The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
As you know by now, the Saints will host the San Francisco 49ers Sunday in a game that will break the tie for the NFC’s top seed. Both teams are 10-2 after the Niners lost at Baltimore and the Saints avenged an earlier loss by defeating the Falcons Thanksgiving night. Beating the Falcons anytime, especially after that Week 10 upset, is sweet, but I was looking ahead to this week for a special reason. I hate the 49ers.
I know hate is a very immature attitude, not Christian-like and sounding like something on a list of one who hate asparagus, buttermilk or Ben Stiller movies. Yes, that’s my list. I loathe them all. But I don’t hate any of them as much as I hate the Forty F*#%& Niners! Why do I hate the 49ers? Let me count the reasons, some of them personal!
I was privileged to be a part of the Saints first greatest stretch in their modest history, commonly referred to as the Jim Finks/Jim Mora years. Between that marvelous first winning season of 1987 and 1992, the last year before Finks backed away because of illness, the Saints won more games than any team in the league (62) except Buffalo (65) and the team who need not be named (75). The Bills were the best team in the AFC during that period, so we didn’t see them often, but the other one was in our division, making it up-close and personal.
The 1987 season was a storybook for the Saints, the first winning season in the 20-year history of the franchise. But our Cinderella rise from worst to first always seemed to be blocked by the wicked stepmother of the west. It was the infamous season when the NFLPA went out on strike after the second game and teams fielded replacement players for three games. The Saints stood at 3-2 when the strike ended and the 49ers came into the Superdome for the first game with regular players.
The visitors held a 17-3 lead in the second quarter, but three Morten Andersen field goals drew the Saints to within 17-12 going into the fourth quarter. It looked as if it might be the Saints’ day when Alvin Toles blocked a punt on the 49er 11-yard line and returned it for a touchdown and a 19-17 lead. But, as he did so often, Joe Montana drove his team down the field and stuck a dagger in Who Dat hearts with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wilson. The Saints managed another Andersen field goal but it was not enough as the Niners won, 24-22.
That result triggered Coach Jim Mora’s famous rant: “I’m tired of saying coulda, woulda, shoulda, but the Saints ain’t good enough yet.” He pledged that the team would work their "asses" off to get there, and they did, running off a nine-game win streak that included a 26-24 return victory in San Francisco and lifted them into the playoffs. The 49ers might even be credited for inspiring the Saints to their 12-3 record, but I’m giving them nothing. The Niners finished at 13-2 and had the first-round bye, leaving the Saints to be upset by Minnesota in the wild card game. I hate’em!
More San Franagony followed the next season as early as the opening game. The Saints started strong and took a 17-10 lead into halftime. But Montana dominated the third quarter with three touchdown strikes (two to John Frank and one to Mike Wilson) to give the visitors a 31-17 lead. The Saints roared back in the fourth quarter behind QB Bobby Hebert whose late touchdown pass to Brett Perriman made the score 34-32. Sounds like time for the two-point conversion today, but in 1988 that device was still six years away. A Morten Andersen extra point left the Saints short in a 34-33 loss.
The Saints and 49ers went on to identical 10-6 records, but the return match on the West Coast resulted in a 30-17 49ers victory and the playoff tie-breaker. Ten wins and we were done for the season. I hate’em!
What might have been the worst offense came in 1994 after we were competing with the 49ers for free agent Deion Sanders. I was chief negotiator and had offered Sanders' agent a five-year contract that would have made him the highest-paid defensive player in the league. But out of the blue, Sanders signed a one-year contract with the 49ers. Owner Tom Benson called it a "Mickey Mouse" move by the 49ers and the bad blood between the teams boiled hotter.
As luck would have it, our next game was at San Francisco. The Saints held a 17-13 lead and had the ball in the fourth quarter. Sanders had not done much to hurt our efforts until QB Jim Everett threw a sideline pattern that Sanders read like a Playboy magazine. He snatched the ball and headed the other way, high-stepping as he went, for the winning touchdown! When the gun sounded, the 49er management mocked the losing team with the theme from the "Mickey Mouse Club." Boy, did I hate'em even more!
I had long left the team, but my loathing returned by the 2011 playoff game when both Saints and 49ers came into the game with identical 13-3 records. The 49ers led 23-17 when QB Drew Brees drove the Saints to their first lead of the game with a 44-yard touchdown strike to Darren Sproles with 4:02 remaining. San Francisco QB Alex Smith somehow escaped the Saints pass rush for a 28-yard TD with 2:11 to go. But Brees did what Brees does and hit Graham on a dramatic 66-yard score and the lead with 1:37 remaining. Unfortunately, Smith was his equal that day and drove the 49ers down the field, hitting tight end Vernon Davis on a heart-breaking 14-yard pass with nine seconds left. Shades of the past! I hated them all over again.
So you get an idea why I feel the way I do? If the Saints win on Sunday, I will celebrate the local heroes as the losers slink out of town. If the Mickey Mouse 49ers win? I’d rather drink an asparagus and buttermilk Smoothie while watching a Ben Stiller movie.
As you sit down Thursday with family and friends and give thanks for the blessings in your life, also think about what the Saints should be thankful for as they head down the homestretch of the 2019 NFL season. Our list below suggests that the Saints should be …
Thankful they re-signed Teddy Bridgewater. It was a curious investment giving Bridgewater $7.5 million to wear a baseball cap and carry a clipboard while Drew Brees led the team. But Brees’ freaky thumb injury against the Rams cast Bridgewater into a starter’s role, and, boy, did he deliver. Five straight wins kept the Saints in the middle of the playoff hunt, which they might never have done with a backup of lesser ability.
Thankful they did not sign Antonio Brown. No, the Saints never had any interest in the erratic wide receiver who talked himself out of the League because of their emphasis on character in the locker room. Locker rooms can be torn apart by dissension, cliques or selfishness. GM Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton have done a remarkable job at bringing in players who fit the mold. Character players are team players who rely on each other, celebrate each other’s achievements and win!
Thankful for gifts. In the spirit of the season, the Panthers presented the Saints with huge gifts in the Superdome on Sunday. The game could have been a disaster for New Orleans if Panthers kicker Joey Slye hadn’t missed two extra points and a potential chip shot go-ahead field goal inside two minutes. That was probably the best opponent’s gift the Saints have received since Washington’s 2017 fourth-quarter implosion in which they blew a 31-16 and then watched the Saints win in overtime.
Thankful for the NFC South. Sports travels in cycles, and it’s the Saints’ good fortune that they play in a division that is going through a down cycle. Sure, Atlanta caught the Saints napping in Week 10, but they likely are pondering some major changes in the off-season. Tampa is rebuilding again, and Carolina might be on the cusp of its own rebuild. I can tell you that it’s a lot better to face those teams six times than to face the 49ers, Seahawks and Rams six times. Sorry, Arizona!
Thankful for Who Dat Nation. When Jim Finks brought me to New Orleans, he told me that “when we win, these fans will go crazy!” Even during the first 19 years of sub-.500 football, Saints fans were not satisfied but they were loyal. In 1986, the team sold about 35,000 season tickets, and when Jim Mora and players such as Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Bobby Hebert and Morten Andersen started winning, you couldn’t find an available seat. The Payton-Brees era has been even more of a reward for the best fans in the NFL.
Thankful they have Jeff Ireland – Give Ireland much of the credit for strength through the draft since he arrived as college scouting director in 2015. In his four drafts, the Saints have been almost perfect in first-round starters with Andrus Peat, Sheldon Rankins, Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk and Marcus Davenport, and further down they have plucked such plums as Michael Thomas, Vonn, Bell and Marcus Williams in the second round; Alvin Kamara, Alex Anzalone, P.J. Williams and Tre-Quan Smith in the third round, as well as David Onyemata (4th) and Will Clapp (7th).
Thankful for quality depth. When a starter goes down, the next man up is a quality player who can plug the hole as long as it takes. In addition to Brees and Bridgewater, the Saints have lost key starters but didn’t lose a step when able backups such as Will Clapp, Nick Easton, Kiko Alonso, Patrick Omameh, P.J. Williams and A.J. Klein were sent into the game.
Thankful for stable ownership. Gayle Benson reminds me of Jim Finks’ story about Ed McCaskey, who suddenly became president of the Bears when George Halas died. McCaskey went to Finks and asked him what he should do. “Ed,” Finks told him. “You’re an owner. Own!” In other words, put good people in charge and let them operate. The same advice applies to Mrs. Benson who merely has to be a good listener and follow the advice of President Dennis Lauscha, Mickey Loomis and the rest of her management team.
Thankful for Sean Payton. The Payton to Dallas rumors cropped up again Sunday when Jerry Jones issued a not-so-veiled challenge to head coach Jason Garrett and the team. The good news is that Payton was listed No. 6 among coaches who could be the next Cowboys coach. Payton is one of the best offensive minds in the game, and he has the weapons here to execute that offense. And he’s not going anywhere.
Thankful for Drew Brees. The Saints' QB confirmed last week what he means to the franchise when he took advantage of Carolina’s missed field goal and marched the team down the field in the final minute for a winning Wil Lutz field goal. Hey, if Carolina had kicked the field goal, Brees would have executed the same drive for a Lutz game-tying kick, and then won it in overtime with more heroics. Brees' off-field activities are sometimes overlooked, but his work with charities and even coaching his sons’ flag football team bolster his platform as the face of the franchise and a certain Hall of Famer.
And a Happy Thanksgiving to all!
It’s a good thing the NFL and college football dominate the sporting headlines these days, because the ink-stained wretches and barking dogs who control sports media have largely ignored the dark cloud that has settled over baseball since the World Series. You can’t really blame them. When they have such juicy fodder to chew on as Antonio Brown’s self-immolation, and the next chapter in Colin Kaepernick’s martyrdom tour, as declared by ESPN’s Mr. Happy, Stephen A. Smith, it is easy to ignore baseball’s offseason.
But now, the public tut-tut of sexist rants by club executives and revelations of stealing signs have given way to the news that Major League Baseball is proposing to radically change its relationship with Minor League Baseball after the 2020 season. Across the country, that means more than 40 minor league franchises will be eliminated. What that means here is that the likelihood of professional baseball returning to New Orleans is slightly less likely than Mason Rudolph cooking Thanksgiving dinner for Myles Garrett.
The radical restructuring of the minor leagues will all but kill any faint hopes that New Orleans will attract a new minor league team. The new plan will limit major league teams to five affiliates which would eliminate 42 current affiliated minor league teams. The minor league affiliates that remain would be required to cover some of the costs that now are paid by the major league teams, including player and coaching salaries and new stadium requirements. The Baby Cakes and Zephyrs before them had a difficult financial field to plow, and now a new franchise would face even higher expenses. If you’re interested in the details, Baseball America has written several articles on the subject.
How dim are New Orleans' prospects? When the Baby Cakes announced their move to Wichita for the 2020 season, our own Mr. Baseball, Ron Maestri, posed the real questions that have led to the demise of pro baseball here. “Why are we letting the Baby Cakes leave town without any attempt to keep them here?” Maestri said in this space. “Why hasn’t the State LSED board fixed up Zephyr stadium to AAA standards? Why have we not gotten a response from Jefferson Parish leadership? What is the plan for the stadium when the Cakes leave? Does anyone have plans to get another team here? Can’t everyone for one time, pull together and keep baseball in our community?”
The new shrinkage proposal, which almost certainly will be implemented, has compounded Maestri’s questions exponentially. And that’s a shame.
The backbone of sports in America is not in the NFL of NBA and their huge arenas, fat-cat owners and spoiled players. Fans are created from their own experiences of playing or attending their kids’ games of T-ball, playground or high school sports and adult church leagues. Minor league baseball gives small-town fans the opportunity to see a professional game for a few dollars and cheap concessions. I know. I grew up when the minor leagues were strong.
I remember the thrill of watching the Louisville Colonels of the American Association hosting the Minneapolis Millers and their star Carl Yastrzemski. The Fort Worth Cats brought in one of the greatest hitters I ever saw in Billy Williams. Our own Juan Pizarro pitched a no-hitter on Dairy Night when my dad the milk hauler took us to Fairgrounds Stadium where 22,000 of our closest friends rooted every pitch. You know better than I of New Orleans’ own great memories and own rich tradition of the Pelicans and the old Southern League.
What to do with the hundreds of young players who will be released and their professional hopes dashed is a human part of the discussion that can't compete with the financial arguments. Amateur leagues that exist in some cities today could be expanded, but the financial demands of assembling teams and paying players without a big league affiliation may be overwhelming.
What we know for certain here is that the Shrine on Airline will not host a team next year, making Louisiana the only Southern state without professional baseball. And judging by MLB’s latest brainstorm, it might not be the only one in 2021 and beyond.
Since the Saints took the day off yesterday, I was thinking of doing the same thing today. But after I weighed my responsibilities, I decided to slog ahead, do my duty and try to make some sense of a very rollercoaster weekend. I could be forgiven for laying low since I returned late Sunday from a week in the heartland where I saw Kentucky’s dismal come-from-ahead loss to traditional rival Tennessee. Be heartened, that is all I’m going to say about that.
After all, LSU fans couldn’t care less about the rest of the SEC not named Alabama, and deservedly so. After their big win Saturday in T-town (as my Tide friends call it), the LSU faithful are feeling pretty chesty. I even heard that my brother-in-law, the former Tiger football player who has been on Family IR after breaking a leg a few months ago, jumped up from his solitary perch and danced a whirligig around the room.
Nobody was dancing at the Superdome Sunday after the Saints’ unexpected whuppin’ administered by their arch-rival, the Falcons. That comes under the topic of welcome to the NFL where the expected is elusive, the unexpected sends the faithful into paroxysms and the only whipped cream you get is from a pie in the face. Games like that bring out the clichés: It’s a long season. A loss will do the Saints good. Better to identify your vulnerabilities now than in the playoffs, etc., etc.
Truth be told, the Falcons needed a big win to try and turn their season around far more than the Saints needed a win to pad their record. The reality is that the Saints were two games up in the division at kickoff, and despite their poor performance, they are still two games up in the division. You could say the Saints might have lost some ground in the race for home field advantage in the playoffs, but how important is that, really? You could ask the recent World Series participants, both of whom totally debunked the myth of home field advantage. In case you weren’t watching, the Washington Nationals lost all three of its home games but won the Series with four wins in Houston.
But is home field advantage much more important in the NFL? According to a Boston Globe study three years ago, home teams win about 57 percent of the total number of games played during the regular season and a slightly higher percentage, 62 percent, in the playoffs. If you don’t count the wild card games, the percentage goes up to 68 percent. So home field does have its merit, but why the home team wins is the big question. We’ve all experienced the jet-engine din that Who Dat Nation creates when the other team is trying to call plays. But studies show that outside of a couple illegal procedure penalties, the noise is not a factor in comparing game statistics.
I believe that whatever advantage goes to the home team comes not during the game but in the 24 hours before. Players are creatures of habit and routine, which are interrupted by airplane flights, bus rides to the hotel, makeshift meeting rooms and hotel beds. On game day, they bus to the stadium through a phalanx of middle fingers and less graphic forms of hostility and they dress in a locker room where they hang their clothes in a cubby smaller than a junior high school locker. (I remember the visiting locker room in old Cleveland Municipal Stadium where players took off their street clothes and had to hang them on nails hammered into the walls while dodging streams of water flowing out from the nearby gang shower.)
And when your team matriculates to the playoffs, as Hank Stram might have said, you can magnify all of that by two or three days, plus national media attention that is a far greater interruptor than the local scribes and barking dogs, and home starts to look pretty good. So, baseball aside, home field does have its advantages despite the fact that we are sitting here one day after the Saints laid a large egg with their so-called home field advantage against the Falcons.
So what does that mean for the immediate future? I’m guessing that after Sean Payton digested the game film, Tampa Bay’s home field advantage next week has shrunk to the same level of importance that the Saints experienced Sunday.
Yes, the World Series is over so let’s give a tip of the cap to the Washington Nationals in winning what was one of the strangest fall classics ever. Strange because home-field advantage was ushered to the curb as the visiting team, for the first time in the history of major team sports, won in each of the seven games. That’s like your grandmother hosting Christmas dinner only to watch the ungrateful savages ignore her oven-baked turkey, mashed potatoes and cornbread while they wolfed down Aunt Dorothy’s banana salad, Aunt Emily’s oyster casserole and Aunt Ann’s turkey sausage soufflé. Damned near unAmerican!
But now that we just enjoyed another football bye week, we have plenty of time to look ahead to what formerly was called the Hot Stove League. That is where the executives of the 29 Major League Baseball teams that did not win the World Series try and decide what went wrong and how they are going to fix it. I understand the feeling. After every championship season, there is one genius and a bunch of idiots.
I was never with a team that won the Super Bowl, so I’ve lived much of my professional life as an idiot. So I was wondering after the baseball idiots do their offseason reflections, will they follow the winning formula of the past two Series winners and stack up on stars? Or is there another way?
The star search was the path to glory for the last two World Series champs, according a Wall Street Journal story last week that labeled the Nats’ path to success as “the power of stars.” Leading up to this season, they had signed free agent Max Scherzer, who won the Cy Young award in Detroit and then followed with two more with the Nats. They extended former No. 1 overall draft pick Stephen Strasburg for $175 million and re-signed essential veteran Ryan Zimmerman for $100 million.
They also tried to re-sign another of their own stars in Bryce Harper last off-season but dropped out of the bidding after he rejected their $300 million offer and signed with the Phillies. No problem, with half of that money they signed pitchers Anibál Sanchéz and Patrick Corbin, who pitched three shutout innings in relief of Scherzer in Game 7. In October, Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Sanchez accounted for 70% of the Nats’ innings and notched a collective 3.01 ERA. “To win a world championship, your stars have got to be stars,” said Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo. “And our stars were stars in these playoffs.”
The Red Sox took much the same path in winning the 2018 Series. They traded for pitcher Chris Sale and signed free agent pitchers David Price and Craig Kimbrel and slugger J.P. Martinez. During the season, they traded for pitcher Nathan Eovaldi who arguably was their best pitcher down the stretch, and eventual Series MVP Steve Pearce. GM Dave Dombrowski wrapped those veterans around home-grown products such as Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benitendi and Jackie Bradley, Jr., and the Sox won their fourth Series title since 2004.
But a strategy gaining traction is the one popularized by the Oakland A’s and adopted by the Tampa Bay Rays and Minnesota Twins: Develop your own stars and when their value soars trade them for prospects - more potential young stars. The underlying theme here is that it’s not always the best team that wins the World Series. It’s just as often the hottest team in the second half of the season.
The rumors around MLB is that one of the “power of stars” recent champions may soon be headed in the opposite strategic direction. When the Red Sox hired GM Dave Dombrowski in 2015, they gave him a blank check to build a championship club and he delivered. But now the Red Sox have the highest payroll in baseball, and owner John Henry wants to scale back with a process-oriented architect who can steer the franchise efficiently through the transition to the next championship.
Last week Henry hired 36-year-old Chaim Bloom as president of baseball operations. Bloom’s last posting was Tampa where he helped build a team that finished 12 games ahead of the Red Sox and went to the playoffs. Oh, and their $60 million payroll ranked No. 25 of the 30 teams, $160 million behind the No. 1 Red Sox. Sounds like change is a’comin’.
This could be a good lesson for the Nationals’ brass. The Red Sox made nary a change to their 2018 championship roster and flopped. But that should have been no surprise. This was the 19th straight year that the winner of the World Series failed to repeat. Boston made it 10 of 19 who did not even made it back to the playoffs.
You think somebody will slip that stat to the Nationals’ decision-makers. They already have seen Strasberg decline his four-year player option, and they declined Zimmerman's option. And they haven’t even sobered up from their parades, parties and other celebrations yet!