Thursday, July 30, 2009

Important Announcement: Bigger and Better Things

Ok, so here's the deal. I've enjoyed blogging a lot thus far for everyone. It's been a totally fun way for me to get my thoughts out there...and at the same time help me prepare for my career. But I also want to be able to somehow continue a sports radio show...or at least the closest thing to it.

So what a few colleagues and I have done is come up with a new website that offers both blogs and podcasts (radio shows essentially). It will be more fun to produce for us and it will be hopefully more enjoyable for you guys because now you can both listen and read! Why not, right? I'm really excited about this new site. It's still a work in progress. We are still trying to improve it aesthetically and add a little bit more flare. But thanks to a friend of one of my colleagues, we now have a legitimate website with all sorts of capabilities.

Me, Brady, and Chris will be all contributing to it. Brady went to Indiana with me and served on the same student radio station. He also currently interns with me at WGN Radio. And Chris went to Missouri and was the intern at WGN Radio before me and Brady. We all bring a different perspective to the site, so it should be a lot of fun to read and listen to. With 3 contributors, the site will be update most likely multiple times each day, so you don't have to wait around for me to think of something to write about like before haha.

We are currently working on our podcast format. Brady and I recorded a preliminary one last night in a sports radio show format and it went pretty well. We are trying to make it legitimate, so it could take a little time, but you all can expect a podcast up by the end of the weekend.

Once we figure out all of the production logistics as well as the podcast style, the site should feature multiple podcasts a week. So I hope you all like the new site. EFFECTIVE TODAY, THE DAILY SPORTS STEW WILL BE PUT ON HOLD.

The new site is called "The Neal and Brady Report." The URL is Visit the site here. We're also on Facebook (just search The Neal and Brady Report) and Twitter (name: the_nbr).

Thanks for reading this blog, I hope you all head over to the new site to catch all of the NBR blogs and podcasts. It'll be a lot of fun and a great resume/experience builder for the 3 of us as we start our quest to get a job in the sports industry (yikes...). As always, let me know what you think! Thanks!!!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

2016 Summer Olympics in Chicago May Have Drawbacks, But I Say Go For It!

When people think of Chicago, the bitter cold and the uncompromising winds are probably two of the first things that come to mind. In a sports context, the mindset isn't much different. It's hard to avoid thinking about those late-season Bears home games in sub-10 degree temperatures. And while these statements ring true for over half the year, Chicago is actually an amazing place to spend a summer and possibly even a spring or fall too, depending on the type of person.

It's hard to convince people that Chicago can be easily mistaken for an oceanfront beach city June-August. I mean, I was over at North Ave. Beach several weeks ago with some friends, and it seemed like your typical college spring break in Panama City. Besides the beach, the city has several handfuls of unique areas with great sites, acclaimed restaurants, and stunning social scenes. People from Chicago or at least familiar with it will tell you that there may not be a better place to spend a summer. The city's versatility during these months is unparalleled to be completely frank. So yes...for the better part of each year, the city's weather could be considered miserable by some and admittedly mediocre by the more tolerant others. I'll even admit that as each winter approaches, I'm less and less enthusiastic about calling this city my home. But if we're going to discuss the summer in Chicago, then you might as well just call it Heaven on Earth.

What I'm getting at here has to do with Chicago's bid to play host for the 2016 Summer Olympics. The city has reached finalist status in their hopes to secure the world's most fantastic sporting event. And I'm here to say, why not? Now, let me start by saying that the weather, as I discussed above, is absolutely not the sole reason for my argument. It's a big part, but I was simply trying to illustrate the fact that Chicago's reputation often times suffers as a result of the awful winter months. But the summer in Chicago would leave every Olympic spectator satisfied.

Above that, there are certainly concerns regarding the economy, accessibility, and even losing nostalgic or historic parts of the city...all of which are legitimate. I've read a lot lately about the mission of Chicago 2016 (the official committee dedicated towards the bid) and their plans moving forward. I have to say that they successfully answered a lot of questions that I had and I'm sure others had.

First of all, the city's infrastructure and public transportation system is probably the nation's second best behind New York City. With about a dozen different commuter train lines going from various suburban areas into the city, the access to/from the outer edges of the Chicago area is superb. Then once you're in the city, the extensive subway system offers nearly 10 different routes accessing every part of the greater metropolitan area. I will say that highway-wise, the city always seems to be lost; not because of the routes. But because the roads always seem to be under a great deal of least in the last 5-10 years. Hey, if that means that we can expect a bunch of flawless roads in the next few years, then great! Somehow I don't think that is the case, though. They'll take you wherever you need to go around the city and its suburbs, but the question is how long it will take to do it.

Economically, Chicago 2016 says that the impact won't be at all negative, but rather positive. The city will not require much tailoring because all of the property and many of the venues needed are already in hand. Unlike Beijing, no one will be displaced from their home and the money going towards the bid right now is through entirely private sources. The relatively small amounts of construction that will take place if the bid goes through would be able to be put to use after the Games are over. Now I understand that this information is coming from a source that can do no wrong in their own eyes, but it all makes sense when laid out. Sure, the acquisition of the Games would come at a cost, but if things went as planned, the city of Chicago and the U.S. as a whole would enjoy an economic boost after all of the revenue.

The other issue that may turn people off, especially residents of Chicago, is the risk of losing nostalgia. Would the installation of Olympic villages and complexes ruin landmarks? Or would the high influx of spectators trample your everyday favorite places? Who knows. Personally, I think as far as people go, things could be fixed after the Games if something happens. And it seems that much of the visual stuff installed for the Games would be temporary. So I'm not too worried about that side of things...but then again you can never predict the amount of people the event will attract and the amount of aesthetic elements that go into the setup. After all, the Beijing Olympics set the bar pretty high in those respects and at the end of the day, the name of the game is "upping the ante."

Look, the concerns circling around the Olympic bid are always going to be there, but in the end, you just have to ask yourself if this is overall a good thing for the city of Chicago. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? I say they do. You've got a iconic city with diversity, culture, landmarks and history. You've got the necessary arenas and stadiums with all of the professional and collegiate teams in the area. You've got an enormous body of water in Lake Michigan, that might as well be considered the "Ocean of the Midwest" to accommodate the aquatic sports. And you have an infrastructure and public transportation system that is up to snuff in terms of being able to handle a heavy dose of visitors.

As a native of the Chicago area and a longtime lover for all it has to offer, I think over anything else, it would just be pretty damn cool to have the Olympic Games here. You can talk about all of the logistics and risks, but I say from a simple point of view that the idea of having the Games in such a classic American city is exciting...and over the summer? Ohhhh baby!

In 55 days, we'll find out what city the International Olympic Committee tabs as their 2016 host. Madrid, Toyko, Rio de Janeiro, or Chicago? I certainly hope that the latter comes out as the winner. Yes, it's my hometown, but more because of the fact that I'd like the world to see what a great city it is...not in the the summer!

To support the 2016 Chicago Olympic Bid, just visit their website here. Let's make the 2016 Olympics an American one!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Wednesday's Quick Hits

The Pittsburgh Pirates are attempting to shoot the moon...
You ever play the card game "hearts" and instead of trying to keep as little hearts as possible, you try to get them all and "shoot the moon" as they like to call it? It's a strategy that will win you the game if played right, but it also carries a risk. Well, the Pirates are in the midst of this risky strategy, except not in the card game, in real life. In a blog a few weeks ago, I questioned why the Pirates were trading practically every meaningful player on their team. I meant it back then, but I really mean it now!

They just traded one of their two LaRoches, Adam, to Boston. And they're about to dump their entire middle infield, Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez, who are both very talented. Those three players that I just mentioned were just about all the Pirates had in terms of solid veterans. So, the team seems to be tossing in all of their top cards(proven veterans), and keeping all of the ones that you're not really supposed to have(unproven rookies)...unless of course they can successfully shoot the moon and build a future contender. We'll just have to wait and see if their risk was worth it.

Ricky Rubio still a possibility for the NBA this year...
This year's draft class didn't have the "wow" factor that it has had in recent years. But what it did have was Ricky Rubio. The now 18-year old point guard from Spain is absolutely incredible to watch. Scouts and people that have played against him say that he has passing abilities and instincts that haven't come around for a long time. And if you're like me, you're always searching for a point of interest in the NBA. Sure, it has made recent strides, but it still needs someone who can provide a different kind of excitement. I know LeBron, Dwight Howard, and Kobe can have their "how did he do that?" moments, but i was dying to see a guy like Rubio. A guy who can make behind-the-back or no look passes with ease and regularity.

So naturally, when he fell to Minnesota, I was disappointed. Then I would say that I was borderline distraught once the Timberwolves drafted another point guard, Jonny Flynn because you knew that wasn't going to go over well with Rubio. For awhile it looked like Rubio would go back to Spain for a few more years because of his unfavorable NBA situation, but the news broke today that he is going to leave his team in Spain for good. The ball is now in Minnesota's court. If they want the soon-to-be-superstar, then they better put together a nice offer for him. Otherwise, I will again be very disappointed when he signs with a team like Real Madrid or Barcelona (no not the soccer teams) for a few more years. I hope that for the sake of excitement in the league, Minnesota pulls it together and brings him to the U.S. because people would just love to watch what this kid can do.

Psycho disguised as a Major League Baseball executive...
A guy bursts into a minor league baseball locker room, starts cussing his ass off and calling out players and then takes his shirt off and challenges the entire team to a punch line. This actually happened this past week. So it was just some crazy drunk that somehow snuck in, right? No. It was a 52-year old New York Mets player development executive! The team was the Mets AA-affiliate in Binghamton, NY and Tony Bernazard, the executive, seemed to have taken exception with how the team was playing. So he went into the locker room for a little post-game talk and ended up yelling, taking his shirt off and encouraging the team members to fight him.

How this guy got a job as an executive for a major league team is beyond me, but this clown should be fired immediately. I mean, taking your shirt off to fight? Where are we, a grungy bar where a bunch of morons want an excuse to show off their chest to adoring women? Come on. You're 52 years old, Tony. You know better than to pull a move like that. What he did, while stupid, was actually funny to me just because it was so immature and ridiculous. Perhaps he should have thought about his job before he decided to go on an outrageous tirade.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Is there a bike race going on in France?

The sport of cycling, especially when it reaches an elite level, is very grueling and tests just about every bit of it's participants' courage, willpower, and of course fitness. I can't say that I've ever been interested in pushing myself in that way, but on a smaller scale, I've tried my hand at real mountain biking (a.k.a. in the actual mountains, not up and down the hills of the Midwest) a few times. And let me tell you, heavy exercise in high altitude is hard enough, but this sport will push your limits. So I say all this to illustrate my respect for what the riders put themselves through mentally and physically. But as I read about/watch parts of Tour de France coverage, I realize one important thing: it just doesn't interest all.

I don't have much knowledge about the sport or its participants, outside of Lance Armstrong of course. And some may say that might be the reason why I'm not interested. Perhaps I should just take the time to learn about the ins and outs of the sport and its glorified race around France. But I don't buy it. Look, I don't know a whole lot about rugby or jai alai, but when I watch action from those two sports, I couldn't be more intrigued!

The fact is that cycling doesn't get me going on any level...even if it is the Tour de France with many of the world's premier endurance athletes. I feel like I have a decent grasp of the fairly uncomplicated set of concepts, rules and regulations associated with the Tour de France. But maybe my lack of interest is a result of the length of the competition. Very few things that are so long and drawn out keep my attention. And if it's going to be so long, at least it should be action-packed and exciting, right? I say yes, but I find myself reverting to my morbid, selfish NASCAR philosophy, "Can I get a crash already?" It is certainly not a good way to look at it because the cyclists aren't protected by anything other than a little helmet, so crashes for them can be devastating...and I know that. But as a sports fan, I want to be captivated by the spectacle that I'm watching. I'm sorry to say that the only captivation I can find when sifting through the tireless Tour de France coverage is the content regarding crashes, injuries, and yes, even doping.

It's not just the TdF either. It's also amateur cycling. I mean, I went to school in a town that I would consider to be the hub of amateur cycling. At Indiana University, there is an annual event called the Little 500. There are two races, one for the men and one for the women, around a quarter-mile oval track. Each race has about 25-35 teams with about 4 members on each team. The women's race is 100 laps and the men's race is 200 laps. The event is so meaningful and popular that teams train all year in preparation for qualifications. There is even a series of warm-up cycling events leading up to the main weekend. The event is simply incredible. An entire university clicks into another mode when the race week arrives. Classes are pushed aside and kegs are bought by the dozens in their place. People come in from afar to take in the event and its widely regarded as the "Greatest College Weekend in America."

My point is that the Little 500, while one-of-a-kind in nature and a great tradition at my alma mater, is still not the most breathtaking sporting event to watch. The parties leading up to the races were always what I tended to enjoy. Now don't get me wrong, there can be exciting moments in these races as with any type of race, but generally speaking, it doesn't have the action that your typical sports fan craves. The women's race tends to be pretty interesting, but that is because it is relatively short (a little over an hour). And that makes sense because most sports fans don't have the attention span nor the desire to watch long events with little action. So for me, the shorter the better. Soccer is one of my favorite sports, so I have no problem sitting down and watching a game from start to finish, but I'm not going to blame someone for saying that even that is too long...but I digress.

I've tried getting into cycling on many levels, but it just hasn't come together. The funny part about this week at the Tour de France was that Lance Armstrong came out and pretty much said to the media that he had conceded the race to his teammate, Alberto Contador. I couldn't believe it! Not the fact that he conceded because the margin actually does seem pretty insurmountable, but the fact that he came out and said that it's pretty much over. So now, the people that were clinging to their small level of interest are left with nothing. As I sit here, I'm thinking, "Lance just said it was over, so why watch, why read, why care about the race?"

Although Armstrong's comments doused the flame of interest for just about every casual American follower, I have to say that I owe him a thank you. Because now, I won't even experience a shred of temptation to learn more about this year's race by reading or watching coverage. I tried to give it a chance...I really did. But it's boring and uneventful, especially when the God of Cycling himself declares that his race is over.

I guess you could say that I have officially made the affirmation that I don't like cycling...just as I did regarding NASCAR. It's nothing against its fans or participants, but it's just something that doesn't peak my interest. As far as the partying that goes along with cycling at Indiana University or anywhere else? Just refer to the picture and you'll see what I think is the most interesting part of the sport.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Phillies Have Recipe For A Repeat

As I watched my team, the Chicago Cubs, get pulverized tonight by the overwhelming offensive attack of the Philadelphia Phillies, it got me thinking a little bit about the defending World Series champs. I knew that they were a good, solid team, but I don't think I ever took the time to analyze why they were good. It's really quite simple...their abundance of dynamic left-handed hitters.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that lefties are a scarcity in the MLB, but I would say that it is relatively difficult to find top-notch left-handed batters. So what makes the Phillies amazing is that they have the ability to stick an All-Star caliber lefty in each of their first five spots in the batting order: Jimmy Rollins (switch hitter), Shane Victorino (switch hitter), Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Raul Ibanez. The vast majority of pitchers in the league are right-handed, so with five players in a row batting left-handed at the top of their order, the Phillies really get the optimal pitcher/batter matchups nearly every game! Let's not forget that Victorino, Utley, Howard, and Ibanez all played in this year's All-Star game, three of them starters.

Now I'll get to the other reasons why this team is poised for another late postseason run soon, but I want to give you a fresh example of the key contributions of these five left-handed batters first. So going back to that Cubs game tonight...the Phillies won 10-1. As I started to think about the Phillies' offense, I hadn't looked at the box score of the game yet, but when I did look, I wasn't surprised by who did the damage. Sure enough, each of the five players I mentioned above knocked in at least one run today; it was highlighted by home runs from Raul Ibanez and Ryan Howard. Today was even a left-handed starter for the Cubs, Ted Lilly, which under normal circumstances would give the Chicago the advantage with such a lefty-heavy Phillies lineup. But it didn't matter...these guys are really good!

What also doesn't come as a surprise is that the Phillies are in the midst of a 13-1 stretch that has vaulted them into a 6 1/2 game lead in the N.L. East. If the top-notch list of Phillies' hitters, which oh-by-the-way includes another All-Star, Jayson Werth, continues to do what they're doing on this stretch, then they don't even seem possible to beat.

The bottom line is that the club's success will hinge on their pitching. It's been above average thus far. In fact, none of their main starters have losing records. Cole Hamels has been very disappointing for a #1 starter at 5-5, but what he has lacked has been compensated for by an undefeated rookie campaign from J.A. Happ and a strong season from the energizer bunny himself, 46-year old Jamie Moyer, who sits at 9-6. Joe Blanton has been decent and Chan-Ho Park and Brett Myers have been adequate as part-time starters. Their starting pitching will soon get better, too. The organization just welcomed in Pedro Martinez, who isn't a guarantee, but has very good potential and shhhh....the Phillies are one of the primary suitors for Roy Halladay's services, which would shoot their World Series chances through the roof. I don't even want to think about that possibility because that would mean that the Cubs might as well prepare to celebrate 101 full years of a "championship-free lifestyle." Not to mention the fact that Halladay would run through a National League lineup like a knife through warm butter.

This team is scary good; there really isn't any other way to put it. Five of their first six hitters in the lineup were All-Stars this year and the one that wasn't is Jimmy Rollins, who has been to the Midsummer Classic three times. Five of them do/can hit left-handed and four of them have 20 or more home runs already. The Phillies are absolutely crushing opposing pitchers right now and if they see the impressive Pedro Martinez from the World Baseball Classic or somehow acquire Roy Halladay, then we might as well skip right to the World Series...because they'll be in it. And even if they don't get Halladay, their offensive advantage could very well carry them to a repeat anyway.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

NASCAR has enough speed, Mayfield needs to take his elsewhere

You can tell it's a slow day in sports when I decide to write something about NASCAR racing. With the All-Star break eliminating baseball storylines and fairly slow NBA and NFL offseason weeks, I have no choice. In all seriousness, though, I actually have a strong opinion regarding this topic. Jeremy Mayfield, a veteran racer in the NASCAR circuit, has had me chuckling the last few weeks with his antics surrounding a drug scandal.

Mayfield hasn't won a race since 2005 and has taken home the checkered flag only 5 times in his career, but he has been a mainstay in the news lately because of a drug suspension. Mayfield was handed an indefinite suspension back in May for violating NASCAR's substance abuse policy. In the wake of that suspension, Mayfield cited a possible improper mix of a few medications as the reason for the positive drug test...okay, entirely possible. But then the news came out that the positive test was actually for methamphetamines. Mayfield vehemently denied the claims and even threatened legal action against NASCAR. So now I'm thinking to myself, "hmm, maybe something got messed up if he is so adamant that he hasn't taken the drug."

Not long after his innocent claims, his indefinite suspension was lifted by a judge because there was "a high possibility for a false positive test." At this time, it appeared his innocence was a distinct possibility. Mayfield was temporarily reinstated and was available to race, however he couldn't find the necessary sponsorship or support to compete. The positive drug test scared potential sponsors away...and it turns out they made the right choice.

The crushing blow came today when it was revealed that Mayfield had tested positive for methamphetamine a second time on July 6th, just 5 days after his reinstatement! Now, I'm thinking whatever cover, support, or reasoning he had behind him was out the window. You can't test positive for methamphetamine twice and then expect to be able to explain yourself. But wait, there's more...if the positive tests weren't enough, then let's hear what his stepmother had to say. Mayfield's stepmother, Lisa, confessed that she'd seen Jeremy use methamphetamine at least 30 times in the 7 years that she was around him. In fact, she said the first time she saw him use the drug was in 1998. And she went on to cite a specific weekend in 1999 where she saw him use the drug the same week of the race at Darlington.

Thanks to her testimony, it is now alleged that Mayfield has been using the drug frequently over the last 10 years, which is lightyears away from his claims. The allegations from his stepmother brought out the best in him when he reacted to her comments by calling her a lying b***h. He was clearly angered with her for "outing" him and the fact that he still denies use of the drug after multiple angles of accusations just baffles me...Hypothetically, say the stepmother is crazy and fabricated the stories (doesn't seem to me that she did), NASCAR could still hinge their case on two positive drug tests. They even did further examination to make sure the positive test result was not because of the mixing of two perfectly legal medications.

Look, Mayfield doesn't want to face the facts and his choices are making him look like a complete idiot. It's in his best interest to stop fighting with NASCAR administration, doctors, and legal personnel because the evidence has him cornered. The more and more he denies the allegations, the likelihood of him racing again in NASCAR or any other major racing circuit will drastically decrease. He needs to "take his medicine" as they say (not methamphetamine of course), and accept the fact that his drug addiction has no place in any racing circuit.

Methamphetamine is often referred to as "speed." And with the inherent dangers of the sport of NASCAR racing, the last thing it needs is more of it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Look at me, I'm rich!

In life, you're always one moment away from your big break...and months ago, Matt Cassel was just like anybody else waiting for a chance (okay I guess not "anybody" else, after all he's an NFL quarterback, but you know what I mean). There he was, sitting on the bench behind one of the most untouchable quarterbacks in the game, Tom Brady. The Patriots had confidence in a backup...but let's face it, the organization was hoping to never have to use him. On a smaller scale, Cassel was the equivalent of a Doug Pedersen to Brett Favre or a Jim Sorgi to Peyton Manning...the type of 2nd string quarterback you'd like to remain on the bench.

To be fair to Cassel, that wasn't the case because they thought he was bad. But rather, it was just a situation where you have a seemingly indestructible starter and you figure that you might be able to save a little money by not signing expensive backups. However, the Patriots' oh-so-optimal plan was quickly foiled last season when Tom Brady suffered a horrific, season-ending knee injury in Week 1. So whether the organization liked it or not, it was Cassel's team to lead from then on...a worrisome thought for Bostonians.

Who could blame them? Cassel hadn't started a football game since high school. He was a career backup at USC, so the fact that he had even solidified an NFL roster spot for several seasons was a minor miracle in itself. And if his lack of experience in college wasn't enough, he had thrown just 39 total passes during his first 3 years in the league. Patriots fans thought to themselves "Is this really happening? This is our starter every Sunday?" Cassel sure had a whole lot to prove, especially considering that his Massachusetts followers were becoming accustomed to championships on a yearly basis, no matter what sport it was (lucky bastards).

After a short period of conservative play-calling to get Cassel comfortable, the Patriots let the offense loose as if Brady were still on the field. Pretty soon, Cassel, who everyone doubted at the outset of Brady's monumental knee injury, was putting up big time NFL quarterback numbers with relative ease. He amassed 400 yards passing 2 weeks in a row! New England finished with 12 wins under the former USC backup and barely missed the playoffs.

The season ended with Cassel's success fresh in everybody's mind. But it was a widespread certainty that Tom Brady would return as the Patriots' franchise quarterback. So the question quickly became "What is Cassel going to do?" It gave the Patriots a tough decision because while they knew Brady was their main guy, they saw that his so-called indestructible nature was a myth. With the season as evidence, Cassel was a more than viable security blanket in case Brady's knee acted up again. However, New England also knew that Cassel's trade stock shot through the roof with his performance. So the dilemma was simple: you either pay Cassel more money to stay with the team as a backup or use him as trade bait to address other needs.

The answer came in late February when Cassel, along with linebaker Mike Vrabel, were shipped off to Kansas City for a 2nd rd. draft pick. Although it was a minor risk with Brady's recent injury, New England was able to get a high pick in exchange for a quarterback that they ideally wouldn't need in the future. I thought it was a good deal overall and I was very happy to see Cassel get an opportunity somewhere else because he was nothing short of outstanding to watch this past year.

Well today, Cassel's long road towards success as an NFL starter paid off...literally. Cassel inked a 6-year, $63 million contract with the Chiefs. The career-backup quickly went from "economically comfortable" to filthy rich...and for what? One great NFL season.

The circumstances of his pay day don't anger me or make me jealous, I just think it's funny how often this happens in professional sports. The fact is that teams these days have to shell out money if they are to get top talent...even if the move is made with minimal evidence to back it up. The Chiefs are hoping Cassel can be the guy they watched manhandle NFL secondaries last season, but he could just as easily be a one hit wonder. Whether or not Cassel performs well in the coming years for the Chiefs is up in the air, but what he knows is that he's got at least $28 million guaranteed...all made possible by a low hit to the knees on Tom Brady (the hit was made by a Kansas City Chiefs player, kind of ironic). Hey, no one knows if Cassel would have ever gotten a chance behind Brady had the injury not happened, but the reality is that the opportunity presented itself and he passed with flying colors. Cassel now sits atop the Chiefs depth chart with millions of dollars in his have to get your break somehow right?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Confederations Cup Success Could Equal Dream European Offers For Some

If the world was taught one thing from the Confederations Cup in South Africa, it was not to sleep on American soccer. The tournament was a wake-up call for anyone who questioned the legitimacy of the sport in our country....whether they were U.S. citizens or foreigners. The fact is, soccer has been and still is somewhat of an afterthought in our country, but the Americans' unbelievable performance in South Africa was most certainly a step in the right direction.

I can't be certain what sort of total impact it will have in American society, but there will certainly be one major perk for the players that made the dream finish a reality...transfer offers. Translation to American sports language: the potential to sign with an upper-echelon European team. You see, in the world of soccer, especially in Europe, the slogan is "What have you done for me lately?" If a manager's team has a disappointing record, they're fired. If a player plays poorly, they're on the bench. On a more positive note, if you train well during the week, you might just earn a start on the weekend. It doesn't matter how much they get paid or where they're from. It is a performance-based philosophy. Period. So naturally, the surprise results that the U.S. pulled off in South Africa have most definitely raised the eyebrows of European scouts. It was the same when Russia went unexpectedly deep into the Euro 2008 tournament. People noticed and players got offers.

It's really a rather novel concept. Up until this point, the U.S. has played scared against the historical international powers. They never really played with the confidence, urgency, or technical ability to be considered a worldly soccer power. Yes, the 2002 World Cup in Korea was an exception, but if you look at the larger picture, the team has been relatively weak and inconsistent. But now, after they perform well individually and as a team against some of the best players in the world, the scouts look at it rather simply and say, "If they can beat players from the top leagues in Spain, England, Italy, and Germany, then why can't they play their club ball alongside them?"

I completely agree. A performance like theirs in the Confederations Cup deserves to be put up there with the top soccer moments in history...doing the unthinkable and beating the world's #1 team! Of course some of these guys deserve to play for top clubs! I'm not saying all of them merit promotion, but it makes you think that guys like Donovan, Bradley, Clark, DeMerit, Davies and Bornstein should join U.S. players such as Dempsey, Spector, Bocanegra, and Altidore at top European clubs.

Sure enough...the first of what I believe to be many contracts offered to American players went down this week when Oguchi Onyewu signed a 3-year deal with A.C. Milan. A.C. Milan is easily one of the top 3 Italian clubs and historically is probably the most prestigious and well-known of the bunch. Say what you want about Onyewu's track record, the guy defended his ass off during the Confed Cup. And for me, it's not surprising that he got scooped up by a club like Milan because he is a beast in the back. I'm so happy to see an American player get the respect he deserves, and for it to be from such an A-list club, it's incredible.

I was waiting for a signing like this to happen and I truly believe that there will be a few more to follow. I look for DeMerit to move up to a better English club. I think Donovan has now shown his worth as an attacking midfielder. Charlie Davies has proven that he deserves to be playing somewhere other than Sweden with his speed and awareness. And as for the players that are already in Europe...well I think their playing time will increase and I consider their international reputations to be bolstered at this point. Dempsey, Spector, and Bocanegra will breakout with new levels of confidence. Jozy Altidore now has the power to put his foot down and go elsewhere in Europe after not appearing in a single game for Xerez, a second-tier Spanish team that he was loaned to from Villareal. It's a beautiful thing to see as a longtime soccer fan that has always wished American players the best.

The issue brings up a debate that I have in my own head sometimes regarding the future path of American soccer and its players. Do I, as an American soccer fan, want our top players to go to Europe to garner recognition and praise? Or do I want these players to play in the MLS in an effort to help build the game in our native country? It's always been tough for me to say. Of course on one hand, it would be nice for our top players to play in the MLS and create a buzz among Americans...maybe even to the point where the league reaches a level of quality so high that it makes top foreign players want to come play over here. But that may be my exaggerated optimism taking over. Because on the other hand, I'd love to see American players get the credit they deserve on a European stage, where the game means so much more. Winning over well-educated, die hard world soccer fans has to be the ultimate stamp of approval! And it would make me so happy to have some of our own men be able to experience that feeling.

So, who knows, it is a super interesting topic to speculate about, but the main point I had was that the U.S. National Team's recent performance in the Confederations Cup was a thing of beauty...not just to watch, but also ponder to the impact it will have afterwards. Many people may not believe it, but soccer in America is improving. The players. The national team. The MLS. And most importantly, the popularity! I can safely say that there aren't many people out there that are more delighted than me about where soccer is going in America.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Steve McNair: A Tribute To The Toughest Player I've Ever Seen

Under "toughness" in the dictionary, you might as well find a picture of Steve McNair. When he was taken down, he always got back up. When he sustained an injury, he always played through the pain, no matter how intense it was. In fact, there was a period of time where McNair's injuries forced him to sit out of practice during the week so that he would be healthy enough to play on Sunday. The guy was indestructible when it came to football. So when the news was released this weekend that McNair had passed away, my initial reaction was shock. I couldn't help but turn to the Steve McNair I knew from watching football, the "tough as nails" McNair.

The way he approached the game of football always appealed to me. Never did I have any official affiliation with him. I wasn't an Oilers, Titans, or Ravens fan. But I always enjoyed watching him play. He seemed to have the perfect combination of grace and toughness, skill and passion. I would definitely say that he was one of my favorite NFL quarterbacks during the better part of my childhood (easy for me to say because the Bears didn't ever have a high-caliber player under center). I was a close follower of the run that McNair's Titans made the year of the Music City Miracle, falling just one heartbreaking yard short of a Super Bowl Title.

As I look back on what McNair was like as a player, it makes it hard for me to believe the reality of the terrible tragedy that happened this past weekend. Because, if you really look at the murder scenario closely, the clues point to something rather negative on McNair's part. He didn't pull the trigger or anything, but let's face it...he was a married man and he'd obviously been dating another woman for months. And he'd clearly been associating himself with someone who had a couple of loose screws. He was staying in a small condo that instead of screaming "wealthy athlete," it reeked of scandalous, sneeky activity. The whole incident simply seems fishy. As a matter of fact, whether this is right or not, it makes the everyday fan look at the situation and question McNair's character.

For me, I liken it to the recent Michael Jackson conversation. How do you choose to remember him? Do you look at Michael as a hideous, plastic alleged-pedofile or do you still only think of him as one of the greatest dancers, performers, and singers of all time. Now, I'm not going to put this McNair tragedy on anywhere near the same level as the Michael Jackson story, but it is a bit similar. Because as I sit here and remember McNair, his play on the field is what comes to mind first, even if I'm aware of all of the disappointing details of his murder. So when Michael Jackson passed away, sure I thought of his classic songs, but I also thought about all of the odd, gross, and disturbing information that followed him around. And I think that it's clearly a product of when I grew up. I never really knew the young phenom version of Michael Jackson. All I really saw was the pale, fabricated Michael Jackson. But with McNair, I grew up watching his toughness and his on-field heroics...and now the new details of his murder don't seem to bother me as much.

I don't mean to make a ridiculous comparison here, but I honestly think the parallel makes sense when I go back and look at the situation. I also want to clarify that I'm not writing this to villify McNair. Yes, he obviously had some issues with his relationships and he also appeared to have been at least mildly involved in some shady activities. But I don't want to imply that these issues make him worthy of being tabbed a bad person because I really don't believe that is the case.

McNair's murder was a terrible tragedy and he was most certainly the victim. It was definitely not the way anybody envisioned such a tough, hard-nosed player moving on. And it just goes to show you that even the people like McNair, who was so incredibly rock solid on the football field, can find themselves in situations like the one over the weekend. When the news broke, it was just so odd to hear that he was the victim because when he played, he always seemed to be the one on top.

As the incident is investigated further, I'm sure more details will be released with both negative and positive implications towards McNair's character. But my lasting memory of him will not depend on the emergence of those details. It will be solely based on what he did on the football field. In the NFL, you're expected to be tough and you're expected to be able to handle anything that comes your way. But Steve McNair embodied something above and beyond that expectation...and that is how I choose to remember him.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Grab Bag of Random Sports Topics

I didn't feel like writing about a pressing sports issue from today's headlines, so I figured I'd post about a few random things that I've had an opinion on lately. Here's my outlook on some of the funny, odd, and well...kind of gross nuances of sports today.

Grunting in Tennis...
In recent years, the world has seen a drastic increase in grunting and screaming on the tennis court. On a professional scale, it occurs almost exclusively on the women's side. It seems as if you can't watch a match these days without having to mute the TV due to some Russian girl with a last name ending in "-ova" screaming her brains out everytime she hits the ball. Venus and Serena Williams have been known to do it, Maria Sharapova pleads the fifth (evidence above), and a few up-and-coming players seem to be taking the grunting to a new level. It is unbelievabllllly annoying. It sounds weird to say because not to be overly gross or anything, but normally for guys, the thought of girls screaming or grunting could imply something rather arousing...not in this case. Not even close. I think the people in charge need to take a long, hard look at this phenomenon and possibly do something to curb the madness. It's awful!

The Physical Nature of Soccer...
Okay, for all of you tough guys out there that make a point of insulting soccer every time it's at the forefront of a discussion, just relax. I've heard the argument before, it's not all wrong, but overall soccer IS a very physical sport. Now before I defend it any more, let me concede one thing. Yes, in international and professional soccer, diving, embellishing, faking injuries, and stalling have all unfortunately become common themes. I don't like it and I never will, even if I see the strategic reasoning. It is these types of things that fuel the typical soccer-hater's fire...and it's a shame. Because if you watch the game of soccer intently, you will see a whole lot more physicality than many people give the sport credit for. The shoving, slide-tackling, and head-bashing makes soccer anything but a sport for "wussies." Not only is the average player in better shape than most other athletes, they take a beating on the field. But people don't realize that until they play the sport with some degree of seriousness. I'm not saying it's football or hockey, but it's way more phsyical than it's portrayed in mainstream media and society.

First Base Conversations...
Have you ever watched a baseball game and seen the first baseman chatting with a baserunner from the opposing team? It has always been one of the things that I want to know. Of course, you may have situations where former teammates do some trash-talking. Maybe good friends. I'm sure they just talk about normal stuff. But what about bitter rivals? What if one doesn't speak english very well? They still talk to each other! Does one guy try out his spanglish? Does Albert Pujols tell Derrek Lee that he sucks or does he ask how his wife and kids are doing? Does the first baseman say "nice hit" or does he jokingly tell them to stop getting on base? I don't know....and I guess I never will unless I get close enough to a professional baseball player to ask him. I think it's a funny thing to speculate about, though.

Touchdown Celebrations...
They're not a subtelty anymore in the game of football. In fact, the celebrations in the end zone have practically turned into a contest among players. The prize goes to the guy that comes up with the most inventive dance or nowadays even a short skit! The spike just doesn't cut it anymore. Some of the performances are obviously rehearsed. Pretty soon, NFL teams will begin to hire choreographers. One of the interesting parts about the touchdown celebration craze is the fact that the league has tried to punish players for going overboard, but the players don't really care. We still have receivers and running backs using the football or the pylon as a prop, we have team celebrations, we have players doing their best impressions of the latest popular dances. I really don't have a problem with it. I think it adds to the entertainment of the game and offers a comedic element that many other sports don't exactly possess. There is one thing I have to say to players, though, as they consider excessively celebrating in the end zone: If you score a touchdown at a meaningless juncture in the game or from only a yard or two out, forget the celebration. Big ran a few yards. scored a touchdown with 2 minutes left in the game and your team is down 49-14. Go ahead and celebrate! Do your dance, perform your skit, but pick the right time!

Golf Attire...
For a sport that is played during the warm part of the year in the warmest places in the world, golf has some pretty harsh wardrobe requirements. Under normal conditions, golfers play in the heat of the day under the relentless sun. Yet they aren't allowed to wear attire that helps them stay cool. Pants are a requirement on the PGA Tour and in most country clubs. But I think it's a bogus rule. Look, I know golf was taught to me by one of its most staunch enforcers, my dad. I get the whole "respect for the game" idea, but for me, whether someone wears shorts or pants on the golf course is irrelevant. Everybody knows that wearing slacks in hot and humid weather is miserable. It overheats your body, even if they're khakis! My point was driven home in a disgusting manner when I was briefly watching a Champions Tour event on the Golf Channel the other day. One of the players high up on the leaderboard was hitting a shot when I noticed a large stain of some sort on his slacks. Moments later, the camera person was nice enough to get a close-up shot on the player bending over to analyze the break in his upcoming putt. The stain that I had previously noticed from a distance was sweat. Let's just say it gave the viewer a good idea of what the guy's ass looked like. Plus, I'm sure it was extremely embarassing for him. So all I'm saying is perhaps the tour should allow the players to wear shorts...not grungy ones, but you know, the nice dress shorts. It still looks fine. Give these guys a break, it's damn hot out there!

I'll try to think of some more of these little mini-topics because Lord knows I probably have thought about it/have an opinion on it. Go Cubs! Beat the Brew Crew tonight!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Inexplicable Nature of the Pittsburgh Pirates

For professional sports teams, the mantra is "you're in it to win it." Obviously, right? Why compete, why do anything if you don't put winning at the top of your list? Well...there is a team out there that apparently hasn't gotten the memo. I have no choice but to question whether the Pittsburgh Pirates subscribe to the whole "winning is important" idea. I say this because as I look at their collection of trades/offseason moves in the past decade, I'm left speechless...and not in a good way. It is the type of situation where you, as an onlooker, say to yourself "man, my 5- year old nephew knows better than that."

Now, I kid a little bit, but let's just take a look at what has prompted my bewilderment with the changes they've made to their team in recent years. While the city of Pittsburgh hasn't seen a winning team in 16 years, the Pirates have actually had some good players...the type of guys you try to keep to build your franchise into a contender. But so far, the Pirates have done the opposite. They've continuously traded their best players in exchange for "promising" young prospects. Here is a list of key players that the Pirates have let go in the past decade in chronological order:

-Brian Giles (left in '03 after 4 straight 30 HR seasons and 2 All-Star appearences in '01, '02)
-Aramis Ramirez (left in '03, combine his '01 & '02 seasons and you get a .267 average, 52 HRs and 183 RBIs)
-Jason Kendall (left in '04 after batting .319 and striking out the least per at bat in the MLB in '03)
-Xavier Nady (14 HRs and 40 RBIs in 75 games before being traded in '08. Promising hitter)
-Jason Bay (Traded 5 days after Nady. Hit over 20 HRs in five different seasons for Pittsburgh, including 2 seasons over 30 HRs. Over 100 RBIs twice, around a .280 batting average in those seasons)
-Nate McLouth (Traded in '09. Coming off an All-Star season in '08: 26 HRs, 46 2Bs, 94 RBIs, .276 average)
-Nyjer Morgan (Traded in '09. Struggled for a starting spot for a few years, finally got a chance this year and did well: .277 average, 27 RBIs in leadoff spot most of the time, 18 stolen bases)

Look, I know stuff happens in the league. There are a lot of factors that go into trades, signings, etc. But I look at the above group and see a lot of great players, especially outfielders.  The worst part about it is that a lot of these guys had quite a bit of gas left in the tank when they were shipped out of Pittsburgh.  Some of them, like McLouth, were just entering their prime!  It's like the organization doesn't want to achieve success.  And by the way, Pirates, if you're going to trade away one of your better players, at least make the deal with a winner.  They just traded Nyjer Morgan in exchange for WASHINGTON NATIONALS PLAYERS!  Come on!!!!  

I mean, let's break it down.  Giles was a monster for awhile, and from the left side of the plate, too. Jason Kendall made up for his lack of power at the plate with great speed and valuble defensive abilities at catcher. Aramis Ramirez was quickly becoming the power-hitting 3rd baseman that every team wanted. Jason Bay was their established veteran who hit for power and provided an important presence in the clubhouse. McLouth and Nady were the up-and-coming outfielders that seemed to be the answer the Pirates were looking for. And after all of the carnage (losing Bay, Nady, and McLouth), Nyjer Morgan provided a burst of speed and a consistent bat in the lineup.  But of course, he too wasn't in the future plans of the organization...not that I think they have any discernable plans anyway.  

It is crystal clear that the Pirates don't have trouble saying "all good things must come to an end" because that is literally what they do every season. The Pirates have shipped off virtually every valuable player on their team in recent years. The joke of the century was the fact that the Pirates GM, Neal Huntington, was recently featured in ESPN The Magazine in a piece about young general managers that were supposedly on the rise. Give me a break! He has stripped the team completely. And the worst part about it is that he and the previous Pirates executives have waited until the player in question has an unbelievable year...for a few of them, their best year!

Now, I realize that there is a lot strategy that goes into running a professional sports team...I'm not that naive. Dealing established players for prospects is something that every team does from time to time, but when you do it on a cyclical basis, all you're doing is wedging yourself into a constant rebuilding phase. You get good prospects, they grow up to be solid players and then right when they have personal success, you dump them for new youngsters?  That is not the way to run a team! The Pirates players have even recently spoken out against the moves and I don't blame them. It is deflating to see the best players in your lineup move on to bigger and better things.  As a player, you want to be able to come to the ballpark with confidence in the people around you.  I don't think the Pirates players have that feeling about the executives. 

Usually when management makes a move, you can see where it's going, whether you support the decision or not.  But Pittsburgh's major moves in the past decade have been senseless and I frankly don't see the reasoning behind them.  Normally, I would advise trusting the people at the top because they have more experience and access to more information than the typical outsider.  However, I'm beginning to question both of those things in the Pirates case: do you really have the experience to be doing this?  Do you trust the people feeding you information?  

The bottom line is that the management is butchering this team.  Honestly, some decent players have come out of the Pirates farm system like Andrew McCutchen and Freddy Sanchez, but with the organization's recent track record of trading away their lone bright spots, should they be asking themselves "Am I next?"  If that is the case, then I hope they get out of Pittsburgh as quick as they can...their team is going nowhere fast.      

Friday, June 26, 2009

Neal's Live Blog from the Cubs/Sox Game

I have been fortunate enough to be able to go out into the field and cover both Cubs and White Sox baseball this summer, so thought it would be cool to kind of do a "Live From The Ballpark" post. I have my essential duties before and after the game, but during the game, I can sort of sit back and relax, so I figured that this time I would do something constructive. Here it goes:

12:30- A perfect summer day in Chicago. I arrive at the ballpark and pick up my media credentials. As I walk in, Ozzie Guillen and Sox GM Jerry Reinsdorf are addressing the media out by the front desk...huh, not the usual protocol. I opt to avoid the media frenzy...don't even have my recorder ready.

12:35- Head up to the press box to put my crap down so that I don't have to lug it around the field when I try to get pre-game audio.

12:45- I get situated in the Cubs dugout while the Sox are taking BP. I sit down in the dugout with other media personnel and Cubs infielders Andres Blanco and Jake Fox. Both super nice guys.

12:57- After a decent wait, Lou is finally here, just dying to talk with us (cough cough). He is in rare form today, kind of goofy mood. I bet he got a good night's sleep last night. Answered every question well and provided some great sound bites for all of the radio shows tonight...funny shit.

1:15- Hang out on the field for a bit to watch the Cubs take BP and watch Aramis Ramirez take some grounders. He's almost ready to come back from his injury! Looked pretty good. Also some good people watching time. The Cubs/Sox series attracts just about every media outlet possible. It was crazy.

1:30- Press box time. It's F'in hot as hell, so I'd like to be in the shade. Grab a little food, grab some soda, see what the lineups are for the day. Wow, Theriot with a day off at shortstop...weird! Thank god Jake Fox and Micah Hoffpauir are in the lineup. They've been hitting very consistently lately....and with a lot of power too.

2:00-Hangin' out. Reading about Michael Jackson's death. Terrible event. He made some great music to dance to, especially "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." Many of you guys may already know that I've declared that to be one of the most fun party songs.

2:30-Most of the media are up here now. Some are calling into radio shows, others writing stories. There seems to be quite a buzz about Sweet Lou's pre-game media session. All of the media seemed to be salivating over the material that he was able to feed them today. There will definitely be some good newspaper columns tomorrow.

3:08- Top of the first. Man, Contreras is dealing! He has been unhittable in his last 3 starts. Strikes out Soriano and Bradley....which I guess hasn't been too hard this year, but let's give Jose some credit for his pitching.

3:12- Jermaine Dye takes Randy Wells deep. Cubs love giving up those early inning homers.

3:18-Jake Fox doubles down the line for the Cubs. Man, this dude is locked in! Hit his 1st career bomb yesterday in Detroit. Great guy too, very good with the media. This is the guy that was leading nearly every minor league offensive category in the nation. We just need to find a consistent place for him in the field once Aramis Ramirez returns.

3:37- After a rare leadoff hit for the Cubs by Geovany Soto, what do you know ? A bunt caught by the pitcher, a strikeout by Soriano and a lineout by Kosuke Fukudome. Damnit!!

3:40- Good crowd on hand as always at the Crosstown Classic. Seems to be slightly more Sox today, which is no surprise seeing as we're playing at The Cell. Really great ballpark, especially since the renovations a few years back.

3:42- Scott Podsednik is up again. Singled in his first at-bat. This guy has been a monster for the Sox in the leadoff spot this year. Huge offseason pickup...and to think nobody else was going to sign him!

3:50- Game has quieted down. White Sox went 1-2-3 in the 3rd, Cubs haven't been able to string hits together. Wind seems to be blowing out though, Dye's homer didn't seem like it was hit that hard. Derrek Lee just singled. If it wasn't for yesterday, he would've had a 23 game hitting streak. I really think we're about to see some homers because of this wind.

3:53- What do you know!!! Jake Fox just went deep. 2-run shot!! This guy is unreal right now. He has 5 hits in his last 6 ABs with 2 HRs, 2 2Bs, and 5 RBIs. We need him in the lineup. The score is now 2-1 Cubs through 3 1/2 innings....I swear I'm writing this as I go. My home run prediction in the previous line was just a good call I guess.

3:58- Thome goes opposite field for a solo shot. The ball is flying out of here! We may have a slugfest on our hands. The weather is actually awesome now, not balmy like it has been. I think the lake breeze is helping a lot today. Wooo! Dye almost hit another one out, Soriano caught it a foot shy of the track and did his stupid little hop. He really needs to improve his fielding...and I don't think he will until he gets that knee fixed.

4:04- All of the media personnel snickers as Geo Soto nearly hits one out. "Your marijuana needs to make you just a bit more stronger," they say. Terrible joke. It was just discovered that he tested positive for weed during the World Baseball Classic. Woop-di-doo.

4:08-Milton with a great diving catch...I'd call that a Web Gem Nominee. Jake Fox also looking decent at the hot corner. They said that they've been really working with him on improving at the position. Whoa, whatta ya know! Geovany Soto actually gunned down a would-be base stealer...Gordon Beckham was the victim. His arm seems to be improving. Can't be worse than A.J. Pierzynski...last time I checked, he had thrown out only 8% of base stealers.

4:17- Top of the 6th now, Contreras tweaked his back after a pitch to Fukudome. That would be a terrible setback for him. By the way, he is to baseball what Greg Oden is to basketball. They each look like they could be 60 years old. Contreras is actually 37, but he looks elderly! Tied 2-2 through 5 1/2 innings.

4:24- Milton Bradley is now out of the game. Uh....ohhhh. Not another injury! Actually just got word that he may have thrown a tantrum in the dugout. Well, now Ryan Freel is in right field. The King of Small Ball, Scotty Pods, just laid down a perfect drag bunt down the 3rd base line. This guy is good!

4:36- Attendance is 39,015...only the 2nd sellout for the Sox this year. That is weak!

4:38- Geovany Soto says "In your eye!" to all of the people making fun of his marijuana admission. He just cracked a long 3-run homer to center field. 5-2 Cubs. Didn't stop the jokes from ringing through the press box. And oh by the way, before that, Jake Fox hit a single. His 2nd game in a row being a triple short of the cycle and we're only in the 7th. He'll get one more crack at it. This kid is amazing!

4:46- The old bunt down the baseline that the 3rd baseman waits to go foul and it never does. Nice leadoff single for Kosuke. Stolen base too! Wow the Cubs are actually manufacturing runs potentially?

4:59- Jake Fox at the dish. Could he go 4-for-4? Lines out to center....still a great game. We need him in the lineup on a daily basis.

5:00-Well that was kind of entertaining, but my live blog has to immediately come to an end. I have to go get post game sound in the locker rooms in a few minutes. Time to prepare! Still 5-2 after 8 1/2 innings.

After the game I was able to attend Lou Piniella's press conference as well as speak with Jake Fox, Geovany Soto, and Derrek Lee. All 3 guys are very cool. Lou was kind of pissed off despite the win because of a situation that occurred involving Milton Bradley. Big surprise! Bradley apparently threw his helmet down and busted the Gatorade cooler. So Piniella told him to go home in the middle of the game! Can't be good for team chemistry. The Bradley signing has really blown up in the Cubs face.

All in all, fun day at the park. Cubs and Sox. Ozzie and Lou. Gotta love it. Hope you enjoyed my "Cubs/Sox Live Blog."

Lou Says He Still Has The Fire, Doesn't Need To Show It

When a team struggles, people look for answers...and the Cubs just so happen to be in that position this season. The North Siders sit at one game under .500 (34-35) and seem to be playing about as inconsistent as humanly possible. Their performance this year has been nothing short of puzzling, so Cubs fans have started the Blame Train. For one reason or another, Lou Piniella seems to be a popular scapegoat. So today at U.S. Cellular Field, I was in the dugout before the game when Lou Piniella met with the media as usual. Only this time, Lou was ready to clear the air about people blaming things on him, which was a topic that he did his best to avoid up until this point.

So while the Cubs manager may seem quieter these days, he insists that his passion for the game hasn't wavered. "I've got as much fire as ever," says Piniella. "I just don't think that arguing with the umpires is going to help. I really would be making a fool of myself, like when I was younger." Sure, it may be surprising to hear that perspective from a man who was notorious for his tirades, but I understand what he is getting at here. He furthered his explanation by citing the fact that baseball is in a different era. Years ago, it may have been commonplace for a manager to sprint out of the dugout and put on an Oscar performance after a bad call, but maybe Piniella thinks that baseball has recently moved on from the base-throwing, dust-kicking, hat throwing antics.

"Arguing with umps isn't going to change anything," said Piniella. "If you want me to put on a show, I'll give you a show, but the league office is going to end up suspending me." I agree with him; I don't think he needs to go out there and argue. The bottom line is that a manager is hired to put the best lineup on the field, make the proper decisions during the game, and motivate his players as needed. Lou Piniella can't go stand behind his players at the plate and tell them when to swing nor can he can't go out there and pitch. It is up to the players. And the guy has done just about all he can do to try to get the team going. Whether it was changing the lineup, sending guys down, bringing guys up, or making situational moves, Piniella has tried everything that could possibly be a catalyst for this team's success.

I know that some culpability has to come with the manager's role, but when you have someone like Lou who has clearly tried everything across the board, it's exhausting to hear the amount of people calling for his head. You wouldn't believe how many angry Cubs fans we get calling into the radio show asking for Piniella to be fired. The question I always ask them first is "do you really think firing Lou Piniella would actually help the Cubs win more games?" Who else is going to come in? The manager of one of the minor league affiliates? Our pitching coach Larry Rothschild? Lou is the best person to have at the helm in this situation.

Firing coaches isn't always the best thing for a team. Exhibit A: Gerald Perry. The Cubs fired him from his position as hitting coach a few weeks ago because of all of the troubles they've had at the plate. Let's just say it hasn't made the wins start to magically appear. Perry ultimately took the blame for something that wasn't fully in his control. So when people want Lou Piniella out of his role as Chicago Cubs manager, I think that it's simply a cop-out. People want someone to blame, so they don't see why it shouldn't be the manager. But I don't think that is the way to handle a struggling baseball team...maybe in a different sport, but not baseball.

Look, all I'm saying is that the guy took us to division crowns the last two years. Now it's just a matter of actually playing up to our potential in the playoffs. Although the Cubs have struggled this year, they are still in the thick of things in the NL Central. "We are in it, we'll make a run, so just be patient," said Piniella in the dugout before the game. Hey, Lou has enough experience in baseball to be able to properly assess situations. So if he says that the Cubs still have yet to hit their sweet spot, then I'll take his word for it. Until then, people just need to relax and look at the season realistically. If you want to blame someone for the poor start, look at the guys with the bats in their hands. They are the ones who play the game...not Lou.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hansborough's Skill Set Won't Cut it in the NBA

When it comes to professional sports, athleticism reigns supreme. Dominant players in the upper ranks ultimately have success because they can jump high, hit hard, or run fast (among other abilities). Take a guy like Lebron James...he simply overpowers his opponents because is athletically superior. It's not the other guy's fault; it's just that he is hard to stop because of some of the things he can do on the court. In the end, that is the million dollar question: Can you stand up to the athleticism of the pros?

The reason why I'm bringing this up is because of an argument that I've heard many people having lately. As Thursday's NBA Draft approaches, there has been extensive media coverage of many of the league's potential newcomers. Blake Griffin, who will be chosen by the Clippers with the #1 overall pick, doesn't have any doubters regarding his athleticism. But others in the draft, and I'm going to go ahead and really go after Tyler Hansborough, may not be able to measure up to the league's premier athletes. Sure, Hansborough was the quintessential college basketball player...huge heart, maximum effort, mental and physical toughness, good student of the game. But he has never showed me the sheer atheltic ability and body size needed to succeed in the NBA.

Hansborough nearly reached legendary status at University of North Carolina with effort and passion as his driving forces. Those attributes made him a relentless player both mentally and physically and ultimately were the reasons that he was able to achieve so many great accolades. But outside of a handful of authoritative dunks, Hansborough never really showed above average athleticism. I'd even say that half the time he shot the ball, it looked like he was merely throwing it towards the basket, hoping for it to go in. Let's just say that "grace" should not be his middle name. Don't get me wrong, the guy made a hell of a name for himself doing everything it took to win...and he was rewarded for it. He was one of the centerpieces on two NCAA championship-winning teams under Roy Williams, so he is a proven winner. But none of that gets you anywhere at the next level. It's great that he loves the game of basketball and tries his ass off every minute he is on the floor, but the NBA is about physicality, size, and athleticism. You don't get an A for effort anymore.

While his effort may not be rewarded at the next level, his height will give him an advantage, right? Well let's see here...Hansborough is listed at 6' 10" in his NBA draft profile, but I've seen him listed several times at 6' 8" including his UNC player profile. I sure don't think he looks 6' 10", but let's just say he is. In the college game, a player is immediately considered to be at least a mild threat if he has that kind of size. In the professional game, it's more like "Okay, it's great that you're tall, but what else can you do?" Nearly everybody that plays the 3, 4, or 5 positions in the NBA is going to be pretty damn tall.

So if you now take Hansborough's height and throw it to the wayside, what else is he honestly going to do for an NBA team? He doesn't have a consistent shot, especially anything outside a mid-range jumper. He won't be able to make a living in the paint because he'll be guarded by players that are bigger and stronger. He's also not going to blow by anybody off the dribble because his ball-handling skills and speed are below average. Listen, I know I'm ragging on the kid, but there are too many people out there that truly believe Hansborough is going to be a household name in the NBA. I realize that if he works hard like he typically does, he will be able to improve under the tutelage of the nation's best basketball minds. But, in my opinion, you are sorely mistaken if you think Tyler Hansborough is going to burst on the NBA scene and make a splash. I think it will be a ripple at best if we're going to stick with the metaphor.

I understand the desire for your favorite college basketball players to succeed in the pros. I love following my favorite athletes from the college level, especially basketball. But sometimes your hopes for them are unrealistic. You also have to understand that the college game and pro game are very different. In college, effort, courage, enthusiasm, and passion go a long way, but in the pros the question solely becomes "are you athletic enough to compete?" Now I'm not saying any of those intangible attributes don't help you as a professional, but in the end, you need to be able to compete physically.

Hansborough is just another example of a player whose college game may not translate well to the professional game. It happens every year in sports. So as I look at this year's NBA draft field, I see guys like Hansborough, who did everything well in college, but may not succeed as a pro. On the other end of the spectrum, you take a guy like B.J. Mullens (Ohio St.) that looked like nothing more than a dead oak tree on the court last year. Mullens is expected to be a mid-first round pick because of his 7' 1" size. To be an elite player in the NBA, you have to have a specific set of skills and attributes...and unfortunately for guys like Hansborough, they may not have what it takes.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

2009 Season Will Be Lynch's Make-or-Break Moment

Indiana head football coach Bill Lynch came up big under pressure during the 2007 season.  His predecessor, Terry Hoeppner, who seemingly represented the program's ticket to success, died tragically of cancer after just one season at the helm.  So it was then-assistant head coach Bill Lynch that drew the job of taking over for the beloved Hoeppner.  It was always going to be a tall task for Lynch because Hoeppner's charisma, passion, and coaching style made him a tough act to follow.  "Coach Hep" as they like to call him in Bloomington brought strong hope to a previously lifeless football program.  And it was Lynch's job to uphold the promise that had set in the collective mind of Hoosier Nation. 

The pressure associated with the situation was great, but the new head man in Bloomington was up to the challenge.  Lynch was focused on the task at hand, going about his business with a calmness that seemed supernatural during such a hard time.  The Indiana players responded just as positively by performing well enough on the field to post a 7-6 record.  The winning season was good enough to clinch a berth in the Insight Bowl against a Big 12 opponent, Oklahoma State.  Despite a loss in the bowl game, Lynch's accomplishments dazzled Hoosier fans.  While the bowl game was the icing on the cake, there was no question that Lynch's crowning moment that season was Indiana's late-game victory against their intense rivals, Purdue.  Austin Starr's 49-yard field goal put the dagger in the Boilermakers, giving IU a 27-24 Old Oaken Bucket game victory.  If you're not familiar with the IU/PU rivalry, let's just say Lynch couldn't have picked a bigger game to win if he wanted to impress the Hoosier faithful.  And for that game to actually clinch the team's first bowl game berth since 1993 was impressive.  

Things seemed to be looking up for both Coach Lynch and his football program.  In fact, the unbelievable 2007 season led to Indiana's athletic department choosing Lynch to be the team's next official head coach.  Despite his great first-year efforts, many people familiar with the program were skeptical about the decision, feeling that IU could have perhaps gotten a bigger name.  But Lynch was apparently their guy and he was quickly offered a 4-year contract.  The question then quickly became whether or not Lynch would respond well to the pressure of a permanent head coaching position...the answer unfortunately slapped Hoosier fans in the face just months later...and not in a good way.  

Even after returning most of the players from the previous year, Lynch and his team struggled mightily last season.  The Hoosiers' schedule last season was favorable; the Big Ten gods allowed them to have a season free of both Michigan and Ohio State.  The out-of-conference games were against mid-majors at best.  But Indiana only notched one Big Ten win, and managed to get blown out in most of their losses.  The team looked lifeless and the swagger gained from the storybook season in 2007 was completely gone.  Lynch didn't have the answers to anybody's questions.  Frankly, I think both the Indiana fans and the Indiana athletic department (while they won't admit it) were left wondering if they made the right hire. 

Fast forward to this summer...Bill Lynch's Hoosiers are back on the field and preparing for battle.  Only this time, Lynch could be on a short leash.  Now I guess when I said "could," I really mean "should."  The fact is that Indiana's brass may not have the balls to ax Lynch even if he has a second straight brutal year.  But I think he should be on the hot seat.  When you go from a winning season and a great bowl game to a one-win Big Ten year, something obviously went wrong.  And as I said, the Hoosiers didn't even appear to be competitive.  In fact, Indiana dropped the most recent Old Oaken Bucket rivalry game to Purdue 62-10.  Don't tell me that the Boilermakers got that much better since the 27-24 win in Bloomington just a year before.   

Indiana football practically has a new stadium this year.  It features a beautiful addition with more seats, a state-of-the-art training facility, and an IU Sports Hall of Fame.  And on top of that excitement, there are still a great deal of Indiana football fans out there that still cling to the hope and energy of the 2007 run.  But one more bad season under Lynch could completely kill what the program still has going for them.  Lynch passed with flying colors in the wake of Terry Hoeppner's death, being able to downplay the great deal of pressure.  But then Lynch failed under the pressure of trying to prove himself as an official head coach the following year. For me, this next season will be the real test for Lynch.  Will he reach back and grab the fire from 2007 or will he revert to the embarrassment of last year?  

The Hoosiers won't get a break from the scheduling gods this year.  As a matter of fact, after a few cupcake non-conference tilts, Indiana will kick off the Big Ten season against the big boys, away at Michigan and home against Ohio State.  So while I won't be ready to crucify Coach Lynch after those games, the season as a whole will ultimately give me enough insight on what he can accomplish moving forward at IU.  And I'll put it out there right now...I'm skeptical.  I'd at least like to see him show some emotion this year!

I realize that very few people care about Indiana football in comparison to an SEC school or something, but the program is very close to becoming a mainstay in the Big Ten contender discussion.  I've got to give Lynch credit on his recruiting.  The classes the past few years have looked pretty good, but I feel like you can only wait so long for them to get going.  So as a fan, I really believe that the university needs to be very careful with Lynch because if they have another season full of blowout losses, the program could go back in the tank.  It would be a shame to see the nice new stadium addition go to waste and it would be awful to see the hope that Hoeppner instilled dissipate.  I think Bill Lynch is a good man with positive intentions and a great passion for football, but that isn't going to change the fact that I think he should be on a short leash this season.  Because when you've got a program on the brink of success, you can't afford to mess around for too long. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

If U.S. Soccer Wants Real Success, They Must Turn To The Experts

After watching the U.S. men’s soccer team play the other day against Italy in the Confederations Cup, I was left with a feeling of emptiness.  Something appeared to be missing; something that would bring a whole new dynamic to the team’s results.  So I thought for awhile, was it the players’ overall performance?  Was it the gameplan? Or was it poor coaching? 

While I consider all three of the above options to be part of the overall problem I have with the U.S. team, I decided on a bigger issue as the main culprit.  And it’s quite simple…the U.S. Soccer Federation has not made a big enough commitment towards success.  Now, yes that could include the coaching, the gameplans, and some of the player selections, but it starts from the top.  In my opinion, the people overseeing the operation have it all wrong.

Let’s start with the coaching position.  Bob Bradley, the current coach, had great success in the MLS.  Heck, I will even say that his time as head coach of the national team has gone pretty well so far.  But we often times in sports hear about someone’s “ceiling.”  By that I mean, what is someone’s highest potential?  For Bradley, I think he has nearly reached it.  All he knows is soccer.  He doesn’t know “football” or “futbol” or “calcio.”  By that I mean, his experience lacks an international flavor; it’s limited to America’s version of the sport. Since that is the case, I just don’t think he has much more to offer.  It’s not his fault, but we need more versatility to succeed. 

My proposal is to bring in a foreign coach with international experience.  And before you offer your rebuttal to this proposal, let me anticipate your question of “You really think a bigtime international coach wants to coach an American soccer team?”  Well yes I do.  I can see where someone is coming from if they cite the fact that most of the world thinks that American soccer is a joke.  But let’s think about this here.  In recent history, the U.S. men’s national team coaching position has been a great gig, not by winning standards, but more in regards to the lack of job pressure.  There has been HARDLY ANY pressure associated with the U.S. job.  There are low standards and low expectations, so the job security for the coach has been very good.  As long as you qualify for the World Cup out of CONCACAF, you’ve done your job.  That’s it.  And maybe if the U.S. Soccer Federation gets extra stern, you could be subject to a firing if you lose all 3 of your 1st round World Cup games.  Rough task…I think it would be a fun project for a foreign coach to tackle.  

There hasn’t been anything in a U.S. coach’s mind in recent years to suggest that they better get their act together and actually get something done.  The pressure is practically 100% off.  So what I’d like to see is a clear-cut message from the leaders of the Federation simply saying that mediocrity will not be good enough to keep your job.  In European soccer and in most of the international ranks, managers or coaches are on the hot seat constantly.  If you don’t win, you don’t remain coach.  It’s as simple as that.  Now, I don’t think we need to get that harsh because it’s important to develop your own style within the sport, but for god’s sake, the U.S. Soccer Federation needs to change their standard for success. 

I think an international coach is a start.  Take a guy like Guus Hiddink.  He is native of the Netherlands and as a player, he was a pretty good goalscorer in the Dutch First Division. As a coach, he led the South Korean national team to a 4th place finish in the 2002 World Cup, he took the Netherlands team to a 4th place finish in the 1998 World Cup, he led Australia’s team to the 2nd round in the 2006 World Cup, and he took the Russian national team to the semi-finals in the Euro 2008.  So this guy has successfully coached teams who speak 4 different languages on the international level.  Not to mention the fact that he just salvaged Chelsea’s season in the English Premier League this year.  There are other coaches out there like him too.  Ireland and England are both coached by Italian men.  Now take into account the living situation and the income that the U.S. coaching position would bring, and you’ve got a pretty sweet deal. 

As far as the American players go, I don’t think they are necessarily the problem.  There just needs to be someone, as I mentioned earlier, who is experienced enough to properly manage them.  There are a lot of U.S. players that play over in Europe.  Some of them have improved since moving overseas, and others have suffered due lack of playing time.  It’s very important to look at all of them, but you also can’t forget some of the players in the MLS.  The MLS is clearly at a lower-level than most European leagues, but they house a lot of players that possess great attitudes and impressive work ethics.  And sometimes, I think the U.S. team is missing that fire.  But it's all about choosing the right mix of players as your recipe for success.  Right now, it looks like our team lacks chemistry. 

The international manager is also probably going to be better in terms of understanding player roles and formulating game plans.  Again, these worldly coaches have seen it all, whereas the strictly American soccer-raised coaches don’t exactly see the whole picture.  Properly evaluating talent and creating a strategy to correspond with it is a very key aspect of coaching international soccer.  I think guys like Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley lack in that area….It’s not their fault either.  The people at the top are appointing these men and although they do the best they can, it just hasn’t been good enough. 

For years now, United States soccer has settled for “average.”  We’ve seen that mentality portrayed as recent as this week when the U.S. players were quoted as saying that the Confederations Cup was just a way to “see where they are in their preparation for the World Cup next year.”  How about having enough damn confidence in yourselves to say “hey let’s go out and win a few of these games!”  And even though the players are the ones saying those things, it speaks more to the overall mantra of U.S. national soccer.  So I say change is needed.  They’ve got to put their nationalistic hiring practices aside and realize that if they really want to do their country proud, they will actually get the guts to employ some international expertise…because after all, soccer is the WORLD’s game.           

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Two Risks That The Bears Should Be Willing To Take

Okay, okay, maybe the recent risk that the Cubs took on the North Side hasn't worked out so far. If I must spell it out for you, then I will: M-I-L-T-O-N. Of course, he still has awhile to turn things around and save Jim Hendry from looking like a complete moron. But the fact is, Bradley's explosive temper and high injury concerns flashed as bright as the Las Vegas strip when he was on the market, but the Cubs still opted for him.

Sometimes in sports, there are risks that you have to take. And they wouldn't be labeled as such if there wasn't a chance that they might not work out. Unfortunately, Bradley is on the negative side thus far. Now, I've got another risk that a different Chicago team should highly consider taking. The Bears should make a trade for Brandon Marshall or sign Plaxico Burress. I understand that you might be laughing because of the idiocy these two men have portrayed in recent months. But I figure, why not? Live a little. I mean, the Bears have historically been a team with extremely small cojones when it comes to pulling off bigtime transactions. However, if the Jay Cutler move is any indication of a change, then the Bears might as well keep the train rolling and pursue a playmaker for him to throw the ball to.

I realize that in a blog earlier in the summer, I wrote that the Bears current receiving core is serviceable. I still wholeheartedly believe that. But take the recent developments involving Marshall and Burress and mix them with what I heard on the radio today about what the Bears would have to give up in a trade, I'm feeling good about this risk. Today, I was listening to ESPN Radio 1000 in Chicago and they were talking about trading for Marshall. The guys were saying that everybody they've talked to have said that the Bears would probably only have to give up Devin Hester and a 4th round draft pick. I nearly drove off the road! It could be early speculation, and I think that would be a little unrealistic. But let's just say Denver loved Hester that much for the sake of argument. It would be a no-brainer for the Bears.

Sure, Devin Hester has explosive talent, but ever since he started to focus on getting better as a receiver, his kick return skills didn't just diminish, they vanished completely! If the Bears wanted to wait around for awhile, I'm sure he could become an above average wideout, but when a guy like Brandon Marshall comes around, you've got to look long and hard at the situation. As good as Hester may get, he still has below average size and lacks versatility in route-running. Marshall has the prototypical NFL receiver mold and has a special connection on the field with newly-acquired Jay Cutler. Regarding Marshall's off-the-field incidents, he said that he was a changed man and wouldn't make any more mistakes (That is up to him of course, who knows if he actually means it). There is no doubt that he'd be a risk because from all accounts the guy is a complete nut-job. But the connection with Cutler and the meager assets the Bears would have to give up, I'd say that this risk is worth a very aggressive try.

The other possibility is of course Plaxico Burress. I could go on and on about how big of an idiot he is for shooting himself and then trying to cover it up by saying his name was "Harris Smith" at the hospital...but I'll leave it at that and move on. Besides that incident, Burress has for the most part been nothing more than a great receiver and a pretty loyal teammate. He hasn't continuously pulled a "TO" and left teams after a few years when he wanted a change, he was loyal to the Steelers and stuck with the Giants until...well you know.

While the Bears aren't swimming in money right now, they do have the funds to sign "Plax" to a deal if they wanted him bad enough. Both options (Burress and Marshall) are fairly viable and either player would make more of an impact on the Bears than they would on any other team in the league...hands down. Chicago had settled for a mediocre quarterback for a few decades until the Cutler acquisition. So all I'm saying, risk or not, why not end the period of settling for mediocre receivers too? It makes sense and the fact that Marshall already has a good relationship with Cutler is the icing on the cake.

Again, sometimes in sports you have to take risks. They might work, they might not, but the Bears could have never dreamed that Plaxico Burress would shoot himself and get released by the Giants or that Brandon Marshall would demand a trade this late in the game. When situations like these arise, a risk is the best option sometimes because you never know when it'll come around again. Take this as an example...The Patriots clearly thought Randy Moss was a risk because all they gave up was a 5th round draft choice. How'd that work out? Pretty damn well. So while you may sit there and nitpick by saying Moss is different, he's really not. That risk worked better than New England could have ever imagined, and the Bears could be next in line. But we aren't going to know unless the trigger gets pulled...and not by Plaxico.