Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Opening Day is Coming Up

Excuse the escapism, but MLB's opening day is only four days away, so I'd like to use this blog as an opportunity to discuss the 2006 Boston Red Sox.

Starting Pitching
The Sox have five quality starting pitchers this year, with newcomer Josh Beckett headlining the cast. Elder citizens Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, or David Wells are all pushing 40, but still have killer instincts and nasty stuff. If any of them should break down at some point, young guns Jonathon Papelbon and Jon Lester are waiting to step up. Rounding out the starting five is Matt Clement, who is aiming to shake off a difficult end to last season when a line drive smashed into his face and put him out of commission.

Traditionally, the Red Sox have notoriously weak bullpens, but the front office made this a priority this offseason. They signed Skeletor-look alike Julian Tavarez for two years, and also signed Rudy Seanez. In trade action, the Sox aquired David Riske, and they re-signed Mike Timlin for another year. Closer Keith Foulke is hoping to return to 2004 form after having off-season surgery on his knees. If he doesn't get the job done, Jonathon Papelbon, Timlin, or rookie Craig Hansen have the potential to step up. The one southpaw is Lenny Dinardo, a personal favorite of Sox G.M. Theo Epstein.

The Sox have an all-new infield. I'll miss Bill Mueller, especially since his replacement, Mike Lowell, is coming off a career-worst offensive season. Hopefully his Gold Glove will make up for it, and he can rediscover his stroke in Fenway's lefty-friendly field. Alex Gonzalez, a free agent, will play short stop, and is reputed to have amazing range and a powerful arm. Mark Loretta, who the Sox acquired in exchange for caveman-catcher Doug Mirabelli, will provide the consistent #2 hitter the Sox need in their lineup. First base will be a platoon with Kevin Youkilis, aka "The Greek God of Walks," and J.T. Snow. Manager Terry Francona loves Snow, but I hope Youkilis gets the majority of the at-bats. He gets on base and has a knack for getting a clutch hit. Alex Cora is the backup infielder, and future starter Dustin Pedrioa should see time later in the season.

This was an area the Sox need to address, and they have done so. Fragile right fielder Trot Nixon needed a backup and platoon partner, and the Sox got him one in Willy Mo Pena. He is 6'5" and 240 pounds, and hits home runs that make people's jaws drop. He's also great at hitting lefties. In center field, Coco Crisp replaces unfrozen caveman lawyer, Johnny Damon. Crisp is speedy and young; plus his first name is Coco. In left field is the best right-handed hitter in baseball, Manny Ramirez. I am looking forward to another season of Manny being Manny: he'll hit near .300, launch 40 homers, and drive in 140 runs. How do you say stud in Spanish? Canadian star Adam Stern will back up Manny and provide speed on the basepaths, eh?

David Ortiz, aka El Jefe, aka Big Papi, aka Shrek....this is one of the nicest guys in baseball, with the clutchest bat in recent baseball history. He makes me want to be a better person. Speaking of which, Jason Varitek returns after winning both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award in 2005. It'll be a tough act to follow, but as long as Tek continues to handle the staff masterfully, whatever offense he adds is a bonus. Josh Bard will serve as Tim Wakefield's caddy and try to handle his knuckler.

The Sox has a lot of question marks: will Mike Lowell and Mark Loretta bounce back? How are Keith Foulke and David Wells' knees? Is Curt Schilling going to have a great season at age 39? In the end, their success depends most heavily on Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, and Keith Foulke. If these pitchers are at their best, I predict 96 wins. If any one of them spends significant time on the D.L. or struggles on the mound, expect no more than 88. Remember, the Yankees are still in the A.L. East, and the Blue Jays are loaded for bear this year. I think the Jays are a little overrated, and the Yankees are a Randy Johnson injury away from a long season, so hear are my predictions:
Second-Red Sox (Wild Card)
Third-Blue Jays

Friday, March 10, 2006

Alternative-Route Teachers Rout Street-Ballers in Hollandale

Hollandale, MS- In December of 2005, a squad of street-balling hustlers posing as police officers played a team of teachers at the Simmons High School gym. It was a homecoming for many of the street-ballers, several of whom were members of the 2001 state championship team. The young ballers destroyed the mostly middle-aged teachers by a final score of 110-65. The lone highlight of the game for the teachers was a third-quarter rim-rattling dunk by first-year teacher, Joel "White Thunder" Hebert. Needless to say, there was no talk of a rematch after the slaughter. But that did not stop Simmons principal Roger Liddell from scheduling a second blood-letting.

This rematch was played on Wednesday, March 8. The crowd was smaller this time, due to no previous announcement of the game. But fortunately for the teachers, our empty bench was full of high school seniors, and our starting line-up was given a major overhaul. Not wanting to endure another beating by the ballers, Mr. Hebert called up his roommate, 6'7" power forward Chris Elliott. Chris is a Teach For America (TFA) teacher in Greenville. Chris in turn placed a call to his friend, William, another member of TFA. William is an explosive point guard who attended Wake Forest, where he was assigned the task of guarding All-American Chris Paul everyday in practice. With these additions to the starting line-up, combined with Joel and Aaron "the Assassin" Thompson, the second game of this series was shaping up to be a much more even affair.

The first five minutes of the game were frustrating for the teacher team. The street ballers jumped out to an early 14-4 lead, as Joel Hebert and other teachers could not find their shots. The ballers continued to press into the second quarter, and only the inside scoring of Chris "Moose" Elliott kept the game close. At halftime, the score was 44-31 on the side of the ballers.

It was in the third quarter that the miraculous comeback began. Cheered on by Principal Liddell, who unselfishly elected to sit out this game, the teacher team roared back to life. Led by Terrence Williams and other high school seniors, the teachers clawed back to within seven points. The starters were inserted into the game at this point, and the teachers began wiping the boards with the trash-talking ballers. With six minutes left in the third quarter, Joel put in short jumper off a nice pass from his roommate Moose. He was fouled on the play, and had the chance to tie the game at 57-57. This would be the first tie since the game started at 0-0. Hebert, who has never missed a free throw at Simmons, converted this one as well to tie the game. This brought the crowd back into the game in a major way.

A major part of the teacher's turnaround was our composure. The street-ballers turned into a bunch of thugs, who cursed out the student-refs and cried about every call. At one point, the other team's leading scorer was called for a foul and threw the ball across the gym. He was given a technical foul, which the teachers converted.

The street-balling, foul-mouthed thugs mounted a comeback in the fourth quarter. Again and again they pulled to within a single point of the teachers. But with thirty seconds left in the game, 350 pound shooting guard, Phil Gibson, made a three pointer that clinched the game for the teachers. The gym went crazy, as Cinderella paid a visit to Simmons High. The message of this story: when alternative-route teaching programs work together, anything is possible. Especially when you assign funny nicknames.