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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cue the amply-sized lady!

This is a bitter sweet post for me. I really didn’t know how I wanted this to go. I wrote two posts and half of a third before scrapping them all. None seemed to fit the occasion even though I admittedly don’t necessarily know what that means. Since this is the last post you are going to read here, I had delusions of making it particularly superb. The first of the discarded posts was about the irony of starting this blog as a disgruntled Michigan fan and finishing five years later as a disgruntled Michigan fan despite all of the change that I had hoped for coming to fruition. I didn’t like the finished product so I tossed it. After that I figured I’d go with a “slam dunk” and write about the Tigers shedding $92 million in payroll over the next two years. I wrote it and—for reasons I don’t fully understand—scrapped that one, too. I started and abandoned yet another post chronicling the competition between Sepp Blatter (FIFA’s President) and Bud Selig to see who can be the dumbest person in the world by holding out the longest on video replay. That was an easy decision, though. Part of my personal constitution is to not devote a final blog post to Bud Selig. I apologize to those of you who needed a Selig fix. Scrapping two and a half posts does not result in the most fulfilling feeling. However, the fact that I even had to let me know that I was doing this all wrong.

What I realized as I tried to chase the white rabbit of a magnificent final post is that there was no single topic that was going to be “worthy” of a final post. This isn’t “just another post.” I spent 696 posts over the last five years writing about various sports related topics. Today is about saying, “so long!” It’s about saying “thank you” again to all of the people who took the time to read and comment. It was never my goal to make this blog mainstream. I knew from the very beginning that I could probably attract a much larger audience if I kept the content narrow. But, that’s not what I wanted to do. I liked the freedom of writing about whatever popped into my head even if that was wondering “how many MVPs should Babe Ruth have won?” Even though it isn’t necessarily the status quo of the blogging community, I appreciate that you not only allowed me to post such diverse content but demanded it (Remember last fall when I got called out for writing too many Rich Rodriguez themed posts?).

When I started this thing, I lived in Germany, had a 6-month old baby boy, and was just starting my new job as a stay-at-home dad. Now I live in Michigan with a five-year old little man who’s about to start kindergarten and a 3-year old little girl nipping at his heels. It’s not easy being a stay-at-home parent. The work is endless and the appreciation is non-existent. There’s a reason why so many American parents gladly transport their children to daycare every morning and pay a king’s ransom to do so. It’s an amazing experience that I would not trade for the world but, to survive, you absolutely need an escape. This blog was my escape. This was my connection to the outside world. This was my chance to be a contributing member to society. It’s not going to be easy to say “goodbye.” I can look back at any and all of my posts and remember where I was and what the circumstances where in my life when I wrote them. Looking back at old posts is like an emotional time machine. However, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that this is the time to let it go. I’m really looking forward to not having to deal with the sudden fear that comes with realizing it’s Wednesday night and I don’t have a post topic in mind. I’m also looking forward to being able to think of something interesting without having to automatically spend a few hours researching and writing about it. And, I’m especially looking forward to spending more time with my kids. They’re rapidly approaching the age where nap time is no longer mandatory. That’s important because “naptime” is when I spent researching and writing 95% of my blog material. Now that will become their time.

One of the most difficult aspects of being a stay-at-home parent is watching your friends excel in various professions while you sit idly at home. I’m friends with more doctors than I can count on one hand. I know lawyers, engineers, writers, teachers, chefs, chemists, soldiers, police officers, firefighters, paramedics, paleontologists, filmmakers, administrators, computer programmers, principals, bankers, investment reps, financial analysts, business owners, and managers. You name it, I know someone who works it. I share engaging conversations with these people but what I don’t share is a fancy resume or a list of impressive career achievements. Instead, I’ve got 5,000 diaper changes and 3,000 prepared lunches under my belt. Unfortunately, that doesn’t translate in the real world. I often wonder what I’m going to do when my kids no longer need me at home. That’ll be here before I know it. This blog is all I have in the form of measurable accomplishments. I have no idea what a prospective employer will think when I reference what I’ve done here but one thing is for certain, I’m proud of it. Thanks for contributing to that feeling. It has been a pleasure. So long!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Irish Eyes are still not smiling.

One of the more controversial subplots of World Cup Qualifying and the subsequent 32-team field it produced was the way France snuck into the tournament or, more appropriately, the way Ireland was kept out of it. Back in November, France and Ireland met in a 2-leg playoff to decide one of the final four World Cup qualifiers out of UEFA . France won the first match, 1-0, in Dublin. Ireland was on its way to winning the second match by the same score when sportsmanship went out the window. International superstar Thierry Henry intentionally touched the ball with his hand in the goalie box which immediately led to the game-tying goal. The score gave France a 1-1 draw which was enough to avoid a shootout and advance to South Africa. The soccer world was outraged at Henry for the unsportsmanlike play and FIFA for not having an adequate system in place to prevent such blatant cheating.

As hard as it is to believe, amid all of the flopping and fake injuries in soccer exists a personal conduct code very similar to that of professional golf. Unlike the NBA or NFL where honesty is frowned upon in competition, the soccer community puts a great deal of emphasis on fair play which is why Henry was so roundly criticized for “getting away with” the infraction. An intentional handball is the cardinal sin in the world’s most popular sport. Not only should France’s goal not have counted but Henry should’ve been red carded and kicked out of the game. That would’ve given Ireland a tremendous opportunity to score again which would’ve sent it to the World Cup free and clear of having to win a shootout. At the very least, Ireland would’ve had the opportunity to advance via penalty kicks. Instead, Henry held on to his secret until after the game and France unjustifiably advanced to the World Cup.

Fast forward seven months to the opening Group stage of the 2010 World Cup and France is sticking it to Ireland yet again. I’m sure there are more than a few Irish lads who were rooting hard for France’s early demise but even the most bile-fueled fans cannot be happy with the way France has pissed away the bid it literally stole from Ireland. France began the tournament with an uninspiring 0-0 tie opposite Uruguay. The #9 team in the world followed that up with a 2-0 loss to Mexico. In just over three hours of soccer in this World Cup, France has netted zero goals. Unfortunately for the French, offensive futility is the least of its problems. “Les Bleus” are literally unraveling on the biggest of soccer stages. It all started when Nicolas Anelka—a striker for France—was booted from the tournament for a profane tirade directed at his coach. (In a twist of fate, Anelka is most responsible for France even being in the WC as he tallied the only goal in the first leg of the France/Ireland UEFA World Cup Qualifying Playoff in Dublin last November.) Anelka’s dismissal was just the beginning of what has become a total meltdown by France. In protest to their countryman’s treatment, the French team refused to practice on Sunday. That, in turn, led to the resignation of not only the team trainer but the team director. That was followed up by a meeting with the French Sports Minister who told the team that it faced a “moral disaster” and it had “tarnished France’s image.” So, the Irish are left to ponder the reality that France not only stole a World Cup bid from them but then promptly treated it with the significance of toilet paper. The country of Ireland surely wasn’t rooting for France to advance in the World Cup but never in its worst nightmares could it have imagined that France would treat the privilege with such disrespect. In a game built on sportsmanship, France may have found an even more egregious infraction than the handball that sent it to South Africa in the first place.

Surely, Ireland would’ve relished the opportunity to participate in what is perhaps the pinnacle of world sport competition. Ireland is a nation that does not have a rich tradition in the World Cup. In fact, it has only qualified for three World Cups in its 61 years of fielding a competitive soccer team. However, had Ireland made it to South Africa, it certainly wouldn’t have been as a “sacrificial lamb.” Despite such an unceremonious history, Ireland’s current team is no pushover. Sure its world ranking is an uninspiring 41st in the FIFA World Rankings but that seems to be more of a function of Ireland’s penchant to “not lose” rather than “win.” The FIFA World Ranking formula is not favorable to ties. The Irish are incredibly proficient at earning draws against quality teams. As a result, Ireland has only lost six of its last 36 matches. It boasts a 13-6-17 record over that span including wins over World Cup participants S. Africa, Paraguay, Algeria, Slovakia, and Denmark to go along with draws against France, Italy (2), Nigeria, Serbia, Germany and Slovakia all of which are in the 32-team World Cup field. Even Ireland’s losses have been impressive. Two were against the #1 team in the world (Brazil). In fact, in its last 36 matches, Ireland has lost just one game against teams ranked outside of the world top 40. Against teams inside the top 40, Ireland has played 22 contests over that span and lost just five. Ireland is certainly an accomplished and worthy team and would’ve been an uncomfortable sight for whatever group it would’ve been allocated to had it advanced to South Africa. The Emerald Isle undoubtedly deserves a fate far better than having its six million occupants nauseated by France’s indifference. If one thing is for sure, unlike France, Ireland would’ve come to play.

France is certainly a villain here but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the absurdity of not using modern technology to correct officiating errors. Just in the last year, we’ve seen Ireland denied a chance of making the World Cup on an intentional handball, Armando Galarraga denied of a Perfect Game on an umpire mistake, and the U.S. Soccer Team denied of a goal in the World Cup—and advancement to the knockout stage that likely would’ve come with it—as a result of a phantom call. These are just three extremely high profile injustices among many more that occur routinely in competitive sports. Anyone who feels that sports should be soiled by officiating errors rather than use advanced technology that could easily eliminate the vast majority of judgment mistakes has no business being in an authoritative position on a sporting governing body. Citing “integrity of the game” as a reason not to use video replay is just another way of saying, “We are incredibly lazy.”

Friday, June 18, 2010

Patriotic Ties

I don’t know about all of you but I’m getting sick of being denied a return on my emotional investment into sports by referees and umpires. It’s rare enough to have that investment actually pay off. The gambling equivalent of the payoff would be akin to winning $250 for every $1,000 sunk into a slot machine. I’m already working at a heavy loss, here. I’ve learned to accept those losses, however. They are a known and accepted risk of reckless emotional investment into sports. What I can’t deal with is having the joy of a payoff brutally ripped away on the count of stupidity. I can’t cite statistical proof but the Red Wings have to have more goals disallowed than any other team in hockey. Then, of course, there’s the perfect game that was taken away from Armando Galarraga. I don’t even want to get into the timekeeping injustices that have occurred at the expense of the Michigan football program. As a fan living in Detroit, false jubilation has become an all too real part of the sports fan experience.

In some ways, you would think that would make what happened to the U.S. soccer team today easier to swallow. When you’re dealing with the bloated emotional units that come from being a diehard, unfortunately, it never gets easier. The U.S. was on the brink of one of the greatest wins in U.S. soccer history. After leaving the field at halftime down 2-0 to Slovenia, it came back to play a brilliant second half that was as exciting as the best college football showdown you will ever see. The U.S. played so flawlessly that the announcers were optimistically discussing a U.S. victory even when it still trailed 2-1. In retrospect, the U.S. tying the game was inevitable. Once that happened, it seemed very realistic that the U.S. would net the game-winner as it peppered the field with scoring chances. The scoresheet has no record of it but in the same way Armando Galarraga pitched a perfect game, the U.S. scored the game-winning goal. All it lacked was the proper referee to count it.

The U.S. was wrongfully denied a victory but the fact that it still managed a tie does offset the injustice at least somewhat. That’s because the U.S. is not only very much alive in the World Cup, it controls its own path to the knockout stage. If the U.S. defeats Algeria on Wednesday, it will advance to the World Cup’s sweet sixteen (it can also advance with a tie and a little bit of help). I don’t think there’s a player on the U.S. roster who wouldn’t have gladly taken a scenario in which the U.S.’s fate rested entirely on beating Algeria. Having said that, how good is Algeria?

For starters, here is how Algeria has fared in its last 20 games…

Upon further review, the world may want to reconsider the allocation of the “Group of Death” to Group G. Group C—the U.S.’s group—is more stacked than anyone thought it would be. In retrospect, however, this shouldn’t be much of a shock. Algeria and Slovenia—Group C’s perceived weak teams—earned their way into the World Cup by knocking off Egypt and Russia, respectively. Egypt and Russia—rated #11 and #12 in FIFA’s World Soccer Rankings—are perhaps the top two teams in the world not in the World Cup. Algeria and Slovenia were not supposed to even be in the 2010 World Cup field but earned their way to South Africa by outlasting two world soccer powers. The U.S. saw just how good Slovenia can be in the first half on Friday. Much like Slovenia, Algeria is no stranger to playing teams of the U.S.’s caliber either. It has played Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and Uruguay—all three are in the World Cup field—as well as four contests against Egypt just in the last year. Of course, that is on top of earning a tie against England on Friday. This team is battle-tested and will not be in awe of the U.S. squad.

The U.S. will likely come in as the favorite against Algeria much like it did against Slovenia. However, those who were not too distracted by the vast difference in population sizes between the U.S. and Slovenia, understood that if the U.S. was a favorite, it was by miniscule proportions. The same can be said of Algeria. If there’s one positive to look towards from a U.S. perspective, it’s that Algeria hasn’t played nearly as well of late as it did during World Cup Qualifying. In fact, the Algerians are just 1-4-1 in their last six games with the only victory coming against a UAE team on the outside of the world top 100. If we dig a little deeper, the news gets even better for the U.S. In those six contests, Algeria scored just one goal—total. Nonetheless, Algeria will be a strong opponent for a U.S. team that desperately needs to buck its trend of starting games slowly and falling behind early. Hopefully, the U.S.’s inspired second half play against Slovenia is a sign that it is about to do just that. With just one game remaining for each team in Group C, all four countries are still alive. That either makes Croup C the “Group of Death” or the “Group of Apathy.” As long as U.S. beats Algeria, I don’t really care which one it is.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

All Things Not "Conference Expansion"

With only a few posts left before I start cashing my blog retirement checks, opportunities for post topics are scarce. So, I decided to hit on a few different topics in this post to maximize content. Reader Jim provided me with the perfect opportunity by sending along a few questions. Without further ado, a little Q&A courtesy of reader Jim.

Q: 1. The likelihood that the Pistons do something, anything of note this offseason: would you put money on it? A lot of money? I would give up something valuable (e.g. beer) for six months if they could finagle Bosh away from the Raptors in a sign-and-trade but would also be happy if they struck a deal for someone like Paul Millsap.

A: This is my least favorite of Jim’s questions. Having to answer it depressed me severely…

I would not bet money on Joe Dumars putting his shoes on the correct feet let alone wager that he’ll get something of note accomplished this summer. In fact, I think I’d put a considerable amount of money in the other direction. Joe has been nothing short of incompetent since he convinced Danny Ainge to facilitate the trade that brought Rasheed Wallace to Detroit in 2004. The second the Pistons lost to the Spurs in the 2005 Finals, they began to slowly but very visibly deteriorate. Of course, there were probably more than a few “yippy skippy” fans who thought the Pistons were going to win the next 10 NBA championships but it was very obvious to the basketball savvy fans that the team was going to decline in a hurry. Although the Pistons made it back to the Eastern Conference Finals in ’06 and ’07, they were easily dispatched by the Cavs and Celtics. That was the point at which Joe D needed to take quick action if he hoped to avoid the same fate that his “Bad Boy” Pistons suffered some 15 years earlier. The Bad Boys went from back-to-back NBA Champions to 20-62 in just four years. Pistons management had no transition plan in place to offset a rapidly aging roster which led to the expedited decline. Zeke’s career-ending Achilles injury at the incredibly ripe age of 32 surely didn’t help but considering how little there was in the name of youth on the roster, the Pistons were beyond the point of salvaging.

Of all people, Joe D should’ve recognized the same signs of rapid decline that ended his championship run as a player. Yet, what did he do to prevent the same horrific fate that met his Bad Boys from happening again? The answer is, “very close to nothing.” The only thing that can even remotely be described as constructive was the Chauncey Billups/Allen Iverson trade. At the time, it looked like a brilliant cap move. Billups was easily Detroit’s most valuable commodity. Joe used Billups to bank $20 million (in the form of A.I.’s expiring contract) that would seemingly be available this summer to spend on perhaps the greatest NBA free agent class of all-time. Of course, like an elderly woman watching QVC, Joe D could not resist the temptation to blow all his money on the first thing he saw. Meanwhile, Billups turned the Denver Nuggets into a rising force in the West. Even in the one instance when Joe appeared to have a plan, it ended in disaster because he blew the second—and most important—part of the plan.

No thanks to Joe, the Pistons are saddled with horrible contracts and an abundance of redundancy on an unimpressive roster. There is virtually nothing in the name of trade value to be seen. Rip’s contract is totally unreasonable for a player who can barely be described as one-dimensional. Ben Gordon’s contract is even worse. Rodney Stuckey’s value probably peaked before last season when it looked like he might break out as a bona fide star. Now that it’s obvious that he is stuck between positions and doesn’t have a reliable jumper, you can expect NBA GMs to take a pass on Joe D’s likely high asking price. Any worth that Charlie Villanueva had as a potential breakout player is long gone after his miserable effort in 2010.

The only move Joe has left is to parlay the expiring contracts of Tayshaun Prince and Kwame Brown for a star player. I have more faith in Jim Joyce preserving a perfect game than I do that Joe can or will pull this off. Unfortunately, many NBA superstars have control over where they are traded and nobody is going to sign off on being traded to a team as ill-equipped to compete for an NBA Championship as the present day Detroit Pistons. I suppose there is always the possibility that Al-Farouq Aminu—or whoever the Pistons draft—turns out to be the anti-Darko but judging from Joe’s unimpressive draft history (Tayshaun Prince, Rodney Stuckey, Mehmet Okur and Jason Maxiell over 10 years does nothing for me), the Pistons are surely poised to take home the rotten eggs of the NBA Draft Lottery yet again.

The future is bleak to say the least. The Pistons will suit up one of the worst frontcourts in recent memory in 2011 and have $25 million tied up through 2013 by just the shooting guard position alone. I like Paul Millsap but one guy won’t change anything. The entire roster needs to be overhauled. Remember when the Celtics reportedly offered the Pistons Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen for Prince, Hamilton, and Stuckey? It seemed like an insult at the time but, looking back, that might have been the only way out of this mess.

Q: 2. The Johnson/Burleson/Stafford/Best Quartet: I just relocated to Maryland, think I should pay for NFL TV to watch these guys work? Nate was running his mouth about how good they were going to be, in your opinion is Nate actually going to be any good?

A: Burleson’s bravado is simply a continuation of a Lions pastime that provides media fodder around this time every year. Unfortunately for Nate the Great, the joke’s on him. In the same way that nobody prepped Rich Rodriguez on the history of the #1 jersey at Michigan (which, of course, did not go over well), nobody ever informs Lions off season acquisitions how absolutely horrible the franchise is. I’ll use a real life example to better illustrate my point. There is a position at a member of my extended family’s place of business that is quite simply the most frustrating job in America. Just in the past four years, three people have left this position and a fourth is set to do the same. Nobody ever tells the people interviewing how miserable this job is because they’d never be able to hire anyone. This is, of course, quite unfortunate for the person who ends up with the job. I’m afraid Nate Burleson is about to find out what it’s like to unwittingly sign up for the NFL equivalent of the worst job in America.

I could probably count on five hands the number of players who have mouthed off about “this” being the Lions year over the last 10 years alone. Every new guy who comes in thinks he is the answer for 50 years of futility. The Mike Martz era was the worst. Every offensive player from the Martz era was convinced that the Lions were going to have the best offense in the NFL. I’d say they were delusional if they weren’t cashing million dollar paychecks. So, “no,” I don’t think Nate Burleson is going to be any good. By that, I mean he won’t be any better than Shaun McDonald, Mike Furrey, Az Hakim, or Bryant Johnson. However, I think the offense has a chance to be something better than nauseating. I think there is a pretty good chance that Matt Stafford is (or will be) the best quarterback the Lions have had in my lifetime. I think there’s a pretty good chance that Javid Best is (or will be) the best running back the Lions have had since Barry retired. I also think that Calvin Johnson is the best wide receiver the Lions have had in my lifetime. This is a team with talent. The mediocrity on the offensive line will prevent it from breaking out too much but I fully expect this to be the most diverse and effective Lions offense since the Barry era. Plus, I think Ndamukong Suh is going to be such an influential addition that we might even see the best defense the Lions have had since the Barry era. The sad thing is that all of these “best since” accolades I’m throwing around are still not good enough to make this team worth getting excited over. That’s a sad indication of how bad things have been.

If I lived outside of Metro Detroit, I would not buy the Sunday Ticket just to watch the Lions. The Lions have been dead to me for a few years now. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped paying attention. It doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s possible that they will become undead and reacclimate themselves into my emotional spectrum again at some point. It just means that I don’t get excited or frustrated by them. I’m in “show me” mode until further notice. I’ve invested—and lost—way too many minutes of my life hoping that the Lions are going to get things turned around. However, if I were the kind of person who would do such a thing in the event that I reasonably expected the Lions to be a little more exciting and a little more competitive than usual, this might be the year I’d consider it.

Q: 3. THE University of Michigan vs. THE Ohio State University: Last season I briefly entertained the thought that Michigan could upset OSU, this year I feel very strongly about it. The chip on Michigan's shoulder must feel like a cinder block by now and I can only assume that despite the controversy, they have another years' worth of experience and recruits. We need the Maize 'n Blue to play like the SEC teams Tressell so fears, what kind of shot do you give us?

A: I love the enthusiasm but Michigan is not coming back from Columbus with a victory this year. Rich Rodriguez is still suiting up a roster extremely light on experience. There is a very good chance that he’ll be starting his 3rd different quarterback in three years. His stable of running backs is young and, for the most part, unproven. His downfield receivers are quite possibly the least talented the school has had in decades. And as you know, offense is supposed to be the strength of this team.

The worst defense in school history is virtually intact from last season except for the departure of one of the top five defensive players in school history. The defense could be considerably better this season and still be below average. That’s how bad things were last year. Assuming Ohio State is healthy (read; Terrelle Pryor), there is a 0% chance that Michigan will beat Ohio State in Columbus this year. There is a 25% chance that the final score will be closer than the 21-10 defeat in Ann Arbor last season.

That said, I still think Rich Rodriguez can win at Michigan if given the administrative support that he deserves. It is pretty obvious by now that he won’t get that support (see; Demar Dorsey). I fully expect that he’ll either be fired at the end of the season or he’ll hop the first train to SEC-ville the minute an opportunity arises. However, if by some miracle his employment status has improved following the 2010 season, I think it becomes quite reasonable to start thinking about a win over Ohio State in 2011. If Denard Robinson masters the Pat White-role, this team will be deep, experienced, and explosive next season. As far as this season, I am much more focused on how Michigan fares against UCONN, Notre Dame, and Michigan State. Winning those three games would significantly change things for Rodriguez. I know fans are anxious to beat (or even compete with) the Buckeyes but I don’t think this is the season to be concerned with Ohio State. In the event that Michigan heads into Columbus with a 5-6 record needing a victory to earn a bowl bid and—more importantly—preserve Rodriguez’s job, then he is in a whole lot of trouble.

P.S. I would’ve written a conference expansion post but—judging from the warp speed rate at which information is flowing—whatever I wrote would’ve been totally out of date two seconds after posting it.


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