2. Big Ten – 3,267,000
3. ACC – 2,650,000
4. Big 12 – 2,347,000
5. Pac-12 – 2,108,000
6. Big East – 1,884,000
2. ACC – 1,247,000
3. SEC – 1,222,000
4. Big 12 – 1,069,000
5. Big East – 1,049,000
6. Pac-12 – 783,000
After the White Sox got pummeled by the Twins for a total of 32 runs over the course of a doubleheader this past Friday (for those of you breathlessly waiting for a diatribe on the state of baseball on the South Side, it will come soon enough), I came to the somber realization that this is a pretty terrible time of year as a sports fan if your baseball team’s play is in that purgatory between the major league level and AAA ball (as the Sox are demonstrating right now). While it isn’t a complete disaster in the City of Chicago overall since the Cubs are in some type of bastardized version of a pennant race with the Brewers right now where 82 wins for the season will likely yield the playoff spot out of the NL Central, as far as the male side of the Frank the Tank household is concerned (the female side was raised far north of Madison Street, so she doesn’t share my current plight), the real baseball season is over until playoff time (although fantasy baseball is still fortunately kicking for me).
It’s been awhile since I’ve felt so down on baseball so early in the year since the White Sox have at least been somewhat in the playoff hunt or at least not completely out of it during the summer on a consistent basis since 1990. The problem is that there’s nothing else out there right now to fill sports void for me right now – it’s still a few weeks from the start of NFL training camp, the NBA draft is already over, and the start of the NFL and college football seasons are two months away. I don’t even have the Mark Buehrle trade watch to think about anymore since the Sox (wisely) just signed a contract extension with the lefty. Simply put, July is a pretty bad sports month if your baseball team is out of it. This got me to thinking about which months of the year are best for sports fans and concurrently which are the worst, which is perfect timing since I haven’t put up a mindless and gimmicky sports ranking in a long time.
My ranking of sports months is based upon what I watch on a regular basis, which are Major League Baseball, NFL Football, NBA Basketball, College Football, College Basketball, the major golf tournaments and the occasional Grand Slam tennis match. Thus, you won’t see any references to hockey and NASCAR, even though they might well be worth watching live and in-person. I’m also only taking into account annual events, so I won’t refer to a number of items that I enjoy such as the Olympics, World Cup soccer or the Ryder Cup since they don’t occur every year. Finally, I’m approaching this from the perspective of how much I’d be excited to watch these events regardless of whether my favorite teams or players are involved or playing well. With all of that in mind, here is Part 1 of my ranking of the months of the sports year from worst to first:
Team Sports in Season: Major League Baseball
Major Events: MLB All-Star Game, Wimbledon finals, British Open, start of NFL training camp, MLB trade deadline
Comments: I remember not too long ago when the MLB All-Star Game and the festivities surrounding it such as the Home Run Derby was the sporting event that I anticipated the most during the summer. With the combination of the steroid scandal plus the abomination of Chris Berman at the announcers’ mike, though, the Home Run Derby has become a complete farce. The baseball All-Star Game itself is still the best of any of the pro sports leagues, but with the advent of interleague play, there is no longer the mystery of what would happen in certain AL-vs.-NL matchups. July is certainly a fantastic time of year if you’re British with Wimbledon and the Open Championship, and while I enjoy taking in those events, this is a pretty bad month on the team sports front if you’re baseball team is out of the pennant race.
Team Sports in Season: Major League Baseball, NFL Football (preseason)
Major Events: PGA Championship, start of U.S. Open (tennis), start of NFL preseason
Comments: Pretty much the only thing that makes August slightly better than July from a sports perspective is that the NFL preseason has started which means we can be preoccupied with whether Rex Grossman should be back starting at quarterback for the Bears. I’ve been on record before as stating that watching NFL preseason games is awful (even though I invariably end up viewing a ton of them to fill the time), but what’s important about August as a sports fan is that September, one of the best sports months of the year, is just around the corner.
Team Sports in Season: Major League Baseball, NBA Basketball (postseason)
Major Events: NBA Playoffs, NBA Draft Lottery, first series for main baseball interleague rivalries, French Open
Comments: NBA Playoffs are in full swing at this time of the year while it’s still early enough in the baseball season that there’s still hope for your team even if it’s off to a bad start. Plus, for those towns with major interleague baseball rivalries such as Chicago, the first of those series is almost always near the end of May.
Team Sports in Season: NBA Basketball, College Basketball, NFL Football (postseason)
Major Events: Super Bowl, NBA All-Star Game
Comments: It’s weird to consider the Super Bowl as a February event, but it looks as if though that’s going to be the norm for the foreseeable future. So, with that being the biggest single event on the sports calendar, February is the beneficiary of the NFL’s insistence of putting two weeks of hype after the conference championship games. These are the dog days of the NBA and College Basketball schedules, although the end of the month perks up again as it becomes crunch time for college teams on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. Historically, February has gotten a bad rap from sports fans since it’s sandwiched between the NFL playoffs and the NCAA Tournament, which are arguably the two best sports events of the year, but when compared to July and August, there’s still a good amount going on from a sports perspective.
Team Sports in Season: Major League Baseball, NBA Basketball (postseason)
Major Events: NBA Finals, NBA Draft, U.S. Open (golf), second series for main baseball interleague rivalries
Comments: The NBA crowns its champion and then gets into tis future a couple of weeks later with its annual draft. We start getting a real sense as to who will be the contenders and pretenders in the baseball world, while the U.S. Open humbles the world’s best golfers. This is the best sports month of the summer.
Team Sports in Season: NFL Football, NBA Basketball, College Football (postseason), College Basketball
Major Events: NFL playoff races, college football conference championship games and lower tier bowls, ACC-Big Ten Challenge (college basketball)
Comments: Much in the way August sets the table for the buffet of September events, December is the precursor to the spectacular array of events to come in January. The difference is that there’s a lot more importance and excitement in terms of what happens in December (i.e. divisional races in the NFL and conference championships in college football) than the NFL preseason and dog day baseball games in August. Plus, basketball on both the pro and college sides are getting into full swing.
I’ll have another post up with the rest of the rankings in the near future.
It was fitting that CBS followed up its broadcast of the PGA Championship yesterday with an airing of 60 Minutes that featured an interview (done by Ed Bradley’s earring) with Michael Jordan. On my sports Mount Rushmore, there are three athletes that have secured places so far: Jordan, Muhammad Ali, and Babe Ruth. Tiger Woods, with winning his 12th major championship in Chicago’s backyard at Medinah, has all but clinched the fourth spot.
(On a related note, I’ve heard arguments that the great multi-sport athletes such as Jim Thorpe or Bo Jackson ought to be considered at the top of the list. Certainly, I believe the ability to play multiple sports at a high level is something few have ever been able to do. However, in my opinion, there’s nothing tougher than dominating and perfecting a single sport in the manner of Jordan or Woods. Besides, the greatest athletes could have excelled in any sport if they had wanted to. For example, Michael Jordan was the named top Babe Ruth League baseball player in the State of North Carolina before he decided to focus on basketball.)
For whatever reason, though, there’s been a bit of backlash over the past couple of years regarding Tiger. Phil Mickelson has turned into the “people’s champion” while Tiger has been somewhat put down as being robotic. It’s not a surprise that the public tries to knock down those that have achieved the highest levels of success realtively early in life – it happened to Ali with his refusal to serve in Vietnam and Jordan with his gambling habits – but it’s still disjarring to see such a disproportionate share of negativity toward Tiger Woods when he’s without question the top athlete of this generation.
Tiger doesn’t have the magnetic and quotable personality of, say, Charles Barkley or even Jordan, yet it’s not as if though he’s the ornery Barry Bonds, either. At the same time, Woods hasn’t had been involved any outside scandals in the tabloids. He had an incredibly close relationship with his late father and is just as close with his mother, all while being married to a Femme Bot of a wife. Tiger might have as much in terms of natural physical gifts as anyone that has ever played professional golf, but he also has shown that he works harder to perfect his game above and beyond his competitors.
Maybe it’s the appearance of perfection that eventually drives people away. Just as Arnold Palmer became the crowd favorite over the superior player of Jack Nicklaus, we might be seeing a repeat with Mickelson becoming the public’s choice over Tiger. Phil’s meltdown in the U.S. Open earlier this year almost made him more endearing, as if he’s someone that’s just as flawed as the rest of us.
One of my friends once told me that he enjoyed watching hockey over basketball because he believed hockey players were the types of guys he’d want to have some beers with. For me, it’s the complete opposite: I want to watch athletes that are anything but normal and down-to-earth. The pursuit of physical, mental, and practical perfection is what has always attracted me to sports and there are few things more thrilling than observing someone work toward that level. My favorite sports memories from my childhood pretty much all involve Michael Jordan willing himself and the Bulls to victory with strength, guile, and precision that no one else could match. Tiger is doing the same thing on the golf course right now. While I enjoy watching Phil Mickelson as much as anyone, if you asked me which athlete I’d pay money to watch over any other as of today, my choice is going to be Tiger Woods everytime.
On a day where Italy bested France on penalty kicks to win the World Cup and the Chicago area hosted a PGA Tour event (following up on my diatribe on this subject a few months ago, Rick Morrissey beautifully tore a new one into the PGA president for dropping the Western Open and rotating the tournament out of Chicago every other year starting in 2007) and a NASCAR race (pretty boy Jeff Gordon took the checkered flag in the USG Sheetrock 400) within a few miles of each other, the White Sox and Red Sox engaged in a 19-inning game that brought to the forefront a lot of issues for the second-half of the baseball season. A few thoughts heading into the All-Star break (no White Sox or Cubs games until Friday???):
1) The Pair of Sox Are Baseball’s Best – At the beginning of the year, I had about as much faith in Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett holding up for the entire season as I did in Mark Prior and Kerry Wood (who might be done forever) doing the same, which is the reason why I had picked Boston to finish behind both the Yankees and Blue Jays in the AL East. Well, it turns out that Schilling and Beckett haven’t broken down while the Bosox have solved their closer problems (Minneapolis Red Sox had a nice post last week on what makes a quality closer) with the emergence of Jonathan Papelbon (save for Jermaine Dye’s line drive rocket out of the park with 2 outs in the 9th to bring the White Sox back to life yesterday). With their pitching staff largely in order and possibly the strongest batting lineup from top to bottom in baseball, the Red Sox look like they are in better shape this season than they were when they won it all in 2004.
Meanwhile, the White Sox are bashing the ball on offense a lot better than last season, but the pitching staff has taken a step back. Bobby Jenks, of all people, has become the most stabilizing and consistent force off the mound for the ball club. The White Sox starting rotation hasn’t been clicking on all cylinders for quite awhile despite the fact that Jose Contreras hasn’t lost a decision since last August. Contreras has continued to be a rock, but the consistency from game-to-game for the rest of the starters has been lacking so far. Fortunately, the superior depth that the White Sox have in this spot means that they have a great chance to rectify this in the second half. I’m more considered about the middle relievers, who, outside of Neal Cotts, continue to fail to inspire confidence in me. That’s the area that I’m looking for Kenny Williams to shore up prior to the trade deadline. Still, we’re in a great spot here. I don’t think the White Sox have been playing up to par pitching-wise at all, yet they still have the second-best record in baseball.
Regardless, this weekend’s White Sox-Red Sox tilt was a possible ALCS preview with a look at the top two teams in the game at this time (the Tigers are just mercilous with their continued winning, but until they beat the White Sox head-to-head in a series, they’ve got a gaping hole on their resume). For that matter, if we took a combination of the top starting position players from just the White Sox and Red Sox and put them up against the starters from the National League All-Star Game, the only spot where I believe the NL would have an advantage would be at first base with Albert Pujols (and even there, a combined Sox team wouldn’t be giving up much at all with Paul Konerko or one of the virtual first basemen of David Ortiz or Jim Thome). The Red Sox took the weekend overall, but the White Sox winning a marathon game with two separate comebacks has got to have some carry-over effect the next time these two clubs meet in September at Fenway Park.
2) The White Sox Aren’t a Small Ball Team and Never Have Been – During the White Sox playoff run last season, there was a myth propogated by the national media that the team engaged in “small ball” or a bastardized version call “Ozzie Ball” that was the antithesis of the Moneyball philosophy advanced by Oakland’s Billy Beane and his follower Theo Epstein in Boston. This seemed to become the conventional wisdom despite the fact that the White Sox were fourth in the American League in home runs last season with higher power totals than the perceived-to-be-stronger-on-offense Red Sox. I guess the media forgot that teams other than the Red Sox and Yankees actually existed in the American League, so they went and continue to go overboard in attempting to differentiate the White Sox.
All of this wouldn’t bother me if the White Sox themselves didn’t buy into this myth and just realize that they win a lot more of their games by Moneyball-esque power than by small ball. Instead, we get situations such as the bottom of the 17th inning yesterday. At that time, the White Sox had runners at first and second with nobody out and all they needed was one run to score to win the ballgame. It’s perfectly smart baseball to lay down a sacrifice bunt to move a runner who wouldn’t reasonably be able to steal from first base to scoring position. However, I’m not a fan of attempting a sac bunt when there is: (a) a man already in scoring position, (b) an advantageous 2-0 count in favor of the hitter, or (c) two strikes on the hitter. All of this occurred in the same at-bat by Tadahito Iguchi in that 17th inning, who ended up popping out straight to the pitcher on an attempted bunt with two strikes on him. Of course, the White Sox then grounded into a double play after that to kill the potential for a win in that inning. Fortunately, Iguchi redeemed himself by hitting the game-winning single in the 19th.
The point here is that the White Sox are not a small ball team and, therefore, shouldn’t try to act like a small ball team. If a guy is already in scoring position, the team has good enough hitters where a bunt has more of a chance to hurt them than to help. This is the only thing that Ozzie Guillen does as a field general that I have any criticism over.
3) Player to Dye For – Jermaine Dye was the MVP for the White Sox yesterday with both his bat with a 2-out 9th inning homer to tie the game and glove with an outstanding catch to prevent possibly a triple by the White Sox. For that matter, he has been the MVP for the White Sox for this entire first half of the season. If a World Series MVP could ever be underrated, Dye would fit the bill. While Jim Thome has certainly electrified the crowds at U.S. Cellular Field with his moonshot home runs, Paul Konerko gets the “Paulie” chants, and A.J. Pierzynski attracts attention in every way, Dye has quietly gone about his business by killing the ball at the plate and snatching everything in right field. An even better reward than the invitation to tonight’s Home Run Derby for the White Sox leader would be the opportunity to start in the All-Star Game itself as a replacement for the “injured” Manny Ramirez (he didn’t look hurt in playing all 19 innings yesterday). This is bigger no-brainer for Ozzie Guillen than any of his discretionary picks of White Sox players for the All-Star roster. Jermaine Dye should be starting in right field on Tuesday night.
Since the story broke in the middle of the White Sox run to the World Series and the Illini, Bears, and Bulls have been keeping our attention in the meantime, this important Chicago sports story hasn’t received very much attention: the Western Open will be leaving Chicago for another Midwest site in alternating years. At the same time, the Western Open name might also be a casualty to the corporate sponsorship world.
Ed Sherman (go to the second page of the link for his latest comment on the matter) has been doing a great job following this story in Chicago Tribune over the past few months. The Western Open will be moved to September as one of three tournaments for the PGA Tour’s “Fall Finish” as part of a NASCAR Nextel Cup-type system where these last tournaments are heavily weighted in determining the field for the Tour Championship. The other two tournaments involved in the Fall Finish are the Barclays Classic in New York and Deutsche Championship in Boston.
The benefit of the Western Open being part of this scenario is that it will likely get all of the top players in the tournament’s field. Tiger Woods has always made the Western Open an annual stop (which has also meant that it sells out pretty much every year), but the tournament hasn’t seen Phil Mickelson or Vijay Singh compete. However, while New York and Boston get to keep their respective tournaments every year, the Western Open is going to alternate each year between Cog Hill and another Midwest site (Ed Sherman has previously cited Bellerive in St. Louis, Crooked Stick in Indianapolis, and Hazeltine in Minneapolis as possibilities).
I don’t like pulling out the “East Coast Bias” card very much, but this is an instance where golf’s powers-that-be clearly do not understand the Chicago market. There seems to be this notion in the Northeast that the entire Midwest is a single homogenous flyover market while all of the East Coast cities that are only a couple of hours in a car apart from each other are distinct and need their own tournaments. It’s one thing that New York gets its own tournament every year since it’s the media capital of the world. However, it’s befuddling to me that the Boston metropolitan area, which has a population less than half the size of the Chicago market (9.1 million for Chicago compared to 4.4 million for Boston), gets to keep a tournament every year yet Chicago doesn’t.
Pardon me for my own Chicago snobbery (apologies ahead of time to my non-Chicago readers – it's nothing personal), but if the PGA believes that Chicagoans will consider a tournament that’s played in St. Louis, Indianapolis, or Minneapolis half the time to be Chicagoland’s “local” golf event, they have another thing coming to them. Would the PGA try to sell a golf tournament in Hartford as a Boston event or a Philadelphia tourney as a New York event? Of course not, because they know Bostonians and New Yorkers would be insulted. Well, if anything, Chicagoans have even more pride in their hometown than those East Coast cities and would be even more insulted by the notion of the PGA trying to tell them that a St. Louis, Indianapolis, or Minneapolis tournament is a Chicago event.
It’s hard for me to believe that the PGA would abandon the nation’s third-largest television market every other year, but it looks like it’s a done deal. Think of it: NASCAR will have an annual event in the Chicago market but the PGA will not. That's ludicrous. In five years, when the Western Open loses its cachet and interest in professional golf in Chicago dwindles, the PGA is going to realize that this was a terrible mistake.
Random sports thoughts from the weekend:
1) Lefty Again – I was perplexed for a moment when I thought I saw Hootie Johnson, Jim Nantz, and Tiger Woods present the Green Jacket to Bartolo Colon in the Butler Cabin, but then I realized it was just Phil Mickelson. Seriously though, it was amazing to see Mickelson, who two years ago was golf's version of the Chicago Cubs, turn in such a dominating performance yesterday with a leaderboard filled with Tiger, Vijay Singh, Fred Couples, Retief Goosen, and Jose Maria Olazabel (one of the most underrated athletes in any sport) right behind him. The two best things about the Masters: (1) only 4 commercial breaks per hour with a limit of 2 commercials during each break and (2) when CBS jumps to "bonus coverage" of another hole, there isn't a shot of a coach taking a timeout to immediately go into another commercial break. As a result, I watched about 12 hours of golf this past weekend and the answer to your question is yes, I have no life.
2) Badgers and the Frozen Four – After watching Wisconsin beat Boston College in the Frozen Four to win the national championship in front of a virtual home crowd in Milwaukee, I believe that it's time for Illinois to make the leap to NCAA Division I hockey. One of these days, I'll write a long-winded and detailed rant on "How Bill Wirtz Fucked Up with Frank the Tank" explaining why I'm not an NHL fan and how the Blackhawks are dead to me, but when I was in college, going to Illini club hockey games was one of one of my favorite things to do on campus. Even though Illinois just had a club-level team, all of the games were packed with fans. Considering how popular the hockey teams are at the other Big Ten schools that have Division I programs, that hockey is typically the only sport other than football and men's basketball that consistently turns a profit for athletic departments, and the Assembly Hall can be turned into a rink for games, this seems to be a no-brainer for Illinois (although it seems that the rest of college hockey is petrified of the Big Ten forming its own hockey conference).
3) WTF, Bulls?! – The Bulls suffocated the Sixers last week in Philadelphia and the Sixers were reeling from losing another game on Friday night, so it would seem that the Bulls were destined to take a 2-game lead over Philly for the last Eastern Conference playoff spot on Saturday night in the rubber match in the comforts of the United Center, right? Well, I'll need to check the box score again to confirm this, but I believe that Allen Iverson made 5,000 straight jumpers along with 4,000 free throws in the third quarter while the Bulls shot 1-out-of-10,000,000. Believe me, if you think those numbers are bad, it looked a lot worse watching it live. So, there's now a tie for the last playoff spot with the Bulls needing to play the super-hot Nets on Tuesday. Just awful.
4) How Long is the Grace Period for the White Sox? – The Sox dropped 2 out of 3 to the Royals, which up until last week, when Kansas City voters passed a tax referendum to renovate Kauffman Stadium, was Candidate #1 of MLB Teams That Need to Move to Las Vegas. Supposedly, we're only one week into a five-year moratorium on complaining about a team after they've won a championship. Is everyone sure it isn't supposed to be a five-week moratorium instead?
5) Cubs – Cards vs. Yankees – Red Sox – Here's what I believe is the primary difference between Cubs – Cardinals rivalry and the Yankees – Red Sox rivalry (besides the "small" factor of actually winning the World Series recently): While the Cards could be equated with the Yankees in terms of success compared to their respective rivals, I've never met a Chicagoan that actually would ever willingly move to St. Louis (I'm not talking about heading to Wash U for college for 4 years – I mean permanent residence). I know I wouldn't. In contrast, the bemoaning of the constant failures of the Red Sox (up until 2004, of course) was an extension of the overall inferiority complex that Bostonians feel toward New York City. So, what's worse? Is it the Chicagoan that looks down upon St. Louis as an inferior city yet the Cubs maddeningly don't have anywhere near the history of success of their rube rivals (in football terms, subsitute "St. Louis" with "Green Bay" here)? Or is it the Bostonian that consistently feels inferior on both fronts? I'll leave you with that thought on your Monday morning.