Thursday, August 13, 2009

What Happened to First Impressions?

Last week, Josh Hamilton admitted to falling off the wagon. Pictures surfaced of him taking shots of alcohol in a bar. Unlike most of the steroid users, at least Hamilton was man enough to admit what he did and take full responsibility. For that, he deserves props. He did, however, crush several fans' images of him. Images of a man who overcame an addiction and battled back to be a "success story". Hamilton is not the first athlete that we have championed for overcoming an addiction. We applauded Darryl Strawberry for overcoming his addiction and getting back to the majors. We celebrated the likes of Dwight Gooden and Kerry Collins for beating their addictions. We tried, over and over to let Steve Howe back into our good graces, but he kept letting us down. One of the most celebrated Quarterbacks of all time, Brett Favre, overcame a prescription drug addiction (and mild alcoholism). All of these, except for Howe, are wonderful "success stories". And there are countless others that I did not mention. But here's my question, why do we celebrate 2nd chances when there are hundreds of athletes who do it right the first time?

Where is the love for Carlos Pena? For Amani Toomer? For Mike Green (and if you can even tell me who Mike Green is, I'll be ecstatic)? All three of these guys do is simply show up for work everyday. And they do their job as good as anybody at their position. Carlos Pena just hit his 30th Home run of the season. That marks three consecutive seasons of 30 or more home runs. Toomer is the all time leading receiver in New York Giants history. Mike Green just led all NHL Defensemen in scoring. Who is there to champion them? Where is the love for the guy who does it right without doing it wrong first?

I get the whole notion of second chances and forgiveness and how hard it can be to overcome something so serious as an addiction. We have become a society that is so PC and oversensitive, that we are not allowed to criticize without examining every possible factor first. We have become a society that, for some inane reason, values the rights of the accused more than the victims' rights. So, it stands to reason (sad as it is) that we have become too forgiving. Michael Vick is going to play football this season. Donte' Stallworth and Leonard Little will probably strap on the pads as well. The list of athletes who have broken the law but still get to play is endless. And giving them a second chance once their debt has been paid (cough, cough) is probably the right thing to do. But throwing them victory parties is a bit over the top, no?

I would rather throw a ticker tape parade for a team filled with Mike Lowells. Here is a guy who overcame testicular cancer. He is one of the best third basemen in baseball. He is one of the most clutch players in the game. And he plays the game the right way. Always has, always will. I think we need to start celebrating players who just do things right the first time, without meetings that end in anonymous. And if you truly feel your bleeding heart needing to cheer for an athlete who overcame something tragic to become a true success story, Lowell and John Kruk are two deserving candidates.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Little Professional Courtesy

We all make mistakes in life, be they professional and/or personal. If we didn't, we'd all be married to the first guy or girl we ever dated. We would have aced every test in school. We would wake up every day and never make an error of any kind at our job or in our personal lives. It is said that to err is human. We accept this notion. Athletes make mistakes all the time on the field. They are called errors, strikeouts, home runs, touchdowns, interceptions, fouls, goals allowed and so on. While we may get initially angry when a player on our favorite team makes an error, we get over it.

Fans make errors, too. We routinely blame the wrong player for a negative outcome. For some reason, game 6 of the 1986 World Series is remembered as the "Buckner Game". It's been 23 years and I'll bet that if you ask 100 people under the age of 30 about that game, more than 50 of them would say the following, "The Red Sox would have won that game if not for Buckner's error". Really? Because the last time I checked, when two teams have the same number of runs at the end of the 10th inning, they play on. The Sox were NOT leading when Mookie Wilson hit the ground ball that went through Buckner's legs. The score was tied. So, had Buckner fielded the ball cleanly and stepped on first for the out......the Red Sox would not have been World Champions. At least not at that moment. The fact that has magically gotten swept under the rug for the past 23 years is that the Red Sox had a 5-3 lead in the 10th inning and Calvin Schiraldi and Bob Stanley, NOT Bill Buckner, let it slip away. First, Schiraldi blew the lead in the 8th inning, but somehow was still in the game in the 10th. After he could not get the final out (the Mets were down to their final strike numerous times), the Sox summoned Bob Stanley to finish the job (about 20 minutes too late). Stanley promptly threw a wild pitch that Kevin Mitchell scored on to tie the game. All that happened before the ball went through Buckner's legs.

Similarly, in 2003, Cubs fans refer to game 6 of the NLCS as the "Bartman Game". With the Cubs 5 outs from the World Series, a fly ball was hit into the stands. Steve Bartman reached for it, and prevented Moises Alou from catching the ball. Several side notes here - first, the ball was in the stands. This means Bartman had as much right to the ball as Alou did. Second, Alou had to jump and reach to get the ball. Even had Bartman not made a play on the ball, I don't think Alou catches it anyway. And the biggest fact that is overlooked by Cubs fans that they seemingly always "accidentally" leave out when telling the story is that before the Marlins would take the lead, the very next hitter up hit a routine ground ball to shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalez, who was among the league leaders in best fielding percentage. And he proceeded to boot the inning ending grounder. A double play ball that would have ended the inning and probably sent the Cubs to the World Series. But Cubs fans would rather blame a fan than the real culprit, Alex Gonzalez. Which is probably why, over the past 6 years, Cubs fans have gone from being the loveable losers to just the plain old losers.

But again, errors are part of life. We all make them. I have made my fair share already in the short time I have been writing my blogs. And when they are brought to my attention, I correct the error and say thank you to the person who pointed it out. It's called courtesy. I also don't have the luxury of fact checkers and editors, so I think I may make my fair share of errors until I hit the big time. Why do I mention this? Great question, glad you asked. Yesterday, I was reading an article on a website (all names remain anonymous to protect the guilty) and they had made several errors in the article. I figured it would get caught eventually - surely one of the fact checkers or editors would notice the error. I waited and checked. Hours and hours went by. Still the error went uncorrected. Finally, some six hours later, I took it upon myself to email the writer of the article his error. And voi la, not 20 minutes after I emailed him, I checked the site and the article was corrected. Now, was I expecting a footnote saying, "error corrected by David Krakower, and you can read his sports blog at"? No, I'm vain, but not that vain. But did I even get an email response saying thank you? A simple, "hey, good looking out." Nope. Nada. Zip. Zilch. He passed it off as though he figured it out- or one of his editors did, without ever saying thanks for correcting a fairly egregious error.

So, if you see any errors in my blogs, please let me know. I'll correct them. And I'll say thank you. I may even give you a footnote.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hockey Keeps Missing the Mark

"What's the matter, she didn't like her overnight popularity?" Matthew Lillard, playing the very forgettable character of Brock Hudson in the 1999 movie, "She's All That", uttered that line. The movie came out during the height of the NHL's popularity. And the line is very befitting of the NHL's situation. In 1999, the Bird-Magic-MJ era of basketball, was, for all intent and purposes, over (I refuse to acknowledge Jordan ever played for the Wizards, much like I don't acknowledge The Godfather III, Oceans 12, any Rocky after III, or Richard Dreyfuss' believability in The American President). The NBA had just had it's Golden Era, but that had passed. MLB was a year removed from the McGwire-Sosa HR chase, and the steroid whispers were just now becoming real. MLB was still dealing with some fan backlash over the 1994-1995 players strike that led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Hockey was, believe it or not, one or two right moves away from becoming this country's third most popular sport at that time, ahead of the NBA, and inching closer to MLB. But, for some reason, Gary Bettman just will not let that happen. And it's his league. He's the commissioner.

For years in the post-Jordan era, the NBA struggled to find stars that fans enjoyed going to watch. Attendance dipped badly in the early 2000s until the LeBron, Wade, 'Melo draft came around to save us from the Shaq-Kobe Lakers. Meanwhile, even though attendance was up at baseball parks, the steroid whispers grew louder every year, making the most noise during the 2003 season, leading to a drug testing policy finally being put in place in MLB. Hockey was gaining momentum (save for the New Jersey Devils' trap system that bored the hell out of any casual fan) and it was poised for a major jump in American popularity. There was nothing embraceable about the NBA at this time and MLB's drug problem was wearing thin on its casual fans. The American sports fan was begging for something to get excited about other than it's Saturdays, Sundays and Monday Nights in the fall. The NHL responded with an exciting 2003 playoffs, culminating in a 7 game Stanley Cup Finals (no matter how forgettable game 7 was). And the NHL followed that up in 2004 with another 7 game Stanley Cup Finals. And it pitted old school vs. new school. A team from Western Canada against a team from Western Florida. A traditional hockey town against a new-school hockey town. Hockey had arrived. Casual fans were getting behind the sport in America. The "overnight popularity" was here. And then, in an instant, it was gone.

Despite the cautionary tale that was Major League Baseball in 1994-1995, the NHL and its players could not reach a collective bargaining agreement prior to the start of the 2004-2005 season. The entire season, and the playoffs, were gone. The "overnight popularity" was gone. The casual fan was gone. An entire season lost to greed, presumptions, and a league that attempted to prey on its new found popularity, rather than embrace it.

When the NHL returned for the 2005-2006 season, it promised to be a more up-tempo, fan friendly game. And for the most part, it has not disappointed. League scoring is up. The game is much faster paced and far more exciting. The new rules have really opened the game up and let the skill players show off their mostly half full arenas. Despite the brilliant product on the ice, the casual fan has sadly stayed away. And that is the fault of Bettman, the NHL and its shotty marketing. Sports fans want two things - their favorite teams to win and exciting, heart stopping competition. The two greatest words in sports are "game seven". Since 2000, MLB has provided 2 game sevens in the World Series (2001, 2002); the NBA has provided 1 NBA Finals game 7, in 2005 (and the only one since 1994). Meanwhile, the NHL has provided us with 5 Stanley Cup Finals that have gone 7 games - 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009. That's pretty impressive. But I challenge any casual fan to name me any champion other than the Penguins this season and the Red Wings last season. And that problem is a direct result of the lack of marketing the NHL does for its teams.

The "face of the NHL" just won the Stanley Cup two months ago. And yet, nary a peep from the NHL this summer, short of releasing next season's schedule and announcing the teams for next year's Winter Classic. For all the conspiracy theorists that claimed that Bettman was "helping Crosby" get the Cup to gain notoriety for the NHL, well if he did, then he's done a piss poor job of capitalizing on his end game. If the guys running the NHL were running the NFL, then Vince McMahon's XFL would be a budding success. Every time the NHL is faced with a golden opportunity, it scoffs at it, and tries to reinvent the puck.

A prime example of this backwards marketing plan is the Winter Classic. The Winter Classic is a brilliant idea. An outdoor hockey game in January. The idea is amazing. And it has gained much popularity the past two seasons. The execution, however, has been God awful. Actually, God awful might be an improvement over the implementation thus far. Words like catastrophic and complete and total blundering come to mind.

In 2008, the NHL re-launched it's outdoor game idea in what was a nice little test run on New Year's Day, in Buffalo, between the Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The NHL could not have asked for a better result. A full football stadium; a little snow during the game; a game that ended both regulation and overtime in a tie; and finally, the game's "face" (Sidney Crosby) scoring the game winner in a shoot-out, as the snow fell. Everything happened exactly as the NHL could have planned. An unscripted sporting event coming together so perfectly, it could have been scripted. And then, the NHL took it's popularity, and managed to screw it up, yet again. A test run on New Year's Day to judge an event's popularity is fine. But New Year's Day belongs to College Football. It always has and it always will. There are reasons that during the height of ER's popularity on TV, other networks scheduled its most popular shows NOT on Thursdays at 10:00 est. If you know that an audience is already entrenched in something, you don't try to steal them try to get your own audience at a less popular time. But not Gary Bettman. Not the NHL. He was convinced he could win over a football crazy audience every year on New Year's Day. Never mind the fact that there is a day begging, just begging for a great sporting event to capture a sports-starved audience. There is a weekend between the AFC/NFC Championship games and the Super Bowl, that until 2010, has gone vacant. Nothing goes on that weekend. There is no football. The NHL and NBA have regular season games that have no special context. Baseball is still weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting. Nothing goes on that weekend. Why, for the love of Wayne Gretzky, did the NHL not schedule its Winter Classic that weekend and get every sports fan in North America behind it? Now, the NFL has finally taken that weekend away, to an extent. That weekend is now the NFL Pro Bowl. But if the Super Bowl is Kim Kardashian, then the Pro Bowl is Khloe. It's still a very winnable weekend for the NHL, if they do it right. You know by say, having the biggest rivalry in the NHL play that weekend....what if they scheduled a game at a historical baseball stadium. Let's call it Fenway Park. So, the Boston Bruins would host it. And let's let them play their biggest rival. Two Original Six teams doing battle (like last year, when the Wings played the Blackhawks at Wrigley Field....just on the wrong day). The Bruins vs. the Canadiens. We'll play it Saturday, the day before the Pro Bowl, when nothing is going on. Or, if you're the NHL, you schedule it for New Year's Day again, and have the Bruins play the Philadelphia Flyers. Oy vey.

Apparently, the NHL just does not want to embrace its overnight popularity.

Monday, August 10, 2009

21st Century Trash Talking

Shortly after midnight last night, I logged onto my facebook account to check messages and get caught up on what my friends had been up to yesterday. Upon logging on, the first, oh say, 25 posts or so were all related to the Yankees-Red Sox game that had just finished. Facebook postings ranging from "How sweep it is" to "largest division lead in baseball" to "What a perfect weekend watching my Yankees sweep the BoSux" to even this one "Glad you guys figured out how to beat us, 4-8 this year now. Congrats" and even my personal favorite "Somewhere in NYC, there is an 8 year old boy walking around depressed, wondering if the Yankees will ever win a World Series in his lifetime".

My how far we've come as a society. Back in the "good ole days" of say 1995, trash talking was a water cooler event. Bragging to your friends about how good your team was and how much their team stunk. Maybe you were so bold as to call your friends and talk trash, but that was the extent of it. Then email went mainstream (the word email doesn't even come up as a misspelled word on Microsoft applications anymore) and trash talking was taken to a new level. Mass email blasts ragging on your friends with accompanying pictures became common. More sports websites began popping up than Erin Andrews downloads. Statistics were now readily available to support that trash talking.

And now, thanks to social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, trash talking amongst fans has taken on an art form. Who can update their status to talk trash faster and more creatively? How fast and creative can you come up with a response to said trash talking? People even trash tweet (which just sounds dirty). Social networking sites have become forums for endless sports banter. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, per se, it's just a fact of sports "fandom" in 2009.

But where will it end? Chad Johnson "Ochocinco" has said he will use twitter during games. But what will he be tweeting exactly? The weather? What Carson Palmer had for breakfast? Maybe how he just burned Chris McAllister for a long TD. Of course, if he tweets some trash talk, which is highly likely, and McAllister sees it, there is a good likelihood that McAllister will tweet, "Ochocinco pushed off on his TD. What a &%$*#@$ punk". Trash talking between players will become an art form, too. Instead of bulletin board material, you'll hear sports anchors saying that Player X just gave Team B twitter material.

I like the trash talking between fans. It is, for the most part, a harmless way to beat your chest (unless you are an English Soccer fan, then all bets are off). I even like a little bit of trash talking between athletes. It reminds us fans that they care when they are out there. That they have pride in what they do and want to win always. But, and I'm just spit balling here, allowing players to tweet during games, could become a major distraction. Leave the in-game tweets and facebook updates to the fans. If the players want to trash talk, do it the old fashioned way, a nice old fashioned Icky Shuffle or sharpie in the sock always works.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go update my facebook status to tell Marlins and Rockies fans they have no chance of winning the NL Wild Card over my Giants.