Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Touch 'em all time

Say No to Shaq…

Rumors abound that Danny Ferry is working the phones in order to hammer out a deal to bring Shaq to Cleveland. After watching the Cavaliers struggle against Orlando, a team that was soundly spanked by the Lakers in the Finals, Ferry knows that there are still pieces missing from the championship puzzle.

Shaq, however, isn’t going to fit. Not anymore. Shaq is a 37 year-old child who can no longer deliver big minutes and if the East is going to run through Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic you need a big man who can work his butt off for 40 minutes a night. That’s not Shaq. He is no longer the most dominant force in the league. And he wants a contract extension. 20 millions bucks for one season is bad enough, but 3? Not on your life.

The Lakers have a lot of tall guys but nobody would describe them as “big.” Most often you hear the term “long” applied to them. Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol are lanky guys with a lot of athleticism. They’re considered to be finesse players but they are physical enough to keep things honest in the paint. Cleveland’s “big” men aren’t agile enough to be labeled as “finesse” players but neither Zydrunas Ilgauskas nor Anderson Varejao has the marbles to get nasty down low. Anderson will flail around in hopes of drawing a foul, but that tactic backfires in big games. While he’s laying on the floor begging for the call, his opponent is throwing down a nasty two-handed jam. Z doesn’t even try to front people. He’s too slow, too weak and too cowardly to own the paint. When Z encounters physical contact he retreats.

A stronger presence in the paint would help the Cavaliers immensely but what killed them against Orlando was perimeter defense. They simply let Orlando get too many open looks at the basket. Even when the defenders got out in time, they were too short to get hands in the faces of shooters. Shaq isn’t going to change that. Moving LeBron around when he doesn’t have the ball might have gotten the Cavs past Orlando. Shaq and his slow motion attack will not.

The News that Isn’t….

People suspected Sammy Sosa of taking steroids all along. Like Mark McGwire, Sosa grew from a muscular baseball player in the early 1990s into a cartoonish representation of a comic book superhero.

The burning question is how it will affect his hall of fame credentials. He’ll get a number of votes when he’s eligible, outnumbering McGwire because Sosa didn’t pull the same disappearing act Big Mac did when the scandal broke, but Sosa did sit in front of congress and pretend he didn’t speaka de Ingles. He was overshadowed by Andro man saying that he didn’t want to talk about the past and Raphael Palmeiro’s umbrage over being called out by a liar like Jose Canseco, but Sosa never did come clean.

Most of the writers who vote “no” on him will justify it the same way the justified voting no on McGwire. Aside from raw power, his numbers just aren’t that impressive. Although Sosa was a better all around player than McGwire. Sosa stole bases and was a solid defensive player in addition to being a beast at the plate. Like Mac, Sosa struck out a lot but power hitters often miss.

No matter what anybody says, steroids will keep him out because power is the one thing people draw a straight line to when steroids are the issue. Roger Clemens might manage to get in because people have a harder time believing that steroids provide that much of an advantage to pitchers.

Sports writers won’t give that as a reason. They’ll claim that they aren’t experts on steroids and physiology but the reality is that nobody is in a better position to become an expert on the subject than a person who gets paid to report on these issues.

And there’s who you get to blame for the steroid problem. Sports writers. These guys were in the locker rooms. They had access to all of this for the 25 years the steroid era unfolded. They ignored it. They put their heads in the sand and refused to ask questions. It wasn’t until a slightly more inquisitive reporter spotted a bottle of a substance banned by the NFL and the International Olympic Committee in McGwire’s locker that the whole issue of steroids in baseball started to shake loose. Do you really think he was the first guy to see that stuff?

Like Sands in the Hour Glass….

Brett Favre wanted out of Green Bay so he could play for his buddy Brad Childress in Minnesota. He just lacked the guts and the integrity to say it out loud. Favre needs people to love him and he knew that turning his back on loyal fans in Green Bay would result in a lot of people not loving him.

So he worked the system. He retired and unretired. He pouted. He whined. He called press conferences where he pouted and whined. He publically discussed private conversations with “friends” in order to validate himself in the eyes of football fans.

His most recent exploits were cleverly orchestrated. To Favre’s most loyal fans it looks like the media simply hounded him but to those who have seen how egomaniacal celebrities manipulate the media, it’s obvious that Favre kept the spotlight on himself.

The Vikings deserve him and his massive ego. They also deserve the three interception he’ll throw in the second half of the divisional playoff game that they will lose to Arizona in January. They deserve the disarray that Favre will leave them in after he quits again. Favre eventually will get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and he deserves that. He also deserves to be remembered as a guy who spent the last 8 or 9 years of his career selfishly padding his stats so he would get in.

Not that you care….

Can’t leave out the NHL when you give the other sports space, right? Well here’s two things:

1. The whole Sydney Crosby handshake drama is stupid. He’s a young punk who won his first Championship against a heavily favored opponent on their home ice. He was excited. He celebrated for a while. Maybe he wanted to rub it in the noses of those insufferably arrogant Red Wings fans. So what? He did eventually line up to shake hands. If that wasn’t quick enough for some of the Red Wings who were sore about handing the Stanley Cup to the Penguins too frickin’ bad. You don’t have to wait for Crosby to stop patting himself on the back but also don’t go to the media and whine about being snubbed. Be a man, take your medicine and get even next year. The Red Wings should wear pink next year.

2. The Columbus Blue Jackets don’t like their lease arrangement and they’ve mentioned that they might have to move if they don’t get a better deal. The company that owns the Nationwide Arena (and also has an incestuous relationship with the ownership of the team) is willing to sell the arena to Franklin County which would allow the county to negotiate more favorable terms. Smart people know that this is a scam. Voters didn’t want to foot the bill for Nationwide Arena when it was built and they don’t want to buy it now. Interestingly, this gambit comes on the heels of the Jackets’ first foray into the post season. They most have been hoping that the 2000 fans they won over this year would be concerned.

Joe-LEEEEN! Come git me the clicker!

For those of you wondering why I didn’t mention NASCAR. It’s still boring, it’s still not a sport and I still think NASCAR fans are creepy inbred freaks who should be kept in specialized holding pens. Or we could just seal the doors at WalMart the next time they have one of those big holiday sales.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Slumping Tiger

Tiger Woods stormed through the final round at The Memorial in Columbus, Ohio posting a seven under 65 and watching anybody who had a chance to beat him choke. He played brilliantly finishing with two birdies on two of the more difficult holes on the course. A course that plays more like a major than one of the fun events leading up to one. Some people take that as a sign that Tiger has emerged from a post-injury slump, others think that Tiger just got himself into the zone.

It’s interesting how people are responding to Tiger’s struggles. He’s the top-ranked golfer in the world in spite of missing two majors and the FedEx cup playoffs after limping his way to a win at the US Open last summer in Torrey Pines. He underwent reconstructive surgery on his knee and started hitting the links a few weeks before the Masters where he struggled to a sixth place finish.

In seven starts Woods has two wins and six top 10 finishes. He’s also fourth in the FedEx cup standings. Still people are looking to the US Open to see if Tiger’s back. If he wins people will say that he is fully recovered and credit him for shaking off the rust. If he loses they’ll shake their heads and wonder if he’ll get back into form this year. There are even those who think that he’s done. His body has broken down and Tiger is destined for a life of mediocrity on bad knees.

What’s funny is the fact that Tiger’s slump would be a career year for 80% of the golfers on tour. Jim Furyk has played in 12 events, won none and posted 6 top 10 finishes. He is 13th in the FedEx cup standings. Furyk didn’t win an event last year and since 2005 he has only posted 4 wins. Tiger won 4 last year alone, in just six events. Phil Mickelson is the second ranked player in the world and has two wins in 10 events this year. He’s sixth in the FedEx standings and has posted five top 10 finishes. Good, but Phil’s not on the mend. He doesn’t have an upside.

The point is that this slump Tiger is in would be a welcome streak of good fortune for even some of the most respected names in golf. Tiger’s not even a year removed from his surgery and most experts agree that it takes at least a year to fully recover. Even though his knee is stable enough to handle tournament play, it’s still going to be a few months before Tiger’s knee is restored to its full strength and range of motion.

It’s amazing how spoiled we are. The standard to which we hold Tiger Woods is by far and away much higher than the standard we hold the rest of the gold world to. After his second place finish to Tiger at The Memorial, Furyk was informed that he was the “low mortal” that day. It was a sentiment that Furyk didn’t take issue with.

But Tiger’s not a god. It’s easy to think that he is. It’s easy to shrug your shoulders and give him his due for having so much talent but talent isn’t what separates Tiger from the field. Tiger’s not better because his dad stuck a club in his hands when he was three. A lot of guys on tour have been golfing since they could walk. Phil Mickelson swings left-handed because when he was a country club brat who used to mirror his dad’s swing. He was a prodigy too, we don’t hear as much about it because Phil’s not as good. Phil didn’t storm into the PGA by blowing away the field at the Masters. Phil hasn’t won 14 majors. Nobody, except for Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods has done that. Only three golfers have posted double digit wins in majors and Tiger’s the only one still active. No other active player is close.

The difference is how Tiger handled his win last weekend. He had his coach there to critique his performance and instead of staying up all night celebrating his triumph, Tiger hopped an early flight to Long Island and had Haney coach him up for the US Open. The guy just outworks everybody. His personal trainer (how many other PGA golfers have one?) believes that Tiger’s fitness level is on par with the best athletes in the world.

He’s probably flattered that people are concerned about his game. He clearly sets the bar pretty high for himself so it’s logical to assume that he doesn’t mind when others hold him to his own standards, but why let the rest of the PGA off the hook? Why pat Jim Furyk on the back when he bogies away a chance to beat Tiger at The Memorial and tell him it was a good effort? Jim’s a big boy. He’s a professional golfer. Dammit, Jim, beat that guy or hang it up 0 wins in two years in unacceptable. The same goes for Phil, Vijay, Garcia, Els and anybody else who wants to make a living on the PGA Tour. If you aren’t willing to do what it takes to give Tiger a run for his money, stop wasting everybody’s time.

When Tiger confirmed he was a go for The Memorial, the phones rang off the hook. People in Columbus support their local PGA event but when Tiger shows up, as is the case with any event, everybody wants to go. It’s not because he’s prettier than other golfers, nor is it because of his sunny disposition. People watch Tiger because they know he’s the best. 30 years from now people will still talk about him.

When Tiger finally does retire, the PGA is in big trouble. Tournament purses have increased over the past 10 years thanks in large part to Tiger Woods. His popularity has inspired greater interest in the game and that has triggered more revenue. If other golfers don’t start attacking the game with the same tenacity people will quickly lose interest.

And maybe that’s the problem. Top 10 finishes pay too damned much. Golfers are too content to settle for second best because there’s often a five or six figure check attached to it. Plus you have the sympathy factor: there’s no shame in being beaten by Tiger, he’s just too good. Other athletes don’t accept those condolences. Dwight Howard isn’t going to take solace in the fact that the Lakers are a more talented team. When the Magic eventually lose he is going to fume over a blown opportunity all summer long.

For most professional athletes second place is worse than finishing dead last. If you finish last you can’t be haunted by one or two mistakes. All you can do is go back to the drawing board and get better. When you come in second you lay awake in bed replaying those free throws you missed that would have put you up by 5, or the pass you dropped for a first down, or that hanging curveball you could have blooped into right field for the go-ahead RBI. For some reason, professional golfers don’t seem to view second place as the turd sandwich everybody else in the sports world sees it as.

The rest of the PGA missed a golden opportunity when Tiger was hobbled. Somebody could have emerged from the pack to take ownership of the Tour. Instead of wondering if Tiger’s going to emerge from his slump we should probably be asking why he’s still the best golfer in the world. How can a guy just seven events into coming back from major knee surgery be leading the pack rather than chasing after it? People shouldn’t be concerned about Tiger, it’s the rest of the PGA that’s hurting.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Next Year

As a life long Cleveland Sports fan I don’t even have to say it. Wait until next year is embedded in my DNA. In spite of the fact that the Cavaliers dominated the NBA this year, deep down inside I knew that they weren’t going to win it all. It’s simply impossible.

Cleveland’s last major sports championship was delivered in 1964 by the Browns. That was a full six years before I was born and since it was also before NFL and AFL merged, it doesn’t count.

The Indians managed to get to the World Series twice in 1995 and again in 1997. They gave the Atlanta Braves a long awaited title by going cold in ‘95 and just gave away the series to the Marlin’s in ’97. I knew it would happen. It was exciting to get to that level but I knew the Indians were going to lose. As a Clevelander I can’t conceive of anything else. The Drive; The Fumble; The Shot; The stupid trade that sent Ron Harper and two first round picks to the Clippers for Danny Ferry and a bag of stale peanuts people called Reggie Williams…if I ever want to back a winner I’m going to have to pick another team.

I’ve had people try to console me with Ohio State but that’s no good. It’s not that same. College Football doesn’t even have a true National Championship and I’m not that big a fan of college sports anyway. There’s too much corruption and it’s hard for me to look the other way. I prefer my greed upfront where I can see it. Besides, Jim Tressel creeps me out. I also hate Buckeye fans. Living in Columbus will do that. OH indeed.

In spite of the setback against Orlando, a series I had hoped wouldn’t happen, the Cavaliers still represent the best hope for a title. The Cleveland Browns had hired an idiot for a head coach and will likely be rebuilding again in three years. The Indians also have an idiot running the show and Major League Baseball shamelessly stacks the deck in favor of large market teams. So the Indians, like most baseball teams, are essentially a farm team that gets a bite at the apple if they manage to get prospects to produce before they get lured away with big contracts. Meanwhile Boston, New York and LA just keep spending that money. I don’t even like baseball anymore. Even if the Indians were doing well I don’t think I’d care because I can’t allow myself to identify with the players.

The Cavaliers will retain LeBron James. In spite of the fact that there is still a paucity of talent on the team, Danny Ferry has done a great job in finding help and Cleveland will have some money to spend. Rumors are circulating that Ben Wallace is set to retire, freeing up more than $14 million under the cap. Wally Szczerbiak is a free agent this year which means his $14 million will be available as well.

The concern in free agency for the Cavs is Anderson Varejao, who begrudgingly signed his contract after holding out a season ago. He can opt out if he likes and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him test the waters, but Danny Ferry doesn’t want to overpay. Anderson brings a lot of energy to the table but he doesn’t provide much in the way of consistency and he needs to hit the gym to become a more physical presence in the post. Cleveland really needed to knock Dwight Howard around in that series but they didn't have anybody who could.

LeBron James isn’t stupid. He knows that the New York Knicks won’t offer any more of a title shot than the Cavs do. Even if he does go to New York and grabs a couple of rings, it won’t be the same. He’ll be a mercenary who let somebody buy him title, rather than earning his legacy the way Jordan did. Moreover, New Yorkers won’t hold him in the same esteem that Cleveland fans will. In New York LeBron would be one of many vaunted sports heroes. His popularity would fade with his skills. In Cleveland LeBron would be adored long after his playing days are behind him. Under the NBA’s salary cap, no other team can offer him more money and because of the global marketplace, New York and LA aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

So what does that mean? It means that Danny Ferry needs to get busy. Encourage Ben Wallace to call it a career and let Varejao shop around. Go out and see if you can pry Big Baby away from Boston, and find out if Lamar Odom is tried of catering to Kobe’s ego in LA. Ron Artest seems to have matured over the past several years and his defensive skills would fit nicely in Mike Brown’s scheme.

It might not be a bad idea to shop some players around. Delonte West should be commended for his effort, and Mo Williams was money from the perimeter until the Orlando series but do the Cavs really need two starting point guards? Especially when the offense runs through James? The Cavaliers were killed by Orlando’s height. In order for Williams and West to get a hand in the faces of Orlando’s shooters they had to leave their feet which is a fundamental mistake.

Before Cleveland starts addressing needs they must answer one question: what is LeBron James. The biggest problem Cleveland had against Orlando was that it couldn’t decide whether LeBron James is a forward or a point guard. On paper they seem to think of him as a forward but as the game goes on he plays the point. And he should. He’s the best passer on the team. When he has the ball in his hands he forces defenses to respond to him and that creates opportunities. Magic Johnson was 6’9” and played the point, why not LeBron?

The Cavs didn’t struggle offensively against Orlando, what killed them was defense. That’s because Mo Williams and Delonte West were giving up nearly a foot to Orlando’s lanky shooters. Off the bench the Cavs often brought in Daniel Gibson who is also diminutive by NBA standards. The Cavs just couldn’t stop Orlando and the Magic aren’t going anywhere. Cleveland and Orlando are going to rule the east for years to come and right now Orlando just has Cleveland’s number. Danny Ferry needs to build this team to beat them.

The Cavs need a true big man. They need a tall guard and some depth on the bench. It’s not rocket science, but Danny Ferry and Mike Brown need to figure out how they want to deploy LeBron. If you’re going to run the offense through him, cut a point guard loose and get a true small forward. If you want LeBron to settle in as a 3, get him a real shooting guard who can match up on bigger guards. Until they decide on LeBron’s role, it’s going to be hard to find the right pieces and harder still to claim that title.