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 PiƱero, 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.

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