Monthly archives: June 2006
The voting for the 2006 All-Star Game closed last night. I kept going to MLB.com to check the scores, seeing the headline change...4 hours left...3 hours left...2 hours left and thinking about writing a last-minute plea to voters' common sense, but what would have been the point? The All-Star Game isn't for me, and it's not for most of the people who read sites like this one. It's a made-for-TV event for people who don't watch any other baseball at all between Opening Day and whenever the Red Sox play the Yankees in the playoffs. Accordingly, the lineup is theirs: three Boston players, three Yankees, Vlad, and Ichiro in the AL; four Mets, Pujols, Utley, Soriano, and Jason Bay in the NL. Exactly one of those picks (Bay) is at all surprising, and Bay is benefiting from get-out-the-vote campaign in host city Pittsburgh, where it's not like Pirates fans have anything else to look forward to this year.
Joe Mauer, the best hitter in the AL who plays in the field, is not a starter at the expense of rep pick Jason Varitek. Grady Sizemore, who's having an all-world offensive season (.307/.381/.552) gives way to Guerrero, who's 55th in AL VORP (.290/.327/.490). The best player in the National League, Miguel Cabrera, will have to make his way as an All-Star substitute. The same goes for Matt Holliday, 5th in NL VORP among position players. Sorry, Jose Lopez, but your AL starter at second base is Robinson Cano.
To be fair, a lot of the Mets guys deserve to go. Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran are having great seasons. David Wright isn't far behind Cabrera on the VORP tables. But Paul Lo Duca? Really? Why is David Ortiz considered a first baseman while Jim Thome isn't? Whither Alex Rios? You know, I don't know why I'm wasting my breath. The All-Star Game isn't for me. I should be satisifed with the entire non-ESPN regular season. I guess I am.
ESPN's Gene Wojciechowksi wants to take the vote away from the fans, but I don't know how well that would work. It's not like the players are playing any closer attention. Wouldn't they just vote for guys based on rep even more? I'd go out on a line and say we need some sort of selection committe, but look at how contentious and incompetent the Hall of Fame voters are. (This current Cubs team is killing Ron Santo one day at a time. Please, please elect the man before he spontaneously combusts right in the WGN booth, leaving nothing behind but a badly singed toupee.) I'll watch the All-Star game because they cruelly deprive us of real baseball for three days in the middle of the season, but I'm not going to enjoy myself.
Waking Up to Things
Wow, I was just in the shower going over what I had to write about this morning, and this post could wind up being gargantuan. There's a lot to address, from within the baseball world and without, and for some reason today seems like the day to address a bunch of things that I've sort of been allowing to pass without comment for a little while. It's probably the fact that today is the first day without soccer since the World Cup started on June 9th. But more on that later.
First, I have to mention Peter Gammons. I can't believe that Peter Gammons could possibly be mortal. Gammons is not a man, he's a rock star. Given recent events though, the title of his forthcoming debut CD, Never Slow Down, Never Grow Old is bitterly ironic. I make fun of Gammons from time to time because he's way up there and I'm way down here, but he's probably the first baseball writer outside of the Chicago papers whose name I learned to remember back in eighties. I can't say he's an influence, exactly, because Gammons is the ultimate insider and I would be perfectly happy if I never had to talk to a single player, manager, or front office guy ever, but he's still The Man. Get better, Peter.
Now as to the relatively minor topic of the Rockies' season. Colorado pasted the Angels last night, 12-4, the day after a heartbreaking eighth-inning wipeout masterminded by Jose Mesa. I watched the whole of that game on Monday, where the Rockies squandered a lovely Jason Jennings performance, and I was too angry to write about it yesterday. Now I feel a little better. The Rockies rebounded in a big way, and that's nice to see. If Colorado had only managed to hang on in that game, however, they'd now be tied with the Dodgers only a game and a half behind San Diego for first place in the NL West. The Rockies have seemed to suffer from a certain rubber band effect around the .500 mark all year. They never manage to get very far above, but on the plus side, they haven't fallen very far below either. As I'm writing this right now, I'm watching Buster Olney on ESPN2 explaining how the National League is basically the AL's whipping boy in interleague this year. The Rockies are 8-3 against the American League. Given the difference in scheduling from team to team, I'm not sure how meaningful this is. There's exactly one other team in the NL that's above .500 in interleague play, which is Florida at 8-6. How weird is that? They've played Toronto, Oakland, and Texas, three pretty good teams. They finish off with the weaker Angels and Mariners. If only the Rockies had gotten to play one more interleague series instead of that road trip to St. Louis where they got swept. They'd be in first place!
I've been avoiding making fun of the Cubs to as large an extent as possible this year, because...well, they're like an ex-wife. Sometimes you just have to walk away and make a clean break. But I've started watching their games lately because I'm excited about Dusty Baker being fired. Dusty Baker has always been a lousy manager, but he's taken it to an entirely new level this year. Nothing is his fault. Everything is out of his hands. Two stupid errors to allow a four-run ninth to the Brewers in a come-from-ahead loss yesterday? What can Dusty do? Is it all possible that his confrontational media stance, self-pitying public posture, and complete refusal to accept accountability for any of Chicago's struggles have negatively affected his players? Naw, that's all Jim Hendry's fault, or possibly Jay Mariotti's. I was talking to my dad the other day (happy birthday, Dad, if you're reading this) and we realized that by not firing Baker now the Tribune Company is essentially covering their backs for as many as three more years of intense suck at Wrigley Field. In 2007, it'll be Hendry who takes the fall as whatever poor fool (Bob Brenly?) becomes the new manager will be stuck with Dusty's players. In 2008 the new GM will have a grace year as he struggles to get "his" guys into place. Then in 2009 it'll be right around time to fire Brenly, or whomever. And Cubs fans continue to fill the new expanded bleachers at Wrigley in ever-increasing numbers. They deserve this team.
Equally sad, but far less funny, is the state of affairs in Pittsburgh. The Pirates lost their 12th straight yesterday, and their next eight games are against the three best teams in the game, the White Sox, Tigers, and Mets. I can't say that I didn't see this coming. NL Central previews before this season began gave the Pirates way too much credit due to what I call the Shiny Object Theory. The Pirates added some guys whose names fans might recognize. Sadly, none of these guys -- Joe Randa, Jeromy Burnitz, Sean Casey -- were any good. The only thing they managed to accomplish by adding all of this leaden veteran weight was taking a place to play away from their second-best young hitter, Craig Wilson. The Pirates have very close to the same payroll as the Rockies, $50 million, give or take. The Marlins' payroll is essentially the major league minimum times twenty-five, but they're chugging along at a very respectable 34-40. Of course, Florida had talent to work with when they held their fire sale, and the Rockies have had several very productive drafts in a row now. What does Pittsburgh have? Well, now they have license to blow it up. And a nice new stadium which will host the All-Star Game.
The World Cup is down to the final eight, and they'll take two days off before the quarterfinals. I picked winners for all eight of the Round of 16 games and each day I was wrong once and right once. The matchups for the next round are as follows: Germany vs. Argentina and Italy vs. Ukraine on Friday, and England vs. Portugal and Brazil vs. France on Saturday. For the most part, the first knockout stage was a letdown, but the games yesterday went a long way towards changing my feelings on that. The France-Spain game was wide open, well-officiated, and had a genuinely suprising finish as the much-criticized, star-laden French team finally got its act together. Brazil-Ghana was far less one-sided than the 3-0 final indicates. If the Ghanians had been able to get a single open shot on target, it would have been a real thriller. As it was, it was interesting to watch Ghana play the aggressor for nearly the whole game, with Brazil playing back and then suddenly launching beautiful counterattacks from seemingly out of nowhere. The next round appears to have some real barn-burners, and certainly FIFA has figured out who its best four refs are by now. I hope they get the guy who worked France-Spain to call Germany-Argentina, because on paper that game looks crazy good. I felt the same way about Portugal-Netherlands, but look what happened there. I hope I didn't just jinx it.
The NBA draft is tonight. Normally I'm a little bored by the whole draft process in every pro sports league. I mean, watching a draft on TV is like taking an NFL game and eliminating the last remaining ten minutes of action. It's hours upon hours of slow-motion highlights and hot air. But this draft is so bizarre that I'm afraid I'm going to be sucked into watching. Does it seem to anyone besides me that common sense has just gone completely out the window when it comes to selecting basketball players? I've read this guy Andrea Bargnani's name listed among the top prospects so many times that I'm starting to accept it. But who the hell is Andra Bargnani? Have you seen him play? Has anybody? Has a single international seven-footer picked high in the draft since Dirk Nowitzki been anything but a colossal bust? I guess I missed all of Dalibor Bagaric's All-Star appearances. Look, Adam Morrison already has a TV commercial where he attributes superhuman powers to his moustache. You want that guy. Not just because of the moustache, but also because of his tendency to, you know, score 30 pretty much whenever he wants playing on a team where he's the first, second, and fourth option. I can't believe how much NBA GMs overthink these drafts. What on earth is so terrible about picking a guy who already knows how to play? Since when is that against the rules? Even if Bargnani turns out to be All That, he's not going to do anything for Toronto (or whomever) on his rookie contract. He's either going to waste roster space for three years then go be good somewhere else (like DeSagana Diop for Cleveland/Dallas) or you're going to have to sign him to an absurd lucrative contract to keep him from leaving before you have any idea whether he can actually play or not (like the Bulls and Tyson Chandler). It's like Spike said one time: Is everyone here very stoned? Take the guy who can play, Toronto!
Be Like Mikulik
In a sports day that also saw Byung-Hyun Kim lead the Rockies to establishing a new Coors Field record for shutouts in a season, Portugal and Holland drag the World Cup's good name through the mud, and a major league team give Russ Ortiz money to pitch, one story trumped all. Have you seen the Joe Mikulik footage yet? Go watch it now. If you edited together a career's worth of Lou Piniella's greatest tirades, you might still not be able to equal Rockies minor league manager Mikulik's single sequence from Sunday's Asheville-Lexington game. I don't want to dissuade you from watching the action for yourself, but it's worth breaking down in detail, just so I can confirm to myself that Joe didn't miss any of the time-honored go-to managerial tirade moves.
Note that all of this takes place after Mikulik was ejected for arguing that Koby Clemens was picked off second. Talk about getting your money's worth.
1) Hat toss
Mikulik managed to accomplish all of the above while never actually making physical contact with any of the umpires. Watch his body control between 1 and 2 and then again after 10. The Rockies organization should be proud to call this guy one of their own, and be careful to make sure he's not snatched up by an offer of a higher-level job somewhere else.
I'm still pretty angry about Rick Morrisey's ignorant anti-soccer column from Saturday. If you are too, here's some counterprogramming: a nice Gwen Knapp piece that argues that part of soccer's greatness is connected to its players refusal to conform to macho stereotypes. Also, has Morrisey been watching the NFL at all? There are some quarterbacks in the league right now whose response to the new protect-the-passer rules has been to put on flopping clinics that would put the Italians to shame. Oh, wait, the Italians have no shame. Well, I hope you see my point anyway.
Sneaking Up On Relevance
I certainly know why I'm not following the Rockies as closely as I was this time last year. It has to do with another sport, one that's (apparently) too wimpy for red-blooded American men. What is up with Chicago sportswriters this week? Did a memo going around offering a $10,000 bounty to whichever columnist could make the biggest ass out of himself?
But I'm going to the game today for the first time in ages (section 106, purple jersey, red beard, come say hi) and so it's a good time to take a step or two back and see where we stand. You know what? This is an all right baseball team. They're not great, but they're in the National League, which has exactly one team (the Mets) that qualifies as scary right now. With a very easy win over Texas yesterday, the Rockies are right at .500 again, 37-37. Since the first few weeks of the season, Colorado has had trouble getting much over the break-even point. But looking at it another way, they haven't fallen very far beneath it at any juncture, either. My hope for this year was 75 wins. If my math serves, the Rockies are presently on pace for an 81-81 record. That's more than 75, so if they stay the course, I'll be a happy blogger.
But then again...is Colorado maximizing its talent at the moment? Clint Barmes has played pretty poorly, but that's balanced out by the entirely unexpected excellence of Jamey Carroll. Todd Helton has never really looked like himself, but the leaps Brad Hawpe and Matt Holliday have taken are perhaps greater than we could have realistically hoped for. I expected Brian Fuentes to establish himself as one of the best closers in the National League in 2006, and so he has, but the rest of the bullpen has been downright fabulous. Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis aren't quite where I think they can be, but Jason Jennings is having one of his better years, and I never dreamed Josh Fogg would stay in the rotation this long on merit. If Helton has a second half like he did last year, and no one gets hurt, and Carroll stays at least a plus player if not the superhuman he seems now...well, the division is winnable. I don't think the Rockies should deal away any prospects in an attempt to win the NL West this year, but they can get there with the players they have now if everything breaks right. That would be very nice, but a brief playoff cameo and another decade of irrelevance should not be the franchise's long-term goal.
At the moment, first and fifth in the NL West are separated by a total of three and a half games. And that's the widest the gap has been in several days. The Dodgers resemble last year's Braves in that every young guy they bring up seems to make the team better. The Padres have turned over a lot of players since last year but still look like the same wishy-washy squad that was handed the division title last year. The Diamondbacks, like I believe I wrote before the season began, have a critical lack of pitching that could make their vaunted minor league hitting talent irrelevant. The Giants are standing on the edge of the abyss, with only Omar Vizquel and Jason Schmidt keeping them around this year. The rest of this decade, assuming Ned Colletti and Dan O'Dowd don't screw up, should belong to either the Dodgers or the Rockies. They're richer, but we're younger. Their minor league pitching is scary good, but our major league pitching should not be overlooked. Who wins the battle for supremacy will be determined by fills holes better while giving less away. A rumored Ryan Shealy trade will be a litmus test for whether O'Dowd's current personality understands that a) just because the Rockies have no use for a guy doesn't he mean he doesn't have value and b) the crucial year for the Rockies is 2008, when Matt Holliday and Brian Fuentes are going to get seriously expensive. O'Dowd has to balance short-term goals against long-term goals. At the moment, it's worth maybe losing a couple of extra games this year to see if Barmes can get it going and J.D. Closser can slug his way back into the big picture. This Rockies team might make the playoffs, sure, but I'm certain it's not going to win the World Series, and ultimately that's got to be the dream.
Today, with me in attendance, the Rockies wrap up their series with another team to whom the World Series is still a dream, the Texas Rangers. It's Byung-Hyun Kim versus Vicente Padilla. Look for me on TV! My seats aren't far from where I caught a home run last year.
WC 2006: You're Not Gonna Believe This, But Apparently Some English Soccer Fans Can Get Violent
"Police Arrest 122 English Soccer Fans," The Associated Press
"You will not see any English hooligans here in Stuttgart. What you will see is English drunks. I apologize now for that, but it is very good for the economy." -- Stephen Thomas, Manchester assistant chief constable assigned to the contingent assisting German police in cities hosting England's World Cup games
WC 2006: Now That the Americans Are Gone, The Tournament Can Really Begin
I've watched every single game of the World Cup so far save two -- the TiVo fritzed out on Mexico-Iran and the way the rerun schedule on ESPN Classic worked out during the days of the simultaneous third games, I only got to see bits and pieces of Croatia-Australia. However, it's fair to say I've watched a lot of soccer the last two weeks. Whether this qualifies me to make predictions for the Round of 16 or not is up to you the reader to decide. Here's some other previews: ESPN's Michael Davies, Fox Sports' Bobby McMahon, SI's Mark Bechtel.
Saturday: Sweden over Germany. It's rare for host teams to go out this early, but Germany didn't beat anyone special in their group and their defense looked very weak against the one really skilled attacking player they saw in the opening round, Costa Rica's Paulo Wanchope. Their big win over an Ecuador team resting all of its key players is misleading. The real warning sign is the 1-0 result against Poland. The Germans were very lucky not to end up with a draw against the Poles, which is an issue since the three or four best Polish-born players in the world play for the German national team. Sweden's results in Group B look way less impressive on the surface of things, but they seemed to get their offense in gear in their last game against England and Fredrik Ljungberg and Henrik Larsson are...somewhat better than Paulo Wanchope. I like Sweden's balance over the Germans' dependence on a couple of stars, particularly midfielder Michael Ballack and goalie Jens Lehmann. The Swedes have the size in the back to deal with Miroslav Klose, who ran wild against Group A but will find the going in the air much more difficult against the quality teams in the knockout stages.
Argentina over Mexico. Based on the games played so far, Argentina is without a doubt the favorite to win the tournament. Their 6-0 thrashing of a well-regarded Serbia & Montenegro team was the most shocking result of the World Cup so far. They've scored twice as many beautiful goals as anyone else and the way their subs have played, their second choice side might be able to win the cup all by itself. Perhaps the best indicator of the great form the Argentines are in is their goal distribution -- they've scored eight times but no one player has more than two. Many of the other teams in the knockout stages play in rigid formations where an injury, ejection, or poor outing for a single link in the chain makes it seemingly impossible for them to score. The swarming, quick-passing offense of Argentina is more like a smothering web. Lionel Messi looks ready to explode on the world stage, but unlike, say, the English and Wayne Rooney, if Messi doesn't show up, Argentina has six other valid options. Mexico has drawn a very tough matchup for their first game of the elimination round. If they were playing a more defensive-oriented team like Italy, their chances of going forward would be much better. However, the Argentines try and do many of the same things the Mexicans do, only they do everything better. While both teams are offense-minded, ball-movement sides, the talent gap in their midfields is extreme. Argentina can seem to be playing five strikers at once sometimes without any increase in their vulnerability to the counterattack. Mexico can't match that. If they fall behind early, this game could be more one-sided than the Argentina-Serbia & Montenegro game.
Sunday: England over Ecuador. Ecuador is one of the surprise teams in the knockout rounds, and England despite its relative ease of advance has seemingly already folded its tents to go home in shame. Well, at least their fans have. English soccer fans are never happy. Watching the English team so far in the World Cup reminds me very much of watching my club side, Liverpool, struggle at times during the last two Premiership seasons. England is world-class on defense and in the midfield, but the nation seemingly can't produce goal-scorers to save its life. That's why there's been so much handwringing over young Rooney, a talent, and his controversial foot injury. Despite the fact that he has enough great midfielders to field two sides, Sven-Goran Eriksson seemed fatally married to the 4-4-2 formation, pairing Rooney with either the creaky Michael Owen or the lumbering Peter Crouch, who's essentially useless in open play. Sure, there's always a chance that if the 6'7" Crouch stands stock-still in the box someone like David Beckham will be able to use him backboard-like to ricochet one in from distance, but that hardly makes up for playing 10-on-11 the rest of the time Crouch is on the field. However, Owen got hurt, and that improves England's prospects greatly. Rooney isn't 100% healthy and Crouch simply isn't in good enough physical condition to play 90 minutes a game. Eriksson will be forced to play a substantial amount of the time with five midfielders, letting England's two best players, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, attack. Either one of those guys 20 yards out is a better bet to score than Crouch point-blank, so England might still have a nice little run in them. To the disappointment of their fans, I'm sure. I don't have much in the way of a scouting report for Ecuador. They beat Poland and Costa Rica handily, but that proves little. They basically conceded their meaningless game against Germany (possibly because they fancied their chances against England better than a potential round-of-16 faceoff with Holland), so we can't draw any inclusions from that result either. I don't think Eriksson is enough of a fool to let Crouch drag England down to defeat, but I could be wrong. I was wrong about Bruce Arena, for sure.
The Netherlands over Portugal. Boy, this is going to be a great game. Portgual's group was very weak, but you can hardly hold that against them, as they did everything they had to do in getting through 3-0-0. Portugal has more stars than the Dutch. Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Luis Boa Morte are all capable of winning games all by their lonesome. Then again, Arjen Robben and Ruud van Nistelrooy (love those extraneous Dutch vowels) are proven difference-makers in their own right. The Dutch have the better goalie, the better uniforms, and were far more tested in the group stage. Their overall goal differential of 2 is misleading because it's not the Dutch style to run it up. They were completely in control against both Serbia & Montenegro and the Ivory Coast (that latter team, by the way, would have advanced had it been in any but one of the seven other groups). My ethnic rooting interest is with Holland as well, since I'm one-sixteenth Dutch. (And 15/16 Irish, but that's neither here nor there -- they failed to make it out of European qualifying. Again.)
Monday: Italy over Australia. I think Italy already survived its early scare by hanging in there to tie against an American team that looked more aggressive and more hungry even a man down in the second half. Australia's huge three-goal burst in the final minutes of their first game certainly caught a lot of fans' attention, even if it did come against one of the weakest teams in the entire field, Japan. The Australians actually played their best game in their one loss, when they managed to at least appear as if they belonged on the same field as Brazil. The win against Japan and a draw against Croatia are not much to brag about. I don't think that the Australians are as talented top to bottom as the U.S. team was, but they have benefited hugely from having their stars, guys like Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, and Tim Cahill, play major roles for Premiership club sides. Not to mention reliable veteran goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer. The Australians have a lot of guys who can put the ball on the goal, which should at least keep them around against Italy. It won't be a blowout, but the Italians have huge advantages in talent level, experience, and proximity to home soil. A lot of observers have been waiting for the Italians to crumble under the background stress from the Juventus scandal, but it's not going to happen against the Socceroos. Socceroos! What a terrible nickname. It sounds like a brand of children's underwear.
Switzerland over Ukraine. Boy, this one seems like it should be a battle for third place in Group H, not a knockout-stage game. The Swiss won Group G almost by default thanks to dysfunctional France, overmatched South Korea, and the unfathomable Togo soap opera. I'm not really sold on any of their players, but they could make it into the final eight entirely on good scheduling fortune. Ukraine is a one-man team that got absolutely shellacked by Spain in their first match then qualified for the second round basically by remembering to show up for their fixtures against Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. (Hey, it's not as easy as it sounds. Just ask Togo!) I'm already anticipating the nap I will be taking in front of this game.
Tuesday: Brazil over Ghana. The heavy-handed officiating that ruined practically every game Group E played continues to cast its shadow over the round of 16, as the Cinderella Ghanians will be completely handcuffed against the defending champs thanks to the suspension of Ghana superstar Michael Essien. It's a shame because the Brazilians have yet to really get it going the way we know they're capable of and the tough, physical Ghana team could really pull off a shocker if Essien was available to them. As it is this one will probably be over fairly soon, giving Ronaldo ample garbage time to score the one goal he needs to establish an all-time World Cup career record. If he gets it, this game might mark his final international match, as the Brazilians will be sorely tempted to go to the far fitter Robinho in the upcoming games they actually have a chance of losing if they're not careful.
Spain over France. Some countries have all the luck. The French arguably played worse in their first two games than the U.S. did in theirs, but after drawing Switzerland and South Korea all they had to do to advance was beat a Togo team that only showed up at the pitch because FIFA was shoving a pistol between their shoulder blades. You may have heard that the Spanish are legendary for their World Cup collapses. Not this time. The Spanish completely dominated their shoddy group. They're one of only four teams in the draw to win all three of their group stage games, along with Germany, Brazil, and Portugal. The Germans and the Brazilians were expected to dominate and actually were less impressive than many fans would have liked to see them. The Spanish, on the other hand, looked pretty good. I doubt they'll be able to beat either of the South American powers if they get that far but other than that they look primed for a good run. The French seem surprised to have survived. They won't have to worry about it much longer. With Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane, and Claude Makelele, they're as talented as any European side but they've spent far more time complaining about officiating/coaching/crop circles than playing anything resembling team football.
Of course, I could be wrong about everything. Except Argentina over Mexico. That one I'm pretty sure of.
Let's Beat the Rangers
The Rockies have had some issues in the past with winning on the road and showing up for interleague series. This season, these trends have somewhat reversed themselves. If this was to continue, it would make me feel much more confident in the current BP Playoff Odds Report, which says that Colorado has a close to 22% of playing extra games this season. That would be sweet.
The Mets have the highest playoff odds in the majors, according to BP's simulations. Over 98%. Wow. Nobody else is anywhere near that much of a lock, with the Tigers a distant second at 83.75%. I'm watching the Cardinals and Tigers right now. Am I ready to admit that I was wrong about Detroit? Not hardly! They still have a lot of season to play, and conveniently (for me) the second-best team in the majors, the White Sox, are in the same division. I still don't quite see how Detroit's pitching will continue to perform at the level it has. It wasn't their offense I had questions about, although they certainly are maximizing their contributions from young guys like Marcus Thames and Curtis Granderson. The day they make the playoffs, I will apologize to their entire organization and fanbase for underestimating them. But no sooner! It is pretty cool that the Tigers TV network has commercials featuring Kenny Rogers, the country singer, talking about his fondness for Kenny Rogers, the left-handed pitcher. Here's what I don't get. With the best record in the major leagues and dual-gambler power, how are the Tigers only 19th in attendance?
Hey, look, the Rockies game is starting. It's The Francis Channel versus fellow young lefty John Koronka. After their all-around fine play in the Oakland series, I expect the Rockies to keep the good times rolling this weekend. Let's go, Colorado.
And So On
I haven't had much to write about the last few days. Everything speaks for itself. The Rockies didn't sweep the A's, but it's still pretty good that they won two of three. Now they play the Rangers. The U.S. soccer team didn't embarrass themselves in their third and final World Cup game but they didn't do anything to distinguish themselves either. They obviously were the least talented team in their group, although they may well have advanced in one of the weaker pools. The penalty kick awarded to Ghana late in the first half was a bad call, but the United States didn't deserve to win if they couldn't produce any more convincing attacks than they did. I'm rooting for England from here on out since they have the most Liverpool guys, but look out for Holland and Argentina, the two best-looking teams in the first round. (I'm discounting Spain, because traditionally they always look good in the first round and then flame out horrendously in the knockout stages. Prove me wrong, guys!)
I didn't end up going to any of the games in the A's series. I'm going to try and go to one of the games this weekend. It seems like it's been forever since I've been to a game in person, and I feel a little bad about it, but until people start sending me money for attending baseball games, it's not going to get any easier for me to do so. Ah well, you guys know how it is.
Dusty Baker might get fired soon. This qualifies as slightly more newsworthy than the axe finally dropping on Larry Brown in New York, but it's less funny. When the news that Isiah Thomas was taking over as head coach of the Knicks scrolled across the bottom of the US-Ghana game, I made a mental note to remember that moment for next year when the Bulls take Greg Oden with the #1 pick in the NBA draft. Let's go Knicks!
Bipolar Channel Surfing
On one channel, we have the Rockies savaging the hottest team in the American League for the second straight night in a row. We even had a J.D. Closser sighting. What more could you ask for? Then over on ABC, we have an NBA Finals that is rapidly descending into utter farce. After an exciting postseason that's succeeded in getting me into basketball for the first time in years, it's come down to a battle between an exciting, ball-moving team that hustles on defense and has an entire roster of guys who can score creatively and the Heat. Miami is slow on defense, lazy on offense, and is on the verge of winning this series because the Finals officials have a man-crush on Dwyane Wade.
At the end of Game 5, the Heat ran a "play" for Wade that involved the other four Miami players staying on the bench while Wade attempted to "break down" Dallas's entire five-man defense. Wade first committed a backcourt violation, then took several unauthorized steps, and finally jumped up and threw his body in the general direction of the four guys guarding him while loosing a wild shot. None of the Maverick defenders were actually in any position to foul Wade, since by that point in the game he had been awarded more free throws than Dallas as a team. Yet a foul was called, Wade (to his credit) hit his shots, and the series returned to Dallas 3-2 in favor of the Heat.
In the first half of Game 6, Wade has (by my count) drawn four "fouls" that did not involve any contact on the part of Dallas's defenders, who by this time are laying off him to the extent that Dwyane is essentially playing HORSE out there. For a while, I thought that this was something Dallas was just going to have to overcome by playing more aggressively on offense themselves, settling for fewer jump shots and doing whatever it took to try and make up the discrepancy at the foul line, possibly by taking a cue from Wade and brazenly hurling themselves into opposing defenders. Then midway into the second quarter Wade drove the lane on Marquis Daniels, who wisely decided to concede the layup and get the hell out of the way, and the referee whistled Daniels for a foul despite the fact that he did not physically touch Wade at any time. This is crazy! And I thought the excess of yellow and red cards in the World Cup was bad!
Clearly the Mavericks will have to build a 20-point lead going into the fourth quarter of the game tonight or Wade will simply work his Team Italy flop routine into 15 more free throws and win the Heat this series. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to write Bill Simmons an angry e-mail.
Rockies 7, A's 0
I realized I promised a full preview of the Rockies' big series at Coors with the rampaging elephants of Oakland, but this little thing got in the way: sleep. Between watching every World Cup game, plus the NBA and NHL playoffs, staying up late with my new "X-Files" DVDs (and doing some other late night stuff, but that's none of your business), rehearsing and arranging material for the solo record I'm trying very hard to put together, and plugging away at some data-entry work since my last newspaper internship ended and paid writing jobs have been few and far between recently, I hadn't gotten a good night's sleep in about forever. So I gave Monday a miss. My Sunday went right into my Tuesday, pretty much. As I'm writing this I'm watching the World Cup games I missed yesterday and feeling remorseful about not having set my TiVo to tape Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.
Maybe it's for the best I didn't break down the A's-Rockies series, given the results of the first game. Oakland won ten games in a row going into the game yesterday; Colorado barely showed up for their second series of the year at New Busch Stadium. And the Rockies won in a laugher. Being superstitious (meaning lazy), I will say nothing more about the second and third games of the series Tuesday and Wednesday. Other than that I am going to the game on Wednesday and I'll tell you where when I get my tickets. Should I wear my Bobby Crosby jersey or one of my Rockies unis? I'm still a big A's fan and it's not like I'm going to get many more chances to root them on in person this year. But on the other hand, I eat, sleep, and breathe Rockies baseball at this point. I'm sure there would be some sort of karmic penalty for so grossly and publically dividing my loyalties. What if I take like three other people to the game and dress them up in my Rockies stuff? Does that balance it out?
I'm not big on cross-promotion but I wrote a piece for my TV.com blog that I'm pretty happy with and would like you to read, if you're so inclined. It's about "South Park" and the show's gradual slide towards openly endorsing traditional conservative ideology. I don't write very much about politics because, well, I live in Boulder and I'm a conservative. Around here, telling the locals you're a conservative is equivalent to outing yourself as a cannibal or a child molester. How did I end up living my entire adult life in two of the most raging bleeding-heart enclaves in the country? That's a good question and we haven't the time for it today.
WC 2006: Oh No, Where's Togo?
Togo, the country whose coach quit and then came back (and then maybe quit again, no one's sure), is scheduled to play Switzerland for their second Group G game in Dortmund on Monday. That's what my TiVo says, anyway. Only problem is, the team seemingly has decided to give the Swiss a miss. They were scheduled to leave their hotel in Wangen for one closer to the venue earlier today but they, um, haven't. Togo football officials insist that the pay dispute that caused coach Otto Pfister's walkout last week has been solved. The players, the ones who allegedly aren't getting paid, obviously have a difference of opinion.
My research thus far hasn't been able to uncover a previous instance of a scheduled World Cup final game not taking place, although the history of boycotts during qualifiers is lengthy and illustrious.
Update: FIFA has at least convinced the Togolese to get on the bus for Dortmund. "No team that has qualified for a World Cup finals has withdrawn from a match in the 76-year history of the event. Any nation doing so face a heavy fine and could be banned from subsequent competitions."
WC 2006: Welcome to the Rest of the World
The end result is satisfying to no one, but let it be written that on Saturday, June 17th, 2006, the United States fully joined the soccer-playing world. The Americans looked like a different team than the one that was soundly defeated by the Czech Republic Monday in taking the game to the Italians, overcoming a man disadvantage for almost the whole of the second half to earn their first point ever taken on European soil in World Cup play, 1-1. Until the Azzurri suddenly sprang to life with a vicious series of attacks in the last ten minutes, the Americans looked like a team completely in control. Landon Donovan and Steve Cherundolo were all over the pitch as the U.S. consistently were able to threaten down the right side of the field. Why Donovan, returned in this game to his natural role as an attacking midfielder, was ever envisioned as a striker by U.S. coach Bruce Arena is a question we can hold off on until Group E finishes play on Thursday. If Italy beats the Czechs and the U.S. defeats Ghana, the Americans live on into the second round, a result that was practically unimaginable after the ugly 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic.
Forget for a second that the United States hasn't actually scored a goal so far in the tournament. It was an own goal by Italy's Cristian Zaccardo that evened the game today after an Alberto Gilardino header gave Italy an early lead. The Americans came out appearing vastly more inspired and the Gilardino goal for however brief a time made it seem as if despite all their effort a repeat of the terrible final score against the Czechs was possible, if not worse. The next several minutes were symbolic of all the huge emotional swings to which a low-scoring game like soccer can subject its viewers. First, the own goal. Then, a red card for Italy, when clearly frustrated midfielder Daniele De Rossi opened up an impressive cut on Brian McBride's noggin with a blatant elbow to the face. In less than ten minutes circumstances went from the US's certain demise to a very favorable situation for a historic victory. Then things got really weird.
You know why America really counts as soccer-playing nation now? Not because we managed to tie the Italians. That's good, and even if things don't break the US's way and the game against Ghana on Thursday is their last of the World Cup, they've proven far more worthy of the ESPN/ABC hype machine's histrionics than this skeptic, for one, felt possible. No, we're in the club now because we have been on the receiving end of a royal screwing by a World Cup referee. It's a rite of passage. You have to be in the game in order to have it taken away from you by awful officiating, and you have to be playing somebody good for it to really count. Jorge Larrionda's straight red card on Pablo Mastroeni at the end of the first half was a ghastly call. Mastroeni maybe merited a yellow for his late sliding tackle on Andrea Pirlo. You could consider it a makeup call, and maybe a fair one. De Rossi's challenge on McBride looked less and less blatant with each replay. It might well have been the Fulham forward's talent for bleeding like a WWE superstar and not the severity of De Rossi's foul viewed in isolation that inspired Larrionda's application of the harshest possible penalty. So that's all well and good. One bad call is balanced by another, and the Americans and Italians go out and play the second half at equal strength, all tied up at one goal a side. Let the best team win.
That's not what happened, though. Larrionda inexplicably gave Eddie Pope a second yellow card seconds into the second half for a run-of-the-mill foul. If Pope didn't already have a yellow card, most referees wouldn't have given him one after the challenge in question. Ninety-nine officals out of a hundred wouldn't have given him the second yellow. It was an awful, stupid, game-changing call, and it changed forever my impression of Larrionda's home country, Uruguay. For many years the first thing I thought of in connection with Uruguay was that one funny "Simpsons" joke. Now, it'll be that one joke and that second red card.
The Americans, amazingly, managed to continue looking like the dominant side even playing nine-against-ten, until fatigue caught up with them late in the second half. Conveniently goalkeeper Kasey Keller, previously most famous for living in a big castle with a fully functioning moat, chose this time to have the stretch of his life. Keller repelled a string of very serious shot attempts from the Italians, who seemed to realize in only about the 80th minute that they would be required to score another goal in order to win the match. As ABC noted frequently during the second half, no World Cup team has ever scored a goal playing with nine men. The Americans came very close a few times, with sub DaMarcus Beasley actually finding the net at one point only to have the goal reversed on a (correct) offsides call.
After all the bad things I said about Team USA after their first game, I guess I owe them an apology. They played like real-deal contenders in this one, even when all the odds were stacked against them and all those good sports things. It'd be nice to see them score a goal against Ghana, and I doubt an only moral victory will have the galvanizing effect on the TV ratings Disney is hoping for, but at least the U.S. is no longer clawing against Togo and Costa Rica for the distinction of finishing dead last in the field of 32. The Americans will have a tough time against the game Ghanians, who dominated the Czechs earlier today in the upset of the World Cup so far. In particular, the loss of Mastroeni (automatic one-game suspension for receiving a red card) will hurt, as the midfielder was playing an essential defensive anchor role in Arena's reshuffled lineup allowing Donovan and Claudio Reyna to press forward. Given the stout play of Keller and the American defense in the game today, I'd assume even more of an attacking style for the Ghana game, but we shall see. Give Arena a lot of credit for circling the wagons after the psychologically bruising Czech Republic defeat. The Americans moved out of their local hotel to a US Air Force base in Germany earlier in the week. Perhaps being reassured of the U.S.'s military superiority in Europe helped the American players get over their lack of equal ascendancy in world soccer. Well, just wait.
It's Possibly More Productive Than 68 Hours of Phish Shows
It seems like we've reported on this before, but several people e-mailed me this morning about this story involving the Rockies' use of video iPods to study game footage. I knew that Todd Helton was one of the first guys to start having his at-bats loaded onto his iPod, but apparently the Rockies as a club are ahead of the curve in this and other franchises are starting to take notice. Assistant video coordinator Brian Jones grabs guys' mp3 players out of their lockers during games so he can keep them up-to-date. Among the enthusiastic subscribers to Jones' service are Jason Jennings, pictured with his snazzy black iPod model, and Jamey Carroll. So that's what got into Jamey Carroll. Apparently Dontrelle Willis left after the Marlins' recent trip into Denver with his brain buzzing about the possibilities of the system Jones and the Rockies have set up, which evidently extends to Colorado's minor league instructors and scouting staff.
Does that mean the Rockies have an inside edge on a possible deal for Dontrellemania? Well, according to Jayson Stark, it's not likely that Willis will be traded, although Colorado is one of at least ten teams that has asked about him. The other big rumor currently circulating connects the Rockies with Tampa Bay outfielder Carl Crawford, a rising young power/speed guy who has stated his intention to become "the greatest fantasy player of all time." I imagine fantasy owners who already have a hold of Crawford in mixed leagues would salivate at the prospect of the lefty playing half of his games at Coors Field. Crawford has played mostly left field in St. Pete but would be a huge upgrade over Cory Sullivan in center for Colorado. We've already read a lot of reports identifying TB's new boss Andrew Friedman as a lot easier to deal with than the late, lamented Chuck LaMar. However the Rays want three or four players for Crawford (who is, it should be noted, playing on an extremely reasonable long-term contract through 2010), most of whom would be pitchers. The Rockies have some outfielders and middle infielders who might be of interest to Tampa Bay -- with the emergence of Carroll and the deal for Kaz Matsui, Clint Barmes and/or Luis Gonzalez ought to be expendable -- but are reluctant to let go of pitching prospects Ubaldo Jimenez, Franklin Morales, and Juan Morillo. If the Devil Rays can be talked down into accepting maybe just one pitcher, one current major leaguer, and a useful but blocked Rockies minor leaguer like Ryan Shealy or Jeff Baker, Crawford would be worth getting. The Angels seem to be their main competition with regards to Crawford. Ervin Santana is the name being bandied about there, but it's not clear whether that's who Anaheim is offering or that's what Tampa wants. I think the Angels aren't really in any position to be buyers this year, but on the whole young, promising pitching is more scarce than young, promising hitting so I wouldn't make that deal.
It's nice that the Rockies are in a situation this late in the campaign where the idea of adding talent to make a run this year isn't ludicrous. The trade deadline is a ways off still and they might as well keep playing with the group they've got, which isn't bad, and see where they are in a few weeks. Judging by Stark's list, the trade market this year could be brutally lean, meaning that the large number of teams still in hailing distance of contention could wind up in cutthroat competition to overpay wildly for what few semi-appealing names emerge. Here are the good names from the Stark shortlist: Jeff Weaver, Craig Wilson, Jeromy Burnitz, Bruce Chen, Reggie Sanders, Oliver Perez, Jose Guillen, Chris Reitsma, Kyle Lohse. Yeah, no thanks.
It Was a Good Day
Hard to say what I'm more excited about, the Rockies completing a four-game sweep of the Nationals on the backs of Jason Jennings (eight innings, zero earned runs) and Brad Hawpe (a homer and four RBIs) or England averting a near-disastrous draw with minnow Trinidad and Tobago thanks to two Liverpool stars notching late goals. First it was Peter Crouch, hero of tall, skiny, gawky guys everywhere, scoring on a David Beckham cross so perfect Crouch would have been hard-pressed to not head it past Shaka Hislop. Then Premier League MVP Steven Gerrard added a gorgeous midrange left-footer in added time to make the game look vastly less even than it actually was. Boy, Trinidad and Tobago ought to have put the fear of God in Sven-Goran Eriksson. The English are going to have to pick up their play a great deal if they're going to get past a possible first knockout-stage matchup with Germany.
Keith Law on the Diamondbacks' Russ Ortiz release: "They won't be eating one cent, because the money was already gone. The Diamondbacks ate that money the moment the ink dried on Ortiz's laughingstock of a contract." It's believed that the $22 million which Arizona still owes Ortiz is the greatest amount ever to be paid to a player given his outright release. But that record may not last long. I sense a developing trend. For example, the Seattle Mariners owe Adrian Beltre thirty-five and a quarter million dollars for 2007-2009. Beltre, .234/.293/.337, is playing well below replacement level for a third baseman at the moment. Will Seattle be wise enough to absorb the lesson about sunk costs the D-Backs have evidently learned? Says here no. But it would be pretty hysterical if the M's kicked Beltre to the curb. I guess not so much if you're a Mariner fan.
.508 Here We Come
It seems rare recently that I actually get to sit in front of the TV and give my full attention to a Rockies game, but tonight all systems are go. Byung-Hyun Kim is facing off against Tony Armas and the Nationals as Colorado attempts to push both their road record and their overall mark into black numbers. After some subs got a chance to start yesterday against the lefty O'Connor, the Rockies are featuring more or less their A-1 lineup today against Armas. What is that lineup, you ask?
Yorvit Torrealba hasn't hit much yet, but he's still an improvement on Danny Ardoin, who we might not see again for a while. Clint Barmes has a .212 average on the season but has picked it up lately, which he credits to the fact that he's growing his hair out for the first time in four years. Helton, Holliday, Atkins (with a 12-game hitting streak), and Hawpe are a legit middle-of-the-order group. Jamey Carroll has already drawn a walk in this game. Cory Sullivan has already bunted him over to second. It's a little distressing to see the Rockies playing small ball in the first inning the night after they scored nine, but give Sullivan credit for his execution.
The Rockies should win this game. I have no real justification for this other than that they're slightly better than Washington and also that if I'm taking the time to watch them they should darn well reward me. They've just squandered a nice opportunity in the first but I still have a good feeling. Go get 'em, Colorado.
Getting Our .500 On
A couple of things while I'm catching up on my recorded World Cup games from this morning:
1) The Rockies are back to all even after Josh Fogg picked up his first career victory against the ExpoNationals franchise, 9-2. Clint Barmes was the hitting hero, which is good news. Obviously he feels Kaz Matsui breathing down his neck. For all of my moaning and carrying on, Colorado has now won 5 of its last 7 and is 16-16 at home, 16-16 on the road, and only three games back of the division-leading Diamondbacks and Dodgers. They play two more against the Nationals and three at St. Louis before they start a sequence of series against the AL West teams as Interleague 2006 draws to a close. They get Oakland and Texas at Coors, which I think ought to be pretty interesting. In any event, if any team is going to run away with the NL West, they're playing it pretty coy at this point. Everybody has between 32 and 35 wins at this point. No one is below .500. If the version of the Rockies with the functional offense is the rule rather than the exception in the coming months, we're in for an interesting summer.
2) I got a black Josh Beckett Marlins jersey for twenty bucks at Marshalls yesterday. It's pretty sweet. They had Canada World Baseball "Classic" jerseys for sale as well, home and away, but I'm holding off on those until they drop a bit from $30. I have an impressive collection of sports items that I bought after the player named on them changed teams, from an Omar Vizquel Indians shirt to a Rasheed Wallace Trail Blazers jersey. I allow the belief among my non-sports fan friends to persist that all of my outfits are timely and purchased at a premium. What they don't know won't hurt them.
3) The Nationals pinch-hit a guy named Brendan Harris yesterday and I recognized him immediately as a former Cub. I was out getting food at the time and it drove me absolutely crazy how he ended up in Washington. For some reason I thought he might have been involved in a Michael Barrett deal but I was wrong; he was involved in the four-team Nomar/Cabrera deal which certain Boston sportswriters still credit as winning the World Series for the Red Sox. Harris barely played in the majors while in the Cubs system but he made an impression on me because, well, he looked at the time like a dirtball, Mickey Morandini redux, and I love dirtballs almost as much as soft-tossing lefties. (By the way, how about this O'Connor kid?) Harris has gotten a haircut, sadly, and has otherwise done very little with himself since becoming an ExpoNational. It occurred to me while looking up Harris's stats that the Rockies don't really have any guys in their system like him, replacement player sorts who I root for illogically because they fit a certain baseball stereotype I find pleasing and/or reassuring. Maybe Mike Esposito, who's a soft-tossing righty, but I think Esposito might actually be a pretty good major-league pitcher one day if he lucks into the right situation. Jorge Piedra was caught using steroids. Jeff Baker and Ryan Shealy play the wrong positions. Jamey Carroll has the hustle and the physique of a true grinder, but then there's the whole Christianity thing. A Christian grinder is just no fun. What good is a hustle ballplayer without the tobacco stains and friendly streams of obscenities? Not much good, is my answer to you. Maybe this is the reason I've never fully embraced David Eckstein.
I Never Miss a Chance to Make Fun of Russ Ortiz
Here's some amusing news while wondering why the Rockies can't get anything going against a soft-tossing lefty who was in single A last year: famed waste of money/batting practice pitcher Russ Ortiz was designated for assignment by the Diamondbacks. Ortiz has more than two years and $22 million remaining on the 4-year, $33 million deal the since-departed Arizona management team signed him to in December 2004.
For their trouble Arizona received 138 2/3 innings pitched, a 6.95 ERA, and a 5-15 record in 28 starts. Let's all laugh at Arizona.
I Was Rooting for England Anyway
Before we get to the Team USA-bashing, I just thought I should mention that back in the world of baseball, Jeff Francis pitched another superb game as the Rockies won a low-scoring game on the road in Washington. It doesn't mean much if they don't follow it up with a series win, but if Colorado really doesn't have all the pieces in place for this year (which they don't) all we as fans can hope for its continued development from their young stars. Francis is developing. He's only 5-5 but his ERA is 3.76 and his batting average against is .211. The Rockies aren't good enough to deserve more than, say, two All-Stars, and those guys should be Brian Fuentes and Matt Holliday. But Francis is the rare pitching prospect who's turning into all they said he could be. It's nice.
OK, Czech Republic 3, USA 0. This game was brutal. If you watched the Italy-Ghana match immediately following, even more so, because it's obvious that the Ghanians in the person of Michael Essien have a difference-making star, which the US lacks. Unless their performance dramatically changes between now and Saturday, the American soccer team is going 0-3 with a goal differential that will very probably place them dead last in the field of 32. This should not come as a huge surprise, really. Intelligent, unbiased commentators have been saying that the US would need a miracle to advance out of Group E since the draw. Unfortunately none of these people work for ESPN. The amount of utter crap that has been shoveled upon the unsuspecting American soccer viewer regarding the home team's chances in this tournament has been completely ridiculous. During the Japan-Australia game yesterday, the "bottom line" ran an hours-minutes-seconds countdown to the US game, as if it was some sort of event. Never mind the fact that both Japan and Australia would crush the US on a neutral field right now, and played a fabulously entertaining game with an wild, unlikely finish -- the Australians scoring their first World Cup goal ever, then their second and third, all in the last six minutes. This almost managed to go unnoticed by the American TV crew, which like every ESPN World Cup broadcast group seemed to be hooked up to electrodes which would shock them violently if they went five minutes without hyping Team USA.
What's really amazing is given the wildly disproportionate amount of airtime given to "breaking down" the US-Czech matchup, nobody stated the obvious, which is that the Czech team was way, way more talented, way, way more experienced, and way, way less likely to completely crash and burn than serial European failure Landon Donovan and the ugly Americans. ESPN and ABC's approach to the World Cup has been to completely buy into to a self-defeating nugget of accepted wisdom, which is that in order for soccer to catch on in the US, the American team has to be good at it. If the networks spent a minute of their time talking about the other 31 teams in the field, is it possible that American fans would be interested in the hundreds of great stories that don't involve the third-rate talent of their national team and their fourth-rate professional league? In advance of the Italy-Ghana game, which was in question until the very end and featured some inspired play from world-class players on both sides, the only thing ESPN's flag-wavin' experts could offer is vain hope that the two sides might tie so that the US's chances of advancing could survive on life support for another few days. Oh, and let's just look at these "experts" for a second. If no one watched any of the recent World Cups in the U.S., why is ESPN resuscitating the public careers of every bit player on those unmemorable American teams? And could those electrodes perhaps be put to better use punishing these "journalists" for their constant subsitution of the word "we" for "the Americans?" Does anybody care what Julie Foudy thinks? If Tommy Smyth is being upheld as the lone ESPN paragon of truth in reporting and plain talk, clearly, something is very wrong. The nadir in my opinion occurred during "World Cup Live" yesterday when an unbroken 90 minutes of bleating about Bruce Arena's master plan for the Italians was paused for a report on Ronaldhino -- yes, best player in the world Ronaldhino -- which lasted a full 20 seconds. Stop the insanity.
I don't speak enough Spanish to switch over permanently to Univision, and sadly, my interest in the real stories behind the Copa Mundial is such that I can't think of another way to get news like the incredible disappearance and reappearance of Togo's coach without just enduring the jingoism. You know what this is like? Imagine if for the MLB playoffs last year every single moment of every preview show, plus huge chunks of the game broadcasts, were dedicated to discussing the Padres. ESPN and ABC seem dead set on justifying the hysterical imbalance of their programming thus far by continuing to behave as if the Americans are any kind of story up until and perhaps even past the moment of their mathematical elimination. This is illogical. Don't they want US eyes tuning into the knockout stages? Wouldn't this maybe be a good time to look around and start informing their audience about the teams that might actually have a chance of winning? At this point I would even welcome one of those cheesy NBC Olympics-style puff pieces about the triumph of the human spirit in Togo or Ivory Coast or wherever. Man, I can't even express how much I don't care about Claudio Reyna. I want my Shaka Hislop!
So, having said all that...did you watch the actual game? What did you think? Does a team that left one guy completely unmarked down the right flank five minutes into their first World Cup game, then saw their entire back line left flat-footed against a vanilla through pass for a blowout-ensuring third goal, have a chance of beating Italy? No, they don't. (The second goal that the Czechs scored, I think we can all agree, was just a dazzling, unstoppable play. One that was set up by a botched US clear attempt, yeah, but whatever.) At this point the Americans' goal should be to not finish 32nd. That will be an uphill climb given the intensity with which the less talented teams in the tourney (not that there are many of them) have played so far.
I very rarely lose track of what's going on in Major League Baseball during the season, but I am deeply absorbed in the World Cup this year. You know when you've made The Leap when it comes to being a soccer fan? When you watch a 0-0 game, like Sweden vs. Trinidad and Tobago yesterday, and you come away thinking it was one of the best games you've ever watched. After the record-setting opener, where Germany and Costa Rica scored six goals between them, I thought wide-open, high-scoring games might be the rule in this tournament, but even some of the mismatches have been close games. Argentina-Ivory Coast didn't seem in question for a moment but the final score was only 2-1 in favor of the Argentines. Paraguay played England to a standstill save for an own goal. The Netherlands and Serbia, however, the first game this morning, was a 1-0 game that was truly not as close as the score. I wrote before play began that the defensive-minded Serbs would have a hell of a time against the Dutch and Argentine stars in Group C, and Chelsea star Arjen Robben was a one-man wrecking crew today. If not for an off day out of Robben's striker partner, the even more highly regarded Manchester United veteran Ruud van Nistelrooy, The Netherlands should have won by about four goals. The Dutch are one of the most beautiful teams to watch in the game, not because of their bright orange uniforms, but because of their ball control. They pass like me playing Winning Eleven on the lowest difficulty level.
I elected not to wake up at seven this morning so I'm catching up with today's action on the TiVo. Mexico-Iran and Portugal-Angola look like mismatches on paper but look what happened with Sweden and Trinidad. The listed T & T goalkeeper hurt himself in warmups and his backup made his World Cup debut and played the game of his life. You gotta love stuff like that -- kind of like Edmonton willing themselves back into the equation in the Stanley Cup finals, while we're on the subject of sports Americans don't care about.
So the "Surprise!" in the title is referring to the standings in the National League West, which I hadn't really looked at since Colorado entered its current persistent funk on a long road trip three weeks ago. It's official: every team in the NL West has now taken its turn being The Story. The Rockies got out to a hot start. The Giants...well, you know about the Giants. The Padres had a shaky April and recovered with their second hot May in as many years. Then the Diamondbacks got on a bit of a roll and suddenly stories were running all over the place about how they were really the class of the division. This was about the time that Brandon Webb stopped being underrated, by the way. Trust me, people know how good Brandon Webb is. Pretty much the whole year, the Dodgers have been hanging around, having injury problems, enjoying some vintage Nomar Garciaparra, and avoiding the huge up and down swings that every other team has gone through. Now that Arizona has lost six in a row, it's their turn to hold the hot potato. Good luck, Los Angeles!
The Rockies beat the Dodgers yesterday in another one of those unfulfilling Coors slugfests, 12-9. It seems as if each of their wins since the disastrous SD-LA-SF trip have fit this description, and you know my bias towards low-scoring games. For me it feels like they haven't won a "real" game in weeks. At this very minute they trail 4-3, so I'm rooting very hard for them to win 5-4. That would put them back at .500, where it really seems they have no business being the way they've played, and it would give them a series win against a team that's not Pittsburgh, another feather in their cap. They're also in last place but only three and a half back of first in what once again appears like the NL Worst. They have a four-game series on the road against the unpredictable Nationals next, and then another trip to St. Louis, who it seems the Rockies are playing disproportionately often this year (they are, in point of fact: they have one extra series against the Cardinals where 14 NL teams have an additional interleague matchup). Of course the non-Pujols Cardinals might be a desirable matchup at this point, and the Rockies have played the men of La Russa surprisingly fearlessly the last few years. Honestly, I'm not going to be paying full attention to baseball until the A's roll into Denver next week. For that series, matching my favorite AL team and my favorite NL team, I promise wall to wall coverage.
Until then, you're all going to have to get used to soccer.
We Just Can't Hit Brad Penny
DO'D on the Kaz deal, from the Post: "We don't know what we have here. Are we getting the player who is a seven-time All-Star in Japan or the player he's been the last couple seasons? Ryan Spilborghs had taken Eli [Marrero]'s at-bats. Jorge [Piedra] makes us more left-handed. There just wasn't any spot for Eli as we move forward." The article goes on to say that the Rockies will give Matsui about a month in AAA to get New York City out of his sytem. My guess is that he will eventually be released and will quietly go back to playing in Japan, but I'm a born pessimist.
More or less the same story from the RMN, although with a typical Pollyanna spin. ("The big picture and immediate future might have brightened for the Colorado Rockies on Friday," reads the lead.) Why am I bothered by this trade? Because it seems too much like a deal made for the sake of making a deal. I'm glad that a young player, Spilborghs, is taking old player Marrero's spot, but the Rockies' lack of a place for Marrero wasn't license to trade him in what is essentially a garbage dump for the Mets. Perhaps I'm overestimating Marrero's value, but it seems to me that a trade for a minor league prospect or two would have been possible somewhere and would have made more sense given the Rockies' current position -- improving, but probably not contending in the NL West this year. A guy who's a longshot to become a cheap contributor for several years is still a better get than a guy who's a longshot to do anything this year and then becomes a free agent anyway. Of course, there may be another shoe preparing to drop that we don't know about yet. I dimly recall Dan O'Dowd being effusive about Eric Byrnes' addition last year and then flipping him off to Baltimore days later.
Brett Tomko faces Jason Jennings at Coors tonight, although if I were you I'd avoid watching Rockies games until their offense breaks out of the ugly funk in which it's presently mired. The game last night was particularly tedious, especially with so many exciting things going on over on other channels, baseball and otherwise.
Oh, I went to see Bob Schneider last night. Bob Schneider is good.
Kaz Matsui? You've Got to be Kidding Me
The Rockies traded Eli Marrero to the Mets for Kazuo Matsui and cash. Kaz Matsui is a colossal flop, a defensive disaster at both short and second, and one of the last remaining vestiges of the Steve Phillips/Jim Duquette era of bad feelings in New York. Marrero is a decent-hitting bench player who can play a bunch of positions and pound left-handed pitching. The Rockies have in effect traded a useful player with value for a useless player without. They are receiving money from the Mets, but only enough to offset the difference between Matsui's bloated salary and Marrero's reasonable one. Marrero's departure will mean more playing time for Jorge Piedra, who was recalled from Colorado Springs, but it's not the loss of Marrero that really bugs me about this trade, it's that the Rockies very probably could have gotten a lot more for a guy who's a good pinch-hitter and an above-average emergency catcher. What we need with a powerless, walkless, middle infielder who can't really play the middle infield is beyond me. In his American professional career Matsui has compiled a line of .256/.308/.363.
It's certainly possible that Kaz was one of those guys who Just Can't Make It In New York, but even if he does turn back into the reliable doubles hitter he was in Japan, he's still a miserable defensive player. I had never heard this about any Japanese player before Matsui, but the conventional wisdom on his failure to play acceptable shortstop or second for the Mets was that he was used to playing on turf all the time and therefore was unprepared to play much shallower and dive for balls as opposed to playing back and getting in front of them. Tadahito Iguchi certainly seems to have made the adjustment in Chicago, so I don't know what Matsui's deal is. He'll play in Colorado Springs for the time being. If Kaz can fix his glove and his bat...the Rockies still have scads of better middle infield options in the system. Jamey Carroll is playing too well to bench right now, but playing veterans Matsui and Carroll both while Clint Barmes and Luis Gonzalez languish would be stupid. Try as I might I simply can't detect an upside to this deal. There must be some kind of funny-money thing going on where the Rockies profit from the bargain. Either that, or the Rockies are facilitating a Matsui deal for another team more desperate for help in the infield. Given their luck with three-way deals last year, I don't think that would be a very good idea either.
The World Cup is off to a hell of a start. International soccer goes through its offense- and defense-dominated eras just like other sports, and it seems like more European teams are playing a wide-open attacking style than has been the case for many years. ESPN couldn't have asked for a better opening game than the Germany-Costa Rica match, which was high-scoring, endline-to-endline soccer, featuring a number of beautiful scores before an amazing Torsten Frings deep strike in the closing minutes. Elite teams that try to outscore their opponents are more ripe for upset than those that try and lock it down on defense, and while there are few underdogs that can hope to win a 1-0 match against a power club, there are a lot of little teams with talented strikers like Costa Rica's Paulo Wanchope who can use their speed to create instant offense in a fast-paced, wide-open game. And for good measure the second game of the day was a big upset, with Ecuador coming down out of the mountains and soundly beating Poland 2-0. Day 2 should be even better, with two extremely enticing games, England-Paraguay and Argentina-Ivory Coast. The US, if you're wondering, starts on Monday against the Czech Republic.
A Grimsley Tale
So who else has spent the day searching the Internet far and wide for those blanked-out names in the Jason Grimsley affidavit? There's some fascinating speculation going on, none of which I can really vouch for the journalistic integrity of, but this is the InterWeb, where journalistic integrity goes begging. Speaking of which, Jay Mariotti's latest column strongly implies that the names are already common knowledge "behind the scenes." But consider the source. If you don't have the time to troll the blog scene like a minesweeper this evening while watching the Mavs and Heat (BA's pick: Dallas in six), my guess is the site with the inside track to be the first to name names is Deadspin. So bookmark that site, my fellow vultures.
All right, what do we think about this? I doubt anybody wants to hear it, but I'll go ahead and say it: this is the best possible thing that could have happened for baseball's long-term future at this point. Much as they colluded to keep the steroid epidemic under wraps in the nineties, baseball media insiders and the MLB establishment itself were moving quickly to declare the performance-enhancing drugs era "over." This is patently absurd. Baseball presently has no provisions for testing for human growth hormone. If you were a steroid user who built your career on chemically augmented slugging or suspiciously speedy recovery from pitching injuries, what possible drawback would there be to switching over to the latest and greatest in injectable magic? Indeed, much of the more responsible reporting on the steroid crisis has pointed out that the most savvy users had moved on past the drugs that MLB now tests for before these tests even began. Sensing the fatigue surrounding the Barry Bonds story and assuming that the pressure from the government was off, MLB was moving way too quickly towards declaring the problem solved. It hasn't been. In a sense, it never will be. The drugmakers will always be one step ahead of the drug testers, and the temptation to cheat will always get the best of some players. The steroid era will never be over, at least until we make the switch over to robot ballplayers.
Jason Grimsley's run-in with the law is such a shocking story that it forces MLB to abandon its back-away-slowly tactics. Fans are exhausted of hearing innuendo and speculation, but concrete proof is another thing entirely. Stories about anyone besides Bonds using steroids are relatively welcome as well. The implications of what's going on with Grimsley are immediately obvious to observers within the game and without. The government isn't letting up. MLB has to be vigilant to the degree of militance to keep the progress they've made from becoming an outdated joke. But maybe, just maybe, the stakes have finally risen for steroid cheaters. Maybe MLB can't move quickly enough to test for everything that comes from a test tube. But if you get caught by the feds moving this stuff, you could go real live no-fooling prison, where you can do all the weight training you want.
Isn't it nice to read a news story where the U.S. government is the good guy? How long has it been? Seems like forever.
Meanwhile, in the US of A, Rockies Win Games
Well, I was ready to go and put a bag over my head after that recent six-game losing streak came hot on the heels of a five-game losing streak. And now Colorado was won two in a row, albeit at home, albeit against Pittsburgh. The statistics suggest that the Pirates are a little better than their record, but not that much better. A series win at home against a bad team is about the very least the Rockies could do at this point after the brutal California trip and the embarrassing Coors sweep at the hands of the Marlins. There is something weirdly unsatisfying about today's win, a brutal 16-9 Planet Coors game featuring four-, five-, and six-run innings. One thing the Rockies have been consistently able to do throughout their lifetime as a franchise is win games with football scores at home. Since they've never been much good, there's no evidence to prove or disprove the theory that a precondition of winning baseball in Denver is scores that more closely resemble those that result from games played in the real world. Games like we've seen this year, for the most part. I know that there are Rockies fans who really like when our guys club the other guys into submission, but to me, pitchers' duels just seem...tidier. I guess that says more about me than it does the Rockies.
Anyway, good box score tonight. The Rockies hit five sac flies, which ties a record. Who knew? Yorvit Torrealba had a four-run home run. Jamey Carroll has eight hits in the last two games. Sorry I ever said you should play less, Jamey. Colorado scored its sixteen runs off of only fourteen hits, only one of which was a homer. That means they walked a lot (nine times), which warms my heart. Sure, Josh Fogg did allow eight runs, but Fogg was about due for one of those games at home, and the bullpen only let in one further Pirate tally. Scott Dohmann earned his first win of the season, though not of his career. And Clint Hurdle was ejected again! He's becoming a regular Billy Martin.
I'm watching Game Two of the Stanley Cup finals as I write this, and it looks like the loss of goalie Dwayne Roloson is going to sink the Oilers. It's a shame that eight-seed Edmonton's playoff star won't be available for the rest of the series, because Game One was fantastic hockey -- fast, hard-hitting, fairly officiated, with even a beautiful goal on a penalty shot. The wild ending, where Roloson's rusty backup let in a cheap goal with less than a minute to go, was a heartbreaking but fitting end to a game of wild swings. The Oilers outplayed Carolina for two solid periods, with the all the momentum when the teams were at equal strength, but couldn't take advantage of a string of power plays. A late goal in the second kept the Hurricanes' hope alive, and they looked like a new team in the third period, surging into the lead 4-3. The Oilers finally got a power play goal to tie it, and it looked like OT was in the offing, but Roloson went down with a knee injury, and there went the game and probably the series. According to ESPN Radio fewer people watched Game One than NCAA women's softball on Monday. Well, I still care about hockey. The game is better after the rules changes brought on by last year's strike, and the officials seem to have found a good medium between calling obstruction like they're supposed to and maintaining the NHL playoffs' proud tradition of guys beating the crap out of each other. It makes no difference to me that no one in the U.S. is watching, although I'm sure the Outdoor Life Network feels quite differently.
If the NHL finals end up being a short, dull series due to the Roloson injury, so be it; this month provides an embarrassment of riches when it comes to sports. MLB is just beginning to separate the early-season wonders (cough, cough, DETROIT, cough) from the real-deal contenders, the NBA's big comeback season is concluding with what on paper looks like a dazzler of a series, and there's this soccer thing going on. Just try and get me away from the TV!
WC 2006: C-Dubbing the Dub-C
Some time ago, my colleague at The Coors Effect wrote an illuminating column on the subject of the pecking order in the NL West, concluding that aside from the altitude (and the whole lack of talent thing) the Rockies have an uphill battle to fight when it comes to changing the national perception of their franchise. In the lack of credible evidence to the contrary, folks just assume that the Dodgers and the Giants are better than the Diamondbacks and Padres who in turn are better than the Rockies. The NL West isn't quite the AL East, where the five teams finish in the exact same order every season, but there's for sure a reductive tautology at work. The Rockies are bad because...the Rockies...are bad.
So how does this apply to the World Cup? Well, if you've been browsing any of the many previews written here and there on the web and in print about how the tourney will shake out, you'll probably notice that every single group has an ironclad pecking order. To a certain extent this is by design, as the teams are seeded so as to allow the most prestigious squads the best chance to advance. Besides, the weight of history looms large. Either Brazil or Germany has been every final save one since 1950. On the other hand, surprise runs to the semifinals are all too common. Witness South Korea in 2002. So why does every prognosticator have the teams in the same order? Because they have a good chance of being right, and no one will call them out if they fail to foresee a big run by Togo.
Group A: Germany, Poland, Ecuador, Costa Rica
The Germans are the hosts, who always make it out of the qualifying rounds, and they're also the Germans, who have been to seven finals and have won three. Poland isn't head and shoulders above the remaining teams in the group but they do have the next best thing to home-field advantage besides the Germans themselves. Ecuador has beaten Argentina and Brazil recently...but both of those games were on their home turf in Quito, which makes Coors Field look like Death Valley: 9,186 feet above sea level. Costa Rica are okay but they've certainly gotten no favors out of the schedulemakers, who have set them up as sacrificial lambs for the home team in the tournament opener Friday in Munich. Is there a shot for a surprise advancer here? No one would be terribly surprised if either Ecuador or Costa Rica pushed aside the Poles. But no one would have any expectations from whichever team finishes second in Group A to make it a match past the round of 16.
Group B: England, Sweden, Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago
This one is as clearly tiered a group as there is in the draw, with one world-class squad, one sleeper, a fair Paraguay team, and Trinidad and Tobago. Don't confuse them with Togo. But don't bet on either to score a goal in group play, let alone win a match.
Group C: Argentina, The Netherlands, Ivory Coast, Serbia and Montenegro
Two of these teams have a lot of World Cup history behind them. Argentina has won twice, once (1978) beating out Holland. The Dutch have never won, but they've been in the finals twice. The Ivory Coast, on the other hand, are in the final 32 for the first time ever. Not that just getting invited to the dance isn't a historic accomplishment. The factions in the country's Civil War have agreed to a truce for the duration of the World Cup. The last team in Group C is just plain history: Montenegro voted for independence from the Serbian state last month. They'll never compete as one again, not that there are any Montenegrans on the current team. S&M, perhaps fittingly given their acronym, plays suffocating defense, but good fundamental play isn't enough to stop the stars the Argentines and Dutch are bringing to the dance. Ivory Coast has the most names recognizable to European club football fans among the African teams in the World Cup, but name recognition alone isn't likely worth better than third place.
Group D: Mexico, Portugal, Iran, Angola
The softest group in the draw still has an obvious pecking order. Angola is just happy to be here. The Iranians are probably scared to succeed given that their homeland is run by religious nutcases and several team members are quietly making very good livings playing club ball in the decadent west. Among the traditional soccer powers, Mexico is probably the most disrespected. They should make it out of this group without breaking a sweat, which may not bode well for their performance in the knockout rounds. Portugal ought to be runner-up by default, but they sure will have to watch their backs when they play Angola. Countries tend to hold grudges about four-hundred-year legacies of subjugation and enslavement. So I've heard.
Group E: Italy, Czech Republic, US of A, Ghana
If you're a new fan trying to learn the game in anticipation of your first World Cup, don't dwell too much on all the stories about the American team. They're not ready yet. They're improving, but they're not as good as the scandal-tainted Italians or the Czechs and their bounty of EPL stars. Each team will probably take target practice at lowly Ghana, another happy-just-to-be-invited squad. One trend soccer fans will point to, like the ubiquity of 5-12 upsets in the NCAA basketball tournament, is the tendency of at least one African squad to make it out of the group stage in each recent World Cup. The chalk likes this streak to get broken this time around, but the chalk is often wrong. You can erase chalk, you see.
Group F: Brazil, Croatia, Australia, Japan
The "Brazil and everybody else" group. Brazil doesn't hope to win World Cups, they expect it, and although injuries and age have rendered them less than invulnerable this go-round, they're still the class of Group F. The conventional wisdom has the Croats pegged for second thanks to a sweet qualifying run and good past Cup campaigns. The Japanese and the Australians make for an interesting matchup, not that it will really much matter which finishes third and which fourth. Australia has more famous players, but Japan has a superstar coach, Brazil's Zico. How will they finish? Well, if you look at the schedule, Australia plays Croatia last, while Japan meets Brazil. If the Croats don't need a win to move on, they could cede the Aussies some meaningless points. Brazil, on the other hand, isn't going to mess around with Japan or in fact anybody else. They're frickin' Brazil, five-time World Cup champs and the alpha dog of international soccer.
Group G: France, Switzerland, South Korea, Togo
When in doubt, you should always pick the team that's closer to home to win in a World Cup match, and both France (champs in '98) and South Korea (semis in '02) benefited greatly from past World Cups on their home turf. France is still good but old. No one takes South Korea any more seriously than they do the Americans, especially with the Swiss coming to play so much relatively closer to their home soil. Don't confuse Togo with Trinidad and Tobago, remember.
Group H: Spain, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia
For a country that's home to some of the best club teams and players in the world, Spain has a shaky history at the World Cup. The random draw for groups did them a huge favor by lumping them in with the inexperienced Tunisians and Saudis. Ukraine is all about Andriy Shevchenko. If he's good, they're good for second. Maybe even if he isn't, as the level of play to which the Ukrainian regulars are accustomed is simply across-the-board better than their African and Asian rivals. Does it bug anybody else that Tunisia's flag is a star inside of a crescent moon? That doesn't happen! The stars behind the moon are blocked by the portion of the moon unlit by the sun's rays, for heck's sake!
Well, that was a fun way to while away an afternoon. Time to shift gears and get my Stanley Cup Finals groove on. I'm not enough of a hockey expert to make any sort of prediction, but I will say that I'm pulling for Edmonton. The Canadians just seem to need it more, you know? Plus the whole eight-seed-makes-good deal would be a great story. One that won't be replicated by any of the bottom-of-the-pecking-order teams in the World Cup draw.
Like I'm sure many bloggers do, I obsessively check my referrer logs to see who's talking about me. (This is one of the many ways the blogverse resembles public high school, but that's another topic for another day.) I was a bit mortified to find that for a few days I was linked by robneyer.com, homepage of the author and ESPN columnist who was one of the first writers from whom I learned that "sportswriter" and "intellectual" are not mutually exclusive terms. This may well be the first time Neyer, or at least the folks who run his website, has ever paid any notice to little old me, so how embarrassed was I that my little in-passing mention of Rob's new book with quoted entirely out of context? What I wrote was "Rob Neyer's new book on blunders seems short of content compared to his last several works, which were primo bathroom reading." What robneyer.com said was "seems short of content." Okay, this isn't quite as egregious as the movie ads that take the one nice thing Roger Ebert says in his one-star review and blow it up into 24-point text, but still, do I want a writer I admire very much to think I'm taking lame potshots at him from my crummy little Rockies blog? No, I don't want that at all. If your goal was to elicit a full review, robneyer.com webmaster guy, mission accomplished.
The bookshelf sunk into the wall in my bathroom has three shelves. The top shelf is where whatever I'm currently reading lives. At the moment, this means The Chronicles of Narnia, a book of Sarah Vowell essays, Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains the World, and the novel on which "Deadwood" is based. I read a lot of old-fashioned bound volumes for an Internet-ager, but I read them like webpages, zipping back and forth between several things at any given time. The second shelf is dedicated to my "Buffy" reference materials, an impressive collection which I have more or less memorized by now but still consult from time to time as a part of my efforts to compile a complete list of every character actor who ever appeared on both "Buffy" and "Star Trek" or "The X-Files." And then the third shelf is the Neyer shelf. I have 'em all -- Baseball Dynasties, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, The Big Book of Baseball Lineups. (I've read Neyer's more personal narrative work Feeding the Green Monster, but I don't recommend it. It certainly doesn't merit bathroom positioning.) What's great about these books is that they are essentially unfinishable. They're so crammed with minute details that you can always open them up and discover something fantastic and interesting about baseball history you never knew before.
I was raised as a baseball fan. I've read every major history of the sport that was available in the early nineties, all of the famous works of baseball literature, and more John R. Tunis and Matt Christopher novels than I can possibly ever list. I've seen the big Ken Burns baseball movie countless times. The point is, I'm intimately familiar with the epochal moments of baseball history, good and bad. The books I want to be reading at this point are the ones that fly in the face of the century of conventional wisdom that's amassed around the game, like Moneyball and the Baseball Prospectus franchise, or books that uncover elements of baseball's rich history that are completely new to me. The Neyer books in my bathroom do this better than any other besides Bill James' mighty Historical Baseball Abstract, which is way too heavy to comfortably read on the toilet. Neyer tells me things I didn't know about famous guys. He introduces me to interesting players of whom I've never heard. He reliably trashes Dusty Baker. The man's, in short, a genius.
When I was much younger, I used to have a music blog not too different from this one where I'd write about all the new records college was exposing me to and how I felt about them. Eventually it ran out of steam because you can only hear music for the first time once, and after you've dutifully and fully absorbed the catalogs of Miles Davis, The Beatles, and Cheap Trick, everything else seems a little...anticlimax. It's tough for me to really be blown away by a new record nowadays. Likewise, it's tough to find a baseball book that offers really new information. Jeff Pearlman's book on Barry Bonds was beautifully written and impeccably researched, but, well...I already knew Barry Bonds was a jerk. This is why Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders is kind of a letdown. Neyer's previous books have shown a remarkable knack for making baseball seem exciting, new, and mysterious to a guy who can reel off the starting lineups and pitching rotations of every team in the league off of the top of his head. The Blunders book, except for a few moments here or there, just isn't like that. The earlier books' basic, easily described concepts belied a wealth of original, even groundbreaking material. No one had ever gone to the trouble of compiling a complete list of pitches for hundreds of history's most significant hurlers. Few had ever done such an illuminating job applying modern statistical thinking to the argument over the greatest team of all time. And no one to my knowledge had ever put so much thought into listing the greatest players ever to wear a Colorado Rockies uniform.
But baseball blunders, by their very nature, are things we remember, and things even the misty-eyed scribes of the Halberstam school tend to get the details on largely correct. Neyer's reseach in the new book is as deep as always, but on the whole the latest Big Book just isn't as exciting as its predecessors. The old stories, like the Babe Ruth sale or the Cubs' college of coaches, we've heard rehashed dozens and dozens of times. More recent blunders like the Mike Hampton signing and the Grady/Pedro incident have been even further digested and redigested by the instant-reaction society formed around pages just like this one. It's not a bad idea to put them all together in one book, and certainly Rob Neyer of all baseball writers is capable of bringing fresh angles to all of these old chestnuts, but Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders is a book you read through once and then put away. It simply doesn't qualify for the permanent bathroom collection.
It has a shocking lack of neat-looking tables, too, for a Neyer book.
On a completely unrelated note, have you read this story about some woman stalking Bob Uecker? I thought I was the only one!
Marlins 4, Rockies 3
The Rockies' collapse continues apace, as the very same team that Colorado swept on the road not very long ago to assert their authority as a non-pushover returns the favor at Coors. First place seems a distant memory, does it not? The Rockies are now seven games back in a division where seemingly ever other club is just hitting their stride. Two shaky calls that went against Colorado hardly serve as an excuse for Sunday's loss. Even Clint Hurdle getting ejected for only the second time all year failed to ignite the Rockies offense. Matt Holliday was probably safe at home on a relay play in the seventh, although the multiple camera angles on the telecast were unable to conclusively indicate it either way to my satisfaction. I'm more certain that Todd Helton tagged Matt Treanor out before he reached first after Clint Barmes' wild throw in the next inning, but the Rockies committed three errors and had ample opportunities to tie the game against the weak Marlins bullpen despite the questionable calls. I'm not even going to talk about Saturday's 13-0 debacle.
The Rockies are beginning to resemble last year's team very closely. The pitching is still pretty good -- much better than those who don't follow Colorado baseball would ever believe -- but the offense is pitiful, and the defense is beginning to demonstrate a certain peculiar knack for setting up pitchers to fail. What's to be done? Well, at this point, not much. The plan was never to contend this year, and the Rockies are certainly seeing progress from a number of young players around which their future hopes are built, most notably Holliday, Brad Hawpe, and Jeff Francis. I know we all get very excited about competitive baseball returning to Denver ahead of schedule, but the Rockies only have half of a lineup at the moment, and with Todd Helton underachieving and Clint Barmes and the catchers offering zero production, we simply don't have enough pitching to win every game 3-2. I would make a slight adjustment in my philosophy of playing time, were I Clint Hurdle. The younger guys in the bullpen, Scott Dohmann and Ramon Ramirez, should start seeing more pressure situations, since Jose Mesa and Ray King aren't going to be around forever. Likewise, it was hard to argue against playing Jamey Carroll every day when the team was winning, but now, Clint Barmes and Luis Gonzalez should just go ahead and play every day. They're not going to break out of slumps with the random usage pattern Hurdle is subscribing to now. It may be more difficult to find playing time for J.D. Closser, since Yorvit Torrealba just came off the disabled list, but there's no reason now not to give Closser a second crack at proving he deserves a featured role in the Rockies' future plans.
Wow, I can't believe I managed to write even this much about the Rockies today. I'm so mad at them for playing like sleepwalkers the last several weeks. It's most fortunate that I have the NBA and Stanley Cup Finals, plus the World Cup, to provide excuses for not watching Rockies games for the next month. There's only so much a man can take.
WC: If You Show It, Will They Watch?
I am psyched for the World Cup. Super psyched. Since the last time they had one of these, I've become a huge soccer fan, thanks to the combined might of Fox Soccer Channel and the Winning Eleven video game franchise. I know the names of the good players. I understand how offsides works. (In theory, at least. Like a major league strike zone, officiating practice seems to vary, especially when Juventus is playing.) I sort of get the formations, although for the most part it still looks like they're just running around to me. I do know that when someone says 4-4-2 or 4-3-1-2 that it goes back to front, backs, midfielders, and strikers in that order. But how many of my countrymen here in the fifth-ranked soccer-playing nation in the world feel the same way?
The other night, I was at a bar wearing my Milan Baros Czech Republic jersey and a complete stranger walked up to me and we discussed Wayne Rooney's foot injury for like twenty minutes. This isn't a completely unheard-of occurrence -- last year shortly after Liverpool's European Champions League triumph I ran into a young man in a Michael Owen jersey at Wrigley Field and we whiled away many a happy half-inning trying to remember all the words to "You'll Never Walk Alone" -- but in this case my fellow soccer fan was a genuine old-fashioned unaccented white guy, sturdy Middle American stock. Will this be the tournament that finally wins over the United States to soccer's case? In my unscientific anecdotal experience, it seems as if anticipation for this World Cup is at an all-time high stateside. And it's not because of Team USA's chances for advancement, or lack thereof. The Americans are crammed into Group E, probably the second-toughest four-team pool in the draw, and on the off chance that they can sneak past the Czechs into the knockout stage, they'll be on a collision course to get creamed by Brazil in the round of sixteen. No, I think people are just willing to give soccer a chance again. Good for people!
A lot of the credit for this unusually pro-footie atmosphere has to go to the ESPN family of networks, which is making every effort to leverage its considerable visibility into numerous extra eyes for the 52 Cup games which it will broadcast. If you watch sports on TV at all, you've probably already seen some of the many cool commercials ESPN has produced. The article I'm here linking on CBS SportsLine has some interesting things to say about ESPN's strategy for breaking soccer ratings records and why the American public might be uniquely receptive to the beautiful game at this particular point in posthistory. In a way the network is taking an Olympic approach to soccer. They've given up trying to convince Americans that the game itself is at all interesting and are concentrating on the public spectacle and sociological impact of the tourney. The "experts" say that only something like five percent of the American audience will be enthusiastic soccer fans like me and my buddy from the bar the other night. I'd just as soon that soccer not become something we in the United States only pay attention to at quadrennial intervals like curling, the steeplechase, and the Nordic Combined, but then again, better Americans pay heed to soccer once every four years than not at all.
Another even more interesting aspect to this World Cup is the current political climate. I'm sure no one's really lining up to buy the Iranians drinks (not that they could accept them), but I heard on ESPNews the other day that the American team is the only one travelling through Germany in a bus unmarked with any flags or other national symbols. People are kind of down on the United States these days, you see. I don't know what this says about our national psychology, but for some reason the fact that we all know the rest of the world is kind of sick of us makes us more likely to throw them a bone and pay attention to their silly soccer tournament. I don't know if it's a fair argument for American superiority, but I do have to say that it's much easier to find their game on our televisions than it is to find any of ours on theirs. (Not that it's on topic, but this seems as good a place as any to link to John Hollinger's story about trying to get Canadians to watch basketball. It's item #3 and it's hysterical.)
I just finished an internship and I'm quite deliberately taking a few weeks off before I start applying for a new job so I can gorge myself on soccer. C'mon, Wayne, suck it up. You can't tell me you're less of a man than Raja Bell.
Well, that was fun while it lasted. A loss to Dontrellemania and the Marlins brings the Rockies back down to .500, 27-27, and for good measure deposits them in their old familiar position as the last place team in the NL West. If anything, it points out how well the Rockies were doing for a while there. They've been playing flat-out lousy for two weeks, and it took them this long to lose their winning record! It's just one game on the schedule in the grand scheme of things but this particular contest seemed like a microcosm of Colorado's recent failures. The starting pitching was okay, but not quite good enough. Clint Hurdle's bullpen decisions were a tad on the peculiar side (Sunny Kim, who hasn't pitched effectively in the majors this calendar year, was brought into a one-run game). Production from the guys expected to be secondary contributors in the offense continues to be inadequate. Clint Barmes' homer tonight was only his third of the year. The Rockies' continued difficulties with the catcher position were highlighted this evening by the season debut of Yorvit Torrealba (0 for 4). Cheers are in order for the Colorado bench, however. Cory Sullivan and Brad Hawpe didn't start due to the tough lefty starter and Ryan Spilborghs and Choo Freeman each had hits in their stead. Spilborghs' was a homer.
Are we happy with the Rockies' progress to this point, or do we feel like they're squandering the opportunity their early-season success granted them? I said before the season began that I'd be quite happy with 75 wins, and I still would be. It's becoming increasingly clear that the NL West isn't going to be won with 84-86 wins this year, and while Colorado might be able to finesse their way to that kind of win total, they're not a ninety-win team by any stretch of the imagination. I'm not punting on the season this early, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. The Rockies weren't really planning on contending this season unless by happy accident, and more or less every substantial contributor on this year's team will be around for next season. The Rockies are not quite as good as they were for the first several weeks of 2006, nor as bad as they appear right now, and it's fine with me if they stay the course for a while. When the trade deadline is more of a looming reality, we may reassess. If Colorado can trade Jose Mesa for actual value, that would make the whole season from my perspective. Well, also I'd like to see them bust out the purple jerseys again.
I know I said I wasn't going to dwell on the whole Onward Christian Soldiers thing, but I have noticed something slightly alarming about the journalistic community's response to the USA Today article. Christianity is the new altitude! Already in a power rankings column somewhere and a Rob Neyer chat transcript I've seen writers making cheap jokes about St. Clint and his 25 apostles instead of offering legitimate measured answers to honest questions about the Rockies. Here I thought we had come so far. I hope this trend dies out soon, but I'll be keeping an eye open. I watch everything. Just like God!
About to Take the Lead, I Hope
I'm sitting and watching the Rockies game on TV and realizing that it's been more than a week since I was able to do this. Hi, guys, I missed you. It'd be a good time to start winning games again if that'd be okay with you. Why did Dontrelle Willis pick this game to get back on track? Couldn't he have waited one more start?
There has been some static lately over a story in USA Today regarding the prevalence of Christians in the Rockies clubhouse. The Denver Post says that the story is inaccurate and misleading. (Apparently the Rockies do read girlie magazines.) Bernie Lincicome seems angry. I'm not for sure, because like most of Bernie's columns, I couldn't make it all of the way through this one.
Do you guys watch "South Park?" Have you seen the episode where Stan's grandfather wants the boys to help him kill himself? They go and ask for advice on this difficult issue from all of the authority figures in town. Their parents, their teacher. They even call up Jesus himself. As far as the Rockies Revival is concerned, I'm taking the same position as the Big Man. I'm not touching this one with a forty-foot pole.
I think it's a terrible idea that they begin balloting for the All-Star Game so early in the season, and they definitely need to rethink how early they print these things up. Alex Rios isn't listed among the AL outfielders, and that's a travesty. I understand why Jim Thome isn't on the ballot (he's a DH, and the game is at an NL park), but why then is David Ortiz down as the Boston "first baseman?" These are major questions. However...bringing home a copy of the All-Star Ballots I fill out each year and comparing who I picked off the top of my head to the dudes who actually deserve to go are such easy posts to write that you're probably going to have to deal with them until the big day in Pittsburgh itself. SI's John Donovan has his picks for the NL and AL up if you prefer baseball columns that have little pictures of the writers at the top.
I heard on the radio this morning that with the exception of Vlad Guerrero, all of the leading vote-getters at each position in the American League are either Yankees or Red Sox. This is so singularly unsurprising that I can't even think of a joke in response.
First base. I voted for David Ortiz (14.4 VORP), without really having looked at his stats very closely in some time, because, well, among current major league ballplayers, who would you most like to see on a wacky fish-out-of-water sitcom where a hulking, lovable former ballplayer becomes nanny to some spoiled but emotionally neglected upper-class white kids? They could call it "Papi and the Brats," "Papi in Charge," or "Who's Your Papi?" Who wouldn't watch that show? If we're counting designated hitters, and I guess we are since there's several on the ballot, then Jim Thome (29.8) deserves your support. Has Thome played a single inning in the field this season? No. Neither has Travis Hafner (28.9), who unlike Thome is on the ballot. The most qualified actual first baseman would be either Jason Giambi (22.7) or Paul Konerko (18.4), depending on your definitions of "qualfied," "actual," and "first baseman." Next time I will vote for Konerko, since the Giambi and the Yankees certainly don't need any more help. Thome, I imagine, will find his way on to the team somehow.
Second base. Apparently Ozzie Guillen's neverending blarney campaign has affected me more than I realized, because after some hemming and hawing I punched the circle next to Tadahito Iguchi (8.3). There aren't a lot of obvious breakout candidates at this position but there are some better choices than Iguchi, although who knows whether they do The Little Things That Don't Show Up in the Box Score as well. Brian Roberts (13.6) is the AL leader at the position but he has been hurt and might not stay there. Seattle's Jose Lopez (13.2) has been a real pleasant surprise for a bad team and would be a nice sleeper starter but I don't think he has a chance to win the fan vote in a million billion years. If you're one of the apparent hundreds of thousands who have voted for Robinson Cano (2.7, 91st among AL regulars), you are a poor excuse for a baseball fan.
Shortstop. I voted for Miguel Tejada (27.2), because I don't like Derek Jeter (27.4) and I was about to vote for Alex Rodriguez at third anyway. If Jeter winds up being the leading vote-getter in the American League, so be it, there are certainly more undeserving choices. Tejada is pretty close in VORP, however, and he's the superior defender by a wide margin, and also he doesn't play for the Yankees. I will vote for him again. The difference in strength at this position between the American League and the National is huge. The next couple of guys, the Carlos Guillens and Michael Youngs, would be runaway starters in the NL.
Third base. It's funny...I'm pretty indifferent about the Phillies, except for loving Bobby Abreu, who most Philadelphia fans seem to loathe. I hate the Yankees, but I don't feel bad about voting for Alex Rodriguez (19.0), who most New York diehards seem to want to run out of town on a rail. Is he "clutch?" I don't know. I don't care. I can't bring myself to vote for Mike Lowell (16.2) or Troy Glaus (16.6) over A-Rod, who may be Mr. March but is still a real-deal superstar in my book. Whatever. As a baseball fan I'd like to see the best shortstop in the majors playing in the All-Star Game...even if it is at third base.
Catcher. Like second base, I really had no idea here. I opted for Victor Martinez (10.7) of Cleveland more or less at random. Not a terrible choice, but Joe Mauer (21.3) of the Twins would have been a much less terrible one. The right one, in fact.
Outfield. After writing in Rios (25.1) I went for one classic name, Vlad Guerrero (17.7), and one kind of wacky choice, Johnny Gomes (15.2) of Tampa Bay. Gomes got off to a very hot start and I hadn't looked at his numbers in a while. For the most part, he's kept it up. Hopefully the Rays won't be restricted to their usual one All-Star representative, because both Gomes and Scott Kazmir deserve to go to Pittsburgh. The top three outfielders in the AL by VORP are Vernon Wells (26.8), Grady Sizemore (25.8), and Rios. Excuse me if I don't just keep voting for Gomes and maybe Nick Swisher (24.9) a few times as well. Man, I can't freaking believe Alex Rios isn't on the ballot.
First base. Albert Pujols (39.9). Next position.
Second base. Chase Utley (21.8). The gap between Utley and the next most qualified second baseman is even bigger than the gap between Pujols and his nearest competition. Well, that's not actually true. Not strictly statistically speaking, at least. But the next two first basemen are Nick Johnson and Nomar Garciaparra, and the next second baseman is Dan Uggla. No fooling.
Shortstop. After being singularly unimpressed by the selection of names on the NL ballot I skewed young and chose Hanley Ramirez (20.4). As it turned out, he's the right guy. If you wanted to express your distaste for the Marlins organization by voting for Omar Vizquel (19.9), that would be defensible. Forget Barry -- the way the Giants' other old guys have defied age is amazing. If that team had any offensive talent in its farm system at all, any, they'd be ripping the National League West a new one right about now.
Third base. He's not the league leader in VORP at the position, but I voted for David Wright (20.7), who's still in the top ten overall and has Star Power coming out of every available orifice. Miguel Cabrera (32.6) is having an amazing season but it would be wrong for Florida to have two starters on the All-Star Team. Way wrong. The choice of Wright over Cabrera makes more sense to me than Vizquel over Ramirez, but you're welcome to fill out your ballot in your own way.
Catcher. Since he's an all-time great whose career was said to be over, I gave Mike Piazza (6.6) more credit than he perhaps deserves for going to San Diego and playing okay. Atlanta's Brian McCann (15.8) is the NL position leader. Catcher is another spot where the NL really trails the AL in talent. The second-highest VORP in the league belongs to Piazza's San Diego teammate Josh Bard, who just came over from Boston a couple of weeks ago and has a scant 48 plate appearances. Michael Barrett (9.0) would have felt like an okay All-Star but his suspension probably scuttles his case. I guess McCann is the guy, unless you can construct some sort of metabaseball argument for the likes of Damian Miller, Brad Ausmus, Paul Lo Duca, or Johnny Estrada. Hell, you can vote for Danny Ardoin if you want to. He's on the ballot! Danny Ardoin is on the ballot, and Alex Rios and Jim Thome aren't. What a country!
Outfield. I haven't been watching the stats real closely, I guess, because I was a bit off here. I went for Brad Hawpe (18.8), my only homer pick, Alfonso Soriano (20.5) as a sort of mea culpa after predicting him to crash in burn in Washington before the season began, and J.D. Drew (9.7) as a reward for his remaining fully ambulatory this late into the campaign. The stats suggest that Jason Bay (25.9), Carlos Beltran (21.7), and Soriano are the deserving starters. Colorado's Matt Holliday (20.0) slightly outpaces Hawpe. Personally, I think Holliday and Hawpe should both start, but that ain't gonna happen. Realistically, since All-Star voting is a popularity contest and not any kind of rigorous statistical process, I think the best group we could actually see on the field would be Beltran, Soriano, and Andruw Jones (18.4). I really hope both of the Rockies guys make it as reserves, though. And Brian Fuentes should be in the bullpen for sure.
Back to CO
Well, I'm back from Chicago, and I couldn't have picked a better time to take a few days off from the Rockies beat. Colorado finished a miserable 2-7 road trip against the NL's California teams with two low-scoring losses against the Padres, squandering good pitching performances by Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis and continuing to hit like...well, the Rockies, pretty much. Was Colorado's amazing road offensive production the first few weeks of the season a complete mirage? Boy, I hope not. On the other hand, they're still hovering above .500 in what looks to be a real mother of a division (surprise!) and they'll have ample opportunities to make up lost ground in upcoming home series against the Marlins and Pirates.
Speaking of mirages, is it the beginning of the end for the Tigers? Detroit has lost four in a row and will lose Mike Maroth to arthroscopic elbow surgery. What's impressed about Tigers pitching this season isn't just the individual performances of guys like Maroth but the top-to-bottom depth they've demonstrated, so we'll see if they can right the ship. The fact that the next three teams they play after one more against the Yankees tonight are Boston, the White Sox, and Toronto will make it challenging.
If you live in the Denver/Boulder area and have absolutely nothing better to do (but the Rockies are off tonight, so maybe you don't) my rock group's CD release show is tonight at Trilogy in Boulder.
Not trying to win, but at least ticket prices won't rise (again)
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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