Sunday, September 09, 2007

Round The Horn & To The House

is literally mere minutes away, so find your lucky seat, get out your favorite snacks, and keep telling yourself that this is the year your team reaches the promised land. Of course, only one team's fans will be right when it's all said and done. But this is the time of year when it's okay to believe in miracles, so Dare to Dream, as optimism reigns supreme.

On this first football Sunday, we get three good games in New York: Jets take on Pats, San Diego faces the Bears, and my beloved Cowpokes host the hated, detested G-Men from Jersey. As I can't bring myself to watch 10 consecutive hours of football, even on opening day, I will monitor the 1:00 game, while I check into the baseball action, specifically the Yanks-Royals contest starting at 2:00.

There is nothing that drags on longer than a baseball season, what with 162 games over six months plus, but for some reason I am still really into it this year. Maybe it's because the Yankees have had like 4 or 5 seasons rolled into one -- first getting off to that terrible start in April-May, slowly turning it around, then catching fire, hitting another lull, hitting rock bottom in a way by dropping 3 of 4 to the Tigers, capped by the dreadful 16-0 loss, only to sweep the Red Sox to get within 4 games of 1st place, and then stumbling against the pitiful Devil Rays before again righting the ship versus Seattle and KC. The division is no longer within reach, but the wild card is almost a lock. Going into today's action, they trail Boston by 5 1/2 for the division, but lead struggling Detroit by 3 and fading Seattle by 5 for the wild card.

LET'S HOPE A-ROD rides his historic hot streak into October. With his incredible 2 HRs in one inning earlier in the week, and another 2 HRs last night, he has 6 in his last 4 games and, with 51 HRs for the season and 20 games remaining, has an outside shot at catching Roger Maris for the all-time team lead. Considering he's a right handed batter, with no short porch in right field to shoot for in Yankee Stadium, it's an amazing accomplishment.

Let's also hope A-Rod doesn't remember all the booing he suffered through in '06 when it comes time to consider his next contract with the Yankees. If it's me, I may decide to leave for greener, less stressful pastures.

The Braves-Phillies game last Wednesday just might have been the best win and worst loss of the season for any two teams rolled into one roller coaster ride of a game -- the best game because the Braves game from 6 runs down in the last two innings, scoring the final 3 runs on a bases-loaded double by the legendary Matt Diaz in the 9th to win the game 9-8, while for the Phillies, it had to be the most excruciating loss in a season full of coulda's and shoulda's, blowing an 8-2 lead on a day the Mets had lost. It kept Atlanta's Nicole Richie-slim playoff hopes alive, while all but dashing the Phillies' chance of catching New York for the division lead. "I'm not believing that," said Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel after the crushing defeat. "I totally can't believe that. I've never seen that -- ever. It's mind-boggling." Is it mind-boggling, Charlie -- or so darn real that you can't wrap your mind around it.

By the way, those 2 HRs in an inning for Rodriguez marked the first time a Yankee hitter had done so since Cliff Johnson in 1977, and only the fourth time team history it was done; the two other guys were Joe Pepitone and some guy named Joe DiMaggio. "Heathcliff" Johnson was a key cog in the late '70s glory years, picked up right before the trading deadline at the end of July in time for 3 Yankee castoffs; he clubbed 12 HRs and hit .296 the rest of the year, playing 1B and DH most of the time. One of the best in-season pickups of the modern era.

Unbelievably, even one of baseball's feel-good stories of the year, that of Rick Ankiel, has turned ugly, given the recent reports of HGH connected to his name. A lock for comeback player of the year, Ankiel was the St. Louis pitcher who literally couldn't find home plate as a pitcher a few years back. Now, when someone says "couldn't find home plate" about a pitcher, they mean he has control problems, is walking too many guys, etc., but with Ankiel, the guy consistently couldn't come close enough with his pitches for his catcher to even get his glove on it! Every other toss went straight to the backstop, making him a walking wild pitch waiting to happen. In fact, he has the dubious distinction of throwing 5 wild pitches in one inning, during a 2000 playoff game against the Braves, matching a 110-year old record for futility.

In one stretch in 2001, when he was sent down to the minors, he had an incredible stretch where, in 4.1 innings, he walked 17 batters and threw 12 wild pitches! Juuuuuuust a little outside! Similar wildness followed for several more years, and it got so bad he was sent all the back to the Rookie League to work out his control problems.

Then Ankiel gives up on pitching altogether, goes back to the minor leagues, and refashions himself as a position player. In 2006, he's invited back to Major League spring training, is sent down again, only to blow out a knee in May, ending the season and, for any other guy, putting the final kibosh on the old career. But Ankiel is not just any other guy.

He heads back to the minors one more time to start 2007, makes the Triple-A All Star Game as a starting outfielder, then is called up to the Cards last month and just starts mashing the ball. In little more than a month, Ankiel was hitting a robust .333, with 9 HRs and 29 RBIs, and getting standing ovations from the St. Louis faithful not only for his heroics at the plate, but also for his uncanny fielding prowess.

Then of course comes the black cloud, the black eye, the black mark. Hey, we're talking baseball here, so good news for the sport is inevitably followed by the other cleat dropping. It seems Ankiel had a little help along the way in the form of Human Growth Hormone, apparently just the edge that a desperate Ankiel was willing to turn to if it gave him that one last shot at the Bigs. One ironic note is that syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer -- the conservative pundit who has been wrong at every turn concerning almost every aspect of the Iraq War, among other seminal issues, also felt the need to weigh in on Ankiel's unlikely and remarkably successful comeback to MLB, obviously jinxing the poor fellow in the process: "His return after seven years -- if only three days long -- is the stuff of legend. Made even more perfect by the timing: Just two days after Barry Bonds sets a synthetic home run record in San Francisco, the Natural returns to St. Louis."[7] Thanks, putz. It turns out he was as far away from clean and natural as Bush is from intelligent and wise.

JETS JUST TIED UP THE PATS with a long scoring drive, so it's 7-7 early 2nd quarter. Enjoy it while you can, oh you fans of the J-E-T-S, because I see a .500 record at best this year for them. It's a harder schedule and the rest of the division has improved, including the favored Pats, who added Adalius Thomas, Randy Moss and Dante Stallworth to an already talented squad.

The Pats are my pick to make it out of the AFC East, joined by San Diego, Pittsburgh, and of course the Indianapolis Colts as the other division winners, with the wild cards going to Cincinnati and Jacksonville in that conference. The Colts return to the Super Bowl. Despite losing several key players, if anything the defense will play better this year, if the incredible showing versus the Saints on Thursday is any indication. They do fly to the ball, and then they get there they put a hat on you. And as even a casual fan knows, the Colts offense is a goddamn machine, and we don't mean that at all figuratively.

I'm not rooting for any team coached by Norv Turner, so that leaves out SD. The Pats have won enough for my taste, and I think the D is not as good as it was in the championship years. They will have to win their share of shootouts, and will turn the ball over this year with alarming frequency because of all the new WRs not being in synch. So I'm going with Peyton getting back to the Big Show for a shot at another ring.

IN THE NFC, my picks for the division are, surprise surprise, Dallas in the NFC East, Seattle in the West, Chicago wins the North, and New Orleans wins a weak South. Wild cards go to Philly and St. Louis, the Rams being mine and everyone else's consensus choice for sleeper team.

I have to go with the Cowboys making a nice run in the playoffs, winning at least a round, but the talented young squad may be a year away from winning it all. The main thing is getting to the dance, and with our improved offensive line and power running game, I'm much more confident in the Dallas O, even without WR Terry Glenn for at least the first two games, than the Dallas D going into the year, especially with Greg Ellis hurt and Terence Newman less than 100 percent. It starts tonight, hopefully with a convincing home victory against the Giants.

Uh, New England's Ellis Hobbs just ran back the 2nd half kickoff 108 yards, so it's now 21-7 in favor of the Pats. That's gotta be devastating if you're a fan of the Green & White. The Jets had 20 yards rushing in half number uno. That's not good.

Anyway, I've got the Colts meeting ... okay, I'll come right out and say it, I'm picking Dallas to get hot in the NFC playoffs, where every contending team has question marks, and return to the Super Bowl for a shot at a 6th Lombardi Trophy. Even if they lose to the Colts, it will have been a great building block year, led by the NFL's answer to Steve Nash, Tony Romo, #9 in your program and first in the hearts of Cowboys fans!

Now, Mike Golic, half of the Mike & Mike morning show on ESPN radio, also picked Dallas going to the Bowl, and as a former Eagle he has no love for the Cowboys, even a current version 10 or more years removed from since he last suited up. But he believes Romo is for real, and I agree with him.

Romo has become an easy target for the haters, with a lot of people insisting he's a flash in the pan, one year wonder, etc. The heartbreaking way his season ended, with the infamous bobbled snap that cost them a playoff win in Seattle, has burned its way into the larger pop culture, as has his dating of a former American Idol winner, Carrie Whatshername.

, a 51-yard pass hauled in by Randy Moss -- the very definition of "troubled but talented athlete" -- despite triple coverage, making it 28-7. Moss already has 8 catches for 170 cards. Other than that the Jets stopped him pretty good so far. Pennington has been shaken up already, limping to the sideline, but he's gamely coming back in to give it a try.

Back to Romo. He has been the subject of praise and the object of scorn, often in the same piece by the same writer. People are rooting hard for him to succeed, people are hoping he falls on his face -- all because he plays for a team that NFL fans either love or hate, with no middle ground. Sean Quinn, a sportswriter from Metro, one of the local free papers, is already on my radar screen for the cheap shots he keeps taking at Romo. The other day he called him the NFC East Wild-card player, saying "Who knows how much of last season's late surge was actual ability." What the fuck else would it be, motherfucker? He had the league yards per pass attempt number, probably the most significant metric to gauge a QB in the modern era, and completed a stellar 65% of his passes in a wide open offense. It's not Eli Manning dumping off the ball to Tiki Barber 50 or 60 times in a season and watching the little prick turn a short pass into 20 or 30 yards. Even with that, Manning didn't have the completion percentage, or the confident swagger, of Tony Romo -- all of which must kill long-time Giant fans, who undoubtedly would switch QBs in a freaking New York minute.

I'LL GO ON RECORD HERE with Romo throwing for 30 TDs against 10 INTs, making it back to the Pro Bowl, along with TE Jason Witten, WR Terrell Owens, RB Julius Jones and 2 offensive linemen on offense, probably G Leonard "Bigg" Davis and C Andre Gurode. The D will be good enough to have 3 starting Pro-Bowlers of its own, led by LB DeMarcus "Every" Ware, NT Jason Ferguson and S Roy Williams, with LB Bradie James and CB Terence Newman going as reserves. And Dallas will send P Mat McBriar back. I know nobody gets excited about punters, but McBriar is a legitimate weapon: last year the Aussie boomed 'em to the tune of a 48.2 average, the highest the league had seen in 43 years. The Cowboys may also have something special in rookie K Nick Folk, who has a booming strong leg of his own.

Of course, to garner a
ll this individual attention, your team has to win. Losing teams don't send masses of guys to Hawaii, no matter how much you excel at your position. Just ask Leonard Davis, the first round pick who toiled in virtual anonymity in Arizona as the Cards languished in the shadow of mediocrity personified. Some have called Davis a bust because he didn't make a Pro Bowl with the Cards. In his defense, he was an alternate one year, and you have to factor in the fact that there are only 3 guards on a Pro Bowl roster, and for the better part of a decade 2 of those 3 spots were manned by future Hall of Famers Larry Allen and Steve Hutchinson; Davis was battling it out with the rest of the conference's guards for that last guard slot. Just wanted to get that straight.

So I have the Cowboys slotted in for a 10-6 record, although I wouldn't be surprised by 11-5 or 12-4 if they get off to a good start. After tonight they have 2 tough road games, followed by a home game against improved St. Louis. If they can go 3-1 after 4, they'll be on their way to possible homefield advantage in the playoffs. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

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