Articles By Charlie Miller
Athlon Interview with outgoing WNBA president Donna Orender
Donna Orender succeeded Val Ackerman as WNBA president in 2005. Only the second president in the 15-year history of the league, Orender saw increases in attendance and television ratings during her tenure. She guided the WNBA through a number of successful business ventures, including an extension of its television contract with ABC and ESPN and a marketing initiative that introduced company logos on player jerseys. A former collegiate (Queens College in New York City) and professional (WBL) player, Orender spent 17 years with the PGA Tour before joining the WNBA. She resigned from the league on December 31 and will launch Orender Unlimited, an independent marketing, media, and consulting firm. Orender spoke with Jerry Kavanagh just two days before leaving office.
Q. Are congratulations or condolences in order for you this week in your last days on the job?
Orender: I’m not sure why you would say condolences.
Q. You’re leaving the WNBA after more than five years as its president. There must be some mixed emotions.
Orender: I’m doing it on my own terms. I think that’s great. I’ll miss it. It’s fantastic.
Q. You had a unique perspective, as a former collegiate and professional player, that the leaders of other pro sports leagues do not share. Did that give you any special insight in dealing with the players and the teams?
Orender: I do look at the business in its totality. I could very easily put on my competitive hat and see from the basketball side or the athletic side of the business and I could see it from the business side. And I think what it enabled me to do was to have credibility, which enabled me to bring both sides closer together. Which, surprisingly, you will find in sports doesn’t happen as often as it should.
Q. Why is that?
Orender: I think that if you’re a coach, if you’re in charge of the performance end of the business – that’s what you get paid for, that’s what you get rewarded for – then that’s your 100 percent focus. Ultimately, the quality of the product will drive the business. But in this day and age, the business side and the sports side are much more in lockstep.
Q. Did you share ideas or questions or problems with presidents and commissioners of other sports leagues?
Orender: Actually, I have. Yes.
Q. Can you give me a recent example of something you discussed?
Orender: When there were issues of ownership, expansion…things like that, there would be others that I would talk to about it.
Q. President of a pro sports league is a limited membership. There have been just two presidents in the history of the WNBA. What are the immediate and long-term challenges for your successor?
Orender: I think there’s a good stable base. And I think that much like every other sport, we continue to build on that base. I think exposure to the game is the biggest opportunity. I never worried about the quality of the product. It started early. I could probably say that when it started, it wasn’t the best basketball in the world. But today it is a phenomenal competition played by incredible athletes all put together in a very electric, energetic environment geared toward families. And it’s just a question of getting people in the arenas that really feel and experience the great quality that’s there.
Q. The UConn women’s team has achieved a remarkable measure of success. That’s good for all basketball, not just women’s teams.
Orender: Of course. Listen, any program that can achieve that level of excellence should be applauded. This is a culture that’s about driving results. This is a program that’s all about results, in the most positive of ways.
Q. Tell me something about the WNBA that would surprise basketball fans.
Orender: It’s probably the speed of the play. The points per minute are almost on a par with the NBA. The free-throw percentage is higher than the NBA.
Q. In your blog on December 3, you wrote, “In fitting basketball parlance, the game plan calls for a timeout to be followed by a new set of plays that I had drawn up many years ago that are now ready to be put into the rotation.” What did you mean by that?
Orender: I looked at my career, and there were certain kinds of things that I wanted to do. And there comes a time when you say, “Hey, OK, it’s time to do them.” I happen to really enjoy people. I think the fans of the WNBA really got that. I’ve spoken all over the country, and I would like to continue to develop that aspect of my career, which is speaking to… whether it’s corporate, women, kids, groups all over the country, motivational, inspirational kind of educational talk. So, it’s time to do that. I can only do so much of that with the WNBA. I’d like to write a book, and, so, that takes some time. And I really have an interest in some other areas that I would like to continue to develop. And, so, the timeout is to try to re-engage with my family. I’ve been on the road for a long time now, and so I will try to do that.
Q. Are you still going to be affiliated in some way with the WNBA?
Orender: No, but I’ve always had this philosophy that you can leave physically a place, but the parts will always stay with you and, so, I think I take a large part of the WNBA with me. And judging by the amount of outreach I’ve had – and I haven’t even gone yet – I can fairly expect that I will continue to have some interaction.
Q. What would a highlight reel of your presidency include?
Orender: Probably sitting in the stands with a big smile on my face, surrounded by wonderful fans also just beaming with joy at being able to be connected and participate in such a wonderful experience.
Q. Anything else?
Orender: I can rattle off a lot of the business metrics that our team has achieved over the last six years, and I remain incredibly proud of being able to, you know, push the ball down the court for this league.
Q. What are some of those business metrics?
Orender: Four years of attendance growth, incredible ratings growth and development on ESPN television, the development of a broadband product that I think is truly having a revolutionary impact on televised sports in general. I’m very proud of that. I’m very proud of our CBA and the way that we negotiated our labor agreement that resulted in six years of prosperity, you know, certainty as it relates to our players.
Q. Any regrets?
Orender: You know, just that I wish I could have gotten done more, as any Type-A driven personality would say. I wish I could put 30 hours into my 24-hour days as opposed to 27 or something crazy like that. But no. No regrets.
Q. What more needs to be done?
Orender: Just as I said, you know what I mean? It’s like, every touch, every meeting, every sales opportunity… you know, if I had 10 of those, I wish I could have made 15, you know what I mean? I always feel — no matter what I’m involved in — I always feel an urgency to move forward, drive the bar higher, touch people in a way that’s meaningful, and create something that, you know, is difference-making.
Q. Is there an athlete that you most enjoy watching?
Orender: You know, listen, I am a sports lover. I always have been. I have a great appreciation for talent. You know, watching talent. And, so, I wouldn’t limit myself to one or two. I would tell you that there are many, many athletes that I enjoy watching.
Q. No one player above another that you single out? Or make it a point to watch this game or this player?
Orender: What game is that?
Q. There’s no one who is in town or on [TV] that you think, “I’ve got to go see that player or that game?
Orender: I wouldn’t single anybody out at this point in time. I have a great appreciation for a wide variety of sports. I do have to say this, though, coming from Jacksonville at this point in time, I’m very intrigued to watch the success of Tim Tebow (laughing).
Q. You were a player yourself at Queens College in the 1970s. A lot of changes in the game since then.
Orender: The athletes are bigger, they’re stronger, they’re faster on a more pervasive basis. I would match Annie Meyers Drysdale up to any athlete today in terms of her quickness and speed. And they’re playing the game starting at a much younger age and their skill development is more advanced. So, I would tell you, like in any other sport, the greats of any era probably can compete with the greats of any other era. Because when you’re an exceptional athlete, you’re an exceptional athlete. That said, I just think that the athletes today, and the game today, are a lot quicker and a lot more physical.
Q. Orender Unlimited, your new company: What’s the plan for that?
Orender: My view of the world is that there are endless possibilities, and I’ve been fortunate in my career to have many, many, many experiences. And, so, therefore, if you provide value to companies, within companies, projects can help elevate and help them reach their objective. And Unlimited is such that, you know, it could be. Having had the good fortune to have experience in film media, having launched and created the entire digital business for the PGA Tour, whether it’s in the sponsorship area, strategy…whatever, I also have a big interest in golf and women, creating inspirational, educational programming, and I’ll be working on developing that as well. And I hope to be able to sit on a couple of corporate boards and bring my expertise and experience to that endeavor as well. So, it’s an evolving kind of plan at this point in time, incorporating kind of the things where I think I can bring the most value and, truthfully, the things that I like to do the best.
As the son of John McKay, the legendary football coach at USC and the first head coach of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rich McKay grew up around the game. He was a high school quarterback in California and Florida and a ballboy for his father at Tampa Bay. Later on, he earned his undergraduate and law degrees, respectively, from Princeton and Stetson. Rich McKay was a practicing attorney in Tampa before taking the job of general manager with the Buccaneers in 1993. During his 10-year tenure with the Bucs, McKay hired Tony Dungy as head coach and built a team that won the Super Bowl in the 2002 season. He joined the Atlanta Falcons in 2003 as president and general manager and saw the team advance to the NFC title game in his first season. McKay spoke recently with Jerry Kavanagh.
Q. What has been the biggest surprise of this NFL season for you?
McKay: I would say it is some of the teams that probably have not performed as well as I thought they would. I looked at some of those teams, like the Cowboys, and thought they were really going to be a force to be reckoned with. But every year I think that about certain teams, I realize how much injuries play a part and how quickly the league can change. So, every time I get surprised by certain teams’ success or lack of success, I remind myself that I shouldn’t be surprised.
Q. The way the NFL is structured, a team can turn it around pretty quickly or drop precipitously.
McKay: Absolutely, and that’s the way you want the league to be. The word parity…sometimes people give it a negative connotation; I’ve always thought of it in a positive light because it truly means that even if your team hasn’t had success for three years, that doesn’t mean that in the next two years it can’t have a lot of success. That’s how close the margin is, and that’s a good thing for our sport.
Q. You’ve got parity in the NFC West, where a 7-9 team made the playoffs.
McKay: People view that as a negative. But usually that’s very cyclical. Those things can change quickly. I remember how good the Rams were just a few years back. And the 49ers were the dominant team in the ’80s and into the ’90s, so those things go in cycles.
Q. What has been the key to the Falcons’ success this season?
McKay: I think Mike Smith and his staff have done a really good job of staying with the plan and being very basic in our approach. And we’ve been very consistent. We’ve been consistent on offense, defense, and special teams. And when that happens, you tend to win football games.
Q. The Falcons have home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs. Given the Falcons’ record at home, how much of an advantage is that?
McKay: Home field in this league matters a lot. It always has, and it should. Since coach Smith’s been here, I think we’ve only lost three or four home games. So it matters a lot. Hopefully, we can take advantage of it. Winning at home can become a habit. You begin to expect it and to expect good things to happen. That’s a positive because I’ve been in situations when it wasn’t so good, like in my early days in Tampa, where you expected to lose. What happened was, you literally waited for a bad play. And when it happened, then all the players kind of got that expectation in their mind that, “Oh, oh. Here it comes.” And then you lost the game. I think you can have the inverse of that, and that’s what we’ve got going on right now.
Q. There’s a comfort level, too, isn’t there, in playing at home? You don’t have to travel. The players get to sleep in their own beds…
McKay: No question. All of that matters. We’re all creatures of habit, and those habits are easier to keep in sync at home than they are on the road.
Q. You have spoken about reseeding the teams for the playoffs. It seems particularly appropriate now, but that’s not going to happen this year..
McKay: It’s something that’s been discussed before in the league. I wouldn’t say it’s my issue as much as it’s been an issue raised by a number of teams. Jacksonville, I think, submitted two different proposals on it. I think eventually it’s something we should go to. But it’s still got a little ways to go.
Q. How would it work?
McKay: The four division winners are now automatically seeded one through four. In the most recent proposal, the division winners automatically get in the playoffs. So, you are not devaluing the division winners. But only the first two seeds are automatically guaranteed those seeds. And after that the teams are seeded based on record.
Q. What’s the point of reseeding?
McKay: The purpose behind the proposals was to keep more games relevant later in the year and potentially to deal with the [current] situation, where the team with the much better record is going to go on the road. We’ll see. I think people get concerned about devaluing what are division championships. I think that it’s something that will certainly be debated this year. But as it usually does in this league, it will take time to get that thing passed.
Q. Let’s get back to parity. How does a team maintain a continuous atmosphere of winning when the NFL, by its very system (schedule, draft, salary cap, etc.), works against such sustained success?
McKay: Very good point, Jerry. You’re absolutely right. The system is designed to…not necessarily to prevent you [from winning] but to make it difficult for you to win on a continuous basis because of the narrowness and the margin of winning. And so it does work against you in that sense.
But what you have to give your fan base the feeling of is, No. 1, that you’re going to do everything necessary to try to get your team to be the best it can be. And No. 2, that you’re going to try to also win off the field. That is, that you’re going to represent everything that’s supposed to be good about being an NFL city. And by that I mean that your players have got to get out in the community, they’ve got to do the right thing, and they’ve got to touch the fans, not just on the football field but off the field. And I think that when you do those types of things, then when you do have those down years, you’ve built up enough equity that the fans are willing to hang in.
Q. By the way, speaking of off the field, I like that commercial with the Falcons on the school bus. I didn’t see you in it, though. Are you on the bus?
McKay: No. In fact, I was out of town. I decided that I’m better not in that commercial, given my lack of rhythm. [Team owner] Arthur [Blank] is a huge supporter of the Play 60 initiative and the anti-obesity campaign. It married up well with what we’re trying to be about, and so it was nice that we were associated with [the commercial].
Q. You grew up in football and have been around the sport from an early age. What’s the best decision you have made in the game?
McKay: Wow! Now, there’s a hard question. I would say it’s the hiring of certain people. I think it always gets down to people. Hiring Tony Dungy in the [Tampa Bay] franchise and the situation we were in was probably the best decision I could have made for the franchise at that time. That was probably as big a decision as I’ve made. There were plenty of draft picks along the way that I’m real proud of and others that I’m not. But when you’re charged with hiring a coach, that’s an important decision. In essence, that coach ends up becoming the CEO of your franchise and has great impact on your winning and on the perception of your franchise locally.
Q. The last time we spoke, a few years ago, you talked about stocking your roster with draft picks and free agents. I realize that every team needs both, but you said, “You are much better served to develop your own [players], let them understand what your culture is, and then pay them and extend their contracts than to go out and buy the talent in free agency.” Does that still hold true?
McKay: One hundred percent. I’m more committed today than whenever I told you that. Building that culture and raising those athletes within your culture is a lot easier than bringing players in who’ve had success at [other] teams and then trying to fit them into your schemes and into your culture. Look at Pittsburgh and New England. Those are two examples of franchises that have won continuously and have done it by drafting their own and developing their own and keeping their own.
Q. You are chairman of the NFL Competition Committee. Does the game itself and/or the NFL need any changes?
McKay: The game’s in a really good place right now. I think the numbers speak to that. You can never do enough on the player safety side. And I think we will always, and should always, focus on that end, even to the extent of facing public criticism from either ex-players or the media.
Q. Is enough being done to insure the safety of the players?
McKay: I think it is, but you have to continually work on that issue. If you look over the last 15 years, there have been an awful lot of changes made to try to make the game safer and to try to limit the player from any type of unreasonable risk of injury. But I don’t think we should accept where we are. We should keep pushing and make sure we look at every instance in which a player is potentially put into a place that presents an unreasonable risk.
Q. And yet there is talk of an 18-game regular season in a sport that is so debilitating.
McKay: There is, and I’ll leave that to those at the league office and the union who are talking about it. But I think there are things you can do that deal with the whole system and don’t just focus on the two [additional] games but the whole system that goes into the training, the offseason, and everything else. Because those elements all go into player safety. It’s not just the games.
Q. Is there an offseason? It doesn’t seem like there is an offseason anymore.
McKay: (laughing) I don’t know. If you ask some of the people who work here, I think their answer might be that there isn’t much of one.
Q. Jerry Jones just recently said, “Basically, the [economic] model that we have does not work.” He also said that he did not think that a lockout would be disastrous for the game. Do you think there will be a lockout next season? If so, would it be disastrous for the game?
McKay: I say “No comment” to both questions, and I leave it to people with a pay grade much higher than me.
Q. OK, you don’t want to speculate about a lockout, but do you have any predictions about the postseason and the offseason?
McKay: No predictions, Jerry. I’m not a predictor.
Q. Everybody’s a predictor.
McKay: (laughing) Behind closed doors I am.
Q. What are you reading these days?
McKay: I’m into the latest James Patterson. Whatever the latest James Patterson is, he’s on my Kindle and I’m reading him.
Q. Kindle, huh?
McKay: I can’t remember which one it is, but I’ve been all over and into that kind of genre, if you will, lately. I haven’t been as much into serious books. I probably need to get back to do a little more serious reading.
Q. I’m glad you have some time to read. It seems so many people now don’t have time to do anything but work.
McKay: The interesting thing me about me from a reading standpoint is that I’m a late-night reader and I’m an airplane reader. We travel so much during the season, and that gives me the best opportunity to read.
Happy New Year everybody. Great news. Tiger Woods says he’s going to turn over a new fig leaf this year. …
Nice effort by the Big Ten on New Year’s Day. In the aftermath of the disaster, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State have been transferred from the Leaders Division to the Laughingstock Division. …
So another NFL regular season is in the books. Not that, you know, they shouldn’t bother with the playoffs, but Bill Belichick has already prepared his Lombardi Trophy acceptance speech: “Um, thank you.” …NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced today that, due to technical difficulties and the Pats’ dominance, there will be no darkhorses in this year’s playoffs. …
Big news out of the Bay Area. According to a source he once tried to strangle, Tom Cable is history as the Raiders’ head coach. …So why would they dump the Cable Guy? Apparently, Al Davis wasn’t comfortable finishing 8-8. He’s hoping to return to the glory days of 4-12. …
There’s been much celebration over the recent coup by Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro. Certainly, signing the top free agent pitcher this winter after trading for two of the top starters in the majors last year is reason to celebrate. But let’s not go overboard.
This isn’t the best rotation ever assembled. Not even in recent memory. The Atlanta Braves’ foursome of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery easily top the Philly Phour. At the same times of their careers, Maddux was easily superior to Halladay, Smoltz better than Oswalt, Glavine better than Lee and Avery even getting a slight edge over Hamels. Obviously, Hamels has a golden opportunity to have a better career than Avery, but at age 24 with 55-28 record, no one knew Avery’s arm was about to fall off.
However, at the time the two staffs were assembled, the Phillies can boast they were more decorated. But when the four Braves came together for the first time in 1993, their ages were 23, 26, 26 and 27. The ages of the four Phillies are a more mature 26, 32, 33 and 34. So at the time of assembly, the Phillies look pretty good, but they also have a combined 23 more years in age.
The point is that in the next few years of pitching together the Braves became a dominant staff entering its prime. The Phillies’ staff window is closing much more quickly than they would like to believe.
So let’s take a heat off this staff. The Phillies are clearly the team to beat in the National League in 2011. But the offense is what must perform. Subpar seasons by Ryan Howard and Chase Utley will have this team struggling to score as losses will mount. Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco and Jimmy Rollins cannot carry this team without the two heavy lifters in the middle. And if Rollins is done as an elite player — which many observers believe — the lineup is not as deep as it appears.
The Phillies are our favorites to win the National League in 2011. But this is an old team with potential problems. But there doesn’t seem to be another choice in the NL.
Peter Gammons has been covering sports since 1969, when he began a distinguished career in journalism at the Boston Globe. Last season was the 38th consecutive World Series that he has worked. Gammons is on-air personality at the MLB Network, where he provides analysis and commentary on the games as well as breaking news on baseball. He is also a contributor to Baseball America.
Gammons was a baseball analyst for ESPN and a writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. He covered the NHL, college basketball, and Major League Baseball for Sports Illustrated between 1976 and 1990. Gammons was honored with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for outstanding baseball writing, voted on by the BBWAA, and presented during the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2005. He has earned National Sportswriter of the Year honors in 1989, 1990, and 1993 from the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association and was awarded an honorary Poynter Fellow from Yale University.
Gammons spoke recently with Jerry Kavanagh.
Q. I remember the Hot Stove League when it took place only at a time when you really needed a hot stove. That is, in the dead of winter. Now, it seems to start the day after the World Series and to end on the first day of spring training.
Gammons: I actually wrote a column about this when Marvin Miller was up for the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately the Veterans Committee did not put him in. Part of my point was, not only did he make the players a ton of money, but he also made the owners a ton of money. I started covering the Red Sox in 1972. I remember working offseasons when I would make a couple of calls, check in, and see if anything was going on, and then go cover college basketball at night. It [MLB coverage] was not a year-round thing. After the winter meetings [back then], essentially there was no media baseball until the trucks left for spring training.
Q. What changed everything?
Gammons: What happened was, the [Andy] Messersmith [free agent] decision came down in January of 1976 and we had that wild ’76 season. I guess they got the basic agreement at the All-Star Game, but every player was a free agent — could have been a free agent. But once they started free agency at the end of that year…actually they had like a free-agent draft that I remember in New York. It put baseball on the front pages of sports pages year round, and it completely changed the business of baseball.
Q. And changed it for the better?
Gammons: You could see the incremental attendance rises and the revenue rises every season. As it turned out, it’s been [a] really good [development] for the game. It drives us all crazy now that there’s Twitter and some Japanese utility shortstop signing with the Twins gets more mentions than Alan Trammell had in his career. It gets a little absurd, but at the same time, it promotes the business. So, Marvin Miller made the owners a lot of money.
Q. The baseball writers used to change beats during the winter, didn’t they?
Gammons: Oh, yeah. Definitely. I was working at the Boston Globe, and even then it was a wild baseball town. So, you’d go check in every once in a while, see what was going on. But it was college basketball and college hockey or something else. But now, some of these poor guys have to work, like, 18 hours a day 360 days a year. But, again, it’s good for the business because you’re talking about it and promoting it.
Q. And now there’s more competition to break news. It seems like the reporters are on call 24 hours a day.
Gammons: [Sports Illustrated’s] Tom Verducci had a great line to me a couple of weeks ago. He said that this whole thing about Twitter warfare is intramurals. Really there are only a few people who are trying to scoop one another for the belt. It’s got to the point of absurdity at the same time. It’s fun. I put the little Twitter thing on and watch and scroll down as the day goes along.
Q. And now, is everybody covering rumors?
Gammons: It gets a little crazy. Sometimes you get rumors that are just absolutely absurd. But that’s always been that way, one way or another. There are just more out there now. You read, “The Orioles discuss such and such a pitcher.” I said to somebody at the winter meetings, “You might as well put, “The Orioles discuss balancing the budget.” They can discuss anything.
Q. The coverage now is year round, isn’t it, of baseball and the business of baseball?
Gammons: I thought the economy would affect attendance and revenues far greater than it has. There is just so much attention focused on baseball year round that they’re able to keep revenues… I think again this year they were up just a little bit, so they set another record.
Attendance was down a little bit but revenues were at least flat, which is pretty remarkable when you consider the cost of tickets and what’s happened to the economy.
Q. It’s been an interesting offseason so far, starting with the two big acquisitions by the Red Sox.
Gammons: It has been. The Red Sox knew they had some contracts coming off, and some of their television ratings were down, so they knew that they had to do something. It’s always hard to plan, but they were able to do what they wanted to do, which is very unusual.
Q. And the signing of Cliff Lee by the Phillies, not the Yankees. Was that a surprise?
Gammons: I thought the great thing about Cliff Lee, and again I don’t mean to be dating myself, but my first year covering baseball was the first strike. I think Bud Selig and I are the only two people left from that 1972 spring training strike. But to watch what players gained by free agency…I thought the Cliff Lee story was great. He didn’t say, “I don’t want to play in Texas.” What he said was, “You know what, this is the right the players have earned. This is the right that I’ve earned from performing X amount of years in the major leagues. I can play where I want to play and live in a clubhouse for 10 or 12 hours a day with whom I want.” I thought that was the best part of the story. He basically did what he wanted to do.
Q. And still make a comfortable living.
Gammons: Making millions of dollars to do it at the same time. A good friend of mine lived with him for a couple of years in the minor leagues. And he always told me that [Lee] just wants to be in situations that he really likes. His idea of a fancy car is a pickup truck. And that’s about it. He takes his kid fishing. I thought it was too bad that some people in New York took it that he was dissing in New York. I don’t think it was that at all. That Phillies team is one of the most likable groups of people in all my years covering baseball.
Q. What makes them so likable?
Gammons: They have so much personality. Jimmy Rollins is constantly going. Chase Utley is the bellwether of integrity and playing hard. Ryan Howard is a great guy. Plus, Lee wants to play with Roy Halladay. I understand that. Halladay has replaced Greg Maddux as the pitcher all other pitchers want to pitch with. The ironic part, and Billy Beane made this point, is that Philadelphia is actually tougher than New York. It’s a good point. It’s about the teammates. He wanted to play with those guys. I like to hang around with my good friends, too. I just don’t make $120 million to do it.
Q. Now fans are wondering what the Yankees’ counter move might be. They’re not really planning to go with Sergio Mitre and Ivan Nova in their rotation, are they?
Gammons: Well, they might start with Ivan Nova. They’ll wait. Brian Cashman has done a great job developing his farm system. He’s at the point where he can do what Boston did with Adrian Gonzalez: trade away three top-of-the line prospects for a star player. Now, in December, we can say that such-and-such a player will never be available, but…come June, the Yankees will be in position to go and get him. If A.J. Burnett comes back, and I think he will, the Yankees will have Sabathia and Burnett and a very good bullpen. They’re still going to score a ton of runs. So, they can be right in there and then throw out everybody they have to throw out to get that pitcher they need. I think someone will show up on the radar by then.
Q. Now that we have seen some of these big player moves, is there another story you are following closely this winter?
Gammons: I think the next story is the continuation of this last season. I think 2010 was finally the season in which fans finally got to turn their backs and say, “Enough is enough. I don’t want to hear about steroids again.” And I think that was part of the fascination. It was also a great pitchers’ year, which all of a sudden showed the game had changed. There was, what, the fewest runs per game since 1992.
Q. Anything else you are following?
Gammons: Even more so, the fascination with young players. Jason Heyward was a national figure on opening day when he hit the home run for the Braves in his first at-bat. And then Mike Stanton came along [with the Marlins]. Buster Posey became the cult hero in San Francisco. And the whole Stephen Strasburg phenomenon. If I’m not mistaken, every one of his starts in the minor leagues and the major leagues was on national TV. And I think that’s going to continue this year. People want to cleanse themselves of the old and move forward and say, ‘O.K., these guys signed under drug testing. This is what we want for our game. We don’t want to hear anything more about the past.’ Who is going to be what Michael Lewis called “the new young thing?”
Q. Buster Posey seems like a throwback player.
Gammons: Oh, he is. He’s a great kid. I went down and spent a day for the MLB Network during the Instructional League with Bryce Harper. I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t met him. We had done a great deal of publicity. Here was a guy who was able to graduate from high school after his sophomore year, went to a junior college in Nevada (and, by the way, maintained a 4.0 average even though he knew the reason he was there was to be the No. 1 pick in the country). I couldn’t believe what a throwback person he was. It was a delightful day. He loved the game so much, and kept asking me to tell him stories about this guy or that. I asked him what player he wanted to be like. He said, ‘George Brett.’ I thought, ‘How many 17-year-olds have any idea who George Brett was.’ And then I asked him what player he would like people to compare him to. He immediately said, ‘Chase Utley.’ Maybe this is a great thing for the game, just as the NBA about eight years ago started a whole new generation of players. Maybe this is exactly what baseball needs—all these young guys. You can’t find much nicer people than Posey, Heyward and Stanton.
Q. Fans are always ready to root for a guy who hustles.
Gammons: Oh, absolutely. I was on a San Francisco radio station every week. And it just amazed me that callers wanted to talk about “Posey mania.” I love that! San Francisco’s a great baseball town. At the same point, Posey became the focal point of a team that made a pretty dramatic run to win the World Series. I found it very interesting that a guy making $450,000, the
minimum, became the toast of a city whose glory was made of Willie McCovey and so many others.
Q. At the start of the 2006 season, you wrote, “Baseball would survive by being baseball.”
Gammons: Baseball bounced back from 1919 and the Black Sox. It bounced back from the strike in 1981. And I must say that during that winter of 1994-95, I wondered if it would bounce back. But it did. Now it’s gone from, what, a $1.5 billion industry to around an $18 billion industry, without any salary cap or anything else. The game always survives and people go back to it. That’s why I say we’re kind of in the middle of this story because this year will be the year when fans will say let’s move on to all these young players. I’m not trying to throw dirt on Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds. That’s not really the point. The point is, baseball has developed a whole new base of young players. That Strasburg phenomenon was unbelievable. It’s too bad he got hurt, but he’ll be back in 2012. To be continued.
Q. Billy Beane once told me about your talents as a bird dog. What young players are coming along that we should be aware of?
Gammons: Jesus Montero, the Yankees’ catcher. If he can catch as well as Victor Martinez, he’ll be a star because he’s going to really hit. He should be great.
Q. Who are some other players to look for?
Gammons: There’s a young outfielder with the Rangers named Engel Beltre. It’s going to be another year, but he might be a great player. I can’t wait until he and Josh Hamilton are playing together. And I would say another would be Eric Hosmer, a first baseman, with the Kansas City Royals. Kansas City has a lot of really good players about to come. He and Mike Moustakas, a third baseman, will both be stars.
Q. Is there a breakout team for 2011?
Gammons: I think Oakland’s going to be the breakout team. I think their pitching is SO good. If I’m not mistaken, they set a record for most quality starts by pitchers 26 years and under, And with the added offense and with the defense that Billy has put together, I think they’re going to be a real threat to win the west. It is amazing how Billy keeps reinventing himself. He’s like the Curt Schilling of general managers. About every five years he’s completely different.
Q. Quality starts and pitch counts seem incompatible now.
Gammons: True. The reason that works is because those young pitchers on the A’s pound the strike zone, which is what Billy’s always preached anyway. People talk about Nolan Ryan and no more pitch counts and all that, but the average pitch count of a Rangers’ starter in each of the last two years in the minor leagues has actually decreased. The whole principle of stop fooling around and dodging around the strike zone… throw strikes and be aggressive is what has completely changed the whole Texas pitching makeup. It’s not being left in for 130 pitches, it’s just throw the ball over the plate.
Q. There’s such an emphasis on pitch counts now.
Gammons: A couple of games, Nolan Ryan went over 200 pitches. Now, Nolan was the strongest man I’ve ever seen. I covered Luis Tiant’s great Game 4, 173-pitch performance against the Reds in 1975. But pitchers are raised differently .When they’re in college, they pitch once a week. When they come into the minor leagues, they pitch every fifth day. It’s a different strain on their arms.
Q. But there are relievers who pitch only one inning every other day.
Gammons: I know. Relief pitchers who can go four to six outs have suddenly become really valuable. That sounds silly, but how many closers have four- to six-out saves? It’s minimal. It’s almost more important to get the outs in the seventh and eighth innings. To come into those jams and get out of them requires more stuff. You get the veteran guy who can go out and start a clean ninth inning. It’s tough [for the closer], who is the last step to winning a game. But at the same time, the difficulty is much greater pitching in the seventh and eighth innings. They’re always pitching with me on base.
Q. I had a conversation with Mike Marshall, who is so derisive about today’s specialists. When he pitched in his best years in the 1970s, he was the middle man, the setup guy, and the closer.
Gammons: Yeah. He’s an amazing character. It’s unfortunate that he’s been forgotten. He once had 106 appearances in one year. That’s just amazing.
Q. Bud Selig has brought up the notion of expanded playoffs. How do you feel about that?
Gammons: I’m for it if they can shorten the season. I kind of like the idea of having two wild-card teams in a playoff to get into the playoffs, which really takes away from the wild-card team and makes first place more important. I’m all for that. And if the small-market team keeps the carrot of the playoffs in front of them longer, I’m all for that. I just don’t want to see them drag this out to Thanksgiving. We were really lucky this year with the weather, but there were a lot of years where we would have been dancing between snowflakes on November 6, or whenever the World Series was supposed to end.
Q. I want to leave you with this: You once told me that David Halberstam was your favorite non-fiction writer. I happened to mention that to Halberstam a few years ago. He had the highest praise for you. In fact, he said that maybe you should be the baseball commissioner. He also said that if someone were to spend a week with you, observing what you do, he would not have to go to journalism school.
Gammons: (laughing) Well, that’s very kind. I do believe that he’s the greatest journalist that ever lived. His ability to draw broad subjects together … he tied together about nine generations of wars and maybe understanding. Not only Asia, but the Middle East. Amazing! A great man. Such a tragic thing that he died. It’s so sad because he was a model for every one of us. And such a gentleman. What memories. I remember standing next to him in center field at a Bruce Springsteen concert in Fenway Park. The rest of us were scruffily dressed for a rock concert. David wore a bowtie with a blue blazer and a white shirt. It was hysterical.
Q. O.K., thank you for that little-known fact.
Gammons: He also wore the same blazer and tie when he went to the Chicken Box in Nantucket to see Little Feat with me.
Happy holidays, everyone. God bless Mr. Scrooge and God bless Tiny Tim Lincecum. …
News flash: Yankees GM Brian Cashman says he’s incensed by Cliff Lee’s decision to sign with the Phillies, calling it bad for checkbook baseball. …Lee, by the way, got $120 million over five years, moving him ahead of Cher’s plastic surgeon on the list of America’s highest-paid employees. …
The Lions won a roadie the other day at Tampa. I only mention it because, the last time they won a game away from Detroit, the parking lot was filled with chariots. …
I see where Vikings punter Chris Kluwe said on Twitter that the U of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium field was “unplayable’’ for Monday night’s game. Interesting. Well, it would be interesting if anyone cared what punters had to say. …
The UConn women won their 88th straight game the other day, tying UCLA’s men’s team for the longest ever in college hoops. Apparently, UConn coach Geno Auriemma celebrated by sucking on a lemon. …Auriemma, in case you missed it, says nobody would care if UConn had tied a women’s record, not one set by John Wooden’s Bruins. Actually, truth be told, I still don’t care. …
Hey, everybody. I’m in a great mood today. Why? It’s the holidays, the only time of the year when I can crank up my Burl Ives’ Greatest Hits CD without people looking at me funny. …
Amazing how the story lines never end for the Vikings. A blizzard caused the Metrodome roof to collapse over the weekend, sending tons of snow and Jimmy Hoffa crashing to the turf. …
I don’t get it. Jets strength coach Sal Alosi trips Dolphins DB Nolan Carroll on the sideline and everyone’s making a federal cast out of it. It’s New York, people. Carroll is lucky Alosi didn’t swipe his wallet, too. …
Classy gesture by Cam Newton to thank God, his parents and the NCAA’s short-sighted investigators during his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech. …
Talk about an awkward moment. Michael Vick agreed to give Cowboys running back Tashard Choice an autograph Sunday night, but only after making sure Choice wasn’t handing him a subpoena. …
Manchester U invited the Chilean miners to attend a practice and a game in England this week. About half accepted the offer. The other half said they’d rather be trapped underground again than watch soccer. …
The axe finally fell on Josh McDaniels in Denver. Not sure if he’ll ever be a head coach again. So far, he only has one offer on the table: running the Patriots’ video department. …
Major news flash: I’ve decided to join the 21st century, so you can find me on Twitter. Now if only I could find me on Twitter. …
The biggest story to come out of baseball’s winter meetings? The Cubs, hoping to continue a rich tradition at Wrigley Field, signed a .196 hitter for $10 million. Next up on their offseason must-do list: Hiring John Rocker as their P.R. director. …
The bowl season begins this weekend. What’s that? You’re right. There’s no beginning, middle or end to the bowl season. …
In case you’ve misplaced your scorecard, there are 35 bowls on the docket — 36 if you count the one Texas assumed it would be in. …
Do not adjust your picture. Coaching neophyte Joe Paterno will be coaching against retiree-waiting-to-happen Urban Meyer in the Outback Bowl. …
I see where Dr. James Naismith’s original rules of basketball, including “Beware of the groupies in New York,” were auctioned off the other day for $4 million. …
The Browns were in the game at Buffalo on Sunday until Jake Delhomme threw a late interception. But then, isn’t every team in the game until Delhomme throws a late interception? …
Maybe it was too much to think that Mike Shanahan could undo years of damage in Washington just because he was the new sheriff in town. Maybe it was ridiculous to think that order would immediately be restored.
It certainly seems foolish now that the Redskins (5-7) are a mess – again – complete with embarrassing performances, high-profile controversies, and now even a player suspended for conduct detrimental to the team. All that’s missing is for Dan Snyder to step out of his owner’s box and run some interference.
Then the circus will really be back in town.
Even without that, though, Shanahan has his hands full with a hapless team that somehow has managed to be just as bad as the 2009 edition — even if their record is going to end up slightly better. Injuries have ravaged their offense and controversies are taking apart their chemistry piece by piece — whether it’s the benching of quarterback Donovan McNabb because of his conditioning, or the ongoing saga of Albert Haynesworth, their $100 million suspended man.
Actually, it all was on display in the Redskins’ 31-7 loss to the Giants on Sunday, a do-or-die game that could have gotten them back to the fringe of the playoff chase. Instead, their effort was questionable and their performance was disastrous. Before they opened their eyes they were down 28-0. Before it was over, they had turned over the football six times.
McNabb played well, but he’s done nothing this season to make anyone think he has a long-term future in Washington — except for the fact that he signed a much-ridiculed, five-year, $78 million contract extension. That came a week after he was benched for Rex Grossman — Rex Grossman! — in the final two minutes of a winnable game because of Shanahan’s concern about his “cardiovascular endurance.”
That was a remarkable takedown of a franchise quarterback that had cost the organization a ton in both contract and trade, and certainly opened up questions about whether Shanahan and McNabb were ever — or could ever be – on the same page. Those questions seemed to be answered by his contract extension — until it was revealed he could be cut after the season and the Skins would owe just $3.75 million, which led to even more questions about the Redskins’ future plans.
And then there’s big Albert Haynesworth, who has been a thorn in Shanahan’s side since the minute he took over as coach and decided he wanted to run a 3-4 defense. Haynesworth didn’t like it and the two have been battling ever since as Haynesworth continued to collect his sizeable checks.
At least he continued to collect them until Tuesday, when the Redskins suspended him without pay after things got so bad that Haynesworth went to Redskins GM Bruce Allen and said he would no longer talk to Shanahan. That came after Haynesworth missed a practice the previous week with what the team called an “illness” and apparently missed a team meeting, too. He reportedly even got into a heated exchange with defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and, as a result, was inactive against the Giants.
John King is CNN’s chief national correspondent and the anchor of the hour-long John King, USA, which runs Monday through Friday at 7 P.M. eastern time and addresses the topical issues of the day. The show launched in March of this year. Prior to that, King was the host for CNN’s Sunday news program State of the Union with John King. King joined CNN in May 1997 and became chief national correspondent in April 2005. He served as CNN’s senior White House correspondent from 1999 to 2005.
His work has taken him across the country and around the globe, where he has interviewed heads of state and men in the street to report on breaking stories and features both national and international in scope. King spoke recently with Jerry Kavanagh.
Q. Your show is fast-paced and efficient. How and when does a typical day start?
King: No two days are the same, but most of them start before I go to bed. I look at some emails and send others to the staff. There are always some bouncing balls in play that you have to follow up on for the next day. I wake up and usually do my first couple of hours from home. I’m still old-fashioned in that I get the newspapers off the driveway. I also go on line and read a few others and look around at some of the political websites, and swap messages among the staff. I try to work out in the morning before I get to the office.
Q. So, even when the show is over, you’re always looking ahead?
King: I try to unwind a little bit, but if you’re trying to book a guest, you want to get those calls in early or in advance. We usually spend about a half hour after the show with a quick postmortem and then look ahead to the next day. But it’s a long day and we try to get everybody out the door.
Q. The research into a subject’s background can sometimes reveal interesting or unpredictable results. Any serendipitous revelations that resulted from your own research?
King: When you have a familiarity with people, that’s proof of smart legwork. With a lot of the best work that gets you a good interview or story, everybody wants to focus on the last piece of it. But it’s the first piece or the third piece that often gets you to the last piece. And it’s by doing the research that you know those little anecdotes. Maybe you have a mutual friend or grew up in the same place. Maybe you have shared interest in some activity. Those can help, of course. People are more willing to talk to someone who they think they might have a connection with or who they think is well informed. If you are just calling around randomly for an interview… hey, good luck. Part of that is common sense and part of it is just good street smarts to try to learn a little bit. The key is to get them to engage in a conversation with you. Once you start to develop a relationship of trust, maybe you’ll get there.
Q. Walter Mears, who won a Pulitzer Prize covering politics for the AP, took you aside when you were 24 years old and covering the Michael Dukakis campaign and told you to remember one thing: “You’d rather get it second than get it wrong.” That’s a lesson that still applies in this world of Twitter and blogging, when the competition to break news is greater than ever.
King: The competition to break news IS greater than ever. I like competition. I like the pace. I’m a high-energy, high-adrenaline person, but there’s no question that you need to be more disciplined and even more careful because there are a lot of things out there in the social networking/internet universe that are not journalism as I define it. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them. They just don’t abide by the same rules that I do.
King: Some of it is speculation. Some of it is gossip. Some of it is sometimes right, but not sourced the way you or I feel an obligation to do our jobs. So, you have to be more careful. The more complicated things get, the more back to basics you need to be. If you have simple, clearly defined rules by which you do your job, whether it’s a slow day or an ultra-high-speed day, those rules will serve you well.
Q. Fact-checking is sometimes taken for granted.
King: Yes, or people Google something quickly and see one thing that supports them and think, “Well, there. I checked.” That can be dangerous. So you have to make sure that you yourself understand. That’s why we check twice or thrice or four times, when necessary, on a sensitive subject. It’s one of the things that if you’re teaching or mentoring young people, to remind them that if it’s too easy, it might not be right. The internet is a great tool, but you have to realize that there are vulnerabilities. The first thing that pops up in a search engine is not necessarily a fact.
Q. Mother Teresa said, “Facing the media is more difficult than bathing a leper.” That was a saintly woman talking. Is it really that tough?
King: (laughing) I hope not. Look, I think it’s our job to be tough sometimes when the issues are hard. It’s our job to ask questions that sometimes make people uncomfortable. But it’s also our job to be fair and to be fair-minded and open-minded. Sometimes the relationship is adversarial by nature, and that tension is a necessary part of the equation. But it’s a shame when there are people out there who view us as the enemy.
Q. Ari Fleischer said, “The media’s job — and they’re the first to acknowledge it — is to find conflict wherever conflict can be found and to write about it, to highlight it.”
King: That is part of our job, but it’s not the only thing we do. We should be very open to human-interest stories. We should be very open to explain our stories. There are a lot of hard things before us: Where should the World Cup be? What does that process look like? What about this big deficit-reduction commission and the tough choices that it would force not only on politicians but maybe on the American people. Explaining things like that is very important.
Q. What about conflict?
King: I cover politics, and politics is about conflict. It’s about the conflict of ideas and the conflict of personalities. Sometimes it gets pretty feisty. Conflict does sell. It gets people’s attention. Conflict for the sake of conflict is a waste of time. But conflict about a big idea or issue is a good thing to have.
Q. Tom Brokaw said, “It’s all storytelling, you know. That’s what journalism is all about.” I know that you are a big sports fan. What's the most interesting story in sports to you these days?
King: I’m a Patriots fan, so I paid a lot of attention to Monday night’s game [with the New York Jets]. I’m a Boston guy by trade, so I have my obsessive watch on the offseason in baseball. And I’m a Wizards season ticket holder even though I’m a Celtics fan. It’s been interesting to watch the Gilbert Arenas comeback and John Wall’s rookie season. I connect them on purpose because to me that’s the interesting part of the story: Can this veteran who’s under a cloud find a way to have a productive playing relationship with this high-energy kid who clearly has a lot to learn about the NBA but is a star in the making? I love that.
Q. On your show you get directly to the heart of a story and discuss three or four big topics that concern the American people. What sports topics would you like to address?
King: I think the culture of sports is interesting. We’ve talked about doing some sports and decided against it. I do have a huge interest in sports and talk every now and then of dabbling into some sports journalism, just for fun and to learn more.
Q. Who would be on the panel?
King: I like competitors, which is why I’m a Derek Jeter fan even though I’m not a Yankee fan. A couple of years ago at the NBA All-Star game I had a great conversation with Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Chris Paul, and Steve Nash. We were breaking down Barack Obama’s basketball game. It was a treat. So, I could see myself sitting down with the distinguished gentleman Bill Russell and the outspoken contrarian Charles Barkley. Bill Walton’s always a fascinating guy to talk to because he’s a student of politics as well as a student of sports.
Q. What would you discuss?
King: I always wonder what the older guys think about the commercialization and the bigger money in sports nowadays. I’ve always admired Steve Grogan, the quarterback of the Patriots who never had a good offensive line and took a beating every weekend but came every day to play. I admire the tougher, older-generation guys, I guess. But it wouldn’t be one constant panel. You’d have to switch it, depending on the topics.
Q. It could be lively.
King: Russell’s an interesting guy. He didn’t give autographs and he wasn’t very friendly with the media for a lot of his career. It cracks me up to watch the Red Sox on NESN because there’s Jim Rice, sitting at the desk doing the postgame, and Jim Rice throughout his career, all he did was snarl and bark at reporters. It proves that all of us can have second and third chapters in our lives.
Q. The language of sports seems to pervade every aspect of our lives. Is there a sports metaphor that most closely describes the state of U.S. politics today?
King: Sure. I don’t know which party to assign which to, but you could say the Democrats are the Red Sox and the Republicans are the Yankees. The fact that they just plain hate each other and reflexively think the other guys are bad. And that’s a bad thing. Politics is sports because there are winners and losers. There are campaigns that are like seasons. In the end, after a long slog, somebody wins the most votes. It’s like winning the most games. So there are some useful parallels and, therefore, some occasions when borrowing the sports language is appropriate.
I do think one of the problems with our business right now is that we overdo it. You have to keep score in sports every day. You score every day in politics and you demean the process and the people in it sometimes. We’re guilty of that sometimes.
Q. Frank Deford said, “Sports is the easiest thing to write. It’s wins and losses and there are characters. Guys who write politics basically write sports now. They don’t write about issues and important stuff. They write the game of politics.” Who are the big winners in today’s game of politics? It does not appear to be the American people.
King: No, and that’s why we should not treat it as a game. Because whether social security survives and what needs to be done so that it’s there, not just for you and me but for our children, is not a game. Whether the federal government should stick to its guns and implement the Obama healthcare plan as passed or whether it needs to go back and tweak that in some way is not a game. There is a big debate now about taxes. There’s going to be a debate about whether gays can serve openly in the military. They’ve punted the issue of immigration reform for 10 years now in Washington. And no matter your position on the issue, look at the demographics of the country. It is a huge and consequential and important issue and it is not a game.
Q. What do you suggest?
King: To come at it from a sports perspective every time cheapens the process and demeans the product and ultimately insults the consumer, which is the American people. That’s why when there is a vote today on a certain issue, you can cover that in the first couple of paragraphs or the first couple of seconds [on the air] in a sports metaphor. Sometimes it’s irresistible; sometimes it’s appropriate. But we owe people more than that, and if we don’t give it to them we’re insulting their intelligence. There are too many huge, consequential things at stake.
Q. I’ve asked you this before: If you could secure an interview with anyone in sports, past or present, living or dead, who would it be?
King: Ted Williams.
Q. What’s the first thing you’d ask him?
King: (laughing) I could sure use some help with the curveball.
Q. That’s the same response you gave me a few years ago.
King: I’m laughing because Larry King just gave what I thought was a spectacular farewell interview in the Los Angeles Times. They asked him if he could do one interview, who would it be. And Larry said, “God.” And if he had just one question, what would it be? Larry said he would lean over to God and say, “I need your answer on this one because there’s a lot riding on it: ‘Do you have a son?’”
Q. God’s a big sports fan.
King: God’s involved in sports. Apparently for a long time, he’s rooted against the Cubs. That’s all we know.
Q. Usually athletes point skyward and attribute their success to God. But an NFL receiver a few weeks ago blamed God when he dropped a pass.
King: You should talk to Wolf Blitzer about that. Wolf’s from Buffalo. It’s one of the Buffalo Bills’ guys who had the ball in his hands and dropped it. He said, “The big guy obviously didn’t want me to catch that touchdown.”
Q. What’s the most pressing issue facing sports today?
King: I think the risk globally for all sports today is of a disconnect with people who don’t have money. I grew up a blue-collar kid in Boston who for a buck or three got into the bleachers at Fenway Park. I think that’s a $30 ticket now. Sports is the great equalizer in our society. The richest guy in America and the poorest kid can root for the same team just as passionately. And if professional sports become so economically out the reach of the little guy, that’s a shame. It’s big business now, and big business requires big revenue. All of the owners should worry about losing their connection with the average guy on the street who can’t afford it.
Took the family to the last Harry Potter movie the other night, except it wasn’t the last Harry Potter movie. Just like Brett Favre’s season, the fun never ends.…
Did you see those Packers throwback jerseys on Sunday? Who knew LSD was all the rage in the ’30s?…
Now this is getting downright ridiculous. James Harrison says he’s going to retire from pro football so he can play a real contact sport, Dancing With The Stars.…
The Broncos are in last place and are allowing almost 30 points a game. But the news isn’t all bad in Denver. They’ve got a kick-butt Christmas sale on Jay Cutler jerseys in the team pro shop.… Then you have the Panthers. Things are so bad in Carolina, John Fox has launched his own website: www.dohimafavorandfirejohnfox.com…
The Padres traded their franchise player, Adrian Gonzalez, to the Red Sox for a bunch of prospects. Thus, they could become the first team in baseball history to be eliminated on the final day of the season one year and the first day of the season the next.… At least the Padres have a catchy marketing slogan ready to roll: “Padres Baseball … Because, If You Think About It, The Sun, The Beach And Bikini Watching Are Highly Overrated.’’…
After a distinguished career in journalism that included 26 years at the New York Times, reporter and sports columnist Ira Berkow retired in 2007. A native of Chicago, Berkow, 71, received the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for “The Minority Quarterback” in the series “How Race Is Lived in America” in the Times. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer in 1988 for Distinguished Commentary. His work has appeared in “The Best American Sports Writing” anthology and his column “The LaMotta Nuptials” was included in “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century.”
Berkow succeeded Red Smith, whose advice he sought as a young writer, at the Times in 1981. He later came full circle with his mentor when he wrote Smith’s obituary and his biography. Berkow is the author of 18 books, including “Full Swing: Hits, Runs, and Errors in a Writer’s Life,” published in 2007. His book “Rockin’ Steady,” with Walt Frazier, has been reissued in a coffe-table version, 36 years after its initial publication. The documentary he wrote, “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” is playing in theaters and film festivals around the country. Berkow spoke recently with Jerry Kavanagh for Athlon Sports.
Q. How is the view from your new perspective?
Berkow: It’s good. I left [the Times] with a handful of projects. I wrote the book for a musical called “A Chicago Story — From Daley to Daley,” which is supposed to open in the spring in Chicago. And I’m doing the narrative for a coffee-table book from Harry Abrams on Wrigley Field. The working title is “Wrigley Field: The One and Only.”
Q. You are no longer under a press deadline. Is that a good thing, or do you miss that?
Berkow: It’s good not having the daily pressures. I never really felt those pressures altogether, but an interesting thing has happened since I’ve left. About once a month I have a dream about “Will I make the deadline?” Now, in 45 years of daily journalism essentially, I never missed a deadline. I was close a lot of times (laughing), but I never missed. And so now I have these dreams of “Am I going to make the deadline?” and invariably the dream ends before I know whether I did.
Q. Haunted by a deadline that no longer exists?
Berkow: My last dream was really a crazy one. The letters on the keyboard were jumbled. In other words, the “R” was where the “S” was supposed to be and the “T” was where the “W” was supposed to be. Can you imagine trying to write a story with a jumbled keyboard!
Q. And the clock is ticking.
Berkow: And the clock is ticking! I guess it was all submerged in my subconscious. But I never had dreams like that before – I don’t know if this is helping you in any way (laughing) – and I never really worried so much about meeting the deadline.
Q. Now you wake up in a cold sweat and you don’t have a deadline. I guess you don’t miss that, but what do you miss?
Berkow: Oh, some of the camaraderie of the newspaper. I didn’t go into the office much, but when I went in, it was nice to see guys. I like that part. It’s like ballplayers: They miss the locker room. I have to say that I looked forward to not doing daily journalism, and I hadn’t thought about going in to a lot of other writing projects. I was planning to take some courses and more vacations. When I was a boy in grammar school in Chicago, I had a scholarship to the Art Institute. I dropped drawing and painting when I was in the seventh grade to play sports. I thought I’d go back to that, but I haven’t yet.
Q. So, you weren’t actively searching for work?
Berkow: Projects just sort of came my way. How can I turn down doing the narrative for a picture book on Wrigley Field! I spent a good part of my childhood sneaking into the ballpark.
Q. Do you get out to the park much?
Berkow: I don’t. I go to a ballgame when a friend invites me. I have an honorary baseball writers’ card, so I can sit in the press box all the time without paying. I just feel that when I go to a game and am hanging around the press box, I’m like a dinosaur in some ways. And now I know very few people in the press box. It’s going on four years since I left the Times, but in that period of time there’s been a huge amount of changes. If I go, it’s sort of like I’m hanging on, No. 1. and, No. 2, if there’s a game I want to see, I like watching it on television, sitting in my easy chair and drinking cranberry juice.
Q. One thing I liked about your writing was the contrarian point of view that you sometimes took. You don’t see that so much anymore. There are sycophantic reporters trying to ingratiate themselves and some idiotic questions.
Berkow: You get a lot of that on television. They’re not prepared. Of course, some of these half-time interviews are pretty banal. In the newspapers, though, I still see some, as we say, hard-nosed reporting. I’m not sure I see a lot of poetry. I’m not sure we ever saw a lot of poetry. But in the best kind of sports writing there was some art to the language, not just reporting the facts. And I see less and less of that. Maybe it’s because they have to write for the web and everything has to be fast and they don’t have the time to craft their sentences. That’s one thing in particular that I miss: the beauty of language. But maybe people just don’t care that much about it, the writers or the readers – and the editors.
Q. Maybe they’re giving the public what it wants, which is not all that much.
Berkow: I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon. I grew up with some of the great sportswriters. Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon and Bill Heinz, to name three, were deft with the language. They were spectacular writers. But there’s no reason why we can’t continue to have that kind of thing, unless the attention span of the public is just too small.
Q. Those writers brought literacy and culture, more than just sports, into their columns.
Berkow: Well, I still think the Times does that better than all other papers. But after Twitter and Facebook and so many other things that are of concern to the daily newspaper writer, there’s not the time to be able to do that, and I don’t think they’re being asked to do that. They’re being asked to Twitter and [blog]; if there’s time for good writing, well, O.K., that’s down the line.
Q. David Halberstam said, “There’s a race to get [information] on, not just television and CNN but the world of dot-coms.” He said, “There’s a ferocious, powerful machine out there that’s all primed and never wants to wait. It doesn’t like to idle with its engine in park.”
Berkow: Right. Look, I’m as guilty as many others. I’ll go on the web for the Times to see what the latest news is. Now, of course, that’s not a feature story where you have time to craft something. But it’s a faster-paced world than ever.
Q. Your work brought you into contact not just with sports figures but with political leaders, entertainers, and artists. A lot of creative talent. Do you miss those interactions? Or maybe you still maintain them?
Berkow: Well, I still have friends who are writers and some artists. I still have a circle of people. That’s satisfying to me. And we all get together and complain about the same things. That’s a lot of fun.
Q. With all of the cameras and replays, and all the gadgets and sideline reporters and everything else on display during a broadcast, is there a danger of the sideshows overshadowing the main event?
Berkow: Well, I know that there are people who go to a football game to watch the cheerleaders. The Celtics used to be the quintessence of purity in sports. You know, a minimum of music and none of the cheerleaders and mascots. I don’t know if that’s changed. I don’t think so, and I haven’t noticed that when I watch a Celtics game. I would just as soon do away with all the mascots and all that blaring noise that is such an irksome distraction at games.
Q. Are you following any sports stories more closely than others these days?
Berkow: I follow the NBA and baseball and I follow football a little less.
Q. If you were still at the Times, what would be the subject of your next column?
Berkow: Michael Vick is a fantastic story. You know, has he changed his life? Perhaps. He says all the right things. But for him to be coming back and doing so well and bringing his team along the way he has… this is a real drama. This is a really good story. [F. Scott] Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American life. But I think there are, and Michael Vick is the prime example of that. And I think more and more people are rooting for him, to give him a second chance, especially when he’s shown remorse.
Q. Anything else?
Berkow: The other compelling story is the Miami Heat/LeBron James. As we speak, they are 8-7. They were supposed to go undefeated (laughing). The first team ever in the NBA to go undefeated! Of course, they haven’t. And so many people are rooting against them because they seem just so arrogant and so stupid about how they went about putting [Chris] Bosh and [Dwayne] Wade and James [together]. And it seemed they were sticking it in opponents’ faces needlessly.
Q. You find fans who might have been neutral before who are rooting against them.
Berkow: Yeah, it was irritating. Just the phrase “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.” I like what Paul Pierce said after the Celtics beat the Heat in Miami. He said, “We took our talents to South Beach.” I thought that was a good one.
Q. Is it possible for the Heat to win back some fans, to find redemption?
Berkow: Oh, yeah. If they show some humility, I guess. LeBron James is maybe THE force in the NBA — the closest thing to being unstoppable. Maybe more so even than Kobe, because he’s bigger and younger. He may even be faster and stronger. If they get it together and show some humility and they start playing as a team, again, there will be forgiveness and a second chance for them. But right now I think it’s sort of fun to root against them, and I’m one of those who do.
Q. That’s got to be a new feeling. Now you can root or boo openly.
Berkow: That’s a certain out-of-the-closet pleasure for a sportswriter. You know, there was no cheering – or booing – in the press box. Now I can root openly for the Cubs. And being a Cubs fan takes you out of the realm of being a sports fan. It’s a whole different genre.
Q. It was interesting to see the college football game last week at Wrigley Field. Because of the dimensions of the field, each team had to move the ball in the same direction on offense.
Berkow: I was reminded as I was watching the game that I had done a piece on a wide receiver named Dick Plasman, who played for the Bears in the 1930s and ’40s. In the early years of pro football, a number of players did not wear helmets. They were bareheaded. He was the last. He retired in 1946 or ’47. And at Wrigley Field, where the outfield wall was so close to the end zone, he caught a pass and rammed right into the wall. He was in a coma for about three weeks. He did return to football, but he wore a helmet. Watching the game last week, I kept thinking of Dick Plasman.
Q. What’s the best thing about sports?
Berkow: When I was working, I always rooted for my story. For the first edition, generally you would write about the pitcher or maybe a hot batter. But as the game goes on, you root for your story. Otherwise, you would root for a good game, a close game. But not too close that it goes into extra innings and you have to sweat your deadline. But now I root for drama.
Q. Do you root for any players in particular now?
Berkow: I look to see the really good team players. A couple of my favorites, in basketball now, are Deron Williams of Utah. I’ve always liked Steve Nash. I like Danilo Gallinari on the Knicks. He should be getting stronger and better and moving to the basket more. I like Landry Fields. I like the Knicks now. I’m having fun watching their games.
Q. What’s going to happen with Derek Jeter and the Yankees?
Berkow: I feel sorry for Jeter. They’re only offering him $45 million (laughing). I think he wants more than A-Rod, whatever A-Rod’s getting. It reminds me of Bill Russell. He always wanted a dollar more than Wilt Chamberlain. It’s not so much the money with these guys as it is the competitiveness. They’re competitive on the field and they’re competitive off the field. But it looks bad for the Yankees to be haggling with him like this. Jeter was the face of the Yankees, and he is so beloved and he’s been such a great player. There had to be another way to handle these negotiations rather than [Brian] Cashman saying well, let him test the free-agency market. There had to be a better way, for both of them.
Q. What’s the biggest challenge facing sports?
Berkow: I guess it’s pricing people out of seats. The tickets are getting higher and higher. For a family of four, with tickets and parking and hot dogs and so forth, could it cost $1,000 or so? I know there are a lot of complaints about that. It could be that essentially new generations aren’t going to grow up loving these sports. On the other hand, you look around and see that attendance is very good. Television may be somewhat down, but that could be because there are so many other distractions. Some kids won’t get off their cell phones to take time to watch a game.
Q. If you could change one thing in sports, what would it be?
Berkow: I know that a complaint by the writers is less and less access to the players. You go into the locker room and all the players are in the trainer’s room or some other place that’s off limits to the writers. The writers stand around looking at and interviewing each other. Hardly a player comes by. When I broke in, you could take a player to lunch or breakfast, and they would be happy to do it because they weren’t making all that much money and they were happy for you to pick up the tab.
That’s something that is missing now.
Q. What would you like to change about that?
Berkow: I would change the inane interviews of the managers and the coaches or the players at half-time and between innings. No one ever says anything. I would rather have some good insight by some reporter having gone and done some digging beforehand, because the managers are not going to say anything, and they don’t. It’s just a total bore. And then after the game, the dumb questions asked by these sideline reporters. There should be better reporting.
Q. So, the reporters who need the access can’t get it, and the broadcasters who have it don’t ask anything worth listening to?
Berkow: That’s right. That’s good. You can say I said that (laughing).
Q. What are you reading these days?
Berkow: I just finished “War,” by Sebastian Junger. He was embedded with a platoon in Afghanistan and he gave you the greatest insight into who these soldiers are and why they’re fighting. In many instances they’re not fighting for democracy. They’re just fighting because they’re there and because their job is to shoot people and to avoid being shot. It was spellbinding.
Most weeks, New York’s Dustin Keller mixes in with the rest of the league’s mediocre fantasy tight ends. Not this week, though. Keller and the Jets offense face a New England defense they toasted in Week 2. In that game, the third-year tight end had seven catches for 115 yards – both season highs. Keller also caught New York’s final touchdown in the 28-14 victory.
The Patriots rank last in the NFL in passing yards allowed (288.4) and have had a particularly difficult time containing opposing tight ends. And Keller has had good success against the Patriots throughout his brief career; he had a touchdown catch in the two team’s first meeting last year, and in Keller’s rookie season of 2008 he had eight catches for 87 yards in a Week 11 overtime thriller. For those fantasy owners debating between Keller and someone else on the roster, the choice is clear this week.
Here are a few other fantasy players facing favorable matchups in Week 13 (all of the players listed are considered backups or ‘fringe’ starters in most fantasy league formats):
Sam Bradford vs. Arizona’s pass defense
Bradford has far exceeded expectations in his first NFL season. Not only are the Rams a contender in the weak NFC West, but Bradford might already be the division’s best passer. This week he’ll square off against a Cardinal team still licking its wounds from an embarrassing loss to San Francisco. Arizona’s pass defense allows almost 250 yards per game and gives up 7.6 yards per attempt. Sounds like the perfect formula for another stellar Bradford performance.
Brandon Jacobs vs. Washington’s run defense
Now that the Giants have anointed Jacobs their No. 1 back, he should reap the benefits against an awful a Redskins run defense. No unit allows more yards per carry (4.9) than Washington, which has made average backs look special this season. The Giants would love nothing more than to pound the football now that December weather is in the air. Last week Jacobs averaged 6.2 yards per carry – a number he might match on Sunday.
Mike Tolbert vs. Oakland’s run defense
Even though he is fresh off a 103-yard effort, Tolbert remains a question mark for fantasy owners. No one is excited about San Diego’s running game these days. This week fantasy owners should set aside their doubts. Tolbert faces a Raiders defense that ranks 28th in rushing yards allowed per contest. Last week Miami’s Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams both carried the ball 20-plus times – that alone should tell fantasy owners plenty. Tolbert has now carried 25 or more times in each of the past two weeks. A third week seems likely.
Steve Smith vs. Seattle’s pass defense
Smith has disappointed fantasy owners all season. The Panthers veteran receiver has just two touchdowns (none since Week 2), and not a single 100-yard game. Perhaps things will take a turn for the better this week. The Seahawks have given up 20 passing scores and are one of just three NFL teams to have surrendered 3,000 passing yards this season. Best yet, the Seattle secondary is susceptible to the deep ball – a Smith specialty.
Whether you’re turning over every stone to try and prepare your team for the playoffs, or you’re a dynasty/keeper owner looking for future sleepers, there are several reasons to follow the stock market report this late in the season.
Toby Gerhart, Vikings RB
With Adrian Peterson leaving early due to a sprained ankle, the second rounder from Stanford banged his way to 76 yards and a score on 22 carries in Week 12. If AP misses time, Gerhart will be a decent flex option against the Bills in Week 13. From a dynasty perspective though, he has limited upside with Peterson in front of him for the long term.
Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs WR
After an extremely disappointing 2009 season, the 26 year old from LSU is having a career year. He has already hauled in 14 TD passes (13 in his last seven games). Bowe is putting up digits at a ridiculous pace, proving that he is a legit fantasy WR1, and a dynasty gem. While his price might be sky high right now due to his stat lines of late, he’s still worth investing in after proving he can flat out dominate defenses. It also doesn’t hurt that Matt Cassel has targeted him 55 times over the last four games. Say hello to your new top five fantasy WR, as his value has skyrocketed.
Sam Bradford, Rams QB
The number one overall draft pick in the 2010 draft has become quite a solid fantasy option in his first year, which is a great sign of things to come for the youngster. He’s become a dynasty star, throwing for nearly 2,500 yards, 17 TDs and nine picks in his first 11 games, including his first career 300-yard, three-TD game this past week. Big games like his performance against Denver prove that he can be a solid fantasy starter, but even more encouraging than that is that he’s produced despite a plethora of injuries to his top targets. Consider him someone whose value is rising rapidly.
Brian Westbrook, 49ers RB
With Frank Gore leaving Monday Night’s game early with a hip injury, it looks like a former fantasy god could potentially step back into the spotlight just in time for the fantasy playoffs. Rookie Anthony Dixon rushed for a score in Gore’s absence, but it was Westy who stepped in and toted the rock for 136 yards and a score. With Gore out for the season, Westbrook becomes a seasonal must-add.
Mike Goodson, Panthers RB
For some reason, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart couldn’t get a darn thing going running behind the Panthers line this year, but immediately following Williams being placed on IR, second-year man Mike Goodson comes in and racks up 100 or more yards on more than 20 carries in two straight games, then follows those games up with a 14 carry, 55 yard, TD, eight catch, 81 receiving yard game in Week 12. Goodson has been on our radar for quite some time, but never more so than now. Not only is he helping owners win leading up to the fantasy playoffs, but with DeAngelo Williams set to become an unrestricted free agent, Goodson could have some long term value as the Panthers starting back.
Rob Gronkowski, Patriots TE
When the Patriots traded Randy Moss to Minnesota earlier this season, many fantasy experts tabbed TE Aaron Hernandez as the top recipient from a fantasy perspective, but I touted Gronkowski as the potential long-term winner. While Hernandez benefitted the most right away, the 6’6” Gronkowski has been more involved over the past four weeks, catching 15 balls for 209 yards and three scores over that time. He’s sure-handed, runs great routes, and is surprisingly fast. Look for him to continue to earn Tom Brady’s trust and attention, making him a fine dynasty prospect.
Pat Angerer, Colts LB
My new IDP man crush has quietly taken over the MLB job in Indianapolis from Gary Brackett. The second-round pick from Iowa has become an every-down player, and has shown that he gets involved in nearly every play, racking up 31 total tackles in his last three games. I say get him while he’s cheap!
Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants DE
The rookie from South Florida had a coming out party in Week 12 against Jacksonville, racking up six solo tackles, two sacks and forced two fumbles. In IDP leagues that require starters at defensive line, he’s a player to keep a close eye on, as not only is DL one of the hardest spots to find consistent production, but the Giants have had a knack for grooming amazing talent at defensive end. If he can continue to earn a larger role in DC Perry Fewell’s rotation, he will carry solid IDP value. Other rookie defensive linemen who have been playing well lately to keep an eye on include Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap, Philadelphia’s Brandon Graham and Tampa’s Gerald McCoy.
Rolando McClain, Raiders LB
After an atrocious start to his rookie season, McClain has finally become somewhat productive over the last couple games, racking up 15 solo tackles and his first career interception over his last two games. Look for the eighth overall pick to continue to improve, and IDP owners should place him back on their radar. David
Hawthorne, Seahawks LB
Another IDP I feel the need to mention this week is Seahawks third year man David Hawthorne. The solo tackle machine had a huge year at MLB in 2009 filling in for Lofa Tatupu, and has manned the weak side for much of 2010, racking up eight or more solo stops in three of his last four games. If you’re looking for help in a tackle-only league, look to Hawthorne.
Ben Obomanu, Seahawks WR
Quietly, the 27 year old from Auburn has had a huge last four weeks, hauling in three scores, including five balls for 87 yards and a score in Week 11 against the Saints and five balls for 159 yards in Week 12 against the Chiefs. If Mike Williams continues to miss time, he’s a solid WR3 option.
Welcome to Sports Lite, everybody. Just so you know, I’m giving 110 percent and taking it one paragraph at a time. …
Nothing says office Christmas party like cash bar, and nothing says Big East like Texas Christian. What, the British Premier League didn’t extend an invitation? …
These are the days in Madison, Wis., where the Badgers appear headed for the Rose Bowl and their second string is favored by six in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. …The Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman. Honey, on second thought, I’ll get right on that filthy garage. …
Word out of New York is that the Captain, Derek Jeter, is insulted by the Yankees’ three-year, $45-million offer. At least he was until he realized every other offer out there included free lessons in Japanese. …Jeter’s agent, Casey Close, says Jeter is the modern-day Babe Ruth. Um, C.C., do the words Boston Braves mean anything to you? …
This just in. Stud rookie Blake Griffin has been suspended by the Clippers for conduct detrimental to the team’s sucky image. …
As I’ve stated before in this space, I don’t think fantasy saviors tend to reside on the waiver wire at this point in the season – nor should they. If anyone worth weekly starting consideration is freely available nearly three-quarters of the way through the year, it’s a sign that your league lacks either ideal size or competitiveness.
With that in mind, simply passing along top pickup candidates for a given week is probably not helpful. If you’re serious enough about your fantasy to be seeking out online advice, odds are you’re about as aware of the recently emergent names as I am. This late in the year, most such names represent a crapshoot. I could tell you why Danario Alexander makes sense, but if he needs a sixth knee surgery after the second quarter of his Week 13 game, then it’s all moot.
Instead, I’m opting this week to suggest some waiver-wire strategy for the final quarter of the fantasy season. Keep in mind that you’ll have to adjust any suggestions to your particular situation and format, but here are some fairly general rules for free-agent treatment that I think differ from the early part of the season.
Back up all positions (except kicker)
This is akin to backing up everything on your computer’s hard drive to avoid losing it all in the case of a crash. It might make sense through much of the year to simply ride Aaron Rodgers and use what would be a second quarterback slot to take some chances on guys like Steve Johnson, LeGarrette Blount or even Anthony Gonzalez – waiver shots that may or may not pay off. After all, David Garrard, Jon Kitna and a couple of others have been dangling out there pretty much all year in case Rodgers goes down, and there’s always the trade desk.
At this point, though, the waiver wire is extremely picked over and trading is closed for many leagues (or not a worthwhile option for flailing redraft teams that won’t sniff the playoffs). With all of the byes long gone, it’s time to realize that a fifth running back or sixth receiver is probably not going to do anything for you the rest of the way. Dump that guy for a backup quarterback, whatever real option might still be available. Chad Henne might not have looked very attractive all year, but if you’re staring at him and the Panthers’ rancid flavors of the week on your wire, then it’s time to suck it up and support your starter with the lackluster Dolphin. Better to have a guy with at least some upside than watch one injury end your fantasy season prematurely.
Favor handcuffs over fringe options
Javon Ringer and Bernard Scott made a lot of sense at draft time to those who picked up Chris Johnson and Cedric Benson (respectively). As the starters have made it this far without injury, though, and helped lead to their backups producing nothing, it has gotten a lot easier to view such players as fungible assets.
Why continue to wait for Tashard Choice to start getting meaningful carries, though, or hold out on Derrick Ward just in case when you should be more concerned about your starter going down? Even if he has made it through 11 games unscathed, it takes just one hit (or misstep in the turf) to end a player’s season.
Players such as James Davis or Michael Bush could be worth keeping around if you have the space, but neither is likely to start as long as you have Matt Forte and Maurice Jones-Drew healthy. If one of those two goes down, you can feel pretty certain that Chester Taylor or Rashad Jennings would be in for some more work. Davis and Bush, meanwhile, could still represent no change from the previous week.
A second defense is OK
Most of the time, keeping a second defense around will be good only for producing your own aggravation. So many relatively unpredictable factors go into a unit’s fantasy scoring that it’s often tough to figure out what might be a positive matchup and which might be the better play in a given week.
If you’ve gotten to this point without a strong weekly fantasy defense, though, why not drop an unimportant player for a second choice? Check out what the crappy Houston D did against Tennessee in Week 12, or how positive any matchup with Carolina appears. There are times when playing the matchups with your defense will pay off, and even if you’re happy with the option already on hand, you could take a free-agent candidate away from your fellow playoff contenders.
Grabbing insurance in this area is far from imperative. As with the rest of the suggestions, though, if your roster size and situation allow, it’s a move that could pay off.
Mary Wittenberg is President and CEO of the New York Road Runners and Race Director of the ING New York City Marathon. This year’s race, the sixth during her tenure, took place on November 7, starting, as always, at the Verrazano Bridge in Staten Island and winding through the streets of the city’s other four boroughs before ending in Central Park.
A 1984 graduate of Canisius College, Wittenberg earned a law degree in 1987 from Notre Dame. A highly competitive runner herself, she won the 1987 Marine Corps Marathon in 2:44 and participated in the 1988 U.S. Olympic team trials. Formerly a partner at the law firm Hunton & Williams in Virginia and New York City, Wittenberg joined the staff of the New York Road Runners in 1998. In 2005, she became its president and CEO and the first woman to lead one of the world’s major marathons. Along with the directors of marathons in Boston, London, Berlin, and Chicago, Wittenberg created the World Marathon Majors.
Wittenberg lives in Manhattan with her husband, Derek, and sons Alex and Cary. She spoke with Jerry Kavanagh not long after this year’s New York City Marathon.
Q. Shouldn’t you have your feet up now? It’s been a week since the New York City Marathon.
Wittenberg: Forget it.
Q. What’s the biggest misperception about the race?
Wittenberg: That it’s a one-day event. Marathon Sunday is the big day, but it’s the finale of a year of preparation and planning. We have a year-round relationship with our runners and now we’re starting to engage friends and family around that. So that’s one. And two, sometimes people think it’s a New York City event, but it’s got national and global television and much more, through streaming and social media. The reach is global.
Q.. How far does the reach extend?
Wittenberg: There were 110 countries represented in this year’s race, which was broadcast to 120 territories and countries and an estimated 330 million viewers.
Q. Those long-distance runners didn’t look lonely during the race.
Wittenberg: (laughing) Not at all. Running has become a major social activity. I think marathon Sunday is New York’s best day. It’s all about the entire community coming together. It’s one of the most connected moments that this city has. Everybody is a friend or family or a cheerleader in support for another runner. It’s really quite a remarkable community event.
Q. How many people participated this year?
Wittenberg: We had 45,000 runners from among nearly 125,000 applicants.
Q.. Was this year’s field the biggest?
Wittenberg: Yes. We pride ourselves on being the best, not the biggest, but we continue to be the biggest as well.
Q. It’s a spectator sport unlike any other.
Wittenberg: It’s 2 million spectators. I was stunned this year because it was rather cold and windy, and the streets were just packed all the way through the route from start to finish with spectators.
Q. This year’s race seemed busier and more congested than ever.
Wittenberg: Yeah, it’s growing every single year. I used to say we were aspiring to be the Super Bowl, but now I realize it’s so much more. All 45,000 runners have a story, and this year we had the likes of not only Haile Gebrselassie and Meb Keflezighi and Shalane Flanagan and some of the greatest runners in the world, but also Edison Pena from Chile three weeks out of the mine running in New York, which is crazy. I think all those stories drew people out.
Q. You also had (retired New York Giant) Amani Toomer, who started last and raised money for charity with every runner he passed.
Wittenberg: What was so interesting about Amani and tennis player Justin Gimelstob was that they both totally maxed out at the end. Once an athlete, always an athlete. People struggle with the marathon distance and they cross the finish line in a variety of ways, but both of them were totally depleted. You can’t take the athlete out of the retiree.
Q. The New York Times wrote that you “transformed the New York City Marathon from traditional to competitive to innovative." How did you do that?
Wittenberg: We’re constantly upping the bar. This began as a little road race and it’s become a celebration of the human spirit. The innovation comes from how do we increase the impact, and how do we extend the reach and relevance of the marathon so that more and more people are engaged? That’s what helps inspires the millions of people who watch to start running. And that’s what helps bring the people from around the world here, including half the field from overseas.
Q. What is the economic impact of the race on the city?
Wittenberg: The economic impact will substantially pass $250 million this year. That’s what helps us drive awareness and the opportunity to raise money. This year we had $30.4 million raised for charities, so we constantly try to raise the positive impact and creative ways to do that. It’s not so hard to do because it’s an extraordinary event and it’s built on the foundation of running. And running is a powerful tool for a lot of good in a lot of different ways. This year, Edison Pena said more about the power of running from a life and death perspective than any of us can.
Q. What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Wittenberg:: We are in the business of helping people live better lives, and it’s incredible what running in the marathon does for people. We see and hear that over and over. That is by far the most gratifying part, especially now that we’re getting kids running and watching them start to turn their grades around and do better in school. I love working with our team and with the city.
Q. You left a partnership with a law firm for this job. Any regrets?
Wittenberg: I look back on that and am really lucky I made the move I did because now I realize what a bold move it was. I wasn’t thinking so much about that at the time. I was interested in getting into sports and in a purpose-driven job and mission-driven job. I’ve never looked back. I love working with our team to deliver and really help spread the word and lead better lives through running.
Q.. It’s an impressive amount of preparation and organization that goes into the event. When do you start planning for next year?
Wittenberg: We’re planning! We’re already accepting people into next year’s marathon. We’ve had several meetings already for 2011 and 2012, and then we go into a full planning strategy the second week in December.
Q. No time off? Full speed ahead into 2011?
Wittenberg: We’ll take Thanksgiving off.
We’re a week beyond the end of the byes at this point. Frankly, there shouldn’t be too many truly worthwhile pieces available on your waiver wire. Those that are were probably mentioned in a previous waiver-wire article (or else we disagree on the while of their worth).
So instead of spending this week discussing why you should go after Sidney Rice, Vincent Jackson or Keiland Williams (go for it, within reason), I’ve decided to look at some significant name players who I think can be dropped at this point.
Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego
The rookie previous missed Week 3 with an ankle injury, similar to the situation that kept him out of the Week 11 Monday night game. Mathews also ceded the start to Mike Tolbert in the two games following his return at that time. It took him five outings before he got 15 carries in a single one. He got hurt again the following week. Overall, Matthews hasn’t reached 20 carries in a game since Week 1 and has just the one other 15-rush outing. He’s produced decently with the light workload, but is a 10-carry back someone you plan on starting in your fantasy playoffs? If so, then by all means, keep him. I look forward to playing against you.
Steve Smith, WR, Carolina
This one might seem obvious to many fantasy owners, but Smith remains at least 69 percent owned in Fantrax.com leagues, Yahoo! leagues and CBS Sports leagues. (CBS – where I have to admit I have yet to drop him for lack of an intriguing replacement in a fairly picked-over “experts” league -- comes in the highest at 81 percent.) I don’t know how much keeper leagues account for those numbers, but such formats make up a fairly small portion of fantasy leagues overall. If you own Smith in a redraft league and are clinging to hope, let go. He has caught more than four passes in just two games this year, and only one of those gave him more than five. Both outings came with Matt Moore under center.
Michael Crabtree, WR, San Francisco
This one might be a tougher sell because Crabtree has caught touchdowns in four of his past six games. OK, then try to trade him instead (if your deadline hasn’t passed already). I think the proximity of Crabtree’s scores clouds the overall mediocrity of his production. His four touchdowns for the year ties him for 27th in the league with 17 other players. Of those 17 (including some who have missed games), only six have fewer receptions so far than Crabtree. Six sit behind him in yardage. As for Crabtree’s particular upside, the Niners’ supposed No. 1 wideout has reached 60 yards just twice all year, only once surpassing 61. Like Smith, he has reached five catches in a game just twice and surpassed that only once. If I’m starting a guy that I hope will deliver a touchdown to realize some fantasy value, I’d much rather take my shot with Robert Meachem or Mario Manningham, and Lee Evans even brings a higher ceiling. All three of those players sit among that four-touchdown group as well.
Chris Wells, RB, Arizona
I put Wells last because he’s the most conditional of this group. I don’t think that all Wells owners should go dump him right now for whatever attractive piece is out there, but I do think plenty can. To put it mildly, Wells has been awful this year. Injury has obviously played a huge role, keeping him out of three full games and limiting the second-year player in who-knows-how-many others. That limitation is part of the anti-charm. Even when the young Cardinal is active, we generally have no idea just how many times he’ll carry and no reason for optimism that he’ll finish the game healthy. When he has been on the field this year, Wells has averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. He has reached 60 yards only once, with 75 against Oakland. That was also the only time he averaged at least 4 yards per rush. Perhaps the only week that fantasy owners knew they could use him and got something resembling a reward for doing so was in his lone start against Tampa. Wells finished that one with 50 rushing yards, a touchdown and one catch for 14 more yards. He carried once the following week and missed the game after that. If Wells gets right and claims the primary role within the next week or two, perhaps he could position himself as a playoff helper. As things stand, though, fantasy owners need to see him do it for at least a week before being able to trust Wells in an all-important matchup. Time is dwindling for show-me-something players.
Like with Wells, I’m not advocating that all fantasy owners blindly dump the rest of the guys on this list. A sensible move in one league will be an unnecessary risk elsewhere. If you’re eyeing the waiver wire this week, however, ready to pick up some help and wavering on whether to dump one of these disappointments, consider this your push in the right direction.
TSA pat downs and full body scans are dominating the news. Well, along with Barbara Bush ripping on Sarah Palin and The Pope making an amazing statement about the use of condoms preventing the spread of HIV. Then there’s NFL concussions and, oh by the way, the return to glory of Mike Vick. You guessed it, I’m not watching ESPN as I write this. I’m in an airport with CNN blaring in my ear. But with all of the extracurriculars going on around us, the main thing I care about (other than getting home safely to my family), is delivering this week’s stock market report to you, my readers.
Happy Thanksgiving Week...
Santonio Holmes, Jets WR
After gradually being worked into the Jets passing game following his four game suspension, it’s time to start taking the former Super Bowl MVP seriously as a fantasy option. Very seriously, that is. After catching two straight game-winning scores, and setting up the game clincher in the other two of his last four, Holmes is clearly the Jets’ number one receiving option. Not only does he have a couple friendly matchups down the stretch, but he’s being targeted more and more each week. Consider him a high-end WR2 the rest of the way, and a dynasty gem once again, as the Jets are likely to lock him up long term.
Jeremy Maclin, Eagles WR
Let’s all welcome Jeremy Maclin out of DeSean Jackson’s shadow. While DeSean has been the sexier player, it’s clear that Maclin is a co-number one WR in the Eagles offense. Mike Vick targeted him 14 times in Week 11, as he hauled in a career-high nine balls for 120 yards. PPR owners should value Maclin over Jackson, as he’s a much more consistent option due to his ability to run crisper routes and break tackles. Maclin and Jackson benefit from one another, and each clearly has big-play ability.
Shaun Hill, Lions QB
Hill is starting to look like Billy Volek in 2004 — aka a phenomenal sleeper down the stretch heading into fantasy playoffs. There’s no need to make a trade for a signal caller in your league if Hill is available on waivers. He’s put up consistent numbers when given the opportunity to play, has great matchups coming up, and has two great receivers in Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson (who is also rising rapidly heading into crunch time).
Steve Johnson, Bills WR
Like Maclin and Holmes, Johnson is a player I’ve thoroughly jocked in this very column multiple times this year, but I just want to emphasize how good this kid is. He’s big, fast, and now extremely confident after scoring three times against the Bengals, and not only is a must-start, but a clear cut number one WR in fantasy moving forward. Yep, that’s right, I’ve seen enough to know. Seasonal owners should ride the hot streak down to the wire, and dynasty owners should NOT sell high on this phenomenon — sorry, I mean “The Phenomena” (a nickname a guy in my league just gave him).
Blair White, Colts WR
This is a tricky one, as nobody knows if Austin Collie will return in Week 12, but it’s clear that Blair White will be a very solid WR3 if Collie misses any more time. For those of you in need of WR help trying to secure a playoff spot, look to White, who hauled in five balls for 42 yards and two scores pretty much in half of a game in relief of Collie in Week 11.
Marques Colston, Saints WR
Well, the stigma of Drew Brees spreading the ball around too much is pretty much shot. Colston has seen five or more targets in each game this year, including nine or more in each of his last four. On top of that, he’s starting to score touchdowns, which makes him look a lot better than even guys like Andre Johnson and DeSean Jackson.
Jimmy Graham, Saints TE
A player I’ve been very high on this year, Graham followed up his solid Week 9 performance with five catches for 72 yards in place of Jeremy Shockey in Week 11. A former basketball player at the University of Miami, Graham has an upside similar to that of Antonio Gates. No joke. Dynasty owners need to add him NOW.
Sidney Rice, Vikings WR
From being in a situation two days ago in which he had the chance to go on IR, to being targeted 10 times in Week 11, it looks like fantasy owners can probably consider Rice a sleeper WR3 with upside the rest of the way. Even though Brett Favre stunk it up against Green Bay, and Minnesota is completely out of the playoff picture, there are some stats left on that team.
Brent Celek, Eagles TE
Falling? More like rock bottom. After hauling in 76 balls for 971 yards and eight TDs a year ago, the fourth-year man has fallen off the map. He’s been targeted just five times in his last three games, including zero targets in Week 11. He’s droppable in all formats.
Austin Collie, Colts WR
Make no mistake, Collie is a PPR freak when healthy, and I still love him long term, but with concussion issues, owners may not be able to count on him down the stretch. He may be a SELL NOW in seasonal leagues.
For more risers and fallers, check out our weekly rankings on Wednesday.
Got to make this one quick, folks. I’m busy bidding on Vince Young’s stinky shoulder pads on eBay. …
So the Vikings finally got around to canning Brad Childress. The last straw was when Brett Favre e-mailed obscene pictures of Childress’ record to owner Ziggy Wilf. …
The good times are rolling again in San Antonio. Not only have the Spurs won 10 straight, the front office is making a ton selling ads on Manu Ginobili’s bald spot. … Tony Parker did what? Cheated on Eva Longoria? To paraphrase my man Dean Wormer, “Son, skinny, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life.’’ … Turns out that’s only half of the story. Parker also shops at airports and dines in movie theaters. …
Two weeks after losing at home to Wisconsin, Iowa lost at home to Ohio State. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said after the game that he didn’t know what went wrong. Nor did he know why they keep paying him so much money for being so overrated. …
News flash: Inspired by those old ESPN commercials, Carmelo Anthony was caught trying to sneak into the baggage compartment of the Knicks’ team bus after they played in Denver. …
There are many qualifications for a player’s stock to be rising. Typically, I look at under the radar guys who should be on your radar — the super-sleepers, if you will. But this week, in addition to those types of players, a couple familiar names deserve to be thought of at an even higher level than before.
Jermaine Gresham, Bengals TE
The Bengals first round pick started the season with a bang, catching six balls including a TD in Week 1 against New England. Since then, he has been involved in the passing game — catching at least two balls a week — but hasn’t done anything notable until Week 10. Against Indy, Gresham stepped up and hauled in nine balls for 85 yards and a score. As Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson get older, look for the youngster from Oklahoma to be a bigger part of the Bengals passing attack.
Mike Wallace, Steelers WR
After his Week 10 performance (eight catches for 136 yards and two scores), Wallace is on this list because he is now a must-start in all formats. The youngster is extremely fast, and has reliable hands and the trust of Ben Roethlisberger. He has five scores in his last five games and is a good bet to make a few big plays each week. Wallace is a solid seasonal and dynasty WR2, and holds the most value in non-PPR leagues.
Arrelious Benn, Buccaneers WR
The Bucs’ second rounder in the 2010 NFL Draft has taken a bit longer to make an impact than fellow rookie fourth rounder Mike Williams. While the big, 6'2", 220 pounder isn’t quite ready for seasonal formats, he should be encouraging his dynasty owners with his play at this point. Not only does he have a TD catch in each of his last two games, but he’s making a bid to earn the starting WR gig opposite Mike Williams heading into 2011. Knowing now that Tampa Bay’s offense is on the up-and-up with Josh Freeman leading the charge, dynasty owners should consider Benn a player with good things in his future.
Steven Jackson, Rams RB
I haven’t been very high on SJax this year, and with good reason, but I watched him play a little against the 49ers in Week 10, and he looked more like the 2006 version than I’ve seen in a long time. With Sam Bradford playing well, and things looking up in St. Louis, I could see a situation where the Rams bring in another back next season to keep Jackson fresh and lengthen his career, which would be great for his dynasty value. In the mean time, he’s back to being a must start after his big Week 10 outing.
Felix Jones, Cowboys RB
Easily considered one of the biggest disappointments in fantasy this year based on preseason expectations, the third year man from Arkansas is back on the map after taking a screen pass 71 yards for a score in Week 10 against the Giants. Now, I’m not saying he’s a player you can trust just yet, but this kind of performance was exactly what his owners needed to feel good about him again, for both the short and long term.
Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks RB
Despite getting in the end zone, the 24 year old had a putrid game compared to teammate Justin Forsett. Lynch may get better when Russell Okung returns, but for now he’s much like Julius Jones was — just a starter by name.
Davone Bess, Dolphins WR
Chances are, despite his pedestrian last couple games, he’s still going to be a good NFL receiver, however he’s not the next Wes Welker by any stretch of the imagination. With Chad Pennington and Chad Henne injured/battling it out for the starting gig in Miami, it could be a rocky finish to what was a brilliant start of the season by Bess. Also, it’s important to note that Brian Hartline is stealing his targets and looking good in the process.
Dustin Keller, Jets TE
As much as I hate to admit it, because I love Dustin Keller, it clearly looks like the presence of Santonio Holmes is in fact hurting his production. He’s now the fourth option in the passing game on most plays behind Braylon Edwards, Holmes, and either LaDainian Tomlinson or Jerrico Cotchery. Don’t bail yet, as he’s still young and has upside, but consider other options until he shows us something more.
For more risers and fallers, check out our weekly rankings on Wednesday.
Paul Hickey is the lead contributor for Athlon Fantasy Football and operates the website nooffseason.com, a 365-day resource for obsessive fantasy owners who eat, breathe and sleep fantasy football. While the site appeals to all fantasy heads, there is a special emphasis on dynasty formats and IDP leagues.
Boomer Esiason played his collegiate football at the University of Maryland, where he set numerous school passing records as a left-handed honorable mention All-America quarterback in 1982 and ’83. Chosen in the second round of the 1984 draft by the Cincinnati Bengals (and the first quarterback taken that year), Esiason played nine seasons in Cincinnati, earning the NFL’s MVP award in 1988 when he led the Bengals to the Super Bowl. He was traded in 1993 to his hometown New York Jets, for whom he played three seasons. He joined the Arizona Cardinals as a free agent in 1996 and retired after the following season.
For his NFL career, Esiason completed 57 percent of his passes for 247 touchdowns and nearly 38,000 yards. He was selected to four Pro Bowls and was named the Walter Payton Man of the Year in 1995 for his philanthropic work with the Boomer Esiason Foundation, which he established in 1993 to raise money and awareness for cystic fibrosis.
Today, Esiason is an analyst for “The NFL Today” on CBS, for “Monday Night Football” on Westwood One radio, and co-host of an A.M. sports-talk show on WFAN.
Athlon Sports: What’s the major storyline in the NFL this season?
Boomer Esiason: Ultimate parity. You have no team that has fewer than two losses. I think what you’re seeing is what the NFL hopes, and that is as many teams as you can possibly get in the playoff races until the end of the season. Right now, with the exception of maybe four teams, everybody still legitimately has a chance to make it to the playoffs, as odd as that sounds.
AS: To your point, two of what had appeared to be the strongest-looking teams, the Giants and the Steelers, lost decisively on the same day. So who is the best team in the NFL now?
Esiason: The notion of “Who is the best team in the NFL at the present moment” really doesn’t hold water because things can change on a weekly basis due to injury. In this league it’s a war of attrition. And the fact that they’re going to play 18 games is even more amazing when you watch what’s happening on the field.
AS: Is that surprising to you?
Esiason: It’s not surprising because in the salary-cap era, there are two things you have the cap for: One, to keep player costs down (even though when you look at what some of the players are making you say, “What! What are you talking about?”), and two, to create a level playing field. And even teams like Tampa Bay and Cincinnati and some other teams that don’t spend a lot of money, or have more money than they can spend, are still in the mix. Tampa Bay is a prime example of what can happen when you get a great quarterback, or a budding great quarterback, in Josh Freeman. They have probably the lowest payroll in the NFL, and yet they are right in the mix for a playoff spot as we speak.
AS: Does the salary cap work against sustained success?
Esiason: I don’t know if I agree with that. You do see the same superpowers it seems the last five years at the top, mainly because they have established, great quarterbacks. That’s Brady, Manning, and Roethlisberger. And because their defense has been so good for so long, the Baltimore Ravens are in that situation. It’s certainly important when you have a difference-maker at quarterback, because he’ll always keep you in games. But it’s nice to see some new teams, namely the Jets. New Orleans is also becoming a superpower since they brought in Drew Brees. And we’ll see San Diego back in the mix. I just think it’s great to see Kansas City and Oakland relevant again and their games meaning something. Houston had a dabble there with a little success. There are teams that are on the cusp that are going to be good for a little while, I think.
AS: Two years ago, you said that oversaturation was the NFL’s biggest challenge. Does that still hold, or does the NFL have bigger challenges now?
Esiason: With the NFL Network and DirecTV and all the different blog spots and the Internet and everything else, I still think that the game is woefully oversaturated. But you would never know it by the ratings. Thursday night ratings for the NFL Network, which is not in every house in America, still had one of the highest ratings in cable TV history. I think that speaks to the popularity of the NFL. There is some cannibalization that is going on; by going to 18 games you’ll not only add two more weeks of legitimate product but you’ll be able to spread some more of that over the NFL Network.
AS: There is a greater awareness now in the league of the danger of concussions and their long-term effects. But is the league putting too much emphasis on violent hits?
Esiason: Concussions have been a big thing for a long time, and I applaud the NFL for really putting them front and center. For a long time they had this attitude that it is not a significant issue. But as we all grow older and see the generation of football players that played before me and my generation, we can see the profound negative effects that hitting your head over and over can have. So, the NFL is doing everything it possibly can to protect the players and make sure that today’s players don’t deal with the same issues that yesteryear’s players are dealing with.
AS: And now the league is considering adding two more games to a violent sport. Does that make sense?
Esiason: Roger Goodell understands how violent this game is and I think it’s one of the reasons that they’re taking the significant steps to try to curtail the many vicious hits. It is something that is obviously at the forefront. As long as the players keep getting bigger and faster and more aggressive, injuries are going to play a profound part in the success of these football teams. And even if you do have a Peyton Manning on your team, with so many injuries around him and his current roster being depleted by injuries, I doubt that we’ll see him in this year’s Super Bowl.
AS: Who will we see in this year’s Super Bowl?
Esiason: If I had to place a bet on it right now -- which doesn’t really mean much -- I’m still saying that San Diego has a very good shot at being a very good team here in the second half of the season. They’ve lost games in some heartbreaking ways. But they have as good a defense as anyone right now and a quarterback and an offense that is as dynamic as anyone’s in the NFL. They’re going to get healthy, and I do think that they will be a force when it comes to the end.
AS: What about in the NFC?
Esiason: It’s probably going to be among New Orleans, Green Bay, and New York. If I could look in my crystal ball, I’d say that we’ll see Green Bay and San Diego in the Super Bowl.
AS: Not impressed with the Falcons?
Esiason: I think they have been really good at home. I’d like to see them do a little bit more on the road. I probably mistakenly left them off the list in the NFC, but I just think that when Green Bat is healthy, they are as good as here is in the NFL.
AS: If you were NFL commissioner for a day, what is the first move you would make?
Esiason: That’s a good question. I think I would do my damndest to change the completion/touchdown rule to make it easier for everybody to understand. And the reason I say that is because Calvin Johnson and the Detroit Lions were not given a touchdown in the opening game, yet Kevin Walter, the wide receiver for Houston, yesterday was given a touchdown. I didn’t really see a big difference in what happened between the two plays. There is a great amount of confusion over as to what constitutes a touchdown catch and what doesn’t.
AS: What about if you were an NFL GM: What current player would you build your team around?
Esiason: Peyton Manning. I’ve watched a lot of quarterbacks do a lot of great things in my career, as a player and as a broadcaster, but the things I have witnessed from him over the last two years have been nothing short of brilliant. Of those of us who have played the position and understand all that goes into the position -- on the field, off it, in the meeting and interview rooms, calling plays, knowing personnel, and reading defenses -- there has never been a quarterback in history who has done it the way he has done it and been as successful for as long as he has been. When all is said and done with, in my eyes he will be the single greatest football player that has ever played.
AS: Are you a fantasy football player?
Esiason: I have been in the past; this year, I’m not, and the only reason for that is because last year I had four teams in four different leagues and got burned out.
AS: It’s hard to keep track, right?
Esiason: (laughing) Oh, with the injuries and all the updates, it’s hard enough for us at “The NFL Today” to figure out who’s playing, and we’ve got up-to-the-minute knowledge, you know what I mean?
AS: What’s the biggest misperception the fans have about the game?
Esiason: That the players are inhuman, that they don’t have feelings that the fans do when their team loses.
AS: How’s your foundation doing?
Esiason: We’re doing well. We’re surpassing $85 million raised by the end of this year. We are giving millions of dollars away to cystic fibrosis patients for scholarships, organ donations, and lung transplants. We have put tens of millions of dollars into research grants and tens of millions of dollars into hospital support and patient support programs. I’m very proud of what we have accomplished. The best news of all is that my son is a sophomore at Boston College. He’s living, breathing proof that if you have a disability you can live life to the fullest and really become something special. The most important thing for me as a dad is watching my son grow into a young man.
By Matt Schauf
Well, crap. I pointed out last week in my targets writeup over on our site that Rob Gronkowski had drawn eight looks in the loss to Cleveland, which more than doubled his previous high for the season.
I also mentioned via Twitter that both of Aaron Hernandez’s touchdowns at Cleveland were set up by Gronkowski: one via the pass bouncing off Gronk’s hands, and the other coming after a fourth-down PI against Gronkowski put the Patriots at the 1-yard line.
Of course, what I didn’t do was take the next step and advise claiming Gronkowski off waivers. It would have been nice to do so in advance of his three-touchdown outpouring of value at Pittsburgh.
Instead, I’ll lead into Week 11 by saying that the Sunday night production wasn’t a fluke. Sure, he will probably never again have a three-score game, but Gronkowski has been an end zone target since the exhibition games. He scored four times in those and carried three touchdowns into the Steelers matchup. The problem was that Week 9 was the first time he drew more than three targets in a regular season game.
Now, however, Gronkowski has seen at least five passes in consecutive weeks for an offense that has been looking for passing-game answers. Even if those stand as his high-water marks for the rest of the season, the upside with him is that any one-catch game stands a decent chance of putting that one catch in the end zone. Gronkowski should be claimed this week in an ever-thinning tight end field, though he’s still probably about even with Aaron Hernandez in point-per-reception formats. Others who should find a home include …
Vince Young, QB, Tennessee
Ignore his numbers against Miami on Sunday. The important thing to take away from that game regarding Young is that he finished it after relieving an injured Kerry Collins. Young opened Week 10 as the backup because of an ankle injury but should be back in the starting saddle for Week 11. That return comes at a perfect time, too, as Tennessee faces this upcoming stretch: Washington, at Houston, Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Houston, at Kansas City (and at Indianapolis in Week 17). Of those five teams, four rank among the top 10 in most RapidDraft points allowed to opposing quarterbacks. Washington, Houston and Jacksonville all rank among the top four heading into Monday night. Young is a free agent in nearly half of CBS leagues as I write this.
Kevin Kolb, QB, Philadelphia
This one isn’t a straight pickup recommendation, and it doesn’t fit everyone. I include Kolb because there have been several times over the past couple of weeks at which I’ve encountered questions from Vick owners about what to do at quarterback. We all know that Vick’s style of play carries inherent physical risk. He’s back healthy now and says he’ll be more willing to try to avoid harm, but the Philly offensive line hasn’t been terrific and it’ll be tough for Vick to stifle his playmaker spirit on every run. Obviously, the solution is to have a quality backup on board. What’s unique here is that Vick has a handcuff available. Kolb’s numbers haven’t been amazing, but he has averaged 270 yards and totaled five touchdown passes versus three interceptions in the three games he has started and finished. For those fantasy players still able to make trades, that means you can try to deal your current backup for help at other positions and claim Kolb, who doesn’t carry much value for those who don’t own Vick.
Jason Snelling, RB, Atlanta
It should be a no-brainer for folks to pick up Fred Jackson where available after the game he had in Week 10, but Snelling is a bit less obvious, despite scoring a touchdown Thursday night. That’s because Snelling isn’t a very good fantasy starting option right now. He hasn’t carried more than seven times in a game since Week 3, though Snelling has tallied 14 receptions in his past three outings. The real value comes, however, in the frequency with which Michael Turner leaves the field. He did so without warning against Baltimore and apparently missed the time because of illness, but Turner has also been dinged up at various points over the past couple of years. Snelling has proved a strong option when Turner has been out this season, carrying a 4.2-yard average for the year and most notably running for 129 yards in Week 2. An easy handcuff option for Turner owners, Snelling makes sense for anyone with a roster spot to play with and some forward thinking. He’s unowned currently in 70 percent of Yahoo! leagues.
Mike Thomas, WR, Jacksonville
Like Gronkowski, Thomas probably won’t have another stat line like he did against Houston on Sunday, but he has no business roaming free in 69 percent of CBS leagues. The second-year wideout has only had two weeks with fewer than four catches all season and, at the least, faces positive matchups in Week 11 (Cleveland) and Week 16 (Washington). In between, he’ll still be in the starter discussion.
Danny Amendola, WR, St. Louis
Come on, folks. I’ve been ignoring this guy for waiver-recommendation purposes for a while now, because I just figured that he’d be owned in most places. As of Monday evening, though, more than two-thirds of Yahoo! leagues have him free, as do nearly half of CBS leagues. To be fair, the difference is likely that I play almost solely in PPR formats, and although that system is growing, the majority of fantasy leagues still don’t use reception scoring. For those places, though, Amendola has found the end zone in three straight games. His quarterback is on the rise, and there aren’t a bunch of other options in town. Amendola should be picked up pretty much anywhere.
Sports Lite. So easy a caveman could read it. …
The biggest surprise of the college football season? Texas’ collapse. The Longhorns have lost six out of seven and are in danger of not playing in a bowl. According to veteran sports writers in the Lone Star State, the last time Texas was this bad, Davy Crockett was the offensive coordinator. …
Wisconsin led Indiana 69-13 in the fourth quarter on Saturday. What to do? What else? Throw a 74-yard touchdown pass. Sportsmanship. It’s what’s for dinner in Madison. …
Timberwolves forward Kevin Love set a franchise record the other night with 31 rebounds, 12 on the offensive end. Afterward, he thanked his mother for driving him to all his games as a kid and God for giving him such crappy teammates. …
Brett Favre says he’s glad he came out of retirement despite a broken ankle, sore elbow, bum shoulder and lacerated chin. Favre also says he’s holding out hope that the Vikings can make the playoffs and he can pick up his first case of jock itch. …
Who says Favre is a lock to retire after the season? He got personalized license plates last week that read: “Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Interceptions.’’ …
Not that things are getting ugly with this Cam Newton story, but his dad, Cecil, recently called Roger Clemens for advice on how to handle the P.R. nightmare. …
The elder Newton is neither confirming nor denying that he tried to extort $180,000 out of Mississippi State for his son’s services. He has, however, confirmed that he’s a raging dufus. …
Sports Lite. The official column of all those happy campers in the Vikings’ locker room. …
According to reports, a representative for quarterback Cam Newton demanded money to play at Mississippi State before he chose to sign with Auburn. Apparently, reporters became suspicious of Newton when he asked the Heisman committee if he could have cash instead of the trophy. …
Newton and Auburn officials are vehemently denying the story, saying they’ve never heard of this alleged rep or, for that matter, the Mississippi State football program.…
Then there’s LSU coach Les Miles, who eats grass on the sideline every Saturday. Hey, don’t laugh. Anybody in the SEC who has a hobby that doesn’t entail getting arrested ought to be applauded. …
Mario Manningham is a tough fantasy play due to New York’s crowded receiving corps. Hakeem Nicks has been a world-class fantasy receiver this year and Steve Smith is starting to gain momentum. Good thing for Manningham that Eli Manning averages 34 attempts a game, leaving plenty of balls to go to “secondary” receivers in the New York passing game.
This week’s opponent (Dallas) has not given up many yards through the air, but ranks second-to-last in the league in touchdowns allowed (18). In his last three games against the Cowboys, Manningham has caught 14 passes for 200 yards and two scores.
When New York last played Dallas Manning threw four touchdowns. This game could be just as kind to the receiving corps, and fantasy owners can expect Manningham to steal a piece of the pie.
Here are a few other fantasy players facing favorable matchups in Week 10 (all of the players listed are considered backups or ‘fringe’ starters in most fantasy league formats):
Ben Roethlisberger vs. New England’s pass defense
Big Ben’s numbers have been so-so the past two weeks. Fortunately for him and his Steeler teammates, this week’s contest provides a favorable matchup. The Patriot defense is ranked 29th in average passing yards allowed and tied for 21st in touchdown passes allowed (13). In a game that will help to determine the AFC playoff picture, fans can expect plenty of passing from both clubs. And based on the statistics, Roethlisberger should have his most efficient game of the year – New England ranks dead last in the league in terms of opposing quarterback completion percentage (70.1).
LeGarrette Blount vs. Carolina’s run defense
Blount stalled last week but should rebound against a Panther run defense ranked 25th. And, in terms of carries, only two NFL teams have been run on more than Carolina – Buffalo and Denver. Blount and the Buccaneers would love nothing more than to control this game on the ground, perhaps mimic what they did in their Week 2 victory (34 runs, 25 passes). Blount wasn’t in the backfield for that contest, so the Panthers have no clue what they’re in for. Here’s a glimpse: #27 using all 247 pounds to crash into linebackers and defensive backs, all afternoon.
Tim Hightower vs. Seattle’s run defense
For as long as Chris Wells is banged up, Hightower is expected to see the bulk of the carries in the Cardinals offense. That doesn’t always mean Hightower is a fantasy consideration, but he should be for this week’s game against Seattle. In Week 7, Hightower averaged 9.8 yards against the Seahawks, and in 2009 he caught nine balls over the two meetings. Seattle has allowed seven rushing touchdowns this season (tied for 21st in the league) and last week surrendered almost 200 yards on the ground to the Giants. For those fantasy owners who are shaky at the position, Hightower might be a worthwhile risk for Week 10.
Mike Sims-Walker vs. Houston’s pass defense
Any time a player faces the league’s worst run or pass defense, it should cause fantasy owners to perk up. For Sims-Walker, a meeting with Houston (298.3 passing yards allowed per game) sets the stage for a perfect encore from last week’s 153-yard effort. The Texans allow 8.2 yards per attempt and are the only NFL club to allow 20 or more touchdown passes through eight games. To top it off, last week Houston allowed an unknown (Seyi Ajirotutu) to record 111 yards and two scores. Sims-Walker was less-than-spectacular in his two starts against Houston last year; he’ll make up for it on Sunday.