Szwaja's Sports Blog

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

I was watching the Cubs game the other day, and Todd Walker came to the plate with two outs. The Cubs were playing the Cards at Busch, it was the top of the eighth inning, and the Cubs were losing by one. Walker got in a 0-2 hole but managed to single to center field. Joe Buck -- it was a FOX game -- said, "That's a big 2-out hit with Derrek Lee coming up behind Walker."

Three pitches later, Lee turned on a fastball and sent the pitch deep into the left field seats. Buck couldn't have scripted it any better. That's the kind of year it's been for Derrek Lee. When he got off to his fast start, all of us Cubs fans said jokingly, "Lee usually starts slow, then heats up, just imagine what he's going to do this season." Nobody expected him to do this well. Sports fans love to expect the unexpected; it's just a natural thing to do as a fan. All us Illinois fans kept the faith in that Arizona game, and the Illini pulled it out. We expected them to do the unexpected, and that's exactly what happened. Usually, that's not how it plays out, though. Normally, we keep our faith until the last whistle, strike, goal, etc. And it doesn't go our way.

Well, every Cub fan thinks the current year is the year. And I'm sure every Cub fan thought Derrek Lee could eventually be the best first baseman in the NL Central, but I'm not sure many expected that to happen. It has happened. Nothing against Albert Pujols, who has rare and gifted talents, but Derrek Lee has been just a little better. And that includes fielding and base running.

If you're a Cubs fan, don't take Derrek Lee's season for granted. Relish every chance you get to see him swing the bat, because he might never do what he's doing again. Back to the whole unexpected thing, Derrek Lee's 2005 season is so much more special because we never thought Lee would have a season like this in his career. It's not so often guys like Lee explode with years like this. Brady Anderson's 50 home runs in 1996 come to mind, but that was most likely a result of Mr. Anderson's experiment with steroids, which we can't say happened for sure, but the writing is on the wall, isn't it?

Maybe you haven't been doing the same, but I keep waiting for Derrek Lee to tail off a little bit. It really hasn't happened, unless you consider his average dipping below .370 for the first time since the ivy was drab brown. He didn't hit a home run in the Giants series. What the hell's wrong with him?

Seriously, we have to enjoy this while it lasts, because these seasons only come around once in a player's career. I'm not saying Lee will turn into Travis Lee any time in the near future. Derrek Lee very well might come back with a .325, 30 home run, 115 RBI season in 2006, but that still won't measure up to 2005. Hopefully that puts the 2005 Derrek Lee into perspective a little.

The Cubs as well have to enjoy it. I still think they can win the Wild Card, and hopefully Lee can stay on his tear, because the Cubs will need all they can get down the stretch. It would just be an awful shame if the Cubs fail to make the playoffs and Derrek Lee wins the Triple Crown.

Which brings me to the Triple Crown. I still don't think Lee's going to do it. There are too many guys hanging with him in all three categories. That's not to say that I don't think he can do it. He just needs a little luck along the way. If he doesn't do it, I just hope people never forget Derrek Lee's 2005 season, because it has been extra special.

So, please, stop reading. Go watch Derrek Lee, and if that's not possible right now, go wait in front of the TV.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Sorry it's been so long since my last post, I've been a little busy. In the past four days I've been to my first Kane County Cougars game, the Chicago Fire/Columbus Crew, Real Madrid/Chivas doubleheader and a White Sox game. Sporting events have taken control of my life, which is never a bad thing.

The Real Madrid/Chivas game was remarkable. Kent McDill wrote a column in today's Daily Herald that said he couldn't put into words how great the match was, but I'm going to try and do my best to do just that. Let me start off by saying this: It was the greatest collection of footballers I've ever seen in person. Think the 1996 Chicago Bulls were loaded? Check out the guys who took the field for Real (pronounced Reh-ahl for all you people who still aren't down with the world's most popular sport) on Saturday, in no particular order: Ronaldo, Michael Owen, Luis Figo, Raul, David Beckham, Roberto Carlos, Ziddane Zidane and Guti. I attended the first World Cup match ever played in the United States, a match that pitted a strong German squad with the likes of Jurgen Klinsman (perhaps my favorite footballer ever) and Lothar Matthias against Boliva, led by Marco Etchevary. Real Madrid could have walked over either team I saw that day.

It was like having Fox Soccer Channel right there in front of my eyes, except of course that soccer is so much better live. On TV, it's tough to see the play develop. It's tough to grasp, for example, how hard and accurate Roberto Carlos strikes the ball. It's tough to grasp how the ball sticks on Zidane's feet like finished spaghetti sticks to a wall. It's tough to grasp the precision of Beckham's field switches that find the Adidas stripes on his teammates' boots with ease some 70 yards away. They say it doesn't get any better that HDTV. I beg to differ. It's much better if you have a seat in the stands.

The match followed the Fire/Crew match, which revealed a harsh reality. American soccer flat out stinks. Real and Chivas made the Fire, one of the best teams in MLS this season, look like Will Ferrell's "Kicking and Screaming" misfit soccer team. Sad but true. I thought Justin Mapp was really good. The truth is that Mapp wouldn't sniff either team's starting eleven. That's not to say he couldn't start anywhere else outside the US. Real and Chivas are the best teams in their respective leagues. I guess what I'm trying to say is this: Justin Mapp has some skills, but he'll never be David Beckham.

Speaking of Beckham, I was thoroughly impressed. When you hear American sports media personalities mention Beckham, all we ever hear is something like this: "David Beckham, sure, he's the most popular athlete on the planet, but he's not the best soccer player in the world by far." Well, that might be somewhat true, but he's pretty damn good.

The American media dubs Beckham as overrated simply because they're ignorant. Truth is, Beckham isn't a scorer, and somehow that automatically makes him the male equivalent of Anna Kournikova in the minds of so many. Well, you don't have to be a scorer to be a soccer star.

Maybe I like Beckham so much because he reminds me so much of myself. Too bad the girls don't see the resemblance. Joking aside, I don't have the golden locks, the six pack and I can't bend it like Beckham, but I have always taken pride in my crosses and my ability to find an open teammate, wherever he is on the field, whether it's six or 60 yards.

When I saw Jordan live, I always hoped I would see him pull off one of his signature dunks. Whne I saw Gretzky live, which only happened once, I wanted to see him nifty-stick his way through a few opponents, then beat the goalie's glove side. When I see Frank Thomas live, I want to see him send a ball 20 rows deep in the bleachers. On Saturday, I wanted to see Beckham set up a couple goals with his uncanny ability to serve the ball. That's exactly what I got.

Real's first goal in their 3-1 victory came on a free kick from the right flank, taken by Beckham. He approached the ball, bent it into the box in perfect Beckham fashion, and found a teammate's head. The second goal might have one-upped the first goal. Beckham got the ball right in front of the Chivas bench, probably about 15 yards short of the halfway line, then sent one of the most beautiful balls I've ever seen to Raul on the corner of the penalty box, probably about 75 yards away. Raul headed the ball back into the middle, and Guti half-volleyed it into the bottom right corner from about 25 yards out. It was one of those goals you see on those "Soccer's Greatest Goals" DVDs, and I couldn't believe how priviledged I was to have seen it live.

Beckham's intensity and competitiveness also fascinated me. He was in his teammates' ears when they made poor decisions. He screamed at the ref as if he was playing for a Champions League title. In reality, he was playing in an exhibition match that meant nothing. Still, he wanted to win ... badly ... so bad he gave his body up on 50-50 balls on numerous occassions. At no time did he hang back with a fear of getting injured, and he didn't treat the game like a joke. As a customer who paid top dollar, he did his best to make sure I got my money's worth, and I certainly did. I always found it a little insulting when our greatest athletes make mockeries of our most popular exhibitions: All-Star Games. When Randy Johnson throws at John Kruk's head, then laughs about it, I think, "Hey, Unit, I'm not watching to see you take Kruk's head off, I'm watching to see you strike him out." When I see Tracy McGrady throw what appears to be an alley-oop to Kobe Bryant but instead ends up being a pass to Jay-Z in the third row, I think, "Play the game that made you an All-Star, not the game that makes you look like an And-1 All-Star wannabe." That's not Beckham. Beckham is the one who would try to take Johnson's next pitch over the wall, then stare him down as he starts his home run trot ... in an exhibition game. Beckham would be the one completely shutting down McGrady with great defense ... in an exhibition game.

Beckham again spoke of his desire to make soccer a major sport in America some day last weekend. As much as I love soccer, I'm not a believer. Not even Mr. Beckham can take it to the next level, but if he goes about his vision with as much as intensity as he showed me on Saturday, you never know.

That's it for now. Coming up later in the week, my Derrek Lee is not human and the NHL is back blogs. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

There's only one way to sum up what happened to the Chicago baseball teams this weekend.

"What the hell?"

If I had, for some weird reason, missed the entire season up until this point, then watched both weekend series, I would have had two questions.

1) How big of a lead do the Cubs have in the Wild Card race? (Assuming of course the Cardinals would have been running away with the division, which they are.)

2) How many games behind the Twins are the White Sox?

Actually, I probably would have had a third question: Where the hell is Corey Patterson? But we'll get to that later.

In reality, I've watched more games than probably ever between the Cubs and White Sox combined this season, and I've seen baseball the way it should be played on the South Side. And the North Side? Wow, unlucky, ugly and uneventful, pick any or all of those cruel Us.

The White Sox, despite their troubles with the A's, have just been a joy to watch. (Good news, Sox fans, the Sox are done with the A's, perhaps until the first round of the playoffs. Wouldn't that be great? Or not.) It all started with the Carlos Lee trade. Sure, El Caballo is leading the NL in RBIs at the break, but aside from Luis Vizcaino, who has been the fool on the hill this season, that trade made the Sox into the best team in baseball.

Let's talk Scott Podsednik, whom I like to call Podzilla, or maybe we should call him Pod-Racer. Let's see, All Star break, 44 stolen bases. Yeah, enough said. Forty-four stolen bases in one season these days is almost unimaginable, yet Scotty's only about half done with his season. Amazing. I never thought I'd see a guy in the big leagues after Rickey Henderson quit -- he did quit now didn't he? -- that would steal second then third without even blinking an eye.

The effect Scotty has on opposing pitchers when he's on base is really one White Sox fans couldn't have predicted. A pitcher can be rolling along, but if Podsednik gets on, that same pitcher starts looking over his shoulder too much. Next thing you know, he's walking Tadahito. Here's the bottom line: If Podzilla gets on with less than two outs, it's a good bet he's going to score. You can't say that about Carlos Lee.

Then there were the other fruits of the trade, notably, Orlando El Duque Hernandez, AJ Pierzynski and Tadahito Iguchi, all of whom Kenny Williams couldn't have afforded with Carlos Lee in left field.

El Duque has been up and down, but he's historically been a second half/post season pitcher, and that won't change this year. El Duque will do something spectacular for these White Sox, just wait.

AJ Pierzynski has been a huge upgrade over Ben Davis, Miguel Olivo, Josh Paul, Mark Johnson, Jamie Burke and whoever else you can think of. I sometimes wonder if I'm the only one who likes how pissed off he gets when he strikes out, flies out, etc. To me, that shows he's passionate about winning, and that has to be contagious, which is what you want out of your catcher. Your catcher is your natural leader, and AJ hasn't shown any signs of that bad seed mentality we heard so much about when he was in San Fran.

Tadahito Iguchi, what took you so long? The Sox haven't had a second baseman like you since I've been watching White Sox baseball. That includes Ray Durham. I was never one to sign up for the Ray Durham fan club; I always felt he was extremely overrated. Tadahito plays better defense that Ray Ray, and his command at the plate is freakish, which makes him the perfect 2-hole hitter. When Scotty gets on to lead off an inning, you can push all your chips in and bet that after Tadahito's at-bat one of two things will happen: 1) Scotty scores on an Iguchi hit or 2) Scotty's standing on third after Tadahito's sacrifice ground out to the right side of the infield.

So, you see, that trade made the Sox a baseball team rather than a modern-day baseball bomb squad. True baseball teams will beat bomb squads to a pulp. Just ask this year's Texas Rangers, who belt home runs as much as they ground out to short, yet are only six games over .500 and will need a miracle to make the playoffs. But you need to pitch, too.

And the Sox can pitch. Jon Garland is finally the Jon Garland we've been hearing about for the last five years. The key: Jonny can throw a nasty change now. And his command of the zone has been much better. Ninety percent of Garland's pitches are around the plate, not necessarily strikes, but around the plate. In the past, he was content with trying to nip corners, too many strikes. Now, he just throws, and he's starting to learn that you can get hitters out when you go outside the strike zone, especially when you show them that change up. The hitters don't have to offer at that change, they just have to know it's there and it might be coming. It's been fun to watch Jon Garland transform himself this season.

Buerhle has been Buerhle. Eat up innings. Throw strikes. Get outs. Let's get out of here in two hours. Let's have a 10-3 record at the break. Let's throw in a 2.58 ERA. Let's start the All Star game. He can't do much better. Can you say Cy Young? It's early, but I can.

Freddy Garcia needs to get through the first two innings safe, because it's obvious he has some early game jitters. He has this nasty tendency to leave pitches up in the zone in the early innings. As soon as he gets his breaking stuff down, he's fine. Overall, Freddy's been great.

There's so much more to talk about, but that's it for now. How can Sox fans argue with being 28 games over at the break. That's just awesome.

The Cubs, on the other hand, have sucked, yet they're only one game under and still in the Wild Card race. And I firmly believe the stars will align for Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, which means I think the Cubs will make a serious run at the Wild Card.

I mentioned Corey Patterson earlier. Well, Corey, in short, is done with the Cubs. Between now and July 31 Jim Hendry will work his pants off trying to unload CP. It's just never going to happen in a Cubs uniform for Mr. Patterson.

CP's replacement at the top of the order, Jerry Hairston, as bad as this sounds, is the key to the Cubs revival. Well, they need another good arm in the bullpen, but Hairston must play well if the Cubs want to even sniff the playoffs. I watched Jerry lead off an inning today, and all I could think about was how much better off the Cubs are with him leading off.

During the at-bat, Hairston took a called strike, fouled off four pitches, looked at three balls and finally laced a double down the left field line. To ask Corey to do the same at the plate is like asking Sammy Sosa to hit the cut-off man. He can't do it. It's that simple. If Jerry gets on, the Cubs score more runs and they win more games.

Maybe I should say Derrek Lee will drive more runs in, which is scary because he currently has 71 RBIs. Makes you wonder where that total would be if Jerry had been leading off all season? Makes you wonder where the Cubs would be in the standings?

Maybe you're sensing what I haven't come out and said yet. The Cubs are better off without Corey Patterson. Maybe that sounds obvious, but I'm talking being totally gone. Not in the dugout. Not in the minors. Not in Chicago. Send him away, Mr. Hendry, so the Cubs can forget about his inability to play baseball. If he makes it somewhere else, then so be it, because he'll never make it as a Cub. It's over. And I think a lot of people are going to be awestruck at how much Corey being gone is going to affect the Cubs. You saw a glimpse of it this weekend. Corey leaves, the Cubs sweep a real good Marlins team. That's what we expected of these Cubs, and I don't think it's too late for the team. The Cubs might have dug themselves too deep of a hole, but they'll make some noise in the Wild Card chase. I'm not saying they'll win it, but they'll be there at the end.

Speaking of the end, this All Star break blog needs to end. I have so much more to say, but I'll save it for later dates. Besides, I had very little to say about Derrek Lee, and he deserves better. Derrek's time will come. For now, this blog's time to end has come. Thanks for reading! We'll talk more later.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

About a week ago, I was engaged in conversation with two men who I can always count on to talk my ear off when it comes to sports. I don't see as much of them as I used to, but when we meet, we talk about sports like we all do nothing else in our lives but consume sports in any way possible. Admittedly, their knowledge of the sporting world fascinates, yet humbles me at the same time. I envy them. They spoke so highly of Dick Allen last week, and there I was, never having seen Allen bat, even on tape, to the best of my knowledge. Their names are Mr. Steve Scholten and Mr. Mark Russo (I used the "Mr." as a sign of my inferiority). Mr. Scholten is the father of Kim Scholten, who is one of my best friends. Mr. Russo is Kim's uncle and Mr. Scholten's brother in law.

Anyway, last week we were deep into a conversation that weaved its way through the many nuances of baseball -- ballparks, feared hitters, famed announcers, etc. -- when I brought up the right field porch at Yankee Stadium. I've never been to Yankee Stadium, but I can say without any reservations that it bugs me. Three-hundred-fourteen feet down the right field line? A-ha! Now we know why Babe Ruth hit all those home runs. Side note, in all seriousness, I believe Ruth was the greatest baseball player that ever lived. And ironically, it was Mr. Scholten who convinced me, during a separate conversation a while back, that the Bambino was indeed the greatest player to ever man a baseball diamond. Since then, I've defended Ruth on numerous occasions as baseball's best.

Back to the story at hand, we were discussing the Yankees' seven-run eighth inning earlier in the day when Mr. Scholten mentioned that Yankee hitters never hit the ball hard during the rally, and he was right. Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter had the biggest hits of the inning and both were jam-shot flares into right field. Then I added my two cents.

"Even Giambi's home run was a joke," I interjected. "He hit it off the trademark, and it barely crept over that sorry excuse for a wall they have in right field there."

Mr. Scholten looked at me, fixed a grin, then said...

"That's why I love talking to you, Michael. You're always writing your next article."

That's when it hit me like a line drive comebacker up the middle. For the time being, there was no next article. Yes, I wrote a sports column for four years at the Daily Illini, but those days were gone. Where would I go? The easy answer would be to find a job, which I've been working on, but for now I've decided to start this blog. I love writing. I love sports. And yes, Mr. Scholten, I am always thinking about how I can craft my thoughts on sports into a block of printed words. So, it's only natural to continue writing about sports, even if it is this little thing that only a handful of people will read. Hopefully, this thing will become a healthy obsession of mine, and some of you will continue to read it. I know many of you read my columns, so I hope you will find this blog equally entertaining. I promise you this will be the first of many pieces to come.

Mr. Scholten, you were right. I was writing my next article. Thanks for reading, everyone.