Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Weekly PR Update

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports - Cleveland

Kent, OHIO--Put the notion of Steven Strasburg in this year's All-Star Game to bed. With his second loss (not much more he can do) he slipped even further in the National League Pitcher Rating rankings. People in favor of Strasburg pitching in the game have stated that "as long as it does not bump a deserving pitcher, he should be there." Well, as I see it, there are about 30 pitchers more deserving.

Other people are quick to point out that the National League, desperate for an All-Star victory for the first time since 1996, needs Strasburg to win the game. After watching his latest start against a division-leading Braves team, it is easy to see that he has been pitching on adrenaline and that drug is wearing out. He looked apathetic, tired, possibly even injured. Strasburg was still amazing and did strike out 7 batters, but batters are starting to scoff at the breaking ball and sit on his dead-straight (albeit 100 mph) fastball.

Leave him off the team or trade him to the American League where you can make a better argument for his inclusion. His league is unfortunately loaded with upstart seasons out of unexpected people. Tim Hudson found the fountain of youth, Carlos Silva and Mike Pelfrey are doing things they have never done in their entire careers. Although Jaime Garcia has slipped in the PR rankings again this week, he is still a better National League rookie story than Strasburg. All told, the NL looks stacked as is. The average Pitcher Rating of their potential All-Star rotation is almost double of the American League. They should be the morning line favorites without him.

I understand that Strasburg could help, but he definitely will not start the game. Think pragmatically. Pitching out of the bullpen is a situation he is unaccustomed to. His starter's mentality could actually make him a liability should he pitch the fifth inning without his full warm-up routine and a zero hanging from the opponent's run total. And how do the Nationals feel about their multi-million dollar investment making unnecessary throws in a game that will mean nothing for their 2010 franchise?

Unless the Nats want their ace to be closing games for Cleveland in ten years, i.e. Kerry Wood, they need to step in and decline any invitation that may (but shouldn't) be extended Strasburg's way. He has two more starts to strike out 10 batters per game, move up the PR list, and make a believer out of me. For now, I say patience is a virtue. He can make the next 15 All-Star Games if he wants to.

Pitcher Rating June 30
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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Weekly PR Update

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports - Cleveland

Kent, OHIO--The last column of the spreadsheet is the previous week's ranking (red for a decrease, black for no change, and green for an increase... obviously).

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Settling the Argument

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports - Cleveland

Kent, OHIO--I invented a baseball statistic. I am officially that big of a nerd. Hey, I have an MBA, love baseball, enjoy the powers of Microsoft Excel formulas, and have that kind of free time. It was bound to happen. Anyway, I am calling the whole thing "Pitcher Rating" in the shadow of Quarterback Rating in football.

My inspiration came in an odd way: I was sitting in the living room at my fiance's house in Michigan. They are all Tigers fans and I couldn't be more of a die-hard Tribe follower. Lately, I have been dying hard while her family is smiling as their team narrows the Twins' division lead.

So we were all in the living room, watching Verlander's most recent start. I have always had a big issue with Fox Sports Detroit's Rod Allen and how much of a homer he is. Even her family agreed; everything the Tigers do is the "best" or "greatest" to the point of being an embarrassment for even their fans. His outburst need to carry a disclaimer stating, "these views do not reflect all Tiger fans." Otherwise, his inability to properly frame modern ability into its adequate context makes all Detroit supporters seem unintelligent by association. Magglio Ordonez and Jimmie Foxx are not equals, sorry to break the news. I always thought that cracking the spine of a history book was a prerequisite for being a color analyst for a Major League Baseball team.

The Detroit offense is dynamic, but he would like you to believe the 1927 Yankees--the famed "Murderer's Row"--needs to take a back seat to a lineup that consists of Gerald Laird and Ramon Santiago. Ridiculous to the point of laughable. The modern Tigers have not even won a Central Division crown.

To be fair, he may just have a bad case of tunnel vision, forgetting that there are usually 14 other baseball games taking place across the nation on each and every night.

Well, on this particular night, Mr. Allen deviated from his typical offense-minded spiel to call Verlander the "best" in the American League right now.

That got me seething to prove him wrong. But how? There are so many ways to judge a pitcher. His record wouldn't support such a claim, but a combination of his wins and other Triple Crown stats could make an argument. I would take a 2-1 Cliff Lee over Verlander's 4.00 ERA.

So I began to tinker with weighting a series of stats to come up with one number... one number that can sort out who is the best thing going.

I have never been so happy with the outcome of doing a math problem. Justin Verlander hardly has an argument to be an All-Star. Take that, Rod.

This stat should definitely be used for Cy Young voting and to help make sense of the All-Star Game. Take the top 13 in each league, no questions asked or concessions made; make all the token player representatives for lousy teams position players. There is at least one good bat in every dugout in the Majors. It is not a guarantee there is one solid arm. Taking a team leader in saves with 12 out of 15 chances with barely 30 innings pitched (all because you need one Pittsburgh Pirate) is a joke. It is not a large enough sample size to prove any value to the league's cause.

I'd rather managers take a guy hitting .280 than a pitcher who is 8-7 at the Break. The latter snubs somebody much more deserving than a position player addition would.

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Monday, June 7, 2010

Bye Bye Big Ten

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports - Cleveland

Kent, OHIO--Without a doubt, I am going to be that senile grandfather that sits in the corner and traps his grandchildren with inescapable rants about the past. I can almost here them screaming now, "Mom! Grandpa is rambling about the Big Ten again!"

I will inevitably be old someday, reminiscing about a simpler time. A time when the Big Ten was not only a collegiate conference, but the only one that could not accurately count. What fun will this new super conference be without the hidden "11" in the text? If the Big Ten adds 3 teams, I motion to call the league "The Big Thirteen" out of principle. The trouble will be embedding that "14" in there somewhere.

There is rampant talk about an eager Pac-10 commissioner, Larry Scott, who will add teams at all cost. He evidently has been given the authority to do so from his school presidents. However, there is no reason for him to shake things up without a need. He has an even number of teams in his conference; Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney does not.The way I see it, here in June of 2010, the Big Ten should be the first to step up to the proverbial college Jenga tower.

If Scott cannot land the University of Texas, then there is no economical sense in adding anyone. A phrase I thought I would never say ("thanks to Texas legislation...") no commissioner will be able to take one Texas school without taking them all. That might actually help the Big XII fend off contraction. And the Big XII will not fold if the Big Ten does not raid some of its teams. Thus, it all begins with the Big Ten. They truly hold the fate of college football--as we have come to know it--in their hands.

There is one stubborn Jenga block that the Big Ten has had its eye on for years: Notre Dame. It is in an precocious position, but if this piece comes out cleanly, the panic of grand realignment fizzles out before it ever truly gains steam. Delaney would walk away from the table, making the only move he truly wants, and other commissioners would (should) subsequently abstain from pulling anything out of whack. The tower would still be upright, conferences would have even-number balance, and it would be better off to leave things be.

It is simple arithmetic: a conference of 11 wants 12. There are bundled teams that would require a cracking apart; these are obviously not the first choices to fill that void of one team. Crack open one bundle and the madness will spill over like water into the compartments of the Titanic. One team gets taken away, one stays--now without its in-state rival for protection and support.

The alternative is taking both teams. But if you are the Big Ten, that does not solve the issue. You continue to have an odd-number league. Instead, Delaney needs to seek out a stray independent piece laying around. Notre Dame is the logical choice (and only choice) for Big Ten expansion and no one else needs disturbed.

The Big Ten would have twelve teams, two divisions, a new powerhouse in terms of revenue, a geographical fit, a team with experience playing several Big Ten teams every year, and--most importantly--an annual conference championship in football.

In this, I would not have to be that cranky old grandpa. I would not have to lament about a conference called the Big XII that used to exist "in my day." If the Big Ten gets Notre Dame, they will stop flirting with Missouri or Nebraska. Currently, these two Big XII schools are better on-field football programs, but pale in comparison to the money stream that Touchdown Jesus can provide.

So Missouri and Nebraska would both stay and keep the Big XII alive. Then the expansion-crazed Pac-10 would lose its leverage to sweep in and take the entire Big XII South Division. If Scott still wanted twelve teams and a conference championship of his own, he could move on to the Mountain West. Just stay away from my traditional power conferences.

It seems like too many schools have their fingers on the trigger, itching to pull so they are not left out in the cold. There are ultimatums and time tables being thrown around. Hopefully cooler heads prevail and no one unnecessarily burns a bridge. But if Missouri tells the Big XII they are parting ways, and then the Big Ten grabs Notre Dame and no one else, what will Missouri do? 

Furthermore, if Missouri severs their Big XII relationship, the Big XII South teams may assume a falling out is on the horizon and become members of the Pac-10 before anyone can blink. Mizzou needs to slow its role. It cannot step up to the Jenga game first. If they do, they may overplay their leverage; assuming a Big Ten invitation is in the mail, they may topple the tower.

The Big Ten is the only conference with a need to fill. The others, and the teams affiliated, need to relax. This assumes that the ACC and the Big East will not do anything crazy. With their recent expansions, they each have a healthy thing going. No team should even consider a move until Notre Dame makes a decision.

One easy move has the potential to keep greedy commissioners from taking an Etch-a-Sketch approach to the college football landscape. So, Notre Dame, join the Big Ten. Get over yourselves and your NBC contract; the Big Ten has its own network and is showcased on ABC/ESPN every week. Having that chip in your corner has lost its luster. Everyone is on TV now; you are no longer unique and special because of that. Plus, a shot at the BCS becomes easier when you start playing Indiana and not USC.

If Notre Dame enjoys their independence too much and declines, the expletive will hit the fan. The Big Ten will start a chain reaction with their Jenga move. The tower will become unstable, requiring others to compensate with knee-jerk maneuvers. It could get ugly. We could see the Kansas Jayhawks playing basketball in Conference-USA. [Groan]

Super Conferences will reign supreme and athletic directors will have to get used to the idea of traveling 1,800 miles for a road game. This is not ideal, but acceptable, for a sport that plays once a week and on weekends. But what happens for the other sports that are played between Super Conference foes? How much school will be missed when the Texas A&M Aggies field hockey team travels to play the Washington Huskies in Seattle on a Tuesday night? And at what cost (for non-revenue-generating sports)?

But if this whole thing is inevitable--as all change is--I might as well have a say as to how it should go down. That way I will not be able to complain... as much.

The day after Notre Dame says "no," the Big Ten should employ plan B. In my mind, that should be Missouri, Iowa State, and Nebraska. Then, Iowa would join the state of Michigan in having both of its largest state schools in the same conference--a natural rivalry.

Big Thirteen
or Great Midwest (14):

Iowa State

Penn State

Ohio State
Michigan State

Seeing it laid out, it is more attractive to fans than a Notre Dame addition. The Fighting Irish would do very little to boost the on-field perception of the conference, and would potentially drown in mediocrity. Adding three former Big XII teams at least gives the league a competitive balance geographically. The Big Thirteen (Great Midwest) Championship Game would be a guaranteed thrill to watch; played in either historic Lambeau or Soldier Field.

So after the Big XII North is partially pillaged, the Pac-10 would be next up at the Jenga tower. As expected, they would go full bore after the 6 members of the South.
What was once the Pac-8 would grow into the newly-minted Pac-16; a stupid name because Texas is light years away from the Pacific Ocean. 
Alas, the "Pac-16" should look like this:

Oregon State
Washington State

Oklahoma State
StateTexas A&M
Texas Tech
Arizona State

The one positive side effect about this western Super Conference is that will act as indirect antithesis to the BCS--a mini college football playoff. The Big XII South is notorious for being far superior in football than the Big XII North. So, if those South division teams are now part of the former Pac-10, one conference will hold several National Championship contenders each season.

Thus, the Pac-16 Conference Championship would act like the SEC Championship--an unofficial National Semifinal. For example, if Texas, Alabama, and USC all went undefeated in a regular season, computers would decide which two would meet for the title. More things settled on the field is always a good thing. Still not a fan of the travel distances, however.

So where do the other Big XII North teams find a home? This is where the Mountain West needs to step in and become the unexpected savior. In turn, the Mountain West would project its status for mid-major to one of the most powerful leagues in the nation.

Mountain West

Utah State
Boise State

New Mexico State
New Mexico
Colorado State
Air Force
Kansas State

Unfortunately, San Diego State would get the boot, as a California outlier. This would make room for WAC teams Boise State, Utah State, Idaho, Nevada, and New Mexico State to finally join a significant conference. They make the most sense to shift over because they would be joining schools, from their similar states, already established in the Mountain West. 

Expect underrated success out of this group, one that would be really fun to watch every Saturday. Eight of these teams were in a bowl game last season, and the 2010 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl could become an annual meeting in a Mountain West Championship Game between Boise State and TCU.

The domino effect would then leave the WAC in shambles. Ironically, this would possibly be the best news the NCAA has heard in a long time. The Western Athletic Conference is the biggest joke in sports. Hawaii and Louisiana Tech are in the same conference. This hodgepodge of teams needed to be fixed a decade ago.

My solution for that madness is to make the WAC as close to a California-only club as possible. Let it be absolved into the Big West. This is the last play that can be made in the Jenga game. Any more moves and the tower will surely fall.

Big West/WAC collaboration (14):

San Diego State
San Jose State
Fresno State
Cal State Fullerton
Cal State Northridge
Long Beach State
UC-Santa Barbara
Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo

This conference is absolutely stacked... if we are talking about baseball. In football it would definitely have some quirks. I agree it feels like an after-thought conference, but it would at least clean up some geography issues in the NCAA.

This conference's realignment comes with heavy football stipulations. Only Hawaii, San Diego State, San Jose State, and Fresno State have Division I-A (FBS) football programs. The University of Denver has a Division I-AA (FCS) football program in the Sun Belt. It would be the time for that program to jump up a level and make it a five-team D-I conference. The way to handle this efficiently is to give them something I call "semi-independent" status. The five must play each other, but are free to schedule any other teams they see fit.

As for the loneliest team in the nation, Louisiana Tech. They will swap with the University of Denver in the Sun Belt and drop down to play FCS football. It is a natural fit and the world would finally be at peace.

Talk about a Butterfly Effect; if the Big Ten goes after Missouri it will affect teams like Hawaii, currently minding its own business thousands of miles away. If the moves are all quick and clean, no one will feel a painful sting. If we slowly rip the band-aid, it will sting hurt for years to come. 

The NCAA needs to oversee this plan or greedy men will muddle it up. That will put me in my rocking chair when I am 70 years old, crotchety and angry about what happened to "my" college football.

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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Tread Away

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports - Cleveland

Kent, OHIO--The World Cup is days away and that means it is time to start blogging again. You know when a guy is coming out of Mopey/Loser-of-Blog-Contest Semi-Retirement it has to be for something pretty important. A topic in sports so large that it revitalized a will to write. Something that is on everyone's mind, discussed in every living room right now... The NBA Finals? No. The NHL Finals? No. Jim Joyce squashing Armando Galarraga's perfecto? No. Team USA's choice of athletic fashion! 

Okay, an interesting way to get back in the groove but I was bored and ran with it.

I love soccer jerseys; they are like billboards that run and kick. Not so much in international competition, though. When you take away the sponsors that club teams wear, it is perhaps the most minimal authentic merchandise in sports. People will pay upwards of $100 for what boils down to being a fancy collared, solid colored silk t-shirt with someone else’s last name on the back. It is similar to its "football" cousin in the lack of oversized words across the chest. The largest item on the whole thing seems to be a Nike, Puma, or Adidas logo. It is a high price to show your allegiance.

This contradicts the beauty of soccer--a sport that transcends economics. It takes so very little infrastructure to hold a highly competitive match, down to the very clothing worn. All soccer asks for is two dissimilar colors assigned to each team. From there, the goalkeepers and referees pick out contrasting solid colors to make themselves known as unique and let the games begin. In essence, they should hardly be uniforms that fans would pay big bucks to own themselves. Then again, NFL jerseys sell like hotcakes and are just as bland. It seems like 80% of a football jersey is covered by numbers, 15% by a player's name, and a measly 5% devoted to team-specific flair. That 5% is important, however, and where the similarities with soccer garb continue.

Fans put their money where their heart is...literally. Forget the "heart on the sleeve" references, soccer fans wear theirs in a more anatomically accurate location. Like football, soccer leaves only 5% of its fabric space for a personalized touch. But this is the most treasured part of a soccer uniform. Lose the names, lose the numbers; they are insignificant in the grand scheme of wins and losses. Only people that care about "how" and not simply "how many"--in terms of goals scored--require players to identify themselves.

If you want a Nike t-shirt in solid orange, I could buy you one tomorrow for a reasonable price. Throw in an artistic rendering of a 2 inch tall lion wearing a crown, and suddenly the price of that shirt triples. One small icon is all it takes for the simple shirt to turn into a pledge of allegiance to the Dutch. Without any words, it can be read as such by every soccer fan the world over. It is why people will give up their earnings so freely to own a piece of tradition, dress like their idols, and show the rest of the world which country makes them tick. The crest is all it takes.

That instant brand identification is what the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) is missing. Well, they have it but are going about it in the wrong way.

In many cases, a person's eyes must come within inches of a soccer jersey to read the words inside the badges and shields adhered to the chest. Not so for the United States of America. It a classic American tale, going with the boldest sans serif letters that can be seen from outer space. 

It is the same as I remember it, two decades ago on my first pair of shin guards. And that is where the target audience of that shield lies; the USSF has a near monopoly on youth sports. Every kid in this country plays soccer as a small child. Then somewhere along the lines, the majority stop. The fun and approachable shield of U.S. soccer has not matured into a distinguishable product, and subsequently neither has that youthful interest or talent. The time for change is upon us...on both accounts.

Mexico and Spain have intricate pieces of artwork--suitable for a canvas--that each player proudly wears over their heart. The United States has a piece of signage--suitable for Interstate highway identification. I am sure some have mistakenly read the composition as "UOS" if you see the ball as a letter--a common, yet even more childish, play of some graphic designers. You are free to call it pure, but I will stick with boring and childish. We might as well put a "Hello My Name Is" sticker on every player and let them fill in the "U" and "S" with bold Sharpie.

That is the point of my rant: the great teams do not need a large range of recognition for others to know who they are. Is there an "N" and a "D" on the Notre Dame football helmets? Forget what the current state of that program is in; the elite teams that transcend sport have subtler ways of being known. The reigning champion Italian national team is known as "The Azzurri," literally the plural form of the light blue colors they wear. One of Spain’s nicknames is "La Roja," or The Reds, while the French are called The Blues. Argentina’s known simply as "La Albiceleste," or "The White and Sky Blue." Now I know that it seems like the Americans were late to the party on selecting a representative color scheme to be called by, but among the top soccer powers in the world, we still have navy all to ourselves. And guess what? For the last 250 years we have had the best navy in the world. Call yourself "The Navy" and go crazy with a nautical theme. I don't care. Anything would be an improvement from the "Yanks."

If you think that rallying around a militant nickname is coming on too strong, think again. I know that international soccer competitions are some of the most peaceful times in modern history. It is a time when warring nations will cease the fighting to share a common stadium. However, the emblems worn by the players could not be any more military and politically based. The imagery does not display guns or swords, yet the jersey stands as the ensign being carried into battle. The symbolism is there to win in the name of the ruling political powers, for the good of the entire nation; just like a war and just like a soccer match. And similar to a battlefield, the capturing of the other side's colors is continued in a more friendly tradition--the swapping of jerseys after the full-time whistle blows.

Is this current flag something that Americans should be proud to hoist in victory, and even more important, willing to go down in defeat defending? We still have a passé stance on soccer here in America, and that is why we seem content with Clip Art. We must begin to take ourselves seriously before the rest of the world will ever do the same. It is time for the U.S. to show its teeth, or maybe some talons.

England has its Three Lions, while Cameroon and the Netherlands each have one. South Korea has the entire Tigers of Asia on their side. The Ivory Coast has The Elephants. France has a rooster. The Aussies have a kangaroo and an emu. The U.S. has a soccer ball. C'mon. We have so much animal representation in our nation's history and that is the best we can do?

I will do something I rarely do, and that is give credit to Nike for bettering a sport. Their people have desperately tried to push the historically-based Gadsden Flag logo (a.k.a. the “Don’t Tread on Me” snake) and it has stuck with the American soccer fan. That is because for years we have been crying out for something tangible to rally around. We are Americans after all; we like our sports teams to have fierce nicknames (except in Utah) so we can make fools out of ourselves in the stands making animal noises. Nike finally gave us that venue.

I know the Nigerian national team has an eagle on its crest (as does Mexico) and a “Super Eagle” nickname, but there is room to share. We need to implement that bird of prey for an image overhaul to have meaning. It has only been everywhere in our governmental iconography from the very beginning. Now, Nike could keep peddling its independently-licensed snake on extrinsic merchandise and the USSF can adopt the eagle for its jersey: a two-prong attack, with the snake playing the role of Robin to the Batman we need to create.

I propose an eagle with wings that look like red and white stripes of a waving American flag. Bring back that navy and white soccer ball from the old logo, place it at the feet of the eagle, and voila! Now you have an American flag personified.

Then add an "A" to the "U" and "S"--everyone (ourselves included) calls us Americans, not United Statesians. The acronym USASF is crying out for a better organization to represent it. Unless you run with a circle of junior high cheerleaders as friends, you have never heard of the United States All-Star Federation. Yes, a cheerleading organization. When I think of U.S. All-Stars, I think of Michael Jordan or Brett Hull, not cheerleaders. And for a national cheerleading association, shouldn't the letter "C" find its way in there somewhere? Five letters long, not a single one that stands for (or explains) what it is that you do. Nicely done, cheerleaders. So, United States Soccer Federation, I challenge you to take that acronym and make it something we can all be proud of.

Assuming that the federation will become USASF, it is time to showcase all the letters. Thin out the font and change it to something intertwined with serifs to make it look more eminent. Then add words, the smaller the better. These are only to be read and appreciated for those that get the privilege to put on a jersey. The words should be always be vernacular; we call it soccer so say soccer. The best part about every single national team logo is there use of local terminology. Using the Dutch as an example again, they proudly display "KNVB" on their chest. That is the way all international competitions should work. Do not cater to those who are intolerant and uneducated. I am a little surprised that we, Americans, have not forced the Dutch to change it to "RNSA" (Royal National Soccer Association) so we don’t have to think too hard or (God forbid) learn something.

The next thing is to flip the color scheme of the old logo to make the stripes red and white like they should be. I am not sure why reversing the colors of the American flag was ever a good idea. Then, activate the entire composition. It reads too static in its boundaries. Give it an appearance of movement (and not the type where you use lines to make it look like the soccer ball is in flight). This isn't elementary art class. It is a badge of honor to be placed on something slightly more visible than the shin guards of a four year-old.

With all the credit to what Puma is doing with their 2010 World Cup jerseys, I say that low-opacity watermarks are in. But not the kind that look like Aztec inscriptions on the backs of the Nike college basketball uni's (i.e. Duke and Michigan State). Those are atrocious and make absolutely no sense. This would be different--a subtle way to have an expressive animal logo. Finish the whole thing off with some gold laurels and there you have it. Critique it if you would like. It is not a perfect solution, but it is definitively better than what we have on principle alone. It finally has a story to tell. We may not have the game yet to back it up, but at least we would begin to look like we belonged anywhere near the FIFA World Cup trophy.

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