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Investigative sports reporting done right and not at all.

red_sox_pitchers_620_111013_620x350

Beckett (17MM), Lester (5.75MM), and Lackey (15.9MM): ~$38MM in 2011.

The 2011 Redsox sported a $162MM payroll and a 90-72 record.  They held a nine game lead over the Rays for the wildcard on September 3.  Then they went 7-20 in September missing the playoffs, one of the worst collapses in baseball history.  Their manager was fired.

What happened?

Since this occurred in Boston and since Bob Hohler holds a role as investigative reporter for the Boston Globe, we have a pretty good idea.

“… Terry Francona lost his ability to prevent some of the lax behavior that characterized the collapse. Team sources said Francona, who has acknowledged losing influence with some former team leaders, appeared distracted during the season by issues related to his troubled marriage and to his health.”

“Drinking beer in the Sox clubhouse is permissible. So is ordering take-out chicken and biscuits. Playing video games on one of the clubhouse’s flat-screen televisions is OK, too. But for the Sox pitching trio to do all three during games, rather than show solidarity with their teammates in the dugout, violated an unwritten rule that players support each other, especially in times of crisis.

I could keep excerpting but Hohler’s story covers:

  • Francona personal problems (divorce, pain-killer use)*;
  • Starting pitchers hanging out in clubhouse instead of dugout during games;
  • Players carping about having to play a double-header (due to Hurricane Irene);
  • Lack of conditioning;
  • Personal record pursuits;
  • Public sniping between teammates;
  • Complaints about late ‘getaway’ games.

It’s a comprehensive and well-written and interesting documentation of the ugly side of the professional athletics.  Exhibit A for: ‘The Entitled Ballplayer.’

In an era where all games are on TV and all games’ statistics are online and pool reports provide the same set of bland post-game interviews for everyone… the Hohler article is a shining example that sports reporting can still be relevant.

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Compare the above to another interesting time and place:  the 2009 Browns.

Let’s see how another sports market reported on a uniquely peculiar story.

True cle-dot-com caption: “Will the back story of the Great Kokinis-Mangini Blowup ever be fully told? Tony Grossi tends to doubt it.”

The 2009 Browns are under new management with Eric Mangini as head coach and George Kokinis as GM.  The BQ/DA tandem at QB managed to crack 200 passing yards once in eight games leading to a 1-7 record at the bye week.  The last two games before the bye were 3-31 and 6-30 losses to Packers and Bears.  For these two games passing yardage was under 90 yards.

The talent brought in by Kokinis/Mangini included free-agent signings Robert Royal (30 years old), Floyd Womack (31),  John St. Clair (32), David Bowens (35), Eric Barton (32).  The Sanchez trade netted Abe Elam (28), Kenyon Coleman (30) plus a backup QB and four draft picks (Alex Mack and David Veikune plus the move-back trades which brought Coye Francies and James Davis).

Jabari Greer or Hank Poteat? Mangini wins this round.  Click, link.

In short, the 2009 Browns were both horrible and old.  In addition to the six 30 or older players acquired, the team had starters Jamal Lewis (30), Shaun Rogers (30), Robaire Smith (32).  Steve Heiden (33), Hank Fraley (32), Mike Furrey (32), Hank Poteat (32) also saw starting roles throughout the season.

That’s fourteen starters over 30 on a 1-7, 8 points per game team.

How did such a bizarrely horrible roster get assembled?

We don’t know.  But we do know that on the Monday night after the Bears game, GM Kokinis ‘was literally shown the door.

.

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What the hell?  What happened?

No news from Grossi, nor apparently will there be.

“Why the relationship between Mangini and Kokinis exploded is still somewhat of a mystery. There are two sides to what happened and both parties are bound by a confidentiality agreement contained in Kokinis’ financial settlement.”

We have a report of head-butting over personnel from a national source here.

“… we’re told that Kokinis and Mangini repeatedly butted heads, and that their friendship quickly disintegrated due to their inability to reach an agreement on multiple personnel decisions.”

Deeply flawed working relationship says (national source) SI here.

“… Kokinis quickly found himself caught in an inner-organizational power struggle with Mangini that he was both ill-equipped to fight in terms of having established allies in the building, and temperamentally disinclined to wage… [and] felt marginalized within the Browns front office, lacked .. personnel decision-making authority .., and was ultimately scape-goated by Mangini when the repeated failures by the Browns (1-7) this season intensified the heat on the new coach.”

Err.  This plow won’t scour.

WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED?

Dawn Aponte: J’accuse!

Was there no pivotal incident?  On what players did they disagree?  Were there raised voices in a conference room?  After Kokinis was overruled (or, ‘lost the power-struggle’ if you prefer the Kokinis-side leaks), did he continue to participate and fulfill his role or was there a petulant change in attitude and demeanor?  Sullen web-surfing in his cube eight hours a day?  What were the grounds of Lerner’s dismissal ‘for cause’ claim?  Did anything come of the examination of Kokinis’ phone records and the ‘trade secrets’ gambit?  What’s Dawn Aponte got to do with this?  Mike Kennan?

And mainly:  Is there no sportswriter in Cleveland willing to write this epic story?

.

Our friends at Frowns offer a report of trolling Cleveland sports media types who apparently know something but prefer to deny their listeners the story (link):

“… Rizzo and Goldhammer once again trolled their listeners by reminding them that they know what really happened to cause former Browns GM George Kokinis’s sudden and mysterious mid-season departure from the Browns in 2009, but they’re still not telling.”

Frowns comes as close as anyone to sharing an unreported element of the story:

“Immediately upon Kokinis’s termination .. off-the-record reports started coming out of Berea that Kokinis had a substance abuse problem, …”

Let’s explore this.

Reporters covering the Browns are aware of ‘substance abuse’ rumors surrounding Kokinis.  If true, it’s certainly a notable datapoint.  It’s relevant in piecing together how an elderly 1-7 pro-football team was assembled.  Was Kokinis passed out in a strip-club parking lot when the Bears called with a Jay Cutler for Kenyon Coleman deal?  It starts to fill in the blanks concerning the ‘for cause’ dismissal.

But what is the substance being abused?  Is there a clear link between it and declining performance?  Were other, personal, factors in play to precipitate the abuse?  Was there a history?  Warning flags in Baltimore?  What would make a rising NFL personnel executive suddenly go off the rails in Cleveland?

And finally, if true, its non-reporting raises another question:  why should a GM be offered discretion and deferential treatment on a substance abuse matter when athletes are generally not?

.

____
The sportswriters’ access maintenance conundrum.
This post was born out of a convo over on Reboot.  (And which is now the subject of a broader ‘In defense of MKC post.’)  Max brought up the lack of meaningful reporting out of Berea:

I want to know why it seems nothing ever gets reported about the “behind the scenes” stuff at 76 Lou Groza Drive, yet after the parties in question skip town, bushes are beaten around, and everyone acts like everyone knows what happened when it is never really properly addressed. The two most recent examples I can think of involve Gorge Kokinis and Mike Holmgren. Was Holmgren really only working 10-2? Why was this not a big deal as it was happening? Are there men with rifles on towers keeping the media at a safe distance? Seems to me, if you are the reporter assigned to cover the Browns, this would be a story worth exposing…unless you are ignoring certain things to maintain access…in which case, are you even a reporter at all?

‘Maintaining access’ is indeed the excuse offered for incomplete reporting of ‘dysfunctional Berea’ in general and of this awkward, albeit important, episode specifically.  But it’s an excuse I reject.

The curly-haired boyfriend of Gordon Edes.

Again, looking at Boston:

  1. Dan Shaughnessy nicknamed the Celtics’ owner Thanksdad Gaston.  He still works for the Globe.  Still has ‘access.’
  2. Kevin Paul Dupont was brutal on the Bruins’ owner Jeremy Jacobs for decades… still covers the Bruins with access.
  3. Michael Felger cares not for clubhouse access because he [rightly] thinks it impairs critical reporting.  He’s the number one Boston media today and by a wide margin.

.

Furthermore:  let’s challenge the value of ‘access.’  What ‘product’ improvements are being delivered for our reporters having access?  I can watch every game on TV.  I can review the game tapes.  I can get press conference transcripts online.  The worthless post-game interviews are done by pool reporters and common to all.  I get breaking news from national sources via twitter.

What I get as a consumer from the beat reporters’ ‘access’ is less news, less analysis.  I get a propaganda arm.  That’s not working for me.

.

Just a final note.  Frankly, I haven’t been that interested in this story in itself; I’m more interested in how it has not been fully reported.  But if I should stumble upon a resource willing to share anything on this subject and find anything relevant, I’ll report it.   Not in a gossipy-page-hit way.  But because this has been hanging out there too long and needs to be wrapped up.

_____
Two links:

Friend of the site Tom Moore dealt with this subject in an excellent post last year.  Stop telling us what happened and start telling us why it happened.

Don Rogers, #20 in The Cleveland Fan’s series, Top Cleveland Sports Figures By the Numbers.  They’ve done a nice job with the series.  It reminds me of a Sunday Globe feature or SI in its prime.  Another proof point that sportswriting can still be good and interesting and relevant even in the internet era.

_____

* The Redsox black-ops disparagement of Francona is a primary reason why Francona sits in Goodyear, Arizona today.


12 Comments

  1. The actual number is 26.

    Twenty-six players cut by Mangini on his arrival. This does not include Winslow who was traded. Of those 26, only two remained in the league the following year and both were practice squadders.

    Kanicki, I applaud you for such a thoughtful post. Yes, the Kokinis firing is one of the largely untapped pieces of real news that there was. On the other hand, a gag order is a gag order.

    I know people, in general, tend to get twisted into a hot mess whenever the subject of those veterans that Mangini brought in is raised. The facts, however, are these:

    1) The culture needed to change. Yes, the replacements were older players but they were also veterans and professionals. It cannot be overstated that the 2008 Browns lacked a professional atmosphere. They replaced a crew that couldn’t get a job in the league the following season with guys who not only knew what it took, they were selfless in doing so.

    2) Every coach does it. There is a new sheriff in town and every time that happens, he’s bound to bring in some of “his” guys. Parcells did it. When a new coach needs new pieces for his team, he looks to salvage some from his last team. That’s just the way it is. Why Mangini should be any different or punished in the court of opinion for doing so is beyond me.

    3) Mangini needed to clear cap room. By trading down from the Sanchez spot, Mangini and the Browns saved millions against the cap. Another coach who took over his team in 2009 was Jim Schwartz whose team is literally in cap-hell at this point with 20 starters hitting the free agent market and an albatross of a contract tied to Calvin Johnson.

    With respect to the George Kokinis situation, there is certainly room to debate that the explanations bandied about in the media aren’t necessarily awash with consistency or logic.

    1) If there was so much dirt on Mangini in the media, as you stated, why would Kokinis never face the media to take the high road and defend himself?

    2) If George Kokinis was the “hot new GM prospect” then how come he is now buried somewhere deep in the Ravens’ front office never to be heard from again?

    3) If George Kokinis is fired “for cause” that’s a big deal. The only other “for cause” termination that I can recall was Al Davis firing Lane Kiffin and the court of public opinion certainly looks differently on Kiffin now than it seemed to back then. Firing someone “for cause” is generally a big deal. It involves documentation of wrongdoing or “not doing” one’s job as well as an attempt to recoup monies paid. To do so in this instance seems like something the Browns felt they HAD to do. Then again, Lerner may just have been that irate that he was litigation-happy.

    4) If, as Frowns says, Kokinis had a substance abuse problem, then could it not be plausible that Kokinis comes in, interviews, gets the job and then is either innately incompetent or just altered enough to be so? In that case, would it be possible that the front office is a rudderless ship and that was the “cause” for firing? Is it possible that Mangini doing both GM and head coaching duties was unable to do full service to the former?

    5) If the media covering the team acknowledges Kokinis’ rumored problems, why won’t they report on it? It’s certainly relevant…or is that just going to ruin the anti-Mangini sentiment Tony Grossi worked so hard to create?

    The truth, friends, is somewhere in the middle and we’re trying to discern it from the outside looking in.

    • jimkanicki says:

      thanks for dropping by rod-o!

      yes, the ‘why’ of the roster assembly was not explored in this post and that’s probably confusing because the fact of its older make-up does beg the question ‘why did it look like that?’ i acknowledged above that there had to have been an expectation of ‘runway’ to complete the overhaul and in this mangini was obviously not given a fair shake.

      i intended to put the focus on the ‘how.’ how did the GM and HC assemble the roster? shade this question through a prism of exploding relationships and ‘dismissals for cause’ and it’s clearly a dysfunctional player eval environment but yet no one knows anything about it.

      in the end, the turd of a 1-7 start gets dropped at mangini’s feet when it seems probable that a better GM-HC relationship wouldve led to a better roster and a better record. hell, if theyre 4-4 at the bye (unlikely in any circumstance, i grant), maybe al lerner isn’t shopping around around for ‘credible football men.’

      i think in the end, you and i are on the same page: so long as we’re all forced to guess about ‘berea in 2009’ it’s either unfair to kill mangini for that team’s record or the four game winning streak at the end should be counted as a minor miracle.

      • beecee says:

        IIRC, a big part of the problem was mangini’s assumption that the returning players who played in crennel’s extremely vanilla 3-4 system would immediately grasp the complexities of ryan’s hybrid. the defense started to play more effectively when ryan simplified things and began to add wrinkles as players began to become more comfortable knowing their assignments based on the formation. hopefully horton will do this from the get go.

  2. There’s a premise here that doesn’t necessarily go to the main thrust of your post, but nevertheless is extremely flawed:

    “That’s fourteen starters over 30 on a 1-7, 8 points per game team. How did such a bizarrely horrible roster get assembled?

    This conclusion completely ignores any analysis of who the new veterans were brought in to replace, and also how relatively inexpensive those veterans were to bring in in the first place (the expensive guys like Lewis and Rogers were already here when Mangini arrived). I believe Rod posted at Frowns that of the 20-some players replaced or otherwise removed from the Browns roster by the Mangini regime, only one or two of them ended up staying in the league in any capacity at all. I haven’t done the research but I’m guessing it wouldn’t be too hard to confirm. Which is to say, anyway, that the Browns roster was a bizarre horrible mess when Mangini got here (including salary cap hell), and that you don’t really do a thing to establish that he or Kokinis made it significantly worse with the moves at issue here. They thought they’d have five years.

    As a secondary point, Mangini (and/or Kokinis, whatever) believed that there was some value to having a locker room that contained a mix of veterans and young players. I don’t know how you can say that what we were starting to see in 2010 didn’t bear that out.

    Anyway, completely agree that the credentialed Browns press is horrendous and outrageously so with respect to everything ever reported about Mangini and Kokinis.

    • jimkanicki says:

      that’s not a premise in need of proof; it’s just fact.

      if i were analyzing the ‘why’ of such a roster, i’m sure i’d arrive at a need for a general house-cleaning plus cap issues backed by an assumption of some runway with which to overhaul the roster. but conventionally, one brings in veteran players to ‘win now.’ one accepts 1-7 starts with a young roster as a price of building a nucleus.

      in any case (and as you noted), the point here isn’t to analyze the demonstrably bizarrely horrible elderly roster make-up. it’s to question the internal dynamics in berea that led to it.

      —-> stipulated: the 2009 team won its last four games in a row.
      —-> notable: only ten players from 2009 are still on roster (and three are special teamers). none of the ‘elderly players’ brought in in 2009 even made it to 2011. mack, maiava, and massaquoi are the only mangini/kokinis acquisitions left.

      • Kokinis was having personal problems, that much is clear. I wonder, though, how much even the best reporter would be able to connect that to specific conclusions about how the Browns roster was impacted.

        Again, it’s clear enough based on what happened with the players that Mangini and Kokinis dumped that the roster was an even worse mess when they got here than it was when they left. You can say that bringing in the veterans was ‘unconventional,’ but it’s easier to say that it was a good kind of ‘unconventional’ than to say the opposite, given the kind of performance the 2010 team was able to turn in (don’t you think a ‘nucleus’ that involves young players who’ve experienced wins like those is preferable to the alternative?). And of course none of the ‘elderly’ players survived the Shurmur change, but other than Elam and Robaire Smith, it’s clear that none of them were brought in by Mangini in the first place to be anything other than transitional. Again, none of these players were expensive at all, or caused any kind of long term cap hit.

    • Anonymous says:

      Please stop kissing Mangini on the mouth everytime he is mentioned

      • Chris Jennings says:

        Some were quite expensive for their relative worth in the NFL. With the exception of Coleman, all of the following guys were the equivalent of players who could have been taken with 4th round picks or later. Sure they were stop gaps who knew the system, but if a team is going to start 1-7, scoring 8 points a game, then rookies need to be played and gain experience.
        Kenyon Coleman – cap hit of $3.15 Million
        Robert Royal – cap hit of $2.5 Million
        Eric Barton – $2.8M
        C.J. Mosely – $2.6M
        David Bowens $1.5M

  3. Something that always bothered me about the Kokinis thing was that if Mangini had more “people in his corner” in the organization, yet received some of the absolute worst treatment a coach has ever experienced from the media – then exactly how incompetent was Kokinis to not use this to his advantage?

    Of course, we already know how incompetent the owner who hired Kokinis was.

    But seriously, did this guy not even look at the garbage that Grossi and others were spinning about Mangini? To me this suggests either the grossest of incompetence ever in GM history of the world, or some type of physical or chemical disorder that reduced Kokinis to a harmless pile of rocks.

    And a “confidentiality agreement” was always such a weak response and probably wouldn’t have “reported” as such 40 years ago. Or if it was, you know the last remaining investigative reporter still on the PD staff would discover something in his/her off hours, while the Sports crew is busy trying to create PFT headlines out of innocuous press conferences.

    Anyway, after reading your post, I was reminded of this from Jack Bechta, who is fairly responsive to people “not in the know.”

    http://www.nationalfootballpost.com/A-lesson-learned-in-Cleveland.html&team=107

    If I remember correctly, the player in question was Jabari Greer, a pretty good corner who would have helped out over the last few years.

    • jimkanicki says:

      now we’re getting somewhere.
      and i know what mangini was thinking: “if we want a 5-10/175 CB,,, i know a guy! in fact, he’s on the jets! let me just hit redial to tannenbaum and .. done!’

      Prepare to enter the Hank Poteat Experience.

      • Kanicki, think you might have hit the nail on the head with this comment,not that I blame anyone in this the last two regimes had screwed up drafts,and free agency money wise and by trading away picks..so thare really wasn’t the cash/cap space available to do it right….hell Savages last draft we had a 4th rounder as our top draft pick(and first draft pick) did he even play in a regular season game? Then there was the fact that the first player we had in the franchise reboot was cut after he tore his achilles tendon I am sure that helped to make players want to come here and sign,often wonder if he never played again more because of how this team treated him than because he couldn’t play anymore(I don’t know but I am sure that the year after you make a Pro Bowl and you get hurt the following year,you get cut from the team).So I would bet more than even money if I was in the money/player crunch Mangini was I wouldn’t have signed the decent high priced free agent but get a cheap retread player so I could do something the next year..but considering the trade with Jets we made(not that I wanted Sanchez), we probably didn’t have the cash to sign a first round QB that year..maybe no one told Kokinis maybe he wasn’t paying attention..but it seems in retrospect if not at the time(also shown by shipping Braylon and K2 out…for monetary and idoicy issues as much as their locker room behaviors). This also was not a big story,that the Browns had cap/money issues,OOOPS. It probably didn’t help that Kokinis came frome Baltimore which would run up(and still does) ridiculously high bills in players and end up having to cut folks solely based on having no cap room(and/or money). Before the cap Art did this shit in Cleveland and screwed us before he moved the team,and the promptly did the same thing in Baltimore,which unlike our town forced him to sell the team.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Great Read, Great Blog, Big K!

Comments are closed.

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