April… Opening Day Highlights an Underrated Sports Month

Every year, February rolls around and the sports world lets out a big collective sigh. The NFL season wraps up, the NHL and NBA are both still a month away from the stretch run, not much to talk about in the way of golf, tennis, etc. But then March rolls around… College Basketball kicks into high gear, playoff hunts start to tighten up in basketball and hockey, and most importantly, Spring Training arrives. As long as the baseball season might be, the off-season absence of America’s pastime seems even longer. Hot-stove chatter and free agency is enjoyable, but nothing beats the ability to go out and watch a game, and breathe in the sport so many of us love… baseball.

For millions of people across our fair nation, baseball is the end-all-be-all of sports. While the NFL grabs the highest TV ratings, snags the big sponsorships, and rakes in the most money, there’s still something about our beloved baseball that Roger Goodell and company can’t touch. Nostalgic, historic, poetic and timeless… words that are deeply ensconced in the game. As a kid, baseball signified not only that spring was here, but also that summer was just around the corner. Baseball is also a game in which things like father-son relationships are built on (in America at least). I’d be willing to bet my next paycheck that if you asked 100 random men on the street, more than 75 have been to a baseball game with either their dad, their son, or both. Baseball has survived multiple wars; World War 1 & 2, the War on Terror, and the war on steroids. In the end, Baseball stands the test of time. Where else would you rather be on a warm April afternoon than in a foldout seat at your local ballpark with a hot dog in one hand, a cold beverage in the other, and a bag of peanuts/crackerjacks on deck?

These are just some of the reasons why the arrival of April signifies so much… not only will the weather be warming up, so will sports. The NCAA Final Four wraps up, the Masters takes place, and both NBA & NHL teams will push for the playoffs.

To me, Opening Day is not only the start of it all, but also the icing on the cake. It’s day that signifies so much, including the hope that this could be the year… you know what I’m talking about Red Sox fans… Play ball!

Read more on Whitsport’s take on what to expect for the upcoming 2013 MLB Season

Can a Wild Finish Spark a Wild Post-Season in MLB ?

Doesn’t get more wild than that. Unless you were a Red Sox or Braves fan (condolences to both sets of supporters), Wednesday night was probably one of the most exciting and shocking finishes to a season we’ve ever seen. Putting aside the fact that Boston was up on Tampa by 8.5 games with a month left in the season, the actual games finished in such a spectacular fashion that I am still not able to think of an instance where two games with such tremendous playoff implications wrapped up with 9th inning comebacks… and they did so within 3 minutes of each other (major props to the O’s for playing hard in a meaningless game). Switching back and forth between the games I thought, “well the Red Sox will still hold onto their 3-2 lead, woops there goes that”… “well the Yanks could still pull out the W and force the Rays and Sox to play a one-game playoff… wow there’s goes that too”. It was a night that defied logic.

To some extent it was a season that defied much logic… The Yankess were never supposed to walk away with the AL East after relying on guys like Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia on the mound. The Rays weren’t supposed to be close after losing a third of their All-Stars to free agency. Heck, the D-Backs were supposed to finish a dozen games behind the defending World Champion Giants. But alas, parity in baseball does exist, and teams can make strong strides from one year to the next.

So if the sport is so unpredictable, why do we still try and make predictions? mainly because it’s fun. I picked the Giants as my sleeper team last year, and sure enough I was smiling out on my limb when they hoisted the Commissioner’s trophy in October. This year I liked the Brewers to win the NL Central, check! But my pick of the White Sox in the AL was not so good. So what can we expect from this year’s Fall Classic?

Tigers vs Yankees
Game 1 gives baseball nerds goosebumps, as it showcases CC Sabathia and Cy Young sure-thing Justin Verlander. Look for few runs in the opener, but then lots in the remainder of the series. Yankees starters are well rested, maybe too well rested. I’ll take Detroit, and think their red-hot hitting could actually outslug the high-priced talent of the Bronx. Tigers in 4

Maddon kind of looks like Robert Deniro with that hair right now

Rangers vs Rays
People would normally go with Texas here since they were AL champs a season ago and the Rays are still a low-budget team that plays in a crummy stadium. But Joe Maddon’s group of over-achievers will likely continue their streak and ride some more good luck into another AL Championship series. Rays in 5

Phillies vs Cardinals
While St.Louis may have taken the season series from the Phils, I’ll still take a healthy dose of Halladay-Lee-Hamels-Oswalt in any series. Pitching prevails,  it is the playoffs after all. Phillies in 4

Shameless photo of Fielder's pre-game warm-up regimen

D-Backs vs Brewers

Milwaukee actually finished with the best home record in baseball, and I know a little bit about the team after jumping on their pre-season bandwagon. I know almost nothing about Arizona, except for the fact that they have a swimming pool in the outfield… nice! I’ll take the Brewers in 5

Beyond the AL and NL Divisional Series, I really like the Tigers this year. Their line-up is quite deep, and their pitching (aside from the future Cy Young winner) isn’t as bad as their numbers might show. In the NL I’ll take the Phillies, they’ve been there and still have some of those useful veterans that can step up when the game is on the line.

Lee is in the Top 5 for post-season ERA all time leaders

In the World Series I like Philadelphia. Their pitching gives them the edge and they’ve got more guys with proven playoff experience than Detroit (or really anyone else in the AL). So will fans be eating victory cheesesteaks at the end of October? We’ll just have to wait and see… but I think it’s theirs to lose.

5 Burning Questions for the MLB Post-Season

Bobby Cox will manage the final games of his career.

#5 – Can Atlanta send Bobby Cox off in style? The Braves might be the biggest underdogs in the playoffs, having lost 7 games in the last two weeks of the season, and barely edging the Padres for the Wild Card. But Cox’s men might have more left in them. A younger crew, who boast the 3rd best ERA in the NL may surprise some people. Heyward will make his first post-season appearance, but Hinske, Lee, Lowe, and Hudson are certainly not, and were brought in for this very occasion.

#4 –  Can little knowns like Cinci and Texas shock the world? Joey Votto and Josh Hamilton may be on the map, but I dare anyone to name the Reds or Rangers everyday starting 9. What people forget is that both team have combined youth with seasoned veterans, and have gotten a winning formula as a result. Vlad Guerrero and Scott Rolen were both significant contirbutors (on and off the field). So don’t sleep on Reds like Gomes, Stubbs, and Phillips; don’t forget about Young, Kinsler, and Cruz… they’ve all stepped it up this season, and hope to keep things going.

Longoria hopes to shake off an injury in time for Wednesday's Game 1

#3 – Can the Rays win it all? With the young raw core they’ve built, this will most likely be their last shot at World Series glory, with Pena, Crawford, and Soriano all out of contracts in November. But the Rays don’t rank in the top 5 in many batting categories, and have relied on  pitching, especially out of the bullpen, to get them wins. Will the magic from 2008 carry over?

Sabathia won 21 games for the Yanks this year

#2 – Can the Yanks do it on CC’s arm alone? Andy Pettite will likely silence the nay-sayers and do what he’s always done… win post-season games. But can the Yanks get one more win out of Phil Hughes, Javier Vazquez, or AJ Burnett? Want another curveball thrown into the mix? CC has to face Francisco Liriano in Game 1 of the ALDS… certainly not a gimme.

Who will win in the endless battle: Pitching or Hitting?

#1 – Will the year of the pitcher wrap up that way? Looking at some of this year’s post-season rotations, hitters may have their work cut out for them… again. It was obvious that pitcher ruled in 2010, but now that the playoffs roll around, they become that much more valuable. While most people hope for the Giants and Phillies to meet in the NLCS to showcase Lincecum, Zito, Cain, Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels, we may find some notable matchups in the American League as well… In Minnesota, right-hander Carl Pavano will try and put down the team that threw $40 million at him just 6 seasons ago. And while Nolan Ryan may not step onto the field for his beloved Rangers, a few other notable hurlers will take the mound. Chekout these match-ups in the Ray-gers series: Cliff Lee vs David Price, CJ Wilson vs Matt Garza. Even Wade Davis vs Colby Lewis is intriguing.

BONUS burning question: Will we see a snow-out in Minnesota?We all feared it, but unless the Twins make a run to the World Series, it’s unlikely. Low temperatures are only expected to fall into the mid 40s through next week.

Snow-out eh? Guess we got time for some pop, go grab em out of the ice-box.

Check back soon… Whit’s Post-Season Picks to follow on Wednesday!

Promotion/Relegation Possibility

Zack Greinke would get the chance to play for a team that people actually knew existed

As the curtain closes on the Premier League season I’d like to reflect a bit and take a look at the concept of relegation. As a blogger for all-things sports here in the USA, I contemplated what life in the American Sports would be like if relegation were in play. There are so many factors to how the system would work that I had a hard time keeping track of them all. Let’s break it down into Pros vs Cons.

PROS

#1. More to play for at the end of seasons. Right now, when a team in pro- basketball, hockey, or football is struggling, they might as well lose the remainder of their games to ensure a good draft pick in the off-season. The Pirates and Nationals fighting it out late in the season to survive in a top flight division, now sounds a bit more interesting.

#2. Plays in with Free Agency. Players are always looking to go to a place where they’ll compete at a high level, and garner higher wages. Promotion and relegation are major proponents of this system. Bigger name English players typically try and remain in the Premier League and will fight for a trade to a team remaining in the top division.

#3. Place for aging veterans to still play. Guys like Barry Bonds, Brett Favre, and Chris Chelios can go somewhere and play out their 40s and 50s while still being the big men on campus. Washed up ballplayers may be over the hill, but their experience is still valued and they can still compete at the lower levels.

#4. Support of revenue sharing. Being in an upper league would benefit teams that normally couldnt afford to pay players higher salaries. Promotion would void this completely, as “lesser teams” would now have an influx of money to help improve the club, and keep it competitive.

#5. Excitement is essentially doubled. Attendance would be boosted to watch teams in the majors and minors battle it out for promotion or relegation. Fans would be treated to bonus exhilaration after things at the top of the leagues were decided weeks earlier.

#6. More divisions = more teams.  With the addition of relegation comes more teams looking to get into the mix, local fans already follow their home-town teams; LA could finally have their football team, Kansas City could finally get their hockey team, and new basketball teams could spawn in places like New York, Philly, and Detroit. Many smaller English teams are even owned by the locals of the town.

CONS

#1. Lack of history for a large number of newly promoted teams. Imagine the Toledo Mudhens or Albuquerque Isotopes playing big league baseball? Tough to do isn’t it? Although these histories would be built over time, just as they were in Europe.

#2. Waffling fan bases… sure teams in England suffer a hit in attendance and merchandising when their teams take the drop, but the majority of the fan base will stick with their team, and follow their performance in the lower league. American fans won’t have that same patience.

#3. Economic hardships are magnified. Every once and a while, a fairly wealthy team like Newcastle gets relegated. Imagine the N.Y. Mets down in AAA, they’d likely be back up the next season. Most of the smaller teams wouldn’t have the same luxury. If the Predators or Coyotes of the NHL got sent down, that’d be all she wrote. Teams would file for bankruptcy; not good for the sport.

#4. Perennial powerhouses out of the spotlight. If a teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs (highest grossing team in the NHL) were to go down, all hell would break loose in Canada. Imagine one bad year for the Cowboys could equal an exit from the country’s biggest sports league.

#5. Loss of the farm-systems. With baseball teams now all in play for who’s going up or down, baseball and hockey teams would be forced to create new pools to which they can draw young players to replace under-performing or injured ones. Plus, sports with non-existent farm systems like Football and Basketball would need time to build up lower divisions.

With every pro exists a con. Is it the best system? Probably not, but it may just be better than the one we’ve got now! Whitsport has had it’s take, now what’s yours?

Promotion advocates look no further than Burnley last year to support their cases... exciting underdog stories would run rampant

FEBRUARY: The Most Boring Month in Sports

Well sports fans that’s it… The Super Bowl has come and gone. The NHL and NBA have yet to enter the home stretch. March Madness is still over a month away. Even catchers and pitchers have yet to report… It’s February folks, the most boring month in sports each year. As an avid fan of sports talk radio, and sports chatter in general, I find that this time of year can be unfulfilling as a sports fan. The end of the NFL season each year, signifies the doldrums of winter, as Snowstorms pummel the East Coast, and sports fanatics endure a relatively uneventful 4 week period. In the meantime, let’s explore some other options that may satisfy some sports lovers’ palates:

– European Football (Soccer): with title races heating up in leagues across the continent, Europe features an exciting sport that is an international phenomenon. With a slew of teams vying for the top 4 spots in the English Premier League, the FA Cup 5th round starting, and the European Champions League knockout stages set to begin, February is actually a fairly exciting month to be a footy fan.

– NCAA Basketball: with conference play in full swing, we see those match-ups that make our mouths water, like Duke v UNC. With dozens of teams on the bubble, players put it all on the line, unlike the NBA. It may not be March Madness yet, but wouldn’t it be nice to do a little research and get a leg up in your office pool next month?

– Winter Olympics: it only comes around every 4 years, but Olympic memories are made each time, especially in the highly competitive winter sports like figure skating, ice hockey, downhill skiing, and bobsledding. Did I mention CURLING?! Enough said

– Daytona 500: personally I am not a racing fan at all, but NASCAR may get a boost at Daytona this year, as Danica Patrick makes her first appearance on the circuit, and is sure to steal a good deal of headlines

– NBA All Star Weekend: even though its basically the same each year, the dunk contest, 3point contest, skills challenge, and Rookie Sophomore game may be better than channel surfing,

If none of these options tickle your fancy, have no fear, hope is on the horizon. Just 32 days til you can start filling out those brackets. Only 54 days until Opening Day in MLB. You’ll be back in football’s cozy arms when the 2010 Draft airs in 71 days. In the mean time, try something new… you never know!

Get your Cracker Jacks!!!

Blizzards in the Midwest, cold temperatures in the Northeast, many trees still barren around the rest of the country… it may not feel like spring, but it’s certainly the season. It also may seem like the World Series just ended; but whether it feels like it or not, it’s time for baseball in America once again.

I’ll take this time to brag just slightly, after my playoff predictions from last season were slightly successful, picking 3 out of 4 division series winners, and correctly putting the Phillies in the World Series. Even so, there is room for improvement. Here goes nothing…

Playoff Bound:

AL: Red Sox, Indians, Angels, Yankees (Wild Card)

NL: Mets, Cubs, D-Backs, Phillies (Wild Card)

Most Improved Team:

Atlanta Braves – with the addition of some big arms in the off season (Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez) as well as some wily veterans in Garret Anderson and Omar Infante, the Braves look poised to contend in the NL East. If Chipper Jones and the rest of their solid lineup can remain healthy for most of the season, the Braves should be able to chop their way to the playoffs for the first time in 4 years.

Biggest Fall from Grace:

Brewers – with a wild card berth and magnificent run to the postseason last year, the Brew Crew relied on solid pitching from CC Sabathia and Gallardo to carry them to late season victories. While Milwaukee’s hitting might still be a threat, their lack of pitching will be a major cause for concern. Don’t look for a return to prominence this season.

Most Interesting Story:

Yankees – it may seem cliche, but all the buzz will be around the Yankees this year (again and for eternity). But with a payroll of over 200 million smackers, who’s surprised? (btw: that’s more than twice as much as 22 other teams in MLB for 2009) No doubt acquiring 2 studs on the mound, an mvp caliber first baseman, and a new stadium can do nothing but improve a team that failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons last year. And we didn’t even mention A-Rod yet…

Players to Watch:

AL: Ken Griffey Jr… nah just kidding. Alexi Casilla of the Twins is the spark that Minnesota needs to make another playoff run. With Joe Mauer injured, the Twinkies will look to this youthful second baseman for a major performance in a promising season

NL: David Wright – could lead the Mets to the postseason for the first time since blowing it in September two years running. If he didn’t play in the same league as Albert Pujols, he’d be an MVP lock

World Series Predictions:

Red Sox because they have the most impressive rotation in baseball

Mets because… well who doesn’t feel sorry for the Mets? I’ll give them some lovin’

1986 here we go again! only I’d be crazy not to pick the Sawks in this one

Time for some Playoff Baseball!

Well it was another grueling regular season in baseball, a 162 game season still seems a bit much to me.  But, nevertheless, the climax of the season is upon us.  Its that time of the year when the weather starts getting cooler, the best of the best remain in the game, and it just smells like baseball in the air. With everyone weighing in on who they think will be duking it out in the World Series, I thought I would weigh in as well; here goes nothing:

In the American League thinks are seemingly straight forward.  The Rays and White Sox matchup will pair the two unlikely teams to take home the 2008 crown, while the Angels and Red Sox series will showcase the teams who have “been there, done that”.  As for the winners, here’s how I see things: White Sox have gained a huge amount of momentum over the past three games, plus they’ve been there before (oh, how quickly people forget)  The Rays have been arguably the best team in the AL, but they have very little post-season experience.  I give Chicago the slight edge in this ALDS matchup.  The Angels may have had the best record in the regular season, but when it comes to post-season play, Boston tops them all in magic they can produce and ride to the World Series, it’s funny how ridiculous that would have sounded just 5 years ago.  I’ll take Boston due to good pitching and hitting.  A battle of the Sox in the ALCS will be enjoyable only on paper.  I expect the White Sox arms to start wearing down after so many starts on short-rest.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Red Sox sweep, on their way to the series yet again.

In the National League things are a bit fuzzier.  I think any one of the four teams can get hot and ride things all the way to the big dance. The Brewers should make things tough for the Phillies, but only when CC Sabathia is pitching.  If the Bre-crew can make things go 5 games, they have a chance… but they’ll need to rely on shaky pitchers to even get that far.  I’ll favor the Phillies in this one.  As for the remaining first round matchup, I think I’ve saved the best for last.  Cubs vs. Dodgers, two teams rich with baseball tradition, and two teams very capable of winning it all.  The Dodgers have seemed unstoppable since acquiring Manny Ramirez, and the Cubs have been vacationing since the beginning of September.  All in all, it really comes down to the fact that both teams have very capable pitching, and I don’t expect this series to last less than the full 5 games.  I’ll take the Torre magic and pick the Dodgers to add to Cubs fans’ misery.  As for the NLCS, I think the Phillies are vastly overlooked, and will surprise a lot of people with how well they can hit and pitch.  Even a re-energized LA line-up won’t be able to subdue the all around prowess of Philadelphia.

As for the world series, Philly vs. Boston looks to be interesting, because both teams seem to resemble one another (separated by just a few years in baseball’s timeline).  The Phillies organization has gone quite some time without winning a world series, despite fielding impressive teams over the years.  While Philly fans haven’t had to endure an 86 year curse, their fans have stuck by their team through many gut wrenching defeats, and playoff exits.  When the dust settles and skies clear, I expect the Red Sox to repeat as champs, but I keep asking myself one question…. could the Phillies be the ’04 Red Sox of this season?

Summary:

AL:    White Sox vs. Rays   —— Red Sox vs. Angels

White Sox vs. Red Sox

NL: Brewers vs. Phillies ——   Dodgers vs. Cubs

Phillies vs. Dodgers

World Series: Phillies vs. Red Sox