A Sweet Sixteen For Baseball Season.

Enjoy Your Last 18 Cliff Lee Starts.

Enjoy Your Last 18 Cliff Lee Starts.

Baseball season has started.  The Dodgers have a jumpstart on the NL West that could be insurmountable.  But, for the other 28 teams in the league, we’re getting in those last reps and roster trimmings before the big day.  For traditionalists like myself, Opening Day will always be Monday.  Anything less is uncivilized.

To get the season underway, while the Phillies are still in a virtual tie for 1st place, I thought I’d do a Sweet 16 for the baseball season.  A melding of what would have been about 20 posts back in the Glory Days:

Bryce Harper Region:  Phenom Obsessions…

Baseball is brutal on prospects.  Back in the 90s when I was an unofficial scout in the Eastern League I saw a bunch of guys who looked like they were going to be great MLB players.  I had Todd Walker pegged for Chase Utley’s offensive career about 8 years before anyone had ever heard of Chase.  Guy hit .340 in AAA.  Ranked the 7th best prospect in baseball.  Ended up with a “nice” career, but never hit more than 17 homers in the majors.  Anyway, here are four guys to save your fantasy season in the middle of the summer:

1.  Archie Bradley–SP, Arizona Diamondbacks.  With Patrick Corbin out for the year the back of the Diamondbacks’ rotation is a bit up in the air.  Bradley isn’t on the Major League roster yet, so he’s not the short-term solution, but if the rotation is lacking come summer, Bradley could provide a big boost ala Gerrit Cole to the Pirates in 2013.  A traditional right-handed power arm without the questions and quirks of Trevor Bauer.

2.  George Springer–OF, Houston Astros.  Shouldn’t the Astros have some prospects by now?  After years of trading away players and winning 58 games?  The answer is yes!  They do have some.  Springer should be the first to arrive, a beast who almost went 40/40 in the minors last year.  Also watch out for top pick from 2013, Mark Appel.  Should quickly move into Houston’s rotation once he’s fully healthy and gets a bit of seasoning.

3.  Gregory Polanco (no relation to Placido)–OF, Pittsburgh Pirates.  Let’s keep this rolling, Pittsburgh.  They’ll have a lot to live up to after last season and if they find themselves struggling to score runs again, a mid-season promotion of Polanco could provide a needed spark.  He’s the RF of the future, it’s just a question of when he arrives.

4. Noah Syndergaard–SP, New York Mets.  The last of the Big-3 (Harvey, Wheeler) to arrive should live up to those high standards.  Another huge arm, Syndergaard could get off to a strong start with his fastball alone.  Expect a Wheeler-like timeline for Syndergaard as the Mets likely won’t be in serious contention in the NL East.

Phillies Region–How Bad is it Going to Be?

1. Maybe not QUITE as bad as some people think.  Trashing the Phillies has become so chic that if you listen to the national media and the “rival scouts’ you’d probably think they’re going to win 60 games.  So, based on that, it might be a little better than you’re expecting.  Assuming Hamels does come back by May, the starting pitching should have them in enough games to linger around .500.  The offense will be terrible, though,  and in a tough division they’ll steadily lose ground.  Enough that…

2. Cliff Lee will be traded.  Lee, unlike Jimmy Rollins, is pure mercenary.  Anyone who would come back to Philly the way he did is clearly pitching just for a ring.  There’s no shame in that, just don’t be surprised when Lee is ALL ABOARD for a trade to a contender come summer.  And, really, the Phillies owe him that much after jerking him around and then letting the team fall apart around him.  Enjoy his last starts, when he’s on the guy is truly a master and probably will always be better liked in Philadelphia than Cole Hamels, because you know, Californians just don’t get it like Cliff.

3. The Biggest Offensive Problems Will Be:  Rollins, Howard, Brown.  On the flip side of this coin, I’d expect decent seasons out of Revere, Marlon Byrd and a freshly medicated Carlos Ruiz.  But, Howard has not fixed any of his bad habits, Rollins will show only flashes and play to stay off the DL (so his option vests) and Brown’s freezing cold spring is one of the biggest red flags I’ve seen in a while.

4. Cross Your Fingers for Maikel Franco.  The Phillies big power prospect didn’t amaze anyone this spring, but the fan base is going to need someone to believe in for the future.  Franco is the best bet, despite everyone wishing Jessie Biddle into a front-end starter.  And, if he can play 3rd all the better, because Cody Asche isn’t happening.  Sorry.

The Awards Region: 

1. AL MVP: Mike Trout.  For several years I picked Miguel Cabrera, backing him until he won and now that he’s taken back-t0-back MVPs, it’s time for Trout to leave him behind.  There is absolutely no innovation in this pick, but sometimes things are inevitable.  Trout dominated this spring, showing more power and plate discipline.  He’s just better than everyone else right now.  Picking anyone else would be uninformed.

2. NL MVP: Troy Tulowitzki.  The NL race is wide-open.  Bryce Harper is a popular pick, but still could be a year away from fully reaching his potential.  It’ll be tough for Andrew McCutchen to repeat and guys like Goldschmidt and Votto are held back by playing 1st base.  Maybe this is the year Tulo stays healthy for 155 games.

3. AL Cy Young: Chris Sale.  I was set to pick Yu Darvish, but picking a guy who starts the year on the DL feels a bit dicey.  If the White Sox can play a bit better as a team, Sale should move to the front of the discussion for the Cy Young.  He’s a legitimate lefty ace and finished 5th in the voting last season.

4. NL Cy Young: Cliff Lee.  It’s tough to go against Clayton Kershaw, who is clearly the best pitcher in baseball, but the NL has a lot of top candidates.  Strasburg, Zimmerman, Greinke, hell I’d watch out for Michael Wacha.  But, for some reason I’m picking Lee who I think will carry the Phillies and then could possibly be moved to a contender to put them over the top.  That contender would have to be in the NL, but I’ll take my chances to look like a genius when it happens.

The Playoffs Region:  

1. Surprise Playoff Team: Seattle.  I was tempted to pick Kansas City, because I’ve gotten 1,000 words into this without mentioning my beloved Royals, but I don’t want to put that on them.  Seattle has enough pitching that a little offensive boost could go a long way.  No pressure, Cano, but seriously, this is on you–turn the whole lineup around.

2. Biggest Flop: Oakland.  Things always feel tenuous for the A’s.  Everything has to go right.  The young pitchers have to stay healthy.  I think this is a year they face some challenges and can’t overcome the odds–again.

3. Your World Series Champion: Los Angeles Dodgers.

***

My 16th Nugget is obviously going to be Sweet 16 LOCKS.  Because even if I can’t fill out a pool for horsebleep, those 1st round pick were kinda nice, no?

Tennessee (+2.5) over Michigan.  Line seems a bit low.  What happened to that big, dopey white guy that was finishing in transition for Michigan in the tourney last year?  Mitch McGary or something?  Is he hurt? Alive?  Playing in Greece?  Vols outright.

Baylor (+3.5) over Wisconsin.  It’s the year of the damn dog.  Haven’t you been listening?  Outright again.  Wisconsin scores MAYBE 43 points.

Arizona (-8) over San Diego St.  All I heard about SD State was how tough they were on D, and how they gave Arizona a game last time.  That had me expecting 4.5 points or thereabouts.  This makes it feel like a Wildcats blowout.

A Mail Clutch.

In Honor of the Tournament.

In Honor of the Tournament.

So I recently got an iPhone.  To anyone who knows me that may come as a bit of a shock.  Never has a device had such a fierce opponent.  The iPhone rates as only slightly less sinister than a Kindle.  I’ve been using a Blackberry for a long time.  This has given off a different impression at different times.  There was about forty seconds there, don’t pin me down on a year, where it was OK to have a Blackberry.  Blackberry messenger was kind of cool, wasn’t it? WASN’T IT?  And free.  You could carry a Blackberry and not be a total tech-idiot.  I think.  Of course, those days are long gone and now if you have a Blackberry you are old, or it was issued to you by your employer.  I came very, very close to getting the Blackberry Q10.  Great price point, familiar look, but I figured if Blackberry still exists as a company in a couple of years maybe I can switch back.  For now, I’ll put in some work on my selfie game.  As soon as someone teaches me how to use the phone.

I know one thing.  When I go in for my next phone I won’t get treated like a prehistoric species.  Hopefully the employee won’t look at me like my cellphone has a rotary dial.  I wanted to stand there and defend my Blackberry, but it’s failure was the only reason I was in the store.  Or was it my failure?  I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

On the eve of the NCAA Basketball tournament, a raucous cultural event, I thought I’d empty out the mailbag.  You know how these messages pile up…

Q: Can you explain to me why some people get so excited to see what I’d call pretty common birds? I know people who spot a cardinal and start dancing around like a flamingo has just swooped onto their deck.  Robin Crow, Exton, PA.  

A:  I’m not what you would call a bird guy.  Any bird with size, or thick legs will send me heading for the hills.  If you want me to stay off your property, lose the Beware of Dog sign and install a turkey.  You’ll never see me again.  That said, I do KIND OF know what you are talking about.  When I was a youth I would occasionally see a hummingbird at my Grandmother’s house.  Now, hummingbirds are probably a bit more intriguing than your basic cardinal, but we’d completely SH*T OUR PANTS over these hummingbirds.  I also remember occasionally getting out the binoculars at home to try to spot something exotic like an oriole in a tree 80 yards across the yard.  I don’t think I’d do that now, but I probably have pointed out a cardinal to someone in the last 12 months.  What can I say? It’s a conversation starter.  You say cardinal, they say where…and things just go from there.  People also feel a sense of importance from things that take up residence in their yard.  Squirrels?  VILE RODENTS.  But, a nest of cardinals?  Noble bird in a noble yard.  

Q:  On a scale of 0 to Brian Urlacher, how poorly is this Jimmy Rollins thing going to end in Philadelphia, and are the Phillies as bad as they look in Spring Training?  

A: The Phillies are the popular pick among “Unnamed MLB Scouts” to be the biggest disappointment in the league.  The two main refrains from Spring Training are always, “best shape of his career,” and “has completely lost it.”  The Phillies have a lot of guys in that second category starting with Rollins and including Howard, Papelbon and possibly even Chase Utley.  Considering the Phillies weren’t good last year, that Cole Hamels will be the DL, and there is still a roster spot for John Mayberry Jr., I’d prepare myself for a very long summer.  The best-case scenario the front office has been blowing smoke about isn’t going to happen.  They’ll struggle to hit, the starting pitching is thin and the bullpen remains a question mark.  Seventy-five wins feels like a ceiling.  As for Rollins, he simply doesn’t mesh with Ryne Sandberg’s vision of what a veteran leader should be.  Sandberg is not a players manager, to a possible extreme that looks like it might alienate him with veterans.  Remember, this is a Hall of Famer who spent 6 years managing (successfully) in the Minors and couldn’t get a big league job.  There had to be some kind of red flag, and I think that red flag was, “The players are going to hate this guy.”  The thing is, it doesn’t matter who wins the stare down, Rollins or Sandberg, the team is going to be bad either way.  It’s just a matter of who stays, and for how long.  

Q: How do you pack your toothbrush?  Do you have a little case for it, or are you like me and just assume your toothbrush is protected against all and any germs and just throw that thing wherever in the suitcase?  Whitey Chicklets, Harrisburg, PA.

A: Tough one.  Sometimes we think things just don’t get dirty.  If I only use my towel to dry off when I’m clean….NO. Or, that sponge is in soapy water several times a week…I’d eat off that SUMBITCH.  Probably not.  Does toothpaste serve as some type of Purell?  Or boiling water?  Probably not.  When I was a kid I’d wrap my toothbrush in tissues and pack it that way.  I assume I was told to do this by my mother, and it sounds dumb, but you keep your toothbrush away from your dirty undies and you also don’t have to use one of those cases.  The cases by the way can become cesspools in their own right.  You have to be diligent about cleaning the case, and really who has the time for that?  Anyone who has ever opened up a kid’s retainer case knows what I’m talking about here.  Maybe the answer is just buying a new toothbrush every time you go away, or bumming one from the hotel.  Cost you a few bucks, but think about the load off your mind.  

Q: Despite the fact that you’ve watched 0 college basketball games this year, I still respect you as one of the top-10,000 sports handicappers in Chester County.  Where are my first round winners? 

A:  I thought you’d never ask!  I’m doing dogs this year for Round one  TWO.  Bet early and heavy….

University Milwaukee Wisconsin (+16.5) over Villanova.  I’ve got a real bad feeling about this Villanova team. Anecdotally, I’ve heard about their balance.  To me this means they don’t have any really good players, which is what the tournament is all about–along with draining tons of threes.  I also, never, ever trust Jay Wright or a Jay Wright team with a big spread.  I’ll take Jay’s suit (-$3,500) over the coach of  UMW, but on the court, take the points.

Harvard (+3) over Cincinnati.  Harvard being a 12 seed means they must actually be decent and not just the token Ivy team.  I think the lines in these 12/5 matchups are starting to reflect the perceived trend of upsets, but this seems especially low.  If Nick Van Exel’s shot is off, the Bearcats will struggle.  Let’s go nerds.

Providence (+4) over North Carolina.  I assume that UNC is still a massive public team, and Providence has never been anything close, not even when Rick Pitino was running down the housewives the Rhode Island.  If I were a UNC fan, which I’m not (Rule of Rick Fox), I’d be kinda, sorta worried the Tar Heels might go ahead and lose this game outright.  Roy does not have enough All-Americans this year.

North Dakota State (+3.5) over Oklahoma.  Is this a hockey game?  Where did this line come from.  ND State might blow the Sooners out.

Ok, I lied, One Favorite: Oregon (-5) over BYU.  I’ve got a little Oregon sleeper vibe going and BYU stinks.  I promise.

***

NCAA POOL INFO:

If anyone is looking for a last second pool entry, the stragglers and downtrodden among you–feel free to join the 3 Putt Territory Group at ESPN.  The name of the group is 3 Putt Territory and the password is danish–all lowercase. There are no prizes, but that only increases your chances to WIN.  That, and the fact that there are about 10 people playing.  ENJOY THE TOURNAMENT.

The Chico’s Bail Bonds Bracket Challenge.

Nice Bracket.

Nice Bracket.

Unfortunately, I was runner-up to Quicken Loans when Warren Buffett was choosing a partner for his Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge, so I can’t offer up 10 figures to anyone, but if you want to sign up for a bunch of spam from the asshat who owns the Cavs–go ahead.  No one is stopping you.  I’m sure you’ll still be alive for that billion well into Thrusday afternoon.  At least.

It is amazing how much people love games of chance, and don’t kid yourself–that is what the NCAA pool is regardless of how much college basketball you know or watch.  We’re talking about a month long scratch ticket here. Speaking of which, I have now on multiple occasions seen a group of guys hanging around the scratch ticket machine at a grocery store during the lunch hour.  They appear to be employed, otherwise mostly functional members of society, and yet there they are standing around watching each other do scratch-offs.  Is this a social activity now?  I need to know if anyone else has witnessed something like this.

Back to the bracket.  My darkest confession:  I haven’t watched a college basketball game all year.  What can I tell you?  When you go to a school with a storied basketball tradition like F&M, and you are used to sellout crowds at the G*Rob Center, sitting on your couch watching Michigan (yawn) play Wisconsin (puke) doesn’t get your blood pumping.  You haven’t experienced basketball pandemonium until you’ve seen a white guy throw down a delicate dunk on a breakaway against Swarthmore.  That will send the student section into hysterics.  I once lost a flip-flop during such a scrum.

So, if I haven’t watched a single game all year, how am I going to fill out my bracket?  How will I guarantee I get upwards of 20 of the first 32 games correct?  I spent most of the day trying to figure that out myself and I came up with the following list of guidelines.  Rules for the uneducated…

1.  Protect Your References.  Even if you haven’t watched a minute of basketball, you can distract people with random knowledge.  For example, in those dreaded 8/9 matchups you must play to your strength.  I will take #8 Colorado over #9 Pitt, because if someone asks me about Colorado, I can say, “How many did Chauncey Billups have?” At which point hopefully the person moves onto another topic without me looking like a fool.  The only person I know who went to Pitt is Dan Marino.

Beautiful Hair.

Beautiful Hair.

2.  Be Aware of Zealots.  At this point in my life I just want to watch the games, maybe see a couple of buzzer beaters–the usual.  I don’t need any added stress.  So, if I live with a die-hard fan of some school, or the guy next to me at work has shaved Arizona’s logo into the back of his head, I’m going to pick that team to win a few games.  Path of least resistance.  You’re cheering for your own well-being.

3.  Ask the Biggest College Basketball Fan You Know Who They Have–Then Eliminate That Team.  I guarantee you that every serious fan out there has already filled out at least eleven versions of their bracket.  Sh*t is crossed out.  They hear a podcast from the equipment manager at VCU and suddenly that CHANGES EVERYTHING.  It’s not that they don’t know what they are talking about, it’s that no one is good at doing this.  NO ONE.

4. Hard No to Wichita State.  In 1976, Bobby Knight browbeat his Hoosiers to a perfect 32-0 record and won the national championship.  Quinn Buckner was on that team.  Yes, that odd man you see on television actually played basketball.  But, in the almost four decades since, no other team has pulled off this feat.  And, if UNLV couldn’t do it, I’ll be god-damned if I watch Wichita State go undefeated.  I’ll take Louisville in a laugher.

5. Be Provincial.  It’s far more acceptable to adopt college basketball teams than say an NFL team.  You probably don’t see many Browns fans racehorse down to Cincy to bask in the glow of a Bengals playoff weekend, but I think you can pull this off for the NCAA tournament.  If you can get to a bar that will be packed with a certain team’s fans you should go ahead and get in the mix.  Then someone says, “Oh, did you go to _____?”  No, but I have them in my pool!  If you don’t live near any team that is in the dance, I suggest heading to Omaha.  Might as well get that trip to Nebraska off the bucket list during Doug McDermott’s swan song.

So, there you have it.  Please let me know how well this works for you and kindly pass along a 10% “tribute” from your winnings.

***

Now, in regard to the annual Three Putt Territory Pool, which always crowns a worthy winner and then pays them out a heaping helping of pride, as I said:  No Warren Buffett–Yahoo! (Warren’s other partner) has really got me sour this year, because they required a phone number to reactivate the Three Putt Territory Pool.  If you think I’m going to allow Yahoo! to start sending me text messages, you are SORELY mistaken.  I’ll go completely off the grid before that happens.

So, this year, I’ll be using ESPN to score the pool.  If you played before, I will try to remember this in my brain device and send you an invitation.  If you did not, or you stumbled across this post by accident, feel free to use the following information to join my ESPN group.

Tournament Challenge Home Page.

Group Name: Three Putt Territory

Password: danish

*Use the Edit Bracket Function to Give Your Pool A Name That Will Make Me Chortle.

Good Luck.

What if We Did Away With Endings?

True Backlash.

True Backlash.

What’s the ending?  This has to be up there among the most terrifying puzzles for any writer.  You can create great characters, great suspense, themes, imagery, and comedy, but you’ve still got to put a bow on the damn thing.  The better the build, the better people expect the ending to be.  And yet, how many endings do we actually enjoy?  From TV shows, to books, to movies, how often do you really say, “That ending blew me away.”  

The first time I remember ending backlash was with the Sopranos.  I didn’t watch the Sopranos while it was actually on, and am still not anything close to a superfan, but I watched that finale while it unfolded, because it was a cultural phenomenon.  Like I said, I’m not a big enough fan to critique the ending, but when millions of people think their cable went out–you’re probably going to have a problem.  We live in a world where people get angry about these things.  Maybe only virtually, and on superficial levels, but the angst is palpable.  

The latest reviled ending came from HBO’s True Detective.  True Detective started as a show without much buzz, gained some steam when a very good-looking woman chose to remove her shirt and then rode the Matthew McConaughey Oscar train to the front of the public conscience.  As it turned out, True Detective was the worst kind of show for ending haters, because it was analyzed into dust.  Obsessives with time on their hands and bones to make, expounded theories, found connections and symbols a casual viewer would overlook and created a list of questions the show never had any hope of answering.  

So, when the show ended last night with Hart and Cohle getting a man, not necessarily THE MAN, and then kind of stumbling into the darkness as each other’s crutch, it set off waves of internet anger.  WHO IS THE YELLOW KING? What about Maggie’s parents?  WHERE WAS THE TWIST?  The ending, especially the last 15 minutes was anti-climatic, but I don’t know how it wouldn’t have been.  The show was called True Detective, not Choose Your Own Voodoo Adventure.  

This isn’t to say I loved the ending, or that I felt especially sated with how things played out.  In truth I was a bit underwhelmed, underwhelmed with the boat interrogation right up through the climax at “Carcosa.”  I saw it coming, though.  The greatness, if you want to call it that, of this show was in the buildup.  It was the dialog, the interplay between Harrelson and McConaughey.  The best part of this show was always going to be the pursuit, not the collar. And, that’s why I think I would have been better off not watching the final episode, or at least turning it off after that bullet connected with Errol’s dome.  

In contrast to True Detective the recent end of another rabidly followed show, Breaking Bad, was much more well-received.  Unlike True Detective, Breaking Bad didn’t have a lot of open questions left at the end.  It was a final season that spent a lot of time answering the question, “Who is going to survive this?”  By the finale, not many characters were left standing, a real twist seemed impossible.  And, Breaking Bad did us the favor of tying up many of the loose ends, if not all of them.  So, it was a good finale in the sense it didn’t leave unanswered questions, but is that how we really rate things?  

There seems to have been a movement toward the open-ended ending.  Years back, I don’t remember watching many movies and thinking, “wait that’s it?”  Now, every third movie I watch I’m a little surprised to see the credits roll. And, with books it’s even worse.  I expect newer books I read now to just gently fade into the middle.  No big lesson, surprise or twist.  A lot of books are glimpses into a world and then suddenly someone turns the lights off.  

At first I thought this was terrible.  I want my neat ending.  But, I’m thinking that neat might actually be boring and not that satisfying anyway.  Has any comedy movie ever been made where the final twenty minutes are the funniest? Think of your favorite comedy and then ask yourself whether you liked the first half or the second half better.  I think we have been conditioned to want the great ending.  Many movies I’d list among my favorites have very satisfying endings.  Shawshank Redemption.  Scent of a Woman.  An array of sports movies, but maybe we should look at these as the exception.  

I say all this knowing that I’d never skip out on the finale of a show I actively watch.  Mad Men is eventually going to end and that ending will be a cloudy mess of innuendo at best and I’ll probably hate it, but I’m going to watch.  What I really want is to watch the first few seasons in perpetuity.  That’s the world I want to peek in on.  I’d rather watch 75 episodes from the 60s than watch someone try to piece together what SHOULD happen with Don Draper and Company in the 70s.  

It makes me think a bit of The Simpsons, because even though that show has been running for decades now and I don’t know a soul that has watched it in ten years, part of the reason why it was so good in the beginning was because it wasn’t going anywhere.  The characters were static and each episode was just a look into their world.  It definitely has kept the show going as well, because I don’t think Bart at 35 years old holds an audience, but even on an animated series that’s been running for twenty-five seasons, I’m sure there are still a FEW people out there who are expecting a certain ending for The Simpsons when it finally ends, if it ever ends.  

I just wonder if they shouldn’t be, or if we shouldn’t be so demanding of our endings.