Saturday, September 30, 2006

Painful Playoff Reminders For Phillies

Saturday afternoon, the Philadelphia Phillies were eliminated from postseason contention when the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres both won. Although the Phillies had a strong performance after a late-July fire sale seemingly conceded the season, in the end they wound up missing the playoffs for the 13th consecutive year. These individuals will provide particularly painful reminders of another near-miss for Philadelphia.

Bobby Abreu: After nine seasons with the Phillies, Abreu finally made it to the postseason as a Yankee. Actually, this entry is more painful for Boston.

Marlon Anderson: The Dodgers’ August acquisition broke in with Philadelphia, for whom he never hit more than 11 home runs in a season. He slugged 7 for L.A. this September in the biggest “out of nowhere” power display for an Anderson since Brady’s 50 dingers in 1996. And Marlon did it without the sideburns.

Phil Angelides: On the heels of the Dodgers and Padres outlasting the Phillies, California’s democratic candidate for governor will probably lose to incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger. This fall, it’s inevitable for Phils to be denied by California.

J.D. Drew: Since entering the major leagues, the draftee who spurned Philadelphia has played for three clubs and made the playoffs with each one. After reading that sentence, Phillies fans just threw batteries at someone.

Jim Leyland: Philadelphia chose to hire Charlie Manuel over Leyland as its manager before last season. Leyland is the probable American League manager of the year for guiding the Tigers into the playoffs. But I’m sure they’d rather have Charlie.

Kenny Lofton: The Dodgers outfielder will make his fifth postseason appearance in six years. The only miss? With Philadelphia last season.

Ken Macha: The Oakland skipper leads a franchise that was originally in Philly and now plays in the hometown of Jimmy Rollins. Their inevitable 3-2 division series loss will not make the Phillies any less jealous.

Mike Piazza: A native of the Philly area, the current Padre will play for his third different team in the playoffs. He was drafted by the Dodgers in the 62nd round only as a favor to then-manager Tommy Lasorda, a pal of Piazza’s father. Manuel should be asking all his buddies if their sons can catch.

Albert Pujols: The Cardinal’s heroics likely mean that the 1964 Phillies still own baseball’s worst late-season collapse. And he might beat out Ryan Howard for MVP. Which would be completely rude to his adopted city, since Howard is a St. Louis native.

Scott Rolen: The Cardinals’ third baseman is on the verge of his fourth playoff appearance since his trade from Philadelphia in 2002. Equaling the combined number of Placido Polanco (this year with Detroit) and Mike Timlin (2003, 2004, and 2005 with Boston), who came to the Phillies in the deal. So the trade was basically even.

Jason Schmidt: The Giants pitcher will not be part of the playoffs, but he takes the mound against the Dodgers on Sunday. If the Phillies were still alive, you would think a guy named Schmidt could help them.

Carlos Silva: The Twins’ starter was acquired from Philadelphia for Eric Milton. Although Milton is no longer with the Phillies, a few homers he surrendered in Citizens Bank Park still haven’t landed.

Billy Wagner: Wagner departed Philly for the Mets and landed in the playoffs. Earlier this year, he blasted his former Phillie teammates, forgetting that that responsibility belongs to the Philly fans.

The Phillies’ elimination means that left-hander Cole Hamels will not get to face his hometown Padres in a playoff game. The promising rookie may help the Phillies return to the postseason next year, but for now he provides another painful reminder for Philly sports fans. Born in December 1983, the city has not won a championship in his lifetime.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Smoltz & Cox To Join Mets For Playoffs

Tuesday night in Atlanta, John Smoltz pitched eight impressive innings in the Braves’ 12-0 victory over the New York Mets. Next week, the National League favorites will be much happier to see the veteran right-hander. Thanks to a surprising ruling by Major League Baseball, Smoltz and Atlanta manager Bobby Cox will join the Mets for the postseason.

At 76-81, the Braves have been eliminated from the playoff picture. This will be the first postseason since 1990 in which they will not participate. Smoltz and Cox were present for the entire run of division championships. During that time, October baseball became as much a part of Atlanta as The Varsity’s chili dogs and the thousands of streets named Peachtree. This week, Braves fans are saddened that they will miss out on the annual tradition of staying home from playoff games at Turner Field.

However, the ballclub’s manager and ace will still get to participate in the postseason. After consulting with other MLB officials, commissioner Bud Selig decided that it would be inappropriate to stage the National League playoffs without Smoltz and Cox. Therefore, he invoked his “best interests of the game” authority to put the pair in their customary October position – with the NL East champions. There is no word on whether Selig will also use the best interests clause to remove Tim McCarver from postseason broadcasts.

Smoltz and Cox are merely on loan to New York and will revert back to being Braves after their postseason ends. In the meantime, Mets manager Willie Randolph will welcome Cox as a bench coach, valuing his wealth of experience in the dugout. Randolph is even more excited about adding Smoltz to the rotation, given his accomplished playoff history and the uncertain health of Pedro Martinez. However, the Mets’ new starter will be offset by the removal of Billy Wagner from the pitching staff. Excluding Smoltz’s bullpen stint, Cox is forbidden to have a reliable closer on his team in the postseason.

The development is particularly notable for reuniting Smoltz with longtime teammate Tom Glavine. The pitching duo will enjoy reminiscing about the glory days in Atlanta, highlighted by the Braves’ World Series championship in 1995. Another former Brave on the Mets’ roster, Julio Franco, will add to the nostalgia. He will gleefully recount his own World Series glory with the 1957 Milwaukee Braves.

Expecting to be finished on Sunday, Cox was pleasantly surprised by the commissioner’s decision. He had planned on watching the playoff games on his couch, with former dugout mate Leo Mazzone rocking next to him with a beer in his hand. However, Mets hitters may not be thrilled to see Cox in their dugout. With him on their side in October, they expect their batting averages to take a nosedive.

Game 1 of the National League Division Series will represent a strange situation for Cox and Smoltz. They will be in Shea Stadium, with no one screaming profanities at Chipper Jones. However, Mets fans will do all they can to make the longtime Braves feel at home. Expect to see Mr. Met doing the Tomahawk Chop.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Why Rutgers Will Win the National Title

This week’s AP college football poll contains a very unfamiliar name. 23rd-ranked Rutgers makes its first appearance in the poll since finishing the 1976 season at #17. The Scarlet Knights were a longtime laughingstock, featuring a 1997 campaign in which they went 0-11 and lost to Temple by 42 points.

However, Rutgers currently stands at 4-0. The schedule has been soft thus far, but by any measure the program has taken a major step up in class. Now that the Scarlet Knights have infiltrated the rankings, it is inevitable that Rutgers will finish the season on top of them after winning the BCS national championship game in Glendale, Arizona. Here are the reasons why Rutgers will be celebrating on January 8:

Greg Schiano: The Rutgers coach was on the staffs of #2 Penn State in 1994 and #2 Miami in 2000. But now he’s a head coach, so he’s entitled to a promotion.

Nickname: Hearing the name “Scarlet Knights” will cause many opposing players to lose focus. They’ll be fantasizing about a night with Scarlett Johansson.

2005 Final Four: Rutgers has already taken out North Carolina and Illinois, so Louisville is doomed when it visits Piscataway on November 9.

Insight Bowl Loss: Notre Dame lost in the 2004 Insight Bowl before playing in the Fiesta Bowl the following season. RU was the next Insight Bowl victim, so they will inevitably follow up with an appearance in a BCS bowl in Arizona.

Jim Valvano: Rutgers alumnus Jimmy V showed that a Scarlet Knight can win a national title. Look for similar circumstances in January, as the winning field goal is booted far off-target, then redirected through the goal post by Lorenzo Charles.

Ohio State: Suppose the top-ranked Buckeyes run the table and advance to the BCS championship game. Rutgers has already beaten Ohio, so adding a “State” shouldn’t make things any different.

Auburn: The Tigers are currently #2 in the rankings. Past experience has shown that an undefeated Auburn will have no chance at the national title.

School Name: Rutgers is the official state university of New Jersey. Opposing coaching staffs will ask each other repeatedly, “Well, why don’t they just call it the University of New Jersey?” They will wonder about this issue for hours, wasting valuable game preparation time.

1988 Notre Dame National Champs: The Fighting Irish were led by quarterback Tony Rice. Rutgers depends on star running back Ray Rice. College football players named Rice win championships, unlike college football teams named Rice.

James Gandolfini: The man who plays Tony Soprano is a Rutgers alumnus. He helps keep scoring down, as opponents who reach the end zone mysteriously disappear before the next possession.

No Arizona State: Rutgers has played in two bowl games in its history and lost to Arizona State on each occasion. The Sun Devils were blown out by California on Saturday, so the Scarlet Knights will not have to worry about seeing their bowl nemesis in the BCS championship game.

The Natural: In the film, the New York Knights won the pennant. Knowing that he is pivotal for Knights to win championships, Rutgers will likely enroll Roy Hobbs before the title game.

Mr. Magoo: The character is noted as a Rutgers alumnus in his comic strip. Fortunately, the Scarlet Knights do not need the vision-challenged Magoo on the football field. He’s busy anyway, as a Pac-10 replay official.

Bruce Springsteen: By law, no column can be written about New Jersey without referencing The Boss. A Rutgers championship would inspire countless replays of “Glory Days.” Bon Jovi will also be represented with “Livin’ On A Prayer,” after a game-winning Hail Mary versus West Virginia.

Four Quarters: Unlike the neighboring Giants, the Scarlet Knights do not wait until the fourth quarter to begin playing.

Miami Heat: The NBA champs are a team from south Florida that defeated the Bulls on the way to a title. This Friday, Rutgers can defeat the South Florida Bulls on the way to a championship.

Henry Rutgers: The man after whom the school is named was a Revolutionary War hero. His team will be similarly triumphant, assuming the opponents are loaded with British soldiers.

Birthplace of College Football: This tag has been applied to Rutgers, which hosted the first intercollegiate football game (a 6-4 victory over Princeton) in 1869. Shortly after giving birth to college football, Rutgers gave it up for adoption. But it’s determined to reconnect.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Lasorda Revealed As Secret BALCO Grand Jury Source

Thursday a federal judge ordered San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada to jail, pending appeal, for refusing to reveal their source for leaked grand jury testimony in the BALCO case. The testimony provided a portion of the material used by the reporters in a series of articles in the Chronicle, as well as the best-selling book Game of Shadows. Williams and Fainaru-Wada insist that they will continue to honor the confidentiality of their information provider, even facing the threat of prison time. However, Jack’s Sports Humor has learned the identity of the secret source: former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.

Game of Shadows and the Chronicle articles implicated numerous high-profile athletes as users of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. 2000 American League MVP Jason Giambi and longtime NFL bad boy Bill Romanowski were among many stars linked to BALCO’s steroid distribution. However, San Francisco Giants superstar Barry Bonds was undeniably the face of the scandal. And the gigantic head.

The involvement of Bonds appears to be the primary reason for Lasorda to leak details of the grand jury testimony. Famously bleeding Dodger blue, Tommy makes no secret of his animosity toward the hated Giants. As the face of the Giants since 1993, Barry has often been a thorn in the side of his southern California rivals. Most notably, in 2001 he broke Mark McGwire’s single-season home run record against the Dodgers, smacking three round-trippers on the final weekend to wind up with 73. Also, Bonds reportedly made anonymous phone calls to the Los Angeles front office, imploring them to grant long-term, big-money contracts to Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort.

Lasorda also had issues with others implicated in the BALCO investigation. Gary Sheffield repeatedly blasted Tommy’s beloved Dodger organization before being traded from L.A. to Atlanta in 2002. Benito Santiago greatly contributed to Cincinnati’s three-game sweep over the Dodgers in the 1995 National League Division Series – Lasorda’s final playoff appearance as a manager. Santiago also dared to be a rare non-Dodger to win National League Rookie of the Year, as a San Diego Padre in 1987. Track star Marion Jones won five medals at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, upstaging the surprising U.S. baseball gold medalists managed by Lasorda. The manager reportedly fumed, “She only supports the USA when it stands for Uncontrollable Steroid Abuse!”

Beyond personal grudges, Lasorda had another motivation in disclosing the grand jury testimony. For years, he was a spokesman for Slim-Fast. However, BALCO promoted the benefits of bulking up in the quest for athletic greatness. “All those years I told people how great it was to lose weight. Then these guys become huge, put up ridiculous stats, and make millions of dollars,” he noted. “I looked like an idiot!”

The question many legal experts will ask is how Tommy gained access to the confidential information. Apparently, he was able to enter the courtroom by posing as a court reporter. It seems strange that the judge did not expel him from the courtroom, particularly since Lasorda apparently recorded the grand jury testimony while wearing a Dodgers uniform. Also, the transcript of the testimony ended with the sentence “Reggie Jackson totally interfered with that double play in ’78!”

Williams and Fainaru-Wada have drawn comparisons to The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose Watergate investigation was chronicled in All the President’s Men. Woodward and Bernstein’s historic work is often cited in emphasizing the importance of anonymous sources for reporters. Their most celebrated information provider was known solely as Deep Throat for over 30 years until Mark Felt’s 2005 admission to being the mystery man. In a similar vein, the unknown source for Williams and Fainaru-Wada was simply referred to as Deep-Dish Lasagna.

The Chronicle reporters have received strong support from other journalists in their insistence on preserving the confidentiality of their source. They are absolutely correct in not telling us that it was Lasorda. Likewise, I pledge to fiercely protect the identity of my source for this article. Phillie Phanatic, your secret is safe with me.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

20 Things You Might Not Know About the Ryder Cup

This Friday, Ireland will be the center of the golf world as the biennial Ryder Cup competition pits the top American golfers against their European counterparts. The K Club in Straffan, County Kildare will be home to the match play proceedings. To make you fully informed about the event, here are 20 things you might not know about the Ryder Cup.

The Ryder Cup competition officially began in 1927. The trophy was so named because it was shoplifted from Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills.

The U.S. originally competed against Great Britain, with Ireland and the rest of Europe added in 1973 and 1979, respectively. Unlike many celebrities who grew in the 1970s, the Ryder Cup never did any jail time.

The Americans dominated Ryder Cup play through 1983, going 21-3-1. However, since then Europe is 6-3-1. The reversal is largely attributed to the 1984 release of The Karate Kid, as the underdog Europeans drew inspiration from Daniel-san’s triumph over adversity. In 1985, team captain Mr. Miyagi guided them to victory.

Ten competitors on each side are automatic qualifiers based on points they have earned in tournaments. Each captain chooses his remaining two players. As a matter of tradition, one captain’s choice is always the winner of the swimsuit competition.

In honor of the host nation, a wrinkle has been added for Sunday’s singles matches. Whenever a competitor loses a hole, that golfer must down a shot of Irish whiskey.

In addition to singles competition, there are team-oriented fourball and foursomes matches. These matches always appealed to American Fred Couples, since swinging Couples are into foursomes.

The women’s equivalent is the Solheim Cup, while U.S. amateurs take on their Irish & British counterparts in the Walker Cup. Golf-playing horses compete against each other in the Breeders’ Cup.

European team captain Ian Woosnam is affectionately known as Woosie. With a Captain Woosie, Europe is different from the Exxon Valdez, which had a woozy captain.

The incomparable Tiger Woods is only 7-11-2 for the U.S. in Ryder Cup matches. Europe’s Colin Montgomerie and Sergio Garcia, both winless in majors, have excelled in Ryder Cup competition. Therefore, Monty and Sergio have appealed to British Open officials to adopt a team format.

The most surprising Ryder Cup was in 1987, when the U.S. fell 15-13 to Europe. Not the continent, but the popular hair band. Their victory paved the way for “The Final Countdown” to be played before sporting events everywhere.

Sweden’s Robert Karlsson will enjoy a major advantage at The K Club. According to club rules, any player whose name begins with a K may take one mulligan per match.

The Americans’ last victory in 1999 sparked controversy. Justin Leonard’s dramatic 45-foot putt caused a wild celebration, even though José Maria Olazábal had yet to attempt his own difficult putt (ultimately missed) that could have kept Europe alive. To avoid the risk of another excessive celebration, Chad Campbell has replaced Chad Johnson on the U.S. team.

After a 14 ½ to 13 ½ defeat in 1997, U.S. captain Tom Kite was blistered by critics for not adding Happy Gilmore to the squad.

In 2004, Europe routed the U.S. 18 ½ to 9 ½ at Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan. After dominating at Oakland, the European team was made an honorary member of the AFC West.

Ireland’s Paul McGinley will play in his third consecutive Ryder Cup. In 2008, he will likely be replaced by John C. McGinley if Scrubs is off the air.

The Ryder Cup was postponed from 2001 to 2002 after the September 11 attacks. The event was also delayed in 1981 due to sabotage on the course by groundskeeper Carl Spackler.

J.J. Henry will make his Ryder Cup debut for the U.S. team. K Club officials expect a large turnout of North Carolina and Maryland fans, always eager to chant “J.J. Sucks!”

U.S. captain Tom Lehman plans to play Michigan receiver Mario Manningham against Ireland’s Padraig Harrington. Manningham has proven that he can dominate the Irish.

Golf’s genteel culture discourages the Ryder Cup victors from emulating the Stanley Cup celebration, in which each member of the winning team carries the trophy around the rink. Besides, the skates would totally ruin the 18th green.

If the competition ends in a 14-14 draw, Europe retains the Ryder Cup. However, a team must win outright for its members to earn a free Grand Slam Breakfast at Denny’s.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Eagles Haunted By T.O. In Sunday's Heartbreaker

Sunday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field, the Philadelphia Eagles squandered a 24-7 fourth-quarter lead in a crushing 30-24 overtime loss to the New York Giants. In numerous ways, the defeat for Donovan McNabb and company was due to T.O. No, not controversial former Eagle Terrell Owens, who suffered a broken finger in his Dallas Cowboys’ win over the Washington Redskins. As noted below, this NFC East showdown was impacted by plenty of other instances of T.O.

Touchdown in Overtime: New York receiver Plaxico Burress ended matters when he entered the end zone with 3:11 remaining in the extra period. However, he was upset afterwards when he learned that he wouldn’t receive overtime pay.

Turn Over: Running back Brian Westbrook coughed up a huge fumble with four minutes remaining in regulation and the Eagles up by 10. It is crucial to avoid mistakes when competing against Giants, as countless wrestlers learned the hard way against Andre the Giant.

Two-minute Offense: The Giants drove down the field at the end of regulation, resulting in Jay Feely’s tying 35-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining. Those New Yorkers are always in a hurry.

Time-Outs: The Giants saved theirs until late in the fourth quarter, providing one more possession to tie the game. Their wise use of time-outs in Philly could serve as a lesson to 76er Chris Webber.

Temple Owls: The awful college football team also calls Lincoln Financial Field home. They must have left the unavoidable smell of defeat in the air.

Toomer Outstanding: New York receiver Amani Toomer had 12 catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns. He just wanted to keep up with his college team, as Michigan had spent all day in the end zone on Saturday.

Trent Overzealous: Eagles defensive end Trent Cole drew a personal foul for kicking tackle Kareem McKenzie, providing the Giants with 15 precious yards before Feely’s tying field goal. Ironically, Cole had better form on his kick than Feely.

Trever O’Brien: He portrayed Kenny Bates in Gridiron Gang, this weekend’s #1 movie at the box office. Gridiron Gang replaced Invincible as the reigning inspirational football movie, so anything involving the Eagles got knocked off this weekend.

Tim’s Opportunism: The Giants cut the lead to 24-14 early in the fourth when receiver Tim Carter recovered a fumble by Burress in the end zone. Longtime Eagles fans were stunned, having assumed that the Giants’ fumble would be returned for a touchdown by Herman Edwards.

Toronto, Ontario: The largest Canadian city was the site of another devastating Philly sports defeat – Game 6 of the 1993 World Series. With a guy named Carter starting Sunday’s comeback, you knew there was bad karma for the Eagles.

The Outsiders: The film is best remembered for Matt Dillon’s shouting of “Let’s do it for Johnny!” Inspired by the quote, Giants quarterback Eli Manning screamed it at his teammates in honor of offensive coordinator John Hufnagel.

Tower Over: What 6’5” receiver Burress did to 5’10” defensive back Sheldon Brown, whom he outjumped on the winning touchdown. What Brown can’t do for you is eliminate a 7-inch disadvantage.

Texans Opener: In week one, Philadelphia could afford to cruise in the fourth quarter. Things are different when you’re not playing Houston.

Twenty-three – O: Margin by which the Eagles were outscored in the fourth quarter and overtime. As fourth quarter collapses go, it was up there with Enron in 2001.

The Office: The season premiere of NBC’s Emmy-winning comedy is this Thursday. Some Eagles lost focus on the game while wondering what will happen between Jim and Pam.

Tulsa, Oklahoma: Nolan Richardson coached basketball for five years at Tulsa before moving on to Arkansas in 1985. Drawing inspiration from Richardson, Philadelphia gave the Giants 40 minutes of hell on Sunday. Unfortunately, regulation lasts for 60.

Tatum O’Neal: The actress has a recurring role on Rescue Me, starring Dennis Leary as a New York firefighter. Thinking of the show, Manning was inspired to rescue his fellow New Yorkers.

Texas-Ohio State: Unlike Philadelphia, the Buckeyes maintained their 24-7 lead in Austin. The Eagles would have done the same if they had faced a freshman quarterback.

Tom O’Brien: The Boston College coach guided his team to overtime victories on each of the past two Saturdays. His presence is golden for Eagles in overtime, but it was too late to get him to Philly.

Tony Oliva: In 1964, he was the American League Rookie of the Year and batting champion for the Minnesota Twins. Somehow, the 1964 baseball season seemed relevant to a Philly sports collapse.

Eagles coach Andy Reid expects next week’s result to be the Total Opposite. It should be, since playing the 49ers is generally a Therapeutic Occasion.

Friday, September 15, 2006

A Preview Of Separation Saturday, In Boxing Movie Terms

Featuring seven matchups pitting top 25 teams against each other, tomorrow has been dubbed “Separation Saturday” in college football. With all these heavyweights going toe-to-toe, it is not surprising that notable boxing movies are relevant to each of these games. The following is a brief guide.

#11 Michigan at #2 Notre Dame: The Boxer. Daniel Day-Lewis played an Irish boxer, while defensive back Tom Zbikowski plays for the Irish and is also a boxer. An interception of Michigan quarterback Chad Henne could bring a knockout blow to the Wolverines. Speaking of quarterbacks, Brady Quinn hopes to enhance his Heisman Trophy credentials in anticipation of being a Million Dollar Baby next fall.

#6 LSU at #3 Auburn: Rocky III. To defeat Clubber Lang, Rocky needed to have the Eye of the Tiger. The winner in this showdown definitely will. Perhaps Auburn’s Mr. T, coach Tommy Tuberville, will motivate his Tigers by showing up in a Mohawk and two tons of bling. The LSU Tigers will try to contain stud running back Kenny Irons, who was a Raging Bull in Baton Rouge last season with 218 yards.

#19 Nebraska at #4 USC: When We Were Kings. The Cornhuskers take on a program whose elite status reminds them of the mid-90s glory days in Lincoln. If USC scores at will during the first half, it could just be part of Nebraska’s rope-a-dope strategy. However, the Trojans’ reloading of talent means that the Coliseum is unlikely to stage a Requiem For a Heavyweight just yet.

#7 Florida at #13 Tennessee: Rocky II. Rocky reached the top when he dethroned Apollo Creed. Saturday night, Rocky Top will be in a frenzy as the Gators venture to Neyland Stadium. No word on whether either team chased chickens or punched sides of beef to prepare for tomorrow’s hostilities. This week, if you hear Florida coach Urban Meyer say, “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” he’s not talking about Knoxville.

#17 Miami at #12 Louisville: The Hurricane. Like Rubin Carter, the Hurricanes’ rushing offense was locked up by Florida State. In a rematch of a 2004 Thrilla, Miami visits the hometown of Ali. The Cardinals must deal without the injured Michael Bush. However, the Canes could get stung by another B (Brohm), whose passes don't float like a butterfly.

#15 Oklahoma at #18 Oregon: Rocky. The 1976 Oscar winner immortalized the phrase “Yo Adrian!” Sooner fans will scream “Go Adrian!” as Adrian Peterson runs against the Ducks. If he scores a touchdown, look for him to celebrate by running up the steps of Autzen Stadium and raising his arms in triumph. Meanwhile, Apollo’s nickname “Master of Disaster” is now applied to the designer of Oregon’s uniforms.

#24 Texas Tech at #20 Texas Christian: Cinderella Man. To have any hope of being a BCS Cinderella, TCU must knock off the Red Raiders in Fort Worth. They plan to pack a punch like Russell Crowe, unlike last year’s group of non-conference Renee Zellwegers faced by Tech. If they cannot capitalize on this opportunity, the Horned Frogs will be forced to lament, “We coulda been a contenda.” But in a Texas accent.

One highly ranked team has already tasted victory this week. #5 West Virginia routed Maryland 45-24 on Thursday night. The Mountaineers are The Great White Hope as quarterback Pat White hopes to lead them to a national title. Between now and the Louisville game on November 2, they’ll be fighting a bunch of lightweights.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Charlie Brown For His Sports Futility

ESPN Classic viewers enjoy regular installments of the Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame… series, hosted by Brian Kenny. Each episode focuses on a player or organization that has been widely blamed for a notable sports failure. Examples include Mike Tyson for losing to Buster Douglas, Bill Buckner for the Red Sox’ 1986 World Series defeat, and numerous others. The show examines other factors contributing to the failure and counts down the top five reasons you cannot blame the subject for the unsatisfactory outcome.

The major shortcoming of this series is that it is overly focused on real-life athletes. To address this issue, I expanded the approach to take a deeper look at the athletic failures of fictional characters. Previously I chronicled the Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Apollo Creed For Losing To Rocky Balboa

Today I will turn my focus to Charlie Brown. Created by Charles Schulz, Brown endured constant disappointment as the central figure in Peanuts. His shortcomings were particularly exposed on the playing fields. In baseball, batters consistently knocked him - and most of his clothing - off the mound. Football also left him on the ground in agony, lamenting his fruitless attempts to kick the ball. Those lowlights were symbolic of his teams’ constant losing.

However, a closer examination reveals that numerous factors beyond Charlie’s control contributed to his futility. I may not change your mind about Brown’s role in his disappointments, but at least I hope to provide you with something to think about. Before I get to the top five reasons you can’t blame Charlie Brown for his sports futility, here are reasons that did not make the list – the “Best of the Rest”:

Kite-Eating Tree: By ruining Charlie’s kite-flying expeditions, the tree instilled a sense of failure that Brown carried with him into games. Only one other athlete appears to have been tormented by a kite-eating tree. Former NBA player Greg Kite was terrified by the Atlanta Hawks, knowing that Tree Rollins liked to sink his teeth into Celtics.

Jessica Rabbit: As an athlete, it could be argued that Brown was just like the sexpot from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He wasn’t bad, he was just drawn that way.

John Elway: The Hall of Fame quarterback had nothing to do with Peanuts. But when explaining sports disappointments for Browns, you have to mention him.

And now, the top five reasons you can’t blame Charlie Brown for his sports futility.

Reason #5: His Friends. Certainly Pig-Pen was at home on the infield dirt. However, Linus sucked his thumb and couldn’t go anywhere without his blanket. Schroeder was far more interested in playing Beethoven than baseball. So Charlie wasn’t exactly surrounded by manly types. Except for Peppermint Patty, who had her own team. With teammates like that, you could replace Charlie Brown with Hall of Fame pitcher Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown and still lose every time.

Reason #4: The Little Red-Haired Girl. Nothing can disrupt an athlete’s focus like an obsession over a woman. Already loaded with anxiety, Charlie put extra pressure on himself trying to impress the object of his affection. Brown’s opponents took full advantage, making sure the little red-haired girl was constantly around to distract him from the task at hand. Charlie’s failure to resist her charms was completely understandable. At least I assume so – I’ve never actually seen her.

Reason #3: Snoopy. Charlie Brown’s dog was loaded with talent and thrived on the spotlight. However, he was very much a diva. Snoopy frequently insisted on being called Joe Cool. He often disrupted team meetings by bragging about his glory days as a World War I flying ace. His me-first antics undermined any attempts by Charlie Brown to build team chemistry. Snoopy could always be counted on to do something that would land him in the doghouse. Or on top of it.

Reason #2: Lucy. Perhaps Charlie Brown could have been the Adam Vinatieri of comic strips. We will never know, because Lucy kept pulling the football away when Charlie tried to kick it. Clearly Lucy did not share Frank Beamer’s emphasis on special teams. Not only did she deprive Brown of countless scoring opportunities, but she also ensured that he would suffer from crippling back pain for the rest of his life. Not to mention the emotional toll her “blockhead” insults took on his psyche. Charlie did try to express his displeasure to Lucy on numerous occasions. However, she would consistently turn a deaf ear to his complaints, simply displaying a sign stating, “The Doctor Is Out.”

Reason #1: Lack of Coaching. Adults were in short supply in Peanuts. Whenever Charlie Brown asked a question to a grown-up, the response was always an unintelligible “Wa-waa-wa-waa-wa-waa…” Gibberish like that provided no guidance on hitting a line drive or fielding a ground ball. With no adults able to teach fundamentals or motivate the ballclub, Charlie himself had to act as his team’s manager. That is far more responsibility than should be expected from an eight-year-old. Predictably, Brown was badly overmatched – nearly as much as Rich Kotite was in the NFL.

So there you have it. Maybe I’ve changed your mind about Charlie Brown’s sports futility, and maybe I haven’t. But I hope I’ve at least given you some new perspectives to consider. Good night. And Good Grief!

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Ready For Some Football? Not in the Carolinas This Weekend

Ever since the Pittsburgh Steelers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in February, football fans have waited for this weekend. NFL teams kicked off the regular season, and the second weekend of college football featured a 1 vs. 2 matchup between Ohio State and Texas. However, teams from one region did not appear to be prepared for the action. This weekend was one that football fans in the Carolinas would like to forget.

North Carolina dropped to 0-2 on Saturday with a 35-10 pasting by Virginia Tech in Chapel Hill. The Hokies did not have much of a passing game, but UNC quarterbacks Joe Dailey and Cam Sexton compensated by consistently completing passes to Virginia Tech defenders. The Hokies returned one interception for a touchdown. Another was brought back to the UNC 1, as was a blocked punt. Afterwards, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer admitted that his offense really wasn’t necessary to win the game, but he took them along from Blacksburg just in case.

While the Tar Heels were clear underdogs, their neighbors in Raleigh were not expected to fall to Akron. However, North Carolina State was on the short end of a 20-17 score, thanks to Dennis Kennedy’s one-yard touchdown run on the game’s final play. Akron players are known as the Zips, reminding embattled Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato that he soon may have to change zip codes. Despite Chuck the Chest’s numerous wins over Florida State, many fans are demanding that he be replaced. Considering the recent search for a new NCSU basketball coach, it may be necessary to make that call now. If the school begins looking for a new football coach immediately, it may have one in place by next September.

The only Division 1-A football team in the Carolinas to win this weekend was Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons edged in-state rival Duke 14-13 in a game that caused observers to remark, “It’s a shame someone had to win this one.” The Blue Devils led for most of the game but could not overcome numerous blunders, including a blocked 28-yard field goal attempt to end the game. Head coach Ted Roof attributed the loss to “being on a football field wearing Duke uniforms.” Wake did go to 2-0 on the season, but it was largely outplayed by the lowly Blue Devils and needed a touchdown with 1:28 remaining to claim the come-from-behind win. Therefore, while the Deacons did not actually lose, the game represented a moral defeat.

A blocked kick also figured prominently for an ACC member to the south. With high expectations, 18th-ranked Clemson journeyed to New England for a conference showdown with Boston College. The Tigers lost 34-33 due to a blocked extra point in the second overtime. It was the second consecutive year in which Clemson fell in overtime to their newest conference rival. In response, coach Tommy Bowden has contacted ACC commissioner John Swofford, requesting that overtime not be used for future Clemson-BC matchups. Instead, Bowden proposed that in the event of a tie after regulation, the winner should be the team that is more orange.

At least the Tigers kept the scoreboard operator busy, unlike their hated rivals in the Palmetto State. South Carolina scored the same number of points on Saturday as the other USC. Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, Southern Cal had a bye week. Georgia scored a decisive 18-0 SEC victory in Columbia. Bulldog fans were particularly delighted to shut out Gamecock coach Steve Spurrier, whose Florida teams were harder on Georgia than General Sherman. Remembering last week’s victory over Mississippi State, one South Carolina player remarked after Saturday’s defeat, “Those other Bulldogs were a lot nicer!”

Rounding out the Carolinas’ Division 1-A programs, East Carolina fell 17-12 to UAB in a Conference USA matchup. The Pirates are handicapped by the constant identity crisis they face. The most notable Greenville is in South Carolina, but ECU is in Greenville, North Carolina. Also, extensive research has revealed that East Carolina is not actually a state. Furthermore, this summer showed that Pirates are very hot at the multi-plex, but not in the sports world. And unlike East Carolina, at least the Pittsburgh Pirates can brighten up losses with highlight footage of Roberto Clemente.

A better result was expected on Sunday from the Carolina Panthers, the consensus pre-season choice to represent the NFC at the Super Bowl. However, the Atlanta Falcons earned a convincing 20-6 win at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers’ offense badly missed all-pro wide receiver Steve Smith, sidelined by a hamstring injury. Perhaps Carolina’s highly-touted defense could have used him even more, as Atlanta rushed for 252 yards. Falcons running back Warrick Dunn covered so much mileage, he took Kasey Kahne’s place in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. During the fourth quarter, coach John Fox resembled Redd Foxx, clutching his chest and screaming, “This is the big one, Elizabeth! I’m comin’ to join ya, honey!”

Perhaps next week will be better for football fans in the Carolinas. This weekend could not end soon enough. All over North and South Carolina, dejected fans quoted the ubiquitous Monday Night Football ads: “Is it Monday yet?”

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Ryan & Other Howards

The Philadelphia Phillies are in the thick of the National League wild card chase thanks largely to the phenomenal efforts of first baseman Ryan Howard. The left-handed slugger leads the majors with 53 home runs and 134 RBI. As last year’s National League Rookie of the Year, Ryan joined Frank Howard of the 1960 Los Angeles Dodgers as the second Howard to receive that honor. He almost certainly will capture the National League home run and RBI titles, as Howard Johnson did for the New York Mets in 1991. Also, like Elston Howard with the 1963 New York Yankees, Ryan hopes to receive a Most Valuable Player award.

Ryan certainly chose the right sport, although he might feel at home in the NBA alongside Dwight, Josh, and Juwan Howard. Inside and outside the sports world, Ryan’s links to other well-known Howards are extensive. Below are just a few examples.

Ron Howard: Ryan passed Ralph Kiner for the most home runs by a second-year player. Ron, as Richie Cunningham, always outshone Ralph Malph.

Bryce Dallas Howard: A favorite of M. Night Shyamalan, Bryce is a redhead who frequently works in the Philly area. Just like the previous Phillie to win MVP, Mike Schmidt.

Howard Stern: The shock-jock has offended millions, but lately no one has been more offensive than Ryan.

Howard Dean: As chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Dean can provide Ryan with great advice on landing the wild card. No one knows more about finishing second.

Moe, Curly & Shemp Howard: Each was part of The Three Stooges. Ryan has caused far more than three pitchers to feel like stooges.

Howard Jones: The British pop singer had a top 10 hit with Things Can Only Get Better. Ryan proved the same after his Rookie of the Year campaign.

Howard Cosell: Rose to prominence while covering Muhammad Ali’s fights. Ryan is part of the Phightin’ Phils.

Desmond Howard: Won the Heisman Trophy at Michigan, since no one could contain him in the Big House. Even a REALLY big house can’t contain some of Ryan’s blasts.

Howard Beale: Network character who famously screamed, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Over the years, Phillies fans have routinely said the same thing.

Howard Hesseman: On WKRP in Cincinnati, Hesseman portrayed Dr. Johnny Fever. As a superstar wearing number 6 in Philly, Ryan is like Dr. J.

John Howard: Prime Minister of Australia, the Land Down Under. For months, Ryan’s Phillies have been far down under the Mets in the NL East.

Howard the Duck: A notorious box-office bomb. Ryan unloaded on 23 bombs in winning this summer’s Home Run Derby.

Howard University: A prominent institution in Washington, D.C. Ryan has also had a strong presence in the nation’s capital, belting six home runs in RFK Stadium.

Howard Roark: The central character in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. In the film version, Roark was played by Gary Cooper, who previously had portrayed Lou Gehrig – another first baseman who did a little hitting.

Terrence Howard: Oscar-nominated for his role in Hustle & Flow. As a Phillies first baseman, Ryan is like Pete Rose, a/k/a Charlie Hustle.

Howard Hughes: A very wealthy man who often shut himself off from the world. After surrendering three homers to Ryan on Sunday, Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson wanted to be the same.

Leslie Howard: Portrayed Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind – a description of numerous fly balls Ryan will slug out of Wrigley Field.

Howard Rollins: The star of TV’s In the Heat of the Night had the name of two current Phillies. As a stage name, he also considered Utley Lieberthal.

Ken Howard: Star of The White Shadow. Until last year, Ryan was in the shadow of Jim Thome, who is white.

Howard Shore: Won two Academy Awards for best original music score for the Lord of the Rings series. Like Ryan, his scoring could be even better if he composed in Citizens Bank Park.

Ryan Howard is also the name of a character on NBC’s The Office. The show is set in Scranton, Pennsylvania – the same area where the baseball Ryan Howard tore up AAA for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons. Perhaps the TV character will get called up to Philadelphia soon – as long as inept boss Michael Scott doesn’t get in the way.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Agassi's Career Ended By Ted Danson Character

Andre Agassi's glorious tennis career came to an end on Sunday in a third round defeat at the U.S. Open. Hampered by chronic back pain, the 1994 & 1999 U.S. Open champion was not expected to contend this year. However, his elimination was surprising in one notable respect. It came at the hands of Becker, Ted Danson's character from the sitcom of that name.

All week, Agassi was showered with adulation in tribute to his two decades on the court. His stirring five-set victory over eighth-seeded Marcos Baghdatis in the second round provided one last hurrah for the eight-time Grand Slam tournament winner. On Sunday, emotions ran high as Andre walked off the court for the final time, joining wife Steffi Graf in retirement. Many tears flowed in Arthur Ashe Stadium - nearly as many as NBC executives shed when Danson announced he would quit Cheers.

Becker's inclusion in the U.S. Open field apparently resulted from an oversight. A tournament official decided to invite numerous recent CBS sitcom characters to Flushing Meadows, believing that a tribute to The King of Queens was planned. He apparently misunderstood the announcement that Billie Jean King would be honored in Queens. Sportswriter Ray Barone was on hand for the festivities, as covering the ceremony allowed him an escape from his family.

Danson had not appeared as Becker since the series went off the air in 2004. However, he jumped at the opportunity to see what the character could do against the best tennis players in the world. Dr. Becker lives in New York, and since he had been out of action for over two years, he was well-rested. The character's cantankerous nature also fits in at a tournament that has previously embraced John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.

Becker will face Andy Roddick in Monday's fourth round, but he will already be remembered by tennis fans for being Agassi's last opponent. The defeat was not Andre's first to a sitcom doctor, as he was eliminated from his initial U.S. Open in 1986 by Cliff Huxtable. During both of those matches, Agassi did seem to lose focus as a director regularly disrupted play by yelling, "Cut!" On the bright side, having a doctor on the court allowed Andre to get immediate treatment on his back after Sunday's match.

The sports world may continue to keep Danson busy after Becker's U.S. Open runs. The injury-plagued Boston Red Sox have inquired about the availability of pitcher Sam Malone. Wife Mary Steenburgen has forbidden Danson to become Sam until he is far away from Flushing Meadows. She knows that the ladies man would immediately put the moves on Maria Sharapova. One Cheers character did appear at the U.S. Open. Unfortunately, Cliff Clavin was escorted from the premises, as his constant commentary was too disruptive to nearby CBS announcers.

On Sunday, "Cheers" was the appropriate word for Agassi as the crowd expressed its appreciation to him. To Andre, Arthur Ashe Stadium was a place where everybody knows your name.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Why USA Basketball Lost To Greece

Today in Japan, Team USA lost 101-95 to Greece in the semifinals of the FIBA World Championship. The defeat represents the latest in a string of disappointments for USA Basketball since capturing the gold medal at the 2000 Olympics. While many predicted that the Americans might fall to Argentina or Spain, a loss was not expected against the Greeks. Below are some reasons for Team USA's defeat.

1996 Olympics: Greece was tremendously disappointed when Atlanta was awarded the Centennial Olympic Games over Athens. Today's result is just part of the Greeks' revenge for the slight. Earlier, Athens Olympic organizers placed a curse on Atlanta's Olympic Stadium (now Turner Field), vowing to bring pain to the stadium's occupants each October.

Alex Rodriguez: This reason is just for Yankees fans. A-Rod had nothing to do with the loss, but New Yorkers will be happy to blame him. And for the Knicks.

Antawn Jamison: The Washington Wizard is a member of Team USA. Having Mike Krzyzewski and a Tar Heel on the same team violated the laws of nature and just invited trouble from the basketball gods.

Brand & Battier: Perhaps to compensate, Coach K had two of his former Duke players in Elton Brand and Shane Battier. It is well-established that Blue Devils are incapable of winning championships after leaving school.

Coach K's: Before Krzyzewski, Team USA's previous World Championship coach was George Karl, who also fell short in 2002. As a result, USA Basketball has eliminated Stephen King and Greg Kinnear from consideration for 2010.

College Football: Many Team USA players are avid college football fans. They would have felt guilty if an appearance in the finals had taken attention away from Saturday's action on campus.

Darko Milicic: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade have been the three best players on Team USA. Milicic was drafted just after LeBron, but before Anthony and Wade in 2003. So clearly he would have been a dominator for Team USA. Alas, the Serbian native was unavailable to the Americans.

Doctors: American basketball can claim Julius Erving, better known as Dr. J. However, ancient Greece was home to Hippocrates, the "Father of Medicine." So he has bragging rights over all other doctors.

FIBA: Most basketball fans believe that the name of the tournament's governing body is from the French translation of International Basketball Federation. However, FIBA actually stands for "Friday Is Bad, America."

Long Names: Team USA's three leading scorers on Friday were Anthony, Wade, and James. On the other hand, the top three for Greece were Vassilis Spanoulis, Mihalis Kakiouzis, and Sofoklis Schortsianitis. Compared to Greece, Team USA's staff wasted far more preparation time figuring out how to spell and pronounce the opponents' names.

Michael Redd: The three-point stalwart was invited to participate, but declined due to his wedding. The squad suffered from a lack of patriotism with no Redd, White or Blue on the roster. It was too late to add Jahidi White or Blue Edwards.

NBA Finals: The Americans defeated Germany in their previous game. The last time Dwyane Wade beat Dirk Nowitzki, he immediately got to celebrate a championship. He assumed that would also be the case this time, so he was not prepared to play two more games.

Nia Vardalos: The star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding proved that Greek underdogs can conquer America.

Paul Tagliabue: The NFL commissioner's retirement officially takes effect today. Believing that all guys named Paul were entitled to take the day off, Chris Paul failed to score from the field.

USA Teams in 2006: It has been a rough year for the Stars & Stripes. The Olympic ice hockey team failed to medal, and the World Baseball Classic and World Cup squads fell far short of expectations. In 2006, the "USA" on the teams' uniforms has stood for "Un-Successful Athletes."