Tuesday, April 26, 2005

NFL Draft Winners and Losers

All in all, it was a terrific draft, although I must concur with Peter King of Sports Illustrated in that the time allowed "on the clock" for teams to pick should be reduced. If they haven't made up their minds by the time their pick rolls around, an extra five minutes isn't going to make much difference.

Draft Winners
Arizona Cardinals—I remember when the Gridbirds were in St. Louis and the only question was how badly would George Boone and Bill Bidwell and the rest of the Cardinals brain(dead)trust screw up their draft picks. Well, Denny Green has brought in a new attitude, and it's looking more and more like Arizona could legitimately contend for a playoff spot this year. They were fortunate to get Antrel Rolle to fall to their #8 spot, then they further solidified their running game with J.J. Arrington, then went back to work on their defense, for the most part. If Seattle stumbles, they could win the NFC West.

Minnesota Vikings—They went for speed over size in selecting Troy Williamson at WR to replace Randy Moss, then got a huge break when Erasmus James, a big, fast, pass-rushed DE was available with their second first-round pick at #18. They also picked up an offensive lineman to back up the aging David Dixon, another running back (the Vikings are second only to Denver in producing quality RBs) and more help in the defensive secondary. The Vikings' defense will be so dramatically improved this year that the resulting release of pressure on the offense to outscore opponents should actually free Daunte and company to relax and light up the scoreboard like a pinball machine. Is this the year? Well, Vikings fans think every year is the year, but at least this time, our optimism is legitimate.

St. Louis Rams—You can't argue with their first-round selection of Alex Barron. The kid has a mountain of size and potential, and he could be an All-Pro if the Rams coaching staff figures out how to motivate him to work harder than scouts say he did at Florida State. They had to pick the best lineman available, especially after the Saints moved up and took Jammal Brown (see, I TOLD you New Orleans would try to screw us). The rest of the Rams draft, however, are all projects and reaches. I don't know why Mike Martz continues to draft players that could develop under the right circumstances when what he needs are players who can step in right now and fill needs. New England can afford coaching projects; the Rams can't, and that's why their second and third round picks look like wastes at this point. We shall see...

Detroit Lions—They play in a division against Daunte Culpepper and Brett Favre and only drafted one player for the defensive secondary. Stupid. Sure, Williams was a tempting pick, but they didn't need another wide receiver. The Vikings did, desperately, and they picked someone else, which tells me all I need to know at this point. The Lions need help on defense, and they didn't get it.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Some Pre-Draft Thoughts on a Saturday Morning

I think one of the more interesting aspects of the NFL draft is how it has evolved into such a spectacular national event. This is due directly to the influence and popularity of ESPN and their ability to successfully market what had once been a very dull and businesslike weekend for previously unseen and unknown NFL team executives. They have, due to their draft coverage, elevated the position of general manager to a celebrity on par with the head coaches themselves. The same can be said for many owners, who have used the draft coverage to enhance their already massive egos.

All that being said, the draft is a wonderful diversion in an otherwise sports-thin spring. As I've commented on before, baseball is just getting started, it's too early in the NBA and NHL (remember them?) playoffs to warrant serious excitement yet, and the real football season is still months away. The draft gives NFL fans a chance to begin generating their fanatic, illogical optimism about the season that is to come. A big-name first round draft pick can get a city excited about a season that won't start for another four months, and the hype carries us through training camp and preseason, especially when said pick shows promise in the summer run-up to the regular season.

Since the coverage is ESPN's baby, I'm going to use their mock draft for my comments. Check back in tomorrow to see if they were right and to see what I've got to say about it.

1. San Francisco 49ers: Alex Smith, QB, Utah—Yes, SF needs a QB, and Smith seems to be the top guy with all the skills, but when is the last time a #1 QB picked made an impact? Peyton Manning? Yeah, Peyton's an elite player, but he can't beat the team led by a QB picked in the SIXTH round, namely NE's Tom Brady. Smith is going to get killed this year trying to play as rookie behind an inept O-line and with a weak running game. He should hold out for a HUGE signing bonus, 'cause this year will be no fun at all for him.

2. Miami Dolphins: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Cal—same problems as the #1 pick; remember who got picked right after Peyton Manning? Ryan Leaf. I'm not saying Rodgers will be as huge a bust, but I don't see this pick as a sure thing. My money's on Miami trading down with either Minnesota, Washington or St. Louis.

3. Cleveland Browns: Braylon Edwards, WR, Michigan—Don't be surprised if Cleveland picks Rodgers if he's available. Sure, Edwards has huge potential, but who's gonna throw him the ball? Trent Dilfer? Please.

4. Chicago Bears: Cedric Benson, RB, Texas—A stupid pick. They've got a decent running game in Chicago. What they don't have is a decent QB. If they want a running back, there's plenty available. If I'm Chicago, I'm trading down out of this spot, too. Plenty of good running backs out there for less money in a lower pick.

5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cadillac Williams, RB, Auburn—A solid pick if the top two QBs are gone. They desperately need a running back, a difference maker, and either Benson or Williams would fit in well with Chuckie's offense.

6. Tennessee Titans: Antrel Rolle, CB, Miami—Huh? Tennessee's problem is their offense, not their defense. If you can't get a QB to succeed McNair or an elite RB, trade down for more picks.

7. Minnesota Vikings: Mike Williams, WR, USC—Short of trading up to get Braylon Edwards (it's typically delusional of Vikings fans to think he'll drop this far...), this is the pick the Vikings HAVE to make. Nate Burleson is a nice receiver, but he does not strike fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators like Randy Moss did. Williams is big, strong, can jump up and take the ball away. What about speed? Speed, schmeed—he just needs to be one step faster than the defense. Daunte needs another go-to guy, and Williams—in this spot—is just that. If they can trade up, fine, but not if it costs their other first-round pick. They might switch spots with St. Louis, but only if later rounds or future picks are involved. No way I'm giving away an extra first-round pick.

8. Arizona Cardinals: Adam Williams, CB, West Virginia—A shut-down cornerback is a necessity in the NFC West when you're going up against St. Louis and Seattle. This is a no-brainer. But, then again, Bill Bidwell has no brain, so you never know.

9. Washington Redskins: Carlos Rogers, CB, Auburn—Not sure why Washington would pick a cornerback this early; they have so many other holes to fill. Joe Gibbs will probably go another direction.

10. Detroit Lions: Derrick Johnson, LB, Texas—they need secondary help to compete with Minnesota and Green Bay, plus help on the D-line.

11. Dallas Cowboys: DeMarcus Ware, DE/LB, Troy St.—who really knows what the Tuna will do? He needs more offensive help than defense, though, like another receiver for Bledsoe to throw to.

12. San Diego Chargers: Shawne Merriman, LB, Maryland—Absolutely. Gotta fill that hole that letting Junior Seau go left behind.

13. Houston Texans: Ronnie Brown, RB, Auburn—I don't care.

14. Carolina Panthers: Alex Barron, OL, Florida State—A solid pick, but don't be surprised if they trade with St. Louis so that Rams can take this guy.

15. Kansas City Chiefs: Marcus Spears, DE, LSU—The Chiefs need defensive help everywhere, so if this guy is the best defensive athlete available at the time, go for it. They could also trade with St. Louis in order to get more lower-round picks.

16. New Orleans Saints: Thomas Davis, S, Georgia—They might take Jammal Brown from Oklahoma just to spite the Rams, but St. Louis covets Davis, too, so this accomplishes the same thing. St. Louis would kill to pick ahead of the Saints for this same reason. It's too bad we're not in the same division any more. This was turning into a really nasty rivalry.

17. Cincinnati Bengals: Troy Williamson, WR, South Carolina—The Bengals suck. Does it really matter who they pick? Yeah, I didn't think so, either.

18. Minnesota Vikings: Erasmus James, DE, Wisconsin—Or David Pollack out of Georgia, or Spears, Ware or Merriman, if they're available, or even Williamson if Cincy doesn't pick him. There's a lot to be done with this pick, which is why they CAN'T trade this one away to move up ahead of seventh. Even if Edwards and Willams are both gone at seven, they could take Williamson and still be okay, or take the best defensive player and hope Williamson is still here at 18. Just don't trade it away!

19. St. Louis Rams: Jammal Brown, OT, Oklahoma—Sure, if he's still available. I think if they can swing a deal to move ahead of Carolina and take Barron, they will. They have to get help on their O-line before Bulger is road kill on the Ed Jones turf.

20 and beyond—too hard to predict; plus, I couldn't care less about any of these other teams, and I'm sure you're tired of reading by now. My draft wrap-up will, as you can guess, focus on Minnesota and St. Louis, because let's be honest, those are the only two teams I'm rooting for, anyway. See ya soon.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Unpress the Panic Button

Okay, Cardinal Nation, can we all just relax now? Five games, five quality starts from each member of the starting rotation, and five wins. Jeff Suppan pitched 8+ shutout innings. Jason Marquis was absolutely unhittable after a bit of a rocky start, and the offense got him the win. Chris Carpenter was back in his prime form from last year before his nerve injury. And what was most pleasant from the past two evenings in Pittsburgh, the arrival (at last) of Mark Mulder and the return of Matt Morris.

One of the more annoying things about fans of winning programs, which includes, in baseball, the Cardinals and the Yankees, is the speed at which certain fans start screaming and yelling when the team isn't playing all that well. What we have to remember is that the baseball season, more than any other sport, is a marathon race. Quick out of the gate doesn't necessarily mean anything.

A week ago when the paid "experts" in St. Louis were trying to analyze why Cardinals hitters couldn't hit and why their pitchers couldn't pitch were overlooking one simple fact: It was only the first 5 or 6 games out of 162. It takes a while for some teams—especially veteran teams like St. Louis and New York—to get into the rhythm of winning.

The Yankees may have some age problems, but they also have unlimited resources, so whatever might need fixing will probably get fixed. The Cardinals have far fewer financial resources to work with, but Walt Jocketty and Tony LaRussa didn't spend the winter getting stupid. They kept the parts they needed and replaced the parts that were missing with the best players available that they could afford.

Pitchers don't come right out of the gate and pitch great. It takes them a few real games that actually count in the standings to work out all the details of their delivery, location, pitch selection and physical feel for the game. Not to mention that they're working with a young catcher who's still learning how to handle a big-league rotation on a daily basis. Five games, five quality starts, five wins. Now we know what they're capable of.

The hitting has started to wake up in Pittsburgh, as well. Hitters don't need to make as many adjustments as pitchers, and if anyone out there really thinks that Walker, Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds are all going to have sub-.300 seasons, then you really need to think about cutting back on your pot habit.

And yes, I know it was Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. We should beat those teams, absolutely. We should beat just about every team in the National League at least two out of every three with only a few exceptions. Look who we lost to: Philly and Cincinnati, two teams that yours truly said were going to be competitive this year. Well, they're living up to my expectations, at least so far. By beating the teams we should beat, we put the pressure on the other teams in our division who are already chasing us.

We're 8-4 and in first place in the Central Division. Chill out, people.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

An Ode to Busch Stadium

Well, not a real ode; I suck as a poet, so I won't even try to subject you to my attempts at verse. What I do want to talk about, now that the Cardinals have opened their home season—and their last at what will from this point on be known in Cardinal Nation as "Old Busch Stadium"—with a sloppy and improbable win over the Phillies, are my three most memorable experiences at the stadium.

1982—World Series, Game Six
I was a freshman in high school in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, and our marching band was recognized as the top band in the state; it was a tradition that has, sadly, fallen into the mists of history since I graduated almost t#@&%$y years ago. At that time, freshman couldn't even get into the big band; we had our own "jayvee" farm team band, but a few select freshmen, including me, were given the "honor" of working as the roadie crew for the big band.

I know what you're thinking, but remember just how gullible most ninth graders are.

Anyway, almost at the last minute, the band got the invitation to play the pre-game ceremonies at game six. The bad news was that the game was a sellout, and we wouldn't be able to stay and watch the game. The good news was that when the right field wagon gates opened, another freshman and I were the first ones through the gate and out onto the field.

It was immense. The astroturf felt unusally soft and squishy beneath my feet. The perfect circle of the stadium top expanded above me like an infinite panorama. Red, white and blue bunting hung from the field, mezzanine and terrace sections, and the buzzing hum of the crowd was like the initial rumblings of an impending explosion. I felt as small and insignificant as I had on any night gazing up at a trillion stars or huddling in bed as a huge thunderstorm exploded outside my window. At the same time, it was then and remains to this day one of the coolest experiences I've ever had. I stood on the playing field of a World Series game on game day.

1993—United Way Day at the Ballpark
My first "real" job after graduating college was with the United Way in St. Louis. Part of my job in their Marketing Dept. was coordinating an annual United Way night at a Cardinals game. It was an insane amount of work, but I was young and single and didn't have anything better to do than work 75-80 hours a week (which is probably why many entry-level corporate jobs come with huge tasks such as this one). I had to organize about 30 different agencies that we supported to send representatives to the game to march around the field prior to the first pitch.

The night went fine; as a borderline obsessive (okay, so I'm way over the line), I had all the details quintuple-checked beforehand. But three things about that night stand out. First, as the agency folks—most of whom were kids, because nothing separates people from their money better than cute kids—marched around, they came out of the right field gate, headed around the outfield toward third base, turned across the back of the infield toward first, and then back out down the first base line. While this was going on, Gregg Jefferies (remember him?) was throwing warm-ups with Todd Zeile (forgotten about him?) down the first base side. Jefferies stopped throwing as the line of kids reached him and took the time to shake hands with them as they passed. Sure, he was no Ozzie Smith, but to these kids, many poor, some handicapped, all blown away to be at Busch Stadium, shaking hands with an honest-to-goodness big league ballplayer—and a Cardinal, to boot—was certainly a memory to treasure. The coolest part was that I had never spoken to the Cardinals in general or any player in particular about doing what Jefferies did; he greeted the kids because he wanted to. I've never forgotten that about him.

Second, I also coordinated the media relations for that same game, so after the pregame, I got to go into the press box, where I met Jack Buck, Mike Shannon and Joe Buck. Solid class, all around. Jack Buck treated me—25 years old at the time—like I was just as important as anyone else in the booth. Same with Mike and Joe. What you hear from them on the radio and TV is the same as they are when you meet them in person. Third, at the time, you ate for free in the press box. Brats, cheeseburgers, roast beef sandwiches, nachos, everything you could have wanted. Bernie Miklasz of the Post-Dispatch, who I had never met in person before that night, easily topped 300 pounds at that time. Bernie, God bless him, has dropped a lot of that weight, but now that I'm in my late 30s, if I had that job today and they fed me free stadium bratwursts every night, I'd look like Jabba the Hutt.

1998—Mac hits 69 and 70
I won free tickets to the last game of the season from a business conference I had attended earlier that summer in Cape Girardeau. My wife was seven months pregnant with our fourth child, our first son. The game was at the end of September, a Saturday day game, at it was unseasonably hot. It felt more like the middle of August. My good friend Tuck was also with us that day, so two of my best friends were there to share the experience.

I was pouring bottled water down Amy's shirt to try to keep her cool—summer pregnancies can be oppressive. We were sitting in the terrace box seats directly behind home plate. Mark McGwire was sitting on 68 home runs, having already shattered Roger Maris' record and then held off Sammy Sosa for the rest of the season. The entire stadium stood every time he came to the plate. Number 69 was a moon shot, one of those no-doubters McGwire was famous for. He hit number 70 on his last at-bat. Amy missed seeing it because she was too tired to stand up. I told Tuck that Mac was going to hit one more just before he ripped it, this last one a line drive similar to number 62. That wasn't clairvoyance or even luck, just expectation from a remarkable baseball player having a remarkable season.

I don't care if McGwire did steroids. I really don't. Even a clear admission on his part wouldn't diminish the memory of that day. Does it diminish his accomplishments? I think the question has to be whether he could have done it without taking steroids. Could he have gotten as strong as he did without steroids? Tony LaRussa thought that he had. He certainly was taking andro, and probably a lot of other nutritional supplements that you can get today at most gyms and GNC stores. If he took steroids, did they give him an edge he otherwise wouldn't have had? I don't know enough to say.

If he took steroids with Canseco in Oakland, was he still taking them in St. Louis? If he wasn't taking steroids in 1998, but did earlier in his career, are the home runs still legitimate? History will be the ultimate judge, I suppose. But I won't condemn him or devalue the thrill of experiencing that season as a Cardinals fan. All I know is that for me, on that day, it was an incredible experience that added one more memory to what has been a lifetime of experiences with Busch Stadium. It's the only major league baseball field I've ever been to, and when they tear it down, I hope I have the chance to be in St. Louis to watch it fall. I suppose it will be like attending the funeral for a friend you've known all your life. It will be sad to see it go, but seeing it will remind me of how many good times we've had. Let's relish the 80 games we have left with the old friend.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

American League Preview

AL Champions:
New York Yankees

Until MLB institutes a salary cap and revenue sharing, anything else is superfluous.

p.s. Cardinals beat Yankees in six games in World Series

Monday, April 04, 2005

National League Preview

Before I get to my guaranteed-wrong predictions for this year in the National League, I just want to thank all of you who have checked out "The Sandlot." I also want to thank you all for pointing out my egregious wrongness in my Final Four forecast. You know, there's a reason why I teach English and Philosophy instead of breaking it down with Dan and Stu and Boomer on SportsCenter. But I'm always happy to see others laugh at my expense...

So with that in mind, here are some more wrongheaded predictions for this year in baseball. Remember kids, if you place any bets based on this column, then my friend Tuck has a couple bridges in his state you might be interested in. Oh, and I'm only picking the top three in each division; who cares about the bottom-feeders anyway?

1. Atlanta
2. New York Mets
3. Philadelphia

Atlanta Braves
Strengths: the smartest general manager in the modern era of baseball; starting pitching (what else?)
Weaknesses: perennial bridesmaids; the WORST bandwagon fans in the history of professional sports

New York Mets
Strengths: Pedro Martinez; a crazy owner who spends money like a drunken Steinbrenner
Weaknesses: given today's outcome, their bullpen, obviously

Philadelphia Phillies
Strengths: Jim Thome
Weaknesses: no longer have the steady, even-handed management of Larry Bowa to guide them.

NL Central
1. St. Louis
2. Cincinnati
3. Houston

St. Louis Cardinals
Strengths: Murderer's Row hitting lineup; starting pitching
Weaknesses: pressure of meeting expectations to win in last year in Busch Stadium

Strengths: Ken Griffey Jr. in center field
Weaknesses: Ken Griffey Jr. on the disabled list

Strengths: starting pitching
Weaknesses: average age of starting lineup is older than ME

(Where are the Cubs? Screw them, they'll finish 5th behind Milwaukee. Deal with it.)

1. San Diego
2. Los Angeles
3. San Francisco

San Diego Padres
Strengths: good balance of pitching and hitting; veterans and up-and-comers
Weaknesses: surf's up, dude

Los Angeles Dodgers
Strengths: Eric Gagne
Weaknesses: lethargic fans; smog

San Francisco Giants
Strengths: Barry Bonds chasing home run history
Weaknesses: Barry Bonds, de-juiced, grounding weakly to second

Divisional Playoffs:
St. Louis over Los Angeles
Atlanta over San Diego

NL Championship:
St. Louis over Atlanta

next time: AL preview (not that I care...)