Thursday, May 28, 2009

Play ball

Not sure how many of you know this, but for the past few summers I have spent several nights a week pilfering through the happenings of the American Association and Can-Am League, two independent minor-league baseball leagues spread throughout the Midwest, Northeast and, you guessed it, Canada. If you have ever heard of the St. Paul Saints, and you probably haven't, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's generally the final resting place for former big leaguers like Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd, Darryl Strawberry and even, it appears, Eric Gagne, who has signed with the Quebec Capitales of the Can-Am League, and will fill a spot in their starting rotation of all places.

Sometimes the leagues can serve as a stop for players like Luke Hochevar, and their agents (Scott Boras, shocker), who feel that $2.98 million just isn't quite enough. Hochevar was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first round (No. 40 overall) of the 2005 draft, but couldn't come to terms on a contract, hence opting for a stint with the Fort Worth Cats of the American Association before re-entering in 2006 where he was selected No. 1 overall by the Kansas City Royals. The move turned out to be a good one for Hochevar and friends. His signing bonus increased to $5.3 million and incentives made his deal worth as much as $7 million.But both examples aside, these leagues, and all independent leagues, are places where people find themselves if they just plain love baseball. The money is scarce, the glory is absent and the travel accommodations are a nightmare. But tucked away in random cities and towns are teams who play baseball, plain and simple, and fans who love to watch. Each year, a few teams come and a few teams go. So it wasn't until the Can-Am opened its season tonight that I heard about this interesting team in Nashua, New Hampshire, a small liberal town about 40 miles north of Boston. Though the team is largely unknown, it has a rich history. In the late 1940s, the Nashua Dodgers' lineup card featured the likes of Roy Campanella behind the plate, and Don Newcombe on the mound - a far cry from the likes of the aforementioned, if you ask me.

Yet, even that isn't what has impressed me the most; what has given me hope for baseball. No, it's just their name: The American Defenders of New Hampshire. Complete with camouflage uniforms, they look like a cross between the USA baseball team and the San Diego Padres during spring training. But don't be fooled. This isn't some military stunt to draw sympathy. There is history behind this team - and plenty of it. It's just nice to know that baseball still exists. Real baseball. And the whole military theme just gives one the impression, if playing for nothing didn't already, that these guys are just happy to have the chance - and appreciative of those who have enable them to have one.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Knock, knock, knock: Housekeeping!

Yeah ... someone break out the broom.

I just wanted to get this out there before the series got started. The Magic and Cavavliers are about to tip off, LeBron James just tossed up the Johnson&Johnson, and I've got the Cavs in four. About the only person that seems to be remotely on board with me for this one is PTI co-host Tony Kornheiser, who took Cleveland in five. I don't understand why people think that Orlando can hang. The only way that Dwight Howard gets involved, and I mean really gets involved, is if the Magic are hitting from outside. This forces opposing defenses to honor their shooters (Rashard Lewis just clanked a three somethin' awful on the Magic's first field goal attempt) and not pack the lane.

To me, they just haven't proven able to do that consistently enough, especially in the face of defenses as good as Cleveland. Plus, the Cavs are underrated in terms of the bodies they throw at Howard (Jesus, Dwight just threw down a dunk so hard that he broke the freakin' shot clock!) in the paint. Guys like Joe Smith and Ben Wallace are completely inferior to the athleticism of Howard, but are veterans nontheless, making them affable at handling a player that has yet to prove that he can dominate if things aren't necessarily going his way.

Then, of course, there is LeBron James. James is the best player in the league and has undeniably been the best player in the playoffs. And unlike Howard, James does not feed off of his teammates. Rather, they feed off of him. And no player left in the playoffs is better at getting his team involved. Anyway, not really a lot to say, just wanted to get out there on the line and take the Cavs in a sweep.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

It's in the baggage: Kentucky gets Wall, "advisor"

Finally this kid announced what has been known for a couple of weeks now. John Wall will play of John Calipari at Kentucky next season. Part of me wishes that he had landed at Duke. Mark my words, John Wall is an NCAA violation waiting to happen. Though, admittedly, these issues seem to fall by the wayside wherever big stars are concerned, such a blemish on Duke University would have been a nice card to have in our hand. Questions surrounding the likes of O.J. Mayo, Reggie Bush and, most recently, Nate Miles have been suffieciently swept under the rug after a week or so of initial media hype in each case.

But Brian Clifton, the "advisor" to Wall is a storm on the horizon, the way I see it, for the NCAA. Google "Brian Clifton D-One coach" and you won't find a single picture of the man himself, but you'll get plenty of John Wall. Now, I'm not stupid. I know these kids have their guys. The benefits of being a college athlete abound, and the better you are, the more lucrative, and invincible, those benefits seem to be. It happens everywhere, from North Carolina to North Dakota. But, until now, it is rarely advertised. Clifton is trouble for this kid, and everyone knows it. John Wall wanted to play for Calipari all along, and was said by a source close to the situation to have decided on Kentucky weeks ago, after severing ties from Memphis when Calipari departed. Yet, as late as last week, there are reports that Wall went as far as making an informal commitment to Miami. It has been reported that if Clifton got his way, Wall would be a Blue Devil. North Carolina was rumored to show interest and schools that didn't even make any sense, like N.C. State and Baylor, were also part of the equation.

If anyone understands the distaste between Duke and North Carolina, it's me - and probably any of you who are reading this. But to let that get in the way of a decision as big as this one - especially when that decision isn't even yours to make? Clifton was quoted by N&O as follows: "I have no desire to talk to, to be involved with, to visit, to contemplate in any shape, form or fashion John Wall going to play for Roy Williams. Zero."

He told 850 The Buzz: “I don’t have any respect for Roy Williams. I encourage [my players] to play for guys that will inspire them to be good people. If you’re not a good person, you can’t make someone a good person.”

Memphis' graduation rate, had Wall gone there, was 55 percent.

Kentucky, where Wall is headed, pumps out graduates at a whopping rate of 38 percent.

North Carolina? Eighty-six percent.

The last time I checked, education is a pretty good gauge as to which programs promote character and integrity in this country. But it's not like John Wall will ever graduate anyway. From the outside looking in, Clifton's way of doing seems to parallel that of an agent. A really stupid agent. So the more the NCAA allows soap operas like this one to play out, the more the NCAA will parallel that of the NBA. Is he in it for the good of his "client?"

"Good people" certainly wouldn't be in it for the pay day, would they? And I am willing to bet that Brian Clifton is not as involved with his other players' college decisions as is with the kid that just so happens to be the next big thing.

You be the judge, since the NCAA, it appears, will not be.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Smile Duke and State fans! You have something to cheer about!

Well, I bailed on the Economics class. No surprise there. Don't worry, though, I'm still rockin' out Spanish 102, so I'll keep you posted on the state of my voyage toward bilingual-ism.

Anyway, back to sports. I am currently at work, and just now got the link on 99.9's Web site to work. As soon as the I hear the dude's voice, he's calling a Boston Bruins' goal to tie the game at 6:19. It's 2-2 now. Another exciting game. Funny that excitement was the intended topic of this post anyhow. (Just heard Ric Flair go "Woooooooo" in the background following the Bruins' goal. Isn't it funny how the Bostonians took that from us?) I mean, think about it. Hockey? In North Carolina? I don't know about you, but I've spent half my life in the Tidewater region of Virginia, and the rest of it on the coast of North Carolina. I've never even seen a frozen pond, that I know of. And if I have, my parents sure as hell weren't about to let me skate on it. Yet here I am, cursing at a computer for the last hour because it wouldn't load the feed to the game.

Full disclosure: I hate bandwaggon fans. With that said, I'm 100-percent on the Carolina Hurricanes' bandwaggon - or Zamboni, if you will. Now, I've gotten into it before, the last time the Hurricanes were somebody. Got to hold the Stanley Cup, and have a picture to prove it:
But this year really seems to be different. You don't have to know anything about hockey specifically to know that the Hurricanes' run to the playoffs and their performance there thusfar is impressive. They are certainly the underdog, which everyone outside Boston has gotta love. Then, they used the Bruins like a whipping post for the first few games, only to let a 3-1 series lead fade to its current 3-3. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that hockey really has what we all really want. It's like a hybrid of baseball, soccer, football and professional wrestling. Even has a touch of a little Ron-Artestian NBA.

The Hurricanes themselves have what a fan of any sport wants in its team, too. (4:48 to go in regulation. Still 2-2.) There is superstar Eric Staal. Fan favorites like Cam Ward and Rod Brind'Amour and a dude named Jussi Jokinen. More importantly for the triangle reason, it gives N.C. State and Duke fans something to cheer for. Finally, I don't have to hear them whine for once. And if the 'Canes don't make it, I'll be right there with them.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"I'm not sure how well I speak English."

Yep. That is a direct quote from my Economics professor. Not exactly the first thing you want to hear - on your third trip through the same course. But still, here I am, flabbergasted. Fatma Gunay. She says that we'll never be able to pronounce her last name, so just call her "Fatma." OK. At least I'm not the only one here who looks puzzled. As a matter of fact, everyone does. Yet I somehow get the feeling that most of them will easily pass. My only hope at this point appears to be the fact that the syllabus says that a 40 or better will get me at least a "D." Hopefully that's not a mistake with the language. I'll step outside the sports realm to keep you posted on my progess. She's giving an example now and five hands just shot up. There are like 30 people in the class, so that's not good. I better pay attention!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Oh Manny

There are few whose words I take as the gospel truth. Peter Gammons is one of those few. So when Gammons said a few minutes ago, on ESPN's SportsCenter, that he genuinely believes that Manny Ramirez is not a steroids guy, I believe him. Ramirez, the Los Angeles Times reports, has been suspended for 50 games by Major League Baseball for violating the league's anti-drug policy. According to Gammons, and a statement released by Ramirez through the Players' Association, Ramirez received a prescription for a "personal medical condition" from a doctor in Florida, and that medication contained a substance banned by MLB. Manny also said in his statement that he has taken and passed "about 15" tests during the past five seasons.

Sure, one has to walk cautiously with all the lies, the "but I didn't know"'s, the whole blame game. And Ramirez is far from a saint as many are concerned. I saw Manny Ramirez playing right field for the Cleveland Indians in 1999 at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Md. He was much younger then. The dreads were in their infant stages - a small Afro. He wore his pants pulled up to the knee, rather than down, over his cleats. And I remember as if it were yesterday that Ramirez had the biggest calf muscles I have ever seen. From atop the scoreboard in right field, it looked like he had softballs packed into his socks.

I'll make one thing clear. I am a huge, HUGE Manny Ramirez fan. In my opinion, he is the best hitter of our time, and maybe the best two-strike hitter the game has ever seen. But in the back of my mind, that image of those unreal, super-human calf muscles in 1999 have often made me wonder if there was more to the story than a whole lot of leg raises. Maybe it's the baggy uniform, but Ramirez seems to have ballooned since his early days - just like McGwire, just like Sosa, just like Bonds. And at the same rate, so have Manny's numbers - just like McGwire, just like Sosa, just like Bonds.

I was always concerned that Manny Ramirez would find himself in the middle of this steroid-era pandemic. But no one has mentioned Ramirez in any book. He's not in the Mitchell Report. He's never tested positive. For that reason, it's people like Los Angeles Times reporter Bill Plaschke that really piss me off. He's on SportsCenter right now, jumping the gun, calling for Ramirez's head. But unfortunately, he might be right. But for now, I'm going with Gammons and believing Manny. But I'm afraid this might be the last time I'm able to give a baseball player the benefit of the doubt.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

"The Birdman" is the word, man.

If you know me, you know I'm a baseball guy. For me, this is baseball season. The NBA playoffs, the PGA, the NHL playoffs, the NFL draft ... that stuff is secondary entertainment. But these days there are fewer and fewer baseball games on television, leaving me to drift a bit from my comfort zone and pay a little more attention to the fore-mentioned events. Like right now. I'm watching Game 1 of the series between the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks. Yeah, seriously. Not that I care who wins, but I always have to pick somebody. In this case it's Denver. George Karl is a Carolina guy; J.R. Smith should have been. Chauncey Billups is just a guy that you can't help rooting for. Carmelo Anthony is an Oak Hill alum, and that's where my grandmother graduated from in 1950 - long before the desolate high school became a breeding ground for NBA superstars-to-be.

Then there is Chris Andersen. This time a few years ago, I was crowing about what a clown this guy is. This dude dropped out of Houston and played one year at Blinn College before not getting drafted and ending up in China. Somehow he wound up in the NBA at some point after and was invited to the NBA All-Star Weekend in 2005 (he was also there in 2004) where he proceeded to embarrassed himself, and the the NBA. You may remember Andersen, also known as "Birdman", missing the first eight attempts at his first dunk, then clanking the first five attempts at his second. As it turned out, whiffing dunks in front of a national audience was the least of this guy's problems. In January of 2006, Andersen was suspended from the NBA for violating the league's anti-drug policy by testing positive for a banned substance. That substance was not identified, but was known not to be performance-enhancing drugs or marijuana. The substance was categorized under "drugs of abuse" leading The Denver Post to peg Andersen as "the most disgraced NBA player since the drug-induced haze of the 1980's." The article didn't say anything about how his grandfather abused him as a child, or how he was estranged from his mother. He and his long-time girlfriend broke things off when he arrived in New Orleans and Andersen lost his house in Hurricane Katrina.

It took him until March of 2008 to gain reinstatement into the NBA. Shortly thereafter, he found himself released by the New Orleans Hornets and signed to a one-year deal with the Nuggets. And now, in May 2009 I am watching this guy be a serious contributor on one of the most exciting team's in the NBA. Andersen, a shot-block specialist, looks like a moron. His hair is ridiculous and his excessive tattoos make him look like a hip-hop wannabe. At least that's what I used to think. It appears that this guy has made an effort to clean himself up and turn his life around. So every time he hype the crowd with his trademark wing flap - even though he looks more like a rooster than a bird that can actually fly - I sit here and love every second of it. If you have the ability to look in the mirror one day and muster enough courage to make those kind of changes, what difference does it make what you look like? If you're a Chris Andersen hater, just know that I used to be too. But the truth of the matter is, he is one hell of a basketball player. And it may not look like he has much sense, but he apparently had enough to do the right thing.