Thursday, July 31, 2008

Thursday's Starting Five

1. "Skinny" Rodriguez. He used to be Pudgy. He also used to hit home runs at a fairly prodigious clip. He cracked 20+ a year from 1997 to 2001. And, then all of sudden he wasn't pudgy and didn't have too much power in that bat of his (11 home runs in 2007...). While I don't really wonder too much about the pharmaceutical reasons for the ever-shrinking catcher, I do think today is likely a good day for him. Yesterday he was a Detroit Tiger. He's also been a Florida Marlin and a Texas Ranger. Today? He's a New York Yankee. While he's nowhere near the player that he once was (I mean, just not even in the same ballpark) and has no contract once the season ends there probably isn't a better place to inflate one's value than playing in pinstripes in the Bronx down the stretch of an AL East division race and potentially into the playoffs. For the Yankees, I see this move as bit dubious. Rodriguez's greatest asset at this point is name recognition and last I checked that hasn't helped the Yankees win too many games over the last few years (or helped them defeat Rodriguez's Marlins in '03). His batting average is up close to .300 right now but everything is down. Of course, he's played in two World Series so he shouldn't wither in the face of high-leverage situations. That is worth something. But is it really worth one of most used (albeit least liked by fans) relievers? As much as the mention of Kyle Farnsworth's name brought more red than normal to a Yankees fan's eye, the guy threw 40+ innings already and was second to Mariano in innings pitched. He throws hard and isn't as bad as he feels. Word is that he could assume the closer role in Detroit very soon.

2. The California Angels in the Los Angeles Outfield of Anaheim. They just swept a three-game set from the Red Sox. They did this at Fenway Park. And, not too long after they swept a three-game series from the Sox in Anaheim of California. The Halos have the best record in the Big Leagues at 67-40 and made the best trading-deadline acquisition this side of a potential Manny Ramirez deal when they acquired first baseman Mark Teixeira from the Braves.

3. The Houston Rockets. Next season will be a special one for the Rockets. Either they break the parquet ceiling between them and the second round of the NBA playoffs or the officially become the bestest team never to advance past the first round. In a fairly surprising power-move, Houston obtained one-time-fan-fighting and all-the-time defending power forward Ron Artest from the Sacremento Kings. As much as the guy is potentially a lunatic, I've always thought he was still a great ballplayer. Not only can he defend but he does defend as if that rim were in his mamma's kitchen and you were going to steal it. And, he can score points. The BIG question, looming taller than even the 7'6'' Yao Ming, is the health of the Rockets as both Tracy McGrady and Yao have long injury histories but IF they stay healthy I think they have to be right there at the top of the West next season. Artest is a top-notch third option on offense and he takes even more pressure of guys like Rafer Alston and Carl Landry. And, the Rockets now have two lock-down defenders: Artest and Shane Battier. Most teams don't really even have one.

4. Anyone Who Stands 7-feet Tall and is Physically Fit. For the 84-inches-and-up set, it's been a banner week. You now know officially, without a doubt, that you will always have a job with the NBA. It became official when the Detroit Pistons, whose GM Joe Dumars is considered one of the few savvy fellows who holds such a job, signed former No. 1 draft pick and current draft-day cautionary tale Kwame Brown to a two-year $8 million contract earlier this week. Uhh-waaah? Brown has been nothing but terrible with brief spikes of mediocrity. He is a physically gifted human being. And that is really all he is. He is not basketball player. Every asset he has he was born with. The height, the body, the metabolism. All of it. And for that he is a millionaire. No matter how badly he has failed in his previous stops he still got another chance. Because you can't teach height. So, rejoice all you seven-footers out there. The rest of you? Back to your desk-jobs.

5. Anyone Who Has Springsteen Tickets For Tonight. I know that the waiting for the work-day to end is deadening but how excited are you right now? That first beer in the parking lot of Giants Stadium is going to be perfect. It's going to be a little warm from the ride and you wouldn't want it any other way. What's he going to open with? Radio Nowhere? Night? No Surrender? What's he going to close with? Thundercrack? Rosalita? What will be played that hasn't already been played? I think we'll hear Thunder Road and Jersey Girl and I hope we'll hear The River, For You and Red-Headed Woman.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea..."-Book of Revelations 13:1

Monsters Are Among as the End-of-Days Nears, Apparently

Be afraid. Very afraid. Seemingly each day there are reports of terrifying beasts rising from the sea or descending from the stars. Make no mistake. We are under attack. By Monsters. And not cuddly, witty monsters with paper-mache skeletons and felt teeth. No, we're not under attack from any sort of cookie-loving creature or pansexual ticklish consumer products. We're under attack from mutated, sea dogs with dino-beaks and razor-sharp teeth. And, they're starting their conquest of the Eastern seaboard from Montauk, Long Island. Yup, the monster hordes are headed for the Hamptons. The last place us simple-minded humans would have expected.

I first heard about this washed ashore creature-corpse on Tuesday when the WWOD? Special Correspondent for Monster Issues forwarded me a link to a story in Gawker. From there, I did some digging and confirmed the location of some sort of high security government facility on an island not too far off the LI coast where this cutey washed up.

Those living in the vicinity of the US Governments' highly secretive and openly biohazarderrifc Animal Disease Research Center on Plum Island have long thought that dangerous and terrible experiments were going on there, both in terms of the treatment of animals as well as the existence of highly contagious disease possibly being used to create biochemical weapons. Or Monsters. Rumors have swirled (read: I've found them written on the Internet) that both West Nile Virus (which first appeared on US soil on Long Island and in nearby Queens in 1999) and Lyme Disease (which was first recognized as we know it today after several cases turned up in Connecticut, not too far from Plum Island) first appeared after being released, accidentally or otherwise, from this complex.

Since we are talking about a monster in this cynical day and age there are varying responses: Some say hoax and others say this is a prodigious blogger.

And if sea monsters weren't enough to get you to rent a copy of Monster Squad to brush up on your beast-fighting incantations then maybe this crazy beast-pig-gorilla, which was born in China (yeah, that place is totally safe for our most finely-tuned athletes), will do the trick. It is clear the Rapture is upon us. The four horsemen are in the saddle and the seventh seal is about to be opened. I'll see you in Hell. Or, out at the Hamptons!

"This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions... Human sacrifices, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria!"

If FOX NEWS is trotting out "experts" to deny the existence of "Monty" the Monster then he must be real. Right? I mean if Fox News says it's a lie then it's the truth. Right?

Wednesday's Starting Five

1. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in California. The refrain has been the same for several seasons this time of year. The Angels need a bat to slot behind Vladimir Guerrero in the batting order. And, each year management has not gone out and gotten that bat and each year the Angels have been dispatched in the playoffs after a meek offensive showing. The Angels scored just 4 runs in their 2007 ALDS defeat to the Red Sox and just 11 runs in the 2005 ALCS defeat at the hand of the White Sox. Mission accomplished this time around the trading deadline, though. Already boasting the Big League's best record, the Angels went out and traded for one of the most high-profile piece's available: Atlanta Braves first baseman Mark Teixeira. The former Georgia Tech slugger is batting .283 so far this season with a .390 on-base percentage. He's driven in 78 runs and scored 63 while hitting 20 home runs and 27 doubles. Most importantly, he seems to be rounding into form after a slow start to the '08 campaign (because as Andruw Jones showed last year, Atlanta Braves don't always perform well in contract years). Tex has been hitting .412 since after the All-Star break and might be just what the Angels need to put them over the top in the AL.

2. Brad Ziegler. From the straightforward, easily observable brute force of a power hitting first baseman like Teixeira we shift our gaze to the more ephemeral, harder to quantify "stuff" of a side-arming rookie middle reliever who is doing something that no one in the history of Major League Baseball has ever done before. The Oakland A's Ziegler has broken a record that stood for over 100 seasons. By comparison, Babe Ruth's single season home run record only stood for 34 years and Roger Maris's for 37. Ziegler has started off his Major League career with 27 scoreless innings of work (out of the bullpen), besting the 1907 record of 25 innings pitched by George McQuillan of the Phillies. For you math-majors out there, Ziegler has tossed the equivalent of three complete-game shutouts. He's allowed 16 hits and struck out 13 during this unprecedented stretch. Not too shabby for a guy who didn't make it the Show until he was already 28-years old.

3. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. Two down and one to go. Arguably the greatest American rock and roll band ever (and I say arguably because I know a lot of you non-believers want to argue), has already played 59 songs over the course of close to seven hours at Giants Stadium this week. The parking lots have been packed early, the smell of overcooked burgers and hot dogs has mingled with the battling car stereos blasting your-favorite-Bruce-albums and the excited and increasingly drunken reverie. In other words, the block-party has been as good as it ever was. And, most importantly, the E Street Band is in good form and Bruce is in good voice. The setlists have been strong and mixed some long lost loved ones (Drive All Night, Sherry Darling) and hoped for classics (Growin' Up, Jungleland) with new songs from Magic (Radio Nowhere, Long Walk Home). From the moment that the first chords of "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" grabbed a full-up Giants Stadium by it's shirt collar shortly before 9pm on Sunday night there hasn't been a let down. The final show of the band's run in the Meadowlands is Thursday night. WWOD? will be there.

(this is the Detroit Medley, which was in Monday's setlist, live from the Hammersmith Odeon in London during the 1975 tour.)

4. The Chicago Cubs. This time last week it was the other team in the NL Central with a new pitcher that had the momentum. CC Sabathia was tossing complete-game gems while eating in his sleep, JJ Hardy couldn't make an out and Ryan Braun was knocking clutch home runs. But what a difference a big July series means. The Cubs and Brewers have been squaring off in the Beer City since Monday night and the Cubbies have taken the first two games of the four-game set off the Milwaukee club. And, they've beaten the Brewers co-aces, Sabathia and NL All-Star Game starter Ben Sheets. After being tied for first place in the division (and for best record in the NL) over the weekend, the Cubs have staked themselves to a three-game lead with two games left to play against the Brew Crew this week.

5. Lionel Messi. International football's (soccer's) governing body, FIFA, ruled that professional clubs are obligated to allow players aged 23 or under to participate in the Beijing Olympics. Messi's club, Barcelona, had been trying to hold back their talented Argentinian striker for fear that he would either be injured during the competition or just pick up a few unnecessary (in their eyes) miles before the start of the La Liga season in Spain. But, FIFA stepped in and did what governing bodies are supposed to do, they got the players to the fields. This mandate changes the Olympic football matches from could-be-good to can't-miss.

Benched. The Yankees. Not the team, they're doing surprisingly well, having won 2 out of 3 of the Red Sox at Fenway last weekend and otherwise staying within striking distance in the AL East. No it's the organization that is benched for their draconian rules about bringing anything into Yankee Stadium. Aside from making everyone check bags over at that depressing and money-grubbing bowling alley across the street at gun-to-your-head fees (after all, what else are you going to do with your bag/briefcase), the folks at the stadium have apparently also sided with cancer: They were recently banning people from bringing sunscreen into the stadium, even during day-games. Of course, once this story hit the local papers the Yankees did cowardly relent to those fair-skinned health mongers out there. Evil Empire indeed.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"Rey Ain't Coming Home!"

Knicks Trade Renaldo Balkman

Renaldo Balkman is a Knickerbocker no more. He has been traded to the Denver Nuggets for two players and a future draft pick (but more about those things later). He ain't coming back to the Garden any more than once next season, unless the Knicks face the Nuggets in the Finals. Obviously. But before us stalwart few remaining Knicks fans start collecting stray dreadlocks for our hope chests and pre-heat the ovens for another batch of Mrs. Finkle's cookies - Look, they're little basketballs! - let's take a good look at Balkman's numbers in his two seasons treading the boards in the Mecca.

Games: 68
Games Started: 1
Minutes Per Game: 15.6
Points Per Game: 4.9
Shot %: 0.505
Free Throw %: 0.567
Rebounds Per Game: 4.3
Steals Per Game: 0.8
Assists Per Game: 0.6
Turmovers Per Game: 0.72
Fouls Per Game: 2.10

Games: 65
Games started: 0
Minutes Per Game: 14.6
Points Per Game: 3.4
Shot %: 0.489
Free Throw %: 0.432
Rebounds Per Game: 3.3
Steals Per Game: 0.7
Assists Per Game: 0.6
Turnovers Per Game: 0.57
Fouls Per Game: 2.0

In spite of the fact that the second-year small forward was a fan favorite at Madison Square Garden, Balkman's numbers in a Knicks uniform were poor and actually got worse during his sophomore season. The long-haired Balkman was a player for whom the numbers don't tell the story. Sort of. The small forward out of South Carolina, who was roundly and enthusiastically booed when Isiah Thomas selected him with the 20th pick in the 2006 NBA draft, become a fan favorite due in part to his frenetic hustle and his high-flying finishes. The energy that Balkman visibly played the game with was a much-needed counterpoint to the joylessness which seeped from the floor in so many first quarters before derision flowed from the crowd during so many second quarters.

So, perhaps some measure of Balkman's popularity sprung from the same place as the unfettered and unchecked devotion for every back-up quarterback in every NFL city that is home to a loser in November. Like those clipboard holders, Balkman never played enough to be tainted by the suckitude that enveloped every major member of the rotation. He was the breath of fresh air. He had long hair and he seemed distinct from the starting five and even from the core bench players, Robinson, Lee and Jeffries.

As a fan of the 2006-2008 Knicks it was, for several reasons, easy to like Balkman. He made you feel like he was trying. He made you feel like he was caring. He made you feel like something exciting might happen when he played. And, as fans we really needed to feel those things during the last two seasons. Although Balkman didn't often make you feel like the team would win, he did make any game in which he was playing something that you could bear watching. Or, at least, something you could bear watching more easily.

But remember what I said earlier about the numbers not telling the whole story with this guy? Well, neither do your eyes. Or your feelings. Just as he wasn't as bad as his numbers show, Renaldo Balkman wasn't as good as the way most of us felt about him. In the Bill James/sabermetrics/Moneyball sense, Balkman may have been somewhat of a mirage. He didn't really produce. He just looked like he wanted to more than some of his teammates looked like they wanted to. At the end of the day, it's rather damning to say that a young player couldn't get a firm grip on major minutes for the past two incarnations of New York City's home team! But Balkman never did grab hold of any major minutes. Old, undersized veteran power forward Malik Rose started more games than Balkman last season. And, so did rookie small forward Wilson Chandler, who seems to jump ahead of Balkman in the estimation of both Isiah Thomas as well as Mike D'Antoni.

Therefore, Balkman may have been more important to the fans than he was to the game plan. But no matter how you slice it. Balkman is gone. And I'll miss him. Even if it might not read like it, I liked this guy. A lot. The high point of the 2007-2008 season was the second home game of the season (yeah, that was when this team peaked) when Balkman's defense on Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony turned the tide in an enervating, come-from-behind win. He played hard in that game. He totally turned the tide against one of the game's premeir scorers and looked like he was going to be the lock-down defender that would guard the other team's best player on a nightly basis. But that never really panned out. Not surprisingly, I put most of the blame on Isiah Thomas's doorstep. The deposed Knicks despot never stayed with Balkman the way he did with Quentin Richardson and Jared Jeffries. He didn't nurture him or force-feed him minutes. He seemingly forgot about him for stretches both during games and between them. And, Balkman didn't always handle this well. I can remember attending a few games deep into the season, during a run when his minutes were way down, and Balkman was not really all-the-way there. He never ventured farther than the periphery of a huddle and mostly kept to himself at the end of the bench. He was shooting the breeze with Randolph Morris and Jerome James and paying more attention to the skits on the big screen the words in the huddle. Now, when given a choice between whatever cliches Isiah Thomas might have been offering in the huddle and the top-notch MSG in-game entertainment then I would likely have made the same choice.

(Ed note: We'll be back later to look at who came back in this trade and what happens next)

Friday, July 25, 2008

Around the Internets

Deluxe Nobody-Wants-To-Work-'cause-It's-Friday Edition

Well, the Metropolitans took two-of-three from the Phillies this week and took sole possession of first place. Needless to say, the Fightins are not pleased. Of course, they are not going to look within their clubhouse for answers to why their 7.5 game division lead evaporated in such short order. They're not really going to take a hard look at why their shortstop and 2007 NL MVP was late for the last game of the set. Nope. Instead, they're going to focus their attention on what they (and as you'll hear their team's announcer) thought was the Mets shortstop's overzealous excitement after hitting what proved to be a game-winning home run against a rival club. Yeah, that's totally not something to be psyched about. I'm sure Ryan Howard would have just gently laid his bat down and jogged with his head down around the bases. Totally.

And, while the Mets may be hot, they still don't have anything on their former top prospect who according to this commercial can really do anything. Except maybe act. Kazmir looks like he could use some help from a certain Professor Reyes.

Who would've thunk it? Apparently, ESPN has finally exhausted its Brett Favre scenario generator. Oh, wait. I was wrong. He might be headed to the Mets to play left field.

The WWOD? Awesomest Play of the Week:

Even though some of us are working feverishly to solidify our Fantasy Baseball rosters for the stretch run, the Fantasy Football pre-season as already begun. And, yes fantasy sports have pre-seasons. Here is your guide to naming your Fantasy Football squad.

And, now for something completely different.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tuesday's Starting Five

1. Jerome Holtzman. This Hall of Fame baseball historian and beat writer/columnist, mostly with the Chicago Sun-Times passed away yesterday after a long illness. He had 81 fruitful years and spent most of those living, breathing and changing baseball. Aside from covering both the White Sox and the Cubs, conceiving and editing one of the great works of sportswrtiting (No Cheering in the Press Box), Holtzman invented the "save" statistic and lobbied for its inclusion on the backs of baseball cards and in the game's vernacular. Needless to say, the "save" revolutionized the way that baseball was played and managed and the way that players were paid. Before Holtzman, relief pitchers were evaluated by the same categories as starting pitchers. They only had wins, losses, ERA and strikeouts to hang their hats on. And, for Holtzman that just wouldn't do. After all, if you were coming out to the bullpen when your team had the lead and you ended up with the win then you must have done something wrong. Yes, you could say that the invention of the "save" was the death knell of the complete game and the 30-win season as pitchers became more and more specialized from that moment on. You could say that. And, you might even be correct in making such an assertion but you would also do an injustice to how much Holtzman's attention to detail has benefited the game. Moreover, Holtzman proved how integral any game's chroniclers are to its health. He was a part of Baseball just as much as the managers, scouts and players in a way that has been lost in this day and age when the press and those in the game find themselves in a perpetually adversarial stance.

2. The Battle for the Missing G. It's the Amazins and the Fightins squaring off tonight at Shea Stadium with first place in the NL East on the line. This is as big as it gets. At least, in July. The Mets seem to have (w)righted themselves with their recent 10-game winning streak and the Phillies have gone out and acquired former Oakland A's pitcher Joe Blanton to sure up their rotation. Tonight Johan Santana faces off against the new kid in Philly, Blanton. I always feel much better about a Mets/Phils series when it is played at Shea because that small little park down there terrifies me. Down there would-be fly balls (which Maine and Santana get a lot of) become unexpected long balls. That's not the case in relatively spacious Shea. And aside from Utley (and Rollins when he's going) I feel like Howard and Burrell can be struck out in big spots. Either way, this is big-time NL East baseball and hopefully the 3-gamer can do a little more to further this burgeoning rivalry. If the Mets win the series then they're hot streak has put them in the driver's seat and the Phils will be demoralized. However, if the Phils win than the Mets will have to feel like their streak was somewhat wasted since they couldn't get over the hump. Still, I think the Mets are in better shape to deal with not winning this series than Utley and company. No matter what happens the Mets are in better position than they were three weeks ago. No matter what happens the Phillies will not be able to say the same. Unless, of course, Blanton goes out and no-hits the Metropolitans. Then they'll have to feel pretty darn good about the way that acquisition affects the balance of power.

3. The Euro. With the US economy floundering and the dollar tanking it seems the hoopsters (and hockey players) have begun to explore their options. Atlanta Hawks restricted free Josh Childress is entertaining an offer from Greek club Olympiakos and may be considering playing (at least) next season in Europe rather than in the Association. This revelation comes shortly after former NJ Nets forward Bostjan Nachbar inked a contract with a Russian club for far more than he would have earned stateside. And this all comes on the heels of the announcement that flat-top sporting high schooler Brandon Jennings will opt to play in Europe next year to prepare for the NBA rather than to attend college.

4. Justice. In a huge victory for those who actually care about such things, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Kardazic (also known as the "Butcher of Bosnia") was apprehended in Serbia yesterday. He will be transferred to the custody of the International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague and will be held accountable for the atrocities, including the massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995, that were carried out under his watch and at his behest.

5. The New Orleans Saints. No matter what you think about former NY Football Giant tight end Jeremy Shockey, there is no doubting that the Saints wanted him on their team. Now, everyone will find out everything they wanted to know about him. The Giants will find out whether all the headaches were worth it, whether Eli Manning is really better off without Shockey as the Super Bowl run might show and if Kevin Boss's big catch in the Super Bowl was the indicator of talent that it was hailed as. Meanwhile, the Saints will find out how much back-talk Drew Brees can really take.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Monday's Starting Five

1. The New York Mets. They're back in first place. Or, at least they're back tied for first place (with the Phillies) in the National League East after splitting a four-game set in Cincinnati over the weekend. The Metropolitans have gone 13-4 in July and have put themselves back in the race for the NL pennant. Hell, the Daily News practically awarded them the division last week. Of course, that back page may have precipitated the end of the team's 10-game winning streak and initiated a brief two-game skid. Either way, the Mets righted themselves and are set to open up a 3-game death-waltz with the Phillies at Shea.

2. The Los Angeles of Anaheim (by way of California and Heaven and family-friendly baseball films starring Tony Danza). The world champion Red Sox visited Anaheim (or did they visit LA?) this weekend with the confidence of having taken the last nine meetings between these two teams in the postseason. And, it didn't mean a thing. The Angels swept the Sox right out of town behind quality pitching, timely hitting and the continued success of K-Rod, who notched his 40th save of the season in the sweep-capping win yesterday.

3. Carlos Delgado. Apparently the rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. After a 2007 season that was alternately brutal and mediocre and thoroughly lackluster open to the '08 campaign it seemed certain that Delgado was done. Apparently not. His bat has come alive in the recent weeks and he has re-emerged as an offensive threat during the Mets recent hot streak. After hitting in the .200s in each of the season's previous months, Delgado is raking at a .419 clip in July. He has hit seven doubles, four home runs and knocked in 12 runs during the month as well.

4. Jose Reyes. After scuffling through a forgettable April, the Mets spark plug has batted over .300 in each month since and now ranks either first or second among NL shortstops in at-bats, hits, walks, runs, doubles, total bases, steals and triples while ranking third in RBI and fourth in home runs. Yesterday in Cincinnati, Reyes went 4-for-6 with a triple and three runs scored. The triple, coming in the fourth inning, was the 63rd of his career and moved him past Mookie Wilson and into first place on the all-time Mets list. He did this with less than 700 at-bats over parts of six seasons while it took Mookie Wilson over 4,000 at-bats during parts of 10 seasons to hit his 62 triples in a Mets uniform.

5. The Sporting News. Starting on Wednesday morning this 120+ year-old publication(s) will launch a new venture in the form of an electronic sports-only daily newspaper. I don't know if this daily "paper" will work out. Heck, I don't even know if I've got it in me to read another email or another news source each morning before heading to work or once at work. I don't know either of those things. But I like this anyway. I like that there will be another way to get some sports news and opinion and I really like the idea that some of the bloggers from The Sporting Blog will have another outlet.

Benched. The Big Lead. Before I start, let me just say that I like this sports blog. I know some other folks out there have problems with it, but I'm an a-la-carte optimist. I load up my plate with what looks good to me from out there in the blogosphere and try my best to ignore the things that don't interest me or that I flat-out disagree with. And, I hope people do the same when it comes to WWOD?. This is why I check The Big Lead just about daily (and often twice-daily) as the site does a great job of rounding up most of what is happening out their in the wilder, wider sporting world. The fellow that runs (and those who deputize on the weekends) have been kind enough to link to a few things I've written over the past few months. And, I've been grateful for that. That being said, I usually steer clear of the editorial posts about movies, music and politics (or the nature of sports blogs). Not due to any disdain for those topics but just because that's not what I'm there to consume. I'm there for sports news and to check the AM/PM roundups to see what everyone else is thinking/writing about. However, earlier today, I read a post about The Dark Knight, which opened this weekend and made a lot of money. I saw the movie yesterday morning (10AM) in IMAX at Lincoln Center and was totally blown away and almost went to see any evening showing last night. It's awesome. Run, don't walk, to go see it. So, I couldn't help but peak at what someone else had to say about the film today. Big mistake. My jaw dropped down to my keyboard, splashing g's, h's, and j's all over the document I was "working on," when I read that, in the opinion of this particular blogger, The Dark Knight is not as good as Revenge of the Sith.

"As expected, Dark Knight shattered every box office record imaginable over the weekend. Saw it. Liked it immensely. Was it better than Iron Man? Tough. They’re polar opposites: Iron Man was fun and witty; Batman was dark and tragic, partially because of Heath Ledger’s death.
Of the many superhero/sci-fi movies we’ve seen in the last few years, this almost certainly cracks the top five (with Iron Man and Transformers) but our favorite is Revenge of the Sith, the Star Wars movie where Anakin becomes Vader.

I haven't seen Iron Man yet and I have heard that it is very, very good so I won't even comment on that comparison. But Revenge of the Sith? Transformers? Seriously? It felt like someone kicked me in the groin when I read that. It felt like some sort of trust was broken between me as a reader and the author of The Big Lead. And, I'm a HUGE Star Wars dork! I was there waiting overnight (and first on line, I might add) outside of a movie theater in Wayne, NJ when The Phantom Menace was released in 1999 and have a pretty serious-looking replica lightsaber in my living room. Like I said, I'm a HUGE dork. But, c'mon! The Dark Knight was a full-fledged cinematic experience for a mature audience who had grown up on Batman/comic/sci-fi movies. It was visually stunning (especially in IMAX), ambitiously choreographed (both in terms of the stunt sequences as well as the plot itself) and contained a complex narrative utilizing an ensemble of three-dimensional characters while all three Star Wars prequel movies were facile indulgences of a impeachably wealthy man (looking to fleece a mature audience who had grown on Batman/comic/sci-fi movies) who has lost touch with his art in which the performances were as wooden and lifeless in their own way as the predictable, plodding plot and over-zealous use of CGI were in theirs. Frankly, the two most embarrasing moments I've ever experienced in a movie theater as movie-goer were at the end of Revenge of the Sith. I had overpaid for secondary-market opening night tickets at the multiplex in Union Square and brought a girl who was not a Star Wars fan and I would say that her opinion of me may never have recovered from my pre-show enthusiasm for this debacle. The first embarrassing moment occurred during the poorly submerged nods to Frankenstein when Vader makes his first appearance and the second, being perhaps the silliest piece of dialog ever penned to paper, was when a medical robot described the death of Natalie Portman's character by saying that "she has lost the will to live." Seriously, this is who a medical ROBOT diagnoses the death of a major character in the sign-off scene of a six-film cycle? Really? Yes, we got to see the Vader/Kinobi fight but this movie was still terrible. It almost made me want to turn in my old Kenner Millennium Falcon toy. Almost. To say it better than The Dark Knight is not only a display of bad taste it is also an affront to everything that was good about the original Star Wars trilogy which has far more in common with the lastest Batman installment then with the three prequels. If someone wanted to say that they liked Knight but it was no classic like Empire then I've got no problem with that. But Sith? I just can't let such a remark go unremarked upon.

Still, I'm sure that I'll get back to checking in with The Big Lead but it is probably going to me a few days, at least, to take it very seriously again. Disagreements amongst sports fans are common and usually represent no grave trespass. We like different teams and different players. And, we're irrationally passionate about it. That's the way it works. However, there is nothing wrong with being a fan of a bad team (there may even be something commendable about it) while you can't be a fan of bad movies and expect people to take you seriously. This is one specific area where sports and movies fandom differs. Sitting in the stadium or at a bar and cheering for a struggling team doesn't reflect poorly on anyone but sitting in a movie theater and applauding a bad movie does (and I don't mean campy so-bad-that-they're-good-movies). That's why I was so mortified sitting in a darkened Union Square theater watching (and even worse, listening to) Revenge of the Sith with someone who thought that movie was representative of my taste and interests. There are certain doors that must remain forever open and/or closed. Someone who doesn't want to lose the respect of any serious movie-watchers shouldn't admit in decent company that they think The Mummy was better than Raiders of the Lost Ark, that Alien Vs. Predator is better than Aliens or that (for you ladies out there) Love Actually is better than When Harry Met Sally or Annie Hall. And they sure as hell shouldn't let anyone find out that they think Revenge of the Sith is better a better film than The Dark Knight. That's the sort of secret you take to the grave. Lest people start to talk. Or, even worse, stop listening. Trust me, I know.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Around the Internets

MLB All-Star Round-up Edition

One of Josh Hamilton's Upper Deck Blasts From the Derby

Dan Uggla?, More like Uggly!

I don't know if you heard, but apparently someone is going to tear down Yankee Stadium after this season! In other stunning news, Josh Hamilton has dabbled in drugs and Jerome Bettis is from Detroit. Whether you're a Yankees fan or (hopefully) not, you should try to head up to the Bronx in the next few months to take a tour of the place with Bronx legend and Stadium Tours Director, Tony Morante. He's from the Bronx, grew up watching Mantle from the right field bleachers and has worked in the House that Ruth Built for a half-century.

Letterman's ASG Top Ten List

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Best. Crackhead-cum-Christian. Ever.

A WWOD? Photo Essay:
Josh Hamilton Blows Lines Minds at Home Run Derby

You have probably heard all about Texas Rangers centerfielder Josh Hamilton by now. You may still be reeling (or, at least, remembering) from the monumental blasts that he sent flying into the Bronx during the Home Run Derby Monday night at Yankee Stadium. It was the event that will most be associated with the final Midsummer Classic held at the House that Ruth Built.
Josh Hamilton is the ballplayer responsible for sports broadcasters (among countless others) reading the phrase "smoked crack" off of tele-prompters on a weekly, if not nightly, basis. Hamilton was the former No. 1 overall pick of the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays in 1999. He fell off the baseball map thanks in small part to injuries and in large part to a mammoth, intense narcotics habit. After being kicked out of the Major Leagues, Hamilton resurfaced last year with the Cincinnati Reds and was traded to the Rangers in December 2007. His story has been covered. And, covered and covered. And mentioned for the tenth time during telecasts when there are dozens of other subjects and topics begging to be discussed for the first time. Albert Chen's SI article on Hamilton's story is the place to start if somehow, someway ESPN and FOX didn't bludgeon you enough with his tale of wasted opportunity and wanton crack-smoking, boundless talent and the discovery of a certain personal savior.

I'm a man alone at the Home Run Derby. One ticket. One man. It's as perfect a night to be at the ballpark as you could ever ask for. The air is warm, the breeze is cool. My hot dog tastes better than the normal. It's almost like the concessionaires cooked the hot dogs tonight knowing that other people were going to be eating them rather than just because it was their job to heat them up. They're really pulling out all the stops for this final All-Star week at Yankee Stadium. The beer is a cataclysmic $9.50 per plastic cup. Which keeps me sober-er than normal longer-er than normal. Which was actually perfect. Who would've thunk it? It was calm, serene and laid back as the festivities got underway. There was no pressure or concern to see "your" team win. There were no Mets, no Yankees and no Red Sox in the competition and everyone could just enjoy the night. It was perfect.

The contestants in the Home Run Derby were Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla, Rays third baseman Evan Lonoria, Brewers outfielder (and the Hebrew Hammer) Ryan Braun, Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, Astros first baseman Lance Berkman, Indians centerfielder Grady Sizemore, Twins first baseman Justin Morneau and, of course, Hamilton. Going in, I would have put my money, if I were a betting man, on any combo of Braun, Berkman and Hamilton to reach the finals.

Lance Berkman is a switch-hitter but chose to club from the left side in the Derby and aim to pull the ball to the short porch in right field. I'd love to see him keep up his chase for the NL's Triple Crown (most HR, most RBI and top batting average) in the second half of the season. It's sort of strange to think that his first name is really Lance. Even when he is at home. Or at the grocery store. Somehow it doesn't seem strange to me that his name is Lance on the ballfield. Or on a baseball card. But elsewhere? Eek.

Last but not least in the first round is Josh Hamilton. The guy has more rehab trips under his belt than all but two of his fellow contestants had long balls in the first round. And those two, Morneau and Berkman, well, they just tied Hamilton's rehab mark, each hitting eight home runs to advance to the second round along with 2007 NL Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun. Meanwhile Hamilton's sweet, left-handed swing sends shot after shot into the darkening night sky. He is absolutely amazing. The guys in the Goodyear blimp are likely getting nervous. I am amazed. 53,000 people feel the same way. From my perch in the upper deck just up the third base line from the NL dugout I am perfectly situated to watch Hamilton pepper the right field bleachers and the upper deck with homer after homer.
The first Hamilton shot that really sent the crowd into hysterics was the one that smacked what seemed to be about halfway up the Bank of America sign above the right field bleachers. That was the first off three shots that traveled (or was estimated to have traveled) over 500 feet. The almost-capacity crowd (and there were a few empty seats up top) exploded. All that was missing from this jubilant explosion of wonder was Dikembe Mutumbo jumping out of a folding chair like he does at the NBA slam dunk contest, mouth agape and arms flailing above his head. Somehow Milton Bradley "massaging" Hamilton or a few players' kids asking for autographs between hacks didn't quite cut it. Either way, I couldn't help but think that there was a chance that this tatooed-Roy-Hobbs-alike was going to become the first player (unless, of course, Negro Leagues legend Josh Gibson really did do it) to hit a fair ball clear out of Yankee Stadium. I mean he couldn't really. But could he?

The tally climbed seemingly with each swing. Hamilton had more than double his closest competitors, who had the aforementioned 8 apiece. In fact, Hamilton had more home runs than his two closest competitors combined. It had already been a great ride for the fans. We had already been on our feet chanting "Ham-ill-ton, Ham-ill-ton." It was already something special. And, it hadn't even begun.

In fact, you could say that it wasn't until after that eighth out that Hamilton actually got locked in at the plate. Those first dozen or so? He was just getting warmed up. Now he was ready Once he reached 24 long balls he had more than the next three contestants (Morneau, Berkman and Braun) combined.

He would go on a tear the likes of which no one in Yankee Stadium will ever forget having witnessed. Each time he stepped to the plate he either took a pitch, letting it harmlessly slap into the catcher's mitt or he unleashed another powerful swing and sent another ball flying out into the stands And he still had those two out remaining in his back pocket.

Hamilton would hit 28 home runs in the first round of the 2008 Home Run Derby. And the final 13 of them came on consecutive swings of the bat. If he swung it was gone. After cracking his 28th blast of the round he finally relented. The next two balls to flee his bat stayed in the park.

As soon as he made his 10th and final out of the round he was mobbed by his peers and serenaded once more by the electrified crowd. During Hamilton's turn at bat, five balls landed in the upper deck in right field, one of which was about two thirds of the way up and seemed to be, from my seat, just a handful of seats from the end of the row and leaving the Stadium altogether. He hit a few balls into the black in straightaway center field and we all watched as one lucky fan got a sounvenier and then got assualted by a few of New York's finest for treading where paying customers can no longer tread. Some savvy Yankee Stadium employee had even cued up the theme music from The Natural. It was a happening.
During Hamilton's obligatory remarks with much beloved and belusted-after ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews, he was sure to make sure everyone in Yankee Stadium and at home knew from where he drew his power. And, no the answer was not copious amounts of mexican heroin. At least, not anymore. The answer was the one and only Jesus. And, no, not Jesus Flores, the catcher the Washington Nationals absconded with from the Mets farm system. He meant Jesus Christ. Out of Nazareth. And, not Nazareth College in Rochester, NY. What Hamilton wanted you to know is that he is very religious. Now. Seriously.

After having watched Hamilton inflict untold damage to baseball after baseball the crowd needed a break as much as his tattooed arms did. We filed out of the stands en masse to get beer from vendors and deposit used beer in the restrooms. In fact, the second round of the Derby seemed to start without anybody really noticing. Even after Berkman, Braun and Morneau each had their turns at bat not a single one had even come close to equalling what Hamilton had done in just the first round.

Not needing to do anything to join Justin Morneau in the Derby finals, Hamilton just came out for a few hacks in the second round. He hit four home runs on eight swings. Of course he did.

Morneau was dealt the task of following Hamilton and setting the pace for the final round of the Derby. The Twins first baseman opened up the finals with a mere five home runs. Surely, the mythical Josh Hamilton could top that. Right? Wrong.

In what seemed a lock to be the most anticlimactic moment of the All-Star break -- at least until the game itself dragged on late into the evening last night (err, this morning) with both leagues' best players watching from their respective dugouts as the second-tier-stars battled -- Justin Morneau managed to "win" the 2008 Home Run Derby. It was awkward.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

And, starting at point guard...Chris Duhon?!?!?

Steve Nash was the engine of Coach D'Antoni's Seven Seconds or Less offense in Phoenix. Derrick Rose was the college point guard out of the University of Memphis that every Knicks fan coveted heading into the draft lottery. So, Donnie Walsh went out and signed Chris Duhon away from the Chicago Bulls? Yup. Duhon has signed a two-year pact reportedly worth $12 million.

Duhon enters his fifth NBA season as a member of the New York Knickerbockers. The first four seasons of his professional career where all spent with the Chicago Bulls, who drafted him early in the second round of the 2004 NBA draft. During his time in Chicago he was the primary back-up to Kirk Hinrich and the third wheel in the Hinrich-Ben Gordon back-court. In each of his four seasons in the Second City he ranked second on the team in assists behind Hinrich. The 2005-2006 season was Duhon's most successful campaign; he averaged 8.7 points and 5 assists per game. The following season, Duhon was an integral part of the Bulls team that won the first playoff series since Jordan was still in town.

The Louisiana-born Duhon played under Coach K at Duke University from 2000 through 2004. He was a the ACC Freshman of the Year after his debut campaign and was the starting point guard on the 2001 National Champion squad. He surprised a lot of people by not opting to enter the draft immediately after cutting down the nets in Minneapolis and (sort of) paid the price when he was a second round pick in 2004 rather than the sure-fire first-rounder he was being touted as in the aftermath of the Duke title. Still, Duhon flourished, mostly, during his remaining years in Durham, NC. He was named team captain and finished his career as the school's all-time leader in steals (300) and minutes played (4,813). When he hung up his college high-tops he was also second in school annals in assists (819). With 123 wins against just 21 losses, he was also the second winningest player in Duke and ACC history, behind Shane Battier (who had 131 wins to his credit). He was also the only ACCer to record 1,200 points, 800 assists, 475 rebounds, 300 steals, and 125 three-point shots. In other words, Duhon was a very, very good collegiate basketball player

As of today we don't know if he is the Knicks starting point guard (though he seems to think he is), a pass-first back-up or just someone else that Donnie Walsh is throwing at the wall to see if he sticks. And, what does this mean for Stephon Marbury? Is a buyout imminent? Is he going to be traded to a team looking for a cap space after next season? Is he going to be a backup behind Duhon, a guy with a per game average of 6.9 points and 4.5 assists?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Wednesday's Starting Five

1. The Chicago Cubs. It's July 9th and the Cubs still have the best record in the National League. They've got seven players named the NL All-Star team. The team's manager is going to the Midsummer Classic too. The Cubbies have everything going for them. Except for history. Which hates them like I hate PJ Brown. Which is a lot. This dispute with History must be partially responsible for the Cubs 100-year World Series drought. Also, responsible: bad players and bad management. In a move that can only be construed as a refutation of fatalism, the North Siders have acquired if-healthy-ace Rich Harden (and reliever Chad Gaudin) from the Oakland A's in an attempt to bolster their staff for the second half of the season. Harden has made 13 starts this season (and one trip to the DL), he has a 5-1 record with a 2.34 ERA. He is also under contract through the end of next season which makes this trade even better for the Cubs as it gives them two cracks at the Fall Classic before having to decide if they want to sign Harden to a free-agent deal.

2. The Milwaukee Brewers. They are going for it. No doubt about it. The Brew Crew is ten games over .500 and they don't know how long it will be until they are this good again (co-ace Ben Sheets is a free agent and will likely take Big Market money elsewhere). So, they are going for it. They traded three prospects and a player to be named later to the Cleveland Indians for 2007 AL Cy Young Award winner and proud member of the clean plate club CC Sabathia. Unlike the Cubs and Harden, the Brewers are likely in a rental situation with Sabathia, who is also a free agent at the end of the season and who will also likely take Big Market money elsewhere. This is a win-now deal and shows that the Brewers (currently in the NL Wild Card lead) have their sights set on catching the Cubs.

3. Mike Pelfrey. Maybe it's about the removal of the mouth piece. Maybe it's about the new pitching coach. Maybe it's about the hot weather. Either way, it's about time. The former No. 9 overall pick (and he probably would have gone sooner had he not tapped Scott Boras to be his agent) out of Wichita State is finally starting to live up to his potential. The 24-year old sinker-balling right-hander has won five straight decisions for the Mets and has not been stuck with a loss since May 26. That defeat at the hands of the Marlins was his sixth in a row. However, that losing streak seems as long ago as an El Duque start at this point. "Big Pelf" was lights out last night against the Giants allowing a meager three hits over the course of seven innings. He struck out five while throwing 73 of his 113 pitches for strikes to out-duel fellow 24-year-old and first-time NL All-Star Tim Lincecum.

4. The New York Mets. On the strength of the aforementioned Pelfrey's great outing against the woeful Giants last night the Mets have put together a four game winning streak (including an impressive if still heart-attack inducing 3 out of 4 in Philly). Whether you want to credit the newfound consistency to Interim Manager Jerry Manuel or not, there is no denying that the team seems to be having fun again and playing with greater confidence. They are currently 1.5 games behind the division leading Phillies and with five games against the bottom-feeding Giants and the next-to-bottom feeding Rockies left before the All-Star break there is a legit chance this team could be in first place when the Midsummer Classic gets underway at Yankee Stadium.

5. Corey Maggette. Also known as the Safety School, Maggette is reportedly prepared to sign a five-year deal with about $50 million with the Golden State Warriors who watched Baron Davis walk away and then couldn't lure Elton Brand to town. The 28-year-old swingman informed folks that his current-ish team the LA Clippers have no intention of matching the offer (which they have the right to do since he was/is a restricted free agent. You just have to wonder if Warriors GM Chris Mullin has been trying to poach every available Clipper just as some sort of revenge against Baron Davis for heading South to LA.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Tuesday's Starting Five

NBA Free Agency Edition
1. Baron Davis. In less than four seasons in Oakland, Davis helped transform the franchise from perennial disapointment to beloved giant killer. He was the heart and soul and face, nay the beard, of the Golden State Warriors. And, he's gone. Without much warning or speculation by those folks allegedly in the know (meaning actual NBA beat writers and commentators) Davis opted out of the final year of his contract with the Warriors last week and then signed a multi-year pact with the Los Angeles Clippers. The 29-year-old guard left $17.8 million on the Warriors-table next season, the final one on his six-year deal. When players leave teams it is de rigueur to make them the bad guy but I don't think that's really the case here. Davis is from Los Angeles, played his college ball at UCLA and is heavily involved in community work in his hometown. Moreover, he left more money in Oakland (at least for next season) to sign on for long-term security (reportedly five years and $65 million) in LA. Apparently talks of contract extension had not gotten very far with the Warriors and Davis decided to opt out while the opting was good. Given his injury history it's also hard to fault the Warriors for being hesistant about a long-term deal but it's also hard to imagine what that team will look like without Davis. Is Monta Ellis ready to take over? Is Monta Ellis, himself a restricted free agent, even planning on staying? Given the power of his smile to bring in fans and his dribble to get past defenders you would have thought that in spite of the injuries that GS would have tried harder to keep him in the Bay Area.

2. Gilbert Arenas. One of the many planets knocked slightly out of orbit in the aftermath of Baron Davis opting out in Oakland was whatever planet Agent Zero resides on. Negotiating sans agent from China, Arenas (who is easily in my Top 5 players I pay to see when they come to the Garden) reportedly talked the Washington Wizards down from their max contract offer of approximately $127 million over six years to $111 over that same span. With his trademark honesty he asked The Washington Post "What can I do for my family with $127 million that I can't do with $111 million?" Suffice to say, Arenas is a one hover-boat sort of guy and you've got to like that about him. All along he said that he wanted to stay in Washington, that he wanted the team to resign All-Star forward Antawn Jamison and that he didn't want his max-deal to handcuff the club for the duration of his time there. Well, it looks like got all three things accomplished. Dan Shanoff, whose daily columns I couldn't recommend any more, has maintained that the Wizards need to re-sign him even if they don't think this Arenas-led-team can actually win a title. After all, if you're a franchise just trying to fill seats and put a good (if not great) product on the floor than what more could ask for (if a championship is not in the offing) than someone as talented and charismatic as Gilbert who can get you to the playoffs every season?

3. Elton Brand. And, the man formerly at the center (or power forward) of the Los Angeles Clippers universe just got himself a new stud teammate. Or did he? When the Warriors went into panic mode after Baron Davis' surprising opt out things, all of a sudden, seemed to be up in the air for Brand as well. Like Davis, he had publicly committed to staying with his team of several years. And provided that he did stay, that franchise seemed poised for a run at respectability, if not prominence with the addition of Davis. But Davis' arrival in Los Angeles set off a chain reaction of events that ended up with a lot of money floating in the ether. The money that Golden State had set aside for the Bearded One was now up for grabs and Warriors GM Chris Mullin looked into giving that cash to Brand. And, wouldn't that have been something? Davis goes to LA to play for a could-be-contender featuring Brand and then Brand leaves LA and takes his old spot in the Bay Area. But, that's not what happened. Although it is connected to what ultimately went down. When Brand didn't immediately dismiss the advances of the Warriors and reaffirm his desire to stay a Clipper it dawned on the other team(s) with available salary cap space that this guy could be had. In swooped the Philadelphia 76ers. They had more money to offer than Golden State, they had a 2007-2008 playoff team that gave the Pistons a good run and they had the Eastern Conference to offer the Peekskill, NY native who won the 1999 Naismith Award during his second (and last) year at Duke University. And, having all of that they woke up this morning to find they also have Elton Brand. He has reportedly agreed to a five-year, $82 million contract with the Sixers.

4. Josh Smith. Originally this was the guy poised to rake in all of that cheesesteak cash from Philadelphia. Until Baron left Golden State and Elton left Los Angeles. This means that Josh is likely left behind in Atlanta. Which is probably best for everyone. And by everyone, I mean for the Hawks, their fans and me. I don't really know how Smith feels about this. This likely development is good for those other parties because Smith is a ridiculously versatile athlete who the Hawks really, really need to keep aboard if they intend to build upon last year's promising first-round playoff loss (only in Atlanta...) to the Celtics. Last season he averaged 17.5 points per game, 8.4 rebounds per game, 3.4 assists per game, 1.5 steals per game and 2.8 blocks per game. He stands all of six feet and nine inches tall but he has ranked second behind Marcus Camby in blocked shots in each of the past two seasons. In other words the guy is good at playing basketball. Perhaps most importantly, he is 22 years old and from the Atlanta area (College Park, GA). Which means that he is exactly the sort of guy to help draw fans back to the Omni Phillips Arena. Smith is a restricted free agent, which means the Hawks have the right to match any offer from another club. And, with the Sixers big money going towards whatever movie projects Elton Brand wants to bankroll it looks like Smith will stay in ATL. Unless, of course, the Clippers use their Brand-money to make a run at him. And, so it goes.

5. Randolph Morris. The former Kentucky center and current afterthought is the only Knicks player who is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Since he should have been playing in the Development League rather than wallowing and atrophying at the end of Isiah Thomas's bench. He's played a grand total of 225 professional minutes in his two years since jumping from the NCAA tournament to the NBA. Given the fact that he has barely played, I don't know if teams will be banging down his door to sign him away from the Knicks (who have matching-rights as Morris is a restricted free agent). And, if they can sign him to a one or two year deal (meaning no matter what he is off the books by the magical 2010 summer) with the understanding that he is going to join the Knicks D-League affiliate in Reno if he doesn't crack the rotation then I would be happy to re-sign him as a developmental prospect. It's an absolute shame that his first two seasons were wasted. But they were. And, I'm willing to let those sunk costs go and give him another try. Unless of course, some other club sees a diamond in our Garden-rough and offers him a two-plus year deal and some real money. If that happens then, adios Randolph.