Monday, May 30, 2011

Thoughts on Tribe, Tressel

Just when Indians fans were beginning to feel good about the 2011 season, reality has set in and taken a big bite out of the joy.

That giddy feeling Tribe fans had several weeks ago when the club shot out to a 20-8 record on May 3 after a five-game winning streak is now gone. Since then, the Indians have become dance partners with mediocrity.

Heading into today’s game in Toronto against the tough Blue Jays, Cleveland baseball has waddled along at an 11-11 clip since then, but still owns a six-game bulge over second-place Detroit in the distinctly below-average American League Central Division.

No Central team has shown the inclination to make any positive move toward the Indians. Detroit chugs along in fits and starts. Kansas City, after a strong start, has slunk back. The Chicago White Sox have been consistently inconsistent. And Minnesota has assumed the Indians’ role as the division’s cellar dwellers.

It’s almost as if the Indians are thinking that all they have to do to win the division is play .500 ball the rest of the way because no one is offering anything remotely close to a challenge.

Manny Acta has been around long enough to know this isn’t a sprint. The manager knows his club has sprung a few leaks the last several weeks, but has the luxury of time to plug them.

Defense, timely hitting and solid pitching have been the hallmarks of this season’s club. But the pitching has slipped lately, surrendering 29 runs in the last four games. And the timely hitting – only nine runs in those four games, seven of them in one game – has virtually disappeared.

Base-running gaffes and uncharacteristic fielding errors, of the physical and mental variety, have seeped into their games. In the first 45 games of the season (30-15), the Indians rarely beat themselves. The last week or so, the opposite has been true.

Enough to be alarmed? Not yet.

Word has gotten around baseball about the Indians. They now have bull’s-eyes on their backs. They no longer are considered an automatic victory. That has definitely changed.

A good indication of just how good this club is will be shown in how they respond to losing ways. The next nine games against Toronto, Texas and Minnesota should answer a lot of questions.

The character of this Indians team will severely be put to the test. How they respond could become the blueprint of the 2011 season.

The mark of a good team is staying out of prolonged losing streaks. The Indians have managed to avoid them. So far this season, they have rebounded every time from what could have been a disastrous slump. With only one victory in their last five games, consider this yet another litmus test.

For such a smart man, it’s sort of ironic that his stupidity is what brought down Jim Tressel at Ohio State University.

Tressel, who resigned (before he was fired?) today, had to know there was no way he could continue as the Buckeyes’ head football coach. Not after breaking several NCAA rules and then lying about it.

His selfish reaction to the news that several of his players had sold memorabilia belied the notion that he was squeaky clean. Instead of turning in his high profile players, he stupidly and selfishly withheld information.

Instead, he wanted these guys on the field because he had national championship aspirations. Without these players, there was no way Ohio State could be a player on that level.

Tressel had a dalliance with common sense, snubbed it and then turned in another direction, no doubt figuring he could get away with his indiscretions. Other coaches around the world of NCAA football have. Why should he be any different?

In this day and age where paper trails are more prevalent than ever, he thought wrong. And now, he’s paying the ultimate price for it because he got caught.

That doesn’t make him any less of a great coach. However, it does him less of a man in the eyes of more than a few. And that includes some OSU alumni who cannot argue with how this whole story has unfolded.

Tressel is gone, but OSU’s winning legacy will continue. With his departure, you can bet several high profile candidates will aim to become his successor.

Luke Fickell has to be considered a candidate, too, but 2011’s interim head coach will have to put together a spectacular season this year in order to have any kind of a shot for the permanent job.

Two other possibilities, Urban Meyer and Bo Pelini, are lurking. Both bring strong credentials to the table. Both are Ohioans, Meyer raised and schooled in Ashtabula, and Pelini a product of Youngstown Cardinal Mooney High School. Both are young – Meyer will be 47 next month; Pelini is 43.

Meyer has a resume to die for, having been eminently successful at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. He owns two BCS title-game victories. He is taking this year off due to health reasons, but has not ruled out a return to coaching.

Pelini, a free safety with the Buckeyes for four seasons in the late 1980s, has revived the football program at Nebraska in his first head-coaching stint. He is 30-12 in three seasons. Buckeyes fans will get a chance to follow the Huskers now that they’re in the Big Ten Conference. OSU travels to Nebraska on Oct. 8.

As long as Tressel helmed the Ohio State program, he wasn’t going anywhere. Now that he is gone, that has changed and opened up the door, through which one someone like Meyer or Pelini could easily step and maintain the school’s excellent reputation as a football power.

Tressel’s departure will not trigger a decline in power, much to the chagrin of the many ardent anti-Buckeyes fans. Meyer and Pelini know how to recruit the fruitful state of Ohio for football talent. Assuming that is the direction in which OSU football is headed, that bodes well for the future.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Fearless predictions

Predicting the future is a dangerous venture in and of itself. That said, I plunge ahead fearlessly and forecast what I see happening on the sports scene with regard to expectations of Cleveland sports fans.

I predict . . .

* Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel will resign midway through the summer and be replaced on an interim basis by assistant head coach Luke Fickell.

In order to bring no further shame to the school, Tressel will step down before the administration is forced to do what it should have done when it was discovered he lied to the NCAA regarding assorted violations. Fire him. Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl lost his job for just those reasons.

Tressel was a great coach and recruiter. He is still a great coach and recruiter. But when further facts emerge regarding illegalities in the OSU football program, he will have no other choice. The pressure will increase steadily. Current allegations of more improprieties by former Buckeyes wide receiver Ray Small merely adds to the mounting charges against Tressel.

The coach’s supporters argue that Small is just getting back at the coach after the former Glenville High School star marched into and out of his doghouse for a couple of years. That might be the case, but no one is coming out and calling Small a liar. No one is refuting his claims.

Fickell, who already has been tapped by the school to coach the first five games of the season due to Tressel’s suspension for NCAA violations, will coach the entire season as a result of his boss’ resignation.

That will open the door for Urban Meyer to return to his Buckeye roots. Born in Toledo. Raised in Ashtabula. Graduated from St. John High School there. Played at the University of Cincinnati. Began his coaching career at Ohio State in the late 1980s as an assistant for two seasons under Earle Bruce, handling tight ends and wide receivers

Went on to successful head coaching stints at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. His 104-23 record speaks for itself. So does his 7-1 record in bowl games. That includes a couple of BCS championship game victories, including a trouncing of the Buckeyes in the 2007 title game.

He’s got the right DNA to be the head coach at OSU. Born and bred in Ohio. Coached as an assistant at OSU. Knows the importance of Buckeye football. Is a terrific recruiter.

Sound familiar? A resume, to a large degree, that mirrors the one Tressel brought to Columbus.

Sure, Meyer resigned from his job last December, citing health reasons. But there’s nothing like a year away from the game to regain that health and feed that insatiable appetite to coach. Once a coach, always a coach.

* Jim Thome will finish his career with the Indians. If . . .

Huh? How’s that? Are you nuts?

Wait. Let me finish.

The Indians are off to a hot start. There are no apparent signs that this is a big tease. So if – and that’s the big if – the Indians continue to play good baseball well into July, they’re going to need some help in the stretch run.

And that’s where Thome, who left Cleveland for Philadelphia in 2003 under extremely emotional circumstances, comes into focus. Sharp focus.

The Indians could clearly use another left-handed power bat. And Thome, who turns 41 in late August, still has plenty of pop left in his bat. Right now, he’s stuck playing in Minnesota. The Twins aren’t going anywhere this season. In fact, they occupy the Indians’ normal basement residence in the AL Central.

He has been used sparingly this season with just 79 at-bats. He has four home runs and 11 runs batted in limited play. He’s seven home runs shy of 600, a number that will almost certainly qualify him for serious Hall of Fame consideration.

If Thome achieves HOF status, which cap would he choose for his induction? Only one should be considered.

So why not bring him back to where it began? Bring him back to the Indians, for whom he has slugged 334 of his 593 home runs? It shouldn’t be that difficult for the Indians to part with a lower minor-league prospect for the aging slugger.

First of all, it would be a great public relations move. The fans would be forgiving and welcome him back warmly. And what a joy it would be for Thome and Cleveland to celebrate home run No. 600.

Cleveland is where it started for Thome. That’s where it should conclude. There isn’t a compelling reason to not at least consider the move.

* The National Football League will play a 16-game schedule for the foreseeable future.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell insists otherwise, citing his conversations with fans around the country that they favor an 18-game schedule.

Speaking to season-ticket holders of the Tennessee Titans recently, the commish said, “We do think (the 18-game schedule) is attractive to season-ticket holders. I hear that all the time from our season-ticket holders. We have not abandoned our position on that. We do think it is the right thing for the game. It improved the quality of what we do and it improves the value for you as season-ticket holders. . . .”

The players do not want to play two more games. And just about every poll show the fans are not in favor of an 18-game schedule. They’re more in favor of not charging full price for two exhibition games. Who can blame them?

The longer schedule is still on the negotiation table as the league and players attempt to hammer out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The players are adamant the 18-game schedule is a non-starter.

Goodell and his owner buddies are going to lose this one.

* Call it a hunch, but the NFL stalemate will last until the beginning of August. That’s when one side, most likely the owners, will cave and the season will begin the week of Sept. 22-25.

There’s way too much money to lose if this idiocy continues much further. The two sides cannot afford to alienate the public much more with their petty carping.

Somehow, someone will come up with a solution just when everyone thinks the season will be blown up. Not sure who it will be or what solution will satisfy both sides. But it’ll happen.

I still say lock out the attorneys, then put representatives from both sides in a room and tell them they’re not coming out until an agreement is reached. Bring your PJs and toothbrushes because you’re not going anywhere until you shake hands on an accord.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Dream on

It must be a dream. No other explanation for it.

It’s a dream every Cleveland baseball fan dreams. The Indians are the best team in baseball. Just about everything goes right.

They win at home as no Indians team has done in the last 100-plus seasons. Split on the road. The formula for teams that usually wind up in the postseason.

Drama drips from just about every victory. Progressive Field is no longer referred to jokingly as Regressive Field.

The dream continues.

The pitching is not spectacular. Just steady. The hitting is not spectacular. Just downright clutch. The fielding is not spectacular. Just . . . well, just like the pitching, steady.

Runs are not hard to come by. Pitchers have learned that strike one on the first pitch to a batter elevates their chances of success. The Indians don’t beat themselves with silly fundamental mistakes. The days of giving the opposition four and five outs an inning are over.

Fans in this dream are slow to realize that this Indians team, the one many experts predicted for a fourth-place finish in the American League’s Central Division, is better than they thought. Way better.

Then I wake up from that dream every morning and get the newspaper. Turn immediately to the baseball standings. Hasn’t been that way for a few years. The team that lost to Boston in the playoffs a few years ago has been broken up. No reason the check those standings.

Until now. And now, I can’t wait.

Now, that dream morphs into reality. The standings say so. Best record in baseball.

The little team that couldn’t, the little team that emerged from spring training with the minutest hope of playing beyond September, the little team the world of baseball is just discovering, is no longer the little team.

It clearly has caught just about everyone’s attention. It’s a great story and Monday night, the rest of the nation found out – again in dramatic fashion – just why the Cleveland Indians have won two of every three games. Found out why this is no fluke. Found out that something magical is happening.

ESPN’s cameras were there to find out Monday night. ESPN, when not trolling with the glitterati of the sports world, jumps on bandwagons. It took nearly two months of the season, but the network finally discovered what was happening in Cleveland.

First national exposure for the Indians, who have become the feel-good story of the 2011 season.

ESPN loves drama. And the Indians delivered Monday night. The no-name team picked up a little national love with its umpteenth last-at-bat, come-from-behind victory, this time over the network’s beloved Boston Red Sox.

They’re doing it on offense with the likes of Michael Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jack Hannahan, Orlando Cabrera, Shelley Duncan, newcomer Travis Buck and Matt LaPorta, a pitching staff minus a left-handed starter and a manager who has never managed a winning team in the majors.

They’re doing it even though two of their best hitters have yet to hit as expected. Shin-Soo Choo is showing signs of emerging, but Carlos Santana continues to flirt with the Mendoza line.

And they’re doing it despite injuries to a pair of offensive threats, Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore.

So why is this all happening? Let’s start with the pitching staff. No one figured Justin Masterson, John Tomlin, Carlos Carrasco, Fausto Carmona and whoever at No. 5 would perform so well.

Thirty quality starts in 45 opportunities. Fewest runs (153) allowed. Second-fewest walks. Third in batting average against. Only 31 opposition home runs.

The only weakness? Twelfth in strikeouts. Cleveland pitchers pitch to contact. And the defense backs them up. Only 11 unearned runs. The Indians rank second in the league in defense with only 28 errors.

Best bullpen in the American League. With the likes of Tony Perez, Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith, Tony Sipp and closer Chris Perez, all the starters have to do is get to the seventh inning with the lead and the door slamming begins.

On offense, Cleveland leads the league in hitting, hitting with runners in scoring position, and is second in on-base percentage and OPS. Only the New York Yankees have scored more runs.

Asdrubal no longer is a funny-sounding first name. Right now, he just might be the best all-around shortstop in the American League.

Hafner, when healthy, hasn’t hit like this in three years. Same with Sizemore. But they can’t stay healthy. It’s the resourcefulness of this team that seems to have overcome those obstacles.

Manager Manny Acta is pushing all the right buttons and pulling all the right strings. And he’s making a lot of Indians fans giddy in the process.

How much longer will this continue? Or will it continue? Skeptics will say this is just another Cleveland tease. Big buildup for a bigger letdown. It won’t last.

Maybe. Maybe not.

So if this is a dream, then I hope it doesn’t stop.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fact checking 101

For a head coach in the National Football League, Pat Shurmur of the Browns is a lousy historian. He needs to check facts before he speaks.

For example, he said the following about what the Browns did in the college draft when speaking to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Club luncheon crowd recently in Canton:

“I think we did great. I don’t care what anybody says. But we obviously started off . . . by making a historic trade, probably one of the greatest in draft history when we traded with the Falcons . . . because we felt we needed help in areas and based on the talent, based on what other teams around us were going to do and based on what we needed, we felt that was the perfect thing to do.”

He was referring, of course, to the five picks the Browns received from Atlanta that allowed the Falcons to move up to the sixth slot in the first round and draft wide receiver Julio Jones.

First of all, in the annals of draft trades, the greatness of this one doesn’t even come close, although greatness is nothing more than a state of mind. Probably one of the greatest in draft history? Probably not.

That one still belongs to the Los Angeles Rams, who sent 11 players (a veritable football team) to the fledgling Dallas Texans for linebacker Les Richter in 1952. Richter, who played nine seasons, was a Pro Bowler in his first eight campaigns. He will be inducted posthumously into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August.

And when it comes to historic trades, the Browns and Baltimore Colts were in the middle of that one. Cleveland coach Paul Brown shipped 10 players to the Colts following the 1953 draft in exchange for five players. Included in the Cleveland group headed to Baltimore were cornerbacks (and native Clevelanders) Don Shula and Carl Taseff, placekicker Bert Rechichar and linebacker Art Spinney.

The Browns received linebacker Tom Catlin, defensive tackle Don Colo, guard Herschel Forester, cornerback John Petitbon and offensive tackle Mike McCormack. Spinney, Rechichar, Colo and McCormack became Pro Bowlers. McCormack and Shula wound up in the HOF.

Then, of course, there was the 1999 brain cramp by New Orleans coach Mike Ditka, who gave up his entire draft (six picks) in exchange for running back Ricky Williams. And we all know how that one turned out.

Historic? Great? Hardly.

However, it does appear as though Shurmur has discovered that exaggeration is a vital chapter in the coachspeak notebook. Hyperbole, thy name is Shurmur.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Tick tock, tick tock

Thinking out loud . . .

Correct me if I’m wrong but weren’t we led to believe the Browns would grab a quarterback in the recent college football draft? You know, someone who could come in, learn and then become Colt McCoy’s understudy instead of Seneca Wallace and Jake Delhomme.

Strictly a guess here, but they targeted Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi at the beginning of the fifth round. However, Kansas City sneaked in and snagged him two picks earlier.

Would have made a nice story, too, had he been there for the Browns. The lean kid from Lake Catholic High School coming back to play for the hometown team. Too bad they waited so long.

Stanzi is the kind of quarterback who would fit nicely into a West Coast offense. He doesn’t have the strongest arm, keeps mistakes at a minimum and plays the game very well from the neck up. The Chiefs stole one from the Browns. . . .

What are the odds Wallace and Delhomme will be on the roster when (if?) the season launches? Something like even money. Unless Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert Jr. dip into the free-agent market, that’s what it’ll look like on opening day.

There are some intriguing names out there once this labor mess disappears. Trent Edwards, Chad Pennington, Troy Smith, Brodie Croyle, Kerry Collins and Tarvaris Jackson head the list. Brady Quinn is there, too, but . . . oh, never mind. One very well could replace Delhomme on the roster. . . .

What will it take for Heckert to see he’s got a problem on the right side of his offensive line? Pork Chop Womack and Tony Pashos are getting a little long in the tooth and Pashos is an injury waiting to happen. For a big guy, he pays too many visits to injured reserve.

Billy Yates filled in nicely at right guard last season when Womack moved over after Pashos went down again. But Yates then pulled a Pashos and hit IR. Womack moved back inside and John St. Clair, the turnstile, took over at right tackle. No wonder Peyton Hillis’ numbers decreased significantly the second half of the season.

Shaun Lauvao is still an unknown quantity because of injuries and rookie Jason Pinkston has never played on the right side. He’s projected as a candidate for right guard. . . .

If the Browns don’t place top draft choice Phil Taylor on a weight-control program, they’re making a big mistake. The big guy from Baylor has trouble pushing himself away from the dining table. Failing to maintain his weight was one of the factors that led to his benching at (and ultimate departure from) Penn State. . . .

It’ll be interesting to see if the Browns at least tinker with the idea of playing fourth-round pick Owen Marecic on defense at some time. After all, he played fullback and middle linebacker for coach Jim Harbaugh at Stanford.

The Browns obviously see him as a fullback in the NFL, but if they decide to keep Lawrence Vickers, moving Marecic to defense wouldn’t be out of the question. He’s got the perfect body type and size (6-1, 245 pounds) to be an MLB in the 4-3.

Friday, May 13, 2011

About that draft . . .

Back from yet another furlough . . .

Let’s see . . . where were we . . . oh yeah, the National Football League draft. What the Browns did and how it impacts on the future.

Getting right to the point. I did not like what General Manager Tom Heckert Jr. did. Except for one pick, I think he could have done a whole lot better, considering the cache he received from Atlanta in the first-round trade that landed five picks.

A statement by Browns President Mike Holmgren following the draft caught my attention.

“As you can see, we placed a priority on filling the roster a little bit without reaching, which is the trick of the draft,” he said. “I think these guys (Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur) did a marvelous job.”

First of all, what else did you expect him to say? He’s not going to come out and say something like: “Actually, I thought they could have done a lot better job considering where we drafted. And I was disappointed we didn’t draft a quarterback.”

So take what Holmgren says with massive doses of salt grains, understand that’s what he had to say and then move on. Focus instead on one part of that statement. The part about reaching.

If drafting Phil Taylor, an overweight boom-or-bust selection, in the first round isn’t reaching, then let’s redefine the term. At best, Taylor is a second-rounder. How he got up that high on the Browns’ board will always remain a mystery.

Reportedly, Heckert was afraid Philadelphia targeted Taylor and moved up five notches to head off that move. He was so determined to beef up the defensive line, he failed to take notice of a weaker area.

Last season, the Cleveland defense played reasonably well. It was the offense that caused most of the late-season problems. Because of the popgun Cleveland attack, the defense found itself on the field far more than it should have been.

Time and again, the offense failed to sustain drives. The league finally figured out how to stop Peyton Hillis and the Browns’ offense crumbled. So, too, did the defense, which clearly ran out of gas.

Where the Browns needed the most help was on offense, most notably the line. There is a considerable weakness on the right side. Large question marks reside at right guard and right tackle. Drafting a water buffalo like Taylor does not solve that problem.

And there was a solution to the problem still on the board. Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi was there when Heckert chose the wrong side of the trenches to fortify. The Chicago Bears wisely took Carimi a few picks later.

All the good defensive linemen worthy of being picked in the first round were gone by the time the time the Browns were on the clock. Instead of drafting the best player available, Heckert drafted for need.

Taylor and Carimi will be plugged into the starting lineups as rookies, but Carimi is a much more polished and NFL-ready player. Hazarding a guess here. Carimi, much higher ranked at his position than Taylor was at his, will land in the Pro Bowl. Taylor is a big (literally and otherwise) maybe.

Moving on to the second round and more reaches. Heckert stayed with the defensive line and took Jabaal Sheard, then moved to fortify the weak wide receivers corps with Greg Little. Two more mistakes.

Why a defensive end? The Browns already have Matt Roth Robaire Smith, Jayme Mitchell and Marcus Benard at that position and Chris Gocong played the position in college. There were other viable DEs available in the later rounds.

If Heckert had picked Carimi, he could have addressed the defensive line with his first pick in the second round with Oregon State tackle Stephen Paea, a shorter and much more productive version of Taylor. The Bears got him, too.

And in Little, he selected someone who is relatively new to the position. Making matters worse is the North Carolina wideout had to sit out the entire 2010 season after being suspended for accepting gifts and free trips in violation of NCAA rules.

Combine inexperience with rust and you have a prescription for potential disaster. Especially when you consider two more productive receivers were available at the time – Randall Cobb (grabbed later by Green Bay) and Leonard Hankerson (Washington in the third round).

All Hankerson did at Miami last season was catch 13 touchdown passes and conjure up memories of former Hurricanes greats Andre Johnson, Eddie Brown and Michael Irvin.

Wonder what Heckert saw in Little. Perhaps it was his well-chiseled 6-3, 230-pound frame. Looks like a body builder. (Looks like Tarzan; plays like Jane?) Has the body type of Baltimore receiver Anquan Boldin. But Boldin was a finished product when he arrived in the NFL. Big difference.

It would be extremely surprising if Little is a productive member of the receiving corps this season.

In the end, I’d much rather see Carimi, Paea and Hankerson or Cobb in the Seal Brown and Orange than the troika Heckert selected.

All three players he did select also arrive with red flags, i.e. character issues, having gotten into trouble off the field. We all know Little’s was of the non-violent variety. Not so Sheard and Taylor.

Sheard tossed a guy through a plate glass door in an art gallery last July and had to be pepper sprayed. Taylor began his collegiate career at Penn State and was eventually kicked off the team by coach Joe Paterno, weight gain and participating in a brawl at an on-campus pool party playing major roles.

Now does that mean they’ll encounter problems in the NFL? Not necessarily, but it makes one wonder why Heckert would choose someone with a red flag. Apparently, he likes bad boys.

OK, enough of the negativism. On to the fourth round and some positivism.

Can understand the selection of Southern California tight end Jordan Cameron (not to be confused with California defensive lineman Cameron Jordan). Cameron is as raw as they come. Ground chuck or filet mignon? He’s a basketball player trying to become a football player. Maybe Heckert saw a little Antonio Gates in him.

Now comes Heckert’s best pick. Fullback Owen Marecic will pay more dividends in 2011 (assuming there’s a season) than any of the GM’s selections. You can say buh-bye to Lawrence Vickers.

Marecic is smart, hard-nosed, football-savvy player who plays the game the right way. He will be the perfect complement to Hillis and Montario Hardesty. Too bad it took four rounds before Heckert made a solid pick.

Rounding out the draft, cornerback Buster Skrine (love the name), guard Jason Pinkston and strong safety Eric Hagg are nothing more than roster fodder and possible candidates for special teams.

Other experts have graded this draft anywhere from a solid A to no worse than a B-. Sorry, I don’t see it that way. This one rates a C+ leaning toward a straight C.