Thursday, December 30, 2010

Pope Football

Let me waste a little more time so I can pontificate on this week's football. Not the bowl games, that endless embarrassing parade of inflated excuses for commercials. I caught the end of one, when the outcome was determined by an official who penalized the scoring team 15 yards on the extra point (they needed a two point conversion to tie) because of excessive celebration in the end zone on the touchdown--the kid who caught the pass saluted the crowd. What a stupid cheat.

Oh, and one of the announcers used the word "palpable" and the other announcers made fun of him. Then he joined in and made fun of himself for using a word that nobody is supposed to understand who watches football. Stupidity enforced, one of the worst self-destructive as well as generally destructive instincts of sports.

No, the last NFL games of the regular season is my topic of the moment. After the unexpected outcome a couple of weeks ago--the Steelers losing to the Jets (predictable, but not having Troy and Heath Miller really determined it) but the Ravens winning over the Saints (not so predictable)--both the Steelers and the Ravens are in the playoffs, but the North title will be decided Sunday, and with it the by. If the Steelers beat the Browns in Cleveland, the title is theirs. But if they lose and the Ravens beat the Bengals, the Ravens win it, and the Steelers must play an extra game, on the road. Conversely (I think that's right), if the Ravens lose, the Steelers win the North no matter what the outcome with the Browns.

On paper, the Steelers are all but in. But this season especially, it's any given Sunday. The Browns can and probably will play with abandon. They can surprise the Steelers, and the way Pittsburgh has been playing, an early touchdown or two against them can be fatal. The Ravens pretty much gave them the game plan to win by what they did to beat the Browns last week--confuse the young quarterback, Colt McCoy, with deceptive defensive looks, and batter the running back early. But if they can't do both, the Steelers may not find this an easy game.

On paper the Bengals are a better team than the Browns, so they should give the Ravens more trouble. Once again, that's on paper. The Bengals are wilting, depressed at this wreck of a season for them. They might put up a fight, and they might not.

It's probably all for naught anyway. Except for that any given Sunday scenario--very important in the playoffs--the Steelers are very unlikely to get to the Super Bowl. They have to hope that somebody else knocks off the New England Patriots, because they've shown no sign that they can. I doubt that anyone will. The Steelers might not even get that deep in the playoffs. Getting Troy P. back will help. If they get the by, they could make it to the AFC championship. They can beat the Jets, if New York gets that far. They will be hard-pressed to beat the Ravens again.

The Atlanta-New Orleans game last week was interesting. They are closely matched, and it was Atlanta's mistakes that cost them the game. If they play each other again, it could again go either way, although I'm still seeing an Atlanta Falcons-New England Patriots Super Bowl, with New England the victor. I guess by now that's conventional wisdom, but it seems right to me anyway.

I'm not even sure I'm going to see it. I'm about to dump my cable TV. It costs much more than it's worth. Who knows, maybe I'll waste less time this way.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Decisive Sunday

The AFC North could be decided on Sunday. Both the Steelers and the Ravens play their last opponent with a winning record, and both games are at home. But based on where teams are at the moment, the Steelers would seem to have a much better chance of beating the Jets than the Ravens do of beating the New Orleans Saints. If the Ravens lose, that pretty much makes the Steelers the AFC North champs, even if the Steelers lose Sunday. Even if they both win, the Steelers still have the edge, but if the Ravens win and the Steelers lose, the Steelers will have to win out-- two games against inferior teams, including the final game against the Browns.

But with the deck stacked like that, and too many commentators counting the Jets out, and with the Steelers at home and the Jets having never won in Pittsburgh, it's a perfect set up for the Steelers to make things difficult for themselves with a sloppy game and a loss. We'll see if this year's Steelers are that kind of team, as some Steelers teams of the recent past have been.

It could be a tricky game. If the Steelers run game isn't popping, it gets dangerous with the Jets excellent defensive secondary against the pass, and in a close game, Santonio Holmes has plenty of personal motivation to make the decisive catch for the Jets. Plus the Steelers have to shut down the Jets run game early. Jets qback Sanchez has had two poor games in a row, but he's also had games where he's made things happen under pressure.

But the flow is with the favorites so I expect the Steelers to win over the discombulated Jets and the exhausted Ravens to lose to the surging Saints on Sunday.

Update: The news that Troy Polamalu is not expected to play for the Steelers materially alters expectations for this game. Tight end Heath Miller also may not play, which really hurts the Steelers offense against the Jets specifically. The New York sports media is so down on the Jets, their coach and quarterback are under such pressure, that unless they are truly in complete disarray, they have more than enough motivation to win this game. This game could go either way now.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


The Steelers avoided a loss to the Bengals with the deceptively lopsided score of 23-7. But the Steelers offense didn't score a touchdown, and have scored only two in the past three games. Meanwhile, on a snowy windy field in Chicago, the New England Patriots offense tore apart yet another team (da Bears) 36-7. That's too many such games in a row to be a coincidence. And Brady is absolutely merciless--he never lets up. It's looking more and more like a New England-Atlanta Super Bowl--with Atlanta as the bigger question mark: New Orleans is their threat. But right now there isn't a defense in the NFL that can stop Brady.

The Steelers host the Jets next week, who lost a close game Sunday after being taken apart by the Patriots. They'll either be resurging for redemption or completely disoriented. Unless the Steelers offfense starts scoring touchdowns, none of it is going to matter. The defense can't win them all. But then Big Ben is looking like a Monty Python routine out there, getting whacked in the head, the face, the knees, the ankles, the foot--what else does he have? He's getting beat up with hits after plays that get flagged when they happen to other quarterbacks.

Meanwhile, the Lakers vulnerability looked pretty clear in their loss to the Chicago Bulls this week. When Gasol is out, they've got nobody to replace him. Bynum is due back soon, and he's not only their missing piece, he's got to stay healthy and produce in the playoffs especially, or (I believe) this could well be his last year as a Laker.

Monday, December 06, 2010

About the NFL (A lot), NBA (a little)

Watching the New England Patriots dismantle the vaunted New York Jets on Monday Night football made me feel a little better about their dismantling of the Pittsburgh Steelers a few Sunday Nights ago. It also confirmed for me the impression I've had for the past several weeks--that it's New England's year. With their schoolyard victory over Baltimore Sunday, the Steelers got closer to the playoffs. But it's unlikely that they or anyone is going to defeat the Patriots this year, with the usual caveat of injury (to Tom Brady) or just a very stinking bad playoff game.

The Steelers' season is also far from over. Big Ben lurched through Sunday's game on a bad foot, and now he has a broken nose (on a play that as usual didn't even draw a penalty, though today it drew a fine. The week before, Buffalo players beat on his knee and perhaps foot after the whistle, with no penalty. The week before that, an Oakland player sucker-punched him and knocked him to the ground after the play was over, with a fine but no suspension. Moral to Steelers' opponents: Big Ben is fair game.)

The Steelers and the Ravens have pretty much the same schedules remaining. They both play Cinncy and Cleveland, and both have one game against a tough opponent: Steelers play the Jets, the Ravens play the Saints. Neither can let down against or look past the Bengals or especially the Browns, who continue to play pretty well in contrast to how they began the season.

The Steelers probably have a better chance to get past the Jets (depending on how they respond to being thoroughly thrashed by New England) while the Ravens must deal with a New Orleans team that is still getting sharper. (On the other hand, if the Jets rediscover their pass rush--which disappeared against New England--it means another harrowing ordeal for Big Ben.) But even if they both lose these games and get past weaker opponents, the Steelers would now win the division. But in a season like this, and depending on how hurt Ben is, nothing is a given, even this late.

And as goal-driven as even spectating is, getting to the Super Bowl is unlikely for either team. That leaves watching for fun. But these days watching the Steelers is not so much fun. Their defense can be smothering, but they can also look porous and bad, as they did on the Ravens' touchdown drive. While it is dramatic to watch Ben in the malestrom of opposing players, improvising pass plays, it's a far cry from watching Tom Brady dissect the defense and hit receivers with passes breath-taking in their speed and accuracy. Much artier, and more relaxing to watch.

Right now the two teams with the best records are New England and Atlanta, and that's a pretty good bet to be your Super Bowl matchup.

Meanwhile, the NBA season is taking shape. All the preseason hoohaw was about the Lakers vs. the new Miami Heat. While the Celtics and the Magic are giving the Heat the competition that many predicted in the East, I don't recall anybody much forecasting that the Lakers were going to be challenged in the West by at least three teams. Right now their perennial rivals, the San Antonio Spurs, are running away with their division, and the Dallas Mavericks are looking good as well. Some folks like Phoenix. In any case, it doesn't look like a walk in the park for the Lakers by any means, even if you discount their recent four game losing streak. At this point, it's not so certain they'll even get to the finals.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Steelers Update

I watched the Steelers Sunday night game with New England while I was in Pittsburgh, with my two best friends, my two remaining friends from high school. The Steelers played a miserable game, and Clayton in particular was upset (he showed up in a Jerome Bettis Steelers shirt) but I had to confess that I was having a great time.

So it's taken a lot of years to have fun while the Steelers lose, but I've apparently achieved it under limited circumstances. But New England was so clearly dominant that it would have fueled sports talk shows for the week if Michael Vick and Philadelphia hadn't had such an amazing game on Monday night, which inspired amazing effusiveness--how he was now unstoppable, had transformed the quarterback position and NFL football, etc. Well, Philadelphia did win its next game, but Vick was relatively quiet, and non-transformational.

Then this past Sunday, the Steelers thoroughly trounced Oakland 35-3. As much as I saw of that game, I enjoyed (even by myself.) But analytically speaking, the Steelers getting into the playoffs is not assured. Their remaining schedule has but two games that on paper present real challenges, and one of them is with the Baltimore Ravens, their rivals for winning their division. They are technically tied at the moment, but if the Ravens win this upcoming early December game (in Baltimore), they will hold the tiebreaker by having defeated the Steelers twice. And the Ravens' remaining schedule is no more difficult for them than the Steelers. For both teams, their matchup is the most forseeably key game.

But it's been a weird season, with teams looking brilliant and unbeatable one week, and hopeless the next. So anything can happen really, especially with so many teams with nearly the same record. The league is divided into teams that have won a lot of games and teams that have won very few. That makes wildcard slots really unpredictable. So if the Steelers defeat the Ravens, their chances improve but are not certain. If they lose to the Ravens, their chances diminish substantially, but don't disappear.

There's another interesting factor. The two recent Steelers Super Bowl teams had one thing in common--though they had rocky periods during the season, they got healthy at the end of the season. This week a few key injured players start coming back, but the two most important injured players are not expected back this year at all. So we'll see, but they may not have enough to get deep into the playoffs.

In their games with New Orleans and New England, it was clear that the Steelers did not have the best quarterback on the field. How Big Ben plays from now on will have a lot to do with the Steelers fate this year. But with so many extraordinary quarterbacks--the proven and once again very sharp Tom Brady and Dru Brees, the younger quarterbacks like Vick and Sanchez and even Colt McCoy, not to mention the Manning brothers--it's more of a question where Ben ranks among them.

Another interesting factor though is that the Steelers are now playing with a chip on their shoulder. Before it was just James Harrison apparently being singled out for fines in the laudable quest to stop illegal helmet hits and other concussion-causing collisions. Now it's Big Ben getting slugged by an Oakland player, after the play was over, and the Oakland player not getting suspended, or much of a fine. What if somebody slugged Tom Brady? That's the question the Steelers ask, and because everyone knows the answer, they are going to be playing with an attitude.

Monday, November 01, 2010

They Are Giants

--and no "might be" about it. The last time they won the World Series they were the New York Giants, and there were no major league baseball teams west of the Mississippi River town of St. Louis. In some ways things haven't changed all that much--the series between two western teams, San Francisco and Texas, couldn't draw the audience that the Yankees and Red Sox can--but this Series was classic baseball, and one for the ages.

The Giants are a baseball novelist's dream: a combination of very young players and cast-off veterans. They started the season with a core of drop-dead pitchers and added position players through the year, and it all jelled at the right moment. They led their division for only a month of the season, and won it for good on the last day. Then they defeated the favored, hitter-heavy Phillies and Rangers, shutting them down with shutouts and a total of 3 wins.

The fifth game heroes come out of central casting too. Tim Lincecum, the young long-haired pitching ace, who seemed to have lost everything in August, was utterly dominant from the first pitch. He was so deadly, and speeded up his delivery so much in the late innings that the Rangers seemed stunned and demoralized in the 8th and 9th, when ace reliever Brian Wilson just fired overwhelming strikes, for an amazingly undramatic bottom of the ninth.

The other hero was the elder, Edgar Renteria, injured most of the season and riding the bench, he wound up being the Most Valuable Player of the Series, especially for two key home runs--including the 3 run shot in the 7th inning of this game. And here's the Hollywood kicker: this is the second time in his career that Renteria supplied the hit that won a World Series. And this time, it may well have been the last major league at bat of his long career.

I came fairly late to the Giants' season, but it was a treat following the end of the season through this night, that brought San Francisco its first World Series championship. (I suffered through the terrible loss snatched from certain victory of the Bonds era.) I even learned some more baseball. I was able to watch some of the Bay Area sports channel coverage of press conferences, and noted how carefully the Giants prepared for these games. Their hitting coach worked with hitters to correct new bad habits--that has to provide some confidence, if nothing else. But what impressed me especially was the game plan for how to approach specific pitchers--which ones to be aggressive with, and which ones to wait out and make them throw strikes. This team seems to really have bought into following a game plan--another feature of a team that plays like a team, that has no stars, or players who act like stars.

And I have to think they had a pretty good game plan for their own pitchers, too. In this I suspect their rookie catcher, Buster Posey, was crucial. Pitchers kept saying how he called great games, keeping the hitters off balance. As they talk about this series more, I suspect there will be more about how they handled hitters, and who was in the mix.

So I have a new appreciation for the intelligence that goes into this, the temperament to deal with bad pitches and bad at-bats and still be ready to perform the next time, to accept the bad hop that gets you on base as well as the bad hop that gets you an error. Plus the work--these guys work on their game, their mechanics--it's not a night on the town and playing with hangovers anymore.

The Giants seem to have the perfect manager in Bruce Boche--a great temperament, and a master strategist. His moves worked, whereas a few crucial ones of his opponent didn't (notably the decision to pitch to Renteria today, with first base open and a less experienced hitter coming up.)

I don't follow many World Series anymore, but I'm glad I followed this one, not only because San Franciso is where I would go to see Major League baseball (except when I'm visiting Pittsburgh of course) but because this is one of those special teams in baseball history. I also got an education in how difficult Major League baseball had made things for itself, by extending the season into early November, competing these last two classic games with Sunday Night and Monday Night Football (suicidal for ratings) as well as the start of the NBA and NHL seasons. But then the sports world is insane and can't keep this up for many more years. It's all getting to be too much for me, but while I'm still watching, this has been fun. Congrats, Giants. This was a storybook season. One for the ages.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Giant Win

So now what's up with the San Francisco Giants? Nothing, again. This time the hero has the very unsportsherolike name of Madison Bumgarner, the 21 year old pitcher who blanked the Texas Rangers for the first (or maybe second) time this year at home---and definitely for the second time in the World Series.

Texas won the game they absolutely had to win, the third. But San Francisco won the game that they probably needed to win, the fourth. They figured to have the better pitcher on the mound in that fourth game, where pitching is always a bit dicey. But even though Bumgarner has shown he's capable of a performance like this one, no one could reasonably expect it--his first World Series start, on the road, with two ex-Presidents and First Ladies in the house rooting for the home team.

But this time the Giants won it their way--getting an early lead, shutting down the opposition with stellar pitching and solid defense, then adding demoralizing runs in the late innings so the other team is looking at a few runs in the last inning or two as an insurmountable mountain.

Now the Giants have a commanding lead in the Series, needing to win just one of the next three, with two of them at home. Texas must win them all. And the next pitching match-up pits the Texas ace against the Giants', and though you have to guess that Cliff Lee is not going to have two bad outings in a row, but Lincecum is no slouch either. What did that guy on ESPN say? The Rangers could win the fifth game but they won't. I'm not sure what that means.

Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers couldn't get it done at New Orleans against a Saints team that suddenly looked like last year's. Big Ben is clearly not sharp yet, but if a few key plays had gone the other way, the Steelers still could have won this game. A stripped ball late in the fourth quarter sealed the deal.

This was a big win for the Saints. As shaky as their early season was, they are now expected to win most of their remaining games against weaker opponents and get into the playoffs. The Steelers face stronger opponents and tougher road games, but while losing to this NFC team is consequential, it isn't as bad for them as it is good for New Orleans. These two teams probably suspect they may meet again in the big one.

I haven't had the opportunity to watch the Steelers on TV since the preseason, though they're coming up with several Sunday and Monday night games. This time I was switching between the Steelers game and the Giants game. Maybe that took a little sting out of it, but this was a good football game that came down to a few key plays that the Saints made and the Steelers didn't. Dru Brees was the better quarterback today, and the Saints defense was a match for the Steelers.

The Giants game was also a well-played baseball game, with terrific fielding plays by both teams, and some clutch hitting by the Giants (most of which they did while I was on the other channel, nuts!) I don't know that I'll have many more of these afternoons and evenings wasted in front of the TV watching sports, but at least this time the games were worth watching.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Yes We Cain

What's up with those San Francisco Giants? Nothing. Zero.

Zero is the number of runs that pitcher Matt Cain has given up in the post-season. In the second game of the World Series he pitched brilliantly--with great stuff, but also the fortitude to get out of jams-- and left the game after 7 and 2/3 innings with the Gianst ahead 2-0.

That was enough to win the game. In fact, the solo home run hit by the Giant's #8 hitter (the magnificent veteran Edgar Renteria) was enough to win this game. A team scoring nothing in the World Series is a rarity, but it's even more astounding because Texas has come up with a gameful of zeros only five times all season.

Then in the Giants' eighth inning, the Rangers' bullpen completely imploded, walking in three runs, and allowing several hits, all with two outs in the eighth. The Giants won 9-0.

So now the Giants have won two games, and the Rangers zero. Nothing.

The Series goes to Texas for three games starting Saturday, and of course nobody knows what will happen. Will the home stadium settle their young bullpen, will their big hitters start getting big hits? The Phillies waited for that to happen, and it didn't happen. But one possibility has been erased: the Rangers won't sweep. They must win 4 of the next 5 games.

The Giants scored 11 runs in the first game, 9 in the second, both after dodging early game problems and doing most of the damage in a single late inning. None of that is actually characteristic of their season. Their winning formula is to get a couple of runs early while their pitchers hold the other team in check, and bend but not break in the late innings. The Rangers must be really confused.

If the Giants win the third game, the series is just about over. Confidence is a big part of baseball. Right now the Rangers look befuddled. If they can't channel the energy of the home crowd into effective confidence in their first game there, they're probably done. They will have left their heart in San Francisco.

On the Steelers...

The Pittsburgh Steelers' premier defensive end is out (for the season) and their other starting d.e. may not play Sunday. It's going to be very hard to stop New Orleans on a mission, primarily through the air. And if the Saints get one of their runners back, and Steelers run defense weakens to contain the pass, there could be more trouble.

On the other hand, Aaron Smith's replacement is Ziggy Hood, their #1 draft choice from last year, and this kind of a game is when stars are made. He'll probably have to be one, and the Steelers will have to do a lot of good things offensively as well as defensively.

They're capable of it, and on paper they should win this game. But it's hard to conceive of the defending champion New Orleans Saints losing at home on Halloween, which is New Orleans' signature day. My heart is with the Steelers as always, but I'm still the Big Uneasy about this game.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Big Uneasy

Talk about not making things easy--the SF Giants won the pennant over the Phillies in an excruciating sixth game. I'm sure it will be thrilling to see on replay but it was too brutal for me to watch entirely. Both teams left so many on base, so many opportunities and failures, along with a few key successes, and some luck. I guess I'm too old for this.

Now the Giants face the Texas Rangers in the World Series, another team with good pitching but better hitting, and again the Giants are the decided underdog. Anything can happen in this series--they could be swept, they could sweep, and everything in between.

Meanwhile, the Steelers won an uncomfortably tight game in Miami, as they move into the meat of the season, facing their toughest opponents and (not coincidentally) playing Sunday and Monday night games on national TV. The signs of this game weren't good. More than signs--they lost one of their key defensive players, defensive end Aaron Smith to what may be a season-ending and even career-ending injury. They simply haven't been able to win consistently without him for the past several seasons. He's a big loss, and the defense diminishes significantly.

Sunday's game wasn't a good one for the offensive line either, and that doesn't bode well. Big Ben still had some rust, and that can't become bad habits.

The Steelers play at New Orleans next Sunday night, and the Saints were embarrassed this Sunday by of all teams the Cleveland Browns. So the Saints are likely to play their best game, maybe above their best game, against the Steelers. This is going to be a tougher game for the Steelers than it might seem. The Saints must know that if they don't win it, their season is pretty much over.

Tracking the response and reaction to the blows to the head "controversy": the consensus among the TV commentators I heard was that players avoided such illegal hits without noticeably changing the game this week, and that avoiding those hits is good for the game. So after a week in which the contrary view got aired--that football can't survive this, that players can't figure out how to play without committing these hits--this seems now to be a firm consensus. And it is a good thing. Let's hope it continues. Bob Costas (I think it was) even made my point--that today's hitting is more violent and causes more injuries than in the past, in the 70s specifically of the Steelers great teams, and nobody can claim that wasn't football.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

On Head Hits and Big Hits

I hadn't seen the Steelers game Sunday, but I've seen the repeated clips of James Harrison's hits to the head, as well as the others singled out by the League for big fines and warnings of suspensions to come. I can understand Harrison's hurt and confusion at being singled out, and not having good alternatives--to the point where he was considering retirement today. But I for one am increasingly turned off by the sport when I see hits like that, and players carted off.

TV sports coverage bears a lot of responsibility by praising them and showing them over and over on Sportscenter, etc. through the years. I also agree with this column by Gene Collier in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that notes that those hits didn't get penalties, and it is up to officials to start enforcing those rules:

"Perhaps owing to the unrelenting cadence of high-speed collisions, perhaps in deference to marketing forces that position the game as some celebration of violent acts you'd get arrested for in any other place, the modern NFL official enforces league rules selectively, ignoring some, insisting that others receive 100 percent compliance.

So please, keep those end-zone celebrations tasteful. Catering is frowned upon, certainly.

The most ignored rule in the league's ever-fluid digest of not-terribly-well-written rules is the one about the helmet

The truth is that football used to be played without these kinds of violent collisions and hits to the head. And if it is true that injury is inevitable whether someone is hit high or low, then it's time to end this game. I don't think it's necessary. I'm sure it's also due to players being bigger, stronger and in many cases faster than players in the past. But this can't be ignored.

Switching to baseball, the Giants started hitting just in time to go up 3 games to 1 over the Phillies. Buster Posey had a career day, with four important hits, two RBIs and a great play at the plate. The Phillies hitters are still dangerous, and the longer the series goes on, the more looks they have at Giant pitchers, but the Phillies bullpen has not served them well, and it may take more than a day off to fix that. I see this going 6, though the Giants seem incapable of making anything easy.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Following Up: A Little Bit of Everything

Both elements of the Steelers-Browns game I worried about happened--but the Steelers still won handily. Big Ben was rusty, and had a shaky first half. Colt McCoy did have a pretty good game, at least statistically. (He also was sacked five times, and threw interceptions.) But by the third quarter the Steelers got tracked, and the Browns got beat.

Helping the Steelers, the Patriots beat the Ravens in overtime. Now the Steelers will really find out how good they are. So far they're certainly much better than I thought they'd be. And nobody else is quite as good as advertised.

Meanwhile in baseball, both series' are 1-1. The Yankees have their hands full with the upstart Texans, and in their second game the Phillies got the timely hits they needed and the dominant pitching they thought they'd get in the first game against the Giants. The third game is very important for the Giants. It's funny how the commentators turned on the Phillies after they lost the first game. If the Giants had taken 2 in Philly, then I'd say they were favorites. But now, they'd have to be 3-1. The Giants still haven't had a breakout hitting game in the postseason. They need one soon.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Steelers Beware--and Be Good

In way too many ways, the Cleveland Browns don't have a chance when they travel to Pittsburgh Sunday to play the Steelers. Even in the Browns' good years the Steelers dominate them at home, and this isn't a good year by any stretch--they are 1-3, the mirror opposite of the Steelers. Their quarterbacks are hurt, so they are starting their rookie, who has never played an NFL game. Their star running back, pretty much their entire offense so far, is hurting.

On the Steelers side, they have won 3 games with their 3rd and 4th string quarterbacks. They are out for revenge for their poor game losing to Cleveland at home last year. And, oh yeah, they are getting their quarterback back, Ben Roethlisberger.

Expectations are high, not only for this game, but James Walker at ESPN makes the case for them as the NFL's one dominant team. Though I anticipate that possibility, this snowballing of expectations could be trouble.

Apart from the Steelers not putting out the effort--which I think is unlikely--there are two main dangers which could combine to shoot up those expectations. The first is rust: Ben hasn't played significant minutes even in exhibitions, and he's playing in his first game of the season with a team that's coming off a bye week. Rust can translate into turnovers, and that can quickly become Cleveland points, as well as missed Steelers opportunities.

The second is Colt McCoy, the rookie quarterback for the Browns. At Texas, he won more games than any NCAA college quarterback ever. With the Browns he is an unknown quantity, and the unknown is not what defenses like. He could get them off balance and out of rhythm by being better than they expect and above all, unpredictable.

So on paper the Steelers should win in a blowout. But if Ben and the Steelers offense aren't sharp early in the game and don't score much, and Colt McCoy gets hot later in the game, then things could be a little too interesting.
Of Sports Past

Jeez, this is my de facto sports blog and it's just about the only one that doesn't have a post or two on the 50th anniversary of the 1960 World Series seventh game in Pittsburgh. But there are photos and words on that here, here, here (with some repetitions) and hell, here too-- just an easy click away, with links there to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette stories, including several they printed in the Oct. 14 editions of 1960, and some pretty neat video, including Mazeroski's home run.

Also in sports past, this month marked the passing of George Blanda, a professional football quarterback and kicker--for 26 years. He won a lot of games and holds all kinds of records. His last game was at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, when he was just shy of 49.

I remember seeing him play on TV, including some of his game-winning heroics for Oakland late in his career, but I watched him with particular interest because he was born in Youngwood, Pennsylvania, the same tiny town where my mother grew up--they went to the same high school, though at different times--and where my grandparents still lived when I was growing up. People had stories, none of which I remember, but in addition to being still remembered in Oakland, he was a hometown hero in Youngwood.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fun While It Lasts

The SF Giants escaped with a win in Atlanta to take the series and move on to face the Phillies. It's certainly sweet to defeat Atlanta, with its obnoxious and demeaning tomahawk chops, and payback for all that pain in Pittsburgh can never be enough. But the SF team nicknamed Torture should celebrate well, because they have very little chance against the Phillies. They squeaked past the depleted Atlanta team, getting few timely hits and a number of timely calls going their way. The Phillies have better pitching than Atlanta and much better hitting than Atlanta and the Giants put together. I'm sure SF will relish the underdog role and I wish them well, but I'm too old to invite the pain of watching them very closely. But if they get past five games...

Sunday, October 10, 2010

They Might Be Giants

The San Francisco Giants had everything going for them in the second game of their playoff series with Atlanta. They had an unaccustomed early lead of 4-0, and with Matt Cain pitching, that normally is very comfortable. Thanks to Tim Lincecum's brilliant complete game 1 after the off-days, their bullpen was rested, and they had the strongest stoppers and savers in the league. They were playing before a huge and enthusiastic home crowd, a sea of orange.

But their stoppers didn't stop and their saver didn't save. Yet in the bottom of the 10th, they still had a clear advantage: the bases loaded and one out for their clutch-hitting rookie catcher, Buster Posey. There was only one thing he could do wrong. If he got a hit or just a ball to the outfield, the Giants win. If he struck out or popped up, the Giants would still get another chance with the bases loaded. If he got a walk, as the previous batter had, the Giants win, and go up 2-0. And it did appear that the three pitches he saw were out of the strike zone. He swung at one and missed. He took the next. Then he swung at the third and did the only terrible thing it was possible for him to do, he hit into an inning ending double play. Atlanta promptly got a run in the 11th, the deflated Giants didn't answer, and the series was tied 1-1 going to Atlanta.

This is how Atlanta breaks your heart. It's how they did it to the Pirates in the 90s.

In the third game, the Giants again got a very strong pitching performance, from Jonathan Sanchez. And again, they failed time after time to get timely hits. They left tons of baserunners, and practically dared Atlanta to pull the game out in the late innings with the Giants up 1-0. And that's exactly what they did--with one swing, a pinch-hit homerun that barely got over the fence in fair territory, put Atlanta up 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth.

Fortunately the Giants did get a timely hit and a lucky bounce in the 9th, and their saver saved. Frankly I didn't expect them to win their first game in Atlanta, and they'll probably have to play better to win the series. The fact that they're in the driver's seat now--needing one more win, and with their ace Lincecum available for the fifth game if necessary--doesn't mean a thing when it comes to the Atlanta baseball club. They specialize in breaking your heart.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Sort of Nice

It took three games but the Giants won the division with a 3-0 victory over San Diego. And to add to the injury, San Diego also lost the Wild Card spot to Atlanta. But even though they came to life long enough to beat the Giants in two games--most ominously by getting to their starting pitchers--the Giants fought hard in those games and forced the Padres to use a lot of their relievers, and their tired arms were a factor in Sunday's game.

Now the Giants play Atlanta, and I will take great satisfaction if they can win that series, since it was Atlanta that spoiled the postseasons for the last great Pittsburgh Pirates team, the one with Bonds, Bonilla and Van Slyke, the Outfield of Dreams. Apart for rooting against any team with a Native American mascot, I have that special animus for Atlanta. And while the Giants have the better pitchers, nobody can take this series for granted.

It was a heady, happy day in San Francisco, and the Giants fans were beautifully delirious--they packed that field-- the stands were a sea of orange. Not so much in Pittsburgh, however, where the Baltimore Ravens scored a touchdown with 32 seconds left to win in Pittsburgh. The defense took responsibility, but after the defense held inside the 5, the offense had only to get a first down to win the game. But they didn't, with some dumb penalties and conservative play calling. Also the kicker missed two forty-some yard field goals earlier, which didn't help.

So now a bye week and Big Ben is back. How much of a difference would he have made Sunday? Last year they failed to get first downs like that, too, so it's hard to say. Cleveland is his first opponent, and that game seemed like a gimme, except that the Browns beat the Bengals on Sunday, and they're not everybody's punching bag anymore. Still, it probably is going to come down to the Steelers and the Ravens (both 3-1 now.) They play once more in the regular season, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if they played once more in the post.

So a great day in SF, but not in Pittsburgh: averaging out to sort of nice.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Pretty Nice

As the 50th anniversary of the 1960 World Series approaches, sports thrills are threatening to be more than memories. I recall in the mid 1990s sitting in the Three Rivers Stadium sunshine watching the Pittsburgh Pirates clinch their division championship. The crowd was pleased but underwhelmed. It was expected (as was the yearly heartbreak of losing to Atlanta in the playoffs.) But that was the last time Pittsburgh got even that far, and it's unlikely to happen again for a long while.

But I'm up in far northern California now, and now south there's the San Francisco Giants, clearly thrilling their fans in this latest homestand, as they've been suddenly winning while competitors were stumbling, and they've clinched at least a tie for the division title. They need to win just 1 of their last 3 games, all against the current second place team--and division leader just last month--the San Diego Padres. Saturday and Sunday games are already sold out.

I've only seen one Giants game in that stadium, the last year (in the Bonds era) they won their division, and lost the World Series in heartbreaking fashion. It's a fun place to see baseball, and the fans were especially great. Reminded me of Forbes Field in Pittsburgh when I was a kid. Wish I was down there this weekend.

Speaking of Pittsburgh, how bout them Steelers? How do you figure this--their fourth string quarterback piles up 38 points and they are one of the last 3 undefeated teams in the NFL. The only thing giddier than that would be if they beat their most potent rival Baltimore this Sunday, before their bye week and Big Ben comes back to trounce the Browns. Good times.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Third Week

Which 2-0 NFL team is the biggest surprise? Heard that on TV today, Sportscenter or somewhere, and the answer was, Tampa Bay. Not the Steelers, who played their first game with their third string quarterback, and most of their second with their fourth string quarterback, who is now their starter, because all the others are injured or disqualified. But they are 2-0. No surprise, huh? (And while Dixon didn't have a spectacular first game, he did well enough to win.)

Well, that says a lot for the Steeler defense, and from the little I've been able to actually see in highlights and such, the defense is deserving--not just sharp but exciting. So now the less surprising Steelers go to Tampa Bay. Is it the week when their ridiculous quarterback woes catch up to them, or the week that Tampa Bay's young house of cards falls into a puddle?

So far the smart money says the Steelers take this one, too. It's going to be as hot or hotter on the field than in TENN last week, and it's asking alot of the defense to count on them to shut everybody down every week. So Charlie Batch and the Steelers receivers and runners have to score some points and give the defense some breathing room. This game could go either way.

Right now the Steelers are a bit like the SF Giants in baseball, whose pitchers have been absolutely shutting teams down this month, but game by game the offense isn't scoring enough. There have been a couple of easy games, like today's 13-0 over the Cubs, but not many. And they've shown more balance than the Steelers have.

Four teams are fighting for two playoff spots in the NL, and the Giants can still lose out entirely--absent a collapse by Atlanta, their best shot is to win the division. They've got head to heads with Colorado and San Diego, on the road. Their pitching has to hold up, but they need to score runs. Same basic problem as the Steelers. Both of them can conceivably win with just defense and a little offense, but the odds don't favor that.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

First Sunday

The first week of the NFL season is too early for me to care about any game but the Steelers, and secondarily, the 49ers. But not enough to even know who the 9ers are playing.

I just want to record here that I've got a feeling: that Dennis Dixon is going to have a big game as Steelers quarterback on Sunday. That's all. The game starts in a little more than 12 hours, so we'll see if this feeling, which I've had for several days and is based a bit on intuitive responses to certain facts and statements, will turn out to be right.

Meanwhile, the SF baseball Giants are still in the thick of the postseason hunt but even taking two of three from San Diego, they haven't quite made it either to the top of the division, or the top of the Wild Card. They could forlornly turn out to be the best team to not make the playoffs. But they are keeping it interesting.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


I guess this has become my sports blog, which even more than usual is me talking to myself. The spectacle of LeBron James going to Miami is over, and has generally been panned. The upshot of off-season machinations in the NBA has shaken out in a way that causes me to agree with Magic Johnson: the Lakers strengthened themselves enough to remain the favorites. The Heat have to prove that these guys can play together. Plus my caveat: Magic says that the Heat will win championships in the future, but I'm not sure that the new Big Three will even last more than one season together.

NFL football games begin soon, and things don't look that great for a Steelers fan. Even apart from the Big Ben suspensions for at least 4 games, the offseason hasn't been kind. Other teams in the AFL have strengthened themselves, including the Steelers' division rival, the Bengals. The Jets and Ravens also got stronger. New England will make some noise but not contend, Indianapolis is always a contender, and only Denver has seriously faded. But the Steelers didn't make conspicuously strong additions, and they've lost some key people on offense to trade and injury. So I doubt the Steelers will make the playoffs this year either. Of course, there are possibilities: some key defensive veterans are coming back from injuries, and some rookies and second years are having a good training camp. So maybe I'm being too pessimistic.

Baseball has gotten interesting hereabouts with the Giants making a playoff run.

But there's this: these guys in all these sports are making obscene amounts of money. There's little basis of comparison in basketball and football to pro teams of the past, but there is in baseball, and as far as I'm concerned, there are fewer good players-especially on defense--than there used to be, when players made a lot less money. And given the soap opera of bad behavior by these overpaid athletes, it's getting harder to care.

Specifically in football, the growing realization of how damaging concussion and head injuries are is having a serious effect on how people view the sport. It's another drag on my interest.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Probably the most honest comment about game seven came from Kobe Bryant when he said he didn't know how they won that game. Consensus was that the Celtics' age finally got to them as the Lakers piled up 30 points in the 4th, and as well the absence of their center Kendrick Perkins because the Lakers dominated rebounds. Kobe hit a few big shots, got to the line, played defense and especially rebounded well. Derek Fisher hit the big three, and Pau Gasol finally began to dominate around the basket in the fourth quarter.

But from start to finish in this game, the difference for the Lakers was Ron Artest. He played terrific defense on Paul Pierce, he rebounded and he scored even when others weren't: he got putbacks, he got in the lane buckets, he hit jump shots and three pointers, including a crucial 3 in the fourth quarter. Artest has had the kind of career the pundits call "troubled," and he's a non-linear personality for sure. He's also the one player who wasn't here last year--and the Lakers were roundly criticized for trading for him, and giving up Trevor Ariza (by among others, me.) But as Magic Johnson said of this game, he was the difference-maker.

Now the Lakers are more likely to basically stay together, and if Phil Jackson's health checks out, he is more likely to return as coach. But it's doubtful that the Celtics will remain intact, or in any case, be back in the finals next year. But...even though I will watch these finals again as motivation while exercising, I'm looking forward to forgetting about NBA basketball for a nice long time.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Game 7

It's a few minutes before tip-off. I'm going to be doing a phone interview for the first quarter probably, which is just as well, but I'll have the vcr running. What's the key? A neophyte would say: who scores the most points. And in this case, that's right on more than the smart alecky level. Whoever shoots better has the advantage, because both teams like to score in transition after missed shots, especially the Celtics. If they get easy baskets at the beginning, it could be a long night. If the Lakers come out strong, and successfully go inside, it will be a long night for the Celtics.

First quarter: With a minute left, it's the Lakers worst nightmare--they have only 14 points, and sure enough they are shooting poorly and the Celtics are scoring in transition. It looks ugly.

Second quarter: Lakers got back into it with a 9-0 run but lost the momentum. Gasol does not look good. They really need to take the lead into the locker room for halftime.

Halftime: Lakers down six. An absolute nightmare first half, shooting under 30%, with Bryant and Gasol especially shooting poorly. Ron Artest is all that kept them in the game, but at this point, even 6 points can be deceptive. The energy it takes to keep coming back tends to flag, and big leads ensue. Unless the Lakers turn this game completely around in the third quarter, they could see themselves losing by 20.

Their only consolation: they couldn't have a worse half than what they just played. But as bad as they were, they have to be proportionately as good to win this game. Even though this is a defensive struggle, they will have to shoot at least 50% in the second half to win this, while keeping Boston below 50%. A very tall order, considering their energy level in the first half.

There is a whole lot at stake in the next half of basketball, if you believe Bill Plaschke, who writes that this Lakers team will be kept together if it wins, and will be torn apart if it loses, and further, that this could be Kobe Bryant's last chance to be in contention for the NBA championship.

Third quarter: Lakers come out looking dazed, without energy. They look done. This is starting to look like game 5. I can't watch.

As the Celtics build a double digit lead, the one play I glimpsed tells me that this game could live in infamy for the Lakers, because they don't look like they're competing. Standing around and watching. Pathetic.

Monitoring rather than watching: midway in the third quarter the Lakers have made a little run, and are again down 6. Cameras sweep the stands to focus on celebrity actors--actors are paid to transmit emotion through their bodies and eyes. You can see nothing but pain and anxiety in their eyes now.

Lakers pick it up to end the third quarter down 3. They look to be outhustling the Celtics at last. The stage is set.

Fourth quarter: Both teams battling. Lakers get close but can't get over the hump. Story so far is Bryant continues to shoot poorly. Lakers down by 4 at first time-out.

The subtext here is coaching. Is Doc Rivers outcoaching Phil Jackson and the Lakers staff? In this game as in several previous, he seems to have made adjustments the Lakers didn't anticipate, or at least can't counter. If the Celtics hang on to win, there's going to be a lot of sentiment that he did in fact outcoach arguably the greatest NBA coach ever. Who is once again contemplating retirement.

Lakers tie it up with 7 minutes to go, and could take the lead but Gasol misses two free throws. Another turning point missed--the narrative so far.

Derek Fisher--who else?-- hits a 3 and ties it again. Time out.

Kobe Bryant--who else?--hit a jumper and the Lakers are up 4, with 5:41 to go.

Lakers went up by six and looked to extend but faltered, and now are up by just 3 with under 4 minutes to go. Their defense is the best it's been but the Celtics are still getting key shots. If the Lakers had hit their normal percentage of foul shots, they'd been up comfortably. But even Bryant is off. This one's going down to the final seconds.

Gasol's shot puts the Lakers up 6 with a minute and a half to go, or, an eternity.

Game over: Lakers by 4. Defense and clutch free throws win it. In the end it was will. The Celtics were tremendous, but the Lakers are NBA champs.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Energy. Between these two fairly evenly matched teams, that's been the difference in the last two games. The Lakers had it for game 6, leading by as many as 27 points in a resounding home court victory, forcing a deciding 7th game for the NBA championship.

Received wisdom is that a loud home court crowd--and LA was uncommonly loud--helps young bench players the most, and the Laker bench came through with solid and spectacular play--thunderous dunks by Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar plus solid offense and rebounding by Lamar Odum and timely shooting by Sasha Vujacic took all the suspense out of the game early. By the end of the third quarter, the Lakers bench had outscored the Celtics bench 24-0.

But it was the energy of the Lakers starters that was so impressive. In game 5 the Celtics came out loose, crisp and energetic. In game 6 the Lakers came out energetic, determined and efficient. Pau Gasol and Ron Artest had much better games, and Kobe Bryant was immediately on target with his shots and passes.

The only bad sign was that Andrew Bynum was ineffective and by the second half couldn't run at all, and took himself out of the game. This makes him questionable for the seventh game on Thursday. The Celtics also have a big man problem, with one of their centers in rotation, Kendrick Perkins, who left the game with a knee injury, and might not be able to play Thursday.

The Lakers dominance on their home floor bodes well for Thursday, but as I pointed out last time, the Celtics haven't played with energy the first game after travel. Including the first game of the series, those were the Lakers' three wins. So it's likely to be more of a fight on Thursday. Still, the Lakers defense was impressive, and it's hard to see what other surprises the Celtics can provide for them to counter. I expect a close game (unfortunately for my nerves) but I like the Lakers chances.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Live blog Game 5

I'm watching by myself so I may as well talk to myself here. The Celtics came out energetic and crisp, their stars are shooting well. The Lakers not so obviously crisp, and Kobe Bryant doesn't have a point well into the first quarter. These are not good signs for the Lakers.

The quarter ends with Celtics shooting about 60%, ahead by two. It may be a case of the Lakers weathering the early storm, but Pierce looks way too comfortable and loose, Rondo too quick.

This is the fifth game, which in most 7 game series is decisive. In this one as well. Although the Lakers finish with two games at home, this is the game they want and need.

Early second quarter, Boston up by 8. This game could quickly get away from the Lakers, who are getting rebounds and second chance points but are shooting flat, look slow and bothered. Celtic defense is smothering Kobe, Artest can't make a shot, Gasol is a nonfactor so far. Only Bynum is conspicuously battling.

--Good sequence for the Lakers. Artest finally hits a 3. He's a streak shooter. Lakers down just one. Maybe this is the way they win this--by being tough, mentally tough.

--Halftime: Lakers down by six. Celtics shooting 65%, Lakers in the 30s. Logic says the Celtics can't continue at that pace, but they have several shooters that haven't been involved so far. Paul Pierce is doing a Kobe, although it's soft defense that's allowing it as well. Further bad news: Artest, guarding him, has 3 fouls. The Lakers need a strong third quarter--which is often when they make their move--and they need to win the fourth. Right now this feels like the Celtics game to lose. If it continues this way, they go to LA up 3 games to 2.

Third quarter: Despite a dazzling individual scoring quarter by Kobe, the Lakers had to close the gap in the last few minutes to be down only by eight. Their only hope is that the Celtics have run out of gas, and they can mount their best fourth quarter of the playoffs. It's not impossible, but Kobe had almost all of the Lakers' third quarter points and the rest of the team looks slow. Plus Pierce has not faltered, and Garnett is having a good game.

End: Lakers fought back and with a few breaks and calls the other way (especially the Celtics 24 second violation that the officials got wrong) might have pulled it out, but they didn't. One way to look at this is scary enough: that it's the Celtics, not the Lakers, who have figured the other team out. Another way to see it is that the Lakers as a team played horribly, the Celtics as a team played extraordinarily well, and the Lakers were within striking distance in the last two minutes.

The sixth game is Tuesday in LA. The Celtics haven't won the first game after travel, and have been flat both times. The Lakers couldn't get any flatter. But the Celtics just have to win one out of two, and the Lakers have to win them both. Without a healthy Bynum, able to play late in the game, the Lakers have to be considered the underdogs.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The NBA Finals enter the fourth game Thursday with the Lakers ahead 2-1. What's often fun about the finals is the unlikely heroes, never more clearly than in the third game, when "Big Baby" almost was the difference for Boston but Derek Fisher obviously was for the Lakers with a career fourth quarter. Fisher is not really all that unlikely--not like Trevor Ariza last year, for example. He's usually good for winning one game in a series, and he did that with a career fourth quarter on Tuesday. As for the Lakers bench as a whole, they've been a pleasant surprise. Luke Walton's defense definitely contributed Tuesday, and other bench players have made key baskets, stops, blocks and steals during the finals.

But the series will eventually come down to the stars, and so I expect Boston's stars to be firing on full throttle Thursday, and I expect they'll win game 4. After that, time favors the Lakers, mostly because of Kobe Bryant, although Gasol is likely to have a dominant game before it's over. Whether fortune favors the Lakers is another question, but I do expect the officials to not be quite the decisive factor they've been in the first three games.

As for the skeptics (like me) who didn't see why the Lakers would trade a young and valiant talent like Ariza for the volatile and older Ron Artest, the answer may be as simple as the match-up of Artest guarding Paul Pierce. Pierce can't muscle him as he could (and did) Ariza or even Kobe. Artest is keeping him at bay.

Andrew Bynum has been the most pleasant surprise, showing stamina, will against injury, and great attitude. He was a force in each game, especially Tuesday, and especially when he guarded Kevin Garnett. Lamar Odum had his best game Tuesday but not the best he is capable of. I'll even repeat the commentator mantra that when he has it going, the Lakers are almost unbeatable.
Though the Lakers sometimes sag in the middle games, they've shown in this year's playoffs that once they solve the other team, they get stronger as the series goes on. I expect them to win the fifth game in Boston and win the championship in the sixth game back in L.A.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

NBA: Order is Restored, and NBA and TV network execs can exhale and plan a more expensive vacation as the most fabled match-up in the league is happening after all: both the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers won their game 6 and both won their conference finals, 4 games to 2. They will face each other--and probably a huge viewing audience--for the NBA championship.

For Boston the victory came at home, after two defeats. For the Lakers, their pivotal (and way too exciting) fifth game victory at home was followed two nights later by a pretty convincing victory over the Suns on the road.

Though the historic rivalry of two solid organizations has been repeated often, there have been surprises in how the playoffs have gone so far. First, and the biggest surprise, is that Boston is even in the finals. At best, they were the experts' third choice, behind the two teams they defeated, Cleveland and Orlando. But they are healthy for the first time, peaking at the right time. Their game 5 fatigue--especially Rondo's--disappeared in the sixth game, which they dominated.

The Lakers are supposed to be here, but there were doubts about them, too, because of how poorly they finished the regular season. What may surprise some more is Kobe Bryant. Commentators suggested that he's past his prime, and that LeBron James is the best player in the league. But through the conference finals, Bryant showed that he is still the best. Different perhaps--with more assists and not quite as many points or spectacular shots--but he's running a winning team, and when he needs to, he can take over a game. He's acknowledged as the best finisher, and he has a chance at his fifth championship--no player other than Michael Jordan and a few of his Bulls teammates have that distinction.

But it's not going to be easy. Smart money is on the Celtics. However, the Lakers have home court, and if they win the first game--this Thursday--then they have to be the favorite. Everyone is gearing up for a long series. Wonder if that's another surprise in store.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


A funny thing happened to the Celtics-Lakers final. First the Lakers lost to the Suns in Phoenix, but Boston bailed them out by blowing the sweep and losing their game 4 at home. Then the Lakers bailed them out by losing again, and tonight Boston lost game 5 on the road.

Now the momentum is clearly with the Suns and the Magic. The Suns beat the Lakers in pretty much the same way in game 4 as game 3--getting a lead, and winning the fourth quarter after they'd lost it, thanks especially to their bench, which finally showed up big as they did in earlier series. Now this series is tied 2-2, the Suns know they can beat the Lakers, and the Lakers are not entirely healthy.

But even though Boston has to win only one game out of the next two, they may be in even more trouble. They lost game 4 in overtime and looked tired, and they've looked tired ever since. Their key player, point guard Rondo, seems to be playing hurt, and Glen Davis and sub Marquis Daniels both suffered concussions to the point of blacking out. Age and injuries have always been the question marks for the Celtics this year.

Both Boston and LA pretty much have to win their next game. In the West series, the fifth game is usually decisive, and the Lakers are at home. In the East, the Celtics will have to hope that home court encourages the officials to give them a break, and maybe even reign in Dwight Howard's guided missile elbows, which knocked out Davis and have otherwise been conspicuous weapons.

Otherwise, the NBA may get what it really doesn't want: a Phoenix-Orlando final.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

You can see why the Phoenix Suns' coach wants a time out, and not only because Kobe Bryant just hit a three pointer (with Jack applauding.) The Lakers are up 2 games to none, and Laker fans were heard chanting "We Want Boston!" For in the surprise of the playoffs so far, the Boston Celtics are not only in the Eastern finals, but also up 2-0. Though it seems even more impressively, since they won both games in Orlando, where the Magic haven't lost twice in a row all season, it's only slightly more so: the Celtics have been a more impressive road team than home team this year. Still...

It seems quite likely now that the NBA finals will be Lakers-Celtics, and the NBA's wet dream. It's the most storied rivalry in pro basketball, and arguably in all sports. I remember watching their finals match-ups back in the day when the games weren't even broadcast live--they were tape-delayed for late night, since the networks weren't sure NBA basketball was going to get an audience. (And no, this wasn't in the 19th century; more like the 1970s.)

It was between those finals that I switched from being a Celtics fan (since I'd lived in Cambridge and worked in Boston) to the Lakers. I just thought Magic was magic, Kareem was incredible, and I loved watching James Worthy soar. Those were the Showtime Lakers, and though I rooted against them once more--when Michael Jordan was leading the Bulls against them--I've been a Lakers fan since.

The Lakers are motivated for this series with the Suns, and they'll be even more motivated against the Celtics (if that's what happens), since Boston humiliated them in the last finals they played. The Suns apparently can't play defense, and the Lakers are showing a previously latent ability to score a lot of points, but defense is what both Boston and L.A. are really good at. If it happens, it could be a classic series.

It might even be enough to draw attention away from speculating on where LeBron James will wind up next season. His last two games with Cleveland were humiliating; the team just flat out gave up, and I don't see him returning there. The city must be suicidal right now, and if King James leaves, they'll also lose a major force in their economy. It's amazing what one player has done there, and sad as well. The question now seems to be whether a zillionaire Russian (about whom little is known) with ambitions to make the New Jersey Nets into a global brand is going to pony up the cash to tempt LeBron. Maybe if he lands Dwayne Wade as well. The New York Knicks are literally banking on getting James, and if he doesn't go there, it's another suicidal city, or at least franchise. The other team that's mentioned is the Bulls. There are several gaudy possibilities for combinations of big name free agents, and I'm guessing that LeBron will have to be promised at least one to switch teams. And Cleveland will have to enter that sweepstakes: new big name players and a new coach. I can see why sports talkers are salivating. But Boston-L.A. might divide their attention for a few weeks.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

So I'm back talking to myself about sports, which tells me that I have been watching the playoffs, the Lakers, after all. I didn't see much of the first round, where Oklahoma tested them as I expected, but they rose to the occasion. I saw more of the four game sweep of the Jazz, and enough of one game won by the Phoenix Suns--their next opponent--to think this is going to be a tougher series.

In some ways the Jazz series prepared them--they have taller guys inside than the Suns as they did the Jazz, and the Suns also run the pick and roll a lot. The difference could be the bench, because the Suns' bench was really strong in their series, and the Lakers' not so much. But Phil Jackson did hit on something of a winning formula by mixing bench players with starters when he wanted to rest other starters. But the Lakers are playing with intensity and without much of the lackadaisical approach that left a sour taste to the season, and Kobe is quietly coming back to his usual form. They're more entertaining than I'd feared.

While the Lakers can't look past the Suns to the East(ern teams), I can. The big surprise is how vulnerable Cleveland is in their series with Boston. Right now they're down 3-2 with a very bad loss at home--the New York Times reported there was a lot of booing of the team and specifically of King James. If that was his last game in Cleveland this season, it's probably his last game in Cleveland as a member of that city's team. But depending on his elbow and general health, he could have a big enough game tomorrow to even the series, and then it's back to Cleveland, so you can't quite count them out yet. Still...even if they win, they look pretty vulnerable to Orlando, which is dominating. It could well be a Lakers-Orlando rematch for the Finals.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Something Fishy in This Tea

The other night on Rachel Maddow, Gov. Ed Rendell of PA made an important point about media coverage of the Tea Party:

"...the conservatives have won this argument and they‘ve certainly won it over the last 16, 17 months—in the fact that the tea party gets tremendous—the tea parties get tremendous coverage. And think about it—week before the health care vote, they had a rally in Washington, got 1,000 people, maybe not even that. The tax day rally, the big rally to protest federal taxes got less than 1,500 people showing up, according to their own organizer. Other people thought it was in the 400 or 500 range.

Gosh, if I had a rally in Washington to have stronger laws to protect puppies, we‘d have 100,000 people without blinking. And yet, the media, including the so-called liberal and progressive media, have given the tea party-ites elevation in terms of the impact they‘re having on the national debate and discussion—way above what they deserve."

Earlier in the program, Rachel highlighted some other rallies, involving thousands of people protesting cuts in government services. Rendell added that it would be hard to find any coverage of those, let alone the kind of major coverage the Tea Partiers get.

It's even worse than that. There have been several major demos in Washington which involved many times the numbers the T.P.s get, that were completely ignored.

This Sunday there's going to be a major Earth Day event in Washington. There will be stars like Sting singing, so that part will probably pop up on the cable stations. But will it be taken seriously politically? As a statement about national and international priorities? Especially when there's this report that the climate and energy bill is going to drop off the Democrat's agenda.

On the other hand, if this report is true, and the Senate "bill would remove the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act, and the states’ authority to set tougher emissions standards than the federal government," then it isn't a bill worth passing.

If this event falls flat, it's partly the fault of enviro groups, who have kept this event a virtual secret, except for the Earth Day committee that is running it. And part of it is the familiarity--nobody is really wondering, what are these people so angry about? But a lot of it is the media refusing to cover anything that is politically to the left of the Tea Party in a politically significant way. We'll see what they do with this event on Sunday.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Not on any NFL draft board, this running back a few years out of Harvard may not look impressive, but has a record of winning. Known mostly as a hoopster with questionable skills in bowling and baseball, he sees the whole field, follows his blocking, and can make quick adjustments that confound opponents. A leader, with even temperament but a fighting spirit, tenacious and focused, he also doesn't get in trouble with off the field bad behavior. A smart team could go far with him, if it understands what it's got.
Not Worried

I'm worried about a lot, like the future of civilization, President Obama going to West Virginia, paying the dentist. But I am not worried about the 2010 elections. Democrats will do fine.

It's not even May. Absent big surprises--and we do get those--this is apt to be the GOPers high point. The U.S. economy is improving, and unless stuff like the volcano in Iceland force the global economy into the tank, it will be better in the fall. Recovery Act funding of visible projects was backloaded--they'll be kicking in by the fall.

The last U.S. combat soldier could well be switching out the lights behind him in Iraq by summer's end. Afghanistan may even be winding down by fall.

The Rabid Right is dangerous in various ways, but not so much in major elections across the country. The Tea Party is hot media air, not enough to sway elections when other voters are paying attention (says E.J. Dionne, among others.) There are already signs that, contra opinion polls, being against health care is not going to be rewarded by voters--especially independents.

And in case anybody has forgotten 2008, we've got a pretty good campaigner now in the White House. Check out this speech for Barbara Boxer and see if President Obama isn't already sounding resonant themes.

The Democrats will likely lose some seats, especially where they have not very good candidates, and there is enough craziness out there to take away some others. But just as the death of the Republican party announced last year by the media bobbleheads proved a little premature, so today's doom and gloom over Democrats is out of proportion. Dems have a lot of work to do just to stay pretty even, but it's doable. And things for them might look a lot better by fall.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

No Win Situations

Update: This devastating piece in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

Sportswise, I am not a happy camper, and it doesn't look like I'm going to be one for a long time. The NBA playoffs are beginning, and what was supposed to be a title defense by a dominant Lakers team is starting to look like a slow motion train wreck. Although with all their injuries and fatigue, and the terrible play lately that has given the rest of the league multiple ways to beat them, they may not even get out of the first round. It's that bad. Even if they win against a younger, faster Oklahoma team with a dynamic superstar in the making, it's going to be a struggle and they're likely to look lousy doing it. And even if they struggle all the way through seven game playoff series, they're not likely to beat Cleveland for the championship, if it comes down to that, and it probably will.

But the Lakers prospects are nothing compared to the shocking situation of the Steelers. The last time Steeler Nation rejoiced, it was the touchdown pass from Big Ben to Santonio Holmes that won the Super Bowl. Now the Steelers have practically given away their best receiver because of one off-the-field screwup too many, and their star quarterback is getting a reputation as a star jerk, at best.

Ben's birthday (subject of a post here, I note with some chagrin) was celebrated with some apparently unsavory activity that led to an accusation of rape. Celebrity sports figures are easy targets for false accusations--some Steelers stars have been victimized that way, including (if memory serves) Jerome Betis, and Ben had a pretty good reputation. So I kept quiet until the police investigation was over. Now Ben was not charged, but he's hardly been exonerated of bad behavior. Steeler Nation is not happy with him.

How all this winds up--fall, redemption, whatever--it's going to be messy, and it ain't going to be football. If the Steelers don't trade him (unlikely they will, but possible), he faces suspension in the next few weeks--at first the bet was for a game or two to start the season, but now it may be more. With two stars returning from injury, the Steelers' defense was looking to resume its dominance, and acquisitions and signings suggested that the offense would be somewhat different, but better. Now next season looks like a bust already. The better teams in the division strengthened themselves--in fact, a lot of teams outside Philadelphia strengthened themselves in the off-season. So the Steelers can't afford to lose their star quarterback for four or more games and expect to compete. It looks like another year without a playoff run.

Maybe the Steelers will rise above it all and it will be exciting, and/or the Lakers will return to their dominant form of earlier this season, but neither is likely anymore, and in any case, the road maybe too painful to watch, at least for me and my relatively low tolerance for that kind of drama in something I know I shouldn't be wasting time on. They are all going to be multi-millionaires without me.

The bottom line is that I'm going to have to come up with another way to waste my time. Besides blogging.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The morning after the April 15 Tea Party, a few facts:

Percentage of Americans whose federal taxes are lower this year: 98

Number of years out of the eight years GW Bush was President that taxes for most Americans were higher than now: 8

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Stealth Public Option?

A Kos diarist examining a Kaiser Foundation summary of the health insurance reform law found a provision concerning the health insurance Exchanges that will "Require the Office of Personnel Management to contract with insurers to offer at least two multi-state plans in each Exchange. At least one plan must be offered by a non-profit entity." The "non-profit entity" suggests a kind of stealth public option, though some of the big players--and current abusers--are technically non-profits. However, it probably further ensures that the individual mandate challenge won't be found unconstitutional, if it doesn't require that citizens buy a product from a profit-making company.

Another Kos poster points to several provisions that encourage insurers and the health care system generally to lower costs, and makes health care more affordable.

At the same time, the fact that GOPers smell the possibility of gains in November, plus the one-party vote that passed the bill, is obviously encouraging a continuing opposition by means of lies and extreme rhetoric, and probably emboldens insurance companies to do what they can to subvert the law.

On the other hand, the first congressional electoral test--in which a GOPer tried to inflame and incite Florida seniors on the law, as well as generally insulting the President--didn't work: the Democrat who was supposed to win, did win, with more than 60% of the vote.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Legal Challenge to Healthcare Reform

There are a number of challenges by politically motivated attorneys-general and governors, playing to larger reactionary forces. None of them have legal merit, let alone real Constitutional challenge. However, the "individual mandate" provision has always been troublesome. If it is the federal government directing every citizen to buy the product sold by a private sector corporation, absent a public option, then it is unprecedented. The closest to it would be state governments requiring automobile insurance, but that is for people who own cars, and citizens are not required to own cars, so they have some choice.

However, this is not how the so-called individual mandate provision was written. As explained by Lawrence O'Donnell, whose expertise is precisely in the area of financial regulations in Congressional legislation, what the mandate basically says is that if you don't buy health insurance, you won't get the tax break that people who do buy the insurance will get. That is clearly within the law and within accepted practice.

Moreover, the IRS will not investigate compliance, but respond to what is on the tax return. I imagine if non-compliance arises in a tax audit, that might be a different story. The IRS has denied the latest Rabid Right scare story, that it is hiring thousands of new agents to monitor compliance.

I still think that an option to buy public plan insurance from the government would more definitively solve this troublesome problem of people feeling they must buy insurance from the same corporate entities who inflate prices, cut coverage whenever possible, and use their money to influence politicians and advertise to drive out competition. But given the compromises in this bill overall, this is an acceptable price at this time for the reforms it includes.

Although I have to admit I say that knowing that it will never apply to me. I look forward to Medicare.

Update: Here's a more detailed explanation of both the insidious Rabid Right lies about this, and the facts.

Lesson for the Day: What do you do after you've had the worst first half of the year?

You go get the best second half of the year.

Thanks, UConn and congrats on being NCAA women hoops champs, with your second undefeated season in a row.

Monday, April 05, 2010

April Madness

I spent hours of my weekend watching parts of four Final Four basketball games, so I may as well waste more time noting this fact. Although Butler is a great story, and the Butler v. Duke is the David and Goliath that has the media salivating--if only they had a week to drive it into the ground!--I must admit I enjoy watching the women's games more.

It's partly because their game is a purer style of basketball. But men's college hoops has become a tryout league for the NBA. You have a great freshman season, you're drafted. The same sort of sense of entitlement and egotism you see in the pros is infecting college. The stakes aren't as great for the women yet--the WNBA doesn't pay nearly as much, and fewer college players are likely to have pro careers. So they are playing for the now, and it shows.

The greatest players of any era show you what you've never seen before. LeBron James is doing that now in the NBA. But the Connecticut women are showing it in their NCAA tournament--they've won 74 (or something like that) games in a row, and until Sunday had defeated their opponents by 40 to 50 points. Sunday, the Oklahoma team gave them a real if brief scare at the start of the second half, but UConn took control in pretty short order. They play Stanford for the championship Tuesday, and that's the game I'm most looking forward to watching.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Guess who came to dinner? President Obama's surprise visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Another Major Accomplishment

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton announced a new U.S.-Russia treaty to reduce each country's nuclear weapons by nearly a third.

According to the President: "Broadly speaking, the new START treaty makes progress in several areas. It cuts -- by about a third -- the nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia will deploy. It significantly reduces missiles and launchers. It puts in place a strong and effective verification regime. And it maintains the flexibility that we need to protect and advance our national security, and to guarantee our unwavering commitment to the security of our allies."

With this agreement, the United States and Russia -- the two largest nuclear powers in the world -- also send a clear signal that we intend to lead. By upholding our own commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, we strengthen our global efforts to stop the spread of these weapons, and to ensure that other nations meet their own responsibilities."

I can't help recalling that President Kennedy made two of his most important speeches--on the nuclear test ban treaty, the very first effort to stop the nuclear arms race--and on Civil Rights, that proposed what eventually became the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts--one day after the other. This immense and important accomplishment days after the health insurance reform law makes for a similarly momentous week for President Obama.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Happy 70th birthday to Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House. Maybe I'm showing my age as well as my politics, but I think she's hot.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

One of those Hell Freezes Over moments, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives President Obama a big hug, congratulating him for the passage of the health insurance reform bill. But props to her: she fought this fight in the early 90s as First Lady, and she came closer than anyone to pulling it off--until now.

UPDATE 3/24: TPM runs this photo with a story about how the Clintons worked behind the scenes to get health insurance reform passed. Interesting.

Also, there's this interesting observation from David Leonhardt at the New York Times:"For all the political and economic uncertainties about health reform, at least one thing seems clear: The bill that President Obama signed on Tuesday is the federal government’s biggest attack on economic inequality since inequality began rising more than three decades ago."

Monday, March 22, 2010

Yes, We Did

The dimensions of the healthcare bill victory--and the dimensions of the defeat for Republicans--is just starting to be felt and evaluated. But this E. J. Dionne column is a good start:

Yes, we did.

Finally, President Obama can use those words. The passage of health-care reform provided the first piece of incontestable evidence that Washington has changed.

Congress is, indeed, capable of carrying through fundamental social reform. No longer will the United States be the outlier among wealthy nations in leaving so many of its citizens without basic health coverage.

In approving the most sweeping piece of social legislation since the mid-1960s, Democrats proved that they can govern, even under challenging circumstances and in the face of significant internal divisions. "

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Uglier in Our Time

With the top racial slur hurled at a Civil Rights hero and Representative, an anti-gay slur and many threats of violence, the latest Tea Party rally in Washington set a new low in ugliness, hated and incitement.

Here's one report, here's another. Clearly the health insurance reform vote tomorrow is driving the frenzy, but I've given up believing this sort of thing will die down anytime soon. It's uglier, but probably not the ugliest. What remains most alarming is the feedback system that is feeding this frenzy--the hate radio stars whipping up their listeners, the empowered bigots pushing every limit, and the connivance of GOPers in Congress, who are hitching their sinking wagons to this dark star. The question being whether this all ends in self-destruction before it destroys a lot more.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Just a bunch of parents at a school basketball game, rooting for their daughters. It just happens to include the President, the First Lady, the Vice President and his wife. Something heartening about this.

Monday, March 08, 2010

And the 2010 Nader Award goes to...Dennis Kucinich, who announced that he will vote against the healthcare reform bill because it's not good enough for him. If he is the deciding vote against it, he will go down in infamy along with another erstwhile force for good who let ego, image and ideological purity ruin his name forever, when he made the decisive difference in wrecking a decade and perhaps the future, Ralph Nader in 2000. Kucinich's purity will be intact, while those who will suffer and perhaps die because they can't get care due to lack of affordable insurance or who are denied insurance because of a pre-existing condition as defined by insurance companies--well, purity has its cost, as long as you don't personally have to pay it. And as long as you ignore the bill's many progressive elements.
Update: After President Obama held an enthusiastic rally in Kucinich's district, and had a one-on-one with him, Dennis the K changed his mind and his vote, and began to lobby strenuously for the President's bill with his fellow Members. Good for him.

Friday, March 05, 2010

On Thursday, college students throughout California especially, but also around the U.S., protested higher tuitions and costs, and cuts in their education that are sending many institutions of higher education into crisis--including Humboldt State University here in Arcata. So it's not surprising that at least here in the Eureka demo, students were joined by faculty and staff, as departments and entire programs are being weakened and eliminated.
The politics of this is fascinating, and educational. Universities and their students are being characterized as fighting for funds that would otherwise go to the poor and sick, whereas the real priorities being served are wealthy non-taxpayers, mega-corporations and the banks, that are currently mounting a so far successful effort to prevent the U.S. Senate from passing into law what the House has already passed--reforms that would strip the banks of their profitable control of student loans, and would ease the financial burden of students and their schools.
Here's the SF Chronicle story from which this photo comes, and another at the L.A. Times. Neither talks much about the underlying issues. No one much does.
Update: We'll see if this really happens, but at the moment, the legislation to take back control of student loans from the banks is part of the Senate healthcare bill, so if it passes Sunday, this will be law as well.