Thursday, July 27, 2006

Fallen Heroes

I feel like I just got punched in the gut. Two well-respected faces shot down within days of each other? Ouch.

Just the other day, revered ESPN announcer Harold Reynolds was inexplicably fired from the sports network for undisclosed reasons. It didn’t take long for the rumors to start flying, and the first ones to hit the wire were those of sexual harassment allegations against Reynolds.

This was disheartening to say the least. Myself, probably along with a vast majority of US population, looked upon Reynolds as one of the good guys. He delivered his baseball insight eloquently in front of the camera, and seemed to genuinely have a good time with his coworkers, often yukking it up with fellow analysts during broadcasts.

Reynolds routinely assisted with the College World Series and Little League World Series over the years, announcing the prestigious events with flair. He even stepped onto the field to coach the Little Leaguers in an exhibition game one year. Harold Reynolds is a nice man.

Or was it just a fa├žade for the camera? As the story slowly started coming to light, more and more “inside sources” were muttering the same Sexual Harassment story that many didn’t want to believe at first.

Then talk of the working atmosphere at ESPN seeped into the discussions, making matters worse. Apparently, ESPN’s main campus in Bristol, Connecticut is a pretty laid-back environment. Not to say they tolerate the mistreatment of female employees, but reports certainly make it sound like its hard to get fired there. Employees get more than one warning with instances of Sexual Harassment, and a pattern of abuse must be present in order to warrant dismissal.

That can only mean that Reynolds isn’t quite the nice guy he appears on TV. And Reynolds recently had a child with his wife, making the allegations that much more painful for everyone involved. Though many fans are hoping for a story of some sort of miscommunication on the whole matter, it doesn’t seem like its going to happen at this point.

That story is hard enough to swallow. And now this:

Floyd Landis doped.

Today, news stories pummeled the wire about Landis and his ride to glory in this year’s Tour de France. Unfortunately, they aren’t lauding his accomplishments, rather throwing dirt over his triumphs.

Drug tests of Landis’ blood after his legendary Stage 17 victory, which rocketed him from 11th place back into contention at 3rd, revealed “an unusual level of testosterone/epitestosterone.” Though rigorously denied by both Landis and his team, Phonak, he remains suspended and the Tour victory in jeopardy if he cannot prove his innocence.

Landis has requested his backup sample of blood be tested in effort to exonerate himself, but the damage may already have been done. Nine riders, including early Tour favorites Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich, were kicked out of this year’s ride for doping allegations. That list now threatens to increase by one.

This also once again sheds a disagreeable light on 7-time Tour victor Lance Armstrong, who battled constant doping allegations as well as brutal climbs throughout his historic streak. Armstrong and Landis rode together as US Postal until 2005 when Landis switched to the Swiss-based Phonak team. Whereas the Armstrong allegations, which he successfully thwarted with repeated clean tests, were thought of as simple attacks by the French government on an American rider, these latest accusations with Landis lay some credibility to it all, should he be shown guilty.

Landis excited a nation and shocked the cycling world with his incredible comeback in Stage 17. He defied the odds, overcame a seemingly insurmountable deficit, even fought through the pain and degradation of his own body, to rise to the top and claim the most coveted title in cycling.

And now it might all be a lie.

Drugs are destroying sports all around the globe. From international stars ousted from their premiere events to big baseball names linked to steroids scandals, the urge to gain an edge over the competition by any means necessary has opened countless doors to dark and depressing avenues.

It’s a sad week in the world of sports. Two heroes, forever stained with currently unverified claims of impropriety. Will they recover? Will WE recover?

The world can only hope so.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Random Musings

Josh Beckett became the first 13-game winner in the majors yesterday, outpitching Barry Zito of the Oakland A’s. Beckett went 6 innings, allowing 3 runs and striking out 4. Despite sporting a season ERA of 4.77, Beckett has scraped together a league-lead in wins thanks to some timely offense from the Red Sox. Manny Ramirez blasted a 3-run shot off Zito (who gave up 7 runs and 3 homers in 5 innings of work) in the third inning, and Alex Gonzalez and David Ortiz followed suit with solo shots. Ortiz’s home run was his 34th of the season, putting him further in the league lead.

Tonight Curt Schilling aims to even up with his teammate and earn his 13th victory of the season. Schilling pitched 7 innings of shutout ball against Oakland back on July 15 for a win.

Beckett’s victory last night kept the Sox 2.5 games in front of the Yankees, who held off the Rangers 6-2 behind Randy Johnson. The close race in the AL East, together with the recent slump of the White Sox, has made the AL Wild Card race interesting once again. As the Tigers continue to run away with the AL Central title, Chicago finds itself in a fierce battle to hold onto the top Wild Card spot over the Yankees (1.5 back), Twins (2.0), and Blue Jays (4.5). Whereas just before the All Star break everyone was all but guaranteeing a AL Central Wild Card team, the recent struggles of the White Sox (losers of 10 of their last 13) has opened the doors to all divisions.

Harold Reynolds was fired from ESPN yesterday, for reasons yet undisclosed.

Reynolds had served as an analyst and all-around reporter for the news network for 11 years after playing 12 major league seasons. Reynolds was most visible in his role as a baseball analyst, but also covered the College and Little League World Series events.

Undoubtedly the many fans of Reynolds and his work on ESPN (and on the baseball field) are eagerly awaiting the official explanation for his firing, if it is at all to come. His insight into the game, softspoken manner and playful sense of humor will be sorely missed if he in fact does not return to the network.

The new CoolFlo batting helmets that have invaded the Major Leagues is a topic this blog has covered before, mostly to complain about the “new-age” look and unnecessary performance enhancement it offers. But now, another reason has come up.

As a University of Maryland graduate, I’m no more a fan of Duke basketball than I am of shoving bamboo shoots under my fingernails for fun. So imagine my delight when I came to this realization:

The CoolFlo helmets have been modeled after the wrinkly noggin of none other than Shane Battier!

While I’m still torn on who gets the shit end of that insult, Battier or the helmets, I’m quite pleased that I was able to burn both in one breath.

Thank you, goodnight!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Make it 8

For the past 7 years, the Tour de France has been dominated by the American rider Lance Armstrong. The tenacious, and at times arrogant, Texan punished fellow cyclists throughout the Tour’s grueling stages, somehow managing to repeatedly crush the opposition during both time trials and mountain stages alike. His narrowest margin of victory was still a solid 61 seconds; his greatest over seven minutes ahead of the second-place rider.

Lance Armstrong has embodied the brutal struggle that is the Tour de France. 20 days of punishing climbs and sprints that break down even the fittest and conditioned of riders. Armstrong himself is a lesson in overcoming adversity, though, having been stricken with cancer early in his career. He decided not to let the ailment win and returned to cycling to claim his seven titles.

This year, Armstrong was not amongst the ranks at the Tour, having retired from participating in the ride through France after collecting his record-setting 7th consecutive victory at last year’s event. Armstrong’s absence opened the door for other nations and riders to take center stage in the world’s premiere cycling event, particularly the strong riders Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, who have continually lingered in Armstrong’s shadow during his incredible streak.

However, the day before the Tour was to begin, word came down that Ullrich and Basso were kicked off their respective teams due to recent connections with doping allegations. Now all bets for a Tour victor were off, and the field was wide open for the slew of eager riders to claim their first Tour win.

What developed over the course of the next 23 days was quickly touted as an instant classic in Tour history. After stage 11, Spanish rider Oscar Pereiro and American Floyd Landis traded the yellow jersey several times. Landis overcame a 1:30 gap in Stage 15 to once again adorn the coveted jersey, only to lose it back to Pereiro in Stage 16 with a collapse of monumental proportions. Landis had nothing left to give in the Stage 16 climb, and lost over 8 minutes to the leaders as his drained legs fell way off the pace. Where many were touting Landis as a strong competitor for the Tour victory, he was quickly written off after his collapse.

But Landis wasn’t about to give up that easily despite the sudden overwhelming deficit he faces. Landis was a teammate of Armstrong for three years during Armstrong’s record title streak, before splitting off to Phonak to pursue a leader’s role of his own. Those years with Armstrong not only provided valuable experience in weathering the vigors of the Tour, it also gave insight into Armstrong’s tenacity and ability to battle through every imaginable obstacle to reach your goal.

None of this was wasted on Landis.

Landis took to the roads in Stage 17, another brutal mountain stage, with sheer determination, grit, and defiance on his face. He made an early break away from the peleton, the first move to hopefully gain back some of the 8+ minutes he lost the day before.

Landis wasn’t just battling the clocks, just as Armstong fought through more physical ailments than simple fatigue. After a severe crash in 2003 in which he fractured his hip joint, Landis developed hip osteonecrosis, a condition where blood flow to the bone is decreased.

This is basically bone death, and is extremely painful. Landis underwent surgery in 2004 to increase the bloodflow to his hip, but it was only a temporary fix. During the Tour, it was announced that Landis would undergo complete hip replacement once the Tour is complete, which would more than likely cease his pain, but also end his cycling career at the same time.

Painful arthritis due to bone death. Most people find it difficult to walk with this condition; Landis was on the verge of winning his first Tour de France with it.

The ride Landis hammered out during Stage 17 goes far beyond historic; it was mythical. Being touted by his peers as the most amazing performance they’ve ever seen, Landis charged up the first category climb the peleton hit and never looked back.

He distanced himself early on, usually a bad idea avoided by season riders as the pack tends to reel in the eager breakaways with little effort. But Landis didn’t get caught, he was doing the catching.

He started the day 8:08 and mired in 11th place. Left for dead by everyone watching the Tour. No chance.

He finished the day a mere 30 seconds off first-place Pereiro’s pace. Third place overall.

With nothing more than a time-trial in Stage 19 and the customary victory lap around Paris in Stage 20, Landis was once again the favorite to don the yellow jersey in the end. And rightfully so. He dominated the time trial, overcoming the 30-second gap and vaulting himself into first place with a lead over a minute.

This all but secured him his first Tour victory. Sunday’s stage to Paris was a celebration of an incredible tour, of new faces, and a man who, like his predecessor, overcame obstacles from both inside his own body and the Tour itself. It was a Tour for the ages.

In the end, Landis was on the podium, marking the eighth American victory in a row. Next year might prove to be another epic Tour, bringing about new first-time winners and provide the emergence of more incredible stories of perseverance in the face of adversity.

But for now, the spotlight belongs to Landis.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

This Rookie’s All Right

Faced with a pitching staff decimated by untimely injuries to key starting pitchers, Boston has been scrambling to plug the holes in their rotation. Unfortunately, most of the plugs utilized haven’t withstood the test of time, and just as quick as they donned a Sox uniform, the temporary arms taking the mound have departed Fenway to suit up for another team the very next day.

One arm that is proving to be quite valuable for Boston is that of Jon Lester. The young rookie call-up has put up a 5-0 record in eight starts, the first Red Sox rookie southpaw pitcher to win his first five decisions since 1993 (Aaron Sele). In Lester’s eight starts since his callup in June, he’s held opponents to 3 runs or fewer every outing, posting a 2.38 ERA.

Last night was further example of this rising star’s ability. Lester threw eight strong innings, the longest outing in his career, surrendering only a single in the second inning. Papelbon slammed the door in the ninth for his league-leading 28th save, securing Lester’s 5th win.

With a revolving door of minor-league starters making their debuts in a Red Sox uniform this season, Lester allowed the Red Sox Nation to breathe a collective sigh of relief with his performances so far. With few more gems like the one he threw last night, Lester may start to get mention in the same breath as Papelbon for their surprising and welcomed dominance.

Lester still has some issues to work out before he can be considered a legitimate Major League hurler, however. Despite his record and ERA, he’s been plagued with walks in almost all of his starts, allowing 29 in 45 innings. While good defense has helped bail him out of jams from time to time, he’ll need to hone his control to really make an impact at this level.

But for now, Lester has been a godsend for the Sox. After starting the season with an abundance of pitching that led the front office to trade away fan favorite Bronson Arroyo, the Sox have been scrambling to nail down a solid 4th and 5th man in their rotation. And that number may bump up to include #3 starter Tim Wakefield if his back continues to ache.

So while Lester is still a far cry from the answer to all the Sox problems, he certainly has been more than adequate in filling an immediate need for quality starting pitching.

And pitching wins titles, folks.

New York kept stride with the Sox by winning their matchup with the Mariners, but only thanks to a blown call late in the game.

Trailing Seattle by a run in the bottom of the ninth with one out and one on, Jorge Posada sent a ground ball to the second baseman, who fielded it cleanly and fired to first for what should have been the second out of the inning. Instead, the first base umpire declared Posada safe, missing the fact that the ball clearly beat him to the bag by a half step. Two batters later, on a fly ball by Johnny Damon that would have been the final out in a Yankees loss, the tying run tagged up from third to send the game into extra innings. Melky Cabrera would go on to win it with a walk-off homer in the 11th.

The good news? ARod still sucks, going 0-4 in the game, including a strikeout to end the ninth. Keep up the good work, Alex!

Red Sox Captain Jason Varitek set a new team record for most games behind the plate, passing Boston legend Carlton Fisk. Tek caught his 991st game last night, eclipsing Fisk’s mark of 990.

As Tek strode to the plate in the top of the sixth inning, when the game becomes official, he received a raucous standing ovation from the Fenway crowd. Ever the humble yet gracious player, acknowledged the Fenway Faithful with a wave, sending the cheers to a new level.

The crowd had more reason to celebrate than just Tek’s new milestone as well. In the bottom of the fifth, Tek doubled and would come around to score the games only run on an Alex Gonzalez two-out single.

Oh Captain, My Captain!

The Red Sox have just completed a sweep of the Royals, taking another close 1-0 victory in a day game at Fenway. Josh Beckett pitched a great game, going 8 innings with 4 hits and 7 strikeouts. Papelbon once again recorded the save for his 29th of the season.

Manny Ramirez provided the only offense the Sox would need, blasting the first pitch he saw in the fourth inning over the Monster in left. It secured the second 1-0 victory over the Royals in as many days, and secured yet another day atop the AL East for Boston.

The Mariners are clinging to a 3-2 lead over New York in the eighth inning of their day game. A Seattle victory would pad Boston’s lead to 1.5 games over New York. But don’t get excited yet: the umpires still have a chance to swing the game in the Yankees favor.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Dougie’s Goin’ DEEP!

Doug Mirabelli might have single-handedly saved the Sox season last night.

With the offense struggling to get on base against a surprising pitching performance from Luke Hudson, who must have been channeling the likes of Tim Hudson last night, the Sox needed a three-run blast from their knuckleball catcher to pull a victory from the jaws of defeat at the hands of an MLB-worst Kansas City squad.

Mirabelli’s dreadful .195 batting average was all too prominent when he strode to the plate in the seventh inning with two men on and his team down by 3. Mirabelli worked the count to 3-1, though, and would have drew a bases-loading walk on the next pitch, which was low and outside. Not low enough, though, as home plate ump called Mirabelli back to the plate to face a full count. With the next pitch he saw, Mirabelli made his uninspiring batting average a distant memory when his shot to left-center stayed up long enough to land in the front row of the Monster seats.

Though not considered the Clutch Hitter fellow teammate David Ortiz has proven to be over the years, Mirabelli somehow manages to make the few hits he does get count, either tying games up or giving the Sox the lead. And he couldn’t have come through at a better time last night.

Boston headed into the All Star break still high from an incredible 12-game win streak which saw them sweep four straight National League teams (Braves, Nationals, Phillies and Mets). Despite losing 3 of 4 to the Devil Rays, they rebounded nicely against the defending champion White Sox and won 2 of 3. At the break, they held a comfortable 3-game lead over the Yankees.

Since then, however, the wheels have started to come off. The Sox lost 3 of 4 to an unimpressive Oakland team, and the Yankees went on to sweep Chicago to pull within a half-game of Boston in the AL East. With an early victory over Seattle last night, the Yankees had pulled even with the Sox, and waited anxiously to see if the Royals could hold on for the win.

Thankfully, Mirabelli had other plans.

Last night’s win kept the Sox mere percentage points over the Yankees for the AL East lead (the Red Sox have one more win than New York), an advantage Boston is lucky to have. With a pitching staff decimated by injuries to key players (Wells, Clement, Foulke, and now Wakefield), every win counts. That goes double when looking at how well New York has overcome extended DL stints to star players on their squad.

With Detroit and Chicago putting together amazing seasons of their own in the AL Central, it’s a sure bet that this year’s playoffs will feature a Wild Card team from elsewhere in the league than the usual East division. Only time will tell if Boston’s half-game lead will be enough to hold off New York for the remainder of the season. A late come-from-behind victory might just give them the confidence they need to bear down, weather the rough starts while the pitching staff heals, and make a mad dash for the finish line in October.

Thanks, Doug. You came through for the team yet again.

David Ortiz swiped his first stolen base in over a year last night. On a botched hit-and-run play (Trot Nixon struck out), Ortiz was scampering over to second base. Pausing to glance towards home, he realized the catcher was firing the ball to second in an attempt for a strike 'em out, throw 'em out double play. Ortiz quickly beared down, and thanks to a high throw to second, was able to sneak in under the tag. It was his first stolen base of the season, and only the sixth of his career.

Willie Harris has been sent to the minors, a fitting place for a light-hitting utility fielder who falls asleep on the basepath. Harris singlehandedly took the Sox out of two games this season, leading to two losses, which comes to two more than any pinch-runner should account for on any team.

Earlier this season, Harris made a big splash when he attempted to steal second with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with the Sox down by a run. However, Harris didn't have the steal sign and was promptly nailed at second, ending the game. More recently, Harris stepped in to pinch-run late in another close game. Instead of running through a steal sign this time around, Harris didn't even give the catcher a chance to catch him at second: Harris was snoozing at first and was picked off by the pitcher.

So long, Willie Harris. Your quick feet are no match for your slow brain. Don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

The headline of this post references one hell of a funny website about a day in the life of Doug Mirabelli. Open your mind, click the link, and enjoy the hilarity.

Dougie's Goin' Deep Tonight!