2. Big Ten – 3,267,000
3. ACC – 2,650,000
4. Big 12 – 2,347,000
5. Pac-12 – 2,108,000
6. Big East – 1,884,000
2. ACC – 1,247,000
3. SEC – 1,222,000
4. Big 12 – 1,069,000
5. Big East – 1,049,000
6. Pac-12 – 783,000
Mr. Posh Spice AKA David Beckham has arrived in America and there’s been the predictable discussions as to whether his presence in Major League Soccer will finally bring the United States into concurrence with the rest of the world of viewing the original football as a preeminent spectator sport. A lot of the naysayers argue that Americans will never warm to soccer because we need lots of scoring (being the land of excess that we are), which soccer doesn’t provide. Of course, I’ve always found this ludicrous, since a 1-0 pitchers’ duel in baseball is infinitely more exciting than a 12-11 slugfest, while football of the American variety assigns multiple points to each of its scores which artificially raises the numerical total score (we might look at it differently if a 21-14 game was instead called a 3 touchdowns to 2 touchdowns game). Sure, there are those that like scoring for the sake of scoring, just as there are those that believe Larry the Cable Guy is a comedic genius. That doesn’t mean that this is necessarily the view of the majority.
However, I will be a naysayer on soccer’s popularity as a spectator sport in the U.S. on a different front which ought to be obvious but I rarely hear being brought up in discussions about the game (in contrast to the simplistic “low scoring” issue). If you’ve ever read “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman, he uses an apt sports analogy as to how the United States has attained its success over the past century. He states that historically, we have been the best on grabbing the “first round draft picks” from around the world in nearly every walk of life, whether it’s scientists that come to study and research at our top universities, computer and technology pioneers building companies in Silicon Valley, financiers running the world’s capital markets on Wall Street and LaSalle Street, actors and actresses making films in Hollywood, and competitive eaters attacking hot dog stands on Coney Island. Our success has largely been predicated on attracting the best of the best from the rest of the world (look at the disproportionate number of immigrants in America that have founded technology companies, run corporations, or are A-List celebrities) and the world of sports in general is certainly no exception. The world’s top basketball players, even if they are superstars in their home countries, invariably long to come to the NBA. The same thing applies with baseball. When we watch professional sports in this country, part of the allure is that we know that we are watching the very top players in the world competing at the highest level. That’s why we feel justified (or maybe we’re so vain) to crown our ultimate winners in the postseasons of our pro sports leagues as “World Champions” – other countries be damned.
Of course, there’s one glaring exception to this superiority, if you haven’t already figured it out: soccer. If we called the champions of the MLS “World Champions”, that would be the biggest joke to the rest of the world since the fact that we voted George W. Bush into office not once, but twice. (I’ll admit that I was a contributor to this. Sorry, folks.) Do you know how NBA fans like myself have a nice chuckle over the grainy footage posted on YouTube of Yi Jianlian posting up 5′ 5″ power forwards in the Chinese Basketball Association since the quality of play between the leagues is so glaringly wide? Well, that’s exactly how fans of the English Premier League and other top European leagues feel when they watch the MLS. The reason why watching the MLS feels like watching minor league baseball to me is because that’s exactly what it’s comparable to: it can be perfectly nice family entertainment for an evening, but it’s very apparent that the best in the world aren’t on the field.
Americans have already shown that they have the capacity to watch top quality soccer with their increasing interest in the World Cup and the U.S. national team over the past decade. The ratings for the World Cup last year vastly exceeded expectations even when the U.S. team got bounced out early. However, that doesn’t translate into increased attention for the MLS at home since the average sports fan intuitively knows the difference in the quality of play between the World Cup and MLS, even if the games have the same 1-0 score (just as you can tell the difference in the quality of play between a Major League Baseball game and a minor league baseball game even if the scores are the same). We will gladly spend our precious time and hard-earned dollars on watching the best of the best, whether it’s sports or movies, but we will only give a passing glance to anything less than that.
What American soccers needs is David Beckham… from five years ago when he was in his prime, along with attracting other soccer superstars from around the world while they are at the tops of their games as opposed to being on the descent. Until the MLS (or some other professional soccer league) gets to the point where it can legitimately call its champion at the end of the year the “World Champions” or at the very least be able to compete with the top European leagues without being laughed off the field, soccer as a spectator sport is going to have a hard time gaining traction outside of the World Cup and the U.S. national team. The scoring issue has nothing to do with the soccer’s problems. It’s all about the quality of play.
(Image from The Big Lead)
On a day where Italy bested France on penalty kicks to win the World Cup and the Chicago area hosted a PGA Tour event (following up on my diatribe on this subject a few months ago, Rick Morrissey beautifully tore a new one into the PGA president for dropping the Western Open and rotating the tournament out of Chicago every other year starting in 2007) and a NASCAR race (pretty boy Jeff Gordon took the checkered flag in the USG Sheetrock 400) within a few miles of each other, the White Sox and Red Sox engaged in a 19-inning game that brought to the forefront a lot of issues for the second-half of the baseball season. A few thoughts heading into the All-Star break (no White Sox or Cubs games until Friday???):
1) The Pair of Sox Are Baseball’s Best – At the beginning of the year, I had about as much faith in Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett holding up for the entire season as I did in Mark Prior and Kerry Wood (who might be done forever) doing the same, which is the reason why I had picked Boston to finish behind both the Yankees and Blue Jays in the AL East. Well, it turns out that Schilling and Beckett haven’t broken down while the Bosox have solved their closer problems (Minneapolis Red Sox had a nice post last week on what makes a quality closer) with the emergence of Jonathan Papelbon (save for Jermaine Dye’s line drive rocket out of the park with 2 outs in the 9th to bring the White Sox back to life yesterday). With their pitching staff largely in order and possibly the strongest batting lineup from top to bottom in baseball, the Red Sox look like they are in better shape this season than they were when they won it all in 2004.
Meanwhile, the White Sox are bashing the ball on offense a lot better than last season, but the pitching staff has taken a step back. Bobby Jenks, of all people, has become the most stabilizing and consistent force off the mound for the ball club. The White Sox starting rotation hasn’t been clicking on all cylinders for quite awhile despite the fact that Jose Contreras hasn’t lost a decision since last August. Contreras has continued to be a rock, but the consistency from game-to-game for the rest of the starters has been lacking so far. Fortunately, the superior depth that the White Sox have in this spot means that they have a great chance to rectify this in the second half. I’m more considered about the middle relievers, who, outside of Neal Cotts, continue to fail to inspire confidence in me. That’s the area that I’m looking for Kenny Williams to shore up prior to the trade deadline. Still, we’re in a great spot here. I don’t think the White Sox have been playing up to par pitching-wise at all, yet they still have the second-best record in baseball.
Regardless, this weekend’s White Sox-Red Sox tilt was a possible ALCS preview with a look at the top two teams in the game at this time (the Tigers are just mercilous with their continued winning, but until they beat the White Sox head-to-head in a series, they’ve got a gaping hole on their resume). For that matter, if we took a combination of the top starting position players from just the White Sox and Red Sox and put them up against the starters from the National League All-Star Game, the only spot where I believe the NL would have an advantage would be at first base with Albert Pujols (and even there, a combined Sox team wouldn’t be giving up much at all with Paul Konerko or one of the virtual first basemen of David Ortiz or Jim Thome). The Red Sox took the weekend overall, but the White Sox winning a marathon game with two separate comebacks has got to have some carry-over effect the next time these two clubs meet in September at Fenway Park.
2) The White Sox Aren’t a Small Ball Team and Never Have Been – During the White Sox playoff run last season, there was a myth propogated by the national media that the team engaged in “small ball” or a bastardized version call “Ozzie Ball” that was the antithesis of the Moneyball philosophy advanced by Oakland’s Billy Beane and his follower Theo Epstein in Boston. This seemed to become the conventional wisdom despite the fact that the White Sox were fourth in the American League in home runs last season with higher power totals than the perceived-to-be-stronger-on-offense Red Sox. I guess the media forgot that teams other than the Red Sox and Yankees actually existed in the American League, so they went and continue to go overboard in attempting to differentiate the White Sox.
All of this wouldn’t bother me if the White Sox themselves didn’t buy into this myth and just realize that they win a lot more of their games by Moneyball-esque power than by small ball. Instead, we get situations such as the bottom of the 17th inning yesterday. At that time, the White Sox had runners at first and second with nobody out and all they needed was one run to score to win the ballgame. It’s perfectly smart baseball to lay down a sacrifice bunt to move a runner who wouldn’t reasonably be able to steal from first base to scoring position. However, I’m not a fan of attempting a sac bunt when there is: (a) a man already in scoring position, (b) an advantageous 2-0 count in favor of the hitter, or (c) two strikes on the hitter. All of this occurred in the same at-bat by Tadahito Iguchi in that 17th inning, who ended up popping out straight to the pitcher on an attempted bunt with two strikes on him. Of course, the White Sox then grounded into a double play after that to kill the potential for a win in that inning. Fortunately, Iguchi redeemed himself by hitting the game-winning single in the 19th.
The point here is that the White Sox are not a small ball team and, therefore, shouldn’t try to act like a small ball team. If a guy is already in scoring position, the team has good enough hitters where a bunt has more of a chance to hurt them than to help. This is the only thing that Ozzie Guillen does as a field general that I have any criticism over.
3) Player to Dye For – Jermaine Dye was the MVP for the White Sox yesterday with both his bat with a 2-out 9th inning homer to tie the game and glove with an outstanding catch to prevent possibly a triple by the White Sox. For that matter, he has been the MVP for the White Sox for this entire first half of the season. If a World Series MVP could ever be underrated, Dye would fit the bill. While Jim Thome has certainly electrified the crowds at U.S. Cellular Field with his moonshot home runs, Paul Konerko gets the “Paulie” chants, and A.J. Pierzynski attracts attention in every way, Dye has quietly gone about his business by killing the ball at the plate and snatching everything in right field. An even better reward than the invitation to tonight’s Home Run Derby for the White Sox leader would be the opportunity to start in the All-Star Game itself as a replacement for the “injured” Manny Ramirez (he didn’t look hurt in playing all 19 innings yesterday). This is bigger no-brainer for Ozzie Guillen than any of his discretionary picks of White Sox players for the All-Star roster. Jermaine Dye should be starting in right field on Tuesday night.