Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Platoon: Not just a movie

It's also a baseball team.

Tuesday's agree-to-terms with outfielder David Dellucci ostensibly adds yet another platoon player to the mix for the Indians. Left-handed hitting Dellucci will likely start against righties and play left field, while right-handed hitting Jason Michaels will start against lefties.

And that's just the beginning. The Indians are apparently gunning for the Guinness Book of World Records for the most platoons on a single baseball team.

Despite what Mark Shapiro and Eric Wedge have said or will say, there are only two Indians players locked into their positions for 162 games, barring injury, as the 2007 roster stands right now.

Grady Sizemore is the undisputed center fielder. Travis Hafner is the undisputed designated hitter. That's it. Every other player on the roster has offensive or defensive questions, and could end up in a platoon situation.

Think that's going overboard? Let's take a look.

Left field and right field are a logistical mess. In addition to the Dellucci/Michaels platoon, you still have to find playing time for Casey Blake and Shin-Soo Choo, both of whom will make the opening day roster. Franklin Gutierrez is likely the odd man out.

Blake can play first base if Garko fails to follow up his solid rookie effort. Blake can also start at third if Andy Marte continues to struggle with the bat.

Second baseman Josh Barfield, like Marte, is penciled in as the opening day starter, but his small body of work, combined with the fact that he's changing leagues, doesn't scream "put him there and forget about him."

Jhonny Peralta had a maddening year last year. The fact that he is rubber-stamped as the starting shortstop to begin 2007 is far more a product of the Indians crossing their fingers and hoping 2006 was an aberration than anything concrete.

Translation: keep Hector Luna and Joe Inglett by the Batphone. They might be pressed into service if Barfield or Peralta end up playing themselves onto the Buffalo Shuttle.

Then there is the curious case of Victor Martinez. He hits like a first baseman, throws like a first baseman and catches like a first baseman, but the Indians already have too many first basemen, and might sign another before the offseason ends. So he catches. But he's still going to play some first base to save his knees.

So let's get the rundown of all the slashes that might exist for the Indians next year:

Victor Martinez, C/1B
Ryan Garko, 1B/DH
Hector Luna, IF/OF
Joe Inglett, IF/OF
Shin-Soo Choo, LF/RF/CF
Jason Michaels, LF/RF
David Dellucci, LF/RF
Andy Marte, Cleveland/Buffalo
Josh Barfield, Cleveland/Buffalo
Jhonny Peralta, Cleveland/Buffalo/bench
Casey Blake, RF/LF/DH/1B/3B/hitting coach/concessions manager/mayor of Linndale

Versatility is a great attribute in sports. But I'm just concerned that in the Indians' case, "versatile" is just a euphemism for "not good enough to play everyday."

Nah. When have the Indians ever been guilty of double-speak?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Losing Casey

Everyone says Casey Coleman was one of those people who, if you didn't know them personally, you were missing out.

I never knew Casey personally. I just watched him every night growing up, showing us the world of sports at the tail end of the WJW Channel 8 newscast.

I missed out. I never knew Casey, the warrior in the battle against pancreatic cancer, which claimed his life Monday at age 55.

I never knew the Casey who was winning his battle with alcoholism. I never knew the Casey that so many in the sports world knew, the Casey that existed when the microphone was off and the camera light went dark.

But in some ways, I didn't miss out. None of us did. In some basic way, all you needed to have an appreciation of Casey Coleman was a love of Cleveland sports and a fascination with the people who ran, coached and played for the teams.

For my generation, Casey was the nightly emcee presenting Cleveland sports to the fans. He was our tour guide, piloting us through the Browns' playoff run of the late '80s, through the Indians' resurgence in the '90s, and then moved on to radio at WTAM, where he helped usher in the LeBron James Era.

In between, he briefly served as the Browns radio voice and forged a long-standing friendship with Bill Belichick, which made him somewhat of a controversial figure when the team left in 1995.

In the aftermath of the move, when fingers were pointing and heads were rolling like it was the French Revolution, Casey could have gone down in history as a villain, a Benedict Arnold consorting with the enemy. But he emerged a better man for having endured the ordeal, and his on-air charm won his fans back. If they ever really left at all, that is.

Casey was loved because he gave love. Love to the teams in this town, love for his job, love for his city. He was a model Cleveland sports fan in many ways. He showed how you can be a fan of Cleveland sports without developing a choking inferiority complex, how to be critical without bashing, how to praise without being a homer.

In an era devoid of championships, an era where badmouthing Cleveland sports teams is a regular occurrence, Casey didn't sink to that level. He embraced Cleveland's teams even when it wasn't popular. Even when the teams betrayed us. Even when one of them left.

And in his dying days, he taught this sports-crazed town his greatest lesson: it's just sports.

When his illness wouldn't let him work fulltime anymore, he took up the fight against pancreatic cancer, leading fundraisers and speaking at events in an attempt to raise awareness about the disease.

He asked Plain Dealer reporter Chuck Heaton to follow him around and chronicle his fight. Heaton wrote a seven-part series on Casey's battle with cancer.

And Casey did it all with his trademark self-deprecating wit, which never abandoned him to the end.

I saw Casey in person once since his cancer diagnosis. It was at the Browns-Bears preseason game in August. He was on the sideline, press pass around his neck, standing on the field once occupied by old Cleveland Stadium, his self-dubbed "House of Thrills," soaking it all in for one of the last times in his life.

If he was anything but content at that point, he never let on.

At the end of every sportscast, he'd add a little clip about something lighthearted that happened in the world of sports that day, like a baseball blooper. He'd finish with what became his catchphrase, "And we're rounding third, and heading home."

For the rest of my life, that phrase will be painful and poignant in equal amounts. Casey Coleman has gone home. There's no going back.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Morning After: Cincinnati

Bengals 30, Browns 0
Record: 3-8
Divisional record: 0-4

Sunday was a sad day for the Cleveland Browns. And it wasn't just the final score.

Sunday, it became painfully obvious that Romeo Crennel isn't going to make it happen.

Crennel might last the final five games of the season, but unless there is a dramatic shift of team fortune, chances are high he will either be fired or resign after the season.

Everything about Crennel's demeanor in recent weeks says "I didn't sign on for this." For a while, I've been thinking that Crennel is too old, too set in his ways and not energetic enough to perform the drastic turnaround the Browns need. Sunday cemented it for me.

This was a team broken by last week's loss to the Steelers, and it appears that they did nothing to attempt to rebound against another divisional opponent. It looks like they simply accepted being the lamb to the slaughter. That is a horrible attitude to take, and I think the genesis of the attitude, whether intentional or not, is Crennel.

Fifty-seven, Crennel's age upon being hired in January 2005, is a bit old to be getting your first taste of head coaching under any circumstance. In the Browns' case, it's almost impossible for an aging, battle-hardened coach to turn this team around on the downhill side of his career.

I like Crennel. I like his no-nonsense approach. I think he knows a great deal about coaching football. I do not think he's a buffoon. I simply think he's not the right man for the job.

Talentwise, there is no reason why the Browns should not be at least a .500 club on the rise. They have playmakers on both sides of the ball. I think time will show the last three Browns drafts to have been productive. But, as I have written before, more than half the battle is believing you can be a good team. Based on Crennel's demeanor and some of his comments in recent weeks, it looks like he's doing anything but rallying his troops around a common goal.

If the coach is running out of steam, what do you expect the players to do?

If the Browns and Crennel were both honest with themselves and each other, they'd make an amicable split the day after the season ends. Crennel would get a defensive coordinator job elsewhere, and the Browns would hire a younger head coach who has the vision and energy to turn this thing around.

Up next: Kansas City, Sunday, 1 p.m. at Cleveland Browns Stadium

Saturday, November 25, 2006

A late-November antacid tablet

This just in: Cleveland fans have a lot emotionally invested in the Cavaliers this year.

After watching the Browns and Indians crash and burn yet again this year, fans are clinging to the Cavs as apparently the only thing saving them from suicidal thoughts.

When fans get this way, they tend to fly off the handle one way or the other depending on what the last few games have shown. A few wins, it's title time. A few losses, the wails of torment can probably be heard in parts of Ontario.

The latter is true of Cleveland fans this week as the Cavs have lost three of four, which could have very easily have been a four-game losing streak had Damon Jones and LeBron James not made a few clutch buckets against Memphis.

Now, the Cavs are some combination of the Hindenburg, Titanic and Edmund Fitzgerald: Doomed, cursed, flawed, hexed, vexed and bound for the draft lottery. Larry Hughes will never be healthy again, Eric Snow isn't even an NBA player, Zydrunas Ilgauskas is Eurotrash, Damon Jones can't guard a mannequin and LeBron James is secretly counting down the days to free agency, even though he just signed a contract extension.

Before the New York Post starts printing LeBron trade scenarios and you seriously consider jumping off the Main Avenue Bridge, let's just take a step back and relax. Let's try to view this latest swoon through objective eyes.

You need to ask yourself, is this much different than previous seasons?

The Cavs home record is a stellar 6-1. They are a lackluster 2-4 on the road. At home, they do all the things good teams are supposed to do. They close games out, they play good defense in the fourth quarter, they rally from huge deficits, they shoot well, they play with energy when the game is on the line.

On the road, they fall apart in the fourth quarter. They cough up huge leads. They get intimidated. They look for the easy way out.

It's the same inconsistent shenanigans they've been pulling for several years now. If last year is any indication, it will get better as the season goes on and the games become more important. But that's not to say these early season swoons don't hurt them when the playoff positioning battles heat up in late winter.

So let's get to the two questions everybody wants answered: Why is this happening, and what can be done?

The answer to the first question: Quite simply, there isn't enough leadership on this team.

Believe it or not, there are kinks in LeBron's armor. Defense might be the most obvious, but there is a point where LeBron's lack of experience does hurt.

If the Cavs do truly take on LeBron's mentality from a game-to-game basis, it's no wonder why they struggle against less-than-marquee competition.

This is an area where the fact that LeBron has been so good, so soon might actually be a hindrance. He hasn't learned to bring a sense of earnestness to games where it doesn't occur naturally. In spotlight games, on national TV against big-name competition, he can look nearly unbeatable. When the competition doesn't inspire him to play at full speed, he kind of settles back into jump-shot mode and so does the team.

That's not all on LeBron. Like his star pupil, coach Mike Brown also doesn't have a lot of experience as a leader and might not demand the right things from his players all the time.

Brown is a very good tactician, but too often, he appears to try to find the answers to all the team's problems on the dry-erase board. Sometimes, a struggling team doesn't need an adjustment on how they're setting the high screen. Sometimes, they just need a good kick in the pants.

There is no question that, if they are providing the required effort, the Cavs can beat any team in the league on a given night. But frequently, the effort just isn't there.

So how do they fix it? Obviously, the only long-term solution is to gain teamwide experience and hope that the light bulb goes on eventually. But we're concerned as much about the short term, making sure this team doesn't regress from last year's 50 wins and playoff series win.

The short-term solution might be to bring in a seasoned veteran, preferably one who has won a few championships and still has some game left in the tank. Someone who can provide the leadership role that LeBron and Brown are struggling to consistently fill, and veterans like Eric Snow and David Wesley are too far in the background to fill.

The want ad would read: "Must be to this team what Nate Thurmond was to the Miracle of Richfield Cavs."

I don't have a particular player in mind, and I'm not about to formulate trade scenarios. But it looks like leadership-quality veteran could really help this team win more consistently.

We'll see if Danny Ferry agrees, and what type of maneuvering he can do in the next several months.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Giving thanks for Cleveland sports

So often as Cleveland sports fans, we get caught up on what's wrong with our teams. Granted, there is an extensive supply of fodder for anybody who wants to join the bellyache Brigade, but with Thanksgiving this week, I want to celebrate the good things.

Yes, Cleveland fans, there are things you should be thankful for. If you're willing to look.

I'm thankful...

...That football in Northeast Ohio is an experience unlike any other.

For Massillon and St. Ignatius. For Baldwin-Wallace and John Carroll. For Scarlet and Gray and Brown and Orange. For the traditions of Friday nights and Saturday afternoons and Sundays on the lakefront, passed down through generations. For the soft grass and hard cement where uncounted pickup games have been played. For cold days and snow on muddy grass.

For that one time where, in your own dreams, you put that blank orange helmet on and sent John Elway home for the summer.

...That Cleveland baseball has one of the richest traditions in the country

For the Cleveland Forest Citys of 1869, who got it all started. For Cy Young and Addie Joss and Napoleon Lajoie's epic battles with Ty Cobb for the American League batting crown. For Ray Chapman, Bill Wambsganss and Tris Speaker. For 1920 and 1948. For all the big names: Feller, Rosen, Lemon, Boudreau, Doby, Averill and Harder. For stopping DiMaggio's hitting streak in 1941. For '54 and 111 wins.

For all the men who had a chance to move the Indians, but didn't. For all the players who got us through the dark years. For Eck and Large Lenny. For Jacobs Field. For the rebirth. For Grover, Carlos, Manny, Jimmy, El Presidente and Orel. For Albert Belle's glare that could melt a pitcher's resolve on contact. For 1995 and 1997. For five straight division titles. For Omar's glove and Kenny on the wall.

For the new guys. For Grady and Pronk, for Victor and C.C. and Cliff Lee. For Jhonny with the misspelled name. For the hope of the future.

...For LeBron James

For flying, for dunking, for putting his team on his back in the fourth quarter. For giving us something to look forward to every time the Cavs take the floor. For giving us a source of regional pride. For being from Akron. For loving the fact that he's from Akron.

For being unstoppable when he storms to the hoop. For shining his bright spotlight on our little town. For being the guy who wants to break the title drought. For believing in his team.

...For all the stories we can tell.

For Jesse Owens making history that transcended sports. For Frank Robinson's first at-bat homer in '75 and the 300,000 who claimed to be at Lenny Barker's perfect game. For the battery that caromed off John Elway's helmet. For Turkey Jones planting Terry Bradshaw.

For wrong-way Ricky, Red Right 88 and the homer that bounced off Canseco's head. For the fight to get the Browns back, Dick Snyder's Miracle off the glass and the '86 Cleveland State Vikings.

...For all the people we know, and will never forget.

For Bill Veeck and Paul Brown. For Nick Mileti, Dick Jacobs and (yes) Arthur B. Modell. For Al Lerner and Al Lopez. For Gabe Paul and Frank Lane, John Hart and Wayne Embry, Jim Paxson and Mark Shapiro.

For Dan Gilbert and Dan Ferry. Jim Brown, Courtney Brown, Orlando Brown and Mike Brown. For the incomparable personality of Damon Jones, the dry wit of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and the toughness of Charlie Frye.

For Ernie Davis, Steve Olin and Tim Crews, who remind us how fragile life is. For Kevin Mackey, who fell from grace and then redeemed himself.

For all the lessons I learned, of heartbreak and triumph, patience and exhilaration, pregame rituals and superstitions, bonding after a win and isolation after a loss. Cleveland sports is just like life, when you get right down to it. And I'm thankful to be a part of it.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Woody and Bo

We all know what happened in the Earthly realm Saturday when Ohio State took it to Michigan. But what we're all eager to know is, what happened in God's country?

Surely, the spiritual realm had to be abuzz during Saturday's game. The first game with both Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler as members of the hereafter.

Unless you have a divine stage pass, you won't know until you shed this mortal coil. So allow us to put words in the mouths of our dearly departed, and just imagine what must have been going on at heaven's official OSU-Michigan viewing party...


The scene: A plush room somewhere just north of St. Peter's gate. Woody and Bo are sitting at opposite ends of a large couch, surrounded by a select group of dead famous people, including Abraham Lincoln, Jimi Hendrix and John Belushi. The game is on a large flat-panel screen, the resolution crisper than anything on Earth.

Bo: Damn it! Damn it all straight to ... uh ... Purgatory. Fourteen-seven. Carr is a bozo. There, I said it. What was I telling them all week? Nobody's listening.

Woody: Bo, I know you only keel over dead once, but you should really learn to relax. There's plenty more where that came from.

Bo (holding up his hands): I could say something else, but I won't. I just got here.

John Belushi: Yeah, well I'll say something! This football stuff is a load of horse shit! I mean, you can't even bet on it here!

Abraham Lincoln: Oh, sorry, Mr. Actor! I didn't know they let you say words like that here!

Belushi: Words like what? Say it, Prez!

Lincoln: I despise all actors. For eternity.

Belushi: Yeah, well, all I know is that every Saturday, we sneak in here and watch lingerie mud wrestling on pay-per-view. Now this game's going on, and suddenly the world stops.

Woody (in his best coaching voice): Shut your damn pie hole, son, or I'll shut it for you! There IS nothing else but this game for the next three hours!

Bo: I must admit, you still got it, Woody.

Woody: Of course I still got it, Bo! I never lost it!

Belushi: Yeah, well all I know is there's two guys in this room who still have their Johnsons attached and want to watch lingerie mud wrestling. Ain't that right, Jimi?

Jimi Hendrix (exhaling a big puff of smoke): mmmmm.......

Lincoln: That young man had better not be performing such acts when He shows up, you know? Speaking of which....

A large, golden door opens. A host of angels begin singing high hosannas, followed by a bright flash. God enters the room.

God: What's all the yelling in here? And what's this haze? Good heavens ... it's purple!

Everyone in the room: Jimi did it!

God: Mr. Hendrix, what have I told you about smoking the happy hash in the hereafter? It's not permitted! I've warned you time and time again. Now I want you to take your guitar and play me 1,000 repetitions of "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee." No stopping, understood? Now go!
Hendrix (getting up slowly and walking out): This place is cramping my style.

God: How about flames burning your posterior? Would that cramp your style? How would you like that? Strum me a river, Mozart. I better hear that guitar loud and clear!

Belushi: Yeah, you tell him, God!

God: And YOU, Mr. Belushi. I've got millions of prayers pouring in from all over the world, and then I get distracted by your typically loud hissy-fit when you don't get your way.

Woody: Eh, he's just upset because we're making him watch the Ohio State-Michigan game.

God: The what? It's on already? (sits down between Woody and Bo) I've got to watch this for at least a few minutes. What's the score?

Woody: 14-7, Buckeyes.

God: Fabulous!

Bo: Fabulous?? What do you mean fabulous? You're God. You're not supposed to have a rooting interest.

God (looking at Bo, then turning to Woody): He's new here, right?

Woody: Yep. (to Bo) God's been a Buckeye fan since the dawn of time.

Bo: He ... what? But ... then explain how I was able to win all those games against Ohio State. Explain the John Cooper years.

God: Oh, I still give them free will. I think it makes for excellent competition. But I must admit, I've been rooting for the Scarlet and Gray since the days of leather helmets.

Bo: Then, are there any Michigan fans in the afterlife?

God: Certainly. But this is the one place where Michigan is "south," if you get my drift.

Bo: South? As in ... as in ...

Woody: As we speak, Lucifer's wearing his prized Wolverine fleece.

(Bo smacks his head in disbelief)

God: Although to be fair, the devil took up Michigan's cause just to spite me. He's probably down there with Jack the Ripper and John Wilkes Booth watching the game right now, rooting as hard as he can for Michigan.

Lincoln: And that's exactly the way it should be.

Belushi: (Aiming his finger like a gun, pointing at the back of Lincoln's head) Look what I'm doing!

Lincoln: You see what I have to put up with? It's so hard being benevolent.

God: Mr. Belushi! Out! Now!

Belushi: Man! I'm outta here. I'll go point and laugh while Hendrix plays. Or maybe John Paul II has a game of canasta going. Yeah, that's it! (exits)

Bo (to God): So you really are an Ohio State fan. Amazing. You must think I'm pretty low, then.

God: Nonsense. You lived a good life, taught a lot of young men the right way to live. And you coached at Ohio State, so you'll always be one of the good guys to me.

Woody: Who do you think was pulling for you the whole time, Bo? I was.

Bo: So how did a former Michigan coach end up here, on the same couch with God and none other than Mr. Woody Hayes?

God: Well, I bumped Maurice Clarett to the back of the line. He has some time to figure things out.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Morning After: Pittsburgh

Steelers 24, Browns 20
Record: 3-7
Divisional record: 0-3

This is the first time I've felt sorry for the Browns in a long while.

Normally, after a Browns loss, I'm somewhere between frustrated and numb, or as has been the case lately, basically indifferent.

But I saw the Browns trying out there Sunday, really trying. They were trying to re-assert themselves against their divisional rivals after last December's 41-0 drubbing. They were trying to play for pride. They were playing like a team that wanted to be confident, wanted to believe in their abilities, wanted to take everything their coaches had been saying all week to heart.

But in the end, they just weren't good enough. Not yet.

The Browns and the Steelers entered the game with identical 3-6 records. The difference is the Steelers are a good team going through a bad stretch. The Browns are a bad team trying to get good.

It showed at the end of the game, when the Browns finally broke and Pittsburgh's veteran poise took over. As Ben Roethlisberger drove a 77-yard stake straight into Cleveland's gut on the winning drive, the CBS cameras repeatedly flashed to the Browns sidelines, showing the likes of Kellen Winslow and Charlie Frye, helmets on, heads down, hiding their dread.

It gets so a team expects to lose, expects a negative outcome. The culture of losing is the biggest hurdle to overcome when trying to turn around a longtime losing club. We have seen it with the Cavs. It took numerous trades, free agent signings, a new coach, new GM and even a new owner to completely eradicate the sorry Cavs of Ricky Davis and Darius Miles, and place a solid veteran team around LeBron James, a team that expects to win.

I'm not saying the Browns need such an overhaul. I'm saying the Browns are also seeing how it takes years of trial and error before you finally get it right.

Granted, I wouldn't be writing this if Braylon Edwards had hauled in either of the half-ending passes from Frye, either of which would have been good for a touchdown. But, once again, the Browns aren't at the point where we're necessarily worrying about a ball bouncing this way or that. For the Browns, it's about developing a winning team, both in the locker room and on the field.

After the game, Steelers linebacker Joey Porter, never one to shy from a microphone, decided to give this latest knife in Cleveland's back a couple of good, hard twists.

"If you talk and lose, you're still losers," he told reporters. "(The Browns) talk like a different team, but in reality they are not. They had all the breaks, all the bounces. But when it was nail-biting time and you've got to make plays, who made them?"

It's about fielding a team that, one day, can shut guys like Porter up.

Up next: Cincinnati, Sunday, 1 p.m. at Cleveland Browns Stadium

A game that fit the rivalry

This was the game none of us expected. But, then again, great games between great teams have a way of eluding your expectations.

Ohio State versus Michigan is an animal that can't be caged. It's too big. It doesn't conform to what you think it should be, what the players think it should be, or even what the coaches think it should be.

When the ball goes in the air on opening kickoff, the game is in control. The rivalry reigns, and the players and coaches become marionette puppets being manipulated by something greater.

Prognosticators from professional sportswriters down to barstool bantermakers looked into their crystal balls all week. If anyone predicted a 42-39 shootout, it was a shot in the dark. If anyone is saying they predicted it after the fact, they should immediately be subjected to a polygraph test.

Lest anyone think Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler were sitting on a sofa somewhere in the great beyond, manipulating this game on an all-powerful Playstation 3, the 28-14 halftime score should have killed that theory right there.

Forty-two first half points would be enough to make Woody and Bo gag on their Cheese Nips. This was a game reminiscent of the old American Football League in which the only cure for an opposing touchdown was to score one yourself.

Only one scoring drive ended in something other than a touchdown, when Michigan's Garrett Rivas converted a 39-yard field goal in the third quarter. The touchdown Michigan didn't score turned out to be the difference in the game.

This was a game peppered with mistakes on both sides. The teams combined for nine penalties, but they amounted to 95 yards thanks to a few 15-yarders. Michigan's Shawn Crable received a personal foul for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Troy Smith in the second half. Ohio State's Jamario O'Neal was also flagged for pass interference on a fourth-quarter drive that led to a Michigan's final touchdown.

But the man most thankful for Saturday's win is probably Buckeyes center Doug Datish. He was certifiable goat material when he flubbed a pair of shotgun snaps in the second half, causing two of Ohio State's three turnovers.

One has to wonder how much more Ohio State would have been able to control this game if not for some sloppy ballhandling. Ohio State lost the turnover battle 3-0, but still managed to win. In games like this, that doesn't usually happen. In the book of OSU coach Jim Tressel, who preaches field position and ball possession as gospel, that is never supposed to happen.

It's a reason why any pensive feelings about a possible Ohio State-Michigan rematch in the BCS title game can be excused. Would it be realistic to expect Ohio State to defeat their bitter rivals twice in the span of seven weeks?

There are two schools of thought:

One says Ohio State played uncharacteristically bad for stretches against Michigan. They should have the time between now and January to iron out the wrinkles and take it to Michigan should the rivalry be renewed in Glendale, Ariz.

The other says Tressel showed his hand Saturday, and Michigan would know what to expect in a rematch, driving up the odds of a Michigan win.

Chances are better than even there won't be a rematch. If Southern California continues to take care of business against Notre Dame and UCLA, you'd have to think they'd be the favorite to face Ohio State for the national championship.

I, for one, don't want to see a rematch in Glendale. Ohio State-Michigan is a rivalry that keeps its mystique by being a once-a-year event. You win, you secure bragging rights for a year. You lose, you have to wait 52 weeks to redeem yourself. That's the way it's been for more than a century.

I think that's the way it will stay. Even if the numbers bear out an Ohio State-Michigan rematch, the fact remains that the Buckeyes are the outright Big Ten champions, Michigan gets no share of a conference title this year, and to pass over other one-loss conference champions (or potential conference champions) like USC and Florida to place Michigan in the BCS title game wouldn't make a lot of sense.

But, then again, when has the BCS ever been synonymous with common sense?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Schembechler dies

A sad update, even for Ohio State fans.

The last major link to the great Ohio State-Michigan games of the 60s and 70s has died. Bo Schembechler has passed away on the eve of the biggest Ohio State-Michigan game in the history of the rivalry.

The magnitude of the game has not been diminished, but a pall has now been cast over the weekend.

Schembechler collapses

As much as we all have a burning dislike of the University of Michigan, and as much as Bo Schembechler is right up there with Art Modell and Carlos Boozer among Ohio's Benedict Arnolds, you never want to hear this.

The Associated Press is reporting that Schembechler, 77, is back in the hospital after collapsing at the WXYZ TV studio in Southfield, Mich. this morning. He collapsed at the same studio in October.

He had been meeting with the media all week to discuss tomorrow's epic showdown between Ohio State and Michigan.

Schembechler, who has had a pair of quadruple bypass operations, had a pacemaker installed last month to regulate his heartbeat.

Hopefully Schembechler is out of the hospital in time to watch tomorrow's game. This isn't a good way to kick off the biggest weekend of the college football season.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Here we go again: Tribe outbid

This one will sail under the radar to some extent, but Thursday's announcement that the Indians were outbid for the rights to negotiate with Japanese third baseman Akinori Iwamura is another troubling sign for a team that desperately needs to flex some financial muscle this winter.

Even more troubling is who did win the rights. Not the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers. It was the perennial cellar-dwelling Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Cleveland.com reported that the D-Rays bested Cleveland's offer by about $1 million. The Indians' bid was reported at around $3.5 million.

Not good for the Indians, a team that needs someone to push Andy Marte for playing time at third base next spring with last week's departure of Kevin Kouzmanoff.

The Indians had a chance to follow up last week's solid acquisition of Josh Barfield with another score, but couldn't front the money to do so.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Once again, the Indians are showing that they either A) don't have a good concept of what it takes to sign players or B) won't spend the money.

Once again, they came to the table with a small wad of cash and a hopeful smile, and once again, they leave empty-handed.

I hope Larry Dolan realizes where his team stands in the battle for the Cleveland sports dollar. The Cavs are hot stuff. The Browns are close to the heart. The Indians are on the bad side of their fan base right now after a disappointing 2006.

The Indians are losing ground. They need to do something to pull back their fans. Getting outbid for a Japanese free agent by the Devil Rays is not a good start.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Who's really better?

In the week leading up to Ohio State-Michigan, there are always plenty of warning shots fired over the opposing bow. But a lot of times, it's just the same old "Columbus is a cow town/Ann Arbor is one enormous gay disco" type of childish putdowns.

The insult war never gets to the heart of what we, and they, are really trying to prove: What is the better place to live? Who should take more pride in their roots, Ohioans or Michiganders?

I'm here to try and sort it all out in the most journalistically-objective way possible: with just the facts.

Best rust belt city

Ohio: Cleveland
Michigan: Detroit

Both have rotting infrastructures, decaying schools and ineffectual leaders. Both have gleaming downtown skyscrapers surrounded by miles upon miles of biting poverty.
Detroit is bigger. Cleveland is easier to get around in. All in all, this battle is a push. So I'm going to turn to the only arbiters I know who can settle this:

The panhandlers.

On a recent trek to downtown Cleveland, my friend Justin and I were approached by a scruffy-looking man who asked us if we had seen "the task force." He then asked Justin for six cents. Not five cents. Not 10. Six cents.

On a trip to Detroit this summer to watch a Tigers-Indians game, Justin and I had dinner at the Hockeytown restaurant near Comerica Park. After dinner, a panhandler came up to Justin and asked him for his slices of leftover pizza. Justin, being the kind soul he is, obliged. I wouldn't have had too much of a problem with that except Justin was approached in the restaurant lobby.

The verdict: Cleveland panhandlers are goofy and entertaining. Detroit panhandlers stalk you in restaurant lobbies.

Edge: Ohio

Most embarrassing coach moment

Ohio: Woody Hayes punching out a Clemson player
Michigan: Gary Moeller drinking like a fish, then trying to slug a cop

Even though Woody was well past his prime when he punched Clemson's Charlie Bauman in the closing seconds of the 1978 Gator Bowl, it still ended up being one of the defining moments of his career. It was a disgraceful way for a cherished legend -- one who had been celebrated for his hot competitive fire -- to end his career.

Compare that with Moeller's drunken outburst at a Southfield, Mich. restaurant in 1995. Quicker than you could say "indelible black mark," Michigan accepted Moeller's resignation and got on with life. Moeller went on to coach the Lions for a spell, but for the most part, he's antimatter among the Michigan faithful.

I'd take a fired-up Woody Hayes over a liquored-up Gary Moeller to watch my back in a dark alley any day, but Woody did Ohio State no favors by the way he went out.

Edge: Michigan

Best TV show/movie settings

Ohio: "Family Ties," set in Columbus
"The Drew Carey Show," set in Cleveland
"WKRP," set in Cincinnati
"Howard The Duck," set in Cleveland

Michigan: "Robocop," set in Detroit
"8 Mile," set in Detroit
"Home Improvement," set in suburban Detroit

OK, "Howard The Duck" does dock Ohio some points, but all in all, our reality-based Ohio settings offered a rich diversity of locales, and numerous opportunities to show off the good aspects of their settings -- though "Family Ties" was set in Columbus in dialogue only.

Michigan's turn at providing movie settings was bleak, bleaker and bleakest. "8 Mile" is depressing, "Robocop" is downright post-apocalyptic. I need Prozac just thinking about it.

The trump card? "Home Improvement" had an episode set in Cleveland, during which the characters made more Cleveland landmark references than they did for Detroit during the entire run of the series.

Edge: Ohio

Best Music

Ohio: Dean Martin, Tracy Chapman, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Chrissie Hynde, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, the O'Jays, Devo, James Gang, Filter and polka king Frankie Yankovic.

Michigan: Ted Nugent, Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, Grand Funk Railroad, Kid Rock, MC5, Iggy and the Stooges, Eminem, Madonna, the White Stripes, the Von Bondies and a small army of incredibly successful artists from Motown Records.

Love the Pretenders. Love Deano. But Michigan wins this one, fair and square.

Edge: Michigan

Best excuse to riot

Ohio: When Ohio State beats Michigan

Michigan: Halloween in Detroit, or when the Tigers win the World Series

Rioting in Detroit fills a very necessary purpose. Much like when a naturally-caused forest fire burns away dead brush, Detroit rioting helps clear many of the burned-out building shells from the landscape, opening the way for new brownfields that can sit vacant for 20 years until the weeds overtake them.

Having said that, post-victory Columbus rioting usually involves creative usage of signs and alcohol, thereby giving an amusement-park feel to the burning mounds of dorm furniture. The presence of assorted paper products in the trees is always a nice touch.

Edge: Ohio

Championships in the past 40 years

Ohio: 2002 Buckeyes. 1968 Buckeyes. 1975 and 1990 Reds.

Michigan: 1968 and '84 Tigers, three Pistons titles, three Red Wings Stanley Cups, 2000 Michigan State basketball, 1989 Michigan basketball, etc., etc.

....why bother?

Edge: Michigan


Ohio: William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Warren Harding

Michigan: Gerald Ford

Now, granted, none of Ohio's presidents really accomplished anything terribly memorable in office. Four of the eight died in office -- Garfield was assassinated by a jealous and delusional associate, McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist nutjob, Harding died of a stroke and William Henry Harrison died after 30 days in office when he contracted pneumonia giving a long-winded inauguration speech in cold weather.
What's more, Taft was reputedly so overweight he once got stuck in the White House bathtub.

But I'm going to turn this in to a Woody Hayes-esque war of attrition and say Ohio's eight presidents trump Michigan's lone part-term president who was known primarily for hitting errant golf balls and being impersonated by Chevy Chase.

Edge: Ohio

In the end, Ohio ekes out the win, four matches to three, and proves, irrefutably, that the Buckeye State is a better place to live than that barren wasteland up north. At least until Detroit wins another championship.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Morning After: Atlanta

Browns 17, Falcons 13
Record: 3-6

The Browns won the game, but the story most of the national media will gravitate toward is "What is wrong with the Falcons?"

Consecutive losses to the Lions and Browns, the NFL's own Laurel and Hardy, has to have sent the Falcons' team morale spiraling downward at an alarming rate.

True, Michael Vick threw two interceptions, then fumbled the ball away in the fourth quarter. But while that was certainly a key ingredient in the shocking upset, it isn't the whole story.

This is the story of the Browns forcing one of the best teams in the league to play their style: slow and ugly.

This will go in the books as an ugly win for the Browns. In all honesty, can the Browns win any other way? When is the last time the Browns won a game you'd term "pretty?"

This game was about the Browns defense standing up to the multitalented Vick. Even though Vick is incredibly dangerous with his legs, Kamerion Wimbley led the pass rush as the Browns flushed Vick out of the pocket all afternoon.

Vick did lead all Atlanta rushers with 74 yards, but the Browns kept him contained enough that they forced him to mostly make plays with his arm. And, history has shown, that is the one area where Vick is vulnerable.

In addition to the interceptions by Brodney Pool and Sean Jones, the Browns secondary, banged up as it is, made several other very nice plays. Brian Russell saved a touchdown with a disruptive dive. Ralph Brown knocked another pass away.

The Cleveland offense looked good in spots, particularly in building a 14-0 first half lead. They only managed another three points all day, but you have to look beyond the numbers to the backbone the Browns showed as Atlanta began creeping back into the game.

Charlie Frye deserves a gold star for the plays he didn't try to make. He was sacked five times, but managed to get rid of the ball on several other occasions when a sack was imminent. He didn't try to force the ball downfield, didn't stick his neck out unnecessarily, and the proof is on the stat sheet: one Cleveland turnover involving Frye, none in the second half.

The one Frye turnover was the the only real head-smacking moment on the day for the Browns offense. In reality, it was offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson who tried to play swashbuckler and go for the throat at the end of the first half.

Instead of taking a knee with two seconds left, already possessing a surprising 14-3 lead, he lined up his wideouts, planning to have Frye throw deep. But Frye never got the pass off, instead fumbling the ball away, and the Falcons tried some Cal-Stanford razzle-dazzle to reach the end zone. They almost did, as a series of laterals got the ball inside the Cleveland 20 before the play was finally wrestled to the ground.

That play was way too risky, and Davidson should have known it.

Beyond that, the Browns did just enough on both sides of the ball to win. The defense gave a solid "B" effort for 60 minutes, the offense minimized their mistakes, even when they stagnated in the second half, and the punting of Dave Zastudil allowed the Browns to play the field position game all afternoon.

Eventually, you'd like to see the Browns be able to paint a masterpiece in victory. But if all they can muster right now is stick figures in tempera fingerpaint, well hey, at least it can go up on the refrigerator.

Up next: Pittsburgh, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Tigers becoming win-now addicts

Let's size up the good of the Tigers' acquisition of Gary Sheffield first:

He brings raw power and bat speed that is almost unmatched among right-handed hitters, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez being among the few in his class.

He'll make Detroit's lineup even more fearsome combined with a healthy Magglio Ordonez and Sean Casey. The Tigers will not hurt for RBIs next year.

He is reunited with manager Jim Leyland. Together in 1997, they won the only World Series either of them has ever won.

All fine and good. The Tigers, deservedly so, will be the favorites to win the AL pennant, and maybe the World Series, come February.

But the acquisition of Sheffield should also send up an early warning flare for Tiger fans.

Take it from an Indians fan who has watched this all happen before: when a team gets a taste of winning, especially when it reaches the World Series and loses, the temptation is there for management to start spending and trading to get a title.

Trading three minor-league pitching prospects for a 37-year-old, injury-prone DH could get the Tigers over the hump. Or it could be an iceberg on the horizon.

It is far too easy for a team flush with success to bloat its payroll and empty out its farm system in a quest to win it all. It's a quest that, in many ways, a team cannot totally control.

Consider the cautionary tale of the Indians:

From 1991 to 1995, former Indians GM John Hart was among the best in baseball. He made shrewd trades and signings that made the Indians competitive, held the young core of star players intact and kept the payroll reasonable.

Then came 1995, and the Tribe's first pennant in 41 years. The Indians came oh-so-close to a championship and didn't get it.

Somewhere between the '95 and '96 seasons, Hart abandoned his farm-system centered philosophy and began trying to spend his problems away. Shrewd moves like plucking Kenny Lofton from the Astros for Eddie Taubensee and Willie Blair were replaced with short-term moves that decimated the farm system and left the Indians with overpaid, underproductive players.

Jeromy Burnitz for Kevin Seitzer. Brian Giles for Ricardo Rincon. Danny Graves for John Smiley. Sean Casey for Dave Burba.

Over the span of about three years, Hart transformed the Indians from a nimble organization with a stocked farm system to an aging organization with a depleted farm system and bloated payroll.

It sustained the Indians' run of division titles, but it was a method doomed to fail in the end. By 2001, new GM Mark Shapiro was learning that a complete teardown and rebuild was the only way to save the organization as it stood.

Tiger fans can rightfully take pride in a team full of promising young players. But that young roster can be scattered to the four corners of the country so easily if a front office doesn't learn the lessons of those who came before.

To say "That's Cleveland, we'll do it differently" is the height of arrogance. It can happen to you, and if Tigers management keeps making trades like this, it will happen.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Feeding the media monster

As someone who relies on the media industry for a paycheck, I'm about to bite the hand that feeds me with this next comment:

There is too much media in this country.

Too many cameras, too many microphones, too many laptops, too many cable news channels, and -- yes, I'm going to say it -- too many Web sites.

There are simply too many media outlets scrambling for unique angles on the same old, tired stories, even if they aren't there.

It's a textbook case of overpopulation: Many modern media outlets, particularly those on the big-market and national stages, manufacture news as a means of self-sustenance.

LeBron James' alleged walk-off at the tail end of Tuesday's loss to the Hawks is a prime example.

LeBron lives a life we can only dream of. He can make an entire professional sports league snap-to with a little more than a glance. He can make a multibillion-dollar shoe company cater to his every demand.

But there is sharp edge to that power: Everything he does in public, and I mean everything, is caught on camera and scrutinized relentlessly.

LeBron places his Yankees cap on the table at last year's season-ending press conference. Was he simply laying down his cap? Heck, no, says the New York media. He was sending signals to Jay-Z about his desire to hook up with the Nets.

LeBron lets his frustration get the better of him and fails to get back on defense for the final seconds of an embarrassing home loss to Atlanta. A simple lapse of judgment? Heck, no, says the Atlanta media. LeBron quit on his team, they say.

ESPN picked up on it faster than you could say "Stephen A. Smith, you are on the Budweiser Hot Seat." Pretty soon, LeBron's motivation was being questioned, and the talking heads were asking if the NBA should allow a quitter to be the new face of the league.

The media went overboard, but that's what they're supposed to do. You don't get viewers/readers/site hits by being vanilla. You need to be alarmist, shocking and jump to conclusions even at the cost of being wrong.

Imagine if you had to live your life like LeBron has to. I don't mean the riches, the fame, the glory. That's all good. I mean having every action you perform and every word you utter take on a life of its own. No off-color jokes within earshot of a microphone. No expressing of controversial opinions. No lapses in behavior. Everything you say, everything you do could be taken out of context and smeared across television, the Internet and newspapers.

You have to use the strictest judgment in every word and action you produce in public. But no one bats 1.000, not even King James. And his momentary, likely frustration-fueled lapse in judgment Tuesday night became a media-created monster that called his entire character into question.

And for what reason? Gossip. Ratings. Site hits.

It's the price LeBron pays for being as great as he is. But it still must feel like a burden to know that there are scores of people out there rooting for you to mess up so they'll have something interesting to report.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Another young gun for the Tribe

I didn't think it was possible, but the Indians managed to get even younger Wednesday.

The acquisition of 23-year-old second baseman Josh Barfield will give the Indians an infield chock full of youthful exuberance next year, and the accompanying inexperience.

If we assume the infield will consist of Ryan Garko, Jhonny Peralta, Andy Marte and Barfield, it would mean Garko, currently 25, would be the granddaddy. Marte and Peralta are both 24. Only Peralta has more than one full year of experience in the bigs.

More on that in a few paragraphs.

At first blush, I like the acquisition of Barfield, whom Baseball America rated as the Padres' top prospect in 2004 and '05. This past season, his first in the big leagues, he hit .280, a number that likely would have been much higher had he not called the wide open spaces of Petco Park home.

Barfield hit .241 at home, .319 on the road. He managed 21 stolen bases, 13 homers and 58 RBI largely hitting down in the order.

Best of all, this means the Indians aren't going to be calling on Joe Inglett, Hector Luna or Craig Counsell to start at second base.

I only have two real reservations about the deal:

One, could a trade of Kevin Kouzmanoff have been better used to shore up the bullpen, a place that will be much harder to address in free agency than second base?

Kouzmanoff, a big bat with upside, was quite possibly the biggest trade bullet the Indians had to fire this winter, and not only did he not yield any pitching, the Indians had to give up a pitcher in the deal, packaging Andrew Brown.

It begs the question: what, exactly, is Mark Shapiro going to do to beef up his threadbare relief corps? I'm not seeing a whole lot of options.

Two is the youth issue. The infield, combined with 24-year-old Grady Sizemore and 24-year-old Shin-Soo Choo in the outfield, might mean that two-thirds of the batting order could be 26 or younger on opening day.

That's not the age bracket of a contender; that's the age bracket of a rebuilding team still trying to get experience.

Young talent is great. Teams like the Indians thrive on it. But this team will need capable veterans to provide the backbone as Kevin Millwood, Bob Howry and Bob Wickman did in 2005.

The Indians love their young core. They talk about the core all the time. The core is great. Long live the core. But to make this a team, and a team that can win, those elder statesmen will have to come from somewhere.

And no, I'm not talking about Casey Blake and Jason Michaels.

The real LeBrons

The phrase "heart and soul of the team" is thrown around way too much in sports. Kind of like war analogies.

Comb the sports channels and Internet articles in a given day, and everyone from Tom Brady to Derek Jeter to Joe Mauer to Sam Cassell is being touted as the heart and soul of his team.

Ninety percent of the time, it's hogwash. The Patriots could still win without Brady, the Twins wouldn't be left dead in the water without Mauer.

But then there's the case of LeBron James and his wine and gold entourage. In his case, "heart and soul" doesn't even begin to describe it.

LeBron is the personality of the Cavaliers. Whatever form he takes, the team takes.

In other words, LeBron, merely by his attitude, can decide games before he even puts a dribble on the floor.

The first four games of the Cavs season have offered a great sample of the many faces of LeBron. And I'm not talking about fake beards, afro wigs and Nike commercials.

I'm talking about the real "LeBrons." The ones who affect the outcomes of games.

There is "Personal Rivalry LeBron," who showed up against the Wizards in the season opener.

This LeBron is motivated by the presence of an on-court adversary. In this case, Gilbert Arenas. He focuses his entire competitive fire on taking out that one player, and by extension, his team. This LeBron is highly motivated to win.

You will also see this LeBron when the Cavs play Dwyane Wade and the Heat, Carmelo Anthony and the Nuggets, and Paul Pierce and the Celtics.

There is "Legacy LeBron," who showed up in Friday's win over the Spurs.

This LeBron is motivated by carving out his place in history, which he knows can only be accomplished by winning titles. Legacy LeBron hungers to beat the best teams in the league, and is willing to lift the Cavs up onto his shoulders to make it happen. Like Personal Rivalry LeBron, this LeBron is also highly motivated to win.

You will also see this LeBron when the Pistons, Mavericks, Heat and Suns come to town.

There is "Tired LeBron," who showed up in Saturday's loss to the Bobcats.

This LeBron is cognizant of the fact that he has logged a lot of miles over the past year, carrying the Cavs through 13 playoff games, then spending his summer at the World Championships. He doesn't want to wear down, so he picks and chooses when he wants to exert himself. This LeBron is less driven than the first two, and the presence of a player like Adam Morrison might not be enough to stoke his competitve fire to white-hot proportions.

This LeBron tends to appear on the second night of back-to-backs, especially when the competition is less than marquee.

Finally, there is "Scrimmage LeBron," who showed up in Tuesday's loss to the Hawks.

This LeBron might put up respectable numbers, but never really seems to turn his game completely on. He makes a few dipsy-doo passes, throws down a couple of dunks, gives the crowd what they want in terms of highlights, but seems to be doing it all at half-speed.

Defense is a rumor to Scrimmage LeBron.

This LeBron is closely related to Tired LeBron, but shows up on nights when fatigue shouldn't be a factor.

Scrimmage LeBron almost always shows up when the opponent is a dreg. Almost invariably, said dreg either takes the Cavs to overtime or beats them outright.

Falling in lockstep behind their leader, the Cavs respond to whatever LeBron they have on a given night. Personal Rivalry LeBron and Legacy LeBron can inspire the Cavs to great things. They almost always win when either one of them shows up.

The problem is when Tired LeBron and Scrimmage LeBron show up. If his teammates get a LeBron who lacks energy or intensity, the letdown will be palpable and the Cavs will likely lose.

It might not appear fair to place the outcome of every Cavs game at the feet of LeBron, but it's the truth. A motivated LeBron will lead his team to wins. An unmotivated LeBron won't. It's that simple. And the other 14 players on Cleveland's roster combined don't have enough talent or spark to offset a lethargic King James.

The bottom line: If the Cavs want to beat teams like the Bobcats and Hawks, LeBron has to make it so, not just with his play, but with his attitude.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Seeking Counsell

Few things rattle you after a relaxing weekend out of town than to return to your computer, click on The Futon Report, and find out that the Indians might be courting Craig Counsell once free agency picks up steam.

I should have known. I should have known that when Counsell yanked that Jose Mesa fastball to deep right field to tie Game 7 of the World Series that the Indians would sit up and take notice.

I should have known when Counsell bounced off home plate and into a wave of teammates, signaling the Marlins' first world championship, that a young Mark Shapiro would have said to himself "Dang, we need that guy."

Not Edgar Renteria, who sizzled the line drive past Charlie Nagy that won the series. Not Gary Sheffield, who make a number of clutch plays in the series. Not Al Leiter, who started Game 7.

No, the guy the Indians fell in love with that night was Craig Counsell.

Since then, he's amassed a career .260 average and won another World Series ring with the Diamondbacks, which only strengthened the Indians' resolve to one day sign him.

Counsell has something for everybody in Indians management.

For Eric Wedge, Counsell hustles. He's scrappy, constant motion. His contortionist batting stance makes him look like he's trying harder than he actually is.

For Mark Shapiro, Counsell is versatile. he can play any infield position, and would fit nicely with Joe Inglett and Hector Luna in next year's all-utility infield.

For Larry Dolan, Counsell brings two World Series rings at an affordable price. Before you consider anything else, the .260 average, the 31 career home runs, remember the bling. Remember, in Cleveland, we are supposed to be impressed with any player who can flash his championship bling. Dolan is counting on it.

So when Counsell casually runs his hand through his hair at his debut press conference, and a bit of that 1997 Florida Marlins World Championship ring catches the light and sparkles, remember to drop your jaw and say "OOOOOHHH, is THAT a REAL World Series ring? I ain't never seen one-ah those!"

Other clubs sign the staff aces and cleanup hitters from championship teams. In Cleveland, we have to settle for the backup infielders.

The Morning After: San Diego

Chargers 32, Browns 25
Record: 2-6

The ghost of the Butch Davis regime continues to mock us from beyond the grave.

We could have had LaDainian Tomlinson in the 2001 draft. He was there for the taking at the third pick.

But Davis, in a preview of the personnel management disasters that were to come, balked and took Gerard "the nicest guy ever arrested" Warren.

Warren is now living life to the fullest in Denver. Tomlinson is on the fast track to the hall of fame in San Diego. The Browns ... well, look at the record.

Yesterday's game was painful because the Browns were trying and were still made to look foolishly bad in the end.

They hit the Chargers hard. They took the ball away. They held the lead in the second half. But in the end, it was one Charlie Frye fumble and a lot of LaDainian that took the game away from Cleveland.

Frye's fumble was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. After that, it was a steady diet of Tomlinson eroding the Browns' resolve.

LaDainian's nickname should be "Love," because, like the Beatles song, he's all the Chargers need.

Three touchdowns in the final 17 minutes simply crushed the Browns, including a 41-yard romp.

While Tomlinson dragged the weary, battered Browns defense around like an ankle weight, the offense does what the offense usually does.

The playcalling of Jeff Davidson means the Browns now attempt field goals when field goals should logically be called for, but it's still painful to watch six potential touchdown drives stall before the goal line, forcing the Browns to call on Phil Dawson.

If Dawson is on your fantasy team and you didn't win this week, the rest of your team must really suck. He banged home six field goals, cashing check after check on stalled drives.

The Browns didn't reach the end zone until the game was out of reach late in the fourth quarter. That was despite a career day by Kellen Winslow and dominance in the kick return game.

Reuben Droughns, a breathtaking stallion a week ago against the Jets, was a smelly old pack mule against the Chargers, struggling to reach 36 rushing yards. Frye didn't look much better, and, as much as I like Frye, I am starting to wonder what this Browns offense would look like if Phil Savage had managed to land a Steve McNair in the offseason like the Ravens did.

Outgoing Plain Dealer columnist Roger Brown has a flood of antagonists in the Cleveland area, and is abrasive writing style is meant to gather that response. But he brings up a good point every now and again, and last month he did.

If Frye were from Willard, Texas instead of Willard, Ohio, fans would be calling up radio shows screaming for a replacement, branding Savage and Romeo Crennel as dopes for handing the starting quarterback job to this neophyte from a midmajor school.

But Frye is a hometown boy (home region, anyway). He grew up worshipping at the altar of Bernie Kosar, and he gets the mother of all mulligans when he struggles.

The simple fact is that, while you have to admire Frye's toughness, humility and hustle, it appears the NFL game is just moving too fast for him. He gets flustered and makes bad decisions. He turns the ball over way too much. Some of that might be due to his inexperience. Some of might be due to the fact that he went to Akron for a reason, as opposed to a Big Ten school.

Pulling the " MAC Attack" cards of Chad Pennington, Byron Leftwich or Ben Roethlisberger when making a case for Frye is just a bad argument. Pennington and Leftwich went to Marshall, which was a MAC school in name only. Their talent level was far superior to their midmajor opponents.

Roethlisberger was stuck behind the coach's son until he was a senior in high school, otherwise he probably would have gone to a big college instead of Miami, Ohio.

Not to lay this all at the feet of Frye, but the Browns could have negated Tomlinson if they were better in the red zone. Someone has to be the glue that holds this offense together, and I just question if Frye can do that.

In the meantime, the story will continue to be Tomlinson, the guy the Browns could have had if not for that pesky Butch Davis Florida connection.

Tomlinson might get himself a ring in the near future. Warren might get himself a ring in the near future. The Browns, meanwhile, will be left holding more baggage than a hotel bellhop.

Up next: at Atlanta, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Stubbed toes in Charlotte

The Cavaliers can't win them all. But still, Saturday's loss in Charlotte is the reason why I think the Cavs are yet a step behind true elite status in the NBA.

After impressive wins over Washington and San Antonio to start the season, the Cavs had a major letdown Saturday. As happened many times last season, they treated a game against a league dreg like a scrimmage, and it cost them.

File this under the same heading with last season's embarrassing losses to Atlanta, New York, Golden State and the overtime skin-of-their-teeth win over the Bobcats.

Truly great teams not only get up to play other great teams, they also take care of business and beat the teams they are supposed to beat, even if it isn't the most adrenaline-stimulating opponent, even if it's the second night of back-to-backs.

At the end of the season, when Cleveland is jockeying for postseason positioning with the other top teams in the East, losses like Saturday's are what will cost them.

I hate to look at it like Saturday's loss essentially cancelled out Friday's spectacular win in San Antonio, but it really does.

The Cavs won't reach the uppermost echelon of NBA teams until they learn to not have these letdowns against lottery teams.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Larry living large

Admit it.

When Larry Hughes went hobbling off the floor in the third quarter of Wednesday's Cavaliers season opener, you got a sick feeling in your stomach.

You had instant visions of a LeCharles Bentley season-dead-before-it-even-lived fate for the Cavs.

Given Hughes' injury history, you'd be excused for feeling that way. Because prior to that limp to the locker room (later diagnosed as a case of leg cramps), Hughes showed why he is so valuable to the Cavs, and so integral to their chances of contending this season.

Numerous national pundits, and a few unidentified, alleged "scouts," have been blaring from the rooftops their belief that Hughes is a terrible fit with LeBron James.

Their games are too redundant, they say. They're both slashers, LeBron needs a shooter to jack up his kickout passes.

Those purported experts apparently don't know the Cavs from a pina colada. Wednesday night is proof why.

While LeBron struggled against a Wizards defense hellbent on revenge for last spring's playoff loss, Hughes was free to roam, create and shoot, and became a poor man's LeBron.

Locked in on the rim all night, Hughes scored a team-high 27 points, one more than LeBron. While he was at it, his defense helped keep Gilbert Arenas in check at the other end of the floor.

Hughes stated his case with the verve of a high-priced defense attorney. He belongs on this team because it's virtually impossible to stop both he and LeBron simultaneously.

Wednesday was the matchup headache Danny Ferry must have envisioned when he forked over $60 million of owner Dan Gilbert's money to acquire Hughes in the summer of 2005.

That's why we suck in our breath every time the rail-thin Hughes darts through traffic, draws contact or gets his foot stepped on. Without Hughes, the Cavs are a playoff team, nothing more. And LeBron has to work overtime just to ensure that much.

With Hughes, the Cavs are a dynamic team capable of stunning the best in the East, and maybe even a few from the West.

That's what made your heart thump last night. That's the subject that even the papers dodged Thursday morning. The notion that another major Hughes injury would leave us with another season of what-might-have-been.

And that's a phrase that is just way too common around these parts.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

High-top Marbury

Stephon Marbury's reputation is about what you'd expect from your average multi-gazillion dollar NBA player.

He's brash. He's full of himself. He's selfish. He jacks up shots like they're going out of style. He desperately wants to be the one-man show who can lead his team to victory.

He couldn't co-exist with Kevin Garnett in Minnesota. A sportswriter once referred to it as the "Batman and Robin" syndrome: One had to be the superhero, the other the sidekick. And there was no way Garnett was going to be Robin.

So Marbury sulked his way out of Minnesota, turning what could have been a multiple-championship run for the Timberwolves into a string of playoff disappointments.

Marbury subsequently wore out his welcome in New Jersey and Phoenix before landing in midtown Manhattan as the undisputed centerpiece of the Knicks, mired in one of their worst stretches in franchise history.

Wouldn't you know, that's where Marbury would find redemption. And he's found it in the most unlikely place: Athletic shoes.

Marbury has attached his name to a line of shoes and apparel that sells for $15 and under at Steve and Barry's University Sportswear. It's not just superficial. He recently went on a cross-country tour promoting his "Starbury" line, geared toward families with multiple children and limited incomes.

USA Today noted that Marbury didn't sign an endorsement contract. He gets paid a commission based on how well the merchandise sells.

But the story isn't how much or little Marbury will make from this venture. He's already made enough money to last his family for generations. The story is the kids and parents who will buy his $15 shoes.

Ever since the first Air Jordans appeared on the market more than 20 years ago, a sneaker war has developed. It would be nice if I was speaking solely in the figurative terms of corporate board rooms. But I'm not.

On the mean streets of inner city America, children have been shot over their shoes. Expensive shoes have triggered murders, armed robberies, carjackings and who knows what else.

Expensive shoes get sold for drug money. Drug money is used to buy expensive shoes. Expensive shoes become the hot button of envy among teens. Expensive shoes surpass their stated role of foot protection and become status symbols.

That's what the Starbury line is able to fight. Expensive shoes will always be around, and jealousy over expensive shoes will always be around, but Marbury's line is creating a kind of bleacher democracy, where kids from all walks of life and many different income brackets can have the same types of shoes.

The Starbury line is also shining some much-needed light on the question of why, exactly, must Nike, Adidas and Reebok charge so much for their shoes. The $15 Starburys and $110 Nikes with LeBron James' name attached to them are both made in China, both contain a majority of the same parts, both lace up and tie in the same manner.

Marbury might not have intentionally meant this, but he is taking part in a large social experiment, one that can challenge all the conventional wisdom about basketball shoes and their status role in teenage society. One that can force the shoe industry to change, however incrementally.

And above all, his shoes will give lower-income parents a break, while still allowing them to outfit their kids in something new and trendy.

After years of selfishness on the basketball court, it might be that Marbury's most benevolent act is being performed on a much larger scale: In the streets and classrooms of America's cities.

Maybe Marbury isn't such a typical NBA player after all. We might even have to forgive him for being a Knick.