Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ortiz, Ramirez Latest to be Anonymously Outed; Time to Come Clean

When Major League Baseball enacted a drug-testing program in 2003 (or, about 44 years too late), the first year of testing was done for an evaluation.

The brass of the sport wanted to know how big of a problem they had on their hands, so an agreement was made. The tests would be conducted anonymously, and if a certain percentage of baseball players tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, the sport would start punishing players for positive tests in the 2004 season.

Obviously, enough players tested positive. Actually, baseball still has no idea the scope of their drug problem, even five years after the start of a program that included punishments for PED use.

Even though those tests were to be anonymous, anyone with a brain had to think that the names would eventually leak, unless there were no meaningful names to leak. Let's face it, nobody gives a rip if David Segui or Jim Parque cheated. They care that pure, wholesome big guys like David Ortiz didn't.

Oh, wait. Sorry.

Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, the sluggers who propelled the Boston Red Sox to end an 86-year World Series championship drought and to capture another title three years later, were among the roughly 100 Major League Baseball players to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003, according to lawyers with knowledge of the results.

I'd love to act shocked, outraged, or even upset about this. However, you probably figured something like this was on the way.

After all, Ortiz quickly went from injury-prone nice-guy slugger to always-healthy, extremely dangerous slugger who is setting career highs and becoming a star.

We rooted for the Red Sox, in part, because Ortiz was so lovable and fun to watch. The fact that he cheated doesn't change the fact that he was fun to watch, and it's not going to just erase the fun that Red Sox fans had watching him play.

If anything, this should serve again as a cautionary tale. The bottom line is that the sport of baseball had (and may still have) a serious problem. Those who are supposed to be protecting the game ignored obvious signs of trouble, and allowed things to spiral out of control. The first attempt to reel the game back in was completely half-assed, with the spineless commissioner agreeing to keep the first round of testing anonymous and without punishment.

It was supposed to "protect" the players. Of course, that was a farce. The names were going to be leaked at some point, no matter what agreement the players and owners made. Any player who allowed himself to be tested had to understand this.

We're six years past the anonymous testing. The game may be cleaner, or it may just appear to be cleaner because we're supposed to believe that drug testing will catch all the cheaters -- that no one can beat the tests. In those six years, baseball's image still hasn't improved much, and the only way to stop the steady leaking of names is to release them all.

The union and owners should come together on some sort of agreement. Obviously, the players won't be punished for their positive tests, and the release of names will not tarnish their ability to play or make money in the game. It will get us all on a level playing field. After all, there's a good chance that the guys who were caught in 2003 have simply figured out a way to outsmart the test, and they're still using.

Either that, or they're just as dumb as someone who would knowingly put something in their body that can be really bad for them is.

For now, I'm curious when Ortiz will start his vacation.

In February, shortly after (Yankee Alex) Rodriguez confessed to using banned substances, Ortiz said publicly that players who tested positive for a substance that was banned at the time should be suspended for an entire year.

I suppose I shouldn't be sarcastic, but I'm not.

Ortiz wants guys suspended for a year. The least he can do, as an outed cheater, is take some time off himself.

Or maybe that just applied to those caught after 2003. Funny the things you say when you don't think you're going to get caught having your hand in the cookie jar.

College Football 2009: Big 12

This year's College Football Preview uses information gathered from many sources. As usual, my full endorsement goes to Phil Steele and his College Football Preview, which is the most comprehensive publication of its kind available. I also used The Sporting News College Football Preview, along with school websites and local newspapers, in my research for these preview posts. Please contact me ASAP if you have updated information that can be used to make this work more accurate.

1. Kansas
2. Nebraska
3. Colorado
4. Kansas State
5. Missouri
6. Iowa State

1. Texas
2. Oklahoma State
3. Oklahoma
4. Texas Tech
5. Baylor
6. Texas A&M

Fab Four: Top Storylines in Big 12

Bradford vs. McCoy/Oklahoma vs. Texas may have company. There are many schools of thought on this year's Big 12 race. In the reading I've done, the most popular one is that the Texas/Oklahoma game in Dallas will decide the Big 12 South title.

While it makes perfect sense, Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy aren't the only big-time players in this division race. Don't sleep on Zac Robinson.

Once best known as the guy Mike "I'm a Man! I'm 40!" Gundy elevated to starting quarterback ahead of Bobby Reid, Robinson is poised to do his most damage yet as a senior. Top receiver Dez Bryant returns, as does dynamic leading rusher Kendall Hunter. The defense will (not "might") be much improved, and Oklahoma State gets Texas, Texas Tech, and Colorado at home in conference play.

As for Oklahoma, they should have a strong defense, but can the offensive line come anywhere near last year's performance. A huge part of Bradford's Heisman credentials came from the fact he was only sacked 11 times in 13 games before the national championship. Bradford gets left tackle Trent Williams back, but every other starter will be new.

Texas has McCoy -- almost a shoo-in for a trip to New York in December -- and he has his entire offense back after averaging over 42 points per game last year. The Longhorns' defense looks to be potentially phenomenal, too.

Are the Blackshirts back? Brothers Bo (head coach) and Carl (defensive coordinator) Pelini have only been on the job in Lincoln for one year, but results are already starting to show. The Cornhuskers shaved more than a touchdown per game and almost 125 yards per game off their hideous 2007 numbers. Not only that, but the rush yards per game were cut exactly in half between 2007 and 2008.

Nebraska is now ready for a defensive breakout, as the Cornhuskers return the entire secondary and seven total starters from last year. Chief among these returnees are senior safeties Larry Asante and Matt O'Hanlon, along with senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The Pelinis understand that there is only so much they can do at once, but getting this defense to play again at a high level is a huge part of restoring the pride in Nebraska football. What happens on offense isn't at all insignificant, but it does take a back seat to the work being done by the defense.

Bill Snyder's return. When Kansas State jettisoned Ron Prince, no one knew that they had this in mind. Snyder turns 70 during the season, he says he won't stay long, but he is indeed back. His previous K-State stint saw him win 136 games and perform well enough to have the football stadium named after his family. He told ESPN earlier this month that he'll stick around "as long as it takes" to get the program on solid footing. Of course, he did also said he wouldn't stay long, which implies that he is very confident in his own skills, and he must think Prince was totally incompetent.

Snyder's defense is fast and experienced, though not blessed with awe-inspiring size. There's no way K-State allows 35 points per game again. The problem could come with an offense that was good last year, but lost its triggerman when Josh Freeman went to the NFL. If the Wildcats can find a way to protect new starter Daniel Thomas, they should have a good chance to return to the postseason.

Then we can see next year how Snyder does coaching Prince's recruits.

The rise of Baylor has begun. A little-known freshman named Robert Griffin took over as Baylor's starter not long after the season opened with a disastrous 41-13 home loss to Wake Forest. Yes, the Bears again slumped to a losing season, finishing 4-8, but Griffin was a great find and a perfect fit for Art Briles' spread offense.

Griffin is a great athlete, but showed himself to also be a tough kid and a mature leader for Baylor. He totaled nearly 3,000 yards (combined passing and rushing), scored 28 touchdowns (15 passing, 13 rushing) and tossed just three picks in 267 throws. All of a sudden, Baylor football was becoming exciting, and much more competitive.

The transition continues in 2009, as Griffin has all his key weapons back, an offensive line that's almost completely intact, and should benefit greatly from a full offseason in Briles' scheme. Not only that, but the Bears' defense, which allowed less than 30 points per game for the first time in three years, gets eight starters back, including its top four tacklers. Also returning are team leaders in passes defensed, interceptions, and tackles for loss. While all three non-conference home games should be wins, the Bears will again struggle in Big 12 play, as they're not ready to compete with the likes of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas.

Best of the rest

Kansas should roll on in 2009, thanks to a loaded offense and what should be a much-improved defense. While everyone fawns over guys like Bradford, McCoy, and even Robinson (rightfully so), Todd Reesing is often forgotten as a top college quarterback. ... Quarterback Cody Hawkins took a big step forward for Colorado last year, but the offense as a whole did not. Hawkins' decision-making has to improve so he can avoid the kinds of hits he took in 2008, while giving his playmakers a better chance to do things in the open field. ... Missouri lost a ton from last year's team, including a Heisman candidate at quarterback, the top three receivers, and five of the top eight tacklers. Good luck with that. ... Another new coach at Iowa State. If Paul Rhoads decides to bolt after two seasons, maybe he'll be kind enough to win more than five games before heading out the door. While a losing season is likely, Chizik did leave a stocked cupboard for Rhoads. If he can get his team to play with some confidence defensively, they could build a postseason contender. ... Texas Tech has to replace another quarterback and another receiver. Something tells me it won't be as easy as it sounds or than it has been in the past. Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree weren't just system guys. Well, at least Crabtree wasnt. ... Mike Sherman's tenure at Texas A&M didn't start well, thanks to a home loss to Arkansas State. It doesn't look good this season, either. The Aggies still have some miscast parts on offense, though junior quarterback Jerrod Johnson could be a good one. If they can play a little defense, they may be able to stage a battle for fourth place in the division. That's a big "if", however.

Big 12 Preseason Honors and Notables
Offensive Player of the Year: Colt McCoy, QB, Texas
Defensive Player of the Year: Gerald McCoy, DT, Oklahoma
Coach of the Year: Dan Hawkins, Colorado
Coach on the Hot Seat: Mike Sherman, Texas A&M
Best non-conference game: BYU vs. Oklahoma (at Arlington), September 5
Worst non-conference game: Northern Colorado at Kansas, September 5

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

WIAA Concocts Bad Idea

Bad ideas happen.

Our lovely world is full of them.

Astro-turf. "The Bachelor". Governor Sarah Palin.

You can now add the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association's new "Football District Proposal" to the list.

You can classify this one as a well-meaning thought, but an attempt to fix something that isn't really broken.

In Wisconsin, high school football playoffs are not automatic for every team. Schools must qualify by having a record of .500 or better in conference play. Instead of going through with the idea of having everyone qualify for the playoffs (any fan of Minnesota high school football that is tired of seeing 58-0 running-time blowouts in the first round of section playoffs would understand why this is being avoided in Wisconsin), a plan to divide the seven-division state further into districts was hatched.

The basics:

* The 64 largest schools would be played in Division 1, then those schools would be divided geographically into eight districts.

* Teams would start the regular season with a non-district game against an opponent of their choosing, followed by seven games against other teams in their district.

* For teams finishing in the top four in their district, Week 9 would become a playoff week (Level 1). Two districts would be paired together, with the first-place team in one district meeting the fourth-place team in the other, and so on.

* For teams finishing in the bottom four in their district, Week 9 would become a final regular-season game, scheduled after Week 8 by the WIAA and pairing each team against a non-qualifier from a neighboring district, based mostly on geography.

* The earlier start of first-round playoff games would change two scheduling quirks: a) Teams would no longer play Week 9 games on Wednesdays and Thursdays; b) The traditional Tuesday round of Level 1 play would be eliminated.

* Each playoff-qualifying team would play one fewer game overall, due to the shift of Level 1 playoff games to Week 9. Non-qualifiers would still play nine games.

The WIAA website outlines the positives of such a plan.

• Schools would be in districts based on enrollment.

• Groupings would be developed using criteria similar to that applied to other sports.

• Week one games can be used to schedule traditional or historical games.

• Schools will only be required to find one non-district game, which is the common week one.

• All games during the season would be played on Friday or Saturday with some exceptions when travel may be a consideration.

• Schools would have nine games with seven district games and a week nine game guaranteed.

• Competition levels in week nine games would be comparable and competitive.

• Coaches would know ahead of time who their playoff opponents might be.

• Travel costs can be reduced by scheduling non-varsity games within a region and having eight district games.

I'm all for finding ways to reduce travel costs. Everyone is facing that reality in today's world, especially school systems.

However, eliminating chances for kids to compete at a high level and test themselves is not the way around this.

Not only does this district proposal do away with the traditional conferences that dot the state, but it also encourages programs to be lazy and not push themselves. I know it's just high school athletics, but Wisconsin football didn't gain national legitimacy by housing a bunch of lazy programs.

Are there teams that "play down" to a league with a ton of lower-division teams? Sure. No denying that. There are also numerous teams (hi, Rice Lake!) that "play up" to a league with higher-division teams. In Rice Lake's case, they're generally competitive in the Big Rivers, which is a great thing for them.

I'm a huge fan of conferences, and I'm a huge fan of mixing things up for section playoffs. One of the rules of WIAA playoff bracketing (as it stands now, that is) prohibits conference foes from meeting in the first round.

If the WIAA wants to help teams fill scheduling holes, they should do a better job of encouraging teams to play a full nine-game schedule, and to work with in-state schools to fill scheduling holes. Kids who sign up to play and put in the time in a football program deserve the most that can be offered. If the best a program can offer is that they'll play the full nine games every season, then so be it. But they should at least do that.

I don't like potentially taking away traditional conference (and non-conference) rivalries. I don't like making teams choose which non-district opponent they're going to keep.

It's simply not a necessary move, and I hope the WIAA votes this down.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Jeff Suppan is Garbage

What you are about to read is not breaking news.

In fact, if you're a Milwaukee Brewers fan, it's not even news. Hell, it's probably not really news if you follow baseball at all.

Before the 2007 season, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin made a huge splash in free agency by signing veteran pitcher Jeff Suppan to a really expensive contract (more than $10 million per season average).

With about a season and a half left on the deal, it might be time for Melvin and Brewers owner Mark Attanasio to eat the money.

Suppan was called on by manager Ken Macha to start Monday against the Washington Nationals.

You know, the Nationals? Eight fewer wins than anyone else in baseball? 11-35 on the road? Them.

Less than six innings and ten runs later, it was another day at the office for Jeff Suppan, who is stealing paychecks more effectively than just about any other pitcher in the game today.

Naturally, Suppan never gets hurt. You have to actually throw the ball hard for that to happen.

Suppan is just awful. He's pitched seven innings exactly twice this season, which would be two fewer times than he's failed to last more than four innings.

Monday night, the Nationals touched Suppan for six runs in the fifth, after the veteran found a way to wiggle out of trouble in pretty much every other inning. Since the Brewers bullpen is full of guys whose arms are about to fall off, Suppan was left in the game for the sixth inning. He was touched up for two more runs and had two runners on base when Macha finally took him out.

The seven-run sixth inning virtually ended the game, which Washington won 14-6. From July 20-24, the offensively impotent Nationals scored 13 runs in five games. In two innings against Suppan and his band of geniuses, they scored 13 runs.

Luckily, the now under-.500 Brewers have virtually eliminated themselves from serious playoff contention. There should be no worries about the boys embarrassing themselves in October. Also, Melvin and his front office staff should feel free to just hold on to what little major-league pitching talent they have, because making a trade for a veteran would be folly at this point.

Kind of like Suppan's starts.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sid Hartman: Full of (Something)

Sid Hartman has been a sportswriter longer than most of my readers have been alive. He's seen some great things in Minnesota, and he's been there to write about them.

Well into his 80s, Sid still writes a regular column of sports notes for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He's built an untouchable list of contacts over the years, allowing him access to the thoughts of sports' biggest names.

Sometimes, he uses that access to help out his friends, but no one really cares, because it's Sid.

He has other flaws, including his failure to take hockey seriously a lot of the time, and there are times that he comes across as quite dated in his commentary about Minnesota sports issues, especially on the radio show he does Sunday mornings on WCCO-AM.

His latest newspaper column highlights the situation involving Minnesota Timberwolves first-round pick Ricky Rubio. You may be aware that Rubio is from Spain, is a pro player in Spain, and is currently trying to get out of his contract with his current team there. There has been chatter he doesn't want to play for Minnesota, even though he has never said that.

Anyway, one of Hartman's buddies is NBA agent Bill Duffy, who represents many clients, including fellow first-round pick Brandon Jennings, a point guard who played pro ball in Italy a year ago before moving back to the States for a shot at the NBA.

Duffy, who is the agent for another high pick at Rubio's position, shockingly told Hartman that he thinks Rubio is overrated. Since Duffy and Hartman are buddies, Sid decided to use this as the framework for his column.

"To be honest with you, the other kid, Brandon Jennings, who played in Italy, ranked higher," said Duffy, referring to his client, a point guard who was picked 10th by Milwaukee. "I had three other first-round point guards, but I didn't have [Rubio] ranked that high. I think he is pretty good, but I think he might be a little hyped up. "He is a flashy guy and he is young, but I think it is a lot of hype. I mean, he will be a good player, but they are trying to compare him with my guy Steve Nash or John Stockton -- I don't see that."

At least Duffy admits to being Nash's agent, and Hartman discloses that Jennings is a Duffy client, too.

But honesty shouldn't hide us from the fact that this article is full of holes.

I have no idea which first-round point guard will have the most NBA success. It could be Rubio, Jennings, Jonny Flynn, or Ty Lawson for all I know.

What I do know is that if I wanted to get an honest opinion on which guy would be the best, the last person I'd ask is an agent who represents some (but not all) of those prospects. He might not want to admit it, but the opinion he gives will usually be quite biased and unreliable.

After all these years as a sportswriter, it's hard to believe that someone like Sid Hartman would make this mistake.

Or maybe it isn't.

Disastrous Day for NASCAR at Indy

No, it wasn't the 2008 debacle of exploding tires, explosive tempers, and 52 of 160 laps run on yellow.

Instead, NASCAR provided its fans with nothing interesting at all during Sunday's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. That might actually be worse in some ways than the tire controversy that came out of last year's race.

This isn't meant as a slam at Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, or Tony Stewart. All three are generally likeable drivers who have done nothing wrong. It's getting a tad old, however, to see the same drivers (under the same ownership flag) riding up front all the time.

(Yes, I know Stewart "owns his own team". What this statement avoids is that he's basically driving Hendrick cars, and his team is widely considered an extension of Hendrick's team.)

While it was refreshing to see Juan Pablo Montoya dominate the race Sunday until his stupid mistake on pit road, the reality is that things weren't any more exciting then. Montoya thrived in the clean air at the front of the field and built a lead that reached over seven seconds. Because there weren't many cautions in Montoya's run of 116 laps led, the race quickly disintegrated into a 190 mph single-file parade. There was no passing to be found on the track, and no real good racing for position. Double-file restarts couldn't save NASCAR because there were so few cautions.

Restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega may make some fans queasy, at least they have the promise of last-lap fireworks to hang their hat on. You might wait four hours to see something interesting happen, but you'll usually get a payoff. The race at Indy became a really fast parade not long after the start, and it stayed that way for the remainder of the 160 laps.

Making matters worse, ESPN's crew is led by a NASCAR-loving veteran who has as much business doing play-by-play of Sprint Cup races as I do. Jerry Punch, by all accounts, is a prince of a man, and he is a big reason why NASCAR has the kind of media attention it does now. He sucks at calling races, because it's obvious he sees his job as more of a "traffic director" gig than a traditional play-by-play man. As irritating as Bill Weber was on TNT before he got suspended (or fired, whatever), he's better than Punch. So is FOX's Mike Joy, no matter how horrible the rest of the FOX team is.

Let it be known that no play-by-play could have made anything interesting out of Sunday's race. Johnson was going to win from the moment of the last restart, and there was nothing that anyone could do about it, especially when the race stayed green the whole time.

Reality is that ESPN has built some quality pieces, but Punch does not belong in his role. The sooner they figure this out, the better it will be for everyone. Right now, ESPN doesn't have the play-by-play guy to carry them through a bad race. With Hendrick Motorsports obviously holding the keys to success with the "COT model", and everyone else struggling to find out what they have, ESPN is going to have more bad races than good as we ramp up to the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

In all seriousness, does anyone want to bet money on a non-Hendrick driver winning the Chase? I didn't think so.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Texas' Vicente Padilla Makes Wrong Kind of Baseball History

Vicente Padilla is a veteran starting pitcher for the Texas Rangers. He's a relatively anonymous player. While many baseball fans know who he is, he hasn't put up really notable numbers over the course of his career. He's kind of just been there.

For the first time, Padilla's name is now associated with baseball history. No, he wasn't on the wrong side of Mark Buehrle's perfect game.

Instead, Padilla has become -- we think -- the first major professional athlete to test positive for the H1N1 virus, otherwise known as swine flu. Not only that, but there's serious reason for concern that other Ranger players may have contracted the disease.

It's probably not the kind of thing you want tell the kids about.

The Rangers appear very concerned, but also optimistic that they can beat down this thing before there's any kind of major baseball-wide outbreak.

Several Rangers players have been hit with the flu this week, including Eddie Guardado, Omar Vizquel and David Murphy. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was scratched from Friday night's game against Kansas City due to the flu.

The team held a meeting Wednesday advising everyone to take necessary hygiene precautions, and the Rangers' flight to Kansas City was delayed until Friday morning in order to provide additional recovery time. Cultures have been sent away to determine if any other players have swine flu.

"Without speculating, I think it is reasonable to expect that we may find some of our other guys have it," (Texas assistant GM Thad) Levine said. "We've been medicating our players. We would use the same medication and the same kind program to rehabilitate them and they've all shown improvement. Those are the positive signs."

The Portland Beavers minor-league team is dealing with a flu outbreak, according to the piece. However, they aren't believed to be looking at an H1N1 issue.

Dammit: Cardinals Deal for Matt Holliday

The National League Central-leading St. Louis Cardinals just got a lot better. According to FanHouse, the Redbirds are on the verge of adding a serious power hitter to their lineup.

The deal for Oakland slugger Matt Holliday brings the star back to the National League (Colorado traded him to Oakland last winter), and it nets the A's three valuable prospects. From the Cardinals perspective, it allows them to bolster their lineup without trading any current major-league players.

It's a classic trade deadline rental. Holliday is a free agent at the end of the season, and there's no way of knowing if St. Louis will be able to afford him if a team like the Yankees or Mets were to come calling.

For a Cardinals team that is just hanging on to their NL Central lead, and struggling to score runs at times even with Albert Pujols hitting like no one in baseball is hitting, this is a great move.

Holliday is hardly a butcher defensively, and he should help protect Pujols in the lineup. This isn't a classic case of an American League hitter having to adjust to National League pitching, because Holliday spent his formative years in Colorado, hitting National League pitching very well.

The only thing he has to adjust to are the expectations in St. Louis. The Cardinals have been at or near the top of the division virtually all season, they have some bright pitchers on staff, and they have the best player in baseball at first base. Holliday has to make this team better, or the deal will be viewed as a disappointment.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mark Buehrle Pitches Perfect Game

I turned on my television and switched to ESPN. The DirecTV on-screen guide said NFL Live was on, so I was expecting Brett Favre chatter.

Instead, I saw history of a different (and much more enjoyable) kind.

White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle was trying to finish off a perfect game in Chicago against the Tampa Bay Rays. Buehrle's no slouch, having compiled an impressive resume over his time in Chicago, and having already thrown one no-hitter in his career.

Tampa's lineup isn't exactly Murderer's Row, but they've got some guys who can hit, so this was not any kind of fluke. Buehrle was obviously throwing the hell out of the ball.

The first batter, Gabe Kapler, took Buehrle deep to left-center, and I thought it was gone. It would have been, were it not for center fielder Dewayne Wise, who made an incredible catch. I know Sox television broadcaster Ken Harrelson is known for his over-the-top statements, but he said it was the greatest catch he'd ever seen in 50 years of baseball, especially given the circumstances of trying to preserve a perfect game.

I couldn't agree more with Hawk, though there's a catch he probably didn't see in person that comes very close.

In 1987, the Brewers' only no-hitter in franchise history (pitched by Juan Nieves) was capped by an amazing catch in center field by Robin Yount, who dove to nab a sinking line drive hit by Eddie Murray.

The kicker is that it was only Yount's second year as a full-time center fielder. He was a shortstop when he joined the organization in 1978, and stayed that way through the 1984 season.

The story today, however, is Mark Buehrle. He only struck out six, but only eight of the other 21 outs were recorded on balls hit in the air in fair territory. Simply an incredible performance by a great left-handed pitcher.

It's the 16th perfect game in "modern" baseball history, and the first since Randy Johnson threw one for Arizona in Atlanta back in 2004.

The NCAA/Major Junior Debate Continues

The decision by Chicago Steel defenseman John Moore to sign with Columbus and head to major junior was not a surprise. Moore had been rumored to be firmly on the fence regarding college hockey for some time, and all it took was the influence of people on the outside to tip him one way or the other.

Obviously, those who spoke to him about the benefits of major junior were more convincing than those who spoke about college hockey.

John Moore should not be hated over this decision. He did what he feels is best for him. As an American-born hockey player, I hope he does really well in the OHL, because I think every American who becomes a professional hockey star is a win for the country. I'm hardly a xenophobe, but I do feel we need as many Americans to develop into stars as we can get. It will only help grow hockey as more than just a regional niche sport.

What his decision has done, in some circles, is re-ignite the debate over college versus major junior hockey as a path for NHL development.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts.

For starters, there is no question that Canadian major junior hockey produces more star-caliber players for the NHL than the college game does. The proof can be seen just by looking at a list of top NHL players.

However, the overall percentage of NHL players with NCAA ties has been on the increase, and it will continue to be that way if current trends hold.

There are benefits to both. Major junior might be considered a higher level of play overall, but high-end skill players are starting to find more success in the college game. Just ask guys like Colin Wilson or James vanRiemsdyk. The two -- who should both have a shot at making the NHL this season -- combine with guys like Jonathan Toews to help dispel the notion that you have to be over 20 before you can succeed in college hockey.

In fact, that is a primary benefit for an 18-year-old who wants to play college hockey. While the CHL leagues (OHL, WHL, and QMJHL) may look to provide a higher level of play, college hockey gives a kid the chance to prove himself against older players, many of whom have something to prove in their hopes of playing professionally.

Jordan Schroeder of Minnesota, for example, routinely dealt with 23- and 24-year old centers in the WCHA last season. While it might seem unfair for a kid to be out there against players who can actually be seven years older than him, it's not a bad developmental ground. Schroeder routinely showed last year that he belonged on the same ice as these older and more experienced players, and it helped cement his status as a first-round pick in the 2009 draft.

The NCAAs also provide a second chance for kids who might be late bloomers. Last year, guys like Hobey Baker winner Matt Gilroy of Boston University, Denver's Tyler Bozak, and Notre Dame's Christian Hanson were highly-sought free agents after playing stellar hockey in college and overcoming inadequacies that kept them from being drafted when they were younger.

Had any of these players tried to go major junior when they were 18, the opportunity to earn a lucrative NHL contract may have been lost forever. Instead, they went to college, got quality educations, and now have a chance to play pro hockey because they didn't give up on their dreams.

For an elite 16-year-old, there still aren't a lot of options in North America better than the CHL. An American teenager now has a good program in Ann Arbor, but the NTDP hasn't produced the way some expected it to when the program was put together. For that reason, these prospects still seriously consider the CHL as a method to more quickly get noticed by scouts.

The reality continues, though, that there is no clear-cut path to NHL superstardom for a hot young prospect. There are kids who will benefit greatly from playing major junior hockey in Canada, as there is still more prestige and notoriety to be had there than anywhere else. Others would do well to take the American college route, both because it offers a chance to play against older kids and because it's an improving on-ice product that will test a young player's skills and allow them to develop into the kind of player who can make it in the AHL and eventually the NHL.

There should be no blanket rules or statements made about what is best for all players, because everyone is different.

The debate will continue indefinitely, because there is no way that one can eradicate the other from the planet. Those who blindly advocate for one or the other (biases aside, obviously) are only hurting the system as a whole.

I'll admit my pro-college biases, argue to the death that the NCAA route has worked well for many, many NHL players, but freely admit that a kid like John Moore is absolutely doing the right thing for him. And for John Moore, looking out for John Moore should always be of the highest priority.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Current, Former North Dakota Hockey Players Arrested

People who like to rip on North Dakota (not me!) often bring up the idea that there simply isn't much to do there. The nightlife in Grand Forks and Fargo simply isn't considered vibrant enough for some, and while that's understandable, the quieter way of living can be attractive to some folks.

Anyway, I'm babbling. I tend to like visiting Grand Forks because it's such a great college sports town, and the North Dakota hockey team is usually the headliner.

On this day, they're a headliner for the wrong reasons, as former Sioux defenseman Joe Finley and current forward Matt Frattin were arrested early Tuesday morning for creating quite a ruckus outside a Grand Forks home.

A former UND hockey player and a current one were arrested about 3 a.m. Tuesday after a campus officer saw the men throwing cups, plates, a kitchen table and a lawnmower onto a Grand Forks street, UND Police Lt. Dan Lund said.

Joe Finley, 22, and Matt Frattin, 21, are both charged with disorderly conduct. In addition, Frattin faces a fleeing charge and Finley faces a charge of giving false information to officers. All the charges are misdemeanors.

Lund said Finley and Frattin were throwing objects from a residential garage on the 400 block of North Columbia Road, where one of the two men lives.

“It was their own property, so there was nobody’s property that was damaged other than their own,” Lund said. “They said they just kind of routinely destroy each other’s stuff.”

However, the pair managed to make a mess.

“There was glass from curb to curb from the dinnerware that they threw,” Lund said.

Um, OK.

But, wait. There's more.

When first approached by police, Lund said, Finley ran around a house but stopped when officers told him to. Frattin ran into a home, not stopping when instructed to, and was consequently charged with fleeing, Lund said.

Police said Finley showed them a credit card with someone else’s name on it. When asked if his name was the one on the card, Finley said it was, Lund said. At the jail Finley gave his real name.

Police said Finley told them somebody else gave him the credit card. Lund said police think the credit card belongs to a friend of Finley, but the matter is still under investigation.

I'm all for partying it up with friends, but this is further proof that nothing good ever happens after 1am. Just go to bed.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Shepard Smith Tells the Truth on Steve McNair's Shooting Death

I've been around more than a few television news reporters in my day. Some of them are really good in the field, able to ad-lib under the most intense circumstances.

Others, however, are less blessed. They need the good ol' teleprompter in order to make everything work. Without it, they have issues functioning, much less delivering a competent news report.

A good example of teleprompter overreliance was found on Fox News Channel Tuesday afternoon. Popular anchor Shepard Smith was giving his audience the latest information on the Steve McNair murder, and the prompter -- a machine that scrolls the anchor's script so s/he can read it without looking down at the paper copy -- started acting up.

As Smith tried to ad-lib, we learned a very important fact about McNair's case.

You could take this as a rip on whoever decided to put the story on the air. After all, there's no relevance to it when McNair wasn't doing anything illegal. Who the hell cares how drunk he was when he was shot?

Then again, if McNair had been awake and aware, maybe none of this would have happened.

John Moore Spurns Colorado College

It hasn't been a particularly good few months for Colorado College. The Tigers had a chance to make the NCAA Tournament, but melted down in an opening-round WCHA playoff loss to UMD. While the Tigers sat home and tried to figure out what went wrong, the Bulldogs went on to win the Final Five championship.

Lost from that Tiger team are its two best players, forward Chad Rau and goalie Richard Bachman. As they reload, there was at least one key arrival to look forward to. Defenseman John Moore played the 2008-2009 season with Chicago of the United States Hockey League. The talented blueliner was a projected first-round pick, but there was a caveat for the Tigers.

Moore was rumored to be considering a move to major junior, and there were teams thinking of drafting him that were planning on encouraging him to make that move.

Last week, there was a report that Moore was on the verge of signing with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, a move that would end any chance of him ever showing up in Colorado Springs.

Tuesday, Moore signed an entry-level deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team that drafted him in the first round in June. That ends any chance of him joining the Tigers, and it cements his plan to play for Kitchener.

Moore told the Colorado Springs Gazette that he felt major junior gave him a better chance of getting into the NHL sooner. Perhaps he should have stopped fielding calls on the situation from Pierre McGuire.

Phil Kessel, Thomas Vanek, Matt Niskanen, Jonathan Toews, and Mason Raymond -- among others -- disagree.

I'm not here to make any blanket statements about this being a huge blow for college hockey, because it's happened before, it's happened to high-profile programs (hi, Peter Mueller!), and it will happen again.

Unfortunately, certain people (some of whom don't have any hair and like to talk about monsters) will use this decision by Moore as evidence that more and more young players recognize Canadian major junior hockey as the only way for an American-born player to develop into a superstar.

The reality of the situation still hasn't changed, and it's simply that major junior isn't for everyone. Neither is college hockey. Every kid has to be allowed to make their own decision about what's best for them, and they need to be allowed to do so without undue pressure being put on them from any side.

No college, major junior program, NHL analyst, or NHL team can possibly know for sure what is best for every individual player.

John Moore decided that major junior hockey was his best path for development. We begrudgingly wish him well.

College Football 2009: Big East

This year's College Football Preview uses information gathered from many sources. As usual, my full endorsement goes to Phil Steele and his College Football Preview, which is the most comprehensive publication of its kind available. I also used The Sporting News College Football Preview, along with school websites and local newspapers, in my research for these preview posts. Please contact me ASAP if you have updated information that can be used to make this work more accurate.

1. Pittsburgh
2. Rutgers
3. South Florida
4. West Virginia
5. Cincinnati
6. Louisville
7. Connecticut
8. Syracuse

Fab Four: Top storylines in the Big East

Is this the year? The world has had its fair share of fun with Pittsburgh head coach Dave Wannstedt. Some of it has been deserved, as Wannstedt had "abject failure" written all over him after three years as the head coach at Pittsburgh. The Panthers had gone just 16-19 in those three seasons, failing to attain a bowl bid, losing countless close games, and teasing fans with some stirring performances. None of this was more true than the 2007 season, when Pitt beat Cincinnati and West Virginia but lost at home to Navy and Connecticut on the way to a 5-7 finish.

2008 was a more balanced season, as Pittsburgh shook off an season-opening loss to Bowling Green to go 9-2 over their last 11 games. Wannstedt's team finished 9-4, beat West Virginia again, and appears positioned for a title run this season.

Wannstedt has a potential problem on his hands with quarterback Bill Stull (pictured), who was generally awful a year ago (57 percent, nine TDs, ten picks). Will he pull the trigger on junior Pat Bostick? A quarterback controversy could sink this team, and it's worth watching in summer camp.

The Panthers have the makings of elite offensive and defensive lines, should be improved in the passing game, and they have an experienced and talented secondary. This could be Wannstedt's best chance to make believers out of the more skeptical Pitt supporters.

Senior quarterbacks all over. If Stull holds on to the Pittsburgh gig, it makes five of eight teams in the league who will likely employ a senior starting quarterback in 2009. That level of experience at the most important position on the field should only boost the conference's overall level of play.

Besides Stull, South Florida's Matt Grothe and Tony Pike of Cincinnati return with starting experience. A fourth senior quarterback, Cameron Dantley of Syracuse, has experience, but has been demoted in favor of freshman Ryan Nassib.

Two teams -- West Virginia and Rutgers -- expect to start seniors with no previous starting experience under center.

It's not surprising that the five teams with senior quarterbacks are expected to be in postseason contention at the end of the season. That kind of thing is hardly mandatory, but you can't put a price on a player like Grothe or Pike leading your team's offense.

Trouble for Kragthorpe? Louisville has been an amazing disappointment since Steve Kragthorpe came aboard as head coach in 2007. The Cardinals are just 11-13, have slipped noticeably on offense, and have suddenly stopped playing defense.

2009 could be another rough season. The Cardinals lose quarterback Hunter Cantwell, three starters on the defensive line, and have non-conference road dates with Kentucky and Utah.

If new starting quarterback Justin Burke can use his experienced skill-position talent, and improve on Cantwell's rather scattershot accuracy, the offense should get better. Then it's up to the defense to keep taking the kind of baby steps they took a year ago, when they improved off an embarrassing 2007 season and just weren't good enough to carry the Cardinals.

Louisville is at the crossroads here. One year from now, they'll either be talking about building off a minor bowl appearance, or they'll be breaking in a new coach.

Syracuse starts over ... again. When they hired Greg Robinson, there was talk of modernizing the offense. Apparently, Paul Pasqualoni's option-based, run-first attack was boring everyone to tears with winning seasons and bowl bids. Failure followed, even though the Orange did manage to beat Notre Dame in South Bend last year. Now, Robinson is gone, taking his 10-37 record and moving on with his life.

The new coach is Doug Marrone, who played at Syracuse and understands that there was some tradition with this program before Robinson came in and tried to change everything.

Well-traveled offensive coordinator Rob Spence was hired to bring life to an attack that hasn't averaged 20 points a game since Pasqualoni was still employed there. In fact, last year's 18.1 points per game was the highest a Robinson-run Syracuse team attained. Ouch.

As for the defense, after two years of respectable play, the last two years under Robinson were cover-your-eyes bad. Syracuse needs to find a way to slow opponents down a bit, because giving up around 200 yards rushing per game is not a key to success. There are 45 returning letterwinners to help Marrone lead this program back in the right direction in 2009, but there's just too much ground to make up on a league that has dominated the Orange for the better part of four straight years.

Best of the rest

Jabu Lovelace takes over as the quarterback at Rutgers, unless fellow senior Domenic Natale beats him out. The Scarlet Knights lost top receivers Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood, but do return senior speedster Tim Brown and should have a much-improved running game led by Kordell Young. ... Grothe's (pictured) presence should solidify the South Florida offense. But what about a defense that lost leading tackler Tyrone McKenzie? Senior defensive end George Selvie could solve much of that, if the Bulls can get some help for him along that line. Selvie was worn down a year ago by double teams, and the Bulls really couldn't do anything to help him. ... No more Pat White at West Virginia, as Jarrett Brown takes over at quarterback. Luckily, he'll have Noel Devine to hand off to, and he'll still have Jock Sanders available to catch passes. ... Cincinnati won the Big East last year, but they lost some huge pieces of the defense, as ten starters depart. The Bearcats have quarterback Tony Pike back, and Brian Kelly's spread offense has to step up this year to support the young defense. ... There may not have been a more valuable player in the Big East last year than Connecticut running back Donald Brown, who topped 2,000 yards and scored 18 touchdowns. It makes sense that it would take a couple players to replace Brown, and that may happen at UConn, as senior Andre Dixon and sophomore Jordan Todman battle for playing time.

Big East Preseason Honors and Notables
Offensive Player of the Year:
Noel Devine, RB, West Virginia
Defensive Player of the Year: George Selvie, DE, South Florida
Coach of the Year: Dave Wannstedt, Pittsburgh
Coach on the Hot Seat: Steve Kragthorpe, Louisville
Best Non-Conference Game: Pittsburgh at North Carolina State, September 26
Worst Non-Conference Game: Southeast Missouri State at Cincinnati, September 12

Twins Take the Gaspipe in Oakland

It's not a secret. I typically don't stay up late at night.

Monday, the Minnesota Twins were playing in Oakland. I figured I'd see the first four or five innings and call it a night.

As the game slugged through the first two-plus innings, the Twins managed to take a 12-2 lead. I was tired, the Twins aren't my favorite team (I like them a good deal, but I'm a Brewer fan), and it was 12-2. That was it for me.

Commence comeback.

Oakland rallied from that 12-2 deficit, capping the comeback with a seven-run outburst in the seventh inning to take an improbable 14-13 lead.

How the Twins got there was a mystery to me until I read the work of LaVelle Neal Tuesday morning. Since he was forced to stay up to watch the Twins pitching staff get debacled, I'll let him tell you the story of the seventh inning.

The first two batters reached against reliever Brian Duensing. Then Mark Ellis popped up a pitch that (Twins first baseman Justin) Morneau overran. It fell in for no play.

“I just misjudged it,” Morneau said. “I thought it was going to be on the warning track and it was 10 feet behind me.”

Ellis, of course, singles to load the bases. One out later, Bobby Keppel replaced Duensing. Orlando Cabrera sent a blooper down the right field line that (Michael) Cuddyer dived for - and missed. Two runs scored.

Keppel re-loaded the bases with a walk to Scott Hairiston - then gave up a grand slam to (Matt) Holliday to tie the game.

Jack Cust added a booming home run later in the seventh to make it 14-13. Then came the wild ninth inning, when a Michael Wuertz wild pitch send Cuddyer from second base with two out. When catcher Kurt Suzuki couldn't find the ball, and it rolled away, Cuddyer kept running and tried to score.

As you can see in the photo above, it looked like Cuddyer was safe, but he was called out. After the game, manager Ron Gardenhire cooled off before talking to LaVelle.

“Definitely, Cuddy was safe,” Gardenhire said. “There’s no doubt about that. A little bit of a bad call there…but we also shot ourselves in the foot.”

So how did the umpire blow it?

Well, there's only so far I'll go to defend incompetence like that, but there's a chance that Wuertz' right leg blocked the view of the umpire. As Wuertz tried to get in position to slap the tag on Cuddyer, he planted his right leg at an angle. The umpire -- positioned properly, mind you -- may not have been able to see Cuddyer's right leg scrape home plate as he slid in. To the umpire, it looked like the throw beat Cuddyer, and if he didn't see Cuddyer actually touch the dish, he has to call the runner out.

That said, it's a stretch, and I understand why the Twins and their legions of fans (judging by Facebook, a ton of you stayed up to watch, which I salute you for, because I don't do that when the Brewers play out west) are upset. Cuddyer was safe, undoubtedly, so why was he called out?

Moreover, how long is baseball's instant replay system only going to be used for home runs?

In the end, though, Gardenhire said it best. They shot themselves in the foot enough to lose the kind of ballgame they may never see again.

Monday, July 20, 2009

College Football 2009: ACC

This year's College Football Preview uses information gathered from many sources. As usual, my full endorsement goes to Phil Steele and his College Football Preview, which is the most comprehensive publication of its kind available. I also used The Sporting News College Football Preview, along with school websites and local newspapers, in my research for these preview posts. Please contact me ASAP if you have updated information that can be used to make this work more accurate.

1. Florida State
2. North Carolina State
3. Clemson
4. Wake Forest
5. Boston College
6. Maryland

1. Virginia Tech
2. Miami
3. North Carolina
4. Georgia Tech
5. Duke
6. Virginia

Fab Four: Top Storylines in the ACC

How will recent scandal affect Florida State on the field? The Seminoles have been through it before, but this particular case seems to have more sticking power than others. It's not so much a knock on coach Bobby Bowden as it is on the school and its athletes, but Bowden has had to answer a lot of questions about an academic scandal that has the football program on the verge of vacating 14 wins. Since last year's FSU team was another on-field disappointment for most of the season, it should be interesting to see how the 2009 version -- one picked by many to win their division and contend for a major bowl -- will respond to the possible distractions.

There's little question that a healthy and focused FSU team is the best of the Atlantic Division. Christian Ponder started to throw the ball better late in the season, and he should get good protection from a stout offensive line. Bowden has another fast and powerful defense, and the only major hangup is that their toughest games (BYU, North Carolina, Clemson, Wake Forest, and Florida) are all on the road.

Can Russell Wilson do what Philip Rivers couldn't? This isn't meant to pick on Rivers, who was an outstanding college quarterback and has been an even better pro. Rivers, though, was unable to climb the mountain at NC State, failing to win an ACC championship in his four years there.

Wilson had to battle through some injuries last year, but clearly established himself as the top young quarterback in the ACC. Only one of his 275 pass attempts fell into an opponent's hands, and Wilson helped lead Tom O'Brien's Wolfpack to a bowl game after a miserable 2-6 start to the season. If Wilson can stay healthy, he has a chance this season to take NC State to the top of the Atlantic Division.

Boston College back in transition. The firing of Jeff Jagodzinski was handled rather clumsily by the BC administration, not totally different from how they pushed out O'Brien two years earlier.

If the desire of this school is to put together an elite football program, they're going to have to settle down a bit. I have no idea if Frank Spaziani can be a head coach at this level, but I do know that Jagodzinski was a good one. It was foolish for BC to let him go, and while I understood their stance on the issue, it was the kind of thing that could easily have been resolved internally.

While the Eagles have a good chunk of starters back, they have to put up with another coaching transition, and their road schedule is quite daunting.

Can Paul Johnson continue to succeed at Georgia Tech? Last year, the buzz was that Johnson's option offense wouldn't work at a BCS school. Now that it has, folks are centering their criticisms around the idea that opponents have a season's worth of film with which to better prepare for this attack.

While Johnson has 18 starters at his disposal this fall, there may be something to the idea that ACC schools will better defend his offense with a year of experience trying. After all, the Yellow Jackets were held to a scant 164 yards rushing -- over 100 below the season average -- in their 38-3 Chick-Fil-A Bowl loss to LSU.

Jonathan Dwyer was five yards short of 1,400 last year, and he's back to lead the offense. They'll unquestionably need more out of junior quarterback Josh Nesbitt. No, Johnson doesn't like to throw much, but he has to have his quarterback hitting more than 44 percent of his throws for the offense to be effective on a consistent basis.

Georgia Tech should be good enough to make a bowl game again this season, but it likely won't be anything like the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. To repeat that nine-win season, Tech needs more out of a defense that was pretty effective a year ago, and wasn't really to blame for the bowl debacling.

Best of the rest

Dabo Swinney gets his shot as the full-time coach at Clemson this fall. Swinney went 4-3 after Tommy Bowden was (finally) fired. It's up to sophomore Willy Korn (likely starter) to keep the offense going after the graduation of Cullen Harper. ... Last year, Wake Forest struggled more than expected on offense. This year, the Demon Deacons better score some points, because defensive stars Aaron Curry, Stanley Arnoux, Alphonso Smith, Chip Vaughn, and Kevin Patterson are all gone. ... Thanks to senior quarterback Chris Turner and exciting junior running back Da'Rel Scott (pictured), Maryland should field a much-improved offense in 2009. If linebacker Alex Wujciak can help the defense be at all consistent, the Terrapins could surprise. ... Virginia Tech has no more excuses. They have to start Tyrod Taylor, and they have to stick with him. Now, can Taylor reward coach Frank Beamer by finally becoming a more consistent passer? The Hokies might be able to win the Coastal, but they aren't a player nationally until Taylor can make more plays with his arm. With a load of experienced skill-position players, this shouldn't be too much to ask. ... Don't sleep on Miami this year. The Hurricanes solved their quarterback controversy by decisively picking Jacory Harris over the now-transferred Robert Marve. Randy Shannon could have his best defense yet in his third year as head coach, thanks to returnees like linebacker Sean Spence and tackle Marcus Forston, both top freshmen in the ACC last year. ... Despite the loss of star receiver Hakeem Nicks, North Carolina has reason for hope. One-half of last year's quarterback, Cameron Sexton, has transferred, leaving the job for T.J. Yates. If Greg Little, who caught only 11 passes last year, can emerge as a top target, the Tar Heels may improve off their eight wins of a year ago. ... While David Cutcliffe instilled a sense of pride and got the team to play a lot better in conference play, Duke won just four games a year ago. A measurably tougher schedule -- roadies to Army and Kansas in non-conference play -- could keep the Blue Devils from contending for a bowl game, despite the presence of quarterback Thaddeus Lewis and running back Re'Quan Boyette. ... Virginia lost their last four games in 2008, going from 5-3 to a bowl-less season. For that to change, the Cavaliers have to find a way to run the football. Virginia averaged under 100 yards on the ground per game, and leading rusher Cedric Pearman has departed.

ACC Preseason Honors and Notables
Offensive Player of the Year:
Russell Wilson, QB, North Carolina State
Defensive Player of the Year: Morgan Burnett, S, Georgia Tech
Coach of the Year: Tom O'Brien, North Carolina State
Coach on the Hot Seat: Al Groh, Virginia
Best non-conference game: Alabama vs. Virginia Tech (at Atlanta), September 5
Worst non-conference game: Coastal Carolina at Clemson, October 31

Brewers Bolster Infield With Felipe Lopez

Struggling to generate consistent offense, and knowing that he needs to give some of his veterans a break once in a while, Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin seized an opportunity Sunday.

By bringing in infielder Felipe Lopez in a trade from Arizona, Melvin is showing some important things.

For starters, he wants to do what he can to improve this team. The Brewers have a very good farm system, especially when it comes to position players. Giving up Triple-A outfielder Cole Gillespie -- a former Oregon State Beaver -- as the primary prospect in a trade is hardly a move to damage the farm system or mortgage the future.

Lopez is a switch-hitter who currently ranks second in the National League among regular second basemen in on-base percentage (.364). His .372 OBP as a leadoff hitter also ranks second in the NL.

Not only can the guy hit, but he is capable of playing three infield positions (second, third, and short), and while he's a free agent after the season, he comes at a very affordable $1.5 million (or so) for the rest of the season.

While Melvin still has to find some pitching to help out the Brewers' beleaguered rotation, Lopez is an immediate upgrade to the offense. Instead of relying on veterans Craig Counsell and Jason Kendall to set the table, now those guys can hit with a little less pressure, and Lopez can take a spot with the Brewers where he's been good at all season.

Meanwhile, the club decided to send down Mat Gamel. The third baseman didn't hit well, struck out a lot, and had his share of "deer in the headlights" moments. However, there's little doubt he'll be back. 115 at-bats isn't nearly enough to judge someone's talent level. The real positive with Gamel is that rumors of his defensive butchery seemed greatly exaggerated. Perhaps a full season at the hot corner would bring to light all the flaws people saw from him in the minors, but there's no reason to think Gamel can't be a player on the Brewers' infield for years to come.

Get Your Tickets Now, Viking Fans

The Minnesota Vikings are eagerly awaiting the arrival of quarterback Brett Favre.

Frankly, it's not even a secret anymore, and the only shock will be if it doesn't end up happening.

In honor of this awesome occasion, the Vikings put single-game tickets for six of their eight regular-season home dates on sale Monday. While the Vikings sell a good chunk of season tickets every year, they do cap those sales so as to have some single-game tickets to sell to fans.

With Favre coming, as Pro Football Talk noted Monday afternoon, you'd think sales would have been quick and painless for the Vikings.


Instead, Mike Florio says, there are still plenty of seats up for grabs for the six games the Vikings started selling Monday.

(The home dates with Chicago and Green Bay are not available in single-game sales ... yet. Surely, they will be very soon.)

Viking fans I've talked to (admittedly a very small sample) are split on Favre. While there is some excitement, and a greater opportunity to needle Packer fans, they're also apprehensive. They know that Favre's last four years haven't been that great (84 regular-season picks in 64 starts), but they also know that he's Brett Favre. Anything can happen.

Apparently, that "anything" isn't immediately translating to ticket sales. Perhaps Viking fans are waiting until the notoriously flighty Favre makes up his mind.

Hard to argue with them on that philosophy.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Scott Sandelin Gets Extension at UMD

I hate to post and run, but that's basically what I'm going to do. Pates did the gruntwork, he gets the credit.

Coming off Minnesota Duluth's best season in five years, men's hockey coach Scott Sandelin signed a two-year contract extension Friday which will take him through 2011-12. His base salary will be $150,000, said athletic director Bob Nielson.

Sandelin, 44, guided the Bulldogs to a 22-13-8 record in 2008-09, a Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoff title and into the NCAA Division I tournament. It was the best UMD performance since going 28-13-4 in 2003-04 in advancing to the Frozen Four. The Bulldogs were one game away from the 2009 Frozen Four, losing to Miami of Ohio 2-1 in the NCAA quarterfinals March 28 at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis.

Sandelin, 144-173-45 in nine seasons, is entering the final year of his previous contract and the extension adds two years. He earned $137,500 last season.

"It's exciting to look forward now and start building on last season," Sandelin, a Hibbing native, said Friday. "We lost some great players, but we also have great players returning and some good freshmen, and that can't help but make all of us feel like good things are ahead."

Sandelin's assistant coaches, Steve Rohlik and Brett Larson, also have had their one-year contracts extended for another year.

While Sandelin and Nielson have been working on contract negotiations since April, Nielson said not to read anything into the time needed to complete the deal. Nielson said contract language and procedural steps lengthened the process. Sandelin's contract also has compensation clauses which Nielson didn't specify.

"I see a lot of momentum building in the program," said Nielson. "The tremendous finish the team had, doing something no other WCHA team had done, winning three league playoff games in three days, and then getting within a couple of goals of the Frozen Four.

"It's a great way to prepare for entering our new building during the 2010-11 season."

The Bulldogs open 2009-10 with an exhibition home game with the University of British Columbia on Oct. 3 and the regular schedule begins Oct. 9 at home against Lake Superior State.

Thank goodness. I was hoping this could get done sooner, but such is life. Better late than never. There was no chance he could be an effective recruiter in the last year of a contract. Coaching just doesn't work like that anymore.

Sandelin has been a bit of a controversial figure at UMD, mainly because there is a shockingly snobbish contingent of UMD fans who want an alum to have the coaching job.

All in all, he's done a pretty good job. They've made the NCAA Tournament twice in his tenure, which mark their first two national tournament bids since 1993. It's a step in the right direction.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Milwaukee Brewers Start Second Half

I may have shown my homer colors when I picked the Milwaukee Brewers second in the NL Central this year, but my expectations were totally realistic heading into the season.

I thought Milwaukee would struggle with their pitching, and the bats would have to carry them. True to form, the Brewers' best streaks of good play this season have been buoyed by a balanced, dangerous offense.

Unfortunately, those flashes of good play haven't been enough to balance out some totally bad baseball in June and the first half of July (15-23 record).

Heading into the unofficial start of the second half Thursday night at Cincinnati, I have some serious concerns about this club that stand in the way of a second straight playoff spot.

Starting pitching depth

It's okay if a team suffers some injuries and is short in the rotation as a result. That's going to happen.

It's not okay if a team is already short in the rotation, and then suffers injuries to steady pitchers. That's what happened to the Brewers, who had to deal without Dave Bush -- a real surprise this season -- because of a bad arm. Braden Looper was signed to be a bottom-of-the-rotation inning-eater, and he has not exceeded expectations. Jeff Suppan is generally terrible, but his bursts of good pitching are better than anyone else on staff.

Mike Burns tried hard, but he's not even a replacement-level starting pitcher. Getting Bush back is key, and while the bullpen is a concern, there are enough workable parts there to get you through a season. The rotation is a complete mess right now, and it's barely adequate if all the pieces are healthy.

The Brewers' smartest fans knew this was a possibility going into the season. They knew a healthy rotation was a must, and Suppan and Looper had to carry more than their weight. You can argue that Suppan and Looper have been as good as you can realistically expect, but the health concerns have helped drive the rotation down a bit.

Scattershot offense

Let's face it. The Brewers aren't going to get better until guys like Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, and Bill Hall can hit more consistently.

In Hall's case, they just need him to hit. The hell with consistency.

Hart and Hardy have been major disappointments. Hart continues to wave at the in-the-dirt slider, while Hardy has been a victim of some awful, awful luck so far. J.J. will come around in the second half. In fact, I'd be shocked if he didn't hit at least .300 from now to October. He's been whacking the ball pretty hard, but it always seems to find a fielder.

Hart and Hall can't even get to the "hit the ball hard" stage, as they're stuck on "Just make contact, please".

Casey McGehee and Craig Counsell have held their own, and then some. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder have been magnificent. Mike Cameron has even had his moments, and continues to be wonderful defensively.

The glass ceiling effect

With the struggles Milwaukee is having generating consistent offense, it might be time to think outside the box. The club doesn't want to shift Hardy to a different infield position, but Alcides Escobar is probably ready for a shot at the big club. They can't hold him back forever, especially with Hardy not hitting.

Even though he's been up-and-down, I hope Mat Gamel gets more playing time in the second half. I like his bat, and he's not nearly the butcher at third base that I was expecting.

All in all, I'm not surprised by anything I've seen from the Milwaukee Brewers. Now, it's time for Ken Macha to prove me right about him, and lead this team to some improvement over the summer months.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

More on Brett Favre; Or 'Moron Favre'

I rarely double-post on the same topic, but I got a couple of emails from people asking me about the latest Brett Favre news. They want to know my take.

As if that's changed at all.

In case you aren't aware, Favre told the Associated Press that he'll have an answer to the Minnesota Vikings by July 30 ... the day before the first training camp practice.

What a guy.

The hell with the other 79 guys who are going to show up. The hell with the quarterbacks, who worked their asses off in minicamps and OTAs, learning the offense and trying to get better. The hell with the wide receivers who took that time to build rapport with the quarterbacks who gave a crap enough to show up. The hell with anyone but Brett Favre.

In defense of Favre a bit, he's not the one primarily responsible for any of this. After all, he just loves the game and wants to play football (sorry, but Peter King invaded my hands for a few seconds). This whole mess falls on the Vikings, specifically Brad Childress, the front office, and ownership.

(By the way, Favreophiles, and I know you're out there, I'd like you to answer a question. If Brett Favre just LOVES THE GAME, then why has he retired from it twice?)

These people have completely disregarded the locker room, and they have completely disregarded their fanbase. Instead of teasing fans with the thought of Favre, the truth was owed to them from the start. Naturally, the Vikings' reaction was to put this all on Favre, as if they had no control whatsoever over whether the guy showed up for Vikings training camp.

Surely, the Vikings could grow a set, tell Favre to get lost, and he'd wander onto the field in Mankato, anyway. Riiiight.

The Vikings have no interest in stopping this circus. It's in their best interest from a business standpoint to keep getting the attention, and it's in their head coach's best interest because he's on the hot seat.

For Brad Childress, an effective Brett Favre is the difference between a contract extension and walking the Wilf Plank. He's convinced himself that Favre can step in, be motivated and consistent, and lead the Vikings to heights unseen in many, many years.

No one knows if Childress is right, but Favre's recent play (84 picks in four years) indicates Childress is probably on the wrong side of right.

And, no, Favre isn't being brought in to hand the ball to Adrian Peterson. Until he proves he can be a consistent threat with his arm, he'll be treated like Tarvaris Jackson and Gus Frerotte were. Even once he shows something, he's bound to do something stupid on one of the 15 times he's asked to throw the football.

Packer fans are Packer fans. Our allegiance is to the Green Bay Packers, and not some old fart with an insanely over-inflated ego that used to play for the Green Bay Packers. If Favre thinks he can limp into Lambeau Field and get anything better than a mixed reaction from the 70,000 on hand, he's nuts.

If he ever wants to hear unanimous applause from Packer fans, he'll have to remove the Ginsu from their backs. I won't hold my breath.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Blackhawks Give in to Bowman Power Play

Sometimes, even organizations that appear to be exceptionally well-run commit exceptional blunders.

It appears to have happened to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Just weeks after a potentially embarrassing flub involving restricted free agent qualifying offers was brought to light, the Blackhawks have fired a guy who might not have been responsible for the blunders at all.

As relayed by FanHouse colleague Adam Gretz, the team has reportedly fired general manager Dale Tallon. The replacement? Assistant general manager Stan Bowman, son of Hall of Fame coach and current senior advisor Scotty Bowman.

(The Blackhawks say Tallon has been "reassigned to Senior Advisor, Hockey Operations", the same position Scotty Bowman currently holds. Something tells me Scotty will have more say.)

My immediate reaction? The Blackhawks brass gave in to the Bowman family power play, aided by the qualifying offer "controversy", which Tallon took full blame for, even though he insisted that the offers were mailed on time.

No, I have nothing to back it up, and I'm sure that many hockey people will step up and insist that Scotty Bowman would never push a guy out of a job. That doesn't matter. Reality is that Scotty Bowman has a voice with Blackhawks brass (John McDonough and Rocky Wirtz). He should have that voice. He's Scotty Bowman, after all. In this case, whether it's right or wrong, Scotty appears to have used that voice to help get his son a valuable promotion.

Is that so Scotty can run the team through his kid? Only time will tell.

This is the second awkwardly-timed firing by the Blackhawks in less than a year. They canned coach Denis Savard four games into what would become a highly-successful 2008-2009 season. His biggest crime? Daring to lose road games against the Rangers and Capitals.

Tallon was hardly perfect in the GM role. He signed huge deals for defenseman Brian Campbell and goalie Cristobal "Ole!" Huet, and he signed 30-year-old Marian Hossa to a 12-year contract.

He also drafted Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Dustin Byfuglien, and a host of other young stars on this Chicago team. Not only that, but he engineered brilliant one-sided trades for Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg.

Not exactly the picture of incompetence, and not the resume of a guy you'd think just lost his GM job.

The Bowmans -- namely Stan -- will be under the microscope now. Tallon has been a longtime figure in this organization, as a player, broadcaster, and now executive. If Stan Bowman can't step in and continue the building of a championship contender in the Second City, the two-handed shove of Tallon will look all the worse in the end.

Legendary Hockey Rivalry Gets Documentary

No matter where you live, you probably know some of the history college hockey has in Boston.

Between traditional powers Boston College and Boston University, long-lasting Northeastern, former NCAA champion Harvard, and the annual Beanpot tournament, Boston is home to some of the best college hockey around.

(Outside of Minnesota, of course.)

The rivalry between BC and BU has been unbelieveably intense over the years, and now there is a documentary being produced to celebrate the two schools' history. The best part? The production company got legendary play-by-play voice Mike "Doc" Emrick to narrate the program.

“I can’t wait to see the action footage and hear the sound bites from the many who have played such a part in this intense history,” Emrick said. “That I can also be a part of something so important to hockey history is an honor.”

Rival Films began production on “The Battle of Comm Ave” in January. The film will examine the unique hockey rivalry between two schools that share the same street in Boston.

The entire documentary will be shot in high definition.

The show will be available on DVD, and will be shown on NESN.

For those who appreciate college hockey at its finest, this is likely to be a must-see.

Monday, July 13, 2009

High School Football Schedule Search Update

If you click the link on the left side of the page, you can access my spreadsheet of high school football schedules for teams both in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

You'll notice that we're not quite complete. For it being only mid-July, I'm pretty happy with how much information has been found.

I'm reaching out formally, hoping to fill the holes well in advance of season openers August 27-28 (Wisconsin) and September 3-4 (Minnesota).

If you can help with any of the teams listed below, please send me the missing information, and I'll plug it in to the spreadsheet.

Hill City
Moose Lake/Willow River
Rush City

In addition, Greenway and Nashwauk-Keewatin have merged programs, thus ending Nashwauk-Keewatin's separate program. This has caused some schedule holes in the Great Polar Alliance, so any information on missing games would be much appreciated. I'd also appreciate any information on the name of the combined team, and the schedule they'll play.


Send any info you have to