WINNING & MUSING…VOLUME 5.21   

Greetings sports fans, & Happy Halloween Week. There’s a lot going right now, so sit back, relax, grab a warm beverage, & let’s discuss some issues that have absolutely no direct impact on our lives. 

The initial College Football Playoff rankings are just days away, and I am genuinely intrigued. If the committee follows what other polls are doing then the playoff teams right now would be Georgia, Cincinnati, Alabama, & Oklahoma. However, let us consider a few things. First, the committee plays by its own rules and seem to make things up as they go along. Secondly, kudos to the undefeated Bearcats, but are they a legit playoff contender?? Beating Notre Dame…especially in South Bend…has to count for something, yet the rest of their schedule leaves much to be desired. We can’t overlook the fact that the CFP is a television event, and Cincinnati would get obliterated by atleast two of those other teams. To be honest I’ll be surprised if they’re in the CFP’s top four. Alabama & Georgia will probably meet in the SEC title game and determine one playoff berth, but that’s down the line. At the moment the Bulldogs should be the unquestioned #1 team, while ‘Bama shouldn’t be in the top four but undoubtedly will be. And what about Oklahoma?? Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and the Sooners might be the luckiest team in America. I wouldn’t put them in my top four, but the committee will. So if it was up to me who would be the four playoff teams right now?? Georgia, Michigan St., Ohio St., & Michigan, with the loser of the upcoming matchup between the Wolverines & the Spartans falling out afterward and obviously the Ohio St./Michigan matchup at the end of November looming as a possible elimination game. Keep your eye on Notre Dame. If they win out things could get interesting. Also Oregon, although that overtime loss to Stanford is an issue. They’ll need some other dominoes to fall even if they win the PAC 12.

I’m pretty old-fashioned. Thru the years I’ve expressed a deep & abiding affection for smashmouth football, my preference that the designated hitter rule remain only in the American League, & disdain for conference realignment, amongst other things. I’m one step away from being the grumpy old man that yells at kids to get off my damn lawn. Having said that, allow me to make a radical proposal. Going forward, all newly built stadiums should have a retractable roof, and all current stadiums should be retrofitted with one if at all possible. I know absolutely nothing about construction or the cost of building such structures. Perhaps my idea is crazier than I realize, but if it is feasible then why not?? There’d be no more rainouts in baseball, and football teams would be able to run their plays without battling inclement weather. Fans would always be comfortable. Everybody wins. 

I don’t give a damn about the NHL unless the Pittsburgh Penguins are competing for the Stanley Cup, but a shout out to the league’s newest franchise. Seattle Kraken is a cool name. Sadly they play their home games in something called Climate Pledge Arena, which is asinine. Actually, Amazon owns the naming rights and that’s the kind of woke stupidity they came up with. Not that I’d ever root for anyone other than the Pens (and I barely pay attention to them), but I’m already out on the Kraken. The hippie dipping leftists in the Pacific Northwest will surely enjoy them though, which is nice. 

Rumor has it that the Miami Dolphins might trade for current Houston Texans’ quarterback Deshaun Watson, which means they’re giving up on Tua Tagovailoa, their 2020 first round pick. In my opinion that’s crazy. Look, I freakin’ love Watson. Yes, I am aware of his private…proclivities, the legal action pending against him, & the likelihood of a future suspension by the NFL. In my opinion there have been players who have done much worse, paid the price, and recovered to have a good career. Watson is one of the best QBs in football and he’s only 26 years old. That being said, Tua is only 23 and it is way too soon to call him a bust. If…if…the Texans are smart enough to get him in the deal in addition to a gaggle of draft picks they could turn into a playoff team rather quickly. If Miami makes a separate trade and gets little to nothing in exchange for Tua it’ll be a huge mistake and whichever team swindles them will look brilliant in a couple of years. 

My Pittsburgh Pirates won the seventh game of the 1979 World Series on Wednesday, October 17, 1979. Four decades later the 2021 World Series begins tomorrow and will not conclude until November 3 if it goes to a Game 7. Perhaps MLB should look at revising their schedule. Anyway…Houston Astros vs. Atlanta Braves. I have zero interest. None. The Astros being in the World Series (again) is embarrassing for Major League Baseball given the fact that they are known cheaters that received absolutely no punishment for their ill gotten gain. Not only should Houston have been stripped of their 2017 championship, they also should’ve received a five year post-season ban for defrauding the game of baseball. If they were playing almost any other team in this series my rooting interest would be an easy decision, but my disdain for the Braves goes way back to the early 90’s. Like a man without a country I am a baseball fan with nowhere to turn. I suppose I’ll just look forward to spring training and try to convince myself that the Pirates may finally get their shit together. 

WINNING & MUSING…VOLUME 3.21 

Y’all know that I try to keep the sports content to a minimum during the football season due to our weekly picks, but since a) we haven’t done WM since February, and b) there are other things besides football to discuss, I’m going to suspend my own rule. Rest assured there is plenty of other content in the hopper for those that don’t enjoy ball games & such as much as the rest of us. 

The baseball playoffs have begun. In the American League it’s the Tampa Bay Rays, Chicago White Sox, Houston Astros, & Boston Red Sox, while the National League has the Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers, San Francisco Giants, & Los Angeles Dodgers. I had thought I’d watch a lot more baseball this season after the virus-shortened, empty stadium anomaly of 2020, but oddly enough I think I’ve watched even less. The Manoverse knows that I’m a lifelong Pittsburgh Pirates fan, which means I had absolutely no interest in or reason to watch many games this year. I try to find some level of enthusiasm for the playoffs and choose one or two teams to cheer for. I wasn’t sure that was going to be possible this year, but thankfully the Red Sox beat the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game, so that’s something.

I haven’t really made a big deal out of my feelings about COVID related subjects like vaccines, masks, & mandates outside of the meme zone that is my Instagram because…well, just because. I have very strong opinions, but realize there are folks with polar opposite views. It is what it is and I see no reason to argue about it or negatively impact relationships I value. That being said, it has been announced that mandates in California & New York will require players and fans attending basketball games to be fully vaccinated. I assume hockey players & fans will be affected as well, especially since Canada has already become an outright fascist hellhole anyway. For the first time in my life I am not envious of people living in big cities with access to professional sports venues. I can’t wait to hear the spin when NBA & NHL players and vaccinated fans start testing positive like crazy for The Sickness. Oh sure, they are unlikely to end up dead or even hospitalized, but of course there is a 98% chance they wouldn’t have gotten that ill without the “vaccine”. Atleast I’ll be able to enjoy the games in the freedom & comfort of my own abode. 

Congratulations to Team USA for bringing home the Ryder Cup. I didn’t watch as much of the competition as I’d anticipated, and I think that had a lot to do with guys like Tiger Woods, Rickie Fowler, & Phil Mickelson being absent while newer players like Colin Morikawa, Bryson DeChambeau, & Daniel Berger took center stage. I’m old enough to remember Ryder Cup teams featuring legendary golfers like Tom Kite, Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd, & Fuzzy Zoeller, so I just need to get used to these fresh faces. 

Okay okay, my intention was to stay away from football at this particular moment, but I don’t think I can. There is an elephant in the room that needs addressed, and that is my Pittsburgh Steelers. Hindsight is 20/20, and in an effort to think positive I had them as a playoff team in my season preview. Sadly I do not think that is going to happen. QB Ben Roethlisberger is getting most of the blame, which isn’t totally fair. Yes, he is showing his age. At 39 years old he has certainly declined and definitely isn’t performing at the same level as contemporaries like Drew Brees (who still looked pretty decent last season at 42 before retiring), 37 year old MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers, or Tom Brady, who is apparently a 44 year old unicorn. That being said, it must be noted that the Steelers are starting a very young offensive line that hasn’t jelled into the cohesive unit one would prefer. Big Ben was never fleet of foot, but once upon a time he had a unique escapability that allowed him to keep a play alive long enough to make something happen, and that skill has diminished significantly. All of this has affected the perception of RB Najee Harris, Pittsburgh’s first round draft pick. It doesn’t help that former starting tailback James Conner has amassed 172 yards & 4 touchdowns in four games while being the Arizona Cardinals’ backup compared to Harris’ 185 yards & one TD. Do I think drafting Harris was a mistake?? I’m not ready to go there just yet, but I understand the opinion of some that the team should’ve used that pick on an elite lineman. At any rate, whether one chooses to blame Roethlisberger, Harris, head coach Mike Tomlin, or GM Kevin Colbert the fact is that the Steelers are probably facing their first losing season since 2003. I don’t believe that backup quarterbacks Mason Rudolph & Dwayne Haskins are the answer, so even if Roethlisberger retires and a quarterback is taken in the draft we’re probably looking at another tough season next year. At this point my hope is that 2023 will find the team with a young QB we can believe in, an experienced offensive line, the core of the defense intact (mainly linebacker TJ Watt & safety Minkah Fitzpatrick), Najee Harris at full throttle, and the receiving corps of JuJu Schuster, Chase Claypool, & Diontae Johnson still in Black & Gold. Perhaps then we’ll have something to cheer about. 

NASCAR is also in the midst of its “playoffs”, a system I’m still not sold on. There are 12 drivers left in the chase for the championship, and honestly I don’t have any feelings one way or another about most of them. I have paid a bit more attention to racing than baseball the past several months, but that is damning with faint praise. Not only is Dale Earnhardt dead & Tony Stewart retired, leaving me with no one I’m really invested in cheering for, but Jimmy Johnson & Jeff Gordon are also retired, so there is a lack of villains to dislike outside of Kyle Busch.  There are five races left, and I suppose I’ll check out bits & pieces of them, but mostly my eyes will be glued to NFL Redzone every Sunday. 

A Post-Mortem on the 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates

While fans in Milwaukee, St. Louis, Detroit and a few other cities eagerly engulf themselves in the revelry of the playoffs and the baseball world is still abuzz about the spectacular crash & burns of the Red Sox & Braves, it is time once again for Pirate Nation to lower the Jolly Roger, spew a few meaningless “we’ll get ‘em next years”, and throw our passion full throttle into football season because the Steelers very rarely let us down.

 

It’s quite true that after 19 straight losing seasons long time Pittsburgh Pirates fans should be used to it. But this year was a bit different. As jaded as folks like me have become over the past two decades the Pirates did something in 2011 that they hadn’t in years: they gave us a brief glimmer of hope & anticipation. Alas it was all a mirage, like when a beautiful woman talks to you only because she is so drunk she can barely see or it’s a poorly conceived effort to make her cooler, better looking, wealthier boyfriend jealous.

 

After 100 games the Pirates were 6 games above .500 and…shockingly…in 1st place in the NL Central. Then umpire Jerry Meals came along.

 

At 1:50 a.m. on Wednesday July 27, home plate umpire Meals made quite possibly the worst call in the history of American sports. He called an Atlanta Braves player safe at the plate at the end of a grueling 19 inning classic, a player that was 100% clearly, undeniably, indisputably, unmistakably out, giving the Braves an unearned, tainted, hollow victory over the Pirates. Honest to God…Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Helen Keller, Ronnie Milsap, and Jeff Healey all would have called the player out. But not Jerry Meals. I am and will always be convinced that Meals was/is involved with gambling & organized crime and should have been fired by MLB on the spot. Unfortunately Commissioner Bud Selig is an insufferable tool so Meals is not amongst the 10% of Americans currently unemployed, which is a damn shame. Am I bitter?? Just a little bit.

 

At any rate the Pirates went 19-42 the remainder of the season, finishing in 4th place 24 games out and 18 games below .500.

Look, I am not a fool. I never for one second expected the Pittsburgh Pirates to win their division this season. I knew at some point that there would be a second half swoon. I even wrote as much here in this space. But before Meals and his blatant, dirty cheating came along I thought that meant the team would finish in 3rd place about 10 games back. Call me irrational, but the complete collapse that followed was both disappointing and somewhat surprising to this Humble Potentate of Profundity.

 

The good news is that the Pirates do seem to have a core in place to build around for the foreseeable future. 2B Neil Walker and outfielders Andrew McCutchen & Garrett Jones are budding stars. I like the potential of 3B Josh Harrison and outfielders Xavier Paul & Alex Presley, insomuch as having solid depth is important. The jury is still out on 3B Pedro Alvarez and outfielder Jose Tabata, both of whom must go into 2012 with the outlook that it is a make or break year. Their success will bring the Pirates one step closer to the goal. Their failure would be a significant setback.

 

I am not sold on one single pitcher on the staff. Not even All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan. This has been a major issue with the Pirates for many years. They just can’t seem to produce pitchers that would be any better than a 4th or 5th starter or middle reliever on most other major league ball clubs. The Pirates almost always have very high draft picks and have used a plethora of them on pitchers, with results ranging from unimpressive to disastrous. Starting with Kris Benson in 1996 and going down the line through Sean Burnett, John VanBenschoten, Bryan Bullington, and Daniel Moskos (currently a dime-a-dozen middle reliever), the track record is appalling. Youngsters James Taillon and Gerritt Cole are still in the farm system, but pardon my cynicism if I don’t put my money on either of them becoming the next Cliff Lee or Justin Verlander, which is exactly what the Pirates need. If they are to ever get over the hump they must…MUST…produce a top flight pitcher that would be in the conversation with names like Lincecum, Greinke, and Sabathia when speaking of the best in the business. They need Taillon and/or Cole to be that type of player, but history indicates that the odds of it happening are slim. I desperately want to be wrong about that.

 

The powers-that-be must go out and get atleast a few players with some pop in their bat. A power hitting 1B has been a glaring weakness for way too long. Catching prospect Tony Sanchez is another player that needs to come through at a position of need. A .244 team batting average ain’t gonna get it done, especially with the lack of quality pitching to balance things out. Some of these issues are best addressed through the draft and bringing up home grown players through the ranks, but it is also high time the Pirates become buyers in the free agent market. The self-loathing defeatist attitude that the Pittsburgh Pirates cannot attract big time free agents must change. In my opinion pitching must come from the draft & the system, while signing a couple of free agent .300 hitters capable of jacking 30+ home runs is a realistic goal and needs to be a priority.

 

So is there hope?? Of course. There is always hope. I might even go so far as to say there is reason for optimism. But I am also a realist, and two decades of futility have robbed me (and many others) of any notion that the Pittsburgh brass has the capability to get the job done right. Prove me wrong suits…prove me wrong.

 

 

 

 

2010 Major League Baseball Preview

Just about a year ago instead of doing a baseball preview I opted to instead lament the fallen state of “The National Pasttime”. But last week something strange and unexpected happened. I was doing a little channel surfing on a particularly barren night of television and I happened across a Pittsburgh Pirates spring training game…and it made me happy. They lost the game, but that is beside the point. Spring training games don’t count anyway, and being a Pirates fan has made me somewhat desensitized to the effects of losing. What surprised me was that twinge of excitement I felt that baseball was back. I haven’t felt that way in a long long time. I don’t know how long it will last, as I have no misguided hope that my favorite team will end its 17 year losing streak, but for now I will embrace the anticipation and do the full blown preview and prognostication that I just couldn’t find the energy to do last season.

National League

EAST

Philadelphia Phillies              91-71

Atlanta Braves                         89-73

Florida Marlins                       82-80

New York Mets                       71-91

Washington Nationals          64-98

The Phillies lost pitcher Cliff Lee but added perennial All-Star Roy Halladay to the rotation and made no significant changes otherwise, so there is no reason to think they won’t dominate the division yet again. I think the Braves will make a valiant run in honor of their manager Bobby Cox, who is retiring at season’s end. The Marlins have maybe the best player in baseball in Hanley Ramirez, but still most folks believe they overachieved last season and may drop off a bit in 2010. The Mets were riddled with injuries last season and hope to avoid that problem. They have one of the best pitchers around in Johan Santana and added outfielder Jason Bay’s bat to the lineup, but I don’t believe they will be any better this year than last. The Nationals are…well, they are the Nationals. They were the worst team in baseball a year ago and are unlikely to improve significantly at the moment. They have some excellent young talent in the pipeline, but those players are a couple years away from making an impact on the big club.

CENTRAL

St. Louis Cardinals               89-73

Chicago Cubs                         85-77

Milwaukee Brewers             77-85

Cincinnati Reds                    76-86

Pittsburgh Pirates                73-89

Houston Astros                     70-92

The Cardinals are right up there with Philly as the class of the National League and it would be shocking if they didn’t remain on that perch. The hiring of former home run king and apparent steroid user Mark McGwire as the hitting coach caused a bit of a stir in the offseason, but will be a non-story by summer. The Cubs have been so very close, but just can’t get over the hump. The big question in Chicago is the bullpen, so keep an eye on that situation in the first few weeks of the season…it may go a long way to determining the team’s level of success or failure. They did jettison troubled outfielder Milton Bradley, which is addition by subtraction. The Brewers have been making inroads the past few seasons, and this may be the year  they hit the inevitable snag, the lull, the step back before truly leaping forward. The Reds, Pirates, and Astros are all battling to not finish in last place, which is sort of sad. It wasn’t that long ago that Houston was a World Series team, and anyone familiar with baseball’s rich and storied history knows that Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have winning traditions but have fallen on hard times.

WEST

Colorado Rockies                   89-73

Los Angeles Dodgers            88-74

San Francisco Giants            87-75

Arizona Diamondbacks       78-84

San Diego Padres                   77-85

I don’t have any logical reason or empirical data to back it up, but I think this is the year the Dodgers fall off a bit. This will still be one of the most competitive races in baseball, likely coming down to the final week. The Giants have finally moved beyond Barry Bonds, and I think that will bode well for them. Pitcher Tim Lincecum anchors the pitching staff and if Barry Zito can regain his stuff that’ll be a huge boost. Colorado is one of those teams that has no true superstars but all they do is win. San Diego and Arizona are complete messes right now and building for the future.

American League

EAST

New York Yankees                 99-55

Boston Red Sox                        93-69

Tampa Bay Rays                      86-76

Toronto Blue Jays                   72-90

Baltimore Orioles                    71-91

It seems like the AL East always comes down to the Yankees and Red Sox. I wish I could say 2010 might be different or exciting, but I have to be honest. The Yankees are able to buy success better than any team in professional sports, and this year they went out and got outfielder Curtis Granderson from the Detroit Tigers. They lost Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon as well, but I don’t think those losses will hurt all that much. The poor Red Sox might be the only team in history to be so consistently successful yet finish 2nd most of the time. The Sox lost slugger Jason Bay but added John Lackey to the rotation, so they will still be better than any team in baseball not named the Yankees. Tampa added a much needed closer in Rafael Soriano, but I don’t think it will make much difference. Toronto and Baltimore will once again battle to not finish dead last. The Orioles should show some improvement over last season, but I still like Toronto a little better, even with the loss of Roy Halladay.

CENTRAL

Chicago White Sox                 88-74

Minnesota Twins                    87-75

Detroit Tigers                          81-81

Kansas City Royals               73-89

Cleveland Indians                 61-101

No division in baseball has been more competitive over the past few years. It’s almost always a toss-up as to which of three teams…the Twins, Tigers, and White Sox…will come out on top. A few things have happened this offseason that may…or may not…make the 2010 picture just a little clearer. Most knowledgeable fans expected the Twins to eventually lose All-Star catcher (and one of the top all around players in the league) Joe Mauer to a big market team that could afford a mega million dollar contract. However, Mauer went against conventional wisdom and recently signed an 8 year extension with his hometown club, which is shockingly sweet in such a cynical business. That good news was offset by losing closer Joe Nathan for the season because of an elbow injury. That might prove to be catastrophic for Minnesota’s season in such a tight race. Meanwhile, the Tigers traded away outfielder Curtis Granderson and pitcher Edwin Jackson and added outfielder Johnny Damon. That’s a net loss in my book. The woes befalling Detroit and Minnesota will ultimately benefit the White Sox, who will have the benefit of a full season from late-2009 pitching acquisition Jake Peavy. Kansas City has a good mix of veterans and youngsters, and even though they aren’t quite ready to be considered anywhere near competitive yet they are showing signs of life. Cleveland has reverted back to the laughingstock days that inspired the 1989 film Major League (“What the hell league you been playing in??  California Penal”), and may very well lose 100 games.

WEST

Seattle Mariners                    92-70

Los Angeles Angels              89-73

Texas Rangers                       86-76

Oakland A’s                            77-85

The old saying is “you can’t go home again”. Ken Griffey Jr. is aiming to prove that statement false, and I think he just might do it. Griffey spent the first 10 years of his injury plagued career in Seattle, and returns as a 40 year old man in the twilight of that career. Most likely he will only be asked to DH, and that should work out well. He is just 70 home runs shy of becoming only the 5th player ever to hit 700 for a career (the others are *Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays), and maybe with a few injury free seasons in Seattle he can get there. Seattle also added pitcher Cliff Lee, which is probably the acquisition more likely to have a significant impact. As a Pirate fan I will be keeping an eye on former Bucs shortstop Jack Wilson and pitcher Ian Snell. Maybe they can finally experience the sweet taste of victory out west. Many baseball pundits seem to be predicting the fall of the three time defending division winner LA Angels, but I am not sure the decline will be too precipitous. They will still be right there at the end, they just have better competition now. The Angels did lose slugger Vladamir Guerrero and pitcher John Lackey, subtractions that will be felt. And no, adding former Yankee Hideki Matsui does not even things out. Speaking of Vlad, he ended up in Texas with the Rangers, which instantly makes that team better. I am not really impressed with the Rangers’ rotation, but maybe their young guns will surprise me. One of the biggest stories to come out of the offseason is the fact that Texas’ manager is apparently a cokehead, so that is a development to keep an eye on throughout the season. Oakland’s only meaningful offseason move was to add pitcher Ben Sheets to the rotation. If Sheets is healed up completely from elbow surgery it will be a quality addition, but the A’s still have a lot of work to do.

In the postseason it looks like we’ll be watching Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, and Atlanta in the National League and the Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox, and Mariners in the American League. Another Yankees/Phillies World Series would not at all frost my cupcake as a fan, so I’d like to see either the Rockies or Mariners (or even the Red Sox) somehow defy the odds…but I won’t hold my breath.