Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Blue Jays At The Eighth Pole

Having now reached that not-so-important eighth pole of the marathon that is the MLB regular season, the Toronto Blue Jays are one of many teams floundering around the .500 mark, their true identity and worth still undefined. That’s not to say there aren’t any early observations to be made, so fear not, dear reader. What follows are some random truths and musings from their play so far.

The Running Man

The 2011 Toronto Blue Jays will send runners in motion whenever they damn well feel like it. They don’t care about the situation- outs, count, score- these are matters that do not concern them. All they want to do is disrupt and distract, keeping pitchers and defenses perpetually on edge, to the brink of paranoia even. If they also happen to steal a ton of bases this year, then consider that a happy by-product.

It has been some time since the team had the requisite number of speed demons to pull this off. New manager John Farrell can hardly be blamed for the aggressiveness on the base-paths when he has the wheels of Rajai Davis, Corey Patterson, and Jayson Nix at his disposal. With Scott Podsednik recovering from injury, he will only be another weapon in an arsenal of fleet feet upon return.

An Unbalanced Rotation

When you lose a starting pitcher of Roy Halladay’s caliber, the ensuing hole left behind can appear to be a yawning chasm. It should be no surprise that the Jays’ rotation is experiencing such a void. The good news is that Ricky Romero, who had a solid 2010, and Kyle Drabek, the primary man for whom Roy Halladay was traded to Philadelphia, appear to be a viable 1-2 punch.

However, that is where things get a little murky. Brandow Morrow is now back from injury and his track record would suggest that he could reliably fill the third spot should he stay healthy. Youngsters Jojo Reyes and Jesse Litsch have been inconsistent and expect GM Alex Anthopoulos to tinker with those final two slots should continue to be frequent hiccups.

First Base Conversations

Ever wonder what those first basemen talk about with runners? For the curious, here is an entirely imagined conversation with Blue Jays first baseman Adam Lind and Yankees speedy outfielder Brett Gardner.

AL: Can you believe they call that garbage a hit?
BG: They all count, don’t they?
AL: Whatever helps you sleep at night, pal. I wouldn’t be proud of a little bloop single like that though. That bloop single gives bloop singles a bad name. You know what I mean?
BG: Sometimes they fall in. Better than the ones I hit hard right at someone.
AL: Listen Brett, I don’t want to scare you, but these are the Yankees. They’re not paying you for bloop singles.  You will be shipped out of there in a New York minute. You get me? Unless you can hit a bloop home run, of course. Can you hit a bloop home run, Brett?

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Who Will Go Number One?

Article first published as NFL Draft: Who Will Go Number One? on Technorati.

Having the number one selection in the 2011 NFL Draft on April 28, the Carolina Panthers are saddled with a blessing and a curse. Of course, they are provided this dubious honor thanks to their league-worst record last year and, while they are clearly in need of first crack at the fresh crop of talent, as always, no pick will be more scrutinized and dissected than theirs.

Similarly, the double-edged sword principle applies to whichever young man will be selected. Along with the perfunctory monster contract and almost immediate superstar status comes the somewhat irrational expectation that he will singlehandedly turn the struggling Panthers around. If assembling a winning franchise were to be compared to constructing a house, the most any general manager can hope for from a number one is a valuable piece of the foundation to build around.

With the advantage of hindsight, the potential pitfalls become more apparent. For every Eli Manning leading his (eventual) team to a Super Bowl victory, there is a floundering Alex Smith, never quite able to make that leap to the next level. And yet these two examples support the natural temptation for any team stuck in the basement to covet the draft’s best quarterback, as there is no bigger impact position.

A look at the NFL’s last ten drafts shows that eight of the first overall picks were used on a promising pivot. The results were mixed enough that it is hard not to praise the two teams that chose to avoid the inherent risk- Houston’s selection of Mario Williams in 2006, a defensive end; and Miami’s choice of offensive tackle Jake Long in 2008. While both of these aberrations would go on to become Pro-Bowlers, only three of the eight quarterbacks, including Manning, would claim the same distinction. One of the other two, however, served twenty-one months in Leavenworth Prison on dog fighting charges, and the last bore the heavy burden of being Carson Palmer.

There are a couple obvious candidates that may be enticing enough for the Panthers to follow the familiar trend. The odds-on favorite would be Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton from Auburn University. There are those that believe he possesses all the intangibles to make the difficult transition to the NFL and quickly become a dynamic leader. Unfortunately, some of these same people also believed the same of colossal bust Jamarcus Russell, selected first overall by the Raiders in 2007.

Others suggest that Blaine Gabbert, who played at the University of Missouri, is the best available at the position and that he should be the quarterback targeted by Carolina. And then there are some that feel it would be best to veer from tradition and opt for the less risky route, suggesting such names as defensive end Marcell Dareus or even Patrick Peterson, who would be the first cornerback ever taken with a number one overall pick.

At least Panthers GM Marty Hurney has had months to contemplate these innumerable variables.

It must have been torture.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

When Good Games Go Bad

Article first published as When Good Games Go Bad on Technorati.

There was nothing to be done but watch in disbelief.

After a tournament that had produced some truly thrilling moments — buzzer beaters, comebacks, unlikely upsets — the NCAA championship came down to a couple of teams that could not, for the life of them, buy a bucket.

Okay, so maybe that is a tad unfair. After all, UConn was still able to drain enough baskets in the second half to pull away for the title, but that really is not saying much. It would have taken a great deal of calculated ineptitude to match the utterly awful performance by Butler.

The numbers are staggering, the equivalent of a horror show for basketball coaches: 18.8% shooting from the field, the worst ever in a championship game; outscored in the paint by the unbelievable margin of 26-2; made only one field goal in over thirteen minutes during a particularly unimpressive stretch in the second half. The numbers go on and on, so much fodder for amusing digressions from countless analysts (professional and armchair) who, in all likelihood, would have gladly exchanged their snide remarks for a competitive game.

About the only area where Butler seemed to have any sort of success was in offensive rebounding, which is rather meaningless when the only thing it affords your team is the opportunity to miss more shots. It was as if the Butler rebounders were poor saps at a rigged carnival game, handing over their hard-earned money for another chance at losing.

You had to feel especially bad for Butler coach Brad Stevens; there is no way, when drawing up a game plan, to account for any sort of contingency plan should every one of your players suddenly lose the ability to put the ball in the hoop. One imagines a halftime speech where his only course of action is to draw a crude diagram on the blackboard, illustrating how the ball is supposed to slide smoothly through the circle.

And what to think of all the other eliminated teams that were forced to watch the pathetic display? It would be hard to believe that even benchwarmers on high school teams with losing records weren’t in front of their TV pondering how they could have hit that last open jumper. Perhaps it even gave them a dash of hope that someday they could be on the game’s biggest stage, tossing up bricks like the boys from Butler.

There really is little consolation to offer to Butler. After losing a year ago on a near-miracle half-court missed shot, only to be provided this gift of a second chance, excuses would surely provide nothing more than cold comfort. The beauty and tragedy of sport is that when it comes down, as it often does, to one game deciding everything, absolutely nothing else that you’ve done to that point matters in the slightest. All they can do now is collect themselves and get ready for next year.

Third time’s the charm, right?

Monday, 4 April 2011

Play Ball, Blue Jays

Article first published as Play Ball, Blue Jays on Technorati. 

The Toronto Blue Jays will not win the World Series in 2011.

As safe bets go, that one has to rank up there with Gary Busey never being elected President of the United States. Or a Michael Bay movie having explosions. These are lightweight predictions from the Obvious Nostradamus. Which, by the way, is a great rap name, for anyone interested.

The Jays are trapped in a division where the deck is perennially stacked against them. For years, it was a two-horse race; the Yankees or Red Sox could reliably be expected to take the title. Now the Rays are considered a legitimate threat and even the Orioles seem to be making strides in the right direction. Nowhere else in the league will you find this caliber of talent grouped together.

It’s not as if you could call the Jays a bad team. Even with the loss of veterans like Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay, they still appear to be an improved squad, with plenty of undetermined potential. Last year, expectations were exceeded after winning 85 games, a feat that departing manager Cito Gaston could hang his hat on in the first post-Halladay season, and that new skipper John Farrell will have a hard time duplicating.

The big discovery, of course, was Jose Bautista, who lead the league with 54 home runs and was awarded both the Hank Aaron and Silver Slugger awards. Here was a guy that had been traded in 2008 to the Blue Jays from the Pirates in exchange for a player to be named later and had never hit more than 16 home runs in a year. That kind of turnaround does not happen without the guidance of returning hitting coach Dwayne Murphy, who helped the entire team become the league’s home run champions in 2010.

Because of the success of Bautista, expectations are understandably high for the array of new acquisitions by general manager Alex Anthopoulos. Speed has not been a large part of Toronto’s arsenal in recent years, however Rajai Davis now provides them with a legitimate lead-off hitter and base stealer, having nabbed 50 with Oakland last year. Aging power threat Juan Rivera hopes to join the home run party, while reliever Frank Francisco becomes part of a bullpen badly in need of a closer.

All optimism aside, the sheer number of changes in the Jays’ roster translates to greater uncertainty. Young catcher J.P. Arencibia has shown promising signs of growth, but is now tasked with making the difficult leap to the major league level. The starting rotation is fairly young and untested across the board, especially young prospect Kyle Drabek, who has large shoes to fill, indeed, if he is to is to live up to the legacy of both his father Doug and Roy Halladay, the man for whom he was dealt to Toronto.

Ultimately, the fate of the 2011 squad may hinge on two former All-Stars both coming off underwhelming years: Aaron Hill and Adam Lind. If they are able to rebound by putting up the good numbers they have before, there could exist the remote possibility of contending for the wild card.

But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Toronto Maple Leafs Fan

Article first published as The Toronto Maple Leafs Fan on Technorati.

With a loss in Detroit on Saturday, it would seem all but a foregone conclusion that the Toronto Maple Leafs will again miss the play-offs this year.

This should come as no bombshell to anybody that has followed the franchise in recent years as stumbling and failing have sort of become the team’s trademark.

They have not won a Stanley Cup or even made the finals since 1967, the longest such drought in the NHL, so you’d think devotees would be used to it by now. However, the Toronto Maple Leafs fan is a complex specimen.

Home to the Hockey Hall of Fame and NHL offices, Ontario’s capital is arguably the epicenter of Canada’s national pastime. Understandably, the citizens take the sport seriously and expect the same out of their club. Their lack of success, consequently, has elicited different reactions from supporters, categorized in three types of behavior.

The Deserter – I have this friend who grew up in Toronto and spent his whole life living there. And yet when I first met him almost ten years ago, he was a die-hard Edmonton Oilers fan. It didn’t take a great deal of arithmetic to figure out how that had happened. No doubt the grass must have looked a lot greener on the other side around 1979, when the Oilers and a kid named Wayne Gretzky joined the NHL. While the Leafs were in the business of losing, Edmonton won five Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1990. With five other Canadian teams in the league, it is understandable that some would be quick to leap from the Leafs’ sinking ship onto a more seaworthy vessel.

The Angry and The Irrational – For some, there is a certain pleasure that comes with complaining and it helps to have such a ubiquitous target at which to aim your arrows. After a while, bashing the Leafs becomes akin to voicing your displeasure regarding the weather or the government. You can be sure to find, in any crowd, another to trade barbs with about what a lousy excuse for a hockey team they are. Another branch of this group includes those that seem to always possess the answer for how to turn things around. This can include minor tweaks such as switching up the lines or a major overhaul, often including firing the head coach or general manager.

The Sad Sack – These are the true believers that live and die by the team’s performance. They are convinced every year that this will be the one; that success is waiting just around the corner. They often have the delusional notion that their own lives are intrinsically linked to the Leafs, and that one day, after all their suffering—perhaps even because of it—they will finally get their ultimate reward. The only thing that gets them up in the morning, that keeps them slogging through another week of drudgery is the mirage of their Leafs hoisting the Stanley Cup. The poor fools press on, waiting for a moment in the sun.

Friday, 25 March 2011

The 2010 NFL Game Of The Year

Article first published as The 2010 NFL Game of the Year on Technorati.

As a Giants fan, I felt like I had seen this movie before.

Early in the fourth quarter of their week 15 contest against the rival Eagles, Kevin Boss catches a touchdown pass from Eli Manning, putting them ahead by three touchdowns. It appeared to be the finishing blow in an important win for the Giants, and would send the crowd at New Meadowlands Stadium home in a celebrating mood, dizzy with Super Bowl expectations.

What happened instead felt strangely pre-ordained. You could sense it after Brent Celek caught a pass from Mike Vick and cruised 65 yards for the score less than a minute later. There was a nagging familiarity to it all. And when Desean Jackson finally capped the comeback with a punt return touchdown as time expired, it set off a seismic shift in the NFC play-off picture that altered the outcome of the rest of the season for several teams.

For the Giants, it seemed perhaps they were attempting to best other colossal collapses in recent seasons. From blowing a 24-point lead late in a 2003 play-off game in San Francisco to squandering their promising start to the 2009 season, you had to hand it to them- the team had a way of crashing and burning in grand fashion.

If they had hung on to win this one, however, they would have been sitting atop the East, needing only one more win in their last two games to seal the division and a home play-off game. Alas, despite defeating the Redskins in the final week, they found themselves on the outside looking in, wondering how one bad quarter could have lead them to ruin.

The Eagles faltered the following week in a surprising loss to the Vikings. If they had done this AND lost to the Giants, as it certainly appeared they would, there would have been little chance of them squeezing into the post-season at all. On the other hand, if they were to rebound from a hypothetical loss against New York with two victories, they would have eliminated the biggest benefactor of the Giants’ debacle.

The Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers should be sending thank-you notes to both the Eagles and Giants. If not for the improbable final minutes of their December 16 game, Aaron Rodgers and company would almost certainly have been denied a run at the Vince Lombardi trophy because they quite simply would not even have been playing beyond the regular season.

Yes, they did win a head-to-head match-up against the Giants in Week 16, but had the likeliest of scenarios played out, they still would have been stuck watching a Giants-Eagles re-match in the wild-card round instead of participating in it.

The NFL is funny that way. In a season so short, every game is capable of causing that kind of ripple effect- landing good fortune in one team’s lap, while simultaneously crippling another.

And from one of the crippled to the fortunate: you’re welcome, Green Bay.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

3 Inevitable Sports Movies

Article first published as Three Inevitable Sports Movies on Technorati.

While last year brought us Mark Wahlberg in "The Fighter," there has been a recent dearth in the sports genre as of late. So why not look ahead and anticipate other sports stories that could hit theaters sometime in the foreseeable future.

Stock Boy – The Kurt Warner Story

A plucky undrafted quarterback, forced to stock shelves at a grocery store to make ends meet, has only his loyal wife and faith in God to keep his fantasy afloat. Against all odds, though, the aging dreamer is miraculously signed as a bench warmer by the St. Louis Rams. But, wouldn’t you know it, team’s star quarterback is injured before the season, and our hero is forced into action. Despite everyone expecting him to fail, Kurt leads his team with an MVP performance, capped off by an unlikely Super Bowl victory.

Sample Dialogue: Kurt to his pimply teenage co-worker: “I’m going to be in the NFL someday, Skippy. You’ll see.” The aimless adolescent guffaws. “Sure, loser. Now keep stacking those cans of soup."

Dream Cast: Ben Affleck as Warner, Hilary Swank as loving wife Brenda, and Greg Kinnear reprises his “Invincible” role as emotional Rams head coach Dick Vermeil.

Potential Sequel: Warner, after being released by the Rams and Giants, improbably finds glory once again with, of all teams, the Cardinals. However this time, he is narrowly defeated in Super Bowl.

On The Juice

As directed by Oliver Stone, this is the sprawling expose of steroids in the modern age of baseball. The film speculates that in the aftermath of the ’94 strike, MLB intentionally turned a blind eye to performance-enhancing drugs and paved the way for the ’98 home run chase in order to bring attention back to the sport. Rife with historical inaccuracies and imagined conversations, this incendiary look pulls back the curtain on all those involved.

Sample Dialogue: Jose Canseco, to Mark McGwire, after injecting him with steroids: “Relax, man, no one is going to find out about this. You can trust me to keep a secret.”

Dream Cast: Channing Tatum as McGwire, 50 Cent as Barry Bonds, and William H. Macy as Commissioner Bud Selig.

Potential Sequel: Bonds chases down Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record in 2007, while dodging incessant steroids allegations and attempting to convince everyone that they should care.

Eye Of The Tiger

Young golf prodigy Tiger, under the tutelage of his father Earl, quickly becomes an international superstar. After cementing a legendary reputation and starting a family of his own, Tiger uses his status and fame to land many attractive women. The indiscretions begin to spiral out of control, leading to scandal, seclusion and, eventually, a humbling return to golf.

Sample Dialogue: Random blonde bombshell after disrobing in front of an intrigued Tiger, “I hear you play a good game, but let’s see if you can birdie this hole.”

Dream Cast: Chris Brown as Tiger, Forrest Whitaker as Earl, and Amy Smart as Elin Nordegren.

Potential Sequel: Depending on how things go with Tiger, either a triumphant tale of recovery and sweet redemption; or, a humiliating cautionary tale of a helpless addict’s relapse into bimbos.