Thursday, June 29, 2006

Brian's Song

Just like the torrential rain that pounded the Old Dominion, the rumors of Virginia baseball coach Brian O’Connor flew in and out in less than 48 hours.

The skipper spent 9 years at Notre Dame before taking the helm at Virginia. When Notre Dame’s head coach moved onto LSU many speculated that O’Connor would be his replacement. Notre Dame did make the move but in something very rare in today’s sports world, O’Connor stayed loyal to Virginia.

That’s right, O’Connor said no, just like he said no to SEC school Auburn last year. In fact, as far as coaches go, Brian O’Connor seems to be the hot-commodity. Yet Virginia keeps their hands on him.

Well coach, this one is for you. I don’t care how much you know about baseball if you like Virginia you need to take a deep sigh of relief with me.

In three years, O’Connor has gotten this team to the postseason every single year (what other UVA coach can say that not associated with lacrosse). Virginia’s even hosted two regionals in these three years. Virginia won a school-record 45 games this year, has the ACC Offensive player of the year with Sean Doolittle and his first project Ryan Zimmerman is impressing all in Washington with the Nationals.

The nation took note. Virginia peaked as high as number six in the national rankings, they finished just a game behind UNC for the Coastal Division title. The ACC and the SEC are the best baseball conferences by far. 75% of the conference went to the postseason and Virginia held its own with every single one. In fact, Virginia won the series against the Tar Heels, a team that finished a run shy from the national championship.

Okay, so I know what you’re going to say. Virginia despite all the talent, all the wins, and all the newfound respect aren’t getting it done in the playoffs. This year it was Evansville that gave them the old heave-ho. Sure, Virginia needs to do better with everything on the line, but no man can do it better than this guy. O’Connor has brought the talent in, he’s made the right decisions, but he can’t pitch or hit. With O’Connor Virginia will make Omaha eventually, without O’Connor Virginia won’t make it out of the ACC cellar.

So thank you Brian, your school admires your respect and loyalty. I sure wish Dave Leitao would do the same if UConn called upon him, but I sincerely doubt it. Coaches are just used to going where the money is, and money is no better than at Notre Dame. Still, he made a commitment to Virginia and now it’s time for Virginia to make a commitment to him.

It’s time for people to support this team and this man. Davenport Field is just begging for occupants. I’ve never been to a baseball game there but now I will. Not because of the record or the talent or its nice location.

I’m doing it for Coach O’Connor. What else is loyalty for?

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Red, White and Through

The 2006 American World Cup is over.

Did you blink? You might have missed it.

What you can’t miss however is the post-hoc outrage. After the mini-miracle that was 2002 where America got to the round of 16, the United States had big expectations. Instead of living up to the hype, much like most things in life, it fell far short.

Of course, who can blame some angry people? The United States scored one goal in three games, the other goal accredited was actually Italy accidentally scoring on itself and only counts in the bottom line. Even worse than one goal was the four shots on goal the U.S. had.

No, not four shots in a game, four shots the entire tournament! Heck, Ronaldo can have that many shots in a half for Brazil.

Now this Group the United States was in had been pegged the “Group of Death” and it appears for good reason. Italy is always a contender for the cup and the Czech Republic were pre-ranked as the second best team in the entire thing. Then there’s Ghana, a team maybe everyone took for granted that pulled off the shocking upset of the Czechs and then crushed American dreams 2-1. Maybe the go-ahead goal came on a questionable penalty but hey…they had more than four shots on goal.

So the excuses and anger are everywhere, but most of it seems to be pointed squarely on the coach, former UVA soccer coach Bruce Arena. Arena has one storied career, one that most of these newcomers to soccer know next to nothing about. That’s because on the biggest stage of his career Arena blew it….badly.

The talent he developed was greater than ever before, the effort was obviously not. The Czech game made Americans look like a dead team walking. Against Italy, with the backs against the wall, the U.S. squad really brought forth a brilliant effort, but no coach could have ruined the spirit when their four years of work are on the line. Then Ghana came and another terrible performance in most categories.

U.S. soccer’s offensive game plan looked more like a page from old Al Groh’s conservative playbook. The U.S. played it safe, even when they were desperate for a win. Maybe not being humiliated was good enough before, but not anymore.

As Americans we like to win, even when we know next to nothing about the sport. We like to win even when it’s something where we’ve never been that successful. America has never won on European soil in the World Cup, ever. They have lost by a combined score of 26-6. Chew on that.

Personally I blame our goalie; the grizzly veteran has never won a World Cup game with his team in front of the goal….never. He’s been there since 1990 and is still winless!?!?! In 2002 when the U.S. made their upset bid he was on the bench…don’t you think we could have taken the hint?

Nevertheless, this appears to be the end for Mr. Arena. He shouldn’t feel too bad, most World Cup coaches have a lifespan about as long as a hockey coach (or for you non-hockey fans, a goldfish). Arena had an 8-year run and developed the talent that could really make the run most Americans actually seem to care about. If someone does get the job done, it will be from this foundation. So America may be out, but that’s why there is a 2010 World Cup.

By the way, it’s in Africa! So you better plan to buy your round of 16 tickets now.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

If I Could Be Like Wade

It’s the most popular question in sports.

No, not whether Pat Riley’s well-groomed hair single handedly led to the hole in the ozone layer.

It’s the media darlings constantly trying to find the next Michael Jordan.

There are those who aren’t really close like Tracy McGrady who can’t even get past the first round. Win or else there is no comparison. Then there are others like Kobe Bryant. Bryant has the game, the star power and more importantly the rings. Already half way to Jordan’s 6 rings, but without Shaquille O’Neal in the key, things have gotten less sunny in L.A. Bryant’s Lakers were one and done in this year’s playoffs after blowing a 3-1 edge to the Suns. Perhaps Kobe’s real comparison is to the early Jordan (when he still had a little hair), the one who put too much on himself and not enough on his teammates. Of course if Bryant learns like Jordan does, he might just rack up more rings than anyone.

Than there’s Lebron. The man we’re all witness too.

Lebron James may have had trouble reaching the playoffs with his Cleveland Cavaliers but when they did they sire weren’t ready to go home. James willed them to victory over the Wizards and took the Pistons to the brink. When you first playoff game is compared favorably to Magic Johnson’s you have a candidate. Lebron James seems to be mentally superior to Jordan at the same age. He has done a wonderful job making the people around him better, the problem is better is still not good enough. Still Cleveland has to be happy.

Oh wait, then there’s that other guy.

You know the one from Chicago. He’s the guy who falls down a lot and gets back up. He’s the one who went to Marquette. He’s the one who impressed against Indiana as a rookie in the playoffs. He humiliated Pistons defenders. Oh yeah, and he just won a ring.

You can call him Flash.

Dwayne Wade is not the next Michael Jordan, there never will be. MJ is famous for his switch-the-hand lay up and game winning shots against Cleveland and Utah as he is for movies like Space Jam and the shoes.

He is one of a kind, but Wade doesn’t need to be MJ, he’s already spectacular enough on his own.

The better question is though, who will be the next Dwayne Wade?

I saw Jordan, I loved Jordan but I have never seen someone take over a game like Wade did. This kid (and that’s really what he is) avoided a 3-0 series death sentence single-handedly by erasing a 13 point deficit with 6 and a half minutes to go. The Mavericks could not stop them. The Pistons never even came close to slowing him down. Wade never missed, and oh yeah he’s only been in the NBA three years.

Sure he had the Diesel, but you know how high gas prices are these days. The Diesel was dripping, but Flash was stunning.

Perhaps the greatest shock is just how humble this guy is. Wade repeated “15 strong” so much it was obvious how strong Riley’s brainwashing is.

Michael Doleac did not decide the championship. Wade however probably deserves two rings for his effort and execution. Wade is the best player in the NBA and I don’t think he even realizes it. That sort of humility, team-first attitude actually makes him an even better person to have on your team.

Wade like Jordan was not a top pick like Lebron James. He was expected to be good not great. We all learned our lesson then, and it took one Final series for us to learn it now.

I should know, I’m a witness.

Monday, June 19, 2006

You Better Think

They often say the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Well Phil “the self-imposed idiot” Mickelson certainly never seemed far from the woods of Winged Foot Golf Course Sunday afternoon.

Mickelson went into the final round with a share of the lead and despite only hitting 2 of 14 fairways; he still had the lead going into the final hole. Despite not once birdying a par-5 all four days he had the lead. Despite the toughest conditions in almost thirty years, Mickelson was 400 yards from three legs of the grand slam.

Then the driver came.

Now, I don’t like to second guess golfers, especially seeing the impossible shots they hit on a regular basis but…..going 2 for 13 might have been a clue that driver is not the club you want. It’s the decision everyone looks at and when poor Mickelson reached the press corps you could literally hear the elegy as Lefty dragged himself in there. The question was asked and Mickelson said the line which will live in infamy:
”I’m such an idiot.”

That didn’t interest me nearly as much as the excuse he did muster. He said he was trying to hit his ‘bread and butter’ slice because a shorter club would not give him any distance. Granted if his swing was really off, he could have missed the fairway with any club. Phil’s fortune of finding it in such a good lie actually proved his undoing, for his second shot hit a tree when he might have been forced to chip out. Instead he double bogies in one of the greatest blunders in golf history.

Unfortunately, when the words golf and collapse come together, I immediately think of Jean Van de Velde.

Van de Velde triple-bogeyed the final hole to lose in a playoff in the 1999 British Open. The problem is, at least he got into a playoff. Mickelson couldn’t even do that and Phil is a far better golfer than the Frenchmen could ever dream of becoming.

Van de Velde never recovered. Just a few years ago he vied for the French Open and he found water on 18 yet again!

Phil has 3 majors to fall back on, much more than Van de Velde can ever say but those two for a hole in time were kindred spirits. The real question now isn’t about the rivalry of Tiger and Phil, but what will Phil do next? (sorry Ford)

Is Phil the Thrill back?

The man has had to go through more scrutiny than any golfer in perhaps sports history. Now his mental psyche must somehow get over this terrible gaffe. Clearly it won’t fully be rectified unless Phil wins a U.S. Open. The legacy of Mickelson however took a sizable blow in front of his legions of New York fans. A win here would have put Phil’s name up with men like Watson or maybe even Arnold Palmer. Can Phil make it back to the Promised Land, or will this small stretch of glory end up being just that?

Good thing I don’t have to answer that.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

If I Go Crazy Then Will You Still Call Me Superman

Despite the snazzy Superman belt buckle, the hefty build and unshaven appearance makes Kenneth Ferrie look every bit like an Everyman.

Everyman however doesn’t share the lead going into the final round of the 106th United States Open.

Coming into this weekend, no one expected much out of the two-time European tour winner despite the fact he was only two strokes off the lead. To most golf fans, people couldn’t recognize Ferrie if he came in with a big sign on the back of his shirt.

Of course who could blame them?

Ferrie has had his own South Beach Diet…(or I guess we should call it the South Wales Diet) and lost over 60 pounds. Looking at the picture NBC provided for the tee times, you might worry Mr. Ferrie was a victim of identity theft. Maybe he stole Tiger’s missing golf game instead.

Ferrie hit an amazing second shot on the par-five 5th for a kick-in eagle and had only two bogeys on the 9th and 14th going into the 18th. He had made huge putts, solid recoveries from the rough and if it were not for the nervous twitching and fidgeting of his visor, no one could be able to tell our Everyman with the Superman belt buckle wasn't playing a normal round at his local country club. But the 18th green is truly unique and its bedeviled slopes and speed cost Ferrie just like other European contenders Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington. The dropped shot meant he co-leads the championship with thrill seeker Phil Mickleson He still kept his humor however, when asked about what happened on the 18th green:

“I hit three putts,” Ferrie said. “I hit two putts and it went in on the third.”


How about playing with the sharpest golfer on the planet?

“Yeah he’s pretty good, ain’t he?”

Kenneth Ferrie could find a career in stand up, but will he find a U.S. Open trophy?

All the signs would point to no. He has never been in such a migraine-inducing, nerve-testing, bowel-wrecking test of golf as he will endure tomorrow. Not to mention that Phil Mickelson seems to have a better home court (or in this case “course”) advantage than the Miami Heat. The man who looks like the lovechild of Darren Clarke and John Daly will have to deal with an almost Ryder Cup-like atmosphere, inexperience and the toughest golfing conditions he’s ever played. Now that’s some high quality kryptonite Mr. Superman.

Also there is the memory of Jason Gore residing in all our memories. The lovable lug shot over 80 on the final day at Pinehurst after surviving Saturday surprisingly well. Is Ferrie the next Gore…or is he the next Michael Campbell? Campbell won a great deal on the European Tour but struggled mightily coming in to his major victory. Ferrie can relate, not even cracking the top 10 this season. Last year, Campbell almost decided not to try and qualify but he did, at the exact same location Ferrie qualified this year.

Of course, who is to say someone not named Phil or Ferrie can’t win? Granted Lefty looks solid, but someone could make his way out of the woodwork, especially if the wind picks up late in the day. Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk are both major champions but they are also three and four strokes back respectively. If someone does make a charge though, most of them will probably wonder what might have been.

What if Harrington hadn’t whiffed his ball from the rough on 18 en route to a triple bogey?

What if Monty had not started out bogey-bogey-double bogey?

What if Stricker had found a fairway?

What if Ogilvy hadn’t thrown a fit after the 12th hole costing him a few key shots?

If one of these men can make it to the top of the U.S. Open leader board it’ll take one super performance…maybe Kenny would even let them have the belt buckle.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Exit Stage Left

It was supposed to be the story that would make any Hollywood producer weep. Tiger Woods, playing his first professional event since the Masters and the passing of his father would reclaim his title of greatest player in the universe at Winged Foot. He would shake off the rust and win his 11th major title for his dad on father’s day.

This aint Hollywood.

The New York state of mind dealt Tiger Woods another harsh blow, missing his first cut ever in a major since turning pro on Friday. After shooting an opening round of 76 Woods remained confident that he could turn things around. Instead Woods could only scramble to match yesterday’s score to finish with a 152, +12 and 3 strokes off the cut line. Tiger had been tied with Nicklaus for consecutive cuts in the majors; it’s going to be a long time before he challenges the mark again.

The reasons are obvious. Tiger spent more looking for his ball in the wild rough than he did hitting his shot. Woods hit 7 fairways in two days, a 25% accuracy rating. Most of the time he didn’t just miss it, he hit it into the next zip code. His irons were also pretty off, he hit a few laser darts but he also hit more shots into absolutely precarious positions more often than even the world’s greatest player could recover from. Then there was the flat stick. Woods could just not adjust to the slow Winged Foot greens. When you can’t drive, chip or putt, you’re going to struggle.

Obviously the death of his father had to have an impact on Tiger and how highly golf should be prioritized, but it was really the layoff that did him more than any personal hardship. Practicing in sunny Windermere, FL is simply not the same as a tough U.S. Open course with maniacal greens, rough and distance. No one can come into a major with that much time off and be on there A game.

Yet we decided to believe Tiger when he said he was ready. We ignored the obvious and continued to believe that Superman would once again show he was more machine than human. Well Tiger is human, maybe the greatest human golfer ever, but human nonetheless. He will recover from this setback, but the biggest question is: will golf recover?

This was destined to be the duel between Mickelson and Woods. The problem is in golf, rivalries are so difficult because they’re not 20 men in the field but over 150. The odds are not in the favor of both men being in position to win. Still if you had asked me who had a better chance of not being there, I would have said Phil. However, Lefty is in great shape. He shot a +3 over Friday, but is still just four off the lead with a weekend to go. More importantly the men in front of him are just the kind he wants to see. Only Jim Furky has a major to his name; some have even have notoriously blown majors as in Colin Montgomerie.

Certainly without Tiger the ratings will go down which is very unfortunate because many storylines still exist that seem very interesting.

Will Colin Montgomerie finally win a major? Monty has built a Hall of Fame career with his Order of Merit titles in Europe and his historic Ryder Cup dominance. Yet the fact remains he has never won on American soil. He’s had a few playoff losses to Ernie Els and last year had one of his best finishes in the British Open. Still, age is creeping in and Monty may not have many more chances. If he makes a run, he could very well become the fan favorite, even over Phil.

Will Phil make it three in a row? Okay, so Phil might not make a Mickleslam (His British Open record is pretty atrocious), but owning three championships at once is incredible. Jack Nicklaus never did it and Phil is in great position to do it. With the attention of the entire golf world, Mickelson could make a huge statement that he is serious about making a real golf rivalry. Heck, with as few tournaments as Tiger plays, Phil winning could even put Tiger’s number one ranking in jeopardy.

Is David Duval back? I must admit, it’s weird to even type it. Never has there been a bigger fall from grace in the history of sports than Duval’s fall after his British Open title. However, a 68 on Friday was the best round of the day. He is six strokes off the lead at +5, and with just a bit of confidence (and that hot putter) he could do the impossible. It would not be the story of the year, it’d be the story of the decade.

Will an unknown git’r’done? Steve Stricker is best known for his showdown against Singh in the 1998 PGA Championship, but that was 8 years ago. Since then, Stricker has been MIA in the PGA. Can he really come back in style with a major victory? What about Geoff Ogilvy, the Aussie with a lot of game but not a lot of experience? Then there’s Kenneth Ferrie, trying along with Monty to be the first European to win the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin since 1970. Then there’s Padraig Harrington, another European who has the game to win a major.
There is a lot of drama left at historic Winged Foot, but it’ll be a main attraction without it’s star act.