Sunday, March 30

Hockey clichés

I know we don't normally write about hockey much, and talking about Pittsburgh sports teams is sort of anathema around these parts, but I'm watching the Penguins game right now and am hearing some real topnotch sports clichés.

For those of you not familiar with the sport as it appears on television, I'm pleased to report that they mindlessly use "aggressive" a lot and issue the same nonsense about veteran leadership, grit, and other things that have little to do with the actual game being played, as other sports broadcasters do. If these gentlemen talked half as much about scoring and preventing goals as they did about "hits," this might be a better broadcast!

Saturday, March 29

Westbrook Looks Good & Robin Meade Stops By

The Indians were rain delayed for 64 minutes today. Through all that the Tribe was able to pull out a 4-1 victory over the Braves, going 2 for 2 over the last two days in exhibition games at Turner Field, wait, wait, wait...The damn 7th inning occurred and the Tribe lost 5-4. Anyway, it's just spring training.

OK so what was really important about this game was that Jake Westbrook went 4 strong innings, giving up 2 hits and running his scoreless inning streak to, the whole entirety of spring training. Yes our beloved Jake Westbrook has gone a solid 18 innings without giving up a run this spring. Needless to say, I'm impressed.

Post rain delay Jorge Julio and Jensen Lewis pitched scoreless innings before the wheels came off for Masa Kobayashi who gave up 5 runs in 0.2 innings. Of course only one of those runs was earned. Craig Breslow was called in to try to finish off the 7th, with two outs and the bases loaded, but the rain returned and the game was called.

This was the first game after I decided to sign-up for MLB Gameday Radio. Of course today was also the MLB TV preview. So I did see a few shots of the Altanta ballpark before going with the WTAM radio feed. It didn't look like there were more than 10,000 people at the park and the official attendance was over 16,000. I can only imagine there were about 5,000 on hand for the Braves miraculous comeback. One of the game's higlights you're bound to hear about was that Robin Meade stopped by to chat with the Indians radio team and to take batting practice before the game.

The Indians did a nice story about Robin, a former Miss Ohio, and how Carl Willis had a little trouble pitching to her. Obviously not being your typical baseball player, Robin was satisfied to make contact and finally get one into fair territory. In the second inning Robin joined the radio team in the booth. Luckily the Tribe were able to put together a few singles so Robin could chat for a while. She talked about growing up in a small town and some Ohio related topics, both Tom and Mike were impressed. You can catch Robin Meade on CNN Headline News from 6-10 AM on Morning Express with Robin Meade. Oh wait this isn't a Robin Meade blog.

Well today was the final Indians spring training game. The highlights of this spring were obviously Jake's pitching performances, and the play of a few guys named Sizemore, Gutierrez, and Francisco. Sure the spring doesn't mean anything but it's just nice to have had baseball back. The record now stands at 0-0 before the Indians take on the White Sox Monday at Progressive Field. Here's hoping for a drier game Monday then the Tribe saw today.

Notes: The Tigers signed former Indians reliever Aaron Fultz to a AAA contract. Obviously the Tigers are in need of relief help and they currently only have one left-handed reliever in their bullpen, so if Fultz can get his act together, he could easily move up I-75 to Detroit.

Go Tribe!

FCF evaluates the 2008 Tribe

Welcome to Forest City Fanatics' roundtable discussion of the upcoming 2008 Indians season. JHH, Andy, Nick, and Figgs will be taking a look at some of the questions that will define the campaign, as the Tribe seeks to defend their 2007 AL Central title and end their 60-year championship drought. Let's see what our writers have to say:

How many days will it be until people totally forget that the park was ever called Jacobs Field?
JHH: I suspect longer than you think. It was Jacobs Field for 14 years, but the Progressive deal is for 16. If I need to give a number I'll say until the All-Star break, of next season. Snarky note from Andy: the All-Star break of next season is not a number :)

Andy: Like a month. I would have said shorter, but I'm still subconsciously calling it Jacobs Field myself. The real question is: how long before ace Tribe broadcasters Tom Hamilton and Mike Hegan consistently call it "Progressive"?

Figgs: Definitely longer. I think it will be over a month before most people even start calling it Progressive. It'll always be "The Jake" in my heart.

Nick: "Never. I'll never turn to the Dark Side." [Nick stands proudly, casts his lightsaber aside in defiance.]

Will CC be an Indian at year's end? Beyond?
JHH: Yes. C.C. is too important to this team to be traded away, unless the team was way out of first. There may still be some hope somewhere, not in this blogger's mind though, that C.C. may still sign after the season is over.

Andy: Yep. Nope. I fully expect the Tribe to be in contention and they won't move him if that's the case. Keep in mind: they don't need to be in first; just within striking distance. This is too good a club for them to be far out of the race in July. As for the end of the year: I think Shapiro has too much confidence in his organization's pitching depth and too strong a desire not to make a long, risky investment and hamper the club's finances to resign the big guy. I look forward to some team being stuck with him in 2014.

Nick: Obviously, whether or not the Tribe trades CC is contingent upon their performance, but there's no reason to think that they'll be out of contention at the trade deadline, so I don't think CC will be traded. I've addressed this before.

Which Hafner will we get: the 2007 decent hitter, the 2005-06 monster, or something inbetween?
JHH: Hafner has struggled against lefties more and more, which is a concern. When it is all said and done I think he'll do better than last season, but not near the 2005 numbers. He was just so good, but we don't really need him to be that good to be a successful team. What we really need is more consistent contributions from the fringe players, but that wasn't what this question was about.

Andy: Most saber guys and numerical predictions have Hafner going to the mean, and the smart money is on just that: an improvement on last year's slump but not quite the dizzying heights of 05-06, when he was the league's best hitter. Since I'm a bit of a homer, I think his numbers will be slightly better than such estimates.

Nick: I think we'll see a Pronk who won't eclipse his '05-'06 numbers, but will come damn close. Hafner might work harder than any of the Indians' hitters, and he's too good of a hitter to be held down for long. He'll get things straightened out this season.

What minor league position player and pitcher do you expect to contribute in the way that so many did last season?
JHH: It's tough to not immediately blurt out Ben Francisco, but he is the obvious answer to this question. Not to be overlooked is the bullpen depth the Tribe is controlling in Buffalo. My real wish here is that Marte will finally become a player we can be proud to have traded for but I don't see that happening.

Andy: Ben Francisco has some skills - I think he's expected not to make the club out of Spring Training but I see him contributing this year. In a small sample size, he OPS'd .803 last season and played superb defense. His K/BB isn't great, but in his last two minor league years his OBP was about .350 and OPS around .800. He'll prove to be a better option than Dellucci and Michaels. As for pitchers, I'll go with Aaron Laffey, for reasons to be discussed shortly. I considered picking Chuck Lofgren here but went with the safest bet.

Nick: I'm going to go with our forgotten outfielder: Shin-Soo Choo. I'd like to see Choo and Francisco forming the LF platoon by season's end. Pitching-wise, Laffey's the obvious choice, and he'll definitely contribute either as a starter or out of the pen at some point. I like Jeff Stevens to come up and be this year's version of Raffy Perez/Jensen Lewis.

What do you expect from Andy Marte?
JHH: Oh man I didn't look at this question before answering the last one. OK, from spring training Marte hasn't exactly been a Brooks Robinson at the hot corner. That and his hitting has been spotty. I suspect he'll do an OK job as a utility infielder to be eventually traded or released and go on to having a mediocre career with 2 or 3 different teams, but I hope I'm wrong.

Andy: Splinters in his baseball pants. I want Marte to be great, but I don't see him getting enough at-bats and displacing Blake on a team ready to win right now.

Nick: I think Marte will do alright. He'll hit about .270 in limited ABs, show decent power, but will strike out too much because his swing isn't very compact. Marte will show enough in about 200 ABs for the Tribe to pencil him in as their 2009 starting third baseman.

Barring injuries, who do you expect to make up the Tribe's starting outfield by midseason?
JHH: Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez. Oh wait its 2008? So Sizemore, Frank the Tank, and Dellucci/Michaels.

Andy: Sizemore and two other guys. Alright, fine: Sizemore, Gutiérrez, and a Choo/Francisco platoon. I think maybe Wayne Kirby can get some AB's as well.

Figgs: I'll go with John's first one, with Candy Maldonado playing a key role off the bench.

Nick: Sizemore, Gutierrez, Choo/Michaels, with a sprinkling of Casey Blake.

How well will the Rafaels do this season?
JHH: Perez is still an unknown and I suspect he'll do fine. Senior Slo-mo will also be OK but not the superhuman he was last year. I'm worried that Betancourt may be ripe for injury due to his use last season. This is actually a worry for every pitcher we have. The post-season is a lot of extra work for a pitching staff and seeing how the Tribe's starters and rotation handle that will be something to look for.

Andy: Did I already say regression to the mean? I did. Bullpens are, as Shapiro is fond of saying, "volatile," and I expect the Raffys to come back to Earth this year. What they did last year was ridiculous; they'll still be good because they throw hard strikes, but the dropoff this year might just cost the Tribe a few games in the standings.

Figgs: I think Perez can be a stud again this year. Betancourt will do well, but I think we'd all be dreaming to expect him to repeat last year.

Nick: Very good, not spectacular. The Tribe should be careful with Betancourt early in the season. He threw a ton of innings last year and it wasn't long ago that he had career-threatening elbow surgery. Wedge should be wary of the dreaded "tired arm." Perez struggled a little in last year's playoffs, so the league may be developing a bit of a book on him.

Will Cliff Lee stay in the rotation?
JHH: I'll be daring and say yes. I just like the change of speed he can bring.

Andy: Nope.

Figgs: He'll stick a round for awhile, but I see Laffey getting into the rotation at some point this year. Or, (fingers crossed) we get the Jeremy Sowers we've been waiting for and he makes his way to the show.

Nick: I put the over/under at seven starts. Shake dat Laffey Taffy.

Will there be any Chief Wahoo phasing-out in 2008?
JHH: I suspect they could make him smaller on the batting helmets, or start wearing the "I" hats more, but I suspect that phase is not planned for a year or two.

Andy: I'm not sure how they can really accomplish this; the "I" has already been introduced and the Chief on their hats is already microscopic. Facing a minor backlash over selling the field naming rights already, the time isn't right to further irritate Wahoo loyalists.

Figgs: It's gonna be a dark day in Cleveland when Wahoo's gone.

Nick: If the Tribe ever eradicates Wahoo, it's tattoo time for this fellow. They won't be able to take my Wahoo away; it will be in my skin! Seriously though, I don't see it, at least not this season. The disgusting "el vesto" (Figgs' translation for "vest" in our Espanol class - no idea how I remembered that) alternate jerseys are toast, as are the script "I" hats, replaced by these bad boys. Very classic, way cooler.

Do you think the Tribe's lack of off-season acquisitions will come back to haunt them?
JHH: This is my question and its tough to look at Detroit and see where they went wrong. I guess Pudge and Magglio aren't getting any younger. But then I tell myself that isn't the Indians' style, its just not their way. Depth is what this team is about and you can see it in the OF and in the pitching. OK, the infield prospects are a little thin but we'll win our way with our guys.

Andy: I think their off-season patience will come back to benefit them long-term. There wasn't much they really needed out there, except maybe a hitter like Bay, and by again not making bad free-agent deals they maintain financial flexibility and continue to draw from their good farm system.

Nick: Andy's right - as much as fans may be irked by the Tribe staying put this offseason, you can't spend money if there's nothing to spend it on. Carlos Silva got $48M over 4 years. Spending money is one thing, wasting it by making a move simply to make a move is another. I would have thrown the kitchen sink at the Dan Haren deal, but I'll trust Shapiro on that one. The Tribe stayed disciplined in their Moneyball-like strategy, and it was the right decision.

Will the Indians' staff's personal love affair with Casey Blake continue unabated?
JHH: I guess I should have asked this question as well as Andy's love affair, etc. Anyway Casey Blake is the kind of player no one hates. I have a particular theory that the more I personally hate him the better he does. So out of the best interest for this team, I hope Casey Blake is traded soon.

Andy: Fourth-wall breaking: I didn't write this question and I think it's silly. You know exactly what you'll get with Blake; very good defense, versatility, OPS around .800, 25 home runs, and subpar situational hitting. I don't understand why fans are so down on him considering how he's stepped into positions and really helped the club the past few seasons. Is he a star? No way. I'm sure if the Tribe had better options they'd love to use Blake as more of a utilityman, but it hasn't worked out that way and he's done well as a fill-in. Also: JHH's stance on Blake mirrors that of my Dad and Danny Ferry back in the day - Dad would constantly demand that the Cavs trade Ferry and he always responded with a big shot.

Nick: Hating Blake makes no sense. Stepping in for Marte (who played like shit before his injury), Blake provided great defense (the best we've seen since Matt Williams) at third base and was one of the Tribe's most valuable players in 2008, simply because they were out of options at the hot corner. I have no problem with Casey Blake and I'd love to keep him on the team as a super-sub or a third baseman, but it looks like his contract demands will punch his ticket out of C-Town next season.

With the Tribe still in contention in late summer, what position do you see them most likely trading for?
JHH: A real closer. While the depth in the bullpen has been noted that doesn't mean some guy can just waltz in there and do the job.

Andy: No position. Deadline deals don't usually play a big role down the stretch (Carlos Beltran being a notable exception) and the Tribe just doesn't make big splashes. They'd probably only be able to snag a depth guy in the outfield or bullpen, and that's what they already have plenty of.

Nick: Possibly a matchup lefty, but it's more likely that they'll just stand pat.

What will be the order of finish in the AL Central?
JHH: I can imagine more than three games will separate the Indians and Tigers. For the rest of the division its ugly and I can only hope the old man White Sox are dead last, sorry honey.

Andy: PECOTA and Bill James both have the Tribe in first, so who am I to argue? Naturally Detroit finishes second, and Kansas City isn't leaving the basement. I like the Twins in 3rd and Sox in 4th. While I'm at it, the Angels are the class of the West (David West just now made a buzzer-beater to beat the Cavs. Darn.) and the Red Sox should claim the AL East. Slot the Tigers in the Wild Card spot. As for the NL: eh.

Figgs: I'll take the chalk on this one. Tigers, Indians, Twins, White Sox, Royals. The Tigers/Tribe race will be thrilling all the way to the finish. Whoever just misses out will take the wild card.

Nick: Tribe, Tigers, White Sux, Twins, Royals. The Tigers' pitching issues will prove more serious than most anticipate. Detroit will seriously regret trading away their starting pitching depth (Andrew Brown and Jair Jurrjens).

How many games will this team win, will they qualify for the postseason, and how successful do you expect said postseason run to go?
JHH: 99. The postseason run will be at least as long as last year.

Andy: 93. Yes. I'm not even going to bother to answer that question even though I wrote it.

Figgs: I'll be pessimistic and go 90 with the Wild Card. I truthfully picked them to win it all last year, but I think if I did it this year it might be more of my heart talking.

Nick: (Docking Bay) 94, and the division crown for the second straight season. "What's that? Playoffs? Don't talk about playoffs! You kiddin' me?"

Thursday, March 27

The best of the best

I liked Bud Shaw's article today about the NCAA tournament, and found it interesting how he ranked the "Best Sporting Events". Shaw has them as such:

1) NCAA Tournament
2) Super Bowl
3) Masters
4) World Series
5) Olympics
Honorable mentions: NBA Finals, Indy 500 (though not anymore), Stanley Cup Finals (in person), Kentucky Derby.

That's a reasonably well-crafted list, though I would of course make some changes. Obviously, the Masters is not going to make my list since a) it's golf and b) it happens like one third of the way into the season. Everything else on the list is a culmination, a final battle between the sports' finest competitors for the big prize (except for the Derby and Indy 500 - why can't these non-sports structure their tournaments properly?) but the Masters is just an early-season tournament with semi-artificial importance attached to it. Also: I hate golf.

Anyway, here's how my list shakes out:

1) Super Bowl
No question in my mind. The biggest game (not a series, a game) of America's biggest sport, and the grandests spectacle we have to offer. It's essentially a national holiday.

2) World Cup of Soccer
I'm surprised about how high I placed this myself, but the sheer scope of this event makes it athletically and culturally significant. Hell, if it gets me to adjust my schedule to watch soccer games it must be something special, right? It's easily the best international sporting tournament there is. Now, about those 0-0 ties...

3) World Series
I love how tense late-October baseball gets and the drama the games offer; it's too bad we've been plagued with sweeps in recent years.

4) NCAA Tournament
This could be #3 if it weren't for those pesky later rounds. It's interesting how much fan excitement wanes after those frenetic opening days.

5) Olympics
Lots of neat events (swimming, 100 m dash), lots of not-so-neat events (kayaking, archery), and all the way through tremendous skill and athleticism. Still, it's such a broad competition that it stretches the attention span. Like, name one thing that happened in the 2004 Athens or 2000 Sydney games.

6) NBA Finals
Tough, intense basketball between two battle-tested teams at the end of a long road for basketball's prized championship - what's not to like? Other than the fact that it takes place in late June, that is.

7) Stanley Cup Finals
Try to remember what an elite list this is; playoff hockey is tremendously exciting, especially once it hits sudden-death overtime, where a game-winner is among sports' most awesome moments. Still, as Shaw points out, hockey on TV is suboptimal.

8) BCS
I'm on record as a BCS apologist, but even if you don't like the system, you can still appreciate watching 10 of the nation's top college football teams do battle in early January.

I'd be interested to see what readers and my fellow columnists think.

Hornets Sting Cavs At Buzzer

The Cavaliers welcomed the New Orleans Hornets to The Q on Wednesday and the marquee match up did not disappoint, as the game had a distinct playoff feel to it, particularly in the second half. Ultimately the Cavs would come up a point short, but they can hold their heads high with the knowledge that they gave the Western Conference’s number one team all that they could handle, and that they hung tough in a game which offered multiple opportunities for a complete collapse.

First Quarter
The Cavaliers sprinted out to an early 10-4 lead fueled by a pair of Zydrunas Ilgauskas field goals, but the Hornets fought back with a couple of Tyson Chandler baskets. Chandler finished 5-7 for 13 points, and the Cavaliers frequently lost track of him around the hoop while focusing their defensive efforts on stopping the slashing Chris Paul.

LeBron James wasn’t very assertive early, clearly in distribution mode in the first quarter. New Orleans power forward David West had eight points in what was a very evenly matched first quarter.

Second Quarter
After trailing early in the second quarter, a 7-0 run gave the Cavaliers a 36-34 lead with 7:00 remaining. But New Orleans answered right back, regaining the lead and pushing it to a 48-40 Hornets advantage.

The Cavaliers really struggled defensively in the second stanza, allowing 31 points. New Orleans’ outside shooting began to heat up, and the Cavs would be unable to shut down that phase of the Hornets’ game for the remainder of the contest.

Every time the Cavaliers made a run to whittle the New Orleans advantage down to one possession, the Hornets would make a big shot to reopen their lead. So it was at the end of the second, when Jannero Pargo hit a three-pointer with a few seconds remaining to give the Hornets a 56-50 lead at the break. Pargo was a perfect three of three from downtown in the first half, and Chris Paul posted a staggering 11 assists.

Third Quarter
The Hornets began the third quarter mired in a shooting drought, scoring only three points in the first 4:30 of the third. Unfortunately the Cavaliers were unable to take advantage, scoring only five points over the same period. When LeBron James hit a deep three to cut the New Orleans lead to 66-64, the Hornets answered right back with a Peja Stojakovic three in what would become a theme for the evening.

LeBron James closed out a strong quarter for the Wine & Gold with an emphatic jam that tied the game at 71 going into the fourth. The Cavaliers managed to play a strong third quarter, even if their scoring total (21) was a little low. Mike Brown obviously hammered home the team’s defensive mantra during halftime, because the Cavs limited the visiting Hornets to just 17 points for the quarter.

Fourth Quarter
The Cavaliers continued to dominate in the paint, as they had all game long. Meanwhile the Hornets continued to hit open jump shots, particularly threes, which they shot at an alarming 50-percent clip as a team. Peja Stojakovic had a great night from beyond the arc, hitting six of nine three balls and scoring 11 points in the fourth quarter.

With 2:46 remaining the Cavaliers trailed 94-91. An Ilgauskas jumper cut the lead to one, then Paul nailed a fall away jump shot and the lead was once again three. Several possessions later Ilgauskas missed a jumper, but Anderson Varejao snatched an impressive offensive rebound which lead to a pair of a free throws for LeBron James, reducing the lead to one. On the other end, James blocked David West, but Tyson Chandler came up with a clutch put back dunk.

So the scenario was this: 47.4 seconds remaining, a 98-95 New Orleans lead, and the Cavaliers had the basketball. LeBron James missed, but Ilgauskas followed with a tip-in, prompting Austin Carr to inform us for at least the 241st time this year that Z is “the best tip drill man in the league (ha ha!).” The Cavaliers produced a stop on the other end as Jannero Pargo missed what would have been a game-ending three, LeBron James took the basketball across the timeline, and the Cavs called their final timeout with 12.4 seconds remaining.

When play resumed, James took the inbound pass and immediately slashed to the rim for a left-handed layup with 7.7 seconds remaining. New Orleans called a timeout to advance the ball.

The question on everyone’s mind: had James left too much time on the clock? The answer: yes. Chris Paul took the inbound pass, slashed into the lane, and found David West for an open 17-footer. The result: nothing but nylon, 99-98 Hornets.

Quick Hits

We can’t repel firepower of that magnitude! Although the Cavaliers dominated the painted area from start to finish, the Hornets controlled the non-painted area, particularly beyond the three-point line, where they were 11-22 as a team. It’s not that the Cavs were lazy with their perimeter defense, it’s that they were frequently double-teaming Chris Paul to stop his dribble penetration.

The Cavs were able to slow down Paul, who scored 15 points on an inefficient 5-17 from the floor. But the Hornets haven’t risen to the top of the Western Conference by being a one-dimensional team, and they’ve got some pretty good shooters. Thus, Chris Paul dished out a mind-bottling 20 assists and the Hornets won.

Big man, big night: Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a field day against the Hornets, scoring a season high 29 points on 13-19 shooting, grabbing 15 rebounds, and blocking a pair of shots. Z’s jumper is as dialed in as it’s ever been, and that’s great news for the Cavs as they tune up for the playoffs. While we’re talking Ilgauskas, this guy gets hosed by the refs on both ends of the floor, and it’s probably just because he looks really awkward and lurchy regardless of what he’s doing. Z frequently can’t buy a call when he’s being roughed up in the paint, and he often is whistled for fouls on clean defensive blocks. Such is life for the Lanky Lithuanian.

And the best point guard in the NBA is… Christopher Emmanuel Paul. Paul has set the league on fire this season, scoring over 21 points per game, doling out more than 11 assists, turning the ball over at a relatively low rate, and shooting 49.7-percent, a jaw-dropping statistic for a point guard. Deron Williams is a pretty good player, but the Utah Jazz must be kicking themselves for passing on Paul in the 2005 Draft. Paul plays very under control, with a basketball IQ far beyond his years. His ability to bait the Cavaliers into double-teaming him and then find an open teammate is why the Hornets won the game.

SWAT team: The tap back is a vastly underrated move for big men on the offensive boards. Anderson Varejao seems to have gotten the hang of it. AV had two tap backs in the first quarter alone. Tapping back is a great move because in all likelihood the ball ends up in the hands of your outside shooters, who are either trolling the three point line or retreating to play defense.

“Wham with the right hand!” Big ups to beloved Cavs’ radio broadcaster Joe Tait, who called his 3000th game for the Cavaliers on Wednesday. Tait has been calling Cavs games since their inaugural season in 1970, with the exceptions of the ‘80-‘81 and ‘81-‘82 seasons, when he was fired by the infinitely brainless then-owner Ted Stepien for making negative comments about Stepien’s ownership. Tait was honored at halftime with a rousing ovation. Congratulations, Joe, and keep up the great work.

DiGiorno Pizza® Austin Carr Quote of the Game: [referring to Joe Tait] “He has a photogenic memory; he remembers everything!”

No sugar tonight: The Cavs played a pretty good game. They shot 50-percent from the floor, they did a decent job controlling the ball (13 turnovers), they crushed the Hornets on the boards (48-33), and they dominated the paint. But the Hornets got some clutch play and made tons of threes, and once in awhile that happens. Very rarely will you see the Cavaliers shoot such a high percentage and lose.

Costly miscues: In the third quarter Joe Smith missed a pair of seemingly innocent free throws, which is very out of character considering that Smith is a career 79.3-percent shooter from the line. Those two freebies could have provided the Cavaliers with their margin of victory.

I can’t help but root for David West: When West was preparing for the NBA Draft in 2003, he was coming off of a stellar college career at Xavier during which he was named the National Player of the Year in 2003. Even so, scouts told him he had to either gain or lose 40 pounds to have a shot at making it in the NBA. In spite of his fantastic collegiate success, West wasn’t drafted until the 18th pick.

It’s safe to say that West has silenced his critics, increasing his scoring and rebounding numbers in each of his five seasons and earning his way onto the All-Star Team this season. West was one of my favorite collegiate players, and I’m thrilled to see him succeeding in the face of adversity at the pro level.

The Cleveland Cavaliers will return: Saturday, when they travel to the rape, murder, and high school dropout capital of the United States to face their arch-nemesis, the Detroit Pistons. The tip from The Palace of Auburn Hills will come at 7:30, as the Cavs will look to follow up last Wednesday’s 89-73 thumping of the Pistons with another victory.

Wednesday, March 26

C.C. Pitches & Opening Day Gets Closer

I'm told that at the time of this writing that there are only 4 days and 16 hours left until Opening Day, and yes - the season starting in Japan is weird and I don't like change.

While I was away the Tribe beat both the Yankees and Astros, in spring training games. You have to like how the Tribe went out and roughed up Roy Oswalt today. Oswalt went 3.2 innings and didn't record a strike-out in throwing 91 pitches. While he did give up 5 runs, he was only charged with 1 earned run. C.C. posted a 7 inning, 3 run outing while walking none and striking out six. The next time C.C. pitches is against the White Sox on the 31st. Dellucci has done an OK job after fighting off the ever-difficult spring training sore forearm injury and Jensen Lewis had his first really bad relief appearance of the spring.

In other Tribe news, we finally have what amounts to the Opening Day roster. The bullpen spots have gone to Julio and Breslow, who has so far pitched 1 spring training inning with the Tribe. Mastny was optioned to AAA. Nothing here should be surprising and as far as I'm concerned, the more bullpen depth the better.

On completely different topic, the DiaTribe has a lengthy article going into more predictive detail on the Tribe's upcoming season than I could muster even if I was being paid. The title of "In a Boy's Dream" says it all. Over at Let's Go Tribe their website has been remade and while no asked me, I think it's well done. Finally, on this line of thinking I have to mention Terry Pluto's ode to Spring Training. Call it sappy, but I can't help but be positive about what lays ahead for us all.

Just in case you were wondering, and judging by the comments you weren't, the Tribe have their final game ever at Winter Haven tomorrow against the Rays. Did you know they dropped the "Devil"? The final two warm-up games are against the Braves in Atlanta. I guess at that point they're called exhibition games.

Go Tribe!

Tuesday, March 25

Keys to the game redux

Following up on a post I put up a little while ago about how useless "keys to the game" features are, I thought I'd take a look at what the Plain Dealer's Mary Schmitt Boyer thinks are the Cavs' keys to winning as many of their remaining games as possible. I'm only going to reproduce her bold text (see link for the comments she makes on each one) and add my comments here.

1) Keep LeBron James healthy.
So, you're saying that it's actually to the Cavs' advantage to have the best player in the league playing for them, rather than out with an injury? I'm sorry, you're going to have to clarify this further.

2) Step up their shooting.
Inasmuch as basketball games are won by the team with the most points, and the only way to score points is by shooting the ball, it seems fairly obvious that improved shooting would help the team's chances to win. MSB adds some stats about how the Cavs win more when they shoot better, and well, yeah, of course they do. This is a total non-observation.

3. Don't fall behind in the second half.
This is simultaneously obvious and wrong. Naturally you would prefer to be ahead in the second half, especially at its conclusion. This would be true to a greater or lesser extent for every team who has ever played in any game with a two-half time structure. On the other hand, the Cavs are among the league leaders in 4th-quarter comebacks, so of all the teams this cliche applies to (i.e. every team ever), it fits the Cavs less well than most.

4. Run. Run. Run.
This is about fast-breaking; the stat she cites is that the Cavs win more when they outscore the other team on the fast break. Again: outscoring other team=good. A more interesting comparison would be comparing the Cavs' success in games where they run a lot vs ones where they don't. They could have won a game by scoring two fast break points and holding their opponents to zero; this doesn't mean that running is to their advantage.

5. Go to the hole.
I think my Dad taught me this when I was like 5. For virtually every team at every level of basketball, it's easier to score points when you're closer to the basket.

So what have we learned? The Cavs need to have their best player, make more shots, take closer shots to facilitate that, run quickly to get easier shots, and try to have more points than their opponent, especially later in games.

I think it's safe to say this article didn't really need to be written.

Monday, March 24

The Butler Did It

Moving past that cheesy pun, I want to talk about one of the most underrated players in college basketball, Jamar Butler. I don’t think that anyone could have watched tonight’s Ohio St/Cal NIT game and not believe that he is an NBA caliber player.

First and foremost, there will always be room for pure shooters in the NBA game (see: J.J. Redick). I realize that Butler isn’t quite the shooter that J.J. is (not many are), but he isn’t too far behind. Butler is the perfect player to have at the end of games, due to his accurate shooting. If you’re up late in the game, he’s the guy you want at the line, (a career 86.7% shooter, 94.2% this season) and if you’re down late and need a big three, look no further then Jamar (OSU’s all time leader with 233 3’s).

Second, Butler has unbelievable court vision. His head is always up and his back is never to the ball. In tonight’s game on a fast break he threw a 55-foot alley-oop pass that was dead on to David Lighty, who finished with an easy bucket.

Another thing, he will do anything that will help the team win. In the Buckeyes’ 2005-2006 campaign, Butler played a large role and was one of the team’s best players. Last year, with the new arrivals of Greg Oden, Mike Conley, and Daequan Cook, Butler received less minutes and was much less of a factor in the team’s offense. This didn’t bother him, as he focused more on defense and distributing the ball, and served as a great role player. This season, with the three freshmen opting for the NBA and Ron Lewis and Ivan Harris graduating, Butler needed to be the leader and star offensive player. He passed that test with flying colors.

Oh yeah, did I mention he’s Ohio St.’s all time leader in assists (564)? If I’m an NBA team, I’m taking a serious look at Jamar Butler in this year’s draft. BECAUSE HE’S MY BUTLER!

Jake Pitches A Gem & No More Fultz

I really won't continue to post everyday, but I felt some Tribe-related things needed to be addressed. Also I hate the idea of bumping Andy's well written article on sports trading below.

Originally this was just going to be a post about the Tribe designating Aaron Fultz for assignment, but a spring training game also occurred so that's also going to be quickly touched on.

The first big thing I think I heard today was Cliff Lee being awarded the 5th starter spot for the Tribe, with Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey being sent to AAA. In that same article the DFA of Fultz was also mentioned. Obviously as speculated here the Tribe front office thinks that either Breslow is their LOOGY (Lefty One-Out Guy) or maybe they don't need one. The slight surprise in all of this is the Tribe having to "eat" Fultz's 2008 option of $1.5 million. It is my vague recollection that Fultz struggled down the stretch last year and was anything but a consistent bullpen option. Well forget him, because he's gone. The Lee news isn't too surprising but here's hoping Lee rediscovered himself after a stint in AAA last year.

The other exciting/interesting news is Jake Westbrook pitched a gem against the Braves today. Yeah, I know, spring training is meaningless, but if that were really true Fultz would still be in the Tribe's bullpen. Jake pitched six perfect innings and even had eight strikeouts, which is unusual for the sinker-ball pitcher. The other interesting piece of news is Jorge Julio pitched today going an inning giving up one hit and striking out two while allowing no runs to lower his spring ERA to 1.64. I've briefly discussed Elarton and quickly name dropped Mastny; now Julio could be the favorite for the Tribe. When it gets down to it the only thing that is certain about a bullpen is that the bullpen at the beginning and end of a season will almost never look the same. That and if someone isn't in Wedge's Circle of Trust then it doesn't matter what I think of them they'll just be used for garbage innings anyway. But it's still nice to see Jake pitch well - let's hope he keeps this up. Oh, and the Tribe won today, 8-0.

Tomorrow the Indians take on the Yankees at Winter Haven, with Byrd pitching for the Erie Warriors.

Wheeling and dealing

I've read more analysis of trades and potential trades these past few seasons than I probably should have, and I've noticed one generally accepted truth that I wish to challenge: the notion that a team should never make trades within its own division. There are four ways in which I want to address this topic.

First, we have the assumption that a team's standing within its division and the quality of its rivals dictate its success. This was perhaps true back in the pre-wild card MLB (Quick digression: if you still think the Wild Card is a bad idea, you need to have your head examined. That's the height of stubbornness.), but not so much now. Considering that in total the NFL has four wild-cards, baseball has two, and basketball essentially ten, the division structure doesn't carry the weight it once did. This is particularly true in basketball, where the conference is by far the most important entity. It's probably most relevant in baseball, with the unbalanced schedule and with Boston and New York frequently claiming the AL's lone WC. Football is of some importance, since you play division clubs twice, but it's not essential to take home a division crown to succeed. Look at the 2005 Steelers, if you dare. or the 2007 Giants. My point is: success against division rivals is not so important that you should avoid making potentially team-improving deals simply because a division rival is involved.

Second, and more fundamentally, is that there's no hard logic behind this view, only a vague sense that you'd rather not make your chief competitors better. Well, of course you don't - you don't want to make any team better! When you make a trade, you're trying to get the most possible value for your organization while giving up the least. People tend to consider an intradivision trade only in terms of who the enemy club gets from you, ignoring the fact that you are taking some of their assets as well. Trading is not a one-way street, and it's easy to lose sight of the "take" part of the give-and-take.

That having been said, I'll agree that smart GM's can and should prefer to make deals with non-division clubs. Many trades benefit both sides (otherwise, why make them?), and if that's going to be the case, you'd rather it be with someone you don't see so often. Still, having a preference for out-of-division swaps is far different than dogmatic avoidance of in-division moves.

Third, not all division rivals are created equally. Saying that the Tribe would prefer not to deal with the tough Tigers, for example, is one thing, but arguing that they shouldn't make a deadline deal with the lowly Royals to put themselves over the top is not smart thinking. Likewise, if your team's roster happens to be in disrepair and rebuilding is required (thankfully, no Cleveland team currently fits this bill), you need to make deals with whomever is convenient to get back on the road to respectability, especially since your division rivals' abilities aren't really going to come into play for you until a few years down the road.

Finally, we come to my fourth point, which is that improving one's team should always be the number one priority. If your team makes a good trade, one that improves your club and/or organization noticeably, you have improved yourself with respect to at least 30 other teams! This whole argument of not making intradivision trades breaks down when you consider that such a policy advocates NOT improving yourself with respect to 95% of the other teams in the league just because you might be helping out one other club. I'm not sure which cliche works better here: baby/bathwater or nose/face, but one of them or something similar must apply. Again, you'd prefer that one other club be someone you don't typically deal with on the field, but if an opportunity to get better exists, a wise GM will take it regardless of his trading partner.

Sunday, March 23

Vegas Loves Cleveland

According to the sportsbook that I check frequently, the Browns are currently ranked fifth in odds to win the AFC next season.

This is a big deal for a couple of reasons. One, Vegas likes the Browns at 10-1 odds, and the Steelers at 15-1. The Browns haven't finished ahead of their arch rivals in the division standings since I was a toddler. The Browns haven't defeated the Steelers since October 5, 2003 (the famed Tim Couch Game). If an objective source projects that the Browns will best the Steelers in 2008, that's a very good sign.

Two, the Browns probably haven't been this highly regarded since at least the early '90s. That's another cause for excitement.

Can you guess which four teams were given better odds than the Browns? You already have a clue: one of them isn't the Steelers. Highlight the invisible text below to see if you guessed correctly.

Patriots (2-1), Chargers (7-2), Colts (7-2), Jags (6-1).

Another Tribe Tie & An Interesting Acquistion

The Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers tied this afternoon in 10 innings. Both teams now have 3 ties this spring. I guess since no one really cares about spring records ties are OK.

One key fact about today's game was my ability to listen to the final 3 innings on WTAM. Thanks to my long commute, which will be discussed someday in my regular blog, I know the suspense is killing you. Anyway here are the things I learned today:

-The scouts are worried about a possible decrease in Jensen Lewis's velocity
-Our radio announcing team is not
-Betancourt didn't give up a run to Detroit last season
-Carmona pitched well and really only earned 1 of the 3 runs he was credited
-Hafner hit a bomb over the scoreboard into the wind
-It was a record crowd of 9,781 at the place the Tigers call home for spring training
-The Tribe claimed left-handed reliever Craig Breslow off outright waivers from the Red Sox and added him to the 40-man roster

Obviously that last one requires some discussion. The article is here, for those with a taste of credible sports journalism. The interesting thing is situation this puts the Tribe in. Breslow is out of options so that means the Tribe either break camp with him or send him through waivers. On the surface this looks like a harbinger of the end of Fultz's tenure as the left-handed Indians reliever who can't get left handers out. From the above linked article "The Indians exercised Fultz's $1.5 million option for 2008 after he went 4-3 with a 2.92 ERA in 49 games last year", meaning the Tribe thought they had this position locked down, but Fultz's performance this spring maybe opened some eyes. Supposedly the front office is committed to doing whatever it takes to improve the bullpen and this could be their attempt at that. Anyway Breslow has a week to prove himself, so that should be interesting. At least Breslow didn't travel with the Red Sox to Japan so he shouldn't be jet-lagged when he reports tomorrow.

Tomorrow at 1:05 PM the Tribe host the Atlanta Braves, who I think they face three times between now and opening day, so get used to them. Jake Westbrook is scheduled to pitch as are Fultz, Elarton, Kobayashi, and Betancourt. Of course this was all reported before today's game in which Betancourt pitched and Breslow was acquired.

Go Tribe!

Lee Pitches Well & Homers All Around

Yesterday the Tribe took on the NY Mets in Florida. Cliff making his final start this spring pitched well, going 5 scoreless innings, giving up 4 hits, and striking out 5. While this isn't an amazing Mets lineup it still was a performance I suspect will give Mr. Lee the lead in the race to be the fifth starter.

The Tribe batters came alive against Oliver Perez, who held a 15-10 record with a 3.56 ERA last year with the Mets. Victor hit a solo home run in the 2nd, which was followed by home runs in the 4th by Cabrera, Blake, and Francisco, who continues an impressive spring.

Following Lee in the 6th was Elarton who pitched an inning giving up a run, raising his spring training ERA to 2.03 in 13.1 innings pitched. Elarton presents a interesting situation. He would provide a long reliever in the bullpen, which the Tribe really hasn't carried the last few seasons. He has pitched well this spring, but I believe when he was originally signed to camp it was said he would just be showcased for other teams. The scary thing about Elarton is that he is still coming off a few injuries and one could question if he is strong enough to go a full season. For now he presents an interesting situation for the Tribe. Elarton was followed by Fultz who proceeded to give up a run in the final inning of this 7 inning match. This lowered Fultz's ERA by almost a full run to 11.88.

All in all it was good warm-up match for the Tribe. Today at 1 Carmona and the Tribe take on the Tigers, who reportedly signed slugging third baseman Miguel Cabrera to an eight year $153.3 million contract extension. Also scheduled to pitch today are Mastny, Perez, Lewis, and Borowski.

Notes: The Tribe have homered in 12 of their last 13 games and in 20 of the 25 games this spring. If you're interested I suggest you go look up Sizemore's spring numbers, it's a small sample size but wow.

Friday, March 21

It's Spring Training for the broadcasters, too

"He hit it well."

- Indians color man Rick Manning, following an opposite-field home run by Andy Gonzalez.

Spring Time, for Hafner, and Chain of Lakes

If you regularly read this blog you might be saying to yourself, "Where is the hard hitting Cleveland Indians coverage to rival this world class Cavs talk?" Well if you're looking for it in this post you've come to the wrong place, but welcome to my first FCF post just the same.

Just in case you missed it the Tribe finished 2007 with a 96-66 record, winning the AL Central title, and coming within a win of the World Series. So what did the braintrust over at Progresso Soup Field do this offseason? Well, they tried and failed to sign their ace and Cy Young winning pitcher (more on this later), but they did add Masahide Kobayashi (pictured to the right), a spry, soon to be 34 year old, Japanese transplant into the bullpen. . . and that was it. . .OK? No one should be surprised by this lack of movement out of the front office. This is an organization built on young homegrown talent signed to long-term contracts and gritty, sometimes called bargain basement, veterans.

Paul Cousineau over at the DiaTribe has a wonderful, if verbose, article covering the usual Tribe philosophy about up and coming youngsters with options remaining being sent to AAA, while possibly past their prime veterans "block" them. I know it can be easy in hindsight to ask "Why in the hell was Trot Nixon out in RF instead of Gutierrez?" but really it makes sense, at times. Hell, just go read the article.

So with the Tribe's front office scheme seemingly figured out before anyone goes to spring training, why does the Tribe even travel to Florida anyway? Well, the real answer here is that no one wants to enter spring training having to make a decision - just ask the Browns staff about last year's QB situation. So yes, David Dellucci and his sub-.150 average beats out Ben Francisco at a robust .350+. Yes, the likes of Aaron Fultz will be in the pen come March 31st even with his performance last week against the Braves where he posted a fine nine runs allowed, seven earned, in one-third of an inning.

One of my favorite spring training stories is of Bob Wickman a few years back. He got really roughed up in a game and a reporter asked him what was wrong after the game. He said that his fastball wasn't working and in a real game he would have moved onto one of his secondary pitches. However, in a spring training situation, he wanted to solve this problem, so all he did was continue to throwing fastballs. Obviously this turned into batting practice for the other team, but Bob was out there to work these things out. Given that story and all the crazy pitching matchups that can occur I feel safe in saying a relatively injury-free Spring Training is the best thing any of us can hope for.

So what decisions do need to be made this offseason? Well, for one there is
the problem of Andy Marte. A prospect without options, he either makes the team or he has to clear waivers. I'll let you in on a little secret: he's not making through waivers. So what does the Tribe do with him? Well, he becomes the utility infielder and maybe outfielder. Almost every Indians news source has invoked the dreaded parable of Brandon Philips, a player who we couldn't make fit in, so we traded him only to watch him develop into the player we always hoped he could be with the Reds. So given the potential upside of Marte, I suspect the organization will do their best to keep him and get him chances at the plate to prove himself.

The other major open spot is the 5th starter. This is a toss up between Laffey, Sowers and Lee. Personally I think Lee has pitched the best this spring. Sowers however is said to have regained some of his velocity he was sorely missing last year and Laffey looks to be headed to AAA. I use to have a thing for Lee, but he has betrayed me too many times. A lot of people complain he over uses his fastball in tough situations, and I am one of them. So I'm betting Lee breaks camp with the team and here's to hoping he regains his 2005 form. Oh, and I think Mastny will make the bullpen.

So finally we come to the ballad of C.C. I'll make this short since it has been tossed around almost everywhere else. He won't be an Indian next year, which I'm not too upset about. It will still hurt to see the Crooked Cap pitching for someone else, but C.C. is probably asking for more years and maybe more money than the Indians feel comfortable with. Look, this is a team that hasn't really been burnt by a contract in a while and I trust them. We still have him this year and given the unfortunate situation where the Tribe is out of contention (not likely) he probably will have tremendous trade value. Most importantly, this won't be the end of the world for the Tribe. Just think of all those great young players we can sign to long contracts worth pennies with all that money C.C. turned down.

Go Tribe!

Thursday, March 20

Cavs' D-League Team Lands In Erie

There was good news this weekend for basketball fans in northwest Pennsylvania, particularly for fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers: starting next season, the Cavs’ NBA Development League (“D-League”) affiliate will be located in Erie. Hopefully the presence of the new club will help to further expand the Cavaliers’ burgeoning fan base in Erie and the surrounding areas.

As part of his ongoing effort to grow the NBA brand, Commissioner David Stern has put considerable effort into the conception and enlargement of the NBA Development League. Since the league’s inaugural season in 2001 (when it was known as the NBDL), it has more than doubled in size from eight to 17 teams, including next season’s expansion teams in Erie and Reno.

Numerous talented players have passed through the D-League, including Rafer Alston, Matt Carroll, Mikki Moore, Slam Dunk Contest competitor Jamario Moon, and Bobby Simmons. The Cavaliers have two former D-Leaguers on their roster, swingman Devin Brown and recently promoted center Lance Allred (this is a tremendous name for an athlete).

Having the Cavs’ affiliate in such proximity to the parent team could prove beneficial in terms of logistics, in addition to the obvious positives for fans. If the Cavaliers need to promote one of their D-Leaguers to fill a roster spot vacated by a last minute injury, said player could pack a bag and be in Cleveland in less than two hours. It will also be far easier for the Cavs to shuttle scouts, coaches, etc. back and forth to evaluate their D-League players. This situation could be very similar to the arrangement that the Indians currently have with their AAA team, the Buffalo Bisons (the Indians are rumored to be moving their AAA team to Columbus, which might be even more convenient).

Cleveland’s current D-League affiliate is the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, also a farm team for the Houston Rockets and New Orleans Hornets. Located in McAllen, Texas, the Vipers are less than optimally located, relative to the Cavaliers. It is likely that the Cavaliers will share the Erie franchise with one or more NBA clubs, and the Toronto Raptors rumored to be interested in such a liaison. Since individual NBA teams do not control enough players to field their own D-League teams at this point in time, D-League teams are ordinarily affiliated with more than one professional team, with the Austin Toros (Spurs) and Los Angeles D-Fenders (Lakers) being the only exceptions.

The new D-League franchise was officially introduced during a Tuesday afternoon press conference at Erie’s Bayfront Convention Center. Present were Cavs’ GM Danny Ferry, Erie team president Ron Sertz (formerly of the OHL’s Erie Otters), D-League president Dan Reed, and Erie mayor Joe Sinnott. The team, which is currently nameless, will play in Erie’s Tulio Arena. The D-League season is 50 games long and Erie will see at least 24 home games, with ticket prices ranging from $10 to $40 for single games, and $192 to $720 for season tickets.

As a lifelong Erie-ite, I can attest to the fact that Erie’s population has a fairly high level of athletic interest. That said, the professional sports interests of Erie’s fan base are very diverse and segmented. There are fans of the Indians and Pirates for baseball, the Bills, Browns and Steelers on the gridiron, and the Penguins and Sabres for hockey, not to mention a devoted following to high school, and to a lesser degree, local college sports.

Minor league sports franchises have experienced various degrees of financial and on-field success in Erie, with the level of box office success usually dictated almost solely by the team’s performance in the standings. In other words, winning teams draw, and losers generally do not. It’s hardly a unique concept.

Minor league hockey has probably had the most success in Erie, especially when Erie’s franchise, the Erie Otters of the OHL (Ontario Hockey League, a Major junior league), were perennially competing for the league championship a few years back. The Erie SeaWolves, AA affiliate of the Detroit Tigers, have been up and down both in performance and ticket sales, even with premier talents such as Curtis Granderson, Jair Jurjens, Cameron Maybin (a brief two week stay in northwest Pennsylvania), Justin Verlander, and Joel Zumaya playing in Erie at one point or another. Admittedly, I attend SeaWolves games chiefly to get a look at the Akron Aeroes, while conveniently not having to make a drive to the Buckeye State.

Indoor football has flopped time and again in Erie, so of course, franchises continue their futile attempts to gain a foothold. The Erie Invanders, Erie Freeze, and the laughable female indoor team, the Erie Illusion, failed successively in a span of just a few years. Even so, a new franchise, the Erie River Rats (formerly the Pittsburgh River Rats - Erie is located on a lake, not a river), who recently had their inaugural kickoff. Figure that one out.

As far as the hardwood is concerned, most of Erie’s attention is devoted to high school and college action (predominantly Gannon, but also Mercyhurst, and Penn State Behrend), with the Cavaliers growing a small contingent by way of their recent success. Erie’s last professional basketball franchise, the Erie Wave of the World Basketball League (rules stipulated all players be 6-5 or shorter), lasted only two and a half seasons (1990-1992). The Wave evaporated due to the financial shortcomings of both the WBL and the team itself, with the entire league biting the dust just weeks after the Wave were terminated.

The unnamed D-League franchise’s primary competition will be the Otters, with whom they will share Tulio Arena in what is sure to become a schedule maker’s nightmare. To a minor extent (pun intended) the team will also compete with college and high school basketball in the Erie area.

Will the D-League thrive in Erie? As cliché as it sounds, only time will tell. But I’m getting good vibes (and possibly even Good Vibrations) from the level of commitment that the Cavaliers and the D-League have exhibited during the fledgling franchise’s first few days. With the possible exception of the AA baseball of the SeaWolves, Erie has never seen minor league athletics of this caliber. If the team can win, or at least be both competitive and entertaining, it’s likely that they will draw quality crowds. But all of that will be revealed in time. Right now the only thing that matters is that fans of the Cavaliers, the NBA, and basketball in general have something extra to look forward to next November.

FCF's newest member

Author's Note: Nick wrote about half of this.

I'm excited to announce that John Hawkins, proprietor of the newly relaunched Blah Blah Blog, will be joining Nick and me as we continue this endeavor. John is a welcome addition, and his added presence gives us a full-fledged (Cleveland sports) love triangle.

The JHH will likely be focusing his energies on the Tribe (Indians, to the layperson), but look for his work on other teams and topics as well.

From all (both) of us at FCF: welcome aboard, Hawk!

Editor's note: Nick wrote the half that isn't very good, like that bizarre "love triangle" thing. I hope John hasn't been scared away.

Author's Note: I live by the principle that anything homoerotic is funny. Sue me.

Wednesday, March 19

Take me out to the ballgame

In an effort to cope with a particularly aggressive hangover this past Sunday, I took a nice walk around the city of Cleveland and ended up strolling past Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians. (FYI: this remedy works great for a headache - I felt like 600 times better when I got home.)

I took a peek inside the park and a strong wave of emotion and excitement came over me. I got chills looking at the field and thinking about the (then) short 15 days until Opening Day. I looked off to my left and saw the pennants on the facade of the upper deck. The gold World Championship flags from 1920 and 1948. The gold AL pennant from 1954 that Willie Mays and company snuck in and painted red. The red 1995 AL banner next to it, showing how long Cleveland baseball fans suffered. The red 1997 AL banner that, if you stare at it hard enough, turns to gold. The four blue AL Central pennants hanging around those flags from '96, '98, '99, and '01, proudly marking the resurgence of Tribe baseball.

And there, at far right, the blue 2007 AL Central Champions flag, a symbol of the success that was, the flirtation with greatness that nearly was, and the promise of seasons to come.

Opening Day is right around the corner, and I couldn't be more excited to be there in person to see the Tribe reflect on the success of 2007 and kick off their 2008 march to October. Go Tribe.

Tuesday, March 18

Magic Number

The Tribe's is currently 163.

MAC addendum

After I wrote that piece I noticed that good old Bill Livingston had authored an article about how the "Bad times repeat again" for Akron.

In Bill's world, 49 wins in the past two seasons, back-to-back MAC finals appearances, and a berth in this year's NIT somehow constitute bad times for the program. Also: losing to a strongly favored team the year after losing to an underdog is somehow "repeating," as is being selected for the NIT the year after not being selected. (Note: I almost wrote "qualified" but that's wrong since the Zips qualified last year but were inexplicably snubbed.)

Big MAC attack or: My weekend as an AK-ROWDIE

The Mid-American Conference (MAC) tournament rolled into Cleveland this past weekend, and with two teams near and dear to me making appearances in the semifinals, I took the opportunity to check out some games with my trusty companions Lance and Bucko. I left impressed by the quality of play and the fans' fervor for their favorite clubs.

Tickets were only $10 per night; the first night, they were good for admission to both semifinal games (#3 Akron vs. #2 Western Michigan, and # 1 Kent State vs #5 Miami). Not bad. The seats were actually $17, but with my youthful good looks (I'm actually 28) and Akron gear I passed as a UA student and got a solid discount.

Akron sported a pretty solid fan base, the self-proclaimed AK-ROWDIES, to watch their club try to avenge last year's heartbreaking loss in the MAC Tourney finals (and subsequent hosing by both the NCAA and, bizarrely, the NIT). Hell, even Western Michigan had quite a crew, though you can probably attribute some of that to people looking for some excuse, any excuse, to get the hell out of Michigan for a while.

Anyway, Akron, put a pretty good pounding on the WMU Broncos and advanced to the title game. Even though we could have watched Miami-Pitt for free in person, we decided to go to the bar and do so instead. This allowed me to watch the Pittsburgh and Indiana games as well, and all three contests turned out to be terrific. More on that later.

We went back to the Q for Saturday night's final to find a much larger and more spirited crowd. Kent State and Akron don't especially like each other, and this rivalry has really intensified in past years. Only UNC-Duke really matches it in terms of geographical proximity - if so inclined, you could run from one campus to another without too much trouble.

Despite the similar distances to Cleveland, there were way, way more Kent State fans than AK-ROWDIES. I was slightly torn, having connections to both schools, but I was going for Akron in the hopes that both clubs would earn admission to the NCAA tournament. It wasn't to be, as Akron was icy cold from the floor during the second part of the first half and allowed Kent to build a lead that the Flashes sat on for the rest of the game. Congratulations to Kent State, the MAC regular-season and tournament champions. I wish them the best of luck in their opening-round game vs. UNLV. Also, big it up for the Zips, who landed in the NIT, where they will face Florida State in the first round of play.

Two funny things from Saturday's game:

1) A KSU fan sported a t-shirt billing his school as "The Harvard on the Cuyahoga." That's brilliant.

2) One obnoxious group of Kent Staters behind us (we eventually moved sections to avoid them) were taunting Akron fans saying, "You only went to Akron because you couldn't get into Kent State." Um, dude, pretty much everyone gets into Kent State. No knock on the institution and quality alumni like Arsenio and Milkey, but it's a state school, just like Akron.

Getting away from the MAC, and making a sudden departure from Ohio-based sports, much respect to the Pitt Panthers, who, as a #7 seed, disposed of three straight ranked squads (Lousville, Marquette, Georgetown) to claim the Big East Tournament title in Madison Square Garden. That makes seven appearances in the Big East final in the past eight years, and two championships. Congratulations to Jamie Dixon and the boys. Beat the hell out of Oral Roberts for me.

Now that the dust has settled, I've got quite a few horses in the two major tournaments. In order of preference, I've got:
NCAA: Pittsburgh, Kent State, Xavier (sort of - that's pure Ohio solidarity)
NIT: Ohio State, Akron, Cleveland State

I'm looking forward to the Madness here in a few days. Hopefully Nick and I will have an NCAA bracket challenge against each other, which he will no doubt win. Probably not an NIT challenge, though thinking about the NIT reminds me of once when I was little and I saw Ohio State win the NIT. I was pretty excited - the Buckeyes were champions! - until Dad pointed out that it only made them the 65th-best team in the nation. That's not exactly true - I'm sure the NIT champ from any given year would destroy the various NCAA 15 and 16 seeds, but he does have a point.

Go Panthers, go Golden Flashes, go Musketeers, go Buckeyes, go Zips, and go Vikings!

Monday, March 17

Cavs Bounce Visiting Bobcats

The Charlotte Bobcats arrived in Cleveland sporting a lackluster 24-41 record, making them a long shot for an Eastern Conference playoff spot. February absolutely killed the Bobcats; they were 1-11 during the shortest month of the year. But take February out of the equation, and Charlotte’s nearly a .500 club.

The Bobcats are one of those teams (read: mediocre, but they don’t quit) that can give the Cavaliers trouble, and although they came to Cleveland without ever logging a win at The Q (in just six attempts), they beat the Cavs back in December, and LeBron and the boys needed two overtimes to knock off the Cats in mid-January. Charlotte has a few guys like Raymond Felton and Jason Richardson who usually play well against the Cavaliers, and after embarrassing losses against the Nets and the team formerly known as the Washington Bullets, the Cavs couldn’t afford to take anyone lightly.

Quarter By Quarter

First Quarter

Zydrunas Ilgauskas returned from his nagging back injury and made his presence felt on Charlotte’s first possession with a blocked shot. Z also stroked his first jumper a few possessions later. LeBron James was in distribution mode early, as the Cavs scored 13 points before James completed an impressive three point play to get himself into the scoring column of the box score. The James/Ilgauskas pick and fade was certainly a sight for sore eyes.

Sasha Pavlovic has had more of an impact since his return than I had anticipated. Pavlovic’s athleticism and slashing scoring style had been sorely missing from Cleveland starting five, particularly since the Cavaliers traded (gulp) Larry Hughes. Pavlovic gave the Cavs some early offense with a dunk and a three ball.

LeBron took over late in the quarter, accounting for 11 of the Cavaliers’ last 14 points, including a thunderous dunk, and a pair of exceptional 3-point plays via jump shots and fouls.

Second Quarter
The Bobcats hung around for the first eight minutes or so, even taking a 36-35 lead at one point. Then the Cavs erupted, ripping off a 9-0 run faster than you could say “Wham with the right hand!”, opening a 44-36 lead with 2:27 to play in the half. A Delonte West trey a few possessions later pushed the run to 12-0, and the Cavaliers would ultimately take a 47-40 lead into the break.

The Cavs really tightened up on defense late in the second quarter, with Ben Wallace squeezing eight rebounds by halftime. Rebounding was a definite key to the Cavs’ success in the second quarter, as they out-rebounded the Bobcats 17 to 7 in the period. Cleveland was significantly more aggressive than Charlotte during the second quarter and the zebras rewarded them accordingly. The Cavaliers shot 13 free throws to Charlotte’s 2. However, the Cavs weren’t making the Bobcats pay at the line, converting only eight of their 13 attempts, which is one reason why the game tightened up later on.

Third Quarter
LeBron James and Charlotte’s Jason Richardson battled back and forth in the early minutes of the third quarter, LeBron finishing a spectacular alley-oop from Delonte West, and Richardson drilling threes on consecutive possessions.

LeBron had an “and one” layup during which his momentum almost carried him down the tunnel and out of the building, Forrest Gump style. The ensuing free throw made the Cleveland lead 63-51.

LeBron James and Damon Jones hit late threes, pushing the Cavalier lead to 75-63 heading into the final stanza. It was nice to see the Cavs post a strong third quarter, something they hadn’t done in New Jersey or (especially) in Washington.

Fourth Quarter
But the Cavaliers had trouble dealing the Bobcats a death blow. With 7:30 to go, the Bobcats had the ball, trailing by just 6 points. Wally Szczerbiak stepped up in the fourth by hitting a jumper and contributing a couple of big defensive plays, including a block. That’s saying something, because the last time Wally made a key play on defense, gas was well under three bucks a gallon.

But the Bobcats simply refused to go away. An 8-0 Charlotte run cut the Cavs’ lead to 88-85 with 2:30 to play. LeBron missed the rim on a long jumper and although Devin Brown grabbed the rebound, he was unable to get the ball back up in time. The officials awarded the ball to the Bobcats, but a replay revealed that LeBron’s shot had in fact hit the rim, and the refs gave the ball back to the Cavaliers.

Ben Wallace miraculously had baskets on two consecutive possessions, but those were more than matched by consecutive threes from Jason Richardson. The lead had shrunk to one. The Cavs were in dire straits, but Delonte West don’t give a damn about any trumpet playing band, and he drained a jump shot from the foul line that increased the lead to three points.

With 52 seconds remaining, King James took over. LeBron locked up Jason Richardson on defense, forcing a missed layup. James then banked home a layup on the other end as the shot clock wound down, giving the Cavaliers a five-point lead with 10.3 seconds to play, ending the game for all intents and purposes. Jason Richardson missed a quick three, Devin Brown corralled the rebound, and the Bobcats were forced to foul. Brown found the bottom on both freebies, and the Cavs went home 98-91 winners.

Quick Hits

Z Machine:
Apparently the Cavs missed their seven-foot center, because his impact was felt immediately. LeBron James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas have a nice bit of symbiosis going on; Ilgaukas’ ability to stretch the floor makes it much easier for LeBron to slash to the basket, and James’ own knack for getting to the rack gives Z loads of open looks. Nobody was happier to see the Lanky Lithuanian back on the floor than LBJ.

It wasn’t Frank Reich, but Ilgauskas turned in a very solid comeback performance by essentially posting what are more or less his usual stats; 16 points, 9 boards, a high shooting percentage (7-11), and three blocks for good measure. Most importantly, Z played nearly 32 minutes and looked very strong. Back injuries are a delicate animal, and it’s significant that Ilgauskas didn’t appear to tweak his back in any way. The Cavs have another game tonight (at Orlando), and if all goes well for Ilgauskas in the second game of a back to back, on the road no less, we’ll be able safely assume that his back is pretty well healed.

Ben Comes Up Big: LeBron James wasn’t the only Cavalier who was psyched for Big Z’s return, Ben Wallace also sorely missed Ilgauskas. Wallace’s play with Ilgauskas shelved was deplorable, which gave us all a glimpse into the world of Ben Wallace in Chicago. Without a quality big man who can score, Wallace crumbles.

But with Z back in the fold Ben can play his natural role at the four, focusing solely on rebounding and defense. Wallace excelled in that role, seizing 15 boards, including 6 of the offensive variety. Credit Wallace for sound defense, as the Bobcats had trouble getting anything consistent established inside all night long. Big Ben also plucked three steals and added a block. Thankfully, he took only four shots, making a pair, although it’s worth mentioning that his two misses were dunks that he will make more often than not.

LeBron’s Line: 33 points (11-24, 1-3 from deep), 7 rebounds, 10 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocks, 10 of 16 from the line, 1 turnover. I love the 10 assists against just 1 turnover, but LeBron still needs to focus more at the line. Even with the mediocre free throw percentage, he’s probably worth hanging onto…

Another night at the office for James, who should be getting much more buzz for Most Valuable Player. Unfortunately, Cleveland isn’t on the East Coast and more to the point isn’t named “Boston” or “New York” (thank God for that), the Cavs don’t play in the Western Conference, and the Cavs are having a “wake me up in April” type of season. Fortunately, basketball is a team sport and the MVP award - though debated both frequently and vigorously - is more or less irrelevant. So go ahead, give the MVP trophy to Kobe or KG. The Larry O’Brien Trophy is the only one I really give a damn about anyway.

Wait Until Next Year: The Bobcats really do have some quality pieces in place. Raymond Felton has the goods to be a top 10 point guard, Jason Richardson is a quality scorer, Emeka Okafor is a nice post presence, a good rebounder and solid shot blocker, Gerald Wallace is one of the most athletic players in the league, and even Matt Carroll has the potential to be a nice complementary player. Plus, the Cats have Adam Morrison, who has been injured all season long. Morrison won’t ever be an All-Star, but he can score the basketball and could develop into a 15-20 point guy. Sean May is also out for the year, but he could develop into a 15 and 10 guy who could start or be the first or second guy off the bench.

The Cats need to get healthy, too. They have quite a few injury-prone players; May, Morrison, Okafor, and Wallace, just to name a few. But give this team a deeper bench, some experience, a little luck in the injury department, and maybe one more scorer to complement Richardson, and they could make some noise in a soft Eastern Conference next season.

DiGiorno Pizza® Austin Carr Quote of the Game: [responding to DeShawn Stevenson’s claim that LeBron James is overrated] “That’s a stupid comment.”

So Why Don’t You Slide: Anderson Varejao needs to be very careful when he’s setting screens, because he moves when he sets them. He moves a lot. Hopefully officials will continue not to notice, but if they do get wise to Andy’s sliding, AV’s going to get hit with some offensive fouls. But at least it will give me an excuse to crank the Goo Goo Dolls’ smash hit single and remember how awesome the ‘90s were.

Hey DJ, Fire Away: In case you’ve been asleep for the first 65 games, Damon Jones is having a pretty solid season. Before Sunday’s game, DJ was hitting threes at a 43.7 percent clip. That’s a nice bit of shooting, and that’s the Damon Jones that Danny Ferry thought he signed back in 2005. As long as the Cavs have LeBron, they’ll always need shooters, and Jones contributed once again against Charlotte, hitting two of three from beyond the arc.

Wally’s Playing Like the Beav: There were countless different takes on the Cavs’ big trade, but the one guy who everyone generally thought would fit in well with the Cavaliers was Wally Szczerbiak. Szczerbiak’s a good shooter, and as we all know, LeBron’s game tends to make shooters’ lives much easier. But sometimes, check that - frequently - things don’t work out like you plan them. If good plans always came together, then LeCharles Bentley would be the anchor of what would probably be the best offensive line in football.

Szczerbiak hasn’t suffered a freak injury on the first day of practice, but he has been very Jiri Welsch-like since donning the Wine & Gold. Coming into the game, Welsch - er - Szczerbiak, was shooting 31.8 percent from the field, and taking nearly 11 shots per game in the process. A one of four night against Charlotte certainly won’t do anything to boost those numbers.

And Szczerbiak’s defense has come as advertised: lousy. In fact, on defense Szczerbiak is eerily reminiscent of Damon Jones, except he’s taller and has a better haircut. Wally simply isn’t all that quick, which makes it damn near impossible for him to effectively guard on the perimeter. Mike Brown has obviously detected Wally’s weakness; Szczerbiak played less than 10 minutes against Charlotte.

Sure, he went to school in Ohio. Sure, he seems like a nice guy. Sure, his kid’s name is Maximus. But the patience of both Mike Brown and the fans is going to start to wear awfully thin if Szczerbiak doesn’t start to produce. The new team butterflies excuse won’t fly anymore, pal. Start hitting some jump shots.

Mea Culpa, Raymond Felton: I didn’t think that Felton would be a very good pro, and during the 2005 Draft I remember thinking that the Bobcats were reaching for him with the number five pick. Maybe it was Felton’s size (listed as 6-1, which is probably generous), maybe it was that he wasn’t really the headliner for that ’05 Championship UNC team, maybe it was just that I strongly dislike the Tarheels, but I didn’t like Felton’s chances to develop into a good pro. My bad, Ray-Ray.

Felton is following up a strong sophomore campaign with comparable numbers, except he seems to be getting more comfortable at the point and his shooting percentage has risen. It looks like the Bobcats will have a pretty good point guard for the foreseeable future.

Brady Quinn Sighting: BQ was sitting courtside for Sunday’s game, and he got a little airtime by way of a Jeff Phelps interview, revealing that he’s been hard at work training in Arizona. I’m sure Derek Anderson will be thrilled to hear that.

I wasn’t at the game, but if Brady’s mug was put on the Jumbotron it wouldn’t surprise me if he got one of the biggest cheers of the evening, which brings me to another point. If Quinn eventually wins his duel with Derek Anderson, becomes the starter, and is successful, he’s going to displace LeBron as Cleveland’s signature athlete. It might be unfair, but let’s face it: dude’s thrown eight regular season passes and half the fans that fill CBS on Sunday would already take a bullet for him (although probably not in the chest). His jersey is the 17th most-purchased since last April.

We are now on a tangent that has absolutely nothing to do with basketball, and I’m not taking sides. I want the best quarterback, not the best celebrity. But if Brady Quinn becomes the Browns’ quarterback, to say that he’ll be insanely popular is the understatement of the year. Go Browns.

Hey…That’s Not His Real House: That Cub Cadet (is it for Cub Cadet?) commercial with that goofy white dude in suburbia, his riding mower, and LeBron always kills me. One of these things is not like the other.

LeBron lives in a middle class suburban neighborhood? Hmm…something doesn’t seem to fit there. LeBron starts each morning by donning his robe, pouring himself a cup of mud, and reading the paper? Riiiiight… And why would LeBron be walking out to get the paper himself? Isn’t that LeBron Junior’s job? Kids these days, I swear…

And finally, goofy white dude is going to, number one, taunt LeBron, and number two, challenge robed LeBron to a game of one-on-one? Not very neighborly. Nor smart, for that matter. Hasn’t this guy seen LeBron when he’s angry? He wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

The Cleveland Cavaliers Will Return:
Tonight, when they travel to Orlando for a 7:00 date with the Magic at Amway Arena. This is a big game for los Caballeros, as they are presently five point five games behind the Magic for the Eastern Conference’s third seed. With only 15 games remaining this game is an unmistakable must-win if the Cavs are going to make a run at that number three spot.

Friday, March 14

FSN Ohio

Please, please, please, FSN Ohio, change the font you use for your in-game scoreboard graphics. I have pretty good eyesight, but even close-up on a nice, big television, I have a lot of trouble telling apart the numerals 3, 5, 6, 8, and 9. They're all too curvy and it's hard to tell where in a numeral a gap is or isn't. The best example is the 5 - the bottom open curve extends up so far that it almost closes the loop, which would make it a 6. Likewise, the top curve of the 6 extends down so far that it almost becomes an 8.

I sent FSN a mail notifying them about this, but I'm not optimistic they'll change the font, even though it would cost them nothing, take maybe 10 minutes, and greatly enhance everyone's viewing experience. I demand satisfaction.

Keys to the game

It's time. It's time for sports broadcasts to do away with the ridiculous "Keys to the Game" feature they insist on presenting right before the tip-off, kick-off, or first pitch of most every televised game. The reason I say this is because they so rarely provide any insight into what to expect from the game and end up being a collection of generalizations, platitdes, and non sequiturs.

Football keys to success are usually the worst and most cliched; it's always some variation on:
1) Win the turnover battle (this is true for every single football game ever and analysts still present it as if it were brand-new intelligence)
2) Establish the run (not really a key in most games)
3) Be aggressive (or some similar nonsense)

An NFL broadcaster could literally use the same three generic keys to the game for all 16 games he does in a season and not one person would notice. As for baseball, I think I lose a few brain cells every time a broadcaster cites one or more starting pitchers as keys to the game.

As a specific example from basketball, take the Cavs game last night, with "Austin Carr Facts." I'm not picking on Carr here because I think he's a particularly egregious offender - this just happens to be the most recent game I've seen. Anyway, his three keys were:

1) Be ready to play
2) Stop Carter and Jefferson

The first one isn't anything. If you look at it, it disintegrates into the computer monitor, vanishing upon being exposed as the fraud it is. I think it goes without saying (or at least should, according to the thesis of this article) that every team in every sport should be ready to play the game - otherwise, why show up? The point here was probably that the Cavs should avoid a slow start (like, say, falling behind 23-6 to the Nets), but you could again argue that every team in every game, with the possible exception of the Harlem Globetrotters, wants to get ahead early and, preferably, remain there. That sentence had seven commas.

The second one seems like a specific, possibly useful basketball-related item, but isn't really. I mean, of course you want to try to limit the other team's top scorers, like you do in every other basketball game. I wonder if the Nets broadcast team had "Stop LeBron" as one of their keys. More useful would be FSN Ohio pointing out a less-heralded player with, say, career success against the Cavs, or a guy who has been playing well and might have a major impact on tonight's game. Nope, instead we get: focus on the opponent's best players.

I feel a bit sheepish here because I can't remember the other one, but I'm going to go ahead and assume that's because it also was of little or no value and thus, despite explicit instructions to the contrary, my brain elected to forget it.