The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
The last time we talked seriously about the Saints and football was probably before the Who Dat mob marched through the streets demanding the head of Roger Goodell on a pike. How dare he empower such stumblebums in striped shirts to take away the Saints chance at a second Super Bowl appearance? And what does Who Dat Nation have today but a hurtful gnawing in the stomach that just won’t go away?
It didn’t help that the NFL Network chose Friday night, the day the rookies reported to training camp, to replay that game. It’s almost as though somebody keeps rubbing it in our faces with the reminder that although our favorite team might have been victimized, they still lost the game that will live in infamy (apologies to F.D.R.), at least around here.
Not much significant has happened in the six months since the event. The NFL has made some rules changes to discourage such a travesty from happening again but you won't notice them. A local filmmaker is planning on shooting a documentary on what really happened on that last play. Last week, a state civil district court judge allowed a suit filed by a local attorney to get to the “truth” about the no-call and require the officials and Goodell to testify. Nice try, but anybody who thinks the suit will get past an appeals court outside the state wants Blake Bortles as his starting quarterback.
Nothing has happened to mollify Saints fans. They got whacked in the teeth and they keep getting reminded of it. And now here comes Who Dat Nation, wounded though its members be, marching right back to its customary position at this time of year. Standing in front of the Gates of Hope, the opening of training camp, hunched over a bit but still resilient and yearning for this year to give them another miracle. The seeds of that miracle, if it becomes that, have been planted, watered and nurtured the past few months and will sprout this week when the veterans join the rookies in camp.
There are many reasons for optimism that this group can do what they did not achieve last year. Drew Brees leads that list of reasons, which you already know, and some new additions will be an upgrade. TE Jared Cook should return us to the thrilling days of yesteryear when the Saints had a tight end who could spread the field and catch passes. C Nick Easton is solid, if unspectacular, and should give top pick Erik McCoy time to learn his trade. RB Marc Ingram may be missed more in the locker room than on the field, but Alvin Kamara should be even better in his third year. Michael Thomas is an elite receiver, and maybe Cook and second-year man Tre’Quan Smith can give him some relief, and maybe Keith Kirkwood will make a run for a starting spot.
The defense should be even better than last year, with a healthy Marcus Davenport making it difficult to double-team Cameron Jordan. Ex-Patriot Malcom Brown is a good addition at defensive tackle, especially with Sheldon Rankins’ injury situation, and Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple could be the starting corners here for years. We'll get around to all the positions as we go through camp, but I believe that top to bottom they have a chance to be better as a team.
You might even be a little giddy if you believe the wise guys in Vegas who set the odds to win the 2020 Super Bowl. Their favorites are the Patriots and Chiefs, both listed at 6-1, followed by the Saints and Rams at 8-1. I think that shows that Vegas also believes the Saints should have been the NFC representative last year by placing them dead even with the team that did become New England’s annual lunch.
So I guess someday soon, I will venture down to my own little Gates of Hope - my local Mississippi sports book - and put my money where my mouth is. After all, I still have my uncashed Super Bowl wager slip from last season to remind me that the Saints were 15-1 then and damned near made it.
By the end of this week, we will be talking about the NFL and can finally put behind us the most tumultuous, exhilarating, frustrating and confusing NBA off-season in history. Saints rookies report to training camp on Thursday, which means the end of our annual hibernation is finally over and we can turn our attention to what might be Drew Brees’ last best chance to get back to a Super Bowl. But before we take a big swig of that joy juice, we need to gargle with something strong that will get that NBA taste out of our mouths.
The above adjectives about the NBA’s recent chaos didn’t just fall out of my Thesaurus. They represent the emotions that have persisted after a handful of stars took it upon themselves to create several super teams designed to win the 2020 NBA championship. Tumultuous? No doubt for most teams, their fans, innocent bystanders and the sycophantic NBA media who were egging it all on. Exhilarating? Sure, for the fans and observers of teams like the Lakers, Clippers, Nets and Rockets who added all-star performers and millions of dollars to their payrolls. Certainly confusing for the Celtics, Knicks and Heat who added some pieces, lost others but failed to entice multiple targets to join in the fun. And frustrating definitely for teams like the Pelicans, Thunder and even the champion Raptors who lost all-star players and are now downshifting to the Regroup gear.
The NBA is under siege by its own stars, and things might never be the same again. Ask NBA owners and most club executives who are trying to pick up the pieces of a league they once controlled. LeBron James introduced this system in 2010 when he and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade to form a so-called super team in Miami and they won two titles. James, in fact, strongly believed that he and Davis could convince Kawhi Leonard to join them with the Lakers. But by taking the hint from LeBron, Leonard has taken the NBA to a potential crossroads. The manner in which he persuaded Paul George to push for a trade out of Oklahoma City, despite two seasons and a player option for a third left on his contract, has raised the volume on a divisive debate about stars recruiting stars and the control top players seem increasingly intent on asserting.
Are Leonard, LeBron and Kevin Durant, who packaged himself and Kyrie Irving to Brooklyn, too powerful? Free agency has taken a back seat to forced trades in the star acquisition department. So is that a good thing or a bad thing? That question will be answered in time, maybe if James and Anthony Davis don’t produce a title with the Lakers next season? James will be a year older and Davis has been sidelined by nagging injuries over the years. What happens with the other tenant in the building when Leonard and George don’t give the Clippers the keys to the arena? Can Durant and Irving actually make the woebegone Nets title-worthy? Can James Harden and Russell Westbrook co-exist in Houston long enough to outshine the other western teams?
Meanwhile, some pretty good teams are laying in the weeds despite losing significant players. The Warriors won without Durant and have quietly restocked the depth behind Steph Curry and Draymond Green, although Klay Thompson’s injury might be more hurtful than Durant’s defection. The Raptors won more than 50 games without Leonard, but can the confidence of a championship and their blue-collar system again carry them deep into the playoffs? The Bucks had the league’s best record during a season when star Giannis Antetokounmpo says he was playing at only 60 percent of his potential.
At the more familiar end of the standings, a number of thriving small-market teams are generating their own buzz. The Jazz, Pacers and the Pelicans appear poised to make jumps in the wake of their smart off-season maneuvers. Although it’s been a wild ride for the locals, the Davis trade generated possibly two veteran starters in Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball plus a raft of first-round draft choices. Hoops boss David Griffin has done a remarkable job of creating a team from whole cloth that will, at least for 2019-20, be built around former all-star guard Jrue Holliday.
Griffin was touched by moonlight when the Pelicans won the draft lottery and selected Zion Williamson, and then he parlayed the No. 4 pick from the Lakers into guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker and center Jaxon Hayes who had some dazzling moments in the NBA summer league. Add free agent shooter J.J. Redick from the Sixers, and Griffin has the nucleus that can only be supplemented by the assets of future first-round draft picks. Just not this year.
But we don’t have to worry about the Pelicans for a while. Not when Brees and the Saints are about to either dazzle us or tease us over the next few months. In any case, that's my last word on the NBA for a while. Consider our attention officially shifted!
A couple weeks ago, I suffered the inevitable fate that most active golfers face from time to time. I blew out my favorite pair of golf shoes. The soles gradually slipped apart and no matter how much Gorilla glue I applied, nothing could keep them together. They aren’t the only golf shoes I have. I’ve been rotating the same three pairs for a couple of years, but they were probably my favorite pair. I bought them when I was traveling and had forgotten to pack golf shoes, so I traveled to the nearest sporting goods store and bought a pair of Foot Joy saddles for about $39.
That was eight years ago, and they have served me well. But since I was going to buy new golf shoes, I looked at the heel wear on my regular running shoes and decided I’d just buy a new pair of those as well. What kind of shoes I would buy was not a question until last week when the well-known opinion-maker Colin Kaepernick issued another opinion.
It seems that his sponsor, Nike, announced it would release a commemorative shoe on the Fourth of July that honored Betsy Ross’ original 13-star flag. You probably read the stories and whether you agree with the former 49ers QB previous stances or not, you might have raised an eyebrow after Nike buckled and pulled the shoes off the racks.
The action has prompted a call to boycott Nike for pulling a product that their in-house protestor believes promotes injustice. Nike could have avoided some major grief if owner Phil Knight had invited Kaepernick out to his yacht and said: “Colin, pal, it’s not good business to diss Betsy Ross. Did you know she was an anti-war Quaker and also an abolitionist? You two might have knelt together in the old days.” Judging by Nike’s action, neither Knight nor his crack marketing staff knew anything about Betsy Ross either. But a week later, Nike stock is up 2% which equates to a $3 billion increase in asset value. So was this a rant or a ruse to bump the stock?
Either way, I had a decision to make, and I did. Rather than throw up my hands in righteous indignation like the grumpy old man I am trying not to be, I’m going to buy their shoes, anyway. First the practical reason: I’ve run in Nike shoes for years because I like their performance and durability. The second reason: I am boycotting boycotts. If we pattern our buying habits after our politics, we will be denying ourselves a basic American privilege to enjoy products that may include certain kinds of shoes, food or airline travel, but we'll get to all that in a minute.
Such boycotts are not confined to one side of the political fence. Whether you look at the world from the right side, left side or center of the street, there is a boycott for you! Chick-Fil-A has experienced several boycotts, one by anti-religionists who protested the restaurant’s policy to honor the biblical seventh day by closing on Sundays. Not sure if the policy violates the separation of Church and Steak, but I don’t eat at Chick-Fil-A, either. On Sundays. Chick-fil-A also got into trouble with the LGBT community for donating to certain groups that the protesters believed discriminate against them. Among those so-called discriminatory groups were the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Please?
Speaking of Christian athletes, I am a Presbyterian elder and several years ago, I disagreed with our General Assembly’s decision to divest themselves of investments in companies that do business with Israel. The stated purpose was to influence the Israeli government’s policies against Palestine, so if I bought a Motorola product or drove on roads constructed in part by Caterpillar earth-moving equipment – among the offending companies - I was going to hell!
My denomination has also urged a boycott of Wendy’s because the restaurant buys tomatoes from Mexico instead of abused pickers in America. So when I’m driving down the road and get an urge for my favorite Asiago Chicken Sandwich, I should think about where Wendy’s buys their tomatoes? Give me the Asiago Chicken meal with a medium drink and fries, but hold the tomato?
Remember when some conservative religious groups urged a boycott of Starbucks because the company’s symbols supposedly contained satanic designs? I think that’s only on the double Heath Bar Pineapple Mocha latte which probably deserves a boycott because it sounds evil. If you agreed with the NRA’s suggestion that schools should arm security guards and even some teachers to discourage violence in schools, you are no longer welcome to rent cars from Avis, Enterprise or Budget, spend the night at a Best Western or Wyndham Hotels, fly United or Delta Airlines, buy Symantec products or shop at Walmart, all companies who came out against the recommendation.
This will never end as long as we have the freedom to protest whatever we want, but one thing is certain. This summer, I have flown on Delta airlines, shopped at Walmart, eaten at Wendy’s, spoken with an old friend who was active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and I will soon purchase new Nike running and golf shoes. All of which means that my policy of boycotting the boycotts has probably ticked off just about everybody I know.
My old boss Jim Finks referred to the New Orleans Times-Picayune as the local wipe. I can’t attest to the effectiveness of the T-P in neighborhood outhouses, as Finks suggested, but as a reformed journalist I admired the job they did. Their reporters were usually on top of a story, and if one wasn’t enough they would dispatch a legion to determine whatever particular truth needed revealing. That admiration was often tested when their ink-stained wretches wrote something that I thought was incorrect or misleading. When the “Times Pick On You” tossed another dead cat over the wall, Finks would address me like a former towel boy in Storyville: “Your buddies are at it again.”
Local journalism is today’s topic because the Times Picayune that has carried that name for a century has been rebranded with the New Orleans Advocate - whose ownership bought the TP - sharing the masthead. As a former scribbler and historian, I regret whenever a newspaper undergoes a seismic change. Many fine newspapers that were screaming headlines in every major city when I came into the business have long since died. I worked for two courageous newspapers during my 11-year career – the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Baltimore Evening Sun – the former still operating like a pre-owned vehicle with multiple owners and the other alive only in the memories of guys like me.
A sale or merger is not a death, but a first look at the new joint effort this morning did represent an obituary of sorts. The names that had become familiar on TP stories were absent and a new set of writers were now telling me that the Pelicans are still adding players and that the Saints have about three weeks left until training camp. A new broom in any business sweeps out old favorites, like sports columnist Jeff Duncan, who will not be retained but wrote a wonderful farewell in the TP’s final issues. I’m sure other familiar names were also sacrificed with the now-familiar “buy out” of their profession.
Ironically, some current Advocate reporters and editors were given “buy outs” at the TP in the past few years then immediately went to work for the new paper in town. Some of the recently jettisoned TP staffers will stay busy, adding to the plethora of free online forums, blogs and podcasts that don’t pay much, if at all, but allow them the professional pride of keeping their craft alive.
When I came to New Orleans in 1986, beat guys like John Jones, Dave Lagarde, Brian Allee-Walsh and Mike Strom were covering the Saints while columnists such as Peter Finney and Bob Roesler told readers the real stories behind the headlines. Jones was responsible for my first dressing down by Finks when I recommended J.J. to take my old job at the NFL. My boss was furious because “we finally have a good guy who writes facts, and you get rid of him.” Finks calmed down when I told him from first-hand experience that maybe Jones saw a better opportunity out there than humping every day for a story.
Although the names are new, I am excited to see what the new arrangement will bring to the city’s readers. The owner of the Advocate is John Georges, a wealthy New Orleans businessman who tried to come to our rescue after Hurricane Katrina devastated the University of New Orleans and our athletic department. Georges donated $1 million to our department on behalf of his trusted executive Gabe Corchiani, the former UNO basketball star. So, yeah, I like Georges and I’m pulling for him to write a new chapter in New Orleans’ journalism history. New name, new people, same mission.
Since I left the public eye, my only complaints with the T-P have been as a consumer. I was disappointed several years ago when the newspaper went to a three-day publishing schedule for home delivery. In a column, I designated the new abbreviated paper the “TP3,” a play on former Hornets star Chris Paul, whose nickname was “CP3.” I thought the paper’s attempt to put out an online edition that mimicked the actual page layouts was a great idea, but many stories were allowed to run two or three days without updating. Bad form!
Another complaint came after we moved out of the TP’s home delivery area. I called and tried to purchase an online-only subscription but was told the newspaper did not have an online-only edition available for subscription. At the time, I subscribed to three other newspapers’ online editions with no catch, but the TP would only give me online access if I purchased the Sunday home delivery. I argued with the sales person to no avail, so I gave them the address of my daughter who doesn’t read the newspaper but had an apartment with an address in the coverage area. She has since moved a couple of times, but I never changed the address on the Sunday delivery.
Today, I called and changed my subscription. The Advocate does not require Sunday delivery for online access. I just hope the person who moved into my daughter’s old apartment doesn’t miss the Sunday paper.
You remember Ron Maestri, “the man, the myth, the legend.” Sorry, Maes, but I have the same T-shirt you were wearing on Facebook, which must be a requirement for granddads these days. But Maestri, the former AD and baseball coach at the University of New Orleans, president of the New Orleans Zephyrs and a Jefferson Parish councilman, wasn’t trying to be funny when he issued a recent lament on the state of professional baseball in New Orleans.
The Pelicans are on a Zion high and the Saints are less than a month from beginning another Super Bowl run, but the local Triple-A baseball team, the horrendously named Baby Cakes, is rounding third and heading for home. Make that heading for Wichita, where the franchise is moving next season. And that’s a shame, which prompted Maestri to comment June 16 on Facebook: “So many comments today about friends who are out of town, watching their kids or grandkids play baseball,” Maestri wrote. “Why are we letting the Baby Cakes leave town without any attempt to keep them here? 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.”
Maestri punctuated his statement with emogis of two hearts and four baseballs, signifying his lifelong love of the game. The main reason the Baby Cakes are leaving town is the condition of the state-owned Shrine on Airline, its home ballpark on Airline Highway. The seats are the original seats installed in 1997. The suites are barely bigger and less decorated than industrial broom closets. The locker rooms have standing water and insufficient outlets for the modern players' electronic doo-dads and gee-gaws. No significant improvements have been made to the facility since a new playing surface was installed in 2008.
Maestri suggested in a subsequent post that the Commissioner of Minor League Baseball wrote a letter to the State, indicating that no one will play baseball at the Shrine until the facilities meet AAA standards. The facilities, along with the team's announced departure, have helped deflate game attendance to 2,800 despite a 42-34 record that is tied for fourth-best in the 16-team Pacific Coast League. Meanwhile, Wichita is building a new stadium in the $70 million range to accommodate its new franchise.
Maestri’s post prompted a rash of suggestions that Saints’ owner Gayle Benson should add baseball to a sports empire that includes the Pelicans and horse racing. That would make sense because Tom Benson initiated discussions back in 1992 to bring the Double-A Charlotte Knights to New Orleans. I accompanied Jim Finks to a meeting with Maestri to secure UNO’s Privateer Park as the team’s home field while a new stadium was being built. Benson’s efforts were thrown out at the plate when local attorney and businessman Rob Couhig worked to secure the Denver Triple-A Zephyrs for the New Orleans market.
In the meantime, Benson had secured rights to the name “Pelicans,” the name of the old Southern League franchise that operated in New Orleans from 1887 to 1959. That prescient move came in handy when he bought the local NBA franchise 20 years later.
After the announcement of the Baby Cakes’ impending move, hopeful parties suggested a return to the Southern League as a logical landing place for a Double-A franchise. The Southern League is in the middle of its own relocation as the Mobile Bay Bears are moving to Huntsville next season to become the Trash Pandas (that’s local slang for a raccoon), but league president Lori Webb said in February that her league was not looking at New Orleans.
So where does that leave New Orleans as a professional baseball town? Nowhere at the moment, and to repeat: that’s a shame. But I see a crack of hope out there. Gayle Benson, in another move to advance her late husband’s legacy, should approach Minor League Baseball (MILB) and the State with this two-pronged plan: Propose to the State to take over the Shrine on Airline, contingent on securing a team, and turn it into an entertainment venue. The precedent here is Benson Towers which the state rolled into a long-term lease for the Superdome and Benson controls the building. Rename the venue “Champions Shrine on Airline” and bring concerts and outdoor events like the state high school tournament and college games to Metairie.
After an agreement with the state is secured, approach MILB to put Benson first in line to purchase an existing franchise, either Triple-A or Double-A, with the intention of moving it to New Orleans. She might even put Pelicans’ boss, David Griffin, on the case with his proven propensity to bring multiple parties together for his team’s ultimate benefit. Make a huge announcement with all parties present and give the baseball team some promotional drip from the Saints and Pelicans.
Sure, this is one man rambling, and maybe Gayle Benson has enough on her plate. But it’s a subject worth investing some out of the box ideas. Other than that, New Orleans will be the only Southern state without professional baseball, and that’s a shame!