Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ben vs. Tiger

I have intentionally avoided writing a post about Tiger Woods. I thought I might write about his comeback at the Master's and his reception back in the spotlight, but his anti-climatic finish prevented me from putting forth an effort. I eluded that Tiger was getting what he deserved in a past post, but have not expounded on that idea.

The sex scandal that sent Tiger into seclusion and eventually sex rehab caught the world's attention and everyone had an opinion. My grandmother starts every sentence referring to Woods with, "That sonofabitch..."

Understandably, the majority of the outrage came from women. It seems like most women put themselves in the place of Woods' wife Elin Nordegren, which fueled their distaste for the entire situation.

As far as I'm concerned, the personal lives of athletes should not be exploited by the media unless they are doing the public harm. I don't feel that I have the right to know what goes on in Tiger's bedroom. Everyone, even the most famous athlete on the planet, deserves some level of privacy.

Does that mean I think what he did was right?

Of course not. No one does.

But it doesn't effect me to the point of thinking about it constantly. What does effect me is when I try to watch a golf tournament without Tiger. I have become a fan of golf over the last several years, but there is no doubt, regardless of your stance on Tiger, the tournaments are more interesting with his inclusion.

The scandal highlighted more problems than just adultery in Tiger's life. It was an opportunity for many to comment on his demeanor around people. He is well known for being a baby on the course. Cussing and throwing temper tantrums are a part of his game. So too was a coolness toward his gallery. The PR spinsters all related his lack of approachability to his "extreme focus," but it definitely rubbed people the wrong way.

There are unconfirmed stories and reports that his behavior towards fans is not just cool on the course, but off of it, as well. He doesn't sign autographs, doesn't make eye contact, and infrequently acknowledges fans existence. He has been exposed as notoriously cheap despite being recently named as the first billionaire athlete.

Basically, he was never a guy we should have made a role model. Unfortunately, we translate athletic success to morality when there are only a few rare examples of true role models in sports.

So Tiger is dealing with an assault on his overall character, not just his faithfulness. There are no problems with his behavior that sex rehab can fix. Good looking, super rich, supremely talented, world famous, it all translates into entitlement. It's pretty common with professional athletes. While he might have sought it out, he didn't have to look too hard. He was weak. He needs to decide what type of person he wants to be and act accordingly.

Despite this, I just want to see the guy play golf. I don't care what he does off the course because he's an ass even he is faithful to his wife. But he is interesting to watch, and he didn't do anything illegal.

So let's talk about someone who did do something illegal.

Ben Roethlisberger appears to be a serial rapist. In a lifetime of listening to reports and allegations against athletes, his case might be the most troubling.

After being accused of rape by a Tahoe casino employee last year (civil suit still pending), Big Ben found himself in trouble again this off season when a 20 year old college student accused him of rape. They've thrown the term sexual assault around, but according to her statement and the police report, it was rape.

Let me preface my comments by saying I almost always side with the male athletes in cases like this. They are such easy targets, and none of them have trouble finding sex. So for a woman looking to score a buck or notoriety, it's the perfect play. If we as a society condemn every athlete for an unfounded claim of sexual assault, lives and careers will be ruined by lies.

When the casino employee filed a civil suit against Roethlisberger my immediate reaction was, "B.S." The facts of the case didn't add up. Here's a woman who alleged she was raped, but didn't file criminal charges because she was afraid for her job. She didn't report the incident until a year after it supposedly occurred. At the time I didn't believe Ben would need to rape anyone if he wanted sex, and it seemed like a cheap ploy for money.

Ben said all the right things in the media, and even though the case is still pending, no one really latched on and made a big deal out of the situation. I guess that's why he believed there was nothing wrong with hanging out at college bars and getting under age girls wasted in March.

Who knows what he was thinking? The fact is, the allegations made against him are graphic and startling. The story is corroborated by two of the accuser's friends, and there are countless inconsistencies in the investigation.

After an extensive investigation, the criminal charges were dropped by Ocmulgee Circuit District Attorney Fred Bright who said, "We don't prosecute morals. We prosecute crimes." He eluded that there were missing pieces of the investigation that would prevent a "viable prosecution," but his tone was one of reprimand for Roethlisberger.

If nothing else, this statement indicates something bad went down that night. So why aren't they prosecuting? The DA said there were varied accounts due to the amount of alcohol used by the accuser (partly supplied by Roethlisberger) which would prevent a conviction. The medical examination that took place after the complaint was inconclusive. Eventually during the investigation, the accuser became wary of all the media attention and decided not to pursue because of the amount of personal intrusion a trial would create.

There are several troubling facts about the investigation starting with the forced resignation of Sergeant Jerry Blash, the only officer to interview Roethlisberger after the complaint. Apparently, he and Ben became chummy that night, and had even posed for pictures together. Blash reportedly dissuaded the accuser from pursuing a criminal charge because Roethlisberger "had a lot of money."

Add that to the fact two men identified by the witnesses as Roethlisberger's "bodyguards" were off duty police officers, and the video tape from the bar was recorded over after the initial investigators viewed it, and you got a cover up.

Ben's two cop buddies are in trouble too. The accuser claims she was led into an empty room by one of Roethlisberger's "bodyguards" where he left and Ben entered and exposed himself. She told Roethlisberger, "this is not okay," and left the room entering the first door she came to which was the bathroom. She goes on to say that Ben entered behind her and had sex with her despite her protests.

According to her friends, while this was going on they were trying to recover the accuser from Ben, but another "bodyguard" blocked their way, unable to look them in the eye.

Roethlisberger has maintained his innocence, but had the demeanor of someone who just got away with something when the criminal charges were dropped. At the very best, Ben is guilty of providing alcohol for underage college girls, exposing himself in public, and having sex in a bar bathroom. He has admitted all these indiscretions.

During the press conference, DA Bright continued to refer to the accuser as the "victim." Even worse for Ben is that no one on his team spoke out on his behalf. They just stayed out of it. Roethlisberger has been criticized for how he conducts himself off of the field, and true or not true, his teammates are tired of it. Pretty amazing a two time Super Bowl winning QB has no one in his corner.

In one of the more humorous consequences, makers of Big Ben's Beef Jerky have decided to drop their sponsor and find someone less controversial to promote their dried meat snacks. Ouch.

Unfortunately, that is one of the worst things that will happen to Ben. He met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell last week and a punishment is definitely coming despite the dropped case. Roethlisberger agreed in advance to accept whatever punishment is handed out which seems like a strange reaction for an innocent man.

So Tiger doesn't sound so bad now, does he? Regardless of what you might think of his actions, he didn't rape anyone. I really don't need to hear much more of the case to assume Roethlisberger did, possibly twice, maybe more. Just like Tiger, more claims against Ben for indecent exposure and groping have surfaced since the latest claim. It is unfortunate that he has escaped criminal charges, because his behavior and demeanor suggests he will do it again.

I never liked Ben Roethlisberger. He sounds like an idiot when he talks, and apparently he is. I never thought he was that good of a QB. It would be a lot easier for the Steelers to replace Roethlisberger than it would be for Roethlisberger to replace the Steelers. I hope he is at least suspended the entire year and traded to Oakland. Since we can't lock the guy up, that would be the next best thing.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Like Mike

The NBA playoffs start tomorrow, and for me the season is just beginning. I was able to keep up with the NBA, but I didn't dig in and watch too many games from start to finish. Now that the field is pared down to 16 with the non competitive teams removed, I can get excited about upcoming games.


Chicago Bulls vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

If it weren't for Kevin Durant, LeBron James might be the unanimous winner of the MVP. Cleveland had another excellent regular season in the LeBron era and added some interesting components for the playoff run. Antawn Jamison and Shaq could prove very valuable additions, especially when they meet Orlando. Guarding Dwight Howard is the only reason the Cavs signed Shaq who has been injured/resting most of the season. It doesn't look like much else can get in LeBron's way to the Finals.

Chicago is very young and a big underdog in this series. That status was set before reports surfaced that head coach Vinny Del Negro got into a "physical altercation" with vice president of basketball operations John Paxson. Doesn't look good for the Bulls. Derrick Rose and a host of talented young players overachieved, but it's not their time.

I like Cleveland to sweep this series in what probably is the most lopsided pairing of the playoffs.

Cavs win 4-0

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Atlanta Hawks

Doesn't it seem like the Hawks have become playoff veterans? After almost derailing the Celtics championship run two seasons ago, they won a playoff series last season and just finished their best regular season in 13 years, hearkening to the days Mookie Blaylock ran the point. The Hawks averaged the fewest turnovers in the NBA and enjoy a rebounding advantage over the Bucks.

I have to admit I don't know much about Milwaukee, but I do know they far exceeded their expectations this year. They seem to have a bevy of capable role players. Unfortunately they just lost center Andrew Bogut to injury, and while Brandon Jennings is capable of scoring 50 on a good night, he is way too young to lead an underdog.

Hawks win 4-1

Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics

It's no secret that Boston's Big Three have showed their age since their championship two seasons ago. Without point guard Rajon Rondo this team would be downright slow. But Kevin Garnett is finally healthy and the Celtics are full of star power and experience. There is some concern that Boston did not have a strong finish to the season, but they did go 3-0 against Miami this year.

The Heat were hot to end the season and hope to continue the momentum going into the playoffs. Dwayne Wade has been out of the best NBA player conversations since his injury two seasons ago, but he has quietly picked up where he left off after winning the championship in 2006. The problem for the Heat is the lack of quality role players and depth around Wade. The pivotal matchup will be Michael Beasley against Garnett. Advantage Celtics.

This should be a great series. The Heat are 19-2 lifetime in playoff games that Wade scores 30, and he had no problem scoring in games against Boston this year. In the end I think the series goes to seven but Boston is better.

Celts win 4-3

Charlotte Bobcats vs. Orlando Magic

Orlando won the East last year getting by Lebron and the Cavs. It doesn't look like there is much else that will stand in their way again this year. Barring a Vince Carter blow up (which has happened before), super center Dwight Howard and the Magic are destined to meet the Cavs again in the Eastern Finals.

Charlotte is a feel good story this year. Head coach Larry Brown continues to amaze everyone in basketball with his successful reclamation projects. Guard Steven Jackson has proven to be a weapon in the postseason and could help the Bobcats steal a game or two.

If the Magic play their game this shouldn't be too competitive.

Magic win 4-1


Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Los Angeles Lakers

So the Thunder made the playoffs. Now what?

Oklahoma City has every reason to be proud of their team, and this season should have at least met every fans expectations. But after losing momentum via hard fought games late in the season, the Thunder have their backs against the wall against the world champion Los Angeles Lakers. The same Lakers that boast four rings on the fingers of Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson. The same Lakers that are basically the Bulls of the 1990s. Don't believe me? Take a look.

Phil Jackson = (100%) of Phil Jackson
Kobe Bryant = (90%) of Michael Jordan
Lamar Odom = (70%) of Scottie Pippen
Ron Artest = (80%) of Dennis Rodman
Pau Gasol = (120%) of Toni Kukoc
Andrew Bynum = (135%) of Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, Bill Cartwright, Will Perdue
Shannon Brown= (100%) of Ron Harper
Jordan Farmar= (80%) of John Paxson/Steve Kerr
Derek Fischer= (90%) of B.J. Armstrong

I'd say they're roughly 80% similar to the most dominating dynasty of the past 30 years. Bad news for the Thunder. In no logical way should anyone believe the Thunder have a chance to win more than two games in this series, yet I get the feeling this draw might be a blessing in disguise for OKC.

For every team but one the season ends in disappointment. Thunder fans should be happy that their young team provided some great moments this season and got themselves in the playoffs. But that's not enough for any true sports fan. No matter the circumstance, you want to see your team win the championship. If they are in the playoffs they have a chance, and if they're going to win it all, at some point it is going to go through L.A. Why not the first round?

There has been some disconnect in the Lakers locker room and the Thunder are one of the most cohesive teams in the NBA. The series has Lakers head coach Phil Jackson's attention enough to start lobbying referees while simultaneously trying to psyche out OKC's 21 year old superstar Kevin Durant by publicly saying Durant gets too many foul calls.

The Thunder are blessed with talent surrounding the NBA's scoring champion but lack playoff experience. It seems too early for this team, but the future is very bright. The only chance for OKC is to win early in L.A. and hope team Kobe implodes with frustration.

Lakers win 4-2

Utah Jazz vs. Denver Nuggets

Most analysts have predicted this to be the hardest fought series of the first round. Denver has been fighting emotions with the absence of head coach George Karl due to cancer treatment. The Nuggets played poorly without Karl, but they were also playing without forward Kenyon Martin who will be back for the playoffs. Consistent playoff performer Chauncey Billups' leadership will be crucial and Carmelo Anthony will need to play up to his superstar potential.

Utah is the same team they have always been. Solid from top to bottom and competitive. They have been one of the most consistent franchises since the 80s. Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer try to replicate the chemistry of John Stockton and Karl Malone. The Jazz have to start the series on the road and were 1-3 this season against Denver. Injuries also hampered Utah at the end of the season and health is a concern for Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko.

Challenges for both teams should make for interesting competition.

Nugs win 4-3

San Antonio Spurs vs. Dallas Mavericks

Every year looks like the year Dallas will finally rise up in the West and challenge the Lakers. This year is no different and they finished the season sharp. The addition of Shawn Marion with superstar Dirk Nowitzki and veteran Jason Kidd solidify the chances of the Mavs this season. They appear to be very deep with perennial sixth man of the year candidate Jason Terry adding points off the bench. Nowitzki and the Mavs have built a reputation of under performing in the postseason.

Just when everyone was counting the Spurs out, here they are back again with a solid core of starters that have won championships in the past. The health of Manu Ginobli has always been a big story and he appears to be ready for the series. Unfortunately, one team Dallas feels comfortable playing is the Spurs. I think San Antonio's lack of depth will cause them to fizzle early.

Mavs win 4-2

Portland Trail Blazers vs. Phoenix Suns

Much like the Spurs, the Phoenix Suns are back in the playoffs riding momentum that most thought they wouldn't be able to capture. The talk about the Suns focused on trade rumors surrounding Amare Stoudemire. The two sides worked out their differences and perennial MVP candidate Steve Nash put together another brilliant season to lead Phoenix back to the playoffs.

Portland has steadily improved over the last few years despite whiffing big time on Greg Oden in the draft. They continued to build and add talent creating an excellent franchise. The bad news is they will have to play without superstar Brandon Roy. Without their anchor, Phoenix should be able to run over Portland.

Suns win 4-2

That's how I see the first round. The script usually reads according to plan in the NBA. With every series being seven games, it's hard for the underdogs to sneak past tough teams. While there will be several hard fought and interesting series, I would expect the elite teams to be there until the end. I will refrain from making picks beyond the first round, but I can't imagine many big upsets this season.

Good luck to the Thunder, I'll be rooting for you. But it's Kobe's world and the Lakers will have to beat themselves for OKC to move on.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Philadelphia Fans Strike Again

Yo Philly!

Yo Philly is a saying my family and I developed over four years of living just outside of Philadelphia. After moving from the west coast to Pennsylvania, I began thinking something was wrong with me. Everywhere I went I was annoying people. For a long time, I took the atmosphere personally.

The cheesesteaks and Italian hoagies are worthy of their legendary praise, but so too is the east coast stigma of being cantankerous. I couldn't buy a pack of gum without feeling insulted. Eventually I figured out that the city is just full of pricks that are unhappy with themselves. Whenever I was subject to that attitude I would just think, "Yo Philly!"

That attitude becomes a collective monster inside Philadelphia sports stadiums. Philly sports fans have been justly maligned as the world's worst since the sixties when they famously threw snowballs at Santa Claus during an Eagles game. The incident achieved folklore status and has been greatly exaggerated, but what isn't exaggerated is how awful Philly fans can be.

Safety is a serious concern for any opposing fan or player. Just ask J.D. Drew. In his first visit to Philadelphia fans threw D-cell batteries at the outfielder nearly resulting in a home team forfeit.

July, 2009, a man was beaten to death outside of Citizens Bank Ball Park, the same day a Phillies game had to be temporarily stopped due to a fan shining a laser pointer in the face of St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols.

There are countless tales of horror from fans attending games in Philadelphia, and I can tell you first hand, these are not exaggerated. These people will boo anything. It was sitting in those stands that led me to take a no booing stance (other than anything Longhorns) as a youngster.

Perhaps former New York Giants star Michael Strahan described it best, "Philadelphia is the only place where you pull up on the bus and you've got the grandfather, grandmother, grandkids, kids, everybody flicking you off."

The city also produced highlights like heckling Philly native Kobe Bryant at the 2002 All Star Game. But their crowning achievement came when Eagles fans cheered as Michael Irvin laid motionless from a neck injury that would end his career.

Yo Philly!

If being an opposing player or fan is bad, actually playing for the city is worse. Fans and media are directly responsible for running a number of marquee players out of town before their time. Ask Allen Iverson, Scott Rolen, Eric Lindros, and Randall Cunningham.

Charles Barkley says he is one of the few that wasn't run out by the media, but they still got tired of the Barkley era and traded him to Phoenix where he led the Suns to the NBA Finals.

No matter how great you are or have been, Philly fans will eventually burn you if you aren't winning championships every year. Anything less than perfect play is not tolerated, and no star is above getting booed. These fans would boo their own daughter at a youth basketball game.

Bob Uecker said about Philly fans, "I saw a drunk fall out of the upper deck. They booed when he tried to get up."

Beloved Philadelphia Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt thought his brilliant career would have been better appreciated somewhere else after retiring.

One year removed from a World Series title, Philly fans called for the benching of MVP winning shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

Long time Temple head basketball coach John Chaney calls Philly fans, "the worst in the world."

You get the point.

Donovan McNabb is latest victim of Philly's insane fanatic behavior. The greatest quarterback in the history of the Philadelphia Eagles just got shown the door to the delight of nearly every Eagles fan. McNabb is another carcass in the trail of dead former Philadelphia sports heroes.

McNabb led the Eagles to four consecutive NFC East championships, five NFC championship games, one Super Bowl, and leads in every major statistical passing category in team history. During his tenure Eagles fans became spoiled knowing they could win every football game they entered. More often than not they did with McNabb. By the way, they booed this guy on draft day.

Think of it this way. The only year the Eagles reached the Super Bowl was the only year they had another big time offensive player on their team, and it was team dividing Terrell Owens. McNabb was clearly the best player on the team and couldn't get over the hump because the rest of the talent was not up to par. Without McNabb, fans would really have something to complain about. Now they'll get their chance.

Be careful what you wish for should be the mantra for Philly fans. Do they really think they will be better off with McNabb somewhere else within the division? I don't think so. There is no way anyone can say Kevin Kolb is a better choice right now. McNabb is only 33. The city gave up on him when they should be blaming nearly everyone else. Philly fans aren't the type to sit back and wait for a QB to develop. They wanted McNabb gone because they honestly feel they have a better chance to win a Super Bowl with a guy who has never been a regular starter.

The Eagles are primed with young offensive talent and are known for putting tough defenses on the field. Defense was a problem for the Eagles at the end of last season, but they have enjoyed success against their rivals for a long time. Dallas was due to win a couple.

So why make the move now? The Eagles have played with a running back that was a game time decision for three years which made their offense rely heavy on passing. Most teams would struggle with this imbalance, but McNabb put up great numbers. No quarterback is perfect, and McNabb wasn't either, but he's a winner and I would take him over Kolb in a second.

If I were an Eagles fan I would be upset. If I was an Eagles season ticket holder I would be incensed. There is no way the product on the field next year will be as good as last. You cannot take a guy with two career starts and anoint him better than a legend. Even Aaron Rodgers needed a year to get good, and he still is yet to win a playoff game.

What does that make Kolb's time table? I predict two games. When the Eagles start 0-2 the entire city, including media will be calling for Michael Vick to get the start and Kolb's confidence will be irreparably shaken.

Philly fans have been collectively brain washed thanks to their fictitious boxing champion, Rocky. They are still waiting for the underdog to come from total obscurity and take them to the top. It takes someone of Barkley's mentality to survive in a city like Philadelphia. And just to remind you, Barkley has done way more than his fair share of creepy things right down to spitting on a child during a game. What a guy. I guess that's why fan and media criticism didn't bother him.

McNabb goes to a tough situation in Washington because of the inept Redskins offensive line. One thing is certain. New head coach Mike Shanahan will have an offense that runs the ball which should take some pressure off McNabb. At 33, McNabb still has time to integrate into a new system with a proven head coach that took another 30+ "wash out" named John Elway and made him a two time Super Bowl champion.

Washington has no shortage of resources and the city is just as passionate about putting a winner on the field as Philly. I believe this to be the right mix for the Skins and once the O line gets solid, they will win with McNabb at QB. Don't be surprised when the success of the Eagles fades into mediocrity and the Redskins ascend the NFC East ladder.

The best part is that Philly will have no one to blame but themselves. So many cliches come to mind. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. The grass is always greener. You never know what you got before it's gone. Hindsight is 20-20.

Right now the entire nation is shaking their head, and Eagles fans are celebrating. They demand a champion as payback for having to live in such a hard and cruel city. That cruelty gets redirected on their sports stars and the seat is always hot. Don't expect any sympathy if you play in Philly. Don't even expect rationality. For some fans, winning is worse than losing because they have to find new ways to express their disgust for life. Throwing batteries at a world champion would be ugly even for a Philadelphian. Getting rid of McNabb makes sure that the Eagles will have plenty to complain about next year.

The city of brotherly love.

Yo Philly!

Monday, April 5, 2010

An Ode to Opening Day

I know Alexander Pope wasn't referring to baseball when he penned, "Hope springs eternal," but to many baseball fans (including myself), those words ring true every April. Optimism runs like the rapids of the Rogue River even in a sport so critically flawed by salary and payroll imbalances. Without optimism, being a San Diego Padres fan would be nearly impossible. I can't imagine life without baseball, and without strong ties to a team being a fan would be meaningless. So I love the Padres, and I love opening day.

I must admit that I do get a certain perverse satisfaction from being a fan of a continually failing franchise. There aren't many people outside southern California (and even in southern California) that are rocking Padres gear. Baseball fans all over the country give me credit for sticking by my team and not being afraid to show it. My obsession goes further than most know, as I am sure I am the only person in the state of Texas who purchased the MLB Extra Innings package to follow the Padres out of market.

Although the Padres traditionally function as a farm club for major league teams with money, I am still on the edge of my seat following the progression of every player, every year. More often than not, my team is at the bottom of the payroll chain making player retention nearly impossible. Young talent gets their start in San Diego until they really develop and are traded away for more "future" talent. It is maddening, and I do as much complaining about ownership and management as I do rooting for my team. You could build an all star team with former Padres, and the worst part is every player says they love playing in San Diego, and most make their off season home there. Still, it's better than being a Cubs fan.

But none of that matters today, and that is why opening day is such a magical time for every baseball fan. While most analysts give four teams an honest chance to win it all, every team starts today in first place. Most Padres fans feel pretty good about the team this year. They are under new ownership and the team has a youthful feel built around speed which is much more important today as steroids are phased out of the game. The starting pitching is suspect at best, but they added a solid starter and play in the most pitcher friendly ball park in the majors. There are some really exciting young players that are sure to be stars for someone else one day, but right now they are Padres, and they should be able to compete on a nightly basis.

I could write a 50 thousand word essay on why the lack of a salary cap and the MLB players union have destroyed the game. I could tell you why American League baseball is not really baseball because of the inclusion of the designated hitter. I could complain endlessly that the Padres won't be able to afford to keep hometown hero Adrian Gonzalez, and that over the last 25 years I have been witness to the worst personnel management in the game.

But I won't. Nope. Today I will tell you that baseball is the purest sport in existence. No other sport fuses specialized physical skill and endless strategy like baseball. For sports fans that say baseball is boring, I would simply say, you don't understand the game. When you do understand baseball, every pitch is exciting. With every ball thrown towards a batter there are 50 players and 12 coaches trying to think one step ahead of their opponent.

I can't deny that the fan experience and competition of the league has led football (both college and NFL) to reign supreme in this country. For those that read my posts, you know that my passion for football is enormous. The structure and pace of the sport is far more exciting. When you compare a 17 game season to a 162 game season it is easy to understand why it's easier to invest in football in the age of attention deficit.

But, like nearly every child that grew up dreaming of playing major league baseball, the sport is in my blood. My dad and I can talk football all day long. We can enjoy 18 holes of golf (when we're not exploring nature's bounty in search of our ball). But there is something way more special about being outside and throwing the ball around, or walking into the ball park and grabbing a dog and a beer. I enjoy football on television more than actually going to the game (in most instances), but there is no replacement for being at the ball park in the sun on a warm spring afternoon. It's pure magic.

So I am going to enjoy this month more than the following six. Before optimism turns to pessimism, before my team is mathematically out of the race and selling off their marquee players, before the reality of salary limitations rears its ugly head, my team is in first place and has a chance to win it all. Here's how I see the division races shaking out:

AL East: New York Yankees

Don't blame them for baseball's problems. They just happen to have the most money and the most interest in putting a winner on the field.

AL Cent: Chicago White Sox

They would have the best pitching staff in baseball if it weren't for the Red Sox. Luckily, they don't have to play in the East and will only be challenged by the Twins within the division.

AL West: Seattle Mariners

You can't knock them for sitting idle in the off season, unlike the Angels. Seattle will supplant Mike Scioscia and perennial front running Los Angeles (or California or Anaheim).

AL Wild Card: Boston Red Sox

Dominating pitching staff. Once again the most intriguing race in baseball will be NY and Boston.

NL East: Philadelphia Phillies

No team in the National League is even close to these guys. Add the best starting pitcher in baseball in Roy Halladay, and take the New York Mets continual injury issues and you have a winner.

NL Cent: St. Louis Cardinals

Baseball royalty with the best player on the planet in Albert Pujols. Oh, and they re signed Matt Holliday so he will have protection in the lineup. Very solid starting pitching.

NL West: San Diego Padres

Yep, that's right, I said it. Hope springs eternal...So here's mine. Added speed and a variety of players that will surprise people in a division that is very winnable for any of the teams. It should be known that the Padres are picked to finish last by every analyst in the world so I might be going out on a bit of a limb. I don't care.

NL Wild Card: Atlanta Braves

Reloaded and ready to win.

World Series Matchup: New York Yankees vs. Philadelphia Phillies

Baseball's woes continue as the two biggest payrolls meet for a World Series rematch. Barring injuries there is no one in the league that should compete with these guys. I predicted this rematch the day after the World Series was over last year. Please get a salary cap, and quick, baseball. Please. The Phillies would be playing in their third straight World Series.

Winner: New York Yankees

Some things never change.

There it is. Just two words left to say. PLAY BALL!!!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

If It Ain't Broke...Fix It

The Final Four teams are set, the NBA season is closing and the playoff race is unraveling, Tiger Woods is making his return to golf at the Masters, the NHL playoff picture is becoming more clear, and MLB is cutting their rosters for opening day. So why is it that the most interesting sports topic is still the NFL? With a 28-4 vote in what Super Bowl winning coach Sean Payton called "backdoor maneuvering," NFL owners amended the overtime rules for the playoffs.

There have been grumblings about the NFL sudden death overtime since kickoffs were moved from the 35 yard line to the 30 in 1994. Giving teams an extra five yards of field to return the kickoff translated into better returns and better field position. Add that to aerial offenses and the increased accuracy of kickers, and suddenly winning the coin toss was an enormous advantage. The amount of teams winning by field goals on first possession increased rapidly.

The grumblings increased yearly until hitting a crescendo last season in the NFC championship game when Brett Favre and the Vikings could only watch helplessly as the Saints nailed a field goal a few plays after winning the overtime coin toss. The new rule would have given the Vikings a possession to match or defeat the Saints. It possibly could have led to the Super Bowl matchup that the NFL really wanted which was Favre vs. Manning.

The new rule works like this: If team A scores a touchdown on their initial possession the game is over. If Team A scores a field goal, Team B gets a possession on offense. If Team B then scores a touchdown the game is over. If Team B scores a field goal to tie, sudden death overtime rules take effect. There are other stipulations regarding turnovers, but that is the gist. Ironically one of the four teams to vote against an overtime rule change was the Vikings.

So what does this change essentially mean? Basically teams are now obliged to play for a touchdown rather than a field goal. The advantage became so great for teams winning the coin toss, something had to be done. No one likes to see the kicker be the star of the game. This change will force teams to play football similar to the way it would be played during regulation.

Detractors of the rule change posit what is good for the playoffs should be good for the regular season. I'm not sure why the owners decided to only amend playoff overtime games. It seems like a good rule that would work in the regular season. The owners are scheduled to meet to discuss adopting the rule change for the regular season in May.

Some voiced concern that lengthening the game will result in greater injury risk due to fatigue. That could be another reason why the rule was changed only for the playoffs. I really don't think the game will be extended more than a couple of possessions on average. The lengthiest overtime scenario sees the game go to sudden death after two possessions.

Players and coaches seem to be in agreement that you should never let yourself get to overtime. If you can't finish off your opponent in regulation, then you shouldn't complain being disadvantaged through the coin toss. Make no mistake, the NFL didn't necessarily need this rule change. Things were working fine. This rule change is for the fans, and I say kudos to everyone involved in getting it done.

I understand the "if it ain't broke" sentiment, but I hated watching teams lose an overtime game just because they lost the coin toss and gave up two first downs. After spending the day watching a highly competitive game that needs extra time to decide, the last thing I want is a 45 yard field goal end it two minutes later with only one offense taking the field.

I like the rule change because it keeps the competition fair by forcing teams to play for touchdowns. The rule also allows defensive oriented teams a chance to kick off and play defense first. Coaches that decide to take the wind rather than the ball will no longer be punch lines. There is a great number of variables that have to be taken into consideration rather than simply taking the ball every time.

The amazing part of the rule change was how quickly the owners and commissioner Roger Goodell acted. After the season ended, Goodell said they would look into amending the rule. Six weeks later it was cemented. In an age where improvements for football are often speculated but rarely changed, Goodell made sure he got this done quickly.

The official vote took place a day before it was originally scheduled, leaving several head coaches upset they were not able to weigh in. NFL head coaches are notorious for resisting change. Washington Redskins head coach, Mike Shanahan eluded, if the coaches had their way they would still be watching film on 16mm.

All in all, I have heard several ideas on what to do with the NFL overtime, most of which say leave it alone. There are complaints that the new system is too complicated. It seems pretty straight forward to me. There might be a point where some negative issues arise with the change, but I can't predict any.

I believe this rule will make overtime more competitive without adding lots of time to the finish. Coaches might not like it, but coaches work for the owners and the owners need to keep their fans happy. This change will be valuable moments before every overtime coin flip. Fans will have peace of mind that the best team should prevail in overtime, not the one who gets the ball first and has the best kicker. It will be hard to complain about losing in overtime in the new format. Mission accomplished as far as I'm concerned. Now let's see if they can work that quickly on the collective bargaining agreement to avoid a lockout in 2011. With a sport at its absolute height of popularity, that would be a colossal mistake.


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