Monday, January 11, 2021

Browns Shock Steelers, Post First Road Playoff Win Since 1969

Due to COVID-19 protocols, the Cleveland Browns traveled to Pittsburgh without their head coach, their offensive line coach, and several players. Pittsburgh has been a house of horror for the Browns for the better part of the past 50 years, and there was little reason to believe that this would change during Sunday night's Wild Card playoff game--but the Browns' defense recovered a botched snap and scored on the first play from scrimmage en route to the Browns taking a 28-0 first quarter lead as the Browns tied the NFL playoff record for points in a first quarter. The Browns withstood Pittsburgh's second half rally to prevail 48-37. 

That is the third most points the Browns have scored in a playoff game, trailing only their 49-7 win over Buffalo in the 1948 All-American Football Conference (AAFC) Championship Game, and their 56-10 win over Detroit in the 1954 NFL Championship Game. 

Baker Mayfield earned a win in his first playoff start, completing 23 of 34 passes for 263 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. Ben Roethlisberger set an NFL single-game record (including regular season and playoff games) with 47 completions (in 68 attempts, a playoff single-game record) and he amassed 501 passing yards (second most in playoff history, trailing only a 505 yard performance by Tom Brady in Super Bowl LII) plus four touchdowns but he also had four interceptions. Mayfield's passer rating was a sizzling 115.5, while Roethlisberger's was 85.5. The Steelers ran more offensive plays than the Browns (84-65) and gained more yards (553-390), but the Steelers also had five turnovers while the Browns had no turnovers.

The Browns' last playoff win was a victory over New England in January 1995. Bill Belichick coached in that game--but for the Browns, not for the Patriots! The Browns' last road playoff win came in Dallas in 1969. Since that game, the Browns had lost eight consecutive road playoff games, with the two most recent losses--"recent" being a relative term here, since those "recent" losses happened in 2002 and 1994--both inflicted by the Steelers.  

The last time the Browns posted a plus-.500 regular season record was 2007, when Cleveland briefly became "Believeland" in the wake of strong performances by the Cavaliers, Indians, and Browns, but the "Believeland" joy did not last long: LeBron James soon quit during the playoffs before fleeing Cleveland for Miami (though he later returned to Cleveland and led the Cavaliers to the 2016 NBA title), the Indians did not win another division title for nine years, and the clock struck midnight after the 2007 season as the Cinderella Browns resumed being the sad-sack Browns. 

Just four years ago, the Browns narrowly averted posting an 0-16 season before finishing 1-15--and then they went 0-16 in the next season, forever placing themselves on the short list of worst teams ever. The NFL is built to produce parity, and Bill Walsh explained many years ago that a properly run franchise can go from the basement to the penthouse in three years. Thus, it is inexcusable that the Browns were so terrible for so long, but it is a good sign that the current regime has built a strong playoff squad so soon after the Browns' winless season.

These are not the same old sorry Browns, contrary to JuJu Smith-Schuster's attempt to revive (more or less) what the 49ers once said about the "same old" Rams--of course, the 49ers had the good sense to wait to make that comment until after the outcome was certain to be in their favor, while Smith-Schuster opened his mouth prior to Sunday's playoff game to write a check that his team could not cash. 

The Browns will deservedly be heavy underdogs next week when they travel to Kansas City to battle the defending Super Bowl champions but--regardless of the outcome of that game--these Browns should be a playoff team for the next several years. Mayfield seems to have that hard to define but easy to see "it" factor; he not only has the physical tools to get the job done--including a powerful arm and excellent mobility--but he has emerged as a fiery and determined leader for this young team. In addition, this season the running back duo Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt powered the Browns' most prolific rushing attack since the Leroy Kelly era, Jarvis Landry is the veteran leader of a very good receiving corps, Myles Garrett has emerged as an elite pass rusher, and the offensive line is not only talented but deep (as demonstrated in the Pittsburgh win after a combination of COVID-19 protocols plus in-game injuries decimated the unit to the point that Mayfield was playing behind at least one player who he had not even met until just before the game started!). "Believeland" was a mirage that briefly appeared during a two decade desert exile, but the Browns' victory over the Steelers is real, and there is good reason to believe that it is the start of something big for the team's long-suffering fans.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Nadal Dominates Djokovic to Win Record 13th French Open and Tie Federer With 20 Grand Slam Singles Titles

Move over Roger Federer: there is a new King of Grand Slam tennis. Rafael Nadal claimed his record 13th French Open singles title--and tied Federer for first on the all-time list with 20 Grand Slam singles titles--by defeating Novak Djokovic 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 in the French Open. Nadal is the first Open Era (i.e., post-1968) player to win four Grand Slam singles titles without losing a single set, breaking the record he shared with Bjorn Borg. Nadal is also the first Open era player to win six Grand Slam singles titles after the age of 30. For context, consider that Don Budge, Boris Becker, and Stefan Edberg each won six Grand Slam singles titles in their entire careers!

It has been fashionable for well over a decade to designate Federer as the greatest tennis player of all-time, even though Nadal owns a decisive 24-16 head to head advantage versus Federer, including 10-4 in Grand Slam matches. They have never met at the U.S. Open, but Nadal leads 6-0 at the French Open and 3-1 at the Australian Open, while Federer leads 3-1 at Wimbledon; it is important to note that Nadal beat Federer at Federer's best Grand Slam (Wimbledon) but Federer has never beaten Nadal at Nadal's best Grand Slam (French Open). Nadal has won 35 Masters 1000 titles compared to Federer's 28.

The only meaningful statistical advantage that Federer had over Nadal was total Grand Slam singles titles, though of course Federer enjoyed a head start since he is nearly five years older than Nadal. Now that Nadal has tied Federer--with a great opportunity to pass Federer--it is difficult to find a rational justification to rank Federer ahead of Nadal. Federer's fans would argue that head to head does not matter or that the head to head comparison is somehow unfair because so many of the matches were played on clay, which is Nadal's best surface. Head to head does not matter if one player has the clearly superior overall resume, or if the head to head sample size is small, or if the head to head sample size pits one player in his prime versus another player who either had not reached his prime or was clearly past his prime. Here, Nadal's overall resume is certainly not worse than Federer's, the head to head sample size is large, and--if anything--in the early going it could be said that Federer was in his prime while Nadal was still improving. In any case, Nadal built a head to head advantage early on in the matchup, and has maintained it ever since.  

Federer is nearly five years older than Nadal and the record shows that Nadal consistently accomplished more at a younger age than Federer did. For example, by age 21 Nadal had won three Grand Slam singles titles while Federer had not won any by age 21. Nadal won his 20th Grand Slam singles title at age 34; Federer had won 17 Grand Slam singles titles at age 34. Federer has been remarkably durable, and his fans speculated (hoped?) that Nadal's body would break down but Nadal has persevered to remain a dominant player in his mid-30s.

Nadal has a better career Grand Slam winning percentage than Federer, winning in 20 of his 60 appearances (.333) compared to 20/79 (.253) for Federer. 

What about Djokovic? He has a slight head to head advantage over Nadal (29-27), but Djokovic has won three fewer Grand Slam singles titles despite being just one year younger than Nadal. Djokovic's Grand Slam winning percentage (17/62; .274) is better than Federer's but worse than Nadal's. Djokovic has a head to head lead over Federer (27-23, including 11-6 in Grand Slam matches). 

It makes no sense to crown Federer as the greatest of all-time when he is not even clearly the greatest of his era. Taking everything into account (totals, winning percentages, head to head), Nadal has the best resume of this era, but it is possible that Djokovic could still pass both Federer and Nadal. 

The player who unfortunately is too often left out of this conversation is Bjorn Borg. If you are too young to remember Borg then the best way to explain him is that during his era he was Federer and Nadal combined. Borg dominated Wimbledon with five straight titles (1976-80), setting the modern record later broken by Pete Sampras (and then surpassed by Federer)--and at the same time Borg dominated the French Open with six titles in eight years (1974-75, 1978-81), setting the modern record later broken by Nadal. Borg is remembered for having a relatively brief career, but he had a long run at the top: his record of winning at least one Grand Slam singles title for eight straight years (1974-81) stood for 19 years until Sampras matched it. Federer equaled this mark in 2010, and then Nadal broke it by winning at least one Grand Slam title for 10 straight years (2005-2014).

Nearly 40 years after he retired (not counting his brief comeback), Borg still holds many records, including some feats that may never be matched: 

1) Best Grand Slam tournament winning percentage (.407; 11/27)

2) Best Open Era Grand Slam singles match winning percentage (.898; 141-16).

3) Best overall winning percentage against Top 10 players (.725)

4) Four consecutive years with overall match winning percentage above .900 (1977-80) 

5) 10 consecutive titles won

By virtue of their longevity, Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic have amassed larger totals than Borg, but ranking tennis players purely by totals would be like ranking NFL running backs purely by yards and then calling Emmitt Smith the greatest running back of all-time. Borg was the best player of his era on both clay and grass, a simultaneous dominance that may never be matched again. Borg did not have a contemporary who dominated him the way that Nadal dominates Federer. 

There is no way to prove this unless someone invents a time machine, but I would submit that from a standpoint of skill set, physical conditioning, and mental toughness, Federer at his Wimbledon best would not beat Borg at his Wimbledon best (assuming that both players are provided identical equipment). We don't even have to talk about Borg versus Federer at the French Open. 

Borg versus Nadal at the French Open might be the most intriguing hypothetical one on one matchup in any sport. Nadal has played longer than Borg did and thus dominated for a longer time, but what would happen if Borg at his French Open best played Nadal at his French Open best? That is a tough call. However, Borg at his Wimbledon best would beat Nadal at his Wimbledon best.

In the absence of those time machine matches, all we can say for sure is that (1) Nadal is nudging aside Federer for the distinction of most accomplished Open Era career, with Djokovic potentially waiting in the wings, and (2) some of Borg's winning percentage records may never be touched.

Related Articles: 

Another Perspective on Borg/Nadal/Federer (February 7, 2009) 

Sports Illustrated Figures Out That It Was Premature to Crown Federer (May 14, 2009)

How Can Federer be the Greatest Player of All-Time if He is Not Even the Greatest Player of His Time?

(June 19, 2011)

Federer and Nadal as Non-Religious Experience (March 27, 2012)

Sunday, June 14, 2020

MLB Strikes Out, as Usual

Buster Olney's article How shortsighted greed is tearing baseball apart provides a great summary of some of the reasons that MLB is falling apart. It is worth emphasizing that he sees a direct connection between the flawed tanking mentality that has also harmed the NBA and the current mindset that is damaging MLB:
It's the Luhnow mindset as applied to labor relations.
Under Luhnow, the Houston Astros were the sport's supreme practitioners of tanking, becoming the first team since the 1962-65 Mets to lose at least 106 games in three consecutive seasons. In Luhnow's first three seasons as Houston GM, the Astros spent a total of $137.4 million in payroll--$53 million less than the next-lowest team, the Pirates ($190.7 million). The Astros drew a 0.0 in local television ratings for consecutive seasons. They manipulated the service time of some of their best young players, as did other teams. Luhnow's team engaged in ultra, next-level sign-stealing, and traded for Roberto Osuna fresh off his 75-game suspension under the sport's domestic violence policy.

But so long as the math made sense, Luhnow pushed the envelope and the Astros won a World Series in 2017. Of course, in the big picture, Luhnow's management turned out to be a disaster for many reasons besides wins and losses. Under his watch, the Astros helped to drag the sport under a low bar of credibility as other teams tried to replicate his formula, with fans left to wonder if what they paid to see was farcical.

Throughout those years, which included Luhnow giving the OK for a club employee to monitor the opposing dugout from an adjacent camera well, you kept waiting for someone to step up and lead. You kept waiting for someone to acknowledge the astounding accumulation of damage to good-faith competition and operation, just as you keep on waiting for someone on the owners' side to end this embarrassing negotiation with the players' association, rather than engaging in this battle of reconstituted Spam offers.

The house of baseball is burning and somebody needs to put out the fire immediately, by making a deal that moves the sport forward beyond this absurd fight over increments.

The opportunity to own the sporting stage in early July is gone. The potential goodwill (and ratings) all but certain for the first big sport out of the gate may be all but squandered.

Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts talking about a cash-flow problem when tens of millions of people have lost their jobs? Not good. Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt, who has seen the value of his franchise multiply by at least a factor of 10, talking about how you can't make money in baseball? Not good.
If COVID-19 had not prevented the 2020 MLB season from starting on time, the focus would have been on MLB's weak, incompetent, and impotent response to widespread cheating. Now, the focus on that fiasco may have faded a bit, but only because MLB seems determined to commit suicide.

MLB has been a disaster for over 25 years; the best thing that the sport did in that time period, paradoxically, is to have a strike that ended Michael Jordan's baseball career; this hastened his NBA comeback, during which he won three more NBA titles, culminating in the "Last Dance" season. The strike was terrible for baseball, but I would gladly give up the World Series in exchange for watching Michael Jordan play in the NBA again.

Bud Selig was a horrible Commissioner who presided over the destruction of MLB's once-cherished record book; it is a travesty and an embarrassment that he is in the Baseball Hall of Fame at all, let alone that he was welcomed while Pete Rose remains banned. Rob Manfred, Selig's successor, may turn out to be even more horrible than Selig was--as bad as Selig was, MLB did not die on his watch; if Manfred and crew do not get their act together, MLB may lose the entire 2020 season, and suffer permanent damage.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Don Shula's Legacy of Winning With Integrity

Don Shula, the NFL's all-time leader in regular season coaching wins (328) and combined regular season/playoff wins (347), passed away on May 4 at the age of 90. Shula is best known for leading the 1972 Miami Dolphins to a 17-0 record and the Super Bowl title, the only perfect season in NFL history (three other teams--the 1934 Chicago Bears, the 1942 Chicago Bears, and the 2007 New England Patriots--enjoyed undefeated regular seasons but did not win the NFL Championship or Super Bowl). The Dolphins repeated as Super Bowl champions in 1973, posting a 15-2 overall record. From 1971-73, the Dolphins went 44-6-1 overall with three straight Super Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl titles.

Before he became a coach, Shula had 21 interceptions while playing for three teams during his seven season (1951-57) NFL career. Shula spent two seasons as a college assistant coach before becoming an assistant coach for the Detroit Lions in 1960. He then served two seasons as the Lions' defensive coordinator (1961-62) before becoming the Baltimore Colts' head coach in 1963. At that time, Shula was the youngest head coach in NFL history. The Colts went 7-7 in 1962 (the season before Shula arrived), and by 1964 they were a 12-2 team that advanced to the NFL Championship Game before losing 27-0 to the Cleveland Browns. 

During his 33 year NFL head coaching career, Shula made 19 playoff appearances, won 16 division titles (including four straight from 1971-74, and five straight from 1981-85), won five AFC titles (1971-73, 1982, 1984), led Baltimore to the 1968 NFL title (the Colts lost Super Bowl III to the AFL champion New York Jets), and posted a 2-4 record in the Super Bowl. Only Bill Belichick (nine) has been a head coach in more Super Bowls than Shula. Shula is one of 13 coaches who have won at least two Super Bowl titles, and only Belichick (six), Chuck Noll (four), Bill Walsh (three), and Joe Gibbs (three) have won more Super Bowls than Shula. Shula is the only four-time winner (1964, 1967, 1968, 1972) of the AP NFL Coach of the Year award, an honor that has been presented since 1957. Only four NFL coaches amassed at least 250 regular season wins: Shula, George Halas (318), Bill Belichick (273), and Tom Landry (250).

Shula long ago established his position in the NFL coaching pantheon, but during the first portion of his coaching career he battled the stigma that he could not win the big game. He did not win a playoff game until his sixth season in Baltimore, when he took the Colts to the 1968 NFL title, but much of the luster of that accomplishment was wiped away by the Colts' loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III. Shula lasted just one more season in Baltimore before moving to Miami to coach the Dolphins, a 1966 AFL expansion team entering its first season as an NFL team. The Dolphins had not won more than five games in a season prior to Shula's arrival, but they went 10-4 in his first season, dominated the league for the next three seasons, and only posted two losing records during Shula's 1970-95 tenure with the franchise. By the time he retired, Shula--much like former UCLA coach John Wooden--had conclusively overcome the stigma/perception/narrative that he could not win the big game.

Former NFL coach Bum Phillips once said of Shula, "Don Shula can take his'n and beat you'n, and he could take you'n and beat his'n." Shula's record speaks for itself, but Shula was most proud of how he compiled that record: "If I'm remembered for anything, I hope it's for playing within the rules. I also hope it will be said that my teams showed class and dignity in victory or defeat."

In addition to integrity and sustained excellence, Shula's coaching career is also distinguished by the adaptability that he displayed. His early Dolphin teams were characterized by a tremendous running attack plus a stout defense, but in the 1980s Shula opened up his offense to take full advantage of Dan Marino's passing ability. The Dolphins advanced to one Super Bowl with Marino, and they were a perennial playoff team during the early to mid 1980s before having a few subpar seasons in the second half of that decade. Shula led the Dolphins to four playoff appearances in the first six years of the 1990s--including a trip to the AFC Championship Game after the 1992 season--before he retired.

Shula left big footprints to fill. The Dolphins have made just two playoff appearances since 2001, and they have not advanced to the AFC Championship Game since the 1992 season. Hall of Fame Coach Jimmy Johnson inherited a 9-7 team from Shula, and went 8-8, 9-7, 10-6, and 9-7 in his four seasons with the Dolphins.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Refuting False Narratives About the Legacies of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick

Tom Brady has publicly announced that he plans to leave the New England Patriots via free agency, though he has yet to announce where he is going. Not surprisingly, Brady's statement has unleashed a wave of commentary about his legacy, and Bill Belichick's legacy, as well as a reexamination of previous all-time greats who could have played their entire careers for one team but elected to see if the grass was greener elsewhere--with Joe Montana, Michael Jordan, and Peyton Manning being perhaps the three most prominent examples.

Both Belichick and Brady have more than secured their individual legacies. Belichick was a key contributor to two Super Bowl champions as an assistant coach before winning six Super Bowls as New England's head coach. Any short list of the greatest football coaches of all-time must include his name, and nothing that happens in the rest of his career will change or diminish that. Belichick is the second oldest head coach in the NFL now, and he is tied with several others as the eighth oldest head coach in NFL history. A career is judged by the overall body of work, with an emphasis on what happened in the prime years; Belichick's career is not going to be defined by what happens in his final seasons. Of course, if he wins Super Bowls as an elder statesman coach that could potentially add to his already established legacy, but no sensible person is going to hold it against Belichick if he does not win another Super Bowl. Don Shula, Chuck Noll, and Tom Landry are three of the greatest coaches of all-time, and their careers ended long after their final Super Bowl victory with no damage done to their legacies.

Brady is a six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback who is nearing the end of his career. If he wins another Super Bowl, he can add to his legacy, but few quarterbacks have even played as long as Brady, let alone won championships at his age; if Brady does not win another Super Bowl, it does not hurt his legacy any more than Joe Montana's time as a Kansas City Chief did.

Speaking of which, without looking it up do you even remember how long Montana played in Kansas City, what statistics he posted, and how the team performed? Unless you are an NFL addict with a great memory or you are lying, the honest answer is "No."

Before revisiting the end of Montana's career, it is worth briefly mentioning Joe Namath, whose name is sometimes brought up in this context. While it may have been painful at the time for NFL fans to watch him finish his career as an L.A. Ram, Namath secured his legacy by leading the New York Jets to victory in Super Bowl III. Nothing that happened after that caused long-term damage to Namath's legacy. He will always be remembered as a triumphant Jet, and no one spends much time thinking about his brief time as a stumbling Ram.

Back to Montana, who spent two years as a Chief, making the Pro Bowl in 1993 (his first season with the team) and compiling a 17-8 regular season record (he missed seven games due to injury) in 1993-94. Montana led the Chiefs to the 1993 AFC Championship Game, but the Chiefs lost 30-13, and Montana was knocked out of the game with a concussion in the third quarter. Montana quarterbacked the Chiefs to a 9-7 record and a loss in the Wild Card round in 1994 before he retired at 38. Those two seasons are a solid postscript to a Hall of Fame career, but they had no impact on the legacy that Montana had already forged by winning four Super Bowls as a San Francisco 49er.

Consider an example from a different sport. Michael Jordan had already retired and come back once as a Chicago Bull before he came out of retirement in 2001 to play for the Washington Wizards. Jordan never averaged less than 28 ppg in a full season with the Bulls, and he never averaged more than 23 ppg in his two seasons with the Wizards. Jordan led the Bulls to six titles in six NBA Finals appearances, and he was not able to take the Wizards to the playoffs even once. No, Jordan the Wizard did not accomplish as much as Jordan the Bull, but Jordan the Wizard added some clips to his career highlight reel, and did not harm Jordan's legacy at all.

Brady and Manning spent much of their careers battling for individual honors and Super Bowl titles. Manning won one Super Bowl in 13 seasons as a Colt before finishing his career as a Denver Bronco. Manning earned three Pro Bowl selections as a Bronco while also making the All-Pro First Team twice, and winning another Super Bowl title. Interestingly, his two playoff runs that ended in Super Bowl wins are two of his four worst postseasons statistically (based on the NFL's passer rating system). Winning a second Super Bowl--albeit while no longer a star player (he had nine passing touchdowns and 17 interceptions in his final regular season before the Broncos won the Super Bowl)--perhaps added a bit to Manning's legacy, but certainly no one dwells on how limited a player Manning was by that time, nor would any rational commentator have held it against Manning if his Bronco years had not been capped off with a championship.

Supposedly, next season is going to represent some kind of referendum in a made up Belichick versus Brady competition: Can Brady win without Belichick? Can Belichick win without Brady? Will neither one win?

This is nonsense. If there were to be a genuine, meaningful Belichick versus Brady competition then we would need to pit them against each other when both were in their primes, and we would need to supply them with comparable supporting casts. Give prime Brady a different coach and a solid supporting cast, and how much would he win? How much Brady wins as a past his prime quarterback can only tell us so much.

The other side of the question is how much would prime Belichick win with a different quarterback and a solid supporting cast? 

Actually, we did get a glimpse of that during the 2008 season that Brady missed with an ACL injury, and we saw the Patriots go 11-5 with Matt Cassel as the starting quarterback. Cassel left the Patriots after that season, and went 26-40 as a starter during the rest of his career. During his first head coaching job, Belichick inherited a 3-13 Cleveland team and in four years he turned them into an 11-5 squad that won a playoff game (which is the last playoff game that the Browns have won). So, we do have some evidence about what Belichick can do as a coach without Brady.

All that we know for sure is that the Belichick-Brady tandem is the greatest coach-quarterback duo in NFL history (throw in the AAFC years, and you could make an argument for Paul Brown-Otto Graham, who won seven championships and made 10 championship game appearances in 10 seasons together). Whether or not either of them win any more Super Bowls in the final years of their respective careers does not change the significance of what they accomplished together, nor "prove" that one was more integral to their shared success than the other.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

UEFA's Strong Response to Cheating Emphasizes MLB's Incompetence

The public recently learned The Disgraceful Secret of the Astros' and Red Sox' Success: Cheating, and we also saw Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Rob Manfred set the price that an MLB owner must be willing to pay for cheating to win a World Series title: $5 million. Manfred made it clear that if a team cheats to win the World Series then that team keeps the title and "the piece of metal" (as he dismissively referred to the trophy awarded to his sport's champion). How many MLB owners would pay $5 million to win a World Series title?

Fortunately, not every sport responds so casually to cheating. In Foul Balls and Red Cards: How Baseball and Soccer’s Different Approaches to Cheating Illustrate the Power of Organizational Response, authors Reid Whitten and J. Scott Maberry (both from the law firm SheppardMullin) contrast the punishment that MLB prescribed for the Houston Astros with how UEFA (the governing body of European soccer) dealt with cheating committed by Manchester City, one of the English Premier League's top teams (footnotes omitted):
In both cases, the team's cheating threatened the integrity of the whole sport. In both cases, the integrity of the sport is critical to the business model of the respective leagues. If fans begin to think one side has been allowed an unfair advantage, they will quickly lose faith in the competitive nature of the sport. Fans would then, slowly but surely, lose interest in spending money to support their teams.

For those reasons, in both cases, the governing leagues needed to respond quickly and decisively to reassure fans that the games are fair and to restore the integrity of their respective organizations. Where soccer succeeded in doing so, baseball has failed.

The highest prize in European soccer is the UEFA Champions League trophy. The Champions League is a season-long competition where the best club teams from countries from Ireland to Russia, from Poland to Portugal play in an international tournament of the champions of the various national systems (Manchester City, for example, is one of the most dominant teams in the English Premier League). It is an honor just to make the Champions League tournament and, when a team wins that tournament, it stakes its claim as the best team in Europe.
Among other violations, the UEFA's investigation of Manchester City found that the team's owner, a billionaire from the United Arab Emirates, funneled his own money to companies who had signed sponsorship agreements with the team, which enabled the team owner to evade limits on spending his own money on the team. The punishment, announced in February, is a two-year ban from playing in the Champions League. No trophies, no mid-week competitions on the world's biggest stage for soccer clubs, no ticket sales, television rights, or website clicks for updates. Done. Two years. You cheated, you're out of the Big Dance...

We predict that the UEFA's approach will help lead to a healing of Manchester City's wounds to European soccer, whereas MLB's response has merely magnified the Astros' threat to baseball.
In MLB's missed opportunity is a lesson for all organizations: sometimes it feels too harsh to punish wrongdoers inside an organization. But when the organization's very integrity is threatened by the cheating, the cheaters have to be dealt with.
When the walls of your house have rotten boards, you need to find the rot and cut it away, not paint it over. Cutting out the rot is difficult and sometimes painful. But it may be just the thing that keeps your house standing.
MLB has been a bad joke for more than a quarter century, dating back at least to the 1994 strike that wiped out the sport's crown jewel event, the World Series. We have also witnessed fake home run records (and, in some cases, inflated pitching statistics) created by PED cheaters, and the 2002 MLB All-Star Game ending in a tie as clueless Commissioner Bud Selig shrugged his shoulders impotently on national TV. MLB's simultaneous embrace of Alex Rodriguez--who should have received a lifetime ban--and ostracism of Pete Rose (even as MLB makes millions of dollars now by partnering with legalized betting operations) is bizarre, though not quite as bizarre as the fact that Selg is in the Baseball Hall of Fame but Rose is not.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

What Mariano Rivera Taught Walter Iooss Jr. About Gratitude and Humility

The December 12, 2011 issue of Sports Illustrated included an article by Walter Iooss Jr. and Chris Ballard titled "The Education of Walter Iooss Jr." Iooss' stories about athletes he photographed ranging from Jim Brown to Muhammad Ali to Michael Jordan to Tiger Woods--and many more--provide fascinating insights not only about those athletes, but also about Iooss and the art of photography.

What stopped me in my tracks, though, and inspired this brief article, is an exchange that Iooss had with Mariano Rivera, the New York Yankees' great closer. The conversation began when Iooss asked Rivera how he learned the pitch that brought him so many victories, the cut fastball (or cutter):
Then one time I asked him, "Who taught you that cutter?"

He said, "God."

I said, "God did?" Being an atheist, I said, "God never taught me anything."

Mariano said, "Oh, yes, he did, Walter."

He was very calm. He said, "He gave you your great talent. You should be thankful."

That humbled me. The truth is, I see photos everywhere. I look at someone sitting next to me at lunch, and instantly I'm putting up a background in my mind. That's just churning all the time. If the beauty's there, I want to take a picture of it.
Rivera's gratitude and humility are qualities well worth emulating. Iooss' drive to use his gift to capture beautiful images and share them with others is likewise inspirational.