Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Phrase, Fred, Is Jose Reyes Money

I know a lot of Mets fans have been hard on Fred Wilpon since his asinine comments about his own team earlier this year. But the man hit on at least one point correctly – Jose Reyes isn't worth Carl Crawford money.

If you're a Mets fan born after 1980 (meaning you don't remember 1986), your time spent rooting for your team has been a constant, continuous wave of disappointment. I went to my first Mets game in 1988. The team was still the same juggernaut, basically, as the team that won the World Series in 1986 and there was a feeling of invincibility about the team. During my first game in person, Darryl Strawberry hit a home run that to my six year old eyes looked like it had been launched into space. It may have just cleared the right field fence. It may have cleared the old scoreboard at Shea. All I can vividly remember is the sound of the ball being destroyed and losing sight of it because it was moving too fast and too far. Those were my Mets. They were going to win it all in 1988. Probably win at least one more. With Gooden and Strawberry, they were a dynasty. Only they weren't.

And thus began the Mets grand tradition of not meeting expectations. Take your pick. The Bobby Bonilla Mets? The pitching phenoms of Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson? Or even more recently, the David Wright/Johan Santana Mets? Even when the Mets tried to overachieve, they still managed to underwhelm. In the 1999 NLCS, they captured the city during a thrilling series with the perennial NL champion Braves...only to lose when Kenny Rodgers couldn't throw a strike. In the 2000 World Series, they had the favored Yankees on the ropes in a crucial, series-defining Game 1....only to blow it when Timo Perez forgot how to run the bases. In the 2006 NLCS, Endy Chavez made a catch for the ages and the Mets had everything looking like it was about to fall in place...only for Carlos Beltran to stare at strike three with his bat on his shoulder. And there's 2007 and 2008 but I don't want to write 5,000 words about how the Mets cripple me emotionally on a yearly basis.

No, this article is about a man who is in the process of putting together the finest season by any New York Met position player in the team's history. About a player who heard for years from the doubters in a vicious New York media that preys on the weak – and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Whether athletes from other cities want to hear it or not, you have to be different to succeed in New York. You need to be stronger. You need to be tougher. But mostly, you need to produce. Ask Derek Jeter, aka The Captain, about how quickly they can turn if the production slips.

For Jose Reyes, the production could almost never meet the lofty expectations because we all could clearly see the flashes of brilliance. The way he stole second with ease. The way he stole third with ease when he wanted. The way a line drive to the gap became the most exciting play in a Mets game. The way his arm would deliver rocket after rocket across the diamond to nail a runner at first. He was almost too good for his own good because we kept waiting to see more.

So when Jose lallygagged to first on a sure out, we hung our heads in disappointment. When he continued to swing at any ball throw in his general direction as a leadoff hitter, we shrugged our shoulders. As the Mets drifted down the standings the past few years and Reyes did nothing to stem the tide, we grew accustomed. Mets fans, unfortunately, have experience with guys wasting talent. We saw two of the game's greatest talents, maybe in its history, throw it all away for cocaine. We've seen guys with tremendous show up on the Mets as ballyhooed free agents (ahem Jason Bay ahem) only to watch in horror as they seemed unable to complete the simplest baseball task, namely making contact with a curveball. Yet Jose still had the talent and still flashed his brilliance. That's what made him so frustrating. That's what made it so unlikely he'd ever turn it around.

The world may never know if Fred Wilpon's words actually fueled Jose Reyes this year, as he was playing well before that. Is the contract sparking him? Is he fed up of the criticism? I don't think anyone has any true idea, save for Reyes, why the light bulb went off. We just know that it did and it's about 5,000 watts.

Jose Reyes, as we approach the halfway mark on the season, is on pace to breaking or tying FIVE franchise records for a season – batting average, hits, doubles, triples and extra base hits. It's insane how good he's been this year. It's almost impossible to describe. At one point, he had gotten 10 hits in his last 11 at-bats. Over the span of three games, he was batting .900!! For that brief span, he was the equivalent of Dirk Nowitzki shooting free throws. And he was hitting major league pitching!! How many guys could go 10 for 11 off of a pitching machine??

Baseball is a game about numbers but Reyes, in his greatness this season, has actually surpassed his gaudy numbers. Let's go back to last week. Top of the first, and Jose gets a single. Then he steals second. Stays on second during a groundout to short. Then he moves to third on a flyout to right field. Scores on a wild pitch. Suddenly, the game is 1-0, the Mets have the lead and it is literally all because of Jose Reyes. He did everything to score that run. Would a home run have been easier? Sure, but what's the fun in trotting 360 feet? There are manufacturing runs and then there are manufacturing runs in the most entertaining way possible. Watching Reyes do his thing is exactly that.

As I write this the Mets are above .500 and firmly entrenched in the wild card hunt, even if they will not catch the Phillies for the NL East crown. The fact that I can write that is not just surprising, it is a full-blown miracle. The Mets were supposed to be terrible. When people predicted the Mets would even hit .500 at all this year, pundits scoffed. Mike Francesa made it a point during spring training to tell Mets fans hoping for .500 that they were out of their mind. Now, the season isn't half over and the Mets, as is their way, could finish 20 games under .500 still. But the fact it's going to be July and the team is in the playoff hunt is another testament to Jose Reyes.

Yes, the Mets have had good pitching. And they've gotten help. But Reyes is driving the bus. The Mets aren't within shouting distance of the playoff hunt without him. Manager Terry Collins has praised Reyes over and over again for the way he's handled and led the multitude of young Mets rookies thrust into playing time because of injury. David Wright has been out for months. Jason Bay still can't hit. Angel Pagan was hurt. Ike Davis, arguably the team's best player in April, could be done for the year. Let's not forget the closer is still he of the painful blown save, one K-Rod. Yet through all of it, Reyes has been a constant. When the team fell early in the season and fans were giving up hope, Reyes turned it on and the team followed suit.

And that's why Jose Reyes has not only been the best player on the Mets, or in the National League, but in all of baseball for the first half of 2011. He has dragged the Mets, kicking and screaming, to over .500 and the playoff hunt. It's a common thing in sports. We see it all the time in sports like hockey, basketball and football. One superstar goes off and everyone feeds off of him. Just take the aforementioned Nowitzki and his jaw-dropping performance in the NBA Playoffs. And read the quotes from his teammates afterward – they want to be great because Dirk was being great. It's far rarer in baseball, due to its nature, for one player to so completely will his team to victory. Well, talents like Jose Reyes are rare too.

Today, the Mets are playing the Tigers. The Mets are down 4-1 and Justin Verlander is pitching. It's the sixth inning. I'm not a stat geek but I know the odds of the Mets coming back to win this game are slim to none – why do you think I'm writing this right now? So with the Mets down, Josh Thole is at first and Reyes is up. He's already had a hit. He's already been walked. He lines a shot down the right field line foul but suddenly, I'm little closer to the TV than I was on the last pitch. Almost on command, Reyes lines another shot to right field, this one right over the first baseman's mitt and the Mets have the tying run coming to the plate. It's one of those little things that crystallized why Jose Reyes is the best player in baseball now, and why he's a million miles away from the player he was, because he hadn't packed it in yet. He wasn't looking for stats with that hit. He wasn't trying to justify his huge contract he's sure to get this offseason. He was trying to help the Mets win.

And if you're wondering, no, the Mets didn't tie the game. Without going into detail, let's just say Pridie and Beltran didn't get the job done. Oh my Metsies, even when they're overachieving, they still manage to get me to toss the remote in disgust. Aw hell....let's go Mets. I have a ninth inning to watch.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

To Ensure A Future, Sportswriters Need To Show Bias

It is part of being a journalist – you are not supposed to be biased.

In a former life, I was a journalist and I lived by that creed. For four years, I covered local towns in eastern Connecticut and I never showed bias. For two years, I covered the business of Connecticut from Hartford and I never showed bias. Oh, people accused me of being biased, but I never attempted to. I knew that a biased article about an election could sway a vote. I knew that a biased article about a crime could sway a potential jury member. I knew that a biased article about a company could affect its future. I knew that I couldn't be biased because my bias could impact what happens.

I never wanted to be part of the story. I know that's an archaic notion in this generation of “me me me” journalism but that's how I operated. I never wanted something I did – unless it was breaking a news story – to have an impact on what happened next. I still feel that way though the Fox News and MSNBC's of the world are showing that biased reporting is now acceptable and even encouraged. Needless to say, it's not exactly a banner time for those in journalism or those who believe strongly in the Third Estate.

Yet for all the debate about whether mainstream reporters should remain unbiased, no one ever talks about another issue that confounds me on a seemingly daily basis. Why are sportswriters supposed to be unbiased?

For most of my childhood, I dreamed of being a sportswriter. I loved sports. I loved to write. Put two and two together and it just made sense. Then I grew older and I started to realized what being a sportswriter would entail. Oh sure, you could travel the country or the world following sports. You could interview the very best athletes on a daily basis. But there was one sacrifice I was not prepared to make – I would have to stop rooting for my teams at sporting events.

The idea that a sportswriter needs to be unbiased always confused me. Basically it boils down to a simple question, who cares? Sports are entertainment. They aren't a “real” thing like politics or an election. The outcome of last night's Reds/Cardinals game has a very tiny effect on the world. In fact, it basically has zero effect outside of either disappointing or encouraging the fan bases of the two teams, and any fantasy baseball team owner.

If there is bias in sportswriting, what happens? If a columnist is a blatant Yankees fan and writes bad things about the Red Sox, is that going to change the outcome of the game? Has any reporter in history ever been able to influence the outcome of a game? Bias in journalism is only a negative when it can influence future events. Sports are a very simple form of entertainment as teams either win or lose. What is written in the newspaper each day has no effect on that.

More than that, think about the writers who cover sports. I can't tell you how many times I've heard from sportswriters, either personally, in print or on television, about how their love of sports has decreased during their career. It's almost impossible for it to not happen. When you go to a game every night and there are 20,000 people screaming and cheering, while you're stuck in an isolated box prevented from cheering...well, wouldn't that be a drain on you?

In recent years, the disconnect between an unbiased sports media and the real world has been crystallized by the emergence of blogs and bloggers. That's who I want to get my information from. That's where I want to get an opinion from. When the Mets lose, I want to know what other fans are thinking, not what some guy who has no interest on who won or lost. When the Mets win, I want to revel in the glory with other fans who were cheering along with me, not some guy who didn't make a sound the whole game.

When the YES Network debuted, it was immediately put down as “propaganda” by most of the New York sports media. You know what? It was. And it is. And it should be. The YES Network is for Yankees fans. That's the way it should be*. It's the same as Yankees blogs, or blogs for any team or any sport, they are going to be biased one way or the other. And that's a good thing. Sports are fun. Sports are about rooting interests. Sports aren't about sitting in a press box and not cheering.

*My favorite thing I've ever seen was a show on the YES Network entitled, “Tales of Triumph: The 2001 World Series.” The hour-long program ended after Game 5, with only a passing mention of what happened in Games 6 and 7. It was glorious.

Let's be honest – sportswriters are biased. They have their favorite managers, players and teams. If they don't, then they're not human and they shouldn't be covering sports. My point? Let sportswriter tell us what they really feel. If a certain NYC columnist has Jose Reyes as his favorite player, let him tell us. If he or she hates the Yankees, I want to know that.

Newspapers are stuck in the past on a multitude on fronts, not the least of which is the fact no one reads newspapers anymore. For these journalistic bastions to continue to operate, they will do so online. For its sports departments, that means battling an army of blogs dedicated to teams and sports. If they want to be successful on that front, they're going to have to fight fire with fire. And that means stepping out of the stone age and admitting its sports reporters and biased. Because if they're watching and covering sports, they should be.

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Kim Kardashian Is A Pro Wrestler

Kim Kardashian is a professional wrestler.

I know what you're thinking – she has never stepped foot in a wrestling ring. And that's true. But have you watched the WWE lately? Okay, judging by the fact the WWE's stock has plummeted 50% in the past year, you probably haven't. But if you did subject yourself to it, you'd see that pro wrestling, well, pro wrestling ain't what it used to be. To begin with, it's not even “pro wrestling” anymore, it's “sports entertainment.” It's basically two hours of bad acting, lame skits and 3rd grade humor. The wrestling, more so than in the past, is an afterthought. Vince McMahon, in his infinite wisdom, has barred his commentators from using words like “wrestling” and “wrestler” because, oh I have no idea why. If you want to see a good, old-school professional wrestler in have to watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians?

The beauty of pro wrestling, since the beginning of time, laid in a simple notion known as “living the gimmick.” There was never really a question as to whether the matches were scripted, or “fake” as the mainstream media likes to point out, but whether the wrestlers were really like that out of the ring. Sure, “Macho Man” Randy Savage could head to the ring knowing he was going to lie down for Hulk Hogan after 20 minutes, but was he really like that? Did he always twirl around in a magnificent robe and shout “Oh Yeah!” during his daily routine? That, in short, was the beautiful allure of pro wrestling.

No matter where you saw Hulk Hogan or Randy Savage – and later, guys like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock – they were always themselves. Whether you saw Hogan on Saturday Night's Main Event, the Arsenio Hall show or doing a cameo on Nickelodeon, he was always Hulk Hogan. If you saw Steve Austin talking with Regis in 1998, he may have toned down his act a bit but he was still the same guy you saw on Monday Night Raw. In today's WWE, that's all changed. When John Cena or Randy Orton do a mainstream interview, they talk about their “characters” as if John Cena the wrestler is different than John Cena the person. The WWE is trying so hard to become part of mainstream entertainment that its stars give interviews like Jennifer Aniston talking about what desperate character she's playing in her latest flop. By doing so, they've missed the point.

Kim Kardashian, on the other hand, is decidedly not missing the point.

Kim Kardashian is not a real person, just like Hulk Hogan wasn't a real person. Hulk Hogan was a larger than life superstar. There is no one in the real world that goes around in public like Hulk Hogan did, does and will. Likewise, there's no such thing as Kim Kardashian in the real world. Think about it – she has become famous for being famous, one of the most incredible pop culture coups in recent memory. The only actual talent she has shown is the ability to lay back and look bored while a middling R&B singer has sex with her. That's it. Now, yes, she was very good at that judging by the sales of her porn DVD. But there are a lot of porn stars out there – many who look far more enthusiastic – who don't have one-millionth the success that Kim Kardashian does.

In short, Kardashian has mastered the art of professional wrestling better than any pro wrestler in the past decade. In wrestling, your goal is to get people to pay to see you, whether it's buying a ticket or buying their merchandise. Kardashian makes people buy stuff. Magazines fall over each other seemingly on a weekly basis to get Kim in the sexiest, most revealing outfits possible to move issues. The weekly rumor rags toss money at her in obscene amounts to get the latest scoop on her love life and career. It seems the general attitude toward this for most is “Who cares?” – not shockingly, that's usually the general attitude toward pro wrestling when it's successful.

Kardashian's reality shows are also basically ripoffs of what pro wrestling used to be. In pro wrestling, wrestlers would spend years trying to reach the mountain top and become world champion, something that has gone by the wayside in this era of sports entertainment. For Kim, the goal was marriage. For years, we've heard or read about every little tiny detail in Kim's love life as if her getting married would be the equivalent of The Rock finally becoming champion. To add to the intrigue, her sister Kourtney got knocked up and had a baby. Then her sister Khloe, seemingly ripping a page out of Kim's playbook, shacked up with a pro athlete and got married. It gave Kim ample opportunity to moan to the press and gripe about her lot in life – would Kim Kardashian ever find love?

It is here that we are met with another crucial likeness to pro wrestling. In pro wrestling, why did we as fans care so much about guys winning titles in a fake sport? There was no answer, we just did. So why did so many people care if Kim Kardashian – a woman most had never met – found love? It's not like she earned our collective sympathy, like when Angelia Jolie stole Brad Pitt from Jennifer Aniston. In fact, there's almost nothing likable about Kim Kardashian. She has no discernible talent, she is incredibly vapid and she has little to no sense of what's going on in the world around her.

Yet, the world can't seem to turn away. In pro wrestling, they call it charisma. You can't explain why but the public gravitates toward some people. In the late 1990s, there were hundreds upon hundreds of guys doing the extreme wrestling thing – getting tossed from balconies, smashed through tables, bashed with steel chairs – but through the mess, only Mick Foley became a New York Times best-selling author. Why? No idea, people just liked Mick. For Kim Kardashian, she has the certain undefinable quality that makes people pay attention. You can insert a joke about her butt here but you can use Google and find about a million pictures of asses that look just like Kim Kardashian's. But those random butts aren't on the cover of People Magazine on a weekly basis. There's a reason Khloe & Lamar was seen as a joke and why shows with Kim Kardashian average something like 4+ million viewers each week. She's a draw.

For the longest time, I chalked up Kim Kardashian as an anomaly of a society reeking of desperation when it came to entertainment. The music sucks, the television sucks, the movie sucks....what else is on? Oh, here's Kim Kardashian, I'll pay attention to this. But as news of her engagement to Kris Humphries broke, I realized that someone – Kim, her mother, her agent, E! producers, somebody – was playing the country like a fiddle.

Kris Humphries makes $3.2 million per year. That's before taxes. That's before he spends a cent. No doubt, the dude is making a pretty nice living for himself as a thoroughly average basketball player. Yet somehow, he was able to ply Kim with a $2 million engagement ring? It reminded me of old-school professional wrestling when they would have a 20-man battle royal and proclaim that the winner would win a $1 million. As they would say in pro wrestling, it was a work. But people bought it. Kris Humphries didn't buy Kim a $2 million engagement ring. But people bought it.

The fun continued when I enjoyed a good giggle listening to an entertainment show go off about the registry for the Kardashian wedding. It included things like a $20,000 ladle. These weren't meant to be real. No one needs any of the stuff presented on the registry. It was another work to continue the illusion of Kim Kardashian and her extravagant lifestyle. I'm starting to think at this point that Kris Humphries* was cast in this role – the Kardashian clan needed another pro athlete, but not an actually famous one like Reggie Bush that wouldn't deal with the BS.

*Isn't it just a little too coincidental than Kim Kardashian would find love with a man who has the exact same first name as her mother?

As any fan of pro wrestling knows, winning a title is only the first step. You have to try to keep the title. Then eventually, you will lose the title. And that just sets up our hero to set out to reclaim it. If you can't figure out how the next three years of Kim Kardashian's “life” is going to go, you've never been a fan of pro wrestling. She will have her big, televised wedding. They will have their own series about wedding bliss, the first season of which will be happy, the second season of which will be sad, troubled and lead to divorce. We will then be confronted with about six million Kim Kardashian “broken heart” stories. Then Kim will wipe away those tears, declare herself a strong, single woman and began anew her search for love...on cable television for everyone to see.

The worst part about all of this? It's going to work. Hulk Hogan has been playing his character for 30 years now and the public is still infatuated with him. There were points when he was less popular than others, but he never left.

For those of you rooting against Kim Kardashian, it's not worth it. She's going to be around for the long haul. And frankly, I'm looking forward to “Kim Knows Best” in 2025.

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Resurrection of Freddy Adu

For the first time in my life, I was rooting against the United States of America.

I know such an admission would cause me to be deported under President Palin in 2013, but it's the truth – for the first half of Wednesday night's U.S. Men's National Team's game against Panama, I was rooting against our boys. It wasn't that I wanted the Americans to lose. No, I wanted coach Bob Bradley fired.

As I've gotten more into soccer over the past few years – a combination of getting the Fox Soccer Channel, an exciting 2010 World Cup and the fact I'm 29 going on 60 – I've become increasingly upset with the quality of play from the US team. Even during its solid run in last year's World Cup, it felt like our boys didn't think it was time to play until it was almost over. Landon Donovan's 'Go Go USA!' goal in stoppage time last year was the most exciting sporting event I ever watched on a tiny screen in my office when I should've been working (sorry NCAA Tournament) but it should never have happened. When a talented team, and yes, the Americans have some talented soccer players, makes the same mistake over and over again, there's only one person to blame: the coach.

So as rumors abounded that Bob Bradley was toast if the US didn't make the Gold Cup final, I was already there. After the US came through with a pathetic effort against Panama during the group stage, I wanted Bradley's metaphorical head on a metaphorical platter. As the first half went on the Americans played their thrilling style of doing nothing and I stewed about why Landon Donovan wasn't playing*, I thought that maybe this was the end of the Bradley reign. I don't have to hit up Google to realize that Panama is a) very small and b) not very good at soccer. No offense to Panama, but we should destroy Panama in any athletic contest ever created. This was not happening.

*I watched Wednesday night's game on Univision because I cut back on my sports tier and lost Fox Soccer Channel. It's the longest I've ever gone watching Univision, mainly because I don't speak or understand a word of Spanish. So Landon Donovan wasn't playing and I was just confused. Still, the announcing was better than 99% of the crap I have to listen because of my sports obsession. Even if I didn't understand a word, I could tell simply by the inflection and excitement when I should be paying attention. Did I mention the Spanish soccer announcers are enthusiastic? It's how I imagine myself, if I announced a soccer game after chugging a pot of coffee and eating 12 pixie sticks.

As the second half began, as Donovan returned to the pitch and as the Americans started to get into the flow, it became readily apparent that the US needed a spark. The play from the US team's forwards in the past several years of international competition has ranged from middling to “I can't believe we can't produce one American who can score a friggin' goal when we need one.” During the Gold Cup, Mexico has unleashed Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez on the world and I always think, “Man, I wish we had a guy like that.”

Even as I was thinking this, the camera man to a familiar guy in the #20 jersey – Freddy Adu. His name had been mentioned in passing in a Sports Illustrated article about the US scouring the world for talent as a surprise addition to the Gold Cup roster. In fairness, I think surprise is a bit misleading, since I literally dropped my issue of SI in slow motion upon seeing the name. Freddy Adu? I didn't even know he still played soccer, and that's not an attempt at a joke. We all remember Freddy, the 14 year old phenom that was supposed to save American soccer, save the MLS and become the next Pele. Only he didn't come close to even being a starter in MLS and hadn't played on the national team in ages. Freddy Adu was the poster child for 21st century busts. He made Brian Bosworth look like a Hall of Famer. He made Kwame Brown look like an all-star. Freddy Adu wasn't just a bust – he was an out and out failure of the highest magnitude.

Yet, there was Freddy, bouncing up and down, shaking his head from side to side, and preparing to enter a game the US had to have. They didn't just want to win or it would've been nice for them to win – they had to win it. A loss means Bob Bradley is history. A loss means most of the players immediately see their spots tossed up for grabs. A loss means a lot of hand-wringing, a lot of questions and a long road back to respectability.

As Freddy took the field, you could sense the magnitude of the moment. When you've dropped to the depths that Freddy Adu did, you really only get one chance at redemption. If he comes out and plays terribly in such an important game, do you really think we'd ever see him again in a big spot? Thanks to Adu's insertion, a Gold Cup semifinal against Panama became one of the biggest non-World Cup games in US history.

As if I was watching a Disney movie, Freddy immediately stood out. He was better on the ball than the other US forwards. He made runs down the sideline that looked like they might lead to something. He caused a corner kick. He pushed the left defensive side of the Panama defense back. He had energy. He had determination. My God, he had skills. Where had this Freddy Adu been the past four years as the Americans desperately needed a striker and an offensive threat?

Then came the moment that could (emphasis heavy here on could) change American soccer. Adu lofted a perfect through ball to Donovan on the right side and Donovan did what he always does – step up at the right time by feathering a breathtakingly awesome pass to Clint Dempsey through five (yes, five) Panama players for the winning goal. No doubt, that play doesn't work if Donovan and Dempsey, by far the Americans' best players, don't do their thing. But they don't get their opportunity if Freddy Adu doesn't showcase the skills that made him our country's next Pele oh so long ago.

The day after, American soccer feels in a much better place than it was a week ago. They get Mexico Saturday night in the Rose Bowl for a Gold Cup final that has to be one of the more anticipated soccer games on US soil in several years. It took 90+ minutes for Mexico to score on Honduras, making the Americans' past struggles seem understandable. The Mexicans should win Saturday night but, alas, the game must still be played.

We still have no idea what Wednesday night's result means for American soccer going forward. We still have no idea if Freddy Adu's play was a supreme aberration or the sign of good things to come. All that I know is Freddy Adu was hyped for a reason and he showcased that reason, namely his talent, in Houston. He looked, if only briefly, like the 14 year old phenom that was going to change American soccer.

On Wednesday night, soccer fans witnessed the resurrection of Freddy Adu and his soccer career at the highest level. Time will tell if his moment is fleeting. But for today, we can take comfort in the fact that Freddy Adu has had a moment. Fans of American soccer will now cross the fingers and hope to see many more in the future. And preferably, starting Saturday night with an encore performance against Mexico.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Rory Needs Tiger To Become King

If you've been following golf over the past year, you knew it was a matter of when, not if, Rory McIlroy would break through and win a major. While much hype and talk, deservedly so, went to Rory's Masters meltdown in April, he proved he had the mettle to win a major in 2010.

He kicked off the 2010 British Open with a stunning 63 on St. Andrews' Old Course. Thanks to a confluence of terrible events – namely a late tee time and a Friday afternoon monsoon – Rory followed up his brilliant effort with an 80. But unlike so many young stars that are defeated by Mother Nature in a British Open, McIlroy didn't quit. He kept playing golf at the highest level though his chances to win were nil. He finished that week tied for 3rd with an insane four rounds that looked like this: 63-80-69-68. Yep, that's zero rounds in the 70s. He finished eight shots behind eventual winner Louis Oosthuizen, who was the second tee time off Friday morning and completely avoided the wind.

Last year's PGA Championship is remembered for what happened at the end, when Dustin Johnson made one of the largest brain farts in sports history* and ground his club in a bunker to miss a playoff. Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson, two worthy winners, battled it out in a three-hole playoff. What is forgotten is both the thrilling conclusion to the event, when it seemed like every guy for an hour had a chance to win the tournament, and the play on 18 by Rory McIlroy. If you forget, the 18th hole at Whistling Straits is an absolute brute that was playing more than a half-stroke over par on Sunday. McIlroy needed a birdie. Of all the players that came down the stretch needing to do something, McIlroy needed a birdie and he put his approach shot closer than anyone. Though he missed the 25-footer, he proved right then that there was not going to be a moment to big for him. He had the game. He had the moxie.

*Since I don't have sidebars like that fancy site, let me reiterate how stupid Dustin Johnson was for grounding his club. Right before he did so, CBS showed their shot tracker and had the ball clearly in a sand trap. The ball was also obviously on sand. I don't care if there were leaves, other people or a tree growing, if there's sand, you don't ground your club. If I'm playing with my three buddies for absolutely nothing on a lazy Friday afternoon and my ball is on sand, I ask my friends, “Hey, is this a sandtrap?” That's all he had to do – ask somebody. He didn't. He melted under the pressure by not thinking. I have zero faith Dustin Johnson will ever win a major. Now back to our regularly scheduled column...

When Rory McIlroy melted down at Augusta, it became golf's major talking point for the next three months. It certainly became the major talking point over the weekend of the U.S. Open since it was readily apparent no one was going to catch him. Was the setup at Congressional too easy? Probably. Did the rest of the field concede the tournament Friday afternoon? It sure felt like it. But as Rory was making his way through a coronation of a back nine, my father made the astute point that I have to imagine more than a few people were thinking:

“Imagine if Tiger was playing.”

Tiger Woods could be ranked #1, #17, or #117 in the world, it doesn't really matter. He's still the measuring stick. During his absence, we saw a cavalcade of good to great players step up and win a major. We saw Luke Donald and Lee Westwood trade the #1 spot back and forth. We saw the emergence of Bubba Watson. Golf is in a good place. But it's not in a great place because despite Tiger's absence, injuries and poor play, no one made a push for the throne of world's best golfer. Phil may still be our favorite but at 41 with four majors, you get the feeling Phil is probably content with his lot in life, as you would be too. The Europeans have been good, but never made a serious push. That is, until Rory.

Now Rory McIlroy has stood up and for the first time since Phil rattled off consecutive majors (2005 PGA & 2006 Masters) we have a legitimate contender for someone to dethrone Tiger Woods as the greatest player alive. Yet all it does is reveal how badly golf needs Tiger Woods to return.

The ratings for PGA tournaments this year have improved, although you could argue they almost had to improve since bottoming out the past two years. There are a number of young golfers that are poised to break out and replace Tiger and Phil in the public's consciousness of golf. But they're not there yet. Even Rory McIlroy, for all his greatness, needs Tiger Woods to make himself a household name.

As someone who loves golf, I'll be at the Travelers Championship this weekend. I'll watch all four rounds of every major because that's what I do. But it's not the same when Tiger Woods isn't around. It's never the same when the undisputed king of the sport isn't there. It's great that Rory lapped the field. It's great that Rory made a definitive statement. It's great that golf may have a new superstar, a golfer whose game will elevate him to the single name club – Arnie, Jack, Seve, Tiger, Phil....Rory? But for him to get there, he doesn't need to beat the 155 guys he pounded into submission last weekend. He needs to beat one man. Until he does, the tune remains the same....

“Imagine if Tiger was playing.”

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