Buck O’Neil: Baseball Hall of Fame Speech

Wow! An amazing speech by an amazing man – Buck O’Neil. I heard it this morning for the first time.

The context only adds to it’s poignancy. In 2006 The Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown NY, admitted, for the first time, former Negro League players. 17 players were selected – but O’Neil, who was unquestionably qualified for the Hall, was not among those 17. (He missed the cut by 1 vote.) Instead, he was asked to offer the Induction speech. It exudes graciousness and wisdom. There is not one note of resentment or bitterness in O’Neil’s speech or tone. This makes his message even more powerful. (O’Neil was finally admitted to the HOF in 2021 – 15 years after his death.)

Take a moment to watch. (Run Time: 7minutes)

Black Diamonds

I have long been intrigued by baseball’s old Negro Leagues. Like many other baseball fans, I have long wondered how the greats like Josh Gibson, or Satchel Paige in his prime, would have stacked up with the legends of Major League Baseball. Scant opportunities through exhibition games suggest they would have more than held there own.

For some months now, I have enjoyed listening to the podcast Black Diamonds, hosted by Bob Kendrick, historian and president of the Negro League Baseball Museum, in Kansas City. Kendrick not only winsomely recounts the history of Negro League baseball, but he offers a peek into the personalities of those who played, and those who played important roles behind the scenes. I have long been familiar with some of the more well known players from the Negro Leagues era – Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, etc. But through Kendricks’ storytelling and interviews, I now feel as if I have met some of the greats – guys like Oscar Charleston, Leon Day, Martin Dihigo, etc. – who paved the way for the many who came along after them.

Worth the listen for any fan of baseball or student of 20th Century American history.

Link: Black Diamonds

Crumbling Orange Brick by Brick


Like watching a group of children playing Ring Around the Roses, fans of the Tennessee Volunteers are observing a team that seems to be singing “We All Fall Down”.  I am not an alarmist by nature, and this pales in comparison to other things in the news, but a series of incidental reports out of Knoxville lead to a reasonable wondering if Coach Butch Jones’ program might be crumbling around him, brick-by-brick.  As the Washington Post reported this morning: Tennessee Players Seem to be Revolting.

This morning, Jones confirmed rumors that star Running Back, Jalen Hurd – certain to be a high round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, should he choose to make himself available – has announced his plans to transfer immediately from the University of Tennessee.  This coincides with a somewhat cryptic Tweet by highly touted, though under-performing, Defensive Lineman Jonathan Kongbo, that suggests he may be thinking of hanging up his cleats, barely a half-season with the Volunteers.  On top of that, another highly touted but under-performing  underclassman,  Receiver Preston Williams, had left the team a month ago, announcing plans to transfer; though he is reportedly still enrolled and taking classes at UT.

Defections happen from every school. A single defection like one these would be disappointing to any team, and to any fan base.  But these coming together – at mid season – they are startling.

Even focusing just on Hurd, things don’t add up. And Jones’ response sounds only like spin, from a coach who already far too often, and for far too long, has sounded like a used car salesman.   While I do not know the man, and therefore my opinion may be somewhat unfair, I don’t expect to hear the truth out of Butch Jones any more than I expect to hear it from Hillary Clinton.

Hurd is transferring, though a Junior, to play one season at some other school.  Again, he is a freakishly gifted athlete, one any NFL scout would drool over adding to a roster.  So why not just finish out the season, and go to the NFL – just as everyone expected he would do after this season anyway?  Now perhaps Hurd wants to graduate from college before beginning his NFL career.  If so, he ought to be applauded for such an exemplary illustration of priorities as a student-athlete – student first.  The problem  with such a scenario is that Hurd will be ineligible to play for another school next season, unless he transfers to a school in a lower NCAA classification.  It’s possible, but unlikely.  Of course, if Hurd has already graduated, or if he will graduate this Winter or Spring, then he would be eligible to play at another school. But if he has already graduated, and now wants to leave the school where he grew up dreaming of playing, why would he want to play at some other school rather than taking the next step into the NFL?

Hurd is reported to have said he wants to play a different position – Receiver, or Tight End, or H-Back; one where his body would not take the same kind of pounding it does as a Running Back.  While he is an All America talent as a Running Back, he would be an awe striking Tight End or Receiver.  So again, why not just make the transition in the NFL? Plenty of guys change positions when they get to the next level.  Someone with Hurd’s natural gifts would make such a transition more easily than most. Further, he is not likely to make himself more money by playing receiver at Chattanooga or Tennessee State for a single season.  NFL Teams will take him for his natural abilities, with or without the year of seasoning at the FCS level.

While players leave programs everywhere, for a variety of reasons, Hurd’s situation seems suspicious.  Like many of his teammates this season at Tennessee, Hurd has been hurt. However, unlike his teammates Hurd’s injuries have remained undisclosed, while those of all the others are chronicled.  Further, other injured players have traveled with the team for games on the road. Hurd, however, stayed home when the Volunteers played at Texas A&M a few weeks ago.  No reasons for the differences in treatment were offered.  This itself is not wrong, as we have no right to personal information about private individuals, but it is suspicious.  Yet, in that instance, not only was Butch Jones tight-lipped, he offered contradictory reports about Hurd’s injuries.  Again, suspicious. So when coupling the loss of Preston Williams and the potential loss of Jonathan Kongbo with the odd developments of Jalen Hurd’s departure, it causes many to wonder – and some to fear – that the house Butch Jones has been building may be showing serious signs of crumbling.

I will finish with this: I am not against Butch Jones; nor would I suggest that at this point his job ought to be in jeopardy.  But there is enough suspicious activity, combined with a coach who to date has mostly shown himself to be a salesman, to wonder if there is something going on behind the curtain that will eventually show these recent events to be just the tip of a devastatingly large Orange iceberg destined to sink the hopes and hearts of Tennessee alumni and fans – not to mention the Volunteer Navy.

Tennessee Volunteers: Gearing Up for 2016

College football season is just around the corner. In fact, I think this is the last weekend without a game until January.  While I don’t seem to be able to watch as many games as I used to – I just don’t seem to have the endurace; my interest wanes – I still feel the excitement this time of year.  In many ways it’s like my New Years – everything is starting new, anything is possible.  And this year my Tennessee Volunteers are back!

Signs of Spring, Boys of Summer

Baseball 1886 Currier and Ives

Forget the groundhog a couple weeks ago, the real sign of the coming of Spring takes place today: Pitchers and Catchers report to Major League Baseball Spring Training. Baseball may not hold the hearts of American culture like it once did but, for those of us who still enjoy the game, this is one of the dates to look forward to on the calendar.

Many who are still fans of baseball today can trace their love for the game back to their own childhood playing days.  Whether playing for organized teams or in the backyard, many young boys dreamed of one day playing in the big leagues.  What could be better than spending afternoons (or now mostly evenings) in the green grass outfields or the combed dirt infields?  While dreams of fortune and fame were probably prevalent, it is not difficult to understand why some old timers said they would have played for free. Just the thought of playing, and of being considered among the best, was tantalizing enough.

I suspect this is why what Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) said in Field of Dreams resonates with so many of us:

“Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

I never got to live that dream. My baseball career got shelved after junior high school, when I put my attention to other games: tennis, track, and mostly football.  But I did get a little taste of the dream, as I have had the privilege over the years to serve at different times as a chaplain in the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox organizations – for their minor league affiliates.  There I saw gifted young men pursuing the dream.  Several  made it to The Show, a few of my chapel regulars even made names for themselves.  They achieved the dream.

But as baseball begins anew today, prepping for the 2016 MLB season, I am reminded of an article I recently read by Rachel Balkovec, the first strength and conditioning coach in professional baseball, titled: Lost Boys.  Rachel reveals a side of professional baseball that few see.  It is the harsh reality associated with the dream.  She does not diminish the allure of baseball for those who adore the game, but after reading her brief piece baseball fans may have a greater appreciation of the cost of achieving the dream – a dream that few really experience.  And for those who, like I once did, dreamt of careers with seeming numberless innings, perhaps it can also help us to appreciate a little more the lives we now do have, away from the playing fields.

Greatest Ever Fictional Basketball Player

Fictional B-ball

Over at Grantland.com a discussion has been started to occupy the few down-time moments of sports fans during the NCAA March Madness.  The discussion: Who is the greatest ever fictional basketball player?

Here are the rules:

Rule 1: The Blue Chips Rule

The film Blue Chips was loaded with actual NBA stars playing fictional characters. It would be too easy to just pick the guys from this movie, or to simply add in another guy or two. So the Blue Chips Rule is: You can’t pick more than two players from any one movie.

Rule 2:  Split Personality Rule

If someone has played a basketball player in more than one movie, you can pick only one of his or her roles.

Rule 3: The Earl Manigault Rule

You can’t pick anyone who was portraying a real-life basketball player.

Rule 4: The Fletch Rule

There is no restriction on the type of movie referenced. It doesn’t have to be billed as a basketball movie; it only needs to contain some basketball scenes.

Rule 5: Fiction Rule

This is not a “Who Was the Best Basketball Player” to ever play in a movie thing, this is a “Who Was the Best Fictional Basketball Player” thing. In other words, while Shaq may have been the best player to ever play a fictional basketball character, it is not actual basketball skills this contest measures. (NOTE: Michael Jordan is disqualified from this contest because he played himself in Space Jam.) Rather who is the best fictional basketball player, which may include not only skills shown in the film, but the character he plays.

With those rules in mind, here is my team:



Thoughts on Patriots Deflate-gate

Deflated Balls

Listening to Bill Belichick this morning, addressing the scandal arising from the use of deflated footballs in the AFC Championship Game this past weekend versus the Indianapolis Colts, one gets the sense that this allegation has him all choked up. He seems quite emotional about it, almost on the verge of tears.  Far from a mea culpa, Belichick is claiming a Sergeant Schultz-like “I know nothing“.  He sounds somewhat like Captain Renault, the police chief from Casablanca, in feigned disbelief: “I am shocked, shocked! … to find that gambling is going on in here!”  (Following which a croupier hands Renault a pile of money, saying: “Your winnings, sir.”  Renault responds: “Oh. Thank you very much.”)

For full disclosure, I am not a fan of the New England Patriots.  I appreciate the excellence they have exhibited over the past decade, but I do not root for them to win.  Being a Philadelphia native, I am a fan of the Eagles; and having lived in Pittsburgh for several years, I became a fan of the Steelers – which makes it almost inappropriate to ever want to see the Patriots win any game.   But even though I am not a fan of the Patriots, I am inclined to think of this Deflate-gate much ado about nothing.  Nevertheless, there does seem to be a pattern with the Patriots attempting end runs around the secondary rules of the game.  And Belichick’s emotional denial aside, it is difficult for me to accept that he has no idea about what is going on. He’s too good for this to be the case.

Earlier this week ESPN commentator, and former NFL QB, Trent Dilfer suggested that a deflated ball is more difficult to throw.  I have to differ with Dilfer to some degree.  Having played QB, in high school and in college, I will say Dilfer is correct that a truly deflated ball is more difficult to throw. However, a slightly deflated ball is easier to grip, and no less difficult to throw – especially for the shorter routes. And a slightly deflated ball is much easier to catch.

Deflation to this level is probably not noticeable to most. Perhaps only QB’s, Kickers & Punters, Receivers, and maybe Centers, would notice.  It does not feel like a deflated ball. But it is like the difference between the harder grip on a well-aired basketball and the slightly sqeezeable grip on a fresh tennis ball.  And on a cold, wet, day, this can be an advantage.

If this is the case, and there is an advantage gained, why would I say this is much ado about nothing?  Because it is simply a trick of the trade. It is the kind of thing that almost every QB or Kicker does, or wants to do, to gain some small advantage.  It is akin to the baseball pitcher scuffing the ball a little to gain a little more movement and control.  At worst it is like the baseball pitcher throwing a spitball – against the rules, but hardly a capital offense.

Against the rules it is, however.  And because there seems to be a pattern with the Patriots, under Belichick’s watch, I am not unsympathetic to calls for some kind of repercussion.

I find the NFL imposed $25,000 fine upon the Patriots to be a joke.  If the choice is between paying $25K and going to the Super Bowl, $25K is chump change as compared to the amount of money to be made as a Super Bowl participant – and especially if you end up the Super Bowl champs.  Ask any NFL owner, executive, or coach, if they could pay $25K to enhance their chances of reaching the Super Bowl, I’d doubt there would be any who would not cough up the cash.  The only thing that would keep some from doing so under this kind of circumstance is an integrity that would preclude them from ever willfully violating the rules.

On the other hand, the suggestion that the Patriots should be disqualified from playing in the Super Bowl is absurd.  As much as I would have preferred to see any other team get to the Super Bowl over the Patriots, not only is this suggestion absurd because it just won’t happen, but it should not happen.  It is overkill.

Still, because of the pattern by Belichick’s Patriots, some sort of discipline seems warranted – both for the Patriots, and to send a message to the other teams; as well as for the benefit of kids still developing in sportsmanship ethics.

As I suggested earlier, this offense might be seen as akin to the baseball pitcher throwing a spitball.  What happens when a pitcher is caught red handed in this illegal maneuver?  He is immediately ejected from the game.  What would be interesting, and I think might be appropriate, would be to suspend Belichick – or Tom Brady – from the Super Bowl.  Unless Brady is found to have been the culprit behind the deflation, and Belichick is shown to truly have known nothing, I would not see suspending Brady from the game.  But because of the variety of previous offenses, and because as coach all these kinds of things fall under his domain, suspending Belichick would be severe, but reasonable.  I would not suspend him from preparations. But suspend him from the actual game – no sidelines, no phone or computer communication during the game. This would be a seeming just punishment, and a strong statement by the NFL.

It won’t happen. But that’s OK. It’s just a thought.  And somewhere deep inside it may be more driven by my desire to see the Patriots lose than it is a longing for genuine justice.

Tennessee Volunteer Football Fever

I am not a fan of college football being played on Sundays. Nevertheless, it is almost Football Time in Tennessee!  

In anticipation of this new season, I am posting this video narrated by ex-Volunteer Inky Johnson.  Johnson does a marvelous job describing the sense of being part of the Tennessee football tradition.

My prediction for this coming season: Optimistic 8-4, and back to bowling.  

2014 MLB Opening Day

MLB 2014 Opening Day

This being Opening Day of the 2014 Baseball Season. Here are the teams whose box scores I will be regularly looking up these next several months:

Technically I am a Pirates/Phillies fan, having grown up in Philadelphia and then learned to enjoy the Pirates while living for several years in Pittsburgh’s Eastern Suburbs.  While not a fair weather fan, I fluctuate as to which team I cheer for most, with no rational explanation behind it.  This is not a problem, except for when they play each other.  But then, I don’t lose.

Living in Virginia, the O’s and the Nationals are the teams on our cable stations.  I became a fan of the O’s – or at least they became my favorite American League team – some time ago, when we spent a year living in Winchester, Virginia.  The Orioles were on almost every night – O-TV.  The Nationals have an exciting collection of young players, and older guys who used to play for the Phillies and/or the Piratres.  While not really a fan, I enjoy watching them play from time to time.  And if neither of the Pennsylvania squads can take a pennant, I guess I’d rather see the Nationals do it than anyone else.

Volunteer For Life

A new season on the gridiron kicks off today.  While my playing – and coaching – days are long behind me, they still seem very near.  And while I would be dismayed to become one of those guys whose feel my best days are the by-gone ones of long ago, I am frequently reminded afresh about how the game shaped my life, giving me perspective and character that transcend the field, sidelines, and locker room. If continually cultivated and lived out, they support the promise that, by God’s grace and providence, the best is still ahead of me.

One of the chief shaping influences on my life were the four years I got to spend as a Volunteer at the University of Tennessee.  This video, featuring former Vol – and Vol For Life – Icky Johnson, is a powerful reminder of what makes it “Great to Be a Tennessee Volunteer” – and the great privilege I have to be a Vol For Life.

D-III: The Way College Sports Ought’a Be

NCAA D-III Athletics is not for those who cannot cut it at a higher level, it is for those who can cut on several levels – playing fields, classroom, and life.

As a father of two sons playing D-III football, I have come to really appreciate what D-III has to offer.  And having myself been a D-1 athlete for four years during my college days has provided me a pretty good perspective.  And it is not what most seem to think.

It seems most assume that those who choose to participate in D-III sports are those who lacked the ability and/or opportunity to play at higher levels.  I have seen it many times: Athletes and parents hoping to get the call from the Big Boys in the SEC or Big 10 – a call that never comes.  Once realizing that opportunity is not presenting itself they assume they will go to the next level down, and then maybe the next, and if they can’t cut it there why bother.  After all, D-III is just glorified high school competition, right? …And maybe not as good as the competition at some high schools.  But this is just not the case.

In our family, for instance, my older son had several football scholarship offers, and a few offers for track.  Deciding on football, he even signed his National Letter of Intent at a press conference covered by the local TV station, and highlighted on the local network affiliate during the 5pm & 11pm newscasts.  But in the end, during the Summer prior to enrollment, he decided that while he liked the football program, and loved the coach, he did not really like the school.  He preferred a school where he could compete and develop as a well rounded individual.  He asked for, and was granted a release, and enrolled at a D-III school – where his younger brother followed two years later.  (Our younger son was not as widely recruited, but had some opportunities to Walk On had he desired.  But he had his eyes set on some outstanding academic institutions, all of which were D-III, and never considered inquiries from those other schools.)

I am not suggesting one cannot become well rounded at D-1 schools.  As a D-1 product, I certainly hope that is not the case.  I simply offer our family experience as an illustration that D-III is not just for those with no other options.  My son is not unique.  Most of the kids who actually compete on D-III fields had other opportunities. And of those who did not have other offers,  many of those athletes were not so much lacking skill as lacking a couple inches in height, or a couple steps in speed.  In short, those who do play usually can play – really play.

Why do I write this, and post this video?  Well, I guess one reason is simply to express my thoughts, or vent a little about the disrespect that D-III athletes endure from uninformed sports fans.  But there is also a nobler, more hopeful reason.  My hope is that maybe one parent of an aspiring athlete will read this post and then seriously encourage their son or daughter to consider a D-III institution in their recruiting process.  D-III is not a last resort; it is sports the way it used to be – the way it ought to be.  And as one coach said during my older son’s recruitment: “If you don’t plan to go on to play in the NFL (or NBA, or MLB, etc..) then what’s the difference?  Just choose a school you can love, where you’d enjoy being for 4 years, and where in years to come you will be proud to be an alumn – and a letterman.”

The Test Drive

It’s Race Weekend in Bristol – and we can’t be there.  I am not much of a NASCAR aficionado, but we love Bristol, loved living there, and miss being there.  Don’t get me wrong, we love living here in Williamsburg now, but sometimes it would be nice to be able to be in more than one place at a time.  And in Bristol there is nothing like Race Week – and there is no place for Race Week quite like Bristol.

Anyway, since we can’t be there for the festivities this weekend, to commemorate I thought I would post this video that has gone viral: Jeff Gordon pranking a car salesman on a test drive.