Friday, September 25, 2009

The Bullpen Follies


This is the time of year when El Hombre can count on a call from Deep Nose, elated Miami Hurricane alumnus and keeper of all things Phillies for the rogues and misfits who comprise our long-time season-ticket consortium for the World Champions. DN is in full accumulation mode, which means he is trying to gather as many ducats as possible for the post-season, the better to feed the hunger of our group and its ancillary members, not to mention his own speculative efforts on Stub Hub. He’s a busy man, that Deep Nose, but his efforts always result in maximum opportunities for us, and that’s a good thing.

While Hurricane QB Jacory Harris, who is so smooth he should travel with backup singers, has Deep Nose’s mind dancing, so too does the specter of a Phillies-Yankees World Series. Not only would it afford the local nine a chance to erase the stain of the four-game sweep at the hands of the Bombers in 1950, but it would also allow Deep Nose to pull in a pretty penny for some of the preferred seats in our allotment. “I hadn’t even thought of that,” DN said when reminded of the possibility. One imagines his eyes taking on cartoonish dollar-sign shapes at the thought of investment-banking pirates shelling out top dollar to see A-Roid choke in the Fall Classic.

Trouble is, while the Yankees could well find themselves making TV executives smile with a run deep into October – and perhaps, for the first time, November – the Phillies may not hold up their end of the bargain. The team’s travails as it careened toward the NL East title, a designation that sounds better than it really is, have fans’ minds and stomachs in an uncomfortable twist. This is a team with so many flaws, it’s a wonder it will end the season with about 95 wins. That is in large part a testimony to its ability to beat up on the rotten teams in the NL East, most notably the fetid Nationals (15-3) and the odious Mets (11-6). Without those teams to slap around, the Phils could well be scuffling for a wild card spot.

But they will enter the post-season as division champs, provided they take care of the minor business of whittling that magic number of four down to nil, a task the Milwaukee Brewers will no doubt be happy to make easier. And if the Phils can charge down the stretch, they might even find their way to the top spot in the league, or at least the number two position, behind the Dodgers. That will guarantee home-field advantage in the opening, best-of-five crapshoot, never a bad thing.

Once there, however, the Phillies face some big-time obstacles that could well prevent a repeat championship performance. Last year, the Phils were an imperfect team with a perfect bullpen. This year, they are an imperfect team with an imperfect bullpen. That’s not a good condition for a title aspirant. Closer Brad Lidge has blown 11 saves and might have to enter the witness protection program if he fails to do the job in the post-season. It would be nice if fireballing Ryan Madson could take care of the job, but he doesn’t seem to have the, ahem, fortitude to handle the responsibility. For a while, Brett Myers and Chan Ho Park were candidates, but injuries have waylaid each of them, and they will be lucky to be eligible for action in the playoffs, much less handle a job as vital as the closer’s. The most recent germination from manager Charlie Manuel’s fertile mind was Tyler Walker, a journeyman reliever who has looked good at times this year but hardly imbues the populous with too much confidence. The top resume item he can muster is 23 saves for a 2005 Giants team that finished 12 games below .500.

While the bullpen staggers through September, trying to get healthy and appear reliable, the Phillies lineup continues to live for the big inning and the patron saint of Earl Weaver: the three-run homer. A sacrifice fly is as rare as a reasonably priced concession item at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies’ inability to manufacture runs is almost pathological. It’s almost as if winning a game 4-2 with a bunch of hits, sacrifices, stolen bases and walks is sacrilegious. Playing long-ball is fine when the Nationals are in town, but when the weather turns colder, and the collars become tighter, it’s not so easy to swing freely.

The saving grace for the Phillies might just be its starting rotation, which could be the deepest in team history. When a team’s wins leader is relegated to the bullpen, something good is happening. But it’s dangerous to think that the same guys who throw into the eighth inning in August and September can do that in October. A hundred pitches don’t go as far in the post-season cauldron as they do on a sultry summer evening. The bullpen will have to perform.

So, Deep Nose will continue his hunting and gathering, and the Phillies will continue to madden fans with their nightly bullpen travails. Let’s hope they can figure things out in time for October baseball, if only to see the smile on DN’s face when he can list lower-level Series tickets against the Yankees for obscene amounts of money. The team owes him that much.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: The NC2A is considering taking actions to reduce drastically the burdens on athletes in Division II and might even cut back a little in D-I basketball. Of course, no cutbacks are needed in big-time football, with its 12 (and sometimes 13) game regular season, conference title tilts, bowl games and year-round conditioning. The NC2A really cares about its student-athletes. (Cough, cough.) That’s why it can’t have a playoff…The Pirates drew a robust crowd of 3,000 to Thursday’s game against the Reds, and one of the reasons given for the intimate gathering was the nearby G-20 summit. Yeah, fans couldn’t wait to get a look at Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. It couldn’t have been that a matinee between the rotten Bucs and floundering Reds was as attractive as the idea of the torrid love affair between Papa John Phillips and his daughter Mackenzie, could it? Nahhhh…The announcement that Russian gazillionaire Mikhail Prokhorov is buying the New Jersey Nets had to strike a little fear into the team’s players. On other NBA teams, poor play or a rotten attitude will result in a trip to the bench. With Prokhorov in charge, the same behavior may earn an exile to Yakutsk…Can’t understand why the NHL is having so much trouble getting its Phoenix franchise stabilized. Hockey has such a great history and tradition the desert. Boneheads…The city of Industry, which sits about 15 miles east of Los Angeles, has cleared a major hurdle in its bid to build a stadium that could lure an NFL back to the nation’s second-largest market. Imagine the excitement as fans cite 62 leisure alternatives to watching the L.A. Jaguars play in person. By the year 2025, the franchise will be looking to move, just as the Rams and Raiders did before it.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Michael Vick makes his triumphant return to the NFL Sunday when the Eagles play Kansas City, and his presence on the active roster should help the team ratchet the drama quotient sky high. There shouldn’t be too much trouble this week, since starter Kevin Kolb has done nothing during his career to warrant any complaining about the deployment of Vick, who could become the greatest option QB in NFL history. In two weeks (the Birds have a bye next Sunday), however, things could get a little dicey. Donovan McNabb isn’t the most secure fellow around, and his return to the offense, coupled with Vick’s insertion, could lead to some friction. Number Five groused about not being able to generate sufficient offensive flow when Vick was used in an exhibition game. Imagine how he’ll handle being moved to the slot while Vick runs veer plays during contests that count. Meanwhile, Vick has said he thought he’d be starting for a team by now, a laughable statement from someone who brings more baggage than an airport porter and was never a pinpoint passer to begin with. Vick should take his 8-10 snaps Sunday, try to outrun a couple linebackers and keep his mouth shut. He certainly deserves a second chance, but he has to prove himself after a two-year layoff and demonstrate that he can thrive in a grown-up offense, not a run-and-gun scheme, before someone will consider him worthy of a starting gig.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Thursday night’s loss to South Carolina proved that the hype surrounding Mississippi was irrational and the by-product of college football’s propaganda partners’ needs to prime the promotional pump in advance of each season. The Rebels were anointed the nation’s hot team, along with Oklahoma State (hello, Houston) on the basis of an upset win over Florida and a triumph over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl last year. All of a sudden, the Rebs were top-10 – and Thursday, they were top-five – material. The loss shows just how ridiculous it is to publish polls in August and early September, before teams have shown anything. If the popularity contests didn’t matter in the formula to choose a “national champion,” it wouldn’t matter, but because the USA Today election is part of the BCS scheme, it should have its basis a little more in fact than conjecture, since an early poll establishes an artificial hierarchy that rewards name brands. Take the Houston/OK State situation. The Cougars go to Stillwater and slap around Boone Pickens’ all-stars. That earned them a spot in the polls seven place behind the Cowpokes. That makes sense. At least the Harris Interactive Poll, which is comprised of a motley bunch of ex-coaches, B-list journalists and other assorted characters, doesn’t debut until next Monday. Perhaps its voters will take into account that success is earned on the field, not by a program’s tradition. Then again, given its track record and the asinine nature of the BCS, no one should count on anything of merit coming from the Harris poll. Get ready for another season of nonsense that devalues the world’s greatest sport.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Another Big Win for MJ


When the reports and accounts of Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame acceptance speech slipped out, it was tempting – actually, it was irresistible – to tear the guy a new one. How dare he rip the media and Jerry Krause and legends like Isiah Thomas, George Gervin and Magic Johnson? How dare he make it seem as if they and others somehow brought down his universally glorified career?

Some were mystified by his tactics. He called out the “media naysayers.” He fed Krause’s words about the value of organizations over players back to him with a side order of stick-it-up-your-ass. If you only read the accounts, and you didn’t watch the speech, you thought Jordan had completely lost it and had chosen the absolute wrong venue to settle old accounts. The least he could have done was wait to be named godfather to his sister’s child to whack everybody. Was there no honor any more?

Throughout the ensuing days, pundits, columnists, analysts and blowhards weighed in on Jordan’s comments. Most of them, it seems, didn’t watch the speech. If they had, they would have understood that each of those “shots” was taken out of context. Jordan wasn’t being petty. In addition to thanking the many people who helped him reach the heights he did, he also adhered to the theme of his own competitive fire and how many people and things – real and imagined – stoked it. Or, as he said, “put so much more wood on that fire.” It was a funny, gracious, pointed address, and the people he directed his comments toward were all like him. You think Thomas was offended that Jordan wanted to “prove to everybody I deserved to be at this level?” Hell, no.

Pat Riley didn’t care that Jordan teased him, either, because Riley has the same competitive monster inside him as Jordan does. Why do you think he’s still running a team in Miami, instead of lounging around in his Armani sweatsuit by the pool or golf course? Okay, so Bryon Russell got a little angry that Jordan called him out, saying that Russell’s comments while Jordan was training for his disastrous baseball career helped motivate him. But what do you expect when you tell the greatest player ever that you can’t wait for him to come back and play again so you can guard him? When told about Jordan’s remarks, Russell said, “I’ll play his ass right now. This is a call-out for him to come play me.”

What Russell doesn’t understand, and what the media members who sprang to his and Thomas’ and Johnson’s and their own defense is that professional athletes, especially the great ones, aren’t wired like the rest of us. What we saw during Jordan’s speech was a glimpse inside a world we don’t understand, where people compete to near-death levels to win a game and then have the ability to socialize with the players they just sweated blood to defeat. Most athletes take their jobs incredibly seriously. They have a finite time to make as much money, grab as much glory and win as many games as possible, because when it’s over, nothing can replace it. Nothing. Any former player who says competing in the business world gives him the same rush as competing on the field or court or ice is lying. Jordan’s speech was a chance for us to see how players talk to each other. Riley smiled when Jordan chided him for not allowing MJ to have lunch with Knicks players during a Chicago-New York playoff series. He smiled because he was competing against Jordan by imposing that edict. He was doing what he could in that moment.

Okay, so maybe Jordan shouldn’t have said that he didn’t invite former Bulls GM Jerry Krause to the induction ceremony. But even his criticism of Krause’s statement that organizations win titles, not players, was tempered. He recalled Krause’s competitive streak. He admitted that the organization “puts together the team.” He also said, “at the end of the day, the team has to go play.” Again, we saw the pride and drive that made him so great. It’s something few can understand, because so few get to join that fraternity and such a small number within it has the overwhelming, all-consuming desire to win that people like Jordan and Riley and Thomas have.

Even the media shouldn’t be offended. Jordan said the “naysayers” had told him and everybody else “a scoring champion can’t win an NBA title.” And, if you’ll recall at the time, there was huge backlash against Jordan by purists who viewed him only as a shot-pumping endorsement machine concerned solely with his own self-aggrandizement. “I’m not saying they were wrong,” Jordan said about the media. But their words motivated him. Funny how when the media gets called out, its members get so touchy. Whatever happened to the days of the hard-boiled, cynical newsman?

In the final analysis, Jordan’s speech was a perfect summation of his on-court persona. He asked at the beginning, “What don’t you know about me?” And he was right. We know practically every story about him. We know nearly each step along his journey. But we apparently don’t understand what made him great. We don’t get the concept of competition and motivation and how the great ones find their spark any way they can.

“You look for any kind of messages that people may say or do to get you motivated to play the game of basketball at the highest level,” Jordan said.

That says it all. Jordan’s speech wasn’t a giant raised middle finger to the people he mentioned. (Okay, maybe it was a little to Krause.) Instead, it was a look at how greatness continues to be great. If you need to take some trash talk from Bryon Russell and make it a theme for the season, you do it. If Chuck Daly beats you at golf during training camp for the ’92 Olympic Dream Team, and that helps you score 36 on the Nets the next season, so be it. This speech would have been better received had it been delivered solely to the NBA community. They would have understood. And afterward, they would have stood around and traded war stories that only they could truly appreciate.

When El Hombre was researching his book on college football rivalries, he was struck by how few of the former players had an intense dislike for those against whom they competed. Although fans and alumni were almost pathological in their hate for the Other Side, most of the players felt respect for their fellow gladiators. That doesn’t fit the idea of how we want our athletic heroes to behave, but it’s the way it is. Jordan could trade baskets and elbows with Charles Oakley for 48 minutes and then dine with him because the two men understood the nature of competition. Jordan’s speech was a window into that world, and it should be required viewing for those who want to understand professional sports better.

Okay, so maybe Jerry Krause shouldn’t watch it. But everybody else needs to hit YouTube.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Some may view the NFL’s new “Red Zone” channel on Comcast an indication that the 21st century is all about impatience and short attention spans, but El Hombre disagrees. After spending an hour hunkered down in the Red Zone last Sunday, EH declares it one of the greatest inventions of all time. Non-stop action, photo finishes and Gus Johnson’s screaming are enough to get the Big Imprimatur. Be sure to tune in…What a great speech Wednesday night by former Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who was recently diagnosed with untreatable cancer. Harwell’s distinctive voice carried a gracious message of thanks and love of the game. He’s a true gentleman and treasure of baseball…T.O.’s comments in the wake of the Bills’ loss to New England don’t register anywhere near some of his other outbursts during his career, but the subtle shots he took at QB Trent Edwards and kick returner Leodis McKelvin demonstrate how dangerous he is. If the Bills are struggling by week six, he could be in full team-ruining mode. Buffalo, you have been warned…Notre Dame will honor its great teams of the 1940s during Saturday’s game against Michigan State. It’s a good idea to remind fans why the Irish are such a legendary program, since Heavy C is doing a good job of shattering the myths…From the Mensa File comes this doozy from Houston: Disgruntled Texans D-back Dunta Robinson has been fined $25,000 by the team for wearing shoes with the message “Pay me, Rick” on them in last Sunday’s opener against the Jets, a reference to Houston GM Rick Smith. Robinson signed a one-year contract about 10 days ago but wants a long-term deal. What better way to open negotiations than with a public shot at the man responsible for signing you. You can catch Dunta at next week’s meeting.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Long-time source Deep Nose checked in with an interesting take on the latest Donovan McNabb injury situation. A devoted Eagles fan, to the point of some wondering whether he has a man crush on Andy Reid, Deep Nose said, “I think McNabb is a very good NFL quarterback, and the Eagles will probably be worse off when he leaves, but I’m kind of looking forward to him leaving, just to end all the drama.” That’s an interesting take, but it may just sum up the feelings of many Birds fans. McNabb has been excellent, even if he hasn’t led the team to a Super Bowl title. But his latest injury has created more uncertainty under center for the Eagles and could lead to a variety of scenarios that could be too weird for words. For instance, imagine if Jeff Garcia takes over for Kevin Kolb Sunday (provided McNabb can’t play) and then McNabb is back for the Chiefs on Sept. 26. Do the Eagles cut Kolb, their “franchise” QB of the future and keep Garcia to go with Number Five and Michael Vick? Do they jettison Garcia and hope Kolb improves? And what do they do with Vick? McNabb didn’t ask Damione Lewis to toss his 300-pound self on his rib cage, but the whole thing has created another act in a long drama. Deep Nose is right that things won’t be as wild without McNabb, but the team won’t be as good, either. Because of that, we should all learn to deal with the craziness.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Memphis’ decision to sign Allen Iverson is one of the worst in recent NBA history and shows what happens when owners make decisions, rather than basketball people. The Grizzlies need to sell tickets, and that’s why they added both Iverson and Zach Randolph, both of whom are practically registered with the Poison Control Center when it comes to exposing them to young teams. GM Chris Wallace and his staff have been bound and gagged by owner Michael Heisley, who has decided that building for the future matters little, when a few thousand tickets can be sold today. Giving Iverson the chance to jack up 25 shots a game and negatively influence the team’s youngsters with his late-night antics and carousing is like asking Kanye West to teach manners to grade-school kids. Memphis has derailed its rebuilding efforts by bringing Iverson on board, and pairing him with Randolph, another selfish player, will be disastrous. The recession is forcing people to make some desperate decisions, but this one could be one of the worst on record. Iverson is out to rehab his image by showing he can score again – at all costs. This won’t be pretty.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Let The Craziness Begin


This was the perfect off-season for the NFL. Attention focused on whether egomaniacal receivers could send 140-character messages to fans during games, if an egomaniacal owner had turned punts into backyard touch football, whether an egomaniacal quarterback would return from his second retirement to satisfy an adoring media’s need to praise him and whether a country filled with highly-flawed people will offer a second chance to a highly-flawed quarterback.

In other words: Plenty of drama, nothing about football.

Tonight, mercifully, that changes – at least somewhat. We’ll still be subjected to the weekly malarkey involving locker room disputes and various other theatrical episodes (the prediction here is that Chad Ochocinco dictates his Twitter postings to a friend in the stands, thereby circumventing the league’s anti-Tweeting rule and forcing an emergency amendment), simply because networks have decided fans don’t care about why the Bills can’t run the football. Mostly, we’ll be able to focus on the on-field action, which is just fine.

Then again, the craziness is kind of fun. So, here is a look at the season ahead, which no doubt will continue to push the NFL beyond the WWE as the nation’s top sports entertainment concern.

Billsh**: It’s a good thing Dick LeBeau has a shot at the Hall of Fame to think about, because if he spends too much time pondering his team, he might ask the bartender for a Red-Bull-and-arsenic. LeBeau had to suffer through a training camp that included Terrell Owens’ injured toe (just the fact that T.O. was there had to be stressful for a throwback like LeBeau) and an offense that was so impotent that Pfizer refused an entreaty to help it. Things were so bad that LeBeau fired offensive coordinator Turk Schonert, triggering a spate of OC beheadings. A season that had promise in the spring now looks like a disaster movie in pre-production. Buffalo opens Monday night in Foxboro and may close more quickly than a crappy Broadway musical.

Mental Health Issues: Back when Al Davis was stalking the Raiders hallways in his trademark white sweatsuit and delighting contrarians by flipping off NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, he was a maverick and good for a stodgy league. These days, he’s a cartoon character. Worse, his franchise is so poorly run and inept that the UFL would probably deny it entrance. The problem is Davis, who remains wedded to his antediluvian “vertical passing game” and has established new standards for paranoia. It’s time for commissioner Roger Goodell to round up original AFL “Foolish Club” members Ralph Wilson, Barron Hilton and Bud Adams and stage an intervention to remove Davis from the Raiders or risk irreparable (if things haven’t already gone that far) damage to one of the league’s signature franchises.

Disposable Parts: Rodney Harrison is retired. So is Tedy Bruschi. Richard Seymour has been exiled to Oakland (whom did he anger?), and new faces are all over the roster. If you want a true example of how business is conducted successfully in the NFL, look no further than New England, where Bill Belichick discards players when they can no longer serve him. All three players had big roles on the Patriots’ Super Bowl teams, but all are beyond their primes, or in Seymour’s case nearing that point and in the final year of a contract. It might seem cruel, but Belichick is showing how to win by building through the Draft and with key free-agent acquisitions. The Patriots are favored to win the AFC East this year and might take it all, and they’ll do it with a team that hardly resembles its last championship outfit. Seymour isn’t happy to be property of the Al Davis Traveling Circus (he still hasn’t reported for duty), but he has to respect Belichick’s business model, because if Mr. Bundchen stays healthy, the Pats will be darn good again.

QB Follies: It sure was a wild off-season for the NFL’s most important position. Forget about Cowboy Quarterback’s Narcissus imitation and take a look at what went on around the rest of the league. Chicago discovered offense for the first time in decades by trading for petulant Jay Cutler, who pouted his way out of Denver when new coach Josh McDaniel tried to acquire Matt Cassel. Detroit and the Jets gave their starting jobs to a pair of rookies, hoping Mark Sanchez and Matthew Stafford can replicate the ’08 performances of Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco and lead their teams to the playoffs. Or, in the case of the Lions, win a game. Cleveland coach Eric Mangini staged a months-long, super-secret battle for the starting job between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson (Quinn won – shhhhh!). San Francisco chose Shaun Hill over Alex Smith and Nuclear Waste, Oakland decided JaMarcus Russell’s tender psyche couldn’t handle having hyperkinetic Jeff Garcia around to provide competition and try to run onto the field every time Russell got hit, and Michael Vick returned from the joint to run the wishbone in Philly.

New Sheriff In Town: There are new coaches in New York, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Detroit, Cleveland, Monte Carlo, Beverly Hills, London, Paris, Rome and Gstaad. In other words, forget about the thorny-crested whippoorwill. The most endangered species in America is the NFL coach. Some of the new guys are brash, like Buddy Ryan’s spawn, Rex. Others are low-key, like Indy’s Jim Caldwell. No matter what their personalities, each has one thing in common: Either win in three years or start looking for a coordinator’s job somewhere else.

How It Shakes Out: When forecasting the NFL, it’s best to expect the unexpected. In other words, all but the Lions and Raiders are in play when it comes to the playoff picture. So, here goes. NFC East – Giants; NFC North – Packers; NFC South – Falcons; NFC West – Seahawks; NFC Wild Cards – Vikings, Eagles. AFC East – Patriots; AFC North – Steelers; AFC South – Colts; AFC West – Chargers; AFC Wild Cards – Ravens, Titans.

Wild Card Playoffs, NFC: Eagles over Packers; Seahawks over Vikings; AFC: Ravens over Colts; Steelers over Titans. Divisional Playoffs, NFC: Falcons over Eagles; Giants over Seahawks; AFC: Patriots over Titans; Chargers over Ravens. Conference Championship, NFC: Giants over Falcons; AFC: Chargers over Patriots.

Super Bowl: Chargers over Giants.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: It’s one thing to provide support for someone else. It’s another to become a buffoon. Ohio State QB Terrell Pryor’s explanation of why he is on Michael Vick’s side in the QB’s return to the NFL was buffoonery at its lowest. To wit: “Not everyone is the perfect person in the world. Everyone does – kills people, murders people, steals from you, steals from me. I just feel that people need to give him a chance.” Sounds like the Ethics Department at OSU should be trying to get Pryor as a teaching assistant. What a bonehead…Allen Iverson says “God chose Memphis” as the team for him this year. Of course, the Almighty had some help from the other 29 teams, none of whom would touch the aging, ball-hogging gunner with Marcin Gortat (a seven-foot Pole)…Let’s hear it for Kaleb Eulls, who disarmed a girl who was waving a gun on a school bus last week, saving 22 students from a possible tragedy. Eulls, who has committed to play football at Mississippi State next year, deserves the kind of hero-worship usually reserved for on-field success. His tackle of the girl was the most important takedown of the season…Alabama will reportedly pay football coach Nick Saban $4.7 million a year over the next nine years, as part of an agreement reached earlier this week. Funds will be raised for the contract extension by selling common sense to those who think this is a good idea.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Phillies manager Charlie Manuel practically cried after Wednesday night’s win over the Nationals while describing how tough it was for him to remove Brad Lidge from the game when the human kerosene can loaded the bases with one out in the ninth and the Phils holding a 5-3 lead. Perhaps Manuel’s sadness came from the realization that he should have done this a month earlier. Whether Lidge’s problem is physical, psychological or karmic doesn’t matter. What matters is that by continuing to put him on the mound, the manager was hurting the team. It’s bad enough the Phillies have the world’s least disciplined lineup and a horrible bench. (Why is Matt Stairs still allowed to hit?) Do they have to keep trotting out an ineffective closer? It looks like Ryan Madson will get the job for the time being, but he should be a caretaker for the next week while Brett Myers gets comfortable again. Then, Myers pitches the ninth. Madson’s head can’t handle the responsibility, and Myers has proven he can do it. It may not result in playoff success, but there’s no way Lidge can do it anymore.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: El Hombre doesn’t pretend to know all of the facts in the case against former Pleasure Ridge Park HS football coach Jason Stinson, who is accused of wanton endangerment and reckless homicide in the death of Max Gilpin. With the temperature 94 degrees, Stinson had his players run nearly 30 wind sprints after an already grueling practice. Yesterday, Charles Sweat told the court that he and another player lifted Gilpin – who had been vomiting and stumbling as his body temperature rose to 107 degrees – off the ground to help him finish the sprints. Plenty of other coaches have pushed their players beyond reasonable limits in the stifling heat, but Stinson is one of the few to be prosecuted because of it. Even if he is acquitted, let’s hope the case causes other coaches to back off when conditions become unfit for extreme physical activity and that trainers and other medical staff will establish guidelines that have teeth to prevent the deaths of any other youngsters like Gilpin.


Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year


At college campuses across America, incoming freshmen are learning their way to class, trying to cope with doing their own laundry and basically hoping some senior doesn’t hang them by their boxer-briefs from a lamppost in the quad.

Meanwhile at USC, Matt Barkley is getting ready for his first game as starting QB for the Trojans and trying to figure out in which order he’ll be dating the Song Girls this season. Sounds like a perfectly normal freshman orientation, doesn’t it? Or maybe it’s the perfect beginning to the ’09 college football season, which as usual has enough subplots to fill an entire network fall lineup.

BCS Follies: The idiocy has started already, and there hasn’t yet been a major-college snap in earnest. South Florida coach Jim Leavitt, who votes in the coaches’ poll, omitted Mississippi and Oregon from his pre-season top 25. He also put his own squad, which was hardly mentioned on other ballots, number 18. Some of his other choices included Florida State, Miami, Pitt, Rutgers and Cincinnati, all of which happen to be on the Bulls’ schedule. Some might excuse Leavitt’s poor judgment. After all, it is early. But his self-serving ballot proves how ridiculous it is to have coaches as part of the system to choose a national champion. The first BCS standings aren’t due until October, but you can tell we’re in for another season of stupidity. Leavitt’s votes are just the beginning.

I Got A Biiiiiiiig Mouth! El Hombre is no fan of Florida and its prickly coach Urban Meyer, but he will certainly be tuning in Sept. 19 when the Gators take on Tennessee. That’s because new Vols coach Lane Kiffin spent his off-season committing violations, making stupid proclamations and basically cheesing off everyone in the SEC. One of his targets was Meyer, whose sense of humor tends toward that of library investigator Lt. Bookman. So, when the Gators get a hold of Tennessee in the Swamp, things could get pretty ugly. Just remember, you can’t spell blowoUT without UT.

The Year of the Quarterback: By now, most college fans are sick of the hoopla over the nation’s top three returning QBs, defending Heisman winner Sam Bradford of Oklahoma, Florida’s St. Timothy of Tebow and Texas’ Colt McCoy. Expect to be rooting against each of them by the end of September, thanks to a guaranteed avalanche of attention they’ll be receiving. The good news is that there are plenty of other fine quarterbacks for fans to follow, and EH isn’t talking about Jevan Sneed of Mississippi or Oklahoma State’s Zac Robinson, who comprise part of the second-tier of breathlessly-hyped signal-callers. Make sure you pay attention to (in no particular order) Central Michigan dual threat Dan LeFevour, Oregon’s Jeremiah Masoli, Houston’s Case Keenum, Baylor’s Robert Griffin (especially Baylor’s Robert Griffin), Kansas’ Todd Reesing, South Florida’s Matt Grothe, BYU’s Max Hall, Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick and Boise State’s Kellen Moore. All are worth the price of admission and their success is unlikely to be jammed down our throats.

Gulag: Ann Arbor: It was a story Upton Sinclair would have loved. The young men worked long hours in the hot sun, without care for the regulations. Some Sundays they were forced to miss every NFL game in the name of self-improvement. The off-season was the worst, what with the forced labor and mean shouting man. If we didn’t know better, we’d think Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez had studied at the Joe Stalin Football Terror Academy. Instead, he made the mistake of angering some soft players who narced on him and his zealous staff. Did the Wolverine coaches break a few rules and take some liberties with their players? They did. (Wink.) Did they do things that were horribly different than what goes on at every big-time – even after last year’s 3-9 record, U-M is still “big time” (Ha! Beat you to it) – program? No. Rodriguez is in more trouble if he doesn’t win than because of his tough workouts and practice regimens. He didn’t do himself any favors by whimpering at his press conference earlier this week. But Rodriguez doesn’t deserve to be hung for doing what everybody else does. Hell, even Ohio State is sticking up for him. The guy has a lot to answer for, what with the loss to Toledo last year, but this shouldn’t haunt him. Go 6-6 this year, and that’s a different story.

The World of Heavy C: Meanwhile, in South Bend, another beleaguered coach takes aim at redemption. Notre Dame’s Charlie Weis begins his most important season with a clear mandate from the administration: play in a BCS bowl or get busy looking for work. Given the number of bridges he’s burned during his tenure, it’s unlikely too many other places will be looking to hire him, so he had better win. To make matters worse, it appears as if the fans have turned on him. Witness the billboard above South Bend’s Linebacker Inn: “Best wishes to Charlie Weis in the fifth year of his college coaching internship.” Ouch. The bad news for Irish haters is that a light schedule, combined with the team’s best talent in a while, could put ND in that BCS equation – and save Weis’ sizeable backside.

How It’s Going Down: To hear some people say it, Florida will go 14-0 to become the Greatest Team Ever and establish itself as a 33-point favorite over the 1945 Army squad, a 10-point fave over the ’72 USC Trojans and basically have the horses to challenge an all-time all-star team. That may happen, but the Gators have to survive games with Georgia, LSU, Florida State and (one would imagine) the SEC West champ. They’ll then have to get by someone in the BCS title game. If that’s Ohio State, which will likely run the table if it beats USC Sept. 12, then crown the Gators. But, if as El Hombre thinks, it’s Texas, look out. The Steers are ready to make a big charge and win it all. They’ll play better defense this year, and QB Colt McCoy might just complete 80% of his passes en route to the Heisman.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Forbes has published its list of NFL teams’ values, and the Cowboys (surprise!) topped the list at $1.65 billion. Wonder if that counts the money they’ll need to spend next off-season to correct the scoreboard fiasco owner Jerry Jones faces. Do-overs? What is this, touch football? Wait until the lawsuits start when players suffer serious injuries from running downfield on punts for the second and third times on the same play…Bloody Sock Schilling has expressed interest in the Massachusetts Senate seat vacated by the late Ted Kennedy. Sounds like a perfect match: Self-serving loudmouth enters the political arena. And if things don’t work out with the Massachusetts electorate, Schilling can demand a trade to Arizona…Why in the world would anybody want to trade for childish Denver receiver Brandon Marshall? He can’t behave himself on the field, and he’s one more domestic abuse claim away from getting suspended. Kudos to Denver coach Josh McDaniels for not tolerating any of his malarkey. Marshall is bad news and deserves to be treated like toxic waste by the rest of the NFL…New Florida International coach Isiah Thomas has finally stopped protesting the identity of his team’s first opponent. He thought the Golden Panthers would face Ohio State, but organizers of the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament pitted FIU against North Carolina, and Thomas threw a tantrum. Take your beating like a man, Isiah, and consider it penance for what you did to the CBA and the Knicks.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Wednesday night, the Phillies proved exactly why they are hardly slam-dunk favorites to defend successfully their World Series title. On a night when hits – much less the team’s calling card, the three-run homer – were in short supply, they had no shot at all against Brad Penny and the Giants. Penny, you may remember, was cut by the Red Sox after a couple months of pitching batting practice to opposing hitters. Wednesday night, the Phillies made him look like Carl Hubbell with their familiar habit of swinging at everything and failing to take advantage of any success they managed. The bullpen is a big reason for concern, but a bigger problem this year is the team’s inability and seeming reluctance to manufacture runs. It’s almost as if the Phillies disdain the scratched-out score, choosing instead to chase the glamour of the long ball. Sunday night, espn’s Joe Morgan revealed the Phillies were last in the NL in “productive outs.” Those are the ground balls that move runners or fly balls that bring people in from third base. Once the weather turns cold, the ball doesn’t travel as far, and the homer total drops. If the Phillies want to win in October, they had better become smarter at the plate, or they’ll be making plenty of hacks like Penny look like all-stars.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Point guard Ricky Rubio has opted for two more years in the Spanish League, rather than play for the Minnesota Timberwolves, despite his professed desire to be in the NBA. Calling any arrangement he would make with the T-Wolves “complicated,” Rubio stayed put. Not exactly the best start to David Kahn’s tenure as GM in Minnesota. At least he drafted another point guard, Jonny Flynn, so the team won’t miss Rubio – except at the box office. Given the situation, the chances he will play for the T-Wolves are slim, since two years from now, he’ll likely demand a trade. Thanks to Kahn’s draft-day gaffe, we’ll probably see the gifted point man in a Lakers or Knicks jersey when he finally comes across the pond. Nice work, David.