Saturday, December 29, 2012

Juan Rivera to Yankees only makes sense

With Nick Swisher's defection to Cleveland via free agency this week, the New York Yankees have a hole to fill in the outfield.

But rather than repeat what the Yankees have done so often over the years--offer an overpriced, multi-year deal to a free agent and then lament their diminishing returns at the back end of the contract--the Bronx baseball braintrust should extend a modest, two-year contract to Juan Rivera.

Rivera, who will be 34 on opening day, played the outfield for the Yankees from 2001-2003. He has never been an All-Star and will never be one. But he is a righthanded hitter with a good arm, a good glove and some pop in his bat--just the kind of bench player and occasional starter the 2013 club needs.

In today's free-agent market, Rivera could be had for $8 million over two years. Or the Yankees could offer a one-year deal worth $4 million with a club option for the 2014 season.

Rivera made $4 million for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012. He hit .244 with 9 home runs and 47 RBI. He can also play first base, which means the Yanks could give starter Mark Teixeira a day off once in a while.

The Yankees are likely to open 2013 with a starting outfield of Brett Gardner in left, Curtis Granderson in center and Ichiro Suzuki in right. That trio should cover plenty of ground in the outfield and steal a ton of bases.

But Granderson, Gardner and Ichiro are all lefthanded hitters. That would leave the Yankees especially vulnerable to lefthanded pitching.

Signing Rivera would allow Yankees manager Joe Girardi to sit the strike zone-challenged Granderson against a particularly tough southpaw; Gardner could move to center when Granderson sits.

Rivera could also fill in for Ichiro, no spring chicken at age 38, or be a righthanded DH--a role in which Andruw Jones struggled in 2012. (Jones has signed a free-agent contract with a team in Japan.)

Admittedly, the Yankees won't make major headlines by signing Rivera. They won't break out the carving board and serve roast beef at a Yankee Stadium news conference to re-introduce Rivera to New York.

However, Rivera can help the 2013 Yankees. The club should not wait any longer to sign him.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Year of the 49ers? Why not?

Here is the most important thing I've learned from watching at least a little bit of every NFL team every week (thanks in large part to a great channel called NFL Red Zone): No NFL team is great.

Never mind the hype you hear each week about Peyton Manning & his Broncos, Tom Brady & his Patriots, RG III & his (pardon the offense) Redskins. Not one of those teams is special.

Neither are my beloved San Francisco 49ers, as much as I would like them to be.

The NFL in 2012 is far more mediocre than majestic. But somebody has to win the Super Bowl in February. It's a league rule. So it might as well be my maddeningly inconsistent 49ers.

I've seen the 49ers' "A" game. It's as good as any other team's "A" game, and better than most.

Problem is, the 49ers have not produced that "A" game often enough to make them a safe bet to win it all.

There are no safe bets in this NFL season. Only sucker bets.

I've been strapped into an emotional rollercoaster with my 49ers from Week 1 of the regular season, when they looked super in beating the Packers by two touchdowns at venerable Lambeau Field, to Week 16, when they were thoroughly humiliated by the Seahawks 42-13 on a typically rainy night in Seattle.

My 49ers dominated the same Seahawks team 13-6 on a Thursday night in San Francisco in October.

That's the point here: No NFL team is great from week to week.

Some teams, like the 13-2 Falcons and 12-3 Texans, have great records.

But those teams couldn't carry the helmets of the 12-3 49ers of the 1980s or the 12-3 Cowboys of the early 1990s.

Today's NFL has been watered down, largely because of salary cap rules that prevent any team from holding onto great players for more than a few years.

The salary cap destroyed the 49ers of Montana, Rice, Craig & Lott and dismantled the Cowboys of Aikman, Smith, Irvin and Norton.

Those teams were the last true dynasties in the NFL.

Although the Patriots have won four Super Bowls with Brady at quarterback and Coach Bill Belichick on the sideline, but the core of each of those championship teams has been markedly different.

It should surprise no one that the Giants will likely fail to make the playoffs this year after winning the Super Bowl last year.

And it should surprise no one if the team that hoists the Vince Lombardi Trophy as the NFL's best playoff team in February fails to make the playoffs in 2013.

Just get into the 12-team postseason tournament this season, and you've got a chance to win it all. It doesn't matter if you're the No. 1 seed in your conference or the No. 6 seed. Just get in, baby.

Fans of each playoff team will have high hopes--not because of that team's relative strength but rather because of the other teams' weaknesses.

Conventional wisdom says the 49ers have a great defense. But I watch them every week. That's my team. The 49ers have below-average cornerbacks. They can be thrown on. They can be burned deep.

My 49ers have an inexperienced starting quarterback in the heavily tattooed Colin Kaepernick. At times, he looks brilliant. At other times, he looks hopelessly overmatched against opposing defenses.

If the latter Kaepernick shows up in the playoffs, the 49ers will lose. If the former Kaepernick shows up, then he will be reading David Letterman's "Top Ten" list sometime after the Super Bowl.

Do I know which Kaepernick will show up? Of course not.

Do I know if the 49ers will bring to the playoffs the "A" game they used to beat the Packers, Bears, Saints, Patriots and Seahawks (in October)? Nobody knows.

Some people like this sort of uncertainty. Clearly, the NFL does.

But I miss the dynasties. I know they're not coming back under the current system. Still, I miss the symphonic beauty of Montana to Rice year after year after year.

Now, I can only hope to see Kaepernick to Crabtree for six points, and Gore up the middle, and Akers with the field goal, and Smith and Willis combining on the tackle for victories in January and February.

Why not the 49ers? Somebody has to do it.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

An Open Letter to "Papa John"

November 10, 2012

"Papa John" Schnatter
Founder & CEO
Papa John's International, Inc.
2002 Papa Johns Boulevard
Louisville, KY 40299

Dear "Papa John,"

I'm not one of your regular customers. But I'm from New York, and New Yorkers know pizza. I've tried your Papa John's pizza, and let me just say that it pales in comparison to Original Ray's.

Actually, I have little use for pizza. You see, I'm an avid runner. My fiancee and I have qualified for next year's New York City Marathon.

Eating pizza after training for a 26.2-mile race would be about as foolish as claiming to have difficulty running your business just because President Obama, owner of the Affordable Care Act, has been re-elected.

That is why I have taken time to write to you.

You see, Papa, I'm not one of those gullible folks weaned on Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the Drudge Report. You are going to have to produce some of those convenient things we like to call facts to convince me that you will have to cut your employees' hours--and wages--or lay off many of them because of Obamacare.

With whom would you replace them, workers imported from China?

Or would you have to close locations or, goodness gracious, go out of business?

All because of Obamacare?

Papa, we both know there is no plausible connection between Mr. Obama's re-election and the livelihood of your unfortunate employees.

I'll be blunt because, remember, I'm from New York: If you cannot provide affordable healthcare for your employees with cutting their hours or wages or jobs, then you are as inept at business as Congressman Todd Akin is at discussing the female reproductive system.

You do believe your employees deserve to have access to affordable healthcare, don't you?

Don't you?

Even if your allegation were true, that the barons of American business cannot survive under the yoke of Obamacare, then you should have traveled the country with your man Mitt and spoken at, well, 47 percent of his campaign rallies. You could have been a game-changer.

But then, you probably thought Mitt was going to win anyway, so your presence was not required.

That's what you get for listening to Karl Rove, Dick Morris, Donald Trump and the Rasmussen Poll.

Sorry, Papa.

Just as I'm sorry to see your company's ongoing contribution to America's obesity epidemic. Maybe you should have to close about a hundred franchises, lest Americans stop expanding as if hooked on helium:

"I'll have two Double Bacon 6 Cheese Pizzas, a dozen Cheese Sticks, two Super-Size Cokes and two Hot Apple Pies to go."

"Yes, sir, Governor Christie. Coming right up, sir."

Little did I know, Papa, that you and Herman Cain, the lascivious former CEO of the Godfather's chain, had formed this loony anti-Obama pizza lobby.

And little did I know that your pitiful fear mongering could actually teach me something about your product that is truly remarkable:

Apparently, too much pizza can make you crazy.

Cecil Harris

Saturday, January 21, 2012

ESPN loses with jingoistic tennis coverage

Once upon a time, you could not tell the players without a scoreboard at the ballpark. Nowadays, you cannot watch tennis on ESPN without using the mute button on your remote control.

Unless you make tennis on ESPN sound like the award-winning silent film, "The Artist," ESPN's jingoistic "America versus the world" approach to the sport would render its coverage completely unwatchable.

"Serena Williams is the only American left in the main draw," ESPN told viewers often during its Friday night/Saturday morning presentation of the Australian Open before the mute button was pressed.

As if a player's nationality matters in tennis. It doesn't. It never has. And never will to the vast majority of viewers despite ESPN's attempt to brainwash people.

Tennis is an individualistic sport. Serena Williams does not play for Team USA any more than Rafael Nadal plays for the Spanish Armadas or Roger Federer represents the Swiss Cheeses.

Serena plays for Serena. If she wins the Aussie Open, it is her victory, not a reason for a flag-waving public celebration. A Serena triumph Down Under would not validate the American way of life, whatever that is, any more than a Serena defeat would bring shame to those values Americans hold dear (which in our increasingly divisive political climate is harder than ever to define).

Yet ESPN insists on sabotaging its tennis coverage with constant prattle about how the Americans are doing in a given tournament, even though that is not why tennis fans watch tennis.

Tennis fans love the drama, contrasting styles and prodigious artistry of a Nadal-Federer match. That neither player is American is utterly irrelevant. Always has been.

Unfortunately, ESPN remains tone-deaf to the truth: Tennis will not achieve NFL-type ratings here if such American players as Mardy Fish, Donald Young, Christina McHale and Melanie Oudin (who has done nothing since the 2009 U.S. Open) join Serena in the second week of a major tournament.

Tennis is a niche sport in America. Most sports fans don't watch tennis. But avid fans will watch the Grand Slam tournaments regardless of who wins the events. Why? Because we enjoy tennis. We especially enjoy our tennis with intelligent and insightful commentary that enhances our appreciation of the players involved, their biographies, strategies, strengths and weaknesses.

Alas, intelligent and insightful commentary on ESPN tennis coverage has been in such short supply that the sport's best TV analyst, Mary Carillo, finally got fed up two years ago and left the network.

Carillo wants to talk tennis, which she does now for Tennis Channel and for CBS at the U.S. Open. She does not want to wave pom-poms for American players. She does not want to spend infinitely more time talking about an American teen-ager making her Wimbledon debut than Novak Djokovic trying to repeat as the tournament champion.

Now that Disney-owned ESPN has wrested the TV rights to Wimbledon from NBC, we will no longer be able to hear Carillo's commentary of the tournament during championship weekend. Our loss.

What constitutes an even bigger loss for viewers is the realization that ESPN can substantially outbid other networks for the right to televise marquee tennis events without having any clue as to how to present the sport properly.

So, like many tennis fans, I'll be watching "Breakfast at Wimbledon" this July, ESPN-style--with my oatmeal and fresh fruit on the table, and the audio on mute.