Conditionally Yours, Kyler Murray

Courtesy Athlon Sports

For purposes of this post…let’s say after three years as a Purchasing Agent, you have just been promoted to the title of Purchasing Manager for your company. The company is a global organization consisting of many employees, and also has many suppliers providing you material as cheaply as you can possibly negotiate it for. In fact, all of your employees know deep down the financial success of your firm often comes down to just how well the Purchasing Manager and his team have negotiated costs with all of its suppliers on a regular, consistent basis.

The announcement of your promotion comes via a press release, sent not only to all your employees, but to all the suppliers as well. In it, there is also mention of a contract clause you agreed to which says as part of earning your new salary, you will commit to studying strategies of being a successful negotiator at least four hours a week outside of the company’s regular business hours. Furthermore, the addendum goes on to say you have agreed to the stipulation that your studying cannot be done while playing video games, watching television, or browsing the Internet.

Well, that would be humiliating, wouldn’t it? For you…and your company.

I present one Kyler Murray, who recently signed a five-year contract extension to continue as the quarterback of the Arizona Cardinals. The new deal is valued at $230.5 million, with about $105 million guaranteed at signing.

Kyler’s status was the talk of the NFL when he deleted all references to the Cardinals on his social media back in February after the team’s awful playoff performance against the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. With Murray entering the final year of his contract, his agent insinuated the Cardinals may not be that serious about winning, and that his client would now seek a new deal giving him the stability he wanted going forward.

Meanwhile, word leaked out that Arizona might have some concerns Murray was going to be their long-term solution at quarterback, worried about his total commitment to the sport, as well as his alleged lack of leadership.

After winning the Heisman Trophy while at Oklahoma, Kyler was the #1 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, and in his three seasons with the Cardinals was named to the Pro Bowl twice, while also improving his passer rating from season to season. However, Arizona has only made the playoffs once with Murray calling the shots…that awkward, ugly loss to the Rams last season. His body language during that game didn’t look very leader-like…and it was also reported Murray refused to go back onto the field to take the final snaps of that contest.

Several days ago, while both Murray and the team were basking in the glow of that contract extension, word leaked out regarding an almost unheard of addendum added to his contract…which I’ll paraphrase below based on media reports:

Murray will need to earn “credit” for studying film to prepare for each of the team’s games. Time in mandatory team meetings does not count, and he will study in good faith…which means he can’t be playing video games, watching television, or browsing the Internet.

It is certainly not unusual for teams to put adders in contracts dealing with weight or other tangibles, but we may have gone down a whole new road here on a clause speaking towards intangibles such as effort, attention to detail, and concentration. The clause is simply titled “Independent Study Addendum.”

Playing quarterback in the NFL is hard. There are only so many athletes who can do it really, really well. When you have invested a #1 overall pick, it’s admittedly hard for Arizona to walk away from Murray right now based on that fact alone. He’s performed fairly well in his three seasons, but the question is if he hasn’t been continuously trying to improve himself and his team…and you believe he does not have a leadership mentality…how do you let him keep the keys and drive the bus?

He could have played major league baseball if he so chose. Kyler is a tremendous athlete. I openly questioned his height (5-10) as he entered the pros but with his arm, and the ability to elude defenders and take off in any direction, I was open to the possibility he’d develop into a good if not great quarterback. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I am hopeful he can still become a star in the NFL. I’m rooting for him to succeed.

Murray turns 25 on August 7th. Looking back when I was that age, I didn’t always focus on the job at hand. No way. I was undisciplined at times. If you throw in all the entitlement Kyler has likely enjoyed throughout his high school and college experiences, I think we can see where he’d think he knows everything about life – and football – already.

He told the New York Times two years ago, “I’m not one of those guys that’s going to sit there and kill myself watching film. I don’t sit there for 24 hours and break down this team or that team and watch every game because, in my head, I see so much.”

I don’t know how the Cardinals plan to enforce this addendum to Murray’s contract, or if they’d get laughed out of court if they tried to hold back his pay. I do know this. If you are paying someone this kind of money, who because of their position is also likely the face of your franchise, you don’t do something so incredibly stupid as to put any of this in writing.

It remains to be seen if Arizona has also done something so incredibly stupid by extending Kyler Murray’s employment.

Curses on occasion can be intriguing…as long as you aren’t the cursed. Last January, before that playoff game with the Rams, the Cardinals’ Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury (who certainly is culpable in Murray’s apparent lack of maturity) made mention of the Pottsville (PA) Maroons. “I’m sure they’re very lovely people in Pottsville. I hope that they will rescind the curse very soon.”

That curse involves what fans of the Maroons claim is stolen property – the 1925 NFL Championship – which the then-Chicago Cardinals were gifted. Pottsville played an exhibition game against some Notre Dame players following the Maroons’ victory at Chicago, which was very much against the wishes of NFL Commissioner Joseph Carr. The title of NFL Champion was then stripped from Pottsville and awarded to the Cardinals.

Those Chicago Cardinals did win a more legitimate NFL title in 1947, but since then the franchise hasn’t won another. It’s been 75 years.

If Kyler Murray can pull off an NFL Championship after all of this contract nonsense, it will be unconditionally money well spent.

Premier League 2022-23: Soccer’s Calling

My love of soccer goes back to a time when my high school hadn’t even yet sponsored it as a varsity sport. That was likely because soccer was still in the process of trying to get any kind of foothold at all in the United States on the professional level. I wound up playing goal one season for our school’s club team, playing other schools who had yet to formally sponsor soccer squads.

In that season, I learned a pretty cool life lesson during one match when I spectacularly stopped a penalty shot…only to relax a bit, not control the rebound, and the other squad scored a goal anyway. Lesson learned – never take anything for granted and don’t celebrate too soon. Well, maybe that was two life lessons…

My interest in what the rest of Planet Earth calls football did not start more recently with the popular TV series Ted Lasso, as I suspect was the case for some Americans…although I think that’s an excellent show and anything that helps people in the States connect with soccer is great.

By the way, did you know the genesis of Ted Lasso came about when star Jason Sudeikis did a couple of sketch-length commercials for the Premier League’s broadcast coverage in the US? The basis for the series about an American football coach using his skill set to embark on a career as an English club soccer coach came about from two promos Sudeikis did. By the way, I think NBC Sports does a really fine job covering the PL. Watching matches on Saturday and Sunday mornings has become a tradition for a lot of folks in the States, with many gathering at their favorite watering holes to enjoy the action with fellow fans.

As for how the Premier League may shake out in its upcoming season, the pre-season rankings below are from analytics site FiveThirtyEight. They use a number of metrics to determine each squad’s soccer power rating (SPI), and then refines them throughout the season as results accumulate. With the kickoff of the new campaign less than two weeks away, here is how they have each of the 20 clubs ranked:

Manchester City (92.3)

Liverpool (90.5)

Chelsea (85.7)

Tottenham Hotspur (81.9)

Arsenal (78.5)

Manchester United (75.2)

Aston Villa (74.1)

Brighton & Hove Albion (73.7)

Crystal Palace (71.4)

Leicester City (71.2)

West Ham United (70.6)

Brentford (68.6)

Newcastle United (68.6)

Wolverhampton Wanderers (67.7)

Everton (63.8)

Leeds United (62.2)

Southampton (61.3)

Fulham (58.7)

Bournemouth (57.9)

Nottingham Forest (57.3)

The site ultimately feels defending champ Manchester City has a 46% probability to win the league, with Liverpool given a 30% chance and Chelsea 11%. Last season, a thrilling final day of the campaign saw Manchester City score three goals in under six minutes to snatch victory from Aston Villa and claim their fourth championship in five seasons. They finished a lone one point ahead of second-place Liverpool. Chelsea was third, Tottenham Hotspur fourth, Arsenal fifth, and Manchester United sixth.

So…in comparing last season’s results to those pre-season rankings it looks like nothing is expected to change in terms of the squads at the top. More on that in a moment. Of course, there is always the question of Premier League relegation, which is I feel one of the coolest aspects of many soccer leagues. It often presents as much drama as who all may be fighting it out for first. For those unfamiliar with relegation, the teams that finish in the bottom three positions in the Premier League standings each season leave the league and are relegated one level/tier down to what is known as the EFL Championship. The EFL Championship in turn promotes three teams up to the PL for the following campaign. Burnley, Watford, and Norwich City were the Premier League clubs sent down last season…replaced this year by Fulham, Bournemouth, and Nottingham Forest. There is always a fair amount of stress among the lesser squads each year with the potential to be relegated. Residence in the Premier League each season provides a cash windfall for its participants.

There has always been debate about whether or not dynasties are good for a sport. In the Premier League, there certainly are the haves and have-nots based on cash to spend, the quality of their facilities, historical prestige, etc. It’s no accident the same teams that finished at the top of last season are the ones favored at the top this year. Manchester City certainly is in dynasty-mode right now with those four titles in the past five seasons. Yet, I still recall the incredible run of Leicester City in the 2015-16 campaign, considered by many to be one of the greatest team sporting stories of all time. Rated at 5000-1 to win the Premier League at the beginning of that year, they did just that. Indeed, it is unlikely a club will pull of a miracle like Leicester City did that season, but it is great fun each year watching lesser squads sometimes give the big boys all they can handle in a match…potentially denying them what they thought going in would be an easy victory and three points in the standings.

What I like most about the Premier League is the passion of the fans. They are devoted to their clubs, and it is fantastic to see the joy in their faces when their squads do well. These clubs have been at it for a long time now, and the love they have for their teams has been passed down from generation to generation.

Other PL likes…I am ok with ties, which probably puts me in a very small minority. I know it may sound strange, but I honestly never had a problem with ties in either the NFL or NHL regular seasons before they moved to overtime periods. In the Premier League, where there is an acknowledged uneven amount of resources among the membership, I like the fact those have-nots have the ability to forge a tie and take away something against the favorites. I also think it is neat the PL, like many other leagues in world soccer, has no post-season. The season IS the season. A true champion, not diluted by an over-abundance of playoff teams like we allow in American sports. I find that refreshing. Each August, fans of the Premier League heed the call back to their club’s pitch knowing every match means so much.

One additional note about the Premier League for this season. There will be an unusual interruption to the schedule in November-December as players are allowed to compete for their national teams at the World Cup in Qatar. If interested, you’ll be able to find information online about how Qatar was selected to host this championship in the first place, as well as troubling reports of poor safety conditions there while construction of stadiums and facilities was going on. The positioning of this World Cup in Qatar also means not just the Premier League, but leagues around the world, have to suspend their seasons. To have the Cup played at its usual time, in the middle of the calendar year, would have been the equivalent of playing soccer on the sun. The whole planet seems to be heating up these days, but Qatar always features scorching summertime temps, so the decision was made to move the World Cup to the fall. Hopefully, all players who compete there come out of the competition in good health and ready to resume their seasons.

The most powerful, most watched soccer league in the world begins its new season on August 5th.

Chaos Isn’t A Pit. Chaos Is A Ladder.

That title is a quote from the HBO series Game Of Thrones. I was reminded of it the other day when someone used it as their reply in a comments section of an article about the current health of college football.

Many fans have been lamenting the fact yet another conference realignment move is now being made. Schools have been switching allegiance from one conference to the other for years now, but the recent decision by California schools USC and UCLA to have their athletic teams participate in the Big Ten Conference has many followers feeling this is the end of college football. They claim college football is dead.

It is.

But…who knows what the sport’s landscape will eventually look like? We are talking about a viewing activity second in popularity only to the National Football League. It’s morphing into something else…what else, who knows?

When collegiate athletic conferences were first organized many moons ago they were for the most part geographical in nature, allowing for regional rivalries to be created or enhanced, as well as to reduce team travel requirements. This also allowed fans to see their teams play home and away in certain instances.

But then TV came along. And with it, the arms race of college football was spawned where television simply couldn’t get enough of college football… and many schools spared absolutely no expense to get on television.

And that’s why we can’t have nice things like traditional college football. Television.

A quote from Drew Hamm of SBNation:

“College football going away from being a fiercely regional sport will eventually kill all that is fun and different about it. The path to becoming NFL Lite is paved with gold for TV execs, the coffers of major athletic departments and the various other power brokers in college sports who do not care what they break in their quest for one more dollar.”

For me, college football certainly was more fun and different when it was regional. My high school’s athletic teams were in a conference and always had annual rivalries with nearby towns. You looked forward each year to hosting and/or visiting your opponents, knowing fans would be with you no matter where you were playing. That’s similar to the college football we all grew up with.

Now, mega-conferences like the Big Ten and the SEC generate their universities massive revenues from television rights fees. This increased exposure on TV helps schools attract athletes and students alike, as well as motivate their alumni to donate more cash. In many instances, football-generated money pays for every other sport these universities sponsor for their students. With these changes in conference allegiance as schools try to align with the best television partners they can, some traditional rivalries have remained…but stakes have been lowered…others eliminated completely. Not just in football, but in all sports.

TV executives have decreed football – all college sports for that matter – do not need ties to geography or history or tradition. When it comes to college football, schools do need to have viewership. Lots of viewers. Some college football teams don’t have as strong a following, and their university athletic departments will wind up in a pit of schools not invited to participate in the newly-configured, upper echelon of college football.

College football is dead, but only for the version a lot of us grew up with. It wasn’t a mega-business then. It is now. Money changes everything. For two California universities to switch allegiances to a conference whose members are in the Midwest and Eastern part of the US, it is a chaotic time for some fans.

From this chaos, the ladder television provides extends upwards towards even more money and exposure.

We need to see who all makes it to the top, and what may be available for those not invited to climb. Then, we can better assess the health of college football.

The I In Team

The first thing that comes to mind when I consider what I would be like as a head coach in a team sport is…I would work hard to ensure every player got to see at least some action in every game.

That concept was forged when I was just thirteen years old. At that age, I was a 7th grade, third-string quarterback on my junior high football team, which consisted of players from 7th-9th grade.

The starting quarterback was a 9th grader, a son of one of our senior high school team’s coaches. Mind you, he did not become a starter on that pedigree alone. He was an excellent player who went on to play some college ball as well. The back-up quarterback was also older and more experienced than I…not nearly as good as our starter…but definitely better than me.

Our school enjoyed a healthy advantage when it came to student enrollment, and as such were dominant against most schools who had a lower number of students to draw from. In this particular season, our team won all six of its games. I believe the “closest” any team got to us all year may have been 21 points. We overwhelmed all of our opponents that year.

The head coach of our junior high team (who was a coach on the senior high team also) visibly enjoyed not only defeating opponents, but annihilating them. In that spirit, our starting players played almost every play of every game.

In our last game of the season, we went up by 30-0 fairly quickly and maintained that score to the final whistle. I did not play in that game.

I did not play in any of our games that year.

Even though we dominated the opposition in every one of our games, with outcomes never in doubt, I did not play one single play.

As I recall, the second-string QB did get into one game that year…but at another position. Our stellar, super-star quarterback – for whatever reason – had to take every snap from center that season. We not only had to win, but had to win by as much as possible.

Football is a challenging game to play. Practice for upcoming seasons often begins in relentless heat and humidity…and I grew up in a time when water breaks were still considered quite the luxury rather than mandatory. And then of course…there’s all those repetitive collisions with other people to consider. It’s a brutal sport at any age.

I knew I’d have a big adjustment at my new school, and I will admit things between my parents could have been better at that time, but I really wanted to play football and was determined to do so. I kept my grades up, made some new friends, and showed up for football practice every single day.

Yet, practice football was all I was accorded. I did not get to actually play football.

I was devastated.

After that season, I focused on basketball and baseball. I also played a year of soccer…but football was over for me. Yes, in those other sports there were still times when I was the guy not playing so much, and other times when others were most often watching me play. It just wasn’t as severe as that 7th grade football season.

I think back…what if I had played just one play that year…played in any of those games at all? Would I have stuck with football? I just could not reconcile returning to it after sitting on the sidelines the whole season. For sure, being better at those other sports certainly factored into the decision to step away from it as well.

Next month, the Little League Baseball International World Series will once again return to Williamsport PA. It’s not that far from where I live, and I have attended a couple of them. This season marks the 75th anniversary of the World Series, and it once again will be a late Summer ritual for fans young and old alike. Several years ago, there was a new category of rules added to Little League Baseball called Mandatory Play. It is as it sounds, making sure all players on a team actually get to play in actual games…not just practice. I think it’s a great thing.

I fully recognize the priority of a head coach, especially at “business” levels, is to win. It’s just my feeling to help ensure an entire team stays actively engaged throughout the year, what better way to do so than to have each player alert to the fact they’re going to be called upon to contribute at any moment? Seasons are long. I think a no-brainer way to keep your players motivated is to assure them they aren’t just going to practice…but play…all year.

I hear high school, college and professional head coaches lament the fact they don’t have enough depth on their teams, are lacking at certain positions, etc. These are often the same coaches who never use their benches no matter what. Maybe their substitutes would be better if they let them into competition once in a while? Who knows, they might find out one or more can contribute more than first thought? Some athletes shine brightest when the bright lights are on…and the minutes actually count for something.

If my team’s substitutes were clearly a couple notches down in ability below my starters, I would still work hard to find a way to get them onto the field, onto the court, etc. I’d be rotating them into play with the majority of starters still playing. I would find ways to not compromise the team’s chances of winning, but still making sure everyone truly felt like a part of the team’s fortunes.

I acknowledge there are team sports where getting everyone onto the playing surface each time out isn’t feasible. I also get the tremendous amount of pressure on head coaches at any level…to just win.

Still, I’d like to think even if it sounds naïve or idealistic on the surface, deep down I’d aspire for my teams to always play together…not just practice together.

All Hands On Deck

 

Courtesy: US Navy/Roza Arzola

Ah, it is indeed an age of sequels and reboots, isn’t it? Some are good ideas to revisit. Some…not so good. There are occasions when doing something really, really well the first time around should probably be the last time around.

In my college basketball news feed this AM:

“Gonzaga and Michigan State are now finalizing plans to play a neutral site game on an aircraft carrier in San Diego on Veterans Day.”

Back on Veterans Day 2011, a college basketball game was played aboard the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego between Michigan State and North Carolina. Carolina won 67-55 in front of over 8,000 fans and military personnel, including President Obama. Seeing two national basketball powers play in such a majestic, inspiring setting was very cool. A second court was set up in the hangar bay just in case, but the weather held up its end. Temperatures were in the 60’s and there were calm winds. This game was absolute television eye candy, although it was not great hoops…the teams managed to miss 77 of their combined 123 shots.

It turned out to be the highest-rated November college basketball game on ESPN in 19 years.

College basketball’s next season featured four games on the national television schedule from carrier settings as part of Veterans Day ceremonies. One woman’s game was slated between Ohio State and Notre Dame, with the men’s games to be Ohio State-Marquette, Georgetown-Florida and Syracuse-San Diego State.

The sequels that Veterans Day weekend did not quite live up to the original…

Ohio State-Notre Dame: On the USS Yorktown in Charleston, temperatures were still in the 50’s when the women began their game…but the temperature dropped as soon as the sun did. It was a poorly played game, with both teams combining to miss 71 of 109 shots from the floor. Notre Dame won 57-51.

Ohio State-Marquette: The second game of a scheduled doubleheader aboard the now-chilly Yorktown, it found the teams’ warm-up time occupied by coaches and players staying warm working towels and squeegees to try to get condensation off the court. The game never took flight and was canceled.

Georgetown-Florida: On the USS Bataan in Jacksonville, a badly-played first half concluded with Florida up 27-23. However, similar to the situation in Charleston, condensation got to the court. During halftime, the game was canceled.

Syracuse-San Diego State: On the USS Midway in San Diego, a threat of rain pushed the game out two days. Played during the day (instead of at night as originally scheduled), there was no rain…but it was very windy. It was also a poorly played game, with both teams combining to miss 77 out of 119 shots. Syracuse won 62-49.

Playing basketball outdoors – on an aircraft carrier – is not like playing basketball indoors in an arena. Weather takes center stage away from the players. You are trading great optics for great basketball.

And, you are also compromising player safety.

No amount of television appearance money is worth that.

Back in late February of this past college basketball season, Xavier and Providence played a thrilling, triple-overtime game. Yet, with just under three minutes left in regulation, those in charge were talking about the possibility of having to gather up the players and coaches and bus them to Providence’s practice facility to finish the game due to a leak in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center ceiling.

You can’t play basketball on water. It might be fair to ask athletes to take aim with no background behind the basket, to shoot into the wind, and to even play with a sweatshirt underneath the jersey…but it absolutely isn’t fair to ask athletes to play when there is even the slightest chance of the court not being pristine.

Since that debacle of a weekend, television and college administrators have been successfully staging Veterans Day games – indoors – from various military facilities. They’ve done a great job with them and as you might expect, the quality of play was improved.

I think people should think long and hard about pursuing sequels, especially if the original is so perfect.

I also happen to think people should learn from their mistakes.

Trying Baseball

Major League Baseball has many challenges ahead of it as it tries to stay relevant for young and old alike. While the average age of who calls themselves a baseball fan or viewer hovers just below the 60-year mark, I do know a number of people that age or older who don’t give baseball much time anymore. They are indifferent to the sport. There are also enough survey results to conclude baseball doesn’t exactly strike a chord with younger folks.

Baseball has tried in vain to tinker with its rules, and will some more, in order to stabilize its freefall from once being known as “America’s Pastime.” But alas, I don’t think any of those current or proposed changes will ever make a difference. Its time at the top passed long ago…for a host of reasons which have been discussed in great detail elsewhere.

Of course, I have always felt it might help at least a little bit if the majority of baseball fans felt in Spring Training their rooting interest had at least some chance to make the playoffs, let alone win a World Series.

Try: Verb – make an attempt or effort to do something. Noun – an effort to accomplish something; an attempt.

Six MLB franchises are on pace to lose 100 or more games. According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, that number would be the highest ever since the league expanded to 30 clubs back in 1998. The previous high for a season was four teams: 2002…and  as you might expect, the two most recent full seasons in 2019 and 2021.

Quite frankly, many fans know their baseball season is over before it has started, unless they care only about the journey and not the destination. Some franchises are flat-out mismanaged; some are solely focused on profitability instead of perfection.

We’re just at the end of June, and in the National League there are basically eight teams competing for six spots…and it’s six only because MLB expanded its postseason by two teams to try and keep more owners interested in actually trying to get there.

Over the weekend, the Phillies’ Bryce Harper took a 97-mph fastball to his left thumb, and the hopes for the hometown team have taken an equally forceful hit.

But, we in the Philadelphia region are lucky because ownership has been aggressively trying to produce winning baseball in recent seasons.

For other fans, no try…just means another trying season.

Horrible Bosses

The worst boss I ever had…was also the best.

This subject came to mind when the hometown Philadelphia Flyers named John Tortorella as their new Head Coach earlier today.

Tortorella has significant National Hockey League experience in such a role, having carved out 673 wins at four different stops. He has won NHL coach-of-the-year twice, and led the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Stanley Cup in the 2003-04 campaign.

He is equally known for his in-your-face, confrontational, critical relationships with management, players, and the media. His “blow-up” history is easily reviewed courtesy of the Internet.

And today, he also made me reflect about a former boss of mine…who for purposes of this post we’ll call “John 2.0.”

John 2.0 was only my boss for about a year. The company I was working for at the time had some operational challenges which made it imperative they consolidate locations, and our location was closed just about a year after I started there. This event was impossible to predict, quite unforeseen, and losing this position frustrated me because I truly enjoyed my time there.

John 2.0 contributed to my liking the work environment at that organization…to some extent…although my full enjoyment probably didn’t come until I was several years removed from that role.

I say to some extent because John 2.0 absolutely demanded his workers work hard, and work smart. If you made an error he’d call you out on it…sometimes not in the most flattering way. But…he always verbalized his unhappiness behind a closed door. He always made sure anyone he had to have a word with (which was always more than one word…) was done off the floor…and behind a door.

I appreciated that because I had prior supervisors who didn’t have that filter, who would criticize and call you out for a mistake in front of others. John 2.0 was a demanding leader who expected his reports to do their job well, and he’d let you know when you did not. Oh, you knew it.

Yet, the reason why John 2.0 was also the best boss I’ve ever had is because when other departments in the organization tried to paint any of our group in a bad light, or tried to dump projects and work upon us instead of taking ownership themselves, or if another supervisor made unflattering comments to us directly and he learned of it…he couldn’t have been a more vociferous supporter of his section…and its workers.

He would push back, and push hard when he felt our group was being undermined, overtasked…you name it. If we did something in error, he’d work it out with us directly, but if another department head spoke to us about any issue and he found out, he’d go to that person and make sure they knew the next time they had a problem with someone in our unit to come to him to discuss in private. He supported us no matter what.

I had prior experience with bosses who were the exact opposite, and it was refreshing to know this one had all of our backs when it came to interaction with others in the organization. Looking back on it now, John 2.0 did get the very best out of us via his aggressive management style.

It was funny…others in the organization would come up and ask how I could possibly like working for him. In those moments, I would acknowledge it was not for everyone but there was good with the not-so-good. After all, other supervisors and their reports didn’t see this individual as we did. They only saw one component, one side of John 2.0.

John Tortorella is certainly not John 2.0. The two appear to be quite similar in demanding excellence, but the Flyers head man is also known for calling out his players in public, ripping into the media for trying to do their jobs, etc.

Yet, for a franchise that has not won the Cup since the 1974-75 season, the selection of this individual to run the team at this particular moment in time may just be a winning move. If he can motivate (and bring in) enough players to buy into his playing style – and handle his management style – maybe this is exactly what this organization needs right now.

I admittedly would like our new hockey hire to be a bit more like John 2.0. I know at times I am not going to be thrilled with Tortorella’s public personality. However, in my experience John 2.0 was a rare breed, a one-of-a-kind. If Tortorella wills the Flyers to achieve excellence as much as John 2.0 did, this franchise might finally end this l-o-n-g dry spell and win another Stanley Cup.

Wiffle Reminiscence

This week, in many school districts in and around where I live, the last day of class for the 2021-22 school year is taking place.

The very, very best days I ever spent in all my elementary, junior, and senior high school years was always the last day of each school year.

I hated school. I loved summers. (I love winters now, but I digress…)

In my youth, there was no Internet. Kids actually went outside and did stuff. It was all we knew. Parents sent us outside. Go. Get out. Play!

For me, there were a couple of summers growing up where the focus was solely upon Wiffle Ball…pretending to be a big-league baseball star…on a ball field perfectly suited for such a summertime occupation.

And…it had a swimming pool.

For two summers, my friend Jebby and I role-played major league baseball. (Jebby’s given name was Joseph, but I don’t recall ever knowing the genesis of the name Jebby…) His favorite team was the Pittsburgh Pirates. Mine was the Oakland Athletics. Of course, we followed our hometown Phillies…but they lost way, way more than they won back then, so it was easy for a couple of young kids’ attention spans to pivot towards teams having more success playing ball.

Once school let out these two years in question, we “helped” our parents plan our transportation routes so we could get together at our chosen ballpark to play live games in our Wiffle Ball League (WBL). I use the word live because in our WBL, we also had contingency plans for another way to play games…via a deck of playing cards. As we couldn’t meet in-person every day at our League’s home field (family obligations), and because weather was not always our friend, we designed rules for a card game so the WBL could be played daily.

The first order of summertime business was to determine which two teams we would have in our League besides the afore-mentioned Pirates and A’s. We each had to select another team to represent. (It didn’t matter because, deep-down, we both knew it was inevitable any WBL World Series would likely feature Pittsburgh and Oakland…)

Now, I wouldn’t go so far to say when we weren’t playing face-to-face these off-site, remote card games were “fixed” in any way to give the Pirates and A’s built-in advantages against the other two teams…but it was amazing how well our favorite teams did in those circumstances. We built into the rules “strategy” calls to make depending on certain game scenarios, and perhaps we were slightly more aggressive in making potential, strategic run-scoring decisions for when both Pittsburgh and Oakland were at bat.

(OK, maybe “the fix” was in…)

However, the best part of the WBL was when our transportation schedules were coordinated so we could both be driven to my mother’s work place…a work place that featured our Field Of Dreams.

And…a swimming pool.

My mother worked for a guy who was well-off financially, owning a residence which was at least eight acres in size. He had two structures on the property. One was his actual home, which to lower middle-class kids like us seemingly contained a thousand rooms…although in reality I suspect the number of rooms was much lower.

The other, much smaller building on his property served as an office for himself and his staff of three – one of which was my Mom. The “catch” was both he and the other two employees had residences in other states – they didn’t use this office regularly – so most summer days it was just Mom, Jebby and I spending the day there.

Shortly after 9 AM, the WBL games we had scheduled to be played that day commenced. Again, it was amazing how often the schedule for our head-to-head Wiffle Ball games featured the Pirates and A’s. They were often scheduled to play at the very least a doubleheader – if not a three or even four-game series – which was often a crucial one because these teams somehow always seemed to have permanent residence at the top of our four-team standings.

The office structure and the swimming pool were separated by an eight-foot high, wooden fence. At one end of the fence, it was bordered by a number of pine trees. At the other end, the fence was bordered by the home residence. Between the fence and the swimming pool, there was a wide section of immaculate yard – always meticulously groomed as the landscapers must have cut the grass on weekends – which served as our official Wiffle Ball field.

The designated left field foul line/pole consisted of one of the pine trees. The right field “foul” pole area was deemed as anything that hit the home. The swimming pool was just a short walk from home plate (a rock borrowed from an undeveloped property next-door; rocks also served as our bases). Once the WBL schedule was concluded each of these days, the rest of the day (until Mom got done work) was gloriously spent poolside, listening to the songs-of-the day on a radio, working on our tans.

It was truly amazing Jebby and I stayed close friends throughout our Wiffle Ball careers, because the batter in our League always got to call balls and strikes, as well as determine whether a ball was hit fair or foul. Now, our strike zones were reasonably consistent. We often swung at the first thing we saw during each at-bat anyway. However, there were situations where we differed on fair vs. foul, especially down the left field line.

But alas, we didn’t have umpires…or replay.

Hold that thought.

Now that I think of it, that swimming pool not only allowed us to cool off between or after games, but also to cool off from vigorously debating calls. For a couple of kids who lived in row homes, WBL days were the best part of those two summers. On a giant property all to ourselves, in the sun, playing what was then the national pastime, and being able to cool off in that pool whenever you wanted.

Mom was good enough to make sure we were fed at lunch time. (For the uninitiated, you can burn a lot of calories playing multiple, highly-contested Wiffle Ball games…)

The fence was a great fixture and feature of our field. Aside from the occasional home run sailing (just) over the top, we learned over time to deftly play caroms off the fence and keep each other from advancing to an extra base.

As I recall, Jebby’s Pirates won the WBL World Series in our inaugural season. The second summer, it was my Athletics who prevailed, winning in their last World Series at-bat. The clinching hit for Oakland was a screaming, towering shot I struck which hit the appointed foul pole tree…or not.

Jebby expressed his displeasure immediately and loudly about my calling it a home run. He felt it actually hit another one of the trees, which would make it nothing more than a foul ball, and keeping his Pirates’ hopes alive for back-to-back titles. Of course, in these instances we always defaulted to the real-life, major league rulebook…

“Batted balls that directly strike either foul pole on the fly, or leave the park on a fly to the right of the left-field foul pole and to the left of the right-field foul pole are considered home runs.”

With no umpires or replay technology in my mother’s employer’s back yard, as the batter at that moment in time…my call stood.

A’s win.

It would be the last game in the short, yet memorable existence, of the WBL.

For a couple of summers thereafter, Jebby and I competed with and against each other in real-life baseball. He went on to be a three-sport star in high school and a solid junior college football player. I went on to be a one-sport non-star in high school, and an all-star intramural basketball player at a couple of different colleges.

I don’t know where Jebby is today. Yet, each year when the school year ends and summertime officially gets underway for kids, I sometimes think about those couple of Wiffle Ball summers and smile.

And Jebby, if by some chance you are reading this…that ball was fair.