Friday, June 30, 2006

The Great Subway Race

I can't help but make a point of responding to all the recent articles and commentary about how the Mets are better than the Yankees. It's really amusing to me that the writers in this town can't wait to give NY back to the Mets. They point out the age of the Mets stars as opposed to the Yankees. Apparently Jeter and Arod are on their last legs, while Reyes and Wright are about to explode with youthful vibrancy. They point out that the Mets have a better record and that with an 11 game lead, they are the only NY team guaranteed a playoff spot.

First of all the Mets play in a vastly inferior division to the Yankees. The fourth place team in the AL east has a better record than the 2nd place team in the NL east. The Mets are the only team above .500 in the NL east while the top three teams in the AL east are a combined 42 games over .500. Even with that distinct advantage the Mets lead over the Yankees is 2 games. That's right even though the Yankees have been fighting through injuries to every single starter this year and the Mets have been basically injury free and play in a much weaker division (and league, frankly), they are a whopping 2 games better than the Yankees at this point.

Now I've already pointed out that the Yankees still put over $100 million of talent on the field on most nights, so they should still be able to win. It's only common sense to believe that the Yankees will get better as the season progresses, either through trades or returning players coming back to the lineup. As I've said before, the Mets are a good team, it's just a little premature to anoint them as the new force in baseball in NY when they haven't accomplished anything to this point. They have the largest lead in baseball and the teams chasing them do not seem capable of mounting much of a challenge, but the season hasn't even reached the mid-way point yet. While it's not likely that the Mets would lose such a big lead, anything is possible when there is still over half the season to be played.

The Yankees have made the playoffs for ten consecutive seasons. They have been to the World Series in six of those seasons. The Mets have made the playoffs twice over the same time span. I know NY is a fickle town, but will all Yankee fans abandon their team because the Mets lead the NL east after 80 games? The good thing for Mets fans is that their team is playing well. I never understand why writers seem to think that the success of one team is somehow going to take away fans from the other team. A lot of Mets fans have been in hibernation during the Yankees recent run of success. They now have the opportunity to display those orange and blue colors with pride. Good for them, but the Yankee fans aren't going away.

A generation of kids in NY have grown up with nothing but winning Yankee teams. And as the saying goes nothing succeeds like success. There are going to lots of Yankee fans around going forward as there will be Mets fans. The town is big enough for both. Now if we could just get the writers to agree...


Thursday, June 29, 2006

A Tar Heel Born and Bred

Just a quick note here about a fellow Tar Heel Alum, Peter Gammons. Get well soon Peter. You've made baseball a lot more enjoyable over the years and hopefully you've got a lot more coming.


Justice is Blind

This almost getting to be an every day event at this point. I have to write another article to defend Arod. Now he's not only being attacked by fans who have no clue, he's being attacked by ex-players that have no clue. David Justice, who despite having a 3rd grade reading and speaking level, is somehow employed by the YES network to provide analysis of Yankee games. David Justice who is somehow a true Yankee because he played with the team for all of 1-1/2 years. His Yankee career consisted of 38 home runs and 111 rbi's, total which Arod bettered in 5 months last year. David Justice who can't even spell hall of fame and the only way he's ever getting in there is by paying for a ticket has the singular audacity to call out Arod. He reminded me of Tim McCarver who likes to talk about hitting like he was good at it. The only thing McCarver knows about hitting is that it was hard to do.

Justice basically said that Arod only hits tack on home runs. That his home runs are basically meaningless. Is he not aware of the fact that Arod is second in all of baseball in game winning hits. Is he not aware that 19 of his home runs last year either put the Yankees in the lead or tied the game. Of course he's not aware, because he doesn't read. Let me restate that, he can't read. Only an idiot would make that kind of statement. Only someone with no knowledge of the game would decide based on small sample of games that Arod does not come through in the clutch and not only that but that his home runs are always meaningless.

Arod is going through a bad month. It happens to good players and it happens to all time greats like Arod as well. Even though he has been struggling, he still has a higher OBP than the supposed world class lead off man Johnny Damon. He sits just outside the top 10 in RBI's, HR's and OBP. He's one good game away from being back on track. David Justice was a good hitter. He had two 40 home run seasons and 3 seasons were his batting average was over .300. He never did those two things in the same season however. Arod has hit over 40 home runs seven times in his career and has hit over .300 in five of them. Justice shouldn't even be allowed to sniff Arods jock, must less take pot shots at him on TV. He is very aware that even great hitters are going to fail the majority of the time. And when a hitter is in a slump, his failure rate is going to go up. Why is that such a hard concept to understand? Apparently that equates to Calculus in Justice's head.

The thing about some ex-athletes is that the they try to pump up their accomplishments by bad mouthing the athletes who are still playing. Justice said that Arod never produced in the clutch, but the underlying thought is that clearly he's better than Arod because he produced in the clutch all the time. I remember David Justice as a player and he came over to the Yankees in mid season 2000 and produced a lot of clutch hits for the team down the stretch. The Yankees won 87 games that year, but still managed to win the division. Justice hit a home run off of Arthur Rhodes in the deciding game that gave the Yankees a lead they would never relinquish. It was a big hit in a big game, but does that make him a great clutch hitter. Do you know what his numbers were in the post season? .224 BA, .335 OBP, .382 SlG. All of those numbers are much worse than the numbers he produced during the regular season. So did he choke in the clutch or does one home run make up for all that mediocrity in the post season? He needs to look in the mirror before he starts making ridiculous claims. By the way Arod's post season numbers are practically identical to his regular season numbers.

David Justice doesn't know what he's talking about. He's talking like an uninformed fan instead of the supposed "expert" he is paid to be. The Yankees actually pay him to not understand baseball. It's amazing. I think I'm going to send my resume over the YES network and maybe they'll give me a job.


Monday, June 26, 2006

Shot Through the Heart

The World Cup has been exciting to this point, but it has also been extremely annoying. Referees have been quick with the cards for fouls and there have been a few examples of the referees actually deciding the outcome of games (I'm sure the Australian team wouldn't mind meeting up with the ref from today's game in a dark alley). I think yesterdays call in the Australia game highlights the need for more than one referee on the field. It's ridiculous to think that one man is going to be in position to police all the action on the pitch. I know that he has linesmen for offsides and out of bounds calls, but it is the referees responsibility to cover the rest of the field.

Hockey games take place on a surface which is tiny by comparison and yet there are 3 officials on the ice at all times, plus a replay official. Imagine having only one umpire for a baseball game. He would be responsible for balls and strikes and all calls on the bases and in the outfield. It goes without saying that he would be out of position for some of the calls. Referees in soccer have to cover a massive field and are supposed to be in position to make every call. It's just not humanly possible. Game officials are human and they are going to make mistakes. The World Cup is pressure packed, not just for the players but for the officials as well. Given the pressure, the added problem of the heat in Germany and the amount to space they are being asked to cover, there is no doubt that mistakes are going to be made. And mistakes at this level cause countries to lose games.

The other major annoyance at the World Cup is the flopping by players. I don't know how many times I've watched a player go down like he was shot, writhe in pain on the ground for a couple of minutes, get carried off on a stretcher and then come back into the game two seconds later. It's amazing that this is part of the game. As a player is tackled and starts to go down, he has to decide which part of his body he's going claim is in danger of being amputated. The problem is that refs will reward this ridiculous behavior by giving a foul or even a yellow card based on the level of perceived injury. It's a joke. Refs should hand out many more yellow cards for acting injured. They do have the power to give out cards for unsportsman like play and they should use that power more often. In fact if they just made it a rule that if you get carried off on a stretcher then you could not return to the game, I believe the acting would be cut to a minimum.

The US team was actually penalized because they are not a flopping team. Watch the Italians play a game and you will see more go down as if they were shot than in an actual war zone. I'm sure the game would be more appealing to Americans if they would curtail this ridiculous activity. Imagine how long it would take to complete a football game if every play produced 10 or 12 players down on the field complaining like someone had cut their Achilles tendon.

Let's cut out the acting and get more officials on the field and I think you'd have a better game.


Gotta Wear Shades

An article in the New York Times today highlighted the Yankees #1 pitching prospect, Phillip Hughes. The article talked about him being untouchable, meaning that the Yankees would not include him in a trade regardless of the offer. I've already touched on this subject but I wanted to revisit this today. The Mets traded away Scott Kazmir to the Devil Rays two seasons ago for Victor Zambrano, a pitcher they thought could help them win immediately. That trade has turned out very badly for the Mets, as Kazmir looks like he could develop into a #1 starter, if he's not there already and Zambrano was inconsistent and now is on the shelf with an arm injury. That kind of trade makes GM's nervous to trade prospects. The problem however is not the prospects, it's what you get back in the deal.

The Mets traded Nolan Ryan for Jim Fergosi and lived to regret it. The Cubs traded Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio who went 7-19 over two seasons and have never lived that trade down. The Red Sox traded away Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen who pitched 22 innings for the Sox, posted no won lost record and saved one game. The Red Sox also traded away Curt Schilling and Brady Anderson to Baltimore for Mike Boddicker, who did go 39-19 in two and a half seasons with the Sox, but certainly did not make up for losing two productive players. The Tigers traded 178 wins and a 154 saves in John Smoltz to the Braves for 29-29 record over 3 years from Doyle Alexander.

The trades that have gone bad are remembered much more than the trades that worked out. Writers are quick to point out that the Yankees traded Fred McGriff for Dale Murray, but they aren't so quick to point out that they traded Homer Bush, Lloyd Graeme and David Wells for Roger Clemens or the afore mentioned Marty Janzen for David Cone. Mistakes are easy to point out and they make for good press, but the truth is that trades for prospects are seldom going to come back to haunt you. Baseball is probably the hardest major sport to predict success based on your track record from lower leagues. High school players are constantly being drafted by major league teams, but for every Derek Jeter, there are 10 Brien Taylors.

It's the steals and mistakes that make the headlines, but they are by far the minority in these types of deals. In the mid nineties the Mets had three pitchers who they were going to build their entire team around. Bill Pulsipher, Paul Wilson and Jason Isringhausen. They were all deemed untouchable by the Mets. There wasn't a player who they would have traded them for. Offering Randy Johnson still wouldn't have gotten the Mets to part with those players. Unfortunately, they all ending up having significant arm problems, missed seasons of work and the Mets got less than 10 major league wins out of the three of them combined. Isringhausen has gone on to rack up more than 200 saves as a closer with other teams, but Wilson and Pulshipher have had less than stellar careers and at this point are out of baseball. It just goes to show you that potential does not necessarily equate to success.

Do I think teams should regularly trade away every top prospect in their organization? Of course not, but if the opportunity comes along to make a trade that will benefit your team and the cost is one of the your prized minor leaguers, the truth is that more often than not, that risk is worth it. A lot more often than not. Hindsight makes everyone a genius. How could the Yankess possibly have traded Willie McGee for Bob Sykes? How could they have traded Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps? They made those trades because they thought those players could help them win. They were wrong, but as I said, the truth is that the majority of trades have not turned out to be disasters. Maybe that says something about the quality of Yankees minor league system of late, or maybe its just really hard to be a quality major league player. So few can do it that if you have the chance to trade for someone who has proven that he can do it, for the most part it makes sense to make that deal.

I hope that the Yankees don't trade Phillip Hughes. It's been a while since the farm system has produced a quality arm (Pettite, Rivera), but if the right deal comes along, I'm certainly willing to roll the dice. And hopefully Cashman is too.

By the way, this is the 100th post on this site. I want to thank all five of my loyal readers. I don't know you all by name, but I appreciate you coming back to read my ramblings on a regular basis. And I'm also hoping that a couple of my fellow site "contributors" will start contributing just a little more.


Friday, June 23, 2006

World Domination

Heading into the second round of the World Cup, it's fair to say that most of the usual suspects are there. Ghana is a surprise second round entry, but for the most part, the teams that were expected to get to the second round are there. I think the elimination of the Czech Republic is probably the most surprising result of the first round. They came into the tournament as FIFA's #2 ranked team and handed the US an embarrassing loss in the opening game. That perhaps spoke more to the lack of quality on the US squad than to the quality of the Czech team. Losing to both Ghana and Italy showed that they were undeserving of such a lofty ranking. Once again the FIFA rankings are exposed for the joke that they are.

The most impressive teams up to this point have been Germany and Argentina. Argentina played a sluggish and uninspired game against the Netherlands, but there was nothing on the line for either team and players were rested to avoid picking up red cards. Germany has steamrolled through the tournament to date and have been inspired by the home fans. Spain and Portugal have also been especially impressive.

Less impressive have been the Brazilians, although they did finally breakout against Japan yesterday. Ronaldo (who has been called fat by the press in Brazil), scored two goals and moved into a tie for the most goals ever scored in the World Cup tournament. He will have at least one more game to try and break the record.

England, once again could not beat Sweden (38 years and counting). They gave up one of the softest goals of the tournament to date in the 90th minute of the game to allow Sweden to pull even in the game. Without Michael Owen, they appear to be in serious trouble at this point. They have lots of quality in the midfield, but are definitely lacking upfront. Wayne Rooney is trying to play himself back into shape, but has not been much of a factor at this point. Although they were my pre tournament pick to win it all, I would not be surprised to see them lose to Ecuador in the opening game of the second round.

It really is hard to say who is going to win the tournament at this point. If I were a betting man, I would have to put my money on a Germany - Brazil final game. However, I could just as easily see Argentina or Portugal getting to the final game. Spain has been a constant disappointment in previous World Cups and so I really expect that they will fizzle at some point before reaching the finals. In my mind it's still the Brazilians cup to lose. They are the defending champions and are unbeaten in nine straight matches. They do have one thing working against them, however. They are the #1 ranked team by FIFA and we have already seen what a kiss of death the rankings have been (ask Czech Republic or the USA).

Screw it. I'm still picking England.


Thursday, June 22, 2006

Dumb and Dumber

Isiah Thomas and James Dolan have just completed the worst year in the history of franchise ownership. First they hired Larry Brown, which on the face of it seemed like a very good move. Unfortunately they proceeded to provide Brown with players who were unable or unwilling to follow his direction on the basketball court. Mind you, this was a coach who was coming off back to back appearances in the NBA finals. That apparently meant nothing to collection of malcontents, has beens and never beens that the Knicks shamefully called a team last year. Then they fired Larry Brown while still owing him the 80% of his contract. That 80% translates in $40 million. It must be nice to just throw away $40 million. It's like Dolan had $40 million burning a hole in his pocket and decided to throw it away to avoid clutter. This may be the first time that a franchise has had too much money.

The NBA supposedly has a salary cap. It's not a hard cap, however. The cap only prevents you from signing free agents if you're team has already exceeded the cap. It doesn't affect trades that you might make. Thomas has added about $40 million dollars to the Knicks payroll which was already $20 million over the cap when he arrived. In doing so, he hasn't made the team any better. In fact they may just be the worst team in the league. The fact that Thomas was a guard seems to have made him believe that answer to every problem is to bring in another guard. The knicks have at least six guards on their roster. On any given night last year, half the active roster was made of guards and the most amazing thing is that there wasn't a true point guard among the bunch.

Well Thomas is now the coach and GM. He can no longer point fingers at anyone else but himself at this point. He still has a sexual harassment charge looming over him and I give him until about mid season to be fired. This may be the best thing that could have happened to the Knicks. Thomas' failure as a coach will perhaps finally break whatever spell he has cast over James Dolan. This may be the move which gets Dolan to realize what a mess Thomas has made of this once proud franchise. Thomas has been a wrecking ball wherever he has been in the past. I'm sure there are more than a few owners of former CBA franchises that are dreaming up cruel and unusual ways to torture him. Thomas left the CBA in shambles and he's doing the same thing to the Knicks.

Of course he may end up doing a better job than Larry Brown did this year. That wouldn't be very hard because the Knicks played like an expansion team this year. But an improvement of a couple of games does not signify a turnaround. Given the current make up of the team and the untradeable contracts that the Knicks currently have in abundance, I can't imagine them being in a position to make the playoffs. Hopefully another losing year will signal the end of this great basketball experiment. Perhaps Dolan will turn the team over to someone who actually knows something about winning basketball and stay the hell away. Oh that's right, he had someone who knew something about winning basketball and he just gave him $40 million to go away.

You know what? Never mind. It's hopeless.


End of the Line

The US lost to Ghana today to end their run at the World Cup. It's a huge disappointment considering their quarter final showing at the last World Cup. Is there blame to be placed? Well like it or not, Bruce Arena is going to take most of the blame for this one. He could have utilized Eddie Johnson more, but in the end, I think it was very apparent that the US just doesn't have the skilled players that it takes to compete with the best teams in the world.

As I've stated before, Soccer is an afterthought to most kids in the US. It's amazing considering the fact that youth soccer is played by more kids in the US than little league baseball or pee wee football. Of course it's mainly a suburban sport, so the best athletes still aren't playing soccer. This result will not spark a soccer revolution in the US. If the team had a miracle run to the semi finals, it may have provided some momentum for a soccer movement here in the States. I don't see that happening at this point.

The goal of the US soccer federation was to have a team that would be ready to win the World Cup by 2010. Clearly that goal is now off track. Bruce Arena is going to be replaced and I think it's about time for the US to look outside of its borders for a replacement. If Arena is the best that the US has to offer then its clear that they have to bring someone else in to try and build a foundation for the future.

The problem with the US team is not effort. Outside of the game against the Czech Republic, they seemed to give maximum effort. The problem is lack of skill and imagination. Perhaps Freddie Adu or some other foreign born player will be the one to finally bring a world class offensive player to the US side. Until the US produces a player who can truly hold his own against the best players in the world, they will continue to struggle on the sports biggest stage. Landon Donovan is definitely not that player. He was a non factor during the World Cup. He looked overmatched and confused. It's amazing that the US has been unable to produce that kind of player. You would think that just by luck that in a country of over 250 million that one person would be a world class soccer player. No such luck as yet. The only hope is that some 16 year old is about to explode on the US soccer scene.

Until the US produces it's version of Pele or Maradonna (hell even someone as good as Alan Shearer or Dennis Berkamp would be a huge upgrade), they will struggle to produce favorable results in the World Cup. Freddie or someone else has 4 years to mature into that player or else it'll be three and out again.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Hot, Hot, Heat!

The Heat won the NBA Championship tonight. They beat the Mavericks in six games. It was a remarkable turnaround considering they were down two games to none and losing by 13 points in the fourth quarter of game 3. The series basically came down to the Mavericks inability to stop one player, Dwayne Wade.

The NBA has been looking for an heir apparent to Michael Jordan since Michael's first of three retirements. There have been pretenders to the throne, Grant Hill, Jerry Stackhouse, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant and even less worthy players such as Harold Miner. They have all come into the league with pomp and circumstance and with the supposed game to replace Jordan. None of them could, of course. Hill has been sidetracked by injuries, but even before the injuries, he never possessed the kind of ego and killer instinct that it takes to be a Jordan-like player. Stackhouse has the ego but not the game. Carter has the ego and the game, but not the heart. Kobe has it all. The game, the attitude, the personality, the championships, the inability to share the spotlight, the arrest for rape. Sorry, I guess the last two don't help his case.

Straight out of David Stern's wet dreams come two players who are capable of assuming the Jordan mantle. Both Wade and LeBron James are seemingly ready to assume the role as the face of the NBA. NBA Commissioner Stern has been longing for someone, anyone to step up and lead the NBA in the new millennium, but all he has seen is one tattooed ex-convict or pretender after another.

LeBron seems to have the whole package, including the ego to carry the weight of the league. He has had to live with expectations of greatness since he was in grammar school. He has met and exceeded almost all projections for him since coming into the NBA. He singlehandedly almost carried his team into the Eastern Conference finals. He also shows extreme maturity for a twenty one year old. Wade is almost the exact opposite of the LeBron. He did not come out with the fanfare that accompanied LeBron and the expectations were nowhere near as high for him. He's quiet, unassuming (except on the court) and deferential. However he's got the same killer instinct that Jordan did (evidenced by his increased output in the 4th quarter of the last four games).

Wade has an NBA Championship and LeBron does not. That has more to do with the supporting cast that both players have, rather than the players themselves. If LeBron were in Wade's place, it's very likely that the Heat would still be celebrating a championship today. LeBron needs a running mate in order to get his team to the next level. Even as great as Jordan was, he never won without Pippen and Wade would not have won without Shaq. The NBA has been searching for the anti-Iverson for a while now and it seems that in these two players, they have found what they are looking for. I guess it's only fitting that it's going to take two players to replace Jordan. He had cast such a big shadow over the NBA that it has taken a while for the league to dig out from under it. The crowning of the Heat and the emergence of Wade signify the beginning of the post Jordan era.

Just as an aside, I always thought that there would be a player or players who would be able to replace Jordan. Jordan's skill set was not unique to the NBA. Players like Elgin Baylor or Dr. J were very similar on the court. They may not have enjoyed the championship success that Michael did, but they put up very comparable numbers. Kobe Bryant is a very similar type of player as well. Kobe's will to win is also legendary. It's apparently much like his supposed will to to force women into unwanted sex; regardless of how much you kick and scream, it's gonna happen.

The player who the NBA will probably never be able to replace is Magic Johnson. Never had there been a 6'9" point guard before him and certainly no one who followed could replicate his skills on the court. He could play any position on the floor and do it better than almost anyone in the league. He played center in game 6 of the NBA finals in his rookie year. He ended up with 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals. His scoring numbers don't compare to Jordan's, but then again, that was not his main focus. He could have scored 30 points a game but his main job was to get everyone involved in the offense and he did that better than anyone ever has before or since. If there were one player that I would want to see duplicated it would be Magic. I can see the high flying dunks any night of the week, but we may never see the like of Magic Johnson again.


Sunday, June 18, 2006

A Nation Turns It's Lonley Eyes To You

The drug controversy in Baseball has reached a critical stage. Jason Grimsley and the Human Growth Hormone scandal has upped the ante in this ever growing scandal. The players union, which for so long opposed any kind of testing for performance enhancing drugs, is now home to apologists for any player who is caught using them. It is time for the best known players in the game to take a stand. They have to stand up and be counted as being against the kind of cheating that has gone on for too long in the game.

It is clear to everyone that Barry Bonds took steroids. Everyone that is except the people who actually play the game. Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter have both made statements proclaiming that without evidence, their should be no rush to judgment on Bonds. This is the kind of thing that makes a bad situation worse. There have been players who have spoken out about the steroids issue, but they have been fringe players at best. The most well known player to state the obvious has been David Wells, but he is not exactly the conscience of baseball.

Where are the players who are going to take a stand on this issue? Why hasn't Arod said something? Why hasn't Griffey said something? These are the people whose legacies are threatened by the cloud that covers all of baseball. Doesn't integrity mean anything to these people? Are they so controlled by the union that they are unwilling or unable to point out what's wrong with the game and take a public stance against the people who have put the very integrity of the game at risk? Doesn't the game that has provided them with the fantastic life that they enjoy deserve at least some payback from these players?

It's a shame that people like Curt Flood apparently no longer play this game. I guess it has become so much of a business that even the players who are guilty of nothing have become as complicit as the owners in this scandal. The whole point being not to rock the boat. As long as the checks keep rolling in, why make a stink? Curt Flood challenged baseball's reserve clause because he believed that it was wrong. The reserve clause made a player the property of the team that held his contract for as long as he was in the majors. There was no free agency and a player didn't have a choice about which team he played for. Flood was traded one year and decided that the didn't want to play for a new team. He challenged the reserve clause in court. He lost, but he paved the way for free agency. He didn't reap the benefits, but without him, there is no telling how much longer the old system would have been in place. Some have said that free agency has ruined baseball, but players should have the right to sell their services to the highest bidder. Every American worker has that right, so it only seems fair that baseball players operate under the same rules.

Flood was basically ostracized by the owners after challenging a system that he saw as legalized slavery and his promising career was soon over. He always said that he never regretted his decision, however. Where is the player today that is going to put aside his economic interests and speak up for what is right? It's fairly obvious to me that the person who needs to take a stand is Derek Jeter. At this point he is the face of baseball. He makes millions in endorsements and Yankees are on ESPN and Fox so much at this point that the rest of America has to wondering if there are any other teams in the country. Derek is always looked upon as the embodiment of the best there is in the game. He has the respect and admiration of millions. It's time for him to take a stand. So what if he has to call out some of his own teammates. So what if he makes enemies of the players union. So what if some players resent what he has to say. It's time to show the American people that someone still cares about honesty and not just about a paycheck.

I would hope that someone would think enough of the game to try and make a difference. He just has to have the courage to stand up and say something. This time it's not about the union or the owners, it's about the game. Derek Jeter should be that man. Derek, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.


Friday, June 16, 2006

What the World Needs Now

We are well into the first round of the World Cup and we are starting to get a better picture of the contenders and pretenders. The two most impressive performances so far have come from Argentina and the Czech Republic. Argentina scored six goals in dismantling Serbia & Montenegro. It's the largest goal scoring output so far and as always, Argentina appears to be a threat to win it all. The Czech Republic lived up to the #2 FIFA ranking by absolutely dominating the US squad. The final was 3-0, but it could have been worse, as a couple of good scoring chances found the post.

The US squad looked so incredibly overmatched in the game that it really stretched the imagine to understand how they attainted the #5 ranking from FIFA. They didn't appear to have a player who could break down an opponent one on one. And only Eddie Johnson, who was a second half sub, showed any real signs of life. They need a major overhaul in attitude and tactics if they are to have any chance against Italy. Italy is somehow the 13th ranked team by FIFA, so in theory the US should have a good chance to win the game. It remains to be seen however if Bruce Arena can coax the kind of performance out of the team that would be required to beat a team like Italy. The goal of the US soccer federation was to have a team in place that could win the Cup in 2010. A three and out result in 2006 would be a devastating blow and would be a great set back to the program. Soccer in the US is already at a huge disadvantage when it comes to recruiting the best athletes and a quick exit will not help them in their struggle against the more established American sports.

My pre tournament pick, England, has looked very ordinary to this point, all be it in two wins. Their problem at forward may be somewhat alleviated by the return of Wayne Rooney, but Michael Owen has not played up to his previous form. Lack of conditioning and multiple hamstring injuries have apparently turned him into a shadow of his once mercurial form. Perhaps he can recover in the next round, but he has yet to look dangerous to this point. Playing Rooney and Owen at the same time may provide the spark that England needs, but I don't think that's in the cards, as their coach is much more likely to substitute one for the other.

Brazil didn't impress many people with their 1-0 win in their opening game. Ronaldo appeared out of shape and uninspired in his time on the pitch. Brazil beat a less than awe inspiring Croatia team in unspectacular fashion. While they don't have much real competition in their bracket, Italy or the Czech Republic will be looming in second round play. They need a motivated Ronaldo and more bold play from their midfielders in order to prove that they are indeed the best team in the world.

Ecuador has also been very impressive. They have made their way into the second round with convincing wins over Poland and Costa Rica. They ranked #39 by FIFA but are showing that rankings don't mean much. Both Poland and Costa Rica are ranked higher by FIFA. Their final game in the first round will be against Germany, so we will get a better sense of how dangerous they may be after that match.

It's been a good first week. Some surprises, but for the most part the better team has won the majority of the games. We haven't seen any major stars emerge to this point, but I wouldn't be surprised if the second week sees a singular star start to show himself. And of course we still haven't gotten that singular electrifying effort from a player (think Michael Owen against Argentina in '98 or Maradona against England in '86) that puts a stamp on the tournament, but hopefully it's coming. Anyway, I'm sticking with the England pick. It's probably foolish, but no one has ever accused me of being a rocket scientist.


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

It's a Thin Line Between Love and Hate

Fans of the New York Yankees are currently embroiled in a love/hate relationship with the best player on the team. Arod is the target of the most consistent booing of a player since Tino Martinez took over for Don Mattingly in '96. I called Arod the best player on the team because he undoubtedly is. He's better than Jeter, Damon, Sheffield, Giambi and Matsui. He is the reigning AL MVP. He was AL player of the month in May for Christ sake. June isn't even half over and apparently that has all been forgotten by the Yankee faithful. Jason Giambi was the AL player of the month in April, but had a very forgettable May. He was still not subject to the abuse that is heaped on Arod on a daily basis.

There has been a lot of speculation about why Arod has failed to connect with the NY fans, but what it all comes down to is money, a quarter of a billion dollars to be exact. He has the richest contract in North American sports history. $250 million is a lot of money and with that contract comes great expectations. So what has Arod done since he signed that contract? He's averaged 48 home runs, 126 rbi's and 125 runs scored a year and he has won two MVP awards. Those are hall of fame numbers any way you want to slice them. The problem has been that even with that kind of stellar performance, it has never been enough to satisfy the fans. In their minds, someone who makes that much money should always come through when it matters, should never make and error and should lead their team to a championship every year.

The standard is of course impossible to meet. Arod is fighting a losing battle. The Yankees have to win every year for him to win fan support. He is seen as not hitting in the clutch, when the numbers show that he is a very good hitter with runners in scoring position. They point to David Ortiz, who in '05 hit 21 home runs that tied the score or put his team ahead. How many of Arod's home runs were in the same category last year? 21. It's perception, not fact that hounds the Arod legacy. He doesn't produce in the playoffs, is another charge that is leveled against him. He has a higher slugging percentage, On base percentage and the same batting average as Derek Jeter. Jeter is supposedly one of the most clutch hitters in baseball. Arod was raked over the coals for his performance against Boston in the '05 playoffs. His average was a pedestrian .258. Jeter's average for the same series was .200.

Arod will never be Jeter, however. Derek gets a free pass because he's won multiple times already. Although I do remember Derek getting booed a couple of seasons ago when he started out batting around .200 for the first two months of the season. New York fans are fickle. Yankee fans are spoiled and fickle. They expect perfection every time. Baseball is a game that even the greatest of hitters is going to fail about 65-70% of the time. That's just the game. Fans in NY are supposed to very knowledgeable about sports. However at this point they just appear opinionated, which is not the same thing. I was at the game last night and in the 8th inning a fan tried to get a "lets go Arod" chant, but he was quickly dissuaded from continuing by a preponderance of dirty looks and comments.

Fans should really look at the players with a little more perspective. Sure it's frustrating when Arod strikes out, but they have to realize that everyone strikes out. Everyone fails. It's just that great ones, like Arod, fail less often. He's not Superman. He will fail, a lot, but that doesn't mean he's a failure or deserving of the derisive treatment that he has been afforded of late. Arod is one of the top three players in the game today and has been for ten years. He'll probably go down as one of the greatest players in the history of the game. Perspective people. It's all about perspective. By the way Babe Ruth struck out over 1,300 times in his career. See, nobody's perfect. Not even The Babe.


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Meet The Mets

All three NY newspapers had articles about the Mets today. All three either flat out stated or hinted at the fact that the Mets are a better team than the Yankees and that they are on the verge of winning over the city. I've always thought that NY was a national league town. I remember when the Mets were the kings of the city back in the 80's, and the town was a sea of blue and orange.

Are the Mets better than the Yankees? Right now they have the biggest division lead in baseball and they have a better record than the Yankees. Just a week ago the Yankees were coming off of taking 2 of 3 from the Red Sox and actually had a better record than the Mets for the first time all season. Since then the Yankees have lost 4 in a row and the Mets have won 5 in row. Now all the talk is about Omar Minya and the Latin kings of Queens. Last week all the talk was about the "new" Yankees. The Mets are hot right now and Yankees are not. Does that make them a better team. Well I guess it come down to how you define "better". Sure, they're playing better right now. Will they be better over the next 100 games? That remains to be seen, but far be it for NY sportswriters to take any kind of long term view. Apparently what's happening today is all that matters (By the way, my favorite Yankee hater Mike Lupica is leading the charge to anoint the Mets as the Kings of NY. What a surprise).

The Mets have a good team. They have been relatively injury free to this point, which has been a blessing. Most teams suffer injuries at some point or go through rough stretches of play. The mark of a great team is being able to survive those periods and still keep their heads above water. The Mets have a great nucleus of young players and veterans. The key to their season is going to be how those veterans hold up over the summer. Pedro has to stay healthy, the same goes for Wagner and Glavine. If they can avoid a major injury to the pitching staff, they should be able to maintain their position in the standings.

Before the season started, I did pick the Mets to get to the World Series, so their current success is not a surprise. The Cardinals who looked like the best team in the NL are now being exposed since Albert Pujols went down with an injury. The NL is ripe for the picking and the Mets are in great position to take advantage of that. As far as taking over NY, it's going to take more than one season, or one great stretch of play to make that a reality. I do think it's more than possible however that if the Mets happen to win the World Series this year that NY will once again be a sea of orange and blue. Mets fans have been in hibernation for a long time and this may be their opportunity to rise again. Let's not get ahead of ourselves though. The name of the game is winning and until the Mets win again, the Yankees are still at the top of the bill when it comes to baseball in this town.


Sunday, June 11, 2006

Sori Seems To Be The Hardest Word

It's amazing how a four game losing streak will turn the press in NY around. Just a week ago they were talking about the scrappy new look Yankees and how the energy of the young players had them more of a "team" as opposed to a collection of stars. Now the press will be bemoaning the lack of offense, the inability to get the key hit, and the general malaise in the clubhouse.

Of course it's nothing that an infusion of another $10 million player can't fix. Alfonso Soriano is off to a fantastic start in Washington. He has 22 home runs at this point. He has certainly hit a lot better than I thought he would in Washingtion. Soriano is a free agent and the Nationals know that he is not going to resign with them. They also know that they are not going to compete for the playoffs this year, so it seems fairly obvious that they will look to trade Soriano at some point. Given his stellar play so far, his value will never be higher. Soriano still strikes out too much and doesn't take enough walks to hit leadoff, but he is a very valuable player.

The Yankees don't have a whole lot in the minor league system to trade and they are not going to part with either Cano or Wang. The only player who might land them Soriano is Phillip Hughes. He's a 19 year old right hander with a mid 90's fastball. He is the best prospect in the Yankees farm system right now. He's got a great arm and he's got no history. That's what makes him so valuable. The Yankees would do well to trade him now because his value will probably never be higher. I hate parting with young players, but I always go with the Mattingly principle when it comes to trading for established players. When the Yankees traded for David Cone, Mattingly was asked if he thought that it was smart to give up players in the farm system. Basically Mattingly's response was that he knew who David Cone was, but he no idea who Marty Janzen was. That deal worked out very well for the Yankees. Others have not (trading Fred McGriff, Jay Buhner, Willie McGee, etc. for peanuts).

So should the Yankees trade for Soriano? It's really the $10 million dollar question. Given Soriano's position in Washington and his oft stated preference to play in New York, I think it makes perfect sense to pull the trigger on this deal. Soriano is now an outfielder. The Yankees are going to need a new right fielder to replace Sheffield and Soriano is only 30 and he wants to play in NY. Would the trade come back to haunt the Yankees? Possibly, but if Hughes turns out to be the next Roger Clemens, then the Yanks can just sign him when he becomes a free agent. And as Mattingly said, I know who Soriano is.


Friday, June 09, 2006

Rule Britannia!

1966. 1966. It was a landmark year for a number of reasons not the least of which is that is was the last and only time that England has won the World Cup. The World Cup was held in England in 1966 and has not been back since. I think that might have something to do with the fact that England has not won the cup in 40 years. I'm not suggesting that the only way for England to win the Cup is for it to help in their home country, but 40 years is a long time for the world championship of football to stay away from the place of it's origin.

The heavy betting favorite for this years Cup is Brazil. They play the "beautiful game". The team is loaded with talent. They have skilled players at every position. They have imagination, talent and experience. Their defense is a little old and their goalie is not one the best in the world, but their midfielders and forwards are so ridiculously talented that they should make up for any shortcomings on the defensive end of the field. On paper they should win the tournament easily, but of course, games aren't' won on paper. Brazil has won two out of the last three cups and have made it to the final of all three. The also have the consensus "best player in the world". So why am I not picking them to win? Well, it could be all those drugs I did as a teenager. Or it could be all the alcohol and drugs I did in my twenties and thirties. But for some reason, I think these guys are going to get beat. Maybe it's complacency and maybe it's just because the breaks won't go their way this time. Much like baseball, the best team doesn't always win. Even when you have the best team, it may take a lucky bounce in a close game to guarantee victory. I think their luck is going south (pardon the pun) this year.

Germany is the second betting favorite this year. They're at home, they have a great squad, headed by the brilliant midfielder Michael Ballack. The reason I'm picking against Germany? Only two out of the last seven hosts have won the cup (Argentina in '78 and France in '98). While being home does provide an advantage, it's not one that is so historically significant that it will putsch (pun intended) them over the top. Plus it's Germany. They're reunited. We shouldn't give them any more reason to think that they are superior to the rest of the world. They might get ideas (You know what I mean).

I'm not going to go through the rest of field and lay out strengths and weaknesses. First of all, I have a job and I have to pretend to do some work today and secondly, what's the point? You know, I know and that American people know (ok maybe not the American people, because the majority don't care about the World Cup), that most of the teams don't have a chance. Do I really need to go over the strengths and weaknesses of Iran? Togo? Serbia & Montenegro??? I don't think so. I guess I should mention the US team. They're a decent squad, but they have a very tough draw. It would not be surprising if they didn't make it out of the first round. Italy and the Czech Republic are formidable opponents. They might squeak through on goal differential, but If I were a betting man (and I'm not), I'd bet against it.

So that brings me back to England. One of their star players is coming off a major injury (Wayne Rooney) and may not be available until the second round. He clearly isn't going to be in the best of shape whether he plays or not. The other major goal scoring threat (Michael Owen) is coming back from his own major injury. David Beckham isn't getting any younger and they haven't won the Cup in 40 years. So why am I picking them to win it all? They're due. That's it. They lost a bunch of games over the past 5 Cups in heartbreaking fashion. From Maradona's "hand of God" goal to shootout loses to Germany and Argentina and close loses to Brazil, they haven't gotten a break in 40 years. It's about time that things go their way. Plus the Cup is in Germany and I don't think that they've ever forgiven the Germans for their relentless bombing of London. It's payback time. After England wins the Cup, they will unleash the full power of world's 6th mightiest nation on Berlin. Ok, maybe not, but they will win.

Oh, by the way, I was born in England, but I don't want you to think that fact colored my prediction in any way. You believe me. Right?


Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Still The One

John Donovan at wrote an article today about Brandon Webb of the Diamondbacks, who has gotten off to an 8-0 start. He makes this statement in the article:

"The Webb Sinker -- it's become an uppercase case of its own -- is the talk around baseball these days, supplanting Randy Johnson's slider, Roger Clemens' splitter and Johan Santana's circle change as the best pitch in the business."

While Brandon Webb does possess a fantastic sinker and while he has been particularly impressive this year, I will have to disagree with Mr. Donovan on this point because the possessor of the best pitch in the business does his work in the Bronx. Mariano Rivera has dominated hitters for ten years with basically one pitch. His cutter is responsible for more broken lumber than Paul Bunyan's Axe.

The cutter has been in use for years in baseball (recently pitcher of note who relied on the pitch are Andy Pettite, Al Leiter and Jim Abbott), but Rivera is the only one who has raised its use to the level of art. The cutter is actually a slider, or at least what used to be called a slider. The ball is thrown with extra pressure put on the middle finger in order to produce the "cutting" motion. The current day slider is actually a slurve (a combination of a slider and a curve). A slurve is thrown with the same basic grip as a curve ball, but with a tighter spin and greater velocity. It produces a downward motion as well as a "cutting" action. I don't really know when this transition actually happened, but somewhere along the line, the slurve was removed from the baseball vocabulary and became known as a slider. I guess baseball people figured that a pitch that moved on two planes was better than a pitch that moved on one. I can't say for sure, but because of this transition, the cutter was born.

As I said, there have been and are pitchers who throw the cutter, they just cannot touch the success that Rivera has had. Mariano broke into baseball as a one pitch pitcher. He threw a fastball. That was it. Not a cutter or "cut fastball", just a plain old fastball. He had a four seamer (rising fastball) and a two seamer (sinking fastball), He was quickly converted from starter to reliever in order to minimize his exposure to batters. A one pitch pitcher wouldn't last long as a starter (unless that one pitch is the always unpredictable knuckleball), because hitters would know what was coming after one trip through the lineup. And while a 95+MPH pitch is hard to hit, major leaguers can and will make the adjustment.

That is what makes Rivera's success even more amazing. Everyone knows what's coming. They know that when they get to the plate, they are going to see the cutter. He's still a one pitch pitcher, but that one pitch may be the most devastating pitch in baseball history (I'll hear an argument for Ryan's fastball or Sutter's splitter). Closers usually have one great pitch, most times it's a fastball, but in order to have any longevity, they have to throw at least two quality pitches. The best modern relievers (Eckersley, Gagne, Wagner, Hoffman), all throw at least two quality pitches. In order to consistently fool hitters, you need to keep them guessing. Even Goose Gossage used to mix in a breaking ball every now and then. Mariano doesn't throw a breaking ball. He doesn't throw an offspeed pitch. He just throws the cutter over and over again.

I'm sure one day in the not too distant future, Mo will hang up the spikes, but it's not today. And until that day comes, his cutter will remain the most devastating pitch in the game.


Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Babes in Arms

The New York press corp is falling all over themselves to talk about the "new" exciting Yankees. They talk about how the home grown talent of the Yankees has infused the clubhouse with a new energy. Isn't it just amazing how winning produces chemistry. Of course it's all crap. The Yankees are missing Matsui and Sheffield from their lineup at this point. That's about 50 home runs and 230 rbi's. At some point that will take a toll and the press will change their tune.

I love the way the press jumps on the bandwagon when things are going well. They can't help but talk about how the Yankees haven't gone into the market and traded prospects for some expensive replacement. The press is actually trying to portray the Yankees as underdogs. The problem is that as soon as these players stop producing, they will be screaming for the Yankees to trade for Alfonso Soriano. Yankee players have been getting hurt at an alarming rate this year, but with a $200 million payroll, they should be able to weather almost any storm. It's not a miracle that they are playing well. They should play well. The only person on the team that's irreplaceable is Rivera. They should be able to play around any other combination of injuries.

The combined salary of the Yankees first five hitters (Damon, Jeter, Giambi, Arod and Posada) is $84 million dollars. If Johnson or Mussina are on the mound that pushes the total to over $100 million dollars, which is a higher payroll than all but a couple of teams in the majors. I think a team with $100 million worth of talent on the field should be able to compete with any team in the majors. On any given day the Yankees field a handful of probable hall of famers. I don't think that there's another team in baseball that can say that.

So there is no reason to applaud the recent play of the Yankees as something special. They are doing what they are supposed to do, injuries notwithstanding. They start the game with one hall of famer (Randy Johnson) and close it with another (Mariano Rivera) and in between the ball is hit and caught by few other cooperstown bound players (Arod, Jeter, Sheffield (maybe)). I'm just as thrilled as any other Yankee fan that the team is in first place, but I'm not about to jump up and down about it. First of all it's June and secondly, they are doing what the team is paid to do, what they are supposed to do. Win.


Monday, June 05, 2006

Wie Are Young

Let's talk golf. Today Michelle Wie is attempting to become the first woman ever to qualify for the men's U.S. Open championship. She is competing with 150 men for one of the 18 spots that are available for the U.S. Open. There are competing schools of thought about her attempts to qualify for men's tournaments. One view is that she should learn to beat the women before she competes with the men. The other view says that if she's good enough to compete with the men, then she should be able to do so.
There's another school of thought that says women shouldn't be allowed to play on the men's tour, but I won't dignify that one with a response.

It's clear that Michelle has the game to compete with men. She can drive the ball over 300 yards and should only get stronger with time. She has an accomplished short game and while her putting is not top notch, it's good enough to get the job done. So while she has the ability to play with men, the big question is should she? The goal of competing in a sporting event should be to win it. She has yet to do that as a professional. It's obvious from a couple of close calls, that she can not only compete with the women, but excel on the women's tour. The problem is that she has yet to win a women's tournament. She has not shown the mental toughness at this point to close out a tournament. The biggest hole in her resume is a lack of wins.

Playing on the men's tour will provide her with a more challenging obstacle and superior competition. Golf is not necessarily played against your opponents, however. It is a game against the course. Therefore the quality of your competition does not necessarily make you a better player. Playing with the men will certainly not provide her with opportunities to improve her closing skills. Playing longer and more difficult courses will, in theory, improve her game, I don't think that it will improve her mental toughness.

There is no doubt that she brings excitement and coverage to men's tournaments, but what is the cost to her game? I don't think that she is going to be able to win a men's tournament at this point of her career, so what is the point of her current course of action? Is it merely to be the first woman to compete in a major men's championship? If that is the case then I support and applaud her efforts. If she wants to be a trailblazer and show little girls out there that anything is possible, then it's a noble venture.

The thing is that all the talk from her family is about her competing with the men on a full time basis and I really don't see that as a positive. Losing every week on the men's tour does nothing for her. She should play the women's tour and prove her mettle there. It almost seems like she is saying that the women's tour is beneath her. Now she may develop into a player capable of so thoroughly dominating the women's tour that she feels the need to play with men to provide her with a greater challenge, but she is certainly not there yet.

I'm rooting for Michelle today and I hope she makes it into the U.S. Open. I just think that majority of her efforts should be spent on competing against and trying to beat the best women professional players in the world. She really should at least win one on the women's tour before trying to take on the men on a regular basis. There were at least two other teenagers who won on the women's tour last year. She should try to follow their lead before deciding that she can skip such a big step.