Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Nostalgia Diaries, Pt. 6: 2006 World Cup Quarterfinal - France vs. Brazil

The image of so many hagiography driven World Cup ads are those with the groups of people (kids, generally, for maximum effect) huddled around a TV in some slum, inner city or favela, watching the World Cup at some ungodly hour of the night. This image was seared into my mind, especially during the ads in the lead-up to the 2006 World Cup. Those ads themselves were such a part of my youth-built interest into this great game. They featured U2's 'City of Blinding Lights' a most U2-ish song to promote peace and understanding and commonality across nations - all the same garbage the World Cup tries to stand for.

One year, I got to live that advertisement, be that kid huddled in a dark room on a dark street, millions of miles away, watching the illuminating glow of a non-flat-screen TV, with the sound on low as to not wake the residents. One time I was in that position, having to get up (or stay up, can't remember which) late into the night to watch two countries square off. I wasn't poor, the location wasn't a favela, but the setting was similar, and the appeal was the same: pure magic and enchantment, led by the best player of his generation putting on one last great show for teh world to see.

I went to India over the Summer of 2006, leaving the US in the brief window between the Round of 16 and the Quarterfinal. I wasn't a huge fan of soccer - at least in a relative sense compared to where I am now. I knew somewhat what was going on. I loved Zidane, an attachment I still don't know the origins of.that love. I have reasons why I started supporting Peyton, or Oswalt, or Marty. For Zidane, I have no idea why it started, or where, and for one thing I only started really following him in the last month of his career, but follow him I did. But the 2006 World Cup wasn't fully about the player that would define it, for both good and bad.

I was in 9th Grade at the time, and for some unknown reason, our High School actually showed a lot of day-time games in the Study Hall quarters. The tournament started more or less in the last couple weeks of the year. The better (see: cooler) teachers even showed the games in their classrooms. Being in high school the other students actually seemed to care. People wore jerseys of their home countries. There was a buzz around the school. In reality, there was a buzz around the country.

The 2006 World Cup was the first one I remember that was marketed and shown in the US as the premier tournament it is. ESPN pulled out all the stops. The setting was great, with the German crowds and stadiums supporting the tournament well. It was an interesting time in the sport, with a number of countries that were trying to hold onto the last pieces of Golden Generations (France, Brazil, Italy, Portugal), with two future dynasties being born (Germany, Spain). France had won the 1998 World Cup, but entered the '06 show as something of an underdog. They struggled in their group, before drawing Spain in the Round of 16. In an incredibly open, compelling game, France beat Spain 3-1, with Zidane scoring the 3rd goal in stoppage time. This would be the last time Spain would lose a knock-out stage game for 10 years.

Next up they got pre-tournament favorite Brazil. Brazil had the world's best player at that moment in Ronaldinho. That was a fleeting title in 2006, a period where Ronaldo and Zidane stopped dominating (so we thought), and Ronaldinho, Kaka, Shevcenko were names winning the Ballon D'Or. Brazil was the favorite. France had the history. It was a special night in Frankfurt. And a little 15-year old boy in Bangalore was ready to take it all in.

The game started at 12:30 AM in India. I was in India purely for Holiday, so I had no qualms staying up for this match - a historic Quarterfinal affair between two of the blue-blood countries in soccer. The people hosting me, however? They might not have liked it. To assuage any concerns, I agreed to put the game on softly. I put the brightness of the TV down. There were enough electric personalities and talents of the field to illuminate the game as it was.

2006 was an interesting time in soccer. The preceding years were very defensive in general, with Italian sides and those coached by Jose Mourinho doing extremely well. Barcelona won the Champions League the month before the World Cup, but at this point they were nothing like they would be three years later when Guardiola took over. Tiki-Taka was not a thing. Spain barely out-possessed France in the Round of 16. The game was not more open, but more even. One of my worst complaints of the Barca-heavy era of Soccer (2008-2014) was how each game turned into a version of one team getting 70%+ possession and the other parking the bus. That just didn't happen in 2006. And with the great crowds, singing and chanting to their hearts content, the stage of the 2006 World Cup was special.

The game itself was fairly evenly played - if you removed Zidane from the field. Less than 30 seconds in, he got the ball near the mid circle., held off two Brazilian defenders, did a quick turn, and tried to spring Henry through. It was a quick, complex attack made so simple (as is everything Zidane did). Within the first minute, Zidane made it known this was going to be his night.

Zidane was spellbinding, brilliantly controlling the game as only he could. He made the sublime look simple. Whether it was one of his patented pirouettes, a self-volley to clear the ball in a dangerous position, a quick one-two to spring an overlapping fullback, to a simple flick and header to advance an attack. Zidane was magnetic, was dominating in a simple, mundane sense that defined his career. Nothing seemed out of flow. Zidane wasn't about doing things that seemed impossible. His brilliance was making the impossible seem easy, and rarely did he do it better than this game.

Zidane's flick and header to advance the ball was what led to the foul that allowed him to take a free-kick in an advanced dangerous position. His free kick was looping, arced perfectly into the far corner, where Thierry Henry met it and roofed it right past Dida. France's goal was quick, but perfectly executed (Brazil's defending on the free kick was summarily the opposite of perfectly executed). The rest of the game was without much drama (the closest Brazil really came was an 85+ minute free kick opportunity to Ronaldinho). But if anything, Zidane's control on the game only grew.

My favorite moment of the match came about the point I was ready to turn it off and retire for the night, as we approached 2AM (future me would be shocked at any inability to stay up to 2AM). Zidane found himself on the ball ahead of the mid-circle, but ahead of most of his teammates. He dribbled around, pulled back, and then released a perfectly weighted touch, looping through ball to Willy Sagnol. It was audacious in its microscopic exactness. It looked so simple in its execution. The master was playing around, in control of everything around him.

For a young kid, this was a performance seared into my mind. I was those kids in the ads, spellbound by the magic emanating from the TV screen. I was hooked into this brilliant player playing this great game. Zidane's performance is one of legend, covered and honored by sportswriters, fans and historians, but for me it was a personal moment. I stayed up way past my conventional bedtime to watch my favorite player. I wasn't sure why he was my favorite player, but I knew he was, and since that game that has never wavered. Zidane's magic was on full display, his grace oozed through the screen, a glittering example to a small kid stuck in a dark Bangalore apartment of how beautiful the beautiful game could be.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Building the Monster in Madrid

The rumors flew in the end of the season fast and furious. It went from Kylian M'Bappe, to N'Golo Kante, to Antoine Griezmann, to many others. Which high priced transfer would defending Spanish and European Champions Real Madrid scoop up. One? Two? All Three? In a way, it made perfect sense. Florentino Perez is never one to let transfer windows pass quietly, and he had to make up for a muted 2016-17 Transfer Season when a banned Real Madrid could only bring back Alvaro Morata and Marco Asensio (a relative unknown at that point) back from loan. No, now Florentino Perez was unshackled and ready to wheel and deal cash.

Instead, whether by some combination of past high-priced failures and Zinedine Zidane's impact on the team's mindset, Florentino Perez and Real Madrid seem content to not go luxury shopping. Instead, they went bargain hunting, fortifying the deepest team in Europe with an infusion of young talent that make them an even deeper, better team, ready to rule Europe again. In the span of three years, Real Madrid turned over its manager and now its mindset, and the future could not be brighter.

Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos. That is essentially the extent of Madrid's transfer dealings (admittedly, for now). The rest were the ending of loans, with Jesus Vallejo, Marcus Llorente and Borja Mayoral. You might now know these players. Few should. But they, along with current Madridista rising supernova Marco Asensio (and Atleti's Saul Niguez) formed the core of Spain's U-21 team that flexed serioous might in the UEFA U-21's. Real Madrid has made a concerted effort to go younger, go faster, go deeper, and it may pay off grandly.

The players that Real Madrid let walk are as much of the story as those who came in. Pepe left, a bit acrimoniously which is sad given his success with the club, a clear sign Real wanted to get younger, get faster, and not be too attached by the recent success. James leaving for Bayern, despite being a way below-market deal, was another sign that Real wanted to go further in pushing cohesion, in meritocracy, in team.

Zidane's rotation policy has now reached cult status, and it should. He rotated his players more than any manager in a club in Europe's top leagues. 20 players played at least 1,000 minutes. Guys on the bench like Nacho, Mateo Kovacic, Lucas Vasquez, may not have found any time on a previous version of Real, but they flourished in this one. For some of the more high-priced bench talent, this may have sown some discord - particularly in Alvaro Morata who was a consistent starter at Juventus the two years prior - but had Zidane rotated like a normal coach, Morata would have played even less.

A key result of this rotation policy seems that young players have no issue going to Madrid knowing they might not be starters. The squad is so deep right now you have to be a true talent to be a starter. Out of the three starlets mentioned at the beginning, none would be guaranteed starters at Real. Kante might displace Casemiro, and Griezmann is so good he may force himself in, but there's no guarantee. For younger players, it is even more of a risk, but given the allure of Madrid, the rotation equanimity that Zidane employs, it is a risk so worth taking.

The consistent throughline across all the signing/loan returnees is their age. Theo Hernandez is 18, a future star at left back, the potential eventual replacement for Marcelo. Dani Ceballos is 20, the potential replacement for Kroos and/or Modric. Marcos Llorente is 22, the third man at defensive midfield along with Casemiro and Kovacic. Mayoral is 23, and he may be lost at forward, but then the least is expected of him as well. Jesus Vallejo is 20, a potential utility defender who may just step into Sergio Ramos's shoes one day. All of these players are potentially key cogs of Real Madrid's medium-to-long term future, but to get them all to mortgage some of their short-term playing time shows the renewed, unmatched allure of Zidane's Madrid.

To be fair, there is still a logjam everywhere, and if injury strikes having 18-22 year olds may not work out too well, but Perez seems to be committed to longer-term thinking than he usually does. The chances of them three-peating as European Champions is of course small. They are probably favorites to retain La Liga, but even that is never a sure bet. A trophyless season may be a disappointment, but you get the sense that Perez, and Zidane (who Perez called his coach for life) are seeing 3-4 years down the road.

Madrid has almost never had this level of young talent on hand in their 23. Certainly not in the last 10+ years since Ronaldo came on board. Madrid's recent run has already cemented their place as one of the great teams ever. Three Champions League crowns in Four years is impossible to argue against. But in a way, this is more of a beginning, a rebirth, the start of something great rather than the end. Madrid is well on their way to a modern dynasty. They can thank their brilliant president who zigged again, straight into a wealth of young talent. They can thank their equally brilliant manager who seems to have no obvious flaw for that job. But the combination of the two is truly deadly.

Friday, July 14, 2017

MLB at the Half, Pt. 2 - 15 Thoughts on the 2nd Half

** Quick note about the derby. Sure, Stanton didn't make it out of the first round, but that was still an incredible derby. The move to a timed clock was such a game-changer, moving away from the madenning taking of pitches and turning the derby into something special. Plus, no Chris Berman!**

* The return of Mike Trout

Mike Trout will be back on Friday. He's coming back on schedule, seemingly healthy, and while he's surrendered the WAR lead to Judge/Correa/Altuve/Betts group in the AL, he has a whole 70 games to catch up. The weird part is that the Angels themselves played more or less as good without Trout as they did when he played. Eric Young Jr. was a reasonable facsimile of Trout. The pitching staff, particularly bullpen, played well. Given everyone in the AL is alive for the Wild Card, the Angels have a significant, if still minority, shot at a playoff spot. Incredibly, I could easily foresee the Angels nabbing a Wild Card spot, Trout having a monster second half, and ending up stealing an MVP in a year where he doesn't lead the AL in WAR.

* Will any AL Club Sell?

As mentioned above, literally every team is in shouting distance of a Wild Card spot. Currently, it is the Yankees and Rays, who all things considered probably are the two best teams in that maw. But everyone is within 7.5 games, and more realistically, the Twins, Royals, Angels, Rangers, Mariners, Orioles and Jays are close enough they may be deterred from dealing. Given that, does anyone sell? That group contains Chris Archer, a prime candidate for a deal in another year, plus a host of Rangers, Mariners and Jays that could be good targets for teams wanting to make a push. The best bets to sell in that group are probably the Rangers and Jays, who have the most forward-thinking front offices in that set. It would be a sad change for two teams that have done so well the last 3 years (more like 7 in case of Texas), but they've peaked and probably should start re-loading./re-tooling.

* Can Aaron Judge keep this up?

Aaron Judge can not take another at bat and still get the AL ROTY, but he's playing for a loftier goal right now. As long as the Yankees are playoff-bound (and even if they aren't), Judge is your AL MVP favorite. He leads baseball in all the advanced metrics (grading out surprisingly well on defense), with monster normal numbers. Best OBP in the AL. Best SLG in MLB. Best OPS and OPS+. He's on pace for a ridiculous year. The one knock on him coming in was his issues with strikeouts, and while he started striking out more in June, he also had his best month of the year. There's no real stopping him at this point. As he showed in the Home Run Derby, he is just a giant, powerful, adonis - who also seems to be a really cool dude as well. The last rookie to win the MVP was Ichiro. Judge has the inside track of being next. He'll have to hold off the story that could be Trout, and a trio of Astros that may end up stealing votes from each other, but he's the good bet to do so.

* What random 2nd half experiment will be next?

This is an annual favorite of mine. Some team will do something really bizarre in the second half. My go-to example was when the 2014 Reds decided to start all rookie pitchers in the second half of a lost season. It didn't really work. Only few of the pitchers ended up doing anything long-term. But still, for a team with nothing really to do, it worked. In some ways, the Rockies kind of did this last year changing their pitching staff and starting a lot of people that would end up being big contributors this year. Maybe it's the Padres. Maybe it is the Giants who have to deal with irrelevance all second half for the first time in a while. Maybe it is the Braves calling up some of their trove of prospects. Hell, maybe it will be the Marlins. There's not really any AL team that stands to be so far out of it soon they may turn to something aggressive and new, but it will be fun to look out for.

* The Re-birth and/or downgrade of the 2018 FA Class

The impending 2018 Free Agent class is expected to break the bank, with guys entering their year 26 season coming up as UFAs with all intentions of seriously testing the market. Bryce Harper is expected to get some contract we may not be able to conceive of ($400MM or something). Manny Machado may do the same. Strange thing, though, with a year-and-a-half to go, they remain a bit underwhelming. Harper started off by putting up a better version of his ridiculous 2015 season (when he was 22), but since May he's been a 300/400/500 player, a good but not otherworldly hitter with average defense. Machado's struggled all year, with an OPS+ of 96, and just 1.5 WAR even accounting for his great defense. Both will still get big contracts, but neither guy is Mike Trout. Harper himself has shown at his best he can be, but that best is surrounded by a bunch of 2-5 win seasons. Both have a lot to play for in the second half, particularly Machado who some thought could challenge Harper's contract value.

* Which teams decide to tank

So, which team is most likely to tear it down fully next. The Phillies were the last one, and seem right on track for a second straight worst record. There's not much left for them to sell-off, unless they want to pull the trigger on trading a peak-value Aaron Nola. What is more interesting is if any of the other bad teams join them in tear-down mode. The Giants are the only other team with a truly dreadful record, but their best assets are such fan favorites that it is hard to imagine them getting rid of Posey and Bumgarner. But there's a lot else (Belt, Crawford, Cueto). Then you get Toronto, which has some older players and cost-controlled pitchers that could be interesting. The sleeping giant in the tank world is the Tigers. Are they ready to call it quits on their run of success. Verlander could command quite a bit. Miggy too. Same with Avila. There is a lot of potential assets, but much like the Giants, it is hard to imagine them pulling the trigger.

* Pitchers on the block

We entered the year with Sonny Gray, Chris Archer and Jose Quintana as high-profile movable assets. Those three are still high-profile movable assets. None are having a great season. But none bad enough to really hurt their trade value. There's a lot of interesting players who could join them. A couple we've covered before, like Johnny Cueto, but there's so many more that could be trade bait. I'm interested to see if Mets give up and trade the only workable, healthy pitching asset they have left in Jacob DeGram (would love him on the Stros). The Mariners could deal one of their guys. There's a lot of teams that could do with another starter that still have serious playoff concerns, like the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs and Astros.

* Will HR numbers fall back to earth?

By now, basically anyone connected to baseball has realized that HRs have gone way up to levels that exceed the height of the steroid era. We are pace for around 6,200 HRs; the old record was 5,700 in 2000. By now enough studies have been done to suggest at least a plurality of the reason for the spike is due to changes to the ball. Some of it is a concerted effort by hitters to counter the (still) increasing rate of strikeouts by going for more power. It was two years ago when the spike first started (2nd half of 2015), and it took a while for it to get real prominence but it sure has now. I could see the MLB to take serious steps in investigating changes to the ball - assuming they weren't aware from the start.

* The Great Pitcher Race (Kershaw should win)

Three pitchers have utterly dominated this year of the hitter (putting aside a still-injured Dallas Keuchel for now). One is the best pitcher of his generation who is continuing to work towards removing the need for that 'of his generation' qualifier. The second is the guy who quietly is putting together a HOF resume, winning the Cy Young last year in the NL three years after doing so in the AL. The third is a gumby-like figure who has been so good since going to Boston. Kershaw, Scherzer, Sale. They are playing a so amazingly entertaining game of can you top that. Their pitching lines are staggering. Sale's may look the worst on paper, but he's in the worst ballpark and has been so dominant, with a .901 WHIP and 12.5K/9. Of course, Scherzer's WHIP is at .779. Both Scherzer and Sale have a shot at 300Ks. Kershaw has had brief periods where he was just a great pitcher instead of the best pitcher any of us have ever seen, but his recent form has been so ridiculous. Seeing each of them try to get the title of best pitcher in 2017 will be fabulous to watch down the stretch.

* Will we get a good pennant race?

Every year there is generally at least one great race, but that hasn't really been the case recently. Last year, the closest final gap was 4 games. This year, the closest right now is 2.5 (Indians over Twins) and then 3.5 (Red Sox over Yankees). While each of those could be great down the stretch, what we have largely is two teams in Cleveland and Boston projected to be really good that took a while to get going. There's a trio of races that seem over (AL & NL West and NL East). I am holding out hope the Yankees course correct and push Boston down the stretch. Partially because, as always, eff Boston, but also because the Yankees revival was such a fun part of the first half. Aaron Judge is still awesome, but the team itself struggled the last six weeks. By run differential, they should be 54-32. Instead, they are 45-41. The Yankees have played up to Boston. The only other race really worth watching will be the one I'll be talking about now...

* The Cubs inevitable push (?)

... Will the Cubs be able to catch the Brewers. The Cubs have been so stagnant all year, never really having a sustained stretch of even good play. Sure, they are a bet to run off a 10-0 run at any point, but their flaws are very real. Their starting pitching was a risk coming into the year, and it has been incredibly average. Their hitting is probably doing worse than anyone could have imagined, but the players that are struggling (namely, Russell and Schwarber) aren't great bets to turn things around. At the end, the Cubs are 43-45, without deserving to be any better. And guess what, the Brewers may just pull this off. Their offense mashes home runs like no other team in the NL. Eric Thames got all the press early on, but Travis Shaw is riding a 170 OPS+. The Cubs may play well and still not catch Milwaukee. Teams don't blow 5.5 game leads at the break too often. For Cubs fans, they better not complain after the gifts of God they were bestowed last year, but this uninspired season is just so shocking.

* Which Astro is Best?

The Astros are not only the AL's best team, they also have, as of now, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th best position players in the league (not counting Trout), and the race between those three to see who will have the best season should be great to watch. Altuve, in reality, is just continuing off what he did last year, when he finished the season with 7.6 bWAR, improving in OBP (walking more) and SLG. His stealing has even become more efficient. The other two are the real surprised. First, Springer, who's gotten a lot of notoriety for hitting all the lead off home runs. He's up to 27 total for the year, and at 4.1 bWAR. He's cut his strikeout rate, and is walking more, and is, at least for now, over .300 for the first time in his career. Finally, there's the future superstar who is becoming a current superstar. Correa actually started the season pretty slowly, then got hit on the wrist and missed a handful of games in late April. Since he's come back he's hit .341/.417/.646. For the year he's at .325/.402/577. He too has cut his k-rate and upped his walk-rate, and is again just 22. Correa will likely lead the pack at the end of the year, and if he can make a run at Judge, could easily win the AL MVP as well. By the way, given how he started the year before leaving with a pinched nerve in early June, the answer to this might actually be Dallas Keuchel.

* Clayton Kershaw The God

I spoke about him earlier but felt that Kershaw needed his own section. His continuing brilliance is so taken for granted. I realize most people consider him the best pitcher in baseball, but I think we are all still slow to accept him as one of the greatest pitchers ever. He's certainly put up numbers that put him there. Now, one can argue Randy Johnson at his peak was more dominant, or Roger Clemens, or Greg Maddux, or Pedro Martinez (damn, the period from 1990-2005 had some ridiculous pitching), but Kershaw is right there. He is on pace to continue one of the most ridiculous streaks in baseball - lowering his career ERA for a 9th successive season. He entered with a career ERA of 2.37, and he's at 2.18 this year. He had a brief spell early in the season when he wasn't THAT dominant - to where people were putting up Max Scherzer or Chris Sale - but Kershaw seemingly fixed whatever was wrong the last month. Dating back to 2011, when he first broke out and won the Cy Young at 23, he's put up 6+1/2 year of 2.08 ERA, 179 ERA+, and a K/BB ratio of 5.75. This isn't normal, people. I really want to see him put up a dominant 2nd half and win his 4th Cy Young. It's been too long since he won a Cy Young last (all the way back in 2014). We need GOAT Kershaw back.

* Can the Rockies & D'Backs keep it up?

The best story of the 1st half was the Rockies and D'Backs rise from nothing into playoff contenders. For the D'Backs, the collapse would have to be really something truly outlandish for them to miss the playoffs at this point. For the Rockies, the prospect of them falling back to the pack (ie: the runner-up in the NL Central) seems more scarily likely. Both teams, beyond being so much better than anticipated, have been so fun. There's a bunch of random things I like about them, like the Rockies seemingly figuring out how to pitch in Coors Field with these no-name guys, or the D'Backs parade of ex-2011 Top Prospects doing so well. Then there's the D'Backs propensity to start games at 7:40 MST (these are the only two teams in the Mountain Time Zone). I really want them both to continue to play great. Hopefully with the return of Jon Gray the Rockies will get back on track. Either team could make a trade to bolster them further as well. The NL was set up to be so predictable this year, and while in a way there still may not be much drama down the stretch, it is predictable in the best way, with seemingly bad teams doing well.

* Can the Astros & Dodgers be historic?

Sunday, July 9, 2017

MLB Season at the Half, Pt. 1 - First Half Retrospective

As each team enters its final series before The Greatest Home Run Derby of our Time happens next Monday, I wanted to recap where we are in one of the most enjoyable baseball seasons in a while - not only due to the Astros so far being a juggernaut.

** Quick aside on the Home Run Derby. Not only do we get Giancarlo Stanton (in his home park) and the monster that is Aaron Judge, we get a night WITHOUT CHRIS BERMAN!!! **

Again, I promise this won't be strictly about the Astros being a juggernaut. Sure, it is fun that they are. It is fun that they are on pace for 109. They have three of the top players in the AL by WAR in Springer, Altuve and Correa (who is still just twenty-fucking-two). Sure, maybe they need another arm as a starter, and having a third dependable pitcher to throw along with Keuchel anad McCullers, but I am not going to quibble. 

At the end of the day, the Astros were supposed to be good. Maybe not this good (no one is supposed to be 108-54 good), but they were supposed to be the best team in the AL West. This was supposed to be the start of great things for them, ideally for a long, long time. Let's remember Sports Illustrated famously ran a cover story in 2014 title "Houston Astros, your 2017 World Series Champions." In that way, we are right on schedule.

So beyond the Astros brilliance, what else do we have going for us in this here 2017 MLB season - well, just about everything, from two NL West teams rising from teh ashes, to the continuing incredible run the Brewers are on, to the equally dominant run of the Dodgers, to magical pitching performances, to the rise of Home Runs which at this point seem fully due to slight changes in the ball.

My favorite (non-Astros) story is really the simultaneous rise of the Rockies and Diamondbacks. Sure, teh Rockies have come on some relative hard times, but they've also banked enough wins to still be solid postseason bets. The Diamondbacks are further along to where it will take quite a collapse (and a rise of a team languishing around .500) to push them out. The NL West has been the league's most consistently boring division for a while now. The Dodgers would win it. The Giants would get a wild card - and every other year win the World Series. The Rockies and Padres were mired in never-ending rebuilds, and the D'Backs, sick of going around .500 every year, made some dubiously stupid trades and became a laughingstock.

Well, a year later, all hail the D'Backs and Rockies. For Arizona, this is the team they imagined building last year when Tony LaRussa and Dave Stewart went all in. That didn't work. They both got fired. A year later their dream is coming true. Paul Goldschmidt, after years of quietly being great, seems like a good lock for NL MVP. Zack Greinke is pitching like an ace. AJ Pollock is back. Robbie Ray is back healthy. Their whole approach of assemble a bunch of 2012 great pitching prospects has been largely hit or miss with Patrick Corbin struggling and Shelby Miller requiring Tommy John, but with Archie Bradley reborn in the pen.

The Rockies approach seems to be more luck based, as they've already fallen off but having Nolan Arenado finally playing for a good team has been a joy. The Rockies should be good. Denver is a great market, Coors Field is a beautiful ballpark. If we can get a repeat of Rocktober this year it would be fantastic for baseball. The Rockies have succeeding largely on the back of finding ground-ball heavy pitchers to try to supress offense in that ballpark. It's worked more than it should have given these still aren't great pitchers, but at the very least the Rockies have a workable strategy.

I'm concentrating more on the NL because this year the two leagues have been very distinct. The AL has a jumbled mess where pretty much every team is still somewhat in the wild card race, and there are only two teams that seem close to playoff locks in the Astros and Red Sox. In the NL you can really pencil in the Dodgers, Nationals and D'Backs at this point, and there is a whole host of teams that are basically already out, but it is two of those teams that are 'out' that gave another example of baseball's beauty.

Going into the season, the NL seemed boring, with three clear best teams in the divisions (Dodgers, Nationals, Cubs - two for three ain't bad), and the leading Wild Card contenders seemed to be the Giants and Mets. Well, that's where the 'That's Baseball, Susan' of it all comes into play. The Giants have struggled so badly, with bad years from their starting pitching, worst of all being Madison Bumgarner getting hurt in an ATV accident. The Mets had the Bumgarner situation times ten, with injuries and scandals with basically all of their supposed-to-be great pitchers.

Finally, the Cubs, whose struggles are so weird, so unthinkable, and, given my still flaming hatred of my old NL Central rival, so enjoyable. They looked untouchable last year, setting sail on a multi-year long dynasty. And a year later they are playing jump-rope with .500. Whats weirder is that they haven't been unlucky. By all accounts on how they've played, they should be about .500. The starting pitching has struggled (who knew, Kyle Hendricks, wasn't going to continue to be Greg Maddux!). The record-breaking defense has regressed to just average. The offense that looked so deep and powerful last year has cratered, with Kyle Schwarber doing so bad he was sent to the minors to clear his head. Even Kris Bryant has gone from being MVP-level to merely very good. The Cubs probably will overtake the Brewers at some point (if only to avoid having to figure out how exactly the Brewers are doing what they are), but for now it is fun to watch them struggle.

And in a way, it is a good example of why I shouldn't get too excited about the Astros - we could very well be the Cubs 12 months from now. Admittedly, if in the intervening 12 months we win the World Series, I definitely won't complain.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Favorite TV Show Intros

I started the fifth season of Orange is the New Black yesterday. I've already heard that this season will take place almost exclusively in the immediate aftermath of the prison riot that ended last season, an interesting conceit that has worked out spectularly bad in past (HIMYM's last season), but may just work here. Anyway, I wasn't too excited to start the season - until I heard this.....

Yeah, that is a pretty perfect TV show theme. Unique, memorable, with those flashing haunting close-up of women's faces of all colors and types. It was a perfect entry-point to the show when it started all the way back in 2013, and I'm so happy that they haven't touched it at all in the years since. It got me thinking about my favorite TV show themes and intros. Not just the music, but the accompanying images. Below is just a brief list of my favorites

True Classics:

The Wire 

I love this intro so much. Just like basically everything The Wire did, the intro was close to perfect. The images and quick scenes flashing, few actually taken from the episodes, but each showing themes so central to that season. From the many homages to drugs and 'wires' in Season 1, to ports and foreign passports in Season 2, to government in 3 and schoolkids in 4. Accompanying that was the slightly different take of 'Way Down in the Hole' each year. My personal favorite was Season 3's with The Neville Brothers, or Season 2's redirection to Tom Waits. The intro was just a perfect mashup of imagery and music.

Game of Thrones

There is probably no more famous intro than this one in modern TV history and for good reason. There are a couple just incredible aspects to GoT's intro. First is the music itself, iconic, mesmerizing, brilliant. I truly could hum it for hours on end. Second, of course, is the changing cast of locations the intro would flow past. There are the constants in King's Landing, Winterfell, The Wall, and something over in Essos (though it changed), but the additions of Harrenhall, Dorne, The Twins, Braavos, and so many others over the years. The technology used to create it was perfect. Game of Thrones is one of the few HBO shows over the years to use a cold open, and why not? There is no better entry point into an episode than this.

Arrested Development

Quick, funny, witty. It did well to encapsulate the irreverance of the show to follow it. Ron Howard's narration is the most underrated part of the show, a critical ingredient that made it swim, and it is used well here. One line for each person, giving a quick overview of how each is connected to each other. The show rarely if ever holded your hand except for this, a 10-second lesson and reminder on the relationship each of these bizarrely brilliant characters had with each other.

Personal Favorites:

Bojack Horseman

I fear that Bojack Horseman will never become as popular as it should, lost under the mountain of brilliant content NETFLIX has developed over the years. It really should be more notable, and not least of all because of how perfect that intro is. The dour sound of the music, the laissez-faire way it shows Bojack, the small touches that show the creator's attention to detail (ex: when Todd created his start-up from Bojack's house where the Stripper Orca's ran a cab service, there were Orcas filling Bojack's house when it cut in). It ends so well with a lazy sax over a lazy Bojack lounging in his pool overlooking Hollywoo(d). The depressed nature of the show is its best feature and that starts right at the top.

Silicon Valley

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

For 12 seasons, with limited exceptions, Always Sunny has followed the same formula to open a show. Someone says something. It cuts to black. A title card appears with the title itself often being a joke (ex: Dee, "I am not dating a retarded person.".... Title Card: "Sweet Dee Dates a Retarded Person") and then that randomly sweet melody with cut-scenes of famous Philadelphia landmarks. I have no idea why this intro touches me so much. Couple theories; first being how disparate the melody is with the sick nature of the show, and second of how low-grade it looks. Black title card, seemingly self-shot camera footage (particularly in the old non-HD version of the show from like Season 1-4). Overtime Always Sunny lost its full outsider, "we do this on a $500 budget", mindset, and in many ways for the better, but the title sequence always spoke so well to its humble, garage-band beginnings.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Veronica Mars

I basically consider these shows together in my mind, as they were built off such similar structures. Their theme songs are different, with Buffy's highlighting the strength of the 'family' its titular character built, with separate moments highlighting each of the Scoobies, and Veronica's mostly showing her and how generally isolated Veronica was, but they were catchy, strong and showcased each shows central character so well. Both shows (moreso Veronica Mars) were built off of the strength of their main leads (SMG and Kristen Bell were born to play these roles), and the action scenes highlighted these. The musical choices were great also - especially Veronica Mars' use of 'We Used to be Friends' a great mantra for the show itself.

Quick Hit Favorites


Again, the best intros perfectly encapsulate their show and introduce viewers perfectly. Shameless is so good at this. The rapturous music. The lewd setting. The traipsing of various members of the Gallagher clan entering, using, pilfering and messing up their bathroom. It's barely changed over the years, and it gets me every time.

Nathan For You

I've mostly highlighted shows where the intro scenes and music highlighted what is great about the show. In some cases, it is the dichotomy that makes the intro brilliant. Nathan For You is one of those cases. They've used a memorable Orchestral music often seen in YouTube sports highlight videos to play up the strong, brilliant bonafides of the fake consultant underneath them. The narration is perfect too, no moment better than when Nathan says that he graduated a top school with great grades with a report card shown with perfectly scattered average grades. Even the two examples of his brilliance, changing a shoe display and changing 'And' to 'N'' on a store sign, or so well picked.

Totally Random Shout-Out

Inside the NBA

Let's give a quick shout out to the best pre/post-game show intro in sports out there. The NBA on TNT theme may never match the NBC one (Roundball Rock), but its impressive longevity is coming close. They changed to the current one back in the early-00's, and ever since it has been such a welcome sound every Thursday (and sometimes Monday and nightly in April/May). I still can't imagine a world when Charles, Kenny or Ernie are gone, and this song is such a great intro to that.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Has HBO's Comedy Block Peaked

Yesterday, both Veep and Silicon Valley ended their most recent seasons, their 6th and 4th respectively. Both shows are already solidly within the great comedies of the last 10-20 years, particularly Veep. Both are personally well in my own Top-15 of TV shows, with Veep somewhere in the second half of the Top-10. But both shows ended their seasons on somewhat of an interesting note, resetting themselves after largely their most aimless, softest, least memorable seasons to date. The parallel nature of each this year, splitting the groups into various pieces throughout each season, never going too deep in any one direction, and largely hitting reset in the final episode, all the while slightly underwhelming given their previously great expectations, made me think if both shows are close to running out of steam and if we care too much about plot in comedies in general.

Let's talk about the first point first. Veep built up to the crescendo of Selina being president, a role she assumed late in Season 3 when the President resigned suddenly. It never lost a sense of perspective as Selina went from largely irrelevant VP in Season 1, through candidacy to assuming the top office in the land was commendable. It stayed just as grounded, just as close, and easily just as funny, despite the scope of the issues facing Selina and team getting progressively larger. But when they, at the time I thought smartly, made Selina lose the election (despite spending Season 5 going through interesting machinations to cement this fact) and go into post-presidency, it seemed like an interesting avenue to take. Instead, it led to a hodgepodge of a season with a few interesting sub-plots (Selina's library, Jonah's brief run as renegade rep) mixed in with way too disconnected ones. And now they hit re-set and Season 7, apparently, will be about Selina on the campaign trail again.

Silicon Valley was much of the same. On the whole, the first two seasons built Pied Piper from a small garage-band start-up to a major funded property. Season 3 tore that down to where they lost their primary tech and had to pivot. Season 4 continued this tear down until the Pied Piper team felt ass-backwards into a 9th life and reset the group all together (albeit losing TJ Miller). Now we enter a 5th season basically where the show started, with the gang trying to build Pied Piper into something, with the 'new internet' being basically as obtuse as the original compression algorithm.

Both of these shows were somewhat tired, if for different reasons. For Silicon Valley, it was the feeling that we've seen all this before. The show has always been a bit repetitive with so many episodes being centered around the group nearly losing everything before being saved at the 11th hour, but as we get to the 19th and 20th instance of that particular note, it becomes somewhat stale. Also, to be perfectly honest, the show just wasn't as funny this year. The Gilfoyle vs. Dinesh storylines weren't as sharp. Not having evil genius Gavin Belson and instead fighting-for-his-job Belson was not as fun. There were a few nice highlights, like the continuing rise of Big Head and Laurie's own VC, but on the whole it was just slightly worse.

Same with Veep, which is starting to show some of the pains of when you lose your showrunner and creator. The show was more tired in its insults and character behavior. None of the people on Veep are easy to root for, but it seemed that more of the invictive barbs were more malicious than normal. Then again, here is a show that just finished its 6th season. Few great sitcoms make it this far (admittedly, Veep does just 10 episodes a year), and the few that do that retain their effectiveness are rarely so plot-driven.

The only shows that I think maintained their effectiveness this long into their run as comedies that I've seen come down to two names: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (12 seasons) and Seinfield (9). Neither show really cared about plot, or at least season-long arcs. Sunny has done this at times, and probably has way more continuity and callbacks to cannon than Seinfield did, but still largely episodes were isolated, characters didn't grow. Sunny was always flatteringly compared to Seinfield. There's a reason why these shows work because when there is no real continuity, it is easier to just focus on jokes instead of plot.

Both Veep and Silicon Valley had focused on season long arcs, and if anything, while Veep struggled without one this past season, Silicon Valley got more aimless because of the presence of one. Silicon Valley really doesn't need a plot or ultimate end goal to work towards. If anything, if the Pied Piper team ever achieves big success, it may lose all relatability (hard to be too relatable if the group has to deal with eight-figures of funding and hiring 50-100 employees). Veep may need that structure back.

Definitely two years back, when Veep was in its 4th season and Silicon Valley its 2nd, I found the hour those two held as far superior than the hour that Game of Thrones had before it (in its 5th season). In reality, I was more looking forward to my hour of comedy than hour of Westeros. Last year they were close to equal, with Game of Thrones maybe taking a slight lead towards the end. The shows were split up this year, and with these two in the rear-view mirror, my yearning for Westerosi plot-driven escapades is greater than ever.

Veep and Silicon Valley have etched their places in my pantheon of great TV shows. Veep will be hard pressed to go any higher than where I mentally have it (somewhere around #7-10). Silicon Valley might with a great finish (showrunner Mike Judge has said he's mentally preparing for 6 seasons). But both won't go higher because they are not impervious to the same ills that have cost so many shows previously. If not for the sheer ability and quantity of talent embedded within each shows' cast, it would be more dire. Instead, the entertainment comes with seeing how the brilliant comedic minds can outdo the writing and plot they're provided.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Nostalgia Diaries, The 2005 Australian Open Classic - Safin def. Federer

I doubt I will go to a game any further back than this one during this little exercise of reliving the past. This one was well in the past. In tennis terms, this was more than a generation ago, when Rafael Nadal had yet to win a single Frech Open, and Novak Djokovic was making his Grand Slam debut. It was an era when behind Roger Federer, the top three players in the world were Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin, three names that combined for five Grand Slams, losing another eight finals. These were, of course, Federer's true contemporaries, a woebegone bunch who saw Federer make way too much hay in that brief period between Sampras retiring and Nadal rising.

That was the stage when Roger Federer and Marat Safin squared off in the 2005 Australian Open Semifinals. Each with their own interesting backstory heading into that match. For Federer, he ascended in 2004, winning three Grand Slams. The sports really hadn't seen anything like him in a long time. He was so peerless, so excellent, so elegant. At the time, a player winning three slams was unheard of, and cast a shadow in the sport. It was truly a question if anyone would really beat him again. Starting that spring, one man started beating him regularly, and over time he (Nadal) and others would become equally dominant that dominance became the norm. In 2005, it wasn't. It was novelty, it was scary.

Marat Safin was the perfect person to dent that Federer sheen. Marat Safin was undoubtedly the most talented non-Federer player in that little era. Safin had a ludicrously good backhand, a great forehand, a powerful serve. His only real failing was his mind, his inability to stay focused, stay engaged (stay healthy). Marat Safin traipsed his way up and down the rankings, winning a major at 20 by pummeling at-the-time #1 Pete Sampras in the 2000 US Open Final, but also losing a major final to seriously undergunned Thomas Johansson in the 2002 Australian Open final. If anyone could beat Federer, it was Safin. If there was anyone who could but could not be trusted to do it, that was Safin as well.

Turning back the clock 12 years in tennis is an amazing length of time. Roger Federer has always had an ageless look to him, basically looking the same for the last 7-8 years, but rewind to 2005 and he does look different. Longer, flowing hair. A babier face. Federer was just 23, a baby in the sport. Still, he was at his most graceful as well, he seemed to just effortlessly float over the court. Safin had a powerful speed and mastery to him. He himself looked older than his 25. Safin was the opposite of Federer, an 6'4", taut Udonis of a man that oozed sex appeal (yes, I had - and still have - a serious man crush on Marat). The stage was set, under the night sky in Australia. The court was still green at the time, inviting us all in.

The Australian Open always held a special place in my mind because it was an annual event where the timing was so foreign in the US. The day matches started at 8PM. The night matches at 3AM. The night matches would end as I would get-up for school. It was so fun to stay up late on weekends and watch the day session (a 13-year old me was not getting up/staying up at 3AM). The night sessions in Laver are also such enthralling affairs. Unlike the sprawling nature of Arthur Ashe where the noise and energy escapes into the Queens' night sky, in Laver it is all held in, a rapturous, roaring nature that is unseen anywhere else in tennis. The players themselves feed off the energy, heightening any great match into one of unparalleled joy.

The match itself was fairly straightforward through three sets. Federer was getting pushed by Safin more than any player had pushed him in a fair long while, but Federer stood strong in the important moments. Twice, Safin served to force a tiebreak, and twice he was beaten, with Federer winning the first and third sets 7-5 (Safin won the middle one 6-4). At this point, the match was on its axis. It could become a modern classic, with the man who seemed better than anyone had ever been getting pushed further than he ever had, or the final set would be routine after Safin blew his chances. Luckily for us all, including the always great Dick Enberg and Patrick McEnroe calling the match, it was the former, and it was spectacular.

The fourth set featured 12 straight holds, but so many memorable moments in that set alone. You had Safin hitting ludicrous backhands and passing shots. You had Federer whipping forehands. You had chaotic applause from the crowd. You had Marat Safin cursing in Spanish and hitting a ball out of the stadium in protest. You had Federer even smashing a racket after Safin won a long rally with an on-the-run forehand. You actually saw Federer, for once, for the first time seemingly ever, sweat. He was under pressure. He was being tested. The crowd loved it. The announcers loved it.

Given the time difference, ESPN always seemed to have more fun broadcasting the Australian Open, almost as if they thought no one was watching. They zoomed in on a cricket that entered the stadium (Federer pushed it with his racket off the court - Safin would smash and kill it two games later). They randomly played orchestra music between two points. The whole match had this weird energy that added so much to the affair. It would reach its apex during the 4th set tiebreak.

Federer took a 5-2 lead off the back of two clean winners, and one of the most outrageous, outlandish dropshots I've ever seen. Safin clawed back to 5-4 winning two points on Federer's serve off Federer errors, and then, with Safin back in control, Federer did it again. Another absolutely insane dropshot, carved to perfection. All Patrick McEnroe could do is squeal and laugh in enjoyment. Safin wouldn't back donw, and a point later Federer had match point on his racket. For all Safin accomplished, Federer still had the match on his racket. And then Safin pulled off a miracle, two ridiculous shots, a desperation lob, forcing Federer to try a tweener, a good four years before he would actually pull one off. It hit the top of the net. Safin had another life. The won the next two points, stole the tiebreak - and we were a good 70 minutes from the classic ending.

The 5th set played out so perfectly. It would have been cruel for Safin to put in such effort, hit such incredible shots, get the whole crowd on his side ready for a stunning result, to just wilt away. But then again, it would have been so like Safin, someone who made a career of wilting away against far lesser players. But this time he didn't. This time he took control. This time he got the early break, and led the 5th set 5-2. But that's just when Federer showed just how great he is, and how unbeatable he seemed to be in early 2005.

Safin had six different match points but couldn't close it out. Federer broke back, staved off match points to hold a couple times, and we got to the point where it was 8-7 Safin, with Federer serving. At this point it was nearly 1AM, nearly 10AM in the US. It was already a classic, but it had to end in a great way, and it ended with Safin hitting great shot after great shot to finish it. First a clean 2nd-serve return winner. Then a dominant backhand. Then a shot that jammed Federer on the baseline. Finally, on his 8th match point, Safin took the serve early, forced Federer into the corner where he stumbled - supine on the ground he gave up. Safin approached the net, put it away, and raised his arms in exhaustive, muted celebration. It was finally over. No one really knew what to do.

The only one who didn't really seemed stunned was Federer. He knew Safin, he was Safin's friend. He knew how talented this tall Russian was, how great he was capable of being on his night, and more than any other night in his career, this was Safin's night.

Safin would go on to win the Final, beating Aussie favorite Lleyton Hewitt. The tournament was also notable for being both Rafael Nadal's coming out party in a slam, having his own 5-set classic against Hewitt (losing in the 5th), and being Djokovic's maiden slam appearance - he was thrashed by Safin in the 3rd round. As far as Safin goes, he became a trivia fact. From Wimbledon 2004 through Wimbledon 2009 - a good 21 straight slams - only one man not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic would win a slam. Marat Safin. In fact, it was three years until even Djokovic got his name on that list (the next 11 slams would go Rafa-Fed-Fed-Fed-Rafa-Fed-Fed-Fed-Rafa-Fed-Fed). Marat Safin was the one man not named Nadal who took on a peak, in-form Federer, and actually beat him. The fact it was under a riotous Rod Laver crowd just made it so much the more special.

Monday, June 12, 2017

La Decima

I was 14 years old when Rafael Nadal first won the French Open. I was visiting my Great Aunt in Chicago when it happened. I knew of Nadal, in that I knew of the concept of this long-haired, capri-pant wearing dynamo that took the tennis world by storm leading up to that event. Lest we forget he was already ranked #4 in the world, and the co-favorite heading in with Federer. He beat Federer in the Semifinals. Then beat an overmatched Mariano Puerta to win his first French Open title. At the time, people thought this was the future of clay court tennis. They were wrong. He wasn't the future. He is clay court tennis.

Rafael Nadal now has a perfect 10 French Open titles. Just typing that is wrong. In some ways, this seemed so inevitable when he got #9 three years ago, upping his career total to 14. But since then it also seemed so far away. Nadal lost early at Wimbledon and shut it down for 2014. He made the QFs in 2015 in Australia and Roland Garros, losing in straights each time. The loss to Novak Djokovic in the 2015 French Open Quarterfinals was the changing of the guard, so we thought. It was, for 18 months, but something happened around the time Nadal made a great run to the Semifinals in the Olympics last year. He found his game. And all of that soul searching and stroke searching led him up to these past two weeks.

The best Rafael Nadal ever played was the 2008 French Open, when he won the tournament without a set, capping it off beating Roger Federer 6-1 6-3 6-0 in the Final. Amazingly, nine years later, he had a more dominant run. I would still argue that the '08 vintage of Nadal was more dominant, beating better players with more or less equal domination (he dominated guys that made multiple quarter and semifinal trips with such ease, before beating Djokovic and Federer in three straight), but the 2017 version was incredible in a different way. He was stronger, more offensive, more direct. Nadal in '08 played the best clay court tennis ever. He ran, he defended. He passed Federer so effortlessly in the final from all angles it became almost tough to watch. Nine years later, he is still by far the best clay court player in the world, just doing it in a different way.

Nadal at times seems so robotic in the way he plays. He has his routines he's stuck to with needless obsession for 13 years, from the placement of his water bottle to the shirt and shorts tugging he does prior to each serve. But Nadal the person has become more and more emotional as time went on. Nadal has struggled with injuries off and on since 2009, and these past two years struggled even more openly with confidence. In 2015-16 he blew so many matches the old Nadal would have put away, struggling time and time again to serve out matches. Nadal spoke openly during this time of his struggles with confidence, of his fight to find his game. Always saying how close he was right before another harrowing loss. Somewhere late in 2016 he regained form, and there really was no one who would stop him here.

Nadal's romp through the 2017 French Open was the best kind of inevitable. It was his tournament from the start. With the amount of pre-planned ceremony the French put into the Trophy Celebration, one would think they too thought it was definitely going to be his the second the tournament began. Nadal was so dominant, so effortless. The best match of his to me was his semifinal demolition of Dominic Theim. Here was the guy who played him close twice in Nadal wins earlier in the clay court season and then beat Nadal in Rome. He then beat Djokovic, anhillating the defending champ (who's mysterious decline deserves its own piece), bagelling him in the last set. Nadal matched that domination, bagelling Theim himself.

Rafael Nadal's ten titles did shake the tennis world. Players, rivals even, took to twitter and social media to give Nadal his due - including Federer the man who's respect for Nadal seems to grow day by day (love that he admitted today he wouldn't of touched Nadal had he played the French). It is just such an astounding fact, 13 years in the making. Nadal seemed like a historically great player when he was 17 and beat Federer in 2004. He seemed moreso when he won his first slam as a teenager. Overtime he turned into a contender for GOAT by adapting his game to all surfaces, but his magesterial ability on clay never waned - if anything it improved. 10. Just unbelievable.

The fact we are in 2017, and the best two players on tour this year have been Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal is so heartening for a tennis fan who was lost in a Novak-filled world. One year ago, Novak's slow climb to GOAT seemed inevitable. A year later, the old guard have taken control, and don't seem ready to give it back. A healthy Nadal, emboldened with confidence, is still somewhat in his prime, given how 'prime' is a mysterious concept in today's tennis world. Let's remember he is just a year older than Novak and Andy, younger than Wawrinka. Nadal may not be close to done - and yes this makes his loss to Federer in the Australian Open even all the more painful (it would be 17-16 in slams right now, with Nadal having two career slams), it gives some great energy to the upcoming years.

Rafael Nadal may be done winning. He said in his postmatch interview with John McEnroe that you always wonder if this grand slam win would be last. You can toss that up to the normal Nadal humility that has been such a core facet of his public persona. But right after that he told McEnroe a more hidden, but equally important nugget, that he 'is playing well, and when I play well I will have my chances.' Nadal knows where he is right now, having accomplished a career lifetime achievement of 10 Slams at the French, but he also knows there could be so much more to come. Like his favorite soccer team (Real), winning La Decima was just the beginning - La Undecima and La Duodecima could be right around the corner.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Yes, I Think the Cavs Can Win

Now, please notice I didn't say 'Will Win'. That is a very different statement that I am not yet ready to make. The Warriors are the favorites - given they have the home court advantage, that they are incredible on both sides of the ball, and have two MVPs, a likely DPOY and the best fourth option maybe ever. There are legitimate reasons that we need not re-legislate as to why the Warriors are favorites. But for people to ask if the chances are higher the Warriors sweep the Cavs than the Cavs win the series? That is insane.

Let's lay out a few reasons that I'll run through for why I think the Cavs have a decent chance:

1.) Their offense is basically as good as the Warriors
2.) They have shown an ability to play the Warriors close
3.) The Warriors haven't played anyone nearly this good yet
4.) Kerr not being there has to matter at some point

OK, let's tart quickly with Number 4. I think Steve Kerr is a fantastic coach, he's had the best start to his career of any coach ever, taking over a 50-win team and turning them into a juggernaut that may end up with a historic three-year run. That said, what do we tell our selves if the Warriors win the gitle (if not go 16-0) with Kerr not on the bench for most of those games. Now, I understand he's been there in practice and his presence is still felt, but if he's such a great coach, his absence may just matter here. We have ample evidence that Mike Brown is not that good of a coach. Doesn't matter when your team is outscoring their opponent by 16 points per game, but it may just notice if the game gets tight, and rotations matter more.

Now, number three, to me this is a key point. We have to fully separate regular season Cavaliers with postseason. Not just for this year. Forever. For the third year in a row the Cavs plodded along through the regular season, only to turn up the heat in a ridiculous way in teh playoffs - with no playoff run more ridiculous than this one. They have anhillated teams nearly as badly as the Warriors did. Their only loss was due to a 20-point blown lead with LeBron either sick, or drunk, or whatever his mindset was in Game 3. Other than that, let's just remember what they did to the Celtics even before Isiah Thomas got hurt, rolling them to truly historic proportions. You can say the Celtics were never as good as a #1 seed, but for the Cavs to, let's remember, have a 72-31 halftime lead in a Conference Finals game shouldn't just get put aside.

The Cavaliers, remember, were supposed to be the Warriors before the Warriors. When LeBron went back to Cleveland before 2014-15, and they traded for Kevin Love, they were supposed to be the all-time great offense juggernaut. Maybe it just took longer to put together. A healthy, engaged, and sharp-shooting Kevin Love completes the picture these playoffs. This is a team that on firepower alone can hang with Golden State. More than anything, this is by far the best team the Warriors will have played in the playoffs. The only team that comes close is the one that for 28 minutes was drumming the Warriors by 25 in Golden State before Kawhi got hurt. Yes, that was the only period of these playoffs the Warriors played a truly great opponent, and they were being manhandled. The Cavs, in their current level of engagement and focus, are as good as those Spurs, if not better.

Point number 1 is right here with this. The Cavaliers have been better than the Warriors on offense in the playoffs. They have the ability to match the Warriors firepower. Now, the Warriors defense is better (by a lot compared to regular season Cavs, but less so when compared to the playoff version) but the fact the Cavs can drop 120 is not meaningless. They seem incapable of going into a prolonged slump, they can keep the Warriors at arms length. Their shooters are, frankly, shooting a lot better this year, whether it is Kevin Love doing a decent Minnesota Love impression, or Kyle Korver, or even Deron Williams. They are deep (arguably, deeper than Golden State - a huge change from years past) and do the one thing that has been an achilles heel of the Warriors: offensive rebound. If they can steal 15-20% of their misses back their offense can become pretty unstoppable, at least enough so to keep competitive.

Finally, I just think they know how to play the Warriors, how to get them out of their comfort zone. We all remember Draymond's injury, and are so ready to make that excuse, but Draymond was there in Game 6 when the Cavs blew them out, and played Great in Game 7.  What the Cavaliers did so well was make each possession count in attacking the few weaknesses the Warriors had. They consistently ran pick-and-rolls with Curry's man setting the pick to get Curry switched on someone, whether LeBron or Kyrie, that can exploit Curry's mediocre defense. Tristan owned them on the boards, a problem the Warriors still have. We'll hear how, well, the Warriors now have Durant, and that ultimately may put them over the top, but LeBron has always owned Durant in that particular matchup, dating back to their Heat-Thunder days. I also do wonder if the Warriors do find themselves in a close game late, if KD's iso-heavy tendencies may reappear - you know, the thing that had Draymond visibly screaming at him on court earlier this year.

I'm not optimistic in the Cavs actually winning the series, but I am in them keeping the series interesting for a while, taking them to 6-7. And yes, more than I know I'm right,, I hope I am. The NBA needs a good series, or this whole damn seasons was a waste. Let's be real, these NBA playoffs have been garbage for the most part. We may have had a second straight good Western Conference Finals, but Zaza Pachulia decided to end any hope of that. The season was good, but behind good National TV ratings, local ratings fell across the board aside from select teams. The NBA is probably quietly a bit worried about the Cavs and Warriors 24-1 combined run to the Finals. If the Warriors then brush that team aside 4-0 or 4-1, there will be real problems. Fortunately, I earnestly don't believe that will happen.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Nostalgia Diaries, Pt. 4: Game 6 of the 2011 World Series - The Cardinals & Rangers

Great baseball games are the closest sporting events ever come to classic plays. There is drama, tension, comedy of (and) errors, everything that is great about a work of staged fiction. There are twists and turns hidden behind the aching 20 seconds between each pitch, played out in front of America's sporting equivalent of a stage tapestry, a beautiful ballpark, with minute by haunting minute rolling by under a crisp autumn night. Never more was this poeticism more true than when the Cardinals, the most outlandishly poetic of teams, and Rangers, a collection of both gallants and goofuses, met in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. The game put the Capital C in Fall Classic, arguably the most memorable non-Game 7 in World Series history (or at least in my lifetime). The game started with the comedy of errors, and ended with the drama of a man crowned an All-Time October Hero while Joe Buck emulated his Dad's famous call. The play that was Game 6 ended with few dry eyes and fewer attached fingernails.

The game itself started somewhat uneventfully through four innings, with the most drama being provided by Lance Berkman's two-run home run. Berkman was imported that year to St. Louis, a town that used to hate him when he played for division rival Houston. But with St. Louis grudges are erased the second the red cap is worn, and Berkman himself was more than ready to oblige for a chance at a ring. The game entered the Bottom of the 6th leading 4-3, when the first of oh so many questionable decisions were made by one of the central figures, the man who would most emulate a clown in this Greek tragedy of a night, Ron Washington.

Despite having a visibly tiring Colby Lewis pitching, Washington waited until he walked the bases loaded before pulling him for Alexi Ogando, a far cry from a great relief pitcher. The rest of the inning played out with two more walks (the first scoring the tying run), a wild pitch and Matt Holliday getting picked off. Somehow this was not even close to the craziest inning in this incredible game.

The Rangers had lost the 2010 World Series, a quick five-game affair to the San Francisco Giants that was not really close at any point. They showed great resolve by having a better season than the year before and going right back into the World Series. They stood one game away from winning it, and after walking and wild-pitching their way to blowing a lead, they led off the Top of the 7th the only way they knew how, with back-to-back home runs by Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz. They added a third run in the inning for good measure, to take a 7-4 lead with nine outs to go. That should have been enough. It wasn't close.

Ron Washington next called on starter Derek Holland, who quickly went through the 7th, but then gave up a home run to Allen Craig in the 8th to cut it to 7-5. Still, no need to panic. Everything was going according to plan. The Cardinals had the meat of the order in the 9th, but the Rangers could counter with flamethrower Neftali Feliz. The first batter struck out, and Albert Pujols came to the plate. From that moment on, the game would enter all-time crazy territory, something not matched until the late innings of Game 7 of last year's series.

Pujols doubled (his last hit as a Cardinal). Berkman walked. Feliz got Craig with a strikeout, and the Cardinals were down two, down to their last out, with David Freese batting. They got down to their last strike. The last time a team was one-strike away from winning the world series and ended up losing was the Buckner game. This would be nearly as harrowing. Freese got a pitch outside and lofted a well-hit fly ball to right field. Nelson Cruz is not a good fielder, and his circuitous route to the ball was a step too slow. The ball bounced off the base of the wall. Pujols scored easily. Berkman, not the fleetest of foot, got right behind him. The game was tied. New Busch stadium was rocking. The Cardinals 'magic' did it once again.

Again, this game wasn't close to over and at this point it already was a genuine classic. The Cardinals have long been known as the Yankees of the NL, a hateable blue-blood of a team way to full of itself. They still had Tony LaRussa as manager, a hagiographic figure who got his DUI swept under the rug as a leader of men. But at this moment, it wasn't too crazy to believe it. Sure, Cardinals magic didn't help them in the 2004 World Series, wouldn't help them in their 2012 & 2014 NLCS losses, but just like it made the Tigers pitchers field like little leaguers in 2006, it made Nelson Cruz inhibit his worst quality (defense) at the worst time. But still, a half-inning later, the Cardinals were right back where they were before - down 2, because for a moment, it seemed God had different plans.

Josh Hamilton had a bad playoffs in 2011. He was still a good player at this point, but he embodied his craziest, high-swing tendencies in that series. Most of the time it didn't work. In his at-bat in the Top of the 10th, it did. Hamilton took Jason Motte's first delivery and launched it. Hamilton more than maybe any player in recent times, was a true Greek tragic figure. A prospect with more natural talent than anyone ever, who saw his career derailed in a never-ending spiral of drugs and alcohol. He was spared, somehow, given a second chance by the Reds in 2007, and then really by the Rangers in 2008. He, a good 9 years after being drafted, finally showed that promise, that Mickey Mantle-like talent. He was the league's MVP in 2010, leading the AL in BA, OBP and SLG. He was a udonis like figure but also the phoenix rising from the ashes. This was his moment. You felt then the Cardinals were allowed to tie the game just so Hamilton could have this moment.

But no, Cardinals magic and Ron Washington's mismanagement conspired to lose another two-run lead, and the Cardinals tied the game again after being down to their last strike again. The Rangers had never won a World Series, and were on two separate occasions down to their last strike. First it was Freese's double. Next it was Lance Berkman's game tying single.

This all led up to the Bottom of the 11th, in what had become a 9-9 game. Mark Lowe, the Rangers 8th pitcher of the game, took the mound against David Freese, the man who what seemed like a century ago brought the game to extra innings in the first place. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Freese rocked the pitch to the deepest part of the ballpark, but from the instant it left his bat, everyone knew it was deep enough. It landed softly in the grass beyond the centerfield wall. Joe Buck, a man who grew up in the Cardinals program with his dad being their long-time commentator, saved his best for that moment. With no delay, he let out a perfect 'we will see you tomorrow night!' - the same line his dad used 20 years earlier during the last great Game 6, when the Twins and Kirby Puckett forced the World Series to a final game.

It was a perfect, storybook, dramatic coda to a brilliant moment in baseball history. The Cardinals would win a close, if uneventful, Game 7, but if anything that amplified the importance and drama of this game. Game 6 was the series, it was baseball at its finest. None of those events made sense, but put together it was something only baseball could deliver. That it happened on one of the the sports great stages, with tragic and dramatic figures like Josh Hamilton, Ron Washington, Lance Berkman, Tony LaRussa and David Freese, the unexpected hero, just made it a special moment in the great tapestry that is baseball.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.