Tuesday, June 28, 2011

So Yeah I Destroyed a Card the Other Day

Ever since I was a young card collector I treated my cards with the up most care. Not to the point where I wore white gloves when I handled them, but I did the best I can to not damage them. After all, who knew when that 1991 Topps Keith Comstock would multiply in value?

Until a few years ago it bothered me when I heard about people that threw away cards, even junk era cards. I think it was being the child of an older generation who put their Mickey Mantles' in bike spokes and flipped their Willie Mays against the wall. I wouldn't make the same mistake of rubber banding my future college tuition together and shoving it into a shoe box to be dog-eared and bent to hell.

My Don Mattingly and Randy Johnson rookies would stay nice and sharp inside their protected sleeves and boxes until it was time to cash them in for untold riches. Alas, we all know what happened. The industry over produced and every single person my age had the same idea. So they sit in their boxes in my Florida compound waiting for the day I find someone that wants 20 copies of a 1990 Franklin Stubbs.

A few years ago I stumbled across a website where an artist created original works out of baseball cards.

For the first time I saw that cards could be turned into something other than tradeable pieces of cardboard. Sure it went against my basic belief that cards shouldn't be messed with, but damn it, the finished product looked awesome.

Then at a craft show I stumbled across some homemade 3D cards. I can't find a picture online, but he took three identical cards, cut and stacked them so that they appeared to pop off the table.

That was probably the final factor. I realized that ninety percent of the cards in the world would never be worth anything. So if people wanted to cut them up or glue them on tables then so be it. Let them have some fun.

All this is a long winded way of saying I was bored the other day. While pulling some cards out of the box I noticed one of the cards was creased beyond repair. I thought about it wondered what it would look like if I cut out the player and propped him up, kind of like the Stand Up cards you found in packs of late '90's Collector's Choice.

So basically this:

turn into this:

Yeah, it's rough. I was working with a box cutter, and might have been a little bit more than two and a half sheets to the wind. I like it though. With a little work, who knows how much smoother it will work. Heck maybe I'll create baseball dioramas with cut out cards and shoe boxes. Or I won't. Who knows?

Monday, June 27, 2011

July 1st - Happy Stamkos Day or Sad To See You Go Day?

A big date looms in the not too distant future. July 1st, 2011. It is a day that some folks in the Tampa Bay Area are dreading, perhaps even bemoaning. Those folks would be Lightning fans. You see, as the calendar switches to the greatest of summer months a certain pale-faced centerman could be tempted by the lure of unspeakable riches from rivals to the north.

If you’re not a hockey fan I’m sure you’ve already turned the page. If you are a fan of the puck then I’m sure you’ve noticed that Steven Stamkos has completed his standard entry level contract and is now a Restricted Free Agent. What that means is that his current club (the good and mighty) Tampa Bay Lightning have exclusive negotiating rights with him on his next contract until midnight on June 30th. After that date, any team in the league can sign young Mr. Stamkos to an offer sheet. The Lightning would have the choice to match that contract or let the sensational sniper leave and in return receive 4 first round draft picks.

Since there hasn’t been much reported on the negotiations that has led fans and pundits to expect the worst. Gruff Brian Burke in Toronto is ready to sign Stamkos to $9 million a year long term contract to bring him back to his home town. The despised Flyers jettisoned two of their stars (Jeff Carter and Mike Richards) to free up cap space to snag the 21 year old from their playoff rivals. Lowly Florida, in a desperate bid to reach the salary cap floor, will offer Stamkos a one year $12 million contract to lure him away from their upstate competitors.

As each day goes by, the rumors increase. On Monday, Nick Kypreos reported that he heard at the draft that the sides were “not close to getting a deal done”. Of course, he didn’t cite any sources or even vaguely insinuate that the person he heard this rumor from had any connection with the ongoing discussions.

If there is one thing we’ve learned from Steve Yzerman, GM extraordinaire, it’s that he does not negotiate with terrorists. Err. Negotiate through the media. On the eve of the draft, stalwart defenseman Eric Brewer resigned with the Lightning with barely the rumor out that they were close. No one knew he was going to draft a Russian with his first round draft pick. Going back a year, no one saw him being able to unload Meszaros’ unwieldy contract.

In other words, he plays his cards pretty close to his chest. The same goes for the Stamkos Situation. There is an excellent chance that details are being ironed out as you read this. Details, like how many luxury boxes Stamkos gets per game, what color M&M’s are in his locker pre-game, and if they will finally unblock the hotel porn channels in his room on road trips. You know, the important things.

Personally, I think the deal is done and they're just messing with the fans at this point. Milking the drama for all it's worth, keeping the Lightning name in the news. Not that signing Mike Vernace doesn't make for top of the fold news.

It’s not like Lightning management only has the one problem to worry about. It would kind of be nice to have a goaltender on the payroll that has more than 5 games of NHL experience. There’s also the matter of finding a winger to replace Simon Gagne (Brooks Laich, maybe?) and a grinder to replace the soon to be departed Sean Bergenheim (Jimmy Wright?). Oh and there are other twelve restricted free agents in the organization to be tended an offer and signed.

That being said, he has done quite a bit since the Lightning last skated a month or so ago. He has solidified the defense by bringing back Brewer, trading for and signing Bruno Gervais and locking up depth players such as Blair Jones and Vernace. The Bolts now have their top six defensemen under contract with reports of the seventh (Mike Lundin) close to being signed.

He has more than enough cap space (roughly $23 million not counting the Gervais contract) to resign young Mr. Stamkos and still entertain the thought of bringing Brad Richards back to the Bay. However, the chance of Richey skating in the blue and white are slimmer than the chances of Stamkos playing in a uniform that doesn’t resemble the Flash’s outfit.

Of course, it’s not likely that the Lightning will spend up to the cap. Mr. Vinik, the owner, has enjoyed a nice return on his investment over the last year, but he doesn’t strike me as someone who is going to rashly run around dropping large sums of money on people just to get to a league mandated cap. This year’s draft is a good example of smart spending. It is unlikely that any of the Russians drafter this year will be on the roster come October, in fact, they might not even be in this country. That allows them to develop at a reduced cost to the Lightning.

The Stamkos deal will get done. If you ask me my somewhat less-than-expert opinion I say it ends up being somewhere in the 7 years /$47 million range. Long enough that the cap hit isn’t horrible, but short enough that Stamkos can think about another long term deal when this one is over.

Of course, if by any chance this posting jinxes the negotiations and Yzerman lets Stamkos sign for 9 years/ $72 million with Toronto I will have to seriously reconsider my devotion to this team. I think the Blues need some fans….

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Accoding to Rule 56.4(a) of the Sports Blogger Handbook - All Writers Must Post A LeBron Related Article

So I guess I’m supposed to rejoice in LeBron’s defeat. The big, bad bully has been beaten and the forces of good triumph over greed, vanity and assumption. At least that’s what I’m being told by websites, radio and the internet. The only problem is, I don’t hate LeBron. I tried, but I just can’t do it.

What is it that I’m supposed to hate about him? The ill-conceived, badly received debacle that was “The Decision” seems to be where most people start. True, it was a shocking display of hubris to appear on a major sports outlet in prime time to announce who he would play for in the 2010-11 season. However, that doesn’t make him a vile human being. It makes him a young man in his 20’s who got talked into a major public relations nightmare.

James is no different then any other athlete that signed a big contract with a team other than the one that drafted him. Did CC Sabathia stab Milwaukee in the back when he signed with New York? Did Ilya Kovalchuck stab Atlanta in the back by signing on to stay with New Jersey instead of returning to the A-T-L? James did the same thing and yet is vilified for it.

Granted, the way he went about doing it wasn’t that smart. He did put Cleveland at a disadvantage by waiting a week into free agency to announce his decision. After all, if he had done it the first night of the free agent season then the Cavs have a chance to spend his money on one of the other marquee free agents available. The Heat could still have thrown a “welcome to Miami” party and he would have salvaged some of his reputation. Is that enough to make me hate him? No, not really. Plus it gave us the phrase, “taking my talents to South Beach,” which is awesome.

How about that he went to Miami to play second fiddle to Dwayne Wade? Michael Jordan wouldn’t have done that! Well folks, James is not Jordan. Nor is he Scottie Pippen, as I’ve also heard him compared to. He is LeBron James, a six-year NBA player still developing him into what he is to become. What if playing with Wade makes him a better player? What if he learns what it takes to be a true leader from his buddy?

This seems to be the point that fires critics up the most. With his talent and ability it is assumed that James also has an insatiable drive to be a leader, to be the one that rallies the troops to victory. The detractors don’t seem to consider that maybe he just isn’t wired to be the go to guy all the time. Some folks aren’t built to be leaders no matter how prodigious his physical gifts are. So, no, this point doesn’t drive me to hatred.

After the Finals loss to Dallas his critics point out that he disappeared during crunch time. Not only did he disappear, but he actively avoided having anything to do with the basketball dishing to his teammates faster than I run out of work at night. I won’t disagree with this point. As the focal point of the team he should at least seem interested in scoring in the fourth quarter. The more he fails to answer the bell, the more it looks like his 2007 performance against the Pistons, scoring the teams final 25 points in a double overtime victory, was an aberration. While, if true, it disappoints me as a fan I’m still not driven to hate.

Finally, in a point espoused by basketball guru Bill Simmons, LeBron lacks the desire to improve his game and become a truly dominant player. By not developing a low post move he is cheating himself and the fans out seeing true basketball perfection. Again a valid point, but I would argue that at 26 he is still relatively young and has time improve his game.

Four separate points that taken together or apart allow us as fans to hate LeBron James. Although, I don’t agree, I can see why. Sports needs its villains as much as it needs its heroes. It needs Ty Cobb or Barry Bonds or anyone on the New York Yankees. Someone that the vast majority can point to and say, “You, sir. You are all that I do not like in sport and I denounce you!”

Why is there animosity towards James? Is it because of the hype that has surrounded him since he was nicknamed “The Chosen One” in high school? HIGH SCHOOL! If the media followed most of us around in high school we would probably be labeled “The Chosen Last Ones”. He’s had to deal with the expectations of being the next Jordan since he was 16 - that’s an entire decade of being the savior of not only a moribund franchise, but an entire national sport.

While he’s been handsomely compensated for his troubles the pressure still remains from the relentless news cycle and quest for hyperbole. As fans we want everyone to be the next Babe, Wayne or Larry. We want Steven Strasberg to throw 109 MPH for 20 years or Sidney Crosby to score 93 goals in a season. Not only do we want it, after awhile we expect it and if it doesn’t happen, the player is a failure. Matt Wieters was dubbed a bust prior to this year because he didn’t lead the league in everything in his first full year in a major league uniform. Expectations for players are out of control.

The disappointment leads to hate which leads to joy in failure. That is where we stand with James right now. He has gone from hyped, to loved to abhorred.

However, the beauty of sports and in being a sports fan is that just as quick as we are to turn on someone, we are willing to welcome them back. Should LeBron show some sign of humility, some sign of contrition it all flops back. Fans will forgive drug users, steroid cheats and convicted felons as long as they show the right amount of penitence for their actions.

Imagine, if after five years of wandering ringless in the Miami wasteland, he signs his next contract with Cleveland and returns as a wiser player still in the peak of his career. “The Prodigal One” could lead them to a title and all would be forgiven. The LeBron-as-villain is erased and once again we are all witnesses.

LeBron’s future career hasn’t been written yet. The curtain hasn‘t even fallen on the first act. This loss could be what opens his eyes to what it takes to be truly loved by the fans. In every hero’s journey there has to be some sort of conflict, some sort of adversity (and I say that with the full recognition that athletic adversity is totally out of touch with real world adversity) . Perhaps this last year is the trial he has to overcome adversity and it makes him a better player.

If it doesn’t, does it matter? He can still be a great player if not the greatest. I’ve been watching Ken Burn’s Baseball series again (because I’m a dork) and they paint Mickey Mantle as a bit of a tragic figure. There’s a lot of talk about, “Mickey could have done this” or “Mickey would have been that if only”, giving the implication that his true potential was somewhat unfulfilled. Some of it due to his injuries, but a lot of it to his off the field antics.

Could LeBron be basketball’s Mickey Mantle? A Hall-of-Famer whose legacy still makes you wonder if he could have been just a little bit better ? Time will only tell. In the meantime, until he robs an old lady of her social security check or dropkicks a bull dog into the ocean spare me the hate talk.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

{Insert Luke Skywalker on DL With Upper Body Injury Here}

Oh, what is there to be done with Luke Scott? Just as he appeared bound for the waiver wire or disabled list he unleashes a compact, but awkwardly over-muscled swing on a Guillermo Moscoso fastball and crushes it over the right field wall, over the standing room platform, over the wrought-iron fence onto Eutaw Street for his 7th home run of the season.

Later in the game he would square up on another ball poorly thrown by an A’s pitcher and hit his 10th double into the right field gap. After going 2-for-3 on the night his average on the season would stand at a less than robust .232, but for one night he would quiet the critics calling for his head.

It seemed so simple before Tuesday night’s game - just put him on the DL Even the bilingual slugger himself admitted that the labrum tear in his right shoulder was affecting his game. How could it not? Not only did he have to deal with the discomfort, the loss of strength in his lead shoulder, but there is also the psychological side of playing with an injury. Whether he was aware of it or not, his swing mechanics compensated for the injury, protecting the damaged arm and sapping him of his prodigious power.

After playing through it for weeks, watching his average plummet he finally conceded to having a cortisone shot. Based on the minuscule one-game sample, it appears that the shot was long over due. The non-anabolic steroid showed the great effect it has for players dealing with the wear and tear of a 162 game season.

The question still lingers, “Why isn’t he on the DL in the first place?” After all, it was apparent, prior to the injection, that he was hurting the team. Scott is on a major league roster because he can hit a baseball, and often that struck baseball ends up over the outfield fence. After the game he confessed to reporters he hasn’t been able to lift his arm over his shoulder for six weeks, so why, why, why is he playing?

Perhaps it has to do with inability of athletes in general to believe they can get hurt in the first place. They tell themselves that it’s not that bad, or that they’ve played with worse, or that it will go away in a few days. Once pain becomes a constant presence in their day, it’s hard to remember what life was like without it. So they tell themselves it’s not that bad even as they can‘t put their jerseys on without pain.

Maybe it could be his contract situation. He is playing on a one year contract, sure it pays him a healthy $6.4 million dollars, but that’s only for this year. Next year not one single dollar is guaranteed to him. Since he still in his arbitration years, he is in fact, auditioning for his pay next year. How Scott performs this year directly affects how mush he makes next year.

If he elects to go on the DL, he’ll miss at least two weeks of the season with no promise that the injury will get any better. A worst case scenario would be season-ending surgery which would severely impact his potential earnings. Scott is a bit of a late-bloomer and won’t be seeing his first full free agency contract until he’s 33. Due to his age and relatively limited skill set, his chance at a long-term, big money contract are rather remote. He needs to capitalize on one or two year contacts based on his previous year’s performance. If that means playing through some shoulder pain, then so be it.

A third, less fiscally driven motive could be the fact that he doesn’t want to let his team down. For all of his off-the-field rhetoric about presidential birth certificates and guns hidden in kitchen cabinets, he is genuinely liked by his teammates. He has performed in the past (a 162 game average of 26 HR’s/80 RBI/ .849 OPS+) and could feel that the team, especially with its current power outage, needs him.

It’s kind of odd that a town who’s most recent legend was celebrated for never missing a day’s work can be so vocal in demanding Scott’s dismissal from the team. While he is not the player Cal Ripken was, shouldn’t he still be commended for his dedication?

Isn’t there something noble about a player trying to produce no matter how much it pains him. Ninety percent of baseball fans would be hard pressed to remember any of Kirk Gibson’s 255 career regular season home runs, but most of them would remember the one he hit off of Dennis Eckersley in a World Series game twenty years ago. Not because it was the longest home run he ever hit, but because of the fact that he hit it despite the wracking pain in his knees and his staggered hobble around the bases*.

So maybe instead of denigrating Luke Scott maybe it’s time to appreciate what he’s going through and tip your cap to a player just trying to do his best.

* I was going to link a clip of the dramatic home run here, but thanks to MLB's no highlights on youtube policy I couldn't find anything. Although, for kicks type in Gibson's world series home run and watch the RBI Baseball re-creation of the final inning. Ahhhh glorious childhood memories.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Baseball? I Thought This Was a Hockey Blog!

Look O’s fans, you need to settle down a bit. Mark Reynolds is exactly who he is meant to be. A man with the ability to product majestic, towering home runs and also a man who swings through a shockingly large number of pitches. That’s who the O’s traded for, and that’s who the Orioles got. No sense getting upset because he’s hitting .190. After all, he is leading Baltimore in home runs.

The struggles of Reynolds, the blonde hair bomber, is a microcosm of the 2011 Baltimore Orioles. Before the first pitch was thrown this season, the club was shaping up as a team that would struggle it’s way to mediocrity. They would be an improvement over last year, but still one or two players away from serious competing with the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays.

The Orioles of 2011 were not created to win the World Series, they were not created to win the American League East, they were created to find out where the organization stood in terms of its pitching development. Look at who has made up the starting rotation this year - Zach Britton, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Brad Bergesen, embattled Jeremy Guthrie, and now finally Brian Matusz. This year the higher ups find out if they’ve been groomed to contend in the majors or if it’s time to jettison them.

Over at third base, Reynolds wasn’t brought in to win a batting title or a Gold Glove. He was brought in to be a power presence in the middle of the lineup. Because he hits in the middle of the lineup, he’s going to come to the plate with runners in scoring position. And because he strikes out a lot he’s going to leave a lot of those runners stranded. That’s the bad you take along with his ability to hit the three-run homer.

Where this team ends up come October still remains to be seen. Some weeks their young pitchers have looked unhittable. Conversely, there have been weeks they’ve been eminently hittable. That’s part of the reason the team has been so streaky. Win four games then lose eight in a row. Win another 4 games and then lose five more contests. Unfortunately, that is the bane of running a young pitching staff out there.

On a player level, Reynolds has weeks where he is the fearsome slugger that fans hoped would be launching blasts into the bleachers all summer long. Other days he appears professionally inept at the plate. Personally, I’ve seen few hitters swing through pitches with the shocking regularity that Reynolds does. It’s not like he chases lots of bad pitches, say as Adam Jones does from time to time. Reynolds swings though fastballs as if they were puffs of smoke that dissipate into a fine mist whenever his bat comes close.

There are reasons other than having a young core of pitchers that is hurting this year’s squad. The overall absence of power is one thing. From Nick Markakis to Luke Scott to Vlad Guerrero the inability to put the ball over the fence is clearly hurting the team. This is not a team built to manufacture runs like the Rays. This is a team that moves station to station, and waits for a slugger to put one on Eutaw Street.

The bullpen hasn’t been able to pick up for struggling starters either. Whatever talent Michael Gonzalez once possessed seems to have evaporated into thin air. Kevin Gregg seemingly can’t go more than three hitters without walking at least two of them. The rest of the bullpen has been maddingly inconsistent as well.

However, instead of dwelling on what isn’t going well, why not look at the good? Jones, despite his occasional obsession with swinging at sliders in the dirt, is blossoming into one of the young stars in the league. A bona fide yearly Gold Glove candidate he already has several highlight reel plays on the year. At the plate he is showing a blend of power, speed and hitting that hasn’t been seen in the O’s outfield for years.

Zach Britton, the rookie southpaw who should have started the season in the minors is proving the doubters (such as this writer) wrong. A quality start machine he has baffled major league hitters by using his above average fastball to set up a devastating slider. His recent run of tough starts might indicate that he’s hitting a bit of a rookie wall, but he appears to have the pitching smarts to make the necessary adjustments.

How about the blossoming of the Catching Jesus? Matt Wieters is showing how patience and belief in a prospect can pay off. The “Mauer with Power” might not be delivering light tower home runs just yet, but he is excelling at every other aspect of his game. He personally controls other team’s running games by cutting down 40% of would be base stealers. The pitchers and coaching staff rave about his ability to handle the pitching staff and his production at the plate is increasing at a rate that makes him a viable All Star candidate.

So O’s fans don’t despair so much. The season is but a third of the way done. At this time last season they were a unfathomable 20 games out of first base, this year just six. The team is light years ahead of last year talent wise, and should only improve now that some key pieces are returning to the line up and rotation. This is not a team that is under achieving, it is a talented, but flawed product that at least one year away from serious contention.

So go the Yard, drink a Natty Boh and munch on some of Boog’s BBQ while watching a team develop. Enjoy the sun and the face that you can watch a game at one of the best parks in the league for a cheaply scalped ticket. Look for the good things on the field and don’t dwell on the negative. Much like a towering Reynolds home run the losing seasons will soon be going, going, going, gone…..