Thursday, September 30, 2004

Sox Clinch

Killer hurricanes that wipe out entire islands (or states). Earthquakes all over the Pacific Rim. The threat of massive volcanic explosions that threaten the populations of major US cities. All of this can mean only one thing.

The Red Sox have clinched a playoff berth.

I know; I’m scared too.

Now don’t misunderstand me here, I’m thrilled that this team pulled itself together in order to grab at least the AL Wild Card (actually, judging by the past couple of days, they’ve grabbed AT BEST the AL Wild Card). And I’m ecstatic that they didn’t pull a swan dive like the Cubs or A’s have been perfecting over the past couple of weeks. But, like any true Sox fan, I’m still just a tiny bit worried.

Worried, because Curt Schilling is calling into talk radio programs to defend himself, rather than leaving it all on the mound. Worried, because Pedro Martinez has apparently been adopted by New York (who knew?) and is referring to That Team as his Daddy. Worried, because Derek Lowe is absolutely imploding in every start, almost to the point that I wouldn’t be surprised if he weren’t on the postseason roster. Worried because, well, these are my Red Sox.

I have very little doubt that the Boston offense can carry them for a game, maybe two, in a short series. But it all depends on who they’re facing. If you start an Aaron Sele or John Lackey type against Boston, you’re going to get pounded. Brad Radke; maybe only four earned runs. Johan Santana – we’re talking maybe only four HITS allowed. And now we come to the heart of the problem.

Who is Boston playing, anyway? Minnesota, who absolutely NO ONE wants to face in a five game series, is looking likely to be the opponent to the Wild Card winner. But with their recent swoon (2-6 over their last eight since clinching the AL Central), maybe they don’t hold onto that seeding, and maybe the Wild Card gets Oakland or Anaheim – whichever team stops choking long enough to survive. But that kind of uncertainty can’t be good for a team’s psyche, or for a manager’s scorecard.

Imagine being Terry Francona for a second (wow, now that’s a scary thought. Hey, while you’re having this out-of-body experience, check and see if you’re able to remove a pitcher in the seventh inning for me, would ya? Do your legs work? You wouldn’t have trouble walking to the mound, right? You can raise your right arm and call to the ‘pen… good, just checking.) So imagine you’re Francona and you’re sitting in your hotel in Baltimore for the next few days, and you’re trying to figure out your lineups, your pitching matchups, and your roster, and you’ve got to create one of each for any of three different teams. Not only that, but your team still has an outside shot to win the division and home-field advantage throughout the entire playoffs (AL has the World Series this year) with a sweep of Baltimore and a Yankee sweep at the hands of Toronto – hey, I said an outside shot.

Now do you play hard to try and win the division? Do you rest your guys and just set up your team for the ALDS? If you face Minnesota in the ALDS, do you concede Game 1 to the Twins and start Wakefield vs. Santana, then come back with Schilling, and Pedro and Arroyo in Fenway? These are the decisions that can really affect a team’s performance in the postseason, and they’re the ones that kinda make me a bit nervous about having “Fran-coma” as my team’s manager. As has been said before, a manager can single-handedly lose your team about 5-8 games a year with poor decisions; let’s just hope Tito hasn’t been saving his quota for the postseason.

As for the rest of the MLB, well, I know I’ve taken a bit of time away from writing about the game, and I apologize. Football kinda snuck up on me this year, and I haven’t even had a chance to get my money in the game (which is a shame after last week, as you’ll see later). Anyway, throughout the majors, there are a number of fun storylines to watch heading into the final weekend. Will Ichiro get his hits? Will Bonds walk more than Ichiro hits (225 for Bonds, 255 for Ichiro right now… stunning)? Will the A’s finally realize that for all of the regular season glamour, the “Moneyball” philosophy seems to have major holes in the postseason – namely the fact that it is based on long-term averages, and in a short series, players that slump for a few days might not hurt their average stats, but they can doom a team’s playoff chances. Will the Cubs wake up and play ball? But, most impressively of all, will anyone stop……

THE ASTROS??!!? Wait, didn’t someone call a Sox/Astros World Series waaaaaaaaaaay back in February? (Patting myself on the back…. And we’re done.) Of course, that was the same column in which I predicted the Royals to win the AL Central and the Phillies to take the NL East, but let’s not bring all that back up. And yes, in July, I flip-flopped my decision (glad I’m in the right state for that) and said that the Astros would miss the playoffs entirely (Though I curiously kept the Phillies and Padres as division winners… Oops). That prediction – about the Astros – might end up being true. But they are playing some inspired ball right now, and there can be no doubt that canning Jimy Williams was, indeed, the correct move by management.

Since firing Williams, the Astros have gone 45-36 after starting the season 44-44, including the current 15-game home winning streak, and last night completed a sweep of the best team in baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals to make them 20-7 in September. There’s no doubt in my mind that if they make it into the playoffs (they have a ½ game wild card lead this morning) that they will be a force. They finish the year with three home games against lowly Colorado, and they just might have a shot to cap off the most improbable playoff run since, well since Florida came out of nowhere to take the wild card last year.

Oh, speaking of the Cardinals, why aren’t they getting more respect around Major League Baseball? They’re 103-55 – four games ahead of That Team for the best record in baseball. And they’ve been coasting for a couple of weeks since clinching the NL Central (even with the sweep, they’ve got a 14.5 game lead over Houston… 14.5!) Yet every analyst says they’re not going anywhere because their pitching is suspect. Let me tell you something. They’ve scored 834 runs, tops in the NL. They have four different 15-game winners on their staff, and a fifth starter at 11. They’ve got one of the better closers in the game in Jason Isringhausen and his 46 saves (glad I drafted him in my fantasy draft this year – 8th round. He’s been a lifesaver, even if I’m doomed to a 7th place finish). Hell, if people want to call all of that smoke and mirrors, I say let them. Then the Cardinals, and their obscene 2-6 lineup of Renteria, Rolen, Pujols, Edmonds, and Larry Walker, might even be an underdog. I’ll tell you what – you take your team like San Francisco, LA, Houston, or Chicago, (Atlanta might have a shot), and each of their (comparatively) anemic offenses. I’ll take the Cardinals powerhouse and their above averages starters, and let’s see who comes out on top. I’d wager 9 times out of 10 (or 3 out of 5, or 4 out of 7, whatever is needed), it would be the Birds.

Finally, wrapping up the baseball talk, Les Expos. Oh, sorry, I guess now they’re officially The Expos. Or The Senators. Or The Generals. Or The Yet to be Named Team that Resides in Washington D.C. This whole situation has been ridiculous from Day One. The people of Montreal deserved better. It’s not that they don’t enjoy baseball up there, they just don’t enjoy being blatantly insulted by MLB. Seriously, who’s gonna pay good money to sit in a stadium watching what amounts to one or two recognizable stars and a bunch of minor-leaguers? MLB wouldn’t even let them have September call-ups in the past few years so as to avoid paying more salaries. That’s ludicrous. This team has been wasting away for years now, and suddenly they’re just going to pack up and move to a city that has already had two different chances with baseball teams, both of which moved away, and that supposed to make everything better? I’ll believe it when I see it, which, at the pace MLB has take with this whole fiasco, should be sometime around March, 2008.

So now we come to football. Last week I DOMINATED the spreads, going an astounding 11-2-1 to bring my season record to 28-16-2. Damnit! I wish I had enough money to put something into this. Hope some of you have made money off of my picks. Feel free to donate to the “D wants to play too” fund… I also went 12-2 in my office pool (no spreads) to pull me within one game of first place. Not that any of you really care.

PACKERS (-7) over Giants: Yes, that was one hell of a fun game to watch last week between Peyton and Brett. This week will be just like old times (1999) with Warner torching the Packers secondary, and Favre lighting up the Giants. The difference here – Green Bay actually has a running game to go with their vertical attack. Warner will have a nice day, but the Pack gets the win.

Eagles (-9.5) over BEARS: There aren’t too many teams I’d give 9.5 with, but these Eagles, versus these Bears… now that’s a matchup I like. Ever since stunning Green Bay, Chicago has looked like a pop Warner team. They played Minnesota close (well, close enough to beat the spread), but they were never really in the game. With Urlacher missing up the middle again, expect Brian Westbrook to shoulder a big load. With Rex Grossman out for the year, don’t be surprised if this is a shutout.

Redskins (-3.5) over BROWNS: I’m not quite ready to jump off of my “Redskins to the playoffs” bandwagon yet, but I think the “Redskins to the Super Bowl” wagon just blew a tire. They looked flat as hell against Dallas, and Bill Parcells proved that he still owns Joe Gibbs. Anyway, bad as they looked last week, Cleveland is Cleveland, and they’re not winning again anytime soon.

Patriots (-6) over BILLS: Last week I asked if the Chiefs were the best winless team in football. They provided me with a resounding NO after losing to Houston, so the honor now falls to Buffalo. With a stifling defense already in place (they’ve allowed only 26 points in 2 games, second only to Jacksonville), all Buffalo needs is an actual offense to really make surge. Unfortunately for them, they play against an equally stifling defense this week that actually has an offense to boot. The O/U is 35, and I think that’s just about right.

Raiders (-2.5) over TEXANS: The Raiders looked awful solid last week against a decrepit Tampa Bay team, and Houston, although they played well against the Chiefs, they played well against the Chiefs. Oakland’s new starter, Kerry Collins, might just light it up this week and give Giants fans yet another reason to hate him.

Colts (-4) over JAGUARS: I really want to take Jacksonville in this game. I know how powerful Indy is, but I also know how dominant Jacksonville has been lately. They’re following the same formula from the past few Super Bowl champs – build a crushing defense the year after finishing last, then take a creampuff schedule and ride momentum into the playoffs. Seems to be working so far. Who would’ve picked this matchup to be for the AFC South lead? Well, besides me that is…

Bengals (+3.5) over STEELERS: Finally, an underdog! I’m actually not too sure about this one either, since both teams have beaten Miami, but they haven’t done much else. Pittsburgh has the better record, but I think it’s a lot of nothing. Cincinnati is Cincinnati, but I still think they have enough to win this one. Palmer just has to make sure he gets the ball in the air and to Chad Johnson as much as he can, since the Steelers’ secondary is just about as bad as it gets. I say just about, because there’s still San Fran and Green Bay…

PANTHERS (-3.5) over Falcons: Yep, another favorite. The Panthers had an entire week to scheme around stopping Mike Vick, and I believe they’ll be able to. Hell, ARIZONA was able to last week, what makes anyone think Carolina can’t?

Saints (-3.5) over CARDINALS: Speaking of ‘Zona… For as bad as their offense looked, the defense actually looked reasonably decent. I know, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but someone had to have been impressed – this is the lowest I’ve seen a line involving the Cardinals in almost three years!

Jets (-6) over DOLPHINS: Ugh. Really, what more needs to be said? If Miami’s lucky, another hurricane will flip the team bus on the way to the stadium, so at least they’ll have an excuse for looking so bad on the field. The Jets should win this in a cakewalk. I say should only because Miami must be getting pretty tired of losing at this point, and maybe they’ll take it out on New York (I can only hope…)

Titans (Even) over CHARGERS: C’mon, you actually think Steve McNair won’t play even a little in this game? Unless he’s missing a leg or a hand (and even then, only if it’s his throwing hand), McNair will play in this game. He might not start, but he’s in. And that’s trouble for San Diego. Even if Tomlinson runs for 200.

Broncos (-3.5) over BUCS: Tampa just looks bad, and with all the noise coming from Warren Sapp, Keyshawn Johnson, and now John Lynch, maybe there’s something to it… Speaking of Lynch, the fine he received for leveling Dante Hall on what was clearly a clean hit is a joke. Hall had both feet on the ground, and was juggling the ball. Lynch hit him shoulder to chest, not helmet to helmet, and Hall was not defenseless. That was just a bad call by the league office.

Rams (-4) over NINERS: So, the Niners got shutout for the first time in how long? Well, don’t start counting a new streak yet – it won’t be the last time this season. The Rams need to bounce back quickly from giving away that game last week, and the Niners are just looking to score points – any points. This won’t even be close.

RAVENS (-5.5) over Chiefs: This game might actually be closer than it should, but the Ravens will pull it out. Great defense always beats a great offense, and especially when that “Great” offense has no legit wide receivers. Might see Jamal Lewis break his own single-game rushing record this week, and we’ll definitely see why the Chiefs are about to start 0-4.

Recap: PACKERS / Eagles / Redskins / Pats / Raiders / Colts / Bengals / PANTHERS / Saints / Jets / Titans / Broncos / Rams / RAVENS

Only three home teams and only one underdog this week. Hmmmm… maybe I should re-evaluate that. Nah.

I still haven’t come up with a solid closing remark, so I’ll just stop typing.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

So, a lot has been happening in the world of sports over the last couple of weeks, meaning that I’ve had a lot on my plate to deal with.You all know what that means… it’s time for me to ramble for 4000 words or so in another installment of my “Random Thoughts”…

-Are the Chiefs the best 0-2 team in the NFL right now?I gotta think they are, since they can drop 40 on anybody, anywhere, anytime.Well, as long as they don’t lose Priest for an extended period of time...

-Has Gary Payton retired officially yet, or is he just waiting to for the election to see whether taxes will be higher in California (Republican) or Massachusetts (Democrat)?

-I think the Patriots are lucky to be 2-0 right now, after the way they played against Indy and the way the offense, aside from Corey Dillon, kinda mailed in the second half against Arizona.Good thing the defense is so strong.

-I KNOW the Red Sox will be lucky to see the second round of the playoffs, the way the past week has looked.Although the bats woke up just a bit Monday night, the pitching had better come around, and fast, or else this team has no shot of overtaking the Yankees, and that will probably be enough to send me over the edge…

-Of course, that is assuming that the Yankees can figure out a way to beat Johan Santana twice in a five game series.I’m actually not too disappointed about the Red Sox looking like they’re going to get the wild card and face the A’s, who they’ve dominated this year, or the Angels, which will be a pretty even matchup, rather than having to deal with Santana.The guy is pitching out of his mind right now (12-0 since the ASB, 200+ K’s, 79 HITS!! His September numbers aren't too shabby either: 4-0, 29 IP, 15 hits, 41 K's, two walks, 0.00 ERA.)

-I think that all bands, no matter how insignificant, need to have a name.Unless, of course, being unnamed is part of their gimmick.Then they should only cover Prince tunes. (BTW: Kurtopalooza II = Great, even if the feedback made some songs inaudible.And I have to give credit to Vinny for coining Kurtopalooza, lest he IM me incessantly for the next three days about using his term without proper credit…)

-Word problem: If you pitch to me in consecutive at-bats in a corporate softball game, and I hit both pitches a combined 720+ feet (including one into a completely different field), how many at-bats would it take for you to figure out that walking me might not be such a bad plan? (Yeah, I’ll admit, I’m bragging here, but after tagging those two as much as I did, I think I deserve to...)

-Just talked to my boy Jay on the Nextel for awhile.Highlight of the conversation: my comment that “if I ever win the lottery, I’m gonna try and get season tickets to Fenway, something right near the visitor’s dugout so I can heckle the hell out of them. Maybe I can even get a chair thrown at me…”

-Here’s a great note from a baseball writer that I respect very much, Mr. Jayson Stark.Back in late June or early July, I forget exactly when, the Red Sox acquired Jimmy Anderson from the Cubs for a prospect and player to be named later.About two weeks ago, they sent the player to be named later to the Cubs.That player?Jimmy Anderson.So, in essence, Mr. Anderson was just traded for himself and a prospect.Personally, I have to believe that was about the most even trade of all time.

-I could not hear about this without putting it into a column.Ever wonder why some football players are just better suited for the NFL than a normal, 9-5 office job?Take a look at a webpage created by Jacksonville Jaguars’ star QB Byron Leftwich while he was at Marshall University.Now, as a point of reference, take a look at this site created by some fourth grader...Hell, for that matter, take a look at this site by some fledgling sportswriter!

-If the Red Sox, and for that matter, the Cardinals and Cubs, don’t make a series World Series push, at least one of the three is going to be a far different team next year.Between the three, they have the following big-name free agents: Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek, Orlando Cabrera, Matt Morris, Moises Alou, Edgar Renteria, Aramis Ramirez, Derek Lowe, Mike Matheny, Pokey Reese, and word has it that the Cubs might be shopping Sammy Sosa.Yikes.

-The Panthers upset of the Chiefs without Steven Davis and Steve Smith is one of the worst losses I’ve seen in the NFL in recent memory.It ranks with the Cardinals’ Hail Mary to knock the Vikings out of the playoffs and John Carney’s missed extra point after the miracle “multiple laterals” with no time on the clock to tie the game, both from last season.The Chiefs (maybe they really are “The Chefs”) should be ashamed of themselves.Great googly-moogly…

-If the Mets don’t resign Kris Benson, or if Victor Zambrano continues to be the same pitcher he’s always been (overpowering, no control… sounds like a perfect Met), then the trades they made at the deadline might rank with “Heathcliff Slocumb for (minor-leaguers) Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek” as some of the worst ever made.Vinny, Dom, Andy, and the other Mets fan out there (there can’t be more than one at this point), before you crucify me, I realize that “Babe Ruth for cash” is still worse, but it wasn’t a trade, it was a sale.Not that that helps my cause any…

-The NHL owners are moving quickly to end this lockout business, already threatening to bring in the union busters to expedite the process of getting the 04-05 season underway.Better be some big busters, since hockey players almost never go down without a fight.

-I would like to thank the referees in the Minnesota/Philadelphia game Monday night for single-handedly giving me victory in two of my fantasy football leagues.I have Terrell Owens in two different Yahoo! leagues, and his “Touchdown” reception gave me enough points to win a head-to-head matchup in one and the overall points lead in the other.Incidentally, both wins came at the expense of Jay.Sorry bud.

-Actually, the highlight of my Nextel conversation with Jay was when he told me that had Owens’ catch been ruled incomplete, as it clearly was, he would’ve beaten me by 0.12 points in the head-to-head league.Somedays, I love Mike Tice.

-David Ortiz just hit his 40th homer of the 2004 baseball season, giving him a current line of .295/40/130 with an OBP/SLG/OPS of .372/.597/.969.I want to congratulate Vinny on his (SOBER) preseason prediction that Ortiz’s last season was nothing more than a fluke and a result of steroid use, and that this season, he’d be lucky to have numbers half as good as ’03.Dead on there chief, great call...

-As this baseball season winds down, I think the following about next season:

-Barry Bonds will pass Babe Ruth on or about May 15th (although July 15th – 7/15 – would be perfect...), and will once again break his own walks record, as no one will want to be the one to give up #756.

-The baseball that becomes Bonds’ 715th will end up in the water and command more than $1M at auction.

-The Indians will pass the Twins and take over the AL Central.

-The Devil Rays will sign at least one big free agent pitcher and make a wild card run.

-The Red Sox will miss the playoffs.

-The Mets will be in the N.L. East basement, again.

-The Padres will win the N.L.West.

-The Expos will still be without a permanent home.

-Vlad Guerrero will continue to be the best player you’ve never seen.

-Barring injury, Barry Bonds will end the season no more than 5 home runs short of Hank Aaron, and retire immediately, regardless of 2006’s guaranteed money.

-The Yankees will not win the World Series.

-The Phillies will not win the N.L. East.The Braves, somehow, will.

-The Reds will be relegated to the N.L. Central basement, as the Pirates and Brewers get young and good at the same time.

-Ken Griffey Jr. will play between 70-90 games before getting hurt again and, sadly (almost to the point of being unfair) calling it quits.

-Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez will command the highest salaries on the free agent market, and neither will end up in pinstripes (Thank God).

-Finally, I’ve decided that I want to play in a live poker tournament again this year; I just simply can’t afford it.So I’m putting out the call to my friends and loyal reader.Those of you who have seen the end of the WSOP (stop reading now if you haven’t) know that Greg Raymer took home the $5 million first prize.But he also sold off percentages of any winnings he might make in order to pay his entry fee into the event, about 40% to be exact.I’m doing the same thing, just for more shares.There are currently satellite tournaments being held at Foxwoods for the WPT event in mid-November.Entry fee is $1,050.Usually top 8 people get an entry into the $10,000 buy-in main event, which is expected to have a top prize this year of about $1.5 million.I am looking for 7 friends to put up $100 each for a 1/10 share each in any money I might make. I’ll cover the other $350.C’mon people, together, we can do it, and if I cash, you all get paid!

Fun little stories for this past week or so…

OK, if you have read my personal weblog entry from Monday, then you may have already read this, but I’m copying it here for those that haven’t…

So my dogs woke me up because they had to go out. I got up and wandered aimlessly around my room for a couple of minutes, trying to find the light switch and a pair of pants (not necessarily in that order).

It was about 35 degrees outside, so I rushed to get dressed warmly enough to take them out. I didn’t take the time to put glasses on or contacts in. As I walked to my kitchen, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a little brown lump on my kitchen floor.

"Aw hell… which one of you shit on the floor?!"

I grabbed Tucker by the collar, assuming it was him, since he was the one who was crying to go outside.

Now, normally, when I grab one of them for any reason, ESPECIALLY to yell at them for something, they fight back and go totally limp. But Tucker eagerly came with me, which should have been my first clue.

As we got to the lump, and as I was about to yell at him, the lump jumped about 6 inches to the left, making me jump about 4 feet to the right.

"OK, either I’m still dreaming, or that little pile of shit just hopped across the floor…."

I ran upstairs and got my glasses, and when I came back down, I realized that the "little pile of shit" was actually a frog that had gotten into my house to stay warm.

This is how my Monday starts…

Second, my boy Tex just came back into Boston about a month ago to begin working on his Masters.We went golfing 2 weeks ago with Jay, and had one hell of a time driving all around eastern Massachusetts looking for a course without a three-hour wait.Tex has never been one to bust out with good one-liners, but after we stopped for coffee and food at a local Dunkin’ Donuts, he came up with two great ones.Keep in mind, he was drinking a coffee and eating a croissant in my back seat…

“What is it about the French and their food?I mean, do you have to get your ass kicked a few times every century in order to make your pastries taste great…?”

While that one made me smile for a while, this one had me laughing out loud.We started discussing classes and college in general:

“Yeah, I was going to take two foreign languages, French and German.I was hoping that halfway through the semester, I could try to get the French class to surrender to the German class…”

Glad to have you back Tex.

And finally, some feedback – Imagine that, people actually reading my column and telling me about it!I feel like an actual writer now, especially since no one had anything good to say about my work...

Anyway, during Kurtopalooza II, a girl (whose name I am completely blanking on right now, so I apologize if you’re reading this) approached me right before my second song.She wanted to say that she had read my column a few times, and that I was waaaaay too pessimistic about the Red Sox.My response?“I’m a realist, but thanks for reading.”I’m not sure if it’s good or bad that I’m getting recognized in public now for my column.She was a friend of a friend, meaning that at least I am getting passed along...

Secondly, The Shroom (among others) getting on my case about my claim last week that I am a genius.I knew when I wrote it that I was going to catch a lot of shit for saying it, but I chose to do so anyway.It helped make my point – not that I am better than or could even compete with Ken “The Jeopardy Guy” Jennings, but that I am glad he has lost so that if I ever get on the show, I won’t have to.Some people got the point, some missed it, and looking back at the way I wrote it, it’s easy to understand why.My mistake - poor phrasing.

And finally, although the subscription numbers don’t reflect it (It’s like a five-minute signup process, and it’s FREE!Your second favorite 4-letter “F-word” – my 3rd favorite behind food and, well, you know...) I am very glad to know that people are still reading this column.I’m approaching a full year of writing, about 5 weeks away.Anybody have any ideas for a celebratory column?I’ve got one topic in mind, but I can always listen to suggestions.I’m thinking of making my bi-annual pilgrimage to New Jersey around the same time, so perhaps a weekend gala anniversary bash is in order.October 23rd will be 365 days, and although I know there are already at least four things to celebrate that week, (3 birthdays and something called Halloween...) let’s make it five.


Onto football.Last week was not my best showing, as I went 9-7.Damn the Raiders for letting the Bills back into the game.Overall, I’m 17-14-1, which I guess isn’t horrible.I went 8-8 in my office pool to drop me to 4th in the group at 19-13, 4 games back.Anyway, this week it all changes.And you know why?Because the Pats have a bye, so I can actually play for real!

There are a lot of crazy lines this week (Current as of Wednesday, September 22, 2004 at 9PM); almost every game falls into my “never lay more than 5.5” rule...

Steelers (+1) over DOLPHINS: Has Vegas still not figured out that the Dolphins offense is BRUTAL?Seriously, which casino owner does Dave Wannestedt have pictures of?Yeah, their defense is good, but they haven’t been challenged yet.No way they pull this out – they just lost to the Bengals for Christ’s sake...

Jaguars (+6) over TITANS:You all know how I feel about Jacksonville by now.I should have gone with my gut and taken them to cover against the Broncos, but I couldn’t do it.Sooner or later, I’ll listen to instinct.Or maybe I’ll just check in on Byron Leftwich’s webpage for inspiration.

GIANTS (-3) over Browns:The Browns look like they’re going to be this year’s Cardinals; a very bad team that overachieves some weeks just enough to make me want to hop on the betting bandwagon.Can’t do it – not in New York, and not with the Jersey crew in town for the weekend...

Ravens (-3) over BENGALS:The Bengals did look good against Miami last week, but Baltimore is the team to beat in the North.Until any of the other teams can prove that they can beat Baltimore consistently (Cleveland was a fluke), I’m still picking the Ravens to take the division.

Texans (+8) over CHIEFS:Not that the Chiefs are going to start 0-3, but the Texans have got to be mad at themselves by now.They opened with San Diego and Detroit – who knew they’d also open with an 0-2 record?

Saints (+7) over RAMS:Maybe this is the year the Saints get rid of the schizoid personality, maybe this is the year Aaron Brooks learns to hold onto the ball, maybe this is the year that New Orleans get to celebrate a Super Bowl with familiar faces playing in it... or maybe this is just the year the Rams get old.

Bears (+9) over VIKINGS:I’m really torn on this pick, because the Bears are coming off an emotional high and the Vikings are on a big time low.But then again, it’s 9 points, and the Vikes have no really running game to speak of (trust me, I know.I drafted Onterrio Smith...)

Eagles (-5) over LIONS:The Lions, like the Jaguars, are not the most surprising 2-0 team thus far to me (Atlanta – figured them to start slow).But the Eagles have just been overpowering in their two wins, easily beating the Giants, then cruising to the win over Minny thanks to the aforementioned referees’ call and Mike Tice non-challenge.They’ll start 3-0, and inspire columnists nationwide to predict a Pats / Eagles Super Bowl immediately.

Cardinals (+10) over FALCONS:Ugh.Do I have to pick a Cardinals game?Can’t I just take a push and call it even?Fine, I say they get blown out.They’ll probably only lose by 3 or 4 now...

Chargers (+10) over BRONCOS:How the hell are there two 10-point spreads in the same week as a 9 and an 8?These two teams aren’t that far apart in talent, but the Broncos D and QB gives them an edge.Not a 10-point edge, mind you, but an edge.

COLTS (-6) over Packers: I’m really looking forward to watching this game, although I know it probably won’t be shown around here.God I miss Sunday Ticket.Anyway, Indy looked awful good bouncing back in the game last week, while the Packers absolutely rolled over and played dead against the Bears.Indoors, early in the year, it’s safe to bet against Brett Favre.But that won’t last.

Niners (+10.5) over SEAHAWKS:Goddamn, another 10-pointer?!?What happened this week in Vegas, was there an explosion or something I wasn’t aware of?Have they lost all satellite feeds into and out of the city?San Francisco is bad, yes, but the Seahawks, although they are everyone’s Cinderella pick (well, not mine) to make the Super Bowl, they have shown signs of weakness.Most notably, Shawn Alexander’s knee trouble.If he goes down, they have NO ONE to fill in for him.

RAIDERS (-3) over Bucs:This one is gonna be ugly.Not Jets/Chargers ugly, (should have been a 17+ point Jets win...) but ugly.The Raiders looked good against a very tough Bills defense last week, and the Bucs did not look good against the Seahawks.They have yet to score a TD through the air, and their once unstoppable defense looks mediocre, at best.They’re done.

REDSKINS (-3.5) over Cowboys: Ahhh, the rivalry anew.This will be a fun game to watch, if only to count the number of times Al Michaels and John Madden draw parallels between Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs’ coaching careers.As for the teams, Dallas isn’t going anywhere with Vinny “300 yards and 3 picks” Testaverde leading them, and Washington is switching to Patrick Ramsey, who I thought should have been the starter all along.Mark Brunell is old and tired.Give the kid a shot.

Byes: Patriots/Jets/Bills/Panthers

Recap: Steelers / Jaguars / GIANTS / Ravens / Texans / Saints / Bears / Eagles / Cardinals / Chargers / COLTS / Niners / RAIDERS / REDSKINS

Until I can come up with a snappy sign-off for this thing.... lata.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

So, if the NHL has a lockout, and the fans don’t give a damn, does the league ever come back?

As you can probably guess, today’s column is going to deal with, among other things, the NHL lockout which was announced earlier today, to absolutely no one’s surprise.

As I’ve said many times before, I do not hate hockey; in fact, I really like the sport. It’s fast – paced, it’s tough and violent, and it takes an unbelievable athlete to compete successfully on the highest stage. Plus, the Stanley Cup is, by far, the coolest trophy EVER.

But all of that aside, the NHL is about to go away for a long, long time, and that’s a shame. The National Hockey League had almost pulled itself ahead of the NBA about five years ago in terms of US popularity and television ratings. The NBA had no Jordan, no LeBron, and Shaq & Kobe were getting along; there was nothing to cheer for or against. The NHL had an opportunity to amp up their marketing campaigns, tone down on the over-expansion that was diluting the league, and really cement their place in the United States as the “up-and-coming” sport that had actually been around for about 50 years.

Instead, they expanded again (twice, in fact!), marketed even more poorly, and signed a television contract with the only network that had recently moved away from the big four sports on television (ABC) because they, along with subsidiary ESPN, offered a lot more money than anyone else. (ABC later signed a long-term deal with the NBA, and stunningly, the Association’s TV ratings, much like those of the NHL, bottomed out shortly thereafter. Aside from Monday Night Football, ABC has really lost the ability to create quality sports programming. Talk about the agony of defeat...)

Undaunted, the NHL continued to plug away with a league comprised of teams people couldn’t name, players whose names the average fan couldn’t pronounce, and they wondered why the ratings were so gawd-awful. Then, they had they had the gall to ignore the perfectly schemed up outdoors game between the Canadians and Oilers, and followed up that idiocy by unleashing the “NHL: Made in America – Delivered on Thursdays” marketing campaign that probably drove away what little fan base was left.

So today’s news of a lockout really isn’t that “out-of-the-blue” to most people who follow the sport with even a modicum of interest. We saw it coming, we prepared for it, and we’ll survive without it. And, as is always the case in labor disputes between millionaire players and billionaire owners, the fans are the ones left holding the bag.

Personally, I’m flabbergasted that the owners are trying to make us swallow the line that a salary cap will cure all of the leagues ills. It won’t. What will is a contraction of probably 4-6 teams, maybe as many as 8. What will is a switch to international rules that would not only open up the game and possibly make it easier for casual fans to follow, but it would also make the game more appealing to fans outside of the United States (Gee, there’s a novel concept) and also allow US players to be more prepared for the Olympics.

A salary cap won’t hurt the game, no matter what the players think. What it will do is force GM’s to be more creative and sign players to deals that might actually be affordable to any team in the league. Again, “parity” – there’s a new idea. Right now, Colorado, Detroit, New York, Dallas, and New Jersey are about the only teams that can afford to sign marquis players year after year, and none of them is to the NHL what the Yankees or Mavericks are to their respective sports. The rest of the teams – yes, Boston included – choose to pare salaries most years, resulting in little to no parity between teams. PittsburghPITTSBURGH! – is considering dissolving the franchise due to money issues, as is Chicago and a host of other big-market teams. If Chicago, which is an original six franchise, is dissolved, that may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

I hope that those of you who enjoy the sport caught the finals of the World Cup of Hockey the other night, because it’s looking more and more like that’s going to be the last professional hockey we see in this country for a year, maybe two, maybe more. And that’s just plain sad.

Now, onto topic #2 for today. This may not interest all of you, and some people have actually formed strong opinions on the subject of the story, but to me, it’s fascinating.

I’ve been a fan of the TV Show “Jeopardy!” since I was about five years old. My mother used to turn it on to encourage me to learn new stuff, and it worked. By the time I was ten I could question an average of about 30 of the 61 answers on the board, and even applied on the show (three years too young, DAMNIT!) Because of my early childhood fascination with the show, I can usually crack the 40 question mark, and I now have a wealth of useless knowledge in my head that would rival that of any person in this country.

Any person, that is, but one.

Listen, I don’t want to brag, but anyone who knows me well (and if you’re reading this column, you know me well), has probably already discovered this fact. I’m a genius. Seriously. My IQ is somewhere in the range of 160-180, depending on how many beers I’ve had during the day. But the Jeopardy Guy – Ken Jennings from Salt Lake City, Utah, is not a genius. Hell, he’s not even human; he’s just a friggin’ trivia machine.

That goofy looking Mormon did it again tonight, albeit questioning the final Jeopardy answer incorrect (a question that yours truly got right – “Who is King George the third?”... take that you Mormon doofus.) But even I am in awe of the precision with which he cuts through the challengers to his throne.

That’s why the news a few days back from a “Jeopardy!” spoiler was so uplifting – THE KING IS DEAD! According to the spoiler (by the way, how sad is it that there’s an actual Jeopardy! Spoiler?), Jennings lost during the filming of his 76th episode, after winning 75 straight games he finally blew it. It gives me hope that when my name is finally called, I won’t have to compete with him.

Honestly, I wonder what they do when he loses? Is there a hush akin to the one that befell Dodger Stadium after Eric Gagne blew his first save in 86 chances? Think the live studio audience gives him a standing ovation, a la Doyle Brunson at this year’s World Series of Poker – an acknowledgement of all that Mr. Jennings has done to bring a faltering TV game show back into the American spotlight? Maybe they play a musical montage of all the categories that he has cut through like a hot knife through butter. Trust me; there won’t be any sports categories in that little memoir.

Better yet, how long until the book deal comes out? Or until he gets his own reality show? Maybe they could bring back “Win Ben Stein’s Money”, but use Jennings and the $1.5M he’s won so far ($1,555,061 over 45+ wins after tonight, to be exact).

I really hope that the guy is legit; that the rumors of Jennings being fed the answers or of other contestant’s buzzers are randomly being locked out are not true. The guy seems nice enough, if a little caught up in his success. He’s even promised to be a good Mormon and tithe 10% of the money makes to the church (talk about a big fan club...). Maybe he’s just got a mind like a steel trap, like Rosie Perez’ character in “White Men Can’t Jump” (The most annoying female character I’ve ever watched, though I’ve never sat through all of Godfather III).

I guess we’ll have to wait for the category of “Foods that start with ‘Q’” to be certain...

Onto football. I started off the 2004 season with a whimper last week, going a solid 8-7-1, though I went 11-5 to win my office pool which doesn’t pick using the spread. The Pats saved my ass by saving a push. Actually, Mike Vanderjagt’s missed figgie was both a blessing and a curse for me this week. By missing the kick, he gave the Pats the win, and preserved a push and a winning record. But he’s also my fantasy kicker, and the five points I would’ve gotten would have given me the win instead of the 82-82 tie I had instead. Somebody check Mikey boy into AA for me, would’ya?

Lines from on September 15th at 10PM:

Broncos (-3) over JAGUARS: So, is it the player or the system? My vote is for the system, since Quentin Griffin ran like a MADMAN (yes, it was against the Chiefs), while Clinton Portis only ran like a madman. If that makes sense. Anyway, the Jags are my AFC sleeper this year, so this game might get a little closer than it probably should be.

RAVENS (-4) over Steelers: Like I said before, just imagine if the Ravens had been able to keep Terrell Owens or if they had gotten Kerry Collins... This team needs offense in the worst way. The Steelers were a pretty nice surprise putting up 24 against a decent, if not great Raiders defense last week. Don’t look for them to put up more than 13 against Baltimore.

LIONS (-3) over Texans: Any team that loses to the Chargers this year will truly find what they’re made of the next week. If the Texans come out as flat against Detroit as they did against San Diego, they can basically kiss their season goodbye. Pressure’s on Detroit in this game – home opener, down one young star receiver, solid defense and a very above average offense on the other side of the field, this will be a fun game to watch...

Colts (+1.5) over TITANS: Talk about a fun game to watch – how Indy is the underdog here I really don’t know. I hate betting against Steve McNair, especially when he’s playing at home, against a team with such a low collective self-worth that it’s borderline suicidal. But the Colts are going to bounce back to have another good year, at least until they have to play in Foxboro again.

Redskins (-3) over GIANTS: Has Eli Manning’s head stopped spinning yet? My GAWD that was a hit! I’d actually be a bit more worried about the shot Jeff Feagles took during punt coverage – I’d swear he was unconscious for a few seconds on the ground. ACTUALLY, I’d be more concerned that Kurt Warner is still the Giants starting QB, or that the Giants’ run defense looked like a sieve that turned Brian Westbrook into a great running back, if only for a day. Just imagine what Mr. Portis will do.

49ers (+7.5) over SAINTS: Upset of the week here. This pick should net you some good money, especially if you strap on a big enough set to parlay it with a winnable game (Say, Pats over Cards)... The Saints looked vulnerable to just about every form of offense against Seattle, and although the Niners’ defense is young and lousy, their offense actually didn’t look horrible against a pretty good Falcons’ D. They might just surprise some people and make this interesting, if not win it outright. Plus, the fact that New Orleans should be under about 12 feet of water will make the game fun to watch, if not play.

Rams (+2.5) over FALCONS: The more I look at this pick, the more I want to take Atlanta. They didn’t dominate San Francisco last week – a team they should have had no trouble with. But then again, St. Louis wasn’t exactly stellar against Arizona, coming from behind to get a 7 point win. Personally, I’ll take the Rams and their offense indoors any day (unless, of course, they’re playing the Pats...)

Browns (+4) over COWBOYS: 3 underdogs in a row? Wow... Anyway, Dallas looked abysmal in every facet of the game last week, and I like the way Cleveland stepped up and handed the Ravens their hats in a big home opener. Butch Davis really needs a good year to save his job and get another shot at completing the Browns’ rebuilding – a 2-0 start will go a long way towards that goal.

Patriots (-8) over CARDINALS: I refuse to put any kind of money on this game. I don’t like betting on Pats’ games, and I HATE betting on Cardinals games. I don’t feel like looking at the numbers, but I’m something like 3-7 in games I’ve picked involving the Cards since I’ve been handicapping. Anyway, the Pats will win this game, handily. And if they don’t, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

RAIDERS (-3.5) against Bills: This game really bothers me. It’s a small spread against two teams that took bad losses in week one. In this case, I’m looking at which team is traveling the farthest, and although it’s technically Oakland (CA to PA to CA), I’m taking the Raiders because they got to fly on Monday while Buffalo has to go from upstate NY, and current high temps of about 65, across the country to Oakland, and their current temperatures of around 80. Well that, plus Drew Bledsoe is always a factor.

Jets (-3) over CHARGERS: Well, as our fearless President would, and (sadly) did recently say, this one is “just common-sensical”. Yikes – when’s the election again? Anyway, the Jets looked absolutely dominant against the Bengals last week, and there’s nothing here to say they can’t be again. Tomlinson will probably have a big day, but really – when’s the last time he didn’t have a big day?

BENGALS (-4.5) over Dolphins: Boy, it’s a good thing they bumped up the Dolphins/Titans’ game last week in case Ivan hit the state... Well, Ivan is hitting Florida, as I type this, FOUR DAYS LATER. Eh, wouldn’t have made a difference, the Dolphins still would’ve sucked, and the fans still would’ve evacuated the area. The Bengals played very well last week, and Carson Palmer really impressed me with his poise and pocket presence. I may have been wrong about him.

Bears (+8.5) over PACKERS: It’s not the teams, it’s the line. Chicago didn’t look all that bad against Detroit last week, and I think they could give Green Bay a fight. The Pack, on the other hand, benefited from a couple of costly Carolina turnovers and gained some great field position, leading to a couple of easy scores. And, on a personal note, I picked the final score of the MNF game (24-14) exactly right in my office pool to win the tiebreaker, even though I had Carolina winning. Pretty proud of that one.

CHIEFS (-4.5) over Panthers: KC’s defense doesn’t have to be even average in this one, if last week is any indication. Their offense is still superb, and Carolina didn’t look like they could do a whole lot against a below average defense in Green Bay. In fact, the Panthers only rushed for 38 yards as a team against a Packers team that was very middle-of-the-pack (no pun intended) in total yards allowed last year. Watch out for Priest, he’ll go nuts...

BUCS (-1.5) over Seattle: Yeah, I know Seattle is a Cinderella pick for everyone this year. But the Bucs were embarrassed last week, and that won’t happen again. Plus, Shawn Alexander is not going to run like that every week, especially not if his knee injury is as bad as it looked on TV. Bucs win a close one, probably by no more than six.

EAGLES (-3.5) over Vikings: Now THIS game scares me. This is going to be a clash of catastrophic proportions. It also could give you a nice payday if you play your wagers right. The Eagles were absolutely dominant over the Giants, but it was the Giants. The Vikings completely dismantled the Cowboys in every way possible, but it was the Cowboys. In the end, I think the Eagles defensive line will provide enough of a pass rush to slow down Daunte Culpepper, but I believe Onterrio Smith will run for about a buck and a half and two scores. The Vikes’ D is good, but McNabb to TO is a powerful combination. Not Culpepper to Moss or Peyton to Marvin, but powerful nonetheless.

Recap: Broncos / RAVENS / LIONS / Colts / Redskins / Niners / Rams / Browns / Patriots / RAIDERS / Jets / BENGALS / Bears / CHIEFS / BUCS / EAGLES