Tuesday, July 31, 2007

I'm Crazy About Baseball...

...but not this crazy:

Michael Anthony, 25, was watching the New York Mets lose a game on Saturday from his home in the borough of Queens when he began furiously banging on the walls, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said in a statement on Monday.

His father Fred Fischman shouted at him to stop, but Anthony punched him in the face and threw him to the ground, according to the criminal charges.

When Anthony's mother, Maria Fischman, 61, tried to intervene, prosecutors said he stabbed her once in the head with a knife before chasing her into a bedroom where he struck her several times with the 20 pound (9 kilogram) barbell.

Move over Michael Vick, there's a new king degenerate of the sports world.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Michael Vick and the Possible Unprecedented Fall of an American Athlete

Michael Vick has formally been indicted for his role in a dogfighting operation. Vick and three friends promoted, housed, trained, breed and fought dogs under the moniker "Bad Newz Kennels" for seven years, according to federal investigators.

If convicted Vick, Purnell Peace, Quanis Phillips and Tony Taylor face up to six years in prison.

I've read the 19-page indictment and it features some of the most unsettling descriptions you'll find anywhere on the internet. Some excerpts include:
In or about February 2002, PEACE executed the pit ball that did not perform well in the "testing" session by shooting it with a .22 caliber pistol.

In or about March of 2003, PEACE, after consulting with VICK about the losing female pit bull's condition, executed the losing dog by wetting the dog down with water and electrocuting the animal.

In or about April 2007, PEACE, PHILLIPS, and VICK executed approximately 8 dogs that did not perform well in "testing" sessions at 1915 Moonlight Road by various methods, including hanging, drowning, and slamming at least one dog's body to the ground.
This is without question the biggest sports story of the year. Furthermore, three key factors are in place to make this one of the if not the biggest trial of a sports figure, both criminal and public.

First of all, the man himself. Here we have a well-known, highly-marketable, immensely polarizing black superstar. Vick, from his college days at Virginia Tech, has dazzled football fans with his amazing speed and footwork while frustrating them with lackluster effort and pedestrian passing stats. A $130 million contract and unrelenting hype has yielded frustration rather than fruition. The mounting pressure and criticism culminated with Vick flipping off his home crowd after a loss last season. Regardless of Michael's uneven success on the gridiron, his stellar playmaking ability made him one of the most popular athletes in the country; Vick's #7 Atlanta Falcons jersey is always among the bestsellers.

Off the field Vick was highly visible through endorsements and commercials. But like his football persona, with the good came the bad. In 2005 he was sued by a woman who alleged Vick knowingly gave her genital herpes while he was under the alias Ron Mexico. That case was settled out of court. Earlier this year Vick was detained at an airport for carrying a water bottle with a hidden compartment -- supposedly carrying marijuana. That incident never led to charges, but public perception continued to scrutinize a player who already had plenty of people talking about him. It's also worth noting that Michael's younger brother, Marcus, was also a talented QB at Virginia Tech who got into trouble for providing alcohol to minors, possession of marijuana, flipping off a crowd (must be genetic), stomping an opposing player's leg and brandishing a firearm. If anything, he kept the Vick name in the papers.

And the final point about Michael is that he's African-American. In the indictment Vick goes by the nickname "Ookie," which doesn't help matters in that regard. Although this case doesn't seem to have any racial connection, the public will accuse Mike of being another spoiled, aloof gangsta ("Bad Newz Kennels" anyone?). In fact, the internet has already begun the assault.

The second factor that drives this story is the circumstances leading up to the indictment.

Vick is a superstar who happens to play what is by far America's most popular game: professional football. The NFL, coincidentally, has been in the spotlight for recently punishing players Adam Jones, Tank Johnson and Chris Henry for various criminal transgressions. As the league continues to crackdown on bad behavior Michael now becomes the poster boy for NFL athletes gone awry. Over the past few years the media has increasingly focused on the criminal behavior of professional athletes. Stephen Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest were publicly condemned for their antics, even after a not guilty verdict. With Vick, as with Kobe, we have a popular star in the prime of his career accused of a heinous crime. Although Michael's fame doesn't stack up to Kobe's, Vick's trial has the possibility of overshadowing Bryant's well-publicized case.

What will be on trial, in the court of public opinion, is the type of arrogant, "bling bling" hip-hop lifestyle that has been increasingly scrutinized in the past couple years. Irresponsible sexual activity, obsession with guns, dabbling in illegal drugs, flaunting wealth with disregard: this lifestyle has come to stereotype the black professional athlete in America. Fittingly, Michael Vick has already demonstrated all of the above. The public naturally assumes that sort of twisted, unchecked bravado is what compels a person to do what Vick and his associates have allegedly done. For six years Michael allegedly killed dozens of dogs for what essentially amounts to thousands of dollars, a few good laughs and one demented ego. Expect news outlets such as ESPN to keep Michael's transgressions in the public eye for a long time.

The final reason why this story may develop into something much larger is the crime itself.

Dogfighting has remained in the shadows for a long time. Now that information about this illegal underground sport is gaining ground, Michael Vick instantly becomes attached as the face of dogfighting. What Vick has allegedly done touched a raw nerve in Americans. This is a country that fervently loves its pets, perhaps too much. While people were outraged by the murder charges against O.J. Simpson, Rae Carruth, Jayson Williams and Ray Lewis, those acts were never personalized to outsiders. However, people take cruelty against animals (especially domesticated ones) personally. It's strange how that works in our society: the killing of a fellow human being fails to elicit the same emotional response as the mistreatment of animals. But it's the truth.

PETA has already issued a condemnation. Expect the NFL and Vick's sponsors to take action as well, perhaps even before the criminal trial.

Now Vick finds himself possibly out of a job and definitely as the face of the irresponsible black athlete, the criminal NFL player and the world of dogfighting. Because of the sordid combination of persona, reputation, race, wealth and the criminal charges themselves, expect the fallout from this story to take years to sort out and fully understand. If we'll ever.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Maybe China and Sports Should Stay Away from Each Other

Yi Jianlan's people continue to be bitches in trying to thwart the Asian import from playing in Milwaukee, a small market that has as many Chinese people as Neptune. Yi's current Chinese basketball club, the Guangdong Tigers, is refusing to release him stateside because "we want to find a team suitable for Yi's growth. That's the root of the problem." I wonder if places like New York, LA or Houston would be more accommodating to Yi.

In other news, Missile Command!

"China will fire rockets into the sky to scatter any rain clouds ahead of next year's Beijing Olympics to ensure perfect weather, state media said on Tuesday."

How can a country be advanced enough to control meteorology with artillery but still be Third World enough to resort to feeding folks cardboard?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

If the Mariners were a Sergio Leone movie

A little past the halfway point the season finds the Seattle Mariners in an unusual position: contending for a playoff spot. Dead last in the AL West for the last three years, the M's find themselves at the All-Star Break only behind 2.5 games the LA Angels for the division lead and 1.5 behind in the wild card race.

It's been an interesting year to say the least. During one stretch Seattle won 9 of 10, then dropped 6 straight before winning 10 out of the next 11 contests. Despite outscoring their opponents by only 17 runs the M's are 13 games over .500. Most Mariners fans certainly didn't see it coming.

The season began with low expectations. Coming off another 90-loss season, ownership publicly put the manager and GM on the hot seat. A series of atrocious trades further dampened hopes. Then the season started with a shutout win over the rival Oakland Athletics. King Felix dominated and looked poised to live up to all the hype. After taking two out of three from the A's Seattle didn't play for another week due to weather problems. By the end of April the Mariners were 10-10 and looking completely average. In late May they were plugging around at 21-22. Furthermore, Felix was sidelined with an elbow injury.

June came along and Seattle heated up. They went 4-2 in their first six games, then proceeded to win the six games -- all by one run. Seattle, at 35-26, had the chance to be ten games over .500 for the first time in almost four years. Then they ran into the Cubs and Astros, who swept three games apiece. Felix was back, but the pitching staff and defense looked lost. Seattle was 35-32 and Jeff Weaver, the worst pitcher in baseball, was scheduled to start. The Mariners seemed destined for an okay season instead of an outstanding one. The remainder of the year had all the makings of a combination of potential fulfilled and progress derailed. But a funny thing happened: Weaver threw a shutout and the M's have proceeded to go 14-4 since.

Let's look back at the contributors of the topsy-turvy season.

The Good

Ichiro Suzuki - Arguably his best season in a Mariners uniform, Ichiro is batting a robust .365, manufacturing runs (on pace for 200 RBI+R) and playing a stellar center field. Ichiro, a free agent after this year, has a unique combination of talent and international appeal that makes him worthy of a contract starting at $20 million per year. He's that good and hopefully still playing in Seattle in 2008 and beyond.

Mike Hargrove - The old Hargrove gave way to a much more competent version in 2007. The bench and bullpen strategies were the kind of sound, reasonable judgments that help ballclubs win tight ballgames (see the RS/RA comparison above). No longer was gas can Julio Mateo allowed to come out of the bullpen and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (full disclosure: Mateo was suspended from the team for allegedly hitting his wife). Willie Bloomquist, a decent utility player, has been given sporadic opportunities at the plate and ample chances on the basepaths. While Mike's midseason left a strange taste in the mouths of Mariners fans -- unsure whether to blame him for three mediocre seasons or thank him for the turnaround -- there's no doubt Grover left this team in good shape.

George Sherill and J.J. Putz - The most dominant 1-2 punch coming out of a major league bullpen. Don't believe it? Check their combined stats: 3-0, 69 IP, 30 H and 75 K. Against them batters are hitting .145. Putz is a perfect 24 for 24 in save opportunities. Once the M's have a lead late in a game it's as good as over.

The Bad

Raul Ibanez - Raul was an average left fielder in 2002. Five years later he's flat-out awful. The former 30 HR, 120 RBI and 100 R hitter has been hampered by a shoulder injury, which severely curtailed his power. Ibanez's been heating up at the plate lately, but even a 200 RBI+R projection for this season can't justify Raul's spot out in the field. Seriously, he's a small notch above Manny Ramirez.

Jeff Weaver - Three consecutive good starts have somewhat dimmed memories of Weaver's atrocious introduction in a Mariners uniform. Here's a refresher on Jeff's April and May: 0-6, 14.32 ERA, 22 IP and 50 H. He was historically awful and it'll take a mighty second half to forget that woeful first two months.

Jose Vidro - Shouldn't a DH and #2 hitter who makes $6 million a year have a OPS higher than 700? At least he's tied for third in GIDP.

Mariners Front Office - Jose Guillen has been a nice pickup. Veteran bats are a good thing. How about that Jose Vidro? Oh. Well one good hitter is better than two anyway and batters don't win games, pitchers do. How's Horacio Ramirez coming along? Oh, I see. Let's hope for a speedy recovery. What about the acquisition of Miguel Batista? Hmph, I heard about good things about him too... minus the whole writing a novel about a child serial killer thing. We've already discussed Jeff Weaver. Okay, just more one more question. WHY ISN'T ADAM JONES IN A MARINERS UNIFORM???

The Ugly

Felix Hernandez - He's shown flashing of the King, but Felix has been mostly pedestrian. A hot start to the season (including a one-hit gem against the Red Soxs at Fenway) quickly gave way to an elbow injury. Since his return from the DL Hernandez has struggled with his command and pitch selection.

Brandon Morrow - 32.0 IP, 33 BB, 32 K. Whenever Morrow's on the mound it's insanity at 60 feet, 6 inches.

Yuniesky Betancourt - Yuni's reputation is a slap hitter (.685 OPS this season) with Gold Glove potential. I'm pretty sure Omar Vizquel never made 18 errors by the All-Star break.

Richie Sexson - .206 average and .415 slugging for a first baseman making $15.5 million.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Canine Cookery Would Still Be Less Gruesome Than 30 Minutes of "First Take"

I tuned into ESPN this morning and it was showing last year's 4th of July showdown at Nathan's (surely to hype tomorrow's impending matchup between Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut). I log onto ESPN.com to check out today's TV schedule:

"Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest" started at 10:30 but still, that would be a hilarious TV show. Sounds like something that should be broadcast on The Ocho. Or Korea.