Friday, September 30, 2005

Danny Boy

The Cavaliers had one underlying theme for Thursday's "town hall" meeting at Quicken Loans Arena, starring Danny Ferry and attended by yours truly:
"Service with a smile."
It's very, very Dan Gilbert. Very, very "please stay on the line, your call is important to us."
Corporate America has arrived for the Cavs, and it only starts with the new arena name.
Last night's event had the feel of a shareholders' meeting where they get to grill the CEO. Except the fodder was lot more exciting.
We start with the bare concrete floor of The Q, which had been turned into a giant reception area. Three basketball hoops were set up and one end for the kids, and for adults who fancy themselves pro hoopsters who just never got their big break.
So you could bomb three-pointers on the floor of The Q. Pretty cool, huh? But that's not all. The remainder of the floor was a giant advertisement for Mercedes-Benz, with model cars shined up and glowing in the arena lights. Take a seat, won't you? Sign up to win one. Get yourself on a mailing list.
Even for us peasants who would need a winning lotto ticket or large inheritance to afford one, they looked tantalizing, expecially when you toy around with the GPS map system in the dashboard.
Around 6:30, Danny Ferry appeared and cut a tall, clean-shaven image above the rest of us who don't stand 6'-10". The several hunderd fans who showed were herded into two sections of stands, while Ferry sat down on a small stage in front.
Smiles. Smiles for Cavs/Quicken Loans Arena President Len Komorowski, who introduced Ferry. Smiles for Cavs' spokesman Tad Carper, armed with a microphone for inqusitive fans.
Tonight, before the heat of the season begins, it was all about pleasing the customer. Admit it, if millionaire athletes and executives pander to you, you'll take it.
As would be expected in an event designed to be a love-fest, Ferry answered questions like a politican, jumping all over the softball lobs, and dancing around the ones he'd be better off not answering.
"How many games do you think the Cavs will win this year?" from a child.
"Well, I'd say at some point, we're probably going to lose a game," Ferry said.
Ferry said he thinks, with the acquisitions made this off-season, the Cavs can be "one of the better teams in the NBA." When asked if he thinks the Cavs can contend for an NBA title this year, he said "I don't think that's our main focus. Our focus is on making a big step."
The toughest question asked of Ferry was among the first, when a fan near the back of the stands asked what Ferry, personally, was going to to do ensure LeBron James never leaves Cleveland.
Ferry talked about creating a winning environment, an exciting environment, one that LeBron will want to be a part of for years to come. He said he also feels LeBron's standing as native son will help the Cavs' cause.
"He's from around here. I believe he wants to be here," Ferry said.
And, if you were wondering, I did ask a question. I'm a newspaper reporter, after all. I can only contain my questions for so long.
I asked two, actually. I asked Ferry how his previous involvement with the Cavs as a player affects him as a GM, and if Luke Jackson would be ready for camp after missing the bulk of last season with a back injury.
On the subject of Jackson, the answer is yes. Ferry said Jackson has been going full tilt playing basketball all summer and is ready for camp.
To the other question, Ferry also said yes, noting that he knows a lot of people, from accounting to sales to basketball operations, who also worked for the Cavs when he was a player. It has helped his adjustment to become the Cavs' GM, he said.
After Ferry got done speaking, he, along with players Drew Gooden, Eric Snow and Ira Newble, mingled, signed autographs, and helped eager kids with their jump shots.
Right now, smiles and signatures are good enough. Right now, the Cavs are undefeated. The real heat, the stares of critical eyes, start next month when the Cavs open camp.
Ferry knows it. Based on last night, I think he's looking forward to it.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Pep talk

This calls for drastic measures.
After the Indians fell further toward the edge of the cliff with a 1-0 loss to the Devil Rays Wednesday night, I need to exercise journalistic license I don't really have.
I have to take over Eric Wedge's mind and give the Indians a pep talk today. They've come too far to die in the season's final week.

I am imagining Wedge standing in the middle of the Indians' clubhouse, players silent, their heads hanging. Like all of us, they want to know what is going wrong...

"I think you guys are forgetting one key point I've been preaching to you all season: you are in control. The pennant race doesn't rule you, you rule it.
"When you start running scared, start counting the days off until the end of the season, start looking ahead to the White Sox, you give up that control. And you start playing scared. You start playing tense. You start believing all the tripe about how each loss could kill your season.
"Teams that play with clear heads are teams that win playoff berths. You guys, each one of you, has been so good at taking things from at-bat to at-bat, inning to inning, game to game this season. This has been a team in the truest sense.
"Now, I'm seeing guys going up there, hacking away, trying to hit home runs. You can't make things happen like that in this game. You know that. You need to use the same approach you used to get back into this thing over the past few months.
"Back in July, no one expected us to be here, and we played with no pressure. We enjoyed taking the league by storm. Now, we are considered contenders. Rightfully so. We are one of the best teams in baseball, and nobody can dispute that.
"But you can't bow to the pressure just beacuse more eyes are on you now. You are playing like you are going to let the whole team, the whole city down if you don't make the playoffs. Forget that.
"Even if you don't make the playoffs, this experience of being in the playoff race will serve all of you well in future years. You will take something positive away from this regardless. You have to believe that.
So don't look at the scoreboard. Don't even worry about the score. Don't worry about what is going on in New York or Boston or Chicago, or even in your own game. Scoreboard watching is counter-productive this time of year, especially when you are losing. Worry about what you are doing right here, right now, and doing that well.
"Clearing your head in a tense moment is something you have to learn how to do. It's a job skill, and a valuable one. You can't wait for the situation to change. This time of year, it won't. And it all goes back to being in control.
No matter how far you have to break in down in your head, even if you have to go from pitch to pitch, I want you to take things slowly, incrementally. Don't worry about tomorrow, yesterday, or what's going on in another city. Don't worry about the fans, the papers or the TV cameras.
We are a good team. We are capable of making the playoffs, and making the playoffs is an achievement, not an obligation. Acheivements, especially in baseball, are made slowly, inches at a time. Just because you are coming down the home stretch, you cannot lose sight of that.
You guys are too good, and too disciplined of a team, to lose your grip at the end. When you go out there tonight, I want you to remember that."

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

When in Rome...

Last night's Tribe loss sucks, but the timing couldn't have been better.
What better time to hack up your second straight loss against a last-place team than when every other team you're tangling with loses as well?
The Indians lost 5-4 to the Devil Rays Tuesday night. It was their fourth straight home defeat against Tampa Bay. More on that later.
While the Indians were busy stubbing their toes, the White Sox lost to the Tigers 3-2, the Red Sox lost the back side of a doubleheader with the Blue Jays 7-5 and the Yankees were trounced by the Orioles 17-9.
All four teams have five games to play. The Indians, Yankees and Red Sox have identical 92-65 records. The White Sox are 94-63, two games ahead of the Indians.
While the round of losing Tuesday night allows the Indians to breathe a bit easier, winning the final two games against the Devil Rays is imperative. But that could be easier said than done.
It's a shame Lou Piniella has lost his appetite for managing the Devil Rays. For the first time in the seven-year existence of the franchise, I am intimidated by the idea of playing them with the playoffs on the line.
The Devil Rays have taken on the personality of their manager. They are aggressive, tough, blood-and-guts competitive, and believe if they work hard enough, they can take down just about any team on any given day.
It's the same mentality that took Piniella's 1990 Reds to October upsets of the more talented Pirates and Athletics, winning the last major pro sports championship for an Ohio team to date.
The Devil Rays have won five of eight from the Indians this year, using guys like Jorge Cantu, Travis Lee and Johnny Gomes to inflict the damage.
Devil Ray pitchers have by and large stymied Indian hitters, while the loser of last night's game, Scott Elarton, is 0-3 against Tampa Bay this year. If it wasn't for the Devil Rays, Elarton would be 11-5 with a much lower ERA, and would probably be on the radar for comeback player of the year.
The Devil Rays won't spend money, but general manager Chuck LaMar has done a solid job of bringing in young talent that, properly groomed, will divest the Rays of doormat status for years to come.
It has been Piniella that has done the grooming. The Devil Rays can only hope they can bottle some of Piniella's passion and give it to the team's next manager.
The Indians, meanwhile, have to overcome Piniella once again. They beat him in the 1995 ALCS. They lost to him in the 2001 Division Series. This is the rubber match. Piniella's burning desire to win versus the Indians' desire to make the playoffs.
It's a test of wills, just how Piniella likes it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Hornets on the move

You thought the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim was a contrived fluke of bi-municipality representation?
Get ready for the New Orleans Hornets of Oklahoma City.
Last week, the Hornets received permission from the NBA to relocate 35 home dates to the Ford Center in Oklahoma's capital city. Despite NBA commish David Stern calling the move "temporary," it might not be.
Sad as it is to say, the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina could be the out Hornets owner Geroge Shinn was looking for. The New Orleans Arena is unusable for this NBA season, and there are no guarantees it will be serviceable by the time the 2006-07 season comes around.
Indeed, there are no guarantees the arena or the neighboring Superdome might be standing by November 2006. Officials in New Orleans are still in the process of clearing out the wasted city and it might be until next year before they can decide which buildings are structurally sound and which aren't.
Shinn brought the Hornets to New Orleans in 2002 after he alienated most of Charlotte. Coached by Paul Silas and Tim Floyd, and led by Baron Davis, the Hornets made the playoffs their first two seasons in New Orleans. But then they moved to the more competitive Western Conference to make way for the expansion Charlotte Bobcats last year, and fell to a final record of 18-64. Only the pitiful Hawks had a worse record.
Attendance dwindled, Davis was dealt to Golden State, and much like iin Charlotte, the locals in New Orleans were cooling toward their basketball team and toward the team's owner.
If Katrina hadn't forced the Hornets to try on another city for size, Shinn probably would have done so without prompting sooner or later. Rumors had him eyeing Kansas City or St. Louis, two former NBA towns, and among the largest cities in the country without an NBA franchise.
Shinn is quickly gaining a reputation as the Larry Brown of owners, always looking over the fence to see where the grass might be greener.
But this isn't all on the shoulders of Shinn or all a direct result of Katrina. New Orleans has been an NBA black hole before. In the late 1970s, Louisiana State product Pete Maravich couldn't save the Jazz from flunking out of New Orleans and moving to Salt Lake City, where they were eventually greeted by John Stockton, Karl Malone and far greater success.
Oklahoma City might be this decade's Salt Lake City. Oklahoma City is a town that would like to forge a national identity apart from being known as the city where Timothy McVeigh set off a bomb and destroyed hundreds of lives. A major league sports franchise would allow other cities and the national media to take a peek inside Oklahoma City on a nightly basis.
Oklahoma City has a 19,000-seat arena suitable for NBA basketball. It is a growing city, among the largest in the U.S. without a major league sports team. That's all about to change, and don't expect Oklahomans to give the Hornets back after one season without a fight. They reportedly have already filled out thousands of season ticket applications for the Hornets.
The Hornets have agreed to play seven home dates on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge, so it doesn't give the impression they are totally abandoning their New Orelans fans in their hour of need. But the NBA is a business, and Shinn will take his team where it will be welcomed with open arms, and more importantly, open pocketbooks.
If that is any forecast, the Oklahoma City Hornets will be a fixture by the start of the 2006-07 season.

Monday, September 26, 2005

One last off day

Big smile, Tribe fans. This is it. The last day of calm before the mad dash begins.
The Indians air-mailed a game to Kansas City in Sunday's series finale, blowing a 3-0 lead even before Grady Sizemore had a chance to lose a fly ball in the Sun.
But, honestly, how many times in a row can you expect to beat one team, no matter how bad they are? Pretty soon, the law of averages is going to get you.
Having said that, the law of averages is on Cleveland's side heading into Tuesday's series against Tampa Bay. The Devil Rays still hold a 4-3 edge in the season series, and the Indians need some payback for last month's sweep.
The Indians get six games at home to finish the season. That's the good news. The bad news is, the other three teams the Indians are currently tussling with for two playoff spots (the White Sox, Red Sox and Yankees) all play cupcakes until Friday.
While the Indians are trying to avenge their humilation from last month against Tampa Bay, the Red Sox will face the Blue Jays, the Yankees will play Baltimore, and the White Sox will play the Tigers.
The end result will likely be the current status quo kept until the weekend. We will probably have to wait until the final weekend, which will pit the Yankees against the Red Sox and the Indians against the White Sox, to see everything ironed out. Of course, if the White Sox still have a two-to-three game edge in the division by that point, they will have the title all but locked up.
At the end of the season, the Indians' best chance to make the playoffs will probably still be the wild card. I am hypothesizing a minimum of four wins needed over the final homestand of the regular season to give the Indians a realistic shot.

The Morning After: Indianapolis

Colts 13, Browns 6

I hate moral victories. Really, I do. Moral victories are what bad teams take solace in after getting their butts whipped.
But after holding a blatantly-better Colts team to 13 points in a game the Browns were given little chance of winning anyway, maybe we can all be permitted to take some comfort in the dreaded M-V. It's all we'll have until the Browns take on the Bears in two weeks.

Moral victory No. 1: Trent Dilfer matched Peyton Manning nicely.
The lines: Manning 19-for-23, 228 yards, one interception; Dilfer 22-for-29, 208 yards, no picks.
All the pundits predicted this would be the week Manning would break out of his slump by torching an overmatched Browns secondary for, say, 450 yards passing. No dice. Manning had a decent game, but not up to his standards. Dilfer, by contrast, is continuing to be just what the doctor ordered for a Browns team in desperate need of stable leadership.
For the second straight week, Dilfer, a career journeyman, appeared up to the task of pitting stats against a future hall-of-famer. The big difference was Manning is still in the prime of his career, unlike Brett Favre.
Three games into the season, and Dilfer is doing everything Romeo Crennel has asked of him. If he keeps this up, the Browns will win games like Sunday's against lesser opponents.

Moral victory No. 2: the Browns racked up seven penalties for 62 yards.
How is that a moral victory, you say? It means the Browns actually performed better than their 263 yards of total offense would indicate. If not for a couple of chirps and ball flings by Braylon Edwards and Antonio Bryant, amounting to 30 yads in taunting penalties, Dilfer might have piloted several touchdown drives, and who knows what could have happened?

Moral victory No. 3: The performances, and postgame attitudes, of Dilfer and Reuben Droughns.
The Colts' fast, hard-hitting and utterly underrated defense played Dilfer and Droughns like bongo drums for most of the afternoon. The Browns' offensive line did not give up a sack for the first nine quarters of the season, then surrendered four in the final three quarters Sunday. Dilfer was hobbling by game's end.
Droughns was slammed at the line of scrimmage repeatedly. He fought hard, clawing and churning for 76 yards on 22 carries.
Both were on the field in the fourth quarter. And, based on postgame interviews, neither was satisfied with just being tough. Both felt their performances were for naught without the win.
That is a mixture of perseverance and accountability that has been missing for the Browns in previous years, with whiners like Jeff Garcia around and notorious passive-aggressive coddler Butch Davis running the ship. The atitudes of guys like Dilfer and Droughns will serve the Browns well down the road.

You might not like more victories, but let's face it: you have to grow legs before you can walk.

Up next: Chicago, Oct. 9, 1 p.m. ET.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Blaming Tejada

Exhibit A in how to totally destroy a hall of fame career in three short months: Rafael Palmeiro.
If there is a wrong decision to be made, rest assured Palmeiro is going to lean that way.
Palmeiro tests positive for steroids. He screwed up. Does he:
A) Fess up, apologize, steer clear of the juice, and show prolonged public remorse?
B) Turn into Maurice Clarett, deny fault, and try to take a bunch of other people down with him?
For those of you who answered "B", you are very cyncial and very right.
If Raffy's going to be turned into a steroid pariah, by golly, Miguel Tejada is going to play the part of the drug-dealing rat who shot him up.
If I am the Baltimore Orioles, I want to cold-cock Palmeiro right in the teeth about now. Destroying your own reputation is one thing. Trying to take your whole team down with you by implementing their best player is another.
But wait, you say. What if Palmeiro was injected by Tejada? Tejada was, after all, a teammate of Jason Giambi in Oakland. Giambi is most famous for his non-apology apology for using steroids earlier this year.
It's possbile, but don't bet money on it. Why? For one, Tejada is pretty stocky and muscular for a shortstop. If he hasn't tested positive for the juice, chances are he isn't taking steroids, or feeling the need to.
Two, Palmeiro is desperate. Anything he says should be taken with a grain of salt, especially with regard to a teammate who is making far more money and someone who Palmeiro might view as holding a lot of sway in the Orioles clubhouse.
This might be a case of good guy, bad guy in Baltimore, and Palmeiro knows where he stands.
Three, the discrepecy between what Tejada said he gave Palmeiro and what Palmeiro said Tejada gave him. Tejada said he injected Palmeiro with vitamin B12, which is supposed to increase red blood cells' ability to carry oxygen. Palmeiro paints a Canseco-esque pitcure of Tejada jabbing him in the butt with a steroid needle.
Orioles GM Jim Beattie said the test evidence backs up Tejada. Unless there is a lying epidemic going on in the Orioles camp, I am inclined to believe him.
Now, if were talking the different between Andro and human growth hormone, Palmeiro might have a beef. But vitamin B12? Heck, you pop those when you take your water-soluble One-A-Day each morning. Last I've seen, vitamin takers aren't developing muscles, zits, excessive body hair and violent mood swings. Unless they are juicing, too.
Right now, all the arrows point to an egotistical has-been trying to destroy the reputations of others the way his has been, by his own doing.
In June, Palmeiro was Mr. 500 homers and 3,000 hits. One of the game's good guys. Now, he is unquestionably one of the game's villains.
I hate to say it, but Barry Bonds is handling steroid inquiries with more dignity than Palmeiro. Then again, he hasn't been caught. Yet.

General Lee

This is how a team wins 15 of 17 games and closes a division deficit to 1 1/2 games with nine to play.
Cliff Lee, the winningest pitcher in the American League not named Bartolo Colon (damn, Dave, that trade was a good one) did not have his best stuff last night. He struggled to find the strike zone, and on one occassion when he found it in the fourth inning, it was with the bases loaded and Mark Teahen at the plate. Teahen promptly pretended David Riske was on the mound and deposited a 440-foot bomb into the right-field water fountains at Kauffman Stadium to turn a 5-1 Cleveland lead into a 5-5 tie.
(While we're on the subject, Teahen gets my vote for "least macho baseball name.")
Lee was sent reeling. A sacrifice fly in the fifth inning gave Kansas City a 6-5 lead, and Tribe fans everywhere were mouthing the word "letdown."
Were the Indians going to play Kansas City with glazed eyes after the emotional series win in Chicago? At this time of the year, even a four-game split with the last-place Royals is unacceptable. The Indians should sweep, truth be told, and at the very, very least, take three of four.
Last night, however, the Indians passed another test of a contending team. On a night when their winningest starter was stumbling, the offense picked him up. Coco Crisp went deep off Andy Sisco to put the Indians back on top 7-6. Casey Blake scored on a Ambiorix Burgos wild pitch. Travis Hafner, who hit a home run earlier (his sixth in five games) drew a bases-loaded walk for another RBI.
By the time the Indians finished thumping Kansas City's young pitching staff, they walked back into the clubhouse with a comfortable 11-6 win. By that time, the White Sox had lost to the Twins in 11 innings, dropping Cleveland's division deficit to 1 1/2.
The Indians (90-63) also gained a half game to increase their wild card lead to 1 1/2 games over idle Boston, which opens a series in Baltimore tonight.
(For the record, Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield is quoted as saying the Red Sox should concentrate on winning the AL East, and forget about the wild card. Too many teams playing well, he reportedly said. That's either his desire to take out the Yankees talking, or maybe he is honestly intimidated by the idea of trying to catch the Indians.)

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Wild Thing!'s Peter Schrager has concocted an idea so good and so obvious, I am kicking myself for not thinking of it first.
Who would win if we pitted the roster of the 2005 Indians against the Indians from the movie "Major League?"
You will notice that the real-life Indians win in some very obvious categories, like pitching. But the fictitious Tribe also scores some points, particularly in right field.
Pedro Cerrano vs. Casey Blake? Come on. That's no contest.
It got me to thinking, if we could combine the rosters of the "Major League" Indians and the real-life Indians, we just might have a team that is a World Series lock.
Think of the places we could shore up...

My combined roster, if I was general manager and could put my hybrid roster together as I see fit:
(Note: I am limiting this to players from Major League. Major League II add-ons like the Japanese guy "You have no marbles!!" are ineligible.)

C: Jake Taylor
1B:Victor Martinez
2B: Ronnie Belliard
SS: Jhonny Peralta
3B: Aaron Boone
LF: Grady Sizemore
CF: Willy Mays-Hayes
RF: Pedro Cerrano
DH: Travis Hafner

SP: C.C. Sabathia
SP: Cliff Lee
SP: Kevin Millwood
SP: Jake Westbrook
SP: Scott Elarton
RP: Bob Howry
RP: Bob Wickman
RP: Rick Vaughn

Sure, Jake Taylor has creaky knees and is way past his prime, but the man is the epitome of leadership and can call a great game. Martinez and his bat will be moved to the far-more-suitable first base.
Coco Crisp doesn't really deserve to lose his starting job to Mays-Hayes, but I can't resist the one-two punch of Willy and Grady at the top of the order. Plus, that left-center field gap will be well-covered with their speed.
The starting pitching is 100 percent real-life guys, but can you imagine the current Cleveland bullpen with Ricky Vaughn at the back? All you fans who want a lights-out fireballer for a closer, as opposed to sweating through Wickman's saves, would get your wish.
The toughest call I have is the manager. Eric Wedge cetainly has his share of critics, but I'd be inclined to let him keep his job and make Lou Brown, the grizzled, owl-wise old veteran, Wedge's bench coach. Wedge has formulated a successful clubhouse chemistry, and maybe Brown could help him with his shortcomings in game strategy.
Plus, Brown isn't in the greatest of health, as Major League II showed. Save some wear and tear on the old guy's ticker. Let Wedge make the decisions.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Delivering the goods

Apologies to Karl Malone, but for the sake of the 2005 Indians, Travis Hafner is the "mailman."
Before Hafner got his bat going tonight, the Indians had managed to scrape together a solo home run from Casey Blake and a Grady Sizemore scamper home on a wild pitch for a tenuous 2-0 lead. After Hafner geared up in the eighth inning, the Indians were cruising to an 8-0 victory.
Hafner finished a 7-for-12 series against the White Sox with a pair of late home runs to drive in five. In a game the Indians desperately needed to win, at the end of a series the Indians desperately needed to win, Hafner showed up.
Chicago entertains Minnesota beginning tomorrow with the solid knowledge that the Indians are, in fact, a team that is now capable of winning a series on the road against a team they were owned by earlier this season. I don't expect Chicago to roll over, but if they were viewing this series as their own personal trench in which to dig their heels, it didn't work. The Indians keep encroaching. And they did it against arguably the best three starting pitchers the White Sox could have thrown at them: Freddy Garcia, Mark Buehrle and Jon Garland. Not one of them got a win in the series.
Truth be told, we might be a Jose Hernandez error away from talking about a sweep. But taking two of three on the road against the first-place White Sox, I am not complaining. There is still a week and a half of baseball to be played.
The Indians leave Chicago 2 1/2 games behind the White Sox with 10 to play. By virtue of the Yankees passing the Red Sox to get into first place in the American League East tonight, Cleveland also gained half a game in the wild card race, going from 1/2 game in front of New York to one game in front of Boston.
And the next time we see the White Sox, it's in our house. Tribe fans, get down to Jacobs Field for the coming homestand, pack that place and make it loud. Your team has proven they deserve it.

Double or nothing

After a loss like the Indians endured last night, us crack analysts are put in the position of assessing blame.
Last night's 7-6 loss to the White Sox was a very winnable game. The Indians squandered leads of 2-0, 3-2 and 5-3. For one of just a few times all season, the bullpen appeared incapable of keeping the other team off the bases.
Last night's loss means tonight's game is a double-or-nothing proposition. Win, and you exit Chicago a game closer to first place than when you came to town. The division is still a manageable 2 1/2 games away with 11 games to play. You are still guaranteed first place in the wild card standings, no worse than 1/2 game up on the Yankees.
Lose, and you are 4 1/2 games out with 11 to play. If the Yankees win, (and they have, with few exceptions, since September began) you are out of the wild card lead.
Tonight's game isn't an elimination must-win. But if the Indians lose tonight, it is going to make life a lot harder the final week-plus of the the season.
So back to the subject at hand: who is to blame for this rock the Indians now find themselves over?
I needle three culprits: Jose Hernandez, David Riske and Eric Wedge.
Hernandez, playing first base, made the kind of overzealous error you simply cannot make in a pennant race. In the seventh inning, he cut off a throw to the plate from right fielder Casey Blake. The tying run had scored to make it 5-5, but instead of eating the ball, Hernandez tried to catch Chicago's A.J. Pierzynski napping as he rounded third. Hernandez quickly whistled a throw to Aaron Boone, but the throw sailed past him. Pierzynski scored.
Replays showed Pierzynski, a notorious, agitating pain in the butt when he was with the Twins, stepped on Boone as he rounded third, which might have caused the error. But it doesn't excuse Hernandez trying to play hero with an ill-advised snap throw in a hotly-contested September game. When in doubt, play it safe.
The Riske and Wedge blame kind of go hand-in-hand. Granted, the losses of Arthur Rhodes and Matt Miller for the season thinned out the bullpen a bit. But David Riske in a pressure situation, trying to hold the phone until the Indians could get a lead and send Bob Wickman out?
I'd rather have seen Fernando Cabrera. I'd rather have seen Jason Davis. I'd rather have seen anyone but Riske out there.
Heres the skinny on Riske: he throws 90 MPH on a good day. That's crush-me speed to a major league hitter. Riske is not an ideal late reliever. He relies on guile and a sleight-of-hand delivery that conceals the ball until very late before he releases it. In other words, if his delivery shows the hitter the ball a split-second too soon, he'll have time to react and deposit the ball int he next area code, which is exactly what Joe Crede did to start the bottom of the 10th last night.
Whith Riske, there is very little margin for error. Very little separates a swinging strike from a 400-foot moon shot. He doesn't have a devastating sinker or slider like other late-inning relievers, so he doesnt have much to take hitters off his fastball. In most cases, he relies on moving his fastball around in the strike zone, which he didn't really do a good job of last night, either (reference him drilling Aaron Rowand with a two-strike hit-by-pitch in the ninth inning).
Wedge likes to brag about how confident he is in every pitcher in his bullpen. Hopefully he's not wearing rose-colored glasses with regard to Riske, who had a deer-in-headlights look in the dugout after he barely escaped the ninth inning last night.
If guys like Cabrera and Davis are going to be your bullpen horses in the coming years, now is the time to start showing them what a big-league pennant race is all about. It's probably better than trotting out the flammable Riske, who is probably as good as he's ever going to be.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A Boone to the Tribe

As the season goes on and Aaron Boone's batting average sinks back toward .230, I find myself starting to like the guy more and more.
Say what, you say?
Yeah. I'm glad the Indians picked up his option. And every time he grounds out harmlessly to short, every time a ball clangs off his glove in the field, I root for him even more.
Why? I know he's going to try twice as hard the next time he gets a chance. Aaron Boone, millionaire athlete from one of baseball's blueblood families, is always trying to prove himself, every day.
He blew out his knee playing pickup basketball, got his contract with the Yankees nixed, and missed the entire 2004 season. He came back, struggled, was deemed a has-been (by me included) at age 31, and had a choir of voices singing his swan song, urging the Tribe to put Boone out to pasture.
The criticism didn't grate his nerves. It didn't hurt his feelings, at least openly. What the criticism did was fuel him. I wish I could be that way.
After months and months of patience, we in Cleveland are sseing exacctly what Aaron Boone brings to a team. The cool head he has under pressure. The knack for the clutch hit. The defense, which is far better that anyone wants to admit.
Boone's seventh-game home run to put the Yankees in the 2003 World Series didn't just happen. Just like last night's two-RBI single to put the Indians ahead to stay in front of a raucous Chicago crowd didn't just happen.
Boone's single did what so many Cleveland at-bats couldn't this year: it turned a high-pressure, would-be loss into a win. It cut off a rally for a desperate White Sox club that was starting to regain confidence and composure against a team they have owned all year. It might have been the most important hit of the season for the Indians.
Boone, for all the people he fails to impress, sure does a good job of riding to the rescue when his team needs him.
It's because he never stops trying, no matter what people might say. In a world where Vince Carter readily admits sandbagging, that's a less common attribute than you might think.

Word verification

Sorry for the extra step, but if you want to comment to my blog from now on, you will need to pass a "word verification" step. Basically, you'll have to type a word into a box before you can type your comment.
If you've read my blog recently, you've probably noticed a growing number of "spam" comments popping up. I don't know why they've targeted my blog, but many are computer-generated, and the word verification step will hopefully eliminate a lot of them.
So, to my commenters, particularly Zach and Abrasivist, I hope this extra step doesn't cause too much of an inconvenience. I simply don't want to wake up one morning and find a comment that says "Great blog! Enlarge your penis 3X with herbal supplement!"
I'm trying to keep this blog as PG-rated as possible.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The chips are down

You realize, of course, that the Indians now tied for the second-best record in the American League (87-62) with Boston?
I try so hard not to get too pumped, try to remind myself that the Indians are 3-10 against the White Sox this season, try to remember that there is still two weeks left for this to all fall apart.
But, let's face it, after a 9-1 homestand, trying to be cool as the Indians start an October-or-bust series with the White Sox in Chicago tonight is like trying to act cool and disinterested around the pretty girl in high school. It makes you a bad actor.
The playoffs are on the doorstep. Somehow, the key is to keep that in the back of your mind without overlooking each day's game. Making the baseball playoffs is kind of like scaling a mountain. Your ultimate goal is the summit, but you can't think about that when there is a 200-foot cliff to scale beforehand.
But I can't help it anymore. I'm swept up. Cool, distant and analytical is out the window. It's becoming late September, the Indians are in the wild-card lead, they are 3 1/2 games out in the division. For the first time in four years, September and October means something in Cleveland besides the first half of another lousy football season.
I admit it now. If the Indians don't make the playoffs, I'll be disappointed.

The Morning After: Green Bay

On the surface, the Browns' 26-24 win over the Packers at Lambeau Field is shocking. Once you pry a little deeper, the outcome of the game is a little more plausible (and the seven-point line the bookmakers gave the Packers seems a bit more ridiculous).

1.Brett Favre isn't Brett Favre anymore.
I don't want to hear fans and ex-jock media commentators continuing to gush about what a gamer this guy is, and how the Packers will always have a chance to win if he's on the field. Favre is still as tough as they come, but he's also old, and his career is wrapping up.
Favre almost pulled the Packers to a win, but a circa-1998 Brett Favre would have buried the Browns, even without his top receiver.
Favre engineered the Packers to a first-drive touchdown, but then drives stalled, Gary Baxter hauled in a second-quarter end zone interception, and the Packers' offense fell silent until the fourth quarter, when Favre took the Packers to two touchdowns and a field goal in the final 11:40.

2. Trent Dilfer looked sharp.
Maybe I was too hard on this guy last week. This week, the man I pronounced as hopelessly past his prime a week ago looked every bit as good as in his Tampa Bay and Baltimore days. He passed for 336 yards and (most importantly) no turnovers.
At Lambeau Field, a place where Dilfer was 0-10 in his career heading into Sunday, he was the better of the two quarterbacks on the field.

3. The big plays all went Cleveland's way.
Seam routes were very friendly to the Browns all day. Braylon Edwards took a 10-yard chuck from Dilfer and outran the Packer secondary for the remaining 70 yards, netting his first NFL touchdown. Tight end Steve Heiden did much the same on a 62-yard score that turned out to be the winner.

4. Both running games were declawed.
Ahman Green posed a threat to eat up the Browns this week, especially if Favre couldn't get the passing game going. Well, Favre really didn't find a groove until the fourth quarter, and Green still managed just 16 rushes for 54 yards. Green's performance did a nice job of leveling out the playing field with Reuben Droughns, who managed a meager 50 yards on 20 carries.

5. Cleveland's defense smoke-and-mirrored their way to a decent game.
Green Bay had more first downs ( 27 to 19) more overall yards (452 to 391) and more rushing yards (116 to 55), but if you watched the game and were asked which defense had the better game, your answer would, at the very least, be a draw. Some of Cleveland's success on defense had to do with miscommunication between Favre and his young receiving corps, but, like Dilfer, the Browns' defense did a good job of minimizing mistakes.

Up next: at Indianapolis, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Creeping up from behind

All season, I have treated "division" like a four-letter word when talking about the Indians. Any talk about catching the White Sox was useless since they seemed to follow every two-game losing streak with a five-game winning streak.
The Indians have repeatedly ebbed and flowed between an 8- and 15-game deficit for most of the season. The logical goal was the wild card, a race the Indians took the lead in almost two weeks ago.
But a funny thing has happened on the way to the top of the wild card standings. Those White Sox, orbiting the American League like Major Tom for most of the year, have suddenly re-entered the atmosphere. And they keep falling.
Two losses in three games to the Royals, combined with two wins in three games for the Indians, have shaved Chicago's AL Central advantage to 4 1/2 games with just over two weeks to play. It's still a pretty large deficit, but considering the Indians, winners of nine in 12 this month, play the slumping Sox six times in the season's final two weeks, the Indians might be primed to make a run at their first division title in four years.
You wanted a showdown with the Sox? You got it. Three at U.S. Cellular Field next week, and three at Jacobs Field to end the regular season, could either pull the Indians in front, or put them away for good.
Those six games against Chicago are part of 13 divisional games in the season's final two-plus weeks. Cleveland also faces the Royals seven times, starting tonight at Jacobs Field.
You remember how bad the Indians were in the division earlier this year? They've started to beat up on the Central the way way the White Sox did from April to August. Cleveland has won 16 of their last 18 within the division, including seven in a row. The Indians were so pitiful prior to that, the recent hot streak has raised their overall divisional record to a mere 32-30, The Plain Dealer reported today.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Q

This is the future. Some of you might want to observe a moment of silence.
Last week, Cleveland's basketball arena became the first sports facility in the city to succumb to corporate naming rights.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Quicken Loans Arena.
Almost all Gund Arena signage has been removed from the arena in the past few weeks. Sometime before the start of the Cavaliers season, new signs with the new name will go up in place.
And don't bother calling it Quicken Loans Arena. Too much stress on your tongue. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert recommends calling it "The Q." Hip. Fresh. Monosyllabic. Urban, in a very stodgy-white-guys-trying-to-be-cool kind of way.
Whatever you call it, Gilbert just wants you to remember Quicken Loans, his Livonia, Mich.-based Internet loan company. He certainly made a big fuss out changing the name, following a huge company party at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with a huge re-christening shindig at the arena, featuring the Black-Eyed Peas.
The presence of the Black-Eyed Peas by themselves makes me want to run screaming in the other direction. But I digress.
Feeling corporate enough yet? Gilbert didn't just stop at the name of the arena. For the first time in team history, the Cavs will have a presenting sponsor.
Gilbert's Rock Financial, Quicken Loans' parent company, has been the presenting sponsor for the Pistons for the past few seasons. It has been a rousing success, and Gilbert thought his NBA team should have one, too. This week, the Cavs brokered a deal with Cub Cadet, the lawn tractor company owned by MTD.
So, if you should find yourself on the air, the correct first reference for the Cavs is "Cleveland Cavaliers Presented By Cub Cadet at Quicken Loans Arena." By saying that, you are infusing brand recognition into untold numbers of as-yet-untapped consumers, making a lot of people a lot of money.
Hours and hours of market research went into this, I promise you.
Gilbert is on the cutting edge in Cleveland. Soon, Jacobs Field will fall to the corporate wrecking ball when the naming rights expire after next season.
My money is on National City Bank, a major money-holder which has yet to stick their moniker on a sports facility. MBNA, fronted by Browns owner Randy Lerner, is another possibility. If it isn't "National City/MBNA Field," It will at the very least be "Jacobs Field at National City/MBNA Park," or some convoluted thing like that. Cleveland was one of the last holdouts from corporate names on sports facilities. But for those who take a dim view of having their retinas saturated with corporate logos, the tombstone reads, "Gund Arena 1994-2005." And the stone has a huge Quicken Loans logo underneath.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Of Ben, Bob and power outages

How do you squirt all the wacky things that happend in Tuesday night's Indians game into one mold? Well, I'm going to try.
Last night was a night when Ben Broussard had power and Jacobs Field didn't. Last night was a night when Eric Wedge got ejected for arguing, Bob Wickman got dirty and bloodied, and Ronnie Belliard made himself a serious candidate for a Gold Glove Award.
Last night was a night when the Indians committed three errors and still managed to turn a five double plays, their most in 10 years. Last night, they stayed atop the AL wild card standings with a 5-2 come-from-behind win over Oakland.
As I stood in a sub shop waiting for dinner Tuesday night, I watched as Broussard quickly made the first out of the fifth inning. The Indians were trailiong 2-0 at the time, and appeared to be going through another oneof those phases were they look lost at the plate. Broussard somehow becomes one ofthe poster children when Cleveland's offense goes comatose. His .250-ish batting avearge has something to do with it.
I, as many other Cleveland fans, largely have viewed Brossard as a weak link in the lineup. Most of the time, he just doesn't look like an adequate major league first baseman. He appears overmatched at the plate a lot, and his defense is average at best (last night, he was charged with two errors).
"Man, the first thing the Indians have to do this winter is find a better first baseman," I said to myself as I watched the sub shop TV.
Broussard must be telepathic. Because from that point on, he had one of those games he has every so often that makes Indians management think twice about dumping him.
Afer Broussard's out, the game changed. First, Wedge, about to boil over with his team's inability to do anything at the plate, sprung out of the dugout and quibbled with the home plate umpire over a called third strike on Grady Sizemore. Wedge was tossed. Almost immediately afterward, many of the lights at Jacobs Field went out. It took about 20 minutes to get the lights back up and running.
In the seventh, A's manager Ken Macha pulled starter Kirk Saarloos and went to his bullpen. No sooner had Jay Witasick stepped on the mound than he gave up a single to Belliard, bringing Broussard to the plate. He promptly connected on a two-run line-drive homer over the center field fence.
It was like the old days at Jacobs Field. Once the Indians start a comeback, they become hellbent on winning.
In the eighth, A's reliever Justin Duchscherer gave up singles to Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez. With one out, Broussard came up again.
He hit a slow-pitch softball drive about a mile in the air. By the reaction of A's right fielder Nick Swisher, it looked like a warning-track fly out. Then Swisher edged closer to the right-field wall. And closer. And then he jumped. And came down empty.
The crowd gasped for a split-second, then erupted. 5-2, Indians. Five RBI for Broussard.
Broussard's homer was only the co-climax to our story, however. Wickman came on for the save in the ninth. As we all know, nothing is ever cut-and-dried with a Wickman save.
Wickman gave up a leadoff single to Jay Payton on the first pitch. He then got Dan Johnson to beat a ball into the ground. Broussard picked it and threw to shortstop Jhonny Perlta covering second to force Payton.
Peralta took a flier and tried to get the lumbering Johnson at first. Both he and the portly Wickman were huffing to the bag when Wickman stumbled and fell. Wickman skidded across the baseline like a bowling ball, tripping up Johnson and causing Peralta's throw to ricochet off Wickman's thigh and roll into the first-base coach's box.
Wickman's presence of mind is incredible. As Johnson was limping off the effect of his run-in with Wickman, every person in the stadium thought Johnson had clipped first base going by and was safe. Every person except Wickman and the first-base umpire.
Wickman got up, his unform uncharacteristcally dirty and his right arm bleeding from an abrasion, calmly picked up the ball, trotted to first base and stepped on it. The umpire's right arm went up.
Macha argued, to no avail. One out later,Wickman secured his career-high 40th save.
And we get to do it all again tonight. Welcome back to playoff race baseball.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Heads or tails

Sure, the Indians lost 2-0 to the Athletics last night. Sure, C.C. Sabathia was outdueled by Danny Haren, a youngster with World Series experience and a nasty splitter. But Monday wasn't a total loss for the Indians. In fact, Monday could be a very important day three weeks from now.
While the Indians were busy beating Haren's pitches into the infield grass, coins were on their side. The Indians won all three coin tosses to determine who would host playoff tiebreaker games should the regular season end with one or more ties for playoff spots.
If the Indians tie the White Sox for the division, or the Yankees or Athletics for the wild card, Cleveland would host any playoff game.
Silly me. I thought head-to-head record determined where the games would be played. The Indians would be glad I was wrong. They lost the season series against the Yankees, are unlikely to win the season series with the White Sox, and are currently up on the A's by a scant 4-3 margin.
Monday ended a long string of coin-flipping futility among Cleveland teams. The Indians were 0-3 in playoff-game coin flips at the end of the 2000 season. It ended up not mattering, as the Indians missed the playoffs by one game that year. In 2002, the Browns lost a series of coin flips that sorted out a knot of 7-9 teams in the draft order. The Browns fell to 16th and picked running back William Green, who is only still on the roster due to a forgiving coach and general manager, and a threatened holdout by starter Reuben Droughns last spring.
"I told Eric Wedge I am packing up and heading for Las Vegas," The Plain Dealer quoted Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro as saying.
Hold up, Mark. See if these picks mean anything in three weeks before you go off to play the slots at the Belaggio. You team has to be there at the end before you can worry about hosting playoff games. There's still a lot of baseball to be played in the meantime.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Second-team syndrome

Dave still thinks it's a disgrace.
The Indians practically flung open the gates to Jacobs Field and let the entire city in for their Sunday night game against the Twins. All general admission seats were $5 from Wednesday clear up until the first pitch. That was three whole days to get a plethora of far-more-expensive seats for one Abraham note.
Four of us went, including Dave (a regular reader of this feature) and yours truly. Dave scored $20 seats in section 102 (lower deck, right-center field) on Wednesday. The crowd was loud as the Indians jumped out to a 10-0 lead and never looked back, winning 12-4. It was their seventh straight win, clinched their first winning season in four years (now 82-61), and essentially knocked the Twins out of playoff contention. The Twins are now 14 games back in the division and 8 1/2 back in the wild card race with less than three weeks to play.
Everything's grooving. Tribe fever, right?
Along came the eighth inning, and the attendance figures were announced. Slightly over 38,000. Now, considering the Indians still rank in the bottom five in attendance this year, a crowd within 5,000 of a sellout is pretty good.
But, when almost the whole stadium is $5, it left something to be desired for Dave.
Almost as soon as I uttered "that's pretty good," he followed with "that's pathetic."
I was fine with the size of the crowd. It was a Sunday night after kids are back in school, so I factored that in. But the condition of the crowd bothered me more.
Many in the crowd were drunk holdovers from that afternoon's Browns game, who decided to come to the Indians game and drink after drinking before, during and after the Browns game.
Not that it matters to the change-counters at the box office, but there were quite a few loud, red-faced, slurred speech fans dotting the stands. Some were hardly paying attention to the game. In our section, some drunkards decided to get a chant of "Yankees suck" going. Why, I don't know. The Indians might not even play the Yankees again this year.
In the men's room, no less than three guys wearing Indians shirts and Browns hardhats came in, stood at the urinals, and while waiting for nature to run its course, started chanting "HEEEERE WE GO BROWNIES HERE WE GO! WOOF WOOF!" over and over, so loud it rang off the cinder block walls of the restroom. Their voices were noticeably slurred.
The sad part is, if it wasn't for the drunk slobs left over from the Browns game, who knows what the attendance would have been? There were certainly enough people who appeared to be Browns retreads at the Indians game to make me think there was a sizeable walk-up crowd. In other words, of the estimated 20,000 fans who bought the discounted seats, only a fraction actually went out of their way to purchase the tickets between Wednesday afternoon when the promotion started, and the end of the Browns game on Sunday afternoon.
For a town as starved for a winner as Cleveland is, that is pathetic to me. The Indians' run at the playoffs is the biggest sports story in this town since LeBron James was drafted by the Cavaliers. But here the Indians are, playing second fiddle to a football team that promises little this season, getting their drunk, loud fans as Sunday night hand-me-downs.
It's an indictment of so-called "fans" who want to treat any sporting event as just another excuse to get drunk. It's also an indictment of Indian fans who whine about having to endure a rebuilding project, then don't show up when the team is good again.
Will the real Tribe fans please stand up, and get the heck down to Jacobs Field?

The Morning After: Cincinnati

Bengals 27, Browns 13

Sunday was the day when we all should have cast aside our semi-ambiguous thoughts that the Browns, somehow, might be something of a playoff contender this year. That all those preseason doom-and-gloom predictions were wrong and the Browns might actually be decent in the parity-driven NFL. That all the players needed was a good coach to reach them.
The Browns are not going to be a good team this year. They're not even going to be a mediocre team. Accept it now. You'll save on antacid this fall.
Bengals QB Carson Palmer looked like a Pro Bowler carving up the Browns' overmatched defense for almost 300 yards passing. Running back Rudi Johnson didn't have a spectacular game, but he broke the 100-yard barrier, something the Browns' leading rusher, Reuben Droughns, couldn't (78 yards).
The Browns have some playmakers on offense, chiefly Antonio Bryant. Offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon continued to show an ability to mix his play calls, something that should suit the Browns well once Charlie Frye takes the reigns, whenever that may be.
It might be at some point this season. Sunday's performance made it obvious that Trent Dilfer is running out of gas. A career of perseverance might finally stall on Cleveland's watch. Dilfer used to be able to pride himself on taking care of the ball, even if he didn't put the flashiest stats on the board. Sunday, he threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. He hasn't started on a regular basis in three years, and his performance looked the part.
Though the offense has its points of promise, the Browns defense is as bad as it has been since re-entering the league in 1999. The personnel corps doesn't entirely suit the 3-4 defense coach Romeo Crennel is trying to install, and the guys that can play the 3-4 are still learning the system. I will predict right now the Browns will give up the most points in the league this year. Could they surrender 50 to Indianapolis in two weeks? Not out of the question.
Having No. 1 cornerback Gary Baxter out with a concussion didn't help matters for the defense. Hopefully he'll be back for the Colts game.

Up next: at Green Bay, Sunday, 4:15 p.m. ET.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

To remember -- September 11, 2001

And remembering the victims of Katrina as well.

Texas 25, Ohio State 22

I hate to burst anyone's Buckeye bubble again, but Ohio State lost to a better team last night. Texas, at the very least, was better when it counted.
Below are some key reasons why the Buckeyes couldn't hang with the Longhorns for 60 minutes in the biggest non-conference game in years.

1. Vince Young
He took the full fury of Ohio State's defense, getting knocked down in the backfield, smothered when he tried to go outside, and had his problems compounded, at times, when he couldn't find open receivers. But he survived and was there to heave the back-breaking go-ahead touchdown with less than three minutes to play. If he can hone his touch passes, I predict a very long and successfull NFL career for Young.

2. The trenches
Texas was better at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. While Texas' offensive line routinely gave Young enough time to consider his options, Texas' defensive line brought the heat on Ohio State's quarterbacks and rushers all night. Troy Smith was contained in the pocket, where he is less comfortable and less able to create, while Justin Zwick was flushed out of the pocket and forced to scramble, something he is less comfortable doing. Buckeye feature back Antonio Pittman was a non-factor in the outcome of the game.

3. Texas got tougher in the red.
Ohio state kicker Jeff Huston went 5-for-6 kicking field goals. A darn good showing, right? But those five field goals represent five touchdowns that weren't, including a painful bobble-catch-and-drop in the third quarter. Texas' defense hunkered down in the red zone and refused to let Ohio State find the end zone, save for one flier of a pass from Smith to Santonio Holmes in the first half.
You can't score one touchdown and expect to beat Texas. That's bucking the odds if you do.

4. Ted Ginn was antimatter.
Ohio State's electric playmaker had the plug pulled, thanks to the Longhorns' game plan, which prepared their defense and special teams to lock onto Ginn and never let him free. It worked like a charm. In the bigger picture, the only Ohio State playmaker who had even a decent game was Holmes.

5. Jim Tressel outsmarted himself.
All week long, I heard radio praise for Ohio State's "adaptable" offense, capable (supposedly) of playing smash-mouth running football as well as spread offensive sets. Our radio friends neglected to mention, however, that Ohio State could take more liberties against the much smaller Miami Ohio squad last week than against the beefy, NFL-prospect-laden Texas crew. Tressel was mistaken for thinking he could give Texas a bunch of different razzle-dazzle looks. Ohio State isn't that type of team, and Texas knew it.
The only thing Ohio State accomplished by showing Texas a spread offense set is to tick the Longhorns off, giving them the impression that Ohio State was going to try to beat them with smoke and mirrors.

Having said all of that, I came away from Saturday's game infinitely impressed with Buckeye linebacker A.J. Hawk. If anybody was a thorn in Young's side all night, it was Hawk, who showed his entire package: great lateral speed, pinpoint tackling, and heady aggression. I'd love to see him in a Browns uniform next year (hint, hint, Phil Savage).

Friday, September 09, 2005


ESPN is reporting that a Directions Research, Inc. survey of fans has pegged the Browns with the ugliest uniforms in the NFL.
So, all those clothing catalogs that come out each fall toting "Earthy" colors -- such as brown and orange -- are lying to us straight-faced?
Fact of the matter is, the NFL is full of ugly uniforms. Don't try to tell me the Cowboys have the best uniforms, as this survey did. Fans that vote for the Cowboys are voting for the image, the cheerleaders, the success, as much as they are voting for a silver helmet with a blue star on the side.
NFL uniform designers, when not being ugly, are being unimaginative and redundant. Since the fashion-conscious fans are letting Cleveland have it, let's just see how beautiful the rest of the NFL is:

New York Jets and Giants: Yes, please, let's bring back our uniforms from the 1960s, when our teams won exactly one championship combined. Gray pants? Screw Eli Manning, the Giants really want to wheel Frank Gifford and Pat Summerall back out. Hey, how about leather helmets and steel cups?

Pittsburgh Steelers: Memo to all Pittsburgh teams: there are other color schemes available that don't make you look like the Mexican guy in the bumblebee suit from the "The Simpsons." Dan Rooney, put your ripped-off steel logo on both sides or not at all. The one-side deal makes your team look like displaced NASCAR drivers.

Baltimore Ravens: You have a picture of a crow on the side of your helmet. Enough said.

Buffalo Bills: Your jerseys are dark blue with red, white, gray and medium blue trim. Prostitutes at the Navy docks aren't this busy. And they're probably better looking.

Green Bay Packers: Your team looks like 11 John Deere tractors running around. Whe I see the Packers, I have an overwhelming urge to cut my grass.

Chicago Bears: What's your team nickname again? Oh, yeah. I wouldn't know it to look at your uniforms.

Minnesota Vikings: Did Vikings really run around with purple helmets?

Detroit Lions: The name says "Lions." The uniforms colors say "American Airlines."

Oakland Raiders: Most people associate your uniforms with gang violence. Maybe it's time to consider a change.

Kansas City Chiefs: Your helmets look like they belong on top of a banana split.

Seattle Seahawks: What color is that? Bluish-greenish-grayish-silver? It looks like something a second-grader might mix during paint day in art class.

Arizona Cardinals: Proof positive that Bill Bidwill is the cheapest bastard ever to own an NFL team. Thirty-five years, and he still hasn't splurged for colored helmets, colored facemasks or decent players.

Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans and Carolina Panthers: Variations on teal and/or light blue. The dreaded "Charlotte Hornets" effect.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Screw "pewter power." I will never let you forget those Sunny Delight-colored jerseys from the 1980s, or your winking pimp-pirate mascot, Bucco Bruce. You are forever cursed.

Denver Broncos: I don't care if you won two Super Bowls. You forced John Elway to trot out wearing a uniform that looks like it belongs in "Starship Troopers."

Washington Redskins: Two words: ketchup and mustard.

Cincinnati Bengals: You were fine until you raided your grandma's ugly quilt stash and used it to redesign your jerseys and pants.

Miami Dolphins: Aqua was different and cool in the 20th Century. Now, it just looks like algae water.

Leader of the pack

It's a toe-hold. Just one-half of a game, that's it. But it means so much more.
Thursday, four years to the month after they clinched their last playoff berth, the Indians pulled ahead to gain sole possession of the American League wild card lead for the first time this season. The Indians defeated the Tigers 4-2 while the Yankees lost to the Devil Rays 7-4.
The Yankees are one-half game back, and the Athletics remain 1 1/2 games back.
There's still three-plus weeks to play in the regular season, but this is the first time in four years we can say that if the season ended today, the Indians would be playoff-bound.
Cleveland would travel to Boston for a first-round matchup, while the Angels would head to Chicago. And the Yankees and their $205 million payroll would be on the outside looking in.
Let's just frame the standings and move the calendar ahead to Oct. 3, the day after the regular season ends.

Some Tribe landmarks as the season winds down...

Bob Wickman's save Thursday was his 37th, equalling a career high set in 1999 with the Brewers. Not bad for a guy who has lost much of the bite off his gravy train pitch, a sinker. Wickman now saves games with command, guile, sliders and intentional balks.

The Indians, now 79-61, are three victories away from clinching their first winning season since 2001, when they went 91-71 and won their most recent AL Central title. They are one win shy of last season's final win total.

Cliff Lee's 15th win, over Detroit Tuesday, gives him the highest win total by an Indians starter since C.C. Sabathia's 17 in his rookie year of 2001.

It was appropriate that Thursday's win handed the Indians the wild card lead. Thursday was the 10th anniversary of the Indians' 1995 Central Division title. On Sept. 8, 1995, the Indians defeated the Orioles 3-2 at Jacobs Field, clinching their first playoff berth in 41 years. At the time, they led second-place Kansas City by 23 1/2 games. They would fininsh the season a major-league record 30 games up. The 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates own the second-largest margin, winning the National League pennant by 27 games.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Is that really you, C.C.?

Maybe C.C. Sabathia has been hanging out with Scott Sauerbeck in secret a lot this year.
The past several starts, his breaking ball has gotten noticeably better. In last night's 4-1 win over the Tigers, it was downright filthy. Sauerbeck-vs.-key-lefty-in-the-eighth-inning filthy.
I can say with relative confidence that I have never seen C.C. snap off breaking balls the way he did Wednesday night. They were tight, had vicious late bite, and were utterly unhittable.
The proof is in the pudding: C.C. retired the last 21 batters he faced in notching the sixth complete game of his career.
If C.C. is throwing a 95-mph fastball for strikes, and partnering them with breaking balls like the ones he threw last night, all that staff ace stuff might have merit after all. He would be dominant.
C.C. looks like he's starting to get it. Hopefully he realizes it.

Getting the point

You have to say this much about Danny Ferry in his three-plus months as the Cavaliers' general manager: the man knows how to foul off pitches until he finds one to hit.
Two months ago, his back was against the wall in trying to find a shooting guard. He had been turned away by Ray Allen and Michael Redd, and it looked like the Cavs were going to have to settle for someone like Cuttino Mobley.
Then, Ferry whipped off his proverbial top hat and pulled out Larry Hughes. Not the outside shooter the Cavs needed, but a far better all-around player than Allen or Redd.
This month, the Cavs' search for a starting point guard had ground to a halt. We watched as Sarunas Jasikevicius took less money to sign on with the Pacers. We watched as Marko Jaric went to the Timberwolves in a sign-and-trade.
The Cavs locked in on Miami's Damon Jones, trying to score the last starting-caliber point guard left in free agency. But the odds were agaist Ferry. In order for the Cavs to become a strong candidate for Jones, the media said recently-released Maverick Michael Finley would have to sign in Miami, thereby using up most or all of the Heat's salary cap exemption.
Alas, Finley passed on the Heat to sign with the defending champion Spurs. Jones' return to Miami appeared to be but a matter of time.
Luckily, Ferry didn't listen to what us long-winded yakkers have to say. Wednesday, he got his man. Again.
Jones will suit up for the Cavs this fall to the tune of a four-year, $16 million contract. He is expected to be introduced at a press conference today.
As far as point guards go, Jones doesn't pass like Jason Kidd and he doesn't score like Stephon Marbury. He's not even a true point. At 6'-3", he's an undersized "tweener" who probably bends more toward the shooting guard end of things. But for the Cavs, he's a good fit.
Jones can knock down outside jumpers and was one of the top three-point bombers in the league last year. With LeBron James and Hughes drawing double teams as the primary playmakers and Zydrunas Ilgauskas taking up space inside, Jones' job will be to camp out on the perimeter as a safety valve if the shot clock starts winding down.
Other than that, Jones will be asked to bring the ball up the floor on offense and play better defense than Jeff McInnis. That is to say, any defense at all.
Quoted in today's Plain Dealer, Jones spoke of helping to take the Cavs "where we've never been before."
Ferry, in his own way, is already doing that. A Cleveland team spending gobs of money on impact free agents. It's everything we've always wanted in an off-season.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

NFC preview

And on we go to the other conference...

NFC North

1. Green Bay (10-6)
In a division without a true standout team, it's probably wise to put stock in the team that's been to the top before. Brett Favre is running out of gas, so the offense will rely heavily on running back Ahman Green. The defense has precious few pass rushers led by end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. The Packers won't reach the Super Bowl, but the old dog Favre still knows the tricks of getting to the playoffs. If Favre goes dow to injury, first-round pick Aaron Rodgers gets the nod and the Packers might scale into a rebuilding mode.

2. Minnesota (8-8)
The only thing that stands between QB Daunte Culpepper and true greatness are interceptions. The loss of Randy Moss might be addition by subtraction, but I can't help but think the Vikings are going to struggle to replace his production, particularly when Culpepper is taking aim at the end zone. This team has enough firepower to be an outside-shot playoff contender, but no more.

3. Detroit (7-9)
The good: recievers Mike Williams, Roy Williams and Charles Rogers. The bad: QB Joey Harrington and anyone else the Lions will use to throw their fearsome trio of receivers the ball. The loss of backup QB Jeff Garcia means the Lions could challenge the Dolphins for the worst QB situation in the league, unless Harrington finally realizes his potential. (Side note: if any place in the league was ripe for the return of the run-and-shoot offense, this would be it.)

4. Chicago (5-11)
Head coach Lovie Smith is installing his smash-mouth defensive scheme. But even if Smith installs a system that allows the Bears to live in the opposing backfield, they still have to score points. There is a brewing QB controversy between Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton here, and while that's being ironed out, rushers Thomas Jones and rookie Cedric Benson will have to carry the load.

NFC East

1. Philadelphia (12-4)
Sure, Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens have conducted a soap opera the likes of which are usually only seen on weekday afternoons. But both are so talented and have such a handle on winning, they can despise each other and still manage to win football games. The status of running back Brian Westbrook, now perpetually banged-up, leaves the running game in flux. But come January, this team should still be the best the NFC has to offer, along with Carolina.

2. Dallas (9-7)
The offense has big names like Drew Bledsoe, Terry Glenn and Keyshawn Johnson, but the biggest producers could be tight end David Witten and running back Julius Jones, whom a major national publication recently predicted would win the NFL rushing title this year. It remains to be seen whether the concoction of veteran names and up-and-comers coach Bill Parcells has amassed will be enough to lift the Cowboys to the playoffs.

3. N.Y. Giants (7-9)
How many people outside New York have been rooting for QB Eli Manning to fail ever since draft day 2004, when he pulled his Hideki Irabu "I only want to play in New York" shtick? The offense's bread and butter is still running back Tiki Barber, but it's doubtful Barber's legs, Manning's arm, and Jeremy Shockey's mouth will lift the Giants to anything significant this year.

4. Washington (4-12)
Owner Dan Snyder whiffs again. The Redskins have Joe Gibbs, an outdated coach who was hired on the honest-to-goodness belief that he was going to be able to show up, wave a magic wand, and make things the way they were in the 1980s and early '90s, when Washington won three Super Bowls. Gibbs proved quickly to be a bad match for his roster, installing a battering-ram rushing attack for his smallish, corner-turning running back, Clinton Portis. Portis predicatbly looked nothing like the legend-in-the-making he was in Denver. And should I even bring up the failed Mark Brunell experiment?

NFC South

1.Carolina (12-4)
The Panthers showed their mettle when they rebounded from a ghastly start to nearly make the playoffs last year. Now, with the return to health of recever Steve Smith, QB Jake Delhomme gets one of his primary targets back. DeShaun Foster and the much bigger Stephen Davis provide a nice change-up for the backfield. John Fox is the best coach in the league this side of Bill Belichick. Iif the Eagles want their NFC title back, they are going to have to go through Charlotte this season.

2. Atlanta (11-5)
Is Mike Vick a tad overrated, the NFL's version of the Miami Heat's Jason Williams, too much frosting and not enough cake? Probably. But the rest of Atlanta's roster makes up for it, and actually makes Vick look like a darn good field general. Much like Carolina, the rushing game is reliant on an undersized runner (Warrick Dunn) and an oversized line-basher (T.J. Duckett). The Falcons, much like last year, will be there to create waves in the end.

3. Tampa Bay (6-10)
Man, have the Buccaneers fallen fast. Three years after winning the Super Bowl, they are throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks. QB Chris Simms is the latest flight of fancy for coach Jon Gruden. Michael Pittman and rooke Cadillac Williams will probably be the pillars of the offense.

4. New Orleans (4-12)
The Saints arene't actually this bad, but they are quite obviously a by-product of a tragic and very complicated situation in their home city. As have thousands upon thousands of their fans, the Saints have been forced to relocate and resume their lives elsewhere. The Saints don't really know where "home" is as of now. This team has some solid talent in QB Aaron Brooks, receivers Joe Horn and Donte Stallworth, and running back Deuce McAllister, but their vagabond existence will probably take a psychological toll on them. Maybe things will get back to normal next year.

NFC West

1. Seattle (10-6)
The grand plan of head coach Mike Holmgren never really reached fruition in Seattle the way it did in Green Bay. Of course, Matt Hasselbeck is no Brett Favre. Still, with a balanced offense and defense, and the rushing of a healthy Shaun Alexander, the Seahawks should make it back to the playoffs this year atop one of football's weakest divisions.

2. St. Louis (8-8)
The Greatest Show On Turf has been downgraded to a straight-to-video release. QB Marc Bulger still has high-octane receiver in Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, but the fire of Marshall Faulk has fizzled down to part-time status. Steven Jackson (not the guy who plays for the Indiana Pacers) will be the new feature back for the Rams.

3. Arizona (6-10)
Kurt Warner will probably be a better reclamation project fothe Cardinals than was Emmitt Smith. Marcel Shipp and J.J. Arrington will provide a solid rushing attack shold Warner be able to pilot any type of a decent passing game. First-round pick Antrel Rolle gives the Cardinals their first shutdown corner since Aeneas Williams. And did I mention the snazzy new uniforms? Yep, the Plain-Jane Cardinals are updating their look after about 60 years.

4. San Francisco (3-13)
The 49ers are a disaster. From the serious (the preseason death of lineman Thomas Herrion) to the off-color (the controversial in-house training video scandal), this is a team that can't stop getting in its own way. Running back Kevan Barlow is probably the only offensive player worth much of anything at the moment. QB Alex Smith ... we'll see. He operated primarily out of the shotgun at Utah. An under-center offense is a pretty big adjustment.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

AFC preview

The NFL's exercise in parity usually blows these prediction columns to smithereens by mid-October. But since NFL handicapping is a rite of passage this time of year, I feel compelled to throw my two cents' worth in the pot.
Use these picks as the basis for any actual cash wager, and it's your own damn fault.
(Teams listed with projected records, and in projected order of finish.)

AFC North

1. Pittsburgh (12-4)
QB Ben Roethlisberger might have a sophomore slump this year. But a slumping Big Ben might still be better than Joey Harrington firing on all cylinders. Hines Ward is inked to a new deal and must produce like a No. 1 receiver. While the intermittent loss of running back Duce Staley hurts, most teams would maim for a backup like Jerome Bettis, even as he ages. A legitimate Super Bowl contender.

2. Baltimore (11-5)
QB Kyle Boller and the receiveing corps are about the only two real weaknesses on this team. With the addition of Derrick Mason, the receiver corps might not actually be that weak anymore. As always, this team is built to ride their defense, and with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, two of the best defensive playmakers in the league, the Ravens' defense should be up to the task. Not on par with Pittsburgh, but this team can't be counted out of Super Bowl contention.

3. Cincinnati (9-7)
The Bengals have a No. 1 receiver in Chad Johnson and a feature rusher in Rudi Johnson. They still lack depth in some areas, but if Carson Palmer turns into the golden boy the Bengals thought they were getting in the draft two years ago, the Bengals might finally be able to crack out of their mediocre shell and become a playoff team.

4. Cleveland (5-11)
The strides the Browns intend to make this season might not be measured in wins and losses. Considering what a disaster this team was at the end of last season, coach Romeo Crennel's ability to get his players to buy into his plan (and keep them once he does) is critical even before the weekly standings are considered. The development of youngsters like Charlie Frye and Braylon Edwards is key, too.

AFC East

1. New England (13-3)
We know the cast of characters. Tom Brady. Corey Dillon. Deion Branch. Troy Brown. This team just continues to crank Super Bowls off the conveyor belt. The potential long-term loss of linebacker Tedy Bruschi hurts, but if any coach can overcome it, it's Bill Belichick. Why would you bet against this team winning another Super Bowl?

2. N.Y. Jets (10-6)
Maybe Chad Pennington will show up. Maybe Curtis Martin won't show his age for another year. Maybe kicker Mike Nugent will rock like Ted come playoff time. Maybe this team is a threat to go deep into January, maybe not. It's all in the lap of coach Herman Edwards.

3. Buffalo (8-8)
Does anyone else think having J.P. Losman as your quarterback might do a lot to negate having Eric Moulds in the slot and Willis McGahee in the backfield? Some talent of the roster, but this team is medocrity city.

4. Miami (4-12)
David Boston and Ricky Williams can't put down the pipe. The QB situation on this team is a towering inferno (A.J. Feeley?) Sure, Ronnie Brown might be a good sleeper possibility in your fantasy league, but I am not convinced he's going to be able to carry the offense the way the Dolphins became accustomed with Williams. As a Clevelander who was burned by Butch Davis, I am also leery of egotistical college coaching gurus like Nick Saban.

AFC South

1. Indanapolis (13-3)
This team is the closest we've come to Don Coryell's San Diego Chargers since Dan Fouts was still lacing up his cleats. A high-octane offense with a defense that prevents the Colts from reaching the Super Bowl every year. Peyton Manning is in danger of becoming this generation's Dan Marino. This team is pretty to look at, but I have a hard time thinking they'll intimidate Pittsburgh or New England in January.

2. Jacksonville (7-9)
The Jaguars are a curious concoction of young players and remnants of the Tom Coughlin regime. QB Byron Leftwich oozes potential still, but he has to overcome the hurdles of playing with injury-plagued older players like Fred Taylor and Jimmy Smith. At the end of the day, this team will probably sustain too many injuries to get into the playoffs.

3. Houston (7-9)
It's doubtful QB David Carr will morph into an elite field general, but he's off to a far better start than the next most recent "quaterback of the future" for an expansion franchise, Tim Couch. Domanick Davis gives the Texans a legitamite feature back, and you can do far worse than to build you receiver corps around Andre Johnson.

4. Tennessee (5-11)
Music City Miracle, we hardly knew ye. The Titans are in full-scale rebuilding mode six years after reaching the Super Bowl. Chris Brown is the feature back, and backup QB Billy Volek might get more snaps than former Pro Bowler Steve McNair, who is simply getting too old.

AFC West

1. San Diego (11-5)
QB Drew Brees isn't super, but he has two mouth-watering weapons at his disposal in running back LaDanian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates. Receiver Keenan McCardell offer a solid, if aging, second option for Brees' passes. Might this be the team that finally lifts coach Marty Schottenheimer to the Super Bowl? Not likely, but they'll be playing well into January.

2. Oakland (10-6)
Running back LaMont Jordan is the make-or-break guy for this offense. We know Kerry Collins can throw the ball reasonably well, and we know Jerry Porter and Randy Moss can catch. It appears the Raiders have enough star power, and have been infused with enough youth, to be a playoff contneder once again.

3. Kansas City (8-8)
The Chiefs are kind of like the poor stepchild of the Colts, with a star-laden offense and not much of a defense. Trent Green and Eddie Kennison provide an A-list hookup for the passing game. Priest Holmes and Tony Gonzalez are still big names, but are getting a little too old and banged-up for my taste.

4. Denver (6-10)
I believe Denver can take virtually any Joe Blow running back and turn him into a 1,000-yard rusher, which is why I believe Maurice Clarett's NFL career is toast already. I believe Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell will continue that tradition this year. I do not, however, believe in much of anything else the Broncos have to offer. Jake Plummer is spotty at best as a starting QB. And the notion of having a starting defensive line that includes two or three ex-Browns is very bad idea. No, it wasn't just coaching in Cleveland. Courtney Brown is still cursed with faulty joints and Gerard Warren is still as dumb as a sledgehammer.

Coming up: the NFC preview

Friday, September 02, 2005

Varejao sidelined

You were wondering, with the Indians in the playoff chase and the Browns successfully shaking off the stench of Butch Davis, where all that "Only in Cleveland" bad mojo was hiding?
We found it. It has latched onto Cavaliers forward Anderson Varejao.
Varejao was expected to be a major bench player for the Cavs this season, and possibly push Drew Gooden and Donyell Marshall for the starting power forward spot.
Well, that's not going to happen. At least in training camp.
Playing for Brazil in an Americas World Championship quaifier tournament in the Dominican Republic last week, Varejao took an elbow to his shoulder. The resulting dislocation will reportedly require surgery and could sideline Varejao for all of training camp (only five weeks away now) and the beginning of the regular season.
The loss of Varejao makes the failed attempt to sign Dale Davis sting even more. The Cavs might yet get Robert Traylor back, but we can't be so sure that's a good thing since he reportedly failed his physical with the Nets.
The Cavs' offseason got off to a questionable start with owner Dan Gilbert's fanciful pursuits of Phil Jackson and Larry Brown. Then the Cavs got their act together, hired Mike Brown as coach, Danny Ferry as general manager, and promptly struck the free agent market, landing Larry Hughes and Marshall, and re-signing Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Since that flurry of activity in July, however, the Cavs off-season has ground to a halt. They have made little, if any, headway in their pursuit of a point guard and backup center. Reports that Mavericks amnesty clause casualty Michael Finley will sign with the Spurs have just driven down the odds the Cavs will land point guard Damon Jones. Jones was reportedly waiting to see if the Heat would sign Finley, most likely using up all their cap space and forcing Jones to look at other teams. With Finley signed elsewhere, the chances of Jones re-signing with the Heat have improved greatly.
Jones is probably the best point guard left in free agency. Virtually all the other point guards remaining (Earl Watson, Dan Dickau and Jannero Pargo, to name a few) would be signed as a backup to the aging Eric Snow.
The Cavs' best option is probably to make a trade, but Snow's huge contract would almost certainly have to be jettisoned in any trade, and a lot of teams are either maxed out or close to maxed out in terms of cap space.
With Dale Davis gone to the Pistons, the pickings for a backup center are even slimmer than for a backup point guard. Besides the weighty Traylor (who apparently is slacking on his conditioning without the stern, watchful eye of Paul Silas hovering over him), the Cavs have also expressed interest in Jahidi White. Once you get past White, you'd be better off just trying to coax Rik Smits out of retirement rather than delve further into the free agency abyss.
We knew Rome wasn't going to be built in a day, and the Cavs have made good strides this summer to help erase last spring's collapse. But this roster still has some pretty big holes in it, and Ferry needs to get moving before the start of camp is breathing down his neck, and he is forced to make signings just to get guys in uniform.

It's showtime

The practice games are now over for the Romeo Crennel Browns. Cleveland's 3-1 preseason record following Thursday's 16-6 win over the Bears is wiped away. Charlie Frye's great camp and preseason now means nothing if he can't answer when called upon, as Luke McCown wasn't able to last year.
Will Green's resurgence, Reuben Droughns' nice game Thursday, Antonio Bryant's dominant camp. It was all for practice. Sept. 11 against Cincinnati, it starts for real.
Unlike previous years, I get the sense the Browns actually have some strong bricks with which to build their foundation. There's still a lot of work to do, and, unlike some radio callers, a 3-1 preseason isn't giving me AFC Championship Game delusions about this year. But suddenly, the prospect of having the Browns be a perennial playoff team within several years isn't so far-fetched as it was during the bungling Dwight Clark/Carmen Policy and Butch Davis regimes.

We know the weaknesses. The defense's slow transition to the 3-4 scheme. The wounded cornerback corps. The field goals of Phil Dawson, suddenly as nail-biting as Bob Wickman's saves. But I've identified a few areas that give fans hope. Dare I say, they might even be considered strengths.

1. Offensive Coordinator Maurice Carthon
After years of clueless and unimaginative play-calling by Bruce Arians and Terry Robiskie, it looks like Crennel has come aboard and found the right man to direct his offense. Carthon has shown an ability to be creative, mixing his calls and giving the opposing defense different looks. On Thursday's lone touchdown drive, he showed simple can be beautiful, playing Droughns' up-the-middle runs against basic out-pattern passes from Frye to Antonio Bryant. The drive covered 80 yards and ended with a Droughns touchdown plunge.
Being a good coordinator is like being a good pitcher. It's not about how hard you throw or how spectacular your playbook is. It's about giving your opponent different looks in different locations and keeping him off-balance. Carthon appears to understand that.

2. The Browns' big receiver corps
Watching last night's game, it struck me just how big the Browns' receivers are. Dennis Northcutt is probably the only small receiver the Browns have. Bryant and Braylon Edwards stand between 6'-2" and 6'-3". Josh Cribbs and Frisman Jackson are even larger, to the point where I'd almost classify Jackson as a hybrid wide receiver-tight end.
That makes the quarterback's job easier. The Browns receivers can win a lot of jump balls other receivers couldn't. Passes Frye or Trent Dilfer would otherwise have to zip into coverage, they can lob overhead to many of these receivers and let them pluck it out of the air. That was demostrated on Frye's game-winning touchdown to Edwards in Detroit.
Imagine when/if they get Kellen Winslow back. The receiver corps will be even bigger and more skilled. That's why, to this day, I still feel the urge to find Winslow and kick him in the pants for riding that motorcycle.

3. Charlie Frye
Crennel can't resist getting more looks at his young quarterback, who appears to be a blossoming star. He was admant that Dilfer would start Thursday's game, then sprung a starting assignment on Frye just before the game to see how he would react. He took to it like a fish to water, and Crennel couldn't bring himself to take him out of the game until late in the third quarter, an almost unheard-of length of time for a quarterback to play in the final preaseason game.
Crennel is wise to hold Frye back and start Dilfer in the regular season. But I've done a 180 on the need to have a veteran backup to Dilfer in order to further protect Frye. He might be capable of being the first arm out of the bullpen, and once he gets the nod, he might take the job and run with it.

4. Crennel's strong-but-diplomatic coaching style
The seeds for last year's debacle were planted in the preseason, when Butch Davis and then-quarterback Jeff Garcia decided they didn't really like each other. Garcia publicly complained about not getting enough playing time to familiarize himself with the offense, and instead of taking his quarterback aside and trying to discuss the matter, Davis' solution was to take a spiteful machete to Garcia's playing time, lifting him after one series in the all-important third preseason game.
Crennel appears to have let his players know he's the boss without belittling them, humiliating them, or cutting off his nose to spite his face. Frye deserved a longer look, so Crennel started him Thursday, but he did it in a way that didn't make Dilfer feel like garbage. All throughout Thursday's game, Dilfer was visible, interacting with Frye and Carthon, even though he didn't strap his helmet on once.
Crennel is trying to develop a team culture centered around learning and mutual respect, one where the veterans are as valued for their ability to teach younger players as they are for actually playing. It looks like it's working.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The anti-Josh Towers

Looking back, I think the Indians would actually prefer enduring Josh Towers and his mouth than what the Tigers' Mike Maroth actually brought to the mound Wednesday night.
Towers coughs up a couple home runs, loses, and then insults the source of his misery, Aaron Boone and Casey Blake.
Maroth stays quiet and pitches. Against the Indians, he stays quiet and dominates.
Maroth is doing what Tiger pitchers of the '90s only dreamed of. He owns the Indians, and has since last season. In 2004 and 2005, he is a combined 6-0 with a 2.27 ERA.
Five of those wins have come at Jacobs Field. Maroth trails only Pedro Martinez (6-0) for the most wins by a visiting pitcher at Jacobs Field without a loss.
And if you were wondering, yes, Maroth is a soft-tossing lefty.
Win No. 6 against the Tribe since 2004 came last night, when Maroth pitched seven innings, allowing his only runs on a two-RBI single by Victor Martinez in the first inning. He dueled 13-game winner Cliff Lee to a draw until Lee exited the game after six innings.
The overworked Tiger bullpen outperformed the Indian bullpen, still the best in the American League, to get the win. Rafael Betancourt took the loss when he gave up a tiebreaking homer to Ivan Rodriguez in the eighth.
A 6-0 road trip through Kansas City and Detroit last month let the Indians make some headway in the Central Division, where they have been below .500 all year. But losses like Wednesday's still make me a bit nervous about the Indians' chances of staying in playoff contention until the end of the season.
At best, the Indians can only seem to tread water against divisional opponents, against whom they are now 24-28. Treading water isn't going to cut it in a hotly-contested wild card race in which the Indians will need to win 90 to 92 games, minimum, to have a shot at the playoffs. That means they need between 16 and 18 wins in September. (The Indians are currently 74-59.)
Only two series, a total of six games, remain against non-divisional teams: the red-hot Athletics, and the surprisingly competitive Devil Rays. Everything else is within the division from here on out.
A road series against the Twins, a team fighting for their playoff lives, begins Friday.