It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (Playoffs)

Can Roberto Luongo help Vancouver become the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since 1993?

Seriously, I just want to sing that famous Christmas song when it gets to this point in the Spring.  NHL Playoffs, NBA Playoffs, NFL Draft, and regular season Major League Baseball…it’s a sports fan’s dream.  Every night there’s something awesome on TV, and every night our wives and girlfriends are pissed off because with so much sports on, they have to wait to TiVo their episodes of Jersey Shore and Real Housewives of Whatever the Hell City They Picked This Time.

If you’d have told me that Tampa Bay would still be hanging around, I’d have told you that you were crazy.  Sweep Washington?  INSANE!  Following that sweep, I’d like to share my friend Ashley Kalish’s clever joke:

“Martin St. Louis walks into a bar and tells the bartender, ‘I’ll have an Ovechkin.’  The bartender looks at him cross eyed, and asks, ‘What’s an Ovechkin.’  St. Louis smiles and replies, ‘It’s a White Russian with no Cup.’” Badum-bum CHING!

Talk about excitement.  Four of the first round series went the full seven games (Vancouver-Chicago, Boston-Montreal, Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia-Buffalo).  Two others went at least six games, and in Round 2 the two Western Conference matchups went six and seven games.  We’ve had Vancouver go up 3-0 on the Chicago Blackhawks, only to let Chicago come back and tie it 3-3.  Then Vancouver musters up all its strength to hold off the defending Stanley Cup Champions in overtime of Game 7.

The San Jose Sharks nearly collapsed once again, but after Jeremy Roenick calls out Patrick Marleau, Marleau turns around and nets the game winner to send the Sharks into the Western Conference Finals.  Drama and intensity have shown up in droves this year.

One player I’m happy for is Nathan Horton.  The ex-Florida Panther hadn’t been in the playoffs his entire career, but after being traded to the Boston Bruins, he netted the game winner in Game 7 of the first round to send the Bruins on.  Way to show up when you get your chance Nate!  As for the Pittsburgh Penguins, I know they lost in seven games, but I can’t help but feel events would have been different had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin been in the lineup.  Kudos to them for getting along without their stars.  Tampa Bay has run away with their opportunity though, and now they face another scrappy team in Boston.  Truth be told, I see Boston advancing in this one.

Either way, it looks like we’ll have some new blood in the Stanley Cup Finals.  Vancouver hasn’t been to the big game since they lost in seven games to the New York Rangers in 1993-94, and the San Jose Sharks have never been there.  The Tampa Bay Lightning haven’t been since they won it all in 2003-04, and Boston hasn’t made it to the Finals since the 1989-90 season.  I expect each series to go at least six games, and after two exciting battles, I think Boston and Vancouver will duke it out for Lord Stanley’s Cup.  Can Vancouver be the first Canadian team since the 1992-93 Montreal Canadiens to win it all?  Don’t be surprised if it happens.

LeBron James steamrolls Rajon Rondo en route to a dunk

Moving from the frozen pond to the hardwood, the NBA Playoffs have been a bit more predictable than the NHL, but that hasn’t made it less fun.  In Round 1 Miami, Boston, Oklahoma City, and Chicago steamrolled their opponents.  The only real surprise was San Antonio falling to eighth seeded Memphis 4 games to 2 and Atlanta upsetting Orlando.  The last time a number eight seed beat out a top seed was 1994 and 1999 (don’t remind me about how New York upset Miami…that still hurts), but those were best-of-five series.  This was the first time since the NBA expanded the first round to a best-of-seven.

After the first round, the NBA playoffs became an all out war.  Miami and Boston clearly hate each other, with Game 1 nearly causing a fight after Paul Pierce received two technical fouls.  Miami ran all over Boston en-route to a 4-1 series win.  Nobody predicted the Heat would win so easily.  Atlanta made life rough for the Chicago Bulls, but the Bulls proved they’re the number one seed after all.  Miami vs. Chicago…it’s the matchup everyone wanted to see.  Can the young Bulls upset the new “Big Three?”

Out in the West, the Lakers absolutely fell apart.  I’ve never seen them so out of control.  To top it off, Coach Phil Jackson retired after the series ended.  Los Angeles might be in for a long recovery.  Sure they have Kobe Bryant, Lamar Odom, and Pau Gasol, but this team is headed in a different direction for sure.

Memphis’ Cinderella run finally came to an end, and now Oklahoma City has to face Dallas in the Western Conference Finals.  Could we see an NBA Finals rematch of 2006 (Miami vs. Dallas)?  While the drama and intensity took a bit longer to build up in the NBA (as opposed to the NHL), these conference finals matchups are “must see TV.”

I’ll be flipping back and forth from NHL, to NBA, and back again.  Pepper that with a little MLB and you’ve got yourself one happy sports fan.

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Manny Ramirez Retires

Manny Ramirez of the Tampa Bay Rays

It looks like the Tampa Bay Rays shiny new toy is a bit more tarnished than first thought. ESPN reported today that outfielder Manny Ramirez is retiring after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs for the second time in his career.  As per Major League Baseball rules, he would have faced a 100-game suspension.  Based on his age (38), and the fact that he’d be out for almost the entire season, he opted to call it a career.

It’s no surprise considering his previously prolific offensive numbers have dropped significantly over the past few years, and he was never considered much of a defensive player to start with.  Sitting out for this long would only make him worse, and Manny decided to shut it down for good.

Ramirez’s first suspension for P.E.D.s came in 2009 when he was still a Los Angeles Dodger.  The first penalty was only 50 games, and he came back to finish the season hitting .290 with 19 home runs.

Last season Ramirez played with both the Dodgers and the Chicago White Sox after being traded once his performance started to dip.  He hit only .261 in Chicago, and started the season in Tampa Bay hitting a measly .059 (1 hit in 17 at bats) with no home runs.  Ramirez signed a one year $2 million contract with Tampa Bay as a free agent during the offseason.

“I’m at ease,” Ramirez told ESPNdeportes.com via phone from his home in Miami. “God knows what’s best [for me]. I’m now an officially retired baseball player. I’ll be going away on a trip to Spain with my old man.”

According to ESPN, “Had Ramirez accepted his suspension, he would have become the first player to be suspended twice for a performance-enhancing drug violation since the program went into effect in 2005.”  Should Ramirez later seek reinstatement, he would have to fulfill the 100 game suspension and participate in Major League Baseball’s Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.

What will be interesting to watch is how voters deal with Manny Ramirez when he becomes eligible to enter the Hall of Fame.  A career .312 hitter with 555 home runs and 1,831 RBIs are certainly worthy of consideration, however, former slugger Rafael Palmeiro has Hall of Fame credentials and he’s been shunned by voters due to his use of P.E.D.s.  The thing is, Palmeiro was only caught once, not TWICE!

Over the course of his career Manny has been an absolute terror for other teams, and at one point he was considered the most dangerous hitter in all of baseball.  Five times in his career he hit 40 or more home runs, and he helped the Cleveland Indians get to the World Series in 1995 and 1997.  He became famous for helping the 2004 Boston Red Sox to win their first World Series since 1918, and then got them a second championship in 2007.  As his skills declined, he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago White Sox.

Manny became synonymous with “Manny Being Manny” which basically poked fun at his free spirited nature.  Ramirez was going to do what he wanted to do no matter what.  He was often absent minded, just trying to have fun, and did a lot of things that most people wouldn’t tolerate if he wasn’t such a phenomenal athlete.  If you watch the video you’ll see he often forgot how many outs there were in an inning, dove to catch a ball that was not meant to be cut off, over ran bases, booted balls in the outfield, and even hid in Boston’s Green Monster.  But hey, if you hit 555 home runs, a few mental blunders are allowed, right?

If all his home runs were P.E.D. enhanced, maybe he wasn’t the star we all thought he was.  Then again, he played in the “steroid era.”  While I think he was a great player, I don’t think he’s Hall of Fame worthy anymore.  He was fun to watch, absolutely dangerous at the plate, and he helped “fix” Boston’s curse.  Without a doubt he’ll be considered one of baseball’s greats, but like many players as of late, he has that P.E.D. pedigree that tarnishes a stellar career.  Good luck on your future endeavors Manny.  We’ll miss seeing you having fun as a ballplayer.

Manny Ramirez Through the Years

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Spring is Here, and That Means Baseball

Will Carl Crawford bring the Red Sox another title?

Let’s see, what clichés can we invoke with the start of baseball season?  The whole thing about kids’ first chance to see the fresh cut grass at the ballpark?  Hot dogs, beer, and spring weather?  Eternal optimism for even fans of the New York Mets?  The start of baseball season means different things to different people.  Some people consider it a terrible time because it means that football season is over, basketball and hockey are ending soon, and reruns will be on television for a few months.  Personally, I’m excited for the start of any season (I’m an anomaly, I know this, and I even watch golf and soccer).

For me baseball season is a chance to see a new ballpark that I haven’t been to (so far I’ve been to Florida, Milwaukee, Chicago (A), Chicago (N), Anaheim, New York (A), Boston, Toronto, San Francisco, and Tampa Bay).  Hopefully this season I’ll have the time to make the drive to Detroit, Cincinnati, or Minnesota.  Baseball is very much a social event for me.  Yes, I played as a kid, and I even spent a few summers at the spectacular Bucky Dent’s Baseball School to hone my skills.  I never became a Major Leaguer like I dreamed, but I’ve always loved the game, the ambiance, and the chance to kick back with some friends and have a few beers outdoors.

The 2011 season offers more promise than seasons past when everyone expected the Yankees, the Cardinals, the Red Sox, or the Dodgers to represent their respective leagues in the World Series.  Last season we had San Francisco and Texas, and I promise you nobody expected that.  The parity has been increasing as of late because since 2000 only two teams have won the World Series twice (New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox…of course).  Granted you’ve had some big names added to the two richest teams in baseball with Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez joining Boston, as well as Russell Martin joining New York, but some of the “little guys” have legitimate shots as well.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Toronto and Tampa Bay pushed the Red Sox and Yankees out of the playoffs this year.  Jose Bautista is a beast, Kyle Drabek has promise, and we know Aaron Hill is a solid player.  Tampa Bay lost some pop, but they added the aging Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez.  Those two should provide some balance, while David Price is still an elite pitcher.  They’ll sneak up on some people for sure.

Can Joe Mauer stay healthy enough to help the Twins?

Since I just did a quick overview of a few AL East teams, I guess I’ll make my way through the divisions noting which teams to watch out for.  I think in the AL Central the Chicago White Sox are excellent.  Paul Konerko is still hitting well, Adam Dunn provides extra power, and I really like shortstop Alexei Ramirez.  While they don’t have one awesome pitcher, they have five solid starters who can get the job done.  Their issue might be the bullpen.  The Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins will have something to say about Chicago claiming the division crown, but in the end, I think the “Pale Hose” have it.

Jumping to the AL West, I think despite losing Vladimir Guerrero to Baltimore, the Texas Rangers will prove last year was no fluke.  They still have good pitching, and excellent hitting.  Their AL Championship run last season gives them some extra confidence, and they added Adrian Beltre.  I just hope guys in the dugout remember not to touch Adrian’s head.  Oakland and the Los Angeles Angels will fight for the top spot, but I think Texas is the team to beat.

In the National League East, this one could get rough.  Yes, the Philadelphia Phillies have the top pitching rotation in all of baseball, hands down.  However, Jayson Werth left for Washington, Chase Utley has been having injury problems all spring, and Jimmy Rollins’ skill set has been steadily declining.  Why does that matter?  Because when you take those guys out of the equation it means Ryan Howard loses his protection.  Teams won’t be forced to pitch to him, and as a whole, the Phillies’ hitting will decline.  Granted with Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, and Joe Blanton everyone thinks Philadelphia can win every game 1-0.  It won’t work out that way, trust me.  This is real life, not a video game.  If the pitching isn’t spot on, the Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins will be waiting to jump over Philly.  Atlanta was a scrappy bunch last year, and even though Bobby Cox isn’t in the dugout anymore, his influence will be felt with Fredi Gonzalez taking over.  Chipper Jones still has some hit left in him, and if you haven’t watched Jayson Heyward you’re missing out.  That kid can mash!  Down south in Miami, the Florida Marlins have a young group of pitchers in Josh Johnson, Annibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco, Chris Volstad, and Javier Vazquez.  Vazquez and Johnson are the only guys anyone has heard of, but the rest of the staff is pretty darned good.  Keep an eye on hitters Gaby Sanchez and Mike Stanton.  If they both have good seasons, they might challenge for the Wild Card, and we know what happens when the Marlins win a Wild Card birth (think 1997 and 2003).

Mike Stanton of the Florida Marlins is someone to keep an eye on.

The NL Central will be another hotly contested division.  Cincinnati is the defending champions, but the St. Louis Cardinals have always been excellent.  The Milwaukee Brewers went out and acquired Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to bolster their previously terrible pitching rotation.  Add them to staff ace Yovoni Gallardo, plus the hitting of Ryan Braun, a contract year for Prince Fielder, and Corey Hart and you’ve got yourself a dangerous team.  This division will be the hardest to predict because I think injuries will make the difference.  Whoever can stay the healthiest wins out.

Finally in the NL West I still think the San Francisco Giants are the front runners, however Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez are spectacular talents.  Once Ubaldo Jimenez comes back from injury the Rockies will be a very tough out.  If San Francisco falters, I think Colorado will take the NL West.  That’s a big if though.  Having reviewed each division, here are my predictions:

AL CENTRAL

Jose Bautista, Toronto's sledgehammer

Toronto

New York Yankees

Boston

Tampa Bay

Baltimore

AL CENTRAL

Chicago White Sox

Minnesota

Detroit

Cleveland

Kansas City

AL WEST

Josh Hamilton - bona fide star!

Texas

Los Angeles Angels*

Oakland

Seattle

NL EAST

Philadelphia

Florida*

Atlanta

New York Mets

Washington

NL CENTRAL

Ryan Braun finally has pitching to match his hitting

Milwaukee

Cincinnati

St. Louis

Chicago Cubs

Houston

Pittsburgh

NL WEST

San Francisco

Colorado

Los Angeles Dodgers

San Diego

Arizona

*- Wild Card Winners

2011 World Series - Philadelphia vs. Texas

The 2011 World Series I want to see – Milwaukee vs. Chicago White Sox

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Return to Titletown: Green Bay Packers Win the Super Bowl

Clay Matthews holds Aaron Rodgers' title belt, while Rodgers displays the Lombardi Trophy after the Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV

Brett Favre quarterbacked the Green Bay Packers to his only Super Bowl title when they beat the New England Patriots 35-21 in Super Bowl XXXI.  He spent the rest of his career trying to recapture that moment.  There were a few close calls including a loss to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII and an agonizing overtime loss to the New York Giants in the 2007 NFC Championship.  However, following the ’07 season, the Packers eschewed Favre in favor of up and coming star quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers would show promise immediately despite Green Bay finishing with a 6-10 record in his first season.  In 2009, Rodgers would start in his first playoff game, only to suffer a first round overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals in heartbreaking fashion.

Fast forward to 2010.  Green Bay is considered a contender from the get go with offensive weapons like Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, Ryan Grant, and Donald Driver.  Unfortunately in Game 1, against the Philadelphia Eagles, Grant is lost for the season with a leg injury.  That trend would continue as they would lose 10 regulars, and 13 players on Injured Reserve overall.  Despite the uphill climb, Green Bay never lost a game by more than 4 points, and come playoff time were one of the hottest teams in the league winning their last two games to finish 10-6.

Rodgers would prove he’d moved into elite quarterback status as he picked apart Philadelphia, Atlanta, and finally the rival Chicago Bears (all on the road) en route to Dallas for Super Bowl XLV to face off against the Pittsburgh Steelers.  In truth, the game would become a microcosm of what Green Bay’s season had been all along: more injuries, electrifying plays, and a never-give-up attitude.  The gritty Packers scored first as Aaron Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson for a nice 29 yard score as Nelson shielded William Gay from being able to make a play on the ball.  On the next possession, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would make a mistake to a highly opportunistic Packer defense.  A floater intended for Mike Wallace is way off target, and intercepted by Nick Collins.  In one of the more memorable plays of the game, Collins ran the ball back 37 yards, and leaped into the end zone putting Green Bay up 14-0 by the end of the first quarter.

Nick Collins celebrates his 1st quarter interception return for a touchdown.

After a Steelers field goal, Green Bay got back to business.  As they marched down the field, Donald Driver’s ankle would be twisted awkwardly after a second quarter catch.  He would not return, and once again the injury bug makes life difficult for the Packers.  No matter, Aaron Rodgers threads the needle, hitting Greg Jennings with a 26 yard strike to put Green Bay up 21-3.  Before the game can get out of hand, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, Charles Woodson would break his collar bone diving to save a touchdown pass to Mike Wallace.  Five plays later, Ben Roethlisberger would take advantage of Woodson’s absence and hit Hines Ward for an eight-yard touchdown pass.  Pittsburgh was still down 21-10 going into the half.

As the third quarter began, Green Bay’s James Jones would drop a sure touchdown, forcing the Packers to punt.  The Steelers felt the need to get their running game going as Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall moved the ball well.  Mendenhall would make it 21-17 on a 9 yard run between the tackles, and now we have a ballgame.  With the lead cut to four, Green Bay’s defense took over.  Clay Matthews blasted Mendenhall, forcing a fumble, which would turn into another Packer touchdown after Rodgers found Jennings for the second time.

Greg Jennings scores one of his two touchdowns during Super Bowl XLV

Pittsburgh turned around, and went right back down the field as Roethlisberger gets Mike Wallace his first touchdown of the game.  Green Bay leads 28-25 after Pittsburgh uses a college option play to score the two point conversion.  Thanks to Mason Crosby’s leg, Green Bay scores again, but with a 31-25 lead, Pittsburgh had time to try to make a game winning drive, however, with 55 seconds left, the Packers stop Pittsburgh on 4th down.  Game over, and the Lombardi Trophy heads back to where it belongs.

Despite the number of dropped passes (6), the Packers played a stellar game as a team.  Aaron Rodgers deserved the MVP (24-30, 304 yards, 3 touchdowns, 111.5 QB rating), and while Greg Jennings caught two of those touchdowns, Jordy Nelson was the better receiver (9 catches, 140 yards, 1TD).

One of the important keys to Green Bay winning was keeping Troy Polamalu off the line of scrimmage.  By forcing him to cover receivers, he was limited to only 3 tackles and no interceptions.  Although Polamalu was named Defensive Player of the Year, he was outclassed by runner up Clay Matthews.  Matthews’ motor kept the Steelers under constant pressure, and his lone forced fumble was a big play when the Packers needed it most.

Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers

While it’s fair to say the Packers were always considered contenders, it’s doubtful anyone thought they’d make the run they did based on the hand they were dealt.  As more players landed on injured reserve (Grant, Finley, and Jenkins just to name a few), others had to fill in.  Rookie linebacker Frank Zombo was an unsung hero as he made sure the loss of Nick Barnett was negated.  John Kuhn, Brandon Jackson, and James Starks each made great plays throughout the season filling in for Ryan Grant.  Undrafted free agent Sam Sheilds played like a veteran, and Andrew Quarless, Tom Crabtree, and Donald Lee filled in admirably for Jermichael Finley.

This Packers team has a chance to rival New England’s previous run if they can keep their core parts together, however, with the impending NFL lockout, who knows when they’ll have the chance to defend their title.   In the meantime it gives Packers fans (one of the most passionate fan bases in the NFL) the chance to bask in the the Super Bowl XLV glory just a little bit longer.  Go Pack Go!

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A Real Cliff-hanger: Baseball’s Hot Stove

Zack Greinke heads to Milwaukee while Cliff Lee returns to Philadelphia

I’ll bet you didn’t see that one coming.  Cliff Lee left $30 million of the New York Yankees money on the table, and decided to return to the Philadelphia Phillies (where he pitched for half of a season in 2009) for five years and $120 million.  Even though he led the Texas Rangers to the World Series this past season, Lee said no to their offer of six years for $138 million (including deferred payments) with a $23 million option for a seventh.

“To get an opportunity to be part of this team and this pitching rotation is going to be something historic, I believe,” Lee said during his introductory press conference.

That’s a bit of an understatement.  This is the best rotation I’ve seen since the Atlanta Braves had Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery.  Look at what the Phillies are working with:  Cliff Lee (2008 AL Cy Young Award), Roy Halladay (2003 AL Cy Young Award, 2010 NL Cy Young Award), Roy Oswalt (Three time All-Star), Cole Hamels (2008 World Series MVP), and Joe Blanton.  Yikes.  Granted Philadelphia lost Jayson Werth when he signed with Washington for an absurd seven years and $126 million, but they still have All-Stars at nearly every position.  The Lee signing makes them automatic favorites to represent the National League in the World Series.

There is speculation about why Lee chose the Phillies over the Yankees and Rangers.  Reports say that Lee’s wife, Kristen, didn’t like the heat or the traffic in Texas, and she was spit on by a Yankees fan during the ALCS last year because her husband was playing for the other team.  I mean, it’s not like Philadelphia has nicer fans.  Heck, one Phillies fan even threw up on an 11-year-old.  The Yankees and Phillies are both known for having some of the nastiest fans in sports, but apparently the Lee family felt most comfortable in the City of Brotherly Love.

Apparently Cliff Lee was just happier in Philadelphia

“When you hit a certain point, enough’s (money) enough. It’s just a matter of where you’re comfortable, where you’re happy, where your family’s the most comfortable, what team gives you the best chance to win. At this point, it’s about trying to win championships. That’s really the No. 1 thing for me. I think this team gives me the best chance to do that. That’s really it,” Lee said.

I’m pretty sure Alex Rodriguez once said it was about winning championships after he suckered the Texas Rangers into signing him to a ludicrous 10-year deal worth $252 million.  He then got Texas to trade him to New York, and the Rangers were still on the hook for another $67 million of his contract.

Are the Phillies becoming the Yankees of the National League?  That’s debatable because the Yankees usually blatantly overpay stars to come play for them.  Philadelphia has built most of its team the right way, and only shelled out a ton of cash for a few major free agents.  The rest of the players, despite their very high incomes, started out as Phillies from the get go.  Philadelphia merely paid them to stay with the organization, whereas the Yankees try to use everyone else as their farm clubs.

Small Market, Big Fish

After the Lee signing, the next biggest free agent pitcher available was Carl Pavano, a 34-year-old right hander with a career ERA of 4.34.  Nobody needed pitching worse than the Milwaukee Brewers whose 4.65 team ERA was the second worst in the National League last season, and signing aging pitchers with average ERAs has bitten them twice in the recent past (Jeff Suppan and Randy Wolf).  That makes Pavano a moot point for Milwaukee.

The Kansas City Royals were in a tough position as star pitcher, and former AL Cy Young Award winner, Zack Greinke grew increasingly disenchanted with the team.  After finally asking for a trade this winter, the Royals began seeking suitors.  However, their asking price was extremely high, and Royals General Manager Dayton Moore didn’t want to trade with an American League team.  That left only two teams in contention:  Washington and Milwaukee.  However Washington broke the bank in singing former Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth as mentioned above, and Milwaukee offered SS Alcides Escobar, P Jeremy Jeffress, outfielder Lorenzo Cain, and minor league pitcher Jake Odorizzi.  Kansas City threw in SS Yuniesky Betancourt, and now the Brewers look to be in contention for the playoffs for the first time since 2008 (and second time since 1982).

Zack Greinke makes the Brewers instant contenders

“The main reason I wanted to get out, I mean, preferred to get out of Kansas City is I wanted to be on a team that was trying to win this year because as a pitcher you don’t really know how long your career is going to be,” Greinke said.

The key words are “Trying to win this year.”  The Brewers literally bet the farm on this one as they’ve depleted most of their future talent in an effort to make a run while they still have 1B Prince Fielder and 2B Rickie Weeks on the roster.  Fielder becomes a free agent next year, and Milwaukee knows his asking price will be too high for the small market club to offer.  This is the downside of being a small market club.  When you have a chance to win, it’s fleeting.  Either way, it’s nice to see a team that usually is just barely competitive actually throw its hat in the ring as a contender.

Adding Greinke, plus Milwaukee’s earlier trade for Toronto’s Shaun Marcum gives them a rotation that could be considered third best in the National League behind the Phillies and Giants.  Greinke, Marcum, Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf, and Chris Narveson is the best rotation that the Brew Crew have had since CC Sabathia, Ben Sheets, Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush, and Manny Parra.  That isn’t saying much because Bush, Suppan, and Parra were all mediocre at best.  So in reality, this is the best rotation Milwaukee has had in a long time, maybe since the early 90s.

With the hitting of Fielder, Weeks, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart, and Casey McGehee, the revamped rotation should have no problem with run support.  It would be nice to see the Brewers and Phillies/Giants face off in the NLCS this year.  The Giants ended a string of 56 years without a World Series title.  The Milwaukee Brewers have never won one since their first season in 1970.  Maybe this year’s championship will have more to do with beer than champagne.

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So Long Urban, Thanks For the Memories

Urban Meyer holds the National Championship trophy in 2006

Six seasons, two BCS National Championships.  Urban Meyer did at the University of Florida what very few coaches have been able to do.  He was a winner right out of the gate, and he’s won at every level that he’s coached.  Had he not retired so early due to ongoing health issues and family obligations, who knows where he would sit among the pantheon of great coaches.

Joe Paterno may soon be the all time wins leader in Division 1 NCAA football history, but Meyer has the same number of National Championships already.  In fact, had Paterno retired at age 46, he and Meyer would have had nearly identical win percentages 103-23 (.817).  Meyer took what Steve Spurrier built, and he made it better.  Doing what Coach Meyer has done takes a tremendous amount of effort.  Although many have speculated his health issues aren’t such a big deal (Meyer has a recurring burning sensation in his chest from esophageal spasms  that doctors say could cause cardiovascular issues if he continues coaching), it’s very possible that the amount of stress he puts himself through has finally caught up with him.  Meyer works very hard, almost tirelessly.  His daughters are playing college sports now, and family obviously means a lot to him.

I don’t think it’s possible to pinpoint one specific reason for Urban Meyer stepping down from one of the top coaching positions in the country.  I think there are many reasons, and if they’re his reasons, who am I to chastise him?  As a University of Florida alumnus, all I can do is say thank you.  You came to my school, you gave the university everything you had for every minute you were employed there, and if you feel you can’t do the job anymore then you are doing the right thing in retiring.

People burn out all the time, but when it’s a high profile position like college football coach, people start to question.  Sports is funny in that fans get attached to players and coaches.  It’s as though now that they work for your favorite school, they owe you the wins, the effort, the blood, sweat, and tears.  They really don’t though.  They owe the school because that’s who pays them. This past season has been tough on Coach Meyer.  A 7-5 season with a trip to the Outback Bowl is hardly quality, although there are some schools out there that wish they performed that well.  Urban Meyer knows what he expects from himself, his staff, and his team.  Now when he looks at all three, he sees it just isn’t there anymore.  That’s how you know it’s time to step away.  It doesn’t matter if you’re 35, 45, or 85 years old.  Think of Dick Vermeil.  He was the Head Coach of the Philadelphia Eagles from 1976-1982.  The grind of coaching wore him out, and he retired early.  He took fifteen years off of football before he came back to coach the St. Louis Rams, and then he won the Super Bowl in 1999.

The best coach in College Football today

Although I’m saddened at the prospect of what lies ahead due to the loss of a great coach, I still look back with five years of great memories.  The next head coach of the University of Florida has large shoes to fill.  In Coach Meyer’s farewell press conference he said, “At the end of the day, I’m very convinced that you’re going to be judged on how you are as a husband and as a father and not on how many bowl games we won.”  I have to agree with him.  If you look at your own life, what is most important to you?  Money, fame, success….or family?  I would hope you’ve chosen the fourth option.

So as he prepares for his last game, the Outback Bowl on January 1st, I will look at the Urban Meyer era as a success, something to emulate by other coaches, and I’m proud to say that he was a Florida Gator.  In my eyes, Coach Meyer is one of the greatest football coaches in college history.  We have a song we sing before the fourth quarter of every Gators game called “We Are the Boys.”  One line in the song states, “In all kinds of weather, we all stick together” because once you’re a Gator, you’re always a Gator.  Good luck on the next chapter of your life, and best wishes.  Go Gators.

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World Cup 2022: Qatar…Seriously?!?!

Landon Donovan scores against Algeria during the 2010 FIFA World Cup

…and the winner is…Qatar?  Huh?  You mean that tiny country in the Middle East that has less people than the city of Chicago, IL (Qatar’s total population is under 1.5 million people)?  I can understand Russia as a choice for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.  It’s massive, they love soccer, and it’s a country that has never hosted the tournament.  However, selecting Qatar over the United States for 2022 is absurd.

The United States hosted the World Cup in 1994.  In fact it was one of the most successful tournaments ever held, and it generated the most money out of any of the previous World Cups.  I can understand if FIFA felt that 2022 was too close to 1994, however, Germany hosted it in 1974 and 2006.  Mexico hosted it in 1970 and 1986.  Italy hosted it in 1934 and again in 1990.  Many countries have hosted World Cups twice, and England screwed itself over when the BBC launched an investigation into potential FIFA corruption.  Otherwise they might have been chosen over Russia.

Qatar (which some people pronounce Kuh-Tar like “guitar” while others say Kay-ter like “cater”) actually has the world’s second highest per-capita income, and most of its money comes from oil and gas reserves.  The average summer heat reaches 106 degrees, and FIFA chose them to host the tournament despite knowing there are potential health risks involved.  So with all of that out of the way, the question remains.  Why?

Two reasons.  #1 is money.  The middle east has a lot of money, and obviously Qatar has a huge chunk of it.  #2 is that FIFA likes to stress peace and equality through sport.  That means bringing the tournament to new places, and the Middle East is a region that has not yet hosted a World Cup before.  Qatar has offered to put $50 billion (no that wasn’t a typo, I said billion on purpose) into new  infrastructure.  They are also willing to put forth another $4 billion to upgrade their current soccer stadiums.

According to The New Republic, “Acknowledging that the stadiums will be of little use after the tournament ends, Qatar has pledged to dismantle those structures and use the materials to build stadia in other developing countries.”  I’m pretty sure that is what finally won FIFA over.  It’s using soccer to help others in need, and that’s been FIFA’s mantra for a long time.

Former U.S. national team forward Eric Wynalda said, “Basically, oil and natural gas won today. This was not about merit, this was about money.”  It should be interesting to see what happens when the country’s population more than doubles due to event attendance.

Where's Qatar? There it is!

I think what FIFA is trying to do is admirable, however, I’m skeptical over how this will all play out.  I think FIFA is better off holding the World Cup in countries with obvious tourism interests.  Countries like the United States, Russia, England, Germany, Brazil, etc. all are excellent travel destinations.  People who are not necessarily into soccer might still go to check out the country as well as take in the event.  I can’t imagine anyone on the other side of the world who is willing to travel to Qatar to watch the World Cup in 106 degree heat.  You’d have to be an absolute soccer fanatic to spend that kind of money to watch soccer in those conditions.  To top it off, Qatar has restrictive alcohol consumption laws.  Well that just took all the fun out of it, didn’t it?  As I write this I am 30 years old.  The next potential World Cup hosting year for the United States would be 2026, when I will be 46 years old.

“I think it was the wrong decision,” said President Barack Obama.  Funny.  He actually said something that the American public actually agrees with.

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What’s Wrong with You Randy?

Randy Moss played only 4 games in his return to Minnesota. He was released and later picked up by Tennessee.

I don’t understand Randy Moss.  A few days ago, the Minnesota Vikings released him after his second tour of duty with the team.  He didn’t even last a month.  I don’t know if it’s a wide receiver thing, an attention thing, or what, but Randy Moss is making himself look worse than Terrell Owens.  T.O. has been pretty quiet in Cincinnati, and surprisingly he and Chad Johnson/Ochocinco/Whatever he wants to call himself have stuck to just getting the job done rather than make a scene every week.  Then again, the Bengals are in last place, so nobody is paying attention anyway.

Owens has been on the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills, and now the Bengals.   Moss started his career in Minnesota, was traded to Oakland, then became a New England Patriot, was traded back to the Vikings, only to be released and subsequently picked up off of waivers by the Tennessee Titans.  Both of them run their mouths non-stop, and both of them have burned several bridges throughout their NFL careers.  However, while Owens always seems to be joking, and you could even assume that some of what he says gets taken the wrong way, Randy Moss is just an unhappy idiot.  Owens plays hard even if he’s selfish; Moss just does what he wants when he wants.  The last straw in Minnesota (although it could have been the first straw as well) came in the form of Moss’ post game comments after a loss to New England.  Here are a few excerpts from him:

“I’m going to go ahead and start this thing off. I’m going to go ahead and say this. I think I said something a couple weeks ago. Look, I got fined $25,000 for not speaking to you all. Me personally, I really don’t care. But at the same time, I do answer questions throughout the week. For the league to fine me $25,000, I’m not going to answer any more questions for the rest of this year. If it’s going to be an interview, I’m going to conduct. So I’ll answer my own questions. I’ll ask myself the questions, then give y’all the answers. So from here on out, I’m not answering any more questions for the rest of this season. Enough said of that, now we’ll get to the game.”

What?  Hold on a minute.  So you were fined for not speaking to the media as you’re instructed to by league rules, and now because you’re forced to speak to the media or face more fines, you’ve decided you will ask yourself the questions?  I don’t think that’s how it works.  Every job has rules, and you have to follow them.  For you, it’s speaking to the media.  For anyone else it might be a dress code issue.  Maybe one guy working for Pepsi doesn’t like to wear ties, but since he has to wear a tie he’s decided to wear one with a Coca-Cola logo on it just to show everyone who is boss.  You think he’ll last?  Doubt it.  You’re not the boss Randy, you’re a good player, but you’re not the boss.

Randy Moss keeps getting shipped from one team to another despite his talent

“Like I said, it’s been an emotional roller coaster all week. Tried to prepare, tried to talk to the players and coaches about how this game was going to be played, couple tendencies here and a couple tendencies here. The bad part about it, is you have six days to prepare for a team, and on the seventh day, that Sunday, meaning today, I guess they come over and say, ‘Dag Moss, I guess you was right about a couple plays and a couple schemes they were going to run.’ And it hurts as a player, that you put a lot of hard work in during the week, and at the end of the week, Sunday, when you get on the field, that’s when they acknowledge about the hard work that you put in throughout the week. That’s actually a disappointment.”

I can see what Moss was trying to do.  He’s playing against his old team, and he wants to help his team win by adding to the preparation/scouting.  At the same time, doesn’t each team scout one another fairly thoroughly before each game?  If the Vikings were way off on that, then that’s a coaching problem.  Still, how can you go and out your coaches like that?  Again he’s trying to make himself seem more important than he is, and he’s complaining that he wasn’t used the way he wants to be.

“I can’t really say enough about this team and this organization. I met with Mrs. Kraft before the game because I really didn’t have a chance to talk to her before I left. I thanked Mrs. Kraft for letting me have the opportunity to be a part of something special. The New England Patriots have always been a special organization and I’ve always watched from afar.”

Moss is praising his old team when he should be talking about his new team.  You can see in his comments that he’s unhappy to be back in Minnesota.  Unhappy Randy Moss usually means bad things are going to happen, and they did.  He’s a man who deals with things in such a childish manner.  He took plays off in his first time in Minnesota and his stint in Oakland.  He played better out of “respect” while in New England.  However, his immaturity eventually got him thrown out of there anyway.  If T.O. learned how to mature, albeit late, why can’t Randy Moss?

On a second note, pay attention to the coaching situation in Minnesota.  If Brad Childress acted alone on releasing Moss, and he’s having as much trouble in the locker room as it seems, I’ll bet he’s out of a job before the season ends.

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The New Kings of Baseball: the San Francisco Giants

The San Francisco Giants celebrate winning the 2010 World Series against the Texas Rangers

Congratulations San Francisco, the new Major League Baseball World Champions.  I almost had it right!  San Francisco won the series 4-1, and I was only off by a game.  In fact, I’m amazed that the Giants dominated the series so easily.  The great hitters on Texas‘ roster never seemed to get their timing down against the amazing pitching staff of San Francisco.  In fact, the Rangers hit a measly .190 throughout the series, and after hitting .359 during the regular season, star slugger Josh Hamilton went only 2-for-20.  It’s amazing to think that this group of players did something that Hall of Famer Willie Mays accomplished and star Barry Bonds never could, win the big one.

My best friend is on his honeymoon visiting Napa Valley, and he says the city is going absolutely crazy.  Nothing beats the taste of your first championship, and watching the Giants’ parade on trolley cars should be a lot of fun.  According to ESPN.com, “This buried a lot of bones — ’62, ’89, 2002,” Giants general manager Brian Sabean said, ticking off losing Series appearances. “This group deserved it, faithful from the beginning. We’re proud and humbled by the achievement.”

Watching the battle between Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum, I really thought Texas had a shot to extend the series.  Ironically, the game winning RBI came off the bat of Edgar RenteriaDoes that sound familiar?  Granted, it wasn’t in the same dramatic fashion, and his two out, three run home run in the seventh inning was followed up by a shot from Texas Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz shortly thereafter.  However, it was the deciding play of Game 5.  Renteria was named World Series MVP, and he became the fourth player in Major League Baseball history to be the MVP of a World Series while making the final out of another.

Brian Wilson shut down Texas in a perfect top of the ninth, turned his back to the plate, and did his X that he always does after each save.  Wilson picked apart the Rangers just like he had everyone else during these playoffs, striking out Cruz, who had homered just a few innings before, for the final out.  Game, set, match, and party at Alcatraz.

Edgar Renteria holds his MVP trophy, while Aubrey Huff holds the World Series trophy.

I think one of the endearing parts about these Giants are that most of the players were brought up through the team’s farm system.  Young pitchers Lincecum, Bumgarner, Wilson, Cain (who didn’t give up a single earned run during the playoffs), and rookie catcher Buster Posey have never worn any other logo except for the SF they have on their caps right now.  In this age when most teams are built through trades and free agency, these Giants are almost a throwback to “better times.”  Naturally, better is subjective depending on whether or not you prefer teams to try to “buy” a championship.

In 1951 the then-New York Giants’ Bobby Thompson hit the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”  Radio broadcaster Russ Hodges screamed repeatedly into his microphone, “The Giants win the pennant!  The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”  Now it’s a different time and a different city, but that doesn’t make this any less sweet.  A team that didn’t even qualify for the playoffs until the last possible day of the regular season walks over Atlanta in the NLDS, scrapes by the Phillies in the NLCS, and completely shuts down Texas in the Fall Classic.  It is indeed a Giant achievement.

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San Francisco Giants vs. Texas Rangers – An Underdog Lover’s World Series Matchup

2010 World Series

A lot of baseball fans will see the 2010 World Series as improbable.  All I can think, is “Thank God!”  Let’s be honest, did you really want to see a rematch between the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies?  I won’t lie, I’m a little biased against Northeastern teams (New York, Philadelphia, Boston, etc.), but instead of glitz and glamor, this Fall Classic will have heart, character, and grit.  Those qualities are what really matter to true sports lovers everywhere.  I think most fans enjoy seeing the teams who spend the most money come up empty handed because, let’s face it, cheering for the New York Yankees is the equivalent of going to a casino in Las Vegas and pulling for the House to win.  Who does that?

The Texas Rangers will represent the American League in the World Series for the first time in franchise history.  In 1961 the Washington Senators were born, and for ten years they did very little, thus causing them to move.  Since 1972 the Rangers have been based in Arlington, Texas, and despite having great players such as Nolan Ryan, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Kevin Brown, Alex Rodriguez, and Rafael Palmeiro put on the Rangers colors, they hardly sniffed success until the mid-1990s.  It’s nice to see some new blood in the Fall Classic, and now there are only two teams who have never experienced this honor (the Seattle Mariners and the Washington Nationals).

Earlier this season, Rangers manager Ron Washington admitted to having used cocaine.  Add that to star outfielder Josh Hamilton having battled drugs and alcohol throughout his career and you have two feel-good comeback stories to keep an eye on.  In fact, out of respect for Hamilton, his teammates celebrated their American League Championship Series win over New York by spraying each other with ginger ale as opposed to using champagne or beer.  That speaks volumes to what he means to this closely knit team.  It’s a squad of guys who just want to get it done, and man can they hit.

Texas Rangers OF Josh Hamilton is doused with ginger ale as he celebrates with teammates after they won their ALCS playoff series against the Yankees in Arlington

Vladimir Guerrero was once considered to be losing a step, but he’s come out slugging with a .300 batting average and 29 home runs.  Granted he’s fallen off the horse during the playoffs thus far, but he’s still one of the best sluggers in the game.  Pair him up with Michael Young, Hamilton, and Nelson Cruz, and the Rangers can hit with anyone in the Big Leagues.  They’re going to need it because after ace Cliff Lee, Texas isn’t as stacked with pitchers as San Francisco is.

The San Francisco Giants make their first appearance in the World Series since 2002, when they were knocked out by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  They also appeared in 1989, when an earthquake postponed Game 3.  San Francisco lost that series 4-0 to their Bay Area cross-town rivals, the Oakland Athletics.  In fact, the Giants haven’t won a World Series since 1954, back when they played at the Polo Grounds in New York.  The city of San Francisco hasn’t known a champion in any sport except for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.  The Golden State Warriors are perennial losers, and the nearby San Jose Sharks win in the regular season, only to regularly fall apart during the playoffs.

Keep an eye on wild-man pitcher Brian Wilson.  He’s inspired the Giants unofficial slogan, “Fear the Beard” in which fans wear fake beards to AT&T Park.  Wilson’s personality makes him baseball’s closest real life version of Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn from the movie Major League with the one major difference is that Wilson is a closer.  If you look at the starting pitching of the Giants it’s hard not to be in awe.  Pitching is what got them past each round of the playoffs, and it’s not hard to see why.  Two-time NL Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum is downright nasty.  Barry Zito is getting up there in age, but he still has one of the best curveballs in the game.  Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez have been getting the job done, and youngster Madison Bumgarner has shown he will have a bright future.

San Francisco’s band of cast-offs have been heroes throughout the playoffs.  Cody Ross was brought over in a late season trade from the Florida Marlins, and he’s been pounding the ball ever since (batted .350 with 3 home runs during the NLCS).  Journeyman Aubrey Huff has made his presence felt, and former 1997 World Series hero Edgar Renteria looks to provide playoff experience.  The Giants aren’t the slugging bunch that the Rangers are, but these two teams each have their advantages and disadvantages.  You know Barry Bonds is wishing he were still playing right now, especially considering he never “officially” retired.  It’s a sweet redemption to see the Orange & Black succeed without performance enhancing drugs.

San Francisco Giants RP Brian Wilson and C Buster Posey celebrate their NLCS clinching victory over Philadelphia.

When the dust settles, there can only be one World Series Champion, and the old saying goes that pitching wins championships.  I’m not one for predictions, but if I were to guess, I would say the San Francisco Giants will outpitch Texas to win 4-2.  Cliff Lee will win both his starts for Texas, but after that, the Rangers have nobody else to match up with San Francisco on the mound.

Two scrappy teams, two underdogs, and twice the fun.  It’s parity at its best.  Since 1995 either the Yankees or Red Sox have been in the playoffs (usually both, and a lot of that has to do with the introduction of the Wild Card spot).  More often than not, it seems one of them makes it to the World Series.  The Phillies have been one of the NL’s best teams since 2007, and the just won the World Series last year.  That means this World Series is like unwrapping a brand new gift as opposed to playing with your old toys again.  If you’re not a die hard fan of either squad, just kick back, relax, and enjoy some real playoff baseball with a fresh new look.  Hey, at least you don’t have to watch those darn Yankees again, right?

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