Tuesday, September 30, 2014

MLB Picks, Least Valuable Players and A Fond Farewell to a South Side Star

I believe I heard 649 announcers say Derek Jeter's game-winning hit in his final Yankee Stadium at-bat was the "perfect ending" to his career.

Hmmm. I'm pretty sure the perfect ending would have been a World Series-winning hit, but whatever.

And now that we've got Jeter in our rear-view mirror, we can concentrate on a baseball games that actually matter.


I will admit that, after being skeptical, the extra wild-card spots have grown on me. Interest in the race was high and the baseball was exciting.

The A's almost suffered a choke of Cubbian proportions but managed to hang on by the length of a Canseco syringe. Oakland genius Moneyball Beane gave up his most feared offensive player (as well as his clubhouse chemistry) to land Jon Lester, and it almost cost the team a playoff spot. Tuesday night, Lester can reward Beane by beating the Royals, who send "Big Game" James Shields to the mound.

It's nice to see K.C. back in the postseason. I was a Yankees fan as a teenager and I still get chills when I see the grainy video of Chris Chambliss' series-winning HR in 1976. Kansas City used to be a great baseball town, so it will be fun to see the ballpark hoppin' on Tuesday.

I'm thinking the Royals will win if Shields can match Lester and let K.C. get into the Oakland bullpen.

Over in the NL, I'm digging Wednesday's San Fran-Pittsburgh matchup. The Pirates have the better team but the Giants send the better pitcher to the mound. Here's another great baseball town of the 1970s that fell on hard times, but it's two straight postseason appearances for the Pirates and I think Andrew McCuthen & Crew will find some way to beat Ross Bumgarner.

After that, however, I don't like the Pirates' chances against the Nationals. Meanwhile, the other NLDS should be a great one, with Clayton Kershaw leading the Dodgers against the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright in Game 1. The only pitching matchup that might turn out better than that one in the entire postseason would be if the two go at it again in Game 5. It seems the Cardinals always find a way, but of course how true is that? I mean, they don't win the pennant every year. Kershaw and Zack Grienke ... that's a lot of pitching to overcome.

I'll go with the Dodgers to beat the Nats in the NLCS, too.

Back to the AL ... I gotta go with the stacked Angels over the A's-Royals winner. The Tigers-Orioles series is compelling given that Detroit has spared no expense in putting together a dream rotation. The Orioles have relative no-names on their staff but also have one heck of a lineup. But how can I pick against all that Detroit pitching - plus Miguel Cabrera, one of the best hitters of this generation? Turns out, I can't.

Tigers vs. Angels in the ALCS: Lots of star power and power pitching and plain ol' power. The Tigers' pitching depth wins out, as long as their bullpen doesn't implode. (Which is no sure thing.)

So that gives us a Dodgers-Tigers World Series. In the olden days, when Kershaw would have been able to pitch three times in the series after only having had to win one or two other playoff games, this would have been an easy choice. That's no longer the case, though, so the best pitcher in baseball most likely will only pitch twice when it matters most. Because of that, I think I'll go with the Tigers. Their offense can get hot and, again, they have so much front-line pitching - especially if Justin Verlander is right.

All of which probably means the Tigers will lose in the ALDS.


MVP: Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout. After a little bit of consternation for a spell, these turn out to be slam dunks. Kershaw had one of the great seasons ever for a pitcher. Trout had a one-month lull but was outstanding the rest of the year. Both helped their SoCal teams overcome big early-season deficits to win their divisions going away. Frankly, I don't think it should be close in either league.

Cy Young: Kershaw - duh. In the AL, Felix Hernandez seems the obvious choice despite peeing down his leg in the season's final week when his team desperately needed him. If I liked any of the other solid candidates enough, I'd give Felix the thumbs-down, but I don't.

Manager: I'm opting for the beltway duo of Matt Williams and Buck Showalter.

Rookie: Jose Abreu is a 27-year-old former Cuban star, so it almost doesn't feel right picking him. But he is eligible, so he's a total no-brainer selection. In comparison, the NL rookie class is so lame that I'm not even going to bother.

LVP! LVP! LVP!: These aren't really the least valuable players in the sense that many others actually had worse seasons. But given their hype and their salaries, it's hard to top Joe Mauer and Ryan Braun. Mauer needed a late surge to get to 50 RBIs and the Twins are stuck for four more years at $23 million per for a mediocre first baseman who can't hit the ball out of the park and doesn't drive in runs. His biggest impact this season was helping get Ron Gardenhire fired. As often happens to juicers, Braun has become injury-prone. And no longer able to take his slugger's little helpers, he hits a lot of warning-track flyballs. Oh, he's also a pathological liar and a convicted douchebag. Pity the Brewers, who are on the hook for well over $100 million more through 2020. Ugh.


While my former employer, AP, and so many other media outlets were fawning over Jeter - and, to be fair, they probably should have done exactly that given all he had accomplished - Paul Konerko bowed out relatively quietly.

It was fitting. Konerko, a rock-solid ballplayer and a fine gentleman, never sought the limelight while giving the White Sox everything he had for 16 years.

I had many great conversations with Paul over the years, and I will always appreciate that, in good times and bad, he stood in front of his locker and dealt with media mopes like me.

Konerko was both understated and underrated. He had 439 HR and 1,412 RBI. He had six 100 RBI seasons (plus years with 99 and 97). He also was instrumental in the city of Chicago's only World Series triumph of the last 97 years.  He was named MVP of the 2005 ALCS but immediately (and correctly) said the award should have gone to the pitchers.

In the end, I'm guessing he will have been just good enough to be have been not quite good enough for the Hall of Fame. But he should be proud of his outstanding career, and I am thankful I got to cover his first dozen years on the South Side.

Monday, September 15, 2014

I wasn't too distracted to write this

"Distraction" is a media invention. A player or team is faced with some kind of off-the-field issue, and, through their line of questioning, writers and broadcasters immediately look to give the player or team an out.

"Coach, are you worried your guys will be distracted by ... "

What a crock.

Yes, it will distract them if they are weak-minded losers. If they are strong-willed winners, however, the situation at hand actually will serve to motivate and unite them.

The Ray Rice drama played out in Baltimore for months, with the three-time Pro Bowl tailback and fiancee abuser finally getting cut one week ago. For the next three days, coaches and players were incessantly asked about how the situation would distract the Ravens on Thursday night, when they were to play the Steelers.

Well, the Ravens crushed the rival Steelers. Rice's replacement, relative unknown Bernard Pierce, rushed for 96 yards.

As the Rice episode unfolded, here in Charlotte folks were concentrating on All-Pro defensive end Greg Hardy, who was convicted by a judge for assaulting his girlfriend. Hardy has appealed and his case eventually will be heard by a jury. Neither the NFL nor the Panthers suspended him because they said they felt they should let the legal course play out.

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson got all choked up as he spoke publicly about his strong stance against domestic violence, but Hardy remained on the active roster for yesterday's game against Detroit. "How much of a distraction is this?" was the most-asked question at team HQ.

Finally, the day of the game, the Panthers decided to deactivate Hardy. They then went out and throttled the Lions, holding one of the NFL's most explosive teams to 7 points. Hardy's replacement, Mario Addison, had 2 1/2 sacks.

The Ravens and Panthers refused to be distracted. They refused to cave in to the perception that they couldn't live without star players. Whether or not one likes the way Ravens and Panthers management handled the situations in the days and weeks leading up to their decisions regarding Rice and Hardy, one has to be impressed with the way players and coaches responded once the ball was kicked off.

As Thomas Davis, one of the Panthers' defensive captains, told the media after the game: "We've got to continue to come to work and do what we're paid to do."

Remember these results the next time your favorite team takes the media's bait and plays the distraction card.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Today's High Five: A wonderful time of the year!

Man (and woman), do I love this time of year! So much going on in the wide world of sports - and that's a very welcome distraction with what's going on in the wide world of non-sports.


My old-dude softball team, the Sons of Pitches, is 4-0 in the fall league after beating the other previously unbeaten team last night.

We not only won, we won by slaughter rule ... and we won with style, baby!

In the top of the second inning, we turned a TRIPLE PLAY. Yep, a triple-freakin-play! Runners on first and second; the batter hits a sinking line drive to right-center; the runners take off, certain they will be scoring on the play; our RCF Wayne makes a running catch; Wayne throws to SS Tom for Out No. 2; Tom fires to 1B Bob for Out No. 3. Yowsa!

We then come up in bottom of the inning and celebrate by scoring the maximum 5 runs, with Pat - our coach, pitcher and Penguin-run-alike - hitting a three-run homer. Way to go, Ron Cey! (Or is it more like Burgess Meredith?)

We have such a fun group of guys it will be sad when the season ends - and our two-year run as a team ends with it. There will be a new draft next spring and our guys will be cast about the league.

But we still have a lot of fun to go this season. It really isn't even fall yet, we're undefeated, and we have a championship to win!


The Cubs are in last place, 16 games out. The White Sox are in next-to-last place, 15 1/2 games out. And the Bears found a way to lose their season opener at home to the Bills.

All of which can only mean one thing:

It's September in Chicago!

Fans from my former hometown at least can celebrate that Derrick Rose, who is playing for the U.S. National Team, is experiencing no knee problems.


Meanwhile, my Panthers kicked butt and took prisoners in their opener at Tampa Bay, even without the injured Cam Newton.

The Panthers aren't a great team, but I think they're pretty darn good. I don't like talking much about Fantasy Football because people who play it never shut up when they start talking, but if Kelvin Benjamin happens to still be available in your league, you'd be wise to snag him. He's well on his way to being a stud.


The last Little League game I umpired, on Sunday, I took a foul ball to my right shoulder. The pain was so intense that I thought the ball must have somehow gotten under or over my chest protector's shoulder-pad attachment. But it hadn't. The ball just was hit hard and caught me in the "perfect" spot.

The next inning, I was hit by a pitch when the left-handed catcher didn't quite reach across his body enough to catch a ball that was barely out of the strike zone. The ball hit me just below the middle knuckle on my left index finger, an area that is now a lovely shade of purple.

And the next inning, a kid fouled one back off my right shoulder - again. The ball got me within an inch of the previous injury, and I was seeing stars for a few seconds. Ever the trooper, I shook it off and continued. That's why I get the big bucks.

I guess all that punishment was payback for joking around after I had taken a relatively innocuous shot off my shin guard in the first inning. A coach asked if I was OK, and I responded:

"I'm fine. My wife hits me harder than that!"


Why is being fired by the Ravens and suspended the NFL an appropriate punishment for treating a woman like a punching bag?

Why isn't this guy in jail?

OK, I know why he isn't in jail. He is rich enough to afford a good lawyer. That being said, Rice clearly is a bad human being, he can't control his temper, he is super strong, and he almost surely is armed. You can't convince me he is not a threat to society.

Those who know me well know that I'm a softy - and a big believer in second chances. But this criminal should have to sit in a small cell for at least a few months before he gets his second chance.


The NFL season is underway. So is the college football season, and now that there's an actual playoff system waiting at the end, I might even watch a few games. Tennis just played its U.S. Open and golf's Ryder Cup is just around the corner. Soon enough, NHL teams will report to training camp, NBA teams will do likewise and college basketball teams will hold their Midnight Madness sessions. And in soccer "friendlies" all around the world, guys with one name are pretending they were shot in an attempt to draw penalties against opponents who didn't touch them.

Things are so sportarific in September, and baseball is the sportarificest of all.

One of the things I miss most about Chicago is that I no longer live in a town with big-league baseball (or whatever it is that the Cubs and White Sox claim to play). With the Internet, ESPN and the MLB Network, I can keep up with the game pretty well, but it isn't quite the same as having not just one but two teams right in the city.

I have been enjoying the division and wild-card races, but mostly I have been thinking about the MVP awards in each league.

In the AL, the best offensive player has been White Sox rookie Jose Abreu, who came from Cuba and started hitting the second he set foot in Comiskular Park. But you know what? If I had a ballot this season, he wouldn't even be one of the first five guys I'd vote for. He might not even be in my top 10.

For me, an MVP candidate has to be on a team that at least contends for a postseason berth. He has to have come through in games that have meaning - either early- and mid-season games that have helped his team to a big division lead, or late-season games that have given his team a chance at the playoffs.

How can Abreu be the Most Valuable Player in his league if his team hasn't played a game "of value" since May? Yes, he has value to the White Sox. Yes, he deserves Rookie of the Year in a runaway. MVP of the entire league? Please.

Mike Trout seemed a lock for the award at midseason but he slumped pretty badly in August. Still, he leads the league in RBIs, he has helped his Angels roll past the once-dominant A's while compiling the league's best record, and he is dynamic both in the field and on the bases. He's still the choice over Detroit's Miguel Cabrera and Baltimore's Nelson Cruz.

Things are even more interesting in the NL, where the absence of a hitting superstar on any winning team has put a pitcher atop the MVP heap.

And what a pitcher. Clayton Kershaw has had several outstanding years, and he's now having one for the ages: 18-3 with a 1.67 ERA. He is in Koufax/Gibson territory, and he is the main reason the Dodgers overcame a slow start - Kershaw missed April and it took him most of May to shake off the rust - to surge past the Giants in the NL West.

Valid arguments can be made that a pitcher who makes 30 starts shouldn't win an MVP award ahead of everyday ballplayers, but Kershaw has been so dominant and has so obviously lifted the Dodgers, that he is an example of why it should be rare but possible.

For stat-heads who like advanced metrics, Kershaw leads all MLB players in Wins Above Replacement, and the guy in second (somewhat surprisingly, Oakland's Josh Donaldson) isn't very close behind.

The Marlins don't even have a .500 record and they are only on the fringes of the wild-card race, but if they can make a legitimate push over the last couple of weeks, Giancarlo "Don't Call Me Mike" Stanton could make it a two-man MVP race. Stanton leads the league in HR and RBI and he's a great all-around player. He's put up his numbers not in a Rockies-style thin-air-aided bandbox but in Miami's spacious, pitcher-friendly ballpark. Very impressive.

Stanton's best chance is if the Marlins make a big move in the next two weeks and if Kershaw loses some votes to teammate Adrian Gonzalez, who has been hot of late and is right behind Stanton in the RBI race. I suppose Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen could go wild down the stretch and steal the award, but I don't see it happening.

Right now, Kershaw is a pretty easy choice for MVP, Cy Young and, hell, let's make him governor of California, too. Jerry Brown can't have more than another decade or three in office, right?