Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Don't dismiss Kwame Brown just yet


When Joe Dumars pledged to "shake things up" this summer, this wasn't exactly what you were expecting.

OK, that's a guess. But I'm pretty confident in it. By all means, tell me if I'm off base. But signing serial underachiever Kwame Brown to a two-year contract doesn't exactly give the Pistons a fresh identity heading into the 2008-09 season.

And that's just fine. That's not the point of the move. There's still time for more serious shaking up to occur -- maybe even during the season.

But let's talk about this deal while it has the spotlight. What's the first word that pops into your head when the two words "Kwame Brown" are mentioned?





All true, but you could also throw out the following:




Those three words are why this deal makes sense. Dumars is making a minimal investment in a guy who could either dedicate himself to being a strong role player on a contending team, or remain the staple of inconsistency he's been his first seven years in the league.

If the former is true, then great. The Pistons definitely need depth and size in their frontcourt. The 6-foot-11, 270-pound Brown provides that. Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess aren't getting any younger or stronger. Big bodies shouldn't be taken for granted.

Of course, if the latter is true, then no biggie. The Pistons can dump Brown after two seasons -- if he chooses to pick up the option for his second year. They would only have lost $8 million on Brown. No, not exactly a disastrous New York Knicks contract.

If you think $4 million a year is a lot for a role player, then you're behind the times. That's what NBA veterans make these days. And if they don't receive offers for such money, they bolt for Europe. This summer has seen as many NBA players sign with European teams as foreign players join the league from abroad.

It's all about the money. And paying $4 million a year for a young big man with some potential is a worthy investment.

Do I think Brown is going to turn around his career in Auburn Hills? It's really hard to tell. My gut tells me no. But it's certainly the best situation for him. He'll be pushed by new Pistons coach Michael Curry, who won't take any indolence from him. He'll receive plenty of instruction from veterans Wallace and McDyess, but he won't be berated and demeaned like he was by Michael Jordan during his tumultuous time in Washington.

As witnessed by Jason Maxiell's maturation into a very solid frontcourt player off the bench, Detroit is a good place for a player like Brown. With Maxiell and the young Amir Johnson on the Pistons' bench, Brown will have to fight for every minute of playing time. There will be no free minutes. Being in an environment ripe with talented players will force Brown to dedicate himself to the game if he wants to become part of the rotation.

All good things.

And Brown has solid potential. OK, not No. 1 pick potential, which is what M.J. (somehow) saw in him. But with the right work ethic and environment, Brown could become a critical part of the Pistons' charge to finally return to the NBA Finals. He has the size and athletic ability. He just needs a lot of fine-tuning.

Do I like Kwame Brown as a player? Nope.

Would I call him a scrub right now? Yeah, though not to his face.

But Dumars, like most of the time, knew what he was doing.

He made a low-risk investment.

It could have no return. It could net a big return.

Only time will tell.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Wanna get depressed? Be a Tigers fan


WARNING: This is not a happy story. If you're in a chipper weekend mood, this is not recommended reading.

OK, I'll get right to the bread and butter.

I'm a Detroit Tigers fan.

On the surface, that's not bad, right? I follow a 52-51 team that's still (arguably) in contention for a division. The Tigers have one of baseball's highest payrolls. They have a lot of big-name players. Plenty of offense. Gotta love it, right?

Um, no.

Actually, following the Tigers these days is like jumping off a cliff, only breaking 17 bones, and then doing the exact same thing — and still not dying. Being a Tigers fan is akin to holding down a job that you absolutely detest but continue to get up for at 6:30 every morning.

I only need one number to back up my morbid argument: 17. That's how many one-run losses the 2008 Tigers have sustained. That's right. If my math is correct, they have lost one third of their games by a single @#%&!@# run. Watching one-run losses is more painful than getting an earring shoved into the middle of your lobe (and I have a personal experience to back this up).

I would much rather see the Tigers lose 13-2, 17-3, 29-4. Then, at least, I'd know they're terrible, they're underachievers, they're not gonna come back to win the division. But watching them lose game after game by a single run brings me back to watch the next game ... and the next.

It's called hope, people. The Tigers make you hope. And that is entirely — 118 percent — a bad thing. Only motivational speakers call hope a good thing. And they're getting paid for their words.

Take Saturday night, for instance. When the Tigers fell down 4-1 in the third inning, my man Tick sent me this text: "It's time tr starting thinking about next season" (yes, he struggles with his spelling)." I agreed, replying, "No doubt." Then, of course, the Tigers made me forget about Tick's morbid message. First, they tied the game 4-4. Then after Chicago got to Justin Verlander to make it 7-4, the Tigers battled back to 7-6.

There was hope. Then this happened — and if you're a Tigers fan and this doesn't depress you, well, you're not much of a fan. The Tigers loaded the bases for Carlos Guillen in the seventh inning. He struck out. Magglio Ordonez led off the bottom of the eighth with a double. He ended the inning stuck on second.

At that point, I knew it was all but over, but I continued watching. It would have worked just fine for a 1-2-3 ninth to happen. And the first two batters complied with first-pitch outs. But then Curtis Granderson decided to tease the fans, battling back from an 0-2 count to slice a double down the left-field line. All of a sudden, there was that stupid "H" word — hope.

I sat up in my seat and proceeded to watch Placido Polanco work a full count. Oh, boy! The Comerica Park fans rose to their feet. I could feel the tension from 697 miles away. Palanco is Detroit's best contact hitter. He was having a good night.

Which meant, of course, he was due for a strikeout. I knew it before it happened, but it didn't reduce the pain when he swung and missed. You know things are bad when the inevitable still stings as much as an unexpected bullet. That's what happened to me Saturday night.

As usual, the Tigers had created hope — giving me something to be excited about — only to snatch away from me. Of course I should have known about it, but how can I ignore a man on second with nobody out in a one-run game in the eighth inning?

I, like any other baseball fan, can't, you see. And if the Tigers were a fundamental baseball team, there's no way that tying run would have been stranded at second base. But with Miguel Cabrera and Gary Sheffield coming up, of course there was no bunting, no sacrificing. Instead, there was a strikeout and a popout. And then, just a moment later, the inning was over. The threat was averted. Bobby Jenks was warming up in the bullpen.

The season was all but over for the Tigers. After, of course, Jenks survived a little scare and put us Tigers fans back in our place.

And what a sad story it is. A team that was predicted to do such big things. Players not performing up to expectations, not getting the job done. A depressed culture.

My only cure on this night was Taco Bell. Perhaps that will be corrected in the future. But for now, one-run losses aren't quite as tasty as 89-cent beef burritos.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Where is Barry Bonds?


I am, in one word, shocked.

Here it is July 25, just a week away from the second-to-last full month of the regular season. The contenders have separated themselves from the pretenders. Those contenders are looking to pad their rosters before July 31's non-waiver trade deadline.

And Barry Bonds is nowhere to be seen.

Shocking. Unbelievable. Good for the game?

Well, maybe. The fact that every team's owner has passed on signing Bonds to a minimum prorated contract worth a bit more than your split-level house is morally strong of them. Who wants a pariah like Bonds in the clubhouse? Who wants an indicted man setting a bad example for the youngsters?

Good job, owners. You should be proud of yourselves. You're great citizens.

But, c'mon. We're talking about professional baseball. Not the college level, not even the minor-league level. Professional baseball! Before the season, the Washington Nationals had no problems adding Elijah Dukes to their roster. Forget that he threatened to kill his wife. The Nationals, apparently, were enamored with his .190 batting average in 2007.

Bonds' absence from a major-league field is completely character-related. There's no denying this. How else can you explain passing on a guy who had the best on-base percentage of anyone last year at .480. Other stats to consider -- in 126 games, he still managed to blast 28 homers and drive in 66 runs. And he walked 132 times compared to just 54 strikeouts.

I don't care if the guy's 44 and off the 'roids. He can still play. And he would be a valuable addition to just about any team's lineup.

The most obvious team is the Yankees. With Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada done for the year, the Yanks have a void at designated hitter. Can you imagine Bonds hitting third ahead of Alex Rodriguez? Pitchers would have to throw him strikes -- something that never was the case in San Francisco. Convince me that Bonds wouldn't do some damage in New York, especially with Yankee Stadium's short porch in right field.

Plus, Bonds is reportedly close to Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. For a team that has always prided itself on one thing -- winning -- adding Bonds for a season makes perfect sense.

OK, say it's not the wealthy Yankees who want Bonds. A cheaper team like the Diamondbacks, maybe. Did I mention that his agent, Jeff Borris, has said that Bonds would play for a minimum salary. We're talking six figures, people. And no guaranteed money to him after this season. What's the risk in that?

Not only that, but Bonds would donate his salary to charity. No, I'm not trying to make him into a saint. He could donate his entire bank account to charity, and he still wouldn't reach that status. Some things are irreversible.

But major league baseball is about winning. And on the field, Bonds would undoubtedly improve a team's chance of winning. That's not hard to figure out.

Would there be clubhouse issues? That's hard to tell. Of course there would be more cameras before and after games -- at least for a while. Of course Bonds would sap some attention away from other deserving players. That could cause some rifts. But we're talking about professionals here. They should be able to work things out.

As long as he didn't get the special treatment he received in San Francisco, I don't think there'd be many issues. No special trainers in the clubhouse. No special managers. That would need to be specified before he signed. Lay out the rules very clearly.

Yes, there's the pending indictment. But again, let's consider the time frame here. I'm talking about signing Bonds for two months, maybe three if a team plays in the postseason. How much can go wrong -- at such a cheap price -- during that time? No trial involving Bonds will take place during the season. That's all stuff for the offseason.

Which is when whoever signs Bonds could easily part ways with the slugger. Look, teams can do as they please, but when their GMs are complaining in late September that they lacked that strong, left-handed bat, that they needed a middle-of-the-lineup guy for the stretch run -- well, they should look themselves in the mirror and point their index finger at that mirror.

The thing nobody is talking about is Bonds' desire to get back in the game. Yes, he's a surly, arrogant, cocky SOB. But this season has to have been a bit humbling for the man with the home-run record. He couldn't have thought that almost four months into the season, no team would be interested in him, no offer would be on the table.

Say what you want about Bonds' despicable influence on baseball, about the substances and the lying. It's all true -- he's not a dignified man. But he loves baseball, and I guarantee you he's itching for one thing: to get out on a field and prove, once again, that he's one of the game's best hitters. All the other fodder, the locker-room and legal issues, isn't what Bonds truly cares about.

The man just wants to play.

Will I be happy if he continues to go unsigned? Yes, a bit. The owners would be sending a strong message that an athlete's on-field performance isn't the lone factor in determining his worth. (Although the players' union is expected to file a grievance saying owners acted in concert by not going after Bonds.)

But if I'm a fan of a team that's in contention, that's one big bat away from possibly making that leap into first place, then I'm writing letters to my team's owner. "Sign Barry," they read. "Just for these next two (hopefully three) months. Just for this season."

Sounds simple enough, right?

But Barry Bonds remains nowhere to be found.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Relish old baseball stadiums while they last


Tuesday could be a very sad day in Detroit.

That's when a Detroit City Council will vote on whether certain remnants of Tiger Stadium should be preserved. To me, the thought of driving in on I-96 and not seeing the old stadium stings. It will be hard for me the next time I drive to a Tigers game.

If my summer baseball trips the past few years have taught me anything, it's that you can't replicate an old stadium. You can hire the smartest, most decorated stadium architect. It doesn't matter. In 21st century America, new stadiums simply have a different smell.

Last month I visited Yankee Stadium for the first -- and almost certainly last (unless someone hooks me up with free tickets) -- time. Every moment of the five-plus hours I spent inside the stadium was special. I forgot for one night that I detest the Yankees. The old building made me forget.

A quick four reasons why the old Yankee Stadium is so great:

1. The upper deck. That's where we sat. There's no way I could afford a lower-deck seat. But the upper deck at Yankee Stadium is fine, because it hangs over the field. Even sitting way out in left field, I felt closer than I ever have sitting in Comerica Park's upper deck. I even had my glove out the entire night, thinking a home run could reach me -- something that was easily verified during the Home Run Derby last week.

2. The scoreboard. It was so simple, so old-school, any baseball purist had to love it. The names of players were displayed. Batting average, other statistics, etc. There was nothing fancy about it. Why would there be?

3. The lack of Ferris wheels. There was no attraction within the ballpark that had nothing to do with baseball. If you're going to a Yankees game, you're going to see the Yankees. You're not going to take your kid to the amusement park or see how fast you can still throw a ball. It's all about watching the Yankees.

4. The fans. Nothing against Detroit, but Tigers fans these days can be pretty ignorant, like when they boo Todd Jones for a save he didn't even blow. Yankees fans, on the other hand, knew what they were talking about. And they made plenty of noise, especially when the hallowed Mariano Rivera came in to pitch the ninth. He deserved the applause.

In a year, don't expect a similar experience at the new Yankee Stadium. The only good thing about it will be that it's not "Hewlett Packer Stadium." Poor people like me won't be able to afford tickets. The architecture won't be the same, instead providing a better view for the wealthy lower-level fans and screwing the upper-level mionions.

And, of course, there will be a Ferris wheel -- or some variation of one.

These old stadiums need to be relished, because once they're gone, they're gone. If you're a baseball fan next season, the two stadiums you have to visit if you haven't already are Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. And make Dodger Stadium your No. 3 destination.

All the other ballparks can wait. Sure, there are small variations among them. And Baltimore's Camden Yards is the best of the bunch. But they're all similar. They all fall into the same modern-day ballpark mold. The mold that makes millions for the team, but doesn't give the baseball fan like myself a better experience.

When Tiger Stadium was abandoned despite still having plenty of baseball left in it, I was devastated. It had been the ballpark I'd grown up visiting. I had sat everywhere within it and loved every seat I occupied (except for the time I had an obstructed-view chair). It had that baseball smell. That's what it was all about.

But along came Comerica Park, and no, it didn't solve any of the Tigers' problems. The team stunk up the joint until the magical season of 2006. Can you imagine how special that summer and early fall would have been inside the old confines? There sure wouldn't have been any fans riding the Ferris wheel during a playoff game!

Of course, it's usually about money. And the Tigers of 2008 are much richer than the Tigers of 1998. Who would have ever thought a decade ago that Mike Ilitch would make them one of baseball's biggest-spending teams? Not I.

But I'd trade Miguel Cabrera for the old stadium in a heartbeat. There are plenty of Cabreras out there. There is -- and soon we'll be saying "was" -- only one Tiger Stadium.

Here's to hoping that Red Sox and Cubs fans hold on as long as they can.

Stadiums like Fenway and Wrigley can't be replicated.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Second-half MLB predictions


Yes, the season is more than half over. Yes, the Mets have already won 10 straight to tie the Phillies for first place. But I'm sitting by a pool, so I feel I have the right to put together a relaxing, uncontroversial column.

With that said, here are my predictions for the rest of the baseball season. Warning: There are many poolside distractions; these could be very, very off.

A.L. East winner — Boston Red Sox: The Rays aren't going away, especially if they make a move before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. And that's something they can afford. You also can't rule out the Yankees. I can't even remember the last time they missed the playoffs. But I'm sticking with my preseason prediction. The return of David Ortiz will help spark the offense, and the pitching staff remains one of baseball's best. The only question mark is middle relief.

A.L. Center winner — Detroit Tigers:
I know this is absolutely crazy, and I'll be accused of being a homer, but I just have this gut feeling. The return of Magglio Ordonez will only further ignite an offense that has found its groove. Meanwhile, the top three starting pitchers have regained their 2006 form, and setup man Joel Zumaya is pitching as well as he has in two years. I don't think the Twins have enough firepower to keep up with the White Sox and Tigers. As for Chicago, I like the team a lot, but I think the division will come down to the remaining nine games between Chicago and Detroit. And I'm giving the Tigers the edge. Call me an idiot!

A.L. West winner — Los Angeles Angels:
This is an easier pick. While it's amazing how the A's continually do well despite trading away all their big-name players, the Angels might be the league's best team that no one is talking about. Their pitching — from top to bottom — is rock solid. They don't have the most potent lineup, but in their division solid pitching and defense should be enough to easily be pouring champagne co late September.

A.L. Wild Card winner — Tampa Bay Rays: This is a tough call, considering this is the Yankees' last season in the Stadium. But in case you haven't heard, this team is for real and is solid from top to bottom. Expect the Rays to hold off the Yanks and White Sox in a tight race to the finish. And Dick Vitale will be throwing out "Babys" all over South Florida.

N.L. East winner — Philadelphia Phillies: Another tough call here, but I gotta go with the fightin' Phils. Look for a much better second half from reigning MVP Jimmy Rollins, and Chase Utley will bolster his candidacy for the current award. That will be just enough to hold off the Mets, not to mention the precocious Marlins. It will be a start-to-finish win for the Phillies. No collapse needed this time.

N.L. Center winner — Chicago Cubs: Talk all you want about C.C. Sabathia's addition to the Brewers. This is still the Cubs' division to win (or lose). They've got the lead at the break, and I don't seem them giving it up, especially with Alfonso Soriano expected back soon. The Cardinals will hang tough, but they — like the Brewers — won't have enough to overtake the Cubbies. They'll be partying in Wrigleyville.

N.L. West winner — Arizona Diamondbacks: Do I have to pick this division? Geez, what a dump. Not one team over .500? Are you kidding me? I'd expect a little more out of Joe Torre in L.A., and what happened to the Diamondbacks? Sometimes it seems like they completely forget how to hit. OK, I'll stop bickering. I'm going with the D-Backs, because they still have stellar pitching, which will certainly keep them in the race. And they're hitting will come around at some point (I think?), giving them enough to hold the division. But, really, almost anyone could win this thing. Even the pitiful Rockies.

N.L. Wild Card winner — N.Y. Mets: I could throw four teams in a shoebox and pull out one ... and I'd be happy with my pick. That's how close this could be. But since I call myself a "journalist," I'll make a legitimate, thought-out choice. Drumroll .... give me the Mets. Yes, this team has experienced a resurgence. The clubhouse is back together after the Willie Randolph fiasco, guys are having fun again, and we always knew the players were there. For a team that has underachieved so far, simply playing up to its potential — as has been the case during the winning streak — will be enough to win the wild card. Milwaukee, St. Louis and Florida will all make pushes for this spot.

OK, folks, that's it for now. Once I discover that all these picks — or at least 89 percent of them — have gone bad, I'll make new ones come the postseason. Call 'em redemption picks. Now, it's time to take a dip in the pool.

Enjoy the second half.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What an All-Star spectacle


Anyone who says the NBA All-Star Game, or the Pro Bowl, or the NHL All-Star Game is better than baseball's version is crazier than a North-Pole nudist.

And they definitely didn't see the amazing spectacle that was Tuesday night's final All-Star Game inside fabled Yankee Stadium. The American League's 15-inning, 4-3 victory was so full of drama, I hallucinated and saw October leaves outside the window.

The drama had nothing to do with the inane rule that grants the winning league's World Series representative home-field advantage in late October, either. The drama still would have been there without it. (And, by the way, the rule is ludicrous; it isn't needed, and the team with the better regular-season record deserves home-field, although I don't think playing at home is a big advantage in baseball anyway.)

Unlike other sports' all-star spectacles, baseball people actually take their game very seriously. And that, in itself, makes the game special. Before Tuesday's contest, National League manager Clint Hurdle said it was a "must-win" for his league, which had dropped 10 straight Midsummer Classics -- with a 2002, Bud Selig-induced tie thrown in.

A "must-win" all-star game? Never heard that before.

And then the game started. And it was brilliant. It was a true celebration of the amazing players from both leagues, but at the same time it was a great game between two sides determined to win. It was full of strategy, as both managers -- as they ran out of players, most urgently pitchers -- had to make difficult decisions. Players even bunted!

The image that will stick with me is that of American League skipper Terry Francona joyously throwing his arms up in relief and then hugging a surprised Jim Leyland -- all while showcasing a huge smile -- after Justin Morneau just barely slid in safely to end the game on Michael Young's sacrafice fly.

How crazy is this? Francona appeared just as excited as when the Red Sox won World Series titles in 2004 and '07. Wow.

But he had good reason to be juiced. He was down to his last pitcher, Tampa Bay's Scott Kazmir, and he didn't want to pitch Kazmir. The Rays' stud had thrown more than 100 pitches Sunday, and Boston's A.L. East rival wants to use its ace again Saturday. So it was a huge quagmire for Franconia, who is a classy guy and would never want to jepordize another team's chances in the second half of the season because of a manegerial decision.

Tell me another all-star game in which a situation like that might arise?

Hurdle was in the same boat. When Morneau scored, he was down to his last pitcher -- and that guy was Phillies closer Brad Lidge, who isn't normally used for more than one inning. If the game had gone one or two more frames, Hurdle was prepared to give the ball to Mets third baseman David Wright.

How cool would that have been?

But strategy aside, the play on the field was what set this game apart. Maybe the players were touched by the elaborate, well-done pregame ceremony in which they were introduced alongside a large throng of Hall-of-Famers who stood by their respective positions on the field. Maybe it was the legend of Yankee Stadium, which couldn't have experienced a better All-Star sendoff than this one. Whatever the case may be, the late innings Tuesday night were chock-full of enough drama and clutch play to last a week.

There was Tampa Bay rookie Evan Longoria looping a low-and-inside pitch down the left-field line for a game-tying , two-out double in the eighth inning. That tied the score 3-3. It wouldn't change for a couple hours.

It easily could have, though, several times. There was the Texas duo of Ian Kinsler and Young sending off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera with a perfect outing thanks to a huge double play that ended a National League rally in the 10th inning -- the N.L. had a runner on third base.

Than, in the bottom half of the frame, there was Colorado's Aaron Cook somehow getting out of a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam by inducing three consecutive groundballs, the first two of which were thrown home for the forceout. I hadn't seen that in years.

The A.L. came right back, however, in the bottom of the 11th swinging, and it looked like it would claim the victory on a single off the bat of Young. But there was the lone Pittsburgh Pirate Nate McLouth throwing a dart to catcher Russell Martin, who cleanly caught the short scoop and applied the tag on Dioner Navarro.

Play on!

There were more scoring chances, more runners on third base, more clutch defensive plays until Young finally ended it -- and the scattered fans remaining in the stadium's blue seats could depart. As for the fans who departed early, I'm sorry, but you're crazy. If I were lucky enough to score a ticket, there's no way I would have left prematurely.

What a game it was, and how appropriate was the venue?

Modern all-star games are flooded by celebrities, by people without rooting interests. This makes the crowds boring, quiet and, simply, not caring about much of what is transpiring in front of them. The NBA All-Star Game is a prime example.

But somehow a large throng of Yankees fans got into Tuesday's game, and -- love 'em or hate 'em -- they made their presence felt. The crowd was actually loud, actually boisterous, actually into the game. When Boston's Jonathan Papelbon entered the game in the eighth inning, he was booed. Who gets booed at an all-star event? And when Rivera took the mound in the ninth, he received a standing ovation.

With "Mariano Rivera" chants, among others, lasting well into the night, the stadium never lost the edge that has made it so special for 85 years. October -- wait, it's July? -- was in the air.

What one can take from Tuesday's spectacle regardless of when the TV was turned off is this: Baseball clearly has the best all-star game of America's major sports.

The NBA stars don't play defense for much of the game, instead catering to those who wish for highligh-reel dunks. I would love to watch just one NBA All-Star Game where the players try on defense for 48 minutes.

The Pro Bowl is after the Super Bowl. Need I say more?

I can't even name more than five of hockey's best players, so I won't go there.

But baseball's Midsummer Classic remains a special game. Not only do you get to see the game's best players congregate for one night -- with each of them wearing his own team's uniform -- but they all try their hardest both at the plate and in the field. They all take the game seriously. And so do their managers and bench coaches.

And when a game like Tuesday's is finally over, with the clock ticking toward 2 a.m. in New York, all you have to do is look at the facial expressions of the winners to know that the 4 hours, 50 minutes spent on the field was far from a waste of time.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Booing Jones represents pure ignorance


One day during some future baseball season, Tigers fans will look up to the sky and ask, "Jonesy, where art thou?"

Unfortanetly, as mentioned, that day will be in the future. As for the present, Comerica Park patrons appear to love Todd Jones as much as the Michigan economy.

That, also, is unfortunate. And ignorant. And just plain stupid. Whenever Jonesy gives up a ninth-inning hit, loud groans are heard all over the ballpark. And when he allows a run -- OH MY GOD, A RUN!!! -- the booing starts. Never mind that it might not of been his fault. In Detroit, if Jones is on the mound, he's the scapegoat. No ifs, ands or buts.

Take Thursday's devastating 7-6, 11-inning loss to the Twins: Jones entered in the top of the ninth inning with Detroit holding a 6-4 lead. He promptly gave up singles to the first two batters, and both hitters ended up scoring to tie the game. What the average fan in attendance couldn't seem to grasp, however, is that if not for right fielder Matt Joyce's gaffe on the second single, which allowed the first baserunner to score and the batter to advance to third, Jones would have gotten the save.

Because the following batter flied out to left field, which in reality was a sacrifice fly but should have been, simply, the first out of the inning, and should have held the runner at first. The next batter grounded back to Jones, which -- in an errorless world -- would have been a game-ending double play.

So blame Joyce, not Jones, for what transpired. When fans mercilessly "booooooooooed!!!!!" Jones after he was pulled following a two-out single, they, apparently, didn't understand how the lead had ultimately been lost.


Tigers fans have been hating Jones for years, yet he continues to deliver for their team. Not brilliantly, that's for sure, but he gets the job done. A hardworking, blue-collar city like Detroit should appreciate that. (Then again, with ticket prices and the economy these days, most fans who can afford to sit within shouting distance of the diamond are from Rochester.)

Jonesey doesn't strikeout a lot of guys like fan-favorite Joel Zumaya. He doesn't have a pitch that makes you exclaim, "Wow, that had more movement than a cakewalk full of 5-year-olds." But he gets guys out. And he saves games. Basically, he does his job.

Cue the evidence trailer:

Thanks to Joyce's dumb play, Jones has now converted only 16 of 18 save opportunities. Of the 24 closers with at least 16 saves, only two -- the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, only the best finisher, arguably, of all time; and Philadelphia's Brad Lidge -- have fewer blown saves.

Granted, Jones' 16 saves ranks just 23rd in the majors, but you can only do your job when you get the opportunity, right? Maybe the Tigers should experiment with more close games.

You want more? OK, I'll go back a year. At the young age of 39, Jones converted 38 of 44 chances in 2007. Of the 18 closers with at least 30 saves, nine had more blown saves than Jones' six. Only two of the eight pitchers with more saves had fewer blown saves. Sounds like a guy to boo, huh?

Listen, I understand where the fans are coming from. They want young blood. They're sick of the mustache and the fastballs that barely break 90 mph these days. They can't wait for Zumaya to become Detroit's closer, to run in from the bullpen as "Wild Thing" blares from the speakers. I can't even remember if music is played when Jones makes his bland entrance.

There's no spectacle, nothing to get excited about. Just nervousness, just tension. Now what kind of ninth-inning party is that??

I hear you, I hear you. And Zumaya will get his chance. Jones ain't getting younger, and at some point he's gonna say, "You know what, I don't need this any more." But for now, he's the best closer the Tigers got, because Zumaya has a tendency to hurt himself playing "Guitar Hero" and carrying around boxes (always a dangerous activity) and hard-throwing Fernando Rodney has this tendency to walk opposing batters (translation: not good).

So deal with it, folks. Todd Jones has been the Tigers closer, and he'll continue to fill that role for the time being.

If you want to boo him, fine. But just realize that a loss isn't always his fault.

And know that when it comes to saving games, he remains one of baseball's best.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Let athletes retire when they're ready


I know this isn't realistic, but play along for a minute:

You're a middle-aged guy. You love your job. Sure, you've got enough money to buy a small island and still send your kids to Ivy League schools, but that's not the point. Did I mention that you love your job?

You're only 38 years old, and for your entire life you've poured your heart and soul into becoming as good of an employee at said job as possible. You know nothing else. Sure, you like to play poker with the fellas on Friday nights, but that's not exactly a time-consuming hobby.

The fact is, when you leave your dream job, when you decide to "retire," you really will be left with nothing. You'll spend more time with your family members, but even they won't be able to fill your days (heck, they're telling you that now). You're scared of feeling empty, as if you're wasting away the entire second half of your life.

When you could still be succeeding at the highest level of your profession...

Get the point? Are you in Brett Favre's cleats by now? If not, simply blame my journalistic skills.

But this isn't about me. Rather, this is about Favre, and every other professional athlete who decides they're not ready to retire -- and gets criticized for coming back.

That criticism is ridiculous. An athlete should get to be an athlete for as long as they can perform, for as long as an organization wants them. It's no different from other professions -- lawyers, doctors, veterinarians: Nobody ever tells them to retire at an early age and stay retired.

The problem here is a way of thinking about athletes. We see them as temporary forms of entertainment, as the leaders of our favorite teams. We don't view them as employees, as people interested in performing their jobs for as long as they can. Often times -- lost in the haze of ludicrous contracts -- I think we lose sight of just how much most athletes love their jobs, of the main reason why they've dedicated themselves to sports for so many years.

Favre is an example of what pro sports are all about. I'm not gonna say it's never been about the money for him, because at some moment in life -- before the big ranch and the multiple cars -- earning a living is the objective. But for the past several years, that certainly hasn't been a worry of his.

He plays because of his love, his passion, for the game. And if he wants to return to the NFL, he should go for it without thinking twice. Whether Green Bay takes him back or another team picks him up -- who the heck wouldn't? -- is up to them. There's no obligation there. But don't fault Favre if he indeed has that itch to play pro football again.

As some song goes, you don't know how good something is until it's out of your grasp.

I wrote a column over a year ago applauding Tiki Barber for retiring early. The New York Giants running back was clearly tired of the physical pounding his body took season after season, and he wanted to preserve his face for a broadcasting career -- which, by the way, is in full swing.

Barber was widely denounced for leaving the Giants at the age of 31 and with plenty of gas left in his tank. He shouldn't have been. The man had another calling, which he pursued only after giving all he had for the G-Men on the field. Some players aren't football lifers, many aren't like Favre.

Anyone who watched the Packers last season knows that Favre can still play, that his arm remains one of the league's strongest and his improvisational skills haven't deserted him. He came thisclose to leading Green Bay to the Super Bowl, and the memory of his last throw -- an overtime interception that led to New York's game-winning field goal in the NFC championship game -- has to haunt him.

In my mind, the Packers would be foolish not to welcome him back with open arms. Even if it's just a one-year deal, the decent chance to win one Super Bowl with Favre easily outweighs the uncertainty that will cloak Green Bay once the Aaron Rodgers Era officially begins. To simplify, Green Bay + Favre > Green Bay + Rodgers.

At least for now.

But if the Packers don't take Favre back, fine -- that's their decision. If he wants to play, he'll end up somewhere. And we should all relish the opportunity to watch him play again, just like we cherished the chance to see M.J. once again, and then again.

At the young age of 38, Favre might not be ready for retirement yet.

For the select few of us who love our jobs, we should be able to relate.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

I feel sorry for Baron Davis?


Rarely, if ever, do I feel sorry for a guy making $13 million a year. Heck, I'd be living in utopia with a $50,000 annual salary.

But my feelings don't have stringent rules, so I'm making the rare exception tonight: Baron Davis got screwed, and I feel for him. There, I said it.

If I were Davis, this is what I would have done when I learned, Tuesday night, that soon-to-be Los Angeles Clippers teammate Elton Brand was ditching me for the East Coast, specifically Philadelphia:

I would have put my head in my hands, shed some tears and asked myself, "Why??? Why did I leave more money and talent in the Bay Area for what now resembles a mediocre team in the Dominant West??

"Maybe I should quit basketball for my budding producing career."

Seriously. When Davis shocked Golden State by leaving for the Clippers last week, he did it with the understanding that Brand -- who, like Davis, opted out of his contract -- would re-sign with L.A. to form one of the NBA's premier inside-outside duos.

In fact, everyone thought Brand would return. When he opted out of his contract, he said he intended to stay with the team. He just wanted more talent, specifically Davis, to help the Clippers be competitive in the Western Conference. The franchise, of course, hasn't always done nearly enough to put a decent product on the floor. But Brand got his wish in Davis, a dynamic point guard who can do it all -- score, pass, run the fastbreak and bring attention to LA's "other team."

The table was set for the resurgence of the Clippers -- or maybe "surgence," since they've never been any good.

And now? They'll be lucky to finish in the West's top 10 or 11. And that's even if they're able to snag high-flying power forward Josh Smith from Atlanta.

To add to Davis' misery -- and don't let him tell you he feels otherwise -- one of the Clippers' best scorers, Corey Maggette, bolted for Davis' former team, verbally agreeing to a contract with the Warriors on the same day as Brand's committment to the 76ers. Maggette's departure was expected, but combined with Brand's shocking decision, it had to be a double punch to the gut for Davis.

Recently, Davis was featured in "ESPN The Magazine" asking Kobe Bryant how to build a championship-caliber team. Last week, he put Bryant's advice in action, sacraficing money -- he could have earned $17.8 million next season with Golden State -- to join what he thought was a winning situation.

Now, all Davis can point to -- at least positively -- is that he's still moving home, and his production company should benefit from his relocation.

But he won't win more games with the Clippers than he did with Golden State, and there's no way the style of play will be as loose and fun under Mike Dunleavy's watch as it was, for the most part, under Don Nelson. Davis and Nelson did tangle at the end of last season, but primarily it was a good relationship and the Warriors played the loosest, shoot-whenever-you-want style in the NBA.

Plus, Clippers fans can't compare to those rowdy, yellow-shirt-wearing Warriors followers.

What, basketball-wise, could possibly be good about the move now? Let me try some things:

-- Davis is definitely the franchise player for the Clippers. He'll be on the cover of the media guy.

... Davis was the franchise player for the Warriors. Nothing new about this.

-- The Clippers have versatile, young wings in Al Thornton and rookie Eric Gordon to help Davis carry the scoring load.

... Wait. Didn't Davis have, like, five of these guys with the Warriors?

OK, I give up. There really are no positives except that the Clippers have cap space to go after Smith. But the Hawks could match any offer sheet L.A. makes, and even if Smith did decide to leave, he's no Elton Brand -- not even close. He can jump really high, but his post moves are as honed as Ben Wallace's free throws.

At the moment, and at least until the summer of 2009, the 29-year-old Davis is in a worse basketball situation than he was just days ago.

He was abandoned by Brand, who got A) more money; and B) the chance to fly away to the Leastern Conference. Brand's Sixers will more than likely make the playoffs in '09 and possibly even win a series or two. Their future looks bright at the moment.

As for Davis'?

Well, maybe he should focus more on his production company.

Because he sure won't be winning any championships with his new team.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Federer-Nadal spectacle something to cherish


Every so often, something happens that reminds me why I love sports so much, why I've always wanted to be a sportswriter -- even if the pay is dismal.

That happened for me Monday afternoon.

I had been backpacking in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains all weekend, which forced me to have my aunt DVR the Wimbledon championship matches. And after returning home Sunday night, I had to block myself out from the sports world to hold the suspense in the air.

But Monday afternoon, after waking up and speeding over to my aunt's, I witnessed greatness. Rafael Nadal's five-set, 4-hour, 48-minute victory over Roger Federer felt live to me even 24 hours later. It was one of those matches where you don't want either player to lose because of how good they both are.

There was Nadal, the clay-court master seeking his first Wimbledon title, taking the first two sets with an array of ground strokes that always seemed to paint the lines.

Federer, the five-time champ, the man with 12 grand slams, seemed done. The younger Nadal was wearing him out, right? Nonsense. Rather, there was Federer playing the most clutch tennis I've ever witnessed, winning tiebreaks in the third and fourth sets to even the match. He came back from a 5-2 hole, facing two Nadal serves, in the fourth-set tiebreak.

You know how there are plays that stick with you for a lifetime? If Federer had gone on to win the match, his backhand up the line to save a match point in the fourth set would have gone down, at least in my mind, as on of those. Federer saved three match points on his way to evening the match.

After that fourth set, and an emotional outburst from the world's No. 1 player, Nadal was seen resting, his legs shaking as he prepared for the do-or-die fifth set. From that image, I didn't know if he'd have the courage to win that elusive third set.

I shouldn't have doubted him. As darkness settled in on Centre Court, and I started to wonder if I could have tuned in Monday to watch the end live, the best players in the world continued to play remarkably, showing no signs of fatigue or failure to see the ball. Every time one threatened to break the other's serve, the server responded with a huge ace or a ferocious ground stroke.

The scoring was simple: 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, 6-6, 7-7. I could have left the TV running, gotten some popcorn and returned to the same pattern. Nadal was only broken once -- one freakin' time! -- the entire match.

But the tennis, despite its predictability, was way too enthralling to step away from. Nearly every point was earned. Unforced errors were at a minimum. And, most appealing, was how clutch the players continued to be.

Finally -- and luckily for the fans in attendance -- Nadal was able to break Federer, and then the five-time champ gave him the match with a weak forehand into the net. But that's not what should be remembered. There were way too many other special moments in the match.

John McEnroe did the color commentary for NBC, and even the three-time Wimbledon winner remarked at one point, "How lucky are we (to be here)?" Afterward, McEnroe called it the greatest match he's ever seen. That, in itself, is impressive -- he's been around for quite awhile.

For me, the match was one of the best sports events I've ever watched. Even though I didn't have a rooting interest, I found myself sitting up intently, first cheering for Federer to come back, then simply hoping for a dramatic final set. My wishes were granted.

If I could rate my top five sports-watching moments, Sunday's match would be included -- and I didn't even see it live! It was one of those events that non-tennis fans could enjoy, could get caught up in.

And the players should be appreciated for their greatness. In this country, men's tennis -- unfortunately -- is often an afterthought. Without a male American star, the sport is often close to ignored. I can't even remember the last time a player was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Not even Federer, who could -- and probably still will -- end up with the most majors of all time. And sports radio would rather talk about the NFL in June than the French Open.

Anyone who isn't paying attention is missing out.

This is a special time for the sport because of the two guys who attacked each other all over the court Sunday. Federer and Nadal have met six times in grand slam finals, with Nadal now holding a 4-2 edge. While the Spaniard is dominant at Roland Garros, the two have to be considered dead even on grass.

We'll see how Nadal progresses on the hard courts used at the U.S. and Australian opens. He's never played in a final at either tournament, but he's young and getting better. And the determination he showed on Centre Court, I'm sure, will help him become a hard-court champion.

As for Federer, those who thought he was over the hill at the age of 26 are nuts. He might have narrowly lost at Wimbledon, but he was still clearly the second-best player in the field. And he's still ranked the No. 1 player in the world.

But, yes, he's not getting any better like Nadal.

Which is why the Federer-Nadal matchup should be appreciated for as long as it lasts. Taking either player for granted would be foolish -- these kind of athletes don't come around every year. And when they're playing on the same court, they push each other to levels of play they didn't even know possible.

Federer seemed far from a tiring veteran player against Nadal, passionately chasing down balls all over the court and pumping his fist in adulation after big points. Nadal continues to amaze with shots that your TV screen doesn't do justice. He's far from the one-dimensional clay player he was once seen as.

Both players elicited shouts from me, sitting on the couch, of "What??" and "Are you surrious?" as the match progressed. Signs of legendary play, I call them.

And then they showed why tennis is truly a gentleman's sport. After the last point, after Nadal hugged his family members and became the first Wimbledon champion to climb into the Royal box, the awards presentation featured both men holding trophies. Then both said how much they admired the other. Federer was clearly in pain, having come up just short of his most memorable grand-slam win yet, but that didn't stop him from applauding the new champion and the first player since Bjorn Borj to win the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back.

Finally, Nadal was the most humble title winner I've ever seen. As excited as he was, he didn't say anything to take away from the man standing nearby. Both players clearly respect each other, and that's a positive for the sport. They're as competitive as can be, but once the final point's been played, there's no bashfulness.

It's just another reason to love men's tennis right now.

History is being made, superb tennis is being played, and I'm just thankful that I'm witnessing it one tournament after another.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Brandon Jennings trapped by the system


I love what Brandon Jennings is saying. I love the publicity he has gotten with his words.

Unfortunately, however, he'll be owned by the system.

If the class of 2008's No. 1 prospect gets back a SAT score Thursday that is good enough for him to enroll at Arizona in the fall, he'll head to Tuscon -- if he knows what is best for him.

Jennings has said in the past week that he's considering playing in Europe for a year -- and earning a bundle of cash -- instead of honoring his letter of commitment to be a Wildcat for one season (he has already confirmed that he'll enter the 2009 NBA draft). It's the first time since the NBA's age-limit rule was instituted prior to the 2006 draft that a high-school graduate has considered such an option.

Of course, a big reason for this is that Jennings needs his third go-round at the SAT test to exceed a certain score just to attend Arizona. If that doesn't happen, he's definitely off to Europe and the land of professional basketball.

But the test more than likely will be fine. Jennings had a solid score the second time he took it, but the NCAA didn't allow it because he did so much better than his first time around. Jennings simply said that he tried harder. Whatever the case may be, I expect his score to get him into Arizona.

And I'm pretty certain he'll be playing for Lute Olson in November.

Which is too bad -- it'd be nice to think that college basketball is more than just a one-year feeding system for the NBA's newest stars. If the draft that just happened is any indication, however, that's exactly what it has become.

This isn't to say that college basketball doesn't remain a great sports spectacle. I still love the games, the team play, the madness. But thanks to the NBA's rule, we become enamored with players -- and their respective teams -- one year only to see them declare for the association before spring exams are complete.

Brandon Jennings is the next in line.

I'd love for him to buck the trend, to hop a plane for Madrid or Moscow, to learn the intricacies of the international game before being drafted into the NBA next year. The truth, however, is that he'd gain much more exposure -- and I'm not talking about the sun -- from playing at Arizona as opposed to running with the bulls.

He'd also likely get more playing time, more offensive freedom from Olson and, ultimately, more of an opportunity to shine for NBA scouts. Come next June, Jennings' stock would be higher coming off a year in college, and, thus, his financial future would shine brighter.

Money, money, money. That's what it boils down to.

Jennings doesn't give a hoot about winning for the Wildcats, or impressing the coeds. He has one goal in mind -- to be a star in the NBA. There's one obstacle in his way -- David Stern's age limit. Jennings, and his agent, just have to decide what would be the better stepping stone to the fulfillment of his dream.

The evidence is right in front of them: In the recent 2008 draft, four of the top five picks were one-and-done college players. The lone foreign player in the top 10 -- and one heck of an established player -- went No. 6. In all, a record 10 freshmen were chosen in the first round (and earned guaranteed cash). Four overseas players made the top 30.

In a year, Jennings almost definitely will be a first-round pick regardless of where he laces 'em up this fall. But where he gets drafted on the rookie pay scale is up in the air, and more endorsements tend to find the higher picks.

Welcome to Arizona, Mr. Jennings. No need to attend classes. Just win games and help us sell jerseys. It's been eight seasons since our last Final Four.

That will be the story come November, and Jennings will get fawned over by the college-basketball media -- and rightfully so. Because he'll be gone before they know it.

And when "Brandon Jennings" is called next June in Madison Square Garden, he will be a household name in NBA circles -- a perfect scenario for Stern. He won't be some foreign star whom only the experts have heard of. He'll be one of the next batch of marketable rookies for the association.

As the NBA continues to reap the benefits of its monopolizing rule.