On Fair Play

Major League teams are in the process of beginning their Spring Training schedules, after an off-season marred by continuing and I believe undisputed revelations that in 2017, the Houston Astros engaged in a scheme, involving participants from its front office to its manager, coaches and players, to employ videography accompanied by trash can banging to systematically steal opposing teams’ pitch signs and alert Astro hitters to the specifics of the next pitch. Such activity was in flagrant disregard of Major League Baseball rules. For those that don’t follow Major League Baseball (“MLB”), the Astros won the 2017 Major League World Championship after defeating the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. A number of Houston executives and 2017 Astro players hired into non-player roles on other teams in the years following the team’s championship have now been dismissed from their positions as a result of the scandal. No still-active players have been disciplined by MLB, reportedly due to a deal that MLB made with the players and their union that no player would face retribution for speaking truthfully to MLB investigators about the Astros’ program.

A deal is a deal, and given the deal, no players should be disciplined specifically for their participation in the scheme (although one questions whether any 2017 Astros player should be seriously considered for the Hall of Fame or for any front office, manager, or coaching position when his playing days are done). That said, MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred should, without any change in individual players’ statistics, forfeit all 2017 Houston victories in which the team employed the scheme, strip Houston of its American League and World Championships, and declare the Yankees the 2017 American League Champions and the Dodgers the 2017 World Champions. He should accompany such a ruling with an announcement that any player determined to have participated in such a flagrant rules violation (admittedly a subjective standard) after the date of the announcement will be suspended from baseball for one full season, with more severe penalties including an outright ban from the game for any subsequent flagrant rules violations.

Such an approach is admittedly imperfect. The team most elevated in the standings by the recasting of the 2017 American League teams’ wins and losses will argue that it never had a fair chance to compete in the season’s playoffs, and the Yankees will argue that they never had a chance to contest the Dodgers for the World Championship. I would submit that such is irrelevant. The Astros, in 2017 an extremely talented team, would have earned a number of their forfeited victories without cheating. While there will be old-school sign stealing in baseball as long as there are bases in baseball – it’s as engrained in the game as the brushback pitch — it is a short step from the Astros’ technology-enhanced trash can banging to employment of sophisticated and undetectable technological means to gain illegal advantage in baseball and other professional sports. The point of the penalty is to make the consequences to the Houston organization and the threat to players’ careers for future violations sufficiently severe so that for the foreseeable future, every team and player will have significant pause before engaging in such a systemic flagrant violation of MLB rules.

I am tired of a culture that explicitly or tacitly condones and in some ways glorifies ignoring, bending, flouting, and breaking rules. We need honor again. Given the challenges we face as a nation, cheating in Major League Baseball is arguably “of as little account as sparrows’ tears,” as Ian Fleming concluded the James Bond thriller, You Only Live Twice; obviously, players have been seeking an illegal edge through spitballs, corked bats, and steroids for decades or more. That said, we have to start somewhere. Major League Baseball, given its proud claim to being the National Pastime, and its tens of millions of diehard fans across the political spectrum, seems as good a place to start as any.

An Optimistic Spin for the Green and Gold

After Green Bay’s victory over the Seahawks Seahawks this past Sunday, Quarterback Aaron Rodgers alluded to the obvious: not even all Packer fans have been that confident of the team’s ability or prospects this season. I would agree; I’ve been one of the dubious. Even last Sunday’s victory — eked out at home over a depleted Seattle squad – did little to dispel the notion that this season, Green Bay has been as lucky as good. We Packer fans know championship-caliber quality, and the general consensus is that the team – despite a creditable season from Mr. Rodgers and outstanding seasons from Wideout Davante Adams, Running Back Aaron Jones, Edge Rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, and Cornerback Jaire Alexander — is not that good. We have also been acutely aware that if the team progressed in the playoffs, another match with the San Francisco 49ers – who drubbed the Pack in Week 12 – was a probable obstacle to returning to the Super Bowl. Mr. Rodgers himself seemed to waffle a bit after the Seahawks game when asked about the Packers’ prospects against the Niners this Sunday.

I would voice this small note of optimism: given their rout by San Francisco during the regular season, the Packers know what won’t work. For instance, the coaching staff cannot have any doubt that Green Bay’s normal offensive line alignment, which has held up reasonably well against most opponents this season, is not a match for a voracious Niner defensive rush. Winners don’t think about past routs; losers reflect. I would place more than a small wager that whenever Coach Matt LaFleur and his staff and Mr. Rodgers would awaken in the middle of the night since the San Francisco defeat, in addition to considering that week’s opponent, they would ponder: Knowing what we now know, what would we have done differently against the 49ers? I would suspect even in the midst of preparing for the Seahawks, the Packer coaching staff used part of its playoff bye week to lay initial plans for the 49ers.

To defeat San Francisco, the Packers will have to get lucky – perhaps through the recovery of a couple of turnovers deep in Niner territory converted into touchdowns during the first half. They will have to come up with new schemes to slow down the San Francisco pass rush – perhaps double tight end sets, a lot of fullback sets – and/or try something that the Niners will not have schemed for, such as placing Wideout Allen Lazard (big; good blocker; a receiver that can’t be credibly covered by a Niner linebacker) at fullback, or perhaps even a T-formation. They will need new schemes that will isolate Mr. Adams one-on-one against Niner Cornerbacks Ahkello Witherspoon or Emmanuel Moseley [i.e., the Niner cornerback that isn’t Richard Sherman ;)] – perhaps perusing old Packer playbooks for plays former Head Coach Mike Holmgren designed to get Wideout Sterling Sharpe in the open during the days that the entire NFL, including the vendors chucking peanuts in the stands, knew that Mr. Sharpe was Green Bay’s only genuine offensive threat. They will need to decide whether Safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage have jelled sufficiently to cover San Francisco tight end George Kittle, who had by far the better of the matchup in the team’s first meeting – and if not, what to do about it. (Our old friend, Cornerback Tramon Williams, has played safety; is he a better cover option against Mr. Kittle?)

Much has been made of Mr. LaFleur being the first Packer coach – amidst extremely august company, including St. Vincent Lombardi – to make the playoffs in his first year. I would submit that this Sunday is the first true test of his coaching acumen. Packer fans with longer memories well recall Green Bay’s visit to San Francisco in early 1996, when the Packers, then considered merely upstarts coached by Mr. Holmgren and quarterbacked by a young Brett Favre, confronted the intimidating San Francisco 49ers quarterbacked by Steve Young, who in the preceding 15 years led by Joe Montana (who remains the best all-around QB I’ve ever seen, notwithstanding the respect appropriately due Tom Brady) and Mr. Young, had won five Super Bowls. That day, the Niners may have been looking past the Packers to the Dallas Cowboys. The tone of the game was set early by a fumble recovery/TD by Cornerback Craig Newsome, but the outcome was decided in part by three long passes from Mr. Favre to Tight End Keith Jackson, who had had a hallowed career but had been little used by the Packers during the regular season; the Niners hadn’t schemed for Mr. Jackson. Defensive Coordinator Fritz Schumer and his staff installed a dozen new defensive formations for the game, which completely disrupted the Niners’ storied precision passing routes. Packer backers’ reaction starting the game was resignation, then successively followed by pleased surprise, stunned disbelief, and finally … euphoria. At the time, the outcome was considered “shocking”; I would submit that in the Favre-Rodgers Era, the win ranks in significance only behind the team’s two Super Bowl victories.

Given the period Mr. LaFleur and his staff have had to think about the 49ers, it’s time to see whether they are, indeed, able to devise something new. French novelist Honoré de Balzac is said to have observed, “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” I would suggest that the bottom of every renowned coaching career, there is an early unexpected win. While no victory this weekend will equal that long-ago Packer victory over the Niners that completed the team’s transition from disrespected doormat to bona fide powerhouse, Green Bay’s game plan Sunday will enable us to begin to assess whether Mr. LaFleur might someday be able to claim a place beside his legendary innovator-predecessors, Messrs. Lombardi and Holmgren. Win or lose, we will still have better memories of this season that we had any reason to expect when it began.

The Green and Gold After the Bye

There is little to add about a week of impeachment hearings presenting largely undisputed accounts of our Chief Executive’s scheming against another American and his rationalizers’ sophistic defenses; perhaps because this note addresses football, it occurred to me that the evidence we heard this week might best be characterized by the legendary postgame assessment once offered by late Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings Coach Denny Green: The President and his agents are … who we thought they were.

Even so, as the Green Bay Packers come off their bye week, it seems appropriate to point out this fall’s other momentous occurrence: the team’s 8 – 2 start. It enters its 6-game stretch run this weekend.

The statistical good news: Green Bay enjoys a one-game lead in the NFC North; it has beaten every NFC North opponent; if the season ended today, the team would have the second NFC playoff seed; and absent a complete implosion, the Pack should secure at least an NFC playoff spot.

The good news on offense: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers seems as good as ever and has been deadly effective in taking advantage of opponents’ mistakes. I would suggest that Aaron Jones is the best Packer running back since Ahman Green, and with Jamaal Williams as his alternate, the Packers have a strong running game. Davante Adams’ short-term injury enabled Green Bay to develop other receivers, and it can now put more credible receivers on the field on any given play than any defense can effectively cover.

The good news on defense: The unit is unquestionably improved over last year. Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith and Kenny Clark all made the list of Pro Football Focus’ top 25 pass-rushers after Week 9. I consider the defense to have been generally decent so far against the run. Middle Linebacker Blake Martinez remains a tackling demon. Jaire Alexander has been overall effective at one corner, and Kevin King has been generally credible as the “other” corner.  (More on the Packer secondary below.)

All that said … I would submit that the team is not as good as its 8-2 record would indicate. It is arguable that Green Bay could just as easily be 5-5, perhaps worse.

Although the team deserves kudos for exploiting the breaks it has received, Green Bay has been … lucky. It got to play a lot of its early games at home, while the offense was learning Coach Matt LaFleur’s new system; but more importantly, it seems – even if one is an avid Packer-backer – that the team has been the recipient of a lot of advantageous calls and situations through its first 10 games. Officials’ mistakes clearly led to Green Bay’s win over the Detroit. The Packers won their first game in part due to questionable decision-making by Chicago Quarterback Mitch Trubisky. They won their second by catching Minnesota before Vikings’ Quarterback Kirk Cousins found his groove. Their third win demonstrated that Denver Quarterback Joe Flacco’s best days are behind him. Their road win over Dallas resulted primarily from Cowboy turnovers. The Oakland game was in doubt until Quarterback David Carr’s ill-conceived attempt to extend the ball over the Green Bay goal line resulted in a fumble that completely altered the game. They eked out a victory over Kansas City without playing NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes. They secured their last victory on what seemed to me to be a somewhat questionable call that the Carolina running back was stopped short of the Green Bay goal line as time expired.

I would suggest that Green Bay’s offensive pass protection has been uneven.  The team’s renowned left tackle, David Bahktiari, hasn’t appeared as solid as in past years. If Mr. Rodgers was any less mobile than he is, the team’s impressive receiving corps would perhaps be of limited value.  Weak pass protection could be hard to correct, and might haunt Green Bay when it plays the San Francisco 49ers — who feature the best pass rush in football – this weekend.

Moreover, I would submit that although the team’s secondary seems manned by a strong blend of experience and talented young athletes, its most critical defensive weakness has been its pass coverage.  It gives up too many big plays. The team’s two losses have come against two very able veteran Quarterbacks, Carson Wentz and Philip Rivers. There has been a stream of blown coverages over many weeks, and the middle of the field is frequently open. The League has recognized that the young secondary hasn’t yet figured out how to cover crossing routes. After the promising start, veteran Adrian Amos and Packers’ first round draft pick Darnell Savage have more recently appeared to make every opposing tight end look a Hall of Famer.

On a brighter note: the secondary is young, fast, aggressive, and athletic. Blown assignments and deficient crossing coverage techniques are vulnerabilities that young, able athletes can perhaps improve upon. If Green Bay can shore up its pass coverages, it might make a real run. If it can’t, it could well be fodder down the road for a hot Kirk Cousins, a Drew Brees, a Russell Wilson, or – if it would somehow manage to get that far – a Tom Brady. Their next receiving test will be the 49ers’ Tight End George Kittle, one of the best in the NFL. Mr. Kittle has missed San Francisco’s recent games; perhaps Green Bay will catch another break if he is not sufficiently recovered to play.

And yet … I’m not sure that there has ever been a season that I’ve more appreciated the Packers. Despite the NFL’s commercialism, apparent inability to control unwarranted player ferocity, and the indisputable evidence of brain injuries and other physical damage the game wreaks on its players (I hope that none of our grandsons ever play the game), the Packers are the one diversion that actually takes my mind from the constitutional challenges confronting our nation. So indeed, this weekend … I’ll be Waiting All Day for Sunday Night …

On the Milwaukee Bucks

Those that read these pages have undoubtedly gleaned that my sports interests center upon the Green Bay Packers and the NFL, the Milwaukee Brewers and Major League Baseball, and the Wisconsin Badgers and college basketball. My interest in the NBA has been dormant for decades; I last followed the league to any extent in the era when Magic, Bird and Michael ruled the court. (I have heard that since those years, there have been a number of players who were actually not bad, including a couple named James and Curry.)

Even so, I was quite taken aback to see a piece in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago that flatly declared: “[I]t’s time to acknowledge the [Milwaukee] Bucks for what they are: the best team in the league this season.” The team clearly has a raft of fine players, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, apparently a very pleasant young man whose name I wouldn’t dare attempt to pronounce (and of whose spelling I am confident only because I Googled it). Subject to better memories than mine, I don’t think any sane sports fan in the last 40+ years would have considered the Milwaukee Bucks the best team in the NBA – not since the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (in his early years, Lew Alcindor) and Oscar Robertson.

We have an avid Bucks fan in our extended family. He recently wrote me, indicating that if I watch the Bucks, I’ll be taken with Mr. Antetokounmpo, and adding: “Seems like the Milwaukee sports teams are taking the torch for Wisconsin at the moment.” Given the Brewers’ past season and the Bucks’ current run, one can’t disagree. I’m thrilled for him and all true Bucks fans. Perhaps it’s again time to jump on a bandwagon 😉 .

Wintry Musings

While snowblowing yesterday, I reflected upon the truly uninspired (or, if you prefer, lethargic, languid, listless, lifeless, spiritless, or … feel free to consult your thesaurus if you think there’s a more suitable adjective) performance by the Green and Gold this past Sunday, and compared it with the replay I happened to see of the Cleveland Browns’ energized performance in the final minutes of their narrow loss to the Baltimore Ravens.  My interest in the Browns has been piqued this season not only due to their recent resurgence from perpetual doormat but because Eliot Wolf, after being passed over after last season for the Packer General Manager post in favor of Brian Gutekunst, had immediately left Green Bay to become Assistant Manager in Cleveland.  As the snow flew, I pondered:  Based upon what I saw of the teams’ play in the final week of the regular season, whose position would I rather be in:  Mr. Gutekunst’s, or Mr. Wolf’s?  (It was a much easier question to answer than how to avoid having icy mist blow back in my face.)  I did indeed consider posting something about the apparent contrast after the driveway was cleared.  Opted for a wonderful cup of coffee instead.

Last night, I opened The Wall Street Journal, and found that its sports columnist, Jason Gay, included this aside in his review of the upcoming NFL playoffs:

“Perhaps I should put myself up for the desirable [Head Coach] opening with the Cleveland Browns, or the sketchier one with the Green Bay Packers.  Settle down, Cheeseheads:  the Browns are indeed a better job right now than the Packers.  The Pack may be the more august franchise, they may have an all-timer in Aaron Rodgers, but how many good days does A-Rod have left on the frozen tundra?  Cleveland, meanwhile, is young and stacked and shredding generations of football self-loathing.  Plus:  [Baker Mayfield, Cleveland’s young quarterback].  Love that guy.”

There was clearly no need for me to post.  And that coffee was mighty good.

Running the Table

Due to retiree traveling over the last weeks ;), I haven’t been as closely attuned to the performance of the Green and Gold as I normally would be.  I was literally wowed by the bravura performance of Aaron Rodgers against the Bears in the opener; after that, although aware that the team had had its ups and downs and that there were claims that some of its difficulties arose from questionable officiating, I hadn’t really had an opportunity to again study the Packers in action until last Sunday.

Yesterday, I checked the NFC North standings and schedules.  It’s still too early to think about Wild Card chances; I focused on Green Bay’s chances to win the NFC North title.  If I’m reading the standings correctly, it seems overwhelmingly likely that if the team runs the table – not unheard of in the Rodgers era – it will win the Division.  The Packers will play both the Bears and Vikings one more time.  If Green Bay beats Minnesota and Minnesota otherwise wins out, Green Bay would prevail due to the head-to-head tie breaker.  Although Chicago could survive the loss to Green Bay and win the Division if it otherwise wins out, it has to play the Vikings twice and the Rams once down the stretch; if it loses just one of those games and Green Bay does run the table, Green Bay would prevail over Chicago due to the head-to-head tie breaker.

That said, while I look to the Packers’ game tonight against the Seahawks with a bit of optimism, it’s pretty tempered.  Aaron Jones certainly seems to be a growing offensive force for the team, and they have a couple of young receivers that seem able to stretch the field.  The defense played well against Miami (conceding that Brock Osweiler isn’t Tom Brady or … Russell Wilson).  That said, last Sunday, Aaron Rodgers didn’t look to me like … Aaron Rodgers.  Realizing that this is all relative – Rodgers, even slightly off, is still one of the best in the game – he seemed … different.  I felt I saw changes like those you might note in a friend that you haven’t seen for a while.  It was hard to tell whether it was lack of communication with his young receivers (when he scrambles, they don’t seem to anticipate or come back to him the way Jordy Nelson did), a still-impaired leg, spotty protection (he was chased a lot), or … perhaps some loss of arm strength (he threw a couple of un-Rodgers-like floaters against Miami).

Another concern:  I’ve seen a short video interview in which I didn’t detect much of the swagger that Rodgers has had in past years.  I didn’t see any of the “RELAX” or “We’ll run the table” sentiments that have heralded past stretch runs.

I’ve discovered since last Sunday that my reactions aren’t unique; apparently, Bill Belichick was caught on a mic during the Green Bay-New England game questioning Rodgers’ arm strength.  (I must concede that getting an impression from the TV that I later found was more or less confirmed by Scowling Bill did make me feel like a knowledgeable fan.)  There are apparently other Packer fans who share the concern that Rodgers isn’t “right.”

While Green Bay may perhaps not need to run the table to secure some playoff berth, if Aaron Rodgers isn’t the Aaron Rodgers of old – even if this is a temporary condition that will resolve with rest for next year – it will be difficult for Green Bay to go anywhere.  I will be watching tonight with the hope that he will play like he has in the past – which obviously gets harder and harder for him as he ages (as it does for us all).  If we don’t get a good outcome tonight, I’ll start to place more focus on watching the development of what appears to be a crop of promising young players (among them, Mr. Jones; Jaire Alexander; and Marquez Valdes-Scantling) that will help us in the future.

On Craig Counsell

Conceding that my close attention to Major League Baseball waned in the late 1980’s as our family grew, I’ve always felt that the best manager I’ve ever seen was Billy Martin.  Because of his managerial skill, Mr. Martin was asked to manage [and because of his vitriolic nature, ultimately asked to leave  😉 ] multiple organizations.  With each team, he would assess the talent that he had, and won Divisions, Pennants, and World Championships with different strategies and different arrays of talent:  when he had great power, he relied on offense and the homerun; when he had starting pitching, he relied on his corps of starters and his defense; when he had speed but little power, he’d steal a base, hit and run, and manufacture offense; when he had a great closer, he’d build his game strategy to maximize his closer’s effectiveness.

Although I’m but a bandwagon fan of the current Milwaukee Brewer team (although a true fan of the 1982 World Series team), I’ve now seen enough that I consider Craig Counsell — although toiling in a small market during Baseball’s Big Money Era may prevent him from ever mounting the victories and championships that Mr. Martin did – to be every bit as adept as Mr. Martin was.  He only had one pitcher win as many as 10 games this year and has only one position player – Mr. Yelich (despite my enduring affection for Charlie Moore) – that is better than the 1982 counterpart.  [Although I’m happy to debate, I’d submit that the ’82 team was markedly better than the current Brewers at catcher and all infield positions; that Ben Oglivie (40+ homeruns in ‘82) and this year’s Ryan Braun are a “push” in leftfield; and that although they brought very different skills to their teams, Gorman Thomas and Lorenzo Cain are a “push” in centerfield as well].  Mr. Counsell nonetheless managed his team to as many victories (in 162 games) as the ’82 Brewer team.

Mr. Counsell doesn’t seem to get rattled; he’s been able to leverage a bunch of different talents to the team’s best advantage; and by all accounts, he’s been able to juggle a number of personalities and egos to maintain a loose clubhouse.  Whether Milwaukee wins or loses the pennant or – if it gets that far – the World Series, he’s done an incredible job, and the Brewers and we Brewer fans — true or bandwagon – are fortunate to have him.

Let’s Hold Off in Counting our Chickens …

As we approach today’s Game 3 of the Milwaukee – Colorado NLDS, I admit that I was a bit disconcerted by the way the talking heads covering the Brewers’ second victory over the Rockies so cavalierly dismissed Colorado’s chances of coming back to win the series.  Those of us with longer memories will recall that even in the Brewers’ most renowned season to date, 1982, they fell behind the California Angels 2-0 in the ALCS … and sent California home by winning three in a row.  For those with more recent memories, our son reminded me yesterday that in the 2011 NLDS, the Brewers beat the Diamondbacks in the first two games in Milwaukee, then lost the next two games in Arizona, and only went to the next round by beating the D’Backs in Milwaukee in Game 5.

I would suggest that while Brewer fans might understandably feel optimistic, no chickens should be counted until the third victory has … hatched  😉 …

If You’re Going to Be the Best …

In early June, I entered a post noting that baseball is a long season, and that the Milwaukee Brewers’ performance up to that time – then the best record in the National League, with a 3+ game lead on the Chicago Cubs – would only mean something if the Brewers stood up through the summer; what would matter was where the team stood after Labor Day.

We’re now well past Labor Day.  As of today, Milwaukee has, through acquisition of additional talent and adroit use of its pitching staff, played incredibly well down the stretch; it is but two games behind Chicago for the NL Central lead while building a four and half game advantage for a post season Wild Card berth.

While it will be validating for Milwaukee to reach the postseason at any level, I’m not a big fan of baseball’s Wild Card playoff.  Unlike the NFL, where every playoff game is “sudden death,” it seems odd to me – recognizing the seasonal constraints that Major League Baseball faces when it extends its playoff period — that a Wild Card team that labors over countless series of games to reach the postseason has to win one game or be eliminated.

That said, the system is what it is.  There is, however, a way for Milwaukee to avoid the risk of a “one and done”:  win the National League Central outright.  The team has one game left with the Cubs – tonight.  If it wins, it will be only one game behind Chicago, with each team having about 15 games to play; I’ll personally like its chances of winning the Division.  If it loses, Chicago’s three-game lead in the Division – while anything can happen in baseball – will be formidable.  Chicago has already won a World Championship with primarily the same cast as it has now.

So what will it be for the Brewers?  In a phrase that all sports fans have heard countless times (which doesn’t make it less true):  If they want to Be the Best, they have to Beat the Best …