Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Checking in with the Cubs: A Brutal Seventh

What a rough outing for the Cubs! Though really, it was just a rough seventh inning as the Astros scored all six of their runs in one frame. Final score: 6-1.

Leadoff Watch

Tyler Colvin did account for the Cubs' only run of the night, hitting a solo homer to lead off the ninth. He went 2-for-4 on the night, the other hit being a double.

All Part of My Fantasy

Once again, I have to confess that it was one of mine who did most of the damage. Grand-slam-hitting Astro Lance Berkman (first baseman) is one of my fantasy players and I very sensibly played him tonight.

While we're at it, I must congratulate Matt Garza (starting pitcher, Rays), another of my charges, on his no-hitter last night!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Checking in with the Cubs: Down in 11

'Twas another extra-inning heart breaker tonight as the Cubs fell to the Cards 4-3 in 11. Once again there were opportunities with a runner on third in the late innings. Once again, the Cubbies just couldn't make it happen.

Leadoff Watch

Tyler Colvin went 1-for-5 at the plate and, more to the point, 1-for-2 in steal attempts. There was talk among the ESPN commentators that he's a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year in the National League. Don't get me wrong, he's a good player but he's just not a leadoff man. Job description: get on base, steal second or get to third on a single, score the run. The Cubs don't have a guy like that. It's not Colvin's fault. With his numbers, he should be, and eventually will be, hitting in a different spot. If the Cubs make a deal before the deadline, I hope they will address this desperate need - at least in the form of a prospect for the future.

All Part of My Fantasy

The silver lining for me in tonight's game is the fact that Cardinals third baseman Felipe Lopez hit the winning home run. Lopez, you see, is on my fantasy team. And, I only played him today because Ryan Zimmerman (Nationals), my usual man at third, got the day off.

The Dan Haren D'backs-to-Angels deal should also be a good one for me. It hasn't been such a great year thus far for the pitcher but moving to a better team should help him get some wins. Plus, given that he now plays for a team which scores loads of runs and is in the American League where he won't have to hit, he should be able to pitch later into games, thus getting more strikeouts.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

All Part of My Fantasy: Power Leading Off

Week: July 18-24
Current Standing: 2nd out of 12
My Player of the Week: Rickie Weeks (Second Baseman, Brewers) with 4 home runs, 7 RBI, 9 runs, 1 stolen base and a .346 batting average

Four homers in a week is impressive for anyone. Getting them from your leadoff second baseman is highly unusual. Weeks has been one of the hottest players in baseball this month. The Brewers have won three in a row as well.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Checking in with the Cubs: Culinary Expertise?

My Wife and I have an ongoing argument as to whether or not the Cubs and Cardinals have a long-standing rivalry. I, as a sports fan, say they do. She, as a long-time Chicago resident, claims they don't. I am proud to say that the folks at WGN, at least, are backing me up on this one.

Friday is My Wife's day to work from home and she listened in as I watched a bit of today's game. We were both very amused by the Chicago Cubs Cookbook. Of course, we made the obvious jokes: "Step 1: open a beer" or "My Favorite Power Shake." But the book and the charity it benefits are quite real. Check it out.

Leadoff Watch

Not only does Tyler Colvin have a chicken broccoli casserole recipe to share with you, but he hit a home run today. He went 1-for-3 on the day plus a walk.

My Favorite Athlete: Red Cross Level 1

Our Girl passed Red Cross Level 1 at her swim lessons today. She takes her lessons in the backyard pool of a neighborhood woman, Swim Coach, who's been doing it for 30 years. Needless to say, Swim Coach has it down to an art form. Her instruction is very age-appropriate and she brings good humor to her process. Much like soccer camp, her lessons are a must-do in our community for kids of the relevant age.

Not all of the kids in Our Girl's class were doing Level 1 - there were some pre-schoolers, too. Swim Coach does a lot of little things to help the younger kids get comfortable: songs and other rituals, including body paint before they wash off to get in the pool:

As I mentioned in my skating post, Our Girl tends to do well in a situation when she is the oldest kid and that was certainly the case this week. She has, quite recently, become a pretty strong swimmer. All credit goes to Grandma for that. We were in DC for a week recently and Grandma took her to Wilson Aquatic Center everyday. I was taking a class and thus couldn't go along except for one day so reports of her progress came second-hand. Grandma -- a one-time swim instructor herself, as it turns out -- was very impressed with Our Girl's determined efforts to improve.

Our Girl's a real pro with the kick board at this point:

She even did it on her back unaided today:

Each of the past two days, there was practice in the deep end with life vests:

Afterward, a well-earned rest:

I'm hoping we'll have some more opportunities to practice before the summer's out. Once again, Our Girl was sad when it was all over. Quite an improvement from the last time we tried this! She'll be eager for Level 2 next year.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Checking in with the Cubs: Painful to Watch

Well, as 12-inning games go, that Astros-Cubs match-up today was not exciting. Instead, it was painful. And it was exemplary of the Cubs problems scoring runs. Three innings in a row, they had the walk-off run on third with one out and they couldn't get it done. "Yes," My Wife said, "welcome to being a Cubs fan."

Keeping an eye on the leadoff hitter situation, Tyler Colvin was 0-for-6 with a walk today - not exactly inspiring.

Of course, the big news for the Cubs is that manager Lou Piniella is retiring at the end of the season. My Wife asked me last night if she should be upset about that, barely devoted Cubs fan that she is. I guess the conclusion I have to come to is yes. In the three seasons before this one, the Cubs finished 1st, 1st and 2nd in their division. That represents the club's best run since the '30s. Piniella isn't the only reason for that success but he deserves a great deal of credit. Of course, this year hasn't been so great but that's closer to par for the Cubs. The man turns 67 next month, a perfectly reasonable age to hang it up. The question, naturally, is who's next?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Checking in with the Cubs: Rolling Tonight

As explained in previous posts, the Chicago Cubs are my National League team thanks to My Wife. Through the magic of WGN, they're also on TV in Vermont far more often than the Orioles. They had a great night tonight, having tagged Phillies ace Roy Halladay for six runs, five of them earned. Final score: 11-6, Chicago wins.

It's been a rough year for the Cubs. They began the day 10 games out of first in their division. They've come out of the All-Star break strongly, though, having now won three out of four in their series with the Phillies. Just as was the case last year, speed on the base paths is a weakness. Finding a strong and consistent leadoff hitter would help their cause a great deal. Left fielder Tyler Colvin did a respectable job in the role this evening: 3 for 5 with 2 runs scored.

On the Coffee Table: Larry Tye

The story of Satchel Paige is, by any measure, one of the very best in baseball. Larry Tye's Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend provides a balanced look at the life of the legendary pitcher. To be sure, all of the apocryphal myths are included but Tye did extensive research (the bibliography is 35 pages long!) to separate fact from fiction. I certainly finished the book convinced that Paige is one of baseball's all-time best pitchers, indeed one of the 20th century's most extraordinary athletes.

Of course, the Satchel Paige story is just the tip of the iceberg in the larger saga of Negro League baseball and the eventual and long-overdue integration of the Major Leagues. If anything, I am now eager to learn more about the generations of players who were locked out of the bigs. The very least the baseball world owes them is to tell their stories and tell them well. Therefore, I am grateful for the many books which have been published on the subject in recent years.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Satchel Paige story in the broader baseball view is the very different perspective on Jackie Robinson. Previously, I did not fully appreciate the well-justified resentment which Paige and many of his contemporaries felt towards Robinson, an unproven talent at the time of his ascent to integration icon. Not only were more accomplished players, Paige foremost among them, better qualified as baseball talents but Robinson's irreverent attitude towards the Negro Leagues was well-known. In the end, of course, Robinson certainly proved himself worthy, being named National League MVP in 1949. Paige made the most of his opportunities in the Majors once he finally made it, too. But one does feel the painful sting of historical injustice for Satch.

A great read.

All Part of My Fantasy: All-Star Week

Week: July 11-17
Current Standing: 2nd out of 12
My Player of the Week: Adrian Gonzalez (First Baseman, Padres) with 2 home runs, 3 RBI, 6 runs and a .455 batting average

Gonzalez was also an All-Star, making his 3rd appearance in the midsummer classic. My player who had the most exciting week, however, was Braves catcher Brian McCann, whose game-winning 3-run double in the seventh inning of the All-Star Game earned him the game's MVP award. All-Star Game stats don't count in fantasy baseball but hats off to McCann nonetheless.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Following Up: All-Star Game

Heath Bell (P, Padres) is also one of my fantasy players in the All-Star Game this evening - another National Leaguer, of course.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

South Africa 2010: The Team of Destiny

Spain has seemed the team of destiny for the past three years and it's wonderful to see the national dream come to fruition. I thought it was a great game, even if the commentators didn't think so. I found the action quite gripping towards the end. I am a little sad for the Dutch but there's always next time. Diego Forlan is certainly a worthy Golden Ball recipient though I still see Sneijder as the favorite for Player of the Year.

I shall miss the World Cup. It's been a great tournament, even with the low scores. One team, of course, has already qualified for 2014: Brazil as hosts. I look forward to watching the rest of the field unfold.


All Part of My Fantasy: O's on the Rise?

Week: July 4-10
Current Standing: 2nd out of 12
My Player of the Week: Nick Markakis (Right Fielder, Orioles) with 2 home runs, 5 RBI, 8 runs, 1 stolen base and a .387 batting average

I can hardly express how exciting it is to feature an Oriole in this space! Amazingly, the team's on a 3-game winning streak as well. They still have the worst record in the Majors but a glimmer of hope is always welcome.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

On the Coffee Table: L. Jon Wertheim

Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played is L. Jon Wertheim's account of the men's final at Wimbledon 2008. It was, indeed, a magnificent match and certainly worthy of study but Wertheim goes far beyond the court to address the back stories of both players and tangential narratives exploring the many factors which shape modern tennis. If you're looking for a quick summer read, this is it. I finished it in four days.

Wertheim has been an essential part of the tennis experience for me. I think it's fair to say that he has done as much as any player to draw me into the tennis world. His weekly mailbag at SI.com has been a must-read for me ever since the summer of 2002 when Sampras lost in the second round at Wimbledon. As a result, he has been my guide throughout the Federer-Nadal era. He's a wonderfully engaging writer and his love for tennis is infectious. I have learned a great deal about the sport from reading his columns. His conversational tone makes me feel like I'm sitting with him at a dinner party and his book is written in much the same spirit.

My favorite parts of the book were the back stories of Federer and Nadal. Before reading it, I knew a lot more of the Federer story than the Nadal story. I suppose that's to be expected as Federer has been the protagonist of the tennis saga for quite a few years. Now that Nadal is likely to stay at #1 for a while, I imagine we'll all get to know his story better.

Now, if I were Mr. Wertheim's editor, I would respectfully request that he clean up the run-on sentences, particularly in the book's introduction. But most of the book is so elegantly written that it hardly matters. He does write about other sports, too, but I hope we'll see more tennis books from him in the future.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

South Africa 2010: The Semis

Two for two for me - excellent! I'm sticking with Spain in the final, though I think the Dutch can give them a lot more trouble in the midfield than the Germans did. Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder has to be the favorite for best player of the tournament, regardless of what happens in the final. And really, he should be a lock at this point for World Player of the Year. In addition to his exploits here, his club team, Inter Milan, won its league and its cup tournament in Italy and the European Champions League.

So finally, the Spanish or the Dutch will win the World Cup. An old seafaring rivalry is renewed!

As long as we're making picks, I say Germany wins the third place game.

Monday, July 5, 2010

On the Coffee Table: John Feinstein

I am completely sold on the Patriot League.

I have just finished The Last Amateurs by John Feinstein, another book lent to me by one of the P.E. teachers at school. The book is a one-year study of men's basketball in the Patriot League, at the time of publication a seven-team Division I league of academics-first colleges: Army, Navy, Holy Cross, Colgate, Lehigh, Lafayette and Bucknell. Feinstein makes the case that these seven institutions, along with the Ivy League schools and the Air Force Academy are the only Division I colleges that can be said to have true student-athletes. I, for one, am convinced.

As much as I enjoy college sports, I cannot deny that hypocrisy and corruption are rampant. With so much money involved and the athletes not seeing any of it beyond their scholarships, at least not legitimately, problems are inevitable. Add to that the fact that otherwise under-qualified students are admitted to institutions of higher learning to be exploited for their athletic talents with little care as to whether or not they receive anything approaching an education and the whole system seems a joke. But in his book, Feinstein profiles an entire league where the student part of student-athlete is taken very seriously and I found myself rooting for all of them. As a result, the Army-Navy football game and the Patriot League basketball tournament final are both on my must-watch list for next year.

I feel the book was at its best in the beginning, as the league concept and all of the coaches and players are introduced, and at the end as the story wraps up. The middle is certainly well-written but there is a one-game-after-another feel to it and keeping track of everyone is challenging. That said, I found myself growing quite fond of the various characters. My favorite was Holy Cross's Chris Spitler. He was, by his own reckoning, always the last player on the bench. One learns, of course, that his importance to his team is far greater than he lets on. But his sense of humor about his role is highly endearing.

The epilogue ends with the 2000-01 season. A lot has changed since the book was published. American University has become league member #8. Also, all league members now give at least some athletic scholarships - not part of the vision in the beginning. I wonder if the character of the league has changed as a result. I certainly hope not - or at least not much.

Without a doubt, The Last Amateurs is a great read. Particularly if you're looking for glimmers of decency in the sports world, I highly recommend it.

The Long Trail Project: Laraway Lookout

The latest post from My Wife's blog, Wikes! Hikes on the Long Trail:

Hike #2 - Laraway Lookout

Sunday, July 4, 2010

All Part of My Fantasy: My Wimbledon Brackets

Thanks to Nadal and Murray, I finished respectably in the top 33% for my men's bracket. My women's bracket, on the other hand, was a disaster: bottom 9%. That's what I get for underestimating Serena!

All Part of My Fantasy: My All-Stars

Four members of my fantasy team have been named to the All-Star Game:

Josh Hamilton (OF, Rangers) - starter
Jonathan Broxton (P, Dodgers)
Brian McCann (C, Braves)
Adrian Gonzalez (1B, Padres)

Wimbledon Day 13: Berdych

Curtain Call

Player: Tomas Berdych
Nation: Czech Republic
Age: 24
Current Ranking: 13
Notable Conquests: Roger Federer (1st seed, Switzerland) and Novak Djokovic (3rd, Serbia)
Tour Page
Player Page
Today's Results: loss to Rafael Nadal (2nd, Spain) in straight sets

Let's be honest. The fact that he took out Federer and Djokovic and made the final is not the big surprise with Berdych. The surprise is that it took him this long. Berdych's always been plenty good but has long been seen as a hot-headed underachiever. He's now where his talent dictates he should be: in the top 10. Some have said it's his racket strings that have brought him recent success but for my money, it's the improved footwork. Berdych has always hit big but I always thought he looked surprisingly awkward in his movement - no more. This was his first Slam final but it's difficult to imagine it will be his last.

Hats off to Nadal - what a regal champion he is! He is now tied for 7th place on the all-time Slams list with an esteemed group including Connors, Lendl and Agassi. And he's just turned 24. He barely broke a sweat today.

All Part of My Fantasy: Weeks and Weeks

Week: June 28 - July 3
Current standing in league: 2nd out of 12
My Player of the Week: Rickie Weeks (second baseman, Brewers) with 2 home runs, 6 RBI, 4 runs, 1 stolen base and a .414 batting average

It's the second week in a row here for Weeks.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Wimbledon Day 12: Zvonareva

Curtain Call

Player: Vera Zvonareva
Nation: Russia
Age: 25
Current Ranking: 21
Notable Conquests: Yanina Wickmayer (15th seed, Belgium), Jelena Jankovic (4th, Serbia) and Kim Clijsters (8th, Belgium)
Tour Page
Player Page
Today's Results: loss to Serena Williams (1st, USA) in straight sets; loss to Vania King (USA)/Yaroslava Shvedova (Kazakhstan) in straight sets

What a brutal way to end a fantastic tournament. Zvonareva lost both the singles final and the doubles final with partner Elena Vesnina (Russia) today. As great as her singles run was, their doubles run may even be considered more impressive: taking out four seeded teams, including the top-seeded Williams sisters (USA). I am actually glad to have missed her emotional breakdown during the doubles final, though I'm constantly amazed to think that viewers would rather see a match replayed from a prior day than a live doubles match.

Catching Up with Old Friends

Jurgen Melzer (Curtain Call, Roland Garros Day 13)
- Melzer is having quite a remarkable summer. First, he makes it to the semis at the French Open, his career-best Slam performance. Next, he makes it to the fourth round in Wimbledon, his best performance here, and goes on to win the doubles title with partner Philipp Petzschner (Germany). It is the first doubles Slam title for either player.

South Africa 2010: The Quarters

Here I thought I had something special going when I picked 7 of 8 matches correctly in the Round of 16. My quarterfinal picks were just awful: only 1 of 4 correct. For what it's worth, my picks for the semis are Netherlands and Spain. I think that would be a great match-up for many reasons but mostly because they are both well overdue for a World Cup title and if they play each other, one of them would finally get to win. For the same reasons, I feel a match between 3-time champion Germany and 2-time champion Uruguay would be very disappointing.

So, of my original story lines, only Spain is left. I still say they win it.

My Favorite Athlete: Soccer Camp

Our Girl just finished a one-week soccer camp yesterday. The camp is run by Homer, father of a friend of hers. I shall call him Homer not because of any likeness with Mr. Simpson but because he is a great storyteller. One of many hats he wears is head girls' soccer coach at our local high school. He coaches at this camp in large part to foster interest in the game for his daughters and their friends. Due in no small part to his involvement, the camp has become a must on the calendar for the 4-6 year-old set in our area.

This is Our Girl's second time doing the camp. She did it two years ago and I was not at all convinced at the time that soccer was going to be a long-term interest for her. She enjoyed kicking the ball around but on the last day of camp, she wanted to stay home. It didn't help that we were doing swim lessons the same week but her resistance stood in stark contrast to her reaction to dance camp. On the first day of dance, I felt like I'd introduced her to the man she was going to marry. I had a strong feeling right away that dance was going to be a part of our lives for a long time. On the last day of that camp, she was sitting on our front steps ready to go 10 minutes before I was.

And so, we didn't pursue the idea of soccer camp with her the following year. I didn't think she really missed it until one day this past year, on the way home from school, she asked me, "Daddy, what team am I on?" Confused, I asked her to clarify and she told me that her friend (Homer's daughter) had been talking about her soccer team at school and she wanted to know what her team was. She was crushed to find out she wasn't on one! Therefore, in planning our summer, we brought the idea of soccer camp into the discussion and she was all for it.

Soccer camp is as much a gathering for the stay-at-home and home-for-the-summer parents as it is for the kids. There was, in fact, a group of moms with strollers who came every day to hang out together with their younger children. I prefer not to hover in such situations so most days, I went home. But I went for most of the last day to take photos, watch Our Girl and marvel at Homer's talents in child wrangling.

Homer also teaches the third grade and is, from everything I've seen, a highly-gifted educator. He brings a lot of creativity to coaching. For instance, if all of the kids start crowding around the ball, as is their tendency, he'll declare the ball a magnet ball and toss it out of the game in favor of a new one. To get kids to look up while they're dribbling, he holds his hands above his head for kids to shout out how many fingers he's holding up. He also plans downtime well, including snack breaks and a walk down to the river:

But when we asked Our Girl why she was looking forward to soccer camp, she said "Popsicles!" Homer very cleverly plans two popsicle breaks every day. Pavlov would be proud.

Our Girl had a great week. She was genuinely sad that yesterday was the last day so we're thinking about possibilities for the fall. According to Homer, she did well. As a teacher myself, I'm always happy just to know that she's a good listener. Any successes beyond that are a bonus. What impressed me in watching her is that she seems fairly comfortable with both feet. She definitely favors the right but doesn't shy away from the left. That was a major shortcoming for me as an athlete. I'm extremely right side-dominant. It's one of many reasons I liked playing goalie - it didn't really matter. But if she keeps practicing with both feet, she may not have those issues. But most importantly, it was great to see her having such fun with it.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Wimbledon Day 11: Benesova

Curtain Call

Player: Iveta Benesova
Nation: Czech Republic
Age: 27
Current Doubles Ranking: 27
Current Mixed Doubles Partner: Lukas Dlouhy (Czech Republic)
Notable Conquests: Mariusz Fyrstenberg (Poland)/Zi Yan (China) (8th seed)
Tour Page
Today's Result: loss to Leander Paes (India)/Cara Black (Zimbabwe) (2nd seed) in straight sets

For the first time in 2012, mixed doubles will be a medal event in tennis at the Olympics. As such, we are likely to see more mixed pairs from the same nation over the next two years. Benesova and Dlouhy had a very good run to the semifinals but succumbed to two doubles legends today in Paes and Black.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Wimbledon Day 10: Kvitova

Curtain Call

Player: Petra Kvitova
Nation: Czech Republic
Age: 20
Current Ranking: 62
Notable Conquests: Jie Zheng (23rd seed, China), Victoria Azarenka (14th, Belarus) and Caroline Wozniacki (3rd, Denmark)
Tour Page
Today's Result: loss to Serena Williams (1st, USA) in straight sets

Kvitova was also my Curtain Call for US Open Day 8. Many Grand Slam dreams end at Serena Williams's door. Kvitova's in good company. She'd never been past the first round at Wimbledon before so her ranking will sky-rocket. She should be in good position for a seed at the US Open.

Let's Talk Baseball: Bold Proposal June Standings

Following are the current standings for my bold proposal for baseball realignment. The basic idea is two divisions, upper and lower, determined by last year's final standings. The bottom three of the First Division are relegated for next year. The top two of the Second are promoted, along with the winner of a playoff between the next four.

First Division

1. Yankees (+1 from May)
1. Rangers (+11)
3. Red Sox (+5)
4. Rays (-3)
5. Braves (+1)
6. Twins (-3)
6. Cardinals (-2)
6. Dodgers (-1)
9. Angels (+5)
10. Phillies (-3)
11. Tigers (unchanged)
12. Rockies (-2)
13. Giants (-4)
14. Marlins (-1)
15. Cubs (unchanged)
16. Mariners (unchanged)

Second Division

1. Padres (unchanged)
2. Mets (+3)
3. Reds (unchanged)
4. White Sox (+3)
5. Blue Jays (-3)
6. A's (-2)
7. Brewers (+1)
8. Nationals (-2)
8. Royals (+2)
10. Diamondbacks (+1)
10. Astros (+3)
12. Indians (unchanged)
13. Pirates (-4)
14. Orioles (unchanged)

Biggest rise: Rangers

Greatest falls: Giants and Pirates

Yes, the rise of the Rangers is impressive but there's no doubt what stands out from this one. Three of the top four teams are all in one division: the AL East. No matter what happens from here on out, one of those three teams will miss the real-world playoffs.

It's worth noting that the NL West-leading Padres do, in fact, have a better record than the Rays. The Reds are also leading their division and the Mets are currently in position for the NL wild card spot. If one of my second division teams wins the World Series, I will consider this experiment a failure.

All Part of My Fantasy: June's Player of the Month

Photo from Between the Foul Poles

Player: Josh Hamilton
Team: Texas Rangers
Positions: Left Fielder/Center Fielder
Stats for the Month: 9 home runs, 31 RBI, 23 runs, 3 stolen bases and a .454 batting average

Those numbers are just crazy. Oh, and he's on a 23-game hitting streak and the Rangers are the hottest team in baseball. Previously famous for all of the wrong reasons, Hamilton is putting together an MVP-type year.