Sunday, December 23, 2012
Although Anand is the official champion, he is not the strongest player in the world (and he has not been for quite some time); that title belongs to Magnus Carlsen, the "Mozart of Chess," who recently broke Garry Kasparov's record for highest chess rating of all-time. Carlsen's 2861 rating is 10 points higher than Kasparov's standard, which had stood for 13 years; prior to that, Bobby Fischer held the record (2785) from 1972 until 1990, when Kasparov eclipsed Fischer and became the first player to achieve a 2800 rating. While Carlsen's accomplishment is impressive, it is important to remember that the significance of a chess rating is not determined by the raw number but rather by the rating difference between players. When Fischer ranked first on the July 1972 FIDE Rating List, the number two player in the world (former World Champion Boris Spassky, who Fischer defeated 12.5-8.5 in the 1972 World Chess Championship despite losing one game by forfeit) had a 2660 rating; rating classes in chess are separated by 200 point intervals, so Fischer was more than half a rating class ahead of the rest of the world at that time! Only 18 players in the world were within 200 points of Fischer's rating in 1972; that kind of dominance is unparalleled in modern chess history and perhaps only equaled by Paul Morphy's brief run at the top in the 1850s, long before chess ratings existed.
When Kasparov broke the 2800 barrier, he led Anatoly Karpov by 70 points and there were 32 players rated at least 2600; Carlsen is currently joined by two other players in the 2800 rating club plus there are an additional three players rated at least 2780 and there are more than 70 players who are within 200 points of Carlsen. Kasparov was a dominant champion but--at least based on ELO rating differential--he was not as dominant as Fischer, while Carlsen is clearly the best player in the world right now but he has yet to dominate his contemporaries in anything approaching the manner that Fischer and Kasparov stood above their contemporaries. Rating inflation has lifted all boats, so to speak, and Carlsen would have to separate himself from the rest of the fleet by another 70 points or so to match Fischer's Usain Bolt-like lead.
Carlsen won three major events in 2012: the Tal Memorial, the Grand Slam Chess Final and the London Chess Classic (the December tournament during which Carlsen broke Kasparov's rating record). He scored 11 wins, 15 draws and just one loss (18.5/27, an outstanding .685 winning percentage) in those tournaments. Carlsen has won three straight chess Oscars (a prestigious award given to the chess player of the year) and has a good chance to pick up his fourth such honor; only Kasparov (11), Karpov (nine) and Anand (six) have won more chess Oscars than the 22 year old Carlsen, who will likely set the all-time record in this category as well.
In many ways this is a golden age for chess: there are many great players who are playing excellent and exciting games, developments in computer technology have improved preparation/study techniques and elevated the level of play and Carlsen may have the right balance of genius and charisma to attract more sponsorship for chess in countries where the sport is not as popular as it is throughout Europe and Asia. It is unfortunate, though, that chess resembles boxing in the sense that someone who is widely recognized as the best is not officially the champion due to flaws in the bureaucratic structure of the sport; this is a problem that dates back to Fischer's era and continued during Kasparov's reign when several "official" champions were crowned even though Kasparov was clearly the best player in the world. Hopefully, Carlsen will participate in the next World Championship cycle and have the opportunity to join Fischer and Kasparov as official World Champions.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
Since the Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, they have been the opposite of a model franchise; their owners have thrown around money but not spent those funds wisely, management has consistently failed to bring in quality players despite having numerous high draft picks and the team's six head coaches are distinguished only by the fact that none of them had notable head coaching success before, during or after taking the helm in Cleveland. Based on Walsh's formula, the Browns should have been able to build a contender by the early 2000s and even rebuild a second contender a few years later if some of the players from the first contender declined due to age. Instead, the inept Browns have posted just two winning records and made just one playoff appearance since 1999; they won five games or less in nine of the last 13 seasons. In year 14, the Browns are currently 5-8 but the current three game winning streak has raised some hope that perhaps the franchise is finally, belatedly heading in the right direction (though it must be noted that two of the wins were against sorry Oakland and Kansas City squads while the third win came against a Pittsburgh team starting a third string quarterback).
New Cleveland Browns majority owner Jimmy Haslam used to be a Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner, so he is very familiar with the inner workings of that organization. He must not allow himself to be swayed by a small winning streak; he must look at a larger body of evidence in order to decide whether or not General Manager Tom Heckert can build a championship roster and then Heckert (or the new General Manager) must decide if Pat Shurmur is a championship caliber head coach. Even with the three game winning streak, Shurmur's career record with the Browns is just 9-20--and Shurmur's game plans/game management skills do not indicate that he is an elite head coach. Once the Browns have the right General Manager and head coach in place, they must determine if 29 year old rookie Brandon Weeden can lead a team to a Super Bowl; if it takes three years for the new Browns brain trust to put together a championship caliber roster then Weeden will already be 32 and might be within five seasons of retiring. If it is not reasonable to expect Weeden to develop into an excellent quarterback then the Browns need to draft or sign such a quarterback during the offseason. I think that the Browns should keep Heckert and Weeden but replace Shurmur with a top shelf coach--either a proven NFL winner or else a young, promising assistant (much like Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin were before they became Super Bowl-winning head coaches).
If Haslam makes wise choices then the Cleveland Browns should be a contender--not just a playoff team but a legitimate Super Bowl contender--in three years; if he does not put the right General Manager and head coach in place (and if those two guys do not groom Weeden or someone else into an excellent quarterback) then the Browns will continue to frustrate their loyal fans by missing the playoffs.
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Moral equivalency is a very popular world view today but it is evil, dangerous and delusional to believe in the cliche "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." George Washington was not a terrorist; the various resistance groups that fought against Nazi occupation during World War II were not terrorists. Al Qaeda is a terrorist group; Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad are terrorist groups. Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad have clearly and repeatedly stated their uncompromising goals: destroy Israel (often referred to as the Little Satan) and destroy the United States of America (often referred to as the Great Satan). The United States is not hated by these groups because the United States supports Israel but rather because the United States and Israel support the same philosophical and ideological concepts: democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion. Instead of focusing on the one Israeli soccer team that has never had an Arab player--and the small group (by Schaap's own admission) of fans who chant anti-Arab slogans--ESPN should have taken a trip to the areas ruled by Hamas and inquired about whether Jews are permitted to live in these areas at all, let alone play for a sports team. Of course, as someone of Jewish descent, that may not be the safest question for Schaap to ask in those locales; when two Jewish Israelis took a wrong turn into Ramallah on October 12, 2000 they were brutally beaten to death and mutilated by several Arabs at a Palestinian Authority police station while a large group of Arabs cheered.
Since the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, Arab terrorists have murdered more than 1700 Israelis. Instead of focusing on the major issue--the Arab/Muslim world's decades-long campaign to annihilate the Jewish State--or even mentioning that issue at all, Schaap and ESPN devoted their attention to the one Israeli soccer team that has never hired an Arab player. That would be like someone coming to the United States and doing an expose about the Aryan Nations organization as if the majority of people in the United States support the Aryan Nations group; that is not to suggest that Beitar Jerusalem should be compared directly with Aryan Nations but just to point out that an entire country should not be judged or evaluated based on the conduct of a small number of its citizens, particularly when Israel is located in the middle of an Arab/Muslim region where the majority viewpoint toward Israel/Jews/the United States is not merely racist but is in fact genocidal: Arabs and Muslims throughout the Middle East not only chant "Death to Israel" and "Death to America" but they act on those statements. One of the Beitar fans interviewed by Schaap said that he hates Arabs not because they are Arabs but because the Arabs hate him and are trying to kill the Jews. The natural followup would have been some discussion of that subject to provide context for ESPN's viewers but Schaap and ESPN instead just went back to bashing Beitar Jerusalem, as if the main obstacle to Middle East peace is the employment policies of one Israeli soccer team. It is astounding that in a story about Israelis, Arabs, sports and racism Schaap and ESPN never mentioned the 1972 Munich massacre, when PLO terrorists abducted and murdered 11 Israeli Olympic athletes.
By not providing the proper context--or, indeed, any context at all--ESPN and Schaap painted a very distorted picture of the nature of the Israeli/Arab conflict. Considering that Schaap himself would not be welcome to live in Gaza or any other area controlled by Hamas, this is not only ironic but very sad. ESPN could just have easily told a story about how, despite the Arab/Muslim world's repeated attempts to destroy Israel, Arab citizens of Israel enjoy full citizenship rights, while the few Jews who remain in Arab/Muslim countries are persecuted. Considering the hatred that the Arab/Muslim world has directed toward Israel, it really is remarkable that Israel has not expelled all of the Arabs from within her borders; Arab countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia expelled large numbers of Palestinian Arabs for being a disruptive force (and there was no international outcry about those expulsions), yet Israel continues to try to find a way to live in peace with people who have sworn to destroy the Jewish State. Perhaps the next time Schaap and the E:60 crew visit Israel they will tell, as Paul Harvey would put it, the rest of the story.
Friday, November 16, 2012
Online betting at Top Bet (click here for more information) lists the Cowboys as favorites over the visiting Cleveland Browns this Sunday in a battle of the two quarterbacks who lead the NFL in interceptions--Dallas' Tony Romo (13) and Cleveland's Brandon Weeden (12, tied for second place "honors" with Philip Rivers and Matt Cassel)--but would anyone be surprised if Dallas finds some way to lose even against the inept Browns? After all, the Cowboys blow more fourth quarter leads than any other team in recent memory, their clock management in crucial situations is very poor and Coach Jason Garrett even "iced" his own kicker last season!
Does any NFL owner other than Jones make a habit of giving postgame interviews in or around his team's locker room? Jones seems to be drawn to TV cameras like a moth is drawn to a flame but his coaching staff and players would probably perform better if Jones could accept a less visible role. Jones recently admitted that if another GM had performed as poorly in that role as he has performed as the GM of the Cowboys then he would fire him; maybe he should take his own advice.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
- Best career overall match winning percentage (.827)
- Best career Grand Slam match winning percentage (.898)
- Best career Wimbledon match winning percentage (.927)
- Best career match winning percentage against top 10 players (.705)
- Best career Grand Slam tournament winning percentage (.407)
- Won at least one Grand Slam singles title for eight straight years
- Only man to win three Grand Slam singles titles without losing a set
- Only man to reach four Grand Slam singles finals without losing a set
- Only man to defeat six previous Grand Slam winners in a Grand Slam final
- Holds the record for most consecutive Davis Cup singles match wins (33)
- Holds the record for most singles titles won before his 25th birthday (59)
- Reached the finals in 11 of 12 Grand Slams entered during a four year stretch
While it is certainly true that Federer has posted some gaudy statistics and Sampras displayed amazing consistency by finishing first in the year-end rankings a record six straight times, Borg's dominance is far too often overlooked; no sensible discussion of the greatest Open Era male players can omit his name.
Thursday, October 4, 2012
Meanwhile, Tony Dungy's well-rested Indianapolis Colts watched New England defeat San Diego in that season's AFC Championship Game; instead of truly competing in the final week of the 2007 regular season, Dungy made sure that Reggie Wayne won the receiving yardage title and then Dungy shut his whole team down. Every time Dungy pulled this stunt his team lost in the playoffs; despite their great regular season records under Dungy, the only time his Colts won the Super Bowl was the one season that the situation forced Dungy to actually act like every game really matters. Sports is not about trying your best some of the time or acting like some games matter while other games don't matter; Tony Dungy may be a wonderful human being but he should never, ever be ranked alongside Tom Coughlin--or New England's Bill Belichick--as a head coach.
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Monday, September 10, 2012
Browne believes that chess is life and can teach us much about life. Toward the end of the preface he elaborates about this:
"Adjusting to the environment has always been the quintessential human survival skill, fighting the elements. Perhaps like the struggle of our pre-historical ancestors is the struggle within myself that I project into competing at different games.
Whether it is the preparation, sometimes months prior to an event, or the enormous amount of stamina needed to play, chess requires tons of energy.
On the contrary, poker needs little preparation and requires approximately 5% of the energy of chess."
The January 12, 1976 Sports Illustrated includes a lengthy profile of Browne, who was then 26 years old and near the height of his powers. Browne had recently won his second straight U.S. Chess Championship, finishing just ahead of Ken Rogoff, who would soon abandon his promising chess career to become one of the world's most acclaimed economists. Rogoff noted, "Chess may start out as an art, but after nearly a month of hard playing in a tournament it becomes an athletic event."
Browne's career as a gamesman took off when he dropped out of high school as a 16 year old: "If you have a strong mind you don't need school," Browne explained. "School is for the masses, not for geniuses." The decision to leave school was a simple calculation for Browne, who said that he figured out "I don't have time for chess, poker and school."
Browne acquired quick cash as a young poker player before being banned from several late night haunts in New York but he never lost sight of his true love: chess. At 19, Browne began pursuing the Grandmaster title in earnest and he achieved that goal a little over a year later at a time when there were only a few dozen Grandmasters in the world (there are well over 1000 Grandmasters now).
Browne told SI reporter Ray Kennedy that in addition to his chess prowess, "I can beat 97 out of 100 experts in Scrabble, 98 of 100 in backgammon and 99.9 of 100 in poker. At hi-lo, table-limit poker, I'm the best in the world." In the fall of 1975 Browne embarked on an incredible two month, whirlwind tour of the United States during which he visited 50 cities, played more than 2000 chess games in simultaneous exhibitions and pocketed about $15,000 for his tireless efforts. Browne sought to promote both himself and the game: "I don't have time to waste. God didn't give me any. We can't wait for Bobby to help us. He's like a volcano that has gone to rest. We've got to help ourselves. Right now."
Browne faced the legendary Fischer just once in official tournament play, a 98 move epic struggle in 1970 during which Fischer first stood better but then was on the brink of losing before he managed to salvage a draw. That contest took place near the end of Fischer's career--Fischer won the World Championship in 1972 and then did not play in public for 20 years--and very early in Browne's career. Despite Browne's eventual U.S. Championship success and a remarkable string of victories in various big tournaments around the world, he never came close to reaching the ultimate goal that he freely mentioned to Kennedy: winning the World Chess Championship. Browne qualified for three Interzonal events but never advanced to the Candidates round, the stage that ultimately determined who would face the reigning World Champion in a match for the crown.
While that failure undoubtedly disappointed the ambitious Browne, he can take solace in the philosophy that he expressed in the preface to his autobiography: "I firmly believe that by competing you are a winner, no matter the result."
Thursday, September 6, 2012
Though younger Cleveland fans who despise LeBron James for abandoning the Cleveland Cavaliers may disagree, Modell will likely always be the most hated figure in Cleveland sports history. The sad thing is that it did not have to be this way. Modell was a beloved figure for most of his time as the Browns' owner and if he would have kept the team in Cleveland he would have been viewed as a civic hero. The Browns won the 1964 NFL championship during Modell's fourth season as owner and that remains the last major title captured by a Cleveland professional sports franchise. The Browns lost the 1965 NFL championship 23-12 to the dynastic Green Bay Packers and also lost in the 1968 and 1969 NFL championship games, thus missing out on opportunities to play in Super Bowls III and IV. The Browns missed the playoffs in 1970 but qualified for postseason play in 1971 and 1972 before enduring an eight year drought.
My earliest football memories date back to the final portion of that drought, specifically the 1978 season when the Browns went 8-8 and showed a lot of promise. When I was a kid I thought that Modell was a great owner: he seemed so passionate about the team and it appeared that he would spare no expense in his attempts to bring a Super Bowl title to Cleveland, which of course is ironic in light of the way that Modell later betrayed the city's loyal fans. Some of my fondest early sports memories relate to the Kardiac Kids teams of 1978-80; the Kardiac Kids only made the playoffs once--losing a January 4, 1981 AFC Divisional playoff game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders--but those players forever earned a place in the hearts of Browns' fans: team stars Brian Sipe (1980 NFL MVP), Ozzie Newsome (1999 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee), Mike Pruitt, Greg Pruitt, Clay Matthews, Dave Logan, Reggie Rucker and Joe DeLamielleure (2003 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee) remain among my favorite players of all-time and I also fondly recall Calvin Hill, Dino Hall, Keith Wright, Thom Darden, Ron Bolton and many other Kardiac Kids. When drug abuse became a rampant problem in the NFL and pro sports in general during that era, Modell helped to create the Inner Circle group to counsel and treat Browns' players who were struggling with addiction issues.
After a few down seasons in the early 1980s, the Browns acquired quarterback prodigy Bernie Kosar--a Northern Ohio native who won a national championship at Miami and then graduated with a double major at the age of 21--in the 1985 Supplemental Draft. Kosar earned a Pro Bowl selection in 1987 and he led the Browns to three AFC Championship Games in a four season span (1986-89) but each time the Browns came up short against the Denver Broncos; two of those losses were so painful that they have been permanently branded with shorthand descriptions of the team's downfall (The Drive and The Fumble). Injuries robbed Kosar of his ability to stay on the field, let alone remain a top notch quarterback, but when then-young Coach Bill Belichick cited Kosar's "diminishing skills" as the reason to cut the beloved local hero in 1993 both Belichick and Modell received a lot of criticism from the Cleveland media. Strategically, Belichick was right--Kosar never again established himself as an NFL starter, though he did win a Super Bowl ring as Troy Aikman's backup in Dallas--but the way that the Browns abruptly got rid of Kosar rubbed people the wrong way (and perhaps foreshadowed how Modell would later betray the team's fan base in a much more profound manner).
Belichick rebuilt the Browns much the way he later rebuilt the New England Patriots, leading Cleveland to an 11-5 record in 1994 and the franchise's most recent playoff victory (a 20-13 triumph over Bill Parcells' Patriots), but this would turn out to be the franchise's last hurrah. Unbeknownst to the general public, Modell had literally mortgaged the team's future in a reckless attempt to buy a championship and he found himself in desperate financial straits. He should have sold the team to his minority partner Al Lerner--the man who ultimately brought the Browns back to Cleveland as an expansion team in 1999--but Modell stubbornly refused to do this because he wanted to eventually pass the ownership to his adopted son David. Publicly Modell acted like he was trying to keep the Browns in Cleveland but privately he sneaked away to Baltimore and arranged a very profitable deal that not only resolved his fearsome debt but also rewarded him lavishly for bringing an NFL franchise to Maryland to replace the Colts, who infamously fled Baltimore in moving fans in the middle of the night back in 1984. When news of Modell's betrayal became public knowledge during the 1995 season, the Browns collapsed on the field and Modell became persona non grata in his adopted hometown. Modell fired Belichick after the 1995 season and although the Ravens did win one Super Bowl the whole sorry saga was a very Pyrrhic victory for Modell: Belichick--using the same blueprint he tried to employ in Cleveland (despite Modell's incessant meddling)--created a dynasty in New England and Modell's dream of keeping the team in his family crumbled when he once again mismanaged his finances and was thus compelled to sell the team to Steve Bisciotti in 2004.
Modell is considered a huge figure in NFL history--serving as an influential owner for more than four decades--though his role in the development of the Monday Night Football package has been overstated; NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and ABC impresario Roone Arledge deserve the bulk of the credit for MNF's success. Bill Livingston mentioned two excellent reasons that Modell should be remembered as a mediocre owner: (1) The Cleveland Browns posted a lackluster 161-174-1 record during the final 22 seasons under Modell (including eight playoff appearances and seven seasons with double digit losses) and (2) "As a businessman, he managed to lose money hand over fist as an NFL owner. It is a feat of impressive ineptitude." The NFL is essentially a socialist monopoly that virtually guarantees that all 32 team owners will make a profit, yet Modell managed to go broke twice--once in Cleveland and then a second time in Baltimore just a few years after he received a sweetheart deal to move the Browns.
In one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history, Marlon Brando (playing boxer Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront) laments, "I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it." Modell could have been a Cleveland hero, a beloved figure and a Pro Football Hall of Famer but instead he is widely viewed as a betrayer. His downfall is his own fault but that does not make it any less tragic; indeed, the hubris and shortsightedness that often leads to ruin are the very essence of tragedy.
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
USADA took these actions against Armstrong based partially on two samples of his blood drawn in 2009 and 2010 that indicate he used banned substances but based mainly on the sworn testimony of at least 10 former teammates and/or associates who state that Armstrong not only used testosterone, the banned blood booster erythropoietin (EPO), corticosteroids and masking agents but that he also conspired to traffic in those banned substances with the purpose of distributing them to other cyclists.
Many sports have been tainted to some degree by performance-enhancing drug (PED) cheaters--including Major League Baseball, the National Football League and various Olympic events ranging from track and field to swimming to weightlifting--but cycling may be the dirtiest of them all: more than a third of the top 10 finishers in the Tour de France since 1998 have been linked to PED cheating and one third of the teams originally entered in the 1998 Tour de France either were expelled for doping or withdrew rather than face expulsion. The Tour de France is actually the Tour de Fake or the Tour de Pharmaceuticals. The high rate of heart attack deaths among young, seemingly healthy cyclists provides circumstantial--though compelling--evidence that cyclists are using artificial means to push their bodies beyond healthy, normal limits. Lance Armstrong is merely the latest--albeit by far the most accomplished--cyclist whose name is forever tainted by a cheating scandal.
You can read for yourself the accounts of three of the witnesses against Armstrong. Journalist David Walsh offers this summary of the Armstrong case and why Armstrong has given up without a fight: "It is not good for him because he has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and has been given a lifetime ban. He has lost every victory he has had since 1998, but the alternative was even worse--to have a tribunal in which the evidence from 10 former team-mates who all say they saw him doping would have been aired in graphic detail."
Armstrong had the opportunity to challenge this testimony and to attempt to refute any other evidence that USADA has gathered but instead Armstrong chose to defiantly smear USADA's investigative process while also declining to fight to prove his innocence. Armstrong has done--and continues to do--noble philanthropic work relating to cancer and he is justifiably praised for this work but as an athlete he is now every bit as disgraced as Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez and every other member of the Rogues Gallery of PED Cheaters.
Sunday, August 19, 2012
ESPN's Tim Keown declares that this sordid saga proves two things:
1) MLB's drug testing program works
2) PEDs work
The potential payoff for PED cheaters is staggering; Keown, echoing a point that I made in my original article about Cabrera's suspension, declares, "And make no mistake: Cabrera shook the dice, blew into his hands and let fly. Had his testosterone enhancement gone undetected, it's possible he could have been in line for a nine-figure free-agent heist in the offseason." That at least calls into question Keown's first assertion; perhaps he is right that the drug testing program works and that PEDs are so effective that some players are reckless enough--or stupid enough--to risk getting caught but one could also plausibly argue that guys like Cabrera, Manny Ramirez and Ryan Braun (who tested positive but was cleared on a procedural technicality) represent just the tip of a massive iceberg of PED cheating. Keown's second point is indisputable: PEDs work and that is why so many unscrupulous athletes take them.
Thursday, August 16, 2012
What possible motivation could MLB players have to risk missing so many games and losing such a significant portion of their salaries? These are the two most likely reasons that MLB players could be caught using PEDs now:
1) The players believe that they can beat the system; perhaps many players are still using PEDs and getting away with it while only a few players are stupid enough and/or unlucky enough to get caught.
2) PEDs provide such a huge advantage that the potential rewards (money, stats, championships) outweigh the risks of getting caught.
Some economists insist that PEDs do not in fact enhance performance; I would not ask a medical doctor for economic advice, so I am not sure why anyone would ask an economist for advice about medical matters/sports performance but both the clinical and anecdotal evidence strongly suggest that PEDs do exactly what their name suggests: help an athlete to enhance his performance. Yes, that athlete still has to train hard but that is the point: all elite athletes train hard but the ones who take PEDs are able to train even harder and get more results from that training. PED usage can help a marginal prospect make it to the big leagues and it can help a talented player like Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire put up superhuman numbers. Cabrera hit .255 for Atlanta in 2010, .305 for Kansas City in 2011 and this season he not only set a new career-high in batting average but he made the All-Star team for the first time and he won the All-Star Game MVP (clinching home field advantage for the National League in the 2012 World Series). Cabrera made $3,100,000 in 2010 but after his poor performance that season his pay was slashed to only $1,250,000 in 2011. His increased numbers in 2011 helped him land a $6,000,000 contract for 2012. He recently reportedly turned down a three year, $27 million contract extension because he expected to receive much more than that as a free agent after the 2012 season.
It is not difficult to figure out the calculations being made by Cabrera and other MLB players; increased performance is literally worth tens of millions of dollars. Only the players know how easy or difficult it is to evade detection for PED use but if Ramirez and Cabrera (and almost certainly Braun, technicality aside) were willing to risk getting caught it is not much of a stretch to assume that either (a) a lot of other players are still getting away with PED use or (b) those are the three stupidest guys in the sport.
If drug testing works--and if PEDs don't work anyway, as some economists suggest--then why are players still taking PEDs? It is premature to assume that the "Steroid Era" is over; the drugs of choice may have changed and the methods for evading detection may have improved but the positive drug tests that we know about probably just represent the tip of the iceberg.
Monday, July 23, 2012
Jerry Sandusky's sex abuse crimes are abhorrent and he deserves the severest possible penalty under the law--but even he deserved and received due process and his day in court. Sandusky received justice but his case has now shifted into a witch hunt that appears to be designed to consume and destroy the reputation and legacy of Joe Paterno. Paterno is an easy target because he is deceased and thus not able to defend himself and his actions/alleged actions. Although a Pennsylvania grand jury declined to charge Paterno and there is no direct evidence that Paterno knowingly covered up Sandusky's crimes, Paterno's name is being smeared based on the words "reasonable to conclude": the Freeh Report interviewed hundreds of people and reviewed over three million documents but failed to find a single proverbial "smoking gun" implicating Paterno. Instead, the Freeh Report engaged in some form of literary interpretation and determined that it would be, in Freeh's repeatedly stated words, "reasonable to conclude" that Paterno actively sought to cover up Sandusky's crimes--even dating back to a time when law enforcement authorities had investigated Sandusky and been unable to prove that Sandusky had in fact committed any crimes.
The accusations against Paterno simply do not make much sense; why would Paterno report Mike McQueary's allegations about Sandusky to Tim Curley and Gary Schultz if Paterno's primary motivation was to cover things up at all costs? Paterno has a well documented history of suspending players for even minor infractions and for emphasizing academics/integrity over wins. Paterno did not cover up or whitewash small, technical NCAA violations so why would he actively cover up heinous crimes? Paterno said that in retrospect he wishes that he had done more; it is reasonable to suggest that Paterno should have taken a more active role to ensure that his superiors properly handled the Sandusky matter but it is more than a bit of a reach to assert that Paterno deliberately covered up child sex abuse just so that he could win more football games.
Would you want the sum total worth of your life to be defined by what other people think is "reasonable to conclude" based on reading emails that you did not write and that were composed by people who currently are facing charges of perjury (former Penn State administrators Gary Schultz and Tim Curley)? There certainly appears to be plenty of direct evidence to implicate those two individuals; at the very least, decisions permanently affecting Paterno's legacy and status should wait until the Curley and Schultz trials hopefully shed more light on what exactly Paterno did and did not do.
The NCAA sanctions against Penn State are unprecedented. The NCAA fined Penn State $60 million, with those funds to be dedicated to an endowment to help child abuse victims. That is certainly a worthy endeavor, although it is not clear how it was decided what amount the fine should be or who specifically will bear that cost; if money is being taken away from the education of innocent Penn State students (as opposed to be taken away from people who actually committed crimes) then that is not right no matter how noble the cause is.
The NCAA also banned the Penn State football program from postseason play for four years, enforced scholarship reductions lasting for four years and placed the athletic department on probation for five years. Perhaps the most stunning decision is that the NCAA vacated 112 Penn State wins from 1998-2011, 111 of which had been credited to Paterno's personal record. The cumulative effect of these NCAA punishments hurts Paterno, his former players and current/future Penn State players but it does nothing to punish the men responsible for the actual crimes: Sandusky (whose fate correctly lies in the hands of the justice system), Curley and Schultz. Also left unscathed is former Penn State President Graham Spanier, who was heavily criticized in the Freeh Report but has not been charged with a crime and has vehemently denied that he knew about and covered up Sandusky's crimes.
The NCAA claims that it is acting so harshly against Penn State to make a statement proving that collegiate sports should never be elevated over academics and should not become "too big to fail" in the words of NCAA President Mark Emmert. Are we really supposed to believe that Penn State and Penn State alone stood for the worst of what college sports represents? Jerry Sandusky was a serial child sexual predator who manipulated and deceived his family, the people at the Second Mile charity and others around him but his crimes do not represent the totality of what Penn State stood for during Paterno's era; Paterno guided many players who became productive members of society and his teams were consistently successful on the field without committing violations off of the field. Instead of self-righteously singling out Penn State the NCAA should take down the entire bloated system that has essentially transformed college sports into minor leagues for football and basketball in which all of the profits go to the NCAA, the athletic departments and the coaches while the players are not paid anything other than scholarships. Why should college football and basketball coaches be the highest paid state employees in any state? Paterno ran his program with more integrity than just about anyone else--based on the documented record, not based on what someone decides it is "reasonable to conclude"--but if the NCAA feels that big time college sports are somehow inherently corrupt (which is certainly "reasonable to conclude" at this point) then Emmert and his cohorts should refund all of the television and sponsorship money that they receive and let some other organization take over minor league football and minor league basketball in this country while the NCAA sets up a new structure in which college sports consists entirely of intramural games that are not sources of billions of dollars in revenue.
The NCAA is a self-appointed judge, jury and executioner--but who judges the NCAA? The NCAA has a huge book filled with Byzantine rules that it enforces or fails to enforce solely at its own discretion, with no outside oversight. Big name programs like Miami (the infamous "U"), Oklahoma, Nebraska and others had endemic problems/crimes/violations yet their wins and championships have not been vacated; to cite just one example, Nebraska's sainted Coach Tom Osborne kept Lawrence Phillips on the team despite the fact that Phillips assaulted his girlfriend. Phillips ultimately played a major role when Nebraska won the 1995 national championship. Phillips has since faced numerous criminal charges and is currently serving a term of at least 26 years in prison for committing various assaults. Did Osborne, Nebraska and the NCAA ultimately do right by Phillips--coddling him instead of insisting that he be punished for his crimes and possibly get help for his anger issues--and his victims? Perhaps you say that Phillips' numerous assault cases are not as bad as Sandusky's child abuse crimes; well, what about murder? Is murder worse? In 2003, Baylor basketball player Carlton Dotson murdered his teammate Patrick Dennehy; the ensuing criminal and NCAA investigations turned up a host of crimes and NCAA violations committed by Coach Dave Bliss and other members of the coaching staff/athletic department. NCAA history is full of murder, mayhem, point shaving, academic fraud and grown men lining their pockets while taking advantage of the athletic talents of the young men in their charge, young men who often do not receive much academic, moral or social instruction during their college days.
The NCAA's swift and unprecedented action against Penn State and against Paterno's coaching record is not about justice or morality. This is really about two things: (1) public relations and (2) taking preemptive action to prevent lawsuits against the NCAA. The NCAA is a greedy and inherently corrupt organization that is more concerned about preserving its revenue streams than anything else.
Not only is the NCAA acting with breathtaking hypocrisy, it is doubtful that the NCAA's actions are legal. ESPN's Jay Bilas, a former Duke basketball player who is also a practicing attorney, says that the NCAA's actions set a precedent that the NCAA is "willing to violate its own rules and act without going through the normal course." Florida-based attorney Michael Buckner goes even further, telling ESPN's Mike Fish that what the NCAA did is "perhaps unconstitutional." Fish reports that Iowa attorney Jerry Crawford says that the NCAA made a "rush to judgment.'' Crawford adds, "I don't know any reason for the NCAA to feel they needed to rush in other than they were getting bullied in the court of public opinion, which they obviously didn't like. What I believe I know is Joe Paterno ran an NCAA sanction[ed] football program that didn't just play within the rules, but played well within the rules. Recruited good people. Got them educations. I thought it was a program the country needed to emulate, not ostracize.''
In Christopher Nolan's recently concluded Batman film trilogy, Batman takes the fall for Harvey Dent (the maniacal "Two Face") so that Dent can be viewed by Gotham's citizens as a hero and as a symbol for justice--but propagating that lie turned out to be very costly for all involved. Jerry Sandusky must be punished for his crimes and anyone who knowingly covered up his crimes should also be punished--but making Joe Paterno and the entire Penn State football program take the fall to supposedly prove the integrity of the NCAA is as bold a lie as saying that Batman is a criminal while Harvey Dent is a hero. Such lies always have dreadful consequences.
Thursday, July 12, 2012
Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State. The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized. Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley never demonstrated, through actions or words, any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky’s victims until after Sandusky's arrest.
When the information about the Sandusky case initially became publicly known last November and the Penn State Board of Trustees reacted swiftly by firing Coach Paterno without even meeting with him, I felt that Paterno was being made into a scapegoat for others' failures. Obviously, if it is true that Paterno clearly knew about Sandusky's criminal actions and participated in a cover-up--as the Freeh Report alleges--then it was correct to fire Paterno. Unfortunately, Paterno became ill and passed away before Freeh's investigators could interview him--and Freeh himself said that he believed that Paterno intended to fully cooperate with the investigation if his health had permitted him to do so. Freeh and his associates reviewed over 3 million documents/emails and conducted more than 430 interviews but--while it is easily confirmed that Spanier, Curley and Schultz directly acted to conceal evidence of Sandusky's crimes--it seems that the main evidence against Paterno is circumstantial: Freeh interpreted the contents of various emails to mean that Paterno had urged Penn State officials--Paterno's superiors, it must be emphasized--to handle the Sandusky matter internally instead of reporting it to outside authorities. Even if that is true--and there is no "smoking gun" that confirms this interpretation of events--the Penn State President and the university's other leaders had a legal and moral obligation to report the allegations about Sandusky to the proper authorities. The idea that Paterno was more concerned about bad publicity than doing the right thing is belied by the high standards that Paterno set for himself and his football program for several decades. In retrospect it is clear that Paterno should have taken a more active role in addressing the Sandusky allegations--Paterno himself expressed regret that he had not done more--but I still find it hard to believe that Paterno knowingly and deliberately covered up child abuse merely to avoid bad publicity for his football program.
Whether Paterno passively let matters take their course or took an active role in Penn State's deplorable handling of the Sandusky case, this is a sad day not just in college football history but in the history of American sports. If Paterno's "Grand Experiment" is in fact tainted then what hope is there for the future of amateur athletics as a positive force in our society? The influx of big money into amateur athletics has perhaps had an irredeemably corrupting influence; that statement is not meant to justify anything that Paterno failed to do but rather to indicate that if even someone who--over the course of several decades--proved himself to be a fundamentally decent and morally upright person could not stay on the right path then perhaps the entire culture of amateur athletics is inherently corrupt. It is simply inexcusable for the football coach to be the most powerful figure on any college campus--and it is indisputable that this is the case, in practice if not in theory, on many, many college campuses.
Here is a statement from the Paterno family regarding the Freeh Report:
We are in the process of reviewing the Freeh report and will need some time before we can comment in depth on its findings and conclusions. From the moment this crisis broke, Joe Paterno supported a comprehensive, fair investigation. He always believed, as we do, that the full truth should be uncovered.
From what we have been able to assess at this time, it appears that after reviewing 3 million documents and conducting more than 400 interviews, the underlying facts as summarized in the report are almost entirely consistent with what we understood them to be. The 1998 incident was reported to law enforcement and investigated. Joe Paterno reported what he was told about the 2001 incident to Penn State authorities and he believed it would be fully investigated. The investigation also confirmed that Sandusky's retirement in 1999 was unrelated to these events.
One great risk in this situation is a replaying of events from the last 15 years or so in a way that makes it look obvious what everyone must have known and should have done. The idea that any sane, responsible adult would knowingly cover up for a child predator is impossible to accept. The far more realistic conclusion is that many people didn't fully understand what was happening and underestimated or misinterpreted events. Sandusky was a great deceiver. He fooled everyone--law enforcement, his family, coaches, players, neighbors, university officials, and everyone at Second Mile.
Joe Paterno wasn't perfect. He made mistakes and he regretted them. He is still the only leader to step forward and say that with the benefit of hindsight he wished he had done more. To think, however, that he would have protected Jerry Sandusky to avoid bad publicity is simply not realistic. If Joe Paterno had understood what Sandusky was, a fear of bad publicity would not have factored into his actions.
We appreciate the effort that was put into this investigation. The issue we have with some of the conclusions is that they represent a judgment on motives and intentions and we think this is impossible. We have said from the beginning that Joe Paterno did not know Jerry Sandusky was a child predator. Moreover, Joe Paterno never interfered with any investigation. He immediately and accurately reported the incident he was told about in 2001.
It can be argued that Joe Paterno should have gone further. He should have pushed his superiors to see that they were doing their jobs. We accept this criticism. At the same time, Joe Paterno and everyone else knew that Sandusky had been repeatedly investigated by authorities who approved his multiple adoptions and foster children. Joe Paterno mistakenly believed that investigators, law enforcement officials, university leaders and others would properly and fully investigate any issue and proceed as the facts dictated.
This didn't happen and everyone shares the responsibility.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
It is disgraceful that Major League Baseball--under the "leadership" of Commissioner Bud Selig--turned a blind eye and deaf ear while players broke federal laws, cheated in a manner that cost honest players a shot at playing professional ball and turned the sport's record book into a farce. Cheaters like Rodriguez should be banned from the sport, not lauded--and it is ridiculous that Mark McGwire has been brought back into the MLB fold as a hitting instructor.
The Yankees are ostracizing Jackson for these remarks about Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa, five players linked to performance-enhancing drug (PED) use who passed Jackson on the all-time home run list:
"I don't think the fans really count them, and I agree. I believe that Hank Aaron is the home run king, not Barry Bonds, as great a player as Bonds was." Jackson said of Rodriguez, "Al's a very good friend. But I think there are real questions about his numbers. As much as I like him, what he admitted about his usage does cloud some of his records."
If Selig had any, shall we say, intestinal fortitude, he would have made sure that MLB effectively dealt with the PED issue long before Rodriguez and the others defaced the record book with their tainted names. Rodriguez and the rest of the cheaters should be on the outside of the sport looking in but, instead, Selig will likely do nothing while the sport's flagship franchise exiles one of its greatest players.
Sunday, July 8, 2012
Federer's triumph enabled him to equal two modern era records held by Pete Sampras: most Wimbledon singles titles and most weeks as the number one ranked player (286). Federer ended his two year drought without a Grand Slam title, winning his first major since the 2010 Australian Open; prior to this year's Wimbledon, Federer had made it to just one final in his previous nine Grand Slam appearances after advancing to the previous eight finals and winning four of those. During Federer's struggles--by his high standards--it seemed reasonable to wonder if he would ever win another Grand Slam title, just as now it seems reasonable to wonder how many more Grand Slam titles Federer might be able to win despite his relatively advanced age (he turns 31 next month). Sampras had eight winless Grand Slam appearances after winning his 13th Grand Slam title--tying the longest such drought of his career--and he retired at 31 after winning the U.S. Open to claim his 14th major title but Federer believes that he can keep playing at a high level for the foreseeable future. It is too soon to say if this was the last great singular moment of Federer's career or the beginning of some kind of revival.
For several years, it has been popular to acclaim Federer as the greatest tennis player of all-time or at least the greatest tennis player of the Open Era; the first claim is virtually impossible to logically prove considering the vast differences (equipment, rules, surfaces, etc.) between the various tennis eras, while the second claim is at the least very debatable considering the simultaneous Wimbledon/French Open dominance achieved by Bjorn Borg, not to mention Rafael Nadal's head to head mastery of Federer and the fact that Nadal won more Grand Slams by age 25 than anyone in tennis history other than Borg.
While the greatest of all-time/greatest of the Open Era questions are more complex than most people seem to be willing to acknowledge, on the occasion of Federer's most recent Wimbledon triumph it makes sense to compare Federer's stellar career at tennis' most prestigious Grand Slam with the numbers posted by Borg and Sampras, the two other most distinguished Wimbledon champions of the Open Era:
Federer has played at Wimbledon 14 times, amassing seven titles plus one other finals appearance. He has lost in the first round three times and has a 66-7 match record (.904).
Sampras also played at Wimbledon 14 times, winning seven titles in seven finals appearances. He lost in the first round twice and he posted a 63-7 match record (.900).
Borg played at Wimbledon nine times, winning five titles in six finals appearances. He never lost earlier than the third round and he posted a 51-4 match record (.927).
Federer and Sampras share the modern era record for most Wimbledon titles but Borg still holds (or, in one instance, shares) several other Wimbledon records:
- Career match winning percentage (.927)
- 41 consecutive match wins (1976-81)
- Only player to win Wimbledon without losing a set (1976)
- 24 consecutive sets won (1976-77)
- Five consecutive championships won (1976-80; Borg shares this record with Federer, who won five in a row from 2003-07)
Federer's mastery is deservedly lauded but the fact that even a player as gifted, durable and motivated as he is cannot match the multi-surface dominance that Borg accomplished indicates just how much respect and praise that Borg deserves as well.
Thursday, July 5, 2012
During a rough patch late in Warner's NFL career, Brenda wrote Kurt a letter in Zach's voice. The Warners shared the text of that letter with "A Football Life":
Remember me when you want to give up.
Remember I didn't...
Remember me when you think life is hard.
Remember my life is...
Remember me when you want to hurry through life.
Remember me...slow down.
Saturday, June 16, 2012
When Dan Naulty received a call from one of the Mitchell Report's investigators, he willingly talked about how steroids transformed him from a tall, skinny minor leaguer with a fast ball that topped out well short of 90 mph into a ripped, muscular hurler with major league stuff. Naulty realized very early during his career that he would never move out of A ball unless he got much bigger and stronger, so he began cheating by taking an array of substances that helped him add nearly 70 pounds to his 6-6, 180 pound frame. Verducci writes:
It was a cycle that would repeat itself every year: Naulty would use various steroids through the winter, gain muscle mass and velocity, and wow the coaches in camp. He would not use steroids during the season, causing him to lose some weight--about 10 pounds if he had gained 20--and his numbers to fall off as the year progressed. Then it was back to an off-season of doping, with a veritable buffet of steroids. "We were mixing them," he says. "Some for size, some for speed. There was a steroid I took one off-season that was purely to speed your body up. You didn't gain any size at all. [Your arm speed] just got faster. The point was the faster I moved the harder I'd throw."
In four years Naulty gained 50 pounds and added 10 miles an hour to his fastball. (He would eventually top out at 248 pounds.) His legs were enormous. His shoulders looked like cantaloupes, with the rounded, watery hallmark of steroids. He loved the way his body looked, loved to take his shirt off, loved the compliments he got from coaches and loved the way nobody in baseball asked, How? The Steroid Era was taking hold, made possible by a don't ask, don't tell policy. "Everybody is telling you how great you look," Naulty says. "Nobody ever asked if I was using drugs. I never had one discussion about steroids around another baseball player. All my discussions about steroids were with bodybuilders."
Ninety percent of all drafted players never spend one day in the big leagues. Steroid users made the odds even worse for clean players.
Thirty-three players appeared in at least one game for the 1994 Fort Myers Miracle. Only six of them reached the majors long enough to earn $500,000 in their careers. Half of those players are known PED users: Naulty, outfielder Matt Lawton (who tested positive in 2005) and pitcher Dan Serafini (who flunked a test in '07).
This detailed information will no doubt surprise the economists and "stat gurus" who foolishly assert that PEDs don't work. PEDs work; that is why athletes use them even though these substances are dangerous to their long term health and even though such usage is both against the law and forbidden by their leagues/sanctioning bodies. PED usage has wrecked lives and transformed the record books from nonfiction into something more fraudulent than a three dollar bill.
Verducci reports that Naulty's minor league teammate Brett Roberts, who never cheated and never made it to the big leagues, is understandably angry:
"It's cheating," says Roberts, who bristles at the steroid users who made it. "It sticks in my craw because I know how hard I worked. Was I going to be a guy with a five- to 10-year career? Probably not. But I know I could have been there."
While Roberts and others dealt with crushed, broken dreams, Naulty advanced to the big leagues and received (stole) $185,000 a year. Verducci relentlessly breaks down all of the myths about the Steroid Era:
The rationalizing and enabling goes on even today by players, fans and media. The popular myth is that before testing, steroids in baseball "weren't illegal" (in fact, their use was made illegal by the federal government in 1988 unless prescribed to treat a medical condition), were "not against the rules" (a 1991 memo by commissioner Fay Vincent specifically prohibited steroids) and that "everybody was doing it, anyway." (Tell that to Legault, Linebarger and Roberts.) But the silence in the culture of steroids is a dead giveaway that the users knew they were corrupt. "I was a full-blown cheater, and I knew it," Naulty says. "You didn't need a written rule. I was violating clear principles that were laid down within the rules. I understood I was violating implicit principles.
"I have no idea how many guys were using testosterone. But I would assume anybody that was had some sort of conviction that this was against the rules. To say it wasn't cheating to me...it's just a fallacy. It was a total disadvantage to play clean."
Jeff Horn is another minor leaguer who used PEDs to try to make it to the big leagues; he eventually injured two disks in his neck in a collision at home plate during a game in the Atlanta Braves' 2000 training camp and then in 2001 he was busted in the first year of the minor league baseball drug testing program (MLB would not institute drug testing until Congress intervened) while he was trying to make a comeback, prompting him to retire. Horn told Verducci, "I was, at best, an average hitter. A good fastball could tie me up. When I had the stuff in me I could get to those pitches easier. With steroids you could do those things you otherwise couldn't do. The things that kept you in the minor leagues all of a sudden didn't hold you back anymore. It's not like you could take a guy off the street, give him steroids and he can hit a Jered Weaver fastball. But if you have the ability to do it, you can get a little help doing things you were not able to do."
Rick Reilly once called the minor leaguers who got cheated out of jobs by steroid users The Forgotten Victims of MLB's "Steroids Era" and Verducci's article graphically illustrates the toll that this cheating took not just on those victims but also on the cheaters and on the sport itself. The players who cheated, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, the MLB owners and the MLB Players Association should be ashamed for enriching themselves at the expense of integrity.
Monday, June 11, 2012
Commentators have been attempting for years to elevate Roger Federer to greatest of all-time status but while the talking heads chirp and the writing heads pontificate Nadal has been getting the job done where it really matters: between the lines on the court. Nadal is now tied for fourth (with Borg and Rod Laver) on the all-time list with 11 Grand Slam singles titles, trailing only Federer (16), Pete Sampras (14) and Roy Emerson (12)--but in many ways Nadal's career record is more impressive than the career records of Federer, Sampras and Emerson. Nadal has won 11 of the 32 Grand Slam singles events that he entered (.344), a percentage second only to Borg's phenomenal 11/27 (.407); Borg is the only male player who won more Grand Slams at a younger age than Nadal (Borg won his 11th Grand Slam at 25). Federer's Grand Slam winning percentage is .308 (16/52), Sampras' Grand Slam winning percentage is .269 (14/52) and Emerson's Grand Slam winning percentage is .207 (12/58).
Although Emerson did complete the career Grand Slam and was the first player to win at least two titles in each of the Grand Slam events, all of his wins came during an era when professionals were banned from the Grand Slams and six of his 12 Grand Slam titles came in the Australian Open at a time when many top non-Australians did not play in that event, so Emerson cannot be given serious consideration in any legitimate greatest player of all-time discussion. Federer's Grand Slam total is also padded by four Australian triumphs, while Nadal only has one win in the least important Grand Slam and Borg only played Down Under once, early in his career.
Nadal completed the career Grand Slam at 24 (Federer was nearly 28 when he accomplished this) and Nadal has bested Federer on Federer's favorite Grand Slam surface--Wimbledon's grass--but Federer has never beaten Nadal at Roland Garros. Federer has lost in the first round of a Grand Slam six times and Sampras suffered seven first round Grand Slam losses; neither Borg nor Nadal ever lost in the first round of a Grand Slam.
Borg's simultaneous grass (Wimbledon)/clay (French Open) dominance is unparalleled--he won Wimbledon and the French Open in the same year an unprecedented three straight times and when he retired he held the Open Era record for both Wimbeldon titles (five) and French Open titles (six). Sampras (seven) and Federer (six) broke Borg's Wimbledon record and now Nadal has claimed Borg's French Open record but no player has come close to matching Borg's simultaneous multi-surface dominance. It is baffling that Borg is not more widely considered to be the greatest Open Era player or at least on equal footing with Federer and Nadal. Sampras' inability to even make it to the French Open Finals--he only made it to the semifinals once--places him below Borg, Federer and Nadal in the Open Era pantheon.
Djokovic is the wild card in this discussion. He was clearly a distant third behind Federer and Nadal for several years until he had a season for the ages in 2011 but his year of dominance may have ended; after beating Nadal in three straight Grand Slam Finals--and seven straight matches overall, each of them in Finals--Djokovic has lost to Nadal three times in a row, with each of those setbacks coming in Finals. Commentators spoke of Nadal's supposed "Djokovic problem" but it is not unusual for the tide to go back and forth somewhat in a rivalry between two players who are almost exactly the same age--and the reality is that Nadal still has a healthy head to head edge versus Djokovic overall (19-14) and in Grand Slam matches (6-3). It is hard to understand how Nadal's "Djokovic problem" could possibly be more significant or relevant than Roger Federer's much larger "Nadal problem": Nadal owns an 18-10 head to head advantage over Federer, including 8-2 in Grand Slam matches.
Perhaps if Nadal wins five more Grand Slam titles even Federer's most loyal devotees will have to admit what has been apparent for several years: Nadal has authored a career that is at least as dominant and accomplished as Federer's.
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Although serious chess observers place the most emphasis on the Classical format, it is worth noting that Anand is the only player in chess history to win at least part of the World Chess Championship title in four different formats:
- Anand defeated Alexei Shirov in 2001 to win the FIDE World Chess Championship in a knockout format.
- Anand won the eight player FIDE World Chess Championship tournament in Mexico in 2007.
- Anand defeated Vladimir Kramnik in a Classical match in 2008 and then defended his title in a Classical match versus Veselin Topalov in 2010.
- Anand defeated Boris Gelfand in a Rapid tiebreak match in 2012 after the players drew a 12 game Classical match (two wins each plus 10 draws).
Previous World Chess Championship matches have either lasted longer--24 games was a standard format for many previous matches--and/or permitted the Champion to retain his title in the event of a tie score; the new format of a much shorter Classical match to be followed in the event of a tie by matches with progressively faster time controls until a winner emerges naturally makes the players hesitant to take risks early in the Classical match: a loss could be potentially disastrous, while a draw just brings the players one step closer to the playoff matches. Only the players know if either (or both) of them believed that his chances were better in the faster games and/or if either (or both) of them simply did not want to go all out in the Classical games when the Champion did not have the luxury of automatically retaining his title in the event of a drawn match.
The two players had an action packed, exciting draw in the first game of the Rapid playoff. In the second game, Anand successfully exploited the advantage of the White pieces to gain an edge and put pressure on Gelfand to defend accurately. Gelfand used up a lot of time to eventually reach a theoretically drawn position but with just seconds remaining on his clock Gelfand made a decisive mistake. The third game went back and forth before Gelfand built a winning position but with less than a minute remaining on his clock Gelfand blundered and Anand held the draw. Gelfand needed to win with Black in the fourth game in order to force a Blitz playoff (G/5 plus a 10 second increment) but he was unable to generate any meaningful winning chances and Anand eventually forced a draw. Gelfand proved to be a worthy challenger--despite the predictions by many commentators that Anand should be considered an overwhelming favorite--but in the end Anand's superior clock management in the Rapid playoff proved to be the difference.
Both competitors showed their class not just as elite chess players but also as great sportsmen; they talked amicably with each other after the games (far from a regular occurrence in World Championship competition) and they consistently displayed enormous mutual respect in their words and deeds. Anand graciously said that this was his toughest match ever and that if he had to lose the title to anyone he would have been happy for Gelfand to succeed him.
It seems strange to determine the result of a Classical World Championship match with Rapid games; this is like breaking a tie in the Boston Marathon by having the two competitors square off in a 100 yard dash. Other possible World Championship formats also have flaws but at least they don't significantly change the nature of the competition in the middle of the event. Nevertheless, that is a subject for another time. Anand is a battle tested World Champion in many different formats and with each successful defense of his title he moves up in the pantheon of all-time great chess players.
Friday, May 18, 2012
- Kasparov asserted that Anand has lost some motivation and that this loss of motivation has caused a lack of precision in Anand's play. Kasparov said that former World Chess Champion Boris Spassky once noted that the hallmark of a great player is the ability to sense the moment of crisis in a game and to focus at that moment on finding perhaps the only way to force a win (or save a draw as the case may be). Kasparov said that such a moment happened in game three but that Anand played too quickly--"played by hand" instead of making precise calculations--and the moment slipped away.
- Kasparov noted that an Indian journalist became upset with Kasparov for criticizing Anand's motivation level and Kasparov wryly commented that the journalist should be more concerned with Anand's motivation than with the fact that Kasparov mentioned this.
- Kasparov said that Anand played brilliantly and with great energy to defeat Vladimir Kramnik in the 2008 World Championship match but that Anand struggled in his 2010 World Championship win over Topalov and that Anand's play over the past four years shows that he is "sliding downhill." Anand's play during this period is "not very inspiring" in Kasparov's opinion.
- Kasparov said that this is not only Gelfand's first chance to become World Chess Champion but likely his only chance and that, considering the enormous pressure this entails, Gelfand has played well so far, though Kasparov would like to see Gelfand take some more risks in an effort to win a game (the first six games of the 12 game match have been draws).
- Kasparov speculated that Gelfand's match strategy may be to reduce the struggle to the last two games (by drawing the first 10) because, in Kasparov's opinion, Anand is slightly more likely to "stumble" if that happens. Kasparov said that "psychology will become dominant" late in the match if the score is even and "Anand (is) not the most stable player psychologically." Kasparov is impressed by the psychological fortitude that Gelfand showed by winning the Candidates Matches despite being the oldest player in the field.
- Borrowing from the title of Alexei Shirov's collected games, Kasparov said that he hopes to see "more fire on board" in the second half of the match.
Monday, April 30, 2012
It is fascinating and instructive that some of the people who write the most blatant nonsense about sports also are on the wrong side of the PED issue. As a basketball fan who also appreciates great writing and logical reasoning, I am disturbed that so much credence is currently being given to "advanced basketball statistics" that are not in fact particularly advanced; while it is certainly a noble quest to attempt to accurately quantify the individual and collective productivity of basketball players, it is hardly noble or honest to suggest that "stat gurus" have successfully completed a mission that they are in fact just beginning to undertake: baseball is a much easier sport to quantify because that sport consists of discrete actions that can be separated and measured, while basketball is a sport that consists of dynamic, interrelated actions that are far more difficult to accurately separate and measure (for instance, it is not so easy to quantify how much credit each player should receive for a successful screen/roll action that involves multiple players from both teams).
However, the follies of basketball's "stat gurus" pale in comparison to the pernicious bleatings of "stat gurus" who attempt to minimize the effectiveness and/or potential lethality of PEDs. Believe it or not, some "stat gurus" earnestly insist that PEDs do not work and that Barry Bonds' physique never changed (I think that it will not be too long before a "stat guru" insists that the moon landings never took place). The well documented reality is that PEDs do work--they enable athletes to train longer and harder and thus increase their muscle mass, explosiveness and power--and that PEDs can cause serious long term health problems. It will be interesting to see what kind of medical issues Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez and the other recent MLB drug cheaters develop in the coming decades but, if the experiences of many East German athletes from the 1970s are any indication, many of baseball's sluggers and power pitchers may not age very gracefully.
The PED issue in MLB and other sports goes far beyond tainting the record book and affecting who wins championships. PED usage is deplorable not just for legal and ethical reasons; it is a public health concern because young amateur athletes in college and high school inevitably are influenced by the choices made by their professional heroes, choices that could result in many broken lives and shattered dreams. It is silly when a "stat guru" like Dave Berri declares that Dennis Rodman was more productive than Michael Jordan but it is dangerous when "stat gurus" spread misinformation about PEDs.