Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Yao, Villanueva and a Brand New Season

The scope and landscape of the NBA field is changing in a hurry. A key acquisition in Cleveland, a high risk/reward trade in Orlando and devastating injury news in Houston could be enough to turn the NBA on its head. That's not to say that come June the Knicks will be awaiting the winner of Thunder/Timberwolves Western Conference Finals Game 7, but things will be a little different come next season.

The West

The Lakers will still be favored come tipoff and things will likely stay that way for the remainder of the season, but with Yao Ming likely to miss the entirety of the 09/10 season, Shaq's departure from Phoenix and Jason Kidd possibly leaving the Mavericks, some big names will be absent in the West, leaving way for others to join the playoff party come April.

Shaq did not bring the Suns any glory in his one and a half seasons in Phoenix, but the rebuilding Suns may struggle to even contend for the 8th playoff spot until they figure out some semblance of their style from the Mike D'Antoni days. Look for Golden State to reemerge as a possible playoff team next season and for young teams like Portland to make a little more noise this season.

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With Yao probably spending the entire season on the bench, the Rockets must look to resign Ron Artest to secure a second option behind Tracy McGrady, whose injury problems are no secret to Rockets or the other 29 NBA teams. Without McGrady or Yao in this year's semi's, the Rockets took the Lakers to 7 games and gave them their biggest scare in this year's playoffs, so it's not like the Rockets will lay down and die without their big man.

Big name free agents in the West include Kidd (Dallas), Carlos Boozer (Utah-player option), Kobe Bryant (LA Lakers-Early Termination Option), Artest (Houston), Lamar Odom (LA Lakers), Trevor Ariza (LA Lakers) and Chris Andersen (Denver). Bryant isn't going anywhere, but after that, it's anybody's guess. We'll probably see Boozer in another uniform next year and my gut is telling me that both Odom and Kidd will play somewhere else as well. The young Trevor Ariza and a revitalized Chris Andersen will probably stay put. As for Artest, it depends how the Rockets decide to handle Yao's injury. If they still believe they can contend this season, then keeping Artest is vital. If they give up any hope of winning without Yao, Artest's departure will free up some cap space for future acquisitions.

The East

Out East, the biggest news came in Cleveland, who acquired arguably the most dominant big man in the history of the game. Near the bottom of the hill in his career, Shaq will still provide LeBron and the Cavs the consistent inside force they have lacked. Zydrunas Ilgauskas now becomes the best backup center in the league, much the same way Alonzo Mourning was the best backup center sitting behind O'Neil in Miami when the team won the title in 2006. As Charlie Villanueva failed to receive a qualifying offer from Milwaukee today, his tenure with the Bucks comes to an end. Speculation has Villanueva joining LeBron and Shaq in Cleveland, especially if Anderson Varejao leaves. If he arrives in Cleveland, along with the arrival of Shaq, Ilgauskas' new role and the renewed energy Mo Williams showed last season, who can beat LeBron and the Cavs come May and June?

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So many things can change between today and tipoff of the new season. The Knicks may eventually land Ricky Rubio, as he seems unlikely to invest in thermal underwear and galoshes so that he may spend any portion of his professional career on the frozen tundra of Minnesota. The Knicks are going to be the team to watch in the next few seasons, as they are building a strong, young core. Just don't look for any significant climb up the standings this season.

The draft night trade that sent Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson to the Magic and Tony Battie, Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee to the Nets will have a major impact on the makeup of both teams. The Nets now look to redefine themselves post-Carter, whose scoring ability is coveted by all teams. Carter will join Dwight Howard in Orlando, a pairing that Orlando may have missed in the Finals against Los Angeles. With Hedo Turkoglu possibly leaving, the addition of Carter helps the Magic lock down that extra scoring threat. If the Magic know what's good for them, however, they will do everything they can to resign Turkoglu, who had a career defining playoffs. Imagine a lineup of Jameer Nelson, Carter, Rashard Lewis, Turkoglu and Howard. Not too shabby.

Detroit may look to acquire Boozer, who has also been rumored to be targeted by Miami, the city in which he spends his offseason. The Carlos Boozer saga is unpredictable at this point, as he still does not know whether he will option out of his contract and many teams are rumored to be interested in the power forward. Andre Miller (Philadelphia), Allen Iverson (Detroit), Ben Gordon (Chicago), Mike Bibby (Atlanta), Rasheed Wallace (Detroit), Turkoglu (Orlando) and Villanueva (Milwaukee) are the biggest names in this year's free agent class in the East.

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The Cavaliers will enter the season the favorites and, like the Lakers, will probably remain that way for the duration. Orlando will still be in the mix, especially with the addition of Carter and even if Turkoglu finds a new home. The possible addition of Boozer in Detroit may breathe new life into the Pistons, who last season seemed to begin their decline from perennial contenders in the East. Detroit also fired head coach Michael Curry today after only a season as head coach. More evidence of the Piston's unwillingness to let themselves sink? Or a kneejerk reaction to their losing record last season?

I'm not so sure things will be much different come April 2010, other than a mix-up of last year's top 8, but who knows, maybe the Bobcats will finally make that leap into the postseason. Or maybe the Pacers, Bucks or the new-look Nets will surprise a few people next year. It's tough to say. And a lot depends on the free agent period set to begin in July.

Written By Danny Hobrock

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Knicks Building a Talented, Young Team: LeBron to Follow in 2010?

Arizona's Jordan Hill and Florida State's Toney Douglas were smart picks. Hill will bring some insurance should the Knicks lose restricted free agent David Lee this summer. Douglas projects as a PG/SG in the NBA, but he was not the fans' first choice to take over guard duties despite having one of the best work ethics of any player in Thursday's draft and leading FSU to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998.

Now, the Knicks turn their attention to Ricky Rubio, the fifth overall pick of the draft and the popular choice among Knicks fans. He seems unlikely to play for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the team that picked him on Thursday night.
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Rubio failed to show for his introductory press conference and his father has said that Rubio may stay in Europe rather than head to Minnesota where he will likely win no more than 30 games and freeze his toes off in the process. It has become widely publicized that because of his buyout clause, Rubio would likely play for free in the NBA for at least his first season in the league. He has stated that his dream has always been to play in the NBA and that money is not that important now. But will he play for nothing in Minnesota, a city that, while playing 'NBA City Word Association', he called "too cold"?

So while the Knicks are not the only team to inquire about Rubio's availability and the price tag the Timberwolves may have attached to his head, it appears as though the Knicks are serious about making moves that will improve their roster and hopefully attract a big time free agent next summer.

We are seeing an attempt by the Knicks brass to build a solid core of talented players that will provide the support for a superstar such as LeBron James. Currently, Al Harrington, an 11 year pro who last season enjoyed arguably his most productive season in his first year in New York, is probably their most recognizable player. But by moving to acquire a young, promising point guard such as Rubio, the Knicks are finally taking a step in the right direction.

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In addition to drafting Hill and Douglas, the Knicks acquired Darko Milicic from the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Quentin Richardson. Taking Milicic is a gamble considering he has been one of the biggest draft disappointments this decade. Coach Mike D'Antoni will help Milicic reach his full potential, the potential the Detroit Pistons saw in 2003 when they made him the 2nd pick of the draft behind LeBron James.

When it's all said and done it will be hard to judge the moves the Knicks have made this summer until we see their revamped roster and rotation in action come tipoff next season. Wherever Rubio winds up (Minnesota, New York, Houston, etc.) he will find himself right in the mix for the starting point guard position on that team.

Conflicting reports have been swirling on the Rubio trade rumors. David Kahn, Minnesota's President of Basketball Operations, has consistently insisted that the T-Wolves have no intentions of trading Rubio or Johnny Flynn, who was drafted by the team immediately after taking Rubio. Still, Knicks President David Walsh has made clear his intentions of inquiring about Rubio's availability.

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When a player fails to show up for an introductory press conference and makes his discontent known, he usually finds himself shipped to another team in the near future. Although it took a season, Yi Jianlian was finally traded out of Milwaukee after he made his unhappiness known to the team that drafted him. We've seen it in the NFL as well with John Elway and later with Eli Manning. When a highly drafted and highly sought after player such as Rubio wants out, he gets out, sooner or later.

In other news, it appears as though any chances of Amare Stoudemire landing in Oakland were thwarted when the Warriors were able to nab Stephen Curry with the 7th pick after the Davidson product was not chosen by the Minnesota Timberwolves as many had expected. The 7th overall pick was part of a proposed trade that would have sent the pick along with Andris Biedrins, Brandan Wright and Marco Belinelli to Phoenix in exchange for Stoudemire. It now appears that the Suns, who thought the deal was a go after the Warriors drafted Curry, will have to accept another player to take Curry's place if the deal is to get done, perhaps Monta Ellis. But it looks as though the Warriors are pleased with Curry, whose upside is tremendous.

Written By Danny Hobrock

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

2009 Wimbledon Men’s Preview

Change is in the air at the 2009 Wimbledon tennis tournament. A new roof is now covering Centre Court this summer, and a new men’s champion will be crowned this July.

It will be disappointing not seeing Rafael Nadal defending his Wimbledon title, as he couldn’t shake off a knee injury that has plagued him all year. Many tennis experts predicted his play would have been legendary at the All England Tennis Club this year, especially after his early exit from the French Open. We will miss the creativity from Nadal, as could score points from anywhere on the tennis court.

It is a wide open field to win this event. The competition should be fast and furious, so let’s take a closer look at the top contenders in the men’s division:

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Roger Federer
For the first time since 2004, the Men’s field will not have a reigning champion named Roger Federer. He is approaching 28 years old, and many have whispered that Federer is reaching the end of his dominance on the tour. Pete Sampras won his seventh and final men’s title at Wimbledon in 2000 at the ripe old age of 28. If history repeats itself, Federer is in line to take his sixth Wimbledon title and surpass Sampras with his 15th Grand Slam victory.

Novak Djokovic
The press anointed Novak Djokovic ready to challenge Nadal and Federer for the top spot. He won the 2008 Australian Open, but the other shoe never seemed to fall in his development. The same people who praised him were now questioning his toughness after he bowed out of a quarterfinal match against Andy Roddick at this year’s Australian Open. At 22 years old, Djokovic is still young enough to reach the level of play everyone has projected for him.

Andy Roddick
American male tennis players have fallen off the tennis world. No American has won a Grand Slam event since Andy Roddick’s 2003 U.S. Open victory. The key to Roddick’s success is how consistent he can be with his serve and thus keeping service in a match. This year, his motivation will be improving on his early exit from Wimbledon a year ago.

Andy Murray
Recognition has finally come to Andy Murray, as the 22 year old started the tennis season ranked third in the world. Now, Murray must maintain his ranking by winning a Grand Slam tournament this year. His best performance was losing to Federer in the finals of the 2008 U.S. Open. After the match, Murray told the press that he would watch the finals once again and try to identify his weaknesses. He went on to add that it was his job is to improve during the off-season. Murray can outlast anyone on the court, as he possess one of the best backhand shots on the tour. He needs to challenge Federer once again on the big stage, and winning Wimbledon would heighten his popularity in the sport.

Written By Thomas Conroy

2009 Wimbledon Women’s Preview

Wimbledon has been a home away from home for the Williams sisters. They have combined to win seven of the last nine women’s titles. And in three of those finals, they played against one another. Parity has been growing within women’s tennis, as opponents are primed to challenge the Williams sisters’ stranglehold of Centre Court.

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Venus Williams
Venus Williams is looking to three-peat at Wimbledon this year. And if you want to take the numbers even further back, she has won three of the last four women’s titles. Playing on grass does bring out the best in Venus, as she elevates her game to the next level. Her powerful serve can overtake any opponent during a course of a match. And if she needs any further motivation, Venus didn’t fare well at the Australian or French Open this year. That could inspire her onward for a sixth Wimbledon crown.

Serena Williams
Serena Williams has rebounded nicely in her career, after suffering through several disappointing seasons. At one point in this turnaround, she went to win 18 straight Grand Slam matches, including the 2008 U.S. and 2009 Australian Open titles. Not too many players can match her strength and speed on the tennis court, and that separates her from the competition. Her quarterfinal finish at this year’s French Open could motivate her to make a return appearance at the all-ladies final come this July.

Dinara Safina
Dinara Safina is winless in three Grand Slam final appearances, but she hopes for a different result this year at the All England Tennis Club. History isn’t on her side, as Safina hadn’t advanced past the third round at Wimbledon in her career. One question that remains unanswered: Did she learn from mistakes made in past Grand Slams to prevail this year on Centre Court?

Elena Dementieva
Elena Dementieva had a successful 2008 season, as she captured the Gold Medal in the Beijing Olympic Games, and her success has continued into 2009. Dementieva had a 15-match winning streak snapped in a semifinal loss to Serena Williams at this year’s Australian Open. Her serve isn’t as strong as some of the other players, but Dementieva compensates with having the best defensive game in tennis.

Jelena Jankovic
Jelena Jankovic began the season as the #1 tennis player in the world. Then the roof caved in, as she was upseted in the fourth round at the 2009 Australian Open. Jankovic has re-focused on fixing her game, and is confident she is on an upswing heading into Wimbledon. But remember, Jankovic has only reached one Grand Slam final in her career, and that was in last year’s U.S. Open.

Written By Thomas Conroy

Shaq's New "Partner In Crime"

It started as Shaq and Penny. Then Shaq and Kobe wreaked havoc on the rest of the league. Three championships later, Shaq and D-Wade tore things up for a couple seasons. And now, another title later, Shaq and LeBron will see where they can take this train. Shaquille O'Neil has certainly benefited from his share of strong partnerships in the NBA. He has played with two of today's best and when the NBA season tips off next season, he will begin his next journey with another player whose undeniable talent will put him in the discussion for 'best ever' by the time he's finished.

Shaq is unquestionably in the discussion for best big man ever and, although he is at the tail end of his career and less productive than in years past, his pairing with LeBron James in Cleveland will, to say the least, stir things up a bit in the East.

Shaq's move to Phoenix was anticlimactic. The Suns failed to reach the playoffs and O'Neil's numbers were less than impressive in comparison with his previous efforts. Still, with the Big Aristotle on the court the Cavs will finally have the big man they've so clearly lacked. It will prove vital to a team who has struggled to contain big men, most notably in this year's playoff loss to Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic.

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More than anything, what Shaq brings to Cleveland is his presence. There is no questioning the effect that Shaq has on his teammates' ability to defy what we ever thought possible. Kobe and Wade have the ability to find their own shot and create opportunities for their teammates. Combined with O'Neil's presence and the respect he demands from opposing defenses, Kobe and Wade were given a little breathing room defenses should never give to players of their caliber. And now LeBron James will finally feel that little extra freedom. That tiny, minuscule fragment of time that the defender wastes thinking of Shaq will be enough for LeBron to go in for the kill. As it was for Kobe and Wade, it will be for LeBron as well.

The trade sends Shaq to Cleveland in exchange for guard Sasha Pavlovic and aging center Ben Wallace. The Suns will also receive $500,000 and tonight's 46th pick. For Cleveland, their benefit is obvious. They get one of the most dominant big men in the history of basketball. He may not be the same force that he was in Los Angeles or even in his first two years in Miami, but with Shaq on the court LeBron will instantly benefit. Perhaps the reason O'Neil was not as effective in Phoenix is because he was not paired with a dynamic player of the same caliber and style as Kobe or Wade. In Cleveland, he will find himself in the familiar waters excellence. A relationship of mutualism will exist between LBJ and the Big Shaqalier (my favorite of the nicknames already flooding the Internet).

In Phoenix, there cannot be too many tears shed over O'Neil's departure. The Big Diesel failed to lead the Suns to the playoffs this season and was never the inside force that the Suns brass was hoping. We may be seeing the beginning of a rebirth in Phoenix. Amare Stoudemire and Steve Nash are still under contract and will keep the core of this team intact as Steve Kerr and the rest of the front office scurry to rebuild after years of falling just short of the ultimate prize.

As was the case two years ago when Boston's Big Three first came together, it's safe to say we can expect some championship predictions in the coming days, or all draft night long. I can't wait for the first time LeBron lobs one up for the big man to throw down.

Written By Danny Hobrock

USA to Ride Confederations Cup Wave Into 2010

The party is still rockin' in Bloemfontein hours after the United States men's soccer team defeated Spain to advance to their first ever finals in a FIFA tournament or competition. The United States' 2-0 victory over top seeded Spain sent shockwaves through the soccer world.

Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey scored the two US goals in the 25th and 73rd minute, respectively, to give the Americans their first win against the European champions. It was their first victory against a top-ranked team since the US defeated Brazil in 1998 at the CONCACAF Gold Cup. For this team of soccer-outsiders, victory is sweet. We will have to wait to see how far the United States can bring this Cinderella story, this underdog surprise, this unlikely hero saga. Where it stops, as runners up or as Confederations Cup Champions, we will have to wait and see.

The United States will take on either Brazil or South Africa in the final. The Confederations Cup is a warm-up competition for the World Cup to take place next summer, when the best soccer nations in the world will vie for the sport's ultimate prize in South Africa.

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The road to the final was not an easy one for the United States. The Americans lost their first two matches as they were defeated by Brazil and Italy and faced a first round elimination, a scenario not unfamiliar to the world after seeing the US get booted year after year whenever they step up to the plate with soccer's elite. For the United States to stay alive they had to defeat Egypt by three goals and Italy had to lose to by Brazil by at least three goals. Against all odds, the United States advanced to the semis against Spain, who had not been defeated in 35 games and who had won 15 straight games.

This all has so far made for a hit Disney flick. It's actually pretty reminiscent of the Mighty Ducks series. The Ducks were perennial losers, finishing in last place every season. Coincidentally, the United States had put up a string of disappointing first round exits from many tournaments before the Confederations Cup. The Ducks defeated the Hawks, the best team in the league and the reigning champions. Now, after defeating the top ranked Spanish team, the USA has only to defeat Brazil or South Africa to live up to the underdog-story standards set by Gordon Bombay and his Ducks. Or it could be a finish like Rocky, on paper the loser, but in our hearts the winner. What a nice moment.

With the hype surrounding the victory, experts and sports pundits are questioning the legitimacy of this team and whether the win is a sign of things to come next year when the United States and the rest of the world heads to South Africa for the World Cup. The arrival of David Beckham was supposed to win the hearts and minds of every American boy and girl. If nothing else, maybe this big win over Europe's top team will at least garner some attention to a team deserving a little hype.

Written By Danny Hobrock

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

MLB 2009 Surprises and Disappointments

The 2009 baseball season already had more storylines than an over-hype, over-budget Hollywood film. We have seen Hunt for Red Sox Nation, Waiting for Mannywood, and The Return of A-Rod repeatedly on our television screens all season long. The press has concentrated on the big-budget, major market teams, while ignoring the improve play from the small market teams.

Well, I personally take the responsibility to give you a report on four teams that have surprised and disappointed their fans this season.

Kansas City Royals
The Kansas City Royals closed out the 2008 season going 18-8 in their last 26 games, and baseball scouts raved about how hard the team played every night. This season, they’re led by an underrated pitching staff that stars Zach Greinke, Gil Meche, and Joakim Soria.

The best pitcher of the first half has been Greinke, 8-3 with an 1.96 era, who began his season by throwing 38 scoreless innings. Soria has battled through shoulder pain all season, and his health could play an important role to their success.

If the Royals are going to contend for the American League Central title, they will need to add more power to their lineup. They’re missing a big stick right now, 3B Alex Gordon has been on the disabled list since mid-April, as he is recuperating from hip surgery to repair a torn labrum.
The Royals will not be in this year’s World Series, but there is optimism for continued good play for the rest of the season.

San Francisco Giants
After four consecutive losing seasons, the San Francisco Giants are attempting to reach the post-season for the first time since 2003. They have one of the best starting pitching staff in baseball, as Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain have combined for a 15-3 mark on the season. Barry Zito has shown some signs of regaining his CY Young touch, as his flirted with throwing a no-hitter last weekend.

The Giants hit the fewest home runs in the majors last season, and they still lack power in their lineup. It forces them to play small ball with an aging lineup and that is not a good match. They will need to acquire a cleanup hitter to have any chance of contending in the National League West.

Memo to other N.L. teams: don’t make the mistake of letting the Giants hang around in the pennant race too long. Their farm system is loaded with young reinforcements (P Madison Bumgarner, P Tim Alderson, and C Buster Posey) who are eager to make an impression come September.

Baltimore Orioles
No one expects the Baltimore Orioles to contend in the American League East, as they will have to pass the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Tampa Bay Rays to overtake the top spot. Their offense is young and talented (OF Nick Markakis, 2B Brian Roberts, OF Adam Jones) but their starting pitching is young and inexperienced.

Potential high-end starting pitchers are working their way through the minor league system, and could pitch in Baltimore by the end of the season. Their blue chip prospect is LHP Brian Matusz, a former #1 draft choice who is polished and fairly closed to pitching in the majors sooner than later.

How well the Orioles do down the road will depend how fast their young talent develops over time. If majority of them reach the majors, then team president Andy McPhail was successful with his rebuilding plan.

Cincinnati Reds
Injuries have been the biggest opponent for the Cincinnati Reds all season. Coming out of spring training, their everyday lineup was as good offensively as anyone in the National League. Slowly, nagging injuries have turned into significant time spent on the disabled list.

Seven players are currently on the DL, including 1B Joey Votto, 3B Edwin Encarnacion, and SP Edinson Volquez, who has been on the DL twice this season with elbow tendinitis. Manager Dusty Baker hopes to have Votto back in the lineup by the end of June, as he heads to a minor league rehabilitation assignment later this week.

If everyone can return healthy before the All-Star break, their middle of the lineup could provide enough of a spark to get the Reds back into contention in the National League Central.

Written By Thomas Conroy

Fourth NBA Title "UnShaqles" Bryant

What a party last week in La La Land, as the Los Angeles Lakers were celebrating their 15th world title victory. The guest of honor was Kobe Bryant, as he stepped out of one shadow, Shaquille O’Neal, and quickly stepped into another shadow, Michael Jordan. But this shadow might be too large to step out from because Bryant might find that you cannot out-Mike Mike.

The experts will tell you that no can win a title on their own; everyone needs help along the way to a NBA crown. You had Bird-McHale in Boston, Kareem-Magic during the Lakers “Showtime” era, and Jordan-Pippen running together in Chicago. Bryant received unconventional assistance in his latest title run, as it came off-court in Phil Jackson, his former nemesis. It took eight long years, but finally he bought into the coaching wisdom of Jackson and became a giver rather than a scorer on the basketball court.

They clashed in their first tour of duty together, as Jackson called their relationship in his famous tell-all book a “psychological war” and demanded Laker management to trade Bryant during the course of the 2004 season. He deemed him “uncoachable,” as Jackson exited the organization in the following off-season. Now, Bryant admits it would be hard to envision himself playing for someone other than the Zen Master.

All of Jackson’s teams are known for their interior defense around the basket. Yes, Dwight Howard needed to make free throws for the Orlando Magic to be successful in the finals, but he only scored 21 baskets in the five-game series. And he didn’t receive any help from Magic assistant coach Patrick Ewing because he couldn’t solve Jackson’s defensive formations from their Knicks-Bulls playoff battles in years’ past.

Jackson lives by several Buddhist mantras, and shared one with his team prior to the start of this year’s playoffs. He told them to stay in the moment, and don’t look back. Never look too far ahead. Don’t waste the opportunity and enjoy the journey.

His words were poetic justice in the Lakers second quarter turnaround of Game 5. They took the Magic’s best punch offensively in the opening quarter, and presided to outscore them 30-18 in the following period. They showcased their precision offensive efficiency and shutdown defense.
During the half, Bryant implored his teammates to seize the moment and drive the stake through their opponent’s heart. The Lakers, who showed disinterested at times during this post-season, put it all together in the final half of the season. They sealed the deal with a 16-0 run to start the second half, as Bryant was setting up his teammates and more importantly, leading them to a NBA title.

Bryant can opt out of his contract this off-season, but don’t count on him leaving Los Angeles any time soon. He is driven to win NBA championships, and the Lakers have enough talent to keep the Lawrence O’Brien trophy settled out West for an extended stay.

Written By Thomas Conroy

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Sans Manny, Dodgers Continue to Ride Hot Start

The absence of Manny Ramirez has seemingly meant little to the first place Los Angeles Dodgers who, despite missing one of the finest power hitters in the game, still enjoy the best record in the Majors and an eight game advantage in the NL West over the second place Giants. Since losing Manny, however, the Dodgers have seen their win percentage drop 10 percentage points.

Manny left the Dodgers at 21-8, a .724 winning percentage. Since his suspension, the Dodgers have gone 24-16, a .600 winning percentage. Nothing to sneeze at, but Manny's absence has clearly been felt in those games. In the 27 games Ramirez played before his suspension, he hit 6 home runs, 9 doubles and knocked in 20 RBIs. He scored 20 runs and was batting .348 with a .492 on-base percentage during those games.

It's no secret that the Dodgers miss Ramirez's bat. Who wouldn't? He's one of the most productive offensive forces in baseball whose mere presence draws baseball fans from all over to the ballpark. The Dodgers, however, have held their own since losing Manny. Juan Pierre currently holds the 10th best batting average in the MLB with a .330 average and Orlando Hudson is tied for the 7th most doubles in the league with 21. Manny's .348 average would currently sit second only to Ichiro Suzuki. The Dodgers have also failed to produce a prominent home run hitter or RBI machine since Manny's suspension.

Still, despite all of this, the Dodgers have maintained their lead in the NL West and the best record in the Majors. How is this possible after losing a player like Manny? Has the pitching been lights out? Is Los Angeles still riding that hot start from the beginning of the year? Or does Joe Torre have something to do with the team's perseverance without their star hitter?

The answer is a combination of the three. The Dodgers' pitching has been exceptional to say the least. Jonathan Broxton is considered by some to be the frontrunner to win the NL Cy Young and Chad Billingsley is also on the shortlist at this point in the season. The pitching staff has its weak points, but the Dodgers owe a great deal to their pitchers.

It isn't hard to see how the Dodgers' hot start to the season has carried them through the first 40 games without Manny. They have only 10 more to get through before Ramirez's return to the lineup and if their offense thus far is any indication, they will be just fine. With Manny out, others have stepped up. Pierre has filled the hole in the outfield, reclaiming his place as one of the league's premier lead-off hitters. He currently sits 8th in the Majors in stolen bases with 17, while teammate Matt Kemp sits tied in 6th with 18. James Loney, Andre Ethier and Casey Blake have also stepped up for the Dodgers, belting homeruns and knocking in runs, although none of the three have single handedly established themselves enough to fill Manny's empty shoes.

Torre was surely a steadying influence for this young team when Manny went down. His experience in New York, helping the Yankees to four world championships and leading a team full of all-stars for 12 years as Yankees skipper, gave him worlds of experience as he pushed through adversity and controversy. His guidance is what has kept the Dodgers from faltering and flaking out for these 40 games.

Manny's return is nearing. On July 3, he will be eligible to return to the Dodger lineup. The big question is how graceful Manny's return will be. Fans and sports pundits will watch intently to see if the transition is seamless for the big slugger or if he and Los Angeles stumble a bit at first.

Sans Manny, the Dodgers have been quite successful playing small ball. Currently, the Dodgers have produced 343 runs this season, good for the eighth most in the Majors, and have hit 133 doubles, tied for 9th. Additionally, the Dodgers have stolen 60 bases, 4th most in the Majors. On the downside, they have hit only 50 homeruns, the 27th most in the Majors, but it's safe to say that with Manny's return that number will climb.

Will Manny's power conflict with the Dodgers' newly adopted style? Or will it compliment it? We will have to wait until July 3, assuming he returns as soon as possible, to find out. It's a good bet, though, that although Pierre and others have effectively kept his spot warm, he will find himself enthusiastically welcomed back to the lineup by the fans, his teammates and Torre.

Written By Danny Hobrock

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Marlins Should Thank Those "Damn Yankees."

What's the Best Thing to Happen to Florida Marlins Ticket Sales? The New York Yankees.

With an average attendance of 16,918 through 33 home games, the lowest in the Majors, the Florida Marlins' ticket sales and marketing departments must be scurrying to come up with new ways of attracting fans to the ballpark, or in this case a football stadium masquerading as a ballpark. Perhaps the best thing to happen to the marketing and ticket sales departments thus far this season will come when the New York Yankees (best home attendance with an average of 45,089 fans) bus pulls into South Florida this weekend.

With the Yankees come two of the biggest names in international sports today: Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. Rodriguez has quite a few fans in Miami, having attended Westminster Christian High School in Miami and having donated a significant amount of money to the University of Miami, who named its baseball stadium Mark Light Field at Alex Rodriguez Park. Rodriguez remains a fan of the Hurricanes to this day and maintains a residence in Coral Gables. That said his fan base in Miami remains strong.

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South Florida also has a large population of relocated New Yorkers, adding to the popularity of the team among citizens of South Florida. And of course, with their impressive, storied history, the Yankees now enjoy probably the largest fan base in the country (sorry Red Sox Nation) and see a strong turnout of supporters at all of their away games. In South Florida, though, with the large population of Yankees fans and a weak turnout among Marlins fans, Landshark Stadium must seem like home to the Bronx Bombers.

South Florida baseball fans will come out in droves to see their beloved Yankees take on the hometown Marlins Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Helping matters are the Yankees pitchers taking the mound in the series. Pitching for the Yankees this weekend will be, in order, Andy Pettite, A.J. Burnett (a former Marlin) and C.C. Sabathia. (Marlins ace Josh Johnson will be pitching Saturday against Burnett.) If you happen to stumble across the game flipping channels this weekend, listen for a minute to who receives the loudest ovations or the strongest oppositions from the fans in attendance. It's a good bet you'll hear some of the usual Yankees chants belted from the seats.

The Marlins are pulling out all the stops to persuade their fans to come out to support the hometown team this weekend, even giving away a cowbell donned with Marlins insignia on Saturday night to any fan wearing Marlins gear (I pity anybody sitting near a group of adolescent Marlins fans on Saturday).

Don't fret Marlins fans! The Marlins are surely not some sad, hopeless ball club. Their record this season is far from impressive, but the team has won two World Series titles in their short 16 year existence, both times as the Wild Card team. Additionally, the Fish have a new state of the art ballpark to look forward to in 2012 and the scouting team in Florida is constantly praised by members of the sports media for finding diamonds in the rough like Dan Uggla, and for making deals to improve the team in the face of stark criticism and fan disapproval. Some of the game's top players have played in or come up with the Marlins organization like Burnett, Josh Beckett, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez, Derrek Lee, Trevor Hoffman, Robb Nenn, Charles Johnson, Ivan Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Edgar Renteria, Mark Kotsay and Carl Pavano.

Still, something has to change in South Florida if the team wants to build their fan base and see a larger turnout for their home games. The personnel department is seemingly doing their part to attract fans to the ballpark, providing Marlins fans with a young, exciting team virtually every year. Part of the problem, though, is that the team throws a lavish fire sale the year after they win the big one and the fans are forced to get to know a whole new roster the next season. A lot of this heat falls on the team's various owners throughout their existence. Fans must also deal with countless relocation rumors to places like Las Vegas and Puerto Rico. This puts a lot of fans off to the team, which contributes to the low attendance. With a new ballpark in the works, these rumors should hush up and attendance will surely rise.

Playing in the same stadium, the Miami Dolphins attracted an average attendance of 65,489 fans in 2008. That was good enough for the 18th largest average attendance in the NFL last season, sort of middle of the pack, but a far cry from the measly 16,918 fans the Marlins have attracted on a daily basis this season. This weekend, team officials expect an attendance of 30,000 fans for each of the three games. Good news for ticket sales; bad news for a young Marlins team who must face three hostile road games in their own ballpark. The Fish have been good at overcoming adversity throughout their short history. They'll need to overcome screaming New Yorkers and a few future Hall of Famers this weekend if they want to come away with some wins.

UPDATE: Alex Rodriguez will sit for the first two games of this series due to fatigue. His absense has not seemed to deter the droves of Yankees fans who packed Landshark Stadium Friday night and it is unlikely that Saturday's game will be any different. In response to missing two of the three games of his homecoming Rodriguez said, "I was looking forward to this day, honestly, for five or seven years. It's a big disappointment."

Written By Danny Hobrock

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

More of the Bizarre From Wide Out Land: Brandon Marshall and Who Else But Chad Ochocinco

In the race for clown college scholarships, bizarre tirade of the week awards and desperate attention grabbing ploys, one position in sports always takes the cake.

I don't get it, but the wide receivers of this era are flat out ridiculous. It's one outlandish claim, action or remark a week with this position. Some might fight back that wide receivers have to be flashy if they are going to be good. Arrogance at this position, to some crazies, is necessary.

I personally do not see the overwhelming need to act absurdly to play wide receiver. There are cocky players at most positions in sports (maybe not punter?), but the wide receivers grab all the headlines and steal all the airtime on Sports Center and NFL Live. The unemployed Plaxico Burress shot himself, Carolina's Steve Smith tried to entertain us with his celebrations and punched his teammate in the face, Dallas icon Michael Irvin always had his flare and I probably don't have to do much else other than simply mention Terrell Owens.

Yesterday, we saw two episodes of wide outs being wide outs. The first was either an attention grabbing ploy or a negotiating tool. Brandon Marshall demanded to be traded from the Denver Broncos. Unhappy with the attention the Jay Cutler soap opera stole from his off the field, criminal behavior, Marshall decided to step things up a notch and really grab the attention of the Denver brass, press, fans and his teammates and coaches. He even posted a farewell address on his blog. No word yet on the status of his Twitter account.

Few of us could say that we've never put the squeeze on our boss in the hopes of getting a raise. And really, that's all Brandon Marshall seems to be doing, unless he's unhappy with the new coaching staff in Denver. Currently, he's earning about $2.2 million this year after earning a trip to the Pro Bowl last season. Not too shabby by most of our standards, but perhaps he has the right to play the market; and the market for a wide receiver of his caliber is looking pretty good.

This is going to be an interesting story to follow in the next few days and weeks. Denver beat writer Lindsay Jones yesterday told ESPN that she does not see Marshall being traded. Others have already begun to light up the rumor mill. The Baltimore Sun ran a story today regarding the Ravens' desperate need for a top tier wide receiver and what the Brandon Marshall saga means for the team. The Bleacher Report touched on a thought that had passed through everybody's mind: Could we see Marshall reunited with his quarterback in Chicago? The Chicago Sun-Times even touched on the subject, although not at great length. Reports are also surfacing that Cleveland is interested and speculation continues to swirl regarding Marshall landing in New York with either the Jets or the Giants. If it was attention he was seeking, he's certainly got it now.

The second bizarre tidbit out of Wide Out Land was involving Chad Ochocinco. I don't have to tell you that this guy's out there. I feel ridiculous even writing 'Ochocinco' to refer to a human being. His touchdown celebrations are completely asinine. I don't know about you, but after the first two I was all set.

Word spread on Tuesday that on HBO's 'Joe Buck Live' Monday night, Ochocinco announced his plans to move in with Carson Palmer and his family for the month of July. Chad said that he is hoping it will make up "for the time that I missed with Carson throughout the offseason."

I can't write anything else to emphasize the lunacy that this already creates by itself.

The end.

Written By Danny Hobrock

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Yankees Still Clueless on Solving Their Pitching Woes

After an e-mazing weekend taking two of three games from their cross-town rivals (thanks Luis Castillo for Friday night’s victory), the New York Yankees are still searching for answers to why their pitchers cannot consistently throw strikes across the plate.

The Yankee arms have yet to show any consistency on the mound this season, as they currently ranked second in the American League and fifth in the majors with 246 walks issued. Falling behind in the count has allowed batters to wait for their pitch, and the Yankee pitchers have been paying for it all season. They have allowed 85 home runs, tying them with the Philadelphia Phillies and Baltimore Orioles for the most homers allowed in the majors.

Manager Joe Girardi has played musical chairs with everyone’s role on the staff at some point this season. Let’s take a look at the Chien-Ming Wang’s season thus far. He began the season in the starting rotation, then became a disabled list casualty, and now is fighting for his pitching life this week. In-between, Wang has been a long-man out of the bullpen in order to build up his confidence and arm strength for an anticipated return to the starting rotation.

Girardi made the mistake of starting him against the Boston Red Sox. Wang’s return to the rotation was set up for disaster, as he went against a lineup that extends at-bats by being patience at the plate. His prior starts hadn’t been sharp, as Wang had been hit hard several times in the early portion of the season. And to the delight of the Fenway faithful, he struggled to throw strikes all evening, and lasted only into the third inning. Girardi insists his next start will be Wang’s final chance to stick in the Yankees’ rotation against the Washington Nationals on Wednesday night. Phil Hughes is waiting in the bullpen to reclaim a spot in the rotation if Wang continues to struggle.

Some suggest that the Yankee pitchers have trying to avoid contact all season with the fear that any deep fly ball could leave Yankee Stadium. And you cannot blame them, as they have seen at least one ball leaving the yard in all 31 home games this season.

The name of the game is getting ahead in the count on hitters and throwing strikes, and the Yankee pitching staff will need to trust their stuff more in order to be more successful. Besides C.C. Sabathia, everyone on the staff should observe their closer while he pitches. Mariano Rivera has one of the best strikeout-to-walk ratios in baseball, as he has a 10-1 ratio this season. He throws strikes and the batter returns quickly to the dugout.

If Girardi doesn’t have confidence in anyone on the staff, then general manager Brian Cashman will immediately have to acquire replacements. Remember, the Yankee seasons aren’t about making the playoffs; it is more about contending for a World Series title.
Written By Thomas Conroy

A Long Summer in Disney World

Is it over for the Magic? By losing Game 5 and effectively blowing their shot at an NBA title, the Magic may have put the lid on an opportunity that may not come around for another 14 or so years. Maybe that's a bit extreme, but that's how long it took them to make their 2nd Finals appearance after being swept by Houston in 1995.

After watching the Magic get manhandled in Game 5, and previously in Game 1, some were wondering how the Magic made it this far to begin with. Games 2, 3 and 4 were nail biters through and through, but the Magic never seemed to have enough to close out the Lakers when the time came. It was clear that the Magic were outmatched by the mighty Lakers throughout the entire series.

Now, the Magic face a tough road back to the Finals. The East is full of contenders and the East's wannabes are fast becoming legitimate challengers.

In Boston, Kevin Garnett will be back in full force next season; Ray Allen trade rumors have been swirling since Boston was eliminated in the semis, however.

In Cleveland, LeBron James will come into the next season with a vengeance and hopefully a little help when it counts. We may even see a diesel powered LeBron James. A lot depends on whether or not the Suns are willing to part with the Big Aristotle.

In Chicago, the Bulls showed they have the fortitude to compete with the big boys of the East.

In Philadelphia, the Sixers are looking a little better with each passing year, as Andre Iguodala and Co. are hoping that Elton Brand's return to the lineup next season will be enough to get a little closer to the ultimate prize.

In Miami, Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers now have a year under their belt and the Heat still has this guy named Dwyane Wade.

In Atlanta, the Hawks have made the playoffs the past two years, taking Boston to 7 games in 2008 and defeating Miami in the first round this season. Can they take the next step in 2010?

In Detroit, the Pistons seem to be on a steep decline, but I'm hesitant to count them out.

It is difficult to imagine the Magic returning to the Finals next season, although it was difficult imagining them advancing to the Finals this season, but they did it. Games 2, 3 and 4 were hardly fought battles that thrilled and entertained the masses. The Magic just did not have that one guy who could have made that buzzer beater shot (nothing against Courtney Lee, that was a real tough lob and layup for anybody, but I bet he's still beating himself up over it…he shouldn't), nor did they have the stuff to close out the Lakers in Game 4, which proved to be a crucial blow to the Magic.

It leaves us wondering if things would have been different if LeBron James was on the floor. Would he have been able to hit that final shot that would have sent his team to a critical Game 2 win? Or, as was the case against Orlando in the Eastern Finals, would he have lacked the supporting cast? Watching the Cavs is a lot like watching a George Clooney movie with a supporting cast of Nicholas Cage, Steven Segal and Keanu Reeves. The big names may sell a few more tickets, but you know you're only going to be disappointed.

It's hard to say who will emerge in the East next season. The same goes for the West, although it seems that if Los Angeles holds onto their team they will be mighty hard to beat. If Orlando is to cling to any sliver of hope of returning to the Finals, they have to hold on to Hedo Turkoglu, who, according to his agent, will opt out of his contract this offseason. He is the wildcard in determining how competitive Orlando will be next season. Turkoglu was the only man on the roster who could create his own shot in the Finals and he stepped up big time when he had to. Rashard Lewis hit his share of clutch shots, but he is all but guaranteed to return next season, barring some unforeseen circumstance. Same goes for Howard. If they want to make another run, securing Turkoglu is key.

Written By Danny Hobrock

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Force Game Six!

It appears as though the Magic took to heart what the experts and couch-side coaches have been saying since the conclusion of Game 3. Play defense, stupid!

They were able to do this for the most part, and it worked, relegating the Lakers to play from behind for much of the game and holding them to 87 points in regulation. The Orlando offense was not what it was in Game 3, nor did it live up to the high standards the Magic set for themselves throughout the playoffs. But it was adequate despite missing God knows how many free throws.

This leaves many to question how, with the fate of the game in their hands and an evenly matched series within their grasp, the Orlando Magic allowed the Lakers to send the game to overtime. The answer is pretty simple actually, and it does not exclusively involve missed free throws. Why would you not foul the Lakers when they are down by 3, putting them on the line for two shots? Insanity!
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Jameer Nelson invited Derek Fisher to shoot the game tying three-pointer. Instead of playing him behind the line, he played the drive, believing, for some reason, that it was in Fisher's best interest to extend the series to at least six games.

As the Lakers began to catch up, the Magic began to fluster, throwing up bad shots and trying to force things to happen when they just were not there. Magic fans began to worry as they saw Kobe and the Lakers slowly begin to creep back into the game. They must have known what was to come.

So with the Lakers making a push, the Magic had two options: stave off the comeback/ride out the storm or get worried, throw up poor shots and play into the Lakers' hand. They chose the latter, and even gave them a little extra boost for good measure with ten seconds left.
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What's for sure is that the Lakers did not win Game 4. The Magic handed them the victory. Not to take anything away from the play and will of Kobe Bryant and Fisher, but if the Magic foul with under ten seconds to go, the game is likely over. And thus, we would have an even series and would be guaranteed at least one more game until the long two and a half months we must face with nothing to look forward to but the Homerun Derby in July. No NBA and no NFL combined with midseason baseball 'action' makes sports fans' skin curl. (The NFL preseason doesn't count. It's worse than no football at all.)

So please Orlando, for the sake of sports fans everywhere, force a Game 6 and preferably a Game 7 so that we may delay the inevitable reality of listening to an endless newsreel covering the progress of a Baltimore Orioles rookie catcher and the tired will he/won't he saga of Brett Favre.
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One last thing. Congratulations to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won the Stanley Cup on Friday night in Detroit with the city of Detroit and dozens of Canadian ice fishermen watching. The Penguins climbed their way out of a 2 game hole after losing the first two games of the series.

Here's hoping that the exciting series will fetch some interest in the sport. Hopefully with young, talented players such as Sidney Crosby winning a championship, the NHL will hit its stride in the near future. Or at least avoid slipping further into mediocrity. But I'm rooting for the former.
Written By Danny Hobrock

Friday, June 12, 2009

Is English the Heir Apparent to Merriman?

Prior to the 2009 NFL Draft, everyone speculated that the San Diego Chargers would select a running back to be molded as the heir apparent to LaDanian Tomlinson (most mock drafts had Georgia’s Knowshon Moreno going to the Chargers), but general manager A.J. Smith surprise everyone by selecting defensive end Larry English of Northern Illinois with the 16th pick.

This selection was met with skepticism, as English wasn’t well known outside the state of Illinois. The scouts raved about his ability to put pressure on the quarterback, a skill that could help him get on the field quickly next season. And this fits Smith’s philosophy of not having too many pass rushers on a roster.

The Chargers lack of pressuring opposing quarterbacks plagued them all last season, and the front office felt an upgrade in this area of the defense was needed. The statistical numbers don’t lie, as they recorded a sack every 22 pass plays attempted on them, and that ranked 28th in the league. The defense allowed the second-most yards through the air with 4,090 yards.

English provides insurance for the team in case linebacker Shawne Merriman cannot recover from a knee injury that sidelined him for all but one game last season. Ideally, the Chargers would love for Shaun Phillips, Merriman, and English to see lot of playing time for the upcoming season. They could implement a player rotation scheme similar to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense used during last year’s Super Bowl championship season. They rotated five linebackers all the way to Arizona in their 3-4 defense alignment.

Others feel that the drafting of English was another attempt by Smith to employ his iron-fisted style of negotiating contracts with his players. His results have been mixed; early in this off-season, he had a war of the words through the local media with LT on how longer he would remain with the team. Smith won the battle by renegotiating a salary cap friendly contract with Tomlinson, but he has been “the bad guy” in his run-ins with linebacker Donny Edwards and quarterback Drew Brees as they exited out of town.

Merriman’s contract is set to expire after this season, and if Smith decides not to re-sign him, then English could become the team’s leading pass rusher much sooner than later.
Written By Thomas Conroy

Game 4 and a Word on Raul Ibanez

They proved me right! The Magic, just as I had suspected, came out of the gates shooting and shooting with confidence in Game 3. It was enough to earn them an NBA Finals record for field goal percentage. Yet the Magic won by only four points and trailed for a good portion of the game. Not something you'd expect to see from a team that set a shooting percentage record.

So now the question presents itself: How in the world do we go about analyzing this? Was it A) poor defense by the Lakers that allowed such a high percentage? Or was it B) just plain good shooting by Orlando coupled with a poor defensive effort on their part that kept the Lakers in the game the whole way through?

The answer is both A & B. Whenever you let up a Finals record for the highest field goal percentage in a game, you aren't playing the staunch, lock down defense that is expected of champions. On the other hand, to set that record, you've got to be shooting the ball pretty damn well no matter how poor or non-existent the opposing defense may be. Your own defense must be pretty lackluster as well if you almost lose the game.

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The perimeter shooting of the Orlando Magic is what is keeping them in this series. It is what won them Game 3, along with Dwight Howard's late arrival to the Finals, and it is what kept Game 2 close up until the very end. Some may have forgotten that the Magic set an NBA record with 23 3-pointers in one game in a 139-107 shellacking of the Sacramento Kings in January. You might be thinking that anybody can make 23 3's if you throw up 70 attempts. But they only threw up 37. That's 62 percent.

If the Magic want to have any chance of winning Game 4, though, they've got to play better defense. Speaking on a teleconference to promote a celebrity golf championship, former Miami Heat center and NBA Champion Alonzo Mourning remarked, "It sort of puzzles me with Stan because he was under the tutelage of Pat Riley, who is obviously a huge defensive advocate, that he would take a more aggressive approach, especially with the pick and roll play." The Magic must figure out a way to play defense against Kobe and the Lakers if they want a shot at a title. They've got the offense part down.

Raul Ibanez

Did anybody actually read this article? Probably not. The author of the blog was attacked by Ibanez, who went off on the blogger, and rightfully so, mind you. But all of the knee-jerk reactions we have heard from the sports media, most taking the side of Ibanez, are incredibly unsupported.

The blogger's article is rather long, which may turn some off to actually reading the thing. But for those wanting a quick synopsis, the blogger, going by the tag JRod, actually sets out to disprove any speculation that Ibanez's numbers are influenced by taking PEDs. He analyzes the ballparks where he has hit homeruns, including Citizen's Bank Park in Philly, and other statistics from the MLB and Ibanez's career. He concludes that, due to many factors including the steroid era in baseball, that PEDs cannot be ruled out, which is where JRod got himself into trouble.

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Oh, and the article was in response to a comment made by a rival fantasy team owner in the blogger's fantasy baseball league who questioned the legitimacy of Ibanez's fast start. Come on, guys.

Probably not a fair assessment of Ibanez, as he has given us no reason to believe he is taking steroids and seems to be one of the good guys in the game. If playing well is an indicator of PEDs then I don't want to follow this sport any longer, as it will have lost what makes it great. And playing great is really the whole point, isn't it?

JRod should not have written comments such as "if Ibanez ends up hitting 45-50 homers this year, you can bet that I won’t be the only one raising the question" or "any aging hitter who puts up numbers this much better than his career averages is going to immediately generate suspicion that the numbers are not natural".

I do feel bad for Ibanez and I believe he defended himself just as any innocent person should. The guys on Pardon the Interruption hit the nail on the head when they concluded that it is OK to be suspicious, because of the black mark that other ballplayers put on the sport, but it is wrong to be accusatory. I do not think JRod intended to be accusatory, but when a baseball player reads his name in connection to steroids, in any way whatsoever, he is going to get hot. Ibanez was right to lash out at the blogger.

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I certainly doubt JRod believed that his article would end up running the national sports news circuit; it was, after all, a response to his fantasy baseball league. For those that are curious, and have a half an hour to waste reading about ballpark dimensions, poor pitching and some pretty funny comments from the educated of the population, here is a link to the article written by, as Ibanez put it, "some 42-year-old blogger typing in his mother's basement": The Article

Written By Danny Hobrock

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Turning Point for…the Magic?

In my last article, I wrote of my belief that the Magic must least make Game 2 a close one. Well, they did and if not for a Courtney Lee missed field goal as time expired, the Magic would be entering Game 3 in Orlando tonight with the series tied at one game apiece.

Now all that is left is for the Magic to prove me right and I'm certain that will prove to be a prime motivating factor for Stan Van Gundy and his troops. I'm not predicting a Magic championship, mind you, I'm only saying that the Magic will likely make this series a close one now that they have proven to themselves they can hang with the Lakers. That was the key. And I'd bet that most of the basketball world is hoping for a longer, more exciting series than we saw in 2007 when the Spurs swept LeBron and the Cavs.

After a 25 point Game 1 blowout, it would have been easy for the Magic to lie down and die. That would have been the easy way out. They instead took their game to the next level, or at least the level they had been playing all season prior to Game 1. What we saw was two clutch defensive plays from Hedo Turkoglu late in the 4th quarter and some more clutch, late game three-point shooting from perimeter-shooting phenom Rashard Lewis.

As for these three home games in Orlando, sports history has taught us one thing over time: history doesn't know jack. You can take this as inspiring for the Lakers, or you can look at it as inspiring for the Magic. Much probably depends on which Disney theme park you are likely to attend, but a case can be made for either team.

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It's been played to death already (over two days), that with the 2-3-2 format, the Magic may have a surprising advantage coming back home for three games despite being down 0-2. And by now, we've all heard how Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat used it to their advantage in the 2006 NBA Finals, losing the first two games of the series in Dallas before coming back from way behind in Game 3 and eventually winning four straight under the same series format.

But all this tells us is that it's possible. The middle three games are not sure things for Orlando. The experts have all but told us that the Magic will win their three home games and make this thing a series going back to Los Angeles. Magic fans have only this to hold onto as they have been relegated to looking on as their beloved Magic fight to keep hope alive tonight.

The more likely scenario is that the Lakers grab at least one of these three games and take the series back to Los Angeles where they win the franchise's 15th NBA championship. Who wouldn't want a 2-0 series lead no matter the circumstances or the series format? Maybe the Magic will make me eat my words, but I doubt it.

Putting all that series format nonsense aside, the Magic have a steep hill to climb. I mentioned in my last entry that with a close Game 2, the Magic would likely regain some momentum and restore confidence in their ability to nab the next three games. Let's see. I'll take anything but a sweep.

Written By Danny Hobrock


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Monday, June 8, 2009

2009 Baseball Mock Draft

The 2009 MLB Draft is set to begin at 6:00 PM/ ET on Tuesday, June 9, 2009. This draft will likely feature an armada of college arms with CF/1B being the first of few position players in the first round.

Here’s my Mock Draft:

1.) RHP Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
2.) CF/1B Dustin Ackley, Seattle Mariners
3.) CF Donovan Tate, San Diego Padres
4.) RHP Aaron Crow, Pittsburgh Pirates
5.) RHP Alex White, Baltimore Orioles
6.) SS Grant Green, San Francisco Giants
7.) RHP Zack Wheeler, Atlanta Braves
8.) LHP Tyler Matzek, Cincinnati Reds
9.) RHP Tanner Scheppers, Detroit Tigers
10.) RHP Shelby Miller, Washington Nationals
11.) RHP Jacob Turner, Colorado Rockies
12.) C Max Stassi, Kansas City Royals
13.) RHP Chad Jenkins, Oakland Athletics
14.) RHP Mike Leake, Texas Rangers
15.) 3B Bobby Borchering, Cleveland Indians
16.) LHP Mike Minor, Arizona Diamondbacks
17.) C Tony Sanchez, Arizona Diamondbacks
18.) RHP Eric Arnett, Florida Marlins
19.) LHP Rex Brothers, St. Louis Cardinals
20.) RHP Kyle Gibson, Toronto Blue Jays
21.) RHP Chad James, Houston Astros
22.) RHP Matt Hobgood, Minnesota Twins
23.) CF Mike Trout, Chicago White Sox
24.) 3B Mike Davidson, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
25.) OF Reymond Fuentes, Los Angles Angels of Anaheim
26.) C Luke Bailey, Milwaukee Brewers
27.) LHP Matt Purke, Seattle Mariners
28.) OF AJ Pollock, Boston Red Sox
29.) 3B/C Wil Myers, New York Yankees
30.) RHP Drew Storen, Tampa Bay Rays
31.) OF Evert Williams, Chicago Cubs
32.) RHP Kyle Heckathorn, Colorado Rockies

Sleepers: Tanner Scheppers and Bobby Borchering. Future Cy Young Winners: Stephen Strasburg and Tyler Matzek. Future MVP Winners: Dustin Ackley and Max Stassi

Written By Ben Brown

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Crucial Game 2 for Both Teams

The results of Game 1 surprised very few. Close out of the gate; Lakers pull away; Kobe puts the game out of reach with a 40 point night. Make no mistake, the Magic came into the game fired up and had every intention of winning Game 1. For most of the team it was their first Finals appearance and they were anxious to get things started. It showed early as the Magic played with great enthusiasm and a strong willed desire to nab home court. They led after the first quarter in Los Angeles against a Lakers team experienced in the Finals for crying out loud!

After a strong start, teams have to watch that they don't get overly confident and shut down a little bit. I think that's what happened to the Magic in Game 1. Hopefully, Stan Van Gundy won't let his team fizzle like they did. And boy did they fizzle after the first quarter.

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What is important for Orlando tonight is, besides winning obviously, to come away from the game with a sense of confidence in their ability to match up against the Lakers. Win or lose tonight, the Magic must go into Game 3 in Orlando with an urgency and killer instinct. Without it, they will be no match for Kobe and the Lakers.

Whoever wins tonight's game will carry with them an enormous amount of momentum. If the Lakers come away with the victory, they will have a 2-0 series lead going into Orlando, and will still have home court advantage on their side. They would need only to grab one game in Orlando and would have two chances to win on their home floor a few days later.

It's important for the Lakers to come away with a solid victory tonight. A close, nail bitter, while it may discourage the Magic momentarily, will give the Magic a lot of confidence that Phil Jackson does not want them to have going into a three game stretch in Orlando. A 2-0 series lead can mean the world to a team about to face a hostile foreign environment for three straight games. Although, the 2-0 lead is not always enough of a cushion to carry a team to victory in the 2-3-2 format. Ask the 2006 Dallas Mavericks.

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Confidence is the key tonight for Orlando. After an embarrassing 25 point defeat on Thursday, the Magic have to let it roll off their back as best they can and come out with fire in their eyes and desire in their hearts. It's really the only way to match up with the always willful Kobe Bryant.


A healthy defeat tonight will likely be enough to ruin the Magic's chances of coming away with the franchise's first championship. Somebody has to emerge that is going to keep them in the game no matter what just as Dwyane Wade did in the 2006 Finals, just as LeBron James did in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals and just as Kobe Bryant will throughout this year's Finals. All the great teams have that special player who refuses to lose. The Magic must find theirs whether it be the obvious choice of Dwight Howard or another, less obvious, choice. Perhaps Jameer Nelson will come back from his injury to lift his team up when they need it most. Or perhaps we may see an unexpected source of leadership and inspiration emerge.

Maybe it sounds obvious or maybe it's been done to death already, but Game 2 is crucial to both teams. With a win, the Lakers could deal a significant blow from which the Magic may not be able to recover. And in Game 2 the Magic must see the opportunity to pull even with the favored Lakers and steal home court advantage from under their noses. Or at least keep it close to prove to themselves that they have what it takes to match up with the powerful Lakers.

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The New Kobe?

A lot has been made by the scowl that donned the face of Kobe Bryant during game one of the NBA Finals against Orlando last Thursday. It was as determined an under bite that's ever been seen in sports.

Surely, the face is a reaction to all the media and nay-sayers out there who, expertly enough, had been taking shots at Kobe left and right, deciding what his legacy would be, labeling him "the guy who can't win without Shaq," and questioning if he is still the best in the league.

In a recent interview with Magic Johnson, Kobe dismissed the talk saying that Shaq couldn't have won those Lakers' championships without him, nor could the Lakers have won any of those rings without the entire team. Still, we all know how competitive professional athletes are. We all hear those stories about the best of the best finding the smallest and loneliest negative snippet from some unknown magazine and using it for the motivation factor of "no one thinks I can do it."

Well, it seems that Kobe has decided to use a little snippet called ESPN and the national sports media to motivate him.

Is Kobe still the best player in the league? Is he the best closer? Do you still build your team around Kobe if given the chance? Kobe's game one performance and Kobe's passionate look of determination scream YES!

Is it a new Kobe? No. Same guy. In fact, if anything, he's older. Older and tired of the labels, sick of the interviews and realizing that championships are more rare than his early career gave credit for. This year, he seems poised to get another one.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Kobe Aims to Cut Short Finals Losing Streak

This is the second time I've written about the NBA Finals this week. I hope it's not beating it to death, but that seems impossible when you're dealing with Kobe Bryant on basketball's grandest stage. The guy's been there five times, going on six. It's safe to say that he knows his stuff.

The only problem: he lost his last two appearances and his last solo appearance (that is minus Shaq) after going 3-1 with Shaq by his side.

Losing one Finals appearance isn't much to criticize the guy about. Ask Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills- they lost four Super Bowls in a row…back to back to back to back. That's got to sting. So when you put it into perspective, Kobe's latest failures in the Finals and playoffs don't define his post-Shaq career, and I'm sure he'd appreciate it if we all stopped comparing his Lakers to the Shaq/Kobe Lakers of the earlier part of the decade.

Kobe now has the opportunity to prove once and for all that he does not need the Big Diesel/Shaqtus/Big Aristotle/etc. to win a championship.

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Hold on a second, though. Shaq traded Kobe and sunny L.A. for Dwyane Wade and sunny Miami. He made it to the Eastern Finals in his first year with the Heat and then won the championship in 2006, much to the credit of Wade's refusal to lose Game 3.

In Phoenix, Shaq has not had been the greatest success story, I mean the Suns didn't even make the playoffs this season.

So, let's see here: after Kobe and Shaq's breakup, both have missed the playoffs once and each made it to the Finals once. The only difference being that Shaq and Wade beat a Dallas Mavericks team unable to handle adversity and Kobe and his Lakers lost to a Boston Celtics team playing brick wall defense and consisting of three future Hall of Famers.

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Leaving L.A. for Miami was easy for Shaq. He had a young, budding superstar by his side, who was made much better by the presence of Shaq of course, but took over the Finals in such a way that it garnered him comparisons to all-time great Michael Jordan.

Things were not so easy for Kobe when Shaq left. He was left without a big man and the ever-important second option worthy of drawing defenses and double teams. That is, until Pau Gasol arrived gift wrapped with a bow on his head at Kobe's doorstep. With Pau by his side, Kobe made it to the NBA Finals and, guess what, the duo is returning to the Finals tonight. And you can bet that Kobe is out to draw first blood and ultimately prove once and for all that it was not the absence of Shaq that has plagued the Lakers, but a lack of help that prevented Kobe from claiming basketball's ultimate prize once again.


So what's the lesson here?

Kobe has been treated unfairly by the media in his post-Shaq years. The media couldn't stop portraying him as weak and hopeless without Shaq. I guess the obvious lesson is that it takes two to be great. Wade went down with injuries and Shaq couldn't carry the Heat to another championship, or the playoffs in 2008. Shaq skipped town when things got tough and Wade couldn't get the Heat out of the first round this season. Shaq has Steve Nash and Amare Stoudamire in Phoenix, but with confusion about their playing style a major problem, the Suns have failed to produce a consistent playmaker night after night. And Stoudamire has been plagued with injuries.

Need more proof that you need a legitimate second option to win a championship? LeBron James.

Written By Danny Hobrock

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