pee-Wee Herman) arrest for indecent exposure in 1991. Though the incident received considerable national media attention, not a single child asked Dabbs about the star’s arrest. The only conversations on the subject were broached by parents.

I experienced a similarly unexpected dichotomy of sensitivity in my own sports career. Serving as general manager for a new minor league baseball team, the team name harkened back to a natural disaster that changed the host city’s history. In a sponsorship meeting with four representatives of a major regional bank, one of the executives was concerned about PR backlash from the team’s name… but it wasn’t the same executive that had lived through the disaster. The survivor had moved on, while his colleague dwelled not on personal impact, but concern over potential sensitivities.

So does this absolve today’s sports superstars of public responsibility? Not so fast. NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone, then a perennial all-star, wrote to Barkley in a column for Sports Illustrated, “Charles… I don’t think it’s your decision to make. We don’t choose to be role models, we are chosen. Our only choice is whether to be a good role model or a bad one.” Gelman similarly observed, “Celebrities like Barkley may decline the honor, but their high visibility obliges them to behave with at least an awareness that they are being watched by millions.”

As an exec who has spent years handling team and league PR, I tend to see things from that side of the table. Whether a star acknowledges any sort of responsibility to his or her fans, I personally find it discouraging that they wouldn’t be cognizant of the strategic benefits of not behaving like a self-indulgent child. Just months after superstar Gilbert Arenas was suspended for half of the season because of gun-related charges, why would Bryant even risk the negative imagery? On top of that, why would his advisors and entourage, who are charged with the well-being of his image, allow him to do so? I can’t imagine the financial benefits are so outrageous so as to be worth the risk. So was it ignorance? A “bigger than the game” bravado? I wish I could explain it.

It’s this behavior that has fans at times decrying the demeanor of star athletes. It’s not so much a celebrity spoiling his or her opportunity and talents by getting involved in a self-destructive habit like drugs. It’s the distance between fan and athlete—physical, socio-economic, and emotional—that riles the public even more. The common mantra is that fans spend sums of money just to be able to experience a game in person or buy a jersey of their favorite player, yet athletes and celebrities pay mere lip service to their fans, if that. Is it hypocrisy or mere ignorance that led Lou Whitaker, showing up at union meeting during the 1994 baseball strike which cancelled the World Series in a limousine, to declare, “I’m rich. What am I supposed to do, hide it?” New York Post writer Phil Mushnick was equally pointed in his criticism after Barkley’s commercial: “Funny, how big shots accept all the trappings of role modeldom–especially the residual commercial cash–before they renounce their broader responsibilities to society.”

To be clear, I’m not asking every athlete and celebrity to be like Tim Wakefield, an eight-time nominee and 2010 winner of Major League Baseball’s Roberto Clemente Award for his community efforts. To be fair, it seems no degree of good works goes without criticism. Tiger Woods (long before he turned his own world upside down) was publicly criticized for not doing enough for the community. This despite the three charitable organizations founded by Woods collecting nearly $100 million over three years recently. Lance Armstrong, Andre Agassi, even Yao Ming have been ranked among The Giving Back 30, a list of top celebrity charitable benefactors, but each has suffered far more in the PR sector for their own failures, real or implied.

Charity rarely resonates for long, not with the public’s salacious appetite for scandal. Good works get a nice little feature from time to time on “SportsCenter,” and the Roberto Clemente Award makes for a lovely photo op for Major League Baseball and the award’s sponsor, Chevrolet. Scandal, legal troubles, police blotters… these drive the news cycle.

And so, to get back to the original question, how socially responsible should today’s athletes and celebrities be? We really don’t expect much. In fact, in light of behavior that’s oftentimes reported, we have come to expect the negative. From Ty Cobb to Babe Ruth to Pete Rose, our sports heroes have always been fallible and human, notwithstanding their sometimes superhuman efforts during games.

It’s not surprising that Bryant is promoting Black Ops. It also wouldn’t be shocking if he didn’t think it’s a big deal to gleefully brandish a personalized automatic weapon, especially if he cashed a check for his appearance. But the same day the article appeared on ESPN.com, Southern Miss officials reported that one of three football players shot over the weekend is paralyzed from the waist down, and another can’t speak because the gunshot tore through his vocal cords. News like this puts Bryant’s actions in a decidedly selfish context.

Of course, Walker knows all too well about similar scenes, with younger victims and graver circumstances. That’s why, in yesterday’s article, he invited Bryant to tour the funeral home where Walker works, so he can show the NBA star some of the results of casual gunplay. “He damned sure needs to see it,” Walker was quoted as saying.

Would we like more social responsibility? Perhaps, but even then, we would look at it a little suspiciously. If I were to advise an athlete right now, my advice would be to be personally responsible, first and foremost. Recognize the context of your actions, along with their scope and reach. I don’t ask for athletes to go out of their way to do positive things, because they’re already offering us so much. After all, sport is a billion dollar business because of the games themselves, the incredible achievements. They lift us. In sports we can escape and indulge, forge bonds and sometimes find ourselves.

So I’m not asking for more social responsibility from athletes. Just less personal ignorance.

Written by sportsinbriefs

November 18, 2010 at 6:34 pm

A Tiger Return at the Masters is the Right Thing

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Will Tiger's return include a fifth green jacket?

Ever since Tiger Woods announced his indefinite leave from golf on December 11, the single biggest question hanging over him and all of golf has been: When will Tiger return?

If Tiger is bold, confident, and savvy, there’s only one answer to this question: The Masters.

Before I go on, let me say one thing. This isn’t a judgment of what Tiger Woods has done, what he’s been accused of, or the rumors, innuendo, and conjecture surrounding his past. At issue is what makes the most sense for Tiger the golfer to begin rebuilding what Tiger the person has so tragically dismantled.

Tiger’s return to practice two weeks ago sparked discussion about his imminent return. The arrival of coach Hank Haney has only served to turn up the heat on this raging debate.

Many pundits predict Tiger will return to action at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which opens ten days from now at Bay Hill. Tiger’s very familiar with Bay Hill – he’s won Palmer’s event six times, including the last two in dramatic fashion. He’s also quite close to Palmer, making the tournament that much more welcoming as he looks to get back into the swing of things.

NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller, in an ESPN.com article, suggested Tiger “needs to get one tournament under his belt” if wants to have any choice at winning the Masters. “Even if you don’t play well at Bay Hill, you just have to get things going,” said Miller, who added that Tiger needs to “get the cobwebs out, get his confidence going.”

Steve Stricker, a PGA veteran and a friend of Tiger’s, believes there’s more to a tune-up, however. “It’s going to be hard for him to not only worry about playing but all the hype,” Striker said in the same ESPN.com article. Playing in a tournament or two before the Masters would allow Tiger and the media to get all the hysteria out of the way before embarking on the season’s first major.

Stricker even intimated that a Tiger return at Augusta would take away from the Masters. “Whenever he comes back it’s going to draw a lot of attention to that tournament and the focus is going to be on him coming back… To turn it into Tiger’s comeback instead of the Masters Tournament itself.”

Miller, Stricker, et.al. make valid points. Popular opinion is that Tiger will not be able to return at the championship level to which we’ve grown accustomed. Any pro who hasn’t appeared in a tournament since November 15 will need some time to get back up to speed – even Tiger, who has proven to be human after years spent establishing his reputation as a machine. In fact, even with a tune-up, he isn’t really expected to compete at the Masters.

Which is exactly why that should be his first tournament back.

Imagine the historical significance of Tiger winning at the Masters if it’s his first tournament back. After the layoff, the scandal, under the burning glare of this spotlight – no matter how self-imposed it may be – to win a major in his first event… it would be an historic victory.

Don’t think the history would be lost on Tiger. He understands his place in the annals of golf. The man has won four times at Augusta, setting records in the process. From his historic victory in 1997 to his title defense in 2002, and his sudden-death win in 2005, the Masters has been a large part of Tiger’s legacy. Like it or not, that legacy has been tarnished, and what better way to begin restoring it than a win right out of the gate at Augusta.

Not that any athlete wants to think about failure, but it’s another reason Tiger should consider starting his comeback with the Masters: diminished expectations. He really has no downside when it comes to his performance if Augusta is his first tournament. After all, seemingly every quotable source deems a tune-up absolutely necessary for Tiger to even have a fighting chance at the Masters.

If he plays poorly, it’s effectively what would be expected, considering all the factors (layoff, major, media, etc.). The better he plays, the more he’s defied expectations; a win or anything close would go a long way to restoring his legacy.

So while every athlete plays to win, the suddenly PR-aware Tiger has to realize that losing is a very real possibility. Should he work out the rust at with an appearance at Bay Hill, he won’t have the layoff to blame for a poor showing at the Masters. But if Augusta is his first play, he can understandably spin his performance, even if spin control hasn’t proven to be a strong suit for him. (Sorry, I know I promised not to bring up the scandal, but in this case, it was pertinent. Forgive my indiscretion.)

Also, Stricker is right: The media will descend on Tiger’s first tournament in a way the sport hasn’t seen in some time. The circus is bound to be distracting, not just for Tiger, but for everyone. Why not use it to his advantage at a tournament that matters? If Tiger were to return at Bay Hill, the Masters, or the Orange County Chip & Putt Open, every competitor is going to be deluged with questions. From a purely tactical standpoint, he would get the most benefit not simply by getting in everyone’s collective head, but by doing so at a major.

Don’t think this isn’t a consideration for Tiger. He has done more than beat his PGA brethren over the years, he has demoralized them. From the red shirt on Sundays to fist pumping all weekend long, he plays the mental game as well as anyone else on tour. If the media can be an asset to frustrate and distract his competition, don’t expect him to leave it in his bag.

Yes, a decision like this is bound to ruffle feathers… so be it. The players who complain have all benefited from Tiger’s very existence ever since he arrived on tour. And they will certainly benefit again, because there will be a lot more that’s green than just a jacket if Tiger makes his comeback at the Masters. CBS News and Sports president Sean McManus told SI.com that Tiger’s return “will be the biggest media event other than the Obama inauguration in the past 10 or 15 years.”

If 20 million watched his press conference, how many would tune in for a Masters comeback?

Hyperbole aside, if it’s at Augusta, McManus may be right. The SI.com article cites an estimate that more than 20 million people watched Tiger’s scripted public apology last month. It would be no stretch to say that a Masters return would shatter the tournament record 14.1 television rating earned by the final round in Tiger’s 1997 victory.

Tiger has gone from legend to polarizing figure. He will attract viewers who want to see him win again, others who hope for his failure, and still more who just want to experience the spectacle of it all. If 43 million people watched at least part of that final round in 1997, and more than 20 million tuned in for his press conference, it’s amazing to think what the event would garner in these circumstances. And if he’s in the hunt on Sunday? The mind boggles…

So with all these considerations, Tiger has every reason to continue practicing with his coach at home for next few weeks. Make your return on April 8. In Augusta. At the Masters.

Whether people like it or not, it just makes sense.

Written by sportsinbriefs

March 15, 2010 at 11:04 pm

A Policy in Vain – Italian Soccer’s Crackdown on Blasphemy

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Domenico Di Carlo can be excused for looking a little exasperated - so long as he doesn't say "dio"

“Oh God!”

The phrase can mean a lot of things in the context of a sporting event: Exasperation after a bad play, disagreement with an official’s call, or merely a casual request for divine intervention, for instance.

Utter those words on the pitch in an Italian professional soccer match, though, and you might get more than you bargained for.

Like a red card and a subsequent one-game suspension.

Italian soccer officials recently concluded that blasphemous outbursts fall under the umbrella of “offensive, insulting or abusive language” and therefore should be penalized with an ejection and suspension. That’s right, make a comment about a deity in the wrong tone of voice, and you can hit the showers.

And if you think Italian officials are taking this new edict lightly, think again. They even have technology on their side. Last week, Chievo player Michele Marcolini was captured by a camera apparently muttering “dio” (God) as he left the field after picking up a red card.

That’s right, a camera. He didn’t scream it at the top of his lungs, making nuns weep, mothers hide their children, and eliciting a bolt of lightning from the heavens. No, he may have been seen saying something.

Such an offense warranted a review by the College of Cardinals – sorry, I meant to say, league officials – who instead determined that he was referring to someone named “Diaz.” There was no player on either roster with that name, but why should that matter?

Marcolini’s coach, Domenico Di Carlo, wasn’t so lucky. Three minutes into the second half of the same match, Di Carlo reportedly said “porco dio,” which equates God to a pig in an unkind manner. Those two words earned him an ejection from the game and a suspension for Chievo’s next contest.

Now, I have never been to Italy. I won’t profess to know Italian sensitivities over any reference to God. By geography alone, I would suspect that a country that encapsulates The Vatican may be a little touchier than, say, the United States.

Even so, does this really deserve an ejection and a suspension? Is it a more egregious offense than sliding, cleats high, at an opponent, which normally would earn just a yellow card? Is a statement to no one in particular more offensive than an insult directed at an opponent?

At least Marco Materazzi didn't blaspheme towards Zinedine Zidane

At least Marco Materazzi didn't blaspheme towards Zinedine Zidane

Remember, this is a country that won the World Cup in 2006 only after Italian defender Marco Materazzi so insulted French star Zinedine Zidane in the final match that Zidane head-butted Materazzi.

So just to get the record straight, questionable use of the Lord’s name in an Italian professional match is prohibited. But creating new ways to insult a French star during the World Cup in an effort to infuriate him, well, that’s downright patriotic.

It’s interesting that the powers that be have chosen to create this new use of the offensive language rule, instead of enforcing the original intent of the rule – that is, the verbal abuse of other players. Nothing is made of the caustic exchanges between players during a match, which are likely enough to make a sailor blush. Cameras and lip readers aren’t employed when players go nose to nose to hurl insults at each other.

This smacks more of Italian officials creating an opponent they can beat, instead of taking on real issues and failing.

For instance, Europe has seen a massive influx of immigrants in the last several decades, resulting in a rise in racial tensions. Soccer stadiums across the continent have been the site of racial and neo-Nazi chants from fans. In Italy, fans have been heard singing “a black Italian does not exist” towards opponents. Worse insults have been hurled by Italian fans, even at their own players.

Italian officials publicly agree that this sort of behavior can’t be tolerated. The president of the Juventus club angrily called out his own team’s fans after their demeaning behavior towards Mario Bolatelli, who is Italian-born but of Ghanaian descent.

But beyond rhetoric, little has been done to stem the racial tide. Small fines have been levied on clubs, with stiffer penalties threatened but never imposed.

So what do you do when you can’t correct the evil you know? Find a much lesser evil, and fix that one, even if no one really cared about it in the first place. (Of course, this is proof positive that Italian soccer officials are taking tips from politicians, who have employed this strategy ever since the sound bite was invented.)

And who gets to judge what’s offensive and not? Kaka, who starred for AC Milan before his transfer last year to Real Madrid, would routinely point to the sky after he scored a goal as a gesture of thanks to God. Would it have been blasphemous, if he missed a shot, to spread his arms wide and implore to the heavens? Does a player who looks skyward and shakes an angry fist get the same punishment as someone who verbalizes his disappointment?

If all of these questions sound like childish hair-splitting or meaningless topics of debate, you’re right. Italian officials have chosen to argue over the dust in the corner and ignore the elephant in the room. And every time they decide another player or coach should be suspended because of this rule, I have but one reaction:

“Oh, God!”

Written by sportsinbriefs

March 6, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Posted in Soccer

Johnny Damon Blew It

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Johnny Damon how Sox fans remember him - if they choose to

Johnny Damon blew it.

And not by signing with the Detroit Tigers a few days ago. That was just more fallout.

No, Damon blew it in December 2005, when he agreed to sign a free agent contract with the New York Yankees.

Let me start by saying this: I’m a Boston Red Sox fan, but this isn’t a fan’s rant about how Damon turned his back on Red Sox Nation to join its most hated rival. The thought never really crossed my mind.

This is simply a practical look at a short-sighted decision made by Damon and his camp four years ago, one that will haunt him for years.

The Red Sox were a year removed from a miraculous World Series title when Damon’s four-year contract concluded. Of course, this wasn’t just any World Series championship, and in New England, it wasn’t just any miracle. This was the championship that ended “The Curse,” the victory that soothed years of heartbreak, the title that had eluded generations. That the Red Sox downed the hated Yankees in a first-of-its-kind comeback only made the win that much sweeter.

It was won by a team of personalities. Manny was being Manny, Big Papi was clutch, and Bronson Arroyo was in cornrows. Curt Schilling was forging a legend with his bloody sock when he could pull himself away from calling in to local radio shows.

Damon was one of those leading personalities. Popular in the clubhouse and the stands, his moniker for the team – “The Idiots” – was embraced by Red Sox fans everywhere. But he was more than just long hair and a caveman beard. Batting leadoff, he finished in the AL top ten in hits, walks, and runs. His two home runs, one a grand slam, helped clinch Game 7 of the ALCS and seal the history-making series against the Yankees.

Had Damon never done another thing in his life, he would have been revered in Boston and throughout New England. He could have retired on the spot and made a living doing endorsements, signing autographs, and simply being Johnny Damon.

I grew up outside Philadelphia, and I remember Tug McGraw. Tugger was a Philadelphia institution after he retired, appearing in commercials and getting a regular gig with a local TV station. He was everywhere – and Tug never even won a World Series! Imagine the life Damon would have had!

But Damon wanted to keep playing. I don’t begrudge him for that. In fact, he wanted to keep playing for a while, more than the three years the Red Sox were offering. Scott Boras, Damon’s agent, was asking for five years or more. With the Boston front office in relative disarray after the resignation of Theo Epstein, Boras wasn’t getting it. The Yankees swooped in and offered four years. What was a guy to do?

Damon did the unthinkable.

Just months after famously saying, “I could never player for the Yankees,” Damon was looking for a barber so he could conform to New York’s dress code. He said about his decision, “They [the Yankees] showed they really wanted me… I tried with Boston.” And then, in classic Damon fashion: “I wasn’t quite sure what happened.”

To a fan base where the Red Sox are religion, Damon’s desertion was blasphemous. Discussions of years and dollars did nothing to explain away the betrayal, even in this modern age of sports as a business.

Red Sox fans weren't shy when Damon returned to Fenway

When Damon returned to Fenway Park as a Yankee in May the following season, he was met with an outpouring of vitriol that only Judas would have known, had he ever played center field. Red Sox fans made it quite clear to Damon that they didn’t want him anymore, ever.

Fast forward four years to the end of his Yankee contract. Damon is richer, and he won a world series in New York. Still, I imagine he’s come to the private realization that it was nothing like the title in Boston. It was historic in that it was a championship, but it wasn’t an achievement that changed the psyche of city, if not an entire region. It’ll get him invited back for Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium, but he’ll be just a role player, not a marquee attraction.

This off-season, Boras bungled Damon’s negotiations and misinterpreted the market for his client. He kept Damon in the news in all the wrong ways until the sad merry-go-round stopped with the Tigers. Detroit was “where I wanted to be, from Day 1,” said Damon. Really? I mean, really?

In watching all of this unfold, and reading Damon’s comment, I couldn’t help but think. If there were a place Damon should have always been able to return, a ballpark that always should have welcomed him, it was Fenway Park. Whether his trademark locks were flowing as he rounded third or he crept across the grass with the aid of a walker, Damon would have always been at home with Red Sox fans.

I could picture Damon throwing out first pitches for years, visiting the Sox television booth to offer absolutely nothing of substance but a smile and fond memories. He’d be doing commercials for products he couldn’t comprehend and companies he couldn’t pronounce. No one would care.

When Damon passed away, we would have wistfully recalled a season that changed anyone who experienced it. We’d have talked about the man who bestowed upon us “The Idiots.” We would have recalled a grand slam that, by then, we’d probably say actually left Yankee Stadium.

Instead, he’s just that guy who played center field before Coco Crisp. And he has no one to blame but himself.

Written by sportsinbriefs

February 22, 2010 at 11:11 pm

Rivalry Day – Pressure, Hate, and Too Much Talent

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A few thoughts two-thirds of the way through Rivalry Day in Winter Olympic hockey…

Zach Parise & Ryan Kesler celebrate

Intensity: I have watched hockey all my life, and never have I seen an entire period played with the emotion shared by both the Americans and Canadians in the first period Sunday night. In fact, the first twenty minutes reminded me of the opening round of “The War” between Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns in 1985.

The two squads delivered an opening period of preliminary round action with a fire that is usually reserved for the final minutes of a gold medal or decisive Stanley Cup game. That the pace and intensity didn’t waver for the full twenty minutes was mesmerizing.

The teams did more than bestow upon us some tremendous hockey, though. They reinforced two points:

1) The Americans are not here just to build experience for the next Olympics. Many of the familiar names are gone from Team USA, leaving fans to think this year’s young squad was acquiring experience to make it more of a force the next time around. Not so. With goalie Ryan Miller standing on his head, veterans playing like leaders, and young stars proving they belong, the United States may just have a chance.

2) The Canadians are feeling the pressure. Team Canada entered the tournament as one of the gold-medal favorites, hoping to become the first host nation to win hockey gold since the U.S. in 1980. Canada eked out a shootout win against Switzerland, a victory in the standings but a loss to the nation’s hockey-mad fans. The team knew it needed a win to not only gain a bye into the quarterfinals but to stave off the growing doubts, and they played with that desperation.

The biggest question for the Americans is whether they can maintain this intensity into knockout play. It’s very possible they may have peaked too soon, with the possibility of a letdown after an emotional victory. It’s a risk with such a young team.

A day off to get angry – at themselves, at each other, at their expectations, whatever – is a good prescription for a Canadian squad that now has to play into the quarterfinals. I would hate to be their next opponent. On the other hand, I would hate to be player wearing a maple leaf if this team doesn’t figure it out, and soon.

It’s possible to be too talented. Nearly every player in the NHL has exceptional hockey skills, and they can all do wonderful things with the puck. But being a great player means knowing when to do the simple things. It’s like being able to do a 360 dunk, but knowing when a layup is appropriate.

Unfortunately, I noticed more than a few times during the Canada-USA game when players attempted the extra pass or a fancy play when the simple option was the right one.

I can’t say whether it’s the desire to create that highlight-reel goal – the so-called “SportsCenter effect” – or if it’s the result of having so much talent on the ice.

Case in point: Sidney Crosby passed to Rick Nash from six feet in front of the goal; Nash was cutting to the post, blanketed by a defender, while Crosby had space enough for a clear shot on goal. It would have been a picture-perfect goal, and had Nash been able to bury it (he shot the puck through the crease) we’d all be talking about Crosby’s vision and Nash’s finishing ability. The appropriate play was for Crosby to put the puck on net; the odds are much better that he scores, or that a crashing Nash deposits the rebound.

Yes, you could say I am being overly critical or that I’m reading too much into one play. But the fact is that it happened more than just once, and this was the play that was the shining example to me.

When everyone on the ice is an all-star, playing on an international stage, the urge sometimes is to create a play that isn’t there. If you have the skill to make that happen, the impulse can be blinding. But the great players know how to let the game come to them. The heroes from these Olympics will be the players who realize a great play might make SportsCenter, but the right plays will be remembered for years.

Patriotism trumps team loyalty. Every player for Canada and the USA plays in the NHL, and the entire Olympic tournament is full of NHL players. But for these two weeks, those NHL teams are just backstory for fans, like where players went to school or played junior hockey.

It’s an extension of my philosophy that when the Olympics arrive, I hate everyone. During the Games, all that matters is your flag.

Marleau, Heatley and Thornton are Canadians right now - not Sharks

Fans of the San Jose Sharks are probably very proud that their line of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley remains intact as key cog for Team Canada. But I imagine Silicon Valley was happy the trio couldn’t muster a victory over the Americans Sunday night.

The same holds true for fans all over the hockey world. While it would be nice for your favorite players to make a splash at the Olympics, you don’t want to see it happen at the expense of your country.

As a die-hard fan of the Philadelphia Flyers, I’m excited that captain Mike Richards and defenseman Chris Pronger are in the Games. But it wasn’t until late in the third period, when the Americans had a 4-2 lead, that my mind turned to those Flyers.

“Richards could score a goal right now, get on the scoresheet and the U.S. could still win,” I thought. That notion was quickly discarded when Sidney Crosby scored a power play goal to close to within 4-3.

Interestingly, there’s an opposite effect as well. As a Flyers fan, I have a special distaste for the New York Rangers. But when Chris Drury scored to put the Americans ahead 3-2, he was momentarily forgiven his sin of being Rangers captain.

That Team USA jersey can mend a lot of fences. Well, temporarily, at least.

In a week, I can go back to loving Richards and Pronger, and shuddering at the mere mention of Drury’s name. But in the meantime… well, you know how I think.

Final thoughts:

Aside from Miller, the player who stood out most in the Canada-USA game was Nash. He was an absolute beast out there. He threw his weight around like a man playing pee-wee hockey, and he showed elite stick skills. As a Flyers fan in Texas, I don’t get to see Nash very often. For hockey’s sake, either Columbus has to become a contender, or Nash needs to find his way to a better team.

Alex Ovechkin can be the Tasmanian Devil of hockey, and no one knows that better today than Jaromir Jagr. Ovechkin’s open-ice pasting of Jagr was a thing of beauty, especially since it directly led to a goal. Even without the puck, he can be a dominating player.

Written by sportsinbriefs

February 22, 2010 at 12:51 am

The Winter Olympics, And Why I Hate Everyone Now

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The flame was lit in Vancouver... eventually

The Winter Olympics are under way. I know, I know, you may not have known had it not been for all the Olympic-themed commercials hitting the airwaves. And maybe missing the beginning of the games wasn’t a bad thing for you; after all, the games were awarded to Vancouver in 2003, yet in the ensuing six and a half years, the organizing committee couldn’t figure out how to make all four trap doors work so they could light things on fire.

One of the most common phrases these next two weeks is going to be “Olympic spirit.” Friends and foes will live together in the Olympic Village and compete as equals in Olympic events. Fans from different worlds will sit side-by-side in the stands and cheer their heroes to gold.

The Olympics, they say, bring us all together.

I heartily disagree. When the Olympics come around, I can’t help but dislike everyone else in the world equally.

Yep. There, I said it.

I live in the United States and I want to see our athletes win everything, whether that’s reasonable or not. I am not going to be consoled by the thought that the British athlete who won is a friend of ours, or that the gold medal triumph of some skier from Uzbekistan is a great story.

When another anthem plays, it means we lost.

In everyday life, friends are friends, foes are foes, and the Swiss are neither. But in an event invites the entire world to compete, it just stands to reason that the entire world is now a foe.

I’m not being childish about it, I’m just rooting for the Americans. I will cheer heartily for our athletes and I will celebrate our victories. I believe the Olympic ideal is wonderful, with events such as these in which everyone can compete and find glory.

I’ll just save my cheering for American glory. The rest will get a nod of acknowledgment… maybe.

One thing I don’t quite understand about the Olympics is timing. We all concede that part of the reasoning for the Olympics is for the participating countries to set aside their differences, gather together in the spirit of competition, and generally all feel warm and fuzzy together.

If that’s the case, why not schedule the Summer Olympics to take place this time of year, and the Winter Olympics when the Summer Games are usually held? If we’re looking for the games to make us feel better just by turning on the TV, seeing the sunshine and 85-degree weather of the Summer Olympics would do me just fine. And when we’re all sweating from near-100% humidity in July, wouldn’t a glimpse of a skier throwing some powder give us the right kind of chills?

It’s not like summer in February and winter in July is a crazy notion – after all, that’s what the entire southern hemisphere experiences. And since 90% of the world’s population lives in the northern hemisphere, the change would serve the vast majority of the world’s people.

Hey, at a time when it seems Vancouver is the only place north of the Rio Grande River that is struggling to accumulate snow, it’s just a suggestion.

The next two weeks will be filled not only with the events we know – hockey, figure skating, skiing – but also some sports that I struggle to wrap my brain around. The first one of those is the biathlon, which started awarding medals today.

What exactly is the purpose of the biathlon? I know, when you boil it all down, there really isn’t much logic to most sports. But the biathlon pairs two seemingly unrelated activities in cross country skiing and shooting stuff. Participants ski for a while, stop and shoot at targets, ski more, shoot more, etc.

I get it, it’s difficult to ski your hardest, settle your body, breathe easy, and shoot a rifle at a target. And I don’t begrudge those that train for years to become the best in the world at their chosen event.

But there are lots of activities that are difficult when paired together. Juggling while riding a unicycle is not particularly easy, but I have yet to see the IOC hand out medals to a Ringling Brothers clown. If we’re looking to combine the practical with the dangerous, why not speed skating and bear wrestling comes to mind. What is the summer equivalent, the 5,000 meter/blindfolded knife-throwing relay?

Flowers and a note mark the site of Kumaritashvili's death

On a more somber note, we are all well aware of the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on Friday.

We are bound to hear debate about access to the track for practice runs. Is the world’s fastest track too fast?

I know nothing about the luge, except that it looks like bobsledding without the bobsled. My questions, therefore, are less technical and more practical.

My first thought is, why is it necessary for there to be support posts so close to a straightaway, especially coming out of a fast corner? Whatever they’re supporting, can’t it be pushed back, even if just ten feet? Some sort of buffer zone between the track and any obstructions simply seems like common sense to me.

If the support posts absolutely have to be there, why leave them naked and exposed? Those posts should be padded. I just can’t think of any practical reason why they were not protected. Maybe the padding wouldn’t do much for a luger flying out of control at more than 85 mph. But if they do enough to stave off that athlete’s death, isn’t that enough?

I’m no sports architect, and I have never been to a luge track. I have no idea if these design elements are the norm or if they’re unusual. I’m sure organizers have very valid answers to all of these questions, but in light of this tragedy, how truly valid are those answers?

Responsible parties have taken some steps in the last 24 hours. The posts are now being padded. The pads look like they were borrowed from a sixth-grade gymnastics class, but at least it’s something.

A wooden barrier has been erected to hopefully contain any athlete who flies off the track in a similar manner. The starting points for the luge have also been adjusted, which should help cut down speeds at the bottom of the track.

Kumaritashvili was remembered at the opening ceremonies, where flags were lowered to half-staff and a moment of silence was held. The small Georgian delegation, every member adorned in a black armband, received a sustained applause as well.

I would imagine the Georgians will become the sympathetic favorites for the remainder of the Winter Olympics, receiving polite applause from the international fans. Should a Georgian win a medal, it will make a heartwarming story.

I might even applaud during the Georgian national anthem.

Then again, maybe just a nod.

Written by sportsinbriefs

February 13, 2010 at 8:16 pm

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