Friday, October 31, 2008

Pats/Colts more important than ever

There has been a surfeit of stories this week about how Sunday’s Pats/Colts game has lost its luster. Maybe it has, but that only means this week’s game is more important than it has been in years. In the past, both teams could afford to lose to one another, knowing that they’d likely face each other again in the playoffs. This year, the teams are scrapping just to get to the playoffs, and have lost more games than they did last year, including postseason games. This game will be less shiny, but more important.

Look, each game in the NFL is a snapshot in time. Just because a team beats another in the regular season doesn’t mean they’ll beat them in the playoffs. Ask the 2002 Rams, or last year’s Patriots, how that turned out. The Pats/Colts epic games were fun, but they were just a prelude to a possible playoff game. That’s great and all, but when the teams are struggling to survive, there’s more on the line, and when there’s more on the line, it makes for more compelling football. Last year’s game was big because the Colts represented the biggest potential obstacle to the Pats’ undefeated season… but that was a vanity thing. If they had lost that game and only that game (and it looked like they were going to lose that game), they still would have had the number one overall seed in the playoffs.

This year, the Pats are tied for first in the AFC East. For someone who grew up in the Bill Parcells and Pete Carroll eras, this is a familiar spot. Every play is important. Every play represents the difference between having a chance to win it all and staying home in January. So let the national media complain that they’re subjected to a lackluster game. This is football at its best.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Fightin' Phils

In mid-September, I attended a wedding in Philadelphia. I was the best man, and the wedding party was a hodgepodge of East Coast and Chicago baseball allegiances. There was a White Sox fan, a Yankees fan, a Cubs fan, a Red Sox fan (myself) and the groom himself, who is a Phillies fan. The minister was also from Chicago. He was a Cubs fan. In God We Trust, I guess.

Mike got married, and it was the best day of his life. Hands down. Hands down. I had a pretty good time as well. The wedding was at an arboretum on a picture-perfect late fall day, and afterward we retired to some Philly bars still dressed in our wedding threads. We had some beers, watched some football, caught up, talked to single people. And the next day, we spread back out across the country, eager to root against each other for the next six weeks.

Well, Mike won. In a stupefying but welcome recent first, the Yankees were the only team among the bunch that didn’t make the playoffs – Hallelujah! Going into the first round, the White Sox looked like the most vulnerable, playing against the upstart Rays, while the Phillies were right back where they were last year — at home, in the first round, favored. Last year, it didn’t go so well, as they lost to the Rockies in three games largely spurred by Colorado’s second baseman, Kaz Matsui, a punchline in Mets territory who sat out a good percentage of this season with an anal fissure. Go ahead and read that previous sentence again. Soak it in. It is fantastic.

This year, the Phillies were the bullies, beating the Milwaukee Brewers in three games. They won their first two games at home en route to sweeping every home game they played this postseason; if you want to win a World Series, kids, this is a good way to do it. The White Sox would win a home game as well, but it was merely one to stave off elimination against the Rays, who would finish them off the following day. The Red Sox started out west, beating the Angels twice in Anaheim and nabbing game four at Fenway to move on. The only team NOT to win at home was the Cubs.

Offfff course.

The Cubs have really turned into the Red Sox; a team that’s an occasionally ferocious competitor that finds a way to lose in the most heartbreaking way possible. You got the sense this year that if the Cubs had actually won a postseason game, they might have found their stride and romped to an overexposed championship. It didn’t happen. They got pummeled at home and quieted by the Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles, led by Manny Ramirez, whose quest to get back to the World Series fell just short. When his former team followed suit, it set the stage for one of the more bizarre World Series in recent memory: the young, eager team from city trying to round out its professional championship trifecta, against a team that had been around forever, won it all only once, and played in a city with four professional teams, none of whom had won a title since 1983 (Each of the others had failed once in the meantime).

During this time, I didn’t really hear from Mike. I don’t actually hear from Mike that often; he’s a pretty quiet guy. He’s the flip side to the stereotypical Philadelphian, who he’s fairly familiar with in the person of his father. Passionate about everything, ready to get mad at a moment’s notice, but fundamentally just upset about it all — that’s him. Mike just gets exasperated, and to tell you the truth, I would too. If Boston fans always thought they were superior, and the results didn’t show up on the field, Philly fans thought they weren’t superior, and the results did show up on the field. It wasn’t accurate, but Boston fans were wrong too (We weren’t superior). So when the Phillies won the title last night, and the only thing I heard from Mike was OH MY GOD, I knew something had snapped into place, the “It’s just sports, but it feels damn good to win” logic jump that usually comes far after a title win. Philly fans have known it’s just sports for years, which is why it killed them when they couldn’t win. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just sports. Win the game. It never happened. Now the Phillies are champions, Philly stands intact and life can go on. Whereas Boston fans changed for the worse after the titles, I expect Philly fans to change for the better. I expect less relief than a profound sense of pride, but a dignified pride. I also expect the Eagles to win the Super Bowl, so we’ll see if it gets tested in early February.

But let’s let them have their moment.

One last thing about the wedding: the morning of, we went to eat breakfast in Philly’s Center City Market. There’s a Pennsylvania Dutch Country restaurant/counter where, basically, the Amish cooked us food. It was great, but others went off in search of cheesesteaks. It was 9:30 in the morning, but they wouldn’t be deterred. They came back sans cheesesteak, but they had made a discovery. “Mitch Williams is over there,” they said.

Mitch Williams threw the last pitch of the 1993 World Series. Joe Carter hit it for a championship-winning home run. Since then, the heat-throwing, hard-living lefty had actually made a pretty good life and name for himself in Philadelphia, becoming a talk-show host and hawking a line of Mitch Williams Wild Thing salsa. We went over and met him, told him Mike was getting married, got pictures with him and everything. He even signed a jar of salsa. Little did we know then, or did we know, that his days as a top Philly sports celebrity were drawing to a close. Everyone loves a character, but what everyone really loves is a winner. In 10 years, you won’t be able to walk a block in that town without hearing about Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Brad Lidge, and Williams will be an increasingly small footnote — that’s how these things work. Ask Drew Bledsoe. Everyone loves a winner. The Phillies are just that.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Controlled Substances, Wes Welker and Eggs

(Now that we're in straight-up football season, some football talk. Story time!)

I went to last year’s Patriots Week 17 game against the, ugh, Giants, and rather than wait in a 90-minute line to catch the bus back to the Port Authority, I hung out with a group of people I kind of knew and waited for the line to subside (It never did; we would take a ride back to their hotel and take a cab from there). This was unpleasant because there was a man there, who I had met earlier that evening, who was from Rhode Island and had bet a substantial amount of money on the Giants beating the point spread, which did not happen. He was wearing a blood-red Patriots sweatshirt, and was the object of many “congratulations”-spewing Pats fans on the way back to their cars. One would think this was all fine and dandy, because the Patriots had just completed the first 16-0 regular season in league history. Only dude was under the influence of, let’s just say, a controlled substance that can make you hyper and angry, and since he was hyper and angry fellow to begin with, he was extremely upset about having lost the I believe TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS he had bet on the game’s outcome. If you didn’t think the bus line was really all that bad, the fact that I was hanging out with this guy should convince you otherwise.

So basically here’s what happened.

Guy passing by: “Yeah man! Patriots!”
Crazy guy: “I’ll f*cking kill you. Keep walking.”
Guy passing by: Really, really confused, does as he’s told.
(Repeat at least four times)

This was right after the game, and I had briefly lost contact with the person I actually knew among this group, who was my sole link to crazy guy, and it was just the two of us. I was scared to be around the guy because I was wearing a Patriots jersey, but I was acting appropriately somber given that there was a [redacted]-up dude in my vicinity who had lost $2,000. I know when to tread lightly. We made small talk. Like, really small. Then I had to pee. So I got, I believe the technical term is, the f*ck out of there.

About 200 feet away from the car was the road that creates the periphery of the parking lot; just beyond that were hella bushes that serve as a big pre- and post-game potty. This would serve me just fine. I was on my way back to the car when I someone yelled in my direction, “Hey Welkuh (the local pronunciation of the name on the back of my shirt), do you like eggs” and whizzzz…

… an egg went flying about 10 feet past my head.

This is probably the time I should have kept walking, but I was on the phone at the time and decided to describe the scene to my bemused friend. And talk a little trash. Given what I was returning to, I believe there is an expression to describe my circumstances involving a hard place and a rock, so I decided to stay where I was. I said to my would-be assailants, grouped about 30 feet away, “If you keep throwing them like Eli, sure, you won’t hit me.”

Did I mention I’m not smart?

Emboldened by my comment, one of them, who had to be at least 45 years old, walked straight up to me, stopping five feet away. He raised his arm and catapulted it forward, and while I attempted to dodge the chicken embryo, its casing broke against my shirt and its yellow goo caked all over my gloves and clothes. He said to me, shrugging, “I had to,” as if I was supposed to feel bad for him, even as someone closer to my age (I AM THIRTY), came over and said to me, “I’m sorry about him, man.” Which I felt good about until one of them threw a full, open beer can at me as I finally walked away. It hit a school bus full of children.

When I got back to the car, my friend was there, but I was careful to hide any evidence of the attack, because, and I mean this quite literally, red sweatshirt guy would have murdered someone if he found out. He wanted to murder someone anyway, and this would have been a good excuse. Thankfully it was pretty dark and didn’t come up until we were on our way out of the stadium, and, being in the car, we were able to convince him that we really preferred getting out of there to vehicular manslaughter.

I think I need to get new friends.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Mighty Rays

Depending on who you ask, it is either completely surprising or completely unsurprising that the Tampa Bay Rays stand on the brink of a World Series victory, having (finally!) dispatched the defending champion Boston Red Sox. Mystique and Aura have left Fenway for the dome-enclosed charm of The Trop — quite possibly the worst venue in American professional sports today. Let that not, if we can help it, detract from the greatness and beauty of this year’s Rays club. Having never really been a factor in any previous Major League season, the team was on the verge of becoming the biggest headache for statheads in the history of the game before this season: a team chock-full of young stars that somehow couldn’t win. It was like adding 10+10+10+10+10+10+10+10+10 and getting 65 over and over. You knew it had to change eventually, but I would guess even the most stubborn number crunchers took one look at the Tampa Twentysomethings and still said, when the compass pointed north of 90 wins, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” The Rays hadn’t just suffered through 12 consecutive losing seasons since entering the league in 1998, they had suffered through 12 horrible losing seasons. They finished out of last place exactly once, in the Red Sox’ miracle season of 2004. The then-“Devil Rays” won 70 games, and finished fourth. The Blue Jays looked up from below.

Now the Might Rays storm into the World Series, completing an odd, almost tragic superfecta: each of the four most recently-instituted expansion teams in Major League Baseball have reached the Fall Classic. The Florida Marlins won the whole shebang twice; the Diamondbacks claimed victory in 2001. The Colorado Rockies won 23 out of their final 24 games before being swept out of the title hunt by Boston. Cubs fans, Brewers fans and Pirates fans aren’t likely to see the joy in this little coincidence. It’s been 63 years since they played a World Series game at Wrigley. For that you can thank James Loney and Manny Ramirez.

It was Loney’s Game 1 grand slam that, for all intents and purposes, put the Cubs/Dodgers series out of reach: with their superior starting pitching and the superlative Manny Ramirez leading the way, the Dodgers sucked all the momentum from the North Siders and cruised into the National League Championship Series against the Phillies. Ramirez was the headline attraction of these playoffs. After he was traded by the Red Sox in late July due to a long-simmering feud with the team over a 2009 player option, Ramirez channeled his inner Barry Bonds, hitting an astonishing .396 for the remainder in the regular season (and over .500 in the playoffs), and inducing more than a few eye-rolls in the Fens. His replacement in Boston, Jason Bay, adequately filled Ramirez’s spot in the Sox’ lineup — not a Hurcelean task, but maybe a Mannychean one. Bay is not the hitter that Ramirez is, but Bay’s tall stroke has old-school power when he squares the ball up. The baseball world was ready for Red Sox/Dodgers the way it was for Red Sox/Cubs in 2003 or the NFL was for Patriots/Packers last year; instead, the two best teams in the game are those that play in a stadium unfit for anything but college kids and one whose fanbase is best known for throwing snowballs at Santa Claus during a football game.

The Rays didn’t pound their way into the Series, even if they spent the better part of games two through five sending forget-me-nots over the outfield walls in St. Petersburg and Boston. The Rays’ 15 homers in the frame set the record for a League Championship series, but it was a slicing, defensive line-drive by Evan Longoria that tied game seven at one apiece after Dustin Pedroia’s first-run homer for Boston. Longoria, a rookie who stands six-foot-three and a terrifying presence in the batter’s box, was already one of the great stories of the postseason for his tape-measure home runs, but this time he used his massive frame to deflect a ball just down the first-base line with a runner on second base. He was hopelessly late on the ball, but, like the best hitters, if you’re not hitting the ball out of the yard it doesn’t matter much where you hit it, and the important thing is to get the bat on the ball. He sliced one to right, and the game was tied. The Rays’ starter, the brilliant but mercurial Matt Garza, was able to relax a bit, and continued to dominate the Red Sox hitters. When the Rays took the lead on a single by Rocco Baldelli it was bedlam inside the dome, and curtains for the Red Sox. Willie Aybar would add a seventh-inning homer, and the Red Sox would load the bases in the eighth inning, but once Tampa regained the lead they looked like a team poised to make it to baseball’s ultimate stage. The canards about postseason experience die hard, but last night, in Tampa, the Rays did their best to kill off any old storylines. The Red Sox had come back from 3 games down to the Yankees and two games down to the Indians in their previous playoff runs; this year, the clock struck midnight on them, but Tampa’s Cinderella story continues.

The Rays will meet the Philadelphia Phillies, who breezed through the National League playoffs after winning the NL East’s war of attrition in familiar, ugly style. For the second straight season, the New York Mets blew a substantial division lead only to find themselves even with Philadelphia on the season’s final Friday; trailing by one game on Saturday; and even again on Sunday thanks to a brilliant pitching performance. Last year it was John Maine; this year it was the Minnesota and Venezuela important Johan Santana, who scrawled on the Mets’ lineup card “Let’s play like men today” and promptly threw a complete game, 11-strikeout shutout. Unfortunately, he was merely a spectator on the season’s final day, when the Mets were eliminated from playoff competition and the Brewers snuck past them to earn a wild card berth. As Queens sank into its annual winter depression, the Phillies were determined not to be swept out of the playoffs in the minimum number of games possible, as they were by last year’s supernova Rockies, but they were playing a Brewers club that had waited 26 years between playoff appearances and had the best pitcher on the planet scheduled to start game two in CC Sabathia. Sabathia, acquired from Cleveland earlier in the season and almost certain to land in the Bronx in 2009, spent his three months on Milwaukee racking up an 11-2 record with a 1.65 ERA and almost single-handedly restored dignity to the Milwaukee baseball franchise.

Sabathia couldn’t start in game one, though, and that job for Philadelphia fell to 24-year-old Cole Hamels, like Sabathia a tall, left-handed pitcher with occasionally dominating tendencies. Where Sabathia is hefty and unkempt in his two-sizes-too-big uniform, Hamels looks like the cardboard cutout of a pitcher. His cap is pulled tight over his had, brim unbent in the slightest, and when he delivers the ball it’s almost as if he’s reaching over to place it in Carlos Ruiz’s glove. Sabathia, on the other hand, rocks and fires, putting his obvious body mass to work and finishing each pitch with a theatrical flourish of his left arm above is head. Hamels’ delivery is all business: smoother, more consistent, ending downward in a fielding position. It was also more effective in this series. He pitched a masterpiece in game one and watched as Sabathia gave up a second-inning grand slam to the Hawaiian Shane Victorino in game two. This is the second straight year Sabathia has been roughed up in the playoffs after a brilliant regular season, possibly the result of the large number of innings he threw just getting there (His NLDS start was his fourth consecutive appearance on three days’ rest). Note to Hank: caveat emptor.

Against the Dodgers, the Phillies were faced with roughly the same quandary the Anaheim Angels were faced with in the 2002 World Series: How do you stop, with apologies to Albert Pujols (then and now), the game’s reigning best hitter at the peak of his abilities? The answer is to stop everybody else. Manny, long accused of making a mockery of the game, continued to do so with his bat, going an incomprehensible 8 for 15 with two home runs and seven walks over the course of the series, only to see his team fall, four games to one. His 28 postseason home runs are most all time, and his 74 postseason RBI are second to Bernie Williams, but it is those records — and the thought of his next $100 million contract — that will have to carry Ramirez through the long winter. Like his old friends in Boston, he couldn’t make it to the very end. In fact, it was Derek Lowe, Boston’s winning pitcher in each of 2004’s series-clinching victories, that took losses in games one and four for L.A., a team with a distinctly East Coast feel featuring Joe Torre behind the bench and Nomar Garciaparra sitting atop it. Even the Dodgers’ owner hails from Boston, but there will be no clam chowder nor wheatgrass in this year’s World Series. This one’s for all the cheesesteaks.

If there is one postseason story that should not be buried by Longoria’s superlative skills or BJ Upton’s mammoth playoff home run outburst (seven at latest count, one off the playoff record), it is that of Baldelli. Baldelli joined Tampa Bay in 2003 and put up good numbers through several losing seasons before struggling through something bigger: he was losing energy. After several trips to the disabled list and consultations with doctors, it was discovered that he has a severe metabolic condition that restricts his ability to engage in athletic activities for long periods of time. He’s still a good player, but a part-time one. For someone who grew up in Rhode Island (as a Red Sox fan) and was compared to Joe DiMaggio in his early days for his all-around abilities, it looked as if Baldelli’s career would be spent, for its valor, in the service of avoiding futility. Baldelli started only two games of the series, including the last one, but his go-ahead single in the sixth inning was the game’s decisive blow. At merely 27 years old, he is the heart of this both improbably and all-too-predictably good Rays team. Philadelphia’s center is probably their incredibly 26-year-old second baseman, Chase Utley, but their most recognizable player is their slugging first baseman Ryan Howard. Howard led the league in home runs for two out of the last three years, but his efficiency in producing them has dropped dramatically in that time. He strikes out in the most prodigious numbers in major league history, leading many observers to curse his approach, but there’s something magnetic about the man that is old-school baseball at its finest and delightfully simple to understand — he hits the ball a long way. Homerless through the NLCS, it would be vintage Howard to turn on the faucet when it’s needed the most (He won the 2006 NL MVP on the basis of a sizzling September, and may repeat the feat this year). The question is whether any of it will be enough to cool off the Rays. There may not be enough juice in Howard’s bat and Hamels’ arm to extinguish the thrilling young team by the bay.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

They have to win

They have to win

Friday, October 3, 2008

El caballito

The Slanch Report (via Deadspin) has a post this morning about Dustin Pedroia, whom TBS announced Chip Carey calls "el caballito" as if that was his Widely Accepted Nickname. Which it isn't. It was the first time Slanch had heard this particular name, but I heard it once before, back in May, also during a TBS game, and I remembered it because it's, I don't know, ridiculous and awesome? But I didn't hear it again until last night, when Carey apparently said, "How many times have we heard about 'el caballito' this summer?" which led Slanch to guess that David Ortiz might be just messing with Chip for everyone's benefit, a lá Darryl on The Office. I love the idea of this, and Chip would be the perfect target, so let's hope Big Papi is onto something here. But we're onto something here, too, off the baseball topic, on The Office...