Sunday, August 26, 2007

Apparently it wasn't one big happy family after all

Apparently Coach Tortorella doesn't share my view about the soon to be former ownership group headed by Bill Davidson. Yesterday's Ice Fest celebration included a question and answer session with the fiery head coach of the Lightning. I didn't catch the session since I was stuck in line waiting for an autograph from Vinny Prospal and his sporting pink shirt.

I'm always intrigued by the behind the scene scuffles that aren't reported by the players so it king of makes me wonder what the head coach was referring to in his following comment. According to the St Pete Times when Coach was asked about the departing group he fired off with the following response:

"The guy who I'm glad is the hell out of here is Tom Wilson because he's the one who has put obstacle after obstacle in front of us. Who knows? This deal might not go through, and they'd still be here. I really don't care."

Now I like Tortorella. His intensity and combative nature is a welcome relief from all of the player pandering coaches and mangers currently working in professional sports. He does, however, have a tendency to run his mouth a bit too much.

I have a feeling that the new owners won't be quite so willing to have a coach willing to speak his mind so freely. In an article also on the St Pete times website beat writer Damian Cristodero describes new owner Doug MacLean as one who "gets in the first word, always wants the last, and gives you a few choice ones in between". Sounds a lot like Mr. Tortorella.

As someone who follows the club it could lead to some interesting times, but I have a feeling this will end badly, very badly. Coach Tortorella had a very long leash with the old owners. Not many groups would have allowed him to bench the supposed saviour of the franchise as he has done more than once with Vincent Lecavalier.

There is a new regime in town and based on what I've read about Mr. MacLean it's a whole lot different than the one that just waltzed out of the arena. Tortorella doesn't change his style for anyone and I have a feeling it may cost him his job.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Feeling festive... Ice Festive!

Forty days to go. No Rays’ fans that is not how much longer you have to suffer through the rest of the season. Rather it is how long the TBA has to wait for the return of professional hockey. On Thursday October 4th the puck will drop on the 15th season of Tampa Bay Lightning hockey. Take heart Rays fans your miseries will be over by then. Their season ends on September 30th.

So what has changed since the bolts were bounced in the first round by the New Jersey Devils ? Off the ice a lot changed, however the product on the ice will remain quite the same. The off-ice action was headlined by the quietest sale of a franchise ever. The only heads up I heard was from my buddy Big Mike who was a weak early with his report of sale. Even the omniscient Big Dog was caught unawares. Apparently none of his drinking buddies sources knew anything about it.

While the move hasn’t been officially completed yet I have no doubt that the sale will go through without any of the problems that plagued the Nashville and Pittsburgh franchises. It would be a shame if the TBA didn’t extend a heartfelt thank you to the Davidson group. They brought professionalism, dignity and a championship to an organization that was a laughing stock in all of sports.

While there were some bumps along the way (complaining about tax breaks, Ron Campbell’s DUI, etc) for the most part Bill Davidson was the type of owner a fan should want. He signed the checks and stayed out of the way. He allowed his hockey people to build and sustain a winning franchise. Since I’m sure he’s reading this – Thank You Mr. Davidson.

Now the questions start popping up for the new owners, Absolute Hockey Enterprises. Should John Tortorella and Jay Feaster start packing their bags or are their jobs safe? Do they keep the Big Three together or trade one of them to fill a glaring weakness on the team? Most importantly do they keep the franchise in Tampa?

The new ownership has to quickly forge an identity for this team. There would be nothing wrong with keeping the one that the Davidson group built. A fast, exciting team and a well run professional organization. There are some questions being posted about the role that Doug MacLean is going to play in the organization. The sentiment coming from Miami and Columbus (two of his previous stops) seems to be “he’s your problem now”. That’s not a good sign.

Think of how the Tampa Bay professional football team has evolved since Tony Dungy and Rich McKay left. No longer are they a young, eager well run program. Instead it’s become a revolving door for quarterbacks and past their prime offensive “weapons”. The defense has deteriorated into a pale imitation of its former dominant self. Could that happen on the ice?

Only time will tell how it will all play out, but the good news is that it should play out in Tampa. The fear some have about the new group moving the team should be assuaged by the fact that the group is also buying the Saint Pete Times Forum and about 5 and ½ acres of property in the Channelside area. So don’t count on the team bolting for Las Vegas and the new arena being built by Harrah’s anytime soon.

The team also released their new logo today. It’s ummm well it’s kind of new. The changes weren’t dramatic, more of a retooling of the current design.

It definitely wasn’t the drastic change that the Bucs pulled off a few years ago or that the Rays are expected to do next year. The dark jerseys look good, but the white jerseys will take some getting used to because there is a lot white. Feel free to go to to preview the changes.

That pretty much takes care of the main off the ice issues so how about on the ice? Well, not much changed. Marc Denis and Johan Holmqvist will battle to be the number one goalie. That will be up to you to decide if it’s a good thing or not.The offense will have to come from the Big Three once again. A couple of former Lightning players return as Chris Gratton and Brad Lukowich resign with the team. The one signing that could prove to be a steal could be Michelle Ouellette. As my buddy Link would say – “He’s got a girl’s name, but plays a man’s game”.

Training camp starts in a few weeks and the weeding out process will begin. The goaltender battle will highlight training camp, but keep an eye out on the defensive battle. The top five should be locked up with Filip Kuba, Dan Boyle, Shane O’Brien, Paul Ranger and Lukowich beginning the camp as starters. The sixth spot should be an open battle between youngsters Andy Rogers, Matt Smaby and veteran (and Wasteland favorite) Doug Janik.

Another big question going into the season will involve Vincent Lecavalier. The face of the franchise is coming off of the best season of his career. It was a season that begin with a challenge from Tortorella and Feaster to improve his game and ended with 52 goals and 108 points. Will his evolution into an elite NHL player continue or will he experience a setback. The coach has been able to push all of the right buttons so far with the enigmatic center-man and it will be interesting to see if he can find the right motivation for 27 year old former first round pick.

Going into training camp the team looks better on paper than it did last year, but only time will tell if they will be able to compete in a strong Eastern Conference.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A Brave New World

After a turbulent night of sleep I awoke in a world where Barry Bonds is major league baseball’s all time home run king. I felt…pretty much the same. I did see the record setting blast before going to bed so I wasn’t surprised, in fact it was inevitable that he was going to break the record some time this year. Yet I wondered if anything would be different and it wasn’t.

I turned on the TV and saw the usual talking heads telling us that the sky was falling. Yet they’ve been doing that for 3 or 4 seasons. Not one of the of radio hosts, TV hosts or baseball analysts added anything new to the conversation. In their view Bonds cheated, the record is tarnished and it’s baseball’s fault. The most interesting comment came from everyone’s favorite diminutive sports commentator Bob Costas when he mused on about viewing Bonds as an almost “tragic figure”.

It was an interesting and possible accurate description of the slugger. If someone was writing a novel they may create a character so consumed by his quest for immortality that he is willing to use any means necessary to etch his name in the history books. So focused is he on achieving greatness that he doesn’t realize that he has alienated everyone in the game and in his life. In the story he would die an old, lonely broken man (think of Michael Corleone in Godfather III).

I expect the wailing and gnashing of teeth to last for about another week and then the attention deprived media will look for something else to focus on. I’m sure there will be a scandal or two to emerge shortly that will provide enough fodder to fill the airwaves.

As I was lying in bed last night trying to sleep I thought about how life would change now that Henry Aaron no longer held most prestigious record in American sports. I thought about who came out best in the situation. Three actors played major roles in the drama – Aaron the classy record holder, Bonds the petulant would-be record breaker and Bud Selig keeper of the game.

Without a doubt Aaron emerges on top. Throughout the last year he presented himself with class and dignity. A new generation of fans was enlightened to his struggles in eclipsing Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs. He stated early in the year that he would not follow Bonds around the country as the Giant leftfielder stood on the doorstep of the record and the former Brave stood by his word. His congratulatory message to Bonds was short, concise and honest. He did everything right and it’s incredulous that the talking heads would imply that Aaron’s legacy was tarnished by Bonds chase.

For the chronically disgruntled Bonds nothing has changed. He won over no new fans nor did he lose any. For once I didn’t begrudge him as he stood at home plate admiring his blast. When you’ve done something no one else in the major leagues has done you’re allowed a little showmanship.

It was genuine happiness that he displayed as he thanked everyone during the brief ceremony that followed his home run. Perhaps if he had showed that type of emotion during his career he wouldn’t be facing the harshness from the critics. Of course then it wouldn’t be Bonds. Like the book says, love him or hate him.

It appears that he will share the legacy of predecessors like Pete Rose and Ty Cobb. Rose is the all time hits leader, but he bet on baseball. Cobb was the greatest player of his time, but he was a racist troubled man. Bonds is the all time home run king, but probably used steroids to get there.

The biggest loser in all of this drama is without a doubt Bud Selig. The chase exposed his fatal flaw, indecisiveness. If there was ever a statue built in his honor it would depict him as he was at the 2002 All Star game – frustrated with his arms raised in a helpless shrug.

As commissioner of the league it was his duty to represent the game. If the event was “noteworthy and remarkable” as his own statement attests he should have attended the games. In this day and age of instant communication there is no reason he could not have continued conducting the day to day business of a commissioner while in San Francisco.

Even his decision to attend the games leading up to Bonds tying the record showed the reason why he isn’t regarded highly by the fans and the media. His constant waffling on if he would attend and his bizarre “Herculean effort” statement provided more ammunition for his critics. The demeanor he displayed when Bonds tied the record, hands shoved in his pockets scowling like a school boy assigned to detention, was reprehensible. More damning it was unprofessional.

He is the titular head of the league and needs to act like it. Despite what his personal feelings should be he has to represent the game no matter what happens. Sitting in his personal luxury box and clapping politely as the record tying blast soared in the night would not have tarnished his image any more than his sullen teenage act. His desire to please everyone (the anti-Bonds media and the apathetic regular fan) has led to ineffectiveness.

So we move on now and wait for the next savior to come. Will it be Alex Rodriguez? The embattled Yankee has his share of detractors, but in a few years might some of those critics cheer him on because they hate Bonds more? Or it will be a younger slugger like Ryan Howard?

These days it’s easy to focus on the negative. How about if we give that a rest? Instead of thinking about Bonds and Giambi or Elijah Dukes think about Ichiro slicing a ball into left field or Delmon Young unleashing a laser to cut down a base runner. Picture Greg Maddux striking out yet another hitter looking with a well placed fast ball. Just remember that baseball will survive. It always does. A gambling crisis in the World Series couldn’t stop it, two world wars couldn’t stop it, Barry Bonds won’t stop it.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Hall of Fame Weekend

Last weekend I made the way to Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. There was no way I was missing Cal Ripken Jr’s induction into baseball’s most hallowed halls. I lucked out in that I had a family reunion the same weekend about 2 hours away. Of course the actual reunion party was the same day as the ceremony so I missed hanging out with my family, well missed might not be the right word, but I was able to stay at my uncle’s place and save money on a hotel room.

At 7.00am Sunday morning Chris, my brother-in-law, and I set out from the small town of Mexico, New York for the two hour drive to Cooperstown. We were meeting up with Sam and Tony, two friends from Baltimore who had spent the night in Albany. Neither Chris or I were 100% sure where we were going, but we had Mapquest directions and fresh Starbucks so we were sure it would work out.

After riding through some pretty nice scenery we made it into town. We actually hit downtown Cooperstown before we realized it – the large crowd milling in the streets and the blocked off streets kind of clued us in. We lucked out and found a parking spot in a lumberyard that only set us back $30 and was in walking distance of Main Street. Well more like hobbling distance. On Saturday the two of us had walked/ran/stumbled through a 5K race in downtown Oswego New York. The muscles were quite sore as we wandered around what might be the most perfect town in the US.

It’s really hard to describe what the town is like. It has a very quaint (I’m sure the locals hate that word) look to it. Brick buildings and neatly manicured lawns make you feel like you’re on a movie set. If I had a chance to talk to a local or two they probably could have filled me in on the drawbacks of living there, but for 7 hours on a warm summer Sunday it was absolutely perfect. Even being one of 75,000 people crammed onto one street only 7 or 8 blocks long wasn’t a problem.

Everyone that we ran into seemed generally happy to be there even the four or five Padre fans that came to see Tony Gwynn’s induction. Walking down the street it was fun to see the various Hall of Famers on the side of the street signing autographs. Hey look it’s Frank Robinson! Hey it’s some other guy! Hey it’s George Will!

Needless to say a good time was had by all. The crowd ranged from the very young to the very old. There did seem to be a lot of fathers and sons there taking in the ambiance. So even now in a time when baseball is supposedly dying the love of the game and of the history of the game was being passed along to future generations.

However, I was bothered by something all weekend long. My allegiance to which team is “my team” had been wavering all weekend. On one hand the Rays are easier to follow after all they are in my home town. The more I thought about it the more I realized it as an intellectual attachment. I have no problem being patient, reasoning their trades (or lack of them), watching as they fail knowing that there is a larger plan.

On the other hand the O’s are the team of my childhood. When I was young kid just back from Germany they were there for me. Heck they won the World Series the first season I could follow them, how great is that? They represent my emotional attachment to sports. I want them to win and I really don’t care how they do it. I want to be able to walk through JFK airport wearing an O’s hat and not be subjected to snickers from New Yorkers.

I’ll continue writing about the Rays because I think they’re fun to follow. They have a great young nucleus and as long as they don’t do anything stupid (like trading Carl Crawford) they will contend soon. The Orioles will still have a place in my heart. I am announcing right here and now that I will be a sports bigamist, and a bigamist of the worst kind. I will root for two teams in the same division.

I also felt that Ripken’s induction was the closing of a chapter in my life. He was the one star that I grew up with as a kid. He was there when I was in elementary school and high school. Even during my self imposed exile from baseball in college I sat in my dorm room in college to watch Cal run that emotional lap around Camden Yards the night he broke Lou Gehrig’s record.

Other stars have come and gone from McGwire to Mattingly and Ryan to Clemans – oh wait he’s still around. Ripken was different. No matter how bad things were going he was there. Going on vacation was hard because this was before the internet and 24 hour coverage. Leaving Baltimore pretty much meant losing touch with the team. The closest thing to the internet was This Week in Baseball and I watched religiously hoping there would be a feature on Ripken. In my adolescent mind I felt that was the only medium available to let people know how good he was.

I wonder if his career would be different if he played now. Would there be trade rumors every July when the O’s fell out of contention? Would he have an agent that demanded he rest 10 games a year to prolong his career? Would blogs and a much more cynical media have made the Streak to arduous for him to endure?

In some ways I would like to think he would have been the same. I still picture a tall (some say too tall to play short) figure squinting into the sunlight ready to snag the next ground ball his way. He would still endorse the right things (Coke, Chevy and milk) and rise above any criticism. If there are any modern day athletes to compare him to it would probably be Tiger Woods or Roger Federer. They have their critics, but seem to have the class to rise above the negativity.

Now he’s in the Hall of Fame and his accomplishments are complete. I’m not callous enough to think there are no “good guys” left in the game. Nor do I think they’re aren’t any “loyal” players left. One of the recurring themes I read over the weekend was that Cal and Tony were the last two players who would spend a long career with only one team. That’s leaving out a couple of good players (despite the fact they’re Yankees) in Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Trevor Hoffman is a hall of famer who’s spending his whole career in San Diego. It’s still early to tell, but I have a feeling that Ichiro isn’t leaving Seattle.

Hopefully there are kids running around the TBA wearing number 13 Crawford jerseys. Hopefully they have the same chance I did to watch an entire Hall of Fame career develop. Maybe, 10-15 years from now I can go back as a grey-haired elderly gentleman and watch him get inducted and see a sea of green (or blue and yellow) on those rolling fields of Cooperstown. Everyone should have that experience.