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Baby Cakes, we hardly knew ye! Yes, the city's Triple-A baseball franchise is moving to Wichita next season, leaving Louisiana as the only Southern state  without a pro baseball team.


at
Baseball purists had better stock several pints of Sneck Lifter or Broadside this weekend to endure two games between the Yankees and Red Sox at Wembley Stadium. MLB has planned some gimmicks for the broadcast including a takeoff on the Nationals' Presidents race between Winston Churchill, Freddie Mercury, Henry VIII and the Loch Ness Monster. Bottoms up, mates!

The Whims and Foibles of Sports...

Saints and Pelicans thrive, but baseball strikes out!

by J.W. Miller on 06/24/19

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! 

Will AD trade transform Pelicans like Herschel's propelled Cowboys?

by J.W. Miller on 06/17/19

Since Pelicans hoops honcho David Griffin traded Anthony Davis to the Lakers for players, draft picks and a small island off Catalina, pundits have suggested the deal might have the impact of the “Herschel Walker trade” that helped build the Dallas Cowboys’ 1990’s dynasty. It’s ironic that most of today’s electro pundits who mention the Walker trade have no idea of the details or even who Herschel Walker was. So, as another contribution of substance that keeps our readers informed to the uppermost in the sporting pantheon, I hereby provide a retrospective of the Herschel Walker trade, in which you can find your own parallels with the Pelicans and Lakers. 


First, the background: it was October, 1989 and oil man Jerry Jones had just bought the Dallas Cowboys. Jones did not buy “America’s team” that between 1970 and 1978 had played in five Super Bowls and won two of them. Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett and Randy White were gone, and the team he bought had only won seven games the previous two years and started out 0-5 in 1989. Something had to be done and fast. Jones had hired Jimmy Johnson as head coach and the two determined their quickest way to success was to identify their most valuable asset and trade him for players who could help the team from top to bottom. 


RB Herschel Walker was clearly that man, having led the team in rushing the previous two years and just coming off a season in which he had rushed for 1,514 yards. When the Cowboys announced that Walker was on the block, the Browns immediately jumped in with an offer of a player, two No. 1 draft picks and three No. 2 draft picks. It was a good offer, but Jones believed he could get more, so he had Johnson place a call to Minnesota GM Mike Lynn, telling him the Cowboys were set to trade Walker to the Browns by sundown unless they received a better offer. 


Lynn’s team was defending champion of the NFC Central Division in 1988 with a 10-6 record, and started out the 1989 year at 3-2 which gave Lynn doubts it could make a Super Bowl run. Lynn was on the hot seat, overseeing a franchise that had been mediocre since he replaced Jim Finks as GM a decade earlier. Maybe Walker was the missing link to push the Vikings over the top and cement Lynn's own legacy. So Lynn came up with a blockbuster package. It eventually included four starters - LB’s Jesse Solomon and David Howard, CB Issiac Holt and DE Alex Stewart - plus Minnesota’s No. 1 and No. 2 picks in 1990, 1991 and 1992; a No. 6 pick in 1990 and a No. 3 pick in 1992. 


At the time, Jimmy Johnson gleefully called the deal “the Great Train Robbery of the NFL.” Ironically, Johnson cared less about the starters than about what he could get for the trove of draft choices, Through solid evaluations and parlaying choices into upgrades, he correctly turned the Minnesota picks into such stalwarts as RB Emmitt Smith, DT Russell Maryland, RB Alonzo Highsmith, DB Darren Woodson, DB Stan Smagala and CB Kevin Smith. 


In retrospect, that trade could almost be looked at today as trading Herschel Walker for Emmitt Smith, half a defense plus waterfront property on Lake Minnetonka. The trade became a curse for the Vikings, who were eliminated in the 1989 Divisional playoffs by the eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers. The Vikings never made it back to the playoffs during Walker's years there and never made another Super Bowl appearance. Their last was Jim Finks’ last team that lost to Oakland in Super Bowl XI. Walker would play only two more seasons with the Vikings.


So what does all this mean for the Pelicans? If you listen to the loquacious Lavar Ball, father of new Pels point guard Lonzo, the Lakers “ain’t never gonna win the NBA championship” with Anthony Davis and Lebron James. The local hope, however, is focused on the cheerful receivers and the hope that our local heroes use the Lakers largesse as wisely as the Cowboys used the Vikings'. In the six years following the Walker trade, the Cowboys forged a 67-29 record, won three Super Bowls and became the gold standard for NFL success. 

Some free advice for UNO’s new athletic director

by J.W. Miller on 05/26/19

I  am convinced that once our maturity evolves to the lofty perch of  “old and in the way” all we have left of value is advice that comes with experience. The advantages of advice are that it was earned over many years, as much through failure as through success, and it's free. All of which is a bit of foreplay for this message of free advice to the incoming athletic director at the University of New Orleans. 


Tim Duncan, deputy AD for external affairs at Northeastern University in Boston, will take over the UNO job next week. As a past holder of his seat, I recall the first piece of advice I was given when I took the job: “A successful manager must do three things to show he or she is a leader of action," said my well-intentioned advisor. "You must fire some people you inherit. You must hire new people to fill their place. And third? You must paint the lobby.” 


Looking back at my seven years on the Lakefront, I can affirm that I tried to follow that plan for success. I fired people. I hired people. And, regretfully, I learned that the morass of mid-level administration at UNO did not give me authorization to paint the lobby. But I did pick up some knowledge that might be helpful, and I have reduced that experience to a Top Ten list of advice for new AD Duncan. 


1. Embrace the diversity of the campus. As UNO’s first African-American athletic director, you might know that UNO was among the first public institutions in the South, and the first in Louisiana, to integrate its student body. The opportunity that has presented so many individuals and families has always been part of the fabric of the institution. Don’t forget it.


2. Hire an enthusiastic young sales person. I know this was your focus at Northeastern, but you can’t be everywhere you need to be. You need at least one grinder – or more if you can afford it - whose sole purpose is to push tickets and sponsorships that will create the outside revenue you need for your program to compete.


3. Trust your coaches. You are fortunate that you inherit coaches who have battled financial adversity to make their programs competitive in the Southland Conference. Trust them when they come to you with requests that might be difficult to achieve. They know the advantages that most other schools in the conference have, and they are working tirelessly to lift or keep their programs in the upper echelon.


4. Engage your student-athletes. Not all the young men and women who come to UNO to compete in intercollegiate athletics are there because they want to be. Some were ignored by bigger schools, and they have a desire to disprove the doubters. Still, UNO student-athletes are prepping less for professional careers than they are training for the rest of their lives. Return the favor by assuring them you will do everything in your power to help them reach their goals.


5. Work hard to foster alumni pride. UNO does not have a medical school or a law school that produces well-paying and grateful alumni. What UNO has is the biggest alumni base in the city, but engaging them will be the toughest part of your job. Most probably did not attend athletic events when they were going to school part-time, but it’s not too late to start. And “friend-raising” enhances fund raising.


6. Know your campus. A faculty is usually split into three camps. They either love athletics, tolerate athletics or believe athletics is not relevant. Engage the faculty. Go to their meetings and listen. Be seen. The same goes for UNO’s mid-level administrators who can help you or bury you in red tape. Get to know them. There are points to be made.


7. Be proactive in the community. Solicit speaking engagements and you will find a large UNO presence that wants to know about you and your ideas. Do not accept that New Orleans is only big enough for LSU and Tulane. The Times-Picayune has operated that way for years, although its pending sale to the Advocate should be a positive for UNO.


8. Find the business leaders who want his or her name on something. Speaking of the Advocate, its owner John Georges gave us $1 million in the name of his executive and former UNO basketball star Gabe Corchiani. There is money in this town, and much of it is controlled by people with UNO ties. Find them and name something after them!


9. Bring back Football! The sporting reality of New Orleans is that nothing moves fans like football, and UNO can take advantage. When UNO brought back its club team a few years ago, more than 3,000 fans attended the games. The most fans to attend any other UNO athletic event, in which LSU was not the opponent, was closer to 1,000. You will never have the resources to sponsor an intercollegiate team, but a club team attracts paying students who still want to play, and that enhances institutional recruitment. 


10. Stay close to your boss. This might be the most important piece of advice I can give. You appear to have a president in John Nicklow who sees the benefits of a strong athletic presence. If club football is a minimal expense and helps recruit students, pitch its value to him. Call him with new ideas, news about coaches or student-athletes or questions where you already know the answer. Above all, make sure your vision has full support of the administration. 


The only certainty about advice is that it is either accepted or rejected. That will be up to the recipient. But whether it’s helpful or ignored, my wishes are nothing but great success for Tim Duncan. Even free advice can have value.

Some free advice for UNO’s new athletic director

by J.W. Miller on 05/26/19

I  am convinced that once our maturity evolves to the lofty perch of  “old and in the way” all we have left of value is advice that comes with experience. The advantages of advice are that it was earned over many years, as much through failure as through success, and it's free. All of which is a bit of foreplay for this message of free advice to the incoming athletic director at the University of New Orleans. 


Tim Duncan, deputy AD for external affairs at Northeastern University in Boston, will take over the UNO job next week. As a past holder of his seat, I recall the first piece of advice I was given when I took the job: “A successful manager must do three things to show he or she is a leader of action," said my well-intentioned advisor. "You must fire some people you inherit. You must hire new people to fill their place. And third? You must paint the lobby.” 


Looking back at my seven years on the Lakefront, I can affirm that I tried to follow that plan for success. I fired people. I hired people. And, regretfully, I learned that the morass of mid-level administration at UNO did not give me authorization to paint the lobby. But I did pick up some knowledge that might be helpful, and I have reduced that experience to a Top Ten list of advice for new AD Duncan. 


1. Embrace the diversity of the campus. As UNO’s first African-American athletic director, you might know that UNO was among the first public institutions in the South, and the first in Louisiana, to integrate its student body. The opportunity that has presented so many individuals and families has always been part of the fabric of the institution. Don’t forget it.


2. Hire an enthusiastic young sales person. I know this was your focus at Northeastern, but you can’t be everywhere you need to be. You need at least one grinder – or more if you can afford it - whose sole purpose is to push tickets and sponsorships that will create the outside revenue you need for your program to compete.


3. Trust your coaches. You are fortunate that you inherit coaches who have battled financial adversity to make their programs competitive in the Southland Conference. Trust them when they come to you with requests that might be difficult to achieve. They know the advantages that most other schools in the conference have, and they are working tirelessly to lift or keep their programs in the upper echelon.


4. Engage your student-athletes. Not all the young men and women who come to UNO to compete in intercollegiate athletics are there because they want to be. Some were ignored by bigger schools, and they have a desire to disprove the doubters. Still, UNO student-athletes are prepping less for professional careers than they are training for the rest of their lives. Return the favor by assuring them you will do everything in your power to help them reach their goals.


5. Work hard to foster alumni pride. UNO does not have a medical school or a law school that produces well-paying and grateful alumni. What UNO has is the biggest alumni base in the city, but engaging them will be the toughest part of your job. Most probably did not attend athletic events when they were going to school part-time, but it’s not too late to start. And “friend-raising” enhances fund raising.


6. Know your campus. A faculty is usually split into three camps. They either love athletics, tolerate athletics or believe athletics is not relevant. Engage the faculty. Go to their meetings and listen. Be seen. The same goes for UNO’s mid-level administrators who can help you or bury you in red tape. Get to know them. There are points to be made.


7. Be proactive in the community. Solicit speaking engagements and you will find a large UNO presence that wants to know about you and your ideas. Do not accept that New Orleans is only big enough for LSU and Tulane. The Times-Picayune has operated that way for years, although its pending sale to the Advocate should be a positive for UNO.


8. Find the business leaders who want his or her name on something. Speaking of the Advocate, its owner John Georges gave us $1 million in the name of his executive and former UNO basketball star Gabe Corchiani. There is money in this town, and much of it is controlled by people with UNO ties. Find them and name something after them!


9. Bring back Football! The sporting reality of New Orleans is that nothing moves fans like football, and UNO can take advantage. When UNO brought back its club team a few years ago, more than 3,000 fans attended the games. The most fans to attend any other UNO athletic event, in which LSU was not the opponent, was closer to 1,000. You will never have the resources to sponsor an intercollegiate team, but a club team attracts paying students who still want to play, and that enhances institutional recruitment. 


10. Stay close to your boss. This might be the most important piece of advice I can give. You appear to have a president in John Nicklow who sees the benefits of a strong athletic presence. If club football is a minimal expense and helps recruit students, pitch its value to him. Call him with new ideas, news about coaches or student-athletes or questions where you already know the answer. Above all, make sure your vision has full support of the administration. 


The only certainty about advice is that it is either accepted or rejected. That will be up to the recipient. But whether it’s helpful or ignored, my wishes are nothing but great success for Tim Duncan. Even free advice can have value.

Pelicans won’t blow it with Zion like they did with AD

by J.W. Miller on 05/20/19

Random thoughts while wondering if no-jockey racing could ever be a thing …


Like the headline says, we’re going to talk about why I believe the early years of the Zion Williamson era will be vastly more productive for the Pelicans than the early years of the Anthony Davis era. But first, let’s give horse racing its final run down the stretch. 


Most racing fans watched the Preakness on Saturday for two reasons. One, to put the Kentucky Derby controversy behind them, or Two, to watch a wide-open race where, despite the betting odds, there was no sure-fire favorite. But to anybody who has lived in Baltimore, as I did in the 1970’s, you also watched because it might be the last time you’ll see a Triple Crown race in Charm City. The reason is that the city of Baltimore and the owners of venerable Pimlico race course can’t agree on who should fix up what has become a crumbling, deteriorating structure. For example, before Saturday’s race, authorities shut down a 7,000-seating area because it was declared unsafe for patrons. Two days before the race, a ruptured water main near the track left much of the facility without water on race day. 


The great history of “Old Hilltop” not only includes the Preakness, which is actually two years older than the Kentucky Derby, but a legendary match race in 1877 between Ten Broeck, Tom Ochiltree and Parole that shut down Congress. But tradition and reputation don’t pay the bills. In 2017, the Maryland Stadium Authority released the first phase of a study that said Pimlico needed at least $250 million in renovations. The next phase of the report a year later updated the first one and declared that Pimlico’s existing buildings should be demolished and rebuilt at a price that would well exceed the first estimate. 


The Stronach group, which inherited the facility in 2011, says the structure isn’t worth fixing without help from the city or state, and they intend to move the Preakness 25 miles down I-95 to Laurel Park Racecourse, which they also own. I spent a lot of time at Pimlico during my decade in “Balmer,” much of it in the Preakness infield sipping multiple National Bohemian beers while watching a morning match of lacrosse between traditional powers Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland. 


I have nothing against Laurel, where I won my biggest race track payday with a $10 exacta on two Kentucky-breds that paid $225. I don’t think I’ve come out on the plus side at the track since, but the Preakness doesn’t belong at Laurel. Sadly, sentiment won’t surpass the need for hard cash to keep the race at Pimlico. 


- 0 - 


Switching to basketball, when the NBA lottery balls inexplicably fell the Pelicans’ way last week, I had a fleeting thought that somehow Tom Benson was influencing the upset. It’s hard to argue with the Benson karma, which began in his first year as owner of the local NBA franchise when the bouncing balls sent Anthony Davis to New Orleans.


However, the euphoria didn’t last as Davis’ first six years resulted in more All-Star selections for him than winning records for the team. The culprit, as I have written here before, was GM Dell Demps who never seemed to have a consistent philosophy that would produce long-term success. 


One year he signed all his own free agents, which hinted at continuity, and then he fired the coach – Monte Williams - who made their retention reasonable. Demps refused to draft players who fit into Alvin Gentry’s scheme, instead trading them for veterans whose compensation made the salary structure too top-heavy and restricted the ability to add quality depth. Sure, young players don’t come with NBA experience, but they do come with salaries that allow you the room to bring in veteran role-players. When Demps tried to do that with guys like Solomon Hill and E’Twaun Moore he overpaid for overrated ability that produced the same result. 


Now, with New Orleans’ unremitting optimism level rising again with the impending addition of Zion Williamson, I don’t think David Griffin will repeated those same mistakes. The team’s new head of basketball operations is an experienced NBA executive who has a plan for long-term success, including the addition of new GM Trajan Langdon over the weekend. 


At some point, Griffin’s plan also will include a coaching change. Alvin Gentry did a commendable job keeping the team together amid the AD hubbub last year, but his sub-.500 career record does not hint of championships. Griffin knows when to change coaches, like he did when he swapped out David Blatt for Tyrone Lue in Cleveland during the 2015-16 season and won a championship. 


That’s why I believe Zion’s early years with the Pelicans will be more productive than AD’s early years. David Griffin is not Dell Demps. And with Griffin, don’t count out the possibility that Zion’s early years and AD’s middle years just might become a joint venture toward NBA success.