Friday, September 18, 2009

Oscar's wrong: Take 'Pretty Boy' to win

Don’t listen to Oscar De La Hoya. The Golden Boy's belief that the ancient warrior Juan Manuel Marquez will best the undefeated Floyd Mayweather Jr. shows De La Hoya has taken one punch to the head too many.

The Mayweather-Marquez fight Saturday night in Las Vegas, regardless of who wins, probably won’t live up to its expectations. Mayweather is rusty; Marquez is old, which should turn the fight into don’t-bother-to-see TV.

I wish Mayweather had fought Marquez four years ago. I wish the two men were fighting with Mayweather at his sharpest. But what we have is a fight that’s been all-too typical of pro boxing in the past 20 years: the right matchup put together at the wrong time.

In some ways, I look at the fight as yawner for television viewers. Even with a discounted Pay-Per-View cost, the fight isn’t worth your money. You have no way of predicting how fit to fight Mayweather, who had to push back the fight date after hurting his ribs, will be.

One thing you can predict, though, is his strategy.

Even at his sharpest, he fought with caution; he took few risks, preferring to dazzle opponents, judges and fans with his superior speed. Never was Mayweather the hardest puncher in his weight division. He was often dull, so he can’t be expected to change that hit-and-run approach and go toe-to-toe with Marquez.

What the fight will develop into is Marquez trying to chase Mayweather, applying his unrelenting pressure and hoping to punish the younger Mayweather inside. But there’s one cautionary tale to that approach: Marquez is a smaller fighter than Mayweather.

If anything might favor Marquez, aside from De La Hoya’s opinion, it’s that he’s battle-tested. Mayweather hasn’t fought in a long, long time. But Marquez, as De La Hoya knows, isn't the fight Mayweather and fight fans everywhere were looking for.

That dream fight is Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao, and it could happen.

That’ll be the mega-fight that will be a PPV bonanza. It should happen if “Pretty Boy Floyd” looks good winning. But will fight fans have to wait an eternity to see it?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ban on Pete Rose shouldn't be for life ...

I’m on a listserve with sports journalists who enjoy the give and take of talking sports. Maybe that’s putting what we do too politely, because our discussions can be lively as an Ohio State-Michigan football game. We often wage war over differing points of view.

We aren’t above being irreverent, politically incorrect or downright silly, such has the two or three-day discussions of fried chicken. Popeye’s and KFC didn’t get a mention in this freewheeling chitchat.

One of the listserve’s recent topics was Pete Rose. We kicked around whether Rose was a better leadoff hitter than Rickey Henderson. We never did reach a consensus, though I reminded my comrades that Henderson’s speed made him far more dangerous than Rose. I got nowhere with that reasoning.

Yet what livened the discussion most was the position some people about Rose’s not being in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. One person argued that how can a Hall of Fame hold any credibility if the man with the most hits in the sport’s history isn’t worthy of enshrinement.

Actually, worthiness has nothing to do with the doors to Cooperstown be closed to Rose. He’s absent from baseball’s holiest temple because he flouted its most sacred rule: no betting on the sport.

Evidence that he did brought Rose a lifetime ban, and it looks as if the ban will last his lifetime, which is the pity. Pete Rose deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

There, I’ve said it.

For me, the position is a 180-degree turn. I thought Commissioner Bud Selig, or whoever has kept Rose on the banned list, might rightfully be waiting for Rose to die before lifting the ban. At one point, I agreed with Selig; it made sense.

Now, I believe Selig does baseball and its faithful a disservice by keeping the greatest goodwill ambassador the sport has ever seen ineligible for election to the Hall of Fame. For no player, banned or not, has traveled to more baseball venues, signed more people’s autograph books, shaken more hands and taken more photographs than Pete Rose, yet he remains in baseball’s purgatory.

Selig should commute Rose’s sentence, as Hank Aaron has asked, to the 20 years served. He should do so for the men and women, boys and girls who think keeping Charlie Hustle outside the family of baseball hurts the game more than anything he did when he bet on it.

The commissioner should look at the Rose situation this way: Twenty years is a long time to keep a man in his personal hell.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Quit the coyness, LeBron: Stay or go to ...

LeBron James will release his much-hyped autobiography in New York City tomorrow, which might not be a surprise since, well, New York City is New York City.

C'mon, did anybody expect him to release it in Peoria?

Yet his decision to pick New York for the book release over, say, Cleveland or his hometown of Akron might signal something that King James has avoided doing: revealing his intentions.

Is he a Cavalier for the long haul?

Staying or going, I wish LeBron James, a free agent after this season, would say. Those two words will be pulling him deep into next season like a tugboat. He has evaded answering questions about his intentions as if he were Osama bin Laden.

Rumors sayJames is going to the Knicks or to the Nets, and he had a chance to kill those rumors last month when he premiered his film at a journalism convention in Tampa. He didn’t.

He left Tampa with his future as a Cavalier just as uncertain as ever. Yeah, yeah, Northeast Ohio has been good to him, he says. He loves it here; these are his people; this is his town; this is his team. He says so all the time.

But if what he says is true, he should end the guessing game. No NBA team, by rule, can pay James as much as the Cavaliers can. Even if a team could, no community could lavish as much love on him as Northeast Ohio does. He’s its prodigal son, and the community would like nothing better, aside from the Browns winning the Super Bowl, than to see James stay beyond the 2009-10 season.

All the reasons for him staying here make sense. He’s all he can be here: rich, famous and an untouchable brand, an icon of sort. He’s the face of a region that has needed some of his stature.

People tell me that James owes them an answer, because they fear the longer he holds off with an answer that he’ll do what Jim Thome, Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez did and leave for a bigger stage.

What stage can be bigger for a global personality like James?

He would be ungodly famous even if he played in Butte, Montana. He doesn’t need Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles or Miami to remain the league’s pinup boy. Yet maybe all the good things King James says about his hometown aren’t really as important as standing in Madison Square Garden and hearing New Yorkers cheer his play.

He'll hear what those cheers sound like at his book release.

Friday, September 11, 2009

OSU risks season against USC

Style doesn’t count. If it did, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel would be one of the most disagreeable men on the planet after seeing his Buckeyes struggle last Saturday to beat Navy.

Their four-point victory resurrected questions about the quality of Tressel’s program, and with No. 3 Southern California coming to the Horseshoe tomorrow, OSU fans seem to have reasons to worry.

For the Trojans aren’t the Midshipmen. Considering the trouble Tressel had in beating them, he can hardly be sending his Buckeyes onto the field with overconfidence. He needs nobody to tell him that his teams haven’t been impressive against elite opponent outside the conference since upsetting Miami to win the National Championship in 2003.

Those were the glory days, although it would be foolish to argue that Ohio State hasn’t had success since then. Tressel has a powerhouse – at least inside the conference.

That’s the point: The Big Ten might not be an elite conference anymore. Even in the first week of the season, the conference had its challenges. Iowa barely beat Northern Iowa, and Illinois lost to Missouri.

The teams that won were playing opponents beneath their stature. Who didn’t expect embattled Michigan to beat Western Michigan or Penn State to beat Akron?

The schedule gets tougher in Week 2. Michigan plays Notre Dame; Purdue plays Oregon; and Minnesota plays Cal. And the headliner on this week’s schedule is Ohio State vs. USC, a game that will either validate Tressel’s program or prove once again how overrated the Big Ten is.

Lose to the Trojans, and even if the Buckeyes run the table, they won’t enter the discussion for BCS Championship Game. Even if they do beat USC, they will have a difficult time making critics forget lousy performances against Florida and Louisiana State.

Those losses have defined what Tressel’s Buckeyes – and, consequently, the Big Ten itself -- are. On paper, they look good. They have size and quickness and speed. Everybody agrees on that.

What they don’t have is superior quickness, disciplined aggression and top-end speed. Man to man, they have been a step slower than they can afford to be against the USCs, LSUs and UFs of college football. Overwhelming bulk can’t counter quickness, Tressel and OSU fans have learned.

These have been embarrassing lessons. Public canings always are. But big-time football isn’t played in a garage. It’s played in 100,000-seat stadiums with national TV cameras focused on the outcome.

In these settings, players earn Heismans and coaches grow rich. Their reputations are forged, forever etched into the game’s archives.

Coaches must win, though. When they don’t win, they suffer the wrath of the second-guessers – critics, who never see too many wins or too much success. It’s never about the past with them; it’s about the present.

But this is the bargain with the devil that the coaches like Tressel make when they accept jobs at a major program. They’re expected to pound the lesser programs like Navy and hold up well against the Trojans, the Tigers and the Gators.

That’s the situation Jim Tressel finds him in a day before he sends his No. 8 Buckeyes against Southern Cal. They had their tune-up; they worked out the kinks. Now, they play to stay alive for a National Championship.

They can push that thought out of their minds if they lose, as critics of the Big Ten say they will, to the Trojans.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

9/11 has lessons to teach us ...

Eight years have past since I watched aghast on Sept. 11, 2001, as the second jetliner plowed into one of the Twin Towers, which ended up as rubble on the busy streets of Manhattan.

An act of terrorism didn’t just leave two buildings in a heap; the American spirit was left in shambles, too. For the first time in perhaps a generation, this country had its confidence shaken.

Not that America hasn’t had its share of tragic times, it has. No one who came of age in the late 1920s and '30s can forget the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the '60s, the streets of big cities ran red with blood as race riots threatened to split America at the seams: one side white; the other black.

Of a more recent vintage, the bombing in Oklahoma City scared this country straight.

Yet all these bloody events did, and others as well, was test our fortitude. Americans proved they weren’t going to put their democracy in a storage shed. They were going to work hard – and work together -- to reassemble the pieces.

The hard work began quickly. The act of terror on U.S. soil did bring this nation together. The dust and smoke were still thick in the New York City air when people like Bobby Valentine, the Mets manager at the time, rolled up their sleeves.

Sift through the memories of Sept. 11, 2001, and pictures of Valentine stand out in Technicolor. He was on the front lines. He had accepted immediately a call to action, even though no one had issued the call.

With the nation and a baseball season at a standstill, Valentine lent his time and his money to help New York. He was everywhere he could be, doing whatever he could to jumpstart the city.

I still think about what Valentine did because, once the baseball schedule resumed, I was sent to Pittsburgh to cover the Mets-Pirates series, which had been moved from New York City because old Shea Stadium was a staging ground for rescue workers.

Inside PNC Park, Valentine gave what might have been the most profound pregame speech I had ever heard. He said not much about baseball, although reporters were in his office to talk baseball. He spoke about how proud he was of his players for pitching in. He spoke about his belief that America would stand tall again in the face of this horrific event and that its people would come together.

And its people did.

They shook off the fear that had paralyzed this country and went back to doing what Valentine, the best manager not working in the big leagues today, knew Americans would do: go on with living.

Eight years later, they haven’t buried 9/11. They never will; 9/11 hurts too much still. But they can’t stop doing what helped this country rebound.

Facing another crisis – and economic one -- they must pitch in now, lend a hand to someone else, let loose of the partisan rancor and accept that America is stronger as a whole than as a nation splintered.

Valentine, among others, helped spread that lesson. And memories of the Twin Towers, even if the mention of Valentine’s name might not, should remind each American what can be done when he takes on causes that matter.

Cooperstown-worthy, Ichiro? Absolutely ...

I’m not certain Ichiro Suzuki is the right topic to begin my first blog. Not that the enigmatic Ichiro isn't worthy of my writing about him; he is worthy. But I didn’t consider Ichiro a serious subject until I ran into a friend at the Mariners-Indians game late last month.

My friend’s name is Jon Paul Morosi, the national baseball writer for whom I met when I worked for The Seattle Times. In an article Jon wrote, he posed a question about Ichiro’s bona fides for the Hall of Fame.

What’s to question?

Dissect Ichiro’s body of work -- and Jon did -- and you see the Mariners star has won three batting titles and owns a truckload of Gold Gloves; he’s been a Rookie of the Year and an MVP, and he’s stolen more bases than somebody with his lean, muscular build ought to steal.

In his ninth season in the bigs, he’s on the verge of his ninth season with 200 or more hits. For his career, he’s within a handful of bases hits of 2,000, and if you were to count the total of hits Ichiro compiled while playing ball in the Japan League, Ichiro is at 3,000-plus hits and counting.

With numbers like his, a debate about Ichiro’s Hall-of-Fame worthiness would border on pointless were it not for the era itself. But unlike Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz, Ichiro has been one of the rare superstars whose career hasn’t had the taint of steroids painted on it.

Hall-of-Fame worthy?

Close the damn building if he ain’t. If Cooperstown honors the best, what ballplayer whose biography doesn’t include a chapter on performance-enhancing drugs has had a better decade than Ichiro?

Albert Pujols … maybe?

The fact Ichiro, 35, has only played nine seasons in the big leagues is of little significance in judging his career. Besides, absent a set of extraordinary circumstances, he will end up playing 10 or more seasons in the Majors Leagues, which means his career will match Sandy Koufax’s and Jackie Robinson’s in length. And didn’t both of these men find their way into Cooperstown?

Within reach of a fourth batting title, Ichiro is having a typical Ichiro-like season. His base hits just keep on coming. Each one brings him a step closer to baseball immortality alongside The Babe, Hammerin’ Hank, The Mick and Yaz.

A friend put it this way: “He should be a lock for the Hall of Fame ... best leadoff hitter or best hitter, period, of his generation ... single-season record for hits ... MVP award ... multiple gold gloves ... case closed!”

His last two words echo Jon Paul Morosi’s sentiments.

And so do I.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

'The Natural': The best there ever was

The seeds of “The Natural” were all Bernard Malamud’s, planted in his 1952 novel of the same name. The essence of director Barry Levinson's film, however, was pure Robert Redford.

The film version of “The Natural” turns 25 this year, but it seems like, oh, maybe a decade ago when the movie made its premier at theaters everywhere. The film was a tale of baseball, the sort of warm story that reminds us of how tied to our emotions the sport is.

But “The Natural” is more than a baseball tale, much in the way that “Field of Dreams,” a film littered with literary illusions to real characters, is more than a baseball tale. If any two movies defined sports movies, these did.

Both had a mystical aura to them. Kevin Costner’s portrayal of Ray Kinsella, a down-on-his-luck farmer who chased and caught his dream, might have had a richer, more textured storyline. As the centerpiece of a story about the game itself, Kinsella never measured up to Redford’s Roy Hobbs, a country bumpkin with a sweet as molasses swing.

For Hobbs allowed us to dream the possible, particularly those of us – I am an Indians fan, if anybody cared -- who have followed teams that, when they win anything, it is an impossible dream.

Cut to its essence, “The Natural” is mythology, a study in character; it’s a child-like sports fantasy in a different way than “Field of Dreams” is. For there is no game to win for Kinsella in his Iowa cornfield; he never concerned himself with winning; his concern was saving the past, ensuring that baseball and its legends lived on, unfettered by the changing world Kinsella found around him.

"Hey, is this Heaven?" Shoeless Joe Jackson asked.

"No," Kinsella told him, "it's Iowa."

The world Hobbs found was less idealistic. He had no “Moonlight Graham” or “Terrance Mann” to surround him. Hobbs’ world was one of users: men and women who wanted more than he could give them.

His world was corrupt, which seemed more real today than not. For isn’t the game of baseball corrupted now?

Corruption or not, Hobbs played through it. Though temptation came wrapped in a blonde package, he never let a dame’s allure compromise him. He wouldn’t throw a ballgame, not for her and not for all the money “The Judge” and his gang of hoodlums offered.

“The Natural” was a case study of moral character woven into a narrative about baseball. Unlike the dark ending Malamud crafted in his ’52 novel, the film ends as great fantasies always do: upbeat.

Hurting, his magical bat “Wonder Boy” broken and the son he never knew in the stands watching, Hobbs stands at home plate with a title for the Knights at stake. He swings a piece of lumber the chubby batboy gives him and … well, it’s a fantasy; who can’t figure out how it ends?

Twenty 25 years later, the ending to the greatest sports movie ever remains as magical now as ever. “The Natural” has aged well. As sports movies go, “Field of Dreams” is a no-hitter. So does that make “The Natural” a perfect game?