Archive for June, 2008

Bold Playoff Predictions
June 29, 2008

My history of bold predictions is pretty spotty to say the least: I predicted New Coke would be so successful that it would drive Pepsi out of business, I predicted Cyndi Lauper would outlast Madonna, I predicted The Michael Richards Show would be more successful than Seinfeld, and I predicted that once David Beckman arrived in the United States that soccer would be more popular here than the Big Mac.

Well, you’d think I’d learn to shut up by now, but here I go again. I am now predicting that within the next twelve months, we will have witnessed playoff berths by the three major Wisconsin professional sports teams: The Brewers this season, and the Packers and Bucks in the upcoming seasons.

Let’s start with what would have to be the longest shot — no, not the Bucks, but the Brewers. (Remember that only four teams in the NL will make the playoffs, whereas the NBA’s Eastern Conference will send twice as many teams to postseason play.) The Brewers have been playing the best baseball in the majors over the last six weeks. Assuming Ben Sheets can outhurl Minnesota’s Kevin Slowey on Sunday, the Brewers will avenge their only series loss since that disasterous trip to Fenway Park in mid-May. Should Milwaukee beat Minnesota on Sunday, they will be one of the few National League teams to finish interleague play with a winning record, an impressive feat considering that they started interleague play 0-5.

As of Sunday, the Brewers are only one game out of the NL Wild Card, which stands as their best shot of making it to the postseason. It seems like only a matter of time before the Brewers surpass the Cardinals, who simply don’t have the pitching depth that Milwaukee has proven to have over the last several weeks. Yes, the Brewers have come a long way since early in the season when Sheets was the only pitcher getting wins. Guys like Parra, McClung, and Torres are the best stories coming out of Milwaukee this season, and that’s why they’ll still be playing in October.

Now let’s look at the Bucks. As horrendous as the Milwaukee Bucks were last year, and they were bad, as bad as The Love Guru‘s box-office performance, they were only eleven wins out of a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, where you don’t need to be good to get to the postseason. Can the Milwaukee Bucks make an eleven-game turnaround next year? I know it’s like expecting solid laughs out of an episode of According to Jim to expect good things from the Bucks, but this actually seems like a pretty safe bet.

Within a few weeks, the Bucks have gotten John Hammond, a proven winner, to replace Larry Harris, a proven loser, as their GM. They received a significant upgrade at head coach with Scott Skiles. But more importantly, they just added two players, Richard Jefferson and lottery pick Joe Alexander, who could make significant contributions next year. Jefferson, should he stay healthy (he missed 27 games in 2006-07 with a knee injury), not only can score — 22.6 points while shooting 47 percent from the floor in 82 games last year — but has playoff experience, a huge plus for a team like Milwaukee which has guys who don’t have much experience playing in games that count. (Indeed, when the Bucks looked like they were going to go on a playoff run in March of last season, they proceeded to then drop 10 of their next 14 games to fall out of contention.) Alexander will need to be brought along a little more slowly, but this a guy who has worked for everything he’s earned in his college career (he received no basketball scholarships coming out of high school). He was huge for West Virginia, and he seems genuinely appreciative of the opportunity to play for Milwaukee, which is refreshing after last year’s experience with the now-traded Yi Jianlian.

For the 2008-09 season, the Bucks will have standout rookie Ramon Sessions, Olympian Michael Redd, still-improving Andrew Bogut, Charlie Villanueva, and Richard Jefferson as their starting five, with Alexander, Mo Williams, and Charlie Bell coming off the bench. In the East, that’s a playoff team.

Now for the slam dunk: The Packers. Aaron Rodgers will be fine, Ryan Grant’s deal will get done (hopefully), and the defensive line will get healthy. Remember, some team from the NFC North has to get in to the postseason. Minnesota should be better, but no team with Tavaris Jackson at quarterback poses any real threat to win the division. The Bears appear to be in free fall, and the Lions are the Lions, bless them. Hey, Jon Kitna . . . I’ve made my bold playoff predictions. Now it’s your turn. Playoffs? 10 wins? .500? Will keep all games within 30 points? Anything?

 

Seven Dirty Things You Can Never Accuse The Brewers Of Doing in 2008
June 23, 2008

In honor of the late, very great comedian George Carlin and his most infamous routine, today we present the Seven Dirty Things You Can Never Accuse The Brewers Of Doing In 2008.

1. Being predictable. Like many people who didn’t foresee the powerhouse that the Chicago Cubs have been (at least so far) in 2008, I predicted the Brewers to win the NL Central this year. But after winning five of their first six, they proceeded to go 14-23 over their next 37 games. After finding themselves in last place in the NL Central following an ugly sweep at Fenway Park and a quote from their best everyday player that seemed to call out manager Ned Yost for lack of preparation and/or leadership, lots of those same people who predicted great things for the 2008 Brewers gave up on them and called for Ned Yost’s firing. Well, since that weekend in Boston, the Brewers have the best record in the major leagues at 21-10, are a season-best seven games over .500, and are second in the wild card standings (under NL Central rival St. Louis). I haven’t been so dumbfounded by a series of ups and downs since the frustratingly inconsistent Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. At least there’s no Sarah Paulson to deal with here.

2. Being boring. Case in point: Last Thursday’s game against the sinking Blue Jays. Think an eight-run lead going into the eighth inning is safe? Think a pitcher who takes a no-hitter into the eighth inning is guaranteed a win? The Brewers challenged both of those seemingly no-brainer questions by surrendering seven runs in the final two innings and allowing the leading run to come up to bat before finally finishing off Toronto 8-7 in one of the most bizarre finishes to a baseball game not featuring Charlie Sheen or Tatum O’Neal that you’ll ever see.  One can’t help but think that letting that game get away would have been demoralizing enough to lead to a lengthy losing streak.

3. Being stable. Whether due to injury or ineffectiveness, only the price of gas has fluctuated more than the Brewers’ lineup so far. To Ned Yost’s credit, he’s been more responsible for the good —  Salomon Torres emerging as the closer, calling up Russell Branyan to split time with the ineffective Bill Hall, inserting Seth McClung into the starting rotation — than the bad — Yovani Gallardo being out for the year with a torn ACL.

4. Being unpopular.  The Brewers may never be as popular as the Packers, but they’re not the Milwaukee Bucks (or Sheryl Crow, who is famously playing to near-empty venues on her current tour)either. They currently boast the seventh-highest total home attendance in the National League, despite being located in the smallest market in all of baseball. That means that per capita, the Brewers have the best attendance in the major leagues. That support has led the Brewers to one of the best home records in baseball which I believe is starting to transfer to more confidence and wins on the road.

5. Being happy. Prince Fielder wants more money (which he needs to pay off $400,000 in back taxes). Bill Hall’s agent has demanded the Brewers trade his client, who doesn’t like being overshadowed and outplayed at third base by the much more effective Russell Branyan. It’s not exactly The Real World: San Francisco in the Brewers dugout, but it’s no lovefest either.

6. Being weak. After a slow start, the Brewers are fourth in the majors in home runs with 99. They’ve hit 45 dingers in the last 22 games. They’re packing more of a punch than Naomi Campbell.

7. Being opportunistic. As the scoring opportunities rise, the Brewers’ bats get less and less effective. With no one on base, Milwaukee is hitting a collective .269. With runners in scoring position, the team’s average goes down to .249, And with the bases loaded, the Brewers are hitting only .190, third-worst in the majors. If they can improve upon their scoring chances, the winning — especially on the road — should continue. If not, who knows?

That’s it for now. I suggest going home and listening to Operation: Foole or Class Clown and enjoying the master of stand-up. Good stuff.

Happy Father’s Day
June 15, 2008

Happy Father’s Day.

When I became a parent about five years ago and realized firsthand how much work it is, I not only developed a greater appreciation for my own parents but I couldn’t help but consider what kind of a son I was (and, to a lesser extent, still am). In short, did I make the job of being a parent more or less miserable than most kids do?

I think for the most part I was (and again, still am) a pretty good son. But there is at least one situation I wish I would have handled better. (OK, there’s probably a lot, but one specifically that relates to sports and this is a sports blog. Stay with me, people! Don’t click over to Deadspin just yet!)

My parents, for better or worse, never really pushed me. I was a pretty decent student and didn’t cause a lot of trouble (at least not that they knew of — hey now!), so I guess they were satisfied with that. But around the time of fifth or sixth grade, my dad decided that I should play some hoops. He signed me up for a summer basketball camp and then for a fall basketball league. It made sense in that I was tall; unfortunately, I was horribly uncoordinated. It also made sense in that I was interested in sports; unfortunately, I was also interested in comedy, and I wasn’t prepared to be the next Willis Reed anymore than I was prepared to be the next Joe Piscopo.

Now with all that my father had done for me up to that point — which had included the recent purchase of an Atari 2600, the day that he brought it home being one of the happiest days of my childhood — one would think that I would have sucked it up and given the experiment my best shot (no pun intended). After all, neither the basketball camp nor the basketball league took up that much of my light schedule and I still had plenty of time to play Asteroids and watch Diff’rent Strokes.

But I was an insufferable brat during the camp and especially during the league. I hated it and I made damn sure I let my dad know how much I hated it. Looking back, I don’t so much regret that I didn’t try harder — I stunk and everyone, including myself, the coaches, the other kids, the other kids’ parents, and undoubtedly my own parents, knew it — as much as I regret that I made the experience so miserable for my dad that he never again attempted to get me to play sports.

In my sixth-grade mind, I had won the battle, but a quarter of a century later, my (slightly more) mature mind still regrets how I behaved.

Of course the incident didn’t in any way destroy my relationship with my father, and like most fathers and sons, we’ve shared many enjoyable sports-related times since then, whether watching games together on TV, attending them in person, or simply arguing about how bad Tavaris Jackson really is.

On this Father’s Day, I have a slight regret that I didn’t get it together and take my dad to today’s Brewers/Twins game. But since recent flooding, not to mention ridiculous gas prices, have made travel from Minneapolis more of a challenge — and the fact that my parents are already traveling to Madison next weekend for my daughter’s one-year birthday party — I’m not hugely remorseful, and certainly not as much as when I think back to my quickly-aborted basketball career.

These days, like a lot of parents, my wife and I are trying to get our son to try many different things in order to learn what he enjoys doing. And every time he complains about having to learn a new skill, be it in swimming, soccer, or gymnastics — and there have been more than one or two meltdowns — I bite my tongue as best I can, knowing that it’s payback for the grief I brought down on my dad.

Gotta go call the old man. I hope that if you’re fortunate enough to still have your dad around that you’re finding some time for him today.

(Although I wouldn’t blame Ned Yost’s kids for giving him the cold shoulder today. What’s the deal with staying with the badly struggling Julian Tavarez so long? Were all the other pitchers having wings up at Friday’s or what?)

 

 

NL Central Hot, But Only Cardinals Doing It On The Road
June 6, 2008

Well, this stinks.

No, I’m not referring to ABC’s announcers on the NBA Finals — but I could be. What a shame that we get smart, incisive commentary from broadcasters like Doug Collins, Kevin Harlan, Marv Albert, and Dick Stockton for TNT’s coverage and then inane, meaningless, humorless piffle from the nightmare team of Jeff Van Gundy, Mike Breen, and Mark Jackson for the NBA Finals. These guys should be demoted to covering mixed martial arts. Better yet, they should have to get in the cage with Kimbo Slice. Makes perfect sense — Kimbo’s not a real fighter and the ABC guys aren’t real analysts.

OK, I got off track there. Sorry. Oh, here’s where I was going: The Brewers, warming up since my last post, are now full on en fuego. 9-1 in their last ten. Six in a row. The pitching is clicking, the offense is clicking, they outscored their opponents 45-18 during the just-completed nine-game homestand. They’re playing like the team I thought would win their division.

Problem is, that division is the NL Central.

Yes, the NL Central. That supposedly weak, ugly cousin to the far superior NL East and West. The Cindy Snow to the rest of the league’s Chrissy Snow. The Kundun to the others’ Mean Streets. The Dirty Work to their Let It Bleed.

Well, the NL Central is surprisingly the best division in the NL and nearly all of baseball, with their teams averaging a winning percentage mere hundredths of a percentage point behind the mighty AL East (.5365 to .5384). Leading the way are those lovable losers, the Chicago Cubs, who as of this writing have the best record in baseball at 39-22, going 10-1 in their last 11 games.  What this means is that while the Brewers started their homestand three games under .500 and in sixth place in the Central and finished their homestand four games over .500 and in third place in the NL Central, they’re actually fallen further out of first place during that time, from six games out to 6.5 games out.

See, I told you it — like Baba Booey’s breath — stinks.

Here’s the good news: The Cubs share more than a geographic region and a division with the Brewers, they share a similar lack of effectiveness on the road. While not as pronounced a problem as it is with Milwaukee, the Cubs are only 13-14 away from Wrigley Field. They’ve been able to amass a stellar record largely from playing a home-heavy schedule: 34 games on West Addison Street and only 27 games away. The Brewers, on the other hand, have played two more games away from Miller Park than they have in front of Chorizo and Bernie Brewer.

Of course, there’s more good news. Pitchers other than Ben Sheets are rolling — six consecutive quality starts since May 30 and a combined 2.00 ERA over the last three series. The offense is no longer offensive: Ryan Braun — who some are crediting with helping to spark the team’s turn-around following remarks he made after Milwaukee was badly swept in Boston — is .462 with nine RBI over the last week. Prince Fielder, whose slow start was the subject of much concern, is .458 with four home runs over the same period. And roster moves are begining to pay off, most notably adding third baseman Russell Branyan (.321 since being called up) to the active roster. Bill Hall’s agent says instead of splitting time with Branyan, his client would like to be traded. I say a player with a .228 average who strikes out every 3.5 times at bat is in no position to be making any demands from anyone except his butcher. Although I don’t know who would want him at his current rate of production, Doug Melvin, if you can get anything for him — even a decent bootleg recording of any of Springsteen’s legendary 1975 Bottom Line performances — do it.

Hopefully as the Brewers hit the road again tonight for six games, they can sustain the good feelings amassed over the last week. But if they and the Cubs can’t figure out how to win more consistently on the road, both teams could be looking up to the St. Louis Cardinals (36-26 overall, 15-13 road), who are one of only two NL teams (Phillies being the other) with a winning record on the road.

The NL Central being this loaded and this competitive? Good for baseball, stinks for Milwaukee.