Sunday, March 24, 2013

UNC Bias Or Just A Bad Baseball Decision?

Bad weather is part of baseball. Ideally you want to play every game on the schedule, but sometimes Mother Nature intervenes and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Then again, maybe you can. North Carolina was scheduled to play Boston College a three-game series this weekend at BC’s Eddie Pellagrini Diamond. With the field already saturated by several major snowstorms, and with cold, rain and possibly more snow in the forecast, the Atlantic Coast Conference intervened and moved the series to Chapel Hill.

In so doing, the conference opened Pandora’s box. There is a perception around the ACC, fair or not, that the league office has a strong bias towards the University of North Carolina. The perception is largely nonsense, but it’s not without foundation.

ACC commissioner John Swofford graduated from UNC, class of 1971. He was quarterback on the UNC football team from 1969-71 and was in the UNC athletics administration from 1976-97, the last 18 years of that time as the Tar Heels’ very effective and very influential athletics director. In addition, the conference has more than its share of UNC graduates in the executive offices.

However much ACC officials wish to protest accusations of UNC bias, moving the Carolina-Boston College series to Chapel Hill only feeds the perception that the league will do whatever it has to do to protect the Tar Heels, even at the expense of the rest of the conference.

No one questions that the field at BC was unplayable. Eddie Pelagrini Diamond is borderline unplayable when it’s bone dry. Ice and mud only complicate an already bad situation. That’s not the point. The point is fairness. What is the justification for moving the series to Chapel Hill, and will the same justification be used the next time a series at BC is threatened by weather? And make no mistake, every series at Boston College is a threat to be affected by bad weather.

Clemson goes to BC the weekend after next, March 29-31, and NC State will be there the weekend after that. What happens if another major storm hits New England the week preceding one of those series and dumps 6-8 more inches of snow in the Boston area? Don’t think for a second that it couldn’t happen. It could happen in May. Will the conference approve moving either of those series? How can you justify moving the UNC series because of the weather but not subsequent series that face the same unplayable conditions? At the same time, how many of Boston College’s home series can you move before it becomes a competitive disadvantage for the Eagles?

Don’t look now, but even if this situation doesn’t arise again in 2013, the chances of it happening in the future increase significantly a year from now when Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Louisville join the ACC. Admittedly, all three of those schools have vastly superior facilities than BC and are therefore better equipped to deal with something like this, but those three newcomers all will bring serious winter-weather issues to a league used to warm weather by late March.

Word is that most of the league’s coaches were unhappy at the decision to move the UNC-BC series, and justifiably so. With North Carolina off to a torrid start and sitting atop the national polls, it seems like piling on to give the Tar Heels an extra home series.

Looking at the big picture and not focusing on either UNC or BC, the smart move would have been either to find an alternate site in the Boston area or, failing at that, let nature take its course. That’s baseball. 
The ACC opted instead to focus on the smaller issue of this one series and let the genie out of the bottle.

If the people in the ACC office seriously want people to believe they’re not biased towards UNC, then there’s only one way to deal with this issue once it arises again, especially if it arises again in 2013. We’ll see if that happens. In fact, we’ll be watching very closely.

Addendum: William & Mary and Northeastern played a three-game series this weekend, at Northeastern's Friedman Diamond in Boston. Meanwhile,

the final game of the BC-UNC series in Chapel Hill was rained out. 

Talk about irony. Friedman Diamond's surface is field turf, whereas Pelagrini Diamond's surface is natural. But that's another issue for someone else to consider.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Great, Or Merely Misplaced, Expectations?

Five weeks into the 2013 college baseball season, NC State may be the nation’s most perplexing team.

Picked in or near the national top 10 in virtually every preseason poll, the Wolfpack’s season has been a succession of sudden lurches and stumbles, one step forward, one step backwards, one step sideways. Whereas most national contenders are hitting their stride in late March, NC State is wobbling along at 16-6, wondering why the engine is misfiring and throwing oil.

There are plenty of reasons for this. Let’s focus on three of them, in reverse order:

3.) The injury to Trea Turner. Turner sprained his left ankle on the final play of the first ACC game of the season, a 10-5 loss to Clemson at Doak Field. At the time of the injury, Turner was arguably the best player in the country, batting .464 with five doubles, two triples, five home runs, 18 RBIs and 26 runs scored in 14 games. He had eight steals in as many attempts. After a one-year detour to third base in 2012, Turner moved back to shortstop this season and was excellent there as well. Turner carried the offense the first three weeks of the season. At times, he was all the offense NC State had. Turner is supposed to be out 4-6 weeks but may return a week sooner than that. The sooner the better.

2.) Overlooked personnel losses from a year ago. NC State’s preseason expectations were based in large part on the performance of last year’s freshman class, the best in the nation. Unfortunately, most of us either forgot or failed to notice that the Wolfpack lost several great players from a year ago. Replacing them has been easier said than done.

Shortstop Chris Diaz batted .346 with a team-high 25 doubles in 2012. He was second on the team with 56 RBIs and 55 runs scored, and third in slugging at 479. Diaz also stole eight bases and was absolutely rock solid defensively at shortstop. The freshmen got all the headlines, but Diaz was, without question, NC State’s best and most valuable player.

Right fielder Ryan Mathews batted .327 with 16 doubles, 17 home runs and 62 RBIs, staggering numbers in the BBCOR bat era. An absolute terror the second half of the season, Mathews slugged .628 and was a PRESENCE in the middle of the lineup, something the current NC State team sorely lacks.

First baseman Andrew Ciencin batted .278 with 14 doubles, five home runs, 41 runs scored and 36 RBIs. More important than Ciencin’s offense, however, was his leadership. A two-year captain, he was an acknowledged team leader almost from the day he stepped on campus. Lack of senior leadership is another issue the current Wolfpack faces.

Given the glitz and glitter of last year’s freshmen, it was easy to overlook the workmanlike excellence of Diaz, Mathews and Ciencin. And if losing those three wasn’t enough, catcher Danny Canela left school in December. High-maintenance, overweight and out of shape, Canela was a baseball savant, a hardball natural who somehow batted a team-best .348 while unable to see clearly out of his right eye, his front eye (Canela is a lefty batter). He hit 18 doubles, six home runs, and added 46 RBIs.

The quartet of Diaz, Mathews, Ciencin and Canela batted .326 and accounted for 305 hits, 73 doubles, 30 home runs, 190 runs scored and 200 RBIs. Their great seasons allowed the freshmen to flourish without the burden of carrying the team on their own. They have that burden now and it’s not going all that well.

1.) Horrific starting pitching. If anything, NC State expected its pitching to be a strength, with a solid weekend rotation of Carlos Rodon, Logan Jernigan and Ethan Ogburn, backed by a deep, versatile and talented bullpen.

Rodon is the focal point of the staff and team, so let’s start with him. At 2-2 with a 5.04 ERA, he hardly looks like the guy who was 9-0 with a 1.57 ERA and 135 strikeouts as a freshman. His velocity, normally in the 92-96 mph range a year ago, has been more like 87-90 this time around. Complicating things, his command has been off, leading to deep hitters’ counts and five home runs in 30 ⅓ innings. He allowed two home runs in 114 ⅔ innings in 2012.

Rodon shouldered a heavy workload last spring, then pitched all summer with Team USA. With nine new pitchers on the roster to evaluate, plus two others coming off injury, the coaches gave Rodon a needed break in the fall and let him swing the bat but not pitch. That inactivity, combined with unusually cold weather in the early season, is the probable cause of his drop in velocity. He appears healthy. His slider certainly looks healthy, perhaps even better than a year ago. Rodon has 54 strikeouts and opponents are hitting .183 against him. He threw a no-hitter (with two innings of relief from freshman Karl Keglovits) against LaSalle. So Rodon isn’t hurt, and he’s not the problem. He's not the problem, but he's not the solution, either.

Giving Rodon a hall pass does not excuse him or the rest of the starting pitchers for the mess they've created. After posting a 4-1 record and a 2.33 ERA in eight games in February, the starting pitching spun out, hit the wall and exploded in a fiery crash the moment the calendar turned to March. The coaches are still working at extinguishing the flames. Wish them luck.

In 14 games so far this month, NC State starting pitchers failed to survive the second inning seven times. In four of those seven games, head coach Elliott Avent had to yank his starter in the first inning. A starting pitcher is required to pitch at least five full innings to qualify for a win. In 14 games thus far in March, NC State starters qualified for a win just three times, twice by Rodon and once by Ethan Ogburn. The starters' ERA in March is 7.22. Their average start has been 2 ⅔ innings.

So there you have it. Three essential issues facing NC State baseball in 2013. Issue No. 3, Turner’s injury, will take care of itself. Issue No. 2, the absence of Diaz, Mathews, Ciencin and Canela, is not going away. How well the Wolfpack addresses Issue No. 1, the starting pitching, will most likely determine what kind of season this turns out to be. There is still more than enough talent on the roster to win the conference championship, host an NCAA regional and reach the College World Series.

Because of the awful starting pitching, however, a tipping point is rapidly approaching. If the starters can’t do better than 2 ⅔ innings per start or a 7.22 ERA, then the bullpen, the team’s one true strength, will soon blow out as well and this team pass the point of no return.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Together Again: Country Duets Make A Comeback

If you’re like me, an aging baby boomer who hasn’t been impressed with a new country record in at least a half-dozen years, the month of February was one to celebrate. Two extraordinary albums of country duets — one by Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, the other by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell — hit the record stores last month, two weeks apart.

Willis and Robison are sort of the first couple of what’s left of the country music scene in Austin, Texas, and their album, “Cheater’s Game,” sounds like Texas. Willis grew up in the D.C., area listening to rockabilly music. MCA Records signed her at the age of 20, but she never quite fit the cookie-cutter mold of Nashville. She escaped that suffocating climate 20 years ago and settled in Austin, where musicians may be badly underpaid, but are allowed to create freely without interference from suits and ties who never so much as tuned a guitar. Her Nashville records were surprisingly good, considering the context. Her records since arriving in Austin have been universally great, and you can argue forcefully that she currently is country music’s best female singer.

Robison grew up in Bandera, Texas, in a musical family. His brother and sister — Charlie Robison and Robyn Ludwick — are both accomplished musicians with strong bodies of recorded work. Bruce Robison has recorded seven solo albums and is an effective vocalist. He made his mark as a front-rank songwriter, however, with chart-topping hits for George Strait, the Dixie Chicks and Tim McGraw to his credit.

Robison’s songwriting allowed him and Willis to take a two-year hiatus from recording while their children reached school age. “Cheater’s Game” marks the return to recording for both of them, and is their first album together (aside from an obscure and delightful Christmas CD). It was worth the wait. The material on “Cheater’s Game” is a mix of Robison originals and contemporary covers by the likes of Dave Alvin, Don Williams, Robert Earl Keen, Razzy Bailey, Hayes Carll and Lawrence Shoberg. It oozes with subtle Texas flavor. Their cover of Keen’s offbeat “No Kinda Dancer” is an incongruent show-stopper.

Critics have been kind to “Cheater’s Game.” Willis and Robison made a well-publicized broadcast appearances on Minus In The Morning, and also appeared on Great American Country’s “On The Streets” program, and on Sirius Satellite Radio with Kris Kristofferson. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal both gave favorable write-ups, and of course, the reception in Texas was overwhelmingly positive. The Austin Statesman American published a lengthy feature and review, and The Austin Chronicle and Texas Music magazine both devoted cover stories to “Cheater’s Game.”

If Willis and Robison evoke Texas on “Cheater’s Game,” Harris and Crowell bring a much wider focus to “Old Yellow Moon,” which is understandable considering the length and breadth of their stellar careers. There was a period of about two decades when Harris set the standard for female country singers, and she set it high. She combined unflinching musical integrity with impeccable taste, and demanded the same from all who worked with her. From the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s, she churned out a succession of brilliant, traditional-sounding contemporary country albums unlike anything else coming out of Nashville at the time (or, alas, since).

One of the first musicians to join Harris onstage as part of her Hot Band was Crowell, then a budding singer and songwriter from Houston, Texas. Crowell’s list of songwriting credits is staggering and includes “Til I Gain Control Again,” “Bluebird Wine,” “Amarillo,” “I Ain’t Living Long Like This” and “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues,” all covered at one time by Emmylou.

Crowell left Harris in 1977 to embark on a solo career that was a critical success but largely a commercial failure. He married Rosanne Cash in 1979, produced several of her early albums, and continued to write great songs and record great albums that no one bought. The exception was 1988’s “Diamonds & Dirt,” which yielded five No. 1 country hits. From there, Crowell’s career went straight back to the obscurity it never deserved.

Harris and Crowell re-assembled much of the original Hot Band for “Old Yellow Moon,” including James Burton on guitar, Emory Gordy on bass and Glen D. Hardin on piano. They filled in around them with an “A” list of session players — Vince Gill, Bill Payne, John Jorgenson, Steuart Smith, Stuart Duncan, John Ware. They even brought in Emmylou’s former husband and original Hot Band producer, Brian Ahern, to tie the whole package together.

The songs on "Old Yellow Moon" include a remake of “Bluebird Wine,” which kicked off Harris’s first solo album in 1975, plus three other Crowell originals. It’s the cover songs, though, that make “Old Yellow Moon” such a compelling album. Hank DeVito’s “Hanging Up My Heart” kicks of the album is fine style, and Roger Miller’s “Invitation To The Blues,” Kristofferson’s “Chase The Feeling,” and DeVito and Donivan Cowart’s bluesy and wickedly humorous “Black Caffiene” all stand out and keep things moving along.

Then there’s “Back When We Were Beautiful,” an achingly beautiful ballad written by the great Matraca Berg that brings everything to a sudden stop. Where to start with this one. No aging boomer can hear this and not have wistful thoughts about all that lies in life’s rear-view mirror and how little remains to be seen out the front windshield. It’s just a stunning song, and Harris and Crowell’s devastatingly poignant and emotional performance makes it the album’s focal point, an unmistakably classic track.

Country music has a rather difficult relationship with its traditions, including duets. If you can listen to an hour of modern country radio without throwing up in your mouth, you may come away thinking that Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Eagles were more influential figures in the development of country than, say, the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Williams. And you’re more likely to be struck by lightning during that torturous hour than hear a duet.

And so it goes without saying that the only way you’ll hear “Cheater’s Game” or “Old Yellow Moon” on the radio is via satellite, a great and growing but still limited medium that most of us don’t have. And it’s equally likely that the last record store in your hometown went out of business before any of us ever heard of satellite radio. No matter what hoops you have to jump through to get these two albums, however, go for it. It’s been years since either Nashville (or even Austin) produced anything this good. Don’t wait for it to happen again. You might not live that long.