Monday, September 29, 2008

I Hate Baseball

Today is one of those days that I wish it was socially acceptable for a grown man to cry in public at the drop of a hat like those two guys in the double-stroller in the Taco Bell commercial.

While the word "collapse" seems to be the word-o-the-day for sports writers and talk radio folks when talking about the Mets, I hardly think that that is fair. After all, the Mets were 13-12 in September. By comparison, the Brewers (who are the heroic September-survivors) went 10-16. Yes, the Mets went .500 for the final month and that wasn't enough to get it done, but keep in mind that they were out of the Divisional race by 7.5 games two months ago and out of Wild Card by four games three weeks ago and roared back into both races, surviving until the last day.

That said, they should never have been in either race and should have been able to run away with the division in June, thus making September irrelevant and that is why Omar Minaya absolutely needs to be fired. Of course if you have been paying attention, you saw that he apparently was just given an extension.

Minaya takes flak from some fans for supposedly being too Latin-player-centric in his personnel moves. Personally, I think this is ridiculous. His flaw is that he is too over-the-hill-player-centric and expects big name moves to solve all of the small problems. Anyone can sign big names to huge-dollar contracts. A good general manager find diamonds in the rough, and Minaya doesn't. Many of the star players on the team had good years, in fact David Wright and Jose Reyes had arguably their best years, but there were so many glaring holes that they simply couldn't overcome them.

The team won 89 games despite some huge, obvious problems that were clearly evident in last year's team and not fixed in the offseason or at the trade-deadlines. There was no doubt that the bullpen was a problem last year, yet Minaya made no significant move to fix it. It is unfair to pin the whole season on the bullpen, but look at it statistically: this season there were 654 blown saves in 1837 save opportunities in the Majors - so saves are blown 36% of the time. Among playoff teams (including the Twins and White Sox since they are both still alive), they blew 195 out of 600 opportunities, 33%. Mets relievers blew 31 saves in 72 opportunities - an average of 43%! They blew one save almost every five games. Essentially, they lost one game that they had a lead in late per week. By comparison, the Phillies blew 16 of 66 chances, 24%. Had the Mets' bullpen completed this task at the League average, they would have won the East by three games. At their divisional rivals Phillies' average, they would have won the division by 12 games, won 103 games, and had the best record in Baseball.

But we all knew the bullpen stunk. This isn't news. So the Mets bullpen was far worse than the league average, let alone a playoff team's average. The offense was among the league's best, so that should have cancelled it out. Or were they? Of the players who usually started for the Mets (Ryan Church, Carlos Beltran, David Wright, Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado), all had good seasons. They made up for 73% of the home runs hit and 63% of the RBI by Mets this season. They also made up about the same percentage of the team's payroll. By no means am I suggesting that any of these five should be dealt, but the point is that nearly any G.M. with this payroll could have found these types of players. The problem I have with Minaya is that the role-players all stink.

The team was decimated by injuries during the course of the season. Four starting left-fielders were injured for the remainder of the year in succession (Moises Alou, Angel Pagan, Trot Nixon and Fernando Tatis). Church was injured and missed nearly half of the year as well. But Minaya did hardly anything to replace these players and in the end, the Mets bench consisted of players like Endy Chavez (.267), Robinson Cancel (.245), Argenis Reyes (.218), and Marlon Anderson (.210). Most of the players who were injured for significant time (Alou, Orlando Hernandez, Damion Easley, Tatis, Nixon, Pedro Martinez, Billy Wagner and Anderson) are in the waning years of their careers and injuries like these could easily have been foreseen.

In the offseason, Minaya traded for Johan Santana to fix the starting rotation. This was a good fix for a huge concern for 2007, but anyone would have made the same move. Minaya also planned on using Martinez and Hernandez despite that it was clear neither would be any use in 2008. No players were brought in to fix the hemorrhaging bullpen and it proved disastrous. Ryan Church replaced Shawn Green and was only a moderate improvement (thanks largely to his injury) and Brian Schneider was brought in to replace Paul Loduca and was hardly an improvement. Midseason, the manager was fired and this proved to be a key move that catapulted the team into the playoff race that they'd eventually lose by a nose. However, they should have already won that race by that time and Minaya is to blame.

My only solace in this whole situation is these three things:
1) Dodger fans and the L.A. media seem to whole-heartedly believe that this is their year despite not apparently realizing that their "amazing, Manny Ramirez-fueled August/September run" is the seventh best record among the eight* playoff teams in that time. They are actually worse than the Brewers who overcame a massive collapse to survive, and the Mets who supposedly blew it down the stretch! Whoops.
2) While CC Sabathia's 2 wins, 26 K's and 1.88 ERA over the last two weeks ultimately doomed the Mets, they helped my fantasy team win the league.
3) My Giants won the Super Bowl, so for at least a decade more, I am good to go.

*Winning percentages in August and September: Red Sox .641, Rays .618, Cubs .615, Phillies .611, Angels .593, Brewers .569, Dodgers .556, White Sox/Twins .519; Mets .574

Friday, September 26, 2008

Being A Recovering Alcoholic And A Baseball Fan Couldn't Be Easy

On Wednesday, I wrote about how the Mets game from Tuesday night felt like one of those turning point games that might be the driving force that pushes the team. I don't think this team is winning a World Series unless the bullpen starts to channel John Franco (that is to say, loading the bases is up a bases-clearing triple is not). But it did look like they would at least overcome the September 2007 demons and get back into the playoffs.

Then on Wednesday night they came out and blew a four run lead and left the winning run on third base after he hit a leadoff triple in the ninth. In fact, they had men on third with no outs in each of the last three innings. Ouch. And of course the Brewers won on a walk-off homer to tie up the Wild Card race. Ouch! To say the least, I did not want to acknowledge that any of this happened, let alone write about sports yesterday, so I took a day to regroup.

And the funny thing is that now that the Mets and Brewers have both played one more game, and each won theirs in spectacular fashion, it is painfully clear that all this magic and heroics really do have nothing to do with what happens the next day. Sure they make folks feel more confident, and confidence is crucial, but so it hitting and pitching and fielding.

The Brewers had a come-from-behind win and won it on a walk-off grand slam in the 10th. Their second walk-off homer in two games. You don't think they feel like a team of destiny? The Mets had their amazing win on Tuesday and then last night had Ryan Church score on the strangest play at the plate in history to complete a three-run comeback. As a rainstorm that had already causes a game in DC to be cancelled water-logged Shea Stadium, they played on into the 9th when Carlos Beltran hit a game-winning shot off the glove of the first baseman that stopped dead in the soaked grass that the right fielder couldn't get to before the winning run scored. They earned a split with the best team in the League. You think they aren't feeling good about themselves? Does Destiny have a favorite?

This is all kinda like how fans pray for their teams, or athletes pray for themselves before events - like God is only listening to one side of the argument. Granted, when it is Boston College playing Miami, God clearly has a side. And He apparently does not like Arod either so whatever team he is on, God's on the other team. (greatest player ever perhaps...not a sniff of a World Series title).

There is only one way that the idea of Destiny intervening can be upheld this season. And that is that the Mets and Brewers both make the playoffs, meaning the Mets have to make up a game on Philly in the last three days. After all, the Rays are the AL East winners, the Yankees are playing golf, and the Twins are about to complete a miracle comeback to win the Central despite having traded away Johan Santana among others in the off season. So amazing things happen. Of course, God doesn't watch American League baseball, so you can't blame it on Him.

The funny thing in all of this is that as a fan, I have no idea what to do with myself from day to day. Wednesday night I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach and yesterday I couldn't even watch ESPN because I hated seeing the ticker show that the Wild Card was tied. Now the Mets pick up one more win, and even though they are still in the exact same position - tied - I feel like they are sure to get it done. I guess the easiest way to calm myself on this rollercoaster is to take solace in the fact that I am not a USC fan.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

40-Year Old Curse Rears Its Head At Shea

In Tuesday's Mets-Cubs game, the Mets trailed 2-0 in the 5th. A loss here and they could have found themselves out of the race in the East and tied for the wild card. David Murphy had just been hit by a pitch and the Mets' pitcher, Johan Santana came up to bat. Santana first showed bunt but wound up swinging away. He hit a slow roller right back to the pitcher, but the bat broke and the head of the bat went bounding back up the middle with the ball.

Needless to say, the pitcher couldn't field the ball and jumped out of the way of the bat and left the grounder for the short stop to field (still in time for a double play). That's where it got weird.

During the course of a season, fans (and likely many players) see so many moments that as they happen, seem to be potential turning points. Some turn up, some down. We often see unusual, bizarre, or big hero/goat plays as the ones that mean something significant. Objectively, you could pretty easily say that very few of them really has the impact that we subjectively imbue them with. In fact, a skeptic would argue that there is no such thing as momentum or turning points or luck or curses. But if the players think there is, then who know what kind of effects they could have?

For instance, look at last year's New York Giants. At this point, the story of the season is pretty well documented but why is it that that team seemingly had so many important turning points on the way to an historic championship? Their defense had been run through like a tissue on a train track for the first two-and-a-half games until suddenly they held on first and goal from their own one-yard line against the Redskins and it all turned around. Then when they sat on the brink of missing the playoffs, a hurricane seemingly hit Buffalo and they pulled off an ugly win on the road in week 16. Then they went against convention and played their starters in a loss to the Pats in week 17. Then improbable play after improbable play happened, capped off by perhaps the most improbable play in NFL history...and suddenly they were the champs.

But why did Destiny choose them? Was it karma punishing Tiki Barber for retiring early and bad-mouthing his former team and quarterback (who would wind up winning the Super Bowl MVP)? Was it that the team didn't fall apart and bicker after that bad start, but rather banded together and played for each other and not for themselves? Was it Jeremy Shockey and Mathias Kiwanuka going down, Plaxico Burress playing hurt and Barber not being there that forced so many others to go above and beyond? Was it a final reward to end Michael Strahan's career? Was it favorable scheduling and good old fashioned dumb luck?

If after about week 10, you had asked fans of all 32 teams if their team might be the team with the magic - the team who had the right turning points, I imagine you would get a yes from no less than 20 of them. No doubt right now there are Dolphin fans envisioning a Super Bowl win this year after last week's demolition of the Pats.

It is the same way with baseball, only the season is so long that any rational fan (yes, I realize that that is a contradiction in terms) would admit that a play like what happened to Johan Santana last night would mean nothing if it happened in June. But on September 23?

In the last month, I have seen about 20 turning points for the Mets. On September 1st, they were red hot and had opened their largest division lead of the season. This would avenge the collapse of last September. Suddenly the wheels fell off the already shaky bullpen and no lead was safe. They lost two in-a-row including the first half of a double header in New York against the Phillies. Their lead was gone. Then they won the night cap and crushed Washington twice. They they lost a series to the lowly Braves and scored 3 runs in two games against those same Nationals that they'd scored 23 runs in two games against the week before. Then Jerry Manuel joked that Johan Santana would throw 170 pitches so we wouldn't have to see the bullpen and everyone was laughing and the team won three in-a-row and everything was ok again. Then they couldn't beat Atlanta again and the Cubs came to town with the best record in the league and beat the Mets in New York with a scrub starter. They were 2.5 out in the East, and just a game up on the re-awakening Brewers for the Wild Card.

Then Johan Santana's bat broke and fended off not one, but two Cubs from picking up the ball. The bat actually danced along with the ball like some bounding black cat, scaring away the pitcher and then actually hitting the ball again and forcing the short stop to abandon hope of getting an out. Was it the ghost of the black cat that ran out onto the same field against these same Cubs that marked the turning point for those Mets 39 years ago?

If there is to be one last fall of Miracles at Shea, that play will be where the magic started. The savior traded for who would erase the memory of last September stepped onto the mound to erase the memory of last weekend. And he hit the ball that miraculously didn't result in a double play. And then he was the one who crossed the plate after David Wright's two-run single to tie the game. And then you just knew he wasn't going to let anyone else score against him that night.

And on a play where Johan Santana got two hits, something truly improbable may have happened. Maybe not. If the Giants are any example, it seems that one amazing, miraculous, lucky, strange play is not really enough to make any difference in the long run. It takes a run of them strung together either by divine intervention or an overwhelming confluence of effort, ability and timing. Maybe last night's play will spark a big run, but then aren't Brewers fans saying the same thing about Prince Fielder's walk-off homer? As they say: Momentum is tomorrow's starting pitcher, so if Oliver Perez hits for the cycle tonight, maybe we will have a better indication of how things are going to go.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Year Of The Upset Continues

Has there ever been a year when so many major sports championships were won by the team who had absolutely no chance to win? Today being the first day of fall, it seems fitting to celebrate it by marking the complete collapse of yet another massive favorite.

In the Super Bowl, the Giants were in no way expected to compete with the Patriots, who were to be crowned the greatest ever. The NCAA baseball title was won by the first unranked team in history (Fresno State). The NBA Finals were won by the team that didn't have his eminence, Kobe Bryant. There were numerous huge upsets in the Olympics (U.S. men's volleyball, U.S. women's soccer, U.S. 400 free relay [the Jason Lezak race]). The NCAA football title was won in a complete blowout by the lower seed (though this might not really qualify because Ohio State is an embarrassment to everything that was ever ranked #1 throughout history). The Tampa Bay Rays are about to clinch to A.L. East. So far in 2008, only the Red Wings didn't screw it up and lose their sure-thing title to the underdog.

And now we can add the American defeatof the Europeans in the Ryder Cup to the amazing 2008 Major Sports Upsets List. It would have been a lot more fun had the Euro's been really whiny about it like the last time we won (a decade ago). But it will be fun to see Nick Faldo get ripped in the British press for the next few week, and then in two years when this all starts up again, for playing his best three players last on Sunday so it was all over before their points counted, and for benching his best twosome on Saturday.

It is always cool to hear how much elite professional athletes still get a charge out of competing for U.S.A. Kobe Bryant has famously said the Olympics are infinitely more fulfilling than playing for a "brand or a region." Chipper Jones called the World Baseball Classic the greatest thrill of his professional career. Anthony Kim said he would not trade his Ryder Cup experience for $10,000,000. Of course, $10,000,000 is about a half of a year's pay for many professional athletes, but you get the point.

In the climate of all of these upsets, this has to make fans of the Mets, Dodgers, White Sox/Twins and Rays feel good about the next month of baseball...or so I am trying to convince myself. I just found out that not only does the WNBA still exist, but they are in the postseason. Who knew? In any case, some team with an awkward collective noun/abstract mascot will likely be upsetting another soon.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Two Monumental Occurences Right Under Our Noses

With the Ryder Cup happening, this weekend vaults from another great Fall sports weekend (college football, NFL, baseball races) to one of the year's best. But I am not here to write about the Ryder Cup or football or baseball in general. Rather I just want to make sure that we are watching closely as two significant events are about to occur in baseball.

The Tampa Bay Rays are going to win the American League East.
The New York Yankee are going to miss the playoffs.

These two points cannot be oversold and need to not be undersold. Both are about as significant as anything that has happened in sports in a long time (besides the Giants beating the Patriots in the way that they did with the significance that was attached).

The Rays looked like they were just about to fold as their lead vanished and they had two more games left in Boston. Then they quickly won both and jumped back out to a two game lead. It's over. Two years ago this team lost 101 games. The best they have ever done in franchise history was win 70 games. Right now they have already won 90.

It is not like they have been on the cusp and finally put it all together. It is not like they have been a middling also-ran and signed a big name to put them over the top. It is not like they have been hovering at or around .500 for years and finally made it happen. They have never been anything but terrible in their franchise history. They made no major free-agent signings and didn't even make any trade-deadline moves. And they are beating the Red Sox in the midst of their powerhouse era and trouncing the Yankees despite their payroll being something like six times what the Rays pay. What is happening in Tampa is nothing like what the Marlins did for their two titles - they bought their rings. I cannot remember any other team in any sport doing anything remotely similar to what the Rays are doing.

And speaking of those Yankees, perhaps they are not as bad as people make them out to be. After all, they are 10 games over .500 and have suffered through many injuries. Or maybe they are as bad as they get ripped for being...they are in fourth place, and everyone has lots of injuries. And besides, they will finish the season with their supposedly crippled pitching staff allowing over 50 runs fewer than they did in any of the last four years. The problem is that their vaunted, overpaid, aging offense will score almost 200 fewer runs than they did last year.

But all those numbers and comparisons are not the salient point, which is that the Yankee are going to miss the playoffs. Derek Jeter is going to miss the playoffs. I have not been enjoying this nearly enough all year. They never really were in the race. When they struggled early on, we all said, "Yeah but they always struggle. Then they always come back." But they didn't. They just kept being a little above average, and falling further and further behind. And I never stopped to smell the roses. But now, for the final 10 games, I am going to live it up. The Yankees and Braves are both in fourth place. I won't know what to do with myself next month when I have no one to root against.

Except the Red Sox. And the Dodgers. And the Phillies. And the Cubs.

Ok, so I have people to root against. But I will also have lots of good guys too: Mets, Angels, Twins and Rays! But seriously, the Yankees are going to be eliminated from the Playoff chase by the end of this weekend which makes it one of the truly great sports weekends of the year!

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Brave, Unproductive, New World

A new era in my life has begun and there is almost no way that it can be positive in almost any way...

A sports bar has opened within stumbling distance of my apartment.

It was bad enough that my brother, who is my best friend and best sports-watching-buddy, and his new bride moved in across the street from me. That was enough of a distraction from real-world responsibilities (especially since they have Guitar Hero). But now that a sports bar has been thrown into the mix, my wife is in deep trouble. And apparently a bowling alley is being built across the street from the bar.

The bar, Big Wangs Wings, opened this past weekend was an absolute mad-house on Sunday for the NFL games despite that the air conditioning doesn't work yet and it was somewhere between 80 and 400 in there. There were people standing along the walls waiting for a table to open up (good luck) and it was the most egalitarian sports crowd I have ever seen.

With no L.A. football team, and with the fact that everyone from L.A. is from somewhere else, we tend to have pretty eclectic crowds, but generally if you go to a bar, there is always one team that dominates the crowd (Raiders, Chargers and 49ers usually, unless it is a "Patriots bar", etc.). The opening weekend festive atmosphere was perhaps to blame, but any time anyone did anything in any game, the place erupted.

I saw jerseys from all of the following teams: Seattle, New Orleans, Jets, Giants, New England, Denver, San Diego, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Oakland and even Kansas City. And I wasn't there for the early games!

When Jay Cutler held up his two fingers after scoring that last minute touchdown and the Broncos went for, and converted, the two-point conversion, the roof almost blew off of the place. It was one of the great sports-related moments I can remember being a part of (except for the openly weeping by the Chargers fan sitting next to me who was utterly confused by the no-fumble call that ruined his entire existence). There were people standing on top of booths hugging perfect strangers. It was spectacular.

To say the least, I will be back next Sunday. And as soon as I let my wife know that they have bloody mary specials on weekends, she will be joining me.

As for the games themselves, I only have a few observations from last weekend: Devon Hester was carted off of the field with a rib injury. Where are his ribs, because mine don't really have much to do with walking. Ladainian Tomlinson is a huge sissy. He missed three quarters with a jammed toe? Pull it out and get in there. You are the best player on your team/league; you are playing a divisional rival; you are already 0-1 and 0-2 = no playoffs; and you are the #1 draft pick in every fantasy draft in the country (except for those of you who smartly picked Adrian Peterson like I did). The Giants may never lose again (especially if they keep getting to play terrible teams!). Tom Brady is totally over-rated and should start looking for another team. Matt Cassel may have just "Tom Brady'ed" him...or not. The Pats may get things together and be good, but they aren't doing anything in January, but when the Jets figure out what the hell to do with their offense, they might be. USC got 61 of 64 first place votes in the AP poll. The three people who did not vote for them after they beat the #5 team by 32 should have the right to vote stripped from them. No one, but a shameless Georgia alumnus would vote for them after they struggled to beat a crappy team and USC did what they did. And finally, Vin Scully has a very hard time using linking verbs (but I still want him to tell me stories as I fall asleep each night).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Not-So-Sweet Seventeen

There are 17 games left in the Major League Baseball regular season. For most fans, this just means that the only have to ignore their team's crappy season for two more weeks before they can move on and focus fully on the NFL. For some, it means that they only have two more weeks to see if their boys can pull it out and get into the playoffs. For Mets fans, after what happened in 2007, "17-games left" means a little something different.

As a sports fan, particularly as a baseball fan, there are many numbers that stick out in my mind. 755 was the home run record. 41 was Jackie Robinson's number. Cy Young won 511 games. Cal Ripken, Jr. played in 2,632 consecutive games. Nolan Ryan had 5,714 strikeouts. Pete Rose had 4,256 hits. Then there are the landmarks: batting .300, the 30-30 club, 100 rbi, 300 K's, 300 wins, 3000 hits, 500 homers.

As a Mets fan, I have my own list of numbers: 1962, 40-120, 1969, 1986, Game 6 and many others, but sadly the number 17 has been replaced on my used to stand for Keith Hernandez.. Plaxico Burress did his best trying to give it positive connotations for me by scoring the Super Bowl winning touchdown with a 17 on his shirt, but sadly, the number is still tainted.

I have a friend who is another Mets fan, who is one of those people who wants everyone fired all the time. He can't stand anyone on the team; they are all a bunch of primadonna chokers. No heart. No fire. No talent. Over-the-hill. So when this guy whined throughout the second half of 2007 that the Mets were gonna blow it, I always had to take it with a grain of salt. "They have a huge lead and they are playing fine...not great...but fine," I thought.

My wife works with this guy and she would come home occassionally and ask me what was wrong with the Mets because the guy had been particularly nuts that day. I can specifically remember one conversation with her in the beginning of September, 2007. She asked how far behind they were, and I said, "Behind? They are way out in the lead! He is nuts. He hates Willie Randolph for being too calm when everyone loved him for that same trait last year. The Mets are fine. They're in the playoffs for sure; they may not win it all, but they are in."

It has been pretty well documented that with 17 games left, the Mets had a seven game lead in the East and then the wheels came off. They had played mediocre baseball for most of the season leading up to that point, and finally they bored the baseball gods enough that they turned on the team and everything went wrong. Within days, you could feel this momentum building as the season plumetting down the tubes.

Still I reassured my bride (and possibly myself), "They are still way out in the lead. They would need to lose a game every other day to miss out and they'd still probably get the Wild Card. They are in the playoffs." As it turned out, they pretty much lost a game every other day and on that last fateful Sunday, the ball (and season) rested in Tom Glavine's experienced left hand. Then that bastard completed the sobatage he had been serruptitiously working on since arriving in Port St. Lucie in 2003.

I was working at CBS on their NFL coverage that last day and was trying to figure out if we had a satellite available so I could watch the Mets game. Sadly (or perhaps, luckily) there was no way to get the game on since we were recording all of the NFL games for the show. So I had to follow along with the Mets game on the internet. Glavine allowed 73 runs in the top of the first inning to the Florida Marlins, a team that had was 3-158 on the season (don't quote me on those stats).

In their last 17 games, the Mets allowed the Division to be stolen out from under them, and now with 17 games to go this year, the Mets again sit atop the East with the Phillies on their heals. Only this time the lead is only three.

From an objective point of view, I can see that the collapse of 2007 and the subsequent mistrust of the number 17, are the kinds of things that make sports great. They are the reasons we root in the first place. It is like getting your heart broken by a girl - you need that in order to really enjoy the good times later. But from a subjective point of view, I will tell you right now that if they blow it again, I am going to punch Tom Glavine in the face, steal a crane from Citi Field and raze Shea Stadium to the ground.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Coming Back Is Like Riding A Bike

Lance Armstrong announced that he was officially coming out of retirement and that he is going to win the Tour de France. The "elite" in cycling this year were "domestiques," or supporting cast, when Armstrong was cycling. Granted that is the nature of things, but he still thinks that Carlos Sastre's impressive and decisive climb up Alpe D'Huez wasn't impressive enough and he wants to take another crack at winning.

I am all for Armstrong's return. The man is among the greatest athletes, greatest competitors, and greatest stories on the planet, and maybe more importantly, the French absolutely hate him. During his seven-year run at the top of the Tour de France, he was constantly harangued by the French media and called a cheater despite never having tested positive for any banned substance. Allegedly a French newspaper found a b-sample if his and it tested positive for blood doping substances, but the claim was never supported, nor looked into. Sour grapes.

Another reason I am for Armstrong returning is that apparently he plans to do it for free. He doesn't want a salary. He wants to win, and he wants to raise money and attention for a cure for cancer (not necessarily in that order). So what team wouldn't want him?

Astana, who was not allowed to ride in the 2008 Tour because former members of the team had been dopers, is the strongest team in the world so Armstrong would be well supported there. They also employ some of his old teammates and his good friend and former manager/strategist Johan Bruyneel. But cycling is unlike most sports: it is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. The other eight guys on a team are really only there to protect their star and get him the overall win in the end...not necessarily the daily stage wins. Armstrong would not automatically be the star on Astana, which already boasts one Tour de France champion and no less than four reasonable favorites (guys who would be The Man if on many other teams).

Armstong would be a great fit on either of the two American teams who rode in the 2008 Tour. Team Garmin/Chipotle (as in handheld GPS/Tacos) already has a legitimate #1 man, American Christian Vandevelde, who rode in Armstrong's shadow before and would not likely want to give up his spot at the top of the pile too easily. However, the who the #1 man is is generally determined on the roads, not on the team bus.

Team Columbia (as in the clothing company, not the nation) has Armstrong's old brother-in-arms Georgie Hincapie and no true elite #1 man. They do have plenty of very good support riders and that is what Armstrong needs most. But the reason that they are the most perfect fit, besides the blue jerseys that became his signature with USPS and Discovery (when he wasn't in yellow), is that the team was founded on the sole principle of competing cleanly. They were originally called Team High Road to illustrate that point before gaining major sponsorship right before the 2008 Tour de France.

Armstrong would have to go through the sport's doping program that says he must be tested randomly, any time, any day, for six months before being allowed to come out of retirement. But the first people who knew that he was planning to pull a Favre was the sport's anti-doping people...he announced his intentions to them before the media, so I don't think peeing in a cup 50 or 60 times is much of a concern.

Another wrinkle to the 2009 Tour de France that will almost certainly be the most watched Tour in history is the fact that disgraced American Floyd Landis will be eligible to ride in it after his two year ban will have expired. I still feel that Landis was innocent of the charges levied against him but a dramatic storyline will be if a team will take a shot at hiring him, if he was able to keep his form and competitive edge, and if his replacement hip will allow him to ride on form.

If that wasn't enough, American former Olympic road racing gold medalist, Tyler Hamilton, who was also previously suspended for doping, won the U.S. National road racing championships last month and will almost certainly be looking for a higher profile team to ride on next season.

I think Armstrong will ride again next summer. I think he will have teams knocking down his door trying to sign him (imagine the literally free publicity for signing the greatest athlete in the sport's history to a free contract). I think the major sponsors who walked away from the sport last year are probably scrambling to find a team whose backs they can slaps their names on. I think the organizers will "Lance-proof" the race like they tried over and over to do before. I think there will be at least two, and maybe three Americans on the stage on the Champs Elyse. And I think Armstrong's hair may be a little grayer, but his jersey in Paris will be just as yellow as it always was.

And as a final, unrelated note: what was Shawne Merriman's dumbest career move? Taking steroids and getting caught a few years ago, or not having major reconstructive surgery to fix the two torn tendons in his knee in February like four doctors told him to do and instead waiting so he could play poorly in week one (and lose) and then decide to have the surgery, thus missing the entire season. I can't imagine having to root for a guy this stupid. Thank God I can't stand the Chargers.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Bad Day For Predictions

When the Bulgarian women's hockey team took to the ice yesterday against Slovakia in an Olympic pre-qualifier, they probably didn't think they had a great shot. After all, they were playing the #1 team in the region and had been completely drubbed by each opponent leading up to this point.

But 82-0? There is no way that they (or anyone) expected an 82 goal deficit. But that's what they got and that is one of the great things about sports: almost every time your expectations will be confounded. It is the unpredictability that makes trying to predict it so fun (and lucrative if you're good at it).

Just look at the last few days. The second* best team in NFL history comes off of a nearly perfect season with basically the entire team returning, but guns blazing in a whole new way because they were pissed they lost. First drive...bang! Tom Brady goes down and they may not ever be a playoff favorite anymore. And not only has his replacement never started an NFL game, he never started a college game either!

At the same moment that Brady's knee twisted and bent out of shape, the New York Jets (4-12 last year) became the potential division favorites because they signed Brett Favre in a brilliant P.R. move that wasn't really expected to bring in any banners (right?) but was going to sell a lot of tickets, win a few games and send the team off to their new stadium.

The biggest question all summer was what was Favre's successor going to go in the spotlight. So on Monday Night Football, against his team's arch-rival (no brighter spotlight until January), Aaron Rogers went out and threw the second highest completion percentage for a QB in his first start in history. We all assumed he would be fine back there, but this was pretty special.

The same day, Lance Armstrong, whose biography is the greatest story in the history of Sports, allegedly (and shockingly) added a chapter by planning to come out of retirement to ride five races next season for Kazakh powerhouse team Astana (including the Tour of California and Tour de France). Astana is the remnants of Armstrong's U.S. Postal/Discovery teams. He would join stars like Americans Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner, Andreas Kloden, and '07 Tour de France winner Alberto Cantador and his old team manager/strategy mastermind Johan Bruyneel. Hours later, Astana refuted the story. Armstrong has not commented at all. Who knows what to expect?

Also on Monday, the Mets lost their star closer to a season ending surgery...and a 2009 season endings surgery as well. Wagner had a little tightness in his shoulder last month and sat for a few days. He came back and pitched again (not too well) and said it had returned. The expectation was that he would be rested for as long as possible and then ramped up for the playoffs. Maybe that's true, but it will be next year's playoffs.

I suppose Boston fans should have seen at least the Brady-shocker coming, given their history. Maybe the tide has turned. The Sports Gods gave some of the most obnoxious loser-fans an amazing stretch with Super Bowl wins, World Series wins and an NBA title, but they (predictably) weren't grateful and turned into some of the most obnoxious winner-fans. I'd hate to be David Ortiz right now, because you can almost certainly predict he's going down next.

All that said, it is nice to know that there are some things in Sports that are as regular as the sunset. Like the Raiders not just losing, but being an embarrassment. Thank you Oakland Raiders, for a little stability in a shaky world.

*the best team would be the one that beat them, your Super Bowl Champion New York Giants.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Recapping A 'Magical' Weekend In Sports

Magic Numbers are now being posted in baseball standings, which means the about 80% of the games played don't matter anymore. Thankfully the NFL rushed into the void to make Sports Center worth watching, because otherwise there would only be about five minutes of worthwhile highlights spread over the 60 minute show.

Sunday would have been quite a show to produce! What stories do you pick to squeeze into it? NFL week 1 and its myriad off-field stories (Brady's knee, Favre, Vince Young out, Panthers' finish, rookie QBs, etc.). NCAA Football and the USD Toreros holding the longest home winning streak in Division I. The U.S. Open and Captain Fist-Pump knocking off Nadal to make the Final against the "slumping" Roger Federer. Serena Williams' continued masquerade as a woman and her winning another Grand Slam. And then there was a high stakes weekend in MLB where five of the six divisions are separated by four games or less.

Here would have been my rundown:
NFL: Patriots 17, Chiefs 10 + Tom Brady is out possibly for the season. Trent Dilfer cited an anonymous but "very trustworthy source" within the Pats who said Brady is done for the year. But my question, is who the hell knows since his MRI wasn't completed until Monday? But if he is out, are the Jets the team to beat in the AFC East? I'd still go with the Pats because the gap between them and everyone else was so big last year and the Jets are starting all over. Sure Matt Cassel is new, but what better way to get comfy that with that offense?

NFL: Jets 20, Dolphins 14. The Brett Favre magic works outside of Green Bay as evidenced by the Jets scoring a touchdown on one of the worst pass-decisions or executions I have ever seen.

MLB: Mets and Phillies split a doubleheader. The Phillies had won the first two games of the series, crawling to within a game of the lead, but Johan Santana and Carlos Delgado pushed the divisional lead back to two and Jimmy Rollins went 0-5 and struck out to end the last game the Phillies will ever play at Shea. The Mets' Magic Number is 18. And Mike Schmidt is a huge ass.

U.S. Open: Serena Williams beats Jelena Jankovic to win the Open and Andy Murray hangs on in a rain-suspended match from Saturday to beat Rafael Nadal and advance to Monday's Final against Roger Federer. Murray is suffering from fatigue in his fist-pump muscles and the outlook for the Final isn't pretty. Roger Federer is in the worst slump of his career in 2008 and has only made it to three of the four Grand Slam Finals. Poor bastard.

NFL: Panthers 26, Chargers 24. I was getting ready to leave the house yesterday afternoon and turned on the TV just in time to see the Panthers lining up to go for the win with two-seconds left on the clock, down by five, on about the Chargers' 10-yard line. Instinctively I sprinted to the stereo to switch the audio from the TV feed to A.M. radio and tuned to 570. Alas, all I got was static, but I would have loved to have heard the Chargers' announcers, easily the worst in football, swallow this loss.

Actually, come to think of it, those are the only stories I care about in the least. I guess there were still only about five-minutes of highlights worth watching. Which is why I watched the show straight through three or four times.

I suppose including the Dodgers' sweep over the DBacks is big news. During the Mets-Phillies game last night, ESPN ran a commercial that showed Manny Ramirez with the title "1 Man: The Difference." I will give you that Manny has been fantastic and the team seems to believe and the fans are engaged, and they are in first place. But it has been six weeks since he's been in L.A. and are 19-16 in that time. Before we give the NL Pennant to the Dodgers after this eight-game win streak, let's remember that they are .500 in their last 16 games.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Today Is A Giant Day!

The Super Bowl Champion New York Giants open the NFL's new season tonight which makes this a perfect time to take a look at the NFL and college football seasons ahead.

I could do what every other sports writer and wanna-be has done over the past few weeks, and pick winners in each division, but really who cares what I think? And how often are these predictions even remotely accurate? Who picked the Giants last year (besides me, but that was not a prediction entirely based on reason and objectivity)?

College football (Div. IA) is perhaps the easiest sport to choose a champion before the season starts, because there are really only 5-10 schools that are really even eligible to win it all, since the teams competing for it don't just prove themselves on the field like in every league of every sport around the world. Rather, they have to be chosen to be in the top 25 in the preseason poll. Then they just have to lose no more than once, and they make the finals. Start outside the top 25, and you are out of luck.

Of course this is not official. Technically speaking, anyone in D-IA (I refuse to call it "FBS") is eligible to win it all. But seriously, is there any chance that a dark horse will make the Championship game? Even someone ranked as lowly as 20th? With nearly every school opening play last weekend, basically half of the nation is already eliminated from contention. I hope those kids enjoyed their summer workouts.

That said, the IAA (I also refuse to call it "FCS") season is underway and the non-scholarship powerhouse San Diego Toreros crushed long-time power Marist. USD's star quarterback Josh Johnson has moved on to the NFL, but the team reloaded and is looking for a very rare berth into the IAA playoffs despite being a non-scholarship program. Johnson (43 TD, 1 Int. in 2007) had the best 40-yard dash, vertical leap and broad jump score of any quarterback in the NFL combine this year and made the roster, but is behind pro-bowler Jeff Garcia and long-time veteran Brian Griese.

Getting back to the NFL, the Giants were picked to finish 3rd in the NFC East this year and that is about where I have seen most other experts place them as well. This is probably about the best news that Tom Coughlin has heard since winning the Super Bowl. Imagine getting to win a championship as a gigantic underdog in one of the great games your sport has ever seen, and then turn around and get to be a huge underdog again. Not only do the Giants not have any pressure to repeat as Super Bowl winners, they won't even have pressure to be Super Bowl contenders, or Division winners, or Wild Card winners. They aren't even the biggest story in their own city. Or stadium! This could be the first time in history that a team does not get complacent after winning it all. Coughlin gets to use the underdog speech again all year!

Now, I don't realistically think they can make another run with Osi Umenyora out for the year, but to be perfectly honest, I don't even care! As long as they are not an embarrassment, my contentment meter is pretty high and will be for at least 2-3 more years after that Super Bowl win.

But the Mets had better freaking win soon.