Wednesday, December 31, 2008

YIKES! The Hype Monster Slouches Towards the San Francisco Giants

This is pretty much a worst-case scenario developing right before our very eyes. The San Francisco Giants have addressed two of their lesser needs - bridging the gap between the dynamic rotation and Brian Wilson as well as acquiring a veteran shortstop who is an offensive upgrade over Omar Vizquel. However, the most glaring void remains - one of Major League Baseball's most anemic offenses has not significantly improved.

Obviously, Edgar Renteria is a step in the right direction, but he's a small and aging step.

The bigger problem is Randy Johnson. And his Cy Youngs. And his quest for 300 victories. And the seats he will put in seats. And the national spotlight he brings.

Already, Fox Sports' MLB home page has a feature running on the Orange and Black. Dayn Perry has posted a feature column on playoff aspirations (ouch). I appreciate Mr. Perry's efforts, but suggesting SF has a problem at second base and should pursue Orland Hudson proves he hasn't given the team close scrutiny.

With all due respect to O-Dog, when I wanted the Giants to sign him it was because I thought Emanuel Burriss could hold it down at short. Second base? Done and done. Hudson's redundant and more expensive at that.

Ditto his suggestion that my man Freddie Lewis can't hit enough by positional standards. Lewis flashed some surprising power and had no problem hitting Triples Alley. Will he hit 40 bombs? No, probably never. But he's got a special combination of speed and power that I'll take over a guy like Adam Dunn.

What's so damn special about 40+ taters and 200+ strikeouts? No thanks (unless of course the Giants sign him, in which case, woohoo). I'll take a low-flying Freddie Lewis every day o' the week.

Furthermore, who says the hitting bar for left field is that high? There are some flashy names at the position, but, outside of Happy Manny and Matt Holliday, the numbers won't blow your skirt up.

But back to Randy Johnson and the stir his new contract is creating. Besides Fox, the San Jose Merc has crashed the party, too.

So it's not even January and already the Giants have become a trendy dark horse in the National League West.

By signing a 45-year-old pitcher who could just as easily throw 30 innings and break down as he could turn in 200 fantastic innings.

Am I the only one who sees a problem with this picture?

The San Francisco Giants offense has gotten marginally better by replacing Omar Vizquel with Edgar Renteria. That's it. The team will see what another year of maturity will do for youngsters like Burriss, Lewis, Pablo Sandoval, and Travis Ishikawa. They can pencil in another good if unspectacular year from Randy Winn and from Aaron Rowand.

Then there's Benjie Molina.

Maybe he has another incredible year like last year, maybe he doesn't. Chances that he improves are very slim, which means the offense could easily tread water or decline. Think of how many huge hits Big Money had for SF in 2008. Can we really expect him to replicate that? As a catcher who's another year older?

I'm not so sure. I love the guy and I wouldn't hold it against him for a second, but I've gotta be realistic.

To be perfectly honest, part of this talk can be partially explained by the fact that the NL West was weak last year and the top teams have only gotten worse. Maybe it goes away once the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks start the offseason wheels turning.

But what if it doesn't? What if the Bums and Snakes only make meager moves while losing studs like Adam Dunn, Manny Ramirez (just puked a little), Orlando Hudson, Derek Lowe, the Big Unit, and Brad Penny (even though I personally know he's garbage)?

San Francisco would head into 2009 under the weight of insane expectations. Sure, a rotation that features Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Randy Johnson, Jonathan Sanchez, and Barry Zito should be expected to contend with even a below-average offense. Especially with what should be a strong bullpen and dominant closer.

Unfortunately, below-average would be a huge improvement from the 2008 Giant offense, which was absolutely awful.

Edgar Renteria is not huge improvement. Nor is one year of maturity on any of the names mentioned.

So what happens when reality sets in on a young roster? What happens when those young bats start pressing at the plate and in the field? What happens when the younger half of the rotation realizes the margin for error is even slimmer than the razor-thin 2008 version?

Young players don't often respond well to close and continuous scrutiny.

The San Francisco Giants could be contenders in the NL West next year if everything breaks right.

I'd consider a blanket being thrown over the murmuring of national buzz just such a break.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008's Top 10 Defensive Backs in the National Football League

As part of a larger series, I was asked to put together a list of the top defensive backs in the National Football League for the 2008 regular season. As I've said before, I jump at these chances because it's like making up for all the tediously boring homework assignments we got growing up. But this one was more challenging than the rest.

For one thing, I didn't have the NFL Sunday Ticket package so I didn't see that many games and I didn't see an extensive breadth of the League.

To put together a definitive and exhaustive list of the best professional football players at any position, you really have to see them play. I'm a huge believer in the eyeball test since statistics don't tell the whole story. In no sport is the eyeball test more important than football. It's just not a game that's easily or effectively approximated by numerology.

And statistics do a particularly poor job of representing defensive worth, especially in the secondary.

First, there's the issue of reputation. Those players roaming the secondary trailing a big name in their wake often don't get the chances to generate shiny numbers. A guy like Nnamdi Asomugha barely appears in the stat categories, but he is quite obviously one of the best corners in the NFL. Meanwhile, other guys pop up all over the place because quarterbacks' eyes light up whenever they see them in coverage.

A guy like Leon Hall leads the NFL in passed defended, but that's because he's had a lot of attention from QBs (and it hasn't always been pretty).

But reputation creates another kind of problem - that of empty effusiveness. A guy like Asante Samuel or Ronde Barber has that name that pops and draws rave reviews/adoration regardless of the actual performances. Barber's name cropped up on a lot of the sounding boards I used as research and Samuel garnered a Pro Bowl appearance.

Neither guy had that great a year. Barber, in particular, had some pretty embarrassing showings.

Then, there's the issue of supporting casts and opposition. How can you compare a guy who plays behind a really strong front seven against a guy whose colleagues give the opposition eons to pick him apart? Now, what if my man behind the strong seven gets the additional advantage of facing a bunch of patsies led by guys who throw like my little sister?

That's why you won't find guys like Cortland Finnegan, Antonio Winfield, or Chris Hope on my list. They all had great years, but played behind strong fronts against really weak schedules. I'm not convinced they're better than guys who had comparable years for weaker defenses and/or faced stronger opposition.

On the other hand, some guys' statistical output was so impressive that they forced my hand. They suffer from some of the above flaws, but their production was simply too thunderous to ignore.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, this is the ultimate in subjective lists. With the possible exception of linemen, elite defensive backs are the hardest to assess without seeing them. They can generate tremendous numbers or none at all. Some of the best at the position play on some of the worst teams while others enjoy the luxury of a sparkling entourage.

So, without further hemming, hawing, and premature backpedaling, here are the top 10 defensive backs in the NFL for the 2008 campaign (in reverse order):

10. Cory Webster, cornerback for the New York Giants

His stats aren't going to knock anyone over - 50 tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles, and three interceptions. However, he was amongst the leaders in passes defended while stifling some of the best receivers in the NFL. Twice he held Terrell Owens in check, Chad Ocho Sinko didn't get to bojangle with Webster attached to his hip (pre-Carson Palmer injury), and Larry Fitzgerald didn't get off either. Most impressively, Webster had a firm hand in New York's homefield-advantage clinching victory over the Carolina Panthers by keeping arguably the most uncoverable wide receiver, Steve Smith, covered to the tune of three catches and no scores.

Yes, he played behind a strong front, but the Giants played a rough schedule. Not only that, but they performed well with a bull's-eye on their backs as the defending champs.

9. Adrian Wilson, safety for the Arizon Cardinals

The Pro Bowl voting was an utter and shameful mess again this year, but the DBs were actually one of the few positions with which nobody seems to have any serious gripes. Wilson is one such selection that needs no defense. Already known as one of the NFL's most ferocious hitters, he dumped a nice year's worth of production onto the pile - 74 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, two interceptions, and five passes defended.

Of course, the Cardinals didn't exactly face the staunchest opposition. That said, his supporting cast (though much improved) still lagged behind the premier defensive squads in the League so Adrian finds his way onto the list largely by virtue of his singular brilliance.

8. Michael Griffin, safety for the Tennessee Titans

Odd that the lone Titan defensive back to make my list is the one who didn't make the Pro Bowl. Finnegan and Hope both had fine years rewarded by trips to Honolulu, but I think it's Griffin who's the most deserving. He put up a nice all-around year - 64 tackles, one sack, and one forced fumble. The most impressive thing about Griffin, though, is that he intercepted seven passes while defending 11 passes. Oh, and he returned one 83 yards for a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the battle that saw Tennessee secure homefield advantage.

Griffin surely had the luxury of a weak schedule and being surrounded by a dominant defensive unit. However, the guy seems like hands receiver who brings the wood like a linebacker - if he's in a position to defend it, he's gonna pick it off. Or he's gonna take your head off if you managed to win it.

7. Brian Dawkins, safety for the Philadelphia Eagles

Another guy who's going to Hawaii and who earned the trip. The veteran Dawkins had 75 tackles, three sacks, six forced fumbles, and an interception. Perhaps more significant is the effect of his intimidating presence on the field. Here's a guy who may have lost a step, but still brings the lumber - as his six forced fumbles (two in the playoff-clinching massacre of the Dallas Cowboys) will attest.

Sure, he draws a direct and substantial benefit from playing with guys like Samuel, Lito Sheppard, Quintin Mikell and Sheldon Brown. But Philly plays in a brutal division for pass defense and the rest of the schedule wasn't exactly soft.

6. Nick Collins, safety for the Green Bay Packers

Someone who watched the Green Bay season up-close-and-personally is gonna have to explain what went wrong. From what I've heard, Aaron Rodgers played very well and the secondary has two no-brainer selections to the Pro Bowl. Of course, that's three out of 22 players and I'm not even considering special teams, but they played in a terrible division.

Anyway, Collins would be one of those guys who played a weak schedule, but put up numbers that can't be denied. He made 69 tackles, forced a fumble, and intercepted seven passes to go with 15 passes defended from safety. Not only that, Collins returned almost half of those interceptions for scores (three). Finally, he seems to be one of the few Packers who turned it up as the playoffs slipped away.

5. Oshiomogho Atogwe, safety for the St. Louis Rams

Believe me, I'm as surprised as you are to see a Ram this high up the list of elite defensive backs in the National Football League. Fortunately, this is where he belongs after authoring 82 tackles, six forced fumbles, and five interceptions on just five passes defended. That's right, if he broke up the pass, it was because he took the ball. Even when he didn't break up the pass, you still weren't out of the woods.

Although Atogwe's Rams toiled in the decrepit National Football Conference West, their schedule was actually pretty rough due to a brutal non-division slate. Not to mention the poor supporting cast around Oshiomogho. St. Louis' dismal season makes perfect sense from this angle while Atogwe's becomes all the more luminous.

4. Charles Woodson, cornerback for the Green Bay Packers

It's nice to have a Stanford guy (my alma mater) and a Michigan guy (the college I grew up following) back-to-back in the top five. Woodson shows up here having rebounded from injury at the ripe age of 32 while playing arguably the most physically-demanding and difficult position on the field (consider how the rule changes have made cornerback a position under siege). But don't believe for a second he's here just by virtue of improbability - 63 tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble, seven interceptions, two taken back for scores, and 17 passes defended.

Woodson had the rep and lost it when injury took away his edge, which explains the numerous shots opposing QBs took at him. That the edge is back would explain snatching seven picks from on-ball coverage as opposed to doing it while playing centerfield a la the safeties on the list. And like Collins, Woodson continued his stellar play while the rest of the team seemed to cave.

3. Troy Polamalu, safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers

Ho hum. Now we're getting to the boring part of the lists where everyone knows who's coming. I'll be quick. Polamalu is a no-brainer up here. He might even be too low considering how important just his presence is. And it's not like his 2008 line - 73 tackles to go with seven interceptions and 17 passes defended - is that shabby.

But his true significance and the real reason he makes this list while playing in one of the most talented defenses is because he makes the whole thing go. Sure, the Steelers would still have a formidable defense if not for the man from Troy. No way it's the best in the League though, not without that intimidation over the middle that creates countless drops, drops that don't show up in the stat book.

2. Nnamdi Asomugha, cornerback for the Oakland Raiders

This may be the one guy who surprises you, depending on where you live or how closely you follow football. As I mentioned above, he barely pops up anywhere as far as the general public's concerned. Not on the stat pages, not on national television, not in the playoffs. Nowhere except at the Pro Bowl (quick aside: I usually think the Pro Bowl is meaningless, but this position may be an exception to that general rule). Seriously, look at his numbers - 40 tackles, one forced fumble, one interception, and nine passed defended in five games.

The only teams to really push the issue were the New England Patriots (not a bad little team), the Carolina Panthers (a legit Super Bowl contender with a confident QB, who accounted for Asomugha's lone INT), and the Kansas City Chiefs (just not that bright).

In week 12 against the Denver Broncos (a division rival who knows better than most the perils of messing with the Raider corner), Asomugha defended a single pass. That's it.

In week four against the San Diego Chargers (another division rival), he literally didn't exist on paper. No tackles, no passes defended, no interceptions, no forced fumbles. Bagel.

Of course, anyone lucky enough to watch him play knows differently. Nnamdi's a six-foot, two-inch, 210 pound blanket on a defense that saw it's share of meltdown.

1b. Mother Nature

I was gonna give it to Big Momma all by her lonesome, but I thought that would be a cop out. However, anyone who watched the 75 mile per hour wind whip around the Buffalo Bills and Pats on Sunday knows that of which I speak.

When she was at her peak in the first half, Mother Nature prevented either team from throwing a single pass into the teeth of the wind and yielded no points, swatting away a 26-yard field goal that New England was arrogant enough to attempt.

Going with the wind wasn't exactly a picnic. The two teams combined for eight passes (for 19 yds, 13 yds, 12 yds, five yds, three yds, another three yds, no gain, and an incompletion), a made 33-yard field goal, and a missed 47-yard attempt.

Conditions let up enough by the second half for business as somewhat usual, but the teams still finished the game having combined for only 20 completions on 33 attempts, 206 yards, and no passing touchdowns.

It takes a special lady to shutdown every receiver and both quarterbacks.

1a. Ed Reed, safety for the Baltimore Ravens

You know you're in another stratosphere when you can outplay Mother Nature and that's what Ed Reed has done in 2008. He tallied 41 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, and nine interceptions to lead the NFL. Reed returned two of those nine picks for touchdowns, including a 107-yard return from the back of his own endzone. Ed threw in 16 passes defended from his safety slot.

Not too shabby.

Of course, as is always the case with the all-time great players, you can't just look at the numbers.

The Ravens' safety rose to the occasion when the stakes were highest. He managed multiple thefts against the Eagles, an NFC playoff team that Baltimore had to beat to stay in the postseason hunt; the Washington Redskins, a metro-area rival and playoff contender; the Dallas Cowboys, an emotional team (this was the last game at Texas Stadium) that Baltimore needed to beat to keep control of its postseason destiny; and the Jacksonville Jaguars in the season finale to clinch a postseason berth.

Most importantly, Ed Reed teams up with Ray Lewis to give a voice to that lockerroom and an identity to that team. That makes the Baltimore Ravens a very dangerous squad going forward.

And it makes Ed Reed the best defensive back in the National Football League for 2008.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Golden State Warriors Beat the Boston Celtics: A Holiday Reminder of the NBA's Biggest Problem

I've always loved playing basketball. There is something easier about the game, about being able to turn your brain off and just go on instinct. So it is with some sadness that I throw stones at the National Basketball Association.

After all, it is a collection of the ultimate basketball players on the planet. I'd argue the ultimate athletes.

However, you cannot love the game and sit idly by while the defending NBA champions lose to the Golden State Warriors. That would be the newly-christened 27-4 Boston Celtics losing by 10 to the 9-22 boys from the City (or at least the city next to the City).

There is just no way that should ever happen, not if the Celtics exert some effort. Not if they play hard.

And don't give me that second game of a back-to-back nonsense. Or the letdown malarkey from having a 19-game win streak broken by the Los Angeles Lakers the previous night.

These are the defending champs. Champs are supposed to have enough resolve and leadership to be resilient, to be tough enough to beat the dregs of the league on their worst nights. But not in the NBA.

Not in the regular season, anyway.

This is a team that features Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. Throw in Rajon Rondo for good measure and that's a fearsome foursome that is absurd next to Golden State's quartet of Stephen Jackson, Monte Ellis, Jamal Crawford, and Cory Maggette.

Of course, the Warriors won last night featuring a top four of Stephen Jackson, Andris Biedrins, Marco Belinelli, and Ronny Turiaf.

No, that's not a typo. Golden State beat the defending NBA champs without three of its top four players. Beat 'em by 10. The Warriors actually entered the fourth quarter trailing by eight and outscored Boston by 18 with a skeleton crew.

And the Boston Celtics are by no means the only team guilty of such embarrassing performances.

It has become par for the course in the NBA to just coast through the regular season. When a rival or a top contender comes to town, the A-game gets laced up. Ditto if you go on the road for a big showdown.

But when the weak, no-name teams pop up on the schedule? Eh...

We'll let you know, Coach.

That's why I can't pay serious attention until the stretch-run starts to take shape. Once teams start staring down the barrel of playoff qualification, urgency demands effort and the games pick up. Until then, though, it's a crapshoot.

You might see Kobe Bryant drop 81 points on the Toronto Raptors. Or you might see the best team in the League sleepwalk through a spanking at the hands of one its worst. That's crap. But how can you blame the players?

Most of these guys are kids, literally. A handful might actually be teenagers when they first get drafted. Youthful immaturity and arrogance combined with millions of dollars and infinite adoration will do funny things to a person (I'm guessing here).

Furthermore, the NBA deftly removes back-to-back games from the playoff schedule, a convenient little tweak on two fronts: it enables more telecasts with less overlap and it ensures optimal effort in each game.

Of course, it also tells the player that they can't be expected to put out two nights in a row.

Let me get this straight. Great salary, legions of fans, and I don't have to try all the time? Where do I sign up?

And that's what's happening. Some members of the media make excuses such as the back-to-back stuff (these guys are professional athletes, right?). Coaches who demand effort on a daily basis are labeled Draconian and shown the door. Millionaires actually quit doing their "job" when they don't like what the coach is preaching, and that's just fine by us.

Players refuse to play hard, to earn their asinine paychecks. So, yep, Coach must be the problem. Exit stage left.

David Stern and the NBA powers-that-be have long since turned the asylum over to the lunatics.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Dear GOD, San Francisco Brings in the Big Unit

Uh oh. This one could go sideways in a big way. In a six-foot, 10-inch way. In a 45-year-old package. According to Ken Rosenthal, the San Francisco Giants are in the process of inking Randy Johnson to a one-year deal. The details are, as yet, unknown.

But the man has been in Major League Baseball for about 20 years. And he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I'm guessing the contract isn't too cheap. OK, the details just became known and the contract is based at $8 million for one year and can go as high as $13 million if stretch performs well.

That's actually a smaller base than I expected, but we'll see what Johnson has to do to trigger those incentives.

At first glance, this move makes very little sense in terms of bringing the team closer to contention. At second glance, it makes even less.

That's because Randy Johnson is only five games shy of his 300th career victory. That's right San Francisco, get ready for another record chase! And by a local boy to boot! That should sure put bottoms in seats at Pac Bell.


I thought management was serious about contending. I thought Bill Neukom was turning over a new leaf from Peter McGowan. I thought the days of putting together a really pretty paper picture were over, traded in for days of serious franchise-building.

I know, I know. It's only a one-year deal. But it's just a public relations stunt, pure and simple.

Along with the record chase, now management can point to the sparkling trio of Cy Young winners that the SF rotation boasts. Of course, only Tim Lincecum has a snowball's chance in hell of seeing that trophy again.

I'm praying for Barry Zito to become an above-average starter again. Forget about Cy Young.

And Randy is 45.

OK, that's out of my system. So what's the upside?

Well, the rotation does look terrifying if guys pitch to their potential. It features three lefties and the two weakest links are both southpaws. That usually softens the blow, but we'll see. It means SF can open with the Franchise, follow with either Zito (whose soft toss might work better in juxtaposition to Lincecum's gas) or Johnson, then trot out the Kid (Matt Cain), throw out whoever's left of Zito/Johnson, and then close with Jonathan Sanchez.

That could be a formidable five.

The problem is that Randy Johnson, who actually pitched to a respectable sub-4.00 earned run average while throwing 184 innings in 30 starts, only managed to win 11 games for a much better team than the Giants. Sure, the Orange and Black has improved this offseason, but they still can't rival the 2008 Arizona Diamondbacks for offensive production.

The problem is that Jonathan Sanchez could very well regress or plateau.

The problem is that Matt Cain could buckle under the weight of a slightly less anemic offense.

The problem is that Barry Zito is still Barry Zito, even if he keeps improving.

Most of all, the problem is STILL the offense. If ownership were serious about contending next year, they would have gone after a bat. Maybe not a huge one, but at least somebody with 15-20 homer pop. I like what I heard about the courtship of Ty Wigginton.

That still might happen. In fact, maybe the signing of a guy like Johnson - a proven winner with postseason experience - is a harbinger of just such a signing.

One can only hope so. Because, if this is San Francisco's last move before 2009's first pitch, it's gonna be business as usual at Pac Bell.

Emphasis on business.

The Best Rivalry in Major League Baseball

Every sport has its ultimate rivalry, although which one is the ultimate is usually a matter of intense debate. College football, college basketball, the National Football League, and the National Basketball Association all have their fair share. But Major League Baseball's versions have a distinct advantage because its teams play so many more games against each other every year.

As well all know, in sports, familiarity breeds contempt.

Over the course of a 162 game campaign, rivals become exceedingly familiar with each other. And exceedingly contemptuous.

So which MLB rivalry is the best?

It's a complicated question because there are so many from which to choose. Almost every club has a hated rival so the field is cluttered and each franchise's fanbase feels strongly that theirs is the most heated. Rather than investigate each one, I'm gonna dispense with the formalities and focus on the top two based on longevity, animosity, competitive balance, significance, and intangibles.

Based on those criteria, there are three that require inspection: the New York Yankees against the Boston Red Sox, the Los Angeles Dodgers against the San Francisco Giants, and the St. Louis Cardinals against the Chicago Cubs.

However, one quickly falls away.

With all due respect, the Redbirds' annual war with the Cubs can't measure up with regard to animosity. Cubbie fans are famous for their good cheer and hospitality. Cardinal fans are only marginally less so renowned for the same traits. To be sure, the fans want to win at all costs and the heat of battle can bring out the worst in both fanbases. But, when the dust settles, both sides go back to well-mannered business as usual.

This rivalry is probably the healthiest intense version in the Show.

So it's right out.

The top two rivalries are so close, let's take a closer look one criterion at a time:


The Yankees and Sox have been going at it since April 26, 1901 when the Yankees were actually the Baltimore Orioles and Boston had no official nickname. In the 107 years that have elapsed to date, the squads have squared of 1,774 times. However, you could argue that the rivalry stretches all the way back to the days before the American Revolution when Bostonites stoked the fire of unrest while loyalists in New York clung to the crown. After the war, Boston lorded its clean streets and status as the cultural center of the New World over its neighbor to the South. But New York soon caught up and surpassed Boston to cement hostilities.

And they're still at it.

But the two combatants haven't been at it on the field as long as the version that moved to California.

The Bums and Giants first squared off on May 3, 1890. For those of us who are mathematically-challenged, that's a cool 118 years, which have seen 2,301 games and three centuries. The rivalry originally started with the Dodgers in Brooklyn and the American Association. The Giants where out of New York and the National League. The two teams squared off in the first iteration of the World Series before the Dodgers joined the Giants in the NL.

Oh, and the rivalry survived a transcontinental move plus the transition from a cross-town kinship to a cross-state one. A biiiiiig state at that.

Edge: Giants/Bums


The overall comparison of the rivalries is close, but this particular criterion is the definition of a toss-up.

Bitterness may very well be defined by the relationship between a Yankee die-hard and one from Boston. This one reached into the 2008 Republican primary when Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney exchanged barbs over the subject. Don Mattingly couldn't even put the animus aside while doing a public service announcement. The 2004 comeback in the American League Championship Series authored by Boston was such a catharsis because it came against the satanic Yankees that it turned Dave Roberts into an immortal baseball god.

When Johnny Damon slouched from Boston to New York as a free agent, some Red Sox fans threw REAL dollar bills at him upon his first return to Fenway.

Needles ran so far in the red during a beanball war that actual physical hostilities erupted between Pedro Martinez and a 137-year-old Don Zimmer, with Petey chucking the old man to the ground by his head.

But the entente is no less cordial on the San Francisco-Los Angeles side of things.

In 1940, an irate Dodger fan severely beat the umpire during the game for making what the fan perceived as a pro-Giant call. Then there was the time Juan Marichal beat Johnny Roseboro over the head with a bat after Marichal hit two Dodger hitters. In 1981, Reggie Smith of Los Angeles actually jumped into the stands to go after a fan who had been taunting him. The most disturbing incident came in 2003 when a SF fan was shot and killed by a Dodger fan (of course, conflicting gang affiliations was a significant factor).

Jackie Robinson retired rather than suit up for the Giants. Of course, the Giants were actually congratulated for retiring Jackie's number 42. Get that.

Willie Mays refused to wear Dodger blue, instead finding his way back home to New York.

Just this year, Maury Wills hugged an orange and black jersey for the first time when he met Emanuel Burriss (a Giants' youngster from the same 'hood).

And both teams' fans are almost as excited to play spoiler to the nemesis as they are to see the home nine succeed.

Edge: Dead even

Competitive Balance

This pretty much a romp.

Put simply, the Yankees own the Red Sox. Boston's recent successes are making up the ground, but there's a lot to make up. In the all-time series, New York leads 993-778. The Yanks are two for three against their rivals in the ALCS. They have 26 championships to Boston's seven; 39 AL pennants to Boston's 12; and 15 division titles to Boston's six.

On the other hand, for the last several years, the rivalry has become just as lopsided in the other direction. The Red Sox have claimed two world titles since 2004 and kept New York from the playoffs this year for the first time since 1995.

The Giant-Dodger rivalry is far more even.

San Francisco leads the all-time series 1152-1132-17 (your guess regarding the ties is as good as mine). The two sides have only met in the postseason for tie-breakers with the Giants winning both times. However, the Bums have six world titles and have won four since coming West while the Orange and Black have five Word Series wins, but none since moving to the City. LA has 21 National League pennants to SF's 20 and 10 division titles to SF's six.

The competitive balance is often evinced on the field as well as in the individual achievements of each club. The two teams have routinely done battle for the pennant late into the season, doing so in 1951, 1959, 1962, 1965, 1966, 1971, 1997, and 2004.

Edge: Giants/Bums


OK, I'm a reasonable man. I understand this is a romp in the other direction. The rest of the baseball world has been hanging on each pitch of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry since 2003 when Aaron Boone's ALCS winning home run off of Tim Wakefield breathed new life into the war. Partially because of the history and emotion, but also because the winner usually has the inside track on baseball's ultimate prize.

The rivals have produced some of baseball's most legendary figures - Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Carl Yastrzmski, and Lou Gherig - and some of its most memorable scenes - Bucky Dent's homerun, Carlton Fisk's dance down the line, Schilling's damned bloody sock, and Derek Jeter charging face-first into a row of seats while chasing a foul pop-up.

The Giants and Dodgers have produced their share of royalty and glorious moments, but they simply can't contend with New York and Boston. Especially given both teams recent fall from World Series relevance.

Edge: Yankees/Red Sox


How's that for a wishy-washy, cover-my-rear criteria? Sue me.

The New York and Boston get points for pure baseball intrigue. Most notable is the sale of Babe Ruth by Boston to their hated rival in New York. Curse or not, the Bambino powered the Yankees to a period of dominance from which Boston is just now recovering. A Curse that withstood years up on years and a 14-game division lead in 1978.

Furthermore, the evolution of the rivalry has marched in relative lock-step with that of our country.

It was born in the fire of rebellion, ebbed from Boston to New York just as the prestige of the two cities once did, and returned to prominence at a time when America's global profile (never exactly low) was ratcheted to a new level.

And, if the attempt to bury a David Ortiz jersey under the New Yankee Stadium is any indication, the intrigue will not be stopping any time soon.

However, the Giants and Dodgers are not without heavy intrigue in their own right.

The Brooklyn version integrated baseball by bringing Jackie Robinson aboard. Then there is the transcontinental move made by both teams, which was initiated by Dodger owner Walter O'Mally. He knew he had a much better chance of success if he convinced another team to move West with him. The natural rivalry became his strongest and ultimately successful selling point to Giants' owner Horace Stoneham.

The baseball hostilities from New York were planted in the fertile soil of an already heated one between the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, which represented an even greater set of tensions between Northern and Southern Cali.

It's granola versus glamour and it's a battle of attrition in which the baseball manifestation has blossomed.

The result has been an uncanny knack for crushing each sides' championship dreams. One set of nine has spoiled the other's season in 1980, 1982, 1991, 1993 (the Bums were responsible for the Giants winning 103 games yet losing the Last Great Pennant Race), 1997 (a particularly brutal moment that the Dodgers are just now recovering from), and 2001.

Edge: slight to Yankees/Red Sox


When you look at the total picture, it's almost too close to call. The Giants and Bums have got the Yanks and Sox licked when it comes to longevity, but it's a close one. The same can be said of the edge owned by New York and Boston with regard to intangibles. Competitive balance is a romp in favor of the West while significance is romp in favor of the East. Finally, animosity is a dead heat.

For me, it comes down to the drama on the field and the Giants and Dodgers have generated more of it. Both sides have erupted in physical altercations on numerous occasions, but it was often out of frustration when Boston instigated them for much of the rivalry's past.

The Giants and Dodgers intensity was forged in the battles of meaningful games where hate had to overwhelm common sense before fist flew. Yet fly they did. Along with a bat.

There's also a very good chance I've undersold the significance of the early wars between the Giants and Dodgers, making that a closer win for New York and Boston.

Plus, I hold the ESPN-driven hype against the East Coast clubs. Too many times reality has failed to live up to the hype and that hurts the rivalry in my eyes. That's not fair, but neither is life.

Of course, I'm a die-hard Giants fan.

What did you think I was gonna say?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The $423 Million Media Frenzy and Why It Must Stop

Let me put it right out there - I don't really mind the New York Yankees' offseason land-grab. And that's certainly what it was. The Pinstripes used the deep Steinbrenner pockets to alter the landscape of Major League Baseball. They went from middle of the packers heading into 2009 to the prohibitive World Series favorite by grabbing the two crown jewels of free agency - CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira - as well as AJ Burnett.

They jumped right over the Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies (the defending champs still play baseball), and all the other clubs who figured to be in contention for baseball's most glittering trophy.

They leaped over these clubs and landed smack dab in the realm of superpowers. Smack dab and all alone. With a great,big, blinding spotlight about an inch from their heads.

And that's the primary reason I'm enjoying Brian Cashman's orgy of expenditure.

Maybe I'm the only one who thinks that this whole episode is much ado about nothing. For starters, how's this any different from any other free agency period?

Gotham's gents have led MLB's payroll race for the last decade, literally. Second place hasn't been closer than $15 million since 2002. The gap's gotten a whole lot bigger since then. Yet all this money on the field has translated to exactly one Word Series trip, which they lost in 2003.

To a team that spent over $100 million less and had the sixth lowest payroll in baseball.

Nor are the Yankees the only team to have unsuccessfully tried to buy a Word Series ring.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Seattle Mariners, Chicago White Sox, and Chicago Cubs have all tried to outspend the competition rather than outplay it in recent years. Only the Sox (both colors) have been successful since the Angels payroll was not outrageous when they won in 2002.

Several have been miraculous failures.

What makes all the furor even more confusing is that several of the smallest markets have produced franchises that prove being and staying competitive doesn't require hundreds of millions of dollars. Clubs like the Oakland As, Rays, Florida Marlins, Minnesota Twins, and Milwaukee Brewers have shown that endless futility cannot be blamed on economics.

As much as the owners of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals would love you to believe the opposite.

To be sure, the large markets and huge revenue streams help the big boys stay competitive with a wider margin for error. That perhaps should be trimmed by heating up the luxury tax while requiring owners to put a portion on the field. Still, the wider margin for error is just an advantage and an obviously surmountable one, if such is demanded of ownership.

And that margin is not getting bigger, yet. New York's junior circuit ballclub has trimmed quite a bit from its books this year, which it's now replacing quickly. However, the point remains that the franchise is not adding these contracts to its 2008 payroll.

I guess the fuss is because people think the Yanks got the right guys this year.

I'm not so sure.

Sabathia looks to be the real deal. But I've thought about the guy long and hard since my beloved San Francisco Giants seemed to be chasing him. My conclusion was that the guy is a stud, but he raises enough flags to be wary of anointing him as a sure thing worthy of a huge/long contract.

There's his weight, which has been covered extensively. I don't see that as a huge problem since he can choose to control it if the extra poundage ever becomes an issue. More significant in my mind is the wear he's recently seen.

That'd be 494 innings worth of wear in the last two years with another 192+ in 2006. In fact, since entering the Show in 2001, he's never thrown less than 180 innings in a campaign.

I realize he'll only be 28 next year and the flip side to this is that he's a reliable innings eater. But those are a lot of innings with a lot of pitches already eaten by young arm. Furthermore, a substantial portion of them came on short rest last year.

But there's one other thing...what was it? Oh yeah.

CC Sabathia has gotten torched in the postseason. Check it: 25 innings, an earned run average a hair under 8.00, a WHIP over 2.00, and only two more strikeouts than walks.

Now look at the other shiny new toy, Mark Teixeira.

Again, another unquestionable stallion. He's splendid with the splinter and glorious with the glove. And, again, he was underwhelming in the playoffs last year. I know he hit .467. You know what his slugging percentage was? That very same .467.

Furthermore, I watched that Boston-Los Angeles series. I'm sure a lot of you did as well. Did any of us come away thinking, "man, if only that Mark Teixeira had a little help." Frankly, I don't remember a damn thing about his series except for that one amazing defensive gem he flashed.

What about AJ Burnett?

What about AJ Burnett - he's a quality arm that's injury prone and unproven on the highest stage.

So what do I think? I think the Yankees just spent $423 million to almost guarantee they make the playoffs. Of course, 2008 was the first year they missed the playoffs since 1995 so I don't see how that's reason for general hysteria.

Other than that? I'm not sure.

That's the reason I LOVE baseball. Talent is only half the story, maybe not even half. You can have all the talent in the world and it won't help you if you can't handle the pressure. It won't matter if you can't access it while staring down a Major League pitcher or hitter with 40,000+ in the stands and millions more watching on television.

It is not a game where you can simply let your athletic instinct and prowess take over.

You must think. You must process. You must relax. You must have control of your mental faculties otherwise $432 million worth of talent looks like a high school junior varsity squad on an all-dirt infield.

Sabathia, Teixeira, and Burnett could all flourish in the New York pressure cooker and into the playoffs. I'm judging them on little or no sample size at all. But, despite Scott Boras' assurances and despite their price tags, nothing is certain.

Well, one thing is certain.

The New York Yankees will be expected to win the World Series in 2009. To win it easily. Anything less will be a colossal failure. The shorter they fall of that expectation, the more absurd and ridiculous they will become.

Oh, and they'll be hated by every single fan not sporting the royal emblem or pinstriped jerseys.

Now that I think about it, that spotlight might actually be ON their heads.

It's gonna make seeing those October pitchers even harder.

And I think we'll get the last laugh.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

All I Want for Christmas Is...Ty Wiggington?

That's right Santa, don't look at me like that. The San Francisco Giants flirted with CC Sabathia just long enough to convince us die-hards that the boys are serious about competing next year while also (and wisely) battening down for the long haul.

Now, there's a rumor they're after Ty Wiggington. If management inked him, I'd consider it good news since he makes the most sense for the Orange and Black.

Huh, there's a sentence I never thought I'd enter into permanent recording.

However, I'm serious. Wiggington would be about as perfect a piece as is currently available. He's not exactly a spring chicken, but at 31, he's still in the window that most experts consider a player's prime.

Granted, the window is just about closed.

But he's a relative bargain despite being slated for a raise from his salary of $4.35 million last year. It's pure and utter conjecture, but I'd imagine SF could grab him for $6 million or less per year for a couple years. That'd be about a ~35 percent raise and it'd still be a soft contract to absorb if it went south.

Considering all the gloom and doom the professional sports are trying to sell in the worsening economy, it's possible San Francisco could snare him for less.

Regardless, I think that's a good price for a guy who can play pretty much anywhere except shortstop, catcher, and center. Wiggington seems like a reliable .275 hitter and launched 23 bombs last year in only 386 at-bats. The power is a little misleading because the Houston Astros' home park is almost literally a bandbox.

No way he approaches that homer total in the cavernous confines of Pac Bell. No. Way.

Ty might hit 23 taters, but only if he sees 500 ABs. Of course, that would have led the team this year by a leap and a bound. Wrap it all together and you have a flex fielder who'll ogle .300 for most of the season, hit 15-20 dongs, drive in about 80 runs, and all for the paltry price of $6 million a year for a couple years.

That sentence sounds crazy and it is, yet it's unfortunately true in modern Major League Baseball.

Furthermore, the rumor looks just as rosy from a different angle.

Figure the Giants are not done yet making moves this offseason. If that's the case, check out some of the other hitters available (I think it's safe to say the rotation and pen is set for the most part) - Jason Giambi, Milton Bradley, Orlando Hudson, Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn, Manny Ramirez, and Mark Teixeira.

Those guys are either outrageously expensive (Burrell, Abreu, Dunn, Ramirez, Teixeira), old (Giambi), or unnecessary (Hudson, Bradley). Some are a combination of all three. The most attractive, Big Tex, is rep'd by Scott Boras.

That man disgusts me and I want no more part of him than we're already forced to stomach.

If SF went after any of them, it'd be a mistake and signing Wiggington would make such a counterproductive pursuit unlikely. That makes him all the more attractive in my eyes.

Obviously, Ty Wiggington won't turn the Giants into a championship contender. The best-case scenario would probably see him being a substantial (though not critical) piece in a playoff push. At worst, he'd be a lateral step.

Considering some of the lumps of coal still available on the market, that's just fine by me.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Football Gods Must Be Crazy

Has everyone picked up the pieces yet? Good lord, Sundays like yesterday almost make me glad my San Francisco 49ers have been awful for so long. Really. A come-from-behind, 17-16 win over the 2-13 St. Louis Rams that was too ugly to watch made Niner fans one of the few such bases smiling when the dust settled.

SF sits at 6-9 and it looks like even the Yorks can't scuttle the ship that Mike Singletary seems to have righted. No playoffs this year, but things finally look to be headed in the right direction at Candlestick.

The rest of the National Football League though? That's where the gods went to work.

They reached down and absolved Bill Belichick of his past sins while confirming Brett Favre's. By sending a snow storm to Seattle in Ol' Bert's luggage, they opened the postseason door for the New England Patriots and virtually slammed it shut on the New York Jets.

If you believe that truth outs, the football gods just said Spygate was much ado about nothing. Why?

Because there was a snowstorm in Seattle in December. Because Brett Favre has not won on the West Coast in 2008 against the offal of the NFL. Because the Pats only need a Miami loss in New Jersey in December and a win against the lowly Buffalo Bills (a team that has yet to win in its division) to cartwheel into the playoffs. Because the Pats might just qualify for the second season after losing Tom Brady in game one. Because New England has done it while relying on a quarterback who hadn't started since high school.

Hey, I'm with the football gods on this one.

My coaches always told us that, in sports, if you're not cheating, you're not trying hard enough. Obviously, this is a bit tongue-in-cheek. No one would advocate the substance abuse and other extremes to which some athletes take this maxim, but there is a kernel of truth. This is SPORTS, not life-or-death.

The man was looking for an advantage in a GAME and got caught. Oops. And it's not like whatever info that was on the tape was the sole reason for the win. It certainly helped, but not as much as players' effort.

Furthermore, if you think all these games are decided on the complete level, you don't know very much about the competitive drive that powers these athletic juggernauts. Most of the owners, general managers, coaches, and players want to win at all costs. That includes bending a rule here or there.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, the football gods.

The Jets, on the other hand, found themselves on the opposite end of the gods' favor. And they can thank the OLD Gunslinger.

Ol' Bert has almost completed his total regression from midseason hero. It started with several inexplicable losses, gathered momentum (or rather Favre gave it some) when the annual retirement talk surfaced, and reached a crescendo against the Seahawks. He got thoroughly outplayed by Seneca Wallace in conditions that Favre supposedly lives for.

Now, only a win over Miami at home can give New York even a glimmer of hope. But it's a really, really faint glimmer.

They'd need the Pats to lose in Buffalo, which is possible and highly unlikely. Or they'd need the Baltimore Ravens to lose at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars with a trip to the playoffs on the line. Raise your hand if you think Ray Lewis and Ed Reed allow that to happen.

Me neither.

I bet Favre ends the season on a high note at home to deliver his adoring (and somewhat delusional) fans another winning season full of pretty numbers to worship. Another totally empty winning season full of pretty numbers where he choked away the things of real importance to a team.

The football gods were not through.

Before leaving the American Football Conference, they cursed the Denver Broncos at home with a loss to those Bills in a battle that saw Jay Cutler and company holding a 13-0 lead at one point. In Tampa Bay, they blessed the San Diego Chargers with a win against a Buccaneers team that had not lost a game at home in 2008. Their handiwork set up a pillow fight in San Diego for all the marbles in the AFC West and a first-round playoff exit.

The Tampa Bay-San Diego Charger game must have tickled the football gods, must have showed them all the mischievous potential of the National Football Conference.

When the country went to sleep Saturday night, the Dallas Cowboys were a cooked Christmas goose, complete with fork.

When we went to sleep Sunday night, the Dallas Cowboys were back behind the wheel of their playoff destiny. Wait, what?

It took the aforementioned and improbable win by San Diego on the road in Tampa. It took an equally inexplicable loss by the white-hot Philadelphia Eagles against a bumbling Washington Redskins squad. What's more, that Eagle loss required a game-saving tackle on at the goal line as the final seconds ticked away and the Iggles' postseason flatlined.

The result was a blessing for the 'pokes, who just sent Texas Stadium into the sunset by beating the arena to spectacular implosion.

There was also the Atlanta Falcons, who went on the road to beat the Minnesota Vikings in a game that saw a Matt Ryan fumble become an Atlanta touchdown. That's not so remarkable except the game also saw the Vikings fumble seven times - SEVEN!


And there's still another week of the regular season.

So put on your hard hats, NFL fans. If yesterday was any indication, this Sunday should be raining Coke bottles.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Niners' Fans Take on the Top 10 Moments in Texas Stadium History

As a loyal (though not die-hard) fan of the San Francisco 49ers, I'm in an odd position. I grew attached to the Niners soon after moving to the Bay Area in 1987, which means I was in full throat by the time the Dallas Cowboys routinely crushed Steve Young and the boys. Naturally and despite ultimately getting over the Star-shaped hump, those wounds have left scars of deep and abiding animosity for the 'pokes.

Since the sports networks feature all things Dallas so prominently, I grabbed these many opportunities to point out how ridiculous some of the coverage is.

As a result, I've gained some visibility in the Cowboys' community on Bleacher Report and have been asked to write a Top 10 list for Texas Stadium as a pseudo-eulogy (little known secret - tonight's game against the Baltimore Ravens is almost certainly the last Cowboys' game on the hallowed turf).

That's odd.

Because my top two moments are Terrell Owens basking in God's glory while standing on the Star at midfield and Leon Lett's inexplicable stupidity against Miami with the entire country watching on Thanksgiving Day.

But that's not fair nor is it accurate.

As much as I dislike the Cowboys and Jerry Jones, you can't send a stadium that has seen its share of great moments out like that. As much as I'd like to, it and the franchise deserve their moment.

So, without further ado, an attempt at an objective list of the top 10 greatest moments in the history of Texas Stadium, home to a team I love to hate (in the sports' sense of the word):

10. Southern Methodist University soils the field one last time.

I don't know the exact date and I don't know what happened. What I do know is that, from 1979 until some point in 1986, the SMU Mustangs called Texas Stadium home. That last year, the NCAA handed down the first and only Death Penalty to a university's athletics program. It's been called the nuclear bomb of sanctions - used once in the most extreme case and never used again because of the horror it wrought (again, in the sports' sense).

This is the college athletics' scandal that set the bar for all those that followed.

Between 1975 and 1985, SMU got hit with probation five times. In '85, the NCAA placed the football program on probation for three years due to recruiting violations involving an assistant coach and boosters. Then, it hit the fan.

An investigation of the program (with the help of former players) uncovered a slush fund set up to compensate SMU football players for their time and effort. Even worse, the payments continued despite the probationary period. With the full knowledge and voluntary cooperation of the athletic department staff (they didn't want to leave their guys high-and-dry).

And boom goes the dynamite.

The NCAA terminated the program for the 1987 season, SMU terminated it for the 1988 season, and it has yet to recover. In an effort to emphasize the clean start when the program resumed in 1989, home games were moved to another location. As if Texas Stadium were somehow a co-conspirator.

Quite the contrary.

The stain was SMU football and the day it was bleached from Texas Stadium was one of the arena's best.

9. Leon Lett actually becomes a Thanksgiving turkey before our very eyes.

Ah, this is one of my fonder football memories. As is Don Beebe knocking the ball away from a prematurely celebrating (and morbidly obese) Lett before the latter could cross the goal line in the Super Bowl.

But that play only mattered because it cost Dallas the record for most points in a Super Bowl (currently owned by my Niners, thank you very much).

This one was quite a bit dumber and quite a bit more costly.

We all remember it. Miami's going for a long field goal to win the game. It's Thanksgiving Day 1993, every football fan in the country is watching because these are the days when both teams are relevant (as well as trying), and it's almost a white-out on the field in Dallas. The kick is blocked and, while the rest of the team celebrates, Professor Lett charges down to recover the ball, slides on the snow/ice, manages to kick it instead, Miami recovers, and kicks a much shorter field goal to win.

Of course, the Cowboys would ultimately raise another championship trophy that year so Lett got the last laugh.

8. The Triplets go into the Ring of Honor on Monday Night.

Forget about the actual game. I won't even mention what happened on the field that night (September 20, 2005). The real event was at halftime. Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, and Emmitt Smith entered the Dallas Cowboys' fabled Ring of Honor as a unit. As it should have been.

You could argue that all three are underrated because of the collective excellence. YOU could argue that; I will not.

The fact remains, the Triplets delivered three titles to Big D. During the 1990s, they set the bar for championship contention in the National Football League. The offensive line was also revolutionary, but these three guys were the payload. Other teams (Young's championship club in particular) were built to beat the Cowboys and their damned Triplets.

They single-handedly kept Steve Young from ascending to Joe Montana's heights.

Let's move on.

7. Emmitt Smith breaks Sweetness' all-time rushing record.

This was another moment more significant for what it represented than the actual instant on the field. It was a rough year for Dallas and a rough year for Smith, who would ultimately slump off to Arizona before hanging 'em up. October 27, 2002 would be no different. Dallas lost the game to the Seattle Seahawks, wouldn't make the playoffs, and would finish in last place.

But the 11-yard rush that broke Walter Payton's astounding total put the cherry on top of one of the greatest careers ever produced by an NFL running back.

For that reason, alone, it makes the list.

6. Clint Longley relieves Roger Staubach, and then tries to retire him.

OK, so this didn't all happen in one game. But the story is pretty shocking while being utterly ridiculous.

The good part for Longley actually happened on November 28, 1974 in Texas Stadium. In another stellar example of the bitter and dangerous intensity that exists between two rivals, the Washington Redskins came into the game gunning for Staubach. They openly boasted of their plan to knock him unconscious. If they did that, game over because the back-up (Longley) was trash.

And that's just what happened. Staubach left for good and Longley entered facing a 16-3 deficit.

Even at home, a 13-point hole is a lot to make up against a heated rival. Improbably, that's just what Longley did. He marched the 'pokes all the way back to ultimately win the game on a 50-yard bomb with less than a minute left.

Of course, two years later Longely sucker-punched ol' Roger and that was the end of Clint Longley.

5. Terrell Owens looks to the heavens for praise, but gets George Teague's shoulder pad instead.

C'mon. You knew it was gonna be somewhere and it has to be a top five moment.

First, everyone remembers it. September 24, 2000. It was arguably this date or the Sharpie Incident that vomited forth the current version of TO. I vote for this one since we loved him for it in San Francisco. In a sense, it gave him a false sense of security - be a disrespectful jackass and someone will always adore you. They will make you a hero.

The Sharpie Incident gave him a lot of attention, but few people were congratulating him on his sense of leadership.

Second, it had to be a sweet moment for Dallas fans as well. TO got away with his first Star-gaze by surprising everyone. He wasn't so lucky the second time. Owens went back to the Star in a game SF would ultimately win 41-24 and Teague leveled him. The Dallas crowd went crazy.

So did the players.

Third, Terrell Owens went from authoring the most disrespectful moment in Texas Stadium history to a proud member of the franchise that calls it home. Only on a team owned by Jerry Jones.

4. The Triplets make one last ride to the Super Bowl over Brett Favre in 1996.

On January 14, 1996, the Dallas Cowboys won the National Football Conference Championship for the last time to date. On the way to their last Super Bowl title to date. They emerged victorious despite facing a fourth quarter deficit built by the Most Valuable Player of the League and its Offensive Player of the Year, Brett Favre.

Favre gun-slinged his way to a three-point lead in the ultimate stanza and turned it over to the Minister of Defense, Reggie White, and the Green Bay Packer defense.

But, powered by the fumes on which the Triplets were running (Smith was banged up, ditto Aikman, and Irvin had started to self-destruct), the Cowboys prevailed. Early in the game, Smith kept them close with his legs while Aikman did his part, throwing two scores to Irvin.

However, when the chips were down, Dallas turned to #22. Smith, as he so frequently did in those days, pushed the Cowboys ahead and put it away with another score after an interception.

Dallas won the de facto Super Bowl (although they had to wait to pick up the hardware until they officially dispatched the Pittsburgh Steelers) and Favre had to wait another year for his Super Bowl.

3. Staubach makes his last stand at Dallas' Alamo against the Washington Redskins.

I never saw the man play, but Roger Staubach was supposedly a sight to behold. Apparently, he was Joe Montana 1.0. Or Joe Cool was Staubach 2.0. Either way, his credentials back up the comparison.

This game was the last of his 21 fourth-quarter resurrections. It was the last of 14 to come in the final two minutes of a game. Even more impressively, it came in his last regular season game and vaulted the 'pokes into a division title.

The real icing on the cake, though, was that it bounced the hated 'skins out of the postseason. Roger sent them packing for fishing trips and family vacations rather than a first round playoff game.

Captain Comeback followed Washington into the NFL sunset only a week later and his trip was for good. But December 16, 1976 was one last, little treat for the fans before the curtain came down.

2. Staubach christens Texas Stadium with its first playoff win over the 49ers.

This is the first of the bitter pills for me to swallow, although I wasn't a Niner fan (nor born) at the time since it happened on January 2, 1972. The stadium had opened several months earlier and it still had that new-car smell. The Niners came into town looking to avenge the upset they had suffered at the hand of these same Cowboys a year earlier in San Fran.

It didn't happen.

Staubach and his mates never let the Niners into the game, surrendering only three points. Roger didn't throw for much, but he led his team in rushing and the victory catapulted Dallas to its first Super Bowl Championship.

Not bad for the first playoff game in Texas Stadium's history.

1. Jimmy Johnson's mouth writes a check that his team has no problem cashing.

This one's gonna hurt a LOT worse.

“We will win the ballgame, and you can put that in three-inch bold headlines.” That's all it took to inspire life-long bitterness and antipathy from an entire fanbase. To this day, I dislike Jimmy Johnson and his mouth. I've never encountered a man who is more impressed by himself than ol' Jimmy. To me, he is a joke and will remain one.

Maybe he was drunk when he called the local radio station, that's the rumor. More importantly, he was right on January 23, 1994 in Irving, Texas.

The game was never in doubt. Dallas jumped out to a 28-7 lead and it didn't even matter that Aikman left the game, concussed. The Cowboys rolled over Steve Young and my Niners (again) and didn't stop rolling until they raised their second consecutive Lombardi Trophy.

If the game wasn't already bad enough, the disappointment followed on the heels of a baseball season that saw the San Francisco Giants win 103 games and miss the playoffs.

The final nail was driven home by Bernie Kosar. BERNIE KOSAR!

There are a handful of games that might make other lists - Tony Romo's debut, Jason Garrett outdueling Brett Favre, the first game the Triplets took the field together, etc. No list will be definitive.

The only hedging I'll do is this: If Dallas manages to beat Baltimore in the final game tonight, I'd put it in my top three. With all that's on the line, the caliber of the opponent, the recent turmoil, and the fact that it's Texas Stadium's swan song?

A win tonight would be the perfect way to blow the final whistle on Texas Stadium.

Something tells me it will happen with all those ghosts smiling down through the open roof.

With all the greats watching the place they called home for so long and will do so one last time.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Peyton Manning: Let's Hold Our Horses

As I'm prone to do, I'll open with an admission: I'm not a fan of the Indianapolis Colts or Peyton Manning. I tend to think both are overrated, which naturally irritates me. It's not fair since neither the team nor the elder Manning can control it, but it's the truth (that they irritate me, not that they're overrated - that's my opinion).

That might make some of you discredit the rest off the bat and that's cool. I ain’t mad at ya.

Last night's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars is a perfect microcosm of why I don't think Peyton Manning can ever be rated a top five quarterback of all-time. Not unless he wins at least another Super Bowl or two.

He looked awesome and he led his team to a comeback victory on the road. But, good LORD, how many times did he even have to shift in the pocket? Forget leave it. And that's always been my problem with Manning. Sure, he puts up insane numbers, but he doesn't pass the eye test.

Let's be clear, I am NOT saying Peyton Manning isn't one of the greatest QBs of all-time.

I repeat, I am NOT saying he isn't a great QB. He is undeniably one of the greatest ever. This year is perhaps his best to date and I'm more inclined to cast my vote (if I had one) for him as the National Football League's Most Valuable Player as 2008 winds down. He's putting up another great numerical campaign while leading his team to big wins without the presence of even a decent running game.

However, therein lies the problem.

This is the first year he hasn't been surrounded by Pro Bowlers at all the skill positions. In past years, Peyton's had the full compliment of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Joseph Addai, Dallas Clark, Brandon Stokely, and/or Edgerrin James. Not every QB would look as phenomenal as Manning with such options, but most would look pretty good.

And the most devastating weapon in Peyton Manning's arsenal has always been his offensive line.

That line protects him from pressure the same way it saves me from accusations of being a homerific hypocrite.

Heretofore, I'm holding Peyton Manning's supporting cast against him, yet I don't do the same for Steve Young. To a degree, the accusation is warranted because Young had some pretty stellar players, coaches, and offensive plans to rely upon.

Notice I don't throw Joe Montana in there?

That's because I'm not a fan of comparing players across generations. Look at some guys from Joe Cool's protectorate: Steve Wallace - 6'4", 301 lbs. is big, but not huge; Harris Barton - 6'4", 292 is big, but not huge; Guy McIntyre - 6'3", 290 is getting smaller; Jesse Sapolu - 6'4", 278 smaller; Randy Cross - 6'3", 259 while sometimes taking snaps at CENTER; and Tom Rathman - 6'1", 230 as a blocking fullback.

Uh, there are some wide receivers in the League right now who would blow through some of those guys. You can't tell me comparing Joe's exploits against Manning's is apples to apples. Such an exercise isn't meaningless and is fun, but it's certainly not a discussion from which concrete conclusions can be drawn.

It’s just not the same game.

Besides, Joe Cool won two Super Bowls before Jerry Rice showed up and four total. I understand he always had Bill Walsh and the West Coast offense. You still need players.

The only modern quarterbacks I'd put in the argument with Montana are Tom Brady and John Elway. Both come up short at the moment, but I think Brady eventually shoots by Joe Cool. I don't like saying it, but that's the way of sports.

You're the best of all-time for a while, you hope your reign is long, and you graciously step aside when the Next Sh*t comes ‘round.

Consequently, comparing Young and Manning is much more realistic since both played while/after the Dallas Cowboys offensive line revolutionized the game in the 1990s. And I'd be a HUGE hypocrite except Peyton Manning’s offensive line is vastly superior to Young’s version.

Look at the sack totals versus quarterback ratings of each player:

Peyton Manning:

Year Sacks QB Rating
1998 22 71.2
1999 14 90.7
2000 20 94.7
2001 29 84.1
2002 23 88.8
2003 18 99
2004 13 121.1
2005 17 104.1
2006 14 101
2007 21 98
2008 13 93.8

Steve Young:

Year Sacks QB Rating
1985 21 56.9
1986 47 65.5
1987 3 120.8
1988 13 72.2
1989 12 120.8
1990 8 92.6
1991 13 101.8
1992 29 107
1993 31 101.5
1994 31 112.8
1995 25 92.3
1996 34 97.2
1997 35 104.7
1998 48 101.1
1999 8 60.9

I’ve said repeatedly that I’m not a pure stat guy and this case is no different. I don’t think the above proves anything, but it’s still informative. Young’s QB rating is all over the place while Manning’s pretty closely tracks his sack totals. Furthermore, look how many more times Steve Young saw the turf.

I know Young was a running QB and that distorts the situation, as do his days spent in NFL purgatory (Tampa Bay in ‘85/’86) and on the bench behind Montana (’87-’91). But the fact remains that, while Young had a similar cast at the skill positions, his offensive line didn’t compare to Peyton’s modern version.

Additionally, Young’s performance doesn’t appear to be particularly dependent on his offensive line’s dominance. Some of his best statistical seasons came while getting planted on a routine basis. The same cannot be said about Peyton.

When he is hassled on a regular basis, his play suffers.

Don’t get me wrong. Manning is the master of subtle shifts inside the pocket. He’s like that guy on the pick-up courts who isn’t particularly fast or quick, can’t jump very high, and is altogether physically unimpressive. But he’s got great touch, knows his game perfectly, and excels at those little bumps that create an extra inch or two of space to get off his shot (which usually goes in).

But how many QBs in the NFL wouldn’t excel at the same if they knew it was all they had to do? For the vast majority of their careers? How many QBs couldn’t put that nice tight spiral and touch on the ball while throwing with the confidence born from security? I bet a lot would love the chance.

And that, more than anything, is what I saw in the Jacksonville game.

I saw Manning rarely unable to sit back comfortably and step into his throw. There were a couple occasions where he was harried, but he threw the ball 34 times. Nobody’s perfect (not even Peyton who connected on 29 of those throws for 364 yards and three touchdowns, wow). I saw an offensive line that routinely gave him four or five seconds to find targets.

That’s just unusual.

Again, Peyton Manning is a very special quarterback and athlete. I’m not saying your average professional QB could switch places seamlessly. What I am saying is that there’s enough evidence to suggest that, without his offensive line, Manning would be nowhere near the player he is.

Such what-ifs are never enough to overwhelm real-world performance. You can’t deny that Peyton Manning’s career numbers and Super Bowl title put him amongst the best to ever call signals in the NFL.

But until he shows me he can do it without the deck stacked so much in his favor, I can’t consider him alongside guys like Brady, Elway, Young, or Brett Favre.

If Peyton Manning wins another Super Bowl title, I’d have to rethink it. If he wins another couple, it’s a no-brainer and he’s in.

Until then, though, I guess I’m in the minority.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

NHL Hockey: Who the Hell Is Steering the Ship?

Let's get one thing clear: I rarely venture into the National Hockey League waters; I'm galeophobic (just kidding - I love the ocean, but I do almost always contemplate a shark attack when I go in).

To be blunter: I know absolutely nothing about hockey. I've never been to a professional game and I couldn't name you more than 10 players in the league. I've heard of somebody like Sidney Crosby, but I couldn't tell you with any certainty whether Mario Lemeiux is still playing (don't think he is).

So take this with a rather large grain of rock salt. This whole Sean Avery episode makes me think there are several villages somewhere sans idiots.

First and foremost, Sean Avery seems like a world-class tool. From all accounts, he's the Barry Bonds of hockey - aloof, arrogant, stupidly self-destructive, and generally cancerous in the clubhouse - except he lacks the same talent and/or resume. Several of his teammates have anonymously gone on the record as wanting nothing more to do with him. Others have attached their names to less inflammatory, but similarly dismissive entries.

Nor does this seem to be a new development.

Avery's history looks to be full of powerful figures in the NHL lobbing negative accusations at him. Accusations that he lacks respect for the game, which has brought him millions of dollars and a type of celebrity, are not uncommon.

Furthermore, I don't get how you can be a tough guy while keeping abreast of women's fashion, playing with dolls, and rocking those shades. Maybe it's just me.

It's not - over 66 percent of the NHL listed the man-child as the most hated player in the league during the 2007 season.

So, in a way, the six game suspension and anger management make sense as punishment for his disparaging remarks.

However, in a much larger and more significant way, the punishment makes absolutely no sense.

Gary Bettman certainly was right to slam the guy, but the only effective measure for this idiot is to denounce and then ignore him. Any individual who has a publicity agent is clearly looking to get his name out there in the bright lights.

Like it or not, blowing the episode into a huge controversy is doing just that.

If you want proof, this article is it - I couldn't care less about hockey and yet, here I am writing about it. That's not to demean hockey as a sport; these are undoubtedly some of the toughest and most athletic individuals in the business of pro sports. I'd be willing to acknowledge them as tougher than football players; I know football players are bigger, but hockey players move faster. Much faster since ice has a significantly lower friction coefficient than grass or turf.

And I'm not sure which is a scarier proposition, a puck in the face off a big stick or a blind-side cruncher from the likes of Ray Lewis.

It's just that I've never played the game, never had any close friends who did so, and I consequently have no inherent interest in it.

On the other hand, I am (like most people) interested in controversy and injustice.

Believe it or not, Bettman has just thrown fuel on the fire of both.

To a casual observer, the NHL looks like a violent game. Most of the headlines we pay attention to are of the Marty McSorley and Todd Bertuzzi ilk. So we know that the league's landscape includes enforcers whose tactics border on attempted homicide. At the very least, it includes two of them.

We also read that both those guys saw suspensions of less than 24 games before returning to the ice.

A little research reveals the exploits of another prize individual named Chris Simon. This bright beacon of humanity received 25 games for a slash to the face in March of 2007, then 30 games for stomping on a guy's leg (presumably wearing his skates) in December of the same year. The last was his seventh - SEVENTH - suspension.

These are just the more recent and most egregious examples. There are other, equally horrendous attacks that received the same, if not lighter, sentences.

So, in a league that sees physical assaults bordering on the criminal, how does a six game suspension for a verbal attack make sense? After all, Avery's words were colossally stupid and offensive, but they don't seem entirely untrue.

His statement certainly wasn't illegal as Elisha Cuthbert is a public figure nor did he explicitly state a name.

What makes matters worse is that the line I see trotted out to defend the suspension most often is that nobody associated with the league wants to explain to their children what "sloppy seconds" means.


So how does ensuring the matter gets splashed across every sports website and television station solve that problem?

Answer? It doesn't.

Just like the Vatican's boycott of the Da Vinci Code guaranteed it would become a cultural phenomenon and the Westboro Baptist "Church" does more than any gay-rights activist to generate sympathy for homosexuals, Bettman's handling of the situation absolutely promises that more and more parents will have to answer the very question he seems intent on avoiding.

And it almost ensures similar episodes in the future.

My youth taught me several lessons very well: Never hit a girl; sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you; and the best way to end an annoyance is to ignore it.

First, my parents taught me not to hit girls. Then, my older sister taught me the truth of the other two by example - she'd call me a name, I'd call her a name, she'd kick me in the goodies, and I'd have several minutes on the ground in painful nausea to contemplate who got the better of the exchange. At some point, it must have occurred to me that ignoring her was the best way to preserve my future generations.

The lesson came in handy once my younger sister got me in her sights.

I point this out because modern pro sports seem to have completely forgotten these childhood lessons; it's not a problem exclusive to the NHL.

Think Rush Limbaugh and his comments about Donovan McNabb. Think Terrell Owens. Think Chad Ocho Sinko. Think John Rocker (OK, he might have simply been dumb). Think Ron Artest. Think Stephon Marbury. All of these individual were/are just looking for attention.

And that's exactly what we give them.

Bettman has done just that and more. I mean, McSorly and Bertuzzi literally could have killed the guys they attacked. And their suspensions were less than four times as long as Avery's. How the hell does that make sense?

I understand the NHL is facing some serious public relations concerns and Avery's antics couldn't have been more poorly timed, but you don't put out an oil fire with water.

You certainly don't use gasoline.

Unfortunately, the powers-that-be of our beloved pro sports don't seem to be aware of any other options.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Curse of Barry Sanders

It's no secret that the Detroit Lions are staring down the barrel of a winless season. This isn't another article pointing out their futility or their increasing likelihood of posting a bagel in the win column for the 2008 National Football League season. I've written one of those already.

In my defense, I wrote it in mid-November when the De-clawed Cats were 0-10 so it's not as cheap a kick to the groin as writing one now that they sit 0-14.

Now that they have only two chances to avoid historical putridity.

One in Detroit against a vastly superior New Orleans Saints team whose playoff pulse is barely beating, but beating nonetheless. And then a roadie at Lambeau Field against a division rival that's already angry at the torment promised by an offseason spent watching the postseason on television. Those are two tall orders, even for a team as desperate as Detroit.

Nah, like I said, this isn't about the Lions' 2008 futility.

It's about why 2008 is just another in a long line of hideously incompetent seasons for the franchise. About why, if you told an NFL fan that a team failed to win a game in 16 tries and they had one guess to name the squad, I'd bet 90 percent would tab the Lions in any given year.

It's a better reason than I've previously given for saying, "#*&% the Detroit Lions."

That would be a brief and blinding flash of brilliance that Detroit's feculence prematurely snuffed out. That would be Barry David Sanders.

Before I go into Sanders, I've gotta thank James Williamson. In a back-and-forth over his favorite topic, the Dallas Cowboys, I mentioned something I heard on the NFL Network. His response was one of obvious envy that my satellite provider carried the channel.

Up until that moment, I only tuned in to watch the Sunday morning pregame show and the games to which the network had the rights. James' remark got me thinking that there might be more to it than that. After all, the pregame show is good, but ESPN's is better.

Additionally, the games to date have fallen well short of spectacular.

Still, James knows his football so I figured there must be something more to it.

I'm sure this isn't news to many of you, but there is. A whole lot more.

It was in the process of this discovery that I ran across a show dedicated to the top 10 most elusive running backs in NFL history. Again, no shock that Barry Sanders was at the top of the list. Of course, shows like that always include the greatest clips from a player's career and Barry's segment was no different.

Well, no different in that it was accompanied by highlights.

But his highlights certainly were different.

The man was a magician, a contortionist, a gazelle, a bull, and harder to hold than a greased pig. He stood 5'8" and could dunk a basketball easily, flat-footed. Sanders seemingly had no center of gravity, rather he seemed to have a gyroscope inside his sternum. He could use one part of his body as misdirection while totally and invisibly reversing his momentum to make cuts that no human should make. To hit holes that didn't exist a split-second before he shot through and didn't exist the split-second after.

I'm not sure some of those holes ever did really exist.

One clip shows him in the grasp of a Buffalo Bill when Cornelius Bennett shows up to lasso him to the ground. Only Sanders doesn't actually do down. He looks like he goes down and I'm sure it felt like he was down. But he wasn't. Not for 10 or 20 more yards.

Virtually every clip shows a spinning Sanders leaving a crown of bodies at his feet.

There's a saying to describe a particularly elusive athlete that goes he could make you miss in a phone booth. Obviously, this is hyperbole - no one could make you miss in such a confined space. Nobody.

Except Barry Sanders did. Routinely.

There are numerous clips where there is simply no room to operate, no place for Sanders to go. No escape. That is, until he gives a couple stutter steps, a little shoulder shimmy, and the defender is diving in a direction Sanders is not going. Lunging at a spot where Sanders is not, was not, and never planned to be.

As great as the clips were, the stories told by opposing players and analysts of the day were almost better. My favorite was a defensive coordinator talking about how his team knew that finding a human approximation for Sanders was impossible. Instead, they simulated his elusiveness by having the linemen and backers catch a bunch of chickens at practice.

Of course, there was also a vintage clip of Bo Jackson. In this one, Bo knew that Barry was better. Jackson says Barry Sanders is his idol and he wants to be just like him when he grows up.

Or one NFL defender telling how Barry was the greatest conversionary force the Church has ever seen - on Sundays, he'd leave hardened pro defenders on their knees, clasping nothing but air in the Lord's prayer.

Or another talking about how Barry is the only football player anyone has ever seen who could settle in front of you, then bolt out of arm's reach in the nanosecond it took you to break down for the tackle.

Or his coach, Wayne Fontes saying that, if the Barry Sanders isn't the best running back the Lord has ever made, he has yet to make one.

However, the most profound quote came from the man himself. See, he retired at or very close to the peak of his career. He hung 'em up before the 1999 season, a little more than one year removed from his best statistical season (1997). His last year (1998) saw him rush for almost 1,500 yards - a number he had surpassed in each of the previous four seasons. Barry walked away from the game a stone's throw from Walter Payton's all-time rushing record. Retirement came so early to Barry Sanders, that he is one of the few NFL players to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame during their 30's.

When asked why, he replied that you can only play the game at its highest level if you truly love it and he had lost that love.

That's not surprising.

Barry Sanders won a single playoff game while playing his entire 10-year career in Detroit. That single playoff game (over the Dallas Cowboys) amounts to the only Detroit Lion playoff victory since 1957. The Lions managed to make the playoffs a handful of other times, but never made it out of the first round.

That might not seem like a Herculean effort for one of the greatest running backs of all-time (he gets my vote), but consider it was the Detroit Lions. And he did it, almost literally, by himself.

By all accounts, Sanders never had even a serviceable offensive line. Sure, he was a high-risk, high-reward back. But the vulnerability of his protectorate was the real reason he had the most runs from scrimmage resulting in negative yardage.

Not only that, who is the best offensive player ever to suit up next to Sanders? Rodney Peete? Herman Moore? Scott Mitchell? Johnnie Morton (whose NFL career was only slightly more notable than his MMA one)? I'd have to go with Jason Hansen.

That's right. A flippin' field goal kicker.

This is a humble and proud man. He cared about winning, nothing else. His retirement proved that.

In 10 years, he saw one second round playoff game. And he did that by himself.

In 10 years, had Detroit given Sanders even a couple dangerous pieces to play alongside, his story might be different. It almost certainly would be longer.

That his moment of greatness flickered so briefly is one of the great tragedies of my sporting lifetime.

Had Detroit given him a little more to work with, it could have been averted.

So I'm rooting for the Curse of Barry Sanders. I'm hoping it helps the Saints and Packers finish off what 12 other teams have started. And I'm hoping it lives on for many years.

Because he is the greatest athlete of all-time to never win a championship.

Because Detroit never gave him a shot and he didn't need a big one.

Because we could have enjoyed him for many more years.

But most of all, because I miss Barry Sanders.