Archive for April, 2008

Favre On Letterman: A Postscript
April 25, 2008

Impressions from last night’s Late Show with David Letterman:

1. Favre’s leaning more and more toward coming back. I hate to say that, because the only stain on Favre’s legacy (well, besides those hundreds of interceptions) is the irritatingly wishy-washy way he’s handled the questions of his retirement for what seems like the last forty years. But when given the opportunity to definitively lay to rest the growing rumors of a comeback, Favre simply can’t do it. He instead adds fuel to the fire by admitting that “something’s bound to happen” when training camp time rolls around and by not responding to Letterman’s statement of “this makes me think you’re not retired.”

2. It’s clear that Favre would play forever if he could just show up at game time and play. He admitted during the interview that he’s gone hunting on game days and he joked with Letterman about desiring changes to his “summer schedule training regime.” One wonders if these jokes had ever come up in a more serious manner in discussions with Packers brass. Is it so impossible to think that perhaps Favre had approached Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy with some Roger Clemens-esque demands for less hours? If he had, was the reason he retired related to the breaking down of those talks? Is it impossible to think that perhaps if Favre hadn’t explored that avenue with the Packers before, he’s seriously thinking about it now? If any NFL player has earned the right to set his own schedule with any NFL team, it has to be Favre with the Packers.

3. Clearly Favre was uncomfortable discussing Aaron Rodgers. Here Favre came across like a jilted lover who couldn’t believe the Packers had moved on without him, sort of like when Brenda Walsh broke up with Dylan McKay but couldn’t tolerate the sight of him going out with other guys. They eventually got back together; are Favre and the Packers due for the same fate? Favre is smart enough to brush aside talk of Rodgers because the heinous impact on Rodgers is the dark side of any potential Favre comeback and Favre wants to avoid being portrayed as a bad guy screwing over someone else’s career.

4. Favre was completely believeable in his response to whether the Packers’ inability to sign Randy Moss was a factor in his retirement. Favre was smart enough to know that Moss wasn’t going to leave New England this past offseason and any spectaculation was simply fodder for talk radio and blogs like this one. 

5. Despite being the most overexposed female on the planet who isn’t a troubled singer with mental problems or a star of a Disney Channel sitcom with her dad, I find it impossible to dislike Tina Fey. And I’m trying, especially when she jokes about how little she sees her 2-1/2 year old daughter. But hey, 30 Rock is a fantastic show and her new movie looks very funny.  And if I’m honest with myself, do I worry about how much time male celebrities spend with their children? Not really. But child neglect or no child neglect, Fey is all over the place and we could use a break. Send Catherine O’Hara to tide us over while she’s gone.

So, final thoughts: I do believe now that Favre is not done and will attempt a comeback, probably with a different team. Unless Rodgers injuries himself in the offseason, which is not entirely unlikely given his history. The comeback will be closer to Michael Jordan with the Wizards than to Michael Jordan’s second stint with the Bulls. Favre will still be a God to Packer Nation, but a comeback will taint his legacy somewhat. Sort of like how Letterman’s legacy is tainted by his guest spot on Mork & Mindy.

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Brewers: Winning Week, But Questions Mounting
April 23, 2008

Author’s note: This post was added to Channel 3000 last Sunday, but I stupidly forgot to copy it over to my blog. Here it is, although it only discusses the Brewer games through last Saturday, April 20. May I say, though, that many concerns I address here have become even more glaring in the last few days.

The Milwaukee Brewers completed a 4-2 week on Saturday that ended with a three-game winning streak, including two thrilling extra-inning victories. The team is 11-6, tied with the Chicago Cubs and just a half-game back of the NL Central-leading St. Louis Cardinals. They’re a full game ahead of last year’s record after 17 games when they were the darlings of the National League, and they’re on pace to win 105 games.

Should fans be happy with the record so far? Sure. Should fans be worried about the long-term strength of this team? You bet.

Let’s start with the starting pitching, which is to any baseball team what Michael J. Fox was to Family Ties: the lifeblood. A week ago, it seemed obvious that when Yovani Gallardo was ready to join the rotation after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee early in spring training, he would take Dave Bush’s spot. Bush had struggled mightily in his first two starts, giving up ten runs and racking up a massive 8.44 ERA.

Now, Gallardo will probably still replace Bush (as of this writing no decision had been announced), but the choice has become decidedly murkier thanks to the general awfulness of Carlos Villanueva and Manny Parra. Villanueva (1-2) has allowed 14 hits and nine runs in his last two starts, earning himself a whopping 6.19 ERA, while Parra (also 1-2) has only been able to go four innings in each of his last two starts. In contrast, Bush had a decent outing (six innings, three earned runs) last week against St. Louis in a losing effort. Next to Bush, Villanueva, and Parra, Jeff Suppan, with an ERA of only 4.12 and coming off a solid start on Saturday, looks like Steve Carlton.

Of course, the struggles of the second through fifth starters will pale in comparison to the loss of Ben Sheets if Sheets has to miss any starts after being taken out early in Friday’s game because of tightness in his triceps. The loss of Sheets, who has been brilliant this season, for an extended stretch would be crippling to the rotation. Unfortunately, the tightness has been a problem for Sheets now in two consecutive starts and, given that it is near the torn muscle he suffered in 2005, it is definitely cause for concern. The Sheets Injury Watch, second only in recent years to the Favre Retirement Watch as sources of stress for Wisconsin sports fans, has sadly returned.

The Brewers’ pitching woes would be less troublesome if hits and runs were piling up, but most of Milwaukee’s starting lineup is about as cold as Joe Piscopo’s acting career. Rickie Weeks is batting .188 and has seen his playing time lessened. J.J. Hardy is batting .200. Bill Hall, despite late game heroics and clutch hitting — he’s leading the club with 16 RBIs — is still only hitting .224 and he’s second in the majors in strikeouts.

Elsewhere, Ryan Braun is not only hitting the ball poorly with a .235 average, but he’s swinging at everything — his on-base percentage is only .243, and that’s only up after he took his first walk of the season on Friday night. In contrast, Prince Fielder is not only showing signs of emerging from his slump (check his game-winning home run on Thursday), but he’s taking his walks and getting on base to the tune of an on-base percentage of .365. You know you’re in trouble when you’re calling on the likes of Gabe Gross and Craig Counsell to provide some offense. Counsell has delivered, but Gross, with four hits in 33 at-bats, has not.

The bright spots in the lineup include Corey Hart and Jason Kendall, as well as Gabe Kapler, although Kapler’s productivity has been slowed by a bruised right shoulder that caused him to miss two games last week and now he hasn’t had a hit since last Sunday’s three-hit, three RBI performance against the Mets. If Kapler’s already played his best games of the season, who in the lineup will step it up to compensate for the loss of that unexpected production?

So with batting and pitching woes evident, what’s helping Milwaukee get out to this 11-6 start? Well, they’ve been playing solid defense, committing only seven errors, which gives them the third-fewest in the majors, behind Houston and Kansas City.

The bullpen, after having some struggles earlier in the season, has been largely impressive, going for a stretch of 12-2/3 consecutive shutout innings this week. Unfortunately, Brian Shouse did blow a save opportunity by giving up a two-run home run on Saturday.

Of course, the best news out of the bullpen is the play of Eric Gagne, who has now converted five straight save opportunities, including three in a row from Thursday-Saturday. Gagne hasn’t allowed a run since April 8 and has seen his ERA steadily drop from a whopping 27.00 (after his failed first outing of the season) to 4.70.

Gagne is quickly going from biggest question mark on the team to one of the Brewers’ most reliable performers. But as Milwaukee begins a seven-game home stand on Monday night against St. Louis, the list of reliable performers on the Brewers seems to be getting shorter every day.

Joe Dillon has been sent to the minors to make way for Yovani Gallardo, meaning that the Brewers are keeping an amazing 14 pitchers on their 25-man roster. Clearly Ned Yost wouldn’t have made this move if the health of Ben Sheets wasn’t in question, but keeping only eleven day-to-day players can’t last long.
 

Spring Game, NBA Playoffs, Packers Schedule
April 18, 2008

Saturday is the annual spring football game at Camp Randall Stadium.  I’ll give you a minute to soak in the excitement that opening sentence undoubtedly stirred within your soul.

Coach Bielema, apparently frustrated that last year’s spring game drew only 18,020, has put his money where his mouth is in his pleas for increased attendance, donating $2,000 of his own money for four student drawings to be held each quarter. Various other attractions, such as the annual Badger Sports Kids Fair and a live broadcast of ESPN 1070’s “Heller and Murphy,” are also scheduled in place to hopefully increase attendance to somewhere in the range of Bielema’s goals of “30,000 (or) 40,000 people.”

Personally, I’m shocked that even 18,000 people would show up for what is in essence a practice. But Bielema is not crazy to want more butts in the seats. There is precedence for higher attendance in the spring: Alabama had 78,200 fans this year (down from 92,138 in 2007), 61,000 showed up for this year’s Florida Gators spring game, and tickets for tomorrow’s Nebraska spring game are reportedly going for $95 from local brokers.  Not to mention the tens of thousands of people that come out to Lambeau for the annual Packers scrimmage.

So what can be done to boost attendance in the spring here? While Badger Nation will never be as fantatical about the spring game as the Crimson Tide, Gator, or Cornhusker faithful, we should be able to come close to the attendance numbers posted this spring in Oklahoma (22,306) and LSU (33,624).

First, the University has to start charging for tickets. That seems counter-intuitive, but right now the spring game has a perception of being worthless partly because the University says it isn’t worth charging for. Charge $5 per seat, donate the proceeds to a worthy charity, and the perceived value of the game will greatly increase. Not to mention that people with paid in tickets in hand will be more motivated to attend no matter what the weather.

Second, the answer of who this spring game is targeted for has to be addressed. With the Kids Fair, It seems like a family event, but now with the student drawings, it also seems like a student event. Students are less likely to attend something marketed to families with small children, while families with small children are likely to stay away from something they feel will be largely attended by drunken swearing students. The University has to narrow their target audience and market the game to it. 

Lastly, the University has to walk the walk and talk the talk. They are trying to make the game “as close to a regular game as it can be” (according to www.uwbadgers.com), yet they insist on the irregular scoring system of the second team’s points counting for twice the first team’s points. Why? Sure the second-team offense should be less efficient than the first team, but shouldn’t the second team defense also be easier to score on? And if this is a family event, how do I explain the oddball scoring to my five-year-old? I’m trying to interest him in the game of football, not to scare him away by trying to explain a format and scoring system more labrytine than a Coen brothers movie.   

Anyway, if you go to the spring game, have a good time. Me, I’ll likely be home watching the NBA playoffs, which start on Saturday. This year’s NBA playoffs are potentially the most interesting in years, not only because the West is even deeper than in years past, but because the East — with statistically the two best teams in the league — has some intrigue this year as well. Namely, how good will Boston be in the playoffs after admittedly coasting through the last couple weeks of the season? Can Detroit — which gave Boston one its rare home losses this season — challenge the Celtics?

In the West: In the first round, I like the Lakers to sweep, I like the Jazz in five, I like the Hornets in seven, and the Spurs in seven.  Then I like the Lakers in seven and the Spurs in seven. In the conference finals I like the Lakers in six.

In the East: Boston in a sweep, Cleveland in six, Orlando in six, and the Pistons in five. Then Boston in five and the Pistons in six. Then Boston in six.

In the Finals, I’ll take Boston in six. Bad for the philosophy of building your team from within, good for KG. He deserves a championship.

The 2008 Packers schedule is out for next year. Pretty average schedule in terms of difficulty — Packers have 12th toughest schedule for 2008. At first glance, potential losses come in the second week at Detroit (comedown from emotional first game with Favre retirement jersey; Lions seem to always be better early in season); the third week at home against Dallas (Dallas should be out for blood next season, especially if they land Chad Johnson); the sixth and seventh game at Seattle and against Indy (the bye will be richly deserved after that double shot); and the fourteenth game at Jacksonvile. Otherwise, the schedule appears easier than last year’s did at first glance. But the Packers of 2008 won’t be the Packers of 2007. Still, nothing I see here leads me to believe they won’t win the NFC North again.

 

 

 

 

Brewers Commentary: Average Second Week
April 14, 2008

It’s a sure sign of how far the Brewers have come over the last couple of seasons, and how different the expectations now are for the once cellar-dwelling club.

Milwaukee had by definition an average second week, going 3-3 beginning with last Sunday’s series closer against San Francisco. But after getting out to a 6-1 start overall, beginning the third week of the season at 7-4 and 1-1/2 games behind St. Louis can’t help but seem disappointing.

Certainly much more went wrong over the last few games than during the first few, including a three-game losing streak in which the Brewers were outscored 20-7 by the Reds and the Mets.

But the week was also book ended by stellar pitching performances by ace Ben Sheets last Sunday and Saturday and a stirring comeback victory on Tuesday.

So to honor the good and recognize the bad, here’s three hits, three outs, and three foul balls for the Brewers from April 6-April 12.

Hits:

1. Ben Sheets. When people say that the Brewers will be fine as long as Ben Sheets stays healthy, they aren’t kidding. Sheets has been nothing short of outstanding so far this season. Last Sunday he shut out the Giants in a complete game 7-0 victory, and he ended the week by impressively outdueling Mets ace Johan Santana 5-3. Sheets’s ERA is now 1.17 with 20 strikeouts and only four walks. More importantly, his presence on the mound solidifies his club, leading to confidence-building victories when things seem to be spiraling downward. His impressive performance on Saturday against Santana halted Milwaukee’s first losing streak of the season at three.

2. Bill Hall. Though his production this last week slowed, Hall still leads the team in home runs (5) and RBIs (10). His biggest hit of the week came in Tuesday’s victory over the Reds, when his seventh-inning homer gave the Brewers a 2-1 lead in a game they would eventually win 3-2.

3. Gabe Kapler. Who would have expected this from a player who’s been retired for the last three seasons? Three home runs, 8 RBIs, and a .364 average. This is how teams win — by getting more than expected from journeyman players. Kapler’s productivity means that Ned Yost will have some tough lineup decisions to make when Tony Gwynn Jr. comes off the DL and Mike Cameron’s suspension is over.

Foul Balls:

1. Ryan Braun. The RBIs (8) and HRs (3) are there, but he’s only hitting .229. He’s also drawn zero walks so far with nine strikeouts, so he’s not being selective with his hitting.

2. Eric Gagne. Another questionable week for the Brewers’ new closer, as Gagne blew another save on Tuesday but blew through the three Mets he faced on Saturday to get his second save of the season. Still, seeing Francisco Cordero in a Reds uniform this week hurts for Brewers fans.

3. Jason Kendall. Kendall ended a seven-game hitting streak on Friday, then proceeded to go zero for his next seven at-bats. Kendall’s hitting percentage dropped a whopping 114 points in two games. Ouch.

Misses:

1. Dave Bush. Paging Yovani Gallardo. Bush is 0-2 with an 8.44 ERA. Thankfully, Bush should be out of the Brewers’ rotation soon thanks to Gallardo’s imminent return.

2. The Bullpen. Forget about Gagne for a second. Anytime your bullpen combines to give up seven runs over three innings as the Brewers’ relievers did on Wednesday, you’ve got issues.

3. Prince Fielder. No home runs yet and a 0-for-11 performance against the Cincinnati Reds? Somebody buy this man a McRib.

FSN Wisconsin Woes and Fixing the NHL
April 9, 2008

Boy, that was another exciting Brewers victory on Tuesday night, wasn’t it? Can you believe Gagne blew another save only to be bailed out yet again by the Brewers offense? (In response, Gagne said, “It’s a lot easier to go to sleep tonight. It’s going to make me go from not sleeping to sleeping.” Apparently steroids have a heretofore unknown effect: redundancy.) Wow. Thrilling stuff. Brewers as of this writing sit at 6-1 and are tied for the best record in baseball.

 

What? You didn’t see the game? You say you turned on FSN Wisconsin Tuesday night only to find the Bucks and Celtics? Well, I was right there with you my friend. I was so annoyed that I almost — note I said almost — turned on the NCAA Women’s Championship Game.

 

Now, working in television as I do I have some idea as to how FSN Wisconsin would be contracted to run last night’s Bucks game over last night’s Brewers game, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating to any self-respecting Wisconsin sports fan.

 

Last night’s Bucks game was completely meaningless, as Milwaukee — even playing in the wretched Eastern Conference — has been out of the playoff picture for months, and Boston, having sewn up home court throughout the NBA playoffs, was so disinterested in Tuesday’s game that they pulled their starters in the third quarter, allowing Milwaukee to overcome a 25-point deficit. (The bench of the Celtics eventually beat Milwaukee’s Best 107-104.)

 

Overtime, you say? A 25-point deficit erased in the second half, you say? Sounds exciting, you say. It wasn’t, I say. Thankfully, the misery that is Milwaukee Bucks basketball is soon to be over.

 

Switching sports, the NHL playoffs start tonight. Now anyone who regularly reads this blog knows that I don’t send a lot of love to the NHL. Truth be told, I haven’t been able fully support the NHL since the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas. Stupid I know, but there you have it.

 

Now the NHL playoffs can be exciting, there’s no doubt about that. But unfortunately they get overlooked by the bigger sporting events in April, namely baseball’s opening month and the NBA playoffs. The NHL will never overtake MLB or the NBA so general fan interest in the NHL playoffs will always be tepid at best and at worst will continue its ratings and popularity freefall.

 

So what can the NHL do? They admit defeat and change. Here’s what I propose. The NHL playoffs have to be moved to a less competitive time of the year. Ideally, the meat of them should land in the sports-barren landscape that is February and early March, before the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

 

February simply begs for some big-time sports. Following the Super Bowl, which often falls in late January, there is nothing outside of regular-season basketball until baseball season. Placing the hockey playoffs there would be near-nirvana for the sports-starved. Think of it: You go from NFL playoffs to NHL playoffs to NCAA tournament without any break. I guarantee you put the Conference Finals and the Stanley Cup Finals into that void and interest would skyrocket.

 

So how do you do that? Well, you could play fewer games, limiting the regular season from early-October to mid-January. But that would never happen. No pro league will ever drastically cut the number of games played in its regular season unless Jesus himself returned to earth to order it so and even then I’m not so sure. Besides, this is a plan to help hockey and starting its regular season in October — with the NFL in full swing and the baseball playoffs — is another one of its problems.

 

So what you have to do is basically move the season up three months so the Stanley Cup Finals happen in early March as opposed to early June. That would mean beginning the season in July as opposed to October.

 

Sound crazy for the NHL to be playing in July? Is it any crazier than the NHL playing in June as it does now? Think of it: Not only does the NHL then get the benefit of having its most meaningful, attractive games in February-March, but they get the added benefit of starting in July-August, which are probably the second and third worst sports months of the year, with the only competition coming from baseball and (yawn) preseason football.

 

So if the NHL was smart, they would wind down this season and shut the league down for a year (it would give them much needed time to work on its marketing, which stinks), re-launching it with the new schedule starting in July 2009.

 

But the NHL is headed by people that are hardly wizards at scheduling — see the brilliant move to take the outdoor NHL Winter Classic and schedule it on New Year’s Day, which is only the biggest college football day of the year. Undoubtedly the dumbest scheduling move ever until CBS just overtook it by thinking that people would tune in on Tuesday nights to watch Danny Bonaduce ride a unicycle. I mean, I’d even rather watch the Bucks than that.

 

Brewers: First Week, First Place
April 7, 2008

The Milwaukee Brewers’ first calendar week of games saw a lot of firsts.

Manny Parra’s first career major league victory. Gabe Kapler’s first pinch-hit home run. New closer Eric Gagne’s first blown save, first victory (recorded in the same game) and first save. The first series win of 2008. The first extra innings game of the year. The first rain delay of the season.

Most importantly, Milwaukee (4-1) entered the second week of the season in first place in the NL Central.

Oh sure, it’s early. And you’d only have to go back two years to find evidence that a hot first week (5-0 in 2006) for the Brewers doesn’t automatically translate into lasting success (a disappointing 75-87 finish).

But any Brewer fan would have to like what Ned Yost’s team has done so far. Particularly since the Brewers took the first two out of three games against the rival Chicago Cubs, the team picked by most pundits to win the NL Central.

It was only a year ago that Milwaukee was the hot pick to win the division over the Cubs. This year it seems most have decided that Chicago will repeat as NL Central champs.

The early results indicate that after their first winning season in 15 years, the Brewers are not quite ready to slip back into irrelevance.

Not only are the Brewers winning, they are winning in impressive fashion. In the season opener at Wrigley Field, Milwaukee did not let a blown save by Eric Gagne in the bottom of the ninth deflate them, instead coming back to win 4-3 in ten innings. Ryan Braun correctly pointed out after the win that “last year we would have lost a game like this a lot of times.” The victory is an early indication that the players are already maturing from last year’s team that choked away their division lead late in the season. Not only are the Brewers playing smarter, they’re also playing tougher — just ask Cubs catcher Geovany Soto after being drilled at home plate by a charging Rickie Weeks in Thursday’s game. The physical play resulted in two runs scored.

While the pitching of Ben Sheets (two hits in 6-1/3 innings) was largely responsible for the opening win, the formidable bats in the Brewers lineup led them to their next two victories, a 8-2 romp in Chicago and a 13-4 laugher against San Francisco in the home opener on Friday. After one week, the Brewers are second in the majors in runs scored, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t remain near the top of that list all season.

Seemingly everyone in the lineup has been contributing to the run total, but special mention must be made of Bill Hall, leading not only the team but the majors with seven RBIs, six of which he earned in the home opener — his career high. Newcomer Jason Kendall is batting at a .500 clip in the first week, including racking up a single, two doubles, and two RBIs (not to mention a walk and a stolen base) in Wednesday’s 8-2 victory against his former Cubs team. And Rickie Weeks set a franchise record and tied a National League record by scoring a run in seventeen straight games (dating back to last season), a streak that was snapped in Saturday’s loss.

So what’s not going well for Milwaukee? Center fielder Tony Gwynn, Jr. has been out of the lineup since Thursday’s game after a hamstring injury. Gwynn hopes to be back for next Tuesday’s opener against the Reds, but a stint on the 15-day disabled list isn’t out of the question. And pitcher Dave Bush probably made some fans wish that it was he who had been released and not Claudio Vargas after giving up six earned runs in 5-1/3 innings in Thursday’s 6-3 loss to the Cubs, the only blemish on the season thus far.

It’s easy to shrug off one week of success. After all, one look at the standings on Sunday morning — with the Tampa Bay Rays, Kansas City Royals, and Florida Marlins in first place and the Detroit Tigers sitting as the majors’ only winless team — would indicate that much will change as the season progresses. But victories in April count as much as victories in September, and there’s nothing wrong with early optimism. One week in, the Brewers are giving their fans plenty of reasons to believe that this first week won’t be their last in first place.