Tuesday, June 30, 2009

All-Star voting privilege should be stripped from fans


Nothing against Alfonso Soriano — he seems like a nice guy — but there's no way he should be in contention for a starting spot in next month's All-Star Game.

No friggin' way.

Yet with fan voting wrapping up this week, that's still a possibility. At last glance, the Cubs outfielder -- who's batting .232 and has a horrid .296 OBP -- was just 27,000 votes behind the Mets' Carlos Beltran for the final starting spot in the National League outfield.

While Beltran has been a bit limited by injury, he's still batting .336 and has an OBP of .425 to go along with 29 extra-base hits -- just two fewer than Soriano's 31. How, I ask, is this a contest?

It's simple, really: The fans are allowed to vote.

And not once, or twice, or seven times ... but 25 times. Don't tell me there aren't thousands of Cubbies fans from Augusta, Maine, to San Diego who have voted 25 times to put their beloved, hopping-and-skipping outfielder in St. Louis' green grass along with the much more deserving Raul Ibanez and Ryan Braun.

Do I blame the fans? Well, yes and no.

Yes for being idiots. No, because they're simply being, well, fans -- supporting their team and players even when it doesn't make sense.

This, really, is why Bud Selig and his friends need to stop this silliness. Strip fans of voting privileges.

Instead, leave it up to the writers and other media folks who follow the game objectively. And continue to let the managers pick the subs. It's not complicated.

Fans will still love the game. Fans will continue to revere the players. Heck, if baseball can survive each time a star player is discovered to have used PEDs, I'm sure it'd be fine after this change.

And the All-Star Game would be better off because of it. The rosters would be about as legitimate as possible, meaning each team would have its best grouping of players to attempt to win the game and grab the league home-field advantage in the World Series.

If Bud and his boys are going to continue to let the fans vote, then the home-field thing needs to go by the wayside. Have the home-run derby, play the game, everyone enjoy themselves.

But don't turn it into something with meaning when guys like Soriano are playing instead of solid, deserving players like the Phillies' Jayson Werth (.271 BA, .364 OBP, 29 extra-base hits).

Hey, baseball's got a problem. What's new?

This one, though, would be easy to fix.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Who's more impressive: Tiger or Roger?

So we've reached the dog days of summer.

The basketball and hockey seasons are over. Football season is still more than two months away. And there are too many baseball games remaining to start talking about pennant races.

This means, of course, that it's a good time to talk about the individual sports that garner the most attention in this country -- tennis and golf. And when mentioning them, you have to start with two names: Tiger Woods and Roger Federer.

The similarities between the stars are striking. While Woods, 33, has six years on the 27-year-old Federer, consider these numbers.

Woods has won 67 golf tournaments during his professional career. Federer has won 59 singles titles and 67 overall titles if you include doubles.

Woods has won 14 major championships, leaving him four shy of Jack Nicklaus' all-time record. Federer also has 14, tying him with Pete Sampras for the record.

Oh, and they pose together in commercials for Gillette.

Both athletes, clearly, have had remarkable careers and will be remembered at least among the top two or three players in their sport if not the best. But whose accomplishments are more impressive?

Federer, to me, is amazing because of how quickly he burst onto the scene. He didn't win a grand slam until Wimbledon in 2003. And then he won three in 2004, two in '05 and three in both '06 and '07. He's added a single title each of the last two years and is vying to add to his '09 total as I write this.

Woods, on the other hand, turned pro in 1996 -- three years before Federer consistently competed at that level -- and has spread out his major titles a little more than his tennis sage counterpart.

He has won a major in nine different years and only won three of them in one year (2000).

Does that make what Woods has accomplished less impressive than Federer's quick rise to the top?

I don't think so. You have to look, rather, at Woods' consistency. He plays a sport in which guys can be competitive until they're 50 -- just consider Kenny Perry's run at the Masters -- and he's always in contention at majors.

No one doubts that Woods, as long as he stays healthy, will eventually break Nicklaus' record. We'll just have to wait awhile -- maybe more than five years.

Federer, on the other hand, is on the verge of breaking Sampras' mark. He could do it in less than two weeks at Wimbledon, where for a second straight grand slam he won't have to face his nemesis, Rafael Nadal.

He probably will.

Just like Woods, Federer's consistency is astounding. In a tennis majors, where seven wins (and 21 sets) are required to take home the championship, one bad match will doom you. As Nadal learned on his dominant surface of clay at the French Open, it can happen against anyone.

Nobody in the modern era has been better than Federer at coming out for every match ready to go.

In a golf major, there's not quite as much pressure. Woods can shoot a 74 in the opening round and still rally to win the tournament. He doesn't have to shoot four 66s.

So in that respect, winning seven tennis matches is a little more difficult than winning a golf major.

But then you must consider the game of golf and the tricks it plays on not only your average hacker, but the No. 1 player in the world. Woods has to deal with bad bounces, with putts that feel perfect and roll wide and, of course, with players who get those lucky rolls to jump into contention.

Federer has more control over each of his shots and where they end up.

To simplify, Woods plays a much tougher sport.

Which brings me back to square one: Who, up to this point in their career, has been more impressive?

My conclusion: Right now it's Federer, because of how quickly he's accumulated his wins.

But let's compare the numbers again in 10 years, when R.F. will likely be in the gallery, retired, watching Woods continue to play as the world's best golfer.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Orlando's big choke job


It's usually unfair to make bold statements in characterizing a sports event, but not this time.

So here goes.

The Orlando Magic should be ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers 3-1 in the NBA Finals instead of down by the same margin. The Magic should be on its way to securing the city's first championship.

The Magic has outplayed the Lakers in Games 2, 3 and 4 -- and won one of them.

None of this matters, of course, now. The Magic might beat the Lakers in Game 5 to send the series back to L.A., but it's highly, highly unlikely that it will win the series.

Let me amend that: It ain't happenin', and it's kind of sad.

In Game 2, the Magic designed a perfect end-game play that even had Kobe Bryant shaking his head in awe. All Courtney Lee had to do was make a layup, but he bricked the gimme at the buzzer and the Lakers went on to win in overtime.

Orlando didn't let the bad feelings linger, however, going home and winning Game 3 to make the series competitive.

Then the Magic outplayed the Lakers for most of Game 4 and had the game in hand in the final minute. But its star, Dwight Howard, couldn't make one of two free throws in the final seconds. And then the Magic inexplicably let Derek Fisher, the Lakers' second-most clutch player, shoot a long but open 3-pointer to tie the game with 4.6 seconds left.

The more I watch games, the more I'm convinced that there's only one correct strategy when leading by three points with less than 10 second remaining: You absolutely must foul the other team. Send them to the free-throw line, where they have no chance of tying the game without an offensive rebound.

This strategy should be extra safe with a dominant rebounder like Howard. The Magic could have easily fouled Fisher with about 6 seconds left.

Fisher's game-tying 3 falls on two people: coach Stan Van Gundy, who didn't tell his players to foul; and Jameer Nelson, a fairly experienced player who backed off Fisher, giving him the space to take the shot.

Unacceptable. Period.

Before the series, no one outside of Orlando would argue that the Magic was better than the Lakers. Now that can definitely be said. While the series has been hotly contested, Orlando has outplayed L.A.

But that doesn't matter one bit. Come Sunday night or Tuesday night, most likely, the Lakers will be celebrating another championship while the Magic players and coaches wonder how they let this opportunity slip away.

I liken it to the 2006 World Series, when the heavily favored Tigers literally threw away a shot at their first title since 1984 against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Tigers had rolled through the playoffs, sweeping the A's in the ALCS, while the Cardinals needed seven games to dispatch of the Mets in the NLCS.

But the Tigers' pitchers committed an unprecedented five errors, helping the Cardinals steal the series in five games and, in my humble opinion, become one of the worst World Series champions ever (not that the after-party was spoiled at all).

Now the Lakers are on the verge of "stealing" this series in five games, and give them credit. They've stepped up and outplayed the Magic in the two overtimes that shouldn't have been. And unlike the '06 Cardinals, they won't go down as one of the worst NBA championship teams. They're a legitimate championship team -- as has been said of them all season.

Are they the better team in this series, though?

It's often said that the seven-game format is fluke-proof, that the best team always comes out on top. I'm not sure that applies here.

And members of the Magic have only themselves to blame for this.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Knicks should go after Curry, complete a happy marriage


It is very possible that sweet-shooting Stephen Curry could be drafted before the New York Knicks' first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft.

Missing out on Curry would be a missed opportunity for the Knicks, who choose eighth, because he would be a perfect fit for Mike D'Antoni's system -- and, it shouldn't be ignored, because of what he is saying.

Curry did something Thursday that you don't normally see from players before the draft, and this might be a reason why he's not your normal kid coming out of college early: He said which team he'd prefer playing for, and it wasn't the team considering him with the highest pick.

The former Davidson star said he has received interest from Oklahoma City, which has the No. 3 pick, Washington (fifth) and Minnesota (No. 6).

But he also said this (New York Times): "If I could be picky, yeah, it would be nice to have that kind of setting: Madison Square Garden."

And he wasn't even in New York when he said this. He was actually in Charlotte, in the area where he's lived his entire life, working out for the Charlotte Bobcats.

Curry said he "wouldn't mind" playing in Charlotte, but he was clear in saying that New York is his No. 1 choice.

He should be credited for coming out and saying his preference, especially a full three weeks before the picks are made June 25. Any team who drafts him knows it'll be getting a high-character player, a team guy and a winner -- we can assume that after watching the way Curry carried himself in the national spotlight for over a year at Davidson.

But the preference factor shouldn't be ignored, either. No, Curry isn't another Steve Francis, who demanded a trade from Vancouver -- a beautiful, fun city, by the way -- after being drafted by the Grizzlies. However, I'd have to think he might just practice a little harder, take a few more jump shots each day at practice, if he were in a Knicks uniform.

He'd be happy and dedicated to the team as long as D'Antoni is coach, and the Knicks would be fools not to give the run-and-gun-system-coaching D'Antoni a few more years to turn around the mess created by Isiah Thomas and others.

Finally, he'd be a good fit on the court -- where it matters most. Obviously, he can get up the court quickly, and his quick-release jumper would work perfectly on fast breaks. He'd have no problems getting his shot off every time down the floor or using it to fake defenders and create off the dribble.

He's not the most polished player, of course. His defense needs a lot of work, and he doesn't exactly have an NBA body.

But when was the last time a D'Antoni team was associated with defense? Let's not forget who his star was in Phoenix -- yep, Steve Nash, who continues to be one of the worst defensive players in the league but won back-to-back MVPs and led a handful of Phoenix teams to highly successful seasons.

Curry will never be a Nash. He's more of a shooter, less of a point guard. He'd do better playing off true point guard Chris Duhon and extending defenses with his jump shot.

And he'll get better -- there's no doubt about this. Guided by his 3-point-shooting expert father, Dell Curry, he'll work extremely hard and improve both physically and mentally during his early years in the NBA.

It'd be a risk for the Knicks to trade up to get him, but in a weak draft he might be worth it.

At least they know what he wants -- to be in a Knicks uniform.

That's more than most teams know about potential draftees and their dream jobs.