Friday, August 28, 2009

"Genius" only goes so far

While I'm eagerly awaiting tonight's home debut by new Cardinals pitcher John Smoltz, I'm also still steaming over Thursday's pointless and unnecessary loss to NL Central also-rans Houston Astros. What is it about these guys that baffles us so much? They're a sub-.500 team with aging stars—why can't we hit a single with a guy on second?

I'll tell you why: because Tony LaRussa keeps putting Colby Rasmus and Rick Ankiel into the lineup. Results? Pop-ups, weak ground outs and infuriating strike outs, especially from Ankiel, who couldn't find the strike zone if you lit it up with bright neon-colored laser beams.

LaRussa's continued reliance on these two sure outs means that a more effective lineup hasn't had time to gel. So I would like to humbly submit my own lineup proposal, one that gives us the best chance of wrapping up this division before the middle of September.

1. Skip Shumaker—RF
2. Brendan Ryan—SS
3. Albert Pujols—1B
4. Matt Holliday—LF
5. Ryan Ludwick—CF
6. Mark DeRosa—3B
7. Yadier Molina—C
8. Julio Lugo—2B
9. pitcher

Yeah, I know I'm putting Skip back in the outfield after playing a better-than-expected second all season, but you've got to keep both him and Lugo in the lineup. If you need to bring a left-hander off the bench to pinch hit, Ankiel and Rasmus are still good for three strikes.

There's no way LaRussa's going to change his mind—he kept putting Chris Duncan on the lineup card until John Mozeliak had no choice but to trade him for everyone's collective sanity, but if the Cardinals keep taxing their bullpen, wasting quality starts and stranding men in scoring position, it's just the type of thing to give the Cubs hope for a late, last-gasp run.

Don't be like a James Bond villain. When you've got your enemy on the ground and under your boot, step on his throat until he stops breathing.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Smoltz Adds Another Dimension

Cardinal Nation watched with particularly high interest and anticipation Sunday afternoon as the Redbirds wrapped up a four-game series with the Padres in the perpetually beautiful San Diego weather. Tony LaRussa used yet another pitcher in the useless five-hole in the rotation, inhabited this season by minor-league pitchers like Todd Wellemeyer and Mitchell Boggs. Today, however, the man on the mound was a pitcher who could take a weekend off to pose for his bust in Cooperstown—John Smoltz.

Released by the Boston Red Sox for eight inefficient starts, it was hard to know what to expect. Smoltz is certainly one of the smartest and most experienced pitchers. Heaven knows Cardinals fans remember what it was like to watch him dash our World Series hopes back in 1996. Former Cy Young winner, the only pitcher in major league history to record both 200 wins and 150 saves, Smoltz is a living legend. Now he joins fellow living legend-in-the-making Albert Pujols to see if the Cardinals can climb that mountain yet again.

What would the Cardinals get from Smoltz today? Average stuff? Blasted out by the third inning? Unexpected strength? Wit and resolve without much physical skill left in the tank? None of the above—five innings, three hits, no walks, nine strikeouts that included seven in a row. Smoltz didn't just exceed expectations; he hit them further out of the ballpark than El Hombre's opposite-field homer.

With afterthought pitcher Kyle Lohse-er on the DL again, Smoltz just advanced himself into the fourth spot in the rotation, as the Cards recalled Mitchell Boggs to once again pitch out of the five spot, a role that has become the equivalent of a Star Trek enlisted man wearing a red tunic on an away team.

Everyone knows that Smoltz brings a wealth of experience and leadership into both the clubhouse and the dugout, and no one in my generation has pitched better in the postseason with perhaps the exception of Curt Schilling. That was what we expected, and it is certain to make a difference in the stretch run.

But what Smoltz showed us today is that if he can duplicate today's masterful performance a few more times, the Cardinals have a legitimate chance to win four out of every five games the rest of the way. It allows Lohse to get fully healthy as well as taking some of the pressure off of Boggs or whoever else they throw to the Wolves on day five.

Smoltz really did show flashes of his old brilliance today. His arm simply isn't strong enough to throw a 90-plus mph fastball anymore, but at age 42, he was painting the corners and spinning his split-finger pitch off the edge of the table like his vintage days in Atlanta. Even after two errors put men on first and second with no one out in the first inning, he stayed cool and kept throwing ground ball outs. Even if his arm is 100 percent, his mind is still strong enough to get batters out.

For all the fan crap GM John Mozeliak has taken—and much of it was deserved last year—he has done more than any other GM in the major leagues to set his team up for a postseason run. In a seven game series, we would pitch two Cy Young candidates, Carp and Waino, ground ball wizard Joel Piñero, and possibly future Hall of Famer John Smoltz. That sounds like a winning rotation to me.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Americans are Communists

For all of the bluster about Obama being a liberal (he isn't) who is leading the U.S. into socialism (it's not) and all the concurrent yelling and screaming about FREEDOM!!! ...the truth is that most Americans, when push comes to shove, are really communists at heart. I don't mean theoretically sounds Marxists or Chinese Communo-capitalists or Latin American popular dictators—I mean old-school European Soviet Communists; you know, the kind who talk about "we're a democratic and free country," but who really mean, "you are free to do only what we say you can do."

I first realized this at the beginning of the decade when I served a three-year term on our city council here in my home town. Part of my duties included serving on a number of citizens advisory boards, including the one for Parks and Recreation. The park department had successfully passed a modest sales tax increase to fund their operations, and after several years of outstanding management with no pay raises at all, the Park Board budgeted a substantial raise for the director. People here freaked out. We had a public hearing at the library, and there were more than 50 people there, and they all basically had the same thing to say: "I couldn't get that big of a raise at my job, so why should he get such a big raise?"


Practically everyone who has a comment on Brett Favre and his recent signing with the Minnesota Vikings, including my childhood hero and the reason I'm a Vikings fan, Fran Tarkenton, are communists. The line basically goes like this: "Favre said he retired. He has no right to come out of retirement. The Vikings said they were moving on. They had no right to sign Favre after all."

Give me a freaking break, communists. Let me address the critics one by one.

Fran Tarkenton: Dude, I love you; you're my hero, and I'll always cherish the memories, but here's the reality—no one outside of Minnesota even knows who you are anymore. Who's next, Bud Grant? I would give anything to have seen you raise that Lombardi trophy, but you had three tries to get it done and came up short each time. Chill out on the anger. The Vikings are better with Favre than without him.

Sports writers and TV commentators: These people are maggots and parasites. I think about them the way Lou Brown, manager for the Cleveland Indians in "Major League" does: "I'm for wasting sports writers' time; let's see if we can make them eat a s*** sandwich." They all whine about how sick they are of the Brett Favre story, then talk about it all day long. LIARS! You love Brett Favre! You worship Brett Favre! You light candles at an altar in the break room in prayer that Favre does this year after year so you have something to talk about! Does anyone think the national media would have more than 30 seconds to talk about the Vikings other than, "Vikings lose, their QBs suck," with their previous QB staff? Please...

Green Bay Packers: I'm an old-school Vikings fan, so anything that cause pain and angst for Packers fans and players gives me the warm, soothing comfort that only schadenfreude can bring. Upset? Burning Favre jerseys? Losing sleep at night? Eating way too many sausages? Slipping deeper and deeper into dysfunctional alcoholism? Good! It's what you cheese heads deserve!

Minnesota Vikings: Let me quote former Jets and Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards: "You win...the game!" The only Vikings players upset with the Favre signing are named Sage and Tarvaris (stupid names for QBs anyway). The fact of the matter is that if either one of them had enough skills to start and win in the NFL, none of this ever would have happened. Favre was Minnesota's best option to win it all now, this year, while all their pieces are in place. If you want to know the reality of this signing, look at Vikings single-game and season ticket sales since the signing was announced—they had to shut it down because the demand crashed their computers. Real Vikings fans know that T-Jack was worse than Marc Bulger; we were never going to win with him. Rosenfels was a backup on a Houston team that can't finish better than .500. Neither of these guys was going to take us to the top of the mountain. Maybe Favre won't, but we know that he can.

Everyone else: Freedom means freedom to do something that you don't agree with or like. It also means the freedom to voice your displeasure, but when your only argument is, "He said he retired; he should stay retired. The Vikings shouldn't have signed him (even though he was a free agent) because it's not fair to the other quarterbacks. Favre shouldn't play for Minnesota because he used to play for Green Bay," then as far as I'm concerned, you're one of those sad people in the library complaining that someone else doing a different job than you do for a different company than you work for is getting a raise that seems too big just because you've never gotten one of those yourself. And when you demand that everyone be treated the same, and you impose arbitrary rules upon everyone else based on your perception of what constitutes fairness, then that makes you a...


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Oh Happy Day!

The Minnesota Vikings signed Brett Favre yesterday...

Does this mean the Vikings are the NFC favorites to go to the Superbowl? To win the Superbowl? Well, to paraphrase Winston Wolf from Pulp Fiction, "Let's not start sucking each other's [lollipops] just yet." While this Vikings fan is excited that we have a quarterback with the experience and skills to win it all, I also want to break this down calmly and rationally.

• Best run-stop defense in the league—you just can't run on them.
• An improving secondary anchored by Antoine Winfield, who just signed a big contract.
• The best running back in the NFL, Adrian Peterson, paired up with pro-bowl caliber running back Chester Taylor—simply the best ground attack in the league.
• First-round pick Percy Harvin adding blinding speed to the passing game and possible the running game as well. This guy's faster than AP, if you can believe that.
• Possibly the best offensive line in the the league, and certainly the best left side tackle and guard to protect Favre's blind side as well as clear out running lanes for the ground game.

• Experience that no other Vikings QB even comes close to.
• The ability to complete third-down passes into tight zones and past defenders.
• The arm strength—surgically rebuilt and tested—to heave the ball downfield to Harvin or Bernard Berrian.
• Mental toughness and on-field leadership, especially late in games.
• Two Superbowls, one win, and the desire to go out on top just one more time.

• Almost 40 years old. I'm 41, and a long walk makes me sore. Can he physically endure the grind of a five-month season?
• Surgically repaired arm that is still not 100 percent.
• Throws lots of stupid interceptions.

Will this work? Experience says no. Joe Montana was younger and healthier when he was traded to Kansas City, and although he made the Chiefs exciting contenders, he couldn't get back up the mountain. On the other hand, the Vikings have had luck in the past with over-the-hill QBs such as Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham. If we only had Randy Moss around for one more season, as well.

Look, here's the bottom line for me. I'm thinking about the Vikings' playoff loss at home to the Eagles. All Tarvaris Jackson had to do was complete a few short third down passes, but every time he just threw the ball into the turf. The Eagles put nine men on the line to stop AP because they knew T-Jack couldn't complete a pass. With Favre, if any defense stacks against the run, he connects for a long pass. If they play nickel, one of the runners gains ten yards. Pick your poison, but the Vikings are good for at least 24-28 points a game this season.

Will all this translate into postseason glory? Who can tell? Last season, it would have been easy to pick Pittsburgh since they're good every year and almost always in the discussion, but Kurt Warner and the Arizona freaking Cardinals? I dare you to find anyone who picked them to win the NFC. Winning a championship takes luck, good health, fortunate calls, hard work and mad skills. With Favre, all the pieces are in place. But they still have to play the games.

But boy, will these games be fun to watch.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Restarting for a new (sports) year

For any of you who have tuned in to "The Sandlot" in the past, consider this a new beginning. For those who are visiting for the first time, welcome to sports commentary from the common-sense view of the devoted van. You won't get endless analysis, obscure 1970s references, and certainly no trace of East Coast bias. What you will get is honest fan opinion that mainly focuses on Midwest sports teams.

I haven't posted at all over the summer, mainly due to an unusually busy real-life workload. Now that fall has arrived—at least in terms of a new school year, if not yet reflected by the weather—it's high time for me to tune back in to the pulse of sports.

Baseball is reaching the height of its pennant races. The Cardinals added three important pieces—Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa and Julio Lugo—but didn't strengthen their starting pitching or their right-handed bullpen. They only have three dependable starters, Cy Young candidates Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, plus the rejuvenated Joel Piñero, but Kyle Lohse has not shown the form that distinguished him last season. They don't have a fifth starter at all. Will this be enough to keep the Cubs at bay until the playoffs? Is there any chance they might pick up released future Hall of Famer John Smoltz? Will Tony LaRussa ever stop bringing Dennys "Restaurant" Reyes out of the bullpen? Stay tuned—we will keep our attention focused on baseball's best player, Albert Pujols, and the rest of the Redbirds as they fight for another NL Central title.

Fall means football, and long-time readers know that I'm all about the pigskin, both college and pro. Let's start with my alma mater, the Missouri Tigers. The so-called experts, those guys who get paid to give you what I do for free, have picked them to finish at least behind Nebraska in the Big 12 North. Granted, losing Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman leaves some substantial shoes to fill, but the lack of expectations combined with the potential shown by new sophomore starting QB Blaine Gabbert (highly recruited by Nebraska, by the way) may surprise a lot of doubters once the conference season starts. I'm picking the Tigers to go 8-4, by the way. Not great, but I went to Mizzou during the Woody Widenhofer and Bob Stull errors. (No, I didn't mean "eras.")

Picking pro football results is a bit easier than baseball picks—it's a shorter season, and coaching and talent eliminates about 25 percent of the teams before the season even starts—but it's always a surprise to see who's left standing come January. I will return on opening week with a series of divisional previews, but for now, here's what I'm looking for with the teams I follow: 1) Will Brett Favre really stay retired, or will he take once last shot at glory and try to take the Vikings to the Promised Land at last? This much is clear—all the championship pieces are in place except for the guy under center. Answer: no one knows, probably not even Favre himself.

2) How bad will the Rams be this year? Answer: pretty bad. They don't have any talent, and they have maybe the worst QB in the league in Marc Bulger. New head coach Steve Spagnuolo will bring energy and toughness, but this team will be lucky to make it to six wins. Look for them to jettison Bulger at the end of the season when his ridiculous contract won't kill their salary cap number.

3) How will the Colts react to a new head coach? Answer: It's too soon to tell. Peyton Manning is still the best QB in the league, but does he have the skill players around him to reach another championship? Jim Caldwell was hand-picked by Tony Dungy to succeed him, but the Colts also lost their offensive line coach and offensive coordinator—the only ones Manning has ever played under—to retirement. With the departure of Marvin Harrison, this may just be too many changes to cope with in a division with Jacksonville, Houston and Tennessee.

What else is on the horizon? Hometown hero Tyler Hansbrough starts his rookie season for the Indiana Pacers, the St. Louis Blues try to build on the promise of last year's playoff season, the Mizzou basketball team returns from a Sweet Sixteen run in the Big Dance last year, and Shaq and LeBron team up to try to bring a championship to Cleveland for the first time since...well, I'm not old enough to remember.

Welcome back to The Sandlot. Stop by, read, comment, and be the best fan that you can.