By DERON SNYDER
Commissioner Rob Manfred insists he didn’t intend to rile up baseball’s Hatfields and McCoys, the faction of fans who adore the designated-hitter rule and the faction that despises it. But that’s exactly what Manfred did when he responded to a question last week at the owners’ meetings.
“Twenty years ago, when you talked to National League owners about the DH, you’d think you were talking some sort of heretical comment,” Manfred told reporters Jan. 21. “But we have a newer group. There’s been turnover. And I think our owners in general have demonstrated a willingness to change the game in ways that we think would be good for the fans, always respecting the history and traditions of the sport.”
This is what the pro-DH group heard: Shots fired!
No other sport views the past with as much reverence as baseball, where grainy, black-and-white highlights make the Zapruder film seem like high-def. Baseball is the only sport that routinely brings up old greats like Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio and uses them as measuring sticks for modern-day players. The national pastime has spawned a ferocious species of fan – dinosaurus puris – that bites off heads when history and tradition are threatened.
The DH might be the final frontier, one of the last vestiges tying the sport to its origins. The American League stopped forcing pitchers to bat in April 1973, when the New York Yankees’ Ron Bloomberg stepped in against the Red Sox’ Luis Tiant but never took the field. Ever since then, the AL and the NL have played distinctly different styles of baseball and fans have taken sides.
Manfred’s recent remarks gave hope to those who prefer to see nine hitters per lineup versus eight plus a pitcher. Nothing sinks their spirits lower than a two-out scoring chance early in the game with the starter coming to bat. Talk about your buzzkill.
Conversely, DH critics roll their eyes at the junior circuit’s brand of ball. They liken the strategy – if agreeing that any exists – to a simple game of checkers, requiring little thought by managers. If the only goal is lighting up the scoreboard, there’s always beer-league softball for that.
By DERON SNYDER
Maryland’s 74-65 loss at Michigan State in men’s basketball highlighted a few glaring issues Saturday night, the least of which being the Spartans’ godawful uniforms.
Coach Tom Izzo’s team was decked in something called “Mean Green,” a product of the “Nike Hyper Elite Disruption” line. Disrupt it did, in eye-catching, mind-numbing, stomach-turning neon fashion, complete with matching shoes, shorts and undergarments. Waves of fans in the arena wore matching neon-green T-shirts, undoubtedly to increase dizziness for the visitors from College Park.
Considering that the Spartans broke a three-game losing streak, they might want to don the hideous outfits until they lose again. In the meantime, No. 8 Maryland can concentrate on rebounding – figuratively and literally – against No. 3 Iowa Thursday night in the soothing environs of Xfinity Center.
Izzo has a long-established reputation for fielding frontcourt players who seem better-suited as tight ends and linebackers, using their brawn to push around and intimidate less-physical opponents. The Spartans enjoyed a comfortable advantage on the boards, 46-36, and absolutely dominated on their end, snaring 17 offensive rebounds compared to nine by Maryland.
“I thought that’s the hardest we’ve played in years,” Izzo told reporters afterward.
Desperation can have that effect, especially on a team that’s flirting with its first four-game losing streak since the 2006-07 season. Maryland will need the same sense of urgency to overcome the Hawkeyes. Iowa has won nine straight, including a pair against Michigan State and a pair against Purdue, ranked Nos. 12 and 21, respectively.
It’s not that the Terps suit up a bunch of runts. Coach Mark Turgeon typically starts junior Robert Carter Jr. (6-9, 235 pounds), senior Jake Layman (6-9, 220 pounds) and freshman Damonte Dodd (6-11, 250 pounds), with freshman Diamond Stone (6-11, 255 pounds) as the first big off the bench. But Maryland also yielded 17 offensive rebounds when it squeaked by Northwestern in overtime on Jan. 19. Georgetown won the battle of the boards, too, offensively and overall, when it lost an early-season thriller at College Park.
The MSU game arguably came down to the last of Matt Costello’s six offensive rebounds. After closing to within 68-65 with 52 seconds left, the Terps were desperate for a stop. They forced the Spartans into a missed three-point attempt but couldn’t keep Costello off the boards. His effort led to a pair of free throws for a 70-65 lead and Maryland never got any closer.
By DERON SNYDER
I was talking to my 16-year-old daughter about the match-fixing scandal that rocked tennis this week on the eve of the Australian Open.
“You mean some of games were rigged?” she asked. “Doesn’t that happen in all sports?”
Well … uh … I don’t know.
Movie fans enter theaters fully aware that the next two hours could demand a “suspension of disbelief.” Some movies – I’m thinking “Die Hard” where Bruce Willis launches a car off a toll- gate abutment into a helicopter that’s hovering at the mouth of a tunnel – require a lot more than others.
But when it comes to sports, we want to believe what we see. Cynical adults (and teenage girls) might call us naïve, but our emotional investment is way too large to view sports as just another scripted drama.
We know pro wrestling is fake. Everything else needs to be on the up-and-up.
Point-shaving? Sure, that has gone on in college basketball at least since the CCNY scandal in 1950. In a 2006 study and another study in 2013, researchers estimated that point-shaving occurred in about 5 percent of regular-season games with double-digit spreads. There have been instances as recently as a few seasons ago, when Auburn guard Varez Ward was arrested on charges of bribery and conspiracy for allegedly trying to shave points.
However, no one except gamblers really care if Team A fails to cover the spread while beating Team B. Our only real concern is Team A intentionally losing a game it would’ve won. There’s a huge difference between “throwing” and “shaving.” Margins of victory are bettors’ primary reason for living, but most of us just want assurance that the victors are legit.
So it was shocking this week when Novak Djokovic, the world’s No.1 men’s tennis player, said someone tried to offer him $200,000 to lose a first-round match at a 2007 tournament in Russia.
“I was approached through people that were working for me at the time,” he told reporters Monday at the Australian Open. “It made me feel terrible because I don’t want to be anyhow linked to this kind of – you know, somebody may call it an opportunity. I don’t support it. I think there is no room for it in any sport, especially in tennis.”
Actually, tennis is the perfect sport to rig.
By DERON SNYDER
The following isn’t hindsight. My wife can vouch for me, because I said it aloud as soon as Aaron Rodgers completed his remarkable, insanely athletic pass for a 41-yard touchdown on the final play of regulation against Arizona.
The thought leaped to mind instantly: “Green Bay should go for two.”
Arizona’s defense was reeling, shell-shocked after yielding the Hail Mary and a 60-yard completion on fourth-and-20 a few plays earlier. The Packers trailed by one point with no time on the clock. Coach Mike McCarthy faced a crucial decision: Convert the two-point conversion and win the game, or kick the extra-point and see what happens with the coin flip.
It should’ve been an easy choice.
But football coaches have been “playing it safe” since the advent of leather helmets. The book says it’s better to head into overtime than risk everything on one snap from the opponent’s 2-yard line. A prodigious amount of testicular fortitude is required to buck conventional wisdom and open yourself to scathing criticism. If McCarthy went for two and failed, he’d never hear the end of it.
That makes no sense, but it’s true. Conversely, very little has been mentioned about his decision to play for the tie. Virtually all of the postgame discussion has centered on overtime’s format, which kept Rodgers on the sideline as Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald gained all 80 yards on the game-ending touchdown drive.
“It comes down to a coin flip sometimes after a long hard-fought game,” Rodgers told reporters after the game, “back and forth, bizarre plays made by both teams, and unfortunately it comes down to that.”
What’s unfortunate is McCarthy’s failure to seize the moment. His team was an underdog on the road. The fact that only one point separated Green Bay and Arizona after Rodgers’ final heave was miraculous. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians’ hyper-aggressiveness on the previous series had aided the Packers, giving them about 35 extra seconds for their final drive. All McCarthy had to do was dial up a successful two-point conversion and the Packers would be headed to Carolina.
And get this: Despite all the flack he would’ve taken if the play failed, going for two in that situation gave McCarthy a better chance of winning!
By DERON SNYDER
From Madison Avenue to Capitol Hill and from network headquarters to mayors’ offices, the National Football League is accustomed to getting its way. The line in “Concussion” was absolutely true: The NFL owns a day of the week.
It has stakes in Mondays and Thursdays, too, plus select Saturdays.
All of that power can go to a league’s head, making it feel invincible and impervious. Such entities believe they can do what they want, when they want and how they want, going through the motions of negotiating, building consensus and working in good faith.
But whenever necessary, the billionaires’ club breaks out enough brass knuckles and lead pipes to make Jimmy Hoffa smile from his end-zone crypt in Jersey. Or, it slaps unruly subjects in the face and sweet-talks them into remaining loyal, like the dynamics between supervisors and employees in the world’s oldest profession.
St. Louis went to bed Tuesday night as a scorned lover. The Rams are headed back to Los Angeles, from whence they came in 1995. That indignity makes St. Louis a two-time loser, previously dumped by the Cardinals in 1988.
A lesson in karma? St. Louis had no problem playing a role in Los Angeles’ heartbreak two decades ago. Jilted partners welcoming another city’s former mate is part of the NFL.
Arizona opened it arms for the Cardinals. When the Colts slipped out in the middle of the night in 1984, Baltimore used its charm to seduce the Browns from Cleveland. Nashville agreed to lie down with Houston’s Oilers in 1997. Los Angles took in the Raiders in 1982 but watched them return home to Oakland in 1995.
St. Louis grieves the loss of its (putrid) NFL franchise but the relationship didn’t have to end this way. The Chargers and Raiders had a deal to leave for L.A. and share a stadium in Carson, Calif., which would’ve left the Rams as odd team out. Unfortunately for St. Louis fans, Rams owner Stan Kroenke is better at league politics and has stronger supporters than Raiders owner Mark Davis, who’s still paying for the sins of his father.
By DERON SNYDER
Bowl season – capped by Monday’s College Football Playoff championship – and March Madness – which ends with the Final Four in April – always bring two colors to mind: green and black.
They represent the vast sums of money being raked in and the vast majority of athletes being raked over.
Increasingly, the annual climaxes for intercollegiate revenue sports unleash streams of debate on what’s right and what’s fair. Colleges, athletic departments and administrators are experiencing exponential growth in income and salaries, while the football and basketball players who produce the wealth largely operate under the quaint “student-athlete” model crafted in the mid-1950s.
Alabama’s Bear Bryant was 15 years away from integrating his football team (beating LSU and Ole Miss by one season) back then. Adolph Rupp was 10 years away from leading his Kentucky Wildcats against a Texas Western squad that had five black starters and changed the face of college basketball.
Back then, college sports was all white, with very little green. The situation has flipped in the half-century since, and justifiying the status quo has become increasingly difficult. I once resided on the other side of the argument, believing that a scholarship was fair compensation for the football and basketball players who generate billions of dollars. I contended that developing a system for compensation would be too difficult and messy, too hard to decide who gets what and why.
But the money grew to the point where my continued defense of the longstanding arrangement became impossible. The situation is morally repulsive. Here’s how Donald Yee puts it in a recent op-ed published in The Washington Post:
“Most fans of college football and basketball go along with the pretense, looking past the fact that the NCAA makes nearly $1 billion a year from unpaid labor,” writes Yee, a sports agent whose clients include New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton.
By DERON SNYDER
LANDOVER, Md – The 2015 NFL season has ended for Washington. But it was quite a start.
The games are over, but they represented a new beginning in Ashburn. Players and coaches don’t like to accept such consolation prizes after a loss. But no matter what happened in Sunday’s game against Green Bay – which the Packers won, 35-18 – there would be no reason for dropped heads in lockeroom.
“I’m very proud of these guys, and it’s still a sick feeling any time you lose a game at the end of the year, no matter when it is,” Washington coach Jay Gruden said. “With the opportunities that we had out there today, it makes you ill. But with the guys battling the way they did, I’m very proud of the guys and I like the future of this football team.”
There’s no shame in losing a playoff contest against an MVP-winning quarterback such as Aaron Rodgers. He hadn’t looked like himself for most of the season but regained his form when it mattered most, after the Packers fell behind, 11-0.
There’s no disgrace in being out-smarted by a Super Bowl winning coach such as Mike McCarthy. Green Bay lost four of five games during one stretch and closed the regular season with back-to-back defeats, but McCarthy had his team ready for red-hot Washington. He called the right plays and exploited the right match-ups as the Packers rallied for 17 unanswered points before halftime.
When Kirk Cousins came out for the first drive after intermission and engineered a five-play, 73-yard touchdown drive – scoring on a perfectly executed quarterback draw to recapture the lead – there was a sense of more to come. But it never materialized.
By DERON SNYDER
“Started from the bottom now we’re here
Started from the bottom now my whole team [bleeping] here”
Virtually every year this century, at least one NFL team could’ve blasted Drake’s popular rap song throughout the locker room at season’s end. I wouldn’t be surprised if commissioner Roger Goodell, who began working for the league as an administrative intern in 1982, hums the tune each time he walks into his office.
Finishing last in one season doesn’t preclude teams from finishing atop the division 12 months later. The NFL credo of “any given Sunday” can be extended to “any given year.” You never know which team will execute the worst-to-first turnaround, but chances are great we’ll see at least one.
Beginning with the 2001 Chicago Bears, 22 teams have gone from cellar-dweller to division champ in one season. The feat failed to materialize only twice in the last 15 years, 2002 and 2014. Even more amazing are the multiple reversals of fortune that occurred within the same season.
Chicago, Tampa Bay and the New York Giants pulled it off in 2005. Baltimore, New Orleans and Philadelphia did likewise in 2006. In fact, more than one team has made the journey in seven of the 15 seasons since 2001.
Granted, NFL teams only have to leap-frog three division opponents (compared to four in MLB, five in the NBA and a minimum of six in the NHL). And all NFL worst-to-firsts aren’t created equal. But it goes to show that cities like Washington can keep hope alive against all logical expectations and sometimes be rewarded.
By DERON SNYDER
The thing that baffled me the most was their certainty, their staunch and steadfast belief that Kirk Cousins was a bum, period. Critics looked past his glimpses of excessive competence and downplayed his paucity of meaningful experience, concluding that Cousins’ NFL destiny was as a clipboard-holder, at best.
I wasn’t positive Cousins could take his skill-set, overcome his habit for bad interceptions and become a bona fide starting quarterback. But I definitely thought it was possible and wanted to find out. Robert Griffin III’s performance through the preseason only confirmed my belief that Cousins deserved a shot and gave Washington the best chance to win.
Coach Jay Gruden clearly was correct in naming Cousins as the starter. It’s safe to say Washington has its quarterback of the future. He’s the one who led the NFL in completion percentage and threw 23 touchdowns against three interceptions in the final 10 games. During the four-game winning streak that clinched the NFC East, he threw 12 touchdowns and one pick.
I suppose skeptics still exist, needing to see more than one exemplary season. They can point to fools’ gold such as Matt Cassel and wonder if Cousins fits the profile. Cassel was a New England backup for three years before Tom Brady went down with a season-ending injury in the 2008 opener.
Cassel threw for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. The Patriots packaged him and linebacker Mike Vrabel in a trade with Kansas City, netting a second-round pick they used on defensive back Patrick Chung. Cassel was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2010 but has been overwhelming disappointing since he left New England. His career quarterback rating is 79.3, which ranks 70tth among passers with at least 1,500 attempts.
We could spend the rest of our lives trying to break the code for quarterback predictions, sorting the Cassels and Scott Mitchells from the Bradys and the Kurt Warners. The stakes are such that teams willingly spend multiple first-round picks to find “the one.”