Saturday, February 25, 2017

The New NASCAR

NASCAR has a new title sponsor, so it only makes sense that they've decided to make a bunch of changes that they think will make things simpler and easier to follow, but in reality are much more complicated than they intended.  I don't know if I'm for or against the changes (or if I'll be invested enough to care), but I definitely like the increased emphasis on winning and the idea of bonus points heading into the Chase (is it still called that?).

The biggest change is that races are now broken down into three "stages," with bonus points being awarded to the top 10 at the end of each stage.  Sorry, but that just sounds confusing.  The only other thing I can think of where you get points in the middle of the race is track cycling...and does anyone understand the points race in cycling?  And the Tour de France has a separate points leader jersey that's different than the yellow jersey.  But when and how they collect these points is beyond me.

I'm willing to bet that I'm not the only person who's going to be confused by this whole "segment" thing.  I guess the idea behind it is to create an end-of-race like excitement at multiple points throughout the race.  Except I highly doubt guys will go all-out on lap 40 of a 200-lap race just for a couple bonus points (maybe later in the season if a playoff berth depends on it, but that's about it).

My guess is that the theory behind the "segments," other than "creating more excitement" is to reward drivers for doing well during the race.  I can somewhat understand the rationale there.  In the past, if someone led 130 laps, but ended up finishing 30th because of a blown out tire or an accident, he'd only get the 15 or so points for 30th place.  There was no reward for dominating the race until something out of their control happened.  Now there is.  But, if you ask me, I'd bet drivers would still prefer finishing in the Top 10 at the end of the race than winning the first segment and calling it a day.

Now that I'm thinking of it, they probably got that idea from themselves.  Because that's pretty much the exact format of the All-Star Race every year.  But even in the All-Star Race, being in first at the end of a segment doesn't really get you anything (I don't even think there's any money involved).  It's only the winner at the end of the race that gets the $1 million.  And in the All-Star Race, they have mandatory pit stops at the end of each segment (they even reset the field before the final one), so it really is like three separate races.  What's unclear about doing it in the regular season races is if they cross the start/finish line and just keep going as if they're in the middle of a race (which they are).

One of the benefits of this new system is that all bonus points, from both segments and finishes, carry over into the next round.  Likewise, when they reset the points at the start of the Chase, they're actually going to give them bonus points based on their position in the standings.  I never quite understood why they didn't do that in the past.  Yes, I get the whole "everybody starts fresh" thing, but if you lead by 200-something points at the end of the regular season, you deserve to have a lead of more than three at the start of the playoffs.

Have you ever noticed, too, that these format changes always seem to happen after Jimmie Johnson wins the NASCAR Cup (I do prefer that to Monster Energy Cup)?  Seriously, the dude is like the Patriots.  The format doesn't really seem to matter.  He manages to win anyway.  I'm sure he'll figure it out in this way, too.  I'm not a fan of Jimmie Johnson (I find is constant winning incredibly annoying), but what he's done sure is impressive.  He's got seven titles, the same as NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but has done it how many different way?

Speaking of the great Dale Earnhardt, his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. makes his long-awaited return to Cup Series racing this weekend at the Daytona 500.  He missed roughly the last half of the season last year because of a concussion, and it's very admirable that he decided to wait until he was totally symptom-free to return.  Most drivers (and their sponsors) would be itching to get back in the car and probably come back too early, which is dangerous on many levels.

Earnhardt started a very necessary discussion in a sport where the risk of injury (and even death) is much higher than it is in any other.  That's one of the reasons Carl Edwards gave for his sudden retirement, and Danica Patrick has said that she'd seriously consider it if she got another concussion.

Dale Jr. has an impeccable sense of timing, too.  Because he comes back just as some of NASCAR's other more popular drivers call it a career.  Jeff Gordon retired a year ago (although he ran a couple race in Dale Jr.'s place last year), and this year Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards join him in retirement.  Sure, Johnson's still there, and there are still plenty of transcendent NASCAR drivers like Kevin Harvick and the Busch Brothers (among others).  So, in a way, this Daytona 500 is a changing of the guard.  There are a lot of unfamiliar names in the field, meaning NASCAR's new generation has arrived.

Last year, we saw rookie Alexander Rossi win the Indy 500.  It's a lot tougher for rookies in NASCAR, especially at Daytona, so I still expect to see one of the usual suspects end up in the Winner's Circle after NASCAR's Super Bowl.  But to see one (or more) of the rookies win a race and perhaps make the Chase, that wouldn't surprise me at all.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Then There Were Two

Citing calls for a referendum, Budapest has withdrawn its bid for the 2024 Olympics.  Budapest was always viewed as the outsider in the race anyway, and their withdrawal announcement read as sort of an acceptance of that fact more than anything else.  The way I interpreted it, Budapest basically said "We're not gonna win, so we're gonna just give up."

That leaves the IOC with just two choices for the 2024 Games--Los Angeles and Paris.  This after there were just two choices for 2022, and three for both 2018 and 2020.  More cities have dropped out of Olympic bid races than actually allowed themselves to be part of the vote in the last two cycles.  It's an alarming trend, but it's not the first time that this has happened, either.

After the terrorist attacks in Munich and the cost overruns in Montreal, hosting the Olympics was not a very attractive option for many cities in the late 70s/early 80s.  Moscow and Los Angeles were the only candidates for the 1980 Games, LA ran essentially unopposed four years later, and the 1988 Olympics came down to just Seoul and Nagoya, Japan.  Then LA 84 happened, cities and countries figured out how to make money on the Olympics, and suddenly cities were lining up to host.

Now the Olympic movement is stuck with a similar problem.  Beijing and Sochi spent so much money, Tokyo's budget grows by the day, and Rio and Athens spent money that they didn't have, that people are questioning whether hosting the Olympics is worth it.  Nobody looks to London, which did everything right and held a tremendous Games (with full stadiums) that came in on budget while also establishing a lasting legacy, as the example of what to do.  They just look at those massive price tags and say "Thanks, but no thanks."  Especially in Western democracies, where governments need approval to spend public money and opposition groups, no matter the size, are enough to prevent a bid from even gettting off the ground.

The next Olympic vote after this one, obviously, is for the 2026 Winter Olympics.  And it's looking like that one might be a two- or three-horse race, too.  Just last week at the Alpine Skiing World Championships, the Swiss city of St. Moritz (which has hosted the Winter Olympics twice) decided not to pursue a bid because of public opposition.  Who's to say how many other European cities will come to the same conclusion?  It's entirely possible that we could end up with three straight Winter Olympics in the Far East, if only because Sapporo (the 1972 host), which is currently hosting the Asian Winter Games, might end up being the only serious bidder.

It's pure coincidence that Los Angeles is involved again, but that might be just what the Olympic movement needs.  Alan Abrahamson, the respected Olympic journalist, wrote an in-depth piece on his website arguing why he thinks LA is really the only choice for 2024.  Both LA and Paris have outstanding bids, and they both have such high public support that you know neither one is going anywhere.  But only LA is privately-financed.  Paris doesn't need to use a lot of public money, but that's still more than LA needs.

Personally, I don't care which one wins, and I know that either city will put on a tremendous Games in 2024.  And that just might be the Games that restores public faith in the Olympic process.  It's a faith that's shaken, but isn't completely gone.  The IOC knows that, too.  That's one of the reasons why Thomas Bach is pushing so hard for the joint award to both cities in September.

There was lukewarm perception to Bach's idea when he first proposed it.  As late as last week, there were some high-ranking IOC members that were skeptical about it.  Many of them didn't want to alienate Budapest by giving each of the other two cities an Olympics while they got nothing.  But Budapest themselves has taken that problem off their hands.  Does that put the dual award back in play?  Both cities have said they're focused on only 2024 and have no interest in 2028.  But seeing as only one of the two can host in 2024, does Bach get together with both organizing committees, as well as the U.S. and French Olympic Committees, and come up with some sort of compromise?

Bach thinks the current process has "too many losers" and wants to change that.  That's especially true for Paris (which bid for the 1992, 2008 and 2012 Games, and lost all three) and the United States (which would be looking at failed bids from each of its three largest cities if LA loses).  It'll piss off a lot of people, but giving 2024 to Paris and 2028 to LA makes a lot of sense.  Especially now.

Budapest was never going to win 2024 Olympic vote.  But it was going to have a say in which city did.  Now Paris and LA have six months to campaign for those Budapest votes, which will likely decide the election.  They can't go wrong with either Paris or LA.  But they'd better get it right.  For the sake of the Olympic movement and its future, they need to.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Who'll Make the Team?

Spring Training is officially in full swing, and the first exhibition games are set for this weekend.  And with the start of Spring Training comes the debate over who's going to end up on each team's Opening Day roster.  There's obviously a lot of time between now and Opening Day, and injuries, trades and late signings usually end up changing things, but, for the most part, a lot of rosters do seem pretty much set.

Take the Yankees.  They head into Spring Training knowing their entire projected starting lineup, as well as 60 percent of their rotation.  They also have their closer and eighth-inning guy firmly established (assuming Betances' arbitration situation gets settled out, which it will), and some of the pitchers that are candidates for the rotation are bound to join them in the bullpen.  So, the way I see it, there are only about two or three roster spots that are really up for grabs.

Masahiro Tanaka has already been announced as the Opening Day starter.  CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda will obviously be in the starting rotation, too.  The real question is who the fourth and fifth starters will be.  Although, since the Yankees play Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday to start the season, they won't need a fifth starter during the first week, which could mean they go with an extra bullpen guy or extra bench guy on that opening road trip.

Luis Severino, Chad Green, Luis Cessa, Adam Warren and Bryan Mitchell have all been mentioned as starter candidates.  I think Severino is all but a lock for one of those two spots.  For all of his struggles last season, they've got a lot invested in him, and the Yankees still view Severino as a starter.  He'll have a shorter leash, but considering how committed they are to this youth movement and their faith in him moving forward, they need to give Severino the vote of confidence and name him the fourth starter.

The fifth starter is much more interesting.  Adam Warren has shown incredible value and versatility with his ability to both start and relieve.  But Warren's biggest value is as the seventh-inning guy in front of Betances and Chapman.  I'd leave him there.  I'd also leave Mitchell in his valuable role as the long man.  He'll be available for the spot start, but has been effective in that very difficult role.  You might pitch once a week, and when you do, it's because the starter got shelled and you're getting blown out, and you're just going out there to eat innings.  It's not for everybody, but Bryan Mitchell does it very well.

So, that leaves Chad Green and Luis Cessa.  My preference is Green.  It again goes back to what you see his role being in the long run.  Green has really only been a starter.  Cessa has shown an ability to pitch out of the bullpen.  That's why I'm going with Green.

In fact, I don't have Cessa on my projected roster at all.  Assuming Warren and Mitchell go to the bullpen, you've already got Aroldis Chapman as the closer, Dellin Betances in the eighth inning and Tyler Clippard as your right-handed set-up guy.  That leaves two spots, one of which will go to a lefty--either Tommy Layne or Chasen Shreve.  Although, I like having the option between two lefties out of the bullpen, so I wouldn't be surprised to see them both.

It's pretty obvious who the two catchers will be.  That's one of the reasons why they traded Brian McCann to Houston.  Gary Sanchez is the new face of the franchise.  He'll start and Austin Romine has proven to be a capable Major League backup catcher.

Likewise, the starting infield looks pretty much set.  Greg Bird at first, Starlin Castro at second, Didi Gregorius at short and Chase Headley at third.  It's the two additional infielders where things become interesting.  I don't quite understand the Chris Carter signing.  He's essentially a right-handed DH, which is why they signed Matt Holliday.  Carter played first base for the Brewers last year, so that gives them the option of sitting the left-handed Bird against lefties.

I had kinda assumed Tyler Austin was going to be the backup first baseman, but if Carter is going to be on the team, I don't see a place for Austin on the Major League roster to start the season.  Because the other backup infielder will be a utility guy, which Austin is not.  If Rob Refsnyder can get enough of a grasp on third base during the spring, that utility infield role could be his.  If not, Refsnyder starts the season at Scranton and Ronald Torreyes, one of the most unheralded guys on the team, will return as the utility infielder.

All five "outfielders" are set.  "Outfielders" is in quotes because Matt Holliday was signed to DH and play a little first base.  I don't think he'll play the outfield very much.  Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, of course, will.  Gardner's a Gold Glove left fielder and Ellsbury is the leadoff hitter.  Right field is Aaron Judge's job to lose, and Aaron Hicks, who can play all three positions, is really the only "backup" outfielder.  I don't see Hicks playing left that much, though.  That was always Holliday's position, so if his knees allow it, he'll probably be the one giving Gardner a break in left field.  When Hicks starts, it'll probably be primarily in right.

As I said, this is all subject to change pending injuries and late trades/signings.  Spring Training performance will obviously come into play, too.  It's still six weeks until Opening Day, so there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered regarding the roster.  As of now, though, that's the team I'm putting on the field against the Rays on Opening Day.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Daytime Ceremonies, Would They Work?

The Asian Winter Games opened yesterday in Sapporo, Japan with a daytime Opening Ceremony.  A lot of people liked it, including Angela Ruggeiro, the gold medal-winning American hockey player who's now the head of the IOC Athletes' Commission.  Ruggeiro, who's also involved in the Los Angeles bid for the 2024 Games, even went so far as to suggest the LA 2024 Opening Ceremony should be during the day.

Ruggeiro's rationale for advocating the daytime Opening Ceremony makes a lot of sense.  A lot of athletes that are competing on the first day of the Games have to miss the Opening Ceremony in order to prepare for their event.  In Rio, the Opening Ceremony started at 8:00 and was a relatively short three hours, but that still meant athletes were on their feet for that long.  The Opening Ceremony is usually much longer than that.  Then, if you throw in the travel time back to the Athletes' Village, it's well after midnight when they're finally going to bed.  That doesn't exactly lead to optimal performance, so it makes sense that a number of athletes decide to skip the Opening Ceremony (or, in the case of the 2016 U.S. women's volleyball team, leave early).

In Sapporo, however, the Opening Ceremony started at 4:00 local time and was over at 7:00.  They also had the parade of nations at the beginning, allowing athletes to march into the stadium and get back to the village with plenty of time to rest.

Although, the Olympic Opening Ceremony being held at night is a relatively recent development (the first one wasn't until 1992), it's since become the norm.  The Opening Ceremony hasn't taken place during the day since the last Games in Japan--Nagano 1998.  The last Summer Olympics with an afternoon Opening Ceremony was Seoul 1988.

From a logistical perspective, the nighttime Opening Ceremony makes a lot of sense.  For starters, it takes place on a Friday.  In a bustling metropolis, the workday commute in the afternoon would make a daytime ceremony a traffic nightmare.  Not to mention the obvious fact that the weather is usually cooler after the sun goes down, which is especially important in the summer (I saw another article today that said the daytime temperatures in Tokyo in July of 2020 could be in the high 90s).  If you have the ceremony at night, the spectators are more likely to be comfortable.

Then you throw in the fact that a Friday night is going to generate a much larger TV audience for the host broadcaster, nobody in their right minds would schedule such a ratings-generator at any time other than prime time (why do you think all other major sporting events are at night?).  You also have the increased drama that comes in with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, one of the seminal moments of any Opening Ceremony.  Would that flaming arrow in Barcelona been anywhere near as powerful if it wasn't against the backdrop of nighttime darkness?  Or Cathy Freeman in that flaming waterfall in Sydney?

With all that being said, if LA does host the 2024 Olympics, the Opening Ceremony likely will start in the afternoon or early evening, just like it did in 1984.  Although, the reason for that is obvious.  And it has nothing to do with the ability of the athletes to march in the Parade of Nations.  It's because the East Coast is three hours ahead of LA.  So, the Opening Ceremony will start at 5:00 Pacific (or, more likely 5:30 Pacific) because that's 8:00 in New York and 7:00 in Chicago.  And you know NBC will have its say and make sure it's early enough to be live in prime time on the East Coast.  That's what they did in Vancouver, where the actual Opening Ceremony started at 6:00 (9:00 Eastern).

While the daytime Opening Ceremony in LA would be dictated by other reasons, it is an interesting concept, and I wouldn't be surprised to see somebody give it a try.  Especially with the next three Olympics slated for East Asia (after all, with the time difference, a Friday morning Opening Ceremony at Beijing 2022 would be on Thursday night in the U.S.).

It makes more sense to try the daytime Opening Ceremony in the Winter, too.  The whole point I made about the heat for the summer applies in reverse here.  It's cold either way, but it's warmer in the afternoon and you don't want fans sitting there on a cold winter's night.  Likewise, it gets dark earlier in the winter, so you can still light the cauldron with the dramatic background of darkness (or, at least, twilight).

At a time when the Olympic brand doesn't mean much and the idea of hosting the Games is viewed of more as a burden than anything else, it wouldn't hurt to embrace some innovation.  And, who knows, a daytime Opening Ceremony just might be the way to do that.  It doesn't seem likely and would require a lot of work to figure it out logistically, but it's definitely an idea worth at least considering.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

100 and Counting

This was supposed to be a down year for UConn.  Breanna Stewart graduated and was the top pick in a WNBA Draft where Huskies went 1-2-3.  So, after four straight National Championships, this was finally going to be the year somebody else rose to the top of women's basketball.  Except somebody forgot to tell UConn that.

On Monday night, they won their 100th consecutive game.  100 wins in a row.  Let that sink in for a second.  Most NCAA programs celebrate when their coach gets to 100 wins.  Gino Auriemma has done that in little more than two years without a loss.  Of course, he's got a lot more wins than that.  But 100 straight.  That's simply remarkable.

Try and discredit the streak all you want.  You won't be able to make a single argument that diminishes their achievement one iota.  "The American Athletic Conference isn't the strongest league."  That's true.  UConn beat South Florida, the second-best team in the conference, by 65 the night they tied their previous NCAA-record winning streak.  But UConn blows out the other top teams, too.  "They get their pick of all the best players every year."  And that's their fault?  So do the Kentucky men and Alabama football.  Does anyone have an issue with that?  "It's women's basketball."  So what?  Women's basketball is suddenly less of a sport, so those wins don't count as much?

And anyone who says UConn is "bad for the game" completely misses the point.  The Patriots win all the time.  Are they "bad" for the NFL?  Is Usain Bolt "bad" for track & field?  Is Michael Phelps "bad" for swimming?  Is Serena Williams "bad" for tennis?  Or, to keep it in women's basketball, is the U.S. Olympic team's dominance (49 straight wins since a loss in the 1992 semifinals) "bad" for the sport?  (Not to mention the U.S. men's team, where every loss is a headline-making event.)  Was UCLA's 88-game streak in the 70s, which was the record until a previous UConn streak hit 90, "bad" for the men's game?

In fact, I'd argue it's exactly the opposite.  They aren't "bad" for the game.  They're raising it.  Everyone needs to raise their level if they have any hope of competing with UConn, let alone beating them.  It's UConn that has its own TV contract.  It's UConn that sells out visiting arenas.  It's UConn that people talk about.  And, as a result, it's women's basketball that people talk about.  Without the Huskies, would anyone even care?

UConn hasn't lost since Nov. 17, 2014, when Stanford snapped their 47-game winning streak with an 88-86 overtime win.  Which means they've won 147 of their last 148 games.  Since the start of the 2013-14 season, they're 141-1.  Of the 12 players on UConn's active roster, seven have never lost a college game.  The other five's only blemish was that loss at Stanford two and a half years ago!

Is this UConn's best team?  Probably not.  That honor still has to go to the 2002 Sue Bird-Diana Taurasi-Swin Cash squad.  But this is the one that got to 100.  And don't think they didn't feel the pressure.  They felt it every game.

Nobody thought they'd get anywhere close to this point when the season began.  They were ranked No. 3 to start the season, and they only won their opener at No. 12 Florida State by two.  Then they played Baylor in a 2 vs. 3 matchup.  And won by 11.  They also won by 11 in a 1 vs. 2 matchup at Notre Dame, the one team that always gave them trouble when they were both in the Big East.  Then they visited No. 4 Maryland...and beat them by six.

So, of course, as the wins kept piling up and 100 was in sight, you looked down the schedule and saw that the team they'd go for the 100th against was none other than No. 5 South Carolina, a team that made the Final Four in 2015 and was the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament last year.  But, when they went into that game, at a sold-out Gampel Pavilion, with the streak at 99, was there any doubt what would happen?  They rose to the occasion.  Like they always do.

With only conference games remaining between now and the NCAA Tournament, who knows how many more wins they'll pile up before the streak finally ends?  If they win another national title (their fifth straight), it'll be at 113 entering the 2017-18 season.

Eventually, the streak will end.  UConn is inevitably going to lose again at some point.  We just have no idea when.  But instead of waiting for that day to happen and belittling what they've done, let's celebrate their accomplishment.  Because, for everything UConn has achieved in its illustrious history, this is something we've never seen before and likely never will again.  100 straight wins!  Wow!


Monday, February 13, 2017

You're Not "Improving" the Game, So Leave It Alone!

With pitchers and catchers set to report this week, we know baseball season is getting close!  And this year we get the bonus appetizer of the World Baseball Classic!  You also know baseball season is on the horizon because Commissioner Rob Manfred has once again popped up talking about the "problem" that is the length of games and his solutions for how to "fix" it.

Except, there's one flaw in Manfred's thinking.  Baseball doesn't have a "problem."  The fact that there isn't a clock (and never has been) is one of the things that makes the game so great.  But because too many people think baseball is boring and takes too long, Manfred has made this whole "pace of play" initiative his primary mission.  It started with the pitch clock two years ago, but with the average time of game slipping back over three hours last season, he's made some more dramatic suggestions for this season.

The first one I don't really have an issue with.  The proposal calls for changing the size of the strike zone.  According to the official definition of a "strike," is the bottom of the batter's knees.  They'd like to raise it approximately two inches to the top of the knees.  The reason is because the strikeout rate among Major League hitters has gone up every year for the last nine seasons.  Umpires are increasingly calling the low pitch for a strike, which results in hitters swinging (and missing) at pitches out of the zone and striking out.  By eliminating the low strike, you figure it'll lead to more contact or, at the very least, fewer borderline called strikes.

But that's the only proposal Manfred has brought to the Players' Union that I agree with.  I'm vehemently opposed to his other suggestion--eliminating the intentional walk.  There are a couple reasons why I think that's a bad idea.  First of all, how much time are you really saving?  There's maybe one intentional walk a game (if that), and it doesn't take very long for a pitcher to lob four pitches in the other batter's box.  Meanwhile, a regular walk can take how long?  Sometimes it's a couple minutes if it's a 3-2 count and multiple foul balls.

I also don't like the idea of eliminating the intentional walk because the intentional walk itself is not automatic.  The pitcher still has to throw four pitches.  There could be a wild pitch with a runner on third.  You eliminate that possibility if you get rid of the intentional walk.  You also eliminate the possibility of the pitcher leaving one a little too close to the plate and the batter getting a hit.  I seem to remember Vladimir Guerrero hitting a home run while they were trying to intentionally walk him one time.  And, frankly, other than the catcher remaining in his squat, how is pitching around a guy any different than an intentional walk?  Yet, there are no calls to eliminate pitching around hitters.

Just when I thought his proposal about intentional walks was the stupidest thing Manfred could possibly suggest comes the announcement that they're going to use the international tiebreaker on an experimental basis in rookie ball this season.  At some point in extra innings, each team will have a runner placed on second base at the start of each half-inning.  The idea, obviously, is that the automatic leadoff runner will end up scoring, thus resulting in a quicker finish.

They'll be using the international tiebreaker during the WBC, just like they do in many of these tournaments (hence the name "international").  But, frankly, that's where it belongs.  The very nature of tournaments like that require something like the international tiebreaker.  The six-month grid of a Major League Baseball season is very different.

There isn't really anything wrong with the international tiebreaker.  In fact, it can lead to some crazy finishes.  One of the most memorable events from my trip to the 2015 Pan Am Games was the gold medal baseball game, when Canada won on a walk-off two-run throwing error that scored the winning run from first on a pickoff attempt after the USA intentionally walked the leadoff batter (there's that pesky intentional walk again).  But, more often than not, the script is the same--sacrifice bunt, sacrifice fly, run scores.  Does that actually add any excitement?

In that tournament setting, it makes sense.  You need to keep the tournament on schedule, so you can't have a 15-inning game that takes five hours.  It would also put those teams at an incredible disadvantage for the remainder of the tournament because of the toll it takes on their pitching staff (not to mention what it does to their position players).  They can't call up more pitchers from the Minors the way Major League teams do every time there's a long extra-inning game, so a long extra-inning game in a tournament like that (where starting pitchers can really only pitch once and that's it) would effectively end their chances.

International tournaments is where it should stay, though.  The tiebreaker rule doesn't belong in Major League Baseball.  How many games became memorable simply because they wouldn't end?  The 15-inning All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium.  That 22- or 23-inning Padres-Rockies game last year or the year before.  The Harvey Haddix perfect game loss.  The longest game ever, that 33-inning Triple A game between the Pawtucket Red Sox and Rochester Red Wings that featured, among others, Cal Ripken Jr. and Wade Boggs.

Part of the fun of the long extra inning game is when it gets late and you start wondering who's left to pitch or, in the National League, pinch hit.  Inevitably you see a starting pitcher pinch hit or middle infielder pitching.  Joe Torre, in defense of the rule, has said trying to avoid seeing that scenario is one of the reasons why they put it in, but middle infielders often end up pitching in the eighth inning of blowouts, too.  And if you don't want to see a utility infielder who hasn't pitched since high school step on the mound in the 14th inning, how about not using four different pitchers (to pitch to one batter each) in the seventh inning alone?

While we're on the topic, there are some things that they can do to speed up the game without fundamentally changing it.  Like limiting the number of pitching conferences/changes a manager can make per inning or, even better, not letting the pitcher repeatedly throw to first however many times he wants before he even looks at the plate.

You can speed baseball up without changing it.  Especially since it's a pace of play problem more than a time of play "problem."  And my suggestions would at least eliminate things that actually bother people about the game of baseball.  Seeing as I've never met a single individual who has a problem with the intentional walk or extra-inning games.  But what do I know?  I'm just a baseball fan.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Another Olympic Legend Retires

Usain Bolt.  Michael Phelps.  Now add Bob Costas to the list of Olympic legends who retired after the Rio Games.  I can't say I'm completely surprised that Costas is passing the torch to Mike Tiricio.  You knew that was the plan as soon as NBC hired Tirico.  I must admit I'm a little surprised by the timing of the announcement, though.  I wonder if Costas knew when he signed off in Rio that it would be for the last time as NBC's Face of the Olympics.

NBC made it abundantly clear that Bob Costas was their Olympic host until he decided he didn't want to do it anymore, so this decision was mutual, if not entirely his own.  He had earned that right.  For most people in this country (and some in the Caribbean who watch NBC's coverage on satellite), Bob Costas IS the Olympics.  Baseball will always be his favorite sport.  He's said as much.  But Bob Costas will, first and foremost, always be associated with the Olympics before anything else.

While he's not for everybody, Bob Costas is my favorite sportscaster.  That's mainly because of the Olympics.  In fact, that's probably the case for a lot of people.  They love the Olympics because of Bob Costas or like Bob Costas because of the Olympics.

Costas now enters what he's calling the "Brokaw Phase" of his career.  Tom Brokaw retired as the anchor of NBC Nightly News almost a decade ago, but he's still all over the network's coverage of major events.  It'll be the same thing for Bob Costas now.  He'll still work for NBC and will still be a part of their major sports coverage.  And I'm sure he'll keep his job at MLB Network doing some play-by-play and studio stuff for them.  But now he has a little more freedom.  He won't be the face of everything.

It also means he'll have to do far less travel.  The next three Olympics are all in the Far East.  That had to come into his decision, too.  That's a lot of travel for anybody, and I'm sure all the traveling he's done throughout his career has taken a toll.  And while I'm sure we'll still see Bob in Korea (and certainly in Tokyo), he won't have to dedicate the hours of Olympic prep or go all over the world shooting features beforehand.  Now he can be much more selective with his travel schedule.

When he had to miss a week of the Sochi Games because of an eye infection, it became clear to everyone that NBC needed some sort of succession plan.  Matt Lauer did an excellent job filling in (and Meredith Vieira was fine on the days she covered), but that was a strong reality check for NBC.  Bob Costas had been such a gamer that they never thought about a replacement.  But that made them realize how badly they needed one.  Bob Costas wasn't going to anchor the Olympics forever.

I cannot think of a better person to take over for him than Mike Tirico, either.  Tirico has proven time and again that he's the best broadcaster in the business.  And one of the most versatile.  We already knew that from his days at ESPN, when he went from Monday Night Football to golf to the US Open to anchoring the Euro 2016 studio show.  At NBC, he's moved seamlessly from hosting Football Night In America to filling in on play-by-play (he's the eventual replacement for Al Michaels, too) to doing whatever else the network has asked him to do while not really having a definitive "role" for him.

In fact, I'd argue that of all the NBC Olympic hosts in Rio (including Bob Costas), Mike Tirico was the best.  It was his first time covering an Olympics, but you never would've known it.  He wasn't just reading the teleprompter and throwing it from one event to another, either.  He legitimately knew what he was talking about and threw in some additional little tidbits about events that NBC might've just been peeking in on while waiting for something else to start.  The portion of the daytime block anchored by Mike Tirico was the highlight of NBC's Olympic coverage in Rio.

After the hot mess that was NBC's coverage of the Opening Ceremony, it was so refreshing to have Tirico host the Closing Ceremony.  And NBC's coverage of the Closing Ceremony was how much better as a result?  (The obvious lesson here is: Mike Tirico > Hoda Kotb.)

One of the traditional elements of an Olympic Closing Ceremony is the cauldron being extinguished before a performance by the hosts of the next Games.  NBC then sends it back to the studio for a final sign-off.  It turns out that when Bob Costas signed off in Rio, it was for the last time.  

For the first time since 1998 (when CBS had coverage) and the first time on NBC since 1988, it won't be Bob Costas that welcomes us to an Olympics next year.  When they sign on for the first time in PyeongChang, Mike Tirico's face will be the first one we see.  There's no sportscaster more qualified or better equipped to take on the role.  (It's like when Matt Lauer took over for Bryant Gumbel on the Today Show.)  With Mike Tirico at the helm, NBC Olympics is in good hands.