Archive for October, 2011

Shooting Oneself in the Foot

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

Can somebody tell me why most of the teams I’ve supported during my lifetime invariably shoot themselves in the foot sending a dagger through my heart. The latest disappointment was Wales losing to France in the rugby World Cup semi-final by the slender margin of 8-9.

The previous day I discovered the game was being televised on some obscure cable channel (channel 245) tucked away in the outer reaches of home shopping and Jerry Springer re-runs. I elected to pre-record the game to avoid having to get up at the unearthly hour of 4.00am, and I was sitting in front of my screen at approximately 7.30am proudly wearing my Welsh rugby shirt eagerly awaiting the referee’s whistle to start proceedings.

The game began promisingly for Wales and they quickly gained an early lead from a penalty by James Hook. The team was growing in confidence as the match progressed, and looked likely to make another score until the game was turned on its head quite literally.

In the 16th minute, the Welsh captain, Sam Warburton, performed a spear tackle on a French wing three-quarter which a Zulu warrior would envy, and was shown the red card reducing Wales to 14 men for the remainder of the game. It wasn’t malicious but it was a dangerous tackle all the same. I stared open mouthed at the TV screen completely stunned watching Warburton trudge dejectedly off the field taking a nation’s dreams and aspirations with him.

 It is to Walescredit that they nearly won. France didn’t offer much in terms of attacking options and were content to win the game with penalty kicks. James Hook missed two kickable penalties and Leigh Halfpenny went agonizingly close with a long range attempt in the final minutes. Mike Phillips should have attempted to get closer to the posts when scoring the game’s only try but was too busy celebrating crossing the line.

It reminded me of the day Swansea Town reached the semi-final of the FA Cup in 1964; long before the dark side invaded our comfort zone. On the way they had knocked out three first division teams: Sheffield United, Stoke City and the mighty Liverpool on their own turf at Anfield. Their opponents in the semi-final were a fellow second division team Preston North End who they had defeated 5-1 in the league a few weeks earlier.

The Swans led 1-0 at half time following a Jimmy McLaughlin goal, but Preston scored an equalizer early in the second half and the match was drifting towards extra time until disaster struck. Swansea’s goal keeper Noel Dwyer was on a walkabout in his penalty area when Preston’s center half Tony Singleton latched onto the ball around the halfway line. He took a few steps before unleashing a shot from nearly 40 yards which flew over Dwyer’s head into an empty net. Game over and the dreams (maybe the Welsh are a bunch of daydreamers) of thousands of rain sodden fans from South Wales were shattered at Villa Park.

Long suffering Welsh fans have nightmares (dreams/nightmares; it has a touch of Harry Potter) over failing to qualify for the FIFA world cup finals in 1978 and 1986. Each time they were pipped at the post by Scotland as a result of two dubious penalty decisions which were created by the naivety of Welsh defenders. Joe Jordan was the original “hand of God” merchant.

Who can forget the Atlanta Braves’ attempt to retain the World Series in 1996? They won the first two games of a best of seven series in New York and were leading 6-3 in the first home game. Braves closer Mark Wohlers entered the fray in the 8th inning and needed to strike out a pinch hitter to move into the final innings and take a virtually unassailable 3-0 lead.

Jim Leyritz was little more than a journey man back up catcher with very little pedigree. Unfortunately nobody had shown him the script and he unceremoniously blasted Wohlers’ fast ball out of the park for a three run homer to tie the score. The Yankees went on to win the game and never trailed again winning the series 4-2.

In 1999 the Atlanta Falcons were in the Super Bowl for the first time in their history facing the Denver Broncos in Miami. In the early hours of the morning on game day, Eugene Robinson, self-appointed spiritual leader of the team, was arrested for propositioning a hooker who just happened to be an under cover police officer. Robinson and several other players spent several hours at the police station which was not an ideal way to prepare for the biggest game of your sporting life. Needless to say Robinson was torched a couple of times for touchdowns and Denver were comfortable winners.

 Staying with the oval ball, underwhelming France plays New Zealand next Sunday for the ultimate prize in international rugby. The All Blacks demolished Australia in the other semi-final and are hot favorites to win the cup for the second time. However not so fast my friends, as they have experienced moments in previous world cup tournaments when the team imploded. I would be wary of the French if I was a Kiwi because on their day they can beat anyone including New Zealand.

Quote of the week: My friend Nick recently had his car serviced and when he arrived to pick his car up the mechanic asked him: “Do you want me to grease your rear end, Sir?” Without batting an eyelid Nick replied: “Shall I drop my trousers and bend over?”

An Epic Collapse

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

I elected to take some days off before making any comments on the Atlanta Braves’ diabolical meltdown in the month of September which allowed the St Louis Cardinals to rest the wild card from their sweaty palms. I resisted a knee jerk reaction to their pitiful end to a season, but before I voice my own comments there were some interesting quotes from various beat writers around the country:

— “Fredi Gonzalez struggled all season long to get his best players on the field, while riding the three relievers he trusted into the ground. For the second straight season, the Braves had a championship-caliber pitching staff and an offense not worthy of it. For the second straight season, the Braves had no path to victory when the pitchers let them down.” – Joe Sheehan,

— “It was one more reminder of why the Cards are still alive and the Braves are done. Some folks look at the bright glare of a playoff hunt as if it were a scalding heat lamp. Others bask in the warmth of the intense pressure and act as though it’s some soothing morning sun. That would be the Cardinals.” – Bryan Burwell, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Neither the Red Sox nor the Braves could find that one guy to come up with the key hit, or get the key out when they needed it most.” – Bob Harkins, NBC Sports

— “Gonzalez will take plenty of fan heat but, so did Cox for the perceived underachieving of teams that won 14 division titles but just one World Series.” — Paul White, USA Today

— “I’m sure the City of Atlanta will be devastated by the Braves’ collapse for another five or six minutes.” – Dan Wolken, Memphis Commercial Appeal

— “My heart goes out to the Atlanta Braves, mostly because they didn’t play with any in September.” – Matt Sussman of Detroit, on Twitter

The club’s statistics for the month of September make for harrowing reading, but baseball is all about statistics and averages, and analyzing them can give some insight into what went wrong for a team that was coasting into the playoffs at the beginning of the month.

The St. Louis Cardinals won 16 of their final 21 games, including sweeping the Braves to win the wild card and deny the Braves’ postseason bid in Gonzalez’s first season as the managerial replacement to retired icon Bobby Cox. The Braves led the Cardinals by 10 1/2 games Aug. 25 and by 8 1/2 games Sept. 5. but matched the 1964 Phillies for the dubious distinction of largest blown lead by an NL team in September.

Rookie-of-the-year candidate Craig Kimbrel gave up a run in the ninth inning for his third blown save in his last six chances, and the Braves lost after leading in the ninth inning or later for the third time in their final 20 games. They scored three runs in 13 innings, two on Dan Uggla’s homer that staked them to a 3-1 lead in the third. They didn’t score for the last 10 innings of their season.

Three runs are about what the Braves averaged (3.1) during the fateful 7-16 stretch that began Sept. 5. They scored three runs or fewer 14 times in that 23-game slide, forcing their injury-depleted starting rotation and overworked bullpen to pitch with little or no margin for error.

On opening day the pitching rotation comprised five men: Hudson, Lowe, Jurrjens, Hanson and Beachy. By August Hanson and Jurrjens were injured and did not pitch again which naturally placed a lot of pressure on the rookie replacements who understandably could not pitch sufficient innings to give the bullpen a well deserved rest. Consequently Venters and O’Flaherty pitched more innings than any other relievers in baseball and understandably were exhausted coming down the home stretch. Closer Kimbrel had a rookie record 46 saves for the season, but succumbed to the pressure of attempting to stop the September slide into oblivion.

Braves management and fans had every right to expect veteran Derek Lowe to step up to the plate (literally) and pitch at a level to match his inflated salary. After all, he came good last September and played a major part in the team reaching the playoffs. Unfortunately lightning doesn’t normally strike twice and the 38 year old failed to deliver.

In a team sport the manager/coach is usually the fall guy or scapegoat when the team experiences an unsuccessful season. His supporters would claim that the manager of a baseball team cannot make the hits or pitches for his players and the overpaid stars need to take responsibility which is true up to a point.

However, a manager decides on the line up for the game; he decides how long to leave a pitcher in a game; he makes a decision on the match ups with his pitchers for the opposing hitters, and correspondingly his choice of  right and left hand hitters to play against the opposing pitchers . Former manager Bobby Cox was an avid disciple of the righty-lefty match up and endorsed by his successor; BIG MISTAKE.

Indeed Fredi Gonazalez made several mistakes during September. In the middle of August he called up Costanza who provided speed and versatility at the plate to complement lead off hitter Michael Bourn. The combination of those two at the top of the order revitalized the offense until Constanza picked up a niggling injury, and was benched for the rest of the season in favor of the predictable and unproductive Jason Heyward; BIG MISTAKE by Gonzalez.

 Batters No2 through 8 in the lineup played with very little imagination or intensity. They were all swinging for the fences with very little thought given to manufacturing runs; BIG MISTAKE by Gonzalez. Professional hitters should be able to bunt or execute a squeeze play if demanded by the manager.

Derek Lowe had a torrid time through September and had lost his last four starts with an ERA approaching a ridiculous 9.0 when Gonzalez decided to persevere with him in the last game of the season with play offs on the line. Gonzalez informed the media that he was “relying on Lowe’s experience to get us into the playoffs;” BIG MISTAKE

Twenty years ago the Atlanta Braves ignited the City of Atlanta by going from worst to first in the national league. In contrast the current line up provided a cure for insomnia with regular servings of boring baseball. Winning teams need “heart.” If that’s the case the 2011 Braves are in desperate need of a transplant.