Saturday, July 30, 2011

Phillies Get Pence, Sox Need Ubaldo

The tug-of-war match between the Red Sox and Phillies for baseball supremacy in 2011 spilled over into the trade deadline yesterday when Philadelphia, clinging to the best record in the majors, swapped four players, including a pair of highly touted prospects, for two-time All-Star Hunter Pence.  Although this move could potentially cost them down the road if Cosart and Singleton (said prospects) pan out, the Phils received a nice offensive boost for the immediate future.  Pence, squarely in his prime at 28 years of age, is coming off a fine season in which he set career highs by scoring 93 runs, stroking 25 home runs, totaling 91 ribbies and swiping 18 bases for one of the league's worst offenses in the Houston Astros.  Although he's not running as much this year and his power as fallen off some (he's on pace for fewer than 20 home runs after three straight seasons of hitting 25 on the nose), he totes 26 doubles and a nice .308 batting average into the City of Brotherly Love, where he is a career .300 hitter and will join fellow All-Stars Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, Raul Ibanez, Placido Polanco, and former NL MVPs Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins in the Phillies' formidable lineup. 

The Phillies may have missed out on Carlos Beltran, but Pence is an excellent consolation prize,  He is, after all, six years younger and will be under team control through 2013 whereas Beltran becomes a free agent at the end of the season.  They gave up a lot to get him, but trading potential for a proven commodity generally seems to work out in baseball and could put the Phillies over the top in their chase for a second World Series title in four years.  We all know the Phillies have ample pitching, but their starting nine has been quite ordinary thus far.  Despite trotting those aforementioned studs out there everyday, Philly doesn't rank in the top three for any major offensive category in the NL.  Every regular besides right field platoon mates Domonic Brown and Ben Francisco is at least 30 years old, and this team desperately needed someone (especially a right-handed batter such as Pence to balance the lineup and step into Jayson Werth's cleats) to breathe some fresh air into it.  Pence provides some youth and energy whereas Beltran just would have been another aging star.

But while the Phillies may have vaulted themselves to the top of the baseball world, the Red Sox (who also whiffed on Beltran but can't complain about Josh Reddick) can fire back by snagging Ubaldo Jimenez.  Although he has struggled for a full calendar year now, he still boasts a strong 8.6 K/9 rate (nearly identical to last season, when he finished third in the NL Cy Young race) and his FIP, xFIP, and strand rate indicate he has been a bit unlucky so far.  We don't know how he'll fare at Fenway because he's never pitched there before, but adding the 27 year-old hurler to a rotation that includes fellow aces Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, flanked by Clay Buchholz (still on the DL for the foreseeable future) and John Lackey (winner of four in a row), would make Boston's staff incredibly deep and nearly as good as the incomparable Roy Halladay-Cliff Lee-Cole Hamels-Roy Oswalt quadruplet.  But with a better offense and more stable bullpen, the Red Sox would become the more complete team and World Series favorites once again.

Even if the Bosox can't get their mits on Ubaldo for the stretch run, trading for Erik Bedard (owner of a solid 3.45 ERA and 1.17 WHIP for the lowly Mariners) could help fill the hole Buchholz's back injury has created, although the 32 year-old former Cy Young candidate is notoriously injury prone and just spent a month on the shelf.  Jimenez, the top prize still on the trading block, is drawing interest from other teams including the Indians, but if Boston can win this battle you can practically punch their tickets to the Fall Classic.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Missing Mad Men

Summer is always a down time for TV when our favorite shows go on vacation, and this year has been no exception.  There hasn't been much on the tube lately, especially since "Friday Night Lights" had its series finale (I didn't watch, but understand it had quite the following), but at least we have "Entourage" (also in its final season) and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" back on HBO to help ease the pain.  What we're missing, though, is AMC's "Mad Men," which has been a mainstay during the past four summers.  I thought something was fishy when I didn't see any commercials or advertisements for the season premiere throughout June and early July, so I did some research a few weeks ago and came across some depressing information. 

Unfortunately the show won't return until March 2012 because creator Matthew Weiner put his foot down when the network wanted to tinker with the critically acclaimed series.  Apparently during recent contract negotiations, AMC and Lionsgate Television asked Weiner to incorporate more product placement, eliminate two of the supporting characters and trim two minutes out of each episode to allow for additional commcercial time, but he refused because he felt these changes would alter the dynamic of the show.  Weiner ultimately signed a huge three year, $30 million contract that rivals something a professional athlete would scribble his John Hancock on.  But kudos to him for not selling out and putting the show's quality in jeopardy; that takes a lot of guts and I'm sure weaker men would have followed the money and given in.

I'm glad the show has a stable future, but am still disappointed about its absence this summer.  I miss everything about it; the cool title sequence, Slattery's quick one-liners, and enough cigarette smoke drifting through the office to suffocate the entire floor.  "Mad Men," thanks to its outstanding writing, superb acting, strong production values and slick style for a period piece, is widely accepted as one of the best shows on television, now or ever.  Since it's a summer show, you can take the time to sit down, watch it, and appreciate its greatness without trying to squeeze it into a busy schedule.  Leaving us hanging in October, 1965, the series was finally starting to have a sixties feel to it (referring to the music, fashion, and vibrant color scheme here) and is about to cover the most turbulent events of the decade; Vietnam War escalations, race riots, anti-war protests, social turmoil and the Summer of Love. How would the writers integrate these pivotal themes into the plot?  How would the characters respond to their nation abruptly changing around them? Looks like we'll have to wait another half-year to find out, but on the bright side, Weiner guaranteed two more seasons and possibly a third, which would definitely be the final season in the series and would presumably end with Don Draper and co. on the cusp of the 1970s. 

And that will be a great time to stop, because there would be something profoundly weird about our favorite clean-cut advertising executives sporting shaggy hair and tight, polyester clothes.  Don's kids would be teenagers, Betty would have to get a job and some major character would have to die from alcohol poisoning or lung cancer (see what I mean? the show would be way too different if it goes beyond Woodstock). In the meantime, though, I guess we'll have to settle for ABC's "Pan Am," a show about the airline company during its heyday in the 1960s.  It looks like it will combine elements from "Mad Men" and "Catch Me if You Can" (you know, the parts when Leo DiCaprio poses as a Pan Am pilot when he's supposed to be a sophomore in high school) and it debuts on September 25th. 

I'll give it a shot because it looks halfway decent, but I'll still wait for "Mad Men" to return because in this case, I know the wait will be worth it.

P.S. Happy 36th birthday Alex Rodriguez, who could return from the DL within two weeks

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

50 Years Later; Revisiting the Summer of 1961

Last night, Yankee first baseman Mark Teixeira belted a two-run home run to left field off Jason Vargas in the first inning of what would ultimately become a 10-3 drubbing of the hapless Seattle Mariners.  It was Tex's 27th blast of the season, tying him with center fielder Curtis Granderson for team lead.  Given their lineup protection, favorable ballpark and productive second halves in 2010, both have an outside shot at 50 long balls (they're currently on pace for 44).  That would mark the first time in half a century (and just the second time ever) that two teammates joined forces to clobber 50 baseballs out of the park apiece, and it would be an especially impressive accomplishment in a season dominated by pitching.

But even if they both get red hot and launch 23 more home runs apiece over the season's final two months, their achievement still can't stack up to the magical summer of fifty years ago when JFK had just been inaugurated, freedom riders challenged Jim Crow and baseballs were flying out of Yankee Stadium. Just to give you an idea of the kind of season these guys were having, on this day in 1961, Maris had already crushed 40 homers and Mantle would blast his 39th that afternoon at the Stadium against the White Sox.

1961 marked a time of change in baseball.  The American League had just expanded, adding the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators (your current Texas Rangers) while tacking on eight games to the regular season schedule in order to accommodate them.  With the pitching now diluted by the addition of two replacement level staffs, offense was expected to receive a boost and did, with runs per game spiking from 4.39 to 4.53.  The M & M Boys feasted off these weaker teams; Mantle socked 16 home runs and Maris drilled 13 against the Angels and Senators.   The other Yankees joined the party, too, as the team slammed 240 home runs, a new record that quickly became a footnote to history when Maris shattered a much more significant record; Babe Ruth's hallowed mark of 60 home runs in a single season that had stood for 34 years since it was set in 1927.  It had been seriously challenged by Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg, who both whacked 58 home runs during the offense-friendly Great Depression years, and before the season several pundits believed the record could be threatened again. 

Mantle himself had been the latest to put 60 in jeopardy when he cranked 52 moon shots just five years earlier, but the Yankees did not concern themselves with such bold predictions, for they came to spring training with a singular goal; winning the 1961 World Series.

New York entered the '61 season a hungry bunch, eager for another crack at the title after losing in heartbreaking fashion on light-hitting Bill Mazeroski's (career .367 slugging percetage) walk-off homer in Game 7 of the 1960 Fall Classic, a series in which they outscored the underdog Pittsburgh Pirates 55 to 27 but came home empty handed.  They returned with their roster virtually intact and were favored to run away with the league again, although the talented Detroit Tigers were expected to put up a fight.  The fiery Ralph Houk, a former Yankee scrub known as "Major," took over the managerial reigns from 70 year-old Casey Stengel and provided more stability than his inconsistent predecessor.

Roger Maris, a 26 year-old soft spoken farm boy from North Dakota, had been traded from the Kansas City Athletics after the 1959 season and took his game to another level in his first season in the Big Apple.  Using a compact swing to pull the bull into short porch in right, Maris enjoyed a torrid start to his Yankee career and finished 1960 with 39 home runs, 112 RBI and a .581 slugging percentage, the latter two figures enough to lead the league and earn him AL MVP honors over Mickey Mantle by the slimmest of margins (a three point difference--talk about a photo finish).  A complete ballplayer with a strong arm, Maris firmly established himself as one of the best all-around players in the league without requiring a season to acclimate himself to the pressure and attention that comes with playing in New York.  Baseball fans agreed 1960 seemed to be a career year for Maris and wanted to see what he could do for an encore. 

Mantle, the reigning AL home run champ fresh off his third 40 homer season in five years, enjoyed a hot beginning to his season.  Locked in as the team's cleanup hitter and perhaps trying to prove that he was still the best player in the league, the Commerce Comet jacked seven homers in the season's first two weeks and picked up the slack when Maris slumped.  Opposing pitchers began to pitch around him, though, and as a result his pace slowed to eight taters over 38 more spring games.  Once Maris started swinging a hot bat in the beginning of the summer, though, the power became contagious and Muscles ripped two dozen home runs, drove in 53 runs and triple slashed a scorching .373/.505/.880 over his next 46 games through July 26th, today's date.  The team took off and by then the boo-birds who had jeered him through his first ten seasons, five World Series championships, two MVP awards and 1956 Triple Crown season, the ones who called him "draft-dodger," "coward," and "hick" were silenced by his prodigious display of might.  Even better, he had turned his enemies in the stands and press box into full-fledged supporters by joining Maris in the thrilling home run chase.  The Yankees were on a roll, too, having won 49 of their last 72 games and on the brink of sweeping the North Siders.

Although he stumbled in the middle of August when he cracked just one home run in a two and a half week period, Mantle entered September needing eleven home runs to tie the Sultan of Swat.  He had already hit eleven in June and fourteen in July, so Mickey still had a reasonable chance of breaking the record.  After a September 10th doubleheader, a recent hot streak had Mantle sitting on a career high 53 home runs with three weeks left in the season and his chances seemed even better.  Unfortunately Mantle came down with the flu and he received a shot in his hip to try to play through it, but his hip abscessed and became infected.  After gutting it out for two weeks and falling out of the race by clearing the fences only one more time, he shut it down for the season, leaving Maris behind without his lineup protection to pursue history alone.

Maris, on the other hand, got off to a slow start and seemed to be pressing, perhaps trying to live up to his MVP status.  Yankee skipper Ralph Houk tried dropping him from fifth to seventh in the lineup to take some pressure off his struggling star, but Rajah still wasn't hitting.  After going 0-4 on May 16th, his average sat at .208 and with just three home runs, he wasn't hitting for power either.  Houk cemented him as the number three hitter (where he had been batting sporadically throughout May) ahead of Mickey, and Maris responded by swatting dingers in four consecutive games, the beginning of a ten week tear during which he launched 37 home runs, drove in 84 and slugged .784.  He even hit .305 over that 68 game stretch to pull his average up to a more respectable .279.  Naturally, he cooled off and only managed to hit one over the fences during the next two weeks, but then made up for lost time with seven in his next six games. 

By then it was the middle of August, and Roger was only a dozen short of the Babe's record while Mantle was hot on his tail in the race that had gone back and forth all summer. Fans and reporters made it clear they wanted Mickey, now suddenly deemed a "true yankee" after playing in DiMaggio's shadow throughout the 1950s, to break the record, and some even went so far as to boo Maris in his home park.  Rogers Hornsby, arguably the greatest right-handed hitter of all-time and proud owner of a .358 career lifetime batting average (second only to Ty Cobb), told the press it would be a real shame if a .270 hitter like Maris broke the Bambino's record.  Roger lacked Mantle's charisma and struggled with the scribes that surrounded his locker after every game, and before long he grew to disdain them.  The pressure mounted, the press swarmed him like flies, his hair started falling out in clumps, and his body began to wear down towards the end of a long season.  He would only hit .218 the rest of the way, but the homers kept coming; Maris hit three more in August and nine in September to tie Ruth. 

And so it came down to the final game of the season.  The Yankees, with 108 wins, had long since wrapped up the pennant race and only 23,000 fans showed up at the Stadium for a relatively meaningless afternoon game against a mediocre Boston Red Sox squad featuring 22 year old rookie Carl Yastrzemski in left field.  Yaz gloved a Maris liner, a shot that would have been an easy triple or potential inside the park home run, in  Death Valley during the first inning.  But Maris had hit the ball on the screws, and the crowd was buzzing when he dug in with one out and the bases empty in the fourth inning of a scoreless game.  24 year old Tracy Stallard, making just his fourteenth career start, threw a fastball.  Maris swung, connected, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Roger's record-breaking shot proved to be the difference, as the Yanks won 1-0 to earn their 109th victory of the season.

The Bronx Bombers would go on to pulverize the Cincinatti Reds in five games without much help from their pair of sluggers.  Mantle's hip wound opened up and blood soaked through his pinstripes in Game 2, forcing him out of the series after only six at-bats.  Maris, without the Mick's lineup protection once more, recorded just two hits (double and home run) in 23 plate appearances.  He earned his first World Series ring, though, and would bring home another MVP trophy even though Mantle had a much better all-around season; he outhit Maris by 48 points, posted an OBP 76 points higher, outslugged him by 67 points and was worth 4.7 more wins above replacement!  Yet Maris won; the voters must have been swayed by his more impressive home run and RBI totals.  The most telling statistic was that Roger Maris did not receive a single intentional walk in the season he hit 61 homers and knocked in 142 runs; pitchers and managers would rather take their chances with him than face Mantle with a man on first.  That just goes to show which bomber was more feared.

Some more food for thought; Mantle was a switch hitter, while Maris was a left-handed slugger.  Teixeira is a switch hitter, and Granderson bats lefty.  Granderson, like Maris was in '61, is in his second season in pinstripes after coming coming over from a midwestern team (Detroit Tigers in Granderson's case).

In all likelihood, neither Tex nor Grandy hits 50 this season and if anyone does, it's going to be that Jose Bautista guy again.  Both strike out a lot and can be really streaky (to be fair, the same was said about Mantle and Maris), but the return of Alex Rodriguez in two weeks should help and I think they'll both clear 40 if they stay healthy.  It will be interesting to see how they fare in the MVP race as well, since they've managed to keep New York and its shaky rotation in the division race for much of the year, although at this point Adrian Gonzalez is still the favorite and I can't imagine the award going to someone who doesn't play for the Red Sox.

I just hope they keep it up, because I have both of them (plus 40 HR candidate Mike Stanton and the aforementioned Joey Bats-talk about a loaded lineup) on my fantasy team.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Does Yao Belong in the Hall?

Yao Ming decided to call it quits a few weeks back, officially making Shaquille O'Neal the second tallest player to retire since the action-packed 2010-2011 NBA season ended.  Ming was only 30 years old, but chronic foot injuries that plague many big men forced him into early retirement after missing the entire '09-'10 season and appearing in just five games last season.  By all accounts, the seven-and-a-half foot tall import from China exhibited class, humor, and respect for the game during his relatively brief eight year career.  Apparently he was one hell of a teammate as well, a great clubhouse presence.

And while he seems to have been a great guy off the court, the former first overall draft pick could also play some ball, too.  The question is, did he play well enough to earn a spot in the NBA Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA?

At first glance, the answer is a resounding 'no.'  He simply didn't play long enough to build an impressive statistical resume.  After playing in 244 out of a possible 246 games to start his career in the states, he was unable to maintain that level of durability for the remainder of his NBA life.  Only once, in 2008-2009, did he manage to stay on the court for more than 57 games after his third season, and as a result his career totals are pedestrian.  He recorded fewer than 10,000 points, 5,000 rebounds and 1,000 blocks, and never advanced out of the conference semifinals despite playing for some incredibly talented Houston Rockets squads that paired him with fellow superstar Tracy McGrady.  A very good player, he never dominated any single season and, as a result, finished with just .002 MVP shares (ranks 218th all time) thanks to a fourteenth place vote in 2004 and twelth place vote in 2009. 

Clearly the voters did not perceive him as one of the game's elite talents, and we want to include this guy with Wilt, Magic and MJ?

There was nothing Yao could do to prevent the injuries; his massive frame betrayed him, so I don't think it's fair to blame him for his brief career.  Some players sabotage their careers by not working hard or staying in shape, thus squandering their talent and making their bodies more injury prone, but Yao was not one of those players.  He put his time in at the gym (even if his greatest asset, his height, wasn't going anywhere), but sadly he was just too big for his own good.  And like I said earlier, when he did play, he was everything you could ask for from a center. 

He averaged a Chris Bosh-esque 19 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting over 52 percent from the field and knocking down 83 percent (a truly astonishing level for a gargantuan center) of his shots from the charity stripe.  His teams may not have enjoyed much postseason success, but you can't blame Ming for that, either.  He practically replicated his regular season stat line in the playoffs by averaging 19.8 points and 9.3 rebounds with nearly identical field goal and free throw percentages.  A complete player, Yao played great defense, was agile around the basket and passed well for a big man.  He averaged more than 20 ppg in three seasons, double digits rebound numbers twice and made the All-Star team every year he played, including his final one when he missed 77 games.  The fan favorite was still very popular even in the twilight of his career.

Plus, I give him extra-credit for being an ambassador of the game.  He handled his transition to the U.S. with integrity and grace, and he made basketball much more popular in China.  His fame opened the NBA's door to another part of the world with over one billion inhabitants, and that kind of impact on the sport counts for something.  It's not the same, obviously, but I thought of how Jackie Robinson got into the Hall of Fame (despite only playing ten big league seasons) largely because he broke baseball's color barrier.  Granted, he won an MVP and a World Series title while suffering through racism everyday, but Yao's career arc followed a similar pattern; good, then great for a few years before suddenly falling apart.  They were both extremely skilled and unique trailblazers, so I the comparison is viable even if it's not completely equivalent.

Maybe Yao doesn't belong in the Hall; he looks like a borderline case at best and if I had to guess, I would say he probably won't make it in because he didn't play long enough or dominate the way his peers Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard have.  All I know is that he changed the game for the better and his contributions to the sport reached far beyond any basketball arena, so I would induct him for that alone. 

And did I mention he also played basketball pretty well?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Congrats to Robbie Alomar and Bert Blyleven

Tomorrow Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven will be enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  Their plaques will hang in the same building as immortals such as the Babe, Stan the Man, Joltin' Joe and all the rest, as they rightfully should .  This duo didn't have a major impact on the game as far as setting records, earning memorable nicknames or having statues built in their likeness, but instead got in by consistently producing at a high level for a long time.  They didn't have easily defined "career" years and their numbers never overwhelmed; Alomar didn't swat 25 longballs, record 200 base knocks, or swipe 60 bags in any of his 17 seasons just as Blyleven didn't win 25 games, post a 2.50 ERA or whiff 300 batters at any point in his 22 big league campaigns.  Critics might point that out, by my response is this; "so what? and who cares?"  Neither made a sizable dent on the record books, but that doesn't matter because they were still  very, very good for quite awhile.

And in baseball, that means something.

Alomar, with his dozen All-Star selections, ten Gold Gloves and .300 career batting average, was arguably the best all-around second baseman since Joe Morgan (honorable mention goes to Ryne Sandberg, Craig Biggio, Jeff Kent, and Chase Utley).  He combined speed (474 steals) with power (210  dingers) and production (1,508 runs scored and 1,134 batted in) while playing earning a reputation for sterling defense, even though newer defensive statistics believe he was overrated (I'm looking at you, Derek Jeter).  He also won back-to-back World Series titles with the Blue Jays before they became consumed by the AL Beast.  Even though he never won an MVP award and couldn't make a claim as the best player in baseball, he consistently forced his way into the discussion.  Robbie deserved to get in his first time on the ballot, but voters "made him pay" by delaying his selection for a year because he spit on an umpire, a decision I find completely ludicrous.  No one made Ty Cobb wait even though his sins, attacking a disabled fan and letting his overflowing racism spill onto the field through physical altercations with African American groundskeepers, were much worse.  And I doubt Alomar cares, either, because he has his Hall of Fame status, and at the end of the day that's all that matters.  Shame on the BBWAA for attempting to serve moral justice.

But I digress.  Blyleven was a tougher call because although he played 22 seasons and compiled some amazing career statistics--his 287 wins (pitched until he was 41 but just couldn't hang on for that 300th) and 3,701 strikeouts (fifth all-time) impress-he never really dominated.  He only made two All-Star squads (no wonder he was never a household name, but playing in small markets didn't help either), never won a Cy Young award, racked up 250 losses and enjoyed just one twenty win season.  Nonetheless, his sustained excellence over the course of two decades and pair of World Series rings eventually won over the voters in his final year on the ballot.  After perusing his stats, I don't really see why he was such a borderline case like Jim Rice and Andre Dawson were.  His numbers really are spectacular, and in my opinion he should have been elected much sooner, but that's the Hall of Fame for you (you know there are people who didn't vote for Willie Mays, right?  I would like to know what they smoking during the fifties and sixties).  I'm glad he didn't have to wait for a less meaningful selection by the Veterans Committee, though, as getting in twenty-plus years after retirement just seems to lack the same sense of special accomplishment.

Congratulations Bert and Robbie.  You guys earned your places in the Hall, something not everyone in Cooperstown can say.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Why is TNT's "Falling Skies" Falling Flat?

Let me start by admitting that I like "Falling Skies," at least enough to watch the new episodes every week On Demand.  I think it has solid acting, good pacing, and enough action to hold my attention.  Critics seem to agree with me, as the series holds a 71% on review aggregator Metacritic, indicating "generally favorable reviews," and that sounds about right.  Although it hasn't been quite what I expected, as a summer show on cable TV it serves its purpose just fine, especially when you consider that the television schedule is pretty thin (just one reason we have so many summer movies) except for baseball, "Tosh.0" and "Franklin and Bash." Noah Wyle, the show's bookish protagonist, carries the series well as an everyman and brings some solid acting chops to the table, too.  His supporting cast is just as good and has created smart, realistic, and well-rounded characters.  Overall I would rate the show as good, not great, and I'm glad to see TNT renewed it for a second season.

So why, then, has the series been steadily losing viewers since its June 19th two-hour premiere?  Why is there such a notable disparity between what critics and audiences think (users gave it a pitiful 5.5/10 on Metacritic and IMDb) of the show?  With aliens in front of the camera and Hollywood legend Steven Spielberg behind it, why isn't this show more popular?

First off, I think a lot of people, myself included, had high expectations for the series, and rightfully so.  When I saw the previews during the NBA playoffs and learned Steven Spielberg was producing a show about an alien invasion, I thought "That looks awesome--when does it premiere?"  I guarantee many other Americans were thinking the same thing.  After all, Spielberg has mastered alien movies, from the mysterious "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" to the heartwarming childhood classic "E.T." to his terrifying blockbuster adaptation of "War of the Worlds."  All three are different and enjoyable in their own ways, but the key to each film's success was a strong central character the audience could relate to and identify with, someone who could hold the fabric of the movie together when UFOs started landing and towering tripods burned cities to the ground.  He gave you the aliens and special effects you were looking for, but never without the human element.

So naturally, big things were expected of this show, even though Spielberg merely produced it, meaning he neither wrote nor directed a single scene in the series; his lone contribution was writing checks.  TNT wisely attached his name to the project in order to attract more viewers, but this decision was a double-edged sword in that it added more hype to the show and saddled it with unrealistic expectations.  To make matters worse, the previews also mis-marketed the series as a big-budget sci-fi action show by showing breathtaking clips of alien spacecraft, robot-like machines and cities being pelted by blue lasers.  In reality, "Falling Skies" is a more subdued portrayal of survival.  There's some action sprinkled in here and there to keep the blood flowing, but the majority of the plot focuses on protecting the children, procuring supplies and hiding out in an abandoned school named after JFK.  The invasion happened six months in the past, and the show doesn't tell us much about the initial attack except for a few details mentioned here and there by the characters so it seems unlikely that we will get treated to an awesome recreation of Boston falling to a fleet of alien invaders. 

"Falling Skies" has other flaws besides unmet expectations.  First, the show is set in the Boston area but was clearly was not filmed there (it was actually filmed in Canada and while this is a minor complaint, I mention it because it's annoying and lacks authenticity).  The soundtrack is repetitive and the CGI is, for the most part, very poor.  The alien machines (referred to as mechs) look terrible, and every time they appear the only thing I think about is how millions of dollars couldn't produce more realistic computer effects.  I will concede that the alien creatures themselves (referred to as skitters) look quite good, although I've noticed they sound exactly like the aliens from the "Alien" franchise and lack an original design.  Some of the dialogue is sappy, several characters (the fiercely religious optimist and rebellious teenage son are two examples that come to mind) are cliches and the plot can be a bit predictable, too, faults much harder to forgive when you're not getting blown away by action sequences.  Lastly, while the pilot episode was fantastic, the show has gotten bogged down a bit and the most recent episode's turn of events/change of scenery was a much needed breath of fresh air. 

Six episodes in, we know what the show is; a solid but unspectacular family drama set against the backdrop of an alien invasion.  Other people might not like it but for me, that's good enough.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Preparing for the Worst: A year without the NFL and NBA

The NFL has been locked out for over four months now, although thankfully an agreement seems close and the football season should kick off soon.  The NBA has been locked out for fewer than four weeks and the light at the end of the tunnel isn't quite visible; both sides seem miles apart at the moment, especially since owners claim that up to 22 of the league's franchises are losing money (which, given the Association's enormous popularity and TV ratings, seems impossible).  So what happens in the worst case scenario, if the NFL settlement falls through and the NBA can't reach an agreement either?

It's a highly unlikely, nearly unfathomable nightmare, but one that still has a slim chance of becoming reality.  I'll forecast the coming year (glass half empty version) in sportsland, USA.  And let me tell you, folks, it's not pretty.

the rest of July 2011-Business as usual, with the national pastime and its trade deadline dominating sports headlines.  The next few weeks would represent the calm before the storm

August 2011-No NFL training camp, and trash cans across the nation are filled with NFL season preview magazines.  Sports fans are forced to spend the dog days of summer following baseball, which is a good thing for the Pirates, Indians, Giants, and other overachieving teams in smaller markets.  Fantasy baseball remains competitive deep into the season for the first time in years and Nets point guard Deron Williams disappears without a trace in Turkey.

September 2011-Without fantasy football, productivity skyrockets in office buildings across the country and the economy improves.  Die-hards will still hold mock drafts and simulate a season, though, because you can take the player out of the game, but you can't take the game out of the player.  Or is it the other way around?  Someone will mention major league soccer, and you'll do everything in your power not to punch him in the nose.

October 2011-The MLB playoffs receive record ratings, and the World Series matters again when the Phillies and Red Sox square off in the first seven game Fall Classic since the D-Backs came back against Mariano Rivera ten years ago (with the Red Sox taking the title, of course).  College football becomes even more popular, and kids don't dress up like Tom Brady and Chris Paul on Halloween.  Instead, Adrian Gonzalez and Roy Halladay are much more popular choices.  NFL and NBA season ticket-holders, unable to fill their free time, put on their favorite jerseys, band together and roam the streets on weekends.

November 2011-Baseball's marathon season is over, and there's no Peyton Manning and LeBron James on TV?  What gives? Fans have a lot to be thankful for when Thanksgiving rolls around, but lack of entertainment isn't one of them.  Did I already mention that college football becomes even more popular?  By this point, four in every five NFL players have become completely out of shape, and the NHL still can't benefit from a lack of competition with the other major sports.

December 2011-College basketball revs up during the holiday season, but Christmas Day just isn't the same without a full slate of high-octane basketball on ABC.  The voices of Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy, and Mark Jackson's substitute are replaced by Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby in living rooms across America, and no one gets NBA tickets in their stockings.

January 2012-Without NFL playoffs, the dead of winter is truly a lifeless time for sports fans, especially when the college bowl games wrap up.  ESPN finally runs out of human interest stories and is forced to replay its entire "30 for 30" series everyday.  Every NBA player is out of shape by now, except for Steve Nash and Ray Allen.  College hoops, anyone?

February 2012-NO SUPER BOWL!?! (Yes, that is in fact smoke pouring out of my ears; please stand back while my head detonates) This is the single biggest disappointment of the year for Americans.  Spring training, more hockey and college basketball, and an added emphasis on Valentine's Day barely qualify as a consolation prize.  KIA files for bankruptcy when people stop buying their cars and Blake Griffin can't jump over a school bus in the dunk contest in a last ditch attempt to save the company.

March 2012-March Madness gets taken to another level this year; I'm talking fans foaming at the mouth and filling out a dozen brackets.  Inevitably, people will forget they are watching college kids instead of professional athletes.  BYU fans, enjoying another quiet, meaningless season in Utah won't be able to recall which NBA franchise drafted Jimmer Fredette, and neither will anyone else.  That same person who brought up MLS will do it again, and this time you won't be able to restrain yourself and will deliver a powerful right hook to his jaw.

April 2012-Baseball returns with an expanded playoff format and altered schedule thanks to Bud Selig, who just can't leave the sport alone, and the absence of NBA playoffs means fans get to see their local nine in action during chilly spring nights (because that's when baseball should be played, right? Nothing like stiff muscles, broken bats and half empty stadiums).  NHL playoffs start, but people seem to have trouble caring or remembering.  I call it NHL-induced-amnesia or apathy, depending on the symptoms

May 2012-See April, but replace "chilly" with "mild and comfortable."  Summer is just around the corner, and by now fans will jump on the hockey bandwagon once half the playoff teams have been eliminated.  The ones who don't will wonder why the NHL playoffs are scheduled during 85 degree weather.  Deron Williams is found and explains that he simply "got lost" in his unfamiliar surroundings.  Authorities suspect he was kidnapped by radical Turkish basketball fans who didn't want to see their league ruined by an infusion of NBA players.

June 2012-No NBA Finals to interfere with graduation ceremonies, and everyone's favorite TV shows have already wrapped for the summer.  The Stanley Cup finals capture the nation's attention span for a couple weeks, but then it's officially time to start looking forward to the summer Olympics in London.  Michael Phelps is the big winner here because he becomes relevant again, Subway commercials notwithstanding. Vote totals for baseball's All-Star game rise for the second consecutive season.

There you have it; something uglier and scarier than the hypothetical child of Joakim Noah and Rosie O'Donnell.  On the bright side, the MLB and NCAA would benefit greatly from increased attention, but that's the only positive I can  think of.  So here's to the end of both lockouts, because I'm not sure we can last a whole year. 

I know I can't do it, and I'm not even a big football fan.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Beltran in Boston?

The MLB trade deadline is less than two weeks away, and the Red Sox are looking to add more firepower to baseball's best offense? Don't they have a $163 million dollar payroll and the second best record in the majors?  Didn't they just get Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez?

Jesus, aren't they still the favorites to win the pennant and possibly the World Series?  Does any of that matter?

The answers to those questions are yes, yep, sure, you bet and of course, but Epstein is still looking to do some last minute wheeling and dealing for Carlos Beltran, among others.  Given Theo's propensity for late July splashes--the man shipped away Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez, netted Jason Bay and Victor Martinez--maybe it's reasonable to assume that the guy just can't help himself.  Perhaps he's become a bit trigger happy, a little too eager to make some phone calls and push the big red button on his desk just for the sake of doing something, anything at the deadline.  It's also possible he just never learned to realize when you have a good thing, nay, a great thing, going and just sit on your hands when the end of July rolls around.  Or maybe, just maybe, he doesn't have an ounce of faith in this team, and neither should you.

I'm being facetious.  No team is perfect, not even this one, and the trading deadline is a great time to assess the squad and attempt to plug some holes before the stretch run, to seal the leaks that could eventually sink World Series dreams.  Theo's generally done an exceptional job at this; he saved the season in 2004 by overhauling the defense and his midseason moves always seem to work out, with Eric "Gag-me" Gagne being the one glaring exception from recent memory.  Sometimes staying the course can be prudent, and other times it will lead you straight into an iceberg.  Right now, Epstein is at the wheel and senses danger looming on the horizon.  He's looking at that potent offense and sees a black hole in right field with J.D. Drew

Drew's been brutal at the plate this year, but his above average defense means he basically has the value of a replacement level player so far (quick statement of the obvious--replacement players have not, are not, and never will be worth $14 million, not even in 2111 when the Albert Pujolses of the world will make more than $50 mil a year. If that number scares you, remember that I just threw out a figure based on a meaningless adjustment for inflation).  Can the Sox win in October with him? Probably, but would replacing him with Carlos Beltran improve their chances?

Definitely, and that's why Theo has his sights set on him.  Drew needs a change of scenery and is going to be gone when his contract expires after the season, but the sooner he can escape Boston's pressure-cooker the better.  Beltran, one of the game's best all-around players since he was named AL Rookie of the Year a dozen years ago, is enjoying a resurgence this year and could also use a change of scenery even though he says he wants to stay in the Big Apple and has a no-trade clause.  The most coveted outfielder on the market, Beltran is exactly what Epstein is looking for.  Unfortunately SI's Jon Heyman says the Phillies, the only team better than the Red Sox right now, seem to be the favorite in the Carlos Beltran sweepstakes at the moment, and it's very possible that he could be the difference maker in October given his ability to dominate a playoff series.  Philadelphia has a greater need for the six-time All-Star, since their offense has been shockingly average given their loaded lineup and they clearly miss Jayson Werth's right-handed bat.  The switch-hitting Beltran can provide extra pop with his .523 slugging percentage, solid run production and league-leading 30 doubles, so he'd be a perfect fit for the Phillies.

But what if Theo works his magic and Beltran finds himself in Boston?  It's a big what if, especially since up to ten teams have shown interest in him.  That's a lot of competition for one player, and I'm not getting my hopes up.  Let's have some fun with this thing anyways and explore five pros and cons of that possibility, however slim:

1. Despite the knee issues, his defense is just as good as Drew's based on baseball-reference's defensive WAR
2. He's one year younger than J.D. and, with 3.6 WAR, is a much more effective player
3. Boston, like Philadelphia, has a left-handed heavy lineup (although not as extreme) and replacing Drew, a lefty, with Beltran gives them more balance
4. He hits well at Fenway, with a career .327 average and ten extra base hits in 101 at-bats.  Taking him out of cavernous Citi Field gives him a shot at finishing the year with a .300 average, 25 home runs, 50 doubles and 100 runs/RBI if he can stay on the field and finish the season strong
5. He takes his game to another level in the postseason with a .366/.485/.817 Barry Bonds(on-steroids) slash line, plus eleven home runs in only 22 games.  The dude flat-out mashes when the bright lights shine

1. Beltran's been injury prone lately, as he missed half of his 2009 season and 98 games last year.  He went under the knife for knee surgery in between those two seasons and is no spring chicken at age 34.  There's some health risk here
2. Even if he stays healthy, his performance could suffer down the stretch.  He hasn't played a full season since 2008 and might wear down during the dog days of August
3. The Mets are rebuilding and trimming the payroll, so the asking price will probably be high in terms of young, affordable talent
4. He's a free agent at the end of the season, meaning Boston would have to give up prospects for what could ultimately be a rental player
5. With only three stolen bases so far, he's no longer the threat on the basepaths who posted double digit steal totals every year from 1999 through 2009

Beltran would be a welcome addition and an obvious upgrade over Drew, but I think the team is good enough as is and Theo shouldn't do (and won't--he's too smart and I trust him to do what's best for the team) whatever it takes to get him.  He might not go anywhere if the Mets can make a run now that Jose Reyes and David Wright are due back, and I'd be surprised if he spends the next few months racing toward the Pesky Pole to track down slicing line drives.  Still, anything can happen and if Beltran ends up in Beantown or the City of Brotherly Love he's a lock to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006.  His offensive numbers will benefit from hitting in cozier ballparks with better lineups around him, too, and that boost should give him some more bargaining power when Scott Boras negotiates another substantial payday for him this winter.

Just don't expect Theo to be the one footing the bill.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Living as a Die-Hard

I knew something special was happening in Florida when I tuned in to ESPN and the camera was focused on shattered glass lying in the turf.  Did some lunatic chuck a bottle on the field?  Broken window in the press box?  Had J.D. Drew traded in his lumber for a lighter bat made of glass in an unorthodox attempt to break out of his season long funk? No, nope, and unh-uh.  Second baseman Sean Rodriguez had just blasted a towering pop up into the roof of Tropicana Field and broken a few lights a la Roy Hobbs in "The Natural."  That just doesn't happen every day, you know?

Last night on "baseball's biggest stage" (no, not the World Series; ESPN Sunday night baseball) the Red Sox and Rays battled though 15 scoreless innings before Dustin Pedroia roped an RBI single, his third hit of the night, to right field in the top of the 16th to give Boston a 1-0 lead (by comparison, the entire Rays team managed three hits, all singles, in 50 at bats against the stingy Sox staff).  Then Papelbon shut the door on Tampa Bay, setting down the bottom of their lineup 1-2-3 for his 21st save and rubber game triumph.  The marathon ended just before two in the morning on the East coast, five hours and 44 minutes after the game kicked off. 

It was a frustrating victory for the Bosox, who stranded 17 runners during the game and failed to score with the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the eleventh.  Other than Pedroia, the vaunted Red Sox offense managed a pair of singles in 45 trips to the plate for a sub .050 average.  The box score (one run, one double and seven singles from both teams combined) makes the game seem like an insufferable midseason pitcher's duel played in front of another weak crowd at the Trop, but in reality it was a nail-biter that supplied plenty of thrills.  Both teams flashed the leather, belted long fly balls that died on the warning track and gutted their way out of jams.  Tampa's skipper Joe Maddon and bench coach Dave Martinez were both ejected, and by the end of the night they had burned through the entire roster except for one bench player and one reliever. 

I mention this because I was right there at the end, lying down on my basement couch, fighting to keep my eyes open for the game's conclusion.  I could and should have gone to bed a few hours earlier, but sacrificed some sleep because your team gets to play in a game like this only so often, and I didn't want to miss out.  So I jumped around during commercial breaks to keep the blood flowing, took multiple bathroom breaks and ran for the kitchen during the bottom of the eleventh for a midnight snack.  Seeing the highlights on Sportscenter the following morning wouldn't suffice; I was watching this thing to the better end, even if I had to stay up all night.  My reasoning was this; if the Sox won, great, and if they lost then at least they had put up a fight and taken me on an exciting ride.  But as a die-hard fan, I don't need a good reason to be watching baseball a couple hours before sunrise, right?  Isn't that what any true fan would do?

Maybe not, but at 1:54 A.M. my faith was rewarded, which is all a fan can ever really ask for.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

My Favorite Summer Movies

It's the middle of July, so that means we're smack dab in the middle of my favorite season.  A few days ago, I wrote about my affinity for summer flicks and why I love them so much.  After much deliberation, I have composed a list of my personal favorites.  These movies weren't necessarily released in the summer, but did a memorable job in capturing the glory of this treasured time of year.  My list is not ranked and is in no particular order.

"Jaws"-Hollywood's first summer blockbuster was about  a terrifying summer on the fictional Amity Island (played by Martha's Vineyard)

"61*"-fantastic HBO drama about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris's pursuit of Babe Ruth's single season home run record during the magical summer of 1961.  The best and most realistic baseball movie I've ever seen

"Independence Day"-classic summer blockbuster about an alien invasion in the first week of July.  Pure entertainment and defines the phrase "popcorn flick"

"American Pie 2"-hilarious romp reunited the original cast at a house on Lake Michigan for their first summer back from college

"Gone Baby Gone"-Ben Affleck's masterpiece about a missing child investigation during a sweltering Boston summer.  In my top five

"Super 8"-I discussed this more thoroughly in my other post, but it's about a group of kids in a small Ohio town during the summer of 1979.  They're making a zombie movie when a train crash unleashes a mysterious monster near their homes.

"Wedding Crashers"-raunchy summer comedy where the incomparable duo of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn take advantage of wedding season

"Crooklyn"-Spike Lee's semi-autobiographical portrait of an African American family's summer in 1970s Brooklyn and a fond recollection of innocent youth

"Bobby"-underrated drama about that fateful June day in 1968 when Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in the Ambassador Hotel

"Mississippi Burning"-powerful movie depicting the FBI investigation of the strange disappearance of three civil rights workers in Mississippi during the turbulent summer of 1964 "when America was at war with itself" (the movie's tagline).  One of my all time favorites

"Do the Right Thing"-the best of Spike Lee's storied career.  Racial tensions bubble over on a sizzling summer day in Brooklyn, and Lee makes you feel the heat with an intensely red and orange color palette.  You'll want an ice-cold glass of water after this one

"The Wackness"-Josh Peck as a lonely pot dealer/high school graduate drifting through the summer of 1994 in New York City.  The movie is divided into three parts; June, July, and August, the three best months of the year

"Stand By Me"-Rob Reiner classic about four boys looking for a dead body during Labor Day weekend, 1959.  Full of nostalgia for a simpler time

"Disturbia"-Shia Labeef is under house arrest for the summer when he begins to suspect his next door neighbor is a murderer

But for me, the best has to be...

"The Sandlot"-the summer of 1962 was a great time to be a kid, and this movie captures a magical time for nine ten year-old boys that just wanted to play baseball every day. This is the ultimate summer movie as far as I'm concerned since it has scenes involving baseball, the Fourth of July, campouts and a community swimming pool.  'Nuff said

Missing any of your personal favorites?  Feel free to comment and let me know

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Leaving the Office

With seven seasons, 23 awards and countless laughs under its belt, NBC's "The Office" has had a great run. I jumped in during the second season, when the show was at the peak of its powers and every episode was an absolute riot, and there's no doubt in my mind that "The Office" has been the funniest show on television for the past five-plus years. So when Michael Scott (Steve Carell) blew town at the conclusion of the consistently hilarious seventh season, his departure seemed like a cue for the show to call it quits, to go out on top along with its star. Instead, it has decided to hang around for at least one more season with oddball James Spader (strange decision, by the way, considering candidates Will Arnett, Ray Romano and Jim Carrey have more experience in comedy and seemed like better fits for the show) stepping in for Carell, and I fully expect the show to decline. Will it be as bad as "That 70's Show" after Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher left only to be replaced by Seth Meyers' idiot brother? Not a chance, but you can bet it won't be the same, either, and it's always a little disappointing to see something past its prime, i.e. watching a hobbled Shaquille O'Neal in Celtic green while LeBron James and Dwyane Wade ran circles around him during the playoffs.

Never mind the fact that Steve Carell shouldn't have left in the first place. He made the show popular by attracting viewers with his fame, and then the show returned the favor by keeping him relevant when his movie career failed to take off after "The 40 Year-Old Virgin." Sure, he's had some decent movies like "Dinner for Schmucks" and "Get Smart," but he's also endured his fair share of bombs with "Dan in Real Life" and "Date Night." But no matter how his movies were doing, he always had "The Office" as a security blanket, an outlet to remind viewers just how funny he really is. In that way he was unique, since none of his fellow Hollywood funnymen (Sandler, Rock, Ferrell, etc.) starred on an established network TV comedy after they were already famous. I'm convinced "The Office" kept his up-and-down career afloat.

Carell was the heart and soul of the show, and you could just tell he'd created a special on-screen chemistry with his co-workers. So when he chose not to renew his contract for the eighth season I was hoping NBC would pull the plug before letting the show's quality slide. I could picture a season without him, Jim and Pam and Dwight and the gang sitting around the office in silence, looking at each other, all thinking to themselves "so...what do we do now?" The supporting cast is hilarious and everyone has their moments, but most of their contributions stemmed from their characters' reactions to Carell's behavior. I'm not sure they can take over and succeed in his absence, like how Pippen couldn't win a title when Jordan left to play basesball. The show will miss his presence, talent, charisma, whatever you want to call it. And don't forget, eight seasons is a long time in the television world, so the show also runs the risk of getting stale. After all, how many funny situations can you possibly create with a mid-level paper company located in Scranton, PA? The show's writing is usually top-notch, but it has to run out of steam sometime soon.

I'll still watch when the new season premieres in September, of course, because I'm a loyal follower of the show and am obligated as such, but I'm guessing the show will feel emptier and duller without Carell because no one (especially Spader, who can be as flat as an Iowa farm) can match his energy and eccentricity. With his intangibles and ability to breathe life into the seemingly mundane, Carell really was perfect for the show. It's hard to imagine an entire season, and maybe more, without Dwight sucking up to him, without his timely "that's what she said"s and without his fierce hatred of Toby Flenderson. This season will be like the new "Pirate of the Caribbean" movie; it still had the same old Captain Jack Sparrow and was a solid effort, but sorely missed the youthful Knightley/Bloom duo and suffered from the loss of their energy and passion.

So long, Steve, and thanks for the laughs. If only you could have turned off the lights and locked the door on your way out.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The A-Rod LeBron Parallel (and why they're more alike then you think)

A month ago LeBron James wilted during the Finals, the Dallas Mavericks vanquished his Miami Heat and, for one breathtaking moment, all was right in the sports world.  LeBron got his comeuppance and America's team, a ragtag collection of NBA stars and misfits both young and old, eliminated the hated Heat.  A few days later, a sympathetic Alex Rodriguez urged critics to lay off the tormented superstar, maybe because he sees a lot of himself when he looks at the self-proclaimed King.  Now, little more than a year after "The Decision," I started thinking and came to the realization that Lebron is at virtually the same point Rodriguez was seven years ago, another instance when everything was right in the sports world.  I'm referring to October, 2004, of course, when Red Sox Nation, led by a long-haired collection of baseball stars and idiots, vanquished the Evil Empire once and for all. 

Upon further investigation, it became clear the two supremely-skilled-yet-incredibly-polarizing superstars shared incredibly remarkable career arcs, so let's hop in the DeLorean and gun it to 88, shall we?  I'll drive.

High School Success and #1 Draft Pick
A-Rod starred as a shortstop at Westminster Christian High School in Miami, hitting .419 with 90 steals in 100 games as a junior.  The phenom topped himself the following year as a first team prep All-American, tearing up the competition with a .505 average, nine home runs and 36 RBI in 33 games.  Regarded as the top baseball prospect in the nation, he was also a perfect 35 for 35 in steals and was drafted first overall by the Seattle Mariners in the stacked 1993 draft (included Derrek Lee, Billy Wagner, Torii Hunter, Chris Carpenter and Jason Varitek).

LeBron crafted a distinguished high school career at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, where he led his team to back to back state titles as a freshman and sophomore.  He continued to improve during his junior year, gaining more attention and exposure before capping his senior year with a third state championship while averaging 31.6 points, 9.6 boards, 4.6 assists and 3.4 steals per game.  His hometown Cavaliers selected him with the first pick in the loaded 2003 draft (Carmelo Anthony, Chris Kaman, David West and future teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh).

Fun fact: they were both named Gatorade National Player of the Year
Not so fun fact: both had rough childhoods with absent fathers

Immediate Superstardom and Popularity
A-Rod rode the fast track to The Show and made the majors as an 18 year-old.  He broke out in his third season, stuffing the stat sheet with a league leading 141 runs, 54 doubles, .358 average and 379 total bases to finish a close second in the AL MVP voting.  Became an immediate sensation in Seattle and was regarded as the game's top shortstop as well as one of its finest all-around players, especially after becoming just the third player ever to blast 40 homers and steal 40 bases when he had 42 and 46, respectively, in 1998.  Despite making the playoffs three times with talented teammates such as Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson, Rodriguez found a World Series ring to be elusive despite triple slashing .353/.389/.588 in his 13 postseason starts.

LeBron wasted no time establishing himself in The Association at the tender age of 18 by winning the 2003-2004 Rookie of the Year on the strength of 20.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.5 dimes per game.  The following year he made the All-Star team and became a household name in his third season thanks a second place finish in the MVP race.  Began earning comparisons to Michael Jordan because of his combination of otherworldly talent and marketability, then won back to back NBA MVPs in 2009 and 2010.  Despite making the playoffs five consecutive seasons with talented teammates such as Mo Williams, Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison, King James found a championship ring to be elusive despite single-handedly willing Cleveland into the 2006 NBA Finals and never averaging fewer than 25.1/7.8/5.8 in a postseason.

Bad Decisions
After averaging 122 runs, 77 extra base hits, 115 RBI, a .956 OPS and 25 steals throughout his five full seasons (seven overall) in small-market Seattle where he was woefully underpaid, A-Rod became a free agent.  The Mariners couldn't afford their 25 year-old superstar, who promptly teased teams such as the New York Mets before signing a gargantuan 10 year, $252 million dollar contract with the Texas Rangers on December 16th, 2000.  "The Contract" eroded his impeccable reputation and polished image during his stint in Dallas (sixth largest TV market), where he became the poster-boy of the game's absurd greed, skyrocketing salaries, and growing disconnect between fans and the players they root for.  No longer appreciated for his talent and wildly unpopular, especially back in Seattle (where fans showered him in Monopoly money), Rodriguez was expected to perform at the highest level in order to earn his paycheck.  No one felt sorry for him when the Rangers, enslaved to his contract and unable to afford quality pitching, wallowed in last place.  He started taking performance enhancing drugs and constantly sulked, eventually pouting his way to the Yankees courtesy of Aaron Boone's shredded knee ligament.  Years later, Texas owner Tom Hicks would characterize Rodriguez's quarter billion dollar contract as a mistake.

After averaging 28 points and 7 rebounds/assists per game throughout his seven seasons in small-market Cleveland where he was woefully underpaid, LeBron quit on his team in the playoffs and became a free agent.  Cleveland couldn't afford the supporting talent their 25 year-old superstar required, who promptly teased teams such as the New York Knicks before informing America through "The Decision" on July 8th, 2010, that he would join fellow superstars Dwyane Wade (proven winner in Miami, home of the 16th largest TV market) and Chris Bosh to form a Big Three.  "The Decision" was a PR disaster and instantly shattered his popularity and likeable image.  Overninght, he went from franchise savior to symbol of the game's changing landscape, a terrain of fraternization where stars align instead of collide. 

Stumbling on the Biggest Stage
A-Rod joined a veritable All-Star team in the Bronx, the richest squad in baseball that employed the services of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera (proven winners in New York) Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Javier Vazquez and Mike Mussina for a whopping $185 million bucks.  Under the microscope in New York's fishbowl, his statistics took a small hit and he struggled with runners in scoring position.  He was expected to deliver another championship to New York but the Yanks (an outstanding regular season team that had its flaws--mediocre rotation, thin bullpen, reliance on offense and advanced age--exposed during the playoffs) infamously blew a 3-0 lead over Boston in the ALCS.  Rodriguez disappeared, going 2-17 during those four consecutive losses and having his masculinity questioned when he slapped the ball out of Arroyo's glove.

Intensely scrutinized, no longer appreciated for his talent and wildly unpopular, especially back in Cleveland (where fans doused his jerseys in flaming gasoline), James was expected to lead his team to a championship.  His statistics took a small hit and he struggled during late game crunch time.  The world rejoiced when the Heat (a great regular season team that had its flaws--no point guard, no center, no bench, and streaky shooting--exposed during the playoffs) crumbled like a stale cookie in the Finals.  He made promises he couldn't deliver (eight championships?  Who do you think you are; Bill Russell?), went MIA during fourth quarters and shot his mouth off through Twitter and postgame press conferences.  Even worse, critics questioned his mental toughness and absence of a Kobe Bryant killer instinct.

What's Next?
A-Rod used his playoff meltdown as motivation and came back with a vengeance in 2005, winning his second MVP award in three years on the strength of a monster season (league leading 124 runs, 48 taters, .610 slugging percentage and 1.031 OPS).  His postseason and off the field issues (strippers, divorce, Madonna) would continue, however, and he was unfairly branded as a choker (despite previous demonstration os postseason dominance) before you could say "oh-for-four."  He hit rock bottom in February, 2009 when his PED use was exposed by Sports Illustrated and he became even more despised.  Only after the lowest of lows would Rodriguez bask in the glory of a World Series title when he earned his ring after becoming a one man wrecking crew that fall at the age of 34, a redemption comparable to Andy Dusfrene's.  A-Rod flourished off the field as well by keeping his mouth shut, avoiding controversey, and repairing his icy relationship with Derek Jeter.

James is likely to return strong when the lockout ends because he was humbled on the league's biggest stage (he hasn't been sitting around watching Sportscenter all summer).  Hopefully he's matured a bit and won't take his talent for granted, especially if his latest failure lights a fire under him and supplies extra motivation to improve his game.  The 2011 Finals may have been his rock bottom, or it might just be the first in a line of disappointments in Miami.  Like A-Rod in 2004, Bron-Bron seems guaranteed to win multiple championships, but he's also been unfairly saddled with the choker label (despite previous demonstration of postseason dominance).  Only time will tell if he can eventually win a title without crawling through 500 yards of unimaginable foulness to get there. 

Because if he waits until he's 34, he'll need a cane and walker by the time he wins that eighth ring.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Celebrating Bayhem, Blockbusters and Summer Movies

Is this the worst summer ever for movies?  Because that's what everyone is saying these days.  I don't know about the worst, but it definitely feels like the most unoriginal.  Each Friday the latest summer flicks premiere, and every single one of them seems to be a sequel or involve superheroes.  But as a collective audience, we should be blaming ourselves, not lazy Hollywood screenwriters.  You know why?  Because these movies are making money.  Lots of it.  I mean, if a steaming pile of crap like "The Green Lantern" can earn $110 million domestically with four weeks of screen time, then we deserve junk in our cinemas.  We pay for the tickets; no one forces you to go see a movie when you can rent it On Demand or get it in the mail from Netflix.  So instead of pointing the blame finger at the studios for following the money at the expense of new plots and characters, turn it 180 degrees and point it back at yourself for supporting the production of such films with your wallet. 

But don't get the impression that I'm bashing this summer's movie lineup, because I'm not.  Did we really need a second "Hangover," a fourth "Spy Kids" and a fifth "Fast and the Furious?"  Of course not.  Nonetheless, I must admit that I was thoroughly satisfied by every movie I've seen this summer (X-Men: First Class, Hangover II, Super 8, and Transformers Dark of the Moon--more on that one in a moment).  They met or exceeded my expectations.  I had never seen an X-Men movie before, but the latest installment was very cool and had more of a James Bond polished feel to it.  "Hangover II" was a letdown compared to the first, but still provided the humor even though it fell into the classic sequel trap of trying to top its predecessor.  "Super 8" was a great movie for many reasons.  Although it felt like a blend of "Cloverfield," "E.T." and "Jaws," it was an homage to Steven Spielberg and qualifies as the most original movie of the summer.  Besides its great thrills and laughs, "Super 8" had a whimsical/curious/innocent childlike quality about it that made me look back on the more carefree days of my youth.  It was the perfect summer movie, which are supposed to be fun and entertaining popcorn flicks where you can turn your brain off for a couple hours and enjoy the air conditioning.  After all, you're not going to the theatres in July to see potential Oscar nominees, unless you buy a ticket for a Pixar production or a Christopher Nolan flick, so if a summer movie can offer a few laughs and some cool special effects then it has served its purpose. 

Which brings me to an equally popular and polarizing figure in Hollywood; Mr. Michael Bay, the teenage boy that never grew up.  To me, Bay's flicks epitomize summer blockbusters because they are always big, loud, and fun, and they manage to stand out by being bigger, louder, and more fun than the competition.  I have an absolute blast (no pun intended) while sitting back and letting the Bayhem overwhelm me for two-plus hours on a summer evening.  For those of you unfamilar with the term, Bayhem is a style of filmmaking that includes (but is not limited to) movie stars dealing with heartstopping car chases, falling buildings, dueling robots, sexy girls, hit-or-miss jokes, and many explosions, all essential ingredients in the successful summer movie recipe.  That's why I can't stand it when critics like Roger Ebert and Peter Travers constantly complain about lack of plot, lengthy running time, choppy editing, cheesy dialogue and an abundance of things that go boom in his movies.  They've seen all his movies from the past fifteen years, so what the hell do they expect from him?  I hate to say it, but these complaints make them sound like dinosaurs, the kind of cynics who would have opposed the automobile and rock and roll once upon a time.  Their criticisms are unfair for no other reason than they address staples of every Michael Bay movie.  All his movies are long, based on thin scripts, edited like music videos and rely on big budget special effects for gratuitous action.  At this point Bay is what he is and viewers should know what they're in for when they sit down to watch one of his movies.  Expecting anything more would be like expecting Dwight Howard to sink 90 percent of his free throws or Ichiro Suzuki to bang out 30 homers.  Not gonna happen, right?  But you accept them for what they do because they do it well.  That's the key, and Bayhem is the same way; if you don't embrace it for what it is, then you're going to be disappointed and miss out on a great time. 

So don't go trashing his movies, because no one is better at creating Bayhem and the perfect summer blockbuster than Michael Bay himself.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Red Sox Pitching First Half Review

Boston entered the 2011 with the same rotation from last year backed with a much deeper bullpen, thanks to offseason acquisitions Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler.  Both have disappointed, however, and overall the pitching has been just a touch above average when compared to the rest of the AL.  The Sox rank in the middle of the pack in ERA, saves, homers allowed, and walks allowed.  They do rank third in strikeouts and hits allowed, but are also dead last with one complete game courtesy of Cy Young candidate Josh Beckett.  When one considers Lackey and Matsuzaka's ineffectiveness, Wakefield's age, and injuries to top starters Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, these numbers don't seem so bad.  If Lackey can post a strong second half (as he did last year) and the rotation returns to health, the pitching should improve after the break. 

SP Jon Lester (AS)-Lester has quietly been the team's ace and most consistent pitcher since 2008, and turned in a fine performance in the first half.  He avoided his April struggles this year, getting them out of his system on Opening Day in Texas and ending April with a 2.52 ERA and 1.12 WHIP.  Hit a rough patch in May but bounced back in June and pitched well into the break. His WHIP and ERA mirror last year's, when he finished fourth in the AL Cy Young race, and he's shown a bit more command by trimming half a walk off his BB/9 rate.  Still, there are indications that he has regressed a little from last year. His strikeouts are down a full batter per nine, both his H/9 and HR/9 are up by .5, and his FIP and LOB percentages are up, meaning he's benefitted from some luck so far.  His skills remain intact, though, and he's a strong bet to finish the season strong.  Lester hopes to resume throwing tomorrow, and it wouldn't be surprising if he only missed one start as he nurses his shoulder back to health.

SP Josh Beckett (AS)-Beckett is doing everything he can to make Boston fans forget his abysmal 2010 season.  Spurred by diminishing velocity and strikeout rates, he turned himself into a better pitcher and it shows.  The 2.27 ERA and 0.95 WHIP sparkle, as does his league leading 5.8 H/9 and 4.1 WAR (third most for AL pitchers), yet somehow he only has eight wins.  A force all season, Beckett has reformed a powerful 1-2 punch with Jon Lester and was the only Sox starter to avoid the DL.  Unfortunately, his peripherals indicate he's also been lucky so far and is due for some substantial regression in the second half.  His miniscule .225 BABIP and 5.4% HR/FB both scream luck, as does his 3.16 FIP, 3.70 xFIP, and unsustainable 82.2 LOB%.  He's good, but he's not this good, so that ERA should drift closer to three as the season wears on.

SP Clay Buchholz-His 2010 triple crown stats of 17-7 and microscopic 2.33 ERA made him look like an elite starter last year, but in reality he was extremely lucky and doomed to fall back to earth this season.  He has still pitched well, but he's not going to be the Cy Young candidate that he was last season.  After a rough April (5.33 ERA with more walks than strikeouts), Buchholz hit his stride and has allowed more than three earned runs in a start only once since the calendar flipped to May.  His peripherals are more in line with his career averages this year, and he should continue to be a solid number three starter once he returns from the DL.

SP John Lackey-The numbers are too horrific to be posted here and make his incredibly average 2010 season look like the Mona Lisa in comparison.  In fairness, he's struggled with personal issues off the field and spent most of May on the DL, and I'm rooting for him to turn it around in the second half.  Unfortunately, his skills appear to be in decline with his walks and strikeouts trending in the wrong direction.  It looks like he left his prime years behind in California when he signed that five year, $82 million dollar contract two winters ago.  On the bright side, FanGraphs say he has been unlucky thus far and he pitched great in two of his last three starts before the break, so there is some hope he can bounce back like he did last year.  He needs to start pitching better if he wants to avoid becoming the team's more expensive pitching equivalent of JD Drew.

SP Tim Wakefield-The 44 year-old looked done after last season, but he's pitched better this year and stepped up when Dice-K and Lackey went down.  His results accurately reflect his value so far, and he should continue to be a decent spot start down the stretch.  The active wins leader only needs two more to reach 200, and I hope he gets them.  Andrew Miller may steal some of his starts, but Wake will still be kicking around during the dog days of August.

SP Daisuke Matsuzaka-The Sox would be wise to trade Dice-K, who's still under contract through the end of next season.  Unfortunately, he has almost no value so we're probably stuck with him, unless Theo can convince some optimistic GM to forget the back of Matsuzaka's baseball card and take a chance on his World Baseball Classic heroics (Dice-K will have another chance to shine in the upcoming 2012 WBC).  Since a solid rookie campaign and an excellent sophomore follow-up, he's been absolutely dreadful.  In the 44 starts from '09-'11 he has a 5.03 ERA, 1.51 WHIP and averaged just over five innings pitched per start.  He's still only 30 years old and is young enough to turn it around a la Bartolo Colon and Erik Bedard, but he's just too wild and inconsistent. 

The 'pen-Don't let the 3.93 ERA and rising hit rate fool you; Papelbon still has nasty stuff.  His 12.5 K/9 is the second highest of his career and he's cut his walk rate in half from last season.  Paps hasn't lost a game yet after losing seven last year, and his FIP and xFIP suggest his ERA should be much closer to two than four.  Bard continues to prove why he's the closer of the future, as he's been lights-out with a 2.05 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, and a strikeout per inning.  Aceves has pitched well and can deliver the occasional spot start, while Albers sports a nifty 2.55 ERA, a figure that doubles as his weight when you remove the decimal point.  Wheeler and Jenks have been bad with ERAs above 5 and 6, respectively, but overall the bullpen is stronger and more reliable than last year.