Sunday, November 30, 2008

Book Review: Michael Lewis' The Blind Side

You know Lewis as the author of Moneyball. “The Blind Side” is ostensibly the story of Michael Oher – currently a senior left tackle at Ole Miss, then a senior left tackle in HS – but it’s really a sociological examination of both football and American society. That’s not surprising; Moneyball was social science (economics) at its core,* and Blind Side seems like it could have started out with a similar economic take. In fact, the scope of Blind Side is so broad it’s impossible to know where this story came from.

Oher was a poor black kid, adopted by rich white parents. He played football for the first time in his junior year of high school, and by the following summer he was one of the most sought after recruits in the country. A year later, as a true freshman, he was a starting left tackle in the SEC. His story is about race relations, the education system, economic disparity, and the plight of the poor.

Yet Lewis never trivializes Oher at the expense of these perhaps more intriguing topics. He always keeps Oher front and center – he is very sensitive to the fact that Oher is only a kid – and the societal considerations on the periphery. He realizes they are evocative in and of themselves. Because of this, the story never loses a sense of authenticity and it’s what makes the book so compelling.

Lewis is able to extract the most interesting details from each area without descending into clinical discussions of the potentially dry topics. He relies heavily on anecdotes (no wonder he has a Gladwell endorsement on the back) and is a talented storyteller. He isn’t preachy. He maintains an even tone and thus seamlessly weaves between the more weighty topics and football history, football strategy, the business of college recruiting, and the awkward role of the NCAA.

When deeper into pure football talk Lewis takes what could be esoteric trivia and presents it as relevant and engrossing and thus is able to engage both the layman and the avid fan.

He jumps between contextual information and Michael’s story. He crafts the setting as if everything that had happened up until now – Bill Walsh, Lawrence Taylor, free agency, the financial and cultural growth of football, in a phrase, “the evolution of the game,”* as well as “a series of social accidents” – happened so that Michael Oher, a poor, uneducated kid from the ghetto with a bleak future, could succeed.

Ultimately this is the most salient point in the book. Oher went from “one of the least valued 15 year olds on the planet to among the most highly prized 18 year olds.” Lewis references a study of Memphis inner city athletes: 5 of 6 public school kids who could play sports at the college level fail to qualify academically. At one point Oher blithely declares that “if all the guys who could play got a chance to play, there would have to be two NFLs because one wouldn’t be enough.” Within his afterword, Lewis writes, “Micahel Oher might have been born to play left tackle in the NFL, but if he had remained in the environment into which he was born no one would have ever known about his talent. I find this remarkable.”

Here it is on Amazon.

*While many think of Moneyball as a Billy Beane bio or simply an endorsement of sabermetrics, its clearly stated premise was to investigate the abilities of a small market team to compete in baseballs non-revenue sharing landscape. FJM covers this nicely in their glossary.

*This was the subtitle of the book when it was first published as a hardcover. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t retained for the paperback.

Two other tangential thoughts:

1. The business of college recruiting: 21 DI schools each spent more than $1-million on their recruiting budgets last year.

2. This book reminded me a lot of “The Wire,” my favorite TV show, the way it laid bare much of the dysfunction of US society, without lapsing into the conventional indignation, all the while maintaining a captivating narrative that reinforced the authenticity.

-Agent Easy

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Implications of Darius Miles' Contract: Why is this kind of news fringe?

Simmons referenced this in an article the other day and thankfully I found the details within Tom Ziller's Fanhouse blog (take a second and check it out).

Without exaggeration, this is the most fascinating thing I've read about the NBA this year. As trivial as it might seem within the larger scope of the entire season (stars, records, wins), it offers insight into the inner workings of the league.

The 10-day contract loophole itself is interesting enough, but the story's Machiavellian possibilities really drive it.

It's frustrating that news like this is treated as fringe material, that one has to seek it out. (Though this is coming from someone who's barely watched SportCenter in months, I imagine their online content reflects whatever they report on tv). It's aggravating that too often the focus is on the "what" rather than the "how" and "why."

This comes down to blogs vs. MSM and the reason why the former are viable in the first place. This kind of story doesn't have any national flavor in that it isn't about a large-market team or a controversial player, and it's too complex for a casual fan. Thus, ESPN wont run with it. But their is an audience for it, perhaps a large one. Notice that Ziller prefaces his thoughts by saying "as we all know by now." His wording starkly distinguish the two entities. Who knows? Not anyone that relies exclusively on ESPN and the rest.

-Agent Easy

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Titans closer to the '72 Dolphins than you think

It's obvious that the Titans' 10-0 start isn't generating the kind of fanfare that followed the Patriots' drive for an undefeated season in '07, or for that matter the Colts' undefeated start in '05. The clear reason is that Tennessee isn't winning in the dominant fashion that those two teams did, and it's nearly impossible to picture Kerry Collins succeeding where Tom Brady and Peyton Manning failed.

The irony is that the Titans are closer in style to the '72 Dolphins than either of those two teams: they're winning close games with a dominant defense, a backup quarterback, a stable of running backs, and, yes, an easy schedule. And just as the Dolphins were underdogs in the Super Bowl against Washington, it's perfectly conceivable that a 16-0 Titans team would be an underdog to, let's say, a 15-1 or 14-2 Giants team on a neutral field. And just as the '72 Dolphins are remembered more for going undefeated than for being a great team (like the Steelers teams of the '70s or 49ers of the '80s), the Titans would similarly be likely not to be remembered as fondly as a great team as would the Patriots, Colts, etc.

Given all this, it's no surprise Mercury Morris is openly supporting Tennessee (and also predicted the Giants might be favored against them in the Super Bowl).


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Miggy, the Final Frontier

The final installment of the Johan trade was yesterday.
On to Miguel Cabrera.
Previous entries here.


Miguel Cabrera, who was already having the best second half in the AL when we last checked on him, stayed hot through the end of the season and finished as the HR champ in the AL. He was named “Tiger of the Year” which sounds like a tee-ball award, but is actually just the team MVP honor.

Despite optimism from Tigers management, Willis didn’t look particularly rejuvenated in his three September starts. He gave up 12 in 12.2 IP, got knocked out in the second inning in one of those games, and gave up at least one HR in each of the others. Naturally, there’s trade speculation.


Cameron Maybin made a splash, hitting .500 and scoring more than a run per game in the 8 games he got to play at the end of the year. As impressive as the numbers are, it’s a very small sample size, and his numbers from his season in the minors suggest he might still need some seasoning. He also squeezed the last out that kept the Mets at home.

Andrew Miller struggled in his bullpen role, as did Eulugio De La Cruz. They combined to give up 17 runs in 11.1 innings.

Dallas Trahern and Burke Badenhop finished their minor league seasons days after our last update. Technically the same could be said of Mike Rabelo, except that he was injured all year long and hadn’t seen the field since spring training.

Howie Kendrick came back from his second hamstring injury of the year in name only, as he struggled through the last week of the season and through the playoffs. There is concern about Kendrick’s ability to stay healthy, but chances are his spot is secure on next year’s roster.

After his postseason heroics, it’s likely that Mike Napoli wrested the catching job from Jeff Mathis.

Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders lived in the top ten in pretty much every significant statistical category all year, but both got lit up by the Red Sox in the ALDS.

The Angels decided not to re-sign Jon Garland, and that means that Nick Adenhart will get a chance to compete for the 5th spot in the rotation. That is, if he takes “ownership of his career.”

Interestingly, the Rockies proposed an almost identical package to the one that was in play for Cabrera last year, in return for Holliday. Unsurprisingly the Angels turned them down.


Kemp's weak September turned into an equally weak October. In eight games against the Cubs and Phils he had more strikeouts than hits.

Russell Martin looked on the bright side and pointed to Kemp's development, saying, "We got on [Kemp] about his baserunning in 2006, and he was tremendous this year running the bases."

Within the same article, Kemp agreed: "Hopefully I'll take what I did in the playoffs into next year to make myself better, and hopefully we get further than this year." Elsewhere, so did Joe Torre.

The Ventura County Star suggests including Clayton Kershaw in a Peavy deal, but Fox’s Ken Rosenthal says that Kershaw is untouchable.

Andy LaRoche hit .166 for the Pirates. They have two other top prospects that will challenge him for the job next year.

-Agent Easy

More baseball: FInal Installments of Johan and Miggy

We waited on the final installment of the trade-tracker series to see if Johan might win the NL Cy Young. He finished third.

Our previous update came with three weeks left in the regular season. Santana finished strong, doing as much as he could to get get the Mets to the playoffs. He ended the season with the ERA crown.


Rob Neyer thought Carlos Gomez “might have been the best outfielder on the planet this season,” and lamented that the OF Gold Gloves went elsewhere.

With the exception of one instance of long relief, Phil Humber only saw action as an inning eater. In his one opportunity he acquitted himself nicely, giving up 2 in 5.1 IP, keeping the game within reach for a Twins ninth inning comeback.

GM Bill Smith offered this about Humber and his other two pitchers from the Santana deal:
"Humber and Mulvey both struggled in the first half, but their first half and second half were dramatically different. Humber had a tremendous second half [2.67 ERA after the All-Star break, compared to 5.92 ERA before], and Mulvey was very good [3.64 after, 3.84 before]...Guerra is so young. He's got a world of ability."

Red Sox

Ellsbury wasn’t able to break out of his September slump and in the playoffs was ignominiously replaced by Coco Crisp. He finished the regular season as the AL steals leader and third in ROY voting.

A November 2 headline from "Buchholz rebounding nicely in Arizona Fall League." A November 4 headline from the Portland Press Herald: "Buchholz hit hard again." It’s tough to gage whether Theo Epstein was being honest or polite when he said, “As a whole…it was a constructive development time. I think he regained his confidence, his stuff was crisp and he tweaked his delivery out of the stretch. We’re very glad he went (to the AFL). It allowed him to write a little different ending to his season.” Even if that’s a sincere appraisal, the feelings must not be strong ones because his name has been floated in trade talks.

Lester finished September 4-1 with an ERA barely over 2, and with Beckett’s oblique problem, became the staff ace in the playoffs. He handled the Angels twice, shutting them out for 14 innings. He was respectable in game 7 against the Rays (3 earned in 7 IP), but couldn’t match Garza and Price on the other side. He wants one pitch back.


Like Buchholz, Phil Hughes is also working on his stuff in the AFL. His last start offered some hope, but The New York Times is already calling him a failure, ESPN’s Jason Grey suggests that his ceiling is now as a middle-of-rotation starter, and he’s being outpaced in Google search results by a cricketer of the same name.

Cashman said that CF would not be a priority in the off-season, but it wouldn't be surprising if Melky Cabrera was moved.

-Agent Easy

If the BWAA is still talkin baseball, so can we

Belated WS questions to ponder:

- Why did neither team start their game 2 starters (or any of their starters for that matter) to finish off game 5? I can only assume that the managerial thinking was that a reliver had the advantage of proper mindset, but for all intents and purposes it was 0-0 and aren’t relivers relievers because they’re not as good as the starters?

Furthermore, why was Maddon so intent on keeping Howell in the game that he had him bunting a runner over in the 8th?

- Why was Upton so praised for his baserunning (which was in fact remarkable and memorable), but not the least bit criticized for his lackadaisical fielding in game 5? Anyone that didn’t flinch when he neglected to charge two consecutive shallow flies in the later innings and excused him for making the safe play, must have missed the camera shot of him sitting on the bench, and conspicuously not on the top step, wrapped in a towel, with a look that couldn’t have said anything but, "I wish it wasn’t so cold; I just want to get out of here."

- Did Kazmir reveal himself as less than an ace? If his playoff performace showed one thing it was that he’s incapable of going deep into a game. Between his pedestrian numbers, Matt Garza’s performance, and David Price’s debut, Kazmir might soon find himself the number three in that rotation.

- And a point of information: For all the weather problems baseball had in the WS this year (even if it hadn’t rained, this fashion debuted), they’re content to roll the dice again: because of the World Baseball Classic, next year’s game one will be on Oct 27th.

-Agent Easy

Thursday, November 6, 2008