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

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).

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