Monday, July 30, 2007

Monday, 7/30/07's main point: Garnett to Boston??


Want to salvage your reputation as a GM, Danny Ainge? Then make it happen. Get Red Sox season tickets (if he likes baseball). Promise him a 50-foot-long yacht (if he enjoys sailing). Make him comfortable about the idea of coming to your city.

Make him a Boston Celtic.

Do whatever it takes. Even if it means parting with talented youngsters Al Jefferson and Gerald Green and future draft picks. The future can wait. Ainge can't afford to suffer too many miserable seasons, and certainly can't sit through any more 18-game losing streaks.

They need to win now. The NBA needs them. Pro basketball needs them to become relevant on the East Coast once again. If Ainge acquired Garnett, still one of the league's top five players, the Celtics would be one of the favorites to reach the NBA Finals out of the East.

Yeah, just like that.

Think about it. Regardless of who's running the point for the Celtics (probably second-year player Rajon Rondo) and who the other starter would be (Kendrick Perkins maybe?), with Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on the floor, the Celtics would be the most explosive offensive team in the Leastern Conference. They would always have a scoring threat on the floor.

Sure, like any good team, they'd need role players to get the tough rebounds, take the charges and play good defense, but — honestly — when was the last time that a team had a trio like Garnett-Pierce-Allen?

Um... Jabbar-Magic-Worthy? McHale-Parish-Bird? That's how far back I have to travel. Let me know if there's been a better trio since.

As far as the ubiquitous question of "chemistry," if I'm Ainge, I'm not worried. Neither of the three players has reached an NBA Finals. They all realize the window is closing. They all are established players who don't need to prove their worth. All that's missing for them is a championship.

As long as the money's flowing into their bank accounts, I don't foresee any of them having qualms with not getting the ball enough.

That should be a non-worry for Ainge and his compatriots.

This is Ainge's big chance, his grand opportunity to make basketball relevant in Boston again.

Sure, it might seriously put a dent in the Celtics' future plans (where will they be in 2015 without Jefferson, Green and other draft picks?), but who even knows where the NBA will be then considering the state of the league right now.

No team should bypass the opportunity to win now. And if Ainge can somehow convince Garnett that Boston's winters aren't as cold as the weathermen say, Boston will be — just like that — a contender for an NBA title in 2008.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The visceral value of sports


Sitting in the office the other night, I listened intently to a heated argument between one of our newspaper's longest-tenured reporters and our unsympathetic layout guy.

The layout guy claimed that sports — like movies — are nothing more than forms of entertainment. The reporter disagreed, saying that sports are more than a bad comedy. They're not simply games that we watch for entertainment.

I couldn't agree more with the reporter. Sure, sports are probably given way too much attention in the media, and some participants take sports way too seriously, turning games into life-or-death situations. But while losing a game — even a really important game — isn't going to ruin someone's life (well, maybe I'm wrong — how are Bill Buckner and Scott Norwood doing?), what athletes do on the playing surface often affects society more than one might think.

Just take the Detroit Tigers, for instance. Last fall Michigan's economy — like it is now — was in the dumps. People were getting laid off. No jobs were available. College graduates were bailing the state as quickly as possible. Even though I was studying abroad in Australia, I could feel and see the struggles back home.

But everyone in the Metro Detroit area was lifted by the Tigers' miraculous season. People from all over came to downtown Detroit to watch the team, which had lost 119 games three years earlier, put together one of the most amazing seasons in baseball history. Sitting in a hostel in Byron Bay, Australia, I felt chills ripple up and down my back when Magglio Ordonez ended the ALCS with a three-run walk-off home run.

We weren't just being entertained. We were being touched by a sporting event, by a group of baseball players who had come together to achieve the unfathomable and bring us along for the ride. Name me a movie which accomplishes that.

This season the Tigers continue to give hope to the people of this state, many of whom face dire economic situations. Nearly every game is sold out, and TV ratings are as high as ever. I personally can tell you that I'm delaying a move to North Carolina this fall until the Tigers' season is complete.

They are the main reason I'm staying in this state for a couple extra months. When they're doing well, I feel a positive surge. I feel like I can accomplish big things when the Tigers are doing likewise.

The Tigers' relationship with Michiganders is just one example among many of what sports mean in this country.

For many, sports are a way out of difficult circumstances. Sports scholarships are handed out each day, giving athletes from impoverished areas a new lease on life. And for many high school athletes who don't go on to play in college, sports help them compartmentalize their time and become responsible citizens.

Sports also help those in need thanks to the generosity of professional athletes with the funds to help a cause.

And, of course, there are the fans and media. Sports create thousands of jobs for people like myself who enjoy covering the athletes and coaches who make up today's sports landscape. For fans like Detroit's, sports provide an outlet, a distraction, a cause to cheer for when many things in the world no longer make sense.

Call sports entertainment if you want. Call pro athletes nothing more than entertainers.

But when I watched the "My Wish" series on ESPN earlier this summer, which chronicles a group of kids' battles with deadly diseases and their chance to meet their favorites athletes, I knew — as I nearly teared up — that sports are much more meaningful than one might think.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Midwest baseball journey


Bud Selig has nothing to worry about. Major League Baseball is just fine. People still love the game. Fans still turn out in droves (in fact, according to Sports Illustrated, the 39,977 average fans who attended Saturday's 16 games was "the highest single-day average ever.")


And baseball's been around for quite some time.

On Saturday, my baseball watching companion, "Tick," and I were in Milwaukee — part of a sellout crowd — to check out the Brewers' odd, yet appealing, revolving-roof Miller Park and, of course, Barry Bonds. It was just the first day of a four-day trip which led us to three major league ballparks and four major league games.

Here's a day-to-day recollection of the trip.


This game was the main event of our trip. This was the game we had bought tickets to four months in advance, before the season started. In planning our trip back in March, it had occurred to me that Bonds might be right around 755 in mid-July. So when I saw that he'd be playing in Milwaukee, things fell right into place.

I quickly purchased tickets, knowing that there wouldn't be many empty seats in the huge ballpark come game day.

In a weird twist, Tick and I had our picture taken outside the park in front of a Hank Aaron statue before entering to watch Bonds.

On Friday, it appeared Bonds would take Saturday off because he doesn't play day games after night games. He's no Julio Franco. But I guess he made an exception for us (or, more likely, the fact that Saturday's game was a 3 p.m. CST start instead of 1 p.m. start influenced him to play).

Bonds was much more exciting during batting practice than the game, however. During BP, as I stood behind the Giants' dugout videotaping Bonds, I heard "oohs" and "ahhs" as he sent — according to Tick; remember, I was focusing on Bonds — several balls into the upper deck in right field without even breaking a sweat (it was kind of a cool day; only in the upper 70s).

BP was the highlight of Bonds' day.

He was booed each time he came to bat. And his longest hit was a line drive he pulled foul down the first-base line — actually the first ball he hit all game. Bonds struck out, grounded meekly to the pitcher, walked and was intentionally walked. He was pulled after the second walk in the eighth inning.

Bonds also looked tired. When he grounded to the pitcher, he didn't even make it halfway up the line. And when he was warming up in left field before an inning and the ballgirl he was playing catch with overthrew him, he walked as slowly as possible to retrieve the ball.

Luckily for Bonds, he didn't have to do much in left field. No balls were hit to him all day as the Giants cruised to an 8-0 victory.

After the game, Tick and I played catch outside the stadium in a grassy area next to a playground. Miller Park is about as suburbia as a major league ballpark can get. It is just outside the city off the highway, which is why — we realized — no scalpers were present (scalpers, usually, don't have cars and can't afford to pay $8 to park). Instead of being surrounded by skyscrapers, it is circumvented by pine trees on one side and the highway on the other.

The several parking lots around the park were filled with tailgaters both before and after the game for several hours. Walking through the parking lot, scattered with trash and beer bottles, after the game, I felt as though I'd just left a college football stadium. Not a MLB park.

In short, Miller Park and its surroundings were completely different from that of any ballpark I'd ever been to before.


While Bonds was the main player I wanted to see on the trip, Wrigley Field was the stadium I wanted to see, especially since I don't know how long it will be around (in this day and age, you never know). As a Michigan native who frequented many games at Tiger Stadium, I'll always have a special affinity for old stadiums — both for their history and their structure (Tiger Stadium was amazing because of the upper deck overhang; the lack thereof at Comerica Park sickens me).

Wrigley Field did not disappoint.

Because I'd never been to the old ballpark, I convinced Tick to take the train from his uncle's house in North Chicago (by Lake Michigan) to the stadium more than two hours before the 1:20 p.m. CST first pitch. I wanted to see the atmosphere. I wanted to smell the atmosphere.

And, man, was that the case. We stepped off the train at 11:15, more than two hours before the game, yet the streets outside the stadium were alive (I guess no one in Wrigleyville sleeps in on Sundays). I was met by a cornucopia of blue. Ticket scalpers wearing Cubs apparel. Fans wearing Cubs apparel. Vendors wearing Cubs garb. They were all over the place. I was greeted by a ticket seller, who told me to ditch my Cal Ripken jersey and Tigers hat in a not-so-friendly tone. It was great.

With the Cubs just two and a half games behind first-place Milwaukee, there was no doubt the game would be sold out. So Tick and I decided to purchase standing-room-only seats. They were only $12, but we figured we'd be standing in the upper deck sun all game.

So naive of us.

But before finding out our fate, Tick and I decided to live the entire Game Day Experience by grabbing some grub at a local diner. We agreed on the Salt 'n Pepper diner, which was absolutely mobbed. Luckily for us, there were two vacant seats at the counter calling our names. As we waited for our food then got our grub on, it was fun to watch the chefs before us frantically prepare meal after meal. Heaps of hash browns were prepared at once. There was a main chef, a sandwich chef, a burger guy and others.

Everyone had roles, and they performed them hurriedly but accurately. And the entire time, their boss was watching over their shoulders. I was impressed. I've worked in some kitchens before, but nothing like what we saw at the Salt 'n Pepper.

Satiated for the time being, we headed off to watch some baseball. And from great seats. After being booted from excellent seats down the third base line, Tick spotted a small group of empties down the right field line, which we migrated to. As it turned out, all but two of the seats around us were taken, but two green seats were all we needed. We didn't have to move again (although Tick continued to worry about being eschewed from our seats until the fifth inning).

The product we saw on the field represented nearly 100 years of suffering for Cubs fans. For the second consecutive day, the visiting team pitched a shutout (what are the odds?). The Cubs mustered a few lousy hits as they lost 3-0. Still, most of the blue-clad fans were into the game until its conclusion (and out of their seats).

I have never seen more transient fans than Cubs' supporters. A half inning didn't pass where nobody from our row got up to grab some food or drink. Because we were on the aisle — a must for SRO ticketholders — we got into a routine of standing as the kid went for peanuts or the adult went for beer. It was both galling and humorous. I guess Cubs fans need something to keep their minds off the actual game.

As for the game, when a Cub singled, the fans celebrated — high-fiving with each other — as if he had hit a home run. They were desperate to cheer for anything. And there wasn't much to be happy about at the end of the afternoon — with the Brewers winning to increase their lead in the NL Central.

After the final pitch, Tick — a Cubs Hater — said happily, "Cubs suck."

And off we went to catch the train.


After graciously accepting a home-cooked meal from Tick's uncle Sunday night (we take whatever we can get food-wise; usually, it's just turkey and PB&J sandwiches and peanuts), we headed to the southwest suburb of Oak Park, where we would stay with a couple of Sox fans — my aunt, Sally, and uncle, Chuck — for two nights.

On the way across town, Tick nearly ran over a kid who biked right in front of us. At that moment, I knew that we had crossed the tracks. While we would run into a few Cubs supporters the next couple nights, we were in White Sox territory. Where wealth isn't common and the team's supporters wear black.

On Monday night, however, many in the crowd of 30,000 and U.S. Cellular Field were sporting blue and orange Tigers apparel. Many Michiganders, like us, made the short trip to cheer on the team with the best record in the majors. We had initially noticed the strong Tigers presence earlier in the day when we spent a few hours walking the streets of downtown Chicago. First, there was a Tigers family that walked by as we ate some chips (and battled voracious seagulls) while viewing the Chicago River. Then there were the dozens of Tigers beer bellies at the ESPN Zone, where we bought overpriced booze and discussed sports issues.

Finally, after taking the red line train south to 35th street, we started walking toward the stadium, and the first shirt I noticed in my path was a Tigers jersey. I would see many more before the night was complete.

Tick and I were shocked when the cheapest tickets available (in section 518 — at most stadiums, the highest sections are in the 300s) were $25 a piece. One lousy upper deck seat to see the last-place White Sox cost more than two SRO seats at Wrigley. Go figure.

Our frustrations were tripled when upon entering the stadium (after waiting half an hour — the gates didn't open until 90 minutes before game time) we were told that we couldn't go down to the lower level unless we had lower level seats. So, um, basically, we were expected to sit 439 miles from the field for 90 minutes.

Luckily for us, I had my video camera stowed in my backpack, and we concocted a story involving us doing a documentary for DePaul University, which got us by a lower-level usher who couldn't have been older than 17. It had taken some work, but we were on the lower level, where players are visible and the sounds of the game can be heard.

During the game, I could tell that Sox fans hadn't quite forgotten about their World Series title in 2005. Despite the Sox's ineptitude this season, there remained plenty of support for the team from vocal fans. When the Sox mounted a rally to gain a brief 6-5 lead, there was an electricity in the ballpark as if they were just a few games out of first place (instead of 14 and a half).

But the thousands of Tigers fans assembled were the ones clapping late Monday night after a marathon of a game that took well over three hours. Finally... after 15 runs, 29 hits, an assortment of walks, a hit batsman, plenty of pitching changes and two lead changes, Detroit's rocky closer, Todd Jones, shut the door in the bottom of the ninth with a 1-2-3 inning, giving the Tigers a 9-6 win and allowing the remaining fans to head for the exits before 11 p.m. struck.

The atmosphere had been fun (every play was cheered), we had easily found good seats (down the right field line — although Tick and three of his friends moved to the outfield for a few innings), there were plenty of offensive fireworks (Detroit's Curtis Granderson, from the South Side, had a grand homecoming, going 3-3 with a HR), and Detroit won.

We approached our long train ride back to Oak Park in jovial spirits.


I woke up feeling a tad sad. Our baseball trip was nearly over. This was our last day, our last baseball game to watch, our last scorecard to fill out, our last chance to catch a foul ball (we ended the trip foul-ball-less). But I didn't have too much time to lament because our final game was a day game, a makeup from an earlier rainout.

Aunt Sally drove Tick and I downtown, where we picked up Uncle Chuck before heading to the ballpark. Tuesday was a day of firsts. For the first time, Tick and I didn't have to pay for our tickets (Sal and Chuck provided them). For the first time, we ate ballpark food (Sal and Chuck bought us delicious hot dogs and beverages). And for the first time, the home team won. Additionally, we saw a piece of rubber history, as Sal and Chuck showed us the original home plate used at the historic Comiskey Park (see picture).

Behind three home runs, including Paul Konerko's game-winning two-run blast, the White Sox satisfied their fans and disappointed the Tigers fans who had made the trip with a 5-3 victory. After Bobby Jenks (who owns the Tigers like nobody else) retired former White Sox Magglio Ordonez (who, by the way, was greeted both games by an assortment of boos and cheers; a few more boos, I think), fireworks were shot into the cloudy sky. I guess they were a sign of the culmination of our trip.

If the four days taught me anything, it is that Major League Baseball is alive and well. Sure, fans are disgusted by Barry Bonds and the whole steroid controversy, but that sure didn't stop them from selling out Miller Park on Saturday in anticipation of Bonds' appearance. Sure, the White Sox have gone from the top of the baseball world to Kansas City Royals territory in a mere two years, but they didn't keep their loyal fans (along with thousands of Tigers' supporters) away from "The Cell" — as it's called — on a nondescript Monday night.

And then there's Wrigley Field. As long as it's around, it will continue to fill up summer after summer with Cubs fans who — as certain T-shirts worn Sunday read — believe "It's gonna happen," it being a World Series title. The ivy on the outfield walls may now be disturbed by two advertisements, but Wrigley is still special, still not as commercialized as the 29 other major league ballparks. It continues to look and smell like a baseball field (and nothing else).

As we drove home late Tuesday night, listening to the Tigers blow a 7-1 lead to the White Sox, I couldn't help but wish that I was back at the ballpark, listening to the ChiSox faithful go crazy as Detroit's unsteady bullpen blew another winnable game. Because as I learned in just four days — and as I'm sure I'll continue to remember whenever I attend MLB games — nothing compares to being there, hearing the sounds, and watching America's game.

This was the second out-of-state trip Tick and I have taken. In 2006, we visited Cleveland's Jacob's Field and Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark.

As the trip was winding down, we were already thinking about 2008, which should be very special. Tick and I plan on going to New York to see Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium for the first time before they're both shut down at season's end. We also hope to get to Fenway Park — which Tick hasn't been to — to see the Red Sox.

I encourage all baseball fans to get out there and visit MLB stadiums (especially the older ones). While other sports are nearly as good on TV as in person, there is no comparison when it comes to baseball.

You have to be there get the full experience.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Read first-hand about my experience watching Barry Bonds

Will I see Bary Bonds hit No. 756? Very doubtful. But it's possible.

Over the course of the next fours days, I'll be in Milwaukee and Chicago for my annual baseball trip.

On Saturday afternoon, I'll see Bonds' Giants take on the Brewers. On Sunday, I'll be at Wrigley to see the upstart Cubs try to close the gap on the Brewers when they face the Diamondbacks.

And on Monday and Tuesday I'll be at U.S. Cellular Field (gosh, I hate that name — just call it Comiskey) to see the Tigers face the White Sox.

Keep visiting the site throughout the weekend for updates on the trip.

And have a great weekend yourself.

— Jake

Friday, 7/20/07's main point: A potential black eye for the NBA


Dang it, NBA. Why'd you have to ruin my weekend like this? C'mon!!

Now he'll be ribbing me from Ann Arbor to Milwaukee, then from Milwaukee to Chicago, and all the way back to Ann Arbor.

I won't hear the end of this. And I won't be able to fight back. Especially if this turns out to be true.

This, of course, is the news that an NBA official is being investigated by the FBI for fixing games during the past two seasons. Apparently, the official is aware of the investigation and will turn himself over to officials (that is, federal officials) next week.

Oh, boy.

As if the NBA doesn't have enough issues as it is.

Terrible NBA Finals ratings.

The fallout from the suspensiona of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw.

The awfulness of the East Coast's big market teams.

Kobe complaining. K.G. staying. Rasheed arguing.

This is far worse. In fact, this is about as bad as it gets.

He is my friend, Tick, who is accompanying me on a four-day baseball trip beginning early tomorrow morning. We're going to see Barry Bonds play in Milwaukee (maybe — the aging star might take the day off), but even though he'll be booed, his vices don't match up to those of this official if the allegations are true.

And I do need to take a few seconds to reinforce that these are just allegations. Nothing has been proven. Nothing's in stone. But the fact that the FBI's looking into this and that there are reports that the official — who is said to have a gambling problem — was associated with organized crime, doesn't bode well for the guy or for the NBA.

Fans are already asking for refunds to games they attended. Already! By Monday, they could be blowing up arenas! You thought TV ratings were poor during the '07 NBA Finals? Just wait until next year, when re-runs of "Family Matters" on Nickelodeon fare better.

Tick has been trying to convince me for two years now that NBA games are fixed, that the league is a joke. I've never believed him. I'm a basketball purist. I have never imagined that an official of all people would intentionally affect the outcome of a game. Never.

Even when Dwyane Wade went to the free throw line 1,649 times in the Finals in '06, I credited him for taking it strong and drawing the contact. I didn't listen to Tick's rants about the the Miami superstar getting ridiculous star treatment.

Now I'll have to listen. For four days, I'm sure, we won't just talk about baseball. Tick will be in my ear about this mess, about how if a veteran official — as the reports assert — bet and fixed games, who else might he have influenced?

It will be miserable. Bad timing, NBA.

Things were actually looking up for the league after the best draft since 2003. Greg Oden, Kevin Durant & Co. are supposed to help save the league. They're very personable, young stars who should boost its image. At least its players' image.

But now — if the allegations are true, and probably (I must admit) even if they're false — the league has much bigger issues than its players' marketability.

It has to reprove to its viewers — if there are any left besides myself and a few clinger-ons — that it's a legitimate entity. It has to reprove that's it's not just another WWE, where everything is fixed. Of course this isn't the case — we're talking about a single official here — but people will be sure to blow this out of proportion (the whole league is one big conspiracy theory!!), and I can't say I really blame them.

In this iPod, iPhone and iEverything society, there is plenty of entertainment available that normal basketball fans — basically, everyone but the purists — don't need to attend NBA games or watch NBA games to live satisfactorily.

Now it appears they've received a gigantic excuse to complete disregard the NBA as nothing more than a soap opera with a predictable ending to each episode.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Thursday, 7/19/07's main point: For two days, Tigers look like last year's version


I'm going to try to finish this column quickly, because in a matter of hours, it could be B.S.

So let me get straight to the point: The Detroit Tigers looked like last year's version — the World Series edition — the past two games. In 1-0 and 3-2 wins over the Twins in the tricky Metrodome, the high-scoring, you-never-know-with-the-'pen Tigers did what they accomplished in '06.

Two phrases...

Timely hitting.


Great pitching.

And by "great pitching" I'm not just referring to the Tigers' starting rotation, which we've known is arguably the best in the majors since the return of Kenny Rogers. No, I'm including that patched up bullpen, which finally seems to be coming into form, despite the continued absence of Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney.

Last season the Tigers weren't nearly as explosive offensively as they are this time around. They didn't have a hitter leading the majors in batting average and doubles and tied for second in RBIs (Magglio Ordonez), a hitter leading the majors in triples by a ginormous margin (Curtis Granderson) and a player second in runs (Gary Sheffield).

They were a good hitting team, but not a great one. They got the big hits when they needed them.

Well, the Tigers went back in time Tuesday and Wednesday night. They managed just 11 hits between the two games, but just about every one of them counted. Ordonez had the big RBI single in Tuesday's shutout. Wednesday night, Ryan Raburn doubled, Placido Polanco singled, and Ordonez brought them home with a double in the fourth inning.

Two innings later, Ordonez homered off Twins' ace Johan Santana, giving the Tigers the eventual winning run. So, basically, Maggs owned the night, but it should be mentioned that four of Detroit's six hits accounted for their runs. It is extremely important to take advantage of every opportunity you get against a pitcher like Santana, and that's exactly what the Tigers did on Wednesday.

At least with their bats.

I was more impressed with their pitching. That's what is going to keep them playing deep into October again. Especially the 'pen.

A year ago, the formula was pretty simple. The starter would go six or seven innings. If he went six, maybe Jamie Walker (now an Oriole) would step in for an inning. Then Zumaya or Rodney would take the eighth, and Todd Jones (I just call him Jonesy) would finish pitch the ninth. On Jones' off nights, Rodney would fill in. It was pretty darn simple. And, with the exception of Jonesy's scary outings (put two guys on with nobody out before retiring three straight), it was pretty automatic and quick.

This season has been the antithesis of '06's well-oiled routine. From night to night, we've been left to guess who will pitch prior to Jonesy. Guys have been called up. Then sent back down. To the DL and back. OK, no more dizziness.

But then came Tuesday... and Wednesday. It wasn't pretty. It certainly wasn't quick. But they got it done.

On Tuesday Macay McBride and Jonesy didn't allow a hit in two innings of work. On Wednesday, there was a bit more sweating, as four relievers were needed to survive the three innings leading up to Jonesy's one-hit ninth inning, which began with a Twins' base hit but then really lost its luster.

The previous three innings must have had Jim Leyland smoking inexorably. After allowing a run in the sixth, Jason Grilli stranded a runner at third to preserve a 3-2 lead. In the seventh, Chad Durbin survived a one-out, bases-loaded jam. In the eighth, Durbin and McBride stranded speedster Luis Castillo.


Again, the 'pen's work was as pretty and clean as a grafittied telephone pole, but it got the job done — giving it something in common with last year's 'pen. It's pretty clear that once Zumaya and Rodney return, at least one of the current 'pen's members — most like Grilli — will be sent down. There will simply be too much congestion, not enough relaxing space for the big guys like Zumaya and Jonesy.

But maybe until then — emphasis on maybe — Leyland has nothing to worry about.

The Tigers are hitting when they need to.

They're getting stellar starting pitching.

And their bullpen is getting its collective act together.

Which isn't too bad for a team with the best record in baseball.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Wednesday, 7/18/07's main point: Is Vick now the football version of Bonds?


As sad as it is to say this, Michael Vick isn't the only one.

Vick's not the only NFL player who has been involved with the grotesque, inhumane, sickening practice of pitting dogs against each other in a concealed area until one rips the other's head off.

I don't have proof. I can't name names. But I know there are others. All you have to do is listen to what Washington running back Clinton Portis said a while back about the ongoing investigation of Vick: "I know a lot of back roads that have the dog fighting if you want to go see it."

Portis isn't lying, folks. This stuff goes on frequently — especially in the South — and I'm sure Vick isn't the only NFL player (or other professional athlete, for that matter) involved.

He is, however, the only player who has been indicted, and his name makes this case huge.

Which reminds me of an investigation that is ongoing in another sport. Um, does the name "Barry Bonds" and the word "steroids" ring a bell?

Just as the federal government is determined to nail Bonds for what we all know he did — cheated — it is dedicated to convicting Vick for his participation in a dogfighting ring.

The evidence isn't quite as transparent in Vick's case. A book hasn't been written with loads of evidence against him. His dogfighting trainer isn't locked up in a Surry County jail, refusing to talk about his loyal companion. But it has become quite conspicuous that Vick played some role — whether it was running the ring, or simply betting on the fights — that should land him in a dirty jail cell and abruptly end his NFL career.

That's where the similarities stop. Bonds is a free man, hitting home runs, making millions, on the verge of history. Right now it appears unlikely that he'll get indicted for taking steroids, and I'm sure the thought of spending time in the ringer hasn't even entered his super-sized head. He's got it much better than Vick.

What's interesting is that the man in the most trouble — Vick — has been loved by NFL fans for most of his six-year career. His dazzling runs and cannon of a arm made football exciting in Atlanta and filled the Georgia Dome on Sundays. He became a favorite player for video gamers — Falcons' fans or not — and he was featured on the cover of Madden 2004. For his play (and the positive publicity he brought to Atlanta), he was awarded an NFL-record 10-year, $130 million contract in December of '04.

Only recent mediocre play, a couple other off-the-field incidents (the double-birdie to Falcons' fans, the special water bottle), and this current case have tarnished Vick's reputation as one of the most exciting and popular players in the NFL. Despite the federal indictment of Vick Tuesday, Nike still hasn't ended its sponsorship of the quarterback, instead reviewing the new information.

Basically, Vick really had to mess up to ruin his situation, and despite his irreconcilable mistakes, Nike — I guess — still believes he's a decent person to represent the company, which — I guess again — doesn't sell dog collars.

Bonds, on the other hand, has been hated by baseball fans for several years for his unruly attitude and now, of course, the overwhelming evidence that he took steroids. He couldn't land a Nike contract if he threatened the company with Greg Anderson. Unless he hits No. 756 at home, he'll be booed mercifully.

Baseball fans know that Bonds is just one in a first baseman's glove-full of steroid users in MLB, but they don't boo the other guys. Jason Giambi, the contrite one, is cheered at Yankee Stadium and treated indifferently in other ballparks. Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, who has lost several pounds in the past few years, is beloved in Detroit and was voted the starting All-Star catcher for the American League despite not having the best numbers.

The only player fans, the media and the government — it appears — want to indict, want to lock away, is Bonds, the man who could steal Hank Aaron's record, the man who will never apologize for anything.

And then there's Vick. This indictment is great news. I cannot wait for Vick to be banned from the NFL — the right move for commissioner Roger Goodell — convicted, and then sent to jail. As a dog lover who recently lost my beloved dog to cancer, it sickens me to think of grown men transforming innocuous animals into violent creatures that kill each other.

Vick should get no leniency in this case.

But let's not be too ignorant to realize that Vick's not the only NFL player — just as Bonds wasn't baseball's only steroid user — who has witnessed a brutal dogfight. The NFL and the legal system needs to send a strong message with this case that anyone who so much as knows about dogfighting will be strongly disciplined.

Maybe the NFL should amend its meetings that it holds with players about personal conduct to include a section on treating animals kindly. Whatever it does, it shouldn't view this case as isolated.

Michael Vick, I'm sure, is simply the bass in a pond swarming with fish when it comes to dogfighting.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tuesday, 7/17/07's main point: Artest, others do good


I got an e-mail from an unusual individual this morning.

Mixed among the political e-mails, the "find the right woman" e-mails and the x-rated spam mail, I received a message from Luol Deng.

If you're reading this, I'm sure you're familiar with Deng, the starting small forward for the Chicago Bulls. And when you think of Deng, you probably think of one thing — his basketball skills. I know that's what would come to my mind if "Luol Deng" came up in a game of word association.

But as I learned from Deng's e-mail, putting a ball in a hoop is far from his only concern. Deng, s native of Sudan, is putting hours upon hours of time into helping the refugees from not only his native country, but neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic as well.

I'd like to think I could use my own words to describe Deng's efforts, but his words — from the e-mail — speak more strongly.

Deng wrote: "Yesterday in Chicago, with the United Nations Foundation, and the Nothing But Nets campaign, I announced an emergency appeal for 40,000 bed nets to cover this unexpected displacement of Chadian refugees (and protect them from malaria). We need $400,000 to purchase and distribute these nets; as well as educate them on how to use the bed nets. Beginning yesterday, all the money donated through Nothing But Nets will be used for these 40,000 nets for the refugees from Chad until we meet our goal.

"Working with the United Nations and key groups such as MENTOR and UNHCR, we will start delivering these nets immediately and have teams on the ground making sure they are effectively used."

If you haven't received the e-mail and want to help, go to Deng's website.

Deng's not the only NBA player donating part of his summer — the time for players to rest after the grueling 82-games-plus-the-playoffs season — to helping a difficult situation in Africa.

Ron Artest, best known for his role in the Palace Brawl in 2004 and his emotional outbursts both on and off the court, is currently in Kenya helping to distribute 11 millions pounds of rice to hungry children in the impoverished country. The only reason we know about this? Well, Artest was suspended seven games this weekend for a misdemeanor domestic violence charge stemming from a domestic dispute with his wife in the spring.

If not for the suspension, Artest wouldn't have been sought out by the media, and thus we wouldn't know how he's spending his summer.

I won't argue that Artest is a great guy. He obviously has some issues that he needs to get worked out (and he seems to be making progress, having reunited with his wife and reduced his role in his Tru Warier record label).

But Artest doesn't have a bad heart. He's, in fact, doing a lot of good in Kenya as part of the NBA Players Association's "Feeding One Million" drive, and he didn't publicize his part in the good deed or send a flurry of pictures from Kenya until he was contacted about the suspension. Furthermore, he has decided to buy a house in the country so he can visit each summer to help out in the slums. He doesn't have to do this, but he is.

That's what's important.

Too often, we only hear about the transgressions of professional athletes. The Pacman Jones. The Tank Johnsons. The Albert Belles. While MLB and the NFL have their share of bad eggs, the NBA as a whole has been tabbed by mainstream America as a thug league, as a group of men who can't control themselves with all the money floating around.

And, believe me, I know there are several players who are nothing more than criminals in sports uniforms. But for every one of them, there are 10 pro athletes doing great things around the world.

Dikembe Mutombo may be best known for his finger-wagging after blocking shots, but he should be revered for funding a $29 million 10-acre, 300-bed hospital and research center in his hometown of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

According to Mutombo's website (, "The Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital and Research Center is one of the very few well-equipped and modern hospitals in the DR Congo. Mutombo believes the addition of this new facility will be effective in diminishing some of the major health gaps within his country."

But how many basketball fans know about Mutombo's effort, or Deng's, or Artest's, or the efforts of several other players to make this world a better place? Definitely not as many as those who know about Artest's off-the-court troubles. It's just the way the world works. Bad news travels much better than good news.

Still, that doesn't mean there aren't great things happening every day. Sure, the "NBA Cares" program is a publicity stunt to show that NBA players are proactive in their communities. That's pretty obvious. But the bottom line is that the players are in the communities, making a difference.

It doesn't matter if these acts get publicity or not. Regardless of whether they are celebrated, they are still happening.

And that's all that matters.

Plus, it's not every day you get an e-mail from one of the league's top small forwards.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Monday, 7/16/07's main point: Redding signing won't save Lions


The Detroit Lions like to do this.

They'll sign a player — that is, one body — and hype him as a player who can save the franchise.

Dre' Bly, Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, Mike Williams, Calvin Johnson, even Joey Harrington. And, of course, back in the 1990s, the great Barry Sanders. They've all been tabbed as "prime-time players," guys who can make a huge impact on the field. The Lions pay them "the money," or draft them very high with the hope that their investment will turn the losses into wins.

Um, well, this strategy hasn't worked.

But, apparently, that hasn't stopped Detroit from dealing. This morning arguably the worst franchise in the NFL — and some will say all pro sports — made Cory Redding the highest-paid defensive tackle in football with a seven-year, $49 million contract which includes $16 million in guarantees.

Good for the Lions. They now have a happy defensive tackle. But that's about it.

This is not a team that can afford to have happy, satisfied players on its front lines. We all know what has transpired since Shaun Rogers became the highest-paid DT after getting a six-year, $46 million contract. Yeah, last year he was banned four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and he just was mixed up in a strip club incident (although the charges were dropped).

A few players with big contracts aren't going to save the Lions. This franchise needs young, hungry guys who want to win. This franchise needs team guys, not guys with imbalanced contracts that could cause jealously or animosity in the locker room.

Quick, who had the best season last year for the Lions? How about wide receiver Mike Furrey, who was making $544,620, great money for any of us, but spending money for big-time athletes.

Based upon the season Redding had in 2006 (48 tackles, eight sacks) and his health (he played all 16 games each of the past three years), he's a good player to hold onto. But the Lions overextended themselves in giving into his contract demands. So what if he was threatening to hold out from training camp. If he followed through on that, then a team that's trying to find the right mix of guys to gain some sort of respect shouldn't want him.

Make him play another year as the franchise player. Tell him if he puts together another solid season, he'll be rewarded with a good (but not outrageous) contract at season's end. Heck, tell him his new deal will depend on how many victories the Lions salvage this season.

The Colts had every right to reward Dwight Freeney with a six-year, $72 million deal last week (the highest ever for a defensive player). They're the Super Bowl champions. He's the leader of their underrated defense. It made perfect sense.

The Lions, on the other hand, don't even belong in the same league as the Colts right now. So they shouldn't be paying the big bucks for individual players. Once they become a winner, fine.

Until then, they should focus on finding the right mix of dedicated, insatiable players to stop the late-night talk show hosts from making joke after joke about their franchise.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Sunday, 7/15/07's main point: Tigers' Monroe no longer a starter


Craig Monroe
was a great ringleader of the ALCS champion Tigers last season.

Detroit's left fielder wasn't afraid of anybody, especially the Yankees. His fearlessness symbolized the Tigers' deepest penetration into the playoffs since Reagan was in the White House. Most important, Monroe was a clutch hitter. He hit the big home runs. He didn't take pitches when he couldn't afford to. Even in Game 1 of the World Series when the rest of the Tigers appeared starstruck, Monroe jacked a home run. He was the only Tiger who appeared ready for the occasion.

But all that is in the past now. This is 2007 — Jim Leyland will enforce this point until a pack of Marlboros is empty — and 2006 is irrelevent. Which is why the struggling Monroe should no longer be viewed as a big hitter in the Tigers' lineup but as the major weakness. Entering Sunday's game, Monroe was hitting just .220. And he wasn't exactly making up for that number with power stats (9 HRs, 41 RBIs). Additionally, Monroe has struck out 78 times in just 277 at bats (that's easily more than one K for every four ABs).

This isn't just a slump for Monroe, either. A slump is a period of weeks (or sometimes a month) in which a player struggles. Monroe has been awful at the plate since Opening Day. No one in the Tigers' organization will admit this, but it's very possible that Monroe simply isn't a great player — especially in Detroit's stellar lineup. Monroe's best season was 2004 when he hit .293. Since then he's hit .277, .255 and now .220. He's been on a downswing for sometime now, and the only reason we haven't noticed until now is because he knocked all those big hits last season.

Monroe doesn't necessarily have to be traded or released It can't hurt the Tigers to keep an extra outfielder. But as Leyland's lineups are starting to suggest, Marcus Thames — who entered Sunday batting .252 with 10 HRs (but added to that with a three-run HR) — is in the process of taking over Monroe's grass in left field.

Leyland is probably the most loyal manger in baseball. Just consider the patience he's had with closer Todd Jones despite some very rocky outings. But he knows that to give the Tigers the best chance to win, Monroe shouldn't be starting in left field. He could be a dangerous pinch-hitter with plenty of power, but right now he's not a starter.

At least not for the Tigers.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Friday, 7/13/07's main point: Makeup calls can be partisan


We know it when we see it. It's as obvious as a walrus in an ice cream parlor. The makeup call.

It's been perfected by officials in all professional sports. Well, "perfected" might be the wrong word, because if that was the case, maybe it wouldn't be so transparent to even the casual fan.

It made a grand appearance during Thursday night's Tigers-Mariners game. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Seattle's Adrian Beltre singled with the bases loaded, scoring two runs. As the ball sailed toward home plate in an ill-advised attempt to throw out the second run, Beltre alertly dashed for second base.

The only problem was Detroit catcher Mike Rabelo (who was filling in for the ejected Ivan Rodriguez) had cut off the throw and quickly fired the ball to Carlos Guillen. The shortstop appeared to tag Beltre at least once after Beltre continued toward third after somehow sliding under Guillen's initial tag. Beltre was ruled safe, however, by the second base umpire, allowing Richie Sexson to score what turned out to be the game-winning run.

A moment later — with Beltre standing on third base — the Tigers touched second base in an appeal, and the same umpire who had ruled Guillen didn't tag Beltre, called Beltre out (suggesting that the Seattle third baseman hadn't touched second base).

Replays showed, however, that Beltre had clearly touched the bag before continuing on his way. So, obviously, the out call was a makeup call.

In most cases a makeup call is as harmless as a pet rabbit. In this case, though, it cost the Tigers the game. If Beltre had been ruled out when Guillen initially tagged him, Sexson wouldn't have scored and the inning would have ended 2-2. Instead, Seattle led 3-2, which turned out to be the final score.

While Beltre had every right to be flabbergasted when the umpire said he didn't touch second base, he should be thankful that he wasn't called out when he actually was out.

I'm out.

Federer shows he has grit


Roger Federer looked flustered, out of it, in a rut, inferior.

Yes, as hard as that is to believe, during the fourth set of his Wimbledon final against Rafael Nadal Sunday morning, the man who has now won five consecutive titles on London's preened grass courts didn't look his part.

The usual calm champion even lost his cool for a fleeting moment. Trailing 2-0 in the fourth set, Nadal successfully challenged an out call, changing the score on Federer's serve from 40-30 to 30-40. Federer, obviously peeved by the replay's result, accosted the chair umpire to discuss the ruling.

Nadal went on to break Federer for the second consecutive time, and he cruised to a 6-2 win of the set, sending the match to the ultimate fifth set, in which Federer proved to be his old self — breaking Nadal twice and finishing him 6-2.

But Federer gave himself the needed shot of momentum in the otherwise droll fourth set. Leading 4-1, Nadal — visibly limping — had to take time out to get the back of his right leg taped up. Perhaps Federer regained his composure and killer instinct during that reprieve, because he didn't play poorly after it. After Nadal closed out on serve to grab a commanding 5-1 advantage, Federer easily claimed his service game and then took Nadal to 40-30 — hitting one of his unreturnable forehands — before succumbing in the set's final game.

On paper Nadal had the momentum, but Federer had his touch back, and his mind was back on task.

Nadal’s resolve
Entering the fifth and deciding set, the advantage clearly went to Nadal. Federer hadn't played a five-set match in over a year and was a very mediocre — especially for him — 9-10 in five-setters for his career. Nadal, on the other hand, needed two hard-fought five-set matches to set up the final with Federer, and he brought a lifetime 9-2 mark in five-setters.

Additionally, Nadal was on an emotional high following the fourth set. The average viewer had to think after Federer dominated the third-set tiebreak (7-3) that Federer was on his way to Wimbledon title No. 5. That the match would be similar to last year's final, when Federer treated the fourth set like a do-or-die set, finishing off Nadal before he could build any suspense.

But the fearless 21-year-old Nadal didn't flinch one bit despite losing his second tiebreaker of the day in the third set (he went down 9-7 in the first-set tiebreaker). Instead, he came out the aggressor in the fourth set. His determined countenance belied his age and the number of good years he has in front of him. In that fourth set, he played like an aging veteran desperate to win that elusive Wimbledon title.

Nadal, who isn't known for his net play, did it all in his best set of the match. He moved Federer to all parts of the court with his ground strokes — his winning strategy at the French Open — and he charged the net when the opportunity presented itself, taking balls off his shoe tops and dropping them right over the net.

And as Federer began his string of uncanny play, committing careless mishits and not displaying an ounce of the killer instinct one would expect from him in the situation, Nadal didn't let up. He could sense the championship was there for the taking.

Federer's resolve
Here's the thing about Roger Federer. We've known for a few years now how good he is. OK... how DOMINANT he is. We've called him arguably the greatest player ever to play the game. We've compared him to Tiger Woods.

But we haven't really seen how he fares when adversity is staring him straight beneath his white headband. Before Sunday he hadn't played in a five-set Wimbledon match in six years, which was when at the ripe age of 19 he defeated Pete Sampras in the fourth round at the All-England club to prevent the all-time leader in Grand Slams (with 14) from winning his fifth consecutive Wimbledon (how ironic).

Before Sunday, Federer had never needed five sets to win any of his 10 Grand Slams finales. He'd rolled over opponents, toying with them, really, throwing them a few games here, maybe a set there. But two sets? No such luck. To use a Tiger analogy, Federer had never faced a twisting 10-footer for par that he absolutely needed to drop.

Until Sunday. So who knew how Federer — Mr. smooth, Mr. Easy Wins — would respond after being clearly outplayed in the fourth set Sunday? Nobody, really, except Federer.

Well, the verdict is in, and Roger Federer deals with pressure about as well as that golfer aforementioned. As the Aussies would say, "No worries."

Nadal was good in the final set (except that he couldn't hit a first serve in). Federer was very good. Nadal threatened Federer twice during the set, earning two break points on two occasions (with the score 1-1 and 2-2). Both times, however, Federer used his big serve (combined with a few unforced errors by Nadal) to hold serve. He didn't panic. He didn't complain to any judges. He simply dug deep, playing his best when he absolutely had to.

And then when the vital break opportunity presented itself, Federer — obviously having learned from his lack-of-focus in the previous set — jumped on it. Leading 3-2, Federer painted a beautiful backhand up the line to break Nadal and basically wrap up the match.

Another game on serve and break later, Federer was lying on the grass in exultation, having tied Bjorn Borg for the most consecutive Wimbledon titles.

And no one can say he didn't earn this one. No one was begging for his sweat-soaked headband following this 3-hour, 45-minute marathon of a match.

Yes, Roger Federer appeared vulnerable on Sunday despite playing on his favorite surface. He looked ready to sit back and let another man enjoy the glory of winning Wimbledon.

But none of that is being written about right now. People from Switzerland to here are singing his praises for showing that fortitude, for standing up to the pressure of a do-or-die fifth set.

And he deserves all the lauding. He clearly remains the world's best. For now at least — watch out, Nadal's coming! — Federer felicitously can sip Champaign from his perch atop the world of men's tennis.