Monday, December 6, 2010

2010-2011 NCAA Division I-A Football Playoff Bracket

Sweet 16
Chick-fil-A Bowl: 1 Auburn Tigers vs. 16 Troy Trojans
Champs Sports Bowl: 8 Arkansas Razorbacks vs. 9 Michigan State Spartans
Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl: 5 Wisconsin Badgers vs. 12 Nevada Wolfpack
Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl: 4 Stanford Cardinal vs. 13 Central Florida Golden Knights
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: 2 Oregon Ducks vs. 15 Miami Redhawks
AT&T Cotton Bowl: 7 Oklahoma Sooners vs. 10 Boise State Broncos
Meineke Car Care Bowl: 6 Ohio State Buckeyes vs. 11 Virginia Tech Hokies
Outback Bowl: 3 Texas Christian Horned Frogs vs. 14 Connecticut Huskies

Elite 8 (National Quarterfinals)
Allstate Sugar Bowl: 1 Auburn/16 Troy vs. 8 Arkansas/9 Michigan State
Valero Alamo Bowl: 4 Stanford/13 Central Florida vs. 5 Wisconsin/12 Nevada
Tostitos Fiesta Bowl: 2 Oregon/15 Miami vs. 7 Oklahoma/10 Boise State
Capital One Bowl: 3 TCU/14 Connecticut vs. 6 Ohio State/11 Virginia Tech

Final Four (National Semifinals)
Discover Orange Bowl: 1/8/9/16 vs. 4/5/12/13
Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO: 2/7/10/15 vs. 3/6/11/14

National Finals
Tostitos National Championship Game

Seedings and Bowl Selections
1 Auburn (SEC Champion, BCS #1), 13-0
2 Oregon (Pac-10 Champion, BCS #2), 12-0
3 TCU (MWC Champion, BCS #3), 12-0
4 Stanford (at large, BCS #4), 11-1
5 Wisconsin (Big Ten Champion, BCS #5), 11-1
6 Ohio State (at large, BCS #6), 11-1
7 Oklahoma (Big 12 Champion, BCS #7), 11-2
8 Arkansas (at large, BCS #8), 10-2
9 Michigan State (at large, BCS #9), 11-1
10 Boise State (at large, BCS #10), 11-1
11 Virginia Tech (ACC Champion, BCS #13), 11-2
12 Nevada (WAC Champion, BCS #15), 12-1
13 Central Florida (C-USA Champion, BCS #25), 10-3
14 Connecticut (Big East Champion, unranked), 8-4
15 Miami (Mid-American Champion, unranked), 9-4
16 Troy (Sun Belt Champion, unranked), 6-6

Because there were four conference champions not ranked among the top 16 at the end of the season, four teams who were ranked in the top 16 were bumped out of the playoffs: 11 LSU (3rd in the SEC, 10-2), 12 Missouri (3rd in the Big 12, 10-2), 14 Oklahoma State (4th in the Big 12, 10-2), and Alabama (5th in the SEC, 9-3).

The Fiesta Bowl is next in the BCS rotation and will host the national championship game.
The Orange Bowl won the lottery and chose to host the potential 1 vs. 4 semifinal game.
The Rose Bowl was next and will host the potential 2 vs. 3 seminal game.
The Sugar Bowl chose to host the potential 1 vs. 8 quarterfinal game.
The Fiesta Bowl chose to host the potential 2 vs. 7 quarterfinal game.
The Capital One Bowl had the highest non-BCS TV rating in 2009-10 and chose to host the potential 3 vs. 6 quarterfinal game.
The Alamo Bowl was next and will host the potential 4 vs. 5 quarterfinal game.
The Fight Hunger Bowl (formerly the Emerald Bowl) was next and chose to host 4 Stanford vs. 13 Central Florida.
The Meineke Car Care Bowl was next and chose to host 6 Ohio State vs. 11 Virginia Tech.
The Cotton Bowl was next and chose to host 7 Oklahoma vs. 10 Boise State.
The Champs Sports Bowl was next and chose to host 8 Arkansas vs. 9 Michigan State.
The Chick-fil-A Bowl was next and chose to host 1 Auburn vs. 16 Troy.
The Liberty Bowl was next and chose to host 2 Oregon vs. 15 Miami.
The Holiday Bowl was next and chose to host 5 Wisconsin vs. 12 Nevada.
The Outback Bowl was next and will host 3 TCU vs. 14 Connecticut.

Read here for information on how this tournament came to replace the BCS.

UPDATE: As noted in this article, the "final" BCS rankings released last week were incorrect.  Apparently no one really checks the data before it is released each week and since their mathematical system for determining the rankings is not made public, no one really can.  It was later discovered that a I-AA playoff game was omitted from the mathematical morass, probably because someone figured a game between two I-AA schools doesn't matter.  Turns out it does because they also played against I-A schools this year, so their records affect strength of schedule for a whole web of I-A schools.  Long story short, LSU and Boise State were incorrectly ranked 10th and 11th, respectively, but they should have been flipped.  In this bracket, I had initially placed LSU at #10 and in the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma in the first round.  I have since fixed this error and replaced LSU with Boise State.   The Cotton Bowl would likely still choose this matchup because Oklahoma is so close to Dallas and Boise State's presence creates a big national buzz.

NCAA Division I-A Playoff Guidelines

The 2010-11 Playoff Bracket is posted here, but before we proceed, a few notes on the new playoff system:

The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system has been dismantled because it became clear that the best interests of neither the sport nor of the student-athletes were in mind.  Further, as will be shown is another post, the BCS was not the ratings-grabbing money-maker that it was purported to be, and it was determined that not only could a playoff do a better job of determining a national champion, but it could also make more money for the schools, conferences, the NCAA, the networks, and the corporate sponsors, while not interfering with the student-athletes' educational interests.

Since we have switched to a playoff system for the "Football Bowl Series" or "FBS", that name no longer applies.  Therefore we are switching back to the traditional "I-A" and "I-AA" instead of "FBS" and "FCS."  The NCAA apologizes for this as one of many, many embarrassing and ridiculous errors during the BCS-era.

Many bowl games are still under contract with corporate sponsors, and fans enjoy the "bowl atmosphere", so we have decided to maintain the names of the bowls within the playoff format.  The four BCS bowl games were given prominent spots in the lineup.

In the BCS system, the national championship game rotated through the four BCS-bowl sites on a four-year cycle, so every four years, each of those four sites actually got to host two bowls: their own plus the national championship game.   This system will continue, with the Fiesta Bowl keeping its spot for 2010-11.

There will then be a lottery among the other three bowls to determine which games they host.  The winner will host a national semifinal game (Final Four) and gets to choose which side of the bracket they want (the 1 vs. 4 side or the 2 vs. 3 side).  The next winner gets the other national semifinal (Final Four).  The third team will host a national quarterfinal game (Elite Eight) and gets to choose which game (1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, or 4 vs. 5).  The national championship host then gets to choose which national quarterfinal (Elite Eight) they will host as well.

The remaining playoff games (two Elite Eight games and eight Sweet 16 games) will be hosted by the next 10 most-prominent bowls based on last year's television ratings.  Beginning in 2011-12, all other bowl contracts will be voided and these 10 games will be up for sponsorship and will simply go to the highest bidder.  The same will hold for all 15 games' television rights.  2010-11 contracts will hold but all networks will have open bidding for all games starting in 2011-12.

This only allows for 15 playoff-bowl games, but 35 bowls had been scheduled for 2010-11.  After the 16-team playoff field is selected, those other 20 bowls may invite any bowl-eligible teams they choose.  In subsequent years, an N.I.T.-type secondary tournament is likely to arise, replacing (or absorbing) many of these lower-tier bowls.

Team Selection:  One automatic playoff bid will be awarded to the champion of each of the 11 I-A conferences.  At-large bids will be presented to the next five highest ranked teams.  Conferences will determine their own champions (based on regular season standings, a conference title game or ranking system).  The five at-large schools will be determined by the final BCS rankings.  Generally speaking, the BCS' ranking system is effective.  Each year it will be reviewed to fix any problems that arise, but for the time being, it will remain the official ranking system that determines the seeding.

The 11 conferences with automatic bids are the Southeastern, Pacific 10, Mountain West, Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast, Western Athletic, Conference-USA, Big East, Mid-American and Sun Belt conferences.  The inclusion of each of them will hopefully prevent the concentration of football powers in 3-4 leagues.  Since schools will be have good opportunities to make the playoffs from any conference, they will be more likely to stay in the conferences that suit their entire athletic departments and universities, not just one of the 3-4 "major" conferences from the current BCS system.

This automatic-bid system will preclude some possibly-deserving schools from making the playoffs and include some seemingly undeserving schools.  For instance, Boise State will be left out of the 2010-11 playoffs, but Troy will be included.  This is unfortunate, but no matter what the system, there will always be someone left out.  It is more fair to have the #11 team left out than the #3 team, which occurs currently in the BCS system.  There will be no minimum eligibility requirements for being playoff eligible besides winning a conference championship.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Commissioner of Sports: November Decrees

Ah, November Baseball
On the NFL's new tackling controversy:
Many NFL players and alumni were upset recently when Commissioner Goodell said that helmet-to-helmet and other illegal hits would result in increased fines and even suspensions.  The common defense of these hits was that "football is a violent game," "that's how we've been taught to tackle since pee-wee football," and "they're interfering with my ability to do my job." 

Each of these points is stupid because the hits that Goodell is cracking down on were already illegal.  Yes, it is a violent game, but there is no need to intentionally inflict injury, and James Harrison infamously said is his intent when he hits someone.  Intentionally attacking someone physically is a crime and as we have seen in the NHL, especially cheap shots on the field can be prosecuted off of it.  No pee-wee football player was taught to dive into another player headfirst - you are taught to keep your head up so you can see if the guy makes a move and you are taught to wrap him up with your arms, not bounce off and hope you hit him hard enough to knock him down. 

On the MLB schedule and playoff expansion:
Major League Baseball's season is unnecessarily long, causing the World Series to tumble in November.  There are two reasons why this has never been remedied: cutting games means cutting revenue and would destroy baseball sacred statistics.  Both are reasonable.  But not enough.

MLB should change to a 140 game schedule, cutting interleague out of the regular season schedule.  The season could start later and this would also allow more time for the World Baseball Classic and the Olympics.  The shorter season would still provide ample time to determine the best playoff teams.  The risk is that owners would raise ticket prices fractionally to make up for the 11-lost home games, but I will address that later. 

Additionally, the playoffs should not be expanded beyond the current 8-team format.  If after 162 (or 140) games, you still can't get yourself into a better position than third place, you are clearly not the best team and shouldn't get to be in the playoffs.  And no World Series game should ever be scheduled to be played in November.  The divisional series should be expanded to best-of-7 series, which will require a tightening of the playoff schedule.  This year teams played 162 games in 182 days (including a 3 day break for the All-Star game).  That means they play a game every 27 hours for six months - 20 rest days.  If a team had played all 19 scheduled playoff games (5+7+7), they would have played a game every 35 hours - 9 rest days.  There is no need for so much time off.  One travel day could be eliminated from each of the three playoff rounds (still leaving two rainout makeup days per round), two games could be added to the LDS round, and the whole 21-game tournament could be completed in fewer days than the current system is - and in October, where it belongs. 

On ticket prices at sporting events:
On one level, sports is a business and business owners have the right to charge whatever they want for their products.  If the price is too high, consumers won't buy and they'll have to drop prices.  Hurray America.  But as any sports fan will tell you, sports is not just a business.  When a deli has a good month, the owner takes home a little extra cash.  That's a business.  When a sports franchise has a good month, millions of fans are taken along for the ride.  When a business succeeds in some huge way, there's a blip on the ticker on your TV.  When a sports teams succeeds in a huge way, there are parades through downtown. 

So since sports is more than a business, it is a part of people's families, it cannot only be controlled by the free market.  From season to season, ticket prices cannot be raised beyond the rise in inflation plus a percentage increase equal to the increase in value for the seats (new HD jumbotron?  That's worth a percentage per seat per game).  Additionally, while it is reasonable to have premier pricing for premier opponents, it is not reasonable to increase pricing based on expected weather or other factors that the team cannot control. 

The San Francisco Giants charge more for a Dodgers series than a Marlins series.  That's reasonable.  But they and others have reportedly considered having pricing increase based on other factors, such as weather forecasts and specific player matchups.  That's not reasonable because they cannot guarantee the thing they are charging more for.  If my seat is in the shade and I am a little cool, I might want a refund.  Or it is too sunny and I get a sunburn.  Or it's a little windier in my section.  Or the forecast is wrong completely.  Or on gameday Roy Halladay decides his shoulder is sore and he wants a few days to rest it.  Or the manager decides to give Albert Pujols the day off.  Or Pujols gets hurt in the first and comes out of the game.  Or he goes 0-4.  In any of these (very reasonable) situations, the fans aren't getting what they paid for and should be entitled to a refund.

On college sports rankings:
Is there anyone left who still thinks the BCS is a good idea or that it is working properly?  During its reign, how many times has it come up with a #1 vs. #2 matchup that was unassailable?  Once?  Twice?  The previous system did not work either, of course, which is what necessitated the change in the first place.  But we now have a pretty good sample size and this experiment doesn't work.  You know what does work for basically every other league at every level of basically every sport in the world?  Playoffs.  Bad for business?  I don't think so.  Will you watch the BCS title game this year?  Sure.  How many of the next best 15 bowls will you watch?  Three?  Four?  How many of the 15 games would you watch in a 16-team tournament?  Twelve?  Thirteen?  Tell advertisers that viewership will be roughly 3-4 times what it is currently and see how bad for business a playoff would be.

The AP recently named their preseason All-America team and for the first time in a long time, the men's team included a freshman.  That sound you hear is the death-knell of such pre-season voting.  I officially bad pre-season All-Conference and All-American voting.  This is even more of a complete guess than Mel Kiper's 2011 Mock Draft that he published in April of 2010.  At least Kiper had seen the kids play before.

On the NFL's various expansion plans:
No American sports league shall expand to include European-based teams until travel from the west coast of North America takes as long to get to the eastern edge of Europe as it does to get to the east coast of North America today, and until the world stops using time zones.  So don't hold your breath. 

Currently the NFL absurdly forces two teams to play one game per season in London.  The schedule is set so that these teams have their bye week after the trip.  How would it work if we had teams playing in Europe regularly?  Byes would have to be scheduled throughout the season for such travel.  And European teams would have to have multiple byes to make up for all the games they have to travel to America for. 

Another thought is that the NFL would have a third conference based in Europe.  Not only would this not eliminate the constant travel problems, it also creates a talent-pool problem.  Teams in the current NFC and AFC play inter-conference games each week.  Would they continue to play these while the 16 new European teams only play one another all season?  Certainly that would be a competitive imbalance, not to mention that adding many more teams would destroy the talent level in the league as whole. 

Additionally, the NFL tried this before.  NFL-Europe failed miserably.  Why would this do any better?

Finally, the NFL will not expand to an 18-game regular season.  Goodell parades around with a stern look on his face and a quick trigger for suspensions and fines when it comes to issues of player safety, but if he had to choose between player safety and more revenue, he'd double the ticket prices and have players play without pads and allow each team to have a sniper on the sidelines.

Yes, players could get injured in Week 1 just as likely as in Week 18, but that's not a good argument.  Russian roulette is dangerous.  Maybe you'll find the bullet on the first try, or maybe on the sixth.  But why not negotiate for more chances to pull the trigger?  By the end of an NFL season, teams are quite lucky to have the key players in tact.  So lucky that the top seeds are even given an extra week just to try and recover a little.  So why make them all beat themselves up for two more weeks when they already barely make it out standing up?

On professional sports labor standoffs:
Basically every time a labor agreement is set to end in any professional sport, both sides accuse the other of unfair negotiation tactics.  Often there is a lockout or strike.  And neither side really needs to budge because they're all millionaires (or billionaires) anyway.  But the fans get screwed.  We miss out on games, playoffs, and even entire seasons.  So from now on, if the two sides cannot negotiate a new deal by the time the current one expires, all the issues being haggled over will be posted on the league's website.  Each side will be given a paragraph per issue to make their case.  Fan will then vote.  The options will be A: Players get their way. B: 50/50. D: Owners get their way.  No other options to confuse it.  Find some fancy way to prevent ballot stuffing and post it online. 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Commissioner of Sports on Jets Locker Room Controversy

Recently a huge national story was made out of a complete non-story (I know, be more specific).  In this case, it was a female reporter apparently feeling harrassed by athletes and coaches in the Jets' locker room.  Never mind that this reporter was scantilly clad and markets herself as the sexiest woman in sports, so it is surprising that she is allegedly upset by getting the exact reaction she is aiming for.  The issue for me is that a female reporter was in the locker room in the first place.

A few years ago, this debate reached its peak and female reporters were allowed to work in men's locker rooms despite all of the naked and half-naked men there.  The thinking was that not allowing them in the locker room would create an unfair advantage for their male-reporter-competition.  There is some logic to that.  However, even as a news and sports producer for CBS, I think I would have been arrested had I entered the women's locker room at a WNBA game, tennis tournament, or other women's event.  Rightfully so!

So we shouldn't have reporters in the opposite sex's locker rooms, but we have to allow reporters equal access to the athletes and coaches.  Hmm.  If only there was a room where the press could conduct interviews after a sporting event.  An interview room, perhaps.  What's that?  There are interview rooms in basically every professional stadium in the world and the athletes and coaches go there after leaving the locker room every time anyway?

Well then, how about we just don't allow the press into locker rooms at all.  Allow the players to celebrate or punch holes in the walls in private.  Allow in-fighting and coaches' talks in private.  Allow them time to take care of their personal hygiene, physical therapy, and dressing in private.  Then interview them in the interview room.

Click here for previous issues tackled by the Commissioner of Sports.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What He Really Said: Reggie Bush

Painfully out-of-character statements of apology can sometimes seem as insulting as the offense for which they are issued.  Are we really to believe that a kid who can't spell his own name, but whose ability to dunk a ball in 7th grade got him C's on report cards for the next seven years until he was eligible for the draft, really wrote out prose so clear, precise and erudite and that it would make Hemingway blush?

What if the handlers wrote these statements in character?  Or what if they didn't write them at all?  What if the one apologizing actually did the apologizing?

Worn down by months of media attention, today Reggie Bush forfeited his 2005 Heisman Trophy and released the following statement:

"One of the greatest honors of my life was winning the Heisman Trophy in 2005.  For me, it was a dream come true. But I know that the Heisman is not mine alone. Far from it. I know that my victory was made possible by the discipline and hard work of my teammates, the steady guidance of my coaches, the inspiration of the fans, and the unconditional love of my family and friends. And I know that any young man fortunate enough to win the Heisman enters into a family of sorts. Each individual carries the legacy of the award and each one is entrusted with its good name.

“It is for these reasons that I have made the difficult decision to forfeit my title as Heisman winner of 2005."

What he really said:
"One of the greatest tricks to hooking up with chicks in my life was winning the Heisman Trophy in 2005. I mean, I did alright before because I was pretty much the shit in high school and then I went to USC and we ruled that place.  I didn't go to class...I didn't have to pay for anything...  I pretty much just worked out, studied film, practiced, hooked up, and made dudes look stupid like that guy from Oregon that I juked out that they keep showing on ESPN.  But then when I won the Heisman, man the women I started hooking up with were on another level.  Have you seen Kim Kardassian's ass? And any dude that wins the Heisman gets the same kinda women.  I mean Chris Weinke was a nasty looking dude and he was getting Heisman action.  Actually, not "any dude" because Ty Detmer was supposedly like a monk or something.  But even Tebow got down.  You saw that picture with that girl.  Sure, you're "just friends," Tim.  I'm just friends with Mayra Veronica, too.  And I have tons of sex with my friend, too. 
"But let's face it.  I cheated my ass off at USC.  We got a house, man.  Those fools at Oklahoma got busted for getting paid to work at a car dealership that they didn't work at.  I got a house.  So anyway, everyone's freaking out about it, and the Heisman groupies move on pretty quickly anyway, so I am just gonna give that shit back.  Hell, I don't need it anymore.  I won a Super Bowl.  Plus, I don't think Mayra even knows what the Heisman is.  And let's face it, that little dude got me hooked into the Kardassians and those chicks are psycho.  Huh, that's funny.  You win the Heisman, you get the hot, crazy sister in a family of groupies.  You win the NBA title like Odom, and you get the ugly, chubby, crazy sister.  And then the Super Bowl gets you whatever the hell you want, although I think I need to upgrade.
"It is for these reasons that I have made the "difficult" decision to forfeit my title as Heisman winner of 2005.  Plus, I was 'roided up the whole time, so it doesn't really count anyway.  Also, I am sorry that I got caught."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tour de France 2010: Rest Day Recap 2

Setting the Stage: Stages 1-8
Before the Tour, we were supposed to believe that the 2010 Tour de France would be a showdown between 7-time champion American Lance Armstrong of Team Radio Shack and 2-time champion Spaniard Alberto Cantador of Team Astana.  I'm not sure how many people really thought Armstrong still had the juice to go toe-to-toe with the world best stage racer, but then I suppose there weren't many people who thought he'd live through his bout with testicular/lung/brain cancer, or who thought he'd become a professional cyclist again, or a good cyclist again, or win the Tour de straight times.  The guy is good at confounding expectations. 

Early on in the 2010 Tour, it looked like Armstrong may have had the legs to compete among the leaders, but he didn't have the luck.  A series of badly timed crashes knocked him out of the running and by the first rest day, 8 stages in, the actual picture of what the final podium might look like was beginning to take shape.  Australia's Cadel Evans of BMC Racing was in the lead, 2009 runner-up Luxembourger Andy Schleck of SaxoBank was in his familar 2nd-place spot, and 2010 champion Cantador was nipping at both of their heals in third.  Most of the other expected contenders were all within a few minutes of the lead.

Week 2 Highlights
Stage 9: Evans moved into the over all lead after stage 8 simply by surviving that brutal day in the main pack of contenders and having the previous over all leader, Sylvain Chavanel, drop back early in the day.  He is an excellent time trial racer and had a lead of 1:01 over Cantador, so his goal was probably to simply shadow Cantador for the next 10 stages and not allow him to get away, rather than to attack him and gain time.  Whatever his stategy may have been, Evans' poor history while wearing the yellow jersey turned out to be a harbinger of things to come.

The stage covered somewhere in the neighborhood of 16,000 feet of climbing (the equivalent of riding over halfway up Mt. Everest) in the Alps, including the famous Col de la Colombiere and Col de la Madeleine.  The over all favorites ("general classification" or "GC") were not expected to attack much this early in the Tour, especially with a long descent at the end of the stage, unless one of them showed weakness and could be shed from the pack.  Three-quarters of the way through the stage, and halfway up the Madeleine, the GC men were sticking together and allowing a breakway group to hold a small lead.

But when SaxoBank and Astana took up the pace-making to support their stars, the peloton broke apart.  Astana's Alexander Vinokourov made the first bold attack away from the GC men before relenting to the hill and falling back into the pack, but the chase caused by Vino's attack was enough to unhitch Evans from the group and his dream of wearing Yellow in Paris was over.  It was later revealed that he was riding after breaking his elbow three days earlier in a Stage 7 crash, but injury or not, the Yellow jersey was Schleck's for the taking if he could hold his 41-second lead on Cantador.

After a flurry of attacks by the two titans that separated them from the rest of the field, but not from one another, they eased up and let the rest of the remaining GC men rejoin them.  The elite of the race would be splintered into multiple groups over the top of the Madeleine with a long descent into the finish to test their nerves.  Schleck and Cantador would eventually run down the breakaway group finishing only two seconds behind them, putting no less that 50 seconds between themselves and their closest GC competitors.  Schleck was now in first over all, Cantador second, and Spain's Sammie Sanchez, Russia's Denis Menchov, Belgium's Jurgen Van Den Brouck, and American Levi Leipheimer rounded out the top 6, all within 3:59 of the lead.  Frenchman Anthony Charteau took over the Polka Dot climber's jersey after surviving the day in the breakaway.  Evans dropped all the way to 18th, nearly 8 minutes off the pace.

Stage 10: Three things were certain on this Bastille Day stage that led the Tour over its last three Alpine climbs and down into the rolling hills in the middle of the country: the day would be won by someone from a breakway group, the GC men would not attack one another so the standings would likely remain unchanged, and a lot of French riders would get into the break to go for glory on the national holiday.  All three came to pass, but it wasn't a Frenchmen who took home the stage win, as the Portuguese Sergio Paulihno of Radio Shack stole the win at the line.  In fact, the top Frenchman was only 4th, 1:29 behind Paulihno.

Stage 11: Finally out of the Alps, the sprinters were expected to have their day again as long as the peloton would be able to run down the inevitible early breakway.  American sprinter Tyler Farrar or Garmin had had a tough Tour to that point, breaking his wrist nearly before he even started the month of racing, and his task of winning stages got even tougher after teammate Robbie Hunter retired from the race with a broken elbow. 

It was supposed to be a relatively predictable, routine stage: breakway early, sprinters' teams reel them in, lots of wind, rolling hills, sprinters battle it out for the stage win.  And while that is just how it played out, there was plenty of drama.  Brit Mark Cavendish of HTC-Columbia won the stage thanks to the lead-out (think: lead-block by a fullback in football) of teammate Mark Renshaw, but it was Renshaw's brutal headbutting (technically legal) and then cutting-off of Tyler Farrar (not legal) right near the finish that made headlines.  The dangerous tactics got Renshaw booted from the Tour and left Cavendish without his best weapon in the sprints to come at the end of the Tour.  Italian Alexander Pettachi finished just enough places ahead of Thor Hushovd to take the Green sprinters'/points jersey away from the Norwegian. 

Stage 12: Though there were no major climbs in this stage (five Category 2 and 3 climbs though), it was not expected to be a good day for the sprinters, but rather than a breakway group might survive.  With the Pyrenees looming for the next day, the GC men were not expected to do much attacking either until perhaps the day's final climb, a very steep but short Cat 2. 

Vinokourov, always a threat to abandon team tactics and ride selfishly, was in an early break with a few other highly placed riders, so the GC men were never going to let them get away.  As the breakway fell apart and the GC men came chasing as a group, Vino was the only one to survive the break to within about 2 miles of the finish line, and then things got dicey.  Despite that his own teammate was alone in the lead, Cantador (also not one to worry too much about team tactics and etiquette) attacked and got away from his GC contenders.  He actually caught and passed his teammate in the final 1/2 mile, cutting just :10 out of Schleck's over all lead.

With so little time left in the stage to gain time on his true rivals, the bold attack of his own teammate by Contador seems to indicate that there may be a rift on Astana between their two best and most famous riders.  Sound familiar?  Was Cantador concerned about Schleck and feeling more desperate to erase his lead?  Did he simply prefer to ride the race from the front?

Farrar was unable to finish the stage as his broken wrist proved too painful after he'd impressively survived on it for over 10 stages. 

Stage 13: Vinokourov wouldn't have long to wait to get back the glory that his teammate stole from him in Stage 12.  The sprinters' teams helped bring back an early three-man break within the last 6 miles, but just as they did, another attack was launched by six riders, and Vinokourov was the only one of them with the legs to outlast the peloton.  Vino took the win, and Cavendish won the sprint by the peloton, with Pettachi and Hushovd finishing 3rd and 8th, flip-flopping the Green jersey back onto the Italian's back for Stage 14.  Cavendish's win moved him up into third in the Green jersey competition. 

Stage 14: The showdown between Schleck and Cantador was finally ready to begin in earnest.  Finally in the Pyrenees, the riders would spend the next four days climbing over massive mountain peaks and passes, and the two leaders were expected to shed their competitors quickly.  Stage 14 featured a summit finish on a Cat-1 climb, the highest categorized climb.  But it also featured an HC climb just before it, which is off the scale for measuring the length, height, and grade of climbs. 

To this point, Astana and SaxoBank (even without Frank Schleck) had done a fair job of protecting and supporting Cantador and Schleck, but they had also shown that they didn't really need much help anyway.  Astana's brutal pace-making over the second half of the stage had reeled in almost all the riders from an early breakway, and had also kept the GC men in check - unable to get enough pace up to try an attack.  Eventually the lead group was whittled down to a select group (Schleck, Cantador, Sanchez, Menchov, Van Den Brouck, Leipheimer, and Gessink - all of the top 7).  Schleck and Cantador again began attacking in the last 3 miles of the summit-finish.  Neither able to shake the other, they essentially stopped and let Sanchez and Menchov get away, seemingly content to simply finish together and not worry about what anyone else did.  The two escapees only gained 14 seconds on the leaders, and the leaderboard remained unchanged. 

Stage 15: With a very tough day of climbing in this stage, including a final climb up the HC Porte de Bales (6000 feet of climbing for 12 straight miles) and then a hair-raising descent into the finish, we expected some fireworks.  Boy did we get them!

The race did not begin in earnest until they reached the Porte de Bales, and then all hell broke loose.  France's Thomas Voekler had escaped a breakway group and was alone in front, with SaxoBank leading the peloton on the chase that would soon erase basically the whole breakaway.  But as Schleck lost his last pace-setting teammate with 15 miles remaining (approximately 3 more miles of the HC climb), and Cantador still had three with him, Schleck had no choice but to attack to separate Cantador from his mates.  Cantador was able to answer, as were the next three in the standings, but only them.  After about 1/2 mile, this attack relented and some of the other elites were able to rejoin the group, including Vinokourov and Leipheimer. 

But just as they did, Schleck attacked again and this time he seemed to have caught Catador by surprise.  Vino was able to stay with Schleck, but Cantador struggled to find another gear to follow the attack.  But before he was put into any real stress, Schleck's chain popped off his bike and he stopped dead to fix it.  In the meantime, Cantador and the rest of the GC men flew by him and away, going hard over the last two miles of the climb and into the finish, taking 39 seconds away from Schleck and stealing the Yellow jersey from him, despite a heroic solo fight through the broken GC contenders trying to stay with Cantador, Sanchez, and Menchov over the top.

During the Yellow jersey award ceremony after the stage, Cantador received a good amount of boos from the crowd for what some consider an unsportsmanlike attack.  Cantador was later quoted as saying he didn't know what had happened to Schleck so he attacked, but as Lance Armstrong said the next morning, Cantador was 50 feet behind him and had a direct view of Schleck.  He knew exactly what had happened.  There is debate about the etiquette in this situation.  Some say it is a race and it is not Cantador's fault that Schleck's chain fell off.  But others say that the protocol there is to continue on, but not surge, at least until race-radio announces that Schleck is back on the bike. 

By way of comparison, in Stage 15 of the 2003 Tour, Lance Armstrong made an strong attack up a final climb and escaped Jan Ulrich, Tyler Hamilton and the rest of his contenders.  As he rounded a corner, his handlebar hooked into a woman's purse and Armstrong went down.  Ulrich and Hamilton could be seen on camera going by Armstrong as he struggled to get up, and then they eased up their pass (Hamilton even putting an arm out to signify to the rest of the GC pack to ease up).  Armstrong recovered, caught and blew by them and went on to win the stage and clinch the Tour thanks to the huge time he gained on that climb. 

The precedent set time and time again is to not attack in such a situation, and Cantador attacked.  Just as his attack of then-teammate Armstrong in the 2009 Tour, and his attack of teammate Vinokourov earlier this year, Cantador continued to show questionable sportsmanship.  Last year he quieted his critics by winning by such a large margin that his move against Armstrong proved inconsequential, and now in the lead, we might expect the same to happen again.  If not for this quote from Schleck after the stage: "I can't tell you if it was fair or not, but I would not have raced like that.  My stomach is full of anger right now and I want to take my revenge."  You think the final climbs next week might be interesting?

Stage 16: To round out the second week of racing, the Tour visited some of its most brutal climbs, the Col d'Aspin and Col de Tourmalet, but those were only two of four brutal climbs (two Cat-1's and two HC's).  With nearly 100 miles still to ride (after going over the Col d'Aspin), the peloton had already been shattered with such big names as Armstrong, Vinokourov, Bradley Wiggins, Roman Kreuzinger, Ryder Hesjedal, Sandy Casar, and Carlos Sastre in an all-star breakway. 

As they started up the Tourmalet, Armstrong showed that this may have been the stage he had in mind when he said a week earlier that he wanted a stage win in the Pyrenees.  He attacked the lead group, splitting it up even further.  As they made their way up the HC Col d'Aubique, Armstrong's group was down to only five and they were attacking constantly; their lead over the main field had stretched to 8:15.  They were joined by Casar and American Chris Horner on the descent leading into the day's final climb with just under 30 miles remaining. 

After the breakway expanded to 9 riders with 25 miles to go, over the final climb and leading the field by nearly 10 minutes, Carlos Barredo attacked the breakway and eventually put over 40 seconds between himself and Armstrong's group.  But in the final miles, Horner and Armstrong helped carry the remaining breakway riders until they finally caught Barredo with just 1/3 mile remaining.  Armstrong's dream of one last stage win was dashed as he was out-sprinted at the line, but his brilliant attacking carried the entire breakaway the whole day and Armstrong proved himself once again to be a formidable champion. 

What's To Come?
Cantador leads Schleck by :08 in the Yellow jersey chase.  Sanchez is third (2:00) and Menchov 4th (2:13)

Stage 17: Once more to the Col de Tourmalet, this time from the other (harder) approach, and this time with a summit finish.  This may be Schleck's last time to show us that anger in his stomach and get any time on Contador.  Most believe Cantador will be able to make up as much as 2:00 in the final time trial if needed, so Schleck cannot afford to wait for a last minute attack, he'll have to break Cantador early and get away - which isn't something we've ever seen anyone do.

Stage 18: A day for the sprinters, Schleck can't expact to gain any time on Contador on this pancake-flat stage...unless Contador crashes and Schleck gives him the same treatment he received in Stage 15 (incidentally, I would bet that if that happened, Schleck would sit up and wait for Cantador). 

Stage 19: A 30 mile, completely flat time trial that will likely provide Cantador with another stage win unless Schleck channels his inner-Fabian Cancellara.  Or unless Cancellara wins it again, of course.

Stage 20: Typically more of a parade into and around Paris for the GC men than a race, this stage could end up actually meaning quite a bit.  Schleck may be close enough to contend with Cantador.  And Cavendish may be close enough to Hushovd and Pettachi to make it a three-man race for the Green jersey, not just two.

Yellow/Individual: Cantador by between 1:00 and 1:30
Green/Points: Hushovd
Polka Dot/Climber: Anthony Charteau
White/Youth: Schleck
Team: Radio Shack

Monday, July 12, 2010

Tour de France 2010: Rest Day Recap 1

It looks like the 2010 Tour de France won't exactly live up to it's Lance vs. Cantador bidding, but it may end up being even better. 

Pre-Race Build-Up
When Lance Armstrong retired from cycling in 2006 after winning seven straight Tours de France, it was Spain's Alberto Cantador that took up the mantle of the world's greatest road cyclist, and he did it for Armstrong's old team and manager, Discovery and Johan Bruyneel.  Catador won the 2007 Tour and looked primed to start his own streak.  Discovery dropped their sponsorship of the team however, and Bruyneel took his team to Astana, rebuilding the team after it had been decimated by doping violations. 

The sins of the prior team management and athletes haunted Astana in 2008 as they were banned from the Tour de France, despite that no one on the team or running the team had been around when the doping had occurred.  So Cantador was prevented from defending his title, and a somewhat lackluster 2008 Tour was won by Carlos Sastre. 

Armstrong came back out of retirement for the 2009 season and joined Bruyneel with Astana, but he openly said at the time that the team's leader was Cantador, who had developed into the world's greatest climber, an exceptional time trialist, and a master tactician.  He was simply the best rider in the world and Armstrong wanted to support him and help raise the profile of his own cancer-fighting efforts.  However Armstrong's fame and the surprisingly high level at which he was riding after three years off were clear problems for the team and a rivalry developed between the two champions. 

After six stages of the 2009 Tour, Armstrong was placed above Cantador in the overall standings, though he still insisted he was riding in support of Cantador.  After all, what happens in the first week is generally only a footnote to how things finish up.  That said, when Cantador attacked on a climb in stage 7, carrying two rival riders away and pushing his own teammates (Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, and Andreas Kloden) down in the standings, it was considered against protocol, especially since the team had been specifically directed by their manager to not make such a move.  So Cantador bolted away, Saxobank's Frank and Andy Schleck went with him, and Armstrong stayed back to prevent other rivals from bridging the gap along with him, and a serious schism was formed within the team.

For the remainder of the 2009 Tour, Armstrong dutifully played the role of support rider, and those on the team in his camp did the same. Cantador went on to a sizeable win in the 2009 Tour.  Afterwards, he cut the last tenuous ties to Armstrong by badmouthing him in post-race interviews and that spelled the end of that generation of Team Astana.  Armstrong and Bruyneel went on to form Team RadioShack for 2010 and took eight of the nine riders from Astana with them (Cantador being the lone hold-out, of course).

Much of the pre-2010 Tour press billed this race as a final showdown between the retiring Lance Armstrong and the reigning Alberto Cantador.  And as great as that story might have been, it was not to be.  But it's probably not even the most intriguing of plots. 

  • Would Cantador's reformed Astana team be strong enough to support him?
  • Could Astana stay clean with the management and primary rider (Alexander Vinokourov) just coming off of two-year bans for doping?
  • Is Cantador so strong that he doesn't need support anyway?
  • Can two loose cannons like Vinokourov and Cantador co-exist or will Vino try to hijack the team like he did from Jan Ullrich on T-Mobile?
  • Is Armstrong still strong enough to truly compete?
  • Isn't Cantador's true rival Andy Schleck?
  • Can Cadel Evans get over the hump and win it all on a new team with George Hincapie at his side?
  • Aside from Cantador's dominance, this appears to be one of the deepest talent pools perhaps of all time, with no less than 11 reasonable picks to win (Cantador, Armstrong, Leipheimer, Christian Vandevelde, Schleck, Evans, Frank Schleck, Bradley Wiggins, Ivan Basso, Denis Menchov, and Michael Rogers).
  • How many stages can Mark Cavendish win, and will Tyler Farrar finally get one?
  • Cavendish vs. Thor Hushovd in the Green jersey competition.
  • Who is the next great American to emerge (Leipheimer, Vandevelde, Chris Horner, Farrar, David Zabriskie)?
  • Three American teams for the first time ever.
  • Will Fabian Cancellara really have a motor on his bike during the Prologue and time trial?
  • How long will Cancellara hang onto the Yellow jersey after his certain win in the Prologue?
Now a week later, many of these questions have been answered, but the biggest ones have not been, and perhaps the most interesting storyline that no one thought of has emerged: what if Armstrong falls out of contention in week one and then just starts attacking like a mad-man and blows the whole race apart later?

Week 1 Highlights
Prologue: Cancellara wins (predictably).  Armstrong finishes ahead of Cantador.  Andy Schleck stumbles out of the gate and loses 32 seconds to Cantador (worst start among all general classification favorites). 

Stage 1: Mark Cavendish and Tyler Farrar are among dozens caught in crashes including a massive one right near the end.  Both miss out on the final sprint (won by Alessandro Petacchi).  Cancellara retains the Yellow jersey.

Stage 2: France's Sylvain Chavanel escapes the peloton, wins the stage by nearly three minutes and takes over the Yellow jersey.  The stage is filled with crashes once again.  Vandevelde is out with broken ribs. Farrar breaks his wrist but will continue.  Armstrong, both Schlecks, Cantador, Kloden, Hincapie, Wiggins and other favorites all crash as well.  Cancellara "neutralizes" the field, asking other riders not to attack with so many being caught in crashes (essentially preventing his own chances of keeping the Yellow jersey and keeping Evans from gaining huge time on his rivals since he remained unscathed).

Stage 3: A brutal cobblestone-filled stage takes its toll as Chavanel pops a tire three times, abruptly ending his reign in Yellow.  Armstrong loses time to Cantador after a flat tire of his own.  Thor Hushovd survives the cobbles to win the final sprint and take a commanding lead in the Green jersey competition as most of his rivals are content to just survive this stage.  Evans and Andy Schleck beat Cantador by nearly a minute.  Vinokourov dutifully plays the role of "domestique," supporting Cantador for nearly the entire stage...before suddenly leaving him in the dust near the end, allowing Wiggins to gain 20 seconds on Catador.  Frank Schleck is out with broken ribs.

Stage 4: The sprinters have their day on a flat stage.  Petacchi wins again, surging past Cavendish with Hushovd sitting on Cavendish's wheel, but Hushovd retains a commanding Green jersey lead.  Cancellara retains Yellow.  With Farrar unable to sprint yet, his two leadout men get the chance to open up and go for the win.  Julian Dean places 2nd and Robbie Hunter is 5th.

Stage 5: Another flat stage, but Cavendish is able to put it all together finally and blows everyone away in the sprint.  Surprisingly, Dean and Hunter set up Farrar this time, but he only finishes 10th.  Hushovd and Cancellara keep their jerseys, with Jerome Pineau still the only rider to wear the Polka-dot climbers jersey this year.

Stage 6: Cavendish puts his stamp on this flat stage as well, winning his second straight stage and establishing himself as the fastest man in the field again.  Farrar takes second.  Four Astana riders seemingly take the day off (combined they lost around 27:00 to the field), perhaps preparing for the mountains coming in Stage 7.  Cancellara, Hushovd, and Pineau retain their jerseys.

Stage 7: The riders see their first serious climbs of the 2010 Tour, though this is only considered a low-mountain stage going over six categorized climbs: 3, 4, 3, 2, 2, and 2 (1 being the hardest). Cancellara was dropped from the peloton on the first serious climb-attack, but recovered later.  He was never expected to survive the mountains in the lead.  Pineau defends his climbers jersey admirably, joining an early breakaway group to capture huge amounts of points on each of the first five climbs. 

On the final climb, Astana tkes over the pace-making and blows the peloton apart (that rest in Stage 6 came in handy!).  Chavanel is able to breakaway from the peloton, reclaiming the Yellow jersey and the over all lead (though he was allowed to go because he is not considered a great threat in the lond run).  None of the general classification contenders really push hard or are pushed hard, and all finish together. 

Stage 8: Finally tested against the high Alps, the field is blown apart.  Armstrong crashes three times, once just as the peloton begins powering up the massive category 1 climb up Col de la Ramaz.  Four teammates stay back to guide him back into the peloton, but by the time they do, the leaders have already broken away and Amrstrong has used far too much energy just trying to get back in the race.  In the end, he loses nearly 12 minutes on the leaders. 

This stage features four categorized climbs, including two Cat-1's (4, 4, 1, 3, 1).  Cadel Evans is caught in one of the crashes that also catches Armstrong, but Evans is actually thrown from the bike, taking some cuts to his knee, hip and elbow.  Evans' fall (4 miles into the race) is far earlier than Armstrong's bad fall, so he recovers nicely.

Besides Armstrong, all of the other major contenders stay together throughout the stage, with Astana establishing themselves as the Tour's strongest team by far.  Vinokourov and Daniel Navarro carry Cantador and the rest of the contenders nearly all the way to the finish before any of them is able to make any serious attacks. 

Cantador runs down the first few attacks in the final miles, but he is unable to stay with Andy Schleck, who escapes the pack to win the stage and pick up 10 seconds on Cantador and the rest.  But more importantly, he shows he is able to handle a serious mountain stage without teammates helping, specifically his brother, Frank. 

In the end, Evans moves up into the over all lead and the Yellow jersey.  Schleck slides into 2nd, 20 second back.  Cantador is third, 1:10 back.  And the rest of the major contenders (sans Armstrong) all sit in the top 15, all within about three minutes of the lead. 

Stage 9 and Beyond
With Armstrong all but out of the running for the win, he said after Stage 8 that he would now just have fun, enjoy his last Tour, support new RadioShack leader Levi Leipheimer, and try to win some stages.  This brings up an interesting problem for the rest of the field: if Lance Armstrong (now nearly 13 minutes off the pace) makes a bold move on a climb, don't the leaders have to go with him?  Typically a rider who is that far back is not a threat and his moves wouldn't be countered, but this is Lance Armstrong.  You can't let him go, but you also don't know if you can stay with is it worth it to get totally burned out tracking him down, when you may not be able to recover well in later stages as a result?

Regardless of whether Armstrong or another American wins over all, isn't this exactly the type of role we would want our heroes to be in?  Complete wild cards.  Armstrong won't hinder Leipheimer's chances to win; he is the consumate teammate.  But don't you think he would love to stick it to Cantador somehow?  I can see him attacking constantly over the next two weeks, forcing Cantador to be on the defensive all the time, and wearing him out. 

And besides this and all those unanswered questions from above, we have these interesting storylines to follow now as well...
  • Can Andy thrive without Frank?
  • Can Farrar overcome broken wrist to finally win a stage?
  • Can anyone touch Cavendish now that he's back?
  • Will Vinokourov be the good teammate to Cantador or will he be his old reckless self?
  • Will Evans, who has a history of struggling to race in the lead, crack in Yellow again?
  • Can Leipheimer get over the hump now that he is the unquestioned leader of Bruyneel's team?
  • Now that the top three realistic pre-race favorites are 1-2-3, how will their teams' tactics change?
Looking Ahead
Stage 9: 5 categorized climbs (4, 1, 2, 1, HC) including Col de la Colombiere (1) and Col de la Madeleine (HC).  Finishes with a long descent, but the climbs are so tough that this could break the field apart, especially if Armstrong or another contender gets aggressive.  How will they do the day after a rest day?

Stage 10: 3 categorized climbs (1, 3, 2) but a long descent into the finish that may allow dropped riders to recover, which could prevent major attacks by contenders.  It's a good race profile for a breakway to survive all the way to the finish.  July 14 is Bastille Day in France, so watch out for patriotic Frenchmen in the breakaways (I'm looking at you, Sylvain Chavanel, Christophe Moreau, and Thomas Voekler). 

Stage 11: Flat stage that will favor the sprinters. 

Stage 12 and 13: 5 categorized climbs each, but none greater that a Cat-2, so these could both end up being bunch sprints unless a breakway gets clear.  The contenders will likely use these stages as "recovery" days before the coming attacks in the Pyranees. 

Stage 14: After a long, flat run-up, this stage finishes with two brutal climbs, an HC and a summit finish on a Cat-1.  Contenders will definately use this stage to separate out the weaker riders, but there may not be much aggressive attacking this early on.  Look for the true Yellow jersey hopefuls to show themselves after this stage and Cantador and Schleck to hammer away at one another all day.

Stage 15: 4 categorized climbs culminating in an HC climb up Port de Bales before a nasty descent into the finish.  Probably another stage to distance the leaders from the pack, but not from one another unless Schleck or Cantador get especially aggressive. 

Stage 16: 2 Cat-1's and 2 HC's (including Col d'Aspin, Col du Tourmalet, and Col d'Aubisque) make this a terrifying stage, but the last climb is nearly 30 miles from the finish, so the field may have time to get back together.  There is a rest day the following day, which could play into how aggressive the general classification riders get. 

Stage 17-21: Come back next week for more.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Daniel Tosh On Soccer

Daniel Tosh nicely summed up what most Americans think of soccer on his Comedy Central show, Tosh.0 this week.  He was responding to a well-traveled video of a goalie who did cartwheels just before a penalty kick in an attempt to distract the shooter.  Needless to say, the shooter scored very easily and then did cartwheels around the goalie as he walked off the field in shame. 

Here's Tosh on soccer:
"[The goalie,] Nana thought that psych-out routine would help in the goal, but nothing can help me care about soccer.  'Oh, it's the most popular sport in the world to play!'  Probably because it's cheap to play.  It only takes a ball.
"But once every four years America pretends to care about it.  And yes, I called it 'soccer.'  Don't correct me because I don't care what they call it in other lands; I speak American.  Sorry world, we already have football, and it's way better. It's played by 300 pound men for 8 seconds at a time.  Not five-foot-six-inch fairies lightly jogging for three hours, or however long your game is.  Buy a scoreboard.
"It's hard for me to get into a sport that I mastered at the age of seven.  Excuse me for not being able to get revved up for this corner kick that never works.  Hurray!  The game ends without a single goal!  I wanna kill myself when an NBA team doesn't break 100.
"Maybe there'd be more scoring if they weren't flopping all the time.  Hey hooligans, instead of killing players that screwed up, can you murder the ones that fall down crying because their toe got stepped on?
"The only thing good about soccer is the movie Ladybugs.  That's a classic.  Don't try to redo it Hollywood.
"I love women's soccer; it's a beautiful game.  And America is actually good at it.  Probably because we're the only country that allows women to wear shorts.  But it's nice to have an activity that terrorist countries can excel at.  Enjoy your fifteen minutes, Algeria.  Then go back to being #1 at car bombs.
"Yes or no?  The only reason you're beating us is because our best athletes are playing real sports.  You think LeBron James might make an OK goalie?"

So the man rambles a bit and his train of thought seems to get derailed here and there, but you have to respect a man that calls out an entire nation as terrorists and also gives props to Rodney Dangerfield in nearly the same breath.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Commissioner of Sports Fixes Soccer

Alright, the World Cup is over, so I will finally tell you why it is stupid, once and for all. And as the Commissioner of Sports, I will provide solutions when necessary.

"It's not over!" you say. Yes, it is. It was over the moment the clock ran was over the moment the ref arbitrarily blew the final whistle in overtime between the U.S. and Ghana on Saturday.

Terminology. "It's not soccer. It's football." Not in America. That isn't jingoistic rhetoric. In America, we call it soccer, not football. Just as we call it an elevator, and not a lift. It is fine for most of the rest of the world to call it "football" or some direct translation thereof. All of their other words are fine too. But in American English, we have some of our own terms. It isn't a draw, a pitch, and a side. It's a tie, a field, and a team. I get that to die-hard soccer fans, using American terms is a sign of ignorance of the sport. I'm not ignorant of it; I'm just not British.

The Football Attitude. To many soccer fans, people who do not love the sport simply do not understand it or have not given it a chance. We are too dumb to appreciate the subtlety, the artistry, the athleticism, and the finer points of the "beautiful game." Not so. I fully appreciate how gifted and fit these guys are. Soccer highlights are always among the best on Sportscenter every night. I just don't really like it. I could go to a restaurant and try everything on the menu, and while I would see how much went into all of the dishes, I simply wouldn't like some. They're no more fit or coordinated or intelligent than athletes of many other sports, though it does take immense fitness, coordination, and intelligence to be great at it.

Scoring. It is not that the games are low scoring that is annoying to many casual sports fan or to those who dislike soccer, it is that there is not even the threat of scoring for 90% of a match. I am fine with a 1-0 baseball game or hockey game. I'd probably get a kick out of a 10-3 football game (only three scores). Because in those sports there is always the threat of a score at every turn. Baseball is very slow-paced, but a run might be scored on every single pitch, 200-300 times a game. In football, every snap of the ball could result in a touchdown - for either team, in fact. Goals are hard to come by in hockey, but the goalie is in full-attention mode for probably 80% of the time the puck is in play in every single game. I said earlier that soccer makes for great highlights…then there are the other 89 minutes. Each successive pass builds up tension and is (ideally) designed to move defenders one way or another until an opening forms for a scoring chance, but those chances only actually come 5-10 times per game over 90 minutes! Does any die-hard soccer fan really think it would be less interesting if a 2 goal lead with even 3/4 of a game remaining did not spell certain doom?

Solution: Shrink the field - Force teams to move the ball towards the goal in order to get it away from their own. There is far too much neutral space in the middle of the field that is no threat to either goal. Fewer players - you want open space to move around in, not overcrowded clusters (especially on the new, smaller field). 6-8 players per team (including the goalie) should be plenty. Expand the goal - the best players in the world can't find the thing more than once or twice a game. Don't make it taller because the goalie needs a reasonable chance to make saves, but make it wider. Scoring areas - Corner kick with no offensive deflection = 3 points. Shot from outside the box = 2 points. Shot from inside the box = 1 point. Penalty kick = 1 point. Free kick with no offensive deflection = 3 points. Any offensive deflection earns the amount of points based on where the deflector is standing. Encourage teams to take chances on shots...will you win with a less consistent but more lucrative long-range attack, or will you punch it inside where scoring comes easier but is worth less? How do you defend? Give space inside and pressure the deep shots more or turtle inside and allow more close-up shots? Over-and-Back - it is a turnover and a free kick for the other team if the offense takes the ball back across the mid-field line.

Ties. The World Cup is the grandest stage of supposedly the world’s grandest sport, and yet games can end in ties? In a tournament that decides who is the best in the world you can finish even with someone? This is not a “friendly.” This is the freaking World Cup. Additionally, because of the ties, there was a likely scenario in which the U.S. and England would have finished the group stage dead even on all tie-breakers (points, wins, goal differential, goals, etc.). How would they have determined which team would move on in this magnificent event? A freaking coin toss. Head-to-head result would have been the fourth tiebreaker!

Solution: No ties. The same rules that apply during the elimination round games should apply during the group stage games. Tie-breakers for determining position after the group stage: head-to-head result, goal differential, total goals scored, penalty kick shootout (rather than a coin toss).

The Ball. For some strange reason (money), FIFA uses a new ball for every tournament. They have standards for size and weight, but the exact materials and compositions of the balls vary. And apparently they vary greatly. Goalies apparently complain about it every time; that way it is absolutely never their fault when they get scored on. But this time the goalies didn't like it, the players didn't like it, and pretty much every team complained about it. FIFA is not exactly what you would call "responsive to its members' or fans' opinions," so for the first 2 weeks they ignored the whining from all sides. Then they finally came out and said that they acknowledge that some people didn't like the ball, but they're not doing anything about it. Once they feel that they sold enough of them, they're heroically demand that adidas redesign it for the next big tournament, whatever that is.

Solution: Go back to the black and white checkered ball. Picture a baseball. Picture a basketball. Picture a tennis ball. Picture a golf ball. Picture a football. Picture a soccer ball. Every other sport around the world seems to have figured out that you don't mess with the ball. Basketball tried it to disastrous effect and changed back midseason a few years ago. Take a lesson. Everyone hates the changes every time, so stop making changes. That checked ball that you pictured earlier, that we all played with as kids in every country and every socio-economic class around the world IS a soccer ball. Use it.

Stalling and Fake Injuries. Easily the most obnoxious thing about soccer is the flopping. It is illegal to take fake dives and stall excessively, but it is simply not enforced. Every sport has stalling techniques, but they are usually done within the game. A football team runs more or kneels on the ball when leading to keep the clock moving. Baseball players have extra meetings at the mound to allow a reliever time to warm-up. Basketball teams dribble the shot-clock out. Hockey teams send the puck the length of the ice to kill off penalty minutes. And soccer players dribble around and kick the ball into the offensive corner and make late substitutions with players as far away from the bench as possible to run time down. All fine. This isn't: leading 2-1 in overtime against the U.S. on Saturday, a Ghana player tried to clear a ball out of the zone in front of his goal but misfired badly. The ball went straight out of bounds, giving the U.S. the ball right back, still in a dangerous spot, and without the defense all set up yet. So this player, who was 10-15 feet from anyone else, fell to the ground motionless which forced a stoppage of play. Time ticked away as the referee came to check on him and then called the medics. They sauntered out with a stretcher, upon which this player sat completely upright, waited to be carried off of the field, then immediately stood up and asked to be allowed to reenter the game.

Solution: If a player is truly injured, he clearly needs to be allowed medical attention. However, if he is faking, his team should not benefit. If a player is hurt, he or his teammates can request a stoppage of play (kick it out of bounds or ask the opponents to do so if the ref doesn't notice...they do this already). But if play is stopped for an injury, that player must sit out for treatment and his team must either use a sub for him or play down a man for some period of time (2 minutes? 4 minutes?). This will help take care of dives when players roll around looking for calls, and it will help take care of phantom injuries used to stall late in games.

The Clock. The most inexcusable fault in soccer is that no one on the planet knows the time of the game except the head referee. The stadium and TV clocks are guesses. In the U.S.-Algeria game, the referee signaled that there would be 4 minutes of extra time (so he had stopped his watch for a total of approximately 4 minutes during that half for stalling, injuries, goal celebrations and game resets, substitutions, penalties, etc.). During extra time, the U.S. scored a goal. From the time it went in to the time he blew the whistle to restart play, 1:07 elapsed. Later there was a red card given (ejection) and the argument that caused it and the ensuing argument took another :56 seconds. So of the four minutes of extra time they were supposed to have, 2:03 of it was spent with the game stopped. Yet the ref arbitrarily called the game after 4:11 of extra time, stripping the Algerians of around two minutes of come-back time. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to when the clock is stopped and no accountability for the refs.

Solution: Wirelessly connect the ref's clock to the stadium clock. If the referee is upholding the clock-duties fairly and accurately, there is no problem. If he is not taking care of that duty properly, everyone will know. If it proves to be too much for him to watch every inch of the field plus the clock, have an official timekeeper who works off of the ref's whistle or hand signals or microphone (which they already use to communicate between head official and the line judges).

Technology. FIFA whines that they want to keep technology out of the officiating and keep the human element in. But the officials are already using wireless headsets through the games, so that argument is garbage. They are so totalitarian in their handling of the sport, they've now banned stadium replays on controversial calls after England and Mexico got shafted on Sunday and fans went nuts (which, admittedly, many other sports have done for years). Line-judges are basically there to watch for off-sides and they simply don't do a good enough job (ask the U.S. or Mexico about that). A goal scoring or not scoring can result in the loss of a game, a championship, a league membership, and millions and millions of dollars. The publicity these controversies stir up is not of more value than fair play. The field is too big and the play is too physical for one referee to adequately call the game.

Solution: There is already has a ball with a microchip in it that can digitally record when it crosses the goal line. This technology is used in some leagues and tournaments around the world. Use it. If every fan in the stadium and watching at home can see that a player was clearly offsides or a ball was across the line, why should the referee be the only one who doesn't know? A replay official can watch all plays and communicate to the head referee for all close goals and offsides. Side judges can focus only on balls out of bounds and fouls. Possible off-sides plays will be played out until the head ref gets word that there was an off-side player. If the goalie makes the save and plays on immediately, play on. If a shot goes wide and the goalie plays on, play on. If the replay official calls it offsides before the goalie plays the ball, it is a goal-kick as usual. If the possibly offsides play results in a goal, the goal announcement is held for the offsides call. These replays would essentially be instantaneous and would not slow the game down (ESPN has been showing off their instant-off-sides viewer all tournament long). A light can be placed behind the goal and can be lit when goals are scored (whether obvious or on replay).

“Soccer doesn’t need to change. It is the most popular sport in the world even with its perceived flaws. And it certainly doesn’t need America or to be Americanized at all.” Perhaps. Perhaps some of these changes are unnecessarily extreme. Perhaps the game doesn’t need to be Americanized. But it does need America.

The 1994 World Cup in the U.S. drew the largest crowds in World Cup history. They built new stadiums in South Africa to house the Cup this year and they are barely selling out with 35,000-40,000 fans. The Rose Bowl had over 100,000 people for each game. Most of Europe is within a single time zone or two of South Africa. So why are the games played so late at night there? So they can be seen at a reasonable hour in the U.S.

They want mainstream American money, but they will simply never get it with the game the way is today. Will they get it even with these changes? Probably not. Isn’t the game perfectly popular around the world? Sure. But just because the game is popular doesn’t mean it is not flawed. So are all of these changes necessary? Of course not. But instituting replay is. Using a micro-chip ball is. Standardizing the ball is. Policing fake injuries and dives is. Objectifying the game-clock is. Reviewing referee performance with some public transparency and removing poor refs is.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Crazy Man Hired By Lunatics To Cheer For The Dodgers

Some people get paid a lot of money to be really, really bad at their jobs.  Russian physicist and mystic Vladimir Shpunt (not pictured), for instance, was apparently paid six-figures to be a Dodger fan for the last five years, and they only won one playoff game. 

Frank and Jamie McCourt hired Shpunt to sit on his couch in Boston and watch Dodger games while going all Marky-Mark on them and pumping positive vibes at the team.  Shpunt claims that he had the ability to improve their performance from between 10%-15%, and he's a physicist, so it must be true.

The Dodgers should probably ask for their money back, considering that they are apparently broke and getting divorced.  How broke?  Well, remember that Jamie Carroll was their big off-season signing, and they drafted a kid in the first round this week that they knew wouldn't sign with the team.  Thus they avoid having to pay a first-round bonus and salary.  The draftee had already committed to playing quarterback (and pitching) at LSU, and said had announced that he wouldn't sign if he was drafted.  And then the Dodgers drafted him.

If Shpunt got paid over a half of a million dollars over five years and the Dodgers only got one postseason win for it, I feel like I am owed a crapload of money by the New York Giants.  They won Super Bowl XLII despite being double-digit underdogs and despite trailing with under two-minutes to go at their own 17-yard line.  The upset was ridiculous and I called it in a column for CBS on the Friday before.  I want my money.  Or just a ring would be fine.

Though as crazy as Shpunt is for thinking that his cheering for the team from 3000 miles away made an impact (what did he think happened in the 350-400 games they lost in that span?), the real over-paid, utterly inneffective ones here are the McCourts.  These two lunatics tried running a professional franchise, one of the world's greatest, with a ouija board and burning incense.  The funny thing is that they even knew this whole enterprise was crazier than a family going to a Dodger game and thinking the bleachers are a good idea.  They hid the Russian witch-doctor from the rest of the organization, paying him under the table and now each denies hiring him and insists that the other one did it. 

(For those playing at home, yes that is Leo Tolstoy pictured above)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Phew Philthy Phellows

Philadelphia is known as a great sports-town. Despite going on a major-sports-championship drought from 1983-2008, before the Phillies finally won the World Series, each of their four franchises have enjoyed some consistent success mixed in with some major struggles. And through it all, they have had some of the most outspoken and loyal fans in all of sports (notice that Jimmy Rollins is leading the All-Star voting despite only playing in 12 games all season due to injury).

As a Mets and Giants fan however, I don't have a lot of appreciation for these teams, their players or their fans. So admittedly, perhaps I am not exactly the most objective person to be writing about them.

The Phillies, in particular, have been riding very high over the past few years, especially taking advantage of the struggles of the Mets. Would they have won the World Series in 2008 had the Mets not pulled off yet another magnificent collapse? Probably not. Does that mean they didn't deserve it? Of course they deserved it...they won the games. But in the midst of all these successes, a few chinks in their armor appear to be rearing their ugly heads. But given the mature, unbiased perspective that I come from, I am sure they are just coincidences.

Philadelphia fans have long been decried as being classless and crude, perhaps even predating the famous incident in 1968 when Eagles fans booed Santa Claus as he took the field for a halftime show and pelted him with snowballs. But in reality, can Philadelphia fans be any worse than fans from other cities? In Los Angeles and San Diego, where fans are notoriously laid back, I've seen opposing fans get punched and had drinks and food thrown at them. Once I was hit in the head with a plastic soda bottle at a Dodger game because David Wright hit a homerun. So it must be that Philadelphia fans get a bad rap, and it must be a coincidence that it was a Phillies fan who recently plead guilty to starting a fight with, and causing himself to vomit on, another fan and his children because that fan had asked the vomiter and his friends to refrain from spitting on and using foul language around his teenage daughters.

As for the Phillies themselves, they've had some great success with the bats over the past few years. Long-time Phillies Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, in particular, have become huge stars and carried them to that World Series title. Other more well-traveled players like Raul Ibanez have enjoyed the hottest stretches and most success of their careers with the Phillies as well. They must have quite a hitting coach, right? Or I guess it could have to do with the fact that they’ve been cheating for years (accused by many teams many times and then caught this month). Since their bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer was caught stealing signs with binoculars from the Rockies' catcher in early May, the team’s runs per game, batting average, and homerun totals have all dropped.

• Runs scored per game: Before - 5.40; After - 4.15; League Average - 4.48
• Homers per game: Before - 1.22; After - .85; League Average - .91
• Team Batting Average: Before - .273; After - .261; League Average - .257
     (Note: the Phillies have played 13 games since this incident.  7 at their hitter-friendly home park, 1 at the hitter-friendly Coors Field, and 5 at pitcher-friendly Wrigley and Citi Fields.)

After the Rockies spotted Billmeyer using the binoculars in the first inning, they informed the ump who told Phillies manager Charlie Manuel between the first and second innings to knock it off.  Manuel denied it was happening and the ump said he'd been spotted on camera.  Then Manuel said that he was just checking on his own catcher's defensive setup...they do that a lot.  The ump said no more.  Then the same coach was spotted doing it again in the next inning.  So he cheated, got caught, lied about it, immediately got called out for lying, and lied again.  And didn't even stop cheating! 

After the game, Manuel deflected the guilt away from his own team onto the Mets (despite that they weren't involved in this incident at all), saying the Mets must cheat because their home record is better than their away record (which incidentally, is pretty much standard).  He then said, "(The Rockies complained) Because we beat them… Keep crying."  Actually Charlie, I think they complained because they caught you on camera multiple times.  And because you have a reputation of cheating, just ask the Dodgers and Yankees during last year's NLCS and World Series, and the Mets many times over the last few years (all accused the Phillies of illegally stealing signs with video cameras).  Classy guy.

Last June, a small-time blogger wrote a piece about Raul Ibanez' incredibly hot start to the 2009 season and mused as to why the new Phillies leftfielder had had such a resurgence so late in his career. At the time he wrote it (June 10), Ibanez was 37 years old, had hit 20 homers and 55 RBI, with a .320 average in 228 at bats. Ibanez had only hit more than 24 homers in full season (often 600+ at bats) once in his 13-year career and his best batting average had only been .304. So among a number of possible reasons for this offensive explosion so late in the slugger's career, the blogger suggested such obvious explanations as the move to the hitter-friendly Citizen's Bank Park and steroids. Both were reasonable.

Ibanez apparently reads and responds to every remotely negative thing written about him on the internet (hi Raul!), so he called the blogger out and angrily denied the steroid accusations (that weren't ever actually made). So incensed was Ibanez, that he made national news out of a little blog piece that would have been read by maybe 100 people. The blogger had to appear on ESPN Outside the Lines the next day to defend his piece, and have noted newspaper journalists gang up on him and rail against his unprofessionalism and lack of journalistic integrity (note: he wasn't a professional journalist, but a fan, and never accused Ibanez of cheating. He only suggested that that might explain the numbers.).

How dare that blogger write what everyone was thinking! Incidentally, after that hot start, Ibanez went ice cold for the rest of the season after the "accusation," which must be a coincidence. His average had been 11.4 at bats between homers since coming to the Phillies. After June 10, that jumped to 19.4 at bats between homers. His batting average was .320 before and .232 after. This year? He's hitting .250 with 3 homers in 144 at bats (48.0 at bats per homer). So the facts that this guy was pointed out as going on the kind of heater that happens with steroid users, and then he immediately returned to his career averages after that attention was shined upon him, I’m sure that’s all coincidence.

So does that one player's massive drop in numbers after he's "accused" of taking steroids reflect on the team in general? Does the team's offensive slip since they were accused of cheating mean anything? Does that one fan's crude and disgusting behavior reflect on a whole city? Maybe not. Maybe they're all coincidences. And maybe it's a coincidence that it's all happening to the same team.

Maybe not.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Another Day, Another Miserable Heartbreak For One Sports Fan

Sports fans love lists. "Greatest Catches," "Best Superbowls," "Worst Draft Picks." And we love hyperbole (see above examples). And I am no exception. So it is not without self-awareness that write that I was thinking earlier about writing about the 5 or 10 worst days in my life as a sports fan.

Certainly one would be August 11, 2005. I assume Carlos Beltran and Mike Cameron would rank this one #1 on their lists. That was the day I was in the right-centerfield bleachers at Petco Park, about as close as anyone else on the planet when those two men blindly dove face-first into one another, ending their seasons and the Mets' hopes for the next five years (and counting...).

The list was a little too depressing to really put into order, so I gave up trying (Shawn Livingston's knee, Danny Manning's knee, Ron Harper's knee, Kenny Rogers' ball four to Andruw Jones, Beltran's strike-out looking against the Cardinals, when I realized Tiki Barber is an asshole, when Edgardo Alfonzo put on someone else's uniform, when Floyd Landis got stripped of the Tour de France, etc.).

Today would have made the list. It might have been #1. But I'll come back to that.

Quite a day Lance Armstrong had today. Not only did he have to worry about literally saving his face because he was involved in a nasty crash in the Tour of California and had to take a bunch of stitches in his elbow and more just below his left eye, but he is also trying to figuratively save face as well, as former teammate Floyd Landis threw Armstrong under the bus as an alleged cheater.

To be honest, I can't imagine Armstrong is all that perturbed about the allegations. He's heard it before. In fact, I would venture that no human being has taken more blood tests in any 10 year period than Lance Armstrong has in the last 10 years. So many people are so sure he's a cheater because his near-miraculous comeback from testicular, lung, and brain cancer to such unimaginable highs has been so...well...miraculous. But despite all the doubts thrown in his face, and all the needles stuck into his veins, he's never failed a single test. Not one. So Lance, please don't make a fool of me for believing in you.

I ran cross country in college and during my freshman year I had to have a surgery that I wasn't really expected to recover fully from. I'd be able to walk and run and exercise and have a normal life, but I wasn't really supposed to be able to compete at that same DI level again. No one ever had, but then not many people had ever had that surgery yet either, so "Why not?" I thought. Of course I never became a NCAA Champion, or a conference champion. I never won another race or ever placed first on my own team. But I ran again, and I was faster than I had been before, and I can tell you without any hyperbole whatsoever that I would not have been able to if Lance Armstrong had not risen from the grave and been winning Tour de France after Tour de France at the same time.

So maybe one day the story will finally break that Armstrong has been cheating us all along. And if so, I don't know what I would think. I couldn’t forgive him for cheating, but I couldn't exactly forget that he had inspired me so deeply either. But I pray that that story never breaks and that until the day after I die all there ever were were allegations and negative tests, because I am just about out of heroes. Especially today.

After Armstrong won his seventh straight Tour and retired, most Americans let professional cycling drift back into anonymity. I think I was lucky that I had found so much love for the sport, not just the man who had carried it on his back through terrain as tricky and tumultuous as anything the Alps ever threw at him. I knew in 2006 that the sport was still in good hands and that there were lots of guys to root for. More importantly, there were lots of Americans to root for. Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie were (and are) true greats, but that year Floyd Landis was truly spectacular at the Tour de France.

Imagine all those French people who were so incensed that an American had hijacked their race and their sport for most of a decade had to see him retire only to have a parade of new Americans come in ready to take over the family business. And then Landis went out and turned in what I have, on many occasions, called the greatest athletic performance I have ever seen in stage 17 and went on to win it all. Another year, another American. Of course soon after, it was revealed that he had failed a doping test and Landis was stripped of the title. He fought the result for years, took it to the highest authority in the world and lost, and through it all, I steadfastly supported his claims of innocence.

On April 1, 2008, I wrote on this blog, "Floyd Landis finished his appeal to the arbitration court of sports and their decision is expected in June. From what I know of his case, I don't think he did it."

On June 27, 2008, after the test results were upheld, I wrote, "I am a big fan of cycling, and I watched every second of that Tour, and I have read every word of the case against him and the case for him (yes, even the famed slide show presentation). That guy is innocent. I don't care what the test showed on the day he pulled off the greatest turnaround in sports history. The test the day before showed nothing. The test the day after showed nothing, and what Landis is alleged to have done would still show up long after the initial day he allegedly did it. It also would have had no physiological benefit had he done it the morning of a race (it is a long term technique that had not long term presence in his body according to multiple tests)."

On September 10, 2008, I wrote again, "I still feel that Landis was innocent of the charges levied against him...".

So what happened on May 20, 2010 that makes this all relevant again? Why is today such a bad day for me as a sports fan? Because today was that day that after four years of vociferous denials, Landis came clean and revealed that he had been cheating for basically his entire career.

I guess it's easy to be cynical and just assume that they're all cheating. Baseball players, football players, cyclists, name it. It's easy to look at Albert Pujols' seemingly sincere declaration that we can all rely on him to be the clean superstar to lead all of us, a weary mass of doubtful devotees and former fans, back to the glory days of squeaky clean stars and believable box scores. But the more we learn, the less we feel we can believe it, and the more we see that it wasn't all so clean back then anyway; we just didn't have reporters willing to blow the whistle.

Athletes cheat. It's old news; I know. I shouldn't be surprised about Landis; I know. I am the last one to the party; I know. Everyone assumes our heroes are cheats and it's gotten to the point where they don't even bother to pretend to be disgusted when they first find out anymore. Sports fans are jaded. "A-Rod, seemingly the last great, clean baseball star admitted to cheating and lying about it over and over? Hmm. Well, he's my fantasy third baseman and I'm hurting for RBI's this week, so what did he do today?" Reporters are all on the hunt for the next scandal to bring down a star, but fans are just kinda used to it and don't bat an eye.

And as a sometimes-professional sports writer over the past few years, I have tried really hard to not become jaded myself. That's one thing I hate about working in have to look for angles and stories, you can't just watch the games and enjoy. I was working the day the Mitchell Report was released and I wrote the story up for CBS and created a slideshow of all the big names and local stars named. That was another of the worst days of my sports-fan-life, and there weren't even really any big surprises in it for me. But just that cold realization that THAT many people had been cheating and that it was probably just the tip of the ice berg…that stung me.

We have all seen seen some of our greatest champions (love 'em or hate 'em) toppled and defamed. Some lesser stars but truly beloved figures as well. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Marion Jones, Andre Agassi, Ivan Basso, Ato Boldon, Ken Caminiti, Tyler Hamilton, Paul LoDuca, Erik Zabel, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Jan Ullrich, Dennis Mitchell, Tim Montgomery, Alexander Vinokourov, Julius Peppers, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz.

I think what has helped me to keep from becoming completely jaded to all of this was that I hadn't had "my guy" get nailed. It's always been guys I hated (Bonds, Clemens) or just people who were big names, maybe even on my teams, but not my favorites (LoDuca, Vinokourov).

Maybe that's why when I read that SI article, I bought every word Pujols said. Sure athletes cheated, but no one I ever really loved so it never hit too close to home. But today one of "my guys" went down. Big time. And now I'm finally at that place where most fans seem to have been for years now. I don't know where I go from here because one of the ones I truly, truly believed was lying actually all along. Floyd Landis' admission of using performance enhancing drugs changed the way I look at things, and in my mind, added a lot of weight to what Pujols was already carrying.

Even today, Landis still insists that that fateful test back in 2006 was indeed a false-positive (ironically perhaps the only false-positive in a career of false-negatives). He says he did not use that doping method at that time and that the results from that week are not consistent with the results you would expect from someone using that doping method. Maybe that's true. And maybe I can still believe in that utterly spectacular day in Morzine in the Alps. But why should I? Not that he has any idea who I am or that what I have to say matters, but he doesn't deserve my belief in him.

How can we trust him when he says what he did or didn't do? For years, he's lied to protect his his career, so why wouldn't he be lying to protect the single greatest day of it? How can we trust his allegations against Armstrong, Leipheimer, Hincapie, Dave Zabriskie, Johan Brunyeel and the rest of the U.S. Postal/Discovery/Astana/Radio Shack family? Are these the words of a man finally coming clean or the words of a man trying to tear down his former teammates who had turned their backs on him in his failed comeback because he was a cheater?

All I know is that I lost, once and for all, one of my greatest heroes today. And I was one of the last people who still believed in him. And that's sad. He lied all that time and he made me a liar. And that's infuriating.

I can't imagine I could ever get to the point where I would actually, finally, give up on sports. My love affair runs far too deep. But I hate the idea that I am a revelation or two away from having to give on sportsmen. So Albert Pujols and Lance Armstrong, the clock is ticking. I figure I have about a half-a-century left to keep what may be the illusion that it is possible to be great and be clean. If you two are making me a liar too, just make sure they wait till I'm gone to publish the story.