Monthly Archives: February 2013

2013 MLB Predictions

Spring training is set to get underway and baseball fans everywhere are looking forward to another exciting season. With the start of spring training comes the hope of winning a World Series as every team in baseball has an equal shot at the title. This is what makes spring training so special for many fans as it gives them a chance to make predictions about the upcoming season and assess their minor league talent for the future. Below are a few MLB spring training predictions for the upcoming baseball season.

Division Winners

One of the best parts of spring training is getting a glimpse of players on their new teams and trying to figure out just how good every team is going to be. Just about every division in baseball this year is up for grabs as no single division has a clear cut favorite that is surely going to run away with the division title.

AL East – Toronto Blue Jays – The Toronto Blue Jays made the biggest changes to their every day line in all of baseball, acquiring Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, Melky Cabrera, R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle. With a much improved lineup and pitching staff, the Blue Jays should find themselves in contention for the AL East crown all season long.

AL Central – Detroit Tigers – While the Detroit Tigers got off to somewhat of a slow start last year, the Tigers figured things out after the all-star break and won the AL Central division in the last few weeks of the year. The signings of Torii Hunter and Anibal Sanchez fills two major voids in the Tigers’ roster this season while designated hitter Victor Martinez is set to return to the team after missing all of last season with a knee injury. Martinez’s return to the lineup should help improve Detroit’s offense, which was already pretty good last season.

AL West – Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – The Anaheim Angels once again signed the marquee free agent this offseason when they inked slugger Josh Hamilton to a five-year deal worth $125 million. Hamilton gives the Angels another bonafide slugger in their lineup to join Albert Pujols, Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo. One area where the Angels need to improve is their bullpen. New closer Ryan Madson hopes to shore up that position while Scott Downs, Kevin Jepsen and Ernesto Frieri will work the 7th and 8th innings.

NL East – Atlanta Braves – The Atlanta Braves finished with a 94-68 record a season ago and failed to win the NL East because the Washington Nationals were so consistently good all season long. With the Nationals poised to return to earth a bit this year, the Atlanta Braves will look to win the division on the strength of their starting rotation and outstanding bullpen. The Braves have some of the best arms in all of baseball, and will use those players to lead them to the postseason once again. B.J. Upton and Justin Upton were also brought in to the Atlanta Braves this offseason with the hopes of improving the team’s offense, which will be without retired star Chipper Jones. If the Upton brothers are able to improve their offensive skills in their new surroundings, the Braves could be one of the scariest teams for other National League teams this season.

NL Central – Cincinnati Reds – The Cincinnati Reds are the class of the NL Central once again this year. While the St. Louis Cardinals are a talented team, the Reds boast the most complete lineup and pitching staff in the division. If Cincinnati’s star players can stay healthy this season, the Reds should have no problem once again winning the NL Central by a comfortable margin. One issue that may need to be resolved with this Reds team early in the season is the closer position. Aroldis Chapman is slated to move into the starting rotation with Jonathan Broxton taking over the closer duties. However, should Broxton struggle early in the year, it will be interesting to see how the Reds will handle this situation, especially after Chapman was so dominant a year ago as the team’s closer.

NL West – Los Angeles Dodgers – The Los Angeles Dodgers have been printing money and spending it like mad ever since the trade deadline last season. This new trend did not change in the offseason when the Dodgers signed prized free agent pitcher Zach Greinke to a long-term deal. Greinke will join other big name acquisitions Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Brandon League for their first full season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. As all of these players should be healthy heading into the 2013 season, the Dodgers certainly have the most talented roster in the NL West, and should be able to pull away in the standings at the end of the year.

NASCAR’s Super Bowl is Daytona

The Daytona 500 is commonly referred to as the “Super Bowl of Stock Racing,” or “The Great American Race.” The race not only offers the season’s biggest prize purse (nearly $19 million in 2012), but is considered by far the most prestigious event on NASCAR’s schedule. For almost two decades, the 500′s television ratings have topped all other North American auto-racing telecasts, including the much older legendary Indianapolis 500. Major NASCAR corporate sponsors take advantage of Speedweeks to promote their product whenever and wherever possible, but perhaps nowhere is their presence as saturated as at Daytona. Although the overall economic malaise has caused sponsorship to diminish throughout the first dozen years of the 21st Century, the 500 remains “the” absolute showcase for NASCAR, and they go to extraordinary lengths to ensure the event is memorable for all involved.

The event is held at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., where NASCAR is headquartered and where the organization was founded in 1948. Daytona Speedway was opened in 1959, with original construction costs estimated at $3 million. With a seating capacity at just under 168,000, Daytona is second only to Indianapolis Motor Speedway (est. 400,000) in North America. The race itself consists of 200 laps on the 2.5-mile tri-oval asphalt surface, which has four 31-degree banked turns. The track was most recently repaved in 2010, and lights were added in 1998.

The winner of the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959 was the legendary Lee Petty, who collected $19,050. Contrast that with the $1,589,387 awarded to the 2012 500 winner, Matt Kenseth. The first million-dollar Daytona 500 winner was the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in 1998, who had endured years of near-misses before taking the checkered flag on his 20th attempt. When his son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the 2004 race, the Earnhardt’s became the third father-son team to be victorious in The Great American Race. The other two father-son combos to take the checkered flag were Lee (’59) and Richard Petty (7 time-winner) and Bobby (3-time winner) and Davey Allison (1992). Bobby Allison’s 1988 victory made him the oldest winner (50 years, 73 days), while Trevor Bayne’s surprising 2011 win made him the youngest Daytona 500 winner (20 years, 1 day). Richard Petty’s seven wins lead all drivers, with Cale Yarborough’s four victories the second-most. Petty (1973-74), Yarborough (1983-84) and Sterling Marlin (1994-95) are the only three drivers to win consecutive 500s. The Waltrip brothers, Darrell (1989) and Michael (2001, 2003) are the only brothers to have each won a Daytona 500.

The Daytona 500 has presented more than its share of memorable races in the 54 years the event has been staged, beginning with the very first race. Three cars (Lee Petty, Johnny Beauchamp, Joe Weatherly) crossed the finish line at the same time in the ’59 race, with Petty and Beauchamp racing for the checkered flag with Weatherly a lap down. Weatherly’s car inadvertently blocked the official NASCAR camera, leading to three days of official review before Petty was declared the winner. Richard Petty’s 1964 victory was the most dominant in the event’s history, leading 184 of the 200 laps to win going away. A last lap duel between Richard Petty and David Pearson in the 1976 500 led to a spinout in the homestretch with both cars winding up in the infield grass, short of the finish line. Petty was unable to restart his car, but Pearson somehow coaxed his vehicle back onto the track and staggered across the finish line for the victory. A fierce blizzard that paralyzed most of the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. played into CBS’ favor in the 1979 race, which was being nationally-televised live for the first time. The television audience was well-above expected due to the snowstorm, and the telecast was also the first to introduce in-car cameras. Race leaders Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the final lap, and subsequently began fighting on the infield grass after exiting their respective vehicles. As the drivers scuffled, Richard Petty, who’d been at least a half-lap behind the leaders, guided his car across the finish line to a most improbable victory. The thrilling finish is frequently credited with providing NASCAR with the national “shot” of attention it had long sought to elevate the sport to major-league status. The 1988 race featured several notable events, including Bobby Allison’s “oldest driver to win” the 500, and became even more of a “family affair” when his son Davey finished runnerup. The race also featured one of the scariest wrecks in the event’s history when Richard Petty went airborne on Lap 106 and was nearly cut in half when other drivers couldn’t avoid it upon settling back on the track. Miraculously, Petty escaped serious injury. Dale Earnhardt, Sr. appeared destined to finally win at Daytona in 1990 until he blew out a tire on the final lap, allowing Derrike Cope to slip past for the win. In his career, Earnhardt had four times been leading the race with under ten laps remaining only to fall victim to either mechanical issues or just bad luck.

The most unforgettable Daytona 500 occurred in the 2001 race when the iconic Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was killed on the event’s final lap after losing control and slamming into the outside wall in Turn 4. Tragic and bittersweet, Earnhardt Sr’s. crash happened at almost the same time two of the drivers for DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.), Michael Waltrip and son Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were crossing the finish line to end up 1-2. Earnhardt’s death brought about immense changes from NASCAR to protect their most valuable asset, the drivers.

The Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing, the 2013 Daytona 500 is scheduled to be held on Sunday, February 24. This will be the 55th running of the Great American Race.

Recalling NBA Slam Dunk Champs of the Past

The very first sanctioned Slam Dunk Contest took place in Denver at halftime of the 1976 ABA (American Basketball Association) All-Star Game. The ABA, unlike its older, more established contemporary, the NBA, had a reputation as playing an undisciplined, anything-goes game, and the inaugural Slam Dunk Contest was partially an attempt to put more fans in the seats, as well as a showcase that would more clearly define the differences between the two leagues. The NBA still had stars (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens, Rick Barry, John Havlicek, Elvin Hayes), but these players were not only aging, but they played the game in a slower, “old school” style that relied more on teamwork and set plays. The ABA also had stars (Julius Erving, David Thompson, George Gervin, Marvin Barnes, Artis Gilmore), but these younger players were revolutionizing the game with a free-lancing, up-and-down style of play that emphasized showmanship much more than the NBA.

The ABA’s initial Slam Dunk Contest featured only five contestants; Erving, Thompson, Gervin, Gilmore and Larry Kenon. Unlike the tightly regulated contests that fans are accustomed to today, the Denver event was essentially like a playground pick-up game. Each contestant was allowed two minutes to perform five dunks. The only requirements; a dunk from a standing position under the basket, a leaping dunk from 10 feet away, a dunk from the left side, one from the right side, and one from either baseline. There were no celebrity judges or elimination rounds. Each player was simply given two minutes to complete the five dunks.

The two consensus favorites to win the competition, Erving and Thompson, didn’t disappoint the sold-out McNichols Arena crowd. They were the final two contestants and Thompson wowed the crowd with a double-pump reverse dunk during which he seemingly hung in the air for an eternity. His final dunk was a 360-degree baseline slam that in which his head almost grazed the rim. The 6’4 Thompson, the shortest contestant in the competition, raised his arms to acknowledge the cheers. The final contestant, the legendary Dr. J, then took the court and after a somewhat “so-what?” reverse dunk from the left baseline, he dribbled out to near mid-court. He turned, faced the basket and with just three long strides, exploded off the floor from the free-throw line (15-feet) and windmill-slammed the ball through the hoop. No one had ever seen that done before, and a legend was born. After a brief discussion among the “judges,” Erving was declared the winner and the players came back on the court to start the second half.

Eight years later, following the merger between the two leagues and the arrival of such future Hall of Famers as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the NBA reintroduced the Slam Dunk Contest at the 1984 All-Star Game, held fittingly, in Denver. Erving recreated his iconic free-throw line dunk, but the eventual winner turned out to be Larry Nance, who dazzled the judges with a unique “rock the baby” dunk. The following two contests were won by Atlanta Hawks‘ teammates Dominique Wilkins (1985) and in 1986, the diminuitive Spud Webb outdunked Wilkins in the finals to capture the title. At only 5’7, Webb was the shortest competitor to win the contest. The next two years were dominated by the electric Michael Jordan who clinched the crown with his recreation of Dr. J’s legendary free-throw dunk, although Jordan added his trademark “tongue-wag” to his soaring slam. In 1989, New York Knick Kenny Walker, a last-minute replacement in the competition, took home the title, edging out Clyde “The Glide” Drexler.

The 1990s saw the Slam Dunk Contest lose a bit of its appeal, partly due to the lack of superstars in the competition and also due to the general lack of originality among the dunks themselves. Kobe Bryant’s win in 1997 raised the excitement level somewhat, but other than Harold Miner’s between-the-legs reverse winner in 1993, the decade turned out to be rather pedestrian. The title went to Brent Barry in 1996, notable for being the only (so far) non African-American to capture the trophy.

One of the more exciting Slam Dunk Contests occurred at the 2000 All-Star Game in Oakland. The two finalists, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, were not only Toronto teammates, but also cousins (an event first). Carter edged out McGrady with a series of gravity-defying windmill dunks, along with an alley-oop extravaganza that was lobbed by McGrady. The next four contests reverted back to a lack of superstars, notable primarily for Jason Richardson’s back-to-back wins in 2002-03, the first repeat winner since Jordan in 87-88. The 2005 winner, Atlanta’s Josh Smith, introduced a new wrinkle into the competition by donning a Dominique Wilkins “throw-back” jersey to honor the former Hawk.

In 2006, it was time for the “little guy” to prove they too could fly with the best, and 5’9 Nate Robinson of New York delivered, defeating Andre Igoudala in the finals. Gerald Green of Boston captured the crown in 2007, clinching with a flying windmill dunk after soaring over a table. The next season, Dwight Howard came out dressed in a Superman shirt and cape which made his free-throw line slam even more exciting. The Mighty-Mite, Nate Robinson, returned in 2009 and not only took home the title, but repeated the feat a year later to join Jordan and Richardson as the only back-to-back champions. A Kia Optima was featured in the 2011 contest, with Blake Griffin capturing the crown by leaping over the NBA’s Official Car and slamming home a powerful windmill dunk. In 2012, Jeremy Evans soared above the competition to take the title.

Heating Up on the Ice (Hockey at its Finest)

With a quarter of the NHL season nearly complete, it is time to take a look around the league to see what has been happening and just what type of surprises have greeted hockey fans. There is no question that the lockout shortened season, and subsequent condensed schedule, has created a unique NHL season this year. With teams playing as many as three games in four nights, you never really know which team is going to show up on a given night. However, a handful of organizations have set themselves apart from the rest of the league early in the season.

Top Teams in 2012-13

New Jersey Devils – The New Jersey Devils are leading the Eastern Conference with 19 points and currently own a 8-2-3 record. Many hockey experts expected the Devils to struggle this season with the loss of Zach Parise via free agency. However, the opposite has been true thus far. New Jersey has relied heavily on its excellent defense to allow just 28 goals on the year, an average of 2.1 goals against per game. If the Devils can continue to play this type of defense for the remainder of the year, it would not be surprising to see this team make another deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Boston Bruins – The Boston Bruins were looking to get out to a quick start this season after stumbling early last year. So far, the Bruins have done just that as they have an 8-1-2 record and are second in the Eastern Conference with 18 points. Much like the New Jersey Devils, the Boston Bruins have gotten great goaltending thus far this season to go with their excellent team defense. Boston’s penalty kill is tops in the NHL at 93.5%. If Boston can find any type of added offense this season, the Bruins could be extremely dangerous come playoff time.

Chicago Blackhawks – The Chicago Blackhawks have been the hottest team in the NHL this season as they have yet to lose a game in regulation. With a 10-0-3 record and an NHL best 23 points, the Blackhawks appear to be the cream of the crop this season in the NHL. Chicago has received an excellent combination of high powered offense and stingy defense while compiling their 10-0-3 record. With 44 goals on the year, the Blackhawks lead the Western Conference in scoring and are just two goals behind the Tampa Bay Lightning for the NHL lead.

Anaheim Ducks – The Anaheim Ducks have been a bit of a surprise this season as the Ducks are currently in second place in the Western Conference with a 9-2-1 record and 19 points. Much like the Blackhawks, the Ducks have relied on their offense to carry the team through the early stages of the season. Anaheim averages 3.3 goals per game and owns the seventh best power play in the league at 23.1%. An Achilles heel for the Ducks may be their team defense as Anaheim allows 2.7 goals per game and has a penalty kill percentage of just 69.6%. However, the play of rookie goaltender Viktor Fasth has to be encouraging to Ducks fans as the goalie has yet to lose a game in six starts. If Fasth can provide Anaheim with a much needed defensive boost, the Ducks could be a real power in the Western Conference this season.

Teams that Need to Turn it Around

Los Angeles Kings – The slow start for the defending Stanley Cup champions has been a bit of a surprise, especially since many did not think the Kings would fall victim to a “Stanley Cup hangover” with the lockout dragging on for so long. Poor offense has doomed the Kings on many nights as Los Angeles is averaging a dismal 2.3 goals per game, good for 24th in the league. One reason why the offense has struggled for Los Angeles has been the team’s power play. Currently, the Kings are capitalizing on only 11.8% of their power play chances, a number that surely need to improve if the Kings want to make the post season to defend their title.

Washington Capitals – The Washington Capitals rallied late in the season last year to make the playoffs, and it looks as if the Capitals will need to do it again this year if they are going to make the postseason. Through 13 games, the Capitals are tied with three other teams for the least amount of points in the NHL with nine. As was to be expected, the scoring has been there for the Washington Capitals as the team is averaging 2.8 goals per game, which is good for 10th in the NHL. However, the defense has been very subpar so far this year. Washington is allowing 3.5 goals per game, good for 28th in the NHL. The penalty kill unit has been terrible for Washington, and desperately needs to improve if this talented team is going to turn their season around.

For the teams near the bottom of the standings, the good news about this year’s condensed schedule is that things can turn around in a hurry. If a team can string together a few wins in a row, they will find themselves right back in the playoff hunt. This fact should make for an exciting NHL season as fans cannot count their teams out of playoff contention just yet.

What Makes LeBron so Dominant (Youngest Player to 20,000 points)

When his short jumper swished through the net at the 2:45 mark of the second quarter, Miami’s LeBron James became the youngest NBA player to reach the 20,000 career points mark. The milestone was reached in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors, a game James’ Heat won easily, 92-75. James finished with 25 points, 7 rebounds, 10 assists and a steal, typical numbers for the versatile Heat swingman.

At 28 years and 17 days old, James’ record-setting bucket eclipsed the previous mark set by Kobe Bryant (29 years, 122 days) by more than a year. James joins an elite group of 38 current and former NBA stars who have attained the 20,000 point mark, led by NBA career points leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387). Besides James and Bryant, other currently active players to have reached the plateau are Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Tim Duncan and Vince Carter.

Now in his ninth season, James has already earned nearly every possible award that the game of basketball has to offer, and barring injury will no doubt eclipse several more milestones before he hangs up his sneakers. A native of Akron, Ohio, James has been in the national spotlight since his high school days, first garnering attention during his sophomore year when he was named Ohio’s Mr. Basketball along with making USA Today’s first-team All-USA squad, the first sophomore to do so.

Following his senior season, James decided to forego college and entered his name in the 2003 NBA Draft. The Cleveland Cavaliers selected him with the first overall pick, and he immediately became the team’s star, setting a record in his very first professional game by scoring 25 points, the most ever by a player drafted directly out of high school in his debut. Later in the season, he scored 41 points in a game, making him the youngest to reach that mark, and for the season he averaged 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game, easily earning Rookie of the Year honors. His impact helped the Cavaliers improve their win total by 18 games.

James added both to his accomplishments and legend over the next few seasons, including the youngest to attain a triple-double, earning selection to the All-Star team, setting a Cavalier’s single-game scoring mark with 56 points, and becoming the youngest-ever player named to the All-NBA team. As his reputation grew, the Cavaliers overall became a viable force in the league after decades of mediocrity. In the 2005-2006 season, James was named All-Star game MVP, averaged 30.6 points, 7 rebounds and six assists on the season, finished second to Steve Nash in league MVP voting, and led Cleveland into the postseason for the first time in seven seasons. In his playoff debut, James recorded a triple-double and averaged 30 points, 8 rebounds and almost 6 assists in two playoff series.

Despite being as physically talented as any player in the league’s history, James has improved some aspect of his game each season. He was named to the All-Defensive team for the 2008-2009 season, improved his free throw percentage dramatically, all the while continuing to post almost “video-game” numbers.

Following the 2009-2010 season, James shocked Cavalier fans by becoming an unrestricted free agent. Pursued by several teams, James eventually signed with the Miami Heat on July 8 on a live ESPN telecast. The decision drew widespread criticism (the exception being in Miami), but James was adamant about his dream to win an NBA Championship and felt the Heat offered him the best opportunity to attain that goal.

With new teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, big things were expected from the Heat. Despite a period of adjustment, James and Miami soon proved that the expectations weren’t unreasonable, and wound up as the East’s No. 2 seed for the playoffs. After relatively easy series wins over Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago, the Heat advanced to the NBA Finals versus the Dallas Mavericks. It’s there where the Heat (and James) proved to be not-quite-ready, falling in six games after holding a 2-1 advantage.

True to form, James spent the offseason attempting to even further improve his game, and when the postseason rolled around, the Heat once again entered with the No. 2 seed. After surviving a grueling battle through the East, the Heat once again reached the Finals, this time going against an upstart Oklahoma City team led by young Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Despite blowing a big lead and losing Game One, the Heat, led by James, rebounded to sweep the next four games to give him his lifelong dream, a championship ring. Not surprisingly, James was unanimously selected as NBA Finals MVP.

Other than Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson, LeBron James combines an unbeatable mixture of size (6’8 250 lbs.), athleticism and basketball smarts that’s never been seen by any NBA player. And his unique combination of ball-handling, passing, shooting and competitiveness dwarf those two legendary Hall of Famers skill sets. Able to score against players of all sizes, James also has the ability to defend players at every position. Watching him powerfully snatch a rebound on the defensive end then skillfully weave his way through the opposition to finish the play with a highlight-reel slam dunk is “business-as-usual” for the 28-year old superstar. Along with his immense physical skills, James also possesses a winning personality that makes him a favorite of the media. No other current player approaches his talents, with perhaps the closest contender being either Kevin Durant or Blake Griffin. Durant however, isn’t nearly as strong physically, and while Griffin’s athleticism is at least the equal of James’, he is nowhere near LeBron when it comes to ball-handling, passing or perimeter shooting.

When all is said and done, LeBron James undoubtedly belongs in that rarefied air occupied only by Michael Jordan and Julius Erving as “The Greatest Ever.”