Saturday, May 19, 2012

Like it or not, Barry Zito is making strides

Barry Zito.
The name alone evokes a plethora of emotions for baseballfans on both sides of the San Francisco Bay. If there is a more polarizing figure in Bay Area sports recently (notalso named Barry), they are certainly slipping my mind now.  He seems indifferent.  He’s been inconsistent.  At times, the man has been completelyintolerable.  And yet I have to admit – I’vebecome one of Zito’s biggest fans.
I definitely won’t deny the selfishness behind my rootinginterest.  Just over three months ago Iventured out on the flimsiest of limbs to suggest that Zitohad a comeback left in him, a hypothesis that was met by more snickeringthan a stuttering student in a 4th grade grammar class. 
Was my prediction bold? Definitely.  Was it probable?  No. Wasit written to score pageviews?  CERTAINLY not.
And yet, in the way that I detailed the possible comeback,it seems to be coming to fruition. Perhaps that’s why every time Zito takes the mound, I watch with atwinkle in my eye.  For starters, thedead space where KNBR-Zito-rippers used to exist has been pleasant (when it’snot being replaced by the “middle infielders who can’t hit” banter, that is).  Secondly, I want to be right when I make aproclamation; after all, I have to make up for botchingmy predictions on the 49ers and Randy Moss. And obviously, watching a goat turn into a hometown hero of sorts isalways a fun exercise.
Let’s be clear
My piece was more of a shot at the sensitive nature of BayArea sports fans than it was a vote of confidence in Zito.  I watched with pleasure while Jim Harbaughtransformed Alex from a beaten puppy dog to somehow-someway winner.  Alex didn’t transform into Drew Brees, but hecertainly won over the hearts of 49ers fans in a hurry.
They say that winning cures all; it seems to mask a lottoo.  Forget the fact that Alex Smithwasn’t going “Bombs over Baghdad” every Sunday – he was winning games withmodest statistics all season long.  Thekey word is winning – that’s all it took to get the fans on his side.  He didn’t shock the world with gaudy numbers,but he got the job done.
The same can be said for Zito.  He’s far from making a case for a Cy YoungAward or an All Star bid, but in the hearts and minds of Giants fans, he’s madea hell of a comeback.  Zito started inonly 9 games in 2011 (although he pitched in 13), and through 8 starts thisseason he has shown notable improvement:


Okay, so we all know how meaningless W/L records are, butsome of the other statistical differences are hard to ignore.  Zito boasts an ERA almost 2 runs lower thanlast season and an ERA+ that is up 56 points. Nearly every aspect of Zito’s game has improved except walks, asdocumented by his BB/9 and SO/BB ratio. Like I said, not exactly Cy Young material, but still pretty good stuff.
DoesTom House have something to do with this? Perhaps.  There definitely seemsto be a change in Zito’s game, both physically and mentally.  How contrasted has Zito'sfiery 2012 attitude been to the Zito of years past.  How often have we seen him stare off intospace after a gaggle of runs got scored on his watch?  Maybe Zito isn’t as indifferent about his on-fieldperformance as we once thought.
If you’re still hanging onto the financial and contractualmisgivings you are a master grudge-holder. He’s getting paid too much money – it’s time to move on.  The most important thing to understand now isthat the bar has been lowered, and Zito seems to be hurdling it.  As the 2012 season wears on, I’ll certainlybe watching Barry Zito with vested interest.  After all, I’m a selfish guy, and myreputation depends on it.  

Monday, May 14, 2012

ESPN power rankings... with a twist

It's human nature to rank things.  We love to categorize, list, and order whatever it is that’s put in front of us.  It helps keep us sane in a world of constant disorder, and when all else fails it gives us a meaningless exercise when there's nothing better to do.

Just ask Mel Kiper, who has made a career out of it.  He has been ranking college players that are getting ready for their NFL careers since I was in diapers.  During the draft off-season, Kiper has a radio show that KNBR syndicates on Saturday mornings in which he always seems to be teasing his weekly "top five lists." "Coming up, my top five taco shops in the greater New York area!" Man, I can't wait until I have Saturdays off.

Just prior to the NFL Draft, ESPN released their "Off-season power rankings".  They placed the 49ers 3rd, I believe, behind the New York Giants and Patriots.  Predictable, but my guess is that's not what ESPN wanted.

Let's take a look at the ESPN Power Rankings from a different angle.  Rather than judging teams based on talent or win-loss record, let's judge them based on ESPN's interest in them.  By the time I'm finished, I'll have sufficiently killed any chance of working for the mothership, but oh well.  Who really wants to live in Connecticut anyway?

1.  The New York Jets - No real explanation necessary here.  We have a New York team, head-manned by a coach with an affinity for talking - A LOT.  They traded for Tim Tebow.  They're not all that good at football, so even when there's no controversy to speak of, we can always discuss their "struggles." They signed Tim Tebow this year.  They have a lot of players that love to put their feet in their mouths like Bart Scott.  Oh yeah, did we mention Tim Tebow?

2.  The New York Giants - Here's another New York team that loves to talk.  They won a Super Bowl, their quarterback's last name is Manning AND they're pretty good at football.  If THEY signed Tim Tebow, the list would start and end with them.

3. The Denver Broncos - The ghost of Tebow past resides in the Mile High City, which means we would have left them high on our list because of the whole "how the Broncos are doing without Tebow Time" angle anyway.  Luckily for Colorado sports fans, they pulled off signing Peyton Manning, so the Broncos will be good for endless hours of debate come football season.  We pray for Peyton's neck on a daily basis.

4. The New England Patriots - We would love this team a lot more if Bill Belichick would talk a little more.  We're also hoping Tom Brady gets himself into some kind of trouble - a DUI, a divorce, whatever.  After all, being controversial is better for ratings than being good at sports is.

5. The Indianapolis Colts - The ghost of Peyton past lives here, but Andrew Luck should provide us plenty to talk about for Indianapolis this year.  If he's good, we'll slobber on him.  If he sucks, we'll point and laugh.  Perfect.

6. The Dallas Cowboys - Even without Tony Romo and all of his mediocre tendencies, this team would still be high on our list.  They are "America's team," so everybody loves them... Right?

7. The Philadelphia Eagles - Even though Vince Young is gone, the Eagles are still the number one dream team in our hearts.

8. The Green Bay Packers - The whole "small market" aspect of the cheese heads makes us want to ignore them, but their pesky knack for winning overrides that.  Discount Double Check!

9. The Detroit Lions - We love Ndamukong Suh's nasty attitude.  We also love nicknames like Megatron.  Jim Schwartz is kind of douchy, so we like that too.

10. The Washington Redskins - We're hoping Robert Griffin III sucks so we can keep our streak of ridiculing the Redskins alive and well.

11. The New Orleans Saints - If it wasn't for this team, we wouldn't have had much NFL to talk about this offseason.  Keeping the "bountygate" storyline on life support is our number one priority here at ESPN.

12. The Chicago Bears - Brandon Marshall is nuts.  Jay Cutler throws interceptions. Devin Hester will probably take a few to the house.  Get your popcorn ready, folks!

13. The Pittsburgh Steelers - Troy Polamalu's hair!  Terrible Towels!  Ben Roethlisberger's wacky bar bathroom antics!  Blue collar!  Lunch pail football!

14. The Carolina Panthers – Cam Newton throws for 500 yards per game and still loses.  But who cares, because offense is more important than winning.

15. The San Francisco 49ers - Like we said, offense is more important than winning.

16. The Baltimore Ravens - They are the 49ers of the east coast, so we considered switching spots here.  In the end, Jim Harbaugh's handshake situation gave the 49ers the edge.

That's it.  
Wait, there's more?  Damn it!

17. The Houston Texans - Matt Schaub to Andre Johnson, and Arian Foster can run fast.  Enough said.

18. The San Diego Chargers - We're still waiting for Philip Rivers to completely lose it before we really start covering this team.

19. The Cincinnati Bengals - They had a breakout season last year, but they can’t seem to breakout of their legal issues. Give me a break - we're ESPN, not TruTV.

20. The Oakland Raiders - Their new coach is Dennis Allen?  Zzzzzz...

21. The Atlanta Falcons - Dear Falcons regular season performances,

We don't believe you.

Sincerely, ESPN

22. The Miami Dolphins - The way Stephen Ross swings and misses, we're going to have to send Buster Olney to cover the Dolphins pretty soon.

23. The Kansas City Chiefs - We're still pissed that they ended the Packers' perfect season last year.

24. The Seattle Seahawks - We won't pay attention to them until we have to sell you reasons to watch those Monday Night Football games that we scheduled for them late in the season.

25. The St. Louis Rams - We're praying for Sam Bradford's ankle.

26. The Buffalo Bills - We're praying for Ryan Fitzpatrick's beard. We're also praying that Mario Williams injures Mark Sanchez, and doesn't injure Tom Brady.

27. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.

28. The Arizona Cardinals - If it's Kevin Kolb, sure, why not?  If it's John Skelton, forget it.

29. The Tennessee Titans - It was fun pretending that Peyton would go to Tennessee, wasn't it?

30. The Minnesota Vikings - Adrian Peterson may crack SportCenter’s top ten plays, but that's about it.

31. The Cleveland Browns - Let's play "who is younger than your rookie quarterback"!

32. The Jacksonville Jaguars - There's a team called the Jaguars?  Where the hell is Jacksonville anyway?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Blogging vs. beat writing: The Grant Cohn story

For many of you who have been faithfully reading my blog since its inception, the roots of its title are no mystery.  I was given the nickname “Ruthless McLorg” some time ago, mainly because I have a knack for letting someone have it, regardless of their feelings or the consequences.

Up until now, I haven’t felt much of a need to be that brutal.  In many respects, Ruthless Sports is a misnomer.  If you’re a newer follower of mine, you were probably wondering where the name even came from.  Aside from the occasional zing that I’ll throw out on Twitter, I’m not exactly roasting people on a daily basis.  I’m not trying to make enemies, after all.

I started up Ruthless because I love sports.  I have lots of thoughts on them, and a large portion of my life revolves around them.  I decided some time ago that I wanted a rich life – one where I eventually get paid to do something that I love.  Not to toot my own horn here, but writing comes pretty naturally for me.  My passion for sports and my ability to write seem to be a perfect marriage.  While I trudge through the school system in an attempt to earn that piece of paper that hopefully lands me a job, I might as well get a head start on writing sports.  I don’t make money for writing on Ruthless. Bay Area Sports Guy isn’t paying me either.  I do this stuff because I love it.

I have great respect for the beat writers around the Bay Area.  We have a collection of guys who absolutely know their stuff, do their homework, and excel at their positions.  Andrew Baggarly, Hank Schulman, Matt Barrows, Eric Branch – these are just a few of the many beat writers whose work I read on a regular basis.  They are embedded in the teams that they cover.  They report the facts as they come and they offer their opinions when necessary.  Keep up the good work boys.

That’s more than I can say for Grant Cohn. 

I know, I know – this isn’t the first time that I’ve ripped the guy and I’m certainly not the first person to pick him apart.  It would be pretty easy to attack the “riding his father’s coattails” angle, but when it comes to Grant, that’s not really what offends me.  He is in an extremely desirable position, so for me to say that jealousy didn’t play a role in my resentment would be an outright lie.  More important than all that is the amount of effort that goes into the columns that I read. (Full disclosure:  I read them with the same interest that a driver would have rubbernecking a three car pile-up on 101 North.)

What is an article or a blog without facts?  Simply put, it’s an opinion.  Opinions not based in fact can sometimes be disguised when they are well written (see: Lowell Cohn), but when neither facts nor eloquent writing is present, it’s hard not to gawk. 

Take this article on the 49ers first round draft pick, AJ Jenkins, for example:

“I give the Niners an F for their A.J. Jenkins pick at No. 30 in the first round, and here’s why.

Whoa, whoa!  Stop right there.  Didn’t we learn early on (perhaps freshman year of high school) not to say “and here’s why” in our writing?  Maybe he missed that class.

“They will not win the Super Bowl this season unless they improve [third down conversions and red zone]. So, they needed to spend a first round pick on a player who would help the cause.
“So, what did they do? They drafted a 6-0, 190 lb. slot receiver who will be the fourth-string wideout and backup punt returner this season, most likely. In other words, he’ll replace Kyle Williams.

Lots of the word “so,” misplaced commas and opinions here.  The facts are coming, right?

“The Niners are sending a message, and it’s this: “We’re the best team in the NFL even if we’re the worst on third down. We were the best team last year, too. If it weren’t for Kyle Williams fumbles, we’d be champions. Now that we’ve replaced him, the Super Bowl is ours.”
They’re wrong. You have to be respectable on third down to win playoff games, and the Niners will not be respectable on third down this season because Michael Crabtree is still their possession receiver and Alex Smith is still their quarterback.”
Fin, sans evidence.  I especially loved the ending, where he took offhand shots and Crabtree and Smith without any facts to back up his points.
Let’s not beat the dead horse too hard, and instead move on to the column he wrote the next day, shortly after the 49ers’ second round selection.
“The Niners just drafted Oregon running back LaMichael James with their second round pick. I love the selection. I give it an A, and here’s why.
There’s that “here’s why” again.  And if I’m not mistaken, AP Style frowns upon referring to a team in a short form name, especially the first time they are mentioned.  I try not to refer to them as “the Niners” in any of my writing.  “49ers” isn’t all that hard to type.
“James could end up one of the best players in this draft. He was a great college running back, and he’ll be a better pro than Kendall Hunter.
A stellar writer with a crystal ball!  Still no facts, though.
“They wanted to make sure they had not one but two quality backups at punt returner, and they’re giving Alex Smith not one but two fast third down checkdown options – something he needs.

So with one pick, the 49ers magically fixed their third down issues; issues that were unbelievably glaring 24 hours ago!  Objectivity is the word of the day, and Cohn seems to lack it.  He hated AJ Jenkins, and ripped the 49ers as a result.  Conversely he loved LaMichael James and suddenly changed his tune.  But no college statistics?  No evidence for his “points?”  Beat writing at its finest.
About beat writing…
What separates a beat writer from your average blogger?  Both have intimate knowledge of the sport that they cover.  Both have a keyboard and internet access.  Both have some basic understanding of journalistic style.
The primary difference is access.  This brings me to Grant’s latest attention-garnering article on Randy Moss at the 49ers’ voluntary work outs.
Aside from the poor syntax and lackluster writing style that we’ve all become used to (starting off a paragraph with the word “but” and writing something that bordered on being a run on sentence in the second paragraph), this piece wasn’t all that bad.  He had access to practice and he gave fans information on it – stuff that we normally wouldn’t see.  We heard about who was stretching with who, who was there and who wasn’t, etc.  Good stuff.
Then he went on to write what could only be compared to a gossip column in a high school newspaper.  He portrayed Randy Moss as the new cool guy, while he painted the rest of the 49ers as swooning school girls desperate for his approval.  He said that quarterback Josh Johnson “hovered” around Moss and “trail[ed] the great wide receiver like a spaniel… trying to make a good first impression.”  How do you know that was Johnson’s intention?  Did he tell you that?
Crabtree and Ted Ginn (players that he referred to as “dudes”) apparently “shuffled over to Moss like star-struck kids.”  That’s not all – apparently Ginn is a style biter!
“Ginn even dressed like Moss – red shorts and black tights. Ginn was blatantly copying Moss’ style. Last year, Ginn had his own style. He always practiced in white tights which he pulled over the heels of the cleats. Lots of Niners coppied him – Crabtree, Kyle Williams and Frank Gore, to name a few. Today, Ginn was the copycat.
“Coppied,” huh? 
Then Grant described a little bit of the practice, which was full of good information.  Unfortunately, these good vibes didn’t last long, because he couldn’t keep this tidbit inside of his own head when detailing a Moss catch in the end zone:
“Anthony Davis threw his hands up in the air and squealed like a child.
Oops.  I think we all know where this trainwreck is headed.
By now I think I’ve made my point.  If the senior editor of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat is wondering why his newspaper’s readership is declining while sites like Bay Area Sports Guy and Niners Nation are getting flooded with traffic, he should look no further than the material that he is publishing.  As sports fans, we want opinions.  We want facts.  But more importantly, we want to read something with effort and meaning behind it. All over the country, journalism students are working hard to achieve access to the places that Cohn can go.  This is what remains baffling to me.  This is what drives me to be a better writer.
 Because a press pass should be something earned – it isn’t just a (birth)right.