With Summer upon us and the never ending Basketball Playoffs almost over (what…you thought this would be a basketball column after last nights amazing comeback by the Celtics?  Don’t waste your time here and read a much funnier account of anything that I could do), America’s Pastime takes front and center in the sports world. Just recently, I have started watching a couple of games a week, mainly New York Mets games unfortunately. And I must say, this season just seems weird. Everything seems upside down. The Florida teams are over five-hundred and contending for division leads and the two Chicago teams are now at the center of the baseball universe by having the two best teams in baseball. Big name stars such as David Ortiz, Jake Peavy, Travis Hafner, Rafael Furcal, Alex Rodriguez, Alfonso Soriano, and Albert Puljos have or are currently on the disabled list. Big market teams like the New York Mets, the Yankees, the Detroit Tigers, and the Dodgers are all struggling and underwhelming fans.

But disappointment should be expected, because if everything played out the way it was expected, why would people watch?

But I have been struggling more and more to find a reason to watch baseball this season. The game just seems slow and boring. Now that the Yankees are finally playing down to their pitching, there is nobody to hate anymore (even though Hank is doing his best George Steinbrenner impersonation).  The injuries are piling up and every pitcher seems to be unable to grasp the concept of holding a lead (or at least every Mets reliever…all three of them who came in after Johan Santana pitched seven shutout innings yesterday afternoon, let in a run, with Billy Wagner blowing his third straight save by giving up two runs in the ninth.  I thought he was supposed to be good.  What gives?)

And yet it goes deeper than that…

I know this article is probably 3-6 months too late (I don’t even remember when the Mitchell Report came out, it just seems so long ago, but still so present), but after the steroid scandal rocked the baseball world, the sport just hasn’t been the same for me.  Baseball lost so much credibility after the steroids scandal, I just don’t know anymore if my boyhood heroes were clean, and that bothers me. 

I remember watching Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa battle it out for the home run record in the summer of 1998 and believing that these two players were not just ordinary human beings but super-humans capable of extradorinary feats of stregnth (sort of like Frank Costanza’s perfect world model for the Festivus celebration). 

This story always stuck in my mind.  My parents went away on a vacation when I was in Middle School to Paris and when he came back, the first thing he told me was that when he was in the airport, multiple people came up to him and asked him for his autograph thinking he was Mark McGwire.  Now, my father is not nearly as big as McGwire but his face looks similar and he was wearing a Cooperstown shirt (for all those who don’t know what Cooperstown is, its the Baseball Hall of Fame).  I always thought that was so cool and my father and I joked about it constantly. 

Now though, after it was revealed that McGwire possibly used steroids (and its not like his testimony in Congress was reassuring), that story embarrasses me because it connects my father to a disgraced baseball player and a dark time in the sport. 

The titans of baseball just don’t seem legitimate.  I mean, look at these guys.  They’re almost as big as football players, and in some cases, much bigger (I’m talking to you C.C. Sabbathia).  Maybe its the evolution of the athlete, but I don’t buy it.  Thats the thing I used to like about Baseball, these average looking guys would go out and destroy people with their intensity and sheer talent.  Now, the talent level is down, the testerone level is up, and the average fan can no longer connect to the star player on their team.  These guys are no longer average joe’s just playing some ball but highly pampered athletes with designer drugs. 

Mr. Selig, please do something!

But I guess baseball will come back strong.  There have always been scandals.  Pete Rose gambling on games, the White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series, and the Cocaine scandal of the 1980’s are just a few. 

Still I don’t know if baseball can recover from this and remain credible. 

BEARD

PS- And in a theater near you this summer: the NBA where “Scumbag ex-refs have more credibility than the Commish Happens”… I mean WOW, who would’ve thought that David Stern would’ve screwed this up?  Really?  You can’t do better than this?  Scumbag ex-ref is embarrasing you!  You gotta focus and keep your eyes on the prize!

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With so much going on in the sports world, welcome to my weekly summary of the most important events of the week in everything that is sports…

As the baseball season reaches the 50 game mark, I have a few observations:

1. Johan Santana is not the pitcher he was made out to be. For someone who is pegged as the greatest pitcher in baseball, he has been awfully hittable the past season and a half. Over his past 43 starts, he has given up 44 homeruns. That is over one per game, way too many for an ace to give up. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s a great pitcher, but there has to be a reason why the Yankees would not include both Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy in a deal, why the Red Sox refused to part with both Ellsbury and Lester, and why the eventual deal was such a steal for the Mets. I think we’re about to see a massive decline over the next two years from Santana.

2. Josh Hamilton and Lance Berkman both have legitimate shots at winning the famous “Triple Crown”. Hamilton leads the AL in batting average, RBI’s, and Homeruns, while Berkman leads the NL in HR’s and RBI’s and is only second to Chipper Jone’s incredible impersonation of Ted Williams’ batting average (he’s currently hitting .412). While neither will win it, its fun to see the feel good stories from of these Texas Terrors.

3. Will there be playoff baseball in New York? As of right now, not a chance in hell. The Yankees have no pitching beyond Chien-Ming Wang and Mariano Rivera. The bullpen is a mess and the rotation is full of has beens and rookies who are not quite ready for prime time. I’d look for them to rebound but not as much as they did last year. The Mets on the other hand should be dominating the NL East. On paper they are the second best team in the National League (second only to the Chicago Cubs) and should be blowing away the competition in a division in which every contending team has its flaws. I don’t expect Willie Randolph to last the season and the Mets to not make the playoffs again this year. At least there will be no collapse.

For those who love and follow sports closely like myself, there is nothing better than witnessing an instant classic and watching one player to see what he or she will do next. This past week saw three such instances: The reemergence of hockey as an entertaining sport due to Sid “the kid” Crosby, a classic game seven in the NBA, and an even better game played for the UEFA Cup Championship. Hockey has needed a marketable star for quite awhile to build a new fan base. Sidney Crosby is just that person. As the heir apparent to “Super Mario” in Pittsburgh, the NHL should be marketing this guy like Lebron James, David Ortiz, and Dwayne Wade are marketed. Get this guy on TV pronto! Also, the match-up between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL Finals is a dream match-up for those who love hockey. Both of these teams have the talent, tradition, and fan base to reinvigorate hockey to upgrade it from a “C” level sport to a “B” level sport.

For those lucky enough to watch game 7 of the Cavs/Celtics series, you witnessed two players who absolutely willed their team to victory, with only one winning out. I remember watching the game with my friends trying to predict how many points Lebron James and Paul Pierce would each have at the end of the game. I boldly stated each would finish with over 50, no problem. The battle between these two players was something I have never witnessed as an NBA fan. I am not old enough to even try and discuss the Bird/Magic rivalry and Michael Jordan never truly had someone he could call his equal, it makes me smile being able to watch two players at the top of their game pushing so hard to win that nothing can stop them. I love that vibe and can’t wait for more of it if any combination of Boston and SA/LA make the finals. Could you imagine KG vs Timmy D in the post? Or Kobe and Pierce going at it all night? Bring it on!

However, the only thing that topped that performance was the UEFA Cup Championship between Chelsea and Manchester United. This was one hell of a soccer game, that had fantastic finishes, gut-wrenching saves, and skill that makes you wonder how the players control a soccer ball the way they do. But, as I watching the game, I couldn’t take my eyes off of one player: Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s greatest flopper and owner of a mullet. I believe he is the greatest athlete in the world and was playing with the soccer ball like it was a yo-yo attached to his big toes. As a soccer player myself, I couldn’t even fathom attempting half of the moves he performed with such precision that it made me giddy like a little school child. The game is on ESPN360.com and i recommend you spending some quality time with the world’s most popular game.

Before I leave, three things I am looking forward to this weekend:

1. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and Cate Blanchett as the villain. Thats all I need to be motivated to see this.

2. Game 2 of Lakers and Spurs. Game One was awesome and I believe every game in this series will be played with as much intensity and fire as game one. Welcome to SEVEN GAME SEVENS!

3. Memorial Day bbq’s and beach days. The first true of summer is here and I plan on honoring my troops the same way they would most likely enjoy a summer afternoon if they were home: drink some beer, grill some dogs, and chill out in the sun all day long. I can’t wait.

Happy Memorial Day!

BEARD

Hey SportsZone fans and readers,

Welcome to “SZ: Questions of the Week”.

This feature on SportsZone’s webpage is where fans/readers will be able to answer sports questions that will be posted every week.  Readers will be able to give their opinion and might even debate with our very own panelists (who will answer the same questions), as they do on-air during the academic year at American University.  If you see a posted question that you want to take part in answering or see an absurd answer that you think is wrong,  let your voice be heard and leave a comment.  This is your chance to join the interaction and debate that is seen onSportsZone every week, only on ATV.

Thanks: Sean Speirs and the SportsZone Crew

Questions of the Week: Week 1

1) The NBA playoffs have finally reached the Conference Finals.  In the East, the Detroit Pistsons are up against the “Big 3’s” Boston Celtics (a great analysis of the matchup has been written by Sean “Beard” Wagman–see below).  Meanwhile, in the West, the Los Angeles Lakers are facing the defending champions San Antonio Spurs.  Of these two series, which teams will we see in the NBA Finals?

2) The Yankees are in an ongoing slump this season, capping it off with their recent loss to the New York Mets this past weekend.  Without A-Rod, the Yankees are 8-12 this season.  Should this team start to worry, or is this a repeat of the Yankees we saw last season (same type of slump, but came back strong to make it into the playoffs)?  Who is to blame, the players or new manager Joe Girardi?

3) Believe it or not, among all the other sports, the NHL is still going on and its Stanley Cup Finals time as the Detroit Red Wings (going for their fourth Cup since ’97)  take on the Pittsburgh Penguins (in the finals for the first time since ’92).  Who will be crowned victor in this epic series and why? 

With both Conference Finals finally set, I am here to give you my preview of the upcoming series. Today I will start with the East and tomorrow I will do the West.

Eastern Conference Finals

Boston Celtics (1) vs. Detroit Pistons

To steal from ESPN.com’s scouts inc., this is the series we have all been waiting for on the Eastern Side since the playoffs began. These are the two top teams in the Eastern Conference and both have a legitimate shot of winning it all against whoever wins the West.

Guards: Advantage Detroit (but only if Billups is healthy)

I have always really liked Rajon Rondo and to me, he really proved his worth during the series with Cleveland. He ran the offense efficiently and played good defense. Ray Allen on the other hand has collapsed into being the worst starter left among the four teams (yes worse than Vladimir Radmanovic). Everyone knew that he could not defend or drive coming into this season. However, his deadly shooting has rendered him about as useful as a poopy flavored lolli pop. In order for the Celtics to have any sort of chance in this series, he really needs to step it up.

Detroits guards on the other hand have really played well. Billups has played like the professional we all know he is. When he went down, Richard Hamilton really stepped up his game and carried the Pistons into the third round. Right now, there is nobody better coming off a screen and shooting a jumper (which used to be Ray Allen’s job).

Forwards: Advantage Boston

Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are what makes this team go. The impact Garnett has had on this team is unbelievable and has made Bill Simmons (ESPN’s the Sports Guy –> and yes, I am gunning for that job, which will be mine some day) turn into a teen-aged girl at an N’Sync concert (wow, I am really dating myself with that reference). Pierce, on the other hand, has been on this team forever and is the only player left from the pre-Danny Ainge days. As much as Garnett brings to the table, he is the heart and soul of this team. His game seven performance against LBJ was amazing and shows that he can take over a game against anybody who tries to defend him.

Detroit’s forwards are not weak though. Sheed and Tayshaun Prince are excellent players who have the experience necessary to win. Prince has become one of the elite defenders in the NBA and regularly guards to the opposition’s best perimeter player. He is also effective at using his long arms on the offensive end of the floor where he is deadly from the corner and has a good understanding of his own personal strengths and weaknesses. Rasheed Wallace has become the Piston’s best three point shooter in the playoffs and has the “balls” to take that last shot (even though Chauncey does have ice water running through veins). His ability to knock down that jumper spreads the floor and gives space for Billups and Prince to take it to the hole.

Center: Advantage Neither

Kendrick Perkins of the Celtics and Antonio McDyess of the Pistons are both big men who stick to the low post and offer defense and rebounding. Neither is much of a scorer but both teams need to be wary of offensive rebounds. Also, neither of these players are playing huge minutes right now. However, McDyess used to be an excellent player, I would look for him to make a huge difference in one game.

Bench: Advantage Boston

I really like the depth and talent of Boston’s bench. Eddie House was a revelation in Game 7 providing great energy. Leon Powe, Big Baby Davis, and PJ Brown offer great depth and versatility for the front line and can throw a myriad of different styles at Detroit’s big men. James Posey is the three point shooter off the bench and can match up against Detroit’s best perimeter player on the defensive end.

Detroit does have some interesting options though. Jason Maxiell is a more experienced and explosive version of Leon Powe and has pretty much taken over for McDyess as Detroit’s low post option. Rodney Stuckey proved he can play when he filled in for Billups over the last two games of the Orlando series. He will be an interesting matchup for Boston because of his ability to play both backcourt positions. Beyond those two, two veterans who provide a steady hand, Theo Ratliff and Lindsey Hunter, add shot blocking (Ratliff) and a reliable fourth guard (Hunter).

Coaching: Advantage Detroit

Let me just say that these are possibly two of the worse coaches in the NBA (them being Doc Rivers and Flip Saunders) and I am not going to waste mine or yours going into the details of this mind game match up. I just want to say that I hope Doc Rivers sticks to a rotation and redeems himself for one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the playoffs in round one (how do you go to seven games against ATLANTA?????).

Key Matchup: Paul Pierce vs Tayshaun Prince

If game seven of the Cleveland series showed us anything, its that Paul Pierce is the most important player on Boston. Yes KG was excellent but this always has and always will be Paul’s team. If Tayshaun can play Pierce even, then the Pistons will walk away with this series. If not, then Detroit is going to be in trouble. I would look for Detroit to utilize Prince’s long arms to try and lock him up one on one and offer little or no help as they will try to keep the ball out of KG’s hands.

X-Factor: Sam Cassell, PG Boston Celtics

Yes, he did not play in game seven. Yes, he has been horrendous so far in the playoffs. Yes, he is perhaps the ugliest human being in the world and yes, he may not even be human. But that does not matter. If he can provide ten-fifteen minutes of solid basketball then Boston should count there blessings. However, if he reverts to his ball-hogging style, then watch him ride the pine for the rest of the playoffs, leaving Boston dangerously thin in the back court.

Prediction: Celtics in Seven

I believe that is about as even as a matchup one could hope for. Both of these teams play solid fundamental basketball and great defense. I just see Boston having just a little bit more on the offensive end. And even though Boston just went through a highly exhaustive and emotional series with Cleveland, I don’t see KG and Paul Pierce letting this team down and playing with low energy..

BEARD