By Bill Campbell
Call me from the “old school” but I am concerned about Chase Utley.
The Disabled List now contains the name of Chase Utley for that “very mild” oblique strain – and that may be, as the Phillies’ front office says, all it is. But it nags at me a bit. We’ve been down this road with Utley before, especially during the last two years. The Phillies are playing the same song that they played before when Utley went out with his badly worn knees. Last year, after assuring the team that he was fine through spring training, he had to placed on the DL and didn’t play until June 27th and he really wasn’t the same for most of last season. Utley was making big money at the time – still is – but the team deserved the facts. Instead, we heard a lot of minimizing and reassuring along the way. Will anyone really be surprised if at the end of Utley’s current DL tenure to hear that he’s still hurting, healing and hoping to make it back some time in July? The land of the oblique strain may turn out to be as ominous as the one those bad knees rested in last year. And this could turn out to be the same old game played by professional sports teams when a star is hurt. From here, I think the devoted fans that pay those expensive prices for the best seats deserve better treatment. But we’ll stay tuned for the updates.
This scenario makes wonder again about pitching coach Rich Dubee and his knowledge of the Roy Halladay affair. Dubee kept insisting that “Doc” was OK almost to the day he went on the DL. Now the star has undergone surgery on his once-powerful right shoulder and has, more than likely, seen the end of his season. But Dubee also fed us all the party line.
A healthy Chase Utley is almost always the Phillies’ most consistent player. Now we’re just concerned about his physical ability to play – not to mention his team mate, Roy Halladay, and he ability to pitch. It’s going to be a long season.
Tiger Woods was in town the other day and he stayed long enough to create a bit of a press conference rhubarb. Answering questions, he covered a lot of subjects: Sergio Garcia, belly putters, the U.S. Open, which will be played at Merion East next month, a course that Woods never has played. He mentioned the AT&T National Congressional, which has been staged recently at Aronimink in Newtown Square, the swing changes he has made with his latest coach, Sean Foley, how well he’s been playing this year with four PGA wins under his belt and the titles he’ll be defending on various courses this season. Woods said, “My game is coming around and to have won seven times in the last couple of years is something I’m proud of. I’m starting to see that now and getting some consistency.” When asked if he had any thought of contacting Sergio Garcia, the media room filled with much laughter. Hardly the best of friends, the Woods-Garcia relationship soured at the Players Tournament last month when a dispute arose as to whether Woods had erroneously marked his ball. At the time, Woods’ shot had hit the flag stick and flown off into the water. The marking question arose when Woods dropped his ball, which was later seen in a fan video and presented to the officials. This just added to the personality clash which has characterized the Tiger-Sergio relationship. So the press conference broke up in laughter when the Garcia question was asked. Woods sidestepped it and the conversation continued.
One of the more interesting exchanges between Tiger, the media and fans centered on the subject of belly putters. Woods thinks the club should be outlawed and the PGA tour is expected to concentrate on that topic soon. Those who are against belly putters are, in effect, saying that they are usually associated with an anchored stroke. It has become one of golf’s most contentious issues. “I’ve always felt that in golf you should have to swing the club, control your nerves and swing all fourteen clubs,” he said, “not just thirteen.” Woods supports the proposed ban on the putter though it won’t take effect until 2016. So the controversy will pan out over the next two years.
Medical Conference in Sports
There was a sports conference in Philadelphia last week that tried to answer many sports question. It was titled “A View from the Top” and was a get-together sponsored by the Rothman Institute. The participants were the front office executives from most of our major league sports teams. Guys like Peter Luukko of Spectacor, Alan Aron of the 76ers, Ruben Amaro of the Phillies, Howie Roseman, general manager of the Eagles. Reputable doctors with various specializations also participated in the meetings. All shared their various strategies, tactics, approaches and reasoning behind many of the issues and responsibilities confronting well-placed people in pro sports. But all agreed on the subject of injuries: there is no predicting them and nothing can be done regarding them except to have quick, expert medical care on hand. The health of the players is critical both on the major and minor league fronts.
We all recall that injuries were a major issue with the Eagles last season and the same must be said of the Phillies who were handicapped by one player’s medical problem after another. So the presence of qualified medical personnel at this conference provided the doctor’s perspective on handling the player, his privacy and the press. Almost every pro athlete on the scene these days has an agent, professionally trained to protect the player and provide an appropriate response in a demanding field. But these days even the doctors must be prepared to provide accurate information yet refrain from making promises to the press about recovery time and return to action. Everyone weighs their decisions and their words. It was an enlightening day for all concerned.
A new name has come on the local sports scene: Sam Hinkie. He first appeared in the NBA in Houston and the 76ers recently hired him to run their operation. But there’s another term we’re going to be hearing too: Analytics. Sam Hinkie’s task seems to be to apply this system to the running of the Sixers and it promises to garner more than a few headlines in the coming months.
Analytics is a system that relies upon the simultaneous application of statistics, computer programming and operations research to quantify performance. It’s a system that Billy Bean, general manager of the Oakland A’s used to select and trade for players, starting a revolution in sports management. If you go watch the film, “Moneyball” you’ll catch up on this new approach to managing a pro sports team. In Houston, Sam Hinkie worked with Daryl Morey applying Analytics, and those two innovative, smart guys turned that team from cellar-dwellers into winners, reaping praise from all corners as they turned the team around. Maybe they’re on to something. Billy Bean is in his fifteenth year as general manager of the baseball Oakland A’s. His team has been to the post-season six times, fighting for the World Series five times. The A’s have been a lottery team in three of those years. The system has worked to find good players who will produce at their position and with the bat according to the formulas Bean and Company have developed over time. Hinkie plans to work it here.
Hinkie’s former co-worker, Morey, has just finished his sixth season as GM in Houston, where he has had a lottery team three times. Now Hinkie comes to Philadelphia where, under Doug Collins, 44.4% of the team was successful shooters. That helps to explain why the team couldn’t win, doesn’t it? They scored 99.5 points for 100 passes, which was the 26th ranking in the league. All four NBA playoff teams – Miami, Indiana, Memphis and San Antonio – share shooting the ball from the three-point line, at the rim and the foul line as their most favorite places to shoot the ball. But the 76ers shot 32 jumpers per game from 10 to 23 feet and they led the league for shooting from inefficient areas for the third season in a row. Just another contributing factor in their loss record. While statistics provide a real commentary on the Sixers’ poor season, and on all teams’ performances, they provide the data for the students of Analytics, some of whom are running pro sports teams. So for the moment we’ll reserve judgment on the system and wait to see how Mr. Hinkie plans to put it to work at the Wells Fargo Center.
Tim Tebow couldn’t get it done in the NFL. Maybe a day has come for him in the Arena Football League. Ron Jaworski thinks so. He believes that Tebow can add something to the Philadelphia Soul, the Arena League team which he owns.
A day after the New York Jets released Tebow, Jaws contacted Tebow’s agent and made him an offer to play for the Soul. At least at this writing, Tebow has not responded. “I love the guy,” said Jaworski, “and I want him here just for his leadership.” You recall that Tebow was brought to New York to serve as a dynamic offensive leader. It never worked out. Rex Ryan and his staff never appeared to have gained much confidence in Tebow, who spent most of his Jet season on the bench. His work during practice did not guarantee him enough playing time and his relationship with the Jets just went sour. But, says Jaworski, “In this game, if you get open and you’re dropping back 35 to 40 times a game with people in your face, you improve. He just needs to play.” Maybe Tim Tebow will be showing some Soul soon.
The Chicago Bears’ star linebacker, Brian Urlacher, is ending his career after thirteen seasons. The eight-time Pro Bowl player announced his retirement on his Twitter account last Wednesday, writing “After spending a lot of time this spring thinking about my football future, I have made a decision to call it a career. I would like to continue as a player and I’m sure I could still bring some level or performance and passion to my career but I’m not sure it would be to my standards.” Urlacher, who also said he was honored to have played in Chicago for his career, has been the face of the Bears franchise and leaves the game having gained a well-deserved reputation as one of the game’s greatest linebackers. A big gap will be left in the Bears’ defense come opening day.