Monday, June 26, 2006

Soccer: Global waste of time.

Every few years, when the World Cup activity begins to peak, everybody gets excited about soccer. Granted the rest of the world calls it football but here in the U.S. we ugly Americans call it soccer because we already have a game we call football.

Let me say that I respect a lot about soccer. It requires tremendous coordination, astounding stamina and a considerable degree of toughness, although there are some teams and players who engage in unflattering antics to gain a strategic advantage. Soccer doesn't allow for timeouts. The clock always runs and play is continuous. Players who are ejected can't be replaced so it's not unusual to see a team play short a player or two. Of course, there also aren't that many fouls that will result in ejection. In fact, most fouls aren't really penalized. A team is awarded a free kick for most infractions but that free kick rarely offers a team a decided advantage.

Soccer scores are low. Not only are the scores low, but the number of shots taken on goal are low as well. The entire game is about moving the ball and gaining position. The rules favor defense and the aspect of soccer that infuriates Americans is the rather common 0-0 tie. In fact, the administrative wing of Major League Soccer has offended purists by tweaking certain rules to avoid the dreaded tie in the US vertsion of this global sport, The tie is a most incestuous offense in American sports. We have overtime. On rare occasion an NFL game that fails to produce a winner after a sudden death period will get recorded as a tie, but that's a rare occurrence. In fact, the last bastion of the American tie, NCAA football, adopted an overtime policy that not only makes a tie virtually impossible, the shootout method used in college actually makes for some exciting offensive possessions. A game deadlocked at 14 can balloon into a 48-46 nail biter thanks to some creative overtime rules.

Americans like offense. Maybe we have too many diversions and deriving entertainment out of a pitching duel or a defensive masterpiece is too much to ask the modern sports fan. Maybe we are just a bunch of ignorant slugs who refuse to show the rest of the world respect. But perhaps it is possible that soccer really does stink. The rest of the world can be wrong.

And I'm not just some fat NASCAR hick upset because ESPN is cutting into my Dale Jr. coverage. I hate NASCAR. In my mind the only good thing about it is that it allows inbred hicks a mindless source of entertainment. Studies have shown that incidents of incest have decreased in the past 10 years and that's thanks to NASCAR.

No, I actually know a good bit about soccer. I can't name more than four players, but I officiated high school soccer for a few years and even coached a youth team. It's a great sport from a participation perspective, but so is synchronized swimming, track, gymnastics and wrestling. None of them are that appealing from a spectator's perspective. Not unless artificial drama is added. That's why we have the WWF and why boxers will pretend to hate each other. Hype rules. Football makes it's own, baseball has history and basketball has some hard-core street values instilled in it. Soccer is a bunch of sweaty Euro-trash drones running around on a field all day. Hockey at least speeds up the game with the ice.

To me, it wouldn't matter if the U.S. managed to entice its best athletes into soccer and field a good team. MLS could find new revenue sources for payroll and lure the best players in the world to play here and I would still pass on the free tickets to watch the Columbus Crew play. It's not the quality of play that discourages me, but the quality of entertainment. Soccer is boring. It's like one of those "films" that critics laud but regular lugs like me find pretentious and pedantic. Can we blow something up once in a while? Soccer is the art piece of the sports world and like great art, I like to appreciate it from a theoretical perspective. Don't expect me to pay money to visit a museum. I'll meet you at the brewery down the street. Nuture your cultural side while I load up on barley and hops and we'll talk about who had more fun. I got ten bucks on the beer. That's ten bucks I won't spend on soccer tickets.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Shaq shows why he's not the best

Shaq describes himself as dominant. And there's no doubt about that. Even at the end of his career the big guy can still move some bodies when he gets a mind to. Unfortunately there is a lot more to NBA basketball than knocking people down. Especially in the playoffs where talent evens up a good bit.

Miami caught a break in game 3 of the finals, but so far Shaq has been mediocre at best. Dallas has zeroed in on shutting him down, forcing the rest of the Heat to beat them and until game 3 it wasn't happening. And while Miami won a game, it wasn't like they punished Dallas for picking on Shaq. They sneaked past a Dallas team that might have gotten a little unfocused.

The bottom line is that the problem lies with Shaq. It always has. As dominant as the guy can be, teams have proven time and time again that you can beat Shaq if you foul him hard and send him to the line. With a career free throw percentage a shade over 50%, it's just good basketball economics. Shaq with the ball in the paint equals two points nine times out of ten. Shaq on the line needs four shots to score two points. On a good night a couple of nights ago he was 0-fer.

This is the finals and Shaq is making a little more than a quarter of his free throws. 27%! He's supposed to be a great basketball player, but do great players go 6 for 22 from the free throw line? Miami as a team is only hitting about 55% from the stripe which is about what Dallas is shooting from the field.

As dominant as Shaq is, I can't give the man his due because he has dismissed one of the most basic aspects of the game: That 15 foot set shot they let you take whenever you get fouled. Shaq's taken a lot of trips to the free throw line in his career and has visited the charity stripe 22 times in three finals games. Every one of those missed shots is a missed point. In the finals those points might add up to another victory. In his career those missed free throws amount to a career's worth of points that could be added to his legacy.

But that's only part of the story. If Shaq made more free throws he'd get fouled less and that would mean more access to the basket. What's the point in sending the guy to the line and wasting those fouls if he's going to score the points anyway? Why risk fouling the guy when he's got a good look and risk that three point play?

Shaq's free throw woes have hurt his teams and they have hurt his career. He's tired and showing his age. Not uncommon for a man of his size, but if Shaq didn't take such a pounding night after night he'd be in better shape. In fact, he might have enough juice left in him to play more minutes in these finals. The fact is, if Shaq made free throws, he'd be better off.

It wasn't an issue in LA. The Lakers had enough talent around Shaq to easily offset his missed opportunities from the line and Shaq was a younger player who could power through those hard fouls and come up big with rebounds and blocks. Now Shaq doesn't do nearly as much away from the ball and Miami is paying the price in the finals. Dallas can see when the ball is heading to Shaq and they employ the latest version of Hack-a-Shaq when he gets it. It's working like a charm.

Getting to this point is a fine accomplishment and Dallas is a more experienced and better rounded team. They should win and Miami shouldn't be disappointed if they come out on the short end, but it would be a shame if the Heat lost because Shaq couldn't deliver crucial free throws when they matter the most. Shaq has always claimed that he sinks those buckets when they matter. So far, he's 6-22 in the finals. Does it matter yet?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

'Roid Rage

In case you missed it, baseball took another shot on the chin this week when news broke of the plight of Jason Grimsley, a journeyman relief pitcher who has not only been availing himself of performance enhancing drugs, but also dabbling in the trade. So much so that the IRS is all but living with him as they investigate his finances and business ventures.

This is not a surprise. Sure, there are those who donned the blinders early on and insisted that steroid use was sporadic and easily identified, but the reality is that in the absence of strict regulations men who get paid for athletic performance will cheat. Period. While smearing a booger on a ball might help it break a little harder and corking a bat could help the ball clear that right field wall if you hit it just so, steroids leave nothing to chance. They simply make athletes better. All the time.

Media clowns like Peter Gammons have long ignored the reality of steroids and allowed the public to believe that it was only the beefy sluggers who would benefit from steroids, but the truth is that the players who benefit most are those who need to recover faster. That's how steroids work. They elevate hormone levels and allow the body to generate muscle faster, this increase stamina and durability while decreasing the amount of time an athlete needs to recover from intense activity. Now that the steroid scandal has revealed that steroids are being taken by players at every position, the media hacks who fed the denial are now wagging the finger of shame. These so-called reporters have rather intimate relationships with players. They are in and out of locker rooms and see these guys up close everyday. Shame on them for not reporting the story of steroids as it unfolded. Instead they helped sweep the problem under the rug until there was so much crap under it that the story had to break. Now everybody wants to be stunned.

Let's be honest about steroids. Anybody who knows about sports from a participation level knows that steroids are there. I witnessed extensive steroid abuse by football players at a division III college. Those players had nothing to gain from steroid use. None of them were going to see an NFL scout at any of their games, but they still loaded up on steroids so they could be bigger stronger and faster. Coaches knew but looked the other way. The tests are easy to beat. Even the more stringent international tests can be fooled, but those used domestically are a sham. They can't detect Human Growth Hormone at all and it is easy to mask most of the contemporary steroids that are in the market today.

Baseball isn't the only place steroids are in play. Just because the NFL claims to have a testing program in place doesn't mean that 75% of the players in the NFL aren't on steroids. When a 250 pound linebacker runs the forty in 4.4 seconds something isn't right. The same is true when a wide receiver manages to bench 400 pounds. But the NFL isn't where it starts. Some players begin taking steroids in high school but most learn about them in college. Big time college football is rampant with steroids. Pick any of the top ten teams and watch how the players develop over the course of four years. Sure, it's natural for an 18 year-old to pick up a few pounds over three or four years of college, but some of these guys are gaining 50 or more pounds of solid muscle. One highly touted linebacker started his college career as a 215 pound freshman and managed to get up to 250 pounds by his junior season.

And don't think that they stop there. Have you noticed how muscular players in the NBA have become? Do you think that steroids might have something to do with the above-the-rim antics we see so often on ESPN? Until they start employing some serious testing we should simply assume that everybody is taking them. I love Lebron, but he's totally unnatural. I would hate to see him test positive for steroids and I hope that he's just a freak of nature but the reality is that in the back of my mind I suspect that he's taking some kind of supplement that enhances his physical performance. Golf? Why not? Hasn't the average drive gone up drastically in the past 10 years or so?

For now baseball is under the gun. Bud Selig's decision to ignore the blatant abuse of steroids by players like Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire encouraged other players to follow suit and the problem got so far out of hand that Congress stepped in. Now we have a dramatic story unfolding involving some obscure middle reliever and dozens of players he did business with. While the hoards of sports media personalities are all doing their level best to appear shocked the only real surprise is that this story didn't break 10 years ago.