Friday, October 16, 2015

Four 62's & One 50

I’ve written about this before but given the fervor around game #5 of the recent American League Division Series between Toronto and Texas and the 7th inning of that game in particular, I think a reexamination of those pesky w’s & l’s is in order. If you are truly a recreational participant who doesn’t give a “flying fidoo” (to use a favourite term of the host of the very popular radio programme “Prime Time Sports”, Bob McCown) about win’s and losses, find something else to do, this doesn’t apply.

For the 99.9999 % of you who, regardless of your activity of choice, keep score, this IS for you. I’ll begin with a question, the key question. Just how much do you care about the final score of the sport you love to play, be it individual or team oriented? I completely understand and accept that even though score is kept, for some, it has very little relevance, while for others, it can mean the world. I get that!

But let’s put ourselves somewhere in the middle of this conundrum. The score of the game does have some import. When we win, there’s a measure of satisfaction and when we lose, it’s not the most pleasant feeling in the world. I’m sensing that most of you are in this category. I know I am. So let’s have a look at winning & losing and how to deal with these two impostors (with apologies to Rudyard Kipling).

To do this, I will reprise my “baseball analogy” for those who have not been exposed to it and it has great relevance on this Oct. 15 because yesterday, at The Rogers Centre, history was made on a variety of levels as one team moved on and the other is on its way home.

The Baseball Analogy

At the beginning of the baseball season, a season that’s truly a marathon of 162 games, 81 at home and 81 on the road, I can meet with the best team in major league baseball and make the claim that despite its best efforts, high degree of skill, experience and talent, it’s going to lose a minimum of 50 games. If I can say that to the very best team in MLB then I can say that to every team.

On the other hand, I can meet with the worst team in MLB prior the start of that 162 game season and announce to the team that despite its short comings, for sure it will win a minimum of 50 games. If I can say that to the worst team in baseball it would hold that I could say that to all the teams in both major leagues.

So, of the 162 games, 100 of them, for all intents and purposes, are pre-determined. Each team has no idea which of the 50 it’s about to experience as it begins a game, but when the game is over, each team will know if it was a 50, 50 or 62!

It might have been a game in which clearly and objectively it was the better team but for some twist of fate, their opponent snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

Fortunately, those games are balanced off by an equal number in which the team walks of the field, court, ice etc., knowing full well it has just been handed a win, again due to some unfortunate circumstance befalling its opponent who clearly should have won the game. It happens to everyone. It’s the nature of sport.

Thankfully there will be games after which the team knows, that its opponent just played better and were deserving of the w and others where it knew it had played well, better than its opponent and knew the w on its side of the ledger was legitimately earned.

Point to be made is this. When the game ends, determine if the outcome was one of the 50’s or a 62. If it was one of the 50’s, don’t dwell too much on it. In other words, don’t read too much into it. If was one of the 62 and you won the game, know why you won. What did you do better than your opponent and how did that performance by the team compare to your standard of performance? If you lost the game, spend time identifying your short comings but most importantly, as I’ve stated on many occasions, don’t lose the lesson!

In the ALDS involving Toronto & Texas, there were five games played. Four of them were in the 62 category, not my opinion but that of the manager of the losing team in all four games. Manager John Gibbons of the Toronto Blue Jays flat out stated that in the two home games that kicked off the five game series, Texas played better! Jeff Bannister of the Texas Rangers when with the series victory one win away at home, stated much the same after two Blue Jay road wins.

With the ALDS on the line, the series’ final game took place at The Rogers Centre. There was a measure of concern for Blue Jay fans when those Rangers of Arlington Texas, jumped out to an early 2-0 lead. It looked too much like the start of those home losses in games #1 & #2. But the Jays tied the score leading to what will go down in Blue Jay history as the most note worthy inning in the team’s history, at least to this point.

For those Canadians having their wisdom teeth pulled or where otherwise occupied, there’s what happened. In the top of the inning, the Rangers managed to get a runner to third base. Russell Martin, the BJ’s native Canadian catcher, in attempting to return the ball to the pitcher, inadvertently struck the bat of the Ranger hitter, who was in the batter’s box, extending his batting arm, preparing for the next pitch. He in no way attempted to interfere with catcher Martin’s return throw to his battery mate. But the ball deflected off the bat and before it could be retrieved the Ranger base runner sprinted home with the go ahead run and given the inning and the low score, potentially with the series winning run. Interestingly enough, the first reaction of the home plate umpire was to wave his arms indicating a dead ball. Although after a meeting with his five colleagues, he realized that the rule to be applied allowed the run to be scored, much to the chagrin of the almost 50 000 spectators, some of whom embarrassed themselves by throwing debris toward the field. That rule, correctly applied, is a bad rule. The umpire’s first instinct said it all, the ball should be “dead”, no runners to advance but that’s for another time.

As the bottom of the same inning commenced, a comedy of errors on the part of the Rangers allowed the tying run to cross the plate. With two on base, the team’s long time spiritual leader and home run hitter, Jose Bautista, launched a rocket not just toward the third deck in left field, it almost relocated the third deck. It made the score 6-3 and despite a mini uprising by the Rangers in the late stages of the game, the Blue Jays secured the ALDS title by that 6-3 score.

In my view the BJ’s were outplayed. Not by much, but by enough that the Rangers should be headed to Kansas City on Friday to begin the American League Championship Series and a possible berth in the World Series, not the Blue Jays. The chances of a team committing  three back-to-back errors in the same inning in MLB is akin to every member of that team winning a power ball lottery.

It’s been said that “luck is where preparation meets opportunity”. There’s no question in my mind that the Blue Jays were lucky but Jose Bautista made the most of his opportunity and the BJ relief pitchers closed the door. The key point here is chronology. Without the incredible string of uncharacteristic “unforced” errors*, Bautista’s opportunity would likely have never materialized. But it did! Way to go Jose!!!!

So ends the 2015 ALCS between the Blue Jays of Toronto and the Rangers of Arlington, Texas. It was a great series, four 62’s and a 50!

* Of those 3 back-to-back Texas errors, one was influenced by Russell Martin as he made his way to 2nd base. He knew the throw was coming from 1st base and the replay showed he altered his path just enough to make the throw more difficult!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Packers or Patriots?

I grew up an NFL fan in general and my "team" was the Green Bay Packers and it still is even though living where I do, only a few hours from Seattle, I do have a leaning toward those neon green and blue Seahawks.

I'm well aware that professional sports teams are really collections of independent business people who just happen to be under contract to the same employer. I know that's a pretty dispassionate way to look at one's "home team" but I do try to always remember that as players get traded and in the case of "free agency", pack up and play for someone else's "home team", they're really playing for themselves.

But when I DO put on my fan hat, I reminded that the word "fan" is an abbreviation for the word "fanatic" and when one's psyche is in that realm, well, the light in which one sees his/her home team is quite different (see current "Blue Jay" fan). It's in that light that I write this first section of today's blog.

I liked Green Bay as a teenager because, long before Coach Vince Lombardi became the legend he is, I liked his coaching philosophy and style. I liked the fact that Green Bay, WI was, and still is, the smallest geographic entity by far to have an NFL franchise.

I have a pennant that I purchased at Lambeau Field, the home of the Green Bay Packers that identified the team's nickname as emblematic of the Green Bay Packing Co., a sort of local forerunner to UPS and Fedex. It's worth noting that in this age of stadia identified by large corporations (i.e. The Rogers Centre, Citi-Bank Field, The United Centre etc.), it's still Lambeau Field (named after long time coach, Curly Lambeau). The franchise is owned by the City of Green Bay, WI not some billionaire industrialist or business person who owns a sports franchise as either just another business opportunity or to fulfill a need to be close to world class athletes with the money to do so.

The people of Green Bay, WI really are fanatic about their team! If you are a resident of Green Bay, and wish to do so, and most do, your name can be placed into a lottery for tickets to a Green Bay Packers home game. You see, the top two rows at Lambeau Field are set aside for those lucky Green Bay residents whose names are drawn for those tickets. That's a lot of seats if you know Lambeau Field. I'm told that if your name is in that ticket lottery, the likelihood of getting tickets is quite good!

Fans come into Green Bay, WI on "game day" from all over the state. Three times the seating capacity of the stadium arrive in Green Bay, filling parking lots all over the city, firing up their portable generators and bar-b-q's for "tailgate parties" to watch the game on TV and to feel part of the whole Green Bay Packers atmosphere. I've been in Green Bay on game day. I've seen it up close and personal. It's hard to describe but the aroma of those famous "brats" fills the air to say nothing of the well known adult beverage to wash them down!

A group of national coaches from the Canadian Curling Association conducted a high performance camp in Green Bay on the weekend of a Packers home game. I happened to arrive at the Green Bay Airport on the last flight of the day. As usual, I waited to be the last person off the plane and by the time I arrived at customs (long before there was "homeland security"), I was alone with the only customs agent on duty. As luck would have it, the well known quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, Brett Favre, had just announced his retirement (the first time). Needless to say, the entire city of Green Bay was abuzz with this news. In essence, a sense of panic had engulfed the city. The aforementioned customs agent looked friendly enough so I thought I'd use Favre's retirement announcement to have some fun with him. When he asked about the nature of my business in Green Bay, I leaned toward him and in my best 007 voice said, "Well I guess I have to tell you the truth. I'm a retired quarterback in the Canadian Football League. Brett Favre's been traded to a CFL team for me and cash." Without missing a beat, he paused, looked me over and in a vary matter-of-fact voice said, "I hope it was a lot of cash!" We both laughed, although me not so much!

On the field, the Green Bay Packers were a machine! There were no surprises when you played the Packers. Every opponent knew exactly what the offensive and defensives schemes and alignments were going to be. It was common knowledge around the league at the time of Coach Lombardi that the Green Bay Packers' "playbook" was the thinnest in the league. It was not complicated! The Packers challenged you to stop them. There was no trickery! They just did what every else did but did it so well, they were unbeatable. It was not lost on me and many NFL fans that it didn't hurt to have players like QB Bart Starr, running back Paul Hornung and offensive linemen like Fuzzy Thurston.

Although the Green Bay Packers of today are not a carbon copy of the Packers I knew those many years ago, the legacy of those teams of the 1960's and 70's is still alive on the shore of Lake Michigan. The Packers of 2015 will not dazzle you with fancy plays. They have at the controls, arguably one of the best, if not the best player in the league in the person of Aaron Rodgers, last year's MVP. Like their predecessors, they just go what they do very well. Had it not been for the most unfortunate of circumstances in the late stages of last year's NFC championship game versus those aforementioned Seahawks of Seattle, the gold and green clad squad from Green Bay, WI would have been the opponent of the New England Patriots in last year's Super Bowl.

Which brings me to the other side of the title coin, Robert Kraft's New England Patriots and notably their quarterback, Tom Brady and Coach Bill Belichick. I very much respect this franchise. It's hard not to! Their record speaks for itself although with some of the shenanigans attributed to Coach Belichick of late, my respect for him and his win-at-all-costs philosophy does taint his image in my view (save the comments please if you disagree). But what separates the Patriots is their style.

Unlike the Packers, the Patriots go about their business on the field by using tactics that most teams do not employ. It's hard to prepare to play against the New England Patriots quite simply because you're not sure what they're going to do and how they're going to do it. Make no mistake, it's really difficult to play like the Patriots. The offensive and defensive plays and schemes change on a regular basis. You have to have great coaches and talented, smart players to make it work, and that's what they have. Coach Belichick's assistant coaches are empowered to do what they do and do it well, with no interference from him during a game. Everyone just does his job according to the game plan established for that contest, which might be very different for their next opponent.

Your curling team needs to make a decision. Are you going to play like the Green Bay Packers or like the New England Patriots? Are you going to employ the tactics that virtually every other team in your competitive environment uses, stating to all that you're going to just be better than everyone else or are you going to be more like the New England Patriots and keep your opponents guessing as just how you're going to go about your business? There's no value judgment here! One way will be better for your team but I feel strongly that not enough teams consider the option. It's so easy to just follow the herd and do things the way everyone else does!

Let's begin with your team alignment. If you, by default, aligned your team in the traditional lead, second. third/mate, skip format, there may be absolutely nothing wrong with that. But, was that "division of labour" the result of a thorough examination of the skills that each member of the team brings to the table or did you set your team in that configuration because, well, that's what most everyone else does so if it's good enough for the vast majority of teams, it must be good enough for you?

My beloved Green Bay Packers of yesteryear did things the way every other team did them, but as mentioned above, they did those things so much better, there was really no need to be innovative. We have the sport science now that indicates, for example, that the person who delivers the last two stones of the end may not be the one who's also charged with the responsibility to determine the team's approach to strategy & tactics and who has been relatively inactive until the time in the end when he/she must deliver those stones. Is your best brusher standing in the house most of the time? Is your best strategist and tactician playing a position putting him/her away from the house? Which two players on your team make the best brushing combination? I could go on but I believe you're getting the picture!

And, since I've raised the issue about "strategy & tactics", especially re. tactics, are you executing your plan (strategy) using the same types of shots (tactics) as everyone else in your competitive environment?

I'm actually coaching a team this season as a way of helping a dear friend who is having knee surgery next month. I was always this team's advisor coach so in essence, we're temporarily switching roles. The impetus for this blog comes from my work with this team who have recently made the decision about the way the team wishes to play. The team has examined the way the Green Bay Packers would decide to curl and the way the New England Patriots might approach a curling game. The team has made a commitment!

You need to consider the way you play and make the same commitment! It doesn't matter which way you go on this, the key is to make sure you've taken a good hard look at your team and the options available to it. Make a good decision! Your competitive future just might depend on it!