Friday, November 19, 2010

Derek Jeter and Greed

The Yankees are ready to offer Derek Jeter a three year, $50 million dollar contract.  It looks as if that won't be enough, as Jeter apparently wants something closer to five years and $100 million.  Is Jeter, always said to be one of the game's smartest players, a moron?  In 2010 Jeter had career lows in home runs, batting average, slugging percentage, and on base percentage.  Despite being awarded a gold glove (preposterously), advanced defensive statistics placed him well below average.  Does he know the going rate for 36 year old shortstops coming off career worst years?  It certainly isn't $100 million.  Jeter's 2010 stats are remarkably similar to those of Marco Scutaro who is going into the second year of a two year, $12.5 million dollar contract.  Based solely on his on field, statistical value, that's probably about what Jeter's worth--two to three years at $5-10 million per year.

Ah, but we can't forget, Derek Jeter is a Yankee legend.  He means so much more than numbers to the Yankees.  He's the Captain.  He's Mr. November.  He once dove into the stands.  He's the heir to the legacy of Ruth and Gehrig, Dimaggio and Berra, Mantle and Maris.  All this is true.  Jeter is way more valuable to the Yankees than he is on the open market.  But the Yankees have reportedly offered him three years at $50 million, somewhere between double and triple what he could get on the open market.  It seems they're being more than fair. 

Jeter is coming off a contract that paid him $189 million over the last ten years.  Only one player in baseball history has ever signed a bigger contract.  The Yankees have taken care of him.  In turning down their current contract offer, he's being greedy and stupid.  What's he going to do if the Yankees play hardball and say take it or leave it?  Will he go around the league saying, "The Yankees are offering me $50 million, can you best that?"  He'll get laughed out of the room. 

The Yankees have already paid Derek Jeter more money than he'll be able to spend in a lifetime.  They're currently offering him at least twice as much money as anyone else would.  Has he no pride?  In asking for $100 million, roughly $80 million more than anyone else would pay him, he risks turning himself into a multi-million dollar charity case.  At this point in his career he simply is not worth anywhere near that much money, and he must know it.  His quest for more money is shameless.  He's preying on the emotions of the Yankees brass and Yankees fans who love him for all he's done and all he's won. 

In the end, Jeter needs the Yankees more than the Yankees need Jeter.  He's an iconic player because he's been so great and had so much success, and it's all been with one team.  Great athletes don't do much damage to their their legacies by finishing their career with a different team.  Does anyone care that Willie Mays played for the Mets, that Joe Namath played for the Rams, or that Michael Jordan played for the Wizards?  Not really.  We remember Mays' Giants hat falling off as he catches Vic Wertz's fly ball.  We remember Namath's Jets beating the Colts, just as he said they would.  We remember Jordan shooting over Bryon Russell for a sixth Bulls title.   For the most part, we remember the good stuff.  But if any damage was done, it certainly wasn't to the Giants, Jets, or Bulls--it was to the athlete who couldn't quite stick it out with one team for his whole career.  Jeter's fifteen years are secure in Yankee history.  They're not going away and they won't be tarnished by what happens now.  It's Jeter's legacy, not the Yankees', that's still on the line and it's his greed that's to blame.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cam Newton and the NCAA

The circumstantial evidence against Auburn quarterback Cam Newton is pretty damning.  There are three independent sources who claim that either Newton, his father, or someone acting on their behalf, either asked for payment from Mississippi St., or inferred that they were receiving payments from Auburn in return for Newton's enrollment.  There's also a report that Newton was caught in three separate acts of academic dishonesty while at Florida, and left the school rather than appear before the student conduct committee.

There's also the bizarre way in which Newton chose where to go to school.  Admittedly preferring Mississippi St., Newton ceded the decision to his father, Cecil, who abruptly chose Auburn.  At the time of the decision, the church at which Cecil Newton is pastor was in violation of city building codes.  The church has since been renovated and the NCAA is investigating its finances.  Admittedly, none of this proves anything, but none of it looks good either.

Perhaps Cam Newton is the victim of a libel campaign carried out by the school he left (Florida) and the school he spurned (Mississsippi St.).  The NCAA is a notoriously slow investigator.  Reggie Bush won the Heisman in 2005, and only gave it back a few months ago, five years later.  So, Cam Newton will almost surely end the season (likely his last as a college student) as an eligible athlete.  Barring a quick resolution, this is as it should be.  He's innocent until proven guilty.  He should win the Heisman Trophy which, according to its instructions, goes to the most outstanding college football player who is "a bona fide student ... in compliance with the bylaws defining an NCAA student athlete."  Cam Newton is the best college football player in the country and he is in compliance with the NCAA (for now).  He should win.

But, and remember none of this has been proven, it seems likely that Cam Newton and Auburn cheated. Is it the end of the world if Auburn paid Cam Newton or his father so that they could renovate his church?  No.  Is Cam Newton the only collegiate athlete who (allegedly) got paid?  Of course not.  If Cam Newton wasn't a world class athlete, and just a regular college student, would we disapprove of him fundraising for his father's church?  No, in fact if anyone cared, they'd probably find it laudable.  There's a lot of corruption in college football, and Cam Newton is only (allegedly) a small part of it.

But (it seems) he did break the rules, and he did get caught.  If Auburn paid Cam Newton, they tilted the playing field in their favor.  They gave themselves an unfair advantage over teams that play by the rules.  No different than if players use steroids or coaches videotape other teams' signals.  So, if the NCAA finds that Auburn broke the rules, they will be punished, as they should be.

By that time, Cam Newton and his teammates will be long gone.  It will be some future generation of Auburn football that bears the sanctions for their sins.  Games will be voided.  If Auburn wins the rest of their games, and the national championship, we'll be told it never happened.  Just like we've been told that Reggie Bush wasn't really the best college football player of 2005.  Just like Memphis didn't really lose to Kansas on Mario Chalmers' miracle shot in the 2008 NCAA basketball championship, because of course that whole Memphis season never really happened.  Just like Chris Webber never called a timeout he didn't have in the 1993 national title game, because of course the Fab Five never really happened.

The NCAA's policy seems to be one of retroactive nullification.  They can't really catch cheaters while they're cheating, but don't worry, years from now we'll be told that a bunch of games never happened. Maybe there isn't a better way for the NCAA to handle situations like these.  They certainly can't invalidate players or programs without solid proof.  Investigations take time and the NCAA can't really be blamed because the protagonists in their dramas have left the stage by the time denouement is reached.

But this is cold comfort to those who play by the rules.  By the NCAA's logic, Boise St. and TCU may well go undefeated only to sit by and watch as a team, which ends up being invalidated, plays for their national championship.

Don't worry, we'll be told.  We don't need a playoff.  The BCS works.  College football has the best regular season of any sport.  Every week is a playoff.  Every game counts.  Except, that is, for every game that Boise St. and TCU played and won, because they didn't count enough to get either team a shot at the national championship.  Except, that is, for every game Auburn played, because a few years from now, we may be told that they never even happened.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Randy Moss, Allen Iverson, and Maurice Lucas

Randy Moss had one superlative year. Yes, he was great in his first stint with the Vikings, and he was a pro-bowler in his last two years with the Patriots. Moss is a future hall of famer on the strength of his entire career, but it was only 2007 when every Sunday felt like there wasn't a man on earth, much less the opposing sideline, who could stop Randy Moss from catching the football. He caught 23 touchdowns in 2007, more than anyone has ever caught. His team scored 589 points in 2007, more than any team has ever scored. Images of Moss from 2007 stick in the memory. Catching a touchdown between two Dolphins in the end zone. The coverage couldn't have been better, Tom Brady threw a jump ball, and Randy Moss was bigger, stronger, and a better leaper than the two men guarding him. He wanted the ball more and he was more equipped to get it, so he did. Streaking down the sideline agianst the Giants in the last game of the regular season, Tom Brady could have thrown the ball a mile, and Randy Moss would have run under it. And the first game of the 2007 season, against the Jets. Moss was running a post down the right sideline and Brady heaved it towards the left corner of the end zone. Moss blazed across the field, leaving three Jets struggling futilely in his wake, chasing like Keystone Cops. Of course Moss ran under the pass for a touchdown. In 2007 you could not overthrow Randy Moss. The man was a gazelle. No one ever looked more majestic on a football field than Randy Moss at full speed.

Unfortunately, it's hard to imagine a man acting smaller than Moss did on Friday, allegedly berating a caterer. Moss' boorish rant led to his dismissal by the Vikings. It's the fourth time a team has cut ties to Moss, each time his team received nothing approaching fair value for one of the greatest receivers of all time.

Allen Iverson had one superlative year. Yes, he's won four scoring titles, but in 2000-01 he captivated, he mesmerized. He's always been the smallest and the fastest man on the court. He's always been relentless, fearless in driving to the basket, irrepressible in attacking men a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than himself. In 2001 Iverson willed a very flawed team, with no other great players, to the NBA Finals. Once there, he scored 48 points to win game one, giving the much vaunted LA Lakers their only loss of the 2001 postseason. In that game's most memorable sequence, all of Iverson, for better and worse, is on display: His breathtaking quickness and skill in crossing up and shooting over the Lakers' quickest player, Tyronn Lue; and his self assurance, cockiness, and bravado in stepping right over a prostrate Lue in front of an animated Lakers' bench and screaming LA crowd.

Much like Moss, who famously "plays when he wants to play," Iverson's brilliance always came with a self-assurance that flirted with self-righteousness, a confidence that blended with arrogance. And, much like Moss, Iverson has now parted ways with four teams, a disporportionately large number for two men with such prodigious talents. Iverson, far from washed up, but unwilling to play a lesser role than he once did, was passed over by all 32 NBA teams this off-season. Just last week, he signed a contract to play basketball in Turkey, and seems unlikely to ever play in the NBA again; a belittling end for an all time great.

"He was very black, very articulate, very political, a strong and independent man sprung from circumstances that could also create great insecurity. There was about him a constant sense of challenge; everything was a struggle, and everything was a potential confrontation, a struggle for turf and position. It was in part what had made him at his best so exceptional an athlete. He liked the clash of will. He was at once an intensely proud black man, justifiably angry about the injustice around him, and a superb and subtle con artist, a man who had in effect invented himself and his persona."

These words seem as if they were written about Moss or Iverson (both were involved in racially charged brawls in high school). They were, in fact, written about another man who had one superlative season. The preceding paragraph is from David Halberstam's 1981 book, The Breaks of the Game and is describing Maurice Lucas who died on Sunday, far too young at 58, of bladder cancer. In 1976-77 Lucas led the Portland Trailblazers in scoring, and along with Bill Walton, led Portland to the NBA title. That team, although it would fall apart after just one year, is an iconic one in NBA lore. Halberstam writes, "It was a wonderful moment...It was not just that they had won, but the way that they had won, unselfish in a selfish world and a selfish profession. It had been not just a matter of scoring baskets, but of scoring baskets off the perfect pass." Two years later, Walton (who loved Lucas so much he named his son after him) was gone to San Diego and Lucas was hampered by injuries and unhappy about his contract. He would play the next 12 years of his career with six different teams, never coming close to recapturing the magic of 1977, just as Moss and Iverson have never been able to duplicate the magic of 2007 and 2001, respectively.

Who knows what factors converged to make just one year so great for these three men. Greatness is fleeting, ephemeral, hard to pin down. Moss has played with great quarterbacks--Randall Cuningham, Daunte Culpepper (both in their primes), Tom Brady, and Brett Favre--almost his entire career, but never quite reached the take your breath away greatness that he did in 2007. He's about to join his fifth team, and his third this year. For much of his career, Iverson played on teams built around him, tailored to his strengths, but his swagger and talent never coalesced into team greatness quite like they did in 2001. He'll likely spend the rest of his career playing in a basketball backwater. Maurice Lucas was a brooding physical presence. Nicknamed, the Enforcer, he was an enormously powerful man with exceptional quickness and skill for his size. An all-NBA player, he should have been an asset to every team he was on. But his career never quite reached the same heights as it did in his first year in the NBA, 1976-77.