#BuckFiftyADay Since March, 2014

#BuckFiftyADay Since March, 2014

Monday, November 25, 2013

Not Beyond My 50 Years, But Wise Nonetheless

My best work.

So many ways to think about it. Fifty is, of course, half a century. Fifty is 25 times two. Fifty is the age my parents were when they dropped me off at college, and they seemed pretty "wise."

It's a bit scary, but it is what it is, as they say.

In some ways I still feel like a kid, especially when I spend time with old friends, as I did this past weekend after the Manasquan Turkey Trot. We laugh at dumb jokes, pull stupid pranks, turn back the clock.

But when I step back and think about having a 15 and a 17-year old son, who have relied on me and Linda to raise them, support them, mentor them, suddenly, I feel like maybe I'm "wise," too.

To say time flies does not do justice to just how fast the years go by. Wasn't it just yesterday that I was riding a school bus to a baseball or soccer game with my high school buddies? Is it too late for me to tell the baseball coach at North Carolina I want to give it one more year? No, I'm not going to law school because there's a job offer from Sports Illustrated and I'm gonna give that a year or two. Did I really cover the Yankees for the New York Daily News? Was I really part of the editorial group that launched ESPN The Magazine? No way I spent more than a dozen years writing features for The Mag, right? Did that guy really just tell me, "You're a good dude, but" before telling me he was putting me on the unemployment line? Was it really two years of working as a baseball columnist at the Star-Ledger? I don't remember much.
My partner in everything.

Scary, right?

And it's good.

It is especially good because, all these experiences, good and bad, I share with Linda, Tyler and Beau. I don't mean this to disparage any of the workaholics out there in my business, who accept the long road trips, embrace the absolute need to be plugged-in to every single bit of information that's streaming through the internet. But it's not for me.
Here's to good friends.

All it took was a few weeks into last baseball off-season for me to realize it's not for me anymore. I'd taken one for the team at the Star-Ledger (or so I thought), moving on to the Yankee beat when our young and talented beat writer moved on to greener pastures. I'd plowed my way through August and September. Through the American League Division Series and the AL Championship Series. I finished what I'd set out to do for the Ledger, or so I thought. Until a couple of days went by and the texts and emails started hitting me. Did you see what the Post wrote about CC Sabathia? Why didn't you write about Jeter's appearance at a toy store in Manhattan? There's a lot of stuff on Twitter about A-Rod... One day, as I tried to sit down to watch Beau play soccer, my phone went off and I was told to write...not later, but now. One night when I tried to take Linda out for dinner, I was told to write...not later, but now.

Soon to be joining the Half-Century Club.
It occurred to me. I thought I was a hard worker. But I was a slacker compared to everyone else. It also occurred to me. I wasn't happy. Not even a little bit. Working for a newspaper -- something I had not done in 15 years when I took the job at the Ledger -- was not for me. Not at the age of 49.

So, when I got my package from the Ledger last January 15, as much as it sent my family into a mild state of panic, deep inside, I knew it would end up being the best thing for all those who are close to me.

I move into the next half-century a happier, more fulfilled guy. Less secure professionally than I was at 40, but we will figure out how to make this all work. Me, Linda, Tyler and Beau.

No one can stop us.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

When Worst Is Best

Personal Worst, Personally Best
I recently ran my sixth marathon. My sixth marathon, but my first in eight years. As I sit here at my kitchen table, my leg muscles in knots, my knees feeling like they've been stabbed with a knife, I'm proud of myself.

I completed the Philadelphia Marathon on Sunday, a week before my 50th birthday, in a time of four hours and 13 minutes, 28 seconds, which is my Personal Worst by at least 20 minutes. But I finished.

My inspiration to run the marathon came from two people. The first was Debby Gammons Brown, the niece of my long-time friend Peter Gammons. About 20 years ago, my parents bought a house in Bay Head, N.J., and from time to time, we'd see this petite young lady logging all kinds of miles. That was Debby, whose father was the pastor at All Saints Episcopal Church in Bay Head. Peter had told me about his niece, who ran cross-country at Trinity College. Bragged about her. But Debby and I never actually met.

I recall vaguely that Debby and I spoke on the phone once when she was working for a sports agent in Boston and I was working for ESPN The Magazine. But that was it until Facebook came along and we became "friends." After the Boston Marathon bombings, Debby began posting that she was coming out of retirement to run the Philly Marathon in honor of those who were unable to finish Boston, which prompted me to say, "I'd love to do it, but I haven't run 26.2 in eight years and my knees seem to reject runs over five miles." All Debby said was, "Just do it." So, I started to train...a little bit, anway.

My other source of inspiration was an old college baseball teammate named Paul Devlin, who has been a great sounding board for me the last couple of years as I've been laid off from two jobs. Paul is a talented on-air sports reporter who was also going through some tough times professionally. He took out his frustration by getting into great shape. He competed in triathlons and half marathons and then told me he was going to run his first marathon, the New York Marathon, in November.

About two weeks before New York, Paul told me he was in agony. He did something to his leg and was worried he would not be able to run the race he'd trained for. It was not until the day of the race that I saw Paul's photos from the race. Not only did he complete his first marathon, he crushed it.

As I began to tell Paul how I'd not trained properly, didn't have the time to put in a run any longer than 14 miles (and I walked a good bit of that run), he would have none of it. "It's all in your mind."

Debby and Paul got me to the starting line. But I'd be lying if I said there were no doubts in my brain. Memories of past races started coming back to me. Memories of runners collapsing on the side of the road. Memories of my own struggles (without getting too graphic, I'll just say Port-a-Potty) in past races.

I told my wife, "There's a chance I stop at 13.1," because in Philly, the finish line for the half and full marathon are, basically, one and the same. I also told her and my sons, "This could take a while."

The race started at 7 a.m. and I vowed to run slow. My goal was simply to finish. From my first step, I did not feel comfortable. My calves were tight and my feet were achy. One step at a time.

I do not - cannot - run with ear buds plugged into my ears, so I tried to take my mind off the pain by reading as many signs as I could along the way. Philly is a smart-ass sports town and that was reflected in a few early signs like, "You're not going to win, so why bother?" and "Pain is temporary, but your lousy time is forever on the internet." I must thank these people for keeping me going through the early part of the run.

Now, I have a friend who likes to say, "There are two things I don't want to know about. One is men's breasts and the other is your golf game." So, I'm going to assume you don't want race details.

In a nutshell. I ran a decent half-marathon. And I limped a really horrible half-marathon. But the feeling I got as I stumbled down the stretch, past my wife and kids who cheered for me as I crawled along the final half mile, may have been the greatest feeling I've had in any of my six marathons. I didn't train properly. I've not felt comfortable on any of my long training runs. In fact, I've felt horrendous.

But I finished.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Revealing Q & A with Leather Head designer Jon Contino

Jon is New York through and through.
This past week, Leather Head Baseball proudly unveiled its new logos and brand markings as created by renowned Brooklyn artist Jon Contino. Our instructions to Jon were, basically, that we had no instructions. We knew his work and loved it, so we wanted to let his creative juices flow.

Without saying a word, we knew Jon "got" our product line. Leather Head Baseball Gloves are going to be the choice of the no-BS ballplayer. Our glove designs are classic and will remind men of a certain age of the gloves used in the 70s and 80s, made of the best leather, but not overly-decorated, or overly colorful. We'll have two colors. Tan and black. You want a red or blue glove, go somewhere else. Anyway, we wanted Jon to have some fun...and from what he's told us, he had a ball.

Before the reveal on Facebook, I had a little Q & A with Jon, just to get a look inside his baseball-loving heart. It's pretty clear he shares our vision and passion.

LEATHER HEAD: What is your favorite Major League team and why?

Needle pulling lace to infinity.
JC: I'm a die-hard Yankees fan, most likely because my father is a Yankees fan as well. I started watching games with him early on in my childhood and became a huge baseball fan at that point. Unfortunately, the Yankees were terrible in the mid-80s, so I never knew the Yankees the way people did before me or even now. I can remember them playing double-headers against the Indians and losing both games all the time. Cut to 94 and there was finally hope for the playoffs...then the strike. I never thought it would happen again, but thankfully I only had to wait two more years for a World Series and we all know where they've been since then, so even though it's not true, I feel like I've been with the team on their rise to the top. In reality, they just had a brief cooling off period that I was born into, haha. The other part, and more of the reason I love them now, is the history behind the team. I always wore #7 when I was a kid and my grandfather and uncles used to tell me about Mickey Mantle and how he was one of the greatest hitters of all time. I naturally felt like I had to keep #7 with me as long as possible if I wanted to be any good. Then as I got deeper and deeper into the game and developed more of a love, I learned how my favorite announcer Phil Rizzuto was a little guy who played shortstop and succeeded despite everyone telling him otherwise. This of course resonated with me as well being that I was always a smaller guy and played shortstop as well. Then you have your Gehrigs, Ruths, Munsons, and of course Donnie Baseball. The players all had such a mythical air about them, and it always felt like it was because of the pinstripes and interlocking NY. The Yankees always embody everything good about baseball in my mind. Always have and always will!
When you look into your glove.

LEATHER HEAD: I think I see where this is going, but what's your favorite uniform and why? 
JC: All my answers will be Yankees first, mostly because I feel like they're the most pure team to still be playing the game. No names on the back of the uniform, no crazy amount of home and away jerseys. Simple white with pintstripes and grey away with the words "New York" across the chest. 

JC: Again, my favorite is the classic navy Yankees cap, but there are definitely other favorites of mine. The latest Red Sox hat is pretty great in all navy with just the socks icon on the front. I also love the classic Orioles bird face, but who doesn't? The newest Indians revival "C" hat is awesome too. I love the simplicity of these and none of them feel like "new sports design" that plagues football and basketball branding.

LEATHER HEAD: And...what is it about the game that you love the most? 
JC: The fact that you can enjoy baseball from so many different perspectives is what really grabs my heart. You can go to a ball game on a beautiful summer day or a crisp fall night, get some great food, and alternate between relaxing and yelling all in the same sitting. You can play it with a huge group of people on a nice field or a few on the street or schoolyard in the form of stickball or Wiffleball. It's not overly exhausting so you can play it every day, but it's also one of the most heart-pounding games when you get to that 8th inning and you're still down by 3 runs. Aside from all the great aspects of the game itself, it's also spawned some of the best characters in history and the general design factor that has grown with it is something I'm completely enamored with. Every single aspect of baseball is great.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

We got a lot cooler this week

The Original Six Leather Head baseball gloves are now scattered from Glen Rock, N.J., to Deland, Fla., leaving me and Paul with a little bit of glove withdrawal. We realize it's a necessary step in the development of our product to put the gloves in the field and see how they perform and wear.

Jon brings big-time talent and energy to Leather Head.
Still, we miss them.

So, in the meantime, we've started to discuss design elements. Things like patch that will go on the wrist strap. Will we adorn the glove with other markings? Something between the thumb and index finger. Maybe something on the web. Will their be other brandings inside the glove. What color scheme will we use?

Now, Paul and I have ideas and Paul has already developed a pretty cool trademark for Leather Head Sports. It's simple yet iconic. It takes you back. But there's a point of separation that needs to occur between Paul's original product line and what we're doing now because while these gloves are throwbacks to gloves of an era gone by (the 70s and 80s), we also know they are gloves that are meant to be used by elite level players.

Visually, while we love the old school look, we also want the gloves to appeal to the eyes of teenagers. Let me just cut to the chase. We want them to look cool. Because they are cool.

Jon loves the game like a kid, hence his trademark.
So, late in the week, we added cool to our lineup.

Meet Jon Contino, the man who will be our designer.

Jon is a self-described Alphastructaesthetitologist (don't ask me to pronounce it), which he means...well, Jon explained it in an interview with Four Questions, this way:

"The essence of the word “alphastructaesthetitologist” can be broken down into “one who creates and studies stylized letterforms.” But in reality, it’s just a wise-ass word I made up in response to “so what do you do?” My source of inspiration has really shifted over the years. I really take a lot out of the day-to-day lives of my family and friends. I love watching them work in their own environments and talking to them about what makes them tick. Understanding other people’s creative process and connecting the dots to real life is one of the most inspiring things I can actually grasp in some way. Everyone has their own interests as well, so talking to my dad about carpentry or discussing what’s new in fashion with my wife is always pretty invigorating, creatively speaking."

Paul knows Jon from the trade show circuit. It's easy to see they are members of the mutual admiration society. Here's why. They're both artists. They're both great at what they do.

And they both love baseball.

When our email exchanges began with Jon, it was a recipe for work-productivity disaster. Once I'd seen some of Jon's work, I was a kid in a candy store. Could we do this? Could we do that? I must have apologized 50 times for making too many suggestions, but Jon was like, "keep it coming."

At one point, we got diverted into a discussion on which sports logos we doodled as kids. I bragged how I could draw the Chicago Blackhawks logo (and the shoulder tomahawks), in full-color, from memory. Paul bragged about how he'd perfected the old Milwaukee Brewers ball-in-glove "MB." I countered with how I'd mastered the Montreal Expos famous tri-color logo from days gone by.

The first scibbles. This is where our new logo starts.
As for the direction of our Leather Head logos and symbols, first, we've asked Jon to come up with a new "LH." To that, Jon offered up the following: "The LH should always be able to work as a mark. Also something that would be easy to scribble on a notebook or drawn in the sand and still be recognizable."

Within hours, he was sharing some of his sketches. We are bouncing ideas around, but Paul and I know there will come a time when we back off and let the man work his magic.

I could detail a few of the things that Jon has done in his 29 years (his clothing line, the skateboards and snowboards he's branded, etc.) but I couldn't do it justice...

You'd be better off visiting his website.

One thing we know to be true, Paul and I, is that Leather Head baseball gloves, already beautiful in terms of the quality of the leather and the classic designs, got a lot cooler this week.

The problem I have now is that I can't sleep. Because I can't wait to see what Jon comes up with.

Friday, March 8, 2013

What is skill? What is style?

As we go into the second weekend of Major League Soccer action, I find myself asking the same two soccer questions I've been asking myself for the last 10-15 years.

Tricks are not skills, if you ask me.
They're right there in the headline to this blog post. What is skill? What is style?

I do know this much. Skill and style are the two most popular words in the soccer fan's vocabulary. Whether it's calling for more "skill" players, or for a team to play a better "style," you hear those two S-words over and over again.

It's been going on forever.

I think I have my own definitions, but I think they are different than most people's definitions. For me, "skills" are things players can do well that work in games. My list of skills is long. It includes everything from tackling and heading to passing and shooting. It also includes things that  are harder to define, like positioning and anticipating. I even consider fitness to be a skill if it is something that sets one player apart from another. A player who can run for 90 minutes can be a difference maker.

Why do I think my definition is different from the norm? Because I think most people mistake "tricks" for "skills." Let me back up just a second. I think tricks can be skills if they are tricks that work in games. But tricks that don't translate into game action are just...tricks.

I had a friend email me a YouTube video a few weeks ago. Granted, the guy wasn't a soccer guy, but he sent me a clip of a guy who could juggle a ball endlessly. Maybe you've seen the video, which shows the guy taking his shirt off, climbing up poles, all while keeping the ball aloft.

"Touched by God," was how my friend described the guy in the video.

I responded by sending him a video of Lionel Messi goals. "This," I replied, "impresses me more."

In the video, Messi displayed speed (skill), power (skill), unpredictable moves (skill), will (skill) and about 100 other qualities that I could describe as skills. Sure, on a few of the goals, he did things that could be described as "tricks," especially when it came to his finishing. Where the typical player would try to blast the ball by the keeper, Messi would chip it softly, or maybe even just dribble the ball all the way into the net. Tricks that worked in games. Yeah, skills.
Messi's skill set includes speed and power.

I've heard many players through the years described as "skillful." Or, better yet, someone will say of a player who's failed to make it at the professional level, "He's skillful, but..."

My typical reply is, "Don't call those things skills if they don't work." I'm talking about things like step-overs and scissors and no-look flick passes. If a player cannot make plays consistently under pressure, against top competition, it bugs me to hear that player described as skillful. I'd rather hear him described as "pleasing to the eye" or  even "cute." But not "skillful."

I'm reminded of the old Bruce Arena quote about Clint Dempsey, which everyone latched on to. Remember, the one where Bruce was asked what he liked about  Clint and he responded, "He tries shit." Well, trust me, Bruce wouldn't have wanted Clint trying shit if it only worked two percent of the time. However, I still hear fans and media clamoring for more guys who try shit... If it were only that simple.  I only clamor for guys to try shit if they've shown they can pull it off.

That leads into the old saw about "style."

I'll be more brief when it comes to style. If it doesn't produce wins, it ain't stylish. Whether it's short passing, long-passing (or Route 1 as the kids like to say), or bunker-and-counter (where have I heard that one before), I'm really not interested in even using the word "style" if it doesn't produce Ws.

Part of the reason I'm so against the word "style" is because it's all relative to the opposition. Most teams, I believe, go out with the intention of playing the way they want to play in a game. But all bets are off once the game begins. I'm certain that a lot of "let's keep the ball, fellas" pre-game talks turned into "let's get the f-ing ball!" once the game was five minutes old.

Dempsey tries shit, because a lot of times it works.
It's easier to play well, to look good, to pass well and create chances when the opposition is not good. It gets exponentially harder to be stylish when the opposition is either better than you, or really good at making you look bad.

To me, this is true in all sports. Nothing really matters to me if it doesn't work in a game. A pitcher who paints the corners in the bullpen, or against lousy competition, may not look the same when he's facing better hitters. A sweet-shooting guard usually isn't as good with a hand in his face. A quarterback who can throw the ball 85 yards in the air, well, it doesn't really matter if his receiver is 50 yards away, does it?

The difference I see is that the pitcher who's an ace on the side,  the pre-game three-point marksman, the QB with the rocket-arm on the practice field, they would never be described as "skillful" by American onlookers. Yet I still see their soccer equivalents lauded as "skillful" and "creative."

I'll never do it. Not my style

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The start of a beautiful relationship

"I was one of those kids who oiled up his glove, put a ball in it, tied it up and stuck it under the bed. Then I would dream sweet dreams of making the greatest play in the history of the game." - former Major Leaguer Randy Ready, from Steve Wulf's Sports Illustrated story entitled "Glove Story."

I was one of those kids, too. In fact, I'm still one of those kids.

The Original Six, from Leather Head Sports and Paul Cunningham
Yeah, one of those kids, in my mind, anyway...even though I'm in my 50th year on earth. I know I still have kid-like tendencies, especially when it comes to baseball, because of what's gone on in my life the last couple of days. Let me amend that a bit, because I can't tell this story without including fellow "kid," Paul Cunningham. Here's what happened to us on Tuesday.

I'm on my way into the city for a meeting and my phone rings. It's Paul. He says, "Did you get my email with the photo?" I tell him I did not, but from the sound of his voice, I know exactly what's up.

"They're here?" I ask.

"They're here," Paul says. "And they're beautiful."

Paul's baby - our baby, if you will - was born. The first six Leather Head baseball gloves - designed by Paul - had arrived from our overseas manufacturing partners. Paul's email had the subject line, "Tease." It was a photo of a box on a chair in his studio.

No other piece of sports equipment, perhaps no other inanimate object, exerts quite the hold on us that the baseball glove does. Most anyone who has played the game remembers a favorite glove from his or her youth, the one he or she hung from the handlebars of a bicycle. - Wulf

Suddenly, my meeting in the city was the furthest thing from my mind. Like a kid on the night before his first Little League game, or a teenager about to play his first high school game, I was antsy.

In the city, I looked at my watch a lot. When I had to make my way to Penn Station to come home, I was 17 blocks away, but had no patience to ride the B, D or F trains. I hoofed it. Fast.

On my ride to MetroPark station, I was wondering how the gloves would feel on my hand. Would the leather take me back to 1979, when I got my first Rawlings Heart of the Hide glove, an XPG3 model, before my freshman baseball season. How would they look? The ride seemed to take forever.

"A good glove is like a wife. I really feel that way. Uh-oh. My wife just heard me say that and gave me this look. You know what I mean, honey. A glove should always be there for you." - former Red Sox Gold Glove rightfielder Dwight Evans, from Wulf's story.

"The gloves are here!" Paul's email to me
I hit my GPS when I got into my car and started the ride from Metuchen to Glen Rock. Of course, I had one of those GPS nightmare trips, where I heard the lady's voice say "Re-calculating" about 10 times. I don't know what was going on, but I was all over Bergen County. Finally, I reached a familiar cross-street and knew I was minutes away from the Leather Head Sports studio.

When I walked through the door and up the stairs, Paul had a look on his face. The gloves were spread out, fittingly, like unwrapped Christmas presents thrown all over the place. One by one, I tried them on. I smelled them. Pounded them with my fist. Of course, Paul had a ball ready for me.

The gloves were smooth, the leather supple. Not ready to take onto the field. No, of course not. A great glove does not go from the shelf to the diamond. It needs work.

I was blown away.

It's only leather, or in some cases leather with vinyl or nylon, but the glove is somehow a living thing, like the bud at the end of a stem. It's pleasing to all five senses: looks good, smells good, feels good, sounds good (when the ball smacks the pocket) and tastes good (to your dog). Aesthetically, the glove is quite beautiful: fingers reminiscent of ladyfinger pastries, a web as intricate as a spider's, laces that work in unison, disappearing into the glove and then magically reappearing. - Wulf

After a couple of hours of talking with Paul. A couple of hours of going from glove to glove to glove. A couple of hours of talking about "definites" and "maybes" and things we wanted to change, I sheepishly looked at the creator of these pieces of art and asked, "How many can I take?"

You see, I'm supposed to be the baseball guy in this partnership. The guy with the contacts and the relationships. The guy who is supposed to get these into the hands of folks who can tell us what design tweaks need to be made. But at the same time, I felt guilty, on the day of their arrival, asking if I could walk out the door with them.

"Take 'em all," Paul said.

I couldn't do that, could I? No, I left with four of five.

I gave the catcher's glove to my brother Scott, who caught for almost nine years in the big leagues and is the coach at Princeton. I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but less than 24 hours later, after catching a few of his pitchers, Scott was placing an order for his Princeton catchers.

"Tell Paul it's phenomenal," was Scott's message.

It's a magical thing, the mitt. Hundreds of thousands are made every year, yet each one is special to the hand it winds up marrying. Try not to choke on this line: You can't spell glove without l-o-v-e. The next time you're in a sporting goods store, stand by the baseball glove rack for a while, and sure enough, you'll see some guy sidle over, try on a glove or three, smile and walk away. He's not shopping. He's remembering. - Wulf

The other gloves are scattered about, getting beat up, broken in. Like a forensic scientist, Paul has asked that these prototypes be returned to him for examination. He's the brains of the outfit.

I mean, he's still a kid. But he's a smart kid.

Me? I'm just giddy.

Monday, March 4, 2013

It Started out Good and Only Got Better

Magee was good because, well, he is good.
Yesterday was a great day for soccer...for me.

Oh, I'm sure it was a great day for soccer for a lot of folks. But this is all about me. Let me explain that comment as I take you through my day, which began with the Roma vs. Genoa game.

I was happy to learn in the morning that the game would be on RAI-Italia, channel 1194 on my Optimum TV package. Since Optimum does not carry the BeIN Sports network, I rely on RAI for my Roma television. If RAI doesn't have the game, I am at the mercy of pirate internet streams.

It got better. My nephew was not in the starting lineup found his way into the game at the 40 minute mark when one of his teammates, Miralem Pjanic, went out with an injury. At that point, I called my mom, who was home alone, to tell her that her grandson was entering the game.

Roma was leading 1-0 as I placed the call, but seconds after Mom picked up the phone, I uttered, "Oh no." Michael had given the ball away on his first touch, in the attacking half, and Genoa was rushing the ball down down the field. "Oh no," I said again as a Genoa player went down in the box. "Oh no," I said a third time as I saw the referee point to the spot, awarding Genoa a penalty kick. As I started to explain to my mother, she said, "Why are you telling me all of this? I'm watching the game."

So, I got in my car and drove to my mom's house to watch the second half. Turns out, she gets BeIN Sports on her cable. We watched the second half together. Her grandson played quite well and Roma scored two goals to win 3-1 and grab a critical three points. So, that was the beginning.


I then came home and watched the Galaxy and Fire play. And I had one of those "smart dad" moments. I told my 14-year old son Beau, who is an aspiring player, to keep an eye on Mike Magee.

Grandma was fired up for the Giallorossi
Why Mike Magee? Because I told my son to watch the way Magee moves around the field. The way he always seems to be open. The way he somehow makes it difficult for defenders to keep track of him, even though he's far from the biggest, strongest or fastest player on the field.

So, what does Magee do for me? He scores a hat trick.

Now, for a second, let me go serious soccer guy on you. During the Roma-Genoa telecast, my friend Ray Hudson offered up some brilliant commentary on Francesco Totti. I'll paraphrase Ray said something like, "There are analysts now who provide charts and graphs of every player's every move during the course of of a game, with red circles and arrows, but there's no red circle or arrow that can do justice to the ball that Totti just delivered." Again, that's a paraphrase.

But, I think, a little bit of what Ol' Ray was saying ties into what I was saying to my son. There's something inexplicable about what Magee does on the field. It's the part of soccer (and all sports) that still intrigues me. Anybody can see a guy strike a ball 100 miles per hour. Anybody can see a guy run past a defender, or out jump a defender for a head ball. Not everybody can see the other stuff.

At MLS Media Day a few weeks ago, Magee's teammate Robbie Keane was telling Brian Straus of the Sporting News (and a few other reporters) he thought Magee was a player who should be considered for the U.S. national team. His reasoning was, basically, "the guy's a good player."

Ray Hudson and I think alike when it comes to charts.
A few days later, Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated ran an anonymous player's poll, and a good number of the 18 MLS players who were asked "Who is the most underrated player in MLS?" responded, "Mike Magee." Keep in mind, this was before the opening day hat trick.

I have distinct memories of Youri Djorkaeff commenting on a then-19-year old Mike Magee, playing for the then-MetroStars. I remember Djorkaeff saying, basically, "Magee is a very good player."

So, my final brilliant analysis goes something like this: "I think Mike Magee is a good player because it seems like a lot of really good players think he's a good player. I'm even considering turning it into a stat. Quote me: "Mike Magee ranks highly in the GPBALORGPTHAGP category."


The U.S.-Mexico Under-20 game and the Red Bulls-Portland game were played almost simultaneously. This meant picking one to watch on the television and one to watch on the ipad.

Let the boys be boys. Soon enough they'll be men.
I began with the U.S.-Mexico game on the TV. I'll keep my thoughts brief. Fun game. The stakes weren't all that high because both teams had already qualified for the U-20 World Cup, but a fun game because you could see it meant a lot to the players on both sides.

While I think the U.S. potentially has some really good players, I'm reluctant to go overboard. I'm old enough to have been down this road before. Let these kids enjoy the moment, hope they continue to immprove, and hold back on anointing them as guys who will play in World Cups, etc., until they've held down spots on professional teams. That's my take and I'm sticking with it.

As for the Timbers-Red Bulls game, you should just watch the highlights. It was a game full of rumbling and stumbling and a crowd that wouldn't sit down or shut up. Great, great fun.

In fact, I'd rank it No. 1 so far this year in the GGF category. And put a red circle around it.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Me and the Leather Man

Paul Cunningham put the ball in my court
It started with my blog post about losing my job.

Different people reacted in different ways. A lot of folks suggested I write a book (then I explained the book business a little bit). A few told me I "had" to become a teacher and coach (then I explained how long it would take to get certified and how the American economy had pushed a lot of folks like me - pushing 50 - into the "alternate route" teaching market, and that it would be very risky). And there were others, many others, who simply told me to "hang in there."

Well, I appreciated everyone's words.

But only one person came to me with something unique and different. That was Paul Cunningham, who is the founder of Leather Head Sports, the husband of an old friend of mine, and a guy who I have watched turn a passion - leather sporting goods - into an extraordinary business.

Paul sent me a story called 10 Reasons Why 2013 Will Be The Year You Quit Your Job. He sent it with the following message: "Read this and embrace it."

If you don't have time to read the whole article, let me quickly tell you about item No. 5.

Here it is:

5) Count right now how many people can make a major decision that can ruin your life. I don’t like it when one person can make or break me. A boss. A publisher. A TV producer. A buyer of my company. At any one point I’ve had to kiss ass to all of the above. I hate it. I will never do it again.
The 11.25-inch prototype
The way to avoid this is to diversify the things you are working on so no one person or customer or boss or client can make a decision that could make you rich or destroy you or fulfill your life’s dreams or crush them. I understand it can’t happen in a day. Start planning now how to create your own destiny instead of allowing people who don’t like you to control your destiny. When you do this count, make sure the number comes to over 20. Then when you spin the wheel the odds are on your side that a winning number comes up.

Having basically had my professional life ruined by one person in 2010, this one hit me hard. As a former colleague once said to me about being a magazine writer, "If the right guy likes you, that can be all it takes to be successful. If the wrong guy doesn't like you, it can go away in a split-second."
The 11.5-inch prototype

I am not delusional. I know for a long time, I had a couple of people who believed in me, and gave me 13 years that exceeded anything I ever dreamed I would do as a sportswriter. But, the reality is that as soon as there was a change at the top, and those people were replaced by people who did not hold me in the same regard, I was one hundred percent done. No questions asked.

So, there was the article. And it was inspirational. But - pause - I'm not really a guy who buys into the whole Tony Robbins "Power of Positive Thinking" thing. It's just not my thing. So, I'd read stories like this before, about taking control of your life, about doing something entrepreneurial. I appreciated the sentiment, but I was not truly ready to grab the message and run with it.
The 12-inch prototype (pitcher-friendly web)

A day later, Paul reached out again...this time with more.

A little background on Paul. He was a photo editor for Major League Baseball for a long time. But his passion has always been baseball gloves. He left his job at MLB to make gloves (a senior glove craftsman) for the Hawthorne, N.J.-based company Akadema. Around that time, my friend Steve Wulf was trying to put together a story on "where a baseball glove comes from," basically a glove's story from cow pasture to baseball diamond. I hooked Steve up with Paul for a conversation. The story - to my knowledge - was never written, or maybe it just ended up in the holding zone.

The 12.75-inch prototype (outfielder's glove)
Things didn't work out at Akadema for Paul, and he found himself in a place similar to where I was back in mid-January. That's when he started Leather Head Sports, making handmade leather footballs and "lemon peel baseballs" and Naismith-era basketballs. Not "for game use" balls, but balls that are part collectible, part toy, and 100 percent cool. But, at the same time, I knew what Paul really wanted to do was design and perfect baseball gloves. This was our connection.

I could throw Rawlings and Wilson model numbers at him and he'd know those gloves without even having to look them up. I told him stories about gloves I had and gloves I gave away. Stories about good leather and bad. For each story I told, Paul added background, provided knowledge.

And so a day after Paul sent me the "10 Reasons" article, he sent me something better. It was a note telling me he was ready to launch Leather Head baseball gloves, and he wanted me to help him.

First Baseman's Mitt prototype
My response was three words. "I'm all in."

From there, we sat down together and talked about gloves. We also talked about our dreams for our wives and our kids. We talked about a lot of stuff. And we started designing gloves. Well, Paul did the designing. I told stories. Because, well, that's kind of what I do. It's really all I do.

But you know that already.

And them came yesterday, and our first look at our Original Six prototypes. Two infielders gloves. A glove designed for pitchers. An outfielder's glove. A first baseman's mitt. And a catcher's mitt.

32.5-inch Catcher's Mitt prototype
This week, these gloves will be put in the field. I will hand a few out to a few guys I know who have played the game at high levels. A minor league infielder. A major league infielder. A former big league catcher. And, yeah, I'm going to let my son (a high school player) try one out.

We will ask for feedback. We will tweak. We will perfect. We'll need help from people who are involved, invested even, in the game of baseball. But this is the dream of two grown men.

A dream that's becoming reality.

Time to have a catch. And like us on Facebook!

Friday, March 1, 2013

It's Christmas Morning in Jersey

Watching Ty catch, I wish time could stand still
My son came home from school with a stiff, new catcher's glove yesterday. Seriously, it's a brick. He said, "Coach said this is going to be hard to break in. But I told him you had a system."

Indeed, I do. It's a "system" my dad passed on to his sons. It's a "system" my brother has passed on to his catchers at Princeton. It's a "system" I believe in. You start by soaking the glove in hot water. I mean, you soak it in hot water. You don't just sprinkle it. You saturate it.

Once it's soaked, you beat it up. I use a rubber mallet. You could use the butt-end of a baseball bat if you want. But you pound the pocket like there's no tomorrow.

When you can't pound any more. You put two baseballs in the sweet spot, tie it up and put it in a warm place.

Breaking this sucker in with "the system"
Then you keep repeating the process until the glove is dry.

Then you play a lot of catch.

There's no guarantee every glove will be perfect. A lot depends on the glove's "bones." If it doesn't have the right shape, if it's not cut from a good template, there's nothing a human being can do.

This, my friends, is baseball.

While it would be nice to be earning a paycheck again (that will happen eventually, I have faith), I cannot do justice to the joy that comes from watching my sons play on teams. So, it's the silver lining in this "hiatus." Last year, I sat in the press box at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, some days fighting back tears, as my dad (and the local reporter from the Coast Star on Twitter) kept me updated on my son's games.

So, for now, 'll try to cherish simple things like breaking in new gloves, throwing batting practice, hitting fungos, clapping the mud out of my kid's spikes before he gets in the car. For now, anyway, I can be a little more like my dad, who never missed any of my games.

My 16-year old son Tyler begins baseball practice today, like all New Jersey kids have done for years and years, on March 1. I remember March 1 as a day I circled on the calendar. Didn't matter if there was snow on the ground, freezing rain falling from the sky, or winds blowing at 50 miles per hour.

March 1 was Christmas morning, and then some.

And so I watched him spring out of bed this morning, pack his bag, including things like a cup, some "sleeves" and, of course, his blue and gray Manasquan cap. When I drove him to school, I saw some of his teammates, who likewise, were sporting caps and school colors, and toting big bags.

I don't care how sappy it sounds, but I'm going to be 50 years old in nine months and I'm here to tell you that nothing - nothing - has ever filled the void that was left when I could no longer be on teams. Looking back it had very little to do with winning or losing. It had to do with working together with your friends toward a common goal.

It also had to do with inside jokes we share to this day.

If you never played on teams, I have a tough time relating to you. Doesn't mean I don't like you, or respect you, but I have a tough time relating to you. Because almost every valuable lesson I learned in my life came from being on teams.

I learned how to take criticism like a man.

I learned how it feels to let people down. I learned how it feels to pick someone up when they're down, and how to appreciate when someone cares enough to pick you up when you're down.

I learned how to tell a joke, but more importantly how to take a joke.

Team sports gave me the ability see who's real and who's fake. When you're in the weight room, sweating, trying to make yourself better, you lose tolerance for slackers. When you're staying late to take extra batting practice and you're watching others leave as soon as possible, you stow that away.

Beau's high school track career begins next week
This is a love letter to my son Tyler. And next Tuesday, my son Beau begins his freshman track season, so it can be a love letter to him, as well.

Cherish these days. Work hard, if not for yourself, for the guy standing next to you. Be one of the guys who brings people together. Always focus on the next play. Forget about the last one, and that means forgetting not only about errors and strikeouts, but also line drives and web gems.

The next play is all that matters.

Come up with a few memorable sayings and write them down.  Pick a few songs to play in the locker room and play the hell out of them. Play them until guys are saying, "Enough!" And then play them some more. When you hear those songs when you're an old man, they'll remind you of these days, spent with your team. "We could be Heroes," still rings in my ears, to this day. Makes me smile.

Never the most talented, but never outworked.
A lot of my peers in the sportswriting community have decided that "leadership" is a myth, that "playing hard" is not quantifiable, and smirk and giggle when anyone uses the word "intangibles."

They never played high school ball, or maybe they've forgotten. Those things are real even if there's not a stat to back 'em up.

Be a leader with the way you practice and prepare. Be a leader with the way you walk back to the dugout after a strike out or a pop up, and simply place your bat in the rack. No throwing stuff. No bad facial expressions. Make everyone in the park believe that you "just missed it."

Play hard. In practice, run every sprint like it's your last. Shout out directions on cut-off plays until your throat stings. Chatter may not work in the bigs, but a few "attaboys" work wonders in high school. Go ahead and lead the team in "attaboys."

Eat right. Get enough sleep. School is your number one priority, but your teammates also rank high on the list. Do not let them down because you're tired or hungry or distracted.

They're counting on you.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tell me, over and over and over again, my friend

Can the Galaxy do this three times in row?
I still hear the question all the time...incredibly.

"What's it going to take for Major League Soccer to make it?" I heard it in 1996, when I left my job covering the Yankees for the New York Daily News to work for the MetroStars. I heard it when I went to ESPN The Magazine, every year when we planned our league preview, as it were. I heard it when I walked through the door at the Star-Ledger and made small talk with a few folks.

My stock answer has always been, "It needs to hang around until people stop asking that question."

It's almost there.

I don't want to waste any more energy on the topic because I find it rather lame, because the second part of my stock answer was always, "More is that people who love soccer love MLS."

I love soccer, and I love MLS. And I'm not alone. Saturday night, the league will kick off its 18th season. We'll see if the Galaxy, minus one sex symbol and (momentarily) minus one soul-searcher, can become the first team in league history to win three consecutive MLS Cups.

Bruce Arena nearly pulled off that feat straight out of the gate, winning with DC United in '96 and '97 only to be upset at the Rose Bowl in '98 by the first-year Chicago Fire. Dominic Kinnear and the Houston Dynamo won back-to-back Cups in '06 and '07 and, well, it's hard to fathom, given Kinnear's success, that Houston hasn't won another title since then.

It's hard for me to root for Red Bull, but easy to root for Petke
The league has certainly evolved over time, which is a credit to the investors and the executive administrators. They haven't been afraid to tweak the system a few times, and we have every reason they'll continue to make adjustments as the league turns the corner into it's third decade.

One thing you know has to be gnawing at them is the continued failure of the New York team to get over the hump, both on the field and at the gate. I must admit, I walked out of Giants Stadium eight seasons ago, with the fans calling for my brother's head, and I've rooted against them ever since. As we enter the 2013 season, I feel my anti-NYRB stance softening just a bit, because Mike Petke, their new coach, is such a likeable guy, and I'd like to see a local kid succeed. I'd also like to see fewer empty seats at the Red Bull Arena, the beautiful stadium that rose out of New Jersey wasteland.

I don't root much anymore, truth be told. Just as in baseball, I've dropped allegiances to teams and players to root for good stories, this holds true now in soccer. So, I'll root for teams that put goals on the board, like Frank Yallop's San Jose Earthquakes, who scored 72 a year ago. I'll root for the teams who have the most passionate fans, like Seattle and Portland, because I like to see dedication rewarded. I'll root for American players, not because I'm anti-anybody, but because it's always good to see players who might some day represent the U.S. stepping up and producing.

My biggest challenge now is to convince my two teenage sons to get on board. Both play soccer. Both love soccer. But both have gravitated to the English Premier League. They play in a fantasy league. They turn on the games as soon as they get up on Saturday morning. They have closets full of shirts (Spurs, City, Villa and more), but only have their cousin's old MetroStars jerseys in their MLS collection. Major League Soccer hasn't grabbed them the way the EPL has. We need to work on that.

Like the "What it going to take for MLS to make it?" question, there are many other questions that haven't gone away in the league's first 17 years. Questions about "quality of play" are always thrown around, as if there's some metric to tell you where the league stands compared to others.

The debate is all well and good, but there's no answer to the quality of play question. On any  given night, you can turn on a game that is phenomenal. The next night you might turn on a game that has you muttering that the game was just set back 17 years in 90 minutes. This is also true of every other league in the world. I've sat through my share of stinkers in countries other than my own.

But it's the great games that bring you back. I've seen enough of those over the last 17 years to be as excited as ever that another season of MLS is upon us. I stopped asking the questions a long time ago. If you love soccer, I suggest you might want to do the same. It's a waste of energy.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Don't know much, but I do know what I know

Tab Ramos' U20s  play Canada tonight in a WC Qualifier
Did I ever tell you I was a soccer player and a soccer coach?

A high school player, and a youth soccer coach. In other words, I'm far from an expert when it comes to the game. Then again, I don't consider myself an expert in any of the sports I cover.

I prefer to be an interrogator. When I want to know more about the games I cover, I go to those who've been on the sidelines, and on the field, and ask them about it. Now, before Grant Wahl jumps ugly on me, I also like to read up on things, and there are a lot of great writers (Grant included) who do an excellent job analyzing the game. However, if I were to choose a story (or a book) that is going to teach me about the game, I'm going with the one heaviest in interviews.

That's my preference, and I'm sticking with it.

Just to go off on a tangent for a second, one of the things that's bugged me in baseball the last decade is when I have to call an agent and he begins to tell me how great his client is, and expects me to quote him in my stories. Uh, Mr. Boras, you're his agent. You're paid handsomely to make your client sound terrific. I have scouts and such around the country who can tell me how great he is, thank you.

Anyway, how's that for an entry point into tonight's Under-20 World Cup qualifier between the U.S. and Canada? I'm here today to analyze the game as a former high school player and youth coach.

Because, with my background, I don't care about the formation, tactics or "style."

What I care about is how the U.S. team under Tab Ramos competes in an elimination game. I've watched the first two games. I saw team outplayed pretty badly by Haiti, in a game it won 2-1, and I saw a team that looked very slow and methodical in a 1-0 win over Costa Rica.

What has been lacking from my pedestrian point of view is the urgency to attack. Seems the mantra now in U.S. soccer is for "improved possession" but at some point, don't we want to see a team that gets after the opponent when it has the ball? Again, I'm no expert, just an observer. I've watched the U.S. U-20s play 180 minutes and the chances they've created have been few and far between.

What I do know as a former high school player and youth coach is that it's a lot harder to play "nice soccer" against teams that don't allow you to play nice. I remember as a player, taking the field with every intention to pass the ball around and possess the ball, but coming up against teams that were faster and more aggressive than us, or better with the ball than us. And, at that point, it was "let's compete." As a coach, I've seen my little guys look like Spain against lousy competition. And then when we play a team three levels better, the parents typically comment, "We didn't pass the ball today like we did in the last game." Well, no joke, Mom. The other team wouldn't allow it.

I can't figure out if the U.S. simply wasn't good enough to look good against Haiti or Costa Rica, or if Haiti and Costa Rica just did a good job of making the U.S. look jittery.

Two wins in two games. Can't be too critical. And, of course, it's a youth tournament. So, I understand the ultimate goal for Ramos is to develop players for the next level.

But is it crazy for me to think that part of the evaluation process now - tonight - has to be observing how these young men play in an elimination game? Are they focused? Ultra-competitive?

That's what I'll be observing tonight.

Monday, February 25, 2013

No scandal, just a lot of fixing

Let the record show, that I'm one of those guys who's been proposing ways to "fix" Major League Soccer since, oh, 1998. I think I've done it in a loving, kind way. But I've been one of those guys.

For a first look, this was pretty awful

It was in 1998 that I went from working for the MetroStars (I was that club's original PR director) to working for ESPN The Magazine. My two years with the MetroStars were pretty frustrating, mostly because we were short-staffed and overworked and we played in Giants Stadium. And, I spent the better part of my days with the club trying to convince people to cover us.

It was humorous, at times. At least it was humorous in the rearview mirror. I remember a reporter from El Diario (the New York Spanish-language daily) telling me the paper wanted to travel with us. I was thrilled, until I found out that the reporter thought we'd pick up his travel expenses.

I remember papers assigning older desk guys to our team. They'd call the day before a game and ask if I could gather some quotes for them for their previews. I'd say, "How about I get you Tab Ramos or Tony Meola or Peter Vermes on the phone and you can ask the questions?"

The usual reply was, "No, you can just get me a few quotes."

I was a journalist, well, at least at the time I was a former journalist, and it infuriated me.

I remember we traveled to Kansas City in 1996 for a game with playoff implications. Tab got a red card when he raced the length of the field to get in the ref's face. We lost the game and the team was rightly livid with Tab, who stood in the lockerroom after the game, ready to fall on his own sword before the press. Tab was ready, willing and able to take the blame for what he'd done.

The problem was the one writer assigned to cover the team did not bother to talk to him. In the airport, I couldn't help myself. I called the editor of the paper and asked, "Did your writer talk to Tab? Because that's kind of the story tonight." When the editor said, "No, I don't see any quotes from Tab."

I told the editor that it wasn't too late, that I was at the airport with the writer and would arrange an airport terminal interview. I told Tab to go talk to the writer, which Tab did. I think the writer was actually mad at me, because he had to re-write his story. Or at least he had to add quotes to it.

So when I went to The Mag, I basically took it upon myself to cover the league the way I felt it needed to be covered, replete with rumors and lockerroom buzz and controversy. I did it on-line, in a weekly column (they had not yet come up with the word "blog") called "The Boot Room."

I made friends and enemies around the league. I even got into a few pretty good fights with my brother (he once interrupted a round of golf to yell at me about writing that his goalkeeper Jonny Walker had "made a meal out of" a foul).

I thought Jonny was faking
It was a labor of love, The Boot Room, and it led to some brief work on television as the John Clayton/Peter Gammons-esque guy on something called "MLS Extra Time.'

I was brutal on television, oh well. I think the hardcore fans liked it. That was my first attempt to "fix" MLS. Later on, at the Mag, I called for the entire league to re-brand. Going back to my days with the MetroStars, I felt MLS got it wrong to start, with goofy uniforms and even goofier team names and logos/badges/etc. I actually remember getting into pretty loud arguments with folks at the MetroStars.

"You get the chance to create something iconic, like the Yankees interlocking 'NY' and we come up with this (the original MetroStars crest)?" I was told it was "cool" basically because Nike had designed it. Now, I love Nike as much as the next guy. But let the record snow that none of the original Nike-inspired MLS logos from 1996 are still around. None. Of course, adidas outfits the whole league now, but that's beside the point.

I've also criticized the league's playoff various playoff formats. I've argued not for things like single-table or promotion-relegation, but simply for making the regular season conference championships put a team on the cusp of playing in MLS Cup. I basically want the winners of the regular season conference championships to host a one-game semifinal. Follow me?

So, I've been that guy. However, there's a "but..."
Don't get me started

I've been that guy, but I've always been critical of MLS because I love the league and everything about it. And, truth be told, in the 16 years that have gone by since I walked away from the MetroStars, MLS has done things more incredible than I would have ever thought possible. The stadiums, the fans, the sights and sounds of MLS games, have come a long way.

I've never bashed the "level of play" because I don't consider myself "expert enough" to criticize things like the level of play. I mean, I watch as much English Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A and La Liga as the next guy, and I see great games and I see crap games. How's that for analysis?

But MLS, as much as I've tried to "fix" it, is my league. Even the last two years, as I was pushed back into baseball full-time, I'm always sitting down with my coffee in the morning to watch the highlight packages. On the nights when I wasn't working at a ballpark, I was often watching MLS games.

Oh yeah, did I mention that a lot of reporters are getting after it these days? From the guys who've been there since the beginning like Michael Lewis and Steven Goff, to a cast of young and hungry reporters who are bringing it on a daily (even hourly) basis. Makes my heart feel good.

The 18th season of MLS starts this weekend.

Obviously, I realize at this point the league doesn't need much fixing. Just don't hate me for trying.

It's kind of who I am.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Finding Landon Donovan

In this moment, the world belonged to Donovan
It's been a long time since I weighed in on anything in American soccer.

You can go back to an old post where I explained it all. When my brother was named coach of the U.S. national team back in 2007, I told my bosses at ESPN The Magazine that I had to leave the beat I'd worked since 1998. I did not feel I could be impartial any longer. I also did not think it would have been right to be poking my nose inside the locker room my brother was trying to command.

When I look at all the conflicts-of-interest in place at the Worldwide Leader, sometimes I wonder if what I did was necessary. I've heard Jeff Van Gundy commenting on his brother's work. Dick Vitale may not be brothers with any of the college basketball coaches he covers, but he has let it be known over a long and profitable career that there are certain guys he won't criticize.

I know what I did was the right thing. But I do wonder if it was necessary.

Which brings me to this blog post, where I will jump back in on American soccer, and offer up my thoughts on Landon Donovan, who, as we all know, is on a sabbatical from soccer.

Back in 2006, before the World Cup in Germany, I wrote about Landon for ESPN The Magazine. He met me at a sushi place in his neighborhood in Southern California and we chatted. When the dinner/interview was over, I could not help but feel I'd just spent time with the most honest, open athlete I had ever met in two decades in the sportswriting business. He had no problems talking about himself -- something that makes many athletes uneasy -- at length, not just talking about his strengths (he said he believed he was one of the best players in the world), but also his weaknesses (he talked about problems he had with his dad). Mostly, he talked about his overall need to be happy.

Bruce Arena, then the national team coach, backed him up, saying, "I like Landon when he's happy. Because that's when he plays his best soccer."

Just to back up a second. When Landon was 16, I met him down in Florida and wrote a short piece about him for The Mag. He was headed to Bayer Leverkusen and being called "The American Michael Owen." He was painfully shy during that interview. He was a kid. So, to see his evolution into manhood that night in So. Cal was a cool moment for a middle-aged sportswriter and dad.

It was easy to see Landon was a really good person.

I wrote my story, turned it in, and got blasted by my boss. Apparently, he'd been reading the wonderful soccer message boards, or had been clued-in to them, I don't know, but he was all over the "Landon is a pussy" theme and wondered why I didn't go hard after that angle. Any American soccer fans knows the "Landon is a pussy theme." He didn't like it in Germany, settled in MLS, tried to go back to Germany and didn't like it all over again. My boss heard about "Landycakes" and was miffed that I did not take him to task for all the accusations being made by anonymous soccer fans.

My defense was that Landon, to that point, had never let the US national team down in any way. He had been brilliant in the 2002 World Cup. He had played very well during qualifying for 2006. I also pointed out that he was an attacking player and attacking players needed to attack. I argued that maybe it was better that our best attacking player play on a team where he is the one who is expected to create chances and score goals and that, perhaps, in Germany he'd be lower on the totem pole and would not have the chance to develop those skills properly. That was my defense.

Then came the '06 World Cup, and things did not go well for Donovan. He did not set up any goals for a U.S. team that lost two games and tied one (impressively vs. Italy, the eventual champions).

In true Donovan form, he shared his inner feelings about his performance, that he didn't play with confidence, that he didn't play as aggressively as he should have.

When I got home from the World Cup, my boss all but jabbed a finger in my chest, pointing out how I'd botched the Donovan piece. At that point, I had no defense. The proof was in his performance.

I guess.

So, let's get this tale back to the present. As you know, Donovan got things right in the 2010. Even in the eyes of his most severe critics, he got things right. He did his usual great things for the LA Galaxy, but also went to Everton on loan and played well. At the World Cup, he rescued the US twice during group play, scoring a critical goal in the come-from-behind draw with Slovenia and the last-gasp winner against Algeria, which got the U.S. into the second round.

He cried on camera and told his soon-to-be-ex-wife he loved her. All vintage Donovan. All part of the package American fans had come to know, to love and hate, since he became a part of the team.

But as the U.S. left South Africa after falling, 2-1, in extra time to Ghana, I could not help but feel that the next US coach, be it my brother or somebody else, was going to have his hands full trying to get another World Cup cycle out of the greatest attacking player our country has ever produced.

I just sensed that all the emotional stuff was taking its toll. Some athletes bear the burden of expectations better than others. I've covered Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter for many years and the thing that's always struck me is how in the most trying times his eyes seem the brightest. It's like Jeter truly believes the big games, the big pressure, the bright spotlight is actually...the most fun.

Is this true? How do I know? Jeter is the anti-Donovan. He rarely lets anyone inside his head. All I go by is the look on his face. I've never seen Jeter look down, or glum, or tired on the biggest stages.

I think we've all seen the wear and tear on Donovan.

And so last night, Donovan spoke to students at USC and he spoke about so many things...and one of the students (@xman818) chronicled it all on Twitter.

Donovan spoke about how soccer is a very small part of who he really is. He spoke about overcoming some of the problems he had with his dad. He spoke about things that broke up his marriage. He spoke about how he cares only about being a good person and is going to Cambodia in 10 days to do something that's not religious, but sounded kind of spiritual.

Every single word out of his mouth was real, and admirable. I hate ever making character judgments on any athletes I write about, but I do believe Landon Donovan is, in fact, a really good person.

Now, how about the soccer part?

Understand, first of all, like Donovan, most soccer players would tell you that the game is not the most important thing in their life. This is not only sound thinking, this is logical and healthy.

Soccer is, after all, just a game.

However, what our soccer-obsessed side needs to keep an eye on is this:

When Donovan puts his soccer shoes back on in late March, will he be able to make the game the most important part of his life. Not the most important part of his life 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But the most important part of his life when he's actually playing soccer, or practicing soccer, or being a teammate in the locker room. This is called "focus" and it is required of all athletes. Talk to any sports psychologist and he'll talk about looking through the smallest window. Eliminate all the distractions and lock-in on something small. It's a challenge. A freaking huge challenge.

No one should begrudge Landon for being Landon. In fact, at this point, given what Donovan's produced for U.S. Soccer for the last dozen years, we should love and respect the person he is.

My former boss who hammered me for not going with the "Landon is a pussy" theme back before the 2006 World Cup...dude was wrong then and he's even more wrong today. He's proved his toughness.

But if Landon Donovan still has more to give to the US national team once this sabbatical is over, he's going to have to prove it all over again. Not to us, the public, but to his teammates. If he's distracted, they'll notice. If he's not all-in when he returns (and he will return), it won't sit well.

That's my guess.  Just me weighing in, for the first time in a while.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

I Can't Help Falling (Back) in Love with You...

My Ledger column was a lifesaver
Time to ramble.

Tomorrow marks three weeks since I got laid off by the Star-Ledger. It's cliche to say it, but I truly believe things happen for a reason. Especially this thing.

First, it's got to be said, the Ledger saved me. In May of 2011, knowing my days at ESPN The Magazine were numbered, the Ledger threw me a life line, making me their baseball columnist.

What I learned in my two seasons back on the everyday baseball beat is just how much things changed in the 16 years I was working on features across all sports at ESPN. I have so much respect for the amount of work the daily guys churn out on a day-to-day basis.

Actually, change that.

I have so much respect for the amount of work the daily guys churn out on a minute-to-minute basis. You don't show up at the ballpark at 2:30 anymore just to prep. You show up to begin tweeting, blogging, taking cellphone camera photos. It's all good. It just wasn't for me.

And I know this will get me ridiculed, but the way baseball writers are expected to write about the game has changed so much. Basically, if you can't back up something somebody said, or something you observed, with a telling statistic, you're setting yourself up to get skewered.

There's a whole legion of folks out there now who are in the business of "debunking." I saw this at The Mag. Get a quote from Red Sox batting coach Dave Magadan about Dustin Pedroia's uncanny knack for putting the barrel of the bat on the ball and someone's got a stat to tell you he's only average at that. Heaven forbid you write that someone hits in the clutch.

Personally, I don't buy all of it.

I remember as a young writer sitting down to talk to Bob Boone, then a veteran catcher, about things he observed behind the plate. He didn't care about a guy's average with runners in scoring position. He talked about things he'd seen the day before, or the at bat before, that told him how to attack a hitter, or whether it was a good time to pitch around a guy.

"Writing about leadership is lazy," I was told.
Write the word "intangibles" into a story now and a whole slew of folks will ridicule you. Leadership? I was told this past season I was "lazy" for ever using the word. When I produced a story I'd written on Jason Varitek after the 2004 season, full of observations from teammates about Varitek's influence on the Sox, I was told, "so, he's a hard worker, you can't prove leadership."

Over the last two seasons, I had more than a few heart to heart conversations with Bob Klapisch, an old teammate from the New York Daily News who now writes a baseball column for the Bergen Record and for Fox Sports. I consider Klap among the best baseball writers of all-time (and a future Hall of Famer) because of his understanding for the game's nuances and subtleties, but also for the respect he gets from players, coaches and managers, who can easily see he's more than just a guy who pores through pages of stats.

"The game is an art, not a science, Bradman," Klap would say to me. "We can't forget that."

I'm not stat averse, but I prefer my advanced baseball metrics to be served in charts and graphs rather than sentences and paragraphs. Stories driven by stats remind me of the reading comprehension segment of the SAT, where I always felt the author's sole mission was to bore me to death.

 During my three weeks out of work, I've found myself searching the SI Vault for stories written by Peter Gammons, Steve Wulf and Tom Verducci. Love stories, if you will. For these were the stories that made me love the game of baseball even more.

My Rawlings XPG3 here was passed on to a Gold Glover
I remember when the leadership at ESPN The Mag started throwing the word "wonk" around. As in, "How about we do a more 'wonkish' take on this..." I had to look it up in the Urban Dictionary. (1) Noun - An expert in a field, typically someone who is fairly young and very intelligent. 

I knew I was no wonk. If there's a market for wonkish debunking, that's fine. I'm not going to be a regular consumer.

Tyler trusts the pocket of his Wilson A2000
I just hope there's still a market for baseball romance. Because that's what I read. I still believe in "clutch" and "intangible" as much as I still believe in batting average, RBI and...gasp...wins.

Which brings me back to the "everything happens for a reason" cliche.

In the aftermath of my layoff, my friend Paul Cunningham of Leather Head Sports reached out to me. Paul grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y, and is a hopeless baseball romantic, like me. Paul's passion is for leather-made sporting goods. Our friendship evolved over a mutual fascination with baseball gloves.

I broke in a few gloves for Beau, my defensive wizard
Both of us were "sorta" college baseball players. Paul played at Drew University. I played on the JV team at North Carolina. Paul told me he always played under the (wrong) assumption that he was the perfect glove away from getting drafted. I always had the best gloves, thanks to my brother, and earned my varsity respect at UNC for my ability to break-in gloves. My absolute best work occurred when I helped a future Gold Glove winner in Walt Weiss by donating my Rawlings XPG3 to him when we were both freshman and he was having backhand issues with his Wilson A2000.

It doesn't get any more romantic in sports than a baseball glove, does it? The smell of the leather. The way the perfect glove earns your undying trust. Just put it out there and the ball will stick.

Paul and I are going to launch a line of baseball gloves under his Leather Head brand. It's going to be a lot of hard work, fueled by passion. Fueled by baseball romance. There's going to be trial and error. But we're going to make some incredibly sweet gloves, and I'm going to be calling on so many people who helped me learn the game over the last 40-plus years. Old teammates, coaches, dads who've sat in the stands the last decade with me watching our sons play ball.

Now, I'm sure you could throw a stat sheet at me that will tell me we have no chance to succeed. Give it to me and I'll throw it right in the trash. I'm going to believe baseball is an art, not a science.

And I don't think there's a wonk out there who can teach me a thing about baseball gloves, about what makes a good pocket or what makes a web double play friendly.

Paul and I know this stuff.

I'm not going to stop writing (as you can see above, I still like to tap on a keyboard, and I'm going to look to dive back into writing about soccer in the near future), but I'm going to try something new, with something I love. And I'm going to lean hard on "things happen for a reason."

And trust my intangibles.

Also, check out...

The Wall Street Journal thinks Leather Head may have invented "The Perfect Football"

How to make a Leather Head Football by Paul Cunningham