Saturday, September 17, 2016

Notes From The Sports Desk, Mid-September 2016

1) Baseball is interesting again. Not because of any great changes in the sport, but because my favorite team is good again. Funny how that works...The Red Sox are not home free yet; they lead the division , but there are still four teams within six games of them with fifteen to play, and the wild card picture is too complicated for even someone at home with this sort of stuff like me to figure out. And this team is unlikely to win the World Series; their bullpen is an absolute horror show, they have an annoying tendency to either score fifteen runs or one in a given game, and a few players that looked like they were having seasons for the ages earlier in the year have cooled off.
But there is a lot of reason for hope. They have the majors' only 20-game winner, and he is the third-best pitcher in their rotation when everyone's healthy. David Ortiz is having the best season of any 40YO in major league history; if not for Jose Altuve in Houston running away with the batting title, he would be a legitimate Triple Crown threat. At 40 years old, I repeat. Although Travis Shaw, Xander Boegarts, and Jackie Bradley, Jr. have cooled off, Hanley Ramirez and Mookie Betts have heated up, and the other long-time veteran Sox, Dustin Pedroia, is hitting close to .500 the last month and is, improbably, the best leadoff man in the game again. Catching, a weak spot since Tek retired, is being handled by Sandy Leon, one of the best stories of the year; he had a career average of .180 coming into the season, and is still hitting .350 well into September.
And they can play defense, too. Bradley, Betts, and Pedroia are all are Gold Glove caliber, and Ramirez, a shortstop just three years ago, has found a position he can play effectively again at first. Again, the bullpen kills this team; they should be leading the division by ten games, but couldn't close out a game with the lead for three months. But it seems to be coming together at the right time, and the last two nights, they have beaten the Yankees with an improbable rally and an ass-kicking. I am looking forward to October, and will even tolerate Joe Buck and whoever announces games with him now for the chance to win a fourth World Series in twelve years.
And three words I haven't heard in many years are Bucky Fucking Dent.
2) The Bills have turned into the Ryan Shit Show. They are 0-2, look lost, and have pissed away all the seeming progress made only two years ago. I don't  have the heart to list all the stupidities of Rex Ryan, but like his father, he has become a caricature of himself, wedded to ideas that were novel a decade ago but are not really effective anymore. And they simply do not have an offensive line capable of sustaining a decent offense. The Bills are going to be 4-12 this year, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
3) NASCAR's Chase for the Cup starts tomorrow. And I couldn't tell you who is in it. Much to my surprise, my interest in the sport completely evaporated after Jeff Gordon retired. I suppose, if I had to name one, I would admit to a passing interest in Kurt Busch, but that's about it, and he's certainly not enough of an interest to make me chase down whatever obscure cable channel NBC has relegated the telecasts to. What a waste of time and money that was. And with ESPN now not covering any races, good luck finding coverage online from the world's biggest sports network.
All snark aside, there is one thing above all else killing interest in NASCAR; the perception that some teams are cheating and getting away with it. Several teams routinely fail post-race inspections, and the worst that happens is some poor crew member loses a paycheck for six weeks. But the competitive advantage remains unabated.
On the plus side, several unknowns won races this year, putting them in the Chase, and in the world's most unsurprising development, Danica Patrick never sniffed the winner's circle for the 431st year in a row. I think her contract is up this year, and she has been thoroughly exposed as a no-talent bimbo. Her sponsorship is drying up, and I can only hope she is without a ride next year.
4) Soccer season has started in England. Yes, I know hardly anyone gives a shit on this side of the pond (although I must give a shout to my work colleague Manny, who is a big international fan, and who has passed a few hours with me debating the various merits of teams around the world), but the Premier League started a month ago. And for the first time in a while, my favorite team, the Everton Toffees, are near the top of the table (what the Euros call standings). They've benefited from an easy beginning schedule, but they also have improved by subtraction in two key areas. One was a coaching change; whatever the merits of the former guy, the team had clearly quit on him by last spring, and so Ronald Koeman looks like a genius in his new gig. The other is that one of the few soccer players Americans know, goalie Tim Howard, was finally let out to pasture by Everton, largely because his 16-save performance in the last World Cup against Belgium was the only good game he played, it seems, in the last four years. Everton has gotten quality goalie play, and it is making a huge difference.
And they have one of the world's best-kept secrets, Romalu Lukaku, as their star. He had a hat trick last Monday, and if he is going to fill the net all season long, this team may well be playing in the Champions League next year. A second improbable league title in a row would be too much to ask for (especially since last year's Cinderella story, Leicester City, are the ordinary team they likely always were this year), but Everton, always good-to-OK but never a contender in the last twenty years, would be a great story, too (they are based, for all you reading that don't know, in Liverpool). I am looking forward to seeing how this plays out.

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