Questionable Calls in the Sports Department

by Walter Brasch

With the opening of the high school football season, local newspapers and TV stations have again been running lists of what they believe are the top teams.

Most lists rank teams in the “top 10.” One Pennsylvania TV station, whose on-air number is 16, runs the “Top 16.”

There are several problems with these lists. First, we don’t know how they got those rankings. We don’t know who makes up those lists or what criteria were used. It could be a sports editor and her grandfather. It could be a bunch of station personnel sitting at a bar, throwing back vodka slammers and team names.

Even if we know how the lists are compiled, a second major question arises. Why? Yes, why? Why does it matter? Aren’t won-loss records good enough? Shouldn’t the only rankings that matter be who enters and wins in the playoffs?

Some newspapers have a half-dozen staffers and a couple of subscribers make predictions of the upcoming high school, college, and pro football games. Winners get prestige and, sometimes, gift cards from local advertisers.

Some newspapers run the odds on upcoming games, apparently so their subscribers have basic, although seldom accurate, information to assist them with bets. While betting on college and pro games is fairly common, and mostly illegal, should anyone be betting on high school games?

Several sites rank teams from throughout the country. USAToday runs a pre-season ranking of the Top 25 football teams. With one million boys playing football on 14,000 teams, does anyone think anyone, even those with access to a super-Cray computer, can accurately define the “top 25.” USAToday during mid-summer also does a composite score of four national sites which determine the “Top High School Prospects.” These are, supposedly, the “top 100” high school players, and top recruits for a college football scholarship.

The rankings don’t stop with football. USAToday also ranks the “top 25” teams in almost every sport, including girls lacrosse and boys soccer.

Do these rankings and predictions give the sports departments something to fill time and space? Do they make the sports editor appear to be powerful or intelligent? Are the lists something to allow fans to believe their team is good enough to be ranked? Or to complain that their team was cheated and should be ranked No. 3, instead of No. 17?

Related to rankings are the persistent countdowns of the “Best Play of the Week” and “Athlete of the Week.” These TV clips are loaded in favor of quarterbacks throwing balls to receivers or running backs sidestepping two tackles to score from 20 yards out. Usually overlooked is a great block that springs the running back loose. Or, maybe a quarterback sack that stops the other team’s momentum. But, every week there’s some play that someone-we don’t know who-and we certainly don’t know the criteria-decides for the rest of us.

On Saturdays, we shouldn’t care who was ranked or what the best play was from the night before. We should care that the teenage boys did their best, played hard, and enjoyed their time on the field.

After all, it’s only a game.

[Dr. Brasch began his journalism career as a sports writer and then as a sports editor before turning to public affairs/investigative reporting and in-depth feature writing. He is the author of 20 books. His latest is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]


The Phillies Are Not Phigments of Imagination

by Walter Brasch

Newspapers are often a “court of last resort” for our readers whose problems can’t be dealt with elsewhere.

Thus, it was no great surprise to receive a letter from a young girl who was confused about the Philadelphia Phillies. In her short life, she had never seen the Phillies.

Her little friends, so she wrote me, said that the Phillies were a figment of her imagination, a team that was made up so that there would be something to anchor the National League basement. She says she was told that sportswriters went along with it because they always wanted to write fiction and needed something to do between calls from irate Little League parents.

Well, Virginia, your friends are wrong. They have been affected by the cynicism of reporters and the skepticism of a nation with no direction. They think nothing can be that bad unless it was made up. But, Virginia, the truth is that there are Phillies and, unfortunately, they are that bad. But, it wasn’t always that way.

The first game ever played in the National League was played in 1876 in Philadelphia. Of course, the Philadelphia team didn’t last a season, but if it did, it would have been a great team. In 1883, the Phillies showed up and never left-even if it seems that way now and then. In fact, since 1900, the Phillies have earned six of the top 20 spots of the worst records of any baseball team. That may or may not be why the Phillies tried to disguise themselves under aliases-the Philadelphia Quakers (1883-1889) and the Philadelphia Blue Jays (1943-1949). The Quakers, of course, are a peaceful people who don’t believe in battle; blue jays can be vicious. Neither name helped the team.

Your little friends may tell you the only reason the Philadelphia A’s and Connie Mack of the American League eventually left the City of Brotherly Love, whoich has the most rabid sports fans in the nation, was because they were tired of competing for tickets against a team that sold about as many tickets for losing as did the A’s for winning. But, you must believe that even in losing, the Phillies are real.

Not believe in the Phillies? You might as well not believe in their seven league championships, in the Whiz Kids of’ ’50, or the great collapse of ’64 when they were leading the league by six games with just two weeks to go, and then finished in a tie for 2nd. Only a Philly could pull that off. You might as well not believe in the Phillies of ’80 who won the World Series, the only time in a century that happened.

Not believe in the Phillies? You’d have to not believe in Mike Schmidt, maybe the greatest third baseman ever; you’d have to forget Garry Maddox, the “secretary of de-fence” who covered the outfield better than snow in February. You’d have to give up believing in Ed Delahanty, the first Philly to enter the Hall of Fame, or Chuck Klein who entered the Hall with a .326 average and statistics that would choke even the Nielsen ratings.

If there were no Phillies, there would have been no Grover Cleveland Alexander, one of baseball’s greatest pitchers, who was sold because the owner needed the money. You’d not hear about Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts or Tug McGraw, no Richie Ashburn, Bob Boone or Del Ennis, no Larry Bowa, Granny Hamner, Jim Konstanty, or even “Puddin’ Head” Jones. Not believe in the Phillies? You might as well not believe in John Kruk, Darren Daulton, Mike Lieberthal, Jim Bunning, Curt Schilling, and Lenny Dykstra.

If there were no Phillies, there’d be nowhere for Jimmy Foxx, Pete Rose, and Dale Murphy to have gone at the end of their careers.

You’d have to forget about managers Dallas Green and Paul Owens. And, you’d have to not believe in Charlie Manuel, the manager with the most wins for the Phillies and who led the team in 2008-the year after it racked up its 10,000th loss in its history-to its second World Series title, only to be fired three years later.

Not believe in the Phillies? How could someone not believe in Harry Kalas, the Voice of the Phillies for almost four decades.

Not believe in the Phillies? You’d have to not believe that owners are poor judges of talent who can take great teams and trade them away, and then spend millions for a pitching staff that proved it could be competitive at the Little League World Series.

Not believe in the Phillies? You’d have to suspend your disbelief that a beer and hotdog can cost $11.50, and the cheapest seat, with a view of-well, actually, nothing-is $20.          Your little friends with their little minds can’t comprehend the vastness of a team that is again about a decade or so out of 1st. In this great playing field of ours, we are but mere synthetic fibers on the Astroturf of life, unable to grasp the universe, let alone the origin of the Phanatic.

Yes, Virginia, there really is a Phillies. It exists as certainly as injuries, dropped balls, and parking lot jams. No Phillies? Thank God it exists, and will exist forever. A decade from now they may even again win a championship, and continue to make glad the heart of frustrated fans everywhere.

Somewhere, Virginia, the sun is shining bright. But, there is no joy in Citizens Bank Park, for the anemic Phillies have once again struck out.

[Assisting on this column was Francis Church of the New York Sun. Dr. Brasch’s latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigative analysis of the economic, political, environmental, and health effects of fracking throughout the country.]

World Champion Phillies

A year ago I was stuck in traffic on the Massachusetts Turnpike amidst Red Sox fans flocking into Boston for their World Series parade.  How nice is it that that parade is in Philadelphia this year?  I understand I am one of the naysayers who didn’t think the Phillies had the pitching to win this year.  Looking at the Cubs staff I didn’t think our Phils could beat them.  Fortunately the Dodgers did for us.

I was tempted a few times to retract my statement but was also superstitiously worried that it might jinx them.  I even considered insulting their staff again if that would help.  It’s amazing what baseball fans think may help their team isn’t it?

Kudos to MVP Cole Hamels, unexpected heroes Carlos Ruiz and Pedro Feliz and the rest of the Phillies.  I won’t be in Philly until this evening for a political event so I won’t be stuck in the traffic this year.  How sweet that the jams will be here instead of Boston.

World Series Flooded Out

The Phillies and Rays had their World Series game suspended last evening after playing five and a half innings in deplorable conditions.  Why would Major League Baseball even begin one of their keynote games in a cold downpour?  This was not the way to showcase their sport.  It’s bad enough they begin the games so late kids cannot watch but last night was hard to watch for anyone.

The players and especially the pitchers, were at a severe penalty trying to pitch, catch and throw in conditions so poor it appeared to be a Little League game.

Now the game must be resumed and the Phils will not be able to put their ace back on the mound.  I think everyone assumed Cole Hamels would go seven innings then Brad Lidge would come in and close out the Rays.  Now, under horrid conditions which seemed to make it impossible for Hamels to throw his classic change up, the game is tied and a new pitcher will have to take the mound.

As I sat watching this debacle I wondered whether anyone in baseball had the cojones to end the World Series on a rain shortened game.  Obviously that would have been a travesty for the Tampa fans.  Beginning this game in conditions they knew to be bad reflects on the continued poor judgment of baseball’s officials.  Both teams were penalized and, most of all, fans were shortchanged.

Baseball Playoffs

I was in Harrisburg yesterday for an event in the Capitol (more on that later) and listened to the Phillies game on the radio coming home.  I doubt they’ll make it to the World Series with their lack of stellar starting pitchers but it was nice to listen to Cole Hamels become a star, big game pitcher.

The Dodgers and Cubs are playing for the other spot in the NL championship series.  The Cubbies have gone 100 years without a championship.  I used to know a guy with a clever idea for baseball:  if a franchise cannot win in a century they should lose their franchise.  Go to AAA and allow someone else a spot in the major leagues.  Intriguing…  The Cubs would be facing that today.  As he saw it imagine how serious they’d get about winning faced with the potential loss of a billion dollar franchise?

I loved watching the Devil rays beat up on the Yanks and Red Sox all year.  Bargain basement team with gobs of young talent against two franchises buying wins with old stars.  I have to root for the Rays in the AL.

Amaechi Piercing China’s Olympic Censorship

Former Penn State and NBA basketball player John Ameachi is blogging from Beijing on the Olympics.  Interestingly he reports he is unable to post from there to a PSU alumni listserve.  He is writing a blog however and you can find it here.  Amaechi is in China with Amnesty International so it is no surprise some of his internet activity is being censored.

Be sure to visit his photo gallery!

Kayaking Through the Summer

I’ve spent a good bit of time this spring and summer kayaking throughout the area.  I’ve been to Blue Marsh Lake, Marsh Creek Lake, Lake Nockamixon and paddled on the Schuylkill, Delaware, Susquehanna and Northeast Rivers.  Along the way I’ve met a lot of great people and made new friends.

I’m spending less time on the blog than before due to problems with people trying (and succeeding) in shutting me down.  It’s tough to continue dedicating 8-10 hours a day researching, writing and covering events when anyone can come along and pull the rug out from what you’ve done.  The paddling is offering me good exercise and an opportunity to get away and enjoy the outdoors.

Here are some pictures I’ve taken recently while out on the water.

This is a picture of our group of kayaks at Marsh Creek Lake in June before a night time paddle:

Swans at Blue Marsh Lake (last week):

An osprey off Carpenters Point, Maryland:

Lights on kayaks reflected in the moonlight at Marsh Creek (this past Saturday):

The full moon over Marsh Creek that evening:

Our crew beginning a 22 mile paddle down the Delaware River:

A small island at Blue Marsh in the early morning mist:

This is me that same morning up on Tulpehocken Creek (these photos were all taken by “Penn Kayakier”):

On the Schuylkill:

Coming through a small class 1 rapid:

‘Medaling’ With Free Speech at the Olympics

This is a guest column by Walter Brasch:

‘Medaling’ With Free Speech at the Olympics

by Walter Brasch

           President Bush sounded just like a liberal.

           Yes, you read that right. Bush. Liberal. Same sentence.

           At the new U.S. embassy in Beijing on the opening day of the Olympics, he said, “All people should have the freedom to say what they think.” Without even blinking, he also told the world, while directing his comments at the Chinese, “We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful.”

           The day before, in Tibet, he boldly said, “America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents and human rights advocates and religious activists.” He said he was speaking out “for a free press, freedom of assembly, and labor rights, not to antagonize China’s leaders but because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential.”

           There was only one problem with the President’s comments. His actions the past seven years have proven he doesn’t believe what his speech writers told him to say.  

            In Charleston, W. Va., at a Bush speech on July 4, 2004, non-violent protestors were handcuffed and arrested.

           In Pittsburgh, a retired steelworker was arrested for carrying a sign. In Michigan, it was a student. In Hamilton, N.J., it was the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq who asked the wrong question of Laura Bush.

           Almost 2,000 peaceful protestors at the 2004 Republican convention in New York City were arrested and subjected to what can only be called “primitive” prison conditions for several days-until the courts threw out almost all of the arrest warrants.

           As Texas governor, Bush had ordered peaceful protesters away from the governor’s mansion. As president, he directed there be zones as much as a half-mile from any Presidential cavalcade or speech for anyone protesting his policies. For those who refuse to enter into these remote and generally obscure “free-speech zones, police arrest them for trespassing or disorderly conduct, and then detain them until the President or Vice-President is out of the area and the media leave.

           When challenged, law enforcement officials claim the separation is for security reasons. Persons carrying pro-administration signs are allowed to be in the line of sight to the President and Vice-President. Anyone wishing to harm the President needs only to carry a sign praising the President or not to carry one at all. By creating a protest zone hundreds of yards away, the Bush-Cheney Administration’s actions are designed not so much to protect the President as to give the political illusion of the President’s “popularity.” The media, especially the television media, focus upon the President and crowds that are carefully selected and deftly manipulated to show enthusiastic support of Bush and his policies. Because they believe the “story” is with the President, they usually ignore dissenters, especially if they’re away from the President. It gives a false picture, yet is politically clever.

           Under the PATRIOT Act, Americans’ rights of privacy, including their reading habits, could be scrutinized by the FBI. Protestors-even peaceful ones-can be charged with terrorism. Dissenters are often denied the right to fly on commercial airlines. In Bush’s target have been Greenpeace and the Quakers. Like China’s leaders, America’s leaders say these restrictive measures only exist to protect the nation.

           Americans are right to condemn China for its totalitarian suppression of dissent, the manipulation of free expression, and for building three “Protest Pens” in Beijing to keep protestors away from an international sporting event. Americans should also have condemned the “protest pens” at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. More important, Americans should have spent the past seven years condemning the Bush-Cheney Administration for systematic violations of six Constitutional amendments, including the First Amendment guarantees of free expression.

[Dr. Brasch, an award-winning syndicated columnist, is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University and president of the Pennsylvania Press Club. His latest book is Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush (November 2007), available through and other bookstores. You may contact Brasch at or through his website at:]  

2008 Olympics

The Bejing Olympics are underway on the luckiest day on the Chinese calendar.  These ostensibly non political sporting events are, of course, highly politicized.  The athletes enter the arena under their national flags and national anthems are played for each gold medal winner.

For some reason then political activity at the Games is prohibited.  The fact these games were awarded to China is obscene in light of the repressive rules being imposed on the press.  Pollution is an entirely different matter as the health of these world class athletes is put at risk in such a filthy atmosphere.