Saturday, April 28, 2012

A damn shame: Rose finished, and so are Bulls

Derrick Rose planted his left foot and "heard something pop."That something was the Bulls' title chances.

I'm neither a Bulls fan nor a Bulls hater, but I hate this. I hate that Rose's season had to end this way. And I hate that a Bulls team that was good enough to win it all now has little hope to do so.

Like life itself, sports ain't fair.

Ask the Carolina Tar Heels, who lost their point guard just as they were starting to look like a championship team. Ask Peyton Manning's Colts, who learned this past season about the fragile line between being a title contender and a laughingstock. Ask any team that thought it had a legitimate chance at a special season only to see it blown apart by an injury to a star player.

And Rose wasn't just another star. In a league of great point guards, he was the best last season. Hell, he was the best player at any position, easily winning the MVP. This season, the Bulls built a team around him that was ready to go for the gold. Even though he had to miss a couple dozen games nursing a variety of injuries, I thought the Bulls would be OK because, unlike many players during this compressed season, he would be relatively fresh for the playoffs.

With 23 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists, Rose looked plenty fresh (albeit a little rusty) in Saturday's dismantling of the 76ers. But with less than a minute and a half to go, his knee gave out. Torn ACL. Season over.

The Bulls did amazingly well when playing without Rose this season, but let's be real. There's a reason C.J. Watson and John Lucas III have been backups their entire careers. 

After beating the Sixers, the Bulls will have a difficult time in the next round against either the Celtics or Hawks. And if they somehow survive that series, their luck surely will run out against the Heat in the Eastern finals.

And that's a damn shame.

With Derrick Rose, the Bulls were good enough to send LeBron and D-Wade packing.

Without him, they're just another team destined to end its season with a question that starts with the words "What" and "if."

Friday, April 27, 2012

Jordan's Bobcats: "We're No. 1!"

The NBA has been around for so long that there were lots of Jewish players in its early years but no black players.

And in all that time, no team ever had finished with a winning percentage lower than .110.

Until now.

The Bobcats -- my home team -- became the suckiest suckers in pro basketball history Thursday, when they wrapped up their NBA season with their 23rd straight loss. With owner Michael Jordan watching from on high, the Bobkittens were trounced by a playoff-bound Knicks team that rested everybody this side of Dan Gadzuric.

M.J.'s freckle-faced lads finished the lockout-shortened season at 7-59 for a winning percentage of .106.

Or, if you prefer, a losing percentage of .894.

Once upon a time, Jordan was the ultimate winner. Now he is the king of the losers.

Maybe he just needs to bring a few Jewish players aboard.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Can "Worst Week in Sports" be more than a year or two away?

What used to be the worst day in sports became the worst two days in sports. And now, thanks to ESPN, it's the worst three days in sports.

Is it already time for the NFL draft again? Has it really been a whole year since the last Festival for Insomnia Relief?

I'll be spending my time Thursday through Saturday working, playing, thinking, reading, sleeping, hanging out with the lovely Mrs. N and watching non-sports programming on TV.

Also, counting blades of grass in my yard, cleaning the crud out of the corners of my puppy's eyes, contemplating the meaning of life and researching the best lotions for bald heads.

Anything -- anything! -- but listening to Chris Berman and Mel Kiper Jr. scream about linebackers and tight ends for three straight days.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Today's High 5: Charlotte Bobcats Edition

5. Some think it's pathetic that Kemba Walker and the Bobcats have won only 7 games this season. But hey, that's one whole win more than Walker managed in the 2011 NCAA tournament with UConn.

4. It's time to stop asking if this year's Kentucky Wildcats could beat the Bobcats in a 7-game series and start wondering if the Bobcats could beat the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats. (My money's on the Bobcats taking a tight series!)

3. OK, so things aren't all that peachy for the Bobcats. But at least they can look forward to paying Tyrus Thomas $26 million over the next three seasons.

2. Nobody can convince me that Cam Newton wouldn't be one of the three best Bobcats right now.

1. Sources say Michael Jordan just called his lawyer to see if he could make an addendum to his divorce settlement that would force Juanita to take the Bobcats.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Of 1-and-dones ... and softball Win No. 1

Those who hate the rule that allows -- even encourages -- young basketball hotshots to go to college for one-plus semester and then turn pro shouldn't hate the kids.

Nor should they be hating on Kentucky, coach John Calipari or NBA commissioner David Stern.

You go to college to better your lot in life. It's hard to argue that Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the other Kentucky starters did anything but that when they decided to go pro. They teamed to win the Wildcats the NCAA title, so it's not as if they owe Kentucky anything else. Even if they hadn't won a title, they played hard and represented the school well for the short time they were there (at least as far as we know). That's all any college athlete owes his or her school.

So the kids are all right.

Calipari? He just recruits the best players in the country and abides by the rules as they stand (as the rules pertain to 1-and-dones, anyway). What? You don't think he'd rather have Davis & Co. for another year or three? He didn't write the rule. Get off his case.

Stern has publicly stated that he'd like the rule revised so athletes would have to stay in school for at least two years before declaring for the draft. But league owners have to collectively bargain that stuff with the players' union, so it's not as if Stern can make some kind of unilateral ruling.

I don't fault the union, either. Coming to an agreement that keeps kids from jumping right from preps to the pros was a major concession a few years ago. Why should they give in more unless the owners make a major concession? The sooner a player enters the league and gets through his first relatively modest contract, the sooner that player is going to get the really big bucks, thereby inflating salaries for everybody. The union is in no hurry to give that up.

So who's to "blame"? There is no blame. This simply going to be the way it is for the foreseeable future. Deal with it.


And speaking of Ready for Prime Time Players, our geriatric-ish softball team used a spectacular last-inning comeback to score our first win of the season.

Trailing big early, we eventually rallied to tie it at 17-17. Then we fell behind 19-17 before scoring 9 in the top of the last to go up 26-19. That's the way it ended when our defense put together our only 1-2-3 inning of the game. Clutch! Even more impressive, we had to play without our coach, who arguably is our best player, and two other guys. Don't take this personally, Ed, but you must be overrated!!

Yours truly wasn't exactly the MVP -- a sac fly, a hit, a walk, line-drive out and an embarrassing called third strike (believe me, the ball was 6 inches inside, but I still should have protected the plate). I made a couple of decent plays at second base, scored a couple runs and led the charge to grab a beer after the game. Hey, I'm all about camaraderie.

So now we're 1-2 and gaining a reputation as Komeback Kids (if 50-, 60- and 70-somethings can be called kids). Our previous game, we trailed 9-0, roared back to take a 10-9 lead and then lost in the bottom of the last. This time, we made the comeback stick. Very satisfying.

Look at me, all jacked up about a softball game. Ah, it's grand to be a kid again.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Overpaid jocks? How 'bout overpaid CEOs!

Every once in a while, a friend or a reader (or both -- they aren't mutually exclusive!) will start a conversation about the mega-bucks so many athletes receive. S0metimes, I start the conversation myself, as was the case in my back-to-back posts about Joe Mauer last week.

Though I find athlete compensation to be an extremely interesting subject, I just about never am outraged about the salaries these folks get. For one thing, nobody forces team owners to dole out these kinds of dollars. For another, well-compensated athletes are among the very best in the world at what they do. They work hard. They earn their money.

This brings me to a recent story I saw about the CEO of Lowe's hardware chain, a guy named Robert Niblock.

Niblock had a pretty lousy year in 2011, with Lowes profits falling 8.5 percent. The chain announced it was closing 20 stores and slowing future growth.

For this, Niblock saw his compensation decline -- to only $11.6 million. (He had made $12 million in 2010.)

Think about that. He failed at his mission, yet he still was rewarded with $11.6 million.

Now, THAT's outrageous.

Let's turn this conversation back to Joe Mauer. He is one of only 30 people on the planet good enough to start at catcher for a major league team. And Mauer is a multiple All-Star, meaning he is a member of a group that numbers only about a half-dozen -- in the entire world!

It's classic supply and demand. There are very, very, very few Joe Mauers available, and he is fortunate enough to take part in a multibillion-dollar business with a history of compensating its best participants well.

Is Mauer as valuable to society as the best teachers, cops, firefighters, nurses, doctors, etc.? Of course not. But there are millions of those fine folks.

My wife is a nurse, and an excellent one ... but she is not one of only six people in the entire world who is outstanding at what she does. Literally just about anybody could be a nurse; hardly anybody can be an All-Star big-league catcher.

With proper training, Mauer could be a nurse. He also could be the CEO of a major corporation. And he probably would do as well -- or better -- than Robert Niblock.

Thousands -- maybe millions -- of us regular folks have the intelligence and work ethic to do what Niblock does if we had the training and the breeding and the luck. Very, very few of us have the physical ability to do what Mauer does.

I don't mean to pick on Niblock. He is one of hundreds upon hundreds of corporate titans who gets huge money, regardless of whether their companies succeed or fail.

CEOs and others high in the corporate food chain have a profound effect on the economy. So many of them are fine men and women, so I don't want to rip the entire group, but the greediest among them can conspire to melt down our financial system, as almost happened a few years ago. Some even engage in criminal acts, with a very small percentage of those miscreants ever serving jail time.

If you want to be outraged by elite salaries, don't bother with jocks and rock stars and actors. In the big picture, they mean bupkis to society.

Be outraged about executive compensation, especially for those who run their companies into the ground and put our national financial security at risk. That means something.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

For better or worse (almost surely worse), Twins couldn't let No-Power Mauer leave

The Twins simply had to sign Joe Mauer, a St. Paul kid, a top draft pick and a multiple All-Star who would have been courted by at least a dozen teams with lots of money to spend.

When the sides came to terms on that eight-year, $184 million contract extension through 2018, Mauer was coming off an outstanding 2009 season, his fifth straight good year. He had been mostly healthy and productive, he was only 27 years old and he was a fine defensive catcher. Even if the Twins believed he wouldn't be able to play such a physically demanding position for the entirety of the contract, they had every reason to think he was a good enough athlete to play elsewhere. Failing that, he could always be a DH down the line.

The public-relations hit they would have taken by letting a hometown hero go elsewhere -- especially after ownership had fleeced taxpayers for a new downtown ballpark that supposedly was going to let them compete financially with the big boys -- would have been devastating.

Yes, the Twins had to keep Joe Mauer.

So my previous post was not meant to rip them for Mauer being a bust. It was more about calling out those from Minnesota who have criticized the Angels for signing Albert Pujols -- who, unlike Mauer, will be remembered as one of the greatest hitters in baseball history.

Mauer has failed to live up to the contract ... but is that really his fault? He is who he is. Aside from his one big year, he hasn't been much of a run-producer. (And even in that one year, he was no Albert Pujols.) He needs to hit better than he has the last couple of years, but he'll never be Johnny Bench.

Joe Mauer was the beneficiary of incredible timing: He had his career year just as the Twins were preparing to move into a new ballpark and just as his contract situation had to be addressed. More power to him (if not to his bat).

Look, I know "bust" might be too strong a word. If Mauer can stay healthy, he has a chance to be kind of a Mark Grace of catchers. High average, lots of singles and doubles, good glove, good guy in the clubhouse. That isn't necessarily a bad thing ... if you can ignore the fact that he will be paid a gazillion times more than Grace ever made.

When you are a limited-revenue team like the Twins and pay a singles hitter $23 million a year, you probably won't be able to acquire the kind of run-producers and pitchers necessary to compete for championships.

Still, in 2010, the Twins had to do this deal with Mauer. That's life in the big leagues.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Joe Mauer: Baseball's biggest bust?

I was clicking through channels Monday afternoon when I stopped to watch the Angels-Twins game on MLB for a few minutes. The feed was from Minnesota and featured Twins announcers Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven.

I know Bremer well from my years in Minnesota -- he and I actually did a few radio shows together -- and I consider him a good announcer. Still, he made a few curious comments about the Angels' signing of Albert Pujols during the short time I had the game on.

I'm paraphrasing here, because I wasn't recording the game or taking notes. Bremer seemed to criticize the Angels for paying Pujols so much for such a long stretch, noting that Pujols will be an old man when the Angels are paying him huge sums next decade.

Though it's a valid point, it sounded odd coming from a broadcaster for the team that employs Joe Mauer.

Pujols has been one of the best hitters ever and has led teams to championships. He never has had anything but outstanding seasons, has avoided serious injury and plays a relatively low-impact position. While it would be a stretch to expect him to produce big-time at the end of his contract, he likely has many, many more great years ahead of him.

Mauer, meanwhile, has been a total bust since the Twins gave him an eight-year, $184 million extension before the 2010 season, and it's hard to imagine them getting anywhere near good value for their investment.

He batted about as soft a .327 as is humanly possible in '10 -- only 75 RBIs for a middle-of-the-order supposed stud protected by Justin Morneau -- and followed that with a horrid, injury-plagued 2011 season. He has barely hit the ball out of the infield so far in 2012.

With a mere 37 HR and 99 RBI for the Cardinals, Pujols was coming off the "worst" season of his career in 2011, which he capped by helping the Cardinals win another World Series.

Mauer? He never has had either 30 HR or 100 RBI in any season; in fact, he's only had one year with more than 13 HR and 85 RBI. He also has "led" the Twins to an 0-9 postseason record, driving in a total of 1 run in those nine games.

And yet the Twins threw $184 million at him. Since getting that deal, this alleged superstar has 12 HR and 106 RBI in 223 games.

Sabermetricians can throw all kinds of fancy stats at me, but sorry ... I want my $184 million ballplayers to drive in a few runs. Shoot me.

Unless he turns things around dramatically, he can only be considered one of the most overpaid, most overrated, least valuable players in baseball.

He is injury prone, he plays a high-impact position and he figures to be a broken-down 35-year-old when the Twins are on the hook for $23 million in 2018.

Yes, shame on the Angels for giving such big money to Albert Pujols.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Today's High 5: Masters Edition

5. Bubba Watson never has had a golf lesson and never has seen video of his swing.

I have had lessons, many of which emphasized that I needed to unlearn what I had learned in previous lessons. I have been traumatized by video of my swing. I haven't won the Masters.

If only I had heard about Bubba's plan for golf stardom 30 years ago!

4. As much as I enjoy the NCAA basketball tournament and the World Series, I would rather watch the final 9 holes of a hotly contested major golf championship than any other sports programming.

3. Peter Hanson absolutely shanked his tee shot on No. 12. Phil Mickelson hit consecutive irons totaling about 10 feet on the way to a triple-bogey.

And those were the leaders heading into the final round!

Golf humbles even the best of us.

2. Louis Oosthuizen used a 253-yard 4-iron to card a double-eagle.

Yeah, like I haven't done that 100 times.

1. Far too many media mopes experienced far too many Tigasms after The Hyped One won Arnie Palmer's tournament a couple weeks before going to Augusta.

Tiger is the Masters favorite! Tiger has found his swing and his mojo! Tiger is ready to reclaim his rightful throne!


And then the Masters began ... and Tiger was back to being the Tiger of the previous 2 1/2 years -- the one scarred by the 9-iron the ex-Mrs. Tiger went at him with.

Simply stated, Tiger isn't back until he wins a major.

He repeatedly has said he should be measured only by how he does in the sport's showcase events.

Why should the rest of us hold him to a lower standard?

Tiger is not back. And, frankly, he isn't even close.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Other than slightly bruised ego, this junior-ish Senior Leaguer survives debut

I'm still in one piece ... although many of my pieces are sore this morning.

I didn't completely embarrass myself; I only partially embarrassed myself.

And I really like my teammates.

So went my first 12-inch softball game in 18 years.

Since moving to Charlotte in August 2010, I'd been looking for an outlet to suit both my competitive nature and my male-bonding instincts. I finally found one: the city's 45-and-over softball league.

The season opened last night, and I played second base and batted eighth for the Blue Thunder.

The last time I had played softball -- not counting the half-dozen or so games of the 16-inch variety I had played during my Chicago years -- I was living in the Twin Cities suburb of Apple Valley back in the summer of 1994. I was 33, and I was one of the team's older players.

Now I'm 51 -- and I am one of the team's youngsters. Pretty funny.

Despite our 19-12 loss to the Maroon Platoon, I really did enjoy it ... when I wasn't losing a pop-up in the lights and grounding out with two on in the fifth inning with us desperately trying to come back.

Other than the aforementioned pop-up humiliation, I handled my position fine. I took one hard grounder off my chin but kept the ball in front of me and made the play, grabbed a few easier grounders and almost turned a double play.

I also forgot to go out to right field for the cut-off throw once and, on another occasion, didn't cover second base when I should have.

At the plate, I was 1-for-3, with a single up the middle and two groundouts. I would have beaten out the fifth-inning grounder for a hit but we had runners on first and second, so the third baseman was able to scramble to the bag and just barely get the out. I scored a run and had an RBI.

My teammates, guys whom I just met a couple of weeks ago, were extremely supportive when I screwed up ... as was I when they did. I was hardly alone in the mess-up department, which is why we allowed 19 runs.

We hit the ball pretty well, though, scored a dozen runs and made some really nice plays. I definitely see potential for a pretty good team.

As important, several guys promised they'd be willing to grab a drink and/or bite after future games. I mean, if softball isn't a social venture, why bother, right?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Reason No. 864 why NCAA hoops tourney is so much better than BCS B.S.

When the NCAA basketball tournament has one of those wacky years filled with incredible upsets and capped by surprise teams in the Final Four, that's one example of why the hoops tourney is so much more exciting and satisfying than football's BCS.

Fairly often, though, the team that was the best in November, December, January and February also excels in March and early April. When that happens, it's even better proof.

So it was with Kentucky, certainly the best team in college hoops all season and a most deserving national champion after Monday's gritty win over game but overmatched Kansas.

"OK," the half-dozen or so BCS proponents might ask, "does it really matter how the best team gets to be the best? After all, few would deny that Alabama was a worthy national football champion."

Well, I might deny it, but that's besides the point.

Kentucky played a nonconference schedule featuring games against some of the nation's best teams. The Wildcats then dominated their conference, wrapping up the NCAA tourney's overall No. 1 seed. Finally, they went 6-0 in the tournament, with victories over one fine team after another, beating opponents of different styles, sizes and strengths.

That, my friends, is how you win a national championship.

You truly earn it.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Once "killed" by Weber, Self back for more

One of my favorite memories of Bruce Weber's first season as Illinois coach was when he tried to get his players' attention by telling them "Bill Self is dead" and staging a mock funeral for the guy who had recruited the players to Champaign.

Weber meant it was a new era, but his crassness caught guff from many media mopes and wasn't easily accepted by the players.

Still, led by Deron Williams, Self's recruits eventually bought into Weber's system. The following season, the Illini were in the national championship game and Weber was celebrated as a fine game coach.

Things steadily went downhill after that title loss to North Carolina, though, and Weber finally was fired a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, Self won the 2008 title with Kansas.

Saturday, the same day Self was leading Kansas back to another championship game, Weber was introduced as the new coach at Kansas State. Enthusiasm for Weber's hire was, shall we say, less than full throttle.

I got to know Weber fairly well and consider him a good man. However, his brutal honesty, screechy voice and decided uncoolness are sure to turn off K-State players the same way those traits turned off Illini players.

Of course, compared to in-your-face screamer Frank Martin, Weber probably will be received well in the near term by the players.

At the very least, he probably won't need to stage Martin's mock funeral.


Speaking of the national title game ...

I simply can't imagine Kansas beating Kentucky, which is superior at every position and has more depth.

I'm calling it Wildcats 72, Jayhawks 59, with freakish Anthony Davis getting most-outstanding-player honors.

Yeah, I'm really going out on the limb there.


It was great that CBS and the other networks involved employed the remarkable Marv Albert (with the extremely knowledgeable Steve Kerr) during the tournament. I wish Albert had been allowed to do the Final Four, too.

Jim Nantz is a solid pro, and Kerr is back along with superb Clark Kellogg. But Marv is simply the best basketball announcer ever to walk the earth.

As for Kellogg, he did an outstanding job calling games involving both his alma mater (Ohio State) and his son (who plays for Ohio). His restraint was admirable.

Plus, he occasionally invents a word, such as when he called a less-heralded Kentucky player "undersung."

Gotta love that.