Silenced sports voices

Two figures in Wisconsin sports media history died last week.

The first is reported by the Wisconsin State Journal:

Don Lindstrom, a former prep and University of Wisconsin sportswriter and columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal, passed away at 92 years old on July 13 in Madison. A cause of death was not disclosed.

The Nebraska native’s newspaper career covered 43 years as a sports editor of the Holdrege (Neb.) Daily Citizen, a sports writer for the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune and finally at the State Journal for 29 years. He retired in 1988.

Lindstrom was honored with selections to the Wisconsin Sports Hall of Fame in cross country in 1995, basketball in 2001 and football in 2002. He received an additional award from the Wisconsin Sports Hall of Fame in 2010. He also was a member of the Baseball Writers of America, earned Wisconsin Sportswriter of the Year nominations and was the ninth president of the Madison Sports Hall of Fame.

Lindstrom also served in the U.S. Navy Amphibious Corps Pacific Theater during World War II. He and his wife, Barbara, would have been married 64 years on Aug. 31.

I read Don well before I knew him, along with late State Journal sportswriter Tom Butler. So when I started covering games and then saw them in the flesh, it was a sign that it one of them was there, the game I was covering was a big deal that night. One wonders if, given media companies’ shedding of employees, if someone will think that after seeing one of today’s sports reporters covering an event.

That included the March 12, 1982 boys basketbail sectional semifinal game between two of the three conference tri-champions, Madison La Follette and Madison West, about which you have read, including …

The scene was wild enough for Don Lindstrom, a Wisconsin State Journal sportswriter who had previously covered approximately 11 million basketball games, to comment thereupon:

“I thought we had lost it,” yelled La Follette Coach Pete Olson amid postgame bedlam. “We worked so hard but I never thought we could do it. These kids are amazing.”

The other is reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Long before the arrival of cable television, decades before people live-streamed baseball games on tablets or checked their cell phones for ScribbleLive updates, this is how you followed your favorite team, when you weren’t actually sitting in the stadium:

You turned on the boxy radio in the kitchen or held a transistor radio to your ear and moved the tiny plastic dial in microscopic increments until the static faded and the station came in, occasionally loud and clear.

In Milwaukee, this rich era of radio produced the likes of Earl Gillespie and Blaine Walsh, Merle Harmon and Tom Collins – familiar, honeyed voices drifting through the air on hot summer nights.

Collins (left) and Merle Harmon, who I once met, probably announcing a Brewers loss.

“You weren’t involved with baseball unless you listened to the radio,” said Eddie Doucette, a member of the Brewers’ broadcast team in 1973-’74.

Yet another link to that bygone era is no more with the passing of Collins, who died Thursday in Wisconsin Rapids of congestive heart failure. He was 95.

Gillespie and Walsh, who called Braves games in the 1950s and ‘60s, and Harmon, who bridged the Braves and Brewers, preceded Collins in death – Walsh in 1985, Gillespie in 2003, Harmon in 2009.

“When you stop and think about all the good guys that have come out of that market, it was really some quality, quality talent,” said Doucette, who gained greater fame as the radio voice of the Milwaukee Bucks. “It was a sad day for me when Merle died. And now Tom. It’s almost the end of an era.”

Like many play-by-play men of his generation, Collins had no formal training in radio. After serving as a Marine Corps gunner during World War II, he returned to his hometown of Neenah and worked as a millwright in the paper mills.

He got his start in radio doing a Sunday morning polka/country music show on WNAM and later did play-by-play for local high school sports teams. In 1959, he took a job with WEMP-AM in Milwaukee, which held the rights to Braves games.

“He came to WEMP as a newsman,” said Collins’ son, Patrick. “He worked his way up to his own morning show before he got into sports. He did the Braves’ pregame show for three or four years before he started doing play-by-play.”

The Braves left Milwaukee after the 1965 season and when the Brewers arrived in 1970, Collins was part of the broadcast team that included Harmon and a young Bob Uecker, who started in 1971 and is still going strong.

“Working with Tom and Merle was a big deal for me,” Uecker said. “I had already done the ‘Tonight Show’ stuff but I was more nervous about doing play-by-play on radio than the appearance stuff I did. I came here with nothing. I never did any games. Everything was a learning experience with Tom and Merle.

“They were great guys. Funny guys, too. I always did one inning of play-by-play, the fifth inning, and one day Tom and Merle introduced me and got up and left. I was begging them to come back and in the sixth inning the engineer said, ‘You better get going, Bob. There’s one out.’ ”

Collins also did the play-by-play for Marquette University basketball games for 15 years, many of them with Uecker. Collins and coach Al McGuire became close friends and went out on top together – the last game Collins called was the 1977 NCAA championship game.

In recent years, Collins suffered from Alzheimer’s, but still worked crossword puzzles in pen. Even after he forgot his grandchildren’s names, he could name the starting lineups for Braves teams.

“He was an unbelievable storyteller,” said grandson Matt Collins. “He had a very vivid memory. If you closed your eyes you felt like you were standing over his shoulder, watching what he was describing.”

Patrick Collins said the family planned to celebrate his father’s life with a “big, old-fashioned Irish wake” in Neenah in late September or early October.

“I was sad when I found out the other day that he passed away, but 95 years, that’s a pretty good run for anybody,” Uecker said. “It’s always sad, the inevitable, but Tom was a longtime friend and we had a lot of laughs. He was a great guy.”

I cannot find Collins’ obituary, so I don’t know if that was his real name. If it was (and even if it wasn’t), he had the perfect on-air name for a Wisconsin media personality. (For those unaware, the Tom Collins drink is gin (to prevent malaria), lemon juice (to prevent scurvy), simple syrup and club soda.)

I don’t recall hearing Collins, who did radio until 1972, did two more years on TV, and then did the Brewers’ first cable TV broadcasts for the SelecTV subscription service in 1981 (available only in the Milwaukee area) with current Red Sox announcer Joe Castiglione. He was more of a broadcaster than a sportscaster in that he was in Milwaukee radio outside the Brewers and, for their last three years of existence, the Milwaukee Braves.)

So why do I recall this announcer, eulogized in the New York Times?

I had never met Bob Wolff, who died Saturday night, but like many people in the New York and Washington sports markets, I knew Bob. To me, he was the television voice of the Knicks during their 1970 and 1973 N.B.A. championship runs. To fans of the Washington Senators, he was the voice of a franchise from 1947 to 1961 (including its first season as the Minnesota Twins) that was invariably awful.

And for just about everyone who listened to him over the course of a remarkably long career, he was that smart, joyful, genial voice who loved what he was doing, who worked hard to appear that he wasn’t working hard, who made you feel that there was a friend behind the microphone. …

Later in 1990, I drove out to his apartment, which overlooked the Tappan Zee Bridge in South Nyack, N.Y. On his dining room table on that autumn afternoon was a single object: a cassette recorder. Inside it was a tape of the radio broadcast of Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, [Don] Larsen versus Sal Maglie of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“Let’s listen,” Wolff said.

He turned it on and we concentrated as if the game were happening for the first time. Bob leaned toward the recorder as if he had not heard the game — as if he had not called it.

But there was the voice of the then 35-year-old Wolff, calling the second half of the game after Bob Neal had finished the first half. Wolff got the better of the deal. It was enthralling to listen to the game for the first time across the table from this very exuberant man who often told me how he equated calling games to singing, how his voice rose and fell with the events of the game, how he hit his high notes with the enthusiasm of a tenor onstage at the Metropolitan Opera.

He did not declare Larsen’s gem perfect until the final out. But when it ended, he excitedly said, “Man, oh man, how about that, a perfect game for Don Larsen!”

Two years later, he was again in the right place at the right time when he called the 1958 N.F.L. championship game won in overtime by the Baltimore Colts, 23-17, over the Giants. “The Colts are the world champions — Ameche scores!

And if you listen, you will hear his voice begin to crescendo before landing on those last two words. It was a lyric to Wolff, not a call — words to sing, not shout.

These are transitional times in sportscasting. Vin Scully (whose birth date, Nov. 29, was the same as Wolff’s) retired from the Dodgers last year after 67 seasons. Verne Lundquist and Chris Berman have drastically scaled back their workload (and Berman’s wife, Kathy, died in a car crash in May). Brent Musburger left the booth to join his family’s sports handicapping business.

But Wolff’s death ended a remarkable era. He began his career on radio while at Duke in 1939 and ended it with a commentary in February on News 12 Long Island. He had not retired, not at 96, when he still had something to say or an event to cover. No sportscaster has had a longer career — Guinness World Records backs up that claim — and few have had one that was more varied.

A long time ago, Wolff followed with fidelity the advice of his college baseball coach when he asked him what he thought of his chances of playing in the major leagues.

“If you want to make it to the majors,” the coach told him, “keep talking.”

So he did. Wolff was a generalist who called football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer and the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, and he was a deft and friendly interviewer whose subjects included Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams. One of his more intriguing ventures began on road trips with the Senators: It resulted in the formation of a choral group, with Wolff on his ukulele, and players like Jim Lemon, Roy Sievers and Tex Clevenger singing along.

“We’d be on the train singing, and I’d do some harmony groups,” he told The Washington Post in 2005. “Over time, because guys got traded or retired, I had three different groups, and the last one actually went on the ‘Today’ show.”

In 1995, Wolff soloed in a hotel bar in Cooperstown, N.Y., on the night before he received the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting at the Baseball Hall of Fame. He propped his foot on a chair and accompanied himself on “When You’re Smiling,” “Heart of My Heart” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

After the applause died down, he said, “You folks obviously know talent.”

And as his father sat down, Rick Wolff jokingly said, “Now you know what we grew up with.”

So many of us grew up with him as well: a decent, hardworking sportscaster and entertainer with the heart of a journalist and the soul of a happy ham.

Because Wolff’s list of assignments included the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, held in Madison Square Garden and covered by MSG, formerly carried by USA Network. He also announced the 1958 World Series with Collins’ former Braves partner, Earl Gillespie:

 

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The Brewers, the Cubs, and the second half

Max Rosenfeld asks (bold and italics his):

In assessing this pesky Milwaukee Brewers team, I find myself asking a simple but powerful question- why not?

Why can’t these Brewers be for real? Why can’t they build upon their solid first half and win the National League Central? And who’s to say that the Cubs are bound to turn it on at some point?

The Brewers are an unknown largely because they are unexpected. This was supposed to be year three in the midst of a Cubs-dominated era, a season in which Chicago would defend their World Series championship with ease. The Cubs’ only priority would be to win another championship, and with the majority of last year’s cast reassembled it seemed entirely possible. Surely, the NL Central crown was just a formality.

But the Brew Crew have made it abundantly clear otherwise.

Unlike the Cubs, it’s difficult to find a glaring weakness on the Milwaukee roster.

They’ve scored the 6th most runs in baseball thanks to a powerful attack that is capable of putting the ball over the fence at any moment. Although the club ranks 16th in baseball with a .255 batting average, the Brewers are second in the Major Leagues with 138 home runs. This comes in front of clubs such as New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Washington Nationals who are receiving more notoriety due to their well-known stars.

Travis Shaw and company are out to change this perception.

Shaw, a Red Sox castoff, is having a career year. A lifetime .265 hitter, Shaw is batting .299/.367/.570 19 home runs and 65 RBI’s at the break, making him an obvious All Star snub. Shaw is like many of his teammates, doubted by others before given a chance in Milwaukee. The Red Sox moved on from Shaw in favor of Pablo Sandoval at third base. That’s a move Boston General Manager Dave Dombrowski would likely want back.

But despite Shaw’s presence, it’s first baseman Eric Thames who leads the power laden Brewers in home runs with 23. Thames spent the last five years playing in South Korea.

Thames’ success is a microcosm for the entire season thus far for the Brewers. He was brought on by Milwaukee to replace Chris Carter, last year’s National League home run leader. Not much was expected of Thames, and though many were excited to see how he might progress in his return to the United States, his arrival was just that- a transition. A roadblock, even. Because at the end of the day, the Brewers were supposed to be Chicago’s little brother. But after pounding the Cubs to a score of 11-2 last Thursday, Milwaukee sent a very real message that they are here to stay.

It seems that the main reason nobody believes in the Brewers quite yet is because they are caught up in Cubs nostalgia. Most baseball fans expect the Cubs to go on a dominant stretch and surpass the Brewers by season’s end. Like last year’s World Series title, it seems like a formality.

But it isn’t.  I’d even argue that it’s more likely the Cubs do not turn it on. A look at the Cubs beyond what we expect of them reveals that they are simply a mediocre baseball club. And the Brewers, with the game’s 6th best offense and 8th best pitching staff, are a good one. A better one than the Cubs.

There’s a number of factors as to why the Cubs aren’t that good this year, and they all add up to a less than ideal outcome on the North Side.

The first thing is that with all of the big names the Cubs have on their team, it’s really easy to forget how important Dexter Fowler and David Ross were to the clubhouse. The value of these players goes beyond tangible stats, even though Jon Lester has a 4.25 ERA without Ross as his personal catcher, the first time he’s had to pitch to someone else in quite a while. Fowler and Ross were glue guys, crucial leaders on a mostly young team.

The second is that the veteran arms on the Cubs are obviously fatigued. Lester, John Lackey, and Jake Arrieta are all putting together their worst seasons in recent memory. This can be credited to the fact they all had to pitch deep into October last season.

Third, we might have over-hyped them to begin with. For all the love that guys like Kyle Schwarber have received, he’s only a career .210 hitter and Javier Baez has a measly lifetime .290 on base percentage.

And last, the World Series hangover can be real, especially for a situation like the Cubs just went through. Between all the press rounds, congratulations, and fan fare that team receives after winning a championship, it’s easy to lose sight of the upcoming season. It appears that is what’s happened for the Cubs.

And so here are the Brewers with only one All-Star (closer Corey Knebel), a bunch of no names, and some castoffs, they are prepared to steal the NL Central.

The first problem is that the Cubs aren’t just going to let the Brewers win the division. White Sox (Sock?) pitcher Jose Quintana, one of the five pitchers the Brewers reportedly were after, went instead to the Cubs (arguably for too many prospects), who also may be after Oakland pitcher Sonny Gray. The Brewers seem unlikely to make a deal, and it’s arguable whether or not they should. Trades don’t always work out (see Gorman Thomas for Rick Manning, 1983), but trades that don’t take place never work out.

And there remains the lurking Cardinals, whose season has been slightly worse than the Cubs. A Cardinals blogger suggests his team could be buyers and sellers in the next month:

They have several players that are now more valuable to other teams than the Cardinals. Top of that list is Lance Lynn. It is becoming increasingly clear that the Cardinals are not going to re-sign Lance Lynn, nor should they at this point. The money they will save by using internal options to replace Lynn next season can go to other areas where the needs are greater, such as first and third base. Sueng-Hwan Oh is another possible victim of his contract situation and could be moved in the next few weeks. Kolten Wong’s return could be the straw that strained the oblique muscle, in this case making former All Star Matt Carpenter the odd man out.

All this trade speculation is fun because few of the rumors or preposterous ideas ever happen. That said, there is one deal out there, that should it become available, Girsh and the Cardinals need to go all in and end their string of second place finishes.

That deal is Giancarlo Stanton, and there are two words that explain why this deal is perfect for the Cardinals. Oscar Taveras. …

In 2015, then General Manager, John Mozeliak, felt that Braves slugger, Jason Heyward, might be the guy, not to fill Taveras shoes, but to build that next core around. As the 2015 season played on, many fans began to believe that as well. Sadly, that was not to be as Heyward opted for free agency and signed with the NL Central rival Chicago Cubs. Though his contributions there were on the meager side, the Cubs did win it all in 2016. Like the Cardinals, the 2017 Cubs are more than one player away from standing up to Washington or Los Angeles in a short series, though the acquisition of Jose Quintana improves their chances to prove everybody wrong.

So who would be an Oscar Taveras like player to anchor the next round of talent expected in 2019 ? That would be Giancarlo Stanton. Though this is his eighth season in the big leagues, Stanton is only 27 years old, two years younger than Matt Holliday was when Mo made his blockbuster deal in 2009. Though he has an opt-out after the 2020 season, Stanton is under contract where Matt Holliday was potentially a summer rental. …

Now let’s look at the reasons to do this deal.

  1. There is no power or RBI bat coming up in the minor leagues. None.  There are plenty of speedy table setters, but the Cardinals still need that cornerstone offensive player – the one that Mo had hoped Taveras would be by now.  Stanton’s 58 RBIs would lead the Cardinals by 13.  Put Magneuris Sierra, Dexter Fowler, Tommy Pham or Oscar Mercado on base ahead of Stanton and it will be Jack Clark all over again, maybe not to the ridiculous running of 1985, but certainly a more dynamic and fun offense than we have seen in St. Louis in a long time.
  2. The contract is a big one, but the Cardinals can absorb it and still have room to add other needed players.  It will take more than Stanton, to be sure, but with Stanton on the roster, Girsch’s has many options to fill out the 2019 roster.   It also keeps the Cardinals out of the Machado or Harper bidding war.  Sure, I’d rather have Machado but a bird in hand, so to speak.
  3. The outfield will be set for years.
  4. Stanton’s career OPS is .899, his OPS+ is 145.  Wouldn’t that look good in the Cardinals side of the box scores ?

Giancarlo Stanton would be the perfect deadline deal for the 2017 Cardinals.

Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish could be considered 2017’s answer to C.C. Sabathia, acquired for the second half of the 2008 season by previous Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. (Or, for my generation, Don Sutton, acquired late in 1982; he went 4–1, winning the final game of the season to clinch the American League East, and won a key American League Championship Series game.) No Sabathia, no playoff berth. Suffice to say that’s not going to happen with current GM David Stearns, not merely this season, but probably ever. As a small-market team with resources inferior to the Cubs and Dodgers, Stearns may well be baseball’s answer to Packers GM Ted Thompson — draft and develop, let people go if they become too expensive, and never (in the opinion of fans) bring in someone new and expensive.

Fanrag Sports has a different opinion (bullet points theirs):

  • The Brewers are planning to be buyers. But there’s a question how big they’ll go. They were linked to Jose Quintana in some reports, and they clearly hac the prospects to do it, but one rival said he believes they’ll be “reluctant buyers,” and doubts whether they will go for the gusto. The Brewers have a 5½ game lead in the otherwise disappointing NL Central, but they love their stash of prospects (who wouldn’t? It’s extremely good) and have to wonder if they are ready to compete with the biggest boys yet.
  • It’s only his opinion, but he may be onto something. That person said he does see the Brewers bulking up their bullpen. Which would take far less in terms of prospects.
  • The Brewers are definitely looking at upgrading the pen. They are checking in on the better relievers available. Obviously Corey Knebel had a terrific first half. But they probably need to augment the pen, especially with veterans, if they hope to stave off the rest of the NL Central, such as it is.

Sometimes seemingly small transitions have big impacts. The other 2008 second-half acquisition was second-baseman Ray Durham, who batted .280 in 41 games, replacing Rickie Weeks, whose season-long slump dropped him to .234. Three years later, a late July trade for Jerry Hairston Jr. brought in a valuable infield backup and pinch-hitter, and a trade for relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez … well, his Brewers stats: 4–0 and a 1.86 ERA.

Owner Mark Attanasio approved the trades for Sabathia and, before the 2011 season, Zack Greinke. But I’m not sure Stearns is inclined to make a big trade, and Attanasio doesn’t overrule his baseball people. Whether Stearns’ approach is correct depends on how the rest of this season turns out — more like 2011, or more like 2014.

 

Steve eats a few of his words

At the start of the Brewers season I confidently predicted the Brewers would be trailer trash as they have been for several years.

And so heading into the final weekend of the first half of the season the Brewers are …

 

… in, uh, first place by four games.

How the hell did that happen? Chris Cwik says …

After Thursday’s 11-2 thumping, the Brewers extended their lead in the division to 4.5 games.
Unless you drink out of a bubbler or pronounce the beginning of the word “bagel” like “bag” — like the fine people of Wisconsin — there’s no way you saw this coming.

Any time a team defies the odds, analysts delve into their performance looking for one magical explanation. But that’s not the case here. The Brewers’ success isn’t built on one huge discovery. They haven’t discovered “the next Moneyball,” which has become baseball’s “one weird trick” attention-grabbing headline.

No. The Brewers’ rise to prominence is due to multiple factors that, when added together, explain how they’ve turned themselves into a legitimate playoff contender.

Let’s explore each of those reasons now.

THE BREWERS HIT ON SOME KEY ACQUISITIONS
The team’s scouting department deserves a lot of credit for recommending both Travis Shaw and Eric Thames. Shaw was coming off a disappointing season in which he hit just .242/.306/.421. The Boston Red Sox, who could desperately use a third baseman now, didn’t think he would recover, so they traded him to Milwaukee.

They were wrong. Shaw has been Milwaukee’s best position player according to fWAR. He’s on his way to his finest offensive season, posting a .296/.362/.564 slash line with an already career-high 18 home runs over 318 plate appearances. Shaw has made more contact, pulled the ball with greater frequency and cut down on his strikeouts with the Brewers. They deserve credit for identifying him as a strong buy-low candidate, and getting him to make the necessary adjustments to break out.

The same thing happened with Thames. Even though he put up Bonds-ian numbers in Korea, there was still a fair amount of skepticism over whether those numbers would carry over to MLB. The Brewers were willing to take that chance, and based on Thames’ three-year $16 million price tag, it’s fair to assume other teams had some concerns. He’s already justified that contract, hitting .245/.375/.566 with 23 home runs. The batting average might be low, but his plate discipline and power are elite. Thames is second on the team’s offense in fWAR, and a big reason they are second in baseball with 133 home runs.

TWO PITCHING BREAKOUTS HAVE STABILIZED THE ROTATION
Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson haven’t received a lot of love, but both have legitimate All-Star cases. Nelson has been the best player on the team according to fWAR. His 2.8 figure ranks fourth among pitchers in the National League.

After two average seasons in the team’s rotation, Nelson has taken a huge step forward this year. He’s striking out more than a batter per inning for the first time in his career while cutting down his walk rate dramatically.

A big part of his success has been adjusting his approach against left-handers. From 2012 to 2016, lefties hit .268/.361/.352 against Nelson. That performance resulted in a .353 wOBA, an advanced stat that measures offensive performance. Basically, every lefty turned into Adrian Beltre when they stepped in against Nelson.

Those numbers have plummeted to .233/.296/.394 in 2017. Nelson has found a way to turn Beltre into Gordon Beckham. He’s accomplished that by cutting down on his sinker in favor of a four-seam fastball and mixing in more curveballs and changeups. It’s worked. Lefties are hitting the fastball for a .261 clip, but that’s an improvement over the .281 average against his sinker last year. Both his curve (.057) and change (.111) have been un-hittable by southpaws this season.
Multiple factors have helped Anderson become a better pitcher. His velocity appears to be up significantly, and while that could be misleading after MLB altered pitch tracking software, Anderson said he worked on strength training to improve his velocity this winter.

The result has been better effectiveness from nearly all of his pitches. His whiff rate on his fastball has risen, leading to a career-best 23.4 strikeout rate. His curveball has improved, and he’s using his cutter a lot more.

All three of those things have helped Anderson keep righties off balance this year. Anderson is one of those rare pitchers who actually performs better against opposite-handed hitters, likely due to his excellent changeup. Because of this, righties have hit him much better over his career. Prior to 2017, righties posted a .361 wOBA against Anderson. He’s lowered that to .305 this season.

Before his injury, Anderson was in the middle of a brilliant stretch, in which he posted a 1.56 ERA in June. While you could write that off as small-sample nonsense, Anderson also showed a change in his approach during that period.

As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs pointed out, Anderson started standing in different spots on the mound when facing lefties and righties. He stands on the third-base side of the rubber with righties at the plate, and shifts to the first base side when facing lefties. Anderson wasn’t doing that in April. Even if you wanted to write off his June hot streak, that’s at least proof that he’s actively making changes in order to try and correct flaws.

Matt Garza also deserves an honorable mention here. After being written off during 2015 and most of 2016, he’s been effective in 2017. His numbers aren’t eye-popping, but he’s already produced as much value as he gave the Brewers in 2016, and he’s done so in 30 fewer innings. He’s become a solid third option, and the team needs that after both Junior Guerra and Zach Davies failed to build on their promising 2016 numbers.

THEY EMBRACED STRIKEOUTS ON OFFENSE
Striking out isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s no different than popping out to short, really. Both plays result in an out.

The Brewers realized this, and have taken shots on some talented young players who have shown a major predilection toward whiffs. It’s not just Shaw or Thames, either. The team acquired Domingo Santana in a trade with the Houston Astros and picked up Keon Broxton from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Most importantly, though, they stuck both in their lineup and let them play. That’s been huge for Santana. He’s made strides with his strikeout rate in 2017. While he’s still whiffing 26.8 percent of the time, it’s been enough to make him a serious offensive threat.

Broxton hasn’t seen the same improvement, but his power and speed have turned him into a useful player. That’s a significant development, considering they picked him up for nothing.

While Jonathan Villar has collapsed this year, you could argue the Brewers employed the same tactic with him, and were rewarded greatly in 2016. As Villar shows, this can be a risky approach. But when it pays off, you can get superstar seasons out of guys who were thought to have limited value.

THEY DIDN’T GO FULL FIRE SALE
Stay with us on this one. While the Brewers parted with some significant talent in recent years, they never went the route of the Cubs or Astros. They kept enough valuable players around to at least make things interesting. They didn’t just deal Ryan Braun to clear salary. They waited, and now he could be a major factor for them in the second half.

The team could have tried to capitalize on the success of the number of players last winter, but chose to remain patient. In the cases of both Villar and Guerra, it hasn’t worked out, but both could get back on track in the second half. They were also wise to hold Anderson who, while under control for a long time, is already 29. To most rebuilding clubs, these players would have been shipped off for anything of value.

There are certainly benefits to both approaches. The Cubs won the World Series in 2016, and the Astros might be on the way to a championship this season.

But in the era of the second wild card, it’s not the worst idea for teams to take chances with talented players and hope for the best. While little was expected of the Brewers this year, they didn’t fully punt on the season.

THEY’VE LUCKED OUT
It’s always tough to attribute success to luck. It can be a dirty word to fans who think it means their favorite team is a fluke.

The truth is, every good team experiences luck in some way. The team took a lot of risks, and many of them paid off. They hit on Shaw and Thames, saw huge improvements from Nelson, Anderson and Santana and held firm on Braun. If one of those things went down differently, perhaps we’re not having this conversation.

The Brewers have found themselves in an enviable position of contending before anyone thought it was possible. Now, they’ll be faced with the delicate balance of trying to win the division without sacrificing significant future talent.

To do so, they’ll have to walk a thin line. That was always the case, but there’s a big difference between saying that in March and sustaining it into July.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has this interesting story:

For those who wondered if the expectations of Milwaukee Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio’s have been raised by the unexpectedly solid showing of his first-place team, the answer is yes.

“I’ll admit my expectations are higher. How could they not be?” said Attanasio, who was at Miller Park on Friday to participate in the Wall of Honor ceremony for Corey Hart.

“This team plays with energy. The guys pick each other up. If we have a couple of bad games, we seem to finish out strong. The team seems to be quite resilient. So, sure, my expectations are greater but I think that affects how frustrated I get when things go against me. That’s not going to affect how we address the team.”

In other words, don’t look for the Brewers to scrap the long-term vision they have in rebuilding the club into a perennial contender. Thank in large part to the inability of the Chicago Cubs and others to put together a hot stretch, the Brewers have been in first place in the NL Central for much of the season while being only a few games over .500.

Attanasio did say there have been discussions about whether the ahead-of-schedule success should change the way the Brewers go about their business.

“I had a meeting with (GM) David (Stearns) and (manager) Craig (Counsell) about a week ago, and I was very clear there would be no pressure from me to divert from the plan,” Attanasio said. “If they want to divert, that’s different.

“One of the things I challenge David and Craig with is whether we do anything different now that we’re in first place. From Craig’s standpoint, he said he’s out there every game, trying to win that game.

“David is always, especially for a younger person, agnostic in his decision making. He’s as agnostic as anyone who has ever worked with me, including on Wall Street, where he just wants to objectively assess the facts. That’s very hard to do but very helpful because he’s saying, ‘Let’s assess every day where we are. What the opportunities are.’

“If David wants to come to me and say, ‘I want to blow up the big plan,’ his batting average is so high now, we’re going to listen to anything he recommends. But, just from ownership to him, there has been no pressure to divert from the plan.”

As with any club in a contending position at this point of the season, the Brewers will see how things play out in the weeks leading up to the July 31 trade deadline. A hot stretch over that period sometimes convinces clubs to add talent. Cold streaks often prompt teams to sell off players.

The Brewers certainly aren’t going to start trading prospects for veterans to any extent at this point of their process, but they will remain open-minded.

“We have to take it a game at a time,” Attanasio said. “We’ll see where we are on July 31, where we are in mid-July.

“As someone said to me, the only thing that’s certain in baseball is uncertainty. We just have to come in and be smart every day. I think we’re going to assess things at the time we have to assess things.”

It is certainly true that the Brewers could collapse like the 2014 Brewers did; they had, at one point according to the supposed statistical experts, an 87 percent chance of winning their division, and did not. It is also true that the other NL Central teams, particularly the Cubs and the Cardinals, may get hot later this season; the Brewers have the smallest lead in a National League division, and the two teams currently leading the NL wild card race have better records than the Brewers. So one should not be too enthusiastic.

Still, the Brewers have gotten this far with all those touted minor leaguers mostly still in the minors, except for the brief major league stints of outfielders Brett Phillips and Lewis Brinson. Of course, if the players you have are playing better than expected, that gives you more options.

As far as that “delicate balance” goes, Brian Foley reports:

It seems unlikely that the Brewers will be able to hold off the Chicago Cubs for the entire season with the pitching as currently constituted; the defending champs figure to make a run at some point. Milwaukee is armed with a wealth of prospects, so its minor league system will be able to withstand a trade for a legitimate starter.

Here are five starters general manager David Stearns could target this month …

Jose Quintana

Quintana is the perfect fit for Milwaukee. The Chicago White Sox are in a clear rebuild and looking to acquire assets for the future, which the Brewers have plenty to offer. Quintana has not pitched up to his usual standards this season (4.45 ERA in 2017, 3.35 ERA from 2013-16), but that might keep his price down a little, even though the South Siders clearly won’t just give Quintana away.

Quintana is the type of pitcher you move prospects for. He is just 28, and on a bargain contract through 2020. He fits the timeframe and cost of the franchise. The Brewers have piled up so many outfield prospects, that they are destined to make a trade. Quintana could be it.

Sonny Gray

It is time for Oakland to move Gray. He is 27 years old and signed through 2019, meaning the Athletics can still get good value for him, even though his numbers have been fairly pedestrian over the last 18 months compared to his sparkling first three seasons.

Gray won’t cost as much as Quintana, though he could be just as effective. In his last seven outings since the start of June, Gray has a 3.45 ERA with a nearly 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. At the very least, Gray is a significant upgrade on Guerra or Davies right now, while also having ace potential on any giving night.

Jason Vargas

Vargas is not the Brewers ideal trade piece. He is a pending free agent, and the Royals are currently in the second wild card spot in the American League, so they likely won’t be dying to move their ace on the cheap.

But Kansas City has several key players hitting free agency this season; they probably won’t be looking to sign Vargas to another deal. He owns a nice 2.62 ERA right now, though advanced metrics see regression coming. If Milwaukee can send just a B-level type prospect to the Royals in return for a two-plus months of Vargas, he might be worth a roll of the dice to stabilize the Brewers’ leaky rotation.

Yu Darvish

Besides Quintana, Darvish might be the biggest fish on the block. The 30-year-old is a free agent after 2017, and Texas is not currently showing any signs of getting back into the playoff race. The Rangers could be looking to sell if they don’t want to re-sign him after the season.

Stearns will have to part with a nice prospect to acquire him, but the price will be much lower than if the Brewers went after Quintana. And Darvish is having a much better year than Chicago’s lefty. Darvish has a 3.56 ERA in Texas’ bandbox stadium – this could be a C.C. Sabathia-type situation for Milwaukee. Darvish is the kind of pitcher who can carry a team for two months.

Ivan Nova

Nova is just the latest scuffling pitcher to find success with Pittsburgh. Nova has posted a phenomenal 3.17 ERA in 28 starts since the Pirates acquired Nova from the Yankees last summer. He is 30 years old, and making just another $20 million total through 2019.

If Milwaukee believes he has found something sustainable on the mound, Nova might be a nice second-tier starter that can deepen their rotation at a cost-effective number over the next 2.5 years.

There are two deadlines to keep in mind — the July 31 deadline to make trades without requiring waivers, and the Aug. 31 deadline to make trades before postseason rosters are finalized Sept. 1. We’ll see how serious the Brewers are about 2017 by Aug. 31, and maybe by July 31. This opinion has a few of the aforementioned going places other than Milwaukee, along with, unbelievably, Detroit’s Justin Verlander going to the Cubs. (With or without Kate Upton?) This opinion also suggests the Brewers will either stand part or “buy responsibly,” which makes sense.

Fixing (maybe) what is (maybe) broken

While the bigger news from the WIAA was the three-seasons-away institution of the shot clock in basketball, bigger news may be reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Before private schools joined the WIAA and before the growth of small charter/choice schools in the Milwaukee area, basketball teams from small towns and rural areas won state titles almost every year.

If a proposal presented to the WIAA Board of Control on Thursday wins favor, that would again be the case in Divisions 4 and 5.

Board member Luke Francois of Mineral Point presented to the board a plan he crafted that he thinks could solve the issue of competitive equity in boys and girls basketball, a matter that has been simmering in the southwest corner of the state for the past few years.

The board did not approve the divisional placement proposal but did give it initial review and consideration and plan to make a topic of discussion at area meetings in September. The board did, however, vote to convene the basketball coaches advisory committee soon after the area meetings to discuss the plan’s merits. That group usually meets after the conclusion of the season but is being asked to meet earlier so that the proposal can make its way through the committee process and back to the board in time for its January meeting.

“Every proposal starts somewhere and this was the first opportunity that we’ve had to come together as a group and for me to lay out some of my best thinking with some of my counterparts and colleagues in front of the board,” Francois said. “It was an opportunity for us to poke some holes in it and ask some questions and clarify what the plan was.”

If the plans wins approval, it would take effect in 2018-19. Francois’ proposal called for it to have a two-year trial period.

Francois’ plan uses the designations given to each school by Department of Instruction, which categorize a school as city, suburban, rural or town, to place schools into divisions.

Here is how Francois’ plan would work.

*Division 1 – Schools with enrollments of 1,200 or more.

*Division 2 – Schools with enrollments of 600-1,200.

*Division 3 – Schools classified as city or suburban with less than 600 students and schools of 450-600 enrollment that are classified as rural or town but weren’t placed in Divisions 4 or 5.

* Division 4 – The 128 rural or town schools with the lowest enrollment after Division 5 is determined.

* Division 5 – the 128 rural or town schools with the lowest enrollment.

“In Mineral Point, the contention was that the geographical draw in the I-43 corridor in just a 10-mile radius drawfs the entire draw that Mineral Point would have in all of Iowa County, just from the number of kids who could potentially travel to or attend that school district,” Francois said.

“The whole idea of urbans playing urbans and rurals playing rurals is to try to have a similar geographical draw and similar opportunities for kids in like-minded classification codes, which would be rurals and towns urbans and suburbans.”

“You can drive 45 minutes down the road and the experience in basketball in one community can be vastly different, suburban-urban, than it is in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, which is more rural.”

Under this plan, a great majority of schools in southeast Wisconsin would play in no lower than Division 3 regardless of their enrollment.

The proposal didn’t make a positive first-impress on board member Eric Coleman, an administrator in Milwaukee Public Schools.

“I think it creates segregation,” he said. “I’m not against it being presented to the association, so that everyone can hear the information so that it’s not confined to a small group of people and let them come to their own decision. But as far as me, I don’t like it. I don’t agree with it.

“I think the bigger issue is a race thing. Certain pockets, certain schools feel that the private schools from southeastern Wisconsin, specifically Milwaukee that have predominately African-American players are keeping them from winning state tournaments, so if you take them out of the equation, it increased their chances of winning the gold ball.”

Leave it to a Milwaukee Public Schools bureaucrat to immediately play the race card.

The proposal created more than hour of discussion before a motion was passed to convene the members of the basketball coaches committee following the area meeting.

Initially, Francois asked the board to adopt the plan pending approval of a majority in two of three groups: coaches advisory, sports advisory council and advisory council.

Kenosha administrator Steve Knecht was one of the board members who said he wouldn’t support the plan without more time to review it.

“I think we had a lot of good discussion because it’s good to hear different points of view from different people from different parts of the state on what real problems there are,” Knecht said. “I don’t see it currently as a problem the way basketball is set up … What we’re going to put out there, it’s good to get the feedback. I didn’t want to act on anything today other than to get it out there for people to see.”

This proposal is aimed right at the private-school athletic factories of La Crosse Aquinas (state Division 4 baseball champion and state Division 4 girls basketball runner-up), Madison Edgewood (state Division 3 girls basketball champion), Appleton Xavier (state Division 3 boys basketball champion), Eau Claire Regis (state Division 6 football champion), Manitowoc Roncalli (went to state in Division 4 boys basketball), Chippewa Falls McDonell Central (state champion in D5 softball and state in D5 girls basketball), Marshfield Columbus (ditto), Stevens Point Pacelli (D4 softball runner-up), Wausau Newman (D4 girls volleyball champion), Oshkosh Lourdes (D3 girls volleyball runner-up), Waukesha Catholic Memorial (D2 girls volleyball and D3 football champion), Green Bay Notre Dame (D2 girls volleyball runner-up and D3 football runner-up), Lake Mills Lakeside Lutheran (state in D2 girls volleyball), Milwaukee’s Divine Savior Holy Angels (state in D1 girls volleyball) These schools and others (Burlington Catholic Central and Whitefish Bay Dominican) are accused of recruiting public-school students, which they deny and which in turn is never believed.

As with anything, though, trying to kill one bug (the previous paragraph) will kill others. Most Wisconsin private schools are not athletic factories, and yet a 100-student Christian school will be in the same class as schools six times its size, and will be accordingly crushed early in the playoffs. It’s also not clear whether this proposal will include another small-school bugbear, charter schools, which are public schools generally in large metro areas. (Milwaukee Destiny was last year’s state D4 boys basketball champion, one season after Milwaukee’s Young Coggs Prep won the D5 title.)

There is also an argument to be made about whether or not in the era of open public school enrollment this should matter. Students now go to schools other than in their own school district of residence for sports reasons. Whether this is bad or not depends on whether you believe where a student lives should force that student to attend that school regardless of reasons that shouldn’t be the case.

One wonders if the solution to the private-school problem is to simply separate them out — to have, for instance, three public divisions and two private divisions at state. That doesn’t eject public schools from the WIAA, nor does it separate them from playing public schools in the regular season; it would simply group the schools that appear to play by different rules. (For instance, girls volleyball powers play out-of-state tournaments, which public schools rarely do for resource reasons.)

It will be interesting to watch the reaction to this proposal over the next school year.

 

Fixing that which isn’t necessarily broken

On Thursday the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, everyone’s favorite sports sanctioning body (insert eyeroll here), decided to implement a shot clock in the 2019–20 basketball season.

The Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook’s Mark Miller doesn’t like the decision for five reasons:

1) Speeding up an opponent is a strategy used often by high school coaches during game planning for an opponent. The idea is to make the opponent play faster and thus rush into rash decisions that negatively affect their team.

After watching high school games all over the state, both in season and during the summer, it has become abundantly clear to me that the vast majority of players struggle when the pace of the game increases. Speeding up kids on the basketball court most often leads to poor decisions. The elite-level players can handle the quickened pace of a shot clock, but the overwhelming majority of kids playing the game are not at an elite level. When forced to make a quick decision at the end of a shot clock, poor shots will be forced. That can happen without a shot clock as well, but my hunch is you will see even more bad shots taken when the WIAA moves to a shot clock in a few years.

2) Yes, professional and college basketball teams play with a shot clock. And it is fun to watch plays develop with the shot clock winding down. However, the players at that level are good enough to play with a shot clock. Professional players have competed in the game much, much longer than high school kids. College players, no matter the level, represent a tiny fraction of the entire high school crop. The fact so few states currently use a shot clock is a clear signal that it’s not something most view as necessary for the high school game.

3) An occasional slow-down game does create some uneasiness among the fans in the stands. Antigo’s 14-11 road victory over Rhinelander in the 2016 WIAA playoffs being a prime example. But those games are rare. I feel adding a shot clock will greatly decrease the chances of the underdog to pull the upset. Teams with less depth, less skill and less size than their opponent will have to play in a similar way with 35-second possessions. It takes a good chunk of the strategy out of the game. That is not a minor loss to the game.

4) Part of the beauty of following high school basketball is watching a deliberate team play against a full-court pressing team. Which team will dictate tempo? Who is better at making the opponent play their style? Much of that is now out the window with the addition of a shot clock. Teams that like to make an opponent play defense for minutes at a time will now get a mere 35 seconds for each possession. Most teams able to run their offense for minutes at a time end up with very high percentage shots. It is much easier to play defense for 35 seconds than two or three minutes.

5) And now the kicker. The fifth foul so to speak. More game-management personnel for each game leads to more expense. The implementation of a shot clock at the prep level is mind boggling when you consider most — not a few — but MOST schools struggle to keep track of the score, the game clock, the possession arrow or the scorebook accurately. Schools need to find a competent person to run the shot clock, pay that person and find room for that person at the scorer’s table. Adding shot clocks to close to 500 gyms across Wisconsin is obviously a big expense. Running the shot clocks during games only adds to the expense.

And by the way, where will the shot clock be located? Are all gyms equipped to add a shot clock above the basket? Will it be located next to the scoreboard? How many times during a game will officials have to stop the game because of shot clock malfunctions and/or mistakes?

In short, the WIAA Board of Control committed a huge turnover today by adding a shot clock to the high school game. Others obviously disagree with that statement, but it is my belief the WIAA just hand-delivered a big headache to athletic directors across the state while at the same time taking away a great deal of coaching strategy from a game that wasn’t in need of a fix.

I must say I prefer watching up-tempo basketball. (Though it is harder to announce.) However, as a fan I like to see a variety of styles of basketball, not just one (as sometimes is seen with all the Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan disciples out there). One thing that was cool about announcing the Division III Midwest Conference is that you had the whole gamut of basketball styles, from plodding (St. Norbert and Lake Forest, though not so much now) to what’s-defense? (Monmonth under Terry Glasgow) to Grinnell, which was in its own universe as far as pace.

Basketball coaches play the style that they’re accustomed to playing based on the talent of their teams. It is unlikely teams with three offensive linemen playing forward are going to be able to run up and down the floor. As for teams with quicker players, there is nothing stopping them from playing an up-tempo style now. I can foresee a lot of teams running 34 seconds of offense and then flinging a shot up at :01 on the shot clock. I can also see a lot of blowouts because teams with good coaches will be able to adapt to the shot clock, because good coaches always can adapt to rules changes.

The WIAA may be visualizing a dramatic increase in scoring on the level of high school all star games. (This year, on the boys side: Division 5 South 102, North 86; Division 4 South 83, North 73; D3 South 111, North 87; D2 North 107, South 96; D1 North 109, South 85.) They’re not going to get that. As with the three-point shot, scoring may blip slightly upward, but it will settle back eventually once teams learn that all they need to do stop another team is play 35 seconds of defense. The three-point shot is useless if you can’t shoot from the outside, and the shot clock is useless if you can’t run an offensive set to set up a shot before the buzzer goes off.

 

“Let me root, root root for the home team …”

The Salt Lake Tribune’s Scott D. Pierce:

Some fans want sportscasters to cheer for the home team. Those fans aren’t happy when it’s pointed out that, no, not every foul against their team is a bad call and, yes, sometimes the opponents play well. You run into these folks at every game. And they make noise on social media.

I was at a football game years ago when the visitors picked up an incomplete pass and ran it in for a TD. A guy in front of us bellowed at the refs; my friend and I remarked that it had been a backward pass — a lateral — and the right call; the guy then bellowed at us.

Ah, fans. You’ve got to love them. Or not. I personally want sportscasters to do their jobs. To tell us what’s actually happening.

Yes, a lot of it is opinion — whether it’s about how well a player is performing, a coach’s decisions or a ref’s calls.

But if you’re going to complain about every call made or missed, I’m going to tune you out.

Sportscaster Life’s Alex Rawnsley adds:

Being a homer is one of my sportscasting pet peeves. Sportscasters are story tellers first and foremost, so I always wonder how homer sportscasters can tell that story properly while being so slanted in one direction or another. Whether it’s the other team, your team or the refs, taking focus away from the game, the story, by being a homer can be a big negative when it comes to sportscasting.

Before storytelling there are the responsibilities of telling fans what’s going on, the mechanics of getting the ads on, promoting the station and future broadcasts, etc., which you’d think would be difficult if you’re wrapped up with a bad call or bad things happening to your team.

Whom might that refer to? Off the top of one’s ears there’s the White Sox’s Ken Harrelson …

… and the Vikings’ Paul Allen …

… the Bruins’ Jack Edwards …

… and …

All of those announcers, and any team’s announcers, are employed either by the teams or by their flagship radio or TV station or cable channel. (That includes Wisconsin’s Matt Lepay, the Packers’ Wayne Larrivee, the Brewers’ Bob Uecker, the Bucks’ Ted Davis and all their partners.) So unlike ESPN or Fox announcers, they’re viewed almost exclusively by fans of the team they’re announcing for. Even for a sportscaster viewed as impartial such as Vin Scully, it is in their professional interests for their employers to do well on the field.

Certainly Pierce is referring to the announcers who confuse hoping your team does well to assuming your team can do no wrong, the opponent can do no right, and the officials and the league are in a conspiracy against your team. It is, however, rare that an announcer will admit to being a homer, as an interview of Yankees announcer John Sterling with the New York Post reveals:

Q: What criticism of you that you feel has been the most unfair?
A: That I don’t tell the truth about the Yankees. My broadcast is as honest as can be. And people think because I get excited and exuberant over Yankee success, that I’m a homer. You know it used to kill Mel Allen, when he’d be accused of being a homer. He used to bend over backwards — we used to kid about it as teenagers — “Oh, the always-ready White Sox, and the ever-charging Tigers.” It killed Bill Chadwick that he was called a homer. I don’t let anything bother me. If you don’t like it, you know, they have an idea what they can do.

Larrivee is an interesting case. There’s no question he wants the Packers to win. His critiques of officiating and the NFL (for instance, the rules) are not exactly impartial. But if things aren’t going well for the Packers, he will tell you that the opposing offense is “gashing the Packer defense!” Sometimes listening to a Packer game is a bit of a bipolar experience, frankly.

One of my favorite announcers is the Reds’ Marty Brennaman …

… because he does not shy away from criticizing his team:

If Uecker has criticized the Brewers on the air in the past, I don’t recall hearing it. The operative phrase there is “on the air.” My favorite announcer, Dick Enberg, told the story of his Angels partner, Don Drysdale, who would rip the bad teams Enberg and Drysdale were covering by turning off his microphone. And then after he got done, the mic went back on, and there was Drysdale, pleasant as always. Listeners over the years may have heard somewhat lengthy pauses during Brewers games when things weren’t going well. Uecker and Drysdale were friends, so perhaps that’s what Uke was doing.

Sports announcing is not merely about calling the game. At every level, it’s about promoting broadcast sponsors and getting people to keep listening as well. At the college and pro level, it’s also about promoting the team, to get people to come to home games. (Which might seem at cross purposes given that fans at the game presumably don’t watch or listen to the game, but that’s not always the case.)

Homerism appears to be a bigger thing now than it used to be, though as the previous examples show homerism has existed for a long, long time. Red Barber, who almost invented radio baseball announcing, worked for the Yankees in 1966 when, according to Awful Announcing a game was played on an awful September day:

Strikingly, only 413 fans showed up at the cavernous ballpark, the smallest crowd in the stadium’s glorious history. John Filippelli, a current broadcast executive with YES and then a teenage vendor at Yankee Stadium said, “It was very spooky, surreal and strange.”

Barber felt strongly that the empty stadium was the story and asked that the cameras pan the empty park. But Perry Smith the team’s broadcast head wouldn’t allow it. Red talked about the eerie emptiness anyhow, “I don’t know what the paid attendance is today, but whatever it is, it is the smallest crowd in the history of Yankee Stadium, and this crowd is the story, not the game,” he said. The Yankees lost to the White Sox that day 4-1.

Because there were rumors about his future with the club and the season was coming to an end, Barber requested a meeting with Michael Burke who had just been appointed the Yanks’ president by the team’s new owner, CBS.  They met for breakfast on Monday September 26th and before Red finished his first cup of coffee, Burke told him his contract would not be renewed.

Barber asserted that he was fired for maintaining his journalistic integrity when the stadium was virtually empty. And over the last fifty years, others have summarily and faithfully accepted Barber’s account. …

[Fellow announcer Joe] Garagiola later postulated that Barber was fired because he was bossy in the booth and annoying to his fellow announcers. He felt that Barber himself played up the story about dictating that the cameras focus on a near empty stadium to appear sanctimonious.

“I said there are more people going to confession at St. Patrick’s than there are people at the ballpark and Mike Burke didn’t say anything to me,” Garagiola proclaimed.

The problem is that fans apparently — or so teams seem to think — don’t want to hear bad news about their team, even when bad things are happening to their team. That is one reason for the hate for such announcers as Fox’s Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, who are supposed to be neutral, but fans of neither team Buck covers appear to believe that. Fans also (in the opinion of the teams or their broadcast outlets) want announcers who show their support of their employers by over-the-top yelling instead of reporting on what’s going on.

I have never been told by my broadcast employers to root, root root (harder) for the home team. I’ve never been employed by a team, though. I have over the years toned down my calls because, possibly unlike my early broadcast days, I learned that there is always a next season (whether or not I announce that) and usually (except for season-ending losses) a next game. That’s what your brain tells you, though that’s not necessarily what your heart tells you. I’ve toned down my criticism of officials because I’ve concluded that if you bitch about the officiating incessantly (see Harrelson, Ken “Hawk”), your credibility is imperiled when an official actually does blow a call. (There are subtle ways to express an opinion about a call, such as to call a hitter or baserunner “officially out.”)

 

Mr. Quarterback President

Bleacher Report reports:

After a photograph of future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning departing the White House after reportedly golfing with President Donald Trump circulated over the weekend, some in the NFL, busy with OTAs and other offseason shenanigans, started talking about it.

When I asked one AFC general manager his thoughts about the picture, he texted back, succinctly: “Peyton Manning will be president one day.”

He suggested, as did others, that one day America could see a Republican nomination fight between Manning and Tom Brady. Another NFL voice even went so far as to predict a Manning-Brady faceoff against LeBron James for the presidency.

Sure, for now that sounds like science fiction, but it is a fact that some of Manning’s former teammates, and others around football, believe Manning would make an excellent politician. Pat McAfee, who joined the Colts before Manning’s last three years in Indianapolis and is now with Barstool Sports, said he believes Manning would be a great political leader.

“If he was to become a politician, I assume he’d be incredible at it,” McAfee told B/R. “He’s a leader, a tireless worker and a fabulous communicator. I don’t know much about politics, but I think if you have those three traits, you have a chance of being a real world-changer. I hope he gets into it someday; would be great for our country.”

Some of you may love the idea of a Manning presidency. Some of you may have just thrown up in your mouth a little. But before a fight breaks out in this edition of the 10-Point Stance, let’s back up a little to understand why this is even a debate.

TheHill.com reported over the weekend that Manning, Trump and Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, were seen returning from one of Trump’s golf courses. Other reports noted that Manning was later seen on the White House South Lawn with Corker.

As photos of the outing went viral, I texted various players and team executives to get their thoughts, and the responses basically were the same: No one was surprised. …

Around the league, one of the worst-kept secrets was that Manning would go into politics and eventually make a run at the presidency as a Republican. The Trump photo only bolsters that speculation.

Now it’s possible that all Manning was doing was showing respect for the office of the president by golfing with Trump when asked. Maybe it’s as simple as that. Manning has often publicly denied any interest in pursuing politics, and when asked in March about speculation that in 2020 he would run for the Senate, he said he had “no interest in the political world.” Even McAfee told me Manning never mentioned politics to him when they played together, and the two “shared a few beers back in the day,” McAfee said.

But few in football buy it. I’ve heard from former teammates how much Manning actually loves the idea of getting into the political world. Many feel as McAfee does—that Manning would be an excellent politician, and that one day he’d get into it not only to serve but also because it would appeal to his ego.

Republican leaders in the past have said that if Manning ran for office in Tennessee, he’d be a dominant candidate.

“He is a Tennessee hero, and if he should ever choose to use his legendary determination, knowledge and drive in politics, he would be an extremely formidable candidate,” Scott Golden, the Tennessee state party chairman, told the Commercial Appeal in March.

Manning is seen as someone who, in a locker room, united many different kinds of people from all different types of backgrounds. His backers think he could do the same with a city or a state or even the country. (Though he likely would lose the “idiot kicker” vote.) And with Manning’s smarts and leadership ability, some around the league argue he couldn’t do any worse than some of the politicians we see now.

I’m just relaying what I’m hearing. Don’t @ me.

There is, of course, a precedent for athletes getting into politics—Bill Bradley, Lynn Swann, Jack Kemp and former President Gerald Ford, just to name a few (and, interestingly, a lot of them are former quarterbacks). There’s even precedent for a former Tennessee quarterback doing it. Heath Shuler played for the Volunteers and in the NFL before he became a U.S. Representative from 2007-13 for the state of North Carolina.

What I think we’re seeing is Manning perhaps testing the political waters, using Trump as a temperature gauge. Another Michael Freeman (he’s the smart one), a speechwriter and communications consultant, made the point to me on Twitter—and I think he’s right—that Manning wanted the picture with Trump as a way of saying: “If he can do it…”

While a Manning run at the White House is what has some in the NFL talking, it seems unlikely he would start there. More realistic may be a run at a lower level, even for a statewide office, and to then build up, the way Kemp did.

Either way, we might want to start getting used to the idea that Manning may be on CNN a lot more than ESPN in years to come.

Brady vs. Manning, with the winner taking on James in a presidential election? Start writing the speculative fiction now.

Let’s remember, though, that the current president had never run for office before, and the most successful Republican president of my lifetime, Ronald Reagan, was an actor for most of his professional life, though he was governor of California for eight years before running for, then becoming, president.

Post-series schadenfreude, Amazin’ edition

It turns out that predictions about how bad the Brewers would be this season may have been exaggerated, largely because there are worse teams on the Brewers schedule.

One of them is the Mets, swept by the Brewers this weekend 7–4, 11–4 and 11–9.  Friday starting pitcher Matt Harvey gave up three home runs, two of them pinch-hit, one of those described by a Facebook Friend as appearing to have been hit by a guy in the accounting department. Meanwhile starting pitcher Matt Garza, one of the worst acquisitions in Brewers history in terms of performance for pay, resembled a major league starting pitcher.

The Mets pitching staff gave up eight home runs on the weekend. According to the New York Daily News Mets starters have the worst earned run average in baseball and have pitched the third fewest innings in the National League.

It turns out that Harvey has more problems than giving up gopherballs, Page Six reports:

Supermodel Adriana Lima was still slinging arrows at The Dark Knight Saturday, as diehard Mets fans trolled her for breaking the hurler’s heart.

“U ruined Matt Harvey” fumed nicholaspetro43.

“You ruined the Mets season go away!” taunted dadinoooo.

But the bodacious Brazilian did not shrink from her critics. “There is always two sides of the coin,” she responded. “Only 1 has been heard.”

Harvey was suspended for three games last week after he failed to show up for the May 6 game against the Marlins.

The Post exclusively reported Harvey spent the night before drinking — drowning his sorrows after Lima posted an Instagram photo showing her stepping out with a former beau, New England Patriots wide receiver ­Julian Edelman.

On Saturday, throw out the Brewers’ fifth inning, and it would have been a close ballgame. Unfortunately for the Mets, the Brewers scored eight runs in their fifth inning.

Then on Sunday the Mets had a 7–1 lead that disappeared like watching the Titanic sink.

The New York Post, never one for a measured response for a local team failure when gasoline can be poured on the fire, wrote:

So this is life for the Mets without Jeurys Familia.

There is no guarantee the Mets would have won Sunday’s game even if their All-Star closer was active, not with the manner the ball was jumping at Miller Park, but calling Addison Reed’s number for five-out saves sure doesn’t seem like a recipe for success.

But that’s where the Mets were after Jerry Blevins, Fernando Salas and Josh Edgin all pitched to some level of disappointment. Reed surrendered a three-run homer to Manny Pina, sending the Mets to the bottom of Lake Michigan in a painful fourth straight loss, 11-9 to the Brewers.

“Slider down,” Reed said, when asked what he was trying to throw Pina. “I think it was down the middle of the plate.”

That assessment summarized the final three innings for the Mets, a torturous stretch in which the Brewers scored 10 runs against Jacob deGrom and an overwhelmed bullpen. The Mets led 7-1 heading to bottom of the sixth before the Brewers scored two, three and five runs in their final three at-bats.

The save situation was the Mets’ first since Familia underwent surgery Friday for a blood clot in his right shoulder that will keep him sidelined for three to four months.

“We had a big lead and we blew it,” said deGrom, who slogged through six innings in which he allowed four earned runs on eight hits with seven strikeouts and one walk. …

“We have a clubhouse full of veterans and they have all been through a game like this,” [manager Terry] Collins said. “They have all been through a series like this before and you have got to rise out of the ashes and get back on the horse.”

As a result of the weekend and their opponent as described by the Mets manager’s mixed metaphor, the Brewers are one game out of first place in the National League Central Division. I highly doubt the Brewers will be anywhere near first place by the end of the season, but if teams are going to give games to you, you might as well take them.

“Let out that yell now for our great team …”

A Facebook Friend posted a snippet of this, and since this blog didn’t exist when published in 2010 this seems a good time to re-reveal the Wisconsin State Journal’s list of best Madison La Follette boys athletes.

The State Journal’s Tom Oates supervised the votes of the best at-least-two-sport athletes of all time from Madison’s eight high schools, six of which still exist today. (The other two were the University of Wisconsin High School, open from 1914 to 1964, and Central,  which closed in 1969. Malcolm Shabazz City School has no sports, so they weren’t included. The top 60, up to 2010m included …

5. Gary Anderson, Class of 1969

Sports: Football, basketball, baseball

Honors:

• All-city, all-Big Eight and second-team all-state quarterback as a senior; also named city and Big Eight player of the year

• Two-time all-city, all-Big Eight and all-state pick in basketball (first-team all-state in 1970, fourth-team in 1969); also two-time city player of the year and two-time Big Eight scoring leader

• Two-time all-city outfielder in baseball

• Three-year starter in basketball at UW, earning team MVP and all-Big Ten second-team honors as a senior

• Drafted by NBA’s Washington Bullets and ABA’s San Antonio Spurs

Quotable: Former La Follette coach Pete Olson: “Mr. Smooth. He made everything look easy.”

Gary and his younger brother Ross, who played on La Follette’s first state champion team in 1977 and then played football at UW, and brothers Dean and Steve had a younger brother, Craig, who was a senior when I was a freshman. Everyone looked up to Craig because (1) he was 6-foot-6 and (2) a great athlete who (3) didn’t let it go to his head; he was really the kind of high school athlete, including in demeanor, you want to have. Craig was a reserve on Ross’ 1977 state champion team when freshmen were never on the varsity, and then he got to state in 1980, along with three state boys volleyball trips. Craig played basketball at Iowa, but nobody’s perfect.

17. Jonte Flowers, Class of 2003

Sports: Football, basketball, track

Honors

• Two-time all-city and all-Big Eight as an end and defensive back in football

• City back of the year and Big Eight receiver of the year as a senior

• All-state first-team in football as a senior

• Three-time all-city and two-time all-Big Eight pick in basketball

• City and Big Eight basketball player of the year as a senior

• All-state first-team in basketball as a senior

• Played on WIAA Division 1 state basketball champion as a junior

• Third in high jump as La Follette won title at the WIAA state track meet in 2002

• Played football at UW as a freshman

• Transferred to Winona State and played four years of basketball; starred on team that won NCAA Division II titles in 2006 and 2008 and lost in the final in 2007

• Division II second-team all-American and voted most outstanding player in NCAA tournament in 2008, scoring 30 points in the final

Quotable: Capital Times sportswriter Adam Mertz: “His resume reads like something from the ‘50s. No one was as dominant in three sports over the previous three decades. Didn’t figure out his best sport until college.”

18. Nathan Brown, Class of 2002

Sports: Football, basketball, track

Honors

• Two-time all-city and all-Big Eight halfback and linebacker

• City back of the year as a senior

• All-state first-team linebacker in 2001, second team in 2000

• All-city honorable mention in basketball as a senior

• Won both hurdles events and the 1,600 relay in leading La Follette to the Division 1 WIAA state track title in 2002

• Also won intermediate hurdles and was second in high hurdles in 2001

• Recruited by UW for football but had to drop the sport for medical reasons

• Lettered five years in track at UW

• Won the heptathlon at the Big Ten Indoor meet and the decathlon at the Big Ten Outdoor meet in 2006

Quotable: State Journal sportswriter Rob Hernandez: “This kid might have been the smartest all-around athlete on this list. He used his brains to complement his natural ability.”

23. Rick Olson, Class of 1982

Sports: Basketball, baseball

Honors

• Two-time all-city and all-Big Eight in basketball

• First-team all-state as senior, when he set city single-season scoring record (694 points) and was the city, Big Eight and state player of the year

• Leading scorer on WIAA state basketball champion in 1982

• All-city and all-Big Eight outfielder in baseball as a senior

• Four-year starter in basketball at UW

• Still fifth in career points at UW with 1,736

• Scored 39 points in one game in 1984 and averaged 20.4 points in 1986

• Team MVP in 1986 and all-Big Ten honorable mention in 1984 and 1986

• Drafted by NBA’s Houston Rockets

There is no quote, so I will provide one. On La Follette’s 25th anniversary year, I did a story about 25 years of La Follette boys basketball and asked Olson’s coach, Pete Olson (not related to Rick, nor to a future sportswriter at the same newspaper named, yes, Pete Olson) for his top list of players of all time. He simply took his top five scorers list, which included the aforementioned Anderson and Olson, who at the time was the school’s career and single-season scoring leader. I couldn’t find his career total, but he scored 697 points in the 25-game 1981–82 season. That’s 27.8 points per game, without the three-point shot, by a 6–1 guard. But don’t believe me, read the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Badgers basketball coach Bo Ryan was asked to comment on the long-range shooting ability of guard Ben Brust, who had 17 points in Wisconsin’s 68-41 victory over Colgate on Wednesday night.

“He’s got Ricky-Olson type range,” Ryan said of the former Wisconsin and Madison La Follette guard, who played for the Badgers from 1983-’86.

Ryan pointed out that Olson did not have the benefit of the three-point line when he played. But Olson still ranks fifth in career points at UW with 1,736 and as a senior averaged 20.4 points.

“The young people are looking at me … they’re Googling Rick Olson right now,” Ryan said. “He was a pretty good outside shooter for the Badgers, back in the ’80s.”

By the way: Olson was a three-sport athlete. He was a setter for La Follette’s boys volleyball team, which went to state in 1979 and 1980.

24. Tim Jordan, Class of 1982

Jordan, in gray, is about to jump center against future classmate Jay Laszewski, who is about to lose his first senior-year high school basketball game.

Sports: Football, basketball, track

Honors

• Two-time all-city and one-time all-Big Eight defensive end in football

• Started at center on WIAA state basketball champion in 1982

• Set records in 100 and 200 at Big Eight track meet and was fifth in 100 at WIAA state meet as a senior

• Lettered four years in football at UW at outside linebacker

• Drafted by NFL’s New England Patriots in 1987

• Played three NFL seasons

I was a year behind both Olson and Jordan, two of the starters on the 1982 state Class A boys basketball champions. I didn’t know Jordan was the Big Eight 100 and 200 record holder. That’s impressive because he was 6–3 and 200 or so, which is a little large for hig school sprinters. It’s kind of too bad that La Follette didn’t have better football players in those days (as you know my first three years at La Follette the Lancers had three, one and one wins), because just based on size and speed he would have made a world-beater tight end. At UW Jordan and Memorial graduate Rick Graf were the “Thunder and Lightning” outside linebacker duo; Graf went on to the Dolphins.

25. John Krugman, Class of 1968

Sports: Football, basketball, baseball

Honors

• Two-time all-city and one-time all-Big Eight halfback

• Conference player of year and all-state in 1967 after breaking Alan Ameche’s 17-year-old Big Eight record with 115 points and 19 touchdowns in eight games

• Three-time all-city in basketball and all-state honorable mention in 1968

• Two-time all-city in baseball

• Lettered two seasons in football at UW as a punter and fullback

31. Michael Flowers, Class of 2004 

UW Flowers, not La Follette Flowers.

Sports: Football, basketball

Honors

• All-city, all-Big Eight and all-state honorable mention at quarterback as a junior; didn’t play as a senior

• Three-time all-city and all-Big Eight pick in basketball

• All-state first-team basketball as a junior, honorable mention as a sophomore and senior

• Played on WIAA Division 1 state basketball champion in 2002

• Lettered four years in basketball at UW

• All-Big Ten second-team pick as a senior, honorable mention as a junior

• Twice named to Big Ten all-defensive team

Note the mention of his not playing football as a senior. As a football player, Flowers was compared to Michael Vick. Imagine him playing football instead of basketball for the Badgers.

 

100 fewer employees later …

The biggest news in sports media this week was Wednesday’s layoffs of 100 ESPN employees.

As someone who was told not to go to work the next day or any future day by an employer (which event started this blog six years ago), I have sympathy for those laid off. It seems highly unlikely that ESPN’s business problems are the fault of, for instance, Ed Werder, ESPN’s 17-year NFL reporter, or Jayson Stark, ESPN’s 17-year baseball reporter. Evidence that life is unfair is that the worker bees get laid off instead of those on the executive floor whose bad decisions caused bad financial results that led to the need for those layoffs.

ESPN’s problems are driven by economics, in two directions. Former ESPN, well, whatever he was Colin Cowherd opined, and Awful Announcing heard him say …

Speaking on 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland, Cowherd said he knew things were going to change at ESPN when he learned of the news that the network had signed a huge megadeal to keep the NBA:

“I told my producers … ‘fellas, it’ll never be the same here.’ You can not pay four times for the house what you paid for the house last year. And I said this company will never be the same.

“It was at that point I started looking, and this is not going to end today. They have really cost-prohibitive contracts, combined with cord-cutting.

“I said this when they cut 850 people, I said it the next day, it’s awful, and it will happen annually for the next decade. You have to have contracts …”

And regarding the layoffs, Cowherd noted that the overpayment for the NBA and in particular, the NFL has come back to bite ESPN and it’s forced the company into layoffs:

These firings are awful. It makes me sick.

“The good news is – most of the people let go are really talented, but this is all about business, and when you have overpaid for products, sometimes six and seven hundred million more than you had to pay, certainly with the NBA that’s the case, they just pay way too much for it. This is the result, it’s awful, and I think unfortunately this was the first of a 10-year deal with the NBA and I just feel awful – there’s are a lot of good people.”

But he added that he feels that ESPN has let go of the most expensive people at the company and that “a lot of them are going to land in really good places.”

The other half is that ESPN charges cable operators more than $7 per subscriber per month, and of course those charges are passed on to cable customers. Cable companies’ failure to get viewers the channels they want and not pay for the channels they don’t want has prompted cancellation of cable TV. ESPN has lost about 10 million subscribers over the past three years.

ESPN has a website, and has an app. But if you’re not a cable subscriber, you can’t see live games on either, including WatchESPN. (You also can’t see live games even if you are a cable subscriber if your cable company doesn’t offer WatchESPN.)

Even if you’re a sports fan there are a lot of ESPN “sports” not worth watching, including so-called “extreme” sports, Mixed Martial Arts (imagine boxing with no rules) and poker, and has replaced them with far too many debate shows. Part of it is that ESPN has lost a few properties, including the baseball postseason, the National Hockey League, and NASCAR auto racing, and according to viewers (of which I am not), its news coverage of sports it doesn’t cover has dropped precipitously.

What viewers may find somewhat ridiculous is who is still at ESPN — namely, Chris Berman, whose best days are well past him, and Stephen A. Smith. The latter got rather defensive about his job status, as reported by Alex Putterman:

In the midst of ESPN’s massive round of layoffs Wednesday, more than a few people brought up Stephen A. Smith as evidence of how the Worldwide Leader had gone astray. How, people wondered, could ESPN fire so many great reporters while keeping a loudmouth hot-take artist like Stephen A. Smith around to appear on First Take and numerous other shows?

Among the legions making some version of that argument was former Sports Illustrated writer and best-selling author Jeff Pearlman, who called Smith’s employment in the face of layoffs “an assault on the profession.” …

Well Stephen A. Smith puts up with a lot of crap, but he apparently wasn’t willing to put up with that. On his radio show Thursday, he addressed Pearlman’s criticism, as well as the general perception that he is unqualified for such a lofty position at ESPN.

Smith began the segment by saying he didn’t like to respond to criticism but that he felt compelled to in this case. He then described the layoffs as business-related and implied that he was protected because his show is popular and well-rated. Then he really got going:

I’m going to ask Mr. Jeff Pearlman and all the Jeff Pearlmans of the world a simple question: Why are you focusing on me? There are people in our business who actually get paid more, who do less and produce less. Why are you not talking about them?

Like when they call me ‘Screamin’ A?’ I’m the only dude on the air who’s loud? I know plenty of white dudes who are screaming and going off. They’re called passionate. I’m called loud. … The real issue at hand is, what you’re bringing into question are my qualifications.

Smith then listed out his career history, from graduating from Winston-Salem State University to holding numerous internships to working at several newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he was promoted again and again until he became on of the only black sports columnists in the country.

His point was simple: He worked hard to earn the position he’s currently in.

Some people will surely balk at Smith’s invocation of race, but he wasn’t really calling Pearlman racist or suggesting all criticism of him is due to his skin color (though undoubtedly some fraction of it is). This was his main idea:

I used to be a journalist? Mr. Pearlman, you used to be a college student. You used to be a high-school student. Last time I checked, there’s a level of elevation that took place because you graduate to certain levels. I’m not a blogger. I came up in this industry where you had to be a journalist. You had to break stories. You had to break news in order to elevate your career to get to a certain point to get to a certain level before you even had the license to give your opinion, especially if you were a black man. 

Mr. Pearlman’s not black, maybe that’s why he doesn’t understand where I’m coming from. Maybe that’s why he’s so quick to talk about what I have deserved. I gave ya’ll my resume. I transferred from newspaper to television, from television to television and radio. I’ve done this. My credentials speak for themselves. I’m so sick and tired of people coming at me. If you want to talk credentials, name the time and place. Tell me what level I didn’t work on.

Smith repeatedly complimented Pearlman, saying he would never dare question another writer’s credentials.

Stephen A. is absolutely 100 percent correct that he has the resume for the position he’s in, that he worked his way up the ladder and earned bigger and bigger roles, and that it’s not easy to get to where he is now. Without question, his critics lose sight of that all the time, unfairly depicting him as a brainless carnival barker.

However, it’s certainly fair to wonder why Smith uses his hard-earned position to propagate a high-pitched, disagreement-centered, occasionally offensive model of television that risks undermining the more journalistic aspects of the industry—and to question why that’s the model ESPN chooses to reward.

The 800-pound gorilla in the room, however, is ESPN’s conscious decision to insert politics into its sports coverage. Those who approve of this have sworn up and down all week that that has nothing to do with ESPN’s current financial problems. Certainly it’s not the primary cause, but if cable subscribers are dropping you, and some number of your viewers are not fans of the liberal politics you’re espousing, one would logically seem connected to the other.

ESPN quotes a fellow La Follette Lancer (we were in the same journalism class) on its editorial policy:

ESPN has issued new political and election guidelines for its employees that, while allowing for political discussion on the network’s platforms, recommend connecting those comments to sports whenever possible. The new policies also provide separate guidelines for ESPN staffers working on news and those engaging in commentary. …

“Given the intense interest in the most recent presidential election and the fact subsequent political and social discussions often intersected with the sports world, we found it to be an appropriate time to review our guidelines,” said Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president of global digital content and the chairman of the company’s internal Editorial Board, which drafted the new guidelines.

Stiegman said no single issue or incident led to the change, but Craig Bengtson, ESPN’s vice president and managing editor of newsgathering and reporting, said the nation’s tense political climate did play a role.

“We have the convergence of a politically charged environment and all these new technologies coming together at once,” he said. “Based on that, we wanted the policy to reflect the reality of the world today. There are people talking about politics in ways we have not seen before, and we’re not immune from that.”

Stiegman said the new election guidelines are no longer just targeted at presidential elections. “We simply extended our approach to covering presidential elections every four years to major elections, in general, believing all the same principles should apply,” Stiegman said.

So what’s different in the new policies? Let’s start with the Political and Social Issues guidelines. Its first line lays out ESPN’s challenge quite accurately:

“At ESPN, our reputation and credibility with viewers, readers and listeners are paramount. Related to political and social issues, our audiences should be confident our original reporting of news is not influenced by political pressures or personal agendas.”

As I wrote in November, not all ESPN consumers — or employees, for that matter — feel the company has lived up to this ideal. Stiegman said that the buzz around the topic of ESPN and politics — also written about by The New York Times, Awful Announcing, the Orlando Sentinel and many conservative sites criticizing ESPN’s perceived leftward tilt — didn’t play a significant role in the revision of the guidelines.

The two most notable changes from the Political Advocacy policy are the delineation of guidelines between news and commentary, and allowing for increased political discussion on ESPN platforms, as warranted and connected to sports. This isn’t a surprising development, it’s just new.

“We wanted to err on the side of transparency and trust with our reporting,” Stiegman said, “but also give our columnists and commentators the freedom to discuss topics relevant to those sports fans who visit our platforms, even if the issues are political or social in nature.”

Here are other notable points in the Political and Social Issues policy, with my thoughts:

“Original news reports should not include statements of support, opposition or partisanship related to any social issue, political position, candidate or office holder.”

This one seems straightforward and achievable, at least within ESPN’s platforms. The one place on ESPN in which you don’t see straight opinion is on the hard news side of the operation.

“Writers, reporters, producers and editors directly involved in ‘hard’ news reporting, investigative or enterprise assignments and related coverage should refrain in any public-facing forum from taking positions on political or social issues, candidates or office holders.”

The three key words here are “public-facing forum.” That expands this policy beyond ESPN’s borders and brings the Wild West of social media into play. In fact, later in the memo, it is said directly that the policy applies to “ESPN, Twitter, Facebook and other media.”

This is where the potential for problems exists. ESPN news reporters tweeting political opinions from their own social accounts would technically violate this policy. Again, hard news reporters are less likely to use social media for this purpose than commentators, but how effective this policy is will depend on how hard executives choose to look at social media. Let’s be honest: It’s not too hard to find ESPN employees tweeting political opinions. Yes, much of that activity does fall within the new guidelines, which also note that those who do publicly express political views could be reassigned when covering stories. But the propriety of other posts is a tad murkier.

“Outside of ‘hard’ news reporting, commentary related to political or social issues, candidates or office holders is appropriate on ESPN platforms consistent with these guidelines.”

This is meaningful because, unlike the company’s previous policy, it states that commentary on political and social issues is OK. The previous policy not only didn’t say that but also conveyed a tone that suggested that dipping into political waters carried more danger than reward. Put another way, the new policy has gone from “It’s dangerous out there, so probably best to stay home” to “It’s dangerous out there, so here are some tools to best keep you safe.” …

“The presentation should be thoughtful and respectful. We should offer balance or recognize opposing views, as warranted. We should avoid personal attacks and inflammatory rhetoric.”

What is a “personal attack” and what’s considered “inflammatory”? As with many journalistic policy questions, those are subjective. And in policies like these, that can lead to caution.

“There is always a layer of subjectivity in such areas,” Stiegman said. “Editors and producers will work with those offering opinions on these topics to ensure the dialogue and debate is thoughtful, respectful and as fair as possible.”

That is not happening, according to Ben Shapiro back in November:

From giving Caitlyn Jenner a heroism award to stumping for Black Lives Matter, from pushing gun control to praising Kaepernick’s heroism, from firing Curt Schilling for expressing anti-radical Islam sentiments to threatening Chris Broussard for taking a religious view of homosexuality while doing nothing about Kevin Blackistone for calling the national anthem a “war anthem,” ESPN has become – as I’ve long said – MSNBC with footballs.

Now, ESPN’s public editor is admitting that the network has a problem. As Newsbusters reports, Jim Brady admitted, “One notion that virtually everyone I spoke to at ESPN dismisses is what some have perceived as unequal treatment of conservatives who make controversial statements vs. liberals who do the same.” He added:

ESPN is far from immune from the political fever that has afflicted so much of the country over the past year. Internally, there’s a feeling among many staffers — both liberal and conservative — that the company’s perceived move leftward has had a stifling effect on discourse inside the company and has affected its public-facing product. Consumers have sensed that same leftward movement, alienating some…. For most of its history, ESPN was viewed relatively apolitically. Its core focus was — and remains today, of course — sports. Although the nature of sports meant an occasional detour into politics and culture was inevitable, there wasn’t much chatter about an overall perceived political bias. If there was any tension internally, it didn’t manifest itself publicly.

Brady talked to anchor Bob Ley, who admitted that ESPN has no “diversity of thought.” A conservative employee told Brady that “If you’re a Republican or conservative, you feel the need to talk in whispers.” Jemele Hill, naturally, said “I would challenge those people who say they feel suppressed. Do you fear backlash, or do you fear right and wrong?”

This is the problem. And this is why ESPN and the media more generally fail. It is suppression to label those who disagree with you politically morally evil because they disagree. Yet that’s what Hill does. That’s what ESPN does, too. The left believes its opinions and feelings are facts; those who disagree are therefore either morons or fascists. That’s why Hill thinks Schilling should have been fired for putting up a meme expressing that transgender people should go to the bathroom in the restroom that matches their biological sex. Schilling must be evil.

That perspective comes across in ESPN’s casual leftism. And it alienates viewers. I’m one of them. I used to watch ESPN every time I worked out. Now I’d rather have the television off. I’m not interested in hearing talking heads who know less about politics than they do about water polo take for granted that they are morally righteous, and everyone on the right is morally obtuse. Screw them. I’d rather cut the cord entirely.

Sean Davis says:

The industry insider I spoke to said the focus on politics was a symptom, rather than a root cause, of all these current issues. According to this insider, ESPN executives saw the writing on the wall — higher costs, subscriber losses, lower ratings — and decided that it needed a bigger content pie to attract more content consumers. Sports is too small, so why not try for a real mass audience by broadening the network’s focus to include news and politics? If X number of people like sports, and Y number of people like politics, then surely combining sports and politics will lead to a much bigger audience, thereby solving the company’s financial dilemma.

This view, of course, ignores how people consume political news. The diehards who love political news don’t turn on the TV or open the laptop and navigate to sites with zero bias that just play it straight. Why? Because those kinds of political news and commentary providers don’t exist. Because that’s not what political junkies want. Liberals want news from liberals, and conservatives want news from conservatives. The Balkanization of political news and commentary didn’t happen by accident. People in this business know you have to pick a side. That works in political news. It doesn’t work if you have a bipartisan mass media audience.

Instead of expanding its pie by combining two types of mass media content, ESPN ended up communicating to half its audience that it didn’t respect them. How? By committing itself entirely not to political news, but to unceasing left-wing political commentary.

You want to watch the Lakers game? Okay, but first you’re going to hear about Caitlyn Jenner. Want some NFL highlights? We’ll get to those eventually, but coming up next will be a discussion about how North Carolina is run by racist, homophobic bigots. You want to see the box scores of today’s baseball games? You can watch those at the bottom of the hour, but right now some D-list network talent would like to lecture you about gun control. After that we’ll have a panel discussion about how much courage it takes to turn your back on the American flag.

The most interesting aspect of the mass layoffs on Wednesday isn’t that they happened, it’s who the network targeted. Not the high-priced carnival barkers and the know-nothing loudmouths doing their best to make Rachel Maddow proud. Nope. ESPN targeted sports reporters. In an effort to cut some fat from its bottom line, ESPN exchanged a scalpel for a chainsaw, skipped the fat entirely, and went straight to cutting out muscle.

If ESPN wants to once again be the worldwide leader in sports, it should refocus on covering sports, which used to be a refuge from politics and the news. America is politicized enough already, and if its citizens want political news, several cable outlets do political news far better than ESPN ever could. Instead of doing sports and politics poorly, perhaps the network could return to the thing that it used to do better than everyone else in the world: cover live sports.

Unlike those with nothing more than opinions, Deep Root Analysis looks at data:

The FOX blog “Outkick the Coverage” has attributed ESPN’s decline to the rising partisanship coming out of Bristol, labeling the network “MSESPN” in pieces like this one, headlined “ESPN Profit Plummets As Network Turns Left”. “Outkick the Coverage’s” Clay Travis supports his argument with Scarborough data showing most sports fans are conservative politically. With the news of today’s layoffs, Travis argues that the network’s leftward turn is “more a symptom of the collapse than it is a cause of the collapse.”

Naturally, the news out of Bristol has led to a variety of “takes” across the Internet. The National Review Online wrote a warning about politicizing sports. Others have scoffed at the idea that partisanship has kept people from watching ESPN, even as ESPN’s public editor concedes that it is among “a set of smaller causes” harming ESPN. Perhaps the hottest take of the day claimed that “sports fans really don’t like anyone who stands up for civil rights.”

WHAT DOES THE DATA SAY?

But is there data to support the notion that Republicans are turning off ESPN as the network ramped up its political commentary during the 2016 election and beyond?

Deep Root Analytics specializes in local television measurement by segmenting the population into political, advocacy and commercial groups and matching those segments into observed TV viewership data via set-top boxes and smart TV data. This allows Deep Root to produce customized ratings and indices for every program and daypart on broadcast and cable TV – including data on ESPN’s viewership among loyal Democrats and Republicans.

We analyzed viewership data in a large media market in a swing state (Cincinnati, OH) for the entirety of 2015 and 2016.  Also, to control for any changes in partisan identification between 2015 and 2016, Deep Root Analytics analyzed viewership among the same audiences across both years.

In our analysis, a clear trend emerges: ESPN’s viewership in this key swing state market became less Republican during 2016.

Specifically, in 2015, the ESPN audience on average skewed Republican across all dayparts, ranging from 12% more Republican (Early News, Late Fringe, Overnight) to 21% more Republican than Democratic (Early Morning).

In 2016, every daypart on ESPN became less conservative, with Daytime being only 2% more Republican than Democratic, while Late Fringe and Overnight programming became 10% and 12% more Democratic than Republican – a 22 and 28 point shift, respectively.

The same is true across other ESPN properties. ESPN2 skewed Republican across most dayparts in 2015; in 2016 all dayparts skewed Democratic. Every daypart also switched on ESPN News from 2015 to 2016.

ESPNU was the only network that retained its mostly Republican audience. ESPN Deportes – the network’s Spanish language channel – became even more Democratic in 2016 than it already was in 2015.

Here is a complete look at the 2015-2016 shift in partisanship across ESPN networks:

To be sure, the ESPN layoffs signal a larger business challenge facing the network. But at least in Cincinnati, the partisanship of viewers noticeably shifted – just as ESPN’s problems got worse.

I would contend that there are more conservative fans of sports than liberal fans of sports. Conservatives did not create the odious phrase “the personal is political.” Conservatives did not create today’s culture of participation medals. Unlike most of life, sports is closer to black and white — team A defeats team B; athlete C finishes first, which means the rest do not.

Here is an example of ESPN’s self-defense, from its Undefeated site:

In sports, everything from choosing fantasy sports teams to selecting the teams that will play for big-time college football national championships is rooted in statistics and statistical analysis, wins and losses and strength of schedules. Further, in sports, everything from a player making an obscene gesture to a pro franchise abandoning one city for another can prompt earnest discussions about right and wrong, revenge, rehabilitation and forgiveness.

But in the nation’s public policy, we too often allow ideology and political maneuvering to render facts moot, especially when those facts support inconvenient truths such as global climate change. And morality, if it is acknowledged at all, is presumed to be the province of specific parties or ideologies, instead of governing our thinking, decisions and actions. From public education to health care, we focus more on the politics of changing public policy than the efficacy and morality of making the changes.

Consequently, our nation, a house divided, struggles to stand: We’re a people who talk to one another without a common political vocabulary, a people who seek to silence dissenting voices. We’re a people who seek to move without common direction, a people who would solve our problems without a consensus of what those problems are, or a common moral purpose to guide our actions.

The apologia for this comes from the oxymoronic Think Progress:

I truly wish this went without saying, but apparently it doesn’t: Reports of ESPN’s political agenda have been greatly exaggerated, and politics are absolutely not to blame for the cuts this week.

ESPN is not a political network. Its analysts do not spend hours debating the latest poll numbers, reporting on proposed legislation, or counting down to lawmakers’ town halls in their home districts.

ESPN covers sports. It just doesn’t pretend that those sports happen in a vacuum.

That means ESPN will cover stories like Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem, a team of WNBA players wearing “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts during warm-ups, and the domestic violence allegations against an potential NFL draftee.

Sports are an escape, yes, but they are also enriched and impacted by the real-life events happening around them. Covering these topics accurately and fairly when they directly intersect with the sports world isn’t politics, it’s journalism.

“The word ‘politics’ has become too all-encompassing,” SportsCenter host Jemele Hill said on the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch in February. “Mike and I aren’t … breaking down the Affordable Care Act. That’s politics. Understanding somebody’s right to speak out against injustice, oppression, and police brutality, isn’t a political matter. It’s right or wrong.”

“‘Don’t hit women’ is not politics,” her co-host Michael Smith added.

“Sorry we don’t tolerate bigotry here. Why are you taking offense to us suggesting that African Americans — breaking news — have been treated differently and unfairly for the entirety of this country? That’s not a hot take.”

Of course, what Hill and Smith are touching on here is that when people complain about anything getting “too political,” it’s a safe bet the criticism is actually that it’s too liberal. And that usually implies it’s too diverse or too outspoken about inequality.

The president of the company has pushed back against this idea, too.

“The Walt Disney Company and ESPN are committed to diversity and inclusion,” ESPN President John Skipper said last year in response to similar accusations that the company had gotten too liberal. “We do not view this as a political stance but as a human stance. We do not think tolerance is the domain of a particular political philosophy.”

Interestingly, not everyone at ESPN seems to be on board. The New York Post reports:

ESPN’s sweeping staff cuts are not just the result of ambitious TV rights deals and an overburdened budget, popular “SportsCenter” anchor Linda Cohn suggested Thursday.

The network may be losing subscriber revenue not just because of cord-cutting, Cohn allowed, but because viewers are increasingly turned off by ESPN inserting politics into its sports coverage.

“That is definitely a percentage of it,” Cohn said Thursday on 77 WABC’s “Bernie and Sid” show when asked whether certain social or political stances contributed to the stupor that resulted in roughly 100 employees getting the ax this week. “I don’t know how big a percentage, but if anyone wants to ignore that fact, they’re blind.”

Cohn agreed with the argument that certain sports fans may have disapproved of the way ESPN covered polarizing figures such as Roger Goodell, Colin Kaepernick and Caitlyn Jenner.

The example used was of the 2015 ESPYs. Jenner, a former Olympic champion in the decathlon, won the prestigious Arthur Ashe Award for Courage for publicly coming out as a transgender woman. Some felt athletes suffering from disease or disability — such as college basketball player Lauren Hill, who died from cancer three months before the ceremony, and marathoner Noah Galloway, who lost an arm and a leg in the Iraq War — were more deserving.

Cohn, a 25-year ESPN veteran, toed the company line.

“You know, when you work for a big company, you have to follow in line, you have to pay the bills,” she said. “But you just kind of look in the mirror and do what you think is right no matter what else is going on around you. And that’s what I always tried to do.”

ESPN and its liberal sycophants are taking the usual liberal tack that any position other than their own is wrong and not worthy of consideration. As usual, the left approves of every kind of diversity except for political diversity.

Whether you agree with ESPN’s politics, or whatever causes you’d like to attribute to ESPN’s decline, ask yourself this question: If ESPN is losing viewers (and it is), why should ESPN go out of its way to alienate its (remaining) viewers?