Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A moment without time

Of all the elements that make the game of baseball simply fascinating, the most unique of them is that the end of the game is dictated by the players, not a clock.

This simple trait of America’s pastime has created unbelievable moments that aren’t seen in other sports.

Sunday night was one of those moments.

At game time, the Chicago White Sox were a half game behind the Detroit Tigers in the A.L. Central standings. A few hours later, heading into the bottom of the 8th inning, they were one and a half games back.

They began the bottom half of the eighth down, 9-2, to the Houston Astros. The rain was falling and for all intensive purposes, the game was over.

Then the White Sox found new life. Who knows what provided the spark on such a night. It could have been the exit of Astros hurler Roy Oswalt, who put the Sox in a daze, allowing only two runs on five hits through seven. He was lifted because his pitch count was hovering around 120.

It could have been the championship mentality instilled in the team by skipper Ozzie Guillen.

Or maybe, just maybe, it could have been something else. Something beyond the Astros power, something the St. Louis Cardinals were grumbling about after their series at U.S. Cellular Field.

Whatever it was, it was incredible.

Sox shortstop Alex Cintron started the momentum with a base hit to right field.

Two batters later, following a Scott Podsednik walk, Tadahito Iguchi cashed in with a three-run homer to left.

9-5, Astros.

After allowing the three run shot, Russ Springer quietly sat down the Sox sluggers in order.

Iguchi’s blast merely made the game respectable again, with everyone, including myself, firmly believing that the Astros still had a stranglehold on the game.

Closer Brad Lidge, who has struggled this year, took the mound in the ninth to “get some work in.” Lidge had supposedly put his early season struggles behind him, going 7-7 in his previous 7 save opportunities.

That work quickly became increasingly tougher as the Sox loaded the bases with two outs in the ninth and Iguchi at the plate.

In a 1-1 count, Iguchi tagged Lidge’s 99 mph fastball to deep left center field, which eventually disappeared into the stands above Billy Pierce’s retired number.

And it was the first inning all over again.

A seven run deficit erased in two innings, on two home runs, by one player.

Even with all of Iguchi’s heroics, the White Sox still could not muster out the victory. The Astros scored in the 13th on a Willie Taveras single, and won, 10-9.

The game wouldn’t even reward the Sox for their unthinkable comeback.

Football has last second field goals, hockey has overtime thrillers, and basketball has buzzer beaters.

But magical comebacks like these do not exist in other sports, because the team is not only battling their opponent, but they are battling the clock as well.

It’s games like Sunday night’s that put the game’s beauty into perspective.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Don't buy into U.S. hype

Take this and frame it because you will probably never see this again.

This is me writing about soccer.

But ignoring the world’s biggest sporting event, the World Cup, would not only be ignorant on my part, but for once, the United States team is making some noise overseas.

After an improbable 1-1 tie with the Italians, the Americans have a chance to advance to the round of 16 for the first time in their history.

Let’s face it though, it’s not going to happen. This is a nice lovey-dovey story, but the soccer gods will not allow the U.S. to advance.

To advance, they must beat an upstart Ghana team who beat the mighty Czech Republic, 2-0 on Saturday, and needs Italy to beat that same Czech team.

A tall task for sure, but anything is possible. I just don’t see it happening.

The Czech Republic beat the U.S., 3-0, in Group E’s opening game.

The Czechs, ranked #2 in the world by FIFA in May, are kicking themselves after Saturday’s loss, because a win would have cemented their spot in the round of 16.

And although Italy is a great team, it’s hard to imagine a team as good as the Czechs being shown the door after two straight losses.

For that game to even matter, the U.S. must take care of business Thursday morning against Ghana.

Everyone has bought into this revolution of sorts in U.S. soccer. The consensus is that this team is different than the previous embarrassments in 1998 and 2002. They’re more talented, and can compete with their European counterparts.

That’s just not the case.

These European teams are better than the U.S. team top to bottom, and it’s showed so far.

U.S. head coach Bruce Arena does have a right to be angry, because the officiating in Saturday’s game was horrible.

Official Jorge Larrionda from Uruguay made some absent-minded calls on the United States’ Pablo Mastroeni and Eddie Pope, which undoubtedly changed the complexion of the game.

Mastroeni received a red card late in the 1st half, and Pope was ejected early in the 2nd half for receiving his second yellow card, forcing the U.S. to play a man down virtually the entire half.

The Mastroeni red card was widely believed to be a make-up call from Italian Daniele De Rossi’s ejection 28 minutes into the game, when he elbowed U.S. forward Brian McBride.

I’m struggling to understand why a make-up call would be appropriate after De Rossi clearly earned his red card, whereas Mastroeni should have merely received a yellow card for his actions.

Whatever may be the case, the U.S. finally earned a point, and should feel lucky in doing so.

Their score was tallied off the foot of Cristian Zaccardo, who, in an attempt to clear the ball, netted an own goal. This tied the score and closed the scoring on an exciting game.

So as we look towards Thursday, where it will be decided if the U.S. lives to play another day, through another team’s destiny or their own, we can be sure of one thing:

The rest of the world is still superior to us in soccer.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Jones is nearing the end

Todd Jones wants nothing more than the Detroit Tigers to win. You can hear it in his voice and see it in his eyes.

Jones is the only player this past decade to sign with the Tigers simply because he wanted to wear the Old English D. He considers Detroit to be his home, and the fans to be his own.

But those same fans reached the breaking point Wednesday night, after another terrible late-inning performance by Jones, something that has become all too common recently with the Tigers.

As Jones exited the mound in the 12th inning, where he allowed four runs on four hits to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays en route to their 5-1 win, he was not so pleasantly greeted by a lengthy wave of boos from the remaining crowd at Comerica Park.

Jones’ record fell to 1-5. His ERA now stands at an abysmal 7.27.

This is the latest in Jones’ recent string of bad pitching which has become increasingly painful to watch.

For the 38-year old closer who is the Tigers all-time saves leader, the end is near. There are two young relievers (Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya) ready to step in once manager Jim Leyland finally pulls the plug on Jones as closer.

And this should be sooner rather than later.

Leyland is sticking behind Jones as the closer, a sign of respect as I see it. Leyland has been around long enough to know when a player’s skills have eroded and are betraying him from success.

He is also being very careful not to embarrass Jones. Todd Jones is one of those guys that you couldn’t pay a teammate to say something bad about. He loves the game, and he loves to compete.

The worst thing Leyland could do at this point in time is publicly scrutinize the veteran closer and prevent him from being any kind of asset to the team down the stretch.

I still believe in certain situations, Jones can be effective. Those situations are not saving games.

Leyland insists that Zumaya, 21, is not ready to assume the closer’s role, but I could see changes being made sometime after the All-Star break. Leading all A.L. relievers with 43 strikeouts, Zumaya may not be ready for a full-time position, but it would not hurt to sprinkle some save opportunities for him

It’s tough to see Jones struggle the way he has recently, where his ERA is above 15.00 his past seven appearances.

It’s even tougher with the weight put on the Tigers to win close games, now that they are in the middle of a pennant race.

Jones’ skills, not Jones, are letting the fans down, and that’s the last thing he wants to do.

Monday, June 12, 2006

What channel is your hockey on?

Does anybody know who’s winning the Stanley Cup Finals?

I do, but not because I’ve watched more than a minute of the compelling, star-studded, media circus Carolina Hurricanes-Edmonton Oilers series.

(Note the sarcasm above.)

Nobody, and I mean nobody, is watching this year’s Cup Finals, including myself. As late as 2004, the Stanley Cup-deciding series was a fixture on my television set, even with the lowly Tampa Bay Lightning-Calgary Flames matchup.

And here’s why this year, it’s not even a blip on my radar screen.

I actually had to search for my channel guide to see if my cable provider airs the Outdoor Life Network, now the NHL’s flagship station.

After a 15-minute search for the guide, it turns out they don’t.

In a way only the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman could, they completely screwed the teams, players, and most importantly, the fans with this T.V. deal.

In 2005, after a lockout that all but removed hockey from major sport status in the United States, the league opted to sign its TV rights deal to OLN instead of ESPN.

ESPN, who has been airing the NHL since 1992, declined the one year, $60 million option for the 2005-06 season.

However, multiple sources said ESPN was still interested, just not at the price the NHL was asking or that OLN was offering.

OLN won the NHL with a $65 million deal the first two seasons, with one year options extending to 2011, hinging on OLN subscriber levels.

This is where then NHL lost any chance of becoming relevant in America for a very long time.

The logical decision would have been to sign with ESPN for less money. ESPN is by far and away the kingpin in sports broadcasting, and it would have allowed the NHL to showcase their new, fast paced game to over $20 million more households than OLN could have.

The league’s reasoning was that OLN would market the NHL better than ESPN because it would be the cornerstone of the network.

Here’s a news flash: all the marketing in the world would not boost the NHL’s ratings as significant as the league seems to think it would and what better way to market your product than having it on ESPN in primetime?

Here are some figures from Nielsen that show how far the NHL’s television value has actually fallen. The 2005-06 OLN broadcasts averaged 117,000 households. In the 2003-04 NHL season (before the lockout), ESPN and ESPN 2 averaged 416,000 and 209,000, respectively.

The NHL can’t even beat the WNBA or poker anymore. According to ESPN’com’s Darren Rovell, more people watched the 13 WNBA broadcasts on ESPN 2 than the NHL on OLN this year. Also, NBC’s poker series, which follows their NHL playoff coverage, is outdrawing the main attraction by 200,000 viewers.

NBC’s ratings have actually gone down from the regular season to the playoffs, from 1.09 million households to 1.02 million.

During the same time slot that could be filled by playoff hockey games, ESPN was airing other programming such as poker, the Women’s College World Series, the U.S. Paintball Championships, and that terrible Battle of the Gridiron show.

I’d like to think that if you throw a conference or Stanley Cup final in those slots they’d outdraw any of the aforementioned events.

But ESPN will probably take their chances without the NHL. They can afford to. They have a chokehold on the competition.

Until the NHL comes to their senses and gets back on ESPN, we will watch the league continue to deteriorate in the eyes of the casual fan.

The funny thing is, most of us can’t even watch that.

Friday, June 9, 2006

Shaq ready to fulfill guarantee of NBA title

The NBA Finals have started once again.

And, for the first time in three years, the Detroit Pistons aren’t representing the Eastern Conference.

In their place is a team that put them in their place last series, the Miami Heat. The Heat didn’t only want to beat the Pistons, they wanted to embarrass them for what happened a year earlier.

Powered by the dominant Shaquille O’Neal and electrifying Dwyane Wade, they showed the offensively impaired Detroit squad the door in six games.

Now, the only thing that stands behind the Heat and a NBA Championship that O’Neal guaranteed upon arriving in Miami is the upstart Dallas Mavericks and superstar Dirk Nowitzki.

First year head coach Avery Johnson has, (and I promised myself I wouldn’t use this saying) put the “D” back in the “Big D.” For the previous several years, Dallas has notoriously been unable to stop anyone from scoring, whether it be Kobe Bryant or Star Jones.

It’s only fitting that on the road to their first Finals appearances, both teams hurdled their previous roadblocks. Dallas unseated the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in a thrilling seven game series in the Western Conference Semifinals. This series saw this Maverick team earn years of playoff experience as, after losing Game 6 in Dallas, they traveled north to beat the Spurs at home in the deciding Game 7.

The big adjustment the Heat will need to make is in defending Dallas’ transition game. The Pistons didn’t run the floor nearly as much as Dallas will be, and this could be key in getting O’Neal fatigued. If I’m Avery Johnson, I’m salivating over this match-up because the Mavericks can run the Heat into the ground.

If that doesn’t happen, watch for O’Neal to take over. Once the Heat get comfortable running their half-court offense, which is a two man show with a mediocre supporting cast, Dallas will run into one question:

How do we stop Shaq?

They won’t be able to answer that question because it simply can’t happen. Dallas doesn’t have big enough or enough big bodies to bang with O’Neal throughout this series. The problem with the offense being run through O’Neal is that, like the late years of the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty with Kobe Bryant, there is another superstar waiting to explode and capture the spotlight.

If Wade realizes the best way to earn his first ring is to use the big man down low, I see the Heat winning in seven, and Shaq flashing his fourth ring.

Monday, June 5, 2006

Can Tigers handle lead role?

After two disappointing postseason exits by the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Pistons, respectively, the stage is set for the Detroit Tigers to captivate our summer with a feeling Detroit sports fans have long forgotten: a Pennant chase. I, for one, can’t tell you what meaningful late summer baseball means.

Check that.

I can’t tell you what meaningful summer baseball means, period.

The last time the Tigers played a postseason playoff game, I was still a week away from making my debut on this Earth. And this whole winning thing isn’t only a new thing to us. Only two of these Tigers (Magglio Ordonez, Pudge Rodriguez) have experienced playoff baseball. Justin Verlander, arguably the Tigers best pitcher to date, and Joel Zumaya, are rookies. This is Curtis Granderson’s first big league season. We still don’t know how Chris Shelton will hold up in his first season as a full time starter.

Judging by the first half of their highly publicized test against the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, there’s still some work to do.

The Tigers started off 2-5 against New York and Boston, and should have been no worse than 4-3. Stranded opportunities and poor clutch pitching ultimately cost them two wins. Against Yankee pitching on May 30, the Tigers left 7 runners on base in the 1st and 8th innings, both times having the bases loaded with no outs.

There is no excuse for not pushing one run across in the first, as this would have given Roman Colon, in his spot start for the injured Mike Maroth, some breathing room and confidence. In the eighth, when the go ahead run was 90 feet away and the pressure was on, Granderson and Placido Polanco could not deliver. The Yankees took over in the 11th, after a Jason Giambi solo shot off Todd Jones and defensive miscues.

Jones dropped the ball yet again Friday night.

A two run home run off the bat of Kevin Youkilis gave Jones his second blown save and the series was opened on the wrong foot, a game that should have been won. After the previous night’s comeback, with Carlos Guillen’s walk-off single in the 10th, a wave of momentum to begin the Boston series would have been the Tigers ally once again.

This first place team is now the main attraction in town, and will continue to be throughout the fall if they keep playing good baseball. But with the added fame comes added pressure, not only from the fans and media, but from a team that sits 2 ½ games behind them in the A.L. Central standings. A team that has experience, something the Tigers do not have.

The Chicago White Sox host the Tigers in a 3 game series, starting tomorrow. After getting swept the first time these teams met, it’s critical that they get a series victory this time around, or the pressure is amplified once again.