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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Bullet Points: The Worst Nicknames in Sports

In today’s society, there are a million reasons why professional athletes are placed on a pedestal and worshiped by we mere mortals. They make obscene amounts of money, going to work entails “playing games," and they fill more pussy than Meow Mix. One underappreciated aspect of being a pro jock is the nickname factor.

I mean, how cool would it be to walk around the office and have people refer to you as “the Great One," or “Magic”? There are a shitload of awesome nicknames out there and I’m sure there are even more lists that rank them. This, however, is not one of them. Rather, I’d like to take a look at the poor bastards who stepped up to the nickname buffet to find the only thing left was rancid pig snout.

10. Major League Pitcher: John “Way Back” Wasdin

Wasdin was tagged with the unfortunate handle of “Way Back” after showing a habitual penchant for serving up Dr. Longball. The very definition of mediocrity, “Way Back” Wasdin boasts the unspectacular career record of 29 and 29, with a bloated ERA of over 5.

9. NBA Rebound Specialist: Dennis “The Worm” Rodman

At least if he was known as “the Big Worm” or something to that effect, one could allude to his label's phallic nature. As it stands, though, Rodman is essentially named after a mucous-covered decomposer with both male and female genitalia. Surprisingly appropriate for a man who enjoys dressing up in women’s clothing.

8. NHL Super-pest: Kenny “the Rat” Linesman

Personally, I love Kenny “the Rat” Linesman. The problem is, whether it’s the association with rolling over on your friends, or the actual garbage dwelling vermin, the rat is a foul and despised creature. Kenny not only played like a dirty rat, but his pointy snout and sunken eyes made him look the part as well.

7. NHL Goal Scorer: Marcel “Le Petit Castore” Dionne (translated to “Little Beaver”)

Dionne may have scored often with his blade, but this stumpy French pudge-ball was shut out in the nickname department. You’re either a small, buck-toothed member of the rodent family that chews wood for a living, or a euphemism for a tiny vagina. Pick your poison.

6. NBA Legend: Larry “The Hick From French Lick” Bird

5. NHL Netminder: Andre “Red Light” Racicot

As a goaltender, your job description entails just one task. Keep the puck out of the net. Too bad for Racicot that skill happened to be the one he struggled with most. Poor old “Red Light” was unceremoniously run out of Montreal, but not before suffering third-degree burns to the back of his neck from the goal lamp's sharp amber rays.

4. Light Stepping Wrestler: The Poet Laureate, “Leaping” Lanny Poffo

Let’s break this phenomenally awful name down to its core components. A poet that enjoys “leaping” named Lanny Poffo. Three strikes and “Leaping” Lanny is out; of the closet that is. Perhaps he would have been better off sticking to his original name, “Big Gay Lanny."

3. NBA Rookie: Glen “Big Baby” Davis

The only blemish on the 2008 Boston Celtics so far this season, is their rookie’s nickname. A dominating NBA big man should conjure up names like “the Admiral," “Diesel” or "Dr. Dunkenstein." Instead, Davis will have to settle for images of uncontrollable crying fits and giant soiled diapers. I just feel sorry for his mother’s flume-ride like birth canal.

2. Former Boxing Champion: Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker

As a boxer, you generally want a nickname that is going to put the fear of god in your opponents. With that in mind, I must have missed the episode of the Popeye cartoon where his daughter knocks out Brutus with a wicked left cross. There are absolutely no redeeming qualities to this nickname, and whoever invented it should be tied up and whipped repeatedly with a lasso made of used tampons.

1. NHL Scoring Legend: Guy “the Flower” Lafleur

Nothing says speed, power and ferocity like... a flower? I can just see a helmet-less defender snickering under his breath, “Oh no, here comes the Flower flying down the wing." Now, Guy certainly had some skills, but on the basis of his nickname alone, you’d assume that skill was planting two-lips on some greasy Frenchman’s knob.

Call me crazy, but I even believe his pseudonym may be responsible for his son’s recent legal problems. It seems the son of the Flower was assessed a “minor” penalty for sexual assault on an underage girl. I guess that would make his son “the De-Flowerer”?

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NBA Halftime Proposal

So what if it was their second date? She was the one!

Great firewall of China may hinder blogging Olympians

Athletes competing in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, will be allowed to maintain personal blogs for the first time in history—if they can make it through the Great Firewall, that is. The International Olympic Committee made the decision and issued a set of guidelines late last week, saying only that athletes are free to post what they want—with a few caveats. But even as the IOC gives the go-ahead to bloggers, the Chinese government continues to filter and monitor its own Internet traffic, severely limiting bloggers within the country.

As for the types of things the IOC will allow, athletes may only write about their own personal experiences (and not, say, a newsy-type post about an overall competition or information from third parties). They may also post photographs taken outside of official Olympic areas and their own photos taken inside, but that the photos must not contain any sporting action. Bloggers cannot put any form of advertising on their sites or have any affiliation with a specific company, the IOC said, and should keep their posts "dignified and in good taste," according to the guidelines.

"The IOC considers blogging... as a legitimate form of personal expression and not a form of journalism," the IOC said in a statement issued on Friday.

Unfortunately, China's Public Security Bureau doesn't usually take such a liberal view of "personal expression." Blogs from common hosts, such as Blogspot and WordPress, have been blocked off and on within China for some time now, so Olympic athletes looking to post about their experiences may not even be able to access their sites without some sort of contingency plan. That's not the only place they'll have to compromise, either—other taboo topics include the local police, government, as well as the likes of Falun Gong, Nazi Germany, and Tiananmen Square.

In other China-related news, Steven Spielberg decided last week to resign as an "artistic consultant" to the 2008 Olympics. The reason for his decision, Spielberg said, was because China had not done much to help resolve conflict in Sudan, resulting in genocide and other human rights violations. "With this in mind, I find that my conscience will not allow me to continue with business as usual," he said in a statement.

Human Rights Watch praised Spielberg's decision, saying that other corporate sponsors, governments, and other Olympic-related committees should put pressure on Beijing to improve human rights in China. "Olympic corporate sponsors are putting their reputations at risk unless they work to convince the Chinese government to uphold the human rights pledges it made to bring the Games to Beijing," Human Rights Watch media director Minky Worden said in a statement last week. "Human rights are under attack in China, and Olympic sponsors should use their considerable leverage to persuade Beijing to change policy."

But not everyone received the news well—particularly Chinese fans of Spielberg's work. China's Xinhua news agency reported that the public was angry about the decision, with some criticizing Spielberg for living in a sci-fi fantasy world and being unable to "distinguish dream from reality." The IOC appeared to shrug off the controversy as well, with IOC President Jacques Rogge saying that the Olympics are a sporting event, not an opportunity to demonstrate political beliefs. "[Spielberg's] absence will not harm the quality of the Games. The Beijing Games are much stronger than individuals," Rogge said.

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Statheads Speak: Derek Jeter, You Stink!

Despite the three gold gloves, multiple forms of statistical analysis show that "the Captain" is the worst-fielding shortstop in the Majors
Once upon a time, the only fielding statistic listed on the back of baseball cards was fielding percentage, a simple calculation of the number of assists and putouts a player records divided by total chances. But this only tells you how well players handled the balls that they were able to put a glove on, giving pretty much zero insight into how much ground a player covers at his position and, ultimately, his impact on the outcome of the game.

Enter Spatial Aggregate Fielding Evaluation, or SAFE, a new yard stick for fielding developed by professor Shane Jensen and his stat-junkie colleagues at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and presented today at the AAAS Meetings in Boston. In short, Jensen examined every hit from the 2002-2005 baseball seasons and developed a formula that spit out the probability of the average player at each position recording an out on a batted ball. He then compared this to individual players' stats and determined how many runs each player's fielding performance either saved or caused.

First basemen, it turns out are relatively inconsequential when it comes to fielding balls. On average, the best first basemen will only save their team one or two runs over the course of the season; the very worst only cough up five. The distinction is much more apparent at the shortstop position, where Alex Rodriguez was the best everyday shortstop in the league, saving 10.40 runs each season for the Texas Rangers. Derek Jeter, the New York Yankees shortstop who is often hailed for his defensive prowess and has won three Gold Gloves, ranks dead last in the majors, coughing up 13.81 runs per season. Before the 2004 season, the Yankees traded for A-Rod and shifted him to third base in deferrence of Jeter, but based on these numbers, that move could be costing them 23 runs per season. Would the Yankees be better off with A-Rod at SS? Probably, but I'm a Red Sox fan, so I'll keep quiet on this one.

But the lack of a definitive method of measuring fielding excellence has spurred many statisticians to create their own stats. David Pinto, formerly the chief baseball statistician at ESPN, has devised what he calls the Defensive Efficiency Ratio, or DER, which, in simple terms, determines the probability, at each position, that a fieldable ball results in at least one out. (This approach is slightly different from SAFE, which rates fielding efforts based on how many runs a player prevents or allows.) Pinto compared the expected number of outs to actual stats to evaluate each fielder's performance.

This is where some interesting ambiguities between statistical facts and baseball strategy arise. Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki led all shortstops, recording 50 more outs than was expected of him. In particular, Tulowitzki picked up most of his extra outs on the third base side of shortstop. Meanwhile, Garret Atkins, the third baseman for the Rockies, recorded 41 fewer outs than was expected of him. But does that mean that Atkins is a bad fielder? The stats would say yes. But perhaps his coach is telling him to play near the line, putting him out of position of balls that are running through zones that third basemen are expected to cover and being gobbled up by Tulowitzki, who is being told to play a shade deeper to help cover Atkins' ground. Such a strategy would artificially drop Atkins' outs recorded while simultaneously increasing Tulowitzki's, but, looking at the stats alone makes it difficult to say if this is the case. "It's quite possible that Atkins' fielding weakness is accentuated by strategy, and that's what we're seeing here," Pinto says. "But, my guess would be that if he were a better fielder, you would see a much more balanced split between the two players."

Despite this and other shortcomings, fans and statisticians have never known more about defense than they do today. "Fielding, in general, was a fairly intangible tool," Jensen says. "I think we've helped make it more tangible."

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