Archive for May, 2010

Remember These Sports Stories?
May 30, 2010

I can't believe Todd Bridges outlasted me . . .

Lists.

Taking a bunch of related items and ranking them is lazy journalism to be sure, but judging by the number of lists produced by old and new media alike and the publicity often surrounding said lists, they’re undoubtedly popular.

And the public’s appetite for lists shows little signs of abating, despite the fact that many lists are unnecessary (Rolling Stone’s recent “500 Greatest Songs Ever” list is almost the exact same one they published just five years ago, and neither included REO Speedwagon’s “Time For Me To Fly” or Paul McCartney’s “Band On The Run” – what?) or horribly illogical (Entertainment Weekly’s just-published “100 Greatest Characters of the Last 20 Years” left off Seinfeld’s George Costanza, The Larry Sanders Show’s Hank Kingsley, The Office’s Michael Scott, and The West Wing’s President Bartlett, to name just a few inexcusable omissions).

So, far be it from me to deny the public what it craves, here is my list of once-hotly debated, now all-but-faded recent sports stories that we are remembering on Memorial Day 2010. (This isn’t Lost; it’ll make sense once you read on.)

1. The Vultures Circling Ken Macha. The biggest surprise for me last week wasn’t that Lost ended confusingly (so the island was purgatory all along? Where/when did the sideways world stories happen? Where did Cheech Marin’s character go?) or that Jack Bauer and Chloe O’Brian survived the final episode of 24 (c’mon, they’re making a movie; somebody has to be in it). It was that Brewers manager Ken Macha was not fired after a stretch in which his team lost 11 out of 12 games.

While I wouldn’t consider Macha totally off the hook, the fact that since the Brewers have as of this writing won five of their last six, including two in a row from the red-hot Mets, the talk of a managerial change seems to have quickly abated. But as we saw with the dumping of Ned Yost, Brewers ownership reserves the right to fire people at any time of the season.

2. The Miller Park Curse. Obviously related to number one above, one of the most confounding stories in baseball this season not related to Ken Griffey, Hanley Ramirez, or Milton Bradley was the fact that just a week ago the Brewers were faring worse at home than any other team in baseball. Though an 8-15 home record as of this writing still stinks, five victories at Miller Park last week indicate that the curse is being reversed.

3. The “Boring” NBA playoffs. A week ago, the 2010 NBA postseason was as exciting as this year’s American Idol. But just as the surprise appearance of Bret Michaels saved that show’s finale, the surprising comebacks by the Orlando Magic (versus Boston) and the Phoenix Suns (versus the Lakers) have somewhat saved this year’s basketball playoffs.

Sure, it would have been better had either of the conference finals had gone to seven games, but it did look for a time that both series would end in sweeps. That would have been disastrous coming on the heels of a conference semifinal round that saw three of four series end in sweeps. And although a Boston/Los Angeles series smacks of redundancy (it will be the twelfth time and second in three years those teams have met to decide the championship), the matchup has the potential to be a terrific finale.

4. The Brett Favre Soap Opera. The fact that Favre had ankle surgery and the fact that the Minnesota Vikings seemingly have no backup plan at quarterback mean this soap opera is as dead as Guiding Light and Port Charles. Favre wants to play. Favre can play. Favre will play. I’m sure Aaron Rodgers for one is happy for two more chances to beat him.

5. The Super Bowl in Lambeau. The NFL’s awarding of the 2014 Super Bowl to the new outdoor stadium in New York/New Jersey had some wondering whether the NFL would ever consider holding the game in Green Bay. Forget it. It’s a nice idea, but Green Bay hosting the Super Bowl would be like me hosting a Justin Bieber concert at my house.

There just isn’t the infrastructure to deal with all the demands that come along with hosting the biggest sports event of the year. However, Green Bay would probably be preferable to most than the site of Super Bowl 39, which was held in – of all places – Jacksonville.

6. The Packers’ Disappointing End to the 2009 Season. Yes, how the Packers lost to Arizona hurt. For a long time. But slowly, fans seem to have turned their thoughts to next season. If Aaron Rodgers and the defense can play close to the level they played at last season – and given their youth, it’s not unrealistic to expect them to play even better – and if the Vikings drop off even a little (which, given their growing list of question marks: their offensive line, Brett Favre’s health, the loss of Chester Taylor, Adrian Peterson’s fumble-itis, seems likely), then the Packers seem poised to back up Peter King’s assertion in Sports Illustrated that the Green and Gold will be next year’s Super Bowl champions.

7. Gary Coleman. OK, this is a sports blog, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t send a little love Arnold Jackson’s way. Dennis Hopper (who also died this weekend) might be an icon to an earlier generation (or at least his Easy Rider character is), but for me as a child Gary Coleman was it. I, and certainly many other people my age, found out about the dangers of drugs and the dangers of child predators through Arnold and his friend Dudley, a fact that probably says less about the brilliance of the Diff’rent Strokes producers and writers than it does for my parents and their comfort level in broaching such topics.

So much did I enjoy Coleman that I sought out laughably forgettable TV movies such as The Kid From Left Field, Scout’s Honor, On The Right Track, and The Kid with the 200 I.Q. For all his success as a child actor, Coleman’s life story – like for his co-stars Dana Plato and Todd Bridges – was a sad one, complete with disease, parents who stole from his trust fund, suicide attempts, bankruptcy, and numerous arrests. Here’s hoping Coleman is now at peace and that somewhere Conrad Bain is being comforted.

Have a great Memorial Day weekend. Remember those who deserve to be remembered and go easy on the brats.

Advertisements

Minnesota’s Suspicious “Border Battle” Victory
May 17, 2010

My strategy? I'll vote for whoever you tell me to vote for!

Let me get this off my chest immediately: Sunday night. Survivor finale. Russell. Hosed again.

OK, now let’s continue with your regularly-scheduled sports commentary:

As someone who has spent almost exactly half of his life living in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” and half of his life living in “America’s Dairyland,” I know a thing or two about the Wisconsin-Minnesota “border battle.”

It’s not about women’s soccer.

However, a Monday, May 17, 2010 press release found right on the front page of uwbadgers.com has Wisconsin conceding defeat in the 2009-2010 Minnesota-Wisconsin Border Battle because of Goldy Gopher’s past-season victories over Bucky Badger in sports such as women’s soccer, women’s cross country, softball, and track and field.

I don’t wish to besmirch the importance of those athletic programs. On the contrary, I consider a well-rounded athletic department inclusive of as many men’s and women’s programs as possible to be vital to a major university’s DNA.

But let’s be realistic: There are sports that sell tens of thousands of tickets, that bring in tons of revenue through advertising, licensing, broadcasting, and sponsorships, that fuel radio and TV sports talk shows and on-line blogs, and that inspire fans to paint their bodies their school colors, to get tattoos of their school’s logo, and to travel cross-country to follow.

Those sports are not track and field and diving.

Those sports are football, football, football, basketball, and hockey. (Did I mention football?)

So with that in mind, saying that Minnesota won last year’s “Border Battle” over Wisconsin is a bit like saying that the Cleveland Cavaliers were the best team in the NBA this season. Yes, they won the most games, but not the ones that counted the most.

To be fair, unlike the BCS rankings, the “Border Battle” calculations are easy to interpret. According to the release, 40 points are at stake in each of 22 sports for a possible total of 880 points.

In a sport where the Badgers and Gophers compete head-to-head (i.e., football), the 40 points goes to the winner of the game. If the teams play multiple games (i.e., men’s hockey), the possible points are divided by the number of times they play.

So, for example, the Badgers received 40 points for football based on their 31-28 victory on October 3. But both the Badgers and the Gophers received 20 points for men’s hockey based upon the 2-2 split for the four games played throughout the season.

After points were awarded in all 22 sports, the Gophers won the “Border Battle” easily by a final tally of 550-330.

But it’s an empty victory for Goldy Gopher. Because even though Minnesota may have won the “Border Battle,” Wisconsin clearly won the “Border War.”

Men’s basketball is a perfect illustration of this. During the 2009-2010 season, Bo Ryan and Tubby Smith went head-to-head only once, in Minneapolis on February 18. The Badgers played one of their worst regular season games that night, losing to Minnesota 68-52.

For that victory, the Gophers were awarded 40 points and the Badgers zero. But this simple calculation misses the bigger picture.

The Badgers’ men’s basketball team finished the year 24-9, were awarded a #4 seed in the NCAA tournament and advanced (albeit just barely) to the tournament’s second round.

The Gophers’ men’s basketball team, meanwhile, finished the year 21-14, were a bubble team that snuck into the NCAA tournament with an #11 seed, and lost by double digits in the tournament’s first round.

Clearly, the Badgers’ men’s hoops team had the better season than Minnesota, yet the “Border Battle” scorecard reflects the exact opposite.

Or look at men’s hockey. I already stated that both teams shared 20 points in that sport, yet Mike Eaves’s team advanced all the way to the NCAA championship game, whereas the Gophers finished the year with a sub-.500 record and completely out of the running for an NCAA tournament bid.

Yet the “Border Battle” total implies that the programs had an equally successful year.

The Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry is a storied, intense, often bitterly angry one that is not limited to collegiate sports. Certainly many Packers fans consider any season in which Green Bay sweeps the Vikings a success (and vice versa) no matter what the outcome of the other 14 games on the schedule.

Given the dominating success that Wisconsin enjoyed over Minnesota in the key sports of football, men’s basketball, and men’s football (as well as women’s basketball), it’s hard to stomach the fact that the 2009-2010 Border Battle Trophy will be displayed in the Twin Cities.

Like Sandra’s dubious Survivor win, Minnesota emerging victorious in the Border Battle is clearly a hollow victory.

NBA, Tiger, Brewers = Must-See TV
May 10, 2010

Tootie! Jermaine Jackson Is Here To See You Again!

ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt is fond of saying “I don’t watch reality TV. I watch sports.”

Usually I scoff at the implication that you would have to exclude one entirely for the other, which to me is as ridiculous as saying, “I don’t eat chicken. I eat pork,” or “I don’t listen to music. I listen to talk radio,” or “I don’t watch iCarly. I only watch Degrassi reruns.”

I, for one, am happy to watch both reality TV and sports (and comedies and dramas and Letterman and infomericals), but this weekend it was easier to make the argument for an all-sports TV diet.

There was so much sports-wise going on that I didn’t watch Sunday’s season finale of one of my favorite reality shows, The Amazing Race, until about 12:30 in the morning, and that was a program enjoying one of its best seasons. (I guess I can’t get enough of watching stressed-out travelers getting completely hosed by incompetent cab drivers.)

So what did I (and presumably, Van Pelt) watch this weekend?

NBA playoffs. Thank goodness for the Cleveland at Boston series. For while the other three conference semifinals either wrapped up as sweeps (Phoenix/San Antonio) or appear headed that way Monday night (Orlando/Atlanta), the Cavaliers/Celtics series has had more drama than Charlie Sheen’s personal life.

Just when it seemed that the heavily-favored Cavs were going to take control after a blowout game three victory on Friday night, Boston came right back to tie the series 2-2 in a highly entertaining game Sunday.

Intriguing storylines are everywhere in this series: The Celtics fighting the “too old” label with major help from Rajon Rondo, who has quickly developed into the best player on the team. LeBron’s supposed injured elbow. The fact that everyone believed the Cavs would have an easy time with Boston, ignoring the Celtics’ far deeper and far more experienced supporting cast. The fact that the time for Cleveland, a team with zero NBA championships, is NOW, given James’s free agent status at the end of the season and his likelihood to upgrade from Drew Carey’s hometown to Jerry Seinfeld’s hometown.

But thankfully for the NBA, even the lopsided series did have some intrigue. The Suns’ vengeful (and surprisingly thorough) beatdown of the celebrated Spurs, who now seem as old as everyone thought the Celtics were, portends what should be a great conference finals matchup. And in what should be a very busy NBA offseason, it now looks like the Spurs will need to make some deals in order to get back to their first NBA finals since 2007.

And the Suns and the Suns owner Robert Sarver stirred up all sorts of controversy by publicly denouncing Arizona’s new immigration law. Whether you agree or not with Sarver’s position, you have to admire the way that Sarver decided to take a stand. In a world where people in power are often afraid to say anything (except for Trey Parker and Matt Stone), Sarver’s desire to stir public debate is impressive.  

Locally, the humiliating way that Orlando has been destroying Atlanta (winning by an average of 29 points) has made me temper my enthusiasm for the Milwaukee Bucks. I still think the Bucks – especially when healthy – have a very bright future, but if they can be beaten by an Atlanta team that one week later looks as bad as a 1990s Chevy Chase movie, then I’ve clearly overestimated them.

I’m taking Boston and the Lakers to repeat the finals from 2008 and Lakers to repeat.

Tiger Woods: What was even more bizarre than Tiger Woods pulling out of the Players Championship on Sunday after six final round holes was the fact that he apparently did so to make a symbolic gesture of protest to NBC, the network televising the event, about their treatment of Conan O’Brien.

“I’ve had it with NBC,” Woods reportedly said in private to his caddie, Steve Williams. “It was bad enough when they forced Charlotte Rae off The Facts of Life and cancelled Friday Night Videos. But screwing my man Conan, I can’t tolerate it.”

But Woods insisted his hiatus would be short-lived. “I’ll play any tournament shown by CBS. Especially if I can meet that girl on The Mentalist. She’s crazy hot.”

All right, I made that up, but really, can Tiger’s world get any stranger? But no matter what his medical obstacles are, I have to believe that his personal obstacles are more significant for him right now. Hope he returns to consistent form soon. I’m still guessing he does.

MLB: I don’t know what was more shocking over the weekend. Dallas Braden’s perfect game or the play of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Any perfect game is amazing (there have only been 19, after all), but when accomplished against the team with the best record (after Sunday’s loss, the Rays are 22-9) and the team with the third-most runs scored in baseball, it’s nothing short of a miracle.

The fact that Braden’s grandmother told Yankee Alex Rodriguez – with whom Braden had a much-publicized scuffle last month – to “stick it” made the occasion even sweeter.

But maybe not as sweet as the week the Milwaukee Brewers had.

After getting shut out three times in a embarrassing four-game sweep against the San Diego Padres, Milwaukee stormed back by winning five out of six in Los Angeles and Arizona and scoring over eight runs a game.

And despite an offensive barrage highlighted by Jody Gerut’s hitting for the cycle on Saturday and Prince Fielder waking from his April slumber to hit safely in seven of eight games in May, the real delight has been the Brewers’ pitching.

Chris Narveson has won his last two decisions since replacing Jeff Suppan in the rotation. Doug Davis had his best game of the season on Wednesday, while Randy Wolf continues to be solid.

And Yovani Gallardo has completely bounced back from his rough first week, winning his fourth straight start and dropping his ERA to 3.07.

It’s hard to completely trust these Brewers given how erratic they’ve been, but this much is inescapable – the Brewers lead all of baseball in hits, runs, and runs batted in. If the pitching can settle into anything like they’ve had in the last week, we might be able to start talking about the Brewers as a viable Wild Card candidate without giggling.

And hey, it wouldn’t be as shocking as Jerri Manthey winning Survivor.

Yep, just like there’s always room for Jello, there’s always room – no matter how packed the TV sports weekend is – for reality TV.

The Bucks Are Done. Are The Brewers Too?
May 4, 2010

What would Perry Como do?

Anyone who is a fan of the 1994 Kevin Smith film Clerks has probably seen – in any number of its dozens of video releases – the film’s original ending.

Cut before the film was released theatrically, but included on subsequent Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray releases, the original ending features the shocking twist of store clerk Dante being shot and killed.

It’s a terribly abrupt and disturbing ending, in large part because of the unexpected – especially to those of us who had seen the movie before its cult grew substantially – high degree of fun that had come before.

Sunday’s Eastern Conference quarterfinal game seven beat down of the Milwaukee Bucks at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks was like that – an ugly, shocking, disturbing, and completely unsettling end to what had until then largely been a joyous 2009-2010 season.

Yes, it is easy for those who either don’t believe in or don’t care about the Bucks to quickly dismiss a team that did not make it out of the opening round of the NBA playoffs. (After all, doesn’t every NBA team make the postseason?)

But remember that the Bucks were a team most picked to be among the dregs of the NBA this season. Yet look at what they accomplished: Finishing the season 10 games over .500. Making the playoffs for the first time in four years. (No, not every NBA team makes the postseason.) Pushing a heavily favored Atlanta team to a seven game series in the postseason, even though most thought the series would be finished in five.

That they were able to accomplish so much after another midseason injury (January 10) to guard Michael Redd and a late-season injury to center Andrew Bogut (April 4), who had been having a breakout year, was nothing short of remarkable.

Much of the credit for the Bucks successes this season has to go to GM John Hammond, who last month deservedly won the NBA Executive of the Year award, and to coach Scott Skiles. Hammond’s decision to draft Brandon Jennings in last year’s draft and his move to acquire guard John Salmons from the Bulls in February paid huge dividends this season, and Skiles has been unanimously praised for developing a wonderful chemistry with his team, even with the unfortunate necessity of making undesirable lineup changes due to injuries.

If Milwaukee can re-sign Salmons (who averaged nearly 20 points a game for the Bucks), if the Bucks can remain relatively injury-free next season, and if Brandon Jennings can improve on his already-impressive rookie season, the Bucks might have the biggest upside of any team in the NBA, pending what happens in what could be a blockbuster offseason in free agency.

Yes, those are big “ifs,” but should situations fall the right way for the Bucks, their window for success could be opening wide.

On the contrary, the window for the Milwaukee Brewers seems to be slamming shut faster than the chances for a Furry Vengeance sequel. (Further proof that you can write anything on Wikipedia: note the mention of Brooke Shields as Furry Vengeance‘s “hot wife.”).

After Sunday’s humiliating 8-0 loss at San Diego that wrapped up an embarrassing series in which the big bats of Milwaukee scored a grand total of two runs (and this was a four-game series!), it’s almost hard to believe the Brewers are only five games under .500.

If the Brewers hadn’t had the luxury of playing Pittsburgh six times already, who they’ve outscored 61-17 despite only going 4-2 in those games, things might be even worse.

Despite a slow start for Prince Fielder – Fielder only has seven more hits than Gregg Zaun, and the Brewers catcher started 0-for-21 – and despite the awfully offensive offensive display in San Diego, the Brewers’ bats aren’t where most are putting the blame. Casey McGehee, Rickie Weeks, and especially Ryan Braun are performing up to expectations (and, in McGehee’s case, beyond, although he has cooled off a bit).

No, despite offseason efforts to overhaul what was the worst pitching staff in the majors in 2009, the Brewers still find themselves unable to get outs.

While newly rich Yovani Gallardo has rebounded from an awful start, and newly acquired Randy Wolf has been OK if not as good as hoped, the rest of the lineup has ranged from disappointing to disastrous. Dave Bush has been erratic, Doug Davis has been awful, and the only reason Chris Narveson is in the rotation is because his chief competition was Jeff Suppan, whose demotion to the bullpen was the easiest decision Ken Macha had to make since coming to Milwaukee.

Worse still has been that bullpen. And not just because Suppan now resides there. Trevor Hoffman, so steady last season, has already blown four saves this season and has held teams scoreless in only six of his first nine outings. New set-up man LaTroy Hawkins has done nothing but remind people why no team who signs him ends up wanting him around very long (the Brewers are his seventh team since joining the Cubs in 2004). And Claudio Vargas’s comeback to Milwaukee has been about as successful as Vanilla Ice’s latest comeback.

While Milwaukee still resides in the upper half of clubs in terms of offensive production, outhitting teams such as the Yankees, Phillies, and Rays, it’s clear that their 20 and 17-run games against Pittsburgh have exaggerated those numbers.

It’s also becoming clear that they are not going to be able to regularly score as many runs as their pitchers allow.

Sound familiar?

The Brewers recent struggles (losing eight of ten as of this writing) haven’t gone unnoticed by the number crunchers at AccuScore. In the week from April 26 to May 3, they’ve dropped the Brewers’ chances of making the postseason in 2010 from 20.4 percent to just 6.5 percent, the biggest drop of any National League team.

And now we don’t even have Bob Uecker to listen to.

Yes, we have not even hit Big Brother‘s summer season yet and the Brewers have loads of time to turn things around. I know.

But given what we’re seeing now, if I had to guess which team — the Bucks or the Brewers — would next make a serious postseason run, my money would be squarely on the Bucks.

Get well, Bob.