Archive for the ‘Coolhand’ Category

It takes two

September 21, 2005

Sports throughout their history have been marked by great pairs. Be they rivals or long-time teammates; for many great athletes, their careers are defined in comparing them to another. One of the current conversations goes something like, “Sure Peyton Manning is great, but Brady has those rings.” On the other hand, sometimes a franchise is defined by teammates, as the Astros have been personified in the classy play of Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell for years. Pairings are even more crucial in individual sports; witness the current trend to try and find a “rival” for Tiger Woods in professional golf.

Here are ten of my favorite pairs. Add some of your favorites.

10. Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson
This is one of those pairings where you tend to see divine providence at work. Branch Rickey was the greatest general manager baseball has ever seen. He was responsible for developing the farm system in baseball and turning the Cardinals and then Dodgers into premiere franchises. He was also a man of great moral strength and enough daring and clout to take the first step in integrating Major League Baseball.

But he needed the right man to be the test case, or else baseball would claim it had been right all along by not integrating the game. He found it in Jackie Robinson, a man of profound dignity and determination, who was willing to absorb unspeakable abuse for the advancement of his people. Robinson not only held his temper, but played brilliantly, and he, too, revolutionized the game by bringing the stolen base back into the majors. These two remarkable men needed one another, and the nation needed them both.

9. Affirmed and Alydar
The last winner of horse-racing’s triple crown almost didn’t win any of the triple crown races.
In 1978, Affirmed and Alydar staged the greatest duel in racing history when they finished 1-2 in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. Affirmed won a well-contested Kentucky Derby by 1 ½ lengths, and that would prove the most comfortable of his three wins. In the Preakness, the two horses ran neck and neck down the stretch, with Affirmed holding off Alydar’s late charge by a nose.

8. Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier
Hockey’s odd couple. Gretzky was the most skilled player of all time, but looked like he knew more about deferred annuities than putting the puck on the tape. Messier, on the other hand, looked like a hunk of granite that had come to life and put on skates. Together, they were unstoppable. With Messier’s steely glare and Gretzky’s unmatched play, they lead the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups in the 1980’s. While Gretzky is generally cited as the greatest player of all time (or simply “the Great One”), it’s interesting that Messier won two titles after they split up (one in Edmonton and one in New York), while Gretzky never won a cup without Messier

7. Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra
Of course you all know Yogi, star of stage, screen and AFLAC commercial, who is as famous for his unique brand of malapropic wisdom as his hall of fame baseball career. Some of my favorite Yogi-isms include, “It gets late early out there” in reference to how the shadows crept in earlier in left field in Yankee stadium than they did behind home plate, or “That place is so crowded that no one goes there any more,” in reference to a popular restaurant.

What fewer people remember is that Stengel was the originator of this sort of thing in Baseball, exhorting his Yankees teams with “Stengelese.” Here’s a few of Casey’s gems: “There comes a time in a man’s life, and I’ve had plenty of ‘em.” “All right, everybody line up alphabetically according to your height.” “Good pitching will always stop good hitting and vice-versa.”

What absolutely amazes me is that Stengel managed Berra for years. What are the odds that these two characters would not only be around baseball at the same time, but actually end up on the same team. What’s also amazing about them is that despite the seeming lunacy, they were both the best at what they did, winning several World Series together and both winding up in the Hall of Fame.

6. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain
These guys are interesting to me because each was clearly superior to the other, depending on which standard you used to measure them. Chamberlain was simply a physical freak; a man who physically dominated his league in such a way that he set scoring and rebounding marks that no one has come close to matching. Not only did he famously score 100 points in one game, but he also averaged over 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds a game that season. Nor was that his highest rebounding average; he averaged 27.2 boards the year before that.

Russell, on the other hand, just won. On any level with any team, Russell couldn’t be beaten. After leading the San Francisco Dons to two NCAA championships and winning a gold medal on the ‘56 Olympic team, he won 11 NBA titles with the Boston Celtics. While Wilt racked up the statistics, Russell controlled the game from the defensive end, using blocked shots and rebounding to lead his teams to victory. Russell’s no nonsense demeanor also contrasted with Wilt’s flamboyant style, and underscored what made the two men different both on and off the court.

5. Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras
Another case of contrasting styles. Agassi and Sampras were the face of American tennis for over a decade. Agassi is remembered for his wild fashions and high-profile dating life as a younger player, while Sampras was often cited for being too dull to watch despite his excellence. Sampras was clearly the better player, amassing 14 grand slam titles and edging Agassi 20-14 head-to-head, but Agassi has won all four grand slams, something Pete was unable to do. Sampras also beat Agassi in three of their four meetings in Grand Slam finals. As both players aged, they seemed to become more alike in personality. One of Sampras’ defining moments came in an emotional Australian Open quarterfinal in 1995, when Sampras defeated Jim Courier despite breaking into tears after hearing earlier in the day that his coach, Tim Gullickson, had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Agassi, on the other hand, has put his youthful antics behind him and is now celebrated for carrying himself with Sampras-like class.

4. John Stockton and Karl Malone
The Bagwell and Biggio of basketball, Stockton and Malone teamed together in Utah for 18 seasons. Despite both having Hall of Fame careers, they had the misfortune of being in their prime during the Michael Jordan era, and never achieved an NBA title. Stockton ended with over 15,000 assists (Mark Jackson in next with a little over 10,000), and probably could have made it to the Hall based solely on his assists to Malone, who finished with over 30,000 points. No pair of teammates in recent sports has been so associated with a team, city, and one another as Stockton an Malone. So popular were they in Utah, that there’s a car dealership in Sandy, Utah named “Stockton to Malone Honda.” Though there’s some truth to the allegations that they played dirty, they were each fierce competitors and brilliant performers.

3. Joe Montana and Jerry Rice
Though quarterbacks have been tossing balls to wide receivers for decades now, there aren’t really too many great QB-receiver combos. In fact, Rice and Steve Young may be the second best there is. These two clearly were the greatest; Rice being the best receiver of all time, and Montana on the very short list for best quarterback ever. They each won four Super Bowls; three as teammates. Both came up their biggest in the clutch. Before New England made an annual event of close Super Bowls, one of the few to ever live up to the hype was Super Bowl 23, when Montana led the 49ers down the field in the final two minutes to come from behind and beat the Cincinnati Bengals. Montana found Rice repeatedly coming down the field before getting it to John Taylor in the end zone to win the game. Though Taylor caught the final pass, the drive, as the 49ers success, was defined by the greatest passing combo in history.

2. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird
These two pretty much defined basketball when I was growing up. Magic and Birdy is the rare rivalry where you pretty much feel both guy came out ahead. Though Magic has the edge in titles, five NBA championships to Bird’s three as well as his famous NCAA win over Bird, there’s not a feeling that Magic is somehow clearly better than Bird. It’s hard to think of two players in any sport universally held in higher regard. Each was known for unbelievable passion and getting the most out of their abilities. They also took the NBA to new heights and paved the way for Michael Jordan to become the most famous man on the planet. Fittingly, they finally got to play together on the 1992 Dream Team, helping lead the greatest team ever assembled to a gold medal.

1. Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio
This is my favorite sporting “pair” of all time; bar none. It boggles the mind when you begin to think about these to. The Splendid Splinter and The Yankee Clipper; Teddy Ballgame and Joltin’ Joe; The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived, and the Most Perfect Player Who Ever Lived.

What fascinates me about these guys is that each one, in his own way, is a perfect symbol for America; especially the America of their era. Here you have Ted Williams; gregarious, loud, prickly, boastful, handsome, and simply the best there was. You have to understand, Ted Williams WAS John Wayne. John Wayne just played John Wayne in movies, but Williams lived it. The only reason he doesn’t have about 700 home runs and 3,500 hits is that he did two tours of duty with the Marines in the prime of his career. And he wasn’t just touring with them and playing baseball games for PR, he was a fighter pilot, and he was a great fighter pilot. However, excelling at these two things wasn’t enough for Williams; how many of you knew he was also a Hall of Fame fisherman? Why? Because he was Ted Williams, and that’s what Ted Williams did.

Then you have DiMaggio, Williams foil in every respect. Intensely private, reticent, but a man of immense grace and dignity; Joe DiMaggio was the “strong, silent type” come to life. Joe D also embodied success, winning five World Series in a row with the Yankees, and pride, deciding to retire from baseball at the first sign of his skills eroding rather than play too long. And then there was Marilyn Monroe. DiMaggio became a legend far beyond his considerable skill and accomplishments. Joe’s presence was so huge that years after he retired, Simon and Garfunkel lamented “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”

Their careers paralleled one another. DiMaggio played for the Yankees; baseball’s imperial dynasty, while Williams starred for the Red Sox; The Yanks’ rival and a symbol of futility. Not only did DiMaggio and the Yanks finish ahead of the Sox in the standings every year, DiMaggio also denied Williams personal success. In 1941, Williams became the last man to hit .400, but was still denied the MVP because DiMaggio had a 56-game hitting streak and, of course, the Yankees won the World Series. Then there’s the comparison of skills. Williams was the superior hitter, but was indifferent as a base-runner and defender, while DiMaggio was as complete a player as the game has ever seen. In every way, these men seemed to be different, and yet each was the very best in his own way. Two of my favorite figures in the rich history of baseball.

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You been playing the foose-ball?!

September 10, 2005

Our thoughts and prayers, as always with the Katrina victims. Perhaps this column can serve as a pleasant diversion.

To celebrate my return to the houseflies, I’m offering employee pricing to everyone. If you can find a better on-line sports blog, buy it!

NFL Preview

I follow football significantly less than baseball, but I still keep a pretty close eye on it. Also, with the topsy-turvy nature of the NFL, it’s hard to know who’ll do what from one year to the next. That being said, here are my best guesses.

AFC North

1. Pittsburgh Steelers — The Steelers will again key off their running game and defense to make things easier for QB Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben lost his favorite target in Plaxico Burress, but Hines Ward is still around, and Antwan Randle-El should slide nicely into the #2 receiver slot. The defense was the best in football last year and didn’t lose any key parts, so look for a repeat by the team from the steel city
2. Baltimore Ravens — The Ravens defense, led by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, rivals the Steelers, and their running game should punish opponents this year. That was enough for them to win the Super Bowl a few years back, but they insist on getting production out of Kyle Boller. For about three years now, this has been the year that Boller is going to break out. However, his receivers are still pretty pedestrian, and my bet is he’s not going to give Baltimore enough to overtake Pittsburgh.
3. Cincinnati Bengals — With a few breaks, the Bengals could finish second and contend for a wildcard berth. Their offense is potent; Rudi Johnson is a durable franchise back, and Carson Palmer should find Chad Johnson regularly. The questions come on defense, where the talent is thin. Coach Marvin Lewis should be able to maximize the talent he has, but there’s probably just not enough there to get them to the playoffs.
4. Cleveland Browns — The Browns took a step in the right direction by purging itself of Butch Davis and bringing in Romeo Crennell to run things. As an indicator of how disastrous the Davis era was, his first three first-round picks, Tim Couch, Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren, are all off the team, Couch being out of footbal. Crennell commands instant respect, but it will take a few years to restock the bare cupboards. Rookie WR Braylon Edwards may provide some excitement in an otherwise long season.

AFC East1. New England Patriots — It’s tempting to pick the Pats to fall this year, what with Romeo Crennell and Charley Wiess and Ty Law leaving and Tedy Bruschi hurt. However, they still have Belichick and Brady and that wonderful system that wins with or without frontline running backs and wide receivers or with their wide receivers playing cornerback. They’re just smarter than everyone else, and I think that’ll be enough to win the east again.
2. New York Jets — I like this team a lot. If they can get off to a decent start this year, they should cruise to a playoff spot. They added Ty Law to an already solid defense, and Lavernues Coles comes home to a healthy Chad Pennington. The one concern is Curtis Martin’s age, and now there’s no Lamont Jordan as an insurance policy.
3. Buffalo Bills — The Bills are a team you want to like. They’re defense is absolutely suffocating, and their running game should be explosive with Willis McGahee. Yet, I’m not sold on J.P. Lohsman at QB. The young guy will probably make just enough mistakes to keep this team around 7 or 8 wins.
4. Miami Dolphins — Yikes. Well, Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor are still around, so the defense will probably be okay for the fish. The running game will probably be all right as well, especially once Ricky gets back and in shape to complement Ronnie Brown. However, all that will matter very little if they actually expect to go through a full season with A. J. Feely or Gus Frerotte as their quarterback.
AFC South

1. Indianapolis Colts — Probably the clearest choice of any of the division winners. Probably their best chance to get past New England to the Super Bowl. Marcus Pollard’s the only loss from last year’s ridiculous offense, and Dallas Clark should step in nicely to make up for his production. With Corey Simon clogging the middle on defense, there should be more freedom for pass-rushing banshees Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. 13 wins minimum.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars — Very talented team. Fred Taylor is an elite back when healthy, and Byron Leftwich is an emerging young quarterback. I am completely on the edge of my seat to see what they do with Matt Jones; you have to take about five shots down the field with this guy every game. Defense is solid; anchored by huge tackes John Henderson and Marcus Stroud. Could be a playoff team if they can solve the mystery of the Texans.
3. Houston Texans — Very similar to Jacksonville; talented, but you don’t know what you’ll get from week to week. This is the year they find out what they have in David Carr and Dominick Davis; are they players that can lead this team deep into the playoffs in coming years. One player there’s no doubt about is Andre Johnson; who could be the best receiver in football in a few years.
4. Tennesse Titans — They cut about 10 guys in salary cap purges, so they’re thin at a lot of positions. Running game should be good with Chris Brown and Travis Henry. Steve McNair’s health is a concern, but not too much with capable backup Billy Volek waiting in the wings. What’s more pressing is whether Drew Bennett can perform as the number one receiving option.

AFC West1. Kansas City Chiefs — This is the closest division in the NFL and any of the four could win it. I pick the Chiefs because I think they’re defense will be passable and that should be enough to let their offense win games. Rookie Derrick Johnson looks terrific, and Patrick Surtain will help shore up what has been a dreadful defensive unit. The offensive line is still the best in football, and Priest Holmes and Tony Gonzalez will score a ton for them.
2. San Diego Chargers — Do you trust Drew Brees to perform like that again? Will the defense overachieve a second straight year? These questions keep me from picking the Chargers to win. What you can expect are huge years from Ladanian Tomlinson, the best running back in the game, and Antonio Gates, who is passing Gonzalez and Shockey to be the league’s best tight end. 3. Denver Broncos — Probably should win the division every year, but they seem to find a way to lose when it counts the most. Jake Plummer will throw for about 4,000 yards and 20 or so interceptions. Mike Anderson or whoever will have 1,500 yards. And they might sneak out a wildcard birth and get pounded by the Colts again. By the way, strangest move of the offseason? Denver picking up Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren from the Browns, where they did nothing but stink.
4. Oakland Raiders — This is a very sexy-looking team; Lamont Jordan at running back to go with Moss and Porter at wideout. Warren Sapp and Charles Woodson on defense. Should be fun to watch, but with a high self-destruction factor. I’ve never had much faith in Kerry Collins, and I don’t think Norv Turner’s a strong enough personality to reign in all the egos.
NFC North

1. Minnesota Vikings — Will the Vikings be better without Randy Moss? Seems ridiculous, but I think they will play closer to their talent level this year. They’ve been the most talented team in the division for a few years now, but always find ways to lose out to Green Bay. They should be a little better on defense, and that will probably be enough to win this division.
2. Green Bay Packers — Does father time finally catch up to Brett this year? He showed signs of being erratic last season, throwing a lot of picks. Combined with Ahman Green’s penchant for fumbling, they’ve got a big turnover problem. Also, they were just dreadful on defense, particularly in the secondary where Ahmad Carroll is not representing the Hogs too well.
3. Detroit Lions — Joey Harrington, David Carr, Byron Leftwich; which would you take out of the lot? I might go Leftwich, but I’m happy with Carr. Harrington probably sits on the hottest seat, having three exceptional young receivers to pass to, but he’s also been the most inconsistent . This team should be fun, but mistakes will keep them around 6 or 7 wins.
4. Chicago Bears — Does any team have worse luck? God bless Rex Grossman, who will lose another season to injury; rookie Kyle Orton starts in his place. Should run okay with enigmatic Thomas Jones and rookie Ced Benson. However, defense is where they’ll really shine, with a solid unit led by Urlacher and safety Mike Brown.

NFC East

1. Philadelphia Eagles — Along with the Patriots, the Eagles prove that system is what matters in the NFL. With or without TO, they should have no problem rolling to another division title. They have a great defense, especially their secondary which may be the best in football. McNabb’s gotten by with subpar receivers most of his career; he an Bryant Westbrook should be enough to win the East; TO’s just gravy until they get to the playoffs.
2. Dallas Cowboys — Should be much better with a full year of Julius Jones and Drew Bledsoe stepping in for the ancient Vinny Testaverde. Jason Whitten is an emerging talent at tight end, and Bill Parcells will make due with their wide receivers. DeMarcus Ware will challenge Derrick Johnson for defensive rookie of the year. Drew Henson; the rare athlete who gets to be a complete bust in two sports.
3. New York Giants — As Eli goes, so will go the Giants. The offensive line was truly offensive last year; they’ll have to do a better job in pass protection for the Giants to win much. Eli will have more tools to work with, the Giants having added Plaxico Burress and hopefully having a healthy Jeremy Shockey all year. Tiki Barber is coming off a monster year, but is old by running back standards. How much is left in the tank?
4. Washington Redskins — This team has the pretty good talent to go with a hall of fame coach, but somehow the total is less than the sum of the parts. Patrick Ramsey would probably be pretty good if they just let him work, but after fighting against every ex-Gator quarterback around under Spurrier and backing up the atrocious Mark Brunnell last year, you can’t blame him if his confidence is shot. Can they get more touchdowns out of Clinton Portis? Will Shawn Taylor stay out of trouble enough to become the best safety in football? Don’t bet on it.

NFC South

1. Atlanta Falcons — Will Michael Jenkins emerge as the go-to threat Peerless Price never became? Will T.J. Duckett replace Warrick Dunn as the main running threat? None of that really matters; all that matters in Atlanta is number 7. Put him in a West Coast offense or a vertical attack; let him run or rein him in; it doesn’t really matter. Michael Vick will probably never put up the passing stats of a Daunte Culpepper, but once again he’ll be playing later into January.
2. Carolina Panthers — Nearly made the playoffs last year after a dreadful start; should rebound nicely this year if they can stay healthy. Their defensive front four is absolutely devastating, led by Julius Peppers who will shortly replace Ray Lewis as the best defensive player in football. Running game is also very potent with Steven Davis and Deshawn Foster, and Jake Delhomme is one of the great leaders in football. Should push for a playoff spot.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Was it only three years ago that the Bucs were hoisting the Super Bowl trophy and people were talking about John “four hours of sleep” Gruden as the next Bill Walsh? How times have changed. Gruden has been burdened with “total control” in Tampa, the holy grail that every coach dreams of only to find it filled with poison. Really nothing about this team to get excited about.
4. New Orleantonio Saints — The Saints are a team that grossly underachieves under the best of circumstances, and now they are being asked to play in absolutely impossible ones. Of course, there’s a chance this could galvanize them like nothing else could, but my guess is they will suffer through a long, distracted season. Best of wishes on their long road.

NFC West

1. St. Louis Rams — Mike Martz will scheme and plot and try his best to cause this team to self destruct, but, in the end, I think they have too much talent to not win this division. Stephen Jackson is a major talent who should step ably into Marshall Faulk’s shoes, and Kevin Curtis has emerged as their first legitimate 3rd wide receiver since they lost Az-Zahir Hakim. Their defense is uninspiring, but they can probably hold enough teams under 30 to win the weak west.
2. Seattle Seahawks — Another team that grossly underachieves on a yearly basis. Will the wideouts keep putting it on the ground? Matt Hasselbeck is a very nice quarterback, but no one seems to interested in holding on to his passes. Shaun Alexander is one of the three or four best running backs around and may finally get his rushing title this year.
3. Arizona Cardinals — It’s suddenly become sexy to pick the Cardinals to win the NFC West, but it’s going to take a little more than Denny Green to overcome decades of bad karma. I want more than anyone for Kurt Warner to go back to the days when he was the best story in sports, but I think he’ll be a lot closer to Giants Warner than MVP Warner. Bouldin and Fitzgerald are a dynamic receiving tandem, but people have anointed J.J. Arrington a great runner before he’s really done anything. Forgive me if I remain skeptical.
4. San Fransisco 49ers — The worst team in football; bar none. No one else is really even close to as bad as the Niners. Julian Peterson’s a nice player, but that’s about it. Truly sad to see what was the best franchise in sports being completely run into the ground. Where have you gone, Joe Montana-o? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Whoo-whoo-whoo.

Alma Mater, Hail

If you were to put together an NFL team comprised of alumni of one college, who would have the best team? You can come at this a few different ways. The Miami Hurricanes have produced the most elite players in recent years:

Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Shawn Taylor, Santana Moss, Andre Johnson, Jeremy Shockey, Bryant McKinney, Jonathan Vilma, Warren Sapp, et. al.

Texas can also boast a number of Pro Bowl-types. (Priest Holmes, Roy Williams, Ricky Williams, etc.). The problem with these teams is twofold; no depth and no quarterback. You could play Ken Dorsey and Chris Simms, but would you want to?

The deepest teams are mostly Big 10 and SEC schools, with the addition of Nebraska and Florida State. The elite Big 10 programs (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, and, oh yeah, I was counting Notre Dame as a Big 10 school) and SEC programs (Tennesse, Florida, Georgia, Auburn, LSU [not Alabama, by the way]) all have about 25-40 alumni in the NFL. Florida State had the most I found with 43. Oh yeah, and North Carolina has about 30, strangely enough. I guess Mack Brown really can recruit.

So which team would win the most? To me the question boils down to one position — quarterback. You could win some games with Brad Johnson tossing it around on a Florida State squad. Warrick Dunn could run for you and Lavernues Coles can catch passes. I suppose Deion Sanders could still cover some guys. But if your seriously putting a team together it’s got to be either Tennessee or Michigan, because they’re the only colleges to produce elite quarterbacks that also have enough other players to field a good squad. Here’s your respective teams.

Michigan Tennessee
QB Tom Brady Peyton Manning
RB Anthony Thomas/ Jamal Lewis/
Chris Perry Travis Henry
FB ? ?
OL Jon Jansen Chad Clifton
Jon Runyan Cosey Coleman
Jeff Backus Trey Teague
David Baas Anthony Herrerra
Jonathan Goodwin Fred Weary
TE Jerame Tuman Jason Witten
WR Braylon Edwards Peerless Price
Amani Toomer/ Dante Stallworth/
David Terrell Cedrick Wilson
DL James Hall John Henderson
Alain Kashama Albert Haynesworth
? Shaun Ellis
? Leonard Little
LB Ian Gold Al Wilson
Dhani Jones Eddie Moore
Cato June Kevin Burnett
CB/S Charles Woodson Dale Carter
Ty Law Terry Fair
Marlin Jackson Deon Grant
? Rashad Baker
K Jay Feely ?
P ? Dustin Colquitt

Well, that certainly took a lot of time. But I’m sure you’ll rest easier knowing Dustin Colquitt went to Tennessee. So, would Manning have a better chance of beating Brady with these teams rather than their current ones? I’d say so. You have to give Tennesse the advantage at every position but cornerback and maybe linebacker and wide receiver (maybe). And, yeah, kicker. But Tennessee’s got a big advantage at running back, tight end and defensive line.

Well, I’m sure that was completely fascinating, but these are the questions that occupy my sick mind.

Also, bit of trivia. Which three schools have produced two current starting NFL quarterbacks. Michigan’s one, with Brian Griese starting for Tampa. Joey Harrington and A.J. Feely give Oregon two, but the wildcard is Marshall, which has Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich. If and when Brett Favre retires, Cal will have two with Aaron Rodgers and Kyle Boller. Oh yeah, I guess Fresno State counts as well with David Carr and Trent Dilfer, who’s starting in Cleveland. That’s four, then.

Well, it’s good to be back. Best wishes to all.

Oh yeah, playoff picks.

AFC Wilcards: Jets and Ravens

NFC Wildcards: Cowboys and Panthers

Super Bowl: Colts over Eagles

Bernie and the Brewers

June 30, 2005

A Sorry Sight

It’s not quite watching Willie Mays play for the Mets, which I’m told was just dreadful, but watching the devolution of Bernie Williams as a ballplayer is pretty sad. Bernie, once a gold-glove outfielder, now looks lost in centerfield (when he actually gets to play out there). His play is so bad the Yanks are experimenting with Tony Womack in center. His hitting has also been paltry. He hit as well as .333 as recently as 2002, but is now stuck at .243. Once a fixture in the middle of the Yankees’ lineup, he is now relegated mostly to pinch hit duties for the ninth-place hitter.

This isn’t especially newsworthy; watching a once great player’s skills erode is one of the poignant countermelodies to sports’ celebration of youth. Yet, watching Bernie struggle seemed to me symbolic of the death of the great Yankees teams from the late 90’s. Bernie was part of the home-grown heart of that club, and did as much as Derek Jeter to produce for it in the postseason. Those teams had their share of free agents, but at the heart of it was a chemistry and professionalism that seems utterly absent from the current team. There was the fire of Paul O’Neill, the charisma of Jeter, the mystique of Mo Rivera, and the class of Williams. Williams wasn’t Joe DiMaggio, but he did carry himself with Joe D’s dignity and was as responsible as anyone in winning four rings in five years. He’s probably not a hall of famer, but he was a great player on some great teams and deserves to go out better than this.

Serving notice

If the Milwaukee Brewers are ever, ever going to be good, it will happen in the next several years. This is because perhaps the two premiere hitting prospects in the game have joined the Brewers and are ready to begin their assault on NL pitchers. Ricky Weeks and Prince Fielder both provided a taste of what’s to come this Sunday in an interleague showdown with the Twins this Saturday. Weeks, a second base prospect stepped in against Johan Santana waggling his bat like Gary Sheffield (who also began his career as a middle infielder with the Brewers), and proceeded to deposit a pitch from baseball’s best pitcher in the leftfield seats at Miller Park. Later in the same game, Fielder, who’s built like daddy Cecil but swings from the left side, hit a three run homer the opposite way off lefty reliever Jesse Crain.

These kids look like the real deal at the plate, and could form a Yount/Molitor-like foundation for the Beermen to build around. With Carlos Lee already swinging a hot stick and Ben Sheets anchoring the rotation, there’s reason for hope in Milwaukee; strange as that seems.

All Stars

Here’s my feeble attempt at an All Star roster for each league, including one from each team. You get a 32 man roster on both sides, apparently, so here goes:

NL

C Paul LoDuca, Fla; Mike Piazza, NYM
1B Derrek Lee, ChC; Albert Pujols, StL; Nick Johnson, Wash
2B Jeff Kent, LA; Chase Utley, Phi
3B Morgan Ensberg, Hou; Aramis Ramirez, ChC
SS Felipe Lopez, Cin; Bill Hall, Mil
OF Andruw Jones, Atl; Miguel Cabrera, Fla; Preston Wilson, Col
OF Bobby Abreu, Phi; Jim Edmonds, StL; Moises Alou, SF
OF Carlos Lee, Mil; Jason Bay, Pit
P Dontrelle Willis, Fla; Roger Clemens, Hou; Pedro Martinez, NYM; Roy Oswalt, Hou; Livan Hernandez, Wash; Chad Cordero, Wash; Jason Isringhausen, StL; Billy Wagner, Phi; Brandon Webb, Ari; Jake Peavey, SD; Adam Eaton, SD; Cris Carpenter, StL; John Smoltz, StL

Close call between Matt Morris and Smoltz; gave it to Smoltz on ERA and wins. Usually more closers get picked, but there aren’t that many great ones this year. I don’t see how managers do this when they’re saddled with the ridiculous people fans vote on. I’d start Albie at DH. Cliff Floyd and Pat Burrell were hard to leave off, but I had to take a Rockie and Giant.

AL

DH David Ortiz, Bos; Travis Hafner, Cle
C Jason Varitek, Bos; Brandon Inge, Det
1B Mark Teixeira, Tex; Paul Konerko, CWS; Mike Sweeney, KC
2B Brian Roberts, Bal; Alfonso Soriano, Tex; Jorge Cantu, TB
3B Alex Rodriquez, NYY; Melvin Mora, Bal; Eric Chavez, Oak
SS Miguel Tejada, Bal; Michael Young, Tex
OF Vladimir Guerrero, LAA; Gary Sheffield, NYY
OF Manny Ramirez, Bos; Torii Hunter, Min
OF Johnny Damon, Bos; Jermaine Dye, CWS
P Roy Halladay, Tor; Mark Buehrle, CWS; Kenny Rogers, Tex; Jon Garland, CWS; Bartolo Colon, Ana; Eddie Guardado, Sea; Bob Wickman, Cle; Joe Nathan, Min; Matt Clement, Bos; Johan Santana, Min; Dustin Hermanson, CWS

One benefit of playing in KC is that Mike Sweeney’s virtually assured an All-Star spot every year. Biggest name missing? Ichiro! Just having an off year. Probably too many Rangers; Arlington inflates stats nearly as bad as Coors Field. Still, Teixeira, Young and Soriano are all excellent players, and I left off Dellucci and Mench. Lots of Sox of both colors.

NBA Draft

I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention, but a couple of things stood out to me. Ike Diogu at #9 is puzzling. He’s a solid power forward, but I think Sean May is clearly a better prospect and May went at 13. I didn’t see him in the first round on anyone’s draft board. I don’t understand the Rockets picking Luther Head at all. They have so many 2-guards they had to shift McGrady to the 3, so naturally they pick another shooting guard. Also, they could badly use a physical power forward, and Wayne Simien and Jason Maxiell were still on the board. I just don’t get it.

Big Shot Bob

June 23, 2005

Has there ever been anything quite like Robert Horry in sports history? The guy is just uncanny, and he proved it again Sunday night, singlehandedly pulling San Antonio’s (and, more particularly, Tim Duncan’s) fat out of the fire with yet another unconscious shooting display. There have been other clutch performers on Horry’s level, but they are usually superstars, Jordan, Bird, Reggie Miller; Derek Jeter or Tom Brady in other sports. However, I can’t ever remember another role player who sleepwalks his way through the season yet repeatedly finds a way to become a superstar in the postseason. And it’s not just hitting big shots; it’s also rebounds, passes and superior defense. The only somewhat-analogous player I can think of is Jim Leyritz, who had a knack for coming off the bench and hitting huge postseason homers for the Yankees and Padres. Still; just for the length of time he’s been doing it, I think Horry stands alone. Any one else like that come to mind?

And then, a strange lack of clutch

It was strange to see Tiger Woods miss big putts down the stretch Sunday (though he certainly had nothing to feel ashamed of considering the epic meltdown of Retief Goosen). You expect a competitor like Woods to stick it into overdrive when he’s that close to a major victory. It does make you wonder a little bit, though, since Tiger has still yet to come from behind to win a major. Not to say that he can’t pull out close victories; his playoff win over Dimarco in the Masters showed that. However, even then, he was in the driver’s seat most of the day, and wasn’t the pursuer like he was at the Open. It’ll be interesting to see how Tiger performs in similar situations in the years to come.

A hidden treasure

If you have some free time and are interested in learning some of baseball’s history, I’d recommend checking out anything you can connected with Buck O’Neil. O’Neil is a baseball hall-of-famer who played with Negro League legends like Satchell Paige and Josh Gibson back in the 30’s and 40’s. He’s also a masterful storyteller, and he makes the life of the Negro Leagues come to life in telling stories of the legendary players of that time. There is obviously great tragedy associated with the Negro Leagues, but there’s also a richness that even the major leagues at that time can’t quite match. Part of it comes from the fact that the leagues didn’t keep the same statistical records of the majors back then, so legends are more free to grow. Was Satchell Paige the best pitcher that ever lived? Was Josh Gibson as great a hitter as Babe Ruth? Sadly, we’ll never know, but it’s wonderful to hear the stories of that time. There are some websites where you can check out interviews with O’Neil. Wonderful stuff.

http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/baseball/shadowball/oneil.html
http://www.annonline.com/interviews/960715/

Feeling the Rush

June 9, 2005

I am currently in the bowels of that infernal land known as reviewing for the bar. I’m sorry to make excuses, as I know my fellow bloggers are also busy, but I’ll give you the bare bones of what I was going to write about, and you can respond how you like.

I thought I’d throw in a pigskin article to break the midsummer monotony. I was going to discuss what makes a good QB, then give you my top five of all time. Instead, I’ll just give you the list:

1. John Elway
2. Joe Montana
3. Brett Favre
4. Dan Marino
5. Peyton Manning

Feel free to post your list and/or what you think separates the immortals from the pack.

Back in the Saddle

June 2, 2005

After an unannounced hiatus, I’ll grace you with another week’s thoughts on the sporting world.

My All-Star Ballot after May

AL
C Jason Varitek
1B Mark Teixeira
2B Brian Roberts
3B Alex Rodriguez
SS Miguel Tejada
OF Johnny Damon
OF David Dellucci
OF Manny Ramirez
P Roy Halladay

Tino has been nice for the Yankees, but Teixeira has better numbers across the board and has 0 errors to Martinez’s 8. . . . Carlos Guillen tops Tejada in average, but Tejada produces more runs and is far more valuable. . . . The OF is weak in the AL this year; Ichiro’s down a little, and Vlad’s hurt; Man-Ram is actually having an off year average-wise, but still leads AL outfielders in HR and RBI. . . . Halladay has more wins and a better ERA than Johann Santana, but Santana has 91 K’s to Roy’s 57. They are clearly the top two pitcher in the AL this season.

NL

C Ramon Hernandez
1B Derrek Lee
2B Jeff Kent
3B Troy Glaus
SS Cesar Izturis
OF Miguel Cabrera
OF Bobby Abreu
OF Jim Edmonds
P Pedro Martinez

Is Derrek Lee the most unexpected player to utterly dominate a league in recent memory? He leads the league in all the triple-crown categories and has 9 steals to boot. He’s also handsome and fields a slick first base. Maybe Ken Caminiti that one year or Kevin Mitchell in ’89. . . . 2B and SS could have easily gone to Grudzielanek and Eckstein, but the Cards will have two undeserving starters in Pujols and Rolen, so I’ll have my petty revenge. . . . Edmonds gets the nod over Dunn because he’s the superior fielder and Dunn just strikes out too much. . . . Clemens or Dontrelle could easily have been selected to start, but it’s hard to pick a player with 3 wins as a starter, and Pedro is leading the league in K’s and WHIP.

Come again?

A couple nights ago the genii on Baseball Tonight said something to the effect of how ARod was “clearly” the MVP of the AL so far. Pardon? How ’bout clearly not? ARod leads the AL in HR and RBI, which is very significant, but he trails Baltimore’s Brian Roberts, the current AL batting leader, in nearly every other significant category. Roberts has a higher OPS, more hits, more extra-base hits and more stolen bases than Rodriguez. Also, Roberts, while playing a tougher position than ARod and having nearly twice as many chances as ARod, has 4 errors to 8 for Rodriquez, who has inexplicably become a poor fielder after a sparkling 1st season at 3B. Add in the fact that the Orioles are 5 games up on the Yankees, and Roberts is clearly the most deserving candidate.

This is hardly surprising, though, as power hitters have always gotten the nod over top-of-the-order types in MVP voting. Probably the most egregious example of this happened in 1987 when George Bell and Andre Dawson were given the MVP’s over Alan Trammell and Ozzie Smith, in Dawson’s case despite playing for a last-place team. There are rare exceptions (Rickey Henderson beating out Cecil Fielder in ’90 comes to mind), but power hitters tend to get a bonus when it comes to the MVP vote.

It is free after all

The Spurs just wrapped up their series against the Suns, which does not prove you can’t run in the NBA playoffs, but just proves that the best defensive team usually will win in a given series. The Spurs scored over 100 in all of their wins; so there’s nothing wrong with a little offense, but you do have to play some defense, and that, more than an inability to score, sunk the Suns.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. The Spurs might have swept the Suns if not for one of the more bizarre phenomena in all of sports — the inability of otherwise good shooters to hit free throws. In this case the culprit was Tim Duncan; who is, in other circumstances among the best shooting big men in the game. He routinely knocks in jumper from the top of the key or the elbow with a 7-footer in his face, but can only toss in from the charity stripe at a 67% clip.

Maybe it’s the fact he uses the glass so much on his jumpers or maybe it’s his unusual over the head shooting style. I honestly am baffled by the whole thing. It’s especially puzzling with Duncan, since you usually associate free-throw shooting with diligent practice and Duncan is otherwise the model of professionalism. Likewise, you don’t think of Duncan as one to be fazed by the pressure of stepping to the line. Bizarre.

Duncan’s not alone, though, on his own team is Bruce Bowen, who’s lead the league in 3-PT% before (2003), yet shoots free throws at 63%. Does this make any sense at all?

The Ghost of Denny

May 18, 2005

Before we get into the real stuff, a couple random deals.

1. Have you seen the new commercial for the i-Pod or portable music device of some sort with “Why can’t we be friends?” playing in the background? The whole premise is there’s these fans of rival teams (Yankees-Red Sox and Dodgers-Giants) who decide they can set aside their differences because they both use the same mp3 player. What’s weird is in part of the commercial this Angels fan glares at Cal Ripken wearing his Orioles uniform before they get all chummy due to their peacemaking accessories. Did I somehow miss out on the great Angels-Oriolez rivalry? What’s this all about? Is there bad blood over the haloes picking up Bobby Grich and Doug Decinces in the early 80’s? That’s just odd.

2. There seems to be a perception, perhaps due to the Jim Rome show, that sports fans can’t also be sci fi geeks, but I intend to debunk that Wednesday at midnight to see the opening of Revenge of the Sith. And yes, I was also at the midnight premiere of Return of the King a couple of Christmases ago. If it makes me uncool, so be it, Jedi.

On with the Chlorophyll . . .

What’s the most unbreakable single season record in baseball? The one that probably comes to mind most readily is DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, for a few reasons. 1) We all know about it and 2) it’s stood for over 60 years, and 3) every so often some guy gets around 30 games, thus bringing the record back into our consciousness. This record is very close to unbreakable, but I would give someone like Ichiro an outside shot, if they caught the right breaks.

Some other notable records:
Avg. Hugh Duffy .440; Nap Lajoie .427
OBP. Barry Bonds .609
SLG. Barry Bonds .863
Runs Billy Hamilton 192 Babe Ruth 177
Hits Ichiro Suzuki 262
2B Earl Webb 67
3B Chief Wilson 36
HR Barry Bonds 73
RBI Hack Wilson 191
SB Hugh Nichol 138 Rickey Henderson 130
ERA Tim Keefe 0.85 Dutch Leonard 0.96
WHIP Pedro Martinez 0.74
Saves Bobby Thigpen 57
K Matt Kilroy 513 Nolan Ryan 313

The stats with two names listed indicate a 19th century record and the later 20th century record. Most historians agree the 20th century game is a more mature version, and so you’ll get some anomalies in the 19th century like Kilroy’s 513 strikeouts. My favorite of these is probably Chief Wilson’s 36 triples. Cristian Guzman had 20 in 2000, but no one’s seriously threatened this record in some time. I doubt it’ll be broken in our lifetime, but if Willy Taveras can learn to hit it in the gap in Minute Maid . . . well, a guy can dream.

However, all the most unbreakable single season records in baseball history belong to 19th century pitchers. All the rest of these are cute, but my all time champion is Charley “Old Hoss” Radbourn’s record of 59 games won in 1884. (He also completed 73 games that year, just shy of Will White’s record of 75). “Old Hoss” has to get my vote as the most understated nickname in history; I’m not sure what they’d call him nowadays, other than sir. Kind of like Albert “Decent” Pujols or something.

59 games won. This is, by the way, undoubtedly the most valuable season anyone has had ever — pitcher, hitter, whatever. The top 24 spots on the list for games won in a season all belong to 19th century guys, mainly because they were all working in two-man rotations and there were no real relief pitchers. As you ease into the 20th century you get some remarkable perfomances here and there, but most of these are also really old — Jack Chesbro won 41 in 1904, Ed Walsh won 40 in 1908. Again, these guys were working in a different era, three man rotations, lots of complete games; so it’s probably not fair to compare today’s pitcher with these ancient ones.

The standard that does loom for pitchers is the 31 games won by Denny McLain in 1968. This was still a different era than our own; we’d made it up to four-man rotations and there was more relief work but nothing like the extensive 6- or 7-man bullpens that prevail in today’s game. Still, this is a number that is, yes, daunting, but at least conceivable; if somebody got the right breaks and had an excellent bullpen and was absolutely dealing all year, well it seems conceivable that somebody could chase down 30 wins.

This standard is like DiMaggio’s or maybe more properly like Ted Williams’ .406 in ’41. Every few years some pitcher will cruise into an All-Star break with 15 or 16 wins and people begin to wonder if 30 is a possibility. I remember a few years back Pedro started 14-1 or something and people started to talk. And, of course there was the year Smoltz won 24. Bob Welch won 27 as recently as 1990.

This year, Jon Garland and Dontrelle Willis are off to red-hot starts, stirring thoughts in the mind that well, maybe . . . Garland is 8 for 8 in his starts; Dontrelle finally dropped one, but is 7 for 8. Adding to the speculation is the fact that these guys are completing a few games, thus ensuring they get the decision in their starts. Sure, these probably aren’t the guys you would have expected, but who would have picked Denny McLain before ’68?

What odds are these guys facing to get to the 30 win mark? Pretty steep. The main obstacle is the five-man rotation, which limits a pitcher to 35 or 36 starts a year. Thus, to get to 30 wins, they would have to win either 83 or 85% of their starts, depending on if they got 35 or 36. It’s important to distinguish that it’s 83% of their starts, not their decisions, which wouldn’t be all that unusual.

Well, how difficult is this? Let’s look at some of the great pitching years in history and see:

Yr Pitcher W GS %
99 Pedro 29 23 79
’02 Unit 24 35 69
’95 Maddux 19 28 68
’96 Smoltz 24 35 69
’90 Welch 27 35 77
’86 Clemens 24 33 73
’85 Gooden 24 35 69
’84 Sutcliffe 16 20 80 (Cubs only)
’72 Carlton 27 41 66
’69 Seaver 25 36 69
’68 Gibson 22 34 65
’68 McLain 31 41 76
’66 Koufax 27 41 66
’61 Ford 25 39 64
’53 Spahn 23 32 72
’44 Newhouser 29 34 85
’30 Grove 28 32 88
’16 Alexander 33 45 73
’13 W. Johnson 36 36 100 (Holy Smokes! did have 12 relief appearances)
’08 3-Finger 29 31 94 (!)
’08 Mathewson 37 44 84
’08 Ed Walsh 40 49 82
’95 Cy Young 35 40 88
’84 Radbourn 59 73 81

Well, that’s more than enough to be getting on with. I’ll have to admit I wasn’t sure what I’d find before I ran these numbers. I halfway expected to see that even the ancient legends didn’t win at high enough a clip to get 30 wins in the modern era. I certainly didn’t expect too see the Big Train at 100%. To be fair, this is somewhat misleading, since Johnson didn’t literally win 100% of his starts; I’m sure some of them came in relief. Also, until 1920, baseball was heavily pitching dominated, so results of this kind are a little less surprising. Still, these guys did some astonishing things.

I think the key thing that let these guys put up these huge percentages is how deep they pitched into games. Johnson pitched 29 complete games in 1913, thus ensuring he would get a decision in those games. It’s not the losses that hurt a modern starter’s chances at 30 wins; it’s the no-decisions. Wins are already a fairly luck-driven stat, but you only pitch six innings, you not only have to rely on your offense to help you get the victory, but also two or three other pitchers of lesser quality than you.

The random nature of wins can be seen in two recent years for very different lefthanded pitchers. In 2003, Jeriome Robertson pitched rather poorly for the Astros, with a 5.10 ERA, averaging just over 5 innings a start but still wound up with a 15-9 record thanks to tremendous run support and an unholy bullpen featuring Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel, and Billy Wagner. Last year, Randy Johnson pitched brilliantly with a 2.60 ERA, 290 K’s, and an average of 7 innings a start (with a perfect game mixed in), yet went 16-14 because the team behind him couldn’t hit or field, and the bullpen wasn’t reliable.

So, the most encouraging development in the quest for 30 may be that pitchers are finishing games more this year. It remains to be seen if managers hold to this philosophy in the dog days of July and August, but if pitchers start getting more decisions, then perhaps a pitcher with the right combination of brilliance, health and run support can get to this goal. It wasn’t long ago when 60 home runs seemed an unassailable mark, but certain shifts in the game made it attainable. Now, the game may be trending away from that, though it’s dangerous to declare trends based on six weeks of a season. Such a trend could create the right environment for a 30-win season. It will be difficult, but Welch’s 27-win season provides encouragement. In ’90, Welch was far from the most dominant pitcher in baseball; he was 6th in the league in ERA and no where on the leaderboard for K’s. He was very good, no doubt, but he also played for the best team in baseball, and was very lucky even for that. So, one of these years the Yankees will sign the right free agent pitcher who’ll pitch brilliantly enough and deep enough into games that the Yankees will provide all the luck he needs to get 30 wins.

Meanwhile, Denny waits.

briefly. . .

May 12, 2005

I’ll have a short post this week. I’m excited to announce my law school graduation this friday. This also means the folks are coming to town and we’re all getting ready to celebrate, and I’m wiped out from taking finals, so, long story short, short post this week.

Survey question: What’s you’re most painful moment as a sports fan? This question was put into relief for me this weekend (as Joe’s already hinted at) by consecutive horrendous perfomances by teams I follow, the Rockets and the Astros.

The Rockets seemed to have a stranglehold on their first-round series with the Mavericks, taking the first two games on the Mavs home court. They proceeded to drop three straight before a rousing game six victory at home to force it to a game seven. The series had been epic to that point, every game but game six going to late in the fourth quarter before being decided. Naturally, I assumed the Rockets would come out with intensity and focus in game seven, and hang in it long enough for T-Mac to pull it out with some late heroics. Or THEY COULD COME OUT AND LAY THE BIGGEST EGG IN GAME SEVEN HISTORY!!!!! Sorry for the caps; I realize that’s very rude, but good gravy, could you maybe keep it within forty flippin’ points? Is that too much to ask? How about showing up for the biggest game of the year? How about stopping dribble penetration maybe once?

Well, I barely had time to make it home from church the next day before the Braves were already up 3 – 0 on the sad excuse for a major league team the Astros are fielding these days. Our erstwhile franchise first baseman was missing his fifth consecutive start because he has no rotator cuff on his shoulder, and our current franchise leftfielder/firstbaseman type dude was charging back into the lineup in the beginnings of a 1-17 start to his season. Our fifth starter was serving up batting practice, and by the end of the afternoon, we had given up an opposite field homerun to the other team’s starting pitcher and probably gotten Ryan Langerhans a spot on the All-Star team. The final count was 16-0 as Mike Hampton joined the growing list of pitchers who happened to have their best start of the year against the Astros., who were shut out for the sixth time this year (Ken Griffey has three home runs if you’re keeping score).

The funny thing is I’ll probably forget all about this weekend (well maybe not now that I’ve written an article about it). I mean, I was a fan of the Braves in the eighties, when they got shutout about as often as they turned a double play. What really lingers in the brain are the near misses. Game seven last year against the Cardinals; the 1995 college hoops final against UCLA. So, what do you think, is it more painful to have a good team just miss or to endure watching a truly awful team get it’s head kicked in?

Then again, watching pitching legend Brian Moehler hold your team to one earned is pretty awful.

The Month in Review — April

May 5, 2005

The baseball season tends to move in months. After a month has passed you don’t know too much for sure, but you can start spotting trends, so it’s a good time to take stock.

I’ll begin with a random observation: I know of two pitchers in the NL who actively switch hit, and the weird thing is their both named Zambrano. Yep, Carlos and Victor each swing from both sides; there could be others, but I’m not aware of them.

AL East

The stories: Brian Roberts and trouble in pinstripes.
Where in the heck did Brian Roberts come from? This is the most unexpected emergence of a player I can remember since, well, maybe another Oriole leadoff hitter, Brady Anderson. As good as he’s been, Miguel Tejada has quietly been as good or better. Here’s their AL rank in some key categories, Roberts then Tejada: OPS — 1,3; SLG — 2,1; RBI — 2,1; HR 3,1. Roberts is also first in runs and stolen bases. What’s more interesting than whether they keep it up is whether the Yankers can get this thing on the track. Their pitching has been injured or ineffective, which has exposed the fact that their farm system is absolutely barren. Also, their lineup looks old, other than A-Rod, whose having a brilliant season. Luckily for them, Boston hasn’t run away with the thing, but if their pitching doesn’t come together, they may have trouble tracking down the O’s or Twins or whoever for the wild card.

AL Central

The stories: Jon Garland and the best team no one saw.
Johann Santana is 4-1. leading the league in strikeouts, and is second in WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), the stat du jour for pitchers (much like OPS for hitters), and for all that he’s the second best pitcher in his division. Jon Garland’s out of the gate a perfect 5-0, and is leading the league in wins, WHIP, and ERA. His White Sox are the best team in baseball right now, riding incredible starting pitching and timely hitting to a 20-7 start. Too bad no one in Chicago seems to care, as the White Sox are drawing less than 20,000 to a lot of games. Also unfortunate is the fact that their manager, seems to be a classless hothead who revels in running down anyone he can think of, including his own players. That stuff is described as “fiery” when you’re winning, but Guillen may draw some Larry Bowa comparisons if they start to slide.

AL West

The stories: The impaler reigns and the A’s have no O.
The Angels have ridden the hot bat of MVP Vladimir Guerrero and surprisingly good pitching to take the lead out west. The A’s and Mariners have fallen off the pace due to poor offense. The A’s young pitchers have fared well thusfar, particularly Rich Harden and closer Octavio Dotel. However, their on-base focused offense isn’t getting on base and their power source, Eric Chavez, has been dreadful, batting .210 with 7 extra-base hits. Seattle’s new 3B Adrian Beltre has been nearly as bad, batting .229 with 6 extra base hits, but 16 RBI to Chavez’ 9. The Rangers pitching has been predictably poor, and their offense has been solid but not good enough to make up the difference.

Another random observation: until recently the two Texas teams, the Astros and Rangers, both had their starting infield battiing 1-4. Mercifully, the Astros moved shortstop Adam Everett out of the leadoff spot and dropped Morgan Ensberg to 5th, but the Rangers persevere, mostly because their four best hitter happen to play in their infield. I’m not sure how rare this is, but it seemed unusual at the time. I don’t think anyone else is doing it now, but I haven’t done a complete survey, I confess.

NL East

The stories: AL pitchers make good and hardball in the capital
Tim Hudson and Pedro Martinez have fared extremely well in their transition to the national league. Mark Mulder is also doing well in St. Louis, and you can add Roger Clemens from last year to that list. This makes a fair amount of sense, at least that AL pitchers would get off to a hot start in coming over to the National League. It must be nice to face a pitcher at least twice in a game instead of a DH, and it probably takes hitters a while to learn the new guys. I’m not sure if the opposite is necessarily true; Pavano and Clement are also pitching well; maybe pitchers just get the advantage when hitters haven’t seen them before. Meanwhile, the Nationals are selling out games in the nation’s capital and playing a competitive brand of ball to boot. Soon kids all around D.C. will be growing mullets in honor of Vinny Castilla.

NL Central

The stories: Nomar goes down and the Cards look to clinch by the All-Star break
Not only did Cubs fans never get to hear Harry Caray try and pronounce Nomar Garciaparra’s name (how much fun would it have been to hear him call a Garciaparra to Grudzielanek double play last year?), they can’t even watch their star shortstop who’s rapidly turning into the middle infield version of Ken Griffey, Jr. Speaking of Griff, he’s been healthy but is on pace for 12 home runs and 60 RBI. Can you really afford not to play Wily Mo Pena? The Cardinals are just mean; they’re winning easily while getting next to nothing from Scott Rolen. Was that seven run rally against the Reds in the ninth really necessary? Meanwhile, the Astros, who were shutout 3 times all of last year, managed to turn the trick five times in April. Which begs the question, will the Astros be shut out more times than Griff goes yard this year?

NL WestThe stories: The Amazing Brandon Lyon and the slugging Dodgers
I appear to have missed more on the D-Backs than on any of my predictions this year. I figured they’d be closer to the Rockies than the top of the division, but they have the most saves in baseball behind Brandon Lyon, the Brian Roberts of the bullpen. The Dodgers are fourth in baseball in home runs, which is as good as first when you play in Dodgers Stadium. Jeff Kent and Milton Bradley have lead the way, making up for J.D. Drew, who’s largely been missing in action. The Giants are hanging around without Barry Bonds, which is a testament to Felipe Alou, but with Bonds continuing to have setbacks and Armando Benitez out, you wonder how much longer they can tough it out. The Rockies are dreadful, like a bad AAA team that happens to have Todd Helton and Preston Wilson for some reason.
My All-Star Ballot
AL
C Jason Varitek
1B Dmitri Young
2B Brian Roberts
3B Alex Rodriguez
SS Miguel Tejada
OF Vladimir Guerrero
OF Manny Ramirez
OF Ichiro Suzuki
DH Shea Hillenbrand
P Jon Garland

NLC Paul LoDuca
1B Derrek Lee
2B Jeff Kent
3B Chipper Jones
SS Clint Barmes
OF Cliff Floyd
OF Miguel Cabrera
OF Pat Burrell
P Dontrelle Willis
When you throw in his fielding, Mike Piazza’s been about the worst catcher in baseball so far this year. Ooh, I missed the real story in the NL Central, which is Derrek Lee, who’s leading the league in all triple crown categories. Saw him hit a home run at Minute Maid Sunday that took about 1/2 second to get from his plate to the facade in left field. Chipper Jones has missed some time, but is playing at a very high level when he’s in there. Tejada has passed the triplets to become the best shortstop in baseball, and probably one of the top 5 players. The shortstop position in the Nl is incredibly weak, as is first base in the AL. Could have easily chosen Johnny Damon over Ichiro; they’re having very similar years, but Ichiro has a slight edge in steals and runs scored. Shea Hillenbrand may be the most surprising name, but he’s hit for a high average all year, and Ortiz has been a little off so far, average-wise. Lew Ford is also having a nice year at DH; seems to get at least one game-winning RBI a week. Garland and Willis have had the same year essentially; both are 5-0; Garland’s ERA is 1.38; Dontrelle’s is 1.29; Garland’s WHIP is 0.79; Dontrelle’s is 0.83; both have 2 shutouts. The story in the NL east is also, of course, the Marlins pitching staff, which has 6 complete games and 3 shutouts. And they haven’t even played the Astros yet.

Mish Mash

April 28, 2005

An assortment of goodies for your pleasure

The Incredible Shrinking DirkThe playoffs were supposed to be a coming out party for the Mavericks, with their new coach, their new defensive emphasis and newly-ordained MVP candidate Dirk Nowitski, but instead they’re in grave peril of their worst playoff performance in recent memory. The Diggler’s struggled, shooting a combined 13 of 40 against such defensive illuminaries as Ryan Bowen and Scott Padgett, while fellow foreign giant Yao Ming was utterly dominant with 33 points on 13 of 14 shooting (!), while drawing what seemed like 33 fouls on Mavs post defenders. However, the series has belonged to Tracy McGrady, who’s always played well in the playoffs but now has the team around him to make some noise. T-Mac’s averaged 31 in the two games, has taken his turn at guarding Dirk (pretty effectively), hit a game-winning shot and delivered the most viscious facial in recent memory to one Shawn Bradley. I think that trade for Steve Francis has worked out.Kings — Sonics Careful what you wish for. While it may not be fair to say the Kings tanked it down the stretch to fall to the six seed, they certainly weren’t upset about facing the Sonics in the first round. The Sonics were awful down the stretch, but have gotten solid play from their stars, Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen, and an unexpected boost from Jerome James to run out to a 2-0 lead. For the Kings its been the stories of the stars that haven’t shown up; Mike Bibby in game one and Peja Stojakovich in game two. The Kings are still very much in this series as the Sonics have only held serve thus far. Most disturbing thing from the playoffs thus far? Vladimir Radmonovich’s hair. Really, man, close the window; nobody wants to see that.

Spurs — Nuggets Settle down, settle down, everyone. Yes, the Nuggets pulled out an improbable game one victory, but don’t jump off the Spurs bandwagon just yet. Look, Andre Miller scored 31 and Tim Duncan was awful and the Spurs missed about 73 shots in a row in the fourth quarter and still almost pulled out game one. Game two was a statement game as the Spurs won by 29, and Duncan played more like the methodical, expressionless sphinx we all know and have a mild affection for. The truth is probably somewhere in between these extremes, but somewhere in between still has the Spurs winning in six. The Nuggets have had a nice run, but they should have drawn the Sonics if they were hoping to advance; The Spurs are too professional to let that happen.

Suns — Grizzlies The Suns seem to play basketball like some NFL teams play defense; they just send more people than you can stop. The result is the NBA’s version of an all-out blitz, with the rim sitting in for the quarterback’s role. Memphis is simply overmatched here, though they did put up a valiant stand in game 2. They may be able to steal a game if Gasol gets rolling good and can get some help from a Mike Miller or somebody on the perimeter, but I’d be surprised to see it go past five games. A Suns-Rockets matchup would be real interesting in the second round; Yao gives them fits when he can stay out of foul trouble and the Rockets defend well enough to take the edge off the Suns onslaught.

On with the Chlorophyll!Do we really have to go through the charade of the first two rounds of the Eastern conference playoffs? Detroit and Miami are so much better than everyone else out there, they look like they decided to play some guys at the YMCA or something.Heat — Nets I really thought New Jersey might be able to put up a better fight here. Yes, their post defense is even worse against Shaq than most teams, and, yes, Richard Jefferson is just coming back from injury, but they were a hot team heading into the playoffs and I thought. . . . well, who was I kidding? Shaq hasn’t really done much this series, but Dwyane Wade is just so brilliant, and Alonzo Mourning seems to be coming to life, which is just terrifying for the rest of the league. Also, the Heat can really defend when they want to, and their role players fit in well around the stars. Expect some broom action in this one.

Pistons — Sixers This series is kind of painful to watch. The Pistons seem to be going into the games wondering which cruel, demoralizing way they should choose to methodically grind down Philly. In game one, they let the Sixers stars, Iverson and Webber, get off (scoring 30 and 27 respectively), while holding their bench to six, yes six American points. (I’m not sure how that exchanges with the Euro-point right now). Game two it was the opposite story as Detroit put the clamps on AI and C-Webb (as well as K-Corv and the other AI and Sam-dog). This team is just suffocating and seems to be rounding into championship form. It should be an absolute war when they finally have their inevitable matchup with the Heat.

Celtics — Pacers This is one of the more even matchups out there. You think Ricky Davis might know better than to provide one of the best clutch players ever motivation, but, then again, Ricky never was the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. I’m interested to see how the Celtics play in Indiana; this team’s character seems to me to be right on the edge — they could easily either fold in the face of adversity or find a mean streak in themselves and move on. If Indiana does advance, it will be on the strength of great coaching and Reggie’s leadership, as it doesn’t look like Jermaine O’Neal’s shoulder is going to let him do much.

Bulls — Wizards I haven’t followed this series as closely as the others, so my comments will basically be based on the box scores. I am surprised that Chicago’s up 2-0 with the scores at or around the 100’s. Washington’s the better offensive team, so I would have thought that tempo would suit them. The Wizards can’t seem to get their stars cranked up at the same time. Larry Hughes was brilliant in game one, while Gilbert Arenas was shockingly bad; game two it was Arenas on and Hughes off. Antawn Jamison has played indifferently in both games. I don’t see how the Bulls aren’t starting Ben Gordon, but it seems to work for them.

He’s GRRRRRRREAT!Tiger roared back to form at the Masters a few weeks back, so does this mean he’s ready to dominate the tour like he did in 2000? Well, I’d guess it’ll be tougher this time around, if only because the tour has weathered this storm once before, and, thus has confidence it can do it again. Tiger will probably never have quite the invincible aura about him that he wore back then. However, he does have the British Open at St. Andrews where he set records in winning by 8 strokes in 2000, and if he gets some luck at the U.S. Open, we could be in for history heading in to the PGA Championship.Random golf observation. You remember at the Masters when Vijay was grousing about putting over Phil’s spike marks? Well, I figure that was mostly Vijay being his usual sunshiny self, but it does raise a fair point. Strictly from a golf perspective, wouldn’t it be better to shoot early in the round then later in the day? Not only do you get a less beat-up course, but you normally shoot in cooler weather and get to avoid the heat of the day. Yet, the leaders get “rewarded” by hitting after everyone else on the tee box and green. I know, I know, it’s for the fans and the drama, and I’m all for that, but strictly from a sporting perspective it seems like a funny way to reward a guy for playing well.

Picking up the slack

What sport is benefitting the most from Hockey’s absence? Well, sorry soccer fans, but it’s not MLS. Actually, lacrosse is the fastest growing pro sport in the land, and it’ s a natural to replace hockey. It essentially is hockey, just on grass and with baskets on the end of the sticks. It’s just as physical and violent, by all accounts, though perhaps a less skill-intensive game than hockey. SI has a good article about the game on its website if you’re interested in learning more. My one piece of lacrosse trivia: the greatest player in lacrosse history, by all accounts, is Jim Brown, who went to Syracuse on a lacrosse scholarship, not a football scholarship.