Monday, July 31, 2006


Sorry for the dearth of posting, but I've been very busy at work and we also moved this weekend. Anyway, the moving this weekend was good as it kept me away from the TV and thus, the Braves' trouncing at the hands of the Mets. I don't have a really strong opinion of the Betemit trade. My gut reaction is that it comes down to Willy Aybar's productivity as Chipper's replacement. The Braves really need a good third baseman to back up the oft-injured Chipper and if Aybar can come close to replacing Betemit's production at that spot, then the trade is a good idea. Danys Baez isn't great, but he's certainly an improvement over the rest of the Braves' pen. Baez and Aybar aren't going to matter a hill of beans, though, if the Braves' starting pitching is as wretched as it was this weekend. The team is still only 6.5 games out, but with Tim Hudson continuing to look like an overpaid bust and Ramirez and James both having bad starts against the NL's best offense, the weekend was a total loss (other than the fact that the three games were very well attended).

Monday, July 24, 2006

This is a good year for me to be getting Gol TV

Feelings of invincibility when looking at a stacked lineup before a season are often a prelude to disaster (see: Mets, New York for just about any season prior to this one), but Barca's signing of Lilian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta has me salivating at the idea of this starting XI:

Thuram - Marquez - Puyol - Zambrotta
Xavi - Deco
Messi - Ronaldinho

On the other hand, the team's bid for a second straight European title will almost certainly have to run through this starting XI:

Paolo Ferreira - Gallas - Terry - Cole
Ballack - Lampard
Robben - Cole

With the implosion of Juve and Milan, is anyone else in the picture in terms of clear-cut favorites for the Champions League this year?


A few disjointed thoughts on the Braves' weekend in Philly:

1. The rainout on Saturday was providential. The fewer games the team plays with Andruw and Chipper out of the lineup, the better. Plus, if the Phils do indeed offload a chunk of their team before next Monday, then an extra game against them in September would be wonderful.

2. Horacio looked very good last night. He was hitting the corners with movement. The Phils got ten hits off of him, but they were mostly dribbly singles. Chase Utley was the only Phil to get an extra base hit off of Ramirez. The Phils' only run came when they strung a few singles together and then Mike Lieberthal hit a ball too softly to allow the Braves to turn two. Horacio has now allowed four homers in 62.1 innings this year, a slight contrast to last year when he allowed 31 homers in 202.1 innings.

2a. Also, kudos to ESPN for the graphics they use on Sunday night games for pitch locations. It's a treat to watch the Braves with that added bonus.

3. Leo Mazzone would be so proud of Bob Wickman. Last night, just about every pitch was down and away.

4. Francoeur was big last night, both because of the bat (three-run homer in the 9th to salt the game away) and the glove (huge throw to nab Bobby Abreu at second to lead off the bottom of the 8th).

5. Let's hope that Friday night was not a sign that the Ken Ray Summer of Love is about to end. It would suck if the Braves finally acquired some bullpen help and then the one reliable reliever from the first half of the year loses it.

More Disdain for Poor, Marginalized Notre Dame

Sorry, Ed, but you're going to be a pinata on that "the media hates Notre Dame" angle. Here are Bruce Feldman's rankings of the biggest media stories for the coming season:

Now that the preseason conference media gatherings have kicked off, get ready for the hyping to click into high gear. With that in mind, this week's list is dedicated to the biggest story lines going into the 2006 season.

1. Getting their Irish up: Between the Mighty Quinn and the offseason adventures of Shark and Zibby, the Irish don't need their own network to get their share of the spotlight. I can't ever recall a time when one program got so much offseason attention and none of it was for police-blotter stuff. (And you think the media pounded you about USC late last season? Wait till you see what could be coming from South Bend!) Brady Quinn and Charlie Weis might replace Brad and Angelina as the nation's most talked-about twosome now that everyone appears to have bought into coach Weis' program.

In conjunction, Quinn, Weis' latest protégé, has been anointed as the game's next great QB, not to mention ND's best Heisman candidate in almost 20 years.

If the Irish survive a front-loaded schedule, it will kick-start some kind of pseudo Matinee Idol Brady/Flattop Charlie reality show, which will carry all the way through their road trip to USC.

Translation: Get ready for heavy doses of Regis, Rudy, Dickie V and Digger, and all your other ND favorites.

I do think this is very good for college football as a whole. Regardless of whether you love ND or just love to hate them, people care about the Irish.

Enter the Marvin

It's not quite the Rookie of the Year award, but kudos to Marvin Williams for being named Most Valuable Player of the Rocky Mountain Revue . Dominating in the summer league is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for a young player to do well during the regular season. (What a lawyerly sentence that was.) Marvin was getting better as last year progressed and this is absolutely an encouraging (and not unexpected) sign. I'll be interested to see if he has improved his defense, as opposing teams often went right after him when he came into games. (The Sacramento game comes to mind. The moment Marvin entered, the Kings went right to the post to Artest for a basket.) Billy Knight said that Williams was in Vancouver this summer working on his core strength, so we'll see if he's now better able to defend in the post. Defensive improvement will be totally ignored if Marvin can make it, but that's really where he and the rest of the team need to focus.

A Tribute to Dennis Bergkamp

In honor of his testimonial match this weekend, here's a video guaranteed to make Arsenal fans get all teary-eyed in their cubicles:

A tribute to Dennis Bergkamp

I got the video from The Sports Economist, who posits the "why is Bergkamp not viewed on the same level as Zidane or Ronaldinho as the best player of this generation?" question. (Interesting that an Arsenal fan wouldn't mention Henry in the same breath. Hmmmm.) I think he hits the nail on the head by arguing that Bergkamp never won a World Cup or a European Championship and that he suffers as a result of playing for sides that weren't quite as good as France or Brazil. The Stam-de Boer-van der Sar-Davids Dutch teams of the late 90s were very good, but Bergkamp never got to play with the lights-out French defense (plus Didier Deschamps and then Patrick Viera providing the backbone) that backed Zidane, or the Rivaldo-Ronaldo pairing that played with Ronaldinho in 2002. I'd also add that Bergkamp never won a Champions League title, unlike Zidane and (now) Ronaldinho, and that affects his legacy. All that said, I tend to reject the tendency to evaluate players solely based on their teams' accomplishments without paying any attention to the roles of supporting casts and The Sports Economist makes an interesting point in putting Bergkamp up there with Zidane and Ronaldinho.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Great, another tubby Midwestern "proven closer"

The Braves have traded single-A catcher Max Ramirez for Bob Wickman. A few thoughts:

1. This is a pretty good trade, mainly because the Braves gave up so little. Reds fans have to be scratching their heads right now how their team gave up two quality position players for bullpen help, while the Braves got bullpen help and only had to give up a single-A catcher in return. The Braves are set at catcher for the foreseeable future with Brian McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, so even if Ramirez turns out to be Jeff Bagwell (a highly unlikely possibility), it's not really a big deal because he would have been blocked from being a major league catcher anyway.

2. That said, Wickman is not going to be a panacea. He has a decent ERA and some saves, but his numbers don't indicate that he's going to be anything close to a lights-out closer. 5.46 K/9 is not great. That said, he's allowed only one homer in 28 innings, which makes him a wee bit better than our current "closer" Jorge Sosa. He's certainly an improvement over what the Braves currently have in the pen and even if he can't close, using him in the 8th inning as a bridge to Ken Ray (or using the two of them interhangeably late in games) ought to make this team a little better. Plus, there ought to be some sort of salutary "management is doing their best for us" morale effect in the clubhouse, although the team doesn't appear to need much encouragement these days.

3. Kudos to David O'Brien for referring to Wickman as the Braves' "first established veteran closer" since John Smoltz returned to the rotation. It's good for DOB's sanity that he's completely blotted the existence of Dan Kolb out of his memory.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Bill Simmons: "Come On, You Spurs!!!"

For all the crap he takes on the internet, mostly from people (myself included) who have an underlying feeling of jealousy that he's done something that we would all give a right-arm to do, namely become wealthy and successful as an internet sports guru (OK, and he is completely insufferable about the Red Sox and Patriots, but at least he acknowledges that fact), Bill Simmons is one of the best sports columnists of our generation. Today's columns on picking an EPL team for which to root (here are part one and part two) illustrate his prowess as an astute analyst of sports and a quick learner.

For one thing, his critique on American sports is spot-on. The feeling I get when I go to most pro sports events is that I'm being manipulated. This is most pronounced at Falcons games, probably because: (1) they're slower than other games as a result of the NFL's interminable timeouts; and (2) I'm used to SEC or Michigan games, which are completely different in terms of genuine fan intensity rather than manufactured excitement. I love college football because the fans are beserk without being told to be that way by the jumbotron. I love European football for the same reason. Anyway, Simmons writes very well about how Celtics games used to be that way:

One more note on this: I watch old Celtics games from time to time and always think how the Bird Era could never be recreated -- not the team itself, but its connection with the Boston Garden and the passion of the fans attending those games. We didn't need a Jumbotron or musical prompts to tell us what to do. When the Celts were introduced, we screamed for every starter and saved one extra decibel level for Bird. When we needed a defensive stop, we stood and shouted at the top of our lungs. When Bird found a wide-open cutter for one of his gorgeous no-looks, we were cheering even as the pass was being delivered -- that's how attuned we were to his passing skills and how they spilled over to everyone else on the team. The best moments happened when the C's would blow someone off the floor and force a timeout, and the roof would practically come off, and we'd keep cheering and cheering -- all the way through the timeout, no organ music, no other noise, nothing. That's how we judged the level of excellence, by how long everyone felt obligated to cheer. If we made it all the way through the timeout, the horn would sound, which only made us cheer louder because we had lasted so long. I'm telling you, there was nothing quite like it. And this happened all the time.

Aside from being perceptive, I also enjoyed the column because Simmons threw himself full-bore into finding a team. This is what's really good about sports analysis on the internet: the ability to break convention and provide detail that was impossible in the old days when we got our news from short newspaper articles, slightly longer magazine pieces, and 45-second snippets on the news. The internet produces detailed analyses of particular plays, complete with video and still pictures. (Aside from the quality of analysis on Blue-Gray Sky, don't think that I don't enjoy seeing a complicated break-down of the one game last year in which I rooted for Ohio State. Actually, I also rooted for them against Penn State, although I don't quite know why. Maybe Penn State's insane fan base on the internet has made them my least favorite team in the Big Ten.) It produces play-by-play reviews that allow me to impress my brother with statements like "OSU ran right at Massey because he's the worst defensive tackle EVER!!!" And, as Simmons shows, it allows a writer to spend 6,000 words describing his choice of an EPL team. Simmons really showed off an impressive commitment to learning about the various teams. There are some factual mistakes, but it's great fun to read someone go through the lengthy process of researching celebrity fans and jerseys before picking a team that reminds him of his favorite baseball team. (Part of my reason for choosing Barca was similar: they reminded me of Michigan football in that they're a talented team with a huge stadium full of passionate, but not especially noisy fans and the team wins consistently, but never the big prize. I hope this doesn't mean that 2006 requires me to stop rooting for them.)

Ultimately, the column is gratifying because it illustrates how much the internet allows a writer to go in his/her own direction. Plus, there's the added gratification of seeing a talented writer like Simmons affix his interest to a sport that I really like. If Simmons suddenly started writing about college football and could avoid the snarky, agenda-based comments that polluted his Rose Bowl diary, I'd feel the same way.

Oh, and it also helped that he picked the team I like best in the EPL. I figured him for Spurs, Newcastle, or Arsenal and given his twin goals of wanting to pick a team in a vacation spot and not wanting to pick a bandwagon team, he made the right choice. (Yes, I know that a Barca fan mocking another team for being full of bandwagonistas is a little rich.) I figured that a Red Sox fan would be drawn to Spurs, the Red Sox to the Arse's Yankees. So score one for me. A stopped clock is right twice per day.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

"See, we didn't commit an NCAA violation! Our joke courses are available for one and all!"

As I speculated last week, Auburn does not face any significant NCAA problems from James Gundlach's allegations because ridiculously easy classes were available to all students. The money quote:

"I have never said this was something that was done specifically for athletes," Gundlach said. "My concern was that the athletes were something that was going to call attention to it and lead to embarrassing situations. If the athletes weren't there, nobody would care.

"Since I've been thinking about the athletic rules and other such things, it is clear that everything Petee did for athletes was also available for other students. In terms of the letter of NCAA regulations, there are probably no problems."

So, in the end, Auburn fans will tout their great vindication against the New York Times, the Tuscaloosa Times, Warren St. John, Bear Bryant,, and just about every other conspirator against their program, all the while missing the fact that their football program escaped sanction because the lax standards in the sociology department applied to everyone. Does it really make you feel better to have your school indicted as an academic institution instead of your football program? Wait, don't answer that question, Mr. Lowder.

A Schmorgasbord of Runs

In four games since the All-Star Break, the Braves have scored 51 runs, all against teams currently in first place in their divisions. Three of the games were played at Petco Park, which is murder on offense. Everyone is hitting. The attention has gone to Chipper for his record-tying streak of extra-base hits and he deserves the accolades, but a number of other players deserve credit as well. Adam LaRoche has a 1.096 OPS this month, which has raised his OPS for the season to a quite respectable .860. For those of you with a more traditional inclination towards statistics, .270 with 16 homers and 51 RBI is not a bad total for a first baseman a little more than halfway into the season. Wilson Betemit has a 1.082 OPS this month, raising OPS for the season to .878. I have been of this opinion for a while, but the last several weeks have provided further evidence that the Braves should not trade Betemit. In fact, I would rather miss the wild card this year if the tradeoff is the Braves having to trade Wilson for a bullpen rental. With Chipper's brittle feet and Marcus Giles' injury history, not to mention the fact that Giles is a free agent at the end of the year, Wilson is too valuable. The team has already found 171 at-bats for him over the course of the year, so he's not an underused resource getting stale on the bench. Brian McCann has a .998 OPS this month, which isn't that shocking since he's been the Braves' best offensive player this year, but his contributions shouldn't be ignored. And quietly, Andruw is plugging along with an .872 OPS this month, which doesn't stand out on a team full of hot hitters, but his contributions shouldn't be overlooked. He's on pace for 34 homers and 141 RBI, which would look great on a Hall of Fame resume in 15 years.

Overall, as much as I'm enjoying watching the Braves turn into the '27 Yankees for a two-week stretch, this success is obviously unsustainable. The offense isn't this good, just as it wasn't as bad as it showed during the most wretched June (or any month, for that matter) in franchise history. When the offense cools slightly, the pitching is going to have to pick up the slack. Smoltz is pulling on all cylinders and Chuck James has been a revelation, but where is the rest of the pitching going to come from? Tim Hudson absolutely needs to right the ship; that goes without saying. Unfortunately, I just don't see Horacio maintaining his current form. He's pitched well since coming off the DL, but I just don't see him continuing with his current 24/19 K/BB ratio. He is keeping the ball in the park this year - only four homers allowed in 55.1 innings - but I still don't see him as anything more than a #4 starter down the stretch. The question will be whether Hudson becomes a #2 or if he keeping pitching like a AA #4.

The other question is obviously the bullpen. Assistance in that department shouldn't be too expensive in terms of prospects. The issue is whether the demand for pitching around baseball is going to drive the price up to where it chases the Braves out of the market. The market for starting pitching is fairly barren, as evidenced by the fact that the Yankees think that Sidney Ponson can be helpful in some way, so is that going to force teams to look to improve their bullpens instead? And are those teams going to be willing to offer quality prospects for bullpen help, such that the Braves would be mortgaging their future to compete in the market. As I've said before, this team is too flawed to merit giving up on significant prospects for bullpen help.

The final point to make about the Braves right now is that the past weeks have shown that the National League is very, very weak this year, so the Braves can certainly make a run at the playoffs (and then anything can happen in a playoff series). The Braves have been beating around the other two divisional leaders and the rest of their wild card rivals have been treading water, at best. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the Braves can make the playoffs and then potentially make some noise once they're there. (Maybe coming in as the wild card would take the pressure off the team and make them play better in October? Oh, how I would love a post-season run from the most flawed Braves team in years just to prove how random the playoffs are, but I'm getting way, way ahead of myself.) On the other hand, what sort of accomplishment is it to make the playoffs in a year in which the NL is so down?

Saturday, July 15, 2006


I know that this protest by Focus on the Family and assorted other groups of theocrats won't amount to a hill of beans, but I did get a kick this morning out of reading that the sale of the Braves to Liberty Media is being criticized not because they're a distant group that has no emotional stake in the team's success, but rather because they provide On Demand movies in hotel rooms. G-d forbid that they, you know, provide a service that the market desires. Leaving aside the idiocy of their analogy to Larry Flynt buying the team (do you think there's a wee bit of a difference between someone who produces porn and a giant media entity that simply distributes a large number of movies, including some with naked people copulating with other naked people) or the argument that buying a ticket from the Braves equates to supporting pornography (as if Liberty Media doesn't have, you know, different divisions and the money doesn't all end up in one immoral swirl), I personally wouldn't mind Liberty Media spicing up a trip to the Ted. For instance, if a Bravo Club reward for amassing 500 points was a free On Demand movie instead of lunch at McDonald's, I certainly wouldn't complain. Of course, that would require Liberty Media bringing back the Bravo Club in the first place, grumble grumble grumble.

And in left field for the Braves...

Speaking of the Braves, I went to sleep last night with the team leading by three runs and woke up this morning to find that they had won by three runs. Of course, I went to sleep with the game 8-5 in the 5th and woke up to find that they had won 15-12 in 11 innings after Jorge Sosa blew not one, but two leads. The game did nothing to dispell the Braves' weaknesses from the first half - atrocious work by the bullpen, not to mention disappointing work from opening day starter Tim Hudson - and it reminded us that this team can hit the ball. 15 runs and five homers at Petco is nothing to complain about. Dare I start getting a tingle of excitement that the team is 5.5 games out of a wildcard spot? If they can cure their bullpen deficiencies with some new personnel, then the tingle might get stronger.

In other news, John Thomson appears headed for the DL because of shoulder tightness, despite the fact that there is nothing structurally wrong with his shoulder. I seem to remember seeing a Bond movie once and the Bond girl's last name was "Galore," but I can't quite put my finger on her first name...

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Media is so Unfair to Notre Dame

How rude of Gene Wojciechowski
to make sweet, sweet love to the Irish for 1,256 words for and he didn't even have the decency to mention that Charlie Weis is secretly undermining the Iranian nuclear program and working on a medical cure for ennui in his spare time.

“I have never heard of anything of this magnitude in any discipline at any university.”

Wait a second, you mean to tell me that Auburn football players don't really outperform Vandy's players in the classroom? Wha? Three credit hours for reading one book in the middle of a semester? One professor supervising 152 directed reading classes? Sounds perfectly normal to me.

I'm anxious to hear the reaction from the, uh, more defensive elements of the Auburn fan base. I'm expecting the following elements:

1. "The New York Times is a damned liberal paper and can't be trusted."

2. "Jayson Blair! Jayson Blair! Jayson Blair!"

3. "Didn't that jackass Bammer fan Warren St. John write for the Times? See, this is just another Bammer plot to keep us down!"

[Update: This defense hits all three notes. I would laud my prediction if it wasn't just me stating the obvious, which is that defensive Auburn fans would try to kill the messenger.]

4. "Let's wait to hear what Bobby Lowder says before we rush to conclusions."

5. "Honk if you sacked Brodie!"

In all seriousness, while this episode does provide a fine opportunity to mock Auburn (an especially nice privilege after they beat Georgia the past two years), there ought to be a serious "there but for the grace of G-d go any of our programs" before we open our mouths. College football, like most sports, rests upon certain fictions and one of them is that players who come to college with 2.0 GPAs from academically backwards high schools and 900 SATs can stay eligible for four years while spending a tremendous amount of time on football. Michigan doesn't have a history that includes winning a national title on probation or coaches directly paying players on tape or the school being placed on academic probation for being run by one particular booster, so I don't think that anything quite so brazen goes on at my alma mater. Michigan also has the good fortune of not having the Alabama public school system, one of the most chronically underfunded in the country thanks to a regressive tax system, as its primary recruiting base (although UM does recruit heavily from the Detroit PSL, which isn't exactly noted for running up the test scores). That said, I'd have my head in the sand to think that a number of Michigan players don't get assistance to stay eligible that at least falls into a gray area. And this is true for every major program.

Update: here is the AJC's article on the subject. If I were an Auburn fan, I'd be very relieved to know that the father of two Auburn players thinks that everything is on the up and up there. The article also answers one of the three key questions being asked by Paul Westerdawg: what did Professor Thomas Petee have to gain by giving players good grades without requiring any work? Professor James Gundlach, the whistle-blower in the episode, thinks that Petee was "groupie-esque" around players and that the way to advance at Auburn was to be friendly to the athletic program. Paul also argues that the key to the scandal will be a player coming out and saying that he didn't do the work. I don't necessarily agree because the circumstantial evidence here - so many players taking independent study courses from one professor and getting higher grades than they got anywhere else - is so strong. Based on the experience of the NCAA's investigation into Tennessee's grade-fixing scandal, I think the key question is slightly different: were these light reading classes only available to athletes? That's the important question from the NCAA's perspective. Tennessee got off the hook, despite hard evidence that players regularly had their grades changed to stay eligible, because they were able to convince the NCAA that regular students had the same ability to petition successfully to have their grades changed. Will Auburn be able to make the same showing?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Random Post-Lunch Thoughts

1. With the World Cup finished and college football still a distant ship on the horizon, I desperately needed something new to watch, preferably something that Der Wife would enjoy as well as penance for a month of "I'll be in the back room watching Spain-Ukraine if you need me." Lo and behold, we stumbled upon the World Series of Pop Culture on VH1 last night. As Brett Favre would say, it's our new addiction. The format of the show is incredibly simple: two teams answer pop culture questions until one team is eliminated, then Lisa Guerrero asks them inane questions as the men try to keep a straight face and suppress the "I saw you naked and you looked fantastic!" that they almost certainly want to make. The highlights last night for me und Der Wife included me desperately trying to remember what Kate Capshaw sang in the opening credits of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (there is nothing worse than knowing the tune of a song, but not remembering the words) and the two of us realizing that we are way out of touch when we didn't know any of the members of The Gorillaz. Anyway, the show is going to be on every night this week at ten, so clear your schedule.

2. I watched about 60 seconds of the Home Run Derby last night and have two thoughts:

a. I really need to see a game at PNC Park some time soon.

b. Chris Berman is beyond the pale of insufferability. Granted, there's only so much you can do for a home run derby, but what idiot can't read a map and then proclaim that balls are being hit to [insert name of suburb here]? Thank G-d he doesn't do college games.

3. Was I the only one outside of northeast Ohio who was relieved to see LeBron re-sign with the Cavs? The overexposure possibilities of LeBron playing in Los Angeles or New York were too frightening to behold. Plus, while Boston fans might mope endlessly about their bad luck (or at least they did before October 2004) and Philly fans use their futility as an excuse to act like depraved idiots, Cleveland is easily the most screwed major city in American sports. Their teams haven't won a major championship since the Browns in the 60s. My feelings on Ohio aside, I'd be happy for the city if and when LeBron gets them a championship.

4. Baseball Prospectus had an interesting article on the Braves last week. It was subscription only, so I won't link it, but they made the interesting point that the bullpen, while terrible, has an only slightly higher ERA than last year's craptastic bunch. So what's the difference this year? Regression among every one of the starting pitchers. Smoltz's numbers are slightly down, but every other starter - Hudson, Thomson, and Sosa - have seen significant regressions. Add in the injuries of Davies and Horacio and you have the recipe for terrible pitching.

Headbuttgate: the Aftermath

Thanks to Kanu for a terrific round-up on the speculation regarding Materazzi's comments to Zidane that caused him to lose the plot. The latest, thanks to a lip reader hired by the London Times, is that Materazzi called Zidane a "son of a terrorist whore." Whatever Materazzi said, it doesn't justify Zidane trying to implant himself in Marco's sternum, like Neo at the end of The Matrix, but as an academic matter, I'm very interested to find out what was said. Kanu also linked this terrific video that shows Zidane lose it:

It reminds me of one of my favorite all-time Saturday Night Live commercials, the one in which Chris Farley is informed in a fancy restaurant that he has been drinking instant coffee instead of Columbian coffee. His face slowly turns from inane happiness to rage, punctuated by "you son of a bitch!!!" and an assault on the interviewer. I'm pretty sure the internet was invented so people like me could parallel Chris Farley being lied to about coffee and Zinedine Zidane being told that he's the "son of a terrorist whore."

Monday, July 10, 2006

Well That Was Interesting

Happily, my prediction of a boring 1-0 French victory turned out to be inaccurate. We had a whopping two goals, but more importantly, we had some real excitement ten minutes from time:

There are all sorts of interesting angles to discuss after Zidane's rhino impersonation:

1. It's fitting that a World Cup most notable for Zidane and for an explosion of yellow and red cards ended with Zidane getting a red card.

2. It's unfortunate that Zidane's career had to end with a moment of ignominy, but it's a nice reminder that no player or person is all good or all bad. The best players all have bad moments. Maradona had his Hand of G-d, Pele has his whoring for Mastercard and just about every other sponsor (and that unfortunate pick of Columbia to win the '94 World Cup), Cruyff has his refusals to play for the Dutch in a key qualifier for the '74 tournament or in any of the '78 tournament, Beckenbauer has...something, I'm sure, and now Zidane has the headbutt. It just goes to show that we should never define a player by his worst moment, because everybody has them.

3. Although the red card will likely be remembered as the defining moment of the match, especially since the penalties were not exactly memorable, it did not have much of an impact on the match. It did deprive the French of a chance to win in the final ten minutes and they were creating all the chances by that point, but the French had been trying to score for 110 minutes and to that point had only produced a dodgy penalty. (And this despite the alleged greatest striker in the world today! Sorry, I just can't help myself anymore. Henry did play well yesterday.) It's not likely that Zidane's dismissal prevented France from scoring the winner, nor would it have prevented David Trezeguet from missing from the spot, as Zidane likely would have taken the place of Abidal or Sagnol in the line-up. (Incidentally, Trezeguet also missed his penalty in the 2003 Champions League Final for Juventus against AC Milan.)

4. Think about this: if Buffon doesn't make an outstanding save on Zidane's header at the end of the first overtime period, then Zidane is probably remembered as the best player since Pele, if not Maradona. He would have gone out scoring both goals in the World Cup Final after scoring the winner in the semifinal and assisting on the winners in the quarterfinal and the round of 16. Instead, by a matter of inches, he'll probably be remembered as a sterling player with occasional bouts of madness. And this is all so by a matter of inches. Isn't that a reflection that we don't really judge players the right way?

5. If it is true that video evidence was used to punish Zidane for the red card, then this is an instance of the officials reaching the right result by the wrong means, but it also might be an impetus for use of video replays in soccer, which would be a good thing. ("A lot of good that does us," chimes in the '66 West German side.)

6. If it is true that Materazzi baited Zidane by calling him a terrorist, then how does that jibe with FIFA's stance against racism throughout the tournament. And if we move in the direction of using video replay to punish players after matches for diving or other conduct missed by the referee and linesmen, then can the same be done for racist comments? And would FIFA have to use lip-readers to mete out discipline? For the record, no matter what Materazzi said, Zidane's conduct was unjustifiable. Maybe the immortal Jack Dalton from Roadhouse could have helped:

Zidane: "What if someone calls me a terrorist?"
Dalton: "Well, are you?"

We could all stand to learn something from Dalton. Even you, Zizou.

A few other thoughts on the game:

1. For a team that is noted for coming apart at the spot, credit must be given to Italy for taking five excellent penalties. They were all into the roof of the net and/or the side netting. The only one that possibly could have been stopped was Pirlo's first kick, but it was high enough that it couldn't be considered a bad effort. And who would have thought that the Italian kickers would have performed so well from the spot, but their ace keeper Gigi Buffon went the wrong way just about every time. Interestingly enough, if Buffon would have guessed correctly on Trezeguet's kick, he might have just been in position to deflect the ball in when it caromed down off the crossbar.

2. For me, Fabio Cannavaro was the MVP of the tournament, mainly because Italy won on account of their defense and Cannavaro's ability to marshal a backline that saw all sorts of changes throughout was excellent. (If France won, I would have been strongly tempted to give my imaginary vote to Thuram.) I did find it amusing to be yelling "get 'em, Fabio!" on a number of occasions yesterday. Soccer makes me do the weirdest things.

3. There was much discussion while watching the game with Orson and Peacedog as to whether the "doctors" (or "physios," if you prefer the English term) have any medical training at all. Apparently, the cures for any soccer injury are:

a. water (similar to Robitussin for Chris Rock's Dad);

b. a sponge; or

c. the spray.

There was much speculation as to what exactly is contained in that magical spray that allows soccer players to return from the most painful injuries. I personally suggested that it's Pam, but Orson pointed out that for France or Italy, it would almost certainly be some sort of aerosol olive oil. Deodorant or any other bathroom spray seems highly unlikely. We also decided that the universal motion from a player that he is injured should no longer be clutching an ankle or a head, but rather a downward motion from an index finger indicating that the spray is required.

4. Was Francesco Totti even on the field? I make fun of Henry for delivering less-than-stellar performances for his country, but he's Just Fontaine compared to Totti.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

I'm Free

Der Wife and I went to the Ted last night for the first time since the Memorial Day Massacre against the Dodgers that triggered the team's atrocious June. (Recall that the Braves were 27-23 and had won 15 of 20 coming into that game and Thomson's terrible start initiated a 2-8 homestand against manageable opposition.) I thoroughly enjoyed the game last night. Of course, the Braves winning, Smoltz pitching a gem, and the team's future (McCann and Francoeur) combining for the winning runs were a large part of the reason, but there were all sorts of other reasons. The game was my ideal baseball game: well-pitched, no errors, minimal walks, no in-inning pitching changes, and done in 150 minutes. (The last game I went to was a White Sox-Cardinals game when I was in Chicago a couple weeks ago and it finished 1-0 in two hours. I'm on a streak.) The weather was immaculate: low 80s, a slight breeze, and not a cloud in the sky. It felt like May instead of July and I was thrilled to be outside. The Ted was almost full and for good measure, my ability to pick the attendance returned. (I used to be able almost unerringly to guess the attendance within a thousand, then the muse left. Last night, I went with 46,000 and the actual attendance was 44,718, which technically isn't within a thousand of my guess, but I pat myself on the back anyway.) I also got the "I am the Ubermensch" vibe walking to and from the game and watching the Mongol hordes from Bartow and Bibb stuck in traffic getting into and out of the parking lots and then off of and onto the interstates. (We park downtown and walk; it takes less time to get in and out, it's free, and we get a nice walk coming and going. If everyone knew that this was the way to go, then it wouldn't be the way to go. I've now sprained my elbow patting myself on the back.)

Possibly the biggest reason I enjoyed the game so much was that I approached it like a Hawks game. I was there to root for my team and enjoy sport played on a high level (admittedly a stretch with these two teams' bullpens). I wasn't going to get annoyed if the Braves fell behind or lost. I wasn't going to be bothered when Chipper grounded into a double play with runners on second and first and no one out in the fourth. I wasn't going to be flummoxed by the fact that the Braves were scoreless after six innings. I wasn't going to be...need a synonym for annoyed here...Perturbed by Andruw's weak at-bats (of which he had four last night, and I thought that The Gold Club was closed). The team isn't going to win the division this year and it's very unlikely that they're going to win the wild card. They're only 6.5 games out of the wild card, but they have a ton of teams to pass. More saliently, even if they do pip a wild card spot, this team isn't going to win in the playoffs with these bullpen options. The divisional streak is the one thing I cared about for the past number of years and the Braves extended it several years beyond where it should have ended. It's going to be done this year and I'm trying to appreciate the streak rather than being upset that it's coming to an end. Anyway, this is a long-winded way for me to say that I had a great time last night because I've come to grips with the fact that the Braves aren't winning the division this year and I'm not too worried now about whether they win or lose. I'll save that angst for my alma mater this September.

Other thoughts on the game last night:

1. Smoltz's line: 8 IP, 1 ER, 6 hits, 10 Ks, 1 BB. He started the game by striking out Freel, Dunn, and Griffey and ended it by striking out Freel and Dunn and then getting Griffey to ground out to the mound. The crowd really gave Smoltz a great hand after the 8th and it was entirely deserved. We only have so many of these moments left with one of the franchise's all-time greats (and my personal favorite). He could injure his elbow. The Tigers could wow the Braves with an offer for Smoltz such that it makes sense to trade him (although, as Schuerholtz correctly points out, the team won't get better for 2007 by off-loading its best pitcher who will be a bargain next year at $8M). He might retire at the end of this year or next year. Life is short and Smoltz's performance last night (with two hits and an RBI thrown in to remind us that he's a terrific athlete) was one to savor.

My favorite Spartan.

2. I'm still annoyed that the Bravo Club is no more. Ditto for ESPN's stat pack.

3. Francoeur's on-base percentage still bothers me, but he does have a sense of the moment. I detest "clutch/choker" labels because they're often thrown around with little or no basis (see: Jeter, Derek). That said, Francoeur's go-ahead homer in the 7th last night didn't shock me as he has had a number of game-winning hits for the Braves last night.

4. I really enjoy sitting in the upper deck. When I was a kid, I bitched at my Dad constantly that we spent $5 per ticket on upper deck seats at Fulton County instead of $10 for lower level seats. Now, I like the upper deck seats because I like the view of downtown, I enjoy seeing the entire field spread out below me, and there's something satisfying about seeing the arc of flyballs from the upper deck. I guess the point is that we all end up turning into our parents at some point.

5. What exactly was Jerry Narron thinking last night leaving an exhausted Aaron Harang in in the 8th inning as the Braves nibbled out an insurance run? Was it necessary for Harang to throw 139 pitches? Great idea.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Belkinkampf! Scheiss!

The latest disaster from the Belkin v. Rest of the World imbroglio:

the Hawks and Thrashers cannot sign any players to contracts longer than one year. While this isn't quite as disastrous at it might appear, since the inept Judge Eric Johnson carved out an exception for negotations already commenced (and thus the signing of Speedy Claxton can proceed, as well as the signing of the Hawks' draft picks), it does severely complicate the Al Harrington sign-and-trade, since the Hawks will only be able to trade him for players with one year remaining on their contracts or for players for whom trade discussions have already commenced. It also makes the Thrashers' efforts to bolster their defense and sign a center to replace Marc Savard extremely difficult.

The decision by Judge Johnson is favorable in the sense that it allows Atlanta Spirit LLC to continue operating the teams pending their appeal of the decision giving Belkin the right to buy the teams out. It's also favorable because Judge Johnson didn't require the posting of a massive bond, which would have severely hamstrung the efforts of the owners to operate the teams. However, the fact that the Judge would initially suggest that the teams not be able to sign any free agents demonstrates that he has no idea how professional sports teams operate (and more generally, that litigation is often completely at odds with the business objectives of both parties in a given case). The fact that both parties had to step in and stop him from doing so demonstrates that they both understand that such a decision would damage the teams' ability to compete and therefore reduce the value of the assets over which the parties are fighting. The fact that the parties then couldn't reach an agreement as to parameters for trades and free agent signings, thus leaving Judge Johnson to employ the absurd one year or less restriction, shows that their acrimony is getting in the way of what should be a common goal. The one positive spin I can put on Judge Johnson's decision limiting signings is that he knows that it will put significant pressure on the two parties to settle, as he has put them on the road to mutually assured destruction. However, his original decision in favor of Belkin has given Belkin no incentive to settle, because he knows that if he prevails at the appellate stage, then he gets both teams and Philips Arena for a relatively reasonable sum.

Schmuck...with good lawyers.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Let the Surrender Jokes Begin

It's somehow fitting that a World Cup contested in Germany has produced a final between a country that the Germans conquered in three weeks in May 1940 and a country that the Germans had to invade in 1943, despite the fact that it was an ostensible ally of the Germans. (Funny how everything in European soccer ends up relating back to WWII, or at least it does when reflected through my slightly jaded prism.) And in contrast to their performances during that era, France and Italy have progressed to Berlin on the strength of impregnable defenses, having conceded a grand total of three goals in their 12 matches leading up to the Final. Take out the penalty awarded to Spain and the own goal conceded by Italy and opponents have scored exactly one goal against France or Italy from open play. All this points to a relatively uninteresting Final for those of us who like lots of scoring chances and end-to-end play. France and Italy are both full of skilled offensive players, but as the knock-out games have demonstrated, great defenses usually conquer great offenses and both France and Italy have great defenses.

It's fitting that a tournament dominated by defense in the knock-out phases will ultimately be won by the two stoutest defenses present. However, despite the attractive technical skill on display in Germany, The Guardian's Rob Smyth points out a problem with the knock-out stages of Germany '06: an absence of goals. Unfortunately, he's absolutely right. There have been an underwhelming 24 goals in 14 knock-out games, which will hardly set anyone's heart aflutter. Compare that to 44 goals scored at the same stage of USA '94 or 39 goals scored at France '98 at this stage. The classic games from those tournaments don't seem possible now that defenses have completely taken over. The Brazil-Holland 3-2 masterpiece from '94 is a distant memory. Italy played three outstanding knock-out games en route to the '94 Final and all of them finished 2-1, two of them including some late drama (although Spaniards might choose a different word than "drama" to describe a game that they lost in large part because the ref and linesman contrived to miss a Mauro Tassotti elbow into Luis Enrique's face, in the box no less). France's dramatic win over Croatia, marked by Lilian Thuram's first two goals for France to bring the hosts from behind, is one of the defining memories of '98, not surprisingly because it involves goals.

And the World Cup isn't the only place in which offense is suffering. The last Champions League, for instance, featured two teams in the Final who got there by winning semifinals 1-0 over two legs. How in the world did Rijkaard's Barcelona and Ancelotti's Milan produce one goal over 180 minutes? (Actually, there was that strike by Shevchenko where Puyol fell over and...ah, the joys of selective memory.) And then, let's go back to Euro '04, which was won by a Greek side that created one chance per game and kept progressing with 1-0 wins.

The last time that offense was so hard to come by was the uninspiring 1990 World Cup. That one was more dour than the present tournament because in 1990, just about every game was decided in penalties and Argentina made it to the Final using penalties as a preferred end-game. There has been more action in this World Cup and less reliance on playing for penalties. Indeed, between Italy's dreadful record in penalties and France's still-inexplicable decision to start Fabien Barthez between the sticks, our finalists would have been nuts to employ such a strategy. Still, FIFA needs to take some concrete steps to counter the defensive cycle that currently weighs the game down. After 1990, FIFA took the wise steps of: (1) banning keepers from handling the ball when it's played back to them by their teammates; and (2) awarding three points for a win instead of two. The '94 World Cup was much improved as a result. So what should FIFA do this time to increase offense without resorting to gimmicks like bigger goals? A couple thoughts:

1. Allow additional substitutions in extra time. This wouldn't necessarily affect the number of goals in 90 minutes, but it would make extra time more compelling as teams would throw on fresh players to run at tired defenders.

2. Award indirect free kicks in the box. This has always been a pet issue of mine. Refs currently allow a lot of contact in the box that they would never allow in the midfield because they (quite rightly) don't want to give penalty kicks for anything other than fouls denying clear scoring chances. The problem now is that it's very difficult to score in the box, especially on corner kicks, because defenders can bump and grab offensive players with impunity. The solution would be to create a second class of fouls. Fouls that deprive clear scoring chances will still merit penalty kicks. Fouls that are less severe would result in free kicks from the edge of the 18-yard box. This would have the dual effect of creating more free kicks, which are always crowd-pleasers, and cleaning up the box so offensive players have a chance to get their heads on set pieces.

The difficulty I have is creating some sort of subtle rule change that would encourage managers to play two strikers again. The 4-5-1 has become the preferred formation and it can be attractive if the offensive players (usually the offensive central midfielder and the two wingers) get forward to support the striker, but it's a very stout defensive formation because it typically leaves two defensive midfielders in place to shield the back four. England, France, and Portugal all use the formation and achieved excellent defensive results with it, but none of them have played especially exciting games, especially against one another. Two 4-5-1 teams are unlikely to create an exciting match because one striker and three supporting midfielders are going to be little match for four defenders and two screening Makeleles. (It's a real testament to little Claude that he has become the Platonic ideal for a defensive midfielder.) Who ever thought that Italy would contest a final and would be viewed as the more offensive team, at least in terms of its formation. Marcelo Lippi has also showed more willingness to roll the dice by putting on offensive players in the later stages of games, so score two for Fortress Italia. He's such an improvement over the hopelessly conservative Giovanni Trappatoni.

A few other random thoughts on the Semifinals:

1. I rooted for Portugal because I generally like the Iberian Peninsula and because I stood to win $150 if they beat Italy in the Final, but it was awfully hard to root for them yesterday. Their display against France was one of the most cynical collection of dives in recent memory. The game desperately needed Jorge Larrionda to issue a yellow card for diving to convince the Portuguese to actually try to score a goal. The diving got worse and worse as Portugal's desperation and realization that they couldn't score from the run of play increased. Cristiano Ronaldo was particularly bad in this regard, marring an otherwise excellent performance. I felt bad for him that bitter English fans were whistling him throughout the game (it's so much easier to invoke a scapegoat than to acknowledge that your team couldn't score and that your star young player fully deserved to be sent off), but the feelings of sympathy receded as he routinely went to ground.

2. Lost in the hosannas for Zidane (and those hosannas are well-deserved as he stamps himself as the best player since Maradonna) is acknowledgement of: (1) how good France's defense is; and (2) how boring the French are with a lead because they make little effort to kill a game off with a second goal. They created a nice three-man break yesterday in about minute 55 with Zidane, Ribery, and Henry all surging forward and then the game ground to a halt as France made little effort to score and Portugal was incapable of doing the deed themselves.

3. Fabien Barthez...uh, yeah. He did his best to mimic a bride tossing her bouquet to her bridesmaids on Ronaldo's free kick in the second half, only Luis Figo decided that he would prefer to remain a bridesmaid by lifting the bouquet over the goal when the goal was at his mercy. Oy vey all around. This is one area in which Italy will have a decided advantage on Sunday: they can be confident that when the ball is sent towards their goal, their keeper won't flap at it.

4. For a side not noted for their offensive prowess, Italy really put on a show in extra time, hitting the post twice and then scoring two great goals that involved significant teamwork. The Azzurri don't have very good strikers, but they have gotten offense from their midfield and outside defenders, even moreso than the 4-5-1 teams that are supposed to get their offense from those sources.

As for a prediction, 1-0 to France because I can't pick against Zidane at this stage and because this French core has already beaten Italy twice in major competitions ('98 World Cup quarters in penalties and Euro '00 Final in extra time). The chances are going to be few and far between, but I trust Zidane to create the better chances than Totti and I trust Henry to finish better than Luca Toni or Alberto Gilardino.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Getting "All" with EDSBS

The latest college football blogosphere roundtable (and good lord does that term require a witty acronym or abbreviation) is up at EDSBS and since I like talking about myself as much as anyone else, here's my response:

1. Education. List the region of the country you were born in, what universities you attended and at least one other you would have attended if your alma mater didnÂ’t exist.

I was born in Toronto and grew up in Macon, Georgia (after the age of nine). That might be the first time that those two cities have ever been mentioned in the same sentence. I went to Michigan for my B.A. in history and then got a J.D. at UVA. Given my preference for state schools and the fact that I've never lived west of the Mississippi before, if Michigan was wiped off the face of the map by invading barbarian hordes from Ohio, I probably would have liked to have attended Berkeley.

2. Sports Affiliations. List your top 10 favorite teams in all of sports indescendingg order. For instance, your alma materÂ’s football team may be number 1, but perhaps there is a professional team that squeezes in before you get to your alma materÂ’s lacrosse team.

This is a rough question for me because I feel tension between "which teams make me the most emotional now?" and "which teams have historically made me the most emotional?" (and in my mind, the way to rank these teams is to ask myself "how pissed do I get when they screw up?") For instance, I loved Michigan basketball as much as Michigan football when I was an undergraduate, but a decade of complete mismanagement has minimized my affection for the team greatly. There's a certain honor in rooting for a team that sucks, but how can I do that when the Michigan hoops team is rarely on TV and when they are, they're down 37-2 to Duke? So do I just take a snapshot of where I am right now as a fan or do I take into account that there was once a time when I slept outside in sub-zero windchill along with a thousand of my closest friends not as homage to the Battle of Stalingrad, but instead to get good seats to a Michigan-Duke basketball game? Anyway, enough kvelling:

1. Michigan football - the alpha and omega of my sports allegiances, although it has never been tested by a losing season, so I don't know if I would stick right by them and maintain my level of interest or if I would lose some interest as a result of the shame of Michigan losing its defining characteristic: consistency.

2. Atlanta Braves - even when they stank, this was my favorite team growing up. It's been hard to deal with their fall from grace this year. It's much easier to watch the Hawks wallow than the Braves because there are expectations for the Braves, not to mention the fact that the Braves are being vanquished by the mercenary, completely unrootable Mets. Still, the fact that their fall has been hard to stomach indicates to me that I care about them more than the other Atlanta teams.

3. Atlanta Hawks - being a season ticket holder certainly increased my interest. That said, I don't worry about this pick being one of recency when I remember throwing things around my room after the Hawks blew game six at home against the Celtics in the '88 playoffs. Tantrum = high ranking.

4. Michigan basketball - this one's getting too painful to discuss. The future looks great now that Tommy Amaker is desperate enough for point guard help that he's signed a guy who apparently wasn't good enough to play at The Citadel. Looks like I'll be crying in my Ray Jackson jersey for another several years.

5. Michigan hockey - when I think of positive sports memories from college, I think of Brendan Morrison's OT winner in the '96 NCAA Final in Cincinnati. I think of screaming so loud that I couldn't quite tell what I was yelling or what I should be yelling. I remember hugging my friend Andy harder than any friend should hug another friend. I remember nearly throwing my right shoulder out of its socket doing "The Victors." I remember thoroughly enjoying a meal at Taco Bell on the ride back to Ann Arbor. And thus, with that impossible feat, the UM icers get the last spot in the top five.

6. Atlanta Thrashers - I went to a lot of games when they were really, really bad. Other than tantrums, that might be the best sign of passion. When you can spend $25 on a ticket knowing that your team is starting Milan Hlicka between the pipes, you know you care. Or you're an idiot.

7. F.C. Barcelona - my saving grace during this sporting annus horribilis. I started rooting for them in '97 when they had and then lost Ronaldo as a result of Nike's machinations and have gotten more and more passionate as time has gone on. If you need an explanation, read Franklin Foer's chapter on the Blaugrana in How Soccer Explains the World : An Unlikely Theory of Globalization.

8. Atlanta Falcons - for some reason, the Falcons have never pushed my buttons in the same way that other Atlanta teams have. Part of the reason is that I retained much of my affection for the Steelers after living in Pittsburgh. Part of the reason is that SEC football is so much more compelling than the NFL in the South, so the atmosphere at Falcons games pales in comparison to an afternoon at Sanford or Jordan-Hare or Death Valley.

9. UVA basketball - my first sports love and there's always something special about your first love. I lived in Charlottesville when Ralph was there and when I was first becoming a sports fan. UVA basketball was a good preparation for a life of optimism and then disappointment in the world of sports.

10. Holland soccer - speaking of optimism and disappointment... (I would root for the US over the Dutch if the two ever met in an important match, but I spend more time following the Dutch and more energy rooting for them, mainly because the US just seems to be a big fish in a small pond.)

3. Movies. List the movie youÂ’ve watched the most, your favorite sports related movie, the movie you secretly love but donÂ’t like to admit it (possibly a chick flick or b film), and the movie you were (or still are) most looking forward to from this summerÂ’s season.

Most watched: Octopussy. It seemed to come on Showtime a lot when I was growing up and then it's progressed from there.

Favorite sports movie: Hoosiers. Seeing it in the theater on the day my high school boys and girls teams both won state titles didn't hurt.

Shame flick: Four Weddings and a Funeral. And yes, I did catch it yesterday on Oxygen. And no, I can't blame it on post-Peachtree Roadrace delirium.

4. Music. List your favorite band from middle school, high school, college and today. Also, as with the movies, include the song you secretly love but donÂ’t like to admit. If Nickleback is involved in any of these responses, please give a detailed explanation as to why, god, why.

Middle school: REM

High school: Dylan, followed by The Rolling Stones and Neil Young.

College: Dylan, followed by Nirvana.

Today: Dylan, followed by Johnny Cash.

Shamelove song: "Behind these Hazel Eyes" by Kelly Clarkson. I nervously glance around every time I'm at the gym and listening to this song on my I-pod for fear that I'm rocking it too loud and exposing myself to humiliation.

5. Books. Favorite book youÂ’ve finished, worst book youÂ’ve finished and the book you really should read but havenÂ’t gotten around to it.

Favorite: Truman by David McCullough.

Worst: Excluding books I was forced to read in school, probably They Only Look Dead by E.J. Dionne because it got my hopes up that the '94 elections were an aberration.

Book we should read, but havenÂ’t: Hitler and Stalin by Alan Bullock or The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.

6. Travel. Favorite city youÂ’ve every been to and the one place you still must visit before you shuffle off this mortal coil.

Fave city: Barcelona.

City we need to go to: Berlin.

7. What do you love most about college football in 20 words or less?

January 1, 1998. Patience and faith are ultimately rewarded.

As an Apology for Passing on Chris Paul...

Billy Knight has now signed his back-up. I like this move. Check out Speedy's numbers from He outproduced opposing point guards and the Hornets were a significantly better team with him on the court as opposed to off of it, both offensively and defensively. Contrast him with the Hawks' point guards from last year, Mssrs. Ivey and Lue, and it's clear that the Hawks have significantly upgraded the point guard position. Furthermore, they've done so with a player who can shoot the ball, which is important since opponents were double-teaming Joe Johnson last year off the Hawks point guard and therefore, the team needs a guy who can make open perimeter shots. Mission accomplished. Am I being an idiot by being optimistic about this team? I don't mean "make the playoffs" optimistic or anything, but "35 wins and demonstrable improvement" optimistic?

While rooting around to find something to say about Speedy Claxton, I came across this piece on college Draft prospects and their comparables from the past 15 years. At least one person other than me and Doug Gottlieb think that the Hawks made a good decision in taking Shelden Williams. The Alonzo Mourning comparison is flattering, although Williams doesn't have Mourning's offensive game and I'm not expecting Zo-like things from Shelden. Another article on the site notes that Williams' excellent wingspan is "canceled out by his tall head." So we have that going against us.

What's more interesting is the analysis of point guards. Rajon Rondo grades out better than Marcus Williams, who apparently has limited athleticism, as well as the combo guards (Brandon Roy and Randy Foye). Foye and J.J. Redick got the lowest marks. There will be a great deal of schadenfreude among just about all college hoops fans if the latter part of that prediction turns out to be true.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Final Four

Germany, France, Portugal, and Italy. Two of these teams failed to make it out of their groups at the '02 World Cup; the other two failed to get out of their groups at Euro '04. In a week, one of them is going to put that behind them and hoist the Jules Rimet trophy. A few thoughts:

1. You think homefield matters to these European sides? If that's the rule, then we might just be biding our time before the Germans with their fourth World Cup. Normally, that would faze me, but there are a couple reasons why I like this German team. First, they're coached by a leftist who lives in California and who famously tangled with Lothar Matthaus because he refused to sign "Deutchland Uber Alles" when the two of them were players. Second, up until yesterday, they had played the most exciting brand of football in the tournament. Spurred on by an American fitness coach (another reason to like the Germans), they've played a higher pressure style than anyone else. What they need to figure out is how to play that style past 90 minutes, because most of their players looked spent in extra time yesterday.

A German that a liberal Jew can appreciate.

2. My told
you sos:

a. Penalty kicks are not a lottery and they aren't luck. They reward teams that can keep their composure and field good keepers. Unless you think it's an accident that Jens Lehmann and Germany won again in penalties and England and Paul Robinson lost again in penalties, I think this is pretty unmistakable. The German reactions to their successes yesterday were telling: no big celebrations or whoops after saves or goals, but rather simple, understated happiness demonstrating that they expect to score and keep their heads about them. Contrast that with Owen Hargreaves' wild yelling after he was the only English player to score, or Paul Robinson's shouting after he dove the wrong way and Hugo Viana hit the outside of the post.

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.

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.

If only Lucas Neill knew to stay on his feet in the box.

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).

European World Cups tend to be form affairs: West Germany/Holland/Brazil/Sweden were the last four in '74; Italy-West Germany-Poland-France in '82; West Germany-Argentina-England-Italy in '90; and France-Brazil-Holland-Croatia in '98.

Those are almost enough to make you forget that I took the Dutch to win the whole thing (with Ukraine, Brazil, and Argentina joining them in the last four) and I thought that the US would actually win a game. Right?

Miss Cleo knows better than to pick the Dutch.

3. Much as it pains me to watch France advance, it's a joy to watch Zidane dip into his bag of tricks and show his form from the late 90s. He dominated Brazil today, with major assistance from Patrick Viera and Claude Makelele. The three of them bossed Brazil around in the midfield, which meant that the Selecao couldn't keep possession or set their playmakers up in good positions. Ronaldinho did some nice things, especially a free kick in the first half that found Ronaldo on the back post and a nice run and header in the second half that set Robinho up, but generally, he was starved for service. Instead of having Deco, Iniesta, and Edmilson controlling midfield and spraying the ball out to him as he has at Barcelona, Ronaldinho was a peripheral figure today. Zidane was the story today. He gave Henry a finish that even I could bury (the one time Henry could be bothered to stay onside) and he generally showed perfect control and passing from start to finish. When my child is old enough to play soccer, I'll show him/her a tape of this game as the Platonic ideal for midfield play...and then the youngster will get bored and demand to watch the Wiggles and I'll get a lesson in parenting (or my own eccentricity). And let's give a mention for France's defense, which has been rock solid ever since '98 and today was no exception. They simply do not make mistakes, other than Barthez who is the luckiest guy in the world to get to play with Abidal, Sagnol, Gallas, and Thuram in front of him. He's truly the Luc Longley of this French side.

Mssr. Figo, I'll take it all back if you can expose this clown.

4. The Germany-Argentina game yesterday was a perfect illustration of why teams should get additional subs at the end of 90 minutes. How much better would that game have been if Pekerman could have thrown on Messi and Aimar and Klinsi could have thrown on Asamoah and Kehl. Did anyone really need to see Michael Ballack laboring around for the last half hour? And speaking of Ballack, kudos to him for sucking it up and burying his penalty, although I think his was the poorest shot of the four German kicks. Between his guts and his assist on the German goal, he's living up to the enormous pressure he's been under as the star player for the host nation. I look forward to Jose Mourinho chasing the life out of him in another joyless march to a Premiership title.

5. Compare Klinsmann's willingness to bench captain and icon Oliver Kahn in favor of in-form Jens Lehmann with Sven Goran Eriksson's unwillingness to do the same with David Beckham and Aaron Lennon. I know that Beckham can hit a free kick well, but England has a number of players who can do so (although maybe not quite on the same level) and there is no comparison between the threat that Lennon poses and the "threat" that the immobile Beckham poses. Lennon acquitted himself very well in this tournament for England, as did Steven Gerrard (the one England player who is worth the hype), Owen Hargreaves (who has that German workrate and ability to take a penalty), Rio Ferdinand, and Ashley Cole. Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney? Not so much.

6. Was I the only one who thought that Miguel was the man of the match today for Portugal, at least in the first 120 minutes before Ricardo put on a show in the penalty kick stage? Miguel was a defensive rock, he mostly neutralized Joe Cole, and he is incredibly fast and still in control coming forward. Also, he made the biggest play of the game for Portugal, heading away Gerrard's fine cross in extra time that looked certain to end up on Peter Crouch's head. Miguel winning a header in the six-yard box in those circumstances against a much taller player and heading the ball to safety was one of the plays of the tournament. If I had to come up with a short list of players likely to get expensive transfers after this tournament, Miguel from Valencia and Frank Ribery from Marseilles are the first two that come to mind. I was also impressed by Cristiano Ronaldo, who seemed to refrain from useless step-overs for one game and looked genuinely dangerous with the ball. The fact that Dave O'Brien was awed by a few of the meaningless step-overs from Ronaldo, well, I think we've covered that topic already.

And speaking of which, I watched the first 20 minutes of the England game on Univision and then cut over to ABC to see how the much-maligned Balboa and O'Brien were faring. Within a minute, Balboa offered the gem that the England head coaching job is the most difficult in the world because there are so many good players from which to choose and those playres are highly paid and hard to control. Gee, that couldn't possibly describe about ten other national team jobs, could it? (I would be willing to listen to an argument that the job is difficult because of the insane interest and media pressure in England, similar to the Alabama head coaching job in college football, but that wasn't Marcelo's angle.) Needless to say, I was back to Univision shortly thereafter after getting frustrated by O'Brien's desire to talk about everything except for what was going on on the field. JP Dellacamera was a welcome relief during the France-Brazil game, although I muted him at one point after he mentioned for the 687th time that this could be Zinedine Zidane's last game.

7. From Soccernet's write-up of the England game, here's what I love about the English media:

But there was nothing friendly about the way Manchester United's Portuguese winger got his club-mate sent off.

Rooney was battling to keep possession from three Portugal defenders when he raked his studs across the leg of Carvalho, who was on the floor trying to win the ball.

Chelsea defender Carvalho over-reacted and Ronaldo sprinted to the referee, apparently to demand a red card.

Rooney turned to his Manchester United team-mate and pushed him away.

Referee Horatio Elizondo then reached for the red card and sent Rooney off.

Elizondo, from Argentina, sent Beckham off in the World Club Championships in 1999.

For historians writing about the game hundreds of years from now, note that the write-up conveniently omits the fact that Carvalho was "overreact[ing]" to being stamped in the crotch. England was only forced to bravely fight on because their star forward is a Scouser who can't control himself. This wasn't an asteroid falling to earth; this was Rooney being Rooney.

If Wayne Rooney were a Corleone...