Nate McLouth “Highlights”

Like most Braves fans I was extremely excited to see the 2011 baseball season get underway.  Although by the end of 2010 we had lost in the playoffs to the eventual World Series Champions, had lost the greatest manager in franchise (and baseball) history, and had many questions surrounding the third base, outfield, and closer positions, there were still plenty of reasons to be optimistic.  We brought in a prolific power bat in Dan Uggla, had four or five of the top prospects in baseball looking to make an impact, the organization seemed to transition flawlessly from the Bobby Cox era to the one now led by Fredi Gonzalez, and Nate McLouth had regained his confidence and his trademark hair-highlights.  So far, however, the highlights on McLouth’s head are the only ones he’s been able to produce.

Just like last year, the Braves are off to a slower-than-expected start, and I can’t help but notice one particular similarity to last years starting line-up:  Nate McLouth is hitting at the top of the order.  Don’t get me wrong, no starter is having any great success at the plate, but I feel like McLouth is the constant in this experiment.  Bobby Cox went all-in on Nate Dogg early last season.  By mid-May Atlanta was two games under .500 and McLouth was hitting. 167.  On May 14th Jason Heyward moved up to the two spot while McLouth was dropped to eighth.  The Braves finished the final weeks of May by winning 13 of the 17 games they played.  I hope you can see the correlation.

As a hitter at the top of the order your job is to get on base so the 3, 4, 5, and (in our case) 6 hitters can drive in the runs.  As of today (April 11th), McLouth has an on-base-percentage of .289 and the Braves have scored 3 or fewer runs in 70% of their games.  Personally, I would like to see a change before we repeat last April’s performance and find ourselves far too many games behind the heavily-favored Phillies.  Moving McLouth to the eight spot in the line up not only allows a player like Heyward the opportunity to get more at bats hitting second, it gets Freddie Freeman out of the eighth spot and into one with a little more protection, as he won’t be hitting immediately in front of the pitcher.

Despite the slow start I’m still very optimistic about the season and Fredi’s ability to manage the Atlanta Braves.  Those feelings could definitely change, however, if by mid-May McLouth is still hitting in front of Chipper, McCann, Uggla, Heyward, Gonzalez, Freeman, and…….. ok, I won’t say the starting pitcher…….. for now.  Oh, but if Nasty Nate does, somehow, hit above .280, scores more than 90 runs, and steals 20+ bases, I will be the first person to copy his style and put highlights in my hair.  Because if McLouth puts together that type of season, then there must be something magical about those highlights.

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Jeff Fisher + VY = Titanic Failure

So when’s the 2011 NFL Draft?  Naturally, this is the first question that comes to mind when I see the Tennessee Titans on TV or in the news these days.  It seems like only yesterday that we had visions of Randy Moss TD’s and Super Bowl victories dancing around in our heads.  Now three weeks later we head into Houston riding a 3-game losing streak on the back of 3rd string QB, Rusty Smith.  What the hell happened?  Apparently Vince Young happened, or at least that’s the general consensus among Titans fans and ESPN analysts.   In my opinion, however, Jeff Fisher is getting off way too easy.  I’ll explain by giving you a scenario:

You’re head coach for the Tennessee Titans.  You have Vince Young, a young quarterback full of potential, but has a history of struggling when his confidence starts to drop.  Luckily for you, however, he’s having a career year.  He’s not making many mistakes and has the highest passer rating in the league, both overall and when throwing the ball over 20 yards.  You’ve also got Chris Johnson, the most dynamic running back in the NFL.  Defenses stack eight in the box to try and stop him, leaving big holes in their secondary that a confident Vince Young could exploit with the right weapons at wide receiver…. cue Randy Moss…. one of the greatest deep threats of all time was just picked up off waivers.

This is the exact scenario that Jeff Fisher had going into week 10 of the NFL season.  Fans knew what we had and could do the math:  CONFIDENT VY + CJ2K + Moss = Super Bowl.  But Fisher decided to change the equation.  He subtracted a CONFIDENT VY and added what seems to be his personal pride and joy:  Kerry Collins.  As Young sprinted off the field during halftime of the Miami game, and doubts about his mobility and health went out the window, I knew something wasn’t right… and they haven’t been right since.

What Jeff Fisher did that day was something he should’ve seen coming.  Fisher had coached Young for nearly five years, and knew that confidence was vital to Vince’s success, yet he continued to smother the flame.  Throughout the season he relied too heavily on the run game, and refused to let Young throw the ball against defenses determined to stop Chris Johnson.  He benched Young whenever he got the opportunity, using poor play or injuries as an excuse.  Meanwhile, Young’s confidence began to drop and his frustration began to build, leading to a total collapse after the loss against Washington.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t agree with Vince’s tantrum or his apology via text, and I don’t know what’s been going on behind closed doors.  What I do know is that Jeff Fisher never had confidence in the most important player on his team this season, which in reality, never gave the Titans a chance to meet their offensive potential.

It’s no secret that Vince Young was selected by Bud Adams in the 2005 NFL Draft despite Jeff Fisher’s desire to draft a more Kerry Collins like QB (Jay Cutler).   As this offseason approaches (not fast enough for Titans’ fans), one has to wonder… will Bud Adam’s go against his head coach and choose VY again?  With this season’s failures one thing’s for certain: the Titans will be subtracting one of them from their equation next season… I just hope that the final answer is a winning one.

Promotion & Relegation Create Passion & Possibility

Every four years the greatest tournament in sports is held, and countries from all over the world are under its spell… including the United States.  For soccer fans like myself who follow the world of futbol every year, the World Cup is an exciting time.  Not only do we get to passionately cheer for a team playing the beautiful game, we get to do it with other people!  For three years my thoughts and ideas on my favorite soccer teams are limited to a small group of friends who continue to follow the game AFTER the World Cup has come and gone.  It’s a lonely time for us soccer fanatics, but I can understand why the game hasn’t become what football and baseball are in the America.  To me, it has nothing to do with scoreless draws, added time, or even the phony flopping of an “injured” player.  The reason soccer is the world’s game, but continues to be an inferior sport in the US is because the average fan has no incentive, beyond their national pride, to develop a passion for it.

Deep down, I believe the thing that makes sports so popular is the passion fans can feel for a team.  This passion derives from the human nature to belong, compete, and to succeed.  For example, I am a Tennessee Volunteers fan because 1.) the team is a part of my culture; and 2.) I think my culture is better than your culture, so me and the rest of the Vol Nation are going to prove it by kicking your culture’s team’s ass! (talking to you Georgia/Florida/Alabama fans!) The way to make something popular is to give people a reason to be passionate about it.  The excitement surrounding the World Cup in homes and bars around the US proves that Americans can be soccer fans, they just need a better reason than what our current system has to offer.

So what does our current system offer?  There are numerous soccer leagues throughout the United States, including the United Soccer League, the National Premier Soccer League, and the top dog of them all, Major League Soccer.  While these leagues make professional soccer available to many cities throughout the nation, each team’s fan base remains relatively stagnant, as their success is only meaningful to the die-hard soccer fans in the area.  Even the MLS teams have trouble gaining support from those who see soccer as a second-tier sport.  This is due to unfortunate fact that, although the MLS is home to the top soccer players in United States, it is not home to the best soccer players in the world.  Americans know this, and in their opinion, winning the MLS Cup (let alone the USL or NPSL championship) is the equivalent of winning the Canadian Football League (called the Grey Cup, fyi).  Therefore, soccer’s benefits are not compelling enough for the average person to invest their time, money, and emotional well-being in a sport where even the champions aren’t considered true champions.

The fact of the matter is, the top soccer players in the world will always want to showcase their talents for European clubs, such as Manchester United and Real Madrid, whose top players are treated like gods.  In my opinion, the only way to increase the game of soccer’s fan base throughout the nation is to give every team and every fan a greater incentive.  This incentive should be provided by two words:   promotion and relegation.

For those who are unfamiliar with these two words and how they relate to soccer, I will explain using England’s soccer system as an example (those who are can skip to the next paragraph).  The Premier League (best teams), the Championship, League 1, and League 2 (worst teams) make up the four major leagues that house the majority of professional soccer clubs in England.  Each year the teams from each league play two matches against the other clubs in their league.  At the end of the season, the bottom three teams are relegated to the lesser league, and the top three teams are promoted to the superior league, and reap the rewards of addition revenue from sponsors, television, etc.  This system gives clubs from smaller markets the opportunity to play against top teams, as well as the ability to grow financially, despite having smaller budgets.  For this reason, entire communities show loyalty and support for their local club, in hopes that one day they will be promoted to the Premier League, earn extra revenue, purchase top players, and succeed on a larger scale.

Now, imagine implementing this system in the United States.  For those of you in (input your city here), imagine (insert your local club here) being promoted to the MLS, and competing against teams like DC United, and players like Landon Donovan.  Imagine seeing your city’s team on national television, signing the next superstar, or developing the next national hero.  Every game, every injury, every goal would matter because it might be the difference between promotion or relegation… pride or humiliation.  The incentives would be much greater, and therefore, a passion would arise in every member of the community.  People would begin to love soccer because 1.) their soccer club was a part of their culture; and 2.) their culture is better than your culture, so they and the rest of their hooligan nation are going to prove it to you…and possibly the rest of the country.

The “Bruin Approach” to Baseball’s Race Issue

The Bruin Approach:  Keep your mouth shut and let your actions do the talking.

Origin of the “Bruin Approach”: An old fraternity brother of mine (nicknamed Bruin) wasn’t particularly gifted in the art of  flirtation.  Instead of trying to flatter the opposite sex with words, Bruin kept his mouth shut and attracted women with his good looks and actions.  It is rumored that this approach was very successful…. Now onto a much more important matter.

The lack of African Americans in Major League Baseball is a popular topic in the media today.  If you haven’t heard, only 9.2 percent of Major League Baseball players are African American in 2010, as opposed to 27 percent in 1975.  Over the past few years,  some of the most popular African American players in the game have shown their disapproval for this statistic by issuing opinionated statements to the media.  My problem with this isn’t the fact that they are bringing attention to the issue, it’s the type of attention they are bringing to it.  Here are some examples:

Now, I can’t imagine that players like Hudson and Hunter would intentionally want to hurt the issue even more and give young African Americans another reason to choose football or basketball over baseball.  In my opinion,  however, they are doing just that.  What else could these statements be taken as?  When Sheffield, an eight time All Star, calls one of the greatest managers for baseball’s most storied franchise biased; or when Hudson infers that older African American free agents have a harder time getting jobs; are they expecting to inspire their peers to pick up a bat and glove over a pig skin?  The negative implications surrounding these statements are exponentially increased by the fact that they are coming from the very people that young, aspiring African American baseball players look up to.   If the current African American players in the game want to increase the percentage of black players in baseball, they need to quit drawing harmful press to the issue and concentrate on activities that will have a positive influence on young black athletes…. or in other words…. use the Bruin Approach.  Initiatives such as Hudson’s “Around the Mound” program give young African Americans a reason to stay involved in baseball and instill a positive outlook on the game.  Hopefully, with a little less talk and a little more action, we will be seeing more players like Jason Heyward, Ryan Howard, Hudson, Hunter, and Sheffield in the years to come.

Tiger Woods 101

With the sports world focused primarily on Tiger Woods “the man,” as opposed to Tiger Woods “the golfer”, the 2010 Masters served to be the next lesson plan in TW101.  But would this lesson plan cover a new chapter in the Tiger Woods textbook? A chapter that tells of a different Tiger on the golf course; one who remains “centered” in all situations, during both the good and the bad moments?  On the contrary… the 2010 Masters was simply a review of everything we have learned about Tiger Woods “the golfer” over the years.

What’d you expect?  Tiger showing up unprepared to the most prestigious tournament in golf?  A Tiger that shows no emotion after making an errant tee shot or an improbably birdie putt?  A missed cut?  If so, you haven’t been doing your homework.  Tiger Woods is, and always will be, one of the most competitive athletes on the face of this planet.  His passion for winning is shown in the amount of effort he puts into the game of golf, as well as his words and actions on the course.  He will let nothing, including “minor” personal issues come between him and what has always been his goal:  to become the greatest golfer ever.   Why?  Because he was born and bred that way.  Let’s review…

Tiger Woods has played the game of golf since he could barely walk.  He played competitively, and won, before most of us even considered picking up club.  His father, Earl Woods, made it clear at an early age that his life would be defined by what happened on the golf course.  The values Earl Woods instilled in Tiger at an early age, no matter how valuable they may be in any situation, were meant only to ensure that Tiger succeeded on the golf course.   Thus, the only thing Tiger can associate these values to is the game.  It’s all that has ever mattered to him and all he has ever known.

So is this a bad thing?  Only when the animal’s taken out of its natural environment.  When he’s asked to devote himself to something other than the game. Something his hero and mentor (Earl) deemed “unnecessary”: the sanctity of marriage.  The damage to Tiger’s image would not have been nearly as severe had he been single when the stories of his personal affairs emerged.  For all we know, they may never have.  It took an accident filled with speculation, including drug and spousal abuse, for the media to begin its witch-hunt.  Had Tiger lived the life he was raised to live… a life devoted only to the game… there would be no discussion of Tiger Woods “the man,” only Tiger Woods “the golfer.”  Not now, anyway.  Not until he retired…as the greatest ever.