Archive for April, 2006

New report praises, slams MLB for diversity

Attaining diversity in sports requires a tough balancing act, and writing about gender and race issues can be just as tough. But with today’s release of The 2005 Racial and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball from the DeVos Sports Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida, I want to take this opportunity to delve into the issue of diversity in Major League Baseball.

On one hand, winning in professional sports is all about putting the best players on the field at all times. Since 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, baseball has realized that the best players come from all walks of life and race. If someone can play or produce, this person will be on the team regardless of superficial qualities.

On the other hand, front office and executive management can represent an entirely different deck of cards. The Commissioner’s Office wants to see the best and brightest in the front offices, and they also want to bring the sport to a wider audience through various community outreach programs often targeted at minority populations. While I would like to think that color is not important on the field, in the offices, diversity is vital for the continued success and growth of Major League Baseball as business.

Grading Baseball: An Overview of the Report

With the release of The 2005 Racial and Gender Report Card, we can see just how well Major League Baseball is doing promoting diversity and where they need to see improvement. Before heading into this territory, I want to briefly mention methodology. Richard Lapchick and Stacy Martin, the report’s authors, note the way in which they grade baseball on its efforts at attaining diversity:

To give it perspective for sports fans, the Institute issues the grades in relation to overall patterns in society. Federal affirmative action policies state that the workplace should reflect the percentage of the people in the racial group in the population. Thus, with approximately 24 percent of the population being people of color, an A was achieved if 24 percent of the positions were held by people of color, B if 12 percent of the positions were held by people of color, and C if it had only nine percent. Grades for race below this level were assigned a D for six percent or F for any percent equal to or below five percent.

For issues of gender, an A would be earned if 40 percent of the employees were women, B for 35 percent, C for 30 percent, D for 25 percent and F for anything below that. The 40 percent is also taken from the federal affirmative action standards.

With this standard in place, baseball fared decently in racial diversity, garnering a B+ for their efforts, but the sport did poorly in gender diversity managing just a D+ down from a C a year ago. In other words, women are woefully underepresented in Front Office positions in baseball.

Delving further into the data, we see that baseball has assembled a diverse array of players. The sport received an A or better for “player opportunities, managers and coaches as well as for the MLB Central Office.” According to the report, “In the 2005 MLB season 59.9 percent of the players were white, 8.5 percent were African-American, 28.7 percent were Latino and 2.5 percent were of Asian descent.” Furthermore, players born outside the United States comprise 27.4 percent of those on rosters this Opening Day. On the field, baseball is an international game.

The MLB Central Offices receive high grades for racial diversity and low grades for gender diveristy. Furthermore, there is only one person of color among the elite group of baseball owners – Arte Moreno of the Orange County Angels – and, with the Brewers out from under Wendy Selig’s control, no women in the group. This picture does not look to improve in the near future as the groups under consideration to buy the Nationals are largely made up of white men.

As far as the clubs are concerned, the seven managers of color who all were managing during parts or all of the 2005 season represent a success in the eyes of this report card. Four of the managers were African-American; three were Latino. However, Tony Pena and Lloyd McClendon have since been fired and were replaced by white men. Thirty-nine percent of Major and Minor League coaches are men of color.

Despite all of this high scores on the field, Major League Baseball begins to suffer off the field. Ken Williams is the only black GM, making the White Sox the only team with people of color in both the General Manager and Manager positions. The Mets’ Omar Minaya is the only other GM of color. Baseball gets a D in the General Manager category.

In team executive offices, just 15 percent of Vice Presidents are women and only 13.2 percent are women of color. Furthermore, women hold just 27.7 percent of senior administration positions over all. Baseball is also lagging when it comes to diversity in professional administration positions such as administrative assistants, staff assistants and receptionists.

A Case Study on Baseball’s ‘Thinking Positions’

With these numbers painting some positive trends and some negative trends, the report’s authors took at look at what they called the “stacking” trends of certain positions on the field. This is where the report heads into the territory of race relations in baseball. The report’s authors wanted to identify the percentage of African Americans playing one of three so-called “thinking positions”: pitcher, catcher and third baseman. In 2005, the categorizations were changed to pitcher, catcher and infield. The results were surprising:

Only three percent of pitchers, one percent of catchers and 11 percent of infielders were African-American. It is worth noting that in 2004 when the Report Card looked at the isolated position of third baseman versus the entire infield, the percent of African-Americans was only five percent. The percentage of African-American pitchers is less than one half of what it was in 1983. Twenty-six percent of outfielders, who rely on speed and reactive ability, were African-American during the 2005 MLB season. This was nearly three times the percentage of African-Americans in MLB.

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Texas playing for more than just a division

Now that the Astros have reached the World Series, the Texas Rangers have inherited the title of Least Successful Expansion Era team. But that could change this year. If this team can stay competitive in the American League West through June, a 43-year-old savior could swoop in and deliver them elusive October success.

In 1961, the Texas Rangers — then the second Washington Senators team — were the new kids in town. The original Washington Senators had just pulled up stakes and moved to Minneapolis, and Major League Baseball awarded Washington another Senators team and Gene Autry got his Angels in Los Angeles. These two new additions to the Major League Baseball roster kicked off a period of expansion that would see baseball go from 16 teams in 1960 to 30 teams by 1998. The sport’s rapid expansion was a testament to the ever-growing population in America (and eventually Canada) and its increasing popularity in society.

Eleven unremarkable seasons after their creation, the second Washington Senators team left the socially struggling and stagnant District of Columbia for greener (or is that whiter?) pastures in Arlington, Texas. By 1994, after 33 seasons of futility, October baseball games seemed to be in Texas’ future. Even with a 52-62, the Rangers on August 11 were one game ahead of the second-place Oakland Athletics.

But fate in the form of a lockout intervened, and the Rangers would not see October ball until 1996 when they were swept by the Yankees in the Divisional Series. The Rangers would make the playoffs again in 1998 and 1999, but they would be on the receiving end of the great Yankee Dynasty of the 1990s. They managed just one playoff victory in 1996 and went 1-9 against the Yankees during their three futile attempts at reaching the ALCS.

Since losing in 1999, the Rangers have finished last in the division four times and third twice. Despite an explosive offense, the Rangers just haven’t found the pitching they need to win in the highly competitive American League West. But this year the stakes are higher: Roger Clemens’ return to baseball looms large in the minds of the Rangers…

Aaron’s 755 looks safe for now

Henry Aaron has been largely silent as Barry Bonds zeroes in on his home run record.

While he praised Selig for doing the right thing in appointing an investigation into steroids in baseball, he guardedly said he would congratulate Bonds if Barry were reach 756. “I wouldn’t say anything, just ‘God Bless You,'” Aaron said to the Associated Press. Can you really blame him for this reservation?

During his run at Ruth’s record in the 1970s, Aaron was on the receiving end of a lot of racist backlash. Now, thirty years later, Bonds is suffering in the eyes of the public but for vastly different reasons. Aaron’s treatment reflected the strain of race relations in the United States. Bonds’ treatment shows what happens in the court of public opinion to someone who may have cheated. While Bonds tries to play the race card, fans are hesitant at best to embrace his pursuit of the record because of his close ties to the BALCO court case and baseball’s current steroid scandal.

For Aaron, Bonds’ pursuit must be something to watch because these two players, while both immensely talented, have put together vastly different career profiles. Bonds, now famous for his late-career resurgence, has always been a flashy player. He made enemies in Pittsburgh with the Pirates’ management and took to calling Andy Van Slyke the Great White Hope because Slyke was better paid and more well-liked them him.

But for his attitude and talk, Bonds has been miles better than any other player in baseball even when you don’t consider his home runs. He won Gold Gloves seven times out of eight years in the 1990s. He won three MVP awards in the early 1990s and four so far in the twenty-first century. He’s topped 500 stolen bases and has over 2700 career hits.

While Bonds has put up gaudy totals in spurts while maintaining an overall level of excellence, Aaron was consistently at the top of his game from 1955 until 1973…

Yankees’ poor start a case of bad luck

If someone told me a week ago that the Yankees, in their first six games, would score 35 runs, I would be ecstatic. Nearly six runs a game! That’s fantastic.

If that same person told the Yankees, in those first six games, would only surrender 23 runs and just 17 earned runs for an ERA of 3.04, second best in the AL, I would be in shock. The pitching is outperforming all expectations, I would say.

And then, if you told me that the Yankees, with these numbers, would be just 2-4 after what many are considering a disaster of a West Coast road trip, I would say, “Hold your horses. The Yankees have just been the victims of some bad luck to start the season.”

After their 10-1 drubbing of the Los Angeles de Los Angeles this afternoon, that is exactly where things stand. The Yankees, despite a slow offensive start, are averaging nearly six runs per game. Their pitching meanwhile has given up just 17 earned runs. Yet, the team is just 2-4 sitting three games behind those hated Boston Red Sox in the American League East.

While many fans are sounding the alarm, I would like to take a step back and evaluate the first six games of the season. It’s really not that bad.

First, the Yankees defense contributed to one of these unfortunate losses. Had Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano not committed errors in key situations during Wednesday’s 9-4 loss in Oakland, the Yanks would be 3-3. Those errors were responsible for many of those AL-leading six unearned runs the Yankees have surrendered. Tighter would have given the Yankees one of those games.

Second, Joe Torre’s poor managerial decisions contributed to one loss. On Tuesday, in a game tied at 3 in the 9th, Torre went with the distracted Scott Proctor. Proctor, the last pitcher out of the bullpen, had been home dealing with an emergency operation for his young daughter. While Proctor blew the game, Mariano Rivera, the Yanks’ best reliever, watched from the bullpen. A better decision by Torre could bring the Yanks to a hypothetical 4-2.

Finally, against the Angels, the Yankees were just victims of bad, bad luck. During last night’s game, the Angels made four key defensive plays that all saved the game. Had any of those plays not been made, the Yankees could be returning home from the road trip 5-1.

That is not to say that everything is perfect in Yankee-land. We’ve seen the flaws of the Yankees up close and personal. Their defense is shoddy; they’re bench is just plain awful; and the team may be putting too much pressure on themselves to hit home runs. When they returned to basics on Sunday with run-scoring doubles and timely base hits, they won. On Friday and Saturday, everyone went up to the plate looking to hit that game-winning home run.

But for all of their losses, things aren’t looking that bad. They held the A’s, the trendy pick for World Series champions, largely in check for two games. They allowed just 8 runs to the team that defeated them in the playoffs last October. Their suspect pitchers exceeded any expectations at the start of the season. The bullpen looks better than it has in years, and Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina are throwing as well as they ever do.

One could argue that the Yanks won’t face a challenge as tough as the Angels and A’s back to back until they play a series against Toronto to end the month and one against the Red Sox to open May. If that is indeed the way the rest of April plays out, this shaky start will be a distant memory by the time the Yanks and Red Sox square off on May 1.

As the Royals come to town this week for three in Stadium, I would expect a grand homecoming for the Bombers. With a few more odd bounces and missed pop-ups by their opponents, the Yankees’ luck will challenge, and that 2-4 record could turn into a 5-4 mark by Thursday.

Stadium deal a “win-win” for the Yanks and no one else

The Yankees’ season may have started with a West Coast whimper, but back home, George Steinbrenner finally secured the elusive stadium deal he has always wanted.

On Wednesday, the New York City Council overwhelming approved the Yankees’ construction plans for a new stadium just north of the current Yankee Stadium. With this vote, old historic Yankee Stadium is destined for the junkyard while a new McStadium will take its place.

As a lifelong die-hard Yankee fan, I cannot be more disappointed. What’s wrong with Yankee Stadium? Nothing. Sure, it may not have wide concourses or enough luxury boxes to line King George’s pockets with gold, but it is a great place to see a game. It doesn’t need kids’ play areas, special food gimmicks, or trains in the outfield to draw in fans. In fact, a record-setting four million fans agree with me here.

People go to Yankee Stadium to see the outfield where Ruth played, where Mantle played, where the Yankees won World Series and captured American League pennats. It may not be the fatest stadium to get out of after a game, but it’s Yankee Stadium. Nothing can ever replace it. Ask Cubs and Red Sox fans how they feel about their stadiums. It is this same sense of history.

So while I am outraged over a definite lack of Yankee fan uproar over these plans to destroy the House that Ruth Built, I’d like to step back and look at the finances behind this deal…

One week later, Selig rushing to Mitchell’s defense

The Steroid Investigation/Mitchell Commission is less than one week old, but already, Bud Selig is rushing to the defense of his chosen investigator George Mitchell.

Since naming Mitchell the lead on what many view as an important but symbolic attempt to clean up the sport, Selig has come under fire for appointing an insider to investigate an inside problem. Mitchell is a director of the Boston Red Sox and chairman of the Disney Corporation. Disney owns ESPN which is one of baseball’s best business partners. The sports network is also airing a reality show following Barry Bonds, the eye of the steroid storm, as he nears 714 and 755.

Yesterday, speaking in Chicago after giving the White Sox players their World Series rings, Selig tried to deflect the growing groundswell of criticism. “It’s important for somebody who understands what I call the morays of culture of this sport as well as he does. That helps in the investigation. That doesn’t hurt it,” Selig said to the Associated Press.

And right there is the problem with this investigation. One of the many characterizations of baseball throughout the steroid scandal has been of an insular culture that protects their own. The owners, long complacent in the Steroid Era, will not hang their multimillion-dollar investments out to dry. The Players Union won’t throw out any of their members as sacrificial lambs. The culture is one of secrecy, camaraderie and mutual protection.

So along comes Bud, saying that Mitchell understands “the morays of the culture of this sport.” It’s those morays that got baseball in trouble in the first place. Now, Selig is citing those morays as a rationale for appointing an insider to head up the investigation.

Selig continued the defense of Mitchell. “He has complete autonomy. He wouldn’t have taken this without complete autonomy. I mean the fact that we’re friends had nothing to do with it,” Selig said. “He doesn’t come back and talk to me. I don’t want to hear from him. And he can do whatever he wants with whomever he wants. So I don’t know how anybody could have more independence than Sen. Mitchell.”

This is just getting worse for Selig. In two paragraphs, he has managed to destroy any notion of an independent investigation in my mind. The worst way to convince your critics that the investigation you appointed is autonomous is by calling him a friend of yours. But there goes Bud: “I mean the fact that we’re friends has nothing to do with.” Whatever you say, Bud.

Furthermore, Selig also doesn’t want to hear from Mitchell. Well, if I had just appointed a blue ribbon panel to investigate damaging charges of steroid use in the sport of which I’ve been in charge for the last decade and a half, I would probably want to hear about the investigation. Not Bud though.

Maybe he doesn’t want to hear about the investigation because he already knows what Mitchell will find. As an owner and then the commissioner of the sport, I’m sure Selig knew what was going on behind closed doors.

In the end, this investigation is nothing more than a symbolic gesture. Selig had to respond to the charges leveled against the game in Game of Shadows. He did so by appointing a hardcore insider to investigate a game with which he quite familiar. Mitchell may uncover some drug use that would surprise no one, but to level any kind of suspension based on the information found in Mitchell’s investigation, Selig would have to be willing to risk fighting the Players Union in a labor year. He won’t risk damaging the game’s reputation.

It would have been better if Selig could have appointed someone more neutral. But in reality, there was nothing he could do about it. Maybe Mitchell really will expose a huge drug subculture. But no one will be too surprised if he does. Hopefully, we can look ahead to a season and a sport without steroids and without amphetamines and recognize that as damaging as the last few years have been, the game will go on cleaner and more popular than ever. Now if only Selig would find someone other than his friend to name to the investigation.

The Last Nine Innings a one-game chronicle of baseball evolution

For four and a half years, I have tried to forget about the events of Sunday, November 4, 2001. But as a Yankee fan, that will always be impossible. I remember every detail of that game, and I still can feel the shock of watching the impossible become possible as Mariano Rivera proved that every now and then he is human.

It hasn’t helped my psychological healing process too much that baseball writers keep insisting on writing books about that fateful game. First, Buster Olney penned The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty in 2004. Olney’s book was a masterful and personal look into the Yankee clubhouse during their remarkable run from 1996 until Luis Gonzalez’s bloop single in 2001. Olney, a long-time Yankee beat writer, used his clubhouse access to further humanize what was already a very human team and show at what cost success came to the players and coaches from the last baseball dynasty.

Now, Charles Euchner, a city planner and former college professor, has revisited Game 7 of the 2001 World Series in his latest book entitled The Last Nine Innings. Whereas Olney’s book focused on the Yankees, Euchner’s book uses Game 7 of the World Series as a launching point for an examination into the various forces behind the evolution of the modern game of baseball.

First up comes a look at the latest legal strength and conditioning techniques sweeping through Major League Baseball. Euchner uses the experiences of Steve Finley to examine how current knowledge about muscle use and muscle strengthening can lengthen a player’s career. Finley, Euchner explains, works with chiropractor Edythe Heus to strengthen the balancing and tiny core muscles along his spine. Finley doesn’t lift mega-weights, but he has honed his body in such a way that has enabled him to play, for better or for worse, past his 40th birthday.

Finley’s technique is the anti-steroid approach, according to Euchner. Heus’ regimen focuses on “creating a better sense of time and space” instead of focusing on “the execution of an isolated task,” as Euchner claims steroids do. Finley’s training regiment helps him in the field as he dashes and lunges after elusive fly balls, and it helps him focus his swing at the plate.

Next up is a look at the fundamentals of the game: hitting, pitching, and fielding. Euchner breaks down the mental aspects of these tasks. Using extensive interviews with many of the participants of the Yankees-Diamondbacks World Series, Euchner delves into the minds of some of the game’s top players. He discusses Curt Schilling’s penchant for data and scouting reports, Randy Johnson’s efforts at controlling his extremely tall and thin frame early in his career, and Roger Clemens’ picture perfect motion and nearly-insane conditioning work.

Euchner gives the other two areas of the game the same treatment. He looks at positioning fielders, swinging styles and hitting approaches. The book provides a deep examination into the psychology of baseball, an area of the game often ignored by those who follow it. Chuck Knoblauch, one of the key cogs in the Yankee dynasty, was certainly a victim of baseball psychology.

Baseball, all 162 regular season games, 30 spring training games, and the October spring, can be grueling on the players. By examining the states of mind of those playing in the ultimate game of the season, Euchner shows how the sport’s premiere players prepare for an eight-month marathon.

Moving away from the personal, Euchner looks at the sabermetric revolution encompassing the sport. What is refreshing about Euchner’s book is that the stats can co-exist with the psychology. While the players say they do not follow the new stats, it gives those watching the game from General Managers to scouts to journalists and bloggers an insight into the game. He touches upon the never-ending Derek Jeter fielding debate and looks at the improbable events of the bottom of the 9th through the lens of Win Probability. (Tony Womack’s double with one out to tie the score shifted the game in the Diamondbacks favor from 35.4 to 84.3. It was by far the single most important play of the game.)

Finally, Euchner ends with some ruminations on globalization. Alfonso Soriano, a Dominican who played in Japan, was almost the hero of the World Series while a Panamanian took the loss and an American-Cuban delivered the game winning hit. But Euchner does more than give lip service to the ever-expanding international reach of baseball. Many Latin American players sign up for a few thousand dollars to play for the Major League academies. While some Latino players have gone on to be big stars, Americans never hear about the hundreds of players who do not make it and must return to a life of abject poverty. Other Latino players are picked up by Major League teams simply to fill out roster spots in the Minor Leagues. They will never fulfill their Major League dreams or share in the dollars that the sport’s upper levels have to offer.

In the end, Euchner, unfortunately for me, cannot rewrite history, and the last 30 pages of the book were the toughest to read. I kept hoping that maybe this time the roof at the BOB would be open, and Shane Spencer’s deep fly ball would be a game-changing three-run home run. Or that the Yankees would play the infield back and Derek Jeter would catch Gonzalez’s dinky hit. Or that Scott Brosius would complete the double play giving the Yankees a chance to move that infield back with two outs instead of playing up with one. But alas, it was not to be.

Personal feelings aside, Euchner’s book provides insight into the game at a whole new level. While he touches the surface on a variety of topics that could stand on their own in a 250-page book, as Andrew Zimbalist, baseball economist notes on the cover, you will never a game with the same thoughts again. You’ll be eyeing the pitchers, looking for the physics described in the book or watching an outfield twist and turn like a dancer catching up to a seemingly uncatchable deep fly ball.

The Last Nine Innings, by Charles Euchner, is published by Sourcebooks. It is available online at Amazon.com or at your nearest local bookstore.


RSS River Ave. Blues

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