Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Battle for Tobacco Road

My first childhood memory of College Basketball was the infamous Grant Hill to Laettner play, now known simply as "the shot". I realized right then at the age of 7 that there was something special about this game, and the Duke program.

The very next year, my first full season of college hoops, solidified my lust for college hoops, as I watched my beloved Wolverines and the fantabulous 5 transform the game. I filled out my first bracket in 1993, and picked Jimmy, Juwan, Ray, Jalen, and Chris to lead Michigan to the championship. Sadly, I would endure probably the second most famous moment in college basketball, when Chris Webber called a time out they didn't have. There I knelt on my living room carpet, 8 years old, the lines on my head painted in maize and blue magic marker, heart broken. The scissors would be handed over to perhaps my most hated athlete of all time, Eric Montross, to cut down the nets for none other than the UNC Tarheels. A bitterness towards anything Carolina blue was established.

[Note - I actually have never blamed Webber for blowing it. The real reason Michigan lost that year was because Ray Jackson picked up three quick fouls, forcing him to sit most of the first half. The Wolverines could never overcome the deficit in the 2nd half.]

Coincidentally the first two champions I can remember are also at opposite ends of college basketball's greatest rivalry. Tonight marks the first of two regular season meetings between the Duke Blue Devils and the North Carolina Tar Heels. The Battle for Tobacco Road is a storied rivalry, and has served as the highlight for midseason College Hoops. While often both teams are in the Top Ten, even when there are the rare down years for either program (see Capel, Jeff), the matchup never fails to produce one helluva basketball game. I can't imagine tonight's game not living up to the expectations and certainly will be tuned in, craft beer in hand.

The problem I have with tonight and every time these two do battle is that I absolutely despise both teams. If either of these teams are playing, you can rest assured that I am cheering for the opposition (Da U included). Duke and UNC without a doubt are the most storied programs in college basketball. Naturally, they aren't the only dominant programs/franchises that I've always loathed. This list also includes the obvious in the Yankees, the Cowboys, and the Lakers, along with Jack Reilly and the Hawks of Minnesota Peewee hockey, the greatest intercontinental champ of all time Mr. Perfect, and the menacing Bald Bull. I don't have to worry about anyone else on this list ever squaring off against each other, but year after year I must choose to cheer for the Devil or the Heel.

Unlike many on the "hate" list above, I respect both UNC and Duke and truly do look forward to their matchup. I think Coach K and Roy Williams are two of the best coaches ever. I love what the Cameron Crazies have created in gyms across America. I love how both teams passionately dislike each other, and put it all on the line. I love how there's a hero made in almost every matchup. As much as I hate to say it, Duke/North Carolina is a big part of why I love College Basketball.

This year, as has been the case the past three years, I will be pulling for Carolina. How can you cheer for a team with Hansbrough you ask? How can I possibly cheer for an underachieving squad that had an opportunity to be one of the greatest teams of all time because they have ridiculous talent up and down the line-up? .................. Well..... dammit.... (pause and sigh) I was just going to say Greg Paulus - who under no circumstances will I ever cheer for.... Ugh, but thinking about it... I can't cheer for Carolina either...

Guess I'll just cheer for more blood.

Forever Tainted?

Isn't it sort of an antiquated notion to think that a player only cheated when they were using steroids or HGH? Are the effects of heroin or cocaine contained only to the time when the user would have tested positive for them?

The reason athletes started using HGH in conjunction with steroids was that it allowed them to hold onto the extra mass gained during the extra hard workouts steroids allowed them to complete. Away from sports, it is used to combat aging by increasing bone density, muscle mass, improving heart functions and even improving skin complexion. Those don't sound like things that are going to subside immediately when you stop taking HGH.

How do you think Barry Bonds had an OPS of 1.422 (the highest single season OPS in baseball history) and had more HRs than strikeouts in 2004 at the age of 39, when the MLB had already instituted their testing policy? Does anyone actually think he wasn't still benefiting from all the steroids/HGH he took in the past?

It seems that only those older anabolic steroids such as Androstenedione and Deca-Durabolin had the drastic cycle on/off effects. As the newer, more sophisticated drugs like Primobolan evolved, those side effects were mitigated.


For the record, I really don't care about athletes using steroids. I don't have kids and don't care what kind of example it sets. Yeah, it sucks that the people who use it indirectly pressure the people who are clean to use it. That's life. Seeing someone drive by you on the highway going 85 in a 65 might tempt you to speed. You know if you get behind them, you might get pulled over.

We've all been at a party where people were smoking pot or doing coke and had to make our own decisions. Maybe it would have enhanced the experience that night, but if you got caught or were extra hungover the next day, you'd have probably regretted it. Common sense tells you it would be wrong, and you choose to either do it or not do it. Those scenarios aren't all that different.

I just think it's worth pointing out that it's awfully narrow-minded to confine the label of "cheating" to the time an athlete tested (or would have tested) positive. They have changed the chemistry of their body indefinitely.

Remember:
Barry Bonds (2000-2003) - Taking steroids/HGH/The Cream/The Clear - Best Hitter Ever
Barry Bonds (2004) - "Clean" - Even Better

Eat Your Heart Out Eli!

According to Ralph Vacchiano of the Daily News, former Giants back-up QB Jared Lorenzen, has signed on to play with the cleverly-named Kentucky Horsemen of the Arena Football League II. The Hefty Lefty, with the perfect mechanics (see above) will be paid $200 a game with an additional $50 per win. Given that they only play once a week, I'm guessing the 285lb Pillsbury Throwboy might need to augment that salary by working at KFC.

See You In Tijuana, Tony

Everyone's favorite plaster craftsman/welterweight boxer, Antonio Margarito and his trainer Javier Capetillo had their boxing licenses revoked by the California State Athletic Commission (and therefore the rest of the US) for at least one year:

Voting 7-0 on both motions for revocation, the panel found that they put a
plaster-like substance on illegal pads inside Margarito's hand wraps.

Before Margarito was knocked out in the ninth round, Mosley's trainer, Naazim Richardson, had objected to the way Margarito's left hand was wrapped. When the wrap was cut off, officials found a suspect bandage wrap inside the knuckle pad that would be placed over Margarito's hands.

Richardson then insisted that the wrap on Margarito's right hand be checked and another identical illegal pad was discovered. Margarito eventually had his hands re-wrapped and went on to lose the fight.
Margarito told the panel that he just held his hands up to be wrapped, and had no knowledge of what his trainer was doing. His trainer echoed the sentiment, saying:

I don't want this young man to have problems. I'm here to cover any responsibility. I take full responsibility. I committed this innocent mistake.
Pleading ignorance? Yeah fucking right, Antonio. So I'm assuming they wrapped your hands with plaster in your sparring matches and training sessions, right? Oh, no? So you just closed your eyes when they were being applied? You couldn't feel the illegal pads when Javier put them on? You didn't notice that your hands were significantly heavier? Your wraps didn't feel any different? Really?

What incentive would your trainer have to do this without your consent? Why is it that when lost your illegal edge, you got your ass handed to you by a 37 year old dude?

In related news, Roger Clemens just held down his pants so Brain McNamee could inject him and had no idea what was in those syringes. And that "innocent mistake" resulted in other people taking vicious and illegal blows to the head with a rock hard substance. Altering hand wraps is considered an especially serious violation in the boxing world, for obvious reasons. After the one year ban, Margarito and his trainer can apply for reinstatement but there is not guarantee that they will be accepted.

This now opens the door for legal action from Miguel Cotto, Kermit Cintron, Joshua Clottey and other past opponents. After the his fight with Margarito, Cotto said it felt like he was being "hit with bricks". Doesn't sound like hyperbole anymore, does it? Unfortunately for him, his bell cannot be unrung, and he may never be the same fighter again. But at least people know he wasn't taking a knee for no reason.

Another SS Bites The Dust

Miguel Tejada has been charged with lying to Congress about steroids, the latest baseball player to get caught up in an extensive web of cheating and juicing that has stained the sport. He is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday and expected to plead guilty. The charges against Tejada, who currently plays for the Houston Astros, were outlined in documents filed in Washington federal court on Tuesday.

Remember the Golden Age of Shortstops? Who was the best shortstop out of the group? Jeter, A-Rod, Nomar, or Tejada? Were they the best shortstops ever?

If you have not been hiding in the caves of Afghanistan or in the tribal lands of Pakistan with Osama bin Laden the past few days, you would know that A-Rod, following Selena Roberts' story about him being one of the 104 on the "anonymous" positive test list, admitted his steroid use from 2001-2003 when he was playing shortstop for the Texas Rangers.

Nomah has been linked to steroids, but was not in the Mitchell Report--perhaps because the report was a sham and left out any Red Sox player due to Mitchell's conspicuous allegiances. Garciaparra has been injured often and his skills/numbers has declined since the advent of steroid testing in 2005.

That leaves Jeter. Jeter has not been linked to steroids--whether it be in the Mitchell Report or in casual fan conversation. Given the fact that his father Dr. Charles Jeter, whom he is very close to, is a former substance abuse counselor, I would doubt that he would ever take them. He is pretty lean and there has never been a drastic change in his physical appearance. He is also not a home run hitter (although Alex Sanchez with his 6 career HR was busted and suspended for 10 games in 2005).

Do Jeter's accomplishments, presumably without the use of steroids, make him the best shortstop out of this quartet? How about the greatest shortstop ever? Just some food for thought...

Number of Days Until Spring Training: Derek Jeter (#2)

Did you notice that last year, Derek Jeter had his worst full season offensively as a professional? He had similar OPS+'s in 1996 and 1997 but that takes into account the inflated offensive era those years were a part of. His 2008 batting average (-.16), on-base percentage (-.24) and slugging percentage (-.50) were all well off his career marks. Consequently, his counting stats (11HR, 69 RsBI) were far below his averages too. He only stole eleven bases, and was caught five times.

Before I looked those numbers up, I didn't notice either. He doesn't seem to fall into extended slumps and as a fan watching the games, your memories are probably shaped more by how many hits he gets as opposed to his OPS.

Jeter's image, of course, is solid titanium and during last season he was linked to Minka Kelly, appeared in Ford and Gatorade commercials and gave a great speech after the last game at the Old Stadium that Will and I were fortunate enough to witness (even from two obstructed view seats in the left field upper deck). It's easy to overlook or forgive his slipping production.

A shortstop who has been a defensive liability for quite some time, his offense is falling far enough to make him dangerously close to an average player. Some attributed his slack in production to the game on May 21st, when he was hit on the hand by Garrett Olsen. But how long can an injury serve as an excuse for sub-par hitting? The "bad habits" he's picked up should have probably corrected themselves within several weeks of the incident.

His '08 OPS+ was 102 (almost exactly league average) and he was only about 50% successful at getting runners in from third with fewer than two outs. Somehow, he both walked and struck out less. He grounded into 24 double plays, the most in his career and he was behind only much slower runners Vlad Guerrero, Magglio Ordonez and Jermaine Dye.

That's what the numbers tell me. My recollection of watching games this past year tells me that he was less patient at the plate, swinging at the first pitch too frequently, and fouling off more of the balls he used to put in play, and making weaker contact on the balls he used to drive.

In a subjective recall, double plays stand out, not only because they make two outs and erase a hit, but they also kill the mythological "momentum". Similarly, getting runners in from third leave a perceived gimme run on base. These are the kind of plays that fans overvalue. How long is it going to take before they start turning on Jeter? I know he is the ultimate Teflon Man, for the all reasons that we are all too familiar with. But there is a bare minimum level of production fans are willing to tolerate.

Bernie Williams, also a homegrown Yankee, here for all four of the World Series Championships in the late 90's/2000, a former batting champion, World Series MVP, four time Gold Glove winner, and "True Yankee" still saw the fans and the organization turn on him when his power went away and his GIDP's weren't balanced out by the rest of his offensive contributions.

Jeter will make $20 and $21 million over the next two years, respectively. The Yankees decision to backload the contract has left the door open for media criticism of his lack of productivity in relation to his salary. No question Jeter has been worth the value over the length of the contract just on the field. In addition, his value to the club extends well beyond that. I'm not even talking about intangibles, but about the marketability he adds to the Yankees. He is a major reason ESPN covers the Yankees so closely, and his gravitas keeps him and the Yankees on the back pages in New York. Jeter and A-Rod, account for the vast majority of the Yankees star power which shouldn't be overlooked.

After 2010, the organization might have quite the quandary on its hands. Jeter seemingly refuses to acknowledge the erosion of his skills, especially defensively. He's said he doesn't want to move from shortstop, which is okay, in one respect, because aside from catcher, it has the highest tolerance for a below average offensive player. However his defensive range continues to slide, at the second most valuable defensive position.

In a perfect world, he could switch to center field this coming year, replacing the Melky/Gardner shitburger/poo sandwich combo, and hold the place for Austin Jackson. Of course that would require that the Yankees acquire someone who was significantly superior defensively than Jeter (and serviceable offensively), and there aren't an obvious options that wouldn't require a major sacrifice.

I've heard people speculate that before Derek Jeter's career is over, he might amass more than 4,000 hits. He currently has 2,535, still 465 short of 3,000. He certainly won't be at 3K by the time his contract expires in 2010. Will the Yankees give him a sweetheart, lifetime achievement contract as he continues to decline? They didn't with Bernie, and although their star status is not comprable, the decision making may be similar, considering the will likely occur in the Brain Cashman Era.

Will there be a Brett Favre-like "player wants to come back but team wants to move on" scenario? Doubtful, but if Jeter wants a contract based on his previous one and past accomplishments and the Yankees want one that more closely reflects his current value as a player, they might find it hard to come together.