Monday, April 28, 2008

Four Years to Grade a Draft, Says Fisher—So Here's the Grade on 2004

“Seems like every year you have to remind people, 'Why don't you grade this draft four years from now?' That is how you grade drafts." That was Tennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher after this past weekend’s NFL Draft. “If anybody wants to grade us, so be it.''

Well, a lot of people did, Jeff. No one gave you an A. More often it was, like, C-. Or D. But we want to be fair and play it your way. So, instead of grading the 2008 Draft, let’s take a look at the 2004 Draft, now that we have four years of perspective.

Here they are, a hefty crop of 13 guys. They weren’t losers, exactly. Well, not all of them, anyway. Some had serious contributing moments. On the other hand, not a one made it to the Pro Bowl. Take a stroll down memory lane. Players drafted by round:

2 Ben Troupe TE/FLORIDA
2 Travis LaBoy DE/HAWAII
2 Antwan Odom DE/ALABAMA
3 Randy Starks DT/MARYLAND
3 Rich Gardner DB/PENN STATE
4 Bo Schobel DE/TCU
4 Michael Waddell DB/NORTH CAROLINA
5 Jacob Bell OG/MIAMI (OHIO)
5 Robert Reynolds LB/OHIO STATE
6 Troy Fleming RB/TENNESSEE
7 Jared Clauss DT/IOWA
7 Eugene Amano C/SE MISSOURI ST

The Player Evaluation

Troupe—Showed signs of breaking out during the ’05 season, but regressed in ’06, fell off the radar in ’07, and left recently in free agency to Tampa Bay.

LaBoy—He sorta earned a starting job, but wasn’t much of an impact player. Left for Arizona through off-season free agency.

Odom—Sorta a starter and sorta a backup, but in ’07 he started to come on, recording 8 sacks. Then he left for Cincinnati in the off-season.

Starks—10.5 sacks in four seasons, with a big fat zero sacks in ’07. Nothing but yearly regression. Recently signed with the Dolphins. (Does Bill Parcells know?)

Gardner—Currently playing cornerback for Team Michigan of the All American Football League. Played for Titans in ‘04 and ‘05, latched on briefly with Seahawks in ‘06, cut by them in ‘07.

Schobel—Will reunite with LaBoy in Arizona. Two years with Titans, one year with Colts, last year with Cards, always and strictly as a fill-in.

Waddell—Scrappy guy, everyone rooted for him. Made a few good plays in ‘04, less so in ‘05, then nothing. Trying to make the Raiders’ 53-man roster is his current challenge.

Bell—Developed into a starting guard. Got so good that St. Louis lured him away recently in free agency.

Reynolds—Fill-in and special teams guy for three years. No action in ‘07. Trying to latch on somewhere.

Fleming—Had a few interesting moments for the Titans in ’04-’05. Since then it’s been practice squad stuff with Broncos and Panthers.

Clauss—He’s joined Gardner with Team Michigan of the All American Football League. Got a little playing time with Titans in ’04-’05. Tried to hang on since with Redskins and Raiders, to no avail.

Amano—Actually started five games in ’07. Versatile lineman who’s managed a decent career, but has never earned a full-time starting job.

McHugh—Picked up by Packers prior to ’04 season, then latched on with Lions in ’05 and has been with them since as a back-up.

The Grade

Exactly what should go into a grade that’s four years down the line? Probably a lot more than a snapshot grade only hours after a brand-new draft. Did the draft produce a star? Did it produce a starter? Did it produce a steady contributor? Did it produce anyone with even a temporary monster year that really helped the team? Did it produce anyone who got overlooked by the Titans and then went elsewhere to become a regular? (We’re not grading on development; we’re grading on the recognition of raw talent.)

In fact, the Titans’ 2004 draft reaped one full-time starter—Jacob Bell. It also gave us Troupe, LaBoy, Odom and Starks, who all had starts and serious playing time, with none becoming an all-down/every-down starter. All the other draftees were, or have been, essentially fill-ins, with Amano actually establishing himself with a team and having a steady career. For all practical purposes, 6 of the original 13 are out of NFL football. Of the 7 remaining, probably only Bell will continue to start, with the others needing to step up in a big way to solidify their career position.

So, how would you grade this draft?

It’s not impressive in my book. It produced some pros, but, like, isn’t that what a draft is supposed to do?

Bottom line: Four years in, and not one of these guys will be a starting player for the 2008 Tennessee Titans. That says a lot.

Grade: C-/D+

Titans '08 Draft Reflections, Plus a Look at the ECU Pedigree

New Tennessee Titans #1 draft choice Chris Johnson hails from East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. With his 4.24 speed in the 40-yard dash, Johnson is definitely gifted, and if things work out, he’ll add an exciting dimension to the Titans’ needful offense. (Vince Young clearly not being exciting enough. Unless you think Chinese fire drills are exciting.) Johnson also is a demon kick-off returner, and it’s actually possible that he could score more touchdowns in that role in ’08 than Young will throw as the QB. (VY had all of 9 TD passes last season. Not exactly on the fast track.)

For the sake of history, here’s a look at all the players ever drafted out of East Carolina. I guess we shouldn’t use this list as an indicator of Johnson’s potential pro success, ‘cause based on hits and misses, ECU’s track record looks mediocre. Three names jump off the list: current Jaguars QB David Garrard; former journeyman QB Jeff Blake; and former running back Earnest Byner, who had an excellent 14-year NFL career, won a Super Bowl ring with the ‘91 Redskins, and who just happens to be the Titans’ running backs coach. There are a few other ex-NFL names on this list (Tony Collins, Jerris McPhail, etc.), but ECU historically is not a hotbed of NFL All-Pros. (Sorry. It had to be said.)

But, hey, see if you can spot some of your favorite players from the past. (If it's Carlester Crumpler, you score twice: both father and son were ECU draft choices.)

(year, round, pick, overall pick, name, team, pos)

2008, 1, 24, 24, Chris Johnson, Titans, RB
2007, 5, 9, 146, Aundrae Allison, Vikings, WR
2006, 4, 32, 129, Guy Whimper, Giants, OT
2004, 7, 45, 246, Brian Rimpf, Ravens, OT
2002, 4, 10, 108, David Garrard, Jaguars, QB
2002, 7, 30, 241, Leonard Henry, Dolphins, RB
1999, 5, 20, 153, Roderick Coleman, Raiders, DE
1999, 6, 32, 201, Troy Smith, Eagles, WR
1998, 3, 21, 82, Larry Shannon, Dolphins, WR
1997, 5, 1, 131, Lamont Burns, Jets, OG
1996, 4, 16, 111, Emmanuel McDaniel, Panthers, DB
1996, 5, 2, 134, Jerris McPhail, Dolphins, RB
1994, 6, 4, 165, Bernard Carter, Buccaneers, LB
1994, 7, 8, 202, Carlester Crumpler, Jr., Seahawks, TE
1993, 6, 8, 148, Tom Scott, Bengals, OT
1992, 1, 24, 24, Robert Jones, Cowboys, LB
1992, 6, 26, 166, Jeff Blake, Jets, QB
1992, 8, 14, 210, Luke Fisher, Vikings, TE
1992, 9, 26, 250, Chris Hall, Cowboys, DB
1992, 10, 22, 274, Dion Johnson, Oilers, WR
1991, 9, 3, 226, Ernie Logan, Falcons, DE
1990, 3, 14, 67, Walter Wilson, Chargers, WR
1990, 5, 1, 110, Junior Robinson, Patriots, DB
1990, 7, 14, 179, James Singletary, Colts, LB
1990, 10, 27, 275, Anthony Thompson, Broncos, LB
1988, 8, 5, 198, Anthony Simpson, Buccaneers, RB
1988, 10, 4, 253, Ellis Dillahunt, Bengals, DB
1986, 6, 27, 165, Kevin Walker, Buccaneers, DB
1986, 10, 3, 252, Tony Baker, Falcons, RB
1985, 3, 24, 80, Stefon Adams, Raiders, DB
1985, 8, 4, 200, Ricky Nichols, Colts, WR
1984, 2, 27, 55, Steve Hamilton, Redskins, DE
1984, 4, 27, 111, Terry Long, Steelers, OG
1984, 5, 3, 115, Clint Harris, Giants, DB
1984, 5, 13, 125, Jeff Pegues, Redskins, LB
1984, 5, 21, 133, Hal Stephens, Rams, DE
1984, 10, 1, 253, Norwood Vann, Rams, TE
1984, 10, 28, 280, Earnest Byner, Browns, RB
1984, 11, 4, 284, John Robertson, Eagles, OT
1983, 2, 18, 46, Jody Schulz, Eagles, LB
1982, 4, 2, 85, George Crump, Patriots, DE
1982, 4, 7, 90, Tootie Robbins, Cardinals, OT
1981, 2, 19, 47, Tony Collins, Patriots, RB
1980, 11, 11, 288, Sam Harrell, Vikings, RB
1980, 12, 9, 314, Mike Brewington, Chiefs, LB
1979, 2, 28, 56, Zack Valentine, Steelers, LB
1979, 6, 21, 158, Eddie Hicks, Giants, RB
1978, 6, 28, 166, Harold Randolph, Cowboys, LB
1977, 6, 27, 166, Reggie Pinkney, Lions, DB
1974, 4, 2, 80, Carl Summerell, Giants, QB
1974, 4, 17, 95, Carlester Crumpler, Bills, RB
1973, 16, 1, 391, Tim Dameron, Oilers, WR
1973, 17, 22, 438, Leslie Strayhorn, Cowboys, RB
1969, 17, 1, 417, Wayne Lineberry, Bills, LB
1964, 14, 5, 187, Tom Michel, Vikings, RB
1961, 5, 8, 64, Glenn Bass, Cardinals, TE
1951, 28, 12, 339, Roger Thrift, Browns, QB

Titans Draft Lowdown

Uncritical Titans fans were filled with hope by the team’s weekend draft choices. Count me out. Reinfeldt 2.0 is a gambler’s delight, a roll of the dice on just about every pick, with only vague attention to need. For example, who’s replacing Jacob Bell, the offensive guard lost to free agency? Who’s playing defensive tackle next to Albert Haynesworth? Who’s backing up #2 QB Kerry Collins, who’s getting old but will probably see some action in ’08 since VY runs around a lot in those Chinese fire drills and could get injured? Not a good sign when a draft evokes more questions than it answers. Here are the newbies, by round:

1. RB Chris Johnson, ECU—Fantastic speed. Once he’s loose, he’s gone. I say build the offense around him. (Sorry, Vince. Just concentrate on throwing those screen passes to the new kid. You’ll be fine.)

2. DE Jason Jones, Eastern Michigan—What the...? Dude “amassed” 3.5 sacks in ’07... in the Mid-American Conference. You know, the MAC? Famous for its manhandling perennial All-Pro defensive linemen?

3. TE Craig Stevens, Cal—Welcome to Nashville, Craig. Take a seat. That one right there. No, a little further down. Past high-priced free agent Alge Crumpler and down beyond veteran Bo Scaife. We’ll let ya know when we need ya. From “His style is similar to Anthony Becht. He is a decent underneath receiver but not suited to go deep.” Holy crap! We got an Anthony Becht clone! Now that’s good work.

4. DE William Hayes, Winston-Salem St.—Can you say “bastard step-child of Refrigerator Perry”? Maybe they can give him the ball on goal-line situations. A project. From “Hayes is a bit of a surprise at this point in the draft.” Agreed.

4. WR LaVelle Hawkins, Cal—LaVelle Hawkins? Oh, I thought you said DeSean Jackson, the other Cal receiver. (Damn!) Oh, well, in order to get him we’d’ve had to have passed on Jason Jones in Round 2. “Even though his physical numbers are not real strong, he's an example of a player who plays much faster than he works out.” Well, I’ll be—it’s the second coming of Paul Williams, ‘07’s fly-by-night West Coast receiver.

4. LB Stanford Keglar, Purdue—Possible sleeper. “His toughness is one possible question mark.” Well, that’s not good.

7. CB Cary Williams, Washburn—Fascinating fact: This guy played first string at...are you ready...? FORDHAM...before transferring to...still ready...? WASHBURN. The odds of Mr. Williams making a pro roster are slim and none. But he’s the fitting capper to a really weird Titans draft.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Titans' Early Draft Picks Add More Puzzlement to Off-Season Maneuvering

ESPN’s John Clayton categorizes the Titans as one of the NFL Draft’s “first-round losers.” I’m inclined to agree.

Like everyone else in Nashville, I sure hope first-rounder Chris Johnson (#24 overall) turns out to be a winner. The guy’s lightning fast. His footage is impressive as hell. (Go plug his name into YouTube.) What’s weird is that he wasn’t showing up on any common lists of elite running backs prior to the draft.

Surely the Titans weren’t surprised when RB Felix Jones of Arkansas was taken by the Cowboys at #22. So they had to be interested in the still-available Rashard Mendenhall of Illinois. Only the Steelers at #23 stood between the Titans and Mendenhall, and why would Pittsburgh take a running back when they’ve got Willie Parker? Surprise! The Steelers did.

I’m not sure if Titans fans saw the import of this moment, mainly because most of ’em probably figured the team would grab one of the many wide receivers available, to procure some weaponry for Vince Young. Devin Thomas, DeSean Jackson, Limas Sweed, Malcolm Kelly—all four of these highly regarded WRs were still on the board. Matter of fact, not a single wide receiver was drafted in the first round, so the Titans had the pick of the litter. It wasn’t to be.

Now the Titans will head into rounds 3-7 knowing that all four of the highest-profile WRs are gone, snapped up quickly by others in Round 2.

So here’s the message the Titans sent to VY on Draft Day: “We’re so skittish about your abilities as a quarterback, that we’re not going to waste an early draft choice on an elite receiver, and have to spend another year watching you figure out how that works. Instead, we’re going to get a running back with what we hope is major upside—unlike last year’s pig-in-a-poke Chris Henry—and pair him with LenDale White and do the thunder-and-lightning thing on the ground and hope you can hit newcomer Johnson out of the backfield with short passes and let his 4.24 speed do the rest. If we happen to pick up a decent wide receiver somewhere along the line in the later rounds, then that’s gravy. Otherwise, you can stay familiar with Justin Gage and Roydell Williams, and get newly familiar with free-agent tight end Alge Crumpler, and, if we’re lucky, we’ll actually have an offense of some kind.”

So then, with their second-round pick (#54 overall), the Titans go weirdo again, selecting Eastern Michigan defensive end Jason Jones. Now, the Titans certainly need help on the D-line, especially after waving bye-bye to Antwan Odom, Randy Starks and Travis LaBoy in free agency, and gutting some essential working parts that helped make All-Pros Kyle VanDen Bosch and Albert Haynesworth so effective.

Yet who is Jason Jones? You won’t find a single highlight reel or workout film of him on YouTube. Jones was a productive performer—in the MAC—though his 3.5 sacks this past season don’t exactly appear exceptional. Of course, there’s always the chance he’ll be better than Jevon Kearse, acquired by the Titans as a free-agent this off-season, and surely a high-risk venture if ever there were one. Kearse, after ACL surgery, has yet to regain his All-Pro form, which seems long ago indeed. His most recent four seasons with Philadelphia never measured up to his first five with Tennessee. On September 3, Kearse turns 32. He’s trying to make a comeback on a reconstructed knee. How many serious observers realistically think that Kearse will excel in ’08? And if he doesn’t, is Jason Jones the man?

Day 2 of the draft may yet bring some needed help. And maybe Johnson, from East Carolina, will indeed be the second coming of Tony Dorsett. Alas, as impressive as his highlights are, his performances came against Conference USA competition, and that’s why a lot of observers are saying the Titans reached for this pick—because you just never know, and guys from bigger and better conferences seem more battle-tested for the pro game.

So let’s tote up the past few months in Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt’s reign:

1. Losing DLs Odom, Starks and Laboy, up-and-coming guard Jacob Bell, and tight end Ben Troupe to free-agency.

2. Signing Crumpler from Atlanta. He’s 30 and hasn’t been at peak health the past two years.

3. Signing Kearse on a wing and a prayer.

4. Drafting an unknown running back after the big ones got away, and following up with a DE draft choice who wasn’t even a world-beater in his mid-major college conference. (And they’ll have to pay the guy second-round money.)

These should all be interesting experiments... but that doesn’t mean the results will be good.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Moyer Proves Resilient, Keeps Winning with Junk

I’m not that big a fan of Tim McCarver as a baseball announcer. He’s pretty obvious and cliche-ridden. He’s more like an ombudsman for baseball, rather than an original voice. His rap is also riddled with a lot of what I call “manly jock crap.”

However, I am a big fan of McCarver’s syndicated Sunday night interview program (broadcast locally on Nashville’s ABC affiliate, Channel 2). McCarver trots out old-timers and discusses their careers, and his subjects are not always the most obvious guys, which inevitably ends up being totally cool.

The other night he had on Jamie Moyer, who is an old-timer only by virtue of his chronological age. On November 18, 2008, Moyer will turn 46 years old, yet he is still pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies. The Moyer career story is both baffling and triumphant and bears rehashing.

I was living in Chicago in 1986, when 23-year-old Moyer came up from the minors to pitch for the Cubs. He was a promising new face, and even though he tended to give up well over a hit per inning, and his ERA that year was less than stellar (5.05), the guy was 7-4 and threw a shutout in 16 games. Moyer went 12-15 in ’87, again with a high ERA (5.10), but he made 33 starts and pitched 201 innings. Then he went 9-15 in ’88, and while he continued to give up too many hits, he pitched 212 innings and his ERA dipped to 3.48.

Then came an offseason trade. Moyer was shipped with a young Rafael Palmeiro to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Mitch (“Wild Thing”) Williams, a reliever who helped the Cubs to the playoffs in 1989.

Then Moyer hit the skids. From 1989 to 1991, with Texas and then the St. Louis Cardinals, the lefthander compiled a record of 6-20, including a 1991 ERA of 5.74. He was getting hit way too much and his control was only so-so. Things were so bad that Moyer got released by the Cards, then was re-signed by the Cubs, only to be cut prior to the 1992 season. He signed again with Detroit in May of that year, but never put in an appearance in a major league uniform that season. At the age of 29, Moyer looked washed up.

Then the Baltiore Orioles took a chance on Moyer prior to the 1993 season. He rewarded them with a 12-9 season, with a 3.43 ERA. Moyer slogged through the next few seasons with more general mediocrity, but he was allowing slightly fewer hits, and his control improved. In a 1996 season split between the Orioles and the Seattle Mariners, Moyer was 13-3, with an ERA just under 4.00.

Finally, at age 34, Moyer’s career took off. From 1997 to 2005, he was 133-73 for the Mariners. He kept his ERA mostly in the mid to lower 3.00s during those seasons, and his control was decent, and even though he kept giving up a lot of hits, Moyer somehow proved himself a tough, gritty competitor, but most of all, a winner.

What makes the Moyer story even more improbable is that he has managed to pitch into his mid-forties without the benefit of a trick pitch, like the knuckleball. He throws unadulterated junk. His fastball barely breaks 80 MPH. He throws change-ups and curves in the 70 MPH range. With limited physical skills, and a modest 6-foot, 170-lb. frame, Moyer has re-defined the notion of “crafty lefthander,” and he has now managed to tote up a career mark of 231-178, with a lifetime ERA of 4.22.

Yet in a 22-year career, covering 607 games, Moyer has completed only 31 games and thrown but nine shutouts. He’s the quintessential “Give me five or six good innings” kind of guy, and it’s astounding how he’s managed to parlay moxie and an apparent canny understanding of the hitters into such a long major league stint. It’s paid off big-time, too. Moyer has earned nearly $70 million in salary through the years. Not a bad haul.

Moyer’s got a bunch of kids, seven in all, including an adopted child from Guatemala. And he’s still married to Karen Phelps, daughter of former Notre Dame basketball coach and now ESPN analyst Digger Phelps.

Now that Julio Franco appears to be gone for good from baseball, Moyer is the oldest current player in the major leagues.

The message is: Never give up.

Democratic Political Follies: "Just Folks" Hillary and Obama's Holy Man

Sometimes it’s hard to resist getting into the political fray.

I had to laugh heartily the other day when I learned of Hillary Rodham Clinton telling stories about her youthful visits to her family’s summer home in Scranton, Pa. Hillary wants to win Pennsylvania (in the worst way), and she proves this by trying to link her past to Scranton, a Middle American town with blue-collar leanings. I also heard that Hillary said that she used to shoot guns with her father. This is hilarious stuff. Anything to win the hearts and minds and votes of a political bloc—the hard-workin’, gun totin’ crowd in the Keystone State.

A few facts. Hillary Clinton was born in Chicago. When her father started to make his upwardly mobile way in the world, he moved his family to Park Ridge, Illinois, a bedroom community on the city’s northwest edge, very near O’Hare airport.

Here’s where Hillary and myself intersect. Somewhere around 1993-94, I was playing piano for Chicago’s Second City comedy theater. Our troupe embarked on a fairly lengthy tour of New England, and one of our gigs was at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. The Clintons were in the White House, and because of that everyone knew that Hillary attended Wellesley as an undergrad. It’s an elite private school with a lovely campus, and being there was certainly an occasion to get reminded that we were gigging at the First Lady’s alma mater.

A couple of years later, I was out of work as a musician and needed a job. After two weeks on unemployment—and having gotten really depressed just walking that one time into the unemployment office—I looked around for something/anything to pay the bills. I ended up very shortly thereafter taking a job driving a cab—in Park Ridge, Illinois.

Park Ridge Taxi Co. was one crazy gig. My four years in that job are worthy of a book in and of itself. But here I was, driving the good upper-crust folks of Park Ridge around the suburbs and also taking a good many of them to and from their many business and vacation flights at O’Hare. Somewhere about the middle of town, on North Prospect St., was the former home of the Rodhams, a characteristically lovely and large suburban house amid where the wealthiest folks lived.

So here’s the 4-1-1 on Park Ridge and its ilk. After driving these folks around for four years, I can tell you that it is, by and large, one of the most financially conservative enclaves you’ll ever see. Nobody is poor in Park Ridge, and a lot of people are filthy, stinking rich. The residents come across as the most obviously Republican-type folks you’ll ever see.

To know Park Ridge is to make it very easy to scoff at the notion that Hillary Clinton is a friend of the working class. Her background is decidedly NOT working class. It is closer to silver spoon. She grew up in comfortable upper-middle-class splendor in an idyllic conservative suburb and later went on to Wellesley. Later, Hillary attended Yale Law School, further cementing her link to upward cultural and financial mobility and classic Eastern establishment elitism.

In other words, Hillary hasn’t worked a day in her life. At least not how most of us define “working.” She is a well-connected conservative elitist parading around Pennsylvania in liberal blue-collar sheep’s clothing. She is doing this because she will do anything to procure the Democratic nomination for the presidency.

I wonder if the folks in Scranton were scratching their heads. “Summer home? What’s that?”

On the Obama front, his reverend, Chicago’s Jeremiah Wright, keeps opening his big mouth. He was at it again on Saturday, when he spoke at a memorial service for the late former Chicago appellate judge R. Eugene Pincham, like Obama a member of Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ.

[Sidebar: I hadn’t heard Pincham’s name for years. When I lived in Chicago, he was an obnoxious, impolitic fellow who presided controversially over court cases, and also had a penchant for saying ugly and/or inadvisable racial things that judges shouldn’t say.]

So, on this solemn occasion, among other things—and on the heels of his prior awful public remarks that have embarrassed Obama—Wright took after the Founding Fathers, claiming they “planted slavery and white supremacy in the DNA of this republic.” He also took after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, described Thomas Jefferson as having engaged in “pedophilia,” and attacked FOX newsmen Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.

Not too cool for Obama, who has yet to distance himself from this guy.

Will someone please take Rev. Wright out to see the musical 1776? Beside being excellent theater, the show also provides a wonderfully clear history lesson on the Founding Fathers’ struggles to get our nation started. Yes, it’s true that the issue of slavery was not dealt with by the original framers. That is, they were unable to deal with it the way they would have wanted.

In fact, Adams, Jefferson et al. wanted to speed up the abolition of slavery through the wording in the Declaration of Independence. Alas, there were delegates from the South on hand who feared such verbiage and would not ratify the vote for independence as long as the original wording—”freedom for ALL men”—was in place. The reality of the situation caused Adams tremendous consternation. He wanted to assure the end of slavery, but his more immediate problem—declaring independence from England—had to be solved first.

And so Adams, like any good politician, did a bit of horse-trading (or what we more nobly refer to as compromise). The language in the document regarding slavery was struck out in exchange for the Southern votes to separate the colonies from the king. This is surely an unfortunate asterisk in the early history of the U.S., but the exigencies of the moment forced Adams to act practically. It wasn’t what he and others wanted, but first things came first.

It took 86 more years until Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. As a white guy, all I can say is that, yes, Americans might’ve acted more swiftly on the issues of slavery and racial equality. Slavery is a stain on our past. The good news is all the progress that has been made since the Civil War, admittedly never occurring as fast as we’d all have liked. But there are better days ahead, and, well, there’s even a half-African American running for president, and he just might make it.

So don’t be a hater, Jeremiah. Better yet, be a reverend. Talk about God and faith instead. Isn't that what reverends are supposed to do?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

NCAA Showdown: Memphis Blows It; Kansas Claims Victory "Lite"

Well, Memphis blew it. They were the better team, they had a legit lead, they could’ve iced it easily with free throws, then didn’t, then should’ve fouled the Kansas guy who brought in the inbounds pass before he dumped it off to Chalmers, the kid who hit the trey to send it into overtime.

Yeah, Kansas is a very good team, and I won’t say they didn’t deserve to win, but it looked like CBS-TV’s Jim Nantz and Billy Packer were having a hard time finding an “insta-story” on the court while surrounded by the Jayhawks, who looked as shellshocked as triumphant. They won, all right, but they were not superior. If Chalmers’ shot clanks off the rim, only Memphis gets remembered this night. As it is, Memphis will probably be longer remembered: as the supertalented team that choked. Too bad.

As for Nantz and Packer, their replacement on this telecast is long overdue.

Nantz, who dreams of golf at night, just does not have the necessary edge to broadcast an NCAA championship game. He’s soft. And he’s always trying to find warm and fuzzy stories about the kids. (Gack!) At times he’s overly, and incorrectly, dramatic, and while he has one of those “announcer" voices, it’s just too prissy. It’s fine for whispering on the 18th green as Tiger’s about to drop a critical birdie putt, but for basketball? No thanks.

Packer, who has been skewered in these pages before, remains a hot-air balloon full of spurious observation. The man’s incapable of developing a broad theme coherently. He nitpicks at every play, trying to find rationales for every action and reaction. If a kid hits a shot, he’ll say, “See, that’s a good shot for him to take.” If a kid misses a shot, he’ll say, “That’s not a shot he should be taking.” It’s obnoxiously lame stuff, and he’s been getting away with it for decades.

And here’s something I never thought I’d say: Dick Vitale knows what he’s talking about.

I have found Vitale’s style totally goofy and rather queer for years. All that “Diaper Dandy” stuff always sounded a little, uh, well, offputtingly “intimate.” (Don’t be talking about young, virile athletes and diapers in the same sentence, Dick. Not cool.) But anyway, despite his clearly obnoxious persona, I started listening to the guy more closely during the NCAAs. What can I say? His analysis was almost always spot-on, and his projections were rooted in sound assessments of the teams. The guy actually could put the on-court stuff into context, thus clarifying what we’d seen or were about to see. So hats off to Dickie V, who was recently announced as a new member of the Naismith Memorial National Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. (Memo to Packer: There is no room for you there. Don’t even think about it.)

More b-ball media fodder: I don’t think Digger Phelps liked having Bobby Knight on the ESPN set during this Big Dance. They bumped Digger over to the right and stuck Knight right smack dab in the middle, and allowed him the run of the roost. Knight was okay. It was fun to hear what he had to say. Sometimes he was repetitive, but he was always happy to defer to his partners, and he seemed reasonably comfortable on the dais. Which may be why Phelps looked slightly less than comfortable. As the resident college b-ball guru (with ESPN since 1994), his thunder got stolen a lot, not only by Knight but also by Vitale. Plus, Digger couldn’t trot out championship stories. His best effort in 20 years as head coach at Notre Dame (1971-1991) was a Final Four appearance in 1978. Not to put down Digger. He had an excellent coaching career, and he took Notre Dame to places in basketball that they had not seen before, nor have seen since. Including his one-year stint as head coach at Fordham, Digger’s career record is 419-200. Nothing to sneeze at.

Digger’s given name is Richard. I don’t think I ever knew that before. Did you?

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Metro Nashville's Board of Zoning Appeals: Esteemed Citizenry as Sport

I love watching sports on TV. Football, baseball, basketball usually. But there are sports of another kind on Nashville’s local Metro 3 cable channel, which broadcasts the various official board meetings of municipal government.

Sometimes these meetings are as contentious as any sporting event—and hence sometimes just as dramatic, entertaining and fraught with intrigue. But unlike a sporting event, there really isn’t an objective determination of winners and losers. Board members may vote yea or nay, but their decisions are too often subjectively formed, apparently even when there are objective rules to be followed.

Take the Metro Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). These folks—usually a contingent of five or six “esteemed citizens” (as it was explained to me at a Christmas party by a local lawyer; whatever esteemed means)—convene generally every two weeks and preside over a docket filled with Nashvillians who are seeking variances to Metro building codes in order to upgrade, or create new construction on, their property, whether it be residential or commercial or nonprofit. Appellants might also be seeking special exceptions to in-place zoning requirements.

It’s supposed to be a process that applies fairness to each and every case, but clearly if you know someone on the board, or they know you, or they’re predisposed to whoever you might be, you could get a break in the decisionmaking that otherwise wouldn’t come your way. At the same time, if board members take a dislike to you personally, or you present your case in what they might determine to be an untoward manner, you’re more than likely to have your appeal turned down. What is supposed to be a rules-guided process is very often amazingly arbitrary.

In these hearings, there’s a great deal of jabber about property setbacks and height allowances and signage and proximity to adjoining buildings and exits and egresses and collector streets and neighborhood impact, etc., etc. Aesthetics seems to also play a role here, though, again, what is more subjective than aesthetics?

In theory, it is the board’s job to factor in the city building codes to each case on appeal, and then determine whether the appellant has made a legitimate case for positive action, DESPITE THE CODE. Probably the most important factor in the board’s determinations is the fact of hardship—whether the case can be made that due to hardships in the physical particulars, the appellant, even possibly in the face of opposition from neighbors, should be granted the right to proceed with the new construction.

Let’s take a case from the meeting of April 3, 2008. Believe it or not, former U. S. senator and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist sent a couple of his minions to the board to request permission to build fancy partial sections of wall outside his fenced-in Bowling Ave. home. Apparently Mr. Frist, since he hosted President Bush once upon a time, wants to go against code in order to construct some walls near the driveway entrance to his home. His appellants at the BZA hearing cited a need for security, and hence asked for heights in excess of code. Three local neighbors were present in opposition to this plan, citing the impact the new construction would have on safety for pedestrians on Bowling—well traveled on foot by locals—and the lack of aesthetic consistency in the neighborhood. Furthermore, Frist’s representatives, upon direct questioning, stated clearly that there was no hardship at issue here. The former senator just wanted to do this thing on the street-side of his house to provide additional security and parking for his numerous guests.

By rule—such as BZA follows rules—the request should have been denied. THERE WAS NO HARDSHIP. Mr. Frist, if he had been just another citizen, would have had to find another way around the code.

Suddenly, board member David Ewing took up the Frist cause. He cited a case from the March 20, 2008, BZA meeting where the board granted an exception to a West Nashville couple (1113 Nichol Lane) who wanted to build a new attached garage at their residence, even though, yet again, the appellants could not cite an actual technical hardship, and in fact would have simply have had to build their garage another way to be in compliance.

It is notable that Ewing fought hard for Frist. But why exactly did he? Especially since BZA “queen bee” Elizabeth Surface, who usually plays the role of the heavy and chief defender of the board’s rules—and, most of all, its mission—re-stated in no uncertain terms that the Frist case had no hardships attached to it. Another board member, Rebecca Lyford, who often gums up these meetings with dizzy questions and extraneous considerations, seemed clearly to side with Surface. With five board members present, the necessary majority needed to approve the request was in danger.

Presiding board member Dale Randels, Jr.—subbing for absent chair Jane Cleveland, who, with her brown ponytail bobbing, is usually very reliably aware of procedure and strict about the rules—hemmed and hawed and seemed to be trying to help Ewing find the necessary rationale to convince the others to approve Frist’s request.

Then Lyford, in a moment of rare prescience, asked brand-new board member, Fabian Bedne, present at his first-ever hearing, what he thought about matters. Bedne, with refreshing candor, explained that, as he understood his job—as instructed by zoning examination chief Joey Hargis—the lack of a hardship made the case moot. Not approvable.

More hemming and hawing ensued, with Ewing adamantly insisting that the board did make exceptions and that this one was reasonable. It was not clear why he took such special interest in the Frist case, but one can make unfortunate projections about that. It was especially odd for Ewing to fight for the case in the face of Surface’s obvious dim view of the merits.

Lyford hemmed and hawed. Board members stared at each other uncomfortably for a while. Ewing made a motion to approve. No one spoke up. More discussion took place. Randels, almostly tacitly, then gave his approval. Lyford finally buckled. Clearly there were now three votes for approval, but four were needed.

In a moment great with disappointment, the normally hard-ass Surface buckled as well. When Randels re-called the motion, Frist had his four votes. Bedne—trying to hold on to his integrity in what was obviously new territory for him—abstained.

This is “objective” city government at work. Don’t be fooled.

* * *

One of the BZA’s early 2008 cases involved a gentleman named Chris Mule, who had purchased an old one-story duplex at 1403 Tremont St., near Music Row, for the purposes of rehabbing and re-selling. Mule wanted to build a second floor on the duplex and re-sell the two units as modern townhomes. The structure was pretty run-down, and his somewhat alternative construction plans, though a tad edgy and differing from the typical neighbor homes, were nonetheless fairly consistent with other newer construction in Edgehill, which clearly seems to be battling between older black residents versus predominantly white Yuppie types who want to invest in existing property.

Mule averred that what he was doing would improve the look of the neigborhood, and also would infuse the property with new cash and new buyers with a vested interest in living there. These were indisuptable points. The issue at stake: His house on the east was too close to his neighbor, who showed up at the BZA meeting protesting. Point in fact, Mule’s architect had accounted for water run-off on the new proposed roof, and, in fact, the new second floor wouldn’t change the existing distance between homes though it would cast a longer shadow on the neighbor’s west windows. Mule’s soon-to-be new neighbor claimed that the proposed construction would prohibit him from putting a ladder to his house to effect repairs, but, as Mule correctly pointed out, the neighbor has had a scaffolding attached to that side of his house for apparently years, and that it was “an eyesore.” (I visited this site. Indeed, the scaffolding IS an eyesore, and there has apparently been no use for it for a good long time.)

Ewing, who happens to be African American, instead of balancing the technical merits of the case, seemed to take special exception to the fact that Mr. Mule did not consult his neighbors on either side when launching his design plan. Ewing took it upon himself to lecture Mule about common sense and good neighborliness. Even after Mr. Mule contritely apologized for the supposed lack of grace—while still asserting his rights and what seemed like a reasonable and fairly costly design and rehabilitation plan—his appeal was ultimately rejected by the board. Their reasons were a combination of technical gray area and something in the way of a slap on the wrist for Mr. Mule’s poor conduct as a human being. Very weird stuff. And not objective.

By and by, Mule also received a lecture on aesthetics from then-board member Lelia Gilchrist, telling him to re-think the design of his front porch. (I guess to conform to her notion of “good ol’ fashioned Southern hospitality.”)

Mr. Ewing fights for an exception for the Frists’ upscale home, but he gets self-righteous when a new owner wants to upgrade and improve the property in a sketchy area. Clearly, “hardships” are a matter of interpretation with the BZA.

* * *

Another recent BZA case involved one Richard Demonbreun, a lawyer and owner of a historic home in the Woodland-in-Waverly section of town. Demonbreun’s case apparently goes back several years, and the circumstances surrounding it are somewhat of a soap opera, including his temporary inability to practice law, his bankruptcy proceedings, his divorce, and neighbor complaints about how he runs his property/bed-and-breakfast as an events venue for parties, business meetings, weddings, etc.

A couple of neighbors showed up to this hearing to put the kibosh on Demonbreun’s plan to continue his business with BZA approval. The fly in that ointment is that Demonbreun has appealed the board’s rulings in the past to a higher authority, thus holding his business status in legal abeyance and allowing him to conduct business as usual until final determination of his case.

Demonbreun was very articulate—and possibly sincere—about his intentions to run a respectful business without annoyance to neighbors, but he also is burdened by the fact that his previous experience with the board has not been fruitful or pleasant, and he’s gone over their heads and into court to fight their determinations.

This case was noteworthy for the appearance of Henry Walker, local lawyer and journalist, who testified to the current state of the Demonbreun situation, though Walker was not present officially either to support or decry the appellant’s case, but only to state that there had not been recent neighbor complaints against Demonbreun and that Walker also wanted to know if he could go ahead with his plans to hold a scheduled event at Demonbreun’s establishment. Walker, being a lawyer, and an articulate and witty guy, naturally impressed the likes of Lyford and Surface, who seem to enjoy “lawyer talk” and like to make joshing jokes with and about lawyers. (For whatever their cozy little reasons.)

Demonbreun’s track record with BZA is not good, and that made it virtually impossible for him to make convincing arguments about the good-faith running of his business. Plus the soap-opera aspects of the case were extraneous verbiage that he apparently was using to evoke sympathy.

The upshot? The case was deferred for 30 days, because there was no clear majority yea or nay.

Clearly, objectivity, or even the appearance of it, never had a chance here.

* * *

The BZA exists, apparently, to respond logically and responsibly and consistently to people and their needs as citizens, residents and business owners. The irony of it all is that they are themselves in the business of making determinations that support exceptions to the city codes. There is, however, no consistency in their rationale. Hence, all you can see are the exceptions to the exceptions and the arbitrariness of their work.

The Frist case was an obvious example of their response to power: To turn down the Frist request would have been socially risky, and so they weenied out. Meanwhile, poor Mr. Mule is stuck with his Tremont building, forced to find a less progressive way to salvage his investment. In 30 days, Mr. Demonbreun learns his fate.

It’s almost as involving as March Madness.


Early Season Baseball Notes

Capitol Start—The Washington Nationals have a beautiful new baseball stadium, and are off to a 3-0 start. Gifted third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has hit two home runs, and both have been game-winners. Questions remain about the pitching here, especially with closer Chad Cordero still injured, plus the starters—Odalis Perez? Matt Chico? Tim Redding?—have to prove they’re for real. There’s hope in D.C. for now, anyway.

Bad Start—Three strong postseason contenders—Tigers, Cubs and Phillies—are 0-2. It’s early, but all three have lost at home, and if you check the history books, fast starts usually mean something at season’s end.

Geezer Yankees—Take a cursory look at the Yankees’ active roster. This team is old. Check out these ages, by mid-season: Mike Mussina (39), Mariano Rivera (38), Jason Giambi (37), Jorge Posada (37), LaTroy Hawkins (35), Johnny Damon (34), Bobby Abreu (34), Hideki Matsui (34), Derek Jeter (34), Alex Rodriguez (33), Morgan Ensberg (33), Kyle Farsnworth (32). Plus the starting pitching is a complete mystery at this juncture, with only Chien-Ming Wang a proven (but still young enough at 28) commodity.

Whither Juan?—Juan Pierre has a career batting average of .301. He’s had four 200-hit seasons since entering the league in 2000, and in 7 of his first 8 seasons he’s never accumulated fewer than 170 hits. He’s batted over .300 four times. He’s scored 100 runs or more three times. He’s also stolen 389 career bases. So what is up in Los Angeles, where new Dodgers manager Joe Torre has only started Pierre once in the first three games, and then pinch-hit for him later in that one game? Pierre earned a world championship ring with the 2003 Marlins. The guy’s on his way to greatness—only 30, and already with 1,440 career hits—and Torre’s playing youngsters Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, presumably looking for long-ball pop. (Pierre has only 12 career dingers.) Maybe trade the guy if you’re not gonna play him, since he won’t give you power off the bench. So far, Torre has Rafael Furcal leading off and catcher Russell Martin batting second. Seems like Furcal and Pierre at the top of the order would set the table nicely for Jeff Kent and Andruw Jones and the younger power bats. Pierre should be playing regularly somewhere.

Remarkable Rudy—The Phillies yesterday added 39-year-old Rudy Seanez to their roster. This guy’s a baseball phenomenon, or oddity, depending on how you look at it. Seanez has pitched in 16 major league seasons. He has never won more than 7 games in a season, never lost more than 4 (36-26 overall). He has appeared in 502 games, and not once has he ever been a starter. So you’d think he’d have some saves under his belt, right? He has exactly 12 saves in his entire career. He’s never pitched more than 60 innings in any one season. His career ERA is 4.15. But Remarkable Rudy also has struck out more than one batter per inning (523 IP, 544 K). He’s the quintessential one-batter reliever, and if he hadn’t missed the 1992, ’96 and ’97 seasons with injuries, he’d’ve logged 19 major league seasons. According to best estimates, Seanez has earned upwards of $10 million in his career. His high was 2006, when the Red Sox paid him $1.9 million. He’ll earn $500K this season, after earning $700K in ’07 with the Dodgers. Not bad for mediocrity.

Asian Influence—The latest Asian player to make his presence known is Chicago Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, who blasted a three-run homer in the Cubs’ opener (a 4-3 loss to the Brewers). This guy looks for real. He’s built like Hideki Matsui and has a similarly sweet swing. Fukudome will turn 31 later this month, and like most Asians playing in the States, he’s already had a serious star career in Japan. He should be good for at least five years of MLB productivity.

Brewer Brawn—Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun has been moved from third base to left field this year. The 2007 NL Rookie of the Year was deemed a liability at the Hot Corner (26 errors in 112 games), so the Brewers brass figured he could cause less harm in the outfield and concentrate even more on his remarkable hitting. What’s weird is that veteran Bill Hall has now taken over at third, after spending all of 2007 in the outfield. Prior to last year, though, Hall spent most of his career shifting around from second to shortstop to third. If he’s successful in the field, the Brewers solve a problem and keep his solid bat in the lineup. And look out for Braun. He’s already one of the best natural hitters in the game, and last year’s power numbers (34 HR, 97 RBI) should improve.

Dusty Roads—In case you missed it, Dusty Baker is managing the Cincinnati Reds. It’s his first managing job since his ignominious departure from the Cubs after their 66-96 record in 2006. Old managers never die. They just end up in Cincinnati.

Be-Deviled—The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have only won as many as 70 games once, in 2004, under Lou Piniella. They actually did better in their second season (1999) than they did last year. Hope springs eternal.

Padre P. U.—After tanking critical games late in the 2007 season for the Padres, stopper Trevor Hoffman was at it again last night, blowing a 6-5 lead in the ninth, allowing four runs and watching the Astros claim a 9-6 victory. Hoffman will be 41 in October. He might be done. He has 525 career saves.