Sunday, November 25, 2007

DG's Quick Hits- November 25, 2007

  • No matter how you look at it, Manuel Enrique Mejuto Gonzalez’s decision to award a free kick against Scottish defender Allan Hutton when Italy’s Giorgio Chellini clearly forgot he wasn’t playing hockey and bodychecked Hutton to the ground was a complete and utter disgrace- whether or not you’re Italian or Scottish. The free kick led to a cross that delivered Cristian Panucci’s 91st minute strike that made it 2-1 for Italy, leaving Scotland just seconds to find the goal that would keep their hopes alive. To paraphrase the Italian blogger at The Offside, if that had been the same situation only with a decision against Italy, Italians like myself would be all up in arms and scream to no end how wronged we were, with additional charges of anti-Italian bias by FIFA thrown in (as was the case at World Cup 2002 and Euro 2004, where excuses masked the fact that team vastly under-performed). Still, those are the breaks and any wrangling about it won’t change the result. Of course, leave to a Juventus player (Chellini) to know just how to influence the referee’s decision his team’s way.
  • Any doubters that the New England Patriots aren’t good should be gone after the 56-10 demolition of the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, NY. The Patriots scored the most on the road since the Atlanta Falcons poured 62 on a hapless New Orleans Saints team in 1973, and saw Randy Moss catch four touchdown passes in the first half. The Patriots’ biggest enemies just may be themselves, because there’s not a team (or a league) that can match up with them when they’re on their game (of course, the Patriots’ running game isn’t exactly at an elite level but it does do enough to keep defences off balance). I could go on about how great Tom Brady and Moss were against the Bills, but what really impresses me about New England is their focus- week in, week out, they don’t play “a bad game” (like the Indianapolis Colts have been prone to doing, even when they were winning), always playing in synch and at the top of their abilities. Somehow, I don’t think a letdown will be coming their way any time soon.
  • The result also shows the Bills they’re still not an elite calibre (or even a playoff calibre) team, as the defence was lost for answers against the first really good offence they played against in a while (okay, the Cincinnati Bengals were contained, but they’re out of synch, and don’t start about the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets or Baltimore Ravens, the other three teams Buffalo defeated this season). There’s still a lot of promise, but the 5-5 Bills still have a lot of work to do (especially on offence) if a return to the playoffs for the first time since 1999 is in order.
  • Even though the officials weren’t supposed to “review” what would become Phil Dawson’s game-tying field goal for the Cleveland Browns against the Baltimore Ravens, I’m glad they did. It’s better they get it right instead of let a technicality potentially rob a team of a game.
  • This brings me to a related point- it’s time the NFL gets rid of the barriers to “challenges” and review. Wasn’t the challenge system brought in because Buffalo was robbed of a victory at the last second against New England back in 1998? So, then, what’s the point of telling coaches they can’t challenge late in the game? Those are the calls that are the most crucial because they really do decide the game. Furthermore, there’s no point in limiting what can and can’t be reviewed because, as we saw today in Baltimore, just about anything could decide a game. Yes, challenges waste time, but with the limit of two unsuccessful challenges, it ensures that it doesn’t take too much time during the game.
  • Another entry in the Brian Burke Log of Boneheaded Ideas: he wants to amend the rules of the National Hockey League’s salary cap to allow teams to pay part of a player’s salary if they’re being let go, after being forced to waive Ilya Bryzgalov (and lose him to the Phoenix Coyotes) after no teams bit on a trade for the talented netminder (stuck on the bench only because of Jean-Sebastien Giguere). No Brian, the reason you lost Ilya has nothing to do with the cap but everything to do with your inability to secure the right deal- I’m sure if you had waited even a month, those Coyotes would have bitten a trade deal that may just involve a draft pick. Just like the idea of the “legal bear hug”, this idea is yet another proposal invented because of your own team’s failures, failures of which you yourself are ultimately to blame for (and blaming someone else for them still doesn’t remove those errors). This idea is absurd on so many levels, chief of which is the fact that it would lead to heavy abuse of the salary cap- teams could “stock up” on players, not have to worry about paying them and build a team that would, for all intents and purposes, contravene the salary cap but doesn’t simply because those players were “waived”. Oh, and those fire sales? Forget them actually involving trades- if teams know they can get players “for free” (as is usually the case in such “sales”), they’re not going to offer any trade. Finally, what would stop a team from “signing” a player to an outrageous contract, placing him on waivers and having the team that really wanted him (but couldn’t because of the cap) claim him off waivers? Like the “bear hug” idea, it’s best the NHL just tune Burke out on this one.
  • Yet again, another NHL player was praised for making what should be a basic, two-foot, uncovered and un-pressured pass up ice- this time it was Tomas Kaberle (something about those Europeans, huh?), sifting a pass to Nikolai Antropov in what would eventually be a 4-2 Toronto loss to Boston on Tuesday night. Yeah, it led to a scoring chance and that’s what made it memorable, but it amazes me just how many people don’t seem to see how inherently simple this play is- it’s not like we’re dealing with a stretch pass or Kaberle and/or Antropov having to deal with a player on his back (those plays would be hard). Two feet? That’s nothing. Simply put, any defenseman- heck, any *player*- who is unable to execute that kind of pass doesn’t belong in the National Hockey League, but, sadly, with the talent level being where it is (due to over-expansion and too many NHL coaches still preferring size to skill), this doesn’t happen as often as it should.
  • As an extension to the “fading fundamentals” problem that plagues the NHL these days, it’s time teams get their players in better offensive positions. Seeing both the Bruins and Maple Leafs send three attackers right at the blue-line rules out the simple “outlet pass” because it forces the stretch pass- easy pickings for the lone defender at centre ice who’s not standing up at the blue-line. If players played a little further back, they just might force the defenders up and- gasp- create some openings; but that’s never going to happen as long as coaches insist of having rejected wrestlers in hockey uniforms.
  • Proof that Burke doesn’t have a monopoly on stupidity within the ranks of those with executive experience: Bill Watters, commenting on the lack of scoring opportunities in the second period (when Mats Sundin scored to give Toronto a 2-0 lead that Phil Kessel cut into late in the period), suggested the NHL “bring back the redline” (well, it wasn’t actually taken away- it’s still used for icing) because of the fact teams stacked the blue-line with four defenders; before finishing off with a yelp of “give us back our game”. The problem with this is twofold- one, the main reason why the “two-line pass” rule was taken out was because it allowed the trapping team to stick two players in the half of the neutral zone immediately adjacent to the defensive zone (closing off the immediate passing lanes and “forcing” two-line passes); and two, if teams can stack the blue-line with four defenders, what’s stopping them from doing so at centre ice? Or just leaving them at the blue-line anyway (just because the two-line pass rule is in effect doesn’t necessarily mean teams have to exploit it)?
  • I wonder who were the bigger turkeys- the opponents of the Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts (the Detroit Lions, New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons, respectively) or the sorry saps who sat through almost eleven hours of those games. Yeah, Thanksgiving in the NFL is a great tradition, but it would behove the league to schedule better games for it. At least all the “awards” were nice, though.
  • Brett Favre after winning the Galloping Gobbler award: “it’s certainly the most moving and exciting award I’ve won”. No word on whether or not he’ll do as Troy Aikman hopes and display it proudly on his mantelpiece.
  • Speaking of Aikman, during Green Bay’s 37-26 victory over Detroit (which looks closer than the actual game was), commented on the fact next week’s Green Bay-Dallas contest (featuring two 10-1 teams) will be on the NFL Network by stating “it’s unfortunate because most of the country won’t be able to see it”. The question, then, is this: is he echoing the sentiments of the fans or just the sentiments of employers FOX, who would have televised that game. One thing is for sure- you can bet that FOX and CBS won’t let this happen again.
  • Also on NFL Network: the potential 16th regular season victory by the New England Patriots over the New York Giants. Now, granted, before the season began no one thought that Green Bay-Dallas nor New England-NY Giants would be the tilts they are (the Packers being an 8-8 team in 2006, the Cowboys 10-6; ditto for the Giants at 8-8 and New England at 12-4), but seeing how both games are probably going to be among the biggest (if not the biggest) regular season games in NFL history (especially the latter contest), the NFL needs to do a better job in distributing its games. If it wants to keep games on the NFL Network that is within its rights, but it’s doing a disservice to its fans by potentially hoarding the contests they desperately want to see (that and I doubt CBS and FOX want to pay the NFL US$3.7 billion in rights money to broadcast endless games between the 2-7 San Francisco 49ers and the 1-8 St. Louis Rams).
  • As for the actual NFL Network presentations as a whole: it looks very much like a second-tier, tattered up, cable broadcast, complete with a glitzy, “robotic” scoreboard that is just large and clunky, complete with simple camerawork and special effects tricks simply meant to evoke a “wow, cool!” reaction, like that 3-D freeze-frame action shot that showed the Atlanta Falcons’ secondary coverage on Indianapolis’ second touchdown. Yes, it’s true the NBA, NHL, and MLB also get this kind of “window-dressing” on a lot of their broadcasts but the vast majority of the NFL’s broadcasts are simple (not overdone) broadcasts (even on ESPN), the NFL Network’s production job just looks like it’s woefully out of place. It’s certainly not “big league” (because no one really *needs* an incentive to watch the NFL) and it’s not going to inspire me to pay for it either but the league, in it’s condescending, “holier-than-thou” thought process, believes the cable companies (who have refused to accept the NFL’s request for 70 cents of each subscription) are conspiring in keeping the Network- and hence football- off the airwaves. I think the companies did what I did and had a look at the channel (whose games are also carried on TSN up here in Canada) and came to the same conclusion- make the broadcasts better and maybe we’ll think about shelling out the dough.
  • Greg Millen after a linesman grabbed Bryan McCabe’s sweater and hauled the Leaf down while trying to break up a fight between him and fellow knucklehead Dallas Star Steve Ott: “they shouldn’t do that, players could get hurt.” Really? Wow. Such an obvious thing to say- but maybe not so obvious to those like Millen, who probably think players don’t get hurt in fights. Anyone who does think that might as well look up players like Brad Dalgarno, Nick Kypreos (Millen’s co-worker at Sportsnet), Jeff Odgers and Cam Russell, among others, all of whom *were* injured in fights.
  • Of course- as I have said elsewhere- fighting in the NHL isn’t even close to being *the* problem in hockey- referees clearly need to do a better job protecting their players. Witness Brendan Morrow’s hit from behind on Darcy Tucker (that tore a gash on Tucker’s face) and Ian White’s crosscheck on a Dallas player (the name escapes me) earlier in the game. Both plays are dangerous and illegal, yet neither were called. I know it’s a fine line between a good physical hit and a dangerous play, but unless the NHL truly acts on the issue, it’ll have no players left to play.
  • Speaking of missed calls- why did Mattias Ohlund only receive four games for an ugly, obviously pre-meditated slash on Mikko Koivu? Forget the fact it’s not at the head or that Koivu elbowed Ohlund (that should have also been punished)- that was a vicious hit that, maybe not quite on par with Steve Downie’s hit, merited a suspension of at least 10 games, because Ohlund’s slash broke Koivu’s left fibula (a shin bone). I guess the fact that Alian Vigneault really “needed” Ohlund is why the Canucks defenseman got a slap on the wrist- business as usual in the NHL, I guess.
  • NHL goals-per-game average (up to November 24): 5.57 goals-per-game. Not yet at the low of 1998-99 (5.28) but it’s a significant drop-off from the 5.8 posted a year ago and the reasons for that? I’ve said it before- far too little skill because the vast majority of players (including Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin) were drafted before the “new NHL” took its shape (hence there are too many players who are great at wrestling but terrible at passing, shooting, skating, etc.) and because coaches- many of whom are pre-lockout types themselves- simply aren’t being creative, because they too, still think in the mindset of the hyper-defensive days of the “old NHL”.
  • Congratulations to the Houston Dynamo for winning their second consecutive championship. What- you don’t know what I’m talking about? Oh don’t worry, you’re not alone- most of North America were paying attention to Peyton Manning’s wry smile and Phil Dawson’s luck to know what the Dynamo did anyway.
  • Anyway, I’ll cut the suspense, because the Dynamo are a Major League Soccer franchise- you know, that league that pretends to be a major league and started in 1996 as a requirement for FIFA handing the United States the 1994 World Cup. The Dynamo defeated the New England Revolution 2-1 in the MLS Cup Final, coming back with two second half goals (the winner scored on a header of a looping cross from Canadian national Dwayne De Rosario) after U.S. national Taylor Twellman put the Revolution up 1-0 midway through the first half. The game itself was pretty captivating- lots of end-to-end action, chances, and tension so big you had to cut it with a knife. Still, it- like much of MLS soccer- was incredibly sloppy, with a lot of chances simply created not because the attacking was any good but because the defending was just that bad. Case in point: Joseph Ngwenya’s 61st-minute goal that levelled the game for Houston. There, the ball was crossed in from a corner kick, cleared outside of the penalty area, but the Dynamo managed to work the ball back to the right flank and cross it right back in. It’s here where the “comedy of errors” (as Eric Wynalda so accurately put it) literally kicked in (yes the pun’s intentional)- the ball took several bounces in the penalty area as bemused New England defenders so desperately wanted to wail it out of there, while the ball manages to just roll on the ground for opportunistic Houston strikers to take care of. One attacker takes a weak shot right at Revolution keeper Matt Reis who, instead of grasping onto the ball, just simply blocks it, leaving the ball on a platter for Ngwenya to rifle home. The sequence probably left New England manager Steve Nicol hanging his head, as the Scotsman has more than likely seen better and more decisive clearances in his day (especially in his fourteen years at Liverpool). I’ll tell you this much though- I’ve NEVER seen that happen in games not just involving the so-called “big teams” such as Arsenal-Manchester United or Inter-Milan, I’ve never seen it in *any* major European first division match. That ball is either out or in the net in a matter of seconds, not being allowed to just sit there while clueless players take hopeless hacks at it.
  • Speaking of the MLS Cup Final, ABC’s presentation had more in common with a rudimentary cable broadcast (“borrowing” from subsidiary ESPN’s production team) than a true, “major league” broadcast. It is true that they use ESPN’s presentation in other sports (such as college football), but there weren’t a lot of camera angles (at least not the kinds that would be present on a European soccer telecast) and the look of the broadcast made it feel like the scoreboard was slapped on a “monitored” presentation. Then there was the announcing: Dave O’Brien did good, carrying a real sense of excitement and drama in his voice, but the crowded commentary box (featuring former U.S. nationals Eric Wynalda and Julie Foudy) meant that the commentators were never really allowed to finish a thought. Furthermore, the three of them offered glimpses of insight but were very rarely ever offering much depth in their commentary, something that could be expected of baseball man O’Brien but not of Wynalda and Foudy, themselves former soccer players. For example, Foudy commented (prior to Ngwenya’s goal) that Houston would switch to a “3-5-2” formation by pushing one defender up, but never offered much explanation on the chances of success that formation would have. Then there was Wynalda, referring to the fact New England were piling men forward in a bid to tie the score but never really commenting on how well the Revolution were doing in coming up with that tying score (and Houston for preventing it). Maybe Foudy and Wynalda were afraid of levelling criticism towards the players (perhaps because these are not “big time soccer players” and thus probably could operate “normally” with the rest of the population), as, otherwise, their commentating was insightful although, at times, painfully obvious. Still, part of being a great commentator is the ability to give an accurate review of the events, which means heaping praise on players who do a good job and criticizing those that don’t (hey, they’re professionals- they should be able to take the heat); as well as being able to say if certain tactics and players are working out. There’s potential, to be sure, but it still left a lot to be desired- and if ABC isn't willing to “go the extra mile” in their broadcast, it shows you what they really think of the MLS.
  • Still, there might be one good reason to root for the MLS to become a “mainstream” sport- it might mean having a “real”, lucrative and prestigious world club tournament, not the current “Club World Cup” where the European teams are just present for photos. Of course, therein lies the Catch-22: the only way the MLS *can* become immensely popular is if its teams win something of significance on the world stage (i.e., beating a top-quality European side in a competitive match (please don’t tell me about how the MLS All-Star team defeated Chelsea in 2006- that Chelsea team was in pre-season form and most likely saw the game with the All-Stars as just another “tune-up” contest. In other words, the game was meaningless for them and their effort showed). It’s not enough to just throw money at players- you might convince the “prima donnas” such as David Beckham, but players who have a desire to compete at a high level (as most high profile soccer players in their prime are), they want to “win” something with meaning- and the MLS Cup means nothing (besides, it’s not like the European teams are penniless. Also, look at it this way- would Derek Jeter play baseball in London if a team gave him $40 million a year?). So what is the next course of action? The MLS has managed to survive for eleven years while being a minimalist venture and, in deciding to incorporate a “designated player rule” to allow clubs to attract big-name stars, felt it had done enough to take “the next step”. Of course, this next step is convincing American soccer stars (what an American soccer fan ultimately wants to see) to stay in the MLS, which it hasn’t been able to do, before it can start thinking of Europe’s brightest stars. In the meantime, a soccer-loving entrepreneur with loads of cash (maybe Robert Kraft?) could look into setting up this “world tournament” to give the MLS an incentive to stockpile its teams- and to give world-class players a reason to come to North America in the first place.
  • Greg Millen stated during the Phoenix Coyotes’ 5-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs that the reason why the Coyotes are coming around now is because their market allows them to be patient (an obvious swipe at both impatient Canadian markets and the fact the Americans have no market). However, I remember when the Leafs missed the playoffs two seasons in a row in 1997 and 1998 The Toronto Star ran a poll asking Leaf fans what should be done and many Leaf fans said they’d rather watch a rebuilding team lose than the current, veteran-laden team lose. While I agree with Millen on the fact that Canadian markets are, in general, not particularly patient, I don’t think a Canadian market would mind if their team was upfront with their fanbase on the fact that they *are* rebuilding and ran the team in that manner. The problem is the fact that each Canadian market- except Toronto, actually- has seen periods of success since the lockout (Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver have all been playoff teams at least once the past two seasons, while Ottawa and Edmonton have each been to the Cup Final), and the failures of Edmonton, Montreal and Toronto have more to do with mismanagement than an a reluctance to rebuild (the botched Chris Pronger trade comes to mind). Still, the Oilers and Canadiens do possess some great young talent and seem to be on the right track, leaving badly mismanaged Toronto in the dust.
  • Finally, I come to the Grey Cup and I must say I’m happy that the two combatants are the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (who should really be called the Yellow Bombers because I haven’t seen them wear blue in a while) and the Saskatchewan Rough Riders, because those are two markets that genuinely care about the Canadian Football League, unlike Toronto which doesn’t. It’s here where I’ll make the case that should the unfortunate happen and the Buffalo Bills move to Toronto (and it would be unfortunate, because the Bills, like the Packers in Green Bay, *are* Buffalo), the team should be renamed the Argonauts (because that is too much tradition to simply throw away), with the CFL Argonauts possibly moved to a city that would want the CFL (such as, maybe, Halifax). I know there will be doomsayers predicting that a CFL without Toronto is a CFL without a future, but the CFL already practically *is* without Toronto (witness the “great coverage” the Doug Flutie Grey Cup wins got, as well as the 2004 victory not so long ago), and besides, there’s already GTA representation- the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The CFL would continue just fine without Toronto.


Saturday, November 17, 2007

SOBB: the Saga Of Barry Bonds

You’ve probably already heard, but in case you haven’t, divisive slugger Barry Bonds, the current baseball home run champion, was indicted by a U.S. federal jury on four counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice on November 15, 2007, the fallout from a federal investigation into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO). Bonds faces a maximum penalty of 30 years in jail.

However, before the indictment itself- and the potential impact of the trial will have on Bonds’ legacy- can be assessed, a history lesson is in order due to the long, complex gestation of the story. Bonds’ status as a contentious individual leaves the potential for a lot of misinformation, and it’s important to know all the details before one rushes to a judgement that may be too rash.

Controversy surrounding Bonds is nothing new. He has long been held as one of baseball’s “anti-heroes”, a superstar with undeniable baseball skills but non-existent people skills, famous (or infamous) for his disdain with the media and an overall appearance of a man who is both unapproachable and selfish (this couldn’t have been made more clear by Bonds’ refusal to participate in this year’s home run derby, despite the fact that the derby would be held in San Francisco). In 2001- three years after another steroid scandal involving Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa broke during their home run record chase- Bonds broke the home run record with 73 home runs in 2001 at the age of 36, adding his name to the list of baseball players alleged to have taken steroids. In the ensuing years, Bonds’ name came to be merely one in a long list of other stars like Rafael Palmeiro, the aforementioned Sosa and McGwire, Jason Giambi, and Ken Caminiti, with “rampant steroid use” already alleged in a tell-all book by Jose Canseco, himself admitting being a former user. The furor eventually found its way to the U.S. Congress, where McGwire, Canseco, Sosa, Palmeiro and Curt Schilling were all asked to testify at a 2005 hearing. At the hearing, Sosa didn’t speak a word of English, Palmeiro denied steroid use, McGwire denied to confirm or deny steroid use (although the truth of McGwire’s comment- “If a player answers ‘No’, he simply will not be believed; if he answers ‘Yes’, he risks public scorn and endless government investigations”- couldn’t have been more accurate), Canseco admitted a rampant problem and Schilling derided it. A year previously, Caminiti lost his life due to a drug overdose (unrelated to steroids), two years after admitting steroid use during his 1996 MVP season.

At this stage, Bonds seemed like a peripheral figure, but as the major players in the initial phase saw their cases (mostly) resolved- Palmeiro was indeed found to have used steroids (and suspended for them in 2005), Sosa’s injury-prone ways (where he infamously took out his back while sneezing) have stopped the talk there somewhat, and Giambi admitted (though never directly) to steroid use- Bonds and his steadfast denials found themselves in the spotlight. His specific story started in 2000 when he began work with a personal trainer named Greg Anderson, at that time a worker for BALCO. At the time, Bonds states Anderson gave him arthritis cream and flaxseed oil which investigators allege are “the cream” and “the clear”- components of the designer steroid THG. In 2003, the United States District Attorney for North California investigated BALCO after U.S. sprint team coach Trevor Graham made an anonymous phone call to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (the U.S. organization responsible for implementing the World Anti-Doping Agency’s policies). The ensuing investigation obtained on September 3, 2003 a list of customers that included baseball players Bonds, Giambi, and Gary Sheffield, shot-putter C.J. Hunter, his wife sprinter Marion Jones, fellow sprinter Tim Montgomery (who had a world record stripped), boxer Shane Mosley and several members of the Oakland Raiders, including All-Pros Dana Stubblefield and Bill Romanowski. The four BALCO defendants- including Anderson- stuck plea agreements in August of 2005 that prevented them from naming their customers, but in March of 2006, the book “The Game of Shadows” would be released that did just that. The book proved to be the most responsible in establishing a link between Bonds and steroids, as the writers- Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada- included within their exhaustive research grand jury testimony (against BALCO) of which Bonds was a part of.

April of 2006 saw the beginning of two new processes- the 2006 Major League season, where Bonds was on the cusp of breaking Babe Ruth’s mark of 714 home runs (held to be “the” standard despite it being second to Hank Aaron’s 755 home runs), and a perjury investigation into whether or not Bonds lied under oath at the BALCO hearings in 2003. Anderson refused to testify against Bonds, arguing it violated his plea agreement, but U.S. District Judge William Alsup sentenced him to prison, siding with prosecutors who argued their plea agreement didn’t preclude a subpoena. Anderson spent over a year and a half in prison as a result of his refusal, released only after Bonds was indicted.

Predictably, as Anderson’s legal troubles carried themselves out, Bonds surpassed not only Ruth (on May 28, 2006) but also Aaron (on August 7, 2007). Baseball fans sat on both sides of the fence on Bonds’ chase- some argued that Bonds’ mark was tainted by steroids (though an unproven allegation), while others chose to celebrate it, arguing that Bonds, at that point, was still technically clean. It was clear how MLB saw the experience- Commissioner Bud Selig could be seen clearly keeping his hands in his pocket while standing during Bonds’ standing ovation after he hit home run No. 756 off of Washington Nationals pitcher Mike Bacsik (who wound up winning the game, 8-6), while Aaron himself couldn’t have been bothered to show up (unlike Gordie Howe who travelled to arena to arena hoping to see Wayne Gretzky break his scoring marks). The best Aaron did was provide a video congratulating Bonds, and while Bonds appreciated it, the whole display felt forced. Later, fashion designer Mark Ecko won an auction for the home run ball, holding a vote to determine what he should do with it. The outcome was to donate it to the Hall and brandish it with an asterisk, a decision Bonds (expectedly) derided, insisting “there is no asterisk in baseball”.

That is how the story led up to November 15, 2007, which merely starts another long chapter that extends this already long story. According to the indictment, Bonds is alleged to have tested positive in a November 2000 test obtained by the federal investigators. This test was procured by BALCO, as the indictment quotes testimony that links documents recovered in the 2003 BALCO raid. That is- so far- the only definitive test that is included in the records, as the other charges the investigators are pursuing involve whether or not Bonds received drugs from Anderson from 2000 to 2003. At this stage, there appears to be no other test results in question, although- considering that investigators possess a bevy of BALCO documents, more could be unearthed as the trial progresses.

The anti-Bonds crew likely views the indictment as a positive development, a decisive cog in the battle against rampant steroid use in baseball because, now, the highest profile allegations could not escape itself from the law. The pro-Bonds camp, on the other hand, would be right to sense an air of inevitability, given the steroid shroud baseball has cast itself in and the air of hostility Bonds himself carried around throughout his entire career.

Of course, the question remains just what will happen as a result of this trial. ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser said on the November 16, 2007 episode of “Pardon The Interruption”, “if Barry Bonds is acquitted, he walks into Cooperstown”, which should be the case but given the amount of media personnel who disliked Bonds before his steroid allegations and given the amount of disbelief that the “not guilty” verdicts of Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson received in their “can’t miss” trials, Bonds’ induction is no sure bet. In theory, he has the numbers and at least the technical exoneration to get himself into Cooperstown unanimously, but Bonds will probably never be the kind of character for which any doubt can be completely excised.

If Bonds is convicted, he is certainly not going to Cooperstown, although the circumstances of such a snub is murky. Considering that Mark McGwire isn’t technically banned from baseball, McGwire’s absence from the Hall of Fame is seen as a result of the fact he wavered on the steroid question. Palmeiro is also in a similar boat, since he has not yet announced his retirement despite last playing in the 2005 season. Consequentially, Bonds may meet the same fate- he’ll simply be a “persona non grata” instead of being formally banned, although a federal conviction (of which neither McGwire or Palmeiro have) and the fact he is already such a contentious character in baseball may lead to a formal ban anyway.

Bonds’ record, though, according to precedent, seems to be particularly safe. None of the players ever banned by baseball had their statistics nullified (not even the members of the Black Sox Scandal, whose 1919 World Series statistics still remain on record), and considering that MLB’s drug policy does not call for any records to be stricken from the books (as Palmeiro’s statistics, most notably, are still valid), Bonds’ 762 home runs appear safe. Furthermore, considering that no *baseball* test exists establishing a direct link between Bonds’ performance and steroids, MLB would be hard-pressed to remove Bonds’ mark without legal difficulty. It is true that in Bonds’ case, the alleged steroid use is retroactive (unlike Palmeiro who was tested during the season), but considering that other players have kept their statistics intact despite positive tests, it’s unlikely that Bonds won’t. Whether or not Bonds deserves the record is immaterial, because that is another argument altogether, but the fact of the matter still remains that it’s highly unlikely that Bonds’ record is in any serious jeopardy.

That, of course, is all in the long run- Bonds still has to have his day in court, a clearer picture of Bonds’ future can be made as all the details of the trial emerge. As for the guilt or innocence of Bonds- that won’t be discussed here, as the point of this piece was to examine the potential impact of his legacy, and “guilt” is a better question to be answered by the courts; and that legacy seems to be at worst tarnished but will not be taken away. One thing is for certain, however- Bonds, guilty or not, won’t leave baseball quietly (par for the course given his career) and, no matter whether or not one hates him or loves him, Bonds is certainly going to be remembered. For what, though, remains to be seen.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

DG's Quick Hits- November 13, 2007


Just when things couldn’t get worse for the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), news of yet another rioting death involving the police emerged over the weekend, forcing the indefinite postponement of three Serie A contests (Lazio-Inter, Milan-Atalanta and Roma-Cagliari) and all Serie B and Serie C contests this coming weekend. The Scotland-Italy Euro 2008 qualifier is unaffected, as the game is being held in Scotland.

According to reports, Juventus Ultras attacked the cars of Lazio Ultras at a highway service station near Arezzo. However, in the process of trying to break up the fight, a police officer’s bullet struck and killed Lazio supporter (and semi-famous Rome DJ) Gabriele Sandri while Sandri was sitting in his car. The officer stated in an interview he shot once in the air to gain the fighters’ attention, but when the officer ran after Sandri’s car, his gun went off again. The police at first called the shooting “accidental”, but Sandri’s family contend it was murder and reports now suggest that there is an investigation that could lead to a murder charge. As for the events of that night, Atalanta and Roma fans were involved in scuffles with police following the postponement of those matches, leading to multiple arrests and the trying of four Roma supporters under Italy’s terrorism laws, since, in the police’s eyes, their attacks were politically motivated. It was also announced that the Atalanta fans arrested would also face charges, although they haven’t been brought forward yet.

It does not bear mentioning just how unfortunate these incidents are. No matter how naïve one had to be to believe that the FIGC directives following Filippo Raciti’s death last February would actually work this quickly, no one could have possibly predicted that yet another rioting death would occur just nine months later; but, given the fact that several actions had already been taken this season against fans across Italy, perhaps there was a sense of inevitability concerning Sandri’s death. There are no shortage to suggestions for possible solutions, including a one-month (possibly more) postponement of Serie A matches as well as a travel ban of away fans. Postponing matches simply postpones the inevitable- yet another death- and given the fact that 1,000 Napoli supporters managed to buy tickets for the game in Milan against Inter, any “away fan ban” is going to be undermined in some capacity. There will also be the introduction a “fan ID system” (where the fan’s name will be printed on the ticket), which will work but won’t stop any would-be first-time offenders.

In light of these recent events, I’ve decided to change my tune. Earlier I railed against the FIGC- and soccer in general- about taking actions against fans as a whole when the actions of the minority are really the culprit. Now- perhaps very late- I realize the situation in Italy is far too extreme for anything but mass actions to occur. My solution would be to play the next home game for each team behind closed doors, with further stipulations allowing for more closed-door matches should more incidents occur, as well as increases in security measures (such as an increased police presence). Finally, the experience-gutting Ultra groups- the source of the majority of problems- should be gutted once and for all. Fan groups can still be created, but they must adhere to a promise of non-violence. Yes, it is terrible that Italian soccer has come to this, but if the fans are proving they can’t behave themselves then they shouldn’t be allowed at games- going to a game is a privilege, not a right, and we’re at the point of no return here- action needs to be done before another incident potentially soils for good what should be a great experience.


In a somewhat surprising development, New York Rangers forward Sean Avery is scheduled to meet with the National Hockey League’s chief disciplinarian- Senior Vice President Colin Campbell- over an altercation he had with Toronto Maple Leafs forward Darcy Tucker during the warm-up skate in Toronto before the Rangers’ eventual 3-2 shootout victory over the Maple Leafs. The skirmish started when Avery shoved the Leafs’ Jason Blake and apparently commented on Blake’s diagnosis with a treatable form of leukemia; causing Tucker to rush to Blake’s aid. “It goes beyond just getting under guys' skin,” Maple Leafs defenseman Wade Belak said of the incident. “I think [Avery] takes it to a personal level and that is what guys hate about him.”

Avery- despite being a consistent offensive threat since his breakthrough 2005-06 season with the Los Angeles Kings- has been involved in a number of on-ice incidents since that campaign. In the 2005 preseason after Denis Gauthier’s hit on then teammate Jeremy Roenick left Roenick concussed, he stated that Gauthier’s hit was “typical of French-Canadian guys with a visor who play tough and not back it up.” Furthermore, in October 2005, Avery was alleged by black player Georges Laraque to have called Laraque a “monkey” (an allegation Avery denies) and became the first player in NHL history to be fined for diving in November of the same year, incurring another fine when he lashed out against Campbell. Finally, he cemented his place as the NHL’s most despised player when a 2007 players’ poll indicated he was their top pick for the position with 66.4% of the vote.

It is refreshing to see the league take action on Avery in this incident instead of brushing it aside as the league too often does. Now, it is true that Avery’s past history may be what is triggering the league’s response in this case, but considering that Avery is being flagged for triggering what are usually considered “minor dustups” is a step in the right direction. Far too often players are seen chirping and hacking at opposing players in an effort to “get under their skin” and referees do nothing, apparently because “players are supposed to fight their own battles”. Now, don’t get me wrong- I think trash talking is a fundamental part of playing a game and the practice itself should never be banned, but in the NHL, it gets out of hand far too often; and this is where potentially violent situations begin. Let’s not forget, Jesse Boulerice’s hit on Ryan Kesler was done because Kesler and Boulerice were apparently “battling”, and if referees had flagged it down instead of “letting it pass” the dangerous hit may never have happened. Yes, players should “be allowed to play” but they- and the NHL- need to know that there are limits if they are ever going to be serious of ridding “violent play” once and for all.


  • Another entry in the category “they’ll take a poll for anything”: A recently released poll in the run-up to the Australian general election revealed that 34 percent of Australians wanted to see opposition leader Kevin Rudd naked while 16 percent wanted to see current Prime Minister John Howard naked. Said Howard of the results, “I’m surprised it’s not zero”. Now, as for political leaders *I’d* like to see naked, I vote for New Zealand’s Helen Clark…there’s a looker.
  • From “Air McNair” to “Error McNair”: Baltimore Ravens quarterback Steve McNair committed three turnovers against the Cincinnati Bengals a week after a two turnover performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In both games, the Ravens only managed a single touchdown and lost by multiple scores, as Bengals kicker Shayne Graham had all the points in a 21-7 win and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had five touchdown passes in a 38-7 win. “This is probably the lowest point in my career,” McNair said about his performance against Cincinnati. “What do I need to do about it? I don't know.” I know what the Ravens should do- start Kyle Boller (or even rookie Troy Smith, the quarterback for the 2006 national runners-up Ohio State) and see where the future is, because it’s no longer with the 34-year-old, “Air”-ed out quarterback.
  • So the Indianapolis Colts go from 7-0 to 7-2 in less than a month. Who would have figured? The Colts’ second consecutive loss (wrap your finger around that one) came on the heels of a botched comeback where Indianapolis went from 23-0 down late the first half to 23-21 late in the fourth quarter, including an improbable touchdown shortly after the 23-15 score where Philip Rivers lost the ball in the end zone and, while trying to tip the ball out of bounds for a touchback, nudged the ball into the path of Colts linebacker Gary Brackett who scooped it up for a score. However, Joseph Addai was stuffed at the line on the two-point conversion, and a 29-yard field goal was pushed wide right by the usually reliable Adam Vinatieri. The day of miscues would belong to Peyton Manning, who heaved six interceptions (including one to Clinton Hart with nine seconds to go that sealed the game), one week after misfiring on a late drive against the New England Patriots (although the Colts’ defence was more in on that one, blowing a 20-10 fourth quarter lead). Now, the story of the game was Vinatieri’s miss, reminding some of Manning’s “idiot kicker” comment of Mike Vanderjagt, who had another famous miss in the 2005 playoffs (although the “idiot kicker” comment came in another incident), but Manning is looking a lot like an “idiot” himself, forcing a lot of plays (his six interceptions are more than some teams have all season) and just not being the calm, dependable quarterback we’ve known for so long. Now, 7-9 is incomprehensible, but unless Manning fixes his quirks the Colts’ great start- and its Super Bowl championship defence- may all be for naught.
  • A baby in Mozambique was recently born with two heads, according to hospital officials in the capital of Maputo. The hospital hasn’t released many details but a neighbour for the mother revealed that the second head was connected to the abdomen and did not appear to be functioning. Hey, maybe that mother is on to something- if she can create a child with a second head affixed to its belly, that child has no excuses for spilling any of their food, because the other head should catch it. The unfortunate part? No belly flops…oh well, you can’t win them all.
  • It’s easy to look with scorn at the amount of Leaf fans that make their way to places like Buffalo and Ottawa and think “they stay in their own rink”. However, look at it this way- considering Leaf ticket prices, going to a game in Buffalo or Ottawa is the only way Toronto Maple Leaf fans can see their team play, because the Leafs have priced them out of their own rink. If that’s not an argument for putting a second team in Toronto, I don’t know what is.
  • Last, but not least, is a report that states that the Rhinoceros Party of Canada is back- as The party is headed by François “Yo” Gourd, who had been involved with the old Rhinoceros Party. Gourd- who picked the nickname “Yo” since it would make his name sound like “yogurt” in French- promises, among other things, to replace the Canadian military’s guns with paintball guns, to guarantee all Canadians a weekly orgasm and marijuana portions, and a gas barbeque registry. Above all else, Gourd promises not to keep any of his promises if he is elected. Considering all the childish antics and meaningless posturing serious politicians commit, Gourd just may the best candidate out there- whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I’ll let you decide.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

DG's Quick Hits- November 10, 2007


A new joint survey conducted by the Dominion Institute and Ipsos-Reid indicates that only 21% of people between the ages of 18-24 have a passing knowledge of Canadian history, two percent less than the results of the survey conducted in 1997. Among the results was a 26% clip for those who knew the year of Confederation (1867), down ten percent from 1997, 45% who knew John A. MacDonald was our first prime minister (down from 54% in 1997) and only 37% who knew that Vimy Ridge was fought in World War I and Remembrance Day ended that very war (though both findings are up from 1997, which saw 31% and 33% rates respectively). The findings were described as “disappointing” by the DI’s Rudyard Griffiths, who had hoped for higher percentages after millions were spent on initiatives such as the “Heritage Minutes” and war museums. According to the DI release (, 1,004 adults were randomly phoned between the period of September 6 to October 27, 2007, with the results accurate to within ±3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, of what they would have been had this entire population been polled. You can take the quiz yourself at CityNews ( and see how well you’d do (I scored 28/30).

The DI’s answers themselves contain a small error- in the answer for the question “name two countries Canada fought in World War I” one answer is missing. The DI lists three- Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey (technically an anachronism since it was still the Ottoman Empire then)- but does not list Bulgaria, which did fight alongside the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans) in World War I.
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There are two ways to look at the findings. The first is to agree with the feelings of disappointment, as everyone should have a basic knowledge of their country’s history in order to build a sense of culture and national pride- one only need look across the border at how the Americans approach history to see why this is necessary. On the other hand, considering that the “Heritage Minutes” are unequivocally *not* history but idealism (one of my old History professors used the term “heritage myth” and he couldn’t be more on the mark on that one) and one has to wonder what kind of “past” the DI really wants us to know about. History isn’t about cherry picking the events you want people to know about and disregard the rest- history is about knowing everything and seeing how it built our present. Canadian history isn’t just the Underground Railway and Lester B. Pearson’s Nobel Prize- it’s a nation that once forbid immigrants from its World War I enemies from voting in the 1917 elections ( and it’s a nation that once turned away a boat of Jewish emigrants fleeing from Nazi Germany shortly after Kristallnacht in 1938 ( Canadian history isn’t just learning what we did right and being proud of it- it’s also learning, to paraphrase the great George Santayana, what we did wrong so that we do not repeat it.


So, was I watching the UEFA Champions’ League or playing FIFA 08? On Tuesday, Turkish club Beşiktaş J.K. was smacked 8-0 by Liverpool F.C. in a game that saw Israeli international Yossi Benayoun score a hat trick and braces from Peter Crouch (who opened and closed the scoring) and Ryan Babel. It was Babel’s second goal that encapsulated the night for Beşiktaş, where, in the 78th minute, Babel attempted to control a cross with his foot and, in doing so, managed to bounce the ball off the chest of his marker in such a manner that it caromed over the befuddled goalkeeper and into the net. It was that kind of night for Beşiktaş, where everything went in on them no matter what they did. Liverpool never did score on a direct free kick it should be noted, but that’s small solace for a club that was beaten by a Champions’ League record scoreline (the previous high was Juventus’ 7-0 thrashing of Olympiacos in 2003). The funny part about that game is that it didn’t appear to be a blowout in much the same manner that the Manchester United-Roma contest from last season did. In that game, United were up 4-0 at the break and just continued their streak in the second half (while failing to keep Daniele De Rossi off the scoresheet). Liverpool, on the other hand, were *only* up 2-0 at halftime and, while in control of the game, didn’t exhibit any signs of the onslaught they would bring in the second half.

The result will no doubt bring questions regarding the quality of European soccer at the highest stage, as Beşiktaş were nowhere close to being in Liverpool’s class on Tuesday night. It was almost like watching a hockey game between the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs, where the fast, skilful Senators ran rings around the lumbering, slow Maple Leafs (much like Liverpool did to Beşiktaş), although the Leafs have more shooting ability than Beşiktaş do. Despite the result, I’m not quite sure I’d go as saying that there’s a huge disparity of talent at the group stage, because it’s not like every year a team loses 8-0 in every game (for the record, Liverpool did *only* beat Beşiktaş 2-1 when the two teams played in Istanbul, and Beşiktaş has *only* allowed four other goals in its previous three games). However, if there could be a change coming out of this game, it could be splitting the Champions League into “Western” and “Eastern” conferences, because Western Europe (more specifically, England, Italy and Spain, who are very much now a “Big Three”) is clearly dominating the competition. 32 champions (out of 52) have been won by the Big Three, including 11 of the last 16 (when the Group Stage was introduced). Maybe if 16 teams were taken from the Big Three (plus Germany, France and Portugal, the “next three” that do produce quality sides from time to time) to form one “conference” and 16 from the rest of Europe to form another (with inter-conference play used to maximize exposure for all teams)- with the conference champions playing off for the title- we’d see a more diverse competition that will increase fan interest for clubs in smaller confederations, since they’d have a real chance at *competing* in the competition. Michel Platini wanted to reform the Champions League to benefit the “smaller clubs”- this is the way to do it.


  • Reason #1 why televised poker just doesn’t work- the game itself requires its players to wear faceless expressions at all times. It’s great for strategy but stinks as entertainment, because the players all come across as utterly lifeless; and no one wants to watch a parade of drones. Yes, millions are at stake, but I have no reason to care about them if they display all the emotion of the common housefly.
  • After witnessing the Buffalo Sabres getting shut out for the third time this season (after only being shut out once last year- in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final against Ottawa) because the Sabres have an inability to finish (boy do they miss Daniel Briérè badly), I’m wondering if Buffalo would be better suited to employing the New Jersey Devils-style trap. It’s clear Buffalo doesn’t quite have the same punch it had last season where every chance seemed to result in a goal, but they are speedy and they are positionally sound, better suiting them to a defensive, counter-attack style that’s worked for so long in the Swamp. Otherwise, this could be a longer season than most in Buffalo expected- or even wanted.
  • Yeah I know- I’m suggesting Buffalo use the dreaded trap (although this trap is an offensive one, much like the Devils’ version), but let’s be honest- there *still* isn’t a NHL team capable of rolling more than a single line of even decent scorers. The media like to crow about “defensive systems ruining the game” but let’s be honest- there really isn’t enough skill to go around. When players are praised in the media simply because they can make a short outlet pass from their own zone to an uncovered player that’s not that much further up ice (as was the case with Andrei Markov just a few weeks ago)- basic plays that should be fundamental to hockey players- then you know the NHL has a severe talent shortage.
  • I don’t care how much Don Cherry crows about Sam Gagner’s skills- from what I’m seeing in the NHL not enough players (particularly from English Canada) are developing the kind of fundamental, basic skills that should be second knowledge at the NHL level. I’m sounding like a broken record here, but the amount of players who simply cannot perform a basic, straightforward tape-to-tape pass to a nearby uncovered player is just mind boggling; and now I know why. Canadian hockey players- particularly in the Ontario Hockey League and Western Hockey League- are taught more to be hitters above all else, rendering them second rate in terms of stickhandling, shooting and passing. I mean, think about it- most of the “pure skill” players are those raised in Europe or the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (as is the case with Sidney Crosby)- and most of the “character guys” (re: “hitters”) are WHL or OHL alums. Now, I’m not suggesting that there aren’t any English Canadian skill players- Joe Sakic throws a wet blanket on that- or physical QMJHL/European players (e.g. Tomas Holmstrom), but since a lot of the players who seemingly can’t do anything except hit (who are the majority in the NHL) are mostly trained in English Canada, I’m led to believe that Canadian hockey isn’t properly developing its players. Of course, I don’t really blame them- as long as NHL coaches heap more praise on guys who can hit than guys who can score then that’s the player Canadian hockey will produce, because the bottom line is Canadian hockey players dream of being NHLers. Only once coaches realize there’s more to hockey than a big hit will there be a change for the better in offence, because as long as coaches aren’t looking for skill there won’t be any skill- no matter how many rules the NHL puts in.
  • “The Game of the Century” between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots produced the result we thought it would- a hard-fought, drama filled 24-20 New England victory that was every bit as intense and well played as we thought it would be (okay, save for Peyton Manning’s late interception, but the occasional mistake is allowed). Makes you wish the Colts and Patriots could hook up for the Super Bowl and not the AFC Championship game but, sadly, the AFC title game will have to suffice.
  • My dream Super Bowl (other than the Buffalo Bills finally making it) would feature an 18-0 New England against the Green Bay Packers. Hey, wouldn’t you want to see Brett Favre have one last shot at glory? Favre may be 38, but he’s again found his enthusiasm and- after seeing him link with Greg Jennings for two consecutive game-winning bombs- his arm, and that’s reason enough to root for him and the Packers to add one last ring to his already filled trophy cabinet.
  • Make sense of this: in successive weeks, basketball powerhouses Michigan State Spartans fell to the Division II Grand Valley State Lakers 85-82 in double overtime, the Kentucky Wildcats were demolished by Atlantic Sun minnows Gardner-Webb Bulldogs 84-68 and- the biggest shocker of them all- the Illinois Fighting Illini fell 86-82 to the Concordia Stingers, one of the top teams in Canadian college basketball (but still not a team that anyone thought could beat Illinois- witness the Brock Badgers’ demolition at the hands of the Florida Gators last year). Granted, only one of those games “counted”- the Bulldogs-Wildcats game was a regular season game for the 2K Sports Hoops Classic- but the results are still eye-openers nonetheless. It’s upsets like those that make sports the entertainment that it is, because everyone loves an underdog no matter who they beat.
  • Get this: Adriano, after under-performing for well over two years, has been left off the Inter Milan bench. Not surprisingly, the Brazilian is sulking. Also not surprisingly, his effort hasn’t risen to even merit a second chance. Adriano states the reason for his lacklustre performance is due to a slew of problems that includes alcoholism and depression but (and I hate to sound mean) Adri, if your mind isn’t on soccer, then don’t play. Otherwise, don’t whine when the teamsheets don’t go your way, because Inter Milan are a soccer team- not a therapy session.
  • So São Paulo won the Brazilian title for the fifth time, which the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) is recognizing as the first-ever occurrence, earning São Paulo the right to keep the Brazilian championship trophy. This isn’t even the meat of the story- in 1987, the top sides of Brazilian soccer threatened to breakaway forcing a hastily drawn year-end tournament that featured a “Green Module” (recognized to be “the” first division) and a “Yellow Module” (the “second” division). Flamengo won the Green Module and thus claimed the Brazilian title, but the CBF insisted they play against Sport, the Yellow Module winners. Flamengo, backed by the other big clubs, refused, claiming it legitimately won a recognized “first division” and thus should have a title. The CBF however, left the title “shared” with Sport, meaning in 1992, when Flamengo won the title it was only “officially” its fourth. Now that São Paulo have won a recognized fifth title, Flamengo supporters are up in arms, claiming they should receive the trophy that was won this year and not São Paulo, even though they didn’t bring up the issue until now. The irony? The trophy São Paulo won this year isn’t even the same trophy Flamengo would have won in 1992, as the club stowed away that trophy and forcing the introduction of the one São Paulo is now the holders of. The story is endemic of Brazilian soccer, of which the description “organized chaos” would be kind, but saner heads do exist- Flamengo manager Joel Santana stated the obvious in stating the solution is to hand a trophy to both teams- but, Brazilian soccer being what it is, it’ll be a tall order for those saner heads to prevail.
  • Last, but not least is a report that a Boston area priest stalked late night comedian Conan O’Brien for well over a year, insisting for a “public confession” so that the priest may give O’Brien “absolution”. It’s believed the priest- who said in one of his letters that he was also seeking a confession from John McEnroe who apparently assaulted the priest while he was in seventh grade- went to Harvard University at the same time as O’Brien, who graduated in 1985, and O’Brien is also involved in charitable work for the Boston archdiocese. If convicted, the priest faces a year in prison. Not surprisingly, the priest was barred entry to a taping of “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” (to which he snarled, “is this how you treat your most dangerous fans?”), and, also not surprisingly, the priest has been relieved of his duties as a public minister. The motive? The priest wanted to be famous (at least that’s what documents obtained by The Smoking Gun reports). Therefore, you shall remain anonymous, and here’s hoping it’s you who’ll discover you’re the one who needs “confessing”, not O’Brien.


Friday, November 09, 2007

The mixed bag of Serie A

Aside from the World Cup victory, there wasn’t a whole lot to cheer about in Italian soccer in 2006-07. Already rocked in the aftermath of Calciopoli, police officer Filippo Raciti was killed in senseless rioting following Palermo’s 2-1 win at Catania in early February, causing the cancellation of games for the following week (which included Roma-Inter and Italy’s friendly with Romania) and the imposition of tough new stadium security measures that UEFA itself labelled as “extreme but necessary”. The pitch itself didn’t see any major incidents- at least none as big as Calciopoli (not at the moment, anyway)- but those hoping for a close scudetto race would be disappointed. Forget everything said by the naysayers- Inter Milan were head and shoulders above the rest of Serie A in 2006-07 (regardless of the point penalties and Juventus’ absence), comfortably winning the scudetto by 22 points over Roma (a margin greater than any of the point penalties). Inter’s track record also included records for longest winning streak (17), most points (97) and most wins in a season (30), as well as tying the record for earliest scudetto victory (five games). Inter also had a 30 game unbeaten streak, scored the most goals in Serie A (80) and had a 22-game scoring streak. At the peak of Inter’s dominance- from January to March- Inter had become “the most hated team in Italy” to which defender Marco Materazzi- himself no stranger to controversy- replied “that means we’re doing our jobs”.

The summer transfer window provided more heartache for Italian soccer fans, as stars Luca Toni and Cristiano Luccarelli both departed Serie A for Germany’s Bayern Munich and Ukraine’s Šaktar Donetsk (respectively), although neither moved because of the state of Italian soccer- Toni’s departure had been rumoured for a while, while Luccarelli quit his hometown team after fans accused him of throwing a late season game. If that wasn’t enough for Serie A to handle in the preseason, Lazio fans were accused of using racial epithets during a game against Dinamo Bucharest that almost evicted the Biancocelesti, although all Lazio received from UEFA was a fine.

This season presents, perhaps, a different story. Perhaps it was expected given the sensitivities behind the trauma of Raciti’s death, but it seems like every week there are a stories of fan misconduct. Right before the season began, Genoa city officials barred Milan fans were barred from entering the Stadio Luigi Ferraris (Genoa C.F.C.’s home grounds) over fears of violence, and Napoli supporters have seen bans from entering games at Inter Milan earlier in the season (although 1,000 managed to buy tickets for that game), at Palermo this coming Sunday and from their own home ground against Genoa in September (that one being played behind closed doors). Meanwhile, Juventus may face discipline after a slew of incidents during Inter’s visit to Turin that saw the game delayed by 15 minutes.

The news is certainly disheartening; and not just because fan misbehaviour isn’t going away as quickly as the FIGC might have- faintly- hoped. The incidents in question are all over the spectrum- at the extreme end, we have Juventus supporters pelting Inter’s team bus with eggs (causing Inter manager Roberto Mancini to quip his team were pelted “with omelettes”) and holding a sign reading “Zlatan zingaro” (aimed at Inter’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who acrimoniously left Juventus before its Serie B demise in 2006), which translates to either “Zlatan the betrayer” or “Zlatan the gypsy”, meaning the sign could be adjudged to be racism (although Ibrahimovic was born in Bosnia, Bosnians are Slavic much like the ethnic Gypsies, who are Romanian). Not to be outdone are the Napoli tifosi, who were so incensed at a call made during the match against Livorno that bottles were hurled onto the pitch, one of which struck the fourth official.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, reveals just how far- too far- the FIGC directives have gone. The decision to bar Milan fans from Genoa could only be because of sensitivity, since it was only a week prior Lazio had their incident at Dinamo Bucharest. Obviously, the Genoa officials wanted to take no chances, especially after the last game in Genoa between the Ligurian side and Milan in 1995 saw a Genoa fan fatally stabbed. Still, Genoa team officials argued the team- and the country- needed a fresh start and, although another fatal incident would definitely set the season on more of a wrong foot, the stabbing was 12 years ago, and banning fans for something they “might do” (not did) certainly sends the wrong message to them. This false perception is more of a problem with fan treatment as a whole, not just with Milan fans- far too often in European soccer the majority are made to pay for the minority. Granted, incidents such as Raciti’s murder and the stabbing in 1995 are no small incidents, but it needs to be said that those are actions made by a handful of fans, not the fanbase as a whole.

However questionable the Genoa decision may be, nothing could be more absurd than what happened at the Napoli-Livorno match. This isn’t a reference to the bottle-throwing incident, which *is* serious, but a reference to an official removing a sign that simply read “Livorno merde” (“Livorno’s crap”). The official explanation was that the sign was “offensive” and “could spark violence”, which doesn’t need a rebuttal since this is utter nonsense- if Livorno fans can’t handle some playful bantering (which is the message here) then they shouldn’t be attending games (or following soccer) period. Harmless heckling is a fundamental part of the fan experience (no matter the sport), and if the FIGC believes even that could cause problems they’re insulting the fortitude of their fans (not to mention their players). Presumably, the only signs that will be allowed will be ones praising the other team and its players, because any of hint of animosity will be squelched by Big Brother at the FIGC. Yeah, good luck with that- the day I see a Roma supporter holding a sign calling Lazio forward Goran Pandev “the ball wizard” will be the day after Hell freezes over.

At least on the pitch the FIGC has a good story, as six teams are within seven points of first place Inter after 11 games. Inter have set the pace at 25 points, with Fiorentina two points off the trot, Roma three points behind, Juventus four, Udinese six and Atalanta seven. It is not surprising to see Inter and Roma in the championship mix- both teams are improved from the sides that finished one and two last year- but the rest are surprises. Fiorentina looked to be mid-table at best after losing Luca Toni, but a cohesive, determined, team-oriented approach led by a revitalized Adrian Mutu is fueling the Florentine club’s surprising start. Juventus, being a shell of its former all-conquering self, were probably tagged to be at least top six (enough for a UEFA Cup spot), but they’re also putting forward a determined effort, playing with a lunch-pail ethic that’s in sharp contrast to the arrogant sides that dominated the middle part of the decade (and might warm a few Italian hearts if they weren’t Juventus). Udinese showed flashes of brilliance last season- they were the only team Inter did not beat in 2006-07- doing it with the same lunch-pail effort the other “bianconeri” team are using, while Atalanta are led by veteran Cristian Doni (who leads the team in goals (6) and yellow cards (7)), one of Italian soccer’s more under-appreciated players. Right behind Atalanta is Napoli at 15 points, *the* surprise of the season as, despite their status as Italian soccer giants, their “no name roster” didn’t suggest the kind of heights the club is so far achieving this season. Yet the “no names” move the ball rather freely and at will, being sparked by the attacking tandem of Marcelo Zalayeta (four goals) and Roberto Sosa (three), with Maurizio Domizzi chipping in with four from the back end (two of them coming from the spot against Juventus). The tightness of the race is generating interest and drama that was absent from last season’s scudetto race (which was more of a coronation for Inter than an actual competition); although the race was this tight last season as well, so more should be said if the race holds up at Christmas.

At the other end of the pitch story are this year’s biggest disappointments, chief of which being AC Milan, mired in ninth at 14 points, eleven off the trot. Depth is a concern for the men of Carlo Ancelotti (Serie A’s longest serving manager), particularly in the middle as the youngster Youann Gourcuff and the fading Cristian Brocchi have failed to be adequate replacements in the league games for the first choice team which has no problems competing at the European stage. Of course, last season Milan started poorly before roaring to a fourth-place finish last season so there isn’t a lot of panic among the milanisti, but Milan would do better to improve its home record, where they have yet to win and have scored just three times in six games (results that include 0-0 draw with struggling Torino and a 1-0 loss to bottom-of-the-table Empoli). Not to be outdone in the disappointment department is Palermo, who sit in eighth on goal difference tied with Napoli after many prognosticators believed they had a legitimate shot at the title. Palermo is still playing with the effort they displayed last season, but the confidence- particularly at the back- is lacking, which may be a carryover from last year where the team didn’t win for over three months after Raciti’s death, scuttling them down from third to fifth. Sampdoria, a sleeper pick for the title and a threat for European qualification, are also proving to be a disappointment mired in 12th, as the expected goal production from Antonio Cassano (one) hasn’t materialized, although Cassano began the year carrying an injury; while Lazio, who haven’t recovered from the loss of Luis Jimenez’s creativity sit in 15th place. Finally are the cases of last season’s surprise outfits, Empoli and Reggina, the gulf in class catching up to the former, whose plucky play earned them a seventh-place finish last term but are 17th this term, while the latter’s goal scoring woes (seven in eleven games) continue to dog them, gutting one of Serie A’s better defensive sides to a last place start.

Thus, after the first two months of the season, Serie A is a mixed bag of the wrong kind of sorts. The pitch story is there to provide excitement and drama that was missing from last season’s campaign, but the hyper-sensitivity following Raciti’s death is threatening to destroy fan involvement in the game. That action needed to be taken after the riots in Catania is undeniable, but one wonders if the extent of the extreme measures are really as necessary as UEFA suggested because, what good is an exciting pitch story if no one is there to watch it. Thus, Serie A is at a crossroads- it’s either on course for the most exciting, special season in recent memory or in a season that could erode fan interaction for good; and, with all due to respect for the Racitis (who would not want to see the death of the fan experience), that would be the ultimate tragedy.


Friday, November 02, 2007

DG's Quick Hits, November 2, 2007


It’s official: the Writer’s Guild of America is going on strike with the main issue being- you guessed it- money. Specifically in this case what is at stake is a cut of the royalties in DVD and Internet distribution. The Guild is demanding a raise to 40% arguing this would make up for the low royalties they received in the VHS era, while the producers do not want to raise the royalty- currently 1.2%- arguing that the market and consumer preferences are not yet known and thus no one knows how much money could be truly generated. What the strike means is the scriptwriters for Hollywood programming- including TV shows and movies- will be off the job starting today, meaning no new scripts can be generated or current scripts edited until the strike is over. Movie production is expected to be the least affected, as scripts have been stockpiled well into next year (although any script issues cannot be reworked until the strike is over), with roughly the same situation affecting prime-time serials (who have scripts into February). Late-night TV is expected to take the most immediate hit, as they rely on current events for material and thus aren’t written in advance; and pilot production would also take a hit as this is the time most pilots are refined and worked into production for the following season. If the strike continues into next year, it’s expected the directors and the actors may soon join the writers, because they have the same grievances as the writers.

The longer ramifications of the strike are open for debate. It is not expected to affect airtime schedules, but the last time the writers went on strike- in 1988- reruns were the order of the day and several shows (including “Moonlighting”) were unable to recover from the lost writing and production time. Now, since 1988 studios now have more options- such as reality TV- but the strike may still have a negative effect on the serials, particularly newer shows which could use refinement in order to produce the quality programming needed to firmly establish their shows as hits. If the directors and writers join their scriptwriter colleagues, it could affect production- even of movies- deep into 2008, creating a very unpredictable entertainment landscape for the end of the decade. At the extreme end is the death of Hollywood- with TV viewership already at an all-time low, the prospect of lower quality shows and movies (not to mention the end of production regarding that programming) could erode away audiences for good; and this isn’t necessarily such a bad predicament- independent filmmakers, looking for a way to barge into the padlocked doors of mass movie presentation, will finally have an inroad as audiences look for something to watch. Thus, the potential for a radical change in entertainment might be in order and that, frankly, is a very entertaining prospect.


One of the oddest stories in the U.S. Presidential Election race is the fact that Steven Colbert- who poses as a conservative talk-show host (also named “Steven Colbert”, but it is a character and not representative of Colbert himself) on the “Steven Colbert Report” on “Comedy Central”- attempted to get his name on the Presidential primary ballots in his home state of South Carolina as both a Republican and a Democrat (“so (he) could lose twice”). He declined to run on the Republican ballot because their fee- $35,000- was too high (and which would have subjected him to higher scrutiny under Federal Election Law), leaving his only choice with the Democrats, who only demanded $2,500. On November 1, the South Carolina Democrats voted 13-3 not to include Colbert on their ballot, meaning the “Colbeagle” would have to run as an independent.

The South Carolina Democrats- reasonably- thought that Colbert was using the campaign as part of a greater sketch for his show, and I never thought Colbert- whose show is very well crafted but very much a satire- was going to enter politics seriously like Arnold Schwarzenegger did in California. Having said that, it’s still entertaining to see Colbert’s attempt, and the fact that he would garner 13% of American voters says something about the state of American politics- if a comedian who doesn’t appear to have a serious campaign can have a significant portion of the vote then the serious candidates still haven’t struck as much a chord with voters as they thought they did; and it’s easy to see why- after eight years of George W. Bush and five years of a costly, wrong-headed war in Iraq, Americans are not going to wait for the politicians to get their act together. Otherwise, Steven Colbert won’t be running “The Word” out of his Comedy Central studios- he’ll be running it from The White House.


*Montreal Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau objected to Sergei Gonchar’s inclusion on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ shooter list in the deciding shootout of the Canadiens’ 4-3 victory. Gonchar received a minor penalty for boarding (which should have been higher but that’s beside the point), and despite the fact that Gonchar missed, Carbonneau believed Gonchar shouldn’t participate since he had a penalty. Hockey people are supportive of the idea as players in the penalty box at the start of overtime stay in the box until their penalty is finished, but what they are missing is the fact shootouts are not timed. In overtime, there is a natural point when a player can return (the corresponding second in the period when the penalty expires) but shootouts don’t have a clock and thus provide no natural point of return. If they wish to pursue this angle, at least prevent a penalized player from participating as one of the first three shooters, but do not bar them completely (unless they’ve been tossed from the game itself)- if a player can return for overtime, he can return for a shootout.

*Another hair-brained hockey idea: Brian Burke, GM of the Anaheim Ducks, is positing the idea of allowing players to “bear hug” opponents when they’re along the boards because the “new rules” provide no leeway for defenders to adequately handle their opponent. TSN’s Keith Jones supported the idea because “coaches are teaching their players to cross-check opponents to push them off the puck” but even this is nonsensical. “Bear hugging” would legalize holding since referees would have to make a distinction between defenders just using the opponent for balance and defenders actually obstructing player movement (and it’s this judgement call that led to the dreaded “clutching and grabbing”), and cross-checking is itself illegal. Besides, defenders can still push players off the puck with their shoulders, lift the opponent’s stick or put the blade of their sticks on the puck to wrestle it away from the attacker. Such plays should be routine for hockey defenders, but because of the laxity of the rules until now, everyone seems to think the rules are restrictive when they just require a different- but no less complicated- set of options. Hockey has gone so far since they went to the standard and can only get better; and hockey people should be supportive of the directives and let the game develop instead of insisting things go back to the way they were just because the changes aren’t developing as quickly as they’d like them to.

*The Kobe Bryant trade rumours refuse to die, even though a proposed trade with the Chicago Bulls has apparently gone by the wayside due to the fact that the Bulls were not willing to part with Luol Deng or Ben Gordon. Although Bryant has retracted his demands, his coach, Phil Jackson, insists Bryant lacks the mentality to compete and the Los Angeles Lakers need to start over. Of course, given the talent of Bryant, finding a fit may be next to impossible, especially considering that the Lakers were jobbed in the Shaquille O’Neal trade. Still, I don’t think Bryant will last the season as a Laker- things are boiling over too much for that to be a certainty.

*Most pointless story of the football season: Georgia Bulldogs Mark Richt allowed his entire team to come onto the field and celebrate the Bulldogs’ first touchdown in their game against the Florida Gators. Some viewed the move as un-sportsmanlike by “rubbing it in”, but the Gators and Bulldogs are rivals- as long as players aren’t involved in fisticuffs, it’s all fair game. Besides, teams should be allowed to have a bit more fun- the way football people moan about celebrations, it seems like no one can be happy at all, and, last I checked, this was still a game and a game should be fun.

*I also will not discuss the Patriots and the Colts…oh, never mind. I just won’t get into it, because the sports reporters will do that for you…it would be funny if the Houston Texans-Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks-Cleveland Browns games (which are on at the same time) turns out to be the better games but I digress.