Friday, March 31, 2006

MLB preview: NL West

This was the weakest division in baseball last year. San Diego won it with a record barely over .500. I'd like to say things have changed, but I don't think they have.

Teams listed in projected order of finish

1. Los Angeles Dodgers
How do you build an offense out of rubber bands and chewing gum? I don't know, but the Dodgers have. Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra, both on one-year deals, supply most of the power. The rest of the names you know are of the aging (Kenny Lofton, Bill Mueller) and the overrated (J.D. Drew).
Odalis Perez is at the front of the rotation. Eric Gagne and Danys Baez form an excellent back end for the bullpen. In-between is Derek Lowe and a bunch of question marks.
And this might be the best team in the division.

2. San Diego Padres
The pitching staff still has Jake Peavy. The offense got Brian Giles back. The bullpen got Trevor Hoffman back. The new additions Padre fans have to get excited about are Mike Cameron and Mike Piazza. Oh boy.
This team stood pat in it's mediocrity. 81-81 could get them to the division title, however.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks
If this team is to have any success, it will be because of Brandon.
No team has a bigger Brandon factor than the D-backs. The pitching staff has three of them: Brandon Webb, Brandon Lyon and Brandon Medders.
If only the offense were so Brandoned. They have to settle for an aging Luis Gonzalez, along with Shawn Green and Eric Byrnes.
A piece of advice: everybody on the Arizona roster execpt Gonzalez should legally change their name to Brandon. Would it help them win more? No, but you might as well lose with a great attention-getting gimmick.

4. San Francisco Giants
I actually think this team would be better off if Bonds just called it quits. It would end the media circus and would take away the temptation for his teammates to sandbag and wait for Steroid Boy to take one into McCovey Cove.
The pitching staff isn't that bad, considering the rotation is fronted by Jason Schmidt and Matt Morris. But the offense is downright creaky, relying on aging wonders Bonds, Steve Finley, Moises Alou and Omar Vizquel. I don't know why the Giants have such a fascination with old players.

5. Colorado Rockies
If the Royals aren't the worst team in baseball, the Rockies sure as heck are. Beyond Todd Helton, they don't have much of anything, at least anything proven.
They do have Byun-Hyung Kim, and if you watched him in Boston, you wonder just how far some of those hanging sliders he throws could be hit at Coors Field.

MLB preview: NL East

I can't figure out how a division so competitive can be won by the same team, year after year. Why should this year be any different? I don't care how logical the argument is for any other team, I can't pick against Atlanta.

Teams listed in projected order of finish

1. Atlanta Braves
Atlanta's run of 15 straight division titles has to be the product of tremendous stability in the front office and coaching staff, because it sure isn't due to keeping the same players.
John Smoltz is the only player who has been a part of all 15 division titles. The Braves have enough money to keep a few stars around, such as Chipper Jones, but mostly it's because Braves GM John Schuerholz makes great trades and great drafts. No more Maddux or Glavine? No sweat. Enter Tim Hudson and a cast of young pitchers. No more Gary Sheffield? Jeff Francoeur steps up from the minors.
I don't think even the loss of guru pitching coach Leo Mazzone is going to adversely affect Altanta's run at a 16th straight division title. This is a team that can make it to the World Series out of a weakened NL.

2. New York Mets
Cha-ching! Can you hear the sound? Cha-ching!
That's the Mets' answer to everything. Spend, spend, spend.
In 2000, they spent their way to a pennant. Every year since then, they've spent their way to squat.
But this year might be different, because the Mets spent their money smartly this winter. They added an elite closer in Billy Wagner and a dangerous hitter in Carlos Delgado.
Pedro Martinez is still hanging in there, injuries and all. And I have to think Carlos Beltran is too young to be buried after a lousy debut in New York last year.
The Mets certainly have enough firepower to be a force in the NL. It's just a matter of getting all the egos on the same page, and keeping them healthy.

3. Washington Nationals
Philly gets all the press as the up-and-comer in this division. I think they overlook the Nationals, who aren't quite stacked, but have some great ammo.
No matter where he plays, Alfanso Soriano will produce, and give us a good idea of what this team could have done had the Expos kept Vlad Guererro.
Jose Vidro and Cristian Guzman provide some solid contact hitting at the top of the order. The X-factor of the Washington offense, however, is rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who rocketed to the majors after only 67 minor-league games last year. In five years, he and the Indians' Andy Marte will be the best third basemen in baseball. Mark it down.
The pitching is behind the hitting for Washington, but Livan Hernandez is a workhorse and Chad Cordero netted 47 saves last year.
The Nationals will be in the postseason picture into September, even if they don't make it.

4. Philadelphia Phillies
Out from under the weight of Jim Thome's contract, the Phils can now concentrate on rebuilding with young talent, which probably means at least one more season as an NL also-ran
The centerpiece of the team is the middle-infield tandem of second basemen Chase Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who currently has a 36-game hitting streak. (He won't catch DiMaggio. No way.)
Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell provide the RBIs, though Abreu is more consistent. And you shouldn't overlook the acquisition of center fielder Aaron Rowand, acquired from the White Sox for Thome. Rowand was a huge spark plug for the White Sox last year, and can do the same for the Phils.

5. Florida Marlins
With the departure of the Expos from Montreal, the Marlins now assume the title of "team that has the worst relationship with its home city."
It makes no sense. With Miami's Latino-heavy population, it should be a baseball-crazy town. But, even with two World Series titles in the past nine years, I get the feeling that most Miamians just don't give a crap.
Attendance routinely lags unless the Marlins are contending, and now the team leaders are threatening to pull out of the city unless they get a new stadium deal.
It's a shame. The Marlins have always been the beneficiaries of filthy-rich ownership or smart minds in the front office. A spending spree delivered Miami the '97 title, and home-grown talent the '03 title. Now, '03 Series MVP Josh Beckett is in Boston, Carlos Delgado is in New York, and Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera could be on their way out, too.
The fates appear to be working against this team, which could be playing in another city in several years.

Up next: the NL West

MLB preview: NL Central

Remember the days when the National League was dominated by its oldest franchises? There was a time when St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were league powerhouses.
Then, one day, you wake up and realize the only NL franchises to win the World Series since 1996 are the 13-year-old Florida Marlins (1997 and 2003) and the eight-year-old Arizona Diamondbacks (2001).
St. Louis is still up there, but Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have faded into small-market oblivion. How times have changed.

Teams listed in projected order of finish

1. St. Louis Cardinals
These guys are probably the best team in the league, but they aren't world-beaters.
The pitching staff is rock-solid, anchored by Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder. The offense has who I think is the best hitter in the NL in Albert Pujols.
The Cards can win another pennant, maybe a World Series, in 2006, but the clock is ticking. Jim Edmonds is aging and Scott Rolen has suddenly hit the downhill side of his career. The Cards have enough money to go out and add some free agents each off-season. I think Mulder, in his contract year, will re-sign. But this will be a team in need of retooling as early as 2007.

2. Houston Astros
The Astros get my vote for most downgraded team in 2006. Jeff Bagwell made a token appearance in the '05 World Series, and now his career might be over. Roger Clemens has kept Houston on pins and needles with regard to his future.
Lance Berkman can still put up strong numbers, but he can't do it alone. The rest of the offense falls to an aging Craig Biggio, Preston Wilson, Orlando Palmeiro and Adam Everett.
Even without Clemens, the Astros starting rotation has some of the best in pieces in baseball, fronted by Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte. Brad Lidge is one of the best young closers in baseball. But it all might not be enough to overcome the decaying areas of the team.

3. Milwaukee Brewers
Look out, Milwaukee is coming on strong. But will they be able to keep their cache of young talent together long enough to develop a winner?
This year is still a formative year for the Brewers. The playoffs aren't likely. But when you take a look at their impressive list of prospects -- led by Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks -- you can't help but wonder how good they can be if their small-market finances can front the money to make additions.
Ben Sheets will start the season on the disabled list. Hopefully he isn't out for long. That's a loss the Brewers can't withstand for a month or more.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates
If they had a starting pitcher you have ever heard of in your life, the Pirates might be a pretty pesky team.
As it stands, the pitching staff is populated by the injury-plagued and unproven. But the offense has a bit of a kick.
Sean Casey was acquired from Cincinnati in the offseason. Like third baseman Joe Randa, he has a history of quietly putting together productive seasons.
Young outfielder Jason Bay is one of the NL's "it" players after hitting .306 last year and finishing fourth in the league in runs scored. The off-season acquisition of Jeromy Burnitz adds some pop, if not much else.
A .500 record might be a bit of a stretch. But it could happen.

5. Chicago Cubs
The Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. The White Sox in 2005.
The baseball gods appear to be in a curse-purging mode. Does that mean 2006 is the year of the Cubs?
Uh, no. Especially after ace pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood were marched off to the disabled list yet again.
The pitching staff is freakin' old. Maybe not in age, but the arms they have are arms with mileage on them: Greg Maddux (who actually is old at 39), Glendon Rusch, Scott Eyre, Scott Williamson and Bob Howry. If they can keep the majority of those guys from joining Prior and Wood on the DL, they'll be doing well.
The offense has Derrek Lee, who is a fantasy superstar after hitting .335 with 46 homers and 107 RBI last year. Beyond that are some decent bats like Aramis Ramirez, Juan Pierre and the newly-acquired Jacque Jones. But not enough to mash their way to wins on a regular basis, certainly not in pitcher-friendly Wrigley Field.
The title drought will likely reach a century on Chicago's north side.

6. Cincinnati Reds
I went to school at Bowling Green, where I shared space with Reds and Tigers fans. And this time of year, Reds fans were always so adorable. And I don't mean that in a condescending way.
They'd be flush with springtime hope, telling everyone that this would be the year Ken Griffey Jr. would stay healthy and re-emerge as an all-star. They would wax poetic on the power potential of Adam Dunn. They'd give analytical breakdowns of some Reds pitching prospect you never heard of, and how he was going to emerge as the staff ace.
You didn't have the heart to tear down their hopes. You just couldn't. And, come September, when the Reds were hurtling toward another 90-loss season, they kept their hopes up for next year.
Man, I wish Cleveland fans could be that way during the lean times.

Up next: the NL East

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Hammed up

First off, let me say I generally like Indians radio announcer Tom Hamilton. I like his style, I like his upbeat persona, I like his observations.
But more and more, he's starting to be incapable of building Cleveland and the Indians up without tearing other cities down. That also holds true for Winter Haven, Fla., the Tribe's spring-training home.
It has been long hinted that the Indians aren't happy with Winter Haven and would like to move elsewhere. They apparently feel the baseball facilities are aging and inadequate, and the city in general doesn't appreciate their presence. Of course, Winter Haven leaders might say the feeling is mutual.
Which brings us back to Hamilton. He's paid by the Indians, so I don't expect unbiased criticism from him. But during Wednesday's Indians-Astros exhibition game, he turned into a Winter-Haven-hating mouthpiece for Indians management.

Some of his more notable comments:

Upon commenting that booth-mate Matt Underwood was scarfing down a chocolate sundae, Hamilton launched into a speech about how great the food is at Chain of Lakes Stadium. But he got his dig in at the end.
"Unfortunately, some of the best restaurants in Winter Haven are at the ballpark," he said.

With two out in the ninth and the Indians leading 6-5, pitcher Matt Miller was about to get the save. Hamilton felt the time was right to add a jab about Winter Haven's fan support.
"Now, eight or nine people rise to their feet and start clapping," he sarcastically remarked.

But Hamilton's most mean-spirited comment was saved for the scoreboard operator, who apparently had trouble keeping track of balls and strikes. Even though balls and strikes are something that should be in the back of Hamilton's mind, he lost track with help from the scoreboard, prompting him to bellow "Strike three called!" on the second strike.
Hammie's fault? Not even remotely. No, it was the fault of the trained chimp running the scoreboard. And Hamilton proceeded to embarrass him or her to an audience of thousands.
"I don't know who the scoreboard operator is here, but he makes this the hardest job in baseball," he snipped. "You don't need a PhD. You press a button for a ball and another button for a strike."
Which prompted Underwood to quip, in his own "my-jokes-make-Leave-It-To-Beaver-look-edgy" kind of way, "No, ha ha, you need a PBD! A push-button degree!"
As somebody who has operated scoreboards for baseball and basketball games, sometimes on short notice, I can't help but wonder if the scoreboard operator at Chain of Lakes Stadium was a college intern who was thrust into the role at the last moment, or some elderly person who took the job because the regular operator couldn't make it.
Odds are, he or she wasn't the dimwit Hamilton described. And Hamilton should feel ashamed for publicly humiliating that person.


Yeah, it was expected, and has been for quite some time. But the fact that we can now say, for certain, that the Cavaliers are going to the playoffs for the first time in eight years, is nothing to diminish.
Just look at where this franchise has been since 1998. The Plain Dealer's Bud Shaw provides a good review of the sucky years.
Some lowlights: the transformation of Shawn Kemp from all-star to useless blimp, Lamond Murray once complaining that his jersey wasn't on sale in the team shop, Jeff McInnis putting his jersey on backward during practice and calling himself a "general contractor," Paul Silas' "hip-hop m-f-er" comment to Ira Newble and Silas calling Carlos Boozer a "see you next Tuesday" to the entire world.
In speaking of Boozer, let's not forget the fantastic foibles of the front office, starring Jim Paxson. There was Paxson and owner Gordon Gund, gullible but acting in good faith, letting Boozer out of the final year of his contract with the anticipation of signing him to a new deal. Then we all peed our pants when Boozer signed an offer sheet with Utah.
It's like shuffling your feet across a carpet and complaining when you get shocked.
Then there were the draft picks. Oh, the many, many draft picks.
Let us count the misled ways: Trajan Langdon, Chris Mihm, DeSagana Diop, Dajuan Wagner, Luke Jackson. Those are just the first-rounders that tanked.
You can see why some of us couldn't shake this however-irrational fear that the Cavs would do something really stupid upon winning the draft lottery in 2003, like maybe bypass LeBron James and take Dan Dickau first overall.
Eight years without the playoffs seemed like about 20. Maybe this 2005-06 team should get a banner in the rafters of The Q right now, as the Team That Broke the Drought.
Low standards? Maybe. But you're also talking about a franchise that has retired six numbers, yet counts a 30-year-old division title as its only title in franchise history.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Spending on Sizemore

Maybe Indians owner Larry Dolan is trying to compensate for an off-season that beared far less free agent fruit than anticipated.
Maybe he's trying to prove that he's not cheap.
Or maybe the Indians organization just thinks this highly of Grady Sizemore.
Today, about a month after signing shortstop Jhonny Peralta to a five-year contract extension, the Indians announced they have inked center fielder Sizemore to a six-year, $23.45 million extension with an $8.5 million club option for 2012.
Some veteran free agents with larger resumes didn't get that type of money on the open market this winter. Sizemore's contract is the largest contract ever awarded to a major league player with less than two years of experience.
Now, allow me to play the part of the fearful Clevelander and say I really hope Sizemore didn't just catch the American League off-guard last year, when he hit .289. I hope he really is this good, because he is going to be hitched to this team for a while.
His athletic pedigree seems to point toward actual talent. In addition to baseball overtures, Sizemore was recruited to play quarterback at the University of Washington.
Larry and Paul Dolan have repeatedly said they'd spend money when the time was right. Most fans dismissed their words as hogwash, especially as they watched Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel and Kevin Millwood leave.
While it would be nice to see the Indians actually be able to go out on the free agent market and land a power hitter or front-of-the-rotation starter (it certainly would make life easier on GM Mark Shapiro), you can't fault the Dolans for what they have done with the Indians' farm system. They realize what they have in their cache of young talent, and are pledging alliegence to it with their money.
Think that's the bare minimum that should be expected of them? You are right. But there are some owners in baseball that don't do what the Dolans are doing.
Baseball has its share of self-serving miser owners in markets like Cleveland, owners that don't fork over the cash to sign young players to long-term contracts. Those owners force their GMs to trade players like Sizemore so the organization doesn't lose them with nothing in return.
Think the Kansas City Royals are as bad as they are by accident?
Since 2004, the Dolans have forked over enough money to sign Jake Westbrook, Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, C.C. Sabathia, Peralta and Sizemore for three or more years. The contracts given Peralta and Sizemore are of a length and size that surpasses even what the hallowed Dick Jacobs regime was normally willing to spend.
And the Dolans reportedly aren't done spending money on young players. Reports say they are trying to hammer out an extension with pitcher Cliff Lee.
No one will confuse the Dolans with baseball power brokers. That's blatantly obvious. But don't confuse being less-rich than the competition with being less-smart.

MLB preview: AL West

The AL East has the Yankees and Red Sox. The AL Central has the world champion White Sox. The AL West has ... well, nobody exactly knows what the AL West has, which has made this kind of the forgotten division.
This division doesn't possess the caliber of teams it had at the start of the decade, but there is still some dangerous talent out there. West-coast swings won't be a picnic for the eastern boys.

Teams listed in projected order of finish

1. Oakland Athletics
After being a perennial playoff team from 1999 to 2002, the A's faded into the background over the last several seasons. The didn't completely implode and rebuild like the Indians, but they did some large-scale retooling and are set to emerge as one of the American League's youngest and most talented ballclubs this year.
The rotation is anchored by the one member of the "big three" that GM Billy Beane elected to keep a year ago: Barry Zito. Rich Harden and Danny Haren are among the youngsters who will fill in the spots behind Zito.
Many national baseball pundits predict Harden will be on the Cy Young Award radar as early as this season.
At the back of the bullpen is the reigning AL Rookie of the Year, closer Huston Street.
The offense possesses a number of young guns as well. Star third baseman Eric Chavez is supported in the lineup by shortstop Bobby Crosby, outfielder Nick Swisher and first baseman Dan Johnson.
The burning question for the A's: why did they take a chance on volcanic outfielder Milton Bradley? He's talented, no question, but he was pushed out by the Indians and Dodgers for being a disruption. Why would he and his legendary temper be any different in Oakland?

2. Los Angeles Angels
The Angels arrive in 2006 with the usual suspects. Reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon is at the front of the rotation. Vlad Guererro is in right field, Garret Anderson in left and Darin Erstad in center.
What is changing is the supporting cast around them. Jarrod Washburn is gone, as is Benji Molina. The Angels are undergoing a youth movement of their own, and it might cause them to fade a bit this year. Casey Kotchman and Dallas McPherson are among the young guns expected to get major playing time on the infield this year.
The Angels still possess one of the best bullpens in baseball, with top-notch closer Francisco Rodriguez supported by a set-up corps of Scot Shields, Brendan Donnelly and J.C. Romero, an off-season addition from the Twins.
Los Angeles could make the whole win-while-you're-rebuilding experiment work. But it might take a year or two for the young guys to take root.

3. Seattle Mariners
For several years, the Mariners have had some bright, shiny pieces on their roster. They just don't seem to know what to do with them. The offense struggled in 2004, so they invested big money in Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre last season. Didn't help.
This off-season, the Mariners turned their attention to pitching, reeling in Jarrod Washburn from the Angels, re-signing ageless wonder Jamie Moyer and luring veteran Japanese catcher Kenji Jojima across the Pacific to quarterback the staff.
This must be what it's like to be strolling down a street in a foreign country when some guy comes up to you, hands you a piece of currency and gives you directions in another language.
You know it's money. You know he wants you to do something with it. But you don't know what.
Manager Mike Hargrove must be very confused.

4. Texas Rangers
Don't get me wrong. I don't think the Rangers had a bad off-season. I just don't think it's going to go far in helping this team through another oppressively hot Texas summer.
Kevin Millwood and Adam Eaton were both good pickups for the starting rotation. But they -- and their ERAs -- are going to get baked playing in one of baseball's best launching pads in Arlington, Texas.
The mark of departed GM John Hart is still all over this team. If they are going to win games, the will have to do some slugging. Hank Blalock, Mark Teixiera and Michael Young still give the Rangers one of the best offensive infields in baseball. Brad Wilkerson will undoubtedly benefit from playing in Arlington.
But that loss of Alfonso Soriano (sent to the Nationals for Wilkerson and others) is a glaring one. I can't vouch for fans of other teams, but when the Indians went to Texas the past two years, Soriano was the one hitter who truly scared me. It's going to be tough for the Rangers to replace that intimidation factor.

Up next: the NL Central

One more

With last night's Bulls loss to the Magic, the Cavaliers' magic number to clinch a playoff spot is down to one. If they beat the Mavericks tonight, the Cavs can turn their attention to the real task at hand: clinching the fourth seed and homecourt advantage in the first round.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Gilbert graded

Recently, The Plain Dealer posed the question, "is the leadership for the three pro teams in Cleveland the best it has ever been at the same time?"
I'd say yes, for one reason: Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.
The ownership and front offices of the Browns and Indians have the standards of prior leadership to live up to. No matter who runs Cleveland's football and baseball teams, they will be measured against Paul Brown and Blanton Collier, Artie McBride and Art Modell, Dick Jacobs and John Hart. So even though they appear headed in the right direction with their teams, the aptitude of Randy Lerner and Phil Savage, Larry Dolan and Mark Shapiro is still up for debate.
For the Cavs, that haunting presence doesn't exist. The Cavs, with no extended track record of success, are essentially a blank slate for anyone trying to make it a true first-class, initiative-taking organization.
Gilbert took over the Cavs a year ago this month. Already, we can say the Cavs -- and maybe Cleveland sports as a whole -- has never seen a franchise owner like this.
Gilbert took over the Cavs at the beginning of a catastrophic slide that cost them a playoff berth. Almost immediately, media-fueled whispers of meddling began slithering around him. He fired coach Paul Silas after he feuded with ornery point guard Jeff McInnis. The firing was deserved. With the Cavs struggling, Silas benched McInnis for a game in Toronto and didn't lift a finger as LeBron James scored 56 points and the Cavs lost.
But for Gilbert, the firing was a bold risk that only made the meddlesome-owner rumors intensify.
Interim coach Brendan Malone led the Cavs to a 10-8 record, but it wasn't enough to hold off the surging Nets for the final playoff spot.
Several weeks after the season, Gilbert fired GM Jim Paxson. The meddlesome-owner rumors continued.
Gilbert chased storybook names like Larry Brown, Chuck Daly and Phil Jackson at the start of his first off-season at the helm of the Cavs. He was branded a wannabe-fantasy-league owner who wouldn't know a good basketball decision from a coconut.
But a funny thing happened on the way to terminal Stepienitis. The giddy sports-nut-turned-owner ceased running the show, and Gilbert the serious businessman emerged.
Gilbert started addressing the Cavs' weaknesses, both on and off the court. He started meticulously analyzing the Cavs the way he did with his company, Quicken Loans.
Gilbert went back to the principles that made him an incredibly rich man in the first place. He strived to put talented, motivated people in the proper places, and keep them motivated. He started asking questions. He paid attention to detail. He gained the trust of those working for him by proving he is willing to go the extra mile with his legwork and his pocketbook.
The Cavs didn't play defense down the stretch, so Gilbert hired a young, defense-minded coach in Mike Brown. He tapped a local connection in the stacked San Antonio Spurs organization when he hired Danny Ferry as GM.
Gilbert used his wallet to enable Ferry to upgrade the talent on the roster, signing free agents Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones, and re-signing all-star center Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
How much of a statement did Gilbert want to make to Z? He and Ferry flew to Los Angeles to meet Z just before he embarked on an off-season vacation to Asia. They expressed to Z their strong desire and intention to re-sign him. This less than two years after Silas had wanted to trade him.
Most importantly, Gilbert has quickly realized that keeping LeBron in a Cavs uniform long-term is a more intricate process than winning some games and sliding a contract under his nose.
He and his ownership group have invested time and money in building the team and organization up around LeBron. They have developed relationships with LeBron's managers, and have given he and his teammates creature comforts like TVs and Xbox game systems at their lockers.
Gilbert has worked hard to show LeBron that, both on a large and small scale, the Cavs will be a winner he will want his name and talent associated with for years to come.
Nothing is for certain until LeBron actually inks the extension he will receive this summer, but Gilbert's efforts seem to be solidifying LeBron's confidence in the organization. In January, he told ESPN The Magazine he "wants to stay in Cleveland and build a champion."
In other media accounts, LeBron has said he "can't wait to sign my contract extension."
Off the court, Gilbert has invested millions in the Cavs' home. He bought the naming rights to what is now Quicken Loans Arena, purchased a new scoreboard, and financed the replacement of all 20,562 blue seats in the arena with wine-colored models.
This week, he unveiled his plan to build a state-of-the-art practice facility for the Cavs in suburban Independence.
It doesn't just stop at basketball. Faced with the loss of the minor-league Cleveland Barons hockey team, which is moving to Worcester, Mass. this summer, Gilbert has investigated the possibility of buying the dormant Utah Grizzlies and moving them to Cleveland.
No Cavs owner, maybe no owner in the history of Cleveland sports since Bill Veeck, has made his upgrade efforts so all-encompassing.
A year after he took the helm of the Cavs, we now know that Gilbert is more than a sports-crazy rich guy. He is a serious owner who wants a top-notch organization that will provide Cleveland with a sense of pride, and provide him with big profits, and hopefully, some hardware down the road. And he's doing more than just talking about it.
Dan Gilbert looks like the right owner at the right time for the Cavaliers.

MLB preview: AL East

Maybe this is the year that Toronto, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay rise up and wrestle this division away from New York and Boston. Maybe this year won't go according to script. Maybe this year the Yankees and Red Sox will become irrelevant....
Nah. We know better.

Teams listed in projected order of finish.

1. New York Yankees
This team truly is the Bronx Bombers. If they are going to win yet another AL East title, they are going to mash their way there. And they can do it.
Johnny Damon gives the Yankees their first real leadoff hitter since Chuck Knoblauch. Damon's presence should allow Derek Jeter and the heart of the order to slide back into their comfort zones. Alex Rodriguez and a resurgent Jason Giambi anchor the heart of the order, which extends to about the seventh spot with Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada.
The starting pitching is old at the front, with Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina, but young at the back with Chien Ming-Wang and Aarom Small. The closer, Mariano Rivera, is still the standard-bearer in baseball.
The only ball-and-chain the Yankees might be dragging around all season is a questionable set-up corps. When Kyle Farnsworth is you main man to get to Rivera, you are rolling the dice like a Vegas craps addict.

2. Boston Red Sox
Boston found a respectable replacement for Damon in Coco Crisp, who is frequently mentioned by analysts as a candidate to have a breakout season.
Like the Yankees, the Red Sox have some anchor-type pitching, most notably the off-season acquisition of Josh Beckett from the Marlins. But like the Yankees, this team is mostly about offense. Manny Ramirez weathered another offseason of trade rumors and returns to form half of baseball's best one-two hitting punch with David Ortiz. The trouble is, the remainder of the order is populated with too many less-than-scary hitters like Trot Nixon, and that will probably be the difference in the division.

3. Toronto Blue Jays
Like so many Canadians, the Blue Jays showed they are at their best when the snow is flying. This winter, Toronto added starting pitcher A.J. Burnett, closer B.J. Ryan and third baseman Troy Glaus.
But like with so many Canadians, once the ice thaws, the luster is lost.
While Burnett and Ryan are nice pickups, they aren't going to vault this team to contender status. Ryan, now baseball's highest-paid reliver, has never had a 40-save season. And he's closing in on 30 years of age. Burnett is not a staff ace, yet got an ace-type contract.
Glaus will probably be the best of the Jays' acqusitions if he stays healthy. But he's not going to carry a mediocre offense that got sluggish production from Vernon Wells last year.

4. Tampa Bay Devil Rays
It won't happen this year, but one day, we are going to wake up and notice the Devil Rays hanging around in the closing weeks of the season.
The Rays are quietly building an impressive cache of young talent highlighted by pitcher Scott Kazmir and prospect Delmon Young. With the return of Rocco Baldelli to health this year, the Rays will get a key piece of the heart of their order back.
Carl Crawford and Joey Gathright provide tremendous speed at the top of the order, but have to work on the finer points of contact hitting.
The bullpen and back end of the starting rotation still need some ironing out, but for the first time, the Rays are closer to not sucking than to sucking.

5. Baltimore Orioles
Leo Mazzone's god-like status as a pitching coach will be seriously challenged once he comes to the quick, painful realization that Rodrigo Lopez is not Greg Maddux circa 1995.
This is a team of loose, mismatched parts. Brian Roberts and Miguel Tejada give the offense some oomph, but not nearly enough.
The Orioles stagnated this winter. They stagnated at a time when the Washington Nationals are encroaching on their market, at a time when Sammy Sosa called it quits. One has to wonder just what is going on upstairs in Baltimore.

Up next: the AL West

On Joel's blog... a point-counterpoint we put together about the upcoming season in the National League. Look for the American League edition on his blog later this week.

Monday, March 27, 2006

MLB preview: AL Central

One week left until Japan's national pastime takes the field. With any luck, this year's champion won't have "Sox" anywhere in their name.
But just in case, I want to petition Major League Baseball to change the Indians' name to "Indian Sox."
(Hey, wait. The Indians were purportedly named after Penobscot Indian Louis Sockalexis, who played for the old Cleveland Spiders in the 1890s. Does that count? In a "my great-great-grandfather once made eye contact with Abraham Lincoln's secretary's horse doctor" kind of way?)

Teams listed in projected order of finish

1. Chicago White Sox
The White Sox give the national media wet dreams. Just the thought of adding Jim Thome and Javier Vazquez to the roster of the defending world champs ..... ohhhhh, yeah baby .... that's the stuff.......
Chicago has one factor that can keep them at the top of the division and quite possibly the American League for a second straight year: starting pitching. No other team in baseball approaches the depth of the White Sox's starting rotation. But we have to wonder what is so fantastic about Vazquez, who has bounced around like a ping-pong ball from Montreal to the Yankees to Arizona and now Chicago.
Sure, Thome upgrades the White Sox's power in the middle of the order. But this was a team that hit .260 for the season and didn't rely on power. Manufacturing just enough runs to win was a White Sox specialty last year, reference their aberrational record in one-run games. Thome looks like a stud pickup, but manager Ozzie Guillen might not yet realize how tempting it will be to ice the aggressive baserunning and wait for Thome to put one over the wall.

2. Cleveland Indians
General Manager Mark Shapiro and owner Larry Dolan went to Budget Rent-A-Car four years ago and have managed to walk out with something that resembles a certified pre-owned Lexus.
They're travelling in style after a 93-win season a year ago. Just don't get close enough to notice the paint chips in the front bumper.
The Indians have done a good job of masking their deficiencies with a top-notch farm system and low-cost free agent pickups that have worked like a charm. We have yet to see if it will all come together at some point.
The Indians are solid at everything, excellent at nothing. The off-season free agent acquisitions of pitchers Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson, and the re-signing of closer Bob Wickman, should perpetuate that.
The offense rebounded from a slow start to lead the league in runs scored. Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez and Grady Sizemore are studs. Jhonny Peralta looks like a winner. But it could be a yearly battle to fill in the holes around them.
Casey Blake is still in the starting lineup, I might add.
Fernando Cabrera is the front end of a massive youth movement that could re-shape the bullpen by next year. This year, the Indians will have to nurse good seasons out of creaky veterans like Wickman, Guillermo Mota and Scott Sauerbeck.
As is becoming a yearly tradition, the Indians are a March mystery. They could win 75 games or they could win 95. The smart bet is somewhere in-between.

3. Minnesota Twins
Hello, three-time division champs, still down here and registering a pulse.
The Twins faded into the background last year after a nice run of success atop a division of rebuilding teams. But if you cast them into the recycle bin in March, it's your funeral.
The Twins are still a threat to rise up and make the playoffs. Last year, they were the victims of lousy seasons by Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, who are far more talented than they showed. Torii Hunter, the best center fielder in baseball when the Twins were winning, lost much of the season to injury.
Off-season acquisitions Luis Castillo and Rondell White will give the offense a much-needed shot. Johan Santana is still the best starting pitcher in baseball, Brad Radke's arm is dwindling but still effective, and Joe Nathan is a scary closer to face.
So go on. Take the Twins lightly. They dare you.

4. Detroit Tigers
Sorry if this deviates from Dayn Perry's fantasies. We all love Tigers manager and Ohio native Jim Leyland, even if he did lead the Marlins to a World Series victory over Cleveland. He's a very good manager, and looks like everybody's grandpa.
But the fact remains that the Tigers have a long way to go to be a playoff-caliber team. They have some fine pitching prospects like Justin Verlander, and Mike Maroth is a rotation rock. But the offense lost Rondell White this winter, and the rest of the lineup is anchored by quickly-aging stars Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez.
In a division where they will be facing the talented pitching staffs of the White Sox, Indians and Twins 19 times each per year, that is probably too much to overcome over the span of 162 games.
Even Leyland doesn't have a magic wand to wave.

5. Kansas City Royals
When your team "scores" Scott Elarton and Doug Mientkiewicz in free agency, your team is just plain bad.
The Royals have a good young player here and there, like pitcher Zack Greinke, who looks like he's 15 and possesses electric stuff. But there are no indications the endless parade of summerlong tryout camps that are Kansas City's seasons will end this year.
Mike Sweeney is the Ernie Banks of his generation. He keeps plugging away and producing for an awful organization. That kind of loyalty is to be commended. The Royals will miss him when he is finally gone.

Up next: the AL East

A true Cinderella story

If you are in the same boat as me, and your brackets are finished, there is only one option left: become a George Mason fan.
The term "Cinderella team" is thrown around loosely in the NCAA Tournament. The 10-seed that advances to the Sweet 16 is considered a Cinderella story. Media outlets get desperate to be the first to pick up on the big underdog story of the year.
Invariably, however, Duke or North Carolina or some other powerhouse comes along, takes Cinderella's glass slipper off and crushes it with their bare hands.
But not this time. George Mason's clock has been wedged in suspended animation at 11:59 for about two weeks. Four upsets and counting.
And at this point, how can you not root for them unless you are a Florida fan?
George Mason is a D.C.-area suburban commuter school in Fairfax, Va. with an enrollment of just under 30,000. You may have never heard of it prior to sitting up and taking notice when the Patriots knocked off North Carolina in the second round.
For those of you who need to break the ice, here is a brief history of the college and the man it was named for.
George Mason was a founding father of America who drafted the Virginia Commonwealth document that became the basis for the Bill of Rights. The college originated as a branch of the University of Virginia in 1957 and became its own entity in 1972.
Needless to say, the school does not have the tradition of, say, Georgetown. It's closer to being an upper-crust version of Cleveland State.
But that's all about to change with the Patriot basketball team two wins away from the most improbable title run since Texas Western upended Kentucky in 1966.
George Mason is coached by Jim Larranaga, a former Bowling Green coach who is known more for the piercing whistle he uses to get the attention of his players than for anything his teams actually accomplished.
Even this year, placing George Mason in the tournament was a stretch in the eyes of some. They did not win the Colonial Athletic Conference tournament. They lost to Hofstra twice. They were a bubble team that squeaked in.
But if the American dream is being given a chance to prove yourself, George Mason is doing their patriotic namesake proud.
Sunday, after a UConn three-pointer clanged off the rim to end overtime, sending the Patriots to the Final Four, fans took delight in sticking it to CBS basketball analyst Billy Packer, who chided the NCAA selection committee for giving George Mason a berth.
George Mason fans chanted Packer's name in the decidedly biased MCI Center in downtown D.C.
It was a perfect ending. Hometown, home crowd, scissors, ladders and basketball nets in pieces.
Now the George Mason show heads to Indianapolis. Ending? Heck, this might only be the beginning.

Brackets: Part 6

At least I'm not alone in having my bracket toasted. Ninety-nine percent of NCAA brackets are probably in the same boat. For the first time since 1980, not a single 1-seed advanced to the Final Four.
Sunday, George Mason cost me my national champion, UConn. That leaves me with UCLA as the only Final Four prediction I got right. But with Duke, Villanova, Memphis, Gonzaga, UConn, Boston College, Texas and West Virginia now on the sidelines, there are probably plenty of people who went 0-for-4. Just one of those years.

Elite Eight damage assessment

Record: 1-3

Hits: UCLA

Misses: UConn, two dead games

Damage to Final Four:UConn (national champion)

National Semifinal picks
Note: "dead game" means I have neither team advancing

LSU vs. UCLA (dead game)
Florida vs. George Mason (dead game)

Actual predictions: UCLA and George Mason win

Up next: national championship prediction and a final synopsis of the 2006 NCAA Tournament.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Schott in the dark

One of the most intriguing and eclectic estate collections in America went up for bid earlier this week. But this involves baseball, so it will attract more than psychotropic tea drinkers who look like Salvador Dali.
But they might be kind of interested too.
With the right amount of money, you too can own a piece of Marge Schott's booty.
(Digest that one for awhile).
Much of the estate of the late Cincinnati Reds owner will be liquidated, with the proceeds going to Schott's charitable foundation.
Schott was known primary for two things: owning the Reds, and routinely giving groin shots to the concept of political correctness. At times, she was an indefensible bigot.
At times, she was just plain weird, keeping locks of hair from her dogs -- all named Schottzie -- around for good luck.
She once said Hitler was misunderstood. She once racially slurred Eric Davis. She once greeted a female reporter by asking her if she was her paper's "token girl reporter," probably meant to be a slam of the paper more than the reporter.
In short, she probably had a knack for making uncomfortable silence follow her comments.
Schott died in 2004. While her mouth frequently took the spotlight off baseball, the auction of her estate is one of the last remaining links to a bygone era of baseball in the Queen City, before the Reds faded into the background of mediocrity.
Two 12-inch replicas of the Reds' 1990 World Series trophy recall the good times that happened on Schott's watch. A Pete Rose jersey is a reminder of the Reds' darkest hour, when the franchise's patron saint was fingered as a sinner and thrown out of the game.
There are thousands upon thousands of packs of Reds baseball cards, a virtual master roster of the players that Schott paid.
There are bats and balls and Beanie Babies. The collection really has no rhyme or reason. As auctioneer Wes Cowan told, any personal significance disappeared when Schott died.
It's an accumulation more than a collection. It makes no sense, yet it puts so much into perspective, hindsight being 20/20.
Those are the days the Reds might never want back, but now they know they'll never get them back, which creates a strange kind of longing. Kind of like dismissing a girl's advances and then feeling hurt when you see her on the arm of another guy.
Riverfront Stadium is gone. Schott is gone. Rose remains banned. Davey Johnson and Lou Piniella aren't managing at the moment. The careers of Davis, Barry Larkin, Jose Rijo, Rob Dibble and anyone else who endeared those Reds teams to their fans are over.
Great American Ballpark is beautiful. The Reds always manage a smattering of promising young players and offer the eternal hope the Ken Griffey Jr. will stay healthy for a whole season. But the Big Red Machine is gone. With the sale of Schott's estate, the personal effects of the Reds' glory days will be scattered around the country and world, and placed under glass.

Brackets: Part 5

We know what Duke did. We know what UConn almost did. We know my brackets, now on life support, came dangerously close to having the plug pulled.
UCLA and UConn are the only two members of my Final Four left. But UConn is my national champion. There is still hope. Some hope.

Sweet 16 damage assessment

Record: 5-3

Hits: Texas, Memphis, UCLA, UConn, Villanova

Misses: Duke (lost to LSU), George Mason (dead game), Florida (dead game)

Damage to Final Four: Duke

Damage to championship game: Duke

Elite Eight picks
Note: dead game means I have neither team advancing

Atlanta Bracket

(2) Texas vs. (4) LSU: dead game
Acutal prediction: LSU wins

Oakland Bracket

(2) UCLA over (1) Memphis

Washington Bracket

(1) UConn over (11) George Mason

Minneapolis Bracket

(1) Villanova vs. (3) Florida: dead game
Actual prediction: Villanova wins

Up next: Elite Eight damage assessment and national semifinal picks.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Redneck Harvard

Last night I had a chilling thought, when I considered Duke graduate Danny Ferry is now the general manager of the Cavaliers:
Duke never does right by Cleveland.
Think about it: Ferry as a player, Mike Junkin, Carlos Boozer, Trajan Langdon. The fact that the Cavs passed over Corey Maggette to take Langdon in the 1999 draft.
Duke never does right by Cleveland. It's an oil-and-water relationship.
North Carolina's own Redneck Harvard has added more strife for Cleveland to deal with, certainly this Clevelander.
For the second straight year, Redneck Harvard has ruined my NCAA brackets for no good reason. Last year, they were upset by Michigan State in the Sweet 16. Duke was my national champion.
This year, it was Louisiana State. Duke was one of my national finalists.
Stop picking Duke then, you say? How can I? They are routinely one of best programs in the country. Duke has a better chance of making the Final Four than missing it in a given year.
They didn't let me down in 2004, making the Final Four and getting eliminated, just as I had predicted.
But just like Loser Boozer's 15-point, 11-rebound season for the Cavs a couple years back, that was merely a taste of honey, setting me up for the fall.
Last night, Redneck Harvard came out with all the fire and intensity of the Cavs playing the Charlotte Bobcats. They lost by just eight, but I don't think it was even that close.
The final score was 62-54. How does a team with J.J. Redick manage only 54 points?
Oh, that's right. Redick plays for Duke, which means he's probably vastly overrated, which means we can look forward to the Cavs drafting him.
Ferry's just like the rest of us. He can't help but pick Duke.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Look below

For those of you not into scrolling down, I might point out that I have published my first "master list" of the Top 20 athletes in Cleveland sports two posts below. Unfortunately, I posted it out of order with the LeBron shot post.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The shot

For all of you who want to play up LeBron James' lack of Jordan-ness, he has extended you an olive branch.
With time winding down in tonight's 120-118 win against Charlotte, LeBron took matters into his own hands, faded back at 20 feet and launched a game-winning shot. And made it.
Yessir, Charles Barkley. Your eyes don't deceive you, B.J. Armstrong. A genuine dagger that slipped through the net right before the buzzer.
Nevermind that it was in overtime against a team the Cavs should have cruised past. That's a whole other story.
The point is, LeBron proved that he can do more than dish with the clock winding down. He now officially has a game-winning shot on his NBA resume.
And actually, LeBron had it both ways. With the clock winding down in regulation, LeBron found a wide-open Flip Murray with a cross-court pass. Murray drained the three to tie the game at the end of regulation, 114 all.
So LeBron dished to save regulation and shot to win the game. He had his cake and ate it, too. A finish fit for the King.
The Cavs win, combined with Chicago's loss at Indiana, drops the Cavs' magic number to clinch a playoff berth to four. Cleveland's magic number to clinch the fourth seed in the East is at 12.

The Master List

Today, for the first time, I am publishing a master list of the 20 most valuable players in Cleveland sports. It is a list I hope to update several times a year.
The list is limited to professional players. With the demise of indoor soccer's Force and the fact that the Barons are a minor-league hockey team, that means this list will almost always be exclusively comprised of Browns, Indians and Cavaliers players.

I've come up with three basic criteria categories for the list:

What does the player mean to his organization?
Is this the type of player the team thinks they can build around? Does he help them win games? Does he increase the legitimacy of the organization? How much would losing this player hurt his team?

What does the player mean to the fans and city?
How much does having this player boost Cleveland's collective morale? Is he a fan favorite? Does the player give back to the community in any way?

What is the player's marketability?
Does the player get the name of himself, his team and the city out in the regional or national spotlight? More importantly, does he do it in a positive way (call this the Albert Belle rule).

Without further ado, the inaugural master list...

1) LeBron James, Cavaliers
Answers to the above questions: Yes. Most certainly. By a mile. Fatally. Like chugging Prozac. Of course. He's starting a basketball camp in Akron this summer. Every time he pulls on a jersey that says "Cleveland" across the front, it's like pure gold.
In a sentence, no one in Cleveland approaches this guy's value.

2) Grady Sizemore, Indians
It might seem like a bit of a stretch to place a second-year outfielder this high, until you count the fact that productive leadoff hitters don't grow on trees, and the fact that no one in Cleveland sports, save LeBron, is more marketable.
Sizemore, a former University of Washington quarterback recruit, has five-tool talent. In his prime, he projects as a 30-homer, 30-stolen base man who can hit over .300, complete with Gold Glove-caliber defense. The Indians view him as an organizational stallion, otherwise they wouldn't have dealt Coco Crisp.
His looks take care of the rest. Armed with matinee-idol cheekbones, his face will continue making smitten females buy "Mrs. Sizemore" shirts.

3) Travis Hafner, Indians
Grady gets lots of ladies. Hafner gets lots of dudes.
Don't take that the wrong way.
The type of fan base Sizemore has built up with women, Hafner has built up with men. The motivations, of course, are quite different.
Guys love the nickname: "Pronk." It's weird. It's cool. It's nonsensical. It's monosyllabic. It can be purchased on the back of a T-shirt for $24.99. Guys love the fact that Hafner looks like some cross between Paul Bunyan and Vin Diesel, like someone who isn't above having a beer or six after the game.
The nickname would mean nothing without a bat to back it up. Hafner earns his money to that end, hitting .305 last year and cementing himself as the best DH in the game not named Papi.

4) Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cavaliers
The Cavs' 7'-3" center has struggled for recognition throughout his career. He's gangly, European and plays a style that is not camera-friendly. But none of that diminishes what he means to the Cavs and Cleveland.
In all the years Z missed with foot injuries, we saw what he meant to the team on the floor. His absence is a big reason why we've been waiting on a playoff berth since 1998. And if you think he's not marketable, I'd ask you to talk to a member of Cleveland's Lithuanian community. If Joe Blow thinks Z a stiff, Lithuanian immigrants think Z is an icon, a homeland boy who's made it big.

5) Reuben Droughns, Browns
Impending DUI trial aside, Droughns is the one proven commodity the Browns know they have. With little help available, the Browns hitched Droughns to the wagon and he pulled them to at least half of their six wins last season.
A Pro Bowl would do wonders for Droughns' national image, and with a pair of 1,200-yard seasons to his credit, it's not outlandish to think he might be playing in Honolulu in February 2007. Right now, he's one of the best-kept secrets in the NFL.

6) Willie McGinest, Browns
He hasn't done a darn thing for Cleveland yet, but by his mere presence, McGinest sharply ramps up the talent and leadership levels on defense.
Phil Savage likened this signing to what might have happened had the Browns landed Reggie White in 1993. It might not quite be like lassoing the "Minister of Defense," but with his hardware and reputation, McGinest certainly makes Cleveland more than fly-over country for NFL defensive free agents now.

7) Victor Martinez, Indians
Much like Ilgauskas, Martinez is beloved in his homeland of Venezuela, but largely flies under the radar in the U.S.
If Martinez could guard against his habitually-slow starts, he would be untouched as the best offensive catcher in baseball, certainly as Mike Piazza nears retirement.
For the Indians, Martinez is a rock. Boasting the best second-half batting average in baseball last year, he ended the season at .305. If he hits .280 in April and May, he could feasibly finish a season with a .330 average, and all sorts of bells and whistles would be going off.
It would behoove the Indians to find a new position for Martinez to save his body.

8) Larry Hughes, Cavaliers
The only caveat concerning Hughes is a big one: he can't stay healthy.
But when he is healthy, he is just what the doctor ordered alongside LeBron. Hughes excels at just about every phase of the game. He passes well, he drives fearlessly, he plays energetic (if not always textbook) defense. The only possible shortcoming is his shooting, and even that proved not to be a liability in November and December.
Not to mention he does it all with a personality that allows himself to accept his supporting-cast role alongside LeBron.
With a healthy Hughes, the Cavs would probably be challenging the Heat for the second-best record in the East right now.

9) LeCharles Bentley, Browns
Having a weak offensive line sets up a domino effect: line can't protect, quarterback gets rushed, gets hit, makes bad throws, confidence is shattered, and the next thing you know, you have Tim Couch.
Bentley's arrival automatically increases the chance that Trent Dilfer or Charlie Frye will be able to consistenly succeed. Bentley won't get a lot of face time once the season starts, but the foundation of the Browns' offensive line just went from play sand to granite.

10) Cliff Lee, Indians
Hands down, Lee is the best returning starting pitcher for the Indians. Time may prove him the ace of the staff, though C.C. Sabathia is the knighted one.
He won 18 games last year, and was on the outskirts of Cy Young Award consideration. Twenty wins isn't out of the question this year.
It might not be 2006, but Lee is a strong candidate to become the first Tribe Cy Young winner since Gaylord Perry.

11) Phil Dawson, Browns
A good kicker is like a good plunger. You don't need one until you need one. But when you need one, you really need one.
Other than an injury in 2000 and a late-season slump in 2004, Dawson has always been there for the Browns since 1999. In 2005, he made 27-of-29 field goals. In his career, he has six game-winners. This is one guy who deserves the test of a postseason game in late January. He is one of the best kickers in the league.

12) Bob Wickman, Indians
Whether you or the Indians want to admit it or not, your baseball team needs Wickman.
Without Wickman, the Tribe bullpen would take a giant leap in the direction of the 2004 'pen.
Wickman saves games. It's not pretty, but it's something he consistently does. When Wick's body finally betrays him, the Indians had better hope Fernando Cabrera is ready to close, or the Tribe is going to be set scrambling for someone.

13) Ted Washington, Browns
The mere fact that so many new additions are on this list shows just how threadbare the Browns were prior to this winter's free-agent feast.
Washington should do for the defensive line what Bentley will do for the offensive line. For a defensive front that was 30th against the run last season, Washington will take up a lot of space and force opposing quarterbacks to pass more. Taking away the run is more than half the battle for an NFL defense.

14) Flip Murray, Cavaliers
Murray is far from a franchise cornerstone, the reason why he's not higher on the list. But when you talk about a safety net, they haven't come much better in the history of Cleveland sports.
The Cavs' acquisition of Murray last month is right up there with the Indians' 1995 deadline deal for Ken Hill in terms of giving a Cleveland team just what they needed. Since coming over from Seattle, Murray has hit a game-winning three-pointer, a game-tying three at the end of regulation, and has sparked a mammoth come-from-behind rally against the Lakers.
The Cavs might be hovering around .500 without Murray. He has been everything the Cavs could want out of stretch-run rental.

15) Jhonny Peralta, Indians
Omar who? Well, not exactly. But you can't overshadow Peralta's breakout season last year by measuring him against his predecessor.
Once Peralta was placed in the third spot in the batting order, the final piece seemed to fall into place, and the Indians' offense took off. Peralta might not duplicate his .292 and 24 homers this year, but he will go on to become an upper-echelon offensive infielder with a competent glove. Like the other Indians on this list, Peralta is one of GM Mark Shapiro's favored "core players."

16) Braylon Edwards, Browns
A decent rookie season was derailed by a torn knee ligament in November. No one knows if Edwards will be ready for the start of training camp in July, but that doesn't diminish his long-term impact.
For the Browns to be an elite team in several years, Edwards will need to break through and become a star receiver. The talent is unquestionably there. It's a matter of proper nurturing and staying healthy. He can't help but be a foundation player for what the Browns are trying to build.

17) C.C. Sabathia, Indians
He was unfairly branded an ace by an Indians organization hungry to promote itself in the pits of rebuilding. What C.C. actually is, however, is a innings-eating mid-rotation guy. If he were a bit more consistent and could get a grip on his conditioning, he'd be a true stud. He certainly has showed the ability is there in stretches.

18) Ronnie Belliard, Indians
Belliard arrived amid weight jokes. He was a paunchy hole plug signed to a one-year deal in 2004. But since then, he's cemented himself as a pretty darn good second baseman with both the bat and glove.
He plays the game at 100 miles per hour, hustling out every ground ball and making sliding stops in the field. He looks too chubby to be fast, but if you've seen him play his position, you know it's not true. His arm is good enough to allow him to play 10 to 15 feet into the outfield and still make throws.

19) Drew Gooden, Cavaliers
He lacks consistency, still prone to having nights where he disappears. But Gooden is the only Cavs player who brings any semblance of low-post defense to the table on a nightly basis. if coach Mike Brown ran the offense through him, he could average 18 points per game. But he has humbled himself, deferred to LeBron and Z, and has gleaned most of his points off rebounds.

20) Eric Snow, Cavaliers
His stat line is withering with age, but Snow still brings a worthwhile presence. Fans might not truly realize how valuable his leadership is until the playoffs.
Snow is also one of the most active Cleveland athletes in the community. His full-court fathers program encourages inner-city dads to get involved in the lives of their children. He routinely offers tickets to Cavs games through the program.

Knocking on the door...
Andy Marte, Indians; Gary Baxter, Browns; Donyell Marshall, Cavaliers; Joe Jurevicius, Browns; Kellen Winslow Jr., Browns; Aaron Boone, Indians

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Tagliabue retiring

Paul Tagliabue has never found the middle ground of public opinion in more than a decade as the commissioner of the NFL.
He has ardent supporters. He has vehement detractors. When he steps down in July, he will be missed by many, and bade good riddance by others.
That probably comes with the territory when you consider he's presided over a league that sometimes seemed bipolar during his tenure.
There have been unquestionable high points: TV revenues have skyrocketed, a salary cap was implemented and the NFL handled the advent of free agency better than baseball might ever hope to. A financially-level playing field has been achieved through the cap and revenue sharing, a field that allows the micro-market Green Bay Packers to compete with the big boys on the East Coast.
Fans pack stadiums in record numbers, buy tons of merchandise and fawn over star players. The NFL Network was established several years ago, ramping up the NFL's global profile even more. The Super Bowl is now a weeklong event, with the game serving merely as the punctuation.
In short, the NFL is star-quality, rolling in dough and rivaled only by the NBA as the most successful major sports league in North America. It all happened on Tagliabue's watch.
But the league delivered itself a major black eye during Tagliabue's tenure as well. And the commissioner was part of the problem.
In 1993, the NFL could have placed expansion franchises in football-starved St. Louis and Baltimore. Instead, Tagliabue helped steer the franchises to a pair of untested small markets: Charlotte and Jacksonville.
Tagliabue might have had expanding the league's coverage on his mind when he aimed at North Carolina and northeast Florida, but he helped set in motion a chain of events that blackened the league's image to many fans for years.
Without expansion franchises, St. Louis and Baltimore were left to lure existing franchises. In 1995, Baltimore reeled in a debt-riddled Art Modell and his Cleveland Browns. A year later, St. Louis grabbed the Rams from Los Angeles.
At the same time the Browns bolted for Baltimore, the Oilers moved to Tennessee. At the same time the Rams left Los Angeles, Al Davis packed up and moved his Raiders back to Oakland.
The moves left the nation's second-largest market (Los Angeles), another Top 10 market (Houston) and a city with a historically rabid fan base (Cleveland) without teams.
Not since baseball in the 1950s had so many franchises moved in such a short amount of time.
Tagliabue didn't exert his commissioner's authority when the league had the chance to put expansion franchises in the biggest markets available. By not acting, he let the NFL regress to a state of franchise upheaval that normally exists in indoor soccer leagues. For that reason, he will never supplant Pete Rozelle as the greatest NFL commissioner.
But Tagliabue was a benevolent leader. He fought for what he thought was best for the league, whether we agreed with him or not, and for that reason, his tenure should be remembered as a positive one overall.
Locally, Tagliabue recovered from the musical-teams fiasco of the mid-'90s and helped broker a deal that forced Modell to relinquish the name, colors and history of the Browns. That gave birth to the Baltimore Ravens, and spared Clevelanders the indignity of watching the Baltimore Browns take the field. He then worked to award Cleveland an expansion franchise for the 1999 season.
In 2002, a new Houston franchise took the field, meaning Los Angeles is the only city Tagliabue will leave without a team. There is some speculation as to how much impetus the "bring the NFL back to L.A." movement has, anyway.
Tagliabue has had Everest highs and Death Valley lows as a commissioner. For better or worse, he impacted the league in an indelible way, and will leave it, by and large, in better condition that he started with. And that's the primary job for any commissioner.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Perking up

Sunday's LeBron James-Kobe Bryant matchup arrived with all the requisite LeBron-Kobe hype. The game was a nationally-televised matinee, the fact that the Cavaliers and Lakers are both treading water in the standings be damned.
To be any streakier, the Cavs would have to play naked. The .500-ish Lakers, meanwhile, might not even make the playoffs in the tough Western Conference. At the outset, Sunday was most definitely all about LeBron and Kobe and not their semi-adequate supporting casts.
But that was early on.
Kobe went off for 38, LeBron for 29. Kobe was untouchable in the first half as the Lakers nearly melted The Q's support trusses by shooting 70 percent from the floor. LeBron hit his share of tough fadeaways, proving once again that he can rise to any challenge when he puts his mind to it.
It was Battle of the Network Superstars for three quarters. Then came the fourth quarter, and suddenly the game showed its true colors.
This wasn't an exhibition showcase for LeBron or Kobe. This was an ugly slugfest between two teams desperate to reach the playoffs.
The Cavs clamped down well enough on defense to muster a 15-0 fourth-quarter run sparked by Flip Murray, who is quickly becoming the best deadline acquisition by any team.
The 15-0 run erased a double-digit Laker lead that had existed for most of the game, putting Cleveland up 95-91 with two and a half minutes left. The Lakers fought back and tied the game at 95 with less than a minute remaining.
The deciding moment wasn't a poster photo for either superstar. It was a questionable reach-in foul Kobe committed on Murray with 3.4 seconds left.
Murray went to the line, clanged the first and hit the second. On the ensuing inbound pass, the Lakers responded with the type of late-game mental breakdown the Cavs have become famous for. Luke Walton had a timeout to call when the play wasn't developing, but instead forced a pass to Kobe near halfcourt.
Kobe drove and hoisted the type of long fadeaway three he has made many times in the past. This one, however, drew rim and nothing else, and the Cavs escaped with a 96-95 win.
LeBron gathered his teammates for a postgame huddle. Usually, wins over .500 teams in March shouldn't provoke unbridled relief, but this win, Cleveland's 38th of the year, might have finally convinced this team that they are indeed headed to the playoffs.
Kobe, meanwhile, was left to air out his frustration to the media. He called the reach-in foul on Murray "very clean," telling all the microphones that he touched nothing but ball.
This is March basketball in the NBA. Prettiness and poster dunks take a backseat to the dog-eat-dog reality of winning any way you can. To the Cavs' credit, that's what they did Sunday.

Brackets: Part 4

Let me get this out of the way right now: I had Ohio State going to the Final Four.
Might as well let the world know my homerdom got in the way of my good judgment. The Buckeyes, though five up on Georgetown in the seeding Sunday, were thoroughly outclassed and overmatched by a taller and far more athletic Hoya team.
I hadn't had a chance to pick Ohio State in an NCAA Tournament for so long, I was like a kid that gorges himself on Halloween candy and pukes his guts out an hour later.
Oh well. Mop and bucket time.

NCAA Tournament second round:

Damage assessment

Record 9-7

Hits: Duke, Texas, Memphis, Gonzaga, UCLA, UConn, Villanova, Boston College, Florida

Misses: Illinois (lost to Washington), Tennessee (lost to Wichita State), Ohio State (lost to Georgetown), four dead games

Damage to Elite Eight: Ohio State

Damage to Final Four: Ohio State

Sweet 16 picks
Note: "dead game" means I have neither team advancing

Atlanta Bracket

(1) Duke over (4) LSU
(2) Texas over (6) West Virginia

Oakland Bracket

(1) Memphis over (13) Bradley
(2) UCLA over (3) Gonzaga

Washington Bracket

(1) UConn over (5) Washington
(7) Wichita State vs. (11) George Mason: dead game

Minneapolis Bracket

(1) Villanova over (4) Boston College
(3) Florida vs. (7) Georgetown: dead game

Up next: Sweet 16 damage assessment and Elite Eight picks

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Brackets: Part 3

The second round is set. Here's what I did in Round 1:

Damage assessment

Record: 23-9

Hits: Duke, George Washington, LSU, West Virginia, N.C. State, Texas, Memphis, Bucknell, Pitt, Gonzaga, Alabama, UCLA, UConn, Kentucky, Washington, Illinois, North Carolina, Tennessee, Villanova, Boston College, Florida, Georgetown, Ohio State.

Misses: Syracuse (lost to Texas A&M), Iowa (lost to Northwestern State), Kansas (lost to Bradley), San Diego State (lost to Indiana), Michigan State (lost to George Mason), Seton Hall (lost to Wichita State), Wisconsin (lost to Arizona), Nevada (lost to Montana), Oklahoma (lost to Wisconsin-Milwaukee).

Damage to Sweet 16: Syracuse, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan State

Damage to Elite Eight: Michigan State

Damage to Final Four: none

Second round picks
Note: "dead game" means I have neither team advancing

Atlanta Bracket

(1) Duke over (8) George Washington
(4) LSU vs. (12) Texas A&M: dead game
(5) West Virginia vs. (14) Northwestern State: dead game
(2) Texas over (10) N.C. State

Oakland Bracket

(1) Memphis over (9) Bucknell
(5) Pitt vs. (13) Bradley: dead game
(3) Gonzaga over (6) Indiana
(2) UCLA over (10) Alabama

Washington Bracket

(1) UConn over (8) Kentucky
(4) Illinois over (5) Washington
(3) North Carolina vs. (11) George Mason: dead game
(2) Tennessee over (7) Wichita State

Minneapolis Bracket

(1) Villanova over (8) Arizona
(4) Boston College over (12) Montana
(3) Florida over (11) Wisconsin-Milwaukee
(2) Ohio State over (7) Georgetown

Up next: second-round damage assessment and Sweet 16 picks

Friday, March 17, 2006

Just too bad

I have a confession to make: When it comes to basketball in March, I am a Kent State fan.
For 49 weeks a year, I wear my Bowling Green colors on my sleeve and, as such, can't stand Kent State. Anybody who read my posts on the MAC Tournament probably got that vibe.
But whenever the Kent men's team advances to the NCAA Tournament, as they regularly do, I suddenly follow them with the verve of a lifelong fan. They hooked me with their fantastic run to the Elite Eight in 2002.
That's why I'm a bit down after watching Pitt dispatch the Golden Flashes 79-64 tonight.
Kent hung around, but this was one 5-12 matchup that wasn't ripe for an upset. Pitt was just too fast and too talented, and Kent didn't have enough of the shooting magic that propelled them into previous tournaments.
Even though Kent remains the class of the MAC, I think it isn't much of a secret that this team wasn't as strong as Kent tournament teams of previous years. Nate Gerwig was the only holdover from the '02 team, and now his career is finished.
Sure, I still have Ohio State to watch, and with any luck, they'll dispatch Georgetown and reach the Sweet 16. But we expect the Buckeyes to win regularly.
For these three weeks, Kent is much closer to my heart. I watched them in person for two years covering BG men's basketball. I got to know those great Kent teams. I loved the fact that they represented my school's conference in the NCAAs, and put that conference on the basketball map by coming out of nowhere and taking the nation by storm, ending within a win of the Final Four.
Philadelphians might wax poetic about Villanova in '85. But Kent State, they're my favorite underdog story.

I told you so

The World Baseball Classic has claimed its first victim. Unfortunately, it wasn't Roger Clemens, so no one's really going to notice or care.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

If you're going to go, go

As points out, tonight start in the World Baseball Classic could be the last of Roger Clemens' career.
The last one? The very last? This could very possibly maybe be good-bye for one of the game's all-time great pitchers?
Certainly maybe? Maybe certainly?
The entire population of St. Petersburg, Florida isn't milking retirement like this.
The 2003 World Series was supposed to be Clemens' farewell. Then he un-retired to pitch for Houston. Then 2004 was the end for Clemens, but he hemmed and hawed and decided to return for one more year.
Then the 2005 World Series was supposed to be Clemens' swan song. But then he heeded the patriotic call and suited up for Team USA in the WBC.
So how about the end of the 2006 season, when Clemens inevitably decides to suit up for Houston for one more year? Or Boston? Or the Yankees?
It's like "Night of the Living Dead." How many more times is Clemens going to be exhumed?
The East Coast media certainly isn't complaining. Perpetuating the Clemens rumor mill generates interest and drives up sales. But I find it irritating.
Sure, Clemens still has the ability to pitch in the bigs, even as he closes in on 45 years of age. Sure, Nolan Ryan was still pitching at Clemens' age. But Ryan made up his mind, retired once, and that was it.
Persistent retiring and un-retiring is in vogue among superstars, it seems. Magic Johnson was the trendsetter. He un-retired twice, with a coaching stint mixed in.
Michael Jordan also un-retired twice with a soiree with baseball and a stint as an NBA executive mixed in.
Dennis Rodman un-retired twice, and probably would again. Rickey Henderson un-retired at least once. And now Clemens could very well un-retire for the third straight season.
So pardon me if a take's claim of Clemens' last start with more than a grain of salt. I'll try a salt mine.

Sonar Challenge

The single most frustrating computer game I have ever tried.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Loot in hand

With the addition of former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest today, the Browns have closed the door on their big-game free agent hunting. In the span of six days, the Browns have added six frontline players who figure to play big roles with the 2006 team.
GM Phil Savage is eyeing some of the players as franchise cornerstones. Others are short-term upgrades who will need to serve as mentors to younger players.
Below are capsules on each of the Browns' free-agent acquisitions, and their potential long-term or short-term impacts.

LeCharles Bentley, center
Impact: long-term
Young, charismatic and with hall-of-fame potential, Bentley was signed with the expectation that he will be the glue that holds the offensive line together for years to come.
Bentley's presence will be expected to help jell a veteran unit that sometimes seemed like a hodge-podge of mismatched parts last year. Once Joe Andruzzi, Cosey Coleman and Ryan Tucker have come and gone, Bentley will need to be the rock that younger offensive linemen can lean on for stability.
Bentley has an opportunity to take a sub-standard offensive line and make it an excellent unit. He has the talent to be the linchpin. In short, Bentley is the most important free-agent acquisition the Browns have made in quite some time.

Kevin Shaffer, left offensive tackle
Impact: long-term
Shaffer may never be a perennial Pro Bowler. At his position, it will be difficult to do when he is now sharing a conference with the likes of Jonathan Ogden.
But the Browns aren't necessarily looking for greatness out of Shaffer. They are looking for stability, and that's the tag Shaffer arrives with.
Shaffer has started 39 of the past 40 games at left tackle for the Falcons. That's the type of player Savage envisions. Someone whom coach Romeo Crennel can plug in at left tackle and leave there for five to seven years.
Shaffer's arrival should finally stabilize a position that has been tossed and turned about since the Browns were re-launched in 1999. If he suits up for every game and does B-level work in terms of a letter grade, Savage and Crennel will probably be very pleased.

Dave Zastudil, punter
Impact: long-term

It has been a long, strange trip for the Browns' fourth-down unit since Chris Gardocki was given the quick hook by Butch Davis. After Derrick Frost crashed and burned in 2004, Kyle Richardson was signed as a stopgap and performed like one.
Zastudil, who has nimbly handled the punter duties for Baltimore since their Super Bowl season of 2000, is another player the Browns want to be able to plug in and forget about for the next half-decade or so.
Strong-legged and still in his mid-20s, the Bay High School graduate should be able to keep his net yardage well-inflated for a long while. A drop in net yardage was the excuse Davis gave for booting Gardocki out of town. We know what happened next. Gardocki, now a Steeler, will have a Super Bowl ring to polish later this year.

Ted Washington, nose tackle
Impact: short-term
The soon-to-be 38-year-old is still one of the best sides of beef you can find for your defensive front seven. But 38 is still 38, and it is unlikely Washington's stay will last more than the two-year duration of his contract. That's hardly long enough to help the Browns all the way back to Super Bowl contention.
The onus is on Savage to draft a stud defensive tackle this year or next and let Washington, a four-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion, mentor him. If Savage doesn't take full advantage of Washington's experience while he can, that will be a major organizational whiff.

Willie McGinest, linebacker
Impact: short-term
McGinest is three years younger than Washington, but his situation is very similar. At 34, his athleticism could start to wane rapidly. There is no guarantee he will be able to do the things in Cleveland that he did in New England, where he made it to a pair of Pro Bowls and helped win three Super Bowls.
If the Browns get two years of top-flight play out of McGinest, they'll be doing well. Once again, Savage is charged with finding talented young linebackers for McGinest to mentor while he is here.

Joe Jurevicius, wide receiver
Impact: somewhere in-between

Jurevicius is 31, so he's entering the back nine of his career. Many of the waning-athleticism issues that McGinest could face could also plague Jurevicius after a couple of years.
Having said that, he also plays a position where the biggest hazard is getting your lights knocked out by Ray Lewis on a crossing route. Wide receiver is generally not a rough-and-tumble position that wears players' bodies down, like linebacker or running back. Receivers usually have longer shelf lives, and can be impact players well into their 30s.
Jurevicius is capable of being a No. 1 receiver for the next couple of seasons. After that, his legs might slow and he could be recast as a possession receiver. But hopefully by then, Kellen Winslow Jr. and Braylon Edwards will be fully healthy, fully adjusted and ready to shine.

A bit nervous

Remember what I said about the Cavaliers having to fight last season's collapse until they finally clinch a playoff spot?
Look no further than the past two games to find prime examples of the Cavs wilting under the expectation of winning. A collapse is less likely than last year, especially since the Cavs have already achieved 36 wins and now play seven of their next nine at home, but the knotted stomachs -- for both players and fans -- remain from a year ago. And they probably won't disappear until a little "x" appears next to Cleveland in the newspaper standings.
After taking a second-half spill and losing in Miami on Sunday, the Cavs headed to Dallas to take on the powerful-but-shorthanded Mavericks Tuesday night.
Much like against Miami, it was Jekyll-and-Hyde, and the horrific transformation occurred at halftime.
Cleveland looked like a team on the cusp of elite status in the first half, when they took a 19-point lead and looked ready to cruise to a big road win.
Then came the second half, when the winner is decided, and the Cavs suddenly turned weak-kneed. To use a sports cliche, they started playing not to lose. And the Mavs, even battling the injury bug, smelled the blood in the water.
Cleveland's double-digit lead had been vaporized by the end of the third quarter, when Dirk Nowitzki canned a jumper to tie the game at 61. During the quarter, the Cavs were outscored 27-8 and shot 18 percent from the floor.
Cleveland then proceeded to give up the first seven points of the fourth quarter, and never recovered, losing 91-87.
The Cavs can add players to get more physically tough. But mental toughness is an in-house issue that must be addressed by coach Mike Brown and his players. Right now, that area between the ears is costing them games.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A confused analyst's Dayn Perry doesn't seem to know what to think about the Indians.
One month, he's patting them on the back for a "solid" off-season and the acquisition of prime prospect Andy Marte.
Then the first edition of his 2006 baseball power rankings come out, and he has stuffed the Indians in the middle of the pack, predicting a "disappointing" season.
Why am I telling you this and not Perry? Because makes you mine the deepest parts of their Web site to find a e-mail address for feedback. Man, I wish my paper operated like that sometimes. My phone number and e-mail are attached to every article I write.
Yeah, I'm an Indians fan. Brand me a homer if you want. But what really peeves me is that Perry has the Indians listed 11th, one spot below the Tigers.
The Tigers! He has far more flattering things to say about the them than the Indians, too. He calls them a "dark horse" in the American League, possessing a fearsome offense and some peppy young pitching. He calls them "a team worth paying attention to."
And the Indians aren't?
Perry seems to think there has been too much fawning over the Indians this winter for having won 93 games last season (how on Earth could he get that idea?), and apparently wants to take them down a couple of notches.
He cites a dismantled bullpen, loss of Kevin Millwood, and sophomore slump for Jhonny Peralta as the reasons the Indians are doomed this year.
The whole "Indians are crap without Kevin Millwood" movement should serve as bulletin-board material for Paul Byrd, who, like the Indians, continually makes solid strides and has little notoriety or respect to show for it.
Peralta might not hit .292 this year, if only because scouting reports on him will be more detailed now. But even if Peralta falls a bit, is it unreasonable to think other guys might pick up the slack? I don't think Aaron Boone will be hitting below .200 in May.
Even if Boone does, Perry's boy Andy Marte, whom he drools over like a lovesick schoolgirl, might be able to come up, hit .350 and author a nuclear disarmament treaty while he's at it.
So what's all this head-shaking over Peralta's bat?
As far as the bullpen goes, it remains a question mark. I don't deny that. But bullpens get rebuilt on the fly every year. Bullpens are the most changeable area of a baseball team. Every year, bullpen pitchers fall in to roles, fall out of them, lose their effectiveness, get hurt, reclaim their careers, fail to reclaim their careers, and other possibilities I haven't thought of.
Sure, it would have been nice to keep Bob Howry and maybe Arthur Rhodes. But Howry's replacement, Guillermo Mota, can be as effective, if not as durable.
Fernando Cabrera came on strong at the end of last year and deserves the chance he's getting this spring to be a major cog in Cleveland's bullpen. He can help absorb some of Howry's role as well.
In short, the Indians might not have the great bullpen of a year ago, but the bullpen should still be good. They aren't patching holes with pitchers like Jose Jimenez or Scott Stewart.
So come on, Dayn. Lighten up. There are plenty of local fans and media members already ragging on the Indians. We don't need more of it from afar.

Brackets: Part 2

On to the other half of the field...

Atlanta Bracket

(1) Duke over (16) Southern
Reasoning: The "Redick-ilous" sign at the ACC Tournament is hands down the best use of a last name in wordplay since "U can't beat R Johnson" from the 2001 World Series.

(8) George Washington over (9) UNC-Wilmington
Reasoning: First in war, first in peace, and about ... oh, 40th or so in the NCAA Tournament.

(5) Syracuse over (12) Texas A&M
Reasoning: Syracuse is doing a really good job of shutting up their critics at the moment.

(4) LSU over (13) Iona
Reasoning: Dammit, Iona, get a different name. I almost mistook you for Iowa and put you in the next round.

(5) West Virginia over (11) Southern Illinois
Reasoning: We should allow ourselves to be Pittsnogled for as long as possible.

(3) Iowa over (14) Northwestern State
Reasoning: That's a "W", right? Just double-checking.

(10) North Carolina State over (7) California
Reasoning: This is what passes for an upset special with me.

(2) Texas over (15) Penn
Reasoning: If you're like me, you can't get enough of optical illusions that look like Daniel Gibson's wiener.

Oakland Bracket

(1) Memphis over (16) Oral Roberts
Reasoning: If you watched "The Colbert Report" Tuesday, you'll know that Oral Roberts has a 900-ft. Jesus on their side. But Memphis was the home of Elvis, who is the king of rock 'n roll, which used to be a staple of MTV, which previously aired Beavis and Butt-head, who once lampooned a video by an artist named MC 900-ft. Jesus. So as far as I'm concerned, it's a push. But I'll take Memphis on a whim.

(9) Bucknell over (8) Arkansas
Reasoning: With memories of last year's upset over Kansas still fresh, Bucknell still makes big schools a bit nervous. They just won't admit it.

(5) Pittsburgh over (12) Kent State
Reasoning: Yeah, like I'm going to pick Kent.

(4) Kansas over (13) Bradley
Reasoning: Kansas and Bucknell are two wins away from facing each other again this year. Take a cold shower, Bucknell.

(11) San Diego State over (6) Indiana
Reasoning: I am just questioning the Hoosiers' motvitation to play for a lame-duck coach. Several players have reportedly made no bones about their desire to transfer after the season.

(3) Gonzaga over (14) Xavier
Reasoning: The 'stache. Only for the 'stache.

(10) Alabama over (7) Marquette
Reasoning: In all honesty, I was getting close to finishing, and I didn't think I had enough upsets.

(2) UCLA over (15) Belmont
Reasoning: Belmont? Davidson? Winthrop? Hampton? Monmouth? Do smallish, expensive, upper-crust liberal arts schools have first refusal rights on the 15 and 16 seeds? Heaven help us if Vassar starts admitting guys.

Up next: First-round damage assessment, and picks for the second round.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Brackets: Part 1

This year, I am going to give you, the valued blog reader, a unique opportunity.
I will let you follow along with my NCAA Tournament brackets as they either A) lead me to my second Gazette office pool title in three years or B) pull a Hindenburg.
You can follow along through all the triumph, tragedy, consternation, tragedy, nail-biting, tragedy, swear words, crumpled brackets in the bottom of a urinal at BW3, and tragedy.
Or my greatest moment ever.
Use these picks to bet on anything, and I will see to it that you are branded a complete and utter moron for the rest of your life.

I now set the stage with my picks for the Round of 64:

Play-in game: Hampton over Monmouth.
Reasoning: No idea why. Hampton won a game as a 15 seed a few years back, I guess.

Washington Bracket

(1) Connecticut over (16) Albany
Reasoning: It's a 1-16 game. I'm not going to outsmart myself like that.

(8) Kentucky over (9) Alabama-Birmingham
Reasoning: Ever since that whole Tayshaun-Prince-is-too-skinny-to-make-it-in-the-NBA movement blew up in everyone's face, I never bet against Kentucky when they are the favorites. UAB could be playing a bucket of KFC and I wouldn't bet against the chicken.

(5) Washington over (12) Utah State
Reasoning: The dreaded 5-12 matchup. Once again, I'm not going to attempt to outsmart myself. Which means I'm probably outsmarting myself by attempting to not outsmart myself. Which means I'm screwed. Or not.
This was the last first-round game I filled in on my bracket. I'm serious.

(4) Illinois over (13) Air Force
Reasoning: My mind was polluted by way too much Clark Kellogg and Jim Nantz on the CBS selection show. After hearing "How did Air Force make it in and Cincinnati didn't?" for 60 minutes, I can't in good conscience pick Air Force to win a foosball tournament at the moment.

(6) Michigan State over (11) George Mason
Reasoning: Last year I equated Big Ten basketball with White Castle as the stoner food of college sports. No nutritional value whatsoever. Wisconsin and Michigan State made me pay dearly for my arrogance. Not this year.

(3) North Carolina over (14) Murray State
Reasoning: I absolutely cannot pick the defending national champs to get bounced in the first round. Having said that, I have a bad feeling.

(10) Seton Hall over (7) Wichita State
Reasoning: Like I'm going to pick a baseball school in a basketball tourney. That's like picking Argentina to win an Olympic gold in basketball ... What's that you say?

(2) Tennessee over (15) Winthrop
Reasoning: I can't help but contemplate the athletic superiority of Tennessee against a school with a name that suggests they serve strawberries and cream at sporting events.

Minneapolis Bracket

(1) Villanova over (16) Hampton
Reasoning: You twisted my arm

(9) Wisconsin over (8) Arizona
Reasoning: See Michigan State above

(5) Nevada over (12) Montana
Reasoning: Let's play "Which State Has Less To Do?"
Nevada: desert
Montana: grass
Nevada: blighted landscape
Montana: vast stretches of wilderness
Nevada: Legalized prostitution and casinos
Montana: Horse poop and anti-government wackjobs
Winner: Nevada

(4) Boston College over (13) Pacific
Reasoning: If Boston College loses to Surf U., I don't want to be Boston College when they get off the plane at Logan International. Bostonians won't let that ride.

(6) Oklahoma over (11) Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Reasoning: Wisconsin-Milwaukee used to make Cleveland State their bitch on a regular basis. So they can go home and dig their cars out of snow drifts as far as I'm concerned.

(3) Florida over (14) Southern Alabama
Reasoning: this pick is for Urban Meyer. It's also blatantly obvious.

(7) Georgetown over (10) Northern Iowa
Reasoning: Do we all remember Jimmy Chitwood's magical 60-point game for Northern Iowa in the '56 Tournament? As soon as we figure out a way to go back in time and splice fiction with reality so that game actually happened, I'll pick Northern Iowa to win.

(2) Ohio State over (15) Davidson
Reasoning: I am a shameless homer. Scold me.

Up next: the Atlanta and Oakland brackets.