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!