General Sports Chatter


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Did You See That: Sports Hackers

Now that the FBI has dinged FIFA and the St. Louis Cardinals in a matter of weeks, they may never have better press than they do right now. But this story reported by the New York Times, indicating that the Cardinals are under investigating for hacking the Houston Astros player database, had me wondering whether other teams are doing the same thing. I have desperately been calling my sources across all sports, and have found some interesting tidbits. I've been told all of the passwords to these secret networks have been changed in the last few minutes... or have they?

--> Dan Griffin's personal player database had been protected by the password, "Lebron4MVP" during the playoffs. It had been "Who is really the GM?" during the regular season. Interestingly enough, the passwords are font protected.

--> Sam Hinkie's Sixers computer had the password "Panzer", which surprisingly no one even came close to guessing. Post Draft Lottery, it's been changed to "howitzer". 

--> Skip Bayless has a computer (this is news enough) with the double-password protection of "Johnny" and "clutch". It used to be "Tebow", but after a 7 year-old managed to break through along with his Jets fan father, Skip had no choice.

--> In a rather surprising development, Dave Nonis' old computer for the Leafs was password locked by the word "Corsi". This might be why no one else ever mentioned it in any Leafs front office meetings.

--> Evander Kane's phone is locked by the password "tracksuit", apparently as extra motivation. 

--> Jack Warner's network of financial accounts were protected by the password "Blatter", in an effort to remind himself who to thank when the checks cleared. 

--> One of my sources tried to find his way through the morass of sports twitter accounts that troll in plentiful amounts, and found that over 1,000 of them had the password "nice". He figures there will be 42,069 further sports accounts with the same password.

--> As I type this one out, I'm being told there's an abnormally large group of people named Ted whose passwords are all the same. It's a funny password chain... in any order the passwords are, "promotion", "relegation", and "American". Strange.

--> Jurgen Klinsmann's Californian computers have both a German and English password for even more protection. However he seems to have overwritten both with the chain of "Zelalem" and "fitness". 

--> Finally, what did the former Cardinals officials who moved on to Houston use as his passwords? "Best Fans in baseball". Funny how that when it was tried in Houston, the officials were repeatedly locked out. So eventually, the passwords were changed. To what? "Commencing countdown engines on". 

This is not to encourage anyone to begin hacking secret team computer networks. The FBI is already on a roll with good PR, and finding your sloppy hack-job is only going to inflate their egos. That means you, James Dolan. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Reign of a Dynasty

Sports fans are often concerned with perception, bot contemporaneous perception and historical perception of any given team. Pub and talk radio discussions often center on discussions about historical greatness, namely the term "dynasty". The older definition of a sporting dynasty was three consecutive championships in any given sport, and in the past dynasties were not only common, but almost expected. Every sport has had it's dynasties, but as money has been pumped into the game and the playing field has been artificially leveled, sports fans have to re-define what a dynasty is in the modern game.

Such is the discussion now centered around the Chicago Blackhawks, Are their three Stanley Cup victories in six seasons a dynasty, a modern equivalent, or an insult to the term? The context of the Blackhawks greatness lies in the constraints of their time; namely an increasingly restrictive salary cap that has prevented them from keeping Cup winning teams together. After their 2010 triumph, out went Brian Campbell, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Antti Niemi, and in came two consecutive first round exits as they rebuilt. By their second cup in four seasons, in came new faces like Johnny Oduya, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Michael Frolik, etc., and the Hawks came out on top again. The core of Kane, Toews, Keith, Hjalmarsson, Hossa, Sharp, Seabrook, et al stayed intact. 

Now as they are crowned champions for a third time in six seasons, they once again face a cap crunch that will see many faces depart for pastures new by force, not by choice. But with the core that they've kept together despite the cap ceiling rapidly approaching them, they've been as dominant a team as hockey may ever see in the salary cap era. The Los Angeles Kings, one of the few teams to find a way to beat the Hawks in this run, missed the postseason after two cup wins in three seasons, and the Rangers nearly became the first teams since 2008-09 to make the Final in back-to-back seasons, but they were foiled by the up-and-comers from Tampa Bay.

Maintaining a playoff team in the cap era is not as difficult as it seems, even though turnover is part of the game every season. Maintaining a consistent cup contender is incredibly difficult. The Blackhawks have found this out, so have the Bruins, so will the Kings. Team construction has been changing and become as malleable as ever even as the styles and systems individual teams play have become more and more homogenized, which makes Chicago's consistent reloading of complementary pieces almost unheard of in the modern era of hockey. They've won with the same coach too. The Red Wings won their Cups with different coaches, so did the Devils. 

Nick Leddy's move to the Islanders was a precursor of moves to come this offseason as the cap barely climbs and the salary burdens of Toews and Kane increase rapidly. The Blackhawks have made five Conference Final appearances in seven years, which is the best appearance rate since the Avalanche made seven straight from 1996-2002, and they only won two titles in that period. Even the Devils from 1995 to 2003 had early round exits and even missed the playoffs one year despite winning three titles in nine years. 

With the brilliant managing of Stan Bowman, it's entirely conceivable that the Blackhawks are back in a similar position next season, making their claims to dynastic status even stronger. But regardless of what the new look Hawks do in the future, what they've done in the last seven years can qualify as a dynasty, since it's entirely possible no one tops it any time soon.

Winning back-to-back championships is almost nigh-on impossible in modern sports considering the artificial parity enforced by salary caps, luxury taxes, consistent player movement, advanced scouting methods and rapidly rising player salaries. Hockey is a team sport where every player has a role to play and an important one at that, which is why the bloodletting that took place after the 2010 championship meant two "lean" years for Chicago. Maybe more will come as the Western Conference adds a generational talent to its ranks, but that is rendered irrelevant at this very moment, when the hockey world is celebrating a great, maybe historic champion.

The old definition of dynasty is as antiquated as where the term originated from, but by the changing definition of the term, these Blackhawks are a dynasty. What came before them and what will come after is not relevant now.

Winning consistently, as the LA Kings have found out, is incredibly difficult. The Blackhawks have made it look easy for all of these years. For that, they should be awarded the crown. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

FIFA had its Blatter Removed

I personally hope that John Oliver likes the taste of Bud Light Lime, the McDonalds dollar menu and wearing uncomfortable Adidas shoes. Earlier today, Sepp Blatter announced suddenly and shockingly that he is resigning as FIFA President and a new one will be elected within the next 4-5 months. How did this happen so quickly? John Oliver obviously played a critical role, but what else led to this happening almost overnight?

With the New York Times reporting that a money transfer was made by FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke to disgraced former CONCACAF head Jack Warner to the tune of $10 million before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, many are wondering if this landed too close to the feet of the (now former) FIFA President. Could Warner, even in his public defiance, have flipped on him in private? Something has to have happened, either from the authorities in Switzerland or the US telling him to stand down or else (even though he's probably going to be arrested if the paper trail nabs him), or maybe Sepp's personal clock told him it was time to stop the charade. Something tells me the investigation was getting a little too close to his office. Swiss General Authorities have said that Blatter is NOT under investigation at the moment, but could well be in the US. 

Adidas was making waves that it could be thinking about removing its sponsorship of FIFA, and aside from the FBI and DOJ, the sponsors have the real power to incite change, and after Sony had dropped out last year. Visa did too. It's not too much of a coincidence to believe that this played some role, but a mass exodus of sponsors would probably have been needed to cause something like this to occur. Did others make gestures to FIFA together? That we may also never know. 

Did the talk of the UEFA boycott of the 2018 World Cup do something to force hands? Probably not, even as the British media pressed the story as hard they could, and that was the nuclear option. Strong rhetoric is just that.

Did Sepp Blatter care about his legacy enough to preserve it? Probably, but why did he run on Friday? But Blatter doesn't think the way the rest of us do. He'll certainly take credit if the reforms do get passed. If the posse was getting close...

Whatever the reason for this, hopefully this is the beginning of the change that FIFA needs from the very top, to the local confederations around the world. FIFA needs restructuring like what the IOC went through after the Salt Lake City vote bribing scandal hit the fan. This will take plenty of time to see the true reforms and the true changes, especially considering the next Presidential election may not occur until January. The entire structure of FIFA is rotten, and the new President is only the tip of the iceberg in the reformation process. A possible re-vote on the 2022 World Cup is so far down the line of causality, and that line is as winding as the Swiss Alps (2018 is probably too close and too entangled with already tetchy international issues to be removed from Russia). 

This day belongs to football fans around the world who have had to put up with this nonsense and see the game been treated like an ATM machine. Credit needs to be given to the journalists who have fought the fight to report on FIFA's corruption, including those at the Sunday Times and especially Andrew Jennings, who has been beating this drum for at least 10 years and must feel some vindication on this day.

Whoever replaces FIFA has plenty of work to do. Blatter has about 4-6 months left before this extraordinary Congress is held. The next few months will be a fascinating study as to what the World's game is going to become.

But for today, we should all be drinking a drink that "tastes like the puddle underneath the dumpster behind a Long John Silver's". It won't taste like that (for today, at least). 

Friday, May 29, 2015

FIFA needs it's Blatter removed

   The world, including the soccer skeptical American media watched with (feigned) horror as Sepp Blatter was re-elected as FIFA President for a fifth term. Many new to the wonders of FIFA have openly surmised how a man who runs such a crooked organization can be re-elected without incident and so much as a serious challenge. But Blatter's FIFA operates outside the bounds of logic, and we all must remember that when projecting what the next few years for this organization will be like.

  Blatter's centers of power lie in those nations that feel they have none, especially in the eyes of world football. So that means nations like the US, England, and to be honest most of the Western world will not support Blatter because they don't need his support to push the game forward. But Papua New Guinea? Montserrat? Burundi? These nations owe much of their soccer fortunes to Blatter's FIFA giving them (the heads of the respective associations that is) the cash they need to build pitches, promote the game, etc. It is, for so long why Canada was despite its stature willing to play FIFA's game. 133 nations out of a possible 209 likely fell into this boat.

  73 votes for Prince Ali of Jordan is a sizable dent in Blatter's seemingly impenetrable armor, yet it was merely a flesh wound. Blatter can speak openly about wanting to reform FIFA, but he doesn't need to seeing as it won't help him maintain his grip on the organization he's basically become the symbol of, for better or worse. When he was confirmed as President once again, he talked about Oceania needing a larger voice on FIFA's ExCo, which makes little sense in logic considering 11 football playing nations comprise the Oceanic football federation, and 10 of them are minnows who play football with farmers, doctors and basic day laborers, not professionals. But Blatter's base of power remains in nations similar to those, and until there is a reason for them to not support Blatter, they'll keep him in power.

   Business at FIFA is done how it is done in most of the non-Western world, and no one should be surprised by this. Western standards do not apply to an organization that was taken from being a 12 person outfit based out of a Swiss shack to the most powerful sporting organization in the world, almost overnight. While the DOJ and FBI might scare some in FIFA, and scared some of the federation heads to flip their votes, it didn't scare quite enough of them. Too many footballing nations owe most of their meager possessions and goals to Blatter handing them over, especially the ridiculously wealthy federation heads.

  No matter how many expose's are published about FIFA's corruption from the media, no matter how many whistleblowers come forward and say bribes were pushed in front of their eyes, and how many empty threats are made by Michel Platini, Greg Dyke and others about dropping out of FIFA and/or boycotting future World Cups, these are all going to make Sepp Blatter's position stronger. He is the master of turning a negative into a positive. He is the master of mending diplomatic wounds, and a master of knowing when is the right time to change his tune if it suits him. Remember, he voted for the US as host of 2022 World Cup, not Qatar.

  So what is next for FIFA? For the short term, the status quo. FIFA is running tournaments as I type this in New Zealand and Canada, and has more coming the rest of this calendar year. Unless Swiss authorities or the FBI find more dirt to arrest more executives, the investigation will go on behind the scenes while everyone waits for the next seismic shock. It might take years to find the smoking gun that could force Blatter out or extradited, or that votes for the Qatari World Cup were in fact bought illegally. Maybe UEFA or the USSF will take the dramatic step and try to force FIFA's hand, but until then, it's business as usual. Changes may take place at the heads of CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, at individual federations, and FIFA may ban former members of their organization as necessary PR lip service, but until the next shoe drops, it's business as usual.

  Many of us will watch the U-20 World Cup, the Women's World Cup and the qualifying draw for the 2018 World Cup in Russia that take place in May-June-July. FIFA is inescapable around these times. But if these past few days have taught the world anything about FIFA, it is this:

  Dealing with an illogical organization logically gets no one anywhere. And as Sepp Blatter and FIFA proved today, there is no logic at that complex in Zurich.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

My Thoughts on #BabWatch

  The eagle (complete with a stack of $100 bills in its mouth and not a worm), has landed. Mike Babcock is the 30th coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The shock is complete. So many thought if Babcock didn't stay in Detroit he'd move on to Terry Pegula's oil bucks, and instead he moves on to the telecommunications riches of the two largest media companies in Canada begrudgingly working together. If Mike Babcock succeeds, he's a hero of the highest order. If he fails, might well be time to fold the Leafs and start over. Will it?

   The story that was being fed to us through the media was that Mike Babcock was searching for a new challenge and that money was no object in his search for a new job. He had it both ways in Toronto. He knew MLSE and the Leafs were desperate and would pay whatever his price was to bring him in. They had thrown away so many years and dollars down the drain with failed coaches, general managers and expensive players before and Babcock knew exactly that. He could play the Red Wings off the Sabres, who openly flaunt their wealth, and then the Sabres off the Leafs, who are even more flush with cash.

   What did Babcock want out of his next job, exactly? The media spin from before the hire now looks entirely different. Babcock likely wanted (and will get) some personnel say in Toronto because of the murky management structure beneath Brendan Shanahan. He would not have had that in Buffalo, and evidently he didn't have enough of it in Detroit. The Red Wings are by no means the dynastic behemoth they were 6 or 7 years ago, but they're closer to a Stanley Cup than the Leafs are. Hell, the Sabres are closer to the Cup than the Leafs are, because you can pinpoint three young building block centers and a few dynamic wingers to build around. Tim Murray's professed method of building a team (a la Dean Lombardi and the Kings) would also move the Sabres towards competitiveness quicker than the Leafs scorched earth rebuild.

  It's a risk. A calculated gamble from a man whose ego will not be bruised severely if it fails in Toronto, but a risk in all respects. The Leafs are starting entirely from scratch, and even with their megabucks behind them, success feels like eons away. Mike Babcock has always had a strong foundation wherever he has had success before. The 2003 Mighty Ducks had a goaltending masterclass from J-S Giguere, plus players like Paul Kariya, Petr Sykora, Adam Oates, Rob Niedermayer and others. The Red Wings team he walked into had Pavel Datsyuk, Nik Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg. His Canada gold medal teams were fantasy teams. What does he have in Toronto? Morgan Reilly? Jonathan Bernier? William Nylander?

  Mike Babcock is the best coach in the NHL. But how much better is he than say, Alain Vigneault, Jon Cooper or Joel Quenneville? $4-5 million better? That remains to be seen. Does Mike Babcock have the patience to go through the promised scorched earth rebuild, or will his instincts push him forward and the rebuild forward and possibly endanger it? All of these questions will be answered soon enough, but the answers to those questions could well determine the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs and many teams around the NHL at large.

 Mike Babcock has taken a gamble in which he either wins massively or wins just a bit less. The Leafs have gone all in. Will they turn up trumps or turn up another bust?

  It's Toronto, so no matter the optimism, a bit of brevity might be needed.

Monday, May 11, 2015

What did we Pay for Again?

   While the sports world was infatuated with Tom Brady's deflated balls, a far more serious and disturbing issue has gone practically unnoticed. Keith Olbermann will explain:

    So those "hometown heroes" segments done to burn the 150 second TV timeouts were not done out of the kindness of the heart, or common courtesy to soldiers who have seen unspeakable tragedies in front of their own eyes in defense of our country? Paid for by the Defense Department, more than likely. The Atlanta Falcons were paid over $1 million for these over 3 season, and 14 NFL teams were paid a total of $4.2 million during the same period. Forget circumstantial evidence about deflated footballs and double standards of a broken justice system, this is where outrage should be directed.

  (WARNING: POLITICAL OPINIONS AHEAD) I am not a fan of the military-industrial complex. I am not a fan of the increased militarism in sports. I understand that I have written pieces about how sports and politics are inseparable, and they still are, but outright overt militarism is one part of the sports experience that rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it's my own biases against war and the like, but if any sports team is to honor soldiers; heroes that they are; it should not be done because the Defense Department needs a helping hand in getting a new recruit. We should honor soldiers because they deserved to be honored for their sacrifice, and no amount of money should remind anyone to do that.

  A simple "thank you for your service" is often enough for any veteran to feel appreciated and thanked; they don't need to be trotted out in front of 65,000 fans who didn't want to wait in a long line to grab a hot dog. If you want to be further disturbed, there are contracts between the National Guard and high schools to do much the same thing done at your average New York Jets game. The budget overall last year for recruiting at sporting events, according to a National Guard spokesman, was over $49 million.

  That in of itself is not a problem. A volunteer army needs to recruit somehow, and sporting events are not a bad place to try to recruit. The contracts themselves are also not by any means not kosher; it's no different than say MetLife Stadium being named what it is. The key difference, as Olbermann and many others have pointed out, is that MetLife Stadium isn't named that because of admiration for the work of the company. Stadiums are sponsored for the money, and that's made perfectly public. These contracts were not.

  The fact that the Defense Department used your tax money to pay sports teams to do something they should either a) be doing on their own accord without incident or b) let be known that these contracts exist is incredibly disturbing to me, and should be to everyone.

  The public's sentiments towards the military goes in ebbs and flows, and right now the public and the military have a very cordial relationship. Who is to say, as Olbermann points out, that when the public perception of the military is not where it is now that these contracts won't look even worse then? Even in my sphere, where there is too much overt militarism at sporting events, I am not against honoring the military in public, even if a simple thank you will often suffice.

   The government should not have to hide these contracts and have the sports team pass off honoring the military as something done out of good faith. Admitting that the Defense Department has to pay sports teams to do this still should leave a bad taste in your mouth, but at least it is known that a contract has been signed. Once again, MetLife Stadium isn't named that because the Jets and Giants "admire the work of the company".

    Many teams honor the military without these contracts, or those contracts haven't been revealed yet.

   But pre-packaged, marketed and feigned patriotism using your money to buy off public sentiment and good will towards the military in a time when the military and public have a cordial relationship?

   That is the true injustice.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A 17 year-old in Switzerland?

      If you believe reports coming out of Switzerland, the near consensus best player in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft Auston Matthews will play his “one-and-done” year in Switzerland, not in the WHL or at any number of colleges. This is unprecedented, not only from an American player but from a player of Matthews’ quality. So does this set the stage for future players to do this, or is this, like Matthews’ 2015-16 season, “one-and-done?”

    For Matthews’, this might, surprisingly, increase his draft stock. Scouts will rave about his “maturity”, not only on the ice playing in a professional league but off the ice playing in Europe and in a different hockey culture when he’s only 17. Matthews played with the US World Junior Team this past year and didn’t look at all out of place, and almost made the World Championship roster at the same young age. If anyone wants to split hairs, they could say that the Swiss league is not the best in Europe, but for Matthews, who is already the likely number one pick anyway, that probably won’t matter.

    While Auston Matthews might not be the level of prospect Connor McDavid is/was, he must have watched his domination of the OHL and thought to himself that playing in the WHL might not benefit him much, especially since he’ll only play there for one season. He may have also watched Jack Eichel at BU and thought that he may well dominate college hockey too, no matter what school he chose. And since he’d be one-and-done anyway, why even bother with the cost of attendance and education he’s not going to need anyway?

   Matthews will not only be making money playing in Switzerland, he’s going to be making himself an even better prospect to whoever’s fortune gives them the #1 pick in Buffalo 13 months from now. He’ll now have a professional year under his belt, which has helped prospects adapt even easier to the NHL in their rookie seasons, and he’s giving scouts more to praise him for than he would if he stayed within driving distance of their houses.

    The question is: will more North American prospects do this? It depends on how good the prospects are, since the more scouts can watch them in person, the more they’ll end up being talked about. If they go to Europe, they’ll be talked about less. But if there are high end prospects whose standing with scouts can’t be lowered by being talked about less, playing a season in Europe can’t hurt at all. A good number of European players end up plying their trade in the CHL to adapt to North America, but the reverse is almost non-existent. Maybe Matthews will start a trend for more prospects to try out a season in Europe regardless of how scouts will view their draft stock.

   Matthews may end up being an isolated case, or the forbearer of a future trend. His success in Switzerland will determine that.