Tuesday, July 29, 2008

End is near for Red Sox-Ramirez relationship

He’s a hero, a nightmare, a child, and a prima donna all rolled into one. A Hall of Famer? First ballot. A role model? Not quite.

For seven-plus seasons the Boston Red Sox have been unhappily dating superstar left fielder Manny Ramirez. It’s been a roller coaster-esque relationship highlighted by two world championships, but ultimately the Sox have played the role of the overprotective boyfriend for too long. Since his arrival in Beantown, Manny has been the girlfriend that doesn’t treat you right, but you’re too scared to call it quits, for fear of her being happy with someone else.

Oh, but they’ve tried.

Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein has tried to part ways with his Latino luminary on countless occasions. Seemingly every offseason Manny trade talks simmer on the hot stove and just before every July 31 trade deadline, Manny says he’s unhappy, Epstein toys with shopping him, but he always ends up with BOSTON sprawled across his chest. In October of 2003, Epstein even placed Ramirez on waivers, daring anyone – even the rival Yankees – to claim him. Of course, no one did, and a year later Manny was named World Series MVP after the Red Sox were crowned champions of the baseball universe following a painful 86-year drought.

His mental state is as stable as Ruben Studdard on a tightrope, but there’s no doubting his talent or production. Every season you can count on Manny hitting .300, belting 35 homers, driving in 120 runs, and slugging .550. He’s an underrated outfielder with an above-average arm and a mastery of playing the monster that looms behind him. After his “I’m sick of them; they’re sick of me” comments late last week, it’s clear that Manny is tired of being Manny in Boston. But even when his hose are in a bunch, Manny still produces, as evidenced by his performances over the past two nights (5-10, HR, 5 RBIs).

So what’s the problem? Why has this unhealthy marriage taken a spin for the worst, again?

I can understand the Red Sox’s frustration. Since signing his $160 million contract in 2000, Ramirez has been treated like royalty (or Pedro Martinez, perhaps?) in Boston. He’s faked injuries, dogged it in the outfield, refused to pinch hit on days off, stood in the batter’s box on groundballs, missed a pitch while relieving himself in the Green Monster, jogged-out double play balls, rolled over a stagnant post-fly ball after diving and missing by feet, dove to cut-off a Johnny Damon relay throw from center, badmouthed the organization…

For seven-plus seasons, Red Sox management has turned the other cheek on Ramirez’s infantile behavior simply because of what he can do while standing left of home plate. But that last slip-up mentioned in that laundry list of Manny-isms, was the last straw. The line has finally been crossed. It’s time for Manny to go.

It’s obvious why the Red Sox want to breakup with their superstar slugger: They’ve had enough of his shenanigans. But what I can’t seem to understand is why Manny is so adamant about a uniform change all of a sudden. Like I said, Manny has gotten away with baseball murder since he put a down payment on his Ritz Carlton apartment. We know he hates the Boston media, but why, out of the blue, is Manny, a man so indifferent, so nonchalant about life itself, so angry?

Ramirez is in the eighth year of a ten-year contract with two $20 million, one-year team options in 2009 and 2010. Perhaps it stems from his agent, Scott Boras, baseball’s green-seeking bad guy who still pickpockets grade schoolers in southern California ice cream parlors. Boras was not Manny's agent at the time of the signing and would love to stir up controversy for a subsequent restructured contract with a new ballclub.

Feasible? Yes. But because Manny has been reluctant to be controversial (at least vocally) in eight seasons in Boston, I find it hard to believe that Boras has puppeteered his client into crying like a six-year old in the aisle of Toys R Us.

Then, what is it, you ask? Why doesn’t Manny want to play in front of the Fenway Faithful anymore?

Like Joe Paterno said Thursday: I. Don’t. Know.

What I do know, however is that the Red Sox have some decisions to make. The majority of Red Sox Nation wants their once happy-go-lucky left fielder to stay, as seen by the plethora of “Don’t Trade Manny” posters held up in Fenway last evening. They love the home runs, the entertainment. The organization? They, like me, appreciate the game being played the right way. The way the Los Angeles Angels, not Ramirez, play ball.

Because of his sheer production at the plate, a trade for Ramirez of equal value before Thursday’s trade deadline seems wildly unlikely. If the Rockies could package lefty closer Brian Fuentes and last year’s NL MVP runner-up Matt Holliday in a deal for Manny, I’d do it. If the White Sox sent outfielder Jermaine Dye and shortstop Orlando Cabrera – a vital piece of the 2004 Red Sox championship club – to Boston, I’d do that, too. But both seem incredibly unrealistic at this point.

What sounds more practical to me is for Manny to finish out the year in a Red Sox uniform. Next year, he’ll probably head home, where he can rock baggy pinstripes in a brand new ballpark.

As for this year, I foresee a change of events on Aug. 3, while I’m sitting in Fenway Park. I foresee a Ramirez walk-off bouncing single up the middle off Oakland closer Houston Street. In a postgame interview, Manny will announce with a smile: “This is where I want to play!” and everyone will cheer as if Ted Williams had risen from the dead.

From my crystal ball? Not exactly. More like déjà vu.

Yeah, we’ve seen that one before.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

All about fun for 81 year-old Paterno

CHICAGO – Sometimes, we all need a little reminder. It’s easy to forget why we’re all here.

Today I sat in front of an 81 year-old man and could do nothing but smile. Like a… college football fan who just met Joe Paterno for the first time. No analogy needed; that’s what happened with me today at the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago.

This morning I sat in a conference room with a hundred some-odd Big Ten media members and listened to every Big Ten football coach talk about their respective programs. A room full of football dorks counting the days until Aug. 30th, when the first whistles will be blown and the first flags will be thrown.

But believe it or not, no one in that room full of gridiron junkies was more excited than ole Joe Pa. Why? Because for him, football is fun. No other reason necessary.

That, I envy.

There are plenty of people who become investment bankers who do it for the money, not for love of the game. But how many sports writers do you know hate sports? We get paid to write about what every guy talks about in bars, at the dinner table, and on the treadmill.

Some people forget that.

I don’t.

When Paterno addressed the media, five-inch thick glasses and all, he was bombarded by questions as if he were President Bush informing the nation that we are going to war with Iran. Granted, I understand that these people have stories to write and bills to pay, but this is sports. If it’s no longer fun for you, then you’re in the wrong business.

Paterno made it clear that he was sick of getting asked if it was his final season or when he plans to retire. But of course, people asked anyway.

“I. Don’t. Know!” Paterno answered deliberately. “Do you want me to spell it out for you? I-D-O-N-T…”

Everyone laughed except the moron who asked the question. Most people did so because they think the old man is senile. Yeah, he mumbled, stumbled, and slurred his words. But I get it. The man loves his job. Now what the hell is wrong with that?

In a world filled with advertisements, sponsors, and money-grubbing agents, we could all learn a thing or two from a guy who works for the right reasons.

“What has to happen this season, Joe for you to know it’s time to go?” moron No. 2 asked.

“There are no parameters,” Paterno answered in frustration. “Now, I'm just having fun. I’ll know when it’s time. We could lose ten games by 15 points each, and I could say we were one play away. I. Don’t. Know.”

I mentioned he was 81, right?

After Paterno finished, I walked into the corridor to go to the bathroom, where I found dozens of grown men waving their microphones at coaches, players, and ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, as if they were trading on the Wall Street floor. I smiled, talked to Herbstreit calmly about the Badgers when things calmed down, and went on with my business, all the while wishing one day I can be as happy and excited at 81 as Joe Pa.

Yeah, I want answers, too. I want to know who will be under center for Wisconsin a month from now. But life is too short to take too seriously. We get paid to talk about spread offenses and non-conference schedules. We should only be so unfortunate.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Questions for Big Ten coaches?

Derek will be attending Big Ten Media Day in Chicago Thursday July 24th and Friday July 25th. If you have any questions you'd like him to ask any of the Big Ten football coaches, email him at dzetlin@gmail.com.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Yankee fans make rivalry bigger than game itself

Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz understood it. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter understood it. Terry Francona understood it better than all of them.

But apparently the fans in New York couldn’t figure it out. And believe me, if it were Boston, I would be just as critical.

The Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is undoubtedly the most coveted rivalry in all of professional sports. And being part of it makes baseball even that much more exciting. But sometimes – like last night – the game, baseball, is bigger than any hand-crafted subplot you can fathom.

Last night’s Midsummer Classic was supposed to be classy, filled with Hall of Famers who live, breath, respect, and understand the game.

The Yankee faithful failed to recognize the latter two.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been known to chant “Yankees Suck!” from time to time within the Fenway confines. I own the t-shirt and I expect the favor returned within The House that Ruth Built.

But last night wasn’t the time. Or place.

A parade for the players. The Star-Spangled Banner. A pre-game ceremony honoring baseball’s living legends in America’s Pastime’s sanctuary. An accord of boos.

Like trying to fit the square block in the round hole.

Francona deliberately substituted Joe Crede for A-Rod and Michael Young for Jeter solely so they could receive standing ovations from the Bronx Bomber buffs. The pinstripe aficionados went nuts as their closer trotted toward the mound to the tune of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” Why? Because Tito – the manager of the enemy – set the stage, yanking K-Rod, the league’s save leader, with one out in the ninth.

But an inning earlier came the entrance of Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon, who told the media that he believed he should get the ball in a save situation instead of Rivera. So, in a 2-2 ballgame in the top of the eighth, Yankee Stadium erupted with boos aimed at the Red Sox righty. Chants of “O-VER-RATED!” filled the air as Pap came to the set. Booing for their own team, the American League.


After a Miguel Tejada bloop single to right, a Dioner Navarro throwing error moved him to third and an Adrian Gonzalez sac fly plated the Astros shortstop. 3-2 NL. An unearned run.

More boos. More ignorance.

I can understand the home crowd booing Manny, Youkilis, and the like during introductions. Under the circumstances, I disagree with them, but I can understand them, for I know the same would happen in Beantown – although I wouldn’t participate. But to boo Papelbon in that situation – despite his self-promoting, anti-Yankee comments – is ridiculous, for once a year, those who slurp clam chowder and those who devour the largest of pizza slices root for the same team.

Except when they’re too proud to deal with it.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Wrigley fails to disappoint

CHICAGO – I’ve never seen the Eiffel Tower or traveled to Stonehenge. When I saw the Golden Gate Bridge at age 12, I wasn’t exactly enthused. History isn’t my thing and quite frankly, I have no urge to travel to view most ancient landmarks.

Except when it comes to sports.

I’ve been to Fenway Park a million and a half times, including Game 1 of the 2004 World Series, but I still feel like Paris Hilton on Christmas every time I walk up the ramp and stare into the eyes of the Green Monster. Needless to say, I felt like a six year-old in Toys R Us Saturday when I entered Wrigley Field for the first time.

I love to text message my friends during class and facebook chat when I’m on the clock at work. Heck, I even have a blog. But when it comes to baseball, I’m old school. So as I sat seven rows behind the Cubs dugout Saturday (thanks again for the great seats, Annie), I began to take it all in. Prior to Dick Butkus’s first pitch (and subsequent seventh-inning stretch “Take me out to the Ballgame” rendition, which was quite impressive, by the way) I stood up and observed the utter beauty around me. Don’t let (White) Sox fans tell you otherwise. The ivy is much cooler in person. The rooftop seating adds character to a ballpark that has everything but charisma issues. Few ads. No jumbotron. I nudged my friend Bryan next to me and pointed, “Bartman was right there!”

It was a baseball fanatic’s paradise. Wrigleyville, aside from the ballpark itself, is one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. Everyone dressed in Cubbie attire, drinking beers, hoping this year will finally be the year, after 100 non-years.

With that, I can sympathize.

So there I sat, in baseball heaven watching Rich Harden make his Chicago debut. His excitement made mine look like I was at a funeral, which was apparent after he failed to hold back his smiles during his sixth-inning exit complemented by a standing ovation. The Cubs led 7-0 and I was perfectly content with a blowout, as the outcome of the game really had no bearing on my level of utility. Little did I know what was about to unfold.

The visiting Giants scored two runs in the eighth then exploded off Cubs reliever Carlos Marmol for five in the ninth, knotting the game at seven. Two innings later Mark DeRosa scored on a bang-bang play at the plate after a Reed Johnson single to right. You would have thought they had just won the World Series (I forgive the fans, as obviously none of them know what that actually feels like) as the song “Go Cubs Go!” filled the Wrigley air. Even I stood up on my chair and sang along. What else was I supposed to do?

And like Harden, that, along with an afternoon of bar hopping, was my Wrigley debut. I will say one thing, though. The fans, at least within my earshot, weren’t exactly the most knowledgeable I had ever encountered. The guy behind me was telling his friend that Wrigley had the last manual scoreboard in baseball. And the friend was keeping score, wearing a Red Sox hat! Bryan and I looked at each other.

“You wanna tell him, or should I?” We refrained.

I couldn’t do the same the night before. Friday night we ventured over to Lincoln Park to our friend’s house downtown. Travis Beckum and TJ Theus unexpectedly graced us with their presence. I later found myself in a cab with two Western Illinois students from Park Ridge who were at the house earlier.

“You guys always chill with future NFL tight ends?” I joked, referring to Beckum.

“No, they are wide receivers,” the kid next to me replied.

Little did he know he was trying to argue psychology with Freud.

“Actually Travis is going to be the first tight end taken in the draft next year.”

“You think?”

“I know.”

I couldn’t help it.

On the L Saturday, Bryan, in casual conversation claimed that drinking reverts people back to childhood, as they have no fear and no shame.

Baseball has the same effect on me.

I sat in Wrigley all afternoon, lapping it up like a golden retriever in July, analyzing the game with Bryan, who has every bit the baseball knowledge as me. We explained to Annie and her friend Rachael how Ryan Theriot’s baserunning blunder cost the Cubs a run in the first. Derrek Lee hit a ball to the track with nobody out and Theriot on second. Theriot found himself near third base when Aaron Rowand made the catch. Had Theriot been two steps off of second, he easily could have tagged up or scored had Rowand not made the catch. Instead, he retreated to second and failed to score on the subsequent Aramis Ramirez line drive, which was caught in diving fashion by Rowand.

Man I love this game.

Wrigley Field: Check. On deck: Yankee Stadium August 2nd. Excited? You bet.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Packers: Forget about tomorrow, win today

I’ll make this quick because I’m sick of hearing about it.

So Brett Favre allegedly wants to return to the Packers but Green Bay has already handed the keys to the offense over to Aaron Rogers, its former first round pick, after patiently waiting behind No. 4 for three seasons.

Oh no, what do we do?!

Today on ESPN.com, 55 percent of the country said that the Packers shouldn’t let Favre come back because it’s time to move on, rebuild, give Rogers his well-earned chance.

Rebuild?! Move on?! Why do teams rebuild? The ultimate goal of course for any franchise is to win a championship. The Packers were one play away from reaching the Super Bowl last season. With Favre, they would be the favorites in the NFC. With Rogers, they won’t. Period. So you’re telling me it’s time to move on to eventually win championships with Rogers at the helm when you’re passing up a potential ring this season?

Packers GM Ted Thompson need not look far for advice. He needs to look just a bit southeast of Lambeau Field to a place called Milwaukee. Brewers GM Doug Melvin was sick of the “maybe next year” mentality. The Brew Crew have the talent to potentially win now. So he went out and got Cleveland ace C.C. Sabathia. Yes, he gave up some of Milwaukee’s future in the deal. But what is a future when there is no present? I applaud Melvin for rolling the dice. If the Brewers fail to make the playoffs, then so be it. But he finally grew a pair, created excitement for the faithful fans, and made a move to better today’s team. Not tomorrow’s.

So the Packers now have a choice. As Annie would say, “the sun will come up tomorrow,” potentially for the Favre-less Cheeseheads.

But the sun is already up for the green and gold. If, of course they don’t give ol' Brett a vicious stiff-arm.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Federer, Nadal play one for the ages

As the Olympic torch continues its journey through China, Roger Federer did some torch passing of his own yesterday.

But, unfortunately for the Swiss superstar, his version was unintended. In fact, Federer’s torch wasn’t passed down at all. It was simply snatched in a five-set marathon match by Spaniard Rafael Nadal.

Federer has been ranked No. 1 in the tennis world for what seems to be an eternity. And although he remains as such, yesterday’s defeat may very well have marked the beginning of the end of the Reign of Federer.

In my mind – and I know I’m not alone – Nadal now wears the proverbial target on his back. After defeating Federer consecutively in the French Open and now at Wimbledon – virtually Federer’s home court, as he had won the previous five championships there – the Spanish southpaw is on top of the tennis universe at age 22.

And deservedly so.

As promised, I woke up at eight yesterday morning for a healthy serving of Breakfast at Wimbledon. I didn’t anticipate having lunch and dinner as part of the routine as well, but I’m glad I did. Yesterday’s final was as advertised.

And so much more.

Nadal took the first two sets with relative ease (6-4, 6-4), including winning the final four games of the second set after trailing 2-4. It looked as if the lefty (hey, at least one lefty can compete with No. 1, right Phil?) was going to give us an encore performance of the French, when he took down FedExpress in straight sets.

Switzerland’s Finest had other plans.

Federer won the next two sets in dramatic, tiebreak fashion, forcing, yup, you guessed it: A winner-take-all fifth set.

When Federer won the fourth set, knotting the match at two sets apiece, I got the same feeling I did not long ago during golf’s U.S. Open. As Tiger approached 18 needing a birdie, I just knew his Nike ball was going to find the bottom of the cup.

And I knew Federer, after clawing his way back, was going to find a way to win in five.

But, if you’ve read any variety of my previous posts, you’re well aware that I’m not exactly Nostradamus.

Yesterday proved to be no different.

Nadal won the set 9-7 (there are no tiebreakers in the fifth set at Wimbledon) and when Federer’s final shot found the turf-less net, Rafa, after playing off-and-on through rain delays for over seven total hours, collapsed to the grass in exhaustion, having just defeated the best tennis player in the world.

If you can’t appreciate that, then you simply don’t belong watching sports. Two great athletes battling it out in front of the world, representing not only themselves, but their countries and the sport of tennis as a whole, a sport fans should appreciate more.

Tennis is not only a game of amazing skill; it’s a game of incredible endurance and athleticism. Federer and Nadal are two of the most well-conditioned athletes in sports today. And if you enjoy Sportscenter’s Top 10 as much as I do, you should enjoy watching these two play.

Crushing serves, unthinkable returns, amazing volleys, and pinpoint ground strokes were just a few of the ingredients present in yesterday’s historical recipe. Like when I watch Tiger, yesterday I jumped out of my seat and even screamed like a little girl at times in utter disbelief.

I was watching a masterpiece.

Baseball has steroids. NBA players don’t play defense during the regular season. No one can even hold a candle to Tiger. And the No Fun League (or National Felon League, whichever you prefer) is exactly that.

Tennis, well, I can’t seem to find a current flaw. And I think these two have something to do with it.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Tomorrow's tennis too good to miss

We love our Chevys, Fords, and Freedom Fries, especially around the 4th of July. We love our baseball, our Tiger Woods, and our red, white, and blue. We’ll root for our swimmers in August, even when we don’t know the difference between the breast stroke and the butterfly.

We’re all proud to be Americans for one reason or another. But to the sports fan who’s disappointed that neither Andy Roddick nor James Blake will be playing in tomorrow’s Wimbledon Final, I have one piece of advice: Get up, and watch anyway.

Tomorrow’s Federer-Nadal matchup exemplifies everything great about sports. No. 1 vs. No. 2. The master vs. the apprentice (although Federer’s only four years older than Nadal and is still only 26). Two great competitors and athletes facing off on tennis’s biggest stage.

Tennis right now is everything that golf isn’t. There is no Nadal in golf to challenge Mr. Woods. This is the Borg-Connors-McEnroe, Sampras-Agassi rivalry that makes individual sports so great. Federer has one a million matches in a row on grass. Nadal owns him on clay at the French. Federer is the greatest, most dominant competitor not to swing a nine-iron this decade. Nadal is poised to prove that he can compete with numero uno any time, any place.

The Swiss hits from the right side with a devastating one-handed backhand similar to none. The Spaniard is a southpaw with a little-engine-that-could mentality and a left bicep the size of Shaq’s left foot.

Both hit shots that will make you leave your seat and both want this title more than the Cheeseheads miss their Holy One.

Tiger won’t be in red tomorrow and the Sawks-Yanks don't start ‘til sundown. No one will be chanting “U-S-A!” in London tomorrow. Nonetheless, I’ll be up at eight.

And if you call yourself a sports fan, I suggest you do the same.