June 7, 2008

30 Years and Counting - Big Brown Fails

I guess this wasn't the year. Not only did Big Brown fail in his bid to become the first Triple Crown in three decades, he finished dead last. Trainer Rick Dutrow said that Big Brown hadn't suffered any injuries, but he definitely didn't look good through the last third of the race.

At the beginning of the race, Big Brown looked to be in perfect position to make a run down the stretch the same way he did in the Preakness. Rounding the final turn, though, Da'Tara started to pull away and Big Brown fell back to the second pack. He didn't respond to jockey Kent Desormeaux when he asked for a final kick, so Desormeaux pulled Big Brown up and they cruised to a last place finish.
Unlike many horse racing fans, I think it's great that it's been 30 years since we've had a Triple Crown winner. Every year that goes by without a Triple Crown just adds to the mystique surrounding the races. It wouldn't be such an amazing accomplishment to win the Triple Crown if it happened every year.

On a side note, thanks ABC for refusing to show more than five seconds of Da'Tara, Alan Garcia, or Nick Zito after the race. You were essentially saying that the only story here was Big Brown losing, and that Da'Tara winning was a non-event. Great journalism there.

Casino Drive Scratched!!

Casino Drive is a SCRATCH for today's Belmont, as a result of the injury initially reported yesterday. Stone bruise or not, Casino Drive is out!

So what does this do to the betting? Big Brown will be even more of a favorite, and Denis of Cork will probably come down to 15-1 or 12-1 as the new second favorite. However, none of the other horses deserves much consideration. If Big Brown loses today, it won't be because his competition was incredible. None of the three best horses that didn't run the Preakness or Derby are in the field (Behindatthebar, War Pass, Casino Drive). Even so, this is not a lock. Enormous pressure, and a distance this horse has never seen. Enjoy the race!

Ivanovic Claims Top Ranking in Style, Wins French Open

Your new #1, not just in tennis.

Already the new #1 player in the world by virtue of her presence in the final and Sharapova's earlier loss, Ana Ivanovic won the French Open this morning over Dinara Safina, 6-4 6-3. This is Ivanovic's first victory in a major, after two previous losses in finals. In a happy coincidence, the #1 hottest tennis player is also ranked #1 as a tennis player. The defending champion Justine Henin retired a few weeks earlier, making the path to the title easier for all other competitors. Ivanovic was the #2 seed and became the favorite after Safina upset #1 Maria Sharapova in the Round of 16. This continues a strong year for Serbian tennis, as Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open earlier this year, and Djokovic and Jelena Jankovic both made the semis at Roland Garros.

I applaud Ana for having pics like this on her website.

In the men's final tomorrow, it will once again be Nadal vs. Federer in the final. There are rumors that Bjorn Borg will declare Federer to be the greatest tennis player EVER if he defeats Nadal and completes his career Grand Slam. Nadal has won the last two in fascinating matches of the highest quality (NBC, 9 ET Sunday).

June 6, 2008

Belmont Stakes Entry Casino Drive Hurt, May Be Scratched

This morning the handlers of Casino Drive noted that he was not walking properly. Rather than gallop him this morning, they have decided to give him the day off.

The horse, Big Brown's main threat, is thought to have a "stone bruise" on his left-hind leg, which can be caused by walking on hard, rocky surfaces, like the paths at Belmont.

According to PetPlace, a stone bruise appears as a purple or dark grey spot on the hoof though they often are not visible until the injury is a bit old. Most intriguingly, for those who might bet the race, "if a stone bruise occurs right before an important competition, it can be a crisis."

The point is that Casino Drive's handlers are only speculating that he has a stone bruise. All they know for sure is he is not walking normally. Now that we are nearly a day away from the race, I would want to see major improvement before laying money on the horse. There's a decent chance he also could be scratched prior to the 6:25 p.m. post tomorrow.

2008 Belmont Picks

These are your free picks in betting the 2008 Belmont Stakes, featuring Big Brown's attempt to win the Triple Crown. Obviously, this guide is not about telling you who will almost certainly win the race. That's Big Brown. It's about helping you find some money in a race where the top two horses seem to be far and away better than the rest of the field.

On to your 2008 Belmont Handicapping Guide...

UPDATE (Friday, 2:25 p.m.) - Casino Drive is injured, and might not run tomorrow. He is not walking properly due to what is thought to be a "stone bruise" on his left-hind hoof. Keep a close eye on this. The worst case scenario is that he would not be scratched, but not be 100% either. Let me bruise your heel with a blunt object today, and we'll see how well you run a couple miles tomorrow. Yeah.


I think this is the year.
East Coast Bias
I've seen a lot of good horses win the Derby and the Preakness only to tire in the last 2 furlongs of the Belmont, but I think Big Brown is different. Tomorrow we may see the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years. Moments like that are part of the reason I'm a sports fan in the first place.

So the question is, how do you make money on this race? We'll start by looking at the entire field:
East Coast Bias
Big Brown - Clearly the class of the field, he's looking unbeatable at this point. Don't be fooled by the low speed figure in the Preakness, we all saw that he had a whole lot left in the tank after that race.

Guadalcanal - A maiden? In the Belmont? Really? On the plus side, he's the only horse to have raced 1.5 miles previously. Too bad it was on turf.

Macho Again - Good closing speed (on everyone but Big Brown) in the Preakness bodes well for the long Belmont.

Denis of Cork - I'm not biting on the surprise third in the Derby

Casino Drive - I guess this is supposed to be the horse to beat Big Brown? I don't think so. He's only run one race in the US. He's only run two races overall. He's switching jockeys. He'sstepping up three furlongs. He's never run in a race nearly this big.

Da' Tara - In his last graded stakes race, he finished 23 lengths behind Big Brown.

Tale of Ekati - Nothing there to make me think he can compete with Big Brown.

Anak Nakal - I didn't even remember that this horse had run in the Derby.

Ready's Echo - This horse is in the race based on a 6 length loss to Casino Drive in a G2 race?

Icabad Crane - I'm still not sure how this horse managed to make it into the money at Pimlico.
Looking at the odds, obviously Big Brown is the favorite at 2-5, and Casino Drive is the second favorite at 7-2. I'm really surprised that Big Brown's odds are that good, and that Casino Drive's odds are that bad. At 20-1, I really like Macho Again. I'm just going to go with $5 on Macho Again across the board. An exacta including Big Brown or Casino Drive isn't going to pay well enough to be worth it.


Well, I cashed $650 in tickets on the Preakness itself in Baltimore three weeks ago. Obviously, I'm going to stick to that strategy, betting a few big exactas with Big Brown in top.

Except I'm not.

The problem with this race is that Big Brown, again, should win relatively easily. His only real trouble could come in the first furlong if Guadalcanal bears in on him at the start, but Guadalcanal (a freaking maiden) has been towards the back at the first call in all five of his starts. There's a risk he could get loose on the lead immediately off the rail pace, and that Desormeaux won't be able to rein him in, or possibly worse will have to be pulling back on him the whole way down the backstretch.

I do have concerns with Big Brown. For one, the only glimmer of early speed in this race is Da' Tara, and we're talking about a 47 and 4 half mile, not something in the 45s. It's Big Brown's pace if he wants it, and I think the field, with the exception of Da' Tara with a little press, will let him have it.

Now Desormeaux has done a great job in the Derby and Preakness keeping Big Brown almost exactly two lengths off the lead coming up to the finish. What if there is no horse in front of Big Brown the whole way around for a mile and a half? We don't know. We're talking about not knowing something on a 2-5 horse that will likely return $5 on a $2 exacta...no matter who is second.

I'm going to look my gift horse in the mouth, and I'm taking Big Brown off the top of my tickets. The next two best horses, Casino Drive and Denis of Cork, are 7-2 and 12-1 respectively. Denis of Cork was not visually exciting in the Derby, but he ran a 97 despite starting dead last and having to pick through the field. The jockey change doesn't bother me, as Albarado has ridden Denis of Cork before to a graded win.

Plus, I like one of these two headlines on Sunday: Denis the Menace and Never Bet on Brown.

I think I'm going to have to accept that I'm willing to lose money to be wrong but have a Triple Crown Winner. I'm not willing to lose money, be wrong, and not have a Triple Crown winner.

My plays:

OPTION 1 (Casino Drive is 100%)

$25 exacta - Denis of Cork, Casino Drive/Denis of Cork, Casino Drive, Big Brown ($100)

$10 trifecta - Denis of Cork, Casino Drive/Big Brown/Denis of Cork, Casino Drive, Ready's Echo ($40)

$10 win - Denis of Cork ($10)

Total bet: $150

OPTION 2 (Casino Drive can't go, or I embrace the inevitable)

$25 exacta - Big Brown over Macho Again, Denis of Cork, Ready's Echo and Icabad Crane

$25 place - Macho Again, Denis of Cork, Ready's Echo, Icabad Crane


I'm not going to pretend that any of the other 9 horses in the field can be picked to beat Big Brown. So the question becomes how to bet a race with a likely 1-5 favorite and no clear 2nd-best horse.

Option 1: Take Big Brown with the field for a $2 Exacta bet. Only costs $18 and you have a chance to make some money without putting your life savings down. Unfortunately, everyone else will be doing this too. If you bet on Big Brown to win, you might as well keep the ticket as a collector's item, it'll be worth more that way.

Option 2: In spite of the odds, Big Brown's chances to win aren't really 1-5. The cracked front hoof, the #1 slot where he can get boxed, Kent Desormeaux, steroids... any or a combination of all of those could create disaster. So pick the 3 best other horses and bet them to win. Or if you have the cash, take the field with the field $1 Exacta. If Big Brown wins, you're down $70 or more of the $90 you bet. However, if Big Brown doesn't win, you make a good chunk. If he doesn't place, this will be the Belmont you remember for years. The odds of horse racing say that he will lose sometime; two underdogs in the top two slots could pay in the thousands.

If you are looking at other horses, I like Denis of Cork and Casino Drive, as does every other bettor.


Normally we would link to our friends over at Gowanus Rotisserie Baseball Gazette for their always excellent Triple Crown previews. However, we aren't the only ones to notice them, and Deadspin has asked them to do a special preview. Here is that guide.


June 5, 2008

What Happened to the Olympic Dream?

For me as a child, the Olympics were about your country above all else. It was about us winning more medals than them, them being anyone and everyone else. I'm too young to remember the Cold War well, but "them" meant USSR for quite some time. It was never about personal glory first and foremost. The greatest honor was to carry the flag in the opening ceremony, not to be the captain of the Dream Team nor to win the most medals. The Olympics were almost like the UN of sports, allowing countries from around the world to participate in a peaceful international event regardless of politics, embodying the true spirit of the original Greek games. I could not have imagined ever wanting to attend the Olympics for another country. It was about local heroes like Dominique Dawes and Kimmie Meissner competing with the world, including countries that made their athletes slaves to make them winners. It was about showing that a capitalist, democratic approach works in sports, just like everywhere else.

Dominique Dawes from Silver Spring, MD

So why is that lengthy paragraph necessary? Modern athletes aren't following the same set of rules that used to be taken for granted. Recently, (American born and raised) Becky Hammon announced that she will be representing Russia in the Olympics, even though she doesn't speak Russian and is not even a full-time resident. In addition, ESPN has run a series of articles ("So You Want to Be an Olympian") documenting a woman's quest to go to Beijing as a triathlete/cyclist, including her newly acquired citizenship in St. Kitts and Nevis. So what are we to think? Is it really the same to go to the Olympics for a random country? Are athletes' citizenship up for the highest bidder? How did we get to this point?

"American" Becky Hammon in her new country's jersey

Globalization: With the increase in the speed and availability of international travel has come an increase in the global sports market. This is true across all sports. In baseball, Ichiro, Dice-K, and Fukudome play in the US, while Bobby Valentine manages in Japan. In basketball, Yao, Yi, Manu, Nene, and Bargnani are just a few of the many international faces in the NBA, while every US college player heads overseas if they're not drafted. And it's not just US sports, Freddy Adu signed with a European club while he was still 18. David Beckham now plays in the US. So who's to say that Freddy won't feel more attached to Portugal if he stays there for a decade? How long does it take to feel like you belong to a different country from where you grew up? What if the US soccer team doesn't want him, but Portugal does? Such was the case for Hammon.

Professionals: Anyone remember when the Dream Team was the first time we sent the pros? It used to be a huge decision whether to go pro or wait for another shot at Olympic gold. Now you can do both in almost every sport (any exceptions besides baseball and figure skating?). As a result, pros from around the world return (for the most part) to their home countries every 4 years to form a national team. Some sports maintain this national team every year, like soccer, while others assemble a team just for the Olympics, creating plenty of uncertainty about a player's status. In addition, the door is open for countries to pay players to play for them, through thinly-veiled club contracts or whatever. Hammon openly admits she gets a bonus if the Russian Olympic team wins. What about sport for the sake of sport?

Best. Team. Ever.

Patriotism: The Hammon article had a lot of snide remarks and accusations, with the US coach accusing her of being unpatriotic. Personally, I can't say I wouldn't have taken the $2 million and a guaranteed spot in the Olympics over a tryout (only once the team was expanded to 30, she didn't make the list of 23 for a team of 12 players). I don't doubt that Hammon would be in the US if relations were bad with Russia or if her presence there threatened the safety of US citizens. So she's definitely not unpatriotic in that sense.

But from the opposite end of this, what do the Olympics mean if it's the best team each country can buy? I don't think I would have the same feeling of satisfaction if we paid Beckham, Ronaldinho, and John Terry to play for the US and then won. I think it's unpatriotic of the countries not to believe in their own talent. It's no embarassment for St. Kitts not to have good enough athletes to qualify for all the events. I would rather have legitimate citizens who will represent your country than hired guns. And for the athletes, is it really the same to represent a different country? Doesn't that cheapen the experience? The fact that only 3 people (in the individual sports) from each country can participate is what makes it so special. Most sports have objective means for choosing the athletes, but if you're borderline in the subjective ones, you probably aren't going to play much anyway. (As a side note, apparently there is some confusion and debate as to why Hammon wasn't on the list of 23 since she's plenty good enough to make the team.)

Every country has its own requirements for citizenship, and as we are finding out, sometimes there are shortcuts. Here's to hoping that decisions like that don't take away from the best part of the Olympics: the pure amateur desire to excel at sports and to represent one's country with dignity, character, and sportsmanship.

Why We're Sports Fans (Jeremy)

Alright, this is the million dollar question that is just damn near impossible for me to answer in such a brief way. I'll do my best to keep it short, sweet, and somewhat stream of consciousness:
The first source of bonding between fathers and sons... four year old boys with gloves twice the size of their heads desperate for a foul ball even though they're sitting in the 400-level... it provides instant conversation between male strangers at a table at a wedding, Bar Association event, or anything else... being on travel in a different city and being excited to tune into the televised local pro sports event in the hotel room and hear strange new announcers, hear about different sponsors and promotions, and see a strange new venue... how it brings towns and cities together... how life-long lessons can be learned from playing on that very first Little League team or swimming for that very first community swim team... 90,000 people screaming for a touchdown, 30,000 (10,000 in Baltimore) screaming for a home run, 20,000 people screaming for a goal... the fact that grown men in their 40s who already have more money than they could ever possibly need will play well beyond when any reasonable person would quit just for the chance to shed tears and win a Ring and hold that trophy... the rivalries it creates, the camaraderie it creates, and the fact that I can feel strange affection for somebody who I would otherwise not like just because they root for the same team as I do and feel unadulterated and unjustified hatred for somebody who I would otherwise love just because they happen to support a team that I despise... overtime in the Stanley Cup Finals... bases loaded, bottom of the ninth... adults who play in softball leagues and spend hundreds of bucks on expensive gloves, bats, and other gear just because they think that will give them a competitive edge and compensate for the fact that they've put on 50 pounds since their twenties... the thrill of unexpected victory and the agony of unexpected defeat.

Former Terp Wilcox Caught Carrying in NC

Now there are two gun-carrying criminals in the foreground. (Balt. Sun Photo)

ESPN is reporting that Chris Wilcox was arrested for possession of a concealed weapon in North Carolina over the weekend. Really, the only thing I can say is at least he wasn't brandishing it and popping off a few near the White House. Didn't he learn anything from Lonny's mistakes?

NEWS FLASH: You don't need a gun to be cool, especially when you're 6'11" and mega-rich. No one else is either of those things in Whiteville, NC (near Wilmington). If you think the white folks down South can't take it, move north or buy a dog. Is there really enough crime there that you need protection?

Maybe next offseason, Mouton will get arrested for having an illegal arsenal in NOLA. At least he would have a good excuse.

June 4, 2008

Why We're Sports Fans (Brien)

In the coming weeks, the authors of East Coast Bias, along with some of our favorite blogger brethren, will present navel-gazing looks into why we spend so much time watching and writing about sports. First off, Brien:

I've been a sports fan for as long as I can remember, but before I started blogging I never really questioned why. My dad loves sports, my brothers love sports, and I never really understood why someone wouldn't be a sports fan.

When I sat down and actually looked at the reasons why I am a sports fan one thing jumped out: Sports let you witness the extraordinary.

Some people love watching strategic battles. Some watch sports to see athletic excellence. For me, it's all about the chance to see something special. Whenever I turn on a baseball game, I'm hoping that I see a no-hitter. Every single basketball game I see, I'm hoping for a buzzer-beater. Hockey? Triple overtime. NASCAR? Photo finish. Football? 95 yard rushing touchdown. Golf? An eagle. Every sports event is potentially a topic of conversation 10 years from now. "Remember when Chalmers hit that shot to win the NCAA Tournament?" "Yeah, I was sitting at the bar and the place went nuts!"

Everyday life is full of the mundane, the ordinary, and the boring. Not to go all Bob Costas on you here, but sports transcends that, giving you frequent glimpses into what makes life exciting.

For me, that's what watching sports is all about - the anticipation of something surprising. What about you?

Losers of the Steroids Era - Ken Griffey and Others

For those of you who don't know, and there are some, Ken Griffey, Jr., is on the brink of hitting his 600th home run. Griffey has stayed above steroid suspicions, but he has still been very damaged by the era in general. Here is a look at the victims of the steroids era.

1) Ken Griffey, Jr. - Only five men have hit 600 or more home runs, and none of them are presently active. Griffey is poised to join the club with his next homer, further developing his certain Hall of Fame resume. Griffey, who for a while was the heir apparent to Hank Aaron's home run record, has been cursed by bad hamstrings and other ailments. The cloud of steroid suspicion has never fallen on him, despite the nagging muscle injuries. Still, he is one of the biggest victims of the steroids era as his accomplishment, a monstrous event just 10 years ago, is now just an afterthought. It's barely receiving the attention that the 500 club got just a decade ago.

blahblahblah Ironically, we like this athlete for the guns he DOESN'T have

2) Relief Pitchers - Relievers in general don't have a great shot at the Hall of Fame without gaudy save numbers, but they have been victimized by the steroids era. Many relievers are treated as replaceable cogs, until, of course, they let a few games get blown open and find themselves out of baseball. How did steroids hurt relievers? Consider that starting pitchers, many of whom might have been juicing themselves, can manage a game differently than relievers can. A starter can pitch around the superslugger because he has the whole game to work with and he's most likely going to face the next batter anyway. A reliever often has nowhere to put a big hitter, as he comes in with men on base frequently. Sure, the inherited runners didn't count against the reliever if the big hitter scored them all, but the hitter himself does and allowing a run in a third of an inning is hell on an ERA. The entry in the loss column hurts too. Have a bad couple weeks and an entire promising bullpen career might have ended. I suspect some did.

3) The Fringe Hall of Famers - They come up every year when it's time to argue over the incoming HOF class - Andre Dawson, Alan Trammell, Jim Rice, Dale Murphy, Bert Blyleven, and Harold Baines, among other older players like Ron Santo. There was a time very recently that 500 homers or 3000 strikeouts guaranteed entry to the Hall of Fame. Not having those numbers was not a bar, only a failure to meet the guarantee threshold. Now not having one or the other of those numbers is nearly a death blow to a HOF candidacy. I think Goose Gossage finally making it in last year is instructive. Voters are so frustrated with trying to compare hitters across eras that they started giving Gossage a little more credit for his accomplishments.

blahblblahahblah Four Dale Murphy heads fit in one Barry cap

4) The People of Chicago and St. Louis - These are perhaps the two most classic NL cities, and they were really robbed by the steroids era. The Summer of Swat, with McGwire and Sosa trading epic homers, was fantastic for those two cities. The legendary franchises were in need of heroes following the departures of Ryne Sandberg and Ozzie Smith, and Sosa and McGwire fit the bill. I'm sure parents encouraged their kids to look up to them, especially McGwire, who enjoyed an excellent public image despite rumors he was quite surly. We kind of knew what was going on, but these things are easy to overlook when it's the hometown hero. Now we have no doubt, and those fans rightfully should feel robbed.

5) Denver, Colorado - Jesus guys, it isn't rocket science. It is now apparent that at least the players knew steroids were rampant in the league. One could make a fairly safe assumption that management knew as well. The Rockies couldn't sign ANY of these guys to hit in the thin mountain air? Larry Walker, Dante Bichette and Andres Gallaraga are all good hitters, but none of them had the steroids physique. How many playoff runs could the Rockies have made when guys like Bret Boone (who discretely retired after failing to make a comeback with the Washington freaking Nationals) were swatting the ball around like it was elastic? Sure, pitching would have still been a major hurdle, but the Texas Rangers of the mid-1990's proved you can at least MAKE the playoffs by scoring 10 runs a game and allowing 9.

But...the Winners - If there are losers there are probably some winners, and in this case you're reading from one of them. Sports writers and bloggers, to the extent they existed at the time, couldn't have asked for a bigger boon than steroids. First, we got to write about McGwire and Sosa and the salvation of baseball. Then we got to trash all of them and spit vitriol and generally get our panties in a wad. "How dare they?!?" You could argue that sports blogging wouldn't be what it is today without the steroids scandal.

In addition, maybe the fans won. They got entertaining baseball during the era, and they also got a cleaner game because of it. Sure, we could have done without the comedy of the Congressional hearings and the finger pointing denials, some more laughable than others. Seeing Bud Selig all over the television is ALWAYS a bad thing. Barry Bonds staining Hank Aaron's record with a john's disregard for hourly rate hotel sheets was not pleasant. Still, baseball is as strong as ever, if not stronger. Did we win? It's arguable.

June 2, 2008

Americans in Paris

The unmistakable red clay of the French Open

This year's French Open once again requires the same question: Why do male American tennis players suck on the red clay of Roland Garros?

The History
The last American male to win was Agassi in 1999. Chang lost in the final in '95, and Courier did the same in '93. Courier won in '91 and '92, and Chang won in '89. Going back as far as 1960, no other American has won. Sampras, McEnroe, and Connors never won on the clay in Paris, and Sampras never even made the final. Last year the American men were a combined 0-9 in Paris, and while things weren't that bad this year, I find it hard to muster optimism.

She only wears the catsuit at the US Open, just google for a hot picture already.

As comparison, Serena and Capriati have both won in Paris since 2000, and Chris Evert won there a lot in her prime. Billie Jean King also had no trouble there.

Roddick and Sampras are easy to explain. Both depend on overwhelming serves to give them a lot of easy points. The slower clay surface makes it easier for the opponent to return serve, neutralizing the American's biggest strength. None of Agassi, Courier, and Chang depended on huge serves, supporting this explanation. In the same way, none of the American women depended on their serve for dominance.

James Blake is an enigma. Ultra-talented, he just doesn't seem to have the mental side of the game down. However, his struggles are not limited to the French Open in any respect, so we'll ignore his issues.

No other American has been good enough to win a grand slam event the last 20 years. (Yes, I remember Mal Washington, and no he wasn't good enough.)

Jimmy Connors, with a really old racket

Before that, I think you just have to credit the other quality players who were just better on clay, in the same way that the slower surface makes Rafa just slightly better than Federer. Lendl and Borg were awesome at the French Open during the primes of McEnroe and Connors. In addition, Connors appears to have had the opposite problem from Sampras and Roddick on clay. Connors depended on his opponent's pace, but the clay slowed his opponent's shots, forcing him to try to hit the ball harder than normal.

In my opinion, Americans don't mysteriously tank in Paris. The slower clay has worked against the styles of certain players, but allowed others to excel (Chang's only major was the French). The truth is that there aren't very many good American men's tennis players right now, and that's reflected in their performance in Paris. Some of them can hit the ball pretty hard, but none have the complete, patient game required on clay.

NASCAR: Halfway to the Chase

After 13 of the 26 pre-Chase races, it's time to assess the status of the best and worst drivers, owners, and manufacturers.

Kyle Busch has made it look easy this year.

Biggest surprise:
Unquestionably, Kyle Busch is the biggest surprise of the year. Busch has 4 wins and 9 top 5's in his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing. Keep in mind this is the first year with Toyota for both Gibbs and Busch, and it's clearly not a problem. As dominant as Gordon may have been last year, Busch already has a 142 pt lead, and 271 over third place. He's almost a lock for the Chase already. He's also got a shot at winning all three series if he chooses to run all those races. No one is more dominant in any sport right now.

Biggest disappointment:
Casey Mears takes this dubious distinction. The other Hendrick car, all 3 of his teammates are in the top 7. Casey sits in 25th, behind Mark Martin who's skipped 3 races. The Hendrick team is well known for sharing information and is very well funded, so the finger really has to point at Casey for their performance this year. Certainly, he hasn't had the best luck with accidents, but he's the one qualifying poorly, putting himself in the back to get involved in those. Mears has 2 top 10's and 0 top 5's, and he hasn't even spent much time at the front of the pack this year.

Vickers and Red Bull are running much better this year. (Getty Images)

Most improved:
Last year, Brian Vickers and the Red Bull Toyota team didn't make many races. This year, Vickers qualified on time for all of the first five races, and hasn't looked back. He's had some bad luck (like losing his entire wheel at Charlotte), but he's still 19th and has been very competitive this year. To see how good a performance this is, compare it to the other Red Bull car (#84), which is still outside the top 35 and has missed two races this year. That team has been forced to rotate drivers to stay competitive. Vickers probably won't make the Chase this year, but he has certainly made himself and his team visible.


Obviously, Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports are having good years, mostly as expected, with both teams having 3 drivers currently in the Chase.

Childress wants to see this sight more often, but his drivers have plenty of points.

Under the Radar:
Richard Childress Racing (RCR) should never be under the radar, but they are this year. All three drivers are in the top 12, even though they only have a combined 2 wins and 8 top 5 finishes through 13 races. That says a ton about consistency and effort, especially when you don't have the best car. You might not have heard much about any of Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, or Clint Bowyer, but you can count on them being in the Chase.

Down for the Count:
Haas Racing is down and maybe out after NASCAR's stiff penalties. I'm not going to get into whether the penalty was fair, but its effect is unquestionable. Neither Haas car is likely to make all of the races the rest of the year, and that could be devastating for a team that didn't have much money or sponsorship to start with. Many of the smaller ownership groups are struggling as the behemoths dominate the top 20 spots in the standings.


Many people may have forgotten the debacle that was Toyota's 2007 in NASCAR. Michael Waltrip's team got it off to a great start with a failed inspection at Daytona, and nothing improved thereafter. Toyota had absolutely no positive effect on the series last year. This year, Joe Gibbs Racing is a Toyota team, and it's a totally different story for Toyota. A Toyota driver leads the standings and has 4 wins, the first by a foreign manufacturer in decades. 3 Toyota drivers are currently in the Chase, and a smaller Toyota team also has a car in the top 20. Even Michael Waltrip's cars have run almost every race this year! Toyota is here to stay, and may quickly challenge Chevy's manufacturer's championship.

Michael Waltrip's 2007 Daytona inspection is finally off Toyota's radar.

Dodge. There's just really nothing positive to say about Dodge. Kahne has struggled again, with the exception of two weeks at Charlotte. Newman won Daytona, but has disappeared since. Kurt Busch is outside the top 20. Penske Racing and others put a lot of faith and money in the open-wheel racers and that has been a huge flop. Hornish, Carpentier, and Franchitti haven't done anything worth noticing all year. Montoya is a very quiet 17th in points, and Sorensen has not developed at all. It seems clear that the Dodge teams have bet on the wrong drivers and possibly the wrong car as well. Dodge Chargers could start to disappear from the NASCAR track near you quite soon.

No matter how good or bad people may appear, there are still 13 races for things to change, and anything can. Who knows, Jr. might even win a race...

June 1, 2008

Putting "Baltimore" Back in the Orioles

Finally, the news we've all been waiting for. The Baltimore Orioles have requested permission from Major League Baseball to alter their uniforms beginning in 2009. The big change? "Baltimore" will return to the front of the road jerseys for the first time since 1973.

Why was it ever removed? When the second incarnation of the Senators left Washington in 1971, then-Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams realized he needed to capture the now team-less fan base in Washington. By removing "Baltimore" from the front of the road jerseys, he felt the team could be more of a regional power. In many ways he was right. Children growing up in the 1970's to 1990's in the metropolitan D.C. area generally became Orioles' fans. It helped that the team did not suck. In fact, EBW had already made inroads with the notoriously flaky bandwagon D.C. crowd by virtue of the fact that the Orioles played in the 1966, 1969, 1970 and 1971 World Series. In many ways, the Orioles led to the Senators' demise. The late Williams, a prominent D.C. criminal defense attorney, Georgetown alum, and the Williams in the powerful law firm Williams & Connolly (clients include Bill Clinton) also owned the Redskins for a period and was a fixture in Washington.

The Orioles are not the only team to use their uniforms or official name to expand their market. The Los Angeles/California/ Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim only had Anaheim on their jerseys in 2002 and 2003 (though the team had Los Angeles on their jerseys from 1961-1964). The Texas Rangers have always capitalized on Dallas and Fort Worth, and the Florida Marlins, Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies likewise try to capture a region rather than a city. The Minnesota Twins, NFL's Houston Texans and NHL's New York Islanders have used the name of the team as well to try to capture additional markets. Of course, we see this in other sports as well (Arizona Cardinals, Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Vikings, Tennessee Titans, Carolina Panthers, Florida Panthers, Minnesota Wild, New England Patriots, Carolina Hurricanes, Utah Jazz, Indiana Pacers, etc. etc.).

According to a poll on the Baltimore Sun's website, 96.5% percent of over 2500 voters want "Baltimore" back on the road jerseys. Read The Sun's coverage here.
The team will not confirm or deny that the change will take place due to procedural aspects of the licensing process. All indications from reliable sources are that it's a done deal, though.

EliteXC Cheers and Jeers

Last night was the debut of EliteXC MMA on CBS. This is the first time that MMA has been on network prime time television, so it was kind of a big deal. Those who have been following MMA for a while remember the days when you couldn't even see MMA on basic cable (June 2002 on "The Best Damn Sports Show, Period" was the first time).

MMA has come a long way since then, expanding out from the UFC to many different promotions, each with its own spin on what MMA should be.

Regardless of your opinion about the specifics, last night was a watershed moment for MMA moving into the mainstream. I think that CBS and EliteXC got a lot of things right, for what they were trying to do. But they also screwed a lot of things up that could have made the night a lot better. I'll break it down for you "Cheers and Jeers" style:

Cheers - to CBS for even trying to put MMA on in prime time. That's a bigger gamble than most people realize. You don't see much boxing on network TV, and MMA can be a lot bloodier.

Jeers - to EliteXC for borrowing so much from the WWE. All of the fighter entrances looked like something out of Raw. An MMA fight should be a big show, but the lights and smoke make it look more like theater than a fight.

Cheers - to CBS and EliteXC for spending the money to make the production values look good. This didn't look like a third-rate event, they went all out on cameras and graphics to make sure no one said that it looked like a poor man's UFC.

Jeers - to EliteXC for putting out such crappy fights. I'm no MMA expert, but it was pretty obvious that this was not quite UFC. The fights were very sloppy and I was yelling out corner instructions from my couch.

Cheers - to EliteXC for hyping up Kimbo Slice. He may not be the greatest fighter in the world, but it's great to have some household names in MMA.

Jeers - to Gina Carano for missing weight. Carano is an American Gladiator and the so called "face of women's MMA." This was her big chance to legitimize female mixed martial arts in front of a huge audience. Instead she missed weight (by 4.5 pounds! WTF!?), fought an ugly fight, and admitted afterwards that her heart wasn't in it. Apparently the only think keeping women's MMA going is the fact that she's kind of hot. That's not going to be enough to make it succeed (unless she poses in Playboy, Gina Carano naked might be enough to give distaff fighting a chance).

Cheers - to Kimbo Slice's chest hair. I thought manicured man-rugs had gone out of style after Austin Powers' heart, but I guess not.

Jeers - to the doctor overseeing the fights. She stopped two of the fights, neither of which looked like a necessary stoppage. The chick fight was stopped because one of the girls had some swelling below her eye (it didn't look that bad), and the championship fight was stopped because Scott Smith got poked in the eye. He told the doctor he couldn't see but needed the whole five minutes (stupid), but she stopped the fight anyway. It's an arguable decision, but it was the worst possible thing to happen for EliteXC and CBS.

Cheers - to Robbie Lawler and Scott Smith for putting on the best fight of the night (until it was stopped). They went toe-to-toe and the momentum swung back and forth for two and a half rounds. It looked like Lawler had the upper hand, but there was a good chance that Smith could have caught him with a knee or an elbow and ended the fight. I guess we'll have to wait for the rematch to find out.

Jeers - to the fans in Newark. They were clearly there to see Kimbo Slice, not a whole card of MMA fights. A minute in to the Lawler-Smith fight, the fans started booing because there wasn't enough action. The fight wasn't even moving that slowly. I thought the crowds at UFC and EliteXC would be the same kind of people, but apparently UFC crowds are much more knowledgeable and appreciative of the finer points of MMA.

Jeers - to the CBS announcing crew. They seemed mostly clueless about what was going on, from missing a kimura attempt for about 30 seconds to freaking out over a "guillotine" attempt when the fighter had an arm trapped (it's tough to execute a front choke when you have both the head and arm locked). They made me really appreciate Joe Rogan.

Overall, it was an entertaining, though flawed, show. I'll definitely be tuning in to future installments.