TopOfTheCircle.com

Serving the scholastic field hockey and lacrosse community since 1998

Archive for Omnibus

Dec. 11, 2020 — The end of small-town baseball?

For many small towns across America, minor-league baseball is a driver of economic and social good, with family-friendly entertainment during the summer months that allows the town to showcase itself to the nation.

The small Mississippi town in which I was born had a minor-league baseball team from 1893 to 1956. The smaller town upstate in which I was raised had a team for a season and a half in the mid-1920s. This was an era where every small hamlet across America had a ball team of some kind, with nicknames as colorful as the Undertakers, Gasbags, Lunatics, the House of David, and the Hottentots.

But now that Major League Baseball owns and controls the entirety of organized minor-league baseball, it has made a number of radical shifts in the last two months. It created partnerships with a couple of independent minor leagues, and then allowed parent clubs to pluck from their ranks to become full minor-league affiliates, which has happened in Sugar Land, Tex. and St. Paul, Minn.

Major League Baseball also demoted the Appalachian League to a college wooden-bat league, and pretty much blew up the New York-Penn League to create a short-season “draft league” encompassing six teams.

But the revamping of the minor-league system has done terrible damage, I think, to the cities which were left out of the equation, such as Batavia, N.Y., Norwich, Conn., and Hagerstown, Md.

I once attended a game back in 1992 at Falcon Park in Auburn, N.Y., where the short-single Season A Auburn Astros played. It was a dusty facility with bleacher seating which was barely better than a baseball diamond in a public park in a mid-sized U.S. city. But the people in the town, located a few miles west of Syracuse, were proud of the team, which was run as a community non-profit. Auburn, however, is one of the 11 cities left without a minor-league baseball team.

Auburn was one of the towns which had upgraded its home field in the mid 1990s at the behest of Major League Baseball to prevent the team from moving out of town. One team that had moved during that period was a team in Colonie, N.Y., a suburb of the state capitol of Albany. Minor-league baseball was reborn in the Capital District when the Tri-City ValleyCats started playing in Troy during the summer of 2002. But because of minor-league realignment, Tri-City also now finds itself without a minor-league team.

Another city without minor-league ball is Charleston, W. Va., which had lost its previous team, the Charlies, back in the 1980s.

As you can tell, the history of minor-league baseball in the U.S. is one of shifting teams, often through no fault of the players who were looking to get away from jobs in mining or agriculture. If you could hit the curve, it was a way out of poverty.

But if you’ve been reading the details of the realignment, you’ll have noticed that the baseball draft is now going from 40 rounds to just 20. That means 20 fewer draftees, meaning one less level of competition in the minors, and 30 fewer teams for players to play on.

In the midst of this pandemic, and the economic uncertainty surrounding it, I am not sure this was the wisest move that the billionaires who run baseball could have made.

Dec. 6, 2020 — Who wants to own an NWSL franchise?

In 2013, FC Kansas City was one of the founding teams of the current National Women’s Soccer League. The team won two of the league’s first three championships, but opted to move to Salt Lake City three years ago.

But because of this, the Utah Royals yesterday announced that they would be leaving to go back to Kansas City. According to report, the team has been sold to the owners of a capital management firm, with the intention of moving the team back to where it started.

Well, kinda-sorta. A major stumbling block in this exercise could surround the location of where the team plays. The team finished last in attendance when it played its home matches in Swope Soccer Park, a facility which fell short of FIFA standards. Too, the Major League Soccer franchise in Kansas City has made it known that it is not interested in having the women’s team in its facility.

Now, while the proposed ownership group is based in Kansas City, there’s always options. You see, Sporting Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Park is in Kansas City, Kansas. A move across the river to Kansas City, Missouri opens up many frontiers. It’s not likely that a new FC Kansas City would move into the cavernous Arrowhead Stadium, but there could very well be an option that is just starting to be built 250 miles due east.

What’s being built is a 22,500-seat soccer-specific stadium for the St. Louis City Soccer Club, slated to start play in 2023 in Major League Soccer.

Now, I realize that the proposed Kansas City ownership group for the NWSL side is committed to bringing the team to Kansas City. But the thing is, the team is facing some not-very-appetizing options for a home pitch. The previous iteration of FCKC had played at the University of Missouri-Kansas City as well as Swope Soccer Park, but the capacity reached barely 3,500 at both sites.

As it turns out, there could be a solution right at Sporting’s front door. You see, next to Children’s Mercy Park is the home field for the Kansas City T-Bones of the American Association. It was actually the home field for Sporting KC for a time, and it can hold 10,000 for soccer.

Why is an independent minor-league ball team’s stadium an option here? Well, there’s the inherent uncertainty surrounding the American Association in the roiling of minor-league baseball this offseason. The American Association has become a partner league with Major League Baseball, and one of its members, the St. Paul Saints, is about ready to become a full-fledged AAA farm team for the Minnesota Twins.

The American Association is therefore losing its flagship team, one of four which are actually in Major League Baseball territories. The other three are in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Kansas City.

Now, I’m not saying that the existence of the latter three teams is in imminent peril. But given the fact that MLB now has leveraged full control of minor-league baseball in this country, I’ll be interested to see whether it is in MLB’s interest to compete against itself in these markets.

I’ll be interested to see whether the ownership group of the new FC Kansas City is willing to move the team in the midst of this uncertainty.

Nov. 29, 2020 — The facelessness of professional sports today

It was in the mid-1990s when I went to a computer/peripherals show and sale at a horse-racing track near my home. This being the era before Gateway, Apple, and Microsoft stores, these shops were the best way to find that rare peripheral or gadget you needed to make your computer work better.

I was a computer owner, having bought an Apple PowerBook 100 for my studies at graduate school, and was looking for some cool add-ons and perhaps a box of disks.

After going through the booths a couple of times and making a small purchase, I went outdoors to take a look at the track, which was holding races that afternoon.

The park used to have outdoor seating for 11,000, but through the evolution of the facility over the years, virtually all of the spectator capacity at the facility was indoors. A five-story-tall glass-enclosed building overlooked the front stretch, with all of the betting windows, hospitality, and seating climate-controlled from the cold December weather.

I thought for a few minutes; could this be the future of pro sports? Could we see stadiums with an acre of grass as your competition surface, but entirely surrounded by hundreds of glass-enclosed luxury boxes overlooking the action?

We’ve seen a lot of this before, as the Bombonera, the home stadium of Boca Juniors in Argentina, underwent a 1996 renovation which saw the construction of an entire sideline’s worth of luxury boxes stretching four stories tall.

There’s also been new construction which has seen luxury boxes brought to the fore, such as the 1,241 suites at the Monumental Stadium in Lima, Peru, or the banks of boxes at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., or at North Carolina State University’s football stadium.

The current global pandemic has seen many pro sporing events around the world held without spectators, including a soccer game in Istanbul today between Besiktas and Fenerbace. Normally, the crowds in this Super Lig match would be chanting loud enough to create small earthquakes detectable by seismic equipment nearby.

Now, given the fact that many pro sports franchises actually make a profit without a single ticket being sold to the general public, I do wonder if our society is heading towards the all-suite method of the game experience. I know there has to be owners contemplating an all-suite stadium with climate-controlled seats for well-heeled corporate customers (which actually makes it easier for social distancing), especially since a lot of fans of some pro sports are finding that the entertainment experience is better at home rather than seeing the game live.

Nov. 28, 2020 — A million times over

You don’t have to read this blog to understand the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the sports world, even as entire field hockey teams either had to pause or cancel activities because of an outbreak, or even opted out of play altogether.

All you have to do is watch the news. Prominent athletes and coaches, and the heart of some entire teams have been infected with Coronavirus, leading to governing bodies of sport having to scramble in order to ensure that games get played.

Ohio State University’s football team isn’t playing today. Neither is Florida State’s team. Villanova’s men’s basketball team had to fill in a slot when Temple had to pull out of a game scheduled for the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn.

Yesterday, when the United States was being Holland 2-0, the Hammers were without star midfielder Lindsay Horan, who tested positive.

And the Thursday night football game between Pittsburgh and Baltimore had to be moved to Tuesday night because of a sudden outbreak amongst the Ravens’ team, including quarterback Lamar Jackson.

The numbers amongst the U.S. population at large are stunning. In the last week, more than a million new COVID-19 cases were reported. More than 4 million new positive tests were reported in the United States in November alone. That represents about 30 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S. since the first case was reported in Washington in late January.

It’s a frightening number. And it’s why our society should not let down our guard.

Nov. 25, 2020 — Diego Maradona, 1960-2020

Diego Maradona was not my favorite soccer player growing up. Indeed, I actively disliked him because of a horrific challenge in the 1982 World Cup which saw him sent off for a studs-up kick to the stomach of an opponent.

But I came to respect him, mostly because of his actions in one game: Argentina vs. England in the FIFA World Cup quarterfinals at Estadio Azteca, June 22, 1986.

In the 51st minute of the game, Maradona went up for a headball, and his hand came up in an unnatural position. The ball glanced off his fist, supported by his forehead, and nestled in the net behind goalkeeper Peter Shilton.

In a political climate still raw from the Falklands War just four years previously, it was easy to portray Maradona as a cheating villain. But not necessarily in a nefarious way: soccer is one of those games in which there are laws, but if you can find a way outside the Laws of Football and outside the referees, it’s a reasonable question if you shouldn’t be allowed to do so.

Four minutes later came not only a touchstone moment in Maradona’s history, it was voted as the greatest goal in the history of the FIFA World Cup.

On the play, Maradona received the ball about seven yards behind the midfield stripe, then charged forward on a breathtaking 60-yard run, beating four players and the goalkeeper, slotting the ball from an angle on the right wing.

As a field hockey writer, I sometimes look to the game of soccer to compare and contrast tactics, coaching, and team culture. I always found it interesting that Argentina’s field hockey and soccer teams routed their play through a single talismanic player, whether it was Maradona, Luciana Aymar, Mario Kempes, Noel Barrionuevo, Juan Roman Riquelme, Delfina Merino, or Lionel Messi.

I find it interesting that, when you look at what has been going on in the youth movement in field hockey over the last 10 years, American players from the national team on down have been scoring exceptional goals. When you look at footage of Erin Matson, either with North Carolina or with the U.S. women’s national team, you see a lot of Maradona-esque skills and use of space.

And, of course, you’ve read in these pages about three exceptional goals scored on the scholastic level that are very much on the same level as Maradona’s “Goal of the Century” back in 1986.

There was Mackenzie Allessie’s overtime goal in the 2018 PIAA Class AA final against Palmyra, Hope Rose’s overtime goal in the 2020 PIAA District 3-AAA final against Lower Dauphin, and Alexandra Mega’s goal in the 2020 RIIL Division I final against La Salle Academy. All three started deep in the defensive end, with speed and skill to beat three or more players in the field of play, then the finish.

So, I’m saying it right here: those three goals were right out of the Diego Maradona School of Finishing. And the fact that two of these were in 2020 is a tribute to the man, the athlete, the legend.

Nov. 22, 2020 — By way of correction

Yesterday, Providence Classical (R.I.) won the Rhode Island Interscholastic League Division III state championship with a 2-0 win over Warwick Toll Gate (R.I.). It was the program’s third state championship, following on state titles in 2002 and 2016.

And herein is a problem, especially with the kind of fact-based field hockey journalism you have come to expect over the last two-plus decades.

Classical, a highly competitive academic magnet school, won the Division II state championship in 2002. Yet, this site had recognized Louisville DuPont Manual (Ky.) as the first magnet school to have ever won a state championship title when the Crimson won gold in 2011.

The great thing about a website (as opposed to printed paper) is that you can make corrections readily. Within 15 minutes, I had revised every reference to Manual having been the first magnet-school field hockey title. Sometimes I added a reference to Classical, others, I didn’t.

So, some of you might ask why I care so much that a particular institution is a magnet school, or a religious school, or a military school. The reason is that schools which aren’t your usual American public school add to the fabric and diversity of the nation’s educational system, both in terms of academics and physical education.

I love it, for example, when a STEM school such as Alexandria Thomas Jefferson (Va.) is able to make the Virginia High School League postseason. It’s cool from a journalistic standpoint because the players and coaches are very analytical and are able to explain how they were able to succeed on a particular day.

Given the rise of specialized education in this No Child Left Behind era, there are a lot of different schools that are out there — schools for science, the Arts, civics and government, and technology. And these are the ones that play field hockey. There are so many others in areas of the country like Michigan, California, South Carolina, Florida, and Texas.

Some of them will want to add varsity athletics to enhance physical education, which could really help grow field hockey, lacrosse, soccer, and other sports in the United States.

BULLETIN: Nov. 18, 2020 — The 40th USA Field Hockey National Festival is a no-go

A week before the scheduled start of the two-site National Hockey Festival in Virginia Beach and the greater Charlotte, N.C. area, the event was suddenly cancelled this afternoon.

It was an event which was going to be fraught with problems, given the ever-changing rules on gatherings and quarantines which were likely going to be invoked for players and coaches coming in from elsewhere.

The Festival was going to be held solely at a soccer complex near Charlotte, but a late decision was made to split the event in half, with games played in Virginia Beach, Va. and Bermuda Run, N.C.

The cancellation comes in spite of the fact that there was a major girls’ lacrosse tournament held in the greater Baltimore area last weekend, and the Bethesda Premier Cup had been held in Boyds, Md. last weekend as well. A separate Bethesda Premier Cup for boys is being held this weekend in Boyds, Md. as well.

Now, I’m not an epidemiologist, nor a statistician. But I do wonder if the decision to split the Festival, coupled with an upward curve of COVID-19 cases around the country, made organizers think twice about having two possible super-spreader events instead of just one.

In any case, this has to be a setback for a cash-strapped USA Field Hockey, as well as for the parents who bought hotel and airline tickets already. I can but hope that the travel agents will be lenient about refunds, especially given the volume of business that the Festival usually generates.

I also feel for the average Festival athlete who works hard, plays by the rules, and is just on the edge of some Division I coaches’ radar, but won’t have a chance to show what they can do.

Nov. 18, 2020 — An unprecedented collapse of one city’s sports culture

Yesterday, it was announced that the Minnesota Twins would be severing its affiliation with the Rochester Red Wings of the International League.

This story, in and of itself, may have little importance outside of the city of Rochester, the city of 200,000 that borders Lake Ontario. But it is part of a larger collapse of professional team sports in the city which is, frankly, troubling.

Even before COVID-19, there were teams fleeing the city. In 2016, the Western New York Flash, having won the National Women’s Soccer League title, moved south and became the North Carolina Courage. This occurred after one embarrassing scenario when the team’s usual home ground was unavailable for a late-season playoff contest and the game was played at a baseball stadium.

A year later, the city’s indoor lacrosse team, the Knighthawks, were moved to Halifax, leaving the team without a National Lacrosse League team. A new Knighthawks franchise is scheduled to play in the upcoming season.

Back in 2018, the Rochester Rhinos, a soccer team with a great history, having won a U.S. Open Cup against more seasoned professionals, ceased operations. The Rhinos franchise is scheduled to start play again in the United Soccer Leagues sometime in 2021 once stable financing is in place.

What’s going on here?

I think what has been happening on the baseball side of things is that the new consolidation of the minor leagues under the control of the 30 major-league teams has given an excuse to look around for “a better deal.”

And, regrettably, a big portion of this includes race.

The New York Yankees, in recent days, has pulled out of Trenton, N.J., which is now 52 percent African-American; it has been about 42 percent about 20 years ago. And Rochester, which was 61 percent white in 1990, is now 58 percent African-American and Latino.

I’d venture to say that the people running professional sports are not covering themselves in glory here.

Nov. 4, 2020 — A nice little story, truncated by COVID-19

If you have a cable or satellite TV package and if you have explored some of the sports channels, you may have come across Eleven Sports, which is a network specializing in a number of international and niche sports.

If you have followed that network for a while, you will have seen programming surrounding a rugby team called the Toronto Wolfpack. The team does not compete as an amateur side in a local league, or in either the Professional Rugby Organization or Major League Rugby in the United States.

Instead, the Wolfpack is a Rugby League franchise that organized with the ambition of playing in England’s leagues.

It’s the equivalent of a cricket team based in South Florida joining up with the Twenty20 Caribbean Premier League, or an NFL franchise in London. A transnational professional sports team can be a fantastical and expensive dream, with travel and logistics concerns that would make even the most optimistic team owner or financial backer flinch.

Eleven Sports not only broadcast games, but behind-the-scenes documentaries showing the lives of players and the way the team culture evolved over its short history.

Over time, Toronto won its way from the third division of English Rugby League into the second division (the Championship) and, last year, promotion to the top division (the Super League).

But then, the Coronavirus hit. The Wolfpack, citing health and logistical concerns of having visiting teams from England as well as having to travel to Europe, decided to withdraw from the Super League for the 2020 campaign, with the intention to reapply for the 2021 season.

That application was rejected a couple of days ago, leaving the Wolfpack in limbo.

But there’s a quote from Robert Elstone, the Rugby Super League chief executive, that should give great pause when it comes to future endeavors like this.

“Operating a team in a fiercely competitive North American sports market was non-strategic and added no material incremental revenue to Super League in the short- or medium-term,” he said. “Separately, it was also apparent that no assessment of the scale and accessibility of the commercial growth that might accrue to the sport from entering the Canadian market was ever completed prior to the club’s first entry into the sport.”

Now, there are transnational sports competitions, starting with the National Hockey League, which has operated seamlessly between Canada and the United States across multiple levels for more than 100 years. The first year of the NBA, 1946, included a team in Toronto.

And there were a couple of years of the English Premier League when two of the 20 teams in the top flight were from Wales.

But the logistics of having to fly a team 3,500 miles for games was proving to be a bit much for not only the Wolfpack, but its opponents.

Which is why I have always thought that the NFL’s continuing fascination with London could wind up being the league’s undoing. Since the 1980s, the NFL has had not only exhibition games at Wembley Stadium, but also regular-season games.

It’s been expected that Shahid Khan, owner of Fulham F.C. as well as the Jacksonville Jaguars, has been trying to position the Jaguars as the team to eventually make its home in London. The Jaguars have played seven international games, more than any other team.

And in the last couple of years, the owners of Tottenham Hotspur have built a $1 billion stadium with movable grass trays to allow a football gridiron to be used independently of soccer matches.

There were supposed to have been games at the Tottenham ground, but they were postponed because of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Now, I don’t know exactly how much money the National Football League or its member clubs have lost to COVID-19. I’m sure it’s pretty substantial, even though most of its clubs can still break even without a single ticket being sold, such is the value of sponsorship and partnerships within each city.

Still, if the Toronto Wolfpack experiment has fizzled this badly, why is the NFL still insisting on working towards a franchise in London? For me, it’s the ultimate in tilting at windmills.

Nov. 1, 2020 — Corrections, but around the edges

Two weeks ago, we discussed a story in The Atlantic which detailed the lengths to which some parents would go in order to position their children to receive athletic scholarships.

Yesterday, The Atlantic published a 12-paragraph correction to accompany what is now an edited story. The corrections surrounded some details within the story, including the location of the ambitions mother in the narrative, Sloane.

There were other details put into question, including the size of a backyard ice rink built for one child, as well as the nature of the fencing injury of one of Sloane’s daughters.

Also, The Atlantic pointed out that the author of the story, Ruth Shalit Barrett, had been ousted from her job at The New Republic over plagiarism allegations.

The correction, I submit, is a smokescreen, even though I think the correction is the first step in the complete retraction of the story.

That’s fine, if The Atlantic wants to do this. But the principle I pointed out two weeks ago, about the cesspool that is the college admissions process, remains the same.