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A Baltimore doctor did a three-year study in which he determined that men will put off emergency room visits until the end of a sporting event. At first I scoffed, but then I thought to myself: Suppose the Jayhawks were about to win the NCAA championship? And suppose I had severed my thumb on a beer can pull-tab? I’d probably pack that sucker on ice and watch the last five minutes, is what.

If you look at the pictures below, you’ll see that this has been an issue for longer than we might have guessed:

General: “My lord, you’ve lost a great deal of blood! We must get you to the palace physician!”

Rasputin: “Whoa, whoa, dude. The Bills are in scoring position! I swear, if Norwood misses this kick, I’m going to jump in the damn river, I don’t care how cold it is.”

Arthur: I told you I had no quarrel with you, good Sir Knight! I fear you will die now. Is there anything I can do to make your final moments more comfortable?

Black Knight: Yeah, move ovah and let me watch Game 6, you retahd!
Ah, for tha love of christ, Bucknah! I ain’t got no arms or legs and I still could have made that catch!
Go ahead and lop my head off, ya limey bastid – it can’t hurt any worse!

Cop: I can’t hear very well with all this blood in my ear canal. Why does he keep repeating “The Giants blend the tenant! The Giants blend the tenant!”?

Soldier: Oy, sir! That lig wound looks pyneful! Shall we get you to a midic?

Officer: Yes, Sergeant, let’s. The Shark is up six strokes on Faldo – he’s got it in the bag now! Only the most epic collapse in golf history could stop Grig from winning this one!

Soldier: As if, mate, as if! Haw haw!

On second thought, if I sustain an injury during any KU first-round NCAA game against a lightly-regarded mid-major opponent, perhaps a quick trip to the ER would save me a lot of grief.

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pujolshits1.jpgAll season long I have kept an eye on this year’s rookie hitters, wondering which one would match the incredible achievements of Albert Pujols in his inaugural year at the plate. I have used Pujols as the standard, with 1000 points as his dedicated number. With my modification of Similarity Scores, I have allowed for a player to best that standard, in case it should ever happen. At this moment, two rookies, as seen in the sidebar, are in the incredibly rarified air of 900+ points on the scale.

Rather than allow my assumption to stand unchallenged, I embarked on a quest to crown Albert Pujols as the best rookie hitter ever by comparing him to every other Jackie Robinson award winner listed on the MLB website. Throughout history, I found only fourteen other players who came within 100 points of the pinnacle. They are listed below.

Ladies and gentlemen – the best rookie hitters since 1947:

Name Team Position Year Score
Albert Pujols STL 1B 2001 1000
Willie McCovey SFG 1B 1959 991
Walt Dropo BOS 1B 1950 973
Fred Lynn BOS OF 1974 967
Tony Oliva MIN OF 1964 964
Mark McGwire OAK 1B 1987 961
Dick Allen PHI 3B 1964 958
Mike Piazza LAD C 1993 951
Nomar Garciaparra BOS SS 1997 937
Frank Robinson CIN OF 1956 926
Orlando Cepeda SFG 1B 1958 919
Bob Hamelin KCR DH 1994 911
Al Bumbry BAL OF 1973 910
Tim Salmon CAL OF 1993 901
Carlton Fisk BOS C 1972 900

Most of these names will surprise nobody. Some will cause either laughter or puzzled head-scratching.

I have a previously mentioned problem with Willie McCovey’s selection, however. He only played in 52 games while amassing those incredible power numbers, so the sample size is a mite suspicious to me. But still, he kicked ass and was chosen, so it’s legit. Walt Dropo at #2 was a complete mystery to me. I’m not much of a historian, so it was great to learn about him.

hamelinbob.jpgBob Hamelin’s inclusion on this list is the greatest argument against the DH I have ever seen.

Boston had four out of the fourteen, which just goes to show that it takes mature talent to win the world series. Though the Idiots were far from mature, they were just older than these guys.

Also surprisingly, the steroid era had little impact on this contest. Mark McGwire was still a comparative stick figure when he won this award, and none of the other juiced-up players of his era made the 900 Club.

There are a million and one ways to argue this data, and I hope you feel free to do so. The journey was the thing for me, and I am satisfied that I can, from here on out, call Albert Pujols the Rookie of the Century. Unless Ryan J. Braun goes on a tear this week….

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brannon.jpgHoly crap! Who’s that guy, staring out from his baseball card with an expression that says “I can handle anything, including the accidental misspelling of my name on this cheap bit of cardboard”? He’s positively badass!

That’s Padres farmhand Cooper Brannan, and if he looks like he’s ready to handle anything the world can throw at him, it’s because he can. He’s had a good deal of practice.

Brannan is a 6’4″, 235 pound relief pitcher from Houston. He wasn’t drafted coming out of high school, so he volunteered. For military service in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is now 23 years old and served two tours of combat duty in Iraq. He lost several fingers off of his left hand to an exploding grenade (one of his own flash-bangs exploded the moment he pulled the pin), but reattachment surgery got him back up to nine total manual digits.

Following a lengthy recovery, Corporal Brannan was invited to speak about his service on a San Diego radio station. Former marine and Padres CEO Sandy Alderson was in the studio, and Brannan’s buddy talked up his pitching arm to the MLB executive. Brannan tells the story himself in an article from BaseballAmerica.com:

My buddy and I, a fellow wounded Marine, we were there at the station to talk about our injuries, our experience, and Mr. Anderson and Bud Black, the new manager, came in. My buddy goes, “Here’s your chance, man. If you don’t do it, I’m doing it.” So he goes up to him and I kid you not, he goes, “Hey, you’ve got to check my boy out, he throws pretty hard, you’ve got to give him a tryout.” But Sandy Alderson took it very serious, and Buddy Black too.

I told him, “You don’t have to play favorites with me. I just want to see if I still have it.” This is something that I’ve always been wanting to do my whole life, and now I’m going to hit the ground running, man.

They took him up on it. Yes, it’s a feel-good story, and the cynic in each of us says “it’s just PR”, but apparently Brannan got his velocity up from the initial measurement of 85mph to 93 after just three weeks with a pitching coach.

He was assigned to the Arizona Summer League Padres. The AZL Padres play in a nine-team summer league with no cute nicknames or mascots, but it’s a chance, and that’s all the ex-Marine Corporal wanted.

Nels Cooper Brannan has appeared in seven summer-league games, putting up a 6.52 ERA along with a 1-1 record in relief. In 9.2 innings, he has five strikeouts and five walks. All five strikeouts have come in the last three games Brannan pitched.

Obviously, the numbers are not overwhelming. Brannan may never step foot on a Major League field as a player. But he’s not asking for any special treatment. He just wanted a chance. He was hired by a fellow Marine who probably wasn’t interested in throwing a pity party for a younger comrade, but really saw something in the kid.

So, rather than put some sappy ending on the story and wrap it all up with a nice bow, I’ll leave you with the words of our favorite Padre (I know, it’s not saying much):

For everyone out there who’s down in the dumps, whether it’s a military man or anybody that’s gone through any kind of pain and suffering, I hope they really learn from this, that you can pick up and strive to do better and fulfill your dreams.

Best of all? He lets his teammates call him “Niner”.

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I am just way too excited about this guest post. I have been reading Michael Litos’ blog The CAA: Life as a Mid-Major for some time. I also bought and reviewed his book Cinderella: Inside the Rise of Mid-Major College Basketball as soon as it came out, and I’m one of those cheap dudes who almost never buys hardcovers. So suffice to say I was eager to publish the following screed about what’s screwing up sports for a guy who so clearly loves (loved?) them.

Take it away, Michael.

**********************

espnsucks.jpgSports, I think, are no longer important to me. Heresy? Yes. Dramatic? Yes. Accurate? Sadly the Vegas odds are against sports.

This notion came about in what became the perfect storm of unrelated events conspiring to send my mind whirring over the past three days:

  1. A friend emailed me, lamenting he hadn’t made it to
    an Atlanta Braves game this year, and he made THE
    statement–“I am unsure if I miss it.”
  2. I’d been bandying about ideas to write a guest blog
    spot for His Extrapolatorness, and my excuse the other
    day for not writing was “doing the dishes.”
  3. Tuesday morning, while driving to work, I tuned my
    radio to an FM station, quickly, because if I listened
    to one more minute of “Mike and Mike in the Morning” I
    would be forced to roll down the window and puke–not
    exactly intelligent at 70mph.

And the nearly-broken-down lawn mower whirring noise that signals my brain activity cranking up began as I started to do the math. I gave up SportsCenter as unwatchable about four years ago. Oh, I’ll flip by poker or the spelling bee or some other inane programming that an ESPN marketing foof has chosen to call “sports” and catch a score on the crawl. But the highlight show? No dice.

I used to be able to quote the lifetime batting average of Bip Roberts. In the minors. Now, I have a fantasy baseball team with five guys on it that I’d literally never heard of until the Yahoo auto selection placed them on my roster. (Hunter Pence? Wasn’t he in that group with Timberlake?) My fantasy football and fantasy golf and three fantasy baseball teams have morphed to the lone baseball team stocked with guys I don’t know.

I gave the NHL playoffs some love, but I had no idea who was good and who was not. The NBA? Gave that up when Dominique Wilkins retired. Soccer? You’re kidding, right? For five years I hit opening day at Camden Yards with a good friend and swig off-brand Stellas all afternoon but now I’ll be lucky to make it to a game at all, and even luckier if I avoid heading to the aquarium by the fourth inning.

It kept going like that. The “sports room” at my house is now located in “the attic.” The media and news is no different. I used to eat up Frank Deford and now I do my best to avoid the blathering of any number of self important dolts I’ll simply call The Lupicas. Sports has become more than unwatchable, with the AT&T call to the bullpen and the Lil’ Smokies Hot Dog Dunk of the Game. It’s become unlistenable. Thanks to Golic and horrific local programming, today my drive time choice was actually some international currency expert talking about Nixon and the gold standard on NPR. With apologies to Dave Barry, I am not making this up.

Look, I’m 39 years old, I reasoned. Of course I’m going to get older and be more discerning about my time and my devotion to sports. But my passion for college hoops has always been constant, so it couldn’t be that. Perplexed, I am.

And then, like the sixth beer, it hit me: it’s ESPNs fault. I don’t hate sports. I hate ESPN and what they’ve done to sports.

Noted fastball slugger Reggie Jackson once said when asked if he liked a fastball from noted flamethrower Nolan Ryan that “I like fastballs. I like ice cream, too. Just not when you feed it to me by the gallon.” Well said. ESPN is ruining sports because they try to do too much of everything. SportsCenter became all schtick. Mike and Mike became a junior high school at some point. And ESPN.com? I’ve said it on my blog that I don’t go there anymore because you can’t find the content with all the Vegas-style design. (In the words of the guys from ncaahoopstoday.com, Free Andy Katz!)

A good friend tried to tell me last night that I’m not the ESPN demographic. While that may be true, that’s also ridiculous. The day I turned 25 should not have been the day I became irrelevant to the Worldwide Leader. But I did, and there are a bunch of hand-wringers like me wondering what in the hell happened to sports. I’ll tell you what happened: nothing. The only thing that has happened is that you have to look harder for the things that attracted geezers like us in the first place.

See through the clutter to 1977: the game of the week, All Star Baseball with the little spinny things and cardboard discs, and heading out with your friends to play a little street football. It’s about guys like Whelliston and Mottram, who carry a passion for what they do. It’s not about the pride that some snot-nosed 23-year old gets because he can call sports radio and discuss the minutiae of the cover-two defense.

You just have to look harder, and so do I.

But buck up…ESPN may be doing its God-awful best to send sports straight to the crapper, but the world of sports is changing again. The manner in which people gather and present information is quickly moving into the hands of those same people. This blog is an example.

Okay, so sports is still important. But it’s way different. Again.

**********************

Thanks, Mike.

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Check this out:

coltranedurant.jpg

The man on the left is my favorite musician of all time, John Coltrane. The man on the right is Kevin Durant, who is about to find out which city in the Pacific Northwest he will set on fire for the next few years.

The thing that has always appealed to me about Coltrane is that his music hits all the important places: the head, the heart, and the soul. If we’re all lucky, we’ll be able to say the same thing about Kevin Durant’s game at the next level. The physical resemblance that strikes me between these two men is primarily in the eyes – a strong and direct gaze, and a confidence that says “I am about to righteously blow your mind”.

Coltrane had a vision for music that sounded like noise to those who were unprepared to hear what he was laying down, but he could play sweet enough to make a woman swoon when he wanted to. Perhaps one day Kevin Durant will have that same command of his instrument.

There is no doubt, however, that supporting cast is crucial. Trane had a rhythm section of McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison on many of his truly classic recordings, including his magnum opus A Love Supreme. Later he even brought in fellow saxophonist Archie Shepp when he was ready to get really radical. It wasn’t always the same guys, but it was always someone who knew how to play within Trane’s groove.

The most crucial aspect of the coming years for Kevin Durant will involve the selection of sidemen for his upcoming tour de force. Perhaps he can reach a place where that fiery ebb and flow will be his to command, just as it once was for John Coltrane. When he finds that ability to play something old in a new way, and something new in an earth-shattering way…. well, look out, NBA. That’s all I can say.

(Props to Free Darko, where Basketball is Jazz every day of the year)

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verlanderodu.jpgI know everyone’s writing about Justin Verlander today, and that is as it should be. He’s done one of the most difficult things in sports, especially in an era where managers are terrified to let the pitch count get too high on a young stud. Even though the subject will be covered ad nauseum, I am writing about him anyway, and I have my reasons.

My first is homer pride. I live in Virginia and take classes at Old Dominion University. Justin Verlander is a Virginia native who played his college ball at ODU.

Second, my homer pride caused me to reach for Verlander in my office Fantasy Baseball league, and a decision based on emotion has paid big dividends. So that’s a first for me (see – picking Kansas in the NCAA brackets).

But in general, his story is an interesting one with twists and turns met with fortitude and faith, and that’s a story worth telling.

Verlander is from Manakin-Sabot, a suburb of Richmond, VA. When his talent became obvious to his parents, he was sent to the Richmond Baseball Academy to get some professional training. Soon, he had a reputation for throwing hard with little control – a common enough story. But when a bout with strep throat cost him some arm strength in his senior season, professional scouts were not wowed by his 86-mph fastballs and let him slide to the college game.

Whether his illness also caused his stock to slip in college recruiting circles, or Verlander just wanted to stay close to home, he ended up at Old Dominion University on the Virginia seacoast. There’s a decent baseball program in place, but it’s no match for the true powerhouses. Justin recovered from his illness, bulked up, and started throwing 100 mph. I’d go to the ODU site and get you some pertinent stats from that time, but it seems to have been crashed in the wake of the no-no.

Verlander was drafted by the Detroit Tigers with the second pick in the 2004 amateur draft (weep, Padres fans, for your brain trust passed). He made short work of minor-league batsmen, striking out 136 in just 119 innings. The reformed control demonstrated in those starts earned him a call-up to the big club in late 2005, where he impressed with his durability and power.

In 2006, he earned a permanent spot at the bottom of the Tigers’ rotation. He went 17-9 with a 3.63 era and won AL rookie of the year. Predictably enough, he struggled in the postseason, picking up just one win and watching his ERA blow up over 5.00. Still, he was allowed to pitch the first game of the World Series, and was the Tigers’ leader with 11 innings pitched in the Fall Classic. He lost both games he started, but he managed to do it without any black stuff on his hand.

When we look around the sports landscape, it is cluttered with prized draft picks who squandered their talent. Josh Hamilton turned to drugs. Elijah Dukes has threatened violence against his girlfriend and children. What makes Justin Verlander pull through all of the temptations? It sounds corny, but he is a man of faith.

girlfriend1.jpgHe has dated the same woman since high school. He paid a friend $3,000 to settle a half-serious chocolate milk debt. One major league scout has said “the best thing I can tell you about Justin is that 10 years from now, the only difference between Justin then and Justin now is that he’ll be driving a nicer car”.

Obviously, these stories will be few and far between in the sports world. But for today, at least, a nice guy didn’t finish last.

Congratulations, Justin!

Sources:

USA Today

ESPN.com

MLB.com

The Fanhouse

UPDATE: I got this hilarious notification email from CBS Sportsline overnight.

————————————————————
CBS SportsLine.com Fantasy Baseball Notification
————————————————————

Justin Verlander found out real quickly how much a no-hitter
changed his life. When the Detroit Tigers young ace walked
into a restaurant with his girlfriend, he was greeted with a
standing ovation. “Yeah, the second one of the night,”
Verlander said Wednesday, about 17 hours after pitching a
no-hitter against the Milwaukee Brewers. Verlander was
not-so-special when he reported to Comerica Park for
Wednesday night’s game. “I had a drug test,” he said. “I
guess that happens when you throw 100-something in the ninth
inning.”

Nice game, kid. Now piss in a cup.

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In 1992, Reebok set out to bolster interest in their Track and Field shoes by televising short advertisements capitalizing on a friendly rivalry between two decathletes bound for the Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona. They ran frequent ads touting the Dan and Dave phenomenon, hyping up the inevitable matchup of two American greats.

Oops, did I say inevitable? [inigo montoya]You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.[/inigo montoya]

obriendan2.jpgThe whole deal fell apart when Dan O’Brien (left) muffed a pole vault in trials and failed to qualify. To someone like me, with a short memory and very little interest in Track or Field, that is where the story ended – a humorous cautionary tale for our marketing-mad times.

Not so, says the Portland Tribune. The newspaper’s Steve Brandon covered the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony, where Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson were reunited and immortalized on the same day.

“It’s really an honor, especially to go in with Dave,” says O’Brien, 39. “I wouldn’t have accomplished any of the things I did in my career had it not been for Dave. He was the guy I was chasing the whole time. He kept me hungry.”

It’s important to remember that Dan and Dave did accomplish great things in their careers. They just failed to live up to the contrived situation Reebok placed them in. Dave Johnson made the Olympic field in Barcelona and won a bronze medal in the decathlon in spite of a broken foot. Dan O’Brien, three years younger than Johnson, was able to come back for the Atlanta Games in 1996 and take a gold medal.

davejohnson.jpgBoth men give back by teaching. O’Brien trains young athletes in speed and conditioning, and owns a gym in Scottsdale, Arizona. Johnson (right) has been a special education teacher and is now the Vice Principal and Athletic Director of a High School near Salem, Oregon. In case you think a Bronze Medal isn’t worth the cost to melt it down, listen to the way Johnson uses his:

“When I need to, I put it around a kid’s neck and let them know I was once their age and had to make some changes in my life to win that medal. It’s an incredible tool to use. Kids listen.”

It’s all well and good to watch the inspirational videos during the Olympics, but it’s ten times more refreshing to realize that some of those soft-focus profilees really do go on to do special things with their lives. Too bad we’ll never know which one of them was “the best”.

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