Miller Park at the halfway point

Baseball gets serious at the All-Star break, which is not until July 17.

Baseball is, however, already past the halfway mark, so Jay Sorgi suggests:

Yes, the Milwaukee Brewers’ latest video discussing “expectations” has gone viral as it showcased how the team is focusing on the task of making the postseason for the first time since 2011.

But it also uncovers a precedent from incredible circumstances that could be a portent of really good things to come.

The Brewers shared this video in recent days about the team’s expectations and focus on making 2018 all it can be, and they are getting the job done so far as the National League’s No. 1 seed for playoff positioning as of this writing.

But notice the moment of the first scene in the video: The dejection of losing the second-to-last game of the 2017 season on September 30 to the St. Louis Cardinals in walk-off fashion by one run. That one run that cost the Brewers the postseason, as Milwaukee finished one game out of the NL Wildcard.

OK, Brewers fans, it’s now way-back-machine time for you…to 1956. September 29, 1956 to be specific.

On that day, the second-to-last game of the regular season, the Milwaukee Braves played the St. Louis Cardinals. In Busch Stadium. (The first edition, of course. They’re in the 3rd edition now.)

The Brewers entered that must-win game against St. Louis in the midst of a race for the postseason with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Warren Spahn threw an absolute gem of a 12-inning game, but lost in walk-off fashion – yes – by one run.

That one run cost the Braves the NL pennant. Just like the 2017 Brewers, despite a last-game victory, they lost out in the standings by one game.

What did they do the next year?

Well, they rededicated themselves like never before under the drive of Fred Haney, used the most prolific home run hitting lineup in baseball that year and the National League’s second-best pitching staff (by team ERA) to earn that spot in the postseason.

Fast forward to now, and the continued list of similarities between Aaron, Spahn and company and these Brewers.

Just like the 1957 Braves , Milwaukee is currently second in the NL in ERA. (The Brewers are No. 2 in the NL in home run hitting.)

Just like the 1957 Braves on July 6 of that year, these Brewers currently own a small lead over their nearest pursuers.

Just like the 1957 Braves who picked up Red Schoendienst to bring added bat, defense and experience, the Brewers made massive moves to grab Lorenzo Cain & Christian Yelich (and may have another move up their sleeve).

Part of my skepticism is the fouled-up mess that is Major League Baseball management. It is ridiculous and insulting to the paying customers for teams to deliberately tank — that is, fail to put a competitive product out on the field every day of every season. (See Brewers, 2015 and 2016 seasons.) The grotesque competitive imbalance baseball’s finances have created means that some teams are literally out of contention for the playoffs on Opening Day, while big-market teams can just open the checkbook and buy what they want from the non-contenders right about now.

Sorgi’s comparison to 1957 is a bit of a stretch. The 1957 team included the National League Most Valuable Player, Henry Aaron, and Cy Young Award winner, Warren Spahn. The 1957 team may have been sparked by their new manager, Fred Haney, who perhaps unlike his predecessor wasn’t there to be liked. Hazle, one of the great stories of Milwaukee baseball history — he was a midseason callup and, yes, hit .401 in less than a half-season — wasn’t on the radar at the start of the season, while people knew who Aguilar was, even though he couldn’t regularly play due to Eric Thames. The ’57 Braves also were helped tremendously by a midseason trade for second baseman Red Schoendienst.

What about 1982, the second greatest moment in Milwaukee baseball history? That team had the American League MVP, Robin Yount, and Cy Young winner, Pete Vuckovich. For most of the season it also had the previous year’s Cy Young winner and MVP, relief pitcher Rollie Fingers. That team was sparked by a midseason managerial change, with Bob “Buck” Rodgers, who piloted the team to its first playoff berth one season earlier, dumped one day before my 17th birthday in favor of hitting coach Harvey Kuenn, who got the team to relax and play to its potential. That team was helped tremendously by a late-season trade for starting pitcher Don Sutton, without whom there would have been no playoffs.

Coming into tonight, here is the National League Central standings:

The Brewers have the best record in the entire National League, and are on pace to win 97 games. In the (over)expanded baseball playoffs it’s hard to imagine not getting a playoff berth with 97 wins. There are four American League teams with better records — Boston, the Yankees, defending champion Houston and Seattle (see previous comment about big-market teams) — but to get your league’s number one postseason seed you need not top every team, only the teams in your own league.

Is a 97-win season reasonable? The first baseball stats junkie, Bill James, created the Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball, which posited that a team’s win percentage could be determined by dividing the square of the team’s runs scored by the sum of the square of runs scored and runs allowed. That projects the Brewers to win 94 games, which if correct still makes the Brewers likely to get in the playoffs if they keep playing like they’ve been playing.

At the risk of sinking into diamond nerddom, let’s look at how the Brewers are doing compared with everyone else. Their offense is actually below average — they are 17th in the league in runs scored per game, in part a result of their all-or-nothing offensive approach — they are eighth in baseball in home runs, but 15th in runs scored. They have been shut out 10 times this season, so Harvey’s Wallbangers this team is not.

But here is a stat that someone familiar with the Brewers’ dreadful pitching history may not believe: The Brewers have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball right now. (I’ll pause to let that sink in.) They are second in runs allowed per game, 3.72; fourth in earned run average, 3.53; and sixth in WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched), 1.206. They have eight shutouts this season, even though they have no complete games pitched by their starters.

Statistically their starting pitchers are average. Their relievers are not. For one, the bullpen is 20–10, which is fourth best in baseball. They have three relievers — righthander Jeremy Jeffress (6–1, 3 saves, 1.07 ERA), lefty Josh Hader (2–0, 7 saves, 1.21 ERA, and averaging almost two strikeouts per inning) and righthander Corey Knebel (2–0, 10 saves, 3.32 ERA after a slow start) — who turn games into six-inning games, like the 1990 Cincinnati Reds “Nasty Boys” trio of Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers did. (That team swept the 1990 World Series, by the way.)

Aguilar is the best offensive Brewer right now, and he might get MVP consideration if he keeps hitting at his present pace (.299, 19 home runs, 57 RBI and a .958 OPS, all of which lead the team). The offseason pickups of outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich have immeasurably improved the team, which is fortunate given that two of last year’s starters, right fielder Domingo Santana and shortstop Orlando Arcia are in Class AAA because of their bad hitting, and that no other regular could be considered to be a complete hitter in terms of average and power. (For instance, third baseman Travis Shaw has 15 HR and 49 RBI, second best on the team, but is hitting .244.)

If you compare this year’s offense to the ’57 Braves and ’82 Brewers, there really isn’t much comparison. Besides Aaron the Braves had Eddie Matthews (32 HR and 98 RBI) and seven other regulars bat over .270, and besides Yount the Brewers had Paul Molitor, Cecil Cooper, Ted Simmons, Ben Oglivie and Gorman Thomas — basically, until the World Series not a weak spot in the lineup. This year’s Brewers aren’t at that level on offense.

Pitching-wise is a more interesting question. The ’57 Braves were second in the NL in ERA. The ’82 Brewers were sixth in the AL in ERA, which I guess you can get away with if you are number one in your league in runs scored. (If you’re second in ERA and first in runs scored, well, you win the 1957 World Series.)

If you believe in the aforementioned Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball, by the way, and assuming everyone scores and gives up runs at their current paces, the Brewers won’t win the NL Central; they will end up with 94 wins, nine games back of the Cubs, though that would give them the top wild card spot. (Said theorem would make, in the AL, Houston, Boston and Cleveland as AL division champions, with the Damn Yankees and Arizona the wild cards, and in the NL, the Cubs, Dodgers and Atlanta as division champs, with the Brewers and Arizona as wild cards. Check back in three months to see if that’s correct.)

That brings up one flaw in the previous paragraph of this long treatise — the assumption that everyone would stand pat, when in fact they certainly will not. Contenders will made deals to augment their rosters from those whose motto is “Wait ’til (insert future year here).” It’s only one opinion, but Bleacher Report‘s ranking of the six teams in best position to make a deal doesn’t include the Brewers.

On the one hand, the Brewers did pick up Yelich and Cain in the offseason to improve the team, and they certainly have improved the team. On the other hand, there seems skepticism among the baseball experts on Facebook Brewers pages that the Brewers would make a Sutton-like trade, or a deal like the 2008 deal that brought pitcher C.C. Sabathia to win a playoff berth.

Rather than list who might come to Miller Park, click here for the current rumormongering, which still includes Baltimore third baseman Manny Machado and Toronto starting pitcher J.A. Happ but does not include Mets’ starters Noah Syndergaard or Jacob deGrom, nor a player I’d like to see the Brewers get, Miami catcher J.P. Realmuto.

The likelihood of a big deal depends on whether Brewers management thinks they can go deep in the playoffs this year, and whether they’re willing to risk becoming a future non-contender. That’s how the stupid economics of baseball works. The likelihood of whether the Brewers can remain a contender if teams around them — particularly the Cubs and Cardinals — make deals and the Brewers don’t seems pretty low, particularly if the few hot hitters stop hitting and the bullpen starts getting worn out.

 

 

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Take me out to the ball game … or not

The Wall Street Journal reports:

With the regular season approaching the halfway point, it seems safe to say that this is baseball in 2018: lots of home runs, even more strikeouts—and, relatively speaking, not a lot of people in the stands to see them.

League-wide attendance entering Friday of 27,328 per game is down 6.6% from this date last year and 8.6% overall, according to Stats LLC. The sport hasn’t seen an attendance drop of more than 6.7% in a single season since 1995, when the average crowd fell nearly 20% following the player strike that canceled the 1994 World Series. MLB attendance has remained consistent throughout this decade, never changing more than 1.9% in either direction.

While unwelcome to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, small decreases in attendance aren’t unusual or cause for alarm. Crowds sank 0.7% last year and 0.8% the year before that. But this season has been more than a minor dip, raising legitimate questions about what is happening.

The simplest answer, and the one Manfred would prefer, is the weather. And undoubtedly, it has been a factor. Rain and unseasonably cold temperatures plagued an unusual number of markets throughout April and May, causing 36 postponements already in 2018. There were 25 weather postponements total in 2016. Attendance always climbs in the summer, when schools are closed and the thermometer is friendlier, and Manfred said he thinks “weather’s a big part” of the drop so far.

Weather, however, can’t explain the issues everywhere. Through this time last year, Blue Jays attendance is down 29% in Toronto at the Rogers Centre, a stadium with a retractable roof. It’s down 3% at Seattle’s Safeco Field, even with the Mariners sporting one of baseball’s best records. Crowds are also down 10.9% in Oakland, 6.7% in San Francisco and 4.2% in Tampa Bay, markets where weather is almost never a factor.

That might be why Manfred admitted that the league is “concerned that there’s something to it more than weather.”

“We’re hoping that we rebound here in the second half of the season,” said Manfred, speaking at the conclusion of baseball’s quarterly owners meetings Thursday on an 80-degree, sun-soaked afternoon at MLB headquarters in New York. “We’re having a great season in terms of races and competitive teams, and we’re hoping with weather like we have in New York today we make some of that ground up.”

Fans in quite a few markets might disagree with Manfred’s definition of “competitive.” There are currently six teams—the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Miami Marlins and Texas Rangers—with winning percentages below .400, or the same number of sub-.400 teams there were from 2014 through 2017 combined.

In the history of baseball, there have never been more than five teams to finish below .400 in a single season. That’s happened in four years, though each one with a caveat: There was a split season due to a player strike in 1981; 1977 and 1969 were expansion years; and 1901 was the inaugural season of the American League.

Conversely, four teams—the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros and Mariners—are on pace to win 100 games, which would also be a major-league record.

The gap between the haves and have-nots has expanded as an increasing number of struggling organizations have chosen to tear down their rosters and embark on a full-fledged rebuild. This strategy undoubtedly can be effective, as the last two World Series champions, the Astros and Chicago Cubs, demonstrate.

But this season has shown that going that route has a significant impact at the box office. Attendance at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park is down 29.2% through this time last year following a winter where they traded their ace, Gerrit Cole, and their most popular player, 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen. The Royals have seen a 23% drop-off at Kauffman Stadium after losing a host of players, including first baseman Eric Hosmer and outfielder Lorenzo Cain. After trading Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, Marlins attendance is officially down almost 50%, though that’s in part due to an organization decision to start announcing attendance based only on tickets sold.

On the other side, the Brewers have seen a 19.6% increase at Miller Park after adding Cain and Yelich to their roster. Yankees attendance is up 11.6% following their acquisition of Stanton. Even the last-place San Diego Padres have seen a slight bump after signing Hosmer to a long-term free-agent contract, suggesting that bringing in star power can galvanize fans.

Manfred pushed back against the idea that the attendance decline is because of the game’s competitive landscape, saying, “Based on half a season, I just don’t buy it.” He also pointed out, correctly, that a couple of teams not widely projected to be at the top of the standings, like the Mariners and Atlanta Braves, have exceeded expectations.

“We’ve had tremendous competitive balance over the last two decades,” Manfred said. “I think that at the end of the season people will agree we had a very competitive year.”

Whether that shows up in attendance is another story, whether because of competitive balance, ticket prices, the style of play on the field, weather or some combination of them all. In his news conference Thursday, Manfred said MLB is considering ways to produce a more “fan-friendly” schedule in 2019, which could feature two-game weekend series between rivals, among other changes.

Proof that Major League Baseball is one of the worst run professional sports is Manfred’s apparent refusal to acknowledge not merely this year’s attendance drop, but the three-year drop in progress.

The biggest on-the-field difference between MLB and the National Football League as a sports league is that essentially every NFL team enters the season having a reasonable chance to make the playoffs, even teams that didn’t make it last year. Conversely, what reason do fans of the Orioles, Royals, White Sox, Reds, Marlins and Rangers have to go to games? Their teams suck, and if you’re playing below .400 now there is no way you will become a contender this season.

The Astros/Cubs/Brewers lose-now-to-win-later approach is an affront to fans. Why would you buy a ticket to watch deliberately losing baseball? When you don’t play major-league-level players, or has-beens or will-never-bes, you’re trying to lose.

 

The top five in the broadcast booth

Sports Broadcast Journal wrote:

Based on marketplace merit, durability, edge, warmth, artistic contribution, distinction and style – these are Halby’s  top 5 play-by-play announcers in each  of the top 10 DMAs (designated market areas).

The list in each market is spelled out in alphabetical order. Some markets are easier to grade than others .

Popularity of both sport and team market by market  is also a consideration. There are no right and wrong answers because play-by-play is both a science and art. The science is the use of nomenclature, pace and fundamentals and the art includes warmth, proper pausing, bond-building  and storytelling .

The closest market to Presteblog World Headquarters is Chicago, and so …

#3 CHICAGO

JACK BRICKHOUSE, HARRY CARAY, JIM DURHAMBOB ELSON AND HAWK HARRELSON

This involved splitting hairs. Names considered include popular broadcasters of yesteryear; Hal Totten, Pat Flanagan, Bert Wilson, Lou Boudreau and Vince Lloyd. Currently an argument can be made for Pat Foley, Pat Hughes and Neil Funk. Tough market to limit to five!

Thanks to the former superstation WGN-TV (as opposed to WGN America, which carries nothing worth watching anymore), people with cable TV, or people who lived close enough to Chicago, could see and hear the work of nearly everyone on this list:

Only those of a certain age might remember that Brickhouse did the Cubs and the Bears:

This list prompted Kyle Cooper to think:

First, let’s consider the entire state of Wisconsin to be a single market, since the population to this day is under six million. That’s smaller than the New York City DMA and barely bigger than Los Angeles.

That said, the top five is:
Bob Uecker (Milwaukee Brewers)
Jim Irwin (Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Bucks, Wisconsin Badgers, etc.)
Eddie Doucette (Bucks)
Earl Gillespie (Milwaukee Braves, Badgers, etc.)
Matt Lepay (Badgers, etc.)

A solid quintet, to be sure. But it leaves out Merle Harmon, Blaine Walsh, and, in a roundabout way, Ray Scott. And, I’m sure I’m leaving out some other worthy candidates.

What’s your top five?

It’s hard to argue against Uecker, Irwin and Lepay.

Walsh worked with Gillespie on Braves’ games, but also did some national work:

Gillespie got to do some national work too, thanks to the Braves:

Scott was CBS-TV’s assigned announcer for Packer games, which means that in the TV blackout days Packer fans in Green Bay and Milwaukee only got to see Scott on road games.

Along with Harmon …

… a lot of fans not might remember Gary Bender, who did sports at WKOW-TV in Madison and announced Badger football and the Packers (both with Irwin) before going to CBS:

There’s also Brewers TV announcer Brian Anderson, who misses Brewers games because he’s getting a lot of national work:

 

A new coach, a new arena, and intrigue therein

A phrase common to professional sports, and increasingly to college sports, is that a coach is hired to be fired.

What else would explain this, from Bleacher Report?

The Toronto Raptors finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference this season. Dwane Casey was named the National Basketball Coaches Association’s Coach of the Year.

That wasn’t enough to save his job.

The Raptors fired Casey after seven seasons Friday, just four days after the Raptors were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round, according to ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Toronto went 320-238 under Casey and made five postseason appearances, but the team’s playoff struggles led to his dismissal.

“After careful consideration, I have decided this is a very difficult but necessary step the franchise must take,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said in a statement, according to USA Today‘s Jeff Zillgitt. “As a team, we are constantly trying to grow and improve in order to get to the next level.”

After earning a conference finals berth in 2016 and coming within two games of reaching the first Finals in franchise history, the Raptors fell apart each of the last two seasons—thanks in large part to one LeBron Raymone James.

The Cavaliers swept the Raptors out of the second round in 2017 and 2018, the latter being the death knell to Casey’s tenure. Cleveland entered the series having just barely scraped by the Indiana Pacers in seven games, only to beat Toronto twice on their home floor before closing things out in Cleveland. The Cavs had no real set rotation and were still juggling around lineups due to their revamped roster, but it mattered not in the sweep. …

Moving on from the coach is the easiest deck-shuffling move they can make without tearing the team to its core. Casey will rightfully be billed as the unfair fall guy, but every NBA coach knows that comes as part of the job.

There are numerous examples in pro sports of somewhat successful teams making a coaching change for the purpose of getting to the “next level.” It almost never works.

In 1980, after three consecutive wild card playoff berths and two trips to the AFC championship game (because they kept running into the Pittsburgh Steelers), the Houston Oilers fired coach Bum Phillips. That stopped the run of playoff berths.

The Milwaukee Brewers have done that for decades. It’s unclear whether manager Harvey Kuenn was fired or resigned, but he was out the door one season after managing the Brewers to the 1982 World Series. Kuenn’s replacement, Rene Lachemann, was out the door after one disastrous season.

Kuenn is not really an example of this approach working. He was named manager in June 1982 after the Brewers fired manager Buck Rodgers, who was accused of overmanaging. The difference is that Kuenn was already a Brewers coach, so it’s not as if he represented a huge change, except in temperament. Kuenn told his players to have fun, and they had fun all the way to the 1982 World Series and were a contender throughout the 1983 season. Nor is Dale Sveum, who replaced Ned Yost as Brewers manager in mid-September 2008, and got the Brewers into the playoffs for the first time since 1982.

At any rate, Casey now becomes an obvious candidate for the Bucks’ vacant coaching job, along with several assistant coaches with connections to the San Antonio Spurs, who unlike most NBA teams actually play team basketball.

Maybe the most intriguing candidate from that group is Becky Hammon, a Spurs assistant since 2014 after her career in the Women’s National Basketball Association. Hammon was the coach of the Spurs’ summer-league team, which won the summer league title in 2015. Hammon interestingly was interviewed for the Bucks’ general manager position one year ago, but wasn’t hired.

Hammon gets a vote of confidence from one of her Spurs players, Pau Gasol:

That part is obvious: One, she was an accomplished player — with an elite point guard’s mind for the game. And two, she has been a successful assistant for arguably the greatest coach in the game. What more do you need? But like I said — I’m not here to make that argument. Arguing on Coach Hammon’s behalf would feel patronizing. To me, it would be strange if NBA teams were not interested in her as a head coach.

The argument that I see most often is thankfully the one that’s easiest to disprove: It’s this idea that, at the absolute highest level of basketball, a woman isn’t capable of coaching men. “Yeah, female coaches are fine coaching women’s college basketball, or the WNBA,” the argument goes. “But the NBA? The NBA is different.”

First, I’ve just gotta tell you: If you’re making that argument to anyone who’s actually played any high-level basketball, you’re going to seem really ignorant. But I also have a simple response to it — which is that I’ve been in the NBA for 17 years. I’ve won two championships … I’ve played with some of the best players of this generation … and I’ve played under two of the sharpest minds in the history of sports, in Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. And I’m telling you: Becky Hammon can coach. I’m not saying she can coach pretty well. I’m not saying she can coach enough to get by. I’m not saying she can coach almost at the level of the NBA’s male coaches. I’m saying: Becky Hammon can coach NBA basketball. Period.

I’ll tell you a quick story to illustrate my point. This year, in a practice a few months back, I was drilling the pick-and-roll with Dejounte Murray. It was a standard drill, just the two of us alone at one basket: I would set the screen and either pop out for the jumper or roll to the lane. If I popped, Dejounte would hit me with a chest pass. If I rolled, a bounce pass. Like I said, a very standard drill — we’ll do this a million times.

But what I remember about this particular drill is that, at some point during it, Coach Hammon stopped us mid-motion. Coaches Hammon, Borrego and Messina walk over, and Becky says to Dejounte, “D.J., O.K. — your bounce pass? It’s too low. You’ve got to hit Pau exactly where he needs it. Run that again.” We then talk some more as a group about how I need the ball a little more precise, with a little more zip, so I could have a better chance to finish the action at the rim. And then we repeat the drill a few times, alternating from the left and right sides of court. Of course, Dejounte being Dejounte, he figures it out fast — and pretty soon we’re flying through. But something about that moment has just always stuck with me. Just, like … the level of knowledge of the game that Becky showed, you know what I mean?

She noticed a small detail out of the corner of her eye — and then instantly located both the problem and the solution. And not only that, but we were also able to communicate with each other in such a way that we got the result that we needed. It’s a good reminder, I’d say, of the importance of communication between team members — especially at the NBA level. I don’t think I caught another stray pass the rest of the season.

Another argument that I’ve seen tossed around — maybe even sillier than the previous one — is that Becky rose to her current position because having her on staff was “good p.r.” for the Spurs.

What?

Seriously: What?

No. We’re talking about the NBA here — a business where there’s a lot of money on the line, and little patience for mediocrity. Also we’re talking about the San Antonio Spurs, one of the most successful NBA franchises of this century: a system that has produced David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili, Tony Parker — and that’s just the Hall of Famers. This is a team that won 50+ games for 18-straight seasons, and five championships in the last 20 years.

Would you really expect Coach Pop to develop his staff any differently than he develops his players? Of course not.

Pop’s only standard for doing anything is whether it’ll help us in just one way … and it isn’t getting good p.r.

It’s getting W’s. And getting those W’s The Spurs Way.

Teams in need of new management do best to emulate consistently successful organizations. The Packers did that by getting Ron Wolf from the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders and Mike Holmgren from the San Francisco 49ers. UW did that by getting Barry Alvarez, who coached for Hayden Fry at Iowa and Lou Holtz at Notre Dame, to coach football.

There is an additional reason the Bucks may hire Hammon. The Bucks’ owners have a new arena that opens next season. The owners, big Democratic Party donors, are reported to be bidding for the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Having the NBA’s first female head coach might be the tipping point in their favor with the party that invented identity politics.

Which is not to say that Hammon shouldn’t get the job. She appears to know the sport, and she is part of a highly successful organization. The issue that arguably applies to every candidate is their people skills, since the skill levels of the rotations of NBA teams are probably relatively equal talent-wise, at least for teams that don’t employ LeBron James or Steph Curry.

Underdogs

I announced a basketball game in Oregon Thursday night. It was the first time I have covered basketball at Oregon (where we once purchased a station wagon, but that’s not important right now) in 31 years.

The two games I covered in consecutive seasons were classics, and show how things have changed in high school basketball. Game number one in 1986 featured Big Eight Conference boys basketball champion Madison La Follette, one season removed from state, and Badger Conference champion Oregon, featuring future UW football player Dan Kissling. La Follette had two losses, one more than Oregon.

That was, by the way, a Class A regional semifinal — the first game of the postseason featuring two conference champions, playing at the home of one of them and not a neutral site. One positive change, even if performed imperfectly at times (it turns out that conference coaches often vote for their fellow schools in seeding meetings), is seeding to prevent games like that so early in the postseason. Today that game (assuming both teams got that far and didn’t stumble on the way) would have been a sectional-semifinal game played at a neutral site, like last night’s game.

The 1986 game was a great game as expected, except that the wrong team won — Oregon by two points. It was such a great game that the Panthers had nothing left in the tank the next night and lost at home to Sun Prairie, which had had a losing regular season.

The next day, La Follette’s girls team lost its sectional final in Reedsburg to Portage. That ended the career of one of La Follette’s best girls players to that point, Anne Cooley, though their four junior starters would be back the next year from that conference champion team.

One year later, that girls team, having somewhat underperformed expectations (they ended the regular season 9–11), headed into the regional final at Oregon against Madison East. The irony was that, though East finished higher in the conference, thanks to their foreign-exchange player Anke Buchauer, La Follette had beaten them twice, in overtime, including one week earlier in their regular-season finale.

Of course, if two teams played to overtime twice already, they’re practically guaranteed to play free basketball the third time, right? And so off to overtime meeting number three went. La Follette got a steal with 56 seconds left in the three-minute overtime, ran the clock down, then had a shot blocked out of bounds (of course, by Buchauer) with two seconds left. That gave La Follette coach Terry Shermeister enough time to diagram three plays, including a wing jumper. That turned to be the play that was available, and so the pass went to guard Julie Gundlach, whose 15-foot right-wing jumper sailed through the nets as time expired. Despite Buchauer’s 31 points, La Follette won 47–45 to head to week number two of the postseason.

The Lancers’ next opponent was conference champion Madison Memorial, who had beaten La Follette twice in the regular season. But you know the cliché about beating a team three times in a season. And so La Follette ended Memorial’s season before state, sending the Lancers again to Reedsburg again to face Portage for a state berth.

That was a full day. I had to cover state boys gymnastics at Madison West in the morning, then drive up to Reedsburg on an 80-degree early March Saturday for the girls game, followed by heading back to La Follette for that night’s boys regional final.

In the first half of that game on a La Follette inbounds play, a Portage player slapped the ball as the Lancer was holding it before throwing it inbounds. One of the referees gave her a warning. Three quarters later, with the score tied, she did it again, and this time she was assessed a technical foul. La Follette’s best free throw shooter hit two free throws, La Follette got the ball back, she was fouled and hit two more free throws, giving La Follette a two-possession lead in the season before the three-point shot. Portage scored baskets and fouled, but La Follette hit all of its free throws. Final score 48–46, good for a most unexpected trip to state.

A year later I got to cover Monona Grove’s boys team in a sectional semifinal at UW–Platteville against undefeated Lancaster, trying for its first state trip since 1917. MG in those days was one of the smallest schools in the Badger Conference, but the theory was that maybe MG would take its lumps in the regular season but do better in the postseason facing schools its own size. In fact, MG’s sectional trip was its second in three seasons despite having not won its conference in any of those seasons.

Lancaster was undefeated, but the Flying Arrows weren’t exactly flying; their roster was full of the walking wounded, with one player wearing football thigh pads. Either for that reason or the fact that MG was indeed better than its record, Lancaster entered with no losses and exited with a loss, sending MG to extending its season one more game.

A year after that, having moved to Lancaster, I got to cover the Flying Arrows baseball team. (At the time they played in the vastly-preferable summer season, which feels like real baseball instead of the arctic Wisconsin spring.) Like the aforementioned La Follette girls, they ended their regular season 9–11. They also had to deal with Mother Nature, which messed up their pitching rotation by two days of rainouts that pushed the regional game to the day before the sectional. (In those days pitchers could pitch seven innings every third day. Thanks to the rainouts, the starting pitcher for Thursday’s game therefore could go only two innings the next day.)

Lancaster won the regional game 11–6, getting two innings from a collection of pitchers who would not have been on the mound were it not for the rainout. That moved Lancaster to Onalaska and the semifinal the following afternoon. After a moon-shot two-run home run in the top of the first inning, it appeared Lancaster’s postseason end was six innings away. except that the Hilltoppers didn’t score after that, and Lancaster manufactured three runs to take a 3–2 lead into the top of the sixth inning.

Lancaster’s pitcher, Jason Schildgen, created a mess by loading the bases with one out and going to three balls and one strike on the batter, with the tying run at third base. Said batter then swung and missed at what would have been ball four, and then committed the blunder of unsuccessfully bunting on a 3–2 count, resulting in strike three. Four groundouts later, the Arrows headed to the sectional final against conference champion Platteville, which had unexpectedly won the earlier semifinal by defeating Holmen 4–2 in eight innings. The two teams with the best records in the sectional watched, instead of played, the sectional final. (And yes, Lancaster and Platteville traveled two hours each to play each other.)

Platteville got a 4–0 lead against a freshman pitcher who due to the two days of rainouts was making his first varsity appearance in a game that would send the winner to state. Lancaster started the game-tying rally in the bottom of the fifth inning with a ground ball off the third baseman’s mouth. One inning later, the Arrows got a 5–4 lead, erased in the top of the seventh inning on back-to-back ground-rule doubles.

In the bottom of the seventh, the Arrows loaded the bases with one out. On a ground ball to second, instead of trying for a double play in the infield (perhaps because it was hit too slowly or because the winning run was at third), the second baseman threw home. Big cloud at the plate, the umpire yelled “SAFE!”, and my insurance agent’s game-winning run sent Lancaster to state, to the surprise of everyone except their coach. I’ll never forget the 30 seconds of wild cheering, followed by stunned silence from half the crowd — we’re going to state? That team? — and stunned disappointed silence from the other half.

Lancaster apparently figured that since they had to go all the way to Stevens Point for state, they might as well make the trip worthwhile. And so the Arrows beat Minocqua Lakeland 8–5 Wednesday night, bombed Kewaskum 20–8 the next afternoon (said insurance agent’s son hit a grand slam, his only home run in any level of baseball according to his father), but ran out of magic and lost to Sheboygan North 5–0 in the championship game. Ironically the Arrows needed to win their first state game to guarantee a winning season, and they took home a silver trophy.

It may be that in a competition David was the first underdog, Notice who won between David and Goliath. Gen. George Patton (as portrayed by George C. Scott) might have been right when he said that Americans love a winner, but Americans also love to root for the little guy in sports, whether it’s the 1960 or 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, a double-digit seed in the NCAA basketball tournament, or the fictional Hickory Huskers in the movie “Hoosiers.”

Underdogs are generally either teams that underperformed in the regular season and finally got it together when the games really count, or physically inferior teams that nevertheless figure out how to take out the favorite. Consider the 2000 UW men’s basketball team, which beat three higher seeds to get to a Final Four no one saw coming, or Villanova, which executed its offensive game plan to perfection to beat Georgetown in the NCAA title game. In the Badgers’ case it was defense, which explained why the halftime score of their Final Four semifinal was 19–17.

Americans probably love to root for the underdog because people think they’re underdogs compared to big bad employer/other team/more handsome and rich guy, etc. As a country we’re certainly not an underdog anymore, but if Las Vegas existed in the late 1800s Vegas would have predicted a low probability of the revolution against the British succeeding.

La Follette’s first state champion team finished the 1977 regular season 10–8. It had a future college football player, UW’s Ross Anderson, but otherwise no indication the Lancers would win four consecutive playoff games to go to state, then sweep state, setting a record for field goal shooting in the process.

Even better was the 1978 Elkhorn boys team, which went 5–12 in the regular season, and needed to win state to get a winning season … and did.

Technically speaking the 1982 La Follette boys basketball team wasn’t really an underdog, but the Lancers were against an undefeated number-one-ranked team in the state championship. How did that turn out? Read here.

I went to a football game and a theological argument broke out

David French:

On Sunday night, the Super Bowl ended and — for about 20 minutes — a late-night church service began. From coaches to players, the Philadelphia Eagles thanked Jesus, professed their love for Jesus, and expressed how Christ had provided strength through adversity. In other words (and ironically, given their fans’ rather cruel public image), it was a normal Eagles kind of day.

The sports world is more publicly religious than the rest of pop culture. Football is more publicly religious than the rest of sports, and the Philadelphia Eagles are more publicly religious than most football teams. Writing on Super Bowl Sunday, the Washington Post’s Bob Smietana chronicled the team’s faith commitment:

The team produced a video — separate from the one being shown on Super Bowl Sunday — highlighting faith as a binding force in the team locker room.

Eagles players even held baptisms in the team’s cold tub and at a hotel pool. About 30,000 people have viewed a Bible study that features the Eagles and other NFL players. Frank Reich, the offensive coordinator for the Eagles, spent time in the ministry after his NFL career was over — serving as a pastor and seminary professor before becoming a coach.

Quarterbacks Nick Foles and Carson Wentz are outspoken about their faith. Coach Doug Pederson coached at a Christian high school. The list goes on.

The Eagles are so Christian, in fact, that as the Super Bowl ended, I braced for a backlash. After all, before America fought over patriotism and football, it battled over God and football. A quick Google search reveals an avalanche of commentary stretching back for years. Would the football holy war begin anew?

Thankfully, the answer was largely no. Yes, Twitter flared with vitriol, but that’s Twitter being Twitter. There was worse anger over the Solo teaser trailer. Perhaps event militant atheists were grateful to see the Patriots lose. Perhaps partisans were too distracted by “the memo” and the host of other controversies that rip apart our civil society. Whatever the reason, peace largely prevailed.

But still, I saw the question raised time and again, “Does God care about football?”

It’s a question worth answering in large part because it goes to the heart of our conception of God’s nature, his character, and his relationship with man. There are those who look at Christian athletes and say that their expressions of faith diminish God. They take the God of the universe and relegate him to the status of a divine football commissioner, dispensing gridiron glory for the sake of rewarding the “hard work” or “grit” of his favorite children. When the world groans under the weight of the Fall — divided by war, battered by hurricanes, afflicted with disease — the notion that God cares in the slightest about which millionaire athlete wins which sporting contest can strike a person as slightly obscene.

But it’s obscene only if one thinks of God as a limited being, with a finite amount of attention. As if he’s distracted from the crisis in Syria to make sure that a pro quarterback can offer a social-media lesson in how to triumph over adversity. He can’t sustain the suffering people of Puerto Rico because he’s micro-managing a free safety’s tackle on a game-saving play.

In reality, the notion that God is intimately involved in the lives of his children magnifies his glory. The God who created the universe has the capacity of infinite attention and care, including attention and care for the lowliest of his creatures. In Matthew, Christ talks about how God “clothes the grass of the field” and “feeds” the “birds of the air” — and we are of far more value than animals and plants.

The scriptures go on and on. “All things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” All means all. “Every good and perfect gift comes from above.” Every means every. Even our own plans are meaningless compared with God’s will. “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” There’s even a strong biblical example that should deter any believer from accepting praise without thanking God — just ask the worm-eaten King Herod who basked in the praise of men without giving God the glory.

Moreover, there’s something specific about football — distinct from other sports — that can concentrate a person’s faith. Yes, football is more religious in part because of its southern strongholds (the South is more religious). Yes, football is more religious in part because it’s disproportionately black (African Americans are more religious). But I’d also posit that something else is in play: keen awareness of human fragility.

While athletes can suffer gruesome injuries in virtually any sport — just ask Paul George or Gordon Hayward — few athletes risk what football players risk when they take the field. An athlete can condition himself perfectly, train his body to achieve its greatest possible strength, and one wayward hit can end a career. So the athletes who are most self-aware can also be among the humblest people alive. They recognize their lack of control over their own destiny.

Football requires physical courage. For many of us, physical courage flows from faith. The capriciousness of the game should dictate a measure of humility. For many of us, humility flows from faith. For the vast majority of athletes, that declaration of thanks to God isn’t a declaration that God is an Eagle or a Patriot but that God loves them and has given them every good thing in their lives.

So, yes, God cares about football because he cares about football players. He orders their steps. He grants them good and perfect gifts. He teaches them amid the pain of loss and adversity. I’d even go so far as to say that God cares about football because he cares about football fans. Shared joy is a powerful bonding force, as is shared pain. I love sports not just because of the thrill of competition but also because sports bond a community and even a family through the power of shared experience.

Yes, that can manifest itself in deeply unhealthy ways (just look at the reputation of Philly fans), but there are few spaces left in American life where Americans of every race, creed, and color can experience a sense of true fellowship. Is that not a “good” gift?

I know that bad theology abounds. I know that some people view victory as a formula that can be achieved through the right degree of faith. But good theology tells us that the same God who spoke the universe into existence doesn’t just love the individual people he created, he became part of his own creation, experienced our pains and temptations, and took on our suffering and sin. God doesn’t just understand or author our joy at the small things of life. He experienced it.

When Nick Foles and Doug Pederson gave glory to God after the Super Bowl, they were doing exactly what God’s people should do: Praise him as the source of their immense blessing. And for players on the other side? Their adversity serves its own purpose. In the face of triumph, humility dictates that we credit the source of our strength. In the face of loss, faith encourages us that adversity will work together for good. There is much worth seeing that reality play out on the larger public stage — even if that stage is “only” a football game.

When rogue nations are easy in comparison

Purdue University president Mitch Daniels writes to Condolezza Rice:

That invitation to speak on our campus still stands, but I see that you’ll be a little too busy this spring, now that you’ve accepted yet another “service opportunity” as chair of the new commission tasked by the NCAA to help it reform college basketball. You’ve always been a sucker for a good cause; and if ever a cause qualified, this one does.

When the FBI revealed its findings about the corrupt connections among shoe companies, agents, a few big-time college programs and coaches, and the Amateur Athletic Union or AAU (the first “A” increasingly looks like a misnomer), no one near the sport was shocked. The existence of this part of the cesspool has been in plain view for years. Those in a position to stop the scandals spawned by the “one-and-done” era — in which many top-tier players were required to enroll in college for one year before bolting for the NBA — have been either powerless to do so or actively interested in perpetuating the status quo.

When it was discovered that, at what we’ve always considered an academically admirable school, championships had been won by teams loaded with players who took completely phony classes, most of us were sincerely shocked. We were stunned again when, after years of cogitation, the NCAA delivered a penalty of . . . nothing. It was a final confession of futility, confirming the necessity of this special commission, if any meaningful change is going to happen from the collegiate end.

If the NCAA is impotent to stop the abuses, the NBA is all but an unindicted co-conspirator. The current arrangement works out beautifully for the league: It gets a free minor league player development system, a massively televised showcase for its next round of stars, and one less argument with a players union that prefers to limit, through its ineligible-until-age-19 rule, the number of competitors for the few hundred NBA roster spots. The league has every incentive to keep dragging its feet, so the most promising avenue for reform is to make the college game inhospitable to NBA exploitation and the rotten collusion that the one-and-done world fosters.

As for solutions, one can start by observing that almost no change could make things worse. I don’t pretend to know the single best answer, but it’s not hard to list a number of possibilities.

We could require a “year of readiness,” meaning that freshmen could practice but not play while they became acclimated to college life. This was the NCAA rule for many decades, and it makes great sense unless a “student” really has no intention of pursuing a real education.

Or the NCAA could simply use the rule already in effect for baseball, which gives young aspirants a choice between going professional straight from high school or entering college and staying a minimum of three years. Either of these approaches separates those seriously interested in higher education from those forced by the current system to pretend they are.

Another idea would be to allow players to depart early for the NBA, but the scholarships they received would be required to remain vacant for the balance of their four-year terms. Coaches who want to chase that next championship with full-time players masquerading as students could do so, but the following few seasons might be tough with rosters filled with walk-ons.

I’m convinced the college game would be more, not less popular, if a handful of would-be pretend students, whose names fans barely get a chance to know, instead went straight from high school to some sort of professional league. Doing so would certainly bring more parity and fairness to the college game. The play would still be amazingly athletic — most of us fans would not be able to tell the difference — and schools with genuine academic and conduct standards would no longer be at such a competitive disadvantage.

It’s startling how concentrated the phenomenon is. In the past five years, 45 percent of all “five-star” recruits, and 58 percent of all one-and-dones, have gone to just five schools. Our entire 14-member Big Ten conference, by contrast, has had 9.2 percent of the first category and 6.4 percent of the latter, collectively. One could tell conferences like ours that if we don’t like today’s situation, we can just establish our own rules, but unilateral disarmament never seems like a good idea.

It troubles me to give up on my friends and neighbors at the NCAA, but when the FBI beats you to a monstrously obvious problem in your own backyard, you’re clearly never going to fix it on your own.

So thanks for serving, Condi, and best of luck. If you thought Iranian sanctions or North Korean nukes were hard problems, wait until you try this one. And take your time about that invitation. Go save us from ourselves.

Fouls

This is probably not a surprise, reported by the WIAA:

The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Board of Control voted in opposition to the most recent plan to address competitive equity and approved a number of coaches’ committee recommendations and other action items at its January meeting today.

The Board voted 6-5 against a basketball “Rural/Urban” competitive equity plan initiated by the Board. The proposal sought to place schools in Divisions 3, 4 and 5 by enrollment and by U.S. Census data with classification codes based on proximity to urban areas.

I posted about this yesterday. If the Rural/Urban plan is dead (and that’s debatable), and irrespective of the merits of the plan, one wonders if the next step will be to simply classify private schools (and maybe charter schools) into their own class(es) for state basketball.

Meanwhile, The Post~Crescent in Appleton reports:

Coaches throughout the Fox Valley could be seen with folded white towels on their shoulders Tuesday evening.

The gesture was in clear support of basketball coach John Mielke, who resigned Sunday morning as Appleton East boys coach following a confrontation with an East parent at a local bar Friday night.

Mielke’s sudden resignation sent shock waves through the basketball communities in the Fox Valley. A groundswell of support for Mielke was evident on social media throughout Monday and Tuesday as players, coaches and fans voiced their backing of Mielke.

Mielke let his team know at a practice Sunday morning that he was stepping down as head coach.

Oshkosh North boys basketball head coach Brad Weber also showed support for Mielke on Tuesday. The Spartans defeated Appleton East 72-35 at East in the Patriots’ first game without Mielke as head coach. Assistant Steve Coenen is the acting head coach for the rest of the season.

“Shocking,” Weber said. “Because when you see the news, it hits you. But in today’s society when you think about it, probably not that shocking.” …

Appleton East graduate and former University of Wisconsin basketball player Dave Mader shared his thoughts on Twitter: “I had a chance to help out for a short time with Coach Mielke. He cared deeply about the players. He was a friend and mentor to numerous coaches. He loves the game of basketball and is an extraordinary human being. It was a privilege to work with Coach Mielke.

Mielke resigned — and you’ll notice the high school basketball season is far from over — after a group fo East parents reportedly had a confrontation with him at a bar following East’s loss to Appleton West, the P~C reports:

Mielke resigned two days after an encounter at a local bar on Friday where he was approached by a parent of an Appleton East basketball player. According to sources, the parent said he was representing the thoughts of many families and questioned Mielke’s coaching tactics, repeatedly calling the team’s play “embarrassing.”

Several other East parents were nearby but did not address Mielke, according to others in the bar.

Sources said the parent told Mielke that some of the players on the team no longer wanted to play for him and indicated that Mielke “yelled at their kids too much” during practices and games. …

Multiple people in the bar at the time confirmed the series of events to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. And several players attending Sunday’s practice confirmed Mielke’s comments to the team.

One wonders if these parents are going to intervene for their children when they have problems in college or in the workplace too. One also wonders whether this particular interfering parent knows the definition of the word “embarrassing.”