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April 30, 2009

To the Toy Department readers

It's been a brutal day at the Toy Department. (And a brutal few days at The Sun.) There isn't much that can be said, that will be said, or that should be said, I suppose. Most of you have figured out that a number of amazing journalists (and amazing people who I feel lucky and honored to call friends), are no longer with us.

There are no certainties in journalism, just like in life. None of us knows what tomorrow will bring. You just do your best to soldier forward and string words together, hoping that someone will find value in them. As they say on the stage, the show really must go on. No matter what. That's reality.

There's a line in the song "Gravity's Gone" by one of my favorite bands, the Drive-By Truckers, that's been running through my head all morning: "What used to be is gone, and what ought to be ought not to be so hard." I think that feels true for all of us right now, not just journalists. Things have changed, and the present is painful. No one knows what's next.

This blog has been so much fun to be a part of for the last several months. To everyone who invited us into their homes and workplace via their computers, we are forever grateful. In just a short time, we became one of the most popular blogs at the paper. A lot of nights, we'd be up until 2 and 3 a.m. figuring out content for the next day. It was a rush and it was fun. As fun as anything I've done in my nine years at The Sun.

I hope it can continue. Please bear with us as we figure out the future. 

April 29, 2009

What's in Boog Powell's fridge?

He has one barbecue stand at Oriole Park, another in Ocean City and a third set to open next month near the beach.

The only thing Boog Powell likes to do more than eat is to cook. As a ballplayer, he was great at the plate. As a gourmand, he may be better.

While Powell hit 303 home runs for the Orioles and led them to world championships in 1966 and 1970, it’s his appetite that’s the stuff of legend.

In his heyday, few could keep pace with Powell at the table. On a road trip to Boston, he and Orioles trainer Ralph Salvon together polished off a 37-pound lobster. Passing through Arizona, Powell singlehandedly tackled a 2-1/2 pound boneless steak at a beef house that promised free eats to anyone who could finish the huge sirloin. Powell ate the steak, plus several side orders and dessert.

"Boog would eat anything that didn’t eat him," John Steadman, the late Sun columnist, once said.

So we wondered: What does Boog the barbecue baron keep in his own refrigerator? What epicurean delights await the one-time American League MVP when he raids the icebox at midnight?

"Hmmmm. . . let me check," Powell said from his home in Grasonville, on the Eastern Shore.

"Let’s see ... there’s a 12-pack of Miller Lite, but that’s a given. There are four kinds of hot sauce I made from the peppers in my garden, some homemade chow chow – it’s real good on hot dogs – and my own pickled green tomatoes. They are wonderful in martinis, better than olives because I add cayenne to the tomatoes to add sharpness. Makes you want to take another sip."

He rummages from shelf to shelf, glossing over the staples to describe the rest.

"Here are two lamb shanks that I’ll brown, then put in the slow cooker for seven hours with some limas, onions, celery, carrots and rosemary. That’s real good. I know people who threaten to drive up from Florida just to have some."

Powell, who is married, said he owns "several thousand" cookbooks and that he has prepared the family’s meals for 30 years.

"I just fool around in the kitchen. I’m not scared to take chances," he said. "I even cooked as a player. We lived in a row house, five blocks from the ballpark, and I’d come home at 11 o’clock after a night game and fire up the grill. The smoke would go all over and the neighbors would holler out their windows, ‘Hey, Powell – you may not have to go to work tomorrow morning but WE do!’ "

What else is in Boog’s fridge?

"Worcestershire sauce made from scratch. It’s a whole lot better than Lea & Perrins," he said. "Oh, look – here’s a three-pound tub of peeled garlic that cost $4 at Sam’s Club. In six weeks, when it gets too ugly to use, I’ll just throw it out and go get some more."

What, no moldy bread, fuzzy cream cheese or sour milk?

"I had some asparagus that looked like it had been around for about 11 years," he said. "But I’ve taken all of the science projects out of there."

Then he opened the freezer. Inside were several geese, a couple of rabbits, a half-dozen lobster tails, two rockfish fillets, sea bass, four slabs of ribs, a ribeye steak, a capon, some ground conch, country sausage and five pounds of crabmeat that Powell put up last summer.

"Hey!" he said, head buried in the grub. "Here’s the creamed spinach I made to go with my oysters rockefeller. That’s a secret recipe to die for."

So ends the tour of Powell’s icebox.

"I try to keep it orderly," he said. "Now, should I check out the freezer in my garage?"

Bottom photo: Orioles shortstop Luis Aparicio (left) and outfielder Boog Powell skip rope during practice in 1964 (Baltimore Sun photo by Joseph DiPaola).

So how much did the ump have on O's game?

Most likely, zero dollars. But Jamie Walker is sure to lose some money for his post-game comments last night. I'm pretty sure the commish isn't going to like hearing a player accusing a major-league umpire of being on the take.

Anyhow, as the Orioles get ready to play the Angels this afternoon, I thought I'd pass along some video of Walker, courtesy of MASN. This bit is expletive-free.

There's not any part of me that thinks home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez was betting even a stick of gum on the game. I mean, Angels-Orioles? What kind of degenerate would put money on that? But if you are the betting type, here's some over/unders for you:

$10,000: Amount Jamie Walker gets fined

5 days: Length of suspension

10-1: Balls-to-strike ratio Walker can expect next time Hernandez is behind the plate and the strike zone shrinks to the size of a cracker

 

Trembley channels Earl Weaver

We were waiting for that.

No, not the Orioles watching another early lead disappear.

Not Adam Eaton getting tagged with another L.

Not Nick Markakis picking up two more hits and two more runs.

And not an umpire costing the Orioles a win.

I'm talking about manager Dave Trembley getting tossed from the game.

 

Trembley was sent to the clubhouse early last night after arguing what sure seemed like a questionable balk call from home plate umpire Angel Hernandez. In the seventh inning of last night's loss to the Angels, it looked like Jamie Walker had successfully picked off Maicer Izturis. It should've been the second out of the inning. Instead, Trembley got tossed arguing the call, and the Angels added two more runs, giving them a comfy 3-run lead.

It was the first ejection of the year for Trembley, and his first since last August. It was the right call to argue, and doing so endears Trembley with both fans in the stands and the players in his clubhouse. More on that in a second.

I'm not sure what more there is to say about the play -- I didn't see a balk, and I don't think the call should've been made from behind the plate -- and I definitely don't think I have anything to say that's better than what Jamie Walker offered. Here's his edited comments (I've taken the liberty of making them family-friendly):

"No way in (heck) did I balk on that pitch,'' he said. "That was a (woefully misguided and disagreeable) call. I don't know if the guy has a problem with me or what, but it was a (fundamentally flawed) call...I don't know if he had money betting on the game, but that was (un unpleasant and unfortunate) call."

Jamie doesn't have to be worried about being on MLB's unsuspended list. I'm sure the commissioner's office will be correcting that shortly.

But back to Trembley...

I'm not sure there's a city in baseball that likes watching its manager argue as much as Baltimore. When Hernandez tossed Trembley from the game, the fans gave their manager a standing ovation as he walked off the field. I held my breath for a couple of seconds to see if a bag of balls or bouquet of bats might come flying out of the dugout, but Trembley disappeared quietly into the clubhouse. (It's only his second full season; give him time.)

Of course, it all goes back Earl Weaver, and I couldn't help last night but think of one of my favorite Toy Department posts. You can check it out by clicking right here, but I'll also share the abridged version.

My colleague Mike Klingaman asked Earl to share his favorite ways to explain to an umpire that they disagreed on an issue. From Kling's post:

1. Tearing up the rule book under the umpire's nose.

"I did that in Cleveland after getting thrown out of a game."

2. Ripping third base off its moorings and hurling it off the field.

"If (the umpire) couldn’t tell fair from foul, why keep the base?

3. Scuffing dirt onto home plate.

"He wasn’t using it anyway."

4. Wearing his baseball cap backward.

"I really did that so umpires couldn’t say I bumped them with the bill of my hat (during arguments)."

Photo: Kenneth K. Lam / Sun

Obama's first 100 days... of sports

While everyone else in the journalism world is focused like a laser on President Obama’s performance during the first 100 days in office, Toy Department has run a back-door play to snag an exclusive copy of the First Fan’s speech about his first 144,000 minutes in the Oval Office. We’re sure its publication will surprise him, too.

My fellow sports fans, I’m pleased to be able to spend a few minutes with you this morning without the distraction of playoff hoops, fallout from the NFL draft and bets about who booed Mark Teixeira louder -- Orioles fans or Red Sox fans.

I was hoping to address you yesterday, on Day 99, so that “The One” could honor “The Great One,” Wayne Gretzky in some small way. But that was not to be. Dealing with the flu and a rogue Air Force One flying over New York detained me.

So 6 a.m. is the next best thing.

I want to outline for you the accomplishments of my sports administration. Now, let me be clear, we inherited a situation that was less than ideal. My predecessor rode a bike. He sometimes did it in dorky black socks and low-cut shoes, a Euro-trash fashion statement that could not stand. Karl Rove looked like a man who could have used a few sessions of “Sweating to the Oldies” and Dick Cheney thought waterboarding was an X Games event.

Clearly, the American people wanted change.

So after Jan. 20, we found ourselves responding on the fly. And that's how it should be. The American people expect their president to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We rose to the challenge.

On Feb. 27, just a month into my term, I sat courtside to watch the Washington Wizards beat my hometown Chicago Bulls. I talked smack, drank a beer and had the smarts to leave before the blowout ended. What say you, Joe the Plumber?

My NCAA bracket was, to be honest, a bust. Except for picking the winner, North Carolina, I shot blanks in the three other Final Four slots. But at least I wasn’t Duke coach Mike Krzyzewskiwho called me out and suggested I stick with the economy and leave hoops to the experts. Well, we know how that turned out, don't we?

As I recall, the Blue Devils had their doors blown off in the Eastern Regionals by Villanova, 77-54.

To Coach K, I say, "Better luck next year and stay away from Guitar Hero, pal."

Now I admit that I turned down the opportunity to throw out the first pitch for the Nationals home opener. I thought it would be more fitting for my hero and favorite Racing President, Abe Lincoln, to do the honors. And let me point out that I did not play favorites by sneaking out to Chicago for Opening Day, either.

Just this week, I played a round of golf and took on UConn Huskies players Tina Charles, Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery in a game of P-I-G. When it comes to my golf score, transparency is for plastic wrap. But let the record show I beat the nation's best women and missed just one out of five shots.

Then, just last night, the Washington Capitals put the gagging N.Y. Rangers out of their misery to advance in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Get your red on!

For a new sports administration, these are good first steps. But there are many more challenges ahead. The Orioles need pitching. Teixeira needs a batting average. Jay Cutler needs a personality. The Nationals need a prayer.

We need to get Dan Snyder out of football and Peter Angelos out of baseball. We need more cartoon Orioles in the newspaper and fewer Orioles cartoons on the TV highlights shows.

Together, America, we can do it.

Let me end with a promise. You will never see this president prancing in the snow in a running suit. Or walking on the beach in a business suit. Or running from an attractive woman with a sexual harassment suit.

Good day and may God Bless America.

Photos: Associated Press

April 28, 2009

MLB Draft = must-see TV?

I applaud Major League Baseball for taking another step toward making its draft an event for fans. Maybe I'm a hopeless seamhead, but I look forward to seeing the qualities of Dustin Ackley and Aaron Crow debated in primetime.

Baseball's draft will probably never rival its football and basketball counterparts for notoriety. Too many players come straight from high school. Even those who play in college rarely make a splash on national television. Stephen Strasburg, widely regarded as the best pitching prospect in a generation, is probably less recognizable than the sixth man on your average ACC basketball team. Many first-round picks then take three or four years to reach the majors. Add it all up, and you have a festival of delayed gratification.

That said, interest in the baseball draft has risen tremendously since I became a sportswriter four years ago. ESPN.com has joined Baseball America in assigning writers to cover it year round. Fan buzz about first-round picks begins to build months before the June selection.

If you doubt the importance of the draft, look at all the first-round picks the Orioles blew between 1993 and 2002. Twenty players picked in the first and supplemental first rounds and Brian Roberts was the only star (Jayson Werth turned into a good player ... for the Phillies.) As a result, the farm system fed the major league club almost nothing of note for years at a time. And they're at 11 straight losing seasons and counting.

In 2003, the Orioles picked Nick Markakis in the first round. He hit the big leagues in 2006 and signed an extension last winter. Assuming he stays on his current track, the Orioles will have received nine years of star-level production without any open market bidding. That's the value of the draft. You get to control a guy through his best years at below-market costs.

Adam Jones was a first-round pick in the same draft. Chris Tillman was a second-rounder in 2006. Matt Wieters was a first-rounder in 2007. If the Orioles have hope for a brighter future, it's because they will have all of those guys together for the price of one year of Alex Rodriguez (roughly.)  

If you need a reason to watch the draft with interest, there you go.

If you're wondering whom the Orioles might pick, beyond Strasburg (probably headed to the Nationals,) you've got outfielders Ackley and Donovan Tate and a bunch of pitchers (Crow, Alex White, Tyler Matzek, Shelby Miller.) So the percentage guess seems to point to another hurler. We'll talk about this more as we get closer.

Photo by Gerry Broome of The Associated Press

New Orioles video and song: "Birdland"

I'm getting ready to head to the ballpark but thought it was important to pass this along: The Boooog Pows! have released a new song.

You'll remember The Boooog Pows! from such hits as "Boo Teixeira," and... well, OK, that's really it. But it was a hell of a ditty. 

Check out their new song and see if you think it measures up.

Why so eager? Raw players testing NBA waters

Indiana coach (and John Harbaugh's brother-in-law) Tom Crean fired off some interesting tweets today about the droves of college players giving the NBA a shot. Particularly noteworthy was the assessment of NBA assistant Brian James that only 10 percent of rookies are ready to contribute in the league. That's 10 percent of the guys who actually make teams. Plenty of others hurl themselves into the wilderness of overseas play or the developmental league, never to be seen again.

 I'm of a mixed mind on this issue. It's ridiculous that the NBA doesn't give 18-year-olds a chance to work at the top of their field when clearly, some are qualified. But at the same time, I'm always stunned when I see the list of underclassmen entering the draft. What possessed Dominique Archie, who averaged 10 points a game at South Carolina, or Ater Majok, who never even played at UConn?

In a way, I wonder even more about Jrue Holiday of UCLA and B.J. Mullens of Ohio State, highly touted recruits who basically proved they weren't that good in one season of college play. They'll be drafted, sure, but how often do we see NBA success stories from guys who couldn't even master college ball?

Take the 2006 draft (three years offers a decent platform to judge.) For every LaMarcus Aldridge, an underclassman who has become a near star, you have a Patrick O'Bryant, a Cedric Simmons and a Shawne Williams. If you're struggling to picture those guys, well, exactly. And all three went in the top 17.

I look at Towson Catholic product Donte Greene and wonder if he's happy with his decision to leave Syracuse last year. Greene was picked in the first round and made $809,000 in 2008-2009, which is obviously fantastic for a first-year worker. On the other hand, he was traded right after the draft, spent time in the D-league and struggled to earn 13 minutes a game for a lousy Sacramento Kings team. He shot 32 percent. He was obviously not ready to help an NBA team, even a bad one.


Greene still has talent and a chance to convert it to further riches. But lots of guys like him get lost in the shuffle. What if he had, instead, returned to Syracuse, led a Final Four team in scoring and pushed himself into the top 5 of a weaker 2009 draft? He would've lost a year of income and exposed himself to a year of unpaid injury risk. But top-5 picks are much less likely to fade away after three uneventful years.

I'm not saying Greene made the wrong choice. I'm just saying the choice is not as easy at it seems, even for a likely first rounder. McDonogh product DaJuan Summers is in the same boat this year. Is he talented? Well, sure. He's got a perfect body for an NBA small forward and can shoot. But if he faded badly down the stretch at Georgetown, what's he going to do in his 65th game as the 10th man on an NBA bench?

I'm not hurling rah, rah college crap either. Dick Vitale can keep all of his smarmy talk about the irreplaceable value of campus life. I'm saying that in pure economic terms, entering the NBA before you are ready to contribute might be a poor decision.

Maybe Crean is right and a lot of these players aren't giving themselves the best chance to succeed long-term. Maybe they have no one to tell them that $3 million (if the draft works out well) isn't enough to last a lifetime. Maybe they fail to realize that if they can't get it together in three years, there's every chance that the league will discard them for good.

Or maybe it's always a better percentage play to take the upfront money over an uncertain future.

I honestly don't know.

Photos by The Associated Press

 

Changing sports: Manning Bros. take up tennis

There aren't many athletes who successfully jump from one sport to another. Bo Jackson. Deion Sanders. Brian Jordan. Michael Jordan. Probably Brad Bergesen goes on this list, too, right?

You know who we aren't including? Peyton and Eli Manning. As they inch one step closer to a bad reality TV deal, the Mannings took on Serena and Venus Williams this week in a friendly tennis match. Evidence is below.

 

 

The Manning brothers and the Williams sisters served as coaches for the Oreo Double Stuf Racing League. (I'm not making this up. Come on, the NFL Draft is over; it's time we start talking about real sports, specifically those involving a creamy frosting middle...)

 

Oher Q&A with ESPN's Bruce Feldman

Bruce Feldman is the talented writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. He's also the author of Meat Market, the 2007 book that serves as the most intensive examination of the college football recruiting process and the inner workings of a college football program that you can find. The program Feldman probed was the University of Mississippi's, which means he was around the team while Michael Oher, the Ravens first-round draft pick last weekend, was beginning to make a name for himself. You can check out Meat Market for yourself by clicking here.

Question: In Meat Market, it seems you were in the trenches for every twist and turn of the recruiting process at Ole Miss. Before I ask about Michael Oher, can you give us an idea of the access you had to the Ole Miss program, coaches and players?

Feldman: I was able to be a fly on the wall for an entire year. I sat in on every meeting, camps and even recruiting visits. I also did some traveling with the coaches and saw pretty much everything their staff sees. It was really incredible because so often you read about the recruiting process and you only got to see a fraction of the truth. I mean you look at the online recruiting profiles of these kids and they are touted to be 6-2 and weigh 230 pounds, run a 4.6 forty and have a 2.8 GPA. But in most cases that’s not the reality the staffs deal with. Maybe that kid comes to their camp and measures 5-11 ½ and weighs 215. He gets timed running a 4.98 and then when his transcript shows up he really has a 1.9 GPA. Then you’re not even sure if you can take him even if you think he’s a good enough prospect.

It also really blew me away to see just the level of evaluating they would do, from studying film to try and gauge little details as to whether a prospect could really play or not.

Question: I believe Michael was a sophomore when you were around. Did you have any early impressions of him? Sounds like he was a pretty raw talent.

Feldman: Yeah, I was there for almost two years, which were his sophomore and junior years. He was very, very raw. With the exception of Patrick Willis, almost the whole team was so green and probably shouldn’t have been starting in the SEC at that point of their careers. I mean physically they were a big team but they had so many guys who really didn’t know what they were doing. You would see Oher on the sidelines during games and he certainly looked the part. I know the staff tried to spoon-feed him info and it helped a lot that they lined up Andrew Wicker, who was their best lineman that season, right next to him so he made sure Oher knew what his assignment was before each snap. I do think there was quite a bit of hype about Oher early on and that had to have been so hard to cope with for him.

I mean athletically he’s very good, but I remember last winter when he was thinking of coming out early, some of these draft analysts were talking about how he’d run a 4.9 forty and was this and that and would be a top 10 pick. That’s crazy. When they timed him at Ole Miss when I was down there, he was a 5.45 guy, and while he’s gotten better and shed about 20 pounds, he still ran around a 5.3 at the combine this winter. And I know he’s had to work really hard in the weight room because he was very far behind in that regard and had struggled a lot as a run blocker.

Question: Despite going through three O-line coaches in four years, Oher played alongside some talented players. How much did it help to have guys like Andrew Wicker and John Jerry on the same line? Did Oher seem like the most dominant lineman while you were around?

Feldman: Wicker was a big asset to him in Oher’s sophomore season. He was the one who would tell him who he had to block and what the combination might be.

Question: Art Kehoe, who was the O-line coach for two years under Ed Orgeron, says that Oher made huge strides from year to year. He said he looks at Oher more like a freshman next season, not an NFL rookie. Do you think this is simply a result of Oher not picking up football until so late in life, or do you think his development has been especially slow?

Feldman: I’m sure that has something to do with it. I do know that back then Oher got frazzled a lot. I recall there were more than a few times the staff was frustrated that he didn’t take coaching very well and there were some things he really struggled to grasp.

I’d heard from guys I know inside the program that he has continued to mature last season and was more focused last season, which I think is expected considering he was a fourth-year senior. It’ll really be interesting to see how he develops in the NFL.

Question: A lot has been made about Oher's intelligence. His high school coach Hugh Freeze stressed to me that Oher is a visual learner and does best with one-on-one attention. Did you observe or hear anything that led you to believe that this might be a problem area?

Feldman: I honestly don’t know about the visual learner part of it although I imagine most young linemen would work best with one-on-one attention. I know he did pretty well in school at Ole Miss and was diligent about going to all his study sessions and tutoring, and that initiative can only help him, but obviously the NFL is going to be a much more complex game for him to learn.

Question: In explaining why Oher fell so far in the draft, Michael Lewis said, "...what happened was, the scouting types in the NFL went for some data on him, some anecdotal stuff on him, and they called all these fired Ole Miss coaches who were kind of bitter and disgruntled." Do you think that's fair? You were around those coaches; do you think they might've poisoned the water at all when asked about Oher?

Feldman: I think it’s ridiculous to think that. Keep in mind that those same coaches will tout that they coached Oher among the players they worked with in their careers, especially if he’s a first-round pick. It would be counter productive to think they just went off and made up some stuff to tarnish Oher's stock. I'm pretty sure many of those same coaches raved about Peria Jerry, the DT who from Ole Miss who also went in Round 1.

Ultimately, the NFL teams visit with the player. They get to pick his brain about what he truly knows about football and they can determine how sharp his mind is and what kind of athlete he is. They get to study his game film. They’re going to make their own evaluations. I mean he was a first-round pick. It’s not like he dropped to the fourth round.

Question: Your book focuses on an Ole Miss class that came in a couple of years after Oher. Obviously you knew a lot about recruiting and Signing Day before you took on the project, but were you still surprised by what you encountered during your reporting? How similar or dissimilar is the college recruiting process to the days and weeks that lead up to the NFL draft?

Feldman: I was really amazed at how much misinformation is out there when it comes to recruiting. Players spin. Parents spin. The coaches spin. I guess that probably feels a little like what you get with agents and front-office types. Ultimately, I do think there are a lot of similarities with recruiting and the draft because it’s all about the evaluation and trying to make something that can be such a crapshoot a science. And, for all of the combines and vertical jumps and 40-times, the truth is if a guy is stiff or soft or not sharp enough to learn your scheme, he’ll get you beat and that’s usually where the busts in recruiting come from because many of these four- and five-star guys are anointed because of how they perform in shorts and t-shirts at some combine, not necessarily in how they do in the games.

I think for college recruiting it’s a lot more of a gray area because in the NFL you’re rarely projecting a position switch. Usually a running back is a running back at the next level, not a linebacker, safety or wide receiver. Same for a QB with a few exceptions. In college it’s fairly common where a high school QB gets projected as a defensive back, wide receiver or linebacker. Plus, you don’t have to assess which guy’s frame might be able to handle another 50 pounds on it after he gets drafted the way you do in recruiting. Grades and character are issues with both and I think as much as some will say that they won’t mess with bad character guys, there is still a lot of temptation that coaches have that they can handle guys if they put them in the “right” environment.

Photo: Associated Press

Catching Up With former Oriole Tom Phoebus

Each Tuesday in the Toy Department, veteran Sun sportswriter Mike Klingaman tracks down a former local sports figure and lets you know what's going on in his/her life in a segment called "Catching Up With . . ."  Let Klingaman know who you'd like him to find and click here to check out previous editions of "Catching Up With ..."

He was short and squat, with a single eyebrow that rolled across his forehead like thunderclouds approaching. Don’t mess with me, his visage said. His right arm backed that up.

Forty-one years ago, Tom Phoebus spun a no-hitter for the Orioles, a 6-0 victory over Boston on a cool, wet afternoon at Memorial Stadium. When Phoebus fanned Joe Foy for the final out, the crowd of 14,000 was fit to bust.

The hero was one of their own.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Phoebus was the Oriole next door. His effort on April 27, 1968 evoked a sense of local pride for the hard-throwing pitcher from Mount St. Joseph who’d grown up playing stickball on the streets of Hampden.

"What a great thrill it was to throw a no-hitter in my hometown," said Phoebus, now 67 and a resident of Palm City, Fla. "My dream was to play for the Orioles. As kids (in the 1950s) we would go to games, sit in the bleachers for 50 cents and ride the right fielder of the opposing team."

Phoebus signed with the club out of high school and spent six years in the minors before getting his chance late in 1966. He pitched back-to-back shutouts, tying a big-league record and helping the Orioles win the American League flag.

The following year, Phoebus went 14-9, fired three straight shutouts and won the AL Rookie Pitcher of the Year award.

Then came 1968 and his big moment. He throttled the defending AL champion Red Sox – Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, Reggie Smith et al – in a game that was delayed 83 minutes by rain.

Phoebus struck out nine, walked three and allowed one hard-hit ball, Rico Petrocelli’s sinking line drive over third base in the eighth inning.

"Brooks (Robinson) dove to his right and caught it, shoelace-high," Phoebus recalled. "It all happened so quick. He (Petrocelli) hit it to the right guy. Brooks saved a lot of games for a lot of pitchers."

The no-hitter earned Phoebus a $1,000 bonus, but he convinced the Orioles to incorporate the dough into his $18,000 salary instead "so that I’d get the money every year."

He stayed with the Orioles through 1970, defeating Cincinnati in relief in Game 2 of the World Series. The championship ring, he keeps in his jewelry box. Phoebus was then sent to San Diego for pitcher Pat Dobson, who would win 20 games for the 1971 AL champs.

Crestfallen, Phoebus toiled on for several years until, at 33, he quit baseball. He sold liquor for awhile, then worked in a Tropicana factory in Florida before entering college at age 39 to become a teacher. He spent nearly two decades as a physical education instructor in a Port St, Lucie grade school before retiring six years ago.

Divorced and the father of two, he regularly plays golf and works out, often walking 25 miles a week.

"I’ve dropped 40 pounds," said Phoebus, who stands 5 feet 8 and weighs 196. "My problem is that, having grown up in an Italian neighborhood, I like all the wrong foods."

Otherwise, life is good for the man who won 50 games for Baltimore, where he pitched to an earned run average of 3.06.

The years have taken the oomph from his fastball.

"Sorry, but I can’t crank it up to 94 (MPH) anymore," Phoebus said.

And the eyebrows?

"They’re turning gray and falling out."

E-mail Mike Klingaman at mike.klingaman@baltsun.com if you'd like to suggest a former local sports figure for "Catching Up With."  

Ravens Q&A with the Sun's Jamison Hensley

Each Tuesday in the Toy Department we bring you a Q&A with the reporters and writers who are in the field, chasing the news. This week The Baltimore Sun's Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley took time to answer some of our questions. Jamison has been covering the Ravens for The Sun since 2000. They've won just one Super Bowl during his tenure as beat writer. Coincidence?

Question: Given the vast amount of lies, smokescreens and subterfuge that usually clouds each team's draft, how surprised were you by Saturday's and Sunday's picks? Did you have many hints that their draft would unfold the way it did?

Hensley: Like most of the Ravens officials, I was surprised that Michael Oher would last into the 20s. He was rated by the Ravens as the fifth-best offensive player in the draft. This was just another year where a top talent fell down to them. Don’t get me wrong -- the Ravens are good. But they’ll even admit they’re lucky at times.

After the first round, I wasn’t surprised how the draft unfolded. I felt they would get a pass rusher (to be groomed behind Trevor Pryce), a cornerback (to add some youth to the secondary) and a tight end (Todd Heap and L.J. Smith are getting older). The only complaint -- no surprise -- is the fact that the Ravens didn’t get a wide receiver.

Question: When you look at the Ravens roster right now compared to the end of the last season, how does it compare? Better? Worse?

Hensley: On paper, I think the Ravens are somewhere in the middle. Michael Oher is an improvement over Willie Anderson at right tackle. Matt Birk is on the same level as Jason Brown at center. Chris Carr isn’t as flashy as Yamon Figurs as a returner, but he is tougher. I’m not sold on the Ravens’ biggest free-agent signing, cornerback Domonique Foxworth. It seems like they overpaid for him.

But all of this is negated by the Flacco Factor. If Joe Flacco continues to improve at quarterback, he makes the entire team better. This is a quarterback-driven league. So, the roster might not be as good as last year, but Flacco can negate that.

Question: The Ravens clearly seem excited that Michael Oher landed in their laps. How likely is it that Oher is starting as a rookie?

Hensley: I would say that it’s 50-50 that Oher beats out Willie Anderson at right tackle, but I would put it at 90 percent that he finishes as the starter. The Ravens could follow the same plan as Ben Grubbs, who was the first-round pick in 2007. Grubbs didn’t start immediately, but he split time with Chris Chester at guard. Midway through the season, Grubbs became the full-time starter. This is how the Ravens should proceed with Oher.

Question: A lot of other teams seemed to have some concerns about Oher. Why do you think that might have been, and why didn't the Ravens share in those concerns?

Hensley: A league insider told me that Oher’s interviews didn’t go well at the combine. Teams wondered if he would be able to make the transition to this level and pick up NFL offenses. The Ravens placed a lot of value in Oher’s size and disposition. He could be the young, mauling right tackle that the Ravens have wanted for years. Plus, the Ravens have a great support system on the offensive line with Ben Grubbs, Marshal Yanda and Matt Birk. They will certainly look after Oher.

Question: Let's visit hypothetical-world for a little bit. What if the Raiders pretended they were a sane football team on Saturday and didn't jump at Darrius Heyward-Bey with the No. 7 pick. How does that change the course of the first round, and is there any way that Oher slips down to No. 23?

Hensley: I don’t think so, The key was the Raiders passing on receiver Michael Crabtree, who fell to the San Francisco 49ers (11th overall pick). The Ravens thought Oher would never make it past the 49ers. Oher then did a free-fall. The Ravens traded up to No. 23 because they thought the Buffalo Bills would leapfrog them from No. 28.

Question: Are you surprised the Ravens didn't aim for a bigger upgrade at wide receiver last weekend?

Hensley: Once the top receivers went in the first round, I thought the Ravens would go for a wide receiver in the second round. Ramses Barden from Cal-Poly would have been a good fit here. Instead, the Ravens picked defensive end-linebacker Paul Kruger, and Barden was gone before the Ravens’ third-round selection.

Question: Is Anquan Boldin still a possibility, or are they likely to go into next season with the same crew of receivers?

Hensley: I wouldn’t rule out Boldin. It’s difficult for me to imagine that the Cardinals could bring him back after essentially putting him on the trading block. The Cardinals’ asking price could even drop to a third-round pick. The key is whether Boldin’s asking price on a new contract will drop. Teams seem wary to pay him $9 million to $10 million a season.

Question: Prior to the draft, the Ravens publicly said they really like the receivers they have on the roster. Do they not agree with the fan perception that Joe Flacco needs a deep threat to reach his full potential?

Hensley: The Ravens understand that their receivers are average at best, but they can’t say that publicly. By not drafting a receiver or trading for Boldin, the Ravens are banking that Demetrius Williams is healthy and can become that deep threat. Also, Mark Clayton averaged 17 yards per catch last season. He needs to be more consistent.

Question: People say the Ravens are a piece or two from the Super Bowl, but isn't it just as easy to say they're an injury or two from a 7-9 record?

Hensley: I would even say they are one injury away. If Flacco gets injured, there is no way the Ravens make the playoffs with Troy Smith. The Ravens would have trouble rebounding from an injury to receiver Derrick Mason, center Matt Birk and safety Ed Reed.

Question: The Ravens held true to their word and didn't try to fill needs early in the draft. Was this a mistake at all? Where are they vulnerable right now?

Hensley: First, it’s hard to argue with Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta. Their track record gives them a pass. But you have to wonder about their decision to pass on a receiver in the second round. The Ravens need to capitalize on finally finding a franchise quarterback. They have to give him weapons to develop.

Question: What is the biggest question still to be answered before this team takes the field?

Hensley: Even though this team went to the AFC championship game, I have plenty of questions. In order. 1. Can the Ravens’ defense withstand the loss of Rex Ryan? 2. Who stretches the field for Flacco? 3. Who is going to be kicking field goals?

Question: So does an NFL beat writer just spend the next four months on vacation? Will you be reporting from The Sun's Bahamas' bureau?

Hensley: The first minicamp begins May 8, so I get to take a small breather. After that, I have what I call Ray-time. I go down to Miami and hang out with ol’ 52. We run on the beach in the morning, get massages in the afternoon and then play Madden all night long. I always go with the Ravens in Madden, so Ray makes me do his dance before the game starts. Good times.

Photos: Patrick Smith for the Baltimore Sun; Associated Press

April 27, 2009

The Endorsement: Manny Pacquiao

Each Monday in the Toy Department, a Sun sports writer will take a moment to offer his or her Endorsement of something he or she feels passionately about. There are no rules, and the subject can be as broad, or as narrow, as the writer chooses. This week, Childs Walker explains why a Filipino boxer is one of the most exciting athletes in the world. For previous editions of The Endorsement, click here.

 

There aren't five athletes in the world I'd rather watch than Manny Pacquiao. But I bet a lot of you have no clear mental image of him. You could walk by the Pac-Man in a grocery store and have no idea you were in the presence of a world-class athlete. He's about the size a lot of us were in middle school, and he wears the perpetual aw-shucks smile of a regular guy enjoying his regular life.

Put Manny Pacquiao in a boxing ring, however, and he's the furthest thing from regular. I think I first saw him fight eight years ago in a foul-plagued affair with Agapito Sanchez. Pacquiao fought at 122 pounds then and had two chief weapons -- limitless stamina and a straight left hand that hit opponents on the chin before they even knew it had been fired. He defined raw, but those two weapons were awesome enough that he not only hung with great all-around fighters; he beat them. In a sense, his limits helped to produce great fights because he had little alternative to boring straight ahead and firing murderous blows. Pit him again a craftsman such as Juan Manuel Marquez and you had the perfect dramatic contrast.

Too bad many sports fans never saw the fights.

For a large segment of Americans, boxing's golden age passed with Muhammad Ali. Its last mainstream appeal flickered out with the careers of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. This nation's athletic pipelines turned to feeding more rewarding, less obviously damaging sports such as basketball and football. Fight coverage leads SportsCenter what, a few times a year? But I can't get across how limited a point of view this is.

Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and many other places never stopped producing great fighters. It's just that those fighters are rarely larger than the smallest players in our mainstream sports and few of them speak English when they burst onto the scene. To large immigrant populations tucked throughout the U.S., Pacquiao or Marquez or Miguel Cotto are just as dynamic as Kobe Bryant or Peyton Manning.

Their fights are often charged not only with violence and competition but with a nationalistic fervor rarely seen outside of the Olympics or the World Cup.

Pacquiao emerged as one of a quartet of great little guys along with Marquez, Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales. The fights between those four were some of the most captivating, intense sporting events I've ever seen. For that reason, it's hard for me to think of the last decade as anything but a golden age for boxing.

Manny's stellar record against his three greatest peers earned him the moniker "Mexi-cutioner."

In the last year, he has turned his attention to higher weight classes. In June, he won a world title in his first fight at 135 pounds. In December, he bulked up further and ended the career of Oscar De La Hoya with a stunning display of hand speed.     

Pacquiao started his career at 106 pounds. He beat De La Hoya at 147. Those 41 pounds might not sound like a lot to you, but the equivalent of Pacquiao's rise in say, baseball, would be Dustin Pedroia hitting 74 home runs in 2012. It's an amazing feat, one that had aficionados reaching back to the great Henry Armstrong (he held titles in three weight classes at once) for comparisons.  

The pleasure of watching Pacquiao is the pleasure of watching a man who loves his work and has never stopped improving at it. He still has that wicked left and the knack for looking like the freshest man in the building come round 10. But he has added so many wrinkles over the years -- a better right, more balance, an ability to attack from angles rather than straight ahead. I've never seen him give a bad performance and he was beaten soundly only by Morales (a defeat he avenged twice.) 

On Saturday, Pacquiao will try for 140-pound supremacy against once-beaten Ricky Hatton.

The fight is rich with subplots. Hatton is almost as big a star in Britain as Pacquiao is in the Philippines and both will draw huge nationalistic contingents to Las Vegas. Hatton is the naturally bigger man, Pacquiao the quicker and more accomplished. Hatton is trained by Floyd Mayweather Sr., the father of the only man to beat him, Floyd Mayweather Jr. With a victory, Pacquiao hopes to set up an even bigger fight with Mayweather Jr.

Both are likable men. Pacquiao is an Ali-like figure in the Philippines. He acts, he dispenses cash to the poor when he walks the streets, he dreams of running for office. His trainer, Freddy Roach, was the same kind of relentless, small fighter, and he hasn't let Parkinson's disease stop him from running one of the best gyms in the world.  

Hatton, meanwhile, gets chubby between fights because he can't resist a pint or three at the pub. His rowdy supporters love to sing "There's only one Ricky Hatton" to the tune of Winter Wonderland.

It should all be quite a spectacle. I know $50 is a lot to spend on watching a boxing match in these tough times. But if you can gather a group of friends or get to a bar that's showing the fight, Pacquiao-Hatton should be quite a show.

Caption This: Ravens' draft pick nearly loses ball

Every Monday we share with you a photograph that catches our eye. We provide a couple of possible captions, and you can try your hand at one or two of your own. Check out previous editions of Caption This by clicking here. And for more fun with photos, check out the Sun's Caption Call blog.

-- The Baltimore Ravens' scouts winced when they viewed film of Cedric Peerman. Full of mercy, they selected him in the sixth round of the NFL Draft. As a signing bonus, Ozzie Newsome offered Peerman a dozen bags of ice.

-- Former Virginia tailback Cedric Peerman was originally projected as a first-round pick. But at the NFL Combine, team GMs and scouts began to question his toughness when they spoke to him and discovered he talks a lot like Michael Jackson.

-- "I don't know why anyone's looking at me funny. You hear about the Ravens' second-round pick? That dude is missing more organs than I am."

-- In accordance with the NFL's new rookie orientation plan, all incoming rookies are given a temporary vasectomy before their first professional game.

-- New Maryland slogan: Fear the Snapping Turtle!

-- Asked about making the leap to the NFL, Cedric Peerman told reporters he was fairly certain the tough AFC North wouldn't be near as painful as the frisky ACC.

 

Photo: Patrick Smith for the Baltimore Sun

Grading the NFL Draft graders

First, let's point out that with the exception of NFL scouts and GMs, no one dislikes these day-after draft report cards more than the writers who have to do them. We all agree that to really judge a prospect or a draft class, you've got to wait about three years. But it's an easy way to package a lot of material, and fans eat them up. So fair is fair, and if the experts are going to grade each team's draft, shouldn't they also be graded?

Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN: B-

I feel like reading Kiper Jr. and watching him on TV are two different experiences. On screen, he’s like Billy Mays after a case of Red Bull; on paper, it feels like he’s analyzing stock listings for a financial newsletter. Come on, Mel, give us some literary flourishes. Challenge yourself. Tell us that Hakeem Nicks is gonna blow up like Kirstie Alley eyeing the dessert tray. Tell us Darrius Heyward-Bey has the worst hands you’ve seen since Captain Hook.

Anyway, his grades were mostly on point, though he did seem too low on the Eagles (B-) and Broncos (C) and too high on the Chargers (C+), Redskins (C+) and Saints (C).

Kiper gave the Ravens a B, saying: “First-round selection Michael Oher gives this team great flexibility on the offensive line because he can play right or left tackle for the Ravens. Second-round pick Paul Kruger has the ability to play immediately in this league and may push for ample playing time. Also, Lardarius Webb is a little light at around 180 pounds, but with the help of an experienced safety to support him, he can definitely play cornerback in this league. I love the fifth-round selection of inside linebacker Jason Phillips. He's going to fit in very well with this talented group of linebackers.”

Clifton Brown, Sporting News: D+

Brown is a sharp tack when it comes to the NFL, but he was docked serious points for misspelling “quarterback” and relying a bit too heavily on short sentences. He also gave two teams worse grades than the Oakland Raiders -- the Chargers and Steelers both got slapped with Fs, while the Raiders took home a D- -- which is unacceptable. I’m not sure where that poor Pittsburgh grade comes from, but I doubt many Ravens fans will complain.

He gave the Ravens a C-. While Brown liked the Oher pick, he pointed out that, “Paul Kruger will not make anyone forget Bart Scott, and GM Ozzie Newsome will need late-round hits to make this draft sizzle.

Peter King, Sports Illustrated: F+

Technically, King didn’t do a report card complete with letter grades. We'd be inclined to slap King with an "Incomplete," but he chose to withhold grades yet subject us to the following:

Changing planes at DFW Sunday, I used the men's room near one of the American gates. I walked into one of the toilet stalls with the automatic flushers.

WHOOOOOSH. I closed the door to the stall and sat down.

Three more times I heard the same WHOOOOOSH as I sat there and minded my own business.

Of course, no flush when I get up and leave the stall. Gotta love technology.

OK, maybe I’m being too harsh. King actually did provide some insta-analysis on each team. Here’s part of what he said about Baltimore: "How do you not love Michael Oher at 23, even with part of the organization frothing at the mouth over the prospect of sitting at Baltimore's original pick in the round and taking Rey Maualuga? ... Ravens have the highest-motor DT in football, Kelly Gregg. Now they just might have a DE to rival Jared Allen for motor -- Utah's Paul Kruger, a first-round prospect on one draft board I know of."

Fox Sports: Incomplete

This year Fox gave us surprises, winners and losers. But no grades. C’mon, Fox, get in the game!

Jason Cole, Yahoo!: B+

Cole gets bonus points for using my favorite adjective in football stories --  “sexy” – plus he worked in references to both “upside” and “downside,” important staples of NFL draft coverage. Cole also pulls no punches when it comes to the Raiders, who he nailed with an F, but he was too high on the Chargers (B) and too low on Broncos (D).

Cole gave the Ravens an A, the highest grade of our graders. He said: “The Ravens are one of the best teams at finding falling talent in the first round and did just that this year. Oher is a lot closer to the likes of Eugene Monroe, Andre Smith and Jason Smith than his status as the No. 23 overall pick indicates. Oher will likely push Jared Gaither to right tackle or take over at right tackle to give the Ravens an excellent young tackle combination. Kruger is an interesting player who seems destined to be an outside linebacker in Baltimore’s 3-4 system and could replace departed Bart Scott. Kruger was miscast as a defensive end in college but should make a nice transition in the NFL. Meanwhile, it’s going to be interesting to see how long the 178-pound Webb lasts with his physical style.”

Charles Robinson, Yahoo!: F-

Robinson exhibited a classic case of West Coast bias by refusing to grade the Ravens. Forget the fact that he was only grading NFC teams, it’s a cop-out move and makes it difficult to take his report card seriously.

Also, the worst grade Robinson handed down was a C-. We like Robinson -- he has plenty of upside -- but it wouldn’t kill him to inch out on the limb a bit.

Mel Kiper Jr.’s hair, ESPN2 (link unavailable): A-

As usual, Kiper’s coiffure comes off looking a lot better than the rest of the analyst’s being. It survived the two days of draft coverage and looked like it’d just gotten of bed and was ready to start the day.

Kiper’s hair, according to sources, gave the Ravens C+. Apparently, it nearly burst into a ball of split ends when the Ravens opted not to select USC linebacker Rey Maualuga in the first round.

Rick Gosselin, Dallas Morning News: C

Goose loses points for being a bit too high on Texas teams; the Cowboys received a C and the Texans an A+ (OK, let’s not quibble about Dallas, but how do you receive a C when you could’ve just as easily spent all day Saturday watching a marathon of “The Andy Griffith Show.”) Houston, in fact, was the highest grade Gosselin handed out. Plus a few other oddball grades: Packers a C, Jets a D and Patriots a C.

Goose gives the Ravens a B, saying, “Pencil in Oher as a future Pro Bowler. Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Peter Boulware, Chris McAllister -- GM Ozzie Newsome doesn't miss often in the first round. He added a pass rusher in the second and a kick returner in the third.”

Pete Prisco, CBS Sports: B/C

We give Prisco this grade because his draft was a little too safe. Twenty-seven of his grades were in the B/C range. I like the report card formatting -- relying on categories -- but space constraints did Prisco few favors. Here’s his San Fran take: “I'm just not enamored with what they did.” I need a bit more meat on my knee-jerk report cards, Pete.

Prisco gave the Ravens a B. He liked Kruger in the second round, not so sure about trading up for Oher but he definitely liked Cedric Peerman in the sixth.

Kiper photo: Gene Sweeney Jr. / Baltimore Sun

Michael Lewis on Michael Oher

Michael Lewis is the best-selling author of Moneyball, and while that's one of the most important baseball books I've ever read, his 2006 follow-up The Blind Side strikes markedly different chords. That's largely because of Michael Oher, who was a central character and whose backstory could draw tears from a stone. So when the Ravens selected Oher with the 23rd pick in the first round of Saturday's draft, I knew we had to hear from Lewis. I used a couple bits in my column Sunday, but here's some more of his comments, interesting stuff that ranges from Oher to Ole Miss coaches to Todd McShay to a very interesting plan for Jonathan Ogden:

It’s so seldom that things work out the way they’re supposed to work that I’m a little shocked. It’s interesting to me because it’s so hard to look at a 16-year-old kid and say he’s a first-round NFL draft pick and that Tom Lemming did that when he was 16, it’s unbelievable. You know, baseball scouts look at 22-year-old college students and whiff completely. I’m really impressed that someone was able to see that in him so early.

And I’m impressed by him. It would have been so easy for him to give himself an excuse to fail and to not listen to people, to rebel. It would’ve been so easy for him to give himself an out. He worked very hard to get to where he is.

In fact, the one thing that slightly disturbed me about this whole process is, I watched these guys who supposedly project the draft and actually have no idea what will happen, these guys on ESPN. Todd McShay went on the TV and said he was one of the three greatest character risks of the draft. This kid has unbelievable character. I say that as someone who has occasionally been on the wrong side of him. I’ve seen that he’s sensitive and occasionally a little fragile. But to get where he is from where he was, is an unbelievable act of courage and determination and willpower and all the things you need to succeed in anything in life. For people not to see that – even if they didn’t have this book to read – for people not to see that is appalling.

I think what happened was, I think the Ravens were unbelievable lucky that he fell to 23 in the draft. Several things happened. The Raiders having these brain seizures when they drafted. Al Davis, I think, is single-handedly responsible for him falling a bunch of places.

I think that had Michael had a more stable college coaching environment – had he played with the same coaches for four years in a successful football program – I think he’d be a top-5 pick. But what happened was, the scouting types in the NFL went for some data on him, some anecdotal stuff on him, and they called all these fired Ole Miss coaches who were kind of bitter and disgruntled, and they reflected more on them than they did Michael.

I just watched this kid for so closely for so long. I could tell you that he’s not a perfect human being, but he’s just a really solid kid. It’s incredible to me that he got this little bit of a rap. I think you’re going to be delighted. The Ravens have such a great track record in the draft.

I was secretly hoping the Ravens would reel Jonathan Ogden back in. Jonathan Ogden has a role in The Blind Side. I don’t remember what chapters he’s in. I spent time with him, though; I wrote about him. I’m hoping they can reel him back in to tutor Michael because I’d bet he’d be the perfect coach. And he’s the only one bigger than Michael, so maybe Michael would listen to him.

It seems like he’s in a really solid place. I don’t know how many of these teams I’ve spent time with – maybe four or five of them – and Baltimore is a really good organization. I think he’s in a good place.

 Click below to read how Lewis' concluded Oher's story in The Blind Side.

At the end of Lewis' book, Oher and his friend "Craig," one of the only people in the world he truly trusts, are at a Memphis Grizzlies game:

As they found their seats, Craig asked Michael if he noticed the many people pointing and staring at him. Michael smiled and Craig could tell that he not only noticed but loved it. "What if you don't make the NFL?" was the question Craig wanted to ask next, but he didn't. Instead he asked "When you think you be ready for the league?" At that Michael laughed and said "I'm ready now."

Craig laughed. The world might have changed, but his friend had not. "He's the same guy," Craig said. "Everyone say Michael got cocky. What they don't know is that he was always cocky. He just didn't show it."

Still Craig thought Michael must be joking. He wasn't.

"I could take Dwight Freeney right now," said Michael, seriously.

Dwight Freeney played for the Indianapolis Colts. He was the most feared pass rushing defensive end in the NFL, and maybe the fastest the NFL had ever seen. He'd arrived in the NFL in 2002 with his 4.3 forty-yard dash and his wild spin moves, and quickly figured out where he needed to be: The blind side. Two seasons later he rocked the order of the football universe when he went by Jonathan Odgen and sacked the Ravens' quarterback not once but twice. No one went by Jonathan Ogden -- but Freeney did.

Freeney understood he was a man working in a tradition. When he was eight years old he'd seen a highlight film of Lawrence Taylor and right then and there knew who he was going to be when he grew up. "If you ask me to list my favorite players, I'd tell you L.T. and there be nobody second." he said. Freeney took it for granted his job was to defeat the superstar of the offensive line. Best on best. That was his great strength: finding ways to win the most important one-on-one contest on the football field. And so when he heard there was this kid down in Memphis who thought he was on his way to the league and said he could "take Dwight Freeney right now" he just laughed and said "That's the way he's got to be." But he was curious enough to ask, "Who is this kid?"

Dwight Freeney stood outside the Colts locker room sweating in his pads, helmet in his hand, and listened patiently to a summary of the brief career of Michael Oher. How Michael had been one of thirteen children born to a mother who couldn't care for them, and so had more or less raised himself on the streets of Memphis. How he hadn't reported to serious football practice until his junior year in high school -- but by then he was six five, 350 pounds and had been timed in the forty-yard dash in 4.9 seconds. How his forty yard dash time didn't really capture his speed: to appreciate his quickness you needed to watch him in short bursts. He he'd been one of the best basketball players in the state of Tennessee, and held his own on the court with high school all-Americans, and still secretly believed his natural position was shooting guard. How, on the brink of adulthood, with a measured IQ of 80, no formal education and no experience of white people, he had so insinuated himself into rich white Memphis that white people no longer noticed the color of his skin. How he was now six six and 325 pounds and the starting left tackle at Ole Miss, and a fair bet to be named to the all-SEC team at the end of the season. How, fast and strong as he had been at 350 pounds, he was faster and stronger now. How every day he felt a little bit less a lost boy and more a man with a mission.

Dwight Freeney understood the rules of the game. In the NFL, on the quarterback's blind side, you came and you went. You had your moment when you played so perfectly in the sun that you were mistaken for the sun -- and you were eclipsed. The summer before the start of the 2006 season was still his moment, and would remain his moment -- until it wasn't. Until he lost a step. Or got hurt. Or until the next Jonathan Ogden showed up and was maybe a step quicker, or fractionally more gifted, than the original. As he listened to the biography of Michael Oher, Dwight Freeney's expression changed. He was no longer smiling.

"What's his name again?" he asked.

"Michael Oher."

"You tell Michael Oher I'll be waiting for him," he said, and walked into the locker room.

Considering Markakis

 

Nick Markakis is so good that he constantly forces me to adjust my conception of what he can be. That's extremely high praise for an athlete, something I'd say about LeBron James or Tiger Woods. And it makes me wonder if we take Markakis for granted sometimes, because he has played on losing teams and has not made a national splash. 

At Camden Yards on Saturday, my colleague Dan Connolly spoke to an NL scout about which outfielders he'd trade Markakis for. The scout's list stopped at Carlos Beltran and B.J. Upton. Dan and I tossed the question around a bit. I wouldn't trade Markakis for either of the scout's guys. Beltran is great but probably on the downside of his career. Upton is a tremendous physical talent who played great in 2007 and showed some signs of growth despite worse overall numbers in 2008. He has not established the same level of consistency as Markakis.

After some stammering, I came up with Grady Sizemore. He's not a .300 hitter like Markakis, but he plays center field, hits a few more home runs and runs better. What about Josh Hamilton, Dan asked? Well, Hamilton has more freakish physical gifts than Markakis. He's more likely to hit 40 home runs. But he doesn't control the strike zone as well and he lost so many developmental years because of his drug problem. Ryan Braun? Again, he's more of a power hitter, but he doesn't walk, so he's not on base nearly as much. Curtis Granderson? Terrific guy, center fielder, does everything well. But he doesn't get on base as much as Markakis either, and he's three years older.

The point is that you can list the very best young outfielders in baseball and it's not at all clear that you'd rather have any of them than Markakis.

So let's take it a step further and ask how many players you'd rather have if you were starting a team.

I'd rather have Albert Pujols, because he's the best player in baseball and still not 30. Hanley Ramirez is the same age as Markakis, has outhit him the last two years and plays shortstop, so he's a yes. David Wright has established a higher level of consistent performance.

I'd probably take Jose Reyes higher, because he's such a combination of gap power and speed at a premium defensive position. Id take Sizemore over Markakis. Miguel Cabrera? He's a better hitter for sure, but he is of no value in the field or on the bases and faces conditioning questions. Dustin Pedroia? He has played like a superstar for one season and little in his previous record suggests he can sustain it. Joe Mauer? Love the on-base skills from the catcher spot, but his durability is in question. Evan Longoria? He'll have to outplay Markakis for a season before I consider him.  

Again, you don't have to get very far down this esteemed list to find guys who might not be better than Markakis.  

So why isn't he generally talked about this way? Well, I see several reasons. The quality of the team is one. But beyond that, he doesn't do anything spectacularly well. He hits .300 but he hasn't challenged for a batting title ... yet. He's not a 40-homer threat. He doesn't make Torii-Hunter-style SportsCenter catches. He just does everything well. He hits .300. He adds 45 doubles to his 20 homers. He bumped his walks to 99 last year, meaning his on-base percentage soared past the magic .400 mark. He's one of the best right fielders in the league. He has improved his performance against left-handers. And that's just the level he has established at age 25. Who's to say he can't hit 30-35 homers in his best seasons or push for a few batting titles?

After all, he has always pushed ahead of our expectations.

When few projected him to make the team in 2006, he outplayed almost everyone at camp and forced the club's hand. When fans wondered how the kid would handle his debut, he homered and reached base four times. When they questioned his ability to adjust, he played better in the second half of his rookie year than the first. Sophomore slump? Nope, he played better in every area in 2007. Stagnation in year three? He answered with an extra 38 walks and 44 points of OBP. Complacency over a new contract? Sorry folks, he's playing better than ever in year four.

It's a little hard to think of good comparisons for Markakis. When I asked Bill James about this, he mentioned Dwight Evans. But Evans was a low-average hitter in his twenties and really didn't blossom into an all-around star until he was 29. After that interview, a reader suggested Paul O'Neill. And Markakis does resemble O'Neill in his thirties -- .300 hitter, gap power, plenty of walks, good base runner. But he was nowhere near as good as Markakis at age 25.

Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system dredges up some relatively unflattering comparables such as Steve Kemp, Ben Grieve and Leon Durham, guys who hit well in their early twenties but never grew from there. I don't quite get that because I see so many more facets to Markakis than those guys. PECOTA also lists Keith Hernandez, which might be kind of close, save for the position. Hernandez was a near-Hall-of-Famer, so there's no shame in that (though I see more power in Markakis.)

I could see him as Larry Walker without the Coors Field inflation. On the really high end, Markakis could be Stan Musial lite. Musial led the league in OBP and slugging and won the MVP at age 22, so he was obviously in a different class. But if you dream a little, you can see Markakis adding 20 points of batting average at his best and maybe 10 homers a year in his late twenties. He's like Stan in that he controls the strike zone, hits lots of line drives and plays an excellent corner outfield early in his career. Musial is one of the 10 greatest players ever, so don't take this as a comparison. It's just that Musial is the best-ever version of the kind of player Markakis appears to be.

Could Markakis become the best Orioles right fielder ever? That's a tough one because of a guy named Frank Robinson. Markakis will probably never match Frank's 1966, when he won the Triple Crown, hit 49 homers and led the club to its first World Series. The chance of him matching Robinson's career is probably less than 1 percent. But remember that Robinson had the rest of his best seasons in Cincinnati. He was still great for the Orioles from 1967-1971 but not so great that Markakis could never assemble a fatter body of work in a Baltimore uniform.  

Let's say this. He could certainly vie with Ken Singleton for second place. Singleton was a hell of a player from 1977-1980 -- great OBP, 20-25 homers a year (and 35 in 1979) in a less powerful era, decent glove. But Markakis does more things well and has already reached a level close to Singleton's best.  

It's actually an interesting position for the Orioles. They've filled it with a lot of stars who were over the hill or just passing through. Reggie Jackson, Albert Belle, Eric Davis, Sammy Sosa. Lots of guys no one thinks of as Orioles.

How about this one: Is Markakis the best Orioles player since Cal Ripken at his peak? Probably not. We remember the disappointing end of Miguel Tejada's tenure but he was an MVP-level player in 2004 and 2005. How many shortstops in baseball history could combine above-average defense with a .300 average, 30 homers and tremendous durability? But Markakis is certainly set up for a longer run.

Melvin Mora in 2004 and Brian Roberts in 2005 were awesome, but those felt more like peak seasons than representative performances. Roberto Alomar was incredible in 1996 but his tenure was so short. Brady Anderson could never maintain his highest level.

Look, the answer to all or most of these Markakis questions is that it's too early to answer them. But it's pretty fun to have a player in town who can make the mind wander in such fashion. Enjoy it, folks.  

Mike Ricigliano's View: No QB drama this year

 

Special to The Baltimore Sun: Contact Ricig at michaelricigliano@gmail.com

Click here for previous cartoons.

Oher's coaches explain their former pupil

To better understand the Ravens' first-round draft pick, Michael Oher, a 309-pound offensive lineman from Ole Miss, we turn to those who understand him best. 

Hugh Freeze was Oher’s football coach at Briarcrest Christian School, where Oher helped his team win two state titles. Freeze followed Oher to Ole Miss in 2005 and spent two seasons as an assistant under head coach Ed Orgeron. Freeze is currently the head coach at Lambuth University in Tennessee.

Art Kehoe coached at the University of Miami for 25 years before joining Ole Miss as the offensive line coach in 2006. He was Oher’s position coach for Oher’s sophomore and junior seasons.

Freeze: I was sitting in my office the first day he came to campus. Big Tony Henderson brought him. Big Tony and I had known each other for years; he helped me with some other kids. He’d brought his son and also brought Michael along, introduced me to him that day. It was the first day he was on the Briarcrest campus. He was just a shy, meek soul. He wouldn't even raise his head to look you in the eyes to talk with you. He's come miles since then. He’s just a joy to be around.

Kehoe: He was probably better known as a basketball prospect coming out of high school. The city of Memphis has really good basketball, and he was the No. 2 player in the whole city his senior year. Even though Briarcrest is a small school, they won a state title with him.

Freeze: As far as being a first round draft pick, I’d say his junior year at Ole Miss that started seeming possible. I’ve had a lot of kids go Division 1 football, but I’d never coached a first-rounder. It was obvious to me going into the spring of his senior season that he’d be a big-time college football player. But the National Football League is the best of the best, the elite. So I wasn’t sure at that point that you could just look him and know. But I’d say around his junior year of his college career at Ole Miss, we started hearing that a lot more.

Kehoe: If the Tuohys and Hugh Freeze and the people at Briarcrest weren’t around, who knows what road he would’ve taken. What those people did for him is so overwhelming. I’m going to enjoy watching him. I called him yesterday and told him, ‘I’m so proud of you, good luck to you, and I wish you nothing but great things,’ because he’s a good kid. Don’t be surprised: He may have a little trouble like most rookies do starting off, but I think his learning curve is really accelerating.

Freeze: He’s had so little in his life. He’s just such a humble and appreciative young man. I loved the comments he made right after he was picked. He really has a concern that he doesn’t want to let down the people who show some type of trust in him. The last thing he wants to do is let the people down. He’ll fight his heart out to prove that Baltimore is right in picking him.

Kehoe: This year I went up and visited the New England Patriots for two-a-days. [Pats’ O-line coach] Dante Scarnecchia and [head coach Bill] Belichick were asking about him. I said, 'Coach, when you think of his background, most kids like that are going to be thugs, punks and in jail. But this kid's a miracle.’ And he was never a problem, there was never drugs or alcohol or anything. He always went to the study hall and made grades. He had a couple of classes he had trouble with, but most of his classes, he passed with flying colors.

Freeze: I always try to put myself in other people’s shoes. You ask yourself if you went through the same thing, would you have his attitude, his appreciation for life? I don’t know what the answer is.

Kehoe: I remember my first encounter was when I came up and coach Eddie Orgeron had us there in January with the kids, and the first thing we did was have a basketball tournament. We just went up with them and I remember this guy coming down the court and I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is an offensive lineman?’ He was just ramming the ball down. He looked like he could jump out of the gym. He’s trimmed down a lot since then. He probably was 340 or more. Each year, he’s leaned up, gotten stronger and really developed. Just watching him then, though, I remember thinking, 'This guy is a crazy athlete.' Big feet and big hands, and he moves more like a tight end or a skill player.

Freeze: The concerns [NFL teams who called] had were, No. 1, his capacity to learn. He’s a very intelligent kid, so I don’t think that’s an issue at all. No. 2, his passion for football – is this a kid who’s been given so much from the Tuohys that he doesn’t really have to have football, will he still love it? So I pointed out all the things he’s gone through and how he could’ve quit several times if he didn’t love the game. And third, they want to know about his past. I heard there were things floating around about character issues. I have no idea where that’d even come from. He’s not done anything that would cause anyone to question his character. If you’re talking about a kid who’s come from the projects, the hood, the bad place in town, yeah, he has. But what should be talked about is how he’s overcome everything and that’s given him tremendous character.

Kehoe: Michael’s such an interesting guy and anyone who’s asked me about him – the whole deal with the Tuohys and them scooping him and adopting him – he’s such a special kid. He was so raw. Coach George DeLeone had him before me, then I had him for two years, then Mike Markuson had him for a year. You could probably say he went up a letter grade each year. I don’t think he’s done. He’s so athletic, he hasn’t lifted a lot of weights and he didn’t play much football before he went to college.

Freeze: I had numerous calls from NFL teams asking that stuff. It amazes me. The first thing I would point out to them, I watched this kid in high school obviously, watched him in college – actually coached him five of those years – and not one day did he ever miss a practice, ever lay on the ground. If you want to question whether or not he grasps all the looks that he'll receive in the NFL, that's one thing. His capacity to learn that is there. But I don't see how anyone can question his toughness or his passion for the game. A guy that doesn’t have passion doesn’t get this far.

Kehoe: I think the only time there was a practice issue – or almost an issue – was when he fell off a motorcycle. And even then, he was trying to practice. He had some road rash on him, but he still wanted to be out there. He always gave good effort, and you just knew he was way different than a lot of the kids. Most kids who play college football who are big guys, I’d say 75 percent or more of them were playing at least since 9th grade, and a lot of them were little leaguers. He barely played at all, year or two at the most. So you just watched him getting better and better and better. 

Kehoe: He’s really developed a savvy part of his game. He’s always been into the competition, the toughness and the work. But now the kid’s stronger and all this experience he has – three different line coaches – you just know he’s going to do some real good things.

Freeze: Physically, I think so, I think he can contribute right away. If they have a guy --  I’m sure they have the resources in Baltimore, like any other team – but a learning specialist or something like that. I think one of the biggest keys would be someone on their staff who’s sure they understand Michael’s learning techniques. He's a very visual guy. He's better one-on-one than he is in a whole group right now – even though he's gotten a lot better at that. If they have a guy who will spend the extra time with Michael, Michael will spend the extra time with him. If he could grasp what they’re trying to get accomplished offense-wise, schemes, schematic-wise, physically he’ll be ready. No one’s going to outwork him. He’s going to get there as fast as he can, and he’ll be in tip-top shape and he’ll be ready to go. I think it’s just a matter of how fast can he catch onto what it is they’ll be doing.

Kehoe: Because I knew he really hadn’t been coached that much, I was always around. We’d be walking through hallways and I’d be talking, ‘If the corner comes on a blitz and you’re the boundary then this is what you do,’ and all this. I wanted him to get better. It was just a process. To me, this may sound stupid, but to me, he’s more like an incoming freshman right now, not an incoming rookie. I’m talking experience-wise.

Kehoe: He’s got a little chip on his shoulder. He’s out to prove himself. I saw in USA Today, he was kind of incensed about the insinuation that he was a little on the dumb side. I think he’s just a guy who’s playing catch-up really.

Freeze: It's the culmination of a lot of people's hopes and dreams for this young man. Obviously he's had to do the bulk of the work. So just to see this emotional day, to know that his dreams have been realized, was very gratifying to numerous people.

Photos: Associated Press

April 25, 2009

Darrius Heyward-Bey comes home on draft day

Probably the nicest thing about draft day for Darrius Heyward-Bey wasn't that he went seventh to the Oakland Raiders, or that he was the first wide receiver off the board ahead of the more highly touted Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin.

It was the reunion he enjoyed with his best boyhood friends, who came from Greensboro, N.C., and Miami specifically for the occasion. It was the return of most of his mentors, including former Ravens receiver Devard Darling. And it was the continued presence of the most important women in his life, the women who helped shape Heyward-Bey into a responsible young adult.

There was a sadness, too, on the day that Heyward-Bey's life changed forever. Rich Woodlee wasn't there and he should have been. He had mentored Heyward-Bey from his youth, treated him just like the son he already had, Ryan Woodlee. Rich was there when Heyward-Bey's car got dented up; he paid to get it fixed. He was there for all the important stuff in Heyward-Bey's life, too. Except this one.

Rich Woodlee died last January of a heart attack at 52. When Heyward-Bey was looking for a place to hold his draft party, Yolanda Woodlee, Rich's wife, volunteered her Silver Spring home. It was perfect. "This is his village," Yolanda said of the home Heyward-Bey frequented.

Even better, Yolanda, a former reporter for The Washington Post, came up with the idea to wear green rubber bracelets in memory of Rich. Heyward-Bey wore one, Ryan Woodlee wore one, and Brenton McCoy and Adam Simms wore them, too. Those four were best friends growing up. Darrius, in fact, was McCoy's first friend in kindergarten at 5.

McCoy and Simms drove five hours from North Carolina A&T to attend the party. Ryan Woodlee flew from Miami and was in town for less than 48 hours. They weren't going to miss this.

Neither was Darling, who played with the Ravens from 2004 to 2007, during which time he befriended Heyward-Bey, then a star athlete at McDonogh in Baltimore. They shared a special bond. Heyward-Bey's birthday is Feb. 26, 1987. Devard's identical twin brother, Devaughn, died of apparent cardia arrhythmia, on that same day 14 years later.

"He's like my little brother," Devard said of Heyward-Bey. "The Lord put him in my life for a reason. ... It seems like it was meant to be." 

Now Darling will see Heyward-Bey at least twice during the football season. Darling plays for the Kansas City Chiefs, who are in the AFC West with the Raiders. "I'll be there every step of the way to help him out," Darling said.

The most influential women in Heyward-Bey's life were there Saturday, too. Yolanda and Vivian Heyward-Bey, Darrius' mother, sat on either side of him when Oakland found itself a big, fast wide receiver. The two women embraced soon after and the rest of the 30-plus supporters cheered as they hugged. Then there was Adrienne Heyward-Bey, Vivian's sister. She helped Vivian raise Darrius from a baby.

"We were housemates," Vivian said. "Adrienne was the first one to hold Darrius after he was born. We raised him together. We taught him the value of friendship."

Yolanda shed some tears, too, knowing that her husband wasn't there to see Darrius take the next step. But she felt his presence and found peace in that. She would have celebrated Rich's 53rd birthday last Monday and their 30th anniversary last Tuesday.

"It means a lot to have everybody who played such an important role to be here," Yolanda said. "Rich wasn't here physically, but he was spiritually."

Photos: Doug Kapustin / Sun

April 24, 2009

Boldin price falls; Yoda Newsome on the clock

Apparently, the Cardinals have come to terms with the fact that they won't be getting a first- and a third-round pick for Anquan Boldin. Word has spread that their demand has lowered -- a second-round pick and other considerations in exchange for Boldin.

It's clear that the Cards are going to move the wide receiver, and as it concerns the Ravens, my stance hasn't change: Get him. 

Can't you picture Yoda Newsome in his office, talking with Cards' GM Rod Graves:

"Todd Heap you will take. Anquan Boldin you will give."

And patient Ozzie has been. I don't know if they'll end up with Boldin (the Titans, Jets,  Eagles and Giants all seem like players in the hunt), but the Ravens want him. And they made it clear that the previous asking-price was too high.

Well, it's lower now. Which makes it seem like the ball is in the Ravens' court.

Props and thanks to Bryan Shultz, a Baltimorean trapped in Seattle, for passing along the photoshop...

Dead.To.Me.: Logo changes

Each week at the Toy Department, in addition to offering one of our writers the chance to endorse something they feel strongly about, we also give one of our writers a chance to dismiss something -- however unpopular that opinion may be -- in a segment we call "Dead. To. Me." Click here for previous editions.

 

If I were king of the forest. Not queen. Not duke. Not prince.

Like Bert Lahr in the "Wizard of Oz," the hapless, pathetic Detroit Lions have decided that if they can't play a ferocious game, they'll at least look like leader of the pack.

I'd command each thing, be it fish or fowl. With a woof and a woof and a royal growl--woof.

So the team that crafted the perfect 0-16 record last season has rolled out a new logo that features the same leaping lion, but this one with a mouth full of incisors capable of tearing an opponent limb from limb.

Each rabbit would show respect to me. The chipmunks genuflect to me.

"The evolution," explained team president Tom Lewand, "allows us to present our Lions brand and visual identity in new, versatile and distinctive ways."

This is great news to both Lions fans, who will no doubt cast off their toothless Lions gear and rush out for the new stuff, thereby stimulating the economy and saving the nation.

Unfortunately for the Detroit front office, looks can't kill.

Supposin' you met an elephant? I'd rap him up in cellophant!

By virtue of their abominable record, the Lions will pick first in the NFL draft, so they have that going for them. Other than that, though, they're likely to spend this season scaring no one but themselves.

What have they got that I ain't got? Courage!

The Lions are not alone in trying to project a more swaggering image.

I, for one, miss the smiling beak and laughing eyes of Testudo, the University of Maryland mascot.

He was cruelly ripped from us without explanation and replaced by smirking Testudo, flippers akimbo and eyes blazing yellow like a poster turtle for jaundice.

Why did the New England Patriots banish jovial "Pat," posing in his Revolutionary uniform in a three-point stance, in favor of the weird-ass, pointy-headed dude making the jump to hyperspace?

Was it really necessary for the city of Tampa Bay to transform its happy buccaneer into someone who belongs on the Amber Alert network and then do an about face and expunge the "Devil" from the Rays?

Did the University of Hawaii Rainbow Warriors football team need to ditch the rainbow?

And by my count, the Orioles won three World Series titles and six AL pennants with the cartoon bird logo and zero without it.

I guess we can thank God the Oakland Raiders haven't decided to stoke their mentally unbalanced fan base with some Mad Max apocolyptic version of their logo.

Changes are everywhere. NBA teams switch logos as often as Lindsay Lohan switches sexual preferences, fellow Toy Department resident Rick Maese notes.

I get the need to produce more revenue. The bottom line is the bottom line. And if teams can play fans for suckers, year after year, shame on who?

It's time for fans to stand up to the promotional machine. Declare marketers Dead. To. Me.

Don't be afraid of anything.

Not nobody. Not no how!

Worst Ravens' mock draft

With about 17 million mock drafts floating around, you're bound to bump into a bad one here or there. But as far as the Ravens are concerned, I'm not sure I've seen one like NFL.com's. For their mock, they used a roundtable of experts and rotated the picks. When the Ravens' number came up at No. 26, Marshall Faulk was the analyst on the clock for the Ravens. He clearly liked a wide receiver at this spot, but Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin and Percy Harvin were all taken. So who'd he go with?

Brian Robiskie from Ohio State, of course.

Here is Faulk's bullet-proof explanation:

"We have a great opportunity here. Our young quarterback stepped up big time. But we're lacking something. We're lacking a play-maker at receiver. Our defense, we did lose some guys. But guys always step in. At receiver, there's a bunch of guys, but I think about the team we compete with the most -- the Steelers -- and who gives us fits. So I think we're going to that school and getting Brian Robiskie. He's not a blazer, but he can do all the things you need a receiver to do."

Nevermind that Robiskie is more likely to be a second-rounder or that Darrius Heyward-Bey, Kenny Britt and Hakeem Nicks were all still on the board (as was tight end Brandon Pettigrew). The rest of NFL.com's experts didn't seem to agree with Faulk either. Here's their banter:

Charles Davis: "Wow."

Marshall Faulk: "I like him to be a reliable receiver who will be where he needs to be and help the QB."

Brian Billick: "Him over a guy like Kenny Britt? He is more stable."

Marshall Faulk: "I went with the reliable route runner who will catch the ball. He won't have off-the-field problems. He's stable."

Mike Mayock: "I think you have to take a step back and remember how Ozzie Newsome drafts. He's less specific toward needs and more toward the best player on his board. I think the best player on his board will be Brandon Pettigrew if he gets to that point."

Marshall Faulk: "That may be true. But if you watched them play, they didn't have that guy. If you're going to have a quarterback like Flacco, get him a guy he can depend on. That's what you want to do. You want to provide him with weapons."

Mike Mayock: "I agree with everything you've said, but here's the hole: Ozzie Newsome will take the highest-rated player on his board. At No. 26, they won't take a player rated lower than 26. If Robiskie is rated 32, or 29, they will not take him. They will not go and reach for a specific player."

Brian Billick: "But they will drop back They only have six picks in the draft. They're in a prime spot to trade back."

Mike Mayock: "They would trade back, and that's what they could do to get Robiskie. I don't think at No. 26 they would take him. But they could get him and multiple picks."

Rich Eisen: "That's why they call it a 'mock draft' and not a 'Mayock draft' right?"

Elsewhere in the NFL.com mock draft, Aaron Curry went No. 1, Mark Sanchez was picked ahead of Matthew Stafford, Stafford went at the 10 spot to SanFran, Pettigrew fell to No. 28 and Heyward-Bey to 29. Also, Aaron Maybin was the 30th overall pick.

Making a Mockery of Mock Drafts, Part 3

There's nothing quite as ridiculous as mock drafts, so this week, the Toy Department has decided to make a mockery of mock drafts by conducting our own three-part draft. But instead of limiting the pool to players who have actually entered the draft, we've placed no such limits on anything. The people do not even have to be real. They just have to be able to help the franchise in some way.

In case you missed them, you can catch Part 1 here, or Part 2 here.  

21. Philadelphia Eagles

Selection: Santa Claus, toymaker; deliverer of good cheer

 

Analysis: It's about time Philly and jolly old Saint Nick put their long-running feud to rest. Sure, maybe a handful of Eagles fans did boo Santa Claus at some point, besmirching the entire city's character for years to come, but it's time for bygones to be bygones, right? Think of all the good that could occur if this relationship was mended. Santa could unload a bunch of unread Rush Limbaugh books on Donovan McNabb  as a way to break the ice, and then hand out his real presents, like a membership to the Ham of the Month club for coach Andy Reid and a first-aid kit for Brian Westbrook.


22. Minnesota Vikings

Selection: Doc Brown, scientist

 

Analysis: This one is simple. The Vikings hook up with Doc Brown and his flux capacitor and go back in time and trade a couple draft picks for Jay Cutler. Or, if they prefer, they can go even farther back in time and simply draft a real quarterback. Seriously, you have the best running back the NFL has seen in 10 years and you want to waste the best parts of his career with Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels as your quarterback? The team is lucky Rep. Michelle Bachman hasn't tried to have owner Zygi Wilf deported yet. Instead of organizing boat orgies, the Vikings should look inside Brad Childress' garage to see if he has an old DeLorean they can get up to 88 mph. It probably also wouldn't hurt to use the flux capacitor to go back in time and figure out a way to properly count votes for the U.S. Senate election either, now that I think about it. (Seriously, how long does Minnesota plan to go with just one vote in the U.S. Senate? Obama's second term?) Even Al Franken and Rush Limbaugh can agree that asking Adrian Peterson to play with Sage Rosenfels is a criminal offense.

 

23. New England Patriots

Selection: David Addington, lawyer, treasonous criminal, rule-bender

 

Analysis: When Addington was the legal council (and eventually chief of staff) for former Vice President Dick Cheney, he earned a well-deserved reputation for waltzing all over the Constitution to justify whatever the administration wanted. It's a skill that should come in handy in the Patriots' front office, which has never seen a rule it didn't want to ruthlessly dodge. Dive at Tom Brady's knees this year? After the game, you may find yourself dragged off to a window-less room and waterboarded deep inside the bowels of Gillette Stadium, regardless of whether or not you were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Addington might argue that Bill Belichick has unlimited powers if he feels his quarterback has been threatened. If Brady's Brazilian bride seems like a distraction and she doesn't have her papers in order, she might be in trouble too, citizenship or no.

24. Atlanta Falcons

Selection: Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, drill instructor, Full Metal Jacket 

Analysis: It was somewhat inspiring to see the way Atlanta put its franchise back together after Mike Vick and his Bad Newz Kennels crew nearly burned the whole thing to the ground. But the problem with Hot-lanta is that trouble lurks around every corner. What the Falcons need is a no-nonsense drill sergeant like the one portrayed by R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket to constantly remind them of their larger purpose. Thinking about starting a fight in a nightclub? Gunnery Sgt. Hartman will be there to make you choke yourself using his hand. Contemplating taking a young lady home for the evening and possibly impregnating her? Sgt. Hartman will have you doing push-ups and cleaning latrines until the Virgin Mary herself would feel comfortable sitting on them. And sure, maybe Matt Ryan snaps and shoots the drill sergeant in the chest, but that's OK because the Marine Corps lives on forever.

25. Miami Dolphins

Selection: Jimmy Buffett, singer/songwriter, professional drunk

 

Analysis: No real deep thought required here. Even though Miami made the playoffs with Chad Pennington under center last year, he's not a long-term solution to the Curse of Dan Marino. You have to be wasted on margaritas to believe Pennington's arm is going to hold up another year, and while you're at it, you might as well listen to some tunes about nostalgia, beach life and public intoxication. Over the years, Jimmy's made enough money to buy the Dolphins, but he's also probably pissed it away so fast (really, it was never meant to last) so he'll be happy to help out in whatever way he can.

26. Baltimore Ravens

Selection: Jesus, son of God, true teammate 

 

Analysis: Ray Lewis and Matt Stover have frequently mentioned how God is using the Ravens to spread His message throughout the world, so why not go ahead and make the partnership official? What Would Jesus Do? Well, Jesus would do pretty much whatever the team needed, to be honest. Jesus could prepare the pre-game meal (Mark 6:41). He could help with contract negotiations, reminding players camels will sooner fit through the eye of a needle than rich men will get into Heaven (Luke 18:24-25). He could -- at least for believers -- heal everything from groin injuries to torn hammys and blown out ACLs (Mark 5:2-41). You can even make the case that Jesus would totally approve of Ray Lewis' pre-game dance routine (Psalm 149). One thing is for certain though: If Jesus covered kicks, he'd be the first guy reaching down to help up the person he just tackled, even if he was a member of the Steelers. (Matthew 5:44). (You're supposed to love your enemies, you know?) And if one of Jesus' teammates tries to throw him under the bus, which happens all the time on Ravens' radio shows, well, he saw it coming (Matthew 26:21). He's likely to forgive anyway.

27. Indianapolis Colts

Selection: Michael Phelps, swimmer, imbiber

 

Analysis: Everyone acts like Peyton Manning totally figured everything out when he won his Super Bowl ring two years ago, but you know what the truth is? Manning is still a frenetic head case, spazzing out before every play, calling fake audibles to show how smart he is, dancing around with his happy feet in the pocket. If only there was someone who could help Manning learn to mellow out. Someone who could ... I don't know ... teach him to just chillax the (bleep) out and just let life come at him, bro. Someone who could just hang out with him and be like, Peyton, dude, be serious with me for like one second, OK? Tell the truth: Do you ever look at the big blue horseshoe on the side of your helmet and wonder if it's not really a horseshoe, but like ... one of those giant cartoon magnets Wile E. Coyote was always using to try and catch the Road Runner? The Road Runner was awesome, wasn't he? He was always like "Meep meep!" which was so hilarious.

28. Philadelphia Eagles

Selection: Gaston, man's man, spitting/fighting/drinking village champion, Beauty and the Beast

 

Analysis: Since the Eagles have two first-round picks, they should roll the dice here and select a Frenchman, even though the country's NFL track record is a little spotty. As much as Donovan McNabb has done for the franchise over the years, it's obvious he has major self-confidence issues he's just never going to get over, and Gaston -- who is so manly he uses antlers in all of his decorations -- has no such hangups. Sometimes you need to be an arrogant jerk to succeed at sports, and while McNabb is busy sulking that people don't like him enough or might be saying mean things behind his back, Gaston will be spitting in the face of linebackers and leading game-winning drives. Seriously, Philly, we dare you to throw batteries at this guy. He will just catch them, probably with his teeth, and chew them into a paste and then spit it on your steak sandwich.

29. New York Giants

Selection: Scott Scanlon, nerdy handgun novice, 90210

 

Analysis: It's unclear whether or not the Giants learned any lessons about gun safety from Plaxico Burress' nightclub shooting incident -- other than don't wear sweatpants with a loose waistband if you're going to carry a concealed, unlicensed handgun in New York City -- but professional athletes are sometimes a bit slow on the uptake, so there are no guarantees. This is where Scanlon comes in. His accidental shooting death on 90210 remains one of the most out-of-left-field moments in teen soap drama history, so repeating it in the Giants locker room would definitely help the message hit home. You can also totally imagine Eli Manning telling the media that Scanlon was a great guy whom everyone loved, and that he was a really important member of the team, even though he and Eli probably would have spent about three minutes together total because Scott could never get in with the cool crowd.

30. Tennessee Titans

Selection: Carrie Underwood, country crooner, Romo-dumpee

 

Analysis: Tennessee, even without Albert Haynesworth, is a pretty complete team. They should be a threat to contend for the AFC championship once again. In all likelihood, they'll have an excellent regular season and probably go into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed. And of course, just like they always do, they'll blow it, probably by losing a playoff game at home. You know why? The dirty secret is that Jeff Fisher is an incredibly average big-game coach. During the regular season, he's one of the best in the NFL, but when it really matters, he suddenly becomes Norv Turner. The only thing Nashville's hometown team can do is sign up country music's cutest crooner and ask her to document the inevitable collapse with a sad song about heartbreak, betrayal and alcohol, which is where Ms. Underwood comes in. (Who wouldn't want Jesus to take the wheel if Kerry Collins and Jeff Fisher were driving?) She's even familiar with those who fold in big moments, having briefly dated Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo before he ditched her for Jessica Simpson and her mom jeans. By the way, has anyone ever made worse decisions under pressure than Romo?  

31. Arizona Cardinals

Selection: Phil Mickelson, professional golfer, professional headcase


Analysis: Phil Mickelson has made a career out of dazzling his supporters, and then confounding them, which is exactly what the Cardinals did last season during their run to the Super Bowl. So, it makes sense that this former Arizona State Sun Devil would want to come on as a consultant. Kurt Warner is going to be really upset that Jesus was picked by the Ravens, and probably demand a trade, so it's even possible Mickelson could see time at quarterback, where he'd likely excel at throwing short passes but really struggle with the long ball. On off days, Matt Leinart can carry his golf bag, since the Cardinals need to pay Leinart to do something -- other than take hits from a beer bong.

32. Pittsburgh Steelers

Selection: A pair of Bad Idea Jeans

 

Analysis: The Steelers don't need much in terms of help. Right now, they're the most complete team in the NFL. But it would be nice if they had something their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, could put on before he goes out on the town to remind him that he doesn't have the best judgment away from the football field. Want to ride your motorcycle without a helmet in downtown Pittsburgh? Check the label and ask yourself: Bad idea? Want to do shots with a bunch of random strangers and get food stuck in your beard? Again, consult the label and think about it: Bad idea? It's like having a babysitter or mentor in the form of a garment. It's a way to make certain that your All-Pro quarterback can still be himself, but that he doesn't endanger others (or his team's shot at repeating) just because he's not the brightest bulb in the room.

 

That concludes our mockery of mock drafts, folks. Enjoy the real thing. Keep your fingers crossed that the Ravens phone lines don't get cut this year, but remember, some things are also best left up to fate. As long as they're not left up to Brian Billick, it's all good.

One-stop shopping for Twittering athletes

This morning, I know that Lance Armstrong was planning to bike seven miles, Morgan Pressel was at the course before sunrise, Ron Zook had a radio appearance and Shawne Merriman went to bed "with a sour face." I know this because of Twitter, or more specifically, because of AthleteTweets.com.

AthleteTweets.com is a new aggregator site that collects Twitter commentary from athletes and coaches, everyone from Michael Phelps to Shaq. It's easy to follow because you don't have to be a Twitter member to read the feeds. On a single screen, you get the latest from Serena Williams, Steve Nash and Terrell Owens.

The founder, David Katz, is not only a veteran of Yahoo! and CBS, plus the founder of SportsFanLive.com, but he's also a native of the Baltimore area (his first internship was in the office of Ron Shapiro). He took some time to explain his new site and opine on the expanding Twitter universe of athletes.

Question: Seems like you're on to something with this site. Where'd the idea come from? Did you just get tired of hopping around to read tweets from your favorite athletes?

Katz: It's actually an idea I had more than a year ago when I first started following Twitter. I registered a bunch of web addresses. But at the time, there weren't really any athletes on using it. When the athletes started using Twitter a few months ago, we dusted off the plan and started building the web site.


Question: So much of what we know about athletes and Twitter is anecdotal. Can you quantify it a bit? How many athletes are regular Twitter users? Who are the most prolific and the most interesting?

Katz: We had more than 140 players and coaches on the roster as of Thursday. The list should continue to grow as more athletes decide to join. Consider Knowshon Moreno, the Georgia running back expected to be a first-round pick this weekend. Moreno’s first Tweet says, “if shaq has one of these i shud to.” Twitter has become trendy among the athlete fraternity, and we can expect to see that number grow exponentially over the next several months. 

Question: I'm sure you've been monitoring athletes' Twitter habits awhile now. Do you have a top-5 list of memorable tweets?

Katz: Here's the "Dave Fave 5" to date:

Terrell Owens: n the bahamas chillin 4 a couple more days!! ladies if u're n need of sum sun,come hang out w/me only if u bikini ready! stayin @ the cove!

Pete Carroll (and his on-going campaign to get Will Ferrell to register for Twitter):
This Twitter thing has sucked you in @Mark_Sanchez, huh? There's no turning back now! (Now if only we could get Will on...)

Michael Phelps: "Uma, Oprah! Oprah, Uma!"  Welcome to twitter @Oprah!

Steve Nash: and ask Shaq who the only guy to score on him in soccer at suns practices... he really thinks he's the best soccer goalkeeper in the world!?

...and the grand master of Twitterdom...Mr. Shaquille O'Neal:

Shaq (A three-pack of tweets In sequence):
-- Breakfast Egg white omelette Lunch Cobb salad
-- meet me at az biltmore back patio. tweetup at 4pm. we can swap diet secrets. Lol
-- I cheated, I had a texas size honeybun, it wnt happen again, no more cheatin, shaqlyte is in effect

Question: You graduated from Pikesville. Are you an Orioles and Ravens fan? Is that why the AthleteTweets.com logo looks familiar?

Katz: Yes, I graduated from Pikesville High School, Class of 1990. All-County basketball player and if memory serves correctly, I believe the Sun named me an All-Metro honorable mention. Went to the University of Pennsylvania and got a little playing time on the Penn basketball team that made the NCAA tourney. Huge Orioles, Ravens and Terps fan. I make it back to Baltimore every 2 months and try to catch about 4 Ravens games per year, despite living in Los Angeles. And yes, it's no coincidence that our Twitter bird looks like an Oriole bird and the birds on the wire look like Ravens. I'm always trying to throw out the subtle hometown love.

Question: OK, you're local. Why isn't @peter_angelos included?

Katz: The day Peter Angelos starts tweeting is the day they bring back Davey Johnson. But I find the fake Peter Angelos' tweets very funny.

Question: Is it difficult distinguishing the fake from the real?

Katz: For AthletesTweets.com, we use a vetting process to determine the validity of the Twitter account. There are a lot of fakes out there. It's not 100 percent, but our list is very accurate and we are following up on new leads daily.

Question: Are Bmore athletes well-represented on Twitter? Donte Greene doesn't seem too bad. How bright is his future on Twitter, ya think?

Katz: We definitely need more Bmore athletes on Twitter. Michael Phelps has gotten a lot more active lately. As has Donte Green. A lot more people know about Donte now that he is using Twitter. Personally, I'm waiting for @BRob or @Markakis to get on this.

Question: It strikes me as a bit meta. I mean, We've heard for awhile that traditional media was losing relevance because athletes could skip over main-streamers and connect with their fans directly. But your slogan -- Covering Athletes Covering Themselves -- leads me to think otherwise. Is my hope misplaced or do you notice a trend in which athletes are successfully able to bypass traditional media?

Katz: Twitter, and social media more generally, is profound in that an athlete now has the power to go directly to their fans and grow their fanbase in a viral manner -- quick and at no cost.

These athletes are also "brands," and this represents an opportunity for them to control their message without having to go through the media. The media will always be needed to probe, challenge, investigate, hold accountable and break news that otherwise wouldn't be received by the masses. But there is no doubt that Twitter can make certain athletes more relevant to sports fans than others and can definitely help position an athlete for endorsements or for a broadcasting career when they retire.

But this level of access between fans and players is a double-edged sword. Athletes need to go into it with their eyes open. Before beginning to use Twitter, everyone involved (player, agent, team, league) should be aware of the risks, as well as the benefits. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.

Question: What kind of trending have you noticed? Do athletes start with Twitter and gain momentum? Or do most of them lose interest quickly?

Katz: It's still early, but the results have been mixed. There have been some that have taken off, gained momentum, built fanbase quickly, and others have Twittered for awhile and then "taken the offseason off."

Question: How permanent of a medium do you think this is? Passing fad or six months from now will every team be represented in some fashion?

Katz: Twitter has great long-term potential. But more important than a particular company is the profound behavioral change that it represents. The era of access, openness and sharing is here to stay.

Question: You have 140 characters. Give me the athlete tweet you most want to see.

Katz:  From @AnquanBold81: Hey Baltimore fans, meet me at BWI! Flacco2Boldin=SuperBowl

When Chuck Norris is in trouble, he calls Matt Wieters

Used to be, you had to be an aging action star to get this kind of hyperbolic tribute site. As time passed, the trend became somewhat diluted and even rookie pitchers were getting them. So it probably should surprise no one that MattWietersFacts.com is up and running. The site's slogan is, "Facts so good, they make Chuck Norris cry like a girl." And they don't disappoint.

A few of my favorites are below, but you should really check out the site to get the full flavor. And to encourage you to think up a few of your own, I've included some of my Matt Wieters facts at the bottom of this post.

(Wieters, by the way, returned to the lineup for Triple-A Norfolk last night. He went 1-for-4 and scored a run... and found a cure for cancer between innings.)


Matt Wieters Is So Good That Jim Palmer Stopped Talking About Himself.

2,131? How About 3,131? Wieters Laughs In The Face Of Injury.

Matt Wieters Took Batting Practice This Morning. There Were No Survivors.

When A Pitcher Plunks Matt Wieters, The Ball Is Awarded First Base For Enduring The Pain.

Chuck Norris Won't Attend Orioles Games Because He's Afraid Of Matt Wieters.

Matt Wieters Invented The Chicken...And The Chicken Sandwich.

Matt Wieters Signed Autographs Today For 5000 People Using 2 Fish, And 5 Loaves Of Bread

When Matt Wieters Retires, Eutaw Street Will Be Renamed For Him Because Of All The Home Runs That Land There. So Will Camden Street, Howard Street, And Pratt Street.

Matt Weiters Is Not Trying Out For The Baltimore Orioles, The Baltimore Orioles Are Trying Out For Matt Weiters.

Matt Wieters Took Batting Practice Today, And Wouldn't Give It Back.

In The Future, MVP And HOF Selections Will Be Made By The Baseball Wieters Association Of America.

Most Ballplayers Talk About Themselves In The First Person. Rickey Henderson Talked About Himself In The Third Person. Matt Wieters Talks About Himself In The Fourth Person.

A Pitcher Shook Off Matt Wieters...Once.

In Last Season's Finale Of Lost, Ben Didn't Move The Island, Matt Wieters Did.

* * *

OK, you get the idea. Fans are kinda excited for this kid. (In fact, there's already a site urging fans to write-in Wieters on their All-Star ballots.)

Now, to encourage you to come up with some of your own, I flexed my flabby and out-of-shape humor muscle a bit. Here's the best I got. I'm sure Matt Wieters could come up with something way funnier. Leave your best effort in the comments and be sure to also send it to MattWietersFacts@yahoo.com.

Matt Wieters caused Chuck Norris' beard to leap off his face and run for cover.

Brian McNamee injected Roger Clemens in the tush with Matt Wieters' saliva.

Congress convened a special session to discuss Matt Wieters awesomeness, and the next day the recession was over.

Twitter allows Matt Wieters to use as many characters as he damn well chooses.

Did you hear about the California woman who gave birth to eight children? Let's just say Matt Wieters knew about her before you did.

Just because he was bored, Matt Wieters fired up his tricked-out Mayflower truck, drove to Indianapolis and brought Baltimore's horseshoes back to town.

Photo: Karl Merton Ferron / Sun;

HOF plaque: MattWietersFacts.com

Adam Eaton for president!

 

And you wanted to run Adam Eaton out of town? Let's convene an emergency session of the city council. Where should we erect a statue of this guy?

7.1 IP, 6 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 9 Ks -- that's a line Orioles fans can live with.

With last night's performance -- which surprised everyone at Camden Yards except for Eaton and Orioles manager Dave Trembley -- the right-hander's ERA is down to 7.04. By this rate, it'll be below 6.00 by the All-Star break.

Eaton was quick and consistent. Seventy-four of his 102 pitches were for strikes. And when he left the game in the eighth inning -- Eaton's longest outing in nearly two years -- he received a standing ovation. It was well-deserved, though maybe the least surprising part of the night. Most fans were planning to stay late anyway, figuring they could meet Eaton in the parking lot afterward and help drive him out of town. 

But Eaton will be here a bit longer. And if he can repeat last night's performance a couple of more times, he'll be here a lot longer.

"It felt great," he said later. "It's been a long time since I have had that, and it felt very good."

It felt good for him -- but great for most fans.

 

The Conversation: Mock draft, Ravens up!

With a whopping 12 picks left to project, Ken Murray and Childs Walker are staggering down the home stretch. They felt reasonably confident about their top 10, a little less so about 11-20, and now, who knows? But fear not, gentle reader, they've given whole minutes of thought to whom the Ravens will select at 26. Push on to find out.

21) Philadelphia Eagles

Childs' pick: Andy Reid let his starting tight end go to Baltimore. Now, he gets to fill the spot with the best all-around player left on the board, Brandon Pettigrew. Reid loves to draft lineman and hey, Pettigrew can really block in addition to catching passes.

Ken's pick: The Eagles may be sitting on this pick to see who drops. If RB Knowshon Moreno drops, he's an easy choice. If not, the Eagles could take UConn's Donald Brown, or they could package the pick in a deal for disgruntled Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin. All three moves would improve the team.  

22) Minnesota Vikings

Childs' pick: Minnesota could go receiver, linebacker or tackle, so this is a possible destination for Darrius Heyward-Bey. But the Vikings will opt to solidify the right side of their line with tackle Eben Britton. I know it ain't glamorous.

Ken's pick: If Darrius Heyward-Bey doesn't go to Oakland at 7, as rumored, he will likely fall to the 20s. This is one of his potential landing spots. He will have to hope the Vikings find a quarterback before the season.

23) New England Patriots

Childs' pick: Bill Belichick loves having versatile playmakers to stick in the middle of his defense. Rey Maualuga is such a player. I sense a perfect marriage.

Ken's pick: The Patriots need linebackers. Rey Maualuga is the next linebacker in line, and he will make New England very, very solid up the middle.

24) Atlanta Falcons

Childs' pick: They traded for an elite tight end, so they no longer need to hope for Pettigrew to drop. That means they'll draft defense. I'd be tempted to take Vontae Davis, the best cover corner in the draft. But the Falcons will look inside to tackle Peria Jerry. If Jerry is gone, they'll take a productive, high-effort alternative, Evander Hood.

Ken's pick: Having traded for Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons can devote their draft to defense. It should start with defensive tackle Peria Jerry, who is a steal at this spot. 

25) Miami Dolphins

Childs' pick: Bill Parcells knows that Vontae Davis is too good to pass up at this spot. The Dolphins need a guy like him in the secondary, and most of the more appealing up-front options are gone. I can't see Parcells shrinking from his alleged character issues.

Ken's pick:  I agree with Childs that the pick goes for a corner, but I don't agree with the corner. I like Darius Butler of UConn because he's more athletic with better ball skills. He may not be as physical, but he's not the headache that Davis will become.

26) Baltimore Ravens

Childs' pick: With Percy Harvin and Darrius Heyward-Bey still on the board, the Ravens have their shot to pair Joe Flacco with a big-play threat. Or do they pick Kenny Britt, a bigger target with fewer questions about his hands? Given Flacco's big arm and the presence of underneath receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton, Heyward-Bey's speed is too great to pass up if they keep the pick. My gut, however, says they wouldn't take him and would trade down if presented with these options.

Ken's pick: In previous mocks, I've taken Heyward-Bey and Maualuga. In this version, I'm presuming both will be gone. No problem. If they like CB Vontae Davis despite his issues, they can have him. But I pick Kenny Britt, the big, fast wide receiver from Rutgers. If they can get a trade partner, they may trade back to the top of the second round, though. 

27) Indianapolis Colts

Childs' pick: The Colts need a defensive tackle. Evander "Ziggy" Hood lacks star potential, but there are few questions about his effort or dependability. He's a good fit for a team always looking to win now.

Ken's pick: It would be interesting if somehow Heyward-Bey were still available (yes, that means the Ravens would pass). It would be the perfect place for him. But since I have already had him taken, I'll go with chalk again and Ziggy Hood, the Colts' kind of defensive lineman.

28) Buffalo Bills

Childs' pick: They'll take Eben Britton if he's on the board. But with Britton and all the good defensive linemen gone, they'll decide that Beanie Wells is too great a talent to pass up.

Ken's pick:  After trading LT Jason Peters, the Bills are in serious need of a tackle. Eben Britton is still available on my board, and he's the pick.

29) New York Giants

Childs' pick: I could see them picking Kenny Britt as a potential replacement for Plaxico Burress. Harvin is tantalizing. They need a linebacker as well, but the obvious first rounders are gone. Britt's size-speed combo will win out over Harvin's highlight-reel potential.

Ken's pick: I don't have answers for why WR Percy Harvin has fallen out of favor -- if it's true -- but the Giants can't pass up a playmaker like this. He can revive the passing game.

30) Tennessee Titans

Childs' pick: They need a receiver as well, and Percy Harvin is too gifted to leave on the shelf at 30.

Ken's pick: Hakeem Nicks would be a nice fit here, but the Titans also need a cornerback. Vontae Davis is a great value at this position.

31) Arizona Cardinals

Childs' pick: They need a running back to replace Edgerrin James. Donald Brown doesn't look like a superstar, but he does a lot of things well and was extremely durable and productive in college. He will help Arizona right away.

Ken's pick: Moreno isn't going to drop this far. Neither will Wells. so the Cardinals will settle for RB Donald Brown of UConn. Brown and Butler, by the way, would be the first two first-round picks ever for UConn.

32) Pittsburgh Steelers

Childs' pick: The Steelers will draft an interior offensive lineman. Eric Wood can play both center and guard. So can Max Unger. I'll take Wood by a nose.

Ken's pick: For the sake of argument, I'll go with Max Unger.

 

And with that, we exhale and wish you good day and merry mocking.

April 23, 2009

Childs Play: Sorting through baseball's hot/cold starts

Some readers might remember that until last summer, Childs Walker wrote a weekly column on fantasy sports for The Sun. That ritual died for the cause of reducing newsprint costs (tough business, newspapers). But with the Toy Department open and its aisles boundless, Childs is back with his insights, laments and odes to joy regarding pretend baseball and pretend football. For previous editions of Childs Play, click here.

We're at the point in the baseball season when a lot of players look preposterously good or preposterously bad. And they've played enough that it's not quite so easy to shrug and say, "It's just one game."

That's what you should do. Whenever people ask me about their teams in April, I tell them to be patient and see where they stand after a month. If you know you have a weakness, that's one thing. But if you thought your team had great power going into the season, and you currently rank dead last in home runs, don't overreact.

That said, every owner wonders if the nobody who started hot will keep it up or whether the star with a 11.17 ERA (you're killing me, Cole Hamels) will regain his former glory. So here are my reads on some of the hottest and coldest starts of 2009.

Aaron Hill - I touted him two weeks ago, so I'm not going to turn around and say he sucks. Obviously, the Blue Jays second baseman isn't going to hit 40 home runs (he has five already.) But he showed two years ago that he can hit 15+ with a solid batting average. He remains an appealing option at second base, even if he's a sell-high candidate right now.

Zach Greinke - Fearless predictor says he won't hold opponents scoreless for the year. Seriously though, he's really good. He always had a sick combination of power fastball, sharply contrasting off-speed stuff and excellent control. Now that he has his non-playing life in order, he should remain pretty golden. You don't strike out 26 in 20 scoreless innings if you're a fluke.

Ian Kinsler - For a second straight year, he's looking like the best player in the American League early in the season. That can't be a total fluke, right? Kinsler will not continue to hit like Rogers Hornsby. But he carries a perfect profile for a fantasy star. He does everything well, he plays a position thin on offensive talent and his home park makes him look better than he is. As long as he stays healthy, he's a top-5 fantasy talent in the A.L., and I would not look to trade him.

Cole Hamels - Yeah, he's been lousy and yeah, he just told a reporter he was underprepared for the season. But his second start was better than his first, which happened in Colorado. His velocity has already improved. His control is fine. As long as he and the Phillies aren't hiding a more serious injury, I want him on my team.

Kevin Youkilis - I'll be honest. I love Youk, because I have him for $8 in my A.L. league. But I thought he played over his head last season. Maybe not, huh? Youkilis hit a lot of home runs that just cleared the fence in 2008, so I still expect his power totals to fall short of last year. He's a serious .300 threat, however, and he's back to drawing a lot of walks. Stick that package in the middle of a strong line-up, and the great production should continue.

Carlos Quentin - I could just about repeat my Youkilis comment. I have Quentin at a reasonable price ($16.) He broke out big-time last year. I expected less in 2009. But with seven homers, Quentin appears all the way back from a September wrist injury. His power stroke is obviously a perfect fit for his home park, so he should be fun to own as long as he remains in Chicago.

C.C. Sabathia - Again, we went through this last year. I'm sure stories will come out of New York that Sabathia is an overworked, out-of-shape, worn-down entity. There's nothing to like about his current pitching line. But the dude has never been bad in the major leagues and has never been less than excellent in the last three years. If you're selling, I'm buying.

Matt Kemp - I love this guy. He's not the most disciplined hitter, but he has always been able to make hard contact and he's an impressive athlete. Now that the Dodgers have stopped dicking around with him, I could see some .300, 30-homer, 30-steal seasons in the near future. Beyond the obvious guys like Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes, there's no young player I'd rather have from the National League.

Francisco Liriano - A perpetual reminder of the brutalities of pitching. He was as good as any starter in the league at age 22. But at age 25, post-surgery, he's not the same guy. He'll obviously improve on the 7.06 ERA, but his command isn't back, so rough patches could abound in 2009.

Jay Bruce - I'm counting on Bruce in two leagues, and that's an uncomfortable feeling. With three walks and 11 strikeouts in 45 plate appearances, he still doesn't make enough contact to hit for a good average. The 30-homer power is already there but the all-around package? Not yet.

Kosuke Fukudome - I liked Fukudome coming into this season. Many Japanese players have required an adjustment year, and his combination of plate patience and decent pop gave him a solid core of skills. He will cool down, but .280 with 15-17 homers and 15 steals isn't out of the question, and that's a useful player.

Nelson Cruz - The power is real. In that park, he could hit 25-30 home runs. Now, let's hope he starts running.

Brandon Inge - He's more .220 hitter than .320, though the reality lies somewhere in between. I love the position versatility, but he's a sell-high candidate.

Troy Tulowitzki - Sure, he's hitting .196 after a difficult 2008. But the Rockies have only played three of 14 games at home, so I trust Coors Field to take care of his slow start.

Jake Peavy - I feel like we go through this with him every other year. His 5.13 ERA looks bad, but everything else in his pitching line is the same as ever, and the park will always protect him. He remains a fantasy ace.

Jon Lester - Ditto to Peavy. His 5.50 ERA looks bad. Everything else about his performance looks good. Just ask the Orioles.

David Ortiz - I like Ortiz as a buy-low candidate. Talk up his age and the residual effects of his wrist injury. Point out the .220 average and .322 slugging average. Then snag a guy who can't help but drive in 100 in the middle of that line-up. He really wasn't that bad down the stretch in '08.

Heath Bell - Not a fluke. He has been one of the best relievers in baseball for three years. He just happens to be a closer now.

Fausto Carmona - He officially scares me now. As great as he looked as a power groundballer in 2007, you can't win consistently striking out four guys a game and walking five.

Ricky Nolasco - The 6.86 ERA is ugly, but he hasn't been very lucky on balls in play. His strikeout and walk data look fine, so I wouldn't worry.

Jarrod Washburn - His stats look great, but I just can't accept that 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA is reflective of his ability. Three years of lousy outweighs three starts of great.

Edison Volquez - You have to worry a little about 13 bb in 15 2/3 innings. That looks more like the second half of last year than the first.

Kyle Davies - I heard lots of positive reports on him coming out of spring training. The 21 strikeouts in 18 2/3 innings tell me the reports weren't the usual March nonsense.

The Preakness: Will you miss it?

Every Thursday in the Toy Department brings another installment of "From the Editor's Desk," a weekly dispatch from Tim Wheatley. To ask him questions, register complaints or recommend raises for the Toy Department staff, email him at tim.wheatley@baltsun.com. For previous installments of "From the Editor's Desk," click here.

The Preakness, Baltimore's highest-attended, one-day sporting event, is three weeks away. As we begin our preparations for the race, I can't help but wonder if people would miss it if it left town like the Colts. It is a possibility with Magna's bankruptcy, the demise of horse racing in general and the economic factors affecting every business.

Do I think it will happen? No. The Preakness has the tradition, the track record of delivering 100,000-plus spectators, and who's going to bid on something like that in this economy?

But I don't think people will miss it, either. We're three weeks away and there is no buzz. People are talking about the Ravens, the NFL Draft, the Orioles and even Maryland basketball. This will be my fourth Preakness and I know that even as it gets closer there's not much buzz.

It's a one-hit, one-day, two-minute wonder. The majority of the people go for several reasons: It's the place to be in Baltimore on the third Saturday in May, the drinking, the people watching and the hope that they can win a little money (not likely for once-a-year bettors).

Oh, and did I mention the drinking? It'll be interesting to see if the ban on bringing in alcohol supports my theory. I bet attendance will be down significantly.

Then there's the hard-core gamblers. The true horse racing fans? Hard to find. And even then, most of them have some type of connection to the horses or the industry in Maryland.

What do you think? If the Preakness leaves town, will you miss it? Will we still be talking about it 25 years later like we do the Colts? Leave your comments below.

Baltimore Sun photo by Monica Lopossay

 

The Conversation: Mock Draft, part two

Ken Murray and Childs Walker rolled through their projected top 10 for Saturday's NFL Draft. Now, they pick it up with the wild and woolly middle of the first round.

11) Buffalo Bills

Childs' pick: Most seem to agree that the Bills will go with a defensive lineman, but few agree on which one. Tyson Jackson could be the guy, but he's thought to be a better fit for a 3-4 defense. Robert Ayers is supposedly soaring up draft boards. But I like local boy Aaron Maybin at this spot. The Bills need a pass rusher, and Maybin can do that better than Jackson. He has a more consistent record of production than Ayers. He's simply the best overall fit.

Ken's pick: Maybin will be a tantalizing choice here, Childs. But the Bills play a 4-3 and most people project Aaron as a 3-4 outside backer. He's not going to be strong against the run the first year or two. If the Bills can wait, he's a great pick. I think they go for Robert Ayers, a more traditional 4-3 end, from Tennessee.

12) Denver Broncos

Childs' pick: We've talked about Denver as a team that might trade up to get Sanchez. If that doesn't happen, the Broncos will almost surely fortify their defensive front. They would love to see Raji fall to this spot, but I doubt that, so Tyson Jackson is a nice fallback. He's a good all-around player from a strong program and will strengthen the interior of Denver's 3-4.

Ken's pick: The Broncos have been decimated on defense in recent years. As much as they need a QB, defense almost has to be the pick. I like Tyson Jackson here as well. He's a perfect fit in Denver's defense.

13) Washington Redskins

Childs' pick: Yet another team that could enter the Sanchez sweepstakes, but I don't see the Redskins getting it done (nor should they; Jason Campbell is fine.) The Redskins could go for a pass-rusher to give them what they hoped for from Jason Taylor. Or they could snag a much-needed tackle. Michael Oher is tempting here, because he has the size and strength to help immediately on the right side. But the Redskins will take the best pass rusher on the board, Robert Ayers.

Ken's pick: The Redskins have been searching for a pass rusher, seemingly since Dexter Manley. Well, now they get a shot at Aaron Maybin (Mount Hebron), who is the best pure pass rusher in the draft. Maybin will play close to home, so his father won't have to put too many more miles on that van he used for the college search.

14) New Orleans Saints

Childs' pick: Draft "experts" have linked Chris "Beanie" Wells to the Saints for weeks. It makes some sense. He could replace Deuce McAllister and provide a powerful compliment to Reggie Bush. All of that said, Wells' college teammate, Malcolm Jenkins, was a more productive, consistent player. And he would also fill a need for the Saints. So I say Jenkins, who reminds me of the physically unremarkable but productive players that often pay off for the Ravens.

Ken's pick: With all that offense, the Saints still missed the playoffs one year after getting to the NFC championship game. That's because they can't play defense. They should fill their most pressing need in the secondary for a corner-safety with the selection of Malcolm Jenkins, even if Vontae Davis projects as the better cornerback.

15) Houston Texans

Childs' pick: The Texans would love one of the top DE/LB pass rushers to fall to them, but I have Orakpo, Maybin and Ayers off the board. So Houston will turn to Brian Cushing, a strong, productive linebacker who can come in and play right away.

Ken's pick: Another team with critical defense holes to fill. I think they go to USC for a linebacker, but I'll project Clay Matthews, who is the most athletic of the three Trojans backers. Matthews has great bloodlines and the family has a history with Houston.

16) San Diego Chargers 

Childs' pick: The Chargers rode LaDainian Tomlinson for a long time, but once running backs start to break down, they rarely come back. Darren Sproles is a heck of a player, but he's A) tiny and B) had to be franchised this offseason. With both top runners, Wells and Knowshon Moreno, on the board, the Chargers have a nice chance to reload. They should go with Moreno, the tougher, more versatile player.

Ken's pick: The Chargers could find themselves with a choice between Moreno and Beanie Wells, or even tight end Brandon Pettigrew. I have no rationale for this other than to say they'll take Wells.

17) New York Jets 

Childs' pick: Way to break the veneer of certainty, Ken! Anyway, the Jets are one of the more intriguing teams in the draft. We know they need a quarterback (even if they say otherwise) so they're another possible Sanchez suitor. They also need receivers, and some significant home-run threats, Percy Harvin and Darrius Heyward-Bey, remain on the board. I don't like what I'm about to do, but I think the Jets will get itchy for a quarterback and take Josh Freeman. Hey, at least he has the size and arm to be great.

Ken's pick: They want Sanchez, or a play-making receiver, but tight end Brandon Pettigrew will drop into their lap in this scenario -- which is hard even for me to believe. I don't think they can afford another project quarterback like Freeman, who is way too raw to come in and pull a Flacco.

18) Denver Broncos

Childs' pick: Denver should still be thinking defense at this point, and Everette Brown from Florida State will be a handy guy for them to stick on the edge of their 3-4. Even if they can't get a quarterback, a Jackson-Brown first round would help push the Broncos forward in 2009.

Ken's pick: Everette Brown is an undersized DE, but a good pass rusher who could project to OLB. Denver needs a pass rush and this may be the best solution.

19) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Childs' pick: This is one where I lack a real good feel. If the Jets don't take Freeman, he could go to the Bucs. Defensive tackle Peria Jerry is another possibility. But the Bucs desperately need an outside linebacker and as you noted, Ken, Clay Matthews is a guy with plenty of athleticism and pedigree. He goes here or, if Houston has already taken him, Cushing will go to Tampa Bay.

Ken's pick: The Bucs have almost as many QBs as coaches right now, but they'll always take more, even with Jon Gruden gone, apparently. Still, I can't see taking Josh Freeman on a team that has to rebuild the defense. I go with OLB Brian Cushing.

20) Detroit Lions

Childs' pick: Fortune smiles on the Lions for once as they get a chance to draft the position they perhaps should have targeted at No. 1. Michael Oher could be a bust, but he has as much physical ability as any tackle prospect. And even if he can't hack it on the left side, he should have a decent career on the right. He offers too much talent to pass up here.

Ken's pick: The Lions will be tempted by Rey Maualuga or Peria Jerry here, but have to get the tackle they didn't get at the top. Michael Oher is a reasonable pick at this spot, even if he has potential to bust.

Stay tuned for the shocking conclusion to Ken and Childs' mock, featuring your super, sensational Ravens pick ...

Inside the Ravens' draft room

The NFL Network talks with Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta, who pull back the curtain and try to explain what the draft process is like behind the scenes.

[Update: The embed function fizzled on this video. But you can still click here to watch the whole thing.]

 

Smart bet: Vasquez returns for senior year

My gut says that you haven't seen the last of Greivis Vasquez in a Maryland uniform.

Maryland sent out a release today confirming what Vasquez told us all last month: He's going to test the NBA draft waters. He won't be getting an agent, though, so if he doesn't like what he hears -- rather, if NBA scouts don't like what they see -- Vasquez can return to the Terps for a senior year.

Just as it's wise for Vasquez to familiarize himself with the process and see where he stands, the educated guess is it'll be just as wise for Vasquez to return to the Terps.

As it stands right now, Vasquez looks like a second-round pick. Some mocks say he could be a late first-rounder, but everything I hear suggests that might be optimistic. For Vasquez to leave school -- for him to eventually sign with an agent -- he needs to hear better than "maybe a late first-rounder." In the NBA, first-rounders get a two-year guaranteed contract; second-rounders get nothing. Their rights are owned by a team, but that team doesn't have to sign the second-round pick or give him a thing, if they don't feel like it.

Vasquez is somewhat of a wild card. As teams check him out, they'll find that he has an OK outside shot but doesn't shoot for a great percentage. He can be exciting and can create plays, but his passing is suspect and his decision-making ability spotty. He can be a good ball-handler -- someone who can grow into a 1 or a 2 -- but he doesn't always take care of the ball and can be turnover prone. Plus, he allows his emotions get the better of him at key moments. In games, he's especially inconsistent. Vasquez is at his best when the offense revolves around him, and he's not good enough at this point to be that person at the next level. To be effective in 2009-10, he'd have prove that he can defend quicker and more athletic guards and limit his turnovers, neither of which he's shown in three years at Maryland.

His best bet is returning to school, gaining a bit of muscle and size and playing with a bit more discipline as a senior. While his versatility is generally good, he also has to make it clear to NBA teams how exactly he'd contribute.

[It's worth noting that Vasquez has faced professional-quality competition before. He was on the Venezuelan team at the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship, which was an Olympic qualifier. Among the eight teams, he ranked 25th in scoring, averaging 12.1 points and shooting 38.8 percent from the field over the course of eight games. He scored more than guys like Amare Stoudemire and Dwight Howard, for whatever that's worth. And in Venezuela's game against the U.S. team of NBA stars -- which the Americans won 112-69 -- Vasquez led his team with 12 points. He was just 3-of-11 from the field, though, and had four turnovers and only two assists.]

But let's say Vasquez improves his stock in the next 1 1/2 months and somehow makes himself into a sure-fire mid-to-late first-round pick. It still might be wise to spend one more year in college. Because of the rookie salary scale, the No. 15 and the No. 25 pick are separated by about a half-million dollars. And that's just in season 1.

One more year of seasoning, Vasquez could work on the things he needs to improve upon, cash a bigger paycheck and could potentially enter the league as a player who's ready to contribute, not simply take up space on the bench.

Photo: Karl Merton Ferron / Sun

Faceoff: Big weekend coming up for Ravens

Every Thursday we present two Sun sportswriters squaring off in a video feature called Faceoff. This week, Childs Walker and Ken Murray discuss everything that's on the line the next few days for the Ravens -- from the possible Anquan Boldin trade to this weekend's NFL Draft.

Prediction: Markakis makes first All-Star team

I know it's way too early for such proclamations, but Major League Baseball doesn't want us to wait. We must pick our All-Stars now. Regardless, I feel pretty good about this: Nick Markakis will play in his first All-Star game in July.

A bit more on Markakis (who was 2-for-4 with another run in last night's loss) in a bit; first, the All-Star details.

The season is less than three weeks old, but All-Star voting has already begun. The Internet ballot boxes opened yesterday, and the Orioles don't want their fans to sit this one out.

Prior to last night's game, the Orioles introduced their “Vote Orange, $ave Green” campaign, which mixes colors and a dollar sign! The team is offering the chance to save money, save paper and help their favorite players win a spot on the All-Star team. At the same time!

From the release:

Fans who vote at www.orioles.com and select the Orioles as their favorite team will receive an exclusive promotional code for $5 off any ticket to any non-prime Orioles home game after the All-Star break. Those who vote the maximum 25 times at the website will receive a promo code good for a free Upper Reserve ticket to any non-prime home game after the All-Star break.

Buying votes. Encouraging fans to vote early and vote often. Democracy in America -- Awesome!

Can we agree that giving every fan up to 25 votes and opening the ballots this early is a complete joke? Last year voting didn't begin until April 29, a full week later. Pretty soon, we'll be picking this team during spring training.

Regardless, Markakis is playing like an All-Star right now, and I think he'll be playing like an All-Star a couple of months from now, too. Let's discuss ...

In last night's 8-2 loss, Markakis had two of the Orioles' eight hits. Though the Orioles have lost six of their last seven, the right fielder has strung together a nice little nine-game hit streak. Plus, he's leading the American League in RBIs, runs and several other categories and is sixth with a .397 batting average.

Just for fun, let's compare him against some other American League outfielders. First, let's note that last year's top vote-getters among AL outfielders were Manny Ramirez, Ichiro Suzuki and Josh Hamilton. Well, Manny's being Manny in the NL now, Ichiro started the year on the DL and is currently batting .240 and Hamilton is hitting just .231 with one homer.

We're a couple of weeks away from the point where numbers start carrying a bit more meaning, but let's line up some of the outfielders anyways:

-- As the league leader, Markakis' average is obviously higher than Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter, J.D. Drew, Carlos Quentin and Grady Sizemore. Jermaine Dye, et al;

-- Obviously, he also has more RBIs than Quentin, Sizemore & Co., too;

-- Though a good number of guys will always have more homers than Markakis, he did enter last night's game tied for the AL lead in total bases (36);

-- Plus, he also led all outfielders in on-base percentage (.463), hits (23), runs (18) and doubles (7), too.

Oh yeah, and despite a miscue here and there, you won't find many better defensive right fielders.

You get the point. What's especially interesting is that since Markakis took over the starting job, he's always been a late starter. His numbers in April and May have been consistently low each of the past three seasons, picking up dramatically in June. So it's difficult to look at this hot start and project what the next couple of months will look like.

Sure, expect some numbers to level off, and he probably won't be leading every offensive categories in July. But if I'm Nick Markakis, I don't make any fishing plans for the All-Star break this year. There's a good chance he'll have a spot in the dugout in St. Louis.

Photos: Associated Press

The Conversation: NFL mock draft

Each week here at the Toy Department, two Baltimore Sun staffers will engage in a segment we like to call The Conversation, where they swap e-mails with one another and debate something that is in the news. Today, Childs Walker and Ken Murray ignore the muck of other mock drafts and tell you exactly how the first day of this weekend's NFL draft will go down. OK, actually, Ken wants you to know that all of what follows is an elaborate guess. And Childs would like you to know that his version of the impending NFL draft is sketchier still, because at least Ken has studied this stuff since the NFL combine. Such reservations aside, Ken and Childs will defy those who would mock the mockers (we're looking at you, Van Valkenburg.) Spoiler alert: Saturday's first round may or may not look like this: 

1) Detroit Lions

Childs' pick: Ken, I know we both sat through seemingly infinite conference calls with Mike Mayock and Mel Kiper last week.  One thing that struck me during those death marches was the absolute lack of confidence in presumptive No. 1 pick Matthew Stafford. Mayock, whom I trust as a scout, loved Stafford's arm, but seemed unable to get past the fact that he disappeared for whole halves of big games. I have to say, that doesn't sound like the kind of player a desperate franchise should build around. It makes me think that Jason Smith, an excellent athlete at the premium left tackle position, might be a better pick for Detroit (I can't imagine Ozzie Newsome, for example, picking Stafford over one of the tackles.) On the plus side, Stafford has a world-class arm, started a bunch of games at a big-time program and completed 61.4 percent of his passes last season. So he doesn't feel like a total bust-in-waiting. Regardless of the widespread misgivings, he will be Detroit's choice.

Ken's pick: My biggest problem with this pick is that the Lions will shorten and diminish Stafford's career. I have had this discussion with one of his representatives. Going to Detroit is a no-win situation for a quarterback, no matter how talented. Stafford's big arm won't mean much when three defenders are ripping parts of his uniform off. Fact is, the Lions need an offensive tackle to protect a franchise quarterback, and lo and behold, there are three pretty good choices sitting right there. Still, I fully expect the pick will be Stafford because, after all, people who buy tickets don't come to see offensive tackles pass protect. For my two cents, I'd take a tackle here and Josh Freeman at 20.

2) St. Louis Rams

Childs' pick: With Orlando Pace gone, it seems a virtual certainty that the Rams will take a left tackle. Some mocks have Eugene Monroe, perhaps the best pass blocker in the draft, going in this spot. But Jason Smith's package of agility, quick feet, toughness and character is the best in this tackle class. So I'll go with him.

Ken's pick: Smith is the logical choice, unless the Rams like Eugene Monroe more. The Rams have to hope that someone wants Smith or Monroe so much that they'll trade up to the second spot to get him. It's very unlikely, but it is possible. If you want one of the elite tackles, you need to get up to at least the third pick. And the Rams would be better served with more picks down the line.

3) Kansas City Chiefs

Childs' pick: Does Scott Pioli want the best defensive player in the draft in Aaron Curry or does he want Monroe to protect his new quarterback? Conversely, might Kansas City trade down with a team that wants Monroe more? This pick carries intrigue, but I say Pioli goes the safe route and takes the draft's surest thing, Curry, for a defense that needs serious help.

Ken's pick: I'm going to go with OT Eugene Monroe of Virginia because now that the Chiefs have Matt Cassel, they need to protect their investment. What better way than the best pass protector in the draft? Plus, Monroe was good enough at Virginia to push Branden Albert (Glen Burnie) to guard. At KC, Albert was a starting tackle. Those are pretty good cornerstones for the line.

4) Seattle Seahawks

Childs' pick: If some team desperately wants Mark Sanchez, this might be the spot. That makes it a key pivot point in the draft. It's also possible that the Seahawks will take Sanchez themselves. Matt Hasselbeck only has two or three years left in the tank, and this might be their best chance to line up his successor. Many evaluators, including Mayock, think Sanchez is better than Stafford. It worries me that he only started one season's worth of games, but he's been deeply impressive, off the field and on, during the run-up to the the draft. Sanchez will be the pick here, by Seattle or someone else.

Ken's pick: Aaron Curry is a perfect piece for Jim Mora's 4-3 defense at outside linebacker. Unless the Seahawks decide Matt Hasselbeck is close to the end -- and they might -- the pick should go for the best defensive player in the draft.

5) Cleveland Browns

Childs' pick: The Browns seem less than committed to Braylon Edwards as a long-term option, and who can blame them after all of his drops last season? Michael Crabtree reminds me a lot of Larry Fitzgerald. He's not super-fast, but he catches everything around him and shows tremendous body control when fighting for the ball. Skeptics might wonder if he was a product of the Texas Tech system, but as Gil Brandt told me, all you have to do is watch him play to know that's nonsense. The Browns should nab Crabtree as their big playmaker and send Edwards packing.

Ken's pick: As badly as the Browns need a pass rusher, as much as they need a receiver, this pick could get interesting. Because they have dangled either Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson as trade bait, I'm going to send them QB Mark Sanchez. That means, of course, that Braylon Edwards will wind up in New York with the Giants, and the Browns, with the 29th pick, will take a receiver. 

6) Cincinnati Bengals

Childs' pick: A bold curveball at 5, Ken. I like it. You already have Eugene Monroe off the board. But I think the Virginia tackle becomes a no-brainer for the Bengals at this spot. He has the feet and technique of a natural pass blocker and really, that's what a left tackle needs to be. Carson Palmer is the one guy separating the Bengals from Lions-style obsolescence, and they need a guy to separate Palmer from blitz-induced obsolescence.

Ken's pick: How can the Bengals not jump on Michael Crabtree here? Crabtree may have some diva in him, but he's going to be a legitimate weapon in the NFL. That will help revive Palmer's vaunted passing game. The tackle, they'll have to get later.

7) Oakland Raiders

Childs' pick: This is one where the conventional wisdom makes a lot of sense. Al Davis loves speed. Jeremy Maclin has it and was a much more productive college receiver than Maryland's Darrius Heyward-Bey.

Ken's pick: To guess what Al Davis might do is a fool's game with a fool's reward. I'll go with the chalk here because Jeremy Maclin can help both in the passing game and the return game, and we know the Raiders need all the help they can get.

8) Jacksonville Jaguars

Childs' pick: This is the first one where I have no idea. If Sanchez isn't gone, I expect a team to trade up and snag him here. But we both have him off the board. If Jacksonville keeps the pick, I think they'll look to build their interior. That means B.J. Raji, who, in an ideal world, might play like Haloti Ngata. Not many 6-foot-1, 337-pounders can be described as athletic. But Raji is one of that rare breed, and those types of defensive tackles rarely last long.

Ken's pick: Here's my thought, Childs. If Sanchez doesn't go to Seattle or Cleveland, he could go here, only the pick would be Denver's. But since I already have Sanchez taken, I think Raji is the logical choice. The Jaguars were hurt up the middle last year, and that has to be fixed.

9) Green Bay Packers

Childs' pick: This could be another spot targeted by traders. But one thing analysts agree on is the widespread desire for tackles. Andre Smith's draft hopes appeared to tank with his abrupt departure from the combine. But talent will prevail, especially at a premium position, and Smith is a massive kid who produced consistently at Alabama. He might lack the pass-blocking upside of Smith or Monroe, but he'll be too hard to pass up here.

Ken's pick: Assuming Andre Smith falls this far, the Packers will be overjoyed. They get a player who has been humbled and who has a lot to prove. If Smith is gone, they would try to trade down for the next tackle or grab a pass rusher.

10) San Francisco 49ers

Childs' pick: The tackle run could continue here, because Michael Oher is considered a much better prospect than the next guy at the position. But Oher would be a reach because of his inconsistency. He could end up at right tackle, and they don't usually go top 10. The 49ers also need a pass rusher, so I see them going for Texas' super-athletic Brian Orakpo. He's a bit of a one-year-wonder, but it was a heck of a year.

Ken's pick: This is Orakpo's spot. And the 49ers have a need. Because there are plenty of pass rushers in this draft, there will be no takers if the Niners want to trade down. It's Orakpo.

To be continued...

Part 2 can be found by clicking here. And be sure to check back later to see how Ken and Childs see the remainder of the draft's first round unfolding.

April 22, 2009

Poker: Not just another pretty face

A few days ago, we mentioned poker player Liv Boeree, who began her poker career as a "presenter" (nee TV personality) but is making a splash at the tables -- in particular at the Bellagio Five Star Poker Classic currently going on in Las Vegas. Boeree (right) has two cashes in the series of events at the Bellagio (for nearly $23,000) and won a seat in the $25,000 World Poker Tour Championship that started last weekend.  The prize pool for the big tournament is more than $8 million with $2.1 million to the winner.

That $25,00 buy-in obviously limits the field but the tournament attracts most of the big guns  because the event is both high stakes and prestigious.  Four rounds into the tournament, Boeree -- a native of the U.K. who has a degree from the University of Manchester in physics with astrophysics -- is still alive.  At last chip count, she was 34th (385K chips) out of 52 and just a few spots from making the money. But that changes by the minute, click here for updates. The top 50 spots get paid with $32,585 the bottom prize.

Also still in the hunt is former tennis great Boris Becker at 375K chips. Becker is trying a new career in poker.  Big names still in the tournament include Phil Ivey, Scott Nguyen and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson and the list of major poker stars who busted out is much longer than that.  Mike "The Mouth" Matusow, Dutch Boyd, Kathy Liebert and Sammy Farha went out just today. 

 

Reefer madness hits the NFL Draft

In honor of Earth Day (it's today, so chill out on your carbon footprint for a few hours), let's talk a bit about grass. Or marijuana, as the kids are calling it these days.

In retrospect, there must've been a killer after-party at the NFL Combine, right? I mean, the Marriott in downtown Indianapolis must've felt like that scene from Dumbo each night.

If you haven't been paying close attention, according to published reports, every NFL draft pick is a drug addict. OK, not every single one, but at least a half-dozen have been named as dopers, reportedly testing positive for marijuana at the NFL Combine. Of those, follow-up reports have said that four actually didn't test positive at all. Oops. (This morning, citing two unnamed sources, Fox Sports reported that Florida's Percy Harvin and North Carolina's Brandon Tate, both wide receivers, did test positive, which hasn't been refuted or retracted as of this afternoon.)

ProFootballTalk.com has been all over this story, pointing out that SI.com has retracted its story, as did NFLDraftBible.com, which whiffed on four names in its report.

Let's not turn this into a lecture on irresponsible reporting and anonymous sources. (Who needs an excuse to bash on sportswriters, right?) But I am curious as to how much a positive drug test should damage a prospect's chances? Should the Ravens, for example, steer clear of Harvin or Tate simply because they might've celebrated Earth Day a little early?

I'm not among those who's going to lose sleep over an athlete self-medicating with a bong. There are a lot worse things out there than an athlete sitting in his living room, watching The Hills on DVD and ordering four pizzas. For example, why should fans (or NFL GMs) wag fingers at pot smokers and smile wide for players who spend a bit too much time in clubs, a bit too much energy tipping back Red Bull and vodkas?

The Chicago Tribune had an interesting story today about Jay Cutler. Word of his passion for partying swept into the Windy City before Cutler even arrived. Are the Bears worried?

"I'm not going to micromanage a person," Bears GM Jerry Angelo told the Trib. "If we have to do that, that's not a good sign. Some lessons they have to see and learn for themselves. I don't think that's a big thing at this point. What he does on Sunday is how we're going to evaluate him. That's the bottom line. He gets it."

Obviously Cutler's case isn't identical to that of a prospect who's never played a down in the NFL. A player like Cutler has proven himself, shown that he can juggle personal choices with professional responsibilities.

Here's one more quote from Angelo, and I bet you'd find that his attitude toward Cutler is similar to what you'd hear from GMs all across the league: "When we did our research, we know he goes out, we know he does those things. We talked to our medical people, we talked to the Denver medical people. It comes with the territory. We're comfortable with it."

As it concerns prospects, it's not really an issue of smoking marijuana. When teams do their research, it isn't simply a matter of identifying bad habits and stupid behaviors. Teams are trying to understand a young man's decision-making abilities and whether risk might be a recurring theme to a player's career. This is why anyone caught smoking weed has seen his draft stock plummet these past several weeks. It's not the fact that they smoked marijuana; it's that they were stupid enough to do it in the days and weeks leading up to the NFL Combine, when they knew they'd get poked, prodded, probed and drug tested.

So forget the colorful scenes from Dumbo. That doesn't scare away NFL teams. But the bad decisions make by a couple of dumbos could make for a long NFL Draft weekend and sometimes a short NFL career.

Where are you NBA fans?

I love the NBA, have since the days when Magic directed Showtime and Michael donned his first pair of Air Jordans. After some concerning years of overly physical defense and isolation-style offenses, the league has entered another vintage era on-court. We've got LeBron James, the first guy with a serious chance to be better than Jordan. He's headed for a Finals showdown with Kobe Bryant, the league's most compelling child prodigy turned arch-villain turned consensus all-time great. We've got Dwyane Wade, who already carried one team to a title and on a lot of days, is better than either LeBron or Kobe. We've got Chris Paul, who might become the best little man ever. We've got Dwight Howard, a delightful young man who might be able to dunk on a 13-foot-rim.

All of these guys are entering or already in their primes. They're all playing in the playoffs right now. And yet, as a sports fan living in Baltimore, I don't have many people with whom to talk NBA. I know plenty of sports lovers, and they're happy to carp about the Orioles starting pitching or muse about the Ravens' upcoming draft picks. But if I sent most of them a message about the Cavs-Pistons game from last night (Will the Cavs hurt themselves by not putting teams away? Did you see LeBron's two-hand windmill?), I wouldn't get many concrete responses. If I flip on sports-talk radio (a dubious choice), I'll get more of the same Ravens-Orioles jibber-jabber.

We at The Sun are guilty as well. With fewer reporters, less space and a never-ending flow of news from our local teams, we hardly ever write about the NBA. We used to cover the Wizards as a home team, but those days aren't coming back. It all makes me a little sad. I love watching NBA players live. Their court vision, shooting accuracy and ability to cover huge swaths of ground in a few strides are much more apparent than on television. I tend to like them as people, too. Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas are among the most thoughtful, appealing athletes I've interviewed. And your average NBA locker room feels more urbane than your average baseball clubhouse.

I hope that Toy Department can become a place where we provide more regular NBA content and where readers share their views on the league. If there are NBA fan communities around Baltimore that I'm missing, please let me know. And enjoy D-Wade and CP3 on TNT tonight.

What eight gold medals gets you

Because you just can't get through your workday without hearing the latest on Michael Phelps' dating habits...

According to Radar Online, which seems like it knows such things, Phelps is dating Miss California, who's known as Carrie Prejean on her tax forms and probably in church, too.

I've spent most of the morning crunching numbers, and I think I've got this all figured out:

8 gold medals = Miss California

7 gold medals = Miss Florida

6 gold medals = Miss Las Vegas

5 gold medals = Miss Puerto Rico

4 gold medals = Miss Fells Point

3 gold medals = Miss Reality Star

2 gold medals = Miss Dundalk

1 gold medal = Miss 2 a.m. and Blurry-eyed

0 gold medals = Miss Pittsburgh

(And if you don't know gold from a yellow piece of chalk, you're probably a Baltimore Sun sportswriter.)

At any rate, Prejean -- this is really her name? does she predate denim? -- appears to be quite a change from one of the last girls the tabloids linked Phelps to. You'll recall that he reportedly brought home a Vegas cocktail waitress for Thanksgiving. (Which prompted a classic line from the Sun's Laura Vozzella, who suspected the whole thing was a mix-up over who's bringing what to the holiday potluck. Vozzella wrote: "You wanted cocktail napkins?" I imagine Michael saying. "I thought you said cocktail waitress!")

Prejean won't likely be taking drink orders in a Vegas nightclub any time soon. In fact, she won the runner-up sash at the Miss USA pageant earlier this week. And while she's reportedly fond of swimmers, some aren't happy with her opinion on gay marriage. During the Miss USA competition, she declared, "In my country, and in my family, I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman."

And then the Internet exploded. Well, not exactly. But a lot of people had a lot to say these past few days.

We're still not sure what she thinks about marriage between mermen and women, but we'll stay on top of this very important story.

Photo: Associated Press

Billick wishes he said 'more stupid things'

For all the grief we give Brian Billick about enjoying the sound of his own voice, he's always been pretty good at providing a chuckle or two, even if it's at his own expense. Preparing for this weekend's NFL Draft, the coach-turned-NFL Network analyst took part in an online chat yesterday for NFL.com. Just three questions into the chat, it temporarily veered off track. Blame Ben in Corona.

Ben, Corona: When you were coaching, were you cognizant of saying things that would land on a Coors Light commercial? And if possible, can I get a "Let's wedge it?"

Brian Billick, NFL Network: I wasn't at the time! But if I had, I would have said more stupid things. Those beer commercials pay pretty well. LET'S WEDGE IT!

Billick spent much of the chat dishing out the safe and the vague. (Though to one fan who asked about rookie quarterbacks, Billick did say, "There would be those who question your judgment in asking me a QB question.") When asked about Anquan Boldin and the Ravens, here's what Billick had to say:

First off I have to confess to my admiration to Anquan Boldin. He would make a huge difference for the Ravens and give Joe Flacco the presence he needs to take that next step in his development. Unfortunately, I don't think the Ravens will be willing to give the Cardinals the price for Anquan Boldin. If it indeed takes a first- and third-round pick to secure the deal. I doubt Ozzie Newsome would pay that high of a price.

Just for fun, after the jump, let's take a look at a couple of those Coors Light commercials starring Brian Billick. 

 



Alternative to Fox's lousy Ravens' report card

Well, now my head is just starting to hurt.

Earlier this week, I passed along a link from Fox Sports in which John Czarnecki reviewed each team's draft since 2003 and handed out grades. He gave the Ravens a C-. Only two teams in the NFL received a worse score (Jacksonville and Detroit were both slapped with Ds.  Yes, the Ravens were just slightly better than Detroit. The Detroit Lions.)

So armed with Czarnecki's bullet-proof synopsis, you surely spent the past couple of days stewing, wondering why Ozzie & Co. haven't investing in a Drafting for Dummies book or something. And then along comes John Clayton to confuse us all.

Even though the Fox report made it clear that the Ravens took the short bus to drafting school, Clayton files a report that anoints Ozzie Newsome as the top draft evaluator in the league -- ahead of his counterparts with the Colts and the Patriots and even the Lions.

Here's a snippet from the Clayton piece:

As a player, he was known as the Wizard of Oz, a Hall of Fame tight end who was hard to stop. As a drafter, he's a master of finding the right players. Newsome built one of the greatest defenses in NFL history, starting with middle linebacker Ray Lewis.

Normally, Newsome drafts players from major colleges, but, in typical Newsome fashion, he went against his profile to find the right quarterback for the Ravens. Last year, he took Joe Flacco out of Delaware. The Ravens won 11 games, and Flacco appears to be the quarterback who can challenge Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers.

These are two veteran writers -- both among the elite group of Pro Football Hall of Fame voters -- who somehow see the world in wildly different colors. I feel like I'm flipping back and forth between MSNBC and Fox News on Inauguration Day.

I won't tell you which report to trust. But I will point out that in our little poll to right of your screen, which asks fans what they think the Ravens should do in this weekend's draft, as of this morning, nearly one in three respondents has selected, "Whatever Ozzie Newsome wants." 

Photo: Getty

 

A little Reimold with your Pie in Orioles outfield?

There's little question that outfield is the most interesting area on the field for the Orioles. You've got the best player on the team in right and a possible star in center. And in left, well, you've got a fascinating mess.

It's clear what the Orioles want in that spot. They'd love to see Felix Pie augment his center field-quality range with better baseball instincts and, you know, some offense. It's not fair to judge a guy on 38 plate appearances, so the Orioles are wise to stick with Pie for the time being.

On the other hand, 325 plate appearances into his career, he has struck out 83 times, walked only 24 and compiled a .276 on-base percentage without much power to compensate. That's an awful long way from adequate for a corner outfielder and in reality, Pie would have to improve more than most players ever do to become a star. It's possible, given his athletic gifts, but it's not likely.

The Orioles just called up Lou Montanez. If Pie's numbers aren't much better by say, June, expect Montanez to steal a significant number of at-bats. That would be a mixed blessing for the Orioles. Montanez can probably out-hit Pie for now, but at age 27, he's already in his prime. His big season at Double-A Bowie has to be taken with a grain of salt, because he was old for the level. With the Orioles at least two years from contending, they have to think about what would be best in 2011-2013, not what's best now. Given his unexceptional power and plate discipline, Montanez is unlikely to be an above-average left fielder during that stretch.

All of which leads us to Nolan Reimold ...

I've been talking to prospect experts about Reimold for three years now, and I've rarely encountered a more polarizing player. Keith Law at ESPN sees his athletic ability, power and decent batting eye and calls him a potential quality regular. The Orioles' brass, on the other hand, seemed less than optimistic about him for a long time.

That started to change last year, when Reimold managed a full, healthy season at Double-A Bowie and hit 25 homers. The season looks even more impressive when you consider that Bowie was a tough place to hit, and he slugged 16 of his homers on the road. Reimold then looked very good this spring and for the first time, forced the Orioles to talk about his future with the big club.

They want him to repeat his 2008 performance at Triple-A while they give Pie a shot. Montanez is the likely short-term fallback if Pie continues to struggle. But Reimold is hitting .415 with a .659 slugging percentage at Triple-A Norfolk. If he continues to dominate at that level, he will force the club's hand. Beyond Matt Wieters, Reimold is the only Orioles prospect in the high minors with 25-homer potential. He's a good athlete for his size and thus, a potential plus in the field. He walks enough to mitigate a pedestrian batting average. At age 25, he's not young enough to be a solid-gold prospect. But if Pie falters, he's a palatable alternative.

If you're looking for reasons to remain interested through another losing season, Nolan Reimold and the situation in left field should be on your list.

Video: Real football fans are headed to New York

If you were thinking of attending Saturday's NFL draft in New York, you might want to start packing your overnight bag right now.  And bring some blankets  --- these loons, uh loyal fans, start lining up in front of Radio City Music Hall on Friday.

Q&A with Ravens' Eric DeCosta

Eric DeCosta joined the Ravens in 1996 as a scout and was named director of college scouting in 2003. After the drafting of Joe Flacco and a successful 2008 season, DeCosta was promoted to director of player personnel in January. As he does every April, DeCosta will play a critical role this weekend as the Ravens try to improve their team with just six picks in the NFL Draft. 

Question: What is this time of year like for you?

DeCosta: It’s exciting. We spend nine months getting ready for one weekend. A lot of work goes into it. It can be tedious at times but as we get closer, you start to see the possibilities of bringing six young guys into Baltimore, it’s exciting. You can put your fingerprints on the team but it’s very much a collaborative effort. It’s really exciting. … I’m not sleeping as well as I’d like, waking up in middle of night thinking about all possibilities.

Question: You grew up playing football. I’m not sure there are many kids who dream of being an NFL exec or a draft guru. Was there a moment where you just fell in love with this process?

DeCosta: I grew up in Boston, but I was a Cowboys fan. My earliest memory of football was the 1978 Super Bowl, Cowboys-Broncos. One of things as I kid I was interested in – even at 7 – was the draft. The Cowboys with Gil Brandt started a lot of trends in scouting and using computers. They were ahead of the curve. They scouted players all over the country, scouted guys playing different sports. They were just creative. I was always really interested in that. So as a result I would follow the draft pretty religiously. My dad and I would spend a lot of time studying everything we could. It was something that always appealed to me as a kid, the process of building a team.

Question: You could’ve grown up to be Mel Kiper.

DeCosta: I always wanted to work for a team. I’m a competitive person. Mel and I, our jobs are real similar in a lot of ways, but I like the competitiveness, being around a team, feeling what it’s like to win at the end of the day. It’s such a great high. I know how much work Mel puts into it – a tremendous amount – but I don’t know if I could that, do all that work, and not get the feeling of a win.

Question: You got the new title. Have your day-to-day responsibilities changed at all, or has the draft just occupied every second of your day?

DeCosta: It’s kind of a job that we’re sort of building on the fly, all the different things that it entails. I did some stuff for free agency up until the draft, looked at some players, did some evaluations, shared some input. But because of the timing of when I was named, the biggest thing was really the draft. So I’ve been really working on finishing this project, which is a nine-month project. The logical thing was to finish it out. So I’ve been running the meetings and doing a lot of the things that I’ve always done.

Question: What is this stretch like, the last several days before the draft? Is all the homework done and you’re sitting and waiting, or are you researching players until the last minute?

DeCosta: We got some players in here [last week] to help us make some last-minute decisions. Some of our best picks were players we looked at the eve of the draft. So there’s so much work to do. You can’t look at everybody, which is why you work right up until the end, until late Friday night. At this point, you’re trolling the deep waters, looking at guys who maybe didn’t get much recognition and who are near the bottom of your list. Maybe one of us had a feeling about him and you need to know more. Antwan Barnes was literally the last player I looked at Friday night before the draft. I remember pulling some tapes. There was one game where I liked what I saw, so I brought the tapes to Ozzie at 7 o’clock Friday night and said, ‘Look at this guy and tell me what you think.’ The next morning, Ozzie said, ‘Hey, I liked this guy, good pass rusher, could help us on special teams.’

Last year, during the draft, for our last couple of picks, we actually pulled out some tape right there and looked at some guys, compared them to each other, trying to make the decision easier. Your work really isn’t done until the draft is over.

Question: What’s your draft routine – either the night before or the day of the draft?

DeCosta: On Friday, we have a party for everyone who’s contributed to the draft process. It’s a nice chance for everyone to get together on Friday night. I’ll typically show up, stay there for a little while. Then my wife and I have tradition where we always get sushi. Then she goes to bed, I’ll stay up and make some phone calls. I remember last year talking to my man Mel well into the night, about all the things that could happen. We picked each other’s brain a little bit last year. Then you get up early and come over here.

I’ve always had a tradition of going on a jog with Phil Savage and Pat Moriarty. Then it was just Pat and I. Last year I came back and George Kokinis and I played racquetball. Then we have gameplan meeting, Ozzie, myself, Coach Harbaugh, a couple of other people. We had 10 different scenarios last year that we went through. And then we just eat and man the phones.

Question: Is it more fun for you to draft high in the first round or draft low?

DeCosta: The fun for me is not so much the first round, but getting a really good player in some other round -- a guy you didn’t expect to be there, that you’re really excited about. It’s really exciting for me. Like last year, we loved Ray Rice. We had a pick and we gambled, trading back to second and we still got Ray Rice. To me, that’s exciting, maneuvering up and down the board and still getting the guys you want. To me, that’s where the beauty of draft lies, knowing the value of the players and knowing where you need to be to get them.

Question: We hear every year that the Ravens don’t draft strictly based on need. But we hear that from a lot of teams, too. Has there been a shift in thinking? Or does everyone just lie about this?

DeCosta: We rank all the players and we end up just drafting them based on their ranking on our board. We stay pretty true to that. There are ways to play the game. Obviously we didn’t have to draft Joe Flacco last year with the eighth pick. We knew we could get him later. You don’t punt on first down, so we knew we had to play the game the right way, where we could move some picks and still get Joe Flacco. … There’s a way to play the game, you have to understand the league value of different players.

Obviously, if you have two players graded identically and one player’s a need and one isn’t, you’ll draft the need. So you do technically draft need, but only when the decision is between two players graded very close together. If it’s close, you address the need. As you get later into the draft, your philosophy might also change a bit, and then you do try to fill holes. You draft for depth. But in the first and second rounds, you want to stay true to your board.

Question: What is the easiest position to gauge?

DeCosta: I would say offensive line and safeties. Running backs, too. Those are kind of easier positions to evaluate. The tougher ones are quarterbacks and wide receivers and probably cornerbacks.

Question: The Ravens have made a run at a few receivers in the early rounds of the draft the past several seasons. Do you consider wide receiver an unusually risky position to draft in the first round and if so, why?

DeCosta: Historically it has been. An interesting thing when looking at all wide receiver busts is how many of those busts had good quarterbacks around them? The thing about wide receivers that makes it unusually difficult is there’s a relationship between quarterback and a wide receiver. They work hand in hand. Rarely do you have a great receiver without a good quarterback throwing him the football. You could be a left tackle on a horrible offense but you could still be a great player; you could dominate one on one. Same with cornerback. But it’s hard to be a really great receiver if you don’t have the quarterback throwing you the ball. Because of that dynamic, it’s more complicated in terms of evaluating those players.

Question: You guys used Joe Flacco in some of your workouts with potential receiver picks this spring. I’m not sure I’ve heard of other teams ever doing this. Why’d you go this route, and how unique of an idea is it?

DeCosta: Any time you can involve more people, more resources, think outside the box, I think you’ll get closer to the truth of the matter. Joe is a guy who is very selfless and is happy to help out in any way. I think we have a lot of guys like that on our team …

I haven’t heard about it very often. It’s not something that I’ve seen much of. I remember growing up in Boston, and I think Larry Bird used to work out with college players and was involved in the process. I always thought that was interesting.

Question: Last year was John Harbaugh’s first draft as head coach. Anything different as you guys approach this year’s? Does he seem more or less involved?

DeCosta: Equally, I’d say. I think he’s more comfortable with the process. Having been through it, he understands our terminology, the process, the grading system, the language that we use. His involvement is huge for me. He’s a great resource, someone I can go to and bounce ideas off. His message is consistent about players. I think our scouts appreciate his involvement, and I think they’ve learned a lot from him.

Question: There was a story by Yahoo recently that reported some NFL teams are creating fake Facebook accounts, featuring profile pictures of attractive women, to befriend potential draft picks. How important is it that you guys research everything you can about potential draft picks?

DeCosta: Well, you never really know a guy until you have him. Our scouts do an awesome job. We’ve been together as a staff, most of us nine, 10, 11 years. We speak the same language. We train our guys to read people, to build a profile. We have a lot of resources made available to us from NFL in regards to security, in regards to testing. We spend a lot of money giving these guys medical physicals and everything else, so you do get to know everything about these guys pretty well.

Question: With all the resources available to you, I also wonder what you can glean from college coaches. I remember K.C. Keeler telling me he sold the hell out of Flacco to you guys. But I imagine all coaches do that.

DeCosta: For the most part, I think college coaches are positive about their players, as you’d expect. It helps to have a good source at the school, someone you can trust to get the positive and the negatives. It’s very valuable. You hear about competitiveness, football intelligence, personality of the kid, family background, where he grew up, how he was recruited. That’s all important stuff. It’s almost like being a reporter or journalist or investigator -- you just keep adding stuff and adding stuff and over time, a clearer picture is going to emerge of the player. If you like that stuff and you like the tape and what you’ve seen of the kid, it’s a good match and you should try to get that guy,

Question: Do you go home after every draft with a sense of accomplishment, or do you tend to replay the day’s events and nitpick everything that went right or wrong?

DeCosta: [After the first day,] I have a tough time sleeping on Saturday night. It’s late, you’re really amped up, you have a lot of emotions and trying to figure out how the next day is going to go. We try to restack the board, essentially the third round becomes the first round. You’re on the clock, and you want to have the players who are still available re-ranked. There’s work to be done. You can’t get the game plan for the second day until the first day is over. So Saturday night, you get together, summarize everything, find out who you still covet and make some phone calls.

Question: And how do you feel after the second day? Are there ever regrets?

DeCosta: Some years it may not go exactly as you want it to. A couple years, there were guys we really wanted, but you just couldn’t get them. 2004 was a frustrating draft because there were players we really coveted and they got picked right before we picked. Bob Sanders, Nathan Vasher were both picked right before us. So it can be frustrating not having everything in your control. It happens in every draft. So there is sometimes a sense of frustration.

On the other hand, there are some years that you just can’t believe your good fortune and you just can’t wait for that first minicamp. Last year was like that. We had so many picks. We were excited to get Joe, and Ray Rice was one of my favorite players. I’m really proud of that draft class last year. A lot of those guys contributed. With a new coaching staff and scouting staff, I thought they worked very well together. Hopefully we can do it again.

April 21, 2009

Making a Mockery of Mock Drafts, Part 2

Few things in sports are quite as ridiculous as NFL mock drafts. People who have no idea what they're talking about update them twice a day based on hunches and rumors, and they're still about as accurate as Mel Kiper's. (Which is to say ... not very accurate.) With that in mind, we are attempting to bring you the least informative mock draft ever. Instead of trying to guess which players various NFL teams might select, we're going to conduct a three-part mock draft based on who they should select, people who could most help the franchise. And instead of limiting the pool to players who have actually entered the draft, we've placed no such limits on anything. The people do not even have to be real.

In case you missed our Part 1, you can catch it here. And Part 3 is right here.

11. Buffalo Bills

Selection: Dr. Jennifer Melfi, psychiatrist; unwitting accomplice

 

Analysis: There is a lot of evidence to suggest that one of David Chase's main points in The Sopranos was that therapy is complete b.s., and that essentially we are who we are by the time we reach adulthood thanks to the choices we've made, and try as we might, there is really no altering that. (Chase chose Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" for a specific reason in the minutes before Tony -- SPOILER ALERT! -- offed his nephew Christopher after a car crash. The child is grown; the dream is gone. I have become comfortably numb. Tony had become numb to who he really was. It's why he screams "I get it!" at the end of the episode "Kennedy and Heidi," in the desert. At least that's my take.) All that said, it would be nice after failing to rehabilitate Tony Soprano if Dr. Melfi could get another shot at the impossible with Terrell Owens, who is kind of like Tony in some respects in that he's prone to violent mood swings, he seems to have occasional panic attacks, he gets a little upset when he's not the center of attention, and he occasionally belittles others just for his own entertainment. You know he's going to have some kind of meltdown during the dreary days of winter and end up putting out a hit on his quarterback, whomever he may be. It might take a few weeks to get Melfi up to speed on football, considering she once thought RICO was a cousin of Tony's, but hopefully she'll help T.O. direct his power and his anger toward those who deserve it in no time.

12. Denver Broncos

Selection: Mr. Miyagi, from The Karate Kid; mentor

 

 

Analysis: Karate Kid references usually feel a little dated and cliche, but that was before Josh McDaniels showed up in Denver looking like Daniel LaRusso, screwing up everything he touched and getting his skinny butt kicked by the local and national media. Since McDaniels is only about 16 years old and probably still learning how to shave, he clearly has a lot to learn. That might mean hours of washing Broncos helmets and painting the walls of the practice facility, but just when he's ready to throw a tantrum and storm back into the Cobra Kai dojo (where Bill Belichick is teaching his players to sweep the leg), Mr. Miyagi's brilliant plan will reveal itself, and the young coach will learn he's been learning patience and strategy the entire time.

13. Washington Redskins 

Selection: Fezzik, reluctant henchman, The Princess Bride


Analysis: Although the 'Skins could have just gone right ahead and drafted Andre The Giant, the professional wrestler here, (since this is, after all, a completely fake and ridiculous draft) we feel that Fezzik is a natural fit if only because Daniel Snyder reminds us a lot of Vizzini, Fezzik's boss and the self-proclaimed smartest man in the world. (Your wits are obviously no match for his; he would never get involved in a land war in Asia, or sign Jeff George to be his quarterback. Again.) Another sweet aspect of this pick is that Clinton Portis could totally dress up like Inigo Montoya on media day. Can you imagine the havoc Fezzik could wreak on the NFC East? If you put him on the defensive line, Tony Romo would probably burst into tears and bury himself in Jessica Simpson's cleavage just to get over it. On road trips to Philadelphia, he'd eat every cheesesteak in the stadium prior to the game, and Andy Reid would be so distraught he didn't get to have his halftime hoagie, he'd eat his clipboard midway through the third quarter. Anybody want a peanut, indeed.

14. New Orleans Saints

Selection: Clay Davis, senator; man with his hand on the spigot 

 

Analysis: You know why Reggie Bush hasn't quite replicated his collegiate success in the NFL? It's not because of his size. It's because there are no shady boosters waiting to slip him a briefcase full of cash after games, something I think we can all agree probably regularly occurred at USC. So in order to keep his no-talent-having girlfriend Kim Kardashian clothed in the fanciest pairs of size-16 designer jeans, he has to constantly worry about his endorsements and potential contract bonuses. Well no more, my friends, because Sen. Clay has that taken care of. It seems only right that a city known for its corruption could use the services of the most corrupt state senator we know of. He's going to take some of that "stimulus" money pouring out of the federal spigot and put it in the right hands. And you don't have to worry about getting caught by the Lester Freamons of the world trying to circumvent the salary cap because you know Clay Davis don't ask for no damn receipts. And as for Kim? As Clay might say, "Sheeeeeeeeeeee's gonna look damn fine, my friends."

15. Houston Texans 

Selection: Bono, singer; humanitarian; self-promoter

 

Analysis: The Texans have been an NFL franchise now since 2002, and their main problem is, at the moment, that they're sort of irrelevant. I dare you to search your soul for one passionate feeling about Houston, good or bad. It's almost impossible. They just are. The fact that they finished 8-8 last season is a perfect metaphor for what the represent: blandness. This is where Bono comes in, especially since he's always helping out on relief projects and Houston did have their stadium hit by a hurricane last season. No one is indifferent to Bono. You either love him and think he's a amazing artist and human being, or you think he's kind of a self-important d-bag. There's really no in-between. That's what Houston needs, someone to spark some passionate debate about their team, for better or worse. I want Bono doing Jesus poses with Steve Slaton after touchdowns, and promising that Gary Kubiak will donate his entire salary to buy mosquito nets in Africa if the Texans win their opener. I want him walking around practice with Annie Leibovitz, trying to find the right background for he and Andre Johnson so they can appear on next's month's cover of Vanity Fair. He'd probably sign for free, as long as he can sell the movie rights to HBO, so really, it's a no-brainer of a pick for a franchise that still hasn't found what it's looking for.

16. San Diego Chargers

Selection: Johnny Utah, “Eff-Bee-Eye” agent; quarterback



Analysis: This would be a bold pick by Chargers G.M. A.J. Smith, especially because Utah’s natural position is quarterback, at least according to the opening scenes in Point Break, and the Lightning Bolts already have Philip Rivers lofting moonballs down the field with a smug look on his face. But seeing as how Rivers is sort of a loose cannon, not unlike Bodhi, the adrenaline-junkie surfer played by Patrick Swayze, it would be wise to have someone to keep an eye on Rivers, if only to make sure he doesn’t go dressing up like an ex-president and start robbing banks. Also, when you consider that Utah once jumped out of an airplane without a parachute, you have to think that kind of fearlessness might inspire LaDainian Tomlinson to suit up and play in the playoffs the next time he has turf toe. Utah also doesn’t do things by the book, and sometimes gets a little too close to the people he’s investigating, so there is a good chance he’ll be willing to look the other way if he gets wind of Shawne Merriman getting a shipment of androstenedione. Why be a servant to the law when you can be the master, right?

17. New York Jets

Selection: Padma Lakshmi, Top Chef host; model; babe

 

Analysis: The Jets' late season-collapse last year suggests one of two things: Either Brett Favre’s odometer hit 300,000 miles when no one was paying attention, or the team wasn’t eating right. Lakshmi, the host of Top Chef, can help change that. She knows food, having authored a best-selling cookbook, and she also made just about the sexiest commercial ever for hamburgers, which you can, and should, watch here. The Jets' brass will just have to put Joe Namath on house arrest during her tenure with the team, considering the way he tried to make out with Suzy Kolber on live television a few years ago. Lakshmi also used to be married to author Salman Rushdie, who had to go into hiding after the publication of Satanic Verses, which earned him a fatwa from the radical Muslim world. Jets' fans can probably relate, since many of their loved ones are either in, or have been in, witness protection. The fact is, three out of four Jets fans have been involved in organized crime at some point in their life. Seriously, it’s true. I read it on Wikipedia, so you know it’s legit.

18. Broncos (from the Bears)

Selection: The Scared Straight convicts, documentary filmmakers, criminals


Analysis: Now that the Broncos have addressed the problem with their teenage coach, thanks to the quiet wisdom of Mr. Miyagi, it’s time to do a little preemptive "CARE-frontation" with wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who has pretty much been a ticking time bomb during his short NFL career. Marshall has been arrested four times for various stupidities, ranging from domestic violence to speeding, and it was his dumb nightclub squabble at Kenyon Martin’s birthday a few years ago that allegedly contributed to the shooting death of cornerback Darrent Williams. (Reportedly Marshall and his cousin were the intended targets.) What’s clear is Marshall needs a couple of convicts to put the fear of God in him, to scream that if he continues to screw up, he'll be traded for three packs of cigarettes and a box of toilet water chardonnay. Instead of catching passes, he'll be catching a beating in the cafeteria. Peter Falk can even narrate the entire thing, which can be shown on the NFL Network. Instant revenue stream!

19. Tampa Bay Bucs

Selection: Gob Bluth, magician, entertainer

 

Analysis: In the past year, the Bucs have fired their coach, signed Byron Leftwich, and seen real-life pirates emerge as the scourge of the seas. What this franchise needs right now is someone to distract the fanbase from a makeover that's going to get ugly, especially with Leftwich at the helm. (Weird to think that the jury is still out on which quarterback was the bigger flop, Kyle Boller or Leftwich.) Enter George Oscar Bluth, who should be the answer to all the Bucs' short-term problems. For starters, he can jump out of that pirate ship before games, while Europe's "The Final Countdown" blares over the PA, and perform a series of illusions. (Remember, it's "illusions." A "trick" is something a whore does for money. Or candy.) Second, if billionaire owner Malcolm Glazer runs into financial problems, which in this economy is almost certain, Gob can be called upon to sleep with aging wealthy females, like Lucille 2, to help prop the company up short term. Plus, if the barbaric actions of Somali pirates make the Bucs cartoon mascot a bit too controversial, Gob's cartoon likeness, Mr. Banana Grabber, could serve as an immediate replacement.   

20. Detroit Lions

Selection: Usain Bolt, Jamaican sprinter; showstopper

 

Analysis: Sure, I know what you're thinking: the last thing the Lions need is another wide receiver. Especially one who has admitted to enjoying the relaxed Jamaican lifestyle. But think about it this way ... Bolt is the fastest man in history, and since Detroit can't block anyone, how nice would it be to have a guy who can run down any pass you throw, even if your quarterback only has time for a 2.5-step-drop and then a blind heave down the field? Bolt also possesses just the right amount of cockiness and bravado that Detroit needs, since the franchise is currently about as miserable as Britney Spears coming down from a Red Bull-and-vodka infused bender. "I'm not Flash Gordon, mon! I'm Lightning Bolt!" the world's fastest man said after setting his second world record in Beijing. Eminem will be writing songs about him in no time. 

Coming Friday we'll bring you Part 3, the conclusion of our Mocking of Mock Drafts, including the Ravens' controversial, but savvy, selection.  [Updated: Part 3 can be round right here.]

"Peter Angelos" offers entertaining tweets

I'm heading to the ballpark in a few but just in case a cease-and-desist order is about to be delivered, I figured I'd better share this with you now. For the past couple of weeks, it's been worth a chuckle a day, which is all I really demand of my Internets.

"Peter Angelos" has proven to be a rather prolific Twitter user, and it seems like he has amazing capacity for brutal honesty. Before the account disappears, take a gander at the most enlightening tweets thus far from "Peter Angelos":

This morning: Felt good to sleep in my own bed last night. Mainly because it has a built-in grappa fridge and a mattress made of koala pelts.

Yesterday: Days like these make me want to freebase asbestos. MacPhail took me to Boston Commons to feed ducks before leaving town. Feeling better now.

Saturday: Visited Kevin Youkilis this afternoon to tell him we were sorry his head got in the way of Baez's best pitch of the night.

Last Friday: I've turned off the game. Too angry. Going to fix myself a night cap to take the edge off: turpentine with children's tears chaser.

Last Friday: Fans will get more baseball insight stabbing themselves in the ear with a screwdriver than they'd get from the fools on @wnst.

Last Friday: Having moles removed today. Having Moeller removed next week. Also, trying to decide what to name my private blimp. "The Icarus", maybe?

Last Thursday: My private blimp's en route to Boston. Not looking forward to Theo Epstein asking why I haven't friended him on facebook. Awkward.

Last Tuesday: Fingers still sore from hand-sewing "Baltimore" script on players' road jersies. I care so much sometimes, it hurts.

April 12: For the record, we didn't lose today. We simply honored Easter by allowing the Rays to nail us. It's about sacrifice.

April 9: All those evenings Brian Bass & I spent playing catch in the parking lot after spring training games, wasted. I can't even look at him now.

April 8: Thinking about getting a Ty Wiggington tattoo to cover up the Albert Belle ink I got on my inner thigh in '97. anyone suggest a good parlor?

Photo: Doug Kapustin / Sun

Ray Lewis teaches science to kids

Internet video has surfaced of Ray Lewis on the program Sport Science. (Hat tip to Shutdown Corner who posted this earlier today.)

 

Here's what the Sun's Ray Frager reported last month when the episode was originally broadcast: 

If Ray Lewis knocks at your door, better let him in. That's the lesson to be learned from the next edition of Sport Science (airing Sunday at 11 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet).

The program uses lots of high-tech equipment to film and measure actions of athletes in scientific fashion. In this case, Sport Science decided to compare the Ravens Pro Bowl linebacker with a battering ram. Each would be used to break down a thick, locked door.

Lewis filmed the show -- now in its second season -- in July in Los Angeles. He didn't get paid and stayed out on the field for six hours, said John Brenkus, creator and host of the series.

(The co-creator and co-executive producer is Mickey Stern, a Baltimore native.)

"It's literally a program that people do for free," he said. "By Season 2, everyone in the sports community had seen Sport Science. ... The sell just gets easier as the show goes on." 

I'll admit to not having seen the show before receiving a preview DVD, but, as my 12-year-old self would have said, it's pretty neat -- measurements of force, super slow motion from all angles.

But what about the risk of injury? (I checked with the Ravens, and a spokesman said the team had no idea Lewis did this.)

"The athletes are in such incredible shape, and we take every precaution," Brenkus said. "Where you get hurt is when you're not actually going full speed."

 

Draft Q&A with The Sun's Ken Murray

Each Tuesday in the Toy Department we bring you a Q&A with the reporters and writers who are in the field, chasing the news. This week The Baltimore Sun's NFL reporter Ken Murray took time to answer some of our questions. Murray had two stints as Colts beat writer, with The News American in 1981 and The Evening Sun in 1983. He also covered the Baltimore CFL team in 1994 and the Ravens in 2000, and has predominantly covered the NFL during his 25 years at The Sun.

Question: What was the first NFL draft you covered? How did you cover it, and can you compare it to the circus the draft has grown into today?

Murray: My first experience with the draft was in 1979 as a rookie beat reporter covering the Dallas Cowboys for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. It was another lifetime, another world away from the manufactured glitz we endure these days. It was pre-combine, there was no Mel Kiper, no ESPN, no hysteria. I didn’t comb through magazines in the days and weeks before trying to find scouting reports on guys the Cowboys might take. The team was secretive about its plans, but it almost didn’t matter. There was no buzz. And it didn’t help that the Cowboys’ first-round pick was a center from Tennessee, Robert Shaw, who lasted just three seasons before a knee injury ended his career.

Question: The Lions have the No. 1 pick. What are the odds that they blow yet another draft?

Murray: Very high, maybe 4-5. But admittedly, they’re in a bad position. This is one of those drafts when you don’t want the first pick because there is no player worthy of the first pick and the $30 million in guarantees that will be attached to it. Since they need a quarterback, everyone has Matthew Stafford going to Detroit. That has the makings of big-time bust, just because of how terrible the Lions are. They have a chance to get a player who will help more immediately at pick 20, but I expect them to blow that one, too.

Question: Having covered this a few times, have you picked up anything from watching Ozzie Newsome that gives you any clue what the Ravens might do? Does he ever show his hand?

 

Murray: The first thing I learned is to take everything he and the Ravens say with a grain of salt. The team isn’t about to reveal its intentions to the media. I was intrigued last year how the Ravens put out word they really liked Michigan’s Chad Henne when most of the experts said Joe Flacco was a better quarterback. If a team leads you in one direction, you most often are better off turning around and going in the other direction.

Question: Well, what does your gut tell you? Will they be picking at No. 26 or will they trade the pick away?

Murray: As usual, it depends on who falls. If the right receiver, linebacker or cornerback dropped, I would expect the Ravens to hold. I think there’s a very good chance, however, that they trade back into the top of the second round, get an extra pick and get two good values in the second round. There is bound to be a big receiver available early in the second.

Question: Let's say they don't trade it. In your mock draft, you have both Darrius Heyward-Bey and Hakeem Nicks off the board before the Ravens' No. 26 pick. You have them selecting USC linebacker Rey Maualuga. What do you like about Maualuga?

Murray: Maualuga has the intensity the Ravens crave. He has a big motor, plays hard and fast and blows up people at the line of scrimmage. He’d be perfect inside with the defense the Ravens play. He and Tavares Gooden could have a long run there.

Question: Come Saturday afternoon, do you think the Ravens will essentially be choosing between Maualuga and Illinois cornerback Vontae Davis? Or do you think the Ravens have reached a point where they'll avoid cornerbacks?

Murray: If Maualuga gets that far – and I’m not at all sure he will – they will be fortunate. Vontae Davis, not so much. Being around Vontae a little at the combine, I didn’t think he had a Ravens mentality. He has a rep of being hard to coach and supposedly doesn’t have good work ethic. If the best guy available is Davis, they better bail into the second round, in my opinion. That’s not to say they won’t take another corner, like Darius Butler of UConn, who is a special player, I think.

Question: You were at the combine in Indianapolis. Of the names floated as likely Ravens' targets, did anyone especially impress you?

Murray: I was enthralled with Brandon Pettigrew, the tight end out of Oklahoma State. Massive arm span, tall, powerfully built, huge hands. He didn’t catch a touchdown pass last year – I can’t imagine how that happened – but I think he’d be a terrific red zone target. He averaged almost 13 yards on 112 career catches, with nine TDs. His 40 time at the combine was a slow 4.85, but he can play.

Question: Has your opinion of this draft class changed in the last couple of months?

Murray: Yes, very much so. I don’t see very many players who will come in and have an impact their first year. It looks like a draft where you get solid but unspectacular players to flesh out the roster and improve depth. It’s ripe with potential busts. It also makes a strong case for Roger Goodell’s desire to install a cap on rookie salaries. This is stealing. I expect there will be players taken in the second round and on the second day who will do better than a lot of first-rounders.

Question: What's draft day like for a reporter? With the Ravens picking late and the draft's start time pushed back to 4 p.m., it sounds like a lot of sitting around.

Murray: There would seem to be a lot of dead time for reporters, but really, I don’t see it. I’m constantly looking at the current pick, who’s passed on whom, who’s trading up or back. If you get into the draft – and by draft day, we have an idea of what’s going to happen – it’s a whirlwind of activity.

Photos: Associated Press; Getty Images

Morgan State gives Bozeman an ultimatum

At the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament in mid-March, commissioner Dennis Thomas went out of his way to tell the media they needed to give Todd Bozeman and Morgan State more credit for the school's remarkable turnaround in basketball.

Better he should have addressed Morgan's president, Dr. Earl Richardson, who seems to conveniently have forgotten March Madness almost as soon as it ended for the Bears.

Almost five weeks after Morgan made its first-ever appearance in the NCAA Division I tournament, Bozeman still doesn't have a new contract. His original three-year deal, at a university-friendly salary of $135,000 per year, has expired.

Negotiations that started before the season have gone nowhere. Last week they reached a nadir, when the school gave Bozeman an ultimatum: officials told the coach to take their offer or they would pull it off the table.

This for the coach who produced consecutive postseason berths for a program that had one winning season in the 26 years before he got here. Bozeman's Bears have won the last two regular-season MEAC titles, and gone to the NIT and the NCAA.

The school is willing to give Bozeman a raise, according to a source familiar with the situation, but doesn't want to give him any incentive bonuses. Even the $25,000 bonus Bozeman got for getting to the NCAA this year would be watered down in percentages.

A significant sticking point is the school's refusal to improve its academic support system for student athletes. The NCAA has mandated a summer school program for all schools. But Morgan has little manpower or resource for academic support, with just one academic coordinator and one part-time assistant. Without that help, borderline student-athletes often will have difficulty staying eligible. A better support system gives the program a better chance of success into the future, as well.

"The significance of the ignorance is amazing," the source said, speaking of Morgan's approach to Bozeman's contract requests. 

Richardson has repeatedly declined to speak with the media. Athletic director Floyd Kerr also refuses to answer questions, saying the matter was in the president's hands. The sports information office recently issued this formal statement on Bozeman:

"It is not our practice to negotiate personnel issues with the public. I will say, however, that there is no question that Coach Bozeman is laying the foundation for a great basketball program at Morgan. So, in developing his contract, we are being as generous as we possibly can without compromising the welfare of the athletic program as a whole."

Obviously, Bozeman doesn't have another offer on the table or he'd almost certainly walk. But what message does Morgan send to its current players and future recruits when it can't even reward the coach who revived a dead program? There's a price to be paid for such folly, and Morgan appears ready to pay it.

This report has been updated in regard to the academic support system that is a major point of contention in negotiations.

Photo: Karl Merton Ferron / Sun 

For O's, marathon not the best distance

This much is clear: The Orioles, who bring a five-game losing streak back to town tonight, need to find a new cliche.

Throughout the clubhouse during their first homestand earlier this month, we heard players trying not to bask in their good fortunes. As so many athletes had said before them, the Orioles players reminded us over and over, "It's not a sprint; it's a marathon."

Well, two weeks into the season, we now know that the Orioles are lousy at marathons. And that's not my assessment. It's what players say.

David Laurila from Baseball Prospectus was in the clubhouse early yesterday and what he found should have Orioles fans wishing that the season was more like a sprint. As is Patriot Day custom in Boston, yesterday's morning start coincided with the Boston Marathon. Here's the not-so-shocking truth Laurila uncovered about Orioles and marathons:

[Matt] Albers on if he could imagine himself running a marathon: “No, I couldn’t. I do a little running in the offseason, but three or four miles at the most. So no, I couldn’t imagine running 26 miles, or even what it’s like.”

Albers on which Orioles teammate he could see running a marathon: “I think that if anybody were to do it, maybe Jeremy Guthrie. He’d be a guy who would possibly challenge himself to run that far. I don’t know many baseball players who would try to do it.”

Aubrey Huff on if he could imagine himself running a marathon: “No, not at all. Honestly, I get tired driving 26 miles. I couldn’t imagine running it.”

Huff on which Orioles teammate he could see running a marathon: “Nobody. It’s insane. Baseball players aren’t runners. But maybe one of our pitchers. Our pitchers run quite a bit around here.”

Ty Wigginton on if he could imagine himself running a marathon: “No. No interest at all. I mean, I don’t mind running, but I don’t see myself wanting to get up early in the morning to go run 26 miles, or whatever the heck it is.”

Wigginton on which Orioles teammate he could see running a marathon: “Luke Scott. But I’m just saying that because he’s standing right there.”

Photos: Associated Press

Shelter from the storm

Looks like there's at least a slight chance of rain leading up to tonight's first pitch at Camden Yards. When it rains, a baseball grounds crew is only as good as its tarp, a one-ton sheet of plastic that acts as the last line of defense to protect the infield.

But gnawing rats and normal wear and tear can leave holes in the cover, which means the Orioles crew must periodically get out a bucket of glue and hunks of plastic to patch openings large and small. Here's how they do it.  

Catching Up With ex-Colt Don McCauley

Each Tuesday in the Toy Department, veteran Sun sportswriter Mike Klingaman tracks down a former local sports figure and lets you know what's going on in his/her life in a segment called "Catching Up With ..." Let Klingaman know who you'd like him to find and click here to check out previous editions of "Catching Up With . . . "

He was a first-round draft pick in 1971, a rugged tailback from North Carolina who looked a little like Robert Redford and ran a lot like Tom Matte.

For the next 11 years, Don McCauley would serve the Baltimore Colts as an unassuming role player with a healthy work ethic and a me-last mindset. At a funky time in Baltimore football history – he played for seven different head coaches – McCauley was the quintessential Colt, a throwback who seldom griped or put himself above the team.

A money-grubbing No. 1 draft choice he was not, despite having smashed O.J. Simpson’s single-season NCAA rushing record.

"I loved football so much that I would have played for nothing," said McCauley, who signed for a $47,500 bonus. "Nowadays that’s less than what the guy holding the chains on the sidelines makes."

He retired in 1982, having gained more than 5,600 yards and scored 58 touchdowns, gaudy numbers for a guy who spent his life shuffling from tailback to fullback and often not starting at all.

Today, McCauley works for his alma mater, raising funds for the athletic department at the University of North Carolina. Married 33 years and the father of three, he turns 60 next month in pretty good shape – the upshot of having ridden the bench.

"Knees and hips? They’re fine," he said. "Playing part-time kept me healthy."

The Colts chose McCauley with the compensatory draft pick they received from Miami after the Dolphins swiped coach Don Shula who, in 1970, was still under contract with Baltimore.

"Two years later he (Shula) goes 17-0 with Miami and wins the Super Bowl," McCauley said. "So I still ask people, who got the better deal out of that?"

As a rookie, he recalls lining up in the Colts huddle in awe of the Super Bowl champions and quarterback John Unitas.

"I looked over and saw those high tops and those little skinny legs of his and thought, ‘He’s a god,’ " McCauley said.

In training camp, as part of his rookie hazing, McCauley was told to approach the aging Unitas at a team meeting and greet him thusly:

"Hello, Mr. Unitas, my name is Don McCauley. I’m really looking forward to meeting your son."

The rookie cringed under Unitas’ icy stare.

"I wanted to run home," McCauley said. "But when Unitas knew he had me, he broke into a laugh."

A couple of years later, Unitas and most other Colts veterans were gone.

"From my first year to the fourth, the team was completely dismantled," McCauley said. "I was the only one left. Those were itchy times; I kept my bags packed for 11 years."

He retired in the summer of 1982, following a 2-14 season in which attendance slowed to a trickle.

"People in the stands wore paper bags over their heads, and it upset me so much that my teammates thought that was funny," McCauley said. "I thought back to the Colts’ glory days and decided, ‘This team doesn’t have the right chemistry – I’m out of here.’ "

He still misses Baltimore.

"It was never snobbish," he said. "The people were down-to-earth. And let’s not forget the steamed crabs. That’s still my favorite food."

Top photo: Ralph Robinson / Sun; Action photo: Irving Phillips / Sun

April 20, 2009

Boldin update; plus, Fox gives Ravens a C-

Both Scott Garceau, from 105.7 The Fan, and WNST's Drew Forrester are citing unnamed Ravens' team sources today saying the salary cap will likely preclude the Ravens from participating in the Anquan Boldin sweepstakes. This appears to be the exact opposite of what unnamed sources have told the Sun's Jamison Hensley and ESPN's John Clayton -- unless you want to think the Ravens weren't aware there was a salary cap last week but suddenly remembered this giant hurdle today.

Know what that sounds like to me? Grist for the draft-week mill. Teams that want to create cap space figure out ways. If the Ravens want Boldin bad enough, they make it happen, even if that requires some tough decisions. A lot of what you hear this week will be posturing, leaked snippets intended to move the needle and play a role in negotiations. Time will tell.

[Update: Jamison has a new report of his own, citing an unnamed team source, saying a trade is "unlikely," unless the Cardinals lower their demands. It seems to confirm what I was alluding to. By going the anonymous-source route, the Ravens are sending word to the Cardinals and the rest of the league that a first- and third-round pick is too steep of an asking price. It might not have seemed especially steep a week ago -- remember Roy Williams brought a first-, third- and a sixth-round pick last year -- but the market for Boldin doesn't seem to be as big as originally thought. If the Ravens stay in the Boldin hunt, you can bet they do not want to give up any more than they have to.

If you're a Peter King disciple, here's what he said in this morning's column: "I think the Cardinals have to get serious about trading Anquan Boldin. He's not going to be happy there, and he's not going to bring back a first-round pick PLUS something else."] 

I did want to pass something along that originally appeared last week on Foxsports.com. John Czarnecki is an editorial consultant for FOX NFL Sunday and one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He went through each team's drafts since 2003 and handed out grades. He gave the Ravens a C-, which is worse than teams like the Redskins (B), the 49ers (C), the Steelers (A), the Patriots (A+), and the Cowboys (A).

Here's what Czarnecki had to say about the Ravens:

"For all the praise given to GM Ozzie Newsome, his drafts have produced few stars in recent years. Yes, quarterback Joe Flacco might become one, but the only Pro Bowler in the last six drafts is pass rusher Terrell Suggs from 2003. Yes, there are some decent starters in guard Ben Grubbs and fullback Le'Ron McClain. But they busted out with quarterback Kyle Boller and first-round receiver Mark Clayton in 2005. Running back Ray Rice was a solid choice last season and nine rookies did make the final 53-man roster in 2008."

If you missed it, the New York Times didn't hand out grades but did write a complimentary story over the weekend on the Ravens' draft process and history.

Endorsement: Courtney Kupets

Each Monday in the Toy Department, a Sun sports writer will take a moment to offer his or her Endorsement of something he or she feels passionately about. There are no rules, and the subject can be as broad, or as narrow, as the writer chooses. This week, Candy Thomson explains how one Maryland gymnast has blossomed into a champion. For previous editions of The Endorsement, click here.

As a world-class gymnast, Courtney Kupets's Achilles' heel is her Achilles' heel. Both of them, as a matter of fact.

Twice in her career, the graduate of Montgomery County's Magruder High School has had to battle back from torn tendons. The first time, she ripped the left tendon at the world championships less than a year before the 2004 Olympics. She came back to win bronze and silver medals at the Athens Summer Games.

Last year, she tore the right tendon, preventing her from defending her 2006 and 2007 all-around titles at the NCAA women's gymnastics championships. She more than made up for it over the weekend, when she regained the overall title, won three individual events (uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise) and led her University of Georgia teammates to the national crown.

Her nine NCAA individual titles makes her the most decorated woman gymnast. Kupets is the first woman to claim a national gymnastics title in every event and in the all-around.

Her coach, Suzanne Yoculan, called Kupets, "the Muhammad Ali of gymnastics — the greatest."

Said Kupets, “I just go out and do what I do.”

How dominant was Kupets at the collegiate championships? She was the only gymnast to qualify for the finals in all four individual events. With 10.0 being a perfect score, Kupets earned a 9.9875 on the balance beam, a 9.95 on the floor exercise and a 9.95 on the uneven bars. She tied for third in the vault, with a score of 9.8563.

During the regular season, she won the all-around competition in all but one meet and also took the Southeast regional title. There's more: she's a former two-time national champion and 2002 world champion on the uneven bars.

Surprising? Hardly. Pre-Athens, Kupets trained at Kelli Hill's gym in Gaithersburg, where Olympians Dominique Dawes and Elsie Ray honed their skills.

And like those two, Kupets is always modest in victory.

"I'm a senior and this is my last year, so I wanted to go out with a bang," she told reporters after the NCAA finals. "And zero regrets, our team motto for the week."

But let's let Yoculan, the coach of 10 championship teams, have the final word:

"I'm not talking about athleticism, necessarily. I mean, Ashleigh (Clare-Kearney) is, wow, her power and explosiveness is much better than Courtney's. Now if you want to break down the all-time best gymnast ever and include so many different things, we all know a lot of gymnasts that are more flexible than her, that are more explosive than Courtney. But the combination of mental and physical is what I'm referring to.

"A weekend like this, three days in a row, four events each day...just the mental strength behind that, I've never witnessed that in 26 years."

You can see for yourself when CBS broadcasts taped coverage at 2 p.m. on May 9. 

Photos: Associated Press

Caption This: O's leave the field

From time to time, we'll share with you some photographs that catch our eye. We'll provide a couple of possible captions, and you can try your hand at one or two of your own. Check out previous editions of Caption This by clicking here. And for more fun with photos, check out the Sun's Caption Call blog.

 

-- Orioles catcher Chad Moeller dives into the stands, chasing after the Orioles' winning record.

-- Sensing things are about to take a turn for the worst, Moeller leaps into the stands to escape the 2009 Orioles.

-- Moeller has trouble handling Matt Albers' curveball.

-- Because Red Sox fans talk like they're always sucking on a baseball-sized jawbreaker, Moeller has trouble understanding a heckler and visits with him to seek clarity.

-- Moeller learns the hard way that with the Orioles, there's no such thing as easy outs.

Photo: AP

Draft week is upon us

We'll have a lot of draft talk here in the Toy Department this week, including Q&As, video debate, the continuation of KVV's mockery of mock drafts.

But let's get it started with a poll question. We'll keep this stashed over there in the right-hand margin of your screen all week.

 

Already, there's a lot of good things floating around. David Steele thinks you gotta pay Terrell Suggs before you open the vault to Anquan Boldin. ProFootball24x7 wonders whether the Ravens have cap space to get Boldin, Eric DeCosta's wife, Lacie, has Darrius Heyward-Bey in her mock draft, and Ken Murray has updated his mock draft.

 Plus, the Eagles could still be involved in the Boldin sweepstakes. It's guaranteed to be a fun week.

Mike Ricigliano's View: The Ravens' draft board


Special to The Baltimore Sun: Contact Ricig at michaelricigliano@gmail.com

Click here for previous cartoons.

Lousy rotation does O's prospects few favors

We're just a dozen games into the season, and you get the sense the Orioles are already encountering the sound-the-alarm, calling-all-cars types of problems they'd hoped to avoid. At the least, they hoped they wouldn't have to cross this creaky, unstable bridge for another month or two.

Forget the four-game losing streak they carry into today's season-finale at Boston. If you subscribe to the idea that this season isn't really about this season (does that make sense?), then you'll just have to accept a losing streak here and there.

No, we're talking about their pitching. Of course.

Here, check out this photo:

 

From the left, that's Troy Patton, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Brad Bergesen, Jake Arrieta and David Hernandez. That's the future. And Andy MacPhail wisely hid the Orioles' future down on the farm -- give them some seasoning, no need to rush them -- and I think most fans understand this approach. But are you starting to think that MacPhail has done a lousy job of shielding them, of insuring they can even remain in the minors as long as necessary?

With three roster spots up for grabs this spring, nearly three dozen pitchers were in camp at Fort Lauderdale. The Orioles settled on Alfredo Simon, Adam Eaton and Mark Hendrickson. The trio's primary job was to occupy a steady roster spot, take the mound every fifth day and allow the younger pitchers to spend as much time in the minors as possible.

One suspect pitcher, you can understand. Two shaky pitchers, well, it's not ideal. But to have three-fifths of your rotation occupied by such giant question marks always looked like a recipe for disaster. The group was never properly equipped. The task was too tall. And here we are, just two weeks into the season, and the Orioles are already forced to dip into their system.

With a 1-1 record, Hendrickson makes his third start of the season today, but Simon is already on the DL and Eaton is probably as surprised as anyone that he even has a job. (Of course, with a 6.17 team ERA, things aren't so hot across the board. In fact, thus far, no team in baseball has given up more hits, no team has a higher WHIP and no team's opponents have posted a higher slugging percentage.)

Replacing Simon in the rotation tomorrow, Brad Bergesen is expected to be called up from Triple-A Norfolk. Though he was the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year a season ago, Bergesen is not a prospect on the level of Matusz, Tillman or Arrieta. Still, he's 23, has a future in the organization and if MacPhail didn't think he needed more seasoning, Bergesen would've started the year with the big-league club.

The scary part is, what happens next? What happens if Eaton gets knocked around again? If Brian Bass doesn't calm down? If the arms in the bullpen are tired before April's finished? Or if injury claims someone else?

What do the Orioles do then?

Not that the Orioles are going to call up Matusz any day -- he barely made his third professional start yesterday -- but the big-league pitchers should be providing a time cushion. The front office should be able to plan Eaton's good-bye party without gingerly dancing around its prospects.

MacPhail's doing so many right things in rebuilding this organization. You really have to applaud his patience and his resolve. I especially like that he doesn't want to rush young players to the majors. But it's not looking like he's given himself a lot of options with the collection of pitchers on the 25-man roster.

Photo: Doug Kapustin / Sun

Q&A: The Necro Butcher

During the week, Dylan Summers is a gentle man who enjoys reading history and doting on his wife and three children. On weekends, however, he travels the world as an indestructible, barefoot hillbilly who likes to punch people square in the face. No doubt, professional wrestling creates strange dichotomies in the lives of many of its performers. But few undergo a more severe character transformation than Summers, aka the Necro Butcher. If you've seen The Wrestler, you'll remember Necro as the chap who stapled Mickey Rourke's chest and then stapled a dollar bill to his own forehead (he's the one bleeding in the picture below.) The harrowing sequence earned the independent wrestling star a mention at the Oscars, something he could never have imagined in all his years of crashing through panes of glass, falling off balconies and taking stiff kicks to the chin. Wrestling might feature pre-determined outcomes, but the pain Necro absorbs and inflicts is all too real (you can see him work for Ring of Honor on June 12 in Manassas, Va., or on HDNet.) With The Wrestler about to come out on DVD on Tuesday, the Butcher agreed to a phone interview with the Toy Department's Childs Walker. Keep in mind that this madman of the ring was gently comforting his crying 10-month-old daughter throughout.

TD: Were you a wrestling fan growing up in West Virginia?

Necro: Yeah, certainly.

TD: Did a lot of shows run in that area at the time?

Necro: Not at all. I mean, back then, there was independent wrestling. When I say the word independent, I mean something other than the stuff you see on TV. But you never heard about it. The only stuff that I knew about was WWF and NWA, because they were on like Saturday afternoons and Saturday mornings. I remember when we got WTBS, they had wrestling on like Saturday morning, Saturday night and Sunday night, so that was like the most. Now, wrestling is on four or five times a week.  

TD: I read that it was something you used to do with your dad?

Necro: Yeah. Can you hang on one second, I have an angry 10-month-old. She doesn't care what's going on (for about a minute, the only sounds are a screaming baby and Necro saying, "I need you to come down here.")

TD: Do you need to break away?

Necro: No, I got my wife on the case.

TD: So what kinds of performers connected with you growing up?

Necro: Well, I don't know. When you're a kid, you don't really get into too many off-the-wall characters. Everybody likes Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant and those guys. You remember the villains but you don't really get into them. You know, like the Iron Shiek and just the classic WWF characters.

TD: So you were sort of the classic kid fan, pulling for the heroes and booing the villains?

Necro: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

TD: Mike from ROH mentioned that you graduated high school at 15. Were you kind of a studious kid?

Necro: I did not go to sixth or seventh grade. I went straight from fifth to eighth. I guess even in first grade, I had reading class with the older kids or math with the older kids. I don't know what the official reason was. It just sounded like a good idea. You ask any 10-year-old kid, "Hey, you want to go to eighth grade?" and it's like, "Sure!"

TD: Were you a physical kid growing up?

Necro: I was teeny-tiny. I remember, cuz wrestling wasn't so badly exposed in those days, you remember [longtime announcer] Gordon Solie? Well on Saturday mornings, Gordon Solie, who had a very straight, play-by-play method of calling the matches, would say, you know, for all the people who ask how to get into wrestling, "You gotta get into high school wrestling and amateur wrestling and get a good background." So not knowing that there was such a thing as wrestling schools, I thought, well, if that's what Gordon Solie says I need to do, that's what I need to do. So I think my freshman year, I wrestled the 98-pound weight class. Sophomore year was 112. But you've got to keep in mind, I was not as old as these kids. I was 12 years old as a freshman. So anyway, my junior year, I wrestled 126, so I didn't really start gaining any weight until I got out of school. I always thought that maybe I could be an announcer, so I learned the names of all the holds. I learned who was from where, who had had what titles, all the history and stuff. I figured hell, maybe I could be an announcer, because I thought I was too small and never gonna gain any weight. Then, when I got out of school, I finally hit my growth spurt.

TD: What prompted you to join the Army?

Necro: Well, I was living in New Martinsville, West Virginia, which was not exactly the best economic area of the country, and minimum wage was a whopping $4.25. I was married, had two kids at the time and I lost my job. So I had four years of working for minimum wage at this grocery store. I had worked my way up to a whopping $6 an hour. And then when I lost my job, I couldn't find anything that would even come close to paying our bills.

TD: And you're not wrestling at that point?

Necro: Oh, hell no. When I got married, all that went out of my mind. I got married when I was 18, so it was time to settle down, have a family, have a normal life. We're faced with the prospect of going on welfare, getting food stamps, all this government assistance crap. So I was like, well, I don't know what to do. The Army didn't sound like anything fun. It didn't sound like anything I wanted to do at all. It just seemed to me that I had dicked around for six or seven months trying to find a job, and I had found nothing that was gonna allow us to pay the bills. So the Army was kind of like my last resort.

TD: So how did you look with a buzz cut? That's hard to picture.

Necro: Laughs. Well, there's videotapes out there. I'm not going to tell you where to find them.

TD: So when did you finally get the idea to try wrestling?

Necro: Well, a little trip in the time machine here. This was before DirecTV and DISH network, so if you had a satellite dish, you had the great, big wire mesh thing. I was always a fan. I thought this would never be something I'd be a part of, but I sure do like to watch it. I was in the Army, and I had this great, big satellite dish. And I got a computer so I got on the internet. I had a little bit more money so I started buying more toys, and I would record this wrestling from different areas. A lot of independent wrestling, some Mexican wrestling, different things, and I would record them on VHS tapes. I got involved on the internet, trading tapes with people. Like I'd go and get older tapes, maybe Japanese tapes, some programs I couldn't get with the dish. It was very easy to get all kinds of wrestling and trade with people all over the world. Through the course of tape trading, I began trading tapes with some guys in Dallas, which was maybe four hours North of where I was in Texas. Through the course of e-mail conversations with these guys, it was like, "Hey, you should come up and try out. You should come up and give it a shot. You're in the Army. You're probably in shape. Blah, blah, blah."

They just wanted to take my money, but I didn't know that. It was oh, these wrestlers want me to come to Dallas and try out with them! They just wanted to beat me up and take my money. Back then, they wanted a a big down payment and then beat the crap out of you. And if you came back, well, OK. Well, that's what happened. I went up and they beat the snot out of me for like four hours, all kind of stuff. I didn't know what was going on. I just tried to survive it. And then at the end of all this, the part that I wasn't prepared for. They asked, "Well, are you coming back next week?" And I was like, they asked me! I didn't even think they'd ask me. I thought it was assumed that as bad as I was looking, as embarrassed as I was at getting tossed around, as much damage as these guys were doing to me, what business do I have coming back up here? So I thought hell, if they're going to ask me, sure, I'll come back up here. That went on for a good while. Every Saturday, I'd drive to Dallas and they'd beat the crap out of me. And they'd ask, "You coming back next week?" And it was always sure, I'll come back next week. I never thought anything would ever come of it. I was in the Army. That was paying the bills, and we were doing OK. This was pretty fun, getting in the ring with real wrestlers. And they're trying to get me to quit, and I won't quit. So this is pretty cool, and I'll keep doing it. And before you know it, I had a match and then another one and then, this is over a period of time, I'm driving to shows far away and doing like two shows in one day and two or three shows a weekend. And then sometimes, I'm on TV and sometimes I'm wrestling in front of big crowds. You know, I just kept getting lucky break after lucky break.

TD: Describe your style and character at the beginning?

Necro: Back then, it was completely different. I had the short hair. I was a lot thinner. I was maybe about 195-200 pounds. I was in pretty good shape from running every day. In the Army, you run every day, which I don't do anymore. Laughs. But I did what I was taught. I did the holds and the basic moves and the basic counters and what not. I just did what my teachers were instructing me to do. Of course, they said, "You're in the Army, so it's only natural for you to be an Army character." Which was f---ing horrible because that was my real job and wrestling was supposed to be an escape from that. On the weekends, I was somebody I wasn't. These days, kids, before they even step in the ring, say, "This is what my name's going to be, this is what costume I'm going to wear. This is going to be my music." They have it all planned out. But back then, you just did what you were told. You know, so I was Private Dylan Summers and I handed out little American flags and wore camouflage, and I'd carry artillery shells to the ring. It was the cheesiest stuff ever, but I was in no position to say anything. I just did what I was told.

TD: So how does one get into death match wrestling?

Necro: Well, I was doing the Army gimmick and I was wrestling, probably once every couple of months. Sometimes more than that, but a couple of the guys who were helping with the training were doing this little show, and I guess now, you'd call it backyard wrestling. But back then, we didn't know what the hell backyard wrestling was. It was outside in the middle of Forth Worth. It was a ring. They charged admission. They sold the VHS and DVDs. It was just like indy wrestling only it was outside. Some other decent name wrestlers were doing it, so I thought I'd give it a shot. And best-case scenario, it would be some decent ring time for me. Worst-case scenario, no one will see it, so if it's horrible, who gives a crap? But they had this idea for a character they wanted me to play. I still had the short hair and I was kind of thin, but they had me paint my face all crazy and act a little off the wall. Of course, that was the Necro Butcher gimmick [though it has changed since] and that's when I started doing that.   

TD: So you picked up the name at that point?

Necro: It was given to me. Back then, you didn't decide what you were or who you were.

TD: So who gave you the name?

Necro: It was a little company called Insane Hardcore Wrestling. It was just the guys in charge of that. So I thought who the hell cares? If this is crap, at least I'll get some ring time. I'll paint my face up, I'll act all crazy, I'll do this Necro Butcher stuff just to get more ring time. As fate would have it, 20/20 was doing a special on backyard wrestling, and they just so happened to pick the first show I did to come do their story. So other promoters watched this stuff on 20/20 and they saw this Necro Butcher guy. And then, no one wanted to book Private Dylan Summers on their shows. They wanted this Necro Butcher guy. So slowly, the phone stopped ringing for Private Dylan Summers and started ringing for this Necro Butcher guy. And it snowballed into something that I never, ever thought was possible. This was just supposed to be ring time. And now, I've got movies and Japan and Ring of Honor. It's just unbelievable. Sometimes, I just sit back and it takes my breath. It really does. 

TD: Is there sort of a philosophical underpinning to the character or is it something that just evolved naturally?

Necro: Well both. Any kind of profession you do for any length of time, you're going to figure out the best way to do things. The position I was put in, I spent a few years down in Texas working the Necro Butcher gimmick. Then, I moved to the Midwest in Louisville, Ky. and started working for a company called IWA. It's a real blood-and-guts promotion, but a lot of top guys from around the country were converging on these shows, a lot of talent. I went there. I was always first or second match, always losing, not making very much money. And I saw the guys on the upper card were doing the light bulbs and the fighting out in the crowd, you know the thumbtacks and barbed wire and just crazy stuff. I thought if that's what the guys in the upper echelon of the card are doing, that's what I need to do to get where they are. I just waited my turn, and somebody no-showed a main event or something. They said, "Hey, you ready to do this match?" It was called something like a lumberjack light tube match. If you were thrown out of the ring, it was surrounded by wrestlers who would just rain fluorescent light tubes down on you. But this was my chance to finally be in the main event, so I went a little crazy and did some things I probably shouldn't have done. I didn't have any serious injuries, just some minor cuts. But it was a lot of dangerous stuff, and the promoter responded really well to it, the fans responded really well to it. And I thought hell, I'm on to something here. Maybe if I can do this and that's something different than a lot of other people are doing, maybe people will notice me. And that's exactly what happened.

TD: Do you think creating a wrestling character is similar to creating, say, a recurring TV character?

Necro: It's the same in the fact that it changes over time but you try to keep some of the core issues the same. But it's different in the fact that you're in control of yourself and that's it. When you're wrestling a certain opponent, you might think, "What can I do to make this guy look good or bad?" But you're really not in charge of anything but yourself. When you get farther along, you lose control. Like the stuff you see on television, those guys don't have very much control over what they do in the ring or what they say. It's just like a movie. They're portraying a role. The stuff I do; I have a little more creative control of where I go, what I do.

TD: So what's the weirdest thing you've ever been hit with in a ring?

Necro: Like most painful or weirdest?

TD: However you want to define it.

Necro: I think the most painful thing I've ever experienced in terms of things that did not belong in the wrestling ring was a cactus or cacti, I guess. Now, they had done a match like this in Japan. I was in Houston in probably 1999, and the promoter was really worried that the fans would look at these cacti and think, "Oh, those aren't very painful." So he went out and got the most gnarly, horrible, dangerous-looking cacti he could find. And I mean, it took a good, probably three hours after the match to pick all these needles out of different parts of my body. Even for like a couple of weeks later, they'd still be working their way out. It was a pretty bad idea overall. As far as weird stuff, I've done a lot of stuff where they call them "fans bring the weapons" matches." That's where it's kind of like the creativity of the fans, so you can get some really weird stuff there.

TD: You might be one of the few people on earth who can answer this. Does it hurt more to fall off a delivery truck, get run through a pane of glass, get stapled in the forehead or just get kicked or punched right in the face?

Necro: I've done like all those things at once. Laughs. I don't know, sometimes, when there are a lot of people around and they're making a lot of noise, you just concentrate on doing your job. You don't really start hurting until you walk back through the curtain and sit down. That's when it's liked, "Oh man, I'm f---ed up." You know, you just try to do your job and entertain the people. Some stuff, you do notice when it happens. But a lot of stuff, I really don't until after.

TD: Do you have a high pain tolerance or do you sort of meditate and get yourself in a mindset where it's not going to bother you?

Necro: I'm in pain right now sitting here, talking to you on the phone. I'm pretty sure I don't have a high pain tolerance. I just think it's all about how you deal with it. When you're out there, doing what you're supposed to be doing, you don't have time to say I'm hurt and lay there for 10 minutes. You can't do that. Pretty soon, they'll stop paying you.

TD: So it's not that you're getting yourself in some particular state of mind before? It's more just I'm doing my job?

Necro: I mean, if I know there's something with barbed wire, for instance, I'll not so much meditate but I'll keep my mind focused on what's about to happen so I'm not surprised. What could happen here? What's the worst that could happen? What will probably happen? What has happened before? What's never happened? You just try to think of the scenarios so you're not surprised. It kind of makes it a little easier if you visualize them and think them through in your head, if that makes any sense.

TD: What do you think draws people to deathmatch wrestling?

Necro: It's just completely something different. Same reason there's action movies and suspense movies and comedy movies. Same reason there's what, 32 flavors of Baskin Robbins? There's something for everybody. You know, some people appreciate it, some people don't.

TD: There are some pretty fierce debates online about your quality as a performer. Do you read them and if so, what do you make of it?

Necro: Well, one thing you have to understand about these online debates is that these online debates are being held by people who've never gotten in the ring and will never get in the ring. They're just fans, so you can't make everybody happy all the time. Some people have a certain idea of what they want to see and anything that doesn't fit their criteria, they're gonna crap on it. I look at it as, my job is not to go out there and do textbook arm drags and seven or eight kinds of suplexes or backflips. That's not my job. That's somebody else's job. My job is to go out there and do what I do, and I try to do it as best I can. The bottom line is how the people watching the show think and if the promoters think you're a good asset to their company. That's the bottom line. The online debates will go on and on and on as long as we have electricity.

TD: Were you surprised when the character started to get cheers? You're an extremely sympathetic figure in a lot of places.

Necro: I think that goes back to something you said earlier about the character evolving. For instance, I've been working pretty regularly in the town of Philadelphia, really in the same building, for like seven or eight years now. So the people who come there every month, they see you injured and fighting back from injury and you learn to play off of that. I don't know if it's really admirable, but put me in front of a crowd, and I can make them feel sorry for me pretty easily. Laughs. Or I can make them feel sorry for the other guy. That's just part of the job--manipulating the crowd and trying to get the correct reaction out of them.

TD: So how did you become involved with The Wrestler?

Necro: Well, it was kind of an accident and kind of on purpose. What happened was we were doing a show in Manhattan, and the director, the producer and a few of the assistants were looking for different wrestling companies to work with. Because as you know, the match he had with the Ayatollah was filmed at a Ring of Honor show. And there was some stuff at a CZW show and a Jersey All-Pro show. They were looking for different independent companies to film these scenes in. So they were there, looking for people they wanted to use in little scenes and what not. They came up and told me they wanted to read for a role. Here's where I got lucky. The role I read for was a wrestler named the Hellbilly Cannibal. Well, the writer had actually based the character off of me. He saw me at a show in Long Island some time ago and just changed the name to the Hellbilly Cannibal. So the director was like, "Why should we get someone to play the Hellbilly Cannibal when we can just get the guy he was based off of?" So I just kind of got lucky.

TD: Now did you actually wrestle a match with Mickey Rourke or did you just do little pieces?

Necro: It was all chopped up. It was even chopped up to the point where the stuff we did was not in sequential order. So like every shot would be different make-up, the props would be placed differently in the ring. It was pretty weird, but it came together nice.

TD: Did Darren Aronofsky give you a lot of direction or was it just like, "You know what you're doing in this setting so do what you do?"

Necro: He told me what he wanted me to do, and I just did what he said. It was pretty simple. He would say, "Could you turn more this way" or maybe just ask me to play off the camera, which I really wasn't very good at. In professional wrestling, you're used to telling your story to the people in the cheap seats. Everybody in the whole building has to know what you're doing and why you're doing it. For a movie, you could really care less about the crowd, and you have to tell your story to this little black box.

TD: What were your impressions of Mickey Rourke?

Necro: Well, he was completely professional. One thing that made really, I don't if it was a good impression or a bad impression, but he didn't seem out of place. We were in the locker room or wherever, he just looked like an old, broken down wrestler. You wouldn't think, "There's an actor, playing a role." If you didn't know what was going on, you'd think, "Who's that old guy over there? What's he doing here?" He did his homework. That's for sure.

TD: How did he take the stapling?  

Necro: Well, that was all special effects. I stapled myself. That was legitimate. That's why the staple gun was upside down. I couldn't apply enough pressure. I kept shooting myself in the face with the staple gun, and they kept bouncing off. The dollar wouldn't stick. The third time I was like man, let me try to hold the staple gun upside down and see if that works.

TD: Have you gotten to watch the movie with a regular audience?

Necro: No, I watched it with my wife on a bootleg DVD copy.

TD: I was just wondering because it was interesting watching your sequence with a crowd of normal people. I sort of got the sense that people didn't believe that it was necessariy realistic.

Necro: Laughs. I would've liked to see it that way, but with me, the work schedule is kind of backward. My weekend is the week day and my week days are the weekend.

TD: So did the whole movie feel true to you?

Necro: Oh yeah, way too much probably.

TD: What do you mean by that exactly?

Necro: I don't know, just the thing with wrestling in smaller arenas and sometimes, the promoters would take advantage of you financially. You know, if you get hurt, you're kind of on your own. If you get hurt, you can't wrestle the next night, and then you can't pay your bills. Right now, I'm lucky where I don't have to have a real job. But I've had to have real jobs. Up until like '05, I had a real job, and you ask for time off to go wrestle and sometimes, your boss doesn't really understand what the hell you're doing. So all that. The fact that he didn't really have the relationship with his daughter that he wanted. Things like that are pretty common in my business, actually.

TD: What ran through your head when the Necro Butcher was mentioned at the Oscars?

Necro: Laughs. Actually, I didn't even know it. I was wrestling in Detroit. And my mom gets worried about me when I wrestle certain matches, so she made me promise to call her. So I'd finished my match in Detroit and I called my mom. And she informed me what had happened. Through the magic of You Tube, I got to see it.

TD: You mentioned never imagining a lot of stuff that's happened to you. That would certainly have to go on that list.

Necro: Dude, I mean, for one thing, I never thought I'd have a match, ever. Then, I never thought I'd win a match. Then, I thought I'm never going to get on TV or get a plane ticket to go wrestle somewhere. I'm never going to go to Japan. And all this stuff, over and over and over, one good thing after another keeps happening to me, man. I can't imagine what could possibly be next. I imagine nothing would ever get better than this.   

TD: How do you deal with the "What does daddy do?" questions? Do you show your kids your work?

Necro: I don't like keep it away from them. My kids will go to shows with me maybe a couple times a year. I don't know. I don't purposely try to keep them separated. To flip it around a little bit, if I worked at McDonald's, I wouldn't take my kids to watch me work. You know, it's just work. I do something that some people find kind of interesting, but it's still a job. It's a fun job, but it's still a job.

TD: I just didn't know if you worried about some of the stuff being scary?

Necro: No. They see me limping around the house. They deserve to know why their dad can't play with them.

TD: The film showed that you're a quiet, polite, well-spoken guy outside of the ring. Does that sort of contrast with your character appeal to you?

Necro: I never really even thought about it. That's just normal. That's the way I am backstage at the shows. I just acted naturally. I'm just trying to do a good job. I'm like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He wasn't crazy, but he had to make everyone think he was crazy so he could stay there. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm just trying to keep a job, man.

TD: So what do you enjoy doing with your non-wrestling time?

Necro: Well, I don't think about wrestling. That's for sure. In general, I don't like to leave the house. If there's something that I can't get from the corner store, I don't want to get it. I just play video games or board games with the kids, watch movies with the wife. Or play with the baby rattle for four hours.

TD: So you live outside of Pittsburgh?

Necro: About an hour North. Pittsburgh is a little too much hustle and bustle for me. I'm up here in New Castle, Pa. and there's not much going on as far as jobs for regular people. But you know, I don't leave the house. Everything's real cheap, because everyone's broke. It's working for us.

TD: As a guy who takes a lot of punishment, do you have sort of longterm fears about how you'll feel when you're 50?

Necro: Man, I don't feel good now. I shudder to think. I don't feel good now. It's not something I think about. I don't think about that kind of stuff in any aspect of my life. My newest little girl is 10 months old, and I don't want to think about her at one-year-old or two years old. I just try to, whatever's going on right now, that's what we're doing and try to make the best of it.

TD: Do you think you'll wrestle for quite some time?

Necro: I would like to work behind the scenes with a company. I've had success at different levels as far as helping backstage, helping guys put things together. I worked for a year in Texas putting together a TV show, and I enjoyed that. I would hope to think that I could get a job somewhere, doing something along those lines.

Necro photo: Scott Finkelstein

April 17, 2009

Why the Ravens should pass on drafting a wide receiver in 1st round

 

I like Darrius Heyward-Bey a lot. As a person, he's just about everything a reporter could ask for. He's a smart, funny guy who is a great quote, mainly because he isn't afraid to tell you what he thinks. It's no secret that wide receivers have become the Beyonces and the J-Los of the NFL. Most of the good ones are divas who need constant pampering, or else they'll throw tantrums, but Heyward-Bey doesn't fit that mold. He's a great kid. I want to see him succeed in the NFL, and fulfill the ridiculous potential he has because he possesses the rare combination of size (6 feet 3) and speed (4.3 in the 40).

But if I were Ozzie Newsome, I'd let someone else take that risk. Because even though Maryland had quarterback issues throughout Heyward-Bey's career, which helps explain his underwhelming production, it's way too easy to fall in love with wide receivers prior to the draft. Wide receivers are like race horses. When they're young, everyone has their theories, but no one really has any idea which ones will be good, and which ones will be a waste. I went to a horse auction a few years ago after the Preakness and watched an entire room full of trainers throw around thousands of dollars on horses just hoping to find one good one in 10. It was a good primer for this year's draft. 

The success rate of wideouts drafted in the first round in the last 10 years is pitiful. And Heyward-Bey is no different. There are a lot of Ravens fans, as well as NFL GMs, mesmerized right now by his physical tools, but when it comes to the first round, you're more likely to get burned by potential than you are pleasantly surprised by it. Wide receivers are the hardest position in the NFL to evaluate, there is no way the Ravens should take that gamble, even on someone with character like Heyward-Bey, despite the continued lobbying of Maryland fans. (Frankly, they should know better than anyone that Heyward-Bey can drive you mad with his inconsistency.) 

Windows aren't open very long in the NFL. After getting to the AFC championship game last year, the team would be better off signing a proven player (Torry Holt?) or trading for a potential star (Anquan Boldin) than they would playing the lottery of picking a wideout in the first round, hoping he'll emerge three years from now. Because that's the best-case scenario: three years before the pick even begins to pay off, if at all.

There were no wide receivers drafted in the first round last year, but let's look at wide receivers drafted in the first round over the 10-year period from 1999, the year before the Ravens won the Super Bowl, to 2008. The results (below) should scare you.

Even when you find a player who is productive, there is a decent chance he'll be a headcase. And finding a star at the bottom of the first round? You're about as likely to find one in the second or third round. You just end up paying your misses a lot less money. With as well as the Ravens evaluate defensive talent, they should just continue to draft defenders and trade them for proven receivers. Because look how easy it is to miss on wideouts.

Let's look at the results on a year-by-year basis.

 

1999 -- Torry Holt (Rams, 6th), David Boston (Cardinals, 8th), Troy Edwards (Steelers, 13th).

Pro Bowl WR drafted in Round 1: Holt, Boston

Pro Bowl WR drafted outside Round 1: Marty Booker, Donald Driver, Sean Morey (special teams).

Analysis: Boston's one Pro Bowl selection almost shouldn't count, since he was suspected of steroid use throughout his career, and eventually tested positive for both steroids and growth hormone. He was also charged with a DUI late in his career. Holt is a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, and one of only a handful of wide receivers in the last 10 years (as you'll soon learn) who justified being selected as high as he was.  Edwards, despite a prolific college career, was a total bust.   

 

2000 -- Peter Warrick (Bengals, 4th), Plaxico Burress (Steelers, 8th), Travis Taylor (Ravens, 10th), Slyvester Morris (Chiefs, 21st), R. Jay Soward (Jaguars, 29th).

Pro Bowl WR drafted in Round 1: None 

Pro Bowl WR drafted outside Round 1: Laveranues Coles, Dante Hall (kick returner).  

Analysis: Of those five players, only Burress came close to living up to his potential (although he was still named to zero Pro Bowls), and he only did it with his second team (Giants), and then proceeded to screw that up by shooting himself in the leg with a handgun at a New York City nightclub. Morris was hobbled by injuries and Soward's career wrecked by substance abuse. Taylor never had a 1,000-yard season with the Ravens, and was arrested and tasered by police outside a Minneapolis night club in 2007.  

 

2001 -- David Terrell (Bears, 8th), Koren Robinson (Seahawks, 9th) Rod Gardner (Redskins, 15th), Santana Moss (Jets, 16th), Freddie Mitchell (Eagles, 25th), Reggie Wayne (Colts, 29th).

Pro Bowl WR drafted in Round 1: Robinson, Moss, Wayne.

Pro Bowl WR drafted outside Round 1: Chad Johnson, Chris Chambers, Steve Smith, T.J. Houshmandzadah, Alex Bannister (special teams selection).

Analysis: A little better track record than the previous season, but still more busts in Round 1  than Pro Bowlers. Even then, alcohol problems derailed the career of Robinson, Moss didn't truly emerge as a consistent threat until he was with his second team, and it took Wayne four seasons of playing with the league's best quarterback before he emerged as an elite wideout. Terrell lasted only four seasons in the NFL, and neither Gardner nor Mitchell is still in the league.

 

2002 -- Donte Stallworth (Saints, 13th), Ashley Lelie (Broncos, 19th), Javon Walker (Packers, 20th).

Pro Bowl WR drafted in Round 1: Walker

Pro Bowl WR drafted outside Round 1: None

Analysis: A bad draft for wide receivers in general. Worth pointing out that Lelie is now playing for his fourth team, Walker his third, and Stallworth his third. Stallworth is also facing second-degree manslaughter charges for an alleged DUI.

 

2003 -- Charles Rodgers (Lions, 2nd), Andre Johnson (Texans, 3rd), Bryant Johnson (Cardinals, 17th).

Pro Bowl WR drafted in Round 1: A. Johnson

Pro Bowl WR drafted outside Round 1: Anquan Boldin

Analysis: Rodgers and Johnson were both highly productive in college, but quickly flamed out in the NFL. Boldin turned out to be a great example of why workouts aren't everything when it comes to playing wideout. At the combine, he ran a 4.71 in the 40, and his rookie season with the Cardinals, he caught 101 passes. Rodgers, who ran a 4.28 in pre-draft workouts, never had a 100-yard receiving game in the NFL, and failed three drug tests before the Lions eventually released him. Bryant Johnson is with his third team and has never caught 50 passes in a single season.

 

2004 -- Larry Fitzgerald (Cardinals, 3rd), Roy Williams (Lions, 7th), Reggie Williams (Jaguars, 9th), Lee Evans (Bills, 13th), Michael Clayton (Bucs, 15th), Michael Jenkins (Falcons, 29th)

Pro Bowl WR Drafted in Round 1: Fitzgerald, Williams

Pro Bowl WR Drafted outside Round 1: Wes Welker (undrafted)

Analysis: Although Williams does have a Pro Bowl on his resume (he was an alternate who played after an injury to Torry Holt in 2007), he's in danger of turning into a bust after catching just 19 passes in 10 games after being traded to the Cowboys. Only Fitzgerald truly lived up to his potential, becoming one of the best in the NFL at his position. Once again, substance abuse problems pop up, as Reggie Williams was arrested twice while with the Jaguars, and charged with felony cocaine possession the second time.

 

2005 -- Braylon Edwards (Browns, 3rd), Troy Williamson (Vikings, 7th), Mike Williams (Lions, 10th), Matt Jones (Jaguars, 21st), Mark Clayton (Ravens, 22nd), Roddy White (Falcons, 27th).

Pro Bowl WR Drafted in Round 1: Edwards, White

Pro Bowl WR Drafted outside Round 1: Johnny Mathis (kick returner).

Analysis: Another so-so draft for wide receivers. White made the Pro Bowl in 2008, but Edwards is the only player who developed into a anything resembling a star. (Although Cleveland is trying to trade him after he led the league in dropped passes last year.) Clayton has been a solid starter and may take yet another step forward, but at 5 feet 10, it's hard to imagine he'll be a dominant player. This draft was also plagued by busts. Williamson, who has size and speed comparable with Heyward-Bey, has just career 84 career catches. Williams played for three teams before being released by the Titans last year, and at one point he weighed 270 pounds. Jones was arrested in 2008 and charged with felony drug possession, and arrested again for violating his probation.

 

2006 -- Santonio Holmes (Steelers, 25th)

Pro Bowl WR Drafted in Round 1: None

Pro Bowl WR Drafted outside Round 1: Brandon Marshall

Analysis: Holmes has been pretty successful on the field -- he did catch the game-winning pass in the Super Bowl, and was the game's MVP -- but he's also been arrested twice, once for assault and once for marijuana possession. Marshall has also been arrested multiple times, including once for domestic violence. Marques Colston, drafted in the seventh round by the Saints, has had a promising start to his career.

 

2007 -- Calvin Johnson (Lions, 2nd), Ted Ginn Jr. (Dolphins, 9th), Dwayne Bowe (Chiefs, 23rd), Robert Meachem (Saints, 27th), Craig Davis (Chargers, 30th), Anthony Gonzalez (Colts, 31st).

Pro Bowl WR Drafted in Round 1: None.

Pro Bowl WR Drafted outside Round 1: None.

Analysis: It's too early to evaluate most of this draft, but that also makes a strong case for why the Ravens shouldn't be reaching for a wideout in the first round when they're one game away from the Super Bowl. Johnson is most likely going to be a star, and Bowe has compiled 2,017 receiving yards in his first two seasons. Ginn had a promising second season. Davis spent most of his second year on injured reserve.

 

Lastly, look at the 15 wide receivers who were in the Pro Bowl more than twice over that span, from 1999 to 2008. Only six of them were first-round picks. 

Marvin Harrison, 1st-round pick (8 times)

Torry Holt, 1st-round pick (6 times)

Terrell Owens, 3rd-round pick (6 times)

Chad Johnson, 2nd-round pick (5 times)

Randy Moss, 1st-round pick (5 times)

Hines Ward, 3rd-round pick (4 times)

Issac Bruce, 2nd-round pick (3 times)

Jimmy Smith, 2nd-round pick (3 times)

Joe Horn, 5th-round pick (3 times)

Donald Driver, 7th-round pick (3 times)

Anquan Boldin, 2nd-round pick (3 times)

Reggie Wayne, 1st-round pick (3 times)

Steve Smith, 3rd-round pick (3 times)

Larry Fitzgerald, 1st-round pick (3 times)

Andre Johnson, 1st-round pick (3 times)

 

Of the 33 wide receivers drafted in the first round during that stretch, 11 made at least one Pro Bowl, but only Holt, Wayne, Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson played in more than one.

By comparison, 14 other wide receivers not drafted in the first round also made the Pro Bowl during that spam. And Steve Smith, Chad Johnson and Aquan Boldin all played in more than one. (I'm including the three special teams players because at least their teams got something out of those picks. If you miss on a first-round receiver and he doesn't play on teams, it was a complete waste. And you also might have to bail him out of jail.) 

It's such a roll of the dice, you almost have as good a chance of finding a gem in the third round as you do the first. 

So, with all that in mind, still think the Ravens should grab Heyward-Bey, or any receiver really, if he's there?

Ravens may have less competition for Boldin

If the Ravens are seriously pursuing Arizona Cardinals' wide receiver Anquan Boldin, the competition may have just thinned out a bit. Maybe a lot.

Reportedly, the Philadelphia Eagles -- who were also thought to be in the hunt for Boldin -- have agreed to trade a first-round pick to Buffalo for the Bills' two-time Pro Bowl left offensive tackle, Jason Peters. Obviously, the Cards want a first-round pick for Boldin and a little extra.

If that Eagles-Bills trade goes through (there are reports that Philadelphia wants Peters to agree to a contract extension), it probably eliminates the Eagles from any more big moves leading up to the draft. Philadelphia had two first-round picks (No. 21 and No. 28) and 12 choices overall.  The Eagles gave up the No. 28 and two other picks (a fourth-rounder this year and sixth in 2010) for Peters. 

Meanwhile, the Ravens have the No. 26 overall. Certainly, the Eagles could still try to trump a Baltimore offer with their No. 21 but it also would seem unlikely that the Eagles would give up another first-rounder in a trade, not to mention the payroll strain of coming up with fresh bonus money for both Peters and Boldin.

  

Pit boss: Beauty and brains at the poker table

Pit Boss is that part of the Toy Department where we'll  discuss games that don't involve balls (at least not the ones made by Wilson and Rawlings) and if those games happen to be played on something green, it's felt not grass. Sports gambling, poker, casino news, happenings in Las Vegas and Atlantic City -- that's what we're about in this adult corner of the Toy Department. The usual disclaimers apply: We discourage anything illegal and if you do any wagering, make sure it's with your head and not over it. Now ... can we get you something to drink?

The National Heads-Up Poker Championship telecasts continue on NBC this weekend (noon, Sunday). The shows are on for the next five Sundays with the finals scheduled for May 17. Like virtually all televised poker, it's taped so we won't spoil it if you don't know the outcome but here's a link for the results if that sort of thing doesn't bother you.

However, we will tell you that this year's one-on-one tournament is something of a breakout for Vanessa Rousso (left), who graduated from Duke in just 2 1/2 years (game theory) and has been pursuing a law degree at Miami. Rousso has gotten a fair amount of face time on TV poker shows but fighting her way through a field of 64 of the best players in the world to go deep into the high-profile tournament at Caesars Palace will go a long way to stamping her legitimacy.

Meanwhile, Rousso isn't the only poker player who would seem to be possessed of both pulchritude and intelligence around the poker tables these day. Olivia "Liv" Boeree (right)-- whose introduction to the poker scene was mainly as a "presenter" (TV personality) -- is making some noise as a player. She has been on a roll at the Bellagio Five Star World Poker Classic currently going on in Las Vegas. That Bellagio field is a little slim this year but it's traditionally full of tough talent.

Boeree, who won a European women's title last year, has two cashes at the Bellagio so far for nearly $23,000 and she won a satellite for a seat in the $25,000 World Poker Tour Championship this weekend. Along with looking good and running good, Boeree, a native of the U.K, also has a beautiful mind. She graduated from the University of Manchester with a "First Class Honours degree" in Physics with Astrophysics, according to her MySpace bio.

 

Madden on newspapers

My column today was on John Madden. I tried to squeeze a lot in there, which isn't always the best of ideas. But there was one anecdote that didn't fit, but I think it's worth passing along. It comes from Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' senior vice president of community and public relations.

As part of his job, Byrne works with reporters of all stripes and coordinates with network television crews. That means he's been dealing with Madden for more than a quarter-century.

Byrne recalls running into Madden at a game about 15 years ago. You'll recall that Madden doesn't fly and took the Madden Cruiser all around the country. I'll let Byrne tell the rest:

"He said, 'This is unbelievable. You won't believe what I have. You've never seen anything like it.' Well, he had just discovered what the rest of the world already had -- a laptop computer. 'I could be in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I could read the Dallas Morning News, I could read the New York Daily News, the Chicago Tribune. I'll be so up-to-date, you guys won't have to FedEx boxes to a truck stop outside of Toledo, Ohio any more.

"I looked at him and said, 'Coach, will that mean you won't read newspapers any more?'

"'Oh no,' he says to me. 'You have to have newspapers to go to the bathroom.'"

Get Out: To the Chesapeake Bay

Sure you'd rather stay inside all weekend re-reading your favorite Toy Department features. But let's face it, you're starting to smell bad. Bugs are circling your head. And it's time to move so someone can vacuum under the couch. As we do every Friday in this space, may we humbly suggest you do everyone a favor and, "Get out!" Click here for previous editions. 

Tomorrow marks the beginning of the striped bass fishing season.

Thousands of anglers, tired of a winter's worth of being inside, will race to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries to launch boats. Thousands more will line beaches and breakwaters, piers and bridges to wet a line and maybe catch one of the species that enjoys the designation of state fish.

The striped bass, or rockfish, as it is known here, migrates up the bay each spring to spawn. At least three-quarters of the East Coast's striper population was conceived, born and raised here. The females swim to upper bay tributaries to meet Mr. Right. 

Just think of the bay as a giant dating bar without a cover charge.

The striped population was almost fished to extinction before Maryland and other states imposed a five-year moratorium. The biggest fish--some approaching 50-inches in length--are the products of that decision to put the fishing gear away.

This year's spring season runs until May 15. Each angler is allowed one fish a day in excess of 28 inches.

If you have a boat, follow the crowd. If you don't have a boat, go to Sandy Point State Park outside Annapolis. Fish along the beach or head for the jetty in the shadow of the Bay Bridge.

The pier at Matapeake on Kent Island is another popular place.

The weather should be perfect. The fish are plentiful and biting. And there's nothing live fresh rockfish on the grill.

Photo: courtesy of Stu Munsell

It's OK to sacrifice draft picks for Boldin

I'm not sure what popular sentiment is about this Anquan Boldin news, but it seems pretty simple to me: If they Ravens have a chance, they must pull the trigger on the trade.

I like Boldin better than any receiver in this draft. The Ravens need a receiver. Ergo, you gotta jump on this trade. The Ravens know that to maximize Joe Flacco's potential, they've got to add another receiver into the mix, and the draft options available to them at 26 are just too risky.

I spoke with Eric DeCosta, the Ravens director of player personnel, this week about a variety of subjects (this interview will be posted here in the Toy Department next week) and one thing we touched on is just how difficult it is to draft receivers. I mean, look at the Ravens' recent draft history. They chase after a receiver almost every year. How's that working out? Here's how:

2008: 4th round, Marcus Smith, New Mexico; 7th round, Justin Harper, Virginia Tech

2007: 3rd round, Yamon Figurs, Kansas State

2006: 4th round, Demetrius Williams, Oregon

2005: 1st round, Mark Clayton, Oklahoma

2004: 3rd round, Devard Darling, Washington State; 6th round, Clarence Moore, Northern Arizona; 6th round, Derek Abney, Kentucky

2002: 4th round, Ron Johnson, Minnesota; 6th round, Javin Hunter, Notre Dame

You know the Ravens are hungry for a receiver. They haven't made it a secret. They've been using Joe Flacco during workouts with potential WR draft picks. How often do you hear of that happening?

DaCosta says the easiest positions to evaluate are offensive linemen, safeties and running backs. The toughest are quarterbacks and wide receivers. So why roll the draft dice again on a receiver? Give whatever it takes to nab the proven commodity. Dealing away a first- and a third-round pick -- the Cards' reporting asking price -- might be too high for the Giants, but not the Ravens.

With Boldin, they have a sure-thing -- a guy who makes their quarterback better, their offense better and their team better.

So, yes, you give up the first-round pick and you give up the third. And if the Cardinals want some Ray Lewis autographs footballs or some Steve Bisciotti investment tips, you throw that in, too. (The Arizona Republic suggests the Ravens would have to throw in 2010 picks. And Mike Preston says a first and third is too much to give up.)

It might not make for an exciting draft weekend for Ravens fans. But it'd sure inject some excitement into the next couple of seasons. 

Photo: Associated Press

Army-Navy has nothing on this game

Sports Illustrated said there's "no parallel in intercollegiate sports." But we're not talking Ohio State-Michigan, Harvard-Yale or Alabama-Auburn. They'll be dressed to the nines in Annapolis on Sunday afternoon for the 27th annual croquet match between St. John's College and the U.S. Naval Academy. We're talking crew-cut Mids and unshaven Johnnies. Parasols, summer dresses and a bit of drinking, too. The match begins at 1 p.m. on the St. John's front lawn. It's sure to be a wicket good time. (Ha! See what I did there? Wicket = wicked. Sigh... good times.)

To help us understand what exactly is on the line here, we consulted with Micah Beck, the Imperial Wicket for the St. John's team. (He's pictured below, dressed like a painter, far left.)

Question: First, congratulations on being named Imperial Wicket for the 2009 match. How'd you attain this honor? What was the swearing-in ceremony like? (Was there a goat involved?)

Beck: The Imperial Wicket is basically a tyrant and chooses without input or outside help everything to do with the team in any given year and includes choosing his successor.  I was made the Imperial Wicket on our triumphant return from Collegiate Nationals last year.  The ceremony involved myself and the previous Wicket drinking beer at the same time from our trophy.

Question: When you first set foot on campus, what did you know about the annual croquet battle, and did you know instantly that this would be your destiny?

Beck: I actually visited the campus the year before I was a freshman on the day of the match. Coincidentally, it was the last year we lost to Navy. I had no idea what this game was like, and I found some people playing Go on the sidelines and joined them instead. Then my father bought a backyard set over the summer and the first weekend I was a student I was already playing.

Question: Before we talk about this weekend's match, can you give us a brief history of Navy-St. John's croquet, as it's been told to you? And as a follow-up, do you really think this history is true?

Beck: The story I heard from upperclassmen when I was a freshman was that there was a bar fight in a little place on Maryland Ave. called the Little Campus between some Johnnies and some Midshipmen. Whatever happened that night led eventually to an official challenge to the Naval Academy and the rest is history.  Consequently, we've been winning the bar fight ever since. As to whether or not it is true, I did meet an alum from the early 80's who said that he was at the Little Campus when the fight occurred, but didn't remember it very well.

Question: What has your training schedule been like? And how do you prepare strategically?

Beck: We play too often to practice.

Question: Can you give us an idea of what kind of pressure you and your teammates feel? Is this all anyone on campus is talking about? The Johnnies have been quite successful in recent years; what do you suppose happens if you fall to the Mids on Sunday?

Beck: Well, I lost last year (but St. John's won), so I have had a very difficult time concentrating in class this past week or so. It is all that I'm thinking about. If the Navy wins, than the 2000's will be the first decade in which they won more than twice. We're not going to let that happen.

Question: One of the best parts about the annual match is the unveiling of the Johnnies' team uniform. In past years, it's been inspired by Bruce Springsteen and even Napolean Dynamite. Any hints on what we should expect this year?

Beck: No.

Question: Well, we know what the Mids will be wearing: spotless white attire and nicely shined shoes that look like a Tommy Hilfiger Navy-inspired ad campaign. What, in your opinion, is their exact problem?

Beck: If by problem you mean that they haven't won very much, I think the main reason is that in addition to being full-time students like us, they also have to train to be in the military, and we just have so much more time to spend on a Friday afternoon playing this game.

Question:  St. John's and the Naval Academy are separated by just one street in Annapolis; how much mingling goes on between the two students, and do you think the Mids take the annual croquet match as seriously as St. John's students?

Beck: We don't mingle very often, or at least I have only mingled with them over this game. Which, by the way, is a great reason to have this game, because it is always enjoyable to hang out with these guys. I think they don't take the game as seriously, given their other duties and the abundance of other varsity sports at their school.

Question:  St. John's loves the Great Books. In your studies, have you come across many veiled (or perhaps overt) references to croquet?

Beck: I think the best way that croquet has snuck into the program is in the laboratories. To start with classical physics (Newton and Huygens specifically), a knowledge of how two spheres interact with each other when the come into contact is exceedingly helpful to understanding principles. My favorite, however, is that in quantum physics, matter itself will take the form of a wave and diffract when passing through a slit. So, the croquet ball, going through a wicket, will shift ever so slightly and imperceptibly to one side or the other. Knowing that changes absolutely nothing about playing the game.

Question: With the Johnnies' success in croquet, why don't you guys start a movement and petition the NCAA to recognize croquet as a collegiate sport? I mean, doesn't it get boring playing the same school every single year?

Beck: We are a part of the USCA, the United States Croquet Association. This year we have matches against the Ginger Cove Retirement Home, the West River Wickets, for the first time our other campus: St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M., the annual Annapolis Cup against the Navy, and finally the Collegiate National tournament which takes a whole weekend. I'm told that there will be over 80 players there this year from seven schools. So, we already have a season, and we play many other groups besides the Naval Academy.

Photos: Courtesty St. John's College

Dead. To. Me. The Preakness

Each week at the Toy Department, in addition to offering one of our writers the chance to endorse something they feel strongly about, we also give one of our writers a chance to dismiss something -- however unpopular that opinion may be -- in a segment we call "Dead. To. Me." Click here for previous editions. 

 

Not since Spiro Agnew stuffed the governor' desk drawers with envelopes of cash has there been anyone in Maryland who can do vice.

Well, maybe Dick Cheney (R-Remington), but that's a stretch.

Hard on the heels of their boffo efforts to bring slots casinos to Maryland, state lawmakers and the governor think they should ride to the rescue and embrace the putrid corpse of horse racing and, by extension, the Preakness. Why do they think that by seizing the second leg of the Triple Crown--and, for good measure the Pimilco and Laurel tracks--they can raise the dead?

The Preakness is dead to me. Ditto Pimlico. Pennies-on-the-eyes, stone-cold muerte.

Horse racing in Maryland has been reduced to little more than the Preakness, a one-day excuse to get stinking drunk, bet and sing a bloodthirsty, racist song. A redneck bar with a jukebox would deliver the same results with less pretention and fewer traffic problems.

As far as its value to Maryland, the Preakness is "so profitable that it supports Maryland's thoroughbred industry for the rest of the year," according to the Sun. "Pimlico's earnings shot up from $1.36 million in 2006 to $1.8 million in 2007 almost entirely on the financial draw of the Preakness."

Wow, what a cash cow! No wonder Pimilco looks so spiffy year after year.

"The centuries-old heritage of horse racing and horse breeding is woven deeply into the cultural fabric of Maryland," Governor Martin O'Malley said in a statement before signing the bill that would allow the state to seize the Preakness and two tracks before they could leave the state.

It's fine for horses to be embedded in our cultural fabric, but hasn't the governor noticed that no one is wearing that style anymore? With the exception of the 100,000 who show up for the Preakness, no one goes to the track anymore. And with new alcohol rules for this year's race, let's see how that plays with the crowd.

No doubt, state officials acted with the memory of another lost pony--the Colts--burned into their brains. But did they really think about what they might be committing themselves to saving?

If, for some horrible reason, no one steps forward in this economy to take the Preakness and the two tracks off the hands of the financially wheezy Magna Entertainment, is O'Malley really going to ask taxpayers to fork over more than $100 million for two minute's worth of horse racing fun every year?

My bill from Comcast, the pirate cable company, isn't that bad.

And then what? The state owns two race tracks and tries to sell them.

Maybe officials can find a sucker by offering a daily double of horse racing AND slots. But don't bet on it.

 

  

 

Frank Caliendo not in unemployment line

Frank Caliendo’s phone didn’t stop ringing. That’s because on Thursday, the comedian became a punchline of sorts.

Q: What happens when John Madden retires?

A: Frank Caliendo starts looking for work.

Ba-da-boom.

“Frank Caliendo is doing alright,” he assured me in a phone call from his Phoenix home yesterday. “I’ll be OK.”

Here’s what else he had to say – in his voice, in President Bush’s and in Madden’s.

Question: What’s the day been like for you?

Caliendo: It’s been kind of crazy. Everyone’s been calling, SportsCenter, NBC News – which I thought was kind of odd – just everyone. It’s kind of weird, a lot of people thought of me, that was the first thing they thought. It’s an interesting thing.

Question: Well, what does this mean for you?

Caliendo: They say he’s healthy and stuff, which is a good note for him – and possibly me.

Usually, when a person passes away, as far as the impression goes, that’s where you have to stop it for a while. I think Madden will still be relevant in football. I think you’ll still hear him once in a while.

Question: What are other people asking you?

Caliendo: People have been asking me, “What’s your statement? What’s your statement?” The first thing I thought of was President Bush talking about Barack Obama taking office: [In Bush voice:] He deserves my silence.

Question: Well, what I want to know is what Madden meant to you when you were younger, before he became a part of your act.

Caliendo: I grew up in Wisconsin. We were Packers fans through and through. In that part of the country – you know, you’re in Baltimore – people really, really care about their football. For me, even before Madden went to Fox, he was at CBS. When he went to the NFC and we were seeing him during Packers games all the time, we were mad at him because he seemed to love the Cowboys so much. Of course, eventually it turned into him loving the Packers and Brett Favre.

I mean, growing up, Madden is football. And football is Madden. They go together like mashed potatoes and gravy. You say his name, football comes to mind. You say football, and you're picturing his face.

Question: There are others – guys like Dick Vitale and Howard Cosell – but what makes Madden different? Will we see another one like him?

Caliendo: I think he is very unique. Some people say Tom Cruise was the last big movie star movie star. Maybe him Tom Hanks, maybe Will Smith, but not as big a scale. I personally enjoy Troy [Aikman] and Joe [Buck] and those guys. But it’s different now. It’s hard to explain. Maybe because graphics and the imagery of the game is so life-like now that you feel like you’re there. But I think there will be some time before we ever see a guy like John Madden come along again. …I’m sure we’ll see it because you never say never, but to me, it’s Cosell and Madden. They’re just different.

Question: If he wasn’t so big, you probably wouldn’t have gotten as much mileage out of a Madden impression, right?

Caliendo: Part of the thing with Madden is so many different demographics know him, from small kids playing video game to people who see him in commercials and Ace Hardware, to his coaching days with the Raiders to broadcasting. Terry Bradshaw is that same way. He’s in movies, commercials, broadcasting. They’re so famous that you hit so many different people. You can’t really hide from them.

Question: And he’s a unique character. I mean, the way he talks…

Caliendo: You want that, especially when you're younger. You want the booms, the whaps, the pows. That makes it more fun. To a lot of people, I think, that makes it football.

Question: How did your impression come about?

Caliendo: I was in broadcast journalism major in college (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee). It evolved. I would try it out on people and it would be OK. It took years to get to the point where it is now – you can interchange us on the phone at times. That’s one of the things that always scared Madden. [In Madden voice:] You can’t tell that it’s not me saying that stuff [inaudible mumbling] cuz he’s saying [more mumbling] some silly things.

Question: (Laughing because even though I hated the FrankTV commercials during the World Series, on the phone, you think you’re talking to Madden.) What’s he told you about the impression?

Caliendo: I’ve never actually met him.

Question: Really? Weren’t you at Fox at the same time?

Caliendo: Jimmy Kimmel would bring me on for sketches, but we were never in the same place. I was always told he wasn’t quite fond, though. I always wanted to meet him to say hey. Usually when people meet you, they get it more. I’ve had critics all over the place telling me I’m the worst thing in the world for football. They come to see me and see what I do, and they might still rip me, but they’ll at least say, ‘Hey, I get it now.’

Comedy in sports is a very different thing. Natural comedy is one thing. On the set – JB and Terry and the guys – it’s like hanging out in the locker room. But a comedy bit, very difficult to do. It took us a couple of years to really get going with it. But we’ve come into our own now.

April 16, 2009

Boldin would be a bonanza for the Ravens

In their offseason of critical reinforcements, the Ravens could be about to strike again. If GM Ozzie Newsome can pry Anquan Boldin loose from the Cardinals, as he is attempting to do, the Ravens will have upgraded their passing game in a major way.

Boldin is the best of the veteran wide receivers on the trade market right now, a market that includes Cleveland's Braylon Edwards and perhaps Cincinnati's Chad (nee Johnson) Ocho Cinco. At 6 feet 1 and 217 pounds, Boldin is a physical, punishing receiver who gets yards after the catch.

He isn't the speed merchant who will stretch the field for Joe Flacco, except when he turns the 10-yard slant into a 70-yard touchdown. But he is a threat anywhere on the field, and he would have a big-time effect on the offense, especially in the red zone. Last season in Arizona, Boldin had 11 touchdowns -- and 89 catches -- in 12 games.

Entering his seventh season, the 28-year-old Boldin has been nagged by injuries. He has missed the equivalent of one full season -- 16 games -- in six years.

According to Sun reporter Jamison Hensley, who broke the story, the Ravens are willing to pay first- and third-round picks for Boldin. Then they'll have to re-do his contract; that, after all, is the reason he's forcing his way out of Arizona.

And there will be competition. Several teams have receiver as a priority in this month's college draft. The Eagles, with picks 21 and 28, have the ammunition to make a deal for Boldin. The Giants, sitting at 29, are already reportedly talking to the Browns about Edwards.

The Cardinals are likely to dangle Boldin all next week, raising the ante with each conversation. Newsome can hang with the big boys in those talks, though. The question is how far he's willing to go. Getting Boldin would allow Newsome to truly grab the best available player, satisfying the team's biggest need.

From the Editor's Desk: Gotta love the NFL

Every Thursday in the Toy Department brings another installment of "From the Editor's Desk," a weekly dispatch from Tim Wheatley. To ask him questions, register complaints or recommend raises for the Toy Department staff, email him at tim.wheatley@baltsun.com. For previous installments of "From the Editor's Desk," click here.  

The NFL has the greatest marketing machine there is. Long ago they turned what used to be a fall sport into a year-round sport. The season expanded, the Super Bowl is later and later, there's free agency, franchise tagging and the scouting combine has become an event that gets nearly as much coverage as the upcoming NFL Draft. There are mini-camps, OTAs, rookie camps and, well, you get the picture. And then there's the NFL Network for around the clock NFL coverage and Thursday night games thrown in for good measure.

This week they turned another story into an "event.'' The release of the NFL schedule was shown live on the NFL Network at 7 Tuesday night. It was like a Selection Sunday show. And we already knew who the Ravens would play, this just gave the dates and the prime-time games.

Gotta hand it to the NFL brass. They're the best run pro league and they have the numbers to prove it, the most watched spectator sport in the country. There was a time that NASCAR was closing in, but they've dropped back in the pack.

The NFL is able to do this because they have the created a brand that the American people love and we all swallow it hook line and sinker. We see it on the Web, here at the Toy Department and baltimoresun.com. Ravens stories are consistently the highest-read stories on our site.

I still remember the day when I was the Sports Editor at the Indianapolis Star and Saddam Hussein was captured. One of our news editors suggested an "Extra" section that was printed that Sunday afternoon. Their reasoning was it was a HUGE news event and there was a Colts game so they could sell papers. I predicted that the next day the top story on our Web site was going to be the Colts game and not Hussein. I was right. It wasn't even close. And since the Colts beat the Falcons 38-3 most fans left early and we didn't get the papers to the stadium in time to sell many anyway. Oh, the power and draw of the NFL.

I feel sorry for Jamison Hensley, our excellent Ravens beat writer, because he never gets a break. The only down time is a few weeks in June when coaches take their vacations. Right now we're gearing up for extensive and expanded coverage of the NFL Draft. It will begin Sunday and continue throughout draft weekend. Look for coverage in The Baltimore Sun, baltimoresun.com and the Ravens Insider and Toy Department blogs.  

In case you missed it, click here for the schedule with opponent photos.  

And what do you think? Has the NFL reached a saturation point or would you like to see even more? Leave your comments below.

Photo: U.S. Army/Getty Images

Childs Play: Fantasy options from the minor leagues

Some readers might remember that until last summer, Childs Walker wrote a weekly column on fantasy sports for The Sun. That ritual died for the cause of reducing newsprint costs (tough business, newspapers). But with the Toy Department open and its aisles boundless, Childs is back with his insights, laments and odes to joy regarding pretend baseball and pretend football. For previous editions of Childs Play, click here.

It's too early to draw many conclusions about the major league season (except that you don't want to own any Orioles starter not named Guthrie or Uehara.) So let's talk about some of the minor leaguers that might come up and help your fantasy team this season.

If your league is like most of mine, a lot of these guys are already locked up on reserve rosters. But there are always a few who sneak to the big leagues unowned. And besides, it's always worth knowing how the prospects are playing, for trade purposes and such.

I might as well start with Baltimore baseball messiah Matt Wieters. We all expect Wieters to be a top-level fantasy catcher as soon as he reaches Camden Yards. I wouldn't worry that he's hitting .222 with no extra-base hits at Triple-A Norfolk. Even gods can look bad in small samples.

How about the Orioles' three elite pitching prospects? In looking for useful fantasy prospects, it's always important to find major league teams with obvious holes to fill. Weaknesses don't come much more glaring than the abcess at the back of the O's rotation. Chris Tillman (above) and Jake Arrieta pitched well in their first starts at Triple-A and Double-A, respectively. Brian Matusz posted a 4.66 ERA in his first two outings for Single-A Frederick. Despite their needs, I expect the Orioles to be cautious in reaching for any of the three. Given questions about Tillman's command and about Arrieta's secondary pitches, I'm not sure either would be a fantasy help in '09 anyway.

The most exciting guy at Triple-A right now is probably Braves right-hander Tommy Hanson. The 6-foot-6 Hanson throws 95 mph with three average-to-above complimentary pitches. He has fanned 17 in 10 innings, and the Braves might have a need given the possible retirement of Tom Glavine. Hanson could be good in a hurry, so if he's somehow available in your league, remedy the oversight.

Rangers starter Neftali Feliz is an equally exciting arm at Triple-A, but he's not quite as polished as Hanson and showed it by walking six in his first outing. Arlington is a lousy place to pitch, so if Feliz isn't totally ready, he could get hammered there. Still, if a guy throws 97 mph with an effortless delivery and rolled through as many levels as Feliz did in '08, he has to be in your long-range plans. His teammate and fellow prospect Derek Holland also struggled in his first start.

Among Triple-A hitters, Cleveland's Matt LaPorta could be a quick comer. LaPorta was perhaps the most advanced bat in the 2007 draft and has hit at every level. He's batting .400 now, and if I was a marginal starter such as Ben Francisco, I'd be looking over my shoulder. LaPorta could help AL-only fantasy teams right away.

You also have to like Andrew McCutchen's chances of pushing Nyjer Morgan aside in Pittsburgh. McCutchen hasn't quite translated great physical gifts into great performance, but he gets closer every year. He posted a .531 slugging average and two steals in the first week at Triple-A. If McCutchen hits the big leagues in '09, expect a low average with 15-homer power and 30-steal speed. That would be quite useful for NL-only teams.

Also, keep your eye on Houston's Brian Bogusevic, a converted pitcher who posted a .447 on-base percentage with power at Double-A last year. He's hitting just .207 so far, but the Astros need punch in their line-up and Bogusevic could help them and your NL fantasy team this year.

Detroit prospect Wilkin Ramirez was always a great athlete but never played baseball very well before last season. Now, the outfielder is hitting .310 with five steals at Triple-A. With nine strikeouts and two walks in 31 plate appearances, he seems a poor bet to hit for high averages in the bigs. But we don't sneeze at 20-20 power-speed packages, no matter what they're attached to.

The jump from Double-A to the majors is usually reserved for premium talents, and there are several out there this year. Shortstop Gordon Beckham was regarded as one of the most polished players in last year's draft and has looked too good for Double-A so far. I expect him to join the White Sox sometime this year, and you all don't have to be told to pounce on any middle infielder with power potential (especially in that park.)

 

Florida first-base prospect Logan Morrison is an extremely polished hitter for a 21-year-old. He will have to annihilate Double-A pitching to reach the majors this year, but a .556 OBP says so far, so good. Morrison doesn't yet have the power we expect from elite corner prospects, but he could at least be a James Loney or Conor Jackson type in the short term.

Brett Wallace can flat hit. Scouts wonder if the stocky Cardinals prospect will ever play an adequate third base. If he can, the Cardinals might push him up to fill in for the injured Troy Glaus. Wallace will probably never be a Glaus-style power threat but could be the first player from the 2008 draft to contend for a batting title. He has a .973 OPS so far in Double-A.

Finally, for you true prospect hounds, there's Stephen Strasburg. Sure, he's still at San Diego State and might not use his 100-mph heat in a professional game this year. But in eight starts, Strasburg is 7-0 with a 1.49 ERA and 107 strikeouts against 11 walks in 54 1/3 innings. Holy crap!

Video: Madden-the-TV-salesman lampooned

You can argue whether imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery. But what is certain is that when imitation takes the form of celebrity impersonation -- and it resonates with a mass-media audience -- the person being imitated has been stamped as a cultural icon.

And so it is with John Madden, who announced his retirment from broadcasting today.

Comedian Frank Caliendo built a career using his Madden impersonation as a launch pad by mimicking Madden's overwrought delivery. The broadcaster is famous for hawking products from hardware to foot powder and in this skit, Caliendo lampoons Madden-the-pitchman.

John Madden overstayed his TV time

For the second time in his remarkable life, John Madden is walking away from an astonishingly successful career. As an NFL analyst for four different networks, he set the bar high for all who follow. He applied his own unique brand to that craft just as he had done as a football coach: bombastic but insightful, folksy but shrewd.

At 73, he walks away a legend in two arenas. I wish him well in retirement, whatever that might be.

But I will not miss him. Not as a television analyst, at least.

His schtick has grown too repetitive, too tired, too forced. I've heard enough of his sound effects to last a lifetime. I've listened to him ramble on about inane topics far too often. I was disappointed too often when he was an apologist for the league in moments of controversy, choosing to never ruffle feathers even when he had the opportunity.

And I don't begrudge his endorsements or his fantastically popular video football game. I just think it's time to hear a fresh voice, some new ideas and at a different decibel level.

In the end, I felt like Madden was a caricature of himself, and Al Michaels played to the persona for a national audience. It was so far from the Madden I first grew to watch and enjoy in the '80s.

That Madden could enthrall you between plays. He could tell you why the safety wasn't where he was supposed to be. He could tell you what the coach was thinking when he called that bonehead play. He could tell you the precise moment that momentum changed sides. He was a font of valuable information.

Even when he leaned more on the schtick than analysis in later incarnations, his audience -- or most of it -- still loved him. Let me show you a scene from last season when Madden and his bus showed up at Owings Mills in mid-week to prepare for a Sunday night broadcast.

Dressed in a baseball cap and short, dark jacket, he stood unassuming along the sideline at the Ravens' indoor practice facility, not far from his entourage. One by one, Ravens personnel came over to shake his hand. Wilbert Montgomery, the running backs coach, looked like he just found a long-lost friend. John Harbaugh, all business on the practice field, came over with a huge grin and extended hand. They talked the talk of compatriots, of old friends. It was easy to see the Ravens held Madden in high esteem.

Madden had a momentous career. A knee injury cut short a potential pro career in 1958 and pushed him into coaching, first at a junior college in Santa Maria, Calif., later as a linebackers coach with the Oakland Raiders. In 1969, two years after joining the Raiders, he was the youngest head coach in the AFL.

He eventually won a Super Bowl for Al Davis in January, 1977, but he was on the wrong end of the Immaculate Reception in 1972 when the Steelers beat the Raiders in a historic divisional playoff game. The Raiders almost certainly were cheated in defeat, a loss Madden laments to this day. The shame is that he didn't get a chance to play the undefeated Dolphins in the AFC championship game that year. Who knows how that would have turned out?

I loved his speech in 2006 when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He rambled, yes, but it was joyful rambling. He talked about how the busts of the NFL heroes would come alive at night after the place was closed down, how they would get together and talk of the old days. It was a beautiful thought. 

 

Photos: AP

 

Sports' train wrecks: You had to be there

Among our five daily links today -- Updated daily! Just look to the right of your screen! -- is a column from Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic that reflects on the good fortune enjoyed by a generation of sports fans who've witnessed Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

I've thought about this before. I've thought about how cool it will be to someday tell my grandchildren about the superhuman athletic achievements of my era. But there are some things I'm not sure I'll be able to explain. Maybe you had to be there to appreciate Ali, MJ and Tiger. But there are others who I'm certain future generations won't be able to appreciate.

Unless you lived it, you can't understand:

-- O.J.
-- Tonya Harding
-- Pete Rose
-- Dennis Rodman
-- Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens
-- John Daly
-- Jose Canseco

They're the train wrecks that define my generation's sporting world, and believe me, years from now it'll be a lot easier to explain Tiger to someone than John Daly. And like any wreck, I can't look away, which is why I DVR'd Jimmy Kimmel Live last night. The undisputed heavyweight champ of unpredictable was scheduled to appear. But...

"He was supposed to get on a flight in Vegas," Kimmel explained. "But didn't."

Later in the show, a graphic appeared on-screen, which read:

Why did Mike Tyson cancel tonight's appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live?
A. Scrapbooking class ran long.
B. Couldn't get teeth through airport security.
C. Was eliminated from American Idol.
D. Because he's Mike Tyson.

Yep, that about sums him up, doesn't it? Because he's Mike Tyson. I'd love to get to a point in my life where no matter what I do, everyone just shrugs their shoulders. It's like when Marmaduke steals the doughnuts from the table. Or when the Beaver comes home from school covered in mud. Or when Manny Ramirez does or says anything whatsoever.

While you think about which sports train wrecks I neglected to mention, there are three classic Tyson-Kimmel clips worth watching. Below is Iron Mike singing the "Monster Mash," and after the jump are videos of Tyson singing "Winter Wonderland" and also sharing with us his pigeons.

Two ways of viewing Orioles

Last night, I was at a restaurant bar, having dinner and watching the early innings of the season finale between the Orioles and the Rangers. The Orioles were leading, 3-1, when the bartender asked, "So when is this team going to break my heart?"

Of course, the Orioles would go on to lose, 19-6. Heart broken.

I point this out because I think there are two prevailing schools of thought right now as it concerns the Orioles. Outside of Baltimore faithful -- perhaps those who scan the standings each morning and watch the highlights on Baseball Tonight when it doesn't conflict with CSI reruns -- baseball fans notice the 6-3 start, the entertaining wins and the amazing offensive production.

For them, the season's headline thus far has been:

OMG! The Orioles Look Pretty Decent!

But Orioles fans know better. They've been selling squares in an office pool the past couple of weeks, picking the date everything will fall apart. For them, especially after the last two nights of baseball, the headline has always been:

OMG! Sky Falling! Pitchers Falling Faster! Everyone Run For Cover! This Isn't Going To Be Pretty! I Think My Heart Might Explode!

 

Maybe it's just a matter of how you view the glass: half full or half empty. Of course, O's fans have traveled this route before. They're bound to shatter the glass against the table and use the shards to inflict pain upon anyone who provokes them. 

So which fan are you? Do you find yourself following a team that's scoring 7.5 runs per game in its wins, that's won every series of the young season and seems to be finding a way to beat quality teams?

Or do you feel like you're watching a team that's been outscored 41-11 in three losses, that has just one or two reliable starting pitchers and that just wrapped up a series in which O's starters posted a 10.80 ERA and logged only 10 innings?

[For the record, the Orioles' optimist manager said, "I'll take two of three, though. Every time."]

Let's make a mockery of mock drafts, shall we?

Few things in sports are quite as ridiculous as NFL mock drafts. People with only limited knowledge of what they're talking about fill them out like they're NCAA tournament pools, and NFL teams constantly leak false information to confuse teams about who they're interested in. 

Yet every year we're inundated with them. It's always funny to see some clueless pundit write that the Ravens might be "reaching a bit here, but they'll select (blank) based on need" when anyone in Baltimore over the age of 9 can tell you the Ravens' one rule is to select the best player available, and not reach for anyone. (Kyle Boller excluded, of course. Curse you, Billick!) I've seen message boards have near meltdowns based on mock drafts that look like they were thrown together by some college sophomore in between bong hits. "Darrius Heyward-Bey to the Raiders at No. 7!!! Al Davis still loves guys who can go deep! Book it!"

With that in mind, we're going to attempt to bring you the least informative mock draft ever. Instead of trying to guess which players various NFL teams might select, we're going to conduct a mock draft based on who they should select, people who could most help the franchise. And instead of limiting the pool to players who have actually entered the draft, we're going to place no such limits on anything. The people do not even have to be real. Because there is no way we'd expect you to read something this long in a single sitting -- unless your job is really boring, and even then you're probably reading Bill Simmons first -- we're presenting this mock draft in three parts leading up to the draft.

Let's get started with Part 1. (And when you finish, Part 2 can be found here and Part 3 is right here.)

1. Detroit Lions

Selection: Optimus Prime, Leader of the Autobots; semi-truck

Analysis: The auto industry's decline has obviously hurt Detroit in a major way, so instead of spending ridiculous amounts of money on an unproven, guaranteed bust like Matt Stafford (seriously? You want to pick a guy No. 1 who wasn't even that good in college?), the Lions should instead go ahead and select Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots in the Transformers franchise. This pick works on several levels, the first being that they're going to need a reliable semi-truck, whether it's carting around a fanbase's broken spirit, or hauling Daunte Culpepper's limp body off the field if when he gets hurt. It would also almost certainly mean Megan Fox would be hanging around Lions' games, which even if you have to put up with Shia LaBeouf, is worth it. (Look at this picture. It's as if it was snapped in Highland Park!) Of course, knowing the Lions, they'll just trade her for an injury-prone, marijuana-addicted wide receiver, but still, it would breathe some life into this miserable franchise.  

2. St. Louis Rams

Selection: Winston Wolfe, problem solver, Pulp Fiction

Analysis: Let's get down to brass tacks, gentlemen. The clock is ticking on Steven Jackson's career and this franchise is a total mess, almost like there are little pieces of brain, blood and skull everywhere. What the Rams need is for someone to come in there and absolutely clean house. If that includes putting Marc Bulger's body in the trunk of a car and taking it to Monster Joe's Truck and Tow, so be it. And if Jackson needs to get sprayed with a garden hose to finally clense the stink of Mike Martz off him, that can also be arranged. Mr. Wolfe thinks fast, he talks fast, and he's going to need Kyle Boller to act fast if the Rams are going to get out of this. So pretty please, with sugar on top, tell your fanbase to chill out, because you're sending the Wolfe, who will be arriving directly.  

3. Kansas City Chiefs

Selection: John Edward Thomas Moynahan, baby; first-born son of a legend

Analysis: Sometimes in the NFL, you have to think short term, and sometimes, you have to draft with the future in mind. The distant future. This pick has the potential to pay off huge 20 years from now, when you think about it. Most celebrities' kids grow up a little soft, but no way does that happen to little John Moynahan. First of all, think he's not going to have a chip on his shoulder? Not only did dad leave mom for a hot Brazilian model, but on Sex and The City, Mr. Big left mom for Carrie Bradshaw, the most self-absorbed character in television history (at least until Meredith Grey came along). Moynahan is going to be a baaaaad little signal caller someday. Matt Cassel can keep the seat warm until he's ready. And who knows, Tony Gonzalez might even still be playing. (Seriously, that dude is ancient.)

4. Seattle Seahawks

Selection: Jerry Seinfeld, comedian

Analysis: It should be obvious by now that Larry David was the real genius behind Seinfeld, but you could never get David to live and work in rainy Seattle, so the Seachickens will have to settle for Seinfeld here. No worries though, because Jerry fits in with the franchise perfectly, especially when you consider he probably still owes Paul Allen a favor for those awful Microsoft ads he did with Bill Gates. When it rains 355 days a year, you need someone to make you laugh, especially when bad stuff is always happening to your city, like a Dust Bowl hustler steals your basketball team, or the lead singer of your city's iconic rock band tragically kills himself. Plus, remember that episode of Seinfeld where Jerry was forced to have a rematch of his race with the evil Duncan Meyer, his high school gym class rival? And Kramer's car backfired, allowing Jerry another head start that secured the second victory? I'm confident if he needs to insert himself into the game, he'll be behind the secondary before anyone suspects anything. Plus, his wife probably stole those recipes from that other lady's cookbook, so she's halfway to being the next Belichick if he needs a good defensive coordinator.

5. Cleveland Browns

Selection: LeBron James Jr., 2-year-old; future baller

Analysis: The best way to keep LeBron in Cleveland for the remainder of his career? Draft his son and groom him to play quarterback, which, judging by his lineage, he should be ready to do by the time he's about 14. The James' family has already saved one sorry Cleveland franchise from irrelevance, and it's obvious that Brady Quinn is too much of a metrosexual for the Browns fanbase. King James II could totally be the Peyton Manning to John Moynahan's Tom Brady. Dad should be entering that late, Michael Jordan-is-a-Wizard stage of his career where he's out-of-shape, balding, and can't even dunk anymore, but it would be sweet to see him in the Dawg Pound (wearing a Yankee cap, of course) pounding together two orange foam bones while his kid jukes one of Ray Lewis' many children.

6. Cincinnati Bengals

Selection: Father Lankester Merrin & Father Damien Karras, priests, The Exorcist

 

Analysis: Let's be honest, this franchise doesn't need draft picks; it needs a priest. Two, in fact. And if those priests have to die while involved with the act of chasing the demons away, we're going to need two heroes who are up to the task. Best of luck, men. If Carson Palmer's head spins around and he starts barfing pea soup, you know you're making progress. 

7. Oakland Raiders

Selection: Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Analysis: Over on the NFL humor blog Kissing Suzy Kolber, a blog we enjoy very much, they've been pointing out for quite awhile that Al Davis can't possibly be human. He is, most likely, a vampire. And not one of those emo vampires that Stephanie Meyer writes about in those lame Twilight "novels" (if you even want to call them that). Real vampires are dangerous. They are not your chaste boyfriend. They suck the life out of people, and Al Davis has sucked the life out of this awful franchise. The only way the Raiders are ever going to get better is by bringing Buffy out of retirement, post haste. We've sort of forgotten about it, but Sarah Michelle Gellar doesn't get enough credit for how hot she was in the late '90s, back when celebs got famous by revealing just enough, but not too much skin, as opposed to now where everyone has a sex tape.

8. Jacksonville Jaguars

Selection: Tim Riggins, fullback, Dillon Panthers

 
Analysis: The best part about this pick is value, since the Jags can probably get Riggo to sign for little more than 10 cases of beer and a VIP membership to the best strip club in town. Jacksonville is sort of an odd city. A lot of people aren't aware of this, but it's actually the largest city in the United States in terms of square miles. As Robert Earl Keen might say, the road goes on forever, but the party never ends. With all that open space, an athlete is going to drink away his loneliness, and what better player to lead your franchise than one who played at an elite level his entire high school career, despite being buzzed all the time? (Just try to keep him away from Fred Durst, River City native.) Plus, you know he'll endear himself to the fanbase, because this is a guy who hooked up with his best friend's girlfriend while his buddy was paralyzed in the hospital, and he still came off as a lovable rouge. Maurice Jones-Drew can't carry the load on his own, and as long as there are a few hot single moms in town (and lord knows a military town like Jacksonville is full of them), Riggins will pay off.

9. Green Bay Packers

Selection: The Human Torch, superhero

 

Analysis: Holy (bleeping) (bleep) is it cold in Green Bay during the winter. Instead of asking actual human beings to compete in sub-zero temperatures -- which Brett Favre was probably only really good at because he was used to being totally numb from the neck down thanks to painkillers -- it's about time the Packers simply drafted someone made out of fire to lead their team into the playoffs. You know this would be fun to see, if for no other reason than to read the fawning columns by Peter King about how Johnny Storm loves to cook brats and marshmallows under his armpits, get his teammates "fired up" with his kid-like enthusiasm for the game, and how his catch phrase, "Flame on!" is very manly and rugged. Did we mention he won't be bothered by the oppressive, scrape-ice-off-your-private-parts-in-the-morning temperatures?

10. San Francisco 49ers 

Selection: The Dude and Walter Sobchak, bowlers, The Big Lebowski

 

Analysis: This franchise presents a unique challenge in that it could really use a laid back personality like The Dude to chill everyone out after a season where the head coach was literally dropping his pants in the locker room at halftime to describe how the other team was violating them. But it could also use a crazy person behind the scenes to take care of business, and screw people over by giving them a suitcase full of dirty underwear instead of money, the way Eddie Debartolo used to run things back when the 49ers were good. (You want a toe? He can get you a toe. With nail polish. There are ways.) Walter did not watch his buddies die face down in the mud in 'Nam just so that San Francisco could ruin Vernon Davis' once-promising career, so you know that will be dealt with immediately. There might even be a role for the Nihilists, considering that the NFL is basically socialism. (Say what you want about the tenets of it, but at least it's an ethos.)The main priority, though, would be to get a fricken quarterback, one that really ties the whole team together. But that's just, like, our opinion, man.

 

Part 2 be found here and check back Friday for Part 3 of our complete mockery of mock drafts. (Updated: Click here for Part 3.)

Faceoff: Early Orioles surprises

Every Thursday we'll present two Sun sportswriters squaring off in a video feature called Faceoff. This week, Rick Maese and Childs Walker discuss their early impressions of the Orioles' season.

Remembering Nick Adenhart

Nick Adenhart will be remembered at a pair of memorial services in Maryland this week. A private one today will be attended by players and personnel from the Los Angeles Angels and a second one will be held Friday at Williamsport High. Since the time Adenhart was barely playing little league, no journalist has followed his career quite like Bob Parasiliti, the longtime sportswriter for The Herald-Mail in Hagerstown. Parasiliti has remembered Adenhart's life in the pages of the paper in the past week and agreed to answer some of our questions as well.

Question: What have you observed and heard around town in the past week? Is this like anything you've seen Hagerstown deal with before?

Parasiliti: It has been a weird, somber feeling around town. The emotions are even deeper in Williamsport, where Nick lived. On the day that Nick died, two other classmates of his lost their lives, too. It has been a real jolt of how fickle reality can be.

Nick’s death is a huge topic of conversation. There are a lot of people who have stories about seeing him play, his personality and his friendship. In a way, it’s like one of those situations you hear broadcasters talk about during a classic game. The line is “There are only 10,000 people here, but in years to come millions will say they attended this game.”

...The Hagerstown Suns had a moment of silence for Nick before their home opener on Monday. Usually you witness those moments and you see the fans nervously moving about because they are uncomfortable with the idea of someone dying. For Nick, everyone was still because it was still a shock.

... We had another well-known figure die a few weeks ago in former Smithsburg football coach Carroll Reid. He put Smithsburg football on the Maryland map by winning four Maryland Class 1A state football titles and he was much beloved and respected. There will be a public memorial service for him on Saturday and all indications are that it will be a huge event.

The thing that makes Nick’s death different, though, is that he was only 22 and he was on the verge of doing something special. This area isn’t like bigger cities, say like Baltimore. There aren’t a lot of schools with an abundance of standout athletes. I think the whole scenario has created this depth of mourning and memories.

Question: I'd spoken with folks -- friends, former coaches -- who said Nick was playing for more than himself; he was playing for the entire community. You'd similarly written last May that his success was the fulfillment of a dream shared by many. Do you think Nick realized that so many people from back home cared so much about what he was doing?

Parasiliti: I don’t think that idea was a conscious campaign in Nick’s drive. First and foremost, Nick was a competitor. He loved to do well and he loved to win.
But on the same token, he was a consummate teammate.
One story that I was told by Rod Steiner, the former Williamsport baseball coach, was about Nick’s desire to help the team.

Nick threw a no-hitter against Allegany during the 2003 Maryland Class 1A West quarterfinals, but lost 1-0 to Aaron Laffey, who is now with the Cleveland Indians organization. After that game, Nick thought he let the team down because he didn’t win. That haunted yet motivated him. He came out to start the senior season and mowed down Allegany 9-1 in the opener in Cumberland, throwing a one-hitter.

Even after Nick injured his elbow during his senior year, he played designated hitter for Williamsport and helped the Wildcats make it to the state finals. He didn’t want to let down the team because he was injured.

I think Nick knew a number of people were pulling for him, but I don’t think he would let himself realize how many.

Question: How did you get the news that Nick had been involved in an accident, and do you recall what your reaction was?

Parasiliti: To be honest, I was sleeping. Since we are a morning paper, I didn’t get out of the office from the night before until earlier that morning.
The phone rang at 9:40 a.m. Bob Fleenor, who now updates our Web site and is a former sports editor, called to tell me that “there is a rumor circulating around town that has become viral. They are saying Nick Adenhart is dead.”

He filled me in and asked me if I knew anyone who could confirm it for us. I had Nick’s cell phone number and numbers for his father and a few others. I told them that I would be in the office in 15 minutes.

To be honest, it didn’t hit me right away. Part of it was because it was still a rumor. The other part of me fell into reporter mode. I was trying to figure out what to do and where to go. In my mind, I was going to show that it was a hoax.

I think the reason for my first reaction was because when I did all the coverage of Nick last year and covered his first stint with the Angels, I got e-mails telling me that I was overdoing it because there were other county players who were playing pro ball. I was ignoring them to give Nick so much ink. After I wrote the column you mentioned at the end of your column last weekend, I was told “I had a man-crush” on Nick. I just thought the rumor was a cruel joke.

After I got into the office, we looked for confirmation. The process was gradual. It went from being an accident in Fullerton, Calif., to an accident with a person of interest, to an accident that included an athlete, possibly an Angel, to it being Nick Adenhart.

Then it was time to start scrambling to cover the story. Like I said, I was in reporter mode, but a number of colleagues came over to ask me if I was OK. They all knew that I had the strong working relationship with Nick.

I finished my work and left the office on Friday morning, and then it all struck me as I was driving home and I heard the song I Will Remember You on my radio. I realized what had happened and I started thinking. It really didn’t bowl me over until I was out for dinner on Friday night with my girlfriend and we started talking about it. She started crying about the circumstances of it all, and it got me going.

That is when I realized everything, and that’s when I sat down and wrote my column that appeared in last Sunday’s paper. I did a little rambling, but my boss, sports editor Mark Keller, reeled me in a little and helped me out immensely to make it a strong story.

Question: When did you start covering Nick and when did you realize that baseball would be taking him places?

Parasiliti: The first instance I remember covering Nick was in the 1999 Maryland State Little League tournament in Arbutus.

He really made his impression the next year when he was a part of Hagerstown All-Stars, who played in the PONY League World Series in Washington, Pa. He was a year younger than most of the players, but he was dominating as a pitcher.

Even at a young age, he had the focus to compete and he had the very precise mechanics that he carried all the way through his pitching career. Those were the attributes that gave everyone the impression he was going places. ... I can’t put a date or time on when I thought Nick would be a major league pitcher. It was just that he made pitching look easy his entire youth career.

Question: You've been writing about Nick for nearly half his life. What did you think of news coverage the past week? Was anything off the mark, or do you think the Nick who was portrayed nationally was the same one you've known for years?

Parasiliti: The thing that struck me was the media was at a loss for words in a way. Nick was an unknown subject. He was young. He had limited exposure on the national level, but he had accomplishments that could be used as starting points.

The chase was on to find people on the other side of the country to put an identity on Nick and who he was and how he got to where he was. The Herald-Mail and I fielded calls from some outlets looking for quotes and leads of where to go. In turn, we were looking to them for help on getting the whole story of what happened out there.

Of what I read, the coverage hit many of the major people who helped in his life and his development. It was tough to talk to his father, even though he was out in L.A. to watch Nick pitch. He may have told them some things, but I know he struggled with the whole situation.

A lot of the national media interviewed most of the same people I talked to, so the stories covering Nick, the person, pretty closely showed the kid I knew.

Question: We heard many times that Nick was a down-to-Earth kid who just happened to have amazing control of a baseball. How did Nick treat you?

Parasiliti: When I talked to Nick, he was helpfully guarded, for lack of better terms. He didn’t like to be singled out because he was a good pitcher. He was uncomfortable with being a story off the field. He was sort of a humble kid who wanted to be like everyone else when he didn’t hold a baseball. ... With me, Nick was fine. First was the difficult part -- that was getting time with him.
Nick wasn’t always timely in returning calls. There were times I needed to go through other avenues to get him. Once I got him, it was different.

This probably sounds arrogant on my part, but he was pretty open with me. He felt comfortable talking with me because he didn’t feel like he was being interviewed. When we saw each other outside of the sporting arena -- like on the street, in a store or at a game he might be watching -- we could talk like causal friends.

... Ironically, I left a message on his phone on April 3 to talk about making the Angels and his impending first start. He never got back to me.

Question: You recently wrote that you had a photograph of him on your desk at work. What's the backstory to the photo, and did you find yourself looking at it these past few days?

Parasiliti: The photo is from the 2000 PONY League World Series and it was kind of a prank pulled on me. Like I mentioned earlier, I was sent to Washington, Pa., to cover the Hagerstown team in the eight-team tournament. ...
I became friends with the guys who were in the press box while I was covering the tournament. We were the only paper outside of their area covering the event. So we sat and were cutting up and talking.
One of those guys took game photos from the box. ... After the game, I went down to do interviews for one of my stories and I was talking to Nick. The guy snapped a photo of the interview.

The photo was e-mailed to the office, as a joke, to “show my bosses that I was actually there working instead of just hanging out at the bars and buffets.” The guys on my staff printed it out and had it on my desk when I came back with a bunch of jokes and ribbing. I don’t know why, but I kept it. ...

It stayed on my desk for all these years and it became a bit of a conversation piece, especially after Nick started to make his climb.

I remember looking at it after it was confirmed that Nick had died and I know I have glanced at it a few times since then. I can’t tell you the thought process in it, but I just remember it is up there.

Question: When Nick was pitching, what was the atmosphere like? How big were the crowds? Did you always notice his parents?

Parasiliti: The older I get, it seems like there are fewer people attending high school sporting events. Yet when Nick was pitching, it was an event all of its own. People turned out. He had his posse of friends, and there were others who would just stumble in to catch a glimpse of Nick on the mound.

As time went by, the crowds got bigger. There were more and more scouts showing up. I remember when Williamsport played South Hagerstown, I think I counted 23 pro scouts and a national cross-checker at the game. ...

The crowds grew with each game. Nick’s mom, Janet, sat in the stands and tried to be invisible and his father, Jim, was in the background. I didn’t know either of them well at the time. Nick’s stepfather, Duane Gigeous, was more of the point man, along with Steiner, in guiding Nick through the scouting process. ...

Steiner said the other day that it used to be 20 to 30 people at most Williamsport games until Nick showed up. After that, there were thousands (it might be a little exaggerated).

Question: Nick ran into some trouble at the end of his senior year, just before the draft. What did you see in him then, and did you always think he would rebound?

Parasiliti: This may sound a little naive, but I didn’t think about his ability to come back then. His arm came up injured after that South Hagerstown game. At the time, it was a slight tear and the decision was made to shut him down for the rest of the season as a pitcher. No one wanted to jeopardize his future for a couple of high school games.
It came at the worst time. Many knew of Nick’s talent by then. They were trying to figure out exactly where he would be drafted. ... Nick quietly hoped that if he wasn’t the first or second pick, he would have liked to be taken sixth by the Orioles.

But when he injured his elbow, Nick’s air of invincibility kind of disappeared.

... Then, in the 14th round, the Angels took a chance on him. The team treated Nick like a first-round pick, giving him a bonus. ... With that, it seemed like Nick was sure he had a second chance at his dream.

Question: Since he embarked on his professional career, was Nick seen around town much? And were you able to share his rise to the big leagues with your readers?

Parasiliti: From my perspective, there were sightings, but nothing really announced. It wasn’t a case of “Hey, Nick’s coming to town. Make sure you see him.”

That was part of his private side. He’d show up in town to see friends and family. The family dynamic changed some after he graduated because his mom moved to Chicago, but his grandparents were still in the Hagerstown area.

... This past offseason, I heard he was living in Fells Point and working an offseason job while working with a (former?) Orioles trainer. He was trying to strengthen his core muscles to be stronger for the season. After his death, someone I knew said they saw him in town before he left for spring training. He was hanging out with school friends at a place I hang out at, but I was working that day and didn’t get to see him.

But that was Nick. He came in unannounced and didn’t cause a scene. The owner didn’t even know he had a big baseball prospect in his establishment.

Question: You've got more than a couple of years under your belt as a reporter, and I'm guessing you've previously dealt with a source dying or the untimely passing of someone you cover. Is it difficult to attend the funeral services as an unbiased journalist? Or is it just as important to show up as a concerned community member and pay your respects?

Parasiliti: To be honest, it is a battle of emotions and of mind and body.

In the last 2 1/2 years, this is the third time I have had to experience this. Since I’m not from the area originally, all three are people I met through my profession and we just became friends.
One was a local broadcaster that I did a little radio with and we played golf. He was like a dad to me. The other was the former general manager of the Hagerstown Suns, who I was still friends with after he left the position. ...

On all three of these occasions, I have written the memorial column right after they passed. It is a strange feeling, but all three columns were as therapeutic as they were tributes. I received huge amounts of e-mails and have had people stop me to tell me that I was able to say what they were thinking.

In a way, I guess that is part of our jobs as journalists. We all say we are out to make people think, to paint a picture, to cause emotion and to inform. We all think we are trying to make a difference. And if that makes it so people read us, well, that means we keep our jobs.

... On each occasion, people attending the service -- most of them were people I knew -- stopped me as I was entering the service. They recognized me from my column logo and wanted to thank me or tell me I did a good job on that story.

Again, that worries me. I wonder if I became part of the story because of this. I want to just blend in and pay my respects. On those occasions, I didn’t have my pad and pen to write down anything. I was off duty.

In my mind, after I do the reporting and write the column, I try to convince myself that my part of the process is done. It’s like I said earlier, when I’m working, I’m in reporter mode. When I go to the service, I’m in friend mode. I find over the years because I’ve been taught to try to be as unbiased as possible, I have lost my edge emotionally. I don’t cheer for the home teams and I try to keep my senses and powers of observation about me. I consider myself as a big-picture guy.

But with that being said, I think all reporters are forced to straddle that line. We all want to be fair and equal in our reporting, but our emotions and frame of references are part of who we are and what we write and how we write it. Some call that personality.

So, to finally sum that up, I guess the answer is that there is a time and place for everything. There is a time to be the unbiased reporter and there is time to be an emotional mourner/celebrator. It is up to each of us to keep it separate and to apply it when needed.
After all, if you think about it, that is the way Nick approached his life. He wanted to be the best on the field and one of the guys off of it -- and he seemed to do both pretty well.

Photos: Associated Press; Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun / courtesy of Bob Parasiliti

April 15, 2009

Mayock's top NFL draft story lines

I was just on a media conference call with the NFL Network's excellent draft expert, Mike Mayock. For you draft lovers, here are his top story lines for April 25.

1) Has the accepted formula for trading picks changed? In other words, do teams think rookie salaries are poor enough risks that the trade value of a top-10 pick will plummet?

2) With so many teams looking to trade down, who will try to get into the top 10 and why? Mayock thinks some teams will try to move up to pick USC quarterback Mark Sanchez and possibly, Kansas State passer Josh Freeman. Others might try to get ahead of Green Bay to pick Ole Miss tackle Michael Oher, because the talent at that key position drops off after Oher. Finally, if Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree or Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry begin to fall, will teams leap?

3) Will Florida multi-purpose threat Percy Harvin or Illinois defensive back Vontae Davis fall to the bottom of the first round because of character questions? Mayock said both are top-10 talents and called Harvin a potential "human highlight reel."

O's defense a plus or a minus?

Empirically, at least, the Orioles look like an outstanding defensive team. But I thought it would be fun to take a quick glance at what the numbers say.

As Sports Illustrated recently noted, analysts have come a long way in their ability to measure defensive quality. Even 10 years ago, defensive stats were like first-grade finger paintings compared to the Van Goghs we had for measuring offense. But no longer. My favorite system of defensive statistics is John Dewan's +/- rating, which he created for his excellent book, The Fielding Bible. Dewan's company, Baseball Info Solutions, actually reviews every play made by every MLB defender and compares each one to a database of similar plays. The system then counts how many unusually good and how many unusually poor plays a defender makes. The difference between the two is expressed as a +/- rating.

The system confirms that Orioles fans should be excited to have Cesar Izturis at shortstop. Izturis ranked third among all starting shortstops last year with a +19 rating. He was particularly superb on balls hit in the hole. Juan Castro, Alex Cintron and Freddie Bynum were a combined -19 at shortstop last year. Even if Izturis doesn't hit, he will help the Orioles.  

The system rated Brian Roberts as an average to slightly above average second baseman in 2006 and 2007. But he fell to slightly below average last year with a -3 rating. He was solid on balls hit at him or to his right but poor on balls hit to his left. Roberts affords the Orioles a huge offensive advantage compared to other second basemen but might only help them break even defensively.

Melvin Mora rated as an average third baseman in 2006 and 2007 but plummeted to a -13 last year, 34th among regulars at the position. Anomaly or sign of decay for an older player? We'll see, but it's an area of concern, especially considering that Ty Wigginton has always been a poor defender at third, according to the system.

Aubrey Huff is hard to measure, because he has played only about 620 innings at first base over the last three years. He graded as a -2 for those innings. But Huff at first seems like decent idea under the defensive spectrum philosophy espoused by Bill James. James placed all defensive positions on a continuum, with shortstop the most difficult and first base the easiest. In general, he argued, good defensive teams have players at the easier positions who are capable of playing the more difficult ones. Huff wasn't a good third baseman, but the mere fact that he could play the more difficult position suggests that he's overqualified for first base.

Under the same principle, the Orioles are lucky to have Felix Pie, a capable center fielder, in left. Both Adam Jones and Nick Markakis rate as outstanding defenders at their positions, with Jones at +4 in 2008 and Markakis at +12. It's not exactly a shock to hear, but outfield defense should be a strength for this club.

At catcher, Gregg Zaun threw decently last year but hasn't thrown out more than 28 percent of base runners since 2003. If it's a comfort, he's no worse than Ramon Hernandez, whose throwing declined substantially after an excellent 2006. If the scouting reports are correct, Matt Wieters could solve this problem soon.

So in general, the numbers seem to support fan perceptions of the club's defense. The Orioles are sound up the middle and fast in the outfield with relative weaknesses at the infield corners. That's a pretty good defensive profile.  

Number of African-American ballplayers on rise

Let's hope every play-by-play man has memorized the rosters by now. The amateur announcer is stuck tonight babbling, "No. 42 lets loose a fastball to No. 42 at the plate, who pulls the ball. It's a grounder to 42 at short who whips it across the diamond to No. 42 to beat 42 at first."

It's Jackie Robinson Day in baseball, which means every player, manager and coach is expected to wear No. 42 in honor of Jackie's first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, including the Orioles in tonight's series finale at Texas.

Also today comes the annual Racial and Gender Report Card from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports out of the University of Central Florida in Orlando, and the results are a bit surprising -- in a good way.

MLB's grades were, in fact, good across the board, but the most noteworthy statistic is the number of African-American players. This marks the first year since 1995 that the percentage of African-American players has increased from the preceding year. The report found that in the 2008 season, 10.2 percent of all players were African-American, a two percent increase from 2007.

"While we need to wait to see if this a one-year adjustment or a trend, this is more good news for MLB that its grass roots programs might be taking effect," said Dr. Richard Lapchick, who authors the annual study.

On the Orioles' roster, Adam Jones is the lone African-American player. In fact, he was the only African-American player in camp at spring training.

"It doesn't bother me," Jones said last month, "but I'd like to see more black athletes playing baseball. ... Most kids were playing basketball and football. I don't know why I chose baseball. I guess because I was just better at it. I love baseball."

The Orioles sent out a release this morning saying that each player’s game-worn, autographed No. 42 jersey will be auctioned at orioles.com starting at 6 tonight. The auction will conclude at noon next Tuesday, and the proceeds will benefit the Baltimore Orioles Charitable Foundation and the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

 

Video: Recalling Isiah's N.Y. exit

Maybe it will work out for Isiah Thomas at Florida International where he has been hired to coach the basketball team. Clearly, he wasn't NBA material as singer-songwriter Ryan Parker pointed out when Thomas was fired after a miserable turn running the New York Knicks.

Trolling baseball's depths

The hapless Washington Nationals will try again tonight to end their seven-game winless streak. Against the Phillies? Good luck to them.

But we here in Baltimore know a thing or two about suckitude, what with 11 consecutive losing seasons, a 0-21 start in 1988, dropping the last 12 games of the 2002 season, getting pounded for 30 runs by the Texas Rangers in 2007 and last year's appalling swoon to wrap up another crappy year.

And even though the Orioles are looking pretty good now, we all have that sinking feeling that this, too, shall pass.

Adding to the "Misery Loves Company Sweepstakes," is that Baltimore and Washington will play each other six times during May and June. Who among us cannot wait for the pitcher's duel between Alfredo Simon and Daniel Cabrera?

But it could be worse.

In the history of one-market, two-team atrocities, we are not alone. And as a matter of fact, Baltimore and Washington have been pretty lousy before. In 1962, while the Mets were stinking up the joint in Queens with just 40 wins and the Yankees were winning the pennant and the World Series, the Orioles and Senators combined for a record of 137-186. (For the record, the Mets-Yankees record was 136-186).

In 1935, Boston fans got to watch the Braves and Red Sox stagger to a 116-190 finish. Philadelphia fans were treated to misery squared, when the Phillies lost 90, but the not-to-be-outdone Athletics lost 104.

But for pure ugly, it's hard to imagine a worse scenario than Boston in 1906, where fans were treated to 207 losses over the course of six months. Led by four 20-game losers, the Boston Beaneaters (later the Braves) compiled a 49-102 record. To show solidarity with their brothers in horsehide, the Boston Americans (later the Red Sox) went 49-105-1. Cy Young pitched 28 complete games, but lost a league-leading 21 times.

There, don't you feel better?

The Conversation: Discussing the Ravens schedule

Each week here at the Toy Department, two Baltimore Sun staffers will engage in a segment we like to call The Conversation, where they'll swap e-mails with one another and debate something that is in the news. Today, Kevin Van Valkenburg and Rick Maese discuss the Ravens' 2009 schedule, which was released yesterday.

KVV,

Whew, I feel good this morning. I'd been growing my annual NFL Schedule Beard since the Super Bowl ended, and I was finally able to shave last night, content in knowledge that there will indeed be football games beginning in September. I'm not quite sure when the release of the NFL schedule became a national holiday, but as long as Major League Baseball doesn't adopt its own prime time unveiling show -- including analysis of every team's 162 games -- I think we're OK.

Well, I look over the Ravens schedule and one thing immediately comes to mind: AFC North championship. There's a couple of reasons for this. First, there's the Columnist Code. I'm not supposed to talk about this out loud, but most of my breed's founding fathers don't know what the Internet is anyway, so let me explain. The Columnist Code was written in 1779 by Woodicus Paige (with forward by Michaelangelo Lupica), and it clearly states that a columnist must declare the hometown team as the preseason favorite as early as possible. This is important for a couple of reasons. If the team does well, the columnist can then declare to fans "I-told-you-so," an important staple for the sportswriter. And if the team struggles, the writer can then blame the coach and players for underachieving. So you see, it's win-win.

But even if there wasn't a Columnist Code, I'd still place the bar high for the Ravens. Put simply, this is the best possible schedule; much better than the hand they've been dealt in recent years. I mean, this team was in the AFC championship game and not only will they play the league's 28th-toughest schedule, but it unfolds quite favorably. Maybe the league felt bad about the Ravens missing their bye week last season. Whatever it was, they laid a yellow-brick road of sorts to the postseason for the Ravens. Ray Lewis, Joe Flacco, Toto & Co. just need to stay on the right path.

Only 151 days until Week 1,

Maese 

 

Maese,

The fact that the NFL is now unveiling its schedule the same way that Steve Jobs rolls out the new line of Apple products every year creeps me out a bit. I think the league is tip-toeing that much closer to the day when it simply applies for tax-exempt status and declares itself a religion that we must follow and worship 365 days a year. Is there such a thing as too much NFL coverage? Our obsession with the NFL Draft is already as unhealthy as our obsession with the Lindsay Lohans and Paris Hiltons of the world. (Shouldn't we wait until the people involved actually accomplish something before we fawn over them?) I guess at least when we're talking about the schedule, we're talking about something tangible instead of the percentage of body fat a guy has, or how fast a left tackle can run the 40-yard dash.

I'm intrigued by this Columnist Code and wish to subscribe to your newsletter. Feature writers like myself are given no such handbook. Maybe Sir Gary Smith, the Bard of Athletes Broken Dreams, was of the oral tradition and simply didn't write down such guidelines. What can we say about the Ravens? Obviously everyone in Charm City immediately wanted to know when that prime time game against the Steelers would be, and I'm sure M&T will be absolutely jumping Nov. 29 when the Super Bowl champs come to town. Since you have the Columnist Code in front of you, I'm wondering if you can consult it on this matter: Doesn't it go against what the Ravens allegedly stand for knowing they lobbied the league hard so they wouldn't have to play a prime time game in Pittsburgh? I mean, from a competitive standpoint, I totally understand. And it's about time the Steelers came here for a game under the lights instead of the reverse. But if your whole rep is that you're the baddest defense on the planet -- the team that isn't afraid of anyone -- should you really let word slip out that you don't want to play certain teams in certain places?

There are things about Pittsburgh that scare me:

1. Drinking way too much, and accidentally hooking up with one of the beauties in the picture above.

2. Walking across the street, not having my head on a swivel, and getting crack-blocked by Hines Ward.

3. Having Ben "Drink Like A Champion Today" Roethlisberger steal my date.

But playing the Steelers to open the season? Actually seems like a great time to catch them fat, out-of-shape and full of Primanti Bros. sandwiches.

Even though the Ravens have the 28th toughest schedule, they'll certainly see their share of outstanding quarterbacks.

Drew Brees (KVV edit: I'm an idiot) Philip Rivers in Week 2, Tom Brady in Week 4, Peyton Manning in Week 11, Jay Culter in Week 15. That's a lot of deep passes to defend. Good thing they stocked up on cornerbacks. Good thing Chris McAlister was sent packing.

By the way, should the league just hand the Ravens victories against Cleveland and Cincinnati right now? How long before Marvin Lewis wants to come back and be Baltimore's defensive coordinator?

Wondering if Peyton Manning is already lying in bed dreaming up fake audibles,  

KVV 

 

KVV,

Speaking of the Browns, did you see that Cleveland is playing twice in prime time this season? Did I miss the memo that said the Browns were a decent team? Cleveland hasn't had this much play in prime time since Drew Carey got canceled. I agree 100 percent with you on the Ravens wiggling their way out of an early game with the Steelers, but let's be honest, no one wants to see that game so early in the season. Sure, it's a tough game no matter what, but the context makes it special. I want my Ravens-Steelers games late in the year with the division title on the line.

From a competitive standpoint, the Ravens have to like the way this looks. The sked looks like a series of dominoes, though a couple games do stand a bit taller than the rest. It's not hard to envision a 12-win season here. They'll have a trio of winnable game before playing Week 4 at New England. (Worth noting that for some reason, the Chiefs, the Ravens' Week 1 opponent has never lost in Baltimore.) Plus, the Ravens have mostly 1 o'clock kickoffs, and with the exception of the Dec. 27 trip to Pittsburgh, they should cruise into the playoffs coasting downhill. The final month features Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago and Oakland? It'll feel like preseason in December.

(Before I continue, we should point out the Steelers have a schedule that's just as easy. Like the Ravens, only five of their opponents reached the playoffs last season.)

From a fan's perspective, there's one four-game stretch on the Ravens' schedule that's already got drool gathering in a giant puddle on the floor:

Nov. 16 -- Monday Night Football at Cleveland;

Nov. 22 -- the Colts come to town (probably not in Mayflower trucks, though);

Nov. 29 -- the Steelers visit on a Sunday night, which is almost guaranteed to be one of the league's most anticipated matchups of the year;

Dec. 7 -- Monday night again, this time at Green Bay.

Let's say the Ravens lose at New England (they've still never beaten the Patriots in the regular season)... then you're looking at them entering that important stretch with a lot of national exposure and the possibility of just one loss on their record.

If I'm the coach of any other team, I play a card from the Ravens' deck and start whining about my schedule by comparison. Carolina has nine playoff teams on its schedule. And poor Rex Ryan and the Jets open on the road at Houston, then has New England and Tennessee at home, followed by two more road games. You think John Harbaugh shot him a text message last night that was simply, "LOL LOL LOL"?

Not scared of Green Bay's weather in December, 

Maese

 

Maese,

It's true what you say about the Browns. Cleveland's brass must have compromising pictures of Roger Goodell and a harem of cheerleaders or something. By the way, who would have thought all those years ago that Drew Carey would be hosting the Price is Right and Craig Ferguson would be the funniest guy doing late-night television right now? (At least while Conan is on hiatus.)

You know why I'm looking forward to that New England game above all others? Because I want to see Flacco waltz into Gillette Stadium, look Tom Brady in the eye, and let Brady know he's gone soft and there is a new golden boy in the AFC. Remember when everyone said Brady was just a caretaker and that he wasn't really an elite quarterback? Well, fans around the NFL are saying that about Flacco. You can tell by the way the national media has a huge man crush on Matt Ryan but sort of shrugs its shoulders when it comes to Flacco. (Which guy got his team to the AFC championship game again?) I want to see Joe slay the Patriots and then, if he wants, use next season as a springboard to date a ridiculously hot Brazilian model who says inappropriate things about her quarterback's baby momma. I want to see Bill Belichick with that hang-dog look he has about 90 percent of the time when he can't videotape the other team's defensive signals.

I know the Steelers were world champions last year, blah, blah, blah. But until someone knocks off the Patriots with Brady under center in the AFC, they're still the team to beat. And while it might not be fair to my man Domonique Foxworth, I'm excited to see how he (or any other Ravens corner) is going to try to cover Randy Moss.  

The one other game we haven't talked about is the The War Over The Color Purple, Ravens vs. Vikings. Great running backs don't stay healthy for very long, so I'm going to enjoy watching Adrian Peterson try to pick his way through the Baltimore defense. If Peterson has been held under 100 yards, I'm sure Ray Lewis will feel like he's earned every nickel of his new contract by the time that game is over.

By the way, just to wrap this up with one national comment, I'm fairly certain this is the year Tony Romo is exposed for being a total fraud. (Turn your hat around until you win a playoff game, clown.) Six prime-time games for the Cowboys? Does Jessica Simpson even have that many pairs of mom jeans to wear?

Not wearing mom jeans as I type,

KVV 

KVV, 

Forget Drew Carey and Craig Ferguson. I cannot get over the fact that Jimmy Fallon earns a paycheck to stare into the camera. Just one more note before I spend the afternoon doing a Google Images search on Jessica Simpson and mom jeans...

Did you see who was heading to Foxborough just one week before Flacco? Matt Ryan and the Falcons. I'm not sure what this means exactly. It's probably not a passing of a torch -- Brady will be just 32 next season -- but it might be an interesting way to gauge Ryan vs. Flacco. Who fares better against one of the game's most consistent QBs?

In fact, Flacco vs. Every Other QB is something we'll monitor all season. It will be interesting to watch him develop. Certainly the schedule should give him some seasoning before the Ravens' toughest games.

Begging you to never use that photo of the enthusiastic Steelers fan ever again,

Maese

April 14, 2009

The people on the other end of your Internet connection

It used to be that we talked about sports (and life) in bars.

If you wanted to gripe about the pitching rotation, vent about the coach's play-callling or rave about the possibilities of the upcoming season, you did it at your local watering hole over a pint or three. Sometimes you'd meet a friend there, laugh and argue until it was time to go home, and other times, you'd do the same with strangers who you'd eventually learn to call friends.

The Internet has changed that somewhat. And that's ok, to be honest. Message boards and blogs are a wonderful medium, and they've expanded our ability to communicate in ways I'm not sure we could have predicted 10 years ago. You can now forge an emotional connection with someone you've never met -- someone who lives on the other side of the country, and identifies themselves only as TheRoarFrom34 -- simply by commiserating over a pitcher's inability to throw strikes. On a message board. Or a blog.

But the Internet can also make things feel impersonal, too. It's easy to forget that there are real people behind those screen names, some of them happy, some of them lonely, some smart, and some not. Two things that happened during the past few weeks helped that point hit home for me, and I wanted to mention both of them. The first, and the most important, was Andy Ratner's column in the Sun today about the death of a frequent commenter on restaurant critic Elizabeth Large's blog, Dining@Large.

Elizabeth has a fabulous blog, one she updates frequently with wit, candor and insight, but more importantly, she's helped shape an online community of people who are interested in not just in food, but also food culture. I would love it if we ever reached a point here at the Toy Department where we could offer a little bit of that give and take, because as you can see by reading Elizabeth's post -- and the comments that followed -- about the passing of Robert (the Single One), sometimes it takes something sad to make you realize we're all sharing space in this strange experiment we call modern life.   

I think it's easy to forget, unless you actually stop to think about it, that the people you interact with on the Internet are, in fact, real people. They have marriages and mortgages and miscarriages, just like you. Sometimes they're reading message boards and posting on blogs because they're curious, and sometimes they just want to vent, and show off a little "keyboard courage." Which brings me to my second point. As touching as the Internet can be, it can also be a little disarming in its cruelty, as evidenced by two blog posters who clearly didn't like something I wrote last week.

You are a talentless hack. for the sake of our economy i hope they aren't paying you for that slop. You absolutely suck, do us all a favor and eat a shot gun.

I couldn't be more mad after reading such and awful article! that was pointless and stupid, god i hope you die in a car crash tonight.

To be honest, I have a pretty thick skin after working as a writer for 10 years. And those comments are fairly mild compared to what you see in other parts of the wild wild West that is cyberspace. So they mostly just made me shake my head. But I approved them for publication anyway because that's part of being a writer. You put your work out there for people to see, and if they don't like it, if they don't think it's funny, they have a right to tell you they don't like it. It's not courage on either party's part as much as it is fairness. On a blog, the reader gets his or her say. We all understand that going in.

I say all this not to discourage negative comments here at the Toy Department. Again, that's your right as a reader, and that's why the Internet is a community that encourages interaction, a democracy that is cool with dissent, not a cyber-dictatorship.

But I do think it's good to think about someone like Robert (the Single One) when you feel compelled to respond to someone or comment on something that makes you furious, whether it's here, the Sun's message boards, or OriolesHangout.com, or TerrapinTimes.com or TerpCenter.com.

Most of us would get along pretty well if we sat down and knocked back a few cold pitchers while we debated whether or not Joe Flacco will make the Pro Bowl in the next few years. A poster here might argue with you that Ray Lewis isn't worth his new three-year contract, but that hardly means he (or she) is a horrible person. Besides, if you going around saying you hope someone dies in a car crash, he never has a chance to pick up the next round.  

So to all the people who take the time to share their thoughts here -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- if you see me out and about, even if you think I'm a bleeping idiot, your next one just might be on me. 

(Don't worry, I have Maese's credit card.)

PETA to O'Malley: Visitors to new Pimlico could be whipped

Yep, you read that correctly.

The folks at PETA sent a letter to Gov. Martin O’Malley suggesting that if the state acquires Pimlico Race Course that it be converted to a “Horse Empathy Park” with exhibits that highlight cruelty suffered by race horses.

The animal-rights organization believes horses are exploited and mistreated by the racing industry and it suggests that the place that has held the Preakness Stakes would be put to better use as a museum or, in PETA’s words, “a compassionate tribute to these sensitive living beings.”

Among the recommendations made by PETA executive director Tracy Reiman in the letter to O’Malley were for what could be called interactive exhibits:

* "Children could play games in which they race around the Pimlico track wearing a ‘jockey pack’ that would simulate the weight and pressure a horse feels with a jockey on their backs."

 * "Each person entering the museum will be given a blinker—a hood that restricts horses' vision when they are forced to race — to wear for the duration of their visit, and they will also receive a few lashes with a whip."

Of course, this all sounds tongue-in-cheek to make a more serious point so we called PETA to make sure that was the case. Well, spokeswoman Lindsay Rajt said it was not entirely sarcasm. She said the whipping business would be an “optional” part of the tour.

Rajt said PETA expected the whipping suggestion would be “interpreted that way (as tongue-in-cheek) but if that’s something (visitors) wanted to incorporate, that would be fantastic.” Rajt said if Pimlico were to become a Horse Empathy Park, “It would be the only one of its kind in the country and would attract people because it’s novel and interesting.”

Such a museum would include special tributes to Barbaro and Eight Belles and be a place where people could take children “for a lesson in empathy, rather than sneak in to place a bet and turn a blind eye to the use of performance-enhancing and pain-masking drugs and the ultimate disposal of the horses,” Reiman wrote.

PETA’s underlying argument concerning horse racing is that it is an inhumane exploitation of the animals and that an average of three horses a day die on U.S. racetracks. The working statistic I received from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association is 1.2 horse fatalities per 1,000 starts. An NTRA spokeman wrote in an email that "78 tracks across the US and Canada (are) participating in The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Injury Reporting System." That data will give the industry a more accurate picture regarding serious injuries and deaths.

Boxing's golden cow goes out to pasture

 

It's hard to think of Oscar De La Hoya's retirement in anything but business terms, because he became more of a businessman than an athlete so long ago.

Maybe that's not fair. De La Hoya seemed to train hard for his recent fights against Bernard Hopkins, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. He just didn't have the skill to threaten those all-time greats. He was good enough to handle lesser competition with relative ease and could have continued making millions for such fights. So maybe he's a great sportsman after all, one who refuses to continue if he can't compete at the highest level.

But what De La Hoya had really become was his sport's greatest draw, the only fighter who could automatically attract 1 milion pay-per-view buys and make a fight seem like the biggest sporting event of a given weekend. For a long time, he was the sport's only mainstream star of the post-Tyson era, the only boxer you could reference to casual sports fans without fear of drawing blank looks.

I love boxing and thus, I love fighters such as Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez. But your average Ravens fan has probably never seen those guys fight. They're little men from foreign countries, competing in a niche sport that appeals most fervently to immigrant populations.

I was never a huge De La Hoya fan. There was something weirdly plastic about his smiling face. His repeated embrace of new trainers felt like an aging hippie's quest for the next secret-of-the-universe guru. He fought a lot of great opponents but always seemed to pull back at the moments when he could have authored indelible performances. A Hall-of-Famer? No doubt, but more Don Drysdale than Sandy Koufax.

I have to wonder, though, if his passing represents the passing of a time when I can talk boxing with the casual sports fan. That would be sad.

 

If Mayweather comes back, the sport will get a bump. Especially if he fights Pacquiao, an affable fellow with blinding handspeed who holds demi-god status in the Phillipines. Actually, Manny's fight with British hero Ricky Hatton will probably do pretty good numbers in a few weeks.

But I can't see any of those match-ups creating Mayweather-De La Hoya buzz. Unless something changes, we might not see another from Oscar's starry line.

Zeus didn't golf

Just what the Summer Olympics needs, another sport that will be dominated by pros, takes a long time to play and has plenty of exposure already.

The International Golf Federation is lobbying to have the game included in the 2016 Olympics. It has enlisted Tiger Woods and a bunch of other top golfers to help it elbow its way to the front of a line that includes squash, softball, rugby, baseball and karate.

Enough.

First of all, the Summer Games already has too many sports and too many disciplines within those sports. Men's swimming, for example, has 17 events. Cycling has a mind-numbing 18 events ("The points race is full of action but is difficult to follow," advises The Complete Book of the Olympics).

Second, golf has plenty of ways to sort out who's the cream of the crop: the British Open, the Masters, the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. As much as I like to watch Woods, I'd like to watch some amateur athletes who have no other international platform. And, yes, that means baseball--with its World Baseball Classic--can get lost and take tennis with it.

Third, if we allow golf back, after killing it off in 1904, how long before other sports kicked to the curb by the International Olympic Committee will want in? I, for one, have no desire to cover or see Olympic croquet, tug of war, motor boating or jeu de paume, whatever the hell that is.

Fourth, Woods has a lot of hardware, will collect more and hardly needs another trinket.

The IOC will vote in October on whether to add sports, and historically, members have shown a soft spot for golf.

In the lead up to awarding the 1996 Summer Games to Atlanta, delegates were bribed with sets of golf clubs.

But it would be wise for them to remember how the 1904 Olympic golf competition ended: with winner George Lyon of Canada striding to the awards ceremony on his hands.

 

There's nothing that Brooks won't sign

In his lifetime, Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson has given thousands of autographs, scribbling his name on everything from baseball cards to body parts – arms, legs, heads and feet. He has signed body casts, sneakers, golf gloves and footballs.

On Sunday, April 19, Robinson will appear, pen in hand, at a sports memorabilia show at the Pikesville Hilton from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

We asked No. 5 to list (and comment on) the strangest items he has been asked to sign:

1. A pet rock

"Remember that fad? I used a Sharpie and the autograph turned out fine."

2. A brassiere

"The woman was wearing it at the time. At a card show in Chicago, she just pulled down her dress a bit and asked me to sign her bra. Who am I to say no to that?"

3. Easter eggs

"Someone wanted them autographed before an egg hunt."

4. A photo of former Orioles teammate Frank Robinson

"The fan didn’t have my picture, so he had me sign Frank’s instead. I did and then wrote, ‘We’re not brothers, just cousins.’ "

5. A musty old locker from the Orioles’ clubhouse at Memorial Stadium

"The guy swore it was my locker too."

 

Also see:

Archived Sun coverage of Brooks Robinson

Brooks Robinson photos

Photos: AP (top) and Gene Sweeney Jr. / The Baltimore Sun (bottom)

'ESPN only cares about Boston and New York'

Good little quote stashed in the middle of a Padres' notebook in this morning's San Diego Union-Tribune. Apparently, Padres' closer Heath Bell isn't especially fond of ESPN's news judgment.

"I truly believe ESPN only cares about promoting the Red Sox and Yankees and Mets – and nobody else. That's why I like the MLB Network, because they promote everybody. I'm really turned off by ESPN and Baseball Tonight. When Jake Peavy threw 8 1/3 innings on Saturday, they showed one pitch in the third inning and that was it. It's all about the Red Sox, Yankees and Mets.”

Oh, but there's more:

“I saw John Kruk on 'Baseball Tonight,' and he said, 'They're playing real well, but I don't believe in them.' And I saw ESPN's promo for tonight's game. They mention the Mets are opening Citi Field, they mentioned the starting time, but nowhere did they mention the Padres. That gave me the (expletive).”

Oddly, I can't figure out what that expletive stands for in that context. 

Bell is saying what many fans have been screaming for years, so he's not really breaking new ground here. And even though I'm usually a voice in that chorus, I do recognize there's no easy solution here. You're not going to start every broadcast with highlights from the Houston Astros' game. When it comes to news judgment, you generally want to cast a wide net and appeal to as many people as people.

Something I'll be curious to see: Will we see a shift in thinking now that ESPN has opened a studio in Los Angeles? There will only be 80 employees there and most decisions will still come out of Bristol. But it will be interesting to see whether their coverage reflects their physical expansion.

If they have an executive producer opening, I hope someone urges Heath Bell to apply.

Photo: AP

Catching Up With: Dee Pillette

Each week in the Toy Department, veteran Sun sports writer Mike Klingaman will track down a former local sports figure and let you know what's going on in his/her life in a segment called "Catching Up With ..."  Let him know who you'd like him to find, and click here to check out previous editions of "Catching Up With ..."

The man who pitched the modern-day Orioles to their first big league victory lives quietly in a San Jose, Calif., trailer park. At 86, Duane (Dee) Pillette spends his days in relative anonymity, puttering around the neighborhood and helping folks with home repairs – a clogged sink here, a blown circuit there.

As he works, Pillette shrugs off the arthritis in his left hip, as he once did the nagging bone spurs in his elbow that ended his baseball career.

But not before he made history for the fledgling Orioles exactly 45 years ago.

On April 14, 1954, Pillette – a lithe, graying right-hander with a nasty sinker – stopped the Tigers, 3-2 on six hits before a ho-hum crowd of 5,000 in Detroit.

In Baltimore, though, folks went nuts over Pillette’s complete-game road victory, which hyped the celebration the following day when the Orioles arrived for their home opener.

The pre-game parade the city gave the club "was among my most exciting times in baseball." Pillette recalled. "I never had a large ego, but as we rode in convertibles to the ballpark past all of those people, my heart and body kind of puffed up and I thought, ‘Dammit, we’re pretty good.’

"Of course, that feeling didn’t last."

The Orioles finished the season in seventh place (of eight) with a record of 54-100. And Pillette? The man who’d led the new club to its initial win that chilly April day won 10 of 24 decisions and pitched to a team-leading earned run average of 3.12.

Pillette would never win another major-league game. However, nearly one-half century later, he is still sought by autograph hounds for that historic victory, the highlight of an otherwise unremarkable career.

Pillette still has both his glove and a ball from that game in Detroit. Long gone is the bruise he got when he slid into second base after hitting a double.

"That’s what I remember most," he said of the wound. "The ground was hard as concrete and it gave me a strawberry that went several layers of skin deep. There were seven rings to that sucker if there was one; my right rump looked like a target all season.

"Yeah, I enjoyed getting the double – but not the strawberry."

All summer, Pillette kept up a running feud with his catcher, Clint Courtney, the Orioles’ myopic backstop who taunted him mercilessly about putting more oomph on his pitches.

"Scrap Iron (Courtney) liked guys who threw hard, while I liked to change speeds on my sinker," Pillette said. "He would walk out halfway to the mound, fire the ball back to me and yell, loud enough for everyone in the box seats to hear, ‘Hey -----, throw it hard enough for me to catch!’ "

On occasion, when Courtney did this, Pillette would step aside and let the ball skip into center field. Incensed, Courtney stubbornly started calling for nothing but fastballs from Pillette, who’d shake him off, time and again.

"Finally I said, ‘Dammit, Scrap Iron, stop being so hard-headed or I’m just going to stand out there and stare at you forever,’ " Pillette said.

As the losses piled up, he said, Orioles fans seemed to take them in stride.

"Baltimore loved us. People would do anything for the players," Pillette said. "Keep in mind, I dug ditches in the offseason, and here were restaurants offering us free meals. The city was heaven.

"I remember when we bought an Oldsmobile, our first convertible. My wife liked the one on the showroom floor except that it was green and yellow, an atrocious color.

" ‘Repaint it for us and we’ll buy it,’ she told the dealer. He did – and then sold it to us wholesale. Yes, I have fond memories of Baltimore."

History makes O's 10-9 win look like a pitching duel

When you saw Orioles at Rangers on the schedule, you knew there'd probably be a baserunner or two. Or maybe three dozen.

The final numbers in the Orioles 10-9 win on the road last night: 20 baserunners, 16 hits and 10 runs for the Orioles. The two teams combined for 27 hits, 19 runs and 10 pitchers. The Orioles bullpen had 10 runs at their backs and a 6-run lead on the scoreboard -- and still nearly blew it in the ninth inning.

My advice: a steady supply of heart medication for manager Dave Trembley and for any fans planning on sitting through this roller coaster ride every night.

Watching last night's game reminded me of that 30-3 classic from August 2007. You haven't forgotten that one yet, have you?

I remember chatting the day after the game with Mark Jacobson, who was the official scorer the previous night at Camden Yards. I asked him about his scorecard, and I'll never forget his response. "It's just this inkblot," he told me. "A Rorschach scorecard."

Well, I forgot that I'd asked Jacobson for a copy of his scorecard. He'd kindly emailed it to me, but it never found its way into the Sun's print edition. I fished through some computer files yesterday, and last night's 10-9 game seems like sufficient reason to share the 30-3 scorecard with you.

So revel in last night's big road win. Or wonder what went wrong with the pitching and what this bodes for the future. But remember, even if the Orioles are on the wrong side of a 20-run game tonight -- there have been worse days.

[After the jump, check out an enlarged image of the Rangers half of the scorecard. Warning: it's not pretty.]

Q&A with Orioles beat writer Jeff Zrebiec

Each Tuesday in the Toy Department we bring you a Q&A with the reporters and writers who are in the field, chasing the news. This week The Baltimore Sun's Orioles beat writer Jeff Zrebiec took time to answer some of our questions. Zrebiec has been covering the Orioles since 2005.

Question: First road trip of the season: You're wearing something that says "Baltimore" across your chest, right? I mean, what if you got lost walking the mean streets of Arlington, Texas?

Zrebiec: Yep, I’m psyched. There is a ton of Japanese reporters in my hotel near the ballpark, and I’m sure they're here to see "Baltimore" on the road jerseys, not Koji. I wasn’t able to relate to this whole argument, probably because I didn’t grow up in Maryland. But fans are obviously so passionate about it, so I’m glad the organization decided to make the change. You get shrugged shoulders when you ask the players about it, but the fans appreciate it.


Question: Be honest, is the Texas road trip the worst? If not, which is?

Zrebiec: It’s certainly on a short list of the road trips that I enjoy the least, but I wouldn’t say it’s the worst. That distinction probably would have to go to Detroit.

Question: Did you see anything last week that makes you think this Orioles team will be better than some of us expected?

Zrebiec: Not really. Although I wouldn’t have predicted that they’d hammer Sabathia and Wang like they did, I had no concerns about their lineup. The way Baez has pitched is intriguing, and I liked what I saw from Guthrie. I’ve learned not to get too caught up in a fast start. I’ve covered the team since 2005 and the Orioles have gotten off to good starts most of those years. Remember, the Orioles started 6-1 last year, too.
Question: How worried are the Orioles about the group of pitchers they've assembled? Why would they think they could last through September with a patchwork starting rotation?
Zrebiec: That’s been the Orioles’ chief worry since spring training. They brought 37 pitchers to camp and though Andy MacPhail or Dave Trembley probably wouldn’t say this publicly, they had to be disappointed with how poorly most of the guys pitched. The injuries didn’t help, especially in Rich Hill’s case. But I think the idea was to just bridge the gap for a couple of months before guys like Tillman, Bergesen and maybe Arrieta are ready. They thought that they had enough inventory to do that, but I don’t know that they do.
Question: Do you think they'll stick with 12 pitchers on the roster indefinitely?
Zrebiec: That’s what they’re saying, but I doubt it. I bet all it would take is three sub five-inning starts in a five-day span and you’ll see 13 pitchers real quick. The Orioles have so many guys in the bullpen coming off major injuries and they can’t afford to overuse them. I hate the idea of 13 pitchers, but it’s far more appealing than seeing Chris Ray, Jim Johnson and Jamie Walker get worn down.
Question: In most locker rooms or clubhouses, we have a couple of go-to guys for quotes. Who will fill that role on this team?
Zrebiec: Gregg Zaun is a really good, thorough interview, and he’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind. Aubrey Huff is quite a character and has no problem filling up a notebook. And Adam Jones, who is a charismatic guy, is attracting more and more of a media presence around his locker. Brian Roberts is also pretty reliable when you need a good quote.
Question: Has anyone really replaced Kevin Millar as a clubhouse presence? Does that matter to a team?
Zrebiec: No, the Orioles have pretty much conceded that Millar is irreplaceable. Huff and Zaun have some traits of Millar, but not the whole package. As for whether that matters, it depends on who you ask. I think it does and a couple of the veterans – Roberts and Melvin Mora perhaps – need to become more vocal in the clubhouse. However, I’ve been told by plenty of people that have been around the game much longer than me that a vocal clubhouse presence is overrated.  I know several players have remarked that Millar is missed, even if it’s just for keeping the rest of the guys laughing and loose.

Question: Manager Dave Trembley seems to think that if the Orioles can score a lot of runs every night, they'll have a chance. Is it a fair expectation to think they can continue at this offensive pace (Sunday's loss excluded)?

Zrebiec: They’ll go through slumps like every offense does, but this team will hit. However, it’s too much to ask for them to win slugfests every night. Look at the pitching in the A.L. East – CC, Wang, Burnett, Chamberlain, Pettitte; Beckett, Lester, Dice-K, Penny and eventually Smoltz; Shields, Kazmir, Garza and eventually David Price. That’s ridiculous. They’ll put up some runs against those guys on some nights, but there will be plenty of nights where they’ll be shut down by a great pitcher.

Question: One more on Trembley. On one hand, he's among those telling fans to be patient. On the other, he seemed to indicate that he expected to win at least four games in the team's first homestand. Which is it? What do you think he really expects from this team, and how realistic is he?
Zrebiec: I think Trembley is very realistic and knows that this season will be a struggle. However, he has to say that he expected to win those games. He still has a team of several veterans and most of these guys don’t want to hear about 2010 or 2011. Trembley has to show confidence in his current club and preach that the team is still in the business of winning games now. But everyone in the organization knows the Orioles aren’t in good position to compete for the playoffs this year.

Question: We've read about Terry Crowley working with Felix Pie. How much credit does Crow deserve for the way this team has improved offensively in recent years?

Zrebiec: Overall, I think pitching and hitting coaches get either too much credit or too much blame. But I do think Crow has done a nice job and I say that, not because of any statistic, but just what I hear from the players. These guys swear by him. They love how he keeps it simple, works hard and lives and dies with every one of their at-bats. When the Nationals came to Fort Lauderdale Stadium this spring, Corey Patterson couldn’t spend enough time around Crowley. David Ortiz and Miguel Tejada, who he has worked with in the past, never miss an opportunity to come up and greet him. And you certainly have to look at the development of young hitters like Nick Markakis and Adam Jones and throw in the recent turnaround by Aubrey Huff and think Crowley deserves some credit. 
Question: The season's first roster move was announced after Saturday's game. Are these decisions made solely by Andy MacPhail, and how much input does Trembley have in them?
Zrebiec: I think Andy gathers input from Dave and all the coaches, but make no mistake, Andy has the final say. And if he feels that strongly about something, expect him to go in that direction. To be honest and this is just an educated guess, I would think if Dave or even Rick Kranitz had the final say on the composition of the pitching staff, it would look significantly different than it does right now.

Question: OK, we're putting you on the spot -- do you think Alfredo Simon will be the worst No. 3 starter in the league?

Zrebiec: Worst? I’m not touching that, but he’s definitely the most anonymous No. 3 starter in baseball. I really haven’t seen enough to judge him, but I figure there is probably a reason that he is considered a journeyman. However with that said, Orioles – both pitchers and position players – have raved about his stuff. When you talk about the worst No. 3’s in baseball, old friend Daniel Cabrera would have to be part of the discussion, wouldn’t he?

Question: Sure, parting ways with D-Cab might've been an addition by subtraction. But look what they've replaced him with. How does this rotation rank against some of the others you've seen?

Zrebiec: I’ve only been covering the team since 2005, but on paper, it’s the worst Opening Day Orioles rotation I’ve covered. You look at it, and you really have no idea what you’re going to get pretty much four out of five days. Now, I have been impressed with Koji, but you still have to see how his stuff will translate to the big leagues over the long haul.

Question: You can be honest with us: Are you already dreading the second half of this season? Or do you think it'll actually be more fun with the arrivals of Wieters, et al?

Zrebiec: I definitely think the last couple of months of the season should be more bearable than it’s been in the past and not just because of Wieters. Instead of seeing retreads like Victor Santos and Victor Zambrano pitch, we could be watching guys like Bergesen, Tillman, David Hernandez and maybe even Arrieta. And instead of rolling out Jeff Fiorentino and Bernie Castro, we could get a glimpse of Nolan Reimold. That’s why I think the Orioles should be able to avoid a total late-season collapse. These guys will take their lumps, but they also are young and talented and hungry for an opportunity.

Question: I'm sure having Peter Schmuck around is a great deal of help, but is it difficult covering the Orioles as a beat writer while also playing second base for the Tigers every night? Has anyone ever spotted you and Placido Polanco in the same room at the same time?
Zrebiec: I actually interviewed Polanco a couple of years ago at the All-Star Game, when I was doing a story about Brian Roberts. When I approached him, he kind of did a double take, but I couldn’t figure out if it was because he saw such an uncanny resemblance between us, or I asked an awful question. Several Orioles have been begging me to get with Placido to take a picture, but I’ve declined to keep things professional. I still contend that my head size, while rather large, isn’t even in the same league as his.

April 13, 2009

When Harry met Whitey, it meant all the difference

For me, it hadn't been the same since Richie Ashburn died 12 years ago.

When Harry Kalas -- the longtime Phillies announcer who passed away today as the Phils prepared to play the Nationals in Washington -- arrived in Philadelphia in 1971 he was actually regarded as a carpetbagger. At the time, Kalas replaced a guy with whom fans were far more comfortable, Bill Campbell.

KalasAshburn.jpg

Campbell, who has regular-Joe features, had called games for the old NBA Philadelphia Warriors, the Eagles and the Phillies. He gushed when the home teams did well and agonized when they failed, which was often. The new guy, Kalas, was a pretty-boy, sandy-haired Midwesterner who was imported from the Houston Astros airwaves. His perspective was a bit more, well, detached. And it's safe to say, as in some other working-class, old-school cities, that newcomers can find the reception cool in Philadelphia -- and so it was for Kalas initially.

But the broadcast partnership between Kalas (right) and former Phillies center fielder and fan favorite Richie Ashburn (left) made all the difference for Kalas.

(Below Harry Kalas makes the final call of the 2008 World Series)

The two developed an on-air camaraderie that allowed listeners to feel like they were sitting in on a private conversation between two good friends who were just watching a game. Ashburn, a great base-stealer during his Hall-of-Fame career, would eye a runner leaning off first and remark matter-of-factly, "He looks a little runner-ish to me, Harry." And Harry would simply say, "We'll see," casually deferring to his partner's expertise.

And so it pretty much went like this: If Harry was good enough for "Whitey" Ashburn, then he was OK with the rest of the city. Of course, over the course of more than three decades, Kalas himself became synonymous with Philadelphia baseball and a Philly institution in his own right. His trademark "Outta here" home run call has been echoed millions of times in street-ball games all over Philadelphia and his baritone voice can be heard in the mind's ear of everyone who ever heard him. He even made his way into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

But since Ashburn passed away, a parade of sports announcers of every stripe have trooped through the broadcasting booth to share play-by-play with Kalas and, not surprisingly, no similar magic chemistry ever developed. Ashburn died in New York after broadcasting a Phils-Mets game. Like his old pal, Harry Kalas also died on the road while busy with yet another baseball game.

So I'll chose to think of it this way: Once again, Whitey is musing that the guy leaning off first base looks "runner-ish" and Harry is making the call that a long drive is "Outta here." Just two good friends watching a ballgame.

What to look for tonight: Baltimore!

Important reminder (or unimportant reminder, depending on which side of the uni-fence you fall): Tonight at Texas, the Orioles unveil their new road jerseys, which prominently feature the word "Baltimore" across the chest.

 

If you've been in a cave, here's the full background from Jeff Zrebiec's Sun story that first broke the news last June. 

Big surprise: WNST is taking full credit.

 

 

And Orioles Hangout discusses the unveiling.

Twister spares Raymond Berry's house

As a football player, Raymond Berry was a poster boy for preparedness. The Baltimore Colts’ Hall of Fame receiver pored over game films, studied the nuances of defenders and memorized his routes for every occasion. He was a nearsighted end with farsighted plans.

But Berry, 76, felt helpless on Good Friday when a tornado touched down near his home in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

"All we could do was stand in the kitchen, watching it on TV to determine if we needed to go to the basement," Berry said.

The twister killed two, demolished 60 houses and damaged hundreds more. The tornado spared Berry’s house and those of his two daughters, who live nearby. But it carved a jagged swath a few feet from the home of his brother-in-law, who was not inside at the time.

"The power of that storm was unbelievable, a jaw-dropper," Berry said. "To be able to take a tractor trailer and flip it around like a domino half a mile away, well ...

"Plus, a tornado is so unpredictable. When that tail dips down, you don’t know where it’s going next. It’s a reminder of how quickly things can change, a reality that none of us ever really gets a handle on."

Photo: Alan Pozner / Special to The Sun

Caption This: Brian Bass serves up another

From time to time, we'll share with you some photographs that catch our eye. We'll provide a couple of possible captions, and you can try your hand at one or two of your own. Check out previous editions of Caption This by clicking here. And for more fun with photos, check out the Sun's Caption Call blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-- "Thank you, sir! May I have another?"

-- Brian Bass begins making the walk toward Norfolk, Va., which according to Google Maps is a 225-mile journey that takes 3 days and 2 hours to hike -- just enough time to clear waivers.

-- "Hey Adam Eaton, Skipper says he wants to see you and me in his office. Come on."

-- Brian Bass takes a long look at the scoreboard. "Let's see, 2 outings, 5 1/3 innings, 12 runs, 13 hits and a 16.88 ERA. Plus I've given up five homers already. Gotta call mom and make sure she avoids those numbers on this week's lotto."

-- "Hey guys, I'm looking for the waiver wire. I was told it'd be around here somewhere. Anyone seen it?"

O's top of the order among tops in the league?

There will be plenty of time to talk about the Orioles' pitching this year, but the one thing that really struck me from the Orioles' season-opening homestand is the top of the batting order: Brian Roberts, Adam Jones and Nick Markakis. Through six games, those three account for more than 50 percent of the Orioles runs.

It might be too early for us to suggest that the Orioles will go as far as the top of the lineup takes them, but through their first six games, how could we ignore this: In their four wins, the top three in the order hit .479 (23-for-48) and scored 18 runs; in the two losses, they hit .143 (3-for-21) with one run.

Manager Dave Trembley was asked about his top three hitters after Saturday night's win, and while he thinks he has depth in his lineup, he did acknowledge that the Orioles need to get on base early and rattle opposing teams' starters. It falls on guys like Roberts, Jones and Markakis to get this done.

I've said a couple of times now that we should be cautious making too many big-picture projections based on a small sampling of early April games. But don't you get the feeling that the top of the Orioles lineup is among the best the team has put forth in recent years? I mean, you have to go back a few years to find better 1-2-3 hitters in Baltimore.

I went back and looked at the Opening Day lineups for the past 40 years or so. Below you can see the top three hitters in the order each year. Particularly in recent years, how many would you put above this season's Roberts-Jones-Markakis trio.

From the recent teams, the 2005 offering of Roberts, Melvin Mora and Miguel Tejada probably had a lot of fans drooling. But you might have to go back to the 1996 lineup that featured Brady Anderson (50 HRs), Roberto Alomar (.328, 22 HR, 94 RBIs) and Rafael Palmeiro (39 HR, 142 RBIs) to find a more exciting trio of hitters atop the order. Roberts, Jones and Markakis won't match those power numbers (uhm, not many hitters, uhm, hit like that any more), but these three will get on base and should put themselves in position to score.

But what should really have Orioles' fans excited: As good as the top of the order might seem this year, it should only get better. Roberts, Jones and Markakis aren't going anywhere, and while historically, the top of the lineup has featured a lot of turnover from season to season, what you're seeing right now should be only a preview of things to come.

For the sake of comparison, here's the Orioles' recent 1-2-3 hitters on Opening Day:

2009: Roberts, Jones, Markakis

2008: Roberts, Mora, Markakis

2007: Roberts, Mora, Markakis

2006: Roberts, Matos, Mora

2005: Roberts, Mora, Tejada

2004: Roberts, Mora, Tejada

2003: Hairston, Matthews, Surhoff

2002: Hairston, Singleton, Segui

2001: Anderson, Bordick, DeSheilds

2000: Anderson, DeShields, Surhoff

1999: Anderson, Bordick, W. Clark

1998: Anderson, Alomar, E. Davis

1997: Anderson, Bordick, Palmeiro

1996: Anderson, Alomar, Palmeiro

1995: Anderson, Barberie, Palmeiro

1994: Anderson, Devereaux, Palmeiro

1993: Anderson, Devereaux, C. Ripken

1992: Anderson, Orsulak, C. Ripken

1991: Devereaux, Milligan, C. Ripken

1990: Bradley, Orsulak, C. Ripken

1989: Anderson, Bradley, Finley

1988: Stone, B. Ripken, C. Ripken

1987: Wiggins, Burleson, C. Ripken

1986: Wiggins, Lacy, C. Ripken

1985: Young, Sheets, C. Ripken

1984: Shelby, Ford, C. Ripken

1983: Shelby, Ford, C. Ripken

1982: Bumbry, Dempsey, Ford

1981: Bumbry, Dauer, Singleton

1980: Bumbry, Belanger, Singleton

1979: Bumbry, Belanger, Singleton

1978: Bumbry, Dauer, Murray

1977: Bumbry, Dauer, Singleton

1976: Bumbry, Blair, Singleton

1975: Singleton, Blair, T. Davis

1974: Bumbry, Coggins, Grich

1973: Rettenmund, Grich, Powell

1972: Buford, Rettenmund, Powell

1971: Blair, D. Johnson, Powell

1970: Buford, Belanger, F. Robinson

1969: Buford, Blair, F. Robinson

 

Mike Ricigliano's View: Easter greetings from O's jackrabbits

Special to The Baltimore Sun: Contact Ricig at michaelricigliano@gmail.com.

The Endorsement: Thrilla in Manila

Each Monday in the Toy Department, a Sun sports writer will take a moment to offer his or her Endorsement of something he or she feels passionately about. There are no rules, and the subject can be as broad, or as narrow, as the writer chooses. This week, Childs Walker says you should watch a new HBO documentary on the greatest heavyweight fight in history. For previous editions of The Endorsement, click here.

Every so often, sport brings together rivals who are so close in skill and commitment that their confrontations cease to feel like games.

These showdowns tend to be the province of individual sports. Great team rivalries produce their own sorts of epic narratives. But I'm talking about the sense of total confrontation between two athletes' life experience, craft, endurance, intelligence, anger, joy and will. These absolute clashes of being produce the most exhilarating and chilling moments in sports. Exhilarating because there's nothing like seeing an absolute master tested absolutely. Chilling, because in the inverse, a near-equal genius throws everything on the line and in the end, fails

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal produced this sort of spectacle at Wimbledon last year. But no sport is richer in momentous battles than boxing. The reason is simple and frightening: In an epic fight between epic fighters, both men are willing to die. You can literally watch a man throw decades of day-in-day-out work, pain and accrued skill into a 36-minute competition with the full understanding that, no matter how gifted he is, he might not walk out.

It's primal stuff and no two boxers ever threw more at one another than Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. If their first fight was the greatest sporting spectacle of the 20th century and their second, a relative bore, their third fight, the Thrilla in Manila, was the consumate ending to a blood feud. Many great writers and commentators have committed thousands of great words to Ali and Frazier. Yet the subject remains rich and disquieting enough to keep on giving. So I learned on Saturday night when I watched John Dower's Thrilla in Manila documentary on HBO.  

Dower adeptly unspools the story of Frazier's friendship with Ali during the Champ's Vietnam-era exile, Frazier's sense of betrayal when Ali turned to race baiting in the run-ups to their fights and the ongoing uneasiness (a euphamism, really) between the old rivals. The contours of the story are familiar, but Dower makes a wise choice. He concedes that the viewer probably knows Ali's point of view on these happenings and thus, tells the whole backstory through Frazier's eyes. This is important, because Frazier, in old age, is a great, novelistic character.

We see his rise from the harsh fields of Beaufort, South Carolina. We see the absolute commitment with which he fought (mostly blind in one eye.) We see the hurt at Ali's slights, the strange way his mouth opens as he watches the 1975 fight, the brutal pride he takes in having left Ali a broken man. We see that he lives in one, spare room above his musty gym in a rough section of Philadelphia. We learn that even his cell phone greeting speaks of the punishment he inflicted on Ali. It has been 34 years, but Frazier still lives the rivalry that defined him, and Dower captures the suffocating loop of it all.

The film brims with great details. There is Ali, describing his warmly received speech on racial separation at a Ku Klux Klan rally. There is the obvious pride of former Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos at her appearance in those days. There are the reflections of Frazier's son, Marvis, who saw the whole spectacle as a child.

The fight is ultimately the star, of course, and Dower recreates the dreadful intensity of it -- the oppressive heat, Frazier's awesome hooks to the ribs and kidneys, Ferdie Pacheco's sense that Ali might kill Frazier in the 14th round, Ali's absolute exhaustion (he asked Angelo Dundee to cut his gloves off just before Eddie Futch stopped the fight.)

If you haven't seen the full fight, I can't recommend strongly enough that you track it down. It's hard to imagine how it must have felt to watch the Thrilla in Manila live. But the fight's aura is hardly lost on tape.

Watch Dower's film and then watch the real thing. You will be impressed at the skill on display--Ali's stinging right and ability to deflect damage on the ropes, Frazier's iron chin and relentless power. But in the late rounds, it will become clear that you're watching something more than sport. It was a clash of shared history, of philosophy, of hatred. Ali and Frazier were, simply, two men who would die to prove a point.  

* * *

Upcoming showtimes:

Tuesday, 9 a.m., HBO East

Tuesday, 4 p.m., HBO East

Wednesday, 2 p.m., HBO East

Thursday, 3 a.m., HBO East

Friday, 2 p.m., HBO East

Saturday, 12:45 a.m., HBO East

The agony of rooting for Phil Mickelson

Angel Cabrera won the Masters yesterday. And to be honest, I like Angel Cabrera. I like that he looks like he's downed a few pints in his day. I like that he smokes. (Because not every athlete should be a fitness freak.) I like it that he somehow managed to hit a tree on the 18th hole, growl like a bear in dismay, and then make a miraculous par to stay alive in a playoff. And let's be honest, Kenny Perry gave away the Masters. Up two shots with two holes to play, all he needed was one par and he couldn't close the deal. To see his kids and his wife behind the green, dying with every bungled chip or wayward iron shot, was heartbreaking.

But when I think about this Masters -- if I ever really think about it again, I guess -- I'm going to think about Phil Mickelson. Good lord, is it frustrating being a Mickelson fan sometimes. I've actually enjoyed defending him over the years. I love watching athletes who don't have an air of aloofness about them. I love that he hugs his wife and his kids after wins. I kind of even like it that he's a little insecure, because frankly, I think if I were the F. Scott Fitzgerald to Tiger's Ernest Hemingway, I'd probably be a little needy too.

I say that in part because the 2004 Masters -- Mickelson's first major -- is like The Great Gatsby to me. I've never been more in awe, more excited, about golf than I was when Phil shot 31 on the back nine to beat Ernie Els. That, to me, was perfection. 

The problem is Fitzgerald never wrote another novel as good as Gatsby. He frittered away his talents and Hemingway, who once deeply respected Fitzgerald, came to think of him as a bit of a wimp and a fool. I feel like Tiger looks at Phil that way sometimes, when he even looks at him at all, annoyed he's even mentioned in the same breath as someone who is such a headcase.

This year's tournament was a perfect example of just how infuriating it can be to watch Mickelson's talent wrestle with his head. He made six birdies on the front nine yesterday. On a day when the front nine was playing fairly difficult, he tied a record for the lowest nine-hole score ever at Augusta. But what's so maddening about Mickelson is that he seems to do that just so he can yank the rug out from underneath me. Realistically, he wasn't going to win the tournament yesterday unless he played an insanely good round. Even early on, I was just happy he was finally playing well when paired with Tiger. But dang it if he didn't have me briefly believing he just might pull it off as he made the turn.

And that's what's so frustrating. Woods couldn't put himself in real contention because he wasn't hitting great iron shots, and it left him a number of putts that were makeable but not easy birdie opportunities. Mickelson, on the other hand, was firing at flags and putting the ball right where he wanted to. And then slapping four footers past the hole like he was putting with a hockey stick. When he dropped inside five feet on No. 15, giving himself a perfect opportunity for eagle, my friend Del shot me a text message:

Tell me you're watching. Wow. Will Phil choke?

And of course he did. The ball didn't even graze the cup.

It's like it is preordained, Del said in another text 30 seconds later.

I love watching him play for reasons I can't really explain. Maybe it's because I'm easily frustrated by the fawning media coverage Tiger constantly receives, and he is, for better or worse, Tiger's most consistent rival. But man, does he make it tough sometimes.

Before he died, Fitzgerald scribbled down a line in a novel, a book he never finished, that ended up becoming perhaps the most quoted thing he ever wrote: There are no second acts in American lives.

It's a silly line, in many respects. And Fitzgerald probably didn't even believe it. Of course there are second acts. Phil Mickelson keeps proving that in every major in which he blazes his way into contention. The sad thing is, I feel like I always know how the show is going to end. Phil will trip and fall, usually face first into the orchestra pit. I buy tickets for the next show regardless.

He gets me every time. And yet I beat on, my boat against the current, rooting for him anyway.

April 11, 2009

Why Orioles center fielder Adam Jones is like the first chapter of a good book

It is, admittedly, a little foolish to get too excited about events that occur just a few games into 162-game season. There is a reason why baseball requires so much patience, both from its players and its followers. Each at-bat, each game, each series and each season, play out like short stories in a larger collection. If you get too high or too low after any one of them ends, you'll go mad trying to enjoy the larger journey.

That said, watching Orioles center fielder Adam Jones so far this season feels like one of those moments when you're reading a book, you're midway through the opening chapter, and you realize you can't take your eyes off the page. You have no idea how it's going to play out, but that doesn't matter yet. What matters is possibility. The promise of everything still to come. It gives you goosebumps. Rarely am I as happy as when I'm just getting invested in a good book, or when I'm watching a young athlete on the cusp of emerging.

Jones had two more hits last night, pounding out two doubles against the Rays to raise his average to .429 this season, and he also scored a pair of runs in Baltimore's 5-4 win. He also came ridiculously close to snatching Evan Longoria's first home run, climbing the wall and just missing an over-the-shoulder basket catch. Just watching him take off and find that extra gear -- whether it's attempting to score on a hit or track down a fly ball -- is worth the price of admission. He may not ever hit 40 HRs in a season, but he's also strong enough and has quick enough hands that it would be silly to dismiss the possibility either.

Nick Markakis is already an excellent player. And like a lot of people in the area, I'm excited to see Matt Wieters hitting in the heart of the Orioles lineup sooner rather than later. He too represents possibility. But there is something exhilarating about watching a center fielder with speed and grace -- but with arms like an NFL running back -- that makes me excited about going to games this season. It doesn't hurt that he seems like a good guy in every possible way. This is, after all, a kid who was excited enough about coming to Baltimore that one of the first things he did after he was traded was get in touch with Ray Lewis to find out more about the city. It never hurts to pay homage to the king, and it's in stark contrast with Erik Bedard's personality, a grumpy and sullen individual even on a good day. (He and rainy Seattle seem like a perfect match, in retrospect.)

ESPN's Tim Kurkjian addressed the excitement that Jones' potential inspires on Friday, and it reminded me that I'm entering uncharted waters in a way. As long as I've lived in Baltimore (since 2000), the Orioles have been mediocre or bad. Any musings, either in the national or local media, about the potential of Baltimore's young players felt more like wishful thinking than reality. (Luis Matos ring a bell?)

But this one feels a little different. Jones is going to go through slumps this season, and it would be surprising if he really did emerge as "one of the AL's best players" as Kurkjian prophesised after talking to O's skipper Dave Trembley.

"His pitch selection is so much better," Trembley said. "His knowledge of the strike zone is so much better. That is very difficult to improve for a young player, but he has great hand-eye coordination. And he is a great athlete. He is also a very, very smart young man."

Part of what made Nick Adenhart's recent death so sad is that, at age 22, all that promise, both as a baseball player and as a person, was still in front of him. That's true of every person who dies young and never has a chance to really see how much they might have bloomed. We -- along with his family -- never got to witness those cool July nights when Adenhart had his curveball working, his fastball humming, and for a few hours, he could lose himself in a sport that he loved. 

Possibility can be exhilarating, especially in baseball, where every action is predicated on anticipation. Jones is just 23 years old. Maybe he won't be a star, but maybe he will. Every game, right now, is like turning another page in his book.

I don't want to know how the story will unfold. I just want the chance to savor every bit of it as it does.   

April 10, 2009

Pit Boss: Baltimore trio 2nd in Dream Team Poker

Pit Boss is that part of the Toy Department where we'll  discuss games that don't involve balls (at least not the ones made by Wilson and Rawlings) and if those games happen to be played on something green, it's felt not grass. Sports gambling, poker, casino news, happenings in Las Vegas and Atlantic City -- that's what we're about in this adult corner of the Toy Department. The usual disclaimers apply: We discourage anything illegal and if you do any wagering, make sure it's with your head and not over it. Now ... can we get you something to drink?

Earlier in the week we mentioned that a poker tournament at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas during late-March introduced a new concept for an otherwise familiar  game -- team poker. We also noted that the three-member team that won the event included 2006 World Series of Poker Main Event champion Jamie Gold and, more visually compelling, his girlfriend Ashley Nataupsky.

What we didn't know at the time was that a Baltimore team finished second in the event. Led by Philip Rousseaux, who finished second individually among a field that included 444 payers (148 teams), the Claddaghs -- named after a bar in the Canton section of the city -- split a $33,000 prize. Rousseaux pulled down another $13,000-plus for his individual finish.  Besides Rousseaux (center), who owns a financial services company and lives in Canton, team members included John Anthony (left), also of Canton and the DJ at Claddaghs, and Ted Wolf (right), an accountant from Glen Burnie

 

 

Rules for Dream Team Poker are pretty simple. The game is No-limit Texas Hold 'em and as a player is eliminated, that person is assigned a score. For instance, if there are 300 players, the first person who busts out gets a score of 300. The last player remaining gets a one. Only the scores for a team's two best-finishing players are combined and the lowest score total wins the tournament, like in golf. The highest score, meaning the worst score, is tossed out. For Claddagh's, the scores that counted toward its final finish were those of Rousseaux (No. 2) and Anthony (No. 46).

The tournament buy-in was $1,500 per team plus a $150 fee but even though the tournament wasn't for huge stakes, the unusual format attracted a bunch of big-name players, including former Main Event champions Phil Hellmuth and Johnny Chan.  Team Claddagh tangled with two-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner Mark Seif with mixed results.  Seif knocked out Athony but Rousseaux answered by busting out Seif. Anthony and Seif had played against each other previously.

 

Hendrickson's long journey to Camden Yards

The Orioles will send Mark Hendrickson to the hill to open their series against the Tampa Bay Rays. The 6-foot-9 lefty started 19 games for Florida a season ago. But his trip to this point has been a long and winding one. Here's the edited nickel tour through newspaper archives:

February 8, 2000 | Seattle Post-Intelligencer

It's a choice Mark Hendrickson isn't sure he wants to make just yet.

Give up baseball for basketball, or basketball for baseball?

For now, the former Washington State University two-sport star from Mount Vernon is still trying to find out what his future holds...

"I like them both and (would like to) keep doing them both," he said. "So far, it's worked out well for me."

The 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward would like to find a home in the NBA, but for now he's content to live the life of a nomad in professional sports while his career is in limbo.

...The Blue Jays, however, would like Hendrickson to make up his mind about which pro sport he wants to play.

"Our belief is that if he got to the point where basketball was no longer in the picture and he spent full time at baseball, he would have a chance to be a major league prospect," said Bob Nelson, the Blue Jays' director of baseball operations...

"If he's going to stay with basketball, that's fine," Nelson said. "The longer he stays there, his chances diminish in baseball. To make it in either sport, you have to be 100 percent behind what you're doing in that particular sport."

December 30, 1999 | Akron Beacon Journal

If forward Mark Hendrickson, signed Monday by the Cavs, looks familiar, there's a reason for it. In a well-known photo, Hendrickson is shown as a Philadelphia rookie in 1996-97 trying to defend Michael Jordan as he hangs in the air. The photo graces the covers of the books "Sports Illustrated Greatest Photos" and the "1997-98 NBA Register." "I was surprised it's been in as many books as it has," said Hendrickson, who was quick to remark Jordan scored on "a layup, not a dunk."

July 25, 1999 | Knoxville News-Sentinel

Mark Hendrickson has juggled the sports for years, but if he continues to pitch they way he did Friday night for the Smokies, the 6-foot-9 left-hander from Mount Vernon, Wash., could be spending more time on the mound than on the court.

Hendrickson, who was a two-sport star at Washington State University and drew a lot of attention, pitched four scoreless innings against Jacksonville before he wilted in the heat. Although he was nicked for a couple of runs in the fifth, his fourth appearance was his best outing of the season and continued his steady improvement.

"He is at the point where his arm is game-ready," Knoxville pitching coach Darren Balsley said.

January 31, 1999 | Lewiston (Idaho) Morning Tribune

Mark Hendrickson is a man without a team, but he's hoping his status will soon change.

In the meantime, the former Washington State basketball standout is working out in Pullman, waiting to hear from some interested NBA party.

"Basically I'm on call," Hendrickson said Saturday after taking in WSU's 95-86 victory over USC at Friel Court. "Whenever that phone rings, I've got to go. And when I do get that call, whenever it may be, I'll be ready to go."

...Despite the NBA's current post-lockout state, Hendrickson is optimistic about his chances of landing somewhere in the league.

"This looks like a bleak season," he said. "But this season's going to be weird. I tell people this is my opportunity. I've got to be ready to step in and get my look and that's going to be my shot."

...If Hendrickson doesn't hear from a basketball team in the next three weeks or so, he may decide to spurn the NBA and head to spring training with Toronto.

"It's a decision I'm faced with and it's a decision I have to make when that time comes around," Hendrickson said. "I gave myself two years to make the big leagues, and hopefully in two years I'll be playing both. But right now I'm focused on basketball."

July 2, 1998 | St. Petersburg Times

Dunedin pitcher Mark Hendrickson's experience at the top of his sport gives  him survival skills most minor-leaguers don't have.

Never mind that the sport is basketball.

Hendrickson joined the Dunedin Blue Jays on June 18, about a month after  signing a minor-league contract with Toronto. ...

"A lot of people think I stopped playing basketball," said Hendrickson,  who towers over the mound at 6 feet 9, 220 pounds. "The reason why I decided  to (play baseball) now, it's the best time for me to play both. I'm physically  and mentally ready. It's a unique situation."

The Blue Jays drafted Hendrickson as a free agent in June 1997, the third time in his baseball career he had been drafted. (He went unsigned the  previous two times.)... 

More important, he has strengthened his arm and adjusted to throwing on a  regular basis. By his own estimate, he threw about once a week during the  summer the previous five years.

"I always felt I was a good pitcher, but I never went about getting my arm  in shape," he said. "Once I get everything fine-tuned, I don't see why I  can't advance rapidly (through the organization). I expect that of myself. The  key is to just be patient."

Hendrickson said the average journey from minor to major leagues takes three or four years, but he hopes to shorten that span by focusing more on  baseball during the basketball off-season. Of course, it's easier to focus  these days, with an NBA lockout threatening to cut into the basketball season.

But in a normal season, Hendrickson hopes to play baseball from June to  September, then turn back to basketball. His contract with the Blue Jays  allows for this to happen...

"Within myself, I know where I'm at right now," he said. "I know I'm not  even close to my potential. That's why I get eager the way things are coming  along.

"I want to play both for as many years as I can at the pro level. My  biggest pet peeve is pro athletes who say, "I gave up this sport because I had  to make a decision.' I'm a firm believer that if you have the ability to play,  you follow through on it."

May 27, 1998 | Toronto Globe & Mail

He began last season with the LaCrosse, Wis., Bobcats of the Continental Basketball Association before he joined Sacramento where he played 48 games, averaging 3.4 points and three rebounds. He is still under contract to Sacramento and is pretty much a steady but unspectacular player in the National Basketball Association.

Mark Hendrickson has played at the SkyDome already this year -- as a member of the Sacramento Kings of the National Basketball Association.

...But he had made it clear that he wanted to go as far as he could in basketball.

The Blue Jays had until the end of May to sign him or he would have been eligible for the draft again.

When the Blue Jays took him last June it was the sixth time he had been selected in baseball's amateur draft, a record since the supplementary January draft was abolished in 1987.

...As a baseball player, he pitched a little at Washington State and he has played semi-professional the past few summers.

The scouts like his loose arm, coordination, body control and his feel for pitching. His fastball is average to a little better than average. He also has the potential for a good breaking ball.

June 7, 1996 | Seattle Times

"Three or four of the players here," said Scotty Stirling, a scout for the Sacramento Kings, "will be picked in the first round. Mark Hendrickson might be one of them."

They rode a school bus from the Hyatt Regency Hotel to a small gym in downtown Chicago where, in folding chairs circled around the court, sat the basketball gods.

Mark Hendrickson told himself not to look at their faces for it would spook his game. But, come on, there was Larry Bird over there, Lenny Wilkens up there, P.J. Carlesimo behind the beard, Bob Lanier against the wall, Pete Newell taking notes.

Wes Unseld, Bill Fitch, Bob Whitsitt, Del Harris, Rick Adelman, Bernie Bickerstaff, Tim Grgurich. Who wasn't there?

"If you think about it," said Hendrickson, "it will drive you nuts."

Not far from the circus that is the NBA Finals, is the pre-draft meat market, at the Moody Bible Institute, where among 57 players Hendrickson, Mark Sanford and Mark Pope are trying to look and act like NBA players.

The big names in the June 25 draft weren't here, Marcus Camby, Ray Allen, Stephon Marbury. Neither were the high-school kids, Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal...

Hendrickson, the Washington State star from Mount Vernon, has their attention. He also has them confused.

He was drafted for a fifth time by baseball, this time by the Texas Rangers. He is a 6-foot-9 left-handed pitcher.

"I think he'll play 10 years in the NBA," Stirling said. "He knows how to play; not a lot of guys here do. He has good footwork, and he knows how to score against quickness. What bothers the guys (scouts) is baseball."

'The Wire' should've explored Baltimore sports

Because it’s such an odd grouping of names, I listened to Jason Whitlock interview David Simon on "The Jim Rome Show" yesterday. I was hoping Phyllis Diller or Don Rickles might stop by to give it that VH1 Surreal Life-feel.

You know David Simon, right? Used to the work for the Sun. Now makes a lot more money annually than the Sun does. I’m not the only writer in the Toy Department who regards The Wire as the truth, which is why you'll see occasional references to the show around here.

Much of the interview was a rehash of things we’d heard before in other forums. (Quick recap: Baltimore’s tough, our leaders fail us, reading the Sun makes Simon cry in his Cheerios each morning.)

Simon also reiterated that there would be no movie based on The Wire. While I respect that as an artistic decision, as a consumer, it does make me sad. Not just movie prospects. But my life would be so much better if there was a Season 6 of The Wire airing right now.

Simon felt like they had their run, that the show had examined an American city from every angle and illustrated its cracks and its holes. But not Baltimore. An important part of Baltimore is its sports – always has been -- and I really think a sixth season could’ve examined the city’s relationship with its team, its heroes and also illustrated how its fans are let down from time to time.

Lester could follow the money and find out what the Orioles are doing with their gobs of cash.

Bubbles could befriend Michael Phelps and the two could share in their recovery from Fells Point's bar scene.

McNulty could follow Gary Williams on the recruiting trail, watch some hoops, unearth some blue-chippers and explore small-town night life on the road.

Cutty could expand his gym, start to coach basketball instead of boxing, and run an AAU team that steers local players to Syracuse and Connecticut for a small fee.
 
Bunk and McNulty could take Sidney Ponson out for a taste when the Royals come to town, and then race to get him to the ballpark on time the next day when he passes out at the station in exchange for a tip about the Aruban drug runners infiltrating the port.
 
The Greek could advise Nick Markakis as he negotiates his next contract. Business, Nick. Always business.
 
Nicky Sobatka could have been one of the thousands of drunken fans booing Mark Teixeira this past week.

Kima could use some CI to make sure Ray Lewis was taking care of his body so that he’ll be 100 percent until his contract expires.

Omar could come back from the dead and pitch every fifth day for the Orioles.

* * *

I’m sure we’ll give some more thought to this topic later, but I also wanted to pass along some highlights and lowlights from the Simon interview. I’ll let you decide which are the highs and which are the lows:

Simon on the recent plight of newspapers: “That’s a sad thing. That makes me unhappy. … This is bad for the industry, this bad for communities, this is bad for the republic. And nobody’s figured it out, have they?”

On his Sun newsroom: “The guys running the paper when I was there were looking outward and building resumes.”

“…Did the Baltimore Sun learn to cover its community better, make it more essential? No, they dealt with the one statistic that matters in journalism: winning Pulitzers.”

On Season 5: “It was about a newspaper that was missing every significant story because it was no longer connected to its community."

On how he sees himself: “I guess I’m a gadfly… a newspaperman without a newspaper.”

On saving newspapers: “The only thing I think can save newspapers is something I don’t think they have the stomach to do, which is to charge for content.”

“…That sounds insane because it’s been free for so many years now; they’ve left the barn door open. I remind you television was free for the first 50 years of existence… The problem is they’ve gutted the product. They’ve thrown out the baby.”

On how Baltimore feels about his work: “I think if you go down to the grunts, the people who are on the streets, be they cops, school teachers or reporters covering a beat, they don’t have much problem with me. It’s usually people who have a vested interest in saying things are fine. It’s usually upper management. There’s probably a police commissioner here, a mayor there, an executive editor of newspaper -- they probably wish I’d shut up and go away. But I’m not writing for them; that’s not my target audience.”

The mystery of Marvin Webster

He flitted around the country -- as much as a 7-foot-1 man can flit -- on his own money and his own time. Marvin Webster did what he wanted, when he wanted. He didn't bring an entourage when he traveled, just his curiosity.

According to those who knew him late in his life, Webster, the one-time basketball wunderkind of Morgan State, loved seeing different parts of the country, living out of hotels, keeping his own countenance.

We may never know what possessed him to leave an apartment in Owings Mills last summer and head to Tulsa, Okla., the final destination in his 56-year-old life. We know he spent some time in a hospital there for a chronic liver disease brought on by three different hepatitis attacks over a dozen years.  We know he returned to the Hotel Ambassador -- a "luxury boutique hotel," as its managing director told me -- after that short hospital stay. And we know he died in that hotel, in a bathtub. probably from coronary artery disease. He likely died last Saturday, but wasn't found until late Monday morning. His 57th birthday would have been Monday, April 13.

Perhaps we will eventually find out why he was in Tulsa for several months. The truth is, his Morgan teammates knew Webster could be mysterious. Not all of them knew why. Once he contracted hepatitis as a senior at Morgan, he came to know a life filled with medications to combat the toxins that seeped into his brain and his body. It changed his life more than he could tolerate at times.

When Webster took his medication, he was fine. When he didn't, he would have trouble remembering things. Several of his Morgan teammates experienced the "distant" Webster after his basketball career ended. It was sad, because not everyone knew the reason. It created a few hard feelings. Now they all know. They know how he came to rely on medications, and they also know he hated them.

His life had become a series of hardships and tragedies by the time he retired from the Knicks and the NBA in 1985. He lost his first wife to an aneurysm at 39, and his first son to cardiomyopathy at 18. He had battled hepatitis twice in the NBA after leaving Morgan, once as a rookie with the ABA Denver Nuggets and later missing the 1984-85 Knicks' season because of it. He tried to come back yet again in 1986. He followed a strict diet, played in the Continental Basketball Association at Pensacola, married a second time, and signed with the Milwaukee Bucks.

The marriage didn't last and neither did the comeback. Fifteen games in, he just up and left the Bucks, not bothering even to tell coach Don Nelson why.

After that, he lived with his parents for a while, worked a couple odd jobs selling used cars and clothes, and he traveled. He made enough money, signing a then-enormous five-year, $3 million contract with the Knicks in 1978, and invested well over his 10 pro seasons.

Webster came back to Morgan in 1999 to participate in the 25-year anniversary of the school's 1974 NCAA Division II championship, but he didn't show up at the ceremony to retire his jersey five years later. Maybe it was during a time he wasn't taking medication. But he was always grateful whenever the glory days of Morgan were brought up.

"He always liked being remembered for his contributions to the game of basketball," said W. Charles Bennett, who had been Webster's agent, friend and financial advisor. "When Morgan honored him, he was very appreciative. ... Morgan was always big [to him]."

Webster put Morgan on the basketball map in the early 1970s. Ironic, then, isn't it, that he'd leave us at so early an age, just when the school was finding its way back? Whatever Morgan basketball becomes, it's safe to say it all started with him.

Photos: Associated Press

***

Also see:

Services for Marvin Webster to be held next week

Photos: Marvin Webster

David Steele: Webster is gone, but 'Eraser' lives on

Marvin Webster dead at 56 

Nick Adenhart: A prodigy dies young

 

Disbelief cracked the voices of players and coaches who knew Nick Adenhart as a child star on the fields of Washington County. It wasn't just that a 22-year-old had died senselessly in a violent auto crash. It was that, in baseball circles around Hagerstown, Adenhart was the 22-year-old, a kid who had been touched by some cosmic wand.

Even as an adolescent, he threw far, far harder than the other boys, remembered his high school catcher, David Warrenfeltz. Everyone who cared a lick about baseball knew his name by the time he was 10 years old.

Adenhart knew he was good but carried his talent with unassuming grace, Warrenfeltz said. The star liked being one of the guys. One summer, the boys dug up Warrenfeltz's back yard to make a Wiffle ball field. They cut up his mother's boots to make a catcher's mitt.  

Warrenfeltz's mind turned to such innocent moments after he heard the news of his friend's death. "Just little stuff," he said. "Like riding our bikes to go and buy baseball cards."

Rod Steiner met Adenhart as a physical education teacher in middle school. After Adenhart spent his freshman and sophomore years in private school, pursuing basketball, he returned to Williamsport High to pitch for Steiner's team.

Steiner remembered a playoff game during Adenhart's junior year when he pitched a no-hitter but lost 1-0. The prodigy did not harangue his less-gifted teammates, whose defensive miscues had cost him.

"He was the most talented kid I've ever been around, but he was very team-oriented," the coach said.

Adenhart opened the next season against the same team and pitched a perfect game. "He wanted to shut you down, and he had a lot of belief that he could do it," Warrenfeltz said.

By then, Adenhart had the curveball and mound instincts to match his mighty fastball. Baseball America deemed him the best high school pitcher in the country. Scouts flocked to Williamsport by the dozens. High school games that might normally draw 20 spectators attracted 500 or 1,000 when Adenhart pitched. Classmates took to hanging K signs on the outfield fence to keep up with his two strikeouts an inning.

Then, in a late-season game, Adenhart felt his elbow pop. Warrenfeltz trudged to the mound. "No more curveballs," the ace said. "Something's not right."

"It was the first time I had ever heard him talk like that or seen him have any doubt on the mound," Warrenfeltz recalled. "I just got the sickest feeling, because the draft was only a few weeks away. I had never heard him talk like that."

Adenhart was right about his elbow. He needed Tommy John surgery. A sure slot in the first round was gone, just like that.

He could've turned away from the game but didn't. In fact, he finished the season at designated hitter and helped Williamsport to the brink of a state title. The Angels took him in the 14th round and paid him a $710,000 bonus, a smart risk because the prodigy attacked rehabilitation with the same businesslike demeanor he had brought to pitching.

He became a top prospect all over again and debuted in the big leagues last year. Whenever he visited home, however, he was the same guy. He and Warrenfeltz, now a senior catcher at UMBC, shot hoops or just hung out.

Nothing could stop Nick Adenhart, or so it seemed to the people who had watched him grow up. Certainly, his Los Angeles teammates and coaches are stunned. His agent, the supposedly villainous Scott Boras, wept at his passing. But the people who watched him at Williamsport lost a near-mythic figure. Guys who inspire tall tales aren't supposed to die in car wrecks at 22. They just aren't.

"The community here is shook up," Steiner said. "He put us on the map."

Collectively coping with Adenhart tragedy

I’ll admit, I’m not riding first-class on the Twitter train. I understand it, I visit it, I follow a few folks on there. But it’s not occupying much of my time. (If you're unfamiliar, here's a funny video.)

However, I do think it’s an interesting form of communication and it does provide a meeting place for people to gather and share. We've seen sports fans celebrate together via tweets, and we've seen them mourn, too.

It offers us an intriguing and intimate peek into how a group of people respond to a single event. I guess I’m referring to Nick Adenhart’s death. I’ll have more to say about Nick and this terrible tragedy in Saturday’s paper, I suspect, but for now, let me just share with you some Twitter responses. There's a new one every 20 seconds or so, which gives you an idea of how many people feel touched today by Adenhart's life and death.

Some really are moving, and collectively, it shows how random tragic events can seem. I mean, there’s one user – Stevothepirate – and one minute he’s “Ready for the baseball season.” Another he’s “thinking about growing out my hair,” and all of a sudden, he “still can’t believe what happened to Nick Adenhart.”

Here’s more:

thegregzeck: Can't get my mind off nick adenhart for some reason. This is really bothering me...

lorenbaker: Blessings to the late Angel's pitcher Nick Adenhart & his family. Tragic. Nick's throwing a perfect game with the real angels right now.

gambo620: Can't stop thinking about the death of Nick Adenhart of the Angels and the fact that we have to get this drunk driving problem under control

Miss_Leli: Nick Adenhart: You are one more Angel in heaven! 08/24/1986 - 04/09/09

Antoniodr: standing at the crash site of angel pitcher, Nick Adenhart, so close to the house

sopdet: Not allowed to read more about Nick Adenhart, because I cannot cry at work.

heatherbuchman: Frank is so excited that his little league team is the Angels. (So sad about the accident that took the life of pitcher Nick Adenhart.)

WMU32: R.I.P. Nick Adenhart... You've made me realize how much I've taken for granted and taught me how to appreciate what I have.

daveursillo: RIP Nick Adenhart. May Anaheim take solace, on this day of days, that the passing of a young man too soon may have some greater meaning.

aelanacurran: am choked up everytime i see angels nick adenhart's agent crying...how tragic. and after his best game!

mattycase: Next time you reach for those car keys after a couple drinks, think about Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart. It's tragic.

nickfr6: R.I.P. Nick Adenhart. I was lucky enough to see his last and best game of his career last night. Very sad.

And then there’s this guy. Friggin idiot.

BarkDan: My heart goes out to the family of Nick Adenhart. Now I have to go off and drop him in 4 of my 17 fantasy leagues. Such a hassle, dudes.

Fatso's favorite foods: Dinner with Art Donovan

He’s 85 now and rarin' to go -- at dinner time, anyway. Art Donovan, the Baltimore Colts lineman and Football Hall of Famer, can still tackle a big meal with the best of them.

His appetite is the stuff of legend. During the 1950s, the Colts tried to curb Donovan’s gluttony by offering a $2,000 bonus every season he managed to keep his playing weight under 275 pounds. Sometimes he got the cash, sometimes not.

Photo: Colby Ware / Special to The Baltimore Sun

"His weekly weigh-in before each game was a story," teammate Gino Marchetti said. "Donovan would take his clothes off, piece by piece, and weigh himself after each one.

"His last hope was always his false teeth. A couple of times he had to take them out to make weight."

Donovan himself always addressed the matter with self-deprecating humor.

"You know you’re big when you sit in the bathtub and the water in the toilet rises," he said.

Nowadays, what are Fatso’s choice delights?

1. Kosher hot dogs

"I love em. They sell ‘em on street corners in New York. I used to eat 15 of 16 at a time when I went up there to see my mother. The hot dogs at Harry’s in Westminster are good too -- I once had 25 of them."

2. Pizza

"Make mine with extra pepperoni and sausage. Once, in San Diego, I ordered three pizzas but couldn’t eat the third so I put it on the television set and left the TV on all night to keep it warm. I ate the pizza the next morning."

3. Kosher cold cuts

"Especially bologna, salami and corned beef from the Weiss Deli on Lombard Street."

4. All Italian food

"Saltimbocca, veal parmesan and lasagna. With my diet, people said I’d be dead at 50. Well, I’ve got 35 years on ‘em. I’ve never eaten a vegetable except for lettuce and cole slaw, and I never eat chicken or turkey. Don’t like what it looks like."

5. Cheeseburgers from Padonia Station in Timonium

"They have one named after me, ‘The Artie Donovan Burger’ ($18.99). It weighs 24 ounces. I took one home and heated it up. It barely fit in the microwave."

***

Also see:  

Archived Art Donovan coverage

Art Donovan photo gallery

Baltimore Colts special section

Dead. To. Me.: Kobe as MVP

Each week at the Toy Department, in addition to offering one of our writers the chance to endorse something they feel strongly about, we also give one of our writers a chance to dismiss something -- however unpopular that opinion may be -- in a segment we call "Dead. To. Me." 

Kobe Bryant is a manic basketball genius. If I run across a Lakers game while flipping channels late at night, I stop because there's always a chance that Kobe will make a move or hit a shot that I've never seen. But Kobe Bryant has not been the most valuable player in the NBA this season. He has not been the second most valuable or the third. I am tired of hearing about the epic MVP race between Kobe and LeBron James (Bill Simmons says it's the most epic since Barkley-Jordan-Olajuwon in 1992-93). As far as I'm concerned, there is no such race. With one week left in the regular season, Kobe Bryant's MVP chances are Dead To Me.

Please explain the argument for Kobe. I dare you.

Is it statistical? Can't be. We don't even have to start with LeBron on that front. Let's look at Kobe vs. Dwyane Wade. Kobe's greatest talent is scoring and he averages an impressive 27 per game. Wade averages 29.9. Wade plays more minutes you say? Yes, but he also averages more points per minute. Maybe Kobe is a more accurate shooter? Well, he makes 46.6 percent from the field, very good for a two guard who takes so many tough shots. Wade makes 48.8 percent. Kobe is a more accurate free throw shooter, but Wade has gotten to the line 200 more times. Kobe is a slightly better rebounder per minute but Wade has him by more than two assists a game. Wade's advantage only grows if you bring defensive numbers into it. He has 50 percent more steals and has blocked three times as many shots.

 

If anything, LeBron looks even better statistically. He scores more than Kobe, shoots a better percentage, gets to the line more, makes more threes, grabs 50 percent more rebounds, dishes 50 percent more assists, has more steals, blocks more shots. I mean, really, Kobe wins hardly any battles on this front.

I might be nearly alone on this but I'd also take Chris Paul over Kobe. He gives up 4.5 points a game to Bryant. But he shoots more accurately from the field and line, he makes up for his scoring deficit with an extra six assists a game, he leads the league in steals and as a 6-foot point guard, he outrebounds Kobe per game.

 I love Paul's stat lines. Sometimes, he has Kobe games, like his 43-point effort against Golden State last week. Sometimes, he has LeBron games, like 30 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists on 11-of-16 shooting last month against Washington. And sometimes, he has uniquely Chris Paul games, like 27 points, 10 rebounds, 15 assists and seven steals against Philly in January. You never, never see a box score in which Chris Paul has failed to do something major for his team. I can't wait to see where his career goes. He could end up as the best guard his size ... ever.

You like your stats more advanced? OK, let's look at John Hollinger's PER, which incorporates per-minute stats and looks at them relative to other players at the same position. Hollinger has LeBron at 31.72, Wade at 30.09 and Paul at 29.73. Those would all rank among the best scores of the last 10 years. Kobe ranks sixth at a merely excellent 24.37, stuck right between Tim Duncan and Brandon Roy.

I can find no statistical method that says Kobe Bryant is the best player in the league. So what about teams?

The Lakers are awfully good, 62-16 with the third most efficient offense in the league, according to Hollinger. Kobe is their best best player. But he plays with Pau Gasol, who would be the best guy on more than half the teams in the league. He plays with the supremely gifted Lamar Odom. For half the season, he played with one of the NBA's best young centers, Andrew Bynum. The Lakers would probably be a playoff team without him.

LeBron plays with an excellent shooter in Mo Williams, an above-average center in Zydrunas Ilgauskas and a whole bunch of role players. It's not clear at all that the Cavs would make the playoffs without him. They have a better record than the Lakers.

Wade has the Heat at No. 5 in the Eastern Conference without a single teammate in sniffing distance of All-NBA. Paul has the Hornets at No. 6 in the deep, deep West without a single teammate other than David West having an above-average season.

So again, where is Kobe's advantage?

It must be intangible, right? But whenever NBA players are polled, they overwhelmingly say LeBron is the guy they'd most like to play with. People said Kobe was the alpha dog on the Olympic team because he took the big shots down the stretch of the gold medal game. But I wonder if those people watched the games. Wade was the most productive guy on the team. And LeBron was clearly the vocal leader and the one guy on the court who could do anything -- hit a big shot, play point guard, guard the other team's center. He looked like the best player in the world.

If I had to pick one guy to rally my team with his shooting in the fourth quarter of a big game, I'd pick Kobe. But that's not the most important quality when picking the best player. All four quarters count as do passing, rebounding and defense.

 

Kobe is a beautiful player, but no matter what angle I choose, I can't see how he had a better 2008-2009 than LeBron ... or Wade or Paul. He's quite alive as a great player but as MVP, Kobe Bryant is dead to me.

April 9, 2009

O's news you never thought you'd read

So much for the sweep.

The Orioles just lost to the Yankees 11-2 to finish their first series of the season. Still, taking two of three has got to feel pretty good.

I'm about to head down to the clubhouse and start working on a column for tomorrow's paper. But I just had to pass this along to you. I picked up this news release in the pressbox this afternoon, and I couldn't believe what I was reading.

Now my Japanese isn't the best. I have no formal training. (And I have no informal training for that matter.) But I'm pretty sure this release is announcing the signing of Roger Clemens.

Or that a Matt Wieters statue will be unveiled outside the ballpark on May 1.

Or that every broom brought into Camden Yards for today's presumed sweep will be donated to the city's sanitation department.

Or that the Orioles will host a special Mark Teixeira headless bobblehead doll promotion when the Yankees return to town.

Or maybe it's a memo to Teixeira that says, "Boo boo! Boo! Boo boo boooo! Boo! BOOOO! Boo. Boo! Boooooooo! Boo-boo-boooo!"

Or most likely, it's just a food menu on Orioles letterhead.

At any rate, I've got to get down to the clubhouse for interviews, so I'll let you offer your best translation.

(After the jump is an enlarged image, in case your own Japanese benefits from enlarged images.)

Childs Play

Some readers might remember that until last summer, Childs Walker wrote a weekly column on fantasy sports for The Sun. That ritual died for the cause of reducing newsprint costs (tough business, newspapers). But with the Toy Department open and its aisles boundless, Childs is back with his insights, laments and odes to joy regarding pretend baseball and pretend football.

The tendency, when you look at fantasy teams post-draft, is to fixate on the stars, the hot rookies and the obvious bargains. It's hard to win a title without a few big guns firing at maximum capacity, so it's human nature to dwell on such players.

But when you look at your league champion come season's end, you'll invariably find another species of player--unglamorous guys who earn $5 or $10 more than their draft-day price tags. The key, of course, is to grab a few of these guys early, whether from the waiver wire or as trade throw-ins. Their production will become apparent by midseason but for now, getting them won't require a fight. Here are some guys who strike me that way.

Ty Wigginton - The new Oriole was actually pretty popular at my A.L. auction, but if you're in a less Baltimore-centric league, his non-starter status might depress his value. Here's why it shouldn't. Wigginton could ultimately be eligible at every offensive slot but shortstop or catcher. He annihilates lefthanded pitching (.288 for his career compared to .264 against righties) so if Dave Trembley platoons him, his rate stats will actually go up and compensate for lost at-bats. Finally, Camden Yards favors righthanded power. Wigginton will not carry your fantasy team but could be an exceedingly useful component as the season rolls on.

Seth Smith - Coors Field is no longer the park that built Vinny Castilla and Dante Bichette into MVP candidates. But it's still a terrific place to hit, the kind of park that can turn Matt Holliday into a superstar or Clint Barmes into a useful player. Smith is starting in Coors. He offers some pop, has a good contact record in the minors and can run a little. That's the sort of player who could miraculously hit .300 with 20 homers and 10 steals for the Rockies. I'm not saying it will happen, but how many $5 players even present such possibilities? Teammate Ryan Spillborghs is another from the same mold.

Jody Gerut -  Remember when Gerut hit 22 homers for Cleveland way back in 2003? A lot of people liked him then, but various injuries kept him from any sort of production between 2005 and 2007. He resurfaced in San Diego last season with the same decent pop and an improved ability to hit lefties. Not many people noticed because the Padres are horrible. But fantasy owners shouldn't sneeze at guys who play regularly and could hit .290 with 20 homers.

Aaron Hill - He disappointed me and a lot of other folks last year when injuries derailed a potential breakout. But he's still a guy who makes good contact, still a guy who hit 17 homers at a weak offensive position in 2007 and still only 27 years old. If he stays healthy and gets a little luckier on fly balls leaving the park (2 percent last year compared to 9 percent in 2007), he could be a $15 player in A.L. leagues and a solid option for middle infield slots in mixed leagues. 

Mark Reynolds - I ripped on the guy last year when he got off to a hot start and interest went overboard. Now, he's a little underrated. His lack of contact skill will always make him a batting average risk. But if he can bump back to his 2007 rates, he could hit .260 or .270, like Adam Dunn in a good season. More importantly, he's capable of 35 home runs and stole 11 bases last year (not sure how many people realize that.) He's only 25, and when you combine the power and the speed, you have a pretty interesting package, especially in that park.  

 

Brandon Inge - He's another contact-deficient player, and that showed up big-time in 2008, when his average fell to .205. But Inge was very unlucky on balls in play and his average could easily rise 40 points, just with improved luck. He's starting at third but also eligible at catcher, where his 15 homers and 60-70 RBIs become real pluses. The roster flexibility afforded by his weird eligibility combination will only help more as injuries set in over the course of the season.

Brandon Moss - He was part of the Pirates' booty in the Jason Bay trade. Moss doesn't have the buzz of a top prospect, but he does have a regular job on a lousy team and the ability to slug .500 according to Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system. He's not a target in mixed leagues, but in N.L. leagues, he could become a keeper if you get him at less than $5. Oh, and Bill James loves him. 

Ben Francisco - It's hard to get much attention when you're playing beside Grady Sizemore and fighting for at-bats. Francisco is too old to be called a prospect, but he has already demonstrated 15-20-homer power in the majors, he makes enough contact not to kill your batting average and buried in his minor league stats are a few 20-steal seasons. If you can pick up a 20-homer, 10-steal candidate for less than $10, that's great in an A.L. league.

Bob Howry - A 35-year-old reliever with a 5.35 ERA? A target? Well, yes. Howry maintained a decent strikeout rate and reasonable control during his difficult 2008. He carries a long history of success, pitches in a forgiving park and sits behind a vulnerable closer in Brian Wilson. That's a nice package if it's available for $1 in N.L. leagues. 

Takashi Saito - I was thrilled to snag him for $1 in my A.L. league. Sure, Saito faces health and durability questions. But he's never been less than dominant in the big leagues and if something were to happen to Jon Papelbon, you'd have the closer on one of the best teams in baseball for pennies on the dollar.

Ozzie maneuvers for a big finish

This is Ozzie Newsome's season, the time of year when the Ravens GM weaves a path of intrigue into the NFL draft. No one likes this time of year more. Very few have been as efficient at plumbing the depths of college talent for as long as he has, going on his 14th year in Baltimore.

More than that, he has a knack for deftly reinforcing the Ravens' roster. This offseason alone, Newsome brought in free agents Domonique Foxworth, Matt Birk, Chris Carr and L.J. Smith, canceling the loss of Jason Brown and, to an extent, Jim Leonhard (Carr will return kicks).

Some have even suggested that this is potentially Ozzie's finest moment. (Baltimore Beat Down said just that earlier this week.)

I disagree. Let me explain...

Good as it's been, you don't top what Newsome did in his very first draft. You can't beat the first two picks he ever made. In Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis, Newsome set the bar so high, it's unlikely he can ever top that. Two Hall of Famers, two cornerstones for a franchise that, once it got its head above water, has been swimming with the elite of the NFL.

Newsome rarely misses in the first round. There was Travis Taylor in 2000 and Kyle Boller in 2003. You can criticize him for Taylor if you like, but remember that Peter Warrick (fourth to the Bengals) and Plaxico Burress (eighth to the Steelers) were off the board, and Warrick bombed. As it turns out, Newsome had a shot at Burress with the fifth pick, but took Jamal Lewis, instead, who was the NFL's last single-season, 2,000-yard rusher. Can't criticize that. And after Taylor, the next two receivers taken were Sylvester Morris (21 to the Chiefs) and R. Jay Soward (29 to the Jaguars). Taylor looked like a Pro Bowl player next to those two.

What Newsome does at No. 26 this month will determine how much better the Ravens can be in 2009. The overwhelming need is for a speedy wide receiver to help Joe Flacco. Newsome says he doesn't draft for need. But he maneuvered twice in the first round last year to get Flacco and that was a glaring need. Might he maneuver again for his wide-out of choice?

Or will he go for the best player available? And if Rey Maualuga, a middle linebacker from USC, happens to be there at 26, how could he not leap at Maualuga? Same for tight end Brandon Pettigrew?

This year, a good player could easily drop. The question is, will that player hit the Ravens' laps?

Photo: Lloyd Fox / The Baltimore Sun