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.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

12. Colorado Buffaloes

Several people who I've talked to about this expected to see Iowa State at the bottom of the rankings. If we were going on overall history, the Cyclones might very well be down there. But we are instead going on the status this year, 2008. So that costs the Colorado Buffaloes the most points, surprisingly enough. Everyone thinks of Colorado as a fine program, but the way things shape up right now in the Mountain Time Zone, it's actually a program in shambles compared to the rest of the conference.

Competitiveness: It's not pretty. Colorado doesn't compete in baseball or softball at all, the Buffaloes don't field a team in either sport. But in the sports where they DO have a team, it's still not great. The men's basketball team has finished dead last two consecutive years. The football team was decent, good enough to make a bowl game, but after losing said bowl game, still had a losing record, and was only the eighth-best team in the conference. The volleyball team, usually a big strength, finished 1-19 this season, tied with Texas Tech for last in the conference. After a promising start, the women's basketball team was 5-11. The only sports of substance for CU this year that the Big 12 sponsors are women's tennis, women's golf and cross country. No other CU team is in the top half of its league.

Championships: It doesn't take much of a memory to name the Big 12 cross country champions. Other than a 1998 women's title for Kansas State, CU has won the title for both genders every time. But that's almost all CU ever wins. I'm going to be kind and include division crowns along with conference and tournament crowns. That brings Colorado's mark up to 30. But only 7 of those were in a sport other than cross country, and four of the seven were division titles in football. That's a pretty poor mark. 23 titles aren't impressive if they all come in a sport nobody cares about.

Facilities: Folsom Field is a quaint stadium, picturesque and intimidating when the Buffaloes are playing well. The Coors Events Center is totally overlooked. And why shouldn't it be? It's not an appealing venue when viewed on television, and nobody goes to the games. It's not much, and it could be why the Buffaloes can't get anyone to play in it.

Fan base: You would think Colorado has a passionate fan base. And you would be wrong. The Buffaloes, even when playing well, rarely sell Folsom Field out. Folsom has been around since 1924, and since 1946, the Buffaloes have kept track of season attendance every year. In their history at Folsom since 1946, Colorado has sold out more than half of its games at Folsom six times. Six times out of a possible 62 seasons has Colorado even managed to sell out four of its home games. It's not like it's Neyland Stadium and holds six figures. Folsom holds 53,750.

Attendance at Coors is even worse. It looks like a ghost town most of the time. I haven't seen a true fire-exit crowd yet (a crowd so small that if there were a fire, everyone would have their own exit), but I wouldn't be shocked if Colorado manages it.

Coaches: Finally, something Colorado doesn't totally suck in. Pi'i Aiu, the volleyball coach, has a short, difficult name, but usually has a good program, this year of course being an exception. Kathy McConnell-Miller hasn't been around long, but has her basketball team on the road to respectability. The same can probably be said of Jeff Bzdelik and Dan Hawkins, but for rebuilding coaches, it's a long way back, due to history and emergence of other programs.

Important sports: You can't win if you don't play (baseball). In the other sports, CU finished eighth, ninth, and 12th last year. That's a rough mark, and coupled with only two conference crowns in history, it's pretty poor. This is an athletic department that should work, but isn't. Until it does, Colorado holds the crown as worst program in the Big 12.

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

Friday, April 11, 2008

New series

Off a suggestion from my friend Roberto Ruiz, I've got a new series in the works. This time, I'm going to be looking at the athletic departments in the Big 12 as a whole. Then I'll rank the athletic departments from worst to best, using several categories to put out a fair ranking. But this is not going to be a score in each category. Instead, I'll break down the pluses and minuses in each one.

Here's the criteria:

Competitiveness: Does the school compete for the Big 12 crown on a regular basis in multiple sports? Or are the school's teams usually pushovers, save for a couple specialty sports?

Championships: How often does the school bring home the hardware? In which sports does it win? Extra weight is given to sports that all or almost all the Big 12 schools compete in, plus extra weight is given to big sports.

Facilities: How nice are the school's facilities? If they're ancient, do their histories make up for it?

Fan base: How much do the fans care? Are they passionate at all times, or apathetic when things are poor?

Coaches: How good are the coaches in place? Does the school keep its best coaches around or lose them?

Important sports: How does the school perform in the four biggest sports in the conference, those being football, both basketballs, and baseball?

The series will begin with the worst team in the conference in the next post.

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

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Mid-week outlook

It's Wednesday, and I haven't done a post here recently. So here goes with every part of what I want to say.

Hockey: The playoffs start tonight. The Ottawa Senators face the Pittsburgh Penguins. To be honest, I doubt we're going to win, but it's still our crown as the Eastern Conference champion until somebody takes it from us. Even if we lose, it's still hockey. These playoffs are the most exciting events in sports, and I love every minute of it, especially because the Maple Leafs aren't in it.

My prediction is still up in the air, because almost nobody looks good enough to win. The Wings and Sharks always choke, the Wild are too much of an enigma, the Ducks are missing Corey Perry, the Stars never get the necessary goaltending, the Avalanche have Jose Theodore, the Flames could be a sleeper, but I'm not sure, and I doubt the Predators are for real. The Western pick is the winner of the Sharks-Flames series.

In the East, the Penguins are soft, the Canadiens don't look impressive, the Capitals don't have a ton besides Alex Ovechkin, the Devils can't score, the Rangers seem to have something missing, the Flyers and Senators fold too easily, and the Bruins are too young.

I pick the Penguins to become the East champion, and lose to the Western winner. I'll man up and say the Sharks.

Tennis: Daniela Hantuchova needs to perform well in Charleston next week at the Family Circle Cup. She blew it in Miami at the Sony Ericsson Open with a loss to Ai Sugiyama, now she needs to at least do well on the green clay at Amelia Island before Charleston to get her confidence up. A flameout here would spell trouble entering the clay-court season. That is exactly what happened, as she lost to Karolina Sprem. I hope she has an injury, because there is no other excuse for this.

Baseball: The Blue Jays have had very good pitching, or at least they have besides A.J. Burnett last night. That will have to continue if we are going to make it to the playoffs for the first time since 1993. The hitting looked strong too, but we always hit Boston well. We need to keep this going.

Basketball: The Kansas Jayhawks and Tennessee Volunteers are NCAA Champions. Congratulations to them and their fans. This leads me to a thorny issue. As a Missouri student, I was supposed to be rooting hard against Kansas, disgusted to see them win, angry about watching our biggest rival celebrating at the end to the point of not wanting to watch any of the postgame.

But I was not upset at all to see KU win. It did not matter to me. The reason? I am a journalist. I am supposed to be unbiased in everything I cover. As such, I have disassociated myself from the teams and the sports that I cover. It is my university, but I have no need to get involved in the rivalry. Plus, I do not take pleasure from other fans suffering. It is not and has never been my way. I do not need bragging rights and will not rub anything in. That is simply not who I am.

Now, I know that the argument is coming, that being how can I pull for my teams in the pros and not be biased for Missouri? Simple: I do not cover them. If I cover them at any point, I will have to renounce my rooting interest. I know that. But it has yet to happen. But I have already covered the Missouri teams. So I simply will not be as big a fan of them as most. I will not apologize for that. I have also watched the postgame every year, including two Carolina crowns and one from Maryland. I am certainly going to watch through Kansas winning if I did for those three.

Basketball: The Indiana Pacers managed a win to stay alive. I was pleased. I do not want to be in the draft lottery. It is an embarrassment to me. I would much rather get swept against Boston, because at least we were there if that happens. Plus, I know all about the lottery busting for a tanking team. Alexandre Daigle, anyone?

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

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Same sport, same quality, fewer fans

It's Final Four weekend, and that means that the men's and women's national championships will be decided in the next four days. But for reasons I can't get, bashing the women's tournament has become incredibly popular. This happens despite the fact that the women have produce the better Final Four two years running. Nobody who knows anything can claim that the Maryland-Duke final of 2006 was anything but a classic. But if you ask most male fans, they will assert that the women's tournament doesn't matter.

I don't understand it. It's not like we're talking about a regular season game involving Missouri and Texas Tech, two teams so bad that nobody should be asked to pay to see them play. If you want to bash these teams, I might be right there with you. But we're talking about Connecticut and Stanford. We're talking about Tennessee and LSU. These are great teams, teams that are a pleasure to watch to anyone who cares about basketball. These games should be every bit as good as the men's Final Four, which also should be great to watch. These are great games that we should all enjoy.

But few people seem to care on the women's side. As far as I can tell, the only reason I can see that I don't really have an answer for is the game above the rim. I personally don't enjoy the dunk, it does nothing for me. To me, it's a positive that the women don't dunk, save for Candace Parker. But I can see why some people love it.

But as for the rest of the game? You're not a fan of fluid passing, good decision-making, good shots, athleticism? Really? I guess you aren't a fan of basketball. Those are the essentials of good basketball and yet, they get ignored, because of a love obsession with the dunk. Get over it. There was basketball played below the rim before the dunk, and it was just as good. Basketball does not need the dunk to be compelling. If you don't agree, go watch SlamBall reruns and leave the sport to the true fans.

Nobody says you have to say women's basketball is better than men's. I don't even say that as a whole. I said the last two Final Fours were better on the women's side, but overall, the men are a little better. But would it be that hard to watch the Final Four and make an informed decision, as opposed to living in the past?

In case you still need convincing, I've got a big difference that favors the women. The women's Final Four has Stacey Dales. The men's Final Four has Billy Packer. Big edge to the ladies on that one.

My time is up. You've all been great. Enjoy Jamie O'Neal.

Friday, April 4, 2008

On the cusp

And after taking a well-deserved break, mainly because my Internet sucks, I'm finally back to do something on my blog. Finally, the Ottawa Senators decided that making the playoffs would be a good idea by trashing the Toronto Maple Leafs. For the record, I officially hate when baseball and hockey overlap in the regular season because it puts me awkward position of pulling for a Toronto win in baseball and a Toronto loss in hockey. Fortunately, this stops being a problem after the regular season, because neither Toronto side makes the playoffs anymore.

Anyway, I guess I can't complain. My roommates would be happy to be in my position, since the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks will again miss the playoffs. Neither has made it to the playoffs since the lockout. Will Palaszczuk, whose blog had its debut last night here, is a fan of the New York Islanders, who will also miss the playoffs. Last year's Eastern Conference top seed, the Buffalo Sabres, will miss the playoffs, which makes me happy.

So all we need is an overtime game with Boston tonight to get in. If we get that, or the Hurricanes lose to Tampa Bay, the Capitals lose to Florida or the Flyers lose to either New Jersey or Pittsburgh, we make the playoffs, and the year continues at least four more games.

It's exciting. It's the best time of the year, and to be honest, I'd....rather have clinched a spot two weeks ago. But what the heck, I'll take it.

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

Sunday, March 30, 2008

30 Teams in 30 Days: Washington Nationals

A look back: The Nationals weren't really good last year, but their goal was more development and finding pieces. That's something they have done fairly well on one side of the ball. But since they're stuck in a division with two and possibly three of the stronger teams in the National League, it's not really going to get much better for a little while.

Positives on the field: If you look at the lineup, this simply shouldn't be a fourth-place team. There are few weak links 1-8 in the Nats' lineup. Austin Kearns, Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes could be a solid outfield, Ronnie Belliard, Nick Johnson and Ryan Zimmerman are strong in the infield, and Paul Lo Duca is a fine catcher. If that talent comes together, the Nationals could do a lot of damage on offense.

The bullpen should be solid as well, anchored by Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero. Cordero needs to rediscover his form from the first year in Washington, however. If he can do that, seven innings might be all opponents get to try to beat the Nationals.

Positives off the field: Nationals Park gives Washington a glittering new home. Truthfully, I will miss RFK Stadium, which I loved, but the new park should be a big plus for this team.

Negatives on the field: You get to the rotation, and you realize why this team was picked fourth or fifth. Some of these players might make it eventually, like Matt Chico, Shawn Hill and Jason Bergmann, but as my colleague Joe Conroy from the Potomac News points out in this story, the Nats have young arms like John Lannan at Columbus who could benefit by pitching in the majors for a team that isn't likely to contend. It's a good argument, and I have to say that I tend to agree, using my Jays (as usual) as an example.

Last year, Toronto forced Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum into the rotation. Now both pitchers are viewed as strong pieces and make the Jays' rotation one of the strongest around. What do the Nats have to lose?

Outlook: The stadium is what matters this season for the Nats. Enjoy it while the good feeling lasts, because the team needs to start competing next year. With the Marlins' new park coming in 2010, Florida won't be a pushover (OK, they'll be Miami by then, I know) any longer, and the Nats won't be able to wait any longer. Three strong teams in the division is enough.

Projected finish: 4th in NL East. Season opener is in about 15 minutes against Atlanta at Nationals Park.

Spring base: Space Coast Stadium, Viera, Fla. The team played on the east coast of Florida.

Fan of the team?: Read Joe's story, and then check out Federal Baseball, the Nationals fan community.

Come back later: The road trip is done, enjoy baseball, and other topics now that the series is over.

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

Saturday, March 29, 2008

30 Teams in 30 Days: Philadelphia Phillies

A look back: Thanks to some help from the Mets, the Phillies returned to the playoffs for the first time since the 1993 World Series (hint, hint, Toronto), although the 2007 postseason was much less productive for the Phils, as the Rockies took just three games to end Philadelphia's run. But the Phillies return the important pieces, and should be in great shape to take another shot at the playoffs.

Positives on the field: The infield. Seriously, Philadelphia's heart and soul comes from its infield trio of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard. These are three of the best players in the game today, all excellent hitters. When Pedro Feliz, a 20-home run guy in a park that isn't exactly a home run haven is your weakest infielder, it's a good sign. That doesn't even include the power of Pat Burrell, who turned it on at the end of the season last year, finally winning Philly approval.

On the pitching side, Brett Myers returns to team with Cole Hamels as the anchors of the Phillies' staff. Jamie Moyer still finds a way to get hitters out, and assuming Kyle Kendrick isn't traded to Japan, he and Adam Eaton will take the final two spots, giving Philly a solid rotation. There aren't too many weaknesses here.

Negatives on the field: But one of them is the bullpen. The Phillies are putting a lot of faith in Brad Lidge, who went from Lights-Out to Lights-Up with one swing from Albert Pujols. The last time the Phillies added a closer from the Astros, he tore apart their clubhouse with his claims that the Phillies had no chance to make the playoffs, then headed to the rival Mets. (For the record, it's Billy Wagner.) If Lidge blows up again, the Phillies might have no chance this year, unless Tom Gordon gets the job done or Myers returns as the closer.

The Phils also cannot afford to bury themselves with a bad April again. For reasons unknown, Philadelphia forgets that spring training ends in March, not April. A slow start would open the door for the Mets to open a big lead. The Phillies can't count on the Mets choking again.

Outlook: The time is now for the Phillies. All the pieces are in place for them to make a run at the pennant and the World Series crown. They have playoff experience now, they have a talented ball club and they play in the National League. Of course, nothing is a lock, but if Philly can start the season well for once, it's the Phillies' race to lose.

Projected finish: 1st in NL East, defeat Cubs in NLDS, defeat Mets in NLCS, lose to Tigers in World Series. Season opener is March 31 against Washington at Citizens Bank Park.

Spring base: Bright House Networks Field, Clearwater, Fla. The team plays its games on the west coast of Florida in the Tampa Bay area.

Fan of the team?: Check out The Good Phight, the Phillies blog.

Come back tomorrow: OK, I know I was supposed to do this in 30 days. But the season starts tomorrow, so I'll stretch it one more day. The road trip finishes at the gorgeous new Nationals Park in Washington, where the season begins at night.

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

Friday, March 28, 2008

30 Teams in 30 Days: New York Mets

A look back: What a choke job. After having the division all but sealed, the Mets coughed it up to the Phillies on the last day of the season to surrender the playoffs after coming within one game of the World Series the year before. To fix that problem, the Mets turned to Johan Santana, one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Positives on the field: When healthy, the rotation is one of the best in the game. Santana is as dominant as any ace there is, Pedro Martinez is still dependable when he gets a chance to pitch and John Maine blossomed into a strong hurler. With Billy Wagner anchoring the bullpen and the return of Duaner Sanchez as a possible setup man, if Aaron Heilman doesn't hold the role, the Mets will have pitching as a strength.

On the other side of the ball, how the Mets look depends on where you look. On the left side of the diamond, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better pair than Jose Reyes and David Wright at shortstop and third base respectively. Elsewhere, there are questions, but these two will continue to be strong for years to come.

Positives off the field: The Mets will move into CitiField next year, ending the run at Shea Stadium. Shea isn't an awful stadium, but it's not historic either. The Mets don't need to capture it in their new park other than the Big Apple, and they aren't going to.

Negatives on the field: As good as the left side is, the right side is shaky. Carlos Delgado is aging and injured (and a prick, but that's neither here nor there), Luis Castillo is recovering from surgery, Ryan Church is the right fielder, the list continues at positions manned by players not named Reyes and Wright. Ultimately, the Mets' shakiness outside of their two big stars will likely be their undoing.

Outlook: The Mets shouldn't choke away the playoffs this time around. But they might still be looking up at the Phillies when all is said and done. Philadelphia looks to be a more complete team, and the Mets are missing something. That something is probably either leadership or all-around talent in the lineup.

Projected finish: 2nd in NL East, beat Diamondbacks in NLDS, lose to Phillies in NLCS. Season opener is March 31 against Florida at Dolphin Stadium. Mets home opener is April 8 against Philadelphia at Shea Stadium.

Spring base: Tradition Field, Port St. Lucie, Fla. The team plays its games on the east coast of Florida.

Fan of the team?: Check out Amazin Avenue, the Mets fan community.

Come back tomorrow: The road trip continues with the short trip down I-95 and a visit to the cheesesteak capital of the world, Philadelphia and the Phillies.

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

Thursday, March 27, 2008

30 Teams in 30 Days: Atlanta Braves

A look back: The Braves have now missed the playoffs two years running, causing shock to fans in Atlanta, who had forgotten that baseball season does not start in September. But while Atlanta has improved and is far ahead of the Nationals and Marlins, the Braves might have become the NL East's Toronto Blue Jays, a good to very good team that is stuck behind two better ones.

Positives on the field: Atlanta has some good pieces in its rotation. John Smoltz is still dependable when healthy, and there are no questions about Tim Hudson's quality either. If the Braves' rotation stays healthy, it's certain to be a strength. The bullpen is also solid, and will become more solid when Mike Gonzalez gets healthy.

On the hitting side, the corners of Chipper Jones and Mark Teixiera are both strong offensive pieces, and Jeff Francouer has developed nicely in right field. There are plenty of reasons for the Braves to be optimistic.

Negatives off the field: Atlanta pulled its AAA franchise out of Richmond for Gwinnett, effective 2009. I understand why they left, but Gwinnett? Sure, it's just a bus ride for rehab, but why would Atlanta baseball fans come see the AAA team when they don't see the parent club?

Negatives on the field: Boy, is the Atlanta rotation ancient. At 33, Hudson is going to be the second-youngest on the rotation if Mike Hampton makes it. On most teams, Hudson would be the old man. Instead, Atlanta counts on 40-year old Smoltz and 42-year old Tom Glavine. If they're still going strong and still healthy, it's not a problem. But these pitchers could easily break down, and would take Atlanta's season with them.

Plus, Atlanta doesn't have strength in the outfield other than Francouer. Mark Kotsay and Matt Diaz aren't going to provide enough offense. Chipper is an injury risk, and if he gets hurt and/or Teixiera struggles, the Braves won't score.

Outlook: The more I think about this team, the more I see a National League version of my Blue Jays. Deep rotation, potential to score, stuck behind more talented teams, several question marks. As you'd expect a National League version of an American League team to be, expect the Braves to be 5-10 games worse than the Jays. And just as 90 wins probably won't get Toronto anywhere, 85 won't cut it for the Braves.

Projected finish: 3rd in NL East. Season opener is March 30 against Washington at Nationals Park. Braves home opener is March 31 against Pittsburgh at Turner Field.

Spring base: Cracker Jack Stadium, Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The team plays its games in central Florida and on both coasts of the state.

Fan of the team?: Check out Talking Chop, the Braves fan community.

Come back tomorrow: The road trip comes towards the end as it heads to New York's borough of Queens and visits the Mets.

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

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

30 Teams in 30 Days: Florida Marlins

A look back: The Marlins were predictable non-factors after the removal of Joe Girardi as manager last year. Not to say Fredi Gonzalez was bad as the manager, because he wasn't. But the Florida Fish simply were not as good a team as they were under Girardi. Plus, the Marlins' defense was atrocious last year. If that remains the case, the Florida fans (the few, the ashamed) will really have to be alert at all times.

Positives on the field: You have to love the Marlins' keystone combo of Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla. These two are easily the best players the Marlins still have now that Miguel Cabrera is in Detroit. There is a bit of other talent on the roster, notably Josh Willingham, Jeremy Hermida and Mike Jacobs. But overall, it's too young to really compete.

On the pitching side, Florida should have had better pitching than it did last year, but the young pitchers who showed so much promise regressed last year. Which season was the more telling? If it was the year under Girardi, the Marlins could surprise. If not, the Fish are in deep trouble, especially if Andrew Miller isn't ready to contribute.

Positives off the field: The Marlins finally got the ballpark figured out. They'll become the Miami Marlins upon completion. The only downside is that it robs me of the term "Florida Fish".

Negatives on the field: The Marlins are painfully young. The Marlins are always young. As such, they are never old enough to realistically compete with the better teams in baseball. There is too much of a question with too many areas. Well, there is one that isn't: The rotation is a weakness. Mark Hendrickson should never be in the top half of a major league rotation. Florida's young pitchers must prove last year was the fluke if the Marlins are going to do anything.

Outlook: How does this team have two World Series wins already? It makes absolutely no sense. But if the Marlins' past is an indication, I am badly underestimating Florida. This is the year before the Marlins are scheduled to win their third World Series. If the schedule holds up, Florida will compete. But that's a risk I'm willing to take.

Projected finish: 5th in NL East. Season opener is March 31 against New York at Dolphin Stadium.

Spring base: Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter, Fla. The team shares the stadium with the St. Louis Cardinals and plays on the east coast of Florida.

Fan of the team?: Check out Fish Stripes, the Marlins fan community.

Come back tomorrow: The road trip deviates from the pattern slightly to head up to Atlanta and the Braves, who have now missed the playoffs two years running.

My time is up. You've all been great. Enjoy Brooks and Dunn.

David Stern is a disgrace

As a lot of people know, it is almost a done deal that the Seattle SuperSonics will leave the Emerald City and move to Oklahoma City as soon as possible. NBA commissioner David Stern has said that he will recommend the league allow the Sonics to leave Seattle for OKC at the end of the season.

This is precisely why David Stern is the worst commissioner in sports today. The Sonics have called Seattle home for 40 years. It was one of the teams added in one of the first waves of expansion in NBA history. Stern should be fighting this move tooth and nail. But instead of that, he is rejecting reasonable proposals to renovate Key Arena until the city can afford to build a suitable new arena. Every idea that comes up, he shoots down while claiming the Sonics should be in Oklahoma City. This is the thanks Seattle gets for 40 years of support? The league commissioner abandons the city in favor of Oklahoma City, a city that is only on the radar of the NBA because of its support of the New Orleans Hornets after Hurricane Katrina?

For starters, why would Stern even allow Clay Bennett to buy the Sonics in the first place? It was clear from the beginning that Bennett had purchased the team just so he could move it. Every arena proposal he floated was designed to be rejected, so that he could honestly claim he had given the city a chance to save its team. It was a con job, nothing more. No matter what Bennett says, no matter how many proposals to buy the team he rejects, no matter how much the NBA fines Aubrey McLendon for telling the truth ($250K) and no matter how many proposals he floated that were totally unfair to Seattle, he always intended for the Sonics to move. What would have happened if the city had agreed? What would Bennett have done?

And Stern? Why has he contradicted himself multiple times throughout this ordeal? He originally asked Seattle to come up with $300 million in renovations for KeyArena in 2006. Now the city has done exactly that, and Stern says that the proposal is inadequate to serve the Sonics. That is a complete lie. It is inadequate only because Bennett says it is. $300 million will go a long way toward making KeyArena viable for the Sonics to make money off of it. But Stern's mind is made up. Only something that helps his buddy Bennett get a team in Oklahoma City will be adequate. Seattle could probably accept Bennett's original proposal at this point and be told no deal.

Stern could actually learn a thing or two from his former understudy Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL. Recently, everyone wanted to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins when they went up for sale. Gary Bettman didn't let it happen, demanding that all options in Pittsburgh be exhausted before relocation could be considered. He did the same for Nashville when Jim Balsillie bought the Predators. Stern, by contrast, refused to do anything to help the Sonics, instead working as a puppet for Bennett. He knew as everyone else did that the arena proposal was set up to fail, but he did nothing to stop Bennett. Now he claims it is too late to save the team. To steal a line from Taylor Swift, Mr. Stern, you could have helped if you had wanted to, but no one notices until it is too late to do anything.

David Stern has made a lot of mistakes as the leader of the NBA. The Tim Donaghy scandal appeared to be the worst, but Stern's betrayal of Seattle is a close second at worst. There is no excuse whatsoever for what he has done. The city of Seattle deserved better, and if I were an NBA owner, I would vote no on Seattle's relocation without question.

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

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

30 Teams in 30 Days: Chicago Cubs

A look back: The Cubs came up big with an NL Central crown and a spot in the playoffs in 2007. But it quickly came to an end when Chicago went three and out in the playoffs at the hands of the Diamondbacks. To correct the problem, the Cubs have added a few more pieces, and might not be quite done making additions.

Positives on the field: The Cubs can definitely score, and they have built themselves a nice lineup from top to bottom. If Chicago could pry Brian Roberts loose from Baltimore, they would become an even stronger force offensively. If not, the Cubs already have Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano to drive in runs, and will get the table set by Ryan Theriot, new acquisition Reed Johnson and Kosuke Fukudome. On the offensive side, there is already a lot to like about the Cubs in 2008.

The pitching rotation looks solid as well, led by Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly, both of whom looked strong last year, save for an awful stretch by Zambrano which gave Cub fans every right to boo him (quit whining, Zambrano). The bullpen tries for addition by subtraction by getting Ryan Dempster out of it and allowing Kerry Wood the chance to close. It will be an interesting situation for the Cubs.

Negatives off the field: Sam Zell is a prick who wants to sell the naming rights to Wrigley Field. This needs to not happen. Wrigley should never have a corporate name, it is far too historic.

Negatives on the field: Behind Lilly and Zambrano, Chicago's rotation is very questionable. Dempster has been poor in the bullpen and might not be better as a starter. Jason Marquis is inconsistent. Sean Marshall and Rich Hill are also questionable. Jon Lieber should be solid, but will solid be enough for the Cubs to keep opposing bats quiet?

Also, the bullpen is a question mark. It could be great, or it could blow up with players adjusting to new roles. Kerry Wood started as a rotation ace, not a bullpen ace. How will Carlos Marmol and Bob Howry adjust to their roles as setup men this season? For Howry, it shouldn't be much of an adjustment, but Marmol closed last year, and that could make it tougher for him.

Outlook: The Cubs are not a championship team at this point. Sorry, Chicago fans, but you will likely reach a full century without a title. But the Cubs should repeat as NL Central champions, something they haven't done in almost as long. That is progress.

Projected finish: 1st in NL Central, lose to Phillies in NLDS. Season opener is March 31 against Milwaukee at Wrigley Field.

Spring base: HoHoKam Park, Mesa, Ariz. The team plays its games in Phoenix and Tucson.

Fan of the team?: Check out Bleed Cubbie Blue, the Cubs fan community.

Come back tomorrow: The road trip heads from some of the most loyal fans in baseball to the most invisible fans in baseball, those of the Florida Marlins, who have somehow won two World Series already in 15 years.

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

Monday, March 24, 2008

30 Teams in 30 Days: St. Louis Cardinals

A look back: The Cardinals kept alive the streak of failing to reach the World Series after winning it all in the previous season. In fact, the Cards missed the playoffs entirely, ending their own streak and extending the streak of defending champions not winning a game in the playoffs last year. The streak is intact since 2001, or every year in this millennium. See Boston for details. But the Cards struggled because of injuries to key pitchers, which made things difficult for both the rotation and the bullpen. If the injury bug doesn't hit and the pitchers who are still hurt come back strong, the Cards are easily contenders. If the reverse is true, the Cards will have little chance to compete.

Positives on the field: The Cards have built a solid batting order that actually stands a chance of putting balls out at spacious Busch Stadium. Chris Duncan, Rick Ankiel, Troy Glaus and some guy named Albert Pujols are all excellent hitters who are capable of putting runs on the board. If the Cardinals' other hitters can get on, and with Tony LaRussa still calling the shots, there's no reason to believe they won't, St. Louis could have a solid offense.

On the pitching side, Jason Isringhausen doesn't take the most direct route, but he gets the job done. The rotation is led by ace of the future Adam Wainwright, who could give St. Louis an unbelievable staff if the other pitchers ever get off the DL. With only Braden Looper and Kyle Lohse joining him as quality pitchers in the rotation for now, the rotation is merely average.

Negatives on the field: The Cardinals' injury history puts them in the unique position of having to play catch-up from the beginning of the year. St. Louis doesn't have the rotation right now to compete with the better teams in the National League, but if Mark Mulder, Matt Clement and Chris Carpenter come back strong from injuries, they immediately have one of the strongest around. But that's a big if, and the Cards might not be able to afford waiting in terms of 2008's chances.

On the other side, how badly is Pujols hurt? He's not showing any ill effects right now, but if his injury flares up during the season, the Cardinals lose a big chunk of their offense. The same applies to Troy Glaus and his heels. If the turf in Toronto was the problem, he's fine, St. Louis plays on grass. If there was a different problem, he's in trouble.

Outlook: The Cardinals will become a strong team, but they won't become that strong team until about July or August. That might be enough to finish them if the Cubs or Brewers get off to a hot start. St. Louis might have to connect with their inner Rockies to return to the playoff.

Projected finish: 2nd in NL Central. Season opener is March 31 against Colorado at Busch Stadium.

Spring base: Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter, Fla. The team plays on the east coast of Florida and shares the stadium with the Florida Marlins.

Fan of the team?: Check out Viva El Birdos, the Cardinals fan community.

Come back tomorrow: The road trip heads to the North Side of Chicago and the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field.

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

Sunday, March 23, 2008

30 Teams in 30 Days: Milwaukee Brewers

A look back: The Brewers had the expectations last season, but weren't able to do anything with them, as they watched the Cubs pass them en route to the NL Central title. This time around, Milwaukee's pitching staff isn't nearly as hyped, which means the Brew Crew will either perform better with less expectations, or just isn't going to be that good. Whatever the situation, Milwaukee will only go as far as the rotation and Prince Fielder's bat can take them.

Positives on the field: The batting order is solid, if the top half can pick it up. Rickie Weeks has tremendous potential, and if he and J.J. Hardy produce at the top, the Brewers will score a lot of runs with Ryan Braun, Fielder and Corey Hart contributing. When Bill Hall, a player with a fair amount of power, hits seventh in a National League lineup, that's a pretty potent offense waiting to explode.

The pitching has the potential to be rock-solid as well, led by Ben Sheers and Yovani Gallardo at the top and followed by several other capable arms. Eric Gagne moves into the closer role vacated by Francisco Cordero, and Derrick Turnbow is proving effective as a setup man. If the Brewers stay healthy, the pitching could be a strength.

Negatives on the field: The Brewers never stay healthy. Sheets is now trailing only Mark Prior in career simulated victories. Gallardo and Chris Capuano are already hurt, damaging Milwaukee's chances of having a rotation that can land this club in the race. Chicago will score runs just as well as the Brewers and once their pitching is healthy, St. Louis will keep scores down. To beat the Cubs and Cardinals, Milwaukee needs its pitching to match its hitting.

There are also questions surrounding Weeks, Gagne and Fielder. Nobody questions Fielder's talent, but how will his off-season tantrum worthy of Drew Rosenhaus affect him? Gagne was strong for Texas as a closer, then became a gas can in Fenway Park, almost costing Boston a title. As for Weeks, when will he ever step up and prove his potential that has been discussed for so long?

Outlook: Milwaukee has enough pieces in place to contend, but like last year, probably not enough pieces to win. The Brewers will be a strong favorite if they could ever get everyone healthy at once, but that doesn't appear to be happening any time soon.

Projected finish: 3rd in NL Central. Season opener is March 31 against Chicago at Wrigley Field. Brewers home opener is April 4 against San Francisco at Miller Park

Spring base: Maryvale Baseball Park, Phoenix. The team plays its games in both Phoenix and Tucson.

Fan of the team?: Check out Brew Crew Ball, the Brewers fan community.

Come back tomorrow: The road trip heads to Missouri and baseball heaven, also known as St. Louis and the 2006 World Champion Cardinals.

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

30 Teams in 30 Days: Cincinnati Reds

A look back: The Reds had a rough time in 2007, finishing at 72-90 and in 5th place. But Cincinnati was only one game away from moving into fourth with Houston. This year, the Reds should have enough to overtake the Astros and take another step towards relevance.

Positives on the field: The Reds have some very good pitching and outfield possibilities. Everyone who knows about prospects has heard of Jay Bruce, but Cincinnati has other talent too that is already in the majors, notably Corey Patterson, who the Reds signed as a possible stopgap until Bruce is ready after starting in AAA at Louisville. Edwin Encarnacion and Joey Votto are prospects in the infield (on the corners) to keep an eye on, and Brandon Phillips is an emerging star at second base. The Reds have a young lineup that could become a threat once it comes together. That time is likely not this year, but could be soon.

The pitching also has a good amount of potential. Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo are known by nearly everyone, but like their hitting counterparts, Cincinnati has a few promising prospects who could give the Reds the strong staff they have not have in years in Johnny Cueto and Edison Volquez, to say nothing of Homer Bailey. The bullpen also looks promising now that David Weathers has been moved out of the closer role and Francisco Cordero takes over.

Negatives on the field: The Reds are still very young. With this team, that breeds two concerns: How will the hitters produce against good major league pitching, and what will be the impact of Dusty Baker managing the Reds? Remember, Baker is considered in Chicago to be the guy who ruined Mark Prior's arm when he pitched for the Cubs. With Cueto, Volquez and Bailey in the mix, what will the result be? Cincinnati, conscious of this, elected to sign the Dragon Slayer, Josh Fogg. But if he cannot make the team, the Reds will have no choice but to hope they avoid wrecking more than one season.

On the hitting side, Adam Dunn still strikes out a lot, and Ken Griffey Jr. is now 39. How much does he have left in the tank on the verge of hitting four decades?

Outlook: The NL Central, like its AL counterpart, is a two-tiered division. Here, the division is split into teams who are contenders for the title and teams who are not. The Reds fall into that second tier, but they should be the best in that tier. If the Reds can keep their talent together, they could become a solid team in a few years, and in the NL Central, that is all you need to be.

Projected finish: 4th in NL Central. Season opener is March 31 against Arizona at Great American Ball Park.

Spring base: Ed Smith Stadium, Sarasota, Fla. The team plays its games on the west coast of Florida, and occasionally meets central Florida teams. The Reds are in talks to leave Florida and join the Cleveland Indians in Goodyear, Ariz. for 2009.

Fan of the team?: Check out Red Reporter, the Reds fan community.

Come back later today: The road trip springs for a direct flight and heads to the land of cheese and beer, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This foils my plan to hit close cities on the same day, but luckily the East clusters together nicely.

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

Friday, March 21, 2008

30 Teams in 30 Days: Pittsburgh Pirates

A look back: As usual, the Pirates were pretty much irrelevant during the season, finishing well out of the race in the awful NL Central and not contributing in any area that would give Pittsburgh fans (the few there are remaining) any hope that things would be different for next season. But have hope, Pittsburgh. Things might indeed be different. No, you didn't improve, but as I said yesterday, Houston got worse.

Positives on the field: The Pirates actually have a couple decent pieces, led by outfielder Jason Bay. Bay might very well be the best outfielder that nobody ever sees because of his position in baseball purgatory. (well, one of the areas of baseball purgatory.) But he's not the only decent player Pittsburgh has. Adam LaRoche, Xavier Nady and Freddy Sanchez are decent players, guys who would fill nice roles on contending teams. On Pittsburgh, they're out of place, because they aren't guys you can build around. But at least the Pirates have something not horrible to offer at the deadline.

On the mound, the Pirates have Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny and Zach Duke in the rotation, three guys who could become stars if placed in the right situation. Again, that situation isn't Pittsburgh. (Headline in the Post-Gazette's preview you won't see: Pirate baseball: Right talent, right time, wrong city and team.) But their pitching will keep them in some games, and unlike San Francisco, the Pirates have enough offense to turn the occasional quality start into surprising victory. When they do, Matt Capps should be able to hold it down.

Positives off the field: The Pirates finally put in lights at McKechnie Field, their spring training home. Hallelujah. Spring games belong in the day, but there should be one or two at night for fans who are too dedicated to their jobs to take a day off.

Negatives on the field: The Pirates haven't been relevant in HOW long? Here's how long: The last time Pittsburgh made the playoffs, America's college seniors were in first grade. It has been 15 seasons since the Pirates came one game away from the World Series in the 1992 NLCS. To put it another way, Barry Bonds was still normal-looking then.

Plus, the Pirates just aren't talented enough to compete, even in the still weak-Central. They're a young team that would just love to be on the right side of .500. Sooner or later, it has to work, or they'll waste even more young talent.

Outlook: This is the time for the move out of the basement. There isn't much to be optimistic about for 2008, and considering the front office in place, there isn't much to be optimistic about period. So why am I picking the Pirates to improve? I like their pitching more than Houston's.

Projected finish: 5th in NL Central. Season opener is March 31 against Atlanta at Turner Field. Pirates home opener is September 7 against Chicago at PNC Park.

Spring base: McKechnie Field, Bradenton, Fla. The team plays its games on the west coast of Florida, with an occasional venture to central Florida.

Fan of the team?: Check out Bucs Dugout, the Pirates fan community.

Come back tomorrow: The road trip heads to southwestern Ohio and the land of cheese coneys, as we visit the Cincinnati Reds, the oldest team in baseball.

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

Thursday, March 20, 2008

30 Teams in 30 Days: Houston Astros

A look back: The Astros fell off from where they've previously been, and the new look team doesn't bear much resemblance to the previous incarnations. Phil Garner is no longer the manager, Tim Purpura is no longer the GM and the Astros are now looking more like a second-division team. In fact, they could fall a lot further than that. Behind Pittsburgh? It's actually become a reality, and the Astros will have to make sure the Central's cellar doesn't swallow them up.

Positives on the field: Roy Oswalt is still one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, but there's a drop-off after him. Still, Oswalt is a very nice ace to have, giving Houston a streak stopper once every five days should it become necessary to have. Jose Valverde could provide a nice niche in the closer role if he becomes more dependable than Brad Lidge was AP (after Pujols)

On the hitting side, Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee are both dependable power hitters, giving the Astros the ability to get runs home if they can get men on base.

Negatives on the field: The drop-off is pretty pronounced after Oswalt. Wandy Rodriguez is not a No. 2 starter. I'm sorry, he's just not. Behind him, Woody Williams and Brandon Backe aren't anything special. Unless you've got to face Oswalt, Astro pitching scares nobody. That includes Valverde, who could easily become another Brad Lidge, a gas can who just had one good year.

Elsewhere, why would the Astros trade for Miguel Tejada? Houston needs to rebuild, not take on a huge salary that they would be paying too much for. Tejada is overrated and overpaid, and the Astros will learn that the hard way.

Outlook: Houston just doesn't look like it's got anything special. The Astros' moves made no sense, as Houston acted like they're a contender by grabbing a closer and a former All-Star shortstop, when the proper course of action is to go with youth to rebuild the team. That type of foolish thinking usually comes back to bite a team when they're faced with the reality of the regular season.

Projected finish: 6th in NL Central. Season opener is march 31 against San Diego at Petco Park. Astros home opener is April 7 against St. Louis at Minute Maid Park.

Spring base: Osceola County Stadium, Kissimmee, Fla. The Astros play most of their games against teams in central Florida and on both coasts.

Fan of the team?: Check out Crawfish Boxes, the Astros fan community.

Come back tomorrow: The road trip heads to the bridges of Pittsburgh, specifically the Roberto Clemente Bridge and PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

My time is up. You've all been great. Enjoy Funeral for a Friend.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Series: 30 teams in 30 days

The series is taking a short break so I don't fail History of Ireland. It will return tomorrow with the Astros.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

NCAA Tournament Picks...mascot style

Because I have that kind of time, I will take a look at what the picks would be if you chose the NCAA strictly on mascots, like several women (who always seem to win) do. My bracket will come Thursday, so my picks cannot be stolen. Here goes, starting with the East Regional.

1 North Carolina vs. 16 Coppin State or Mount St. Mary's
The Tar Heels can cause people to stick once touched. An Eagle could fly away from a Tar Heel, and a Mountaineer can avoid it, but UNC has a ram as well. The ram gives the Heels the edge.

8 Indiana vs. 9 Arkansas
What is a Hoosier? Nobody is quite sure. Wikipedia says it's a resident of Indiana. I'll take a wild hog over a guy from Indiana.

5 Notre Dame vs. 12 George Mason
Both Fighting Irish and Patriots are tough SOB's. But there's one difference: The Patriots were successful in one try against the British. The Irish took much longer and more than one rebellion to gain independence. The edge goes to the Patriots.

4 Washington State vs. 13 Winthrop
An Eagle can avoid a Cougar for a while by flying high, but sooner or later, he must take a rest. That takes place in a tree. Cougars can climb trees.

6 Oklahoma vs. 11 Saint Josephs
Sooners are settlers of the prarie. Hawks are fierce birds of prey. A hawk is more deadly than a settler.

3 Louisville vs. 14 Boise State
Cardinals are tough birds. But what chance does a bird have against a rampaging horse?

7 Butler vs. 10 South Alabama
Bulldogs are feisty and tough. But Jaguars are huge cats, and supposed to be feared. Simply put, there is a reason the Mayans worshipped the cat.

2 Tennessee vs. 15 American
All an Eagle can do is fly away from the Volunteer. The Eagle can't do much damage to the guy, and when the Volunteer fires, he has to kill an endangered species to do it, but he survives.

Round 2

1 North Carolina vs. 9 Arkansas
The ram was enough to get by an eagle. It will not save the Tar Heels against a wild pig. Were the name the Tar Pits, the pig is screwed, but Heels are not big enough.

12 George Mason vs. 4 Washington State
The Patriot may have been a tough SOB, but if he meets a Cougar, he is only tough to digest.

11 Saint Josephs vs. 14 Boise State
See Louisville. What chance does a bird have against a rampaging horse?

10 South Alabama vs. 2 Tennessee
This matchup depends on the preparedness of the Volunteer. If he is ready to fire and a good shot, he can win. The feeling is that he becomes lunch.

Sweet 16

9 Arkansas vs 4 Washington State
The Cougar and Razorback are both things you do not want to come up against in the wild. But the Cougar is more powerful and causes more fear, so the pig becomes bacon.

14 Boise State vs. 10 South Alabama
The Bronco can run, but the Jaguar has teeth and likes the taste of horse meat. The Bronco cannot hurt the Jaguar, and cannot run a Statue of Liberty.

Regional final

4 Washington State vs. 10 South Alabama

Who wins between a Cougar and a Jaguar? The Jaguar is the king, and the Cougar puts up a fight, but the Jaguar has enough to claim the crown in the East.

The South is up next.

1 Memphis vs 16 Texas-Arlington

A Tiger against a Maverick. A Maverick is some type of cowboy. Cowboys don't have experience with Tigers. Memphis wins.

8 Mississippi State vs. 9 Oregon

A Bulldog has teeth. As learned from the movie The Mighty Ducks, a Duck does not, so the Bulldog eats the Duck.

5 Michigan State vs. 12 Temple

A Spartan is a fierce soldier. An Owl is a nocturnal bird who is devoid of an ability to attack. You tell me who wins.

4 Pittsburgh vs. 13 Oral Roberts

A Panther can certainly eat a Golden Eagle once the Eagle stops to rest after a long flight. I've never seen a Golden Eagle, but I would bet it's no different from a regular eagle besides its color.

6 Marquette vs. 11 Kentucky
Another Cat vs. Golden Eagle matchup. If a Panther can eat a Golden Eagle, a Wildcat certainly can do the same.

3 Stanford vs. 14 Cornell
Cardinal vs. Red. It's a battle of colors. Cardinal is a better shade of red.

7 Miami vs. 10 St. Mary's
This is the type of Gael who has something to do with a church. Even if it was the storm, a Hurricane is more powerful.

2 Texas vs. 15 Austin Peay
A Longhorn can skewer a Governor. The Governor would have one chance, that being if he ordered the Longhorn slaughtered. But the Longhorn is pretty powerful, and can avoid capture.

Second round

1 Memphis vs. 8 Mississippi State
A Tiger is stronger than a Bulldog, and can rip it to pieces. That's the third cat over a dog. The dogs just aren't powerful enough.

5 Michigan State vs. 4 Pittsburgh
A Spartan could kill a Panther with its sword. A Panther can tear open the Spartan's body. The Panther is quicker, and gets the nod (and meal)

11 Kentucky vs. 3 Stanford
A Wildcat is much better than a color. Want to give Stanford the bird? Might as well give Kentucky lunch.

7 Miami vs. 2 Texas
A Longhorn is powerful. But as powerful as it is, it cannot attack a force of wind.

Sweet 16

1 Memphis vs. 4 Pittsburgh
A Tiger is a little higher in the animal kingdom than a Panther. The Tiger claws its way past a worthy foe.

11 Kentucky vs. 7 Miami
The Wildcat is a fierce fighter. But there is no way it can attack a storm. Miami may be an unstoppable force.

Regional final

1 Memphis vs. 7 Miami
This is tough for the Hurricane, because the Tiger has the jungle to hide itself in. But in a rain forest, the Hurricane will not weaken for lack of water to gain strength. The Hurricane wins.

Midwest Region

1 Kansas vs. 16 Portland State
A Viking is a fighter of the north. A Jayhawk is a mythical bird that steals eggs. The 16 seed strikes a victory.

8 UNLV vs 9 Kent State
A Flash of gold is not really threatening. In fact, for a Running Rebel from Las Vegas, it's a common sight. The Rebel wins.

5 Clemson vs 12 Villanova
The Tiger and the Wildcat, who emerges? I'll give it to the Tiger, but not by much.

4 Vanderbilt vs 13 Siena
A Commodore is a naval man. A Saint has the power of God. The Saint can ask God to send a storm to sink the Commodore's ship.

6 USC vs. 11 Kansas State
A Trojan is a warrior, but a Wildcat can handle a Trojan if he is not quick enough. Usually, he is not.

3 Wisconsin vs. 14 CS-Fullerton
Denzel Washington was wrong, Titans were NOT greater than the gods. They also have problems with rabid Badgers.

7 Gonzaga vs. 10 Davidson
You should know how this works by now. Bulldogs do not beat Wildcats.

2 Georgetown vs. 15 UMBC
A Hoya is actually a Greek word, but a Bulldog is used. Fine. A bulldog trumps a Retriever.

Second round

16 Portland State vs. 8 UNLV
A Rebel can run from a Viking even if he gets ready to attack. The Rebel is not a bad fighter either.

5 Clemson vs. 13 Siena
A Saint can get away with asking God to sink a boat one time, but Scripture says not to put the Lord to the test. The Saint gets his comeuppance for violating Scripture as the Tiger mauls him.

11 Kansas State vs. 3 Wisconsin
The Wildcat will fight hard, but has little chance with the Badger.

10 Davidson vs. 2 Georgetown
Wildcats beat Bulldogs. Next.

Sweet 16

8 UNLV vs. 5 Clemson
The Tiger gets lunch again as the Rebel cannot outrun it.

3 Wisconsin vs. 10 Davidson
A Wildcat again faces the Badger. The Badger wins again.

Regional final

5 Clemson vs. 3 Wisconsin
The Badger gets another cat to attack. The Badger marches on.

West Region

1 UCLA vs. 16 Mississippi Valley State
A Delta Devil only has power in the Mississippi River. The matchup is in Anaheim, so the Bruin survives.

8 BYU vs. 9 Texas A&M
The Cougar can tear up a guy interested in agriculture.

5 Drake vs. 12 Western Kentucky
A Hilltopper can climb mountains. A Bulldog cannot.

4 Connecticut vs. 13 San Diego
Toreros kill bulls, not Huskies. But a Husky is devoid of horns, so the edge goes to the bull-killer.

6 Purdue vs. 11 Baylor
A Boilermaker builds train parts and other mechanical thing. A Bear would tear him to pieces.

3 Xavier vs. 14 Georgia
A Musketeer can easily shoot a Bulldog.

7 West Virginia vs. 10 Arizona
Mountaineers can avoid Wildcats for a brief time by climbing the mountain. But sooner or later, the Wildcat climbs and tears apart the Mountaineer.

2 Duke vs. 15 Belmont
A Bruin is very powerful, but a Blue Devil has power no matter where he's at. The mystical force allows him to triumph.

Second round

1 UCLA vs. 8 BYU
A Bruin has a little more power than a Cougar.

12 Western Kentucky vs. 13 San Diego
The Hilltopper is far less bloodthirsty than the Torero.

11 Baylor vs. 3 Xavier
Musketeers can shoot Bears just as easily as Bulldogs.

10 Arizona vs. 2 Duke
The Blue Devil can make life hell for the Wildcat.

Sweet 16

1 UCLA vs. 13 San Diego
The Torero has never come up against an animal like the Bruin.

2 Duke vs. 3 Xavier
The Blue Devil can certainly avoid a musket, taking away the Musketeer's one powerful weapon.

Regional final

1 UCLA vs. 2 Duke
The Bruin survived a Delta Devil, but can't survive a Blue Devil with no geographic restriction.

Final Four

10 South Alabama vs. 3 Wisconsin
The Badger has had a nice run, but the Jaguar is the king for a reason, and tears apart the Badger.

7 Miami vs. 2 Duke
The Hurricane has been outstanding, but the wind storm has no power in hell.

National Championship

10 South Alabama vs. 2 Duke
Once again, the mystical power of the Blue Devil is enough, as the Jaguar suffers in hell.

So you get Duke beating a team from the Sun Belt. This is why the mascot strategy tends not to make sense. But it usually works for some reason. Who knows?

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

30 Teams in 30 Days: Arizona Diamondbacks

A look back: The Diamondbacks took everyone by surprise and found a way to get to the playoffs as the National League West champions. That comes mainly off the strength of young hitting and good pitching. If the D-Backs can keep their players healthy and avoiding a slump after big years, they are the team to beat in the NL West.

Positives on the field: Arizona got to where it is based mostly on the strength of Brandon Webb's strong arm. But the Diamondbacks weren't a one-man staff last year, and won't be this year. The addition of Dan Haren ensures that Arizona will have two very good options at the top of the lineup. Randy Johnson is old, but as a #3 pitcher, he's nice to have around, and has come a long way from the kid who used to blow up trash cans in Seattle in the early 1990's. Doug Davis and Micah Owings are capable in the back end of the rotation, making it a big Arizona strength.

On the other side, the hitters are young and talented. Chris Young and Eric Byrnes are both very quick, and the D-Backs' non-speed guys have a lot of potential. If their potential is on display, the Diamondbacks are going to be a serious contender.

Negatives on the field: The hitters didn't quite live up to their potential last year. Conor Jackson didn't produce much in the way of power, Stephen Drew had a very weak year, Mark Reynolds had trouble adjusting to not swinging at the first pitch, the list continues. The Diamondbacks were outscored by 10 runs by their opponents last year. That suggests that opponents managed to bunch their runs into games where Arizona had trouble scoring, or that the pitching made up for the hitting's struggles. Most likely it is the latter.

On the pitching side, Jose Valverde is very replaceable, but can Brandon Lyon be the guy who does replace him? If he is, there is likely an improvement from Valverde, who got saves but only had one really strong year in the role. If he's not, the D-Backs will regret losing Valverde.

Outlook: With so many young players, the Diamondbacks are a difficult team to try to predict. But one must be made, and the feeling here is that the expectations that exist now will not hamper the team as it tries to go two steps further than it did last year. Only the Diamondbacks' lack of offense if it short-circuits again will be responsible for that.

Projected finish: 1st in NL West, lose to Mets in NLDS. Season opener is March 31 against Cincinnati at Great American Ball Park. Diamondbacks home opener is April 7 against Los Angeles at Chase Field.

Spring base: Tucson Electric Park, Tucson, Ariz. The team shares the stadium with the Chicago White Sox, and plays games in both Tucson and Phoenix.

Fan of the team? Check out AZ Snake Pit, the Diamondbacks fan community.

Come back tomorrow: The road trip heads down I-10 to Houston and takes a visit to the Houston Astros, who are actually just two years removed from the World Series.

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

Monday, March 17, 2008

30 Teams in 30 Days: Colorado Rockies

A look back: Somehow, the Colorado Rockies won 21 of 22 games to finish the year as the 2007 National League champions. This leads to an interesting stat: The Rockies did not lose a playoff game to a National League team. By the same token, though, they have never won a playoff game against an American League team, a distinction shared with the Houston Astros. Can Colorado avoid the sophomore slump after breakout years from several young stars?

Positives on the field: The Rockies finally figured out how to put a complete team together last season, building homegrown talent at the major positions and watching it develop. Matt Holliday and Troy Tulowitzki were the team's brightest stars last season, with Holliday, who should have been the MVP, and Tulowitzki coming close to nosing out Ryan Braun for the Rookie of the Year award. Todd Helton had enough left to get the Rockies to the playoffs after spending his career watching other stars flourish in other locations. Garrett Atkins developed into a fine third baseman, and the Rockies had a good year from Brad Hawpe. Colorado returns a lot from last year.

On the pitching side, the humidor is working to combat Denver's thin air. For the first time in recent memory, Coors Field was not a graveyard for promising pitchers. Brian Fuentes came apart, but Manny Corpas proved capable of filling the role as the Rockies' closer. Outside of Jeff Francis, there isn't a ton of talent on the Rockies' staff, but there's enough to get by.

Negatives on the field: How will Colorado handle success? The 2007 season was the first time since 1995 the Rockies were in the playoffs, and other than those two seasons, the Rockies had never been relevant at all outside of Denver. Can Clint Hurdle keep the team hungry after last year? Also, can the team avoid burying itself? Remember, this was a team left for dead that somehow managed to pull it all together when it mattered. If the Rockies don't play contending ball all year long, they might not be so lucky this year.

On the field itself, how will the loss of Kaz Matsui impact the Rockies? Clint Barmes is trying to win the job among a list of contenders that includes Marcus Giles, but Matsui was key for the Rockies last season, and how they replace him makes a lot of difference.

Outlook: We'll never know if Colorado was a truly great team, a good team that was developing, or just a lucky team that caught lightning in a bottle over the course of 3 1/2 weeks. But the 2008 season should provide some insight into that. The feeling here is that Colorado was a combination of the last two. The Rockies were good, no question about it, but not quite as good as they were in the final stretch. This is when they either prove themselves as a true contender or simply become another team.

Projected finish: 2nd in NL West, no postseason. Season opener is March 31 against St. Louis at Busch Stadium. Rockies home opener is April 4 against Arizona at Coors Field.

Spring base: Hi Corbett Field, Tucson, Ariz. The team plays its games in Phoenix and Tucson.

Fan of the team?: Check out Purple Row, the Rockies fan community.

Come back tomorrow: The road trip heads to the desert southwest, taking a look at the young NL West champions of a year ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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

Editor's note: As Tim Kanak pointed out, Matt Holliday was NOT the MVP. The award went to Jimmy Rollins. I meant he SHOULD have been the MVP, and the change has been made. Apologies. I need to get out of the NL West, that's two errors in one division.

Edit the second: The Rockies have lost a playoff series before. I completely forgot that the Rockies ran into the Braves in 1995 and if they didn't reach the series, obviously lost to a National League team. The NL West is not the problem for me, the problem is the thin air of Denver.