Joe-Pinions: Sports

28 Mar 2012 – Something Does NOT Compute in $2Billion Dodger Sale

Posted in Baseball by txtmstrjoe on 28/03/2012

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may have noticed that I don’t often write about baseball.  In fact, I believe this is my first-ever post about what used to be called “America’s Pastime.”

Being a fan of the pathetic Oakland Athletics tends to dampen my enthusiasm, you see.

Yeah, I suppose I could go and support either one of my local baseball teams, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (ahem) or the Los Angeles Dodgers.  But I can’t.  Despite the fact I consider skipper Mike Scioscia to be one of the very best in the game, I just can’t become an Angels fan.  They’re a division rival of the A’s, and I can never root for such a close rival.  I admire Scioscia and have the utmost respect for him, but I can’t love him and root for the Angels.  And the Dodgers?  Well, I love the shade of blue they have on their uniform, but although a couple of my closest friends and my baby sister are fans of the team, I can’t root for the Dodgers either.  They did beat my A’s in the 1988 World Series, and I haven’t forgotten the sting from that.

So, yeah, being an A’s fan means I won’t write much about baseball unless there are just some stories about the Majors or about the game that I just want to share some thoughts on.

Presently, the big baseball story that caught my personal radar has to do with the sale of the Dodgers to a consortium that includes Lakers great Magic Johnson.

Honestly, what caught my eye about this story is not the fact that Magic is part of the group which registered the winning bid.  To be perfectly honest, I’ve not loved the Magic Johnson from his post-Lakers playing days nearly as much as I used to adore the basketball god that wore No. 32 for the Purple and Gold.

It’s not the idea that, now that a winning bidder for the L.A. Dodgers has been designated, the stench of Frank McCourt can finally be booted out of Chavez Ravine once and for all.  Even if the facts state that, under his tenure the Dodgers have started a climb back to contention on the field (appearing in the Major League playoffs in 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2009 after an eight-year drought), McCourt has done so much to destroy the Dodgers brand.  McCourt, a Bostonian, has been ridiculed and reviled as a self-serving, self-indulgent, disingenuous outsider who took ownership of one of Los Angeles’ most revered institutions without even spending a cent of his own money (he took ownership of the team on the backs of several “partners” who funded the purchase).  The Los Angeles sports media has crucified McCourt and his family for using the L.A. Dodgers as a de facto ATM, funneling the team’s revenues into funding their ultra-extravagant lifestyles (and doing nothing to increase the team’s on-field performance).  Even if I am not a fan of the team, I can’t help but notice just how harmful his time at the helm of this uniquely-storied franchise has been.  The Dodgers may not win every year, but they should never ever project a negative impression.  Under McCourt, the Dodgers’ image has been tarnished, a mere shadow of its old historic glories.  This, despite the team’s reappearance in the MLB playoffs.

No, what grabbed my attention was the reported figure for Magic Johnson’s winning consortium’s bid for ownership of the L.A. Dodgers:  $2.1BILLION.  That’s BILLION, with a gigantic, lit-in-a-neon-Dodger-Blue B.

Two BILLION dollars for a Major League Baseball franchise that’s been reduced to a sad, sorry punchline?  Two BILLION dollars for a team that, by most accounts, has been run into the ground once its owners decided they were going to get divorced?

Staggering.

Unbelievable.

Illogical.

Incomprehensible.

My first thought at hearing the amount of the winning bid was that, somehow, the value of the Los Angeles Dodgers skyrocketed to somewhere past Jupiter’s orbit in the Solar System despite its owner’s shenanigans.

That’s not even the kicker, folks.  Oh, no.

The real kick in the rear here is that, of that $2.1BILLION, around HALF will go to Frank McCourt himself.  Approximately $1BILLION will be deposited in Frank McCourt’s personal coffers.  Ostensibly, this obscene amount of money will still be left over even after Frank’s divorce settlement, his lawyer fees, and paying off his original creditors.

Frank McCourt gets to pocket around $1BILLION for agreeing to sell the Dodgers, even though he never paid a single cent to take ownership of the team in the first place.

Now how in the name of all that is sacred is this possible?

The sale of the Dodgers has exposed the festering sickness in the system.  How you care to define this “system” I’ll leave up to you.  You can say the bidders were all sick to register such obscenely large bids on what is obviously (to me, if to no one else) a horrendously inflated and arbitrarily-arrived at value for the Los Angeles Dodgers; you can say Major League Baseball, led by Commissioner Bud Selig, is ultimately responsible for this travesty, since it allowed McCourt to take ownership of the team in the first place; you can say America itself is sick, to allow such a cynical fraud of a transaction to even be legal.

No matter what, the sums just don’t add up.  Logic has been derailed, and we who live in the real world simply just don’t get it.

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26 Mar 2012 – Alonso Shines in Kuala Lumpur Downpour

Posted in Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 26/03/2012

Although I stayed up until around 4:15AM PST to watch the Grand Prix of Malaysia live, the race at the Sepang International Circuit did a good enough job to keep me awake and hold my attention until the very end.  Though I honestly had no vested interest in either of the top two protagonists, the race was singularly riveting and exciting.

Because I was at my parents’ house visiting, I didn’t have time to write a blog entry about my post-qualifying and pre-race thoughts.  Playing with my four year-old nephew and enjoying my sisters’ and my parents’ company has that effect on me.  Had I had the chance, though, I would have made note of the following:

  • Don’t be surprised if a race-time monsoon scrambled the order.
  • Watch out for both Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, especially if it rains and if both are able to avoid any incidents during the likely wet weather.
  • Michael Schumacher might be a factor, given that he was starting from P3.
  • Romain Grosjean impressed again in qualifying, but can he translate the obvious pace he has into a good performance in the race.

As things transpired, the rain did start to fall around fifteen minutes before the start of the race.  Accordingly, the FIA allowed the teams to change tires prior to the race due to the change in weather conditions.  Ordinarily, of course, each car on the grid is required to start the race on the set of tires with which it set its best time in qualifying.  However, in a nod to enhancing the safety of the competitors, the FIA allows a change in tires should sufficient rain dropped to warrant at least the intermediate tire be run.

The onset of rain spoiled what could have been a very interesting tactical maneuver made by two-time defending champion Sebastian Vettel.  The World Champion, uniquely among the drivers who participated in Q3, set his best time on the harder-compound primary tire.  Many pundits thought this to be a shrewd choice, if a bit of a gamble.  In effect, Vettel had sacrificed his ultimate potential in qualifying by eschewing the slightly quicker soft-compound option tire (and a better starting spot on the grid) in favor of better early race tire durability.  The idea was that perhaps Vettel could improve his position on the track while his rivals running in front of him called into the pits for the first of their tire stops earlier than he would have to.  With enough rain wetting the surface of the Sepang International Circuit, though, we never saw how Vettel’s interesting tactic in action.

As in Melbourne, the McLarens took the first two positions.  As in Melbourne, Lewis Hamilton eked out a small advantage over his teammate Jenson Button to take the pole position.  Third on the grid was Michael Schumacher, who ran very strongly all weekend in his Mercedes AMG.  Mark Webber took P4, outqualifying Vettel, who set the sixth best time.  Kimi Raikkonen set a quicker lap time in Q3 than his teammate Romain Grosjean, but due to a necessary gearbox change was handed a five-place grid position penalty; what should have been fifth on the grid turned to tenth instead.  For the second race in a row, then, Grosjean was starting ahead of his Finnish teammate.

Both McLarens started well, Hamilton converting his pole position into an immediate lead.  He edged Button towards the outside of turn one as both scrabbled for the lead rather aggressively, but thanks to Button being a sensible chap, neither McLaren came to grief.  By turn four, though, Michael Schumacher found himself spinning to the back of the field, thanks to an assist by Grosjean.  Grosjean would later fall foul of the increasingly bad conditions, spinning into retirement in the gravel trap at the difficult turn five and turn six left-right complex a few laps later.

Almost unnoticed by observers, Sauber called in Sergio Perez to change to full-wet tires to cope with the worsening weather.  At one point, before everyone else had cottoned on to the tactic, Perez was an amazing three seconds per lap faster than anyone else.  His early pit stop as well as his overwhelming pace allowed him to leapfrog most of his rivals to find himself third behind the McLarens after starting P9 by the time the rest of the field followed his lead and changed to wets.

However, nature simply would not be denied, and with the rain only becoming more intense and the track becoming even more unsuitable for proper racing, the stewards of the race hung the red flag and suspended the race pending a positive change in the weather conditions.  The race stoppage lasted for fifty-one minutes before it restarted behind the Safety Car.

When the racing resumed, the McLarens maintained their lead until they decided they needed new sets of intermediate tires.  Alonso stayed out longer than most and inherited the lead when the McLarens found themselves bottled up in traffic.  Perez was also near the front, of course, and even overtook Alonso’s Ferrari and led very briefly before the red car retook the lead.

The running order at the front stayed until the very end, but behind them there was a lot of action.  Jenson Button found himself in front of teammate Hamilton, but probably wished he didn’t when Narain Karthikeyan chopped across his McLaren’s nose in the middle of the very tight Turn 9 climbing left-hander.  Button found himself near the tail end of the field after a pit stop to change his damaged front wing.

But Button was not the only world champion to fall victim to Karthikeyan’s shenanigans.  Late in the race, Sebastian Vettel also dropped down the race order after he damaged his left rear tire against Kartikheyan’s front wing.

Despite the lack of change in position at the front of the race, Alonso never looked absolutely safe with Perez lapping significantly faster.  With each passing lap the Sauber closed on the Ferrari, and clearly it became a question of which driver would do better at managing the escalating pressure.  Alonso, of course, is a two-time world champion, and so despite his Ferrari’s lack of speed relative Perez’s quickly closing Sauber (did I just write that?  Yes, I did.  The F2012 is one bad car) he never made a mistake.  In contrast, Perez did make a big mistake with seven laps to go, overcooking the complicated Turn 13 right-hander and going off-track.  He did well to recover and resume his chase of Alonso, again closing the distance, but ran out of laps.

Alonso thus won an unexpected victory for Ferrari, again proving just how brilliant of a driver he is.  Perez, too, impressed greatly, hauling up his Sauber to 2nd place.  Except for his late-race mistake, he may have pressed Alonso harder; who knows, maybe the Ferrari driver might have been the one to make the critical error, and Sauber would be celebrating their first victory in Formula One.

Nonetheless, it was probably Alonso’s best drive yet in his already distinguished career.  His victory in Malaysia took his career Grand Prix victory total to twenty-eight, taking him past the legendary triple World Champion Jackie Stewart.

20 Mar 2012 – 49ers Fail to Land Manning: The Ongoing Aftermath

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 20/03/2012

After months of Head Coach Jim Harbaugh‘s public declarations that incumbent starting quarterback Alex Smith was “our guy,” the San Francisco 49ers pulled a monumental surprise from out of the blue.  They took a swing at landing the biggest free agent in perhaps the entire history of the NFL, 4-time MVP and 1-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Peyton Manning.

And the 49ers missed.

It was a move that I had a lot of misgivings about.

The fact that they even considered going after Manning was stupidly risky.  As I wrote before, signing Peyton Manning was a very risky maneuver even if (or maybe especially if) they managed to get his signature on a contract.  I don’t know about you, but I just cannot purge the image of Manning crumpled on the field after one too many hits.  I’d just as soon not see this happen, but especially with Manning’s #18 on a 49er red or white jersey.

Then you’ve got to consider the collateral damage done to the relationship – business, personal, whatever – the team’s leadership, especially Jim Harbaugh, did not just to “their guy” Alex Smith, but to the rest of the team as well.  To my mind, you simply cannot underestimate the amount of doubt chasing Manning must have created in the minds of each and every player in the 49er locker room.  I don’t know about you, but whatever the realities of life might be, I don’t ever want to be thought of as just an unfeeling part of a machine, a replaceable, dispensable object once my usefulness has been squeezed out of me.

I’ve heard the argument that this is business, that this is the reality of being in the NFL.  Be that as it may, but after watching everything that unfolded last year and reading the body language of all the players on the team, it was clear (at least to me) that there was a unique synergy and harmony that tied all the members of that team together.  Team unity and spirit may be abstract concepts to some, but I can tell you from experience that sometimes that’s the difference between high achievement and ignominious, frustrating failure.  Sometimes it’s that fraternal love that teammates have for each other that makes sure you come out on the correct side of the line between victory and disaster when the fire is hottest and the competition is at its fiercest.

It would bear remembering that, except for a few key free agent pickups (Carlos Rodgers, David Akers) and the incoming 2011 rookie class, last year’s 49ers team was the same as the woefully underachieving 2010 team.

And that 2010 team had Alex Smith as its quarterback, even if then-head coach Mike Singletary didn’t really know how to get the best out of him, just like none of the other coaches and coordinators did in Smith’s previous five seasons.

Last year, Smith finally had a season filled not with failure and frustration, but with success and achievement.  No, he didn’t come close to being the NFL’s best passer, accumulating the most passing yards or scoring the most touchdowns.  But, aside from Aaron Rodgers, no quarterback won more games with his team as Alex Smith did (fourteen, the same as Tom Brady).  I don’t know about you, but for me it’s how many games your team wins that’s the all-important statistic to keep track of.

The key to Alex Smith’s transformation from being a borderline bust of a draft pick who tended to lose more games than he won to prolific game winner, clearly, was that in Jim Harbaugh he finally had a coach who knew which mind game to play to get him to perform as a good quarterback should.

From my seat as a mere observer, it looked as if the foundation to Smith and Harbaugh’s relationship was built on something beyond mere Xs and Os, beyond the mere technical aspects of being a quarterback.  How else could you explain the fact that they car-pooled together to celebrity golf tournaments, with Smith agreeing to caddy for Harbaugh on one such day, or for Smith to accept Harbaugh’s richly-deserved NFL Coach of the Year award on his coach’s behalf?

This relationship is very similar to the one Colin Chapman and Jim Clark shared during Lotus‘ glory years in the 1960s.  I realize this is not a football-based analogy, but if you read up on the history between Chapman and Clark, you’ll understand what I’m getting at.

The point is, the relationship between Harbaugh and Smith was beyond mentor and pupil.  It just seemed so symbiotic, so natural.

It all seemed so right.

After the failed attempt to recruit Peyton Manning, though, you now have to wonder about how much damage the 49ers leadership’s credibility has sustained with its players.  Who knows if this will affect the special chemistry so evident in last year’s team, a team that will return for the 2012 season largely intact.

The Niners potentially had a lot to gain by adding Peyton Manning to their roster, which many believe is ripe for a run at the Super Bowl next season.  It was an audacious move, akin to going all-in at the poker table.

A heck of a lot to gain, perhaps, but it’s undeniable that they had a heck of a lot to lose as well.

With Manning committing to the Denver Broncos instead, the 49ers are now left scrambling with a gigantic hole at the starting quarterback position.

And to think everybody thought they had their guy all along.

49ers

So what now for the 49ers?

It appears that their best remaining option is to mend the relationship with Alex Smith.  Per some of the reports from the local Bay Area sports media that I’ve been reading, Smith’s misgivings have nothing to do with money.  The Bay Area reporters familiar with Smith universally describe him as an uncomplicated, good, straightforward man who donates a very large portion of his earnings to his charity, the Alex Smith Foundation, which helps teens in foster homes.  Therefore, I don’t believe that throwing more money at Smith is necessarily the salve that would best repair the strained relationship.

The more I think about this entire situation, the more I believe that this has less to do with the harsh, cold world of business and the pragmatic implications of trying to assemble the best football team you possibly can, and much more to do with something more human.

Betrayal, duplicity, naïvety, maybe even immaturity on myriad psychological levels…  all these things seem obviously in play in this particular drama.  Unfortunately, these are the kinds of things that complicate and potentially damage most human relationships.

I don’t know if you can necessarily buy a solution to this kind of problem.

To return to a more purely pragmatic perspective, I believe that Smith and the 49ers will get a deal done.  Indeed, as I write this, reports are coming from the Bay Area that a deal is in the process of being finalized; some sources have even confirmed that it’s all but a done deal bar the obligatory press conference.

However, if such reports are premature and ultimately untrue, well, the 49ers seem short on viable options that are empirically better than what they know Smith can do.

Some have suggested Matt Hasselbeck as a trade target to take Smith’s place; others have mentioned Josh Johnson, who was Jim Harbaugh’s first successful quarterback project from way back in their days as University of San Diego Toreros, as another possibility.  The 49ers’ own backup quarterbacks, second-year men Colin Kaepernick and Scott Tolzien are also possibilities, though Kaepernick and Tolzien are both young and inexperienced.

To me, Smith must be the quarterback for the 49ers.  Continuity, more precisely the lack thereof, has forever been the excuse for Smith’s previous lack of sustained success; the thing about continuity is that it is a two-way street.  For the 49ers to start anew with a new quarterback with their offensive system is risking breaking that continuity.  Even if they hand the keys to the offense to either Kaepernick or Tolzien, neither one was the team’s starting quarterback last year.  Given their inexperience, they will have much to learn.  The problem would be compounded if the team brought in a completely new signal-caller.

For all of Smith’s history and his almost-trademark lack of flash, there is plenty to like in him not just as a person, but as a quarterback as well.  His athleticism is underestimated, and his toughness – physical, mental, psychological – are hugely impressive.  He may not have the strongest arm out there, but it’s strong enough.  His accuracy is sometimes spotty, but his performance throughout all of last year shows that he has improved greatly in this aspect of the game.  He has the reputation for not being too good at reading defenses, but perhaps throwing only five interceptions over an entire season might help you change your mind about this point.

For all the crap that he’s taken (and still continues to take – I am ASTOUNDED at just how much Alex Smith seems to be hated in San Francisco within the 49ers’ own fan base), if there is any semblance of justice and fairness in this life, just once I’d love to see Alex Smith prove all the haters wrong and lead this team further than he did even last year.  In 2011 the San Francisco 49ers were two fumbles and a bungled non-call on a fumble away from competing for a sixth Super Bowl; if they had gotten to the big game, I had no doubts whatsoever that they would have beaten the New England Patriots.

Nothing would make this San Francisco 49ers fan happier than to see Alex Smith join Steve Young and Joe Montana as 49ers quarterbacks who led my beloved NFL team to a Super Bowl victory.

18 Mar 2012 – Hamilton Cedes First Corner, First Battle to Button

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 18/03/2012

Lewis Hamilton looked like he was a new, refreshed man entering the season-opening Grand Prix of Australia.  Per most accounts he had spent the long cold winter off-season shrugging off the troubles of 2011.

As if to prove the reports of his newly rediscovered mojo, he took the pole position for the Australian Grand Prix by almost two-tenths of a second over his McLaren teammate, Jenson Button.  After the scintillating qualifying session, he looked and sounded like a new man indeed.

Gone was the grave, self-conscious, muted Lewis we saw all too often last year.  Instead, we saw a more enthusiastic, more visibly confident former 2008 F1 Drivers World Champion, looking forward to his season’s campaign.

Then the race started.

On Sunday, 18 March 2012, the five red lights winked out, and the roar of a grid full of 18000RPM V8 engines heralded the start of the Australian Grand Prix.  Lewis Hamilton shot out of his starting position, going up the gears, in prime position on the left side of the track on the racing line for the first right-hander of the 58-lap race.  I’m sure he believed in his heart of hearts that he would be first going into the first corner, especially given his pole position and the fact that he was starting on the clean side of the track.

Except Jenson Button had gotten an even better start than he did and had pulled alongside.

Hamilton had no choice but to cede the first corner to his fellow Brit and ex-World Champion teammate.

I was somewhat surprised to see Button, not Hamilton, pushing hard right from the beginning of the race, clearly trying to create a gap big enough to prevent being vulnerable to having a pursuer close enough to exploit a DRS advantage.  Why was this surprising?  Button is typically one of those drivers who is the easiest on his tires, while Hamilton is clearly more aggressive and tends to wear his tires out earlier and faster.  With Button in front and pushing hard, it looked to all the world that the McLaren teammates had switched roles.

Button’s tactics worked, creating – indeed, growing with each passing lap in the early going – a comfortable DRS-proof cushion between himself and Hamilton.  Hamilton, too, was pulling away from his closest pursuers, a testament to the early-season excellence of the McLaren chassis compared to the rest of the field.  But for Button to be staying in front of Hamilton without Lewis being able to respond, well, that was a bit of an eye-opener.

Since Button led on the track, he had strategic control of the race, even insofar as dictating when to call into the pits and change tires and who goes in first between the McLaren teammates.  Button made his pit stop, surrendering the lead to Hamilton at the conclusion of his in-lap, then wresting it away and increasing it impressively when Hamilton dove into the pits on the very next lap.

The race order at the front remained static despite the action throughout the rest of the field.  Fernando Alonso proved his worth, somehow getting his Ferrari up to P5 despite the obvious problems it seems to have.  2007 World Champion Kimi Räikkönen, returning after a couple of years away from F1, was also having a great race, hauling up his black and gold Lotus into the top 10 after starting a poor 18th.  Finally, two-time defending World Champion Sebastian Vettel had come up to third place after starting from P6 from the grid.

The McLarens were controlling the race from the front, Button around twenty seconds in front of Hamilton, when they both pitted on the same lap.  It looked like a master stroke that was brilliantly executed by the McLaren pit crew, keeping their two drivers in essentially the same track position relative to each other.  However, just as Hamilton was about to enter his pit box, Vitaly Petrov’s Caterham broke and stopped on the pit straight.  The race organizers deemed this a hazardous situation and dispatched the Safety Car for its first call of duty for the 2012 F1 season.

The Safety Car period scrambled McLaren’s tactics a little bit, since Vettel was able to pit and change tires during the Safety Car period and managed to climb one more spot.  Hamilton was probably annoyed and frustrated beyond description to find himself in P3 as the field followed the souped-up AMG Mercedes SL around beautiful Albert Park.

When the Safety Car returned to its station and the race restarted in full anger, Button repeated his early-race tactics and created a DRS-proof cushion between himself and Vettel.  As it did at the start of the race, Button’s tactics worked, and with Vettel’s attention occupied by a madly-pursuing Hamilton and Red Bull teammate Mark Webber now, the two-time World Champion dropped further and further away from the leader.

Thus the race ended with Button taking the first victory of the 2012 Formula 1 season.

Post-race, Hamilton looked absolutely shattered.  He seemed like a man who invested so much into this first race of the new season, as if this would set the tone for his year’s campaign.  Finishing third, despite an early-season car advantage over his rivals from Red Bull and Ferrari and Mercedes, was clearly not the result he wanted nor expected from the Australian Grand Prix.  He clearly believes – quite rightly, too, in my opinion – that he is a faster driver than Button.  But Button is hugely underestimated because of the lack of overt flash in his driving.  Maybe, just maybe, Lewis Hamilton had completely underestimated his teammate’s abilities, and this race was a rude wake-up call.  Button, remember, drives the same car as Hamilton; he therefore has the same car advantage over the rest of the field.  For Button to beat Hamilton in the same car must be a shocking truth that Lewis must now face up to.

As he said himself at a post-race interview, P3 is just “not a good enough standard.”

Lewis Hamilton looked broken, emotionally, psychologically, mentally, at the end of the race.  Whether his dejection is merely temporary – it is just the first race of twenty, after all, and there’s so much racing left to do – or is a further blow to his apparently fragile psyche is going to be a very interesting item to watch out for as the season rolls on.

17 Mar 2012 – F1 2012, Rd 1: Australia (Post-Qualifying Thoughts)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 17/03/2012

The beginning of almost every season of Formula 1 racing traditionally springs many surprises.

In 2009, amongst the surprises were the shockingly bad form of the Ferraris and the McLarens, and the shockingly awesome pace of the Brawn (ex-Honda factory) team.

The following year, the surprises included the withdrawal of Toyota from the top level of motorsports and the 2009 World Champion, Jenson Button, losing his place at Brawn (which became the Mercedes GP team) to Michael Schumacher.

Last year, the surprises included the strife in Bahrain, which led to the cancellation of the opening race of the season, the GP of Bahrain, and the shocking injury suffered by Robert Kubica.

This year, true to form, there are lots of surprises.

The Ferraris are awful.

The Red Bulls are not as fast as they have been in the last couple of years.

Kimi Raikkonen has returned to Formula 1 after a few years away.

And, perhaps most amazing of all, Raikkonen’s teammate, young Frenchman Romain Grosjean, looks like he’s going to be the Lotus (ex-Renault, ex-Benetton) team’s pace-setter, at least in the early part of the season.

F1

Qualifying for the opening race of the 2012 Formula 1 season was held in glorious sunshine, a welcome sight after a wet Friday.  It was difficult to sort the form of the cars because of the weather on Friday, but many of the usual names were where they were supposed to be.  Namely, the McLaren duo of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton, the Red Bull twins Sebastian Vettel and Aussie Mark Webber, and Mercedes’ all-German pair Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, were all towards the sharp end, and the pathetic HRT and Marussia (ex-Virgin) cars bringing up the rear.  The most striking sights on Friday had to do with the Ferraris being very visibly nasty to drive.  Even given the wet conditions, the Ferraris just looked evil on the track, and predictably the rain sorted the men from the boys:  Fernando Alonso coped with the sodden Melbourne track better than the over-matched Felipe Massa did, who contrived to get two wheels onto the wet grass and spin into an early end of his practice session on Friday with his ugly Ferrari beached in the gravel trap.  McLaren’s Jenson Button set the best time in Free Practice 1, and Michael Schumacher set the pace in FP2 later in the day.

Saturday was beautiful, a far cry from the previous day’s cold gloom.  Free Practice 3 saw some interesting heroics, with the Sauber of Japanese sensation’s Kamui Kobayashi taking the top spot for a time.  By the end of the session, though, Lewis Hamilton set the best time, followed by the surprising Romain Grosjean and Mark Webber; Jenson Button was fourth, Nico Rosberg fifth.  Interestingly, by the end of the third practice of the grand prix weekend, the Red Bulls appeared to still be slower and less composed than both the Mercedes (which some say is running a possibly illegal DRS-boosting F-duct system) and McLaren cars.  Some (including me) thought that perhaps Red Bull was sandbagging through the wet practice sessions, only to flex their muscles once the weather turned dry.

After an exciting three rounds of qualifying, the McLarens of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button confirmed their potential by locking out the front row (Hamilton on pole), Grosjean maintaining his surprising form in P3, and Michael Schumacher in fourth.  The Red Bulls were both on the third row, Webber in front of Vettel, while Rosberg succumbed to pressure and had to settle for a disappointing P7 after an otherwise impressive weekend.  Raikkonen will start the Australian GP from P18, fifteen spots behind his Lotus teammate Grosjean.

The Ferraris continued to struggle in the dry as they did in the wet.  From my vantage point, the car looks dreadfully slow and hugely difficult to drive.  It looks like the Ferrari doesn’t behave consistently in the corner, and the driver is forced to continually adjust his steering and power input as he goes through a corner.  A good car is predictable; you know what you’ll get at every phase of the corner, and it will respond to set-up changes in a predictable manner.  The F2012 looks like it is all over the place, and unfortunately Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa will lose a lot of ground and a ton of points in at least the early part of the season until the team starts to understand how to best get the best from the car.

F1

The start of the Australian Grand Prix should be interesting.  I’ve got a few things to watch out for:

  • Which McLaren driver would have the better strategy?  I think Jenson Button has a slight edge here, since he is much easier on his tires than Lewis Hamilton has always been.  If Button doesn’t lose a lot of time and position relative to Hamilton, I think he’s got a shot at beating Hamilton, even though Hamilton is the faster driver.
  • How well will Romain Grosjean’s pace in practice and qualifying translate to the race?  This is Grosjean’s second try at F1; he had an uneven first stint with Renault back in 2010, when he replaced the sacked Nelson Piquet Jr.  I don’t know if he can beat either McLaren at the start; if he does, how well can he race with whomever he beats?  More importantly, he’s got someone very motivated starting just one grid slot behind him.
  • Michael Schumacher looks like he’s got his most competitive Mercedes GP car yet.  How high up the order will he finish?
  • The Red Bulls will need to fight their way to the front.  However, historically their KERS performance and reliability has been weak and unreliable.  Is this still a weakness for the Red Bull machines?  And how will the two drivers treat each other at this, the start of a brand new season?  I expect Webber, the hometown boy, to be ultra-aggressive against his two-time defending World Champion teammate.

The big thing to watch for in this first race of the season is the balance between race pace and tire wear.  The driver who can get the most performance from this delicate balancing act will likely win the race.

Unless, of course, we get a form-altering early corner crash early in this race.  This is a distinct possibility.  The first corner, the third, and the sixth corner are all likely places where an early accident can take place.

Whatever goes down down under, it should be an exciting start to another Formula 1 season!

17 Mar 2012 – Harbaugh’s Draw Play: 49ers Join Chase for Peyton Manning

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 17/03/2012

Like a well-designed nickel back blitz from the quarterback’s blind side, nobody saw this coming.

I certainly didn’t.

After months of declaring that Alex Smith was their chosen quarterback, the San Francisco 49ers have surprised everybody and have emerged as a surprise suitor for Peyton Manning’s services.

According to ESPN, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman flew to Durham, N.C., to secretly work out Peyton Manning on Tuesday, March 13, 2012.  Harbaugh and Roman were said to have been suitably impressed with Manning’s workout that they summoned 49ers headquarters for a crew of medical personnel to follow them and conduct a complete physical on the free agent quarterback.  Per all reports, Manning passed the physical.  ESPN revealed the 49ers’ interest in Manning on Friday, March 16.

The news was a shock to everyone following the San Francisco 49ers, including the Bay Area sports press.

ESPN’s revelations of Harbaugh and Roman’s clandestine meeting with Peyton Manning opens up a lot of questions regarding last year’s 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who, like Manning, is an unrestricted free agent.

Smith is said to have an offer from the 49ers on the table.  Per most reports, it is a three-year contract worth $24 million.  I haven’t read anything about how much of the contract is composed of guaranteed money, as this is the key component of all players contracts in the NFL (the guaranteed portion of the contract, and how it is divided along the length of the contract, defines the player’s “cap value” against each NFL team’s salary cap).  Also unknown are other relevant clauses in the contract, including whether or not the agreement stipulates that Smith will be guaranteed the starting quarterback position.

Despite having had the contract on offer since even before the beginning of the free agency period, Smith has obviously yet to sign the contract.  This is despite the well-documented mutual admiration between Smith, the team’s leaders (including General Manager Trent Baalke and Owner Jed York, as well as Coach Harbaugh), and the players themselves.  Speculation is gathering that one of the reasons for Smith’s reticence to sign the contract on offer is that he was advised to do so by his agent Tom Condon.

Tom Condon is also Peyton Manning’s agent.

Now reports from the Bay Area are coming in that Alex Smith is considering firing Condon as his agent, due to the obvious damage done to not only his relationships with the top brass in San Francisco, but to the possibly irreparable harm to his career in the NFL going forward from this point.

Smith is in a bad position, since he knows that it’s likely that his only shot at future success in the NFL lies with Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers, the team he led into the NFC Championship game and a 14-4 record overall.  He unquestionably had his greatest NFL season in his career, and if he is forced to go elsewhere to play (not to even say start at) quarterback, it will mean yet another change in offensive systems for him to digest.  By not returning to the 49ers, Smith is set up to fail; at the very least, what should have been an easier off-season would again be filled with so much instability and uncertainty.

49ers

I was shocked when I heard about the 49ers’ obviously serious interest in Peyton Manning.  While the elder Manning brother is unquestionably a great quarterback when healthy, there simply are just too many questions surrounding him.  The primary question, of course, has to do with his health.  Manning has undergone four surgeries to his neck to try to correct a degenerative cervical spine injury.  His recovery has been prolonged and complicated – as evidenced by his subsequent surgeries after his first one in May 2011 – and it is completely unknown how his body would react to the typical violence that occurs within the context of each play run in football.

To put things in another way, who knows how Peyton Manning’s body will react if he got hit a certain, random way that would trigger the onset of more neck problems.

It may be that Manning just shrugs off each and every hit, and he is able to continue his aborted iron man streak before his lost 2011 season.

Or, it could be that Peyton Manning gets hit and never gets up to walk ever again.

49ers

The 49ers’ pursuit of Peyton Manning is a high-risk, high-reward tactic.  It reveals Coach Harbaugh’s and the team’s rabid intent to win big and to do so right now.  They know they have a top-level defense, a great coaching staff (that somehow managed to resist getting poached after a great first season), and a strong team chemistry.  There is a weakness on offense, certainly, but I am less sure about whether or not that weakness is necessarily at quarterback.

While Alex Smith will never be Peyton Manning’s equal in terms of generating the kind of gaudy statistics on passing, I think Smith is still the better fit not just for this offense, but for this entire team going forward.  First, I think he is a sure fit in Harbaugh’s professed “blue collar attitude” that he has engendered in this team.  He works hard, he is diligent, he lacks flash, and he gets the job done.  His teammates like him and support him unquestionably; even through the rough times, Alex is thought of as part of the team, one of the guys.  Manning is undoubtedly a hard worker, but he comes in as a star, and he knows it too.  How he would mesh with the rest of the team is a question of great import.  Second, he is familiar with the offensive system.  While Manning can most probably adapt to the 49ers’ offensive system (his is too great a football brain not to), there is a chance that he could demand the 49ers to adapt to his preferred methods of operation.  I have always thought that good coaches are smarter than even great players, and that the power and authority to run systems (both on offense and on defense, in any sport) must always rest in the coach and the coaching staff’s hands.  My great fear is for the 49ers to accede to Manning’s requirement for the 49ers’ offense to run the offense Manning wants to run, which would obviously require the rest of the team to adapt to him.  In my mind, it’s far easier for one man to adapt and change than it is for an entire group to do so.  Football is a team game, and all eleven men on one side must work as one in order for any called play to work as designed.  Third, the 49ers simply need a mobile and athletic quarterback in the backfield.  Not only do some play types demand it (QB keepers, bootlegs, what the late and great Coach Bill Walsh used to call “action passes”), but the QB has to be able to tuck the ball and run when the protection breaks down.  The 49ers O-line can be leaky (they surrendered 44 sacks last year, worst in the NFL), and Manning simply cannot run; Alex Smith can, and do so very well.  And, in my mind at least, this is a recipe for at least a personal disaster for Manning, who I will always think of as just being one hit away from unwanted and enforced retirement from the game.

In my considered opinion, the 49ers’ weaknesses on offense are their lack of playmaking and field-stretching wide receivers to complement tight end Vernon Davis, as well as their suspect offensive line.  Right guard is probably the worst spot on the O-line, so they must get a good man there.  It appears as if the 49ers have a game plan that will see them acquire talent at those particular spots in the upcoming NFL Draft in April.

The starting quarterback spot, though, is now obviously also an area of huge concern.

The 49ers’ gambit of going after Peyton Manning risks a lot, but it’s undeniable that the rewards can be great if the breaks fall their way.  It’s an all-or-nothing kind of move, and if it works, then you can say the risks were worth it.

But walking the high wire going above a ravine over a river filled with man-eating crocodiles without a safety net under you is just too risky for me.

17 Mar 2012 – Lakers Upgrade on Trade Deadline Day

Posted in Basketball by txtmstrjoe on 17/03/2012

March 15 was the NBA’s trade deadline.

It was billed to be Dwight Howard’s day of days, when he would finally leave Orlando and move on to his next NBA destination.

Instead, Howard stayed put, nixing his opt-out clause and guaranteeing that he would see out the completion of his current contract with theMagic.

No, this season’s trade deadline was dominated by the moves that the Los Angeles Lakers made.

First, they moved forwards Jason Kapono and Luke Walton, an old fan favorite who unfortunately has not seen any significant playing time for the last two and half seasons, to the hapless Cleveland Cavaliers.  In return, the Lakers received point guard Ramon Sessions and little-known forward Christian Eyenga.

Trading Walton and Kapono away for a demonstrably effective point guard (whilst shedding a good amount of money from the payroll) was a master stroke for the Lakers front office, led by General Manger Mitch Kupchak and Lakers Executive Vice President of Player Personnel Jim Buss.  The Lakers immediately solved two big problems:  1)  They acquired an athletic and effective (and cheap) point guard, thereby shoring up the team’s longest-standing personnel weakness; and 2)  by moving Walton, they freed up a significant amount of money from their payroll going forward from this season.  Luke Walton’s contract was expensive, and since his athletic limitations meant that he was never going to see any significant playing time on a team as loaded at forward as the Lakers are, Walton’s contract was a gigantic impediment.

But the Lakers weren’t done making moves yet.

Just prior to the official close of the trading period at 3PM EST/12PM PST, the Lakers traded team leader Derek Fisher and a future first-round draft pick to the Houston Rockets.  The Rockets sent power forward/center Jordan Hill in exchange.

Losing the draft pick is no problem for the Lakers, who traditionally pick from the back end of each round of the draft anyway due to their end-of-season record.  But losing Fisher is a gigantic shock to the Lakers universe.  Smart fans have long recognized that “Fish” has long been a liability for most of the time he is on the floor; his lack of foot speed means that he is a match-up nightmare for the Lakers, with the opposing team’s point guard routinely beating Fisher anywhere and everywhere on the floor.  Not only that, but with the Lakers eschewing the so-called Triangle Offense, the Lakers now cannot “hide” Fisher’s lack of athleticism on offense:  He is too slow with and without the ball to get open on his own or to create his own shot.  Finally, his shooting percentage from long range has never been particularly stellar.  On both ends of the court, then, the Lakers with Fisher on the floor are akin to having just four men going up against the opposition’s five.

But Fisher’s value has always been his leadership ability and the fact that he is probably the only Laker player who has ever been able to balance Kobe Bryant’s temperament.  Fisher’s voice is one of the few that Bryant values and respects; he acts as a sort of check and balance to Kobe’s wilder and more selfish tendencies.  Fisher’s role in maintaining and sustaining and generating the Lakers’ positive chemistry is impossible to quantify, a fact readily acknowledged by GM Kupchak when he formally announced the team’s trade deadline activities.

More than the catalog of Fisher’s last-second heroics (and there is a list of them), the question now is how will the Lakers players move on from losing a friend, mentor, and leader?  Will the price of improving the team’s roster (if Jordan Hill is effective at spelling both Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol) be worth the loss of such a valuable, impossible-to-quantify asset as Derek Fisher?

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