Sunday, June 28, 2009

WHALERS HYPOCRISY

Talk about charlatans, how about the group that calls itself the Hartford Whalers Booster Club.

First of all, they say they’re trying to bring the NHL back to Hartford. Didn’t the NHL commish Gary Bettman make it abundantly clear that such a prospect was about as probable as ice forming on the Connecticut River in August?

Given the condition of the Hartford Civic (nee XL) Center, the NHL certainly wouldn’t occupy such an obsolete facility, so a Whalers rebirth would require a new building. Why would anybody put funds into something like that when the Hartford Wolf Pack can’t even attract a quorum in the deadest downtown since Dry Gulch, Nevada?

But the real audacity comes when you consider that the Whalers Booster Club, I’m told, shuns the Wolf Pack because they’re not in the NHL. In essence, they’re minor league. And where do they come to peddle their empty dreams? New Britain Stadium, where the dreaded idea of minor league sports attracted over 8,000 people on Saturday night.

They actually parked in the Rock Cats’ radio booth and said the state needs the Whalers to return to “put Connecticut on the map.” I guess what’s happened in Storrs since Tate George made “The Shot” doesn’t qualify with their mapmakers? The Whalers can come back and win five Stanley Cup titles and won’t have the impact of what Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma have brought here.

I think most intelligent sports fans recognize that Hartford is not Boston and it is not New York City. Connecticut’s proximity to those metropolitan areas may elicit some envy, but the Whalers Booster Club and their like perhaps will someday understand that the state is simply not a major league venue. We have our Huskies, and we have a perfectly wonderful and well-received minor league baseball situation with the Rock Cats.

From a professional sports standpoint, Connecticut is minor league, and thousands of Rock Cats fans attest that most are damned proud of it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A VACATION INSPIRES

Vacations are meant to pull folks away from the subject matter that dominates their professional lives, so when my wife Lisa and I set out for our getaway, I put sports on the back-burner and immersed myself into the fascinating domain of Ameican history.

First we went to Gettysburg, Pa., where voices of the pivotal Civil War battle July 1-3, 1863 can still be heard if you pay close attention. We stood among the graves where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. We contemplated his words and marveled in their profound meaning.

We stayed at an inn adjacent to Gen. Robert E. Lee's headquarters. We thought about the agonizing decisions he was forced to make. When tensions rose before the war, he had to decide whether to fight for the preservation of the union that he grew to love during his time at West Point, or for the tenets of his native state, Virginia.

We absorbed the strategy he configured as he led the Army of Northern Virginia through Maryland and into Gettysburg. A Southern victory surely would have altered the course of the war, and how close he got.

We dined in an old building -- the Farnsworth House -- which still bears the scars of bullets that ricocheted off brick. From where one stray bullet killed Jennie Wade, the only civilian to be slain in the battle, while she baked bread for Union soliders.

I stood on the "Angle," the very point where Confederate General George Pickett led his ill-fated charge at the Federal's center on the battle's third day, Lee's last gasp. We ascended Little Round Top, where General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his 20th Maine regiment used raw courage to beat back a Confederate attack when their ammunition had run out.

"... from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain ..."

Lincoln's words still ring clear 200 years after his birth. Every American should have the chance to absorb his spirit at the spot they were issued.

From there, it was on to Colonial Williamsburg, where the history of the days leading up to the American Revolution come alive before your very eyes. We took part in a debate in which Virginians of the 1780s wrestled with the choice of seeking independence or standing by England's King George III.

We witnessed a 1706 witch trial where the prosecuting attorney delivered such a strong case that we were wondering just how the accused woman could be anything but a witch.

An agitated re-enactor comes running down the street to inform the Williamsburg populace that a British regiment over 1,000 strong is on the edge of town. A short time later, we are given a forceful address by famous turncoat Benedict Arnold on why we should place our loyalty behind our king instead of a rag-tag group of rebels with no chance to succeed.

We made a side to nearby Jamestown, the site of the first English settlement on North American soil in 1607, where archaeologists have unearthed thousands of revealing artifacts that display the hardships encountered by the brave people who left the relative comforts of England to settle a new world.

But perhaps the most compelling aspect of our journey was another side trip to Yorktown, where the troops of British general Lord Cornwallis laid down their arms at the feet of George Washington in the battle that signalled the end of the American Revolution.

The redoubts (small, heavily armed forts) over-run by the French and American troops remain in tact on a pristine field just outside of town. A self-guided auto tour of the battlefield reveals the essence of strategy employed by Washington's colonials and their French comrades in tightening the vice on Cornwallis, whose plan to escape across the river was thwarted.

The very field where Cornwallis' men, overcome with despair, tossed their weapons in a pile with the victorious American and French lined up on either side, remains untouched. But Cornwallis wasn't there that day. He lie in a Yorktown rooming house, reportedly too ill to attend the proceedings.

Standing alone, next to Surrender Field, left me with a feeling of inspiration, pride and eternal appreciation of what the men who fought there accomplished.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

MiLB: A DIFFERENT KIND OF 'SHOW'

The more I delve into the nature of minor league baseball, the more I realize how different it is than its big-league counterpart. In fact, it's amazing how different it is than most any other sports entity.

Most of us close to the minors are well aware that player development is of premier importance, moreso than winning. It should go without saying. Why else would MLB clubs infuse millions of dollars into their minor league teams? Establishing a reseve of young talent has never been so crucial as it is today with injuries, particular to pitchers, so prevalent.

MLB teams will reinforce the idea that winning is important, and of course it is. Winning is an attitude that can develop among a core of minor league players and translate into big-league success.

The Twins are a great example. In 1998, the Rock Cats featured 1B Doug Mientkiewicz, SS Cristian Guzman, OF Jacque Jones, OF Torii Hunter, C A.J. Pierzynski and LHP J.C. Romero as they crushed their way to the Northern Division pennant. Within the next two seasons, they were the core of a young Twins club that was playoff-bound.

In 2001, the Rock Cats roared the Eastern League pennant with 3B Michael Cuddyer, 1B Justin Morneau, OF Michael Restovich, OF Dustan Mohr, RHP Juan Rincon and OF Lew Ford, many of whom figured prominently in the next wave to Minnesota.

But winning is simply a desirable byproduct of development, and fans need to appreciate minor league games for what they are. It's fine if fans want to immerse themselves in pennant races, batting championships and powerful statistics but the real value to the fan is appreciating the sterling defensive plays, late-inning rallies and powerful pitching performances because they're all there for the watching.

When the Rock Cats lost set-up man Rob Delaney to Triple-A Rochester, the first reaction is to dwell on what the team lost. Delaney's contribution to the Cats over the first 10 weeks of the season was monumental. But when the disappointment of losing him diminishes, we have to be happy for the player, happy for the Cats coaching staff for inspiring Delaney and happy that the Twins' system is producing.

In the big leagues, there is little to be happy about other than winning.

Vince Lombardi ("Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.") may not have liked the concept, but minor league baseball provides the excitement of watching young players develop.

In New Britain, we marvel in the fact that Kyle Lohse, now a multi-millionaire with the St. Lous Cardinals, was once 3-18 with a 6.04 ERA with the Rock Cats in 2000. How about Ron Mahay, a light-hitting outfielder with the New Britain Red Sox in the early 1990s, still in the big leagues as a left-handed relief pitcher?

We can also marvel about having the chance to see how a young Joe Mauer blended remarkable talent with that intangible "feel" for the game into super-stardom. And how left-handed hitting Jason Kubel took the EL by storm for a mere month, showing the Twins that his ability was at a higher level.

On the other side of the coin, we have seen highly touted first-round bonus babies hit the wall and splatter into the domain of working stiffs like most of us tend to be. Remember pitcher Adam Johnson? How about the sad cases of LHP Ryan Mills and OF B.J. Garbe, great young guys who for one reason or another didn't have what it takes.

There's nothing I'd rather see then an EL pennant flying majestically over New Britain Stadium, but you know what? There's nothing wrong with just enjoying the baseball as the games go rolling by.

Friday, June 5, 2009

LIP LASHES OUT

I don't often do this but the emotions are bubbling to the surface and if I don't let it out with a primal scream, I'm afraid I'll implode. And none of you want that, at least until you read what lies ahead.


 

HEADLINE – David Ortiz suffers through slump


 

LIP'S QUIP – Go ahead, fair-weather Bosox boosters. Hammer away. What have you done for me lately? Make a mistake and get outta here. Those two world championships were a long time ago and Papi's hitting .187. As an acquaintance of David when he played for the New Britain Rock Cats in 1996 and visited when the Minnesota Twins played an exhibition game in our fair city, I can tell you that he's is wonderfully human, not some clutch-hitting machine who exists for the pleasure of the most narrow-minded sports fans in the country.

And you call yourself blue-staters, compassionate liberals who can't wait to support the next candidate who eschews bleeding-heart causes, but you dump on the guy who carried your beloved team to two championships. I don't care if Ortiz hits .087. You should kiss the ground he walks on for what he did for your 86 years of suffering. For the way you've all treated him, I wish your seasons without fulfillment were at 93 and counting.


 

HEADLINE – Phoenix Mercury allow sponsors on jerseys


 

LIP'S QUIP – I've heard all the rationalization for propping up the WNBA. It supports Title XI legislation. Hey, it's common in European soccer and NASCAR. Any more excuses for the public not buying into women's professional basketball in many of the cities it's in?

Let me preface any further comments with this: I love watching the women play hoop. You won't find a stauncher supporter than me when it comes to reporting on scholastic girls sports or most any amateur endeavor involving women. I am not a sexist, and I can give you the names of 1,000 females who would bristle at the suggestion. And I hope and pray that Tony DiCicco's women's soccer league can make the grade. But when it comes to success at the professional level, you're in a different universe. People have to be willing to dig into their pockets and pay the price of admission.

This has never been a problem at Mohegan Sun. The union of the highly successful casino complex and the WNBA was well-conceived and a blessing for a region that relishes women's basketball. I'm sorry to say that the same love for the sport does not exist across the width and breadth of our nation. The demise of the Houston franchise is a solemn warning. Face it, if it wasn't for the long arms of the NBA serving as a safety net, the WNBA would be fighting for its life.

So I wish the Mercury good luck in their sponsorship decision, and I'll always love Diana no matter what she wears on her jersey, but when seawater starts leaking into the galley, it's not long before the ship starts listing.


 

HEADLINE – Pirates trade All-Star OF Nate McLouth to Braves


 

LIP'S QUIP – Speaking of sinking ships, here is another reason for the proud fans of Pittsburgh to hibernate between the Penguins' final power play of the season and the beginning of NFL training camp. How can fans and sponsors in the Steel City possibly lay out their hard-earned dollars to support a team that hasn't had a winning season since I was wearing bell-bottoms and continue to deal away their future? I saw McLouth come through the Pirates' system and he's an exciting, productive, young player who could serve as a key piece for a pennant-winning club. Haven't they as much as told their fans that they will not be able to compete in the climate that currently exists in baseball.

The once-proud Buccos aren't alone on the small-market express to Downtown Disintegration. How can the Oakland A's in all good conscience market that brutal ballclub with all its pitching peddled to large markets to their loyal (but scant) subjects? Tim Hudson. Dan Haren. Rich Harden. Barry Zito. Joe Blanton. Huston Street. Jason Isringhausen. Some have been more productive than others but the ongoing fire sale on the Oakland hill must disturb somebody other than me.

Baseball is headed for an apocalypse, perhaps not in my lifetime, but how long will small-market teams continue to commit hara-kiri (no, not the late Cubbies announcer) and lure their fans and supporters to a spiral staircase with no top floor? And remember, Red Sox and Yankee fans who care only about their own teams, you have to have somebody to play other than each other, the Angels, Dodgers and Phillies.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

ROCK CATS MAKING A RUN

Tempus fugit -- Time flies -- Long time between blogs.

Most of my time is spent following the very resilient New Britain Rock Cats, who at this writing have moved to within a game of the lead in the Eastern League's Northern Division.

The Rock Cats have used a potent lineup to crash their way toward the top. Rob Delaney, who today was deservingly promoted to Triple-A Rochester, and Anthony Slama have consistently turned in exceptional work out of the bullpen.

We knew the starters weren't going to light up the velocity meters but they have persevered.

Cole DeVries went undrafted after his career at the University of Minnesota but has made his way methodically through the Minnesota Twins system. As I watch him pitch and talk with him afterward, I quickly comprehend that DeVries is an intelligent young man who absorbs his lessons extremely well. He doesn't blow hitters away, and while his record hovers around .500, he always keeps the Cats in a game. Most managers will tell you that's all they can expect.

Matt Fox emerged as the top starter in May. Fox, a right-hander, was a first-round sandwich pick for the Twins in 2004 but major shoulder surgery cost him a season and some of his velocity.

The surgically reconstructed shoulder is fine but leaves him wondering if he will ever get back the velocity he once had. My first reaction was, probably not, but who knows? In the meantime, Fox battles. Over his last four starts, he's 4-0 with an 0.74 ERA. He's become the stopper.

Jay Rainville and Ryan Mullins have both struggled with their command. Since neither is overpowering, their margin for error is small. They succeed when they keep their pitches down in the strike zone and attack the hitters.

Jeff Manship, projected as the number one starter, has shown glimpses lately of the pitcher he was at high-A Fort Myers last year. The walks have diminished and the ERA has dropped a whole run over his last two outings.

On the offensive side, there is no question that Danny Valencia is going to be a very fine major league third baseman. He fields his position well and profiles well offensively with power that makes the ball jump off his bat. He's been hindered by nagging injuries that keep him out for a few games. Every time he comes back, he punishes pitchers. He is among the best players in the EL and will likely move to Triple-A before long.

Catching prospect Wilson Ramos missed three weeks when he broke the tip of his middle finger on his left hand. We're all looking forward to seeing Ramos play for an extended period of time over the next few months so we can get a better idea just how good he is and how good he can be.

Brandon Roberts is an effective leadoff hitter and a decent center fielder. His talents are very important to the offense because he's one of the few Rock Cats who can slap base hits around and use his wheels to set the table for the sluggers and change the course of close ballgames with his wheels.

Rene Tosoni and Whit Robbins have made tremendous strides in adjusting to EL ball. They both hit with power and Robbins is truly establishing himself as a big-league prospect by spraying base hits in between booming homers. Both have played well defensively, too.

In Yancarlos Ortiz, the Rock Cats have a shortstop with plus range and a strong arm. He'll occasionally mess up a routine play but gives the Cats strength up the middle and a solid double-play tandem with second baseman Brian Dinkelman.

All in all, the team has competed well and is well worth the price of admission at New Britain Stadium, but I probably don't have to tell you that. With all the folks who are streaming through the gates at the Emerald, you must have been among them by now. If not, whaddya waitin' for.