Thursday, July 30, 2009

Hooray! Training Camp Has Begun


One of the reasons people remain so devoted to soap operas is that there are never reruns. Viewers don’t have to suffer through an encore of this affair or that miraculous recovery from a rogue strain of beriberi. The story moves inexorably forward, as if a day without some new drama from Erica Kane would cause a national emergency. And just try to interrupt the cycle with something as mundane as a ballgame or coverage of a papal assassination threat, and you would find out just how devoted Erica’s fans could be.

The soaps move inexorably forward, as expected. Professional sports, however, are supposed to have quiet times. Or at least that’s the way it used to be. These days, about the only major league that adheres to the old model of off-season hibernation is hockey, and given its television ratings, one can’t decide whether to consider the icy pursuit “major” anymore. Even it tries to stay relevant during the warm-weather months with its own free agency and mildly amusing story lines like the league’s death struggle to keep a franchise in Phoenix, which loves hockey as much as TV networks love quality programming.

The NFL is another story. By treating its free agency period like a Sweeps Week version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” (back when it was good), the league keeps fans enticed through February. March and April are consumed by the Draft. May is all about the mini-camps and OTAs. But the real genius comes in June and July, when without fail, storylines emerge that keep the NFL news cycle churning, even if the items in question are suited for “All My Children” than the sports page. During the past six weeks, fans have been bombarded by stories about Britney Favre’s waffling, Michael Vick’s freedom and Plaxico Burress’ apparently futile attempts to stay out of the joint. So, during the long stretch of summer heat, when players and coaches hit vacation spots, “spend time with their families” and prepare for the hell of training camp, fans aren’t allowed to forget about football. For some, the daily stories of Favre’s will-he/won’t-he nonsense and the national debate over when Vick should play again were worse than a WNBA doubleheader. Others delighted in the coverage, if only because it kept them close to the game they love.

The good news is that training camps are finally open, and we can now concentrate on the battle for Jacksonville’s backup linebacker spot and the inevitable pre-season body count. The Hall of Fame Game (in retro AFL unis, no less) is a mere 10 days away, and that means it’s appropriate to consider some of the buzz throughout the league.

Enough, Already: In order: 1. Favre is a selfish diva who benefitted from Minnesota coach Brad Childress’ unwillingness to set a deadline that would have preserved some dignity for his franchise. If Favre decides to play in two, four or nine weeks, his offensive line should give him the same treatment the cons gave Paul “Wrecking” Crewe when he returned to action after deliberately throwing those interceptions. 2. Kudos to Roger Goodell for his treatment of Vick. His “conditional reinstatement” puts the onus on Vick to behave. Now, the question is whether a team wants to disrupt its offense by signing a QB who can’t work in the pocket. 3. Burress is going to jail and should have copped a plea. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to make an example of him, and every Burress protestation will add time to his sentence.

QB Shuffle: The Favre Debacle notwithstanding, there are some interesting quarterbacking plot lines to be developed the next couple months. It looks like the Jets have already committed to Mark Sanchez, who should ask his coach to stop taunting linebackers in the AFC East so that Sanchez isn’t torn apart as revenge. The Lions are trying to decide whether it makes sense to let Matthew Stafford take over a circus that will consider three wins reason for a parade. Hey, if he’s the top overall pick, he should be mentally tough enough to handle that. Peyton Manning did. In San Francisco, it’s either Shaun Hill or Alex Smith. Ugh. Maybe John Brodie will come out of retirement. The Raiders have 61 million reasons why charismatic Jeff Garcia won’t take the starting job from JaMarcus Russell, even if Russell looks like a colossal mistake. Tom Brady is back in New England. Tony Romo is looking for love in Dallas. Ben Roethlisberger is trying to clear his name in Pittsburgh. And Jay Cutler wants to win something – anything – of consequence in Chicago.

Rising Stars: Last year, the Cardinals astonished everyone by shuffling off decades of futility and mismanagement by reaching the Super Bowl and actually giving the Steelers a scare. El Hombre will give a better idea of this season’s surprises in his gala 2009 NFL Preview, but it would be instructive to pay close attention to some teams during the exhibition games. For the past couple years, Houston has been a trendy pick for the playoffs, but this year, it might really happen. The Texans have slowly accumulated weapons on both sides of the ball and could be ready for 10 wins. With the Vikings’ relying on the Tavaris Jackson/Sage Rosenfels QB nightmare, the NFC North door could be wide open for the Packers, who may just have the division’s most stable situation under center. And it may just happen that the Saints take a step forward, although it’s going to take an examination of their shaky defense during the pre-season to see whether that’s possible.

New Faces, New Places: Matt Cassel is in Kansas City. Cutler is in Chi-town. The Jets have Bart Scott, and the Seahawks have T.J. Houshmandzadeh. But let’s face it; the only newcomer anybody cares about is up in northwest New York helping popcorn sales. The T.O. Celebrity Nuthouse has checked into Buffalo for what it hopes is an extended run, but what will most likely end in early departure, just as T.O.’s last two residencies have. Say a novena for Trent Edwards, the Bills’ quarterback, and get ready for the craziness.

Games to Watch: Ha! Fooled you. There isn’t a single exhibition matchup worth watching, except for the fact that it has been six months since football has been on and that at this point a Lions intra-squad scrimmage would be appealing. Watch the first half of every game you can and hope for a quick August.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: It’s a good thing FINA, the world’s swimming governing body, has decided to ban the full-body swimming suits that are allowing journeymen to set world records. If this continues, it won’t be long until a swimmer crams himself into a dolphin’s mouth and does the 200 freestyle in 15 seconds…Since the Pirates have traded away just about every real ballplayer they have, fans should punish them by staying away completely. Why pay big-time prices for AAA (or worse) baseball? The Steelers have been successful in the market. So have the Penguins. But the Pirates are a joke. This franchise should either be disbanded or forced to find ownership that cares. Until then, any fan who goes to a Pirates game is a sap…The non-stop Tweeting. The unannounced trip to the White House. The reality show. The WWE appearance. One of three things is happening with Shaq: A) He needs money because of his ugly divorce B) He is masking a drop in skills and trying to use style over substance for his pending trip to Cleveland C) He’s just a big knucklehead who should be enjoyed. El Hombre will go with C for now, but don’t be surprised if the others turn out to be correct, too…The X Games start soon (who really cares when?) and that means espn will jam even more faux-hip people down our gullets in its ever-growing attempt to cultivate young viewers and bother the rest of us…Go away, David Beckham. Go away.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The Phillies’ decision to go for a discounted Cliff Lee over Roy Halladay might seem to make sense in these recessionary times, but it has put GM Ruben Tomorrow and ace pitching prospect Kyle Drabek in tough positions. If the Phillies don’t win the World Series this year, and Lee doesn’t have a dynamite post-season, fans will scream that the team should have traded for Halladay, whom they have been told – right or wrong – would almost guarantee them a championship. Worse, if the Phils don’t win it all, and Drabek isn’t the next Grover Cleveland Alexander, fans will howl since the young hurler was seen as the impediment to acquiring Halladay. By conducting such a public courtship of the Blue Jays hurler and even going so far as to have headlines like “Phils still front-runners for Halladay” on the team’s web site, the Phillies led fans to believe that Halladay was the prime target, and Lee was a backup plan, even if he is the 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner. And just imagine what would happen if the Phillies meet the Red Sox in the World Series, and Boston just happened to trade for Halladay. Should Halladay dominate, Tomorrow will be an even bigger pariah, and even more pressure will land on Drabek. There is no shame in getting Lee, but the yearning for Halladay has created something of a public relations problem for the Phillies.

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AND ANOTHER THING: It shouldn’t matter whether Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson and the ghost of Cy Young believe that Pete Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame, he shouldn’t get in. So far, MLB commissioner Bud Sellout has remained firm on the issue, but with that jellyfish, it’s hard to be sure he’ll stand strong for the duration. Rose bet on baseball, and that’s not allowed. Every clubhouse door has a huge sign on it warning about the lifetime ban those who violate the edict will receive. Rose violated it. Then he lied about it. Lied about it some more. Only when he stood to profit from his admission, did he come clean. There is no question he had the on-field resume for induction, but if the steroid cheats and Joe Jackson belong on the outside (and there is no certainty Jackson should be there), then Rose absolutely must remain out. If Sellout – or any future commissioner – relents, then that sign must come down and MLB’s efforts to stop gambling in places like Delaware must cease. There can be no middle ground on this.


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