Friday, April 27, 2007

Sports Icons of my Childhood

My dad recently mailed me an article from the Seattle P.I. about Sonics play-by-play announcer Kevin Calabro, and it made me realize how much I loved watching the mid-90s Sonics play. As entertaining as Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Detliff Schrimph, and Sam Perkins were to watch, it would not have been the same without Calabro. I began to think about the sports icons I looked up to as a kid in Seattle… and here are my top ten:

1. Ken Griffey, Jr. – “Junior” as he was called burst onto the scene and took the Mariners from cellar-dweller to one of the most exciting teams in Major League Baseball. The "Refuse to Lose" 1995 season was one of the best summers of my life, going to games and listening on the radio as Griffey ironically had his first injury plagued and worst year of his young career. But he came up big in the playoffs, hitting .391 with 5 home runs against the Yankees. One of the great sports images in my mind is his picture-perfect swing. But the memory that will always stick with me of Junior was the image of him under a pile of teammates after scoring from first base on an Edgar Martinez double to win the ALDS. I’ve never seen someone run as fast around the bases in my life. It was the most amazing sporting event I have ever attended.

2. Marquis Tuiasosopo – The Washington Huskies option-quarterback from 1997-2000, he was one of the most exciting players I have ever watched. His freshman year he was forced into a game against eventual national-champion Nebraska due to an injury to the starting quarterback and threw for 270 yards and 2 TD, and that season became the first ever true freshman to start a game at quarterback for the Huskies. His career highlight came his junior year, where he became the only player in NCAA history to pass for over 300 and run for over 200 yards in a game, a 35-30 victory over Stanford. I remember watching that game, and I have never seen a performance like it. It was even more impressive than Vince Young’s Rose Bowl. No joke. In his senior season in 2000, Tuiasosopo led the Huskies to the Pac-10 title, an 11-1 record, and victory over Purdue and MVP in the Rose Bowl.

3. Shawn Kemp – The Reign Man, as Calabro called him, was a force to be reckoned with. He teamed with Payton to be one of the great guard/forward dynamic duos of all time. Like Payton, Kemp left Seattle on bad terms and ended his career even worse, but while he was in the Emerald City, he was king. I think only Ken Griffey, Jr. surpasses the excitement that Kemp brought to the Seattle sports scene. Like Griffey’s swing, Kemp’s dunks captivated an entire city during his reign.

4. Kevin Calabro – An amazing play-by-play announcer, with catch phrases such as “and Shawn Kemp takes it down THE BOULEVARD!” and “million dollar move, five cent finish.” His talents on air led to his simulcast of games on both TV and radio. Not many broadcasters can cater to both mediums at the same time.

5. Edgar Martinez – “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeedgarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!” I’m not sure who started it, but some crazy fan decided he would yell Edgar’s name for as long as he could when he came up to bat. It caught on and every time he came to the plate, fast scattered throughout the Kingdome (and later, Safeco Field) would compete and try to have the longest yell. I remember one time I almost passed out from trying to yell so loud. I also remember Edgar Martinez hitting the double that drove in Joey Cora and Ken Griffey, Jr. to beat the Yankees in game 5 of the 1995 ALDS. Edgar was a clutch performer and a class act, as well as a pleasure to watch play.

6. Randy JohnsonThe mullet, the slider, the fastball, and the intensity all took a major part in my love for Randy Johnson. A few Randy moments stick out in my mind above the others… the 500ft bomb he gave up to Mark McGwire while he was on Oakland, when he came out of the bullpen to face the Yankees in the 10th inning of Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS, and even his first game back in Seattle at the newly opened Safeco Field in 1999, when he shut us out and struck out 10 in a complete game, and received a standing ovation after each inning.

7. Dave Niehaus – The voice of the Seattle Mariners, I would listen to him every night until we got satellite TV (cable couldn’t run out to our house). I could never ask for more than the Mariners loading the bases, because if someone hit one out of the park it was time to “GET OUT THE RYE BREAD AND THE MUSTARD, GRANDMA! IT’S GRAND SALAMI TIME!"

8. Gary Payton – The Glove burst onto the Seattle scene from Oregon State and quickly made a name and reputation for himself throughout the league as a trash talker and defensive stopper. He ran the Sonics of the 90s, who will probably go down as one of my favorite bunch of balers of all time. He left Seattle on poor terms, but while he was there, it was nothing but love for GP.

9. Jay Buhner – “The Bone” was famous for his bald head, high strikeout rate, power at the plate, “the catch” in Boston where he went over the wall in right, his rocket arm, and my favorite, Buhner Buzz Cut Night. One year as a promotion, the Mariners gave free tickets to anyone willing to have their head shaved. Each year, Buhner Buzz Night became more and more popular, even attracting women to participate. Every team needs a character and a tough guy. Buhner was both, and I loved him for it.

10. Cortez Kennedy – It is kind of sad that there is only one Seattle Seahawk on the list, and that he ranks tenth, but they were a straight AWFUL team throughout my childhood. Not to say I didn’t root for them and follow them, but there just were not a whole lot of players to become attached to. Shawn Springs was the only other guy who came close to making the list. Besides, the 1990s were a great decade for the Mariners and Sonics. Regardless, Cortez was a pleasure to watch, and was good enough to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1992 on a team that won only two games.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Seven Steps to Save the Supersonics
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The Sonics are not in a great place. They haven't been good at all in recent years, they have wasted their last 3 top picks on project centers (I wouldn't mind one... but 3?), and the threat that the team may pack up and move to Oklahoma City is becoming more of a reality. There are several steps that need to be taken to fix the problems of the Seattle Supersonics. Here is how I would do it:

1. Stay in Seattle. Somehow, some way, they need to stay in the Seattle area. Even if it's in the suburbs of Seattle, that's fine, but they've got to stay the Seattle Supersonics.

2. Let Rashard Lewis walk, or try to work a sign-and-trade. Lewis is our second best player, and with Ray Allen's deteriorating ankles, he may be our best building block for the future. But the problem with Rashard Lewis is that he isn't a leader, and neither is Ray. A team is not going to go anywhere with their two best players lacking leadership skills. You know your team has a problem when it's "leader" is a guy who doesn't even get consistent minutes. Earl Watson, ladies and gentlemen. But back to Rashard... simply put, he isn't worth a max contract. He is a great player, and I'd love to see him stay, but not at the price we would have to pay.

3. Draft Jeff Green. If Jeff Green leaves Georgetown and jumps to the NBA, and the Sonics have the #5 pick, they need to draft Green. Even if they are going to keep Lewis, the Sonics can play small with Green and Lewis at the two forward spots. Throughout his career at Georgetown, and especially this last season, he has proven to be not only NBA ready, but a player who could be an MVP down the line. This guy played in a Princeton offense. If he had played at just about any other school, he would've averaged a double-double. There are only two other choices that the Sonics could make with this pick that I would agree with: Corey Brewer (maybe a little more potential than Green, but I'm not completely sold on him yet) or Mike Conley, Jr. Conley would be an interesting pick, because we would be taking him a little too high. But he is the best PG in the draft and has loads of potential, and the Sonics second most glaring need is at point guard. But I would only be ok with Conley if the Sonics resign Lewis.

4. Use the second-round picks wisely. The Sonics own the second round pick of Memphis as well as their own. I wouldn't have a problem with packaging these two picks to move up to the late first round, but if they are going to keep them both, they should use one to strengthen the front court, specifically defensively, and the other depends on how they use the first pick. If they select Conley, this pick should be used on a swingman. If they draft Green or Brewer, they should use this pick on a point or combo guard. That being said, they should use one of these picks on Sean Williams of Boston College. The Sonics have zero presence under the basket on defense. Their starting frontcourt doesn't have a player over 6'10" and neither Nick Collison nor Chris Wilcox are shot blockers. Due to character issues, Williams should be available, and he may be the best shot blocker in the country. Assuming the Sonics draft Jeff Green, I would like to see the other second round pick used to select Aaron Brooks from Oregon or Rodney Stuckey from Eastern Washington. Stuckey might not go pro, but he is an explosive scorer with decent size (6'4"), but not a true point guard. Brooks is undersized (5'11") but is a natural leader and can run a team at different tempos. Both have local ties, and I would be ok with either of them in a Seattle uni. If the Sonics use their first round pick on Conley, then this pick should be used on a swingman or small forward. The players that appeal to me in this spot are Jared Dudley of Boston College and Alando Tucker of Wisconsin. Both of these guys proved to be leaders and posses great intangibles over the last four years. There's a better chance of Dudley dropping to this spot than Tucker, and I would be happy with either.

5. Revamp the point guard. Luke Ridnour and Earl Watson aren't getting it done. Whether the means are the draft, trade, or free agency, something needs to be done about this. If it takes trading a guy like Nick Collison in order to do so, I'm fine with it. I'm ok with either of them as a backup, but I'm not ok with either of them as a starter or using them both in a platoon situation.

6. Involve Chris Wilcox. The guy is a freak of nature. He gets most of his buckets in transition, but when the Sonics do use him in the half court, he has shown he can get the job done. The problem is, they don't use him in the half court. Many writers are calling him a bust and an underachiever, but I feel like he hasn't gotten a chance to backup the contract he signed.

7. Figure out which center you want to develop. Robert Swift was the leader in this category until he blew out his knee in the final preseason game and has since put on weight and struggled with rehab. Johan Petro and Mouhamed Saer Sene could both be solid players, but they could as easily both be complete busts. I'm not even sure which one of these guys I would rather see as the main guy, but Swift would be the most fun to watch.

So, there are my Seven Steps to Save the Supersonics. But in reality, there's only one way to save them... by keeping them in Seattle.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Long Live the King

A few years ago, I was reading an article about the top prospects in the Seattle Mariners farm system, and read about a 17-year-old pitching prodigy named Felix Hernandez, or "King Felix." I told myself not to get too excited about him, until about a year later, when as an 18-year-old he was tearing up the minor leagues. By the time he was 19, the Mariners were having an awful season, and talk began of calling Felix up for the end of the season. In his third career start, still as a teenager, Felix went 8 innings, struck out 11 Kansas City batters, and gave up one run. He had arrived.

This season, Felix became the youngest opening day starter since Dwight Gooden. Learning from the mistakes of Gooden and the Mets, the Mariners have been careful with Felix the last two seasons, keeping him on innings pitched counts and monitoring his arm, being extremely cautious and not wanting to wear his young arm down. They'll have to keep him away from the coke as well. That shouldn't be too hard, as Felix has recently shown increased dedication.

If there was one major knock on the 21-year-old it was his weight. Felix looked more like CC Sabathia than Pedro Martinez. The Mariners were concerned, but not overly so. Then Felix showed up in spring with the rest of the pitchers and catchers having dropped 20 lbs and put on some serious muscle.

Felix has been absolutely dominant in his two starts this season. He mowed down Oakland on opening night, striking out 12 and giving up 3 hits and 2 walks over 8 innings. Then, in one of the most anticipated pitching match ups I can remember, Felix stole the spotlight from Daisuke Matsuzaka in his first game at Fenway Park, throwing a complete-game one-hitter, with a dazzling array of fastballs and breaking pitches. I was at a Red Sox bar watching the game (only way I knew I would get audio on the game) and talking to a couple Sox fans as Felix was throwing 85-mph curve balls and 91-mph sliders. "How is that possible? How can someone throw a pitch with that much movement that fast?"

In 17 innings so far this season, Felix has only given up 4 hits in 53 at-bats. That comes out to opponents hitting .075 against him. These numbers put him in pretty good company... the last time someone had thrown that many innings while holding opponents to a batting average that low in the first two starts of a season was 1970, when it was done by two players: former Associated Press Pitcher of the Year Tom Phoebus of Baltimore, and one of the best pitchers of all-time, Nolan Ryan. Like I said, pretty good company.

I've been onto Felix for a few years now. After Wednesday's performance on National Television, the rest of the country has started to take note. Felix Hernandez has arrived. Long Live the King!

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