Wednesday, May 31, 2006

My Annoyance is Your Gain - A World Cup Preview of Sorts, Part I

I had a 4:39 flight from Chicago to Atlanta today. I arrived at the airport at 2:45 after my meeting wrapped up early and was thrilled to find out that there was a 3:15 flight with room. I was less than thrilled when I arrived at the gate at 2:55 and was told by the harried, unapologetic AirTran serf working the gate that she couldn't put me on the earlier flight, not because there was no room, but because she had a number of changes to put into the computer and the doors were about to close. I tried pointing out that the doors were only supposed to close ten minutes before the flight. I tried pointing out that she could make her precious computer entries after the flight left. I even invoked the Magna Carta. No luck. (Little do they know that I shall have my vengeance in this life or the next...or by ordering a bevy on drinks in Business Class and pulling an Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. Pray for me.) Now, my 4:39 flight has already been delayed to 4:55, so I'm left here at the gate with a laptop, a WiFi connection, World Soccer's World Cup preview, Ryno's request that I do a World Cup preview, and a sense of obligation to pick up where LD left off. As the inscription in the Montreal Canadiens' locker room goes, "To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high."

1. I've found World Cup Blog to be a good source for news over the past few weeks. There's not a whole lot of analysis or commentary, but there are good links for just about every team, which is a welcome break from Soccernet's regular hyperventilation about Wayne Rooney's foot boo-boo. For instance, I found this interesting article on World Cup myths there. I've come around to the belief that penalty kicks are not a lottery. They reward teams with confidence and good keepers. That said, given the icy reaction from Andrea when I bounced my estimated soccer consumption during El Mundial off her during the Braves game on Monday, I can't agree with this statement:

"The World Cup is a male party. It turns women into soccer widows."

This is decreasingly true. In countries that have only recently embraced football – Japan, the US, even France – women are often as keen as men.

I also don't like the jibe at Johan Cruyff at the end, since he's absolutely right that the '74 Oranje are far more beloved in retrospect than the West Germans who conquered them in Munich in the '74 Final. I'm a soft spot for this argument, especially since I've used a very similar one in an attempt to re-write the victor of the 1993 NCAA Basketball Final.

2. I am inevitably an England skeptic. Maybe it's because I've been burned too many times by seeing overhyped players like Paul Gascoigne and David Beckham never deliver the goods. Maybe I have never gotten past the association between the English and Heysel (or any one of a number of ugly riots). Maybe my oppositional sense forbids me from rooting for a team that most American fans support as a second favorite team. Maybe the gap between England's perceived place as one of the superpowers in world football and its actual record - one World Cup (won at home 40 years ago on a goal that absolutely, positively did not cross the line), no European Championships, and no berths in a major final since '66 - irks me. Anyway, my Anglophobia is in full bloom. Why? Let me list the reasons:

a. Their starting keeper is an average starter in the Premiership. Their back-up is nicknamed "Calamity." Their third-stringer, until this week, doesn't even play in the Premiership. And English fans wonder why they never win shootouts. Contrast them with a team like Spain, who is leaving the Champions League-winning keeper at home. Or Brazil, who has a three-way battle for the starting spot (or would if Parreira wasn't in love with Dida). Or Germany, whose #3 is probably the best keeper in the Bundesliga. Or France, whose #3 is the very capable Mickael Landreau.

b. They apparently have only two good strikers in the whole country, since the solution to Wayne Rooney's injury is apparently to bump their best central midfielder into attack. Or play Peter Crouch. Good luck with that.

c. Their options at defensive midfield are either a guy who can't get off the bench at Bayern Munich or a Tottenham midfielder. Good luck with that, too.

d. Their head coach has been fired before the tournament has even started. I'm sure he'll command great respect from his players.

England will advance because they are in a weak group and are slotted to play a survivor from another weak group in the first knock-out round, then they'll lose in some sort of bizarre circumstance (probably after blowing a lead, as has been their pattern under Sven), and they'll cross back over the Channel muttering about their bad luck yet again.

3. Is is possible to write an article about Germany without referring to their "traditional footballing virtues"? Is there any other team in the world that gets this treatment? And it's always a condescending way for the English to dismiss the fact that the Germans win so much more than they do, since "traditional German footballing virtues" are fitness and commitment to victory. It would pain the English to admit that the Germans have better players, so they have to chalk their success up to more minutes on the treadmill.

4. Speaking of traditional German virtues, I have an on-going debate with my boss at work about whether the German Tiger or Panther tanks were better than the Soviet T-34. (And who says that lawyers don't have fun?) My argument is that the Panzers were technically better than the T-34, but they suffered from typical German over-engineering. In comparison to the simple, durable, well-armed T-34 that could be mass produced, the Tiger and Panther were too complicated, used too many different parts, and as a result were often out of commission and therefore useless. How does this relate to the World Cup? Take a look at Allianz Arena, the new stadium in Munich, and tell me that I'm not right about German over-engineering:

5. Want a good dark horse? Meet Australia. They're coached by Guus Hiddink, who has only taken South Korea to the World Cup semis and then PSV to the Champions League semis in the past four years. (He also got the Dutch to the semis in '98, their best showing in the World Cup since losing the '74 and '78 finals.) They have a team full of players with Premiership experience, led by an in-form Harry Kewell. And most importantly, they are drawn in a group with Croatia and Japan, both of whom are eminently beatable for the Aussies. Japan are going to find life a little tougher away from home (and I bet the Germans will still be bitter about that whole “not opening a second front in Siberia” in late 1941). Croatia? Well, according to World Soccer, Dado Prso is their only world class player. Alrighty then.

6. A few obligatory words about Brazil, the presumptive favorite. The conventional wisdom is that: (1) they’re clearly the best team in the world; (2) their best players are off-form (Ronaldo, Adriano, Dida, and Emerson), tired (Ronaldinho), or just plain old (Cafu and Roberto Carlos); (3) they don’t do that well as favorites or in Europe. Let’s break those down. They definitely have the best depth of talent at this World Cup, as they have to leave a bevy of quality players (Juninho, Robinho, Cris, Cicinho, Luisao, and Gilberto Silva) on the bench. That said, I’m not totally sold that their talent is that much better. Ronaldo is on the downward slope of his career. Adriano? Not consistent enough for my tastes. Kaka is inconsistent, as any Milan fan will tell you. And it’s absolute sacrilege for me to say this as a Barca fan, but Ronaldinho isn’t in the best form right now. As I’ve said over and over again, his shooting has been off-form in 2006. He also isn’t quite the dribbler he was before, probably because many of his tricks have been scouted by now. His passing is still sublime and he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for being a strong player who can’t be knocked off the ball. Overall, he’s still the best player in the world for my money, but in terms of form, he isn’t the best player in the world in June 2006 (unless he picks things up after having had a little time off). As far as the Europe thing goes, that might be one of the real canards in the lead-up to this summer. Maybe the location of the tournament mattered when Brazil’s players were all domestic, but their whole team plays in Europe. The climate and the location are not going to affect them. And look at their results in Europe. They lost the Final in ’98 after Ronaldo had a seizure, they got knocked out at Italia ’90 despite absolutely dominating Argentina, and they lost to Italy in ’82 in a classic de facto quarterfinal. Those aren’t bad performances.

More to come once I get some more free time.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Quick Brave Thoughts

The rapidly expanding wife and I went to the Ted yesterday and were greeted by a exhibition on how not to play baseball by the Braves, who surrendered four in the first despite the fact that none of the Dodgers' hits went for extra bases. LA parlayed a number of singles, many of the seeing-eye variety, and some truly horrendous defense into a significant lead that they never relinquished. Chipper made a big error on a relatively straight-forward throw home that allowed the inning to go from a two-run inning to a four-run inning. That, combined with Adam LaRoche having another awe-inspiring day at the plate (0-4, including two one-pitch at-bats; he also grounded into a double play with runners on the corners to immediately short-circuit the Braves' one rally that had gotten them back to 8-5), have convinced me that he needs to play first and Betemit needs to play third. Betemit is a better third baseman than LaRoche is a first baseman and I would prefer to get Chipper to a position where his lack of range and suddenly erratic arm make less of a negative impact. Then again, Bobby Cox is a Hall of Fame manager and I'm a frustrated sports writer because he doesn't overreact to one game or even two months, so I'll trust his patience on LaRoche.

Speaking of Bobby's long-term sense, he made a classic strategy over tactics move yesterday. With the Braves down 8-1 going into the bottom of the 4th, he let Lance Cormier hit for himself to lead off the inning. Normally, this would be a bad move as it signalled that the Braves were giving up on the game. However, the move made sense because it allowed Bobby to keep from taxing the bullpen too much, which was more important than the marginal lost opportunity of winning the game. Anyway, it wasn't a conventional move, but it was the right one as it allowed Bobby to get another inning out of the last man in the bullpen.

Speaking of bullpens, the Dodgers had a terrible one earlier this year, but they look good now in the department. Their killer B's - Beimel, Broxton, and Baez - combined for four shutout innings and all have ERAs under 2.50. I know I sound like a spoiled child complaining about anything relating to the produce from the Braves farm system, but where is our reservoir of young, flame-throwing relievers? Oh yeah, in Milwaukee having been traded for the worst reliever ever. Or in St. Louis having been traded for one year of J.D. Drew.

Another thought that occurred to me yesterday: if I were Barry Bonds, I would take one look at the "aw, isn't that nice" coverage of Nomar's resurgence and puke. Screw Barry's before and after; how about this guy's:

Given one of the key criteria used to convict Bonds - major body changes - Nomar should be asked a few tough questions as well. Admittedly, Nomar never admitted to using the cream or the clear, nor has there been a carefully-footnoted book setting forth the case that Nomar used steroids, but on the other hand, Bonds has not had the telltale steroid injury: ligament/tendon strains that just don't heal. I've never had any reason to dislike Nomar and we share an ability to marry way above ourselves, but sometimes, I feel bad for Barry that he's become the scapegoat for the fact that lots and lots of baseball players broke federal law to get an advantage on the diamond.

The City Too Busy To Hate...

or not. Check out how discussion about this bare-bones article about Mayhem in the AM being hosted by the four local TV sports anchors (a neat idea, if you ask me) quickly devolves into thinly-veiled taunts back and forth about the Two Live Stews. Want to know how the same metro area elected both Cynthia McKinney and Bob Barr in the 90s? Here's your illustration.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The College Football Season Laid Out in May

I've always liked Mark Bradley's columns more than anyone else's at the AJC. Aside from the fact that he doesn't make ill-reasoned arguments to advance a few pet causes (see: Terrence Moore, who wakes up in the morning and decides "do I want to accuse one of the local teams of racism today or do I want to say something nice about Notre Dame?") or make a series of tepid jokes (see: Jeff Schultz), he's the one guy who will make bold predictions and then re-visit them to remind his readers how wrong he can sometimes be. The basic level of accountability there is endearing. Anyway, he's put himself on record on how college football is going to go in 2006. I have to say that I agree with him on most of his predictions, even the more outlandish ones:

• We start with Georgia Tech, which will start and end the regular season in fine style. The Jackets will beat Notre Dame on Sept. 2 and will beat Georgia — finally! — in Athens on Nov. 25. Being its schizo self, Tech will still manage to lose three games, including one it shouldn’t — Virginia and Maryland, which bracket the Jackets’ trip to Blacksburg, look particularly scary — and will finish second to Miami in the winnable Coastal Division.

It isn't inconceivable that Tech could beat Notre Dame in the opener, given their history of playing well against their best opponents, but Notre Dame can only be beaten by a team with a good passing game that can take advantage of the Irish's weak secondary. Reggie Ball, despite my sympathy for the guy (see below), is not Drew Stanton, Matt Leinart, or Troy Smith. Calvin Johnson should own whomever is covering him, but he's going to need 200 yards to win this game and Reggie isn't the guy to make those throws consistently.

He's good.

• After a one-year cessation of BCS-inspired angst, full-throated howls will return when unbeaten West Virginia, scourge of the defoliated Big East, finishes unbeaten but is passed over for the Fiesta Bowl in lieu of once-beaten Auburn.

We do seem due for a BCS throw-down, but WVU isn't going to cause it. First, they're going to be overrated this year. If not for a miracle comeback against Louisville and catching Georgia not paying attention for a half, no one would be talking about them this year. They're a good team, but they have to go to Louisville and they're going to lose there. Second, if WVU does go unbeaten, then they'll finish ahead of Auburn because the BCS is weighted so heavily in favor of the polls and WVU is going to start the year in the top five, ahead of Auburn. Pollsters are notoriously unwilling to drop teams if they don't lose, which is why I kinda like the computers.

How dare I!

• Auburn will essentially win the SEC West on Sept. 16 when it beats LSU in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn’s loss will come against Georgia, which will dress up an ordinary (by Mark Richt’s lofty standards) season by winning in the epic series distinguished by its utter disdain for home-field advantage.

That all sounds pretty reasonable to me. Auburn is a clear favorite in the West, since they get LSU at home and I'm more confident in the Auburn coaching staff to fill in their holes (wide receiver and front seven) than I am LSU's to fill in their's (both lines).

• Notre Dame will lose three regular-season games, one more than last season, and one or two Irish fans will wonder if extending Charlie Weis’ contract through 2015 might have been a stretch. (In 2015, Weis will be coaching guys who aren’t yet in junior high.)

I wish I could be this negative about Notre Dame's chances, but they are going to score a ton of points, which means that the only teams that are going to beat them will be the ones that can throw for 300 yards. Michigan, Michigan State, and USC seem to fit that bill (although Michigan has lost six straight road openers and Lloyd has never won at South Bend, so picking UM to win that one requires the kind of leap of faith that would cause one to believe that a televangelist can leg-press a literal ton). Notre Dame will not have a national title-caliber defense, but they won't do worse than 10-2.

• Ohio State will win the national championship. Auburn will put up a Fiesta fight but lose by a field goal. Crestfallen West Virginia will lose its no-consolation bowl game to Texas, which will be dealt out of the Fiesta picture by an early loss to the Buckeyes in Austin but will still beat Oklahoma and take the Big 12 title.

Sounds reasonable enough. Ohio State has definite holes to fill (see: entire defense) and I find it hard to believe that a team could lose so many high Draft picks and not suffer, but they're as good a bet as anyone. I feel naked saying this without Phil Steele's mother's milk in my greedy little hands, but I'm going with USC because their defensive improvement is going to compensate for a slow-starting offense.

• Matthew Stafford won’t start against Western Kentucky on Sept. 2. After Georgia loses to South Carolina the next week, Stafford will be promoted to No. 1. He’ll beat Tennessee and Auburn but will lose to Florida and Tech. The Bulldogs will finish behind the Gators in the SEC East.

That all sounds very reasonable. I've been preaching the "beware of Columbia" line for a while and with JTIII under center and Daniel Inman in skivvies, that pick looks better now. If Georgia's far superior 2002 and 2004 teams struggled in Columbia, how's this team going to do?

• Even so, Florida will enter its bowl game with four losses — two to Auburn (the second in the SEC championship game), one to Florida State and one to LSU. And the burning question — Is Urban Meyer the next Spurrier or the next Zooker? — will flame ever hotter.

An excellent question. Meyer is facing an absolutely brutal schedule that makes a mockery of his analysis that he's more likely to win a national title at Florida than at Notre Dame. The Irish schedule pales in comparison, the typical caterwauling of their fans aside. (Notre Dame fans remind me of Religious Right voters [and not in the obvious way]. Religious Right voters think that Christians are a persecuted minority in this country, even though the U.S. is overwhelmingly Christian and quite comfortable with public displays of religiosity. Notre Dame fans think that their team is persecuted, even though they have the largest fan base, the greatest media reach, and the richest TV contract in college football.)

They would surely agree that forces are conspiring against Notre Dame to make the Irish play BOTH Michigan teams in the same month.

I'll take Georgia Tech-Michigan-Penn State-Michigan State any day over Florida's Alabama-LSU-Auburn-Georgia stretch. Meyer is also facing this stretch with a new offensive line, new corners, and a flag football QB. In year four, when he has an experienced Tim Tebow and a good offensive line, then Meyer will have a chance to have a great season against that schedule. Right now, Florida will have to be very good to go 9-3.

• Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson will win the Heisman. Auburn’s Kenny Irons will finish third. Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn will finish fifth.

Peterson has no offensive line coming back. I'll be boring: give me Quinn (and then I'll write a Terrence Moore piece about the racism of the Heisman process that it ignored Troy Smith. Seriously, why should Quinn be a front-runner and Smith should be an also-ran at this stage? Does it have anything to do with Golden Boy White QB at Notre Dame syndrome?)

• For all the mileage the ACC got from its draft-day success, the expanded league will struggle to generate a single top 10 team. Clemson and Virginia Tech lost their quarterbacks. Miami fired half its coaching staff. Florida State is in clear decline.

Yup. Bradley should also mention that the resurgences at Virginia, NC State, and Maryland all seem to have stalled.

• That said, the ACC championship game will be the one the ACC hopes to get every season — FSU against Miami. For no real reason, FSU will win.


• For the second year in a row, Miami and LSU will meet in the bowl formerly known as the Peach — it’s now just the Chick-fil-A, and really, what signifies Atlanta more than a chicken sandwich? — and the Hurricanes will well recall the Tigers’ two fake kicks at the end of last season’s 40-3 wipeout. LSU will again win the game but will lose the 10-minute fight that ignites at the coin toss.

This brings up an interesting point: I have no problem with corporate naming rights if they are for a product that has a connection to the named entity and they are for a product that people like. I wouldn't be mad at all if the Braves sold the naming rights to the Ted to Coke. (I would have felt the same way about Delta before they let their product go to shit.) I thought it was cool when Newcastle United had Newcastle Ale as their jersey sponsor. Hell, it was fitting that Candlestick went through a series of failed dotcom names. The Chik-Fil-A bowl...hell, it just makes me want a chicken biscuit and there ain't nothin' wrong in that.

Looks much better in my hand.

• As a freshman, Reggie Ball was knocked out of the Georgia game in the first half. As a sophomore, he infamously lost track of downs. As a junior, he threw a killing interception in the Red Zone. As a senior, he’ll throw a fade that Calvin Johnson snatches for the winning touchdown with 10 seconds to play. That detailed enough for you?

This is a sign that I'm not a committed Georgia fan: I read this paragraph and thought to myself "you know, part of me would be annoyed, but part of me would feel good for Reggie Ball." I need a shower.

Monday, May 22, 2006

A Late Night Quickie

Nice win by the Braves tonight to even their record on the road trip at 2-2. Hudson and Smoltz have proven their worth on the last two nights, combining for fifteen shutout innings. Unfortunately, Smoltz had to throw 121 pitches to get through seven innings, coming on the heels of a 130-pitch outing last week against the Marlins. Bobby is either showing a few signs of desperation or he's deferring to Smoltz's competitive juices, which have often been John's undoing. If his shoulder is purple again at the end of the season, we might look back at May as the reason why.

Bobby showed faith in Chris Reitsma after Reitsma blew the game Friday night and then had to be rescued on Sunday. Reitsma repaid him with a 1-2-3 inning, although you'll excuse me if I don't plan a parade down Buford Highway for Chris since he retired Vinny Castilla, Josh Barfield, and Geoff Blum with a two-run lead in a pitcher's park. Ken Ray gave up a run in the 8th, reminding me of his collapse against the Padres in April that deprived the team of a sweep, but I'm willing to cut him a little slack since he was facing the heart of the Padres' order, such as that may be.

The Braves' bats didn't exactly cover themselves in glory tonight. I know that Jake Peavy is filthy and all, but 16 strikeouts in seven innings? If the Padres could have mustered anything off of Smoltz, then Jake could have taken a serious run at tying or even breaking Clemens and Wood's record of 20Ks. Langerhans provided the offense, reminding me of his big homer in Houston last May to win an epic Hudson-Clemens duel in the 12th. Ryan seems to be able to hit good pitching, although I'm running up against the sample size problem here. Todd Pratt, on the other hand, can't hit good pitching or possibly any pitching. If McCann's injury would have been as bad as it looked on Saturday night, then we might as well have folded up the tents on the season...or thrown our buddy Jarrod Salatamacchia into the deep end.

Incidentally, have I ever had less confidence in the Braves' ability to win a game than I was Saturday night when the pitching match-up was Brandon Webb against Travis Smith and the Braves were coming off of a heart-breaking loss? Probably not. The Friday night game was the key game in the series against Arizona, since the D-Backs had a big advantage Saturday and the Braves had an advantage Sunday. The only downside to Hudson's terrific effort was that it deprived me of the chance to title a post this morning "Snakes, why'd it have to be snakes?"

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Greatest College Football Teams of All-Time, per a Software Program

Here you go. Billingley's ratings are one of the ones used by the BCS, so it comes in with that piece of credibility...or not. A few observations:

1. Tennessee '98 is the second best team of all-time, which indicates that the ratings clearly can't take into account things like "beat Florida despite being badly outplayed" or "beat Arkansas thanks to an unforced fumble when Arkansas was running out the clock." Then again, Billingsley acknowledges that these aren't necessarily the best teams, but are rather the teams that had the best seasons, which is a refreshing piece of objective analysis in a world of people like me who have imperfect mental images of each team and use them to make judgments. As hard as it is for me to admit, Nebraska '97's merit is not solely based on the images of: (1) Shevin Wiggins kicking a ball to Matt Davison; and (2) Scott Frost crying and moaning that the Huskers deserved the national title after Tennessee laid down and died for them.

2. Speaking of 1997, it was one of the two best years for college football in terms of the number of quality teams at the top, according to Billingley's rankings. '97 is joined by 1973 as the only two seasons to place four teams in the top 100. '73 places six teams in the top 200, joined only by '72 in placing that many. That era seems to be the nadir for parity, as certain teams all dominated their regions, although it must have made for some interesting debate. It's hard to imagine how our hyper-saturated media culture would have reacted to a year like 1973 that featured unbeaten Notre Dame edging unbeaten Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in a classic, Penn State and Ohio State going unbeaten through the bowls with the former beating LSU in the Orange Bowl and the latter thrashing Southern Cal in the Rose, and Michigan and Oklahoma going unbeaten and not getting to play in bowls. Corso and Herbstreit would have choked one another on the set while Chris Fowler giggled with glee. Woody Paige and Skip Bayless would have gotten so heated about it that they would have spontaneously combusted as a champagne supernova in the sky. Heismanpundit would have blamed Bear Bryant's outdated wishbone offense for the loss. And everybody would have complained that Notre Dame gets all the breaks, as they finished #1 over a number of other unbeaten teams.

3. Which of Alabama's 12* national champions ranked the highest? The most recent one. Somehow, I can't get my head around the notion that Gene Stallings produced a better season than any of Bear Bryant's, but a function of modern schedules is that they allow a great team to play more quality opponents than the old ones did. Speaking of Stallings, his '91 and '94 teams also make the top 200, so maybe we need to re-evaluate just how great Bama was for an extended period of time...or even Bill Curry's merits since he recruited most of that team that went 45-5-1 over a four-year stretch.

4. Speaking of great four-year stretches, Georgia's '82, '83, and '80 teams all make the list, interestingly in that order. The '82 Georgia team is listed as the best Georgia team of all time. Damn you, Todd Blackledge. It's interesting to me that the golden age of Georgia football ended as the golden age of Auburn football began. Three of Dye's Tigers make the list: '83, '87, and '89 (and for my money, '88 Auburn was better than all three, mainly because I have a soft spot in my heart for teams with great defenses and little offense). Auburn's golden age was then followed by Bama's great stretch, which was in turn followed by Florida's stretch from '95 to '97 in which each of their teams made the top 80 of the list (and the '93, '94 and '98 teams were very good, as well).

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Braves Don't Suck

That's the conclusion from an 8-2 run against the Marlins and Nats that has propelled the local baseball collective back to within striking distance of the Mets and Phillies. My hope going into the ten-game stretch was that the Braves just get back to about five games back and stay there so they remain in striking distance when the obligatory hot streak in June and July arrives. Thus, crawling back to within 3.5 games is gravy, although the team could easily give those games back on their upcoming swing through Arizona, San Diego, and Chicago. (G-d help us if we can't take two of three from the punchless Cubs. Speaking of whom, Juan Pierre has picked up where he left off after sabotaging the Marlins last year, as he is leading the Cubs in at-bats and has a whopping .269 OBP and a .289 SLG. Keep in mind that Terrence Moore proclaimed this winter that Pierre was the solution to the Braves' lead-off hole. For once, I'd like to see him acknowledge that one of his premises was wrong. I guess the problem there would be once he started, he would spend his next 173 columns apoligizing for everything else on which he's erred. It would be like Stalin deciding in 1951 to start apologizing to generals and politicos that he condemned to Lubyanka.) Anyway, here's what I'm feeling good and bad about right now. Just imagine Phil Hartman's Frankenstein intoning these captions:

Tim Hudson...Good - Let's give Roger MacDowell some credit here. He found a flaw in Hudson's delivery in April and ever since correcting it, Hudson has been an excellent pitcher. He's given up two or fewer runs in four of his last six starts and his K, BB, and HR rates are all on pace to be slightly better than last year's. To the naked eye, it seems that he's getting more movement on his pitches, which is what the changes to his delivery were supposed to accomplish. Given what the Braves are paying him, we need to see some quality production from Hudson.

Pitching Depth...Bad - Those dreams of demoting Jorge Sosa to the bullpen died along with Kyle Davies ruptured groin. Sosa threw his first good start of the year against the Marlins yesterday, so maybe he's going to turn a corner and at least become an average pitcher, but one start goes not a decent hurler make. Horacio is about to come back from his hamstring injury and had a good tune-up start in Richmond. I would have felt better with three question marks fighting for two spots, but with Davies out, the team is going to have to lean on Ramirez and Sosa (or find a solution from the combo of Chuck James and Anthony Lerew). This does vindicate my belief in spring training that trading John Thomson would have been a horrible mistake, as it would have forced the Braves to rely on Sosa, Davies, and Ramirez. Imagine where the team would be now without Thomson, a real "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" situation.

Edgar Renteria...Good - We have a shortstop with a .408 OBP for only $6M per year. And yes, Sports Guy, it must be because he's moved back from the AL and any Tom, Dick, and Rafael Belliard can hit in the NL. Just don't pay attention to your third baseman, who went from a .658 OPS with the Marlins last year to a .934 OPS this year with the Red Sox. It must be because of Big Papi's Buddha-like effect on teammates.

(Incidentally, Renteria is towards the bottom of the league in zone rating and range factor, so he hasn't been perfect, but he's been consistent in making plays on the balls he gets to. Not surprisingly, Derek Jeter is dead last in zone rating and next-to-last in range factor, with only New York's other shortstop behind him. [Jeter's .441 OBP sure makes up for his defensive deficiencies, though.] Reyes is towards the top in zone rating, which makes little sense. Conversely, Rafael Furcal is towards the top in range factor, but almost on the bottom in zone rating. Oh no, I've gone cross-eyed.)

Chris Reitsma...Bad - I have no confidence in his ability to get through the 9th inning against a good team. That said, there are a whole bunch of "proven" closers around the league who are struggling. Keith Foulke lasted one day in Boston, which is slightly longer than Brad Lidge in Houston or Francisco Cordero in Texas. Chad Cordero has been bad (and thank G-d for that, says Jeff Francoeur), as has Huston Street. The Braves should be happy that there seems to be a dearth of good closers this year...or more specifically that the Marlins and Nats don't have them, as the Braves rallied for three wins this week that would have been losses if they faced lights-out closers. Speaking of which, that's a good reason why we shouldn't be that excited about the recent 8-2 stretch. The Braves won four blowouts, lost two blowouts, and then won all four close games, including three improbable wins where they rallied from behind in their final at-bats, including twice in one game on two straight nights. The Braves weren't as bad as they looked when they were 13-18 and losing all of their close games, but they aren't an .800 team either, in light of the fact that they've been playing bad teams and winning all of their close games. All that said, their run differential puts them on par with the Mets and several games ahead of the Phillies, so there are still encouraging signs.

Jeff Francoeur...Good - His OBP is still an unpresentable .279, but he's 5th in the NL in RBIs and has ten homers a quarter of the way through the season. The RBI total is inflated because he has so many guys in front of him who are good at getting on base (especially with Brian McCann hitting in front of him). Given my worry at the start of the year that Francoeur was never going to hit unless he adopted a major change in his approach, I'm very relieved to see him hitting like he did in his first two months in the bigs. Kudos to Bobby for sticking with him and to Jeff for keeping his head up when he was hitting .100.

Brian McCann...Good - First in the NL in batting average, 14th in OBP, 13th in SLG, 12th (among position players) in VORP, and 11th in OPS. And all of this from a catcher who was in AA at this time a year ago. Pitchers of the NL, please don't figure this guy out.

Bobby Cox...Bad? - Solely for leaving Smoltz in for 130 pitches on Wednesday night when he was clearly out of gas in the 8th inning and ended up surrendering a 2-0 lead. Otherwise, Bobby's patience with players like Matt Diaz and Jeff Francoeur has paid off handsomely.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Visca Barça!

A bunch of rambled, congealed thoughts in the afterglow of the Champions League Final:

The game followed the pattern of the first leg of Barca/Chelsea almost perfectly: English side dominates the first few minutes, then Barca get their sea legs and their pressure forces a straight red. Up a man, Barca concede from a wing free kick and then, when it looks like all is lost, Barca equalize, take control of the match, score the go-ahead goal, and then spend the last ten minutes passing the ball around a beaten opponent. I know that Arsenal were tired after having played with ten men for so long, but they showed absolutely no initiative once they fell behind. They were beaten and they knew it. They made no effort to hold the ball when they had their lead and then found it impossible to reassert themselves outside of the back third of the field in the final ten minutes.

Much of the discussion after the game was that Henry and Ronaldinho had relatively subdued games, which is partially true. Henry failed to bury a couple chances (although Valdes deserves a lot of credit for snuffing him out in the 3rd minute). Ronaldinho was woeful on free kicks (including hitting the midsection of an Arsenal player on one occasion), scuffed most of his shots, and turned the ball over too much. That said, Henry set up the Arsenal goal with a great pass from a set piece (Barca's bugaboo against English teams - set pieces - reared its ugly head again) and Ronaldinho freed Eto'o for the breakaway that reduced Arsenal to ten men, so both players showed their utility in setting up opponents.

Arsene Wenger was typically grumpy about the ref, whining about Eto'o's goal (marginally offside, if at all, and an almost impossible call for a lineman since Eto'o was at full speed when the ball was played to him and the Arsenal backline was static). Aside from the fact that his team should have been 1-0 down 18 minutes in and were done a favor by having to go a man down instead, maybe someone should ask him if he noticed that Arsenal's goal came from a dive by Eboue so Arsene can whip out his favorite excuse from the Viera era: "I didn't see the incident." For the record, I like Wenger and I hope that he wins a Champions League at some stage, but he, like most managers, externalizes everything.

After my repeated griping that Henrik Larsson was not a good fit in the Barca attack and should be replaced by Giuly on the right, he played a vital role in both goals. In my defense, Larsson set up the goals in the role that I suggested for him: as a target man up at the point of the spear to either head the ball or hold it up and hit overlapping players. His passing was outstanding. Barca will miss him next year. I feel great for all the players, but a guy like Henrik who has toiled for years and is a hero for two fan bases warms the heart more than most when he dons the winner's medal. That reminds me, I've always wanted to grade players after a game like European newspapers do, so here we go (on a one to eight scale):

Valdes - 8 - Kept the team in it for much of the match, especially on Henry early and then Ljungberg late.

Oleguer - 5 - Beaten like a drum on Arsenal's goal and wasn't as solid defensively as I would have hoped.

Puyol - 7 - Henry beat him a couple times, which is going to happen when you surrender the sort of space that Barca was in the back. He seems to go to ground a lot these days. Still, he cut out a lot and showed himself to be as smart as they come.

Marquez - 6 - Beaten by Henry in the third minute and bailed out by Valdes. He got better as the game went on, but then faked an injury at the end when there was no need to do so.

Gio - 6 - Arsenal's two best chances in the first half came down his side, but he wasn't that bad and made some impression in the offensive half.

Edmilson - 7 - Gave Arsenal nothing through the middle and distributed well. He's a major change for this side.

Van Bommel - 6 - Relatively anonymous until he was pulled off.

Deco - 6 - Didn't seem to make a huge impact, although he did get into good shooting position once or twice.

Ronaldinho - 7 - Even in a bad game for him, his passing was excellent. Lord knows what's happened to his shooting.

Giuly - 7 - The perfect winger for this team. Created danger with his runs. His value is much greater for a team like Barca that has an opposite winger like Ronaldinho who can pick him out.

Eto'o - 8 - Turned Sol Campbell to make a great chance that Almunia deflected onto the post, then scored the goal that completely turned the game.

Iniesta - 7 - He's turned into quite the midfielder. He made runs through the middle with purpose and started the move that led to the equalizer.

Larsson - 8 - Two assists. I would have loved to see him get a third to finish the game off.

Belletti - 7 - Got to play his perfect role: one with no defensive responsibility. Scored the goal that will be replayed a thousand times tonight in Catalunya, although I need to see it again to figure out if it was going in without assistance from Almunia's leg.

Rijkaard - 8 - Three subs, one goal, two assists.

I'll need a few days to think about where this night ranks in my all-time sports pantheon, but it has to be right up there. I've been rooting for Barca ever since I started to pay attention to European soccer after the '94 World Cup and always wondered if I picked them because I love "close, but not quite" teams. Watching Real Madrid win European titles one after the other led to "am I ever going to see Barca win one?" thoughts. Not anymore. This will be behind the 1/1/98 Rose Bowl, the '96 NCAA hockey finals, the '95 World Series, and the two game sevens against the Pirates, but after that, I'm not sure.

Uno Mas

Or whatever the Catalan equivalent would be.

A few thoughts in advance of the game (which I will be taping and watching tonight thanks to a heavy day at work, an arrangement that works out in the sense that I won't be watching the game surrounded by a fan base that thinks that George Graham was a great coach):

1. Rather than linking a whole bunch of articles on the game, I'm just going to give you, the loyal reader the Guardian's Preview Page and let you go from there. David Pleat's tactical guide is especially useful if you want a glimpse at the roles that the players are going to be playing tonight in Paris. If you want to know why I ordered a Puyol jersey as opposed to one of Barca's more famous players, this will explain my preference, although given Oleguer's left wing politics and greater obscurity, he might have also been a good option. Maybe if next year's alternate jersey isn't nuclear yellow...

Not the best option for a fair-skinned redhead...or anyone else who doesn't want to be visible from outer orbit.

2. The conventional wisdom is that Barca's weakness is Gio defending the left wing and that Arsenal should attack there. The problem with this line of thinking is that it necessarily involves Emmanuel Eboue, Arsenal's right back, overlapping and attacking in conjunction with Jose Antonio Reyes or Alexander Hleb, and thus would create acres of space for the best player in the world, who also happens to play on Barca's left hand side. Eboue is noted for getting forward and his pace could create problems for Gio, but in the process, he's would expose Arsenal's defense. I suspect that Wenger is going to tell Eboue to stay home more often than not. And I'm also not buying the notion that Gilberto will be used to control Ronaldinho, since Ronaldinho stays left for most of his time on the pitch and Arsenal would be exposing their back four to Deco and Iniesta if they drew their defensive midfielder to one side.

3. I was happy to see that Sol Campbell, who is off form and in a questionable mental
state these days, is going to get the start in central defense. Personally, I wouldn't change a damn thing about a defense that has gone through the entire knock-out phase of the Champions League without conceding a goal, but Wenger does have to manage egos and with Campbell and Ashley Cole healthy and well-paid, he probably has to start them. I would worry a lot more about that shutout streak if Arsenal were starting the same back line.

4. And one other issue mentioned in the pre-match hype in the English media: they keep pointing out (or implying) that Arsenal have an advantage because Barca has only won the Champions League once and that Barca is 1-3 in European finals. Uh, shouldn't the team that had never made a Champions League semifinal be a little more concerned about stage fright? The point that Barca have not been in a one-off cup final in a while is a salient one, but how much difference is there between that and the second leg of a Champions League tie? Or a World Cup Final, something that Ronaldinho knows about?

5. Why I feel confident:

a. Barca have navigated a tougher road to the final, vanquishing the best teams in the Premiership and Serie A (on their homefields, no less) on the way to Paris. I know that Juve finished ahead of AC Milan in Italy, but Milan is a far more imposing adversary in Europe (look at the disparity in results there) and Juve was tailing off when they went to Highbury. The win at the Bernabeu was moderately impressive, but unlikely to scare a team that won 3-0 there in November and left to the sounds of the Madrid fans applauding.

b. Arsenal will have a very difficult time scoring if they don't get their midfield forward. Henry is a great player, but Edmilson, Marquez, and Puyol can handle him if he isn't supported. If Cesc and Ljungberg win their battles in the middle and can get forward to support Henry or if Henry can help Reyes and Hleb win their battles on the wing, then I'll worry, but I suspect that Barca's defense will hold up.

c. Ronaldinho.

d. Barca are a better side, as evidenced by the fact that they didn't finish 24 points off the pace in their domestic league.

6. Why I'm worried:

a. The prospect of Lehmann vs. Valdes in penalties.

b. The fact that teams I root for never win in penalties.

c. The fact that Arsenal's defense is good enough to force the game to penalties.

d. Henry doing something wacky like his solo goal at the Bernabeu.

My pick is 2-0 Barca, but I'm fully willing to concede that anything can happen against an slightly inferior, but young team with momentum and nothing to lose in a 90-minute game.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Our Governor

And just when we thought it was safe to make fun of Florida again...

Actual Information!!!

ESPN weighs in with suprisingly useful capsules on the SEC East and West. For instance, as opposed to another tired article about Tim Tebow heating up Chris Leak's seat, the linked articles acknowledge that the Florida-Tennessee game will be more than a staredown between Leak and Erik Ainge by printing useless stuff like, you know, returning starters and such.

A few thoughts:

1. All hands off the Florida bandwagon. Among the concerns listed in the article: Urban hates his running backs, the offensive line is 80% new, and the job of picking new corners in the spring was made easier by the fact that there were on;y two on the roster. I'm looking forward to the rationales for having the Gators in the pre-season top ten: "But wait, they have their quarterback returning...and they won their last two games...and they were fun to watch when Steve Spurrier was there!"

2. As much as I liked reading an article with actual information as opposed to talk radio talking points and hyperbole, this sentence caused me to question the author's background:

And it'll be interesting to see how former guard Nick Jones handles the transition to center.

Brett, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that playing center won't cause Jones to lose control of his bowels, since he only started for half a season at that spot in 2003. Boom goes the dynamite!

3. I picked South Carolina to win the East back in December, but having only ten returning starters worries me. So, I feel dirty for saying this, but right now, I'm leaning towards Tennessee. This might be a reflex from my childhood when Johnny Majors vacillated between "I'm too drunk to coach this team to come out of the tunnel right" with "I'm just drunk enough to be an angry, feisty man in a tweed jacket who's still pissed as hell at Paul Hornung" and the Vols alternated between mediocre seasons and surprising runs to the SEC title, but the mix of a talented roster and the motivation of a 5-6 season in the rearview mirror ought to be a powerful motivator. Most of the big games (Cal, Florida, Alabama, and LSU) are at home, leaving one difficult road trip to Georgia. Replacing four starters on the offensive line is a cause for concern, but given how bad the line sucked last year, is that really a bad thing? And why do I think that there were more than a few bad apples on last year's team whose departure will improve chemistry.

4. I have no idea what to make of Alabama. On the one hand, I suspect that losing Brodie Croyle won't matter much, since he was an average quarterback dressed up like a star because of his recruiting hype and bloodlines. Also, the rest of the offense returns, which means that the new starter - John Parker Wilson - will look better than he really is. On the other hand, as bad as the offense was last year, it was worse in 2004 when Croyle was injured, so how much faith should I have in JPW? And will the team score enough to make up for the regression that the defense will almost certainly take with seven departed starters? We might also keep in mind that this team trailed Southern Miss at the half, beat Ole Miss on the final play of the game, and didn't score an offensive touchdown against Mississippi State. There is a "not much better than the state of Mississippi" theorem brewing here.

5. To me, Arkansas is the most interesting story in the SEC this year for a variety of reasons. First of all, Houston Nutt has gone from being one of the more highly thought of coaches in the conference to firmly on the griddle and he's responded by committing the future of the program to the Malzahn/Mustain axis. (Paging Robert Ludlum: there's the title for your next novel.) Arkansas is going to be transforming their offense from the "what the hell are we doing?" scheme to some sort of spread offense. Darren McFadden an unheralded freshman star last year and the idea of Malzahn moving him all over the field intrigues me. The Hogs also return 19 starters and they played much better in the second half of 2005, beating Ole Miss and Mississippi State handily and losing to Georgia, South Carolina, and LSU by a combined nine points. I'd be dreaming if I thought they'd beat USC in Fayetteville, but don't be shocked when Arkansas beats Alabama and arrives at Columbia on November 4 at 6-2.

6. Ole Miss loses everything on both sides of the trenches. Say hi to last place in the West.

7. You can always count on Mississippi State for at least one great name and continuing in the tradition of Pork Chop Womack and Slovakia Griffith, say hello to Avery "Caveman" Hannibal. If this guy can't be a factor at defensive end, then there is no justice in the world.

With the massive caveat that Phil Steele has not provided me with total enlightenment yet this year, here are my rankings of the divisions as of May 15:

South Carolina

Mississippi State
Ole Miss

Friday, May 12, 2006

This is what happens when you give a clueless person a platform on the internet...

No, I'm not referring to this blog, but rather to Matt Leinart's Draft diary on (HT: HeismanPundit.) Since this is more in the wheelhouse of a committed celebrity watcher, I asked Andrea for comment. When a sports figure is accused of a major crime, call Roger Cossack. When a sports figure is complaining about the gossip media, call my wife. (Incidentally, she responded to Bill Simmons' article about an US Weekly fantasy league as follows: "THAT WAS THE BEST COLUMN EVER. There is one error in the article, though. Sports Gal will not win. I will.")

People can make whatever they want about it. It amazes me what went on in the media in regard to Paris Hilton following my party. There are people in the media who just want to see what they want to see and write what they want to write. "Oh he's linked with so and so." No, I'm hanging out with someone who's a friend.

"Bullshit. Paris Hilton does not have male friends. She only has paramours. How do I know? Serious research in US Weekly. Watching E! News Daily every night. Flipping in the commercials to Extra! with Mark McGrath. I feel like I'm at the apex of entertainment news."

[Personally, I agree here. I can't fathom why someone would want to be friends with Paris Hilton unless they: (1) love attention; (2) love to stroke their own ego by being seen with a very famous person; or (3) love chlamydia.)

It's all this media attention. I guess you could say it's my fault, but at the same time, I'm just being a normal dude. It's hard because people who are close to me know who I am and how I act. I'm hanging out and having a good time with friends. I have my circle of friends who I've known since I was younger and trust. Then there are people who I've built relationships with in the L.A. world. There are guys in my situation that would've been a hundred million times worse than me. I didn't take advantage of anything. I haven't done anything other than be a normal person.

"A normal person hangs out with Nich Lachey? And then brags about it?"

Celebrities are really just normal people.


Everywhere I go and everybody I talk to gets out in the media.

"That's why you held a Draft party for yourself at the Palms in Las Vegas and invite the media, as opposed to having a barbecue at your house like a normal person."

Matt, here's a piece of advice. The personna you've crafted of the good looking quarterback who hangs out with celebrities, goes to all the hippest clubs in LA, and is in gossip mags on a regular basis will make a mountain of money for you in endorsements. It will also scratch your ego because it makes you different than most or all of your peers. If you want to give all that up, then pull a Dylan, buy a secluded house, don't grant interviews or write diaries online, and spend time in non-public places. Otherwise, cash your checks and shut the f*** up with this "woe is me, I love attention and yet I don't want the downside" act.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

If George Tenet Can Receive a Medal of Freedom, then Anything's Possible, I Suppose

I have a number of fond memories from the 1998 Peach Bowl, from driving my brother Dan and my friend Bob down to the game while they attacked 40s, to Dan terrifying an eight-year old Virginia fan by flexing, to Dan and Bob's looks of utter depression at the Dawgs' 21-7 halftime deficit as they came down off of their buzzes, to the Chik-fil-A dolls flying filling the sky as Georgia rallied, to George Welsh's inexplicable decision to stop his offense at the 28-yard line with a minute to go and a two-point deficit. One of my repressed memories of the day is of listening to Ray Goff on 790 the Zone (or was it 680 the Fan?) on the way over to the game and wondering "what genius decided that Ray Goff would be a good addition to the crew analyzing Georgia football?" Goff, in addition to being a substandard coach who has apparently not received interest from other programs since coming onto the market, was never that good with the English language and 1998 was not the apex of his popularity in the Atlanta market, except possibly among Tech and Auburn fans. Not surprisingly, Goff was not on the radio by the time I moved to Atlanta in the fall of 2000.

We'll always have 1976.

I was reminded of Goff's brief career as radio analyst extraordinaire when I read on Kyle King's blog that 680 the Fan is bringing Jim Donnan into the fold. I suppose I can see the logic in this decision if Donnan is going to have a limited role. Very limited. If he fills air that would otherwise be taken by John Kincade's bad Paul Finebaum act, i.e. alienating the audience so they'll listen to him just to get annoyed, then we haven't really lost anything. If he is in anything more than a cameo role, then this is a huge mistake. Like Goff, he's not exactly noted as being a heady wordsmith. He's not popular with the Georgia fan base for a number of reasons. His teams regressed after 1997, ending in the cataclysmic 2000 season, a Götterdämmerung if there ever was one, ending with a pasting at home by Georgia Tech amid a bevy of rumors of drug use by various members of the team. (I think I should commit to using Götterdämmerung every day to honor Edgar Renteria's hitting streak. We're at two.)

I know it was you, Quincy. You broke my heart. You broke my heart.

There were also two shady off-the-field issues that angered the fan base. First, he skirted the state's anti-nepotism law to employ his son and second, he negotiated a sweetheart deal with Michael Adams unbeknownst to anyone else that made the buy-out more expensive than anyone planned. (That association with Adams is just another scarlet letter for the Georgia fan base, although they conveniently forget that Adams was the one who made the decision to fire Donnan, over Vince Dooley's objection.) Needless to say, he is not very popular among the Georgia fan base, although those feelings might have faded as Georgia fans enjoy the program's current renaissance.

What's most amusing to me about Donnan getting a radio gig is that one of the underrated reasons for his demise was his surliness with the fan base and that was best personified by his conduct on his radio show. Towards the end of his tenure, Donnan was routinely dismissive of callers, doing everything short of calling them "f***ing morons." (Donnan's behavior, combined with Skip Caray's legendary put-downs of callers on the Braves' pre-game show made this a real golden age for sports radio in Atlanta.) You could hear Donnan coming unglued, even by relatively basic questions. His responses reflected one of Donnan's primary shortcomings: he didn't keep an even keel. When he was high, he was too high (hence, the "this is the team I've been waiting all my life to coach" line before the 2000 season) and when he was low, he was Oscar the Grouch. Mark Richt's placid demeanor has been a real tonic for Dawgs fans after five years of Donnan. Winning the SEC twice and the East three times hasn't hurt, either.

Personally, I've always felt a little sympathetic to Donnan. He doesn't deserve the blame for Quincy Carter destroying the 2000 Dawgs, although he should have done more to moderate expectations for that team. He recruited the team that became SEC Champs in 2002 and was clearly a big fan of David Greene in high school, which turned out to be good judgment. He coached at Georgia while Tennessee and Florida were consistently in the top five nationally; if he would have coached against Ron Zook and the decline-phase Phil Fulmer, then he'd probably still be in Athens. He's not quite the coach that Mark Richt is and he certainly lacks Richt's personal touch with the fan base, but he's not the devil. That said, my opinion is clearly the minority view among Georgia fans, which makes the decision to give him a prominent radio role inexplicable.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

A Missed Chance to Post in German

If the Braves lost on Sunday, I was all ready to proclaim this season our Götterdämmerung, but one shelling of the Mets and the inept Jose Lima later, I'm feeling better. (Speaking of Lima, the rumor is that the Mets are discussing a Barry Zito for Lastings Milledge trade. Speaking on behalf of all Braves fans, Omar Minaya, please make this trade. It's exactly the sort of trade that has been damaging the Mets and Yankees for the past several years: an established star about to enter the downward and most expensive phase of his career for a great prospect who will provide New York with the inexpensive, quality production that their lineup lacks [other than Mssr. Wright, who is apparently going to be the bane of the Braves until I'm 50]. I really hope that the tabloid pressure from a few bad Lima starts is sufficient to cause Minaya to overpay for Zito, whose strikeout, walk, and home run rates have been steady and relatively unspectacular for the past several years. And yes, I'm aware that these criticisms could apply equally to the Braves' acquisition of Tim Hudson, with the exceptions that: (1) Lastings Milledge is a better prospect than Dan Meyer was; and (2) the Braves got something of a hometown discount from Hudson, whereas no one ever gives the Mets a hometown discount. Getting back to Milledge for a second, the one thing that could scupper the possible trade is the annual Cliff Floyd vs. outfield wall match-up, which would force the Mets to promote and use Milledge. They couldn't be so dumb as to start Endy Chavez on a regular basis, could they?)

Where was I before the longest parenthetical ever? Oh, yeah, I was going to point out that the Braves are better than a 13-18 team because: (1) they've played a tough schedule, featuring a ton of road games so far; (2) they've lost a bunch of one-run games, which should even out over the course of 162 games; and (3) their run differential and that of the Mets are indicative of a two to two-and-a-half game gap, which means that when the teams regress to their means, the eight-game deficit will be a thing of the past. Ten games against the Marlins and Nationals on the horizon represent a perfect chance to narrow the gap back to a more manageable five- game margin.

The AJC was all over the Braves this morning. Guy Cutright offers a nice summary of what's gone right and wrong this year. He neglects to mention that the Braves have a rightfielder with a .241 OBP and no walks this season as something that has gone wrong, which means that he's either expecting that the rest of the season will consist of nothing but Sunday games against the Mets or he expected Francoeur to struggle so mightily. Cutright mentions Brian Jordan as someone who has gone right and as much as it pains me to admit it, I was probably wrong (at least based on a 31-game sample) if arguing that the Braves screwed up by keeping Jordan over James Jurries. Among the list of things that have gone wrong, the first two are going to change. As mentioned above, the Braves are going to get better in one-run games. In addition, there's no way that Marcus Giles is going to have a .302 OBP (.060 below his career average) for the rest of the year. The Braves caught fire last year when Raffy Furcal came out of a terrible stretch to open the year and this year will hopefully be no different.

Mark Bradley is wondering why the Braves "panick[ed]" and started Smoltz on three days rest against the Mets, as if they had a whole host of other options after losing a 14-inning game on Friday night. It was a game worth two in the standings (or, as they say in soccer, a six-pointer) and Smoltz only had to throw 98 pitches. I'd say it worked out OK. Smoltz's workload hasn't been too heavy early in the season and I'd worry more about him going 120+ pitches later in the year. I agree with the sentiment that we shouldn't worry too much about early results, but ten games would have been a lot to overcome against a good team and Bobby wasn't stretching much by starting Smoltz on three days rest.

Finally, David O'Brien tells us not to worry, but he only does so after mentioning that the Braves have struck out more than any other team in the NL and have fewer walks than anyone other than the Cubs and Pirates. Yuck. Personally, I think this is fixable. Marcus Giles is going to hit better. If Francoeur doesn't improve, then a Kelly Johnson/Matt Diaz platoon will further improve the team's BB/K ratio. And finally, if the Braves are still down by an appreciable margin in June and July and still have a first baseman with a .200 batting average and copious strikeouts, then Schuerholtz is going to have the relatively manageable task of filling a relatively easy position. The lineup seems fixable to me. The positions that worry me are closer, where Chris Reitsma is pitching as if it's already September, and the fifth starter.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Sometimes, the World Really Is Conspiring against You

When Alabama was smacked by the NCAA in 2001 for buying Albert Means, I wrote a column for criticizing the NCAA for punishing Bama excessively and then acting as if the punishments could have been more severe. What I wanted to add to the column, but chose not to for fear of receiving hundreds of "burn in hell, yellow journalist!" e-mails, was that the NCAA's actions were going to feed the paranoia complex that Bama fans have about the rest of the college football universe conspiring against them. My thinking was that Bama fans need to recognize that their school needed to control its boosters and if their fan base externalized Bama's culpability by blaming the NCAA instead of Logan Young and a lax coaching staff, then that reckoning would be less likely.

Unfortunately, subsequent events have only fed the John Birch mentality of many Bama fans, to the point that even a disinterested observer like me - a person with bedrock beliefs that: (1) conspiracies are highly unlikely; (2) Oswald killed Kennedy; and (3) there was no reason for Phil Fulmer, Tennessee, the SEC, or the NCAA to keep Bama down because Bama isn't that great a program when it doesn't have the best coach of the Post-War era stalking the sidelines - is starting to wonder whether there were forces out to get the Tide.

He wouldn't have put up with this Communist witch hunt of Crimson Tide football.

On the heels of the disclosures that the NCAA relied on secret witnesses, Phil Fulmer was prominently involved in the investigation, and Roy Kramer knew that Means was up for sale and warned other programs, but didn't warn Bama, the latest news is that David Swank, the chairman of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions that smacked Bama, has regrets about the process. Specifically, he admits that certain charges against a Bama booster were misclassified and that the NCAA should not have relied upon Tom Culpepper's testimony. If this were a criminal case, the verdict against the Tide would likely be thrown out, assuming that the NCAA relied upon Culpepper's testimony in part, as such reliance would be more than "harmless error."

On the other hand, Swank might have testified in his deposition that Culpepper's testimony was incidental and that his real regret is that the NCAA relied on it when it had eyewitness testimony from the key players (notably, Milton Kirk) that Young did in fact pay for Means. Lynn Lang ultimately pled guilty to receiving the payments and Logan Young was convicted of making them (before he was bludgeoned, er, stumbled to death), so the NCAA was substantively correct in its primary allegation against Bama. However, procedurally speaking, the NCAA's investigation left a LOT to be desired, which indicates either sloppiness or animus. The former is a bad sign for any future investigations. The latter would really chafe me if I were a Bama fan.

One other thought: the intensity with which Bama fans support their program (the primary reason why Alabama football is so interesting to me and why I've read more books about Bama football than any other program, including that of my alma mater) is a factor in both the fact that the NCAA had to investigate Bama in the first place (you have to have some pretty crazy fans to pay $250,000 for a defensive tackle) and the fact that the skeletons in the NCAA's closet have been revealed. There are precious few sports teams in the world that have fans so committed that they'll drag a ruling body into court in numerous lawsuits challenging the results of one investigation. In other words, it might not be that the NCAA was out to get Bama, but rather that the NCAA is haphazard with their investigations and the scrutiny applied to the investigation of Alabama football finally brought that sloppiness to light. (If Jerry Tarkanian is a reader, he's probably grinning from ear to ear right now.)

Incidentally, if you want more evidence that Tide fans have a modicum of interest in scrutinizing the NCAA's investigation, here are the pleadings from the Ronnie Cottrell case and here is a full compendium of resources on the investigation itself, courtesy of the Tuscaloosa News.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Hyperbole on

In this piece on Matt Stafford,'s Cory McCartney proclaims Stafford to be "the most important recruit to enroll at Georgia since Herschel Walker." Something tells me that he hasn't been following Georgia recruiting for the past 25 years to be able to make that statement intelligently, but it got me to thinking: I've been following the Dawgs ever since moving to Macon in 1984 (admittedly, for those first ten years or so, I was following them with utter disgust, but north Macon will do that to you), so who are the most hyped recruits that Georgia has ever pulled in. In my humble opinion:

1. Garrison Hearst/Andre Hastings/Eric Zeier - It's hard for me to separate these three since Hearst and Hastings came in together and then Zeier followed the next year. (Did I get that chronology right? I'm too lazy to look it up, but it sounds right to me, especially since Zeier was at Georgia two years after Hastings and Hearst, both of whom left after their junior years in 1992.) Hearst was especially hyped, coming from Lincoln County where he had set all sorts of records. I still remember Mr. Kelley in 10th grade AP American History class proclaiming that his arrival at Georgia was similar to Herschel's ten years previously and that he would lead Georgia to glory as a freshman. Georgia's record in 1990: 4-7. Composite score of the games against Florida, Auburn, and Georgia Tech: 111-40.

2. Jasper Sanks - He arrived in Athens as a Parade All-American from Carver H.S. in Columbus at a propitious time. Georgia was coming off of a 10-2 season and were looking like a legitimate challenger to Florida and Tennessee. Meanwhile, Tennessee freshman and Atlanta native Jamal Lewis was coming off of a monstrous year for the Vols and Georgia needed an answer. Enter Mr. Sanks. Sanks exited with 1,651 yards in four seasons (or about what Lewis gained in his freshman year in Knoxville), not to mention untold numbers of joints and munchie runs to Taco Bell. Sanks ended up losing his job to unheralded Verron Haynes, who finished with a bang at Georgia and is probably somewhere shining his Super Bowl ring right now.

If "Beyond the Glory: Jasper Sanks" ever airs, this will be the last image before we cut to commercial with the narrator intoning "but life would never be as good again for Jasper..."

3. Charles Grant - Charles arrived from Miller County one year after Sanks and came with a reputation of being able to disembowel opposing quarterbacks merely by grunting at them. Jim Donnan then ruined his freshman year with ham-handed attempts to play the 265-pounder at tailback. Grant had a forgettable 2000 season (as did the entire Georgia team), then came on with a vengeance at the end of 2001 and parlayed a half-season run into becoming that rarest of commodities: a first-round pick of the Saints that has actually panned out.

4. Reggie Brown and Durrell Robinson - Notice how many of these recruits are from the Jim Donnan era? Prior to Mark Richt getting Georgia to, you know, meaningful Cocktail Parties, SEC Title Games and Sugar Bowls, the biggest days for Georgia fans previously were Signing Days under Donnan. Speaking of which, anyone know what Durrell is doing these days?

5. Cleditus Hunt - OK, he never played a down for the Dawgs because of those pesky academic issues (a good summary can be found here - basically, Cleditus signed with Georgia, couldn't get the requisite ACT score, then couldn't get the right grades at the Harvard of Senatobia - Northwest Mississippi Junior College - and ended up at Kentucky State), but if you had heard "Tales of Cleditus" by Peacedog, you too would have viewed him as the ultimate solution to all of Georgia's defensive woes. Few humans, let alone defensive tackles, have ever had the ability to teleport themselves into the backfield to take handoffs or shove water moccasins into the pants of opposing running backs like Cleditus. Incidentally, a Google search for "Underachieving Cleditus Hunt" pulls in 31 hits.

Garrison Hearst being tackled by Cleditus Hunt. Ah, the irony.

I'm not sure where I was going with all of this, other than to say that Georgia fans are just as capable of overhyping Georgia recruits as the national media is for hyping Notre Dame quarterback recruits and the Matt Stafford hype is nothing that unique. He's important, but it isn't as if Georgia has never pulled in big recruits before.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Catching up with the Local Baseball Collective

This morning, the ATL is waking up to a 12-14 baseball team, which isn't great, but it sure beats the 9-14 record that was staring back at us on Sunday morning. When the Braves were losers of five in a row, I was trying not to let their slide bother me, mainly because the Braves were losing a bunch of close games (three one-run games, a two-run game, and a three-run game) and as the Nats learned last year, those close games tend to even out over the course of a year. Sure enough, the Braves have won three games in a row by a total of six runs and are back within shouting distance at five games back. The Braves are +3 in run differential, which indicates that they are what they always seem to be in April and May: an average baseball team.

26 games into the season, the villains on the team (other than Jorge Sosa, whose collapse from a misleading 13-3 2005 has been entirely predictable) have been Adam LaRoche and Jeff Francoeur. The Braves are getting nothing from two power positions and from two players who rank 4th and 1st respectively on the team in at-bats. Francoeur probably has a month to sort out his hacktastic hitting approach or else he's headed to Richmond and we're going to have a Kelly Johnson-Matt Diaz platoon in right. (Diaz has been disappointing so far, but we can't judge a guy on 31 at-bats.) LaRoche, unfortunately, is getting to the fish or cut bait stage. This is his third year as a regular and he's gotten off to a sterling .200/.304/.450 start, despite the fact that he's showed enough plate discipline to walk 12 times in 92 plate appearances. (How many of those walks are the result of Francoeur hitting behind him? The Rockies walked LaRoche last night in the 7th with two outs and a runner on second in a 4-4 game and the strategy paid off, as Francoeur struck out on five pitches and looked awful doing so. The good news for the Braves is that it's easier to find players who can hit and play right or first; it isn't as if they're trying to find quality catchers or shortstops on the market. The bad news is that they pretty much exhausted their farm system last year and their top prospects remaining (read: Jarrod Saltalamacchia) are off to slow starts this year in the minors. Scott Thorman might be an intriguing option at first, since he's hitting .318/.389/.506 for Richmond.

As for the pitching, the starters are hot right now, with the exception of Jorge Sosa and his buddy Kuato hanging out above his belt. (Speaking of which, it's pleasant to know that no one with any sense can look at the increasingly portly Andruw Jones and allege that his homer binge in 2005 and 2006 is the result of the cream or the clear.) Davies has the best peripherals on the staff right now, with a solid 27/9 K/BB ratio in 30 innings...if you ignore those seven homers conceded. (Insert stock "sample size" caveat here.) My only concerns are that Davies started off well last year and then tailed off badly and Thomson started off well and then ripped his ring finger open for no apparent reason. We also haven't reached Tim Hudson's annual Oblique Vacation. The bullpen is pitching reasonably well and we don't have to worry about Oscar Villareal's arm spontaneously combusting from overuse now that Hudson, Smoltz, Davies, and Thomson are all pitching well. I still don't feel good entrusting one-run leads to Chris Reitsma, but what are you going to do when you're not willing to play ball in the ridiculously overpriced closer market?

One other thought: I'm grumbly about the fact that the Bravo Club is apparently a thing of the past, which means no free schwag for people like me who go to 15 games per year. I'm also grumbly that last night, the Braves drew a smallish crowd of 22,000 and still, the ice cream stand near our seats ran out of vanilla ice cream, which seems like a pretty basic staple, especially on a warm night.

The good news is that I accidentally kicked a middle-aged Mets fan with a "Spring Break Panama City 2006" t-shirt on Friday night while scaling the railing between the concourse and my seat. I've never felt less guilty about kicking someone in my life.

Imagine Herschel in a Florida Jersey

Maradona in a Brazil strip. Reactions in Argentina have been predictably muted:

"Wearing the jersey of Brazil is profanity!"

"It's more than betrayal, it's the end!"

There is even a rumor that it wasn't really him singing the Brazilian national anthem in the ad, but a voiceover. "That would save our dignity."

"Scary Movie."