Thursday, March 31, 2011

Checking in with the Orioles: My Long-Distance Relationship

Another season is nearly upon us. Tomorrow, the Baltimore Orioles' 2011 campaign begins with both of us far from Maryland. They shall be frolicking in Tampa while I toil through yet another Vermont mud season, eager for signs of a real spring. I look forward to renewing our love affair, even at a distance.

Image via

I am not the only Orioles fan excited for the new baseball year. While 2010 was, for the most part, disastrous, the Birds burned through the last two months of the season as one of the hottest teams in the American League. We're all eager to see if the fun will continue.

For me an improvement - any improvement - on last year's .407 winning percentage would be plenty to celebrate. But let's be frank. What the club really needs is stability and in order to keep owner Peter Angelos happy with current management, more significant strides will need to be made.

A few weeks ago, Matt Trueblood of Bleacher Report provided an outline of ten things the Orioles must do to win the pennant. While a league pennant would far surpass this fan's reasonable expectations, Trueblood's assertions seem an excellent starting point for charting the team's progress over the season:

1. Brian Matusz becomes an ace.

Jeremy Guthrie is slated for the Opening Day start against the Rays, a spot usually reserved for the staff ace. But it's a long season and there's plenty of time for Matusz to emerge as the star of the rotation. Last year, he posted an ERA of 4.30, a WHIP of 1.34 and a .255 batting average against. He'll get his first start of the year in game 2 of the Tampa Bay series.

2. Koji Uehara wins the the closer role.

This is already a cause for concern. Uehara has struggled with soreness in his throwing elbow this spring. While it is still possible that he will be ready to go for tomorrow, it seems likely that newly acquired Kevin Gregg will hold down the closer role for the time being.

3. Nick Markakis elevates.

Last year, Markakis had a .297 batting average, a .370 on-base percentage and a .436 sluggling percentage. One stat, in particular, that Trueblood highlights for Markakis is his ground outs/air outs ratio: 1.28. A decline in that number would have good implications for Markakis's power game.

4. Clay Buchholz and Phil Hughes regress.

It stands to reason that for the Orioles to do better, it certainly wouldn't hurt for the rest of the AL East to decline a little. In particular, the right-handed heavy Orioles line up is vulnerable to right-handed starters.

Against Buchholz, the Orioles can only improve. The Boston righty pitched 15 innings against the Birds in 2010 and didn't allow a single earned run. His WHIP vs. Baltimore was 0.87. The O's only managed a .176 average against him.

The Orioles fared only slightly better when facing Hughes. The Yankee pitcher had a 2.41 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP vs. Baltimore over three 2010 starts. The Birds batted .239 against him.

5. Justin Duchscherer gets healthy.

We'll definitely keep an eye on how many starts he misses due to injury. His career high is 141.2 innings pitched in a season. He begins the season on the 15-day disabled list. That's not a good sign.

6. Buck Showalter makes this team his own.

Let us not kid ourselves. The main reason the faithful are excited about the Orioles this season has little to do with any of the players, young or old. It's all about the new white-haired gentleman in the dugout. There's no denying that he brought powerful positive energy to the club at the end of last season and everyone's eager to see if the team can keep it up.

Trueblood emphasizes power and fielding as areas for team improvement. The team slugging percentage last year was .386. The fielding percentage was .982.

7. Zach Britton finds his way.

I am a cautious person by nature. As such, talk of any prospect being rushed to the Majors makes me nervous. By all accounts, Britton is a very talented pitcher but there are also genuine concerns. I almost wish for his sake that he were in a stronger organization that didn't need him so urgently. Trueblood targeted a May call up. We shall see.

8. Left field poses a good problem.

At present, the job is Luke Scott's with Félix Pié as the backup. The key here is Pié. Can he play well enough to steal some of Scott's starts? Or can Scott play well enough to keep Pié on the bench. I'm not sure there's a quantifiable measure of success for this factor. If there is buzz regarding the Scott/Pié issue during the season, it seems that will bode well for the team overall.

9. Craig Tillman breaks the ceiling.

Duchscherer's injury works out nicely for Tillman. He was starting to look like the odd man out in the rotation but he made the 25-man roster. He makes his first start on Sunday. His ERA last year was 5.87. His WHIP was 1.55. His batting average against was .255.

10. Adam Jones becomes Batman.

Jones has long been the Orioles' superstar to be. Could this be the year he realizes his potential? Despite Trueblood's choice of superhero, the Orioles expect a lot more than a strong performance at the plate from Jones. He's a five-tool man so we'll be looking for improvement in batting average (.284 in 2010), slugging percentage (.442), stolen base percentage (50%), fielding percentage (.984) and range factor (3.01).


As I wrote yesterday, I will be participating in the A to Z Blogging Challenge, hosted by Tossing It Out. It's not too late for you to join in the fun, either. It all starts tomorrow. In an effort to reacquaint myself with the old ball club, my A to Z theme shall involve a leisurely stroll through the Oriole legacy.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Let's Talk Baseball: Bold Proposal, Season 2

Image via Mets Baseball Club

Season 2 of my bold proposal for baseball realignment is about to begin. For those new to the program, here is my original post for the idea and here is how things shook out at the end of last season, setting up the two divisions I'll be using for the 2011 season. Here they are:

First Division


Red Sox


White Sox

Second Division

Blue Jays



You will note a few teams in italics. These are the last six World Series champions. As discussed in my post for Ken Burns's Baseball, ten different teams won the World Series between 1978 and 1987, the longest such streak in the history of the event and a strong testament to parity during that era. The current streak of six is really none too shabby, leading me to believe that baseball power is not quite as concentrated as I imagined. Ideally, I would love to see the streak continue. So, I'll keep an eye on those six teams over the course of the year in hopes that someone else will take the title this time.

Same as last year, I will consider the experiment a failure if one of the second division teams wins the World Series. I will likely check in with standings every month or so. Stay tuned...


I will be participating in the A to Z Blogging Challenge, hosted by Tossing It Out. It's not too late for you to join in the fun, either. It all starts April 1st. I don't want to reveal my plan just yet except to say that it will, in fact, be baseball themed.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

March Madness 2011: Agnus Dei

My bracket is kaput, as I would imagine most people's are at this point. Kentucky gave me my last points by making the Final Four. On the up side, I can now finish no worse than fifth out of 18 in the group with Mock & Co.

Amazingly, I have a second chance bracket that's still alive. My main one is finished but my fairy tale one is still going strong. If VCU continues its amazing run, I'll look like a genius.

Photo via The Wichita Eagle

The VCU Rams are quite an amazing story. And the discussion about whether or not they belonged in the tournament in the first place needs to stop. NCAA Tournament selection is, even in the best light, an inexact science. As a mid-major conference squad with a 22-11 overall record, VCU was definitely a bubble team. But I've always believed that if a team won its first tournament game, they belonged. Period. Well, the Rams won their first five. VCU has demonstrated beyond any doubt that they are a better team than many seeded ahead of them - a lot better. They have not been merely winning their games. They've won convincingly against outstanding teams.

Photo via DePauw University

The Butler basketball story keeps getting better, too. Clearly, last year was no fluke. Clearly, they're still plenty good even without Gordon Hayward. Clearly, Brad Stevens is a genius. As long as he sticks around as coach, the Bulldogs will be a first-rate national power.

And so, the Final Four are a 3-seed, a 4-seed, an 8-seed and an 11-seed. We all saw that coming, right? I will be horribly disappointed if either UConn or UK, decorated members of the old guard, walks away with the title. If, 20 years from now, the list of champions does not read "2011 - Butler" or "2011 - VCU," will anyone remember what an extraordinary tournament this has been? Will anyone beyond the state lines of Connecticut or Kentucky be pulling for the traditional powers next Monday night?

Rock Stars: Swedish World Domination

I just turned to My Wife and said, "You'll be delighted to know that Sweden has won the Women's World Curling Championship."

She replied, "I am sure that their minimalist furniture aesthetic carried over into their curling prowess."

I sure married the right woman.

Photo via Associated Press

The Swedes were the class of the field in Esbjerg all week, grabbing the front-runner mantle early and never looking back. This is skip Anette Norberg's third world title, a nice complement to her two Olympic gold medals. Norberg (pictured above) has a new team with her this season: Liselotta Lennartsson, Sara Carlsson, Cecilia Östlund and alternate Karin Rudström. Östlund was the skip of last year's Sweden representative and Lennartsson and Carlsson were on her rink. This year, Norberg recruited them all to join her.

Canada, skipped by Amber Holland, had a slow start to the week but finished strong, taking home the silver. China, led by 2009 world champion Wang Bingyu, took the bronze medal match over host Denmark. The hosts did well, apparently drawing respectable and enthusiastic crowds for their games. The Danes were led by Lene Nielsen, a first-time Danish national champion as a skip. Team USA turned in a perfectly respectable performance, going 6-5 on the week and finishing 7th.

As Mock noted in my previous curling post, we briefly considered a late-season curling venture. It was for a local charity event but it was $125 per person to enter, well beyond our price range. I'm not giving up on the idea entirely, though. I just think we should get an earlier jump on the season next year and seek out cheaper beginners' opitions. This is not to say that I'm not willing to give broomball a try.

The men's World Championship gets started on Saturday in Regina, Saskatchewan. I'm planning a preview post for Friday. As far as I can tell, neither dates nor location have been set for next year's championships, for either men or women.

Monday, March 21, 2011

March Madness 2011: Down to 16

My Bracket

The remarkable implosion of the Big East has surely wreaked havoc upon brackets across the nation and mine was not spared. However, through the help of Yahoo!'s scenario generator, I have figured out that I can still win my group with Mock & Co. if all the teams I still have going continue to win. Here's hoping!

The first weekend of the tournament is always great fun: wall-to-wall games. I love the simultaneous CBS/TNT/TBS/ coverage. How can one not? It would seem objectively that the San Diego State/Temple double overtime thriller was probably the most exciting game thus far but I missed it. The game I enjoyed the most was Washington/North Carolina. I have found over the years that sentiment trumps my bracket pick in my rooting interest almost every time. Naturally, I had the Tar Heels winning the game but couldn't help pulling for the Huskies. I love a scrappy point guard and the Huskies' Isaiah Thomas is one of the nation's best. It is sad, however, when a great game ends with a mistake as it did with Washington's errant in-bounds pass.

Photo via TopGoogleTrends

My PE teaching colleague had a bunch of us over to watch the games on Friday night. He needs a pseudonym here. We shall call him Orange Man as he is a Syracuse fan. It was great fun, though I'm sure we spent more time gabbing about work than watching basketball. Orange Man has assembled a new home theater system and is eager to share it. The evening also gave my family what I expect was a welcome break from inane basketball commentary.

My Tennis Fantasy: Some People Call Him Maurice

Current Standing: 16th
My MVP for the Week: Novak Djokovic (Serbia) with $605,500 for defeating Rafael Nadal (Spain) for the title at the BNP Paribas Open

Photo via SportsPageFair

The Djoker is definitely on the rise. He officially supplants Roger Federer (Switzerland) as World #2 this week and appears to have Rafa in his sights as well. Can he reach #1? Sure. Will he? Well, that's another matter, isn't it? By the third set of their match on Sunday, the ultimate outcome was in little doubt. Djokovic is definitely the hottest player on tour and arguably #1 on hard courts - not a given until he wins the US Open. There's no reason to believe that he can't continue his great run in Miami.

But clay season is right around the corner. If Djokovic is going to make a serious run at #1, he's going to have to put a dent in Rafa's clay court dominance. Rafa will have a lot of points to defend over the next few months but he's just the man to do it. Novak is no slouch on clay himself. However, only four of his 21 career titles are on the dirt and he hasn't won a clay tournament since 2009. His best Roland Garros finish is the semis.

He does have the advantage of being nearly a year younger than Rafa. So, it's reasonable to think that he'll make it to #1 eventually. But this year? I don't think so.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Rock Stars: Esbjerg 2011

Tomorrow, in the port city of Esbjerg on the west coast of Denmark's Jutland peninsula, the 2011 World Women's Curling Championships shall commence.

Photo via Kreiszeitung

The twelve nations to qualify for this year's championship are as follows:

Czech Republic
South Korea

Denmark qualifies as host, Germany as defending world champions. Norway, Russia, Scotland, Sweden and Switzerland qualified as top 7 finishers at the 2010 European Curling Championships. The 8th place finisher, Latvia, lost in a playoff with the Czech Republic, the European Group B champion, thus the Czechs won the eighth and final European slot.

Canada qualifies as the top team from the Americas region at the 2010 World Championship. USA is in as the Americas' second team as they were not challenged for the spot by any other Western Hemisphere nation. South Korea and China were the top two teams at the 2010 Pacific Curling Championships.

This year's championship doesn't have the bearing on the 2014 Olympics that it would have under the previous qualification system. Apparently, now only the two World Championships prior to the Olympic year have a direct bearing on the qualification standings. For 2010, it was the three prior years. However, there will now be a separate Olympic qualifying event in 2013 in which the 2011 World Championship nations shall be the participants.

Canada has won the women's championship 15 times, easily the most in the event's 32-year history. As such, they must always be considered among the favorites. Team Saskatchewan won the 2011 Scotties Tournament of Hearts, earning the right to represent Canada at the Worlds. This is skip Amber Holland's first senior World Championship appearance. Kim Schneider, Tammy Schneider, Heather Kalenchuk and alternate Jolene Campbell round out Holland's rink.

Germany is skipped once again by Andrea Schöpp (pictured above). She has won the world championship twice, including last year's. Sweden is the current Olympic and European champion as well as the top ranked nation in the world. The Swedes are represented once again by Anette Norberg, two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion.

China won the championship in 2009, the first Asian nation to do so. Bingyu Wang is their skip, making for three women who have previously skipped a world champion in the field. South Korea, however, are the current Pacific champions.

USA has only won the world title once, in 2003, but they've finished as runner-up five times. The US team is lead by skip Patti Lank. She is Canadian born but resides in Lewiston, New York. This will be her fifth World Championship. Her best finish was a silver medal in 1999. The rest of her team are Caitlin Maroldo, Jessica Schultz, Mackenzie Lank (Patti's daughter) and alternate Christina Schwartz. The rink qualified for the World Championship by winning the 2011 US Nationals.

It appears there will be no live television coverage of the event in the United States. However, if you are fortunate enough to get NBC Universal Sports, they will air the championship game, tape delayed: March 28th, 29th, 30th and 31st at 5 pm EDT on all four days. So, I will be following online. If you care to join me, the event website is at

I'm thinking that to commemorate the occasion, I will try to work curling lingo into my daily conversation - "Man, you really burned the rock on that one!"

March Madness 2011: Tip-Off

Ohio State-Kentucky, Ohio State-Kentucky, Ohio State-Kentucky... I've been puzzling over the potential Sweet 16 game between Ohio State and Kentucky ever since the draw was first announced on Sunday. To me, that game is the key to whole tournament. If Ohio State can win that game, I think they'll run the table. But here's the thing: I think Kentucky will beat them.

I do believe that Ohio State is the best team in the country. But the best team does not always win the NCAA tournament. Ever since the NCAA selection committee introduced the idea of an overall #1 seed for the tournament, that team has only won the title once. Plus, Ohio State ended up in the toughest region of the draw. Kentucky's only part of the problem. The Buckeyes may well have their hands full with George Mason in the second round (I refuse to call it the third round!).

By the time this posts, the first game should be underway. And so, my Final Four picks: Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Pittsburgh. Duke was my preseason pick and it's difficult for me to let go of that. But I cannot ignore the fact that real live basketball games have been played since then. As such, I feel that Kansas will beat Duke in the finals. KU was my pick last year, too. But this year, the burden of top overall seed will be on Ohio State instead. The Jayhawks will be under less pressure - except from the folks back home, but there's nothing to be done about that. So, that is my pick in my group with Mock & Co. and also at work.

Image via College Basketball Wiki

I did make a fairy tale bracket this year in which I go entirely by my own rooting interest. For that one, I have a Final Four of George Mason, Bucknell, Georgetown and UNC-Asheville. In my fantasy world, the Hoyas shall top George Mason for the crown.

Let the madness begin!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Following Up: The Patriot League

Image via Rush the Court

Last July, I read and reviewed The Last Amateurs, John Feinstein's account of basketball in the Patriot League. My review is here: On the Coffee Table: John Feinstein. Inspired by the book, I watched not only the finals of the Patriot League Tournament this year, but also parts of the semi- and quarterfinals, thanks to the expanded coverage offered by the CBS College Sports network.

I watched parts of the two American University games: a bit of the quarterfinal against Colgate and most of the semifinal versus Lafayette. AU is, in fact, the closest Division I university to the house where I grew up. And yet, I've never paid any attention to the program until now. With Georgetown and the University of Maryland nearby, there was never much reason to follow the many other college teams in the area. Now, of course, it seems a shame. I can only imagine that tickets to AU games would have been a lot cheaper and the arena more accessible.

The Colgate game wasn't too exciting but the Lafayette game was another matter entirely. In fact, I would say that the double-overtime thriller is a serious candidate for game of the year. The Lafayette Leopards are quite a scrappy team, coming into the tournament with a losing record, but they found their groove. Clutch shooting by Leopards Jim Mower and Ryan Willen carried Lafayette through to the final.

I was a bit disappointed in Alaa Abdelnaby who handled color commentary for the game. He clearly had a man crush on AU's Romanian forward Vlad Moldoveanu and wasn't able to change gears when the game narrative shifted in favor of Lafayette. Moldoveanu is an impressive player and probably has a decent future in European pro leagues but it bothers me when announcers treat basketball, a team game, as an individual hero epic.

American will not play in the NCAA tournament but they did leave us this little gift on YouTube:

I didn't watch too much of the second semifinal but enough to see John Feinstein himself doing the color job for the Bucknell-Lehigh match - quite capably, too.

I had a difficult time deciding whom to root for in the final. In principle, I love underdogs and Lafayette certainly qualified in facing regular season champ Bucknell. But I don't like it when teams with losing records go to the NCAA tournament. It just doesn't sit well. Furthermore, in any league where only the conference tourney champ is likely to go to the Big Dance, it seems only right that the best team should go as the league's strongest representative. In the end, I found myself pulling for Bucknell, the ultimate winner. They were never seriously threatened en route to victory.

Photo via Bucknell University

The Bucknell Bison may not make it past the first round of the NCAA tournament but they're plenty good enough to give their opponent a good game. They move the ball beautifully and offer a balanced attack with multiple threats both inside and out. They defend and rebound very aggressively. The league shall be well represented on the big stage.

Unlike Abdelnaby, LaPhonso Ellis did an outstanding job as color commentator in the final. He is both insightful and articulate. I hope that CBS will use him in some tournament games. Plus, he has a great hair style at the moment. Sadly, the photo below does not offer a view of the pony tail in the back:

Photo via Vision Sports Group

Baseball Tunes: Take Me Out to the Ball Game

"Take Me Out to the Ball Game" by Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer is essential to the baseball experience. What true fan of the game doesn't know all of the words to the chorus by heart? But how many of them know the song also has verses? There are, in fact, two different versions of verses: the first written in 1908, the second in 1927. Here's the original as sung by Edward Meeker:

My Wife, the alleged Cubs fan, insists that I include the inimitable Harry Caray. She's right, of course.

A Yankees fan I am not. But how can one not love Bernie Williams?

Harpo Marx

Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, from the film Take Me Out to the Ballgame. I must say, I'm impressed that Frank can keep up with Gene on the dance steps.

Buck O'Neil. I believe this is from the Ken Burns documentary. I don't care what he says. What a great voice, speaking as well as singing! The man was a born storyteller.

Last but certainly not least, Glenn Donnellan on his electric violin/bat.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Baseball in Verse: Casey at the Bat

Baseball has its own poem. How fantastic is that? Following is the text in full:

Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in 1888
by Ernest Lawrence Thayer

Published in The Examiner, 6/3/1888

The Outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that -
We'd put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey's getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despis-ed, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile on Casey's face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt 'twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped-
"That ain't my style," said Casey. "Strike one," the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand;
And it's likely they'd a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shown;
He stilled the rising tumult; he made the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, "Strike two."

"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville - mighty Casey has struck out.


The poem is a cultural institution all its own and portrays a game which, at its heart, has changed very little over the past 123 years. As fans, we still hold out hope that the stars of our team will bail us out in the end. Still, whether because of their arrogance or the inherent injustices of the game, they fall short more often than not.

Consider Ichiro Suzuki, certainly the most dependable contact hitter of the current era, though just as surely a humbler persona than Casey. For his major league career, Ichiro has a .315 batting average, meaning he has failed to hit safely 68.5% of the time - more than 2/3. He's better in Casey's situation: .348 with runners in scoring position and two outs. But that's still a 65.2% failure rate. As outstanding as this first-ballot Hall-of-Famer is, he still disappoints the Mariner faithful far more often than not.

Following are a few pop-culture interpretations of Casey.

There's not much to offer visually here but what better speaking voice to start us off? Just imagine if Darth Vader had been the Mudville manager!

Disney's rendering

Penn & Teller take a swing