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.