J-Roll and Me … since 2007

jimmy-rollinsNot often do I feel genuine admiration for professional athletes.  It’s rarer still that I become a dedicated fan.

If you give a twit about professional sports, you quickly learn that pro athletes come and go, sometimes on a whim and always regardless of your affection.  Pro athletes are a special kind of mercenary … Keen to their value and the limited horizon of their earning potential, they tend to move where the financial grass is greener after a few years in any one city for any particular team.

There are of course exceptions; but the best approach to avoiding repeated disappointments and that goofy fan version of “loss”, when a favored player departs, is to remain a distant and objective fan, dedicated only to statistics and the calculus of how individual players will – or will not – help your preferred team addiction.

Jimmy Rollins is one of the few players to so ingratiate themselves in my view of the professional athlete should represent to become a player  an individual I respect.  As a partial season ticket holder, I have enjoyed watching Rollins play the shortstop position in the cozy confines of Citizens Bank Park.  But now that he will move on in an unsurprising trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers, it’s time to look back at his 15-year Philadelphia Phillies career.

He had his faults, don’t get me wrong.  He could have been a better hitter (.267 career average); never walked enough (averaging just 50 BB/season); and had fleeting issues with the concept of hustle on the base paths.

Through all of that, Rollins was still able to earn what I like to think is my difficult-to-earn Sports Admiration by what he accomplished in 2007.

That season he set career marks in Games, At Bats (716), Plate Appearances, Runs (139) and Triples (20).  With 17 games remaining in the regular season and the Phillies facing a 7.5 game deficit in the National League East, Rollins batted .309 with multiple hits in 15 of those games, 3 Homeruns, 12 RBI.  Leading the Phillies past the Mutts and grabbing the first of 5 consecutive NL East crowns!

St. Louis Cardinals v Philadelphia Phillies - Game 2But what really set that season apart in my mind was what he said a few weeks before the first meaningful pitch of 2007 was thrown, before a single at-bat, even before spring training started.  Following a season where the New York Mets dominated in winning the NL East by 12 games, James Calvin Rollins declared the Philadelphia Phillies “the team to beat in the National League East” for that upcoming 2007 season!

Certainly I wasn’t alone in finding Rollins’ proclamation cringe-worthy for a team that hadn’t shown much life or distinction in preceding seasons.  But that’s what impressed me most in 2007, that Rollins had the confidence to proclaim how good his team was, and then have the career season to make sure it happened.  In the end, Rollins won the National League Most Valuable Player Award, a Gold Glove (his first of four), and a Silver Slugger (his only) in what was the best season of his career.

From that 2007 season forward, I could overlook those isolated hustle-related incidents because of the confidence – even cockiness – and Leadership he provided a team that would win just its second World Series MLB championship a year later.

In his 15 years in Philadelphia, Rollins set franchise career marks in Hits (2306) and Doubles (479); appeared in 3 All-Star Games; and finished 3rd in Rookie-of-the-Year voting (2001).  At the crucial position of shortstop, he won the aforementioned four Gold Gloves; but even more impressively he ranks 3rd in Fielding Percentage (.983) among all shortstops in modern Major League Baseball history.

No doubt this places him among the best defensive shortstops ever to play the game.

In addition, Rollins was a community philanthropist whose charity, The Rollins Family Foundation, benefitted the Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis Foundation and Prevent Child Abuse PA.  Most recently, his charity has worked to educate and promote access to fresh foods for low-income families.  He and his wife also founded The Johari & Jimmy Rollins Center for Animal Rehabilitation in Woolwich Township, NJ.

However, from this day forward Jimmy Rollins will provide his special kind of Leadership and defensive play in a uniform other than the red pinstripes of a Phillie.  It will be weird seeing him play in another uniform, let alone the blue of the Los Angeles Dodgers.  But such is the nature of the tenuous pro athlete-fan relationship.

You only get to enjoy watching them play for your team for only so long.  Hopefully for Phillie fans, 15 years was long enough.

May the baseball gods be fair to you, Jimmy Rollins!  May you have the chance to recapture that elusive championship feeling once again.  Just please, not with the Dodgers … or the Mets, Braves, Yankees, Nationals or Red Sox …

Just sayin’ …

The Eagles and their “quarterback problem”

Mark-Sanchez-Eagles.trade.final

Mark Sanchez

During last Sunday’s game, Philadelphia Eagles fans took a collective gasp when Nick Foles went down heavily under the weight of Texans linebacker Whitney Mercilus.  But in this case the gasp was hardly accompanied by dread for a season lost to an irreplaceable cog in the football team’s fast break offense.  Truth be told, a lot of Eagles fans were becoming a bit jaded with Foles’ performance over the first half of the season.

Personally, I do not understand that sense of dissatisfaction with a quarterback who has been central to the growing success of Chip Kelly‘s high octane offensive scheme.  In this Nick Foles seems to be the victim of his own success.

So too are those cynical fans …

But of course the local sports media immediately turned Mark Sanchez‘s re-appearance into a quarterback controversy!  And they do so for a team that stands 7-2 and atop the NFC East!

Foles enjoyed an almost flawless season in 2013, throwing for 2900 yards, 27 TDs, and just 2 Interceptions.  Those are not superhuman numbers; but it was that last data point … just 2 INTs (317 pass attempts) that really paved the way for this season’s excessively high expectations for Foles 2nd season.

And yet, even I have to admit, Mark Sanchez piqued my interest in the pre-season. He was acquired as a free agent after being dumped by the Superbowl-bound New York Jets

(Just wanted to see if you were still paying attention!)

You had to like what you saw of Sanchez in those pre-season games, if you bothered to watch.  Quick reads, sound decisions, strong and accurate arm … He seemed extremely comfortable in Kelly’s fast paced offensive system.  The first question that came to mind then was, “Just how bad are the New York Jets?”

Questioned answered …

Sanchez for his own part stepped in last Sunday against the Texans and performed admirably.  But face it, Sanchez stepped into a good situation with an offensive line finally stabilized for better protection and an improved running game to boot.

Nick Foles

Nick Foles

Foles spent the first half of the season playing behind a patched-up offensive line, beset by an early season injuries.  If you pay attention to offensive line play, you could see how the O-line struggled against the pass rush; could not provide a suitable pocket for Foles to step into and throw; and how often Foles was forced to throw passes off his back foot.

The poor throwing posture and mechanics caused many of Foles’ problems.  And of course, Foles threw some passes a bit early due to the constant pressure and resulting hits.

In one of Foles’ better games against those New York Football Giants (also not Superbowl-bound), he enjoyed the benefits of an improved O-line, with the return of Lane Johnson; was able to step into many of his throws; and played much better as a result.

No mystery there …

Regardless, any team that relies so heavily on QB performance (and what team does not?) is in a much stronger position having two players who can be plug-and-play ready.

The one factoid to keep in mind is that for all our Monday morning quarterbacking and opining about who should be playing QB for the Birds, Sanchez signed a one-year deal … the product of his miserable Jets exit and Sanchez’s desire to get a second chance at being The Top Guy.  Regardless of what happens this season, Sanchez could very well take whatever success he may have and move on to a QB-desperate team next season!

Or maybe Sanchez will not be as successful over the long term as he has looked so far.

The good news is that the Eagles seem to have found a great second option at QB in Sanchez.  It’s a “problem” of the best kind for the Philadelphia Eagles!

UPDATEVery interesting article in The Philadelphia Inquirer this morning about how Chip Kelly and Mark Sanchez crossed paths very early in Sanchez’s football career.  Coincidences like this are often hard to shake off.  Will Fate play a role in how this plays out?

A Fathers Day … Fifty years ago …

bunning5I was all of eight years-old, riding home from a family visit to relatives on my father’s side of the family.  It was a different time then, illustrated no less than by the way we stood on the floor of the back seat – unbuckled – to watch as Dad drove us home with all the windows rolled down in a car that knew not of air conditioning on a hot, humid Sunday afternoon.

The date is – in the interest of honesty – seven days short this Fathers Day of a full five decades of baseball history … June 21, 1964

Dad decides to spend the trip homeward listening to the Philadelphia Phillies playing the lowly New York Mets at Shea Stadium, which had opened for business just two months before.  Jim Bunning was on the mound that day in a game already in progress, the first game of a double-header.

For those baseball fans not born or baseball-aware before the turn of the century, a double-header is a scheduled event on a Major League Baseball team’s game calendar deliberately requiring the play of TWO games of baseball in one sitting. 

Baseball used to actually schedule double headers as a normal part of every team’s calendar, repeated several times a year … until they caught on to the concept of gate receipts and their effect on earnings and profitability.  You only see them nowadays when rain outs and tight scheduling require doubling up; and even then, they almost always require the fans to leave the stadium and buy additional tickets to see the second game.

They call this the Day-Night Double Header.  But you can refer to them as Double-Dipping-the-Fans-Because-You-Can Header!   

It was late that afternoon … around 4:00 when Dad turned the game on.  I was yet to reach the point of my full Phillies awareness.  That would be – rather traumatically – that following September when the renown ’64 Phillies would spiral in flames from 1st place in the National League with 12 games remaining …

Oh hell, I don’t want to go there!

My point being, I was hardly paying attention to the game as I bounced around the back seat, most likely in some sort of competition or conflict with my younger brother, Pat.  So I remember very little of the actual game, except for the conclusion when Dad mentioned that Jim Bunning had pitched a PERFECT GAME!

I knew not what that even meant at the time.

Bunning’s Father Day feat was most appropriate.  He was the father of seven children at the time (eventually having 12!!), only one of which was there in New York that day.

bunning1Bunning’s performance still goes down as one of the Top 10 perfectos in Major League Baseball history.  He threw only 89 pitches to complete the game, only 21 pitches were thrown as balls.  He struck out 10.  It was the first perfect game in the National League since 1880!  And Bunning became only the second pitcher at the time to throw a no-hitter in both the National and American Leagues.

The other pitcher to throw no-hitters in both leagues?  Cy Young

Bunning tortured his dugout mates by constantly talking about his developing perfecto, breaking a major baseball superstition.  He later recounted losing a no-hitter three weeks before against the Houston Colt .45s after keeping silent and decided he would not avoid the subject this time around.

What I remember most about Bunning was his wild follow through.  When he threw his hardest, he would fall off on his left side, often finishing with his left arm on the ground, his body almost parallel to the pitching mound.  Not exactly how the youngin’s today are coached.

Other interesting trivia from Bunning’s Very Special Fathers Day celebration:

    • Bunning’s first no-hitter was pitched on July 20, 1958 against the Boston Red Sox.  He was pitching for the Detroit Tigers and remarkably enough the game was also the first game of a scheduled double-header.
    • After the game, Bunning negotiated an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show for all of $1000., but it was enough to build a pool and pool house at Bunning’s Kentucky home!
    • Bunning struck out pinch-hitter John Stephenson for the last out throwing nothing but curve balls after recalling a similar game earlier in the season when Phils manager Gene Mauch told Bunning in at on-the-mound meeting that Stephenson “… can’t spell curve.”

Bunning went on to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996.  His post-baseball career took him from local Kentucky political offices to an unsuccessful run for Governor to successful campaigns for the U.S. House of Representatives and eventually to a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Bunning left the Senate in 2011.  He continues to reside in Kentucky at the age of 82.

bunning4

 

 

It’s how you say it, even when saying nothing at all

Photo from sportsnation.com

Photo from sportsnation.com

Much angst has plagued Philadelphia sports fans the past several weeks over the words or behavior of some the city’s biggest sports stars.  As with just about every other situation in Life, there are lessons to be learned and subtle insights into truths that can lie just below a stormy surface.

Two recent cases-in-point need no introduction to any Philly sports fan not lying in coma the past month.

The first incident was the very public benching of Phillies shortstop, Jimmy Rollins.

Rollins was benched – somewhat stealthily – by new manager Ryne Sandberg, a Hall of Fame player who earned his plaque from both Production and Effort.  Although it was obvious that Rollins had wandered into Sandberg’s doghouse, it was only slightly less obvious the likely reason was Rollins “Who cares?” remark to questions about his slow start to the Spring Training season.

I have always been a big Jimmy Rollins fan.  Even more so since his 2007 statement that the National League East Championship passed through Philadelphia.  Not only was this an aggressive statement in a season following several where the NL East was dominated by the Atlanta Braves, Rollins walked the talk; won the 2007 National League MVP; and ensured the Phillies first Division Title in string of division titles!

Yet, no one found fault with Sandberg’s public – though muted – benching of the team’s senior statesman during the spring lead-up to Sandberg’s first full season in the Phillies captain’s chair.  He needed to set a positive attitude, including a mindset where caring mightily about wins and losses would be paramount.  So even though it was “only Spring Training”, Rollins was sent a message about Leadership, Substance, and Mentoring.

HMC03_ChaseUtleyNow read the views on Spring Training ’14 as uttered by Chase Utley, the Phillies second baseman in The Philadelphia Inquirer’s April 5 article on Utley’s hot season start in contrast to his quiet spring.

“Obviously, you’re looking for results in spring training, but being around for a while, I know that’s not the most important thing.”, Utley said.  “The most important thing is getting your rhythm going into the season.”

First off, no one is going to confuse Utley and Rollins in either personality or demeanor on the field.  Utley is all business all the time.  Rollins enjoys the game and is not afraid to show it.  Personally, if blessed with the ability to play the game at their level, I would prefer Rollins approach to enjoying the game as much as possible, if not necessarily his undervaluing the Power of Words.

In reality, Utley was expressing the very same mindset Rollins expressed when it comes to Spring Training success … or lack thereof.  The difference is that Utley’s quote was not issued in the midst of a slump – even if only a spring training slump.  Secondly, it’s not like Utley to be so flippant as to reduce his well-stated sentiment into two words certain to curdle the milk in Ryne Sandberg’s corn flakes!

Moral:  It ain’t so much what you say as how – and when – you say it.

Photo from the source.com

Photo from the source.com

Sometimes what’s not said that says all you need to know …

By now most of us are a bit sick of hearing about the Desean Jackson Philadelphia Eagles debacle.

When I first heard the rumors about the Eagles shopping Jackson, I chalked it up to off-season football beat writers being a bit bored waiting for the April college player draft.  No way could I see the Eagles wanting to jettison a skilled player that yielded 1300 yards and 9 TDs in just the previous season.

How could they be so stupid?!?

But then the stories – or rumors for all we really know – began to come out.  A lot of it was disturbing from a team unity/distraction-avoiding point-of-view … The most incriminating pieces of evidence coming from Jackson’s own Instagram account.

Until the whole story comes out – if it ever does – no one will really know what the Eagles knew and when they knew it.

The Big Aha! – for me however – was not what was being said; it was in what was NOT being said … by those in the Eagles locker room.

Where were the players when “one of their own” was being pilloried in the press and set adrift by a team that lives or dies by the profligacy of its Offense?!?  Why was there no circling of the wagons, no outward signs of support from those still with the team?  Where was the All for One and One for All?

Only LeSean McCoy came out in tacit support of Jackson, but that was only after the deed was done.

To me, that said so much more than all the stuff that was being said about the character of Jackson.  It was apparent that his standing among his team and teammates was lacking significantly.  It was obvious that there was certainly something behind what was being said, even if we never really know for sure what it was.

Moral:  Sometimes saying nothing says it all!

“Obviously you’re looking for results in spring training, but being around for a while, I know that’s not the most important thing,” Utley said. “The most important thing is to try to get your rhythm going into the season.”
Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/sports/phillies/20140405_Utley_s_hot_start_after_a_cold_spring.html#S1tuCu8BqfwcA

“Obviously you’re looking for results in spring training, but being around for a while, I know that’s not the most important thing,” Utley said. “The most important thing is to try to get your rhythm going into the season.”
Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/sports/phillies/20140405_Utley_s_hot_start_after_a_cold_spring.html#S1tuCu8BqfwcAGQh.99

“Obviously you’re looking for results in spring training, but being around for a while, I know that’s not the most important thing,” Utley said. “The most important thing is to try to get your rhythm going into the season.”
Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/sports/phillies/20140405_Utley_s_hot_start_after_a_cold_spring.html#S1tuCu8BqfwcAGQh.99

“Obviously you’re looking for results in spring training, but being around for a while, I know that’s not the most important thing,” Utley said. “The most important thing is to try to get your rhythm going into the season.”
Read mhttp://www.philly.com/philly/sports/phillies/20140405_Utley_s_hot_start_after_a_cold_spring.html#S1tuCu8BqfwcAGQh.99

“Obviously you’re looking for results in spring training, but being around for a while, I know that’s not the most important thing,” Utley said. “The most important thing is to try to get your rhythm going into the season.”
Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/sports/phillies/20140405_Utley_s_hot_start_after_a_cold_spring.html#S1tuCu8BqfwcAGQh.99

Christian Laettner, I still hate you!

Laettner cutting out my heart

Laettner cutting out my heart

I never win anything even remotely related to skill or the ability to analyze complex data sets to project a likely outcome.  Gave up on sports wagering years ago after – finally – coming to the realization that I sucked at it.  Could never even begin to understand horse racing and handicapping odds.  Nor could I fake the slightest understanding of a daily racing form …

Recent years I gave up on one of my last remaining weaknesses … the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament brackets (for entertainment purposes only). I have always enjoyed the tournament, especially the early rounds where upsets lie in deadly ambush.  But winning “entertainment purposes” from my finely honed college basketball acumen?

Not gonna happen …

Funny how most people I know rarely ever watch pre-March Madness college basketball, yet they believe they can reasonably predict the end result of the sport’s 66-team, rabidly emotional, magically unpredictable, championship-determining tournament.

I was one of those wackadoodles once; but it hasn’t been the same for me since 1992.

That was the year the East Regional was held in Philadelphia’s Spectrum.  It was the year of Duke, Kansas, UCLA, and Ohio State as the top ranked teams.  It was the year Michigan made the run from a 6-seed to runner-up, losing to Duke in the National Championship game.

It was the Year of Christian Laettner.

I know the feeling.

I know the feeling.

Normally the NCAA Tourney was just a reason to spend several afternoons in a public establishment amply equipped with televisions in the company of friends.  But in the early rounds of the 1992 tournament bracket I was en fuego!  As the Round of 32 ended, I realized I had a pretty good bracket collection going … through no fault of my own.

As luck would have it, I had ridden Michigan as my surprise entry into the Final Four.  I had the potential – with a Kentucky win over Duke – of having three of four Final Four survivors! (Kansas and Ohio State having been ousted earlier by University of Texas – El Paso and Michigan respectively.)

So, like any other stat geek with a finely developed obsession common among baseball fans and fantasy sports addicts (Guilty x2), I spent hours analyzing the various permutations and likely results from the conveniently supplied Excel spreadsheet provided those like-minded “entertainment purposes” fans who had ponied up the $10 donation.

And I quickly realized that if Kentucky won its Regional Final matchup against Duke, I would be in the primo “entertainment purposes” driving seat heading into the Final Four and almost unbeatable due to a significant “entertainment purposes only” point lead!

I was on top of the world!

And then this happened …

For a more rounded, less suicidal (mine) version of this History of Misery event watch Ric Bucher‘s video report of The Carnage that left me with a nervous facial tic for years whenever I glimpsed the basketball floor at the Spectrum.

Of course, I don’t really hate Christian Laettner.  I simply hated what his exceptional skills on the court contributed to my wakening realization that fortune did not await me as the result of my keen sports betting insight.

So yes, I guess I hate Christian Laettner for saving me untold fortunes in the 20 years or so since.

It’s a complicated anti-relationship!

Failure to launch

Sydney Cricket Grounds

Sydney Cricket Grounds

Mission Plan:  Awaken at 0330-0345 hrs and catch Major League Baseball‘s first game of the 2014 season, between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks from the Sydney Cricket Grounds in Sydney, Australia.

Mission Status:  Failure, Complete & Utter

I finally woke up at 0550 hrs, well past the 0400 hrs starting time, and figured I might as well fahgettaboutit.

So in the tradition of Great OverSleepers such as Jean-Paul Jean-Paul, what do you think did in my ambitious plans for MLB’s Australian Opening Day?

Was it the …

  1. Snooze button
  2. AM/PM confusion
  3. Radio alarm volume control

Answer will be posted tomorrow!

Super HoHum

Pre-snap high-fiving, a common Superbowl party faux pas

Pre-snap high-fiving,
a common Superbowl party faux pas

So another Superbowl Sunday is upon us.

Yippee …

Another opportunity to watch The Big Game with a crowd of one-time-a-year football fans.  The same ones who will make insightful contributions and ask pointless questions throughout The Big Game until a mortuary silence descends in stunning suddenness at every commercial break.

Yep … Fun times …

I have long decided that most seasons the Best Pro Football Games are played in the weekends of the Division and Conference Championship games.  The mania of Superbowl week just stokes a lot of distraction and the interests of the football shoobies.

Peyton, the guy waving his hands

Peyton, the guy waving his hands

A good thing for the NFL corporatists, not so much if you actually like to get inside the game; enjoy Joe Buck’s insights (ducking behind the couch); and hear Peyton (Broncos quarterback, the guy who will be standing behind the players, who are all bending over, waving his hands around like Abbie Lee Miller on “Dance Moms“) playing mind games at the line of scrimmage (that’s the place where they spot the ball before every play).

The Superbowl has evolved into a huge social event, as opposed to a reason to watch a really good football game, over the decades since few people cared about the Green Bay Packers (They are not playing today.) manhandling the Kansas City Chiefs (Andy Reid’s new team, also not playing today) 35-10 in the first Superbowl (1967), back when The Big Game wasn’t even called the Superbowl (AFL-NFL World Championship Game).

200px-Super_Bowl_logo.svgBut that’s OK.  After any event has a successful run as long as this one has, it takes on a life of its own.  I have gone to many Superbowl happenings and have avoided others.

It all depends on the varied moods and interest levels of this cranky man.  And who’s playing …

If New England or New York was in it again, I’d probably welcome the chance to get be hopelessly distracted.

Today, I’ll just hunker down for this Superbowl Sunday and watch it in the comfort and relative quiet of my own home.  Hope it’s a good one!