Thursday, October 30, 2008

Congrats Titans! You're So Good, You're About to Be Overrated

Something occurred to me watching the Tennessee Titans beat up on a suddenly frail Indianapolis Colts team. That is, why America loves football so unconditionally.

Look at the rap sheet generated by the National Football League and the lunatics running its asylum just in the week leading up to the game. Steroids, As the Cowboys Turn, Larry Johnson, etc.

Pull back to the larger picture and you have to include names like O.J. Simpson, Rae Carruth, Ray Lewis, Pacman Jones, the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s, and the current incantation (the Cincinnati Bengals). It should make us all sick and drive us from the game as fast as our atrophied legs can move.

But it doesn't and we don't. Football starts its siren song early in the week and, by the weekend, we come running with painted faces and costume jewelry.

It basks in America's pale imitation of the radiant European passion for soccer. Perhaps it shouldn't because of the criminals it seems to breed and reward. But we forgive its sins for the most traditional of reasons: football is beautiful.

Picasso painted nothing as lovely as a horse-from-a-burning-barn streak through human projectiles bent on destruction, all for the immortal glory of six little points.

Mozart composed nothing as moving as a bone-rattling de-cleater that beckons forth smelling salts from the sidelines, just so the human bruise can recollect the pieces and do it once more.

Michelangelo never sculpted a more perfect abstraction of the human condition than what takes shape between the forces of have and want on a football field.

I have the Tennessee Titans to thank for this realization.

Their thorough execution of the Colts announced a significant moment in the NFL's human condition. Indianapolis has divisional supremacy and Tennessee wants it. Monday night was a small but important step in that direction. And you know what? I don't think I was the only one that noticed.

That is why the Tennessee Titans are about to become really, really overrated.

That is not a championship football team. Not with Kerry Collins at quarterback. It is a team with an awesome running game and a smothering defense. It is a team assembled keep points off the board, offensively and defensively. It is built to beat Peyton Manning, the Indianapolis Colts, and any cheaper imitations.

But it is not a Super Bowl team.

I don't know all that much about football. What I do know is that a team with an absolute void in one major area of the game will not win a championship. And that is what the Titans have in their passing game. I don't know if Vince Young would improve the situation, but Collins will not be the diamond-and-gold encrusted answer.

Sooner or later, a team will just put eight men in the box (shoot, some team could probably do it with nine) and force Tennessee to win by taking flight. Indianapolis didn't have the dogs to do it for whatever reason. I know they're secondary had been good to that point, but it certainly looked pathetic against the Titans (and not because the receiving corps and Collins were carving it up).

It probably won't even be a team anyone expects. That glaring weakness makes the Titans vulnerable to very good teams, but also a bad team that just matches up well. Say a team with no offense, a great secondary, and an adequate run defense. If a team like that catches the Titans at the right time, they could easily win.

Nonetheless, the Tennessee Titans have yet to lose a game. That means the chattering and empty heads will flood the airwaves with debates about their Super Bowl chances, shot at running the table, and we'll start to see puff pieces focusing on the individual players (what's the action on Inside the NFL touching on Collins' battle with alcoholism?).

And it's all ridiculous filler. Don't believe the hype.

Believe that Tennessee is the best team right now and a very dangerous team going forward.

Believe that the season is long and there are many a slip twixt a 7-0 start and the Super Bowl.

Believe they have lots of room for improvement and the pieces to do so.

Believe that this, too, makes football a beautiful game.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Devil's Advocacy for Michael Vick

There are at least two sides to every argument.

That's something that often gets lost when people debate emotional topics and Michael Vick's incarceration for dog-fighting is one of those. By that, I don't mean to imply Kristin Hamlin did so recently in her excellent article.

Quite the contrary. In my opinion, she takes a strong but fair stance and defends it well.

But I wanted to play devil's advocate - partly because I agree with it to an extent and partly because I haven't read this particular version before and I think it's an interesting argument.

Vick received a death sentence of sorts while his dogs did not. That was not and is not justice.

Michael Vick's football career is over. He may be allowed back in the National Football League and some wayward owner may give him another chance (Jerry Jones is probably working on his early release as I type), but his career is over. He will not return to his former glory, which was not that exalted before his foray into extreme sports landed him in the hoosegow. Who knows what repercussions that will have on the trajectory of his life's remnants.

It certainly hasn't done wonders for his younger brother, Marcus. Or Maurice Clarett. Or Mike Tyson.

Meanwhile, the vicious killers he created were spared the rod. And that was the right thing to do.

Vick and his cohorts had turned those pitbulls into savage machines. They were not born that way. This was not a questionable case of nature versus nurture. Those dogs were canines like any other until their human owners deliberately trained them to do lethal damage without discretion or mercy. It was not their fault and each deserved a chance to prove its capacity for normative behavior.

I'll say it again, trying to rehabilitate those pitbulls was the equitable and righteous path. That almost every single dog successfully recovered proves it.

Michael Vick deserved the same.

He was a human pitbull, shaped by ferocity from the jump.

Vick was born in Newport News, Virginia. Apparently, this place is and was so criminally vicious that it has its own notorious moniker in hip/hop culture, Bad Newz (the 'z' proves it's legit). I've never been, but I can't imagine gentility and compassion are considered effective survival tools.

Consider the neighborhood in which he was raised. Consider the value system you would acquire cutting your teeth in such confines. Consider the daily shootings. The orgy of violence produced by rival gangs warring over turf and drug profits. The prostitution and other marginalization of humanity.

What regard would you have for human life? Forget about a dog.

What chance do your parents or other responsible influences have against such odds? Consider they're working long hours at four jobs just to put food on the table before they can even begin to turn back the tide. Consider that, despite the supernatural aura of violence, you are still apt to be as rebellious as any adolescent when it comes to parental (and/or responsible) advice.

Sure, Vick was an adult for a good part of his dog-fighting days and an average American adult would have to be disturbed or incredibly stupid to risk so much on so little.

But Michael Vick was not an average American adult. From his brutal roots, he matured into the seeds of greatness by excelling at a game predicated on violence. Human violence.

A game that routinely sees broken bones (did anyone else see that poor Houston receiver?), torn ligaments (again, see Houston receiver), and brain-damaging concussions. It has seen its share of paralysis and even death. Human death.

Again, what regard would you have for human life? Forget about a dog.

More so, how much can we reasonably expect you to have when your considerable success is a direct function of perfecting your role in such a cruel sport.

Some may say his role as an offensive player and quarterback diminish this defense. That he was on the receiving end of the brutality so honing his role had nothing to do with nurturing his violent tendencies.

But Vick was the target of that brutality, which means perfecting his role included developing an immunity to the prospect of savagery. It meant learning to live with the brutality. It would also make a desire for an outlet, in which he could dish it out and exact some measure of revenge, logical. Twisted and perverse, but logical within that framework.

And if you think prison is going to change any of the above, you aren't familiar with the United States' correctional system.

I am not saying any of this completely absolves Michael Vick or excuses him from punishment.

In fact, I would adamantly argue that one of the truest tests of an individual's character is the manner with which he or she handles the most defenseless and vulnerable forms of life.

Michael Vick's failure in this regard was astonishing in both scope and magnitude.

Regardless of his upbringing, he was an adult and had walked amongst civilized society for long enough to learn its nuances and its consequences. To appreciate and respect those forms of life we have deemed worthy of both.

Additionally, the analogy between his dogs and Vick with which I began is a little false. The dogs never had a choice whereas he made many informed and very poor decisions along the way.

No, Michael Vick certainly deserved some measure of penalty. The sheer stupidity alone merits that much.

But the degree of severity is what I'm uncomfortable with.

To some extent, whether you believe it to be significant or not, we are Michael Vick's trainers. We continued to reward him for developing an personality born of violence and nurtured by it.

And when we got caught, we put our dog down while sparing his. And ourselves.

That is not justice.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Rain, Rain, Go Away...And Take the Whiners With You

Maybe I missed something. Were there crocs lurking in those standing puddles? Was the rain turning the infield mud into quicksand? Was it acid rain?

I'm not saying the game shouldn't have been suspended or delayed. Quite the contrary.

I think Bud Selig handled the situation exactly right (ugh, just threw up a little in my mouth). The infield had become modern baseball's version of unplayable and the driving rain couldn't have made hitting, throwing, or catching very easy. Just seeing the ball was probably pretty challenging. With the game tied and Cole Hamels nearing the end of his rope (Rays' starter Scott Kazmir had already departed), there was no reason to continue playing.

For that matter, I think Selig has handled the preset-postseason schedule admirably.

Of course, I'm on the West Coast so this is probably a little unfair, but I had no problem with the late start to Game Three. The game was scheduled for that day, the fans paid and planned to see the game that day, and the television schedules planned for the game to air that night. It was far from ideal, but so would have been the solution.

What, postpone the game? Jumble the fans' lives and the television schedules to accommodate that? And what happens if the weather doesn't clear up? I've never lived in Philadelphia, never been there. But I don't imagine late-October/early-November is a particularly warm and sunny season.

This is the Northeast we're talking about. In late autumn. Not a wonderful time to be waiting for several hours of clear weather.

You're telling me people wouldn't be whining if that scenario had unfolded? Bull excrement.

As for all this nonsense about suspending the game earlier, give me a freakin' break. Once again, you're telling me the Ken Rosenthals of the world wouldn't be taking to cyberspace with equal zeal, writing about how much of a disadvantage it is to cut Hamels off so early and deprive the Phils of a complete fill of his services? Or to force the Rays to dwell on a deficit for hours? Or something else?

But my favorite nasal utterance is how unfair it was to allow the Rays the "advantage" of hitting in the top half of the sixth without allowing Philadelphia that luxury in the bottom half.

Sure, there were standing puddles in the infield and around home plate. But most of those puddles were in the basepaths. Am I the only one who saw B.J. Upton barely score from second on a two-out base hit? The man can fly and was off with contact, but Pat Burrell almost threw him out.

Yes, Burrell's throw hit a puddle and he couldn't charge the ball with the same vigor due to the slick surface. But Upton faced his own obstacles; look how gingerly he rounded third or how slow his normally lightning-quick break was. Not to mention that Burrell was able to play much more shallowly due to the elements. Or how about the fact that both Upton and Carlos Pena had to see a Cole Hamels pitch well enough to make solid contact through a driving rain?

The point is the elements made the game conditions difficult for both teams. Joe Buck and Tim McCarver correctly pointed out that the sloppy field actually might have been more damaging to Tampa Bay because speed was such an important weapon for them.

The only thing that compromises the integrity of competition is an unfair advantage that one team possess over the other. Weather, even weather as bad as last night's, simply does not qualify because both teams must deal with it. It hinders performance to be sure, but that is not compromising the integrity in any negative sense of the phrase.

Hitting. Fielding. Throwing. Pitching. Running. Seeing.

These are the things that are harder to do in the rain and they must be done by both teams. Perhaps it disfavors a team that relies more heavily on speed than others. MAYBE. But that would be the Rays in this scenario so the issue is moot.

The point is, if you tell the whole story (as usual), there really is no controversy.

The conspiracy-for-dollars guys out there will tell you the rainy top of the sixth was an advantage for the Rays because they tied the game. That shouldn't surprise anyone. They'd be telling you it was an advantage for the Phillies if it had ended in their favor.

Controversy increases media revenue and is easy to create if you have a platform from which to tell one side of the story.

And that goes for the poor umpires as well. I take little pleasure in writing that sentence.

Like anyone who competed, I'm not a fan of umpires, referees, or any other rule-keeping official. It's a natural relationship of tension between those who play the game and those who officiate it. That said, everyone whining about the umps needs to grow a spine.

If you don't like the blown calls, then stop bitching and moaning every time someone tries to introduce replay or automated strike zones or any other technological advance. You can't have it both ways. If you don't like technology, the main reason is that you like the imperfection of human umpires. It's eradication is the only reason for technology's proposed introduction.

You might not admit it, but that's what you're saying.

I was a rabid six-year old fan of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1985 when Don Dinkinger cost my Redbirds the World Series and I'm still waiting to see my favorite team win a title. So I'm for getting rid of umpires all together. But unless you're in my camp, you don't have the right to gripe when they blow calls unless they are blatantly awful.

And they haven't been blatantly awful.

The only really egregious error was when the third base chump missed the tag on Jimmy Rollins. That play where Jamie Moyer shoveled it to Ryan Howard and caught Carl Crawford was a bang-bang play that the ump had to make without the benefit of sound since Howard bare-handed the ball. Not only that, he was blocked off in an unusual way due to the awkward angle at which Moyer delivered the ball. That's a rough call to make and the guy blew it, then owned up to it. No shame there (remember, I'm rooting for Philly).

The balls and strikes haven't been great, but they haven't been as bad as certain media members would have you believe. Take Game Five.

Kazmir was definitely getting squeezed in the first, but those pitches called balls side-to-side weren't strikes. And the pitches called balls up-to-down (which were strikes) were called balls consistently all night. I really only saw one or two wide strikes that Hamels got and he got the exact same vertical calls. When ruling something like the black area of the plate, consistency is all you can expect.

Furthermore, how about all the good calls Blue has made?

I've seen quite a number of great calls on close plays. And as McCarver pointed out, they correctly handled the infield fly rule after such adverse elements turned each pop-up into an adventure. That's not an obvious thing to do, but it was the right move.

Of course, when you tell the whole story, it's harder to find an opening through which you can bash the collective bargaining agreement that's soon to expire. And guess what you'll be reading about during the offseason, when fodder for stories runs short?

Hint: it's abbreviated CBA.

If you're gonna complain about something, complain about the decisions made many months ago. The decisions to stagger starts and avoid as many multiple-game days as possible. To squeeze maximum television revenue out of the postseason, even if it means moving games to a neutral dome site and playing into December.

Since when is there a day off between Game Four and Game Five? There's no travel necessary. Never been the off day before. And while we're at it, how about the several days of downtime between postseason series? Why are those necessary?

Television. Pure and simple.

That makes this whole thing really disgusting because most of the criticism is coming from guys like Ken Rosenthal. Guys who work for the very organism that created the problem. They attack baseball for costing their employer ratings and not moving games willy-nilly, which is particularly transparent because the networks would complain as vehemently as anyone if they had to televise a game when they had some premiere scheduled.

They have the audacity to not only try to blame this problem on an easy and unsympathetic target (Bud Selig), but to do so without acknowledging their roles in its creation.

Do you really think, if there were no such thing as television, MLB's postseason wouldn't have ended weeks ago? Do you really think the scarcity of day games and plethora of off days has to do with attendance?

Rosenthal, in particular, chastises Bud Selig and Major League Baseball for not postponing Game Three and allowing Game Five to continue for so long. He says this is the World Series and the powers-that-be need to start acting like it.

That would be Ken Rosenthal who works for Fox Sports; the very same Fox Sports that has been televising the postseason. The same Fox Sports that presumably negotiated the postseason schedule, which is really to blame for all this consternation.

The same Ken Rosenthal to whom I would reply:

You are an allegedly respected journalist. You start acting like it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Ken Rosenthal Misses the Point Entirely

I'm probably the only person who is pulling for the Philadelphia Phillies to win the World Series, but was hoping for the Tampa Bay Rays to tie Game Five and ensure its suspension. Why?

For one thing, I love the Series so more is better as far as I'm concerned. I'm currently rooting for Philadelphia because of a personal connection to the team, but I'm first and foremost a San Francisco Giants' fan. That means my desire to see more of the year's most intense baseball trumps my desire to see the Phils' win easily.

More importantly, it gives me a chance to address Ken Rosenthal's latest example of journalistic excellence without the complete benefit of 20/20 hindsight. I like that because I don't want to hide behind it.

I don't want it to look like I only have the guts to call someone out after an outcome gives me firmer ground on which to stand. The truth is, what Rosenthal has done is cowardly and wrong regardless of what happens when Game Five resumes. Still, this article will look much stronger if the Rays pull out a win and vice versa so to wait to see what happens would be Rosenthal-esque.

Anyway, to really understand my problem with his latest effort, you have to look at the progression of Ken's articles in concert with the progression of the World Series.

His first article appeared before the Series started. Actually, it was his second on the subject, but it's the one in which he made his pick so we'll call it the first. However, it bears mentioning the article that preceded it also spoke glowingly of the Tampa Bay Rays.

But back to the article where he picks the Rays to win. I don't really have any truck with it.

The opening's a little stale. The American League's superiority over the National League is less pronounced than it's been for the last several years and that angle's been worked to death. However, Rosenthal recovers immediately and thoroughly by making a reasonable argument (even if I think it is wrong) and incorporating self-deprecation in his pick of the Rays to soften the effect of the article's overall dismissive tone.

Kenny's second article, in which he reasserts his support for the Rays, is also very good.

Even after his Rays lost Game One at home, Ol' Kenny surprisingly sticks to his guns. He rightly points out that Tampa has good reason to hope. That Cole Hamels has been the Phillies' silver bullet all year, especially so in the postseason. That Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins continue to struggle. That Tampa's supporting staff is stronger behind Scott Kazmir than Philly's behind Hamels. That the Rays came close against the Phils' best horse.

Rosenthal was right to end that article by saying, "I refuse to believe this will end quickly. We're about to be treated to the most competitive Series in years."

His third article is more of the same. It isn't as good because his praise of David Price goes a little overboard (this was an important Game Two, still only Game Two). But I've got no real problem with it.

Rosenthal's fourth piece shows an all important yet subtle change.

It, too, is good. And I don't have a problem with Ol' Kenny's sudden switch of focus to Philadelphia. Jamie Moyer should have been the focus after Game Three, regardless of the stomach virus. The guy made his debut in 1986, for Pete's sake. But it does show Rosenthal's wheels at work; he is no longer trying to find positives for Tampa Bay. It was a prep piece.

Ken was simply tenderizing Tampa and his readers so that they were ready for the kill. And that's exactly what he moves in for after Game Four.

The title says it all - "The Rays Most Expected All Along Have Arrived."

The entire piece is premised on the idea that the Tampa Bay Rays are done. Finis. Stick a fork in 'em and cue the fat lady. Not only that, but most of the baseball world knew this moment was coming, they expected it.

I'm honestly laughing to myself as I try to figure out where to begin.

For starters, how about the fact that very few people still expected the Rays to collapse? I think the last few stragglers on that bandwagon bailed after Tampa's resurrection against Boston. Or after Vegas picked them to win. Or after they were widely welcomed as the ultimately-conquering favorites.

Furthermore, Rosenthal writes an entire "I-told-you-so" article about how the inevitable moment of Tampa Bay's demise has arrived. He does so without once mentioning that, actually, he spent four columns telling us not so. Telling us the Rays would win before the World Series started. Telling us they would still win after dropping the opener. And singing their praises, yet again, after taking Game Two.

Not only that, let's really examine Tampa's flickering moment of greatness and assured demise.

Rosenthal implies the Rays' meltdown in Game Four was actually larger; a total meltdown of confidence and ability rather than just the nine-inning variety. He says the Rays already look beaten. He says too much needs to change for the Rays to recover. And he seals it all by stamping their World Series with the adjective 'disappointing.'

All of which is totally and completely ridiculous.

In the same article that touts Tampa's season-long resilience in the face of tremendous odds, Ol' Kenny writes the Rays off because of a single bad game. Sure, veterans with playoff experience help in situations of autumn adversity. But there's also something to be said for just plain youthful exuberance and ignorance of the moment.

He says the Rays already look beaten.

They had just lost a World Series game 10-2. A game that saw numerous and costly errors. A game that saw the opposing pitcher hit the first homerun of his career. I think it might be a mistake to read too much into their mental state immediately after such a debacle. What about you?

Rosenthal says too much needs to change, that the Rays have too many leaks to plug.

Then he goes on to point out how everything that has gone wrong is a surprise; how the poor performances and errors are uncharacteristic of the culprits. Everything Rosenthal mentions indicates everything could snap back into line with expectations given the right nudge. Something that becomes even more significant given this pearl from Joe Maddon:

"When you don't hit, it infiltrates all the other things you do, from a position player's perspective. I'm sure it's wearing on some guys a bit, there's no denying that."

The AL Manager of the Year is saying that all the rattling wheels can be righted if they start to hit. It's no easy assignment given they were facing Hamels, but it's still not the monumental task of fixing every aspect of the team in one night. Kenny includes this bit of insight and proceeds to ignore its understated brilliance.

Rosenthal also ignores something a baseball nut should know about trailing a seven-game series 3-1 as the home team.

Consider that the biggest game in such a situation is Game Five. If you can stay alive in Game Five, you fly away trailing 3-2. You arrive home for Game Six where the crowd is amped up because they've been forced to watch the last three games on television and want to help stave off elimination. If you can ride that to Game Seven, the opposition must now face a home crowd going absolutely insane as well as the coordination-crushing pressure of letting a huge Series' lead slip away.

So Game Five in such a scenario is enormously significant to both teams because avoiding elimination starts a snowball effect of pressure that can evaporate that 3-1 lead before anyone realizes it's happened.

And yet it's far more immediately significant to the team down 3-1, which means they have a motivational advantage. That becomes almost insurmountable if they can deal with the pressure of facing elimination on the road. A huge if, but one that demands mention because "if they can deal with the pressure" has a history of becoming "they dealt with the pressure."

Finally, he closes the article with a true Ken Rosenthal flourish.

After calling special and specific attention to the struggles of Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria. After writing an entire article that is essentially a postmortem on the Rays World Series hopes despite a game remaining. Ken Rosenthal has the insulting audacity to say, "smart alecks who sneer 'they're done,' ridiculing Peña and Longoria, will miss the point entirely."

I could write for pages about what the above says about him, about how it fits perfectly with almost everything he writes. But I'd rather just let Rosenthal's words echo.

"Smart alecks who sneer 'they're done,' ridiculing Peña and Longoria, will miss the point entirely."

Yes, Ken, you do.

Are NFL Owners Stupid or Just Delusionally Arrogant?

Oh, it is a sad thing to be a football fan in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The 49ers are bad and the Oakland Raiders may be worse. Or they may be better. Who can tell? Furthermore, who cares? They're both putrid; does it really matter who smells worse? The important thing is that both teams' games are unwatchable, which exacerbates the problem since theirs are the only games we get.

Thank you National Football League for your excellent rules for televising games.

The great matchups are blacked out on a weekly basis to bring us eight scintillating quarters of the home teams bumbling, stumbling, and fumbling to the next humiliating defeat.

It's particularly bad being a Niner fan, even a casual one. This was the franchise from the early 1980s through most of the 1990s. It's unbelievable how quickly and how far it has fallen with John York and Denise DeBartolo York at the helm. Consider this:

The Niners won the National Football Conference West in 1983, '84, '86-'90, '92-'95, '97, and 2002.

They won the NFC title in '84, '88, '89, and '94. They took the Super Bowl each time.

In the 20 seasons between '83 and 2002, the Niners finished with 10 or more wins 18 times.

Then the Yorks entered the scene courtesy of Eddie DeBartolo's dirty dealings. Eddie D was exiled for the 1998 season and the Terrible Twosome literally took control for good before the 2000 campaign. For five years between '98 and '02, the franchise was able to coast on the momentum and fumes of Steve Young backed by talent amassed under previous management. But even those years showed signs of trouble.

That trouble quickly materialized and turned to outright disaster when Twinkle-Dee and Twinkle-Dum had to stock the larder:

1998: 12-4
1999: 4-12 (Young's last year)
2000: 6-10
2001: 12-4
2002: 10-6 (last winning season)
2003: 7-9
2004: 2-14
2005: 4-12
2006: 7-9
2007: 5-11

San Francisco last made the playoffs in 2002. The Yorks were so thrilled with the amazing comeback to beat the New York Giants and subsequent loss to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers that they fired Steve Mariucci. They replaced him with the most obvious choice...Dennis Erickson?

Gave him a five-year contract.

Followed that up by hiring Mike Nolan as a first-time head coach and threw him the general manager duties for good measure.

The draft has yielded an almost barren crop if not for Patrick Willis and Frank Gore. The public openly mocks the franchise for its handling of the Mike Nolan firing (this after York claimed to have learned his lesson after butchering the firing of Erickson). The DeBartolo-Yorks have made foul decision after foul decision and driven a once-proud professional franchise straight into the ground.

Now, they're starting to dig.

But the truly staggering thing is this tandem is hardly the only example of NFL ownership with a lengthy history of abject failure - Detroit, Cincinnati, Arizona, Oakland, etc. You could expand the group to include other sports, but I'll spares those the rod.

These people have financial empires worth hundreds of millions of dollars. They have to possess the slightest modicum of awareness and intelligence, right? Even if they didn't build the empire, they haven't lost it (yet). That's gotta take a little competence.

And it doesn't take more than that to step back. To see the big picture. To see the horrible morass in which they've "led" their respective franchises.

So the obvious question is, why don't they fix them? Why do they keep making the same mistakes year after year after year after year?

Hey, it's not my team. It's not my money. I'm not getting paid for this. I have no reason to really examine the situation. And, to be honest, I haven't. You don't need to look very closely to see how miserably they have failed. I have to assume they've done at least this much.

And, still, nothing changes except the names. Why?

The only answers I can accept are stupidity or arrogance manifested as stubbornness, which borders on delusion (possibly literal insanity in Al Davis' case).

Not good news for us Niner fans or any other similarly suffering fanbase. I mean, how do you fix THAT problem?

Only thing I can think of is to cross your fingers and hope for special talent. Talent that succeeds no matter the adversity.

Because, with ownership like that, it's gonna face quite a bit.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Forrest Griffin Hates Anderson Silva

Most of my entries tend to be on the longer side. Well this one is gonna be short.

I was surfing around YouTube trying in vain to find a clip of Anderson Silva fighting Patrick Cote before the pit-bulls from UFC snatched it down. Apparently, even that's not happening anymore.

Instead, I ran across a clip entitled "Forrest Griffin Hates Anderson Silva."

Anyone who's seen Forrest Griffin interviewed or interact with other fighters during his time on the Ultimate Fighter (either as competitor or coach) would be surprised if that were true. It would be highly out of character both for Griffin to hate anyone and for him to state so publicly. Arousing further suspicion, the audio was five seconds and clearly had been clipped out of context.

Sure enough, that's exactly what the moron did.

The longer byte is hilarious and got me thinking that Forrest Griffin deserves more praise.

The man is a stud. He seems like a sincerely kind and respectful person. He carries himself with poise born of integrity and dignity. And Griffin is comfortable in his own skin, not ravaged by the insecurities that seem to drive then destroy a lot of fighters.

Oh, and he can throw some leather.

Sure, everyone knows about the fight with Stephan Bonnar. But his resume is actually quite impressive and speaks of a well-rounded fighter. He lost a decision in his debut to an aging Dan Severn. Three rounds against Severn, regardless of his age, is baptism by fire and speaks to Griffin's heart. He's beaten up on nobodies, but also has wins over Jeff Monson, Chael Sonnen, Elvis Sinosic, a second victory over Bonnar, Mauricio Rua, and Quentin Jackson.

I'm not saying Griffin is a great fighter by any means. I don't think anyone would be too surprised if his reign atop the savage 205 pile is brief. As in one fight.

He didn't look especially great in his loss to Keith Jardine. His other loss to Jeremy Horn isn't to a name that builds credibility in defeat. That said, neither Jardine nor Horn is a chump. Even champions have off nights and Forrest Griffin is currently the Light Heavyweight Champion.

The guy isn't glitzy, he isn't glamorous.

He doesn't even have a nickname.

But Forrest Griffin deserves credit for being a champion and, even more so, for carrying himself like one.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Who Are the Most Terrifying MMA Fighters Out There?

OK, I'll say it. Michael Bisping looked impressive against Chris Leben.

To be accurate, he looked more impressive than I expected. And, having seen Bisping at middleweight against a decent and dangerous opponent, it makes sense that the UFC is grooming Bisping as Anderson Silva's next "challenge."

Bisping just dropped down from light heavyweight where he was holding his own. He got an absolute GIFT in the form of a decision over Mark Hamill. Then, he went the distance against Rashad Evans. Now he's looked pretty damn good in two fights at his more natural weight. Plus, he's English, which fits into the UFC's bizarre scheme to reignite 18th Century hostilities.

That's an effective sales pitch right there.

Of course, it's nonsense.

Leben is a punching bag for any disciplined fighter. Evans is the least inspiring undefeated fighter out there. And Hamill, who isn't exactly a top contender, came across the Pond and into Bisping's backyard to beat him had the judges been scoring the same fight we all watched.

Yet this guy truly is as realistic a challenger as any middleweight out there. Both coaches tabbed as Bisping's potential opposition for the upcoming season of the Ultimate Fighter (Rich Franklin and Dan Henderson) have already lost to Silva. Franklin's gotten dominated twice while Henderson won the first round before getting carved up in Round Two.

Which is what go me thinking. If I had to pick the three most terrifying fighters in the world of mixed martial arts, who would they be?

Three seems arbitrary but it's not. It had to be at least three to be interesting because of FedorEmelianenko and Silva.

The most terrifying is obviously the Last Emperor. His virtues have been sung extensively in this space and numerous others so there's no need to cover old territory. He is in a class by himself until someone shows he's mortal. The same is true of the the Spider except his unique class is the slightest of notches below Fedor's.

So it had to be at least three and five seemed like too many. If you add too many more guys, it diminishes how exceptional Emelianenko and Silva actually are. Because, in reality, no other fighter out there is even close. They all have glaring weaknesses.

For instance, a guy like George St. Pierre looks awesome. He's good on his feet, has a smooth ground game, is insanely strong for a welterweight, and has great cardio. But GSP got knocked out by Matt Serra. Kicking Matt Hughes a couple times as he starts to slide down the other side of the hill doesn't make up for that. Neither does a decision over John Fitch. One more signature win and I'm sold. A win over B.J. Penn would do the trick. Until then, he's not making the cut.

With the exception of Penn, nobody else from the lighter weight classes is gonna scare anyone.

However, the best of the big boys - guys like Forrest Griffin, Randy Couture, and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira - are such professionals that they don't really inspire fear. Each is a great fighter in his own right, but each is a consummate professional. I don't imagine a real MMA fighter is scared of losing to a pro. If he's scared of anything, it's getting hurt and/or humiliated.

And that's what I'm looking for here. Fear.

You can see it when a guy steps into the cage with the Spider. The prospect of vicious strikes that seem to find soft spots on their own literally scares guys off their gameplans.

You can see it when a guy talks about the Last Emperor. Part of it is Fedor's nasty habit of dispatching even decorated foes without breaking a sweat.

But I think the really unsettling thing about him is his emptiness.

It's not intimidation. It's not a mental game. He either just doesn't care or the idea of defeat doesn't occur to him. It perhaps can account for that notch he has on Silva.

One of my favorite poems is "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats (I've used it before). Part of the reason I love it is because of the biblically eloquent language Yeats uses to describe a universal moment of doom. Regardless of your faith or if you have none, every person has an idea of what the End will look like.

And we can see it in Fedor's eyes. In Fedor's walk. He has Yeats' "gaze, blank and pitiless as the Sun." He is the rough beast with slow thighs, slouching towards his opponent. I know it, you know it, and his opponents know it.

So the question remains, who else has it?

Guys like Chuck Liddell, Henderson, Quentin Jackson, and Wanderlei Silva had that threatening edge. But it's been extinguished by too many surprising and thorough losses.

I say it has to be Damien Maia, B.J. Penn, or Brock Lesnar (I had Lyoto Machida here but his most impressive wins are all decisions so I bounced him).

Remember, we're not talking the best MMA fighters. We're talking guys who make you think twice about stepping into the Octagon.

Maia's unheralded in the UFC and hasn't really beaten anyone yet. But he hasn't lost either. He's been credited with having the best MMA jiu jitsu in the game (ability to use strikes to damage and soften his opponent while opening doors for submissions). Damien smoothly transitions between his standing strikes and excellent ground game.

But what gets him the discussion is that same cold emptiness that Fedor shows. Maia's got it (compounded by the fact that his first name is Damien). He just needs the body count.

The Prodigy is small, but those legs don't seem human. That makes him scary. Plus, Captain America says he struggled dealing with Penn's strength. I haven't been able to conjure a reason why Couture would lie or even exaggerate about this so I believe it. But Penn can't be the guy until he proves the cardio that proved fatal in his fight against Matt Hughes is no longer a vulnerability.

Yep, it's gotta be Brock Lesnar.

His biggest weakness is that he hasn't beaten anyone yet. But he's unnaturally huge, strong, and quick. That doesn't seem to be hype. When guys like Frank Mir and Heath Herring are comparing you to a truck or a drowning force of nature, it's saying something. And the guy swings wrecking balls on the end of his impossibly large arms. The size of his hands has to be an advantage like B.J.'s legs, Anderson's accuracy, and Fedor's...well no, not like Fedor.

I could very easily be jumping the gun here. Lesnar's fight with Couture will go a long way towards answering that question. But make no mistake, Brock Lesnar is not Kimbo Slice. He is not some novelty act here to try to launch a fight league. He may very well beat the Natural, but his future does not depend on it.

And I can't imagine too many heavyweights are thrilled at the thought of sharing eight sides with Lesnar. Considering that he is getting better quickly, that makes him special.

Not as special as Fedor or Anderson, but let's see what time and training turns him into.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Will 2009 Be the SF Giants' "Death Magnetic?"

I am not a music critic. I don't pretend to be. My musical instruction consists of several years worth of drumming when I was in junior high. That's it. I listen to a lot of different bands, but that's really only honed my personal tastes.

My baseball knowledge and expertise, on the other hand, is far more extensive.

I was an elite high school baseball player; good enough to be recruited by D-1 schools (not the good ones, but I can live with that) out of a smaller county in Northern California. I was 6'3", tipped the scales around 185, and played shortstop until knee surgery before my senior season moved me to rightfield.

I've also watched 90% of the San Francisco Giants' games played between 1988 and the present. That means a lot of baseball, but also a lot of listening at the elbow of Duane Kuiper, Mike Krukow, and John Miller. You can take or leave Kruk's shtick, but all three know the game and communicate it very well.

It is individuals like these who prove the inadequacies of blunt instruments like Buck Martinez, Steve Phillips, and Tim (vurp) McCarver.

So why preface my musical and baseball credibility?

Because my favorite band has made a phoenician return that I hope my favorite baseball team can emulate. And I see reasons to believe the Giants can do it. Let me explain.

First, the band is Metallica. As I said, I don't know enough to really go into the intricacies of the music except to say they are good for whatever ails me. The talents of James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, and the Bassists (Cliff Burton to Jason Newsted to the current Robert Trujillo) coalesce naturally as if designed for the purpose. They are the only argument for Intelligent Design I've seen that has any merit (and even it has the glaring weakness of Dave Mustaine).

Hetfield and Ulrich are the front men and get the pub. To a degree, it's warranted because they are both gifted in their own roles. Lars can bang with the best of them and James' dulcet tones didn't miss a beat even after he walked through a 12-foot high, magnesium flame.

But Hammett is the Force; I would say his guitar solos are magic except they really exist.

From the release of their first studio album "Kill 'em All" in 1983 until June of 2003, Metallica was nothing short of spectacular. That first album got off to a slow start, but larger success followed with "Ride the Lightning," "Master of Puppets," and "...And Justice for All." The Black Album's 1991 release launched Metallica's popularity into another stratosphere.

This moment announced the band's arrival on the mainstream stage, but it started a slow trickle of die-hard fans away from the bandwagon. The boys tweaked their sound, mellowed it a touch, and the result was a crossover success that opened their appeal to the masses.

The term "sell-out" became a permanent annoyance from this point forward.

Metallica followed the Black Album with "Load," "Reload," and two double-disc albums. "Garage Inc." came first in 1998 and was a compilation of covers from the band's early days. They followed it with "S & M" where the boys played alongside the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Each album elicited more groans from die-hards as they bailed.

Now, I'm a real die-hard for Metallica, much like I am for the Giants. I lean towards the four albums that preceded the Black Album, but every release has multiple songs that rival all but the best of their early work (in my opinion). That said, even I started to worry a bit when Lars and James took on Napster while using the pretext of playing benevolent benefactors to the Struggling Musician.

And then the wheels really came off.

Newsted split before Metallica recorded and released "St. Anger" in 2003. Remember, this is a die-hard fan typing. It's bad. All of it. It's in my collection, but it's the only one of the band's releases that gathers dust. And the layer is thick.

It looked like Hetfield, Ulrich, and Hammett - once destined to burn out - would just fade away. Until 2008 and their resurrection via the release of "Death Magnetic."

Metallica has knocked the dust off and returned with a vengeance. And I don't mean that in the limited sense that the album is good. I mean it in the broadest sense of the idea.

It seems impossible for a band to recapture completely the siren sound that brought their initial success. Time passes, causing everything to mature and evolve - attitude, style, sound, approach, etc. But the fellas came damn close while keeping some of the strengths wrought by their maturation.

I cannot adequately describe Unforgiven III, The Day That Never Comes, or Suicide & Redemption.

That immediately elevates them to the level of Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, Fade to Black, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Harvester of Sorrow, Seek & Destroy, Blackened, Trapped Under Ice, ...And Justice For All, One, Enter Sandman, Call of the Ktulu, To Live Is To Die, etc. In other words, to the level of excellence.

And those are the only three songs I have yet to fully appreciate. That means the album probably will settle in somewhere above the Black Album in the pantheon of Metallica's greatest works. It is an exceptional return to the band's former brilliance.

So what does this have to do with baseball, specifically the San Francisco Giants?

For the last decade or so, the Giants and Metallica have shared many similarities. The Orange and Black timeframe isn't a perfect match, but that's natural. The baseball world moves faster than the music world; each team has its version of an album release every year and thus has more opportunities to succeed or fail.

Still, those similarities are eerie.

From 1993 and the acquisition of Barry Lamar Bonds until October of 2003, the Giants were spectacular. Although they were the losers of the Last Great Pennant Race in '93 and followed that year with three lean ones, the Giants' version of "Ride the Lightning" came with the National League West pennant in 1997.

The Gents followed that season with two less successful campaigns in 1998 and 1999. But they were still highly competitive. Then came 2000 and the opening of what we will forever call Pacific Bell Park, the House That Barry Built.

They finished with the best record in baseball that year. The New York Mets bounced them unceremoniously from the first round of the postseason, but SF followed that abbreviated success with another competitive year and the infamous 2001 assault on Mark McGwire or All Things Holy (according to some).

Finally, the meteoric, three-year ascension culminated in 2002. Barry carried the Giants to the World Series and came five outs from that elusive ring. We were less than two innings away, only to see Dusty Baker crumble and, with him, our championship dreams.

Those three years - '00, '01, and '02 - were San Francisco's Black Album.

They launched their popularity to another level as fans flocked to success and a prodigious clean-up hitter. It also drove some of the purist die-hards away. Not right away, but the subsequent steroid and performance-enhancer revelations drove some from those teams, which thrived almost completely because of Barry's terrifying bat.

San Francisco mustered one last trip to the playoffs in 2003, but had already started its own version of fighting Napster. The clashing of egos between Peter McGowan, Baker, and Bonds drove more die-hards away. And it had me a little worried.

Then the wheels started officially shaking in 2004 as Bonds went down with injury and gave ownership an excuse to distance itself from him. Eventually, the wheels came off completely when ownership cut ties with the man in 2007.

They've followed that disastrous '04 campaign with even worse messes in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008. I still love them and watch every game. But their former success is sitting on the shelf and gathering dust.

Just like "St. Anger" enabled the dust to accumulate on Metallica's career, each successive disappointing season represents another layer on my beloved Giants.

But, as I said, I see reason for hope. Reason to believe that the 2009 San Francisco Giants could be the franchise's "Death Magnetic."

Those reasons are primarily Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez. Secondarily, they are Emanuel Burriss, Travis Ishikawa, Freddie Lewis, Benjie Molina, Aaron Rowand, Pablo Sandoval, Eugenio Valez, Brian Wilson, and Randy Winn. Even a resurgent Barry Zito is worth mentioning.

If the three young studs can turn another year of maturation into tangible improvement on their respective performances in 2008, the Giants don't need much more help. They would have their own Unforgiven III, The Day That Never Comes, and Suicide & Redemption.

They would have the seeds of a return to glory.

And that's enough hope for me.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Attention MLB Fans: Please Help Stop the Insanity

I'm gonna try to stop this as it's happening rather than point it out afterwards: Chase Utley is being robbed by the supposedly-objective media.

Let's go over this while Game One of the World Series is fresh in our minds.

All of a sudden, the Tampa Bay Rays sport a big, fat bull's-eye on their collective back.

Vegas picked them to win. Experts across the Land pointed to the American League's dominance in picking the Rays. Analysts shook their heads sadly as they pointed to the six-day, groove-killing rest Philly got and tabbed Tampa Bay. They are at home. They just took Boston's best shot. They bumped the Yankees out of the postseason before it even began.

And most of it made sense (except two of the most important Phillies weren't in grooves so that six-day rest thing was over-hyped). Tampa Bay was and is rightly the favorite.

As Game One got started, things were looking pretty good. Although Jayson Werth walked, Jimmy Rollins had already continued his slump and Scott Kazmir (arguably the Rays' weakest pitching link) had jumped out to an 0-2 lead on Chase, Philadelphia's most potent hitter. He had evoked a swing through on a fastball that made Chase look overmatched. He threw a beautiful breaking ball that could have been called strike three. He wasted a curve in the dirt; another good pitch and the Trop was still rocking, still feelin' good.

Then came that awful, uh-oh fastball; a 2-2 pitch at the knees and over the inside half of the plate to a dangerous lefty. A hit-me fastball right to a lefty's happy zone in a count that dictated the hitter be looking fastball in defense.

Maybe it was the 0-1 swing through that gave Kazmir too much confidence. Maybe he was still too pumped up on adrenaline that would be expected when making the first World Series start in franchise history.

Whatever it was, Utley deposited the ball in the rightfield stands and totally changed the complexion of the game. Possibly the entire Series.

With one swing, Chase took the confidence and momentum out of the Rays' dugout. He gave it to Philadelphia and left the Rays with doubt. Doubt and the pressure of expectation, something new to such a young team at this very late juncture.

Utley gave Cole Hamels a two-run lead before Hamels ever took the mound. Hamels got to pitch with a lead, not to mention a cushion. That meant more room for error, which meant more first-pitch fastballs and strikes. It meant more breaking balls on three ball counts. It meant more freedom to pitch backwards (fastballs in breaking ball counts and vice versa). It meant pitching for double plays in situations that would otherwise require a strikeout.

It is something the importance of which is impossible to overstate considering the Rays formidable lineup and the fact that Hamels was a young guy making his first World Series start.

Impossible to overstate when you consider that Hamels explored his cushion to its fullest extent - giving up two runs, five hits, and two walks in his seven innings of work.

Impossible to overstate when you consider the Phils spent the rest of the evening flailing helplessly with ducks on the pond. They went 0-13 with runners in scoring position.

Impossible to overstate when you consider the Phils' other superstars combined to go 0-12 with two walks while leaving 10 runners on base.

And yet all the headlines tout Hamels' performance. It is Hamels' who pitched the Phillies to a 1-0 Series lead. It is Hamels' who reversed Tampa's momentum. It is Hamels' who is the media darling.

Chase Utley hit the two-run homerun that was the biggest play of the game and set its tone. He went 2-4 and stole two bases for good measure. He was one of the few Phillies to do his job with a runner in scoring position, advancing the runner from second to third by making the first out of the inning in a close ballgame. His first steal allowed him to move to third on a subsequent wild pitch. Both runs were stranded at third despite needing only a sac-fly from a guy with an MVP award and over 140 RBI in the regular season.

Meanwhile, Cole Hamels took his cue from Chase and pitched well.

But he certainly didn't dominate. He did strike out five batters and lasted seven innings. However, if not for Pedro Feliz' astonishing grab of B.J. Upton's scalding one-hopper with the bases loaded that started an inning-ending double play, Hamels' night would have ended much differently.

Feliz had no business making that play. He had even less business turning it into a double play. That frozen rope should have plated two runs and kept the inning alive. And it was all Pedro; Hamels would tell you the same thing.

Just like in the NLCS, Hamels' is getting Utley's credit and it's ridiculous. For almost the exact same reasons.

Just like in the NLCS, it was Chase who struck the first and most important blow for the Phillies.

Just like in the NLCS, it was Chase who enable the Fightin' Phils to turn the tide.

And just like the NLCS, he is getting screwed. Royally.

Only this time, it could be for the World Series MVP. If Philadelphia wins, the media has positioned Cole Hamels for that honor.

An honor much more significant than NLCS MVP.

An honor that makes your Hall-of-Fame resume sparkle.

So if Philly continues to prove the sageness of popular wisdom, watch Number 26. Because he'll be the Most Valuable Player.

And if that happens, let's just hope the media finally wakes up and joins the party.

Can It Be? Kurt Warner's the Best QB in the NFL?

Something occurred to me as I was reading about Tom Brady's infected knee. Well, two things actually. The first was that I remember thinking the exact same thing when doctors told me the bone in my left ankle had become infected, "ah, the antibiotics'll clear that right up."

It took almost three months.

I spent most of it couch-ridden because standing was insanely painful; forget about walking. The first antibiotic didn't work. Neither did the next one. Or the next one. The super-staph resisted everything until a steady IV of steroid-enhanced-super-antibiotic cocktail did the trick.

Of course, mine was an obviously exceptional case. No reason to think Brady's is similar (I haven't read anything saying it's staph). Nor was I the same physical nor financial specimen as Tom Brady.

Regardless, that thought took much longer to type than it did to pass through my head.

The second thing that occurred to me was much more interesting and stuck: Brady's down, Peyton Manning's leaking oil and stories of additional surgeries, Tony Romo's gone 'til November, and Carson Palmer is MIA.

We clearly jumped the gun anointing Eli Manning with the oil of greatness; he still needs to clear that last hurdle of consistency before joining the Big Boys.

Brett Favre could have ended this before I asked the question a couple years ago, but the OLD Gunslinger's lost his aim in 2008 (probably earlier if we're brutally honest). To make matters worse, he still makes it a habit to shoot from the hip.

So I have to ask the obvious, who is the best quarterback heading into Week Eight of the National Football League's regular season?

I'm well out of my depth when analyzing the NFL or football in general. But hey, Socrates would say I'm the perfect man for the job. He said, "I am better off than he is - for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know." With his words as my endorsement, I'll take a stab at it.

There are 32 teams so we've got 32 options.

Right off the bat, we can eliminate the guys who take the field with an unacceptable likelihood of imploding and taking the team with them (if the game plan allowed it). That would include Matt Cassell, Chad Pennington, Favre, Matt Schaub, Kerry Collins, Derek Anderson, Joe Flacco, the Guy in Cincinnati, JeMarcus Russell, the Guy in Kansas City, Brad Johnson, Aaron Rodgers, John Kitna, Gus Frerotte (what year is it?), Marc Bulger, J.T. O'Sullivan, and Matt Hasselbeck.

There goes half the League, and that's being generous.

If you look at the key statistics (QB rating, total yardage, and completion percentage), three of the best QBs are Drew Brees, Phillip Rivers, and Jay Cutler. But football, more than any of our most popular sports, is about winning. And no position's individual success is more predicated on team success than quarterback.

Consequently, it's tough to give Brees, Rivers, or Cutler too much praise while their teams are severely underachieving.

Everyone expected great things from the Chargers and Saints; both under .500 seven games in. The Broncos are 4-3, but just got annihilated on national television and Cutler stunk up the joint after comparing himself to John Elway. Not a day on which to stake your claim to elite status.

We're down to 12.

Next, look at guys with a history of winning under pressure. That list includes Jake Delhomme, Peyton and Eli, Donovan McNabb, Ben Roethlisberger, Jeff Garcia, and David Garrard. None of these guys is having a very good year, yet.

Big Ben, Eli, Delhomme, and Garcia are all piloting winning teams. However, they're in systems that don't require them to lead the charge and they aren't.

McNabb, Garrard, and Peyton are all off to slow starts. Their teams reflect it.

Only five little Indians remain.

Several young and/or inexperienced guns are putting up good numbers while leading their teams into uncharted territory - Trent Edwards, Jason Campbell, Matt Ryan, and Kyle Orton. But would it really be a surprise if one or all of these guys dropped off the face of the planet in the next couple weeks?

And that leaves Kurt Warner as the last man standing.

Warner's got a 100+ QB rating, 1700+ yards passing, 70% rate of completion, 12 touchdowns against five interceptions (his biggest vulnerability), and averages over eight yards per attempt. More importantly, he has his Arizona Cardinals perched atop the NFC West at 4-2. Finally, he can back all of it up with a regular season Most Valuable Player trophy, a Super Bowl MVP, and a Super Bowl ring.

I don't like it and I bet I'm not alone.

But credit where credit is due.

For the moment, Kurt Warner's stepped into the void and is the best QB in the NFL.

Just nobody tell his wife.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Handing Out MLB's Regular Season Hardware

With the first pitch of the World Series hours away, I have caught my limit with regards to the analysis and hype - if you can call it that when the two teams involved are the losingest team in the history of sports and a baseball team from Tampa Bay.

Personally, I'm looking forward to the Series. However, there are just so many "get ready for the boos" and "Tampa's stadium has weird lighting" stories I can take.

So I figure I'd turn my attention to a race in which I've got a true horse. That race would be the National League Cy Young and that horse would be the ace of my San Francisco Giants, Tim Lincecum.

That's what the Major League Baseball regular season awards are about, considering...

Both Most Valuable Player races are boring because there isn't really a compelling winner in the American League and Albert Pujols walked away with the award in the National League.

In the AL, it's a race of seriously flawed contenders who all are equally worthy, depending on which flaw you find most disqualifying. Regardless of who you like, the difference between the winners and losers will be barely discernible. Popular wisdom says the MVP will come from:
  1. Carlos Quentin - he missed the stretch run, but his team still made the playoffs despite sinking like a rock in his absence, he put up monster numbers in 200 fewer at-bats than everyone but Longoria, and gets extra points for coming out of nowhere.
  2. Evan Longoria - weaker stats despite hitting in a stacked lineup, but he missed 200 at-bats in the minors and on the shelf, he still put up great numbers, played great D at premium spot, and gets extra points for doing it in his first year.
  3. Justin Morneau - probably the best candidate except his team didn't make the postseason despite a colossal stumble down the stretch by the division leader.
  4. Dustin Pedroia - his team couldn't win its division despite fielding $133 million of talent (a lot of it offensive), he didn't hit 20 homeruns, and he didn't drive in 100 runs.
  5. Josh Hamilton - awesome statistics, but his team wasn't even competitive for much of the year, and he hit in an devastating lineup.
You see what I mean? I'd have Quentin winning, but there's not that much difference between his case and Hamilton's. Nor between his and Pedroia's.

I think Pedroia will win because of those red socks (the media really seems to love those red socks). But I can't really say they're wrong in this case.

In the NL, it's just not a race. You can twist yourself into distorting a case for Manny Ramirez and his 50 games of exceptional play. But that's ridiculous both because he only played a third of the season for Los Angeles and because he dogged his way off a gravy train in Boston.

As for CC Sabathia's dominance propelling the Brewers, Ryan Howard's power numbers, or some other such nonsense, they're interesting hypotheticals that can be easily dismissed. Pujols' production rivals Howard's without support like Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Pat Burrell. Additionally, St. Louis was competitive for the majority of the season. They fell away early in the stretch, but that's enough.

The races for Manager of the Year mirror the MVP races except the romp switches Leagues.

That would be Joe Maddon and the "race" for AL Manager of the Year. It's no contest.

In the NL, it will most likely be Lou Pinella for taking the Cubbies to the postseason and meeting insanely high regular season expectations. I've got no problem with that. I'd give the award to Fredi Gonzalez for piloting the Marlins to such surprisng heights despite a miniscule payroll (lower than even Tampa Bay's) and trading their best everyday player in the offseason (Miguel Cabrera).

But just like Pedroia, I can't really say that Pinella is a bad choice.

The Rookie of the Year competitions don't even merit discussion. It's Longoria in the AL and Goevany Soto in the NL. Period.

The same can be said of the AL Cy Young.

Roy Halladay makes it surprisingly close, but even his brilliance doesn't compare to that of Cliff Lee. All you need to know is that Lee threw over 220 innings and lost a total of three games for the Cleveland Indians. The Tribe ended up finishing at .500, but they were well below that for much of the year. Plus, Lee came from nowhere and performed the entire season under a dark cloud of doubt.

Which brings me to the NL Cy Young.

I should be able to dispose of it as easily as the AL's race. But it doesn't seem to be getting the same treatment. It should; consider the suspects:
  1. Tim Lincecum - 2.62 earned run average, 18-5, 227 innings pitched, 265 strikeouts, 1.17 WHIP, .316 opponents' slugging percentage, and .297 opponents' batting average.
  2. Johan Santana - 2.53 ERA, 16-7, 234.1 IP, 206 Ks, 1.15 WHIP, .362 opponents' slugging percentage, and .286 opponents' batting average.
  3. Brandon Webb - 3.30 ERA, 22-7, 226.2 IP, 183 Ks, 1.20 WHIP, .334 opponents' slugging percentage, and .302 opponents' batting average.
Again, you can make an argument for Sabathia or Brad Lidge, but this is a three-dog fight and Webb drops away immediately. Those 22 wins are nice, but they quickly lose their luster when you look at his peripheral stats. He trails both leaders significantly.

No, it comes down to Santana and Lincecum.

The Johan actually stacks up much better than I expected. He's got the Franchise beat in ERA, WHIP, IP, and opponents' batting average. Still, those are very small advantages. Almost totally offset by Lincecum's substantial leads in Ks and opponents' slugging percentage.

But the Freak's strongest argument is his win-loss record.

That's odd for me to say because I believe wins and losses are usually the emptiest stat a pitcher generates. But there are exceptions to every rule and Lincecum presents such an exception.

Consider he has a better winning percentage than Santana, won more games than Santana, and lost fewer games than Santana. Then consider Lincecum labors for the San Francisco Giants while Santana takes the mound as a member of the New York Mets.

and Aaron That would be the Giants, who have $24 million of a $77 million payroll locked up in Barry ZitoRowand while the Mets are $138 million in cleats.

That would be the Giants, who blazed to a 72-90 record while the Mets clattered to an 89-73 finish.

And that would be, as they say, a wrap.

Except it's not.

Everyone knows that Maddon should and will win. Everyone knows the same regarding Longoria and Soto. And Pujuols. And Lee.

But I don't get that feeling from the talk around the NL Cy Young. There seems to be some hesitation to add Lincecum's name into the circle of foregone conclusion. That's insane.

The Franchise has a stronger argument than both Lee and Pujols. It's as strong as Soto's. Only Maddon and Longoria are more deserving of their award. And they are the surest to get them.

Yet Tim Lincecum must sweat it out.

It will be an egregious mistake if the voters deprive him of his just deserts. But he's young and hopefully has many more seasons in him.

And that means many more Cy Youngs.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Are the MVP Voters All Stoned?

Matt Garza was the American League Championship Series' Most Valuable Player? Really?

Who votes for these awards?

I understand that Garza pitched an amazing game and won Game Seven. But look at that sentence. Two words should jump out at you: 'an' and 'seven.' As in one game of seven. So it was the last game, so what?

Am I the only one who thinks it's ridiculous that these people have no capacity for memory beyond the last 24 hours?

Readers can accuse me of beating a dead horse because this column is essentially a distorted echo of the one I wrote about Chase Utley and Cole Hamels in the Senior Circuit. I can't really mount a defense except to say that I'm consistent.

And it gives you a chance to call me an idiot again. Yahtzee!

At first blush, the MVP voting for the ALCS doesn't seem like a miscarriage of justice on the same scale as that in the NL.

It seems like no single everyday player on the Tampa Bay Rays out-performed the competition.

It seems like no pitcher besides Garza made significant and consistent contributions.

Whereas Chase blew the other Philly everyday players away, there were several Rays who made a strong case for the award. Whereas Hamels had help from Brad Lidge, Garza's mound looked like a deserted island.

An overabundance devalues each individual's contribution while scarcity drives it up. And that seems to be the case here. But look closer.

Starting with the statistics:

Upton: .321 average, .394 on-base percentage, .786 slugging percentage, 1.180 OPS, four homeruns, 11 RBI, eight runs, two steals without being caught, and stellar defense in centerfield.

Longoria: .259 average (that hurts him and, by association, Upton); .333 OBP, .815 slugging, 1.148 OPS, four homeruns, eight RBI, eight runs, 3 doubles, and good defense at third base.

Garza: 14 innings pitched, two wins, 14 strikeouts, eight hits, six walks, a homerun, a .278 opponents' batting average, a 1.38 earned run average, and surprisingly important defense from the mound.

All three make a very persuasive numerical argument for the award. Once again, it's helpful to look beyond the cold, hard stuff. I'll focus on the games the Rays won.

The importance of Game Two cannot be understated.

Remember, the Rays were already down 1-0 to the defending champs. They had fought back from several early deficits, taken two leads, and watched both slip away. They were in extra innings staring at the prospect of a loss that would drop them into a 2-0 hole and send them off to recover in Fenway (not known for its restorative effects on the opposition). This was a game a veteran team would have required and the Rays rely heavily on babies.

When they won in walk-off fashion, it catapulted them to an ultimately insurmountable 3-1 series lead; both Upton and Longoria figured prominently.

Bossman Junior was the star. He hit the game-winning sacrifice fly to win the 11 inning affair. In his first at-bat during the third inning, he hit a game-tying bomb off Josh Beckett to immediately answer Dustin Pedroia's shot. He walked in the fifth, stole second, and scored from that base on a single to tie the game. This after Boston had rallied for three runs to take the lead in the top half.

Longoria played a strong supporting role. After Boston jumped out to two-run first inning lead, he returned fire with a game-tying two-run bomb off Beckett. He doubled in the third to drive in the go-ahead run after Upton matched Pedroia's solo shot to tie the game. He was good; Upton was better.

Game Three was a largely unspectacular affair because it was a blow-out early.

However, that makes it significant because this was Garza's first win. He pitched well (six IP, six hits, three walks, five Ks, one ER), but was working with a five-run lead before he saw the lineup a second time. And it's worth mentioning that his performance was shaky until receiving that cushion.

Meanwhile, Upton contributed by blowing the game open in the third inning with a three-run homer. Longoria did his share as well. He walked and came around to score the first run of the game. He also added a long fly, following Upton's tater in the third with a solo shot of his own and pushing the lead to five.

Game Four was another romp for the Rays on which Upton and Longoria placed their stamps.

Upton walked in the first, stole second, and scored the game's first run on Pena's big fly. Longoria followed Pena with a back-to-back shot that gave the Rays a three-run lead, which they never relinquished. That homerun set a rookie record for gofer balls in the postseason. Both players drove in runs when the Rays put the game away in the five-run sixth.

Game Seven is obviously where Garza won the award.

He pitched seven spectacular innings and shut down a Boston team that was streaking towards another improbably comeback. His right arm held at bay the demons of history while allowing only two hits, three walks, and a solo homerun in the first inning. He fanned nine and worked the entire night without a net. Not to mention the whole "trip-to-the-World-Series" thing that hung in the balance.

Neither Upton nor Longoria helped his case, combining to go 1-7 with a double and an RBI. True, Longoria hit that double and the RBI was the first run of the game. Still, voters clearly had this game in mind when throwing their support behind Garza.

And it makes as little sense as the groupthink that carried Hamels to the award.

If you look at the whole series - series that lasted seven games - Matt Garza appeared in two games. He was unremarkable in his first appearance and spectacular in his last one. In between, Upton and Longoria took turns leading the Rays to wins, but Upton was the more consistent of the two (and Longoria had a couple costly errors in the losses) and had the biggest moment of the series (sac fly in Game Two).

Yet Upton went 0-4 in Game Seven while Garza was blowing up the voters' skirts.

And Garza got the award because his most glamorous performance was freshest in the voters' minds.

Which is just stupid. I'm sorry.

Game Seven seems more important because it gets the high-powered microscope treatment from fans and the media. But you have to win three games just to get there. Yes, a great performance in the deciding game should carry more weight because of the insane pressure. However, to give an award that covers seven games based on the performance in one, just because it is the last game, is pathetically short-sighted and plain dumb.

For those of you who would argue that Garza deserved the award for standing alone while Upton got help from Longoria (and others), I would agree. Except for one last trump card: the left arm of young David Price.

Price made three appearances, got the Rays first win of the series, closed out the clincher, surrendered no hits or runs, and recorded four of his seven outs via the whiff. He righted the ship known as the Tampa Bay bullpen, which had been taking on serious water the whole series and was threatening to turtle after blowing that seven-run lead.

He did all of this despite 14 innings of Major League experience. Despite working in alien territory; he was a collegiate starter and assumed that role in the minors.

Yes, it only covered seven batters.

But if Garza's seven great innings and six good ones add up to more value than Upton's 65 innings of excellence, how can you dismiss Price's near perfection in huge but short doses?

The answer is laziness.

If you factor in Price's performance, it diminishes Garza's. And that means going through the rigorous scientific analysis above.

On the other hand, if you succumb to the hype, there's no need. You can simply convince yourself that a great performance under the do-or-die atmosphere is all that matters.

You can convince yourself the MVP of that game is the MVP of the other six.

You can forget that there were three other wins.

You can forget that a sacrifice fly may have been the only thing that saved the Rays from a sweep.

You can forget that it is your job to watch and remember two weeks of compelling baseball.

You can forget everything except Matt Garza and seven scintillating innings.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Third Coming of Terrell Owens

One of my favorite poems is The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats. I don't know what prompted his outburst of genius that was first published in 1921. It certainly wasn't the Dallas Cowboys, and yet it's an eerie narration of the trainwreck developing around the 2008 version.

Obviously not good news for Dallas fans. Consider these lines from Yeats:

Things fall apart, the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Look at what's happened and continues to happen in Dallas since their impressive 3-0 start. They're losing to bad teams and just got rolled by one of the worst. They're starting quarterback is hurt and the general panic will probably force him back too soon. Meanwhile, Brad Johnson - well passed whatever "prime" he had - has stepped into the void by creating another. Pacman Jones, Felix Jones, and their punter have also fallen away; only Felix will definitely return. And the spectre of an unhappy Terrell Owens looms over the whole mess.

The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

As the Cowboys' wagon starts to throw wheels, it's not Tony Romo or DeMarcus Ware or Marion Barber or Wade Phillips who grabs the reins. It is Jerry Jones. He tells anyone with a camera or mic that Pacman was just having too much fun, no big deal. He consoles Terrell Owens, who is crying on the sideline during a miraculous win. He diagnoses Romo's thumb by acting as the wide receiver (a truly disturbing revelation). He trades for Roy Williams. And just wait for this week.

A shape with lion body and the head of a man; a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.

The 'boys were staring a loss from the Cincinnati Bengals right in the face until that miracle touchdown delivered them from the evil of another loss. Of course, allowing a ball to slip through the intended receiver's hands and into another's is not exactly pitiless. Nor was Dallas guaranteed a loss had the play happened differently. And it would be better if it had been the Detroit Lions. So it's a stretch; sue me.

While all about it reel shadows of the indignant desert birds; the darkness drops again.

The Cowpokes couldn't repeat the miracle against the Arizona Cardinals last week. Although they came close, in the end it was the National Football League's desert birds who really knocked Dallas off its axle. And they dropped more than the darkness of a second loss. They took out Romo, Felix Jones, and the punter in little over an hour. Even worse, they brought the harsh glare of the media into sharper focus.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards [Dallas] to be born?

That rough beast is an unhappy Terrell Owens, a truly terrifying proposition for his team's fanbase. It sounds harsh because Owens really does want to win. However, I don't think it's for the greater glory of the team. I think it's because great players win championships and he desperately wants to be considered great. It's insecurity that drives him and simultaneously prevents him from reaching his goal. Regardless, what he wants matters little compared to what he does.

Because Terrell Owens has an unblemished history of turning Super Bowl contenders into disasters.

Once upon a time and in a galaxy that seems far, far away - my San Francisco 49ers were a perennial playoff team and came oh-so-close to playing on football's grandest stage. Then T.O. blew the hole thing the smithereens. Management just finished the job.

Nobody forgets what Owens did to the Philadelphia Eagles and Donovan McNabb. They've just gotten Donovan completely out from under the bus.

And now Dallas is teetering while the vultures circle.

Yeats' opus includes a line about a blood-dimmed tide drowning the ceremony of innocence that I omitted since it seemed a little too dark for an NFL column. Even one about a team owned by the Prince of Darkness.

But some would say that's what Owens unleashed on SF and then Philly. And now he's slouching his way towards the middle of Texas.

Good luck, Dallas.