King Kaufman's Sports Daily

On chemistry in baseball clubhouses and track and field labs, plus USA basketball, Miami football and editing misteaks: The readers write.


Salon Staff
August 6, 2004 11:00PM (UTC)

It's time to turn it over to the real writers: You all.

Reader mail day is always a favorite of mine because it gives me a chance to patronize you the way I just did, while also getting me one day closer to retirement without having to mention the X Games.

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Before we get to the letters, here's a reminder that you can discuss this column and other sporting events of the day in Salon's Table Talk. You can also just lurk around and see what other people are saying.

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Miami admits Willie Williams [PERMALINK]

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We start with a bit of an amen chorus. The University of Miami admitted top linebacker recruit Willie Williams despite his long rap sheet, which he'd neglected to tell the school about, and which included a series of arrests, later resulting in two convictions, on a recruiting trip to the University of Florida. Miami president Donna Shalala issued a letter to university employees justifying the decision, saying it was not a return to Miami's bad old days of football lawlessness, but was rather part of the school's commitment to giving local kids a chance at an education.

If they're likely to make 75 tackles as a freshman, was the unspoken part of the message.

Jon Simmons: Here we go with Miami standards vs. everyone else's. This is what happens when you let the 800-pound gorilla that is U.M. football take over your conference. Look on the bright side, N.C. State and Clemson fans, at least you don't have to hide behind a cone of silence anymore when it comes to your recruiting standards. You can just come right out and brag that at least none of your recruits got arrested during their visit. U.M. has reset the bar, and it looks like we're limbo dancing.

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Name withheld: I'm so distressed by this. I teach [at the University of Miami], and I feel rather sure that if we had a prospective student with talent [comparable to Williams' football talent in this discipline], and with Williams' rap sheet, the student would not be admitted.

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Team chemistry [PERMALINK]

A more spirited discussion ensued when I wrote that the media's criticism of the Dodgers-Marlins trade -- which focused on the Dodgers risking their chemistry by letting go of heart-and-soul Paul Lo Duca -- was off base. Chemistry, I wrote, is a kind of superstition, used to explain after the fact why a team expected to do poorly does well or vice-versa.

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Ian Evans: I'll grant you that the way commentators and sports columnists talk about chemistry it's a meaningless term. They never talk about the great chemistry of the sub-.500 team whose players all love to play for one another.

But I don't think it's all a myth. Having worked in the software industry for many years now, there are few things as deflating as watching a hard-working and talented co-worker get laid off, or leave voluntarily for that matter. It affects how you work, what your attitude is, whether you start tuning out management, whether you'll voluntarily do more to improve the project you're working on, and so forth.

I imagine that a job is a job is a job. If you believe the company (or team) you work for has the ability to right the wrongs and make smart decisions in the future, you stay and do your job, even if you don't really like your fellow employees. On the other hand, if the team or company is run badly, it doesn't seem to matter who you hire (see Rangers, New York).

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Basically, I think team chemistry is a reflection of the whole organization, not just the locker room, and it has to do with attitude, not how much everyone likes one another.

King replies: I disagree that a job is a job is a job. I think what motivates people is different in different areas.

Professional athletes, it seems to me, get satisfaction and pleasure out of their jobs in different ways than, for example, people working for a software company. There's individual glory, fame and its perks, all sorts of little things that make going to work for the Dodgers very different than going to work for International Widget Co. This is why you see players playing well for lousy, no-hope teams, teams which clearly have no ability to right the wrongs and make smart decisions. They leave when they get the chance, usually, but in the meantime, they're still good players.

This isn't limited to professional athletes. The more you have your own motivations, the less believing in the company is important.

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David Martinez: I've been reading Bill James for 20 years, big fan of Billy Beane, bought "Moneyball" on the first day it came out (and read your column for about the past year), yet still sometimes I get suckered by baseball hacks who write about team chemistry as if it means something. I actually fretted for the Dodgers (my team) for trading Lo Duca. Then I read your column. Thanks for setting me straight. I won't get fooled again.

Owen Henderson: If a team really cared about chemistry, they'd profile everyone to find out what makes who tick. Yet, I dare say teams try to stock themselves with talent. So the point's moot: No team has ever consistently tried to develop chemistry. As you say, it's just a P.R. line. So while everyone tries to look smart by praising or beating up on chemistry, the concept remains untested.

Steve: I think sabermetricians undervalue chemistry and makeup as much as "baseball guys" overvalue it. Yeah, it's not measurable, and yeah, you can find teams that did well without it, but I do wonder if the new G.M.s who seemingly build teams out of rotisserie players make their players feel more like numbers on a spreadsheet than human beings. If I was making $10 million a year as a ballplayer, I probably shouldn't care. But as a human, I probably would.

King replies: One way I differ from most of the sabermetric crowd is in how we assess managers. They want to talk about tactical stuff -- Dusty Baker's handling of his pitching staff, enthusiasm for bunting, etc., for example -- which I think isn't that important in a manager. I think a great baseball manager is a great manager in the IBM sense. A guy who creates a winning atmosphere and puts his people in position to succeed. I think it's fair to call that chemistry.

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But the importance of one particular player in that broader atmosphere -- a Paul Lo Duca, for example, Kevin "Cowboy Up" Millar of the Red Sox, Ivan Rodriguez of last year's Marlins -- is I think almost impossible to understate. The on-field contributions of a superlative player like Rodriguez are another matter, of course.

And what's to prevent a general manager or manager, once having chosen a player because of his sabermetric-friendly statistics, from making him feel wanted, loved, cared for and nurtured in the organization? Why is it somehow dehumanizing to be hired because the numbers say you're good, as opposed to somebody's gut feeling saying so?

Seth Bauer: As a member of a number of successful rowing teams, including the 1988 Olympic team [which won the bronze medal], I've seen how teams that expect to win stay confident when they get behind, fight a little harder for a bigger lead when they're ahead, and generally have a mental edge over their opponents. That's the essence of chemistry. The Red Sox had it last year not because they had a slogan or some laughs, but because falling behind made them fight harder, and they had a bunch of come-from-behind wins. They never felt out of a game. It's partly what made their playoff loss so shocking.

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More baseball matters [PERMALINK]

Scott Sederstrom: You say, "My crystal ball, the one in which both the Cardinals and Blue Jays appeared this spring, says Johnson will be in pinstripes by September, even if he isn't by Sunday."

I'm trying to imagine how R.J. would slip through the waiver wire without getting claimed by someone before getting to the Yankees.

King replies: Many letters expressed this same, highly logical sentiment. I don't know. I just had and have a feeling the Yankees will find a way. I never speak rationally about the Yankees. I only express my deep, irrational fears. I'm sorry I didn't make that clear. I usually do.

Derek Wallen: I agree that a team's record when a given starter takes the hill is an interesting (albeit obviously limited) stat, but it's not quite right that pitchers' records aren't "displayed this way, ever." The sports section of the Los Angeles Times, when listing the daily pitching matchups, discloses this stat for every pitcher who will start that day.

Ready to move L.A. now? Just think: Not only would you enjoy such state-of-the-art (well, kinda) pitching data, but you could write about the Lakers to your heart's content, and none of your neighbors would ever complain.

King replies: Did my time in L.A., man, did my time.

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The death of track and field [PERMALINK]

I wrote that the track and field world's Draconian approach to drug cheaters was killing the sport in order to save it.

Lee Nichols: I'm a rabid track and field fan, and I think I know what you're getting at. The drug situation is frustrating to us fanatic trackies. Some have argued that we should just legalize everything; I stubbornly remain in the camp that cringes at sending the message that the only way kids can someday become elite athletes is to kill themselves with steroids.

But I want you to also consider a bigger idea that always gets missed in the non-track media: For better or worse, the reason our sport catches drug cheats is because we actually test for them. That stuff Mark McGwire admitted using when he set his home run record would have gotten him a two-year ban in track and field. And all those 300-plus-pound linemen in the NFL who can do 4.6 in the 40? Do you really believe for one second that the NFL's testing program is anything more than a farce?

And that's the thing that drives us crazy the most -- before this column, have you written anything else about track? If you have, my apologies, but it annoys the hell out of us that actual track competitions get completely ignored by the larger media, but our scandals never fail to get Page 1 treatment.

King replies: There were many letters expressing similar sentiments.

I feel your pain about how the actual track competitions get ignored but the scandals get Page 1 treatment, but you know what? The reason for that is that the scandals are more interesting than the competitions.

The task of track and field is to either make the competitions more interesting or the scandals less interesting. I don't know how to do the former and I wouldn't advise trying, as it's not the competition that's the problem. So the problem to address is the scandals.

It's all very fine for track officials to get on a high horse and say, "We actually test for drugs, we catch people, we punish 'em, unlike these other foolish sports," but that's what I meant by the patient having to be killed to save it. Those other foolish sports have their competitions on Page 1. They're setting attendance records. Maybe they're not dealing with this problem as effectively as they could or should be, but at least they're still going to be around as a viable concern to keep working at it. Will track and field still be? Take nothing for granted. Handball used to be big, didn't it?

Could it be that there's a happy medium between the team sports leagues' "farce" and track's approach? Is the only choice really between "legalize everything and force 12-year-olds to choose between a track career and a healthy adulthood" and "two-year minimum suspensions and all past results wiped out if you get caught with some Sudafed"?

Because here's the thing: Is there any evidence that this routine is doing anything other than turning the sport into "Law & Order: Sprinters Unit"? If a short bout of get-tough really scared everybody straight and wiped drugs out of the sport, it would all be worth it. I think that's a pipe dream. There will always be cheaters, there will always be one drug that's one step ahead of the latest drug test.

Or at least that's how it's always been. I have all of human history to back up this argument. What's backing up the argument that the Draconian routine is doing anything but, in effect, filling up the jails of track and field?

I don't know what this middle-ground approach would be. No idea. But if I were part of the track and field community, I'd be working my ass off to try to find it, rather than patting myself on the back that yet another marquee name in my sport had been banned from competition.

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USA basketball woes [PERMALINK]

I wrote that the U.S. men's team getting smoked by Italy was a good thing, because it signaled that the era of the NBA stars of the United States dominating the rest of the world was gone for good, and the Olympic basketball tournament represented real competition. The U.S. needed a buzzer-beater by Allen Iverson to beat Germany the next night.

Paul Hewitt: The drubbing by Italy is yet another blow against the "blacks are natural athletes" horse hooey.

Dan Mazza: Now U.S. basketball knows how soccer countries used to feel when they got beat by the USA.

Here is the interesting thing. The USA is criticized for having individual players who grew up with street ball and now they are playing against disciplined teams from Europe and South America, where they stress fundamentals. The exact opposite has been argued about American soccer for years. We teach organized youth soccer, with no creative individualism, not enough pick-up games, no street ball, blah blah. Organization kills creativity, we are told, hence we are not Brazil.

Bridget Watts: Re your headline "U.S. basketball team gets smoked by Italy." The team that Italy beat wasn't the U.S. team, it was the U.S. men's team.

The women's team, by the way, has for years been what you say you want to watch -- a team that comes to play, that's excited and honored to be at the Olympics, that doesn't act like they're doing everybody a favor by showing up for their coronation.

King replies: (Raises hand to acknowledge language foul.)

Charles Lacina: You neglected to mention a key point. The introduction of NBA players into the Games created a tremendous interest in basketball throughout the world. Allowing NBA players to compete has forced the rest of the world to get better. As a result, the quality of play in the Olympics is much higher. We also have many foreign-born players who are good enough to play in the NBA. While we had to suffer through some boring Olympic basketball, the end result -- better basketball -- was worth it.

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Copy editors [PERMALINK]

In my little defense of copy editors, which started out being about bicycle racing, I made a funny by including five errors in a paragraph that concluded by saying what a mess it would be if copy editors stopped working for even one paragraph.

About 20 people wrote me about that paragraph. Some asked if I'd erred on purpose, others complimented me on my rich sense of irony. I will now torture Salon's copy desk by publishing the paragraph again, this time with the errors highlighted:

They spend all day making sure us writers don't look like idiots, and if they catch 100 misteaks and miss one, readers right in saying, "Don't you people have copy editors?!" Why yes, and their almost always better writers than the writers they clean up after everyday. Imagine the mess if they stopped working for even one paragraph!

Here's the thing: All of the people who wrote in caught only one of the errors, except for one person who caught three. It's tougher than it looks, that copy editing.

Previous column: The sacking of Quincy Carter

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