Monday, December 31, 2012

Bears finally sack Lovie The Genius

Here's my favorite story from my five years covering Lovie Smith:

During the postgame press conference that followed a particularly horrific performance by the often-horrible Rex Grossman, the media found four different ways to ask Smith why he didn't switch to Brian Griese, the high-priced QB the Bears had acquired just in case Rex got hurt or got bad.

Four times, Lovie dismissed the questions: Rex was his quarterback; the Bears were 10-2; we were morons.

This is what happened next, as chronicled in my Dec. 7, 2006 column:

My brain was about ready to explode. Because I need my brain to think about food, Jack Bauer's plight on "24," golf, Scarlett Johansson and other worthwhile subjects, I could sit silently no longer.

Me: "You did win 10 games with (Kyle) Orton as your quarterback last year and made a change. So, I mean, it's not unprecedented ... "

Lovie, interrupting: "This year ... "

Me, interrupting right back: "I understand that. I understand. It's not an unprecedented thought, that's all. We're not coming out of thin air with this thought."

Lovie: "That doesn't mean a lot to me, though. I'm telling you what I'm going to do. Right now, we're 10-2 with Rex as our quarterback. THAT's not unprecedented."

So there!

He might as well have come back with: "Your momma's not unprecedented!" That would have made as much sense.

Too funny, eh?

I rarely had public debates with those I covered, but that day, I simply couldn't take Lovie's crapola any more.

Tom Landry and Chuck Noll and Bill Parcells and John Madden and countless other championship coaches throughout the years had benched ineffective quarterbacks.

Don Shula benched Earl Morrall at halftime of the 1972 AFC title game -- even though the score was tied and even though Morrall had led the Dolphins to 11 straight wins in place of an injured Bob Griese during the team's perfect season.

Nevertheless, Lovie had so little respect for the media -- not to mention the millions of fans who were clamoring for a QB change -- that he considered us idiots for suggesting Lovie The Genius even consider removing Rex The Unbenchable during a bad performance.

Well, Lovie is now the ex-coach of the Bears.

His dwindling ranks of supporters say he didn't deserve to be canned because the team had played mostly decent football during his time in Chicago and because he led the Bears to only their second Super Bowl appearance ever -- a game they lost to the Colts partly because of the frighteningly bad play of Rex The Unbenchable.

The facts, however, sealed Lovie's fate.

Smith's team reached the playoffs only three times in nine seasons -- and only once in the past six years. Since losing to the Colts in the '07 Super Bowl, Lovie's lads won one division title while finishing third three times and last once.

Lovie always said beating the Packers was No. 1 on the list of things the Bears had to do. Since Jan. 2, 2011, the Bears were 0-6 against the Packers, including a loss in last year's playoffs.

The Bears opened this season 7-1 but folded as soon as the schedule turned tough, dropping five of their next six games. What seemed a sure playoff berth was gone, and even wins in their last two games couldn't save Smith's Bears ... or Smith's job.

Like Rex in the Super Bowl, Lovie couldn't deliver.

Unlike Rex in the Super Bowl, Lovie got benched.


There will be much debate about which players deserve which awards in the NFL, but one thing is obvious:

John Elway is the Executive of the Year.

Despite immense public pressure to build around the inexplicably popular Tim Tebow, Elway traded the most overhyped player in recent NFL history to the Jets and brought in Peyton Manning.

Manning threw for 37 TDs and the Broncos ended up with the NFL's best record at 13-3. Tebow couldn't even get on the field for the Jets.

Elway, one of the 10 best QBs ever to lace up cleats, knows Manning belongs on that list, too. Elway also knows Tebow is a train wreck of a quarterback, with neither the physical ability nor mental acumen to play the most important position at the highest level.

Meanwhile, were there an award for Incompetent Executive of the Year, it would go to the Jets brain trust of owner Woody Johnson and GM Mike Tannenbaum.

After signing overrated Mark Sanchez to a contract extension, they wasted a fourth-round draft pick to bring the distracting Tebow Circus to New York. Sanchez fell apart, Jets coach Rex Ryan realized in training camp that Tebow couldn't play and never used him during the season, and what was supposed to be a contending team finished 6-10.

Tannenbaum was fired Monday, in part because the owner couldn't fire himself.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Hall Call: 4 get my vote; most big names don't

Being a Hall of Fame voter is never easy for anybody who takes the task seriously. And I do. 

Still, some years are more difficult than others, and this probably was the most challenging -- and most interesting -- ballot I've encountered in my nearly two decades as a BBWAA vote-caster. Between the steroid allegations and the sheer number of qualified first-year candidates, there were numerous tough calls.

Here's how I reasoned with myself as I first eliminated my non-candidates and then ultimately filled out my ballot. 


SANDY ALOMAR JR. … Highly intelligent future manager, only decent numbers.
JEFF CIRILLO … Solid role player.
ROYCE CLAYTON … Good-fielding shortstop but soft hitter.
JEFF CONINE … Solid player but stats fall short.
SHAWN GREEN … 2,003 hits and 328 HR but lacking run production.
ROBERTO HERNANDEZ … 326 saves but not dominant enough.
RYAN KLESKO … Valuable role player but only decent stats.
JOSE MESA … 321 saves but hardly dominant.
REGGIE SANDERS … Above-average player but only 983 RBI.
AARON SELE … Only 10 W per season and 4.61 ERA.
MIKE STANTON … Mostly a middle reliever and set-up man.
TODD WALKER … Defensive shortcomings and only OK numbers.
RONDELL WHITE … Proved that steroids don't help everybody.
WOODY WILLIAMS … Solid starter but mediocre record and ERA.


STEVE FINLEY … Outstanding outfielder with 2,548 hits, 304 HR and 320 SB but only 2-time All-Star and one top-10 MVP.

JULIO FRANCO … .298 hitter over 23 seasons with 2,586 career hits, but not nearly enough run production.

KENNY LOFTON … One of the best leadoff hitters in recent history but well behind Raines in most categories. 

EDGAR MARTINEZ … Possibly the best DH ever but his career HR (309), RBI (1,261) and slugging (.515) were hardly eye-popping.

DON MATTINGLY … Outstanding player but injuries and lack of run-production during the second half of his career derails his candidacy.

FRED McGRIFF … Hard to argue with most of his numbers, including 493 HR, 1,550 RBI, eight 100 RBI seasons. But only one top-5 MVP vote (and no top-3) and no truly “magic” numbers (2,490 hits, 493 HR, .509 slugging). Also, one of the worst-fielding first basemen I’ve ever seen. Sorry, Crime Dog fans, but I can’t shake the image of so many horrific plays when I covered his time with the Cubs.

LARRY WALKER … He’s close in many categories, and had a strong .965 OPS, but he was not quite dominant enough among his peers. Plus, his huge production at Coors Field skews all of his numbers.

DAVID WELLS … A fat man’s Curt Schilling: good clutch pitcher with a high career winning percentage. But his high ERA, pedestrian WHIP figure and low K total put him behind Schilling and Morris.

BERNIE WILLIAMS … Fine contributor to winning teams but quite short in major statistical categories.

That leaves the following 14 for serious consideration:

Jeff Bagwell
Craig Biggio
Barry Bonds
Roger Clemens
Mark McGwire
Jack Morris
Dale Murphy
Rafael Palmeiro
Mike Piazza
Tim Raines
Curt Schilling
Lee Smith
Sammy Sosa
Alan Trammell


JEFF BAGWELL … Outstanding career numbers but behind Fred McGriff in most categories. His HR total, 449, is not extraordinary for a first baseman. There is steroid talk but no proof, so my decision on this borderline case was tipped by his poor postseason numbers for a Houston team that desperately needed more from its leader to win pennants. The one year the Astros finally made the World Series, they did it without an injured Bagwell. The fact that he got his numbers in 15 seasons (McGriff needed 19), that he played much of his career in the Astrodome (a pitcher’s park) and that he finished in the top-5 of MVP voting three times puts him very close. I could consider him in the future.

DALE MURPHY … One of the great guys and honorable competitors. That his final year on the ballot coincides with the first year of so many infamous juicers, it is very, very tempting to give him a symbolic vote. And he certainly has some impressive accomplishments, including consecutive MVP awards. But his numbers simply fall short in so many areas, including batting average, hits, HR, RBI, OBP and slugging. The clincher: He ranks in the top 50 in only one major statistical category -- strikeouts.

LEE SMITH … He retired as MLB's all-time saves leader (since eclipsed), and that alone warrants serious consideration. However, he benefited greatly from the relatively recent trend in which closers became one-inning specialists. Closers are so specialized, I need a guy to be flat-out dominating in the vein of Rich Gossage, Rollie Fingers or Mariano Rivera to give him my vote.

ALAN TRAMMELL … A super-solid player who helped usher in the era of shortstops making major offensive contributions. Regardless of position, however, I have trouble voting for a guy who had only one 100 RBI season, one 200-hit season and two 20 HR seasons. Not a single one of his career numbers screams “Hall of Fame.” Super-solid is admirable but doesn’t equate to an all-time great.


BARRY BONDS … Statistical no-brainer but steroid use had a major impact on his numbers in the latter third of his career. Game of Shadows, the book that is considered the definitive chronicle of his juicing, said he began using in 1999 after he was jealous of the attention Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire received the year before. If that is true, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, Bonds already had incredible career numbers and was well on his way to a Hall of Fame career. Given all that, I almost surely will vote for him … just not this year. I never have been a voter who emphasized “first-ballot Hall of Famer” as being special, but I will in this kind of case.

ROGER CLEMENS … See my Bonds explanation regarding Hall of Fame numbers before he allegedly started juicing. Unlike Bonds, Clemens was completely cleared by a jury. Still, I’m guessing the true Clemens story has not been told yet, so I’m also going to deny him first-ballot Hall status. As an aside, one could argue that all the talk about him making a comeback next season is another reason to delay his Hall entrance.

MARK McGWIRE … He’s kind of the anti-Bonds/Clemens. His numbers were nowhere near Hall worthy until he started using his keister as a pin-cushion. An amazing 42 percent of his career HRs came during the four-year stretch when he was cheating and lying his head off. Given his one-dimensional skill set, it’s not especially difficult to leave the box next to his name unchecked. He’ll never get my vote, and it’s not just because of the cheating.

RAFAEL PALMEIRO … Although I try not to let steroid allegations alone overwhelm my ballot, I am quite convinced that pretty much his entire career was a fraud. So it’s easy for me to focus on his unimpressive OPS, WAR, slugging and postseason numbers and deny him my vote.

MIKE PIAZZA … For now, I’m going to hold off. There are enough steroid questions -- combined with a WAR ranked 179th all-time and a five-year fade at the end of his career – to make him less than a first-ballot Hall of Famer in my eyes.

SAMMY SOSA … That he was outed as a steroid cheat by the New York Times probably is damning enough in the eyes of most voters. Even if he never had put needles in his rump, however, the fact that he was caught using a corked bat suggests there is nothing he wouldn’t do to gain an unfair advantage. He was a horrible teammate, too. The juicing puts his career accomplishments in doubt and his lack of character clinches it for me: He’s not deserving of enshrinement, 600-plus homers or not.


CRAIG BIGGIO … The steroid whispers are barely audible and not a good enough reason to overlook the rest of his accomplishments. He has the fifth-most doubles ever (No. 1 among right-handed hitters), and also ranks in the top 21 in runs and hits. A multiple-threat player who had 291 HR and 414 SB. Unlike Bagwell, he was the spark plug of Houston’s drive to its only pennant. A multiple Gold Glover at second base who moved to other positions when the Astros had the need. Numbers are almost identical to those of Robin Yount, a first-ballot choice (albeit just barely).

JACK MORRIS … His stats – 254 wins, .577 winning percentage, 3.90 ERA – make him a borderline case. But he was a workhorse for the Tigers, Twins and Blue Jays, was one of the winningest pitchers in an increasingly hitter-friendly era and had some memorable clutch performances. I unashamedly admit that his 10-inning shutout of Atlanta in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series – probably the most exciting event I ever covered – has influenced my vote. 

CURT SCHILLING … Like Morris, not a slam-dunk choice. Given that he posted only 216 regular-season wins, I wish his ERA had been lower than 3.46. Still, his strikeout total (15th all-time) and K-to-BB ratio (second ever) are impressive. As fewer and fewer pitchers worked deep into games, his nine seasons of 200-plus innings and 83 complete games also deserve mention. Finally, there was his incredible postseason success: an 11-2 record, the third-best postseason winning percentage ever, a 2.23 ERA and a crucial role on three World Series winners. In five postseason elimination games, he went 4-0 with a 1.37 ERA. How am I supposed to ignore those clutch numbers? I’m not, and I didn't.

TIM RAINES … In a team photo of best leadoff men ever, Raines would be featured prominently. His career numbers generally were more impressive than those of Lou Brock. Reached base more in his career than Tony Gwynn did and had an almost identical OBP. As ESPN’s Jayson Stark pointed out, every eligible player who reached base as many times as Raines did and had as high an OBP is in the Hall. Throw in his base-stealing – fifth ever with 808 and second all-time with a .847 success rate -- and he gets my vote.

So there you have it ...

Biggio, Morris, Schilling and Raines get my check marks; Bonds, Clemens and Sosa don't (though Bonds and Clemens might as early as next year).

Phew! That was exhausting!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Hall ballot is all the (roid) rage

Just got my Baseball Hall of Fame ballot in the mail.

This is The Big One:

Bonds, Sosa, Clemens and Piazza joining McGwire and Palmeiro in the first real Juicer Central Ballot.

Biggio, Schilling, Bagwell, Morris, Raines are among those also on a ballot packed with legitimate candidates.

I always take this seriously, as it's both a responsibility and a privilege, but will be extra diligent this time around. This is probably the most anticipated ballot in the nearly 20 years I've been a voting BBWAA member.

I'll post again after I've made my decisions.