Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Ortiz vs. Yaz: A fool's debate

David Ortiz hit 2 homeruns Monday night, giving him 453 for his career, one more than legendary Red Sox Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski. And then the arguing started.

I can imagine older fans favor Yaz, who could play the field well (7 Gold Gloves) and probably didn't take PEDs. Younger fans probably don't care about defense, and only know Yaz as a collection of stats and newsreel footage, whereas they can remember with vivid detail Ortiz's big hits, and the celebrations they sparked. Yaz has Gold Gloves, Ortiz has rings. Yaz had to deal with a Curse, Ortiz ended it.

Some think that Yaz is a better all around player, but they'd take Ortiz in a clutch situation. That seems to be a popular opinion.

Neither are right. Neither are wrong. Trying to argue about which is better is a fool's debate, because each's greatness is unique and different and not comparable.

Ortiz will be in the Hall of Fame because of his postseason heroics. The 450+ homeruns he hits will tag along, but they're not the reason he'll be inducted. Ortiz has the rings, he has the big hits, he spearheaded the 2004 comeback. Ortiz's homeruns don't have much to do with his future enshrinement. Yaz, on the other hand, is in Cooperstown BECAUSE of his 453 homeruns, along with his other offensive stats.

The fact is that until recently 450 homerun hitters were uncommon. These days, hulking, defensively challenged 450 homerun hitters with questionable blood chemistry are a dime a dozen. Paul Konerko has 439, Adam Dunn 454, Jose Canseco 462,  Carlos Delgado 473, Gary Sheffield 509, Manny Ramirez 555. In an era where Jim Thome has 612 homeruns, cracking 450 just isn't a big deal.

Yaz and Ortiz have similar HR totals, but the reasons they are great are very different. Yaz was great for 15 years. Ortiz has been great in October. Those are the reasons they'll be hanging out in Cooperstown together.

Funnily, Yaz also has great postseason numbers (17 games, 4 HR, 11 RBI, .369 average, 1.047 OPS). Ortiz also has had a number of great regular seasons. However, these are not the reasons that the two are considered great. So arguing about which was greater is a foolish exercise, since they are great for different reasons.

It's like comparing Ty Cobb to Babe Ruth. One was great because he hit for a high average and stole bases, the other was great because he hit homeruns and won World Series. Ruth had a .342 average, 10th all-time, but that's not why he's considered great.

Compare Rickey Henderson, a leadoff hitter, to Ken Griffey Jr., a middle of the lineup power hitter. Compare the defensive genius of Ozzie Smith to the batting titles of Tony Gwynn. Compare the greatness Tom Glavine, who never led his league in ERA, to the 7-year dominance of Pedro Martinez from 1997-2003.

Now people want to compare Ortiz's clutchness in the big moment with Yastrzemski's consistent quality over a long period of time?

Good luck.

Do the Red Sox have a chance at making the playoffs?

The offense scored 14 runs off 18 hits. John Lackey threw only 76 pitches in 7 innings. The Sox have outscored their opponents 22-2 in the last 3 games. That's 5 wins in a row and 8 of their last 9. Unfortunately, what happened in Anaheim last night had more of an impact on Red Sox playoff hopes than what happened in Toronto. The Orioles beat the Angels 4-2.

The Red Sox magic number is 72 to win the division, 70 to win the Wild Card. Yet they have 63 games left to play. They need help to make the playoffs. In fact they've dug themselves such a deep hole that they need help from more than one team. Even if the O's lost, even if the second Wild Card holding Mariners lost, there are a multitude of teams in the Red Sox way. It seems preposterous to even discuss the Sox making the playoffs.

We've been so starved for success this season, that any sequence of games that aren't painful to watch feels like winning a championship.

Don't get me wrong, I'm enjoying the wins. Monday night's victory was 2 hours and 45 minutes of great hitting and good pitching. The Sox hit 4 homeruns. They were 7 for 13 with RISP. They knocked in 8 runs with 2 outs. Eight starters got hits, 7 scored, 6 knocked runs in. Xander Bogaerts didn't commit an error, Dustin Pedroia didn't get caught stealing, and AJ Pierzynski didn't strikeout.

I want to see the Sox finish strong and go into 2015 with some momentum. I want to see players establish themselves and perhaps win jobs on the 2015 team. It would indeed be amazing to see this team somehow make the playoffs. However, there's a difference between cheerful optimism and wishful fantasy. The Sox playing postseason baseball in 2014 would be miraculous. So would winning MegaMillions. So would being stranded on a tropical island with Kate Upton and Scarlett Johansson, with only one bikini, and I'm the one who brought all the sunscreen.

There's a chance it might happen, but don't hold your breath.

The Sox have only partial control over their destiny. Their success needs to be coupled with failures by other teams (plural). They have 37 games remaining against AL East opponents. Only 6 against Baltimore. Maybe Baltimore loses 8 in a row, and the Sox clean up against the Jays, Yankees, and Rays. It's possible. It does depend on Baltimore losing, and losing badly. And the other AL East teams also losing.

And how much faith can one have that this Sox team will continue to roll for the rest of the year? I remember the 7-game win streak this team went on at the end of May and into June. That success was the meat in a failure sandwich. A 10-game losing streak came before it, a 5-game losing streak after it. The Sox played .318 baseball (7-15) in that 22-game stretch, despite the winning streak.

This current 8-1 run comes after the Sox had a 1-7 skid, which was part of a 5-13 stretch. In the last 27 games, the Sox are 13-14. Yet the Sox Information Ministers on NESN were talking wishfully about playoff chances, and looking at the trade deadline as a day to buy, not sell.

I'm not saying all this to bring you down, Sox fans. I'm saying this because these wins should be enjoyed individually, not as part of a potential charge back into the pennant race. It makes me look forward to tonight's game. It does not, however, make me look forward to October baseball.

Photo Credit:
Darren Calabrese/Associated Press - The Canadian Press

Monday, July 21, 2014

It's more expensive to replace Jon Lester than to sign him

Against the Royals Sunday, Jon Lester threw 8 scoreless innings, allowing only 4 hits and striking out 8. It was his 10th win of the season for a team that's had difficulty reaching .500. Lester is 4th in the AL in ERA (2.50), 8th in WHIP (1.12), 6th in strikeouts (142), 4th in innings (137.0), tied for 5th in quality starts (15), and 8th in opposing OPS (.634).

The Red Sox are 13-7 (.650) when he pitches, 33-45 (.428) when he doesn't. This year if you have tickets to a Jon Lester game, you're 52% more likely to see a Red Sox win. Even though he's 41st in run support (3.35 runs per game). Only 3 other full-time AL starters get worse run support (Jake Peavy is one of them).

With each victory, his impending contract grows fatter and fatter.

But is he worth the years? Is he worth the dollars? What if the cost is $150 million for 6 years? What if it's more?

Wrong questions. The question isn't "Is Jon Lester worth X?" The question is "What would Jon Lester cost to replace?"

You might replace Jon Lester with another ace-like pitcher, which would require a similarly juicy contract. So unless you acquire someone better, what's the point? Or you could also replace him with a combination of pitchers and hitters that improve the team, spreading that money among several arms and bats. However, buying enough arms and bats to make up for Lester's absence would cost more than keeping Lester.

It's usually unwise to take a team that needs a complete overhaul, like the Red Sox, and do something that makes them worse. It's like being out of food in your house, and deciding to throw out your refrigerator before you go get groceries. You're giving yourself a much bigger problem to deal with.

This team's lineup is in horrible shape. Two starters in Sunday's game had averages below .200. Six had averages below .250. The 2015 Sox will need a catcher, two guys on the left side of the infield, along with a couple of outfielders. Looking farther ahead, David Ortiz turns 39 in a few months. So that bat will need to be replaced someday.

Taking Lester out of the equation would put more onus on the offense to carry this team. Which means the team would need to spend money to fill these holes in the lineup. Lots of money. The Red Sox seem to want to give young, inexpensive talent a chance to find a place in the Majors. Without Lester, however, an offense like that will be losing games 5-3 instead of winning them 3-2.

The offense needs work. Keeping Jon Lester will ensure that the cost of that work doesn't need to be catastrophically expensive in order to win.

Lester's leaving would also affect the bullpen. He's averaging 6.85 innings per start. If you assume the 9th being pitched by the closer, on average Lester's starts require a mere 0.15 innings of middle-relief work. Remove Lester from the rotation and now the bullpen is forced to use another set-up guy once a week. Add that to the cost of not signing Lester.

The most obvious area affected by Lester's departure would be the rotation. The unfortunate truth of Boston baseball in 2014 is that the Sox rotation after Lester and John Lackey is weak and unreliable. And Lackey turns 36 in October. He also has a potential payday ahead of him, or a retirement.

The Sox are 12th in team ERA this year at 3.76. Remove Lester and the team ERA increases to 3.99, 21st in baseball.

The Sox are 7th in quality starts with 58. Lester's 15 are slightly more than a fourth of those. Without them the Sox have 43, which would put them in 25th. Even if the Sox replaced Lester with a guy who had 10 quality starts at this point, the Sox would fall from 7th to 14th.

Lester lifts the rotation, balancing out the weakness and unreliability at the bottom with strength and consistency at the top.

Replacing Jon Lester with another pitcher of his caliber will cost the same as signing Jon Lester. If the Sox let Lester walk, they'll spend more money in other areas to make up for his absence. Another starting pitcher would need to be signed, the bullpen would need to be bolstered, the offense would need to be dramatically improved to make up for the weaker starting pitching.

The less expensive thing to do is to sign Jon Lester. Even if the money seems absurd, even if he's 36 at the end of the deal and the Sox are weighed down by a $25M/year salary, it will be cheaper than trying to improve the team once he's gone.

Photo Credit:
Michael Dwyer/AP Photo

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Red Sox will have homefield advantage if they make 2014 World Series

That headline is kind of a jerk move. My point is that the reality of this lost season is starting to sink in. This is no longer an abstract notion of a World Series winning team stuck in last place, failure is becoming concrete. Homefield advantage in the World Series was determined Tuesday night and nobody in Boston cared. The trade deadline approaches and Sox fans who last year wanted to get Jake Peavy now want to get something for Peavy. Fan favorites like Jonny Gomes and Koji Uehara could be shipped elsewhere, heroes of the past exchanged for future potential, a clear demonstration of present irrelevance.

How did we get here? How do we get out?

Everything that came together for the 2013 Sox came apart in 2014. Daniel Nava went back to being Daniel Nava. Shane Victorino went back to the DL. So did Clay Buchholz. The third most important offensive player in 2013, Jacoby Ellsbury, was lost and not replaced. Another key contributor, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, was lost and replaced by AJ Pierzynski, a man so detestable he would have rivaled Josh Beckett for most hated on the infamous 2012 Sox.

This team was built with more hope than players. Go back to the off-season. Hopefully Grady Sizemore works out. Hopefully Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts become Rookie of the Year candidates. Hopefully Will Middlebrooks turns himself around. Hopefully young pitchers step up in the rotation and bullpen.

It's one thing to be optimistic about young players, it's another thing to let yourself become dependent on them. Hope is something you hold up and let inspire you, not something you lean on.

So how do we change things going forward?

Step #1: Sign Jon Lester
Imagine the 2014 Sox without him. Imagine the 2013 Sox without him. Imagine trying to build a winner in 2015 without him. How would you do that?

The Red Sox, as bad as they are in 2014, are 12-7 (.631) when Lester starts. They're 31-45 (.408) in all other games. If Lester leaves the Red Sox are barely a .400 team. Lester is the first step forward because losing him would be a significant step backward.

Step #2: Send the kids back to Pawtucket
Will Middlebrooks, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., all of them earned their shot at the Majors, all of them have failed. JBJ can field but is an awful hitter. Bogaerts can't hit or field. The Sox had no contingency plans if these guys didn't succeed right away. Reliable players should fill these spots until the kids are ready to try again. The Sox don't need to overspend, as they did for Stephen Drew. They just need reliability. And they need infielders who can field their positions.

Step #3: Sign Lackey to a legit deal
Don't try to be cute and exercise Lackey's $500,000 option. You can sign him to a real contract on favorable terms. Unlike with Lester, the Sox actually have negotiating leverage with Lackey because of that cheap option. They can keep him at a rate less expensive than replacing him, but still giving him the dignity and respect he has earned the last year and a half.

Step #4: Get hitters
The Red Sox seem gun-shy to spend money to get a big hitter. Maybe the bad tastes of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford remain in their proverbial mouths. The Sox don't need to get All-Star sluggers. Just get guys who can add depth to the lineup after the 5th hitter.

Part of this step is to stop signing fill-in guys to 1 or 2 year deals because you have a minor leaguer earmarked for that position in 2016 or 2017. This goes back to depending too much on AAA players to help your Major League team. Sign legit Major Leaguers to normal Major League deals, and if in 2 years you have two guys who can play the same position, make a trade. I'd much rather have two short-stops and have options, than be forced to depend on a 21-year old kid to adjust to the Majors and have no options if he fails.

Kurt Suzuki will be a free agent catcher. He's hitting .309. Hanley Ramirez might cost too much, but he can play either position on the left side of the infield. Asdrubal Cabrera isn't a great hitter, but he's decent, and probably won't cost much at short. It would be nice to take Nelson Cruz away from the Orioles or Melky Cabrera from the Jays. There are bats available for hire. Hire some.

The Sox will need a catcher, a short-stop, a third baseman, and a new outfield. Brock Holt can fill only one of those holes each night. There's plenty of good and very good talent out there to compile a lineup that is strong at the top and deep throughout.

ESPN gives the Red Sox a 2.4% chance at making the playoffs in 2014. That's slightly less than your chance of hitting a number in roulette. Thankfully, the Sox are capable of making moves and giving themselves the house edge to make the 2015 playoffs.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

PawSox 5, White Sox 4

Brock Holt leading off and playing shortstop. Christian Vazquez catching. Rubby De La Rosa on the mound. If parking had been free, fans at Fenway Park might have thought they were at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket. The home team also won, another thing that's happened more in Pawtucket this season than Boston.

To be fair, the Major League regulars made most of the winning plays in Wednesday night's game. At best, Rubby De La Rosa was okay in his 5 innings, giving up 2 homeruns and 3 runs in total. Vazquez was 0 for 3, Jackie Bradley Jr. was 0 for 4, Xander Bogaerts was 0 for 3. Mookie Betts had a great game, though. We'll get to him in a bit.

Brock Holt had been 0 for 4 until the 9th inning. His single to knock in Daniel Nava capped off a rally that was executed mostly by the established Major Leaguers in the middle of the lineup. Down 4-0 the Red Sox scored 3 runs in the 8th. Mookie Betts, one of the few Pawtucket faces who did well in the game, led off the inning with a double. He scored on a Pedroia single. Pedroia scored on an Ortiz double. Jonny Gomes hit another double to knock in Ortiz.

The back end of the bullpen maintained the close deficit. Junichi Tazawa pitched a scoreless 8th. Recently named All-Star Koji Uehara struck out the side in the 9th.

In the bottom of the inning Mookie Betts got on base again (HBP). Daniel Nava drove him in with a double. And Brock Holt's line drive single to right ended the game.

The season is over in terms of competing for playoff spots. However there are 71 games left and it's important to end the season with some positives that can be carried over to 2015. Wins like this, where the offense and the bullpen step up after the starting pitcher isn't great, are important lessons for younger players. And for some older ones too.

Red Sox and White Sox finish their series Thursday afternoon at 4. Jon Lester faces 5-7 Jose Quintana.

Photo Credit: Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Red Sox release AJ Pierzynski... And there was much rejoicing

The Red Sox have designated AJ Pierzynski for assignment. Thank God.

Let's talk about how wrong the AJ Pierzynski acquisition was and how poorly he played here. The move was initially criticized because of Pierzynski's reputation as a bad character guy. Fans worried he'd be a clubhouse disruption. The real issue, however, was how disruptive he was to the Sox lineup.

He's not a patient hitter. In the past 12 years the Red Sox have built an identity of patience at the plate. They emphasize the idea of waiting for your pitch, with the benefit of building up pitch counts. Pierzynski's approach contradicted all of that.

Pierzynski saw an average of 3.42 pitchers per plate appearance. Not only is that the lowest among Red Sox hitters, it's half a pitch lower than all other regular players (technically 0.48 lower than Jackie Bradley Jr.'s). Nobody on the Red Sox who has had a plate appearance this season, including pitchers, has seen fewer pitches per plate appearance. Jon Lester is at 3.67.

Compared to catchers around baseball, Pierzynski's production was awful. Of the 24 catchers with 200+ plate appearances, Pierzynski was 20th in OBP (.286) and 23rd in SLG (.348). His OPS (.670) was also 23rd.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the man Pierzynski replaced, has an OBP .038 higher than Pierzynski's and is slugging .056 higher. Salty has 31 walks, Pierzynski has 9. On average Salty sees 0.61 more pitchers per plate appearance.

Replacing Saltalamacchia with Pierzynski is one of the reasons the Red Sox offense has struggled so much this season compared to last. The Red Sox took something that worked in 2013, went in a completely opposite direction and made it worse, and now they've given up on it completely.

The Sox spent $8.25 million on this guy. And they're trying to nickel-and-dime Jon Lester.

Anyway, I'm happy about this. Goodbye, AJ.

Photo Credit: AP

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Red Sox held to 2 hits by Chicago... again

Who is Scott Carroll? Before Monday night he was just another journeyman pitcher. A 29-year old righthander who finally made it to The Show in 2014, struggling with a 2-5 record and an ERA over 5.

But last night he became Cy freaking Young, thanks to an inept Red Sox offense that only managed 2 hits. In his previous start Carroll allowed 10 hits and 7 runs. This was his first quality start since May 3rd. His career high in strikeouts coming into this game was 4. He struck out 5 Red Sox Monday night.

The Red Sox 1 through 6 hitters went an astonishingly pathetic 0 for 21. AJ Pierzynski and Jackie Bradley each hit singles. Bradley also walked, as did David Ortiz and Mike Napoli. That's it. In a 3 hour game (not including the rain delay), the Red Sox played around 7 minutes of baseball with anyone on base.

They didn't get a runner to 2nd until the 6th. And then again in the 8th. Neither reached 3rd.

I'd feel sympathy for Clay Buchholz except he made bad pitches and gave up some bombs. Adam Dunn's solo homerun in the 2nd would have been enough to give the White Sox a win, but Dayan Viciedo made sure with a 3-run shot in the 4th.

Buchholz looked much sharper after that, but I don't care. We all know he has the stuff to do that. His issue is consistency. And giving up homeruns and doubles for a few innings, then shutting an opponent down for the next few innings is essentially the story of his inconsistent career.

Here's a blame pie for this loss:

Clay Buchholz: 30% - 4 ER, 2 HR
Brock Holt: 15% - 0 for 4, 2 RISP LOB
Dustin Pedroia: 15% - 0 for 4
Daniel Nava: 10% - 0 for 4
Stephen Drew: 10% - 0 for 3
Xander Bogaerts: 10% - 0 for 3
David Ortiz: 5% - 0 for 3, BB
Mike Napoli: 5% - 0 for 3, BB

The Red Sox are 1-6 on this homestand, and are now 10 games out of both the division and the wild card.

John Danks (7-6) faces Brandon Workman (1-2) Tuesday night.

Photo Credit: Charles Krupa/AP Photo

Monday, July 07, 2014

Sorry Folks, Jackie Bradley Jr. Still Sucks

Jackie Bradley Jr. went 2 for 4 in Sunday's 7-6 loss to Baltimore. And did you know he also made a great catch? And that he also threw an Oriole out at the plate? His 10th outfield assist of the season! And he drew a walk, but not just any walk, an 11-pitch walk! Eleven pitches!!!

Sorry, I'm not excited by a pair of singles. Especially since Sunday was only JBJ's 12th multi-hit game of the year.

I'm not excited by 11-pitch walks. Especially since JBJ has only walked 25 times in 2014.

Outfield defense is nice, but on its own it does not excite me. If it did I would spend my spare time watching Darren Lewis highlights.

Jackie Bradley Jr. still sucks. There's no diplomatic way to say it. He's sucking. He sucks. He has fewer hits (55) than strikeouts (80). JBJ is 56th of 58 full-time outfielders in batting average (.218). He's 52nd in OBP (.298), and dead last in slugging (.310).

He's not a Major League outfielder. Not in 2014 at least. Nor should he have been forced to try to be a Major League outfielder. The Red Sox were negligent and left the role vacant, putting JBJ in a situation that was beyond his development as a player.

Bradley only reached AAA in 2013. In 374 plate appearances with the PawSox he hit a decent .275 with a nice OBP of .374. But in 107 big league plate appearances in 2013, he was severely overmatched. He hit .189. He struck out 3 times as often as he walked. This trend continued in 2014 spring training, and continues in the regular season. He actually slugged higher (.337) in 2013 than he has in 2014.

JBJ did nothing to earn a permanent spot on a Major League roster. The Red Sox failed at filling the vacancy left by Ellsbury, and so Bradley assumed the job. It's like a company promoting an employee with one month's experience, who struggled in the job, to a management position because they forgot to hire a manager.

It should be tough to crack the starting nine, especially on a big-market, World Series winning team like the Red Sox. Players should have to earn their way to a starting spot. Ellsbury did that in 2007 by hitting .452 in AA Portland, then .298 in Pawtucket with 33 stolen bases. He took advantage of his big league opportunity by hitting .353 in the Majors that year, and then doing well in the postseason.

Dustin Pedroia earned his spot with his .384 OBP in Pawtucket in 2006.

We're in the middle of seeing Brock Holt earn a roster spot with his play. He has 19 more hits than Bradley this season, in 28 fewer ABs.

JBJ earned a look at the Majors, he earned a shot. But he has done nothing to deserve to stay on an MLB roster, let alone be a starter. The Red Sox need to come back in 2015 with a roster that reflects this, not one full of vacancies that forces players into roles that are beyond their development.

Photo Credit:
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

USA Soccer Isn't Elite Because the Elite Teams Are Ridiculously Good

US Soccer remains second tier, underneath the true superpowers of the sport. The US is somewhere outside the top 10 in the world, but inside the top 25. They're equivalent to a mid-major college basketball team. They're the Wichita State of world soccer. They advance a few rounds, but the big boys always wind up winning it all.

And that's not a criticism. It's difficult to crack into the top 10 in world soccer. To do so, one of those elite teams would have to be dislodged. Do you think Germany is going to fall out of the top 10 any time soon? They're in their 15th straight World Cup quarterfinals. That's 60 years, and most of that time they were playing as a divided country.

There are a number of reasons the US is good, but not great at soccer. Our best athletes play football, basketball, baseball, hockey, lacrosse, track and field, and so on. We don't have soccer academies like European league teams have, signing 13-year old prospects to train with the best coaches and learn from the best players in the world. College and MLS players don't get the experience of playing against the best in the world on a regular basis like players in European leagues.

However, there are more reasons beyond internal ones, to explain why US Soccer is not elitel. We don't give enough credit to other countries for how good they are at the sport. Germany, Brazil, the Netherlands, France, Argentina, this is their game. Only 8 countries have ever won the World Cup, and powerhouses like Brazil (5 World Cups) are a significant reason why it's so hard for anyone else to win.

It's arrogant to presume that if the USA tried a little harder at soccer, they'd be able to take control of the game from these powerhouses. This game is theirs, and has been for decades. They've controlled the game throughout the years against repeated challengers.

Look at England. They don't have the same "disadvantages" that the US has, with other sports taking priority, and with a college system instead of an academy system. Yet they struggle in these tournaments just the same. England won their World Cup 48 years ago. They've never won a European Championship.

We don't produce great players at the same rate and abundance as soccer powerhouses.

The only truly world class player on Team USA is Tim Howard. There are a number of great and good American players, but Howard is one of those rare players that can change a game all by himself. He's the goalkeeping equivalent of Messi or Ronaldo.

You've also got guys like Clint Dempsey, who scored 50 goals in 184 goals for Fulham in England years ago. That's very good, but Brazil and the Netherlands have a couple of guys much better than Dempsey. Germany has 4 or 5 guys that can all score as well as Dempsey. Argentina have Messi. Uruguay had Suarez. And those two guys are on an inhuman level.

Matching these teams is incredibly difficult. The notion that "we don't win the World Cup because we don't do X, and we don't do enough Y" basically ignores the fact that dozens of other countries want to win the World Cup too. And they've been playing this game, and playing it well, for decades. And they too struggle to succeed in these tournaments.

Soccer is to Brazil and Germany what hockey is to Canada. Only more so. The US could send all their young soccer phenoms to European academies, they could give financial incentives for top athletes to choose soccer over other sports, and we'd still find ourselves on the second tier. English players go to academies and get paid millions, and they still can't get to the next level.

The good news is, soccer can be cyclical. A handful of players can lift a team to a higher level. Spain dominated for a few years, they've fallen back down. Uruguay is nothing without Suarez. If Portugal found another great player to support Ronaldo, they'd be dominant.

Team USA has improved over the last 20 years. They're a few players away from being true World Cup contenders. Maybe those players will come along in 5 or 10 years. Maybe they won't and the US might even find themselves struggling to qualify again.

That's why it's important to enjoy every good moment, every goal, every save, every win, every World Cup qualification, every advancement from the group stage.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Luis Suarez Should Be Banned from the World Cup, John Henry Should Make a Statement

Luis Suarez is one of the most dangerous strikers in world soccer, not just for his scoring, but for his biting. Late in Uruguay's match against Italy, Suarez bit Giorgio Chiellini. He received no punishment on the field but FIFA are investigating the incident.

It's the third time Suarez has bit an opposing player. A dental hat trick. He's bitten opponents in three countries on two continents. In the past he's sampled Dutch and Serbian flesh. This was his first taste of Italian.

The whole thing is just insane. It's one thing for players to push, shove, even headbutt or punch in the heat of the moment. In all sports, players lose tempers and cross such lines. But to revert to biting someone, and to do so repeatedly, is so psychologically bizarre. That's something you'd expect a troubled kindergartner to do, and then the teacher would have to call home to his parents.

"Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Suarez? I'm afraid I have bad news. Luis is biting again."

As the Hannibal Lector and vampire jokes flow, so does the disgust and embarrassment from the soccer world. Few are defending Suarez. One of the few is Uruguay head coach Oscar Tabarez. After the game he said:

"I do not see why he would not play anymore at the World Cup as you are suggesting. Suarez is the target of some British press. If we see he is going to be attacked, which has begun at this press conference, we're going to defend him. I'm not going to repeat a response three times. I didn't see (an) incident with Suarez. I'm not going to comment. This is a World Cup. It is not about morality."

Those remarks had been translated from Spanish to English. I'll translate from English to Coachingese:

"If Suarez gets suspended, we have no chance. I'd defend him even if he bit off my left nut."

Uruguay's captain, Diego Lugano is in utter denial:

"You need to show me what happened because I didn't see anything. Did you see it today or did you see what happened in other years? You couldn't have seen it today because nothing happened.”

It's up to FIFA to discipline Suarez, because his coach has no interest in doing so, and clearly Suarez has no concept of self-discipline. Suarez feels unfairly criticized by media and fans even though he's been suspended twice for biting other players, and once for using racially charged language against an opponent. In his mind he's a victim. Everyone is out to get him and he can't figure out why.

There's a Boston connection to this. Suarez plays for Liverpool FC, which is owned by John Henry and Fenway Sports Group (FSG). Suarez is the team's best player, by far. This is the equivalent of David Ortiz biting an opponent during the World Baseball Classic.

Will John Henry do or say anything about this incident? Liverpool/Red Sox Ownership stood behind Suarez in 2011 when he was suspended 8 games and fined 40,000 pounds for directing racial language against an opposing player. I don't expect Henry or FSG to defend Suarez now. The evidence against him is too blatant, and he's a repeat offender.

I would like to hear something from FSG. Anything. This is a big story across the world, and Suarez works for John Henry. You'd think Henry would want to comment. Will any media in Boston ask Henry about it? Will any reporter have the stones to ask Henry if Suarez's recent contract extension includes full dental coverage?

Suarez should be banned for the remainder of the World Cup, perhaps longer than that. And the team that pays him millions should issue some sort of statement about the incident. John Henry and Fenway Sports Group can't sit on the sidelines. They need to take a stand one way or another.

He bit a dude. How can you not come out and say "That's messed up?"