Friday, April 30, 2010

Fasten Your Seatbelts

Sharks-Red Wings. It might get loud.

You just know this series has to ratchet up. The Sharks need 3 more wins, after grabbing Game 1 on the strength of an awesome first-period offensive flurry. They scored 3 goals in 79 seconds and never let the Wings catch up.

But more importantly: the Sharks matched Detroit in the crankiness department. Joe Thornton's refreshing snow shower gave Wings goalie Jimmy Howard a facefull of fun early in the game, and Jumbo Joe played his most energetic game of the 2010 playoffs. His dive onto Evgeni Nabokov's lap in the final seconds to help secure a scary rebound put an exclamation point on the night.

But Teal People, don't relax. Detroit is still a big, deep, talented, proud bunch. Their confidence borders on arrogance, but it's honestly-earned. San Jose will need to outwork, outhustle, and outthink Detroit to win the series, just as it should be. They may well also have to rebound from something weird: a bad bounce, a weak penalty call, an injury. That, too, is as it should be.

It's on. It's definitely on.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Rifleman of McCovey Cove

It seems like the Giants have been waiting forever for Nate Schierholtz to live up to his enormous promise. In truth, the guy's only 26, and over parts of 4 big league seasons, he's a .285 hitter. But somehow, it seems like it hasn't all really clicked yet.

If there ever was a single game that embodied Schierholtz's promise, it was last night at AT&T Park. He made two incredible throws to nail Phillies at second base, and hit an off-field blast that just missed clearing the left field wall.

Word gets around fast in the baseball world. You can bet tongues will be wagging about those two throws Schierholtz made. In the second inning, Philly slugger Ryan Howard ripped a ball down the line and ambled toward second for an obvious standup double. Except Schierholtz didn't see it that way. He jumped on the ball, wheeled, and fired a strike to shortstop Edgar Renteria, who tagged Howard out without a slide. Later in the game, Howard hit another seed into the same corner, and this time, had no interest in second base.

Schierholtz ended his night with an even better throw to nail Chase Utley (who runs just a bit better than Ryan Howard) at second.

Home runs are cool. Strikeouts rock. But show me something sexier than an outfielder with a strong, accurate arm.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Your New Magic Number: 68

Well, thank goodness the Republic has been preserved. The new NCAA/CBS/Turner "March Madness" deal doesn't expand the men's NCAA baketball tournament field to 96 teams.

I write with tongue firmly in cheek, since I happen to favor a bigger field. As I've written previously, my real problem with springtime college hoops is the conference tournaments, which negate the regular-season conference schedules. Eliminate the conference tournaments and you could easily add a couple of rounds to the NCAA's--meaning an expansion to 128 or even 256 teams with little extra effort.

What the NCAA is doing leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. Now, instead of two small-conference schools being relegated to a "play-in" game for the right to face a number-one seed (in a 65-team field), we'll have four of those games. Each winner will face a #1 seed. Which, of course, more or less guarantees the rapid advancement of favored teams.

Call me crazy, but don't fans of March Madness really enjoy an upset? Isn't the tournament more fun when the big boys don't always win? Look no farther than the 2010 results for proof.

And while you're looking, see if you can figure what happened to ESPN. Everyone figured a new broadcast deal for March Madness would involve ESPN, but somehow, the network fell short in its bid.

Maybe they wanted too many teams in the field.

Monday, April 19, 2010

In Further Defense of Aurilia

Our most recent KCBS Sports Fans podcast included a spirited debate about the Giants' plans to retire the uniform number (35) worn by infielder Rich Aurilia, who's officially ended his career at age 38.

My esteemed colleague Steve Bitker and our occasional contributor Mike Sugerman take the (not entirely unreasonable) position that Aurilia's career stats don't merit elevation to the pantheon of Giants greats whose jersey numbers will never be worn again: the likes of Ott, Cepeda, Mays, McCovey and Marichal.

I argue there's every reason to retire Richie's number. I don't base my case on stats, which I argue often carry more weight than they should in baseball. Instead, I base my case on emotion. Rich Aurilia, the kid out of Brooklyn, was a 24th-round draft choice who lasted 15 years in the big leagues, 12 of them in San Francisco. He was a better-than-average player, but more importantly, Rich Aurilia was a gamer.

Fans loved his grit and hustle. He had the image of a good guy off the field. Something about Rich Aurilia always said "regular guy".

In our podcast debate, I cited the Dodgers' retirement of Jim Gilliam's number 19 as evidence that other teams have honored non-Hall of Fame players. There are other good-but-not-great players on the retired number list (Houston's Jim Wynn comes to mind), as well as a couple of guys whose numbers were retired simply because they died young. Houston's Jim Umbricht succumbed to cancer while Cincinnati's Willard Hershberger committed suicide during the 1940 season (his number 5 was later "un-retired", but retired again after Johnny Bench wore it).

But the guy whose case most resembles Rich Aurilia would be San Diego's Randy Jones--who wore the same number 35 as Aurilia. Nobody will ever wear "35" again in San Diego because of a guy with a sub-.500 career win-loss record. Jones had a couple of really good years in his 10 year career, but Randy Johnson he was not.

He's not even San Diego's all-time win leader, but Randy Jones was a Padre the same way Rich Aurilia was a Giant. In Jones' case, he was a point of pride early in the history of an expansion franchise, leading the league in ERA one year and in wins and innings pitched the next.

Jones was a crafty lefty, undersized but with a huge heart. He's still a big name in San Diego with his baseball academy and his barbecue sauce. Not a Hall of Famer, but a guy worthy of the "retired-number" honor.

Just like our Richie.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tiger, Upon Reflection

I figured it would be best to let that amazing final round of the Masters marinate for a couple of days before trying to get my brain around it.

And here's where I've arrived: I hope Tiger Woods spends a lot longer getting his soul together before he comes back to work. He's keeping his options open, filing the documents to play in the U.S. Open in June. But based on what we saw of him in Augusta, he would appear to have some work ahead of him.

Golf's a brutally challenging mental game. Woods has dominated for years because he convinced himself (and virtually everyone else on Tour) that he would always find a way to withstand the pressure, to escape danger, to win. Those who looked the other way while he cursed, stonewalled his playing partners, and generally rode roughshod over the clubby traditions of the sport aren't looking the other way anymore. In short: despite the applause from the galleries at Augusta, you can feel the shift in the current.

I've always been baffled by the need of many of Woods' fans to mock and trivialize Phil Mickelson. "Choker," they'd call him. "Soft." I always saw Mickelson as a talented but occasionally flawed golfer who seemed to regard golf as the way he made his living, not as life itself. Not to offer Lefty a halo, but isn't that a healthier way to live than to be Tiger Woods, who looked so miserable after the final round at the Masters that you almost forgot his real problems are at home?

Woods mocked CBS interviewer Peter Kostis when Kostis questioned whether Woods had really changed his on-course demeanor. "I think people are making way too much of a big deal of this thing," Woods complained. He then went into a defense of his petulance after hitting poor shots that would have sounded appropriate from a 12-year-old being scolded for slamming the door after losing to his brother at a game of checkers.

I'll go ahead and say it: Tiger Woods, it's time to grow up. Then come back to work and amaze people again.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Expand It!

I fail to understand the logic of those who argue against expanding the NCAA basketball tournament. OK, I get that most people see this as another way for the really rich broadcasters to get even richer. But get over it.

My only problem with what we're learning about the expansion plans (growing from a 65-team field to 96) is that they don't go far enough. Some say, "But the tournament's already too long!". OK, fair enough. Eliminate the made-for-money postseason conference tournaments and use those dates to play NCAA tourney games.

You could easily double the tournament from 64 to 128, or even go to 256 teams, and not play any later into the spring than the current format requires. True, some of the longshot teams that currently make the NCAA field by winning a conference tournament might be left out. But there'd be more room for second and third and even fourth-place teams from the mid-majors.

The argument I hear most often is that a bigger field dilutes the tournament. Excuse me, but I don't get that. If you're going to be the national champion, you have to beat everyone anyway, right? Following the "smaller is better" logic, why not just shrink the whole thing and make it a four-team tournament? Of course that's stupid. So who made 65 the magic number?

One thing I don't see anyone talking about is the changing media environment. As I write, we're about to see the launch of the iPad, and there will be other gadgets and services we can't yet imagine. All of these will allow highly-personalized services to emerge. Want to watch only the first-round matchup between McCoppin and UCLA? Click your iPad, pay your $1.99, and watch away. No interruptions to cut away to the Baylor-Arkansas State finish you don't care about.

The point is, the future will be about more media consumption opportunities, not fewer. Once you accept that reality, you'll be fine with a really big NCAA tournament. It's an idea in perfect sync with the times.