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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Fan Dumb

By Dennis Byrne

Obviously, we mere fans aren’t privileged to read from the same secret playbook available only to team managers, coaches, general managers and owners.

How else can you explain why we don’t understand why, for example, starting Major League pitchers must be yanked automatically from the game after they’ve thrown 100 pitches?

How do you explain why throngs of Chicago Bears football fans failed to see that Bears quarterback Rex Grossman was obviously superior to Brian Griese?

Somewhere buried in those secret texts is an explanation for why the game-leading team—no matter in what the sport—must play “prevent defense” until the other team has had a chance to catch up.

In our ignorance, we fail to grasp the many reasons why such rules must be adhered to, come hell or high water, even if they fly in the face of common sense. Take manager Lou Piniella’s controversial decision to pull Cubs starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano out of the first game of the division series after six innings and not even 100 pitches, even though he was throwing a superb game. Got to save him for the fourth game of the series, was the explanation. The Cubs, of course, never got to the fourth game, having been swept in three by the Arizona Diamondbacks.

It’s safe to say most fans would have left Zambrano in; it’s also safe to say that most managers—not just Piniella—would have taken him out. Not just because it’s the playoffs, but because of the precious 100-pitch rule. It’s hard to imagine that under such circumstances that baseball will see another Ed Walsh, the White Sox Hall of Fame pitcher, who in 1908 won 40 games, with 24 complete games in 49 starts, 464 innings pitched, 11 shutouts and 249 strikeouts. Imagine how delighted owners would be to have another house-packer like Walsh show up, but it’ll never happen again, thanks to the 100-pitch mentality.

Speaking of owners, they can be just as mystifying. For years, Chicago Blackhawk fans couldn’t fathom why the family ownership forbad full television coverage of this legendary hockey franchise. If the Wirtz family had nurtured, instead of restricted, the coverage, the fan based would have increased, providing the increased revenues harvested that might have prevented the disgraceful trashing of the franchise.

The tragedy is that the Wirtz family had one of the best examples of how the process works, right here in its backyard. The Chicago Cubs, despite being the most pathetic losers in MLB history, has a large and loyal following, here and nationally. Why? Because every game was televised, home and away, on commercial TV. On top of that, national exposure on Chicago’s WGN-TV’s superstation, produced a countrywide fan base. The Wirtz family also should have learned from the Chicago White Sox, whose descent into the city’s “second team” status began when the ownership restricted the team’s telecasts. The fans knew all this, but it sadly took the death of family patriarch, Bill Wirtz, for younger ownership to move to telecast the Blackhawks on a less limited basis.

Stubborn is the word for it, and perhaps stubbornness is the curse of the good fortune or riches needed to run or own a professional sports team. Stubborn, as in Bears head coach Lovie Smith’s unbending loyalty to Rex Grossman as the team’s starting quarterback, in spite of years of injuries and his demonstrated failure. The fans knew that a strong arm alone wouldn’t get the job done and demanded that Griese replace him. (Perhaps, you could say the fans got what they deserved, since they originally demanded Grossman in place of whoever at the time was the latest in a long string of quarterback failures.)

Not to rub Smith’s nose in it, but it became apparent from the first moment that Griese stepped on the field as starting quarterback that he would be more effective than Grossman. Each week he improved, until he was named the NFL’s offensive player of the week following his spectacular come-from-behind win last Sunday. The fans were right again.

Griese led the successful drive, virtually by himself, calling his own plays. We’re getting varying reports on just how many plays he called on his own during that drive, but it raises an interesting question about the practice of coaches and managers calling plays from the sidelines or the booth. Why not let the guy who’s in the middle of the action call the plays? Sending in plays from the sidelines has the same feel as generals who watch from a distance, sending in orders to the troops who actually are doing the fighting.

A last observation on football. Fans can see when a “game plan” is failing; why does it take so long for the coaches to see it? What is with the pig-headed determination to keep running the ball up the middle when it isn’t working? Why the insistence on “establishing the ground game first” before establishing the passing game? What makes the ground game so sanctified when all it produces is an endless series of three runs and a punt?

If these questions make fans scratch their heads in wonderment, the logic of some trades brings on hives. Take Aaron Rowand, the White Sox center fielder who was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies just a few months after winning the World Series. Many fans were appalled, even when the Sox got slugger Jim Thome (and $22 million) in return. Rowand was a fan-pleasing “fence crasher” and epitomized the team’s “grinder” image. It was like cutting out the team’s heart; the team was never the same.

Now there’s talk about the Chicago Bulls trading several front-liners to the Los Angeles Lakers for the perpetual pain-in-the-neck Kobe Bryant. The Lakers only want all-star Luol Deng, leading scorer Ben Gordon, the promising Tyrus Thomas and the exciting rookie Joakim Noah; in other words, gut the team for a “super-star” who will disrupt the locker room and, dare I say, anger the fans. By the time you read this, a variation of the trade may already have happened, and, for me, that’s it for the Bulls.

Here I’m making no claim to fan superiority when it comes to all things sporting. If teams took a plebiscite every time a trade came up or called a play, there’s no guarantee that things would be any better.

Nor, possibly, would things be any worse.

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