Friday, March 31, 2006


Before I begin this long-overdue post, could we please have a moment of silence for the absolute worst bracket I've ever filled out?
Thank you.

Seriously, zero teams in the Final Four? Ohio State getting manhandled by Georgetown? Bradley knocking off Pitt? And, most poignantly, George Mason knocking off one of my elite 8 teams in the first round, and my national runner-up in the fourth round? What can I say but the madness has been truly mad. Like almost everyone outside of Gainesville, Fla., I, too, will be rooting for the "Kryptonite Kids" from Fairfax, Va., this weekend. My wounded ego might prohibit me from making as many predictions from now on, so instead, I'll just try to stick to analysis and insights.

Major League Baseball, which slowly but surely is trying to put aside the steroid scandal and overcome the letdown of the World Baseball Classic, gets underway officially with the Tribe playing at the White Sox Sunday night. It's the second time in recent memory the Indians have played the first game (they opened the 2002 season, too.) I know this upsets Reds fans who feel that "baseball started in Cincinnati, and that's where it should start every year!" I'm a sucker for tradition, too, but I can't help but be excited to see the Tribe on national TV taking on the world champs and division rivals.

Quite frankly, if the Indians want to make their 90+ wins count this year--meaning get them into the playoffs--they'll need to get a few more victories against the south siders. With the number of times these two teams will play each other, Indians hitters will have to figure out Buerhle and Contreras and win some ballgames.

No doubt part of the reason the Indians offense was inconsistent last year was that both Chicago and Minnesota have great pitching, and the Tribe saw them seemingly every week. Notice how the Indians beat up on the weak pitching from the NL West? Winning baseball games is contingent on strong pitching. The bad news is the Indians will see plenty of that again this year. The good news is they will have good pitching of their own, though it might be in a different form.

Millwood's gone. Elarton's gone. Byrd and Johnson are new. I consider these transactions a push, and I'm not concerned with the loss of Millwood. Though I don't know what the Indians will get from Johnson, I expect good things out of Sabathia, Lee, Westbrook and Byrd (a nice veteran pickup.) If Johnson falters, Carmona--who I think should have gotten the fifth starting job anyway--is waiting in the wings, and trust me, that guy can get people out.

The bullpen has a new look, and we should expect this every year from Shapiro. Though Wickman is back, Mota and Graves are in to replace Howry and Rhodes. It's hard to say whether the staff got worse or better. Wickman saved 45 games last year, so I won't join the "Wickman must go" club yet. He's earned the right to have another chance. Plus, Cabrera, Mota, and Graves are all insurance policies if he struggles. As long as the Indians are consistently ahead after the 7th inning, I feel confident they're going to win a lot of games. Their problem last year, at least to the White Sox, was being down by one run and never being able to make it up.

The big question mark: For me, it's still offensive production. I'm not worried about Sizemore, Hafner, Martinez, Peralta or Belliard. I'd like to think that Casey Blake is better than what he showed last year. But what about Boone, Broussard, Perez and the new left-fielder Jason Michaels? If you're a faithful reader of mine, you know I wasn't happy about the Indians' replacing of Crisp with Michaels. Though Michaels has had a decent spring, and Wedge has called him "a great #2 hitter," I am not sure how well he'll do at the top of the order. My suspicion is that he'll hit when Sizemore hits, but he'll struggle when Sizemore doesn't. Last year the Indians really had two leadoff hitters hitting back-to-back. That isn't the case this year. I'll avoid passing too much judgment on him, but I won't be surprised if he gets dropped in the order and either Belliard or Boone winds up hitting second.

We all know that this is Ben Broussard's last chance. Honestly, I do like him, but he just did not hit last year when it really mattered. Garko and Marte will both push him. We'll see how he responds.

The reality is expectations are high, not just from Cleveland, either. The Indians are a dark-horse pick to win it all. I'm not even going to venture a prediction on the number of wins, whether or not they make the playoffs and certainly not if they will advance in the playoffs. But I will say this: Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta playing under long-term contracts (as well as the rest of the "core') means fun Indians baseball to watch for the next several seasons. I can't wait.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Sixteen first-round NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament games tip off today, perhaps after many of you have picked up this paper. For the next three weeks, the eyes of college basketball fans and compulsive gamblers will be glued to TV sets across America (except for the lucky few who get witness the games in person.) No doubt, some school no one’s ever heard of—or, at least, never heard of a basketball team from there—will ruin the gamblers’ brackets.

Before I get to my own futile guesses, let me encourage all of my readers to hand a tissue to fellow “Chimes” writer Mike Ott as his beloved Michigan Wolverines didn’t make the tournament. Poor Mike (fake sympathy.)

As last year’s Lohman Complex bracket champion, here’s how I see the field of 65 unfolding:

Notable first-round picks

I am looking for two big names to fall early: Indiana and Syracuse. The Hoosiers may be playing well lately, but they’re still playing for a lame-duck coach, Mike Davis, who I don’t think can motivate them to play San Diego State. Look for the pumpkin never to turn into a coach for the fashionable “Cinderella” pick Syracuse. The streaking Texas A&M Aggies will knock them off, and Montana will bump Nevada out, putting two 12-seeds into the second round.

The Sweet 16

In Atlanta, I like Duke, Iowa, Texas and, a Cinderella, Texas A&M. The Aggies’ key strength is their depth as nine players average over 13 minutes per game, and they have won eight of their last nine games.

Oakland’s sweet 16 representatives will be UCLA, Pittsburgh, San Diego State and Bucknell. Notice I left both Memphis and Gonzaga out of the mix. Though the Bulldogs have star Adam Morrison, their tendency to let weaker opponents hang around will catch up with them. Likewise, Memphis has a tremendous amount of talent, but on the premise that upsets will happen, I have a hunch the Tigers are the first top seed to fall. Bucknell has an experienced team that upset Kansas last year. Look for everyone in the country to know the name Brandon Heath, San Diego State’s leading scorer.

The Washington D.C. quartet will be Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan State, and Seton Hall. The Spartans’ experience will reign supreme in a second-round match-up over the inexperienced defending champions, North Carolina. The enigmatic Tennessee Volunteers may have drubbed Texas in Austin earlier this year, but lately, the team’s inconsistency has shown. Seton Hall is a tested, Big East team who could easily pull the upset. In Minneapolis, I’m going with the top four seeds: Villanova, Boston College, Florida and Ohio State.

The Elite Eight

Duke and Texas will vie in Atlanta for a bid to the Final Four. Though I’m lukewarm on Texas, a team who lost to Tennessee and Duke by a combined 48 points, the post play of P.J. Tucker and LaMarcus Aldridge make them a fairly safe bet to get this far. I would like to take Iowa, who as impressed me all year in the Big Ten, but a second-round match up with West Virginia is a complete toss-up. Better to have Texas playing Duke because no matter who square off with Duke, it will be the Blue Devils going to the Final Four.

I like the Pitt Panthers and center Aaron Gray in a mild upset over the UCLA Bruins in the Oakland final. Sure, the Bruins have the location advantage, but from a basketball standpoint, Pitt has played well away from home all year, and the Panthers never get blown out. In Washington D.C., the Connecticut Huskies will edge Michigan State, ending another impressive run by the Tom Izzo-led Spartans.

In a blatant homer pick, I will take the Buckeyes to beat Boston College in the Minneapolis final. Though the Buckeyes were not impressive in their loss to Iowa in the Big Ten championship, they are still 25-5. Their terrific guard play and senior leadership give them, in my opinion, as good as shot as anyone else in that bracket, that is if Terence Dials can stay out of foul trouble. Supposedly, Villanova guard Allan Ray will recover from his eye injury and play in the tournament, but his effectiveness is too uncertain for me to take the Wildcats to the Final Four. Plus, Boston College has taken Duke to the final possession in two close losses.

The Final Four and National Champion

Of Duke, Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Ohio State, I see the two top seeds being too much for the Panthers and the Buckeyes. Connecticut wins three straight games over Big Ten opponents. I guess I am going with most of America by picking a Duke/UConn final, but to me, these two really are a cut above the rest. In the final, a determined J.J. Redick leads the Blue Devils to their first national championship since 2001.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


In Kirby Puckett’s playing days in Major League Baseball, he was 5-foot-8, 220 pounds (in good shape) and looked like an oblong, punctured tire rolling across a parking lot when he strutted around the bases. But he was one of the best and most loved players of the 80s and 90s, and now, he’s gone.

The longtime Minnesota Twins outfielder died at the age of 45 Monday after suffering a stroke Sunday in his Arizona home. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001, his first year on the ballot, and while playing, won championships with the Twins in 1987 and 1991.

Though I was only six years old, I remember watching Puckett’s game-winning home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series and his leaping catch at the outfield fence earlier in the game. It forced a Game 7 in which the Twins ultimately beat the Atlanta Braves. Glaucoma forced him into a severely premature retirement before the 1996 season.

His on-field accolades, which include a lifetime .318 batting average and ten all-star game appearances, almost came secondary to his reputation as one of baseball’s “good guys.” He won both the Branch Rickey and Roberto Clemente awards for community service among major- league ballplayers, and most fans found him friendly and approachable.

Unfortunately, as is the case with many athlete-heroes, Puckett’s image faced near irreparable damage. In 2003 a Sports Illustrated article aired several rumors about Puckett being a violent womanizer. His longtime “mistress” Laura Nygren accused him of threatening to kill her, and his then-wife Tonya divorced him and made similar accusations.

That same year, Puckett was charged with sexual assault after a Minnesota woman claimed he had groped her in a restaurant bathroom. In the meantime, Puckett had abandoned his front-office job with the Twins and moved to Arizona, hoping to flee the limelight of the scandals. Eventually, the charges against him for this case were dropped.

Those of us who didn’t know Puckett can choose to view him in one of two ways: as a lowlife scoundrel with no respect for women who ruined his life, or as a great baseball player with a humanitarian side and a troubled past. Since speaking ill of the dead does little good, I choose the latter, and I’ll tell you what the ballplayer, if not the man, meant to me.

As a Little Leaguer, I liked donuts a lot more than sit-ups, and my pre-pubescent figure showed it. Sure, I loved baseball, and it may shock some of you that know me, but I could hit a little bit, too. The muscle-bound Frank Thomas and the slender Ken Griffey Jr., and Barry Bonds (he was slender at the time) were slugging balls out of major-league ballparks in the early 90s, but Puckett wasn’t. Instead, his philosophy was simply try to meet the ball with the bat and then run like hell to first. I can remember a coaches saying, “Try to swing level, just like Kirby Puckett.”

Puckett was no steroid-breath like some of the other cretins in the games at the time. To a kid, he looked like a guy you could eat ice cream with after the game, and to the adult, he looked like a guy who would accompany you to a bar. In today’s game, the race to build the biggest bicep and hit the longest home run makes Puckett-like players a near extinct breed. Puckett very well may have been a jerk beneath his façade, but I don’t know that. What I do know is he played hard, with a smile, and gave chubby kids hope.