Sunday, December 25, 2011

Where’d They Play Their College Ball?

Everyone knows about big-name NFL QBs like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. There’s also Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer and Eli Manning, plus others with fairly high name recognition. Usually, guys like that have come to the pros after having attended a big-name university, like Michigan, or Tennessee, or Ole Miss, or USC. But there’s a passel of other NFL QBs, both occasional starters and bench-warmers, who attended lesser-known colleges unlikely to produce NFL signal-callers. It may be tough enough to remember who some of these guys are, but all of them are currently on NFL rosters. The stiffer challenge for you is, Can you match up their names to where they played their college ball? Answers below, but no peeking.

1. Joe Webb, Vikings                            a. Nevada-Reno
2. Tarvaris Jackson, Seahawks           b. UConn
3. John Skelton, Cardinals                  c. Tarleton State
4. Kevin O’Connell, Jets                      d. Fresno State
5. Tyrod Taylor, Ravens                       e. Coastal Carolina
6. Thaddeus Lewis, Browns                f. UAB
7. Josh McCown, Bears                        g. Va. Tech
8. Colin Kaepernick, 49ers                  h. Sam Houston St.
9. Caleb Hanie, Bears                           i. Idaho
10. Nate Enderle, Bears                        j. Arizona State
11. Dan Orlovsky, Colts                         k. San Diego
12. Luke McCown, Jaguars                  l. Alabama State
13. Dan LeFevour, Jaguars                  m. Duke
14. Richard Bartel, Cardinals               n. San Diego State
15. Josh Johnson, Buccaneers              o. Delaware
16. Rudy Carpenter, Buccaneers          p. Colorado St.
17. Tom Brandstater, Rams                   q. La. Tech
18. Josh Portis, Seahawks                      r. California (Pa.)
19. Pat Devlin, Dolphins                         s. Central Michigan
20. Tyler Thigpen, Bills                           t. Fordham

Answers: 1-f; 2-l; 3-t; 4-n; 5-g; 6-m; 7-h; 8-a; 9-p; 10-i; 11-b; 12-q; 13-s; 14-c; 15-k; 16-j; 17-d; 18-r; 19-o; 20-e.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Separated at Birth??









Oakland Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer (above) and actor Kiefer Sutherland (below).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Nancy Allen Takes on Stephen Sondheim with High Style in Belmont Concert

Denice Hicks--artistic director of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival--once spoke of the richness of our fair city’s talent base. And so it is.

If someone did a study of per capita musical talent, Nashville would surely lead the nation. It’s a smaller-sized “major” city that attracts all sorts of musical people--so much so that truly gifted singers, composers and players often fail to grab the brass rings of big-time financial and/or deserving critical success.

Nashville--for all its southern charm and laid-back livability--is a tough town.

That goes for theatrical performers as well. I have witnessed tremendous growth in that area in my decade-plus stint as a Nashville theater critic. This town has many, many gifted actors, and alas there are not enough roles for them all.

Such is the artistic life.

And such is life in Nashville, where, on a balmy Monday night in November, one can mosey on over to the stunningly appointed Belmont Mansion on the campus of Belmont University, where a faculty recital, Send in the Sondheim, wows a packed house. (Oh yeah...the admission was free.)

Hard to say which was the main attraction: the lineup of Stephen Sondheim pieces from shows both familiar and obscure, or the leading lady, Nancy Allen, with her robust mezzo-soprano.

Let’s defer--easily--to the latter. Allen (left) is a familiar face to Nashville theatergoers, though we probably don’t see her onstage as often as we should. When she’s not singing in church, she teaches classical voice, mainly to theater majors at Belmont, does occasional opera work, and gigs at various theater companies. Back in April, she performed in Street Theatre Company’s production of Hairspray--as the racist Velma. Unlikely casting for the lovely and gracious Allen? Sure, but the talented pro pulled it off with venomous mirth.

Her embrace of Sondheim last night was even better. The lineup of 20 songs was drawn from the expected big shows (West Side Story, Follies, Company, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music) and also from shows with perhaps less immediate recognition for the average Joe (Evening Primrose, Merrily We Roll Along, Into the Woods, Assassins).

If there were glitches in Allen’s singing, they were undetectable. She tackled the breathless (“Something’s Coming,” “Another Hundred People”) with power; the comical (“Broadway Baby,” “Can That Boy Fox Trot”) with wit; and the serious (“Send in the Clowns,” “Losing My Mind”) with deep emotion.

Allen is more than a singer, however. Her actorly chops proved useful in her duets with guest artist Scott Logsdon (left), including the very excellent “You Must Meet My Wife” and “The Little Things.” Lyric baritone Logsdon also delivered a solo number, “Marry Me a Little.”

Another contributing artist was soprano Patricia Roberts (left), whose duet with Allen, “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” combined rich humor with sharp timing.

Interestingly, the final three selections all derived from Anyone Can Whistle, Sondheim’s most famous flop, which lasted nine performances on Broadway in 1964. The trio of singers’ group rendition of that show’s title tune was a sheer delight. This is one of the composer’s almost legendary songs, a fine little ballad with poignance and--especially for the often overly complex Sondheim--an accessible warmth and structural simplicity. Nashville Opera choral director Amy Tate Williams provided the original arrangement for three voices, and that was a fabulous surprise.

Finally, let us not overlook accompanist Chris Rayis, a Belmont composition major with a confessed “deep adoration” of Sondheim and definitely the skill to have a go at the master’s intricate solo piano. If anyone had the tightrope act of the evening, it was Rayis. Happy to say, he never wavered through all of the tricky filigree that adorns these pieces, which, as it is, are written in challenging keys and require deft rhythmic control from the instrumentalist.

There was no encore, but--no surprise--there was a standing ovation.

Send in the Sondheim
Nancy Allen in Recital
Belmont University School of Music
Belmont Mansion, Nov. 14, 2011, 7:30 p.m.

Featuring: Scott Logsdon & Patricia Roberts
Piano: Chris Rayis

Friday, October 21, 2011

Cards Miss Chance to Take Series Lead; Head to Texas Tied 1-1 with Rangers

Few figured the St. Louis Cardinals would ever make it to the 2011 World Series. But now that they’re here, it’s hard to resist admiring their tenacious spirit. Alas, they squandered a chance to take a 2-0 Series lead last night, losing a 2-1 squeaker in which their closer du jour, Jason Motte, proved unable to do what he’d done the previous evening: pitch a scoreless ninth inning and keep the enemy at bay. Instead, their opponents, the Texas Rangers, scored two runs in the top of the final frame and turned a 1-0 deficit into victory.


The Rangers look on paper to be the superior team--a nicely balanced collection of sweet swingers and impressive young relief arms--with strength up the middle defensively, especially the shortstop/second base combo of Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler, who pulled off a nifty double play in the 4th inning of last night’s Game 2, then pulled off a totally amazing force play to end the 5th inning. Plays like that kept the Rangers in a real nail-biter, as did their gritty relief pitchers Mike Adams and Neftali Feliz, the latter firing 100 MPH BB’s in the ninth inning to put away the spunky Cards.

The series now moves to Texas for Games 3, 4 and 5.

Of course, it’s a surprise that each team has only scored four runs in the first two games of the series. (St. Louis won the series opener, 3-2.) There are big bats on that field, from the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli to the Cards’ Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and clutch National League Championship Series star David Freese.

So far the pitchers are in charge, with maybe the exception of the Rangers’ Alexi Ogando, who was an excellent starter for the team this season (13-8, 3.51) but has been pressed into middle relief in the postseason. In each of the first two Series games, Ogando has faced the Cards’ pinch-hitting Allen Craig, and twice has yielded key run-scoring singles.

But while the season stats seem to favor Texas, the Cards might be able to ride it out on the wave of their continued improbable run, from presumed also-rans to National League champions.

Amazingly, the Cards clawed back from a 10-game wild card deficit in late August to slip into the playoffs on the final day of the season. And they did so having completely replaced their regular middle infielders, a move almost unheard of among World Series contestants.

Ryan Theriot and Skip Schumaker were the main DP combo this year, based on games played and at-bats. Yet after acquiring shortstop Rafael Furcal from the Dodgers on July 31 for a minor leaguer, manager Tony LaRussa eventually paired him with unheralded veteran second baseman Nick Punto, an offseason pickup from Minnesota (career batting average: .249) who appeared in only 63 regular season games.

Furcal, who won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2000, is--believe it or not--playing in his first World Series, after many previous postseason appearances with Atlanta and Los Angeles. He turns 34 this Monday. He and Punto (turning 34 on Nov. 8) can’t combine youth and athleticism like Andrus and Kinsler can, but they nonetheless have provided solid defense, and Punto has surprisingly rapped out three hits in six at-bats.

Reliever Motte’s also an interesting case. He hasn’t been around the big leagues that long--parts of four seasons--yet he’s a bit of a journeyman at 29 years old. He only has 12 career saves (9 in 2011) but--with a high 90s fastball--has emerged as the big closer for LaRussa, despite the fact that Fernando Salas led the team with 24 regular season saves.

For the Rangers, they can breathe a sigh of relief that they escaped St. Louis with a split of the first two games, despite the fact that their big hitters are stuck in neutral. Hamilton, Young, Beltre and Cruz are so far a combined 5 for 28, and memories of the 2010 Series, when the Rangers’ bats were silenced by the San Francisco Giants’ excellent pitching, are not that far in the forbidding past.

Returning to Texas should provide some tonic for the home team’s hitting woes, but if the Cards continue to get good starting pitching, they might hold off the Rangers until their own bats come alive.

Media Notes
I still can’t figure out what Tim McCarver is talking about. The FOX color guy seems to make up the most ridiculous stuff passed off as expert observations. His verbiage meanders into fanciful explanations that simply have no basis in fact or even in logical conjecture.

Last night, McCarver offered this (paraphrased): “In order to get a good bunt off him, you’ve gotta not bunt at the ball. You’ve gotta bring the bat down so the ball goes under it, and then maybe you’ve got a chance.” Huh? Tim is 70, and we might suggest that hardening of the arteries explains his ridiculous surmises--except for the fact that he’s been doing the same thing for almost 15 years.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

ALCS Notebook

After losing veteran outfielders Delmon Young and Magglio Ordonez to injury heading into the American League Championship Series, things have looked bleak for the Detroit Tigers.

Yet Jim Leyland's team rebounded Tuesday night to defeat the Texas Rangers in Game 3, 5-2. Texas still leads the series, 2-1, but don’t count the scrappy Tigers out.

Postseason play has often provided opportunities for little-known players to achieve and win the hearts of hometown fans, and the Tigers’ Andy Dirks and Don Kelly--Who?--are a couple of nobodies who will now have to step up and make some contributions to the cause.

Dirks is a 25-year-old rookie outfielder who hit .251 during the regular season in 78 games. Kelly is a 31-year-old utilityman with a career batting average of .240 in parts of four seasons. Both will play the outfield, though Kelly has also seen time at third base spelling regular Brandon Inge, who batted a woeful .197 this year.

Despite being undone by bad karma, and seemingly outmanned by the potent Rangers' bats, the Tigers still have some gamers in former longtime Indians shortstop Jhonny Peralta, veteran Ramon Santiago (subbing in at second base for injured Carlos Guillen), speedy centerfielder Austin Jackson, plus super-DH Victor Martinez, who unfortunately seems to have pulled a rib muscle Tuesday night in the process of hitting a game-changing home run. He’ll have to limp along with the rest of Detroit’s walking wounded.

The Tigers still boast the American League’s probable Cy Young Award winner, Justin Verlander, and they’ll need him to get back to dominance after some less than perfect recent outings. But if there’s one single reason why the Tigers still have a shot at a World Series appearance, it’s first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who is probably the best player in the game that you never really thought about.

Check Cabrera out at Baseball-Reference.com: http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/c/cabremi01.shtml. His career numbers are astonishingly good--.317 career batting average--and he’s only 28. He’s been playing some tremendously good defense in the postseason as well. He’s the type of guy who can carry a team, though the Rangers have three or four guys like that themselves. (Cabrera has also rather famously been involved with some off-the-field booze incidents. Whatever. He looked stone-cold sober to me when he drilled that 7th-inning home run Tuesday night.)

I see the Rangers’ bats and bullpen winning the ALCS and returning them to the World Series, but the Tigers have already made things interesting.

Media Notes
Meanwhile, we remain stuck with FOX Sports’ godawful broadcasting team for the ALCS. There’s play-by-play guy Joe Buck--who refuses to acknowledge that since we’re watching the game on television we don’t need him to constantly, incessantly, interminably keep his pompous gums flapping with stupid speculations and pointless information. And is there anything worse than the FOX stats geeks putting up a graphic for us to see on the screen, and then Buck ponderously reading off every word and digit aloud? Clearly, Buck’s head is far up his ass, and we’re flummoxed by the network execs’ affection for pretty-boy Joe.

Worse on the announcer front is Tim McCarver. The so-called “color” guy remains an annoyance, mainly because he makes up all kinds of stupid stuff. McCarver seems bound and determined to turn baseball analysis into The Science of Tim and it would be flat-out embarrassing if it weren’t so gosh-darn laughable. Tuesday night, for example, he dared to suggest that guys that hit more home runs hurt themselves more when they foul-tip balls off their bodies. Really, Tim? REALLY???

McCarver doubtless was a popular guy during his playing career, which stretched from 1959 to 1980. Yeah, that’s a lot of “good-ol’-boy” back-slapping and high-five-ing and fanny-patting for the Timster, so someone like that is apparently tough to fire. Everyone knows him and I guess enough people think of him as an institution. Whereas I only think of him as a lucky SOB from Memphis. Maybe Donald Trump could help: “Tim? You’re fired!”

Go here--http://www.shutuptimmccarver.com/--if you want to jump on the anti-McCarver bandwagon. There’s also this site: http://www.bobfinnan.com/TimMcCarver/.

Ken Rosenthal is the third wart on the FOX baseball ass. God knows who he blackmailed, or which relative called in a favor, but Rosenthal has ascended to the position of FOX’s lead baseball sideline/dugout guy. A weenie of the first rank, Rosenthal actually wore a puce bowtie on the job during Game 2 of the ALCS. Really, Ken? Puce?? REALLY??

Rosenthal is a corporate-clown dullard, and you can’t even begin to imagine that Kenny the little kid ever played an inning of baseball or a down of football, ‘cause his mom most likely wouldn’t let him out of his violin lessons. He never has an insightful thing to say, either. It’s all boilerplate. Not even the law of averages can help him out there. Plus, he looks like a dork on TV. We’d vote you off the island, Ken, but someone upstairs likes you so it would be pointless for us to try. Oh well, there’s always the mute button on the remote.

BTW, McCarver missed the first two games of the series due to a health check-up. Subbing for him was former Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who was actually rather good--understated, friendly, just trying to call things as he saw them without a lot of meaningless blather. Too bad Francona can’t stick around. But maybe, since he’s no longer a manager--for the time being, anyway--he might be persuaded to do more broadcasting. (We certainly know who he could replace.) ;o)

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Pudge on the Brink of Baseball History: But Will the Fates Be Kind?

Thanks to my brother Daniel, I'm the proud owner of an Ivan ("Pudge") Rodriguez bobblehead doll. I'm a big Pudge fan, and in the summer of 2010 I went to see a Washington Nationals game in D.C. with Daniel and his three sons, along with my best old high school buddy, John. Initially, there were possibilities that we might attend a game pitched by phenom Stephen Strasburg, but the schedule never worked out that way. Failing that, my fondest hope was that I might see Pudge play catcher. Alas, that never happened either. We had to suffer through an entire extra-inning game watching the legendary Wil Nieves behind the plate. Pudge never even pinch-hit. Hell, I don't think he even poked his head out of the dugout. Oh, and the Nats lost to the Phillies, of course.

Pudge is winding up a Hall of Fame career and is presently playing out a two-year contract he signed with the Nationals prior to the 2010 season. His HOF numbers were mainly put up with the Texas Rangers in the '90s and early 2000s, including a fantastic 1999 in which he won the American League Most Valuable Player Award. That year, playing the most demanding position in the game, Pudge scored 116 runs, smacked 199 hits, bashed 35 homers, drove in 113 runs, and compiled a .332 batting average. Great numbers, but particularly rare for a catcher. Just for good measure, he also stole 25 bases that year.

Pudge later won a World Series title with the 2003 Florida Marlins, and since has bounced around a bit, from Detroit to New York to Houston, back to the Rangers, and now with Washington, where he is beloved and respected, even as he heads toward his 40th birthday on November 27.

Pudge has been hurt this season. He's only appeared in 40 games and his batting average is a very un-Pudge-like .212. Just the other day he was reinstated to the roster after spending two months rehabbing an oblique strain.

Here's the thing, though. Pudge could certainly retire today and the Hall is assured. At the same time, he is not the future where the Nats' catching is concerned. That belongs to Wilson Ramos and Jesus Flores.

Yet a quick check of the stats reveals that Pudge has 2,842 career hits, only 158 hits shy of 3,000. Huge baseball fact: NO CATCHER HAS EVER AMASSED 3,000 HITS. Berra had 2,150. Bench had 2,048. Mike Piazza put up big career numbers for a catcher, including 427 homers, and his career .308 batting average eclipses Pudge's current .296. Yet Piazza retired with only 2,127 hits.

The only player close to Pudge's hit tally who served predominantly as a catcher is Ted Simmons, with 2,472, and Pudge passed him by four years ago. (Come to think of it, Simmons had a helluva career, and his numbers definitely bear revisiting for HOF consideration. His lifetime BA: .285.)

To put this situation into some other perspective, consider that Minnesota Twins star catcher Joe Mauer, winner of three batting titles before the age of 28 and currently a career .324 hitter, has 1,091 hits. Even Mauer will have to stay healthy and continue to crank 'em out well into his late thirties to approach 3,000.

So Pudge is close to making history. Two big factors will determine his chances. First, someone's gotta let him play, and 40-year-old catchers are pretty rare (though certainly there are role models for that, like Carlton Fisk, who played until he was 45 and, by the way, accumulated 2,356 hits). Secondly, Pudge has to stay healthy, and that certainly brings a wild card aspect to the equation. It gets tougher to stay in shape and resist injury as the body ages, and probably no one knows that as well as Pudge.

Still, 158 hits. That's 100 in 2012, and 58 in 2013. Or 79 in each. It can be done. But it's gonna take some moxie--which Pudge has in abundance--and also some luck.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Empire Strikes Back: The Force Is With Serena Williams at the U.S. Open

It’s no surprise to avid tennis fans that Serena Williams is dominating at the U.S. Open. With her intense demeanor and occasional bear-like roars, Serena is the women’s game’s Darth Vader, seemingly capable of choking her rivals merely by thinking about doing it.

Serena entered this tournament seeded a laughable #28, a situation due to comparative inactivity on the circuit the past year, which in turn was partly due to a mysterious foot injury that laid her low for a good while. Clearly, she is all better--check out the splits, above--and it might be argued that the layoff only brings her into Flushing Meadows feeling she has something especially frightful to prove. And with all the talent to do just that.

If Serena scares me as I watch her play from my living room, I can only imagine what her opponents feel when the force is with her in spades down on the hardcourts. Though capable of a winning smile, and conducting herself with seeming modesty in her post-match on-court interviews--one journalist termed it her new “Aw, shucks” approach--Serena has a long way to go to win the hearts of many fans. Unlike Roger Federer, her male tennis counterpart--i.e., a longtime champion of unassailable dominance in his time--Serena doesn’t come off as particularly likable. And so, a fan such as myself can have tremendous respect for what Serena does--but I can’t say that I’m rooting for her. I want to see her get beat. It’s sort of like the way I feel about the New York Yankees.

With fellow past champions like Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters vanquished early or missing in action completely this year--and with sister Venus having withdrawn after the first round due to illness--there is only Caroline Wozniacki, the #1 seed, remaining to reasonably challenge a healthy Serena. Yet the 21-year-old Wozniacki still has yet to breathe the rarefied air of Grand Slam victory in her career, while Serena’s angling for her 14th such title. Youth is a great thing in tennis, but so is a crushing forehand, a potent backhand and a killer serve at any age. So far, Serena’s accuracy and consistency look good. Scary good.

Williams is listed at 5’9,” yet somehow she seems shorter, especially when compared to all those tall, lithe European gals. She’s also listed at 150 pounds, yet somehow seems heftier, especially when all those same opponents rarely come in above 130. (Sharapova, for example, packs her 130 pounds into a 6’2” frame.) But if Serena’s got thighs like football’s Ray Lewis, that only seems to reinforce her unique athleticism in a game where long and slender is the general norm. Fact is, no one is built like Serena. You might guess that her overall sturdiness might hamper her quickness, but somehow she seems to get to every ball.

She polished off #4-seeded Victoria Azarenka in Round 3, 6-1, 7-6, and it was even easier than the numbers imply. (You can bet that Azarenka wasn’t expecting her early round, low-seeded foe to be the greatest lady tennis player in the world.) In fact, until Serena’s second set with Azarenka, none of her opponents to that point had even won more than one game per set. On Labor Day, she dispatched #16-seeded Ana Ivanovic, 6-3, 6-4, in another fairly routine rout. Now it's on to the quarterfinals.

Serena turns 30 on Sept. 26, and doubtless she’s aware of it. What better way to celebrate that milestone birthday than with another Grand Slam title.

She’s probably gonna do it, and if she does, then hats off--and sincere congrats--to Serena Williams. But I don’t have to root for her.

(C’mon: No one ever roots for Darth Vader.)

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Maryland, My Maryland: Terps Football Team Wraps Itself in the Flag

The reviews aren't all in yet. In fact, the verdict may remain out for a long while on the University of Maryland football team's new uniforms. In what might be considered someone's clever bit of conceptualizing, the Terps are now
essentially sporting the state flag of Maryland. It's a rad look, actually--especially the helmets--and the initial karma the uniforms brought was in the form of a season-opening 32-24 Labor Day victory over the Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes.

As a native Free Stater, I'm gonna give a thumb's up to the fashion statement. College football could use a little fun these days. Just ask Miami head coach Al Golden, who vacated his relatively successful tenure as head coach at low-profile Temple for the big-time environs of "The U," only to find unpleasant scandals and player suspensions mucking up his first season in Coral Gables. Too bad, because after enduring a bad rep for years, while often dominating the college football standings, the Miami program seemed pretty quiet recently, if only moderately successful on the football field. Now it looks like the Hurricanes get the worst of both. At this point, new uniforms probably wouldn't help.

But "You go, Terps!"

Live Long and Prosper: Vulcans from Cal (Pa.) Continue NFL Invasion

With its undergrad enrollment of approx. 7,000, California University is situated in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, kind of in the middle of nowhere, approximately halfway between Pittsburgh and Morgantown, W. Va. The school competes in NCAA Division II football in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, and while the Vulcans have experienced on-field success in recent years, their team achievement is probably best expressed by the players' impressively strong GPAs. "Cal" is a former teacher's college founded in 1852, and being a student-athlete there seems to actually hold some meaning.

But what the heck. Now that former Vulcans defensive back Tommie Campbell and quarterback Josh Portis both made NFL rosters as rookies over the weekend, that makes a total of four Vulcans in the football big-time. Campbell with the Tennessee Titans and Portis with the Seattle Seahawks join fellow ex-Vulcans wide receiver Dominique Curry (St. Louis Rams) and cornerback/punt returner Terrence Johnson (Indianapolis Colts) as members of the 53-player active rosters with their respective teams.

Campbell--pictured, left, completing a 90-yard interception return for a touchdown--was a longshot seventh-round draft choice who played well in the preseason and now will back up Titans All-Pro Cortland Finnegan. Portis made an even more surprising leap, from complete unknown--signed as an undrafted free agent by the Seahawks in July--and now enters the season as the third-string quarterback behind Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst. (Stay ready, Josh. You never know what'll happen with those two guys.)

Curry is enjoying active-roster status with the Rams for the second-straight year. In 2010, he became the first Vulcan to play in an NFL regular-season game since wide receiver Perry Kemp in 1991. Johnson, meanwhile, made the active roster with the Colts this year after spending 2010 on the team's practice squad. He was originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the New England Patriots.

A fifth ex-Vulcan, wide receiver Derrick Jones, entered training camp with the Oakland Raiders before being placed on injured reserve on Aug. 10.

Meanwhile, for the seventh consecutive year, The Princeton Review has named California U. one of the best colleges and universities in the northeastern U. S. In its online profile, TPR notes the university’s “long tradition of excellence in teacher education and a variety … of other programs” in liberal arts, science and technology and professional studies. (The latter didn't include football, of course, but the Vulcans appear to be a school to watch in that area.) Nationally, only about 25 percent of the country’s 2,500 four-year institutions are selected as regional "bests."

For all you ever wanted to know about Cal U.--and that hungry Vulcans football squad--visit Calvulcans.com.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Separated at Birth???

















PGA golfer Brandt Snedeker (above) and former NFL head coach Jon Gruden (below)




Saturday, September 03, 2011

Reality Check for 2011 Titans: Mediocrity on the New Horizon

[Editor's note: Later on the same day after this story was published, the Titans announced that veteran wide receiver Justin Gage had been released from the team, and that fullback Ahmard Hall had been levied a four-game suspension to begin the season for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.]

Like many a Titans fan, I would love to believe that 2011, with all its personnel changes and sense of renewal, promises a playoff berth. Unfortunately, my rose-colored glasses keep fogging up.

The arrival of Matt Hasselbeck (left) as interim quarterback-savior bodes well--in theory. Hasselbeck is actually a very, very good quarterback. He’s not a flashy guy, but he’s a solid athlete (when healthy, of course), and he’s a poised signal-caller who’s been to a Super Bowl in which his team (Seahawks) got jobbed by the zebras. Hasselbeck turns 36 on Sept. 25, so he’s not even that much younger than Kerry Collins, who got the subliminal heave-ho by Titans brass but has re-surfaced as Peyton Manning’s understudy with the division rival Colts. (Yes, everyone notes the irony, and if Manning can’t start the season due to his neck surgery problems, then Collins will get the nod.)

Some pundits claim that Hasselbeck will be safe behind the Titans’ offensive line, considered by other pundits as the team’s saving grace. If true, then great. An oldster like Hasselbeck will need protecting in order to achieve.

My problem is I’m just not convinced that this OL is as good as people think. It’s basically the same OL as 2010, and what we know about them is that they anchored the 27th-ranked total offense in the NFL. The Titans additionally ranked 25th in the league in yards passing per game, which can certainly be improved upon. The hopeful news there is that the Titans ranked 6th in the league in least sacks allowed. (In other words, 26 other teams allowed more sacks.)

So, yes, when Hasselbeck drops back, he should get protection. That gives him time to throw to gifted Kenny Britt (if he’s not in court) or Nate Washington (who’s still trying to reach elite receiver status while the window of that opportunity may have passed him by). The other receivers are older (Justin Gage) or wannabes like Lavelle Hawkins or Damien Williams, whom the Titans keep praying are better than they appear to be. (Sadly, if they were, we’d’ve found out long before now.)

Tight end Jared Cook may be the chief beneficiary of a well-insulated Hasselbeck. Once the QB sees that his receivers can’t get open, he can check down to third-year man Cook, who seems to have the native ability to be an excellent receiving TE. Yet again, we shall see.

But here’s the real mind-bender about the Titans’ offensive line: If they’re so great, how come they finished 17th in the league last year in rushing yards per game? With the estimable (and now really rich) Chris Johnson at running back, the Titans managed to gain .4 yards more per game on the ground than the 4-12 Buffalo Bills, whose leading rusher was Fred Jackson with 927 yards.

In a 6-10 2010 season, many were the times when CJ2K went nowhere. Yeah, he accumulated yardage--1,364 to be exact, yet that was 642 fewer yards than he gained in 2009. CJ also once again led the team in receptions, with 44, but his 5.6 yards per catch average was way down from the 10.1 of 2009.

No one needs statistics to close their eyes and think back to 2010 and recall how many times Johnson tried to hit nonexistent holes or how many times he slipped in the backfield trying to cut away from invading defenders. It was a classic modern-day case for opposing defenses: If you have no passing game, then we’ll just completely shut down possibly the best RB in the game. Certainly Johnson had the ugliest 1,364-yard season in NFL history.

Now he enters 2011 jinxed as the whining marquee offensive star who held out for--and received--a stadium-full of cash to last dozens of lifetimes, so don’t be surprised to see him get hurt early on. If that happens, that’ll turn the chores over to Javon Ringer (if he’s healthy) or a rookie named Jamie Harper, who had an earnest pre-season, but doesn’t have the size or speed to carry the running back load for an NFL franchise. (Lord help this team if it has to turn to the NFL scrap heap to find a runner.)

Which further begs the question of how the Titans can afford to carry fullback Ahmard Hall, who enters his sixth NFL season having gained a career total of 56 yards on the ground on 18 carries. To be fair, Hall has occasional value as a safety-valve receiver out of the backfield, but in this day and age you should be able to get a blocking back--Hall’s main duty--who can do legit damage as a runner too.

The Titans defense has almost as many “if”s.

The news that defensive end Derrick Morgan, the 2010 #1 draft choice who missed most all of 2010, has reinjured his knee is definitely a bad karma thing. DE Jason Jones is also nursing a sore knee. Supposedly both will be back soon. Otherwise, the defensive line is a huge question mark, filled with ongoing projects and rookies and might-be’s, and no one really knows how good these guys are, individually or collectively.

At linebacker, the Titans brass let Stephen Tulloch go in free-agency to the Detroit Lions for a mere $3.25M. Tullock had 160 tackles last year, second in the NFL, and while that stat might be symptomatic of things wrong on the Titans’ D-line, it still exemplifies a hard-working dude, whom apparently the team figured was expendable. (Strange that former Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, now the head coach at Detroit, snapped up Tulloch, whom he’d coached previously. Or maybe not so strange at all.)

There is some hope at linebacker, I suppose. Will Witherspoon is a good veteran ballplayer, though he’s 31. Gerald McRath is right behind him, younger and improving. Off-season acquisition Barrett Ruud is a solid if unspectacular pro. And there’s definite upside with rookies Akeem Ayers and Colin McCarthy.

The Titans have impressive talent in the defensive backfield, starting with cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan (left) and Alterraun Verner, the latter a huge rookie surprise in 2010. Veteran safeties Michael Griffin and Chris Hope should be solid, but there are decent other vets and possibly a rookie or two for reliable backup.

Special teams look more than secure with the excellent Rob Bironas kicking field goals and Brett Kern doing the punting. One assumes that Marc Mariani will stay on as the punt and kickoff returner, after a statistics-rich 2010. Still, his value elsewhere is suspect (as a receiver), and Williams and Hawkins were both exhibiting abilities in special-teams areas in the pre-season. With new rules changes in kickoffs, one wonders if Mariani’s one-dimensional talents have a long shelf-life.

Most of the Titans’ nine draft choices are sticking with the club. Chief among them is #1 pick Jake Locker (left), who looks like he might be an NFL quarterback, after all. (If Hasselbeck goes down with an injury, fans will follow Locker’s fortunes closely.) Linebacker Ayers also seems like a keeper. Other defensive draftees McCarthy, Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug look like definite contributors. So the rookie class offers at least some support.

Of course, the coaching staff provokes a lot of newbie question marks of its own.

Who knows if new head coach Mike Munchak (left) is the real deal? His main hires, offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, are both NFL re-treads. Trying to fill the hole led by the defection of former Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn to Philadelphia is Tracy Rocker, who is a rookie NFL assistant coach working under a rookie NFL head coach. Representing some semblance of continuity is the presence of Alan Lowry, architect of the Music City Miracle, who is still around as special teams coach.

Bottom line: There simply is no way to know how this motley collection of coaching talent will jive with an equally motley collection of ballplayers. And even in the age of the salary cap--where supposedly everyone gets a fair shot at the Lombardi Trophy--the Titans look like a small-market team, unimaginatively administered, victimized by narrow vision and doing things on the cheap (except when they spend ALL their money on one guy who probably isn’t worth it in the long run).

Only the fact that the AFC South looks up for grabs in 2011 affords the Titans a fighting chance at a playoff berth. Unfortunately, the schedule looks surprisingly rough for a team coming off a 6-10 season. Besides the six division games versus Indy, Jacksonville and Houston, they’ve been matched up with the AFC North and the NFC South, which means contests against Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, and New Orleans. Other games include road trips to Cleveland, Carolina and Buffalo, three other struggling teams who’ll be desperate for victory on their home turf.

I guess the Titans could surprise, but from this vantage point, it looks like mediocrity is in store for Tennessee football fans.

Prediction: 7-9 (and it could be worse).

Schedule:
Sept. 11 @ Jacksonville
Sept. 18 vs. Baltimore
Sept. 25 vs. Denver
Oct. 2 @ Cleveland
Oct. 9 @ Pittsburgh
Oct. 16 BYE
Oct. 23 vs. Houston
Oct. 30 vs. Indianapolis
Nov. 6 vs.Cincinnati
Nov. 13 @ Carolina
Nov. 20 @ Atlanta
Nov. 27 vs. Tampa Bay
Dec. 4 @ Buffalo
Dec. 11 vs. New Orleans
Dec. 18 @ Indianapolis
Dec. 24 vs. Jacksonville
Jan. 1 @ Houston






Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Nats Faltering, Rizzo Makes Lame Trade

The Washington Nationals, who were actually surprising baseball observers there for a while, are now 9-15 since Davey Johnson replaced Jim Riggleman as manager.

Despite injuries and their high-priced free agents flat-out sucking, the Nats had somehow managed to play respectable ball under Riggleman. They were getting consistently good pitching from their starters, and however he was doing it, Riggleman had the team scrapping for runs and enough victories to hover at or just above .500.

Now the team has dropped five of its last six, and has fallen to four games under .500 and down into the National League East basement. The pitching has flagged just a bit, which helps explain a little of the recent downward trend, but the biggest problem remains: Crap hitting, especially from Jayson Werth, pulling in millions and millions of dollars per year and the Nats having nothing to show for it.

(Hey, Jayson: Don't talk to the press and venture your opinions, will ya? Just try to hit the damn ball. Really, dude, you suck. And if you were producing at the levels management expected when they gave you that fat free-agent contract, the Nats probably wouldn't be struggling so much.)

Enter into this scenario general manager Mike Rizzo, whose latest move looks just dumb and desperate--the kind of thing a chronically shitty ballclub does to "shake things up" or, more than likely, to make it look like its GM is earning his paycheck.

In a completely inexplicable trade, Rizzo acquired Cincinnati Reds journeyman outfielder Jonny Gomes, who brings to the Nats a .211 batting average with 11 homers and 31 RBIs. (LOL, Washington just acquired another Jayson Werth, whose pathetic numbers are .215, 11 and 35.)

According to Reds GM Walt Jocketty, the Nats were persistent about Gomes. Really?? Like, what, the team didn't already have its fair share of underachieving right-handed hitters who are 30 and older?

"He's a power guy," Rizzo reportedly said. "He can get on base. He'll take his walks. He can drive in runs. Most importantly, he can change the game with one swing of the bat." Actually, in 2010, the closest to a full season Gomes ever had (571 PAs), he walked only 39 times. He also struck out 123 times. Now, to be fair, Gomes hit 18 homers last season, with 86 RBIs. Those numbers might indicate he can help the Nats, but unfortunately, 2010 has the look of a career year for him. His lifetime BA is .244.

Just to make the trade look lamer, Rizzo gave up two minor leaguers for Gomes, each of whom is playing good baseball. Chris Manno, 22, is 1-3 with a 1.04 ERA and 12 saves at Class A Hagerstown. Bill Rhinehart, 26, was batting .283 with 21 homers and 59 RBIs at Double-A Harrisburg. What, they don't get a chance to help the team? The Nats would be better served getting a look at youngsters than trading for the likes of Gomes.

The Nats are fading now--fast and maybe for good. Which is too bad, because they were playing gritty baseball, trying to hold on until Werth and Ryan Zimmerman and some of the younger players started to finally hit.

History says the team is toast now. Their decline looks predictable from here on out. Oddly, the most logical guy Gomes would replace in the lineup would be Werth. But come to think of it, that could be a step in the right direction.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Separated at Birth???

Rick Carlisle, coach of the Dallas Mavericks, and Jim Carrey, in Me, Myself and Irene

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Almost Werth-less: Nats’ Progress Impeded by Silent Bats

The 2011 freefall may have started for the Washington Nationals (22-29), who dropped another one Saturday, 2-1, to the even worse San Diego Padres (21-31). For the Nats, losers of 8 of their last 10 games, it was another exercise in the frustration of life as a good-pitch, lousy-hit baseball club.

The Nats are aching for respectability, and they’ve got a combative manager, Jim Riggleman, who, considering the roster he was handed, so far ought to be a candidate for Manager of the Year. But with a team batting average of .227, the Nats are eclipsed only by the Padres (.226) for MLB offensive futility. There are various, clearly identifiable reasons for the Nats’ anemic production, but chief among them are the disappointing numbers registered by high-priced free-agent acquisitions Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche.

Werth is showing some signs of shaking off the rust--well, sort of--his average now standing at .245, including eight home runs and 18 RBIs. Yet Werth is earning approximately $10 million this year, the first installment on a seven-year, $126 million contract he signed in the off-season after leaving the Phillies.

Werth, you might say, committed highway robbery, cashing in the big payday under false pretenses. He put up solid numbers for the Phillies in recent years, but he was hitting in a lineup that included Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino and Raul Ibanez, among others. He saw tastier pitches to hit, and there were always people on base to drive in. That’s not the case in D.C., where Werth has been exposed as much less than a bonafide star. Currently, he’s on a pace to hit 25 homers and drive in 60 runs. Or, about $170,000 per RBI. Ouch.

Werth also recently engaged in some public bitching about the team’s fortunes. Riggleman tried to smooth it over, but damnation, Jayson, look in a mirror, dude. (And, in 2017, at the age of 38, Werth will draw a $21 million paycheck from the Nats. Think about that when you bite into your overpriced hot dog at Nationals Park.)

LaRoche, a notorious slow starter, has taken that designation to new lows. He’s currently hitting .172 with three HRs and 15 RBIs. His OPS is .546. Ugh. Brought in to replace departed slugger and fan favorite Adam Dunn, LaRoche was just recently put on the disabled list because of a torn labrum in his left shoulder--not good for a guy who bats and throws lefthanded. No one knows when LaRoche will be back or whether he’ll need surgery. So, you can probably flush another $10 million down the drain.

And you can thank general manager Mike Rizzo for both of those brilliant moves.

The Nats have also suffered the untimely loss of former All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who was off to a good start (.357) when an abdominal injury sidelined him. Zimmerman’s played in eight games, which means he’s missed 43, more than a fourth of the season, already. His return is imminent but not immediate.

The hitting impotence exists practically everywhere else in the lineup, with shortstop Ian Desmond hitting .222, second baseman Danny Espinosa at .200 (though with a team-leading 28 RBIs), and center-fielder Rick Ankiel at .221 before getting sidelined by a sprained wrist. (Ankiel has since returned. Now he’s hitting .207.)

Filling the injury gaps are fill-in players like Alex Cora (.240), Jerry Hairston Jr. (.252) and Roger Bernadina (.250). Also taking up roster space is 43-year-old Matt Stairs, who is 3-for-32 for a batting average of .094 with no RBIs. (Can you say “unconditional release”??)

The big bright spot is the play of Laynce Nix, another journeyman, currently hitting .306 with seven homers and more RBIs (20) than Werth. Outfielder Michael Morse--now moved to first base to cover for LaRoche--shows occasional signs of life at .287, but until recently had not been supplying the long-ball pop team brass were hoping for in his attempt to replace the departed Josh Willingham. Young catcher Wilson Ramos appeared to be establishing himself, though his average has sunk to .248 after a promising start. Veteran Pudge Rodriguez is hitting .211.

MLB-wide, out of 30 teams, the Nats are 23d in runs scored, 28th in OBP and 24th is slugging percentage. Why the team isn’t as lowly as the lowest is a tribute to that area of the game which rarely has been considered a Nats strength: pitching.

Jordan Zimmermann lost Saturday’s game after pitching six strong innings and lowering his ERA to 3.88. He’s pitched well all year, yet his record stands at 2-6.

In fact, the Nats have received quality starts all year long from a reliable rotation that includes Livan Hernandez (3-6, 3.71), Jason Marquis (5-2, 4.26), John Lannan (2-5, 4.40), Zimmermann and Tom Gorzelanny (2-4, 4.25). And most of the time, the bullpen has been respectable. Drew Storen has nine saves and a 1.75 ERA as the stopper.

The team ERA is 3.89, and with any kind of reasonable production out of the lineup this team could easily be seven games above .500 instead of seven below. But until those veteran bats come alive, and until the younger players start to fulfill their promise at the plate, the pitchers will suffer through some hard times. And so will diehard Nats fans.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Who Killed Kenny? GroundWorks Theatre’s Fall to Earth Goes for the Maternal Jugular Just in Time for Mother’s Day

[Since my usual outlet for my theater reviews, Nashville Scene, was unable to accommodate my coverage for this week, I’ve posted this review to my wider-purpose blog.--M.B.]

So, which parent screwed YOU up the most? Sometimes that’s a pretty tough call. But in Joel Drake Johnson’s The Fall to Earth, which opened this past Friday at Groundworks Theatre, there’s little doubt that mommie dearest is the culprit.

Johnson’s play impressed at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company seven years ago, and the GroundWorks producing/directing team of Robert and Sean O’Connell were there to see it. Now they’ve mounted the regional premiere, and no matter how jaggedly intravenous the discomfort can get in this baleful ode to family dysfunction, it’s compelling stuff every step of the way, in two tight acts that bring all the cringing sadness home comfortably--well, sort of--under two hours.

This economy-sized punch to the familial jaw begins when mother Fay (Wesley Paine) and daughter Rachel (Megan Murphy Chambers) enter a hotel room in Eureka, Oregon, where they’ve come to address the unpleasant business surrounding the recent death of son/brother Kenny. This means meeting with the local authorities, identifying the body and making arrangements for shipping the remains to the Midwest for burial.

We don’t ever find out what the heck Kenny was doing in Oregon, though we glean that the family is probably from Illinois, and we learn for sure that Rachel--divorced and the mother of a young son--lives in Chicago. But Kenny, we presume, was a loser--one of those poor unattended souls who got lost in life’s shuffle, bullied and unsure of everything about himself.

The drama at hand, however, is what is happening between mother and daughter. In Act 1, Rachel seems to be the stronger of the two, throwing her hands in the air in a “What are we gonna do with you?” frustration that seems very typical of daughters vis a vis their very middle-aged moms. Then the duo must confront the “Kenny problem” more directly, exacerbated when a supportive policewoman (Heather Webber) attempts to explain certain aspects of Kenny’s habits and his grungy demise.

Which bring us to an Act 2 where the emotional gloves come off, and Fay and Rachel mix it up accusatorily, and more and more is revealed about a family life that almost--but not quite--makes the situation in Ordinary People look like a simple misunderstanding.

Yes, the darkness lives with mom, and Paine’s performance has to be one of the most psychically challenging and physically demanding of her productive Nashville career. When she slaps Chambers around in their climactic catfight, there is little doubt how frighteningly dominant parenting patterns can be--not to mention how Pavlovianly compliant even grown children may react in response. Dramatically, Chambers is Paine’s match, but it’s a bitter seesaw she rides with good ol’ mom in the ascent.

Of course, there’s nothing psychologically healthy about all this, and one is drawn to wonder about playwright Johnson’s inspiration for the whole rigmarole. The good news is it’s engrossing theater. Sean O’Connell’s direction ensures that a sense of reality pervades the action, and the strong performances insistently do their truthful duty.

And a Happy Mother’s Day to all!

What: The Fall to Earth
Who: GroundWorks Theatre
Where: Darkhorse Theatre, 4610 Charlotte Ave., Nashville 37209
When: Through May 14, 2011
Phone: 615-262-5485

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Feet of Clay: Did Elias Make a Mistake??

Statistical geeks such as myself generally bow down to the words “Elias Sports Bureau,” since that oft-cited agency is the gold standard for statistical accuracy and omnipotence in the world of sports. This is especially true where baseball is concerned. If you want to know the last time an Oklahoma-born second basemen named Fred with shin splints and a stubbly beard hit into a force play in five consecutive games batting lefthanded in the month of August, the guys at Elias will find that stat for you.

Sometimes it’s even annoying the stats Elias comes up with, their obscurity and/or irrelevance so remote that it bears recalling that presumably someone is actually getting PAID to look that stuff up. (Those of us who toil in a similar sports vineyard but hardly get paid much at all to exercise the same statistically geeky impulse can only imagine what an Elias statistician brings home every week. Besides a head full of useless but sometimes still very interesting information and factoids.)

As the esoteric facts get revealed in baseball game accounts with increasing regularity, it has occurred to me that the Elias folks at some point must have lurched headlong into the computer age with sophisticated metrics and search enginery that makes looking up the improbable oh so very possible. The other possibility--that there’s a small army of bespectacled, socially awkward and hermitlike nerds sitting in little cubicles at an office in New York City constantly looking up the facts using PCs and books and only their brains--just can’t be right.

But last night, in ESPN.com’s reprinted Associated Press account of the game between the Indians and Orioles, we read this:

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, [Zach] Britton is the first Orioles pitcher to allow just one earned run in his first two starts since Tom Phoebus, who did it in 1954 when the franchise was still in St. Louis.

Hmmm, thinks I... I remember Phoebus, but he played in the ’60s. Then I thought, was there ANOTHER Tom Phoebus, and was he on the 1954 St. Louis Browns, which the Orioles were before they moved to Baltimore?? As Miss Clavell used to say in the Madeline books, “Something’s not quite right...”


So I looked it up at Baseball-Reference.com. Sure enough, there was--and is--only one Tom Phoebus, and he played major league baseball from 1966-72, with the Orioles, Padres and Cubs. Phoebus was a decent pitcher, mainly a starter--56-52 lifetime, 3.33 ERA, 11 career shutouts, and he picked up a World Series ring with the 1970 Orioles. As for the 1954 reference, in fact that was the first year the Orioles played in Baltimore, so they were no longer in St. Louis by then. Needless to say, there was also no one named Tom Phoebus on the 1954 roster.

Which means that a) ESPN made a huge series of improbable misprints or mis-types; b) the AP reporter working on this item was hugely incompetent (not outside the realm of possibility); or c) the Elias boys released incorrect statistical information.

If it’s the latter, I think there should be a major press conference. I mean, if Elias & Co. got this wrong, how many other bits and bites have they fed us through the years that also were incorrect? Who knows, maybe those guys have just been making stuff up. How would we know they weren’t, since their word is accepted as gospel all the time?

Makes ya wonder. (Well, makes ME wonder.)

Anyway, hello to Tom Phoebus, 69 years old, wherever you are.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

National Obsession: Are Washington's Nats Moving Up or Down?

The Washington Nationals are off to yet another stellar start. Not. At the moment, the team shows early signs of good pitching being undermined by impotent hitting.

Of course, I don’t know why a team that ought to be building with youth added to its roster Jerry Hairston, Jr. (34), Laynce Nix (30), Alex Cora (35) and Matt Stairs (43). Sorry, but none of these guys was a star in his prime anyway. (Stairs is a pinch-hitter only. And the Nats have that luxury why??)

Plus there’s new starting center-fielder Rick Ankiel, who makes for a good baseball story--former pitcher who lost his mojo then resurfaced as a position player with legit power--but is 31 and has declined with the bat since his impressive comeback in ’07-’08.

Even high-priced off-season free-agent signee Jayson Werth is 31, and the team will be spending--take a deep breath now--$126M over 7 years on the guy. That’s $18M a year, folks. Ya think Werth’s gonna be worth that when he’s 35? Or 36? How about when he’s 38? It's nuts, I tell ya.

In the meantime, Nats management dumped or traded proven slugger Adam Dunn and decent power guy Josh Willingham, who are 31 and 32, respectively. (Both hit homers in their opening day games for their new teams, by the way.)

I guess all these moves have to do with money and stuff--or presumably someone’s incredibly brilliant assessment of talent. I’d still rather have Dunn than Werth. But whatever.

Just for fun, let’s track management’s team-building by following the former Nats they’ve let go to other rosters in the past few years. Did they show foresight in these moves? Or folly? Hard to know, but the names below certainly could be comprised by someone’s major league roster.

Where Are They Now?

Luis Ayala--The right-hander’s promise of 2003-5 had never been fulfilled. Was with the Nats organization up to 2008, then went journeyman. He’s with the Yankees now, though.

Miguel Batista--Journeyman starter/reliever had his best ERA in seven years with the Nats in 2010. He’s 40, and signed with the Cards in the off-season.

Emilio Bonifacio--Briefly with the Nats in ’08 after a trade with Arizona, he’s now with Florida. He has skills as an infielder, but his bat is off and on. Still only 25.

Marlon Byrd--Let go by the Nats in ’05, Byrd has established himself as a quality ballplayer and was an All-Star in 2010 for the Cubs.

Matt Capps--Acquired from Pittsburgh in 2010, Capps had a career year as a reliever, posting 42 saves, but not before the Nats traded him to Minnesota to acquire catching prospect Wilson Ramos.

Jamey Carroll--Since the Nats gave up on him in 2005, Carroll has carved out for himself a very nice niche as a dependable utilityman and sometime starter. A late-bloomer, he’s now 37, but the career .276 BA is legit, and he’s played well with Colorado, Cleveland and now the Dodgers.

Adam Dunn--Signed with the White Sox as a free agent, after the Nats wouldn’t sign him as a free agent. Should have a monster season as a DH with Pale Hose.

Alberto Gonzalez--Traded to Padres at start of 2011 season. Decent fielder, versatile, .253 career hitter. Not yet 28, but never established himself as a first-stringer.

Joel Hanrahan--Nats kept waiting for this guy to do something really great with his fastball, as a starter or reliever. They gave up and traded him to Pittsburgh. Jury’s still out, but he’s 29 already.

Willie Harris--A semi-fan-favorite for three seasons, Harris never hit better than .251 for the Nats. They expected more. Occasional power, a versatile guy in the field, Harris is now a Met. He’ll probably exact his revenge sometime this season.

Austin Kearns--Starting left-fielder in the home opener for the Indians. In truth, if Kearns is your starting anything, your team is in big trouble. No one misses him.

Adam Kennedy--Unknown by many: Kennedy is a career .275 hitter and has a World Series ring. Spent 2010 with the Nats, then signed a free-agent deal with Seattle.

Ryan Langerhans--It may be a mystery how Langerhans has managed to have a nine-year MLB career, but when you’ve spent the past five years with the Nats and the Mariners, never hitting more than .234, some clarity emerges. Langerhans hasn’t looked promising since 2005 with the Braves. But he’s getting a pension, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Mike MacDougal--Another journeyman pitcher, he actually had a strong ’09 for the Nats. He just keeps moving from pillar to post, and the Dodgers like him currently.

Lastings Milledge--Nats dumped him off on the Pirates a couple years ago, claiming he was a head case. He put up respectable batting averages for the Bucs (.277, .291), and earned a roster spot with the expected-to-contend White Sox this year. Still only 25.

Nyjer Morgan--When the Nats acquired him from the Bucs in ’09, it was presumed that the team had found a centerfielder and leadoff hitter for a solid five years. Morgan has some speed but no power, and he didn’t draw that many walks for a leadoff man, and he had some weird adventures in the outfield. Suddenly he looked expendable. So right before the 2011 season, he was traded to the Brewers for a minor leaguer named Cutter Dykstra plus some cash. Hope it was a LOT of cash, ’cause Dykstra’s .274/.374/.383 aggregate line in the low minors, plus his anemic power numbers and tons of Ks, reek of bad prospect. He’s only 21, though. And he’s versatile, having played six positions in his three years. Alas, that probably means he’ll never anchor one single position. If only he were Lenny Dykstra.

Wil Nieves--A catcher who can’t hit, Nieves signed with the Brewers in the off-season.

Pete Orr--Had stints with the ’08 and ’09 Nats. It’s always interesting when a team that went 69-93 finds useless a guy who hooks on with a team that went 97-65 (Phillies). Orr’s a journeyman infielder, sorta like Alex Cora or Jerry Hairston, Jr. Only younger.

Jon Rauch--The 6’10” former Morehead State Eagle is 32 now, pretty much a journeyman, but has had a solid career as both a long and short reliever. With the Blue Jays currently.

Brian Schneider--With the Expos/Nats for parts of eight seasons, the journeyman catcher was a Met and is now a Phillie. He’s a .250 career hitter with occasional power and is a reliable receiver. At 34, you can at least say he’s a lot younger than Pudge Rodriguez.

Alfonso Soriano--He hit 46 homers for the ’06 Nats, who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pay the price to sign him in free agency. Now he’s a gazillionaire with the Cubs battling age (35) and occasional injury. He’s still a step up from Roger Bernadina.

Josh Willingham--When healthy, a solid bat with consistent if unspectacular power, and a run producer. Traded to the A’s this past off-season, and he’s hitting cleanup for them.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Pearl for a Byrd in Hand

By Henry Nichols
Special to Sports Media America

By any reasonable measure, when you subtract the emotions and moral relativity, you can’t escape the impending reality that Bruce Pearl is being weighed for the gallows this March at Tennessee.

When whispers of impropriety were first directed toward Tennessee over the past year or so, it initially looked as if a series of impermissible calls could garner Pearl the reputation of Kelvin Sampson Lite. A spot of bother? Sure. But probably not enough to buy a ticket to the ballpark of fireable offenses.

After all, if there was ever an obvious target of the NCAA’s microscope in the SEC East from the outset, it was John (“The Teflon Don”) Calipari. If Cal spent as much time teaching his players how to shoot free throws as he did corralling inexplicably-cobbled-with-blue-chips recruiting classes, he would probably have just vacated a national title before arriving in Lexington.

But at least Cal knows the 11th Commandment: “Don’t get caught.” Since last summer, Pearl has accomplished the unthinkable by cementing his legacy as a bigger cheat than even Vol fans could have retroactively dreamed Lane Kiffin to be.

Pearl (left) not only knowingly broke major NCAA recruiting rules, but he was stupid enough to deliberately entice the families of unsigned recruits, as well as his own staff, to break them with him. We’re talking about a faux pas so obvious that NCAA investigators already knew the damning truth, holding the photo of Aaron Craft at the illicit cook-out, before entrapping Pearl into his now-infamous lie.

Credit Craft’s family for at least having the common sense to back away from the train wreck while they still could. When Pearl cried like a bitch on national TV for his foibles (or rather, for getting caught), Big Orange Nation would have liked to believe the man had to have been humbled at rock bottom.

Not so. The straw that will likely break his program’s back was his improper contact with a recruit just a few days later. While technically a small infraction, it incontrovertibly showed he had zero remorse for his ways. That he would do what it took to win at all costs, to recruit at all costs just like always.

Under new NCAA prez Mark Emmert, college athletics, like Wall Street, faces a virtually unprecedented culture of corruption in the modern era. But from lowly bloggers to ESPN’s thorough Dana O’Neil, there can surely be no precedent found for a school terminating a coach’s contract but not his employment, but that is where Tennessee stands with lame-duck AD Mike Hamilton and his “Artful Dodger” of hoops.

By August, Pearl will likely have fallen on his sword or the NCAA, with Emmert playing the Robespierre role in the Terror of the collegiate rule-breaking elite, not only issuing Pearl at least a two-year show-cause penalty but also likely punishing the Vols program further for every day, week, month that Hamilton doesn’t drag Pearl out to the guillotine himself.

As for the wantonly delusional faction on Rocky Top that wishes to see Pearl remain chief of their bastion of anarchy under a shroud of competitively apologetic relativism, a popular hypothesis is that UT’s newest assistant, Houston Fancher, could stick around as interim coach for a year or two while Pearl and his other assistants sustain their inevitable NCAA suspension for their respectively complicit roles in the scandal. (Ironically, Fancher was the ill-fated successor at Appalachian State to Pearl’s predecessor at UT, Buzz Peterson, when Peterson left Boone, N.C., to take over as head coach at Tulsa a year prior to his move to Knoxville.)

Otherwise, if a regime change is indeed in the cards, conventional wisdom via popular local punditry is that the university (likely without Hamilton calling the shots) will seek a Pearl clone as best it can, complete with a dynamic recruiting flair, an up-tempo system, a defiant swagger and youthful vigor above all other criteria. But it would be a mistake.

The perfect candidate at this point in time is a UT alum who has been coaching in the state for three decades, tallying over 600 wins in that time frame. He would return respectability to Rocky Top both on and off the court, churning maximum production out of an inevitably rebuilding roster while jettisoning Pearl’s bad eggs. His track record suggests he would certainly perform a 180 on graduation rates at a program which has long been a laughingstock where student-athlete character and integrity are concerned.

Rick Byrd (left) has punched Nashville's Belmont University’s Big Dance ticket four of the past six seasons and currently has the Bruins rolling at a program-best 30-4 clip, with half of his team’s losses this season coming by single digits to his alma mater. But while Pearl seems to eschew off-court discipline lately in favor of on-court success at all costs, Byrd has consistently run a tight ship over the years with lesser known recruits and made it work to his advantage. An astounding 11 players in Belmont’s rotation play more than 10 minutes per game while none plays more than 25. Think he catches much flak from his leaders?

While Byrd has been more than comfortable at Belmont and could probably reach 800-900 wins there if he stayed through the end of the new decade, Tennessee might be the only job for which he’d leave. A Knoxville native, Byrd’s dad Ben served as a sports editor/writer for the Knoxville Journal for 40 years. Upon matriculating to UT, Byrd tried out for legendary coach Ray Mears’ varsity squad only to make JV.

Shortly thereafter, Byrd got his start in coaching under Mears as a graduate assistant in 1976. Other than being a vastly successful head coach, one of the few things he has in common with Pearl is that he spent his early years as a head coach patrolling the sidelines in college basketball’s wilderness: first at Maryville College in ‘78, then onto Lincoln Memorial in ‘83 before taking the reins at Belmont in ‘86, all gigs being at the NAIA level or lower before he finally, gently guided Belmont into provisional Division 1 status as an independent in ‘96.

Byrd knows all too well what it’s like to build a program completely from scratch and Lord knows whether he still has the energy to personify the phoenix that raises UT from the impending ashes of crippling sanctions. Besides his entrenched comfort in Nashville going on 58 years old, an obvious con to taking the Vols’ reins would be making an in-state, intra-conference rival out of best bud and Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. The two already dread playing each other twice a decade as is.

For the average UT fan, the anxiously obvious question about Byrd would be, Can he recruit well enough at the SEC level?

If Byrd can be convinced to end his career where it started, his groomed successor at Belmont, associate head coach Casey Alexander (Belmont ’95), would no longer be by his side to inject a youthful enthusiasm on the recruiting trail or in practices. It’s also likely that fellow assistant Roger Idstrom, an Atlantic Sun Conference lifer at both BU and Gardner-Webb before that, would stay behind to ease Alexander’s transition to the head coach’s chair at his own alma mater. Belmont’s retention of those two would effectively dismantle the longest-tenured coaching staff in the nation.

But one need not be a great recruiter as a head coach to have program-wide recruiting success. Rather, Byrd would simply need to harvest some of the many contacts he has cultivated over the course of his coaching career. Longtime assistant Brian Ayers, an ex-Vandy assistant for two years in the late ‘90s, would be a logical resource to help Byrd adjust to the ‘Big Six’-conference level.

And what kind of student-athlete could Byrd recruit to Knoxville that would be SEC-caliber on and off the court? Someone like Gonzaga assistant Ray Giacoletti might be persuaded to help carry out that task. Connected to Byrd through Stallings, Giacoletti alerted the Vandy staff a few years ago to an under-the-radar Australian center that he couldn't accommodate himself while still serving as Utah’s head coach. Just over a year later, A.J. Ogilvy set a program scoring record for a freshman, was named second-team All-SEC as a sophomore and helped the ‘Dores reach two NCAA tourneys in three seasons before going pro after his junior year and playing the past year in Turkey alongside Allen Iverson.

Part of the dilemma facing Tennessee coaches in all revenue sports is that the state sustains a shallow well of D-1 athletic talent within its borders. So in many cases--since they can’t appeal so often to a recruit’s pride in playing for the in-state school, nor can they offer as highly ranked a nearby in-conference education as Vanderbilt or Georgia--they are forced to take on out-of-state players with more baggage relative to SEC powerhouses like Florida or Kentucky in order to compete.

Since-dismissed or disqualified Pearl signees like Daniel West, Duke Crews and Ramar Smith are a testament to this. Meanwhile, nerdy Vanderbilt has reaped more in-state blue-chippers between the two in recent years, from current SEC scoring leader John Jenkins to 2011 signee Kedren Johnson.

Like many schools with similar structural recruiting dilemmas before them, an international approach to recruiting could be the answer. Non-American players likely don’t know anything about a program’s past other than someone has taken the pains to recruit them long-distance and has a system where they can thrive, and the inside-outside, interchangeable emphasis of Byrd’s offense provides a desirable impetus for internationals to buy in to the program, like St. Mary’s of late. Like their foreign counterparts, Byrd’s big men like to face the basket as much or more than having their back to it.

It’s unrealistic to expect Byrd to coach for more than another decade wherever he is, and such a transition would likely come with an eventually designated heir. That could be someone like Giacoletti. But whoever it is, it would be a younger coach who can recruit and bring the same fire Byrd has demonstrated for most of his career.

In essence, a Bruce Pearl without the baggage.

So as Pearl and Hamilton shed the last of their crocodile tears in a far-fetched attempt to prolong their tenures, UT and new president Joe DiPietro should continue revamping their athletic department--as they have started with football coach Derek Dooley--with leaders who will bring honor to Rocky Top instead of making their uniforms look like jumpsuits.

Convincing Byrd to come home for his swan song would do just that.

Henry Nichols is a Nashville writer and pundit. He has worked locally for WNSR-AM sports radio, CBSSports.com and Athlon Sports Publishing.

Monday, March 07, 2011

C-SPAN: Home of the Thinking Man’s Foxes

When you don’t have money for a big exciting TV package, you have to settle for what you can get in Comcast basic limited cable. That’s what I do, anyway.

As my career as a journalist dwindles, and as my career as a musician never takes off, I am stuck making do with many things. Hence, my brain gets addled by watching awful network TV, which occasionally redeems itself with sports programming or the Thursday night NBC comedy lineup. Or the late-night re-runs of “South Park” on WGN. PBS also offers decent documentary stuff and “Antiques Roadshow” and the occasional British police procedural, usually very well-made, often putting to shame its American counterparts. (Honest, I only watch the execrable David Caruso on “CSI Miami” when I am absolutely hard-up for something to watch. Even then, I’m just waiting for Emily Procter to enter the screen.)

But I also feel very blessed that I can get C-SPAN, which I have come to watch pretty religiously. I mean, why watch a bad sitcom when you can see our actual legislative representatives and national leaders doing hilarious things in real time? And there’s hardly ever a re-run!

You can see the Brits and Canadians trying to manage a country too. Plus, C-SPAN delivers good interviews, mobile programming from around the country and the proceedings of political confabs of every stripe, not to mention the actual workings of the U.S. Congress, votes and all.

So there is much to learn watching C-SPAN, and I’d venture to say that I am better informed via my TV regimen than the average person with a fabulous cable package, mainly because a person with many choices would never opt for bland-looking, almost sepia-toned C-SPAN.

But here’s the dirty secret about C-SPAN: It has foxy ladies doing interviews and talking-head stuff on its “Washington Journal” early morning call-in show.

C-SPAN may be the last place in the world you’d expect to see hotties, but there they are: sexy chicks for news junkies.

Take Libby Casey. A correspondent for Alaska Public Radio, Casey moonlights with C-SPAN, and she’s a smoking hot babe in the Sarah Palin tradition. (Must be something about the air in Alaska.) I’m guessing Casey wears those Tina Fey/Palin glasses to distract us from the fact that she’s beautiful. But the fact is, that by wearing the glasses, we are compelled to look
beyond them, and then imagine what it would be like to be behind closed doors with her when she seductively removes them (the glasses, I mean). Casey is very prim and precise and calm and cheerful in her anchor duties, but it’s hard to avoid imagining the potential for smoldering sexuality that must lie within.

Then there’s Greta Wodele Brawner. She’s been on C-SPAN for about five years, but she still looks like she’s fresh out of college. If Libby Casey is the C-SPAN sexbomb, then Greta is their girl-next-door. She’s pretty and petite--really petite--and she looks great in pastels.
She also made the cover of the Jan. 2010 Washington Life magazine, looking slinky and sparkly and sophisticated. Greta has well swallowed the C-SPAN Kool-Aid: She is poised and almost hypnotically controlled on-set, quietly eliciting answers from guests and sweetly saluting phone-callers nationwide. Greta’s the girl you wanted to marry. And, in all likelihood, didn’t.

Which brings us to the grand dame of C-SPAN, veteran reporter/interviewer and C-SPAN executive Susan Swain. Swain’s an interesting case. She’s in her mid-50s. She’s a Catholic school girl all grown up who has excelled as a journalist and C-SPAN boss, yet she also performs with grace and control. She’ll be a little more aggressive in her questioning of guests as need be, but obviously that’s because Susan has been around and can sling it with the big boys. Nevertheless, she has that characteristic C-SPAN understatedness that bespeaks blessed civility, where a citizen can believe that productive discourse still really exists.

Of course, we can’t overlook that Susan is a pretty cute lady. Categorizing her as a cougar would be going a bit far, I guess, but Susan apparently likes Shakespeare, and I’m sure there are plenty of guys--young or old--who’d love to do a balcony scene with her.

So next time you zap the remote control past C-SPAN, on your way to HBO or ESPN 2 or TV Land or the Food Network or the thousands of other cable options you’ve got--just remember that there are hidden treasures of brains and beauty you might be missing.

Viva the C-SPAN babes! Long may they...uh...interview.

Bearing Up Under NCAA Injustice: Why the “Tourney System” Sucks

It happened again on Sunday. A regular season conference winner got beat in its league end-of-season tourney, and in so doing all but scuttled its chances for a berth in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Why does this totally suck? Because Missouri State’s 25-8 record should be good enough. Because the fact that the Bears were the regular season champions of the Missouri Valley Conference (15-3 record) should already have been enough to get them into the NCAA tourney. They were their league’s BEST team.

Oh, it’s quaint and all that--for Indiana State (20-13, 12-6) to receive the Big Dance automatic berth by virtue of winning the MVC tournament yesterday. Indiana State is Larry Bird’s alma mater, so there’s that. And no one can diminish the efforts of the Sycamores, who are gutty, scrappy and [insert your own adjective here to describe a mostly white, gym-rat-style college b-ball team]. (If the Sycs advance in the dance, I’ll be surprised, but of course stranger things have happened.)

The Sycs are a nice story, but so are the Bears, who went from last to first in the MVC this year and clearly posted the superior league and overall records. And where is justice--not to mention logic--when Missouri State now has to sweat out the tourney system in order to gain an at-large spot in the NCAAs?

The current scuttlebutt holds that the Bears won’t be selected, with teams from larger, older and more highly regarded leagues already in the hunt for at-large berths. Unfortunate, since the MVC is a good (if under-publicized and -rated) league. In the past they’ve sent teams to the NCAAs who have pulled upsets and made some impressive runs. Schools like Bradley, Northern Iowa, Wichita State, Southern Illinois and others in the 10-team league. Apparently, the 16-team Big East will be sending at least nine teams to the Big Dance. Anyone see the justice here?

Here’s my bugaboo: If the regular season records don’t mean anything, then why bother keeping ‘em? If there’s no reward for posting the best record in your conference--i.e., the automatic league berth in the NCAAs--then what does it matter? Presumably, they give you a trophy--or a banner to hang in your fieldhouse rafters--for winning the league regular season, but where the NCAAs are concerned, why not sit on your ass all year, and just start to hustle in the end-of-season league tourney, since that’s the only thing that counts? (Okay, that’s facetious, but the point still holds: there’s no reward for being good all year long.)

It’s time to change the system. Regular season league winners should get the automatic NCAA berth. After that, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee can use league tourney results to factor into their at-large decision-making along with all the other criteria like RPI, out-of-conference record, road victories, etc.

I really don’t know how or when things got to this bizarre point. But telling teams they aren’t good enough after they’ve proved it all year long? That just seems dumb to me.