Archive for June, 2009

Always Wanted An Athlete, Dad? Well . . .
June 22, 2009

Happy belated Father’s Day to all of the fathers in the hizzouse. 

I meant to post this on Sunday, but Father’s Day weekend has become remarkably hectic around our place: Since my daughter was born on June 18, 2007, Father’s Day weekend has become not only about the men who raised my wife and I — and my wife’s aunt who celebrates a birthday on June 20 — but it has also become about my daughter.

Let’s be honest: It’s become 98% about my daughter, which is just fine with me (although not quite as fine with my son). But while having a house full of visitors oohing and aahing over Abby Cadabby pajamas may equal good quality family time, it doesn’t equal good quality blogging time.

I’d also like to issue some blame for my procrastination to a Madison-area restaurant that shall go unnamed for putting me and my family in a foul mood for much of Sunday. This restaurant, not a chain, served up adequate food (no better or worse than the likes of Denny’s or Perkins) but offered, despite being only moderately busy, remarkably horrific service. Or should I say nonexistent service. When we finally complained after 45 minutes of being completely and utterly ignored, we were told that our experience was normal. I’d love to mention them by name, but I’ll instead take the high road (which, as my wife would confirm, is highly unusual for me).

So, one day late, my annual Father’s Day thoughts:

I became the head coach of my son’s kindergarten soccer team this year, and while I thoroughly enjoyed working and playing with most of the children on the team, one of the kids admittedly drove me crazy.

My son.

Now all parents say this about their children, but my six-year-old son is a remarkable kid. He’s very smart, very funny, and very creative. But he has obviously inherited his athletic prowess from his father. In short, he has none.

I’d be lying if I said that when my son was born I imagined him to be the next Eddie George or George Brett or Brett Favre (although in his potty-training, he showed a lot of Favre’s rampant indecisiveness), but had he displayed any natural athletic ability, I certainly would have encouraged it.

And I realize that he’s only six and he has oodles of time to develop into a skilled athlete.

But neither my wife nor I are holding our breath.

But hardly a day goes by that I’m not proud to be his father.

And anyway, it’s not as if all children who become well-known athletes turn into men of whom their fathers can be proud. 

So here is a list of athletes who aren’t making their fathers beam with pride this Father’s Day:

1. Donte’ Stallworth.Not only does the Cleveland Browns receiver need to live with the guilt of killing a man while driving drunk, he now has to deal with the public hatred that comes when someone gets away with manslaughter basically scot-free. Oh, and he is indefinitely barred by the NFL from making a living.

2.  Sasha Vujacic.After seeing significant playing time in last year’s NBA Finals, where he shot 42 percent from the floor for a total of 50 points over six games, the Lakers guard was wisely benched for much of the 2009 Finals. Vujacic ended up shooting 0-6 for a total of zero points in Los Angeles’s triumphant five-game series over Orlando. And he gets a ring for that?

3. Ryan Leaf.OK, maybe he’s about a decade removed from being considered an “athlete,” but the story of the former Washington State standout QB and overall number two pick in 1998’s NFL Draft just keeps getting sadder. Just last Friday he turned himself in to authorities after allegedly breaking into the apartment of  a West Texas A&M football player and stealing painkillers. (Leaf was the quarterbacks coach at the school until resigning amid an unrelated drug investigation.) Ryan Leaf and Morganna, the Kissing Bandit: Your two biggest sports-related busts ever.

4. Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees “slugger” is having about as good a year professionally as Vanilla Ice: First he admitted to using banned substances, then he got injured, now he’s hitting a whopping .213 and is performing so poorly that Yankee manager Joe Girardi has decided to rest him occassionally for “fatigue.” Not to mention that embarrassing Guitar Hero commercial that makes Michael Jordan’s cutesy series of underwear spots with Cuba Gooding, Jr., look positively brilliant in comparison.

5.  Daisuke Matsuzaka. Remember when the Boston Red Sox paid $51.11 million just for the right to negotiate with the Japanese star pitcher? He’s now on the DL with a 1-5 record and a 8.23 ERA.  The Red Sox still have the second-best team in baseball, but that $51 mill is looking like one of the biggest wastes of money since the budget for Basic Instinct 2.

6. Marian Hossa. The right winger defected from the Pittsburgh Penguins at the end of last season to sign with the Detroit Red Wings, saying in effect that Detroit offered him the best chance at a Stanley Cup. Not only did the Penguins end up beating the Wings in the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, but Hossa stunk, scoring exactly zero goals in the seven-game series. Shelley Long has managed her career better than Hossa.

7. Josh McDaniels. OK, the head coach of the Denver Broncos isn’t necessarily an athlete, although he did play football in college. But the 33-year-old coach is younger than many professional athletes, and has had one of the worst off-seasons in recent NFL history: First he was a key figure in the loss of franchise quarterback Jay Cutler, now he is faced with the possibility of star receiver Brandon Marshall refusing to play for him. McDaniels also drafted a running back in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft despite the fact that the team had picked up three backs in free agency. I haven’t seen anyone more primed to fail in a new job since Gary Cherone took over for Sammy Hagar in Van Halen. But hey, if McDaniels does fail in Denver, I know a certain Madison-area restaurant that could use some service help.

Happy Father’s Day.

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Manny’s Gone South. So What’s Next?
June 14, 2009

For Milwaukee Brewers fans, the ugliest battle of the month hasn’t been David Letterman versus Sarah Palin.

It’s been Brewers starting pitcher Manny Parra versus opposing batters.

It’s a battle that Parra, with a 13.50 ERA over his last five starts, has been losing.

Saturday, after another horrible start in which he gave up six runs in 1-2/3 innings against a toothless Chicago White Sox lineup (the Sox have been shut out nine times this season, the most in baseball), Parra finally lost the war, as he was sent down to AAA Nashville.

Parra was informed of the decision before the game was even over. You get the feeling that manager Ken Macha wished he had one of those Star Trek transporter machines so he could have sent Parra from the Miller Park mound directly to the showers at Herschel Greer Stadium in Music City.

But as quick as Macha was to jettison Parra, he was equally quick to say that due to a couple of upcoming off days, Parra would not need to be replaced in the starting rotation until June 28, leaving open the possibility that Parra’s minor league stint would be a brief one.

Brewers fans have to hope that the only Manny that returns to the majors in the next three weeks is suspended Dodger Manny Ramirez. Wisconsin fans are welcoming people – OK, maybe they won’t welcome a purple-wearing Brett Favre too nicely to Lambeau Field on November 1 – but Parra, credited with only five Brewers wins since last July, has clearly worn out his welcome here.

But what then can the Brewers do to improve their five-man starting rotation, give their wearying bullpen some relief, and also get closer Trevor Hoffman – completely unused for nearly a week early this month (if I wanted to hear some AC/DC, I had to tune to Bone Yard on my Sirius satellite radio) – some more save opportunities?

Clearly one option – the cheapest and easiest – would be to move middle reliever Seth McClung back to the starting rotation. And it might be the best option, as McClung has pitched well this season, only surrendering 10 runs in over 34 innings of work for an impressive 2.60 ERA and 3-1 record.

But moving McClung back to the rotation lacks, well, excitement. And despite the Brewers having one of the dullest human beings on the planet as their manager, General Manager Doug Melvin and owner Mark Attanasio proved after last year’s trade for CC Sabathia that they’re not afraid of making some noise.

And seeing how Sabathia single-handedly saved Milwaukee’s season last year, you can bet that Melvin – despite just last week refuting trade rumors as “absolutely false” – and Attanasio are curious to see whether lightning can strike twice. 

Even if a trade is made, fans praying for the second coming of Sabathia will have to prepare to be disappointed – this year there does not look to be any dominant, still-in-his-prime pitcher available.

But with the Disney Channel’s Handy Manny striking more fear in major league hitters than Manny Parra, any addition would have to be seen as an upgrade.

So who’s out there?

The biggest name is probably Pedro Martinez, he of the lifetime 214-99 record, the career 2.91 ERA, the eight All-Star selections, and the three Cy Young Awards. Martinez hasn’t pitched well lately (5-6 with 5.61 ERA with the Mets in 2008), but he did make an impressive appearance in March’s World Baseball Classic. Also, the Cubs are rumored to be interested in Martinez, so securing him would have the potential added bonus of blocking him from going to their biggest rival. But the 37-year-old Martinez would ultimately cost more (his agent is reportedly seeking $5 million for the year) than he’s likely worth at this point in his career.

Tom Glavine, who with 305 wins had the most victories of anyone in the majors on an active roster before being surprisingly cut by the Braves earlier this month, is an interesting option, especially given his pedigree and the fact that he’s a southpaw. But the Braves made it clear that the 43-year-old Glavine was released not for financial reasons but for performance issues – he was coming back from elbow and shoulder surgery – and their strong statements about Glavine’s lack of ability might be enough to scare off serious suitors. After all, the Braves know a thing or two about pitchers.

Trade rumors swirled heavily around 2007 NL Cy Young winner and San Diego pitcher Jake Peavy last month; in fact he was in effect traded to the Chicago White Sox until Peavy utilized the no-trade clause in his contract to block the trade. At the time Peavy declared that remaining in San Diego was best for his family, but after the Sox deal and the fact that Peavy was nearly traded to the Cubs last season, you have to wonder how long a pitcher can remain with a team that so clearly doesn’t want him. Unfortunately for Peavy and any interested teams (and for the Padres, since they are clearly trying to move him), a just-diagnosed strained tendon in his right ankle will likely sideline him for 8-12 weeks.

Other pitchers potentially available include Brad Penny of the Boston Red Sox and Jerrod Washburn of the Seattle Mariners, but one name conspicuously absent from all the trade rumors is former Brewers ace Ben Sheets.

The Mets are reportedly interested in Sheets, but after having surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in February, Sheets has been rehabbing his elbow at a facility near his home in Texas while reportedly visiting former Brewers pitching coach Mike Maddux, who is now the pitching coach for the Texas Rangers. So a deal with the Rangers appears most likely. But no one from Sheets’s camp is coming forward with any information about how well Sheets’s rehab is coming along, which is not a good sign.

The uncertainty regarding Sheets’s health was, of course, a consistent presence during his years with the Brewers. If he can pitch, Milwaukee fans, used to seeing Sheets’s availability limited to less than a season, might be willing to roll the dice on him one more time. Most Brewer faithful would probably argue that a 75% healthy Sheets would be more effective than a completely-healthy Parra.

And for Melvin and Attanasio, two men not afraid of causing a stir, the only way they could top last year’s Sabathia-led playoff run would be with a playoff run led by the triumphant return of Olympic gold medalist and fan favorite Ben Sheets.

This Jersey For Sale
June 7, 2009

The WNBA opened its season this weekend. Yes, the same weekend that the NHL and NBA finals are continuing, that Tiger Woods is playing at the Memorial Tournament, and that jockey Calvin Borel fell just short in his attempt to complete a historic triple crown. 

So thanks largely to horrific timing, the opening weekend of the struggling women’s basketball league will receive about as much media coverage as my son’s kindergarten soccer game.

(Our team lost, but I think it should be mentioned that there was some controversy, as the other team had a first-grader on their squad. I know he was in first grade because he said so, although his handlebar mustache was also a clue to his advanced age.)

But something interesting and potentially revolutionary in American sports is afoot in the WNBA. Both the Phoenix Mercury and the Los Angeles Sparks have reached deals with corporate sponsors (LifeLock and Farmers Insurance, respectively) that have resulted in company logos appearing on both their road and home uniforms. 

While some might retch at the notion of jerseys with corporate logos as a corporate sellout, to anyone who’s ever watched even a few seconds of NASCAR, where the drivers have more logos on their racing suits than Donald Driver’s had contract negotiations, this might not seem like such a big deal.

And that’s exactly right. This is not a big deal. In fact, I can’t believe it’s taken this long.

When I go the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel‘s Web site, I’m met with a picture of Packers head coach Mike McCarthy shilling for a local heating and cooling company. When I watch sporting events on TV, I can see any number of athletes being paid handsomely to endorse products, from LeBron James selling car insurance to LaDainian Tomlinson selling TVs to Peyton Manning selling pretty much everything.

Would it really be such a shock to the system to see Aaron Rodgers drop back in the pocket with a Mountain Dew Throwback logo across his chest? Would anyone lose interest in the Milwaukee Brewers if Ryan Braun sported a picture of Colonel Sanders on his batting helmet?

Has the fact that Tiger Woods never steps on the golf course without wearing Nike apparel hurt his popularity or his TV ratings? Of course not.

For those who think that teams in the WNBA are taking these measures because they’re struggling teams in a struggling league in a struggling economy, they’re right. But they’re wrong if they believe that sponsors’ logos will never grace the jerseys of players in more established leagues like the NFL, NBA, or Major League Baseball. In this economy and beyond, owners will always be looking for new ways to make money, largely because they continue to insist on signing even mediocre players to multi-multi-million dollar deals.

Just this week, the Green Bay Packers said that they were looking into the possibility of selling sponsorship patches on players’ practice uniforms. Although the NFL now prohibits such ad placement on game jerseys, can that really be so far behind? Surely you’ll see the Detroit Lions making room for a Sony logo on their jerseys before you see them making room for a Vince Lombardi Trophy at their headquarters.

These days, consumers are getting savvier about ignoring advertisements. So advertisers are finding ways to outsmart them. Television shows such as Survivor, with contestants being rewarded everything from Charmin toilet paper to Pringles, and 90210, with its not-so-subtle references to Dr. Pepper (“Drinking Dr. Pepper is what a road trip is all about!”) are taking product placement to new and ever-more visible heights.

So-called sponsorship patches or logo jerseys are a logical step for advertisers looking to reach the humongous and typically very demographically desirable (i.e. young males who may not watch a lot else on TV) sports audience.  

Are there potential pitfalls to teams literally selling the shirts off their backs and creating an unprecedented and unmistakable connection between athlete and sponsor? Of course. Let’s say the NFL gave the OK last year for logos on game jerseys and the Minnesota Vikings signed a five-year deal with Purina Dog Food to wear Purina patches on their uniforms. That would probably put a damper on any thoughts of them pursuing the newly-freed Michael Vick. Now whether you believe that Vick deserves another chance in the NFL or not, certainly a corporate sponsor shouldn’t be the deciding factor in that personnel decision.

Or let’s say that one of the bench players on the Los Angeles Sparks gets involved in some embarrassing personal situation, like an Internet sex tape. Is it so unbelievable that someone from Farmers Insurance could make it known to team ownership that they’d just as soon not see that player put into games?

Nowadays everything in sports and sports media is for sale. We go to Miller Park, we watch the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, and we listen to Peter Gammons talk to ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning on something awkwardly christened the Subway Fresh Take Hot Line. And while some may grumble, the commercialization of sports will never be able to dampen the excitement of a no-hitter, a triple-double, a game-winning field goal, or a meaningful game between historic rivals.

When Steelers linebacker James Harrison returned that Kurt Warner interception for a touchdown in this year’s Super Bowl for the longest play in Super Bowl history, would the play have been any less memorable if he had been wearing a Michelin Man on his jersey? 

Or if Brett Favre went to the Minnesota Vikings, would Packers fans hate him more if his purple jersey was affixed with a Starbucks logo?