So… What Makes a MLB All-Star?

The first “All-Star Game” in the history of professional sports was a baseball exhibition during the 1933 World’s Fair.  Since then, the “Midsummer Classic” has become an annual tradition, with only an interruption in 1945 due to World War II.  Although ostensibly an exhibition game for fans, it has become an important negotiation tool for players.  Free agents often use All-Star Game appearances to leverage more money from their teams.  Players that make All-Star Games can also gain additional endorsement opportunities, especially at the national level.  As such, making an All-Star Game is an important achievement for the financial prospects of professional baseball players.  Beyond their careers, players often use All-Star appearances as marketing tools to secure post-playing endorsements, much like Stan Ross.

The Original 1933 MLB All-Star Team.

The Original 1933 MLB All-Star Team.

But with All-Stars being selected with no defined guidelines, what factors go into being selected to the game?  I attempted to find the most significant variables that led to All-Star Game appearances by looking at data from every position player with over 200 plate appearances in 2014, enough to qualify a player as “full-time”.  This equated to 383 players, of whom 47 were selected to the All-Star Game.  The independent variables used were games played, plate appearances, runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, runs batted in, stolen bases, times caught stealing (coded in reverse), walks, strike outs, batting average (multiplied by 1000), on-base percentage (multiplied by 1000), slugging percentage (multiplied by 1000), double plays hit into, times hit by pitches and sacrifice hits.

These independent variables selected were standard batting statistics, as defined by Major League Baseball.  Advanced statistics were not used  because they are not as commonly cited among mainstream media.  With fan vote playing heavily into selection, and with most fans gaining their baseball knowledge from mainstream media, standard batting statistics were judged to be the most accurate measure for this study.  Statistics were gathered from Baseball Reference, exported into CSV format, and filtered using Microsoft Excel.

After preparing the data, a binary logistic regression was run to see which independent variables were statistically significant in predicting an All-Star Game appearance.  The model found the variables of games played, times caught stealing, strikeouts, on-base percentage and slugging percentage significant at the 90% confidence level.  These variables were 91.1% correct in predicting All-Star appearances.

2014 All-Star Game MVP Mike Trout.

2014 All-Star Game MVP Mike Trout.

Heading into this study, I hypothesized that some of the factors that would be significant would include home runs, runs batted in, batting average and stolen bases.  Although none of these were found to be statistically significant, some of their absences are potentially explained by several of the factors that did make the cut.  Slugging percentage measures total bases divided by at bats, which would lead to a higher overall percentage for players who hit a large number of home runs.  Additionally, although batting average is a traditionally important measure, on-base percentage is a more accurate measure of how often players get on base, by including walks into the equation.

Putting statistical analysis to the side, why were these variables statistically significant?  Taking the factors one by one, there are several possible explanations.  Players that are able to stay healthy for a full season have more opportunities to expose themselves to fans, which explains games played being a statistically significant variable.  Although not a perfect relationship, typically players that are caught stealing more tend to attempt more steals.  Players that attempt more steals tend to be allowed more opportunities due to their ability to successfully steal bases.  Strikeouts (which have a negative coefficient, meaning that more strikeouts have a negative effect on the chance to make the All-Star Game) have an obvious inverse effect on a team’s chance to win, representing a blatantly obvious out.  Due to the visibility of the strikeout, fans are likely to be negatively influenced by players that strike out exorbitant amounts.  The appearance of on-base percentage as a statistically significant factor may point to a shift towards a more advanced analytical mindset from fans.  In the past, on-base percentage was often minimalized in favor of batting average, which does not take into account walks.  On-base percentage considers the traditional batting average (initially hypothesized by the author to be statistically significant prior to the study), and takes into account the walk, which affords a base runner, and therefore an additional opportunity at a run.  Finally, as mentioned earlier, slugging percentage could explain the absence of home runs as a statistically significant factor.  Slugging percentage also takes into account doubles and triples, which also increase expected runs for a team.

Baseball players can take away several lessons from this study.  According to the data, players looking to make All-Star Games, and therefore maximize their potential earnings, have a few areas of the game to focus on in training.  The first is endurance training, to help increase their total games played.  Additionally, they can work on speed, to help avoid getting caught stealing.  When they step up to bat, it is important to have a patient approach, to avoid strikeouts while maximizing their on-base percentage by not only hitting well, but by drawing more walks.  Finally, players should work on strength training to hit more home runs and achieve a higher slugging percentage.

Although this study observes a statistically significant sample, it should be warned that there is the potential for outliers in the 2014 season to affect a general fit on other seasons.  Future models will look at not just a single season, but multiple seasons to account for the potential of outliers.  Although a model that includes all seasons since 1933 (excluding 1945) would not be as accurate due to the change in fan attitudes and on-field strategy, looking at the past ten seasons would serve as a potentially more accurate model than the one built in this initial study.

Table 1

Statistically Significant Factors in Determining MLB All-Star Game Appearances Based on 2014 Data

Independent Variable Beta Coefficient Significance
G .060 .00
CS .096 .10
SO -.012 .10
OBP .971 .06
SLG .976 .05
Constant -22.249 .00

A (Mostly) Unbiased Preview of the San Francisco 49ers by a (Mostly) Biased Fan

49ers Black Uniforms

Last Season: 8-8, 3rd Place in the NFC West (Missed Playoffs for First Time Since 2010)

Head Coach: Jim Tomsula, 1st Season (1-0 career record)

Key New Arrivals: WR Torrey Smith (free agent), RB Reggie Bush (free agent), RB/ST Jarryd Hayne (undrafted free agent), CB Shareece Wright (free agent), DE Arik Armstead (NFL Draft 1st Round), WR Jerome Simpson (free agent), S Jaquiski Tartt (NFL Draft 2nd Round), TE Blake Bell (NFL Draft 4th Round), P Bradley Pinion (NFL Draft 5th Round)

Key Departures: RB Frank Gore (Indianapolis Colts), LB Patrick Willis (retired), DL Justin Smith (retired), LB Aldon Smith (free agent), WR Michael Crabtree (Oakland Raiders), LB Chris Borland (retired), OG Mike Iupati (Arizona Cardinals), LB Dan Skuta (Jacksonville Jaguars), CB Chris Culliver (Washington Redskins), CB Perrish Cox (Tennessee Titans), P Andy Lee (Cleveland Browns), OT Anthony Davis (retired), OT Jonathan Martin (released/retired)

What’s New?

Not since Georgia Frontiere stripped down the Los Angeles Rams’ roster and operations to prepare for a move to St. Louis has an NFL team seen so much change in one offseason.  Let’s start with the obvious: gone is head coach Jim Harbaugh, who compiled a 44-19-1 regular season record in four seasons, took the 49ers to three consecutive NFC Championship Games and a close loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.  Much of Harbaugh’s deep and talented assistant coaching staff is gone as well- specifically offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator extraordinaire Vic Fangio.  In their place, the offense will be guided by former quarterback coach Geep Chryst, while the defense will be led by former Jets and Browns head coach Eric Mangini.  Chryst and Tomsula have expressed a desire to increase the tempo on offense, with the team breaking from the huddle much more quickly than under Harbaugh.  Chryst has also transitioned the Niners to a zone blocking scheme, which will require more movement and athleticism from the offensive line.  Defensively, the most noticeable change will likely be an increase in blitzing under the notoriously aggressive Mangini.

On the player front, the 49ers experienced a mass exodus of longtime personnel.  All-time rushing leader Frank Gore left in free agency after 10 seasons, while defensive leader and potential Hall of Famer Patrick Willis retired after a foot injury limited him in his final season.  The “Smith Brothers” sack team of Aldon and Justin are both no longer with the team- Justin due to retirement, while Aldon was released after his third DUI since 2011.  The 49ers also experienced the unexpected retirement of first year linebacker Chris Borland, who was expected to step into Willis’ spot, due to his concern about head injuries.  Former first rounder and Heisman finalist Michael Crabtree took his talents across the Bay to Oakland, All-Pro punter Andy Lee was traded to the Factory of Sadness in Cleveland and Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati signed with division rival Arizona.

Not all the transactions were players leaving however.  The 49ers signed former Ravens WR Torrey Smith, who had 2 receptions for 35 yards against the Niners in Super Bowl XLVII, to a long term contract to serve as the deep threat for Colin Kaepernick.  2005 Heisman Trophy winner collegiate legend Reggie Bush was brought in to help the running game, along with former Australian rugby league MVP Jarryd Hayne.  Cornerback Shareece Wright drove up the I-5 from San Diego to help the secondary, while first round draft pick DE Arik Armstead is an athletic freak who could conceivably mitigate the losses of Aldon and Justin Smith.


QB Colin Kaepernick

QB Colin Kaepernick

Heading into his fifth season (and fourth as starter), quarterback Colin Kaepernick has several questions to answer before he can justify his $100 million contract.  Last season, Kaepernick completed 60.5% of his passes for 3369 yards, 19 TDs and 10 INTs for a QB rating of 86.9, while also rushing for 639 yards (6.1 YPC) and 1 TD.  Fifteen years ago, those numbers might have qualified Kaepernick as one of the top players in the league, but in today’s pass happy NFL, they leave a lot to be desired.  Kaepernick showed a tendency to pull down the football and run when protection collapsed instead of sticking in the pocket or extending the play by rolling out.  With a completely re-worked right side of the offensive line, Kaepernick will need to show an improved ability in the pocket.

Kaepernick’s receiving targets will also be dramatically different.  Although the always dependable Anquan Boldin remains, he will need to quickly develop a rapport with Torrey Smith, while finding a way to re-integrate TE Vernon Davis into the passing game after a down 2014.  Rookie TE Blake Bell displayed a natural ability to catch the football in the preseason, and could conceivably earn playing time over veteran Vance McDonald and end up one of the surprise players of the year.  Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton have shown promise in their young careers, but with significantly increased playing time this season, they will need to step up and play consistently.

After ten years of Frank Gore’s sustained excellence, the running game will be the most significantly changed aspect of the offense in 2015.  Carlos Hyde is expected to be the lead back, but will also share time with Bush and Kendall Hunter when Hunter returns from injured reserve.  Gore was known for his power running ability, but Hyde is more of a finesse back, who is much more fleet of foot.  The new zone blocking system is a staple of the spread offense, and although the 49ers will not employ a complete spread, expect to see the 49ers take more shots down the field both in the passing and ground games.  The 49ers will use a lot of misdirection when running the football, and the offense will rely on Hyde, Bush, Hunter or whoever is carrying the ball to make quick reads and exploit holes in the defense.

The Niners were only 25th in scoring offense in 2014, 20th in total yards, 30th in passing yards while excelling in the running game and finishing 4th in rushing yards.  Expect to see much of the same in 2015, with an emphasis on the running game, even with Gore’s departure.  Hyde showed promise in limited action, and while Bush hasn’t exactly lived up to the expectations of being the second overall pick, he has been consistent throughout his career.  If Kaepernick can increase his accuracy and patience in the pocket, the 49ers have enough talent on offense to find their way to a middle of the road performance.  Finishing above 20th in overall offense should be considered a definite win for first year coach Jim Tomsula.


LB Navorro Bowman

LB Navorro Bowman

The 49ers possibly suffered more injuries on the defensive side than any other team in 2014, but were still able to finish as one of the top five units in the league.  This year will present yet another challenge for Mangini in his first year leading the defense.  Justin Smith was quietly one of the best players in the NFL the past few years, and replacing him will be no easy task.  Rookie Arik Armstead will need to learn quickly to replace his production, and needs to show a better ability to get after the quarterback than he did while totaling only 2.5 sacks in his final season at the University of Oregon.  The team clearly thinks he has the ability to do so however, taking him 17th overallIan Williams, the nose tackle, will return as a starter as well, allowing some continuity on the line.  Tank Carradine and Glenn Dorsey also return, giving the line acceptable depth.

The linebacking corps will be relatively different in 2015.  Gone are starters Willis, Borland and Aldon Smith.  That said, the team returns 2013 team MVP Navorro Bowman after his devastating knee injury in the 2013 NFC Championship Game.  Bowman looked outstanding in his three plays during the preseason, and if he can return to form, he will provide a huge boost to the team.  Ahmad Brooks, who has started 62 games since arriving in San Francisco in 2009, will also likely start.  Another returning rotation player is Aaron Lynch, who racked up 6 sacks in his rookie campaignMichael Wilhoite and Corey Lemonier also return, but will have to dramatically step up production.

The 49ers’ secondary is possibly the biggest question mark on the team.  The cornerback position will likely roll with Tramaine Brock and Shareece Wright to start the year, but the starters are not set in stone and solid performances from any of the other players, including 6’2’ 200 lb Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser or even safety Jimmie Ward, could easily change that.  The 49ers also stashed preseason standout Marcus Cromartie (cousin of Antonio and Dominique) on the practice squad.  The safeties without a doubt will be Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea after both had good seasons last year, but how Ward or 2nd rounder Jaquiski Tartt earn playing time will be of interest.  Tartt is one of the hardest hitters on the team, and could find time with physical play.

The defense could go either way this year.  Last year, despite being decimated by injuries, they still performed with the best in the NFL.  The sheer amount of talent lost could be too much to overcome, though.  Despite retaining a lot of talent, it would be hard to envision the defense repeating last year’s performance.  Although it is likely the team will still be a stingy run defense, the pass defense has the potential to be a complete mess.  Without the pass rush of Justin and Aldon Smith, and a very shaky and unproven cornerback stable, opponents should be able to throw the ball at will.  Expect the defense to shine at times, while being painfully bad at others.  The Niners look to be a very average defense, likely to finish anywhere between 12th and 24th in overall defense.

Special Teams

Phil Dawson was an underrated pickup several years ago, as he has provided a steady foot for the team after the maddening inconsistency of David Akers.  With the likelihood of a low scoring offense, expect Dawson to get plenty of opportunities to kick field goals, often from significant distance.

It is not often you hear of punters being fan favorites, but Andy Lee is one of the rare ones.  He was the franchise all-time leader in punting yards, and even set a NFL record with a 44.0 net yards punting average in 2011 (which was broken several years later by Johnny Hekker).  Despite this, the team felt the aging Lee was too expensive at $2.6 million and was replaced by rookie Bradley Pinion, who played his collegiate ball at Clemson.  Pinion averaged 42.6 yards on average with a 4.1 second hang time his senior year, while forcing opponents into fair catches 44% of the time.

Jarryd Hayne

Jarryd Hayne

Perhaps the most exciting addition to the team was Jarryd Hayne.  Hayne is one of the best rugby league players in the history of the Australian NRL, earning the Dally M Medal (equivalent of the MVP) twice in his nine year playing career.  The 27 year old was ostensibly signed as a running back, but will see most of his impact as a returner.  And what a returner the Aussie appears to be, dazzling the entire country with his electrifying punt returns.  With his world class athleticism, brute strength and surprising vision, Hayne will be one of the most thrilling players in the NFL.  He even has a chance to earn playing time on offense after several impressive runs in the preseason.

Overall Outlook

The 49ers were one of the best teams in the NFL under Jim Harbaugh, earning three consecutive trips to the NFC Championship game to go along with a Super Bowl appearance in 2012.  In Harbaugh’s final season, they took a step back to 8-8 while missing the playoffs, due to several factors including injuries and in-fighting among management.  Expect the team to once again take a step back after an incredible loss of talent in all aspects of the game.  Thanks to the impressive depth and coaching ability of Harbaugh, the team still has enough talent to avoid the basement of the entire league, but those expecting the Niners to contend for a Super Bowl again will need to wait a few years.  A joke just a few years ago, the NFC West is by far and away the best division in football, and the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams can all easily argue they are better than the 49ers.  With a tough out of division schedule that includes 2014 playoff teams Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Detroit Lions.  Additionally, the 49ers will have to face vastly improved teams in the Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons.

Most prognosticators have the 49ers finishing with 5-7 wins, including most statistical analyses.  It is quite possible the only “gimmes” on the schedule are the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns.  Despite the exodus, the team does retain a significant level of young talent, and a unique level of playoff experience, including a quarterback who knows what it takes to get to the Super Bowl.  It is entirely conceivable the 49ers could surprise league followers and fans everywhere.

Prediction: 8-8, 3rd in NFC West, Miss Playoffs

2015 Schedule

Sept. 14: vs Minnesota

Sept. 20: at Pittsburgh

Sept. 27: at Arizona

Oct. 4: vs Green Bay

Oct. 11: at New York Giants

Oct. 18: vs Baltimore

Oct. 22: vs Seattle

Nov. 1: at St. Louis

Nov. 8: vs Atlanta

Nov. 22: at Seattle

Nov. 29: vs Arizona

Dec. 6: at Chicago

Dec. 13: at Cleveland

Dec. 20: vs Cincinnati

Dec. 27: at Detroit

Jan. 3: vs St. Louis

Living History: A Conversation with Ozzie Virgil

History was quietly made on September 23, 1956, when Bill Rigney submitted his lineup card for the New York Giants’ Sunday afternoon home matchup with the Philadelphia Phillies.  Slotted in at third base, in his major league debut, was 24 year old Ozzie Virgil.  And although Virgil wouldn’t record his first major league hit until his second game a week later, he had already made his mark by becoming the first Dominican born player to reach the Major Leagues.

Anthony Simonetti meets with Ozzie Virgil in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic.

Anthony Simonetti meets with Ozzie Virgil in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic.

Osvaldo Virgil was born on May 17, 1932 in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic.  At the age of 13, his family would immigrate to the United States and settle in the Bronx.  Growing up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, Virgil attended DeWitt Clinton High School, graduating in 1950.  Following high school, Virgil joined the US Marine Corps Reserves, and was called up in 1950.  In 1952, after getting out, Virgil was signed by the New York Giants following a tryout.

Virgil would work his way up through the Giants’ minor league system, spending time in St. Cloud, Minnesota; Danville, North Carolina; Dallas, Texas; before spending the 1956 season with Minneapolis, where he hit .278 with 10 home runs.  This play would earn him that late season September call up, and despite his debut being a historical landmark, Virgil arrived to almost no fanfare.

In a recent conversation at the New York Mets’ Dominican Academy in Boca Chica, Virgil recalled his path to the majors, as well as several other anecdotes about his time playing baseball.  When asked who the best player he faced or played with was, Virgil was torn between Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax.  “Both of them had more than just talent, they always wanted to win.  That’s all those guys were focused on back then, winning.”

In nine seasons and 324 games as a professional, Virgil spent time with the Giants (both in New York and San Francisco), Kansas City Athletics, Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates, and was the first non-white player for the Detroit Tigers.  He would slash .231/.263/.331 with 14 home runs, 73 RBIs, 174 hits and 75 runs.  And though Virgil may have produced an otherwise undistinguished -0.5 rWAR, his contribution to the game will never be forgotten.

“I may not have been the most talented, and I may not hold the records or any huge numbers, but I’ll always have a special number: number one!  And I’m glad that I was able to be that person that opened the door for many other Dominicans after me, especially considering there are many others more talented than me.

Since Virgil took the field that fateful Sunday afternoon, 628 other players born in the Dominican have played in the Major Leagues, including Hall of Famers Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez, and notable All-Stars such as Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Alfonso Soriano, George Bell and many others.  Now one of the top producers of Major League talent outside the United States, Virgil’s trail blazing path was much different from modern day Dominicans.

Despite debuting almost a decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Virgil spoke about the struggles of being a non-white player in the 1950s and 60s.  “One of the hardest parts was that we weren’t accepted within the black community, the African-American community.  It was hard being ignored by both the white people and the African-Americans, who didn’t always consider us Latinos as black.  We had to stick together.”

Speaking with Virgil is truly an opportunity to interact with living history, as one of the most influential, and perhaps most forgotten, players in the history of Major League Baseball.  At 83, Virgil still has the spark and energy of a young man, and our afternoon spent with him was truly a powerful moment.  Seeing what Dominican players have today, and hearing from Virgil what players had in the past, gives a true hope that the Dominican game, and the Dominican community, will continue to grow as the years pass.

Analysis of the NFL Disappointments

The NFL is enjoying a year of unparalleled parity, on the heels of the success of teams such as the Chiefs, Raiders and Buccaneers. But at the same time, several teams picked to shape the landscape of the playoffs have faltered. The Cowboys and Vikings, two teams that enjoyed deep playoff runs in 2009, and the 49ers, who finished 8-8 in the weak NFC West, were considered lead pipe locks to make the playoffs. As we hit Week 10, those three teams are a combined 6-18, with popular Super Bowl pick Dallas floundering at 1-7 and coming off their coach being fired. Let’s take a look at what’s gone wrong for these three teams, and if they have any chance of turning it around.

The Dallas Cowboys won the NFC East in 2009 with an 11-5 record, and went on to win their first playoff game since 1996. Entering the 2010 season, the only major change they made was replacing much maligned free safety Ken Hamlin and adding rookie phenom Dez Bryant. The Cowboys were a popular pick to make the Super Bowl, to be played in their home, Jerry World. However, the team now sits at 1-7, with head coach Wade Phillips fired. The Cowboys will now be led by former offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. The Cowboys are missing their Pro Bowl quarterback Tony Romo, but even with him, were only 1-5. The Cowboys’ chances of succeeding this season are now practically zero. Playing in possibly the toughest division in football, their defense, one of the top units in 2009, has been completely incapable of stopping anyone. Since their Week 4 bye, the Cowboys have let up at least 24 points in every game, including a 45-7 shellacking at the hands of the Packers last week. The dismal defense, combined with an offense now missing their leader and best player, make a turnaround unlikely. Garrett was once considered the hottest coaching candidate in the NFL, but has shown in the last few years a very predictable play calling. Look for the Cowboys to struggle to 3 or 4 wins, grab a talent with their high draft pick, and make a splash with a big name coach.
The Vikings made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game last year, on the back of Brett Favre. After much deliberation, Favre returned for a 20th season, and immediately made the Vikings contenders. Or so it was thought. Instead, Favre has shown an inconsistency no one could have predicted, even with his advanced age. Without top receiver Sidney Rice, lost for the first 10 weeks to a hip injury, Favre’s gunslinging style has turned reckless. The 50-50 balls Favre has made a living off of have become 75-25 balls for the defense. A midseason acquisition of Randy Moss backfired, as Moss and coach Brad Childress clashed, and Moss was released, against the front office and locker room’s wishes. To compound the passing game’s problems, Childress has criminally under-used all-world running back Adrian Peterson. All this said, the Vikings may have the best chance at turning around their season. The Vikings have a very favorable schedule from here on out, especially with Rice expected to return soon. At 3-5, the Vikings are not completely out of the playoff picture in a surprisingly weak NFC, and may have gained a lot of confidence with a 27-24 comeback victory against the Arizona Cardinals last week. Childress called his best game of the season play-wise. If the Vikes can get back to .500 in the next two weeks, they’ll be squarely in the race to win the NFC North and the wild card chase.
The San Francisco 49ers finished 2009 at 8-8, their first non-losing season since 2002. They had some of the stability the franchise lacked during the losing years, with offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye returning, as well as having a set starting quarterback heading into training camp in former number 1 overall pick Alex Smith. On top of that, the two-time defending NFC West Champion Arizona Cardinals lost their heart and soul in future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, and defensive standouts Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle. This led many to believe it was the 49ers’ division to lose. Instead, the 49ers have struggled to a 2-6 record, including being the only victim of the hapless Carolina Panthers. Along the way, the 49ers have let up game winning drives, fumbled away game-sealing interceptions, and cycled through quarterbacks. Raye was fired after the team struggled to get plays off on time, and calling quite possibly the most brutal few games ever witnessed. Alex Smith, who was expected to finally live up to expectations, has instead appeared unable to read defenses and lead an offense. The team is now led by former Heisman winner Troy Smith. Even with all these disasters, the 49ers are not entirely out of the playoff picture. The NFC West is the weakest division possibly in NFL history. It is currently led by the 4-4 St. Louis Rams, who are only a few months off of making the first selection in the NFL Draft. After a confidence building win against Denver in London and a bye, the Niners will face the Rams. If they win, they will immediately be in the race for division, only one game out of the lead. They are a contender to make the playoffs still simply because this division is so bad it could be won with an 8-8, or even 7-9, record.

Is ESPN pushing the boundary with their coverage of the Miami Heat?

A couple weeks ago, launched its’ “Heat Index”, an entire section of their website devoted entirely to the Miami Heat. ESPN has already shown their love of everything LeBron, as they hosted the ridiculously over-the-top “The Decision” special this summer, but this new development may show a more disturbing trend. The network has often pushed the envelope with their coverage of individual players, such as James and Brett Favre, but the Heat Index makes it appear as though they are actively rooting for the Heat to succeed.

As a news organization, ESPN should be adhering to a practice of journalistic neutrality. How are fans of other teams, especially other favorites, supposed to feel now that their team is simply taking the backseat to the Heat? Can we watch sports on this network and know that both sides are receiving fair coverage? ESPN is obviously doing this due to the high interest in the story, but sometimes making money should be secondary to retaining credibility.


Cowboys’ Rookie Hazing Demonstrates Everything Wrong With the NFL

Dallas Cowboys’ rookie WR Dez Bryant has shown promise on the field this year, catching for at least 50 yards in all three of Dallas’ games this year. Bryant, taken 24th overall in the draft this year, was a superstar at Oklahoma State, whose only controversy was a misguided conversation with former NFL star Deion Sanders which unfortunately landed him a season long suspension.

But since entering the NFL, Bryant has made headlines off the field. Not necessarily for his own behavior, but rather for being the target of the man he’ll likely replace on the Cowboys, Roy E. Williams. It started in August, when Bryant refused to carry Williams’ pads after practice. A simple “right of passage” that Bryant probably should have done, but harmless in the fact that he didn’t.
But Williams did not stop there. It came out last week that Williams invited the entire Cowboys offense out to an expensive steak dinner, then left the tab with Bryant. The bill? $55,000. There are reports that players were walking out of the restaurant with bottles of wine.
The dinner showcases everything that is wrong with the NFL today. As we approach a potential labor stoppage in 2011, NFL players’ main issue appears to be compensation and pension. Players complain that owners are not fairly sharing the money from what is by far and away America’s most profitable sports enterprise. Players also point to statistics that overwhelmingly show that players are going broke after leaving the NFL due to little job training and lack of pension.
These are all valid points, but it’s hard to garner sympathy when things like this come out. When you’re teaching 21 year old rookies like Bryant that you can stick teammates with a dinner tab worth more than most people make in one year, you’re highlighting that these problems are more due to players’ financial irresponsibility than owner greed. How are we supposed to be feeling sorry for players going broke when they’re wasting ungodly amounts of money on steak dinners, and raining down hundred dollar bills at strip clubs in Las Vegas?
When players are routinely spending more in one night than the average American yearly income, the problem is clearly not how much they are being paid, or a lack of pension. As we move towards a potential labor stoppage, look for owners to increasingly point towards public displays of players blowing cash. Also look for no one to point towards the real solution: financial planning. If Williams had been taught Bryant to put that $55,000 into something more valuable than dinner and booze for 20 or so multimillionaires, perhaps it could mature into something that could sustain him after his body gives in and he can no longer play football. Of course, that would make entirely too much sense, now wouldn’t it?

Australian Rules Football is Perfect for an American Audience

As the popularity of soccer is soaring in America following the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Americans are increasingly opening up to sports other than the “Big 4”. Although soccer, by far the world’s most popular sport, is finally finding an American audience, several complaints about the game remain. Americans still seem to find soccer somewhat boring due to its low scoring, and apparent lack of toughness. In America, where we have basketball scores in the hundreds, and football hits that end players’ careers, some find soccer too “European” and foreign. It is for these reasons that another import sport, Australian rules football, could potentially overtake soccer in America if marketed correctly.

Australian rules football is an extremely fast paced game that would be best described to American sports fans as a mixture between basketball, soccer and American football. The game has existed in its modern form since the 1850s, longer than soccer or baseball. A match consists of four 20 minute quarters, with stoppage time added to the end of each quarter, and is played on a large oval shaped field with four goal posts on each end of the ground. If the ball is kicked through the center posts, a goal worth six points is scored, and if it passes through the outer two posts, a behind worth one point is scored. Players are allowed to kick or tap the ball with a closed fist or open hand to teammates, but cannot pass the ball. Players are allowed to run with the ball, but must dribble it at least once every 50 feet.

Aussie rules is easy to pick up, as positions are fluid, and players roam the entire field, unlike soccer, where attacks by defenders are rare. The game moves fast, and because there are no goalkeepers, goals are abundant, with scores often approaching and broaching the hundred point threshold. Aussie rules also is extremely physical, with bone jarring hits a common sight welcomed by fans and coaches alike. There is constant movement with little stoppage between plays. The game requires great endurance, athleticism and unique skill sets such as good hands and solid footwork. The skills often transfer over to American football, as players such as Darren Bennett and Sav Rocca have carved out successful NFL punting careers following their AFL retirements.

Although to date, Australian rules football has been largely confined to the island continent where it was conceived, it has begun to spread internationally. ESPN airs several matches live on Saturday nights, and also shows matches on their broadcasting website, There is also a professional American league, the USAFL, and many college clubs.

As Americans open up to new sports, and with the ability to expand coverage thanks to the internet and satellite television, Australian rules football is sure to receive a bump in popularity in America. And when it does, you can say that you heard about it here first.

YouTube clip: Big Bumps of the AFL