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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Best Players Not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Tight Ends

Our position-by-position look at the best eligible players not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame continues with a rundown of the best tight ends that have not earned a trip to Canton.

Choosing which tight ends deserve immortality in the Hall of Fame is a difficult challenge.

In general, you would expect the best tight ends to be exceptional receivers and powerful blockers. However, few tight ends can truly be called “great” in both areas.

Instead, most tight ends either are great blockers and adequate receivers or, as is the case more often in the last couple decades, great receivers and average blockers.

The Hal of Fame voters waited until 1988 to finally induct a tight end and it remains the least represented position with a total of seven players honored in the Hall.

The first two tight ends to enter the Hall of Fame were arguably the two that best epitomized the requisite combination of blocking and receiving prowess. Mike Ditka and John Mackey were the dominant tight ends of the 1960s as they combined for 10 Pro Bowl appearances and five first-team All-Pro honors.

The next three tight ends inducted into the Hall of Fame, Jackie Smith, Kellen Winslow and Ozzie Newsome were all recognized for their receiving prowess.

While few argued the merits of the sixth tight end inducted into the Hall of Fame, Dave Casper, there was some question of his worthiness because his tenure as a premier player in the league was relatively short.

The induction of Charlie Sanders into the HOF in 2007 caught many people off guard. Sanders had been a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time All-Pro for mediocre Detroit Lions teams in the 1970s, but his career stats were considered pedestrian and he was never a Hall of Fame finalist before being chosen as a Senior Nominee and ultimately inducted in 2007.

Using statistics to validate the worthiness of a tight end for the Hall of Fame is an exercise in futility. Even tight ends from the same era can have very different levels of offensive production.

Some teams, like the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, have used the tight end predominantly as another blocker.

In 1973, the Buffalo Bills used the seventh overall pick in the draft to select Paul Seymour, an offensive tackle out of Michigan. They then moved Seymour to tight end and over the next five years he caught only 62 passes, but was a key blocker on the unit that helped O.J. Simpson win three rushing titles between 1973 and 1977.

Other teams have used the tight end as another pass receiver who may sometimes line up in the traditional tight end spot on the line of scrimmage, but often is split out like a flanker.

Don Coryell and the San Diego Chargers forever changed the way tight ends were used when they took the long and lanky Kellen Winslow and made him their receiving tight end. Winslow caught 541 passes in nine seasons while giving Dan Fouts a third dynamic receiving option.

You will see one recurring theme in the players selected as the 10 best not in the Hall of Fame. All of them, regardless of in which era they played, caught more passes in their careers than both John Mackey and Charlie Sanders.

In fact, of the 25 tight ends chosen for this overall list, only six have fewer career receptions than Sanders (336 receptions) or Mackey (331).

As has been the case with all positions, I tried to base my selections first and foremost on how the players compared with others from the same era. How many times was he an All-Pro or Pro Bowl player, how many times was he among the top receiving tight ends in the league, how integral was he to the offensive attack for his team.

Trying to use prowess specifically as a blocker was a challenge because the actual amount of blocking done by each tight end varies greatly and is difficult to quantify.

So, here is my list of the top 10 eligible tight ends not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Click Here to read more and see pictures of each player in the top 10.

10. Riley Odoms – Denver Broncos – 1972-1983

9. Charle Young – Philadelphia Eagles/Los Angeles Rams/San Francisco 49ers/Seattle Seahawks – 1973-1985

8. Jay Novacek – Arizona Cardinals/Dallas Cowboys – 1985-1995

7. Steve Jordan - Minnesota Vikings – 1982-1994

6. Todd Christensen –New York Giants/Oakland-Los Angeles Raiders – 1979-1988

5. Keith Jackson – Philadelphia Eagles/Miami Dolphins/Green Bay Packers– 1988-1996

4. Pete Retzlaff – Philadelphia Eagles – 1956-1966

3. Mark Bavaro – New York Giants/Cleveland Browns/Philadelphia Eagles– 1985-1994

2. Ben Coates – New England Patriots/Baltimore Ravens – 1991-2000

1. Shannon Sharpe – Denver Broncos/Baltimore Ravens – 1990-2003

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Best Players Not In the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Wide Receivers

Our position-by-position look at the best eligible players not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame continues with a spotlight on the position where HOF voters have arguably displayed the most inconsistency in their choices: wide receiver.

Perhaps more than any other position, the role and statistics associated with wide receiver has changed dramatically over the last fifty years as the NFL record books have gone from no players with 500 career receptions in 1960 and only four in 1970 to 106 today, including 85 who have joined the club since 1990.

For that reason, the Hall of Fame selectors seem to be in a constant struggle with history to try and deduce which former pass catchers belong in Canton.

Of the 20 modern era wide receivers in the Hall of Fame, only seven were selected in their first four years of eligibility. In fact, the last wide receiver to be selected to the Hall of Fame in his first season of eligibility was Steve Largent in 1995.

Since Largent’s induction, eight wide receivers have been selected to the Hall of Fame with only Michael Irvin (third year) being chosen in his first five years on the ballot.

While Hall of Fame voters have generally withstood the temptation to select receivers to the Hall of Fame based solely on career statistics, what the explosion of receiving totals has done is overshadow the legitimate candidacy of players who played the position in the era before receivers started averaging 70 or more catches per season.

The selection of Bob Hayes to the Hall of Fame this year is a good step toward recognizing players who excelled at the position before statistics became so bloated. However, there are still many Hall of Fame deserving former receivers who were instrumental members of championship teams and possess career resumes equal or better than those of players who are already inducted.

This list includes some recently retired players who will certainly receive the call from the Hall of Fame in the next few years, but it also looks at some all-time greats who were considered legitimate Hall of Fame candidates at the time of their retirements, but have since been lost in the sea of statistics.

In developing this list, each player was evaluated in the context of the time in which he played and for many of the older players, I highlight where they ranked all-time at the time of their retirement.

I also looked at how each compared against other players (Hall of Famers and non-Hall of Famers) from that era and whether, at the time of his retirement, the player was considered a legitimate candidate for the Hall of Fame.

Below is a list of my choices for the top 10 wide receivers not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Click Here to read more and see pictures of each player in the top 10.

10. Gary Clark – Washington Redskins/Phoenix Cardinals/Miami Dolphins – 1985-1995

9. Sterling Sharpe – Green Bay Packers – 1988-1994

8. Mark Clayton – Miami Dolphins/Green Bay Packers – 1983-1993

7. Otis Taylor – Kansas City Chiefs – 1965-1975

6. Harold Carmichael –Philadelphia Eagles/Dallas Cowboys – 1971-1984

5. Henry Ellard – Los Angeles Rams/Washington Redskins/New England Patriots– 1983-1998

4. Andre Reed – Buffalo Bills/Washington Redskins – 1985-2000

3. Cris Carter – Philadelphia Eagles/Minnesota Vikings/Miami Dolphins – 1987-2002

2. Drew Pearson – Dallas Cowboys – 1973-1983

1. Cliff Branch – Oakland Raiders – 1973-1985

Friday, June 19, 2009

Interleague Play Brings Back Both Good and Bad Memories

It has been a walk down memory lane for the Baltimore Orioles this week as Interleague play has allowed a renewal of rivalries with two one-time World Series opponents.

Now in its 13th year, some of the sparkle has rubbed off the notion of teams from the two leagues mixing for regular season contests. However, Interleague play still provides an annual opportunity to reminisce about past match-ups and debate whether it is a good idea or another example of the cheapening of the game.

On the field, Interleague play has been an unquestioned disaster for the Baltimore Orioles. Entering this season, the Orioles have the worst record among American League teams in Interleague play with a mark of 90-121 (.427).

Only the Pittsburgh Pirates have a worse overall record against the other league (63-103, .380).

Those records stand in great contrast to those of the two best teams in Interleague play, the New York Yankees (123-87, .586) and Oakland A’s (123-89, .580).

As a life-long fan of the Orioles who grew up during their glory years and has stuck by them through the rough road of the last decade, I actually see Interleague play as a refreshing opportunity to remember past glory and watch the Orioles face different competition.

While the memories from the 1969 World Series against the New York Mets are certainly quite painful, it was nice to get a measure of revenge (albeit a very small measure) with a come-from-behind victory in the rubber game of the three game series.

The past memories against the opponent for this weekend’s series are much more pleasant.

It is hard to believe that 26 years have passed since Rick Dempsey, Eddie Murray and a young Cal Ripken, Jr. led the Orioles to their last World Series title against the Phillies.

In past years, the Orioles have had chances to relive World Series moments against the Reds, Dodgers and Pirates.

Across the majors, this weekend includes three series between teams that have competed against each other for World Series glory.

In addition to the Orioles and Phillies, the New York Yankees are taking on their opponents from the 2003 World Series, the Florida Marlins. The other series features a rematch of the thrilling 1985 series between the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals.

By the time Interleague play for 2009 ends later this month, there will have been 12 match-ups between teams that once met on baseball’s grandest stage.

In addition to offering the opportunity for World Series rematches, Interleague play also provides an annual excuse for teams within close proximity to meet in “rivalry” games.

There is little doubt that this element of Interleague play has much more appeal in places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where there are actually two teams, than it does for teams like the Rockies, Pirates or Braves who have no natural local rival in the other league.

In fact, baseball has designated “rivalry series” for only 18 teams, which means the other teams mix among themselves for the six games when the Yankees are playing the Mets, the Cubs are battling the White Sox and the Orioles are playing the hated Nationals.

One problem that many players, executives and fans have with Interleague play is that it is inheritably unfair.

While division rivals play the same number of games against each other and all the other teams in their own league, schedules against Interleague opponents vary in their degree of difficulty.

The Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angeles are currently competing for first place in the AL West with the Rangers holding a one and a half game advantage.

Because of the “rivalry” component of Interleague play, the Angels are playing six games against the team with the best record in baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Conversely, the Rangers are playing their six rivalry games are against a Houston team that is currently four games under .500.

While the system certainly isn’t perfect, there is little argument that Interleague play is an important reason for the resurgence of baseball attendance in recent years.

Since Interleague play started in 1997, average attendance for these games has been 11.8 percent higher than for the rest of the regular season schedule.

In 2008, the average attendance for Interleague play topped 35,000 for the first time ever and the league recently recognized the “100 millionth fan to see an Interleague game.”

Whether it is Interleague play, the designated hitter, or the wild card playoff round, baseball has made a number of changes over the years to improve the game and spark fan interest.

While baseball “purists” may not like the changes, they can’t argue with the fact that watching the Orioles against the Braves, Yankees against the Mets or Cubs against the White Sox is inherently more compelling than another series between the Marlins and Padres or Royals and Mariners.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Best Players Not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Quarterbacks

Continuing the position-by-position look at the best eligible players not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, we now turn our attention to the most visible and scrutinized position on the field: quarterback.

Many would argue that quarterbacks receive too much credit for victories and too much blame in defeat, but the reality is that more than any other position, quarterbacks are evaluated and judged based on the success of their team.

Quarterbacks including Dan Marino, Y.A. Title and Fran Tarkenton are graded down slightly because they never won a championship despite posting huge statistical numbers. At the same time, the lack of dominant statistics are overlooked in quarterbacks like Bob Griese, Troy Aikman, and Terry Bradshaw because they led teams to multiple championships.

Of the 23 modern era quarterbacks that have earned induction in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, only Warren Moon and Sonny Jurgensen never quarterbacked in a conference or league championship game.

In recent years, Hall of Fame voters have inducted a number of players at other positions who were never part of championship caliber teams, but that pattern has rarely extended to quarterback.

Of the 17 modern era players who didn’t participate in a Super Bowl that have been inducted into the Hall of Fame since 1995, Moon is the only quarterback.

The list of top quarterbacks not in the Hall of Fame further illustrates the inconsistencies displayed by Hall of Fame voters, as several seem to possess very similar resumes to some of the quarterbacks that have gained enshrinement.

It is an interesting mix that includes several quarterbacks who were recognized among the best in the game during their careers, but were never able to lead teams to championship heights. However, it also includes a number of quarterbacks who did play in Super Bowls while also earning individual recognition, but for some reason have never been deemed worthy of Hall of Fame induction.

Statistics can be helpful in identifying greatness and were among the criteria evaluated in selecting this list. However, because stats, especially career numbers, can be misleading and have become inflated over the last 30 years, they were just one of several factors used to create the list.

Each player was also evaluated in the context of the time in which he played and for many of the older players, I highlight where they ranked all-time at the time of their retirement.

I looked at how each compared against other players (Hall of Famers and non-Hall of Famers) from that era and whether, at the time of his retirement, the player was considered a legitimate candidate for the Hall of Fame.

Because the Hall of Fame voters give championship success such high priority in selecting quarterbacks, I did look at team success as a measure of consideration. However, I believe that the Hall of Fame voters have placed too much emphasis on that element for quarterbacks, so I did not make it as high a consideration as the voters have.

Below is a list of my choices for the top 10 quarterbacks not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Click here to read more and see pictures of each player in the top 10.

10. Bernie Kosar – Cleveland Browns/Dallas Cowboys/Miami Dolphins – 1985-1996

9. Jim Hart – St. Louis Cardinals/Washington Redskins – 1966-1984

8. Roman Gabriel – Los Angeles Rams/Philadelphia Eagles – 1962-1977

7. John Hadl – San Diego Chargers/Los Angeles Rams/Green Bay Packers/Houston Oilers – 1962-1977

6. Phil Simms – New York Giants – 1979-1993

5. Boomer Esiason – Cincinnati Bengals/New York Jets/Arizona Cardinals – 1984-1997

4. Randall Cunningham – Philadelphia Eagles/Minnesota Vikings/Dallas Cowboys/Baltimore Ravens – 1985-2001

3. Ken Stabler – Oakland Raiders/Houston Oilers/New Orleans Saints – 1970-1984

2. John Brodie – San Francisco 49ers – 1957-1973

1. Ken Anderson – Cincinnati Bengals – 1971-1986

Friday, June 12, 2009

Ryan Hanigan: From Rollins College to the Cincinnati Reds

When the Rollins College baseball team hosted the Cincinnati Reds for a spring training exhibition in 2001, no one could have anticipated that one of the Tars would some day be living the big-league dream as a key member of the Reds.

But fast-forward ahead eight years and sure enough in 2009 former Rollins standout Ryan Hanigan is making a huge impact behind the plate for the resurgent Reds.

Hanigan’s road to the majors wasn’t typical or easy, but now that he has arrived, the 28-year old doesn’t seem interested in leaving anytime soon.

After a standout career at Andover High School in Andover, Massachusetts, Hanigan traveled 1,300 miles to attend college at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.

A Division II school of 1,700 students known as a favorite destination for college students from New England looking to attend school in a warmer climate, Rollins has a long baseball tradition dating back to 1954 when they became the smallest school ever to compete in the Division I College World Series.

Though recognized primarily for cultivating baseball executives–including current or former major league general managers Jim Bowden, Dan O’Dowd and Dan O’Brien–Rollins has produced a number of former major leaguers including 1979 AL co-Rookie of the Year John Castino and former New York Yankee Clay Bellinger.

Ironically, while Hanigan has earned distinction at the professional level for his great play behind the plate, most of his time at Rollins was spent playing other positions.

When he joined the Tars in 2000, the team already had an All-American caliber catcher in Kevin Davidson. Davidson went on to be selected by the Houston Astros in the 2002 amateur draft and advanced as high as Triple-A during his career.

Even as a freshman, Hanigan was too talented as a hitter to be held out of the lineup and earned playing time at multiple other positions including the outfield, first base and third base.

By his sophomore season, Hanigan had become the leading run producer on the Rollins squad and the starting leftfielder. He hit .354 with 13 doubles, two home runs and 54 RBI. Displaying the same plate protection he now shows at the major league level, Hanigan walked 23 times while striking out only 16 times.

It was during this season that Ken Griffey, Jr., Barry Larkin and the Cincinnati Reds made a preseason stop at Harper-Shepherd Field in Winter Park for an exhibition game with the Tars.

Even though the Reds brought only a handful of the players who were on their major league roster at the time, the game actually ended up including several players who would eventually become big leaguers. In addition to Griffey, Larkin and Deion Sanders, the Reds’ lineup for the game also included Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, Rob Bell, Raul Gonzalez, and Jim Brower.

Hanigan batted third for the Tars and went 1-4 while seeing action at both rightfield and leftfield. Cincinnati won the contest by the final score of 3-1.

During the 2002 season, the Tars posted a 41-16 record and reached the NCAA Division II playoffs for the first time in nine years. Hanigan was a major factor in the success finishing second on the team with a .384 batting average while again leading the team in RBI’s with 48.

After playing only a handful of games at catcher during his first three seasons, Hanigan was slated to move back behind the plate full-time for the 2003 season.

However, after catching the attention of scouts with his play behind the plate in the Cape Cod Summer League, Hanigan chose to forgo his final year in college and sign with the Cincinnati Reds. At the time, Rollins graduate Jim Bowden was the general manager for the Reds.

While Bowden’s tenure with the franchise ended in 2003, Hanigan steadily moved up through the system.

After signing as a minor league free agent in August of 2002, he appeared in six games that season for the Reds’ Single-A team in Dayton. The next season he spent most of the year in Dayton and hit .277 with 31 RBI playing exclusively behind the plate.

Though never considered a top prospect because of his lack of home run power, Hanigan continued to rise in the organization due to his solid defensive, plate discipline and improving offensive production.

He advanced to Double-A Chattanooga in 2005 and in both 2006 and 2007 split time between Chattanooga and Triple-A Louisville.

Hanigan made his major league debut as a September call-up in 2007. In 2008, he made the Triple-A All-Star team and was hitting .324 when he was promoted to the majors in August 2008.

Seeing significant action over the final two months of the season, Hanigan made his pitch for a full-time spot on the big league roster by hitting .271 with two home runs and nine RBI. He also displayed his talents behind the plate throwing out 35% of would-be base stealers.

When the Reds traded for veteran catcher Ramon Hernandez in the off-season, it looked like Hanigan was destined for a backup role in 2009.

That proved to be the case for the first month of the season as Hanigan started only four games in April. However, he made the most of those rare chances with hits in all four starts while batting .357.

Even though Hanigan was seeing only limited action, he was obviously making a positive impression because when starting first baseman Joey Votto went down with an injury in early May, manager Dusty Baker shuffled his lineup and inserted Hanigan as the starting catcher.

Since May 6, Hanigan has been behind the plate for 22 of 29 games with Hernandez moving to first base. Overall, Hanigan has started 27 games so far this season and has registered at least one hit in 20 of those games.

He leads all national league rookies with a .320 batting average and also has a .407 on base percentage. Displaying great plate coverage, Hanigan has walked 15 times, while striking out only eight times.

Defensively, Hanigan is earning a reputation as one of the toughest catchers in the league to run against. He has allowed only seven stolen bases, while throwing out ten men (59%).

It has been a long and challenging road to the majors for the former free agent from a small Division II school, but Ryan Hanigan has proven that he belongs and seems destined to be around for a while.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Best Players Not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Running Backs

The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio is where NFL greats take the next step and become immortal legends. Since opening its doors in 1963, 253 former players, coaches and administrators have received football’s greatest honor, but there is a growing list of seemingly deserving players who for one reason or another have been unable to earn a bust in Canton.

Over the next several weeks, I am going to review every football position through a series of “Top 10” lists that looks at the best eligible players in NFL history at each position who are not in the Hall of Fame. I will also look at the 10 most deserving players not in the Hall of Fame (regardless of position) and 10 players who are in the Hall of Fame, but maybe shouldn’t be.

I am starting my position-by-position rundown by looking at the best eligible running backs not in the Hall of Fame.

As is the case with all offensive skill positions, the statistical numbers accumulated by running backs has ballooned over the last three decades. Of the top 50 players in career rushing yards in NFL history, only seven played a majority of their careers prior to 1980.

In 1980, Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson were the only members of the 10,000-career rushing yards club. Today, that club includes 24 players.

Among running backs in the Hall of Fame, 16 totaled less than 6,000 career yards rushing, but all of those players completed their careers prior to 1972.

It will probably start to sound like a broken record as I move through this series, but one of the biggest problems with the Hall of Fame selection process is that as the game changes and statistics increase, the Hall of Fame voters have forgotten an entire generation of great players who played most of their careers before the stats explosion.

That is particularly the case for running backs, as the Hall of Fame voters seem to have basically decided to ignore the position despite its obvious value in helping teams win championships. Rather than genuinely comparing stats from skill position players of all generations to determine who legitimately belongs in the Hall of Fame, voters seem to have tossed the entire issue aside by gravitating toward selecting players at positions where statistics have little impact.

Since 1995, only four running backs (Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen, Barry Sanders, Thurman Thomas) and nine wide receivers have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Conversely, during the same period, 18 offensive linemen and 10 defensive linemen have received the call from the hall.

So, as I look at the players I consider to be the best eligible player at each position not in the Hall of Fame, career statistics will be just one of a number of factors used to create the lists.

First and foremost, I am looking at the career of each player in the context of when he played. I will look particularly at how he compares against other players (Hall of Famers and non-Hall of Famers) from that era and whether, at the time of his retirement, he was considered a legitimate candidate for the Hall of Fame.

Below is a list of my choices for the top 10 running backs not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Click here to read more and see pictures of each player in the top 10.

10. Freeman McNeil – New York Jets – 1981-1992

9. Curt Warner – Seattle Seahawks/Los Angeles Rams – 1983-1990

8. James Brooks – San Diego Chargers/Cincinnati Bengals/Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Cleveland Browns – 1981-1992

7. Floyd Little – Denver Broncos – 1967-1975

6. Chuck Foreman – Minnesota Vikings/New England Patriots – 1973-1980

5. Terrell Davis – Denver Broncos – 1995-2001

4. Herschel Walker – Dallas Cowboys/Minnesota Vikings/Philadelphia Eagles/New York Giants – 1986-1997

3. Ricky Watters – San Francisco 49ers/Philadelphia Eagles/Seattle Seahawks – 1992-2001

2. Ottis Anderson – St. Louis Cardinals/New York Giants – 1979-1992

1. Roger Craig – San Francisco 49ers/Los Angeles Raiders/Minnesota Vikings – 1983-1993

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Do the Pirates Still Belong in Pittsburgh?

The trade by the Pittsburgh Pirates of All-Star outfielder Nate McLouth is another reminder that the great tradition and history of the Prates is now just that, history.

It has been 17 years since the Pittsburgh Pirates last posted a winning record and for most of that run they haven’t even been close.

Since last winning the National League East in 1992, the Pirates have posted a record of 1129-1447 (.438). Despite annually having one of the first picks in the amateur player draft, the team has been getting consistently worse in recent years.

Pittsburgh has lost at least 87 games every year since 2000 and has lost either 94 or 95 games in each of the last four seasons.

It wasn’t always like this for one of baseball’s oldest franchises.

Even with all their losing of the last two decades, the Pirates still have an all-time winning record. Since the franchise began in 1882 as the Pittsburgh Alleghenys, their all-time record is 9,716-9,508 (.505).

Led by Hall of Fame shortstop Honus Wagner, the Pirates played in the first World Series of the modern era, losing to Boston in eight games following the 1903 season. They won the World Series title in 1909 and again in 1925.

Few World Series Championships have been as improbable, or as dramatic, as Pittsburgh’s seven-game victory over the New York Yankees following the 1960 season.

Pittsburgh lost games by the scores of 16-3, 12-0 and 10-0, but claimed the championship with a dramatic 10-9 victory in the seventh game of the series. Bill Mazeroski’s home run in the bottom of the ninth was the first walk-off home run to win a World Series and remains one of the most memorable moments in series history.

Between 1970 and 1979, the Pirates reached the National League Championship Series six times and won the World Series in 1971 and 1979.

Led by young superstar Barry Bonds, the Pirates reached three straight National League Championship Series from 1990-1992. They lost in six games to Cincinnati in 1990 and then dropped dramatic seven game series to the Atlanta Braves in both 1991 and 1992.

Bonds left for San Francisco after the 1992 season and the Pirates have never been able to recover.

Instead of legendary figures such as Wagner, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Pie Traynor and the Waner brothers, the Pirates of the last 17 years have included a steady stream of forgettable players who have done little to maintain the great Pirate tradition.

Pittsburgh and the Western portion of Pennsylvania is a proud area with a great history for supporting their sports franchises.

Growing up, my family annually made at least one summer trip to Western Pennsylvania, where my mother grew up, to visit relatives. No matter what kind of season the Pirates were having, you could always count on the nightly broadcast of their games to be what people were watching all over the region.

However, fan devotion hasn’t always translated into steady attendance for the club.

The only time in team history that Pittsburgh led the National League in attendance was during their World Series season of 1925. Since 1950, Pittsburgh has never ranked higher than third in the league in attendance and, as you might expect, the numbers in recent years has been quite dismal.

In 1979, when the “We Are Family” Pirates won a seven-game World Series against Baltimore, Pittsburgh ranked only 10th in the National League with an average nightly attendance of 17,722. During their playoff seasons from 1990-1992 they never ranked better than sixth in the league in attendance with an average just below 25,000 per game.

In fact, when they faced Cincinnati in the 1990 National League Championship Series, Reds fans willing to make the trek into Pennsylvania purchased many of the tickets for the games in Pittsburgh.

Since 1993, Pittsburgh has finished near the league bottom in attendance every season and only once has averaged more than 23,000 fans per game.

That came in 2001 when the Pirates opened their new publicly funded baseball-only stadium–PNC Park–after years of sharing Three Rivers Stadium with the Steelers.

After gutting the roster and fielding a team that consistently had one of baseball’s lowest payrolls (less than $11 million in 1997), ownership claimed they HAD TO HAVE the new ballpark if they wanted to get back to being competitive.

In 2001, more people watched a baseball game in Pittsburgh than in any other season in franchise history. Total attendance of 2,464,870 was nearly 400,000 better than in the previous high season of 1991.

However, the record crowds were greeted by one of the worst teams in franchise history as the Pirates went 62-100 to finish in last place in their division.

Once the allure of the new stadium wore off, attendance went back to normal and the Pirates have not averaged more than 23,000 fans in a season since. So far in 2009, a cold spring has helped contribute to an attendance average of less than 17,000 fans per game.

It is easy to blame the fans and lack of ticket revenue for why the Pirates haven’t been competitive for 17 years, but I think it is more accurate to place the blame squarely on the front office. While other teams with similar annual revenue have made obvious efforts to try and be competitive, the Pirates’ front office seems more interested in turning a profit than in making the moves needed to put a quality product on the field.

While the Pirates may not annually generate the amount of revenue earned by teams such as Boston and New York, they also spend a far smaller percentage of their total revenue on payroll than most other teams.

When looking at 2005 revenue and total team payroll for 2006, the Pirates ranked 28th in the league in the amount of total revenue spent on payroll at 43%. Comparably, the Yankees ranked third at 74% and the Red Sox were tied with Houston for eighth at 60%.

Thanks in part to revenue sharing money received from teams like the Yankees and Red Sox; the Pirates were reportedly among the most successful teams in the league on the balance sheet with a profit of around $34 million during 2005-2006. However, on the field the team posted a 134-190 (.413) record.

In 2001, the Pirates had a team payroll of $57 million. In 2008, the payroll was $48 million, after being just $38 million in 2005.

Teams such as the Florida Marlins and Oakland A’s have proven that even without having a high team payroll you can have periods of competitiveness if you build a sound foundation through the minor league system.

Part of the problem for the Pirates has been an inability to convert high draft choices into productive major league players.

Pittsburgh has chosen in the top 10 in the amateur draft 10 times since 1995, yet only two of those players –Kris Benson and Paul Maholm–have had even limited success at the major league level.

In addition, due to the front office mentality that profits trump success, the team has become the de-facto farm team for winning franchises. Every time an All-Star caliber player like McLouth, Benson, Jason Kendall, Aramis Ramirez, Brian Giles, Xavier Nady and Jason Bay starts to show promise, the Pirates quickly trade the player for additional prospects.

The standard line is that they are building for the future, but the reality is that the player had become too expensive for the Pirates’ small salary budget.

In 2009, the Pirates posted a winning record in April (11-10) for the first time since 2002 and hopes were high that this might be the season when they finally started playing for today, instead of tomorrow. However, the trade of McLouth, who was hitting .256 with nine home runs and 34 RBI at the time of the trade, illustrates the reality that for anyone waiting for the Pirates to again be competitive tomorrow will likely never come.

With the Steelers having claimed the most recent Super Bowl title and the Penguins in the NHL Finals for the second straight season, it is clear that professional sports teams can enjoy success in Pittsburgh. However, Pittsburgh has an economy that even in good economic times does not compare with most other cities that house three or more professional sports teams.

There is little question that unless the Pirates front office is forced to increase the percentage of revenue spent on building the on-the-field product the team will continue to flounder. If that is the case, it is likely that attendance will continue to decline as fans choose to spend their limited sports entertainment budgets on teams that actually care about winning.

It is doubtful that Major League Baseball would ever actually move one of its original franchises, but if attendance continues to fall and ownership continues to show little interest in building a winner, you have to wonder if one day there will be no other choice.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Chris Evert – June Vintage Athlete of the Month

The surprising loss in the French Open by the seemingly invincible Rafael Nadal got me thinking about other players who displayed clay court dominance during their careers. Many have enjoyed periods of dominance on the surface, but no tennis player, man or woman, in the modern era of tennis has been more unbeatable on clay than Chris Evert.

Between August 1973 and May 1979, the June Vintage Athlete of the Month won an amazing 125 consecutive matches on clay while losing only seven total sets. After losing a third set tiebreaker to Tracy Austin in the semifinals of the 1979 Italian Open, she rebounded to win her next 72 matches on the surface.

She won seven French Open Championships and three of her six U.S. Open titles came while the tournament was played on clay.

Even though Evert was particularly tough to beat on clay, it wasn’t like she didn’t also display dominance on other surfaces.

Easily the most consistent player in women’s tennis history, Evert won at least one grand slam title in 13 consecutive years. She reached at least the semifinals in each of her first 34 grand slam appearances and 52 times out of 56 total appearances in the four biggest tournaments in tennis.

While her total of 18 total grand slam singles titles is tied for fourth in women’s tennis history, it is likely she would have won considerably more titles had she participated in all four majors every year during her career.

Instead, Evert participated in the Australian Open only six times (winning twice). After winning the French Open in 1974 and 1975, she skipped the tournament for three years before returning to win the title five more times between 1979 and 1986.

Her overall career singles record of 1,309-146 (.900) ranks as the best of any player in professional tennis history.

Others may have done more to champion the cause of equality for women’s tennis, but there is no question that women’s tennis would not have the broad appeal it enjoys today without Evert.

She burst onto the scene as a 16-year old in 1971, making the semifinals of the U.S. Open in her first grand slam tournament. With a pretty smile and wicked two-handed backhand, Evert opened the game of women’s tennis to a new generation of fans.

Tennis in the mid-1970s enjoyed an American revival as teenage girls flocked to courts across the country because they wanted to learn to play like Chris Evert. Teenage boys naturally followed because they wanted to be where the girls were.

Her impact on the tennis world was soon obvious as teenage girls including Andrea Jaeger, Tracy Austin and Mary Joe Fernandez began popping up on the professional tour.

That Evert was able to maintain her great success for such a long period of time is especially remarkable considering that she grew up right in front of her adoring public.

Her engagement to men’s tennis star Jimmy Connors in 1974 made national headlines, as did their subsequent breakup.

In 1976 Sports Illustrated named the 22-year old Evert as their “Sportswoman of the Year.”

After being romantically linked to a number of high-profile men, in 1979 Evert married British tennis player John Lloyd.

Throughout the 1980s, Evert-Lloyd continued to rank among the top players in women’s tennis. Though Martina Navratilova had eclipsed Evert-Lloyd as the top player in the game, she ranked among the top three players in women’s tennis every year through 1988.

After divorcing John Lloyd in 1987, Evert married two-time Olympic downhill skier Andy Mill in 1988.

In 1989, she retired from the game with 157 career singles titles.

For most of the next two decades, Evert would appear occasionally as a commentator for one of the grand slam championships, but spent most of her time raising her three sons.

In 2006 Evert and Mills divorced and less than two years later she married popular professional golfer Greg Norman. Evert now can occasionally be seen walking the course during Norman’s tournaments.

Each month, Sports Then and Now celebrates and remembers the accomplishments of a notable athlete from past generations. If you had a favorite athlete growing up that you would like to see featured as the Vintage Athlete of the Month, send me a nomination by e-mail.
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