Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Part of The Game

There’s a big difference between being hurt and being injured. Hurt players deal with the pain, injured players go to the sidelines. The hurt factor in professional sports is 100%. Every player in every sport gets hurt. Some play through it, some don’t. Injured players don’t have any choice. The team doctors and the coaches take them out of the game.

Playing hurt varies from sport to sport, and even from position to position. Track athletes need a perfect set of circumstances to compete. Baseball pitchers are notorious for pulling themselves out after the slightest twinge. Jim Palmer, half-jokingly, once complained to Earl Weaver that the pressure on his brow from the bill of his cap was the worst part about being out there. Sandy Koufax and John Smoltz are the notable exceptions. Linebackers, offensive and defensive linemen play through all sorts of maladies. It’s almost a badge of courage to perform at something less than your best.

“I don’t understand injuries, I really don’t,” Tom Coughlin, Head Coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars said after Pro Bowl offensive lineman Leon Searcy was injured in practice.

“I understand they’re part of the game, but they don’t make any sense. There’s no rhyme or reason to them. They just happen.”

Coughlin’s right, they don’t make any sense. There’s not a chart that says X player will be OK if he performs this many sprints and takes this many reps in practice. They just happen, as if deemed by the gods.

Ever notice how players deal with another player’s injury during a game? If it’s serious they call for the training staff, walk around and survey the situation, get into a prayer circle and then go about their business. Because they have to. “That could be me,” is a thought that runs through a players mind, but they quickly dismiss the thought and move on. That guy’s gone, where’s his backup. Players don’t dwell on who’s not in the game; they concentrate on who is in the game. Mentally, injuries affect fans much more than they do players and coaches. Teams don’t sit around dealing with “what if?”

It is how players, coaches and teams react to injuries that set some apart from others. The St. Louis Rams lost their starting quarterback, Trent Green, to a knee injury in an exhibition game last year. One play and their big money, free agent quarterback acquisition was down for the season. Outsiders dismissed the Rams’ chances to compete inside their own division let alone throughout the league. Even the Rams’ players didn’t know where this team was going.

Luckily, Kurt Warner didn’t bat an eyelash. Warner came from nowhere, or worse from the Arena League to lead the team to a Super Bowl victory. And he was the MVP of the league and the game to boot. Without an injury to a starter, Warner never gets a chance.

Does that make any sense?

It does if you think there are guys out there with the talent to play at the highest levels but never get the chance. A bad relationship with a coach, a high draft pick in front of you, a bad play at the wrong time, or an injury that keeps your talent hidden, off display.

Coaches strut around saying they know where all the players are, they’ve scouted everybody, they’ve left no stone unturned. But the fact is, they don’t know where all the players are. They can’t possibly. There’s no measuring stick for desire, no way any coach can know how a player will perform under the most difficult of circumstances. So some player with a not so great 40 time, or the wrong height or weight for a certain position never gets the chance.

Warner basically walked in off the street and asked, “Can I play?” The Rams found out that he had the stuff, the magic to play at the highest level. How many other guys are out there stocking grocery shelves that could be playing professional sports? Many coaches would look down their noses and say, “none.” I contend there are a lot more than you would imagine.

Being close to a professional sports team teaches you that it’s not just the star players or even the starters who determine the team’s fate. It’s the entire roster, top to bottom. When one player goes down with an injury, another has to “step up” as the players like to say. Warner “stepped up” or rather “leapt up” at his chance to play.

The Miami Dolphins team of 1972 went undefeated by using their entire roster. The most glaring example was at quarterback where Earl Morrall “stepped up” when Bob Griese was injured. It was nothing new for Morrall; he did the same for the Colts whenever John Unitas couldn’t play.

The amount of money in the game available to players sometimes makes it difficult to see the difference between hurt and injured. A guaranteed contract also blurs the line. Those whose paycheck depends on their ability to play want to stay in the lineup for fear they’ll never return. Just ask Wally Pipp.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Coughlin The Crusader

It’s all part of the plan. The sunglasses, the calling off the fitness run, the ending practice a few minutes early. It wouldn’t surprise me if Tom Coughlin had all of these changes written down somewhere in a master plan he put together in 1994 when he took the Jaguars head coaching job: if not before. Tom Coughlin is the most organized person I’ve ever known. (Actually Dom Capers could be the most organized person I’ve ever met, but Coughlin won’t let me speak to him so I can ask him.)

He has his day mapped out, his week mapped out; his year mapped out, and expects the schedule to be followed. People who interfere with the schedule, who aren’t part of achieving the objective are usually given one chance to get with the program, or they’re out. He’s this way with everybody, his players, his friends, his coaches, even sometimes with his family. He’s looking for people to separate themselves from the pack. Show him something different, something that shows more commitment. I guess everybody is a bit of an overstatement; he actually doesn’t afford the media any chance to separate themselves. He throws the media into one basket; the one marked “something I have to do that takes time away from the important stuff” and doesn’t allow us to separate from one another. I’ve mentioned that to him more than once, and he disagrees.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Tom Coughlin. A lot. I know him professionally and we have a nice personal relationship as well. His work in the community is exemplary and there’s not much I fault him with during his tenure as the Jaguars head coach. It doesn’t mean we haven’t disagreed on occasion over the last six years. So much so in fact, that two times we’ve been nose to nose (mostly Coughlin yelling and me listening).

He is a fairly complex individual. The national media, and those observing from afar have tried to paint his personality with a broad brush. Tough disciplinarian, typical college coach trying to force his way on professional athletes. It wouldn’t be too hard to come up with that image, Patton with a coach’s whistle if you were just mildly paying attention. Coughlin believes in character; character that was once defined as “an integration of habits of conduct superimposed on temperament, the will exercised on disposition, though, emotion and action.” He believes in personal discipline and it’s application in everyday life. There’s a bit of Spartan philosophy mixed in as well; each man working himself as a part of the unit, protective of each other, loyal beyond doubt. If you know that about the man, everything else falls into place. He doesn’t understand people not doing their best. Not displaying their character as it is developed through practice is foreign to him.

His wife Judy tells a hilarious story about the airlines losing his luggage on a short trip to the Caribbean. Coughlin didn’t want to leave the room until the airline delivered his luggage. He was adamant. That’s their job, so they should do it right! Judy finally convinced him to buy a bathing suit at the gift shop so as to not waste part of the trip.

His success’ cannot be overstated as a head coach in the National Football League. There’s only one hurdle left: win the Super Bowl. Can Coughlin put his team in the proper mental state to get to the big game and perform? Looking back over the history of the game, the teams that have won it, many times got there by rallying behind their coach. Ditka, Parcells, even Dick Vermeil. Can Coughlin foster that relationship with his players? He has kept them at arms length in the past, an old school player-coach relationship. He started bringing doughnuts to the Friday workouts a couple of years ago. It shocked some of the players at the time, but brought many of them into his camp.

Some people think he’s turned the discipline of the club over to the veterans. Not exactly. He’s challenged the veterans to handle the discipline. Big difference. It’s part of the plan. The question is; what part of the plan gets the team to the next step? The answer probably drives Coughlin crazy because he knows he doesn’t control it. The players do. Only the players as a group can create an atmosphere where nothing but ultimate success is acceptable. Coughlin has put them right where they should be, but he’s taken them as far as he can. They have to do the rest.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Brush Back

There’s a space right below the tip of a person’s nose and right above their chin that’s just about exactly the size of a baseball. That’s where Roger Clemens was throwing at Mike Piazza. Not exactly at Piazza, but rather where that part of Piazza’s face was when Clemens let go of the pitch. He expected Piazza to be gone by the time the ball got there. Was he throwing at him? Absolutely! Did he expect to hurt him? Probably not. Clemens’ only mistake was not checking on Piazza when he went down. But even that was more of a message. Clemens is not the dominating pitcher he once was, and needs to work inside to keep guys from loading up on him. Even his Yankee teammates called him a headhunter when he was with the Blue Jays.

A little warning, an old fashion message, a brush back. As old as the game itself, an inside pitch, especially around the head is always a reminder not to dig in to deep.

Over the past 10 years or so a few things have happened that have kept the brush back pitch at bay. Hitters have cried loud and hard about pitching inside. They say it puts them at risk. No kidding. That’s exactly why Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale worked the inside of the plate. Gain possession of the inside, and you’ve got the advantage. Some hitters have tried to combat the inside pitch by going to the plate with all sorts of armor. An ear flap, an elbow guard, a wrist pad, a back-of-the-hand pad, and a shin guard or some combination thereof can be seen on most major league hitters these days. What are they gladiators? If the ball’s approaching a bit inside, they just “turtle up” and it harmlessly glances off. Watch classic sports one day when they’re showing games from the 60’s and 70’s. Most hitters look like stick figures. Weight lifting was considered taboo in baseball at the time. Nobody at the plate is wearing anything but the league-mandated helmet, with no flap. They don’t ever wear batting gloves!

There’s also a theory of hitting that promotes moving toward the plate at the beginning of the swing. Some call it ‘diving’ into the pitch. That’s exactly what Piazza does. It’s his first move. In toward the plate, so a running fastball up and in hits him every time, probably just a few inches from being a strike.

After he wrote Ball Four Jim Bouton attempted a comeback in baseball, becoming a knuckleball pitcher. Ted Turner was a bit fascinated by it and took Bouton into the Braves’ minor league organization. In my first story ever as a broadcaster, I went to Savannah to see Bouton and talk about his return to baseball. He was still considered quite an outsider because of the content of his book, and I was surprised he agreed not only to talk with me, but also show some of his stuff at 40 years old by letting me take some swings against the knuckleball. I’ve played a bunch of baseball my whole life, and was excited at the opportunity.

Bouton was gracious at my arrival, showed me to a locker room to change into a uniform and said he’d see me on the field. William L. Grayson stadium was the home of the AA Savannah Braves, an old ballpark even then, providing the perfect backdrop for a story on an ex-Yankee’s return to the game.

On the mound in baseball “sleeves”, pants and no hat, Bouton asked if I was ready. I dug in and nodded. The first pitch was right at my head, a fastball with no movement. I dove for the dirt and without a glance to the mound, got back up and brushed myself off. Back in the batter’s box I took my stance, as the second pitch was a fastball, again right at my head, with no movement. Back in the dirt I went, brushed myself off and got back up. I knew exactly what was going on, but adhering to the “code” in baseball, I went on, without complaint. This went on for five straight pitches.

Finally I yelled to the mound.
“Hey Jim, you’re gonna need better control than that if you want to get to the majors.”
Bouton yelled back, “Look hairspray, part of batting is fear, fear of being hit by the ball.”
“Part of pitching is going to be fear,” I replied, “if I come out there and beat you upside the head with this bat!”

With that, the perfectly conditioned Bouton laughed and threw the ball over the plate. We got along famously afterwards, with Bouton saying he could tell I’d played a little baseball just by the way I put on my socks. But he had to test me, to see if I understood “the code.” Bouton and his knuckleball did make it back to the majors with the Braves. He pitched in five games for Atlanta with a 1-3 record and a 4.97 era in 1978.

Much of the press coverage of the Clemens/Piazza incident got off the track. All of the sports channels covered it, dealt with it and moved on. I was surfing the cable about four days later only to come across CNBA and (I never thought I’d write this name in a column) Geraldo Rivera conducting a debate on whether Clemens’ act contributed to the “violence” of the game. His panelists, sportscasters Warner Wolf and Len Berman, and a sportswriter from New Jersey had differing views, but all were perplexed at the uninformed Rivera’s questions about “how can this happen?”

Baseball in particular, and sports in general, has its own specific culture. It’s when people like Rivera, outside that culture, try to put their own values on what’s happening inside the sport that causes the media frenzy.

Stay out of it Geraldo. Go back to Capone’s vault and see if there are any baseballs inside.
But watch out for that high hard one.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Where’s McEnroe?

There are a lot of things wrong with tennis. In fact, it seems it has all of the bad things about sports rolled into one. Bratty competitors, overbearing parents, haughty administrators, boring events and too few really good players.

When was the last time you sat and watched a tennis match with more than just a passing interest? Pete Sampras is the best player in the game, and perhaps the best ever but brings nothing else to the court except his game. Right after he won his first U.S. Open, Sampras was in an event called the Dupont All-American Challenge at Amelia Island. I met with him before the event, talked with him for about an hour, did an on-camera interview and left their thinking, “nice guy but boy is he young!” And not just in years. He didn’t know anything about anything! Tennis players are dedicated, drafted even, so young into their sport they don’t have anytime to develop at people. Sampras knew tennis, and that’s about it. Perhaps he’s staying out of the limelight off the court for fear of showing off his lack of knowledge of anything else.

If you get a chance to attend a “up and comer” event, something akin to a satellite tour, you’ll see some tennis, but people watching becomes the main event. Players show up with their “teams” in tow. Trainers, psychologists, coaches and other hangers-on sometimes masquerading as parents. Wow, the parents! Screaming, preening, dealing, anything that might call more attention to themselves. I mean this is a sport where one player’s father was arrested on the grounds and went out and threw himself into traffic, while another has a restraining order against being at an event where his daughter is playing! That’s normal? What happened to “hit the ball hard honey and play your best?” That’s why this is perhaps my all-time favorite conversation in tennis:

“Hi Mom, I’m in the finals,” said Lindsay Davenport to her mother. “That’s wonderful honey, do you want me to come tomorrow?” replied her mother. “Nah, just watch it on television.”

At the time, Davenport was at the U.S. Open in New York. Her mother was in California.

The biggest talk these days in tennis is about Anna Kournikova. Young, blonde and beautiful, almost anybody who doesn’t know anything about tennis still knows who Anna is. Yet, when people see her play, they’re amazed that she’s actually talented! This is not a princess on the court trying to fake it. Kournikova can play some, but plays up this “image thing” to the point of distraction. So she can date two Russian NHL players at the same time. So what! Win something soon and we’ll pay more attention. Which leads me to my second favorite tennis conversation:

“Did you bear down a little harder to try and get off the court quickly in the second set?” I asked Lindsay Davenport after a third round match. Lindsay (Laughing), “Yeah, I was a little behind, and there’s NO WAY I was losing to HER!!”

The opponent was the aforementioned Kournikova. (Can you tell Davenport is my favorite player?)

I know you remember when John McEnroe was the dominant player in men’s tennis. And I know you thought he was a jerk. And he was, even he admits it now. But he cared, played hard and did everything he could to win. Things are so much different now. Tanking, (throwing a match) has reached the point of high art. Appearance fees, far flung events, and under the table deals are such a part of the game the public usually runs for cover except for the Grand Slam events.

There might be hope though. The people who run tennis have finally admitted a problem exists. They’re trying to change the way the ranking system is run. Trying to bring together the best players more often. Trying to make the players understand how they can effect the game in the future.

Andre Agassi has gotten involved in some of the decision making of the game. Perhaps he can bring some normalcy to the situation. Then again, he was married to Brooke Sheilds and is engaged to Steffi Graf. But that’s a whole other story.