Friday, September 23, 2005

Has baseball "balance" arrived?

He dragged his feet on the steroid issue, wrestled with the players union during a couple of ugly labor disputes and helped deadlock an All-Star Game, but give baseball commissioner Bud Selig credit for this:

The pennant races have gotten progressively better during his tenure.

We're three weeks deep into September, the NFL is in its third week and college football is well underway yet more people in more cities are thinking about baseball.

Sure, the Yankees boast a $200 million payroll and the Braves are once again leading their division (yawn) but the Red Sox are right on the Yanks' heels, the Indians are on the verge of completing one of the most remarkable rallies in baseball history as they chase the White Sox and the Astros, Phillies, Marlins, A's and Padres are all eyeing the postseason heading into the season's final week.

This is good stuff. Perhaps competitive balance has arrived. If so, Selig must be given the bulk of the credit. Albeit reluctantly.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Bengals breed confidence

Solid quote from Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis during today's press briefing:

"Confidence comes from being prepared," Lewis said. "I tell our players they shouldn't be afraid to sit in the front row for the exam. If you prepared for the test, you should know the questions and the answers. Confidence is being prepared to do your job."

Of course, the biggest challenge for the 2-0 Bengals this week is OVER-confidence.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Great trivia question

The Reds released roving hitting instructor Jim Hickman as part of a series of moves made this week in their minor-league system.

Hickman was one of my favorite Chicago Cubs players growing up. He's also the answer to one of my favorite trivia questions.

Reds fans will always remember Pete Rose running over Ray Fosse to score the winning run in the 1970 All-Star Game at Riverfront Stadium. But, who delivered the hit which scored Rose?

You guessed it, it was Hickman.

You have my permission to stump your friends with that one.

A rare Friday night off

No high school football assignments tonight due to a family obligation.

This will undoubtedly be my only Friday night off until late November. It's also my first Friday evening free since the third week of August.

Can you imagine working all but one Friday night for three consecutive months?

Welcome to the wonderful world of sports writing.

Oh well, we choose our own fate.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Reds rally for Katrina relief

Sean Casey sat in the Batter’s Eye Pavilion at Great American Ball Park and autographed copies of the Oh Say Can You Sing CD prior to a Reds/Brewers game last week.

“Can you sing for us?,” asked one eager Reds fan.

“No, I’m more of a studio guy,” quipped Casey.

Casey, who was one of several major leaguers to perform on the CD, sings Toby Keith’s hit song How Do You Like Me Now.

But, the autograph session was not an attempt by the Reds first baseman to further his musical career.

Rather, all of the proceeds from the sale of the autographed CD’s went directly toward Matthew 25: Ministries and the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

“I had planned on doing a (CD) signing this year,” Casey said. “I decided to put the money toward the Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund. We've gotten together as a team and decided to raise some money. We can’t give our time but we can put some money toward helping out.”

Disasters such as Katrina bring out the best and worst of humanity.

For every looter and criminal terrorizing the streets of New Orleans, there were thousands of other examples of compassion and support among those looking to help people in need on the Gulf Coast.

The Reds and other local sports teams have responded generously in the wake of the hurricane’s devastation in New Orleans and in other parts of Louisiana and Mississippi.

Casey convinced each of his teammates to donate one day’s salary to the relief effort. The Reds players’ total donation was estimated to be more than $200,000.

This past Saturday, Raquel Aurilia, wife of Reds infielder Rich Aurilia, lent her beautiful voice to the cause by agreeing to give a copy of her CD single, The Need, to the first 300 fans entering Great American Ball Park provided they agree to donate $5 or more to hurricane victims.

“We wanted to help in some way, to not only seek help from others, but to give people a little something in return,” Raquel said. “Music is so therapeutic. By sharing the song with others, maybe it will leave them with a sense of hope when there are so many devastating things going on in the world today.”

At each of the Reds remaining home games at Great American Ball Park, barrels will be located at each gate. Fans can drop off canned food, cleaning supplies and personal hygiene products which will then be forwarded to the relief effort by Matthew 25: Ministries.

The Bengals also helped out by teaming with the Salvation Army and Clear Channel to raise more than $62,000 during their final preseason game against the Colts at Paul Brown Stadium.

Major League Baseball expected to generate more than $3 million in relief through various initiatives.

“We in Major League Baseball express our sorrow to those who have lost loved ones, and we pray for a swift recovery for those whose lives have been so tragically and unbearably disrupted,” said baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

It’s natural for sports writers and athletes to attempt to put things into ‘perspective’ when world events supersede the importance of runs, hits and touchdowns. Come to think of it, when don’t they?

As Casey patrolled his hotel in Houston, home to thousands of evacuees from the New Orleans area, he was afforded constant reminders of the dire reality of their situation.

Hurricane Katrina challenged our country in a manner not experienced since 9/11. But, this is very different. There was no terrorist steering Katrina toward the Louisiana coastline with the intention of killing thousands of Americans to forward a religious and political agenda. Katrina was a natural disaster; an act of ‘God’.

Hurricanes have been rolling across the globe for millions of years unimpeded. If the storms could talk, they’d probably tell us to get off the beach. To build our million-dollar mansions, luxury resort hotels and tourist destinations elsewhere.

Much like volcanoes, tornados and earthquakes, hurricanes are a necessary and, in many respects, beneficial force of nature. It’s the price we pay for living on a rocky planet with an atmosphere and a sun. Hurricanes enrich our coastlines and provide new resources for wildlife. They also, on occasion, bring death and destruction to populated coastline communities.

As hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana and Mississippi deal with the loss of property and loved ones, many folks in other parts of the country were just as concerned about their stock options and rising gas prices.

Disasters such as Katrina come along once or maybe twice a century. When they do occur, our faith and even our trust in one another are put to the test.

There’s an age-old saying that God gives us only what he believes we can handle.

Amid all of the political posturing over who’s at fault for the failed levees, and why it took more than four days for adequate federal assistance to arrive, Hurricane Katrina offered many examples of how Americans can rally for each other.

“We need for our whole country to open up their hearts and their wallets and give these people what they can't get,” said Casey.

Now, that’s a tune we can all sing.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The bar has been raised ... Bengals head to Cleveland

There’s a popular coaching cliché which tells us no team is as good as people think or as bad as people think.

The Bengals surrender themselves to the court of public opinion at 1 p.m. Sunday when they play their season-opener against the Browns in Cleveland.

How big is this game?

If the Bengals win, they’ll return home to begin a stretch of three games against the Vikings, Bears and Texans; teams which combined for just 20 wins last season.

Visions of a 4-0 start will be dancing in the Bengals’ heads. Teams who begin the season 4-0 typically reach the playoffs, a plateau not achieved by the Bengals since 1990.

Even 2-2 would be an improvement after consecutive 1-4 starts which inevitably prevented the Bengals from extending their season beyond the first week of January for the first time in 14 years.

Lose to the Browns, and they’ll be serenaded with a chorus of that unpopular tune, “Same Old Bengals” cascading throughout the Lake Erie waterfront.

The Browns are out to prove they’re better than last year’s 4-12 club.

The Bengals are looking to escape the bounds of mediocrity following back-to-back 8-8 campaigns.

The Browns have won 5 of the last 7 meetings. And, let’s face it, neither team or city cares too much for the other.

“(The Browns) are going to try to win the football game,” said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. “People come hard after you every week, but there will be some excitement when we go to Cleveland.”

It’s easy to say the preseason doesn’t matter, especially when your team has played as inconsistently as the Bengals have this summer. They appeared to have hit rock bottom in a 27-17 loss to the defending NFC champion Eagles in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, Lewis kept hammering home this point:

“What you did in ’03 and ’04 doesn’t matter,” he said. “This is a new year. The bar has been raised.”

The entire preseason regime beginning with ‘Camp Marvin’ at Georgetown College has been geared to preparing the team for a fast start. While ESPN pundits were singing the Bengals’ praises and fans were gobbling up season ticket packages at a record pace, Lewis struggled to put the blinders on his players.

“You guys (the media) have beat them into a frenzy,” he said. “They think they’re pretty good. What have we done? We haven’t done anything. We’re not here to be average. There’s a certain sense of urgency now of things that need to be done.”

Much of the optimism stems from the off-season retention of Rudi Johnson, who rushed for 1,454 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, and the continued maturation of QB Carson Palmer.

The Bengals have one of the deepest receiving corps in the NFL led by the flamboyant and quotable Chad Johnson and his Oregon State University pal T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Top draft choice, defensive end David Pollack, who signed after a lengthy holdout, should help anchor an improved defense.

But, honestly, much of the excitement surrounding the Bengals this summer is that they’ve been on the brink of the playoffs in each of Lewis’ first two seasons as head coach. The Bengals won 6 of their last 9 games last season.

Lewis has tried to shield his team from the hype. In a sense, he seemed oddly pleased with his team’s poor play during the preseason giving him more ammo for what many players considered the toughest preseason practices in the NFL.

“I’m never happy,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a wake up call, but you have to be consistent when you play good football teams. We need a consistent level of execution in all three phases. That’s what we’re not very good at. We need to coach harder and work harder every day.”

The Bengals won’t be taken lightly by opponents this season. Considering their recent history, rivals also won’t be losing any sleep playing them either.

“The AFC North teams have gotten better,” said Lewis. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. They haven’t been staying up at night worrying about us.”

At approximately 4 p.m. on Sunday, Bengals fans will know whether they should begin to worry.

“From what everybody tells me, I guess this year is supposed to be pivotal,” Lewis said. “Every year is pivotal. Getting back to mediocrity has not gone to our heads. We all want to go to Detroit.”

Detroit’s Ford Field is the site of Super Bowl XL.

Browns Stadium should be the only NFL venue on the Bengals’ minds this week.