Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Just Lose, Baby

* Ahm, Celtics, what exactly are you doing? Winning? Not acceptable. We're heading straight for a lottery pick, and let's face it - the Basketball Gods owe us a little something for all the crap we've been through. Bias (still stings), Reggie Lewis, Dr. Gilbert Mudge vs. Donna Harris Lewis, the too-early retirement of Larry, M.L. as coach, Rick Pitino, Travis Knight, losing out on Tim Duncan, the deaths of Johnny Most, Dennis Johnson and the patriarch of it all, Red Auerbach. Yeah, I'd say we're due - and if the Gods show any mercy, we could be looking at Greg Oden or Kevin Durant in green. I'd personally like to see Oden.

But these Celtics obviously didn't get the memo to lose at all costs. They beat Orlando by 9 in overtime and are still locked into the second-worst record in the league at a robust 22 wins and 49 losses. The Memphis Grizzlies own the distinction of being the worst at 18-54. Milwaukee is three games ahead of Boston, which is a concern. So stop winning, dammitall.

In baseball news,

* Opening day for the Red Sox is 4 1/2 days away in Kansas City with Curt Schilling going up against $55M man Gil Meche. Mark it down - Schilling is going to have a huge year in '07. I'm calling for some big improvement from Manny this year too.

* Nomar smacks a double off the wall...

* What does it say when you've got your big annual roto auction draft in less than 24 hours and you've spent more time trying to think up a new name for your team than researching players? Probably not a good sign...

* If you had your choice, would you rather the Sox sign Ichiro or Andruw Jones as a free agent next year? Tough call...

* Final Four this weekend for college basketball with Georgetown vs. Ohio State (good chance to see Oden) and a rematch of last year's championship game with Florida vs. UCLA. College hockey waits until next weekend when it has the spotlight all to itself and still only 100 people watch. The Frozen Four this year is BC, Maine, Michigan State and North Dakota. As much as it pains me to say, BC could take it all the way they're playing. Tim Whitehead has his Maine Black Bears, as usual, playing well when the games really count. UNH coach Dick Umile certainly couldn't say the same. Not that I'm bitter or anything. After all, UNH stands for University of No Hardware. But someone up in Durham, New Hampshire, where yours truly matriculated in the late 1980s, should be looking closely at Mr. Umile and his shoddy postseason mark. I don't care about October and November wins.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Random, long overdue babble...

It's a good time on the sports calendar, but first, if I may get sentimental for a second, look at that little polar bear cub. Don't you want one of those things? Maybe until it grows into a 300-pound, fast, man-eating force.

Okay, enough Wild Kingdom. This is a nice time to be a sports fan. We've got the NCAA college hoops and hockey tournaments in full swing, the Sox getting ready to start another much-anticipated season, the NFL Draft on the horizon with the Patriots - the most aggressive team this offseason in terms of adding new talent - having not one but two first-round picks. As SI's Peter King concluded in his story this week on the Pats, the rich get richer and maybe more importantly, the smart get smarter. The Pats have to be the odds-on favorite in the AFC right now.

March Madness so far this year has been a little subdued. Not a lot of upset specials or great endings, but that's slowly changing as the Final Four comes into focus. Good games today with Ohio State vs. Memphis and Kansas vs. UCLA. Some school of thought around here thinks it's in the Celts best interest for Ohio State and Greg Oden to win the whole thing. Oden may be more inclined to go pro after hitting the mountain; a disappointing loss might leave him unfulfilled. Should be interesting to watch. Celts right now are locked into the 2nd-worst record in the league, trailing only the Memphis Grizzlies.

College hockey is always a good take too. Hockey East placed five teams in the tournament, and so far those teams are 2-1. UMass and Maine both won their first-round games, and BU got thumped last night by Michigan State. Today in Manchester, it's my UNH Wildcats playing Miami of Ohio at 1, and then BC playing St. Lawrence in the second game. Both games are on locally on CN8. Maine vs. UMass (should be a great game) are on ESPNU (wherever the hell that is on the dial) at 6. In other regionals, Notre Dame and Michigan State play for a Frozen Four spot tonight, Minnesota has an easy one against Air Force, and North Dakota plays Michigan. Frozen Four predictions: BC, ND, UMass, Minnesota.

In Red Sox land, the big, big story of the last couple days is that the Sox finally have their stud closer - and he was under their noses the whole time. The team announced this week that they're putting Jonathan Papelbon back into the closer role, and my first reaction was one of relief. I think it's the right move. Yes, it makes the dream rotation less dreamy, but that's not the key issue. The key issue is that they have now avoided the potential nightmares of watching Matsuzaka, Schilling and Beckett pitch 6 or 7 good innings and then having a late-game implosion to wipe all the good away. If Papelbon is healthy, and all signs indicate that he is, Pap should be his old, unhittable, microscopic-ERA self.

Speaking of our pricey Japanese import, Matsuzaka showed glimpses of his unhittable-ness this past week against the Pirates. One thing that's been interesting to read is all the gushing quotes from opposing players. The general sentiment is that you don't know which arm angle you're going to see every pitch, never mind what type of pitch he's throwing. Like all great pitchers, he seems to enjoy the challenge of outguessing a hitter, similar to Pedro in his glory days.

Other notes and thoughts on Spring Training:

- J.D. Drew has been lighting it up this spring

- Jason Varitek's struggles on offense have unfortunately continued. He smacked a homer yesterday, but his possible decline is a source of concern.

- Nick Cafardo has an interesting quote from a rival GM in his column this morning. The GM makes the point that the Sox' opening up a spot in their rotation (with the Papelbon move) might appeal more to Roger Clemens. Everything I've read says Clemens will make his decision around May, and that it's still the Sox, Yankees and Astros in the running. What a storybook ending that could be.

- Interesting development this week with prolific blogger Curt Schilling. Schilling made mention of the Sox moving Papelbon to the closer role, which brought up the issue of him breaking news from inside the locker room. ESPN really broke the news first, but still brings up some interesting ethical questions. If you haven't checked it out, his blog is worth a look. Little too heavy on the video game crap, but the baseball stuff is educational. And he's a pretty good writer to boot.

- Superstition alert: Dice-K is Sports Illustrated's cover boy this week on its baseball preview issue. Watch your step, Dice.

- Of course, the start of the baseball season means fantasy baseball is cranking up this week. I've got my draft this Thursday night in a league I've been in for more than 10 years. It's a 10-team league, 5x5, auction, 2 keepers. Seeing as how I've done absolutely zero prep, if you have any strategies that have worked or tips on players, let me know.

- I participate in a Home Run Derby pool that's pretty fun. The general idea: you start at 75% of a guy's homer total from the previous year, and try to pick the ones who will hit a lot more homers than that 75% total. You pick a team of 8 guys and you're basically looking for hitters that you think are trending up, or those that were injured the year before (i.e., Gary Sheffield and Derrek Lee) and are starting at a low HR base. The highest "plus" team in terms of homer improvement wins. One guy who might be worth taking on the upside angle is KC's Ryan Shealy. Any other thoughts on who you think will hit a lot of HRs this year?

- Everyone's talking about the Red Sox and the Yankees, but two teams to keep an eye on in the AL are the Blue Jays and the Angels. That Toronto lineup with Frank Thomas is going to give pitchers head-spins, and the Angels have the arms.

- Tony LaRussa got pulled over the other night in Florida for DUI. Somewhere, Edgar Renteria is smiling.

- Speaking of shortstops, has any team experienced the type of turnover the Sox have seen at this position. It's their own fault - I'd be pretty happy with Orlando Cabrera or Hanley Ramirez at SS - but now we have to welcome another new guy in Julio Lugo. I do not understand the organization's fascination with Lugo. We shall see.

- Here's what scares me a little bit about the Yanks vs. Sox. We have the edge in pitching, but the Yanks still have the superior lineup. We've got four potential weak links with Varitek, Youkilis, Pedroia, and Crisp, and Lowell is border-line. That's why they were going after Helton. Some have even suggested they may make a run at Ichiro when he becomes a free agent next year. I'm all for it. Coco's under the gun this year.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Let the Madness Begin

H. V. Porter, an official with the Illinois High School Association (and later a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame) was the first person to use March Madness to commemorate a basketball tournament. A gifted writer, Porter published an essay named March Madness in 1939 and in 1942 used the phrase in a poem, Basketball Ides of March. Through the years the use of March Madness picked up steam, especially in Illinois and other parts of the Midwest. During this period the term was used almost exclusively in reference to state high school tournaments. In 1977, the IHSA published a book about its tournament titled March Madness.

Fans began connecting the term to the NCAA tournament in the early 1980s. Evidence suggests that CBS sportscaster Brent Musburger, who had worked for many years in Chicago prior to joining CBS, popularized the term during the annual tournament broadcasts.
- Wikipedia

There you have it -- the abridged history of the term "March Madness," which we're about to witness starting later this week. H.V. Porter dreamt it up, and Brent - 'you are live...' Musburger got the snowball rolling down the hill.

Just let me make one thing perfectly clear right up front. I have watched maybe - maybe - the equivalent of one full college basketball game this year. Before BC suspended one of its best players, I vaguely remember watching an Eagles-Duke game, with Dickie Vitale at courtside having a coronary. I think that was this season...

Anyway, my point is that I'm not a big college hoops guy - but this ingenious tournament that's about to begin this week, otherwise known as the NCAA Men's College Basketball Championship, just hooks you in and keeps you interested. And wouldn't you know it - there's Dickie V. on my TV again right now, giving the selection committee holy hell for leaving Florida State and Drexel out of the dance. He's a clown but you gotta love him this time of year, and you have to admire the guy's passion. Veins are literally popping out of his forehead because he feels the Drexel Dragons got snubbed!

And therein lies the beauty of this tournament -- it's all about Cinderellas and stories - all of which appeal to the heart of a real sports fan. There's also the office pools. Tomorrow is like a holiday for office copiers across America -- that's when the brackets come out and everyone from your boss to the guy in the mailroom makes his picks and then watches the madness. Some people pick their alma maters, others try to put some serious analysis into it. If your team is lucky enough to be in it, you may have to leave work a little early on Thursday.

There has to be a way to modify this playoff system for college football.

Another Day, Another Signing

My goodness have the Patriots decided to be active. News broke late this morning that the Pats have come to terms with WR Dante Stallworth, a former first-round pick from the 2002 draft. Stallworth, 26, spent his first few years with the Saints - recording 128 catches in 2004 and 2005 - and then spent last year in Philly. I don't know much about him, other than he's a game-breaking talent who can stretch the field for Brady and the offense. Read more from the Globe's Mike Reiss here.

A couple of links for your reading pleasure:

- The loquacious Curt Schilling has finally found an outlet that's right up his alley. His daily blog is actually a pretty good read with some good insights into the game.

- Alan Greenberg, a former Patriots beat writer, died suddenly last week at the age of 55. Didn't know much about his work, but this piece will tug at your heartstrings, especially if you have kids.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Back in the Saddle

To my three loyal readers, I hereby proclaim that Hardball Heaven is back on track. (That's the new Mrs. Brady on the right - my little bribe to get y'all back in the fold). We got a little derailed there because, well, what's there to say about college basketball and NASCAR? Thankfully, the two Boston sports teams who dominate the news year-round are back with a vengeance.

The Red Sox, of course, have begun spring training in postcard-perfect Fort Myers, Florida - meaning the sensation that is Dice-K is in full swing. We'll get to that circus in a minute.

The Free-Spending Pats

First, though, how about them Patriots? You know, that team that doesn't spend any money? Less than a month after that gut-wrenching loss to the Colts in the AFC title game (I still haven't come to terms), the Patriots have made themselves better with a flurry of moves and signings not seen in my lifetime.

I can't remember an NFL free agency period quite like this one. Just like baseball, the money is flowing like beer at a frat kegger. Just before the frenzy began, I was reading an ESPN column that listed all the prominent free agents and predicted which teams they might end up with. To my dismay, our Patriots were nowhere to be found on the list. Then, a couple days later, we start hearing a buzz that Adalius Thomas - the monster linebacker from the Ravens - is traveling to Foxborough to meet with the Pats. Evidently, Thomas liked what he saw and heard from Bill Belichick at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, and Belichick and Scott Pioli liked what they saw of Thomas on tape as they prepared for a potential matchup with the Ravens in the playoffs. Just like that, one of the best free agents was a Patriot. But that wasn't all.

In the coming days, the Patriots signed two players away from division rival Miami - RB Sammy Morris and WR Wes Welker, and they also added veteran TE Kyle Brady to compensate for the loss of Daniel Graham to the Broncos. Morris makes sense because Corey Dillon is officially an ex-Patriot. The jury's out on whether Laurence Maroney can be the man full-time (something tells me he'll be working out extra-hard this offseason), but Morris should be a nice addition to a rotation that includes Kevin Faulk and Heath Evans. I'm thrilled with Welker. Think of him as a younger Troy Brown - in other words, a human Swiss Army knife. He's one of the best punt/kick returners in the league (so the Pats can remove Maroney from that role), and he'll be a dangerous option for Tom Brady. He had a career-high 67 receptions in 2006, and he even kicked a field goal for the Dolphins a couple years ago in an emergency situation. Kyle Brady, on the other hand, is well-known by Belichick and is by all accounts one of the better blockers in the league.

Oh yeah, one other move. Right before the free agency madness began, the Pats slapped the franchise tag on CB Asante Samuel, who had a tremendous year in '06. While I'm sure Asante isn't pleased - considering the dollars being thrown around - here's hoping the Pats and Bob Kraft do the right thing and give the kid the money. He deserves it.

Daddy Brady

While we're on the subject of our football team, we must address the recent developments surrounding our all-world quarterback. As we all know, Brady split up with B-list actress Bridget Moynahan a couple months back and recovered quite nicely, taking up with Victoria's Secret lingerie model Gisele Bundchen. (Can you imagine telling your buddies that you're banging a Victoria's Secret lingerie model??)

While Tom's busy frolicking with the Brazilian bombshell, Bridgie lands a haymaker with the announcement that she's pregnant and Tom's the dad. Brady didn't make a statement for what seemed like eternity, but then eventually came out and said he was excited and looking forward to being a father (right). Of course, all the skeptics around here started speculating that this was all planned by Moynahan, and it certainly looks that way. Her TV show, which had been canceled, all of a sudden has been renewed. Amazing what a little publicity does for ya. Meanwhile, Brady's still romping around Paris with Gisele, and rumors are flying that she's now pregnant. Her family actually came out this week and said it's not true. Still, for a guy who's devoutly Catholic, and squeaky-clean, it's been a tough couple months for Tom. But again, he is bedding a Victoria's Secret supermodel, so it can't be all that bad.

Three-Ring Circus

And finally, the reason we exist here at Hardball Heaven...

Red Sox camp is in full swing, and stories abound. A quick, high-level recap:

Dice-K: the Nation stopped in its tracks for his two-inning debut against the mighty Boston College Eagles. NESN pre-empted regular programming to show the folks back home in frigid New England what this guy was all about. The first batter, who also doubles as BC's punter for football season, lined Dice-K's very first pitch for a double. After that, though, he was pretty impressive. My initial observations - he's got a million different looks and arm angles, his fastball isn't overpowering but it's got insane movement, and his off-speed stuff is well above average. He's only going to get better. The big question is not his ability, but how well he can handle the transition to America and MLB. Something tells me he'll manage just fine thanks.

Curt Schilling: say what you want about the Big Shill, but can you imagine if Pedro was still on this team and all the attention was being bestowed on Dice-K? Schilling has willingly taken a backseat, though his contract negotiations were news for a few days. He took to the airwaves a while back and said that he was planning to play another year beyond this one, which is his final contract year in Boston. That left open the possibility that the Sox would try to get him signed to a deal before this season began. Wisely, in my opinion, they decided not to throw millions at a guy who's 41 years old. They'd rather wait, let him be extra-incented this year, and then try to get something done. Schilling was obviously disappointed, and some fans felt they should have signed the guy for his Bloody Sock heroics alone. I think this is the right move.

The closer, or lack thereof: all in all, the Sox' roster looks pretty damn solid. They will be better offensively with Julio Lugo and JD Drew in the lineup, and their pitching is much-improved. It's the tail end, however, that is still a glaring concern. They're auditioning any number of guys for the closer role. Joel Pineiro. Brendan Donnelly. Craig Hansen. Mike Timlin. Unfortunately, the best closer on the team is now a member of the starting rotation. Jonathan Papelbon was abolutely lights out last year before he got hurt, and the Sox' medical people have made the call that starting is better for him health-wise. Still, don't you get the nagging feeling that he may return to his previous role? I'd still like to see them make a move for Washington's Chad Cordero (and I still want Helton, too) so they may not be done just yet.

Jon Lester's return: And last, we'll close on a positive note. Jon Lester, who had his season cut short last year with a shocking diagnosis of a form of cancer, looks pretty damn good for what he's been through. You knew listening to him last year after he found out that he had the mental and intestinal fortitude required to battle this, and battle he did. He looks great, and could be a very welcome surprise in 2007.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?