Thursday, March 31, 2005


The Royals made their final cuts yesterday, solidifying the 2005 roster. While this year's edition of the Men In Blue won't evoke images of last year's Red Sox, they will bring to mind the beginnings of some other successful clubs who were able to build a foundation of success on youth. The most recent Twins squads, the 90's versions (as well as this year's version) of Cleveland's ballclubs and the infamously ransacked rosters of the 90's Expos all built competitive teams using young talent and patience. The Royals are looking to duplicate this pattern as they employ no fewer than eight players with 2 years big league experience or less on Opening Day. Let's take a look at who will be helping this once-proud franchise dig itself out of the quagmire its been mired in for so long:


This infield has probably seen less major league games in person than I have. Behind the plate, John Buck has just over 250 major league plate appearances. At first base/DH, Calvin Pickering has about 280 career PA. Second baseman Ruben Gotay has chalked up 160 PA in the bigs, while third baseman Mark Teahen's next major league at bat will be his first. That leaves the shortstop, Angel Berroa, as the “seasoned veteran” with 1,300 trips to the plate, a total that eclipses the combined totals of his fellow infielders.

While this lack of experience may not be pretty to watch this year, it certainly will be better than watching the feeble crew that “entertained” us last year. No, there won't be an abundance of veteran mediocrity (or worse) with the likes of Joe Randa, Desi Relaford, Ken Harvey and Tony Graffanino either gone or saddled with reduced playing time and injury. And even if it's ugly, we can at least dream about what the future holds. Pickering might be able to get enough at-bats to threaten Steve Balboni's pathetic club record for homeruns of 36. Gotay could continue his covert ascension through the ranks and show some plate discipline and power that not many middle infielders his age possess. Teahen may play a respectable third base while honing his line drive stroke. Buck could show more pop than any Royals catcher since Mike Macfarlane and he's already earned brownie points for his ability to “handle the pitching staff.” And Berroa could return to his Rookie of the Year level of play, hitting the occasional homerun and showing good range in the field. And as long as we're being optimistic, team captain Mike Sweeney might shrug off back problems and log 500 All-Star -quality at bats. Or they all might struggle mightily, get injured and form the nucleus of a club that challenges last year's historic futility. Even if the latter happens, I'd rather watch young guys develop than old guys go through the motions.


This group is nearly as exciting as the Sunnyvale Retirement Village Pinochle Championship. The lone exception is centerfielder David DeJesus. DeJesus already possesses major league-ready plate discipline and can cover the gaps in center. Unfortunately, the gaps in center field may be quite large with the likes of Terrence Long, Matt Stairs and Emil Brown flanking him. Eli Marrero is an acceptable fielder; hopefully his bat will be properly utilized in some sort of platoon situation with the wholly uninspiring Long. The best part of seeing Terrence Long will be knowing that Darrell May was sent far, far away from us. Matt “Beer League” Stairs is still fun to watch, swinging from the heels in slow-pitch softball fashion, but his usefulness is quickly evaporating. Emil Brown managed to beat out one-time up-and-comer Aaron Guiel and the last remains of prospect sheen dimly emanating from Abraham Nunez. Normally I wouldn't get too excited about a journeyman coming out of nowhere to win the right field job, but this case is more symbolic. Just as last year's lone All-Star, Ken Harvey, was dispatched to Omaha, Allard Baird was not going to settle for the status quo with a previously moderately productive Guiel or the unfulfilled potential of Nunez. Baird is fond of using the term “approach” when evaluating talent and I think his approach in these two positions is positive. He's still in search of an impact bat for one of the corner outfield spots and he has resisted the urge to fill those spots this year with overpriced, middling free agents.


Any comment on Kansas City's starting pitching has to begin with the inimitable Zack Greinke. Without question, he has the most pitching talent the Royals have seen since Bret Saberhagen. The only question is if he can make it through the next few years without being overworked and, subsequently, injured. Before last year, the only time I've ever bought a ticket to a baseball game with the sole intention of watching a pitcher was 2002 when Pedro Martinez picked apart the Royals. I listened to the radio broadcast of Greinke's first major league start last year and was blown away by the incredulity in Denny Matthews' voice. Matthews isn't the best broadcaster of all time, but he's been the voice of the Royals since their inception in 1969, and he's seen a lot in his day. But he hadn't seen anything like Greinke that day. After that game, I decided I had to witness this phenomenon for myself. And I wasn't disappointed. He never tried to overthrow the ball, instead hitting his targets and hitting every notch on the radar gun from 80 to 94. And, invariably, he would follow up a 94 mph offering with a 60 mph looping curveball, leaving batters lurching and cursing. I made up my mind that I would do whatever I could to watch every one of his starts from then on. He is easily the best pitcher on the Royals' staff, even at age 21.

But the Royals have other potentially exciting young members of the rotation as well in Runelvys Hernandez and Denny Bautista. Hernandez was without equal the first two months of the 2002 season, but a sore elbow and Tommy John surgery cut his promising start short. He's now fully recovered and rehabilitated and looking to compete. He has ability, heart and extreme confidence in himself; hopefully he can put it all together and have a breakout year. Denny Bautista throws hard, has a nasty curve and an excellent change. He may have the best pure stuff in the organization. He's still a bit raw, though, and his lanky frame contributes to occasionally poor mechanics. If re-hashed pitching coach Guy Hansen is half as good as he claims to be, Bautista could contribute sooner rather than later. Jose Lima and Brian Anderson fill out the veteran portion of the rotation. “Lima Time” was a popular act in his first go 'round in K.C.; we'll see if the increased offensive atmosphere of Kauffman Stadium as compared to Dodger Stadium bumps “Lima Time” from prime time to pine time. Brian Anderson has received an “Extreme Makeover: Delivery Edition” from Hansen. There's really nowhere to go but up for Anderson after last year's 5.64 ERA and 33 homeruns allowed. I hope.


The bullpen is talented, yet free of unnecessary “veteran set-up guys,” “proven closers,” and their cash-sucking salaries. Jeremy Affeldt is as close to a “proven closer” as it comes, yet is still making far below market value for someone in his position. Mike MacDougall, the reigning closer before Affeldt, has come back strong from a season filled with illness, injury and disappointment. His always-concerning mechanics have been much more consistent this spring and, likewise, so have his results. Mike Wood has had a solid spring and stands to accept a rotation spot should Bautista or Anderson falter. Shawn Camp is another reliever rescued from the scrap heap to put up respectable numbers at bargain basement prices. And Jaime Cerda seems able to contribute in the role of LOOGY (Lefty One-Out GuY), at worst, and effectively face multiple batters, if given the chance.

The Royals won't be world-beaters this year, as they were in 2003. They also won't be the doormat that the 2004 club was. Tony Pena has a youth-oriented team again and that seems to suit his rah-rah, teaching style. Guy Hansen is ready to perform miracles heretofore only concocted by Leo Mazzone, his major league counterpart while Hansen was employed as the pitching coach for Atlanta's AAA team. The hitting coach, Jeff Pentland, has been credited with teaching the benefits of plate discipline and pitch selection to Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. Allard Baird continues to do well looking under rocks for cheap and undervalued talent. The farm system is starting to produce both pitching and position prospects. If he can find the elusive “impact bat” to put in the outfield corners, the semblance of a respectable club might start to appear. Maybe not this year, but soon.

Thursday, March 24, 2005


Everyone has one. It's how we identify each other. It's how we keep track of each other.

Each Major League baseball team manages a 40-man roster. There are 30 teams in Major League baseball. This means there are over 1,200 names regularly being bandied about each season. But not all of these names inspire images of greatness and success when spoken or heard. Some conjure thoughts of utter failure, laughter, confusion or amusement.

This occurred to me first as a youngster. When evaluating the newest rookie crop as a kid, I would often rely on how a players' name sounded when I had no other facts to make a judgement by. Take, for instance, 1987. A buddy of mine was really high on Casey Candaele, a rookie shortstop for the Expos. We didn't really know a whole lot about him, other than what the back of his baseball cards told us. I decided, though, that I couldn't really imagine his name being associated with greatness: "Please welcome three-time National League MVP, Casey Candaele!" Just didn't sound right. On the other hand, you had two young players in Pittsburgh whose names just seemed to flow off the tongue: Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla. Those names sounded cool individually and collectively. Barry Bonds. Bobby Bonilla. Bonds and Bonilla. There's a lot to be said for alliteration. And it doesn't hurt to have name recognition from a dad who had a pretty decent career, as well, in Bonds' case.

So, I've compiled some notes and observations on the levels of success achieved by players with "good" names, "bad" names, "weird" names, and so on. This is about as far away as you can get from objective sabermetric analysis, but it's fun to think about, nonetheless.


Ty Cobb. A solid name. A concise name. Definitely material for a successful name. Unquestioned on-field results.

Honus Wagner. I don't think I would have bet on him to be successful as a rookie any more than I would have bet on Al Pedrique 90 years later. But he was arguably the best shortstop ever, so you can see where this is not an exact science.

Joe DiMaggio. Ethnic-sounding names don't always translate well. When your name appears in multiple songs, you can bet that it translated just fine.

Ted Williams. Very solid name. The name of a ballplayer AND a war hero. You can't go wrong with a name like Ted Williams.

Mickey Mantle/Willie Mays/Duke Snider. This is the jackpot of baseball names. All stand alone as great names. They combined to share the same position in the same era and create possibly the most talented triumvirate of names in history. Mickey Mantle may be the best baseball name of all-time. Again, you have alliteration, a definite plus. And how can you not like the name "Mickey"? Willie Mays was the "Say Hey Kid," a nickname that embodied his enthusiastic personality. But, even "Willie Mays" sounds like an incredible athlete. Duke. It screams out "authority" and "leader" and "John Wayne". Willie, Mickey and the Duke. Only "Tinker to Evers to Chance" comes within a stone's throw of this trio.

Johnny Bench. Almost any name that ends in "y" sounds great. It leads you to believe that he's still just a kid playing a kid's game. This rule also applies for Eddie Matthews, Rickey Henderson, Ernie Banks, Willie Stargell, Kirby Puckett and Ozzie Smith.

Tom Seaver. Sounds nearly as "All-American" as Jack Armstrong. Tom had 271 more wins than Jack, though.


Pedro. Anyone who can get by with just their first name has both immense talent and recognizability. "Ed" for instance, would not fall into this category.

Sammy Sosa. Another excellent example of striking gold with alliteration. Even his nickname gets in on the act: Slammin' Sammy Sosa.

Albert Pujols. Another name anomaly. Albert is easily preceded by "Fat". And "Pujols" is another ethnic name that doesn't really roll off the tongue. But when you hit nearly as well as Barry Bonds, no one really cares what your name sounds like.

Hank Blalock. "Hank" is a classic baseball name. Hank Aaron. Hank Bauer. Hank Greenberg. Homer Hank-y.

Torii Hunter/Jacque Jones. Names that evoke images of their actual skills are cool. Torii Hunter "hunting" down balls in center field is a great example. Hunter's outfield mate Jacque Jones has the alliteration thing going for him, if not the actual baseball skills.

Ichiro! Sounds best when screamed by elementary school autograph hounds.


These are names that I just wouldn't imagine being announced at a Hall of Fame induction ceremony. If you have one of these names, you know you're not coasting on natural ability, but rather you're "maximizing your potential" or "doing all the little things" or "exhibiting a clubhouse presence."

Mark Grudzielanek. Doug Mientkiewicz. Wes Obermueller. Paul Bako. Vinny Chulk. Mike Koplove. Todd Van Poppel. Chris Clapinski.

I've already mentioned some players with bad names that have bucked the trend and played well. Here are a few more:

Nomar Garciaparra. Jason Isringhausen. John Smoltz. Magglio Ordonez. David Eckstein. Paul Konerko. Mike Sweeney. Wily Mo Pena. Erubiel Durazo.

Jung Bong. If Jimmy Fallon comes back to guest-host Saturday Night Live, you gotta think Horatio Sanz squeezes in a reference to Jung Bong during their "Jared's Room" sketch.

Bobby Hill. It can't be good if your name evokes thoughts of the pudgy, lacking in self-esteem son of Hank Hill on "King of the Hill."

Jose Mesa. Literally translated means "Joe Table." Lets stick with the Spanish version.


Alliteration All-Stars: Barry Bonds. Bret Boone. Kiko Calero. David DeJesus. Corey Koskie. Geoff Jenkins. Melvin Mora. Matt Morris. Mark Mulder. Mike Mussina. Ugueth Urbina. Woody Williams.

Names That "Flow": I have a friend named Matt Atkinson. What's cool about his name is that you can flow it together: Mattkinson. Same goes for Seth Etherton (Setherton) and Brad Radke (Bradke).

"Fishy" Names: Tim Salmon. Steve Trout. Kevin Bass. Josh Karp. "Catfish" Hunter.

Pitchers With Unfortunate Names: Bob Walk. Grant Balfour. Homer Bailey. Steve Shell. David Riske.

"Combo" Names: Back in the early 80's, Topps baseball cards had cards with players whose names combined to form something moderately interesting. Bud Black + Vida Blue = Black & Blue. Steve Carlton + Carlton Fisk = Carlton & Carlton. Now we have Damian Rolls + Royce Clayton = Rolls Royce. And Jason Marquis + Marquis Grissom = Marquis & Marquis.

Young Guys Who Have No Chance At the Hall of Fame: Most of these guys are in the minors or are battling for a spot on the big league roster. They may very well have major league careers, but not a one has a Hall of Fame-caliber name. Ryan Langerhans. Yorman Bazardo. Callix Crabbe. Hernan Iribarren. Ian Bladergroen. John Van Benschoten. Tagg Bozied.

Guys With Superhero-like Names: Robin Ventura. John Buck. Prince Fielder. "Flash" Gordon. Orlando Hudson.

Great Ethnic Names: Rafael Palmeiro. Aquilino Lopez. Ruben Sierra. Roberto Clemente. Sandy Koufax. Hank Greenberg. Byung-Hyun Kim. Rocco Baldelli. Hiram Bocachica. Tony Graffanino. Shigetoshi Hasegawa. Rob Mackowiak. Frank Menechino. Frank Catalanotto. Micheal Nakamura. Mike Piazza. Juan Pierre. A.J. Pierzynski. Manny Ramirez. Seung Song.
Alfonso Soriano. Esteban Yan.

Rods: ARod. ERod. FeRod. IRod. LuRod. RiRod. SRod.

Guys Who Share Names With Other Celebrities: Kenny Rogers. Mike Myers.

Same Name, Different Pronunciation: Greg Gagne / Eric Gagne.

Potpourri: Chipper Jones. Brad Penny. Josh Fogg. J.T. Snow. Trot Nixon. Bucky Jacobsen. Cha Baek. Milton Bradley. Coco Crisp.

Saturday, March 19, 2005


What a kick in the groin. What an absolute freaking kick in the groin.

How on Earth did the Jayhawks lose their first round match up to the Bucknell Bison? Let me count the ways:

1) National championship contenders generally have an offense. This team did not. Feeding Wayne Simien the ball as much as possible is a good start. But you have to have something in place when the other team makes that very difficult. To be honest, our offense looked a lot like Missouri's, but slowed down a bit. Missouri would race down the court and jack up the first shot that looked halfway open without making a concerted effort to find their big man, Linas Kleiza. Kansas was a bit more patient. They would walk the ball up the court, pass the ball around the perimeter 10 times, looking for the perfect entry pass into Simien. When that didn't materialize, they would panic as the shot clock wound down and jack up a low percentage shot from the perimeter, Missouri-style. Which wouldn't have been quite so bad if we had more than one player who could rebound the basketball. Which brings me to point #2,

2) We had no consistent rebounding because we had no set rotation for our big men. Christian Moody is a serviceable player, but he doesn't rebound. We brought in three freshman big men this year, but none of them ever got consistent minutes. Maybe Bill Self didn't want to discourage two of them by giving one of them the bulk of the playing time. But he ought to have figured out by March who would add the most value to the rotation and stick with him. But he never did this, as evidenced by the fact that C.J. Giles, Sasha Kaun and even Alex Galindo got minutes last night. Which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. But the minutes were few, sporadic and at very strange times. Alex Galindo was inserted into the game at crunch time, but not at the offensive end where he has knocked down shots. No, Self put him in when the 'Hawks were on defense and in need of a stop. To be fair, we did need some shooting. Which brings me to point #3,

3) For the past month, the obvious prescription for beating Kansas has been to employ a zone defense. The zone defense makes it difficult for a team to get the ball inside and makes that team prove it can shoot from the outside. Alex Galindo is a good shooter from the outside. In the sporadic minutes he's received this year, he's shown that he can knock down the outside shot. Yet he was glued to the bench for the majority of these games. With J.R. Giddens not able to make a shot and Keith Langford obviously slowed by the flu, why was Galindo left to rot on the bench? Is his defense really that bad? I can't imagine it's any worse than Giddens'. Maybe the idea was to get Michael Lee in the game. After all, he's a senior, has big game experience and can shoot from the outside. Lee didn't have much impact from the perimeter, but he played as well as anyone, consistently attacking the defense and taking the ball to the rim. Which leads me to point #4,

4) Good teams attack on offense. Even if a zone is being played, good teams find ways to penetrate the zone by the pass or the dribble. We couldn't seem to pass the ball inside, so where was the dribble penetration? We have one of the best slashers in the game in Keith Langford. Aaron Miles has shown that he can get to the hoop and draw a foul, even if he doesn't finish as well as Langford. Even Russell Robinson would take the ball to the hole. There was very little of this against Bucknell. When you drive the ball to the basket, you put the defense on their heels and create opportunities to get to the free throw line. Which may or may not have been a moot point given the atrocious officiating. Which brings me to my last point,

5) I watched the majority of eight games and parts of several others over the first two days of the tournament and found the overall quality of the officiating to be satisfactory. To be honest, I didn't really notice it. Which is exactly as it ought to be. The officiating in the Kansas/Bucknell game was nothing short of embarrassing. Don't get me wrong; this is not the reason Kansas lost this game. But the Jayhawks could have delayed their misery another round or two had even half of the missed and/or bad calls gone their way. I realize that the NCAA and CBS rake in the cash because of the nature of unpredictability of the tournament, the fact that even a #2 seed can occasionally be eliminated in the first round. But the officiating in this game deserves close scrutiny and harsh consequences. Kansas did not play well. But Bucknell played worse and still won the game.

Plain and simple, this has to rank right up there with Jayhawks loss to Arizona in 1997. This team was not as powerful as that one, but it had four seniors who had been to three Elite Eights, two Final Fours and one championship game. It had a legitimate player of the year candidate in Wayne Simien. It had one of the greatest assist men in the history of the college game in Aaron Miles. It had one of the best slashers and a guy who had hit clutch shot after clutch shot in Keith Langford. It had a sophomore shooter that had nearly enough potential (and hype) to be drafted by the NBA in J.R. Giddens. It had a highly touted freshman class to fill in the gaps of the senior-led team. And it had a coach who had taken three different teams to the Elite Eight and seemed to have his teams peak in March. Yet, all it added up to was a first round loss in the tournament, something that hadn't happened to Kansas in over 20 years. Like I said before, what a kick in the groin.

Friday, March 18, 2005

NCAA Tournament Diary, Day Two

Day Two
Friday, March 18

Sixteen more games today. How can you NOT love this? Today is not starting as well as yesterday, though. N.C. State is getting used by Charlotte. Florida and OSU appear to be taking care of business. The game I'm getting is Iowa State vs. Minnesota. ISU is utilizing a press, which always makes things interesting. Stinson and Blalock are quality guards. This will be a fun game to watch. Certainly more fun than overhyped CBS TV movie "Spring Break Shark Attack." Seriously, who do they expect will watch this?

The Cyclones take control over the last five minutes and go up 10 at half. Minnesota is having a tough time negotiating the zone. N.C. State claws their way back to be down only seven at half. Florida is allowing Ohio to stick around. And OSU isn't really dominating SE Louisiana, though they're up by nine. Today is providing the usual feeling I have during tournament time: doubt, anxiety, butterflies. There weren't any out-of-this world upsets yesterday. I have a feeling today may be different.

N.C. State finally remembers how to play basketball as they put the clamps down on Charlotte. My fortunes have turned and Julius Hodge bears much of the responsibility. He scores, dishes, rebounds and handles the basketball. It's tough to reduce his impact on the game. Meanwhile, OSU is sleepwalking against SE Louisiana. They're only up six with four to go. Only four 15 seeds have ever won a first round game since the tourney went to 64 teams. This would be a monumental upset if the Lions could pull it off.

Minnesota is within five with a minute and a half to go. They shoot a three that misses everything, but their big man jumps out of bounds, grabs the ball and calls timeout before he hits the ground. I wish they wouldn't allow this play. Shouldn't you have to actually be in bounds to call timeout? I don't get it.

Holy crap. Ohio has come back from 20 down to tie Florida with two minutes left. More quality SEC play.

Florida survives. And Day Two starts out like Day One: 4-0. I'm now 19-1 with my only loss being Creighton in a nail-biter. Besides rooting for Kansas, the main reason for taking two vacation days to watch 24 hours of basketball is to see how well I filled out my bracket. So when I see the NCAA's commercial telling me "Don't Bet On It," I have to laugh. What are they getting at? Illegal office pools? Betting the sports books at Vegas? I'd have to think that 90% of interest in the tournament has to do with some sort of betting. Is this just a token message to make us think that the NCAA is really looking out for the best interests of the student-athlete? All I have to do is watch a Cincinnati game to realize that's not the case.

Looks like an afternoon snoozer. UConn's up 14, 'Nova's up 10, UNC's up 16 and the Salukis are up 15. My 10 game losing streak in Spider Solitaire is more interesting at this point. But all four of those games are in my favor, so life is good.

On the 20th anniversary of Villanova's improbable championship victory over powerhouse Georgetown, the Wildcats are crushing New Mexico, 34-11 at half. Villanova is a very solid team. They certainly waxed the Jayhawks earlier this year and they could very well knock off Florida, setting up a potential Sweet Sixteen matchup with Carolina. This is a team that could make a lot of noise.

My solitaire losing streak comes to an end. My boredom does not. The only remotely interesting fact about these four games is that New Mexico has cut Villanova's lead to 19. Never mind; that's not even interesting.

Time to wake up. St. Mary's has tied Southern Illinois with six minutes to go. This is a matchup of unusual mascots: the Gaels vs. the Salukis. You almost have to be college educated to have any idea what those are.

Now it looks like Central Florida and New Mexico have awoken as well. UConn's lead has shrunk to five. And 'Nova's lead is down to nine. UNC has won, leaving Duke as the only available #1 seed to make history and lose their first round game. Delaware State? A 19-13 record? I won't be wagering on that one.

UConn looks a little shaky in closing beating CFU. This is good news as the Huskies look to be the toughest potential opponent in the way of a fourth straight Elite Eight appearance for the Jayhawks. With any luck, N.C. State will knock them off.

Villanova hangs on to defeat a rejuvenated New Mexico club. And like yesterday, I've managed to achieve perfection through the morning and afternoon games. Overall record: 23-1. That's the good news. The bad news: My potentially disastrous Austin bracket hasn't played yet. I took #13 Vermont over #4 Syracuse. Not only that, I took Vermont again to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. If they beat Syracuse, they can get past the MSU/ODU winner. That's a big "if". It's a high risk/high reward pick. If the Catamounts can somehow get the ball to Taylor Coppenrath within the jaws of the Syracuse zone, I'll look like a genius. Otherwise, I'll remain at "mere mortal" status.

The real test begins now. Vermont is my sleeper team to get into the Sweet Sixteen, but they have to face the renowned zone defense of Syracuse. What stinks is that I got to see the first four minutes of the game, but then they switched over to a game I'm supposed to be "interested in," Wisconsin vs. Northern Iowa. I have nominal interest in this game, only because this will be the Jayhawks second round opponent. I guess that's what you have to put up with, though, when you don't buy the cable package or go to a sports bar.

CBS just showed a promo for the latest episode of "CSI: Miami". I don't watch any of the "CSI" TV shows, but I think it's cool that Tony Hawk is going to be in the Miami version. Not only does he get killed, but they find clues in his skateboarding video game. That guy is just the epitome of cool.

Boy, Chris Rock really gets around. He hosted the Oscars last month, he's going to be in the remake of "The Longest Yard", and now he's starting at guard for the Wisconsin Badgers. He could be a poor man's Jamie Foxx.

Vermont is hanging in there. They've only scored 19 points at half, but Syracuse has but 23. Genius status is still within reach. Of course, that won't be the case if Louisville doesn't ramp it up. They have a narrow one point lead over Louisiana-Lafayette. And Duke is struggling with Delaware State. What's great is that the crowd in Charlotte is pro-UNC and backing Delaware State. It's probably just a blip, but it's fun to dream.

Foster comes over with burgers. We watch the current round of games go to half. All the games are close. We head over to Chad's, on the way over to Mai's. Vermont actually goes ahead in the second half while we get the pleasure of watching Wisconsin take on Northern Iowa. Granted, it's a close game and has minute regional interest, but no game has a greater impact on my bracket at the moment than Vermont/'Cuse.

The 13th seeded Vermont Catamounts have knocked off the 4th seeded Syracuse Orange in overtime. Let me repeat that for all you non-geniuses out there: the 13th seeded Vermont Catamounts have knocked off the 4th seeded Syracuse Orange in overtime. Both Chad and I picked Vermont to get to the Sweet 16 and we couldn't be more ecstatic. This is easily the greatest pick I've ever made. My job doesn't require that I carry business cards, but I need to print some up anyway. I need to carry some sort of card that certifies my genius status after this nugget of brilliance. Now, on to Mai's for a semi-concerning viewing of KU vs. Bucknell.

Jeremy has the projector set up for maximum viewing pleasure. Lots of folks have gathered. Small bits of nervousness flit about the room, but the general aura of confidence exists as it does in most pro-Kansas crowds.

This is not particularly enjoyable. The Jayhawks are only up three at halftime, mostly because of 10 turnovers and some iffy officiating. But I'm sure we'll pull away in the second half. No one can remember the last time KU lost in the first round of the tournament. The fact that that issue has even come up is a bit disturbing, but I don't have any real reason to believe we'll lose this game.

We're down five with a minute remaining. I've watched the better part of 10 games in the last two games and haven't noticed the officiating. This game, however, has been one of the most poorly officiated games I've ever seen. Phantom calls against our guards and at least a dozen no-calls in favor of Bucknell. But Michael Lee gets a steal and is fouled at half court from behind. Finally! A call that goes our way! It's whistled an intentional foul, two shots and possession. Lee nails both free throws! And we score to pull within one! We're going to win this game!

It will take a miracle to win this game. We have the ball with 2.4 seconds left under our own basket. Only a perfect re-enactment of the Laettner shot vs. Kentucky will save us now. Lee heaves it to the opposite free throw line where Simien catches it cleanly. He turns, shoots...and it hits the front of the rim. Season over. Senior class gone. Bracket ruined. Column ended.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

NCAA Tournament Diary

The first two days of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is unequalled in all of sports. The following is a running diary of my reactions to this year's offering.

Day 1
Thursday, March 17

I pick up Nave who has the good fortune to have his wife home to watch their under-the-weather youngster. We head to Lucky's where the entire basement is set up exclusively for watching the tournament. We meet a handful of other guys who had arrived in time for the beginnings of the first games. Wisconsin-Milwaukee is already up on 'Bama. Good sign. Kentucky is up; no surprise there. Pacific is ahead of Pitt. Excellent. And OU is leading Niagara. I couldn't ask for a better start: all four of my teams are in the driver's seat. We notice Kevin Keitzman and his Sports Radio 810 cronies at the head table. Keitzman is doing a live broadcast of his show "Between the Lines" from the basement at 2:00. Nave mentions that he thinks there will be $2 promo burgers once the show starts. We ask the waitress if there are any drink specials. She says there are $2 draws. Nave asks if they have any Boulevard Irish Ale. She responds in the affirmative. Then brings us bottles.

Nave mentions that he's starving and will forgo the rumored bargain burgers. Swanson shows up, brimming with enthusiasm. I mention the cheap burger rumor and he says he doesn't think he can hold out that long. Nave and Swanson order $7.50 "Frisco" and "Range" burgers, respectively. I decide to hold out for low-cost grub.

The first wave of games come to a close. Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Pacific, Oklahoma, and Kentucky all advance. I'm 4-0 and feeling good. The initial giddiness of has worn off a little as the second slate of games has begun. There's not much excitement watching the scoreboards and seeing single-digit scores for every team. So we watch as Cincinnati jumps ahead of Iowa. And B.C. opens up a lead on Penn. And Washington begins to pummel Montana. But we don't seem to be able to get the feed to the only game where one team doesn't have a double-digit lead, Utah vs. UTEP. I ask the waitress if there are any food specials now, and she tells me that you can get a burger or nachos for 81 cents. My patience pays off. I sign up for the burger. Granted, this isn't of the ilk of the "Range" burger. But it's also six bucks less. My good fortune continues.

We settle up our portion of the ill-calculated tab and hit the road. I drop off Nave and head to the grocery store, where I pick up some pop, chips and other snacks in anticipation of the night games. I get home to see that the Utah/UTEP game is still close. The score is actually tied with under two minutes to play. The other games start to wrap up, keeping my perfection in tact. Boston College, Cincinnati and Washington: winners, all. And, for some reason, I find myself rooting for UTEP, even though I picked Utah to win the game and then go on to beat Oklahoma in the next round. Not to mention, the very sound of the word "UTEP" stirs the bile in my stomach as I recall what they did to Kansas in the 1992 tournament. But, that's the fun part of this event, watching an underdog take its best shot. In the end, Utah and Andrew Bogut are too much for the Miners. And I've picked the first eight games correctly, thus birthing the inspiration for this column.

CBS cuts to the Winthrop/Gonzaga game. Gonzaga is down by three midway through the first half. They identify the teams in this manner: Gonzaga - white jerseys / Winthrop - garnet jerseys. What? Are the "Queer Eye" guys in charge of this aspect of the telecast? They sure looked red to me. Nevada and Texas are changing leads with each basket. Arizona is down by a couple to Utah State. And Chattanooga is on top by a few over Wake. Not time to panic yet, but concern over my perfect record is beginning to brew.

Halftime and Nevada is up one on Texas. A good, intense game. Cut to Cleveland where Wake battles back to get within three at half. On a side note, the Cleveland State mascot painted at center court is one of the more unusual sights of the tournament. Cleveland State is the Vikings, but their mascot is a personified basketball dressed up in Viking garb. It looks kind of like Marvin the Martian from the Bugs Bunny cartoons. The end of the first half has Utah State up three on Arizona from Boise. Which brings up another side note: Boise State always seems to host games on the first round of the tournament and they always get plenty of love in the highlight reels for their football field's blue turf. If you want a degree in marketing, enroll at Boise State. The Garnet Galoots of Winthrop have taken a two point lead to the locker room against the Zags. Confidence...waning...

Jason Klotz is destroying Nick Fazekas. It helps that the officials have turned a blind eye to his array of push-off moves. Klotz has scored 16 points in the second half and the Longhorns have stampeded past the Wolfpack for a four point lead with three and a half remaining. Wake seems to have taken control, finally. Arizona is finding a comfort zone now. But Gonzaga still has just a slim two point lead over Winthrop with eight left. Irritation is setting in.

YES!!! Here come the WOLFPACK! Nevada squeaks one out over Texas to run my record to 9-0. If I can survive the Gonzaga/Winthrop gauntlet, it looks like I may be able to ratchet my mark up to 12-0, easily my best effort to start off a tournament EVER.

Gonzaga avoids getting Gonzaga'd. And I'm two hours and four games away from first-day superiority. After a more typical slate of close games, my heart rate has returned to normal.

Foster comes over, armed with his bracket and a brash prediction for a KU/Georgia Tech rematch in the national championship game this year. The Creighton/WVA game is a roller coaster ride. Creighton jumps out to a 10-0 lead, and WVA comes back to tie. Then, WVA goes on a run and leads by 9. Creighton blazes their way back to within two at the break. UAB seems to be handling LSU. The Illini are tripping over FDU. And the UCLA/Texas Tech game is enjoyable viewing. I'm starting to actually entertain the possibility of a perfect day.

UCLA will not go away. The disciplined, Bobby Knight approach of the Raiders appears to have control over the young, unrefined style of the Bruins. But UCLA keeps scrapping. UAB is laying the wood to a pathetic excuse for a #6 seed in LSU. The SEC was no better than mediocre this year, yet they populate the bracket with nearly a half-dozen teams who got in on reputation rather than merit. Fairleigh Dickinson's clock is racing towards midnight as Illinois asserts themselves.

Creighton blows it. Tie game and Creighton calls timeout to set up a play. The guard slips and panic starts to set in. Dude launches a 3-pointer, but WVA gets a hand on it. Then, faster than you can say "choke," WVA makes two quick passes up the court to a guy who was cherrypicking and get a quick dunk with 2.4 seconds left. Creighton calls timeout, inbounds the ball to half-court and calls timeout again. They get a decent look at a 3, but the shot goes long. And my perfect day goes with it. Freaking Creighton. Texas Tech closes out their victory over UCLA. Three and a half minutes left in the UAB/LSU game and the first day of action.

UAB looks cocky. They've pissed away a 25-point lead and now they're up 14. The point guard executes a beautiful no-look behind-the-head pass and the guy misses the dunk. Everyone for UAB stands around while the rebound goes to LSU, who promptly nails a shot to close to 12. One minute thirty seconds left and UAB misses free throws. And LSU promptly drills a 3 to pull within nine. UAB hits a couple of free throws and then fouls LSU on a 3-pointer. This is not the way to build momentum going into the second round. Their body language speaks volumes. UAB finally closes the game out after LSU jacks up some idiotic 3's. I finish the day 15/16. Not perfect, but not too shabby. And there's a whole new day starting up at 11:15 tomorrow morning.

Friday, March 11, 2005

My Favorite Player

The Baseball Analysts ( recently ran a very cool series in which they asked a number of baseball writers and analysts who their favorite player of all-time was. I always like to read or hear about the favorite things in peoples' lives because I feel like it says something about each individual. What was fun about reading that series was the fact that many of the top analytical minds in baseball today had favorite players when they were growing up that didn't necessarily possess all (or, in some cases, even a few) of the skills deemed essential today to be an above-average major league ballplayer. Yet, they still look back with fondness on that player with whom they had a special bond, regardless of what their own ground-breaking analysis tells them about that player now.

Now, you might think that growing up in the '80's in Kansas City would make me a lock to have George Brett as a hero. I certainly loved watching and listening to him play, but I may have taken his Hall of Fame caliber skills for granted.

I was six years old when I first remember thinking about baseball and George Brett was a focal point. It was 1980 and Brett was in the midst of an historical chase for the .400 mark. I remember wearing a "George Brett For President" t-shirt and my grandma had an inflatable donut seat cushion with the same slogan, in response to Brett's struggles with hemorrhoids that year. The Royals had a great year and made it to the World Series where they lost to the Phillies. The next summer, I remember going on vacation with the family to Pennsylvania and getting in arguments with the neighbor girls about the Phillies and Royals. I specifically remember coming up with such persuasive arguments as "There's Pete Rose; let's punch him in the nose," and "There's Tug McGraw; let's punch him in the jaw."

And in 1985, when the Royals won the World Series, he was the heart and soul of my hometown team. But for some reason, I never did completely connect with him. There was always some odd story floating around about him. He was a party boy who dated lots of women, one of whom happened to be on my mom's bowling team. After a number of years in Kansas City and never having found one of those women to settle down with, rumors started circulating that he was gay. And he lived just down the street from the owner, Ewing Kauffman, in the most expensive neighborhood in town. Maybe all those things made him seem out of reach.

Then, in 1987, I found a connection. It was actually a pretty lousy year for me. I had just entered 7th grade and the transition to middle school wasn't kind. My lackadaisical study skills, which netted me A's and B's in grade school, translated poorly and left a knot in my stomach the majority of my time in middle school. But I still loved baseball. I collected baseball cards and that year yielded the rookie card for Will Clark. I thought it was cool that he homered on his very first major league pitch (against Nolan Ryan, no less). So, I decided to follow him and the Giants in the box scores that year. He had a great year and the Giants ended up winning the NL West. I had a friend in school who lived and died with the Cardinals, who won the NL East. And that match-up in the playoffs kindled somewhat of a friendly rivalry between the two of us. We would come to school each day, touting the effectiveness of our respective teams from the night before. The Cardinal went on to beat the Giants and go to the World Series that year, but Will Clark had a pretty good series and I had found a player I wanted to emulate.

He had an absolutely beautiful left-handed, uppercut swing, better than Brett's, in my opinion. He could hit for average, hit for power and field his position very well. What I liked most about him, though, was the fact that he was a true ballplayer. He wasn't afraid to get his uniform dirty. He went hard into second base to break up double-plays. He had a look of intensity on his face all throughout the game. He had such a high degree of confidence that he was often mistaken for being cocky. But his M.O. was always the same: do whatever is necessary to win the ball game.

Then there was the epic showdown in the 1989 National League Championship Series. The Giants were facing the Cubs who had a pretty good young first baseman of their own in Mark Grace. Their showdown would be one for the history books. Over the five-game series, Grace would put up this unbelievable line:


5 17 11 3 1 1 8 4 .647 .682 1.118

But my hero had the kind of series that makes legends. In Game One, Clark went 4-for-4 with two homeruns (one of which was a grand slam), and six RBI to single-handedly win the game for the Giants. After being held to one hit in a Game Two loss, he came back to get two hits in Game Three, three hits (including two doubles) in Game Four and to cap off the series, he had three more hits in the final game to put up this line:


5 20 13 3 1 2 8 2 .650 .682 1.200

He was simply unstoppable. Which comes as little surprise after the performance he generated in the regular season which Bill James describes in Win Shares as "the best hitter's season of the '80s."

Will Clark went on to have a productive, if not spectacular, finish to his career. He ended up in Texas for a while, which seemed strange to me after seeing him in a Giants uniform. But it was quite a thrill to know that I would finally get to see him play in person at Kauffman Stadium. I went to the ballpark early the first time the Rangers came to town, hoping to get an autograph, but had no success. But he did look me right in the eye when I shouted out his name and told me I'd have to wait until after the game. It may not seem like much, but it was the highlight of my time following his career.

He had some injury-plagued seasons in Baltimore and ended up with St. Louis, filling in for an injured Mark McGwire and putting up respectable numbers before retiring. It was definitely a sad day for me when I heard that he had decided to hang 'em up. And while he didn't quite put up a Hall of Fame-caliber career, he did end up placing in the Top 150 players in all-time Win Shares. A very good career, to be sure.

Now that I'm a little bit older, I can't really say I have a favorite player. I do like Jim Edmonds, as his style of play reminds me of Will Clark. And I absolutely love watching young Zack Greinke pitch, using the most imagination of any player I've ever seen. But when you really get down to it, your childhood hero is like a first kiss; there won't ever be another one like it. And that is certainly the case for me.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Which Sport is Better?

Part One, In An Ongoing Series

Currently, there exists a debate between myself and two buddies of mine on which of the three major professional sports is most difficult to play. It's a fun, though mostly futile, argument as there never really seems to be any resolution. I've decided to take it a little further and discuss my thoughts on why I think baseball is simply a better game, in general, than football or basketball. Don't get me wrong; as a rabid sports fan, I like to watch all these sports. I just happen to think one of them is superior. This is just one of many planned installments, so stay tuned for more utter brilliance as it flows from my brain through my fingers and across your eyeballs.

Going To The Game

Baseball: Delightful, sunny afternoons, taking in the fresh air.
Football: Bone-chilling, potentially rainy afternoons spent stomping your feet to promote circulation.
Basketball: Stuck indoors, enjoying the wonderfully generic atmosphere of (Insert Corporate Sponsor's Name Here) Fieldhouse.

Baseball: Casually debating whether the manager should have pulled the pitcher earlier with they guy sitting behind you.
Football: Trying to decide which belligerent, drunken, NASCAR-loving hillbilly could be reported to stadium security without retribution from his/her redneck brethren.
Basketball: Protecting your son from melees induced by beer-throwing hooligans sitting next to you in the stands and reciprocated by coddled, testosterone-driven millionaires on the court.

Baseball: Singing "Take Me Out To the Ballgame" during the 7th Inning Stretch, accompanied by traditional, albeit dated, organ music.
Football: Getting psyched up by rehashed '70s hits such as "Start Me Up" by the Stones, "Crazy Train" by Ozzie and "Rock and Roll, Part 2" by Gary Glitter.
Basketball: During time-outs, listening to any song that you wouldn't normally hear unless you accidentally stopped on Soul Train while flipping through the television channels.

Baseball: Pauses in the action between innings allows time to grab a hot dog or use the restroom without missing any of the game.
Football: Pauses in between plays while the teams huddle allows your wife or girlfriend the opportunity to ogle the "tight ends."
Basketball: Pauses for each team's set of six regular timeouts, two 20-second timeouts and God-knows how many TV timeouts allows opportunities to wonder what it must have been like back in the old days when basketball was a fluid, graceful game.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Juice, Jerks and Some Synonym for Gambling That Starts With the Letter "J"

"BALCO." The "cream" and the "clear." "Juiced."

These phrases can now be added to the Unabridged Dictionary of Destructive Baseball Terms. They will rest comfortably within a myriad of other words that have stained the great game of baseball like "Anti-trust" and "Black Sox" and "Collusion" and "Strike" and "Ty Cobb."

Baseball now has to endure another scandal that will tarnish the reputations of players, executives and even vaunted records. Players past and present will undergo scrutiny and speculation as to whether or not they participated in activities that were detrimental to the character of the game. There will be talk of affixing asterisks next to records broken by suspected cheaters.

All this drama gets me worked up. Not because I want to take pot shots at baseball. Or stop following baseball. But because I can't fully understand why the focus is so easily swayed from what I believe is the best game on the planet and onto the controversy that temporarily surrounds it from time to time.

Maybe I'm naive, but I really enjoy watching the game of baseball. When I'm watching baseball, I don't think about how much money Alex Rodriguez is making or when the next collective bargaining agreement is up. I don't think about why Pete Rose gambled or why Ivan Rodriguez dropped 20 pounds in the off-season. I tend to wonder if Zack Greinke will throw another 61 mph knee-buckler. Or if David Ortiz can hit another game-winning, walk-off homerun. Or if Jim Edmonds will make another impossible catch in center field. To me, that's what baseball is.

It bothers me that Pete Rose is not in the Hall of Fame. I certainly don't condone his actions in relation to gambling. But when it came down to playing the game of baseball, nobody put more of their heart and soul into it. My dad told me as a kid that if I wanted an example of how to play the game the right way, I should watch Pete Rose. The guy's nickname is "Charlie Hustle", for Pete's sake. He would run down to first after a walk. He dove head-first at full speed into the bases. He gave maximum effort at all times on the baseball field. And in doing so, he broke one of the most daunting records in history: the most career hits. How does this player not belong in the Hall of Fame?

"Pete Rose's actions jeopardized the integrity of the game." No kidding? If you're talking about integrity, how does Ty Cobb get in to the Hall of Fame after a career of spiking opponents on the basepaths or going into the stands to pummel fans? Or how about Babe Ruth for being a womanizing drunk? Or Gaylord Perry for knowingly throwing a spitball decades after the pitch had been banned?

I think we need to let moral judgements be made by indviduals and baseball judgements made by the baseball establishment. We should let Major League Baseball control what it can control and leave the rest alone. Steroids and performance enhancing drugs are something baseball can get a little bit of control over and they should continue to have progressive policy in place to handle the problem. But they can't catch everyone and trying to figure out who may or may not have used illegal substances in the past is an exercise in futility.

I realize it is nearly impossible to be a baseball fan and not pay attention to the business side and the controversy. And it is definitely disappointing when rotten things happen to the game. But every year, they keep playing games. And until they stop, I'll keep watching 'em.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Spring Is Here!

Winter is officially over.

For me, anyway.

I received my copy of this year's Baseball Prospectus yesterday, one of the few annual events that actually elicits a feeling of bliss. It was the first day of March, the first "Spring" month. Temperatures this week are supposed to be in the 50s and 60s. I shaved off my winter beard. Winter is done.

Okay, so there will probably be a handful of days where snow is an actual possibility, but as far as I'm concerned, with the arrival of the Prospectus comes the arrival of Spring. For those of you who aren't familiar with this publication, the annual Baseball Prospectus is a book that gives an overview of each major league baseball team, every player on each major league roster, and a handful of the best minor league prospects for each team. This is a large book. Over 500 pages. And once it hits my hot little hands, I read it from cover to cover. For me, it contains the essence of Spring.

For each team it has a couple of pages briefly reviewing the previous year, analyzing the off-season moves, and speculating on the coming years fortunes. Then, there's a listing for each player, complete with the previous several years' important statistics, a forecast for what they project the player will do this year, and a small written review for that player. In addition to the team and player overviews, there are various articles on the research done by the folks at Baseball Prospectus and the new (or improved) stats they've come up with and an article ranking the top 50 prospects in baseball.

What's really great about reading Baseball Prospectus is that it contains the most up-to-date and relevant statistical information available. It takes the concepts that were exposed to the world in Michael Lewis' "Moneyball" and takes them to another level. It's highly progressive and analytical, yet it is incredibly humorous, too. They have very talented writers along with brilliant analysts and statisticians. Reading this book is enjoyable to both sides of the brain.

But most importantly, it opens the gateway to the start of a new baseball season. It allows me to start dreaming about the slim possibility that the Royals may flirt with a .500 record: "If Greinke pitches like a young Saberhagen and Hernandez throws as well as he did two years ago and Anderson takes to his new mechanics and Pickering gets 450 at-bats and Sweeney stays free of injury and Teahen and Gotay burn up the minors and get promoted, maybe, just maybe, we can compete!" It allows me to think about how cool it will be when Barry Bonds blows past Babe Ruth and inches closer and closer to Hank Aaron. And it starts me wondering what the chances are of repeating my feat from last year of seeing both World Series teams play in their home parks.

Spring is here and I couldn't be more excited.