Passion. Intrigue. Disillusionment. Disappointment. Hope. Optimism. Man, what DIDN’T this past week have? Major League Baseball was off due to the All-Star break…and no one even cared. That might be because the Mariners are once again irrelevant. There was a lot going on, enough to distract even diehard M’s fans.
It would be silly to begin reviewing the past week in the world of local sports without acknowledging the 800-lb. gorilla. That would be the Timbers dropping the hammer on (now former) Coach…
John Spencer. The bottom line was that the Timbers have performed miserably, but there’s more to this story, much of which fans and the media will never know. Owner Merritt Paulson says he came to the decision to fire Spencer reluctantly, but the team’s performance speaks for itself. As is usually true when a coach is fired, you acknowledge the injustice, bemoan that the players can’t be fired…and move on. And move on Portland has…to what is anyone’s guess.
It was awkward not seeing Spencer prowling the Timbers sideline Saturday night at Jeld-Wen Field against the L.A. Galaxy. I was struck by how Spencer immediately dropped off the radar after he was fired last Monday. Local media clucked appropriately over the sorry state of our collective obsession for a day or so, and then…crickets. It was as if no one wanted to talk about Spencer or the obvious question: how do you lose a team in a season and a half? The answer, of course, is that Spencer didn’t lose the team. There were no signs of rebellion or resistance, merely an extension of recurring issues that go back to last season. Holding Spencer solely responsible seems unfair and disingenuous.
Paulson can talk about “philosophical differences,” but absent an explanation, we’re left with speculation and rumor. The timing of Spencer’s firing is odd. An organization hoping to be taken seriously, especially an expansion team trying to find its way, doesn’t fire their coach after 51 games.
The season’s only half done, and there’s still time for a playoff run, but the postseason seems a remote possibility. After Saturday’s 5-3 embarrassment at the hands of David Beckham and Robbie Keane, one thing is clear: John Spencer was NOT the problem. Merritt Paulson and Gavin Wilkinson addressed what may have been a symptom, but the problem remains. The unpleasant reality is that the Timbers aren’t a very good team. They’re plagued by poor defense, a shaky midfield, and an inconsistent offense. Then there’s the puzzling propensity for mailing it in on the road. Except for their goalkeeping, the Timbers continue to underperform in every aspect of the game. Most perplexing is their inability to compete outside the familiar confines of Jeld-Wen Field.
In both losses to L.A. this season, the Timbers have looked as if they’re two men down for the full 90. They have trouble creating space and completing passes on offense, and their defense can best be described using the word “matador.” The Timbers look disorganized when trying to establish possession, and their back line resembles the little Dutch boy trying to determine which hole in the dyke to plug. It’s not pretty, but it’s a problem of personnel and on-field effort and commitment, not coaching.
Firing John Spencer was a quick fix to a long-term problem. Until the problems on the field are addressed, it’s not going to matter who’s pacing the Timbers’ sideline. I’m not a personnel expert, so I’m not about to dictate what or whom I believe the solution to be. What I do know is that watching a Timbers game this season is a 90-minute exercise in frustration. The gap between Portland and teams like Real Salt Lake, L.A., and San Jose is significant and not something that can be bridged in one season. The sooner Timbers fan recognize and understand that, the easier it will be to enjoy watching the team develop and grow. It takes time, certainly more than a season and a half.
I can only hope that whomever Merritt Paulson hires to replace Spencer will be given adequate time to right the ship. It’s going to mean taking a long, hard look at the roster and committing to patience and persistence.
Paulson runs the risk of being perceived as impatient and quick to pull the trigger, but he’s not the only local sports executive experiencing a bumpy ride these days. If you look across the Willamette towards our other collective obsession, you almost have to feel sorry for Trail Blazers GM….
Neil Olshey. The guy’s only been in town a few weeks, and he’s already up to his eyeballs in drama and intrigue. What to do about Nicolas Batum, whose heart seems to have been captured by the Land of 10,000 Lakes…and 10 billion mosquitoes? Evidently, as Olshey suggested, Batum has acquired a taste for annoying pests and frostbite. Having grown up in Minnesota, I can vouch for both…and let’s not forget the shrinkage that accompanies the onset of winter.
Batum signed an offer sheet with the Timberwolves yesterday, and the Trail Blazers have late Wednesday to match or decline. The clock’s ticking, but Olshey’s made it clear that he has no intention of letting Batum go. If only it was that simple.
Welcome to the world of an NBA General Manager.
Olshey did have one enjoyable task this week. He introduced the Trail Blazers’ draft choices at the Children’s Museum in Washington Park. It’s too early to know whether Damon Lillard, Meyers Leonard, or Will Barton will make an impact early on, but optimism abounded at the press conference. The new Trail Blazers said all the right things, acquitted themselves well, and gave fans something to look forward to. Hey, it’s July; it’s easy to be optimistic.
After that, Olshey was back to figuring out how to populate the Trail Blazers’ roster. That task became more complicated when the Indiana Pacers matched Portland’s offer to All-Star center Roy Hibbert. (Quelle surprise, non?). Hibbert was actually in the security line in D.C. for his flight to Portland when the Pacers called and turned him around.
Seriously, did anyone REALLY think there was a chance the Pacers weren’t going to keep Hibbert?
Yesterday’s Oregonian reported that Olshey is trying to put together a sign-and-trade deal that would ship Raymond Felton to the Knicks for a couple of warm bodies and other considerations. That could mean cash, draft picks, or a few pizzas from Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn, but the fact that Felton is on his way out of town should shock no one. That the Knicks evidently prefer Felton to matching the offer Jeremy Lin received from Houston is.
Hmm…an out of shape, under-motivated point guard…or a hungry, I’m-still-out-to-prove myself point guard coming off a breakout season? Yeah, that’s why the Knicks are a mess…and they could learn a little something from…
Nick Symmonds. One of this country’s top 800-meter runners and a Willamette University alumnus, Symmonds is doing his part to drag track and field into the 21st century. The IAAF, the sport’s ruling body, still has the mindset that everyone should be making money except for the athletes. IAAF rules prohibits sponsors logos on uniforms, and most athletes struggle to make ends meet. Symmonds is determined to turn that paradigm on its head. The IAAF leadership for its part views Symmonds as an irritant. That explains why I like him so much.
Symmonds is one of the first athletes to treat his body as a billboard. He offered to wear a temporary tattoo for the highest bidder, and a marketing company in Milwaukie paid $11,000 for the privilege. Symmonds has leveraged the relationship to beef up his personal marketing efforts. Unwilling to meekly accept the status quo offered by IAAF, Symmonds wants to force track and field’s ruling body to recognize that athletes are also business entities. Not known for possessing a shy, retiring personality, Symmonds seems perfect for the role he’s chosen for himself. The lords of the IAAF may not like it, but Symmonds (and those who follow his lead) will inevitably force them to recognize that athletes should be allowed to market themselves.
Speaking of marketing, it’s not surprising that the…
Seattle Mariners are in desperate need of something- anything- to get fans in the Northwest to notice them. Despite a slightly more promising than usual start to this season, the Ms have once again settled into familiar territory- irrelevance- as the worst team in the American League, just behind my Minnesota Twins.
It seems that every year at this time, the Ms end up having to listen to trade offers for talented players who might help another team win a pennant. In return they get prospects that may (or may not) help the team in the long run (see Smoak, Justin). Because of this, the Mariners end up trapped up in an endless loop of mediocrity. When you’re out of the pennant race before the fourth of July, it’s like you can spend the next three months convincing fans that you’re a contender.
For my part, I’m planning to ignore the Mariners until the weekend of 17-19 August, when the Twins come to the Emerald City for a three-game series. I know; try to contain your excitement, eh? The two worst teams in the American League, playing for…well, I’m not really sure what, but I imagine it’ll be dramatic. And by dramatic, I mean “they’ll be lucky if they draw 10,000 fans.” Yawn….
Before I go, I wanted to give a shout out to the Oregonian’s…
John Canzano for resurrecting part of my childhood. In his Sunday column, Canzano shared the legacy of Norman Sas, who died a few weeks ago in Florida at the age of 87.
There’s no reason you should know Sas’ name, but if you’re male and you’ve been walking this Earth as long as Canzano and I have, you probably played electric football as a child. Played on a small metal gridiron with magnetized players and a felt football, electric football was how many boys bonded with their father. We spent hours in the basement lining up players and then flipping a switch. Plays unfolded to an accompanying electric buzz, which seemed the apotheosis of high tech at the time. (Next, I’ll reminisce about Pong….)
When I talk about electric football now, I usually get a deer-in-the-headlights blank stare, but millions of homes had an electric football game. Mine had players painted with colors of the forces of Good and Evil (you might know them as the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears). Many, many hours of my childhood were lost to electric football, which probably puts me on a level with Angry Birds addicts.
I’d never heard of Norman Sas before reading Canzano’s column. I could never begin to repay him for the many hours I spent playing electric football. If I close my eyes, I can return to being a nine-year-old boy transfixed by the electric buzz, exhorting the purple and gold players to destroy the navy blue and orange ones. It was more than just football; it was a morality play…and thinking about it still puts a smile on my face.
Join me next week when I’ll break the news that Dwight Howard will be coming to Portland as part of a 13-team trade. Trust me; you’ll read it here first.