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Behold, It Is The Springtide of the Year! Thoughts on Baseball's Opening Day & Basketball's Sweet Sixteen

I've always loved the song in the Reform Jewish Haggadah that begins:  "Behold it is the springtide of the year/Over and past is winter's gloomy reign."  Well, it could snow in April as Andy Pettitte found out pitching through snowflakes on Yankee Stadium Opening Day over twenty years ago - I think it was 1999.

 

This still remains an amazingly hopeful time of year. Birds are chirping, buds are blooming, and Passover starts on Sat night March 27 along with the NCAA Division I men's basketball Sweet Sixteen earlier that day.  Then Opening Day for MLB on April's Fool Day.  

 

It's a fitting way to start a season for teams without a prayer of competing for a pennant. Let's start with my Orioles whose lack of veteran pitching, a left-side infield defense "anchored" by retreads Maikel Franco and Freddy Galvis, inconsistent offense, and no closer don't exactly inspire confidence.  

 

I will certainly root for individuals like Trey Mancini, back at his best position first base after a year missed to colon cancer; RHP Dean Kremer MLB's first dual Israeli-American citizen; outfielder Austin Hays who had a great spring training but alas always seems to get hurt; and switch-hitting outfielder Anthony Santander (accent on the last syllable please - "san-tan-DERE!").

 

Since Orioles need feel-good stories, young Venezuelan Santander has found a fan club in the United Kingdom. 

Joe Trezza posted a lovely piece Mar 24 on mlb.com about how a few thousand United Kingdom youths on a trip to the States two years ago adopted Santander while sitting in Camden Yards left field seats. 

 

I just hope the rumors that he could be traded at the late July deadline are false. No one is safe from the analytic-drenched Oriole brain trust.

 

There is hardly pennant hope in Anaheim (Angels), Cincinnati, Denver (Rockies), Detroit, Dallas (Texas Rangers), Kansas City, Phoenix (Diamondbacks), Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Toronto.  With the inability to pay Francisco Lindor, now a Met, Cleveland might also become a non-contender.  

 

The Cubs could also be slipping. I see the Brewers and Cardinals as co-favorites in NL Central.

 

On paper, the White Sox look like the stronger Chicago team. They still have to do it on the field with Tony LaRussa as the first manager ever enshrined in the Hall of Fame to return to the field.

 

LaRussa's rehiring occurred just after he was hit with a DUI charge for the second time in recent years. There is little doubt that his return is owner Jerry Reinsdorf making amends for dismissing him 35 years earlier.

 

Mel Brooks had it right - "it's good to be the King."

 

The Twins could challenge the White Sox in AL Central and Kansas City could stick around.

Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield is one of the unheralded players in the game.

 

The Royals may be developing some good pitching to throw to All-Star catcher Salvador Perez, who the other day signed up for another four years in Kansas City.  

 

In AL West, Houston lost free agent outfielder George Springer to Toronto and ace Justin Verlander is recovering from Tommy John surgery and may not be back until late in the season. But I think with Dusty Baker managing, the Astros will find a way to contend. 

 

Oakland under manager Bob Melvin might be a slight favorite in AL West because the Angels need pitching and Mike Trout to have an even better year than usual. Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese pitcher-first baseman, is healthy and will certainly be fun to watch on both the mound and at bat.

 

The Mariners as always talk a good game at the cutting edge of analytics. So far it hasn't translated into wins.

In their new billion dollar stadium, Rangers will still look upward.  Dallas is also planning on a capacity crowd for Opening Day which might lead to Covid nightmares.   

 

In AL East, Tampa Bay always manages to compete against the behemoth Yankees and the enigmatic Red Sox whose co-owner John Henry seems more involved in his international soccer interests than the Bosox.

 

Toronto has already lost closer Kirby Yates but I like their core for the future: Two sons of Hall of Famers, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Craig Biggio; infielder Bo Bichette; free agent pickup infielder Marcus Semien; and the wonderfully named first baseman Rowdy Tellez.  But who will pitch?!

 

The NL East could be very interesting.  The Braves, who fell one game short of the 2020 World Series, have to be favored.  They've added reliable starter Charlie Morton and have returning MVP Freddie Freeman. 

 

I'm not impressed by the Mets pitching after Jacob DeGrom or their defense.  Lindor must be signed for a good chunk of the future and Pete Alonso must bounce back from a miserable sophomore season.

 

I do hope that a full season is played. Unlike the powers that be who crave the TV-watching eyeballs in LA and NY,

I don't want to see a Dodgers-Yankees World Series. But since October is such a long way off, I'll try to enjoy the daily drama.

 

There is always a surprise in any season because MLB is such a marathon and the nature of the game is capricious.  So is life. And that is my biggest gripe with the analytics crowd. They are hell-bent at forcing certainty on a game that blessedly has defied simple categorization in its long and fascinating history. 

 

On the local scene, Manhattan College has resumed its home schedule at its new field at Van Cortlandt Park.  

They host Rider College from Trenton NJ for two doubleheaders before Easter Sunday - FSa Apr 2-3 starting at noon.  Only the famllies of players are invited to attend, but the games are free and in a public park so no stopping anyone from looking on.

 

The Jaspers play another twinbill against Iona on W Apr 7, first game 12N   Iona returns on Wed Apr 14.

The field is located not far from the northern terminus of the #1 train at 242 St and Broadway.

 

PSAL high school baseball is slated to resume on May 1 for a 10-game season with no playoffs. It will be only intra-borough competition and end in mid-June.  

 

To use a term from the days of Watergate, NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio's pronouncement that all high school sports will be played through August is now "inoperative."  

 

Now on to hoops, Loyola of Chicago has become perhaps the sentimental favorite after dismantling #1 seed Illinois to everyone's surprise including me.

  

One pithy phrase summed up Loyola's convincing win: NUN-AND-DONE - it paid homage to Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, 101, who has been rooting the Ramblers on and really knows the game. She is the team's long-serving chaplain.

 

The Sweet Sixteens this Sat and Mon & Sun and Tues should be exciting. The three #1 seeds left will be favored -  Michigan v. Gonzaga for one semi-final on Apr 3 and Baylor v perhaps #2 Houston for second semi.

 

I wouldn't count out anyone yet.  Michigan must beat Florida State (Su at 5p CBS) and then the winner of a matchup between explosive Alabama and red-hot UCLA (Su 715p TBS). 

 

After years of disappointment, Gonzaga may finally get its title but must beat Creighton (Sun 240p CBS) and then the winner of USC-Oregon (Su 945p TBS).  

 

Baylor, who dispatched my Wisconsin Badgers fairly easily, has to go through Villanova (Sa 515p CBS) and the winner of Arkansas-Oral Roberts (Sa 725p TBS).  ORU is the #15 seed that knocked out Ohio State and Florida.

 

Houston will have to beat Syracuse (Sa 955p TBS) before it can face the winner of Loyola-Oregon State (Sa 240p CBS) 

 

Columbia alums continue to BIRG (Bask In Reflected Glory) about Mike Smith whose point guard play for Michigan has been outstanding.  The Wolverines are the only Big Ten team left in the tourney.  

 

Nine got in but Iowa was blown out by Oregon; Ohio State, Purdue and Rutgers lost winnable games; Michigan State lost an overtime play-in game to UCLA (now in the Sweet Sixteen); Maryland couldn't match Alabama's offensive fire power. 

 

The Big Ten was probably overrated because lack of intersectional play in regular season masked their weaknesses in dealing with quicker teams. The intensity and defensive prowess in the Big Ten this year was still wonderful to watch.   

 

That's all for now.  In this age of the not-yet-conquered pandemic, please stay positve and test negative.  And always remember:  Take it easy but take it!    

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Oh For The Days When Spring Training Wasn't Filled With Anger + Thoughts on Columbia Women's & Wisconsin Men's Basketball

I'm trying to keep an even keel about all the anger from MLB players directed against the Houston Astros for their now-revealed high-technology methods and Keystone Kop execution that probably aided their World Series triumph of 2017. 

 
This is February, the slowest month of the sports year now that the Super Bowl is over. The build-up to college basketball's March Madness has not shifted into high gear. And the NBA basketball and NHL hockey playoffs are still a ways off.

 

So reporters are desperately looking for stories. Angry players are providing plenty of copy from Florida and Arizona.

 

It says here the protests won't amount to much because it will be impossible to prove exactly how much the signals affected game outcomes. The anger has almost made lament the pre-free agency days of baseball.

 

In the years when the reserve clause ruled baseball (through the 1976 season), spring training stories were usually about holdouts of players not satisfied with contract offers. 

 

In the vast majority of cases, they were one-year contract offers. Usually the pot was sweetened a little bit by management, and on went the regular season without interruption. 

 

The old system was obviously unfair to the players economically but it provided stability for the owners and for the fans could deeply identify with their favorite players. 

 

It was interesting if somewhat bizarre to watch Red Sox co-owner John Henry's press conference the other day trying to explain why Boston had traded star outfielder and recent AL MVP Mookie Betts to the Dodgers.

 

He spent a good deal of time reminiscing about Stan Musial, his favorite player growing up in St. Louis.  He waxed rhapsodic about how Red Sox fans felt the same attachment towards Ted Williams.

 

Both stayed with their original team forever. John Henry even noted that Musial turned down in 1946 a huge salary increase by spurning an offer from the short-lived Mexican League. 

 

Henry professed his approval of Betts' wanting to get "market value" for his services.  Yet neither finance mogul Henry nor his partner TV mogul Tom Werner (a former San Diego Padres owner who I remember most as the man who hired Roseanne Barr to sing a disastrous National Anthem) addressed in any great detail the real reason why Betts was traded. 

 

They didn't want to pay any more "luxury tax" into MLB coffers that a long-term contract to Betts would have required. They insisted that they didn't think a draft pick at the end of this season would be sufficient.

 

Yet the return for Betts seems questionable.  Two minor leaguers and a young outfielder Alex Verdugo may have a high ceiling but who will start season on the disabled list. 

 

To add to Red Sox questionable decisions, they selected as Cora's replacement Ron Roenicke (brother of former Oriole left fielder Gary Roenicke). Ron enjoyed only moderate success in prior MLB managerial jobs with the Brewers and Angels.

 

The Red Sox will face more bad news when beleaguered commissioner Rob Manfred announces the results of his investigation into Red Sox malfeasance during Alex Cora's reign as manager, especially their 2018 championship season. 

 

With too many stories in baseball resembling the troubling wider political world these days, you can see, dear reader, why I try to find solace in the college basketball seasons of my alma maters. 

 

The Wisconsin Badgersmen and Columbia Lions women have given me considerable pleasure. Picked for sixth in the 14-team "Big Ten", the Badgers have a chance at a top three finish and another trip to March Madness. 

 

They are maddeningly inconsistent to be sure. One center with the combined talents of Nate Reuvers' sweet touch and Micah Potter's toughness might be an All-American.  But last I looked cloning players has not been approved yet by the NCAA.  

 

With just eight players getting regular playing time, the Badgers have overcome great adversity to keep hope alive. First, there was the pre-season loss of  assistant coach Howard Moore whose wife and daughter were killed in a horrific auto crash - Moore himself is recovering slowly from his serious injuries and a subsequent heart attack.

 

Then last month, the streaky but talented swing man Kobe King abruptly left the team. The Lacrosse, Wisconsin native's reasons were sketchy at best.  Not being appreciated beyond a basketball player was one of them.  

 

Under coach Greg Gard's firm and steady hand, the Badgers have regrouped and are on their first three-game Big Ten winning streak of the season.  That's a modest number of course, but the flashes of offensive production from the likes of juniors Brad Davison and Aleem Ford and consistently tough defense have me pulling my chair up close to the TV these days.

 

I thought the Columbia women would be worth watching in 2019-20 and I have not been disappointed.  Under youthful coach Megan Griffith, Columbia class of 2007 grad and former assistant at league powerhouse Princeton, the Lions last weekend swept two Ivy League opponents for the first time since 2011, Dartmouth and Harvard.

 

There is now a four-team tournament in the Ivy League and Columbia has a chance to make it if they continue to grow and play hard and smart and well. 

 

Last year's rookie of the year, forward Sienna Durr from Grinnell, Iowa has stepped up her all-around game. 

 

Guard Abby Hsu from Parkland, Florida is a strong candidate for this year's rookie award.  The only senior on the squad, feisty guard Janniya Clemmons from Accoceek, Maryland outside DC, is another solid presence.

 

Both point guards sophomore Mikayla Markham from Manasquan on the Jersey shore and first-year Carly Rivera from Arlington, Virginia are getting plenty of playing time. They are sparkplugs for a frequently-employed full-court defense.

 

Tigers on the boards and adding a lot of energy to the team are first-year Caitlyn Davis from Norwalk, Ct. and sophomores Lilian Kennedy from Buford, Ga. and Hannah Pratt from Boca Raton, Fla. 

 

Unfortunately, the Columbia men have fallen into the Ivy League basement. It's a familiar story - close losses and no conistent scoring except from senior guard Mike Smith who hasn't had a lot of help and winds up taking too many shots.

 

After a good start to the season, the Wisconsin women have fallen near the bottom of a tough Big Ten conference. Hopefully, both teams end the season with good efforts and confidence-building results to give hope for better days ahead for both teams. 

 

That's all for now.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 


  

 

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