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The Whims and Foibles of Sports...

SEC baseball may be better than SEC football!

by J.W. Miller on 06/15/15

The LSU Tigers baseball team had a less than auspicious start in the College World Series Sunday, losing to TCU in a 10-3 walkover. But Tiger fans are still confident, and rightly so. Paul Mainieri’s group has timely hitting and outstanding defense up the middle with C Kade Scivicque, SS Alex Bregman and CF Andrew Stevenson to back up their outstanding young pitching. The remarkable thing to me is that four of the eight finalists, including the top 1-2-3 seeds of Florida, LSU and Vanderbilt, are from the Southeastern Conference.

So far,  only top-ranked Florida is playing to its ranking as it got off to a rousing start, thumping Miami 15-3 on Saturday. Arkansas lost its opener to Virginia 5-3 and Vanderbilt was trailing CSU-Fullerton 3-0 Sunday in a game that was suspended by weather and will resume today. But, hey, they are here and having half the field from one conference does not happen every year. In fact, the last times it did occur was in 2006 when the ACC sent four and in 2004 when the SEC sent four. For your information, a four-team conference has only won the CWS once, in 1997 when LSU beat Alabama for the title. But enough about stats. 

The SEC's current prominence in baseball sounds strangely like the early part of the 2014 college football season, doesn’t it? After Week 6, the composite rankings had Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Alabama ranked as the top four teams in the country. Although fans of other conferences are raising their hands, I still believe that, top to bottom, SEC football is the best in the country. But, you know, SEC baseball just might be even better, at least as judged by who gets to the final round. 

The culprit that will forever hold SEC football in check is the scheduling format. Everybody knew last fall that the SEC would not end up with the top four teams in the playoff format because the cannibalistic scheduling eventually would result in rank-killing losses. Baseball does not have that problem, primarily because the playoff format is like NCAA basketball, with 64 teams participating. If your team gets an invitation, and gets hot at the right time, they have a chance to win it. More teams, more games, more chances to win.

LSU’s roster is full of guys who have either been drafted or will be in future years. But one sentimental omission is the absence of New Orleans area players. Only former Brother Martin slugger Greg Deichmann, who has been troubled by injuries, is on the roster despite the rich history of local baseball. LSU has signed two local players for 2016, C Cody Ducote of Brother Martin and IF Cole Freeman of Lakeshore, but most of the signees, particularly projected impact players, come from elsewhere in Louisiana or out of state. Of course, nobody in Alex Box Stadium is complaining so long as Mainieri is winning. Sounds a lot like John Calipari’s roster, where players from Kentucky have not made a major impact on the Wildcat program since Darius Miller of Mason County (2009-12) or even back to Rajon Rondo of Louisville (2004-06). 

But since we are talking baseball, this is a good time to remind LSU fans that the University of New Orleans has a little bit to do with the Tigers' successful run. Mainieri played two seasons of college ball at UNO under Ron Maestri after one season at LSU and another playing for his father, legendary JUCO coach Demie Mainieri at Miami-Dade North Community College. A second baseman, Mainieri helped the Privateers win two Sun Belt Conference titles and advance to the 1979 NCAA Tournament during his senior season. After he left, UNO became the first Louisiana college team to participate in the College World Series, in 1984. Of course, Skip Bertman came in later and transformed the LSU program, leaving UNO with fewer and fewer opportunities to shine. 

Speaking of which, the two stars of Tom Walter’s 2007-08 NCAA teams are having outstanding seasons in the big leagues. Johnny Giavotella is the Angels’ starting second baseman and batting a credible .272. In Tampa, Joey Butler has been swinging a red-hot bat since he was called up on May 3. Used primary as the Rays’ DH, Butler is leading the Rays in batting with a .339 average and also is tops in OPS (on-base plus slugging) at .885 with four home runs from the No. 2 slot in the order. 

But this is Mainieri's week, and as we wish him and the Tigers well the rest of the CWS, let’s not forget to tip our cap to Ron Maestri, who just announced his retirement. Maes took UNO to the pinnacle and tried valiantly the past two years to resurrect a program that had been destroyed by UNO's post-Katrina administration. He didn’t have a chance, but he tried, and every baseball fan in Louisiana owes him their thanks. 

Pharoah's royal run prompts memories of Big Red!

by J.W. Miller on 06/08/15

I was sitting in a Mexican restaurant 25 miles from Churchill Downs when American Pharoah went to the post at the Belmont Stakes Saturday. The location was appropriate for two reasons. First, Churchill Downs is where trainer Bob Baffert’s prize 3-year-old launched his bid to become only the twelfth Triple Crown winner in racing history, and, second, because his jockey, Victor Espinoza, is of the Mexican persuasion. I was in Kentucky for the funeral of a close friend, but more about that after we talk about the most significant horse race in the past 37 years. 

The tables were littered with glasses of Dos Equis and margaritas and similar beverages, and all eyes were on the multiple televisions hanging from the walls. Of course, we all were hoping to see something that nobody had seen since disco controlled the airwaves with such classics as “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” Kentucky’s Goose Givens was the toast of college basketball and Bleepin’ Bucky Dent broke the hearts of Red Sox Nation. Most patrons were concentrating on their chips and salsa when the eight starters broke out of the gate, but the emotion picked up after Pharoah immediately took the lead and held it into the backstretch. 

His lead was only two lengths at that point, but when Frosted challenged him with a furlong to go, Espinoza shifted him into another gear, and everybody in the restaurant went berserk. I, of course, maintained my customary dignity, standing on a chair and waving a white napkin over my head like a helicopter, a fitting tribute to the greatest race horse of the current generation. American Pharoah’s seven-length victory put him into an elite group, and deservedly so, but his wire-to-wire dominance in these races made me think about the most dominating performance of all time to close out a Triple Crown. So let’s take a look back at the great Secretariat. 

It’s not hard to believe that oddsmakers liked Secretariat before the Kentucky Derby, but at post-time Secretariat and Angle Light were the 3–2 co-favorites with Sham next at 5–2. The horses broke evenly, but Secretariat trailed the 13-horse field at the far turn. He began to edge up at the half-mile pole while Sham was battling Shecky Greene for the lead. In the backstretch, Secretariat was still lying fourth when jockey Ron Turcotte stepped on the gas. Big Red took the lead in the stretch and won by a modest two lengths, although his 1:59 2/5 time is still the Derby record. 

His performance in the Preakness featured another slow start, and he trailed the six-horse field entering the far turn. Turcotte rated him well and did not ask much of him until the backstretch when he opened a three-length lead over Sham. It was like flicking a gnat off his nose as he held to the wire in 1:53, another record that still stands. But it was the final race, the Belmont Stakes, that cemented Secretariat’s legend. 

Only four other horses challenged him that day, including Sham, who took the lead out of the first turn. But Secretariat’s legs began to churn like pistons as he took the lead at the far turn, and from that point on it appeared as though the rest of the field stopped for coffee. He opened a ten-length lead in the backstretch and just kept on coming, lengthening the margin with every step. Turcotte did not ease the horse, but let him run on. All that power. All that balance. All that heart. All that speed. Secretariat was rolling, and the margin kept widening and widening and widening. Fifteen, eighteen, twenty-two lengths between Secretariat and the field until he crossed the finish line thirty-one lengths in front. 

Do yourself a favor and click on the following link or paste it into your browser to watch the most dominating Triple Crown finale of all time. It will only take you a little over 2:24 to see it, which is still the Belmont record and two-and-a-half seconds faster than American Pharoah:

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I was in Kentucky for the funeral of Arnold Thurman, former athletic director and coach at Shelby County High School, who died May 30 at 82. Arnold was an assistant football coach when I was a fat tackle for the Rockets many years ago, and he was everybody’s favorite teacher. I last visited with him in December, plumbing his memory for thoughts on a book I’m writing about the transition for African American high school basketball after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education banned segregated education. Until then, the white schools had their state tournament, and the black schools had theirs, but black schools could not play white schools. Arnold was one of few white coaches who welcomed the opportunity, and the team he coached, Bagdad High School, was the first to schedule the local black school, Lincoln Institute. 

That’s only one peek into the character of Arnold Thurman, who influenced a generation of young Shelby Countians, including me and my brother Jerry. One of his former players, Norris Beckley, an African American who is now a pastor, gave a fitting eulogy and spoke for all of Arnold’s former students when he said: "Arnold Thurman was my friend, my mentor and my coach.” 


Gentry's success depends on Demps' plan

by J.W. Miller on 05/31/15

Alvin Gentry was not my knee-jerk first choice when the Pelicans let Monty Williams go a couple weeks ago. No, it was not John Calipari, who makes more money and has more control at Kentucky than any NBA team will ever allow him. I was thinking more in the direction of Tom Thibodeau, the Louisiana-soundalike who took the Chicago Bulls to the playoffs five straight years while compiling a winning percentage of .647 (394-255). 

I don’t know how a Cajun grew up in Connecticut, but his college degree at Salem State was in counseling which sounds like perfect background for an NBA coach. However, written in bold on his resume is the fact that his specialty is coaching defense. That, along with his frequent run-ins with the Bulls’ front office, made him persona-non-candidate for the Pelicans. 

GM Dell Demps has been given the keys to the team Buick and would not hire any coach with a mutinous history. So, he went with Gentry, who is considered first an offensive coach and second, a “safe pick.” We all know that decisions are made for either good reasons or real seasons and whatever the reasons for Demps’ selection of Gentry are now past. And, as we all know, past performance does not guarantee future results, either in the stock market or sports.  But at least Gentry will not disrupt Demps’ master plan, whatever that might be other than “Give the Ball to AD!” 

Gentry's offensive cred is hard to question. He has been given credit for the Golden State Warriors’ ascension into the NBA championship series against the Cleveland Lebrons. Gentry helped the Warriors rank No. 1 in pace and No. 2 in offensive efficiency, an approach that he explained to Sports Illustrated: "We want to keep the defense on its heels by always staying in attack mode." That wasn't necessarily the Pelicans’ guiding principle under Williams. Despite the presence of Davis and the attack-minded Tyreke Evans, the Pelicans ranked No. 27 in pace this season. During Williams's tenure, the Pelicans were the league's slowest team twice, and they never ranked higher than 22nd in pace.

It is just such a change that Demps hopes Gentry can bring to the local hoopsters. Gentry is no rookie in the NBA coaching wars, having been the head guy at the Pistons, the Clippers and the Suns, although without much other than pension points to show for it. His three stops all have common threads that include taking over a team at mid-season, enjoying mixed success in the next season or two and then being replaced in the middle of his final season. 

Gentry's .475 win percentage as a coach was not for the lack of having good players, and even a couple future Hall of Famers. In Detroit, Grant Hill was in his prime, but he did not get enough help from journeymen like Jerry Stackhouse, Lindsey Hunter and Christian Laettner. With the Clippers, Gentry had steady players like Jeff McInnis and Elton Brand, but also people like the well-traveled Lamar Odom and Corey Maggette. In Phoenix, Gentry coached the incomparable Steve Nash but spent too much time manning a revolving door that included Amar’e Stoudamire, Jason Richardson and Channing Frye. Good players all, but do you see the pattern? Good players make good coaches, and Gentry hasn't had enough of them.

With Davis, Gentry has an opportunity he has not enjoyed at his previous stops. But it will take help from his GM to provide Davis with a solid supporting cast. After the playoffs, Gentry’s first job when he reports to work must be to convince Davis to sign the maximum deal that will guarantee him in a Pelicans uniform for the foreseeable future. If Gentry can do that, then whatever magic Demps works with the remainder of the roster could elevate Gentry from a “safe pick” to a brilliant choice.  

Sports took a back seat during Graduation Week!

by J.W. Miller on 05/25/15

Forgive me if I did not take the time to comment last week on John Calipari’s interest in the New Orleans Pelicans or on the Saints’ new draft class showing up for off-season training, the SEC baseball tournament or even Bob Kraft’s acceptance of Roger Goodell’s draft choices and cash penalties in Deflategate. As you might say to a wedding invitation for the child of a high school chum you haven’t seen in forty years: “Regrets, but I had a previous engagement.” 

My previous engagement was scheduled on May 19, 1996, when our baby, Charles Connor, was born. That blessed event affixed to my future calendar another milestone known as graduation day, when he would finish high school, which he accomplished Friday night. We had been through graduations before, with Lindsay from Orchard Park High School in Buffalo and Layne from Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, but when girls graduate, a father is little more than a piece of the furniture. Mom and the graduate pick out the dress, plan a menu for the graduation party and decide upon a suitable gift that leaves enough money to pay the mortgage. Dad is invited only if he brings his wallet. 

All that is also true when a son graduates, but then there is an assumption that Dad has some influence on the outcome. Mom can’t tie the boy’s tie or loan him a razor that hasn’t been dulled by ankle hairs or even give him the wizened advice that only a father can give, based on his own vast experiences. Such as “Uh, behave yourself!” 

Charles Connor, an effervescent kid known to his legion of fans as “C.C.,” graduated Friday night from Jesuit High School in New Orleans, an all-boys school whose alums include singer Harry Connick, Jr., comedian Jay Thomas, current Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his father Mayor Moon Landrieu, new Florida basketball coach Michael White, NFL player and coach Richie Petitbon and baseball players Rusty Staub, Will Clark and Johnny Giavotella. We did not choose Jesuit for its alumni lists, however, but for its academic record, its moral and religious compass and its strict Jesuit discipline. Parents always believe their boys need discipline although the girls are the ones who probably need it more. But I digress. 

Graduation week began with the Baccalaureate ceremony last Saturday night at the school that was followed by a party assembled by parents of C.C.’s closest friends. The week leading up to graduation day was filled with other parties to honor graduates of other schools in the area whom C.C. has met over the years. After graduation, a massive confab was held at a local hall where grads and their parents ate, imbibed and watched a great video loop that showed our boys in various stages at Jesuit. Two more parties were held at private homes on Saturday night for parents and graduates. Are we there yet? Whew!

Mom and Dad were not invited to all the parties that C.C. attended, but we still participated, lying awake until we heard the door open, male steps clomping down the hall and the announcement of relief: “Mom, I’m home.” He addresses his mother, because he knows Dad has been sound asleep for at least three hours, while Mom does not sleep until he comes in. He may be 19, but the rules of the house are in effect as long as he lives here. Which won’t be long, a fact that scares us to death. 

He’s headed to Ole Miss in August, a place he should fit right in. Seersucker suits, bow ties, beautiful women, SEC football, all of which should be incentive enough for him to study hard so he can stay! When he reports to Oxford, and Layne enters LSU Nursing School in the fall, the lovely Miss Jean and I will rule over the dreaded “empty nest.” But that’s our problem. This is our son’s week. Hail to the Graduate, and let me take a nap!

Goodell could have learned from John Paul Jones

by J.W. Miller on 05/17/15

As an amateur yet enthusiastic historian armed with the luxury of hindsight, I can conclude that John Paul Jones would have made one helluva NFL commissioner. Jones was the United States’ first well-known naval fighter in the American Revolutionary War and is called by some as the father of the U.S. Navy. However, his eligibility to lead the most popular sporting enterprise in the modern nation has less to do with leadership than with the proper use of tactics. John Paul Jones knew that when facing an enemy intent on blowing you out of the water, it is wise to employ a fundamental naval defensive tactic: Do not expose your broadside. 

In modern parlance, they call it “attack surface reduction,” which means doing everything you can to reduce the target and deflect malicious intruders. When you intentionally present the enemy with a target, you’d best be prepared to suffer the consequences. Which brings us to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who last week exposed his broadside, his backside and every other side of his professional anatomy to intense fire from all sides in the Patriots' Deflategate controversy. 

While I believe QB Tom Brady and Coach Bill Belichick got off too easy, others in the League believe the four-game suspension of Brady, the docked #1 and #4 draft choices and the $1 million fine against the club were too severe. Granted, the fine for deflation of balls and similar offenses is only $25,000, but Brady and the Patriots’ insistence on denying guilt for yet another violation of the rules justified the penalties. Penalties on serial offenders should be tough.

But now Goodell has waved a red flag in the face of his enemies. Goodell will preside over the appeal of the penalties, rejecting a request by the NFL Players Association for a neutral arbitrator to hear the case. Goodell’s decision to handle the appeal was unexpected after recent high-profile cases involving Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, in which Goodell appointed independent arbitrators to oversee their appeals. 

Former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones was appointed to hear Rice’s appeal against an indefinite suspension imposed by the NFL after video emerged of him knocking out his fiancée in a hotel elevator last year. Rice won his appeal and was reinstated by the league. Goodell appointed Harold Henderson, a former Management Council executive director, to handle an appeal by Peterson, who was suspended without pay by the NFL after facing child abuse charges. Henderson upheld the suspension but his ruling was challenged by the NFLPA in federal court in Minnesota. U.S. District Judge David S. Doty ruled that the league had exceeded its authority to punish Peterson. The league appealed Doty’s ruling but later reinstated Peterson.

And Goodell wants to face the inevitable court challenges of his authority? The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement gives the Commissioner the right to make decisions for the good of the League and to punish any player, coach, employee or club that threatens it. The NFLPA agreed to that right at arm’s length bargaining, and ever since has been trying to get their friends in the legal community to let them out of the obligation. I know how the NFLPA operates, having seen it up close as a member of the NFL Management Council staff from 1981-86 and after that as a club executive. They agree to Item 1 to get Item 2, and then they find every way possible to get out of the obligation of Item 1. It’s labor relations 101, but, still, it does not answer the question of why Goodell wants to hear the appeal himself.

This is a good time to mention that the Patriots are owned by Robert Kraft, who has been Goodell’s biggest supporter among the owners. I am not sure this additional exposure of his broadside to Kraft is in his best interests. Talk around the League is that Kraft believes Goodell betrayed him by taking a hard stand against his team. That does not bode well for the Commissioner. Another round of TV negotiations will start soon, and Kraft is head of the TV committee who must work closely with the Commissioner. If Kraft bails from the committee, Goodell might find some of his support among the other owners evaporating.

Some praise Goodell for not playing favorites with such men as Kraft and attempting to paint himself as the Commissioner for the benefit of all.  If the courts uphold whatever decision Goodell makes in the Patriots appeal, then he deserves credit. However, as we have shown, the NFLPA has been very successful at having arbitrators and courts reduce suspensions. Such a clear target as Goodell’s broadside encourages them to pull out all their legal weaponry once again and fire at will. And this time, it just might be Goodell’s ship that sinks to the bottom of the sea. 

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