Monday, December 21, 2009

The new czar in town

Mike Holmgren is coming to town. Monday, after nearly a week of meetings and suspense, he accepted the role of Browns team president.

If you want a team czar with football chops, a guy who has won everywhere he's gone, a guy who was a leader -- not a support staffer -- on a Super Bowl winner, Holmgren is your man.

That's good news. But that's not the best news. The best news is who Holmgren is slated to replace as team president.

No, not Mike Keenan. He's the team's main business operations guy, and will transition to the role of chief financial officer.

I'm talking about Randy Lerner.

For way too long now, Lerner has been the Browns' football czar by default. As the team's owner, it has ultimately been up to him to staff the president's, general manager's and head coach's positions. In an organizational setup than began with the hiring of John Collins in 2004 and survived through inertia to this year, the team president was not technically part of the football chain of command, instead leaning more toward the business side of the operation. That removed another layer of authority between the owner and the general manager.

As a result, Lerner's inadequate administrative thumbprint has been all-too-visible on the Browns for the past seven years. From Collins to Phil Savage to Romeo Crennel to Eric Mangini, Lerner kept hiring decision-makers who were untested in, and ultimately proven to be ill-suited for, their job descriptions.

Every Lerner football hire has been a step-up hire. Savage from scouting director to GM. Crennel from coordinator to coach. Mangini was the coach who would be czar, but he turned out to be a very weak czar, so the job fell back to Lerner.

Holmgren is a step-up hire, too. He's never been a team president. But his history in spotlight positions -- and success in those spotlight positions -- suggests that this hire will be a little different.

As team president, Holmgren's job is going to primarily consist of looking at things from the business-cliche "30,000 foot level." His job will be one of vision, team-building and delegation. At first, he might be more involved in the relative minutiae of deciding who should occupy the 53rd spot on the roster, who makes the final cut in training camp and how to best utilize Josh Cribbs. But over time, he'll have his GM and coach making those judgment calls.

Ultimately, Holmgren is in place to eradicate a firmly-entrenched losing culture by installing a system of leadership based on structure, accountability, discipline, and a cultivating a winning attitude from the GM's chair down to the practice squad.

It's something the Browns haven't had in a long, long time: an umbrella-type leader who rules over the Berea facility with an authoritative air. Someone to build standards and a strategic plan for the future, and make sure everyone is living up to that plan. If someone isn't, there are consequences ready and waiting.

With Lerner splitting his time and attention among Cleveland, Long Island and Birmingham, England, and not really having a dominant personality to begin with, he is ill-suited for the role of organizational godfather. Savage survived a coup d'etat of sorts from Collins, leaving him as the organizational go-to guy, but it was evident over the ensuing years that A) his people skills were lacking and B) he was mostly at home in a rental car, jaunting between college towns to scout next year's draft class.

Mangini also has issues with his people skills, and at 38 and with just three previous years as a head coach under his belt, was not experienced enough for the task of singlehandedly running an NFL franchise.

The result was what you'd expect when no one is adequately steering the ship. The often-mentioned "rudderless suck" that has defined the Browns for the past 10 years.

That's the real value of Holmgren. It's not really in his ability to coach X's and O's -- unless he at some point names himself coach, in what would be a pretty blatant mistake on Holmgren's part.

It's not his ability to run a draft-day war room, his roster management, his ability to make trades and free agent signings, or his ability to groom Brady Quinn as an NFL passer.

Holmgren's real value to the Browns, the area in which he needs to succeed above all others, is in finding guys to do all of the above. And then finding guys to replace those guys when they are inevitably hired away by other teams, because you've become one of the league's model franchises and everyone is trying to emulate you.

That's how teams like the Patriots, Colts and Steelers leave the rest of us scratching our heads at their year-in, year-out success, with their ability to take seemingly no-name players and coaches and turn them into hot properties.

It's all in the organizing of the organization. And organization is what the Browns have lacked since returning to the league.

With Holmgren on board, we can now envision a world where Lerner can ping-pong from Long Island to Cleveland to England and back, make sporadic appearances in Berea and at games, hide from the media's microphones, enjoy an afternoon brandy, whatever he wants. And no Browns fan needs to care because Lerner's involvement in the football operations extends only to his writing hand, which he uses to sign the checks.

I don't know about you, but that's a world I can't wait to live in.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A win that's worth the price

At this point in the Browns' seasons, wins are the enemy.

Wins drop you in the draft order. Wins keep Eric Mangini employed, and might even convince Randy Lerner that it's OK to move forward with Mangini as the primary personnel decision-maker.

When you're 1-11 and four games away from euthanizing, burying and forgetting about this season, wins do nothing but provide false hope and impede long-term progress.

On Thursday, the Browns won. They likely did most or all of the above -- deprive themselves of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, secure Mangini as the coach at the outset of next season, possibly cause Lerner to hold off on hiring a general manager, and made the fans hope, however so slightly, that maybe some faint pulses of light are filtering through the fog that has entrapped this franchise for way too long.

Against 30 other teams, it would have been a meaningless win that did exactly what the evidence says it did -- more harm than good.

But this wasn't the other 30 teams. This was the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If you've lived on either side of this border rivalry between two cities separated by less than 150 miles of interstate, you know the history. Recently, it hasn't been much of a rivalry. The Browns had lost 12 straight to the Steelers, the last win coming at Heinz Field on Oct. 5, 2003.

How long ago was that? The following month, Michigan beat Ohio State 35-21 for their last victory over the Buckeyes to date. That's how long ago.

The Browns hadn't beaten the Steelers in Cleveland since Sept. 17, 2000. How long ago was that? A rookie from Penn State named Courtney Brown was the star of the game with three sacks.

There were excruciating near misses over that span. A 16-13 overtime loss in 2002, when the Steelers had a would-be game winning field goal blocked, but the ball stayed behind the line of scrimmage, allowing for a recovery and successful re-kick. A wild card playoff game at the end of that season in which the Browns held a 17-point second half lead, only to let it evaporate and lose, 36-33. A last-minute Willie Parker touchdown in 2006. A missed Phil Dawson 52-yard field goal attempt in 2007, which would have tied the game as time expired.

There were blowouts, too. Since returning to the NFL in 1999, the Browns have been blanked by the Steelers four times, by scores of 43-0, 22-0, 41-0 and 31-0. They held the Browns to seven points or less another five times.

But the biggest discrepancy of all: over that span, the Steelers have won two Super Bowls. The Browns have managed two winning seasons.

It's been a long, strange, crazy, heartbreaking, confusing, frustrating road for the Browns these past 10 years. The twice-yearly beatings at the hands of the Steelers, the declarations of the rivalry's death by members of the local and national media, all of it just served as the most pointed reminder that the Browns have fallen from glory, and hard. The one-time New York Yankees of professional football had become the Los Angeles Clippers -- a team with losing in its DNA.

Better talent, in the form of star players -- the kind a team is supposed to get when it drafts first overall -- is ultimately the only way the Browns are going to amass the bricks and mortar needed to turn their fortunes around. But that's not all of it. You need talent to win. But you also need to have your heart in it. You have to be invested physically, mentally and emotionally in wanting to win.

Thursday night, we saw for the first time in a long, long time a Browns team that cared. Really, truly cared. Thursday night, we saw a maligned coaching staff leading an offense and defense that was undermanned and undertalented, but still playing like this game meant something. Everyone from one-man wrecking crew Josh Cribbs to unheralded rookies like Marcus Benard started playing like they were sick and tired of losing to the Steelers and finally wanted to do something about it.

The Steelers, for their part, were fighting for their playoff lives. They had lost four straight and had fallen to 6-6 heading into the game. Ben Roethlisberger was a career 10-0 against the Browns. Maybe they viewed this game as a free throw, a chance to relax, get an easy win against a devastated team and right their ship. Or maybe the Steelers really can't bail water fast enough to prevent their ship from sinking.

Whatever happened, the Steelers looked completely frazzled by the different looks that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan threw at them. Roethlisberger was sacked eight times. Rashard Mendenhall was Pittsburgh's leading rusher, amassing a pedestrian 53 yards on 16 carries.

Still, through all of it, Pittsburgh hung tough and remained within a touchdown in the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter is when Roethlisberger, like all great quarterbacks, becomes an escape artist and pulls drive-saving completions out of his nether regions.

Thursday, it wasn't there. Roethlisberger moved the ball, but looked utterly mediocre in doing so. The deadly efficiency with which he normally marches his team on game-winning and game-tying drives was absent. Needing a touchdown to tie with time running thin, he didn't penetrate any further than the Cleveland 39 yard line before David Bowens knocked away a 4th-and-6 pass, essentially sealing the game.

When Bowens knocked the ball away and began celebrating, I knew for certain that it was right for the Browns to win this game. They needed it. They worked for it. They deserved it.

We, as a city of football fans, deserved it.

After the game, Phil Dawson -- the only Brown to experience every loss to the Steelers since 1999 -- was found with moist eyes in the locker room. He had pointed to the fans in the Dawg Pound after the game, the ones who were sticking around in the open lakefront freezer, steaming the wind-chilled sub-zero air with their trademark barking.

"This was for them," Dawson told The Plain Dealer. "I just wanted to let them know how much I appreciate them. It was a moment like this that you want to share with them. I hope the people in Cleveland enjoy this one because they really deserve it."

High emotion at the end of a miserably cold game near the end of a lost season. Tears of joy after finally breaking the shackles of submission. Dawg Pound fans returning the sound and fury of the late '80s to the shores of Lake Erie, for at least one night.

That's why this is still a rivalry. That's why Thursday night was worth a couple of spots in the draft. That's why this game means more.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Opportunity knocks

From the start of training camp until the end of November, Delonte West was a man on the edge.

Delonte was a man on the edge emotionally, on the edge of domestic turmoil and on the edge of pending legal proceedings from his September weapons-related arrest. Because of that, he was a man on the edge with the Cavs. He has spent the past few months hovering around the team's fringes, involved, yet not all that involved.

Early in the season, he was practicing with the team, but not activated as Danny Ferry and Mike Brown continued to move very cautiously with their troubled player. Aided by pressure on Brown from LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal, he returned for a Halloween showdown with Charlotte. He scored 13 points, but was largely ineffective in the ensuing three games. Following the Cavs' win in New York on Nov. 6, he was deactivated again, missing another four games in the span of 11 days.

It was during this time that Ferry reportedly made a hard push for Stephen Jackson, who had grown disenchanted with the Golden State Warriors. Jackson is a swingman with his own checkered past, but loads of scoring talent and defensive ability. Jackson is 31 and signed to a horrible contract that will saddle his team for another three seasons as Jackson creeps into his mid-30s, but at a time when the Cavs were about to resign themselves to moving forward without Delonte, Jackson was a worthwhile acquisition to pursue. Statistically, he could replace West and then some.

But Warriors coach and organizational overlord Don Nelson had other ideas. The Charlotte Bobcats were offering Vladimir Radmanovic and Raja Bell, who could both help the Warriors at some point this season. The Cavs were reportedly offering up the unreliable West on the condition of a buyout. If Nelson turned down West, the Cavs' remaining stable of tradeable pieces included Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who would fit Nelson's uptempo style like a down jacket fits a Caribbean cruise, and other assorted bits and pieces at the end of the bench.

To put it another way, all Nelson could hope to gain from the Cavs is cap relief, and cap relief probably wasn't enough for one of the Warriors' two best players. There also might be something to the swirling rumor that Nelson didn't want to reward the malcontent Jackson with a trade to a contender in Cleveland.

Whatever the reason, Jackson is now a Bobcat, and the Cavs were left with Delonte's dicey situation, and the knowledge that how his season plays out might have a great deal to do with how the Cavs' season plays out.

As long as Delonte is a Cav, he's an important part of the team. With a versatile skill set, indefatigable legs and the ability to play relentless defense on bigger guards, he simply brings too many assets to the table to become an extra on the set. There is no real way for a team to reduce its reliance on a player like Delonte, unless it wants to completely replace him with another player.

Stephen Jackson and Delonte West together is an either/or proposition. With Jackson on the roster, Delonte would have been reduced to a bit player, making do with the scraps of playing time that Brown throws his way, hoping for a teammate's strained groin or pulled hamstring to bump him up in the rotation. Every time Delonte arrived for a game or practice, he would have found himself surrounded by reminders that he's unreliable, damaged goods, that his superiors have deemed him unfit for a key role on a winning team.

It might have been the ruination of Delonte's career as we know it. Or at the very least, the ruination of his time with the Cavs.

Delonte needed another chance. He needed opportunity to knock yet again. And that's exactly what he received when Nelson decided to send Jackson to Charlotte instead of Cleveland. In the weeks following Jackson's trade to Clarlotte, Delonte has re-emerged as the do-everything handyman who was so critical to the Cavs' success last year.

A week ago Saturday, Delonte pulled a 10-point, 10-assist game out of nowhere, helping the Cavs rout the Mavericks. He followed it up with an eight-point game in a blowout win over Phoenix.

This past Friday against Chicago, he had an emotional downswing, going scoreless and playing just over five lethargic minutes before Brown pulled him. Earlier in the season, it might have foretold another two-week inactive spell. But Delonte delivered his most encouraging signs yet on Sunday.

Not only was he active for Sunday's win over the Bucks, he was the MVP of the game. In 24 minutes, he scored 21 points, helping the Cavs to erase an early 11-0 deficit and spurring an unreal 29-0 run that turned the rest of the game into a scrimmage.

It's not time to get swept up in Redz-mania just yet. He's still mired in a volatile point in his life. He's still afflicted with bipolar disorder and will be for the remainder of his life. Chances are, he's going to miss games between now and the end of the season, whether it is due to emotional issues or his pending legal proceedings. It would be folly to assume that a uptick in game performance signals the all-clear.

What the past four games does demonstrate is that Delonte is starting to play with the same confidence he showed last year. His recovery between the Chicago and Milwaukee games would seem to show that he's figuring out how to manage his emotional swings effectively -- at least to the point that one bad day doesn't become two bad weeks.

No one -- not even Delonte himself -- knows if he can continue on this upward trend for the long haul. But it looks like Delonte is going to try as hard as he can to stay on the court and deliver more games like he has over the past week and a half.

Perhaps out of necessity more than a willingness to trust in Delonte's stability, the Cavs are giving him the chance to stick around and reclaim his status from last year. There are many ways it could go right, and many ways it could go wrong. The certainty is the four-plus months of basketball left to be played between now and the start of the playoffs, time enough for just about any course of events to unfold.

For now, the relationship between the Cavs and Delonte West might be a little short on trust, but long on need. Delonte is seizing the chance to play himself back into the meat of Brown's rotation, and it seems like the Cavs are backing off the search for his replacement.

If Delonte stay put, the rewards and risk are both significant. The relationship between player and team needs to remain constructive and productive through June if the Cavs are to have a realistic shot at winning the 2010 NBA title.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The center of attention

If you've followed the Cavaliers for any or all of the past 13 years, it has been easy to develop an emotional attachment to Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

Between 1996 and 2001, he missed two full seasons, and all but five games of a third season, recovering from repeated bone breaks in his feet. The frustration for Z, the Cavs and Cleveland fans was compounded by the fact that his talent was undeniable. In his delayed rookie season of 1997-98, he averaged 13.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game, and was named to the NBA's All-Rookie First Team.

But the foot problems just wouldn't go away. Faced with the possibility of crippling himself by continuing to play basketball, he seriously considered retirement. He decided to make one last go of it with an extensive restructuring of his left foot -- which accounted for five of his seven foot fractures -- that was aimed at taking stress off the navicular bone, in the midfoot, which kept failing.

The 2000 surgery led to another year of painful rehabilitation, and a tenuous-at-best grip on his career. When Z took the floor during the 2001-02 season, no one really knew what to expect. He played in 62 games, starting 23. His 11 points per game was gravy. The big victory was his presence on the court.

If Z could have finished out his playing days as a serviceable backup, it would have been considered a minor miracle by anyone who watched his five-year battle with brittle feet. But Z was only getting started. As the 2002-03 season progressed, it became apparent that the restructuring surgery had been a rousing success. He averaged 17.2 points per game, still a career high, and -- most importantly -- played in 81 of a possible 82 games. The only game he missed that year was due to a technical-foul suspension.

But the Cavs won just 17 games that year. The 2003 draft was the type that changes franchises, and the Cavs wanted a piece of the action. More specifically, the Akron high school phenom, LeBron James.

When the ping-pong balls of the NBA draft lottery handed the first pick to the Cavs, LeBron's future as a Cav was sealed, and Z was suddenly an important supporting cast member of the Cavs' resurgence.

The ensuing six seasons have brought Cleveland the spoils of LeBron: The franchise's first NBA Finals berth in 2007 and a 66-win season a year ago. But the past six seasons have also seen Z age from smooth moves and a silky jumper to a just-plain-slow spot-up jump shooter.

The game has changed. Now 34, Z has aged as gracefully as one could expect, given the amount of metal in his feet, but the center spot has been taken over by an assortment of freakishly good athletes.

When Z entered the league, the center spot was the sole property of muscle men and back-to-the-basket players. Shaquille O'Neal was the gold standard -- huge and pumped, but never to be mistaken for a high wire act. The other dominant centers of the time included Hakeem Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning, David Robinson and Dikembe Mutombo. All great in their own ways, but without question fitting the old-school mold of a center.

Then Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan came of age, and the era of the power forward-center hybrid arrived. The wing-scorer play of Amare Stoudemire upped the ante on what a center could and could not do. Then in 2004, Dwight Howard arrived. The strength of a center, the athleticism of a forward, and a tremendous leaper to boot.

By the time Howard and the Magic got through with dispatching the Cavs in last spring's Eastern Conference Finals, it was apparent to those inside and outside the organization that if the Cavs wanted to win the four playoff series necessary to claim the NBA title, Z just wasn't going to cut it as the starting center anymore.

So Danny Ferry traded for Shaq. Even at 37 and slowing down, Shaq still brings a dimension of size, power and defense to the pivot that Z could never hope to bring.

The net result: When Shaq is healthy, Z now comes off the bench. In the closing years of his career, with seasons' worth of aches and pains taking their toll, it has been a difficult adjustment for the Lithuanian big guy.

Coming into games from the bench means coming into games cold. The muscles that you worked so hard to limber in pregame warmups start to contract. The post touches and perimeter shots you were used to getting at the outset of every game are no longer there. For Z, who was used to filling a certain role for so long, coming off the bench is more than a mentality shift. It's a shift in his state of being. So far, his game hasn't reacted well.

Through Friday's loss at Charlotte, Z had started six of a potential 16 games. His minutes per game are down about three from last year (24.3 from 27.2). While his minutes per game have fallen off somewhat, his points and rebounds per game are way off. He's averaging 7.1 PPG after having never averaged fewer than 11 PPG in any previous season. His 6.2 RPG is on pace to become his lowest per-game rebound total since he averaged 5.4 RPG in 2001-02 while returning from his reconstructive foot surgery.

However, the biggest red alert comes from his shooting percentage. Z is a career 47.5 percent field goal shooter. His 15-to-18 foot jumper has set standards for reliability that car companies can only hope to match. But this year, it's just not there. Through Friday, he was shooting 37.8 percent from the field, and the struggling has bled over to his free throw shooting. A career 78.1 percent free-throw shooter, Z is shooting a mere 71 percent from the stripe so far this season.

If Z can't shoot it like Z, his on-court value to the team decreases dramatically, especially when the Cavs have to face another elite team that poses athletic mismatches for Z on the defensive end.

We're quickly arriving at what might be an unavoidable conclusion: The level of competition provided by the frontcourts of the NBA's other elite, plus the arrival of Shaq, might equal Z as a mismatched part. In which case, his $11.5 million expiring contract is best put to use in a trade for a player who better fits the Cavs' schemes.

With the Cavs preparing themselves to move forward without Delonte West if need be, it would seem that Ferry should want to thoroughly investigate any opportunity to add a high-caliber shooting guard to the roster. Ferry reportedly made a hard push for Stephen Jackson, but the Warriors balked at the Cavs' offer and sent Jackson to Charlotte.

Power forward is another area of potential need. Though J.J. Hickson has, on the whole, looked pretty good since moving to the starting lineup several weeks ago, power forward is still not a team strength -- particularly if Z continues to struggle and Anderson Varejao has to log big minutes at center. Leon Powe could add some beef to the big forward spot upon his return, but that won't be until February at the earliest -- and it would be better to remain conservative with your Powe expectations, given that he'll be returning from an 8-to-10 month rehab stint.

If Ferry can add a perimeter-shooting power forward, the so-called "stretch four" who can help clear out operating space for Shaq, LeBron and Mo Williams in the paint, he has to take a serious look at it.

Ultimately, the best option might be to part ways with Z. It's a potentially painful decision that Ferry could have to make. Z and Ferry are friends going back to their days as Cavs teammates. Z is the longest-tenured Cav, he's waded through a lot of medical adversity and bad basketball to get to where he is, and it would be a sweet stanza of poetry if he could someday be on the podium as the Cavs are passing around the Larry O'Brien Trophy as the NBA champions.

But that celebration might never arrive unless Ferry deals Z for a player who can help this team win in May and June. Right now, Z is having a hard enough time doing his part in November, let alone next spring, when he'll have another season's worth of wear and tear on his aging body.

There is the often-referenced possibility of a trade-and-buyout scenario, which would allow Z to return to the Cavs 30 days later, but once Ferry pulls the trigger on a trade, that matter is between Z and the team that receives him. Z might want to return to the Cavs because his ties to the team are so deep, because of his loyalty to Ferry, or because he'd like a shot at a ring, even if it means riding the end of the bench. But it would be wise to not assume any of that.

It might come down to the decision to sacrifice Z, his tenure with the Cavs and everything he has meant to the team in the LeBron James era, for a better shot at a title -- and maybe by extension, a better shot at keeping LeBron happy and in a Cavs uniform after this season.

It might be heartbreaking for Ferry to make that trade, but considering what's at stake, the heartbreak could become exponentially worse if Ferry doesn't find the right trade and execute it between now and the February trade deadline.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Remembering why I'm thankful

In Cleveland, you have to want to be thankful.

In a town where the economy is badly damaged, jobs are drying up, the population is shrinking and the sports teams haven't delivered a major league professional title in 45 years, it's incredibly easy to focus on the ways in which we're the gum on the bottom of fate's shoe. It's far too easy to look down the road and see a Cleveland in which LeBron James has left and is winning championships elsewhere, in which casinos have become a failed experiment that haven't driven any type of growth except crime.

It's way too easy to look to the heavens and ask, "What have you done for me lately?"

That's why we need the holiday season in this town.

Not the retail-driven, hyper-commercialized, big-box retailer, buy-the-perfect-present holidays. The holidays of quiet reflection, looking back on the past year and taking stock of your life.

It's fitting that Thanksgiving kicks off the season. Because before you can look to the spoils of Christmas morning and the hopeful promise of a new year, you need to remember what you have right now. Even if you need to search the folds of your brain for your source of gratitude, it's worth the time. You might even learn something about yourself in the process.

Need some encouragment? Let me set the example. Here are some of the things, great and small, that I'm thankful for this holiday season:

In Cleveland, I can make it across town in 35 minutes

When you get right down to it, Cleveland is just the right size. Big enough to be a substantial metropolitan area, but not so big that commuting becomes a migraine-inducing struggle. In most cities, major traffic jams are a fact of life and urban commuting is a part-time job that you hold in addition to your full-time job.

It's been driven home to me the past couple of years, ever since my girlfriend (now fiancee and wife by next September) moved here from the Toledo area. I live on the west side. My fiancee lives in Lake County. We often drive back and forth to see each other during the week, despite the fact that our apartment complexes are separated by 27 miles.

In Cleveland, it's possible. In Atlanta, for instance, it would be a lot more difficult. Atlanta's outerbelt is often choked with traffic by mid-afternoon. Their rush hour commonly lasts 3-4 hours, and their non-rush hour daytime traffic is like Cleveland's rush hour volume.

Three successful 5Ks

I've been running on a fairly regular schedule for almost two years. But it wasn't until this past summer when I decided to start taking running more seriously.

I always hated running growing up. It made my sides hurt and my lungs burn. But I decided to, in small increments, fight through my body's temper tantrums and get myself to the point where I could run a sustained 3.1 miles. In October, I ran my first 5K and won the second place award for my age group. I ran two other races in October and November.

Am I fast? not by a long shot. I run 5Ks in about half an hour. But I ran them, I didn't sustain any injuries and I can officially say I've taken a path in life that I thought I'd never take. It leads to a finish line at the end of a road race.

I'm looking forward to more 5Ks, and maybe 10Ks, in 2010.

Sunsets over Lake Erie

One of the great advantages of spending time in Lake County is that the Lake Erie shoreline starts to veer sharply to the northeast. As a result, each summer you get a front-row view for some of the best water sunsets east of California.

Sometimes, you can kind of forget that Cleveland is, at its heart, a marine city. A drive up the Lake Erie coast at sunset puts you back in touch with your inland sea roots.

Melt Bar and Grilled

Only about five miles from my apartment. A nationally-recognized sandwich paradise worth the trip -- when you can get a table, that is.

Every Cavs game I've seen in person since 2003

No matter what happens after this season, I've seen LeBron James play in person dozens of times. I've seen him bring 20,000 people to their feet with a mind-blowing dunk, an emphatic block, a physics-bending pass. I've been in the vortex of sound. I've seen with my own eyes what he is capable of.

And now, I can also say that I've seen Shaquille O'Neal in person. Time is running out for that.

Jim Tressel's continued dominance of Michigan

I'm marrying into a family of Michigan and Detroit fans. The benefits are immeasurable.

Three ballparks within easy driving distance

So the Indians aren't winning? Don't find the atmosphere at The Prog to be all that fulfilling? There is always the Lake County Captains at Classic Ballpark, and the Lake Erie Crushers at one of the hidden gems of the Cleveland area, All-Pro Freight Stadium in Avon. I frequent all three parks in the summer, but the Crushers' digs are quickly becoming a favorite.

Oberin College's campus

I first visited the campus in 2006. You might have your opinions about the college or the town, but the square at the center of campus is a great, and picturesque, relaxing place. I try to get out to Oberlin just to walk around and snap photos at least once or twice a year.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Failing at failing

What the Browns did in losing to Detroit 38-37 on Sunday was pretty remarkable.

Yeah, they built a 24-3 lead after weeks and weeks of historic offensive ineptitude. Yeah, they entirely blew said lead. Yeah, they rallied to take a 37-31 lead into the final minutes. And, yeah, they had the game won until Hank Poteat's pass interference call turned a game-ending Brodney Pool interception into first-and-goal with no time on the clock.

And, I might add, the ensuing Browns timeout gave Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford a chance to recover from an injury suffered when he was leveled on the final timed play. Stafford dragged himself back into the game and threw the winning touchdown pass to Brandon Pettigrew with literally triple zeroes on the game clock.

But none of that is as amazing as the fact that I felt absolutely nothing afterward. Don't misinterpret that. I didn't feel numb. I felt nothing as in, I changed the channel and busied myself doing other things.

Leave it to the Browns: They don't even know how to frustrate me properly anymore.

Sunday's game had all the makings of a thriller. No lead was safe. Stafford and Brady Quinn were slinging the ball like Dan Marino and Johnny Unitas. Stafford finished with 422 yards passing and a 112.7 QB rating. Quinn finished with 304 yards and a 133.1 rating. Neither team relied much on their ground games. Jamal Lewis was the contest's leading rusher, with 75 yards on 24 carries.

Three touchdown passes in the game covered 40 yards or more: Quinn touchdowns to Mohamed Massaquoi (59 yards) and Chansi Stuckey (40 yards), and a Stafford hookup with Calvin Johnson (75 yards).

And that's before you even get to the screwball ending -- a Browns speciality since returning to the league in 1999.

This game was the direct descendent of the '90s run-and-shoot fad. Of Air Coryell and the American Football League. Observed through the lens of a single football game between two teams, this was everything that makes you want to sit down on a Sunday afternoon and watch football. You don't even have to be a fan of either of the teams playing to enjoy a high-scoring shootout. It's great TV, and probably even better in person.

But it was impossible to take Sunday's game without context. And the context is what made this game about as compelling as a marathon research session involving dusty encyclopedia volumes at the local library.

Both teams were 1-8 heading into play. They were bottom feeders at the season's outset, and have actually been worse than advertised. They were consigned to the trash heap a while back. The Lions, who play indoors at climate-controlled Ford Field, only drew a crowd of 43,000, microscopic by NFL standards. The lack of a sellout lowered a blackout on more than half of the state of Michigan, and most of northwest Ohio.

If anything, this game should have been shown outside of Michigan and Ohio, in markets that just wanted to see an entertaining football game. Instead, most of the country got a far-more-meaningful but lower-scoring wrestling match between Indianapolis and Baltimore, won by the still-unbeaten Colts 17-15.

In Ohio, and I can only guess in Michigan as well, this game was killed, gutted and cooked before it even arrived in the kitchen. From the standpoint of a Browns fan, it really didn't matter what Quinn did today against a terrible Lions pass defense. It didn't matter what receiver stepped up. It didn't matter if Lewis found the fountain of youth for one more game. It didn't matter if Kamerion Wimbley looked like an actual pass rusher for one game.

It just didn't matter because the Browns are toast this year, there is a strong possibility that they're headed for another rebuild, that the coaching staff is going to be replaced and the roster once again gutted by a different decision-maker with different philosophies on building a team.

Essentially, this was an exhibition game that occurred about three months too late. There is no way this game could serve as a building block. There is no way this game could serve as any pinpoint of light, foretelling of better days ahead. Not against the post-Matt Millen Lions, a team that is 2-8 and already two wins better than last season.

Actually, this wasn't an exhibition game. Exhibition games generally accomplish something, even if it's just paring down the roster. You find out something about your team -- or at least your players -- during the preseason.

This game was an old-timers reunion game played by 20- and 30-somethings. The Browns and Lions should have been wearing sneakers on the feet and flags on their belts. And what happens at the end of an old timers' game? You grab a beer and reminisce about the glory days. Really, as a Browns fan, what else is there right now?

The Browns didn't just fail on Sunday. They failed their fail. They took a game that should have had some meaning, a game with an ending that should have made me grumpy for the rest of Sunday and a good portion of Monday, and turned it into nothing with their performance in the previous nine games.

Here is the message the Browns' big thinkers need to hear: Want to get fans up for these kinds of games? Play them in September, when the season still has a pulse, before your radio broadcasts become background static for home winterization projects. Then use the momentum from those games -- some of which you'll hopefully win -- to carry the team into fan-drawing, late-season contests that have this foreign substance on them called "playoff implications."

As of now, I really don't care if Quinn outduels Dan Fouts circa 1981. It's way too little, way too late to make me care.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Building the perfect Pippen

The Cavaliers were lauded for their team chemistry all last season. They played as one, stood as one, cheered as one, won as one. They did it for 82 regular season games and two playoff sweeps.

So what if the Cavs roster lacked the top to bottom talent of the Magic, Lakers and Celtics? The 2008-09 Cavs were a shining examples of a team as greater than the sum of its parts. It wasn't about LeBron James finding his Scottie Pippen or his Shaquille O'Neal. It was about team. All for one, one for all, as the Cavs' marketers will tell you.

We believed it, right up until the Magic ended the innocence in six games of the Eastern Conference Finals. The teamwork withered against Orlando's vexing matchup challenges. LeBron turned himself into a one-man scoring show and killed the offense in the process. His teammates couldn't hit shots. Mike Brown's coaching was woefully inadequate.

The disappointing loss scrawled over the poetry of last season, and got people both inside and outside the organization thinking about basketball, once again, as more of a science than an art.

Danny Ferry went out and got what he hopes is a reasonable facsimile of Shaq in 37-year-old, past-his-prime Shaq. You might have to sit him sometimes, just to save some tread on his tires, but if last week's road wins at Orlando and Miami are any indication, he still has enough strength and savvy to help a team win when it counts the most.

Ferry's stabs at adding height to the perimeter have panned out reasonably well so far. Anthony Parker has found a home as the starting shooting guard. Jamario Moon's productivity has escalated over the past couple of weeks.

But something else happened over the summer, away from the rolling cameras. It involves LeBron, J.J. Hickson and a mentoring relationship that goes a lot deeper than most.

Over the summer, LeBron took a personal interest in the Cavs' second-year power forward. As a 20-year-old, Hickson had a difficult rookie season in the NBA. He averaged 4 points and 2.7 rebounds in 62 games before a back injury ended his season early. He often looked overwhelmed at the professional level after spending just one season at North Carolina State. Hickson showed flashes of his raw talent, but was frequently a defensive liability, and Brown yanked him from games early and often.

A youngster buried on a team of established veterans, a team with championship aspirations that couldn't afford to let him play through his growing pains, Hickson appeared destined to join Shannon Brown and Luke Jackson among the host of recent Cavs first-round draft busts.

But circumstances aligned differently for Hickson, who might stand to become the Cav who benefits the most from the team's unceremonious playoff ouster last spring.

For LeBron's entire NBA career, the Cavs have tried to pair him with a frontline second scorer -- his own Scottie Pippen, if you will. While it's folly to think that just because the sidekick formula worked for Michael Jordan, it is a necessary ingredient for every superstar-led championship team, there is logic in the idea that a superstar would want a legitimate second scorer alongside him, someone else that the opposing defense has to worry about stopping each night.

The attempts date back to Ricky Davis in LeBron's rookie season. That didn't work so well. The Larry Hughes experiment could have gone better. When Mo Williams arrived, it was the closest thing to a Jordan/Pippen, Magic Johnson/James Worthy two-man setup we had seen during the LeBron Era.

But against Orlando, Mo regressed into a spot-up jump shooter, which choked off his dribble-driving, pesky-energy game. He looked like anything but a Pippen figure against the Magic.

When LeBron shuffled into the offseason, he was once again a king without an attendant. Maybe that's why he didn't just take Hickson under his wing this summer. He virtually turned him into a blood relative.

If no one else was going to provide him with a Pippen, LeBron was going to build his own Pippen. Hickson is the subject of his grand experiment. Talented enough to be a legitimate second option scorer, young enough to be molded.

True to his best-at-everything approach to life, LeBron didn't cut any corners. Hickson jetted around the country with LeBron, working out with him, appearing at basketball camps, eating meals and spending leisure time with LeBron.

In one summer, LeBron gave Hickson a thorough grounding in NBA basketball -- how to play it, how to live it, how to operate as part of a team.

Now that the season has started, LeBron has begun to test-drive his new creation. He has frequently taken a backseat at the basket, preferring to set up Hickson for his shots. Mo and Shaq -- likely at the urging of LeBron -- have done the same.

It was ultimately Brown's decision to move Hickson into the starting lineup the weekend before last, but it wouldn't shock me if behind-the-scenes campaigning from LeBron had something to do with the change. It was likely a move born from Hickson's marked progress in practice, plus Brown's willingness to trust that his superstar will do what it takes to make the lineup change work.

So far, the change has been an amazing success. The increased playing time has worked wonders for Hickson, who in his first four starts vaulted from six points in 13 minutes against the Knicks a week ago Friday to 20 points in 38 minutes in this past Saturday's win over the Jazz. In that game, he scored on drives and jump shots, and -- as The Plain Dealer's Brian Windhorst pointed out in his game notes -- was on the floor for the final play of a close game. That is a major vote of confidence from Brown. It means that Hickson is now truly being treated as a starter.

Four games is a very small sample size, and he's still making plenty of sloppy mistakes, such as losing his handle on the ball and failing to cleanly handle passes. But for the first time in his young career, it seems like Hickson's deep reservoir of raw talent has been tapped.

If Hickson demonstrates continued progress over the remainder of the season, the Cavs have just found a starting forward for years to come. A starting forward who can probably average 16 to 20 points per game, and with some more fundamental work on defense, can easily average seven to eight rebounds per game.

All of which begs the question, if LeBron is putting this much time and effort into turning Hickson into an integral part of the Cavs' future plans, why would he ditch Hickson at the end of the season to go elsewhere? LeBron isn't trying to do the Cavs a favor by grooming his replacement. The world of professional sports doesn't work like that. He's not developing a close relationship with Hickson just to be nice. He can be friends with Hickson and show him the ropes without turning him into a personal protege.

It seemingly wouldn't make a lot of sense for LeBron to go to these lengths to groom Hickson if he didn't intend to stick around and reap the benefits.

Of course, there is a lot of basketball left to be played between now and next summer. Time will tell how much the lessons of LeBron impact Hickson. Time will tell if Hickson does, in fact, develop into LeBron's second-option, Scottie Pippen sidekick figure.

But if he does, you'd have to believe that LeBron would have a hard time justifying leaving the known for the unknown of the struggling Knicks or Nets, or a potentially-complicated and delicate balancing act with Dwyane Wade on an otherwise-threadbare roster in Miami -- and taking an upfront pay cut from what the Cavs can offer to do so.

There are seven and a half months for all that to shake out. But it appears that J.J. Hickson has suddenly -- or maybe not-so-suddenly -- become a key player who could help determine the future plans of both LeBron and the Cavs.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sending a message

Next Monday, the eyes of the football-watching world will somehow find their way to Cleveland via ESPN. That's because, somehow, the Browns found their way onto the Monday Night Football schedule for 2009.

It's a divisional game versus the Ravens, an AFC Championship Game participant a year ago. Outside of Baltimore, Cleveland and the football junkie section of the U.S. population -- the kind that would watch the Rams play the Lions, even with no rooting interest, just because it's football -- there is no reason for anybody to build their evening around this game.

The Ravens, trendy Super Bowl picks at the outset of the season, are kind of sputtering along at 4-4. They'll be coming into town fresh off a 10-point loss to the suddenly-successful Bengals, stuck in the wild card chase pack behind Pittsburgh and San Diego.

The Browns are 1-7, and needed a botched kick return to even get the "1" on their record. They haven't even been competitive in six of their seven losses.

When these two teams met in Week 3, the game was so comically lopsided that Brady Quinn was benched for Derek Anderson halfway through. Anderson injected maybe half a quarter of life into a stone-dead Browns offense, but the Ravens still cruised to a 34-3 win.

It's a game ESPN would probably like to hand back to CBS for Sunday airing. The Browns would probably just as soon skip out on the national publicity right now, too. A 27-point pounding is bad enough on a regional Sunday broadcast. A 27-point pounding in front of the nation -- an apathetic nation, granted, but still all 50 states -- is exponentially worse.

It is against this backdrop of an underachieving football team playing a bottom feeder on the NFL's biggest weekly stage that an enterprising Browns fan would like those of you unlucky enough to have tickets to tell Randy Lerner, and the nation, how you really feel about the state of your team.

"Dawg Pound Mike" Randall, one of the more visible Browns fans (you can tell it's him by the giant dog bone he wears on his head), along with fellow Browns fan Tony Schafer, want everyone in attendance to refrain from entering the seating bowl prior to kickoff. Just long enough to let ESPN begin their broadcast and present their establishing stadium shots with no one in the stands.

It seems the primary objective of Randall and Schafer is to create more accountability on the part of Lerner and the front office. He wants Lerner to address the fans publicly and take his verbal lumps for the sorry state of the Browns organization.

Randall and Schafer received several thousand e-mails from other fans supporting their stance and demanding more accountability out of Lerner and the team's football decision-makers. They presented some of the e-mails to Lerner during a meeting last week, The Plain Dealer reported.

If Randall and Schafer want to lead a demonstration, fine. Public demonstrating has been an integral part of the American experience ever since a few guys threw crates of tea into Boston Harbor. But if Randall and his crew want real change and real accountability, a delayed mass sit-down in front of a disinterested nation isn't the way to do it.

Why? A few points:

1. You're not telling Lerner anything he doesn't already know.

The team is awful. The fans are upset. We demand answers. We want the responsible feet held to the fire for this mess. Lerner knows this.

It's not like he's going to see an semi-empty stadium, possibly receive an inbox full of hate-mail, and suddenly have a grand epiphany in which he finally realizes that the team is awful, the fans are angry and he'd better do something about it.

Lerner knows the state of the team. The trouble is, his attempts to change the team's fortunes have gone only slightly better than the Hindenburg's attempt to land at a windy airfield in Lakehurst, N.J. in 1937.

In other words, don't mistake incompetence for inattentiveness. Lerner isn't failing as an NFL owner because he's not listening to the fans' pleas for change. He's failing as an NFL owner because his administrative decisions have been terrible.

2. Fan protests, as a general rule, don't improve team performance.

Orioles fans staged a walkout from a game at Camden Yards in 2006. Pirates fans tried the same tactic with a planned walkout in 2007. Management of those teams obviously heard their fans loud and clear. The Orioles just finished a last-place 64-98 season. The Pirates just finished a last-place 62-99 campaign. Both protests have been long forgotten by the baseball-watching public.

Voice your frustration all you want. Just don't expect the management of your favorite, struggling team to suddenly turn over a new leaf. Or in the case of the Pirates, find the money to compete with the big-market bullies.

3. The nature of the protest seems flawed.

The primary problem I see with a delayed sit-down is Randall, Schafer and their backers are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. To enter the stadium and hang out on the concourse until kickoff is kind of like trying to send McDonald's a message by continuing to eat there, but only using the drive-through instead of walking through the restaurant door. In the end, you're still plunking your money down and shoveling their food into your esophagus.

The walk-in protest has drawn enough national attention that ESPN and the people around the nation who do tune in will know why the stands are next to empty at kickoff, if this protest indeed is a success. So in that sense, it will draw attention. But there will be other establishing shots over the course of the game, other blimp shots, other pans of the crowd. It seems like it wouldn't make a very strong statement if the opening shots show empty stands and the halftime shots show a raucous, supportive crowd.

You want to support the players, even if you're angry at management. You also paid a lot of money for those seats that get you on TV. I get that. But the net result might be a wishy-washy protest that generates little to none of the desired effect -- which is apparently to make a lasting statement about the fans' displeasure with the state of their team. You're going to have a heck of a time making that kind of impression if you're still in attendance and spending your money on concessions and merchandise.

4. With that in mind, there is one sure way to make your voice heard.

As a fan, what is the one variable you control in all of this? What is the one foolproof way you can let Browns management know you're unhappy with their job performance?

You might be sitting on it right now. It's called your wallet.

If you aren't happy with how Randy Lerner is running the Browns, answer with apathy. How do you do that? You don't buy tickets. You don't purchase or renew your season ticket plans. You don't buy the gear, you don't buy concessions, you don't go out of your way to watch the team on Sundays.

You let the team play in front of dwindling crowds with sagging TV ratings. You send NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell unmistakable signs that the bungling of Lerner and his minions is wilting what has historically been one of the NFL's strongest fan bases.

You, as a lone fan, can't put the screws to Lerner. But as a unified force of disposable income-spending football fans, you can send a message to the guy who can put the screws to Lerner. The one main guy who outranks Lerner in the NFL hierarchy. The one guy who can, if necessary, pressure Lerner into selling the team.

If you're among those who are going to join Dawg Pound Mike in playing to the cameras next Monday, have fun with it. Just don't expect it to make Lerner jump out of his chair or make Eric Mangini sweat bullets.

The real protest that fans can initiate is much quieter. It's the sound of cash registers not ringing and silent televisions on Sunday afternoons.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Randy's last stand

Color me a daylong sucker, but while most Browns fans think Randy Lerner would rather be watching soccer, I think he still cares a great deal about the Browns.

I think this season in particular has gnawed at his stomach like no other. I think the staredown of his team as they left the field at halftime of last Sunday's loss to the Bears was the product of real anger, not something contrived for the cameras.

The problem is, emotional attachment alone doesn't make you a good owner. If it did, we could all own a professional sports team and do quite well at it. The compounding problem is, Lerner doesn't seem to realize that. It's that fact that is killing the Cleveland Browns.

Lerner is stuck between two lines of thinking. On one hand, he's a fan. He's the son of the deceased patriarch of the expansion franchise. He has ties to the Browns going back decades. He has a lot tugging on his heartstrings when it comes to this franchise.

On the other hand, it really seems like he doesn't want to be bothered with the grunt work of organization building. He keeps looking for the one leader who can singlehandedly take the Browns, turn them around and make it all better. In his desperate search for that football mind, he's been swayed by the likes of Phil Savage and Eric Mangini, neither of whom deserved the level of authority they were given.

At this point, it's probably folly to think Lerner is going to reform, that he's going to suddenly develop organizational leadership skills that he hasn't exhibited before. With that in mind, it would appear that Lerner is doomed as an NFL owner, as his Browns continue to sink to horrifying depths that would make an outside observer believe that, sooner or later, something has to give.

But there is one pinhole of light remaining for Lerner. One last stand he can take before casting his ownership regime to the recycle bin of NFL history -- or before someone such as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell forces him to do it.

And the best news for Lerner is, it involves someone else making the football decisions.

From my seat, I can look past all the ineptitude, bad decisions and muddying of the Browns name that has occurred on Randy Lerner's watch if he will make his last effort to put a winner on the field his best one.

Lerner needs to use his inherited deep pockets to hire an experienced football organization builder. Keep working on Ernie Accorsi if he's not yet entirely open to coming out of retirement for a few years. If you're going to tap the Patriots for anything, tap them for Floyd Resse, who reportedly was waiting to hear from the Browns last winter.

There is a method to making this happen, and in principle, it's not all that difficult. You find a football organization leader and roster builder with a track record of being really good at what he does, and you hire him to do that job. You don't hire big names or word-on-the-street up-and-comers, and give them more control and responsibility than they've ever had in their careers. That's not foundation-building. That's dice-rolling.

Once the Accorsi or Reese figure is in place, you give him the authority to hire a former coordinator as head coach, or an uber-scout to groom as his successor, because he'll likely have had success making those kinds of judgments about football people.

Even if the foundation-builder Lerner hires is up there in years and only intends to hold the job long enough to get the wheels of progress turning and groom a successor, it's still miles better than what Lerner has right now. It's still miles better than anything the Browns have had since returning to the league 10 years ago.

Experience and competence at the organization's highest rungs tends to directly correlate with success on the field. The last time the Browns had an experienced football man running the show from 30,000 feet was the last time they fielded a contender. Accorsi was the chief architect of the Bernie Kosar-led Browns of 1985-92.

Now, Lerner has a chance to perhaps reunite Accorsi and Kosar as mentor and protege, if he can do enough convincing and wave enough greenbacks around. Kosar might make a fine NFL executive. He certainly has the brains, coupled with a deep desire to return to football. But if Lerner were to hire him as team president or GM outright, it likely would fall under the same general heading of placing authority in the hands of someone who is not adequately trained to handle it.

The final piece of the puzzle is acceptance on the part of Lerner. If the experienced football operations director he hires wants to dismiss Mangini, or if Mangini himself doesn't want to submit to an extra layer of authority, then Mangini is gone with no questions from ownership. If the incoming leader thinks the system is bad and the roster stinks, and he needs to blow it all up and start from scratch, so be it.

If things need to get worse before they get better, it's still an improvement over things getting worse, then declining even further.

For Lerner, the stakes are even higher than wins and losses and ticket sales. The condition in which Lerner leaves the Browns will determine how the Lerner name is remembered in the high-profile pantheon of NFL owners. For all the self-made success Al Lerner created, for all of the Lerner family's philanthropic endeavors, if Randy Lerner leaves the Browns as a mess, that's what the public will associate the Lerner name with from here on out.

Randy knows that. That's a big reason why he has been hesitant to cut his losses, sell the team and move on. But it's becoming clear that the Browns cannot continue in their current state of tumult without increasingly severe levels of fallout reaching Lerner. Sooner rather than later, he'll be forced to the crossroads of either improving the organization or letting go.

Lerner almost certainly has only one bullet left in the chamber. He can probably make one more significant regime change before he is forced to sell the team.

He needs to make this one count. He needs to make the hire he should have made in the first place.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Acting on Acta

As the Manny Acta Era begins in Cleveland, I have a confession to make:

When word reached the media that the Indians had whittled their managerial search down to four names, I wanted the biggest name of the bunch. I wanted Bobby Valentine.

I wanted Valentine because he has loads of experience, he's been managing pretty much nonstop since 1996, and above all, he's the ultimate anti-Mark Shapiro guy.

Valentine is an old-school manager like Mike Hargrove, but with an eccentric personality that I thought would be a breath of fresh air in an Indians organization that had become bogged down with Moneyball-style analysis and process worship. I wanted Valentine to come in on the first day of spring training wearing Groucho Marx glasses and slinging shaving cream like Trot Nixon. Anything to make baseball fun again for the Tribe's now-youthful roster.

Then, Valentine came to town for the in-person portion of his interview. No one knows what went on behind closed doors, but when Valentine met with the media, he gave a series of rambling responses to questions, ultimately admitting that he did very little research on the Indians or the American League in preparation for his meeting with Team Shapiro.

That in and of itself shouldn't have excluded Valentine from consideration. There will be time to memorize every name on the 40-man roster. I'd be more concerned with his coaching philosophies than whether he can rattle off every pitcher who toed the rubber for the Indians this past season. But what it did show was a lack of preparedness, which could be indicative of Valentine not taking the job opportunity seriously enough.

After that interview, Valentine was all but excluded from consideration. That left Acta, Dodgers bench coach Don Mattingly and Columbus Clippers manager Torey Lovullo.

Of those, the Indians wanted Acta by far the most. He was the lone remaining candidate with Major League managerial experience, a progressive thinker who values the baseball numbers game and a virtual walking encyclopedia of Major League Baseball rosters.

In short: Acta is a Shapiro guy. Like Wedge was a Shapiro guy. But maybe even more so. When the Indians officially hired Acta as the franchise's 40th manager on Sunday, you'd have to think Shapiro was walking on air.

The hire came as something of a surprise, considering that the Astros -- a team with significantly deeper pockets than the Indians and an aggressive owner in Drayton McLane -- had also offered Acta their vacant manager's position. But when Acta and the Astros reportedly had trouble coming to terms on money, the door slid open and Shapiro got his man.

So what did the Indians get in Acta? And how, exactly, is a guy with so many philosophical similarities to Shapiro going to clean out the cobwebs of the Wedge Era?

He can start by relating to players better than Wedge was relating to them by the end of his tenure.

Wedge was decidedly new-school in some ways, but in terms of handling players, he was a modern-era John McGraw tough guy. I'm convinced that Wedge saw himself as something like a spaghetti western Clint Eastwood, and expected the same from his players. Be the strong, silent type. If you're hurt and you can still move, shut your yap and play through the pain. Complaining equals whining equals weakness.

Of course, we all know that a clubhouse of 25 guys is going to contain many different types of personalities. Some can play the role of the lone cowboy, as Wedge idealized. Some are a little more high-maintenance than that. Those are the guys Acta will have to do a better job of connecting with.

Acta will also need to develop a rapport with, and teach, some of the Latin American players that floundered under Wedge. This is a critical connection, because Acta shares a common broad background with the Tribe's foriegn-born Latino players. Born in the Dominican Republic, Acta is the first native Latin American manager in Tribe history. Al Lopez, Dave Garcia and Pat Corrales -- Acta's former Nationals assistant coach -- were all Tribe managers of Latin American descent, but all were born in the U.S.

Players from Latin American baseball factories such as the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela are, in many cases, taught the game differently than the far-more-structured upbringing that governs the maturation of American-born baseball players. In the U.S., players move from Little League to travel teams to AAU ball, high school ball, advanced summer leagues and maybe college before ever playing a single pitch of pro ball. By then, a U.S.-born player could be 22 or 23.

Acta followed the route that so many young Caribbean players take. He was signed by the Astros as a 17-year-old and was in Double-A ball by 20. He had to learn American baseball on the fly while still a teenager.

Maybe Acta can turn Fausto Carmona and Rafael Perez around, or maybe he can't. But it's an important element to his new job. Carmona represents the front of Acta's rotation next year, and Perez a key member of the back of his bullpen. If his background as a young Latino player can help him reach the young Latino players on the roster, that would be a huge asset for Acta.

One thing you shouldn't hold against Acta is his won-loss record in two-plus seasons as manager of the Nationals. Nor should you assume that just because he was fired by the worst team in baseball midseason, he must be no good.

John Lannan, he of the 9-13 record and 3.88 ERA, was Washington's best starting pitcher last season. He made 33 starts. The Nationals' rotation also included Jordan Zimmerman (3-5, 4.63), Garrett Mock (3-10, 5.62, 28 starts), Shairon Martis (5-3, 5.25) and Craig Stammen (4-7, 5.11). Washington's lineup was topped by Ryan Zimmerman (.295, 33 HR, 106 RBI), Adam Dunn (.267, 38 HR, 105 RBI) and Josh Willingham (.260, 24 HR, 61 RBI). Beyond that, no one cracked 60 RBI or even double digits in home runs.

In short, the Nats' struggles had a lot more to do with the experience level and talent on their roster than anything Acta did or did not do. And when teams lose, managers tend to get fired, deserved or not.

So aren't the Indians in the same boat with the experience/talent question? Quite possibly. But apparently Acta developed an interest in building young teams, or he wouldn't have taken the Indians job.

It's that interest that makes him an intriguing choice to take the reins on this lastest Tribe rebuild.

If Acta is a Shapiro type of guy, that's not entirely a bad thing. It means he's organized, understands the value of making sound administrative decisions and won't make those decisions without the data to back them up.

The fact that Acta is a Shapiro-type guy who believes in Shapiro's organizational principles, yet isn't a product of the Indians organization, might mean that we could have the best of both worlds: a forward-thinking manager who isn't institutionalized by the Indians Way. A guy on the same philosophical page as the front office, but with enough outside influence to bring some different perspectives to the table.

There will be time for the big picture to become clearer. For now, he has to get down to business with his players, which he'll start doing this week. Those are the relationships that will, in the end, determine if Acta's tenure in Cleveland is a success, and whether Acta falls closer to Wedge or Hargrove in the pantheon of Cleveland managers.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Cleveland's Cubs

There were six of us at dinner on Sunday night, at a Toledo-area restaurant. My fiancee Jane and I had returned to the city of her more formative years to finally nail down a reception site and a wedding date for late next summer.

Joining us at the dinner table were her parents -- Detroit fans who had moved the family to the outskirts of Toledo about 20 years ago -- and my parents, who had made a daylong trip from Cleveland to assist the four of us in the reception site selection process. My parents, like me, are Cleveland natives saddled with a lifelong attachment to Cleveland sports.

Inevitably, the conversation among the men at the table turned to football and the common thread of losing shared by the Lions and Browns. This past Sunday came and went like so many other Sundays before. While the Browns were busy enduring a 12th straight loss to the Steelers, the Lions were in the process of getting rolled by the Packers 26-0. It was Detroit's 19th straight loss to the Packers in Wisconsin.

The football talk ran out of steam, and the conversation turned into a comparison of how Detroit and Cleveland sports are bottomless pits of misery -- subjectively speaking based on where you live, of course. We have LeBron and Shaq, but no championships in 45 years. They can actually remember the last time a Detroit team won a title, but they've mostly been Stanley Cups by the Red Wings, which doesn't really have any bearing on NHL-devoid Cleveland. As far as the Lions, Tigers and Pistons are concerned, the less said, the better.

Just then, my mom interjected in that way that so many moms do when it comes to sports -- vaguely on topic, but kind of not really.

"You know, your grandma remembers being downtown and watching the parade the last time the Indians won the World Series."

A brief background was provided for Jane's folks: That would be 1948.

Jane's dad didn't miss a beat in asserting that ever-so-slight advantage of Detroit over Cleveland. The Tigers last won a World Series in 1984.

"Wow, that's 61 years ago," he said, drawing out "sixty-one" for full effect.

My dad and I didn't bother counting the several near misses for the edification of Jane's dad. The 1995 team with the lineup for the ages but not enough pitching to match the Atlanta Braves, and more specifically, Tom Glavine. The 1997 team that got hot at the right time, scored improbable upsets over the Yankees and Orioles in the AL playoffs, fended off a 3-2 series deficit against the Marlins in the World Series, held a 2-0 lead going into the middle innings of Game 7, and ... well ...

More recently, there was the 2007 team that had a 3-1 series lead against the Red Sox in the ALCS, but fell victim to the playoff-inexperienced knock-knees of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, who crumbled right when their team needed them the most.

I know it has been 61 years for the Indians, but when someone from outside the Cleveland sports cocoon says it with an air of disbelief, it's kind of jolting. I dwelled on those near-miss Tribe teams for a few minutes while the conversation shifted to other topics. I thought about the thoroughly scary case of the Chicago Cubs, who are now working on 101 years without a World Series title.

It can get that bad. And I wonder if it might get that bad for the Indians, who are already six-tenths of the way to a century without a championship.

The conditions that created the gold rush of the 1990s might never come together again, unless the Indians manage to once again construct a lineup of borderline Hall of Famers just as they're moving into a new ballpark, with a title-hungry fan base eager to drop millions in disposable income on tickets and merchandise.

Six division titles in seven years? Those days are long gone, never to return without unforeseen positive developments. The Indians aren't designed to win that way.

The Indians are now designed to win the way baseball wants its small-market teams to win: once in a while.

For the longest time, I thought baseball wanted a salary cap. I thought Bud Selig, for all his warts as commissioner of Major League Baseball, was trying to fight the good fight and put teams like the Indians, Twins and Rockies on even ground with the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox.

Now, the salary cap talk has gotten strangely quiet since the last collective bargaining agreement. The Yankees and Red Sox are more popular than ever. The Yankees, Dodgers, Angels and Phillies -- all from the five largest U.S. markets -- comprised baseball's final four this year.

Baseball's leaders want it that way. They've wanted it that way since the days of Babe Ruth, but as the rich get richer and the less rich get less richer by comparison, the chasm only widens. And as the tectonic rift between baseball's made men and indentured servants continue to grow, teams like the Indians are going to find themselves just plain out of luck. Baseball's competitive system will be inherently weighted in favor of big market teams from now until the Rapture.

Unlike the NBA, and to a lesser extent the NFL, baseball is a sport that markets teams over players. MLB's lot is cast with the highest-profile teams that have the most name recognition among Joe Fan types from coast to coast. Certainly, the NBA wants to see pillar teams like the Lakers and Celtics in the playoffs, but baseball places far more weight on their money-maker teams to generate interest and draw viewers.

In short, baseball wants to see a steady diet of the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Cubs, Angels, Phillies and Mets in the playoffs. It's OK if the Indians, Twins or Rays rise up and go on a Cinderella run every so often. Fans like a good underdog story. But this isn't March Madness. Cinderella can't visit the ball every year, or one of baseball's wagon-pulling Clydesdales consistently misses the party.

A world in which the Indians can make the playoffs 15 times in 16 years is not a world that baseball wants to create. With that in mind, you can probably start engraving the headstone for baseball's would-be salary cap. The cause died sometime after the 1994 strike, and no one looks like they're going to bother reviving it anytime soon.

The Indians of the now-closing decade are the Indians of forthcoming reality. Out of contention 50 percent of time, on the outskirts of contention 40 to 45 percent of the time, and maybe a legitimate contender once or twice every 10 years.

Part of the problem is certainly how the Indians do business. The Dolans don't have the deep pockets to make risky investments on high-priced veteran players. Mark Shapiro and his staff have made errors in conducting drafts, free agent signings and trades. But at their best, all the Indians can probably every hope to become is the Minnesota Twins, racking up a few extra division titles, but seldom playing deep into October. Mostly because of where Johan Santana and C.C. Sabathia now pitch -- New York. The only market big enough to cater to their contract demands.

If nothing changes in the baseball landscape, you'll probably only need one hand, plus maybe a finger or two if we're lucky, to count the number of times the Indians will be able to mount a serious World Series run in the next 39 years. If opportunity only knocks once or twice a decade, you better be doggone sure you can answer the door. Unfortunately, it would be all too easy for the hand of fate, and better teams, to thwart a mere handful of playoff runs in the coming decades.

Jane's dad might have been shocked and awed by the title-bankrupt state of the Indians over the past six decades. But the real shock and awe is what might not happen over the next four decades.

If' I'm still around, I'll turn 69 in 2048. Our family dinner conversation in 2009 will probably have been long forgotten by then, but the Indians might still be plugging away with 1948 as their last entry in the World Series championship log. In fact, it's a highly probable outcome.

Even worse than that, the Indians might become trendsetters among small market and midmarket teams. Future generations might see further entries in the Century Club. The clock is already ticking on the Giants (2054), Expos/Nationals (2069), Brewers (2070), Pirates (2079), Orioles (2083) and Royals (2085), just to name a few.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Teardown mode

This Browns season is a death march to an inevitable conclusion that ends with a very high draft pick, no present and only a future to look forward to. Maybe. But we've been down this road a few times before, so it's kind of easy to assume.

If you think the Browns's uninspiring win over Buffalo last weekend is a possible turning point, great for you. I'll take a win over a loss any day of the week, too. But as far progress? It wasn't exactly the Industrial Revolution.

A 6-3 win isn't going to get me through this Browns season. It really isn't going to offer any shelter in the storm. The only thing that makes me hopeful involves a sense of grim resignation about the team's current state.

New coaching regime. Bad team. Botched draft picks from the previous regime. Players who want out. The equation kind of solves itself.

The Browns aren't rebuilding. They haven't reached that point yet. Right now, Eric Mangini is in teardown mode. And that's the prism through which I'm viewing this season -- if only as a means of keeping my sanity.

The Browns are going to be a worse team at the end of the season than they were at the start of the season. They might be a worse team than they are right now, with the NFL's trade deadline approaching next Tuesday.

Teams in teardown mode get rid of players who don't fit the new coach's philosophies. Teams in teardown mode part ways with locker-room cancers and other dissenters within the ranks. That's especially true of the Mangini, who is making it crystal clear that it's his video game, and he has his hand on the joystick at all times.

So out the door went talented players with a tendency to provide their own sideshows, either with their mouths or actions. Kellen Winslow, playing on borrowed time with a reconstructed knee, was shown the door rather quickly by Mangini. It took an alleged fight outside a nightclub to get Braylon Edwards on the next train out of town, but in the aftermath of the incident, Mangini got on his tin-can-and-string to the Jets' front office and had Edwards traded in less than 48 hours.

Brady Quinn had 10 quarters to show his skills as the starting quarterback. When the Baltimore game got out of hand in Week 3, Quinn was ushered to the bench, and might not see action in a Browns uniform again. He is attempting to sell his house in Avon Lake, per reports this week. Quinn's stated excuse is that he doesn't want to commute 30 minutes one way from Avon Lake to Berea. He told reporters that he's "downsizing."

The slumping economy has his just about everyone with varying degrees of force, but Quinn shouldn't be surprised if fans and media find it a little suspicious that a guy making NFL first-round draft pick money is selling his house simply to decrease his commute time and save some green. Quinn also shouldn't be surprised if he's wearing another team's uniform (possibly green) by the weekend after next. Something tells me he really won't be.

So far, each move, each threatened move, I've approached with a deep breath and a sigh. Losing Winslow and Edwards means that they didn't work out here. It means that decreasing the talent level on the roster is better than moving forward with guys who are game-changers with flapping gums and maturity issues. OK, I can see the logic. When the plant you're trying to grow hasn't sprouted yet, it's best to remove all potential poisons from the soil. Winslow and Edwards possessed definite poison potential.

If Mangini trades Quinn, I won't be happy because I will still stand by my belief that Quinn didn't get a fair shake. He's been jerked around worse than Tim Couch in some ways. But two starting quarterbacks is one too many. More poison potential, so it's better to proceed with one QB for the immediate future. If Mangini believes that guy is Derek Anderson, fine. It's a decision. And this season really isn't about wins and losses anyway.

But the Browns have a way of taking your shoulder shrugs and turning them into wailing and gnashing of teeth. This is a team that has a knack for hitting its followers right where it hurts. Sometimes, it's not even the fault of the team. At least, not directly.

Thursday's report that Josh Cribbs wants a contract extension, and would possibly welcome a trade if the Browns don't give him what he wants, was another inventive way for something Browns-related to raise my blood pressure.

According to The Plain Dealer, the Browns probably won't trade Cribbs prior to Tuesday's deadline, unless Mangini is absolutely bowled over by an offer. Chances are, it's little more than posturing. In the NFL, where the players have very little bargaining power compared to their counterparts in Major League Baseball and the NBA, holdouts, threats of holdouts and trade demands are an often-used bargaining chip in contract negotiations.

But suppose negotiations get really contentious. Suppose Mangini won't budge. Suppose Mangini, who apparently isn't below playing God with his team, decides to call Cribbs' bluff and smite him with a trade, either before next week's deadline or during the coming offseason.

Call it the Butch Davis Rule. Davis believed that players were little more than movable pieces, and it didn't matter how talented or electrifying a player was, he was replaceable by someone younger, cheaper and more grateful just to have a spot on an NFL roster.

If Davis could have farmed special teams work out to a call center in India, he would have. I'd be lying if I said I didn't see a Davis streak in Mangini.

The problem with that line of thinking is, Josh Cribbs is really the only player the Browns have who is talented enough to be a star. Yes, Shaun Rogers is pretty darn good, as is Joe Thomas, but "star nose tackle" and "star offensive tackle" are both something of an oxymoron. They're supporting cast positions by nature.

Cribbs is the only player dangerous enough to force other teams to adjust their attack. He's the only player exciting enough to make fans stop raking the leaves on an Autumn Sunday and watch an opponent's punt. Sure, Cribbs' star has pretty much been limited to special teams, but he is one of the rare players who can actually change the complexion of a game by touching the ball only a handful of times.

If the relationship between Cribbs and Mangini becomes pocked and scarred by the battle over contract money, and Mangini feels like he can replace Cribbs with any Syndric Steptoe who comes down the pipe, I'm going to have a hard time believing any rationalization Mangini might have for trading Cribbs.

Draft picks were enough for Winslow and Edwards because they weren't part of Mangini's long-term plans, and they both wore out their welcome anyway. Draft picks would be enough for Quinn. In all three cases, the trades are and would be about subtraction as much as addition.

But Cribbs is different. Cribbs has been one of the few players, perhaps the only player, we could count on to consistently pique our interest in this dreary era of Browns football. He's a solid citizen, and by all indications, loves playing for the Browns, in spite of the losing. Unlike Winslow and Edwards, he's worth paying. He's worth building around, even if his specialty is, and probably always will be, returning kicks.

Despite the throwaway mentality that Mangini -- and most other NFL coaches -- have toward players, guys like Cribbs don't come in 24-packs at Costco.

I can rationalize Mangini's teardown mode mentality almost all the way. But if it comes to trading Cribbs, I just can't do it. In the backwards way of the Browns, he's a franchise kick returner. He's just about the only thing we have right now.

Mangini had better recognize that fact, and recognize the damage he'd do to the franchise's reputation -- and possibly ticket sales -- by trading Cribbs. Then, he'd better open up Randy Lerner's wallet and give one of the few Browns players who is worth a damn the raise he's seeking.

If Cribbs isn't worth paying, who on this roster is?