Wednesday, April 29, 2009

That damn 'Tessie'

Can I let you in on a little secret?

I can't stand Boston sports. No, I really can't stand any team in that town. It doesn't matter if we're talking Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics, Boston College or anything else. Cleveland doesn't even have a hockey team, and I'd probably still find myself grinding my teeth if the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. That sentiment probably puts me in league with a lot of Cleveland fans -- and fans across the country, for that matter.

I can't stand the way their teams win with such regularity, the way the national media fawns over their every success, the incredible superiority complex it lends their fans, and the way their fans take that superiority complex to your town, your stadium, your arena, your bars and your neighborhood. You think every Sox fan lives within a traffic jam of the Mass Pike? The one who lives down the street from you just bought his first David Ortiz shirt in 2004. Right about the same time his Derek Jeter shirt got buried at the bottom of his dresser drawer.

I can't stand the way every Boston championship after even a quasi-dry spell is painted in the media as a triumph for all mankind. OK, I'll give them 86 years without a World Series title. But 22 years between NBA titles? Get bent. Far over. Please.

I can't stand Kevin Garnett's scowling, Cowher-esque jaw-jutting and F-bombs. I can't stand Paul Pierce and his screaming at the rafters. I can't stand Rajon Rondo busting Chicago's Brad Miller in the chops and getting off with a slap on the wrist.

I can't stand the fact that Manny Ramirez accomplished everything there that he couldn't here. I can't stand the 2-0 series lead the Indians blew in the 1999 division series and the 3-1 ALCS lead they blew in 2007. I couldn't stand Pedro Martinez then and I can't stand Jonathan Papelbon now. I can't Dustin Pedroia's snotty MVP video game commercial or the way they call Ortiz "Big Papi" in that New England accent that anglicizes everything. It's supposed to sound like "Poppy," not "Pappy."

I can't stand Tom Brady's elevation to the status of Ultimate Alpha Male. I can't stand the fact that Bill Belichick is a borderline-sinister tactician who didn't perfect his craft until he arrived in New England, until it was too late to save the Browns from the clutches of Baltimore. And I hate that the current owner of the Browns is locked in a perpetual, and likely futile, series of attempts to discover his own version of Belichick.

Jealous much? You're damn right. Because Boston is one of those cities where, when they're on top, you know it. You can't ignore it. It's been that way for years -- decades, actually.

Boston's sporting brashness was likely born in the working-class saloons of 19th Century Irish-immigrant Boston, when Boston was still a National League town and baseball games were the exclusive territory of men who could hold down a few pints. Then Boston became an American League town in 1901, and two years later, won the first-ever World Series by beating the Pittsburgh Pirates.

During that series, Boston's fans -- led by the "Royal Rooters," baseball's first widely-recognized group of superfans, helped their American League team's cause by making sure the song "Tessie" stayed in the ear of Honus Wagner and his Pittsburgh teammates. "Tessie" was featured in a Broadway show called "The Silver Slipper" that debuted in 1902. By 1903, the song was famous enough that the Royal Rooters adopted it, made up some new lyrics and used it to harass the Pittsburgh players.

After the series, Pittsburgh outfielder Tommy Leach gave an assist in Boston's triumph to "that damn 'Tessie' song.'" And an obnoxious heritage was born.

Now, whenever a Boston team is better than your team, you know it. Their fans make sure of it. Even during a cold, damp April baseball game in Cleveland, as was the case when several thousand Red Sox fans descended on Progressive Field Tuesday, making sure that they did everything in their power to match and surpass the volume of the home crowd. I can only assume the same scene played out on Monday and Wednesday.

The Cleveland crowd, subdued by rain, cold and yet another cruddy April by the home team, was subjected to the ear-grinding passion of the fans -- bandwagon and otherwise -- of a deep-pocketed baseball team that is always one October away from another World Series title. Bambino? Curse? Didn't Bambino play for the Royals back in the '80s? Or was that Balboni?

In my personal experience on Tuesday night, I was subjected to the high-pitched whine of a particularly enthusastic Boston fan sitting right behind me.

"C'mon Youk! YOUUUUUUK!!! C'mon Pappy!! BIIIIG Pappy! WOO!" All that, and he was clapping his hands approximately three millimeters from my ear canal, too.

Eventually, he left his seat, and my eyes were drawn to another Boston fan sitting one row down and about five seats over. Every time Red Sox starter Brad Penny fell behind in the count, this man would start to get agitated. When an Indian got a base hit, he'd throw his hands in the air and glare at the diamond like a man who just found an obscenity scratched into the paint of his car hood.

I've been to other Indians-Red Sox games and I've seen similar Boston behavior during those games, too. But I left Tuesday's game with the overwhelming feeling that it is impossible to enjoy a baseball game for the game's sake when you are with Boston fans. Perhaps outsiders feel the same way about Cleveland fans at a Browns game.

There is no atmosphere to absorb. There is no hanging out at the ballpark to take in the sights and smells during breaks in the action. There are wins and losses. Games won and lost, innings won and lost, at-bats won and lost. That's that.

Perhaps that's the price some Boston fans pay for their passion. There is no now. Now is just a precursor to whatever is next.

Even "Tessie" couldn't stand pat. She got a facelift when the rock band Dropkick Murphys covered the song in 2004. The year Boston's curse ended. The year Boston fans became obsessed with the future instead of the past.

Now, every title Boston wins only feeds that obsession. And every time one of their teams comes to Cleveland, we get to take it all in, every ounce of the endless soap-opera drama that is Boston sports and their legions of fans. Whether we want to or not.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Waking the hare

For the first seven quarters of the Cavs-Pistons series, you could say one definite thing about Detroit's basketball team:

In the immortal words of former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green, "They are who we thought they were."

For all of Game 1 and the first three quarters of Game 2, the Pistons were in a full-on Fall of Rome state. The team that was once the NBA's Marlboro men -- tough, tougher and staunchly devoted to doing things their way -- looked limp, soggy and resigned to defeat. They didn't have the strength to stop LeBron's muscle-drives inside. They didn't have the speed to stop Mo Williams and his indefatigable darting, dodging, stopping and popping.

They had less energy than Anderson Varejao, less height than Zydrunas Ilgauskas, less grit that Delonte West. They knew it. What's more, the Pistons, to a man, knew they could have avoided all of this if they had just played a little better down the stretch. If they had beaten Chicago one last time, if they hadn't slumped right after clinching a playoff spot, Detroit could have faced the injury-ravaged Celtics, or a team they have recently owned, the Magic.

But they didn't play well enough down the stretch. They sank to the eighth seed, and drew the 66-win Cavs and all 6'-9" and 270 pounds of their superstar battering ram.

The Pistons weren't just discouraged heading into this series. They needed a sympathy card that read "Sorry it All Blew Up in Your Face. Good Luck With the Rebuild."

For seven quarters, the Cavs never stopped reminding the Pistons that the longest six inches in basketball is the distance between the rock and the hard place. Or maybe between the ground and the bottom of Cleveland's collective foot. The Cavs won Game 1 102-84 and held a 79-50 lead through three quarters of Game 2.

Perhaps what happened next was predictable, then.

We learn this type of story in our earliest days of schooling. Usually it involves a tortoise and a hare. The two animals -- one inherently fast and athletic, the other doomed to carry a shell around on its back for all its days -- line up for a foot race. The hare, of course, bursts away from the starting line with speed that the tortoise can't hope to match. Within seconds, the tortoise's view of the hare is reduced to a speck in the distance. Within minutes, the hare has completely disappeared from the tortoise's view.

The mismatch is so thorough, all the tortoise can do is keep his pace and hope that the hare either falls or does something really stupid off in that vast distance the tortoise has yet to cover.

We all remember the outcome. The hare knows his lead has become all but insurmountable, so he takes his victory for granted. He slows up. Still no tortoise. So, he figures "What the heck? I'll rest for a while. I'll still win." The hare lays down by the side of the road, eventually falls asleep, and the tortoise catches and passes the hare, winning the race.

Which begs the question, if it's one of the first cautionary tales you learn as a child, why does it keep creeping up in the adult world? Maybe it's human nature.

Blowout wins, and the spoils that come with them, have become something of a point of pride with the Cavs this year. LeBron didn't play in 14 fourth quarters during the regular season. Williams, West and Ilgauskas have also done considerable pine time while the back of the bench polished off comfy wins.

The Cavs have been masters of making garbage time arrive early this season. So when they toted very nearly a 30-point lead into the fourth quarter on Tuesday, they figured the Victory Fairy had left another quarter under their pillow.

But this was different, because this was the playoffs. No one was playing for a lottery pick. No one was stuck in the midseason doldrums of another game on another long road trip in the dead of winter. Every team good enough to enter the NBA's championship tournament is good enough to be there. Every team is playing to win. That even includes the sagging Pistons.

The Cavs, quite simply, did not respect that fact they way they should have. Not only did Mike Brown bring his starters to the bench, the starters began to power down mentally. Not only did the starters begin to power down mentally, the hybrid second-third unit that replaced them was playing with nary more than their collective mental/emotional pilot light burning.

The Pistons -- even more specifically, Will Bynum -- took advantage of the snoozing hare.

Bynum, performing an excellent impersonation of former Pistons bench scorer extraordinaire Vinnie Johnson, ignited a 27-5 Pistons run that sliced a 79-50 Cleveland lead to 84-77 with just under four minutes to play. For the first time in the series, the Pistons had some real momentum and the Cavs and their fans were sweating one out.

The Cavs failed to score a field goal for about 10 minutes of the fourth quarter, while the Pistons' second unit struck gold. Bynum's 13 points were complimented by Aaron Afflalo's 10, and some positive contributions from the underrated Walter Herrmann that didn't show up on the stat sheet.

Meanwhile, a Cavs lineup fronted by Wally Szczerbiak, Daniel Gibson and Joe Smith stagnated at the offensive end, slowed at the defensive end and made a number of unforced errors. If it wasn't for 27 Detroit personal fouls leading to a staggering 43-16 Cavs advantage in free throw attempts, the outcome of the game could have been left very much in doubt. Teams that go on 27-5 fourth quarter runs are likely the winners in most such games. Teams that go 10 fourth-quarter minutes without a field goal are likely the losers.

Of course, without that massive free throw disparity contributing to the lopsided score through three quarters, the Cavs don't play the role of the hare in this race. LeBron and the starters stay in the game and don't try to turn the sidelines into premature party central.

But this is the burden that falls on the shoulders of a team that has been as dominant as the Cavs have this year. Teams will never underestimate the Cavs. Even the most downtrodden of clubs will start to believe that they can slay Goliath if they can find the right stone. The Cavs, on the other hand, need to check their collective ego once in a while before someone checks it for them.

That is what happened Tuesday: an ego check. The Cavs might be the preordained winners of this series, but they still have to actually win four games to advance. And there is no way the Cavs should ever assume that the Pistons, no matter how beaten down they are, will simply lay down and concede the series to Cleveland.

It's the first rule of competition in any form: respect your opponent. Respect their ability to compete. For a sizable chunk of the fourth quarter on Tuesday, the Cavs didn't do that.

Luckily, unlike in the fable, this hare woke up in time to avert a disastrous loss -- even before the outcome of the game was put into serious doubt. But the Pistons' fourth-quarter run still might have given them a toe-hold, however small, in this series as they head back home for Game 3 on Friday -- not enough to sway the series in their favor necessarily, but maybe enough to prolong it. That is not what the Cavs want or need.

If the Pistons even extend this series to six games, the Cavs will have lost a little something. A little bit of rest, a little bit of swagger, a little bit of invincibility. And it will be that much tougher to regain that aura facing the winner of the Hawks-Heat series.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Let this be the year

On the eve of the Cavs' playoff run, to whom it may concern:

Let this be the year.

Let this be the year when we finally have a happy ending.

Let this be the year when the other shoe doesn't drop.

Let this be the year free from John Elway, Michael Jordan and dream assassins from other teams.

Let this be the year free from Jose Mesa, Red Right 88 and dream saboteurs from our own teams.

Let this be the year when having the best record in the league matters.

Let this be the year when having the best player matters.

Let this be the year free from Jim Chones' foot, John Smiley's arm and LeCharles Bentley's knee.

Let this be the year when Jim Poole doesn't stay in the game to bat.

Let this be the year when Jeremiah Castille doesn't come out of nowhere to strip the ball two feet from paydirt.

Let this be the year when we solve Josh Beckett. Let this be the year without a Craig Counsell or Dusty Rhodes.

Let this be the year when Willie Mays doesn't make an impossible catch.

Let this be the year when we don't fumble the ball out of bounds with the clock winding down, when the ball-handler doesn't slip and fall on the game's last possession. Let this be the year when the critical pass isn't intercepted, when the critical shot doesn't rim out, when the critical whistles and non-whistles fall in our favor.

Let this be the year when the free throws go in and the back-taps find teammates.

Let this be the year when the Boston leprechaun isn't lucky, when Orlando isn't magic, when the Lakers aren't Showtime.

Let this be the year when we don't dread what might be around the corner. Let this be the year when confidence replaces fear. Let this be the year we truly believe, not just hope for the best.

Let this be the year of unbreakable resolve, both on the part of the team and the fans. Let this be the year where we realize that if we want what has eluded us for 45 years, we're going to have to take it. Nobody is going to give it to us.

Let this be the year that the rags finally turn to riches in this rust belt town. Let this be the year when the parade weaves its way down Euclid Avenue, not through downtown Boston or Los Angeles -- or worse yet, Disney World.

Let this be the year when justice is served, when the fans most deserving of tasting a title's sweetness finally get that chance.

Let this be the year of a 16-win postseason.

Let this be the year that Cleveland, after nearly half a century, once again becomes a championship town.

Monday, April 13, 2009

One more record

The Cavaliers made their rarefied air a bit more rarefied on Monday night, ascending to the NBA's regular season summit with their 66th win of the season.

For the first time in 39 years of basketball, the Cavs will finish the season with the NBA's best record. No matter who they play in the upcoming playoff rounds, they will have homecourt advantage.

Not even the mighty 1995 Indians could claim that, thanks to baseball's wacky pre-determined seeding of the time. Despite finishing with the best record in baseball that year, the Indians didn't have homefield advantage in any round of the playoffs that year. It played a role in their World Series loss to the Braves. Without the benefit of the designated hitter, the Indians and their powerful offense lost three low-scoring, one-run games in Atlanta in that series.

In 2007, after baseball got their league-playoff act together and started awarding homefield advantage to the teams with the better records, the Indians tied the Red Sox for the best record in baseball -- but lost homefield advantage on the head-to-head tiebreak, helping to pave the way for the Tribe's ALCS collapse.

Viewed in the light of what happened to the 100-win Indians of 14 years ago and the 96-win Indians of two years ago, the Cavs are aligned better for a title run than any Cleveland team since the '86 Browns, who finished with the AFC's best record at 12-4 that year, hosting both their conference playoff games. Even then, that doesn't account for a neutral-site Super Bowl or the fact that the NFC was the stronger conference that year, boasting the 14-2 Bears and eventual Super Bowl champion 14-2 Giants.

The Cavs don't have to worry about tiebreaks, pre-determined homecourt advantage, neutral-site championship games or anything of the sort. The Lakers have 17 losses. The Cavs can't lose more than 16. Mathematically, the Cavs have clinched everything they can possibly clinch during the regular season. And they still have a game left to play, Wednesday night at home against the 76ers.

Mission accomplished, at least until the playoffs start this weekend.

But something else is dangling out there as the Cavs prepare to wrap up the regular season on Wednesday. It would look nice in the glossy pages of the team's media guide for years to come. It would put the Cavs in the conversation among the greatest single-season teams of all time, should they win the NBA title. But now that the league's best record has been clinched, what does it really mean?

Should the Cavs play for the win on Wednesday, and try to tie the 1985-86 Celtics for the best home record ever at 40-1? Or would it be foolish to eschew big-picture thinking in the pursuit of one last regular season win?

Basically, there are two schools of thought on this: The argument against playing to win says you shouldn't risk unnecessary fatigue and/or injury to your key players by playing them big minutes in a game that has no meaning in the standings. The argument in favor of playing to win says you don't get a chance to grab a piece of history like this very often, so why would you throw it away without trying to attain it?

I've carefully considered the pros and cons, and I say Mike Brown should let them play. The Cavs should treat Wednesday's game like they would any other regular season game, not like a preseason game in April.

The fatigue argument loses a lot of voltage when you consider that LeBron is averaging 37.7 minutes per game, by far a career low. The Cavs have been on the happy side of blowouts on such a regular basis this season, LeBron and the rest of the varsity team have turned fourth-quarter bench clowning into an art form. That's why you let your starters rest during the waning minutes of lopsided contests, so they're fresher at this time of the year.

Don't risk injuries? I suppose. But no one in Cleveland needs to be reminded that Jim Chones broke his foot in practice prior to the 1976 Eastern Conference Finals. There is no guarantee that holding players out of a game will completely thwart the injury threat. In order to do that, you'd need to cancel practices, be sure that every player refrains from heavy lifting, from using sharp kitchen utensils and from straying too near car windows while tossing around the pigskin (I'm looking at you, Ben Wallace).

The arguments for mothballing half the roster on Wednesday are rooted more in fear and a desire to stay away from the hand of fate, which Clevelanders are conditioned to believe is never more than a smite away.

The arguments for treating Wednesday's contest as another regular season game seem far more compelling from where I sit.

First off and most compelling is the chance to finish the regular season 40-1 at home, reaching a milestone that has been previously reached by only the '85-'86 Celtics, universally considered one of the best NBA teams of all time.

Even in the best of years, 40 home wins is an historic accomplishment. The 72-10 Bulls of 1995-96 went 39-2 at home. The 69-13 Lakers of 1971-72 went 36-5 at home. Those teams are considered the best in NBA history, and they couldn't accomplish what the Cavs have a chance to accomplish on Wednesday.

A chance like this comes around maybe once for a franchise -- and a lot of franchises will never get this chance. All but a microscopic sliver of NBA players will ever get to say they played on a team that finished 40-1 at home -- or even had that chance. The historical ramifications alone are hard to resist.

If you'd rather hear a more practical argument that has less to do with legacies and more to do with the here and now, there's this: What good would a week off do for a team that has been thriving on rhythm and chemistry all year?

Wallace's aching joints need rest. And that's exactly what Wallace will get as he recovers from a knee tendon strain. Zydrunas Ilgauskas can probably use whatever rest he can get. Brown can monitor his minutes with a little extra vigilance on Wednesday. Same for Joe Smith.

But spry youngsters like LeBron, Mo Williams, Delonte West and Anderson Varejao? What good will the balance of a week off do for them at this point in the season? All they could possibly accomplish is gathering rust and losing focus as they sit around waiting for the playoffs to start.

At this point, with 81 games down and one regular season game plus playoffs to go, there is no reason to deviate from what has gotten the team to this point, especially considering the fact that Wednesday's game is the only game between now and the weekend.

If the Cavs can manage to turn Wednesday's game into a laugher in the second half, I'm all in favor of taking LeBron and the starters out as soon as the game is in hand. But this is no time to sit your starters after the jump ball.

The Cavs have worked all season to secure homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, and they've worked all season to put themselves on the verge of matching the best home record of all time. They deserve this chance. They also deserve the chance to arrive in the playoffs with momentum, not burdened by a week's worth of rust.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Rivalries renewed

In Cleveland, we don't have to be taught how to hold our teams' rivals in seething contempt. It's a seed that sprouts in our brains sometime between birth and introduction to solid foods. We don't learn rival-hate, so much as the instinct is awakened in us.

At least two generations of Browns fans grew up loathing the Steelers. A new generation will be raised to hold the Ravens at very nearly the same level of contempt. Like scarlet and gray? You don't like maize and blue. The Red Sox and Yankees might have the most famous rivalry in baseball -- maybe in all of sports -- but the Indians have their separate longstanding rivalry with each. Time tells the truth, even if Boston and New York fans don't want to admit it. The Tribe's feud with baseball's titans goes back more than a century to the first years of the American League.

Then there are the Cavaliers. Professional basketball is something of a strange animal in Northeast Ohio. The Cavs have been playing basketball since 1970, plenty of time to develop heated rivalries with a number of teams, plenty of time for area fans to align themselves against those teams, year in and year out, regardless of win-loss record.

But those rivalries haven't developed, at least not to the extent of the blood rivalries that carry us through Browns, Indians and Buckeye football seasons.

There are a number of reasons why. Most glaring, for about 80 percent of their history, the Cavs weren't good enough to develop rivalries. They didn't pose a threat to any contender, and if a contender came to town and walloped the Cavs, how was that different from any other game? Going a step further, a great number of local fans embraced Magic Johnson's Lakers, Larry Bird's Celtics and Michael Jordan's Bulls, including a certain hometown star who now wears Jordan's No. 23. Those teams won. They were exciting. They had star power. The Cavs didn't.

Of course, those frontrunning fans, showing up to The Coliseum in opposing garb, helped cause the first pangs of true rivalry bloodlust in Cavs fans in the late '80s, when the team finally emerged from the doldrums to become a legitimate threat to the Eastern Conference power teams of the era. Conveniently, those teams happened to be the Detroit Pistons and the Chicago Bulls, rivals with relatively close geographical proximity.

When the Coliseum-era Cavs of Mark Price and Brad Daugherty reached their zenith between 1989 and '92, the Pistons and Bulls ruled the league. Detroit captured NBA titles in 1989 and '90, and the Bulls ran off their first pair in 1991 and '92. The Cavs, though a quality team, remained a stepping stone. Jordan, injuries and the Ron Harper for Danny Ferry trade kept them there.

The Cavs wilted down the stretch in the '88-'89 season, losing the division to Detroit and the first round of the playoffs on Jordan's Shot. That season featured Price's infamous run-in with Rick Mahorn's elbow, leaving Price with a concussion and possibly contributing to the Cavs' late-season dropoff.

In '91-'92, arguably the most successful Cavs season prior to this season, the Cavs tied a team record with 57 wins, but still finished 10 games behind the 67-15 Bulls. They eased past the Nets in the first round, ended Larry Bird's career with a Game 7 elimination in Round 2, but fell to the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. A Jordan buzzer-beater eliminated the Cavs again one year later, this time in the second round, though that shot sealed a sweep.

The seeds for two bitter rivalries had been sown, but that era of Cavs basketball ended soon thereafter. Injuries ended the careers of Daugherty and Larry Nance by 1994. Price was traded to Washington in 1995. Jordan retired to play minor league baseball, then returned stronger than ever. The Pistons drafted Grant Hill, but then adopted a curious color scheme of teal, dark red and gold, and faded into relative obscurity.

The Cavs really had no rivals until LeBron landed in their laps, and the Pistons reclaimed their red, white and blue colors and their standing as a title-winning defensive juggernaut in the mid-2000s. The teams have met twice in the playoffs, the Pistons escaping with a seven-game conference semifinals victory in 2006, and the Cavs winning their first conference title over the Pistons a year later.

The re-emergence of the Celtics has caused the simmering rivalry between LeBron and Paul Pierce to blossom into a full-fledged team rivalry, though Cleveland's dislike of the Celtics still stems more from an overall dislike of Boston sports and their mouthy fans in general. Losing to the Celtics during the title run a year ago helped fan the flames in no small part, however.

But the rivalry history of the Cavs is still somewhat muddled and incomplete. If the Pistons and Bulls, and more recently the Celtics, are the Cavs' chief rivals, there haven't been many meaningful games played between the Cavs and their rivals over the years. The Cavs are 0-5 in playoff series against the Bulls, and the '89 and '92 series were the only ones that were really competitive. The Cavs had never played the Pistons in the playoffs prior to '06. The last two Cavs-Celtics playoff series went seven games, but occurred 16 years apart.

But this year, the longest chapter in the history of Cavs' rivalries might be written in the playoffs. With the Cavs almost certain to lock up the East's 1-seed sometime between now and early next week, and the Pistons and Bulls seemingly destined to decide the seventh and eighth seeds between themselves, the Cavs will apparently face one or the other in the first round.

If it's Chicago, it need not be mentioned that these aren't the Jordan Bulls. Jordan's departure from the Bulls organization in 1998 let most of the air out of any semblance of a rivalry with Chicago. But it's still the team that dominated the Cavs in the playoffs those many years ago, and there hasn't been an opportunity for payback until now.

Making the prospect of a Bulls-Cavs first round series even sweeter is the fact that the Bulls have been declawed as a conference title threat, and would present the Cavs an opportunity for a first-round beatdown. Not that Chicago is going to suffer the slings and arrows. An 8-seed Bulls team ranks far behind the Cubs and the Jay Cutler-fortified Bears on the scale of importance to the average Chicago fan.

The Pistons would present a unique challenge to the Cavs. They're not your typical wet-behind-the-ears 8-seed playoff team. They're certainly not the force they were even a year ago, but this is still a veteran team that has been to the conference finals in each of the past six seasons. They're still capable of playing defense at a high level, still steeled to playoff pressure and still capable of making jump shots in bunches. Detroit's playoff seeding will be artificially lowered this year by injuries and some questionable coaching and front office decisions. This is still the roster of a 4-seed or 5-seed team, and they're going to be a tough out for whoever draws them.

The Cavs should still defeat Chicago or Detroit in the first round, possibly setting up the first-ever playoff series between LeBron and Dwyane Wade, should Miami advance past their first round opponent (likely Atlanta). Knock out Wade and the Heat, and the prize would almost certainly be Pierce and the Celtics or Dwight Howard and the Magic in the conference finals. Advance to the NBA Finals, and LeBron will probably find Kobe Bryant and the Lakers waiting.

If you haven't learned to spew venom at other NBA teams they way you do the Steelers and Yankees, this might be the Spring That Launched A Thousand Rivalries.

When the opposing team takes free throws at The Q, a common Cavs practice is to flash Steelers, Michigan, Yankees and Red Sox logos on the scoreboard to get the crowd booing. This spring might represent a large step toward ensuring that, when the opposing team is lining up for a field goal attempt at a future Browns game, a Celtics or Lakers logo will flash on the Cleveland Browns Stadium scoreboard.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

What to expect?

The Indians are an ambiguous team as the 2009 season dawns.

In years past, we'd be able to get an idea of whether the Indians would excel in the rotation, in the bullpen or in the batting lineup. This year, it's kind of difficult to gauge what, exactly, we should expect of this team. Mark Shapiro's moves this offseason, Travis Hafner's lingering production problems, Cliff Lee's putrid spring training performance, and the overall talent and experience levels on the roster, invite enough speculation to make you believe this team could lose 90 games. Or everything could come together and they could win 90. Or they could split the difference and go 81-81 again.

There are some other obvious reasons behind the fog that encases the start of the Tribe's season. For the first time since 2000, the Indians will enter a season without C.C. Sabathia in the starting rotation. Lee is the staff ace based on his Cy Young credentials of last season, but he's also less than two years removed from the worst season of his career, and he's coming off an 0-3, 12.42 ERA spring training effort.

The rest of the rotation doesn't build much confidence, either. Fausto Carmona has electric stuff, but can't find the strike zone with regularity. Carl Pavano hasn't pieced together a decent, injury-resistant season in five years. Jake Westbrook is out until at least midsummer as he continues the long road back from Tommy John surgery. Anthony Reyes hasn't proven anything over the long haul. Scott Lewis, Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers and Zach Jackson? Roll the dice.

In short, the starting rotation feels more like a starting dartboard. Three of these guys have to come somewhere close to the bullseye for the Indians to mount a serious challenge in the AL Central this year.

The state of the bullpen breeds much more confidence than at this time last year, mainly because someone besides Joe Borowski will break camp as the team's closer. Kerry Wood is likely bound for the disabled list at some point this season, but hopefully the injury is of the muscle strain variety, and wont involve the insertion of scalpels and/or arthroscopes into his person. But if he can stay active for the majority of the season, particularly the stretch run, the Indians might have their best door-slammer since Jose Mesa in the mid-90s.

The spring training performances of Rafael Perez (1.00 ERA in nine innings pitched) and Jensen Lewis (1.64 ERA in 11 IP) are positive developments in the construction of a setup corps to get to Wood -- something that was painfully absent from the Tribe's 'pen a year ago. Now if Rafael Betancourt (6.24 ERA in 8.2 IP) could just get on track and stay healthy, the bullpen could even be considered "deep."

Spring training saw a number of good individual performances from the hitters. Jhonny Peralta, Ben Francisco and Victor Martinez all tied for the team lead with 13 RBI. Peralta batted. 391 for the spring, Grady Sizemore hit .373 and Mark DeRosa hit .364 upon returning to the Tribe after the World Baseball Classic.

Then again, read into spring training hitting statistics at your own risk. Hitters' swings are often well ahead of pitchers' arms for most of spring training. By the time the Indians leave the Launching Pad at Arlington and head north to open the home portion of their schedule this coming weekend, their hitting prowess might drop like the temperature between Texas and Ohio.

But the weather will warm, and baseball's marathon schedule will allow water to find its level over the span of the next six months. But what is the water's level with regard to some of the Tribe's more important players? Below is how I see some players trending during the 2009 season.

Cliff Lee: Down

It's not just that the law of averages is bound to catch up to Lee after his freakishly good 2008. It's not just that he wilted in the Arizona heat this spring. It's that Lee has, historically, given up a lot of hits and a lot of runs. He has also historically not had the pinpoint control of his fastball that he showed a year ago.

Unfortunately, a regression to the mean for Lee might mean a regression to a middle-of-the rotation starter, complete with a near-.500 record and ERA in the mid-4.00's. Lee has had a couple of excellent years in 2005 and '08, but the "real" Cliff Lee is probably closer to what he showed in 2006 (14-11, 4.40 ERA).

Having said all of that, Lee is still a solid pitcher, even if he doesn't approach last year's levels. if it contributes to a postseason berth, I think we'd all be thrilled if he could repeat his 18-5, 3.79 performance from '05.

Victor Martinez: Up

Last season was an injury-wracked year for V-Mart. He only played in 73 games, only hit two homers, but still managed to pull his batting average out of the muck and hit .278 with 17 doubles and 35 RBI when all was said and done.

Martinez is one of the two most talented hitters on the Indians roster, and I expect a healthy Martinez to bounce back with a vengeance this year. Prior to last season, he was an automatic .300, 30 doubles and 70 RBI for three seasons. Now fully healthy at the outset of the season for the first time since 2007, Martinez might even exceed those numbers.

Mark DeRosa: Up

When the Indians first acquired DeRosa, my initial reaction was to dismiss him as a glorified utility player, another in a long line of "grinders" routinely overvalued by Mark Shapiro and Eric Wedge.

But a small sample viewing size during spring training and the WBC have changed my opinion, to a degree. DeRosa can hit, and he can play a little defense, too. DeRosa is still a third baseman trapped in a middle infielder's body as far as I am concerned, but if the object of contact hitting is to put a hard swing on the ball and force the fielders to make plays, DeRosa can do that, probably to the tune of a .280 average and 60-70 RBI.

Fausto Carmona: Down

You might think Carmona is already "down" after an 8-7, 5.44 ERA, injury-plagued 2008. And you're right. But adding to Carmona's problems is the expectations placed on him to regain his 2007 form and fill a spot at the front of the rotation. At this point in his career, I have to questions whether Carmona can do that.

Carmona seems primed to spend his 2009 showing us flashes of his '07 brilliance followed by long stretches of pitching out of the stretch, because he can't stop walking hitters.

As a sinkerballer, Carmona relies on getting batters to put the ball in play, but that obviously won't happen with any frequency if he's constantly falling behind in the count. The net result, in addition to bases on balls, is a rapidly-elevated pitch count that might force Carmona's exit from many starts in the fifth or sixth innings -- even when he's pitching relatively well.

Travis Hafner: Up

With Pronk, "up" is a relative term. A batting average in the mid-.200s and 25 homers would be an improvement over his .197/5 HR/24 RBI/57 game debacle of 2008.

The 2004-06 Hafner is gone forever. Debate the reasons why until Barry Bonds comes home, but at the end of the day, a 2007 redux (.266, 24 HR, 100 RBI) is a good year from this version of Pronk.

Grady Sizemore: Steady

Yeah, his batting average has been on a steady decline for three seasons. But when his other stats are as rock-solid as Sizemore's were a year ago (33 HR, 39 doubles, 38 steals, 90 RBI) and he's durable enough to never have played in fewer than 157 games in each of the last four years, I think you can afford to be a little flexible with the batting average gripes.

The fact remains that Sizemore really isn't a leadoff hitter. He plays the part well enough -- a testament to his talent -- but he takes a lot of swings, and a byproduct of that is a lot of strikeouts. It's a take-the-good-with-the-bad proposition. Without the aggressive approach at the plate and on the bases, Sizemore isn't a 30/30/30 man.

Jhonny Peralta: Steady

Maybe he won't repeat last year's 42-double performance. But if he splits the difference between '07 and '08, ending up with a batting average in the .270s, 20 homes and 30 doubles, that's a productive year for Peralta. Like Sizemore, he strikes out too much, and his long swing can be an out-producer as much as a run-producer. But taken at face value, Peralta is a solid contributor, and that should continue in '09.