Archive for the ‘Coolhand’ Category

The Myth of the Five-Tool Player

April 21, 2005

Since baseball is a great parable for life, it’s fitting that baseball, like life, is full of archetypes — types of players that are so quintessential to the game that they become part of its mythology. There’s the intimidating starting pitcher (big, strapping workhorse that’s not afraid to brush a hitter back), the even more intimidating relief ace (coupling a sizzling fastball with an RBI-baseball style breaking pitch), the strikeout prone slugger (more and more common these days), and the tiny, nimble, ninja-quick middle infielder (less and less common as more Jeter-types arrive on the seen).

There is one archetype that stands above the rest, however; having an air of prophecy and mystique about him that approaches the Messianic (in baseball terms). This breathtaking creature has been given different labels through the years, but the current terminology most often refers to him as the “5-tool athlete.” Who is this masked man, and is he really as valuable as we instinctively seem to believe him to be? Let’s discuss.

The Five Tools

For almost as long as there have been ballplayers, there have been envious dorks such as myself who couldn’t hit a curveball with a snowshovel but love to analyze those who can and discuss why their either better or worse than everyone thinks. Now what you do when you analyze things is you break them down into their component parts and at some point in history, someone decided to break down what non-pitching baseball players do into five “tools” — hitting for average, hitting for power, running the bases, defense, and throwing arm. Once this discovery was made, it followed as naturally as Gehrig follows Ruth that the “perfect” baseball player would be someone who was excellent in all of these categories. Thus, if you got to play mad Dr. Frankenveeck and create your own ideal player out of your imagination, he would do all of these things at an exceptionally high level. Also, while we’re in the lab, we need to give him a sense of style and grace that makes doing the impossible seem so natural that you’d swear that when the holy angels were dreaming up baseball and whispered it to Alexander Cartwright, that’s what they meant by nailing the runner at home.

And where would you play this unnatural phenomenon once you got him out of the lab and gave him a brand new pair of shoes? Centerfield, of course, which is the home of most of the players who come to mind when we think of the five-tool player. Shortstop may also be an option, but we want to see this guy covering ground like an antelope and chasing down balls in the gap, so better stick him in center.

The Chosen Few

So, who in all of baseball history has come closest to this impossible ideal? That’s an interesting question, because before 1920, baseball only had four tools. Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker may very well have been what we’d recognize now as five tool athletes except nobody hit home runs before Babe Ruth, so we can’t really tell. The first major leaguer who really fit the mold was the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio. Joe D hit homers, was a gold-glove caliber fielder with a great arm, hit .330 and could steal you some bags. Oh, and style and grace? Joe was the essence of refined class; the coolest cat from a very cool age. If you need empirical evidence, look up a picture of one Marilyn Monroe; shouldn’t be too hard to find.

What’s interesting to me is the place DiMaggio has maintained in baseball history despite final career stats that are a bit underwhelming. Part of that is without a doubt the fact he was a Yankee and enjoyed an unprecedented run of World Series success (10 World Series in 12 seasons played; 9 wins!). Also, there were defining moments like the 56-game winning streak and retiring rather than letting his skills degrade. However, part of it, I think, is the fact that he was the first of his kind; the first of the naturals; the ballplayer we’d all like to be if we could. Writers of that time called him “the most perfect ballplayer there ever was,” and I think this image of DiMaggio as the incarnation of every man’s idea of baseball perfection is part of why his legacy has endured just as strongly as his contemporary Ted Williams, who, by any statistical measure was the far superior player.

DiMaggio was just setting the stage, though. The 50’s gave us two men who surpassed even Joe D’s legend and remain to this day the standard by which all prototypical centerfielders are measured to this day, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. Both men were impossibly good; Mays was probably a little better, but not a whole lot. Mays was probably a little faster; Mantle hit the ball further. Mays was a better fielder; the Mick was the first great switch hitter. Mays had the more productive career stats; Mantle won more World Series. They were both the defining stars of an era that produced as many legendary players as any in baseball history.

Mays is probably the one that remains the standard; more than Mantle; more than DiMaggio. He has the defining play (the World Series catch against Vic Wertz), that seems to best embody what this kind of player is all about; doing the impossible (catching the ball) and then topping that by doing something so unthinkable it never crossed your mind (throwing it back in well enough to hold the runner). DiMaggio showed us that we had a place in our hearts that could only be filled by a natural, graceful, “five-tool” centerfielder. Mays filled that place better than anyone else, and we’re still looking for someone who can live up to his standard.

The Legacy

Of course, chasing down these ghosts is no easy task, and has led to several excellent players being labeled as disappointments. This played out in San Francisco almost immediately. After Mays retired, the Giants had Bobby Bonds, Gary Matthews and Garry Maddox come up in succession. They were all excellent players and they were all traded because they weren’t Willie Mays. It’s not just the Giants, though; nearly ever centerfielder that comes up with pop in his bat and some wheels gets tagged as the next Willie Mays, and inevitably fails by comparison. The guy I remember growing up was Eric Davis, who hit some home runs and stole some bases as a young player and was told to clear mantle space for the MVP awards he would win. Well, not quite; Davis was a nice player, but nowhere near the chosen one baseball was longing for. Junior Griffey was the next on the podium, and for a while looked to some like he might even surpass Willie. Of course, this was always a little silly, as Griffey never really had the wheels of Mays. However, he was hitting home runs at an unprecedented pace and there was a lot of talk about him being the best player in baseball (again, a little silly as he was never the equal of Bonds). Now, after a lack of postseason production and a freakish run of injuries, the Kid is being asked to explain why he might end up with “only” 600 home runs. And so it goes when you’re looked at as the heir to Willie’s throne.

Another guy who’s thought of as a disappointment largely, I think, because he hasn’t fulfilled the role of uber-centerfielder is Andruw Jones. Hailed by many as the greatest fielding centerfielder of all time as a kid (of all time? really? was he ever clearly better than Jim Edmonds?), he hit a couple of home runs in the World Series and everyone thought the Jones kid was surely the one we’d all been waiting for. Well, the problem no one seemed to notice was that he had no plate discipline and was an indifferent worker so he was unlikely to develop any. However, he has been a very good player. Look at his stats; he’s got 250 home runs and is just now entering his prime years, turning 28 on Saturday. Really, he’s not a disappointment, people; he’s just not Willie Mays; no one is. . . .

Well, maybe we finally have found the next Willie. Did anyone see Carlos Beltran in the playoffs last year? This guy really is the real deal; he does it all and does it very well. He was nearly a 40-40 man last year; should start winning gold gloves any time now. And style? The guy never looks like he’s breaking a sweat while robbing fly balls and cranking home runs from both sides of the plate. He is the ultimate in cool.

And he’s no Willie Mays. He turns 28 on Sunday, and only has 142 home runs (though Jones did get a head start). He’s never finished higher than ninth in the MVP voting, and isn’t likely to pass Albert Pujols any time soon. Playing for the Mets, he’s no lock to get back to the playoffs in the near future either. Thus, it’s likely the quest for the next chosen one may take a while, especially if Mays is the standard by which he is measured. In the meantime, though, you could do worse than enjoying the talents of Mr. Beltran.

What’s a boy to do?So, how do you avoid hitting 500 home runs and being labeled a disappointment? Stay out of center. It seems strange to me that Albert Pujols doesn’t have to deal very often with comparisons to Jimmie Foxx or Lou Gehrig (though Pujols may actually be that good) and that Vlad Guerrero isn’t always measured against Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron (try living up to that legacy!). For whatever reason, the image of the slugging corner player isn’t as indelibly marked on the collective baseball psyche as is that of the centerfielder. Maybe that’s because the weaknesses of those players are more evident; they tend to be slower and strike out a lot (though Aaron really didn’t have these weaknesses; he was a pretty incredible all around player). Thus, the standard isn’t really perfection; it’s a different sort of excellence; more gaudy and less refined.But ultimately, perhaps, more valuable. Think about it, who would you rather build your team around — Pujols or Beltran? Willie Mays or Babe Ruth? The fact is not all “tools” are created equally; Babe Ruth couldn’t steal a base if the catcher had a grand mal seizure, but he’s far and away the greatest player in the history of the game. Why? Well, he had about two tools in his box, but they were both sledgehammers, so who cared if he didn’t carry around an Allen wrench (as I beat that metaphor to a bloody death). Don’t get me wrong, a strong throwing arm is nice, but not nearly as nice (or valuable) as a .690 slugging percentage (Ruth’s career avg). A stolen base is important, but not as important as a three-run homer. In the end, though the ideal we all have of what a baseball player should be may be the 5-tool, prototype centerfielder, if you’re looking for the better value, run production is where it’s at.

Oh yeah, I guess the Babe probably had a pretty good throwing arm, too.

When April with Its Showers Sweet, part 2

April 7, 2005

Now for the AL. . . .

AL East

1. New York

Is anything more certain this year than New York and Boston finishing 1-2 in the AL East? Steinbrenner finally got his prized unit, Randy Johnson, to anchor his staff, which should feature 5 quality starters. The offense is ridiculous, with Tony Womack filling the only weak spot and providing much needed speed (Bernie Williams batting eighth!). The bullpen may be the best in baseball with Gordon and Quantrill setting up Mo Rivera. The evil empire looks as strong as ever. Keep your eye on Jaret Wright. Was last year an abberation, or is he back for real? How will he respond to the New York pressure cooker? Will he succeed away from Mazzone?

2. Boston

The defending world champs also look strong and could possibly challenge the Yanks, though a wild card birth seems more likely. Offensively, this team should be even stronger, adding Edgar Renteria to the lineup. Renteria also upgrades the defense, which may struggle some with Mark Bellhorn at second base. The biggest loss is clearly Pedro Martinez, but Derek Lowe also won a ton of games for the Sox over the last few years. David Ortiz may push to be the first DH to win an MVP award. Keep your eye on human rain delay Matt Clement. Clement has always won less than he should because he worked so slowly his defense lost focus behind him. This may be a problem for the Sox, a fairly indifferent defensive team.

3. Baltimore

Quick: name two Orioles starting pitchers besides Sidney Ponson. Therein lies the problem for this team, which will rely on an unproven rotation to try and hunt down the Yanks and Sawks. Well, that and playing in the unmerciful AL East. This team has an outstanding offense, adding Sosa to Tejada, Lopez, Palmeiro, etc. They should also have a pretty solid bullpen, adding Steve Kline to Jorge Julio and B. J. Ryan. This will give them a lock on 3rd, but it’s hard to fathom how they will ever be able to contend playing in this division. Keep an eye on Larry Bigbie, one of the best young hitters in the game, has been moved to the two hole in the lineup. Hitting in front of the heart of the order, Bigbie should feast on fastballs and put up big numbers.

4. Toronto

This team is closer to 5th than 3rd, but I give them a slight edge over Tampa due to their pitching. If Roy Halladay comes back to form, he’ll help Ted Lilly provide a solid 1-2 at the top of the rotation. Miguel Bautista has the stuff to succeed in the closer’s role. The lineup’s fairly thin with the loss of Delgado; their going to need a monster year from Vernon Wells to score many runs. Keep an eye on Eric Hinske. The former Rookie of the Year moves to first base, hoping to rediscover his hitting stroke.

5. Tampa Bay

This is an exciting young team with some good talent but probably not enough experience to avoid 90 losses. Their rotation is especially young, headed by phenoms Dewon Brazleton and Scott Kazmir. Both are very talented, but it’s unfair to ask anyone to learn to pitch at the major leagues against the lineups in this division. The offense has tons of speed with Crawford and Baldelli, and Aubrey Huff provides some pop. This is one of the better defenses in the AL, especially in the outfield. Keep an eye on Carl Crawford, the most talented leadoff hitter in baseball not born in Japan. One of the most exciting players in the game, but no one knows because of where he plays (Tampa, not left field).

AL CENTRAL1. ClevelandI may be a year ahead on these guys; this is still a really young team. They also have bullpen concerns; I’m not sure if you want Bob Wickman as your closer. However, their lining is bursting with talented young hitters — Hafner, Broussard, Martinez, Sizemore, Victor Martinez. Their rotation is also very good one through four, and I think Millwood will have a bounce back year. Keep your eye on Jhonny Peralta, who takes over for Omar Vizquel. In the mold of the new shortstop, big and powerful while being a good fielder; Tribe is expecting big things from this rookie.

2. MinnesotaStill a solid team; the favorite of most people to win. I still can’t figure out how this team has ever won; they play excellent defense and have just enough pitching and hitting to get by. I think they’ll miss Mientkiewicz’s leadership this year; though Justin Morneau is a better hitter. Johan Santana’s the best pitcher in the AL, even with the Unit changing leagues, and Nathan’s becoming a dominating closer. Keep your eye on Joe Mauer. Last year was supposed to be his coming out party, but he got hurt. If he hits as well as advertised will the Twins keep him at catcher for very long?3. Chicago

Probably a more talented team than Minnesota and maybe even Cleveland. Added Scott Podsednik who seems like a good leadoff hitter until you realize he gets on base at about a .300 clip. Lost Magglio and Carlos Lee, but added Jermaine Dye, and they still have Konerko and Thomas and Carl Everett, so power shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Rotation should be very good with Garcia and Buehrle at the top, and the bullpen has some good young arms to mix and match. Keep an eye on Jose Contreras, who should have a big year after escaping the glare of the Bronx. Or he could be Hideki Matsui.

4. Detroit

Offense could be quite good after adding Magglio to Pudge and company. Bullpen should be lights out with Urbina and Percival on the back end. Real concern is the rotation, which is talented but young. Bonderman, Maroth and Nate Robertson all have potential, but none of them is a proven commodity. Expect a great year from Pudge, who’s come to camp in the best shape of his career. Keep an eye on Carlos Pena. Enigmatic player who fields like a young Rafael Palmeiro and looks like he should hit like one. Is this the year he gets his power stroke going?

5. Kansas City

Should be eliminated from playoff contention right about . . . . now. No doubt the worst team in baseball. Mike Sweeney about the only legitimate Major League starter on their roster, well, Angel Berroa I guess. Jose Lima is the ace of their staff, the ace of their staff! Bullpen’s a wreck with the talented but inconsistent Jeremy Affeldt closing games. Lineup’s worse. Could score the fewest runs in the majors while giving up the most. Keep your eye on John Buck, acquired from Houston in the Carlos Beltran deal. Defensive wizard behind the plate who’s rumored to have improved his hitting in the offseason.

AL WEST1. AnaheimOr Los Angeles Angels or California Angels or California Raisins or whatever. Very good team in all phases. Upgraded their outfield defense by acquiring Steve Finley, who will also add some pop to the lineup. Made the playoffs last year without Garret Anderson in top form; look for him to rebound. Orlando Cabrera a definite upgrade over Eckstein at short, and their probably better starting Chone Figgins at second. Rotation is excellent four deep with Colon, Escobar, Washburn and Lackey. And you know about K-Rod and Vlad. Keep your eye on Dallas McPherson, who’ll replace Troy Glaus when he comes off the DL. Hit a ton of homers in the minors; anything the Angels get from him will be a bonus.

2. Texas

Offense is just lewd, featuring the best offensive infield in baseball with Blalock, Young, Soriano and Teixeira. Outfield is a mix and match deal, with Mench, Hidalgo, Delucci, Nix, and Matthews, Jr., but all of those guys hit pretty good. Bullpen is pretty solid with Koko Cordero closing the door. Rotation, as always is the worry; full of questions. Krogers is a year older, will Drese repeat his success from last year?, will Chan Ho Park ever get over giving up a home run to Cal Ripken in the All Star game? Keep your eye on Richard Hidalgo. I think he’ll find the Ballpark in Arlington to his liking. If he does, he could put up numbers reminiscent of his amazing 2000 season.

3. Seattle

Should improve a great deal on their pathetic attack from a year ago. Maybe Ichiro’s 300 hits will mean something this year with Sexson and Beltre hitting behind him. Rookie Jeremy Reed was handed the starting centerfield job out of spring training. Along with Ichiro and Randy Winn, may comprise the fastest outfield in the game (though Tampa’s is also very fast). Rotation pretty sketchy, relying on the inconsistent Joel Pineiro and 72 year old Jamie Moyer, one year for every mph on his fastball. Some people like Guardado as a closer, but I’m not high on him. Keep your eye on Ichiro. Just because he’s the most exciting player in the game. One of these years he’s going to make a real run at .400, and this could be the one.

4. Oakland

Could be a real tough year in Beane-town. Two of the big 3 are gone from the rotation, leaving behind the most inconsistent one. The other starters are all talented, but should have some growing pains; Rich Harden may emerge as the ace of the staff by year’s end. Offense is full of pretty good hitters, as is Beane’s style. All of these guys will get on base, but only Chavez and Crosby really scare you as an opposing pitcher. Maybe Durazo. Bullpen is a major concern. Octavio Dotel does not DOES NOT have the mental fortitude to close. Keep your eye on Huston Street. When Dotel has his inevitable meltdown, this young gun may step in to take over the closer’s role.

Well, there it is. Now, when the A’s meet the D’Backs in the World Series I’ll feel really smart.

Oh, award picks:

MVP: David Ortiz
Cy Young: Johan Santana
Rookie of the Year: Jhonny Peralta

Boston over Anaheim before beating the Indians in the ALCS.

Florida over Boston in the World Series.

Tourney recap

I was sure Illinois was going to pull it out when they tied it with about two minutes to play, but the Tarheels were able to make some plays down the stretch. I still think the Tarheels are a pretty soft team, but their just so talented they didn’t have to play a particularly good game to beat a very very good Illini team.

How important is playing well in the tournament for your draft status? Consider the point guard position this year. Chris Paul probably went into the tourney as the top point guard entering the draft, but Deron Williams and Ray Felton probably passed him by. Also, Andrew Bogut and Sean May didn’t hurt their stock any.

My answers to the tourney poll:
Best team to win — the best college basketball team I’ve ever seen was the 1990-91 UNLV squad with Johnson, Augmon, etc. They were probably better the second year, when Duke upset them. That year they came into Bud Walton (or was it still Barnhill) Arena and beat the No.2 Razorbacks by about thirty. That first year they beat Duke by about 40 in the title game. So, they’re both the best team to win and not to win. Best team never to win (which is a slightly different thing) was clearly Phi Slamma Jamma at the University of Houston.

My favorite single moment subjectively was clearly Scotty Thurman’s jumper over Antonio Lang to lead the Hogs over Dook in ’94. More objectively, the best play I remember was the Valpo play; inbound to half court, short pass to a streaking Bryce Drew for the game winner. A beautiful idea executed perfectly. The best worst play was the terrible shot by Derrick Wittenberg with 3 seconds left that turned into the beautiful pass to Lorenzo Charles that let the Wolfpack stun UH in the ’84 final. The greatest game ever ever in basketball has to be Kentucky-Dook in the regional final with the overtime and the Christian Laetner shot and all that. The greatest upset has to be Villanova over Georgetown, though NCState over Houston comes in pretty close.

All tourney team. What surprised me about this is that everyone always says guards win in the tournament, but most of the great players were front-court guys really. Especially small forwards (Manning, Rice, Grant Hill, Carmel0). Here goes:

First Team Second Team Third Team

Guard Isaiah Thomas Bobby Hurley Richard Hamilton
Guard Michael Jordan Mateen Cleaves Clyde Drexler
Center Patrick Ewing Akeem Olajuwon Pervis Ellison
Forward Christian Laetner Larry Johnson Corliss Williamson
Forward Danny Manning Grant Hill Glenn Rice

Carmelo deserves to be on here somewhere, but I didn’t have the heart to bump Corliss or Glenn. Also, someone from the ’96-’98 Kentucky teams, but which one?

A personal note from the women’s tourney: I tought high school three years ago at Westbury Christian School here in Houston. When I was there, they had a great boy’s team; Ndudi Ebi was a junior then and went straight to the NBA when he graduated. They also had an emerging girl’s team, and one of the girls, Emily Niemann, played a key role in helping Baylor win the championship. I was watching Sportscenter and I saw her name, and, sure enough, it was the same Emily. Congratulations Emily!

When April with Its Showers Sweet. . .

March 31, 2005

That’s a paraphrase of Chaucer, who opens his Canterbury Tales with a celebration of the wonderful month of April. And he didn’t even know about April’s most delightful treasure, the opening of the baseball season! Holy smokes, I can hardly stand it. Despite all the ‘roid rage surrounding the game, for me there’s gonna be nothing better than when the Yanks and Sawks kick off the ’05 season by renewing their blood feud on Sunday night. So, without further ado, here are my picks for how the ’05 NL campaign will wind up.

NL EAST

1. Atlanta

Last I checked the sun was still rising in the east, so I’ll assume Atlanta will win its 83rd straight division title or whatever it is. I’ve tried to get ahead of the game by picking them to falter the last couple of years, but now I’ll just ride the horse ’til it dies. Schuerholtz did a good job of restocking the rotation and lineup again, and the bullpen should be pretty solid assuming Danny Kolb can repeat last year’s magic. Keep an eye on Chipper Jones as he moves back to third base. Expect a big year from Larry, as he feels more comfortable and involved at the hot corner.

2. Florida

A very solid team with no obvious weaknesses. My wildcard pick. Al Leiter brings stability to a talented rotation featuring purveyors of filthiness Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett. Delgado’s big bat turns a good offensive club into a frightening one, when placed between Pujols-clone Miguel Cabrera and Jim Rome lookalike Mike Lowell in the lineup. LoDuca’s leadership will prove valuable, and the defense should be solid with Castillo, Alex Gonzales and Juan Pierre. Keep your eye on Guillermo Mota. Clearly has the stuff to be a closer; how will he handle the mental aspect of the role.

3. New York

The top four teams in this division are real close. All have a playoff shot. Mets could easily sneak into the wildcard spot, though they may be relying too much on young players. I like Randolph as a manager; he knows how to handle New York and should keep thinks on an even keel. Pedro should pitch well in New York, unless the Braves are his daddies and will anchor a deep rotation. Carlos Beltran will instantly become the greatest center-fielder in Mets history (sorry, Mookie), and will anchor a pretty terrific outfield defense, Cliff Floyd notwithstanding. Piazza should have a solid year now that he won’t be asked to play first. Keep your eye on Jose Reyes. If this kid can stay healthy, he’ll wreak havoc on the basepaths and give Beltan, Piazza and Floyd someone to drive home.

4. Philadelphia

Should have a pretty good lineup. Will presumably play looser now that Bowa’s gone. Thome should have another monster year hitting in that ballpark, as should Abreu. Chase Utley is drawing raves from manager Charlie Manuel and may be ready to have an impact. The Marlon Byrd experiment seems to be off as 56-year old Kenny Lofton will man centerfield. The real problem for the Phils is the rotation, which is anchored by (yikes!) Jon Lieber. Unless the Phils score like the Yankees did last year, they could end up closer to Washington than New York. (In the standings, not geographically). Keep your eye on Pat Burrell. What happened to this guy? Can he regain the form that earned him the nickname “the bat,” or will he repeat last year’s enigmatic performance, perhaps leading the kind-hearted Phillie fans to give him another nickname?

5. Washington

They’ll be better than last year, but that won’t help much in this division. Jose Guillen’s and Vinny Castilla’s offense and Cristian Guzman’s defense are an upgrade, but too many holes remain in the lineup and rotation. After Livan Hernandez the rotation gets really thin, and, while the lineup has several good hitters (Nick Johnson, Brad Wilkerson), there are no great hitters to build around. The bullpen is also a major question mark. Keep your eye on Jose Vidro. Struggled last year without Vlad Guerrero’s protection in the lineup. Can he rebound hitting in front of Guillen and Castilla?

NL CENTRAL

1. St. Louis

Should be head and shoulders above anyone in the division, and with Bonds out indefinitely, probably the best team in the NL. Lineup is an absolute nightmare. Eckstein’s a solid leadoff hitter and should score a ton of runs hitting in front of Pujols, Rolen, et. al.. Grudzielanek’s a solid bat, and Yadier Molina should be an upgrade over Matheny offensively. Rotation may be the best in the NL one through five, though the health of Carpenter and Morris may be an issue. Defense won’t be as spectacular as recent years, but should still be solid. Pujols should probably be striving for his 3rd MVP award; as it is, he’ll pick up his first. Keep your eye on Yady Molina. By all accounts the most talented of the Amazing Catching Molinas, he has big shoes to fill replacing gold glover Matheny, especially in handling the pitching staff.

2. Chicago

Dominating rotation one through four, though health is an issue again this year. Offense lost a lot of production, but still has more pop than people give it credit for, with Garciaparra, Ramirez and Lee through the heart of the lineup. Defense is questionable outside of Derrek Lee. That’s always a fun question. The biggest concern is the bullpen, which opens with (are you kidding?) Ryan Dempster as the closer. Could make a wildcard run if the chips fall right, but these are the Cubs, so you feel pretty confident they’ll find a way to underachieve. Keep your eye on Corey Patterson. Have the Cubs and/or Patterson decided whether this guys a top of the lineup or middle of the lineup guy? Has all the talent in the world, but never seems committed to batting first or second. The Cubs may be best served to drop him in the six hole and let him swing for the fences.

3. Houston

Rotation should still be good, especially if Pettitte is healthy and Brandon Backe pitches like he did in the playoffs last year. Too many question marks in the lineup — can they get run production from Ensberg and Jason Lane? What kind of year will Biggio and Bagwell have? Will Berkman recover from his injury to have a usual Lance Berkman year? The bullpen is shaky before Brad Lidge, who may challenge Gagne as the best closer in baseball this year. Roy Oswalt is my pick to make it back-to-back Astros Cy Youngs. Keep your eye on Zeek Astacio. Pretty much stole the 5th starter’s spot in spring training. Has very good stuff and is very competitive. ROY candidate.

4. Cincinnati

Prediction: the Reds will find themselves in first place around June 1st, like they do every year, but, like Peter walking on the water, it won’t last. Griffey and/or Kearnes will get hurt, and they’ll realize that their pitching is pretty terrible. Reality will set in and they’ll tumble into fourth place where they belong. Lineup looks devastating on paper, particularly if Wily Mo Pena (shouldn’t it be pronounced “why-lee” as in the coyote?) maintains last year’s form. However, the pitching looks just as devastatingly bad, and with gopher-machines Eric Milton and Ramon Ortiz pitching in the Great American Ballpark, they could set a record for home runs allowed. Keep your eye on Adam Dunn. The Big Donkey annually puts up some of the strangest stats in baseball history. The race is on to see if he gets to 200 K’s or 60 home runs first.

5. Pittsburgh

The Pirates have some pretty decent players, and one outstanding talent in lefthander Oliver Perez. They have some other nice pitchers in Kip Wells and Josh Fogg, who could win some games if they get some run support. Jason Bay and Craig Wilson, who’s playing without his Lynrd Skynrd hairdo this year, swing pretty decent sticks. Benito Santiago seems to be trying to outlast Julio Franco; he’ll start behind the plate. This isn’t an awful team, they just aren’t very good, either. Keep your eye on Jack Wilson. Had a breakout year last year and works hard enough that it shouldn’t be a fluke. With Renteria in the AL, should battle Adam Everett and Khalil Greene for a gold glove. Not a brown-eyed handsome man.

6. Milwaukee

What can you say? It should be another long year for the Milwaukee Seligs, but, hey, at least they’ve got a nice park. Ben Sheets is an ace pitcher and would probably be a Cy Young candidate on another team. Their offense doesn’t really have any great hitters; certainly not anyone you’d want to build around. Newly acquired Carlos Lee may be their best one. Overbay’s also nice and Geoff Jenkins has had some pretty good years. Back end of the rotation and bullpen could be really scary. Keep your eye on Rickey Weeks. May not start the year with the big club, but should certainly finish it as the Brewer’s second baseman. Along with Prince Fielder, he gives them something to build around in the future.

NL WEST

1. San Diego

Caveat: these predictions are based on an assumption Barry Bonds misses half the year. The Padres have a real solid team. They lost Fatty Wells off their pitching staff, but replaced him with Woody Williams so that’s all right. It looks like their actually going to try and put Tim Redding in the rotation; good luck with that. The lineup is solid, with Giles, Nevin and Loretta. Sean Burroughs remains an enigma; how can a guy that big be a singles hitter? Bullpen should be filthy with Hoffman and Otsuka. Keep your eye on Ryan Klesko. Can he learn to hit in Petco Park? The Pads will need him to drive in runs if they want to win the division.

2. Los Angeles

Offensively, the Dodgers seem to have taken a step backward, losing Beltre and Green and replacing them with an injury-prone J.D. Drew and an aging Jeff Kent. I also think they’ll feel the loss of Paul LoDuca more this year. The rotation is very good, featuring Odalis Perez and Derek Lowe. Of course, you know about the bullpen. This is still a very good team with a real shot at either the division or the wildcard. Keep your eye on Jayson Werth. He hit very well last year and should thrive with a full season in the starting lineup. If the Dodgers do make a playoff push, he’ll play a big role.

3. San Francisco

This is probably the hardest team to pick, just because you don’t know when Bonds will return or what he’ll be like when he does. I’m guessing they’ll be pretty bad without him, though with Alou, their lineup won’t be totally dreadful. I think their real problem will be pitching, though. After Schmidt, there’s a lot of question marks. Noah Lowry and Jerome Williams have talent, but they are also young so you hate to count on them. The bullpen cost them the wildcard last year, but it should be upgraded with Armando Benitez closing the door. Keep your eye on Pedro Feliz, who has the unenviable task of replacing Bonds in the field and, possibly, the lineup. I actually think he’ll do pretty well; he’s a good hitter and doesn’t seem the type to be fazed by the attention.

4. Arizona

May have had the most senseless offseason in baseball. They should clearly be in a rebuilding mode, figuring out if their kids can play, but they seem to have delusions of contending. Glaus may hit some for them, but their pitching is dreadful outside of Brandon Webb and Russ Ortiz. Even harder to understand is why they would bring in Royce Clayton and Craig Counsell to play middle infield and sit Alex Cintron who seems to be their most promising prospect. Maybe Wally Backman lucked out. Keep your eye on Russ Ortiz. He always wins a lot of games, but he’s always played on very good teams, first in San Fran then in Atlanta. He walks a ton of guys, and may put up some ugly numbers pitching for a supbar D-Backs squad.

5. Colorado

Wait, there is a worse team than Milwaukee in the NL. For years, the Rockies have struggled to find a way to build a winning team in Coors field, alternating between emphasing power to emphasizing speed to trying to sign every free agent pitcher on the market. This year, it seems they’ve settled on unconditional surrender. The offense doesn’t look good enough to score outside of Coors Field, and the pitching doesn’t look good enough to win at Coors. Poor Todd Helton. Keep your eye on Shawn Chacon, who, after being an All Star as a starter two years ago, was inexplicably moved to the closer’s role last year. He’s back in the rotation this year and could give the Rockies a needed boost if he returns to his 2003 form.

MVP — Albert Pujols
Cy Young — Roy Oswalt
Rookie of the Year — no clue, really. Luke Scott, Astros (I’m such a homer)

Playoffs: Marlins upset the Cards in the first round, then beat the Padres to reach the Series.

AL picks next week.

Tourney notes

Greatest weekend in basketball history? I can’t think of a better one, offhand. It was like having three Duke-Kentucky/Christian Laetner games. Just after I thought Louisville had pulled off the greatest comeback in tourney history, here come the Illini to match it. Then, UK gets an impossible miracle shot to send it to OT, only to fall in the end. Again, that’s why March Madness is the greatest single thing in sports.

Wally Sczerbiak award, given to the guy who played his way into the first round of the draft, goes to Kevin Pittsnoggle of WVU. If nothing else, there’s always a spot on an NBA roster for a 6’ll” white dude who can shoot threes.

Pittsnoggle’s also on my all name team, along with Pops Mensa-Bansu, Taylor Coppenrath, Taquan Dean, and Rajon Rondo. Alternates: pretty much anyone on Arizona’s squad (Salim Stoudamire, Hassan Adams, Channing Frye, Mustafa Shakur).

Tourney questions if you wish to respond. Lets focus on the last 25 years or so:

Best team to win the tourney? not win the tourney?
Best moment in the tourney? game? upset?
All tourney team (over the last 25 years)?

Tweeners and Roundball

March 24, 2005

If you need me, I’ll be hanging out at the Tender Crisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch with Hootie.

I thought this week I’d grace you with two mid-size articles instead of one long one.

TweenersAs a sports fan, it’s easy to point to the time when my teams were doing the best, 1994-1995. That year, the Rockets won back-to-back championships (no asterisk talk, please), and my baseball team (at least back then), the Braves, avoided being baseball’s uber-Bills by actually winning a world series. My football team (the Raiders) pretty much stank, but that was okay. Sweetest of all, however, was the bliss brought by my favoritest favorite team, the Arkansas Razorbacks men’s basketball team, which won the title in 1994 and were only prevented from repeating by Toby Bailey having the game of his life.The centerpiece of that team was, of course Corliss “Big Nasty” Williamson, who pretty much dominated the college game in that era the way Shaq has dominated the pro game the last ten years. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but not too severe of one. The Nasty routinely imposed his will on opposing power forwards and centers, forcing teams to double- and triple- team him so he could pass it out to one of many deadly three-point shooters. This often resulted in the Hogs beating good teams by about thirty. I still vividly remember him abusing Rasheed Wallace in the final four in 1995 and thinking how much greater a pro he would be than his Tarheel counterpart.

Well, you know the rest of the story. Rasheed Wallace has made a few All-Star teams, and Corliss has won a sixth man of the year award. In fact, in a fitting sort of irony, Corliss backed up Rasheed on the Pistons last year as they both picked up their first NBA rings.

So, what happened? Well, nothing really, except Corliss was about 6’7″ and not terribly athletic nor a great outside shooter, and so, when he stepped up to the pro game he sort of fell through the cracks. His physique, which let him maul people on the college level, could no longer compensate for his shortcomings, and he turned into a role player.

The reason this interests me is that since then I’ve seen the same thing happen year after year; dominant college post players get to the pros and find they’re too small to play power forward, and too slow to guard an NBA small forward. Danny Fortson comes to mind, as does Rodney Rodgers, Lonny Baxter, Marcus Fizer. Rember Dmitri Hill? How about Samaki Walker?

There are exceptions. Carlos Boozer seems to fit this mold, but maybe he’ll break out of it; he’s already made an Olympic team. Of course, Charles Barkley is the most obvious example of an undersized power forward, but he was really more athletic than all these guys. Maybe Larry Johnson, too. How tall was he?

The college game is crawling with these guys this year. Ike Diogu from Arizona State seems to fit this mold the best; he pretty much scores at will now, but I’d be worried if your team takes him as a lottery pick. Chuck Hayes is another; I absolutely love him as a college player, but I don’t think he has a position at the next level. There’s Ryan Gomes at Providence; Jason Maxiell at Cincinnati; Chevon Troutman at Pittsburgh; maybe Lawrence Roberts at Mississippi State (though he may be taller than I’m thinking). What about Wayne Simien at Kansas? I think he’s a tweener. Sean May goes about 6’9″ and is pretty athletic; I think he’ll be okay. I can’t really make up my mind about Ronnie Turiaf at Gonzaga; we’ll have to wait and see.

I guess this happens in every sport — there’s always that minor league batting champion that can’t ever catch up to the big league fastball — but I think it’s a pretty fascinating phenomenon. The trick is telling who falls into the mold and who, like Barkley, has that extra whatever to break out of it. Maybe Simien or Hayes does and I can’t see it; maybe Mays doesn’t. It’s fun to think about, though.

Roundball

Everyone remembers the “Tiger Slam,” right? When Tiger Woods won four straight majors, just not in the same calendar year. How could you not, unless you were trapped in a cave or something? I think ESPN voted that the greatest sporting accomplishment of the last 25 years or something, placing it over Jordan’s winning six titles. People wonder’d if anyone would ever win another major; if Tiger would end up with three times as many as Jack; whether Tiger was an extra-terrestrial superbeing with telekinetic powers to control the flight of a golf ball.

What’s interesting about this is that another athlete accomplished something that’s probably just as impossible last year, and most of you are probably wondering what I’m talking about. In case you missed it, Roger Federer had possibly the greatest year in the history of men’s tennis last year. He won three grand slams on three different surfaces, only missing out on the clay at the French Open. He went 11-0 in tournament finals, and didn’t lose a match against an opponent ranked in the top ten. He won 92.5% of his matches. Many observers think he has the most complete game of any man since Rod Laver and possibly of any man ever. This year he’s only lost once, but he had the bad taste to do it in the Autralian Open, so there’ s no chance for a Slam. Maybe next year.

So, why aren’t we bombarded with Wilbon and Kornheiser yelling at each other over whether Federer’s already surpassed McEnroe and Connors among all-time tennis greats rather than yelling at each other about whether Tiger needs to divorce his wife and make up with Butch Harmon? Well, pretty simple. America likes golf a whole heaping lot more than it does Tennis.

This fact intrigues me, since Tennis and Golf are really similar in a lot of ways. Both are games you can play your whole life. Both are generally played with friends in small groups, 2 or 4. Both have international appeal. Both are basically individual, rather than team sports. Both have historically been played by middle-to-upper class types. Both require a great deal of discipline and training to master. Both have grand slams at the professional level. Both became popular around the turn of the century.

Why is golf more popular, then? Here’s some guesses.

While only one of tennis’ grand slam events is on American soil, golf has three that take place in the U.S. of A. That means that we get to watch nearly all of them without getting up at some riduculous hour. A die-hard tennis fan would have to be up at 3 AM on Sunday morning or thereabouts to catch the Australian Open final; It’s much more convenient to spend a Sunday afternoon watching the final round of the Masters.

The tennis people also seem to choose generally poor times to schedule their big events. The Australian Open always seems to be in the middle of the NFL playoffs, so even if you do want to watch, you tend to be distracted. The French and Wimbledon are in the middle of summer, but the U.S. Open comes just as baseball pennant races are concluding and their playoffs are cranking up, so many fans are completely absorbed in that. On the other hand, golf schedules all its majors during the dog days of summer, providing a nice complement to the grinding marathon that is the meat of the baseball season.

It also doesn’t hurt golf that most of its stars are either American or from the old British Commonwealth, while tennis’ stars tend to come from more diverse corners of the world. Perhaps if Andy Roddick had the year Federer did last year, we would have heard more about it. Americans love to root for their own, and it’s probably true that Tiger and Phil will always be more popular here than Roger and Marat Safin.

Another reason is that more of us play golf, so we can identify at least somewhat with what the players are going through. We’ve all flown one into the cart path or got the yips on a putt, so we feel for the pros when the same thing happens to them. Some of us could probably even identify with Jean Vandevelde when he had his cataclysmic meltdown at the British Open a few years back. Likewise, since we know how hard golf is, we can appreciate a birdie putt from 20 yards or a chip-in to save par.

But, how many of us have that same appreciation for a great shot in tennis? We can ooh and ahh when Roddick pours in a 140-mph serve, but few of us understand the subteties enough to distinguish an impossible passing shot from a routine one. Few of us appreciate how difficult it is to keep trading backhands with a great player until he makes an unforced error. Why? We don’t play tennis; we haven’t been there, and we don’t realize as fully the magnitude of what we’re seeing.

Finally, I think golf owes part of its popularity to the legacy of baseball. Many of us in America were weened on the national pasttime, and for us it will always be the measure by which all other sports must be judged. Thus, part of what a great sport is involves the discrete moments of drama and tension that bring a fan to the edge of his seat. In baseball, this occurs repeatedly when the pitcher confronts the batter, and the tension dial is raised or lowered by such other factors as the score or having runners on base. Golf also presents us with these moments; when a big hitter pulls out the driver on a par four and takes aim at the green, or, more often, when he lines up a critical putt for birdie. Likewise, the tension rises throughout the weekend and as the player moves from the 1st hole to the 18th and up and down the leaderboard.

Tennis, on the other hand, is a more fluid sport; more in the mold of basketball. It doesn’t have as many discrete moments of tension. Only a tiebreak or late-in-the-set break point has the same feel of impending drama that tends to occur throughout a baseball game or a round of golf. They’re there, but not on as regular a basis as you find in golf.

That being said, I think both of these are great games, and if you haven’t watched a tennis match in a while, you might give it a chance. Do something with all that time you’re saving not watching hockey.

Did I say mid-sized articles? Whoops. I’ll skip the quick takes this week.

Building a Better Bracket

March 17, 2005

By the time you read this, two of my final four teams will probably have lost already, but, as I usually fare pretty well in tourney brackets, I thought I would offer to you that most valuable of peeks into my brain and share my philosophy in picking brackets. This is big deal, now; akin to Colonel Sanders, with his wee beady eyes, telling you the eleven herbs and spices he puts in his chicken (makes you crave it fortnightly). But, in the interests of the improvement of human knowledge, and general progress and whatnot, I offer you Uncle Andy’s secret recipe.

Big-time players win big-time games

Exhibit one for this principle is the final four two years ago. Marquette, led by Dwyane Wade (how good has he turned out to be?) knocks off a good but relatively-starless Kentucky team to get in. Kansas, led by Hinrich and Collison also get there to join Carmelo Anthony’s Syracuse team and T.J. Ford’s Texas squad. If not for a sentimental attachment to Kentucky, I might have picked all four teams; as it was I went 3-for-4. This is my overarching principle, and the one which trumps in close calls. (Last year it also worked pretty well, as Okafor and Gordon led my UConn pick to the title).

So, who are this year’s big-time players? This isn’t always easy to pick, as a talented player isn’t necessarily big-time. Two years ago, Kansas beat an equally-talented Duke team to get in, but Hinrich and Collison’s were battle-tested seniors with a gleam in the eye that led me to pick them over the Dookies. “Clutchness” is clearly a tough thing to quantify, but experience counts for me as well as pulling out close games and a history of beating a good teams. In the end, its a bit of a gut reaction; you know a clutch player when you see it. This year, I’m relying on Chris Paul, Dee Brown and Hakim Warrick to lead their clubs into the final four. My fourth pick, North Carolina, will get there because of their overwhelming talent, but will fail to win it all (which there talent says they should) because of a lack of a big-time player. Felton and McCants should be able to take over any game down the stretch, but they seem to find a way to loose them instead. McCants is the most talented player in the nation, but in his biggest game so far, when Carolina played at Dook, he was non-existent. Felton was a turnover machine in the same game. Thus, though they should win the title, I think they’ll find a way to fumble it away in the end.

It should be noted that a big-time player is not enough by itself. Salim Stoudamire and Fransisco Garcia are two of my favorite players in the tournament this year, but I just don’t think they have enough help to get them very far (that, and Louisville got a terrible draw). But, when it’s a close call, go with the studs.

Hot or not

I also put a great deal of stock into this factor. Some teams peak at the right time, while others come into the tournament out of rhythm. Nolan Richardson always seemed to have his team peaking in March, so you could count on a deep run from the Hogs, while Tubby Smith has had trouble the last couple of years with his team peaking too early. Streaking teams this year include Georgia Tech (how scary are they right now?), Florida, and the other Huskies from Wash U. Teams that would have been better served by the tournament starting in early February include the Jayhawks, Boston College, and the afforementioned Wildcats.

Where’re you from again?Conferences have good and bad seasons, just like players, and that’s important to keep in mind, as 20-10 in the Big 10 may not be the same as in the Big12. This year, that comes into play particularly with the ACC and SEC, which are having they’re best and worst years, respectively, in a long time. The ACC probably deserved 3 number 1 seeds, and could have had four in the final four if Georgia Tech wasn’t in Wake’s bracket. They are head and shoulders above any other conference this year, so you have to give a premium even to their middle-tier schools, like NC State, when you put your bracket together. On the other hand, the SEC is way down this year, and you may have to discount their teams seedings a bit. Be cautious in hitching your wagon to an SEC-school this year. Other trends that seem evident this year are strength from mid-majors like the WCC and MAC, and slight down years for the Big 12, Pac 10 and Big 10 (past Illinois).Don’t get ahead of yourself

Work with matchups. There’s a temptation to come into the tournament with certain pet teams and want to have them go a certain distance, and thus ignore who they’re playing. I’ve fallen into this trap with Kentucky the last couple of years, feeling they were a final four team without really evaluating how they match up with who they’re playing. This year, I felt like Louisville and Florida were Elite Eight teams going in, but they drew brutal second round matchups, so I had to back off on those picks. Likewise, Vermont was my Cinderella sweet 16 pick coming in, but I don’t see how they have any shot against Syracuse.

Home cooking

If you’re looking for a deep tourney run from a top seed, it helps if they can stay close to home the whole time and get some crowd support. Syracuse used favorable settings two years ago to propel them into the final four on their path to the title. This year, Illinois seems to have a red carpet leading them to a title, as they would go from Indianapolis to Chicago to St. Louis if they keep winning. It also works the other way; the Dookies have a potential matchup with Oklahoma looming in Austin. Much to the chagrin of Teasips (that’s what we call UT folk down here), Sooner fans could invade Austin to give OU a strong home-court advantage over a higher-seeded team.

This message will self destruct in five secondsThat being said, what does anyone really know? My bracket will probably be obliterated by the end of the first weekend, and, you know what? That’s fine with me. That’s why we watch this crazy thing, to see a cinderella pull off the impossible. It’s gonna be sweet! Enjoy!Quick takes

NBA — check out the run the Rockets are on: Last Sunday they hold the Mavericks to about 80 points, then they went on a road trip where they pulled out a tough one against the Sonics, came from behind to beat the Suns by 20, easily beat the Kings, and survived against the Warriors. To celebrate, they came home and beat the Blazers by a brutal 31-point margin. They’re playing as well as anyone right now, and I don’t think anyone wants to see them in the first round of the playoffs. MLB — The Cardinals could win the NL Central by about 10 games. The Cubs gave up a lot of offense and are having injury trouble with their stud pitchers, and it looks like I’m the favorite for the fifth starter spot in Houston, another team which is depleted offensively. The Cards lost a little, but replaced it with Mark Mulder and a whole season of Larry Walker. Yikes! NFL — Keep your eye on the Bears in the NFC North this year. The Vikings lost Randy Moss (and their coach is busy scalping tickets), and the Packers lost two offensive linemen and a safety out of an already terrible secondary. The Lions are still trying to figure out who should throw the ball to their ridiculously studly receivers. If Rex Grossman can stay healthy and Muhsin Muhammed repeats his big year, Lovie Smith could turn that thing around. College Hoops — Bush league, Stan Heath. Just because you couldn’t pull your team together this year is no reason to quit the season early. What message are you sending your players? When the going gets tough, take your ball and go home? Besides, epecially with a young team like the Hogs, you could catch fire in the NIT and lay a foundation for something special next year. Woman’s Volleyball — Logan Tom, you can’t deny your feelings for me any longer. You’re not fooling anyone with this charade.

Happy St. Patty’s day!

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad world

March 10, 2005

Last Thursday, the most wonderful thing happened. As I was flipping through the stations, I checked out my usual haunts, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews, ESPNfinity, etc., when there it was, a spring training game between the Pirates and Yankees! No, I wasn’t excited because I’m a big Kip Wells fan, but because Spring training baseball is a sign that the long sporting winter was over, and one of the great seasons of a sports fan’s life was about to begin.

You see, the sports fan is a creature of cycles, and his life mirrors the ebbs and flows of the sporting calendar. February is the dark month (unless the Winter Olympics happen to be on), that great bleak period between the Super Bowl and the start of Spring training. For the die hard sports junkie, there is only the NBA to provide some meager sustenance to pull us through. The two great pinnacles of the sport are October, when the NFL and College football are in full swing, and the Baseball postseason keeps us on the edge of our seats, and March. Though October is my favorite season, March is always especially sweet, because it rewards the sports fan for being patient through his dry season with the greatest spectacle in the sporting world, March Madness.

Yes, while spring training is nice, it’s main significance is as a sign, like the first leaves falling in autumn or the first flowers blooming in spring. It says to the sports fan, “awake from your slumber, the conference tournaments are about to begin.” And suddenly the sports fan is tuning in at midnight to ESPN to see if Gonzaga beat St. Mary’s (they did) or Oral Roberts backed up their regular season conference crown with a tournament bid (they didn’t). Do the Hogs have another miracle SEC title run in them (I doubt it) or will they be relegated to the NIT. Dicky V and Digger work overtime, and #1 seeds rise and fall as Selection Sunday approaches.

Then it’s time to fill out your bracket (or brackets as is usually the case) and join in your online and office pools. Who’s it going to be this year? Because you know it happens every year. Some 12 seed makes a run to the sweet 16. Some 1 seed gets knocked off in the second round and ruins any hope you had for your bracket. Some young coach will lead his team to an upset and himself to a major conference job, and some player will transform himself from a second round pick to a lottery pick. But who will it be?

You remember them don’t you? The Tulsa teams lead by Tubby Smith and Bill Self that seemed to claw their way into the Sweet 16. The Santa Clara squad that shocked Arizona. Last year’s Xavier squad that made it to the Elite Eight. Great performances by Wally Sczerbiak, Steve Nash, John Wallace, Antonio McDyess (and yes, Michael, Carmelo Anthony) that propelled their teams to improbable runs. And great moments like buzzer beaters from Tyus Edney, Mike Miller, and (sweetest of all) Scottie Thurman.

Then comes the ultimate question. Which of these teams has the magic to end their year with a 6-game winning streak? Will it be the favorite, like the year Duke won its second title or the year Kentucky fielded an NBA All-Star team and seemed to beat teams by an average of 50 points. Or will a talented team catch fire and pull an upset like Duke’s first title after taking down the UNLV juggernaut in the semifinals, or the 3-guard Arizona squad that shocked what everyone assumed were the superior Wildcats from Kentucky. Will there be magic for a coach like Roy Williams this year as there was for Jim Boeheim two years ago? Or will Krysziewski add another line to a resume that may be the best ever in college hoops?

The great thing is that no one knows for sure, not even Digger and especially not Dicky V (Coach K would already have more titles than Wooden if he were right every year). What is for sure is that the month will be filled with upsets, magical moments, and magical performances, and that it will never, ever disappoint. So go ahead and call in sick for next Thursday and Friday, heat up some Rotel, grab a tasty beverage, and sit back and enjoy the greatest spectacle sports has to offer.

Quick takes

MLB — who was the best pickup this offseason? Well, probably one of the New Yorkers (Johnson or Beltran), but don’t forget about Moises Alou in San Fransiso. He may be the laziest outfielder in baseball, but the guy can still rake, and hitting behind Bonds he may have about 200 RBI this year. NBA — Does Shawn Marion have an uglier shot than Bill Cartwright? Quite possibly. It’s almost as ugly as Steve Nash’s hair, and that’s ugly. NFL — Can anyone explain the salary cap to me? So, somehow the Titans are about $2 billion over the cap and have to release half their roster, but the Raiders, despite signing every aging free agent this side of Jim Thorpe the last couple of years still have the cap space to strenghten their Commitment to Excrement by signing Randy Moss and Lamont Jordan? College Hoops — Want someone to watch out for in this year’s tournament? If Vermont makes it in, keep an eye on Taylor Coppenrath. He’s about 6’8″ and can stroke it from long range, and I get a real Wally Sczerbiak vibe from him. Golf — Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are playing better than anyone in the world right now, and nothing could be better for the sport. These guys have more game and charisma than anyone, and watching them duke it out for some majors will be must see TV. Sorry, Vijay. Nascar — zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

The Fantastic Four

March 3, 2005

So, how would you like Juwan Howard’s job? Sure, you get to hang out with T-Mac and Yao, but check out how Juwan spent his February. After easing into the month against the Sixers, Howard had to guard the league’s reigning MVP in Kevin Garnett before tangling with the unique skills of Lamar Odom. After an “easy” matchup with Antonio Davis, he faced, in succession, Jermaine O’Neal, Zach Randolph and Antawn Jamison. After a rest against Seattle’s Reggie Evans, it was on to the big fundamental, Tim Duncan, before finishing the month up with the bruising Carlos Boozer. But this was an easy month for Juwan; he didn’t have to face matchup nightmares Chris Webber, Dirk Nowitski or Shawn Marion. All of which illustrates how the power forward position has become the premiere position in the NBA.

The NBA, more than any of the other big 3 1/2 sports (can you really count hockey any more?), is defined by it’s stars. After the Magic-Bird epoch, we had the Jordan era, and are now in the last stages of the Shaq regime. (And though we dream of a Ming dynasty in Houston, the future surely belongs to King James). But while Shaq and Kobe have been the face of this era, no position has the across-the-board quality of the four spot. Tim Duncan will retire as the best ever at the position, and Garnett will likely be his closest competition. However, he may not hold the title for long if superfreak Amare Stoudamire continues to develop and moves back to the four, which seems to be his natural position. Then there’s Dirk Nowitski, the 7-footer that shoots like Bird and might be the best four in the league if he played any defense. And what of Webber, or Rasheed Wallace, or Jermaine O’Neal, who would have likely dominated the position in most eras, but are in the second-tier of power forwards in this one? Or unique talents like Lamar Odom and Antoine Walker? Elton Brand? Zach Randolph? Antawn Jamison?

So why has this become the glamor position in the league, if not for highlights, then at least for effectiveness? Here are some guesses:

How slow can you go?For those that remember the eighties, it was a time of freewheeling, high-flying, ne’er-play defense basketball. Teams averaged well over 100 points, the greatest dynasty of the time was called showtime, and the game was played in transition rather than the half-court set. The stars of the game were predictably transition players — 3’s like Bird, Dr. J, and Dominique, and guards like Magic, Isiah and the young Michael. There were great power forwards as well, but, other than McHale, most of them played more like 3’s; Worthy and the young Barkley and Malone were more well-known for running the floor than posting up. Then came the triangle offense, which dominated the game in the Jordan and Shaq eras, and forced coaches to focus on defense and running precise offensive sets to increase the odds of scoring every time down. As a result, scoring has plummeted in recent years, and the emphasis on half-court offense means that your most valuable player is one you can feed on the low blocks, i.e. centers and power forwards. This slower game has created an arena in which power forwards can thrive.The Shaq effect

Another factor is the 300-pound gorilla (more like 340-pound gorilla) , Shaquille O’Neal, who has dominated the league like no other man in its history. The slower pace favors him more than anyone else, and his presence in the league may have lead to some true centers playing the four spot. Think about it; if you matchup with Shaq, you’re nearly guaranteed to foul out, you’ll be physically punished all night, and you’re likely to expend so much energy on defense it throws off your offensive game. Not that guarding Duncan and Garnett is fun, but they don’t pound a sledgehammer into your chest all night the way Shaq does. It simply benefits a team more to have its skilled post player in a position where he can stay out of foul trouble (and thus in the game) and save his energy for the offensive end.

The freak factorThis era features some of the most uniquely-gifted players the NBA has ever seen. Kevin Garnett has the skill and size to play any position on the floor. Dirk Nowitski has the body of a center and the shooting touch of a Reggie Miller. Rasheed Wallace, Chris Webber and Antoine Walker are also superior shooters, though not in Nowitski’s class. Amare Stoudamire may have more sheer athleticism than any post player in history. Webber, Walker, and Lamar Odom are all gifted passers with the post moves to play the four. Unusual talents like this have no real “natural” position, so where do you play them to maximize their effectiveness? The four position seems to be the best answer, to take advantage of their size and rebounding on defense, while still giving them the chance to run the floor on occasion, or trail the break like Nowitski to hit the three. It also presents matchup problems for teams not blessed with a freakish four; how can you guard a big man whose range can stretch to the three-point line? Most times, you don’t. The futureScoring is up this year, thanks in large part to the razzle-dazzle Suns who moved their great four, Amare Stoudamire, to the center position, and replaced him with their great small forward, Shawn Marion. Is this a sign of things to come? One can only hope, though the Suns may have to prove their formula works in the playoffs before other teams buy in. However, the momentum seems be trending to a more wide-open game that will favor the wing positions more. The stars who will carry the game in the future, LeBron and Dwyane Wade (along with Stoudamire), may lead us to a game that looks more like the 80’s than the late 90’s. However, before they do, we should take a moment to realize the incredible power forwards we’ve gotten to watch these last several years.Quick takesNBA — how good is LeBron James? I think he’ll average a triple-double one year before he retires, joining Oscar Robertson as the only man to do so. Just remember, he’s 20! How good is Carmelo Anthony? I’m not convinced he’s a franchise player. I get a real Jim Jackson vibe from him. College Hoops — Who’s the best shooter in College basketball? Before you say J.J. Redick, check out these numbers: Salim’s Stoudamire’s shooting 53.4% from 3-point range to Redick’s 41.2%, and his range is just as lewd as Redick’s. Of course, he doesn’t play for Dook, so you won’t hear Dicky V screaming about him nearly as much. MLB — Can anyone challenge the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL? Keep your eye on the Indians. They have as much good young hitting as anyone and their rotation features four studs — Sabathia, Millwood, Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee. They should win the Central and be very scary heading into October. NFL — Matt Jones ran a WHAT? 6’6″ white boys are supposed to run 4.39 in the forty. Somebody has to take a chance on this guy in the first round. If he can be taught to run a pass route at all, he’ll be devastating. NHL — can you spell MLS?