Monday, May 30, 2005

Please Pay No Attention to the Team in Purple

Uh oh.

Peter King, Sports Illustrated's best NFL writer, just picked the Minnesota Vikings to win the NFC Championship. We do not need this. It's like the kiss of death. Next thing you know, they'll be putting Daunte Culpepper on the cover of their NFL Preview edition, thus guaranteeing our massive QB a season-ending injury.

Well, at least he didn't pick them to win the Superbowl, so there's still hope. Oh sure, we here in Vikings Nation certainly think that the Vikes have a shot at the big game, especially in this era of parity, but with our long and glorious history of choking up the game when just on the verge of glory, we certainly don't want to be under the spotlight and microscope of national expectations.

Besides, it's far too early to judge any team based on only three factors: 1) Draft; 2) Free-agent signings; 3) Summer minicamps. I can say who I think is on either an up or down trajectory in each division, but I won't make the mistake of picking results or division order yet. It's just too soon.

NFC East: Trending Up—Dallas (Bill Parcells factor, Drew Bledsoe, vastly improved defense); Washington (Joe Gibbs 2.0 in second year). Trending Down—Philadelphia (T.O. mess, Superbowl hangover); NY Giants (Eli Manning still sucks, Tom Coughlin makes Simon Cowell look like Paula Abdul).

NFC North: Trending Up—Minnesota (new owner, new Moss-free attitude, improved defense); Detroit (break-out year for Mooch's offensive scheme). Trending Down—Green Bay (Brett Favre should have retired); Chicago (still no signs of any offense whatsoever).

NFC South: Trending Up—Atlanta (Mike Vick, Jim Mora Jr., building on last year's success); Tampa Bay (the return of Chucky); Carolina (defense still scary and impressive). Trending Down—New Orleans (rumors of leaving town are never good for a franchise).

NFC West: Trending Up—Arizona (Dennis Green's second year, the return of Kurt Warner, exciting young players). Trending Down—St. Louis (the NFL's worst head coach); Seattle (the NFL's most overrated head coach); San Francisco (the NFL's most inexperienced head coach).

I'll save my AFC comments for next week, once again in response to Peter King's early predictions, which he is promising for then. I respect King's opinions and think he's one of the smartest and most astute NFL writers around. For that matter, I also like SI's Don Banks and's John Clayton and Len Pasquerelli. I still, however, do not like Joe Theisman (but doesn't that go without saying?).

On one final note, for those of you who read my post, "An Open Letter to Reggie Fowler," one of my primary suggestions was to build a new open-air stadium to revive the miserable winter mystique of the old-school Vikings teams. Well, even though Fowler's bid fell through, new owner Zygmunt Wilf (good God, is that a great name or what?) has stated his intention to do just that—to take the Vikings back outside where they belong. Like all else, it's far to early to make any definitive statements about the Ziggy Era in Minnesota, but it couldn't have gotten off to a better start.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Unbearable Futility of Being a Cubs Fan

Mark Prior: fractured elbow. Well, there it is. Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, both on the disabled list for at least a third of the season. Sandlot readers with sharp memories will recall that I predicted this very thing right at the start of the season, in addition to predicting that the Cubs would finish no higher than fourth in the NL Central, though it looks like Milwaukee and Pittsburgh will finish where I said Cincinnati and Houston would.

One might think that, being a Minnesota Vikings fan, I would have some sort of sympathy for Cubs fans, due to our similarities in futility. Well, my friends, that's where you would be wrong. While the Vikings have never won a Superbowl, they have been to the big game four times, as well as making it several times to the NFC Championship game. The Cubs almost never make it to the postseason, and they haven't been to the World Series in the lifetime of anyone other than C. Montgomery Burns or Mel Brooks' 2,000-year-old man.

Plus, Cubs fans are whiny and obnoxious. Vikings fans are stoic. Think Bud Grant. That Scandinavian reserve, the cold acceptance of fate and doom. Yeah, that's Vikings football—a dash of optimism tempered by an existential awareness of our own futility. The Cubs fans don't realize how much they suck, how pathetic their team is, how self-pitying all their talk of goat curses and Steve Bartman is.

Their manager is a loudmouth chump, they're down to one decent starting pitcher (if they can keep him off the Internet, that is), their bullpen makes serial arsonists look like Smokey the Bear, and they let their two best hitters, Alou and Sosa, walk without replacing them with anyone meaningful. The only way things could get worse for this team is if they traded their only remaining star, Derek Lee. Look for the Yankees to come calling later this summer for that one!

I turn 37 years old in less than a month. The last time the Vikings were in the Superbowl, I was seven years old, and they got trounced by John Madden's outstanding Oakland Raiders team. Yeah, they should have won it all in 1998, but woulda-shoulda-coulda is the bane of every losing franchise. Assuming I fall within normal lifespan demographics, I've got about 40 more years for the Vikings to win one before I die. I can live that out secure in the knowlege that the Cubs will go at least that long before winning the World Series.

Schadenfreude: ask for it by name!

Thursday, May 26, 2005

A Night Without Baseball... like a day without music. All's quiet in Cardinal Nation tonight, with the boys taking a well-deserved night off after a three-game sweep of the young and talented but overmatched Pittsburgh Pirates. The Washington Nationals (nee Montreal Expos) come to town for the first time this weekend, but tonight, all is quiet, and I'm wandering around the house wondering what to do with myself.

I can't remember a time that I didn't listen to Cardinals baseball on the radio. I grew up with Jack Buck and Mike Shannon in the air from April through September, and a few lucky times on into October. Whenever they have a day off, it's like something big is missing in the day, like I forget to eat lunch or pick up one of my kids from school. For those who don't know, that's what Cardinal Nation is like—it's part of the air, part of our DNA, almost.

The season is looking very good early on. The team is handling Scott Rolen's extended absence without a hitch (thank you John Mabry and Abraham Nunez), the starting pitching has been 80% good, and Izzy's still perfect. Suppan is struggling lately though, and that middle relief core raises my blood pressure more than a Tom DeLay/George W. Bush joint news (read: propaganda) conference. Still, there's not much room for complaints with a team 14 games over .500 in May.

What else is going on? I guess since Curt Schilling can't pitch any more, he needs to run his big mouth at the Cardinals future Hall of Fame manager for telling the truth about poor little Edgar Renteria. I was happy to see Renteria go; he didn't have a meaningful at-bat for the Cards since before last year's All-Star break, and I'm not surprised to see him struggle in Boston. I'd really like to see a bench-clearing brawl next month when the Red Sox come to Busch, and I'd like to see LaRussa sock Schilling right in the mouth. Tony's got too much class for that, for sure, but Schilling's a world-class jerk. Nothing's worse than a sore winner.

My man Kurt Warner was just named the starting QB for the Arizona Cardinals. No surprise there, but he still has plenty of doubters if the folks who get paid to write and speak what I do here for free are to be believed. Copy this down, folks, 'cause I'm gonna make a bold prediction: if the Gridbird's offensive line keeps Warner from getting hurt, he's going to fly that speedy receiver unit straight into the playoffs, and possibly as the NFC West champs, depending on how the Rams do with the rest of their schedule. Warner will revive his career this year, along with the fortunes of the Arizona franchise.

(And so what if I'm wrong? Like I said, I'm not getting paid to write this stuff, and it doesn't cost you anything other than time, and I'm probably helping you to procrastinate from doing something you really don't want to do anyway, so everyone's a winner, right? Okay, let's move on...)

Happy to see Miami even up their series with Detroit last night. I'd much rather see Shaq going up against Tim Duncan in the finals. See, this is what I'm reduced to without the NHL playoffs and a night off from baseball. (heavy sigh...)

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

The Cardinals sleepwalked through a sloppy loss in Kansas City today, I don't care about the NBA playoffs, hockey may never return in our lifetime, and it's another six weeks at least until NFL training camp starts, so instead of a sports post, I'm going to talk about why I was disappointed with Star Wars Episode 3.

A word of warning: if you plan to see the movie and don't want to read any spoilers, leave now and don't come back until you've seen the movie. If you've seen it, I welcome any and all comments either in agreement or dissent (as usual, of course).

I was enormously disappointed with this movie. I enjoyed it far less than the two previous episodes. I know that "Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones" have taken their fair (and deserved) share of hits from both critics and fans, but I felt like both movies served their purpose: to set up the fall of Anakin Skywalker. So why was I disappointed with this last movie?

Simple: I never believed his turn to the Dark side. I didn't believe that, given the information that he had, Anakin Skywalker would kill Mace Windu and swear allegience to Palpatine. I'm a writer, and I deal in characters and motivation, and he did not yet have sufficient motivation to take the action that he did, in my opinion.

Here are the facts: 1) Anakin had dreams that Padme would die in childbirth; 2) Palpatine had given him vague promises about the possibility that Sith powers could prevent death; 3) Once Anakin realized Palpatine was the Sith Lord, he turned that news over to the Jedi Council; 4) Anakin was devoted to Jedi principles and was not shown learning anything different about the Dark side; 5) Just because he killed Windu, he didn't have to swear allegience at that time; he could have turned Palpatine over to the Senate or the Jedi; 6) the Jedi had not shown sufficient cause that they were trying to take over control of the Republic from the Senate.

I did not think that this collection of evidence would motivate Anakin to take part in the slaughter of the Jedi. I did not believe that he would so easily turn against Obi-Wan Kenobi. And I don't think the problem was with Hayden Christenson's acting. I thought he did the best he could with what he had to work with, in terms of the script (which was bad). Anakin was smart; he should have considered that perhaps Padme's death would be a result of his turning to the Sith (which, in part, it was).

What would have been proper motivation? First of all, Lucas should have taken Padme out of the equation entirely. Make Anakin's seduction all about political power, about his ability to rule over the Republic. Make the Jedi more anti-democratic in the name of "law and order." Make the turn more gradual, more little-by-little as Anakin takes one more step over the line. And keep Palpatine from revealing himself until Anakin has already gone too far over to the Dark side. That would have been more believable and less stupidly melodramatic (and avoided the laughably bad "NOOOOO!!" scene at the end of the movie).

A more gradual fall would have also given Obi-Wan the chance to turn Anakin back to the Jedi, something that was discussed at length in the original trilogy but that wasn't even present here. Also, the original trilogy established that Leia remembered her mother; Padme dying in childbirth was a major league plot hole. It would have been more believable if Padme had run into hiding out of fear of her husband's ever-growing power. The climactic battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin could have been Kenobi defending Padme and the twins from being kidnapped by a fully-turned Darth Vader.

Of course, at this point, I'm rewriting George Lucas' movie, which any of us who were disappointed by the movie could do; but my point is that someone should have pointed out to Lucas at the beginning of the prequel trilogies that he had to remain true to his original story and the plot points that had already been established. This could have been so much better if Lucas had had the patience to tell the story that had already been told in the first three movies instead of concocting an adolescent soap opera of secret, lost love. "Romeo and Juliet" may be one of Shakespeare's best-known plays, but serious scholars will also tell you that its one of his earliest and most amateurish attempts at tragedy. Lucas' mistake was following this path of lost love. Sorry, it just wasn't compelling in the Star Wars universe.

Having said all this, how stupid are the Jedi Knights? Anakin Skywalker is believed by many on the Jedi Council, including his Master, Obi-Wan, to be The Chosen One. So why do they all treat him like the bastard at the family reunion? He's only established himself to be incredibly skilled, powerful in the Force, courageous, heroic, etc. How about a little love, people? That part of Anakin's turn to Sith was believable because the Jedi Council treated him like dirt, but the fact that they did in the first place was so jaw-droppingly stupid that they all deserved to die in the end for their, as the Emperor would say, "lack of vision." His fall would be even more believable had the Jedi acknowledged his power and put him into a position of political power and influence.

I am a professor of literature, and if I've learned anything about tragedy, a hero's fall always has more to do with pride than love. Anakin Skywalker would not have turned to the dark side for love, but power and pride would have done the trick. I wish someone would have mentioned that to George Lucas a few years ago. Looks like his pride in his own flawed romantic vision has led to this most disappointing failure:

Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader—Dark Lord of the Sith, the scourge of the Empire, feared throughout the galaxy, destroyer of planets and civilizations—because he was scared something bad might happen to his wife.

Yeah, right.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Extreme Racing

I'm not a racing fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I did tune in to a few minutes of the NASCAR race Sunday afternoon at Talladega because my brother-in-law and nephew were on hand to see the race in person. Curious as to what they were seeing, I watched a bit. Very interesting. I know it takes a knock for "not being a real sport," but what I saw was pretty amazing.

At one point, a driver's rear tire blew out and his car started spinning around, with debris and smoke going everywhere. Not only was the driver not hurt, he managed to get back into the race, but that's not even the amazing part. Not one other driver wrecked as a result of the blowout and subsequent spin. They just dodged the damaged car, the flying tire skin and drove through a blanket of smoke, all at well over 100 miles an hour without crashing into each other. Had this been I-270 in St. Louis on a weekday afternoon, several people would have been killed or maimed. I was impressed.

I was also impressed by the speed and efficiency of the pit crews. I don't know how any of them can make heads or tails of the whole thing. After the tire blowout, most of the other drivers took the opportunity for a pit stop. What a chaotic scene, with pit crews flying into action just as the drivers pull into a space so small it looks like they're parallel parking, then in a matter of seconds, he's flying back onto the track again. Wow.

The other thing I liked about this race was that Jeff Gordon won. Now, as I said, I'm no racing fan, but I live in southern Missouri, and you have to be completely culturally ignorant not to be aware of what Gordon represents to NASCAR fans: he's redneck kryptonite. They hate him. And in the same vein, they love Dale Earnhart, Jr., so a win for Gordon is a loss for Earnhart, which pisses off rednecks nationwide. And there's nothing I like better than something that pisses off a redneck. The only way it could have been better was if Hillary Clinton had been in the winner's circle to plant a big soul kiss on Jeff as he sprayed Pepsi all over his crew. Yee-hah!

But as I read the recap story of the race in the local paper, I noticed that in this race, along with Daytona, the cars are equipped with something called "restrictor plates," which evidently reduces the horsepower of the engines. Now, I guess that this is designed for: a) safety; b) improved competition; or c) someone's getting kickbacks from the manufacturers of restrictor plates. There's just something about that that I don't like. Restrictor plates. Restrictions. You can only go "this fast."


NASCAR can be all about the skill of their drivers on a level playing field. If you want me to spend what little of my income is left for entertainment, I want to see a race where there are literally no restrictions whatsoever on the type of vehicle you can enter. Extreme racing. Mad Max on a two-mile oval track. Corvette's with 450-cubic inch engines. Pickup trucks with huge nitrous-oxide boosters in the payload bed. A Winnebago with a jet engine mounted on the roof. Motorcycles. Dune buggies. If it rolls on wheels and runs on gasoline, let it race. And you're only allowed to pit for gasoline. If your tires blow out, too bad—you lose! And forget about all these professional racing teams; make this a regional sport in which backyard mechanics can create the ultimate tricked-out racing monster and race it for cash and glory. Tell me this wouldn't be a huge hit both in person and on cable television. Sell it to USA Network—if they'll show reruns of the Japanese geek-fest "Most Extreme Challenge," they would jump at this idea.

Oh, and by the way, consider this concept "copyright 2005, The Sandman." After all, internet sportswriting pays even less than teaching!

The Week That Was—Sports Edition

Sorry, sports fans, but my duties to the college I work for, which includes both teaching five classes and graphic design work, have prevented me from posting regularly in the past week, so I hope I can make up for it with this quick recap.

I was going to start off the blog by eviscerating the Cardinals for their three-game losing streak until I woke up to find out that the Birds rallied for seven (!) runs in the top of the ninth against the napalmed remains of the Cincinnati bullpen to win the game 10 to 9. I guess Yogi was right when he said "It's not over 'till it's over." This is especially true with Tony LaRussa's Cardinals teams of the past four years, all of whom have shown the gritty determination to play nine full innings regardless of the score.

That's what made the series loss in Atlanta—one in which they should have swept the light-hitting Braves—especially frustrating: the Cardinals are not driving in runs when they have the opportunity, and none of their Big Four—Walker, Pujols, Edmonds, Rolen—are producing at a sufficient level. Last year, Scott Rolen carried this team singlehandedly on his bat until the others game around to hitting consistently. All four sluggers will hit their strides, of that I have no doubt, but right now, it's discouraging to see them fail consistently to drive in runs, especially when there are less than two outs. It will come around in time, but until then, we'll have to keep gritting our teeth through low-scoring one-run games.

On the bright side of a down game, props have to get shouted out to LaRussa for taking one for the team against one of the most incompetent home plate umpires in recent memory in Saturday night's game. Al Reyes should have gotten a call that resulted in a strike-out/thrown-out double play. Instead, the umpire called ball four, bases loaded. The ball was knee-high over the middle of the plate. Fool me once, shame on you... So Randy Flores comes in and gets the same call on ball four that should have been strike three, in comes the tying run, here comes Tony. Fool me twice...uhh...won't get fooled again (G.W. Bush). For those of you who don't read lips, he said, "That was bulls***. That was f***ing bulls***." Sure, he got tossed, but it was worth it to see him tell the umpire what the rest of us were thinking.

Couple of interesting notes from Rams and Vikings rookie minicamps. First from St. Louis, Mike Martz said of couple of interesting things. First, he named first-round pick Alex Barron the team's starting right tackle. The Rams have a history of breaking down rookies mentally and physically, especially on the defensive side, and they haven't always bounced back to succeed in the NFL. Will Barron undergo the same harsh initiation, or will Mad Mike treat him with softer gloves because of the Rams' glaring needs at RT? Probably a little of both, I would imagine. He'll need to toughen up just because the game is tougher at the pro level, but the Rams HAVE to enable Barron to succeed if their offense has any hope this year.

Martz also had high praise for their seventh-round QB pick, Ryan Fitzpatrick from Harvard (great Ivy League name, huh? Does he talk with a Hyannisport accent?). It's common knowledge that the Rams' playbook is the largest and most complex in the league, so it's no surprise that a QB with a degree in economics (!) from Harvard would appeal to the mad scientist who sometimes resembles a football coach. To be honest, I would bet more on this guy's future success than either of the QBs picked in the first round (Tom Brady, anyone?).

Second, a great little tidbid from Vikings camp taken from the Star-Tribune website (linked here as "The Purple Page"). New cornerback Fred Smoot, who has succeeded Randy Moss as the team's motormouth on the field, was taunting first-round pick Troy Williamson, the speedy wideout from S. Carolina. The rookie ran straight at Smoot, deked, then shot off away from him, leaving the cornerback in the dust as Williamson snagged a 60-yard TD strike from Daunte Culpepper. NFC North teams better bring fire extinguishers this fall, because the Vikings offense is going to smoke them all. Bet on it.

I'm not an NBA fan at all, but I usually pay attention during playoff time. Having said that, I'm disappointed with most of these first-round matchups, most of which aren't even competitive. The league makes too much money off of their TV contracts to reduce the number of playoff teams or return these first-round series to best-of-five, but is anyone watching? Is anyone excited? Let's get on to the next round; I want to see Shaq throw down when it counts, not when he's not even really needed on the floor. BORRR-RIIIING!!!

"You want fries with that?"
"Haven't I seen you on TV before?"
"I don't know what you're talking aboot, eh!"