April 30, 2005
Sports Radio is a Sound Salvation
The Washington Nationals have arrived. The red "W" cap has replaced Redskins burgundy as the sports geek status symbol in the Nation's Capital. Names like [Brad] Wilkerson, Livan [Hernandez], and [Chad] Cordero are starting to work their way into everyday conversation. The Nats are now the lead story on the 11 PM sportscast, the top of the fold in the Washington Post — save for those days in which the improbable appearance of the Washington Wizards in the NBA playoffs takes top billing.
It's amazing how popular the Nationals are, considering how badly their electronic media marketing has been botched. The team is in a television quagmire, thanks to cable network deal Major League Baseball gave to Peter Angelos — a sweetheart for the Orioles owner, but a bitter pill for Washingtonian fans who won't even be able to see two-thirds of the Nats games on television this season under the current deal.
The team is paying to have its games on two local radio stations: 1050 AM, a federal news talk station, and Z104, a "hot" adult contemporary station on the FM dial. Neither station is exactly a blowtorch when it comes to signal strength; many fans have complained to yours truly that Z104 and tall buildings aren't exactly on the best of terms.
For me, the bigger issue is that the Nationals are putting their games on FM radio. It's the first time I've listened to a baseball game in that format.
I'm not a fan.
Baseball is perfect on AM radio. It's a leisurely game, with announcers who don't have to be staccato machine guns like hockey and basketball play-by-play yakkers. The volume is lower. You can count the seconds between sentences. The subtle static of the AM band covers the broadcast like a sweet syrup, filling in the gaps in which the announcers aren't speaking and the crowd isn't murmuring loudly enough.
On FM, the silence is deafening. You almost wish the announcers would talk more, because those pleasant gaps of serenity on AM seem like a waste of technology on FM — like projecting a Super 8 film on a HDTV flatscreen. Baseball on FM radio sounds like those shows on C-SPAN, where the crowd is rustling in its seats before some guy who wrote a book about William Howard Taft steps to the mic.
Maybe I'm a little biased towards AM radio. I've got some vivid sports memories with it.
I remember sneaking my grandfather's old transistor radio under my pillow as a kid to listen to Steve "Captain Midnight" Somers on WFAN in New York. His show would run from midnight, and usually featured an eclectic collection of callers who were either custodians, insomniacs, or bitter listeners who could never get through to “Mike and the Mad Dog” in the afternoon.
I remember listening to Bob Murphy call the Mets and Marty Glickman call the Jets. I remember listening to Chris Moore, now an ESPN Radio host, do the Devils games for WABC in New York with a winking sardonic humor that was a perfect fit for the then-struggling franchise.
I remember hearing that the Mets got Brett Saberhagen on AM radio. I remember hearing the Devils were awarded Scott Stevens by an arbitrator on AM radio. I remember raking the leaves on my front lawn the day Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive. It was very cold that day.
I have a lot of memories of the Devils in the Stanley Cup playoffs when it comes to AM radio. When I was a senior in high school, I worked at Burger King. They had me making the food, but being a social butterfly didn't exactly translate into the kind of consistent productivity they expect at the Home of the Whopper. So they moved me to the drive-thru window and made me mop up at night.
It was 1995, and the Devils were tied with the Penguins in Game 2 of their second-round series. I listened to most of the third period while mopping up, using the soggy cloth and the wooden shaft as a pseudo-hockey stick to mimic the plays I'd been hearing.
I nearly snapped that damn stick in half when Jaromir Jagr scored to tie the game with 1 minute, 15 seconds left on a cheap goal off the skate of defenseman Tommy Albelin.
With 39 seconds left in regulation, Scott Stevens collected a Penguins' dump-in at his own blueline and skated in a large crescent back out of the zone. Just before reaching the Pittsburgh blueline, Stevens gave everything he had to a slapshot that went off goalie Ken Wregget's blocker and rebounded into the left face-off circle. Here's where the Devils' reputation as a trapping team served them well — the Penguins weren't expecting Stevens to be pressing on the play. None of the Pittsburgh players picked him up as he skated into the zone, crossed over, and backhanded the puck past a stunned Wregget for the game-winning goal.
I threw the mop in the air and did a victory lap around the restaurant, carefully avoiding an embarrassing spill on the newly clean floor. At this point, I was pretty sure my manager was aware of the small earpiece I had connected to that old transistor radio in my pants pocket. But I didn't care. And besides, I was one of the few employees who could both close the store and legally drive a car — I was indispensable.
I remember passing a walkman back and forth between myself and a prom date so we could keep track of the NHL playoffs: her Rangers, my Devils. (It's amazing what kind of irreconcilable differences you can bridge with a lovely corsage.)
Most of all, I remember all of those times I've driven around Maryland and Virginia, doing my damnedest to find a radio signal from New York to hear a Mets, Jets, Nets, or Devils game. Specifically, one night in June of 2000, when I was covering a high-school state championship soccer match in Richmond. The Devils were playing the Dallas Stars in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals, one win away from their second championship. I was driving home to Rockville, Maryland — about two hours away – listening to the game on a radio station of New York. The signal was going in and out. Shots were taken, and static would distort whether the puck ended up in the back of the net or the goalie's glove.
I sped home as quickly as I could, fully aware that a few points on my license would dampen even the sweetest Cup celebration. I reached my apartment in Rockville just as overtime was starting. Twenty-eight minutes and 20 seconds into overtime, Jason Arnott ended the game and gave the Cup to the Devils.
That part, I watched on television.
What Are Your Favorite Sports Radio Moments as a Fan?
Send them over to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll publish the best ones in a later column.
Greg Wyshynski is also a weekly columnist for SportsFan Magazine. His columns appear every Saturday on Sports Central. You can e-mail Greg at email@example.com.
The Sacramento Kings' Demise
Sacramento, a city with a population one-ninth that of Los Angeles, was selected as the location for the Capitol of California in 1854. That victory, though permanent, was avenged by Los Angeles on June 2, 2002 at Arco Arena.
It's true — just ask a Kings fan. That was the night when the Kings shot 2-of-20 from three-point range and 53% from the free-throw line, and still took the Lakers to overtime in Game 7 of the 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals. Then, in overtime, Mike Bibby took over for the Kings, as he scored 14 points in the final eight minutes of action. Despite Bibby's leadership, the Kings lost by six.
At the time, it was just another disappointing playoff loss to the Lakers, who had just won their third straight Western Conference title. The Kings had been considered the best team in the NBA that season, and the Lakers knew it and were humbled by the strenuous series with the defending champs.
"The Kings were the better team tonight, they deserved to win, but somehow we did," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson after the game.
The Kings, a team that was assembled to win a championship, had not done so. The starting lineup was nearly an all-star roster. Chris Webber was one of the best power forwards in the game, and he was flanked by Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic. Doug Christie, one of the best defenders in the NBA, handled shooting guard duties, and Bibby — who was brought in to replace the exciting but erratic Jason Williams — played point. Sacramento also featured one of the best sixth men in the NBA, guard Bobby Jackson.
In just three short years, however, the Kings have undergone major changes. Only Bibby and Stojakovic remain starters, as Webber, Divac, and Christie are all playing in different teams. Webber's exit is most significant, since he was viewed as the franchise player in Sacramento for many years, a la Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, or Tim Duncan in San Antonio.
And now, the Kings are down 2-0 in their opening round series with the Seattle Supersonics. The Sonics are a nice team, but this is precisely the type of team Sacramento used to pound before playing against, and losing to, the Lakers.
It is almost as if the Kings never recovered from that June 2 loss to the Lakers. Maybe it was after that game that the Maloof brothers saw the writing on the wall, which was: Webber & Co. cannot beat the Lakers.
The Maloof's housecleaning produced solid 50-32 record for the Kings. And with such a record, Sacramento fans had to have some hope that this was their year to reach the finals. But Chris Webber and Doug Christie have been replaced by Kenny Thomas and Cuttino Mobley. Maybe Webber could never have delivered a championship to Sacramento. But is Kenny Thomas the answer?
Should the Kings lose to Seattle, Sacramento will find themselves smack in the middle of professional sports' abyss, a place where one wonders whether the team is peaking and competing for a championship, or whether it needs to rebuild. That abyss is not a fun place to be.
It is ironic that the Kings' impetus for the restructuring of its team was the dominance and makeup of the Lakers, a team that no longer has Shaquille O'Neal or its guru coach, and as a result, missed the playoffs by a country mile this year. How different it could have been for the Kings if, during that fateful game in June, 2002, they had shot 3-of-20 from three-point range, or 55% from the stripe.
April 29, 2005
Sports Q&A: NASCAR Versus Formula 1
Bernie from Atlanta asks, "Will the popularity of NASCAR in the United States ever be challenged by Formula 1?"
Formula 1 will never rival NASCAR in the States, although its popularity here has increased, with the return of the United States Grand Prix, and will continue to rise in the future. However, popularity in America is not a major key to Formula 1's success. F1 is a worldwide phenomenon already; besides the United States Grand Prix, F1 has added dates on the schedule with races in Bahrain, India, Malaysia, and China, in recent years. NASCAR itself is spreading its influence internationally, with recent exhibition races at the Suzuka circuit in Japan, and with a Busch Series race in Mexico this year.
I think F1 realizes they can't convert a NASCAR fan to F1; they can only hope to capture the true "racing" fan, on who appreciates any form of racing. Consequently, NASCAR is not likely to convert F1 fans to NASCAR. In both cases, fans of each have likely formed their opinions of the opposing series without ever even watching a race.
If you ask F1 fans why they don't like NASCAR, they will tell you that stock cars are technologically inferior to F1 machines, and that it takes virtually no talent to drive a NASCAR ride. Ask NASCAR fans their opinion of F1, and they'll have the opposite opinion: F1 cars practically drive themselves, and therefore, it doesn't take much of a driver to handle one.
To an extent, both are right. F1 cars are technologically superior, with gadgets like traction control, clutch and shifters on the steering wheel, and rev limiters to gauge pit lane speed. Technology does most of the work for fighter jets; does any one doubt the ability of jet pilots? Shouldn't F1 cars be technologically superior? Let's see, at a typical grand prix, you have Ferraris, Jaguars, McLarens, and BMW-powered cars. At a NASCAR race, you have Chevrolets, Fords, and Dodges. You could probably buy five or six Chevrolet Monte Carlos for the price you'd pay for one Ferrari. So, yes, F1 cars have a technological advantage, and the F1 car does more for the driver than the NASCAR vehicle.
Does this make it easier to drive an F1 vehicle? In some respects, but F1 drivers exclusively drive on circuits, so the amount of braking, shifting, and turning is much greater than with what a NASCAR driver deals. NASCAR drivers drive cars that are less responsive than F1 cars, and they deal with much more traffic, as NASCAR races feature 43 cars, while grand prix race only 22, at the most. A NASCAR season is certainly more grueling; NASCAR drivers race in more than twice as many races than F1 drivers, and turn out significantly more mileage. So, who's to say which drivers are more talented?
Formula 1 is trying to increase its fan base in the United States. Last year at Indianapolis, NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and Williams F1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya exchanged cars for an exhibition drive at Indy's F1 circuit. This probably did more for impressing NASCAR fans than anything. NASCAR fans are a loyal bunch; many drink Pepsi because the Pepsi logo is on Gordon's car. So, just the fact that Gordon drove Montoya's car will spark a little interest in F1 for the NASCAR fan. And the simple fact that NASCAR and F1 both visit Indianapolis (NASCAR's Brickyard 400, F1 Grand Prix of the United States) should increase the notoriety of both series.
Loyal F1 fans in America must rise early on Sundays during the season to view most grand prix. With starts usually around 7:30 AM EST, the NASCAR fan won't be awake to see these races. However, CBS will televise four F1 races this year on a tape-delayed basis (they will televise June's Canadian Grand Prix live), F1's American exposure will dramatically increase. CBS' first telecast was last Sunday, April 24th, with the showing of the San Marino Grand Prix.
Luckily for CBS and Formula 1, that race was probably the most entertaining grand prix in several years, as seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher came from 13th on the grid to chase Renault's Fernando Alonso to the finish. Schumacher was nose to tail on Alonso for the closing 10 laps, delighting fans with the type of close racing that F1 normally lacks. Alonso held off Schumacher for his third straight win of the season, but a rivalry between the veteran Schumacher and the young Spaniard was born. Schumacher has been so dominant capturing his last three world titles that a rivalry was non-existent. So, provided any NASCAR fans were watching (they probably were; NASCAR's race in Phoenix took place the night before), then they saw an exciting race. Were they converted? No. Did they take notice? More than likely.
For the last three years, Red Bull has sponsored the "Red Bull Driver Search," a program to prepare young American drivers for a future in Formula 1. 2002 winner Scott Speed currently competes in the GP2 series, a proving ground for aspiring F1 drivers. Californian Speed has also served as a test driver for Red Bull's F1 program, so the prospects of an impending F1 ride are positive. Should Speed earn a ride in F1, America interest in the sport would pique, and Speed certainly has a marketable name.
So, the popularity of Formula 1 in America is rising, but it will never match that of NASCAR. F1 is comparable to soccer; worldwide, soccer is the most popular sport, but it will never touch the popularity of football in America.
Jason from Raleigh, N.C. asks. "Should Gary Sheffield have been punished for his incident with Boston fans on April 14th?"
No, Sheffield shouldn't have been punished because he didn't do anything necessarily punishable, although he did overreact to what was, at worst, a grazing by one fan's hand. I haven't studied the footage in detail, and I don't want to; it's boring, except for the security guard's perfect leap into the stands. From what I've seen, the fan supposedly "in error" wasn't even looking at Sheffield when the contact allegedly occurred. Did the fan touch Sheffield? Probably. Did he intend to? I doubt it. Should his season tickets be revoked because Sheffield has a short fuse and apparently wasn't thinking of the Pacers/Pistons brawl months earlier? Hell no. In Sheffield's defense, at least he didn't throw a punch at any one.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not accusing Sheffield of unknowingly inciting a riot. But he could easily have done so. The Yankees, in Boston, surrounded by rowdy Red Sox fans? Sure, the potential was there for this incident to get way out of hand. Did it need to even reach the level of confrontation that was present? Not for what the fan did. Can Sheffield say for a fact that the fan intended to hit him? Can the fan say for a fact that he didn't touch Sheffield? The answer to both questions is no. I give the rest of the fans nearby in the stands that night credit for restraint. Someone in those stands could have reacted negatively and assaulted Sheffield in some way. But no one did. Some fan apparently threw a beer. Luckily, he/she missed. Otherwise, we could have seen baseball's version of the Pacers/Pistons NBA brawl.
I'll give the Pacers' Ron Artest on ounce of credit, just an ounce. He was hit by a full cup of beer after he walked away from what looked like a fight with the Pistons' Ben Wallace. Artest had more of a right to retaliate than Sheffield did. Neither should have reacted, but they both did. Had neither reacted, there would be nothing to talk about. Had Artest been able to find the fan who hit him with the beer, and pummeled him without interference from others, retribution would have been served. And I doubt anyone would fault Artest as much as he has been criticized. But it was the fans who got involved, and Artest's teammates who got involved, that made the incident so ugly.
I think, in the mind of some fans, just being involved in a brawl like this gives them a semblance of fame that they otherwise would never see in their pathetic existences. Are any of the fans involved in that brawl famous? No. I don't know any of their names. Are they infamous? Somewhat, but they are still losers for their actions. The players involved, notably Jermaine O'Neal and Stephen Jackson, seemed to just be "headhunting," looking for anyone to hit. They're big guys; they've probably gone a lifetime and never fought any one their own size. It's only a matter of time before an athlete goes after a fan, and the athlete finds himself on the short end of a butt-kicking from of fan who happens to be bigger than the athlete, or a more talented fighter (other than hockey players and Charles Barkley, I'm not too impressed by the fighting skills of athletes).
So, to answer your question again: no, Sheffield should not be punished, nor should the fan. As long as fans are sitting that close to the field of play, contact is bound to happen. Baseball fans are constantly leaning onto the field of play to grab a ball. Yankee players and fans should fondly remember the kid who leaned over the outfield fence and stole a ball from an Oriole outfielder. And, if Moises Alou didn't choose to give Steve Bartman a beat down, Sheffield certainly had no right to retaliate. Players should realize that there could possibly be a little contact, accidental or not, when fans are near the field of play. Some fans just want to say they touched a professional athlete. Of course, there are those fans who want to say they were punched by a professional athlete, so they can sue.
Get Your Questions Answered!
Do you have a question or a comment? Care to challenge me to a duel? Looking for Mr. Goodbar? Searching for Bobby Fischer? Need a drug test tampered with? Then send me your questions/comments/medical records with your name and hometown to firstname.lastname@example.org. You may get the answer you're looking for in the next column on Friday, May 13th.
All (in) the Rage
Every so often, an event transpires in the world of sports so transcendent that it alters the very fabric that weaves our perceptions and our realities. Jackie Robinson's heroic charge across baseball's color barrier, Muhammad Ali's "Thrilla in Manilla," anything Mike Tyson has done or said since 1988, Lance Armstrong's almost otherworldly performance in the face of anonymity, doubt, cancer, and cheating allegations. This article will address one such event that may have slid under the mainstream's radar ... the phenomenon they call "all in."
Used to be, the phrase "all in" was a seldom-stated pronouncement of one's commitment to a relationship ("Baby, I'm all into you!") or an answer to a question a husband might ask his wife ("Where are the kids?"; "They are all in here."). If you're from across the pond, to be "all in" simply means that you're spent, tired and weak from a long day of work or play. Separately, the phrase is nothing more than a combination of monosyllabic noun and adverb. But when applied under the perfect conditions and in the ideal scenario, this little grammatically-flawed phrase holds more power than the layperson can fathom.
I am, of course, referring to the term popularized in the very recent past by the likes of "Jesus" Ferguson, Phil Hellmuth, and any movie or television personality that can be gotten on Celebrity Poker Showdown. The television age has opened the public's eyes to a craft perfected by such pioneers as "Amarillo Slim," Puggy Pearson, and "Treetop" Straus.
A whole new breed of athlete, having honed his or her skill in the smoke-filled back rooms of warehouses, dank groggeries, and cabarets, has emerged, packing a wallet full of money, a pocket full of lucky charms, and a truckload of lies, tricks, and dreams. These are the often portly and somewhat slovenly athletes of the game called Texas Hold 'Em and they've become every bit as large a part of our sporting world as the chiseled leapers of the NBA, the swollen goliaths of the NFL, and crafty batsmen of the MLB.
What does this magic phrase really mean, you ask? Well, that's quite simple ... to go "all in" is, as it is known in popular culture these days, to wager all funds available in any given table game with the obvious intent of winning you're opponent(s) monies, generally in a tournament forum. More succinctly put, it is to put all your faith in one glorious hand and bet all your money. As alluded to earlier, the term has wormed its way into the pop culture lexicon through hours of cable television poker exposure and weekend card games with your buddies.
Never before has Johnny Average, sitting in his favorite La-Z-Boy, been able to feel so close to a professional athlete. Suddenly, his two pack-a-day smoking habit and fast-food-crafted abs don't stand in the way of a lucrative sponsorship on an ESPN network. Now I know, there is always the question of whether or not you can call poker a "sport," but if bass fishing, auto racing, and curling are sports, well, friends, so is poker.
That being said, it is unique to the sporting world in at least one regard, and that is it gives the aforementioned Mr. Average a chance to win (or, unfortunately, to lose) like the pro athletes he's longed to be like. (Just one quick aside here ... I can't help but notice the irony of the pro sports fan. We long to be on par with these incredible athletes, all the while eating ourselves out of shape and lounging around like hibernating bears ... the longer we watch in awe, the less chance we have of being like them. It's quite a bizarre human trait. Fortunately, this "poker as a sport" argument helps heal those wounds, but I digress...)
Like a right hook from Ali or a Superfly Snooka dive from the top ropes (dating myself a bit there with that vague WWF reference, but you get the point), "all in" is one of the all time power moves in sport. Unlike a 500-foot Sammy Sosa homerun or two-handed Tracy McGrady windmill dunk, though, this power move is one that can be repeated by even the novice pseudo-athlete. This latter fact is the difference-maker, the part that endears it to you and to me and to Johnny Average alike.
Never before has two simple worlds had the ability to turn the sporting community on its collective head. Admit it, you'd switch from a Colts/Patriots playoff football game, if even just for a minute, to watch a 350-lb. man wearing plastic dime-store lizard glasses push his stack of chips into the middle one time with pocket aces, regardless of what quarter it was, what the score was, or who had the ball and where. Reread that last sentence one more time for effect and truly think about its content. Now tell me this, wouldn't you call that a revolution?
I know I would.
April 28, 2005
NBA Action ... It's Still FANtastic!
I've got a confession to make. I've been infected with a bug once thought dormant in North America ... a virus that was once rendered nearly obsolete by poorly-timed rap albums, gang-related shootings, marijuana blazing, and tattoos. If you haven't yet guessed, the illness to which I allude is NBA-itis and it seems to once again be "FANtastic!"
Since the departure of one Michael Jeffrey Jordan (the 1998 departure, I should add), things on the hardwood just hadn't been the same. The beauty of the "Dream Shake" and the "UTEP Two-Step" had been replaced by kids not yet in their 20s doing little more than running, jumping, and dunking on the court and rapping, partying, and clowning off of it. The artwork of the game, the beauty that defined its renaissance era in the '80s and '90s, had eroded to such an extent that it became difficult to sit through even half of a game without longing for what used to be.
Well, long no more ... you need only tune in your television set to one of the holy trinity of NBA stations (ABC, ESPN, or TNT) to once again recapture the fluidity of a well-executed give-and-go, the purity of a 24-foot jump shot, and the rhapsody of a baseline spin-move and power dunk. Even more shocking, you will likely see a plethora of passes, v-cuts, and even (gulp) a little defense being played!
No, I did not just take a Shaquille O'Neal elbow to the head and I do fully realize this is the very same sport that brought us Ron Artest's Magic Mystery Tour through the Palace at Auburn Hills just a few short months ago, but stay with me here.
Where there once was a coach-choker (Latrell Sprewell), a teen-groper (Kobe Bryant), and a weed-smoker (Damon Stoudamire), there is now a Chinese giant (Yao Ming), a coach defiant (George Karl), and, well, another weed-smoker (sorry, Carmelo Anthony, can't win 'em all). Where we once had internal strife: Shaq/Kobe, Larry Brown/A.I. (or vice-versa), Vince Carter/Raptors, we now have inner-peace: Shaq/Dwayne Wade, Larry Brown/No A.I. (or vice-versa), Vince/Nets. The chest thump has been replaced by the chest pass. The show-up replaced by the lay-up.
The bad seeds remain, to be sure, but they are shipped off to outposts in Portland, Orlando, and Golden State to wallow in anonymity. Those who remain in the public's eye are forced to conform to a disciplinarian coach's way or face the certain embarrassment of having to catch the mascot at his team's halftime dunk contest, or worse, having to lose to said mascot (are you listening, Vince?).
This year's playoff experience, while burgeoning in terms of duration, has already proven to be chalk full of passion, heart, and moments from a bygone era that had been lost. Clutch shooting, hard-nosed defense, and aggressive rebounding have been the hallmark of teams winning thus far in the playoffs.
San Antonio, recent winners of an NBA title and a year-long seminar on how to win games while generating as little excitement as possible, lost to the younger, more athletic version of themselves in their first playoff game as the Nuggets — yes. the Nuggets — look to make their mark on this year's playoff picture.
The Baby Bulls, led by Chris Who-scioni, upset the favored Washington Wizards in a series that has to be the most obvious sign of the apocalypse to date. The Mavericks are in "Big Trouble in Little China" as they make their way to Yao's house in Houston with their playoff hopes strung thinner than one of Dirk Nowitzki's legs. I won't even start talking about Reggie Miller's last hurrah in Beantown, for fear of him hitting 30-foot jumpers over me in retaliation. All in all, we're talking a whole lot of excitement and drama that is resuscitating a sport that was quite obviously drowning in its own financial windfalls.
Serendipitously enough, a year of rebirth has featured a resurgence of big man play, three-point marksmanship and team-oriented motion offenses, all staples of past league champions and the calling card to the great teams of the last two decades in the 20th century. The on-the-court play is almost a carbon copy of the Magic's Showtime Lakers, the legendary Larry Bird-led Celtic teams, and Jordan's Lova-Bulls with the glorious exclusions of those archaic form-fitting uniforms and those equally atrocious Bill Laimbeer pick-and-rolls.
Undoubtedly, Red Aurbach is smiling in heaven ... what? You say he's still alive? Okay, never mind, but geez, the guy must be 110 by now. No matter, you get my point. Even the most diehard throwback fan can get some satisfaction from today's game.
With King James on the horizon, Celtic Pride somewhat restored, Shaq finally content, and T-Mac, Vince, and Amare Stoudemire peddling their athletic wares in front of packed houses once again, the future of the NBA looks brighter than it has in a very long time. Stalwarts that were on life support just four or five short years ago have new life. Sure, there are still some concerns ... Ron Artest, any Portland Trailblazer, varying degrees of franchise turmoil in New York, Toronto, Atlanta, and New Orleans ... but without failure, there could be no success, so you just got to grin and bear it if you're one of these have-nots.
The positive signs are all there ... technical fouls are down, more of the "old regime" of players and coaches are finding themselves at or near the top of team organizational charts, playoff viewership is on the upswing and, most importantly, both the Bulls and Wizards will not be able to play into the next round, perhaps lengthening our world's demise.
While, admittedly, there is still work to do for the NBA to once again be heaped into the same wildly popular and lucrative pile as the NFL, it does appear a corner has been turned with the fans. Long story short, this is one sickness I'm willing to let run its course.
NASCAR Top 10 Power Rankings: Week 8
Note: The quotes in this article are fictional.
1. Jimmie Johnson — Despite finishing out of the top 10 for the first time this year, Johnson actually increased his Nextel Cup points lead from 135 to 173 points. As has been the case lately, Johnson and the Lowe's crew had difficulty mastering the car's setup, and Johnson couldn't quite manage his 14th straight top-10.
"Yeah, I fought two battles in Phoenix," explains Johnson. "One, against my steering wheel. And two, against that lunatic Tony Stewart. This guy's giving me the finger when I try to pass him, just out of camera range, I might add. He's obviously got anger management issues, aside from the sanity issue, as well as an inferiority complex. I'm a better driver, I have a better car, and I represent the superior home improvement store. Tony would probably be a safer driver wearing a straight jacket than his driver's suit."
Johnson may be checking his rear view mirror for Stewart at Talladega, where the slightest bump can cause major havoc. Johnson will be intent on establishing a new top-10 streak, and padding his points lead.
"If Tony wants to play dirty, that's fine," cautions Johnson. "I can get nasty, too. That's why Talladega kicks off the official Jimmie Johnson 'Take No Junk From the Punk' Tour 2005, coming to a concrete wall near you. Tony's literally been on fire lately, so he should know that if you play with fire, you get burned. No pun intended."
2. Kurt Busch — Busch captured his first win of the season, and fourth for Roush Racing, by passing pole-sitter Jeff Gordon at the start, and essentially dominating the entire race. Busch led 219 of 312 laps, including the final 43, holding off the challenge of Michael Waltrip.
"Nothing says pressure like seeing a NAPA Auto Parts Vehicle bearing down on you," says Busch. "Luckily, I was able to hold Michael off. It's a little different when I'm cruising around town and one of those NAPA trucks gets behind you. It's very intimidating being followed by a truck wearing a giant, yellow baseball cap."
Busch's victory placed him back at number two in the Nextel Cup points race, a position he held before his run of bad luck. It also ended a brutal string of races in which Busch had some intense meetings with concrete walls.
"I don't know what's worse," Busch comments, "hitting the wall or being punched by Jimmy Spencer. I think I'd take the wall; at least you can reason with a wall."
In his last eight races at Talladega, Busch has seven top-10s. Assuming his run of bad luck ended with Saturday's win, Busch should remain exactly where he is — as Jimmie Johnson's biggest obstacle to the Nextel Cup crown.
3. Greg Biffle — In less than a week's time, Biffle experienced the extreme highs and extreme lows of a NASCAR driver. On April 17, Biffle won at Texas. Last Saturday in Phoenix, a pit road mishap ruined Biffle's day, forcing him to retire 140 laps short of the finish in 41st, a day after a strong second row qualifying run.
"You know how the old saying goes," explains Biffle. "I think it goes, 'Damn it! Son of a #$@&%! Dad gummit!"
Yeah, I think most drivers are familiar with that saying, especially Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart.
Biffle's downfall began on lap 169, when, as he was leaving his pit stall, he rammed the car of Mike Bliss, who was entering his pit area. The No. 16 car suffered a punctured radiator, which Biffle didn't realize until later. Unaware of the car's plight, Biffle turned out three laps without water in the radiator.
"The result? Barbequed engine," says Biffle. "I love the smell of napalm in the morning, but I hate the smell of cooked Ford in the evening."
In four Nextel Cup starts at Talladega, Biffle's best result is a 15th at last year's Aaron's 499. Dominant on intermediate tracks, Biffle is still finding his comfort zone in the restrictor plate races.
4. Jeff Gordon — Gordon won the pole in Phoenix, but was almost immediately passed by Kurt Busch on the start.
"That's like being dealt a 3-7 off suit in Texas Hold 'Em," notes Gordon. "And unless you're Chris Moneymaker, you can't bluff your way out of that one. In NASCAR, there is no bluffing. You've either got it or you don't. We didn't have it last Saturday in Phoenix. But I did have it that time on Celebrity Poker Showdown when I whipped a bunch of has-been celebrities including Angie Dickinson, Penn Gillette, and Kathy Griffin."
Gordon still managed a 12th-place finish, and moved up one spot to number four in the Cup standings.
"And at Talladega, we're pulling out the ace in the hole," says Gordon.
What? Nitrous oxide? A flux capacitor? All-star test pilot Chuck Yeager in the passenger seat?
"No none of that," says Gordon. "We've got Jedi master Yoda on the hood of the car, and he's swinging a mean light saber. My name may not be John Force, that of the toothy funny car driver, but the force will be with me."
Gordon is the defending Aaron's 499 champion, and should battle the DEI cars of Dale Earnhardt and Michael Waltrip for this year's crown.
5. Elliot Sadler — Sadler's paint scheme at Phoenix reflected the new M&M's Dark Chocolate candies to promote the release of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
"When you think of M&M's, you naturally think of the No. 38 Robert Yates Racing Ford," says Sadler. "That is if you're into NASCAR and you're not particularly hungry. When you think of dark chocolate, the first thing that comes to mind is Star Wars. Nah, who am I kidding? I just can't see Darth Vader snacking on some M&M's. How would he get them in his mouth anyway? Whatever. As long as they pay me, they can put anything they want on my car."
Whether or not Sadler has gone to the dark side, he still had a fine ride under the lights in Phoenix. After a sub-par qualifying run that placed him 33rd on the grid, Sadler and the Robert Yates Racing team endured a race-long effort to perfect the car's handling. A pit stop under caution on lap 168 was the most significant strategic ploy, as Sadler gained over 10 positions on that stop to move into the top 10.
Sadler has had his trials at Talladega in years past; in his last eight races there, he's finished 30th or worse five times. Talladega is all about staying out of trouble, and staying up front on the lead lap, away from that trouble. The Yates' cars have the engine to do so; remember, Sadler's teammate, Dale Jarrett, won the pole at Daytona, the season's first restrictor plate race.
6. Mark Martin — Martin's car was so bad last Saturday that NASCAR race control ordered him to "pick up the pace." Luckily, Martin drives the No. 6 Viagra, so, he dropped a few tablets in the car's fuel cell, and, just like that, he finished 16th.
"Yeah, that was a respectful finish," explains Martin, "but the problem that arose was I couldn't get the car to stop. I think we did about 20 laps past the finish."
Seriously, though, it takes an incredible driver to take such an irritable car and still manage a more than respectable 16th. Were it not for a pit stop gamble on lap 220 that didn't pay off, the No. 6 Viagra-mobile would have finished much higher.
"Yeah, we opted to go with fuel only on that stop," explains Martin. "You know, I sat in my car for a good 20 seconds before I realized I was at a self-serve pump. Man, it takes about $400 to fill up my tank. That's ridiculous!"
Martin's mediocre 16th dropped him three spots in the Cup standings to seventh, 260 points behind Jimmie Johnson. Martin had a good year at Talladega last year, with a sixth in the Aaron's 499 and a 15th in the fall. He will need that kind of effort to stay with the front-runners in the points race.
7. Ryan Newman — Newman's miscue in Phoenix qualifying cost him the pole, but he still qualified seventh, and crossed the line with a 14th-place finish, leaving him ninth in the points. Racing in the top 10 for much of the day, a late pit stop gamble to apply only two tires and fuel eventually backfired, as the No. 12 Alltel Dodge soon lost its handling.
"You win some, you lose some," laments Newman. "This is NASCAR. You're going to have one winner, and 42 losers. Luckily, in NASCAR, unlike other sports, you're not required to win a single race to be the champion."
Word around the campfire is that Roger Penske wants to buy out Rusty Wallace's stake in Penske Racing South, the organization that owns Newman's car. It's common knowledge that Wallace and Newman don't get along, so the change of ownership, if it happens, will probably be a good thing for both parties.
"Hey, I'm just like 80% of the people in this country," Newman replies. "I hate my boss. Anyway, there's a ride opening up in 2006 that I just have to have. It's the Ford Mustang, sponsored by Oscar Mayer Meats. They're calling it 'The Bologna Pony.' Who wouldn't want to be behind the wheel of that?"
It appears that Ryan has been huffing carbon monoxide fumes, but I can forgive the "Rocket Man."
"Rocket Man" seems to cool his engines a bit at Talladega. His best finish there is a fourth in 2003, and he's never won a pole on the super speedway.
8. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. — Junior is on a roll, and is up to 12th in the points, thanks to his back-to-back top-10 finishes. Dale Earnhardt, Inc. as a team is also rolling, with Michael Waltrip finishing sixth and second in the last two races.
"The engine department has really got their game on," adds Junior. "But I really can't wait to show everyone my package. Aero package, that is. We own this track, and we will continue to dominate here. This is like our home track. Give us a karaoke machine, and Michael and myself can really belt out a rousing, if off-key, rendition of Lynyrd Skynrd's ''Sweet Home Alabama.' The Earnhardt name is to racing what the Van Zant name is to Southern rock."
Indeed, Talladega brings out the best in DEI. In the last seven races there, Junior has finished first or second, with five wins and a victory sweep in 2002. Break out the karaoke again and let me hear you do M.C. Hammer's 'You Can't Touch This.'
"I don't think so," says Junior.
Junior made another big jump in the points, and he should crack the top 10 with a solid result at Talladega. He's winless so far this year, and is anxious to reach victory circle. This may be the race.
9. Carl Edwards — Edwards is back in the top 10 in points, thanks to his seventh-place finish in Phoenix, his first top-10 since winning in Atlanta in March. It didn't come easy, as Edwards worked his way back into the hunt after falling two laps down early, due to a flat tire and a drive-through penalty.
"After the last three races, I'll take seventh," Edwards says. "Is a seventh back flip-worthy? No. Worthy of a front somersault? No. A cartwheel? You bet. Look how straight I keep my legs on this cartwheel. Exquisite! Even a crooked Russian judge would have to give me a '10' for that. If I ever win a Cup championship, I promise I will perform a full-length floor exercise."
We're pulling for you, Carl. You've got to be the only racecar driver, who, were you not a driver, would instead be a cheerleader.
Edwards will now take his act to the 2.66-mile super speedway at Talladega, where, in his one Nextel Cup race there, finished 42nd.
"As you know, I'm not a fan of the short tracks," adds Edwards. "And Talladega isn't a short track. Heck, pit road at Talladega is longer than the circuit at Martinsville. I'll just be happy to put the pedal to the metal and let the engine do the work."
With a year of experience at Talladega under his belt and Roush power under the hood, Edwards should be a top fifteen car at the super speedway.
10. Sterling Marlin — Starting 31st on the grid in Phoenix, the No. 40 Chip Ganassi Dodge sustained some right front damage early in the race, which contributed to handling problems throughout. Marlin crossed the line in 26th position, and now sits ninth in the Cup points standings.
"I pride myself on driving the Coors Silver Bullet," explains Marlin, "but that thing felt like a slug out there in Phoenix. And I don't mean a bullet slug; I'm talking about a snail slug. We were that slow. It makes me want to crawl into a shell and hide for a few days."
A good qualifying run at Talladega could be the key to success for Marlin. Three of his last four qualifying efforts there have been 11th or better. Racing up front and away from the inevitable mid-race pile-up is the key. If Marlin can qualify well, a top-15 finish is likely.
April 27, 2005
Breaking Down the NBA MVP Race
For most of the season, talk of the NBA MVP award has centered around Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns. The talk wasn't exactly unwarranted, even if incorrect, as Nash was the featured signing for Phoenix during the offseason.
Still, should Nash walk away with the hardware? The turnaround in Phoenix in amazing. From a team well below .500 to the best team in the West. How can you argue with that? By breaking it down a little further.
Nash is not the MVP because you don't put any four players on that team and find the same results. You put Nash on a team that already has quality and you let them roam. There are three other players out there that are having MVP-caliber seasons, three guys that make the difference for their team and simply can not be replaced.
It would be wrong, however, to not start this column off by mentioning what Nash has done for that Suns team.
Twenty-nine wins to 62 wins. It's a huge jump for the team and Steve Nash was the biggest acquisition during the offseason. MVP, though? Not so fast.
Amare Stoudemire has stepped up his game, but that was expected. He went from 13 points a game in his first season to 20 and now to 26. Stoudemire is quickly becoming one of the best young players in the NBA. Shawn Marion's scoring is where it was in previous seasons, but he has stepped up his rebounding a bit, which is more a product of their tempo than their point guard. Quentin Richardson wasn't with the Suns last season and is producing as expected. Joe Johnson became the player he is now when they made him a 40 minutes per game guy last season, not this season with Nash onboard.
Someone tell me where Steve Nash became the MVP in all of this?
What the Suns needed to bring in was a point guard who wouldn't didn't also feel the need to carry the team. Or want to carry the team. It was obvious that Stephon Marbury was not a proper fit in Phoenix. Getting rid of Marbury, who was out of place with the Suns and failed to recognize the talent around him, was the most valuable move that the Suns could make. After that it was simply a matter of finding the guy that could best utilize the talent around him.
That person is Nash, which doesn't instantly make him the MVP. Nash is in a great situation to succeed because of the type of game that he plays. Nash is not the MVP of the league, but that isn't a knock on him.
Plus, he doesn't play a whole lot of good defense and there's a pretty good chance that this comes back to haunt him and the Suns during the playoffs. Making Nash the MVP is jumping the gun.
With Nash, how does an MVP candidate's former team do better without him?
If you want to talk about players from the Western Conference who should be considered for the MVP award, toss Dirk Nowitzki's name around.
This year, he stepped up his scoring and the team didn't miss a beat after losing Nash. For a healthy chunk of the season, the team was unsettled at the point guard position, but still managed to win 58 games. Which was an improvement from last season and just about where they were at two seasons ago.
However, the two main MVP candidates are in the Eastern Conference. One comes from a team that is going to make a playoff run and one that will likely be done in the first round.
Starting with the guy who will be done in the first round, you look to Philadelphia and their point guard, Allen Iverson. Iverson, however, isn't your typical MVP candidate in that the Sixers finished seventh in the Conference and shouldn't make a playoff run.
Still, Philadelphia won 10 more games than last season and much of that has to do with the improved play of Iverson. Iverson is having his best season ever as a pro and is doing things this season that many of his critics thought he would never do. This isn't talk about Iverson's numbers. Yes, the points are there. Yes, the assists are there now. But, more importantly, Iverson makes his teammates better.
That is something that couldn't always be said about Iverson. When he first came into the league, it was the obvious knock on Iverson. Now it's hard to make that argument. Iverson sets the tempo for the rest of his team.
Where you really notice Iverson's impact is when he is not on the court. That sounds strange, doesn't it? Well, it's not. In the past, Sixers teams have looked lost without Iverson on the court. Now they play with a different intensity and a definite confidence. Iverson has put more trust in his teammates this season than ever before and that is the best change that he has made.
But, can you hand Iverson the hardware with Shaquille O'Neal out there? The Heat went from 42 to 59 in the win column and more importantly, made the jump from a playoff team to a team that now has a legitimate chance to win the NBA championship.
We all know what Shaq's old team is doing during the NBA playoffs ... excuse me, we know what they are not doing during the playoffs.
The Lakers sit at home while O'Neal moves on. Sure, Dwayne Wade has been a large part of the 59 wins, but Wade without Shaq would not be the same playoff threat.
And, in the end, that's what it's all about. Shaq is the MVP because without him, no one takes the Heat seriously. They could win a first-round playoff series, maybe a second, but not much else. The difference that O'Neal makes for his team is not matched by anyone else in the league.
Does O'Neal need Wade to win the NBA title? Sure, but without O'Neal, Wade isn't going to get there.
What Were They Thinking?
Okay, so normally I wouldn't care less about these types of things. I'm not a slave to fashion (even tennis fashion) and usually I'm not influenced by any company's alliance with either a celebrity or event. Recent additions and changes in the tennis industry, however, have made me wonder, "What were they thinking?"
Andy Roddick, arguably the best male U.S. tennis player at this time, and a commercial and media wunderkind, has signed with Lacoste sports wear. After several years at Reebok, a U.S.-based company, Andy has chosen to move his endorsement to a French apparel company.
Combined with his tennis racquet company, Babolat, that makes him head-to-toe a billboard for France. While the dollar figure reportedly is quite handsome for Andy, I take issue with this alliance. First, the French people and French companies have not supported any action the U.S. has undertaken across the globe since September 11, 2001. I'm not trying to be prejudiced or biased, but it is hard for me to fathom that even in tennis, the most global of sports, a star athlete would put his or her own national pride secondary to a paycheck.
So Roddick is now set to become the king of all preppies (a look that died in the 1980s, but is making an incredible comeback). He is also rumored to be getting ready to sign a separate shoe contract with Babolat. So, taken in whole, Andy will be drenched in French dressing. I would have to question where his loyalty lies. Gee, Andy, could any one American celebrity embrace the often-contradictory French culture more completely then you? What were you thinking?
Few really care who the official clothing sponsor of the U.S. Open Championships is. To my knowledge, it doesn't even really generate the return on the investment required. And for what seems an eternity, Fila, an American-owned Italian company, held the dubious honor. Fila even decided to give up this distinction. In a tightly-contested race for this "prize," Ralph Lauren won the competition over Lacoste (there they are again), and will be the official apparel of the Open for some time to come. At least it's an American brand.
But wait, when was the last time a player or even a friend you know wore RL on a tennis court? Polo and Ralph Lauren are huge brands, but never before truly associated with the sport of tennis. If I had the opportunity, I'd ask Mr. Lauren myself, "Dude, what are you thinking?" While the U.S. Open is the largest-attended sporting event on the planet (over 500,000 spectators in a two-week period), the sponsors and vendors areas at the open are not usually in positions for peak shopping traffic, and you don't sell a lot of clothing or cologne there.
Also, while the average U.S Open consumer is probably dead center of your marketing profile, few spend much time outside the courts or liquor stands. I can see it now, as you enter the east gate at the National Tennis Center, there will be cowboy and cowgirl costumed Ralph Lauren models spritzing you with Chaps or Polo.
Bed Bath & Beyond conjures up a picture of someone playing tennis, doesn't it? Well, they are the newest sponsor of the WTA Tour. Talk about stereotypes. Let's pair the largest of home decorating and cleaning concerns with a tennis tour of women ... am I the only one who sees this as an odd pairing? Now, put Home Depot, or some other business not typically associated with women, and I would say, "good." Or how about Victoria's Secret? (Okay, Mr. Scott, if you get this sponsor, you owe me for my idea.)
Last I looked, the WTA was loaded with very attractive and very athletic women. With the latest WTA marketing campaign being aimed at taking women out of non-traditional roles, I can't see this sponsor at all. It might just be me, but I can't see Anastasia Myskina or even Anna Kournikova cardboard cutouts selling me the latest steam iron. Is the WTA sending a message I missed? Gee, Larry, what are you thinking?
Like I said, I don't normally even think about this stuff. And after reading this, I'm sure a lot of you would say I need to get a life. But I worry. I worry that tennis is on the verge of losing its unique identity all for the almighty dollar. I worry that the newest patrons of tennis do not care for the game, but only for the market it provides. It's bad enough that companies long tied to tennis have adopted business practices that are not compatible with the game. What will happen if companies and countries that don't care a lick about tennis get a significant foothold in our great game?
Something for you all to ponder, or ask yourselves, "What the heck was Tom thinking?"
A Glorious Saturday
A few weeks ago in Las Vegas, the LPGA Takefuji Classic concluded on a Saturday. It was a 54-hole event. Rather than the LPGA Tour compete against the PGA Tour on Sunday (and other sports), the Tour decided to be the only sport of significance on Saturday. Although the Takefuji did not set huge ratings records or have a high attendance, the idea to end some LPGA Tour events on Saturday is a good one.
The LPGA Tour has recognized that it cannot yet directly compete against the PGA Tour for television presence, attendance, or sponsorships. Instead, Ty Votaw has created separation for the LPGA by making the final round of selected events compete with the third round of various PGA Tour events. It is a gamble that is based upon the belief that golf fans would much prefer to see the final round of any event over the third round of a run-of-the-mill PGA Tour event.
For one, I agree with the move. The talent on the LPGA Tour is so deep now that it can compete with the big time in terms of full field quality of play and presenting a compelling final round every week. Aside from the overall depth of the LPGA, more LPGA superstars are in the field on a regular basis as compared to the PGA Tour. Although the LPGA's best might not qualify as common household sports names, their excellent play is enough to keep fans coming back for more. This is evidenced by the double-digit percentage hikes in attendance and television ratings, as well as the increased visibility of high-end sponsors for LPGA events.
Why not, then, try to stimulate more growth by exposing the Tour's best one day sooner than tradition? It seems like a perfectly viable strategy to me. The idea is so viable, in fact, that I think the PGA Tour should give it a try this fall.
It is a well-known fact in American sports you just cannot compete with the National Football League. Ratings for any sport, except baseball's playoffs, are killed when they are in direct competition with the NFL on Sundays from noon to midnight. And with the recent move of Sunday Night Football to network television, this trend is only to be further cemented. With this knowledge, why is the PGA Tour insisting on showing golf events that ends on Sunday that will surely go largely unwatched?
There is not much to stop the PGA Tour from having most fall finish events complete on a Saturday. There are no NFL games on Saturdays (usually). Although there is college football, it is highly regionalized and not nearly as popular as the NFL on television. By finishing on Saturday, the PGA Tour would put its best possible product on television against college football and late-season baseball. It has a much better chance to capture more viewers and market share if it does this.
As I have written before, higher ratings and more attendance translates into a cycle of good things for the Tour. Purses increase because sponsors want increased name exposure. Better players enter events that have higher payouts. This attracts more fans on the tube and live in person. It is a brilliant self-perpetuating cycle that could yield good results for the oft-struggling final fourth of the season.
There has been talk by PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem to reduce the season size and number of events into late-September for the upcoming television contract. While this would be my ultimate prescription (along with my King of the Links idea), it is highly unlikely that Finchem will be able to swallow the lost sponsorship money, severed ties with many golf communities, and strained relationships with lower-tier players.
So, then, if cutting the schedule short will not work, and there is no possible way for the PGA Tour to compete against the NFL without female nudity, my suggestion is a valid one. I'm not saying it's right, or absolute. I'm just saying.
April 26, 2005
Raising Arizona: Green Steals Draft — Again
In the 2004 NFL draft, his first with the Arizona Cardinals, coach Dennis Green passed on a player who would have the greatest season of any rookie quarterback in league history — not the most auspicious way to launch a new regime in the Valley of the Sun.
Ben Roethlisberger, who fell to the Steelers at 11, would lead Pittsburgh to a 15-1 record on 13 consecutive regular season wins. Meanwhile, the Cardinals would log an unimpressive 6-10 in the NFL's weakest division, the NFC West.
The NFL awarded Roethlisberger Offensive Rookie of the Year honors for his efforts, but if the league had an accolade for best overall draft class, it would have gone to the Arizona Cardinals.
Very quietly, Dennis Green culled four productive starters in 2004: receiver Larry Fitzgerald (1), linebacker Karlos Dansby (2), defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (3), and center Alex Stepanovich (4).
Very quietly, Fitzgerald hauled in 58 catches for 780 yards and 8 touchdowns, third among rookie receivers. Dansby piled up 60 tackles and 5 sacks and Dockett added 39 tackles and 3.5 sacks to lead an improved defense that ranked third in the NFL in takeaways. Stepanovich anchored the line.
Very quietly, the Cardinals' future got brighter.
Not much has changed one year later. On Saturday, as Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers slid down the board, Green again opted for a pass — selecting Miami (Fla.) defensive back Antrel Rolle.
Rolle will immediately come in as a starter, opposite corner David Macklin, who had a highly-productive 2004 with 74 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 12 passes defensed (numbers, by the way, comparable to those of corners Champ Bailey and Charles Woodson, among others).
In the second round, Green put aside talk of a trade for Buffalo's Travis Henry and got instead the best runner in the draft, Cal's J.J. Arrington. Arrington, coincidentally, was the reason Aaron Rodgers slipped into round one in the first place, putting up huge numbers — 2,018 yards and 15 touchdowns — in his senior season with the Golden Bears.
The knock on Arrington is that he lacks prototypical size for an NFL running back, but this wart simply isn't genuine. At 5-9 and 214 pounds, Arrington has elite size in the mold of Priest Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson. In many ways, he is a shorter, stronger version of former Vikings and Dennis Green halfback Robert Smith, displaying electrifying burst and good leg drive between the tackles.
Arrington dominated top-level opposition in his senior year, including 5 of the top 20 rushing defenses in college football: USC, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, and Arizona State. In every game in which he has logged at least 12 carries, Arrington has rushed for more than 100 yards, with a career 6.6 yards per carry average.
In June, Arrington will battle incumbent Marcel Shipp for the starting job and should win out. And, barring a serious injury, he will be the most productive back selected in 2005, with Miami's Ronnie Brown a close second.
As he did in 2004, Dennis Green struck gold in the middle rounds of the 2005 draft last weekend. With his second of two picks in the third stanza, Green landed Virginia rush linebacker Darryl Blackstock, a player in the mold of 2004 second round selection Karlos Dansby. Blackstock will get in the mix early in rotation with incumbent James Darling and should supplant him by Week 8.
Blackstock was a rush artist in Al Groh's pro 3-4 in college, amassing 44 tackles for loss and 27 sacks, including 11 in his final year. His size (6-3, 247) and speed (4.66) are outstanding, and if he can be coached up, he will be a very good linebacker at the pro level.
Green used his other third-rounder to select his namesake, Virginia Tech corner Eric Green. Green is a bit of a project who struggled with injuries at the college level. He has good size (5-11, 198), but is a cover corner who tends to shy away from contact, the antithesis of Antrel Rolle. At this point, he projects as a nickel/dime situational corner along with Robert Tate and will probably never be an every-down player for Arizona.
However, Dennis Green plucked his fourth new starter when he landed Virginia offensive guard Elton Brown in the fourth round. The enormous Brown (6-5, 330) was the best guard available and projected by many to be a 1-2 round selection. At pick 111, he could be the biggest steal in the draft besides Arrington.
For a player of his size, Brown pulls incredibly well and punishes at the second-level. He is an immediate upgrade over either Reggie Wells or Jeremy Bridges on the interior line, and Green admitted in a press conference that he projects Brown as a tackle in two or three years.
For the second year in a row, Dennis Green has harvested four immediate impact starters from the college level. That doesn't mean, however, that the Arizona Cardinals are the team to beat in the NFC West.
They still have key issues to resolve at quarterback with the addition of Kurt Warner, although Green's track record with veteran quarterbacks suggests success. More pressing is the Anquan Boldin contract issue, which could rob Arizona of its most dangerous receiving option for most of the offseason, if not longer.
Additionally, the free agency loss of tight end Freddie Jones, who caught 45 balls for 426 yards in 2004, is more significant than most analysts anticipate, given the lack of depth and experience currently on the roster. Neither Eric Edwards nor Lorenzo Diamond project as starters, and it's not out of the question that Bobby Blizzard, who has been a force in NFL Europe this summer, could get the call.
The Seattle Seahawks, last year's division champ, are on the wane. However, with the St. Louis Rams very quietly getting better defensively and the San Francisco 49ers doing everything they can to win at least a few more games, Dennis Green and the Valley of the Sun are still a year or two away from making a serious Super Bowl bid.
But as long as Green continues to kidnap the annual college draft, the Cardinals — like the proverbial phoenix — are bound to rise.
Only in your fantasies...
Keep an eye on the Arrington/Marcel Shipp battle as it develops in camp and through the preseason. Shipp still has a good chance to earn some carries away from Arrington at this point.
However, if Arrington gets into position to receive 20-30 plays a game, he will be a very productive No. 2 fantasy running back — a better version of Brian Westbrook a year ago — and is worth a shot in the middle rounds of your draft.
Double Down! NBA Playoffs Notes
Oh the drama!
Oh the excitement!
I love this game!
Okay, maybe that was a little overdramatic; but the arrival of the NBA playoffs are a little hard for this Clevelander. I'm wondering where the meteoric fall of the Cavs this season ranks with the all-time collapses in sports history.
At the All-Star Break, they were hovering around the three-seed and a prohibitive favorite to head to the postseason with home-court advantage. LeBron James was not just one of the MVP candidates — his play and leadership (read: wins) had placed him in strong contention with Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, and Shaquille O'Neal.
What happened over the next couple of months may have been shocking to some people, but certainly nothing surprising to anyone from Cleveland. Dan Gilbert bought the Cavs, fired coach Paul Silas, and ushered in a second half of bitterness, rumors, losses, and questionable moves.
All of a sudden, the Cavs were not only losing enough games to fall into the lower group of playoff teams, they lost enough games to fall out of the playoffs all together. It's sad that their most spirited game only came in the last contest of the year, when their destiny was already out of their control.
This season should go down in the tape library at ESPN as something else to show when the network chooses to make Clevelanders cry. It could be shown right after Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, and right before the recap of the 1997 World Series.
Somewhere, there is a secret club of former athletes and owners whose only shared characteristic is the vanquish of Cleveland's hopes and dreams. (Art Modell is President, Michael Jordan is Vice-President, and John Elway is the Secretary. And I'm sorry, ESPN, but I can blame Art Modell — for the rest of my life.)
Anyway, onto the notes...
* Everyone is talking about the dramatic turnaround of the Denver Nuggets season, led by George Karl. And while the team and the coach deserve all the credit in the world for their stellar second half, I wonder why the Chicago Bulls aren't getting the same sort of respect. Just about the time when the Cavs began their freefall, the Bulls began their ascent in the Eastern Conference and fought their way into contention for home-court advantage. No, this is not their year, but yes, the future looks bright.
* Phil Jackson is setting up meetings in the upcoming weeks with various teams looking to fill their coaching vacancies with the services of the Zen Master. I know he has a soft spot for New York, but is there any chance that he's actually going to go there? After the grand orchestration by GM Thomas that has only served to increase payroll while collecting a bunch of aging players with questionable talents, can the team be saved even by perhaps the greatest coach of our era?
Phil also has a meeting with Kobe set in Los Angeles, presumably to talk about a return to coaching the Lakers (unless Kobe Bryant is seeking advice for a spiritual way for dealing with his failure to lead his team to the playoffs).
My question is: why? Wouldn't Jackson prefer to head to a city and a team that he hasn't already been a part of? Certainly, there is the gleam and glitter of the big cities, the pressure brought on by big egos and big buildings — however, the pressure would have to be just as great in any other city he could go to. The bar is set high for any team he coaches, his record and his experience merit that, so why not choose an organization with the least amount of possible problems to solve?
* Paul Shirley's NBA blog has garnered much attention in recent weeks for his candid and humorous take on life on the road, and on life as a player that rarely gets to play. I must say I have enjoyed his contributions, but his style seems to be a little too familiar. Either the Sports Guy is ghost-writing his blogs, or Paul Shirley, in his ample time not playing, diligently studied his style and now has the ability to write as if he were in Bill Simmons' head.
* Every NBA owner agreed that holding the 2007 NBA All-Star Game in Las Vegas would be a good idea. Why wouldn't they? With hotel and travel problems mounting with growing attendance, non-NBA cities now have a chance to host the extravaganza.
Is this really a good idea, though? I know everyone feels bad for Dennis Rodman and wants to include him in some way, but staging the event in his adopted hometown is really going too far.
Over/under on number of arrests for players: 3
Probability Charles Barkley will appear on television hung-over and tired after four straight nights at the blackjack table: 100%
Number of stories involving Marv Albert and hookers: 5
Probability they will include leather: 85%
And you have to remember, as if the beautiful city of Las Vegas didn't already have enough trashy looking 20-something year-olds looking for someone rich for the night, the great migration of this age group will seriously test the hotel capacity that weekend.
* Houston is up on Dallas 2-0, and Tracy McGrady is once again showing the world what he can do on any given night. I know the Rockets have been on a hot streak, and many thought they had a very good chance of taking the Mavs in this series, but I think everyone underestimated T-Mac's drive to win.
There are nights when he's off, and there are nights when the Rockets are winning and he really doesn't have to do much by himself, but there is a reserve of energy and talent, like with any other superstar, that he holds onto until the time is right, until the team needs him.
If the Rockets win this series, it's going to be on T-Mac's back, even though the team as a whole is playing very well and everyone from Yao to Bobby Sura is playing his role and contributing.
On LeBron James' birthday, the Rockets were in Cleveland, and after LeBron went out at halftime with an ocular fracture suffered at the elbow of Dikembe Mutumbo, T-Mac single-handedly went out and took care of business. The last three minutes of the fourth quarter might as well have been a three-minute highlight reel of McGrady, and the Cavs might as well have been sitting on the bench drinking Gatorade.
It's that push, that little extra tank of ability lying in wait, that is going to be the difference between the Mavs crawling back in the series or Houston advancing with a chance for some days off before the next round.
* The Boston/Indiana series is shaping up to be one of the most entertaining matchups of the first round. It'd be hard to call it a rivalry, and the Pacers have worse blood with other teams in the Eastern Conference, but there's a tenacity in both teams that just makes for good entertainment. Plus, with Ricky Davis on one side and Stephen Jackson on the other, there is a high "punk" quotient, as well.
Above all else, who (besides Spike Lee and the Sports Guy) wouldn't love to see Reggie Miller turn back the clock and provide some postseason magic?
* All right, I don't see much of a chance of Detroit and Miami not making it to the Eastern Conference finals. Both teams are too good and fundamentally-solid and exceedingly talented. Even if Shaq is not 100%, the Heat will still be there in the end.
The West is a different story. There's a whole set of contenders, from Phoenix, to Seattle, to Houston, to San Antonio. While Shaq doesn't have to be 100% for the Heat, Duncan does need to be 100% for the Spurs to have a shot. Everything runs through him on the offensive end, and the middle is weak on the defensive end if he's not able to bang bodies around and block shots.
It's a crapshoot and it's going to depend on which team can stay hot for the longest period of time, and the "hot streak" is even more important for teams like Seattle that are going to win only if threes keep coming down like the pouring rain.
I'm going to take Phoenix to win the West, though, if only so that Paul Shirley will have the chance to write some witty commentary about being the 12th man on an NBA championship team.
Games Don't Matter, Only Paper Does
There are a lot of "experts" in the sports world and after being inundated with their excellent analysis and articulate reasoning, I have finally seen the light: what actually happens within the games does very little to decide what team is better.
It took me a while to figure this out, being a purist who used to believe that the only thing that matters is what happens between the lines. But I didn't understand just how wrong I was until I talked to a Cleveland Browns fan.
The week after the NFL draft, we are inundated with speculation on how the picks are going to turn out (it's also our last glimpse of Mel Kiper, Jr. before he goes back into hibernation). It's fun for a lot of people to say who had the best drafts and who had the worst, even though, as my colleague Vegas Dave pointed out in his column this week, the grades do not always translate into success. Until now.
I'm a Bengals fan, and I was having a discussion with a friend, who is a Browns fan, about the draft. I complemented him on their draft and he proceeded to rant and rave about how the Browns had one of the top five draft classes in the league and how the Bengals would be lucky to tie for sixth in the AFC Central (I never said he was smart, but I did say he was from Cleveland).
He then proceeded to tell me how Cleveland was a much better team than Cincinnati and for a moment, I almost thought we were the team that only won four games last year. He continued to taunt me for the Bengals' inferior draft (after all, how could I be so stupid to tell Marvin to draft a WR in the third round when we already have decent WRs) when I suddenly discovered that I couldn't argue my side anymore.
Sure, Cleveland won only four games last year to our eight, but that doesn't mean anything now that the Browns had an "A" draft. I'm still relatively new to this, but I'm pretty sure they also get extra points because their first-round pick last year was hurt, and they would've been, like, so much better if he didn't get hurt. Apparently, you get points for each new excuse you can think of, and I'm fairly certain that teams get extra points for having people that resemble animals in the crowd — so props to Cleveland for that.
I am now thoroughly convinced that on paper, the Browns will be the best team in the league next year. Congrats, Cleveland, on becoming the paper mache 2005 Super Bowl champions.
Oh forget it ... I can't buy into this. Not to discount draft grades or anything, but Cleveland: you have to do better than that. That goes for any other fan who is trying to argue based on anything other than what happened on the field. This isn't Magic the Gathering, you don't line your team up on one side and compare it to the other. Losers, I don't care if your Mountain Titan is stronger than my Zombie Assassin, I want to see it on the field.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for discussion. But if you are going to try and argue that a team is five wins better because of a draft, I'm just not going to listen — that is where I draw the line. If you want to do all the paper comparisons, fine, just don't bring me in to it. And when the Mountain Titan is proved to be inferior, and you don't get those five wins, don't worry, because it's just the refs trying to screw you again.
Mark Chalifoux is also a weekly columnist for SportsFan Magazine. His columns appear every Tuesday on Sports Central. You can e-mail Mark at email@example.com.
April 25, 2005
I Hate Mondays: Know Your ABCs
In the coming days, you may see more As, Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs than you did during your whole period of schooling.
Everyone is a judge when it comes to the NFL draft and everyone loves to grade each team's outcome.
But at the end of the day, all of those opinions amount to less than Tony Mandarich's professional football career.
Right now the biggest scapegoat seems to be the Detroit Lions. Everyone is scoffing at their first-round selection of yet another wide receiver, Mike Williams. For a third consecutive year, Lions General Manager Matt Millen has selected a new target for Joey Harrington with the team's top pick, but this choice seems to be more of a luxury than a need.
It's not the first time we've seen a lavish move like this.
In the 2003 NFL draft, many people gave the Buffalo Bills the same cut-eye when they spent a first-round draft pick on Willis McGahee, even though they had a 1,400-yard running back in Travis Henry on the roster.
In 2001, the New Orleans Saints drafted Deuce McAllister, the same season their franchise running back, Ricky Williams, finally broke through with his first 1,000-yard season.
And last year, the St. Louis Rams picked up Steven Jackson even though Marshall Faulk was still present.
You always have to have a plan B. Injuries, age, and contingents force you to do so.
Some pundits aren't too crazy about the New York Jets and the Denver Broncos passing on marquee players and trading out of the first round, but the Dallas Cowboys were too criticized when they did the same thing last year. With Steven Jackson and Kevin Jones on the board, and the Cowboys in desperate need of a running back, Dallas elected to trade down and still plucked Julius Jones in the second round. He finished with 819 yards in only seven starts, so that seems to have worked out fairly well.
You never know how a draft will turn out, no matter what the critics are chirping right now. Just because a team drafts every player to a position of need doesn't mean those roster fill-ins will actually be dependable.
In 2004, the Indianapolis Colts burned three of their first four selections on defensive players. Have you seen any improvements? The Seattle Seahawks did the same and they still finished with the 26th-ranked defense.
We all want to know tomorrow's information today, but don't write your team off just because some expert says your draft was a bust.
I'm sure you've encountered some Cs or Ds at some point in your scholastic career and you still turned out fine, right?
Analysts and accuracy mix like Mondays and me.
"Education is the process of driving a set of prejudices down your throat." — Martin H. Fischer
Baseball Rebounds From Grim Winter
It's been a surprising start to the 2005 baseball season. Brian Roberts has 7 home runs (as of April 23) and is joined on that heady mark in the AL only by perennial slugger Paul Konerko of the White Sox. Meanwhile, Jim Thome has one round-tripper. Speaking of the White Sox, they are off to the best start in team history despite the efforts of manager Ozzie Guillen to disrupt team harmony. Meanwhile, the New York Yankees are battling with the Devil Rays to avoid the basement of the AL East.
Over in the National League, it seems that Paul Tagliabue has taken over as commissioner. Only the Rockies and Pirates seem to stink, though the Brew Crew are starting to give off an odor. The Braves are batting .235 and only the Pirates have scored fewer runs, yet they sit one win out of first in the pitching-rich NL East. Some things never change in baseball, though — Roger Clemens has an ERA of 0.43.
It's way too early to draw conclusions from the first three weeks of baseball, but clearly some teams that came into the 2005 season with high expectations are already questioning how the season is going to play out. It's not panic time in New York, but there is certainly a crisis at Yankee Stadium. With a bloated $200 million plus payroll and an owner that is best described as "defeat-challenged," winning in the Bronx is the only option.
So far this season, winning has been a rarity for the Yankees. They are 7-11, have lost five times to Baltimore, three to Boston, and even once to the D-Rays. Steinbrenner has already spontaneously combusted and issued a "win-or-else" threat.
Steinbrenner didn't specify what the "or else" part of his rant was, but it's hard to figure what he could possibly do except fire Joe Torre. His team has few tradable parts given that most teams could not afford the ludicrous salaries that come with wearing pin stripes. And trading away veterans you've only just signed is hardly the Yankee way.
First off, Steinbrenner should fire Mel Stottlemyre. The Yankees have a team ERA of 5.05, better than only five teams in major league baseball. This is following on from last season's mediocre 4.69 team ERA. Pitching careers have completely collapsed in New York (Javier Vasquez, Jeff Weaver, Kevin Brown) in recent times and Jaret Wright looks likely to be next. Joe likes having comfortably old Mel next to him now that Zimmer is in Tampa, so it's a case of both or neither. Neither is looking increasingly likely as a bemused Torre watches his overpaid charges lose to the likes of the $29 million payroll D-Rays.
Pitching — again — is the Yankees downfall. Randy Johnson, brought in as the stopper and rewarded with a huge contract extension, has (so-far) completely wilted in the heat of the New York media spotlight. He's 1-1 with a 5.13 ERA. Mike Mussina is also 1-1 with a 4.50 ERA. Only Carl Pavano has looked the part, posting a 3.18 ERA and getting little run support.
If you think Mussina and Johnson are having mediocre seasons, take a look at Kevin Brown and Jaret Wright. Brown is 0-2 and in 12 innings has given up 20 hits. His ERA is a dreadful 8.25.
Wright is a more predictable failure than either Weaver or Vasquez were. Wright has never pitched 200 innings in his career and has a season ticket in the doctor's waiting room. He posted good numbers last year in Atlanta under the careful tutelage of Leo Mazzone. Once Stottlemyre got his hands on him, the collapse was almost inevitable. His ERA stands at a shoe sized 9.15.
The worst thing about watching the Yankees is that they clearly are not having fun playing what is essentially a fun game to play. Sure, baseball's a business, but it's also supposed to be fun. It's not the NFL, where you're black and blue every fall Monday. Fear seems the over riding emotion in New York and it's been that way as long as Fearful George has reigned.
It must be soul destroying being a Yankee player unless you are of a certain mental make up. If you win, it's a relief — you were expected to win. If you lose, it's a calamity. The Red Sox won last year and actually looked like they were enjoying playing. Considering they were under the impression the curse was still in place until the unlikely comeback in the ALCS, it was a remarkable effort (and a lesson for New York if they care to heed it) by the Red Sox to stay so loose.
If it's all doom and gloom for the Yankees, it certainly isn't for a few of the more surprising teams currently at heady heights in their respective divisions.
The Chicago White Sox are off to their hottest start since the Nixon Administration, though that has to come with a footnote — they play in the Desperate Division, otherwise known as the AL Central. A team ERA of 3.27 and some decent hitting by Konerko and the surprising Carl Everett has revitalized a flagging franchise. The acquisition of sparkplug lead-off man Scott Posednik is looking a smart move by GM Ken Williams and Joe Crede is finally showing signs of life.
The White Sox will only go as far as their pitching will let them. The rotation isn't spectacular, but Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras, Orlando Hernandez, Jon Garland, and Freddy Garcia are reliable workhorses for the most part. The bullpen can't settle on a closer, with Shingo Takatsu posting an unacceptable ERA of 9.64 for his five saves. Both Dustin Hermanson and Damaso Marte are looking to take the closers chair. If Takatsu can't settle into his 2004 rhythm, losing either of these useful set up men to the closers role is a blow.
In the National League, the team that has caught the eye early is the Los Angeles Dodgers. Much-criticized GM Paul DePodesta had a tumultuous winter, with Adrian Beltre jumping ship to Seattle and Shawn Green traded to Arizona. Following on from the unpopular late season trade that sent Paul Lo Duca and Guillermo Mota to Florida for Brad Penny and Hee Seop Choi, DePodesta was under the microscope in Southern California. The critics were sharpening their knives waiting for a poor start.
Instead, the Dodgers have jumped off to a 12-5 start and lead the mediocre NL West. Free agent pick-up Derek Lowe has an ERA of 1.27 after four starts and stand in closer Yhency Brazoban has settled down after a poor start and picked up four saves whilst Eric Gagne rehabs.
On offense, the Dodgers are hitting a robust .285 and lead the league in slugging at .463. Jeff Kent may have his limitations with the glove these days, but his bat is holding up, even in spacious pitcher-friendly Dodger stadium. Milton Bradley, so close to being let go in the offseason, has been a revelation, batting .343 with 5 homers and 15 RBIs. After a shocking start, J.D. Drew, brought in from Atlanta for the same money as would have retained Beltre, has shown signs of turning things around.
The problem for Los Angeles is that to make a playoff run, and then to go deep into those playoffs, the pitching has to be more than Lowe and four others. Odalis Perez is a reliable lefty that needs to translate potential to something more concrete. Jeff Weaver has to be more consistent. One game, he'll throw a shutout, then he'll get roughed up and is gone before the fourth. Brad Penny needs to comeback healthy and able to anchor a potentially solid rotation.
Despite their promising starts to the season, I don't expect either the White Sox or the Dodgers to make the World Series. I haven't seen anything yet to convince me that there is a better team in the AL than The Artist Formerly Known as the Anaheim Angels. The owners can mess about with the name of this team as much as they like, but this team has balance. Solid pitching that isn't flashy, but gets the job done and a reliable bullpen allied to some of the best defense in all of baseball totals up to not many runs in the against column. With the bat, any team with Vladimir Guerrero in the lineup has a chance to go all the way. Once Steve Finley gets it going to backup Garret Anderson, this is a team that can run away with the AL West and cause big problems for either New York or Boston in the playoffs.
In the National League, the St Louis Cardinals are still the best-built regular season team. The rotation of Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan, Chris Carpenter, Jason Marquis, and a revitalized Matt Morris is the deepest in the NL. The pitching staff as a whole sports an ERA of 3.31.
The Cardinals' answer to Guerrero is Albert Pujols. With Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, the Cardinals have a solid heart of the order. What they will need for the playoffs is another bat, especially if Larry Walker can't turn things around. To beat the best of the American League, Tony LaRussa will need somebody to get on base behind David Eckstein and ahead of the sluggers. If he can find that key edge, this is a team that can go one better than last year.
All said, it's been a great start to the baseball year. The best part of this April so far? Not having to see Barry Bonds' melon head at the plate.
April 24, 2005
NFL Draft Winners and Losers
The NFL draft — even just the first day — is a big deal, and there's no room for Five Quick Hits, even if they're quicker than usual. I'll throw in some general offseason comments to make up for it.
First Day Draft Winners
* Detroit Lions: This is the third year in a row I've declared them draft winners, and I think this will be the season they prove me right. A lot of people are criticizing them for spending their first selection on Mike Williams, because it wasn't a need pick for the Lions, but it gives them scary offensive options if they put him three-wide with Charles Rogers and Roy Williams. It's also comforting that there won't be a huge drop-off if Rogers or Roy Williams gets injured again, and if any of them leaves through free agency, the team is still covered at wide receiver. I really like the pick.
Detroit went with defense after that, trading away a fourth-round pick for the chance to take Mike Williams' former teammate, DT Shaun Cody, a great value in the second round. In the third, the Lions nabbed Stanford DB Stanley Wilson, who will probably play in nickel packages in 2005. The team only has two selections on Day Two, but there's not much more it needs.
This offseason, the Lions added a starter-quality quarterback (Jeff Garcia) to right the ship if Joey Harrington struggles. Whoever is throwing the ball should have plenty of targets, and Kevin Jones is an exciting prospect in the backfield, with Cory Schlesinger blocking for him. Guards Joe Andruzzi and Rick DeMulling defected (from the Patriots and Colts, respectively) to Detroit in free agency to give the offensive line a huge boost, and Marcus Pollard is on board, too. The offense should be among the league's best next season.
The Lions have one of the better interior defensive lines in the NFL, with Cody joining Dan Wilkinson and Shaun Rogers, and a great defensive backfield that starts Dré Bly, Fernando Bryant, Brock Marion, and Kenoy Kennedy. If Boss Bailey is healthy, he and Teddy Lehman give the team bookend OLBs, and Earl Holmes is reliable in the middle. Even special teams are a strength; Eddie Drummond will be back as returner, and the team's coverage units are among the league's best.
What the Lions got in this draft were depth and versatility. Injuries sunk the team last season after a 3-1 start (the loss was to Philadelphia), but the club seems positioned to fill most of the holes next season if necessity calls. If I'm in Detroit's front office today, I like the way my team looks.
* Adam "Pacman" Jones: Over the last week, there were rumblings that Jones had fallen behind Carlos Hall and could drop as far as the mid-teens. Instead, he was the first cornerback selected, going sixth overall to the Titans.
* Cincinnati Bengals: No one knows how draft picks are going to turn out, but the Bengals certainly seem to have turned things around since Marvin Lewis came on as head coach. First-rounder David Pollack could team with Justin Smith to give Cincinnati a terrific pair of pass rushers; Pollack is a little undersized, but so is Dwight Freeney. Second-round choice Odell Thurman, Pollack's teammate at Georgia, will probably start at middle linebacker. Third-round WR Chris Henry is a first-round physical talent whose personal issues make him a gamble with any first-day pick, but even if he doesn't work out, the Bengals have gotten two solid choices.
* Auburn University: Three players in the first nine picks, and they didn't even get a shot to play for the so-called national championship? A total of four Tigers went in the first round, including two to Washington alone.
* Minnesota Vikings: Got a speedy wide receiver, a pass-rushing defensive end, and a mammoth offensive lineman. Troy Williamson won't come close to replacing Randy Moss, but he'll stretch the field and complement Nate Burleson. End is one of the few defensive positions the team didn't upgrade through free agency, so Erasmus James is a nice fit. Some scouts had a first-round grade on Marcus Johnson, the team's second-round selection. Third-round pick Dustin Fox is seen as a bit of a reach, but this looks like a strong draft so far.
* Matt Jones: The first real shock of the draft came when Jacksonville selected Jones to fill their WR needs with the 21st pick in the draft. Jones, a QB at Arkansas, is probably the best pure athlete in the draft, but few analysts had him projected in the first round, and many teams wouldn't have touched him in the second. This is a risky pick for a team that has bombed on receivers in recent years, but it could also turn out to be the steal of the draft. I would have played it safe with Mark Clayton available, but it's tough to criticize the Jags for rolling the dice on Jones.
* Maurice Clarett: I am stunned that he went on the first day. I will continue to be stunned if Denver does not regret picking him.
First Day Draft Losers
* Aaron Rodgers: Might as well get this one out of the way. Until 12:30 Eastern, he was still a possibility to go first overall, but when the 23rd card had been handed in, Rodgers was still available. Green Bay finally stopped the bleeding by taking Rodgers with the 24th pick, but it was a nasty fall for a prospect expected to go in the top five. I don't envy him the expectations that come with succeeding Brett Favre, either (see Griese, Brian, and Fiedler, Jay).
* Washington: They're here mostly for making the offseason's worst trade. Unless Washington finishes with one of the eight best records in the NFL this season — which is not likely — the 2006 first-round pick they traded to Denver will be higher than the one they obtained, and they sweetened that with third- and fourth-round choices. They even tipped their hand by making the trade during the week rather than on draft day, and so risked losing their man (Jason Campbell) to anyone else who wanted him around the same spot.
Minus the unwise timing of the trade, someone seems to do this every year now. In 2003, the Ravens gave New England first- and second-round choices to obtain the 19th overall pick and select Kyle Boller. In 2004, Buffalo traded first-, second-, and fifth-round picks to take J.P. Losman. Now, in 2005, Washington drops first-, third-, and fourth-round picks for a low first-rounder, used on Campbell. All those trades constitute senseless wasting of draft picks — just to acquire unproven quarterbacks not regarded as the top QB prospects in their respective draft classes.
And while the consensus seems to be that the team wanted Campbell and Carlos Rogers, the draft treated Washington with some irony. Antrel Rolle was widely regarded as the top DB in the draft, and there were probably a lot of excited fans in the nation's capital when he was still on the board at eighth. Arizona was expected to go with offense, and Washington was up next. But the Cardinals took Rolle, and Washington followed with another CB, Rogers.
Later, as the 25th pick drew closer, Rodgers was still on the board. Everyone knew Washington wanted Campbell, but no one had thought Rodgers might still be available. Again, fans held their breaths waiting for a top prospect to drop one more spot. But the Packers snapped him up, and Washington followed with Campbell, marking the second time that Washington had chosen a player of the same position directly behind a top prospect who fell further than expected. First, they took Rogers right after Rolle, and then Campbell right after Rodgers. Even if the team wanted Rogers and Campbell all along, a lot of Washington fans are probably disappointed right now.
* Dan Cody: Rodgers' fall was undoubtedly the most dramatic, but Cody dropped just as far. Projected by many as a late first-round pick, he dropped to the bottom of the second round before the Ravens grabbed him.
* Arizona's selection of J.J. Arrington muddies the Travis Henry picture. Philadelphia is a destination that's being mentioned in connection with Henry's name more and more often.
* I don't think the Cowboys expected Rodgers to be available when they chose DeMarcus Ware with the 11th pick, and I bet Jerry Jones double- and triple-checked with Bill Parcells before sending Ware's card to Paul Tagliabue. "Bill, are you sure you don't want the quarterback?" Rodgers was still on the board when Dallas chose at twenty, too. "Bill, are you positive you don't want the quarterback?"
* The Giants are still paying for the Eli Manning trade. San Diego used New York's pick (12th overall) on Shawne Merriman, and San Diego still has the Giants' fifth-round pick on Day Two. Call me crazy, but I'd rather have Philip Rivers, Merriman, Nate Kaeding, and a fifth-round choice than just Little Manning. There was a lot of talent still on the board when the Chargers took Merriman, and I bet the Giants were missing that pick.
* One of those talents was OT Jammal Brown. A lot of people had Carolina, at 14th, taking Brown, but the Saints traded up to fill a need of their own and may have thrown a wrench into a division rival's plans by doing so. Double-credit.
* Fabian Washington was the first pick that I really didn't like. Oakland traded up to get the player with fastest 40-yard dash in this year's draft, but Washington wasn't a first-round-quality standout at Nebraska and probably won't be able to start on defense for a while, if ever. I thought for sure someone trading ahead of Green Bay and Washington would take Rodgers.
* Similar situation in Seattle. Did I say Matt Jones was a shock at 21? Not compared to Mississippi OL Chris Spencer at 26th. I don't think anyone else had Spencer on their first-round draft board, and while Seattle must have liked Spencer quite a lot to take him so high, they certainly could have gotten him a little later. This wasn't a good value for the pick.
The Seahawks originally had the draft's 23rd selection, but they moved down three spots — for a fourth-rounder. That's a miniscule price for moving up in the first round; Al Davis must have been shocked when Seattle agreed. That tells me the 'Hawks wanted Spencer all along, and recognized 23rd as too high, but wanted to be absolutely certain they got their man and didn't trade down again. If Spencer was the only guy they wanted early, Seattle should have gotten at least a third-rounder, and probably more, before taking him.
Spencer's a junior with upside, but it's unlikely he'll start as a rookie, making this an even stranger choice with Mike Holmgren not guaranteed to be around after next season.
* Roddy White, whom the Falcons took 27th, is a solid pick, and not a surprise for a team desperate for a standout receiver. Most mock drafts had Atlanta taking White; it should be a good match. I question, though, whether he'll be a true go-to receiver. Having two of Peerless Price wouldn't be much better than having one.
April 23, 2005
Thanks, Kobe: The Curse of the Shaqbino?
So who's to blame for the Lakers demise?
The answer is simple: Kobe Bryant. Yes, Kobe Bryant.
Now, I know Kobe took a beating last season after all the stuff that went down in Colorado. And I commend him for being a man and standing up for what he believed in.
But that's a different column for a different time.
This column is about Mr. Jordan ... I mean Mr. Bryant, and how he single-handily took the Lakers from perennial title contenders to lottery participants in one season. The past nine years must have been like a blur to Kobe. Here he was coming straight out of a Philadelphia high school straight into the league and like many others before him, Kobe had that special tag — "The Next Michael Jordan." Kobe didn't seem to mind, however, and although he was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets with the 13th pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, a draft-day trade involving Vlade Divac quickly sent Kobe packing to the "City of Angels."
This is where our story begins, ladies and gentlemen. Joining then prized free agent Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant instantly became part of the NBA's next "Dynamic Duo." With O'Neal's strength and Bryant speed, the Lakers had assembled two key pieces to future championship teams. But as the Lakers continued to lose in the playoffs, tension between Bryant and O'Neal began to escalate. The two players looked like individuals out on the court instead of part of a team. That all changed in 2000 when Phil Jackson was hired to work his "Zen Master" skills with the troubled team. Well, Jackson proved to be the savior and the Lakers won NBA titles in Jackson's first three seasons as coach.
Although Bryant and O'Neal had their public squabbles, all seemed right in Laker Land because they were winning. But the honeymoon ended during the 2002-2003 season when the Lakers lost to the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs in six games in the Western Conference semifinals. Earlier that season, Bryant labeled O'Neal "fat and out of shape" and that seemed to be the spark plug for the rekindling of this version of the "West Side Story." The Lakers advanced to the 2004 NBA Finals behind the play of O'Neal, Bryant, and added veterans Karl Malone and Gary Payton. But the Detroit Pistons unceremoniously routed the team of four future Hall of Famers in the unconventional five-game sweep.
As the Lakers entered the offseason, each player vowed to do what was best for themselves and their families. Bryant appeared to be the focal point, as he had stated all season that he would choose to opt out of his current contract with the Lakers and test the free agent market. Bryant did opt out and entertained offers from several teams including the Lakers Staples Center co-tenants, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Phoenix Suns, and the Chicago Bulls.
Behind the scenes, however, there were rumblings that Kobe was giving the Lakers an ultimatum, stating he would only resign with the team if they agreed to trade his 7-1, 300-lb. teammate/nemesis. Well, after all the drama, Kobe decided to sign a seven-year, $136 million dollar contract with the Lakers and Shaq was quickly shipped to the Miami Heat for Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, and Caron Butler.
Fast forward to the present, Shaq (although recently injured) is sitting pretty with the top-seeded Heat in the East while Kobe, if he has any conscious at all, is getting his best suit ready so he can represent the Lakers at next month's draft lottery. Kobe has longed for his own team. He has longed for the chance to show the world his entire skills, which he felt were being suppressed while playing sidekick to the Diesel.
Now Kobe got that chance, what is the end result? While Shaq is sunbathing (if you can picture the big man doing that) in Miami as the Heat prepare to breeze to at least the Eastern Conference Finals, the Staples Center is empty during the playoffs for the first time in its history. But Kobe shouldn't be watching the playoffs alone this year.
Here's a thought, maybe Kobe should invite Jack Nicholson, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, and the rest of the star-studded "Laker Fans" to his house to watch the playoffs on television. And maybe then Kobe can finally be a man and take blame for the fall of a dynasty. And who knows, maybe trading Shaq will have the same implications for the Lakers that selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees had for the Boston Red Sox. So if that's the case, Lakers fans don't expect another championship until at least 2088.
The New "Monday Night Football"
Imagine if I told you 10 years ago that "Seinfeld" was moving its first-run episodes to TBS. Or that "E.R." was leaving NBC to start running original episodes on TNT. Or that "The Simpsons" had decided to continue the adventures of America's Greatest Dad on The Cartoon Network.
Would you think, for even a second, that the gain in prestige for these cable networks was somehow greater than the drop in prestige for these network television programs?
Relocating "Monday Night Football" to cable television diminishes the institution. That's not to say that ESPN doesn't benefit from it. I think ESPN will do more "MNF" than ABC had done in the last view seasons — which basically constituted rolling Madden and Michaels out there, adding a few snazzy camera tricks, and hoping that the two teams scheduled to play both didn't suck ass by Week 6.
But now "MNF" is a cable show. There's a reason why ESPN didn't get the Super Bowl: there's a difference, even in this fractured media society, between being on CBS, NBC, ABC, or FOX and being on cable. (The WB and UPN are somewhere in between, although any program on those networks will be assumed to either be a "Star Trek" spin-off, an African-American sitcom, or some teen drama where the boys are prettier than the girls.)
The shows people care about are still on network television; it's going to take a generation for that to change. "The Sopranos" and "The Shield" and "Nip/Tuck" are in a different category of critical and popular success, because their reputations are born out of boundary pushing. Unless ESPN plans on incorporating frequent use of the word "Aye-Double ess-Hole" and quarterly beatdowns with the barrel of a handgun, "MNF" won't have the same sort of impact.
So how does ESPN keep "Monday Night Football" from slipping into the cacophony of its original programming; from getting swallowed up by basketball, baseball, poker, "SportsCenter," "PTI," "ATH," "OTL," and all of those original movies with big-name actors who look nothing like the celebrities they're portraying?
It could come down to whom they chose to do the announcing.
Here are eight great broadcast teams ESPN should consider for "Monday Night Football" in two years, and how they might fare:
8. Gary Thorne, Bill Clement, and Darren Pang
Still-unemployed hockey announcers take over the football duties. Ratings inexplicably plummet to the point where women's bowling on ESPN2 is winning the time slot. The FDA announces that watching "Monday Night Football" is officially a safe alternative to taking two Valium and a glass of scotch before bedtime.
7. "Monday Night Football," Presented by ESPNNEWS.
New announcers every 10 minutes, fitting the same stereotypical profiles: Ken-doll looking white dude, non-threatening black dude, and some chick with a square jaw who will have to put a stake through the heart of Linda Cohn if she ever wants to make "The Big Show."
6. "Inside the Actor's Studio" host James Lipton, John Buccigross, and Dennis Miller
After a fumble by the Jets' Chad Pennington is recovered by Willie McGinest, the referee announced the ball is awarded to the Patriots. Lipton says Pennington's physical performance reminded him of the great Cyd Charisse in Vincente Minnelli's "Brigadoon." Buccigross says that McGinest is to the Patriots as Gordon Gano is to the Violent Femmes. Miller — who was given a second shot at the booth after bloggers complained that there wasn't a conservative voice on any NFL broadcasts — shows just how much he's grown as a mainstream announcer by comparing the fumble to a "blood bespattered Pegasus bolting forth from the teeming neck of a slain Medusa, babe."
5. Stuart Scott, Jim Rome, and Paula Abdul
Scott mixes play-by-play with hip-hop references, resulting in an incoherent and unlistenable mess. Rome mixes color commentary and his collection of smacktalk and clone-speak, resulting in an incoherent and unlistenable mess. Abdul ... well, Abdul is in an incoherent and unlistenable mess.
4. Brent Musburger, Jar-Jar Binks, and comedian Steven Wright
MUSBURGER: "Welcome, fans, to 'Monday Night Football,' coming to you live from beautiful St. Louis, Mizz-or-uh. There's a dome covering this pristine, classic green; but it can't keep the inspiring history of this wonderful berg from seeping in and covering these fans with its timeless glory. The mighty river. The majestic arch. And a little eatery on the corner of Wilson St. that serves that best darn cup of cinnamon mochaccino this reporter has ever had."
JAR-JAR BINKS: "Meesa like da Buccaneersas, minus the four-and-a-half, okeyday?"
STEVEN WRIGHT: "I went down the street to the 24-hour grocery. When I got there, the guy was locking the front door. I said, 'Hey, the sign says you're open 24 hours.' He said, 'Yes, but not in a row.'"
3. John Madden, Tony Siragusa, and Iron Chef Italian Mario Batali
Football broadcasting takes a back seat, as the tubby trio samples a 25-yard long buffet in the booth filled with Baked Pasticcio di Tagliatelle e Sogliola, cannoli, and Turducken. Low point comes midway through the season, as the Falcons and Dolphins are tied with 10 seconds left and Madden says, "[Mike] Vick is ready at the goal-line ... here's the snap, and BUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUURRRRRRRRRP ... oh man, am I gassy. Whoa ... I think I threw up in my mouth a little. It feels like the Madden Cruiser is spinning tires inside my small intestine. Oh man, R-O-L-A-I-D-S anyone? (Pops one in his mouth). Hey, does anybody know why Vick is dancing?"
2. Al Michaels, Stephen A. Smith, and Tom Tolbert
Or "vanilla, chocolate, and swirl."
You'd obviously need Michaels on this team in order to keep the ship from crashing on the rocks every five seconds. Smith would be invaluable for reporting "exclusive" news that passed over the AP wire 20 minutes earlier, while saying duplicitous comments like, "Donavan McNabb is a friend and a fantastic football player ... but if he doesn't complete this 2nd-and-8 first-quarter pass from his own 33 yard-line, then he's ab-so-lute-ly killing the Eagles and needs to get his behind out of town yesterday."
Tolbert? I just hope the viewers at home can't hear him flipping through his copy of "How to Be a Bill Walton Clone in 10 Easy Overly Sarcastic Comments."
1. Bob Costas, Michael Irvin, and Tony Kornheiser
Okay, let's get serious for a second here. This combination would have me watching from opening night.
Say what you will about Costas — and typically, I can't stand his sanctimonious act — but put the guy on the stick, and he's a dynamic play-by-play man. He's everything Michaels used to be, only his batteries are fresher. He has the ability to make a bad game decent, and more importantly, keep the banter entertaining even during a blowout.
The next two additions to the booth would be a complete departure from tradition. There'd be no Fouts or Gifford. Both Irvin and Kornheiser could easily play the Cosell role.
Irvin brings street cred to a broadcast that sorely needs it. Listen: we all wanted him to fail miserably and suck at his job, because he's a cokehead ex-Cowboy who personified the rotten soul of America's Team. But the truth is that he's turned into a Generation X studio analyst — fits and spurts of informed analysis wrapped in ego. He'd need to flesh out a few of his ideas for "MNF," but you'd have to listen just to hear where he's headed.
Kornheiser? Rumors were he was a finalist before Miller was hired. He could be what Miller should have been — pointed, sardonic — but with decades of sports journalism experience that make him more than just a fanboy comedian with a Joe Montana jersey. Plus, with the success of "PTI" and the radio show (and even with that lousy sitcom on CBS), Kornheiser's star has risen considerably since his flirtation with the booth a few years ago. Ironically, it's "PTI"-mate Michael Wilbon who has experience as a football analyst, covering Redskins' preseason games for the local NBC affiliate in D.C. But Kornheiser is funnier, more insightful (rather than just incite-ful) and, above all else...
...he has better hair.
Greg Wyshynski is also a weekly columnist for SportsFan Magazine. His columns appear every Saturday on Sports Central. You can e-mail Greg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 22, 2005
How Will Offseason Moves Affect NFL?
New Coach, Important Draft For Miami
New head coach Nick Saban has plenty of needs to address and is trying to figure out a way to get extra draft picks. The Dolphins do not have a second-round pick, sending that to the Eagles for quarterback A.J. Feeley last year. Saban doesn't want to have to wait for 70th for his second pick.
The Dolphins and Tampa Bay, which has the fifth overall pick, have entertained a possible swap of first-rounders with Miami also receiving picks in the second and third round. Alex Smith, quarterback from Utah, must be available with the second pick. If San Francisco selects Smith No. 1 overall, then the Dolphins may not get offers for the second pick.
If that's the case, Miami will select Auburn's Ronnie Brown, who is rated as the draft's most complete running back, to replace the retired Ricky Williams. There are swirling rumors that Williams may want to return, but he still must serve a suspension for testing positive for marijuana. I don't see Williams coming back, or out alive after the defense gets a hold of him in training camp.
If Saban passes on a running back in the draft, he could still pursue a trade for Edgerrin James, who was designated as franchise player by Indianapolis. James starred for the University of Miami and would welcome a trade to the Dolphins.
Saban is a protégé of Bill Belichick, so look for the Dolphins to go after linebackers with size and pass-rushing ability, along with a playmaking safety.
Veteran cornerback Patrick Surtain, who carries a hefty salary cap figure, has been given permission to seek a trade and may be headed to Kansas City.
Saban already helped the defensive line by signing Kevin Carter and Vonnie Holliday.
The team can't do much worse than last season, and what better guy to have in your draft room than a college coach from the previous season.
Arizona Cardinals: The New Look
The Cardinals changed their bird-head logo in January to make it look tougher. It's about time something for the franchise is considered tough.
The Cardinals have had 15 straight losing seasons! Last year, they were 6-10 and don't look a team that can shed the monkey on its back. Some of the players thought the change was a good idea simply to break from the past.
"I think it's an example of how we're trying to turn the corner and change things up, change the perspective of what the Cardinals are all about," new quarterback Kurt Warner said. "I think the uniform is a great way to start on it."
Will the new uniforms do anything for the actual cardinals that take the field this fall? Probably not, but the teams group of budding stars should.
"Monday Night Football" Changes
The NFL has completed multi-year agreement with NBC and ESPN for its Sunday night and Monday night packages The agreement with ESPN covers eight seasons of "Monday Night Football" from 2006-2013 and includes an earlier kickoff time — 8:40 PM EST for 17 Monday night games. ESPN's Monday night telecasts will be preceded by its highly-rated NFL Countdown pregame show, which will continue to air at 7 PM EST.
My major question to the forever altering effect on "Monday Night Football": what if you don't have cable?
Collective Bargaining Agreement
Owners and players want to avoid the potential of a 2007 season without a salary cap, which is part of the current CBA, and the longer the owners debate, the less time will remain for negotiations with players.
"We need to focus on peace among the owners," New York Giants co-owner Wellington Mara expressed with concern.
"We must have peace among the owners before we have peace with the union," said Mara. Unity among the owners is absolutely critical. But the owners are far from unified on revenue sharing. The owners will meet again in Washington on May 24-25, but NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he doesn't expect owners to resolve their internal debate in time to make a deal with the players that soon.
Life on the Other Side of the Tree: Without Moss
This weekend's NFL draft should go down as one of the most important in Minnesota Vikings history.
The significance of this draft does not suggest that the Minnesota Vikings are a couple of players away from a Super Bowl birth. They're looking to justify trading one of the best players in the league. Possibly in league history.
What the Vikings do with the No. 7 pick — whether they use it on a player or package it and trade up or down in the draft — will forever be linked to Randy Moss.
The Vikings acquired the pick from Oakland in the jaw dropping deal for Moss, who was more productive in his first seven years in the league than any receiver in the history of the league.
Now he's wearing No. 18 for the Silver and Black because the Vikings grew tired of dealing with his distractions in the locker room and off the field.
Anyone who knows Moss knows that when he feels like he has something to prove, he performs at a level that no other player in the NFL can match.
Now Moss has another chip on his shoulder, which means he will probably have a monster year in Oakland catching bombs from Kerry Collins.
Supporters of the trade will say it instantly improved chemistry in the locker room and allowed the Vikings to pursue some much-needed help on the defensive side of the ball.
There is little doubt that the first part of that equation is true. Coach Mike Tice spoke in the offseason about needing leaders to emerge in the locker room, a direct shot at Moss. As for the second part, not so fast.
The Vikings had a wildly successful offseason, bringing in cornerback Fred Smoot, linebackers Napoleon Harris and Sam Cowart, safety Darren Sharper, and nose tackle Pat Williams to turn what has been the weak link on this team into a strength.
But remember, the Vikings had more room under the salary cap than any other team in the league before they traded Moss and likely could have afforded most — if not all — of those savvy additions and still kept their superstar.
That means this No. 7 pick has to be a winner.
"Really what we need to do with that pick is add a blue chip player," Tice said. "If we can utilize that pick to get a blue chip player, regardless of position, adding that player can make the guy next to him better. It can make the guy behind him better."
Does that mean it has to be a receiver who scores 17 touchdowns in his rookie season, as Moss did in 1998? No.
In fact, a stud linebacker, cornerback, or defensive end would do just fine.
Raiders: Bus Stop For Dysfunctional Characters
Did the Vikings get the better deal in the Randy Moss trade? Of course, the Raiders don't see it that way. They only see Moss' touchdowns combined with Ronald Curry and Jerry Porter in a potentially lethal three-wide-receiver sets next season — not his high-maintenance ways or his walking off the field while his teammates were still fighting for a playoff spot in Washington in January. You would figure his lack of maturity would eventually end, but it seems like every year he does something to prove that even as the best receiver in the league, plenty of organizations wouldn't want him anywhere near their t-e-a-m.
Maybe it Should be Randi Moss, because there is an "I" in Randi.
But, as usual, the bus stop for the dysfunctional characters is in Oakland again and the team has a different theory: "I think change, at certain times, change can be the best thing for anybody," Raiders coach Norv Turner said at the league meetings last week.
"The reaction has been unbelievable, from players and then coaches we play against," Turner said. "The reaction of teammates, from guys who've been with him, has been outstanding. I think the guys you talk to have nothing but positive things to say, in terms of being a worker, the way he practices, his approach to the game, all those things. ... The combine was right after the trade and the coaches, you know, come up and say, 'Wow, how'd you pull that off?'"
Only time will tell which organization made out the best in the Randi trade.
Can the Steelers Top Last Year's Draft?
Ben Roethlisberger, the 11th overall pick last year, obviously projects as the franchise's QB for years to come. Will the Steelers draft a quarterback?
Absolutely not. Most likely, they will be in a perfect position to draft based on talent, not on specific needs. Depending on how the draft shakes out (and picking 30th, there are a million and one possibilities) the Steelers will pick the most talented player left. Whether it is a wide receiver, offensive lineman, tight end, or cornerback is still questionable. If Matt Jones is still out there, they may very well swing for the fences with him.
This much we know about who the Pittsburgh Steelers will pick in the NFL draft: Maurice Clarett won't be one of their selections. Team president Dan Rooney didn't appreciate the former Ohio State running back trying to skirt NFL rules by entering the draft last year after his freshman season. And Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert and his scouts aren't impressed with Clarett's skills.
So there's no room on the roster for a potential trouble-maker with questionable pro potential.
Matt Jones: Freak of Nature
Speaking of Mr. Jones. Jones' height (6-6), weight (242), and speed (4.37) are magnets enough. The fact that he is a player without a position makes him a can't-miss story for anybody looking for an angle on this weekend's NFL draft. Almost any Southeastern Conference coach who was across the field from Arkansas is willing to provide a juicy Jones quote. Several times former LSU coach Nick Saban has been quoted as saying, "Matt Jones single-handedly won more games than any player in the SEC."
Wide receivers Braylon Edwards of Michigan, Mike Williams of Southern California, Mark Clayton of Oklahoma, and Troy Williamson of South Carolina will go in the first round. Each compiled huge stats in college. Edwards owns school records with 252 catches and Clayton did the same with 221 receptions. Both Williams and Williamson passed up their senior year, but Williams still accumulated 30 TD passes and Williamson had 43 receptions in his final year.
The organizations know what they are getting with these guys and that's why they will be picked ahead of Jones. His college resume includes four catches!
The risk just might be worth it. He has ridiculous speed for a player his size (sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash), but he's raw and untrained as a receiver. Who will take the gamble?
Can the Redskins Win Under Gibbs?
Paying a hefty price for a short-term gain, the Redskins acquired the No. 25 overall pick from the Denver Broncos. In exchange, Washington gave up its third-round selection (No. 76 overall) in this year's draft and picks in the first and fourth rounds in 2006.
The trade allows the Redskins to take care of both of their most pressing needs — cornerback and receiver — in one afternoon. Washington holds the ninth and 25th picks, with the flexibility to trade up or down to get the players the team has targeted.
Two first-round picks could be too much for them to handle. Look at their number one pick from a year ago.
Sean Taylor, a safety, wants to overhaul the seven-year, $18 million deal he signed a year ago. Although he had a strong rookie season, he was an off-the-field nightmare for the club. He fired two agents, was fined for skipping a day of the NFL's rookie symposium, and was benched for a game after being arrested on a drunken driving charge for which he was later cleared.
Taylor has been a negative for the team as much as he has contributed as a positive. The interesting thing is, it's not only him.
"I think Sean's going to come back high-intensity," running back Clinton Portis said. "Just let him go out and have fun, as long as he's not getting in trouble."
Portis downplayed the significance of the workouts and said he was attending only because he wants to assume a leadership role among his teammates.
"Nothing happens today ain't going to affect July, August, September," Portis said. "Santana calls me every day: 'Man, what y'all do today?' I'm like: 'Man, we ain't did nothing. We're doing the same thing you're doing in Miami, running and working out. You ain't missed nothing.'"
I will bet my left arm that Clinton Portis is never an NFL coach.
The day after the season ended in January, Portis famously said his offseason plans were to live it up, and he asked reporters for mercy in advance in case he made the news for the wrong reasons.
Whether the Redskins can gel as a team remains to be seen, but it sure doesn't look like they did much in the offseason to change things.
April 21, 2005
The NBA Season in Retrospect
Have you ever just had thoughts that you didn't want to forget and jotted them down on paper? Well, that's exactly what I'm doing here and, for some reason, they all involve the NBA. As we prepare for the NBA playoffs and watch an endless barrage of TNT's "40 Games in 40 Nights", let us think back and reflect on the NBA's regular season.
On the Miami Heat vs. Los Angeles Lakers, Christmas Day:
So, did you really think Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant were going to shake hands at center court?
Neither did I.
Did you think the Shaq Daddy would just deck Kobe in the mouth?
Neither did I, but it would have been nice to see.
On "The Brawl":
I don't have much more to say about that infantile display of testosterone.
However, I did wish Christopher House, the Boston Red Sox fan who popped New York Yankees' outfielder Gary Sheffield in the mouth and the unidentified fan joined in by throwing a beer, would have thought of something more original.
We already saw that at the Palace, fellas, how about throwing a tray of nachos next time?
On Grant Hill:
After only playing 47 games total in the last four seasons, Hill managed to stay healthy for 67 games this year and made the all-star team.
I think it's appropriate that he plays for the Orlando Magic, because that is one hell of a trick.
On George Karl:
Are you supposed to wear a turtleneck underneath a basketball jersey? Well, considering Karl's physique, I'm sure we're all pleased as punch that he did.
On LeBron James:
I was a little concerned when Nike gave King James a $90 million dollar endorsement deal before he ever dribbled a ball on an NBA court, but looking back over the last two years, it's safe to say that "Million Dollar Baby" would be a more suitable nickname for the former Rookie of the Year than a movie title and is equally as deserved.
On Kobe Bryant:
On Eddy Curry:
We know you're all heart, big guy, just don't let your ticker keep you from continuing to prove it.
On the NBA's Installment of an Age Limit:
Although I could write an entire article on this subject, let me just say that it's a preposterous rule and reasserts the NBA's secret plan to make the NBA more white. The league is already becoming inundated with European players and now the Asian players are also beginning to trickle in.
With the exodus of Michael Jordan, the league feared that the popularity of the NBA would dwindle.
I invite you to name the biggest stars that are keeping the game afloat.
Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Amare Stoudamire, Jermaine O'Neal and, oh yeah, that one kid, LeBron James.
What do they have in common?
None of them had a lick of college before they entered the NBA.
What I want to know is who is stopping a white kid from declaring himself eligible for the NBA draft after high school?
On Reggie Miller:
What can we say about one of the NBA's greatest villains?
He charmed us or ticked us off with his flops, his smack talking and light the enemy up with three-pointer after three-pointer.
Miller played his last regular season game and will retire after the post season. He scored over 25,000 points and holds the all-time record for three-pointers made.
There are so many memorable Reggie moments, but I'd have to say my favorite "Miller Time" was when the Pacers were losing to the New York Knicks by a score of 105-99, with 18.7 seconds left in the game.
It wasn't enough.
Miller hit a three, stole the ball from the Knicks' Greg Anthony, stepped back and hit another three, all in 3.1 seconds. John Starks was fouled, missed both free throws, Patrick Ewing misses a shot, Miller gets the rebound, gets fouled, and hits both free throws.
Whether the most infamous Pacer (and only a Pacer, I might add) is setting three-point records or having his usual back and forth with Spike Lee, he was and will always be a star.
We'll miss you, Reggie.
Bums: Major League Players vs. Fans
At this writing, Gary Sheffield is very uncertain as to whether to press charges against the dynamic duo who tried to do Jason Varitek an unwanted favor by conking the Yankee outfielder on the head while trying to field Varitek's triple.
But Sheffield is very certain that baseball's chief of gendarmerie was very correct in declaring discipline unnecessary against himself. Boston police, however, are said to be very certain that the Fenway floggers should be flogged with misdemeanor criminal charges. And they should get them, deserving them even as Sheffield richly deserved the three things he got from Bob Watson: jack, diddley, and squat.
You might read the statements coming from the commissioner's office and conclude that the dynamic duo should consider themselves lucky that getting thrown out of the game, the Red Sox ordering one to surrender his season tickets and barring the other from buying subsequent tickets on the season, was all they face thus far. Striking a ballplayer on the cranium while he tries to keep the home team's hit from turning into the home team's triple is not among the rules Mr. Cartwright drew up.
"Sheffield in response swung his arms in an effort to extricate himself from the situation and to avoid further abuse," the statement said, "then completed the play and returned to confront the fan. At that time, no further altercation occurred, Red Sox security stepped in promptly, and order was restored. Under the circumstances, Bob Watson concluded that discipline for Sheffield was not warranted.''
Neither, for that matter, was warranted Yankee manager Joe Torre's near-spontaneous schpritz after that game, to the effect of oh, those loutish Red Sox Nation builders, as if loutish partisanship was strictly a Fenway invention with no known concurrent license exercised ever in the House That Ruthless Rebuilt.
Should he have required amplification, Mr. Torre might well have been referred to the past performance papers of William Ligue, Sr. and Jr. Tom Gamboa, formerly a Kansas City Royals coach, could tell him well enough of what that father and son thug team delivered him blindside in Comiskey Park, one night, two seasons back, proceeding farther than even the Fenway Floggers had dared proceed.
For demonstrative purposes Mr. Gamboa could cock his good ear toward Mr. Torre, the better to understand the Yankee manager's questioning, a gesture compelled by the father and son thug team having cost Mr. Gamboa half his hearing, in an attack unanswered by either the White Sox first baseman or the first base umpire, both seeming unfettered by the host's obligation to protect and defend his honored if competitive houseguests from assault and battery by an incoming burglar.
The Fenway Floggers had crossed a line, but not the fence onto the field. Sheffield's bristling restraint did him honor enough, but his statement upon the verdict does us the honor of provoking serious reflection. "It wouldn't have been just me involved if I would have went into the stands, it would have been my teammates," Sheffield told reporters. "I would have put them at risk. I'd have put the organization at risk and also baseball."
We ought to grant baseball the honor, in turn, of our reflecting upon just how far is too far when it comes to the ballpark bums to whom the price of a ticket is a license to thuggery, thievery, or terrorism.
Is it one thing merely to boo or growl over a slipshod play or a squandered win, but something else again to spread nails and debris beneath the wheels of a player who failed to nail that big game? Laugh if you must. But in 1993, Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams and his family probably thought it as funny as an electric eel in a Jacuzzi.
Is it one thing merely to yowl like a lout because a right fielder missed coming up with the Web Gems catch, but something else again to throw a bottle toward him from the field-equal seats, perhaps knowing he knows not whether glass or plastic and caring less? Shrug if you must. But last September, Milton Bradley knew not and cared not in that instant, and it struck a few not sucked in by fraudulent outrage that the miscreants should have considered themselves lucky that all Bradley did was scream blue murder while slamming the plastic (as it turned out) projectile on the ground between the fence and the first seat row.
And let there be no further bleating about obscenely wealthy baseball players, and how taking even the worst of what a fan dishes out ought to be the least of their burdens, until the bleaters can prove that they would sustain their equilibrium, in their own daily toil, should their workplaces be open to paying audiences granted license to immediate abuse at the first observable mistake or miscue.
That the Red Sox management moved so swiftly upon the Fenway floggers was testament as well to the intellectual courage of perhaps their most sorely missed fan.
If the ambiance for the sporting event is not considered crucial by management, there is no reason to believe that fans will leave home and come out; there is no reason to believe that families will subject themselves to goons and call it fun; there is no reason to believe that in 10 years' time, the vast majority of those who care about the sport will see it anywhere but on a screen — at which point the nature of the game's transmission will have reshaped the contest in ways no one, now, wishes to see. The responsibility lies squarely with the management of publicly played sports to remember that without fans who enjoy being there, live, the whole enterprise does not exist.
What A. Bartlett Giamatti composed for the Boston Globe in 1987 took aim at the ballpark drunks and the on-field hoodlums, specifically. But he could have substituted the like of the Fenway Floggers instead and forged the same point, one his own beloved Red Sox's management punctuated with an exclamation point, by behaving as swiftly toward them as baseball government behaved in like restraint toward the appropriately restrained Yankee.
Advocating the Johnny Walker Classic
The surprising surfeit of response to my last piece on World Cup qualifying leads me to believe I'd be crazy not to (at the very least) lead off with soccer now, if not from now on.
I continue to make no bones about the fact that I am new to the game. Covering different sports can put a writer on shaky ground. I love ESPN's Bill Simmons, but it's obvious after reading his Masters article that he doesn't follow golf too closely. He asked why Pat Summerall isn't calling golf on CBS (I'm sure his health has something to do with it) anymore, and that he'd at least be better than that "British guy who constantly says 'enormous.'"
That "British guy" is David Feherty (and he's Irish, Northern Ireland to be exact), probably the most beloved golf announcer in the game today. So to myself and other followers of golf, it was as though he were to write about college football on television and ask, "Where's Vince Dooley? He's got to be better than that guy who's always yelling, "Whoa, Nelly!" In other words, his ignorance showed, and it was embarrassing.
So in tackling (no pun intended) soccer, chances are great that I will write something that someone who really knows soccer can rip to shreds. My ignorance will show. Might as well be honest about that before I forge ahead.
When I decided to give international soccer a go, I knew I had to pick a team to support in the English Premier League. Legendary teams like Arsenal and Manchester United were out of the question. I need an underdog. I had also heard of most of the other squads via video games. That basically left me with one team that I was unfamiliar with, and so I would be going in cold, as I wanted: Portsmouth.
I have indeed watched Pompey, as they are called by their supporters, as often as possible this year. Most recently, that was at Birmingham.
Portsmouth had recently pulled off a nice win against Fulham, but that was on the heels of a 12-game stretch with only one win. Their offense, in the games I've seen, was particularly lacking.
The losing streak coincided with the resignation of their manager, Harry Redknapp. Details still seem murky, but the bottom line seems to be he had a falling out with Pompey owner Milan Mandaric.
Pompey fans, I have come to understand, credit Mandaric for pulling the team into the Premiere League. The Pompey supporters serenade him with their ditty, "There's Only One Milan." I understand the culture of crowd singing in world soccer, but about the owner?
It now seems that the honeymoon is over between Mandaric and the fans, with good reason. Pompey seems to have no identity, and no firepower. They had these things under Redknapp. Fortunately, they played well enough under Redknapp that their return to the Premier League next season seems assured, more or less, barring catastrophe.
Against Birmingham, their identity-less malaise was sadly glaring in the last 15 minutes, particularly. They were playing to protect a draw, granted, but it was clear that a breakaway surprise scoring opportunity was well too much to hope for.
Only two Pompey players this year have excited me as scoring threats: Diomansy Kamara and Aiyegbeni Yakubu. I have yet to see the two of them on the pitch at the same time. Why? I don't care if they hate each other and will not cooperate with one another, they are two solid scoring threats, and that's what Pompey needs right now in spades. The Portsmouth defense has been impressive, considering how pressed they are.
And yet, they did indeed fight to a draw against Birmingham, 0-0, and on the road with a team with a better record, that's not insignificant. Yet another beauty of soccer revealed: you can still hope for a good result even if you play poorly.
I will be sure to watch them take on their arch-rivals Southampton (now coached by Harry Redknapp, naturally) this weekend, but the sporting event I really can't wait for is my single favorite golf tournament of the year: the Johnny Walker Classic.
How is it that a non-major European Tour whistle-stop is my very favorite tournament?
Well, where to begin? In the March 3rd edition of the Slant Pattern, I explained the concept of co-sanctioned events between the European Tour and lesser tours, and why they are good for the golfers and good for the fans.
Well, the Johnny Walker Classic is the ultimate in that concept, being a tri-sanctioned event: it's run by the European, Asian, and Australasian golf tours.
In that same article, I wrote about Thongchai Jaidee and eight other golfers that I have developed a fandom for that are unknown to most golf fans, even the serious ones. Well, as a result of this tri-sponsoring, six of those nine are in the field, more than any tournament all year.
So I like these guys, so what? A bunch of unknown golfers beating up on each other, why should anyone care just because I carry their torch?
'Cause it's not just unknown golfers beating up on each other. With support from three different tours and a generous title sponsor, the prize money is good. How good? Ernie Els will be in the field. Adam Scott will be in the field. Retief Goosen will tee it up. So will Sergio Garcia and the majority of the European Ryder Cup team. One of them, Miguel Angel Jimenez, is the defending champion. Tiger Woods won't be there, but he won the event in 1998 and 2000.
The tournament is held at a different site every year, and this year it'll be played in China. Events in Asia are usually taped by The Golf Channel and rerun the following morning, but this one will be shown live. That's right, 1:30-5:30 AM Eastern Time, Thursday through Sunday morning. That's four hours, rather than the standard three ... perfect for an incurable night owl like me. Oh, you're not a night owl? Don't worry, their still rerunning it the following mornings, 9 AM-1 PM. You don't even have to sacrifice a bit of the four-hour coverage.
But it's the Prom Meesawats vs. the Ernie Els's that really makes this tournament a dream. It's really the only tournament of the year where the hackers on the unknown tours get a real shot at knocking off of the big boys of golf without having to Monday-qualify or get a sponsor's exemption.
So there's quite a few reasons why this is a fabulous tournament just right off the top of my head. If I've convinced even one of my newfound-invincible throng of readers to tune in, at least for the last round ... color me happy.
April 20, 2005
NASCAR Top 10 Power Rankings: Week 7
Note: The quotes in this article are fictional.
1. Jimmie Johnson — Give Flying JJ a car with four wheels and an engine, and he'll bring it home in the top 10.
"With what they are paying me to drive," says Johnson, "I could finish in the top 10 on a pogo stick, blindfolded, wearing no more than a Speedo and a bow tie."
Oh, I believe you. You don't have to prove it.
For the second straight week, Johnson and crew used nearly an entire race to work the setup, finally finding a balance with about 100 miles remaining. Johnson finished a solid third, and probably could have caught second place Jamie McMurray had the race gone a few laps further. Now, Johnson owns a streak of 13 consecutive top-10s over two seasons. You have to believe that the streak will continue in Phoenix, where Johnson finished sixth in 2004, and second a year earlier.
"You got that right," ads Johnson. "Me in the top 10 is as sure as the Lowe's Sunday circular in your local newspaper."
2. Greg Biffle — Biffle scored the maximum amount of points, 190, by winning the race, leading a lap, and leading the most laps. It's called the "Triple Biffle," not to be confused with the "Triple Lindy," a dive made famous by Rodney Dangerfield in the 1986 smash comedy Back to School.
"Look, are we here to talk about Rodney Dangerfield," says an irritated Biffle, "or are we going to talk about me, Greg Biffle. I tell ya', I don't get no respect."
Well, Greg, after the race in Texas, you should. Biffle wrecked his car in practice Saturday, so he was forced to resort to his backup car and start at the rear of the field. Double whammy! But no problem for the driver of the "Sweet 16," the Roush Racing Post-It/National Guard Ford. Biffle dominated the race, leading 219 laps and cruising to his second win of the season. And to the winner come the spoils of victory. Not only did Biffle chisel 25 points off of Jimmie Johnson's lead, he also was awarded a cowboy hat and a pair of imitation six shooters.
"If their intention was to make me feel victorious," adds Biffle, "then they succeeded. If their intention was to make me feel like Yosemite Sam, then they succeeded in that respect, also. Now, back off. I've got to pose for a silhouette that will later appear on the mud flaps of 18-wheelers nationwide."
That makes you the hootenist, tootenist, shootenist dad-burned varmint in the West, you long-eared galloot. But can you roll like that in Phoenix?
Maybe. Biffle has only had moderate success in Phoenix, with a 13th place finish in 2004, and a 15th in 2003. But that was then, this is now. Biffle is a true title contender, and is strongest on intermediate length tracks.
3. Rusty Wallace — With his 10th-place finish in Texas, Wallace moves up four spots to number three in the Cup standings, 237 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. Wallace's 10th-place finish could have possibly been better, but a pit lane penalty left him 33rd on lap 83. Wallace forged his way back to the front, reentering the top 10 on lap 213.
"Pit lane penalties are always a killer," explains Wallace. "Is it my fault my rear tire handler let a tire roll across pit lane? Why should I suffer for his stupidity? I think NASCAR should stipulate that a crew member who commits a penalty will be placed in a penalty box, like in hockey, and stay there until the following pit stop is completed. The driver is still punished, but not as severely as a drive-through penalty."
Dang, Rusty. I miss hockey, too, but don't you think that's a little extreme? What's say we have a couple if policemen patrol the track for violators, and maybe some traffic cops to keep things straight on pit lane?
Seriously, though, Rusty's farewell tour on the circuit is shaping up to be a memorable one. But to make it a truly memorable year, Rusty desperately wants a win. It's been over a year since his last victory, last spring in Martinsville. Rusty will be gunning for victory this year.
"And I'd like to give a shout out to the Detroit Pistons in the start of there NBA title defense," says Walllace. "Good luck, especially to my nephews, Rasheed and Ben."
4. Jeff Gordon — After starting on the grid seventh, Gordon moved up to second on lap 13.
"If we could have quit right there, they day would have been a success," laments Gordon.
As it was, Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports crew could never unlock the combination to a well-handling car, and eventually settled for a 15th place finish. A disappointing result, no doubt, but not a disaster, as Gordon managed to move up a spot to fifth in the Cup points.
"We tried everything to get the car to drive right," says Gordon. "We tried wedge adjustments, tire pressure, spring rubber changes; I even tried sweet-talking the car, but that did no good. People who were listening on our scanner frequency probably think I'm some kind of pervert, but when your car's not handling right, you'll try anything."
If finishing 15th is "disappointing" to Gordon, then a top-10 result in Phoenix just won't be good enough. Only a top five, or, ideally, a win will satisfy.
"Things will take care of themselves," says Gordon. "I just hope the car is right and we don't have the problems we had at Texas. That was a grueling, painful drive. I've never had that much sucked out of me since divorce proceedings with my ex-wife."
5. Kurt Busch — Busch's first top-10 finish since March 13th was a welcome relief, vaulting him from ninth to fourth in the points race. Busch steered clear of trouble and brought the Roush Ford home in seventh at Texas.
"You know, our strategy was simple in Texas," explains Busch. "Stay away from Johnson and Gordon. No one seemed to want to get close to me last Sunday. Apparently, other drivers fear the Crown Royal whiskey logo on the No. 97."
You've got a point there, Kurt. Nothing says "manhood" like carrying your liquor in a purple velvet pouch, with gold drawstrings. Not to mention two of your other sponsors, Sharpie and Rubbermaid. You're a macho man.
Busch has been strong in Phoenix, with threetop-10s in the last three years. If Busch can keep his car off the wall, and stay away from those who may put him there, he will contend in the front in Phoenix.
6. Sterling Marlin — Marlin has quietly reeled off four straight finishes of 16th or better, and makes a huge leap into the Cup points race, from 12th to sixth. Marlin's Coors Light Dodge was one of three Chip Ganassi Racing cars in the top five at Texas.
"Marlin, McMurray, and Mears," says Marlin. "That's three M's. Turn those upside down, and you've got W's. That's wins, and that's what this team is looking for."
The Ganassi team served notice that they can rival the quality and depth of the Hendrick and Roush teams, as well as the resurgent Dale Earnhardt, Inc. stable.
Marlin will look to extend his streak of two straight top-10s, and hopes to lead the Ganassi team to another unified strong run.
"I take it upon myself to set a good example for Jamie and Casey on the track," explains Marlin, "because I certainly can't do it in FOX Sports 'NASCAR's Sexiest Driver' contest. The rock band Living Color said it best when they sang, 'I ain't no glamour boy, I'm fierce.'"
7. Elliot Sadler — Sadler finished 28th, one spot ahead of his brother, Hermie, after the M&M's car retired to the garage 10 laps from the finish with a drive train issue.
"Anytime you only finish one spot ahead of big brother," explains Sadler, "you know you're in trouble."
It was a disappointing climax to the weekend for the defending race winner. Sadler started from the outside of row four in the eighth position, and began to experience a loose handling car almost from the start. After several pit stops and adjustments throughout the day, Sadler began a charge to the front, and was well on his way to, at worst, a top-15 when the engine suffered the compromising blow.
"Those are the breaks, literally," says Sadler. "If we can keep this car in one piece, then I expect a solid finish. If not, I always know I can find comfort in green M&M's."
8. Ryan Newman — Guess what? Ryan Newman won the pole in Texas. Big deal, you say? Well, you're right. Winning a pole is old hat for Newman; he's won three this year, and 30 in 124 career Nextel Cup races. Of those 30 poles, Newman has won only three of those races, and none of those victories came in 2004, when "Rocket Man" captured nine poles.
"Maybe I don't have a room full of race win trophies," says Newman, "but I got a house full of Bud Pole Awards. And, it's okay to call me "Rocket Man," but please don't start singing the Elton John song of the same name. Just the name Elton John makes me nervous."
Sure thing, Newman. But that's "Sir" Elton John to you.
Anyway, Newman has won the last two poles at Phoenix, and nearly won the race on both occasions, with a second in 2004 and a third in 2003. As bold predictions go, this isn't one, but I'm guessing Newman will easily win the pole, but won't win the race. Like everyone in NASCAR this year, there seems to be a little difficulty riding the pole to victory lane.
9. Dale Jarrett — Rumor has it that the mysterious, unidentified finger found in a serving of Wendy's chili is the right, middle digit of NASCAR Busch series driver Shane Hmiel.
"I can't confirm or deny that rumor," explains Jarrett, "But let's just say he won't be giving me the finger anytime soon, at least not with that finger. Seriously, though, I think it's time Shane and myself got together and discussed the situation. I'm ready to let it go, and I'm sure he is. We could seal the deal with a handshake, or maybe a "high four" from Shane."
So all you are saying is "give peace a chance."
Jarrett held on to the 10th spot in the Cup standings with a 14th-place result in Texas. He's been fairly consistent all year, with his lowest finish a 23rd in Atlanta. That kind of consistency will get you in the Chase, but it won't win races, so D.J. needs to step it up a notch. And remember, Dale, if you want to give someone the finger, make sure you black out that on-board camera first.
10. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. — After finishes of 32nd, 42nd, and 24th in California, Las Vegas, and Atlanta, respectively, Junior stood 26th in the Nextel Cup point standings.
"That's not so bad," remarks Junior. "That would put me in the Chase."
Well, Junior, apparently you're getting too used to people calling you "Junior," and you've forgotten your real name, "Dale Earnhardt." Do you think Pops would settle for 26th in anything?
"Easy, pal," replies Earnhardt. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm 15th in the points after my ninth in Texas."
Yes, I've noticed. But I doubt Dale, Sr. would be happy with 15th, either. Look, Junior. As son of Dale, people place more expectations on you than anyone except Jesus Christ. You can fulfill yours with just one Nextel title; Jesus has no chance to make everyone happy. So consider yourself lucky.
This could be the point in the season where Junior makes his move further up the leader board. DEI finally made progress in Texas, with Michael Waltrip and Junior in the top 10. And, Junior has won the last two races in Phoenix.
"I hate to sound all educated and such," says Junior, "but I'm going to rise like a phoenix in Phoenix. I predict my first win this season. You'll all know how Junior got his groove back.
Ch-ch-changes For Hockey
As the longest offseason in NHL history continues, negotiations have hit a bit of a clandestine moment. Rumors have swirled about progress inching forward and stepping back; the only solid truth there is right now is that the players and owners can agree on a vague concept.
However, that doesn't mean anything without the right numbers or right guts for a CBA. The best news is the fact that there have been quiet rumblings instead of public venom; that is the only real hope for the current state of negotiations.
As for the game itself, there's certainly going to be a number of new ways the game looks and plays. Here is a summary of what to expect if and when the NHL returns.
Those silly looking bow-legged nets that the NHL built prototypes of will not see the light of day — at least not in the near future. Instead, there is near-universal acknowledgement that the goaltender's equipment has to shrink. Goalies such as Martin Brodeur and Steve Shields were in on these negotiations; if they'll sign off, it's a good chance the PA won't protest.
For skaters, expect the nets to be moved back to widen the neutral zone. The return of tag-up offside is a certainty, too. It's likely that we'll see shootouts, and the possibility of eliminating the red line for two-line pass or using the "fat lines" concept to increase the size of each zone is still up in the air.
Players, coaches, GMs, and officials have acknowledged that obstruction, clutching, and grabbing are killing the flow of the game. All have thrown their hats in the ring in preaching a new, obstruction-less mindset. We've heard this before; however, it's also obvious that there's a sense of desperation by everyone involved to get it right this time. Since each faction of the hockey world has bought into this, expect to see significantly less complaining about a parade to a penalty box when compared to previous obstruction crackdowns.
Ken Hitchcock is a born-again coach, and he's hoping to convert a few others to his new religion of offense. Hitchcock, notoriously known for being one of the most defensive-minded coaches in the league, is preaching a new style: offense and creativity. Hitchcock spent the lockout visiting coaches of all levels — college, minors, and juniors. He watched their practices and noticed a common theme — no one was practicing offense.
When mistakes were made on defense, practice stopped and coaches corrected the issue. But when pucks were flubbed on offensive drills, no one batted an eyelash. Hitchcock thinks therein lies the problem. He believes that by giving as much attention to offense as defense, the NHL can restore some of the creative juice that is so sorely lacking from the game. Here's hoping that he's right.
Goodbye (probably) Steve Yzerman, Chris Chelios, Dominik Hasek (again), Mark Messier, Teemu Selanne, and a host of other big-name veterans that have carried the NHL since the '80s. Hello Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Suter, and the new generation of NHL players. The NHL has finally realized that they have failed marketing the best athletes in the world for the past 20 years. They believe that they have learned from their mistakes and can ride this new generation of talent back to the level of success they had in the early 90s and beyond.
One way or another, there will be a salary cap in the new CBA. That means the end of big money spending — for better (Detroit) or worse (the Rangers). There will still be a discrepancy between richer teams and poorer teams, and that level will be determined by the salary cap and floor and the amount of revenue sharing involved. However, this probably means the end of insane trade deadline loading up. The focus will be on building well-balanced teams built with speed through smart drafting.
The NHL has finally smartened up and realized that in order to make their game more marketable, they must make their players more accessible. Expect more access to players and coaches through television than ever before. The NHL wants players like Jarome Iginla and Vincent Lecavalier to become household names, and the only way they will be able to do that is by letting audiences get to know them up close and personal.
In terms of television presentation, the push for HD hockey broadcasts continues. ESPN unveiled their "dasher cam" system at the NCAA Frozen Four. It was highly successful in capturing the speed and flow of the game, and should be even more spectacular once HD technology brings its range and clarity to the next level.
Hockey fans have plenty to look forward to when the game returns. The promise of all these positive changes is the carrot that fans continue to chase for as the CBA war rages on. Both the PA and the league have come to realize that the next two weeks are absolutely critical in getting the league ready for a fall launch. A CBA doesn't have to be signed, sealed, and delivered by May, but it better be pretty darn close. Otherwise, the NHL could return with the best game in the world, but without any fans to watch it.
April 19, 2005
Why Pat Tillman Was Not a Pro Athlete
Most pro athletes are defined by what they do. Michael Jordan was a basketball player; Wayne Gretzky was a hockey player, etc. Pat Tillman won't be remembered as a football player or as a pro athlete, like Simeon Rice and Ty Law. Pat was a man who played football. And despite what he said, he was not a bum. Pat Tillman will be remembered for what he was. A real man and a real hero.— Sports Gospel, 04/20/04
Nearly a year ago, I wrote a column on the same topic, with even the same title. Now the latest news on Tillman is that he could've ended his service early if he wanted to, but, being the great American he was, he chose to serve another tour to finish his three-year commitment. I think it needs to be pointed out again, since the latest Tillman story is making the rounds, that he was not a professional athlete.
It's not surprising to see that Tillman decided against taking the easy way out to avoid combat, he was just on a different level than most people. He was exceptional and far from the norm, so why can't people leave it at that? Rather than praising Tillman for the man he was or leaving him alone, he is being used by some in the media to vilify other athletes.
"Terrell Owens should be ashamed of himself, whining about money when guys like Pat Tillman give their lives for our country ... Barry Bonds should be ashamed of himself, whining about the media when guys like Pat Tillman give their lives for our country ... Vince Carter should be ashamed of himself, not even trying in a game when Pat Tillman gave his life for his country..." Believe it or not, I've heard all of these statements over the past week either in columns, TV shows, or sports radio, and I just don't get it.
First, I don't think he should be lumped in with other pro athletes, but even more than that, he was an exceptional person. You cannot compare him to the Terrell Owens and the Barry Bonds of the world. They are just on different levels. It's not fair to compare anyone to him. Sure, Warrick Dunn does so much for his community its ridiculous, but Pat Tillman gave us his life. Yeah, Sean Casey is the nicest person in baseball, but he didn't die for my country...
You just can't hold every athlete up to Tillman's standard. If a basketball player scores 30 points in a game, you congratulate him, you don't say, "Michael Jordan would've had 35..." In soccer, if someone scores a goal or two, you pat on them on the back, you don't tell the person they didn't earn their orange slice because Pele would've had three. If someone wins the Daytona 500 ... (never mind, let's keep this to sports). I think you get the picture.
You can't ask everyone to be Pat Tillman and you shouldn't be disgusted if every pro athlete doesn't end their career to enlist in the armed services. That's why Pat is special, because he went so far above and beyond. His selflessness is what made it newsworthy, he didn't join to make other people look bad.
There is no doubt that his story is a great one and certainly refreshing with the current black eyes that have hit the sports world, but it accomplishes nothing to try and compare the situation to any other. Instead of focusing on how other people aren't Pat Tillman, let's focus on how great Pat was and what he did for our country.
Terrell Owens isn't Pat Tillman and never will be. Barry Bonds will never be Pat Tillman. Even Sean Casey won't be Pat Tillman and I can live with that, because I'm just grateful that we got to have a Pat Tillman in the first place.
Mark Chalifoux is also a weekly columnist for SportsFan Magazine. His columns appear every Tuesday on Sports Central. You can e-mail Mark at email@example.com.
College Football's Playoff Hopes Over?
The stage is set for what could be the final nail in the coffin at least being set for any hopes of a playoff in Division 1-A football. Later this month, the NCAA Board of Directors will vote on a proposal to lengthen the football season by a game to 12, thereby solidifying the argument that the season is already too long to add a postseason tournament.
However, the one caveat in the proposal that keeps the nail from being pounded flush is that 1-AA schools would be given the same opportunity of a 12-game regular season. That may be just enough justification for the pro-playoff camp to keep their hopes alive.
While the board will make its own decision regarding whether the proposal becomes a hard-and-fast law in the NCAA, a lone dissenter among the big conferences — the ACC — could swing the pendulum either way. On one hand, with only one conference of the 10 in Division-1 opposing the proposition that might be enough of a consensus to sway the board in favor of adopting the new expanded schedule. On the other, though, one holdout might create enough persuasion to keep the board from giving the proposal its blessing.
If the former is the end result, I believe we can kiss goodbye any thought of a 1-A playoff for the foreseeable future — which would be a shame — and say hello to a revolving door of modifications to the BCS — which also would be a shame. What have we seen already, two or three revisions to the system in seven or eight years? Without a playoff, the BCS will be tweaked and re-tweaked until either a system is found that really does work, or we all throw our hands up in surrender to simply make it stop.
The ACC is the only conference that did not vote "yea" on the expanded schedule proposal last week, citing academic and length of season as reasons for keeping the status quo. It seems interesting that the primary roadblock to a playoff is the concern of only one group of schools. For years, the playoff naysayers (primarily athletic directors and NCAA mucky-mucks) have used the classroom as its main reason for not wanting an "other than the bowls" system of crowning the national champion; yet, sans the ACC, none of them are crying "grades" as a reason to not expand the regular season.
The other reason the ACC doesn't want the expanded schedule is because the bye week might be in jeopardy. The week off has become so significant and critical to keeping, or more appropriately getting, a team healthy that even the NFL worked a bye week into its schedule some years ago. How many times have we seen a struggling team get a week off, then look like an entirely different unit on the field because they had a week to heal up and work out the bugs? I'm surprised that more ADs aren't taking this into consideration when weighing the pros and cons of having an extra week of games.
However, under current rules, Division-1 football had 12-game seasons in 2002 and 2003 and every school had some sort of time off, even if it wasn't a full-blown bye week. The schedule featured several teams that played on Saturday one week, had the next Saturday off but played a Thursday game the following week, and then played on a Friday or Saturday the week after that. Many other schools did have a whole two weeks between games at least once during the seasons, so it would appear that the bye week would not be in as much jeopardy as originally thought, although things can change with time.
The bottom line, though, is that what appears to be the driving force behind the expanded schedule is, in fact, the bottom line. An extra game every year means an extra game on TV and more revenue for the conferences.
The question that needs to be asked, however, is why do the conferences think (if they do) they can make more money with an extra week during the regular season than they could with a playoff? I suppose it could be answered by arguing that, with an extra playing day during the season, every team would be playing and not just the eight or 16 in a playoff format; therefore, more conferences would get paid from TV games and more schools would draw in money from having a home game or sharing as the visiting team.
But let me ask this question: what gets the college football fan more fired up? A non-conference game between Akron and San Jose State (no disrespect intended to either school) on a regional sports network or a postseason game between Texas and Florida State on national TV? I would bet that the latter would have wider national interest, the TV share and advertising revenue would far outweigh what the former would draw, and the NCAA could come up with a revenue-sharing formula where all the conferences would benefit from such a game. Sure, the Big 12 and ACC would get a higher percentage of the take than the rest of the conferences, but I bet there would be enough to go around for everyone to be satisfied, especially when we're talking about 16 teams.
So, while the NCAA board mulls over its decision in the next couple of weeks, I hope that those members who are forward thinkers and still hold the idea of a playoff system in the back of their minds vote with their conscience and not the conferences. And, hopefully, the undertaker's hammer won't drown out the voice of reason.
April 18, 2005
Are the Suns Burning Out?
The Phoenix Suns have been the most exciting, breath-taking, and any other awe-inspiring adjective you choose for the better part of the 2004-05 regular season. The same style they have used to run roughshod over the entire league (except against the Spurs, of course) will lead to their demise in the postseason.
As young as the legs of Amare Stoudamire, Shawn Marion, and "Q-Dog" [Quentin Richardson] are, that by no stretch means that those legs are fresh. The torrid pace at which the Suns have played has been reflected in their recent defeats, as well as their victories.
They came back to beat the Lakers by sinking almost 20 three-point field goals. Night in and night out in the postseason, rest assured, that will not occur. In fact, up until Saturday night's thrashing of the Sacramento Kings, the '05 Suns have not resembled the juggernaut of the West they are supposed to be.
The 60-plus victories the Suns have accumulated this season is one part talent and one part a reflection of the watered-down level of talent in NBA. Especially when you take into account that Phoenix resides in the same division as the Clippers, Lakers, and Warriors.
The Suns will avoid having to face Denver in the first round and draw the coldest team in the league in Memphis. Past that, the Suns' reliance on the three-pointer and their complete lack of defense will spell their doom, as the Spurs march toward the Western Conference crown.
Infamous for cutting out the hearts of fans across the NBA Nation, no player in the league has displayed more of that same visceral organ than Pacers guard Reggie Miller. World renowned for his deadly accuracy, as well as his sailors tongue, Miller has cemented his legacy this season as one of the all-time greats of the NBA.
In a season that will be forever maligned in Pacers/NBA history by the "Malice at the Palace," Miller once again became the face, heart, and soul of the franchise. The Pacer for life proved to be the Elmer's that kept this Eastern Conference power from a complete collapse.
Though Miller's numbers will not astound you for the season (14.8 ppg, 2.2 apg, 33% 3pt.), Reggie has stepped up yet again as the playoffs approach. For the month of April, Miller has increased his scoring average to 19 points an outing, as well has bolstering his 3-point percentage to 44 percent.
The Pacers very easily could have found themselves in the draft lottery with the losses of Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson to suspensions, as well as their leading scorer in Jermaine O'Neal. For most players, the ultimate dream is to go out on top by winning a championship in their final season. For Miller, that goal may be a bit too lofty. However, the class, dignity, and effort put forth by Miller as a leader this year should prove to make his journey into the sunset one with little to frown about.
LeBron Must Go
LeBron James has undoubtedly had a season worthy of MVP consideration. Averaging 26 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists per game, James has most assuredly ascending into the upper echelon of the NBA's elite.
While all of those personal stats are all fine and dandy, and will bolster his throwback jersey and Sprite Remix sales, his team has crumbled around him. While James is not ready to be the leader that Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson once were, he is ready to be the face of the future of the NBA. The problem is, he will never be able to 'be the man" in Cleveland.
Throw into the equation that the Cavs are now pushing the panic button just trying to back their way into the postseason, hometown or not, King James must fins a new castle.
Despite the mounting losses that sealed Paul Silas' demise, Brendan Malone has done an even more abhorrent job getting his players ready to go down the stretch. At this juncture, the only name that would be able to keep James in Cleveland is Phil Jackson. Seeing as how there isn’t enough talent between the Indians, Browns, and Cavs combined to put together a champion in sports, Phil will abstain courteously.
For the King and the Zen Master, it's time to start spreading the news...
Pitching-Heavy Fish Still Not Winning
Somebody kick Matt Perisho off the team.
He's the only Marlins pitcher with an ERA over 3.18. So what if he's only allowed one run in 1.2 innings pitched? He's gone. A 5.40 ERA is just unacceptable. He really doesn't fit in.
If you want to pitch for the Florida Marlins, you better be throwin' goose eggs on the board. Just look at the numbers. Dontrelle Willis has tossed two complete-game shutouts. A.J. Burnett has allowed only six earned in three starts, two of them complete games. Josh Beckett has surrendered one earned in three starts. And Al Leiter has chipped in with a 2.55 ERA in three games.
Nobody in baseball is getting better numbers from its top four starters. It's somewhat of a surprise, considering the question marks whirling around every pitcher on that staff. Willis failed to recapture his rookie year form last season and some wondered if the league had finally caught on to his high leg kicks. Burnett was inconsistent last year after returning from Tommy John surgery. Beckett, the October darling two seasons ago, posted solid numbers last season, but seemed to fall short of the lofty expectations heaped on him after his World Series performances. And Leiter is one of those wily veterans, who, while wily, seemingly can't be counted on for stellar start after stellar start.
Those questions have been answered.
Another set of questions just got handed out.
Because for as good as their pitching has been, the Marlins were still just 6-6 after Sunday's game.
The Florida offense has played Jekyll and Hyde so far. In their first three shutouts of the season, the Marlins posted nine, nine, and eight runs. But in games when their pitchers actually allow runs, the Marlins can't seem to score enough. Their biggest loss this season was 4-0. In between, they've consistently put up just one or two runs.
The stats don't readily give this away. The Marlins are in the middle of pack in most offensive categories. Not great, not terrible.
Whether it's a lack of timely hitting, slow starts, or a sign of larger offensive troubles is hard to say. On paper, the Florida lineup is solid. With Juan Pierre at the top and Miguel Cabrera, Mike Lowell, and Carlos Delgado in the middle, runs should be easy to come by.
But Lowell has started slow, hitting .170 through Sunday, and while Delgado is hitting, he's driven in only four runs.
That figures to change soon enough.
That means if the Marlins' pitchers stay healthy, stay consistent, and stay hot, the National League East might go the way of the fish.
A lot of ifs. Almost like all those questions were only answered in pencil. But pencil might be good enough.
I Hate Mondays: Jermaine's Disdain
The NBA is racist because the league is attempting to invoke an age limit. The NHL discriminates, too, since all the ice that they use is white. Major League Baseball should be considered a bigot, as well, since they never use any other color of chalk powder except white.
Yes, the Ku Klux Klan has surreptitiously re-emerged in the world of sports. Either that or the above claims are about as accurate as Jermaine O'Neal's three-point shooting percentage.
Here's a revelation for you, the bulk of the NBA players are African-Americans. What that means is that any modification to the league rules will inherently affect more black people than white people. If the salary cap is lowered, if the veteran minimum is decreased, or if it's decided that NBA rosters will shrink by one or two players per team, that will affect more black people than white people.
In case you and Jermaine O'Neal are still in the dark on this issue, let me connect the dots for you. This has nothing to do with racism, and everything to do with money.
It is true that other major sports like golf, baseball, and hockey have youngsters participating, but consider the percentages. The Ilya Kovalchuks and Adrian Beltres are a drop in the sea compared to basketball, where high-schoolers are incessantly pouring in. In the above three sports, puerile prospects can be sent down at any time to farm teams or amateur squads to cultivate their talent and gain confidence. In the NBA and NFL, things are a bit different. All the prospect developing and nurturing is done beforehand in the NCAA — which happens to be a billion-dollar industry.
The members of the sporting society that enjoy watching AHL hockey or Triple-A baseball are in the minority. Meanwhile, college football and college basketball are widely embraced. With a sharp increase in high-school basketball players circumventing NCAA sports, the viewer interest is not as strong as it could be.
While that does create compelling storylines to follow in the professional game, which is already star-laden, it is merely at the expense of the college game.
Think where March Madness ratings would be with LeBron James outfitted in an Ohio State Buckeyes jersey, with Amare Stoudemire rocking the rim relentlessly, or Darius Miles surrendering to discipline.
Something tells me the Sheldon Williams Duke jersey isn't a must-have while a Josh Smith one might be.
An age limit ensures that college athletics won't be deprived of talent, ratings, and money. If the Frozen Four was as popular as the Final Four, there would probably be an age limit invoked in hockey, as well — regardless of skin color.
Also, expanding your education, even if it is only one more year at post-secondary school, never hurts. At least that way you'll be able to decipher the difference between racism and economics.
Edumacation and segregation mix like Mondays and me.
"I never learned from a man who agreed with me." — Robert Heinlein
April 16, 2005
Survey Says: Steroids Don't Matter
A month ago, you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a newspaper headline or a talking head on cable television elucidating the abomination that is steroid use in Major League Baseball.
So what happened? The media has moved on. Congress has moved on. And according one poll, so have the fans.
At the beginning of April, the Associated Press and AOL Sports conducted a telephone poll of 1,001 adults from the contiguous 48 states. (Because, evidently, Alaska and Hawaii might as well be Neptune and Pluto.)
The results are interesting, if not startling. In fact, the biggest surprise may be in the first question they asked:
1. Are you a fan of professional baseball or not?
— Yes, 35 percent
— No, 60 percent
— Somewhat (volunteered), 5 percent
Let's assume, for a moment, that the respondents did not think they were being asked whether or not they're paid to follow baseball.
"Are you a fan of professional baseball or not?" Sixty percent of the people polled said "no." That's astounding, and quite embarrassing for a sport that has somehow convinced the fans and sportswriters who were penning its eulogy a decade ago that it has reclaimed its place as America's sporting lifeblood.
What do you think a similar question about professional football or basketball would reveal? I'm guess a little heavier on the "yes" side.
From then on, the questions shifted to steroids and performance enhancing drugs in baseball. Such as this question (keep in mind that baseball fans — those proud 35 percent — are represented in parenthesis):
2. In your view, which one statement represents the biggest problem in Major League Baseball?
— The players make too much money, 33 percent (34)
— Players use steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs, 27 percent (30)
— It costs too much to attend a game, 22 percent (25)
— The games are too long, 8 percent (5)
— Other, 6 percent (4)
— Not sure, 4 percent (1)
Did I miss that Congressional hearing on Richie Sexson's base salary?
Granted, the lure of that most utopian of fan desires — fiscal sanity — may have been too much for those responding. But 27 percent of those surveyed and 30 percent of baseball fans are hardly indicators that the uproar over performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball is a populist movement. There's only a five-percent difference between baseball fans who think steroids are ruining the game and those who think it's all going to hell because their soda costs $5.
Once again: did I miss that Congressional hearing on why my cheese fries cost more than a Buick?
3. How much do you care if professional baseball players use steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs? Do you care...
— A lot, 55 percent (63)
— A little, 23 percent (21)
— Not at all, 22 percent (15)
To me, this is more an indication of curiosity than any anger towards steroid users. I'd love to know who's juicing and who isn't; in other words, I care a lot. But it doesn't mean I think they should be banned from baseball. Which brings us to this question, asked to half of the sample:
4a. If a baseball player was found to have used steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs, should he be allowed into baseball's Hall of Fame or not?
— Yes, 26 percent (36)
— No, 70 percent (62)
— Not sure, 4 percent (2)
What's interesting here is the disconnect between non-fans and baseball fans: A 10-percent variance between those that answered "yes." Once again, it's clear that baseball fans have a different view of performance-enhancing drugs' "legality" when it comes to their sport.
Meanwhile, the other half of the sample was asked:
4b. If a baseball player was found to have used steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs, but only before baseball enacted rules against those drugs in 2002, should he be allowed into baseball's Hall of Fame or not?
— Yes, 32 percent (45)
— No, 62 percent (52)
— Not sure, 6 percent (3)
Or, "Should Mark McGwire be allowed in baseball's Hall of Fame?"
I guess for 45-percent of fans, it isn't cheating if you're popping pills and taking shots of performance enhancing substances that are banned in nearly every other sport on the planet. If baseball doesn't ban it, then it must be A-OK!
Nevermind the fact that during his historic career, the only cream Babe Ruth rubbed into his arms fell off the top of a hot fudge sundae...
There's one more question I wanted to highlight, which was asked only of baseball fans:
7. If you had to choose, what kind of baseball game would you prefer to watch?
— A close game with a lot of runs scored, 56 percent
— A pitcher's duel, 42 percent
— Not sure, 2 percent
So the majority of fans want runs, runs, and more runs.
Is it any wonder they're so apathetic to the Steroid Armageddon that's been perpetrated by Congress and the media?
I'm not denying that some fans are legitimately upset and angry at baseball for allowing performance-enhancing drugs to remain in the game, for not implement draconian testing measures years before Jose Canseco and his $300,000 book advance. I'm not trying to downplay the fact that fans — of, shall we say, a slightly more "experienced" demographic than mine — feel as though this "cheating" has tarnished the last two decades of baseball to the point where they should forever be labeled as "The Steroid Era."
But where are these protesters now? This season, we've seen what seemed to be impossible a few years ago: two major league players, and dozens of minor leaguers, being publicly identified as steroid abusers and suffering suspensions for their actions. Yet none of this seems to have stoked the fires of discontent we saw during Canseco's book fallout and Congress's hearings on baseball.
Why hasn't it? Ask Jorge Piedra and Alex Sanchez. Those were the two players who have been suspended thus far by Major League Baseball for testing positive for steroids. Most baseball fans wouldn't know these guys if they ran up to them and punched them in the nuts. They're like the really tiny fish that the small fish in the pond eat.
That doesn't mean they aren't cheaters; that they aren't, in the minds of thousands of fans, sullying the reputation of baseball through their nefarious actions.
It just means they aren't famous cheaters. And judging from the reaction to their suspensions, and the reaction of fans in that recent poll, the steroid scandal in baseball is less about the sanctity of the game and much, much more about what famous people are doing to their bodies.
Who knew Barry Bonds had so much in common with Lindsey Lohan's breasts?
Greg Wyshynski is also a weekly columnist for SportsFan Magazine. His columns appear every Saturday on Sports Central. You can e-mail Greg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thoughts on the NFL Offseason
Let me just state for the record something I say every year here at Sports Central: the football offseason is a dark night of the soul. Oh sure, watching Tiger Woods win another green jacket was cool. But the rest has been sheer torture.
After the Steelers went 15-1 only to lose in another Championship Game, I wanted the season to start immediately. What are my other options? Hockey? Nope. Steroid scandal? No thanks. The NBA regular season? No offense, NBA fans, but that is not my cup of tea. No, there is really nothing like the NFL, so the offseason is always a painful experience.
But you didn't click here to have me complain for the whole article (did you?), so allow me to offer you some thoughts on the offseason so far.
The most exciting event of the offseason was the Randy Moss trade to Oakland. Let me just say that I think Randy Moss is a selfish punk with serious personality problems. But let's be honest, the guy has some skills. Who knows what the Oakland defense will look like, but the offense is going to have some firepower. What is the score going to be when the Raiders play the Chiefs?! 57-54?
Seriously, say what you will about Kerry Collins, but he can throw the ball downfield. Now he has Randy Moss, who is going to take the opposition's best cover guy, plus Joey Porter, Ronald Curry, and newly-added LaMont Jordan out of the backfield. If the line gives Kerry time, he will put up some serious yards.
I am not sure why the Vikings let him go. I know he was not exactly a team player and he looked rather pedestrian in their playoff loss, but he can still catch the football. Find a way to get him onboard and healthy and then just throw him the ball. Is it really that complicated?
Speaking of receivers, let's talk about Plaxico Burress, who finally landed with the New
Jersey York Giants after a rather awkward period where he practically begged teams to sign him — provided they gave him a $10 million signing bonus. After getting a new agent — super agent Drew Rosenhaus — he landed in the Big Apple on a team that desperately need receivers.
Now first off, this one hurts me. Burress was supposed to be to the Steelers' receivers what Ben Roethlisberger was to the quarterback position. But although he had flashes of success, he never quite added up to the kind of money he was demanding (dropped pass in the most important game of his life, and what's with the always falling down thing?).
I also have a bit of sore spot with Burress because when he was in college at Michigan State, he tore up my beloved Michigan Wolverines. It hurts to watch him beat your favorite school in college, but then struggle with your favorite pro team (don't even get me started with Kordell Stewart).
But let's get back to the G-Men for a second. Did I say they needed receivers? Amani Toomer is the only veteran receiver on the Giants squad and this from team whose WRs managed two touchdowns all last season (both Toomer and the now-released Ike Hilliard were shutout of the end zone last year).
Of course, Eli Manning is the man of the future, and despite his immature insult to the Chargers and his lackluster play once he gained the starting job, we will admit the kid has potential. With opponents focused on Jeremy Shockey, Burress might finally be able to get the passes and glory he seeks. Of course, if the offensive line can't protect Manning, then all is likely moot.
Color me cynical. On paper, Plax should be a real deep threat and a physical presence in the end zone, but he just hasn't shone me he has the mental toughness to be a game-breaker. Coming off the injury, I think we have to wait and see.
Speaking of Michigan WRs, David Terrell is back to playing with Tom Brady. Released after the Chicago Bears picked up Mushin Muhammad, Terrell never lived up to his promise. I also have a bone to pick with Mr. Terrell. He left Michigan after his junior year at the same time Drew Henson left to play for the New York Yankees. So instead of bringing back some great young talent for a national championship run, the Wolverines had to rebuild with John Navarre. Am I bitter? Nooooo...
Interesting side point: Tom Brady has blown everybody away in terms of recent Michigan grads in the NFL. This may seem like an obvious point, but it certainly wasn't at the time. Brady was redshirted and then didn't start his first two seasons. And even when he got the starting job, he had to share time with phenom Drew Henson. As everybody knows by now, Brady wasn't drafted until the sixth round. Ironically, the QB Brady replaced before he went on his Super Bowl run, Drew Bledsoe, just jumped ahead of Drew Henson on the depth chart in Dallas.
No other Michigan star has accomplished near as much as Brady. Sure, QBs like Jim Harbaugh, Elvis Grbac, and Brian Griese have managed journeymen careers in the NFL. And receivers like Amani Toomer, Tai Streets, and Terrell have shown some promise (and Desmond Howard had that one Super Bowl returning kicks). Running backs have been a particular disappointment. Think of Tim Biankabutuka, Tyrone Wheatly, and Anthony Thomas. Brady has outshone them all. The only player close in recent years would be Charles Woodson, but he has dropped off some lately. Going on memory, the next best goes way back to Anthony Carter.
Okay, enough Michigan football. Let me end this by looking forward to the NFL draft. An interesting pattern developed while I was looking at the results of last year's draft. Look at the top-10 skill position players from last year's draft:
* Eli Manning — Was he worth it? Hard to tell at this point. The Chargers went to the playoffs and have a couple of draft picks. The Giants have to hope that Eli plays like a Manning some day.
* Larry Fitzgerald — Solid pick, but Arizona still needs a lot of work. Nevertheless, 58 catches for 780 yards and 8 TDs is good work for rookie.
* Phillip Rivers — Didn't play to speak of.
* Kellen Winslow — Injured.
* Roy Williams — Again, pretty solid. Equal to Fitzgerald in less games because of injury.
* Reggie Williams — Inconsequential stats, especially when compared to others before and after him.
* Ben Roethlisberger — Best rookie QB ever. 'Nuff said.
* Lee Evans — Got hot at the end of the season and looked like the go-to guy. Worth the pick.
* Michael Clayton — Best of the bunch. Rookie of the Year nominee.
* J.P. Losman — Future of the Bills. Remains to be seen if he is worth it.
Based on this admittedly thin evidence, I might take a WR in the draft if I am looking for immediate impact. Just a thought.
Of course, Braylon Edwards could be the next David Terrell and this year's QB crop looks good. I just think first-round QBs are risky. I speak from personal experience. Before Big Ben, the Steelers have had a long history of bad quarterback drafts. Heck, they passed on Dan Marino and cut Johnny Unitas!
Hang in there, kids, the draft is up next and then we push on through the summer until we can start thinking about the Hall of Fame game.
April 15, 2005
Sports Q&A: Raise the NBA Age Limit?
David from Chelsea, NY asks, "Should the NBA raise the age limit from 18 to 20?"
If you say "18 to 20" to a potential NBA prospect, he's not thinking years. To him, 18 to 20 is the decision he has to make about the number of carats in that diamond stud he's going to buy for his ear(s) when he signs that first contract. That's his right, as is the decision to go pro at 18. So, no, the age limit should not be raised.
If these kids can vote and go to war, as well as play professional baseball and hockey, how can the NBA in good conscious tell them they can't play in the NBA? Just think: if the age limit was already in effect, we would have been deprived of at least two years of the careers of Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James.
But what about those high-schoolers who didn't make it in the NBA? Who really cares? If they weren't good enough to make the NBA at 18, then they probably wouldn't have made it at 20. Chances are, they are playing in Europe, the Middle East, or some other foreign country whose language they have learned. They darn sure wouldn't have learned that in college.
No one should feel sorry for a kid who had an opportunity to make millions and failed. At least he knows early that basketball is not his future. If he saved an invested wisely, he should easily be able to afford college. And I don't even want to hear about the high-schooler who doesn't even get drafted. If you're stupid enough not to ask around and do the research to know if you'll be drafted, then you'll be a failure wherever you go, like college.
So many students attend college, get a degree, and end up in a well-paying profession in which nothing they learned in college applies to their job. For example, a salesman. If society allowed a kid to go straight into sales without wasting his years in college, shouldn't he be allowed to do so? Of course he should, especially if he was looking at several million.
College, for some players, is just a training ground for the NBA. Is there a better training ground for anything than playing with the world's best in that field? Probably not. Most high-schoolers who go pro don't immediately become superstars. If and when they become superstars, it comes at a time when they otherwise would have been in college. Why delay the inevitable? If a player has the skills to become a professional, and a millionaire, then nothing should stop him, especially not his age.
Advocates of college basketball would argue that forcing players to go to college before the NBA would improve the college game. Is there any thing wrong with the college game? The last I looked, it was still exciting and had its fair share of incredible athletes. Players can choose to play in college, and if they choose not to, they should not be punished.
Ultimately, it's up to the player. If he feels he's ready to make that jump to the NBA, it should be his choice. It's also his responsibility to deal with the consequences, whether they are good or bad. If he can make it in the NBA straight out of high school, he wins and the NBA wins. If he doesn't make it, and others as well fail, then that will be a natural deterrent to others considering the same attempt at the NBA from high school.
In short, when you get your high school diploma, you earn the right to make certain decisions. The decisions may be good ones or bad ones. The NBA has no right to assume, by raising the age limit, that they are making the right decision for you.
Joe from Beaufort, SC wants to know, "Does anyone care about boxing anymore?"
As it has been since its existence, boxing is the most corrupt sport in athletic competition. As I say that, I'm sure the Don King is teasing his hair and grinning from ear to ear, probably because he just signed a fight that no one wants to see. But somehow, it will be available on pay-per-view for $49.95, and enough suckers will pony up the charge for King to pay the boxers way too much, and himself even more.
Simply put, boxing is a joke. Why? Well, anytime the biggest news in a sport is the cancellation of the Tonya Harding versus miscellaneous transvestite fight, as was the case earlier this year, then that sport is a joke. What's even more of a joke? I wanted to see that fight. Why on Earth, do you ask? Not for the drama. Not for the competition. Not to see Harding suffer a well-deserved pummeling. But only for the spectacle. Boxing has become a spectacle, a freak show, a train wreck. Hey, did I just describe Mike Tyson? Yes, but not on purpose, but I'll use that segue anyway. The decline of boxing, as well as its previous popularity, parallels the rise and fall of Tyson.
If you're old enough to remember, boxing was actually broadcast on network television. I was only 12 at the time, but I seem to recall Sugar Ray Leonard winning the WBC welterweight title from Wilfredo Benitez in prime time on ABC. And CBS, with analyst Gil Clancy and partner Tim Ryan, and NBC, with "The Fight Doctor" Ferdie Pacheco and Marv Albert, broadcast championship fights on a regular basis.
Today, you never see a championship fight on network television. On cable, you could see a title fight, but it's usually for some second-rate, fringe belt (usually, the more letters in the federation abbreviation, the less prestigious is the belt). Not that these fights aren't entertaining; these guys are usually not superstars, and are fighting to reach that status, and the payday that comes with it. Only then do the crooks descend with the compassion of a vulture on carrion. This is what happened to Mike Tyson.
When Tyson was trained by Cus D'Amato and managed by Jim Jacobs, Tyson was shielded from the leeches that infected the industry. Sure, Tyson had a habit of felonious behavior, but the influence of D'Amato and Jacobs was able to transfer that aggression to the ring. Tyson would later become a "monster," but then, he was simply a "beast." Tyson still had compassion, and was fighting for himself, and not for the thugs who would later litter his payroll and drive him to bankruptcy.
In a 1986 fight against Marvis Frazier, son of Joe, Tyson knocked Frazier unconscious in less than a minute. Then, what did he do? He checked to see if Frazier was okay. Would the Tyson of today or 10 years ago do that? Not a chance. While being interviewed by ABC's Alex Wallau after the fight, Tyson innocently reviewed the tape and described the knockout in his own words: "Boom! I'm gonna hit him. I like to hit him." Never has this word been used to describe anything about Tyson, but the moment was "cute." It was boxing at its best: an anticipated fight, a devastating knockout, a likable fighter, and it was all on network television.
But that would be the end of the "innocent" Tyson era. D'Amato had passed away in late 1985, and Jacobs died in 1988. The impressionable Tyson was without his protectors, and was easy prey for anyone willing to tell him what he wanted to hear. The new Tyson era ushered in a more volatile Tyson, championship belts, more money than Tyson could properly manage, and higher-priced pay-per-views. Although, for a while in this era, Tyson pay-per-views were a bargain. In Tyson's devastating title reign, a pay-per-view featuring the heavyweight was worth the price, even though the most you would see of Tyson was two rounds.
But the anticipation was the real excitement. The success of Tyson placed the spotlight squarely on the heavyweight division, the weight class that has driven boxing from the start. As the cost of Tyson PPVs rose, people willingly paid, so promoters took advantage and eventually gouged the price of all PPVs. Now, there seems to be no price range for PPVs. Whether its Oscar De La Hoya/Feliz Trinidad or a junior bantamweight title bout from Pyongyang, North Korea, the price is $49.95. That's a month of satellite or cable right there. So, essentially, Tyson drove up the price of PPVs, and now, he won't go away.
Tyson will return to the ring on June 11th to face Ireland's Kevin McBride. I'm sure the PPV buy will be $49.95. It's pathetic matches like this (the aging, tattoo-faced Tyson versus an Irish guy!?) that steal the spotlight from the lower weight classes, where there is actual competition. But to the sports fan who's "on the fence" about boxing, a 12-round slugfest between two 126-pound Hispanic fighters won't catch their attention, although it should. Boxing needs a new heavyweight hero; Tyson needs to disappear from the boxing landscape. I understand he needs the money, but with every additional fight, the legacy of Tyson, and boxing, takes a hit.
So, to answer your question, yes, some people care about boxing. But I think I'm a good model of the average boxing fan. And, right now, I don't care about boxing. Maybe if it were accessible for free, like nearly every other sport in the world, I would be more of a fan. I honestly don't understand how boxing can make the money it does. I just know they won't do it on my dime.
Get Your Questions Answered!
Do you have a question or comment? Need those tough tax law questions answered? Looking to cure that flesh-eating disease? Need a discreet steroid distributor? Then send your question/medical records/W2s/dilemna along with your name and hometown to email@example.com. You may get the answer you're looking for in the next column on Friday, April 29th.
noBOdy Knows Better
The cover of Bo Jackson's 1990 autobiography says it all, even before the stories inside put the image into words and begin to fill in the background of one of the greatest athletes of the last half-century.
Donning a pair of shoulder pads and holding a bat, Mr. Jackson stands a man representative of two sports. Rest assured, these objects are not props like Barry Bonds' crutch or Mark McGwire's glasses, nor are they flashy adornments like the purple and orange suits of Deion Sanders.
He stands a man representative of his family and his beliefs — a testament to the perseverance and strength necessary to travel the long, troubled road and come out on the other side a better person.
There is no "Me'" in the picture, and there is no intention to brag, show off, or any other selfish tendency prevalent in the modern athlete/celebrity.
Bo Jackson is not carrying baseball or football, he is not a man above the game. That is not to say that either sport wouldn't have been better off with him as the torch-bearer. Unfortunately, a career-ending hip condition took the man off the field and out of our spotlight a little over 10 years ago.
No, on the cover of his compelling autobiography, Bo Jackson humbly puts himself within the legacy and history of both sports. In one snapshot, in one image, he gives a visual representation of his grace and appreciation for the opportunities that sports afforded him, a sentiment later echoed in the book, "I wanted to go to college ... I began thinking that maybe there was a world out there beyond the horizon and I found out pretty soon that playing ball was going to help me get there."
No, he is not a man above the legends that came before him, and Bo (the individual, the athlete, the celebrity) is not above the games he played or the circumstances that brought him there.
If you didn't have a chance to see Bo Jackson play baseball and football, you didn't have a chance to see Shakespeare the way it was meant to be played — both on the field and off.
Sure, he could have carried both sports on his broad shoulders, the cover of his autobiography and the pages in between are evidence enough of that; however, Bo's respect for the game wouldn't have allowed him to do that. Too flashy, too self-important, and too egotistical.
There's a way to be proud of yourself and your abilities while remaining humble about your position in the game and your accomplishments. It's the line between pride and hubris. And although this confidence is usually mistakenly labeled "ego," and although most quips about the history, legacy, etc. of the game are less than sincere nods from less than sincere people, a certain amount of "ego" is almost unavoidable for a professional athlete. It's how an individual deals with it and understands it that make him/her one of the game's ambassadors.
"When people tell me I could be the best athlete there is, I just let it go in one ear and out the other," Jackson said in 1990. "There is always somebody out there who is better than you are."
Forgive me for thinking that this sounds 100% more sincere and humble than anything we've heard out of athletes' mouths recently. I've had enough of Barry Bonds talking to reporters, and Mark McGwire refusing to talk about the past, and the celebration of the "Nation," as if no World Series championship was ever more precious than last year's.
And now a California newspaper has quoted a dietician who says she has personal knowledge that Bo's deteriorating hip condition was caused by anabolic steroid use.
After hearing and reading about the comment, Bo did what any athlete sure of his innocence would logically do ... he sued the newspaper, something that other "innocent" athletes have not done.
Commenting on the allegations Bo said, "I've got nothing to hide. If anyone wants to check into my medical past, go get blood tests, go check up on those blood tests and see if there was any anabolic steroids in it. You're more than welcome."
He continued, "I'm not going to sit here and say, 'Maybe I did and maybe I didn't.' I didn't. Never did. Never had to do."
Nobody has been this strong or proactive in their denial of steroid use. Perhaps no one else is as innocent.
Like his depiction on the front of his autobiography, Bo remains humble, open, and honest about his past and how he's arrived where he is today.
And what is he doing today - The only man to make a Pro Bowl and an All-Star Game, the phenom with the jaw-dropping "Monday Night Football" run against Seattle, the warrior that clubbed a home run in his first at-bat after coming back from hip replacement surgery, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, and the winner of the 1985 Heisman Trophy?
Bo is a businessman in Chicago, and spends his time talking to youths in the city about health, nutrition, life, and his experience in sports.
He's putting those big, broad shoulders to good use teaching our children. Forget Congress and their semi-serious aims at targeting steroid use among children and teens, let Bo Jackson talk for 15 minutes and they will learn more than you could ever imagine.
In fact, just pass on a copy of Bo Knows Bo. Let them look at the cover and discover the stories inside, and then watch how they carry themselves.
If you want them to be respectful, honest, humble, and dedicated, just point them in the direction of Mr. Jackson.
noBOdy knows better.
Fight Club: Fenway-Style
Tonight on CBS: It's Fight Club, Fenway Park-style.
Did you happen to see last night, during yet another intriguing episode of "Hey, Look at Me Mom ... I'm a Drunk Fool," a baseball game interrupted the show. I am getting pretty tired of sports interrupting my reality TV.
I mean, who do the Yankees and Red Sox think they are? How dare they take a 5-5 score into the bottom of the eighth inning and try to impose baseball "drama" on the real action taking place in the stands? I, for one, am tired of these athletes taking the spotlight away from the real star, Joey Tough Guy, in the right field bleachers. Don't they know that I spend my hard-earned money on my cable bill so I can watch "When Fans Attack" without having to be worried about something as trivial as a baseball game?
In all seriousness, the disaster that has become modern day fandom has to be addressed. When did it become okay for fans to feel entitled to interrupt a game and interact with the players? When did English Soccer Fan cross the pond and invade baseball and how can it be stopped?
First and foremost, Major League Baseball and the Commissioner's Office need to take a hard, long look at their policies regarding fan conduct at games. When Tom Gamboa was shockingly attacked a few years back by those crazy White Sox fans, what did baseball do? Supposedly they increased security and made an effort to protect the players and keep fans off the field.
It seemed to work, because just seven short months later, another lunatic came barging out of Commiskey Park's stands and attacked an umpire, entirely unprovoked. Last season, a Dodger "fan" threw a bottle onto the field in the direction of Milton Bradley. The fan was lucky Bradley didn't have one of his typical meltdowns and, as the kids affectionately like to say, go gangsta.
Yet, the major penalty most of these fans face is an escort out of the park and effectively a slap on the wrist not to do it again. Both teams and Major League Baseball need to address this alarming trend immediately — before a player becomes seriously hurt.
Baseball needs to attack this problem in two ways: hit both the clubs and the fans where it hurts. For teams, whenever an incident like this occurs, Major League Baseball needs to suspend alcohol sales at the stadium where the incident occurred for a least one homestand. If an incident occurs again, alcohol sales should be barred for an entire season. Do this, and Major League teams will get very serious about security and keeping fans off the field.
For fans, Major League Baseball needs to implement a policy of no tolerance. You stick any part of your body into the field of play, you are immediately ejected. If you touch a player, you are immediately ejected and banned from the park for life.
Sounds harsh. It is. But people will start to get the message when they are no longer allowed to attend games ... ever. As a fan of the game, I am tired of seeing these buffoons charging the field or attacking players. I watch the games for the game and the athletes. Not to see some idiot make a fool of himself on TV and ruin the experience for the rest of us. If I want to see real people act stupid on TV, I will turn to CBS for my "Survivor" fix.
By the way, did I mention the Red Sox came back and scored three in the bottom of the eighth to win the game? Isn't that really the story and why we watch the game?
April 14, 2005
NASCAR Top 10 Power Rankings: Week 6
Note: The quotes in this article are fictional.
1. Jimmie Johnson — After qualifying 37th, and with his practice speeds lagging far behind the fastest cars, a win was certainly out of the picture for Johnson, and his streak of top-10 finishes was in jeopardy. But with constant adjustments by his crew, and with Johnson's continual push to the front, the No. 48 Lowe's car crossed the line eighth. Johnson increased his points lead over second-place Greg Biffle from 94 to 160, and now owns a streak of 12 consecutive top-10s dating back to last year.
"As the original movie skank Mae West may have said, 'Even when I'm bad, I'm good,'" says Johnson. "We had to fight the car all day, but on a track like Martinsville, where you know there will be cautions, it pays to make the necessary adjustments. And we made a lot. Dang! I saw my pit guys making so many turns on the wedge crank that I thought they were making home made ice cream."
Johnson should extend his top-10 streak in Texas this Sunday. The Hendrick cars of Johnson and Jeff Gordon have tempered the early dominance of the Roush team as of late. In the previous three years, Johnson and Gordon have recorded top-10s each year. If Johnson maintains his incredible consistency, he may run away with the crown.
2. Elliot Sadler — In the last two races, Sadler has moved from ninth to third in the Cup standings. Normally not known as a force on short tracks, Sadler has made his move with second- and ninth-place results at Bristol and Martinsville, respectively. Up next on the docket is Sadler's favorite track, Texas, where he recorded one of his two victories in 2004.
"Sure, I'm happy to be headed to Texas," says Sadler. "We always seem to run good there. But what I'm really happy about is finding creative ways to give my teammate Dale Jarrett the middle finger. After Dale's confrontation with Shane Hmiel at Bristol, I've been poking my head in his car at all times and giving him the finger. Dale loves it. He's been trying to catch me on video so he can have me fined. He even tried to lop my finger off with a pair of garden shears once. Luckily, I was too quick for him."
Sadler has made it known that until the final 10 races of the year, he's just worried about finishing races and not necessarily winning. However, on the track at Texas Motor Speedway, Sadler may amend that strategy and go for the win.
2. Greg Biffle — First the bad news: Biffle had a miserable day in Martinsville, finishing 13 laps off the lead to squeak out a 29th place finish. The good news: Biffle maintained his second-place position in the Cup standings.
"It's like the great Jim Valvano once said," explains Biffle. "'Survive and advance.' That's what we did. Considering all the problems we had Sunday, I'd say 29th is not too shabby. Luckily, there are guys like Johnny Sauter, Randy LaJoie, and Mike Garvey in the field. You can always count on guys like that retiring 50 laps into a race and claiming a spot in the 40s."
Therein lies a problem with NASCAR scoring. Garvey, who finished 43rd, still scored 34 points, and only completed 18 laps. That's almost two points scored per completed lap. By comparison, Jeff Gordon, the race winner, scored 185 points and completed 500 laps, which calculates to .37 points per completed lap. Is that fair?
"Probably not," replies Biffle. "But I don't care. My motto is: it's all about the Biffle."
4. Mark Martin — Martin is as white as white boy gets, and is not known for his hops, but he makes the biggest jump in the Cup standings this week, leaping from tenth to fourth, 198 points behind Johnson. Martin's third place picked up the slack for Roush Racing on a day when their young stars, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards, struggled.
"Who says the old man can't get the job done?" says Martin. "I may pop Viagra's like they're Tic-Tacs, but I can still show these kids a thing or two about racing, and sometimes, I still have to buy them beer. When things get tough, I'm the man who has to keep this team together. I'm the leader, the old guard, the wise old man. When I retire, I'm going to let my hair and beard grow, shepherd a flock of sheep, and sit atop a mountain and wait for these youngsters to come to me for enlightenment. What I'll probably give them instead is a good kick in the ass for motivation."
Martin has fared well in Texas, with three top-10s in the last four races there. Expect him to lead the Roush charge again.
5. Tony Stewart — Stewart was the fastest car for most of the day ... at least on four wheels. On lap 432 (Stewart had led 267 of those), the right front tire on the car fell off.
"That's right," explains Stewart. "It just fell off. Some lug nuts were loose. Apparently, some idiot crewmember forgot to tighten the lug nuts. That's comparable to me getting in the car without my steering wheel. It's inexcusable. If 'loose lips sink ships', then 'loose tires, you're fired!' It was pretty cool rolling down the track on a rim with sparks shooting out, though. It reminded me of an episode of Cops, watching a piece of white trash from Jacksonville, Florida cruising down the interstate on rims being chased by 15 squad cars."
Stewart still stands fifth in the points, and his Martinsville misfortune should motivate him in Texas. The Joe Gibbs team has seen nothing but bad luck all year.
"If our luck doesn't change for the better," adds Stewart, "I could see the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet Monte Carlo losing three, maybe four tires on the track. However, with a little good luck, I could see me and Bobby Labonte rolling across the line one-two. That may take a lot of good luck, but it could happen."
6. Jeff Gordon — Gordon's sixth career win at Martinsville was a study in perseverance and good, old-fashioned, hard racing. After a front-end vibration forced him into a green flag pit stop, Gordon returned three laps down, and fought his way back for nearly over 400 laps, finally taking the lead with a pass of Sterling Marlin on lap 465. About 12 laps earlier, Gordon bumped Kurt Busch into the wall after battling the No. 97 car for several laps. Later, Busch gave Gordon a hard bump as Gordon lapped him.
"Oooh! I'm scared," mocks Gordon. "Does Kurt Busch really think he can intimidate me? I'm Jeff Gordon. I've been in this business for a while. I may be the most hated driver in history, so I've seen my share of intimidators. Heck, just having Dale Earnhardt, Sr. say 'hi' scared me more than anything Kurt Busch can do. If Kurt wants to intimidate, he should grow a goatee, but I don't think he can."
Gordon now stands sixth in the Cup standings, 205 points from the top. He's yet to string together back-to-back top-10 finishes this year, but Texas Motor Speedway may be the cure for that. Gordon has finished no lower than third in the last three races there.
7. (Tie) Rusty Wallace, Ryan Newman — Wallace and Newman are separated by only 18 points in the Cup standings, but the distance is much greater as far as the personal relationship of the Penske teammates go. Newman has refused to share testing information with Wallace's team, and Wallace, on Sunday at Martinsville, refused to allow Newman to get a lap back on a restart.
"Like my good friend Jerry Seinfeld used to say, 'Newman!' With teammates like this, who needs enemies?" asks Wallace. "I've tried with this kid. I own his car, for goodness sakes. He's a hardheaded, uppity yuppie who thinks he's smarter than every one because he's got a college degree. Well, I've got a degree, too. It's called third degree black belt. Just kidding, I know nothing about karate, although Kung Fu Fighting is one of my favorite songs of all-time. But if Newman wants to scrap, this old dog can still bite."
"I don't hate Rusty," counters Newman. "Just his guts. Why would I need advice from that old-timer? I'm already the better driver. Maybe if I needed help driving a stagecoach or a Model T Ford, Rusty could give me some useful advice."
One would think that it would be best for both parties to settle this feud. The No. 2 and No. 12 cars are pretty strong in their own rights. With Wallace's experience and Newman's qualifying and setup expertise, the Penske team could contend for the title. Maybe a situation like this calls for a sit-down with the boss, Roger "Papa" Penske. In any case, the feud should be diffused before it gets any more heated.
9. Kurt Busch — For the second week in a row, a Hendrick driver was responsible for Busch hitting the wall. A week after Jimmie Johnson initiated a wreck that collected Busch, Jeff Gordon bumped Busch into the wall during Gordon's surge to the front in Martinsville. It's enough to make the prominent ears of Busch turn beet red.
"Dad gummit!" a frustrated Busch comments. "Those Hendrick boys have almost single-handedly knocked me out of the top-10. I'm sure Jimmy Spencer's behind this somehow. But I'm still ninth in the points, and I've got about 30 races to exact my revenge. When I do, it will be cold and calculating, and I will strike with great vengeance and furious anger. It may come on the track; it may come in a drivers' meeting; it may even come on a cold, rainy night in a dark alley, courtesy of a baseball bat. In all likelihood, though, it will come while I'm playing EA Sports NASCAR 2005 on my PlayStation."
In Texas, Busch should forget about retaliation and simply steer clear of Gordon and Johnson. If he makes it through a race with the No. 97 Ford intact, a top-10 result is likely. He's got two top-10s in the previous two races in Texas.
10. Carl Edwards — Since his win in Atlanta on March 20th, things have gone downhill for Edwards. He's qualified no better than 36th on the short circuits at Bristol and Martinsville, and he's finished no better than 26th. Is Edwards still learning how to handle the braking and shifting of short tracks? Was his early season success an aberration? Is he just a lucky kid who happened to fall into a ride with Roush Racing?
"Look man," says Edwards, "I'm no fluke. I earned every bit of my 15 minutes of fame. Sure, I'm not too fond of driving on a half-mile track, but only because I can get on the interstate and drive just as fast. The 1.5-mile quad-oval at Texas suits me better. You haven't heard the last of Carl Edwards. There's more back flips in my future."
That's right, Carl. And in Texas, you can see your dream of playing "Duck, Duck, Goose" with President Bush come to fruition.
"No, you've got it all wrong. My dream is to drink Grey Goose and Cold Duck with the Bush twins, Barbara and Jenna."
Just be careful. They can drink you under the table.
Edwards can only hope to end his slide with a top-10 finish, and hope that he can recapture his early season momentum.
When Dripping and Driving Don't Mix
Sunday at the Masters provided golf fans with an electric finish that saw the game's premier player choke a two-shot lead away, only to proclaim victory in sudden death. Over the last day of the tournament, Tiger Woods and fellow playoff competitor Chris DiMarco played 27 holes of golf ... and they weren't the only ones.
Despite the dramatic conclusion to the season's first major, there was a sense of boredom during the weekend. You remember that feeling when you were a kid and the rain kept you from playing outside? How about when a storm cancelled your little league baseball game?
As part of my day job, I know that weather can be a great friend or a bitter enemy. When it comes to outdoor activities, the elements are imperative. Golf is, by definition, an outdoor activity, and the PGA Tour has to deal with most of the features that Mother Nature has to offer. But this year, it looks as though the controller of all elements is fed up.
Maybe her short game is off. It could be that she lost a bet while playing one of the devil's minions. There's even the possibility that she didn't qualify for her annual HGA (Heavens Golf Association) card. Whatever it is, Mommy Nature has unleashed her fury on the world's best golfers, and that anger has caused enough havoc to effect nine of the 15 tournaments already played in 2005.
This may not be the worst weather year in the annals of professional golf. I'm relatively young in terms of my knowledge of the game. But doesn't this year seem more broken and interrupted than any other one you remember?
The headaches started early for the players and officials. The first tournament of 2005, the Mercedes Championship, included a small field of players and picturesque views from the Hawaiian Islands. However, the usual pristine conditions turned bothersome for Tour officials as rain delayed the start of the final round on Sunday. Not a huge problem, but it only takes a trickle to start a downpour.
After a week of tranquil weather on the islands, the Tour jumped back to the mainland for its West Coast Swing. The first stop ... San Diego, a coastal city known for its warmth and sunshine. Unfortunately, the breathtaking views of the ocean couldn't be seen for a portion of the weekend. Thick layers of fog spread over the golf course, suspending play on Friday and Saturday before Tiger Woods could crack through for his first big-time, full-field strokeplay win in over a year.
The Desert Southwest even got in on the path of fury two weeks later as fierce winds stopped the first round of the FBR Open for a short amount of time. It doesn't cause much of a stir, but there is the fact that a PGA event hadn't been delayed by wind since the 1998 British Open. Then, M.N. got ridiculous.
As the season swung back to California, mid-February rain drove over the southern coast and shifted to park for a few days. The victims of this deluge ... the Nissan Open and Match Play Championships. Riviera just couldn't take all the rain it saw, and ponds of water not only pushed the tournament to Monday, but shortened it to 36 holes.
The Match Play wasn't as affected with conditions drying up. However, the golf had to be condensed as the first day of competition was washed out. Now just imagine, what if the first two days of the NCAA tournament were shut out due to, I don't know, impending doom or something? Not a pretty picture, is it?
The duffers started to focus their attention to the opposite coast and Florida's Atlantic shores. Everything seemed to be a bit calmer three time zones away. Doral and the Honda Classic ran smoother than skiing down fresh powder at Aspen. Too bad that straight ride became a moguls course real quick.
Turns out Momma Nature only needed a bit of time to catch up and find the hiding courses. Again, the trouble started with a simple delay of action on day one at Bay Hill. But as the golfers headed up the coast for the Players Championship, the Tour's "fifth major" became less pleasurable than your usual walk on the beach.
A quiet Thursday let the forces upstairs set the stage for a weekend of drama, only with a twist. The next three days of the event trudged along through thunderstorms and heavy rain, holding the normal Friday cut until early on Sunday morning. With talk of a possible Tuesday finish, the conditions finally let up enough to allow the tournament to be completed on Monday.
A trip inland didn't help matters. While stopping outside Atlanta for the Bellsouth, a re-energized spirit let loose on the Southeast. More downpours provided no golf on Thursday or Friday. It also assured a second-straight Monday finish, not to mention the season's second short tourney. Phil Mickelson won the 54-hole event, giving him a little momentum heading to Augusta.
Now, you figure that the importance of the moment would keep the weather on its best behavior. But as meteorologists all around the globe know, "behaved weather" is about as big an oxymoron as they come. Delays on the first two days of the Masters pushed everyone's schedules from static to hectic.
Good thing the tournament only featured 90-plus duffers. Just think of the chaos if this was the final three majors. This brings us to the present, a time of the year when the PGA spreads its wealth over more real estate. The schedule features back-to-back events in the same state only three more times in '05.
But even with the more expansive scope, Mother Nature will have an eye out there, looking for a way to bubble up more anxiety for Tour officials to handle. I say let M.N. just try and keep up.
April 13, 2005
Draft Dodgers: Draft vs. Free Agency
April showers may bring May flowers, but for NFL General Managers, the April selection draft brings strategy sessions and player negotiations.
The NFL offseason generally exists in four main phases: free agency part one, college prospect evaluation, the selection draft, and free agency part two.
By the time the selection draft comes around, teams have attempted to fill some needs with available free agents. Free agents are proven NFL players and therefore bring lower risk than a first round draft pick.
Well-priced free agents can also be very cap-friendly and provide a team good value for the cap space that a veteran can be signed for compared to the sky-rocketing signing bonuses that first-round draft picks now command.
Several NFL people shake their heads at the astounding numbers that are now part of first-round draft pick contracts. Remember, these draft picks, while they may have impressive college stats, have never played a down of NFL football.
How much value did the New York Giants really get for the $20 million signing bonus, the largest ever for rookies, for Eli Manning and the loss of their third-round pick last year and both their first- and fifth-round picks this year?
Sure, he played in place of Kurt Warner later last season. He had to. You don't keep that kind of money and future selections on the bench. Unless, of course, you are the San Diego Chargers. The man they acquired in the Manning trade, Philip Rivers, he of the $14.5 million signing bonus, sat on the bench all year.
Drew Brees was drafted as the first pick on the second-round in 2001 and signed for a $1.9 million signing bonus (after holding out and missing 19 practices). Now, after a 27 TD and 7 INT season for Brees, who is more valuable to the Chargers?
Brees commands big money this year and he signed the franchise tender from the Chargers for over $10 million for this coming season. But Brees is now a proven veteran. Who knows what kind of year the Chargers would have had with Rivers under center?
The point is, Brees' contract was very manageable and didn't waste a great deal of cap space. Now that Brees is proven, his contract can be based upon his past numbers. Manning and Rivers' contracts are based upon draft position and not much else.
Somebody has to be drafted first and those players command big dollars. However, NFL teams are less inclined to want to pay those big dollars these days. This free agent season was fairly low-key with few huge signings.
Some players tested the waters and found that most teams are not willing to pay contracts that include big signing bonuses that then impact on the salary cap for years into the future whether the player is still playing football for them or not.
Manning and Rivers are examples of wasted cap dollars. But, you say, what about Peyton Manning? He more than earned his big bonus he signed for after being the No. 1 pick in 1998.
Okay. How about Ki-Jana Carter? David Klingler? Ryan Leaf? Akili Smith? Jeff George? Tim Couch? Joey Harrington?
If you were to add up the signing bonuses for these players, the sum would be greater than the gross domestic product of several third-world countries and these guys aren't setting the third-world on fire, either.
Once again, the high draft picks received the high signing bonus and made very little impact on the game.
Take another look at that list above and the fact that all of the above players except one are quarterback jumps out at you.
That's why right now the most frightening place to be is in San Francisco and Miami.
Both teams are attempting to recover from horrendous seasons. Both teams have new head coaches. The media and fan pressure to improve is huge and to make matters worse, these teams have the first two picks in the college draft and wouldn't you know it, there are two quarterbacks who are being touted as the top prospects.
History shows that the odds of the top QB prospect being a franchise-type player worth the big signing bonus are pretty slim. The chances that both Alex Smith of Utah and Aaron Rodgers of California will be worth $40 million in guaranteed money between the two of them are almost none.
Remember, Peyton Manning was chosen first and Ryan Leaf was taken second.
Even the legendary class of 1983 that produced six quarterbacks in the first round shows that chances are about 50/50 that teams will get it right.
Sure, in 1983, John Elway was the first QB selected and in fact first overall. Good pick. Quick. Name the second QB chosen. Did you choose Dan Marino? Jim Kelly?
The second QB and sixth overall choice was Todd Blackledge from Penn State.
Kelly, out of Miami, was the third QB and 14th pick. Right behind Kelly, the New England Patriots chose Tony Eason from Illinois.
Down at number 24, Ken O'Brien from California-Davis was selected by the New York Jets and sneaking in before the first round was over some guy from Pittsburgh named Dan Marino who was chosen by the Miami Dolphins at number 27. Back in 1983, there were only 28 picks in the first round.
So, even in the glory year of 1983, we have Elway, Marino, and Kelly against Blackledge, Eason, and O'Brien. The greatest QB draft in the history of the NFL yielded a 50-percent return for teams who went for a QB in the first round.
So, given the history of choosing quarterbacks, what must San Francisco and Miami be thinking? They are probably thinking that they would like to trade out of the top spot. But who is going to trade with them?
The problem with selecting first is that you have to pay first. The first overall pick gets the first overall money. If you can get your guy with a lower pick, why trade?
Maybe somehow, the 49ers and Dolphins will find someone who wants a fistful of picks in future years and would be willing to entertain a trade if they receive future draft picks. But again, the threat would have to be that their guy would not be on the board unless they make the move.
In order for one team to want to do this, they would need to feel that they are trading for a sure-fire, franchise player. Trouble is for San Francisco and Miami, that guy doesn't exist this year.
Even the RB position seems to be packed full of guys who can play and who could easily be chosen later in the round and then signed for fewer dollars.
Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams from Auburn are seen as highly-ranked prospects. This is interesting when neither one could keep the other off the field at Auburn. Why would a team in the NFL pay first-round, first-string signing bonus money to a guy who split time with another back in college?
Because someone has to be picked first and that someone gets the cash.
Put yourself in the shoes of the San Francisco 49ers. They have fallen hard from their lofty perch in the NFL and managed to tie the all-time franchise record for losing last season. They have a huge void at the QB position and hometown boy Aaron Rodgers is available. If not him, Alex Smith from the Cinderella-BCS-crashing Utah Utes is also for the taking.
Move across the country. The Miami Dolphins were fortunate enough to have one of the all-time greatest quarterbacks play for them for years. However, they have not come close to replacing him. The fans are screaming for a quarterback and the lack of progress on that has already reaped one head coach casualty.
Given all circumstances, whether they like it or not, both the 49ers and Dolphins may find themselves in place from which there is no escape. It is very likely that both will select a player that they would have been happier to choose several places further down the list.
Both teams will then pay through the nose for him and maybe even see that player holdout over contract demands.
After all the hand wringing, the odds say that at least one of these players will be a bust.
And the price of admission to watch all this is only about $20 million.
Quoting the Tennis World
A few years ago, I used to host a weekly talk show on the web dedicated solely to tennis. Just as in numerous other talk shows, people would call in and voice their opinions, I would have guests sometimes, as well as certain segments during the show.
The most popular segment of the show was called "Quote of the Week." I would pick a few quotes from that week, read them on the air, and let the listeners pick the best one, or sometimes I would choose one myself and mention it, depending on the time left to finish the show. It was fun and listeners could not wait to hear it. Since then, I have always wanted to write an article on different quotes made by the wide array of characters related the tennis world.
Oh sure, everyone knows the most famous ones such as McEnroe's "You cannot be serious!" — heck, he even titles his biography book after that quote — or him shouting obscenities at the Wimbledon crowd when he was playing the ever-calm Australian Rod Frawley, receiving a code violation, then yelling at the referee, "I was talking to myself!"
Or who can forget Lendl whining to the referee at the U.S. Open, claiming that all the calls were going against him vs. McEnroe because the referees were afraid of Mac. His exact quote to the chair umpire was: "Are you afraid of him? Give me some treatment!" Now say that quote aloud and try to mix in a Czech accent and you will see Lendl's face in front of you.
Humorous quotes were not only made by players. of course. In the late '70s at Wimbledon, during a match between Vijay Amritraj (yes, the Indian guy from that James Bond movie), and Roscoe Tanner, it started drizzling and the chair umpire said to the microphone in fron of him "Rain, please go away!" In the present day, it may not mean much but in those days, no umpire was even allowed to smile, let alone take a chance at cracking a joke. Remember white balls were still used in Wimbledon well into the '80s.
Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors probably have too many to fit in one article, whereas Bjorn Borg might have none at all.
But for the remainder of this column, I will put forward some quotes that did not necessarily become world famous. They were more recent, and simply were funny and contained wit.
During the summer of 2001, Jennifer Capriati lost to Monica Seles and in the world according to Capriati, there was always some reason to whine about why she had lost. That reason naturally could not be that her opponent could possibly have been better than her. I mean, how dare she anyway? So the reason this time was Seles' screaming grunts while hitting the ball, and that did not let poor Capriati focus on her own shots. Venus Williams was asked about Capriati's comments, and here is what she had to say: "It's not illegal. Everyone is free to breathe as they see fit!" You did not think Venus would side with Jennifer at any time, did you?
That same summer, Goran Ivanisevic finally earned his place in history, defeating Patrick Rafter in a memorable final at Wimbledon. During the tournament, Goran showed many facets of his personality on the court and was questioned repeatedly on his emotional roller coaster ride. That is when Goran started indulging us about his split personalities: "One was rushing, the other was rushing even more. So the third one had to come. I had to call him, he is the emergency 911 call. He came and said to the first two 'Guys, relax, it's a lovely court, calm down', and I calmed down."
Later that week, another colorful personality by the name of Marat Safin was asked if he had multiple personalities, a la Goran Ivanisevic. The Russian responded, "Yeah, I hope so. Otherwise, I'd feel lonely."
Sometimes the media can come up with some strange quotes. Daniela Hantuchova and Jelena Dokic had an encounter on a smaller court during Wimbledon. The court was not large enough to contain all the male teenagers and photographers wanting to see the match. Many were left out and settled for watching other matches. Naturally, BBC had a field day with that, and had this to say: "Both players had their fans. Expectations, and testosterone levels, were high."
Few years back, a Jewish and a Muslim doubles team composed of Amir Hadad of Israel and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan drew much attention due to the political international turmoil involving the two religious populations. They were asked a ton of questions by media members. Yet the pair wondered what the fuss was about, and said they really did not talk much politics. Frustrated by the pair's indifference to their questions, and as a consequence at their own inability to make a bigger headline out of the situation, reporters pushed further. One journalist asked tersely, "What do you speak about over dinner, sex or what?" he asked. Qureshi replied: "He's got his girlfriend here, so probably."
Remember the Martina Hingis stalker trial in Miami? There were plenty of quotes in that soap opera that involved a 46-year-old Croatian-born man named Dubravko Rajcevic, his sensational lawyer, Frank Abrams, and Martina Hingis and Miami-Dade County Assistant Attorney Chris Calkin who represented her and with whom she had a brief affair during the trial, mind you?
Chris Calkin didn't deny the rumor, responding with this quote: "Martina and I have a personal relationship, anything beyond that is between her and me." But more laughable quotes were on the way. Word of the courtship left Rajcevic's defense lawyer, Frank Abrams, bewildered. "I'm beyond floored, I'm flabbergasted," Abrams said. "I just want Tom Hanks to play me in the movie."
Then Abrams took things a bit further claiming that — get this — Calkin's relationship with Hingis "was aimed at humiliating and embarrassing" his client. Excuse me Frank but ... umm ... didn't your 47-year-old client do that already by stalking a 20-year-old athlete?
Abrams did not stop there, either. When made aware that Calkin has plans to visit Hingis in Zurich and at next week's Wimbledon tournament, he went irate and had the following quote: "Not only has the prosecutor put him in a jail and fought for the longest possible jail sentence, he's also kicked him in the rear end and taken away the woman he was pursuing," Abrams said.
Needless to say, Abrams lost the case and Rajcevic was found guilty.
Sergei Bruguera, late in his career, suffered numerous defeats in a row. After one of those defeats, Bruguera had this to say: "I don't understand what is going on. In practice, I beat everybody, but I lose all my matches. I am going home to practice and sort things out." Oh boy!
Boirs Becker, during his tax evasion trial in Germany, had to admit that he was keeping an apartment in Munich, but denied cheating his taxes knowingly. He claimed that he stayed at his sister's loft only occasionally. His quote as a line of defense was the following: "It just had a bed, a couch, and did not even have a refrigerator." Of course, that did not wash in the German courts. Next time, try harder, Boris.
But, in my opinion, the award for best quote in the last few years that I have heard has to go to Marat Safin. In 2002, his teammate Mikhail Youzhny came back from two sets down to beat Paul Henri Matthieu and earn the final point for Russia to beat France in the finals of Davis Cup. When asked what he felt when his teammate, Mikhail Youzhny, won the match point to win it all for Russia, his response was immediate and direct: "It felt better than sex!"
Have a great clay court season, everyone!
Bulls Coach Does it His Way
Chicagoans remember Frank Sinatra for "My Kind of Town," his tribute to the Windy City, but one gets the feeling that Bulls coach Scott Skiles goes to bed each night telling himself, "I did it my way."
Bobcats guard Jason Hart had just drove for a layup and tied the game at 79 in a game earlier this season in Charlotte. Exit Eddy Curry; enter veteran Antonio Davis. But wasn't Curry playing with the all-important "energy," the element most critical to his game? And hadn't he scored 16 points and brought down 7 rebounds so far in the game? And wasn't there almost 10 minutes still left in the fourth quarter? So why replace a 22-year-old with a 36-year-old?
Curry was not defending. In other words, Skiles coaches his way, which means if you don't defend, you don't play.
Since Skiles' coaching style is predicated on toughness and effort, Curry's performance later in the season in which he pulled down no rebounds in a game against the Spurs — that's zero rebounds for a man who is listed at 6-11, 285 lbs. — did not win him any points with the coach, or minutes.
Curry, who is currently sidelined with an irregular heartbeat, has provided consistency and improved steadily in the past month, especially on the defensive end. A coach who can develop and improve a player — at the pro level — is a good coach.
Rookie sensation Ben Gordon, a candidate for both Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year, is already a proven clutch player, so what's up with him only logging 23 minutes per game?
He does not defend, at least not that well. Skiles, shortly after a recent thrilling home victory over the Heat, in which Gordon tallied double digits in the fourth quarter for a league-leading 15th time (he now has a league-leading 21), criticized the team for its play, saying they were fortunate to pull out the victory. Skiles has said Gordon "has a ways to go" with his defense.
To steal a phrase from Pistons coach Larry Brown, whose team knows a thing or two about defense, Skiles asks that his team play "the right way."
Tyson Chandler's length and shot-blocking ability make him an effective defender, which is why you'll often see Chandler, who is erratic on offense, on the court at the end of close games.
Skiles knows full well where his bread is buttered. Though the Bulls lead the league in defensive field-goal percentage, the fiery coach knows there is little margin for error. "We have plenty to work on," said Skiles after the Bulls slipped one percentage point in that category. "We're not that type of [offensive] team. We have to stay on top of playing defense."
While we might not see Skiles demand four passes before shooting like Hickory coach Norman Dale in "Hoosiers," it is clear that he values — even demands — fundamentals. Case in point: Jamal Crawford out; Kirk Hinrich in. Other factors definitely contributed to the departure of Crawford and the emergence of Hinrich, but you decide which player is more suited for this team? And for this coach? One is style and substance, and the other is substance and substance.
The Bulls certainly have less style than substance, but they also have more wins than losses, not to mention their first playoff birth since a guy with lots of style, lots of substance, and who played lots of defense controlled the United Center.
Just how the coach wants it.
April 12, 2005
The NFL Coaching Tree
NOTE: The Coaching Tree has been updated with a 2008 version.
Five Quick Hits
* Terrell Owens' contract is less than a year old and he already wants to change it? He is the most self-centered player in the history of the league.
* Good news for Tennessee: Steve McNair will play in 2005. Reliable backup Billy Volek is still around in case McNair gets hurt, and new offensive coordinator Norm Chow gives fans reason to be excited.
* Bad news for Tennessee: Derrick Mason is gone. So are Kevin Carter, Carlos Hall, and Samari Rolle. I don't think Drew Bennett is a No. 1 receiver, and the defense has been gutted.
* With this year's deep RB pool, Travis Henry isn't worth a first-round NFL pick. But he's a great value for a third-rounder.
* When he was the highest-paid defensive back in the NFL, Ty Law complained about his contract. Now no one will pay the guy. Irony is beautiful.
We're in heavy offseason right now. The Super Bowl was two months ago and the draft is weeks away. If you need a fix, I've been working on a project that might help hold you over until draft day.
The great NFL Films piece Holmgren's Heroes was on ESPN2 about 8,000 times last year. It's about Green Bay's late-'90s glory days under Holmgren, and the subsequent hiring of everyone on his staff to be a head coach elsewhere. After the first time I watched it, I researched the coaching roots of every current head coach in the NFL. Last week — it's heavy offseason — I updated it for Romeo Crennel, Mike Nolan, and Nick Saban.
We all know about the impact innovators like George Halas, Paul Brown, and Tom Landry had on today's teams, but the coach with the most direct influence on today's leaders might surprise you: Marty Schottenheimer. The Schottenheimer coaching tree includes Dom Capers, Bill Cowher, Jack Del Río, Tony Dungy, Herman Edwards, Jim Haslett, Marvin Lewis, Mike Mularkey, and Lovie Smith. That's more than a quarter of the league, not counting Schottenheimer himself.
The Marty Schottenheimer Coaching Tree
Marty Schottenheimer, SD — He got his NFL start in 1975 under legendary defensive expert Bill Arnsparger, but Schottenheimer has spent more of his career teaching others than being taught himself. Perhaps most impressively, Schottenheimer doesn't just find good assistants, or just teach them to be good coaches — he teaches them to be good teachers.
Bill Cowher, PIT — Cowher's branch of the Schottenheimer tree is pretty impressive itself: Capers, Del Río, Haslett, Lewis, and Mularkey, not to mention ex-Cowboys coach Chan Gailey and former Bengals coach Dick LeBeau, who will probably get another shot if Pittsburgh's defense is as impressive next season as it was in 2004. Cowher played and coached for Schottenheimer in Cleveland, and followed him to Kansas City before taking over the Steelers.
Mike Mularkey, BUF — Spent eight seasons with Cowher before getting the head position in Buffalo last season. Mularkey played for Chuck Noll for three seasons, and he's also part of the less-glorious Sam Wyche tree.
Dom Capers, HOU — I've listed him as part of the Cowher tree because that's where he was before his first head coaching gig, with the expansion Panthers. It might be more accurate, though, to put him in the surprisingly impressive Jim Mora tree, since Capers spent six years with Mora in New Orleans and only three in Pittsburgh. Capers also spent two seasons under Tom Coughlin, which connects him to the Bill Parcells coaching tree.
Jim Haslett, NO — Another Cowher protégé, he spent three seasons in Pittsburgh before taking the Saints job. Haslett also traces some of his roots to Mora, though, with two years in New Orleans before Cowher hired him with the Steelers. He played for Chuck Knox in Buffalo.
Marvin Lewis, CIN — Lewis never worked directly under Schottenheimer, but he worked for Cowher for four years, making him part of the Schottenheimer tree. Although Cowher was his primary influence, Lewis also connects to the Dennis Green coaching tree via his work as defensive coordinator for Green protégé Brian Billick.
Jack Del Río, JAC — A loose relation to the Schottenheimer tree, he qualifies because of his three seasons working under Lewis in Baltimore. As a player, Del Río also spent time with Mora, Green, and Jimmy Johnson.
Tony Dungy, IND — He also worked with Dennis Green as Minnesota's defensive coordinator from 1992-95, but Schottenheimer is his primary influence. Dungy also played for Noll and Bill Walsh. KC's 1990-91 assistant coaches included Cowher, Dungy, and Herm Edwards, making it one of the best staffs in recent memory.
Herman Edwards, NYJ — Although he clearly has his own style, Edwards is a Schottenheimer guy through and through. An assistant in Kansas City for six seasons, he also worked under Dungy in Tampa Bay before taking over the Jets in 2001. Edwards initially made his name as a player for Dick Vermeil in Philadelphia.
Lovie Smith, CHI — Like Edwards, he's a distinguished member of the Tony Dungy coaching tree, but unlike the Jets' coach, he never worked directly with Schottenheimer. Smith is also a distant relation of the Jimmy Johnson tree, via Rams coach Mike Martz, a Norv Turner disciple.
The Mike Holmgren Coaching Tree
Mike Holmgren, SEA — Holmgren, of course, traces his own roots to legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh, but he's established his own style to the point that he deserves his own tree, not just a branch. Former head coaches Dick Jauron (Bears), Marty Mornhinweg (Lions), and Ray Rhodes (Eagles, Packers) were also Holmgren assistants, but they don't appear on this list. Former Raiders coach Bill Callahan was also part of the Holmgren tree, via Rhodes and Jon Gruden.
Jon Gruden, TB — An assistant for Holmgren from 1992-94, he's also connected to the Walsh tree through Rhodes, for whom he served as offensive coordinator in Philadelphia.
Steve Mariucci, DET — Ran Holmgren's offense before taking over the 49ers — there's that Walsh connection again — but the really fascinating thing is that Mooch also worked for Mike Ditka for two seasons in Chicago. Jauron is Mariucci's defensive coordinator in Detroit.
Andy Reid, PHI — The most accomplished member of Holmgren's tree, he was on Green Bay's staff for seven seasons before joining the Eagles. With Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel gone from New England, Reid probably has the most respected pair of coordinators (Brad Childress and Jim Johnson) in the league. Mornhinweg is also on Reid's staff.
Mike Sherman, GB — The embattled Packers coach was on Holmgren's staff in Green Bay for two seasons and followed him to Seattle before returning to become the head coach in Titletown.
The Bill Parcells Coaching Tree
Bill Parcells, DAL — His legacy has really taken off the last few seasons. Parcells was on Ray Perkins' staff in New York, but even more than Schottenheimer and Holmgren, he's really crafted himself. Maurice Carthon, who played and coached under Parcells, and Eric Mangini, the new defensive coordinator in New England, are both hot prospects who might expand the Parcells coaching tree within the next several years.
Bill Belichick, NE — This is the one every fan knows. Belichick was an assistant for Perkins, too, and Parcells kept him on when he became head coach. Belichick also worked for Parcells with the Patriots and Jets before returning to New England in 2000.
Romeo Crennel, CLE — Perkins may not have been an exceptional coach, but he knew how to pick 'em. The 1981-82 Giants had Parcells, Belichick, and Crennel as assistants. Crennel stayed with the Giants until 1992, then went to the Pats when Parcells came out of retirement in 1993. He also followed Parcells to the Jets before joining Belichick's staff in '01.
Nick Saban, MIA — Saban is hard to pin down, but the Parcells tree is where he fits best, having spent four years with Belichick in Cleveland. Saban got his NFL start from Jerry Glanville in Houston in the late 1980s.
Tom Coughlin, NYG — The Parcells influence is clear in the way he runs his teams. Coughlin spent three years with Parcells, including the Giants' 1990 Super Bowl campaign.
Between Schottenheimer, Holmgren, and Parcells, 20 of the league's 32 head coaches are accounted for. That's an awfully impressive résumé for those three men. The remaining trees have fewer branches.
The Dennis Green Coaching Tree
Dennis Green, ARI — Another descendant of the Walsh tree, his first NFL job was coaching special teams in San Francisco. As coach of the Vikings for 10 seasons, though, Green established an independent style. Marvin Lewis, who spent four years with Brian Billick, and Tony Dungy, who was on Green's staff for four seasons, both have ties to Green's coaching tree, but are listed under Schottenheimer. Jack Del Río and Mike Nolan, the new coach of the 49ers, also coached for Billick.
Brian Billick, BAL — Green's offensive coordinator with the Vikings, he was hired to coach the Ravens after directing Minnesota's record-setting 1998 offense. Though hired for his offensive know-how, Billick has had more success as a team-builder than an offense-minded head coach. Several of his assistants — Lewis, Del Río, and Nolan — are now head coaches.
Mike Tice, MIN — Worked for Green for six seasons, taking over as interim coach before getting his old boss' job full-time. Tice had a lengthy playing career under Green and Chuck Knox.
The Jimmy Johnson Coaching Tree
This one took a serious hit last season, with both Butch Davis and Dave Wannstedt fired in midseason. And, of course, Johnson himself is in the studio rather than on the sidelines.
Norv Turner, OAK — Spent six years with John Robinson's Rams before running Johnson's offense in Dallas. Turner worked with Ernie Zampese in Los Angeles and through him picked up Don Coryell's offense. Turner has ties to Nolan, who was his defensive coordinator in Washington.
Mike Martz, STL — Johnson's legacy has come to this: it runs through Turner. Martz worked for Knox, but his ideas about offense really developed under Turner in Washington. He has ties to Lovie Smith, who was his defensive coordinator for three seasons.
The George Seifert Coaching Tree
It doesn't seem fair to give Seifert his own tree, but not Walsh. Seifert, obviously, traces his own roots to Walsh. Holmgren spent three seasons working for Seifert before getting his own gig in Green Bay.
Mike Shanahan, DEN — Only spent three seasons with Seifert, as opposed to the seven he spent with Dan Reeves in Denver, but he clearly inherited Seifert's (and Walsh's) ideas about offense before returning to the Broncos as head coach.
Jeff Fisher, TEN — This is a rotten lie. Fisher's primary coaching influence was undoubtedly Buddy Ryan, but he's here for two reasons: (1) I don't have a Ryan tree; (2) Fisher was on Seifert's staff when Bud Adams hired him as head coach. A cop-out, I admit.
The Jim Mora Coaching Tree
Just to be clear, I'm referring to Jim Mora, Sr., who coached the Saints and Colts. You know, the "Playoffs?!" guy.
Jim Mora, Jr., ATL — I suppose this one's obvious. The younger Mora actually got his pro start from Don Coryell, but he also served on his father's staff for five seasons before joining Mariucci in San Francisco for six seasons, tying him to Walsh and Holmgren.
While Mora, Jr., is the only clear branch from the elder Mora's tree, Capers, Del Río, and Haslett also have ties to this coaching tree.
The Don Coryell Coaching Tree
Along with Walsh, the primary offensive pioneer of the 1980s. Coryell was a brilliant coach and should probably be recognized with a bust in Canton. Mora, Jr., was on his staff in San Diego. His ideas have been picked up by Turner and Martz and, oh yeah, a Hall of Famer.
Joe Gibbs, WAS — He was on Coryell's staff at San Diego State, then with the Cardinals and Chargers. Zampese, an assistant with Coryell (San Diego State and the Chargers) and with John Robinson and Martz (Rams), is an assistant for Gibbs in Washington.
The Dan Reeves Coaching Tree
Mike Nolan, SF — He has connections to Jimmy Johnson (via Norv Turner) and Denny Green (via Brian Billick), but his roots are with Reeves in New York from 1993-96. Reeves also has connections to Shanahan.
Dick Vermeil, KC — A product of the obsessive George Allen, who hired Vermeil to be the first special-teams coach in history. Hall of Famer Marv Levy also coached special teams for Allen.
John Fox, CAR — A tough one to pin down, but I think Chuck Noll was probably his primary influence. Fox also worked for Art Shell and Jim Fassel.
The big names you can come back to time and again:
Don Shula — This is the first time I've mentioned him, but Shula coached Arnsparger, who coached Schottenheimer, who coached Cowher and Dungy. Shula, the NFL's all-time winningest coach, has some claim at the roots of the largest coaching tree in today's NFL, 10 deep.
Bill Walsh — With connections to the entire coaching trees of Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green, and George Seifert, Walsh can lay some claim to nearly half the league, including Shula/Schottenheimer/Cowher disciples Marvin Lewis (via Billick), Tony Dungy (via Green), Jack Del Río (via Green and Billick), and Lovie Smith (via Dungy). Walsh's own roots go back to Paul Brown, probably the greatest innovator of the modern era.
Sid Gillman — Coryell adapted his ideas, so Gillman has some claim to Gibbs, Turner, Martz, and Mora, Jr. His offensive brilliance was sufficient to get him into the Hall of Fame with the second-lowest winning percentage in Canton.
Chuck Noll — Dungy and Mularkey played for him in Pittsburgh, and Fox was on his staff from 1989-91. Noll is still the only head coach to win four Super Bowls.
Mike Ditka — Not really the primary influence on any of today's coaches, he did have Mariucci on his staff in Chicago, and he's connected to Fisher through Buddy Ryan.
Chuck Knox — Haslett and Tice played for him, and Martz coached on his staff in L.A. He is the winningest eligible coach not in the Hall of Fame.
Art Shell — He hired John Fox and Jim Haslett.
John Robinson — He had Turner for six years and Jeff Fisher for one.
Obviously, this was a just a time-killing, kicking-around project, but it's interesting to see where today's coaches got their starts. The coaches most influential on today's leaders — Cowher, Holmgren, Belichick, Green — all trace their own roots to exceptional coaches and teachers: Schottenheimer and Shula, Walsh, Parcells, even Gillman and Coryell.
One thing that separates good coaches from great ones is the ability to find qualified assistants. Cowher, more than any contemporary coach, has consistently been able to reload his staff. Over the years, he has lost Capers, Del Río, Ron Erhardt, Gailey, Haslett, LeBeau, Lewis, and Mularkey: eight of his top assistants. New offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt drew rave reviews for his work with Ben Roethlisberger last season and may become a hot coaching prospect at some point, as well. With Cowher, it figures.
Tiger Time: Chasing History
If you didn't enjoy watching Tiger Woods win his fourth green jacket on Sunday, then you don't like golf, or sports, or human competition for that matter. In a tournament that saw Jack Nicklaus say goodbye and rain delays that tested the players' endurance and composure, Tiger and Chris DiMarco added a suspenseful finish to remember. It only seems fitting that as the Golden Bear exits this stage, Tiger staked a claim as his replacement.
It sure didn't look that way at the start. Tiger looked frustrated shooting a opening round 74. It was first round leader Chris DiMarco who looked in control. But rain was the focus for the first two rounds. Two inches fell in two days and the first round was delayed five-and-a-half hours while the second round ended before anyone had played more than nine holes. This was the fourth straight PGA tournament with weather problems and Hootie and company had to be nervous.
But Saturday brought sunshine and excitement back to Augusta. DiMarco matched his first round 67 to take the 36-hole lead for the second time in four years. In the afternoon, he backed that up with a 33 on the front nine to get to 13 under par. DiMarco hadn't made a bogey since the first hole of the tourney, but it was Tiger who put on a show.
Tiger rebounded from his opening round with a 66 and then went on a tear. Over the course of Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, Tiger made nine birdies in 13 holes including seven in a row (tying a Masters record). Despite two late bogeys, Tiger found himself with the lead after 54 holes, thanks to DiMarco's collapse. DiMarco lost his lead with a 41 on the back nine on Sunday morning, going from leader by four to trailing by three in a half-an-hour.
I know what you are thinking. Wasn't this supposed to be about the "Big Four?" The Big Four quickly turned into the last two. Ernie Els, fighting the flu, never really got started (although he made the cut on the number). Four rounds in the seventies, including a third round 78, left him in 47th place. For a few minutes on Saturday, it looked like we might have the big three on the leader board, but Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh never really got things going.
Half a dozen shots back on Sunday, they need to make a charge. Instead, Singh, the number one player in golf and past Masters champion, bogeyed three of his first five holes to drop out of contention, but managed to finish tied for fifth. Mickelson, last year's dramatic winner, couldn't seem to make a putt on the front nine and managed two double bogeys on the back to fall to tenth place.
Nope, it was Tiger versus DiMarco on Sunday and it was quite a show. Tiger birdies the first two holes while DiMarco's putting was tentative. Is Tiger back to his intimidating ways again? Not so fast, my friend! Tiger three putts for bogey on the fifth and gets into trouble on the 10th for another.
Meanwhile DiMarco is firing his irons at the flag. He makes a clutch par on 10 and sinks a 25-footer for birdie on 11 and suddenly it's a one-stroke lead. Back and forth it goes: DiMarco bogeys the 12th; Tiger birdies the 15th; DiMarco birdies 14 and 15. At 16, it looks like advantage DiMarco. Tiger hits it long, his ball coming to rest on the cusp of the second cut. DiMarco is a tad short, but with a makeable birdie putt.
Then Tiger is Tiger. He chips a shot that scoots toward the mound left of the flag and begins to roll downward toward the pin. The ball rolls and rolls and the crowd begins to realize it might go in. The ball heads toward the cup and seems to hang on the edge for a minute (in reality, it was seconds) and drops in for an improbable birdie. Tiger goes wild. The crowd goes wild. The announcers start talking about great Masters moments. DiMarco misses his putt and taps in for par; two-stroke lead with two holes to go.
Remarkably, Tiger bogeyed the final two holes with an errant tee shot on 17 and a bad approach on 18. DiMarco makes another clutch par on 17, but leaves his approach short on 18. Just to push your heart rate as high as it can go, he nearly holes his chip to win the tournament! But the ball lips out. Tiger misses his par putt and DiMarco makes his: sudden-death playoff.
The question hanging in the air late Sunday afternoon was: is Tiger back or is his brilliance still haunted by flaws that come out at the worst times? Tiger has never lost when holding a 54-hole lead of more than one stroke. Tiger has never lost a major when leading after three rounds.
Close on the heals of that question was can Chris DiMarco finally break through? He held the 54-hole lead in 2001 only to lose. He was in the final pairing with Phil Mickelson last year when Lefty out dueled Ernie Els for his first major; even giving Phil the line for his winning putt. In the last major of last year DiMarco lost in a playoff to Vijay Singh. Was this his time?
No. Tiger was Tiger. With three beautiful shots, Tiger birdie the 28th hole of his day to win a fourth green jacket and his ninth major. DiMarco again came up short; both on his approach on 18 (again!) and in his chance at a major. He must have been the loneliest man in the world when Tiger's putt disappeared. Chris, call Ernie, he knows where you are.
So is Tiger all the way back? Who knows? He didn't dominate like he has in the past, but he got the job done. He is marching ever onward to catch his idol. Only Jack Nicklaus has more wins at Augusta the Woods now. It is only fitting that Jack, Arnie Palmer, and Tiger sit together at the top. Nicklaus replaced Palmer as the greatest and Woods is taking over Nicklaus's mantle. Tiger is two wins away from matching the Golden Bear's six jackets and he is halfway to Jack's remarkable 18 major wins.
While Tiger re-worked his swing, his fellow competitors took advantage. Vijay captured the number one ranking and won $10 million dollars in a season. Phil found his game and one his first major (not to mention quite a few other tournaments) while flirting with three more. Ernie continued to win tournaments around the globe, \ but not majors. As the critics nagged and second-guessed, Tiger kept working.
When Tiger and Phil went head-to-head earlier this year Tiger triumphed and announced he was back. And yesterday, he made it clear that wasn't a fluke. Tiger isn't just battling the big four, he is battling history. Sure, the number one ranking is nice, but what he wants are majors. When is the U.S. Open, anyway?
Burn the Sports Books!
There are many evil people and many evils in the world of sports. There are players who have raped women, assaulted people, killed people, sold drugs, bought drugs, used drugs, and just about anything else someone can do. We have steroids and college sports where amateurs in select sports have gotten a tremendous raise in their salary. Things in sports aren't great right now, but the biggest danger to the status quo and the biggest evil in sports is an obvious one — books.
Books are a major reason we are in the crap storm we face in the sports world today. If not for Jose Canseco, do steroids become the problem they are today? They were always a problem, but we wouldn't know about it like we do now. It was Jose who decided to roll on former teammates and rat out everyone in his tell-all book "Juiced," drilling baseball with the biggest PR disaster they have had in the last decade.
Thanks to a book, we now have lost the epic home run battle between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa — the same homerun chase that brought many fans back to the game. Childhood heroes are now setting examples that lead to childhood death. The worst part isn't the steroids; fans have shown they really don't care about that. The worst part is we can't get away from the whole scandal. Thanks to Jose's book, steroids has become a mainstream issue and fans feel forced to care, especially when Congress has to get involved.
The media world pushed Barry Bonds off a bridge recently, and one of the most damaging testimonies against Bonds came from his mistress, who rolled Bonds in her own tell-all book. Barry might still be playing now and wouldn't have had to use his son as a prop if it wasn't from the latest backlash after his mistress came forward (and there's still the, uh, "knee injury").
Lance Armstrong is in the middle of the steroid issue now, as well, ever since a Frenchman decided to slander Lance in a book. Now Lance is forced to deal with this instead of living strong and getting ready for another Tour de France. If I was Lance, I wouldn't any more afraid of a Frenchman wielding a pen than one wielding a gun, but it's still an inconvenience.
Johnny Damon is another person who has been affected by books. Of course, he was stupid enough to describe his marital infidelities in his tell-all book, so it's still not going to end well for him. The business of high school hoops has also been exposed, courtesy of, naturally, Ian O'Connor's book.
I think it's pretty clear what the common thread here is. Books are the true evil. For the sports world to be truly healed of the ills they face, we need to get back to our puritan roots and start burning books again. That may be overly harsh, but I don't think sports fans really care and because of the books, they are almost forced to care.
Too many people are just content to live in ignorant bliss when it comes to sports scandals. There are not too many people who really believed that steroids weren't used widely in baseball during the '90s, but no one had to deal with it because there was never any hard truth to it. It is much easier to believe that McGwire and Sosa are really locked in a home run race than to have to consider the implications that they were both cheating.
It's the same deal with amateur sports. There can't be many intelligent people left who think amateur athletes at the top of their game aren't getting certain advantages and privileges, that's just how it is. Is it wrong? Maybe, but it's not something we want to deal with. People can bask in the beauty of an Ohio State national championship because its kids playing the game for the right reasons, or at least that's what people want to believe. The reality that what happened with Maurice Clarett really isn't the exception to the rule can be conveniently tucked away until they just can't keep ignoring it any more (see steroid hearings in Congress).
We desperately need a scapegoat and books can fit that category perfectly. We can merely discount anything in a book as it's only in there to sell more copies. I think it's much easier than dealing with the alternative. Besides, who can read when we keep our heads buried in the sand?
Mark Chalifoux is also a weekly columnist for SportsFan Magazine. His columns appear every Tuesday on Sports Central. You can e-mail Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 11, 2005
Reveling in the Lakers' Demise
On April 5th, the Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated from playoffs contention by the Phoenix Suns, dropping their last hope by a score of 125-99. With Kobe Bryant watching from the sidelines with an injured right leg, the Lakers lost their 12th game in 13. Included in those last 13 games was an eight-game losing streak, the second longest since the Lakers moved from Minnesota.
For the first time since the 1993-94 season when they finished 33-49, the Lakers won't be making a playoff appearance. And I couldn't be happier.
I don't know why I despise the Lakers so much. It's more of an irrational hatred than one based on any player, game, or series. I remember rooting for the Lakers when they played against the Detroit Pistons' Bad Boys. Magic Johnson, James Worthy, A.C. Green, Michael Cooper. These were good players and good people and they were fun to watch. But something happened after that group moved on. A transformation of the Lakers fan. Maybe it had something to do with Michael Jordan's dominance of the game or Magic's retirement, but I found I disliked most Lakers fans I met.
Before I continue, I want to first clarify that I do know some good people who, for whatever reason, also happen to be infected with a passion for the Lakers. These are the fans who stuck with the team when their record dropped, when Del Harris was coach, and who will continue to support their team in what I hope are the next few lean years. What I say about Lakers fans is not directed at them.
Off all fans in all professional sports, I can't think of a team with more fair-weather fans than the Lakers. A lot of that has to do with its proximity to Hollywood, but even outside the Los Angeles basin, Lakers fans are as fickle as a fat man on the on-again-off-again diet. How many Lakers jerseys have you seen recently? Seen any with the No. 8 on them? Even as recent as last year, they were everywhere.
There is some good about the wishy-washy nature of Lakers fans. If you happen to be watching a game while the Lakers are losing, you don't have to put up with the cameras panning to all the celebrities. Now we just have to watch them show shots of Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon, which is fine with me because they've been stalwarts, along the lines of Spike Lee and his endurance of years of bad Knicks teams.
There's nothing worse than watching the NBA playoffs and being bombarded with celebrities capitalizing on the Lakers' playoff success. Well, maybe listening to Bill Walton's commentary is worse, but at least you can push the mute button.
But more than Lakers fans' tendency to show up only when they're winning, what irritates me the most is that I've yet to meet a Lakers fan who can acknowledge Michael Jordan as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, ever to play basketball. They can't accept that he simply dominated the game between the Magic and Shaq/Kobe eras. Every one of Jordan's accomplishments is qualified by Lakers fans. He was great, but not the best. They point to Kareem with over 6,000 more points, and Celtics dynasties of the '60s to show that Jordan wasn't all that. They show video of his push with his off-hand to clear space for a shot (name me a great player who doesn't push off — they don't get called for it).
Lakers fans, more than anyone else, delighted in Michael's forgettable excursion into baseball, and his return to the Washington Wizards. They loved seeing him perform on a level far below his peak. As an aside, it was funny to see him try to hit a curveball. But I think more than anything else, Lakers fans were happy that Jordan looked bad because it justified their opinions of him.
It was Lakers fans that were the quickest to anoint Kobe the next Michael, even though the numbers prove its no contest. Michael averaged 31.5, 6.2, and 5.4, while Kobe is at 22.4, 5.1, and 4.4 for points, rebounds, and assists per game. These same fans were quick to criticize the Lakers for their signing of Phil Jackson, most likely because of his association with the Bulls' dynasty.
Later, they claimed their three championships under Phil were proof that it was the system, not Jordan, that led to the titles. Never mind that Jordan won the titles with only Scottie Pippen and a host of role players. Do you think Luc Longley could have won a title with any other player?
The Lakers' championships were reached with Shaq, the dominant center of our time, and Kobe, both of who are capable of dropping 30 a night. And while Pippen was good, he was never Shaq good. Granted, both Shaq and Pippen were named part of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players, but Pippen was only in that group because of Michael. Shaq, on the other hand, has dominated as part of the Magic and the Heat.
But let's talk more about Kobe. Whereas Jordan was clearly the leader of the team, and his teammates fell in behind him, Kobe has become the Lakers' leader by bickering with anyone who didn't agree with his way. He constantly feuded with both Shaq and Phil Jackson, both of whom left in this past offseason. He forced the Lakers to make a choice between him and Shaq, and his youth made the choice a foregone conclusion. Point guard Chucky Atkins best described the current state of the Lakers, "I ain't no GM. Ask Kobe. He's the GM." There's no one more thankful than me that Jerry West is in Memphis, and Kobe's in charge in LA.
Kobe is now the undisputed leader of the Lakers, but unlike Jordan who demanded the most of his teammates and helped them elevate their game, Kobe is content to place the onus solely on himself. And much to my pleasure, it's a burden he can't carry. No one person can win day in and day out for a team. You have to rely on your teammates to make clutch shots and that's what Kobe hasn't figured out. Unless he changes, I can't seem him being comfortable with anyone else being a go-to guy. Just like with Shaq, he'd end up in a feud.
And thankfully, as long as Kobe calls the shots, the Lakers won't be making a run at any championships.
MLB's Opening Daze
While the 2005 season did not come especially early this year, it seems, however, that it just snuck up on us. After all, the offseason gave us little break from Major League Baseball headlines following the crowning of the Boston Red Sox as World Series champions for the first time in 86 years.
And, all too often, MLB's dirty laundry was aired out in the press covering suspicions of players using illegal substances and the forthcoming BALCO trial. The hearings with MLB before the House Government Reform Committee of Congress on March 17th and the later revealed improprieties of MLB's medical director following his testimony, still continue to haunt the Commissioner's office.
But alas, this week as the opening day(s) of the new season began with an evening game on April 3rd between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox at night no less in 42-degree rainy weather, others called the date of April 4th Opening Day when all the other clubs got going. Gone are the days when Opening Day was reserved solely for the Cincinnati Reds (baseball's oldest organization) and their respective opponent. At least this year, we can be grateful that the first game of the season was played on U.S. soil and not halfway across the world in Japan, which Yankee players and fans as well complained about long after their 2004 season-opener there.
And although we are essentially starting anew in 2005 with many personnel changes in both the American and National Leagues, some might say they could have slept all winter only to awake thinking they were still riding out 2004. Where is Rip Van Winkle when you need him?
For example, the three-day series between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox started off right where we left them last October, when the Yankees were virtually three outs shy of going on to the 2004 World Series, with closer Mariano Rivera on the mound. Unfortunately, Rivera's nerves of steel and reliable cutter were not enough then and it became the turning point for the Red Sox as they not only won that game, but the American League Championship Series while ultimately winning the World Series.
On Tuesday, April 5th, the second game of the Red Sox/Yankees series, Rivera blew a save, yet still able to earn a win, as the Yanks came back to win it with a Derek Jeter homer in the bottom of the ninth inning. But on April 6th, Rivera just could not find the strike zone and suffered a loss. Now had it not been Mariano Rivera facing the Boston Red Sox, there would not have been such pandemonium. But it set off panic in the streets of New York and speculation that either Rivera has a mental block when it comes to the Red Sox, having blown four saves in a row to them combined with the 2004 ALCS, or that his recently diagnosed shoulder bursitis is more of a problem than he or the Yankees are willing to admit.
And down in Houston, the 2004 National League Cy Young Award winner, Roger Clemens, put on a pitching master class entering his 22nd season in the Major Leagues and his second with the Astros. He started right where he left off in 2004 and looking even sharper than when helping the Houston Astros get to within one game of competing in the World Series. In his first game back, he struck out nine while allowing only one run on five hits and he even batted in 2 RBI in his winning effort.
This places Clemens ninth and tied with Steve Carlton with his 329 lifetime wins. Whether or not the Houston Astros will enjoy similar success in 2005 that they were able to generate at the end of 2004 remains to be seen, but if this is indeed the Rocket's last season, it would be nice for him to at least equal his efforts of 2004.
Unfamiliar, however, in this 2005 season are the new Washington Nationals, a revamped Montreal Expos club, playing in a retrofitted RFK Stadium with opening crowds three times larger than those that the Expos ever had in Montreal. Although an owner for the Nationals has not yet been decided by MLB, they were able to acquire interested veterans to join their raw, young, talented players which most were not familiar with, given their isolation north of the border while playing a third of the season in Puerto Rico in 2003 and 2004.
And, if all goes well, revenues in Washington will not erode fan support for the Baltimore Orioles as owner Peter Angelos feared would happen, requiring compensation to the Orioles from MLB in order for the Nationals deal to be completed.
And as we hear year after year that the World Series is not won in April, it certainly does play a part when some teams start to run out of gas in August. At the end of 2004 the American League West and the National League West titles, as well as chosen wildcard teams, were not decided until the last week of the season. Had some of the contending clubs generated more wins in April and May they perhaps would not have had to battle it out by the thinnest of margins at the very end. So it is important to a lot of clubs this year to get off to a hot start.
And finally, as much as things change, they remain the same as MLB ticket prices, concessions, and parking fees rose throughout the country for the new 2005 season. With peanuts and crackerjack prices up an average of 6%, double that of the rate of inflation, you best bring some extra cash with you, because as Yogi Berra says, "It's just as good as money."
I Hate Mondays: I Am Canadian
Okay, okay, Blue Jays, Blue Jays, let's play ball!
Those lyrics that open the seventh inning stretch at the Rogers Centre, home of the Toronto Blue Jays, seem to have a more acute importance nowadays rather than their usual torpid tunefulness.
Canada is looking bleak in the world of sports — this is definitely a time of need.
The National Hockey League is usually the main outlet that most Canadian bacon turns to since it is the one professional sport that represents more than one Canadian city, but with the NHL temporarily out of order, Canadians are left with slim pickings.
It's either the Toronto Raptors or the Toronto Blue Jays.
Feels a little lonely doesn't it, eh?
This is the time of year where Canada usually makes a name for itself and sometimes even finds its way on ESPN's "SportsCenter."
At this point last year, Canadians were like a pancake in a maple syrup store. For the first time in Avril Lavigne's recent memory, Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Montreal, and Calgary all made the NHL playoffs.
This year those same Canadians have been pancaked by the sport's collapse.
Add to that an au revoir to the Montreal Expos as well as Vince Carter and Carlos Delgado, two of the biggest Canadian sports icons over the past decade, and it's no wonder that Molson is brewing a beer with an elevated alcohol percentage of 6.5.
So that leaves us with igloo building, lumberjacking, and the CFL — and of course the aforementioned Raptors and Jays.
The Raptors may have crumbled faster than a three-day-old cruller, but they still stand to make a dent in their sport sooner than the Jays. Sure, the team has quit trying and the front office is undergoing examination, but next year an even record will give them postseason possibilities. Meanwhile, the Jays can play moneyball all they want, but as long as the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox are in the same division, World Series aspirations remain grim. It's like Alanis Morissette going up against Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears. Bonne chance.
One thing the Jays can do is become competitive and bridge the gap until the other franchises returns. Generate some excitement, contend for a little while and give us a little bit of hope. Continue to make a vocal statement, like winning two out of three against the World Series champions, so that the North American sports remain just that, and not merely American.
Let's go Blue Jays because right now, they are all we've got.
Canadian stereotypes and Canadian sports mix like Mondays and me.
"My country is not a country, it is the winter." — Gilles Vigneault
April 9, 2005
The Future of ESPN
It's been 28 years since an OBGYN had the good sense to slice my mother open and yank me out, nine months after I was conceived and moments before I burst from her torso like a Ridley Scott xenomorph.
Yet it was only yesterday when I began to feel, well, old. Not old in the sense that I can't hang with the kids — I'm down with your 50-Cents and your Fat Joes and what-have-yous, doncha know...
And not old in the sense that my body is starting to dramatically hurdle towards the sunset of my life — my hairline may be creeping away, but it hasn't made a full-on break for the border yet.
But after reading a piece by Darren Rovell on ESPN.com, I felt like time has suddenly passed me by. I felt like my father, walking into a Nobody Beats the Wiz in Central New Jersey over a decade ago and realizing that, for the first time, there were more CDs than cassette tapes in the store.
It's a feeling that hits us all at a certain point in our lives, when your car stalls at the intersection of Comprehension Avenue and Ingenuity Drive.
It's that moment when you realize that yes, old-timer, technology really does scare the crap out of you.
Rovell's piece — which marked the 10th anniversary of ESPN's equally insipid and inspirational website — dealt with the coming information revolution in sports fan culture:
"In the next decade, fans will still be able to watch 'SportsCenter' and they'll still be able to load up their favorite highlights from their cubicles at work, but they will also be able to do it all on their cell phones. It's clear that the winner who emerges from all the expected advances in technology over the next decade will be the fan. For example, fans at the Kentucky-Michigan State game this past weekend could have called friends watching at home to see if Patrick Sparks' shot at the buzzer was in fact a three-pointer. In the future, fans in the stands might be able to see the replay on their phones before a ruling is made."
Call me old-fashioned, but that just blows my mind. That's some serious Jetson's stuff right there. What's next: is Rosy the Robot going to whip me up some chili and cheese fries in the Foodarackacycle during halftime?
Then there's the plan to allow fans to request video on-demand from, like, any game ever played in the history of sports. Including rainouts.
And there's the plan to have ESPN programming beamed directly into cell phones, so you can literally watch yourself at the game holding up a "SportsCenter is Next" sign ... while watching yourself on "SportsCenter."
Part of my astonishment towards this technology is personal bias. My cell phone has a pay-as-you-go "emergency" plan; I couldn't live without a landline in my house. I don't own a Palm Pilot or a Blackberry. The extent of my mobile technology is playing video poker while on the toilet.
I also work for a newspaper that focuses more energy on hardcopy than software. Our bread is buttered by the local businesses that pony up for print advertising. Our website allows us to archive stories and let readers outside our coverage area to follow local news. But by no means does it offer the kind of complete news picture our paper does.
Evidently, we're a dinosaur ... or at least soon to be one. Rovell reports that only six percent of sports executives think fans will obtain their sports information from newspapers in five years; 25 percent predicted they would receive it from a wireless device.
This revolution goes beyond how people get their news. It's also about who will produce and report the news. Blogging is the tip of an ever-expanding iceberg. Podcasting and satellite technology are going to allow for niche programming that could never financially survive in the mainstream. But with limited costs and minimal effort, media could become tailored to the individual, focused to the point where a Redskins fan could not only listen to a Redskins-only show, not only listen to a Redskins' special teams-only show, not only listen to a Redskins' special teams' punter-only show, but listen to a Redskins' special teams' punter coaches-only show.
And it'd still be more entertaining than Colin Cowherd...
If there's one thing I've consistently seen over the last decade, it's that as media becomes more fractured, so does society. Our parents grew up with three networks, five radio stations, and one newspaper. We're in a cultural moment in which there are 600 networks, 200 radio stations, and an Internet that offers every newspaper, magazine, webzine, newsletter, message board, and a blog about some woman and how funny her three stupid cats are.
We have no idea what we're talking about any more. Half of us are reading the same information — the "mainstream," for lack of a more pathetically overplayed term — while the other half is reading partisan viewpoints about sports, religion, and politics that are short on facts, long on minutiae, and pretty much turning public discourse into a gossip rag filled with 30-second scandals that are forgotten after the fourth "no comment." We've all retreated to our little corners of the Internet — message boards, fan sites, local online newspapers — that focus solely on our favorite teams and players rather than the big picture. Why sit through 25 articles on golf when you can head to a hockey board and get right to the latest example of how they're going to frack the game up this fall? Why sift through pages of baseball notes when all you want to read about is Michael Vick's nom de plume?
ESPN.com was one of the first corporate sports sites to recognize these fractures and try to tape them back together again. Its message boards were expansive yet team-focused, offering the chance to read about local teams on specific "clubhouse" pages and then rant about them on the boards. A few years ago, ESPN took that concept to the next level by creating its "SportsNation" cabal — a series of message boards filled with registered users, who could be prodded and polled to produce instant feedback on the issues of the day.
As technology changes, there seems to be one thing that does not: ESPN still thinks it is the reason sports exist, and not vice versa.
How else can one read this comment from John Papanek, senior vice president and editorial director of ESPN New Media, in Rovell's piece:
"Not all sports fans have an opportunity to come visit Bristol, Conn., but over the next decade, through ESPN.com, our readers are going to be able to virtually experience what it's like to be at the national intellectual sports capital of the world."
The "intellectual sports capital of the world?"
Has this guy ever even read Bill Simmons?
I've spent time on the ESPN SportsNation boards. Well, wasted time to be more precise. The last time I dropped in — over a year ago, I think — "SportsNation" still seemed like a collection of 12-year-olds whose "intellectual sports capital" seemed to be limited to "Randy Moss is teh best WR evr" and "Jeter is sooooooooooooooooo gay."
Will this stop ESPN from attempting to turn this collection of knuckleheads and Internet geeks into something more than they are?
Of course not. As Rovell wrote, these people are going to be the official voices of their respective teams:
"Papanek envisions the day when Yankees and Red Sox fans will be in ESPN.com chat rooms watching another classic game on their computers. As these fans chat, characters who look like them mouth their opinions in real time as the fans talk into headsets. Papanek says fans potentially would then be able to rank the other fans, with the most vocal, passionate, and knowledgeable fans for each team then serving as 'team fan representatives.'"
And now, an exclusive look at what ESPN SportsNation will look like in five years:
soxfan4lif: "LOL...nice play, A-Fraud!"
torreizgod: "U R A DOUCHEBAG!!!!!!!!!"
soxfan4lif: "Whatevr...Jeter is teh gay!!!!"
torreizgod: "F U!!! WE HAVE 228 WORLD SERIES TITLES, YOU A$$!!!"
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the "national intellectual sports capital of the world..."
The local Air America affiliate here in D.C. is holding a contest in which the winner gets $10 million.
Which naturally begs the question: if you win $10 million on a liberal talk station, how much money do you actually get to keep?
Red Sox manager Terry Francona was admitted for tests this week after complaining about chest pains. Doctors quickly diagnosed the problem, and Francona will no longer be medically allowed to look at his own bullpen...
The House Government Reform Committee has sent several more letters asking pro sports executives to appear before Congress to discuss steroids.
Now, I agree that the NFL and NHL should have to clarify their drug policies. But why invite Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber?
I haven't seen much soccer yet this season ... does Freddy Adu look like Warren Sapp now or something?
And finally, Sony has gotten a patent on a device that could transmit tastes, sounds and smells directly to the brain.
That's great news for porn fans ... not-so-good news for Clippers fans...
Greg Wyshynski is also a weekly columnist for SportsFan Magazine. His columns appear every Saturday on Sports Central. You can e-mail Greg at email@example.com.
April 8, 2005
Who Will Rule College Hoops in 2006?
To say this year's NCAA tournament was a treat would be the equivalent of saying LeBron James is athletic. The four regional finals alone had four overtime periods, the championship showcased the top two teams in the land in a game that was tied with three minutes left, and Roy Williams will never again be called the best coach to never earn a championship ring. It's no wonder the championship ratings were up 43% over last year.
The rims have barely been re-netted in St. Louis and already fans are clamoring for next season's tip-off. Who can blame them after a tourney like we witnessed? Across the nation, eyes were glued to televisions as the likes of Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, Marvin Williams, Luther Head, Deron Williams, and Roger Powell showcased their considerable talents. And that was just in the finale.
Throughout the rest of the tourney and regular season, we marveled at the diverse talents of Louisville's Francisco Garcia, Washington's Nate Robinson, Connecticut's Charlie Villanueva, Vermont's Taylor Coppenrath, Chris Paul at Wake Forest, Hakim Warrick at Syracuse, Aaron Miles and Wayne Simien at Kansas, and Salim Stoudamire and Channing Frye at Arizona. This season had more star power than Mars Attacks.
In college basketball, though, star power arrives and dissipates like quicksand. Every player listed above is either a senior or a solid bet to make the jump to the NBA, along with a few others that aren't mentioned (will Sean May really stay after giving his draft status such a huge shot in the arm in the Final Four?). That means the field is relatively wide open again for a championship run in 2006, and you can bet there are already plenty of teams who think they've got what it takes to cut down the nets next year.
The fact is, there are four teams who stand head and shoulders above the rest. An early Final Four prediction if you will, should the stars and brackets line up. Of course, it's preposterously early to be making predictions, and injuries, chemistry problems, transfers, hirings and firings, and many other variables will play a role in who's dancing next March.
After the excitement of Monday's thriller, however, basketball fans don't care. What do we want? MORE BASKETBALL. When do we want it? NOW. With that mantra in mind, I've prepared an early look at who might compose next year's Final Four. Enjoy playing king of the hill while you can, UNC. Your best five (May, McCants, Felton, and the two Williams) might all be gone by opening tip next year. A similar warning to Illinois, Louisville, and Michigan State faithful; none of your squads made the cut. Find out who did and why.
Duke Blue Devils
Pros: Sorry, Duke-haters. The facts are that the ACC's top offensive player, J.J. Redick (21.8 ppg, 40% on three-pointers), will be back to tag-team the conference and nation again with Shelden Williams, a legitimate Player of the Year candidate, should he develop a more complete offensive game to complement the 11.5 rebounds and 3.75 blocks a game he averaged last year. Williams and Redick, who is already the NCAA's all-time leading free throw shooter at 93.8%, should have plenty of help from both the experience of Shavlik Randolph and Sean Dockery and the youth of an amazing recruiting class.
Leading the class will be PF Josh McRoberts, a 6-11 specimen who can shoot from outside and pass like a two-guard — possibly the nation's top recruit last year. Also coming aboard will be New York PG Greg Paulus, who's such an effective athlete that he's started on his varsity squad since eighth grade and was a Rivals top-100 recruit ... as a quarterback in football. Sprinkle in Eric Boateng and Jamal Boykin, another pair of legit talents, and Coach Krzyzewski has amassed the best class in all the land. Coach K himself is, of course, another major reason why the Dukies could be scary good this year.
Cons: Losing Daniel Ewing will be noticeable, especially in the beginning of the year when all that youth is still trying to gel with the studs Redick and Williams. A tough ACC schedule may also make it that much harder for the Blue Devils to get a high seed in the NCAAs, although that wasn't much of a problem this year. And, as always, Coach K's bunch will sport a big bulls-eye and get every team's best shot. Last year, they prematurely lost Luol Deng to the NBA after one season, and Shaun Livingston before he ever played a game. Will anyone else make a surprise early exit this year? Overall, not much to like about this team.
Pros: The Sooners will return unheralded forwards Taj Gray (15 ppg, 8 rpg, 56% FG) and Kevin Bookout (11 ppg, 59% FG) for veteran coach Kelvin Sampson. Also G Terrell Everett (13 ppg, 5 rpg, 5 apg) is and will be a standout defensively; at 6-4, he's long enough to really bother other guards. Oklahoma has as good of chance as anyone to add SF Brandon Rush, the brother of Kareem Rush and probably the third or fourth best prospect in the nation. G Drew Lavender played much better coming off the bench last season, and he'll probably be able to thrive in that role again. G Lawrence McKenzie averaged 10 ppg, but, more importantly, brings experience to the table. Sampson's bunch lost only two seniors, and neither of them were of great consequence.
Cons: Until he proves otherwise, Lavender is too inconsistent for an extended quality tournament run. Whether he can clean up his play will have a huge impact on how far the Sooners go in March. During one January stretch, the guard had consecutive games of 0, 10, 20, 23, 11, 8, and 3 points while playing anywhere from 29 to 36 minutes in each of those games. When Oklahoma wins, Lavender averages 12 ppg on 43% shooting. When they lose, he's right at 7.7 ppg and 24% accuracy. He's this team's X factor.
Pros: Like Duke, UConn will have a great deal of experience meshed with youth. They will once again boast one of strongest frontcourts in the country, even with the heavy loss of big man Charlie Villanueva. Rudy Gay will back for his sophomore campaign, and is a kid that could flat out be a stud. He played especially well towards the end of last year, averaging 16.4 ppg, 2.4 bpg, and 52.7% shooting in the Huskie's last five games. Gay has range out to the arc, but is only an average passer, and needs to board better. Rebounds were hard to come by last year with Josh Boone and Villanueva on the court, but Gay should notch it up a peg this year.
Boone (12 ppg, 8 rpg, 2.58 bpg, 61% FG) is another major factor back with experience. PG Marcus Williams (9.6 ppg, 7.8 apg) is quick enough to be better defensively, but is great at distributing the ball. Sometimes he does too much, however, and gets into turnover problems. Incoming seven-footer Andrew Bynum has potential, but might not see a ton of minutes this year with a load of talent in front of him. Then there's Jim Calhoun, freshly inducted into the Hall of Fame. Don't count on success going to his head. A lot of people will rightfully pick UConn to win it all in 2006.
Cons: Can they really replace all that Charlie Villanueva brought to the table? Is Marcus Williams ready to take the next step, or has he peaked as a good player that will never be great? Perhaps the most concerning question after last year's early tournament exit — do they have the right makeup to win when it counts?
Pros:: Tubby Smith returns, hopefully along with leading scorer and senior G/F Kelenna Azubuike (15 ppg, 5 rpg, 49% FG) who is no guarantee to come back. (Ed. Note: He declared for the NBA draft and signed with an agent April 7th.) Like most college kids, Azubuike was inconsistent defensively, but he did provide offense when Kentucky needed it. To elevate his game, he'll need to become an improved passer and ball-handler. Now-sophomore PG Rajon Rondo is a definite factor on both ends (8.1 ppg, 51% as a freshman). He had at least one steal in every game last year, including eight during one contest vs. Mississippi State.
Sophomore C Randolph Morris is a 6-10, 266 lb. specimen who averaged 9 ppg on 53% shooting, but was inconsistent defensively. Morris's play dropped off at the end of last year, and he'll have to work on conditioning if that was the cause. Senior G Patrick Sparks showed everyone what his forte was in the big dance when his three-pointer danced around the rim for eons before sending UK to overtime against Michigan State (the Wildcats lost anyway, but it was an incredible shot). Sparks averaged 11 ppg and shot 37.6% from downtown, but is he too one-dimensional?
Cons: Losing Chuck Hayes hurts more than some folks in Kentucky would like to admit, and Rondo doesn't have three-point range yet. For that matter, he doesn't have free throw range yet, hitting on only 60% of his free throws. Plus Morris still has a lot to learn before his game is fully developed. How fast the youngsters develop will determine exactly how far this team might go in March. If Sparks gets hurt, teams will just play zone and exploit Kentucky's lack of outside shooting.
What do we want? MORE BASKETBALL. When do we want it? NOW. I'm with you, college hoops fans. Projections and analysis will have to do for now, though, and while the 2005 NCAA tournament was a star-studded act that will be hard to follow, have faith that the above four teams and a host of others will make the 2006 season a memorable one. Until then, it's good to be a Tar Heel.
Also rans: Michigan State, Oklahoma State, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Florida
April 7, 2005
Bonds Leaves Us Feeling Confused
On May 25, 1935, an aged and degenerating Babe Ruth — whose batting average waltzed with .180 that year — played the final game of his career. The game was held at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, a park notorious for its parsimoniousness in surrendering home runs. Ruth hit three home runs that day, the third of which — number 714 — traveled an estimated 600 feet. The ball sailed completely out of the ballpark, becoming the first ball that the cavernous Forbes could not hold.
Today's megalomaniacal media would never have allowed Ruth's farewell to be anything less than the greatest feat in the history of baseball. This media — ESPN, Sports Illustrated, etc. — feeds off the grandiose and extravagant, and it fosters a constant need to trumpet present events as legendary acts worthy of historical remembrance. America's media in 1935 was far more humble, both in size and volume, and so Ruth's final act unjustly remains unknown to many of the game's fans today.
So as Barry Bonds stands uniquely close to 714 and 755, surely we all know of the media storm that is coming. If he plays in 2005, Bonds should pass Ruth on the career home run list, and would likely pass Hank Aaron the following year to become the all-time home run leader, baseball's Hope Diamond of records. The word "if" should be underscored in the previous sentence, since Bonds has hinted at what many would view as a premature retirement from the sport. Either outcome — Bonds Breaks Record or Bonds Stunningly Retires — would result in more spilled ink than most wars. But like Ruth's uncanny performance in 1935, Bonds' actions over the next two seasons deserve American attention.
Discussing Bonds, an admitted steroid user, yields countless questions. Did Bonds knowingly use those steroids, or did he really trust his trainer so unconditionally as to ingest or apply anything given to him? How much of Bonds' career was affected by steroids? Is Bonds the greatest hitter of all-time? Should Bonds be occluded from Cooperstown because of his admitted use of steroids? And is Bonds' truculence with the media caused by antagonizing reporters, as Bonds would have us believe, or is the fault his own?
Answers to those questions will vary, but that is the nature of discussing Barry Bonds. Statistical arguments can be made that Bonds is the greatest hitter the game has ever seen. Then again, has there been a less likeable superstar in the last 20 years in baseball, or any sport for that matter?
As much as we would like it to be so, there is no black and white with Barry Bonds. His chase for 755 is nothing like Hank Aaron's quest to surpass Babe Ruth. Aaron was respected by the media and universally liked by all who knew him. The racist-driven threats he endured only endeared him to baseball's audience, as there was general support for his feat. And other than the fact that he needed more games than Babe Ruth to reach 714 home runs, there was absolutely no talk of Aaron's credibility in breaking the record.
Not so for Bonds. We know he used steroids, but we cannot know how much the steroids assisted him in hitting home runs. Some do not care, and only note that Bonds forfeited his right to break records and join the Hall of Fame the day he broke baseball's rules against performance-enhancing drugs. Meanwhile, Bonds is despised by many media members for his icy treatment of the corps who cover his every move. San Francisco fans loves Barry, but only because he is their star. The rest of baseball's fans are confused and forced to decide between the surly words of Bonds himself and the rebuttals of jaded sportswriters.
Recent actions do not provide clarity. Inexplicably, Congress subpoenaed several prominent baseball players to Washington to testify about their knowledge and connection to steroids, but excluded Bonds. The explanation: we did not want to create a media circus. Right.
Then, Bonds brings up the early retirement talk. Why would Bonds decide to retire now, so close to the record he desires? He placed the blame on the media, claiming they have finally broken him and his family. Really? The cynics in the crowd just shifted uncomfortably.
Bonds, and all he possesses — the superhuman strength, incomparable talent, and prickly persona — reside in a very gray area of the nation's sports consciousness. He is not universally disliked, but he surely is not viewed as baseball's version of a hero. In the past, he inspired awe in all who saw him play, but even that is not the case anymore since his testimony to the grand jury has been leaked. Bonds is now just sweepingly fascinating. He commands our attention, but we just are not sure how to feel about him.
That's why, if he does not retire, Bonds' career will spawn one more question:
What is the sound of a sold-out crowd — full of cynics and fans, sportswriters, and children — when Bonds' 756th is launched?
NASCAR Top 10 Power Rankings: Week 5
The quotes in this article are fictional.
1. Jimmie Johnson — Johnson retains the top spot, in the power rankings and the points standings, by virtue of his sixth-place finish at Bristol.
"A top-10 finish is what we reasonably expected in Bristol," adds Johnson. "I'm not complaining. We also got five bonus points for leading one lap of the race, and, as another bonus, I triggered a crash that knocked my chief rival, Kurt Busch, out of the race. Sorry about that, Kurt."
"Also, my apologies to Jeff Burton, for spinning you into Busch. You were driving that No. 31 Cingular Wireless orange car, so, naturally, I thought you were that jerk Robbie Gordon. I figured everybody would be happy if I took him out. These driver changes confuse me. Again, sorry about that, J.B. I guess now I have to be on the lookout for you, your brother Ward, and the rest of the South Boston posse wanting to open up a can of 10W-40 whoop ass on me."
Always remember, Jimmy, don't fear the reaper, but fear the Burtons.
With top-10 finishes in every race this year, and four top five's, Johnson certainly looks like the man to beat. And he's always strong at Martinsville — last year, he finished fourth in the spring race, and won in the fall. His points lead will grow.
2. Greg Biffle — Biffle holds steady at number two with a ninth-place finish at Bristol that could have been much better. During the final caution on lap 425, Biffle stayed on the track while most of the leaders pitted for fresh tires. The No. 16 car's strategy backfired when Kevin Harvick passed Biffle just two laps after the restart.
"Talk about a sinking feeling," moans Biffle. "To remain on the track and then see everyone dart into the pits behind you; I really felt stupid. I felt like I just shot the ball in the wrong basket, or ran the wrong way for a touchdown, or left my fly open for weeks at a time. All of those things I've done; why do you think I took up racing?"
Tough break, Biffle. Just remember in the future what the late, great Johnny Cochran once said: "If the tires fit, you must pit."
3. Tony Stewart — Stewart survived a 360° spin after a tap from Rusty Wallace, and finished in third place, his best finish at Bristol since winning there in August 2002.
"I kind of felt like Danny Sullivan at Indianapolis in 1985," says Stewart, "except he saved a 360° spin and actually won the race. It's really kind of cool to spin like that and not crash. People always say, 'Wow! What a piece of driving. It really takes a special driver to control a car in that situation.' Honestly, I had my eyes closed and was screaming like a baby. Uh oh. Did I say that out loud?"
You sure did, Tony. But you've always been outspoken, haven't you?
Stewart is up to third in Cup points, but hasn't put the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet Monte Carlo in victory circle yet. He's done it in Martinsville before, but that was back in 2000. A top ten finish would be a more likely goal.
4. Carl Edwards — It was quite an eventful weekend for Edwards at Bristol.
"Yeah, but it wasn't eventful in an Atlanta kind of way," explains Edwards, "where I won my first Cup race as well as the Busch race. But eventful as in 'I wrecked my car in qualifying and had to start the race from the back of the field-eventful."
Tough break there, Boy Wonder. But that wasn't all of Edwards' troubles. The No. 99 Scott's car suffered damage in an early race wreck, and Edwards had to go behind the wall for repairs. He returned to the field in 41st position, and eventually scrambled his way to a 26th-place finish.
It's all part of the ups and downs of NASCAR, so get used to it. It's not every week you can win two races at the same track. Just chalk it up to experience. But that experience at Bristol will serve you well in Martinsville. If Edwards can survive this stretch of two consecutive short track races and maintain his top-five position in points, I would say he'd be happy.
5. Kevin Harvick — Harvick bursts into the power rankings with a win captured under the most unlikely of circumstances. After qualifying 13th, Harvick was forced to start at the rear of the field after his crew made an unapproved repair to his car after it sprung a power steering leak hours before the race. If that's not enough, Harvick had to compete without crew chief Todd Berrier, who started serving a four-race suspension for cheating at the Las Vegas race last month.
"Sure, it sounds like the deck was stacked against us," explains Harvick, "but let's examine the situation. I started 43rd in a 43-car field. As the two-bit journalist who writes these power rankings has said on numerous occasions, qualifying means nothing in NASCAR. He's right. And, as far as running without a crew chief: big deal. Those guys just sit in an elevated chair, protected by an umbrella, and try to look cool in their Oakley shades and Motorola communications headsets. To be honest, I don't even listen to my crew chief or my spotters. Their endless chatter annoys me."
To top off his amazing weekend, Harvick won the rain-delayed Busch race on Monday, duplicating Carl Edward's feat in Atlanta. He won't pull the double in Martinsville — there is no Busch race. But Harvick is a hard charger, which sometimes puts him up front, while other times, it puts him, or someone else, into the wall.
6. Elliot Sadler — Sadler almost did the unthinkable: starting on the pole and actually winning the race. However, he didn't have the car to chase down Harvick late in the race, and settled for the runner-up position.
"Yeah, I almost proved wrong the two-bit journalist who writes these power rankings by winning the race from pole," says Sadler. "As it is, I'm perfectly happy with second place. Over the last two races, we've gained eight places in the Cup points standings. I'm pleased with the way this team is operating now. The last time I can remember being this happy was as a kid in Emporia, Virginia, blowing up piles of cow crap with a Black Cat firecracker."
Sadler lead the way in the best day yet for Robert Yates Racing. Teammate Dale Jarrett finished fifth to give Yates two top-five finishes, by far their best team showing of the year. Is it enough to mention Yates Racing in the same breath as NASCAR's two superpowers, Roush and Hendrick?
"Sure, you should be able to say all of those in one breath," says Sadler, "unless you're a heavy smoker. But until we duplicate the consistency we showed in Bristol, we'll have to rank ourselves below Roush and Hendrick. But don't tell Robert I said that."
7. Kurt Busch — Two straight below-30 finishes have dropped Busch to seventh in the points, 200 behind Johnson. After three top three's to open the season, Busch has suffered a spell of bad luck in the last two races. In Bristol, Busch was KO'ed when he slammed into Jeff Burton, who bounced off the wall after Jimmie Johnson cut in too soon on Burton.
"I hate to utter the most overused cliché in racing," says Busch, "but, 'That's racing.' I'm sure, somewhere, probably over a large plate of food, Jimmy Spencer is chuckling. In a way, I guess you could call it 'NASCAR-ma.' I've wrecked plenty of people at Bristol. It's only fair that I get taken out a few times."
Busch will no doubt hope to be up front in Martinsville, away from any trouble that may occur on the shortest of short tracks. But to make up significant ground, he would have to finish well ahead of Johnson, which is unlikely at Martinsville.
8. Rusty Wallace — If a 13th-place finish at Bristol can be labeled disappointing, Wallace has plenty of reasons to explain why. After qualifying third, Wallace was cruising in front of the pack, leading 157 laps, 48 more than eventual winner Harvick, until a cut tire on lap 294 ruined his day. The No. 2 Miller Lite car fell two laps down, and probably could have fought back on the lead lap, but a penalty for passing the pace car dashed those hopes.
"Man, talk about kicking a brother when he's down," laments Wallace. "Damn it! I'm Rusty Wallace. I'm a legend. I've got tenure. You'd think those geezers who play NASCAR officials could look the other way on occasion, and give me a break. After all I've done for this sport. If any of those officials ever need a ride somewhere, they can forget about asking me. They'll never set foot in my car, my helicopter, or my jet plane. But if they ever need a gentle push down an elevator shaft, I'm their man."
Cheer up, Rusty. You and your car obviously have the short track mojo going on, and you won the spring Martinsville race last year. What better way to salute your fans in your final full-time year in NASCAR than with a win in the Advance Auto Parts 500?
"The heck with the fans. I need to win one for Rusty."
9. Dale Jarrett — After winning the pole at Daytona in February, Jarrett really hadn't accomplished anything of significance until his fifth-place finish at Bristol in the No. 88 UPS Ford, which vaulted him seven places to No. 8 in the points.
"Until Bristol," says Jarrett, "I was seriously considering racing the truck. I'd been asking myself often, 'What can brown do for me?' And I'd been answering, "Well, apparently not winning races.' Now, with that fifth-place and Elliot's second, we've got a lot of confidence heading to Martinsville. This is a statement race for us. We've got to prove whether we're contenders, or just pretenders."
Jarrett isn't a short track racer in the caliber of Wallace or Jeff Gordon, but experience alone should carry him to a top-15 result at Martinsville, barring mechanical issues or serious wrecks. The again, this is Martinsville. Expect the unexpected.
10. Jeff Gordon — Gordon and Kurt Busch are running neck and neck at the head of the pack — in the race of bad luck. In Atlanta, Gordon's day was ruined in a lap one accident. In Bristol, a tire/steering issue nine laps from the finish wiped out what looked to be a certain third-place finish at worst.
"In this business, luck works both way," says Gordon. "We've had a run of bad luck, so I'm expecting some good luck in Virginia. Whether that luck manifests itself on the track at Martinsville, or in the 50 tickets I plan to play in the Virginia lottery, remains to be seen."
Normally in Martinsville, Gordon relies on skill more than luck. Last year, Gordon recorded two top-10s and a pole. In 2003, he swept qualifying and the race in both Martinsville races. If Gordon is lucky enough to avoid a major wreck and car problems, he could get himself back on track with a high finish.
April 6, 2005
Seventy-Two Hours in Chicago
On Friday and Saturday, a cold front was moving into Cleveland, and the brief respite of warm, spring weather was slowly disappearing in a blur of snow, sleet, wind, and clouds.
Thankfully, the weather report for Chicago for the weekend showed temperatures between 55 and 66 degrees, with forecasts of sun and clear skies to boot.
My girlfriend, a couple buddies, and I were leaving for a weekend in balmy Chicago. Yes, that's right ... balmy Chicago.
After an hour and a half of driving through slush and wind on I-90, we headed into mild temperatures and clear skies in Indiana, and the promise of baseball in our futures. (It bears mentioning that my NASCAR-esque driving skills allowed us to make tremendous time, while other poor souls trudged along the highway, crawling along, scared of the elements.)
We arrived in balmy Chicago in time to watch the second half of the Michigan State/UNC game at a fine drinking establishment. Of course, it would have been nice to see the Illinois/Louisville game, but it actually wasn't that big of a deal for two reasons:
1. I've been completely eliminated from every one of my NCAA pools, and have a newly-developed lifelong vendetta against March Madness.
2. We were in Chicago, a city that has grown quite fond of the Ilini, and we were going to celebrate Illinois' victory with complete strangers.
Needless to say, somewhere between a $150 bar tab, a minibar that got called some vulgar names for not efficiently dispensing a beer for my friend, a University of Chicago party during which my friend needlessly told people he was a professor of zoology at Ohio State (clearly, he's not), and liquor in test tubes, we got some rest and prepared for Day Two in the Windy City.
While Cleveland received a dose of winter weather on Sunday that broke the record for snow in a year, we enjoyed crystal blue skies and warm temperatures in Chicago. We ventured down Michigan Avenue for some afternoon shopping and some lunch.
Here's my first complaint about the trip. Multiple people had recommended that we get some pizza at Giordano's, which was fine because nothing sounded better after a night of drinking than some deep dish, greasy, thick pizza. What arrived at our table, though, amounted to nothing more than five pounds of fake-tasting cheese crammed inside a bland crust. If anyone can point me in the right direction for some good Chicago pizza for my next visit, I would greatly appreciate it.
Finally, Sunday evening, the Major League Baseball season started with perhaps the greatest rivalry in all of sports. Yankees vs. Red Sox. Randy Johnson vs. David Wells.
It was as if there was no offseason whatsoever. Watching the game that night made the winter melt away, and along with it, the steroids debacle, the snow, and the petty arguments over records and biceps.
The world was set straight, and everything seemed natural with freshly-cut grass, bleachers filled, and the introduction to the newest chapter of baseball lore being written in Yankee pinstripes and Boston red.
Of course, it didn't hurt that we were watching the game at the ESPN Zone, where we could enjoy the game with beer, video games, and large televisions. Like I said, the world was in order that night.
In the interest of full disclosure, or boasting, I should mention that I set the high speed on the pitching game with an 83 mph effort, then subsequently got embarrassed at the quarterback challenge, not once, but twice.
After a stop at the bar on the 95th floor of the Hancock Building (touristy or not, it has the most incredible view at night), it was time to rest up for a trip to U.S. Cellular Field.
Now, I've been to games in Cleveland, Detroit (new), Pittsburgh (old and new), Cincinnati (old), Wrigley Field, Fenway, and Arizona, and I don't think I've seen a more run-of-the-mill, could-be-located-anywhere, averagely modern ballpark than U.S. Cellular Field. For a new ballpark, there are plenty of seats with views obstructed by girders, a problem more common to old monstrosities like Municipal Stadium than anything built in the last decade.
There were other minor things that took away from the experience also, like the fact that pitch speeds were not displayed on any scoreboard that I could see, the pitch counts did not differentiate between balls and strikes, and the main scoreboard alternately did not work at all or was a full three pitches behind the action.
Surely, some of these things will or should be corrected, but there isn't a day that a ballpark draws more attention than Opening Day, and it's the little things that leave a lasting impression on visitors.
So, for the game my girlfriend and one of my buddies wore Indians shirts and jerseys, which inevitably led many a White Sox fan to hurl thoughtful insults at us, like, "Cleveland Sucks," to which we replied with, "Go Illinois."
Remember, kill them with kindness.
At the gates they were passing out White Sox rally socks and magnets, and while the magnets were immediately thrown in the garbage, we curiously looked at the socks. My girlfriend decided they would serve as good gloves in case the wind picked up and it started to get cold. My buddy had other ideas, though.
After perhaps one too many "Cleveland Sucks" comments from some people next to us on the escalator, my friend held up the rally sock in front of someone's face and retorted with a comment about what he could use the sock for (think opening scene of "American Pie").
Apparently, you don't always have to kill them with kindness.
We took our place in enemy territory somewhere in the upper deck on the first base side of the stadium and enjoyed beer, brats, and baseball. Whether it was the anemic hitting, the sterling pitching, or a combination of both, the game itself was better than any of us could have imagined (with the notable exception of an Indians win.)
I know it's just the first game, and there's 161 more to go, but I have an eerie feeling that Cleveland's pitching staff will rank in the top three in the American League and lose a lot of games 1-0, or 2-1. The offense from last year has to show up, and soon, because the starters and bullpen are finally in a position to hold up their end of the bargain, and a whole city is waiting to tell White Sox fans where they can put their rally socks.
Openly rooting for the Indians at U.S. Cellular Field drew considerably fewer insults and threats than I have previously experienced in Boston and Cincinnati. But, then again, it always helps when the home team wins.
We jumped in the car after the remarkably short game (I guess I can thank the Indians hitters for that luxury), and headed home after three days in Chicago, ready for some rest and relaxation.
I'll need it for next Monday to deal with the brave White Sox fans that venture eastward for the home opener in Cleveland. Just one piece of advice, leave the socks at home.
Reviewing the Big Unit's Yankee Debut
The last time when we left the Yankee Stadium, there was riot police on standby, A-Rod had did a little impersonation of the Karate Kid, and the visiting clubhouse had champagne splashed all over the carpet and probably a small quantity of Jack Daniels was left. The Boston Red Sox returned to the 161st Street after clinching the unthinkable to the open their 2005 campaign as the World Series champion. But this time around, they left Gotham as the vanquished.
The last time when we left the Stadium, those interlocking NY caps masked the agony of scores of fans and there were several dropped shoulders and drooped heads. The winter of agony was officially kicked off. And the Murderers' Row turned out to be the Murdered Row. George Steinbrenner unusually played the graceful loser rather than a sourpuss, which we were accustomed to.
Soon, spring was heralded with the signings of Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, and Jaret Wright. And finally, spring gave way to a summer of hope for the Yankees faithful. A new season of baseball has dawned on us giving the Yankees plenty of talent and a reason to go after the Sox.
Finally, the Big Unit, a prized possession that Steinbrenner has been angling for years, made his debut in pinstripes. And former Yankee and turncoat David Wells showed up for the Red Sox with his number reminding the 1919 season (or is it 1918?). As Yankees fans facetiously remarked, it was a matchup between the flame-thrower and the shame-thrower.
Johnson crafted a 9-2 win over the Sox and the Yankees drew first blood (bad choice of words with Curt Schilling not on the mound for the Sawx) in this interminable saga. Attributing the win essentially to Johnson is the key here. Though the Yankees bats came out in full swing and Hideki Matsui made a Godzilla-like leap over the leftfield wall, it was Johnson who gave every indication that this season might not turn out to be another 2004 in Yankee lore.
Johnson's wasn't as such an electrifying performance, but his overwhelming demeanor on the mound was what the Yankees have been craving for all these years. Johnson didn't look like the no-hitter he threw against the Braves last May and he didn't appear like pitching in one of those 14 games he was (dis)credited for losing last season. Instead, it was more methodical and he even got the occasional help from his teammates to pin down the Sox to just a single run. Johnson allowed one run in six innings, fanning six, and allowing just five hits. He issued only two free passes.
In the early stages of the game, his fastball looked more like a booming bazooka. He promptly retired 1-2-3 in the first inning, but later had trouble with that Yankee-slaying behemoth David Ortiz. Ortiz hit a double to the left field. Suddenly, it appeared as if Ortiz had knocked the wind out of Johnson's sails and he would've been in a logjam if Kevin Millar had hit a two-run homerun or more appropriately if Matsui hadn't come up with that SportsCenter Play of the Day-esque play. The Red Sox managed to sneak in a run with Jay Payton. Damage limitation, maybe.
Johnson was soon back in the groove, as he had the Sox retired in the third inning with just six pitches. Call it opening game blues or Johnson feeling a little jittery, his pitch count began to increase in the subsequent innings. He needed 18 to get through the fourth, 17 in the fifth, and 18 in the sixth. Finally, Johnson threw 95 pitches before Joe Torre summoned New Englander Tanyon Sturtze to replace the Big Unit.
Overall, Johnson had shown lots of promise on a day of blustery winds and occasional drizzle. Torre and Mel Stottlemyre can certainly call this present pitching lineup an upgrade from the cataclysmic one that the Yankees came up with in 2004.
Beating the world champions on the Opening Day is just a head-start and the long winding road ahead is sure to present lots of challenges. With the current cast assembled and the astronomic payroll, anything other than a handful of titles in October will be considered a lascivious luxury.
On a different note, at last MLB came back to the Yankee Stadium and pitted the traditional blood-sucking, venom-spewing rivals rather than having a face-off between the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in Tokyo (or is that Timbuktu?).
Above All, Roy Wins Title For Himself
The monkey is finally off his back. Roy Williams has his national championship. At long last, one of the preeminent basketball minds can be elevated to legendary status because his team has closed out the season by cutting down the nets, although my opinion of him remains unchanged.
Williams' coaching ability was evident the moment he stepped on the Lawrence campus. In just his second season, Kansas routed eventual champions UNLV 91-77 in the preseason NIT tournament. In Roy's third season, he took a Kansas team that was two years removed from probation to the championship game, eventually losing to Duke.
Williams went back to the final four two years later, then twice more in 21st century. Although Kansas suffered with a few underachieving teams during the Williams era (most notably the Paul Pierce years), for the most part, people wouldn't argue with Roy's success.
Roy doesn't just impress disciples from the Dean Smith cult. Aside from the usual accolades bestowed by the Carolina fraternal brothers, Williams also draws praise from those who are respected outside tobacco road. Jerry West, one of the games brightest NBA minds, puts it this way.
"If you watch his teams, you know they've been coached. If you go to his practices, you know why his teams are successful. His players play the right way. They're team-oriented. They play a fun way offensively. They're aggressive. He changes defenses. He does it all. He's just a wonderful coach."
This season, Williams had the most talented team in the country. Aside from polished veterans such as Rashad McCants, Sean May, and Raymond Felton, the Tar Heels had the luxury to bring freshman sensation and future lottery pick Marvin Williams off the bench.
But even though they led by as many as 15, with just over two minutes remaining, they were tied, and a Deron Williams three-pointer from trailing. Even though he had a good look, Deron missed.
The next possession was odd, because after dominating the entire game, Carolina opted to go away from Sean May and let Rashad McCants try to score. McCants threw up a terrible shot, but Marvin Williams was there to tip it in and basically save Roy's bacon.
Illinois then had several good looks to either tie the game or take the lead, but they missed on every single jumper and made one decisive turnover at the worst possible moment. The argument could be made that Illini coach Bruce Weber out-witted Williams, but his kids failed to make the shot.
North Carolina seemed to win this tournament on talent alone, much of which Williams did not recruit, but I don't feel that should be held against him. What I do believe is that a national championship is not the only factor that is indicative of coaching credibility.
Williams might have been smart enough to stay out of the way of this team and make sure they didn't waste the opportunity that was set before him. Steve Fisher did the same thing in 1989, and no one confuses him with Bob Knight.
Much like in the case of Dan Marino and Karl Malone, the majority of your success has to do with the team around you. Joe Torre was fired from three managerial jobs before receiving his deified status as Yankees skipper. It also helps he is the beneficiary of the highest payroll in the majors. Rick Majerus is also one of the best coaches in the game, but odds are he will never win a championship. Does that take away from his accomplishments?
Roy Williams said the right thing Monday night when he gushed, "I'm just so happy for myself, my family..." A championship is an individual honor, not something to be judged on by onlookers. Barry Bonds might never win a World Series, despite being the most dominating player ever in baseball. And I guarantee the only person he is trying to win for is himself, not for what other people might think of him.
I would like to congratulate Roy Williams on his title — no one deserves it more than him. After all the ridiculous scrutiny he has taken, it must be nice to finally not have to answer the questions any more. I thought he was a great coach before, and I still think he is a great coach. He didn't need to win a national title to satisfy his critics, he needed one to satisfy himself.
April 5, 2005
Predicting the 2005 Masters
Note: the quotes in this article are fictional.
Masters' chairman Hootie Johnson welcomes an international field to Augusta for the first leg in the 2005 Grand Slam.
"I'd like to welcome the players, the media, and viewers around the world to the Masters," says Johnson. "We have assembled a world-class field, and David Duval, shooting for the most prestigious title in the world of golf. Everyone is welcome in the clubhouse, with the exception of women, unless you're popping out of a giant birthday cake, visiting on behalf of a massage parlor, or if you are Mrs. Tiger Woods.
In the past few years, Augusta National's reputation has been sullied by those who claim our exclusive membership policy portrays us as misogynists. I'm not sure where people get that idea, and I don't care. All I know is that it's my pleasure to introduce our two newest members, Mr. Andrew "Dice" Clay and "Iron" Mike Tyson. As I'm sure you are all aware, I am now the only Hootie in the world, as a result of the demise of the band Hootie and the Blowfish. Have you seen the lead singer lately? He's doing a Burger King commercial."
In Wednesday's par-3 contest, Phil Mickelson, fresh off Monday's playoff win at the Bell South Classic, proudly shows up at the first tee, showing off his green jacket from last year's victory at Augusta.
"None of you will ever have one of these," Mickelson boasts to the stunned gallery gathered at the tee.
"You the man!" shouts a fan, oblivious to Mickelson's conceit.
"Phil, don't be so ornery," says Vijay Singh, approaching the tee. "I know you're upset that Arizona blew a 15-point lead to Illinois. Anyway, you're not the only one with a green jacket. I have one, and I'm also ranked No. 1 in the world."
"That's great, you Fijian fruitcake," snaps Mickelson, "but I went to Arizona State, you clown. Now stand back while I drop this eight-iron shot softly down on the lightning fast greens, manicured to perfection by greens keeper and top-flight gopher exterminator Carl Spackler. Hey, Vijay. Do you have tan lines?"
Singh is too embarrassed to reply, and doesn't notice Tiger Woods step up to the tee box, carrying his three green jackets, just dry cleaned, in a plastic cover from A Cleaner World.
"Did somebody say "green jackets?'" asks Wood. "The number's three, and, by late Sunday, it will be four. By the way, I have more exemptions to this tournament than you guys have major wins. While you guys count those on one hand, I'm going to nail this pitching wedge 190 yards and land it eight feet from the cup."
As Woods completes his follow-through, Jack Nicklaus approaches the threesome and comments with disdain, "You're all a bunch of suckers. I've got a green jacket for six days of the week, and I've got a major victory for over half the days in a month. I've also got more second-place finishes in more majors than you goofs have major firsts, seconds, and thirds combined. Now, step aside, and watch me roll the seven-wood to within inches of the cup. I just don't have the power in my swing that I used to."
Nicklaus swings, and tops the ball slightly, but it rolls 145 yards and stops four inches from the cup.
"Old man's still got it," says Woods, heading to the green.
Later in the day, Nicklaus aces the 12th, while Mickelson and Singh discuss the political climate of the United States/Fiji Islands' relationship. Woods hooks up with Sergio Garcia on the practice tee, and the two engage in a high-stakes trick shot contest while discussing the merits of Swedish supermodels and Swiss tennis ingénues.
Garcia blazes to a 68 in Thursday's opening round, besting 69s from Ernie Els and Americans Steve Jones, Chris DiMarco, and Mickelson. Woods struggles with his putter, but still manages an even par 72, as does South African Retief Goosen. The real excitement comes when LPGA star Laura Davies, working on behalf of the National Organization for Women, disguises herself as former CBS analyst Ben Wright (the transformation requires no makeup, just a coat and tie) and infiltrates the locker room. The ruse fools everyone, until Davies/Wright demonstrates her/his swing for fellow Brit Justin Rose.
"Bollocks! My bloody knockers are in my way!" cries Davies.
"See! Ben Wright was right!" yells Rose, as Davies flees, with Hootie Johnson in hot pursuit.
On Friday, Garcia holds the lead until the par 4 seventh, where he pulls his tee shot into the rough. On his ensuing approach shot, Garcia's six-iron comes out hot, and he flies his shot well past the green.
"I guess you'd call that a 'Spanish flyer,'" quips CBS on-course analyst Garry McCord, fingering his handle bar mustache. "Damn, I'm clever," McCord says to himself.
Garcia ends up with an eight, and his hopes for his first major are dashed.
"Yeah, but I still kick ass in the Ryder Cup," a defiant Garcia replies to a disappointed American heckler, who had hoped to razzle fan-favorite whipping boy, Scotland's Colin Montgomerie.
The leader at the end of Friday is American Davis Love III, who fires a 66 on Friday after receiving a pep talk from North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams. Love, along with DiMarco, comprises Saturday's final group. Wood's and Goosen, one shot back, are grouped, while Mickelson and Els pair up at two back. As Mickelson loosens up in the locker room early Sunday afternoon, Woods approaches with a proposition.
"Phil, I know we're not the best of pals, but we do have a few things in common," explains Woods. "We've both won majors; me, eight, you, one, and we're both married to hot chicks. Mine just happens to be way hotter. More importantly, we're both Americans, and we're both alumni of Pac-10 conference schools. Therefore, together, we can do our part and wipe these South African golfers off the face of the earth. I don't know about you, but I'm not a big fan of the Republic of South Africa, unless I'm being offered $1,000,000 just to appear at a tournament there. So, let's take care of Ernie and Retief. Let's show them that American golf is where it's at."
"I agree wholeheartedly, Tiger, at least about the South Africans," replies Mickelson. "What really irritates me is that I still don't know the correct pronunciation of their last names. Is it "Els' or "Else?' Is it "Goosen' or "Hoosen?'
"I'm not sure, Phil," responds Woods. "Let's just call them the only athletes from the Dark Continent who can't run a marathon in less than 2:10. Those Kenyans can run for days!"
Woods and Mickelson successfully achieve their plan, sending Els and Goosen packing, at least to the bottom of the leaderboard. Woods fires a 68 and Mickelson a 67, sending them into a tie atop the leaderboard after Love and DiMarco falter.
"We've got what everyone wanted," notes CBS's Ken Venturi.
"You're right, Ken," adds Venturi's broadcast partner, Jim Nantz. "A perfect opportunity to promote CBS's Sunday lineup. Don't miss 60 Minutes, followed by Cold Case, then..."
"No, you ingrate!" snaps Venturi. "I'm talking about Woods and Mickelson going toe to toe on Sunday at a major. Now, please, Jim, don't try to compare that to NCAA basketball."
Mickelson and Woods are neck and neck when they tee off at the par 3 12th, the middle of the famed three-hole stretch known as "Amen Corner." Mickelson tees off first, and lands an eight-iron tight, four feet from the cup. Woods matches with a nine-iron just inside of Mickelson's ball.
"Woods should get an exact read on Mickelson's putt," notes Venturi.
As the two rivals cross the Ben Hogan Bridge that spans Rae's Creek, a commotion erupts in the greenery surrounding the green. Wood's confrontational caddie, Steve Williams, enters the trees to investigate, only to find himself tossed back onto the green by none other than Happy Gilmore and The Price Is Right's Bob Barker, continuing their brawl from the blockbuster golf movie Happy Gilmore.
"Have your pet spade or neutered, you S.O.B.!" shouts Barker, as he delivers a knockout left cross to Gilmore.
Barker then descends upon Williams, and, in the commotion, Mickelson slinks over to Woods' unattended bag and pilfers his putter. When all is said and done, Woods is left without a putter and his caddie Williams, whom Barker tosses unconscious into Rae's Creek.
"I guess you'd call that a "Tiger Caddie Slam,'" McCord cracks, chuckling at his display of humor.
Woods consults Masters' officials for a ruling, but is left with no recourse but to carry his own bag and putt with his three-wood.
Mickelson drains his four-footer for birdie, and takes a one-stroke lead when Woods' birdie attempt lips out. Woods stays within one over the remaining six holes, and even sinks two birdie putts with his three-wood. Mickelson clinches his second-straight Masters title with a par putt on 18.
As Mickelson places his arms into his second green jacket, he takes a moment to thank his sponsors.
"I'd like to thank Ford Motor Company, Rolex, and Callaway Golf," says Mickelson. "And I'd also like to thank Bearing Point, although I'm still not sure what they do exactly. But they pay me millions to wear their hat, so I've got to give them a shout out. I'll see everyone at Pinehurst in June, where I'll be collecting the second leg of the Lefty Slam."
MLB's Opening Day Problem
Opening Day is a national holiday in many places, and as a Cincinnati native, I know this better than anyone. However, this season, something is just getting to me and the start of another baseball season just doesn't have the flare it used to. No, unlike many, my problem isn't steroids. My problem lies with Cincinnati's sports hero, one Peter Edward Rose.
Pete Rose had a great career in Cincinnati and, for the longest time, deserved to be the city's sports hero. Charlie Hustle was a blue-collared star for a blue-collared town and the hit king's record will never be matched. There are even still people in the city that would defend Rose and try to argue that he never really bet on baseball, despite Rose's admission. It seems absurd, but he was their guy and they had his back.
That was fine during his playing days, but the continued support of Rose in Cincinnati even after his admission to betting on baseball is confusing. I shouldn't be surprised, as it was Mark Twain who said "When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it's always 20 years behind the times." The fact of the matter is that Cincy fans need to remove their Rose-colored glasses and see Pete for what he is — a lying scumbag.
Cincinnati has a great baseball history and it gets tarnished with every mention of Pete Rose in the news. On Friday, he was reduced to nothing more than the nation's fool when he was spoofed on SportsCenter in a faux story about him being eligible for the Hall of Fame. He was also in the news the day before, but not as the subject of a prank, but because he slapped a Las Vegas gossip columnist who labeled him a bad tipper.
Come on, Pete, slapping a writer? You can do better than that. Now that people know the real Pete Rose, they wouldn't have expected you to act like a real man, but they would've expected you to at least act like some sort of a man. Pete, you need to realize you aren't a drunk 20-something woman on The Real World, and if you are going to hit someone, at least use your fist. Not only do you embarrass the city with your unprovoked attack, but you embarrass us just with the way you carried it out.
A week or so before the slap hit the news, there was a quote from Rose in a story about steroids in baseball. Pete's thoughts?
"My philosophy is if you broke the rules and they prove you broke the rules, then they got to punish them," he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
That's very insightful, Pete. Frankly, I'm surprised he didn't respond that if they broke the rules, they should lie about it for 15 years, deny it vehemently and whine about how everyone is out to get you, and then confess it in a tell-all book in a pathetic grab for cash.
As a Cincinnatian, I am sick and tired of seeing Pete Rose in the news. Does he deserve to be in the Hall? Yes, absolutely. He was a great player and there are far worse human beings in Cooperstown. However, his reinstatement shouldn't be strings free.
In exchange for being reinstated and rightfully ending up in the Hall of Fame, he should be forced to leave the public spotlight forever. No more scandals, no more books, no more charging kids $50 bucks for an autograph. No more disgracing the fine city of Cincinnati, no more abusing every last shred of dignity he has for another check.
It's sad to see him go down like this. Being reduced to evading the IRS instead of a tag at second, slapping columnists instead of singles, and only telling the truth when it is most profitable for him. Pete Rose isn't worthy of a hero status in any city, and come 2025, the rest of Cincinnati will agree.
Mark Chalifoux is also a weekly columnist for SportsFan Magazine. His columns appear every Tuesday on Sports Central. You can e-mail Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 4, 2005
Masters Preview: Ernie's Time?
Watch CBS these days and you will certainly be deluged with images of the 2004 Masters, most notably Phil Mickelson's final putt and celebratory leap on the 18th green. Not shown in those commercials is the face of Ernie Els, the tournament runner-up. Els, who would have faced Mickelson in a playoff had the now-famous putt lipped out, dashed away from Augusta as soon as the putt fell. Frustrated and irritated, Els left Augusta with a bitter taste in his mouth.
But 2005 sees Els at the top of his game again. He has yet to finish out of the top 25 in any of the five PGA Tour events he has played this season. Though his best finish was only second place at the Sony Open, he has won twice already internationally.
Plus, Els continues to have the right game to win the Masters. He's impossibly long off the tee, meaning he will attack Augusta's notoriously difficult hole locations with short irons, while most other players are forced to use less lofted clubs. He's ranked fourth on the tour in putting, the other key skill needed to have a chance at the Green Jacket.
Fact is, Augusta National provides a huge advantage to experienced players who have played the course many times in their careers. Besides getting over the mental hurdle associated with playing in the most famous golf tournament in the world, experience also breeds familiarity with the severe slopes and speeds of Augusta's greens. Els, therefore, has the game and the knowledge to succeed at Augusta.
And though he has never won the Masters, Els has certainly been successful. His last five appearances at the Masters, starting in 2000, goes like this: second place, tied for sixth, tied for fifth, tied for sixth, and second last year. Els has had one arm into the Green Jacket on multiple occasions, only to have it ripped away by someone else, most recently Phil Mickelson.
But Els should look no further than Mickelson for encouragement this year. It was Mickelson, remember, who finished third for three straight agonizing years before winning last year. When he broke, through, Mickelson credited Jack Nicklaus' major championship strategy with helping him win his first. Nicklaus' theory was that as long as he could get himself in contention year after year in the majors, then the wins would naturally come. Well, for Els, that win is overdue. This could be his year.
Who else has a chance? Maybe it is better to first eliminate some players from consideration. Major-less twenty-somethings not named Tiger Woods usually lack the experience necessary to succeed at Augusta, so names like Adam Scott, Chad Campbell, and Luke Donald are highly unlikely to win. Sergio Garcia, who fits that mold, should win the Masters someday, but not until he improves his putting. Foreign players also seem to struggle at Augusta, so the chances are slim for Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke. And today's game is a power game, so veterans like Bernhard Langer and Jay Haas probably do not have the weapons to tame Augusta. Even Jose Maria Olazabal, a two-time Green Jacket winner who has been playing very well this season, probably will not be able to keep up with the younger, more powerful players in the field.
Tiger Woods is an obvious choice and is Vegas' favorite this week, but his best finish at Augusta in the past two years is tied for 15th. And though he has shown flashes of his 2000 form that produced the "Tiger Slam," he has been very inconsistent, as exemplified by his disappointing 53rd place finish at the Players Championship.
Phil Mickelson has again designed his early season schedule in a way that gives him the best chance to win this tournament. He's the defending champ, and he's finished in the top three in each of the last four years. He's playing scary golf right now, winning twice already and breaking course records along the way. He should be Els' toughest competition.
Vijay Singh, the world's number one player, won the Masters in 2000 and has finished in the top 10 in each of the last three years. But Singh's putter has looked shaky in big moments lately — he missed a two-foot putt to lose a playoff to Padraig Harrington at the Honda Classic — and he has not won a major where the top players in the world were in contention since 2000.
Retief Goosen is a popular pick, but his only good finish at Augusta was in 2002 when he finished second. Goosen's steady approach will not provide the same advantage at Augusta that it does at the more exacting U.S. Open.
While Els is this column's pick, there is one longshot we should not overlook. Davis Love III reduced the number of tournaments he played in early 2005 in order to prepare for two tournaments: The Players Championship and Augusta. Love's tied for eighth the Players was his best finish this season. Last year, Love quietly finished in sixth place. Perhaps his preparation this season will be enough to make him the player that snags the Green Jacket from Els this season.
The Daddy and the Child: A Tale of Two Cities
There is safety in numbers. Team sports lend themselves to statistical analysis. To paraphrase scripture, ye shall know them by their digits. Missed games aside, it is safe to say that Shaquille O'Neal is more valuable to the 2004-05 Miami Heat than Kobe Bryant is to the Lakers.
Numbers seldom lie: the Heat are 55-19, leading the Southeast Division's second-place Washington Wizards by 12.5 games. Without Diesel fuel, the Lakers lag at 33-39, a woeful 22 back of the Pacific Division-leading Suns. And the cross-town Clippers are nipping at their heels.
Kobe Bryant is a marvelous basketball player, at both ends of the court. That is a distinction he shares with Michael Jordan. Similarities end there, as he is not a proven leader (or even winner, shed of Shaq). No. 8 has played in 57 of the Lakers' 72 contests, and is averaging a commendable 28 points, 6 rebounds, and half a dozen dimes. He's also only shooting 43%, his lowest mark since 1997-98, when he was a callow (but not gun shy) teen. He averages more than four turnovers, well above his previous season high average of 3.5. Kobe is only shooting 34% from the arc. And in the court of public opinion, sales of his uniform jersey replica disappeared.
What about the New King of South Beach? Shaq's only Achilles' heel is he wasn't hip to Carlos Delgado. In 69 games, he's averaging 2.4 blocked shots, 23 points, close to 60% from the field (his highest since 1993-94), and 10.5 boards. He's healthy, fit, and well-matched with Dwayne Wade. No team, even Phoenix, leads their division by as many games as the rejuvenated Heat, who are on track to win 60 games. No doubt, the Diesel will put it on cruise control as we near playoff time.
In the East, he'll face no Tim Duncan's, Kevin Garnett's, or Amare Stoudamire's. The Big Fella won without Penny Hardaway and is winning without Kobe. Tinseltown, for its part, will finish out of the playoffs. What must Magic Johnson think?
What does it all mean? For one, talented centers are rare, and Bryant's lack of appreciation thereof initiated the Laker downfall. Shaq's post presence caused defenses to sag, providing perimeter opportunities for Bryant as it now does for Wade. The Lakers also lack interior defense, no small weakness in the West. Wing talents come along relatively often, but even Dwight Howard and Emeka Okafur will never be Shaq. Rarely is an older superstar more valuable than a younger one, but it is plain to see a 33-year old O'Neal is not expendable, a 26-year old Bryant has yet to prove such. A post player himself, Phil Jackson had to know this.
Winning is about more than talent, it is about getting the best performance from oneself and one's mates. To arrive, and remain at basketball's summit, the elite must recognize the importance of player roles. Bill Russell had this awareness, as did Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan. No man, not even Dominique Wilkins or Allen Iverson, can do it all. To this day, Yao Ming's Rocket teammates have not learned how to mesh their talents with his, though Yao is no Shaq.
What a star pivot player can do though, is attract defenders, and find open teammates with passes out of the double-team — an O'Neal skill that elevated the three-peat Lakers. As Bryant ages, his ability to elude wing defenders will fade somewhat, as will the spring to leap over the trees inside. The Shaq-Kobe inside/outside game stretched a defense beyond reasonable limits, and made the game easy. No NBA team had enough talent to double-team both players, which would occupy 4/5 of its team.
The (Late) Lake Show drove Rudy T to resignation (he a man who endured Vernon Maxwell, and the Charles Barkley/Scottie Pippen feuds). It appears, rings and all (not counting the makeup rock he copped for wife Vanessa), Kobe Bryant's legacy will not be the Jordan-esque one he aspired to, but one of team-wrecker.
In a rare twist of fate which turns the tables on Wilt Chamberlain's favorite saying, in the case of Shaquille O'Neal, everyone roots for Goliath.
April 3, 2005
Baseball Returns After a Tumultuous Winter
It hasn't been a great winter for sports in general. The great NFL moneymaking machine rolls on, of course, relentlessly devouring all sports that dare threaten its column inches and television time. Devotees of the NHL — those hardy few that remain — have seen their sport all but destroyed by the idiotic actions of a narcissistic, preening commissioner and a clumsy, oafish union leader. Even those of us who don't even pretend to understand hockey can see how sad it is that such a proud and tradition-rich sport can suddenly be thrown into complete disarray.
Basketball hasn't had such a good winter either. An embarrassing players versus fans battle in Detroit highlighted the on and off field thuggery of NBA players. The fans seemed to wake up to the pure selfishness of the average NBA star and the sheer pointlessness of the NBA regular season and television ratings plummeted. David Stern has a challenge to put the gloss back on the NBA and will rely almost exclusively on LeBron James to achieve it.
Baseball's problem with steroids is by no means a new issue. It took the BALCO investigation and Jose Canseco's book to burst a boil that has been lurking under the skin for years. In fact, it is such an old issue that, personally, I wonder whether the average fan cares that much. Let's face facts, we've all known, thought we've known or at least suspected that baseball players use or have used performance enhancing substances.
Think back to the balmy days of the summer of '98. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa slugging it out for the home run record — two huge muscle-bound behemoths that captured the imagination of the nation and relaunched baseball after the rancor from the '94 labor dispute. There were rumblings back then that both were using "supplements" — a euphemism for anything from creatine to injecting anabolic steroids.
Crowds flocked to baseball stadiums all over the country that summer of '98. The Yankees were steamrollering their way to a World Series, but it was Big Mac and Slammin' Sammy that gave the season impetus. The fans aren't idiots — they could see these guys were bursting out of their skins and can do the math. Did they care? They kept coming, so possibly not — maybe it's only a few writers and purists that do care?
If Sosa and McGwire were indeed juiced in some manner back in '98, what about Ken Griffey, Jr.? No one — to my knowledge — has pointed the finger of suspicion at him, yet he belted 56 homers that summer and enjoyed a career year. And Luis Gonzalez, him of the slight figure and normal-sized head, blasted 57 in 2001, way above anything he has achieved before or after. Out-of-career-pattern achievement doesn't necessarily mean steroid use.
In many ways, how the fans judge a player in relation to steroids depends on their likeability. Bonds is, without doubt, one of sports more obnoxious characters. It's easy to dismiss Bonds as a steroid using cheat because we don't like him — I know I don't. It's hard to find a baseball fan outside of the Bay Area or Bonds' immediate family who wants to see him break Hank Aaron's home run record. His name on baseballs list of records leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
In many ways, Barry Bonds isn't really the poster child of the steroid era. Bonds could play the game with or without being juiced. He had a career when he was skinny and his head didn't resemble the Goodyear Blimp. But Steroid Boy is Jason Giambi is a walking-talking advert for the "supplemental lifestyle."
Giambi came into the bigs as a decent singles/doubles hitter who played third base. In his last season in the minors at Edmonton in 1995, Giambi hit .342 with only 4 of his 65 hits getting past second base. By 1999, Giambi had added 35 pounds to his listed weight and was playing first base — badly. He also slugged 33 homers.
Without steroids, it's not even a given that Giambi would have stuck around in the majors, let alone sign a $120 million deal with the Yankees. Giambi's career is down the toilet and his health is at risk for the rest of his life, but he's made his money. Only he can say if he's happy with the trade off.
So who's to blame for this steroid mess and how does the sport repair the damage?
Firstly, the players have to accept the primary burden of responsibility. Nobody forced grown men to take tablets they didn't wish to swallow, or sticks a needle in a reluctant body. The players wanted the money — and this is all about money — that comes with achievement on the field. The players' union knew what was happening and ignored it — foolishly thinking their members interests was based purely on the thickness of their wallets.
The owners don't walk away from this with a clean slate, either. They suspected who was using and didn't care as long as ticket sales increased in direct correlation to the number of dingers leaving the yard.
At least the sport has taken the first step towards controlling the use of steroids. I say controlling deliberately because no sport can eliminate drugs completely. If an athlete is determined to use them and thinks the benefits outweigh the risk involved, then that athlete will take a chance regardless of the punishment or consequence.
Some have claimed the punishment for being caught is too light. Ten days for a first offence seems a weak sentence, but I think Harold Reynolds has it right on "Baseball Tonight" — the naming and shaming may be enough to deter all but the hardcore. If it's not and there's a flood of failed tests, then, by all means, jack up the punishment to something really severe.
Playing the games will relegate the steroid issue to a lower profile. Now that the season is underway, the actual drama of the season will take precedent, as it should. Baseball is still a damn good game and is sullied only by a minority of its competitors.
There are a few ways baseball can take the focus away from steroids and freak shows like Giambi and Bonds. First off, it would be nice if Bud Selig and friends would recognize there is more to a baseball game than home runs. A lot of fans, myself included, prefer a good pitching duel to a slugfest. Is there going to be a more exciting sight this season than Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling battling it out — say tied at 0-0 in the eighth? Isn't that more of a spectacle than a five-hour 17-12 or whatever game where both starters are back in the dugout before most of the crowd have taken their seats?
There are plenty of great pitchers out there that Selig and Co. can hang their advertising hat on. It would be nice, given that players seem to have shrunk over the past two years, that pitching started to get an edge over hitting, even allowing for the high number of postage-stamp sized ballparks. Raising the mound back to its original height would be on my wish list, but realistically it won't happen.
What might happen — and should — is contraction. I'd like to see four teams nuked, but two is a start and both of them should be in Florida. The Devil Rays are a total embarrassment and will never draw more than a handful of snowbirds no matter where they play. They should be top of anybody's annihilation list, closely followed by fellow Floridians the Marlins.
Is a reason other than Jeffrey Loria necessary? If it is, then I give you low crowds, a dismal stadium, no atmosphere, and constant rain delays. The city of Miami doesn't care about baseball even when its team is the World Series champion.
The union will fight contraction, as they should. The solution is to buy them off with the offer to expand the rosters of the remaining teams by two spots. The union is on the back foot with the steroids issue and might not have the stomach for a fight. Sadly, even if the union acquiesced, some owners are so shortsighted that they'd balk at the meager payroll increase.
Other than contraction in Florida and a Yankees championship, the one thing I'm hoping to see this summer is the players actually playing strong, fundamental baseball. Is moving a runner along a lost art nowadays? How about bringing a runner home, whether it's via a sac fly, base hit, or even a weak groundout? Forget the personal statistics and do what's necessary for your team. I've exhausted my range of expletives aimed at the TV from seeing strikeout after strikeout with one man out and a man in scoring position.
Striking out used to be seen as total failure. Now it's an occupational hazard and reason to share a joke with teammates on the return to the dugout. Personally, I'd like to see it viewed in the same way as steroid use, only with a different penalty. For every 10strikeouts, you get a day off without pay. After 100 strikeouts, you're traded to Tampa Bay.
Enjoy the season and remember to read the label on your nutritional drink.
April 2, 2005
NCAA Tournament: It Gets No Better
What a great NCAA tournament this has been so far. Too bad it's about to end. I'm telling you, I would be looking forward to watching the championship game this Monday and all, but I have driving school that night ... all because of my speeding ticket that I got on December 28 of last year.
Sadly, this is a true story.
Regardless, the Final Four this weekend should be off the hook. Last weekend's Elite Eight frenzy was among the best action sports fans have seen in recent memory. The one that meant the most to me was seeing Illinois come back with a minute and a half to go to tie the game and send it into overtime.
I was with my girlfriend at a Chicago south suburban Hooters as this was all folding down. The entire restaurant just stopped as Illinois made its triumphant comeback. The best feeling was high-fiving the surrounding people at other tables, not knowing who any of them were. My girlfriend, not a sports fan by any means, even found the whole thing exciting.
I am finally convinced that the NCAA tournament that makes the month of March famous truly is one of the best phases of sports. No longer do the NFL playoffs or Super Bowl require me to cling for full attention.
While the Super Bowl has turned into a celebrity pop-fest and is more about pop-culture entertainment, the NCAA tournament is one of lasting truths of sports that is yet to be taken over by the celebrities who show up only to look cool. I find it cool that a Bill Murray shows up to Illinois games to root for the Fighting Illini. That's cool with me.
This Final Four should be among the best we have seen in recent years. I expect nothing but the very best to come from North Carolina, Michigan State, Louisville, and Illinois. I still am having a hard time picking who will make it to this Monday night.
I think the Illinois and Louisville game will be very close. The very fact that many Chicago media personalities are so confident that Illinois will win this game scares me. Asides that, Louisville is a solid team that matches up almost evenly with the Fighting Illini. Illinois' guards are a little better, though, and if they can play at their very best, I expect them to get the win. It will be close. Illinois wins by five.
North Carolina and Michigan State is hard to pick, too. A lot of people have picked against MSU every time in the tournament, and look where they are now. Can Roy Williams finally win the big game? As much heart MSU may have, I find it hard to pick against Carolina.
Championship game: I predict North Carolina over Illinois. I hope I'm wrong and that on Tuesday, I am praising the orange and blue. That is, of course, after I leave my driving school class, which is scheduled to be released by 10 PM. Going to have to setup the good ol' VCR for this one ... it's going to be a late night. I'm lovin' it.
Run & Shoot
* Looking forward to baseball's Opening Day. Opening Day is another great day in sports, in my opinion. Always reminds me that the warm weather is on its way out and I can finally start doing things outside again.
* The Bulls are riding high on an eight-game winning streak. They will make the playoffs (still can't believe I just typed that), but they won't make it out of the first round. As Carmen DeFalco from said from ESPN 1000's (WMVP-AM) midday show, the playoffs are a whole different animal.
Bowling for St. Loo
I recently had my fingers on Earl Anthony's balls.
Well, not on them. More like inside them. We'll get to that later.
St. Louis is a great sports town, and not just because its fans are able to muster a formidable amount of denial when it comes to the artificiality of Mark McGwire's achievements. It's a great football town, and a great hockey town (even with the NHL locked out, Blues paraphernalia can be found throughout the city's retail outlets; a far cry from, say, Washington, D.C., where the majority of the Capitals merchandise is being burned to provide warmth for homeless kittens.) It's also a great host for sporting events, as will be proven again this weekend at the Final Four.
My girlfriend and I road-tripped to St. Louis the same weekend the NCAA wrestling championships were being held. We were, in fact, staying in the same hotel — across from the hockey arena — as the majority of the competitors and their families. This became evident when the elevator refused to operate because the car was over its weight limitation ... and then refused to operate a second time even after some of the freight walked back into the lobby. It seems while the athletes must cut weight, their fathers have done the reverse since their final collegiate matches.
Instead of sitting through the symposium on cauliflower ear or the "Why Title IX is Satan's Favorite Bylaw" workshop, my girlfriend and I decided we'd go exploring. St. Louis is the kind of town where you have to peel away a few layers before you find the cool stuff. The Anheuser Brewery is a nice, free trip, but it's a tad touristy and homogenous when compared to other brewery tours you might take locally. The Arch is incredible, but it's sort of like the Empire State Building in that it's fun to look at, take pictures of, view from the top, walk through the lame museums, hit the gift shop, and then ... well, there's an hour and a half you'll never get back.
Sarah and I made two noteworthy sports-historical visits while in St. Louis that aren't necessarily on the typical tourist to-do list.
There was the Bigfoot Museum. As in the monster truck, not the mythical woodland beast that lived with John Lithgow's family. The museum is literally inside an old car dealership, right down to the water fountain near the waiting room. The highlight? Being able to climb inside the wheel of an actual Bigfoot monster truck outside the museum. The lowlight? Not being able to crush a line of '79 Buicks with said monster truck.
(Oh, and by the way, you haven't lived until you've seen the Bigfoot monster truck timeline, featuring its appearances in Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment and Police Academy 6: City Under Siege, as well a misspelling of "Thailand" as "Thialand.")
The other visit was to the International Bowling Museum, which is located right across the street from Busch Stadium. You begin the tour with a history of the sport, from ancient Egypt to ancient Rome to the barbarians, who may have been the first culture to invent moose pelt bowling vests. Later, there's a scene depicted in the museum of King George bowling in his castle while two children watched from the sides of the alley; well, we call them "children" ... George called them "bumpers."
There are two fragments of bowling history I'd like to highlight. First is the concept of "pin boys." (Don't let the name fool you: the majority of these boys were older men.) Back in the days before automation, pin boys were perched behind the pins, ready to reset them after the ball knocked them down. They would press down on a lever with their foot to force these spikes through the floor, and then set the pins on the spikes. (To this day, bowling pins have holes in their bottoms.) Once the pins were set, they'd release the lever and get the hell out of the way...
... but sometimes, it was too late. Sarah and I met a woman at the museum whose grandfather was a pin boy. (No word if her grandmother was a ball girl ... that'd sort of be a Gatekeeper/Keymaster thing, no?). She said he still has the scars from his days in the lane, where the bowling ball would crack him in the leg or the arm.
God ... could you imagine a job where a series of heavy balls are flying at you while you work? And that your name isn't Paris Hilton?
I wonder if the pin boys were guys who couldn't find work as javelin catchers?
The second noteworthy historical highlight was the concept of national bowling teams sponsored by major beer distributors. I'm fascinated by this — that back in the day, a bowling team sponsored by Coors or Miller would come to your town to take on the local all-stars. I guess it was sort of like the Harlem Globetrotters of bowling, only instead of someone like Meadowlark Lemon you were watching someone who looked like your Uncle Herb.
If they had these traveling teams today, would the teams match up with the sponsors? Would the Bud and Miller teams be like the Yankees and Red Sox, gobbling up the most popular players with the highest contracts? Would the Milwaukee's Best team be like the L.A. Clippers of bowling? Would the Colt 45 and the Kirin teams match up racially with their consumer bases? Would the Corona team have a blood rivalry with the Dos Equis team? Would the Pabst Blue Ribbon team be like the Chicago Cubs of beer-league bowling — a sentimental favorite because of its consistent mix of charm and mediocrity? Would bowling purists constantly complain about the economic disparity between the national distributors and the microbreweries?
The International Bowling Museum also features Halls of Fame for men's and women's bowlers. The men's Hall of Fame is a solemn room filled with trophies and great lighting; the women's Hall of Fame looks like a display room in an upscale carpet store. It also has these weird photorealistic paintings of its inductees that resemble the kind of portraits they hang in a bank to posthumously honor its founder.
After a brief trip through the St. Louis Cardinals museum (which is included in the price of admission, and which prompted my girlfriend to ponder, "Boy, they really have a hard-on for this Stan guy here, don't they?"), you actually get to bowl a few frames in the bowels of the museum. Next to the alleys are a collection of famous balls, including that of Hall of Famer Earl Anthony. For a boy who grew up watching his father watch bowling on TV, putting my hand on Earl Anthony's balls brought me a little closer to heaven that day.
(By and by the way: there isn't an induction day at the Bowling Hall of Fame. One of the worker bees at the museum told me they just induct people here and there during the year, with little fanfare. Imagine that: a Hall of Fame whose induction ceremony doesn't induce mass hysteria and critical lambasting from former fans. Nice...)
Sarah and I paid a few extra bucks to bowl a full game. Her main objective was to get through 10 frames without breaking a nail. She still managed to kick my ass ... and I'm pretty sure I ended up breaking a nail.
The International Bowling Museum is a must-see when visiting that wonderful town with the inferiority complex towards Chicago.
But one suggestion for the good men and women charged with chronicling bowling’s rich history: what about the movies? How can you have a bowling museum without at least one picture of Michelle Pfeiffer throwing in Grease 2? Or Bill Murray with the crazy comb-over in Kingpin?
One word, International Bowling Museum: "Lebowski."
Famed lawyer Johnnie Cochran died this week, succumbing to the effects of a brain tumor.
The brain tumor has reportedly hired celebrity defense attorney Gerry Spence to clear its good name...
The National Hockey League is considering increasing the size of its nets, rounding the goalposts so the net would look like this: ( )
It's a natural fit for the NHL, as most things found in parentheses are afterthoughts...
When, exactly, are the Red Sox going to remove David Wells's feeding tube?
The most ridiculous story of the week is this stuff about players from the Carolina Panthers taking steroids. Not that it isn't a valid story — a Super Bowl runner-up with doctor-prescribed juice in the locker room is pretty frickin' embarrassing for the Good Ship Tagliabue. But besides a pair of bloated linemen, punter Todd Sauerbrun was fingered by CBS's "60 Minutes Wednesday" as having used a testosterone cream. (Too bad for Todd, it wasn't Dan Rather who "discovered" the medical documents.)
A punter on steroids? Isn't that like finding out your middle reliever is juicing?
I mean, do they even test punters? For anything?
I suppose this is a serious story. I mean, who wants their kid watching punter Todd Sauerbrun and then deciding he wants to be a punter?
And finally, Catherine Zeta-Jones has denied reports that she is ready to star in a movie remake of the TV primetime soap opera "Dallas." Speculation had Zeta-Jones linked with the film, mainly because her husband's bones are about 10 years away from turning into crude oil...
Greg Wyshynski is also a weekly columnist for SportsFan Magazine. His columns appear every Saturday on Sports Central. You can e-mail Greg at email@example.com.
April 1, 2005
Sports Q&A: NFL's Most Improved?
Luc from Baltimore asks, "What teams in the NFL will be the most improved next season?"
At the top of the list is a team that advanced to the second round of the NFC playoffs last year, the Minnesota Vikings. In that respect, the Vikes would need to reach the NFC championship to qualify as improved. But, in the wake of the Randy Moss blockbuster deal, Minnesota certainly looks like a team to challenge for the NFC crown. Only this time, Minnesota will do it with a defense that will be the team's catalyst, not their weakness.
In the Moss trade, the Vikings received linebacker Napoleon Harris from the Raiders, in addition to the Raiders' No. 7 pick in April's NFL draft. Via free agency, Minnesota acquired nose tackle Pat Williams from Buffalo, cornerback Fred Smoot from Washington, and free safety Darren Sharper from Green Bay. Also, the Vikings picked up middle linebacker Sam Cowart in a trade with the Jets. Harris and Cowart will upgrade a Viking linebacking corps that was mostly responsible for the Vikings' 21st rush defense ranking. Sharper and Smoot will immediately improve a defensive backfield, that, with the exception of CB Antoine Winfield, was deficient in the coverage and tackling departments.
Offensively, Minnesota certainly loses explosiveness at WR with the departure of Moss, but they did sign Travis Taylor, formerly of Baltimore, to team with the returning receiver group of Nate Burleson, Kelly Campbell, and Marcus Robinson. It makes for a dangerous, yet unspectacular, four wideout set. The loss of a little firepower in the passing game may actually be a blessing in disguise, as this may force the Vikings to rely on the running game more, a facet of their offense that was sometimes neglected last year. With Onterrio Smith, Michael Bennett, and Mwelde Moore, Minnesota has the speed and depth to run the ball.
With that No. 7 pick, the Vikings must decide whether to further upgrade the defense, or try to land a high-rated wide receiver. They also have the No. 18 pick, so they have leverage to trade up. Whatever they choose, the Vikings will be a better team. The remaining question is whether Mike Tice is the coach to guide the improved Vikings. Is a coach who's admitted to scalping Super Bowl tickets the man of character you want leading a team that usually has lacked discipline and heart? Probably not, but Minnesota seems to be a place where you're given second and third chances, whether you're a player or coach.
Kansas City: Two years removed from a 13-3 season, the Chiefs are aiming for the playoffs after 2004's 7-9 campaign. Wisely, the Chiefs made two acquisitions for their defense, signing safety Sammie Knight from Miami and linebacker Kendrell Bell, formerly of Pittsburgh. Beyond their physical skills, both will provide a leadership presence to a defense that sorely lacks attitude. The Chiefs can also further upgrade on defense with the No. 15 pick in the draft, possibly on a cornerback. Or, they could use that pick for a wide receiver to improve an aging receivers corps.
Cleveland: The Browns automatically improved with the hiring of Romeo Crennel as head coach. In addition, Cleveland traded for running back Reuben Droughns from Denver, and also acquired quarterback Trent Dilfer in a trade with Seattle. Droughns will team with Lee Suggs and form a formidable backfield. Dilfer will be the starter with the departure of Jeff Garcia and Kelly Holcomb, and will also serve as mentor to the quarterback Cleveland chooses to draft with the No. 3 pick. Whatever happens, the Browns will certainly improve on last years 4-12 record.
Oakland: If the Raiders could duplicate the quality of their offensive upgrades on the defensive side of the ball, they would be at the top of the list. Oakland's rushing offense can only go up with the addition of Lamont Jordan; they ranked last in the league in 2004. With Randy Moss at wide receiver, the Raiders arguably have the second-best group of wide outs in the game (with Jerry Porter, Ronald Curry, and Doug Gabriel), second only to the Colts. Defensively, Oakland has holes to fill, and this year's only major signing is defensive end Derrick Burgess, formerly of the Eagles. But with that offense, who needs defense?
Terry from Boulder, Colorado asks, "Is professional wrestling fake?"
It's good that you're asking me and not a professional wrestler. The last person to ask a wrestler that question, John Stossel of ABC's 20/20, had the smack laid down upon him by wrestler David "Dr. Death" Schultz. Schultz thought he was a big shot, until Stossel's colleagues, Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs, intervened and double-teamed Schultz by pile driving him through the 20/20 news desk.
Anyway, let's start with the issue of blood in wrestling. As I'm sure you've seen countless times, wrestlers often "bleed" from the forehead. Well, that "blood" is about as real as this imaginary french fry I'm dipping into the crimson mask of Ric Flair after a steel chair shot from Dusty Rhodes. It's ketchup. In the glory days of wrestling, generic ketchup served satisfactorily. As the popularity of wrestling grew, so did its budget, so wrestlers were able to switch to top-of-the-line ketchup, usually Heinz or Del Monte.
WWE president Vince McMahon famously likes to brag about the time in 1984 when he brokered a deal to have Del Monte sponsor the WWE's marquee event, WrestleMania, while simultaneously negotiating with Heinz to provide ketchup for concessions. The notoriously cheap McMahon kept all of this from the wrestlers, and they were forced to "bleed" the bargain brand ketchup, while fans enjoyed Heinz on their hot dogs and fries. This lead to the famous "taste test" comment made by former WWE Intercontinental Champion Rowdy Roddy Piper, as he cleaned up from a particularly "bloody" match with "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka, while noshing on a concession hot dog.
In the early '90s, those behind the scenes in wrestling noticed that the blood and gore in horror movies was reaching a new level of realism. Thus began the era of special effects in the wrestling business. Ketchup was out, and food coloring and corn syrup was in. If you check the financials of all the major ketchup makers around 1992, you'll notice a significant drop in ketchup sales around that time.
McMahon quickly jumped on the F/X idea, and soon hired Hollywood special effects master Tom Savini as a "makeup" artist. Savini was the whiz behind the incredibly realistic effects in such horror classics as Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Friday the 13th. Savini was mesmerized by the business, and soon suggested to McMahon the idea of creating special effects forehead scars to match the faux wounds. McMahon was all for it, and Savini applied his skills to the heads of several notorious "bleeders."
Take a look and the foreheads of certain old-school wrestlers, such as Rhodes, Abdullah the Butcher, and "Dirty" Dick Slater. Those craters in their foreheads? Makeup. Incredibly realistic makeup. McMahon rewarded Savini's talent and diligence with a spot in the 1992 Survivor Series, where Savini wrestled as a masked character called "The Frightener." He was quickly disposed of by the Undertaker with a tombstone pile driver.
Although the special effects methods remained prominent, some wrestlers employed new tricks to achieve more realism in the ring. Jake "The Snake" Roberts devised a method that quickly gained popularity among wrestlers who often "bled" in the ring. Before matches, Roberts would lightly abrade his forehead with "P" grade sandpaper, thereby softening the tissue there. When, in the context of a match, Roberts' opponent made physical contact with Roberts' forehead, the tissue would often be compromised, thus producing legitimate blood.
Other wrestlers took this method a few steps further. Some would ingest a handful of aspirin to "thin" their blood after applying the sandpaper. Still others would sandpaper, take aspirin, and stand on their heads for 30 minutes to an hour in order to "rush" blood to their heads, making a gusher more likely. These methods abruptly halted in 1995 when the New York State Athletic Commission overhauled its guidelines sanctioning wrestling, boxing, and reality fighting.
Now, as far as wrestlers being hit by steel chairs and being propelled through wooden tables, it can all be logically explained. If you've watched wrestling, you have no doubt seen a wrestler blasted over the head with a steel chair, and heard the resulting, loudly audible "pop" that follows.
First of all, the "steel" chair is actually comprised of a titanium-magnesium alloy that contains diabase, a mineral also found in the rocks and Ringing Rocks State Park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Any competent geologist will tell you that a metal chair containing diabase will behave in much the same way as the rocks at Ringing Rocks. Those rocks emit an audible ring when hit with a hammer. Only with the chair, the titanium reacts with the diabase to produce a "popping" sound as opposed to the "ringing" sound. And, with the lightweight metals forming the chair, wrestlers could really afford to take a legitimate swing at another wrestler's head without fear of injury.
Had any wrestler been thrown through a brand new wooden table, he would probably have suffered internal injuries and serious bruising. So, new tables were never used. These tables were made of very low-quality particle wood, and therefore had a life span of about four to five years. The older the table, the more usable it was to the wrestlers. After years of experimenting, it was determined that the tables aged and softened up by a few years on the flea market circuit worked the best. A weather-beaten table would snap easily when a 200+ pound wrestler had his body hurled into it, and the risk of injury was minimal.
So, Terry, the answer to your question is, yes, wrestling is fake. And, if you believed anything you just read, you, my friend, are a sucker. But have a happy April Fool's Day.
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