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Hickok SportsThoughts

Sports historian and author Ralph Hickok of www.hickoksports.com sometimes meanders on about current happenings in sports and sometimes looks back in languor.

Friday, January 20, 2006

When Does a Dynasty Begin? Or End?

It's impossible to tell when a sports dynasty begins. And it's almost as hard to tell when one has ended.When UCLA won its first NCAA basketball championship in 1964, no one said it was the beginning of a dynasty. How could anyone have known that UCLA would win nine more titles during the next eleven years?UCLA won again in 1965, and still it wasn't considered a dynasty. Then came that Texas Western upset over Kentucky in the 1966 finals (the game that inspired the movie "Glory Road"). Only after UCLA won its third and fourth championships, in 1967 and 1968, did the sports world see a dynasty at work.The dynasty went to win the next five NCAA titles, making it seven in a row and nine over a 10-year period.That string ended in 1974; that seemed, to many, to mark the end of the UCLA dynasty. But the Bruins came back to win one more, in John Wooden's final season as their coach. And then the dynasty really was over.The story was pretty much the same with the Boston Celtics. They won their first NBA championship in 1957, their second in 1959. No dynasty there. Or, rather, no perception of a dynasty. After they won a couple more, though, the lightbulb went on: Oh yeah, that's a dynasty.Of course, they made it eight in a row and nine in ten years. But they didn't even reach the finals in 1967 and it seemed obvious that the dynasty was over.Woops! They came back to win two more, in 1968 and 1969. The dynasty ended only in 1970, when the Celtics failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 20 years.There have been a lot of stories this week about the end of the New England Patriots' dynasty with their loss to Denver. But how can anyone know that it's over?If the Patriots come back to win Super Bowl XLI, giving them four championships in six years, surely that will be a continuation of the dynasty. And this season will be looked back upon as an interruption, not an end.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Predicting a 2-2 Home-and-Away Split

The home team wins something between 56 and 63 percent of the games during the NFL's regular season, depending on exactly which regular season you're looking at.
But that advantage goes way up during the playoffs. Over a ten-season period, 1994-2003, home teams went 31-9, a .775 winning percentage, in the first round. Since the 1990, when the playoffs expanded to include 12 teams, the home team has won 53 of 64 games in the second week, an .828 percentage.
Why the big difference? There are several reasons.
Seeding, for example. Teams play those 16 regular-season games not just to get into the playoffs, but to get the home field for as many playoff games as possible. In any playoff game, the home team is likely to be the better team. And better team plus home-field advantage should produce a pretty good winning percentage.
But the home favorite wins only about 70 percent of the time during the regular season. . . and that's against all comers, good, bad, and mediocre. In the playoffs, against playoff teams, that percentage ought to come down, but it goes up, instead. (Of course, I'm assuming here that the favored team is also the better team, which is pretty close to the truth but not entirely true.)
Another factor, I think, is that players and fans alike get more revved up for a home playoff game than they do for a game during the regular season. Football is a game of emotion, to a great extent, as long as the emotion is channeled, and I believe that's a major factor in home playoff success.
Finally, in the second week of action, the four top seeds are at home after a bye week. All those nagging aches and pains that build up in the course of the season have had an extra week to get better, if not heal completely. (That's why one NFL general manager calls it "the health field advantage.")
Last season, visiting teams won three of four games on wildcard weekend for the first time. That happened again last weekend.
I'm not saying that signals a trend, but I do believe that only two home teams will win this weekend.
Here's how I see the games, in chronological order.

Washington at Seattle

The Redskin offense looked pretty sick last week. It will get a little better against Seattle, but not enough.
Seattle has an outstanding offense, with the league's MVP, Shaun Alexander, running behind one of the NFL's very best offensive lines and Pro Bowler Matt Hasselbeck throwing to Bobby Engram, Joe Jurevicius, and others.
The Seahawks will be able to score enough, even against Washington's excellent defense, to win. That's not saying a lot: Two touchdowns might well be enough.
The only way I see the Redskins winning is if they get good field position off takeaways two or three times. A long pass or two to Santana Moss would help, too.
But I see Seattle prevailing.

New England at Denver

Many years ago, I heard a conversation between two guys who did quite a bit of betting on sports. This was during the baseball season. One of them, who was known for losing money, had bet against a team that was on a winning streak, his theory being that they were due to lose.
The other guy, who had a reputation for winning more than he lost, said, "Let me tell you something. Keep betting on a winning team until somebody beats them."
Sure enough, that team continued its winning streak and Gambler No. 1 lost his money.
Right now, the Patriots are on a playoff winning streak and I can't see picking them to lose.
New England had the NFL's best rush defense over the second half of the season, and I don't think the Broncos can run consistently against them.
The game is likely to come down to Tom Brady against Jake Plummer, and I've just got to go with Brady in that contest.

Pittsburgh at Indianapolis

Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said earlier this week that his team would have to play its A game to beat the Colts' B-minus game.
I think that was pretty accurate.
The Steelers may bring their A game to the RCA Dome, but I doubt very much that Indy will play at the B-minus level.
The Steelers have a pretty good defense and a pretty good offense. The Colts have a pretty good defense and a great offense.
The only way I see Pittsburgh winning this game is by taking advantage of a lot of turnovers, three or four or even more. And Indy gave the ball away only 19 times all season.

Carolina at Chicago

Last weekend, four quarterbacks were playoff starters for the first time. All four of their teams lost. Of course, Carson Palmer was one of them, and he was lost to injury on Cincinnati's second offensive play. So maybe I shouldn't count him.
Nevertheless, quarterbacks usually struggle in the first couple of playoff starts. And Chicago's Rex Grossman is not only making his first playoff start, he's starting a meaningful NFL game for only the eighth time.
I know, I know, the Bears are all about defense. When these teams met during the regular season, the Bears sacked Jack Delhomme eight times and got 10 points off turnovers in a 13-3 win.
I just don't think they can do that again. The Panthers will be better prepared and, overall, they're simply the better team, I believe.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

NFL Roster Notes Revisited

A couple of people whom I mentioned in a post headed "A Few NFL Roster Notes" have popped up again.
Punter Sean Landeta is back. He signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, so there are now two survivors of the U. S. Football League in the NFL. The other is Doug Flutie, now backing up Tom Brady in New England.
Closer to heart is Ryan Fitzpatrick, who started the season as the St. Louis Rams' third quarterback. With starter Marc Bulger out, Fitzpatrick became the backup to Jamie Martin last week. Martin left the game with a concussion, so Fitzpatrick came in. He threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns to rally the Rams from a 24-3 deficit to a 33-27 overtime win over Houston.
Fitzpatrick, the fifth QB in NFL history to pass for more than 300 yards in his first game, was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week. He'll start today against the Redskins.
The reason I mentioned Fitzpatrick in that September post is that he's from Harvard. He's the 17th Harvard player to be drafted by an NFL team, but the first quarterback.
His performance last week must have awakened a sensation of deja vu among many Harvard fans. In his first game for Harvard, he came in with the Crimson trailing Dartmouth 21-0 and took them to a 35-21 victory.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Root, Root, Root for . . . Which Team?

I have a mild rooting interest in the World Series. So mild that I will probably have little or no effect on the outcome.
Once upon a time, I was a White Sox fan.
Blame it on my youth. And my circumstances. When I was growing up in Green Bay, the nearest major league teams were in Chicago. Most people I knew were Cub fans, but there were a few strays who rooted for the White Sox, including my mother, who was a major baseball fan.
The first major league game I ever saw was at Comiskey Park, White Sox vs. Red Sox, in 1947. I was eight years old and much more interested in football than baseball. I don't remember how the game came out. All I do remember is that Ted Williams hit the ball very, very hard several times.
I wasn't really a White Sox fan yet. That happened in 1950, when Chico Carrasquel took over at shortstop. I was playing shortstop for park teams in both baseball and softball, and Carrasquel quickly became my idol.
In 1951, Paul Richards became the White Sox manager. That was the first of 17 straight winning seasons for the team, the second longest streak in history.
Under Richards, the White Sox became much the kind of team they are today, built on pitching and speed. I'm not sure if I liked the White Sox because of that style of play or if I liked that style of play because of the White Sox. Of course, it may have had something to do with the fact that I was a singles hitter and base stealer.
The Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953 and became my new favorite team. I still rooted for the White Sox in the American League, but the Braves definitely came to the forefront. They finished second three times in their first four years in Milwaukee and then went two straight pennants, in 1957 and 1958.
The White Sox finished second both of those years. But, in 1959, while the Braves slipped to second place in the National League, the White Sox finally won the American League pennant, their first since 1919.
Like the 1951 edition, the "Go-Go" White Sox of 1959 were built on pitching and speed. Luis Aparacio, who had replaced Chico Carrasquel at shortstop, led the league with 56 stolen bases, far ahead of Mickey Mantle, who finished second with 21. As a team, the Sox had 113 steals and only 97 home runs. Second baseman Nellie Fox was the league's MVP and Early Wynn won the Cy Young Award. Wynn and Fox each hit two home runs that season. Wynn did it in only 90 at-bats, while Fox had 624.
The manager was Al Lopez. During the 1950s, Casey Stengel's Yankees won eight of ten pennants. Lopez was the only manager besides Stengel to win a pennant during that decade, with the Indians in 1954 and the White Sox in 1959. Lopez finished second to Stengel seven times, five times with Cleveland and twice with Chicago.
Anyway, for the third year in a row, I had a team to root for in the World Series. The Braves had beat the Yankees in 1957, thanks to Lew Burdette's three wins, but they lost to them in 1958. Facing the Dodgers in 1959, the White Sox rolled to an 11-0 victory behind Wynn in the first game, but they ended up losing in six.
Now, 46 years later, I find myself rooting for the White Sox once again. But very quietly. I'm not sure the baseball gods will even notice.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Case for David Ortiz

Lou Piniella and I are in complete agreement.
Not too long ago, when he was still the manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Piniella observed, "In the American League, the DH is a position, like any other."
He was talking about Boston's David Ortiz as an MVP candidate. Piniella went on to say of Ortiz, "He's had a real good year and obviously deserves serious consideration."
I've been surprised at how many people, sportswriters and fans alike, feel that a designated hitter shouldn't be the most valuable player.
The argument is that a DH is only a partial player, so to speak, since he does nothing to help his team on defense. But there are a couple of things wrong with that argument.
First, pitchers have won 23 MVP awards. I guarantee you that David Ortiz, in his 10 games at first base this past season, did more defensively than any of those pitchers did offensively.
Dennis Eckersley won the American League award in 1992, when he pitched only 80 innings. He never had a turn at bat.
Second, the MVP award has gone to players who were defensive liabilities. Frank Thomas, for example, won two years in a row, 1993 and 1994. With 15 errors in 1993, not to mention very limited range, Thomas must have cost the White Sox at least a couple of games. The following year, he committed only 7 errors, but that was partly because he played only 99 games at first base.
Then another immobile first baseman, Mo Vaughn, won the 1995 award. Vaughn wasn't quite as error-prone as Thomas, but he was perhaps even less mobile. I have no doubt that he cost the Red Sox a couple of games or more by failing to get to balls that another first baseman would have turned into outs.
If Ortiz doesn't win the MVP award, it will almost certainly go to Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees. Now, if A-Rod even approximated Brooks Robinson with his glove, the reluctance to honor a DH would be understandable.
The truth is, A-Rod is not a major contributor on defense. He's probably a liability. I know, I know, he's probably going to win a Gold Glove, but that's not a very reliable indicator of how good a fielder really is.
A far better indicator is Zone Rating (ZR). That's a measure, developed by STATS, Inc., of how many batted balls are fielded by a player in his standard defensive zone. A-Rod ranked ninth in that category among American League third baseman, and only ten of them had enough chances to qualify for a rating. So he was next to last in zone rating. He was also dead last in range factor.
What does that mean? Well, it means that quite a few balls went by for base hits to his right or left that would have been gobbled up by a really good third baseman. In fact, quite a few them would have been fielded by a merely average third baseman.
So now let's look at offense.
One important stat makes me wonder whether Rodriguez was even the Yankees' MVP.
That would be the OPS with runners in scoring position. (In case you're not up on some of this new-fangled Sabermetric stuff, OPS is simply on-base percentage plus slugging percentage. It's commonly used as a measure of overall offensive value.)
Rodrigues ranked fourth on his own team in OPS with runners in scoring position, behind Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, and Hideki Matsui.
Rodriguez led the American League with a 1.031 OPS. But, with runners in scoring position, that dropped all the way down to .894. Ortiz had a 1.001 OPS overall, but it climbed to 1.043 with runners in scoring position.
In fact, the more crucial the situation, the better Ortiz became. With the bases empty, his OPS was .993. It went up to 1.006 with runners on, 1.043 with runners in scoring position, and 1.226 with runners in scoring position and two outs.
Another measure of how a player does in clutch situations is his OPS in the late innings of a close game. In those situations, both players were pretty good, but Ortiz had the edge with an OPS of 1.161 to 1.006 for Rodriguez.
Now, I don't think it would be a terrible miscarriage of justice of Rodriguez wins the MVP award. But I do think it would be a pretty bad misjudgment by the people who do the voting.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

On the Road Again. . . and Again and Again

Coach Jim Haslett was understandably unhappy about that "home game" his New Orleans Saints lost at Giants Stadium (in New Jersey, of all places).
The Saints are based in San Antonio, Texas, at least for the rest of this season. But they'll play only three games there. They'll also play four so-called home games at LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. But, since they'll practice all week in San Antonio and then fly to Baton Rouge, those won't feel like home games.
"I don’t think anybody has ever traveled to 13 games," Haslett commented. But he was wrong about that.
The 1926 Duluth Eskimos played 13 NFL games on the road. While they were at it, they also played 16 exhibition games, 14 of them on the road.
The Eskimos squeezed those 29 games into a 117-day period. That's a game every four days, on average. During one eight-day stretch, they played five games in five different cities, from St. Louis to New York.
How'd they do? Respectably. They finished over .500 in the NFL with a 6-5-2 record and, overall, they were 17-9-3.
You can read a much more detailed account of that long road trip here, on my website.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Terry Fox's Never-Ending Marathon

The 25th anniversary Terry Fox Run takes place today.
Chances are that you"ve never heard of it, unless you're a Canadian.
It's not really a sports event. It's not like the New York Marathon or the Iron Man Triathlon.
There are no gold medals, no big cash prizes. Yet there are so many winners that they can't be counted.
Terry Fox was by no means a great athlete, yet he performed one of the greatest athletic feats in history. He ran a marathon a day, for 143 consecutive days, on one leg.
I won't try to tell you the whole Terry Fox story. You can read much more here, at the official site of the Terry Fox Run. But here's a much-condensed version.
A native of Manitoba, Fox grew up in Coquitlam, British Columbia. He played basketball in high school, evidently with more determination than skill, and decided he wanted to become a phys ed teacher.
But, in his first year at Simon Fraser College, Fox learned that he had developed bone cancer. His right leg had to be amputated above the knee.
While in the hospital, he was moved by the number of children suffering with cancer, and he became determined to do something to raise Canada's awareness of their plight and, not so incidentally, to raise money for research.
Specifically, he decided that he would run across Canada. After being outfitted with an artificial leg and leaving the hospital, he spent 18 months training for the run.
Terry Fox's Marathon of Hope began on April 12, 1980, at St. John's, Newfoundland. It didn't get much attention at first, but momentum built as he ran a marathon a day through Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Quebec. In Ottawa, he kicked the opening ball for a Canadian Football League exhibition game. In Toronto, he was greeted by Darryl Sittler, who gave Fox his 1980 NHL All-Star Game sweater. Sittler commented, "I've been around athletes a long time and I've never seen any with his courage and stamina."
When Fox celebrated his 22nd birthday in Gravenhurst, Ontario, on July 28, he was presented with $14,000 that had been raised by that community of 8,000 people.
On August 4, Fox reached the halfway point, near Sudbury, Ontario. A television crew filmed his arrival in Thunder Bay on September 1.
That was the end of his run. Fox was suffering chest pain and difficulty in breathing. The cancer had spread to his lungs. He was flown to British Columbia for further treatment.
Others were ready to carry the torch. On September 2, Isadore Sharp of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts announced that he would hold an annual fund-raising run named for Terry Fox. A week later, the CTV network staged a five-hour telethon that raised $10 million for cancer research.
Despite chemotherapy, Terry Fox died on June 28, 1981, a month before his 23rd birthday.
The first annual Terry Fox run was held on September 1 at nearly 800 sites. The 300,000 runners raised $3.5 million. The total amount raised in Terry Fox's name for cancer research has since surpassed $360 million.
Twenty-five years ago, his run seemed to have ended. But it's still going on. There are now more than a thousand Terry Fox runs held in more than 50 countries. In Canada alone, more than 4 million people are expected to take part today.