Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Second Chance...

With the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing looming, one group of athletes have especially a lot on their mind. Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade, among a few others, lead that list. Athens in 2004 left a sour taste in the mouth's of these star athletes. After all, they didn't go to the Olympics back then solely for the experience, they went to defend Olympic Gold for their country and protect a tradition of excellence. Unfortunately for that group, they were not ready for the challenge. With the international level of competition on the rise, a young, inexperienced US team did the unthinkable; they lost an Olympic game on the international level.

The loss was the first surrendered by the U.S. of A, since the NBA players began participating in the games back in 1992. It was always even unusual to see an Olympic score with less than a 40 point margin of victory when Team USA was on the floor, let alone an actual loss. But whatever the case, the 2004 team experienced a failure that had never been felt by NBA players in Olympic competition. With this to be said, it is easy to see why Lebron and company believe they have much to prove. This is their "Shot at Redemption", as fellow blogger Christoph Schoenbeck put it. So with Beijing right around the corner, the USA Men's Basketball team announced their roster this past Monday. A roster that will feature returning players, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, Carlos Boozer, and Jason Kidd, as well as some other familiar names around the league: Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Tayshaun Prince, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, & Michael Redd. Even though the team has a surprisingly smaller lineup, Coach K and the group believe they have the components to win back the Gold.

I see many upsides with this team. Here are a few that stand out.

1) First off, it is great to see Kobe Bryant's name on the roster. Too many times in recent years the NBA's biggest stars have shied away from participating in the game. It is great to see the league's MVP recognizing the team's need for him; joining the quest for Gold. Kobe should provide leadership, dedication, and most importantly defense to the Olympic team. We all know what Bryant can do on offense, but the 1st team all-NBA defender will be a great asset on the defensive side, helping provide balance in the team's overall game.

2) I like the addition of the shooting threats to the roster. In 2004, Team USA faced a zone defense in every game. Hitting big shots against those zones proved to be a task far too difficult for the likes of Iverson, James, and the many other NBA stars not known for their shooting ability. This year Team USA added Michael Redd, one of the best outside shooters in the game. They also picked up the blooming Deron Williams, whose known for his hot shooting from behind the arc in big games. Hopefully both players can draw their international opponents out of the zone, opening up the floor for Bryant, Wade, Anthony, & James to get to the rim at will for easy finishes.

3) I love the addition of Chris Paul. He manages the game just as good as any player in the NBA. His court vision and smart decision-making should be quite valuable for the team. Paul is also great at creating looks for his teammates. With a lineup as stacked as this one, Chris should have a field day in the assist category.

4) I also love the defensive acquisitions. As I mentioned earlier, Kobe is a 1st team all-NBA defender. However additionally, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Tayshaun Prince were all second team all-NBA defenders. Picking up 4 of the NBA's 10 best defenders will make Team USA strong on both sides of the ball, helping their odds for success even more. Lebron is an underrated defender when he wants to be as well (as long as it isn't Game 7 against Paul Pierce).

All in all, Team USA appears to have many bright spots on their team this year. There certainly seems to be much improvement from the Athens team of '04. Coach K seems confident in his players and feels he has one of the strongest teams he could've asked for. Even though the international game is much different in recent times, and the level of competition is much higher than it used to be, I just feel there is something special about the team of '08. It all depends on how they play together. Team chemistry is crucial in Olympic play. The international teams play together year round. Team USA has a few months to find the most effective way to play together. There is much to do in a small time frame for Team USA, but I believe this year's squad has enough determination to get the job done. This is their chance at redemption. The team needs this for themselves, and most importantly, for their country. Lebron, Carmelo, & Wade know what their country expects of them. Now it is their hands to meet those expectations; to bring back the Gold.

Image taken from Google Images

Friday, June 20, 2008

A Mark Well Deserved...

A little over a week ago, Ken Griffey, Jr. made another mark in the history books. A mark he deserved just as much as Aaron, Ruth, and Mays. When my Yahoo! Sports page loaded and I saw the top story read, "Sweet 600", I was pleased to know, the man most call "Junior", had finally done it. Growing up as a baseball player and a fan, I admired Griffey. Every kid gave the Junior stance a try, expecting it to bring home run power. When I made the traveling baseball team in 4th grade #24 was off limits, because every player wanted it and fought over it. It was almost as if it was retired. Ken Griffey, Jr. was the face of baseball for my generation.

Today, it's sad to see Junior out on the field. He still has some power, but for young fans, few realize the impact Griffey had on the game. His prime has faded, and injuries have kept him short of everything he dreamed to accomplish. The topic of home runs today is Alex Rodriguez. He is the fastest to 300, 350, & 400 home runs. But second to him is Griffey. He held all of the records Rodriguez has broken. He was the first on pace to break Aaron. In fact, he was set to shatter it. Forget 756, Griffey was on pace for potentially 800. What a record that would be. But unfortunately for Griffey, a fate of bad luck prevented that pace from staying on track. All the little road block injuries added up, until Griffey found himself finally at a Dead End. The record that was forever his to take, would not be.

What made Griffey so great was his unconventional play. The uppercut swing was his trademark. He was a natural. He didn't need any lessons on the proper swing. The uppercut was his own, and everyone else wished it was theirs. With one smooth swing of the bat Griffey could change a game. He was the most feared hitter in the American League for years.

Griffey, too, was the best center fielder in the game. He was a 10 time Gold Glove Award winner! Junior was never afraid to lay out for a ball. He did anything and everything he could to make a play. Unfortunately at times, this was his downfall. Griffey's first serious injury came making an unbelievable catch leaping into the wall. Even though he broke his wrist, he was still able to hold onto the ball. That sidelined Griffey for more than half of the 1995 season. Unfortunately for Ken, his first real serious injury wouldn't be his last. He played on Astroturf and gave up his body anytime he had a chance to make a play. Injuries were bound to come. Injuries he wouldn't be able to overcome as he aged.

As a Red, Junior has been plagued with injuries his whole tenure in Cincinnati. He has 202 career home runs as a Red in 9 seasons. On average, that's about 22 home runs per season. In his last 4 seasons as a Mariner, Griffey hit 209 home runs, averaging 52 a year in that stretch. The injuries have slowed him down tremendously.

Whenever my father and I talk about ARod's legitimate shot at passing Bonds, we always make sure to throw in an "if he stays healthy, he should do it" remark. We saw what happened to Ken, and know that health is the key factor in any career record.

Although the guy I always dreamed would break the record will never accomplish that feat, there is still much reason to look up to him. The biggest reason, in my opinion, is obvious. During all the talk in the last few years about steroid-use and cheating in baseball, Griffey's name has never been thrown out there once. Junior never looked like a power hitter, he was simply blessed with the perfect swing for power. And no one could ever deny that. I heard an ESPN report that Ken was always happy to give advice to his teammates and even opponents. He didn't care that he would be facing the same guys he was helping. He always wanted to share his knowledge of the game with everyone. He is a true role model for all athletes. Griffey has a love of the game. He was the kind of guy that just went out there and had some fun. Coaches always told me to just "have some fun" out there, but it was hard playing in a pressure-pact game. Junior never let the pressure or the game steer him away from his enjoyment of baseball. He always understood how the game was meant to be played.

So with all this to be said, it gives me great displeasure to see Ken closing out on a long career without a home run record or a World Series title. However, it was so great to see Junior enter the 600 club. I do not believe any other player deserves it more. Griffey, Jr. may be the best home run hitter to ever pick up a bat and play the game. Sure Rodriguez may break records, but the world will never know just how many ARod would have needed to hit in order to surpass a healthy Griffey. Griffey has missed over 600 games in his career due to injury. That's over 3 & 1/2 seasons of baseball. That doesn't even include the wear and tear his injuries have put on him in all the games he has played since.

As I write this post, I cannot help but think I should be writing about Juniors record 756th home run right now, not his 600th. Nontheless, #600 is quite an amazing feat. Especially after all Griffey has been through in his 20 year career. He is a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer and will always be remembered as one of the game's greatest. But I will forever wonder if perhaps a healthy Junior would have walked away the greatest the game has ever seen. Regardless, he deserves all the respect he receives. His mark on baseball and the lives of many young fans and followers, including myself, will never be forgotten and always be appreciated.

Image taken from Yahoo! Sports

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Boston Massacre

Tuesday night, the 2008-09 NBA season came to a close, in a way that can only be described as anti-climatic. The Celtics took their 17th career title with a 131-92 massacre of the formerly favored Lakers. For Boston, it wasn't even a contest. For Los Angeles, it was a downright embarassment to the game. I watched in disbelief as the Celtics scored at will and were relentless on defense. Bryant and the Lakers looked completely helpless in all facets of the game.

After burying an early three in the first quarter, Kobe Bryant was seen telling courtside Celtics fans, "Not tonight. Not tonight." Kobe was right, he and the Lakers didn't have it that night. Perhaps he had a feeling when he buried his first three shots from behind the arc that his shot would be off shortly. Or perhaps he was just as oblivious as to what would happen in the near future as every other viewer watching was. Nontheless the Lakers and Kobe would only hang with the Celtics until mid-way through the second, before the floodgates would open. The Celtics held a small 32-29 lead at that point, but would outscore the Lakers 26-6 to close the half, separating themselves for good, with a 58-35 halftime lead.

When the ball was inbounded to start the third, the Celtics picked up where they left off. They never allowed the Lakers to even feel a glimpse of hope. Boston was well aware the Lakers had overcome 18 & 19 point deficits to beat San Antonio in the Conference Finals, and they themselves were almost victims of a 24 point come-from-behind victory in Game 4. In Game 6, they would have none of that.

The Celtics fed off the energy of their home crowd and poured it on the Lakers, even flirting with the largest margin of victory in an NBA Finals game, ever (42, Chicago 96 - Utah 54, 1997, they had MJ). Allen led the game with 26 points, Pierce had 17, Rondo had a surprising 21, and Garnett shared the game-high with 26 points and 14 rebounds. Posey never missed a shot, House hit some threes; everyone contributed. The game was a complete Boston onslaught.

As for the Lakers, they never even showed up. LA played with no intensity and seemed to be a team with no care for a championship title. They played as if they were just happy to be in the Finals. It was frustrating to watch a team as good as the Lakers, with a player that wanted to win as much as Kobe, play with absolutley no compassion or sense of urgency. Gasol and Odom went through the motions of every game in the series, Vulacic was horrendous from the field, and the other players seemed nonexistent. What was Kobe supposed to do? He had the league's best defense keying on him, and none of his teammates had the guts or drive to step up and lend him a hand. The Lakers desire to win can be summed up by the effort of Vulacic with a win on the line in Game 4, as he practically let Ray Allen walk by him for an uncontested layup to seal the deal. Or perhaps it is better summed up by the 24 point lead the Lakers let slip away in that same game. Not one player on that Western Conference champion team responded to the Boston run, and LA let Boston embarrass them on their own court.

I really have no idea what happened to the Lakers in the Finals. After a 4-1 series victory over the defending champion Spurs, the Lakers seemed poised to crown themselves the new champions. Boston was supposed to be worn out from their long road to the Finals, and the West was still believed to be far more stronger than the East. Yet a different Lakers team showed up. One that looked as if the Knicks would give them a run for their money (just kidding, but you catch my drift). That's just how bad the Lakers were.

So now we look to the next season. Barring injuries, the Lakers and Celtics should both contend for another shot at a title. The Lakers should be even stronger with the return of 7'0" Center Andrew Bynum. If they decide to keep Odom, the Lakers would have arguably the best front court in the game, and a back court with the game's best player, in Kobe Bryant. Fans should be wary though. They are putting a lot of pressure on Bynum to perform. Many do not realize he only averaged 13 ppg this year. He'll get his share of rebounds, but he's not a prolific scorer. Gasol and Odom's production was just the same if not better than Bynum's, and the Lakers still found themselves runners-up to the Celtics. There's no guarantee Bynum will be the final piece to the Lakers puzzle in their quest for an NBA title. But we will see.

In my opinion, next year should bring an exciting season. Watch out for Chris Paul and the Hornets to emerge as the West's best team. Paul demonstrated his poise and MVP-like abilities in this year's playoffs, but his young team was not quite ready to make that final jump. They found themselves in unchartered waters against the defending champs and came a game short of ending their season. Next year should be different. As for the East, I think the Cavs are one quality move away from taking over the East. The Celtics should have the league's best record again come playoff time, but Cleveland has proven they can step up when May comes around. I think one key addition would give them a run at the title. Don't count out Lakers and Celtics, Round 2, though. Bryant is a winner, and he'll do anything to prove he can do it without Shaq. And when the Big 3 is on, who can stop them?

Image taken from Yahoo! Sports

Monday, June 16, 2008

Monday Tiger...

Tiger has done it again. But this time, it didn't come easy. In one of the greatest battles of all-time, Tiger Woods was able to squeeze out a victory against fan favorite, Rocco Mediate on Monday. A victory that took more than an 18-hole playoff match. One that took a sudden death playoff hole as well.

Many argue that the U.S. Open is foolish to have an 18-hole playoff on Monday instead of the standard sudden death playoff holes on Sunday, but the Open sure proved the critics wrong today. What a show it was. A test of not only physical, but also mental toughness. 91 holes of golf in just 5 days. A task that can surely wear down the body and mind of any individual. Especially the likes of a 45-year-old and a man who walked 18 holes on Thursday for the first time since his third knee surgery. Yet these were the two men that outlasted the field for four days and emerged as co-leaders when the fourth round of golf was complete.

At 9:00 am Pacific time this morning, the two teed off to embark on a golf match for the ages. Tiger emerged as the leader after one, but the third hole would set the stage for the up and down match it would be. After a near hole-in-one on the third, Rocco took the lead. Not short after Tiger birdied the 7th & 8th to take it right back. After 10 holes, Tiger was holding onto a comfortable 3 shot lead, and it seemed everyone watching knew he was about to pull away. Everyone, but Rocco. Mediate settled down on the 11th & 12th, then put together a string of 3 consecutive birdies to take the lead back from Woods. He still held that lead of a stroke as he walked up to the 18th tee box. Just one hole away from accomplishing the improbable. All he had to do was split the hole with the world's best golfer.

Imagine the pressure Rocco must have felt as he teed up on the 18th. What seemed to be a record crowd was on hand, and all eyes were on his next shot. To build the pressure even more, standing less than 10 feet away from him, was his opponent Tiger Woods. Rocco had to know Woods wouldn't be going down without a fight. It is no wonder Mediate found himself in the bunker after his first shot, and in the rough near the grand stand after his second.

That set the stage for Tiger Woods. With a 13-0 record when leading after 54 holes on the line, and the pressure at an all-time high for Woods, he didn't skip a beat. The commercial shown periodically throughout the broadcast couldn't have been more fitting. With each shot on the 18th, I kept thinking about the words Earl Woods, Tiger's late father, said in that Nike commercial. Telling Tiger he would never meet a man with more mental toughness than him. That statement couldn't have seemed more and more true with each of Tiger's shots on the final hole. Woods was able to birdie and put the pressure on Mediate to win the tournament with a long birdie putt of his own. Mediate failed and onto sudden death they went.

With the pressure mounting, Mediate struggled on the first playoff hole and Woods excelled, taking the tournament. The 14th victory in a major of his career. He now stands just 4 wins in a major shy of Jack Nicklaus, well ahead of his pace. Five victories away from ultimately solidifying himself as the greatest golfer to ever play. He is also 14-0 when leading going into the fourth round of a major and 11-1 in his playoff career (3-0 in Majors).

As a fan, I have to feel bad for Rocco Mediate. He truly seems to be a great guy and seems to have a love for the game that all players should have. Rocco always plays with a smile on his face and deserves great success in golf. His attitude towards the game is phenomenal. He felt blessed to be given the opportunity to take on Tiger. He said it gave him a chance to see what he really had. Well, Rocco learned he had a lot in him. He tied Woods through 90 holes of golf, including a pressure-packed one-on-one playoff of 18 holes, until Woods finally got the best of him on the 91st. What a story? Rocco should be proud of the way he played, and I have a feeling this will forever be the highlight of his career. Hearing Tiger say Rocco put the pressure on him time and time again was a great compliment to Mediate's performance. Not many can say they put Tiger Woods on the ropes in a one-on-one golf match.

The loss is bittersweet for Rocco, but both he Woods learned a lot about themselves from that epic battle. Woods said after that it was the greatest win of his golf career. A win he shared for the first time with his newly-born daughter, and one that I am sure was won for his father. The worn out Woods said there were times when he thought he might have to throw in the towel. Part of him said it was time to quit and another part, likely his father from above, said to face the adversity and put on a performance for the ages. And oh how he and Rocco did. After the match was finally over Woods and Mediate shared a hug and Tiger said to Rocco, "Good fight". It certainly was nothing less.

Image taken from Yahoo! Sports
Thanks to Phil Lund for his creative title.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Sign of What's to Come...

Last night, the Yankees' new direction for Joba Chamberlain began. The once heralded minor league starter, transformed bullpen prodigy, returned back to his role as a starter, taking the mound against Toronto. The reason for this change can be summed up in one word: impatience. When the Yankees got off to a sluggish start this year, Hank Steinbrenner became restless. He even went as far as to criticize the team and manager's intellect for leaving the team's hardest thrower in the bullpen. But why not? The most effective setup men and closers in the league tend to be the hardest throwing pitchers on their respective teams. That's the type of pitcher you need to shut the door at the end of a game. What a luxury it is to know that if you get to the 7th inning with a lead, you've pretty much locked up a win. But for some reason Steinbrenner refused to see this, demanding Chamberlain be moved to the starting rotation.

Well, Steinbrenner got his wish and got a taste of what it would bring last night. With it known that Joba would only be throwing 65-70 pitches last night, the Blue Jays went up to the plate as very patient hitters. A wild Chamberlain did more than they could ever ask from him, throwing 38 pitches in the first inning (more than half of his limited pitch count for the game). Chamberlain walked three batters in the first inning, gave up one hit, and allowed one run. Girardi even admitted after the game that Chamberlain was one batter away from being pulled from the game in just the first inning. Some start, huh? After settling down Chamberlain would walk one more batter and give up another unearned run in just 2 1/3 innings of work. Hardly the 5 to 6 innings he had anticipated going. With his early exit, Chamberlain handed the ball over to his usual bench-side buddies, the bullpen. Without Chamberlain, the bullpen pitched 6 2/3 innings allowing 7 runs on 11 hits, walking 6 while only striking out 4. This coming a night after Joba's replacement as the setup man, Kyle Farnsworth, set the Minnesota Twins up with a nice victory, allowing the game-winning run on 3 hits and a walk in just one inning of work.

Chamberlain could settle into being a starter. He also could become an ace in the Yankees rotation. But the key word is could. This decision could be worthwhile for the Yankees, but there is no guarantee. The way I see it is. Even if Chamberlain is an effective starter for the Yankees, I still see it as doing more harm than help for the team. Ozzie Guillen said it best saying he was relieved he only had to face Joba once every five days instead of every night. I tend to agree with him. But when will Steinbrenner? Maybe he'll realize his mistake when the Yankees need one or two innings of dominant pitching to protect a tight lead before Rivera can end the game, and sees Girardi has no one to turn to, but an underachieving bullpen. How many blown leads do Farnsworth and Hawkins have to surrender to make Steinbrenner realize the move does more harm than good? It all comes down to impatience and ignorance. Two qualities Steinbrenner seems to have. Two qualities that could potentially have a very ill-effect on the Yankees postseason hopes.

The Yankees starting pitching wasn't great, but it wasn't that bad. The lineup was starting to turn around and players were coming back from the DL. It wasn't a time to panic. The Yankees were off to a better start than their 19-27 performance last year, and it seemed like their bats were starting to get hot, just like they had at around the same time last year. A bullpen is just as valuable as a starting rotation. I think Steinbrenner will sadly see this in the near future.

I still remember the days when Rivera used to set up Wetteland. If the Yankees had a lead going into the 7th it was over; a done deal. Even with a much weaker lineup back then, the Yankees still would win. With that combination, the Yankees won the World Series in 1996 against the defending champion Braves. Then when it was time for Wetteland to throw in the towel, the Yankees were left with the perfect candidate for the new closing role: Rivera. Where did that lead? It led to three more World Series championships and left the Yankees with the greatest closer in playoff history.

But now, blessed with a remarkably similar situation at the end of Rivera's career, Steinbrenner and the Yanks are taking a different route. Why? It just doesn't make sense. The only reason I can come up with is impatience and ignorance on Steinbrenner's part. If Steinbrenner doesn't see his mistake soon, I could see the Yankees falling short of the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. As a die-hard Yankee fan, it would be a travesty to witness this.

Chamberlain is a pitcher that feeds off emotion. Emotion he could easily find when every pitch he threw could mean the difference between a win or a loss as a reliever. He also seemed to rejuvenate Rivera as well. Mariano hasn't pitched this well in years. But Steinbrenner seems to feel comfortable with making a change. A change that could affect the emotion these two valuable players perform with. Now, the chapter has officially begun for the Yankees with Chamberlain as a starter. So far...they are 0-1.

Image taken from Yahoo! Sports