Friday, April 22, 2011

Thoughts on...Well, Everything

Yeah, I don't really have any unifying theme for this post. I've got Bills draft impressions, Bulls playoff impressions, the Sabres continuing warpath, and more thoughts on Buffalo sports fandom. Heck, I'd have something to say about the Cubs if they had any consistent story so far besides inconsistency. Anyway, it's a pretty huge time of the year for sports fans, but especially in my realm. Let's get into it.

-Yep, the NFL Draft is next Thursday. The Bills have been linked to seemingly every player with the number three pick, which leaves me terrified. The general consensus I've seen is that the Bills will take Von Miller, the linebacker from Texas A&M. If the Bills actually do this, I will be elated. Seriously, I have visions of Von Miller sacking Tom Brady on key third downs dancing in my head. A defensive playmaker at linebacker is exactly what we need. He can rush the passer with devastating speed (hopefully like Clay Matthews) and has good run stopping and coverage skills. If Marcell Dareus isn't available at that spot, I would love for him to be on the team. Unfortunately, I have almost no faith in Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey to draft for any semblance of 'need' after last years first round pick of CJ Spiller when we had two 1,000 yard running backs already. So when I hear Nix say that the Bills have always been "super high" on Blaine Gabbert...guh. And when I see that Andre Reed basically gave away that the Bills are trying to draft Christian Ponder in the 2nd round...oh Lord. A quarterback from Florida State with injury problems and above average accuracy and arm strength? Replace 'Florida State' with 'Stanford' and you get the exact description of Trent Edwards. For the love of God, not again. And, if the Panthers go with anyone else but Cam Newton at #1, I would not be surprised to see him go to the Bills. I've already stated my preference for Newton over Gabbert, but not over Miller or Dareus or any other defensive stopper. And you know what? I wouldn't even be surprised if the Bills took A.J. Green, the wide receiver. Seriously, Buddy Nix is capable of anything. I could see him explaining his pick by going Charlie-from-It's Always Sunny-style "WILDCARD, BITCHES!!!" and leaving the press conference. I'm not going to trust any source until I hear the name called at the podium. It's going to be a looooooong week.

-Onto the Bulls, who have a 3-0 series lead over the lowly Pacers, but haven't looked dominant in any of the wins. Every game has gone down to the wire; and it's usually the Bulls who are coming back as opposed to fighting off Pacers rallies. Derek Rose was phenomenal in games 1 and 2, struggled through game 3, but managed to hit the game winning shot. Even with the 3-0 series lead, plenty of pundits are beginning to write off the Bulls as serious championship threats, instead turning to the Miami Heat as favorites to come out of the East. Franky, I find this ridiculous. For one thing, the Bulls have still managed to win these games (unlike fellow #1 seed the Spurs who lost game one) despite playing well below their potential (too many turnovers, poor shooting, lackluster defense). Secondly, the Pacers are a better team than their record indicates- yes, they only won 37 games, but they've played much better once they fired their coach and got Vogel in there. Thirdly, Joakim Noah is still easing his way back into the lineup after a late season injury. Once he gets healthy and the team gets its collective mojo back, watch out. Till then, they're still winning. So why's everyone complaining? Sorry, in the playoffs, a W is a W, no style points needed. We'll see how the Miami Heat fare against the Bulls in the conference finals, with Bulls fully motivated and firing on all cylinders.

-Finally, onto my daily, no, hourly obession. The Sabres playoff run. I haven't been able to write about every game, for a confluence of reasons, but I've been living and dying with every game of this series. The whole series has been shocking to me, because the Sabres are actually matching and often beating the Flyers in terms of toughness. Last year, and in preceding years (think '05-'07 with Briere and Drury), the Sabres have always been the finesse team that either wins with that finesse or gets completely out muscled in every loss. Now, they have the opponents complaining about them and their after the whistle antics. Lindy Ruff has rightly called them 'whiners', sparking a whole new controversy. I think the Flyers complaining about dirty play has to be the most hypocritical thing I've ever heard. This is a team whose history is built on dirty play, and they love to continue that legacy today. You can't complain about another team "getting away with murder" (what Mike Richards said) on the ice and also try and play dirty at the same time. It's maddening. That whole attitude comes from their d-bag of a coach, Peter Laviolette, who seemingly spends the whole game complaining about calls and working the refs. He did it in Carolina in '06 to screw over the Sabres and now he's doing it again in Philly. I'm just ready to see Kaleta booed every time he touches the puck, and to continue antagonizing the Flyers.

And now it comes down to a three game series. The Sabres have fought hard throughout the whole series, winning two 1-0 games behind Ryan Miller's otherworldly goaltending (he's in that 2010 Olympics Zone right now, firmly in the opponent's head), and losing two games where it came down to the end, a 5-4 loss in Game 2 and a 4-2 loss in Game 3 (the last Philly goal was an empty netter, so it was a one goal game). The Sabres have shown remarkable resilience in the two losses- almost every time they went down a goal, they were able to respond, and have basically shown that they can stick with the Flyers even if Ryan Miller lets in a goal. The next step is to win that way, though, to win with a concerted offensive effort (so, come on Boyes, Connolly, etc) that nets more than one goal so Ryan Miller doesn't have to be our savior, because he can't do it every game. If the Sabres can do that, along with cutting out the dumb penalties and stupid mistakes, this is their series. One can only hope, because this team is so different from previous years- they play a good style for the playoffs and they play with physicality. It's warpath time.

And, you know what, this has been bouncing around my head for a little why not?

- I've just finished Beckett's famous play Waiting For Godot, and, in lieu of actually trying to deeply understand it (in terms of the human experience and whatnot), I've instead just related it to being a sports fan, or my own particular experience. As a fan, I've been waiting, like Estragon and Vladimir, waiting for a championship, for the thing that will give validation to my allegiances. Despite the fact that we've (now I'm switching to fans in general of my teams, Bulls notwithstanding) been beaten down by continued years of abuse, we find ourselves back at that same old place, waiting for the same old thing. Sometimes we see something coming down the road, and our hope rises- but its just Pozzo and Lucky (similarly, we all could just be Lucky, strung along by our 'master'. Or maybe he's luckier than us, because he has no allegiance except for to Pozzo...sorry, I haven't sorted it all out, obviously). When things are at their worst, we contemplate suicide or just giving up, but we just can't. Every time we say that we're done following these teams, that we're done caring- (-"Shall we Go?"-"Yes, let's go"), that when the curtain is about to fall, we will not move, we will remain because we now that once Godot, the championship, what have you, comes, we will be saved.

Or we could be wasting our time. As I said, I'm not sure I understand the play, so. Sorry for getting English-Nerd-y on you.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Name One Thing Better Than Hockey...

The title of this post is not, I repeat, not the beginning of a post about how hockey is awesome/better than any other sport. Instead, it's the beginning of one of my favorite expressions- "Name one thing better than hockey...playoff hockey." (Of course, it must be said in a faux-Canadian Gordie accent.) But really, there's no better playoffs than what hockey has-the best trophy, playoff beards, and the most intense games and series of any sport. While the NBA's playoffs feel like an interminable slog (it might have to do with the crappy teams that make it and the terrible scheduling that lengthens every series), the NHL playoffs feel perfectly timed, full of drama, and almost over too soon. And the best part- THE BUFFALO FRIGGIN' SABRES ARE IN IT!

That's right, after a shaky start to the season, the Sabres actually managed to pick it up after the All Star Break/ the introduction of Terry Pegula as the new owner/ the trade for Brad Boyes/ the death of former French Connection star Rick Martin. Thomas Vanek has been streaky (as per usual) but managed to pick it up right when his team has needed it, during the stretch run. Drew Stafford has continued to be surprisingly un-Drew Stafford-ish with consistent production (though maybe it's just his contract year...gulp...), Tim Connolly has decided to actually produce (though I hope to God that his injury prone, inconsistent ass is GONE after this season), and, presumed dead a couple of months ago, Nathan Gerbe has started to light it up. It's exciting to see a player way shorter than the average male do ridiculous things on the ice, like a spin-o-rama backhand to tie the game. (And, dirty little secret time: Derek Roy got injured, freeing up the offense, methinks.) Ryan Miller rounded back into last season's form, and then, when injured, Jhonas Enroth came out of nowhere and stepped up for some huge games. The kid has big game flair and is literally 1 trillion times better than Patrick Lalime. It's good to know there's a capable back up, just in case.

All these factors led to the Sabres eventually clinching the 7th seed in the East (Before they clinched, I couldn't write anything about the run they were on out of fear that I would jinx them into a true Buffalo style choke), setting up a first round matchup with...the Philadelphia Flyers. Now, if you had told me a couple of months ago that Buffalo would be playing Philly in the first round, I would've resigned myself to another first round exit and some hope for next year. But recently, Philadelphia's been on a slide. They slipped right out of the top overall seed and almost dropped their division to the Penguins. They alternate two decent to middling goalies and their power play has considerably slipped. And who beat them to clinch their spot in the playoffs?... that's right, the Buffalo Sabres. Yeah, it was in overtime, but a win is a win. They're not unbeatable. There's hope for Buffalo to get out of the first round if they keep playing the inspired hockey they've played the last two months. If the defense can shore itself up, Miller plays like he's capable (2010 Olympics version would be enough to fuel a run to the Eastern Conference Finals), and the offense (especially Thomas Vanek) steps up, this team can make some noise. I'm thrilled. I know what can happen to a city during an extended playoff run- I live in Chicago- and I know that it would be even more insane in Buffalo, where the city lives and dies with the Sabres. There isn't a whole contingent of bandwagon fans jumping on that don't know anything about hockey (CHICAGO). No, this is real, this is life or death, and I can only hope that it will be a wild ride for as long as possible.

Time to get the Sabres shirts and jerseys ready (I have enough to go for a week), get the radio primed (and synced up to the TV broadcast), write the obnoxious facebook and twitter messages, and grow out that playoff beard. It's one of the best times of the year. Sabres on the warpath.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Cubs Opening Day Live Blog

Lost in all the NFL draft talk and the Sabres playoff run (which I haven't written about, yet) is the fact that the MLB season has begun, the Cubs are back, and they're starting TODAY. I'm sick at home, so why not run a Opening Day live blog? Cubs-Pirates-FEEL THE EXCITEMENT.

1:23 While WGN showed the Pirates lineup, they showed a terrifyingly haggard Pirates fan. Yikes. Kind of sums up the franchise. A cursory look at their lineup shows three players I know- Andrew McCutchen (the one good player they have), Lyle Overbay (the name just sticks in my head) and Ronny Cedeno (an ex Cub who I hypothesized could hit into a double play with no one on base).

1:26 Dempster, the Cubs starting pitcher, starts with three balls, then throws two strikes, eventually forcing a groundout to shortstop Starlin Castro, who makes a nice play on the ball. He's one of the reasons I'm sort of excited for this season. Dempster strikes out the next batter on three pitches, but then gives up a double to McCutchen. Despite his goofy dreadlocks, he's good.

1:29 Dempster strikes out Overbay to get out of the jam. Dempster looks good so far. Cubs trot out Fukudome to lead off. Maybe he'll have another huge April and do nothing afterwards (as always).

1:33 Fukudome flies out, but Castro hits a screamer towards the third baseman, who can't handle it, so Castro makes it to first. That's right, the youngest opening day starter gets our first hit.

1:35 Castro scores FROM FIRST (well, sort of) after the Pirates third baseman (Alvarez, I guess?) skies his throw to first. Byrd at second. That's a promising start. Pretty amazing to run the bases that quickly.

1:37 Here comes Carlos Pena in his Cubs debut. Huge x factor for the Cubs this year. He's got 30 HR potential, but he bat below the Mendoza Line last year. If he can raise that average closer to what he's used to, I'll be a lot more confident about the the teams offense.

1:39 And he draws the walk. That won't help out the ol' average (because it's a flawed stat at heart), but its good for the team.

1:41 I'm surprised that Tyler Colvin isn't playing. I guess the Cubs have to squeeze every cent out of Fukudome, but Colvin is much better. They should have Colvin playing and Castro batting lead off, but, hey, that's just my opinion. Geo Soto pops out to end the inning, stranding two men on base.

1:45 Oh, here comes Ryan Domuit to the plate. I know him too, but only because I did an MLB 2k10 "My Player" mode as a pitcher with the Cubs and pitched against the Pirates a ton of times. Like most years, this looks to be a down year in Pittsburgh. Dempster goes 1-2-3 in the second inning.

1:50 Here comes Alfonso Soriano to lead off the second. Unbelievably that its his fifth year with the Cubs. So much money for so little production. He might be the streakiest baseball player I've ever seen. Sometimes he'll go on these ridiculous tears when gets a homer a game, and then the rest of the season he's just striking out or popping up. To start the 2011 season, he pops out.

1:52 And now, the Cubs second baseman, DARWIN BARNEY!!! Who? Exactly. Love the guy's name, though. Also, he just fought off an 0-2 pitch for a base hit. Good for you Darwin.

1:54 Ryan Dempster gets up to the plate and can't even lay down a bunt. Yikes. The announcers are calling it uncharacteristic, and I sure hope that's true.

1:56 Darwin, NOOOOOOO!!! Caught stealing, and it wasn't even close. Plus the announcers had previously called out Ryan Domuit for not being great at throwing out base runners. The Cubs are not going to be stealing too many bases this year, it seems.

1:58 The Cubs advertising strategy this year features billboards with a Cubs player facing off with either Derek Jeter or Albert Pujols. Ahh, the classic strategy of not very good teams- "Come see stars we don't have! Come see better teams!" The other example of this I've seen in Chicago was the Bulls in the Jamal Crawford/Jalen Rose/Eddy Curry nightmare days. The Blackhawks would've done the same thing back in the Bill Wirtz pre-Patrick Kane and Jonathon Toews day, but I don't think they had an advertising budget. Speaking of which, now that the Blackhawks are in a precarious position for the playoffs, yes, once again, the bandwagon fans are disappearing...

2:05 Hey! Kosuke got a hit! Can't wait to NOT see this past June.

2:07 The Pirates bungle a potential double play, allowing Castro to reach first. Man, that is so Pirates-y.

2:08 Just remembered that Ron Santo died, so I won't have the delight of hearing him on the radio. What a bummer. Byrd reaches base on a single, moving Castro up. Here comes Aramis Ramirez with a RBI chance.

2:10 Ramirez gets a single but he can't bring in the run, so now its bases loaded for Carlos Pena. He could make the city fall in love with him right now with a big hit here. Seriously, Cubs fans will LOVE a guy early in the season, with all their hope built up.

2:12 Tom Ricketts (the owner) has awkwardly been in the booth this whole inning, but at least he sounds like a real baseball fan. Pena grounds into what could've been a double play, but Ramirez is savvy enough to slide into the second baseman, so Castro comes in for another run scored. 2-0 Cubs!

2:14 Geo Soto once again fails to get a hit with runners on base. Thanks, Geo, you've been AWESOME ever since you won Rookie of the Year. Can't help but think that Colvin could've done a little more in that spot.

2:17 The Cubs began the game with God Bless America, the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem, along with the 9/11 flag. Woah. We get it, baseball is AMERICAN. Also, the Ricketts are also apparently funding the Tea Party. Weird.

2:21 Dempster gets out of a jam (Overbay doubled) with a strikeout. He's been pitching well. It's weird to see that on Opening Day, because I'm used to Carlos Zambrano going out on Opening Day and getting shelled. My routine has been thoroughly messed with.

2:27 Cubs go down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the fourth. Darwin couldn't save us. But I'm still hopping on the bandwagon.

2:35 The Pirates had a man on second with 1 out with Ronny Cedeno coming to the plate. I thought this was a sure double play opportunity. Instead, Dempster walks him. It's RONNY CEDENO. Now there's men on second and third with two outs (after a sac bunt). Dempster's gonna have to work to get out of this one. In an alternate universe, Carlos Zambrano is pitching this game and has just given up a home run and is screaming at the dugout.

2:39 Oh god, Dempster just walked the bases loaded.

2:42 Full count, bases loaded....and oh my god, he just hit a grand slam. Not a good place for Dempster to put that pitch. I guess me making fun of the Pirates is coming back to bite me. Now that I remember it, the Cubs sucked last year against the Pirates.

2:45 It's pretty easy to take the energy out of Wrigley field, and Neil Walker just did exactly that. Add in the fact that its cold and raining...the Cubs need to do something in this inning to get the fans back.

2:48 Aaaaaand Kosuke strikes out. See, even I'm getting bitter, and I'm sitting at home.

2:52 1-2-3 inning for the Cubs. Oof.

2:58 Dempster should be out after this inning. He's having trouble hitting the strike zone consistently this inning (the 6th). Taking his time between pitches, too. His location is also off (a belt high changeup,yeesh).

3:04 Dempster eventually gets out of the inning, but I'd describe his performance as 'laboring'. Which could also describe my interest in this game.

3:07 Shots of people in ponchos watching the Cubs losing set to U2's 'Beautiful Day'. I never knew WGN was so ironic.

3:12 Carlos Pena gets the green light on a 3-0 pitch and skies it straight upwards, leading to a fielders choice when the Pirates can't catch the pop up. And, right on cue, here comes Geo Soto. I'm guessing double play here. Literally right after I typed that Soto almost grounded into a double play, but it turns into another fielders choice. Now Soriano comes to bat, and it seems like a perfect opportunity for him to strike out, but instead he pops out. Still 4-2 Pirates. Yikes.

3:19 Adam Dunn is trending on twitter for doing well for the White Sox, while Neil Walker is trending for killing the Cubs. McCutchen just hit a 2 run homer. This game is going swimmingly.

3:25 Russel comes in and strikes out the next batter. Maybe the crowd will be revitalized by Santo's family singing the seventh inning stretch. Let's Get Some Runs!

3:31 Darwin Barney (MY BOY!!!) pops up and somehow the Pirates let another one drop. If the Cubs had a competent offense today, they'd take advantage of more of these mistakes.

3:34 Tyler Colvin is pinch hitting! Watch him strike out and make me look like an idiot.

3:35 Yep.

3:38 Hey, Kosuke showed up! An RBI single brings in Darwin Barney to cut the lead to 6-3. That was that capitalizing-on-their-mistakes thing I was talking about.

3:42 Another hit by Starlin Castro. This guy is a machine. Now Byrd is up, tying run at the plate, one out.

3:45 Byrd pops out, so now its Ramirez's turn to try and make something happen, but he flies out into deep left center. Once again, we strand two base runners. That's not a trend you want to continue.

3:57 After a quiet inning for the Pirates, Pena gets on base with a goofy hit, allowing Geo Soto to not do anything with a man on base (he pops out). Soriano's up now. Guessing he'll pop out or strike out, in classic Soriano fashion (as you can tell, its been a pretty bitter five years with Soriano).

4:00 Yep, strike out. I think we have 3 more years with this guy. Well, here's DARWIN BARNEY!!! Maybe he can cement himself as 'my guy' with a clutch hit.

4:04 He struck out. Well, he hasn't been doing that for five years, so I can't be completely disenfranchised with him.

4:09 Jeff can't-spell-his-last-name-the-former-ND-WR is pitching for the Cubs now. If I had to choose between professionally playing football or baseball, I'd definitely pick baseball too. It's a pretty lazy sport and they make a lot of money for not a lot of effort (with so much less brain damage than football).

4:18 The aforementioned Jeff walks the bases loaded, but eventually settles down and gets the batter to line out to Starlin Castro, who makes another great play in the field for a double play. He had a bunch of errors last year but looks much improved this year. Now it's time for the bottom of the ninth, the Cubs last shot.

4:21 Blake Dewitt starts the inning by striking out. Now its up to Kosuke and the the top of the order.

4:23 Fukudome walks, getting him up to 3 times on base in five trips. I don't care, I still very much dislike Kosuke.

4:25 Starlin Castro gets his third hit of the day on a base hit up the middle that's initially stopped by Cedeno, but he can't make a play on it. Now Marlon Byrd is the tying run at the plate.

4:27 Byrd strikes out disastrously, missing late on the first two strikes and then looking at the last pitch.

4:28 And Ramirez grounds out to end the game, Cubs lose 6-3. That was a very Cubs-ish ninth inning- get in position to at least tie, and then failing to produce. If this team hopes to make a playoff run this year, the situational hitting is going to have to get a lot better. I know its just one game, but it was not a sparkling start by any means.

Final thoughts, I guess, on being a Cubs fan. It's perennially being in the bottom of the ninth inning, down a couple runs, but hoping, hoping for that one time when things will go wonderfully right. And its been that way my whole life, and the 82 years before that. Sure, there are fans who just go to Wrigley to get drunk and leave early if the Cubs are going to lose; but there's also that faction just waiting, waiting, waiting.