Thursday, January 30, 2014

Why I want Pete Carroll to win the Super Bowl

It was 15 years ago as I was interviewing Pete Carroll in his office at old Foxboro Stadium when I realized that his roots in Marin County run deeper than Ross Valley. 

His ties to Marin pre-date not only the Vince Lombardi Trophy, but Vince Lombardi’s hey days in Green Bay.

Then head coach of the New England Patriots, Carroll motioned me beside his desk and pointed at a large black-and-white portrait on the wall. It was a panoramic view of a big lot and open space with tons of trees and a mountain off in the distance, but I couldn’t place it as easy as I could a Justin Bieber police mug shot.

Carroll told me it was aerial photo of Greenbrae taken from the east looking west before the Bon Air Center was built in 1952. It was a photo of his hometown before a shopping center, high-rise condos and too many traffic lights appeared in the name of progress.  It was a constant reminder of home -- where their annual Turkey Bowl pick-up touch football game on Thanksgiving was born and how much fun life was as a kid – just a few feet away over his left shoulder as he sat at age  47 in his chair.

At that time, in December 1998, Carroll was on top of the world. His team had won the AFC East in his first year as the Patriots’ head coach and they were on the verge of making the playoffs again in a brutal division. A few days later, the Patriots rallied from a halftime deficit and shutout Steve Young and the San Francisco 49ers’ offense in the second half for a 24-21 victory, their fourth in their last five games.

However, something was missing from Carroll’s resume. Something he longed for more than home.


As close as Carroll was to a photo of his hometown, he was not comfortable with the Patriots.  For starters, he was owner Robert Kraft’s second choice because Kraft wasn’t then ready to hire Bill Belichick. 

Carroll was stereotyped as California cool, too hip for narrow-minded New England, a fun-loving, sandal-wearing, pop music-listening surfer dude who was too cute and too soft for the hard knocks of the NFL and Boston media and much too rah-rah for the win-or-be-chewed-up pro game. They couldn’t understand or appreciate that there was a method to his gladness.

Carroll was criticized for being too energetic, too positive, too nice. His enthusiastic way of coaching the pros was unconventional and thus, critics assessed, forever doomed for failure in the NFL.
The Patriots’ coach was the anti-Bill Parcells, merely a substitute teacher employed after Parcells called in sick looking for more player personnel control after leading the Pats to the Super Bowl in 1996.

Carroll fit into Massachusetts like a Yankees fan.

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, Carroll wasn’t given personnel control or enough input in attempting to draft and build the post-Parcells’ Patriots. He had an owner who wasn’t as supportive or decisive as needed to be and Carroll lost the best player on his team, Curtis Martin, to free agency.

And so Carroll was fired by the Patriots at the end of the 1999 season. Before the age of 50, he was a twice-fired NFL head coach even though he had only one losing season – his first with the New York Jets when his team was dubbed “The Good Ship Lollipop” by the New York press.

Then came the 11-year itch. The one thing at the core of Carroll’s spirit  -- and it has and should never be overlooked or underrated-- is his fierce competitiveness. He loves to compete, whether it’s for the Super Bowl or the Turkey Bowl, against the New York Giants or with the Redwood Pop Warner Junior Giants. He once elbowed a Jets assistant coach so hard during a pick-up basketball game at team headquarters that it opened a gash that required stitches to close.

For 11 years, Carroll privately harbored an obsession to be a head coach again in the NFL. He craved another chance to compete against the best football players and head coaches in the world.  He wanted another shot to prove he could do it, yet the circumstances needed to be that he could do it his way. It had to be his personality and his philosophy moving forward.

He needed to scratch that itch. He sought respect.

That was hard to come by. Remember Carroll was the fourth choice to coach the USC Trojans and yet, as he led them to two national championships, he eyed another opportunity for the right fit to take him back to the NFL. He passed at other offers before the Seattle Seahawks gave it to him and, unlike the Jets and Patriots, they stuck with him. Back-to-back 7-9 seasons in Seattle were rewarded because he showed his way – his woo-wwo laugh-in-the-face-of-adversity coaching style -- could indeed work.  He could win and have fun at the same time.

Now, ironically, Carroll’s quest for the Super Bowl takes him back to the very spot where he was first fired as a head coach. He is taking his Super Bowl team from the northwest and returning to the northeast – where most of his harsh critics from the past still reside – a team he controlled and built and coached on his terms. He believed in the process – his way – all along and now he gets to showcase it on the biggest stage in all of sport. He could make history, becoming the first head coach to win a Super Bowl after twice being fired as a head coach in the league.

The only shame of it is his proud parents aren’t alive.  Rita, who died in 2000, and Jim, who died a year later, lived together in Greenbrae for 45 years long before Bon Air Center surrendered to development. When Pete became the Patriots coach, he bought them a satellite dish so they wouldn’t have to go to the Flatiron in San Rafael to watch his team’s games anymore.  He arranged for his dad to sit in the press box at Candlestick Park to watch him bring the Patriots to play the 49ers in an exhibition game.

 The kindness and generosity of Carroll extends beyond his family to lifelong friends, including his high school coach, the late Bob Troppmann whom Carroll phoned moments before his first BCS national title game with USC in the Orange Bowl to ask what call to make for the coin toss. On the eve of the NFC championship game last week, Carroll called a friend in Marin when he heard his mother was ill. And after the NFC title game, he began calling friends to give them tickets to the Super Bowl.

They know Pete Carroll. They get Pete Carroll.  He’s about taking care of people, including his players, and he brings out the best in all of them. That’s his deal. He’s same guy who used to draw plays in the sand at Stinson Beach in the summer time who has remained the same guy today seeking the same thing, the one thing that has eluded him in the NFL, as clear as that black-and-white photo of Greenbrae.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

My Baseball Hall of Fame ballot is stretched

Compared to last year, I stuffed my Baseball Hall of Fame ballot this year. Stuffed it like a nudist packing a suitcase for the South Pole.

And yet I wonder if I overcompensated. Like going from dieting to an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord in a day.

Now that members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) are more transparent with their reasons for voting for players on their HOF ballots it has become clear to me that I may have higher standards than most of my peers.

I don’t know how or why.

After voting for only three players – Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza – for induction into the hallowed Cooperstown museum last year, I discovered that among the 125 active and honorary HOF voting members (out of 559 total voters) who posted their picks on the website, I was one of only nine who listed less than four candidates on their ballot and I was the only voter who named just Bagwell, Biggio and Piazza on his/her ballot. Mind you, we can vote for a maximum of 10 players and not one player earned enough votes to receive induction in 2013.

We pitched a shutout in the worse way. Didn’t give a living soul a chance to enter Cooperstown’s immortal gates.

What we have here is a big and wide difference of opinion, which only got more convoluted this year with a large number of new and worthy first-time candidates – led by Greg Maddux -- added to a ballot as long as the return lines at the department store after Christmas.

So, I asked myself, am I too tough or too stubborn when it comes to Hall of Fame voting?

I don’t know how or why.

The easy thing to do is pull the ballot out of the envelope when it arrives in the mail, pick up a pen and check off 10 names as fast as I can like Sylvester Stallone punches out fight movies. That would eliminate any research or agony and make my life a lot less stressful around the holidays for something I can consider an honor and privilege.

But, truth be known, I spend more time looking over my ballot than I do on Christmas shopping. I guess I’m the Grinch of Baseball Hall of Fame voting.

My greatest concern is turning the Hall of Fame into Cooperstown Lite. If I voted for everyone that I have read or heard from people who don’t have a vote yet opine of players who “deserve” to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, we’d have a Baseball Fantasy Hall of Fame League. 

Yes, Hall of Fame credentials are numbers based.  Numbers are more consequential to baseball than any other sport.  But it goes beyond stats and comparisons to other Hall of Famers.  I ask myself “How did this player singularly distinguish himself and separate himself from so many other great players of his era?” Did he dominate the game for the vast majority of his career and at his position? That can be measured in great part by the number of All Star Games he played in, the number of post-season awards he won and the statistical categories he led in his league.

Biggio was checked on my ballot as much for his longevity, versatility and loyalty with one team in a musical chairs free agent era as for the fact that he had 3,060 hits, including 668 doubles – the most by any right-handed batter in the history of the game.

Bagwell and Piazza have been suspected of using Performance Enhancing Drugs, though I have seen or heard of their names being linked to PED use in any Major League Baseball or Congressional investigation. 

Bagwell averaged 32 home runs and 103 RBIs in his first 14 seasons, playing approximately half of his games in the pitcher-friendly Houston Astrodome. He scored 1,517 runs and knocked in 1,529 and every other player who has ever reached the 1,500 plateau in those two categories is in the Hall of Fame. Bagwell’s career OPS is higher than Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson.

Piazza, quite simply, is one of the best offensive catchers of all-time. Of his 427 home runs, 396 were hit as a catcher, most ever by a man in that defensive-minded position. He batted .308 in his career and made the All-Star team 12 times.

Now comes the new class of Hall of Fame candidates. Greg Maddux was a shoe-in to be inducted this season.  He won 355 games – the most by a right-handed pitcher since World War II -- and four times won his league’s Cy Young Award and earned run average title.

Maddux’s teammate in Atlanta, Tom Glavine, also passed the coveted 300 career win line. He won two Cy Young Awards and won 20 games in a season five times.  Maddux and Glavine were checked on my ballot this year.

Now comes the tough part. I had never voted for Jack Morris or Tim Raines so why now?
 This was Morris’ 15th and last year on the Hall of Fame ballot so he had sentiment of his side. He also has a 3.90 career earned run average, the same as Mike Krukow, who is a Hall of Fame guy but not a Hall of Fame pitcher. The closest Morris came to winning a Cy Young Award was a third-place finish in 1981 (when a reliever, Rollie Fingers, won it and Steve McCatty was runner-up) and 1983 (when LaMarr Hoyt won it and reliever Dan Quisenberry was second). Morris logged a lot of innings, Opening Day starts, and pitched one incredibly great game in the final game of the 1991 World Series. He was extremely durable, but was he truly dominant? I’m a sentimental guy, but I still couldn’t bring myself to vote for Morris. I’m sorry.

Raines is intriguing because he was such a unique player. His problem is he’s always been compared to Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson and I have held that against him as if there is shame in being the second or third (if you include Pete Rose) best lead-off hitter in the game. Raines was an All-Star seven consecutive years. He won a batting title. He hit three home runs in one game and 170 in his career, more than Hall of Famers Joe Cronin, Enos Slaughter and Lou Brock.  Raines led the league in stolen bases four times, has a higher steal success rate than Henderson and is fifth all-time in steals. The four in front of him on that list are all in the Hall of Fame. The Steroid Era has forced voters to give greater credence to the value of all facets of the game. Raines gets my Hall of Fame nod now.

So that’s six checks on my 2013 ballot – twice as many as last year.  I also gave consideration to Curt Schilling, Alan Trammel, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff and Lee Smith and I’m not ready to vote yet for Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, the greatest player I’ve seen in my lifetime. Not with this deep and talented list of candidates.

 But there are two more players on this year’s ballot – both first-timers – who warranted a close look. My apologies, Mike Mussina.

Frank Thomas slugged 521 home runs and batted .301 in his career, won two MVPs, a batting title and four times led his league in on-base percentage. But he was a Designated Hitter, like Edgar Martinez, for the majority of his career and I had a hard time getting my head around that. That said, I considered Thomas and his overwhelming offensive numbers as a purportedly “clean” player to be more Hall of Fame worthy than Jack Morris and his pitching stats.

The curse of Jeff Kent was batting behind Bonds and playing in his considerable shadow. Kent’s power numbers were amazing for a middle infielder, but his defensive play was average at best. That said, he topped the great Rogers Hornsby as the all-time home run hitter at his position so that alone shouldn’t deny Kent entry into the Hall of Fame. And, really, how many second basemen in the history of the game have batted clean-up? Kent tops them all.

That brings the check-out total on my Hall of Fame ballot this year to eight, still two fewer than I am permitted by BBWAA decree, yet my personal high in 15 years of voting. 

Too tough? Too stubborn? Too late to know how or why.