Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Dance if you want to Dance

This past Sunday I experienced an awesome sporting moment. It wasn’t historic or even noteworthy. As a matter of fact it has been happening at least 8 times a year during the last 8 or 9 years. It didn’t even happen during the game. It happened at a time when most people are still settling into their seats. In Tampa most of the crowd wouldn’t even be in the building yet. Sunday afternoon at about 4.00pm I saw a city lose it’s collective mind for one of their athletes - I saw Ray Lewis introduced to the home crowd.

A lot has been said or written about Ray Lewis, the 13 year veteran for the Ravens. Depending on who you are or where you’re from he’s a hero, or a murderer, a hall of famer or an average linebacker, overrated or underrated, hard nosed or over exposed., passionate or a fool. What you can’t deny is that he is the Ravens and by extension he is Baltimore.

There is a holy trinity of sports heroes in Baltimore. At the head is Johnny Unitas, at his right hand is Brooks Robinson and at his left Cal Ripken, Jr. The others (Jim Palmer, Artie Donavon, Eddie Murray, Michael Phelps, etc) are in a tier well below them. Soon, however, Lewis will join the Big Three. That’s why it’s tough to read stories about him possibly being a free agent after this year. He is nearing the end of his career that can’t be disputed and to have that happen in a Patriots uniform or a Cowboys uniform would be a disappointment. God forbid he return to Baltimore in Bengals’ colors.

It’s common for athletes, notably football players, to overextend their stay in the league. After all, the legendary Unitas donned San Diego colors and who wants to remember Emmitt Smith as a Cardinal or Tim Brown as a Buccaneer? If Lewis were to leave next season it seems that it would be worse. Those other players played for franchises that had a history before them and after them. Lewis is the history of the Ravens. He was the second ever draft pick (Jonathon Ogden was their first) and has suited up for the team since he was 21 years old. He gave Baltimore a reason to be proud again, and to be cocky. Every fan wants that. Some take it to far - that’s you Red Sox fan.

That type of player doesn’t happen along very often and in Baltimore it seems even harder. For as long as I’ve been around I’ve been aware of the fact the Baltimore as a city has an inferiority complex. It’s an east coast city between the political capital (Washington, DC) and the cultural capital (New York) of the country, if not the world. Everyone talks about the Yankees dynasties, but no one seems to remember that from the late 60’s to the early 80’s the team to beat was the O’s. This is the 50th anniversary of the “Greatest Game Ever Played” - won by the Colts. A team that doesn’t even have it’s own section in the Hall of Fame. Got to the Hall of Fame website and search for Hall of Fame Baltimore Colts. I’ll wait for you….

….. And you’re back. That’s right they’re not listed under the Baltimore Colts, they’re listed under the Indianapolis Colts. You tell what the hell Indianapolis has to do with Johnny U or Raymond Berry? Do you think Indiana Joe Fan gives two figs about history of the franchise and the “World’s Loudest Outdoor Insane Asylum”? No all they care about is Peyton Manning.

Lewis gives the fans a connection to those proud days. He has suffered for his indiscretions, he has lost millions in endorsement opportunities for his mistakes. I won’t claim that he’s a saint or that he does no wrong, but I do know that since those days in jail he hasn’t come close to running afoul of the law. Unlike others he has learned his lesson. He keeps his nose out of trouble and the only off field stories you hear about are his goodwill charities.

His critics call him arrogant or flamboyent. His antics aren't neccesary. I tend to disagree. He doesn't dance on the field every time he makes a sack or a tackle - he only does it during his introduction. To me it's a show of joy not showmanship. It's for the fans.
After this season the Ravens are going to have to make a lot of decisions. All three of their high profile linebackers (Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Bart Scott) are free agents. Suggs and Scott are in their mid-twenties - the prime age for defensive players. Suggs has already been franchised once so he will be looking for a big pay day. Losing him would be a tremendous set back for the franchise. Scott has been a better than average linebacker in Rex Ryan’s aggressive scheme and could be looking at a substantial raise.

Both of those players are younger than Lewis and have a brighter future. Ray-Ray, as fans and players call him, is only 33, but in football that is old. With his frantic, hyperagressive style of play Lewis is an “old” 33. He is still effective. He still flies to the ball to force fumbles or recover them. The addition of the big boys up front - Haloi Ngata, Justin Bannan and a healthy Kelley Gregg - have allowed him room to roam the middle of the field without having to worry about fending off a big ol’ 350lb offensive lineman.

He isn’t just valuable on the field. Every player on the team knows that they are accountable to him in the huddle and in the locker room. While that respect can be used for good (keeping the team together during the offensive struggles during the Super Bowl season) or bad (the ouster of Brian Billick last season) it is important. So far rookie coach John Harbaugh has been able to harness the good. Making the playoffs helps as well.

Had the Ravens suffered through another losing season I could be writing a different story. Heck, I have written a different story (take a look at March 2007). If Lewis asks for absurd money this off-season (I.E. anything over $10 Million a year) I’ll write a “thanks but no thanks” article. However, the team team needs to do what it can to ensure he keeps wearing the purple so that for 8 days next season a town can go nuts over it’s adopted hero.

On Sunday it seemed impossible that he would leave. As he danced his way onto the field my dad summed it up best. It was like a king entering his castle.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Upon the Ice Frustration Lay

It’s not right to write when one’s emotions are at a heightened state. So I’ve given myself about an hour to calm down and think about what I’ve seen. I drove home from the Ice Palace, kissed the sleeping girlfriend on the head and scratched the fat cat behind his left ear - his favorite ear scratching spot. I flipped on SportsCenter naively thinking they would have a highlight from the game. I sent an email to Dave over at Fielders Choice and surfed a couple of sites. That being said I’m still pissed.

I loathe blaming officials for losses. I think it was my dad who said, “If you leave the game in the hands of the officials you don’t deserve to win”. Actually, I don’t think he said it but it sounds like something he would say so I’m giving him credit. That being said - man did the ref’s blow the Lightning game tonight.

If you haven’t read about it or seen it, which based on hockey’s current popularity you probably haven’t, the Lightning lost 2-1 in a shootout to the Colorado Avalanche. The only goal that counted in the shootout never crossed the goal line. In fact, it wasn’t even close. Only the Lightning could lose a game where the winning goal never crossed the line.

Here is how it happened. Both the Lightning and the Avalanche missed in their first attempts. The Lightning then missed their second. For the Avalanche's second attempt goalie Mike Smith faced Colorado forward Milan Hejduk. Hejduk brought the puck down the ice and as he approached the goal Smith leaned forward to poke check the puck away. The Colorado shooter avoided the goalie’s stick and tried to beat him with a backhand shot. Smith made the save with the blocker and as the buck bounced harmlessly away the stick fell out of his hand.

Nice save, the crowd ohhs and ahhs. Then the refs got involved. After initially ruling it a save the refs and the linesmen huddled together for a few minutes. The crowd grew restless. The Lightning’s final shooter - little Marty St Louis - skated in circles. The refs continued to convene. Mike Smith chirped at them from a distance. The crowd grew irritated, boo’s grew louder. Then the ref turned his wireless mike on and announced that due the Av’s would be awarded a goal. Rule 26.4 states that if a stick is thrown by the goalie a goal can be awarded to the shooting team.

Needless to say this was not received well by the hometown crowd. The boos increased in quantity and volume. In our seats we were bewildered - even from hundreds of feet away it was apparent that the stick came out of Smith’s hands well after the save was made. The replays on the jumbotron confirmed our view. Yet the refs would not be swayed. Nor could they once the decision was made. After all, it was not a reviewable play.

Then the normally docile and amiable hockey crowd lost it. The boos reached maximum volume - 9,000 fans sounded like 30,000. A brown bag was launched from the crowd onto the ice. The PA reminded fans that throwing stuff on the ice wasn’t cool. That sparked more debris tossing. Bottles, thunders, paper, lids, anything not locked down found it’s way on the ice.
Smith was beside himself with rage. He had to be restrained from the refs. After the ice was cleared St Louis skated in on Colorado goalie Andrew Raycroft and wasn’t able to beat him on his glove side. Game Over.

The Lightning had failed to win their 8th game. In the grand scheme of things it will be just another loss in a series of them. Yet somehow it seems worse. While they didn't play a perfect game they played well enough to win. Smith in particular was outstanding, several times he flashed out his right pad at the last second to make sparkling saves. I don’t believe that there is a grand conspiracy against the Lightning, the refs didn’t blow this game on purpose, but damn get the call right!

I’m sure there will be an apology from the league once they review it, but that doesn’t get the Lightning an extra point in the standings. Why can’t there be a fine or a suspension for referees Brian Pochmara or Tim Peel? Officials in sports take a lot of unwarranted abuse and I tend to take their side more than a lot of fans, but when a blatant game deciding mistake is made there has to be repercussions.

I’m sure there will be writers and opionists (yeah that’s not a word, but I like it) will rail on about how low class the crowd’s reaction was. They will point out how dangerous it is to throw things on the ice and how it makes them look like a bunch o’ country bumpkins. Normally, I would agree with anyone calling fans in the TBA uneducated rubes. However, I think tonight’s display was more about the fans releasing 30 games of frustration. Frustration at the call, frustration at being last in the league again, frustration at the lack of production from the stars and the free agents, frustration at the mismanagement from the front office - all of that came out tonight.

According to analyst Bobby Taylor Smith spoke with the officials after the game and not one of them would cop to making the call - they told him it was a collective decision. Usually that means that they weren’t sure of the call and were covering for each other. The NHL, via Mike Murphy (VP of Hockey Operations ) stated the refs would not have to talk to anyone because of the “hot environment” and he was afraid that they might be “trapped” down here.

Now if this had happened in Toronto or Montreal I could see the refs having to face a blood thirsty lynching mob, but in Tampa? C’mon now be real. No one cares that much. It’s December 18th and it’s 80 degrees outside. It’s hard to stay mad when the weather is this nice. The league knows the refs screwed the proverbial pooch and they don’t want the refs digging themselves any deeper. Once they see it on television they will know they got it wrong and will feel shame.

So cut the fans a break - out of the sports down here the ones that go to hockey games seem to be the most knowledgeable. So give them a free pass on tonight, but feel free to take it out on the NHL if they let the refs off for this one.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Quest Begins

Is it possible to complete a set in this day in age by spending less than what the set of base cards is valued at? Some might ask if it’s even possible to complete a set these days what with the short prints, “mistakes” and gimmicks that manufacturers seem to be throwing out there these days. To me the answer is yes to both questions.

First I must test my hypothesis. So at random today I picked as a test set the 2008-09 Upper Deck MVP Hockey set. It’s not a super high end product or a product filled short prints a la Masterpieces. So in theory it shouldn’t be a problem to complete. There appear to be 392 cards (including the rookies which are seeded in every other pack) according to Upper Deck’s checklist online.

It was released on 12-2-08 so as of this writing I haven’t been able to find a value to the set. Therefore, I don’t have a spending limit as of yet. I am thinking it will be in the $50-$80 value once it makes it into Beckett. I know Beckett isn’t the end all to pricing that it used to be, but for this non life altering experiment it will do.

So how exactly will I go about acquiring cards for this quest? Well I assume most of my purchases will be made at the local Target or card ship. I picked up a blaster earlier today to start the ball rolling. At $19.99 a pop I don’t think I’ll be able to get too many more of those. I will also be open to trading for what I need once I get a significant portion completed. All non-Lightning inserts will be open for trade as will any doubles I pick up along the way.

I will have a quick breakdown of the blaster some time later this week. Upon initial review the collations didn’t look too bad so I should have a good start.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


If you need to donate some cards to the collection (it's greatly appreciated) here's what I'm currently looking for:

Individual Players

Eddie Murray
Floyd Rayford - Check Here To See What I need!
Vincent Lecavalier
Peter Bondra


Baltimore Orioles
Tampa Bay Lightning



2010 Topps Series One

24, 80, 105, 126, 261, 271, 305,

2009 Topps

210, 213

2009 Topps Heritage

7 Tim Lincecum Bruce B
10 Hanley Ramirez
25 Paul Konerko
33 Randy Johnson
35 Andy Pettitte
36 Lyle Overbay
37 Jeff Francoeur
47 Ryan Theriot
50 Curtis Granderson
51 Aaron Laffey
53 Adam Jones
67 Omar Vizquel
74 Marlon Byrd
76 Jered Weaver
82 Scott Baker
85 Justin Verlander
86 Jose Lopez
90 Erick Aybar
93 Rickie Weeks
98 Shaun Marcum
99 Lastings Milledge
109 Delmon Young
115 Jonathan Papelbon Ti
116 Emil Brown
118 Chris Lambert RC
120 Fernando Perez RC
121 Angel Salome RC
128 Scott Elbert RC
129 James Parr RC
130 Greg Golson RC
136 Matt Tuiasosopo RC
141 Wade LeBlanc RC
143 Alcides Escobar RC
145 Jesse Chavez RC
154 Rich Aurilia
155 Jeff Kent
164 Cincinnati Reds
165 Tim Lincecum
173 Brandon Phillips
174 Cleveland Indians
176 Corey Patterson
182 Carlos Zambrano
183 Pittsburgh Pirates
194 Pat Burrell
199 David Purcey
202 Troy Percival
209 Randy Wolf
210 Ryan Zimmerman
211 Manny Parra
220 Tony La Russa
221 Jim Leyland
225 Joe Torre
226 Dave Trembley
230 Josh Beckett Jon Les
231 Mark Reynolds
240 Orlando Cabrera
243 Andy Marte
245 Carlos Guillen
246 Brandon Jones
249 Jon Lester
258 Jack Wilson
262 Mark Teahen
268 John Lackey
269 Jeremy Hermida
271 Lance Berkman
277 Bobby Crosby
282 Chris Volstad
284 Max Scherzer
285 Chase Headley
287 Moises Alou
289 Carlos Delgado
295 Casey Blake
296 Mike Pelfrey
299 Daric Barton
304 Jake Peavy
309 Ryan Sweeney
310 Mike Lowell
312 Aaron Rowand
314 Edgar Renteria
315 Mariano Rivera
316 Wilson Betemit
321 Denard Span
324 John Lannan
328 Jesus Flores
330 Franklin Gutierrez
335 Kelly Johnson
341 Vladimir Guerrero
346A Fred Lewis
352 Joey Votto Edwin Enc
353 Luke Hochevar
354 Chris Snyder
355 Rick Ankiel
360 Gavin Floyd
363 Coco Crisp
367 David DeJesus
369 B J Ryan
372 Brian Schneider
374 Tim Hudson
377 Alex Rodriguez
382 Chone Figgins
384 Brian Giles
386 Eric Bruntlett
394 James Loney
397 Chicago Cubs
400 Magglio Ordonez
401 Dan Uggla
402 Adam LaRoche
406 Dustin McGowan
412 Ted Lilly
423 Brian Buscher
427 Ben Francisco
428 Jermaine Dye
429 Dustin Pedroia Ichir
430 Kevin Slowey
432 Glen Perkins
433 Carlos Gomez
434 Jon Garland
435 Joe Crede
436 Billy Butler
437 Zach Duke
438 Chris Coste
440 Elijah Dukes
441 Fausto Carmona
442 Joe Mauer
443 Marcus Thames
444 Mike Fontenot
447 Adrian Beltre
448 Kevin Millar
449 Nick Swisher
450 Justin Morneau
451 Shane Victorino
452 Placido Polanco
453 Ryan Dempster
454 Frank Thomas
457 Alan Trammell Larry
460 Jeff Datz Luis River
461 Lloyd McClendon Andy
462 Jim Hickey Steve Hen
464 Roger McDowell Terry
465 Rob Thomson Tony Pen
466 Milt Thompson Rich D
467 Tony Beasley Joe Ker
468 Dave Duncan Hal McRa
470 Randy St Claire Marq
471 Brad Ausmus
472 Melvin Mora
473 Austin Kearns
474 Josh Willingham
475 Derek Lowe
477 A J Pierzynski
479 CC Sabathia
480 Jorge Posada
482 Lance Berkman
483 Dustin Pedroia
484 Chase Utley
485 Alex Rodriguez
487 Derek Jeter
488A Hanley Ramirez AS Fl
489 Josh Hamilton
490 Ryan Braun
491 Manny Ramirez
492 Kosuke Fukudome
493 Ichiro Suzuki
494 Matt Holliday
496 Geovany Soto
497 Roy Halladay
498 Ben Sheets
499 Cliff Lee
500 Billy Wagner

2008 Topps Series One and Two

Number Name

428 Jair Jurrjens
431 Delwyn Young
451 Brian Giles
452 Kevin Slowey
594 Mike Morse
623 Trey Hillman


2008-09 Upper Deck Hockey Series 1
45, 50, 105, 110, 127

Saturday, November 22, 2008

2008 Preseason Prognostication Revisited

Now that the World Series has faded into recent memory it should be time to start focusing on the 2009 season for the Tampa Bay Rays. We’ll get there some time this off season, but for right now lets do a quick review of this blog’s preseason picks. Luckily, due to my sheer laziness there are only three predictions that we have to review. So without further ado here we go!

Prediction number 1

When it comes down to it they just play in too tough of a division right now to expect the 90 wins necessary to be talked about in the play off hunt.

So I was wrong. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Luckily, I was wrong in a good way. The Rays surpassed everyone’s expectations by winning 97 games in the regular season. They smashed their way past the White Sox in the divisional series and out lasted the Red Sox in the league championship series before getting out played by the Phillies in the World Series.

I had listed a bunch of “what if’s” that could sneak the Rays into the wild card hunt, but oddly enough even though most of those “what if’s” didn’t come true they were still the best team in the American League. It just hammered home the truthfulness of the cliché that pitching and defense wins championships.

This prediction was wrong.

Prediction number 2

Carlos Pena - 37 home runs, .269 average 120 RBI’s

Instead of making bold team predictions I was planning on predicting the numbers of all nine position players and the pitching staff. I made it through 2 players. What can I say I’m lazy and often don’t live up to my ideals. So how did I do with Mr. Pena?

2008 Carlos Pena stats - 31 home runs, .247 average 102 RBI’s

Considering the putrid start he got off to I was amazed to be as close as I was. Through the end of June he had 11 homeruns and was hitting .229. His bat warmed up down the stretch as he hit 20 home runs the rest of the way while hitting above .250 in each of the last three months.

It appeared that he might have been pushing early in the season as he was striving to live up to his large off season deal. Just as his bat was starting to warm up he suffered a broken finger against Boston in June. While the time off might have prevented him from hitting 40 home runs it also kept him from striking out 200 times.

Plus if you add the 3 home runs and 10 RBI’s in the postseason I’m barely off on power numbers so I give myself a partial correct here.

Prediction number 3

Aki Imamura - 12 home runs, .2, 0 average 57 RBI’s

Aki!’s actual 2008 stats - 6 home runs, .274 average and 48 RBI’s

I thought that with a year under his belt Aki! would find his power groove. I was wrong. Even though he had 130 more at bats than 2007 his home run numbers decreased by one. That might speak more to his role at the top of the line up than his ability.

However, it was his defense at second base that provided the most value to the team. In 990 chances he only had 7 errors - most of those coming later in the season. Had he struggled at his new position there might have been the urge to move him back to his natural 3rd base position which might have delayed the development of Evan Longoria. That isn’t a concern now, nor is any other position in the infield. The four players in the infield (Iwamura, Pena, Longoria and Jason Bartlett) should hopefully play together for many seasons to come. Which would be something that can only make the Rays stronger.

So in the end I was wrong on two predictions and partially correct on the 3rd. Not the best success rate, but I have a feeling it was as good as anyone else’s.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Great Football Card Trade

I’ve been spending a lot of time (and a fair bit of money) on cards lately. That’s probably not the best way to be spending money while remodeling the condo. Oh, and I can’t forget the whole economic recession thing. Now, however, space is starting to become an issue. The closet that I’ve been using is full and our place doesn’t really have much storage. So it’s time to get rid of some cards.

After much contemplation (5 minutes) I’ve decided to cull all of the football cards from my collection. The easiest way I figured to do it was sort by team and find someone to trade with. Thanks to the internet tubes I’ve found several sports cards sites written by collectors and traders (see links for a couple that I‘ve already traded with). While most of them deal in baseball I have seen a couple of that collect football as well.

I’m trying to keep this as uncomplicated as possible. I’m offering all of my cards of a particular team for trade. That includes commons, parallels, inserts, everything. I won’t send any doubles unless they are decent rookie cards.

In return I’m looking for Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Lightning or Goalie cards in return. I’ll also post a wants list one of these days for the series I need to finish.
That’s pretty much it. If you’re interested send me an email or leave me a comment.

Here is the list:

Atlanta Falcons
Arizona Cardinals
Baltimore Ravens / Baltimore Colts
Buffalo Bills
Carolina Panthers
Chicago Bears
Cincinnati Bengals
Cleveland Browns
Dallas Cowboys
Denver Broncos
Detroit Lions
Green Bay Packers
Houston Texans / Houston Oilers
Indianapolis Colts
Jacksonville Jaguars
Kansas City Chiefs
Miami Dolphins
Minnesota Vikings
New England Patriots
New Orleans Saints
New York Giants
New York Jets

Oakland Raiders
Philadelphia Eagles
Pittsburgh Steelers
Saint Louis Rams
San Diego Chargers
San Francisco 49’ers
Seattle Seahawks
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tennessee Titans
Washington Redskins

Friday, November 14, 2008

US Unemployment Numbers Increase By One

And on a humid, December Friday afternoon the Barry Melrose Era came to a crashing end. The first year Lightning head coach was let go the day after the team squandered a 2 goal league against the defending champion Detroit Red Wings. Assistant coach Rick Tocchet has been named the interim coach. With several “big name” coaches seeking employment his tenure may be short

OK Hockey made the decision because, “the results were unexcitable the players have to understand that we need to be better”. Those were the words spoken by Brian Lawton according to the St Pete Times. Whether its trades or organizational announcements Lawton has been making a lot of statements in the press lately.

Sixteen games isn’t a long time to judge a head coach. Even though Melrose’s team was only victorious 5 times in those 16 games the quick hook is another sign that a sense of panic may be setting in with the ownership. A lackluster start to the season and below average performance from their offensive stars, both new and old, has led to many empty seats in the Ice Palace. Empty seats is one thing that this ownership group cannot afford.

Melrose, a controversial replacement for fiery John Tortorella, never seemed to fit in the TBA area. His detractors were numerous and seemed to have endless reasons why he shouldn’t be behind the bench. Whether it was his preferred hair style (slick backed mullet), his lack of recent coaching experience or the opinions he uttered as an analyst during the Bolts Stanley Cup run in 2003-04 the cantankerous commenting crowd never ceased their cry for his immediate termination. His recent fawning over the Detroit organization ruffled their precious feathers even more. Now, however, they can raise a toast to his inglorious demise and search the roster for another victim to unleash their written (and often misspelled) vitriol.

Don’t weep for Melrose. The deal he signed was for three years so he will at least get a paycheck for the foreseeable future as Lawton said they would honor it. In these trying times that’s not a bad thing. Along with Tortorella OK Hockey is now paying two gentlemen to not coach their team. As early as it is in the season there is still a good chance that they can add to that total.

The well coifed gentleman will undoubtedly appear on a television screen soon. Perhaps he could occupy a seat to the right of Tortorella as a fellow TSN studio analyst. I’m sure the two of them could trade amusing stories of their short tenures as the top commander in the OK Hockey Army.

Meanwhile, back in the self anointed Hockey Bay, USA Tocchet will inherit a team in shambles. Of their five wins only one of them comes against a team that has won more than half of its games (Buffalo). The offense is lethargic at best, showing energy only on rare even-strength occasions and unable to put a full 60 minutes of hard-nosed, aggressive play together on one night. Perhaps if one were to add up all the moments of high caliber play so far through this season it would equal a full game, but they have yet to be the best team on the ice in a nightly basis.

The revolving door on defense has been well documented and there is no need to go over it again. The only redeeming quality on this team has been the goaltending and that can’t last forever. Mike Smith has seen more rubber than a Goodyear salesman. He is facing an average of 36 shots per game. At that pace he would only need to play in 48 games to break Kevin Weeks team record of shots against of 1742 set during the glory years of the early 2000’s.

Until there is some sort of stability on the roster the team will continue to struggle. This isn’t a bad team made of up of unskilled players. The boys in Lightning blue have a tremendous amount of talent, however they seem to have no focus, no tenacity and no joy. Look at the bench - do you see any smiles? It deems there hasn’t been any humor reported in Tampa since the night in Toronto when they let Steven Stamkos skate onto the ice all by his lonesome.

So what comes first - winning or the joie de vie on the ice that leads to more winning? Watch Alex Ovcehkin when he scores or when one of his linemates scores. It’s like watching someone score for the first time. When Vincent or Marty score it seems to be celebrated more with a sense of relief and the impending doom of one watching over their shoulder waiting for the other shoe to drop. Until this team relaxes and starts playing with confidence things won’t change.

Oddly enough Melrose leaves the Lightning with the second best winning percentage as a head coach. His .438 winning percentage ranked only behind Torts (.549) and well ahead of Terry Crisp (.421), Steve Ludzik (.345), Jacques Demers (.293) and Rick Paterson (.000). So from a certain point of view OK Hockey fired the second best coach in the history of the Lightning after only 16 games - that’s hardly fair.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Welcome To the Swap Meet

Never before have the cries of “Get Your Programs! Can’t Tell The Players Without a Program!” rung quite so true in the hallowed halls of the Ice Palace. Just twelve games into the season and the revolving door hasn’t stopped spinning yet.

On Friday it was Matt Carle’s turn to become an ex-member of the Lightning. Traded along with a draft pick to Philadelphia for Steve Eminger and Steve Downie Carle’s career with the Lightning was spectacular only it’s briefness. The centerpiece of the off-season Dan Boyle salary dump, Carle was supposed to be the heir apparent in terms of free wheeling, offense sparking blue liner, and at 24 a much younger option.

Through 12 games Carle had spent almost 22 minutes per game patrolling the ice, but had registered only one goal and one assist. Neither one of those marks on the score sheet came with the man advantage and that more than anything made him expendable to the new regime.
With Carle leaving there has been almost a 100% overhaul of the blueline. Only Andrej Meszaros remains from the squad that started the season in Prague. It has yet to be determined if that is a good thing or not. The defense was a question mark going into the season and remains so now a month into it.

Speaking of the new regime it’s hard to see where they’re going with this team. It’s still early to claim that there isn’t a plan. After all, a full season hasn’t passed, but it’s starting to look that way. Moving Shane O’Brien who had failed to impress under the former regime or Dan Koci an enforcer with a whopping 41 seconds of playing is one thing. Moving a 24 defenseman who was supposed to be a cornerstone of the new look Lightning is something totally different.

This was their guy, not a Feaster guy or a Tortorella guy or even an Art Williams guy. He “fit with our plan of trying to get to younger and better”, Brian Lawton uttered those words just after completing the deal for Carle. So dealing him away must mean they want to get older and worse. Trying to justify dealing him away Lawton said that Eminger and Carle are “very comparable in a lot of ways”. Apparently points isn’t one of those comparable ways. In 61 more games Eminger has 11 less goals and 20 less points.

The regime has been branded “cowboys” by the ex coach and rumors of an owner diagramming plays during an intermission haven’t been put to bed yet. Moves like this tend to show a lack of faith in the players, the staff, the scouts and even in ownership. If a key piece of the defense can be moved for an underachieving 3rd line defenseman and cap space than who is safe? Will the next two game losing streak cost Jussi Jokinen his spot on the team? Maybe a free fall into last place will result in Vincent getting moved to Montreal. That should free up plenty of space for new acquisitions. In the end, they have to play the cards that have been dealt. Constant change for the sake of change is no way to go through a season.

There could, however, be a much simpler explanation for the recent moves. The new regime could be planning a reunion. Maybe they were big fans of the 2003-04 Washington Capitals. Olaf Kolzig, Jeff Halpern, Matt Pettinger and Eminger all skated for that squad. If the next transaction notice is the Bolts signing Kip Miller or Ivan Ciernik we’ll all know what the plan is.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Hockey! Cardboard! Tiny Pieces of Sweaters! 2008-09 Fleer Ultra Madness!

As I headed up to the local shop I was hoping for a few packs of O-Pee-Chee. I really like the design of this year’s set and the non-glossy front makes for a good signing surface for autographs.

Unfortunately, they didn’t have any - they did, however, have a couple of boxes of 2008-09 Fleer Ultra. I really enjoyed last year’s set as it had all the basic requirements: low price, good photography and the occasional insert. Since the box was only about $70.00 I figured I would give it a whirl.

This is the first box I’ve bought since I decided on a new hockey collecting strategy. From now on I’m going to focus on just Lightning cards and goalie cards. So we’ll see how this box stacks up to those new guidelines.

Below is one pack from the hobby box I broke today. Left without a scanner I had to pull the images off of Upper Deck’s site.

Top Card:

Evgeni Malkin #77.

Geno looks like he’s getting ready to throw a check into the boards.

Tim Thomas #9. Goalie Card!

Chris Higgins #37. Looks like Chris is celebrating one of the 27 goals he scored last season.

Henrick Zetterberg Scoring Kings Insert #SK7. One of the minor insert sets that make Ultra either fun or maddening to collect.

Ryan Whitney Gold Medallion #79. Inserted one per pack this parrellel series makes it’s return from last year.

Henrick Zetterberg eX #24.

To celebrate the Lightning’s first win earlier this week I decided to treat myself to some hockey cards.

A new insert for this year. Fleer/Upper Deck bring back the eX format from the late 90’s. Seeded at a rate of 1:8 it’s a sharp looking insert. The player photo is actually raised off the service of the card. The service is clear acetate (doesn’t show up on the image).

Mike Cammalleri #116. No airbrushed uniforms here. The new Flames center is shown in his LA uniform. The team logo on the back is for his new team.

Alexander Radulov #170 The back of his card states that he has “shown improvement in each of his first two NHL seasons”. Good for him! Right now he’s probably better known as being in the center of a dispute between the Russian professional league and the NHL. It seems that this summer he signed a deal with Salavat Yulaev in the Russian Continental League. Unfortunately, he still had one year left on his Nashville contract.

Brad Richards #137 The former Lightning center and all around good guy is shown in his Dallas uniform.

Not a bad pack, it pretty much represents most of the other packs that I ripped from the box. Forty-three inserts out of the box, a rate of more than one per pack. It would be impossible to put together sets of all of the inserts breaking just packs, but I suppose that’s not the purpose of inserts.

As usual the Ultra brand has top notch photography and it’s fair share of horizontal cards which always look good. The price point for packs is set at $2.99 which is a little steep despite Fleer’s claim that this is an “affordable” brand. It makes me wonder what the pack price is going to be for their Upper Deck regular series.

Overall I give it a 3.0 out of 5.0.

All non-goalie and non-Lightning cards are available for trade. Just shoot me an email!

Box Score:

1 Rookie Redemption #15

19 Goalie Cards

6 Lightning Cards (Ryan Malone Mike Smith Jussi Jokinen Paul Ranger Karri Ramo Olaf Kolzig)

3 Difference Makers (Alexander Ovechkin Teemu Selanne Pavel Datsyuk)

2 Ice Medallion (Brian Boyle 90/100 Matt D’Agostini 36/100)

26 Gold Medallian

4 Scoring Kings (Sidney Crosby Henrik Zetterberg Ilya Kovalchuk Eric Staal)

3 eX (Thomas Vokoun Sam Gagner Henrik Zetterberg)

2 Season Crowns (Henrik Lundqvist Dan Ellis)

2 Franchise Players (Joe Sakic Sidney Crosby)

2 Ultra Uniformity (Rick Nash Roberto Luongo)

119 base cards

6 Ultra Rookies (Theo Peckham Ilya Zubov David Brine Derick Brassard Boris Valabik Marc-Andre Gragnani)

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Nation Defeated or....how a bunch of Mohawk wearing, cowbell clanging kids crashed the World Series

I’m not going to lie. I wrote off the Rays before game 7. In fact, I spent most of the afternoon penning a eulogy that will never see the light of day. I wasn’t mad or upset, just resigned to the fact that the Rays would lose and I would never be able to go to another baseball related comment board. If the annoying portion (any unfortunately the most vocal portion) of Red Sox fans had been insufferable before coming back from 3-1, 7-0 then they would be twice so after.

Luckily the Rays did what they’ve done best this year, prove everyone wrong. They ended up outplaying the seasoned veterans in game 7 and emerged victorious. Even after the early home run by Dustin Pedoria I still felt good about the game. For some reason you knew someone was going to come up big and that person was Matt Garza. The big right hander was extremely effective in holding the Sox to two hits over 7 plus innings. The win continued a theme that took place throughout the season. Three times this season they were counted out by the experts:

1. The 7 game losing streak before the All Star Break
2. The September series in Boston when the Rays were ahead by mere percentage points with two more games looming in Fenway Park.
3. Game 7

Whether they are two young, too stupid or too relaxed to care the 2008 Rays have a tendency to shine when the pressure is on the most. I’m pretty sure it starts with the man on top - Joe Maddon. Merlot Joe (as he has been crowned by other better written blogs) has managed this club with the perfect combination of discipline (yanking BJ Upton off the field) and chaos (Mohawks, beards, Jon Gomes). If Lou Pinella is still managing this club it’s still a 70 win club and there’s a good chance he’s destroyed the psyche of players like Matt Garza and Upton.

Maddon is going to be manager of the year, without a doubt. In the same token Andrew Freedman is the executive of the year. Is it fitting the two of the big three stars in game 7 weren’t with the club last year. Freedman took a chance on trading away future phenom Delmon Young and Brandon Harris for a shortstop with defensive problems (Jason Bartlett) and a former 1st round pick that had prodigious talent, but also had the cloud of emotional baggage hanging over his young career. In a slightly less heralded deal he shipped left hander Jeff Ridgeway to Atlanta for third baseman Willy Aybar a young switch hitting infielder who was coming off an injury and some legal issues. All he did in game 7 was hit a booming home run that gave the Rays a bit of breathing room.

Off the field moves like that built the future success of this year’s club. Once they won their 82nd game the season was a success. A record of .500 was all the fans and management had asked for. Yet bettering that goal and holding off the Red Sox to claim the division title suddenly wasn’t good enough. Radio hosts were saying that the season would be a disappointment if they lost in the first round.. Suddenly their unprecedented success has raised the expectations that were dangerously unreachable.

Dispatching the White Sox with relative ease and winning the first 3 of 4 against the Red Sox bumped the expectations up even more. Losing to the Red Sox wasn’t about losing to a better or worse team. It was about losing to their fans. Fans in the TBA (both new and old) have a serious identity problem. Years of less than mediocre teams and a giant influx of transplants consistently made the Trop a home away from home for powerhouses like the Red Sox and Yankees. It wasn’t until this year that the tide stated to turn and it seemed that losing to the Sox in the playoffs would have crushed the small gains made.

It’s fun to be able to laugh off the scorn and bitterness from other teams fans now. For today, and maybe just for today, the little brother won the fight against the older brother. The jabs about the Trop and it’s catwalks don’t sting as much. After all, take away the green monster in Fenway and what do you have? A 96 year old stadium with cramped seating, obstructed views and crappy plumbing. If the Rays are still playing in the Trop in 2080 I’m sure it will be regarded in the same light as Fenway is today.

The bitter residents of the pseudo-nation can whine about how cheesy the cowbells are, well so what? The clanging cowbells are still making noise while the saccharine lyrics of “Sweet Caroline” are silent. The bells are something unique in sports (well accept for downhill skiing I guess) and that’s something that’s missing in today’s sports world. A world where everyone has Thunder Stix or does the wave and is implored by the same tired onscreen graphics to cheer. They also give the stadium a unique noise. I have been going to sporting events for the better part of my 32 years on this planet and there are few arenas that I have been in that were louder than the Trop during Game 1 of the ALCS.

Of course when I sit in my seat on Wednesday, high up in the Beach I could experience a new high. I might not be banging a cowbell, but I’ll definitely be cheering as loud as I can for the team that wouldn’t go away.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

One Game Away

As you can see I haven’t written much this month. Mainly because I didn’t want to jinx the Rays, but also because I’m quite lazy. Throw in some traveling, some tough days at the office and you end up going two months without posting to your own site. Sorry about that faithful readers. As the cold weather approaches expect more postings.

So with that out of the way lets get to the Rays. To steal a phrase from post game guru Rich Herrera it has indeed been a magical summer. As the months wore on the experts kept anticipating a fall. Sure they were good in May, but wait till the summer starts and they wilt in June. They made it through June, you say? Well surely they’ll fade by the All-Star Break. Seven game losing streak at the break - see I told you they couldn’t hold up - they’ll be done in August. Still in first? Well as we all know September is the months that dashes the hopes and dream of the pretenders.

Does that sound familiar? It certainly does to me. Even hulking Red Sox slugger David Ortiz had to recant his words. In July he told the media, “I’m not saying that they will drop, but if you go by the numbers, that’s normally what happens in baseball. It’s always the guys with more experience and the guys used to being in the same spot at the end of the year that take over” In September he had to admit that they were for real.

Now, Mr. Papi, the number that is most important is one. As in the Rays magic number to clinch the division. Proving people wrong has gotten old for this team. When Scott Kazmir uttered his infamous “What’s possible? Play in October, that’s possible” on February 16th fans of the Rays were treated to the following responses from the commenters on Deadspin:

The only way the rays are gonna play in October is if Selig decides to move the season back a few months to have a few more steroid hearings (DemecoShallInerittheEarth)

There's a better chance for the Kashmir dispute to be settled by October than for Kazmir to be right. (DumpDolan)

The negativity on the various other commenter boards is too inane to repeat here. Throughout the season, even on the local hometown paper’s website supposed fans, whined and moaned about the team. David Price wasn’t called up fast enough, they didn’t make any deals, BJ Upton never smiles so they should trade him, etc, etc.

Even though they kept winning the fans kept complaining online and on the radio? Why wasn’t anyone enjoying this - sure the 15-20,000 fans had fun at the fame, but as soon as it was over the whining continued. Let Kazmir pitch more, take Troy Percival behind the shed and shoot him, for God’s sake why won’t Maddon call a bunt!

On the other side of the spectrum was the team itself. They elevated fun to a new level for a ball club A stark contract to the business-like Yankees dynasty of the late 90’s. After all it’s hard to picture Paul O’Neil bouncing around in the dugout with a Mohawk after another late inning win. They seemed to be a throwback to the old clubs that grandfathers like to talk about, the Gashouse Gang, The A’s of the 70’s and the Bronx Zoo Yankees.

Watching the team throughout the season has led me to realize a few things.

1. Pitching and defense wins games. It’s a cliché, but a valid one. A strengthened bullpen with Dan Wheeler and the resurgent Grant Balfour as well as adding Matt Garza to the rotation allowed the team to vault past the other mediocre teams in the division. The defensive play, led up the middle by Jason Bartlett, Aki! And BJ Upton prevented them from giving extra outs to the Red Sox and Yankees helping to prevent big innings.

Building a team through pitching and defense is also cheaper than building a team around offense. Chicks might dig the long ball, but cost conscious owners don’t dig signing those checks. See the failed Hit Show experiment as to why offense isn’t always the way to go.

2. Chemistry does matter. As I touched on briefly this earlier, but the team does really enjoy playing together. Whether it’s the Mohawks, or boxing robes for Jon Gomes or the scraggily beards in support of Rocco this team is here for more than a paycheck. California Joe is the perfect leader for this group of kids. He let’s them run amok just enough to find out what their limits are, but also knows when to put a firm foot down.

3. There is a definite ace on the team and his name isn’t Scott Kazmir. I like Kazmir, I think he has tremendous ability, but he hasn’t harnessed it yet. Until he can work out of the 5th inning he can’t be the leader of the staff. Matt Garza has the most electric stuff on the staff, but inconsistency is his cross to bear. He could throw a no hitter or not last through the first. Andy Sonnanstine led the teams with wins for most of the season and was invaluable in eating up innings through out the season, but he’s…well…he’s Andy Sonnanstine - Mike Boddicker version 2.0. Ed Jackson is much like Garza and Kazmir - a raw talent who hasn’t learned the art of pitching yet.

That leaves one person. Big Game James. Going into the playoffs he is the undisputed ace of the staff. The game that sealed the deal - game one of the double header against Baltimore. On a day when they needed a pitcher to give them some innings he went out and gave them seven strong. Thirty-two starts and 214 innings averages out to almost 7 innings a start. Compare that to 27 starts and 152 innings for Kazmir. That’s a full inning less that Shields. Going into the playoffs the Rays are going to need to keep the bullpen fresh. If Shields can give them 2-3 starts of 7 innings or more then it saves the bullpen for games when they’re needed (I.E. Kazmir’s starts).

In the next few days the Rays will clinch their first division title. They will celebrate, there will be swimming goggles and champagne. Then the critics will come out and poke little holes in the team and come up with reasons why they won’t advance. Let’s leave that for later. For now enjoy what has transgressed from April to September. From Kazmir’s seemingly ridicules playoff prediction in spring training to the proliferation of 9=8 t-shirts. From 0-14 in the minors to presumptive Rookie of the Year for Evan Longoria. From Class A to the show for David Price. It’s been a wild ride.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

More to the TBA than just the majors....

If you type “Michael Taylor” into Google’s search engine the first site that pops up is for Michael Taylor’s Designs a furniture and accessories company. While my girlfriend would probably page around that site, in fact she may already have, that wasn’t the Michael Taylor I was looking for. Nor was the second link - an IMDB site for Michael Taylor (XII) the co-executive producer for Battlestar Galactica (the new one, not the old one). The Michael Taylor I was looking for wasn’t even on the first page, nor the second.

It wasn’t until the third page of results that I had a true hit and it was courtesy of jeffcrupper.com. That is the beauty of having minor league baseball in your own town. Michael Taylor, 5th round draft pick for the Philadelphia Phillies, formerly of Stanford University is the newest member of the Wasteland Hall of Fame. As a matter of fact I think he might be the first inductee since I haven’t gotten around to writing about the others yet.

Unless you’re a member of his family, a Phillies scout or a Clearwater Thresher season ticket holder you probably don’t know who Taylor is, and to be honest before Saturday night neither did I. Taylor stands a lofty 6’ 6” and weighs in at 250 lbs. As my friend, Work Mike pointed out he looked like a “man among boys”. Work Mike is also convinced that he helped Taylor achieve his 3-4, 2 RBI night because he “pounded & locked it in” the fist bump before the game. Needless to say Work Mike is an interesting guy.

Taylor, who is working on finishing his degree from Stanford, drove in those two runs in a Thresher win over the Ft Myers Miracle. I hear you saying “What’s a Thresher? How is a Miracle a team?” Your confusion is not surprising we’re talking about the Florida State League, a class A minor league division that features mostly young players in their second or third league of pro ball. This is where the stars play before they are stars. Ryan Howard played 130 games here and hit 23 home runs. Chase Utley hit a pedestrian .257 in his one season in Clearwater. Cole Hamels was here long enough to break his hand in a bar fight down the road from the stadium.

Occasionally a rehabbing major leagurer will roll into town after coming off the DL. Jimmy Rollins was one of the latest to don the sand and red colored jersey of the Threshers. Most of the time the field is covered with fresh faced college kids or recently signed Latino free agents. They’re still learning how to be professional ballplayers, most of them having at best a half of season of rookie ball under their belt. The defense can be spotty, the pitching wild and the hitting suspect.

Despite the proximity to Clearwater‘s pristine white sandy beaches the players aren‘t looking to hang around here too long. They’re trying to beat the odds and crawl their way up the majors. The majority of the players are around 23 or 24 years old, much older than that and it’s probably time to start thinking about a new career. Unless they tear up the league early in the season most of these players are a season or two away from a September call up to the majors.

In the meantime, they spend most of the time learning. Even the players that have spent a few years in major colleges are still adjusting to wooden bats and A+ sliders. Power pitchers are learning that professional hitters can hit 95mph fastballs especially ones down the middle, so maybe its time to learn a second or third pitch.

Taylor is one of those hitters trying to adjust, despite his large frame he moves with an easy athletic grace whether it’s loping out to his position in left or gliding around the bases for a stand up double. His size is his most notable asset, during an inning change he towered the Thresher 3rd baseman Gary Cates who is listed at 5’7 on the Thresher website, but looked like a veritable Mini-Me standing next to left fielder.

The Phillies hope Taylor develops into a hitter with Ryan Howard type power. He still has some work to do, his swing seems a little long at this point, but he is starting to put it together. In May he was named the Topps Minor League Player of the Month for the South Atlantic League after he hit a scorching .363 with 7 home runs while playing for Lakewood. Since his promotion to Clearwater he’s only hit .252 overall, but it appears he’s starting to come around. In the 10 games between July 18th and July 26th he hit .351 with 4 doubles, a home run and 7 RBI’s.

The joy of minor league baseball is going to a game and “discovering” a player like Michael Taylor. By the time you see the players in Tropicana they’ve already been talked about, blogged about, chewed up and spit out by someone. Even when a player like Evan Longoria has a rookie season like he’s having now, it’s almost expected. Anything less would have been a disappointment.

So if you live in a town with a minor league ball team g out and see them. Just because they aren’t making millions yet doesn’t mean they’re not worth seeing. Besides it’s always fun to say, “Hey I knew he was going to be a star back when I saw him in Durham”. Or in Reading or Midland or Ottawa or any of hundreds of other towns across the country.

And remember - when you see Michael Taylor crushing pitches out of Citizen’s Bank Park in Philly, you first heard about him here.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A baseball post?

I had posted awhile back that I wasn’t going to write about the Rays unless they hit a losing streak or the All-Star break. It was nice of them to roll it into one package. The team thundered into the 4 day break with an impressive 7 game losing streak. Everything that could go wrong did. The offense remained dormant, the pitching faltered and the normally reliable defense scuffled a bit.

As quickly as the national media jumped on the bandwagon they jumped off. It took the Rays roughly 5 minutes to blow the 4 game lead they had built over the Red Sox. The “I told you so’s” are lined up and ready to go.

I told you they couldn’t handle the pressure
I told you they were too young to know how to win
I told you their offense wasn’t good enough
I told you their bullpen was smoke and mirrors

Well folks let settle down a bit. No one likes a 7 game losing streak, even a franchise that is accustomed to them like Tampa Bay. However, if there is ever a time for a losing streak it was right before the break. The majority of the team got to take a break. They got to put the bats away and decompress a bit. The bullpen, which has seen a lot of work lately, got to take a few days off.

Having a clean break from the losing streak should be beneficial for the young team. If this had happened in the middle of August the losses would keep piling on, each day more pressure to win, each loss garnering more negative press. Now that they’ve had a chance to shut it down they can start the second half of the season fresh and remain a factor in the American League.

So what do they need to do to run with the big dogs? Quite simply hit the ball. 4,0,1,2,0,4,2,2 - those are the runs scored by the Rays in their last eight games That’s not going to get it done. Neither is 5 for 58 with runners in scoring position. How do they change that? The overriding theory is by bringing in a right handed bat. The names that seem to be garnering the most notoriety on the internets are Matt Holliday and Jason Bay.

While big deadline deals are sexy, especially when you’re a buyer instead of a seller for the first time in franchise history, they don’t necessarily pay off in the end. The biggest deal in 2007, Mark Teixeira to the Braves for a gaggle of prospects propelled them to a fantastic 3rd place finish in the National League East. The teams that made the American League playoffs in 2007 all made minor moves. The eventual champs, the Red Sox, picked up Eric Gagne who’s impact was minimal at best.

From reports it seems the Pirates are asking for the moon for Bay and Xavier Nady. It could cost teams as much as 2 premium prospects to acquire either of them. The Rays could put a package together that would satisfy Pittsburgh needs, but would it be worth it? Assuming David Price is off the table, what would the reaction be in losing Jeff Neimann, Desmond Jennings or Reid Brignac? While Bay is a big name and a big bat his defense in the outfield leaves a lot to be desired.

In Holliday’s case the Coors Field factor has to be a consideration. Ten of his fifteen homeruns this year are at the friendly confines in Denver. His road average is a respectable .301, but is 56 points below what he hits at home. There is also his contract. He is in the first year of a 2 year $23 million contract. That would be a lot of money for the frugal Rays to invest in an outsider.

Most likely the offense will have to come from players already on the team. Carlos Pena, BJ Upton and Carl Crawford are the names that immediately jump out as ones who need to turn it up. Pena seemed to be warming up as he hit .294 with two homeruns in the nine games before the All-Star break. If he can stay healthy and provide the type of offense that justifies his large contract than it will be similar to picking up a new player.

Upton has slumped recently, hitting .190 in the month of July, but has been steady if not spectacular for most of the season. Coach Joe Madden may want to think about moving Upton to the leadoff spot. With his power numbers down and his walk numbers up he may be better suited to hit leadoff. That would leave Aki Iwamura without a spot in the line up, but as anemic as the offense has been it might not be a bad idea to try some players in different spots.

Crawford seems to be a victim of his own success. As the only bright spot for a dismal franchise for many years CC is suffering through his first down year. It was a year that many had high hopes for, including Crawford. He is a notorious streaky hitter and seems to be striking the ball a lot harder in recent games. If he starts getting on and wreaking havoc on the bases it will lead to better pitches for the heart of the order behind him.

There is still a lot of ball to be played this season. One losing streak is not the end of the world for this team, but they must find their offense or they face risk proving the naysayers right.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Skating on into the San Jose Sunset

The light is dimming on the Dan Boyle Era here in the TBA. Rumors began swirling around like storm clouds during the madness that is the beginning of the free agency period. With OK Hockey signing every available forward they could the payroll blew by their self appointed $48 million cap and has come to rest slightly above the NHL mandated $56 million cap. After the binging it was time to begin the purge.

Boyle is cursed with owning the largest contract by a member of the Lightning not named Vinny Lecavalier. The fact that OK Hockey had supposedly signed off on that deal has suddenly become a mute point. He’s also a valuable commodity. Puck moving defensemen are a rare asset in the new NHL. Which is of course why the 31 year old is getting $6.67 million over the next six years.

The rumors grew louder once Brian Campell signed with Chicago. The number one defensive free agent was off the market and several teams were left wanting. The Senators, Flyers, Thrashers and Sharks all became potential dance partners for the Lightning.

As reports surfaced on Thursday that the Lightning had officially asked Boyle to waive his No Trade Clause Ottawa seemed a likely dance partner. They needed a defenseman, they had salary cap room and a player the Bolts would like in return in Andrej Meszaros and Boyle was originally from the Ottawa area. That possibility, however, died at the hands of Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray who stated that the Boyle deal was “too rich for the Senators” according to an article in the Ottawa Citizen.

Atlanta, an interdivision foe, seemed an unlikely destination. Boyle seemed to relish sticking it to his former team (the Florida Panthers) and would probably do the same against the Lightning. Making another deal with Philadelphia seemed to be overkill as the two teams have seemingly made 864 deals in the past 10 years.

That left San Jose. After taking a night to sleep on it TSN reports that Boyle agreed to be traded to the Sharks Saturday morning. In exchange for Boyle and hard-rocking defenseman Brad Lukowich the Lightning would receive Matt Carle, a prospect and a 1st round and 4th round pick. Carle is the centerpiece of the deal, a 23 year old defender in Boyle’s mold. Getting back 2 picks would also give Ryan Malone’s dad something to do as head of Lightning scouting department.

Once this deal is consummated, TSN reports it’s only pending paperwork, the Dan Boyle Era will be officially over. Boyle joined the Lightning in January of 2002, plucked from the Florida Panthers for a 5th round draft pick. He had spent two unhappy seasons in Miami playing for a coach, Mike Keenan, that he “couldn’t stand to look at”.

His arrival in Tampa Bay signaled a changing of the tide in the area. No longer were lumbering statues securing the Lightning blue line. Boyle would be a key component in the build up to the Stanley Cup winning team of 2004. His ability to move the puck out of the defensive zone set the pace for Coach Tortorella’s “Safe is Death” style of play. His 67 goals in a Lightning uniform are a team record for defenseman.

The offense he provided offset any liability he posed on defense. Not everyone needs to be a rugged, hard hitting defense first player. The fact that Boyle could skate the puck up the ice allowed Lecavalier and Marty St Louis to surge forward and get set up in the offensive zone. That’s an element that the Bolts will be missing unless Carle can return to his 2006-07 form that saw him score 11 goals and add 31 assists. Paul Ranger, who would be the de facto number one member of the blue line, is able to move the puck more by passing than carrying it down the ice himself.

It’s always a sad day when a fan-favorite has to move on. The new ownership seems hell-bent on totally renovating the team that was built under the Feaster/Tortorella regime. By the time its done it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Lecavalier as the only remaining link to the Stanley Cup team. The lack of Feaster’s name in any report seem to indicate that the embattled GM is on his way out. With his removal the OK Hockey takeover will be complete. Will it be for the better? That’s still to be determined. At least there will always be the memories of Boyle zooming up the ice with the puck on his stick and his head up surveying his options. Deciding that he had no better options he kicked it into a seemingly higher gear and weave his way to the net. With a quick flick of the wrist the puck would be behind the opposing goaltender.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mullets, Melrose and Merry Times are Here!

It’s been quite the busy week for the Lightning. New owners, new coaches, new contracts and exciting new talent. The impact of all these changes won’t be determined for at least another 3 months when training camp starts, but it‘s nice to be talking about hockey in June. As an organization there hasn’t been this much of an overhaul since the Art Williams’ days. Not that anyone ever wants to recall those dark days.

One thing has been determined right away. The guys at OK Hockey are going to be hands-on owners. After years of the Davidson Group spending most of the hockey season in Detroit it will be interesting to see how the area reacts to owners that want to dabble in their investment. As early as the trade deadline there were rumors of Oren and Len talking with other teams about players without Jay Feaster’s involvement.

With Barry Melrose replacing John Tortorella and former agent Brian Lawton taking over for Bill Barber as VP of Hockey Operations it must be feeling kind of lonely for Mr. Feaster. New owners have a tendency to want to bring their guys in to run the show and even though they’ve supported him so far it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see Feaster leave the organization within a year.

I’ll spare you the mullet jokes and the hate filled tirade against Melrose. I’m not sure why fans are getting as fired up about this as they are. Would they rather see Mike Keenan in here? He always gets along so well with his player, doesn’t he? The fact that Melrose hasn’t coached in over a decade could be a good thing. He may bring something new to the table. He doesn’t like the trap, wants to out work other teams and acknowledges the importance of a goalie. Sounds like an ok coach to me. It doesn’t seem that long ago that people were bemoaning the fact that the Lightning had hired some guy with no NHL head coach experience. That guy - John Tortorella and that seemed to work out alright.

Melrose will be able to build his team, a team which he said could be quite different from the one that took the ice last season, around young Vincent Lecavalier. Despite the fact he’s been in the NHL for a decade, Vinny is still only 28 so signing him to a nine year deal isn’t that bad of an idea. With his physical conditioning it isn’t a stretch to see him playing into his 40’s. Based on the preliminary numbers being thrown out there by TSN.ca ($8.6 million per year) he’s really only making a little more than a million more than he did last year.

The deal isn’t too bad and it’ll look even better when someone signs Marion Hossa to a similar deal. The same Hossa who has never scored 50 goals and is a year older than young Vinny. Lecavalier, as a center, is inherently more valuable to the team as well. He makes other players around him better whereas a winger such as Hossa needs somebody setting him up. My best guess is that Hossa ends up in New York, especially if Jagr plays in Europe.

Another free agent name getting a lot of play in the TBA blog-o-spheres is Ryan Malone. He’s big (6’4”), he’s a left winger and he’s racked up 20 goals or more in 3 of his 4 seasons in the NHL. The only problem - he’s going to be expensive. A GM would probably have to spend around $5 million a season for several years to lock up his services. Malone will be able to play several suitors off of each other - a scenario that almost always leads to a team spending too much money.

While the team promised to be active in free agency, aggressive is the word they used I believe, I don’t think Malone is a good fit. We’ll explore free agents more after July 1.

In short and with the exception of talking about Steven Stamkos, who I hope everyone has seen by now, that’s what the Bolts have been up to lately. The climb to the top of the division has only begun. They’re out of the cellar.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Don't fear the Mulleted One - Off Season Lightning Notes

I know it’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything on this page. I haven’t forgotten about you my loyal reader. Certain factors have kept me from updating this site. Chief among them being laziness of course, but as I’ve mentioned before I don’t get paid for this. I don’t even force you kids to suffer through advertisements. So if I post with Bill Simmons like regularity please forgive me.

Initially this was going to be a post about the Rays and their recent success , but with my uncanny ability to alter the course of events with my posting I figured I would leave that until a losing streak occurs on its accord or the All-Star Break whichever comes first.

Instead let us take a journey through the offseason of my other favorite TBA team – the Lightning. After all, it can’t really get much worse. Even though the NHL is embroiled in the midway point of the regular season it seems like the Lightning’s season has been over for about 6 years now. Not making the playoffs is almost as bad as another lockout. The Bolts haven’t suited up since April 5th which, if you look at the positive, means they haven’t lost in almost two months.

In the meantime, however, they have managed to keep their name in the news. The back page of the news, but any press is good press, right? Let’s start with the positive. With an assist from former captain Dave Andreychuk the Bolts secured the number one pick in June’s draft. Unlike the Buc’s they’re not being cagey about who they’re drafting. Multiple billboards in the TBA are sporting a simple message - Seen Stamkos? – followed by a website (www.seenstamkos.com) which is filled with a few YouTube videos of the tremendously talented center. Who owns the website, well the Tampa Bay Lightning of course. So don’t go swimsuit shopping Drew Doughty you’re not getting drafted by the Bolts.

If Steve Stamkos represents the future of the team then the eminent signing of their first free agent (which can’t be officially completed until July 1st) represents a dip into their recent past. It appears the Lightning and Russian powerhouse Evgeny Artyukhin have put their differences aside and have agreed in principle to a two year deal to bring the bruising forward back to the black and blue. The current brass envisions a crash line of Artyukhin, Chris Gratton and Nick Tarnasky punishing foes next season. It’s an interesting idea and may be the first line in the history of hockey to go through a season without scoring a point.

Interesting doesn’t begin to describe the last few weeks of John Tortorella’s coaching life. During what should have been one of the highlights of his career, coaching Team USA in the World Championships, he managed to possibly talk his way out of his regular paying gig. At the end of April news leaked out that Torts had offered his resignation to Jay Feaster during their end of season meeting. The mild firestorm was stoked by our favorite radio personality, The Big Dog, who mentioned and reiterated, and repeated that the coach cancelled an interview with him the same day the news leaked out.

The Canadian papers fanned the flames a little more by writing that Torts was pretty much done it was just a matter of waiting for the sale to OK hockey to be completed. The kicker to that story was that Oren and the boys already have a replacement lined up. None other than the mulleted one himself – Barry Melrose. This has been greeted by a less than enthusiastic response from the Lightning faithful.

This is not good. Not many coaches survive once the “he’s getting fired” reports start hitting the rounds. All he needs now is the vote of confidence from Feaster and his fate will be sealed. Other than Melrose there are a couple other candidates available now, from in house (Mike Sullivan) to the recently unemployed (Joel Quinville and Ron Wilson). For the past two seasons quiet whispers have circulated in print and throughout the electronic ether that Coach has lost the team. I’m not sure how much of that is true, but it gives the new ownership a convenient out.
Injured players have been an issue for the last few years as well and have also played a prominent role in the off-season. No less than three key players have succumbed to the surgeon’s scalpel so far this spring. Vincent Lecavalier has had his shoulder worked on, Paul Ranger must have thought it was a cool surgery because he had the same one about a week after Vinny.

If that wasn’t enough Jeff Halpern, the post trade deadline points machine, was busy leading his country to glory in the World Championships when Canada’s Rick Nash and Brent Burns decided his knee ligaments needed to be rearranged. After the hit (which was legal) Halpern was left with a MCL sprain and a ruptured ACL. While I’m here I might as well mention that the No Limits Fun Factory (where I work) has had more ACL injuries than any workplace I have ever heard about. No less than 6 people that I personally know at that place have had their knees redone. Well back to the Lightning.

It’s not yet known if the three players will be ready by the time the puck is dropped in Prague next fall, but if they aren’t the Bolts are going to have reach pretty deep into a very shallow pool of minor league talent. So let’s look forward to the next 3 months of off-time and pray to the hockey gods that things look up from here.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Lightning Win (finally)

Well it looks like the Bolts will have the number one pick overall come June. So by October Steve Stamkos should be skating on the number 2 line. Good for them, it's a nice shining moment for an otherwise dismal season.

It will be interesting to see what kind of team shows up in Brandon for next season's training camp. Stamkos will come with the hype that follows a number one draft pick. Vincent Lecavalier will be coming off major shoulder surgery and possibly wrist surgery. It seems the goalie job will be Mike Smith's to lose and Kari Ramo might be in Springfield.

It doesn't look like the Lightning will be super agressive in the free agent market, possibly their biggest acquistion will be a vetern backup goalie (think Olaf Kolzig). Their self imposed salary cap prevents them from being a bidder for the likes of Marion Hossa. Look for them to find a 5 or 6 d-man and a winger along the lines of Michelle Oullett.

Let me be one of the first to welcome Mr. Stamkos to the TBA -- prepare for the apathy!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

How Eric Hinske could Ruin Evan Longoria's Career.

So what happens if Eric Hinske IS this year’s Carlos Pena? No one is talking about the consequences of Hinske making the everyday roster. We’re only a week into the season so it’s still too early to see if he will keep his average over .300, but so far he has looked solid as this year’s pick off the major league scrap heap. As a matter of fact, as I typed the last sentence he just drilled a single into right field off of Chien-Ming Wang to put runners on the corners with no one out.

The nDRO was criticized heavily for sending down prized super prospect Evan Longoria to begin the season. Their thinking was that it would be beneficial to Longoria (more at bats) and the team (delay his major league service saving them money long term). In the meantime the Rays would be able to hold court with the two headed dragon of Willy Aybar and Hinske.

Fans cried out in anguish on message boards across the vast internet wasteland. Even seasoned mainstream writers weren’t immune from the sexy prospect of the 23 year old starting the season with the big club. SI’s resident baseball guru Tom Veducci wrote, “Get him to the majors ASAP. The kid, polished and confident, looks as if he’s already been in the bigs 10 years”.

Well ok then. If a writer thinks it’s time for the Rays to call up the jewel in their top rated crop of future stars then let’s do it! From a quick look at his stats (11 at bats, 4 K’s and 0 hits) it appears the Rays may have made the right call. Hopefully, the demotion and his early struggles serve as a wake-up call. After spending all off season and Spring Training hearing how great he is and is going to be this could provide a little perspective.

Please don’t read this as a pile on Longoria post. He’s going to be good, really good when his time comes. Rather let’s give the Rays some credit for thinking long term. The easy call would have been to start the young kid on the roster. He didn’t embarrass himself in spring training and Aybar’s gimpy hamstring could have opened up a spot. The fans would have been happy; the press would be able to gush over the second coming of Mike Schmidt.

Andrew Friedman and his associates (Friedman and Associates – a new law firm?) stood firm with their decision. In comments to the St Pete Times he even acknowledged that they might be “erring on the side of caution” by sending him down. Of course they are and they should. The future Rays teams, the teams that fans insist will be competing for a title in 2010, must be built around the nucleus of Longoria, Crawford, Upton and their cadre of young arms.

If Longoria is called up to soon, loses his confidence and washes out of the majors then what happens? As unlikely as that scenario may be, it would be disastrous to the organization. The same fans who are calling for the bloody head of Friedman for not promoting him would promptly jump to the other side of the fence and blame him for destroying their new savior. More importantly the team will be missing a key component of their future. By keeping the slugger in Durham for a few months there is no long term damage.

On the other side of the coin there is the financial aspect. In the same article quoted above Friedman states that the financial aspect of sending Longoria down was “virtually irrelevant”. The unnamed interneters don’t buy that for one second. They see it as a ploy to keep the kid under Rays control for as long as and as cheap as possible. It’s still puzzling to hear people whine about the “cheap ownership” and how the “tightwads” are being unfair to the fans.

This current group has shown a willingness to spend money on the players that are important to the future of the team. How quickly the large contracts handed out to Carlos Pena and James Shields are forgotten. Feel free to criticize the past ownership about being a tight-fisted tyrannical crew ( I’m thinking specifically about Namoli making a band who was invited to play the National Anthem buy tickets to watch the game), but nothing the nDRO has done has indicated that they are willing to field a lesser team in order to save money.

Another thing to look at, in the long term this could actually cost the Rays more money. If they are unable to sign Longoria to a long term deal before he’s a free agent it would be better that he’s a free agent sooner rather than later. Why’s this you ask? Well when have you ever known the cost of free agents to go down from year to year? Signing the future All-Star to a big free agent deal in 2014 rather than 2013 could cost the Rays millions more over all.

Don’t believe it? Then let us turn back the clock to 2005. In April of that year a young Rays outfielder by the name of Carl Crawford inked a 6 year $32.5 million contract with the team. Everyone was happy. The team had locked up one of its stars and Crawford was being rewarded for his exemplary performance on the field. Even the fans were impressed by the commitment to the future shown by the new ownership. Now imagine how much more Crawford would have cost to lock up (or even in arbitration) if they had waited a year or so. Why’s that? Alfonso Soriano and Vernon Wells.

After the 2006 season Soriano (eight years $136 million) and Wells (seven years $126 million) drove up the cost of acquiring outfield talent. If he hadn’t signed his big deal the year before Crawford would have been in arbitration with the Rays, imagine how that would have turned out. Not well for the Rays especially with names like David Wright, Miguel Cabrera and Alex Rodriguez sharing Longoria’s position.
So fans, please relax. You’ll have plenty of time to enjoy Longoria’s heroics in the blue, white and yellow of the Rays. In the meantime enjoy the fact that your 2008 Rays are showing that they belong in the majors and just took two of three from the Yankees. If you have to get fired up about something go to an old standby – Jon Gomes not getting enough playing time.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

My late preseason breakdown of YOUR Tampa Bay Rays

There is really not much I can add for a season preview that the national pundits haven’t already addressed. They’re young, they’re better than ever and they’re going to be tough to play. The always reliable preseason predictors have them winning between 79 and 89 games. They have the second coming of Tom Seaver (Scott Kazmir), Mike Schmidt (Evan Longoria) and Joe DiMaggio (B.J. Upton).

Reading the posts of the faceless commenters on various blogs would lead one to believe that anything less than .500 and a late season wild card chase would be a disappointment and cost them a chance of getting a new stadium on the waterfront. Of course they also think the DRO has personal vendettas against them as evidenced by the demotion of Longoria the wunderkind.

If they would take a deep breath and realize every little move isn’t life or depth they would realize that the club built is decidedly stronger than any Rays club ever assembled. They have speed, power, defense and depth. They have a bullpen that doesn’t rely on Brian Stokes or Chad Orvella. Carlos Pena could smash 40 homeruns and Upton could hit 30. Jimmy Shields could pitch 240 innings and garner 20 wins. Kazmir (if healthy, always add the “if healthy” when dealing with the slight lefty) could be a Cy Young candidate. Unfortunately they need all of that to happen to sniff 80 wins this year.

When it comes down to it they just play in too tough of a division right now to expect the 90 wins necessary to be talked about in the playoff hunt. New York, Boston and Toronto are better on paper Baltimore, despite their recent renovations, always plays the Rays tough. These are the facts and they are indisputable.
Luckily for you, me and the dog next door baseball doesn’t always rely on facts and logic. Despite the trend towards statistics and PECOTA’s there are still intangibles, or “what if’s” that affect the way a season unfolds.

What if Josh Beckett misses a few games against the Rays and they take advantage to sneak out a few wins against a team that has dominated them the last few seasons?

What if the Yankees young studs falter?

What if Toronto continues its lackluster 3rd place ways?

What if the Rays precautions pan out and Kazmir throws 200 injury free innings?

What if Pena doesn’t get weighed down by his huge contract and puts up another 40-some homeruns?

If the Rays have enough of those go there way wild card wouldn’t be out of reach. Looking back on what was just typed, those what if’s aren’t quite so farfetched.

Instead of my usual overall preseason prognostications let’s go with a position-by-position breakdown.

First Base

Carlos Pena

Last Season – 46 homeruns .282 average 121 RBI’s
2008 Prediction – 37 homeruns .269 average 120 RBI’s

His home run production should be down as pitchers around the league are better prepared for him. Other than Upton there really aren’t too many other every day home run threats in the lineup. However, don’t forget that he will basically have an extra month of at bats since he didn’t really work his way into the Rays line up until May last season.

His offense overshadows what might be his biggest asset this season – his defense. As he looks out into the infielder no one he sees was in the same place last season. Aki is learning a new position at 2nd, Jason Bartlett has had his ups and downs at short, and who knows what kind of defense is going to be played from the three-headed third base position. Pena will be key to keeping extra runners off the bases for the young pitching staff.

Second Base

Aki Iwamura

Last season – 7 homeruns .285 average 34 RBI’s
2008 Prediction – 12 homeruns .290 57 RBI’s

The Japanese import had his ups and downs last season and became a bit if a cult sensation (especially here). A couple of injuries derailed him a bit and kept him from getting into a comfortable groove. When healthy he has a knack (an Aki-Knack?) for scoring runs (82 Runs in 123 games) he could blossom into a nice table setter for a potentially potent Rays' lineup.

He has one game under his belt at 2nd base this season and has already drawn rave reviews. As naturally talented as he is it shouldn’t be a big adjustment and he should definitely be an upgrade over Brendan Harris and Josh Wilson. It will be a shame that one of his greatest assets, laser cannon like throwing arm, will not be displayed quite as much.

More tomorrow.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hockey in June? Not in this town!

I hate to break this to you, but the Lightning is done. For my readers in Brooksville that’s done as in “dun”. There’s a better chance of Art Williams joining OK Hockey to buy the team then the Bolts making the playoffs. Wait, wait you say. As this goes to press they’re only 9 points out of the 8 seed and 8 points behind Carolina for the division lead and the number 3 seed. Why are you so negative they can still do it! You’re supposed to support the team!

Trust me I’d like nothing better than to drink the kool-aid, bang my ThunderStix and say that the Bolts can make a run. I’ve tried. I’ve put off writing this for 2 weeks now, but it’s time to face the facts. They’re in last place, not just in their division, but in the entire Eastern Conference. Not only that, but they’re next to last in the entire NHL. They’re 57 points are better than only the Los Angeles Kings.

Trust me I don’t want to be writing this article. In fact a part of me hopes this post will act an anti-jinx and the Bolts will go on a 15 game winning streak to vault into contention. It’s not going to happen. Every game seems to reinforce the point that this year’s Lightning is not the gritty, iron-willed scrappers of just a few seasons ago.

Fans and critics alike would love to think they still are, but they’re not. Simply put they can’t finish out games. They’re winning percentage when leading after 2 periods is a dismal .731, only the Florida Panthers are worse at .727 (maybe it’s the Florida humidity?) In the third period and overtime they’re being outscored 88 to 59. That’s not the Lightning Way.

There was a day when the Bolts won games in the third by breaking the wills of other teams. Their ferocious fore-check and puck hawking speed wore down other teams and allowed Tampa to steal games from “better squads”. This was the whole premise behind the pre-season sensation known as Camp Torturella. The Lightning were built to be the last team standing on the ice.

Even though they still have the potential to be one of the better skating teams in the league they are committing more lazy penalties in years past. Hooking, holding, tripping are all penalties committed by players that aren’t moving their feet or working hard enough to keep up with the opposing puck carriers.

On the flip side when Tampa has the puck they aren’t forcing other teams to commit infractions. In fact, they have a NHL low 211 power play opportunities. Bobby Taylor may moan about the inadequacies and injustices brought forth by the modern NHL referees and their lack of calls for the Lightning, but the fact remains if they don’t use their speed to their advantage then they aren’t going to get any calls for them.

The good news is that this couldn’t happen at a better time. If the Bolts had hung on for another 2 weeks or so they’re chance to make lemonade out of this lemon of a season might be lost. With a week left before the trading deadline it’s pretty much an open house at the Ice Palace. With the exception of Vincent Lecavalier pretty much every one is fair game.

That means Marty St Louis, Vinny Prospal, Brad Richards, Johann Holmqvist and Dan Boyle could be skating in new uniforms very soon. Unfortunately, the most needed commodity (a number one goalie) probably isn’t going to be available. However, they do have a chance to restock what is now a barren farm system with viable young players and draft picks.

No fan wants to hear that kind of talk and it pains me to have to write it, but those are the facts and in the words of Smiling Jack Ross, “they are undisputed”. It’s time for the Bolts to rebuild this team. Loyalty to hero’s of the past can stunt a team’s ability to compete. The Lightning tried to build a team around 3 superstar offensive players. It wasn’t a bad idea in Today’s NHL.

Too bad it didn’t work.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Baseball is Back!

What a great day. A bright blue, cloudless sky, 70 degrees and the sound of baseballs snapping into catchers’ mitts can mean only one thing. Spring training is back in St Pete. Since I had nothing better to do I wandered down to the Namoli complex to watch the Rays pitchers and catchers work out.

There is nothing more unlike a baseball game then a workout. Basically the pitchers were divided into three groups: one throwing in the bullpen, one working on fielding drills and one working on the most boring play in baseball – covering first base. Every 20 minutes or so the groups would rotate and once all three had completed the different stations they went to another field to run. Good times.

It’s the last season for the Rays to train at the Namoli Complex, a group of fields in St Pete that I happen to have played on at one time in my life. As a matter of fact, during the half season of adult baseball that I played in a few years ago I managed to give up a prodigious homerun on the very field the players were warming up on. Good times indeed.

I managed to snap off a couple of photos while Scott Kazmir and David Price’s group threw in the bullpen. They were joined by Jake McGee (slowly gaining popularity as the next great pitching prospect), Edwin Jackson and Trevor Miller. Miller, the old man of the group, seemed to be working on a couple of sidearm pitches while the young kids snapped the mitts rather briskly.

A large size group of fans offered their well informed opinions as they watched the players work out.

“Mike looks a lot smaller than the last time he was here…looks like he lost about 20 pounds…must have been on the juice.”

“Well he was here with Canseco.”

“Yup. Must have been on the juice.”

That was pretty much the most intelligent conversation I overheard. The guys who were criticizing Price’s location were priceless as well. Apparently to those professional scouts 10 pitches on the second day of training camp were enough to form an opinion on the Rays best pitching prospect. After hearing one of them complain about Jim Hickey for the 4th time I turned up the volume on my Ipod and went back to snapping photos.

After a hot dog and a Pepsi (nothing better on a warm Saturday afternoon at the ball yard) I wandered down to the players’ entrance where a group of about 10 fans stood waiting for autographs. Al Reyes signed for a few fans before heading into the clubhouse. It took another 15 or 20 minutes before the players started trickling by.

Matt Garza signed for most of the fans and took time to comment on the 2008 Topps card that he signed for me. Apparently he knew that was taken in Cleveland, based on the road uniform and his “bald haircut”. He seems to be happy to be on the team and looking forward to playing this year.

The autographer of the day was definitely James (Don’t Call me Jamie!) Shields. He started at one end and worked his way all the way down the line, signing for about 75 fans. John Jaso signed for everyone as well even taking the time to sign about 12 cards for one kid.

Scott Kazmir and David Price came by and signed a fair amount as well. Overall everyone was very respectful and didn’t ask for more than one auto’s per person.

Here’s hoping the Curse of the Autograph goes away this year. I walked away with signed cards of Kazmir, Shields, Paul and Garza. Jaso, Price and Chris Mason signed a blank sheet of paper that I might use for cut signatures down the line. The countdown begins, let’s see how many of them are still here in a year.

All in all a day well spent.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Quick Hits

A couple of random notes that I'll expand on later:

The Rays locked up two of their best players from 2007.

Carlos Pena - 3 years $24.1 Million. $6 Million to be paid this year, $8 million next year and over $10 million in his final year. What are the chances of him being a Ray when he's owed $10 million? Probably about the same chances of him hitting 48 home runs next season.

Scott Kazmir - 1 year $3.78 million. Things aren't looking good for Kazmir remaining a long term Ray, but at least they avoided the ugly arbitration process.

Last but definitely not least... Big Mike is off the market. My buddy and occasional commentor is engaged. Details were not released.. but congrats to the happy couple!

A little history

I have a decent sized card collection. It’s not the largest or most valuable, but it is large enough to annoy my girlfriend. To help keep an ear to the ground on new releases I subscribe to Beckett Baseball Monthly. Beckett is considered by the industry as the holy bible of cards. If you price a card, most likely you price it based on the “Beckett Cost”.

For the past few years Beckett has been posting their yearly “Rookie Rolodex” It’s an issue devoted to players that the casual fan, heck even the somewhat intense baseball fan, have never heard of and will probably never hear of. In most of the player reviews they include a “best compared to”.

They usually compare the player to a well known major leaguer so that the reader has an idea of what the potential of the prospect will be. For instance Cubs prospect Darwin Barney is compared to David Eckstein and Mets pitcher Joe Smith is compared to Chad Braford. Sometimes it appears that they compare players to other prospects just for fun. For instance Giants catching prospect is compared to “Bryan Pena”. I had to look him up and I think they were referring to Braves catcher Brayan Pena. Whatever his name is I don’t think Giants fans are jumping up and down over the comparison.

I like to flip through and see which Rays prospects pop up and what Beckett things their future looks like. The Chosen One compares to Zach Minor and Aki is compared to Mark Tehan. However, the best comparison by far is for a former Rays newsmaker – Elijah Dukes. Beckett sees him as….drum roll, please…..Toe Nash.

Wow. Gregory Toe Nash. A name that hasn’t been uttered in these parts for years. In fact I would bet dollars to donuts that 75% of the people at the Trop on opening day this year wouldn’t know who Toe Nash is. How do I know? By listening to the outrage of fans by the antics of Mr. Dukes, himself.

The legend of Toe Nash would have you walking next to Rays scout Benny Latino, the two of you picking your way through the muggy sugar cane fields of Louisiana. You would walk out of the hot, sticky fields into a clearing. Grown men, weary from a day working the fields would be gathered round playing beer league baseball in the setting southern sun.

In the middle of the men would be a young, towering goliath stood. His 6 foot 6 frame was in the words of Peter Gammons, “cut like marble”. Like the mythical Roy Hobbs he was a dual threat. Capable of hitting home runs that disappeared into the cane stalks 400 feet away and then turning around to strike out men twice his age with an elusive 90mph fastball.

In your mind you can see Latino rushing to his car and driving into town to call scouting director Dan Jennings about the 18 year old freak in the fields. Crammed into a telephone booth outside of a diner and wiping his sweating brow with his fedora he tells Jennings that he just found the next great player in the middle of nowhere - Louisiana and they need to sign him before anyone else has a chance….ok I made that all up.

At least the part about Latino calling from a telephone booth. He probably called Jennings on his cell phone, but that just doesn’t seem as dramatic. Any who the story continues with Nash being brought to West Virginia for a work out at the Rays rookie ball complex. He wowed them with 20 home runs on 50 pitches or so. He threw the ball 95 miles an hour and ended up walking away with a $30,000 signing bonus. Throw in some more made for movie moments (country boy confused in an airport, roommate teaching him how to order pizza delivery) and it was quickly turning into the greatest story ever told.

All of a sudden Toe Nash was on the front page on the USA Today, movie and book deals were being discussed, hell even Oprah was interested. Let’s not even think about the fact that he hadn’t played a professional game yet. He was going to be a star. He was surrounded by stars. In his first game he was in an outfield with future All Star Carl Crawford and can’t miss prospect Josh Hamilton who had yet to derail his own career.

What a great story. Here was a young, barely educated (dropped out of high school) product of a single family home (his mother left when he was 12) who had a chance to be the next “Babe Ruth” – a quote that a hope Jenning’s family and co-workers make fun of him for. However, in these cynical times it couldn’t be true. And of course it wasn’t. To say Nash had issues is like saying that Hamilton has a couple of tattoos.

According to the St Pete times Nash managed to be arrested 5 times in one year (take that Chris Henry!) from February 2000 to February 2001. In that time charges ranged from misdemeanor marijuana possession to domestic violence (he beat up his 41 year old girlfriend). In 2001 he raised the ante with battery and a felony count of robbery. The Times article reports that “Nash and a friend beat a man, and while the victim was choking on his blood, stole money from his wallet.” In 2002 he added aggravated rape, aggravated crimes against nature (what?) and felony theft.

Kind of puts BJ Upton and Delmon Young’s transgressions to shame doesn’t it? Well, a lot of players have “off the field issues”. What about on the field? As far as I can see he only played 47 games – hitting .240 with 8 HRs and 47 RBI. Not exactly Ruthian.

Jennings stated at the time they were committed to Nash feeling that in the proper environment he could stay out of trouble. It wasn’t to be. The Rays finally let him go after he spent some time in jail. He surfaced briefly, signing a minor league contract with the Cincinnati Reds before being cut after violating his parole.

Not much can be found on the latest exploits of Gregory “Toe” Nash, but suffice it say it doesn’t appear his career is going to have the dramatic resurgence mirroring his one time outfield partner Josh Hamilton. However, I doubt Nationals fans are overjoyed to see his name in reference to Elijah Dukes.

So instead of becoming a real life Sidd Finch or Roy Hobbs he became the 21st century Steve Dalkowski. He was also the first of the Troubled Rays before there was Josh Hamilton and his heroin abuse or Delmon Young’s fantastically flying bat there was Toe.

Buried somewhere in a box I have a couple of cards that I’ll stumble across someday with is likeness on them. Likewise I guess someday we’ll stumble across another sad news story about the Sugar Cane slugger – Toe Nash.