Saturday, July 30, 2011

Indians get Fukudome ... WHY?

My favorite sports headline of 2011:

"Indians acquire Fukudome to boost struggling offense"

Hey, if Kosuke Fukudome -- probably baseball's worst stretch-run hitter during his first three years in Cubbieland and one of the biggest of Jim Hendry's many big busts -- is part of the Indians' master plan, they deserve the third- or fourth-place fate that awaits them.

Oh, and by the way, Fukudome went 0-for-4 and stranded four runners in his Cleveland debut, a 12-0 loss to the mighty Royals.

How do you say Mr. Clutch in Japanese?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Like it or not, La Russa wins his way

First, Scott Rolen.

Then, Jim Edmonds.

Now, Colby Rasmus.

And probably a few other guys I can't think of off the top of my head.

I don't want to say Tony La Russa can be a less-than-pleasant manager to play for, but ... OK, I guess I do want to say it.

He's not the best for media mopes, either. The one time I had a chance to observe him at length came in March 2008, when I covered a week of Cardinals spring training in Florida. The St. Louis press corps had to tiptoe around every topic, afraid to step on the eggshell that is Tony's massive, overly sensitive ego.

The beat guys from the Post-Dispatch managed to hang in there pretty well, but some of the others, including the local guy, felt they had to ask questions in a certain way to avoid feeling the skipper's wrath.

"Um, Tony, we know you are the greatest manager ever and we'd never second-guess you for an instant, but could you please explain why you might consider batting Skip Schumacher leadoff ... "

OK, maybe it wasn't quite that bad, but you get my drift.

Even though La Russa had seen me around the ballpark for years, he really had no clue who I was. And he didn't particularly care. The third or fourth day I was there in Florida, it was a little chilly so I was wearing my Marquette pullover. La Russa mentioned he had become friendly with then-MU coach Tom Crean. This led to a 5-minute conversation between us and, for the rest of the week, Tony didn't get pissed at me just for asking routine questions.

All in all, though, I thought he was quite a jerk, and I wasn't the least bit surprised he was in the Bobby Knight-Bill Parcells circle of friends.

Then again, the Cardinals shouldn't care if the media or even the players like their manager. No matter the makeup of the roster, La Russa almost always keeps the team competitive.

One need not be a jerk to be a good manager -- as Joe Torre, Terry Francona, Bob Lemon and numerous others have proven -- but given the choice of a jerk who wins or a lovable lug who loses, any intelligent owner would take the former.

Even if it occasionally results in a good player taking a hike.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Lockouts, shooting sprees and everything in between

This Week's Top Ten:

10. Congrats to NFL owners and players for settling on a collective bargaining agreement in time to save the season. Now if they only could do something important and get Congress and the White House to agree on a debt-ceiling package. How 'bout it, Jerry Jones and Tom Brady?

9. Republicans are afraid that ending tax loopholes and enacting other revenue-producing steps will hurt the economy (as well as piss off their rich -- oops, sorry, their "job-creating" -- friends). Democrats, meanwhile, believe entitlement programs can grow forever and ever without hurting the economy at all. Compromise, of course, is the obvious solution ... but apparently obvious only to those of us who aren't in position to make such decisions.

8. The Tour de France has ended. Tune in tomorrow for the Tour de Doping Scandal.

7. Good news, folks: It looks like we're about to use millions more in taxpayer dollars on a second Roger Clemens trial that's bound to be at least as satisfying and meaningful as the first. And we wonder why our nation is in hock up to its collective eyeballs.

6. I have a timeshare I'm thinking about giving away just so I no longer will have to pay the annual fee. Kind of like the Cubs' thoughts regarding Alfonso Soriano ... except I think I'll be able to avoid having to pay $40 million just to get somebody to take my week in Myrtle Beach.

5. Maybe you've noticed (but probably you haven't) that I've been blogging pretty infrequently lately. You'll be pleased to know that somehow I've managed to survive the financial consequences of such inactivity.

4. Here's something interesting: LeBron went on ESPN to announce he's taking his talents to South Beach to do nothing.

3. Someday I'm going to figure out why South Korean women dominate the LPGA Tour but hardly any of their male counterparts even play on the PGA Tour.

2. On the same weekend the NFL lockout effectively ended came the first rumors of Brett Favre's next un-retirement. Talk about perfect timing.

1. To draw attention to his belief that Muslims are evil murderers, a gun-loving evangelical Christian murdered dozens of innocent non-Islam children. The human race is so screwed.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

World Cup rating aside, it's still only soccer

Here's how the Miami Herald framed TV viewership of the Women's World Cup:

The United States lost a dramatic Women’s World Cup final to Japan on Sunday but won over millions of fans, scoring a bigger TV audience than last week’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game. ... ESPN’s coverage of the Women’s World Cup final drew an overnight rating of 8.6, making it the second-most watched women’s soccer match in history behind the 1999 final, which drew a 13.3.

Cynic that I am, here's my take:

The greatest moment in U.S. women's soccer history was the 1999 victory, which drew a 13.3 rating and allegedly was going to take the sport mainstream in America. Twelve years later, despite even more hype fueled by technological advances, the rating was almost 5 points lower. So I'm scratching my bald head trying to figure out who are these millions of new fans supposedly "won over" by this year's event?

Yes, one of soccer's most hyped events ever can get higher ratings than a given year's All-Star Game. But the next "big" soccer event -- say, the MLS championship or some cup of some kind -- won't get higher ratings than some regular-season Saturday ballgame between the Giants and Phillies.

At the end of the day, it's still only soccer. It didn't just get popular among U.S. sports fans overnight, and it isn't about to get popular 1,000 overnights from now.

So folks need to stop pretending there has been some kind of breakthrough.

Because there hasn't been.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sweet (second) home Chicago

My wife and I just returned from a long weekend in Chicago, where we spent four fun-filled days with our wonderful kids, Katie and Ben. We also had a chance to see many of our closest friends, including the Brundidges and the Marks.

We stayed at a downtown hotel -- a real treat because, as North Side residents for nearly 16 years, we never had overnighted in the middle of the all the action. It was exciting just to walk around such vibrant areas as the Magnificent Mile and Millennium Park.

We ate some great food, including tortas at Xoco (Rick Bayless' irresistible sandwich joint) and pizza at our No. 1 deep-dish establishment, Pequod's. We also saw our favorite band, Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, at the House of Blues, an awesome venue for a great group such as RCPM.

On Friday, while Roberta met some of her former co-workers for lunch, I joined former sportswriting colleagues Phil Arvia and Mike "Moishe" Imrem for a great round of bad golf. Though all three of us were big-time hacks, I will proudly say I carded the day's only birdie and also won our three-hole competition on 16, 17 and 18. Yep, something else to bring me back to the game that loves to hate me! Special thanks to Phil for providing transportation to the course and back -- and for talking his brother into letting me borrow a set of clubs. Oh, if those poor clubs could talk.

We experienced real joy in seeing the way Katie, now 24, and Ben, 23, took charge of many of the activities. We're so proud of how they have matured and become great contributors to society through their hard work and lively personalities.

When Monday afternoon came and we landed in Charlotte, I had the strangest feeling. Yes, we were back "home," but it sure seemed as if we also had left home behind.

We are adjusting nicely to our newly adopted hometown and honestly can say we like living in North Carolina. Still, there is no place quite like Chicago.

We can't wait to go back for another visit, and next time we hope to hang out even longer.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Surprise, surprise! July in Charlotte is hot

Played golf yesterday courtesy of my new employer, Ballantyne Country Club. It was 96 degrees and the dew point (whatever that is) was 89. So the heat index (whatever that is) was approximately a gazillion.

I was drenched in my own perspiration. I actually had to turn my cap backward to putt because beads of sweat were running from my forehead to the bill of my cap and dripping down at my feet, a most distracting thing.

But I drank a lot of water. I survived. And believe it or not, I even had fun.

Roberta and I weren't born in Charlotte. We weren't raised here. And we weren't forced to live here. We chose to relocate to a place where the summertime air is so thick, you practically can reach out, grab it and wring it out.

We knew about all that coming in, so to complain about it now would be pretty pathetic.

I like to look at it this way: It's perfect weather for brewing sun tea, my favorite beverage.

I also like to look at it this way: Autumn and spring in the Carolinas are spectacular, and this past winter was a great winter to be nowhere near Chicago. The price for that goodness: a few steamy months.

Oh ... for the record, I had five pars, a bunch of non-pars and finished with a 97.

As those who have golfed with me in all kinds of weather know, I'd be pretty dishonest if I tried to blame the heat index.

Monday, July 11, 2011

MVPs ... and LVPs, too

Jose Batista and Jose Reyes are the midseason MVPs ... of the Blue Jays and Mets.

Were I voting for league MVPs today, neither would be in my top 5.

It's simple, really: A league MVP need not come from a championship-caliber team, but he must at least be on a legitimate contender.

It's not best player, it's most valuable. It's not most valuable to his team, it's most valuable to his team within the context of an entire league. And if his team has zero chance to be in the postseason mix, how valuable can that player really be?

When Alex Rodriguez, Andre Dawson and Ernie Banks were somehow winning MVP awards for horrible teams, how was that fair to the many great players who were having excellent seasons under pennant-race pressure? As Aramis Ramirez proves practically every year in Cubbieland, it's easier to do well when nothing's on the line.

So with that being said, here are my midseason MVP choices for each league:


5. Paul Konerko, White Sox. He almost didn't make the cut because of where his team sits in the standings: 5 games out of first place in a mediocre division. I'll generously say they are on the borderline of contention and reward him for his awesome first half.

4. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians. A fine hitter, a wonderful fielder and the unquestioned leader of Cleveland's re-emergence as a contender.

3. Curtis Granderson, Yankees. A tremendous blend of power and speed, he is second in the league in HRs and first in triples.

2. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers. One of baseball's best pure hitters and by far the best player on Detroit's contending team.

1. ADRIAN GONZALEZ, Red Sox. About as easy a choice as you can get. He is the runaway leader in RBI, hits and total bases for the league's best team.


5. Ryan Howard, Phillies. I don't care that he's batting only .257. He leads the league in RBI and has 25 more than his nearest teammate. His power fuels baseball's best team.

4. Brian McCann, Braves. By far the best-hitting catcher, he's also handling one of the top pitching staffs in the majors.

3. Joel Hanrahan, Pirates. The personification of Pittsburgh's rise from the depths of despair, the big reliever is 26 for 26 in save opportunities. The Pirates play lots of close games; what a luxury it must be to know Hanrahan will save them all.

2. Prince Fielder, Brewers. Quite a salary drive. He has led Milwaukee into first place and has positioned himself for a mondo payday.

1. LANCE BERKMAN, Cardinals. Albert Pujols slumped and then got hurt. Matt Holliday got hurt. 3B David Freese got hurt. The pitching staff has been patched together. Yet there the Cards are, right in the thick of things, thanks in great part to the league leader in HR and slugging.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ledger, here are each league's LVPs, the guys doing the least when they were supposed to be valuable:


5. Hideki Matsui, A's. Time for Godzilla to finally retire back into the sea.

4. John Lackey, Red Sox. Hey, at least his ERA is under 8.

3. Chone Figgins, Mariners. Just about time for him to be "chone" the door.

2. Adam Dunn, White Sox. I've never been a fire-the-batting-coach guy, but Greg Walker somehow has turned a feared hitter into a lost soul.

1. ALEX RIOS, White Sox. At least Dunn occasionally hits an accidental homer.


5. Tyler Colvin, Cubs. Another Cubbie Savior bites the dust.

4. Dan Uggla, Braves. The complete package: No-hit and no-field.

3. Edinson Volquez, Reds. Sent packing to Triple-A.

2. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins. Big talent, little heart. What a waste.

1. JAYSON WERTH, Nationals. See what happens when you decide to spend $126 million for a role player and ask him to carry a team?

Friday, July 8, 2011

No 5-hour rounds!

It's new job time, folks. Beginning Saturday, I'll be working as the weekend ranger at beautiful Ballantyne Country Club on the south side of Charlotte. My main duty: cruising the course and making sure each group is keeping up with the group ahead.

I got a tour of the place today and met several fellow employees and club members. They seemed very nice and genuinely grateful I'll be coming on. I'll work most Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

This is my second golf-course job since I arrived in Charlotte last year. I enjoyed the first but the commute became too long after we bought our house on the opposite side of town. Ballantyne is only a 15- to 20-minute trip.

I'm looking forward to being outside (even on the 95-degree, 95-percent-humidity days) and being around golf again. The fact that I get weekday playing privileges doesn't hurt, either!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Today's High Five - Baseball Edition

5. Any day now, Derek Jeter will become the 28th player in major league history to achieve the 3,000-hit milestone. His pursuit already has garnered more publicity than the other 27.


Please, oh god of baseball (and all things ESPN), let it happen already!

4. Can't we just bronze Albert Pujols and put him in the Hall of Fame right now?

3. I can't remember ever seeing a lamer effort at preventing a home run than the one turned in by White Sox centerfielder Alex Rios on Wednesday. He took his time pursuing Eric Hosmer's sky-high deep fly off Edwin Jackson and never even jumped as the ball bounced off the top of the wall and over the fence to give the Royals a 2-0 lead in a game they'd win 4-1.

How bad was it? Even the biggest homer in all announcing, Hawk Harrelson, ripped him.

Rios did manage one hit, lifting his batting average to a robust .216. Hey, what do you expect from a guy only making $70 million?

One thing's for sure: Had Rios -- not Dewayne Wise -- been playing center field for the White Sox on July 23, 2009, Mark Buehrle wouldn't have pitched a perfect game.

2. I don't envy the Mets when it comes to dealing with Jose Reyes.

As he's showing this season, when healthy he is one of baseball's most dynamic, valuable players.

Far too often, however, Reyes is not healthy. In fact, he's out with a tweaked hamstring right now.

How can the Mets afford to sign such a fragile dude to the nine-figure contract he'll demand as a free agent this offseason?

Then again, given their talent level, how can they afford not to?

1. Five years ago, Aramis Ramirez and first-year Cub Juan Pierre were high-paid players in contract years. Both were so awful in the first third of the season that they condemned the team to abject failure.

Both players went on to perform well when the pressure was off and earned ridiculously rich new contracts after the season.

Flash forward to 2011. Ramirez and first-year Cub Carlos Pena are high-paid players in contract years. Both were so awful in the first third of the season that they condemned the team to abject failure.

Now that the Cubs are approximately 1,000 games out of first place and the pressure is completely off, both Ramirez and Pena are smashing the ball all over the place.

What a surprise.

The biggest myth in all of baseball is that Aramis Ramirez is a good clutch player. Truth is, he's one of the biggest chokers in modern history.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A car deal to appreciate

About a month ago, I read about a shortage of late-model, energy-efficient Toyotas, Hondas, Hyundais, Nissans, Mazdas and the like. Among the reasons for this paucity of fuel-sippers: Few people leased cars during the recession, so such cars weren't being turned in now; people kept their cars longer, meaning fewer 2- and 3-year-old autos were being traded in; fewer people bought cars at all in 2008 and 2009, so factories weren't running full-tilt.

Meanwhile, today's buyers still want these late-model, low-mileage cars.

According to the article, this low-supply-high-demand situation means that Corollas, Civics, Elantras, Priuses, Versas, etc., are fetching amazingly high trade-in values at dealerships. Dealers then quickly sell the cars at a nice profit.

There were anecdotes of people buying such cars 6, 7, 8 months ago -- before the demand got sky-high -- and then turning around this summer and selling the cars for a profit.

It's unprecedented, the article said. Even in good times, cars -- unlike houses in good times -- do not gain value. Traditionally, new cars lose 10 to 20 percent of their value the instant they are driven off the lots.

So while I read the story, I was skeptical. Cars don't appreciate.

Then I read a similar article about a week later. And then there was another a few days after that. And then another the following week. These were in trusted publications such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.

OK, I figured, let's give it a shot.

Those who know me know I'm a weirdo who actually enjoys the "thrill of the chase" that is car shopping. I am an extremely earnest negotiator who does significant research before I ever step foot in a dealer.

On Tuesday, I decided to see how much I could get for our 2009 Hyundai Elantra SE with 24,000 miles. My goal was to trade it in on a 2012 Hyundai Accent as part of a deal that would be so favorable, we couldn't afford not to do it.

The totally redesigned Accent has been winning rave reviews -- it's nothing like the cruddy tin-box of yore -- and it gets fine gas mileage. Dealerships are having trouble keeping them in stock; even before Accents arrive, the cars are spoken for. I thought it would be a great commuter car for my wife.

As for our Elantra ... including taxes, tags and all fees, we paid $11,650 for the 2-year-old Hyundai on New Year's Day. Now, the N.A.D.A. trade-in value for the car in "average" condition with 24,000 miles is $13,050.

Could we really drive this car for 7 months and then "earn" $1,400 by selling it? It was worth a shot.

First, I negotiated the best deal I could for the Accent, getting it for just a couple hundred bucks over invoice. Then the dealer offered me $11,000 in trade for our Elantra.

Nice try. I said I had to have the $13,050 -- which would mean $4,000 (plus taxes and various profit-guaranteeing fees) out of pocket.

After 5 minutes with his manager, the salesman came back with a $12,000 offer. My answer: Nope. Our Elantra was nice, I didn't need to trade it and, well, there are lots of other dealers in Charlotte.

After 10 minutes, the salesman came back with a "split-the-difference" offer of $12,500. My answer: "I'll take a day or two to think about it, weigh other offers and get back to you. Please bring the keys to my Elantra so I can go." I was polite but firm.

To a dealer, "I'll think about it" almost always means a lost sale. Very few people who drive away from a dealership without a new car ever come back. The salesman left again, presumably to give his manager the bad news and get me the keys to our Elantra.

Ten minutes later, the salesman returned and said: "We'll do it for the $13,050. You are getting a great deal."

Could I have done even better by going to another dealer (or threatening again to do so)? Perhaps, but I thought the transaction was fair.

I was getting a nice, safe, economical commuter car for Roberta. And we basically had been paid $1,400 for using that Elantra for seven months.

Hey, what do you know? The Legend of the Appreciating Car was true!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Keeping our Yankee Doodle Priorities straight

You gotta love communities in financial distress celebrating the Fourth of July by using taxpayer money to stage spectacular shows featuring made-in-China fireworks.

I mean, is there anything more American than that?