Tuesday, April 6, 2010

First Pitches, Final Fours and Second Chances

By Tony Mangia


A jam-packed weekend of sports began with CBS's over-hyped version of "Hoosiers" at the Final Four in Indianapolis, continued with the best sports rivalry in Boston, and ended with apologies and adulation in Augusta, Georgia.

The New York Yankees began the defense of their 2009 World Championship against the Red Sox on Sunday. Some new faces on both squads and some missing on the Yankees. The face of the Yankees--Derek Jeter-- and probably the entire league--even Boston fans find it hard to criticize him-- has finally ditched his infamous "fade' haircut. The Yanks will miss Hideki Matsui's bat but, I doubt the same can't be said about Jeter's coif. It's the same style he brought into his rookie season in 1996 and the same one he displayed winning five championships and the hearts of thousands of adoring women and teenage girls. The non-threatening hairdo came straight out of "The Cosby Show" and, while everyone else was shaving or carving names on the side of their heads, Jeter had the same thatch of hair on top that was slowly pruned away before it reached the top of his ears. It never seemed to change and was always perfect in shape--much like the man himself.

This is the same consistency that Jeter has displayed throughout his career. While slumps and scandals dog other elite players, the 'Captain' collects hits and pushes on towards Cooperstown. How he performs so magnificently and still shows quiet restraint in the soap opera that is the New York Yankees belies the modern professional athlete. I mean the guy is in a contract year and has not turned it into a personal crusade. There hasn't even been a peep by his agent. It's a sure bet the shortstop will end his career in pinstripes.

Jeter is the thinking man's player. Another player I would categorize as "Jeteresque" is Ichiro in Seattle. Both men make the game fun to watch; throwing out runners, stealing a base and slapping singles and doubles around American League stadiums. Don't let their batting averages fool you, both can easily jack one out too. How great would it be if the Yanks had landed the Mariners centerfielder a few years ago. The future hall of famer deserves a championship too.

One other constant the past few years has been the bullpen. It's ugly presence reared its head again at Sunday's opening night against the Boston Red Sox. A tired C.C. Sabathia was left in for the sixth and couldn't hold on to a 5-2 lead. Last year's familiar relief shuffle started and the World Series ticker-tape parade was a foregone memory.

Jorge Posada's passed ball--boy, is it gonna be fun for Jorge catching A.J. Burnett's late-breaking throws this season--cost the Yanks the game. They are but one of the Yankee's odd couples. The other odd duo and festering controversy is between Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. Chamberlain is the most over-rated pitcher in New York. He has been babied from the start. For every great outing--sometimes he's earned a fist pump--Joba throws a couple of stinkers. Phil Hughes has taken everything he's been handed and should be the eighth inning set-up man. His relief record proves it--in 44 appearances, Hughes is 5-1 with a 1.40 ERA. Compare that with a 8-9 record and 5.22 ERA as a starter. Use Alfredo Aceves as the fifth starter and stick Hughes in the all important set-up position. Chamberlain and Chan Ho Park could be the the answer.

It's a long season. Manager Joe Giraldi has plenty of time to tweak the team. Center fielder, Curtis Granderson, looks like an improvement over Melky Cabrera and, combined with Jeter and Brett Gardner's proven speed, it looks like the the Yanks will run on a lot of teams. Speed and power--what a combination!


Another week, another dozen Tiger Woods stories. First, it began with his Kindergarten teacher accusing him of lying about a racial incident almost 30 years ago; then it was a rumor of Tiger possibly changing his name back to the less threatening Eldrick, and now sporting a Malcom X goatee. It continued with the announcement that the Masters has hired 90 extra security guards to protect Woods from his wild and crazy mistresses. There is always the chance that one of those harpies might swoop down on their star attraction. Wouldn't that be a photo op? Finally...whew... Tiger held his mea culpa in front of the press on Monday. All this before anyone teed off.

A new alias might confuse some people but it could be one of the great name changes in sports history. Think of the religious ideals that led NBA star, Lew Alcindor, to forever be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or the anti-war and anti-slave statement made by boxer Muhammed Ali after changing his name from Cassius Clay. Now comes PGA golfer and sex addict, Woods, monumentally dropping the first name, Tiger, and changing it to the less predatory and way less sexual--and his given name--Eldrick. Funny, you can't spell "dick' without Eldrick.

Tiger's, um, Eldrick's(?) press conference went pretty smoothly--as would be expected within the cozy confines of Augusta. Woods, who sounded like a pubescent boy as his voice cracked, "Sure", to the the opening question, "Are you ready?" He opened the Q and A with a uneasy smile and shifting eyes.

Woods pretty much summed up what everyone already knew or could figure out. "I had a busted lip," he answered about the November crash and, "I did everything to the letter of the law," he claimed when asked about driving under the influence of the drug Ambien. He bristled when asked about his wife. " Elin will not be here this week," he snarled at a reporter and quickly turned his frowning face to another question.

On the golf course, there would be "less negative outbursts," he smirked. Those grins disappeared when asked why he used an unlicensed Canadian doctor, Anthony Galea, to help with his rehab. "There was no HGH or PEDs," Woods said, "Only PRP injections."

Lots of illegal substance's initials were mentioned but there was no real substance for the first thirty minutes. Finally, Woods spent the last four minutes happily answering questions about the tournament. He'll play to "win this thing." Afterwards, Woods walked outside to practice in front of 20,000 giddy fans. He actually smiled, reached out and shook hands--maybe he thought some of the women were handing him text addresses? Amazing how 45 days of therapy and three months of bad press can change a surly, entitled adulterer into Mother Teresa. Tiger Woods seemed unscathed in front of his adoring gallery and army of security guards but, he still has a long way to go in his personal life.


The NCAA Basketball Championship game between the upstart Butler Bulldogs and, perennial Final Four participant, the Duke Blue Devils was an exciting match-up of similar team styles--fundamentals and shooting-- but to call it a 'classic' is a little overzealous unless you are from Indiana or CBS. It was a close game that could have been won by the underdog, Butler, if the final three-pointer didn't bounce off the rim. That's all. I have to admit that the Bulldog's Gordon Hayward is a fun player to watch--running the floor, shooting and grabbing boards like he was rabid. He reminds me of a bigger Steve Nash; only with defense. Butler makes it to the Final Four next year. Not as Cinderella.

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