Monday, April 30, 2012

The Albert Pujols Agony

Watching LA Angels' Albert Pujols was supposed to be a joy. Who can forget him blasting three homers in in game three of last year's World Series for the world champion St. Louis Cardinals? When he was traded to the Angels in the off season and signed a $240 million, long-term contract, it was supposed to be raining Pujols homers in Orange County.

So far it's been nothing but a nasty Pujols drought, the worst April of  his career. He was supposed to be at least hitting in the .320s with a gaudy slugging percentage. So far, not even close. Just ugly numbers--no homers in 22 games and 88 at-bats, a .216 average, 4 RBIs, a 21 at-bat hitless stretch and an embarrassing .295 slugging percentage.

Watching him at the plate is painful. One of the greatest hitters in history now looks like a nervous newcomer visiting the big leagues for the first time. Against every pitcher he seems over matched. Yes he's new to the American League and has to learn the pitchers, but this?

At the plate King Kong has turned into Peter Rabbit. His batting eye, once crystal clear, has turned foggy. He's become tentative, watching strikes whiz by, the kind he used to clobber. Worse, he's constantly chasing bad balls, something the old Albert rarely did. On Sunday, in a 4-0 drubbing by the Cleveland Indians, Pujos looked totally lost, stumbling to 0 for 4. Usually he can hit pitcher Derek Lowe. But on Sunday, Lowe had Pujols in his hip pocket.

Pujols was supposed to lead the Angels to the playoffs. So far he's just been an anchor. They're gasping for air in the American League West cellar, off to a miserable 7-15 start. If Pujols were having a normal year, at least four of those losses would be wins. Of course, he knows this. No question he feels the weight of the team's crummy start on his shoulders, which is making him press even more.

He's had bad starts before, but nothing like this. Last year, for instance, he didn't really start hitting, Pujols style, til late May. Ultimately he helped the Cards win the World Series. So there's hope. Pujols is bound to snap out this slump. But when?

The Angels need him--desperately. If he continues to slump, so will the Angels. But he's not their only problem. The pathetic bullpen may hurt worse than the Pujols slump. For sure, the Angels need a strong May to wash away the April mess, or they can kiss the playoffs goodbye.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Racist Boston Hockey Fans

"People were angry, saying nigger this, nigger that, or that damn nigger or that fuckin' nigger. It was everywhere. You couldn't help hearing it. In one section there was this crazy chant--nigger, nigger, nigger. I couldn't believe it. I thought I was at a Klan rally."

Actually, Mike, a 45-year-old Italian who hates the term "n-word," was at Boston's TD Garden Wednesday night when the Washington Capitals shocked the Boston Bruins, knocking the defending champs out of the playoffs. What angered the racists, Mike explained in a Thursday phone call, was that Capitals' winger Joel Ward, a black Canadian whose parents are from Barbados, scored the winning goal in the 2-1, game 7, overtime victory, boosting the Caps into the semi-finals. "As soon as Ward scored I knew the racists would go beserk," said Mike, a gambler who was happy because he had bet on the Capitals. "Fortunately there were no black people in the stands to hear the racist crap, at least there weren't any where I was sitting."

"I'm not surprised at what those people were saying ," continued Mike, a regular at hockey games at the Garden. "Hockey is a white sport that appeals almost exclusively to white people. There are a lot of racists in Boston who go to hockey games. You hardly see any black fans there.  A black guy beats their team so you know the racism is going to come out. But there a lot of decent white people in Boston, a lot of decent white people at the hockey games too. I'm sure most people are like me--appalled at the racist assholes."

The racism wasn't confined to the TD Garden. The racists went wild on Twitter, tweeting slurs about Ward, a 31-year-old , thick -skinned NHL vet, who says he's used to the racists. Some of the tweets, which made the news, are startlingly vicious.

"You want to smack some of those people," said Mike, "but you can't--there's too many of  'em. You'd be smacking people all day. I wish I could say I'll stay away from the Garden but I love hockey and I love watching it there. Unfortunately, the racist assholes go with the territory. What can you do?"

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In Defense of Metta

I repeat. Metta World Peace got screwed.

The NBA suspended him seven games for elbowing Oklahoma City's James Harden in the side of the head in the second quarter of the Lakers' Sunday overtime victory at Staples Center. To me, the penalty was too severe, considering it was an unintentional hit. Kicking him out of that game was sufficient. But the way angry fans and media people have been enraged by the hit, Metta is lucky he wasn't lynched. With many calling for him to be banned long-term, even for the rest of the season, he's fortunate to get off with a seven-game suspension. Still, it's a stiffer penalty that he deserves.

Am I blind?  What I see is an accidental hit that's part of an over-exuberant dunk celebration, particularly when you see it in real time. Metta claims he didn't know Harden was there. That's what it looks like to me, but not to many others. They've probably been watching that replay, which is prejudicial. In slow-mo the hit looks more savage than it seems in real time.

The pop psychologists keep weighing in, talking about the wild look in Metta's eyes before the hit, lambasting him for impulse control and anger issues, all but branding him a maniacal psychotic who's a danger on the basketball court.


He's not some crazed nut. Consumed by passion and putting out maximum effort, Metta got overly hyped and elbowed a player who happened to be close by. Some are comparing it to others hits, even in other sports, claiming Metta got off easy. One reader reports that a certain hockey hit, a body check in the head, drew a 25-game suspension.

But, on the other hand, I've seen worse hits in basketball that didn't draw penalties this harsh. For instnace, LA Clipper's high-flying Blake Griffin is constantly being body-checked in mid-air, resulting in dangerous spills, but nothing more than a routine foul. Remember when big Andrew Bynum leveled little Dallas guard J.J. Barea, blasting him with a linebacker-like hit, out of frustration, in a Laker loss in last season's playoffs? For that obviously intentional slam, which could have resulted in a serious injury, Bynum was assessed a five-game suspension, two less than Metta's. Yet, to me, that hit was much more lethal than Metta's..

Some contend that, considering the public cries for a maximum penalty, the NBA, protecting the Lakers, one of its glamour teams, didn't really lower the boom in Metta. They're charging that the league intentionally limited his suspension to the first playoff series, where the Lakers would face either Denver or Dallas, teams they can handle without Metta.

To me, a seven-game suspension was too much. Others argue it wasn't enough. From the Lakers' point of view, they're happy it wasn't worse.

End of chapter one of a controversy that, no doubt,  has long legs.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Metta Gets Screwed

I don't like Metta World Peace. Never did. I didn't like him when he was calling himself Ron Artest. He always seemed like a jerk, even before his 2004 meltdown in the stands in Auburn Hills, Michigan when his Pacers were playing the Pistons. A buddy of mine was friends with two of his college teammates when he was playing at St. John's in the late 1990s. They had horror stories about him being an egomaniac and a bully, the opposite of his "good guy"  media persona. That's when I  learned to dislike him.


Right now, I'm on his side. Metta. the LA Lakers' small forward, is getting clobbered by the media and most fans and he's about to be crucified by the NBA with a whopping suspension. OK,  he deserves some of the wrath but not all of it. No question, he should be penalized for elbowing Oklahoma City's James Harden in the head in the second quarter of Sunday's game at Staples Center between the Lakers and the Thunder. But he was penalized--kicked out of that game, which the Lakers won in overtime. Because there was no evil intent, that should have been enough.

Bottom line, it was just an inadvertent elbow blow. Following a thunder dunk and a juvenile, chest-thumping, King Kong imitation, Metta did some elbow swinging. Harden was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got bludgeoned. It was an accident, pure and simple. Clearly Metta didn't intend to hurt or maim Harden, who was knocked woozy and sustained a concussion. The Thunder lists him as day-to-day and probably won't play him in the team's final two games.

What Metta did happens all the time in the NBA. Players are constantly throwing and dodging elbows. On the replays, the hit looks worse than it was, particularly when it's played in slow motion, and it has been, on sports and news shows, over and over and over. But if the elbow hit was unintentional and didn't result in a injury that put Harden out for a long period of time, why all the fuss? Why paint Metta as this reckless, animalistic brute?

The blood-thirsty cries for revenge aren't surprising. Some angry fans say if the elbow had landed a few inches higher, Harden might have been killed or paralyzed. Others are screaming for suspensions as high as ten games. Some say he should be done for the season. Are these people crazy? These over-the-top penalties don't fit the crime. Had the hit been intentional it's an entirely different story. But it wasn't.

Metta is about to get screwed by the NBA. And so are the Lakers. If the penalty is severe and he has to miss a number of playoff games, the Lakers could have a tough time getting out of the first round without a major piece of their offense and their best wing defender.

The NBA is bound to be iinfluenced by the public cries for Metta's blood. The memory of that 2004 mess looms large. Unless I'm guessing wrong, the penalty will be a whooper. Metta may he a jerk but that's another story. This case should be judged on its merits. Metta doesn't deserve what's about to happen.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Lakers--Bryant vs. Bynum

The big question in Los Angeles now has nothing to do with the shock waves caused by the Kings beating Vancouver in Vancouver or the Clippers silencing the Thunder in Oklahoma City or even the UCLA basketball team signing the best high school player in the country, Shabazz Muhammad. No, the big question involves the Lakers, who stomped the heavily favored San Antonio Spurs in San Antonio with ailing superstar Kobe Bryant on the bench--a game the Lakers seemingly had no chance to win.

The question is this--what now? This is the same team that, a few days ago, barely escaped an embarrassing loss to pathetic, undermanned New Orleans. So suddenly they rise up and crush a San Antonio team playing the best ball in the NBA. The big difference is that, against the Spurs, center Andrew Bynum turned into King Kong, crushing the opposition, while picking off 30 boards, the most by a Laker since Kareem took down 34 back in the 70s. The other shock is that 32-year-old World Peace played like he was 22, hitting 10 out of 15 shots, racking up 26 points, giving the team a sorely missed scoring threat threat at small forward.

So where do the Lakers go from here? When Kobe comes back, does the team, which flexed its muscles without him, submissively allow him to become the ball hog again, while he shoots, as usual, in the low 40% range?

The San Antonio game set the bar very high for the Lakers. With this towering performance, they've backed themselves into a corner. Clearly, when they want to be, they can be monsters. The big question, of course, is why can't they play this way all the time?

This is what's clear. On offense, Bryant, when he returns, should take fewer shots. When his teammates have a chance to establish some offensive rhythm, they can, as they proved in San Antonio, be effective. When Bynum is the No.1 scoring option, he plays with more energy and passion. But none of this can happen unless Bryant backs off and allows for a redistribution of offensive power.

The San Antonio game showed what can happen if the Lakers were Bynum's team. But the big center is unpredictable and capable of selfish, childish behavior. One thing is sure, Bynum is finally challenging Kobe.
That's the message from his San Antonio effort.

So the Lakers have spun into a state of flux. Bynum's team or Kobe team? Will they play like the lions or lambs?  It's the NBA's most fascinating saga.

The San Antonio games set the bar

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Diary Of a Confused Tiger Woods Fan

On the Masters opening round last Thursday, Tiger Woods was poised to win it all--his fifth Masters title. His impressive cruise through the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a Masters tuneup, flashing his old form, showed he was ready, really ready, for the first time since he went haywire on Thanksgiving of 2009, when his enraged wife--now ex-wife--tried to turn his head into a golf ball. I bet on you to finish in the top five. Don't let me down.

Early Thursday morning:
Tiger, Tiger. You can do it, you can do it. At the Palmer Invitational, you showed your putting was finally up to par. And your swing, that swing is a thing of beauty--smooth, no glitches, packed with power. Some of my buddies, those idiots, bet that you wouldn't even make the top ten. One of them bet three grand against you. I told him he had rocks in his head. You're gonna win it all, Tiger, or at least finish in the top five. I just know it. You're back, Tiger, you're back.

After Thursday's first round:
Tiger, Tiger, Tiger. It wasn't brilliant. That birdie-birdie ending,  giving you a 71, putting you four shots back, that's not so bad. Yes, there were some ugly shots, particularly that one blasting into the trees off of No. 18. That one made me shudder. But you're within striking distance. You have the stuff to win it. That guy, that nobody Westwood who's topping the leader board, is just a one-day wonder. I'm not panicking.

Friday night, after round two:
Tiger, Tiger, Tiger. How old are you anyway? Aren't you a little old for a temper tantrum? What's with kicking your nine-iron? What are you, nine years old? Your swing, by the way, sucks. Your shoulders are all wrong, your hips are jerky. Your swing is one big glitch. Clearly doubt has infiltrated your head. Just a few weeks ago, you were a rock. Now you're a mass of jelly, quivering with insecurity. The phone is ringing. It's Phil, I know it. He's the guy who bet the three grand. He's calling to rub it in. I'm not answering.

Saturday night, after round three:
Ugh! It's really foul-tasting. I'm talking about the crow I'm eating, because you Tiger, you bum, did it again. An even-par 72? What the hell is that? How can you go the final 14 holes without a birdie? The old Tiger, who's hiding inside you somewhere, wouldn't do that. At least you didn't play football with your nine-iron today. There's the phone. It's Phil. I'm not answering. Screw you Phil!

Sunday night
Tiger, Tiger, Tiger. Or should I say, you bum, you bum, you bum. What the hell? Finishing tied for 40th, your worst Masters ever. That swing that looked so good at the Palmer, where did it go? You looked like you were swinging with a forty-pound weight on your back. Even you were quoted saying that you don't trust your swing. I thought you'd win. I bet on you to finish in the top five. I'm the idiot.

Tiger, now what? I'm confused. I don't know what to think. Can you fix that swing or can't you? You're not done are you? Well, are you? There's still greatness in there somewhere, I just know it. I'm not going to bet on you again, I don't think so anyway.

Where is your head? Some insiders I know are saying that you're very quietly back womanizing again, keeping it really hush, hush. That's a good sign, since you played your best golf when you were hanging with trollops. What if you turn it around and start winning on a consistent basis again? I could win big too. What do I do? Give up on you or follow you? There's the phone. It's that damn Phil again. He'll be laughing at me like jackal. I'm still not answering.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Lakers' Locker Room Mess

The Los Angeles Lakers' locker room is in quiet turmoil, according to sources close to two players. It was riddled with negativity before Derek Fisher was traded, but he was the glue that was holding it together. Now, however, the "glue" is on the bench in Oklahoma City, spreading his smarts there. Meanwhile the Lakers' locker room has sprung leaks and there's no one to plug up the holes.

What's corroding the Lakers now is both center Andrew Bynum and coach Mike Brown. Bynum is out of control and Brown, who should be in control, isn't. The one person who could soothe the situation--Fisher--isn't around any more.

Bynum doesn't really listen to anyone but he did respect the elder Fisher, who kept a lid on the potentially explosive center. But, these days, Bynum is really getting a sense of his power and the fumes are making him giddy. He's been swept away by all the praise. Though 24, lately he's been acting like a petulant 12-year-old.

A solid All-Star, he's far and away the best center in the Western Conference and the second-best center in the game, after Orlando's Dwight Howard. But the gap is narrowing. On defense, Howard is tops, but Bynum is his superior on offense. No center in the NBA can match Bynum's post moves, while Howard is basically a dunker with the touch of an elephant. Bynum, however, is a canny offensive player with an array of tricky moves. Unfortunately, though, as his skills have improved his ego has ballooned. A few months ago to the "Bynum or Howard" question:, the answer was clearly Howard. Now it's not so clear-cut. Some more offensive-minded teams might chose Bynum, who's well aware his stock is soaring.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        According to the two sources, Bynum is really feeling his oats. He's dissing coach Brown right and left. Taking that bone-headed three pointer, which got him benched, was a slap at Brown. So was last night's gaffe--getting kicked out of the Houston game just after Brown warned him to be careful about picking up a second technical foul. And Bynum often gets lazy on defense, which makes Brown angry, but the coach can't get him to shape up. If you think Bynum's attitude toward Brown is bad in public, said the sources, it's worse in the locker room. He's not afraid of management either. He was fined for assorted insubordinations, including not bothering to show up for a management meeting. Reportedly, it wasn't the first time. Management, though, doesn't scare him. His biggest supporter is boss Jim Buss. Anyway, what are the Lakers going to do to him, trade him? Yeah, really. Bynum has all the leverage and he knows it.

Brown clearly can't control him. But that's no surprise. The coach isn't too popular with the rest of the locker room either. He and Kobe Bryant have been on thin ice since he kept Kobe on the bench in the fourth quarter as the game against the Memphis Grizzlies slipped away. The players not only hate Brown's micro-managing they aren't too crazy about his erratic substitution patterns or his ultra-technical offensive schemes either. Accustomed to former coach Phil Jackson's casual approach they're not taking kindly to Brown's excessive control and nitpicking. The lesser players tend to follow the stars. Since Bryant and Bynum aren't too thrilled with Brown, the other players have adopted that negative attitude. And there's no Fisher around to patch up relationships and spread common sense.

This is what will probably happen. For a while, Bynum will calm down, say all the right things and do what Brown says, until the cocky center gets in one of his rebellious moods and does whatever he wants--the team and the coach be damned.

Can anyone on the team or in the organizational tell Bynum what to do? Not really? Can a team this dysfunctional get far in the playoffs? Not  really.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Take Six-Point Underdog Kansas Over Kentucky?

In the NCAA title game today, Kansas does have a chance against overwhelming favorite Kentucky--but just a slim chance.

So many things would have to go wrong for Kansas, a 6-point underdog, to eke out a victory. It's not impossible, just unlikely. The Kentucky collapse that so many have anticipated, quite possible with a starting five featuring three freshmen and two sophomores, hasn't happened. In fact, it hasn't even come close to  happening. The Wildcats have had some down moments, looking shaky at times, for instance, when facing wrath of Hurricane Louisville.  But Kentucky coach John Calipari's savvy adjustments and calming influence, as usual, saved the day.

For Kansas to win, their interior giants, Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey, would have to overpower and negate Kentucky center Anthony Davis, the best player in college. Kansas whipped Ohio State because this terrific pair defanged the Buckeyes' mighty center Jared Sullinger. They intimidated him into missing 14 of his 19 shot attempts. If Sullinger were hitting in the 50% range Ohio State would be in New Orleans now, not back in Columbus watching the championship game on TV. Kansas' dynamic duo would have to tame Davis and rule the paint for Kansas to have a chance. Also Kansas needs its mercurial, up-and-down point guard Tyshawn Taylor, who's great one moment and a bungler the next, to have a consistently excellent game and break out of the three-point shooting slump that has dogged him throughout this tournament.

Kansas is facing a nearly impossible task, trying to beat the best college basketball team since the Florida colossus of last decade. Kentucky simply has no weaknesses and is top-notch on both offense and defense. Win or lose, this is the best team. Kansas can only come with its A+ game and hope Kentucky has an off night.

If you're betting, take Kansas and the 6 points. You're gambling that young Kentucky will underachieve, that more experienced Kansas will overachieve and its coach, Bill Self, will find clever ways to chip away at Kentucky's armor. Typically men's basketball championship games, because the overwhelming pressure and tension numb the shooters, are close. Big, bad Kentucky could win in a blowout but long-shot Kansas is worth a shot.