Saturday, June 7, 2008

Offense has gone lost in New Jersey

The Trenton Thunder scored a 4-0 win over the Reading Phillies at Waterfront Park last night, again getting solid starting pitching and just enough hitting to win.

Phil Coke was on a pitch count because he was pitching on three days' rest after an appearance at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre earlier this week. He pitched well enough to keep Reading off the board, but was not fantastic. He gave up a few solid hits, although he was able to tightrope out of danger.

His counterpart, J.D. Durbin, was not quite as fortunate, lasting until the seventh inning after Trenton catcher P.J. Pilittere slammed a two-run double to the gap in right-center. For more on Durbin, check out my story.

The Thunder and Phillies complete the series tomorrow, and the offense just hasn't been there so far. The teams have combined for seven runs in 18 full innings. Part of that has been because of the pitching. Jason Jones is the Eastern League's leader in wins, Antonio Bastardo had a great performance last night, Coke was just coming down from Triple-A and Durbin has hardly been touched since asking for demotion to Reading.

The Trenton bullpen has also been solid. Mark Melancon, who my Trentonian colleague Josh Norris believes will be in Scranton soon, was very strong in the closer role. He's pitched well out of the bullpen since coming up from Tampa.

It appears that's just the kind of team Tony Franklin has. The Thunder will play a lot of close games, and because of their pitching, they'll win a good chunk of them.

Around the Eastern League, the Thunder increased their lead because Portland somehow found a way to blow a 10-run lead. That is not a misprint. The Sea Dogs, playing at Hadlock Field, led the Akron Aeros 10-0 after five innings and lost 11-10. Trenton now leads the EL North by four games.

Around the rest of the North, the Binghamton Mets stayed hot, blanking the New Britain Rock Cats 3-0 at home. The B-Mets keep inching closer to the Sea Dogs, but haven't gained anything on Trenton. The Connecticut Defenders picked themselves up with a 5-2 win at Altoona, and the New Hampshire Fisher Cats stayed consistent with a 3-1 home loss to the Erie Seawolves. It's a good thing the 2008 Eastern League All-Star game will be played in Manchester, N.H., because that's the only chance Fisher Cats fans will have to see good baseball.

Finally, Bowie crushed Harrisburg 13-2 to increase its lead to 1 1/2 games. The Aeros trail the Senators by a mere half-game now for second behind the Baysox.

That's all for tonight. I've got an American Legion game in Trenton, we'll see how that goes.

My time is up. You've all been great. Enjoy Rachel Proctor.

Friday, June 6, 2008

It's time to return

So I don't have to do this as a class anymore. And now that I've had some time away from it, I think it might be fun to do this when I want to and not because I have to do it. So, I'm back.

Now that I don't have to do this as a class, I've got freedom to write what I want, when I want, all of that. To be honest, the Big 12 bit really sucked some life out of me. It's a good idea to talk about, but it's not a lot of fun for me to write. Roberto Ruiz can do a better job, and since it's his idea, probably should have been the one to do it all along. Maybe I'll revisit the rest of the Big 12, but for now, it's nice to let it alone.

What I really want to talk about is what I'm getting credit to write about at The Trentonian. So I'll take a page out of Will Palaszczuk's blog Friend of the Feather, which now has his radio calls, and I'll talk about the games I cover, starting with tonight's Trenton Thunder (Yankees AA affiliate) game.

Jason Jones, who you can read more about here, pitched pretty well. He did allow five hits and walked two, but that's pretty solid through six innings. Basically, he kept the Thunder in the game for as long as he pitched.

But while he was doing that, Antonio Bastardo of the Reading Phillies was busy walking hitters and retiring those he didn't walk. He walked six in 6 1/3, but he didn't give up a hit. If he had some solid run support backing him up, he'd have been a deserving winner.

On another note, one thing he's not is blessed by his name. His name literally translates to Anthony Bastard from Spanish to English. Good thing for him he can pitch well.

Back to the Thunder. After getting no hits through 7 2/3, Trenton finally broke through on a nice double down the right field line by Ramiro Peña that scored Reegie Corona (who of course reached on a walk). Austin Jackson then followed with a sacrifice fly to right field, which scored Peña after he took third on a ball that Phillies catcher Lou Marson had to block. Trenton manager Tony Franklin labeled that as a big play. Line for the Thunder tonight: Two runs, one hit, one victory. As Franklin said, it's a strange game.

Tomorrow's game, which I will be at Waterfront Park for, features two pitchers going in different directions. For the Thunder, Phil Coke is slated to throw tomorrow in his return from Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Coke's a lefty with a 4-1 record and a 3.41 ERA in 11 starts at Trenton. On Tuesday, he made his first appearance for Scranton and got hit hard, giving up eight hits and three runs in three innings of work. Not great, so he's back in New Jersey. But given how Coke's improved, that game might just be a blip on the radar for him.

He'll face J.D. Durbin, whose career is going south in a hurry, or to be geographically accurate from Philadelphia, went slightly north to Allentown, Pa., then southwest to Reading. Durbin began the year at Class AAA Lehigh Valley and got shelled. In nine games with the IronPigs, Durbin's ERA was 9.42. It was no surprise that he was sent down to Reading, where his ERA has improved, but his win total hasn't. Durbin's 0-7 overall (0-2 with Reading) this year. I'll see what he's got to say tomorrow.

Here's your Eastern League wrap-up for June 6. I'll try to put this feature in whenever I post, whether I had the Thunder game that night or not. It was a good night for Trenton. The Akron Aeros (Indians affiliate) went to Portland, Maine and knocked off the Sea Dogs (Red Sox affiliate) 6-1, giving the Thunder a three game edge in the EL North. The Sea Dogs are four up on the Binghamton Mets for the #2 spot in the North. The B-Mets were the only other North team to win tonight, beating the New Britain Rock Cats (Twins affiliate) with two runs in the eighth.

In the EL South, the Bowie Baysox (Orioles) caught the Harrisburg Senators (Nationals) by scoring eight in the final two innings for a 9-2 win at Commerce Bank Park (not the same one) in Harrisburg, Pa. Bowie now leads the South by a half-game over Harrisburg. The aforementioned Aeros are very much in the race as well, lurking two games back of the Baysox. Of the other three EL South teams, only the Altoona Curve (Pirates) are within 10 games of Bowie.

My time is up. You've all been great. Enjoy Skillet.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

9. Kansas State Wildcats

After a long layoff because of a book review and a final project, I will finally return to resume my series, and from Ames, we stay in the North Division to visit the plains of Manhattan, Kansas, and the Kansas State Wildcats.

Competitiveness: The Wildcats matter in a good amount of sports. Their women's basketball team won the Big 12. The men finished third in the conference. Volleyball is usually a threat in some way. But K-State's football program has descended into mediocrity, and its baseball program has fought an uphill battle trying to gain ground in the Big 12. K-State is one of just three schools who has yet to win a Big 12 baseball tournament, and shares the distinction with Missouri as being the only schools who still play baseball who have yet to win either the regular season or tournament crowns. The Wildcats don't compete in enough other sports to eliminate the negatives.

Championships: K-State has a pair of women's basketball crowns to its credit, a football title and is the only school besides Nebraska and Texas to win a volleyball title. Outside of that, pickings are slim. K-State's seven is only better than Missouri's total of two. But the Wildcats do have diversity in their favor, and the ability to spring an occasional surprise has to count for something.

Facilities: For a school in the middle of nowhere, K-State's facilities are actually pretty nice. Bill Snyder Family Stadium doesn't look like much from the outside, but it's a good atmosphere once you get inside it. Bramlage Coliseum and Ahearn Field House are serviceable facilities, even if Bramlage has not served K-State's men's team well in the Sunflower Showdown (1 win ever, and the place is as old as I am.) How K-State attracts people to nowhere is still a good question, but the facilities certainly help.

Fan base: Wildcat fans are the opposite of their rivals in Lawrence, passionate about football always, passionate about basketball when the team gives them a reason to be. They do give good support to the lesser sports, though, mainly because there just isn't much else to do in Manhattan. Still, it is a credit to the fan base that they don't just support one of their school's teams.

Coaches: Here is where K-State struggles. I like Ron Prince, very much so. He's a respectful guy, and I want to see him do well. But he's having a hard time getting things back to where K-State now thinks it should be. Frank Martin will go through the same as the men's basketball coach once he loses Bill Walker and Michael Beasley, which is this coming season. By contrast, the coaches on the women's side are generally good. Deb Patterson and Suzie Fritz have done a fine job keeping their programs competitive.

Important sports: It's not a rosy picture anymore. Football is floundering, basketball is in postion to backslide in a hurry. Overnight, K-State could go from basketball relevance into the abyss that it used to call home. Women's basketball has no such problems, but baseball is not going to find itself on the map anytime soon. That leaves K-State squarely on the back end of the third tier in the Big 12.

My time is up. You've all been great. Enjoy Trustcompany.

Monday, April 28, 2008

10. Iowa State Cyclones

We go from the plains of West Texas to the northernmost nowhere that is Ames, Iowa. This is a surprise to some, I'm sure, because if there's one thing the Cyclones do well, it's not football. But overall, Iowa State's athletic department is actually in fairly good shape. The Cyclones are basically Missouri with worse football and no baseball, and that overall strength gets ISU the #10 spot.

Competitiveness: Look at Iowa State's football program, and you think that the whole department is a joke. But in women's basketball, Iowa State is a perennial contender, and is almost always in the NCAA Tournament. Volleyball is now a consistent finisher in the top half of a difficult conference, gymnastics is always in the Top 20 nationally and I haven't even begun to talk about the Cyclones' wrestling program, which was the national runner-up last year. Beneath the surface, there's a lot to like about Iowa State.

Championships: Surprisingly, the Cyclones only have two titles in wrestling, easily their best sport. But ISU has three crowns each in men's and women's basketball, plus another two in gymnastics. That's a pretty solid amount. Iowa State has yet to have a period where it's not a threat to win something, and it doesn't just win in one sport.

Facilities: These might be the worst in the Big 12. Jack Trice Stadium is nothing but a glorified high school stadium. The Hilton Coliseum is used for all indoor sports, and while it is a decent facility, it was built in the 1970's. As such, it lacks the charm and tradition of venerable old buildings like Gallagher-Iba Arena and Allen Fieldhouse, and it lacks the modern amenities of places like Reed Arena and Mizzou Arena. It does have a strong Cyclone fan base, but that's another category.

Fan base: And here we have said category. The Cyclone fan base is supportive throughout good and bad of its teams, which is either a testament to how loyal ISU fans are to their beloved cardinal and gold, or a testament to how little there is to do in Ames, Iowa and the state of Iowa in general. Most likely, it's the first one, because there is Des Moines, which has some entertainment value.

Coaches: I'm not sure how, but Iowa State has some good coaches. Bill Fennelly is an excellent women's coach, also known as the man who was Brenda Frese's final boss before she went to Maryland. Gene Chizik is supposed to be a very good football coach, and Greg McDermott has similar credentials in men's basketball. Volleyball has experienced a rising from the ashes under Christy Johnson. With the exception of Fennelly, these coaches have been at Iowa State for three years or less. If they stay in Ames, the future could be bright.

Important sports: Football and baseball are almost or actually are non-existent in the race, but Iowa State has a solid basketball past that isn't too distant. With the right leadership, it's not hard to see these programs becoming relevant again. The solid past and possibility of a good future have ISU as the best of the bottom of the barrel in the Big 12.

My time is up. You've all been great. Enjoy Cross Canadian Ragweed.

Friday, April 25, 2008

11. Texas Tech Red Raiders

Because of a lack of desire and comments, I've taken a long hiatus from my blog. But now I'm back, so the dedicated audience of five (if that) can exhale.

That brings me to West Texas and the Texas Tech Red Raiders, who are known as the team in the middle of nowhere in the Big 12. But that's not the only portion where the Raiders are in the middle of nowhere. Texas Tech finds itself near the bottom in these rankings.

Competitiveness: The Raiders have a very competitive football team. But their basketball teams have both crashed, their baseball team is not very competitive and the softball team is worse. Other than football, which is Tech's best sport and could possibly produce a championship, Texas Tech does not compete in much. Finishing in the top half might be an accomplishment at this point for most sports.

Championships: The Raiders won a couple in baseball and women's basketball, but nothing else, and that happened a long time ago. There's almost nothing here. Tech is the only team in the Big 12 South that does not have at least 20 championships in the history of the conference. That is really bad.

Facilities; These are actually pretty good. Jones Stadium is a nice facility, even if it was slow to eliminate artificial turf and replace it with FieldTurf. United Spirit Arena was built in 1999 and is a very modern arena. This is an area of strength for the Red Raiders.

Fan base: Tech's fans are passionate about football. They plan to add 20,000 more seats to hold them all. That's a strong statement. But that doesn't carry over to basketball. Bob Knight criticized his fans for not providing enough support for his teams at the games. Seriously, what else is there to do in West Texas besides go see these games? It's not like Lubbock is a bustling metropolis. At least Colorado has an excuse, being close to Denver.

Coaches: Mike Leach might be a nutjob, but he knows what he's doing on the football field. Pat Knight might or might not make things work in Lubbock. But Kristy Curry is struggling to replace Marsha Sharp, and the women's program is crumbling. Larry Hays is a legend for Tech's baseball program, but his program's best days appear to be behind it. The coaches are solid, but maybe they just don't work in Lubbock.

Important sports: Football is a strength, but the remaining sports are not. Still, the Red Raiders do have a past history in all but men's basketball, so I will give them credit here. But Tech's present state is too much for their decent past to overcome. Maybe athletes just don't want to be in West Texas.

My time is up. You've all been great. Enjoy Staind.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The plot thickens

Until further notice, the Big 12 series is temporarily suspended, because of the battle for the Sonics. This means it will likely return in a few days.

But a story was dug up by Jim Brunner of the Seattle Times in 2007 that appears relevant. It's found here, and the key here is this phrase Brunner writes:

"It has been a year since the surprise announcement that Clay Bennett and a team of Oklahoma City investors had bought the Sonics and Storm from the local ownership group led by Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz.

As part of that purchase, Bennett signed an agreement requiring a "good-faith" effort until Oct. 31 to seal an arena deal here."

Until October 31. As in October 31, 2007. But the e-mails from Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward to Clay Bennett are dated April 2007, the ones that clearly show that the group did not have any intentions of staying in Seattle. April 2007, as in six months before the deadline where relocation could actively be explored. And if Brunner is correct, Bennett SIGNED an agreement. Not gave his word verbally. It says he actually signed something.

Plus, you've got McClendon saying that even though he knows the group will make LESS money in Oklahoma City, they don't care, they want the team in OKC. It can't get much more obvious than that. The choice is profit in Seattle versus a loss in OKC--by McClendon's OWN ADMISSION--and they choose OKC.

It's not over yet. Seth Kolloen, who writes Enjoy Your Enjoyment, a fine blog about the state of sports in Seattle that had the post about the story on McClendon, came up with this gem about the Schultz re-entry. In it, he describes a conversation with Joel Ngugi, a professor at the University of Washington Law School who teaches a course in contracts. Ngugi said that there is a question about whether that became part of the agreement. He added that Schultz would have to sue.

Now Schultz IS suing. If this signed agreement Brunner wrote of exists, he has a case. The city of Seattle has evidence that Bennett has lied all along. And a law professor says that it is enforceable.

Yeah, there is definitely a chance Seattle can win. The city's not going down without a fight, and Clay Bennett could be in for the fight of his life to win this one now.

My time is up. You've all been great. Enjoy Institute.

I love Starbucks

The shocking, sad saga to save the Seattle SuperSonics (OK, that's too many S words) has crossed from the standard story where an out-of-town villain comes in to steal a team, and has now entered the incredibly bizarre. Personally, I thought I'd seen it all when Jim Balsillie tried to buy the Nashville Predators and Gary Bettman said no, forcing Craig Leipold to hold on to the team.

But this is even stranger. Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks and former owner of the SuperSonics, the man who sold the team to current owner Clayton Bennett of Oklahoma City, announced today that based on a breach of contract, he wants his team back.

I could be wrong, but I think this is a first for a pro sports team's sale. There have been situations where a group bought a team with intent of relocation, and the commissioner or other owners stepped in and stopped them, examples being the Predators and the San Francisco Giants' blocked move to Tampa Bay in 1992. There have been situations where an owner has announced a move and has been stopped in another way, such as Ken Behring's attempt to move the Seattle Seahawks to Anaheim in 1996, when lawyers discovered the move was blocked for another decade. But I do not think a team has ever been sold, approved by the commissioner (who is either an idiot or a lying piece of scum) and then the old owner decides he wants back in.

The way I see this? Good for Howard Schultz. He's finally showing some civic responsibility. Now, he could be doing this for his own skin, and probably is to prevent a boycott of Starbucks. But does that matter? Someone is finally stepping in to try do prevent Bennett and David Stern's betrayal of Seattle, and at this point, it doesn't matter why, it just matters that it's happening.

The question now, can this work? That depends on who you ask. Some believe that there's no way to prove that Bennett violated the contract by acting in bad faith and buying the team solely to move it to Oklahoma City. David Stern doesn't believe that it happened that way, although to be honest, Bennett could probably tell Stern the sky is minty green with purple clouds and Stern would then proceed to tell every reporter that it's true. The Seattle Times recently published a series of e-mails from Bennett to his co-owners that claim that there was never a desire to keep the team in Seattle. Stern has blamed the co-owners entirely so far. Good piece of reporting by the Times. If you're reading this, Cathy Henkel, (yeah, right), I'd love to work for you some day. (Editor's note: Dream on.)

But if it can be proven, then it gets interesting. Will a verbal agreement be enough? Is that all that Schultz has, or did he actually think to get it as part of the contract? If it's in the contract, the chances of Schultz winning the suit and going from fellow villain to respected citizen in Seattle go up dramatically. If he wins the suit, Bennett loses his team, and Oklahoma City loses its chance at the NBA. Plus, OKC might never get a team, because what owner would sell to Bennett after this scandal? The biggest loser if Schultz wins? Stern, who would be seen as a complete fool and a backstabber by everyone, not just in Seattle. Stern's put all his eggs in one basket, and now he could lose everything if a judge doesn't see it his and Bennett's way.

Personally, I don't think this is as big a longshot as is thought by some people. True, Schultz is looking at a large backlash in Seattle, where Starbucks is based and makes a good chunk of profit. True, Starbucks has 338 stores in a 15-mile radius of Seattle. True, the SuperSonics have fans throughout the state of Washington.

But Starbucks is now a global phenomenon. Schultz might not lose as much business if he does nothing as he could if he loses the suit in fees, because there are 48 states that don't care about the SuperSonics (Oklahoma excluded) and 43 countries. That's still a lot of business. So Schultz either is desperate for a good public image, or he really thinks he can win. Billionaires are not stupid.

I hope Oklahoma City does get a team, someday. But it shouldn't be Seattle's team. The SuperSonics haven't done a thing wrong. They deserve to remain in the Emerald City. To be honest, I can't remember a time when I wanted Starbucks this much.

My time is up. You've all been great. Enjoy Kenny G.