MLB Preview: What I’ll Be Watching For This Season

As the final notes of “One Shining Moment” played at 12:08 a.m. on April 2, it was finally the official start of baseball season.

One fun part of being a fan is finding all of the cool story lines to follow during the six-month grind of a regular season. Here is what I feel will be the best things to track this regular season.

Changing of the guard in the NL East

The National League East Division has been run by dynasties. The Atlanta Braves won it 11 times in a row from 1995-2005. After the New York Mets (somehow) won the division in 2006, the Philadelphia Phillies then began their impressive streak of five straight East crowns.

However, a wise man once said, “the times they are a-changin’.” The Phillies era of dominance my be coming to an end. Injuries, age, and offensive regression has made the division up for grabs again. The Marlins had money left from their new funky uniforms and aquarium backstops in their new stadium to sign Jose Reyes which will compliment their young core nicely. The Washington Nationals also have a ton of young tallent that could be a dark horse for a 2012 breakthrough. Also, don’t forget about the Atlanta Braves who were in control of the Wild Card until their late-season collapse. They will be hungry to rebound.

The AL East is really good

I hate the Yankees. I hate the Red Sox. I really love the AL East, however. This division is completely stacked with four teams (don’t forget the Rays and Blue Jays) that could easily win any other one in the league. The fifth playoff spot was no doubt added to help the third place team in this division get into the playoffs, and the race for it will be interesting. My pick to surprise will be the Toronto Blue Jays, assuming Jose Bautista continues to be ridiculous, and the Rays lack of offensive depth comes back to bite them.

Pedro Alvarez

I knew I couldn’t go a whole baseball post without mentioning the Pirates, but I feel this is a story line that many outside of Pittsburgh will be following too. Pedro has such great potential, as many baseball ‘experts’ notice, but he hasn’t been able to consistently put it together in the majors. He lost even more weight this offseason and is in the best shape of his life, but he still can’t hit the ball to save his life (.170 AVG, 2 HR, 3 RBI, and 22 strikeouts in 53 AB’s in spring training this year). The Pirates’ level of success in 2012 could hang in the balance of this former  top draft pick. If it doesn’t click for him 2012, it may never.

Battle for the basement

Not all the fun in baseball comes from following the pennant races. In 2012, there are two teams that are shaping up to be historically bad. The Oakland A’s followed up the great publicity that the movie “Moneyball” brought to the franchise by GM Billy Beane trading away anyone of worth in a rash rebuilding effort. The Houston Astros thought they could keep their team going by completely ignoring their farm system and thinking that Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman could play forever.

These two teams could easily lose 100 games, and it will be interesting to see who ends up with the worst record in the league.

The season kicks off Wednesday night with the St. Louis Cardinals visiting the Miami Marlins and their awesome new stadium. In the great words of Mr. Huynh…..

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March Madness Pittsburgh Style

Remember me?

You probably do. I used to post on this blog when I didn’t have 20 credit hours at school, a high school basketball to cover, a really good college basketball team to cover, and a part-time gig to get me some money so I can eat something more than the grass on my front lawn next year to worry about.

Lucky for you, my loyal readers, “The Quarter From Hell” is officially over which means more time to devote to content on here.

I begun Spring Break the way every good sports fan would by plopping in front of my television to watch 12 hours of college basketball per day with the beginning of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. This year, however, there was a twist.

My dad is a Duquesne Dukes season ticket holder. In exchange for having to watch the yearly torture that is Dukes Basketball (they have not played in the NCAA Tournament since 1977), he had the opportunity to buy tickets to the First and Second (I absolutely refuse to refer to them as Second and Third Rounds) Round games that were being hosted by the school.

I had never been to an NCAA Tournament game before Thursday, and I can’t recommend it enough. Me and my Dad arrived at the arena at 11:47 a.m. and with the exception of being booted out briefly between sessions, were there until 12:14 a.m. on Friday.

12 hours of live tournament basketball is a great experience. You get to see a lot of teams you’ve only seen on ESPN before, experience the quirky traditions of each school, and be a part of the emotion and fun that makes the tournament so great.

After the four games Thursday and two Saturday, I’ve decided on my “Pittsburgh Pod” awards. Please discuss snubs in the comments if you so desire.

Favorite Player To Watch- Jared Sullinger, Ohio State

Sully showed why he is such a fun player to watch in both games putting up big numbers and showcasing his talents on both ends of the floor. He has that LeBron James-type build to him at 6-foot-9, 280 pounds and has great inside and outside games. The kid is built to play in the NBA and was easily my favorite to watch over the weekend.

Honorable Mention: Scoop Jardin, Syracuse- Scoop did it all for the Orange in their win Saturday over K-State. He anchors the ‘Cuse fast break attack which have been a treat to watch all year.

Best Fans– Loyola (Md.) Greyhounds

They had to wait until 10 p.m. Thursday night to receive their drubbing at the hands of the Ohio State Buckeyes, but the Greyhound faithful relished being able to see their team in the tourney for the first time. They sold out their allotment of tickets and had a whole section in the upper deck full of students. Even though they were down big late, their enthusiasm never wavered. Props to you guys

Honorable Mention: Gonzaga Bulldogs- Any fan who travels well over 2,000 miles to see their team play will never be questioned by me.

Best Band- Kansas State Wildcats

I’m spoiled as an Ohio Bobcat fan to have the Marching 110 performing at every home game, however the band at K-State comes in not far behind. They definitely had the best song selection, and their unofficial fight song, “Wabash Cannonball”, whipped their fans into a frenzy. It was fun having them right by my section for both of their games.

Honorable Mention: Southern Mississippi Eagles- Since Southern Miss couldn’t bring many fans, their band did a good job filling the void.

Best Mascot- Otto the Orange, Syracuse University

Otto has always been my favorite mascot to play with on the Mascot Modes on the NCAA Football and March Madness games and the little ball of energy was definitely the best costumed character to grace CONSOL. Seriously, how can’t you like this little guy?

Honorable Mention: Brutus Buckeye, Ohio State Buckeyes

Best Villans– Jim Boeheim and the Syracuse Orange

Although not a single upset happened during the weekend, Syracuse became dangerously close to being the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed. Some bad calls went against UNC Asheville late, increasing the hate for Syracuse to face. They were booed every time the score was announced the rest of Thursday and through the game on that Saturday.

Best Celebrity Sighting– John Stockton

The legendary Jazz point guard was in town to watch his son play for Gonzaga. He was shown on the scoreboard during a time out and the place went nuts. I was desperately hoping he would break out a pair of the famed short shorts for a one-on-one game against Reggie Miller (who was broadcasting), however that was just a pipe dream

Honorable Mention: Bruce Hornsby- Not only is he a brilliant musician, but his son Keith plays for UNC-Asheville

Best Moment– UNC Asheville Tying Syracuse in the late stages.

So close yet so far. The crowd had slowly been building favor toward the Bulldogs all afternoon, and after Jeremy Atkinson tied the game at 54 with a little over 6 minutes to play, the crowd of 18,000-plus exploded. Chants of “Let’s Go Bulldogs” rang throughout the building as Syracuse called a quick time out after the fact. It was at that point everyone knew they were watching something special.

Honorable Mention: Guy Landry Edi’s dunk against West Virginia- Best dunk of the weekend that ended up being the nail in WVU’s coffin, allowing Gonzaga to advance.

Best Game– Gonzaga vs. Ohio State

Both sides came to play and there was plenty of good action. Sullinger and Thomas led the Buckeyes to a hard-earned victory. Nothing instant-classic worthy, but the crowd still got way more than their money’s worth.

Honorable Mention: UNC-Asheville vs. Syracuse- After working as a member of the media all basketball season, it was really nice to be a fan for a change for what was almost a historic game.

Even though the games made Pittsburgh “Chalk Town” rather than “Upset City”, it was still a blast to attend the games. Rumors are that Pittsburgh may even host a regional in a couple of years, something I fully endorse. I promise I’ll start posting on here more often and check back for a baseball preview soon.

And oh yeah, go Bobcats.

Todd Graham to Arizona State: High Octane Heads West

Hearing the news of Todd Graham leaving Pitt for Arizona State floored me. It seemed that after a 6-6 season in the Big East, Graham seemed like one of last people that would be moving out.

In typical Pittsburgh fashion, the media firestorm ensued. After taking the day to soak it all in, here is what I’ve taken out of it.

1. Todd Graham has every right to leave when he wants.

Let’s be real here. It certainly is easy to say what a horrible person Graham is for bolting out on Pitt for Arizona State, but if we are in his shoes, do we stay put? Todd Graham wanted his family and himself to be happy. If that means going for more money and living in a place with better weather, so be it. I know I would not stay in a place where I was unhappy when a arrangement that means more happiness for me and my family could be made (mainly $$$). It may upset others, but I would still do it. It is 21st century college football and I’ve grown to accept it. On the other hand….

2. There is no excuse for the way Todd Graham left.

My parents always tell me how much people don’t know how to communicate face-to-face in the 21st century. Texting and social media, in their opinion, has ruined our ability to talk with one another. I always thought they were crazy, until now.

What in the world was Todd Graham thinking?

A text to his assistant coaches was then forwarded in an email to players which read:

“I have resigned my position at Pitt in the best interest of my family to pursue the head coaching position at Arizona State. Coaching there has always been a dream of ours and we have family there. The timing of the circumstances have prohibited from telling you this directly. I now am on my way to Tempe to continue those discussions. God Bless. Coach Graham.”

It’s one thing to leave a team, it’s another to completely abandon them.

Then his wife Penni had the audacity to post this picture to Twitter of the two of them on a private jet to Tempe.

Graham is outfitted in ASU colors. It is as if they are mocking the Pitt program.

Could he really not work up the courage to look his players in the eyes and tell them he was moving on? He never had a problem keeping quiet when criticizing players or hyping up his failure of an offense. Why the silence now? I’m not buying his excuse of it being a time issue. Arizona State wasn’t going to give the job to someone else in the hour it would have taken to address the team. That’s what really upsets me.

3. Steve Peterson should lose his job

I don’t know how many chances someone in a powerful position such as athletic director of a BCS school should get. My hunch is it should be less than the number Pitt AD Steve Pederson has received.

After botching coaching hirings at Nebraska, it should be no surprise that he has now twice hired men of questionable character in less than a year to lead the football team. When Pitt takes the field for the BBVA Compass Bowl under interim head coach Keith Patterson, that will make it five different head coaches in roughly 13 months for the program. Someone should have to take responsibility for it, and Pederson should be gone.

4. The players have every right to be mad.

The backlash from players has been strong. None have been more vocal than wide receiver Devin Street.

I never played a day of organized football, but after being on the beat of a D-I college football team for a year, I can tell you there are few relationships in sports that compare to the one between football coaches and players. The athletes, who come from different backgrounds, connect with what the coaches are saying, not only on the field but off of it as well. To have a coach leave like this must be a horrible feeling. With all of the turmoil at Pitt in the past year, you can see that each incident brings this group together more. Though they are far from being the most talented college football team, they have certainly dealt with a lot of adversity which makes them a stronger group.

5. This will hurt Arizona State more than it will hurt Pitt.

I don’t know what the ASU Sun Devils are thinking getting a coach that just came off of a 6-6 season in the weakest conference the BCS has ever seen. The reaction has not been good on the SB Nation ASU blog House of Sparky.

Reports are that many former ASU players and alums are upset with the hiring, as a pattern of unloyalty has really become exposed for Graham. With the news of his departures spreading across the nation, recruits will know about his ways, and will basically know he is lying to their faces. Pitt may lose some recruits with another coaching upheaval, but they still have their reputation. That’s what matters when getting players.

It will be interesting to see what happens next, as what was looking to be another quiet off-season for Pitt Football has been turned upside down. While you are browsing for the latest rumors, make sure you check out Graham’s introduction press conference HERE.

The vicious cycle has begun yet again. Graham will make his debut as Arizona State coach on December 22 in the Las Vegas Bowl. It will be safe to say that a good portion of Western Pennsylvania will be trading their blue and gold for blue and orange that night.

72 Hours

Ask any Ohio University student what’s the toughest part about going to school there, and you will get a variety of answers.

Some will tell you it is trying to stay focused on academics during spring quarter and the fabled “Fest Season”. Others will tell you finding a place to live as an upperclassman or getting a table at Shively Dining Hall.

Another big one is filling the six-week void that is Winter Intercession. Due to the quarters system, students are off from Thanksgiving to New Years. Luckily for me, I was able to get a job and of course, cover some fun events.

My first full week off featured me returning to the $7.65 per hour grind of working in a toy store. While it is fun at times, and the team I work with is great, it doesn’t take many spoiled, bratty houswives yelling in your face at 7 a.m. over not having Just Dance for Kids in stock to realize that it is far from a desirable place to make a career.

To avoid letting this get me down too much, I was able to get experience writing right off the bat over break, covering two big-time events: The annual “City Game” between Duquesne and Pitt, and the 2011 MAC Championship which was held in Detroit, all in a three-day window.

The craziness began on Wednesday, November 30 at CONSOL Energy Center.

This was the first “big-time” event I had covered. After checking in and heading to the media room to get settled, seeing every Pittsburgh sports media member you could think of was surreal. The facilities were top notch. I had never gone to a place that has an actual “media workroom” or a buffet for the press consisting of more than a sandwich ring. My spot on press row was surrounded by members of the Oakland Zoo that made the trek up Forbes Avenue.

The game was attended by 15,580 people, the largest ever for a meeting between the two teams, making it a very unique atmosphere. Though the Dukes fell for the 11th consecutive year, it was still an entertaining game and seeing people you’ve seen on T.V. such as Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon in the flesh following a game was still something that has yet to sink in.

On the way out, I got lost (big surprise, right?). But while I wondered the bowels of the NHL’s newest facility, I got a unique view of the coolest parts of the arena.

Here is a mural outside the Penguins’ dressing room.

The doors to their locker room.

Right across the hall from there is the prestigious “Suite 66”, a luxury box with seats right on the glass next to the bench.

The suite features a clear glass wall that allows the fans lucky enough to get inside a chance to see the players make the walk down this hallway to the ice.

When I finally found my way, I then noticed this unique glass mural at the administrative entrance. It features the names of all Penguins to win the various trophies of the NHL.

After spending Thursday morning and afternoon working, it was back to Downtown Pittsburgh to board a bus at 12:15 a.m. to Detroit for the MAC Championship.

After arriving in a wet snow at 5:30 a.m., I got some sleep in our hotel room before taking in the sights of Detroit.

I stopped by Comerica Park and the cavalcade of Tigers guarding the ballpark.

I ate lunch at the Hockeytown Cafe.

Here is the GM Headquarters, known as the Renaissance Center. Our hotel was located in the middle tower.

I know Detroit has gotten an incredibly bad reputation as a depressed area, but it really was better than I was expected. It was eerily deserted for a workday (a Friday), which probably answers questions about the economic situation there. I still never felt like I was in danger, and some parts really impressed me including Ford Field.

There is a reason why it has hosted such huge events as the Super Bowl and Final Four, as it was a really beautiful facility. Even though this was a much smaller-scaled event, having something like the MAC Championship there made it feel like a big-time game.

It also blew my mind how much cheaper everything was inside. Souvenir drinks ran you back $6.95 at a concession stand, but you get unlimited refills. The same goes for $6 popcorn. I can’t think of an NFL stadium having that kind of deal. Parking was also much, much cheaper than what I was used to seeing on the North Shore back home. If you’re short on dollars, you may want to become a Lions fan.

I was perched a whopping eight stories above the field, much higher than I was used to.

The nice part about a domed stadium would be the fact that the press box was in the open, as there isn’t a need for a pane of glass to keep the elements out. It really made it feel as if you were a part of the game more than your typical outdoor stadium.

The game went just about as horrible as you could expect, with the Ohio Bobcats blowing a 20-point second half lead to the Northern Illinois Huskies, leaving the ‘Cats still without a MAC Championship since 1968.

The post-game interviews with head coach Frank Solich and senior linebacker Noah Keller were painful. Adding insult to injury, you could hear the celebrations of the Huskies echoing down the hallway. Though they were still able to make a bowl game, you could just tell this game was going to stick in the heads of the players for a long time.

The loss stung for any member of the Ohio University family, including me. Covering the team all year and getting to know the players throughout the season made it extra hard to swallow such a tough defeat after seeing the student-athletes work so hard toward their goals.

I then returned to my normal life in Bethel Park Saturday, including work the following Monday. After the first bratty customer to give me a hard time, it really dawned on me: A bad day in sports writing, including witnessing one of the worst losses I had seen in my life, beats the absolute crap out of doing anything else for a living.

The War on Fans

As much as I hate anything pertaining to West Virginia University, I have to admit their fan loyalty can be matched by few in collegiate sports. They live and die with their Mountaineers, and while I think it can be over the top at times, they would be the last to have their devotion questioned.

But Mountaineer Football Head Coach Dana Holgorsen did just that last weekend following their 55-10 victory over Bowling Green. 46,603 fans showed up on a day featuring temperatures in the 50s and cold rain to see a low-end MAC team play. This apparently wasn’t good enough for Holgorsen, who was expecting sell outs similar to the LSU game every week. One comment he made at his weekly press conference really upset me.

 What’s so hard about it? Is it too cold? It wasn’t too cold for our players. It wasn’t too cold for our coaches or managers or trainers. They were out there. So why did we have 20,000 people less at this one than we did last week?

Well Dana, If I were a coach such as your self making hundreds or thousand or even millions of dollars to coach a team, well yes I would show up regardless of the weather. The same would go if I were a player receiving a free education to play a game.

The nerve Holgorsen has to attack fans who spend their hard earned money to attend games, in this economic climate no less, in which the money goes toward his and his staff’s salary is ridiculous. He fails to realize that West Virginia consistently is the top school for attendance in the Big East. Which leads me to this point.

Teams should never “call out” fans. Ever. Period.

Frank Coonelly did so in March, claiming that the Pirates would not be able to spend money until the fans show up in greater numbers. He was rightfully chastised for doing so by Pittsburgh media. People like this are much like those in government, out of touch with the “common citizen”.

Not all season ticket holders are able to make every game. Not everyone has the money for tickets in the locations that you mistakenly overpriced (ahem Yankees). As long as you aren’t in the red there isn’t really that much that you should be worried about. You do your job running the teams and let the fans do as they please.

As long as you guys are turning a profit, why should you even care who comes?

(Here is the press conference where Holgorsen goes off. You’d think the team is going to relocate because of it.)

Pittsburgh Pirates: Year in Review

Another year of baseball has come and gone for 22 cities. This one was a very noteworthy one for the beloved Pittsburgh Pirates. They gave their fans a taste of first place in July for the first time since 1992. Although they completely collapsed down the stretch, they finished with their best record (72-90) since 2004.

Instead of focusing on the huge negative that is the team’s 19th consecutive losing season, I’m going to take this space to focus on the memories that this season left me with by thanking the players. There were plenty.

Joel Hanrahan- Thank you for being the shut-down closer this team envisioned you being when they traded for you in 2009. I’d take you over Nyjer Morgan in a heartbeat.

Pedro Alvarez- Thank you for keeping it cool this year, even though it was a lost year. You took a nearly radioactive situation with your struggles and the reaction of the fan base and kept it from getting out of control. Clear your head up and come back ready in 2012. We need you.

Jose Tabata- Thank you so much for having a love for the Pirate franchise. It showed when you signed your extension this summer. You know the great history of this team and want to be a part of it. How can you not like that?

Paul Maholm- Even though this was most likely your last year with the club, thank you for being a great pitcher to watch during your time here. No matter what kind of crap you were faced with, you took the ball and tried to do your job to the best of your ability every time out. Not one complaint or excuse. It’s something I feel the younger pitchers fed off of.

Jeff Karstens- Thank you for showing in this era of obsession over power arms that a pitcher with control can get the job done too. Keep up the good work.

Michael McKenry- Thank you for making grown men cry on the night of July 8th, 2011 just by hitting a home run. Seriously.

Charlie Morton- Thank you for not giving up when it seemed everyone else had done so. One of the best stories of this season.

James McDonald- Thank you for being the lighthearted guy on the team. Your goofing around even made the 10-0 losses watchable when they cut away to you and the other guys in the dugout.

Neil Walker- Thank you for carrying this team at times when no one else could get it going. You were a catalyst all year with clutch hitting. You are a fun player to cheer for.

Andrew McCutchen- Thank you for having the breakout season that we were waiting for. You are a true “star-level” talent and it showed this year. While you faded down the stretch, you are quickly turning heads in the baseball world.

Clint Hurdle- Thank you for coming into what many consider an impossible situation and bringing hope back to this fan base. Your interactions with fans and players have meant a lot and went a long way to bringing back the positive vibes this young team desperately needed. You believed, so then we believed.

 

187 days until Opening Day 2012.

 

Conference Realignment: Pitt, Syracuse to the ACC

The ticking time bomb that is college athletics came closer to a full explosion when it was announced that Pitt and Syracuse would be leaving the Big East for the ACC.

It was a surprising move, given that the brass at Pitt made it seem like the school would be reactive rather than proactive. I suppose that after the first domino fell (Texas A&M to the SEC) they felt the timing was right.

There are both pros and cons to the decision. Let’s take a look at them.

PROS

Chumps no more?

With the lack of depth that the Big East has for football, the program should get  a boost from making the jump to the ACC. There will be more money to be had from bowl games and good seasons will be rewarded with better than the Meinike Car Care Bowl.

ACC hoops, baby!

Although the Big East has cemented its place as a power in college basketball, the ACC should give the Panthers a chance to show their stuff against perennial powers such as Duke and North Carolina yearly. It will be very exciting to have those teams coming to Pittsburgh regularly.

Hello old friends

 

The move in the conference will also rekindle old rivalries with Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech who left the Big East in 2004 or 2005. Pitt had many great match ups with these teams in football in the late ’90s and early 2000s’. It could potentially wake up a very dormant fan base and get them out to Heinz Field for games.

CONS

They aren’t who we thought they were

Although the conference features Duke and UNC for basketball and Florida State and Virginia Tech for football, there is a lot of dead weight in the conference. Teams such as Wake Forrest, Georgia Tech, Virginia, and NC State to name a few struggle to compete consistently. The conference lacks depth, especially in basketball as the others just can’t keep up.

Still moves to be made

There are still many moves to come in conference realignment. Many schools have been rumored to move including some ACC ones. Once the dust settles, there is a chance that Pitt could still find themselves in an inferior conference compared to the rest of the country.

End of the Backyard Brawl?

Since Pitt has bolted, they will no longer have a mandatory game with West Virginia. Although it wouldn’t be tough to schedule the matchup out of conference in basketball, it may be a sticky situation for football. It is often the highlight of the season for both teams so the inability to play it every year will be a tad disappointing.

I can’t really come up with a final verdict on whether the move is good or bad since there is still so much that could happen with the rest of the conferences. Only time will tell. I still applaud the schools proactive approach to realignment as they are moving on their terms rather than doing so because they had to.