The madness has passed for another year…

 

Final Four, San Antonio 2004.

Final Four, San Antonio 2004.

Masha

I don’t know why I care. I don’t usually watch college basketball. I was never a big fan of basketball growing up – I was terrible playing the game, the Utah Utes were not a major force while I was at university, and the Utah Jazz had not become a reality during my childhood. We don’t watch pro basketball on a regular basis, partially for reasons Pat explained yesterday. So in terms of sports fandom, basketball just isn’t there for me.

But I do care. I love March Madness. I loved it even before Pat and I were invited to attend the Final Four in San Antonio many years ago. But that did it – attending the games live was an amazing experience and we were very lucky to be invited. The games were nail-biters. There were Cinderella teams that made an impact on the Final Four. All the excitement and drama of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was on display for everyone’s enjoyment. The hoopla surrounding the event shut down downtown San Antonio. The Riverwalk was full of jerseys and team mascots. It threw me over the line of sanity and brought me into full raging, rabid, bloodshot-eyed madness. I was the person you couldn’t call on Thursday – that’s right. I didn’t answer the phone because the games were on. I listened to the commentators. I cried when teams I picked won. I cried when teams I picked lost. I was mad; Mad Hatter, white-rabbit, over-the-top mad.

I dutifully fill out my bracket each year. I study the teams as though I’ve been watching the games all season. I base my decisions on all the noise coming from ESPN, FoxSports, and this year, NBC Sports Network. I study the injuries. I look at the coach’s records. I listen to their interviews. I listen to the players and watch their faces for any nerves. I predict Cinderella wins. I scribble in favorite’s losses. I build a bracket each year that I believe will reach perfection.

And I wait. I wait for the hammer to fall and crush my bracket to smithereens. And of course, I am rewarded with the arrival of the Mercers and North Dakota States. I watch as my bracket app fills with red rather than green. I watch my points and percentages go down. My PPR drops like a rock. And I marvel that at this tournament, in this setting, the little guy really can defeat the giant.

That’s what makes this tournament so riveting, even for those of us who are not invested in college basketball. The shockers. The incredible, last-second wins by a team who just barely made it into the dance and who should be down by 25 points to the big-budget, perfect-record team. It makes my heart warm that Underdog really does exist, at least in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

 

HOW I RELATE TO SPORTS

Can't understand how he stays on his feet...

Can’t understand how he stays on his feet…

Pat

I can’t believe it took me ’til age sixty to figure out why I love some sports and why I am not as interested in others. Through all the years, I just never got very interested in hockey and I finally realized that since I have never even been on a pair of ice skates, I really could not relate to how difficult it is to do what hockey players do. Likewise, as a kid I had asthma and couldn’t really play basketball. Running up and down that court just didn’t work for me so played very little basketball as a kid. Later in life I played some pick-up two-on-two or three-on-three games a local gym and enjoyed it as part of my work-out schedule. I wasn’t great at it, but I picked up outside shooting and ball movement. I’m 5′ 11″, not optimum for basketball, but neither were the guys I was playing with.  So that is probably why I enjoy college basketball way better than the pro game.

I did play baseball and football and was pretty good at both. Later I got into tennis and golf.  These are the main sports I love. I totally understand what it takes field a ground ball and make the throw. How hard it is to hit a baseball. I also get all the strategy involved in the game of baseball. When to steal a base and when the pitcher needs to come out due to pitch count. The same goes for football. I have run a pass route and defended a pass receiver, studied the game enough while playing it to understand play calling both offensive and defensive. So when I watch I do understand what they are doing and understand how difficult it is to do. Golf and tennis is the same. I have played them enough to get what they are doing and why.

So that is why Baseball, Football, Tennis and golf are my favorite games to watch and follow.  I am still playing golf and I hope to play more tennis when my ailing knee gets stronger.  Believe me, I do understand how hard it is to make that perfect golf shot. I make very few of them but really enjoy it when I do. I truly understand how good those pro golfers really are. So if I understand what it takes to play a sport and understand and enjoy the strategies of the game, I love the sport. That’s what it has taken me sixty years to understand.

Pre season picks – 6, American League West

Pat

The final division to pick is the American League West. It may be the toughest one to pick. I feel that almost every team in this division has improved from last year. I don’t see the Mariners improving enough to take the division, but I do see them having a better season and making the West division very competitive. I’ve got the Rangers taking the division with the Angels and A’s fighting for Wild Cards. Only one of them will get the wild card. I would pick the Angels. The Mariners will finish a close fourth while making positive progress to becoming a good baseball team.

The Astros will finish last in this division, but they too will make progress toward being a much better club than they are now. This will be a very fun division to watch in 2014.  Everybody will improve making the divisional games very competitive. As bad as the Angels looked last year, I see Albert Pujols having a much better year and this whole club coming together to go after a wild card. I find it amazing that Billy Ball is alive and well in Oakland.  It is fun to see this team compete every year.

Masha

I agree that the Rangers will take the division this year, but I think the Mariners will improve enough to knock the A’s out of contention. I believe the Mariners will take the Wild Card. The Mariners have made some astounding moves over the off season, Robinson Cano is just the tip of the iceberg. And I believe Lloyd McClendon is a good enough manager to pull this talent together. Mike Scioscia will be fired by the Angels after yet another disappointing season full of injuries; with apologies to my cousin the Angels fan…

Blurred Bracket Lines

Unknown 

It has begun. My eyes are red and sandy from staring. My caloric intake is all substances within easy reach of the couch. My thumb is sore from switching back and forth between TNT and CBS. I’m sounding a bit like Charles Barkley. What does it all mean? March Madness is in full swing.

As I stare at my bracket, currently sitting at 99.8% and hanging on a win by Duke (not a guarantee from the way I’m seeing Mercer play…), the lines are blurry. Didn’t see Oklahoma coming, but called all the other upsets, so I’m feeling pretty cocky right now about my bracket – I just can’t see it very well! And as a sidebar, I’m beating Pat’s bracket pretty handily… just saying.

Pat

Yeah, she always kicks my butt on our brackets.  As much as I love March Madness, I just don’t watch much college basketball during the regular season.  So my bracket is based on who I like or who I want to win rather than who is really the best team.  But, from what I am seeing right now this is going to be a tournament of upsets.  WOW!

Pre season picks – 5; American League Central

Brad Ausmus announced as Manager of the Detroit Tigers. Photo by Paul Sancya, AP.

Brad Ausmus announced as Manager of the Detroit Tigers. Photo by Paul Sancya, AP.

Pat

The American League Central is next and should be an interesting division this year.  Cleveland and KC would love to knock Detroit off the pedestal in the AL East. I think all  three of these teams are contenders this year. Detroit has been winning the division but not getting to the World Series. They would love to get there this year, and could possibly do it. Cleveland is a solid team under Francona and will contend for the division this year. KC looks strong with very strong pitching and have improved offensively with Infante at second.

I’m not sure how much of an effect a new manager is going to have on the Tigers. It’s a veteran club, so I think I am going to pick the Tigers to win this division once again. But I do think it will be a tight race with KC coming in second and contending for a wild card. Cleveland is also going to contend in this division, which will make these divisional games a lot of fun. I do think the Twins will improve this year, but not quite enough to contend and I believe will end up in fourth with the White Sox bringing up the rear. It will be a great division to watch and I think KC and Cleveland with battle down to the last game for a wild card.

Masha

We don’t agree as much on the American League outcomes as with the National League. I think the Tigers are a great team, but will see some transitions with aging players and a new manager. Brad Ausmus should be great, but it will take some time to gel; I think they’re going to miss Leyland for a while. Now, Terry Francona at the Indians is moving into his second year there and I think this is their year to shine. So I have the Indians at the top, KC and Detroit battling it out for second and third, Twins in fourth, and, sorry Robin, White Sox at the bottom.

This is a great division because there are some exceptional managers here. Ron Gardenhire has always impressed me in the past by doing a lot with very few dollars. The Twins have struggled the last few years, but it may be time for a break out year; it’s time to shine in that new field. Tito has a particular way of managing and it could be the softer side of Francona will work well for the Indians – that’s  a team that could rival some of their big years in the 80s. Ned Yost has always been a strong manager, although I’d love to know why he was fired from the Brewers with a few weeks left in the season in 2008. There has to be a great story there – I’ve made up a few myself. But he and George Brett seem to have something cooking in Kansas City and I think it’s just about ready. They had a huge, late-season surge last year and just barely missed the playoffs. I think they’ll do it this year.

Jim Harbaugh’s new training method?

Jim Harbaugh and Siku the Walrus at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in California.

Jim Harbaugh and Siku the Walrus at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in California.

How do I not post this? Among the things I thought I would see Jim Harbaugh do, push-ups with a walrus never crossed my mind. Hysterical… Happy St. Patrick’s Day. I’m sure there’s a connection somewhere. 2200 pounds – that’s how much the walrus weighs, so it’s also brave/stupid? And one last thing – walrus breath has to be amazingly, um, fishy?

Pre season predictions 4

images

Buck Showalter introduced as Orioles Manager in July 2010; courtesy Fox Sports

Pat

Here we go with the AL spring training picks for the 2014 season. I am not really sure who the strongest division in the American League is, so I will just go ahead and start with the AL East. In the past, this division was always considered the strongest in the AL, with the Yankees and Red Sox spending lots of money and everybody else chasing them. This year, the West looks pretty strong. I can’t see the Red Sox repeating this year and the Yankees will  probably play better than they look although I can’t see them really contending for the division. The Rays have contended the past several years with a tiny payroll, a testament to Joe Madden.

But this year I see the division going to the Orioles. I think they finally have the confidence under Buck Showalter to seal the deal in the AL East. I know this crazy, but despite a terrible home stadium and bad fan support, I have the Tampa Bay Rays taking second place and contending for a wild card spot. Third is the Red Sox, a game or two back of Tampa Bay still possibly contending for the second wild card. Then comes the Yankees in fourth, a couple of games behind Boston. I see only three or four games between first and fourth in the AL East.  Then of course bringing up the rear is Toronto a few games back of the Yankees, improving some but not enough to contend.

I see the Red Sox falling due to age and injury. I can’t see the pitching holding up without major injuries and the offense is aging and their youth not quite ready to take the reins. The Yankees’ pitching can’t hold up and without A-Rod they have a couple of very good players and a bunch of journeymen, not enough to contend in this division.

Masha

OK, I have to say it – there is no way the Orioles take the division, not if history tells us anything. Let’s take a look at Buck Showalter’s history as a manager. With the Yankees, he fell apart in the third year – and they won the World Series the next year; with the Diamondbacks, he fell apart in the third year – and they won the World Series the next year; with the Rangers, he fell apart in the fourth year, (sorry Texas, no World Series). Yes, he wins the Manager of the Year awards; he’s a good short-term manager. But he was hired by the Orioles as manager in July  2010, and I’m thinking this is the year his curse sets in. So, I don’t agree with Pat; the Orioles don’t win the AL East. I believe the Red Sox and the Rays are going to fight it out, with the Rays coming in second. Then Orioles third, Yankees fourth, and, Oh Canada, Toronto last.

Pondering the American League

Rockies vs. Cardinals, Coors Field

Pat

So I’ve finished picking my favorites in the National League for the upcoming 2014 season. Now it’s time to pick the American League. As I study the depth charts for AL teams, I find that I don’t know these players as well as I know the NL players. Why is this? Well, I am a national league guy. I live in a national league city with the Colorado Rockies. I was raised in St. Louis and am still a huge Cardinal fan. But come on, I have the MLB package on Direct TV and I can watch any game I want and in fact every game if I want to. But I don’t watch much of the American League. Why is that, really?

I’ll tell you why. It’s not as good as national league baseball. There are fewer close games, and it’s way less strategic than an NL game, so it’s just less compelling to watch and follow. Why is that? The designated hitter. You know it’s cheating, right? They use ten players in a game instead of nine. I still can’t believe major league baseball allowed the American League change the rules just for their league. Can you imagine the AFC conference in the NFL wanting a more offensive conference by changing the rules to allow twelve players on offense just for the AFC? The NFL would never allow it. I still wonder what baseball was thinking when they allowed this happen. I read an article recently about how the NL should just go ahead and institute the DH. Man, I hope that never happens.

When my wife and I are at a Rockies game or watching a game on TV, we discuss strategy all the time. So you think they will bunt in this situation? How about a suicide squeeze to take the lead here or should they go for the big inning? With a change to break the game open, should they pinch hit for the pitcher or keep him in the game since he’s still pitching well? These are all decisions the AL manager does not have to think about. They are important managerial decisions that can change the game in the NL, making the NL game a lot more fun to watch.

I snuck onto my soap box, and here I go again. I don’t think the AL will ever get rid of the DH, but it is my sincere hope that the NL never adopts this rule. The DH makes baseball a worse game in my humble opinion. I will never watch as many AL games as I do the NL because it’s just not as compelling to me. But, next blog I will go ahead and make my AL picks for the 2014 season.  I just won’t care quite as much.

Masha

I too was raised a National League fan. I too hate the DH, but for slightly different reasons than Pat, or maybe additional reasons. My problem with the DH, and the reason that many of my friends love the DH is because it reduces baseball to hitting. Only hitting. Big home runs, big hitters, big bats. You score more than the other team and you win. Yes, that’s the basis for baseball, but not the only compelling thing about it. And hitting the white ball is not the only thing going on in a major league baseball game, or shouldn’t be.

I love a pitcher’s duel. There is greatness in the crafty left-hander fooling a big hitter. Some of the best baseball games I’ve ever attended have been 1-0 games, with two amazing pitchers on the mound doing a great job. The games also went quickly (one of the arguments for the DH I’ve heard), and no one threw over 100 pitches. But in the NL, the pitcher has to be more than just the guy throwing the ball. He has to be able to make contact, even if it’s just a bunt. The teams that do well in the NL have great hitting pitchers. Hang on here, *sigh*, this is just going to feed into Pat’s baseball ego, but the Cardinals are one of those teams and their record shows it. If your pitcher can hit reasonably well in addition to pitching a great game, the game takes on an additional layer of strategy. Do I leave this guy in because he’s batting .278, better than the pinch-hitter I might slot in for him, even though he’s got 98 pitches?

Fans of the DH will argue that it’s the very rare pitcher who can hit well and that a pitcher is usually a guaranteed out. As a baseball fan, I’ve seen pitchers surprise everyone, including himself, by getting a seeing-eye single when the team needed it most. And that moment of surprise is worth more than 3 homeruns to me.

So take your big hitters, American League, and leave me to my hitting pitchers. I prefer strategizing whether I should bunt here, or wondering why my manager is leaving this pitcher in, to watching a small white ball sail over a fence. It’s just more interesting to me.

Rashard Mendenhall – A Fond Farewell

Masha

Rashard Mendenhall announced his retirement yesterday. Among the free agents that would have been very popular in today’s free agency, Rashard has made an impact for both the Steelers and the Cardinals. He has a Super Bowl ring from Super Bowl XLIII. His college career was stellar. And now he’s retiring at 26 yeas old.

ESPN’s football experts have expressed shock that a 26-year-old would retire. Twitter went crazy. And I’m blogging about it. And I think I’m one of the few that admires Rashard’s decision. I’ve linked his announcement so you can read for yourselves, but I think Rashard is retiring for all the right reasons.

He’s accomplished everything anyone could dream of in football, including the difficult-to-attain Super Bowl ring. He’s a talented writer who has filled his life with other interests, along with football. He’s now following a dream of his to become a writer. Good for him, he’s following the advice of every business person on the speaker’s tour – do what you love and you’ll love what you do. He doesn’t love football anymore, he likes it. It sounds like he’s always “liked” football. But he loves writing. He’s going to write.

So bravo to Rashard for deciding to follow his heart. May we all be so lucky.

“Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” — Confucius

Rashard Mendenhall retirement announcement

Pre-season predictions 3

Pat

And finally, we have the NL East. This one is a tough pick. The Braves took the division without any challenge at all last year. I don’t think that will happen this year. In fact, I am going to pick the Washington Nationals to win this division. Injuries killed the Nats last year and just looking at the depth chart, I feel they have a better starting pitching rotation and the bull pens about even. I also think that the Nats’ offense is stronger than the Braves this year. So I do think that the Braves will take second and contend for a wild card birth. That puts Arizona, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta challenging for 2 wild card slots.

I think the Phillies will play a little bit better than they did last year, but only good enough for third place in the East. They need to stay healthy and pitch way better than they did last year. That puts the Mets in fourth place in the division although I do see improvements with them. Not quite ready to contend, but they seem to be heading in the right direction.  Obviously the Marlins are bringing up the rear, as they were last year. I can’t quite see what direction the Marlins are going; we’ll have to see how well their young players perform this year.

So to recap the National League. I have the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Nationals winning the divisions. The Pirates, Diamondbacks and Braves will contend for the two wild card spots.  It’s always fun to see how many I get right. It’s hard to pick this early, but it’s also a fun exercise.