The biggest name in baseball free agency decided not to sign a contract with the New York Yankees this off season. 

I know, right?

Instead, Cy Young award-winner and certified ace Cliff Lee opted to sign a five year, $120 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, who already own one of the the most talent-laden starting rotations in Major League Baseball. That rotation, which already includes Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, has just transcended the formidable and is now bordering on the historic. The Lee-to-Philly deal is intriguing for a lot of reasons, but I think the most important thing we can take away from Clifton's decision to play for the Phillies and not the Yanks (or the Rangers) is that sometimes, money isn't everything.

That's a pretty amazing thing to consider with the way professional sports (and especially baseball) usually works, where the highest bidder offering the most lucrative contract nearly always gets their man. The Yankees have made a living off of this heretofore certainty of the paper chase, reeling in big name free agent after big name free agent year-in and year-out. The Yankees always pull in proven talent through free agency because they are one of the most powerful franchises in all of sports with one of its biggest checkbooks.

The fact that Lee spurned the Yanks and the Rangers to play for the Phillies says a lot about the guy if you ask me, and as a die-hard Yankee-hater, it damn near warms my heart. There's an old saying that only two types of people like the Yankees: those from the Bronx and complete assholes. I've always subscribed to this theory, especially growing up a Detroit Tigers fan, because up until realignment and the advent of the wild card spot in the MLB playoffs, the Yankees shared a division with my Tigers in the old AL East. I don't like the Yankees and I never have. I don't like the way they try (and often succeed) to buy World Series titles and their big money bullying tactics -- tactics they use to consistently rob small and mid-market teams of a shot at big name free agents.

It's why Lee signing with the Phillies is such a wonderful off season baseball headline. Lee went where he wanted to go, leaving around $30 million on the table and taking fewer years on his contract to play where he wanted to. He's bounced around quite a bit over the last few years, including a stop in Philadelphia two years back, where he buoyed the Phils to a World Series appearance against the Yankees and was then traded away to the Mariners in the off season. The Mariners shifted him to the Rangers during last season, where he again found himself in the World Series, this year against the Giants. 

The Rangers also did their damndest to keep one of baseball's best post-season pitchers around, but Lee turned down more money from them as well, doing what was best for him personally and career-wise instead of chasing more money in Texas or New York. Athletes so rarely go this route, and so rarely spurn the Yankees, that Lee's landing in Philadelphia is equal parts surprising and refreshing. 

I have always maintained that I think it unfair to characterize all athletes as money-hungry jerks because I don't think that folks in other professions would turn down more lucrative positions and career paths in favor of their best personal interests either. We tend to criticize athletes for pursuing the opportunity to make the most money, but people in all walks of life and in all professions behave in much the same manner for the most part. Following your bliss can often be derailed by the lure of the almighty dollar, and athletes are not alone in succumbing to it's siren song.

Following what you want to do and not what your bank statements say you should is a tough decision to make and one I can do nothing but commend Cliff Lee for. He has recently stated that he never wanted to leave Philly in the first place and is happy as a clam to be back with the Phillies. If you look at the starting rotation he is a part of now, it isn't hard to see why.

Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels could all occupy (and in the past have occupied) the top spot in just about any rotation in baseball if they wanted to, but now they all find themselves wearing the same uniform. This is a scary thought for any team in the NL East and probably the entire National League, with many a sports pundit already proclaiming the Phils the prohibitive favorite to reach the World Series in 2011. 

Halladay is arguably the best pitcher in baseball (for those with short memories, he's the dood that threw a no-hitter in this year's playoffs), and is now surrounded by three other pitchers (and Joe Blanton in the five spot, I see you big fella...) that are also among the league's most dominant arms. Baseball analysts like Tim Kurkjian (whom I love) and Bob Costas (whom I don't so much, but is one of the sharpest minds baseball has to offer) are already calling the Philadelphia rotation one of the greatest in baseball history, which makes Lee's decision an even more eye-grabbing headline.

I think that Lee's move to Philly is going to pay dividends during baseball's long regular season for all of the obvious reasons, and I'll go one step further to say that it will only make the Phillies a more dominant force in the postseason. I just don't buy the argument that you need four or five solid pitchers during the season, but only three in the post season. 

Having Hamels as the number four option during a playoff run can eliminate many tough decisions that might present themselves should one of the other three starters be looking at pitching on short rest. The Phillies not only have a dominant staff in this sense, but a flexible one to boot. The rotation's depth can alleviate headaches that scheduling and travel can create, and make skipper Charlie Manuel's job all the easier in 2011.

So the Phils are freaking loaded now (sheesh, we haven't even talked about their line-up, which is also laden with All-Star talent like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard...) and the Yankees are in big, big trouble. They lost out on free agency's other big name too, that being Carl Crawford, who signed with the rival Boston Red Sox (who also added All-Star Adrian Gonzalez) and are now a team without the bat they wanted and the front-line pitcher they desperately needed. 

The Yankees' rotation is as shaky as Philly's is solid, with CC Sabathia anchoring a staff that might have to follow him with only Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett if Andy Pettitte decides to hang up his cleats. The Yankees are now forced to turn to the trading block, and will most likely have to part ways with many young prospects (most notably catcher Jesus Montero) in order to do so. They also recently signed Russell Martin, another catcher, which leads this writer to believe that Montero and many other fine young players will get the ol' Austin Jackson treatment and find themselves in another team's farm system post-haste.

Oh yeah, the Yanks just signed Mark Prior (of the glass-armed Priors) too. Panic, thy name is Brian Cashman. It looks like Cliff Lee's decision to skip the Bronx is going to have some very interesting aftershocks in New York and if you can't tell from the previous body of this post, I am smiling a very large smile as a result. 

Clifton gets what he wants, the Yankees don't, and I'm talking baseball in the middle of football and basketball season. Gotta love the hot stove.



So I've been holding back my opinon on Auburn QB phenom Cam Newton all year, but after watching him on the sidelines during the SEC Championship game and seeing the interview he just did with Chris Fowler for ESPN today, I just have to spout off. 

I've said before that it's important not to be too hard on college athletes. They're young and inexperienced when it comes to the spotlight, the media, and their athletic prowess, so they're bound to slip up here and there and we should all treat them with a lower level of scrutiny than the pros that get paid to do what they do. 

All that said, this kid is really starting to wear on my nerves. 

There is no question in my mind that he's the best player in college football right now and that he is deserving of the Heisman Trophy, which he will undoubtedly win in a landslide on Saturday night in New York. The kid is doing things on the field that no one else is capable of right now (and yes, as an OSU fan and Terrelle Pryor apologist, that is hard to say), and the fact that his team is in the National Championship game with an undefeated record is testament to that.

What I don't like about Newton, and what I can't help but criticize the kid for, is his attitude. Everyone has heard the stories (and allegations) by now: he was caught buying a stolen laptop and then throwing it out the window when the cops showed up while playing for Florida, he had to high tail it out of Gainesville because he may or may not have cheated his way through school, his father openly shopped his services to schools like Mississippi State (and probably Auburn too) to the tune of $200,000 after Newton spent a year in Junior College.

That's a lot of heat on a guy who is barely old enough to drink a beer and is only in his Junior year of college. It's especially eyebrow-raising considering the size of his star on the football field and the profile that comes with being on one of the best teams in college football. Now, if it were me, and I was facing all of this media attention and was the subject of allegation after allegation about things that happened off the field, I think I would have a little bit of perspective. Even at that young age, I think I would realize that I needed to keep my head down and be as humble and as unassuming as possible for the duration of my career as a college quarterback. 

Cam doesn't seem to feel the same way. He's been playing to the crowd all year after Auburn victories, strutting around the field and hamming it up for the student section (and cameras) with the whole world watching. That's all well and good I suppose, but "Cammy Cam Juice"? Come on dood. If you aren't familiar, that's a little concoction that Cam made on the sidelines during Auburn's rout of South Carolina in the SEC championship game. I guess it was some blend of Gatorade flavors. You know, the kind ten year old kids make when Mom leaves them alone at home with their buddies. Not only will Tracy Wolfson never live that one down, but it's also extremely lame, and nothing short of arrogant and attention grabbing. 

Then there's the aforementioned interview with Fowler on ESPN, in which Newton repeatedly refers to himself in the third person and seems completely out of tune with the way folks are looking at him right now. Psst...Cam! Uh, it turns out you're in deep shit bro, so you might want to look up "contrite" in the old dictionary and see if you can act more like a man facing a laundry list of allegations and less an egomaniac who walks between the raindrops.

I'm sure he's being coached on what to say and more importantly, what not to, but he comes off like a guy who doesn't think he's done anything wrong and will never face any repercussions for the money his father was trying to squeeze out of Mississippi State (and who knows what other schools) during his second recruitment. Newton might be innocent, but I just can't believe that he had no knowledge of what was going on as far as the pay-for-play stuff. He had to have known something, if not everything, and if that's the case I would once again encourage a low profile. That means not talking about yourself in the third person and making "Cammy Cam Juice" on the sidelines. Ugh. 

All of this amid the backdrop of what just happened to USC and Reggie Bush, who were stripped of a National Championship and a Heisman Trophy respectively for the gifts that Bush and his family received while he was playing at Southern Cal. Newton, the alleged $200,000 man, seems either to not have seen what happened to Bush, or not to care, and that just irks me to no end. It's possible he knows that he isn't coming back to play out his Senior season at Auburn next year and therefore doesn't give a rat's ass what happens once he's playing in the NFL, but that again points to a dizzying level of arrogance and an unabashed ambivalence towards the fate of the Auburn football program that are both equally galling.

As Bush could (and perhaps should) tell young Cam, it's not what happens to you, but the lasting damage you can do to your school when the dust finally settles and all of the wrongdoing comes to light. There are kids playing for USC right now that don't get to compete for a National Championship or go to a bowl, and they were playing high school football when Bush was taking money from agents and getting his parents set up in a cushy new house in southern California. At the end of the day, it is exactly this kind of disregard for the fate and feelings of others that I see in Cam Newton's actions that really grinds my gears. 

Newton is a fantastic college quarterback and one helluva a fine athlete, but he seems to fall very short of what I would call an upstanding young man. He's cocky, brash, and bold, and while that might be all well and good for the country's best player under normal circumstances, in the wake of all the smoke that continues to build around his tenure in college, I think it's a bad M.O. to carry. The fires of controversy only seem to get warmer with each passing day for Cam, and he only seems to grow more defiant. I don't care if the NCAA has given him a bogus bill of good health as far as his eligibility is concerned, I flat out don't like the way he carries himself and I had to let the world (or at least the handful of folks who read this blog) know about it.



While I try to keep Bo Jackson's Hip a place where variety is the norm, I can't help but write a second straight post on the NFL, considering what went down on Sunday afternoon in Houston, Texas. The Texans played AFC South rival Tennessee and while the headlines should have been about the battle for a divisional win and the wide-open race for the AFC South championship, all anyone can talk about is the on-field brawl that happened between Texans' wide receiver Andre Johnson and Titans' cornerback Cortland Finnegan.

Personally, I've never seen anything quite like the fight in my years watching football. Sure, corners and wide receivers like to go at it, but when helmets are ripped off and punches are thrown, we've definitely got something new on our hands.

Here's what it looked like, in case you missed it:

There's that old saying that familiarity breeds contempt, which is an apt description for the way a lot of teams in the same division begin to loathe one and other as the years and seasons go on in the NFL. Playing the other squads in your division twice each year leads to rivalries between teams and individual players, and the fight between Johnson and Finnegan could have happened a lot of places in the NFL. The fact that it happened between these two players is kind of expected, but also very surprising.

If you aren't familiar with Finnegan's ways, he is consistently bratty, physical, and cocksure. He's one of those athletes that lives to get under the other guy's skin, an attitude that is not rare for anybody that plays the cornerback position. Finnegan however, seems to revel in his bad boy persona. A year ago, when Sports Illustrated polled NFL players on who were the dirtiest guys in the league, Finnegan finished sixth. This wasn't surprising to most, and the kicker here is that ol' Cort made it known that he'd do his damndest to finish atop the poll the following year. 

Not only is he a dirty dood, but he likes being that way and tries to use it as a psychological advantage against the receivers he covers week-in and week-out. Those sort of prodding tactics work against a lot of guys, but I never in my life thought I would see Andre Johnson be goaded into ripping Finnegan's helmet off and pounding him in the back of the head. Johnson is among the top three wide receivers in the league (you can shuffle among AJ, Larry Fitzgerald and Randy Moss as far as I'm concerned), and over eight seasons with the Texans has proven himself the epitome of class and high moral character.

At a position that is filled with outspoken divas throughout the league (T.O., Ochocinco, Randy Moss, Brandon Marshall, Braylon Edwards, et al), Johnson is a rare combination of freakish talent as a pass-catcher and unshaking modesty as a person. His teammates often comment on his lack of spotlight lust and his demure personality, so ruffling this big bird's feathers seems a particularly daunting task. But I guess when you're Cortland Finnegan (who is looking more and more like a redbone Pauly D these days), the power of your own brackish personality can try the patience of even the coolest of customers.

Okay, so the fight happened. The hockey-like, OMG, text your friends, "we're going to be watching video of this all week on ESPN", did-you-see-that fight, happened. Now, though it had a definite hockey feel to it, that sport condones fighting, if not outwardly encouraging it. The modern NFL is a horse of a different color though, if you look at recent fines and suspensions under commissioner Roger Goodell. We've seen this season that suspensions and big fines await anyone who cracks a defenseless receiver or leads with their helmet. Goodell and the NFL brass have made it very clear not only this season, but over the past few, that the Shield stands for something and that there's certain shit you just don't do on the gridiron these days.

So these two are definitely sitting out at least a game for all of this nonsense, right? Wrong. 

Amazingly, each player was fined just $25,000 and neither will miss any game time (other than the quarter or so they already missed when ejected from Sunday's game) as a result of the fight. This has to be one of the most hypocritical decisions I've seen come out of the NFL front office in a very long time, and if you'll recall, I just made a very similar statement about a month ago when their new "policy" on big hits was "reinforced." If the aim of the league is to protect players and downplay the violent nature of the game, in what way does a light punishment for an all out slugfest help to do either?

The NFL has absolutely no excuse for not benching both of these guys for a game (at least) and doubling the amount of the fines levied. If you're going to take $25K from James Harrison almost every other week for the way he tackles people, you have to shut both of these players down for at least a game for ripping each others' helmets off and throwing down in the middle of the field of play--end of story.

Johnson in particular, though provoked by Finnegan, was raining haymakers with no concern for anyone watching in the stadium or at home, and for a league that has proven that it wants to polish it's violent image as much as possible as the years push on, there's just no way to justify this slap on the wrist. Slap on the wrist actually gives the action taken by the league too much credit. This was a kiss on the forehead, gift wrapped in cotton candy, and floated in on a cloud. 

Johnson has a sterling reputation and apologized immediately for losing his cool, but the fact remains that he ripped a man's helmet off and started beating him senseless on the football field. You can't just let that go Roger Goodell, I don't care how you want to justify it. Some pundits are already pushing forth conspiracy theories that since the Texans play in the Thursday night game on the NFL Network, the two players were let off the hook so Johnson could let his star shine on the league's big money maker (obviously, letting Johnson out of a suspension left the league no choice but to do the same for Finnegan).

I'm personally not buying that, but I am buying the fact that the NFL just doesn't know what to do with itself these days. The league seems to be stuck between nostalgia for a bygone era where men were men and players were true gladiators, and a more tempered, safety-first, cuddly form of football that to this writer seems nothing short of nausea inducing. The NFL wants to protect the quarterback, rob defenses of their ability to be aggressive, and prevent the cloud of concussion related brain damage from tarnishing the league's image forever, but two guys fist fighting and trying to rip each others' heads off in front of a national audience is pretty much condoned? I don't get it, and I don't think a lot of other fans do either. 

Make up your mind Mr. Goodell, because the fans already know why they love football, and it's got nothing to do with suspensions and fines. It's got everything to do with the ability of increasingly talented athletes and the violent contests they choose to take part in. We all know what we're getting into here--whether it be fan, player, owner, whatever--and we all keep coming back for more. The NFL needs to quickly decide what brand of violence it would like to market and to what degree it can continue to do so successfully.

The audience and their attitudes toward the game aren't going anywhere, and aren't changing anytime soon, so the league needs to stop leading us down disparate paths and hoping that we'll meet them somewhere in the middle. Football is king in American sports for a reason, even if the NFL doesn't want to admit what that reason is.