Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cubs' Hendry Gets Vote of Confidence, Craps Pants

The sports equivalent of the kiss of death was delivered to Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry this week. New owner Tom Ricketts wanted him to know where he stood in time for the mid-summer classic, of course. The Cubs have one All-Star, Hendry's centerpiece of last offseason, Marlon Byrd. Outside he and Carlos Silva (whom everyone who'd seen el hipopĆ³tamo pitch the past two seasons assumed to be dead weight), no one else on the $145 million roster deserved consideration.

How does that happen?

Somehow, Hendry has assembled a team built around the long ball, but can't hit home runs. With these mismatched parts, the Cubs have managed a dreadful 3-9 record against the perennial worst team in the National League, the Pittsburgh Pirates. In fact, the Pirates actually are the worst team in the National League right now. The Cubs at 39 wins and 50 losses are looking at the NL Central-leading Cincinnati Reds, who are leading the division and look to be a contender for the first time in a decade, running 9.5 games ahead. But even if the Cubs had managed to beat the Bucs two-thirds of the time like the rest of the league, the 3.5 game gap might still seem unsurpassable with an offense that wishes it were as robust as an argument that Barack Obama should be made King.

Aramis Ramirez hit .317 with 43 strikeouts in an 82-game, injury-shortened 2009. He has 53 strikeouts with a .207 average in 62 games played in 2010.
I would forgo a rundown of the stats, but Aramis Ramirez' production is so mind-blowingly terrible that he has had to hit .361 so far in July to bring his average up to .207. It simply must be written to be believed. But it would be a mistake to blame the entire debacle on a man who has been one of the most consistent hitters in baseball the past several years. As a team, the Cubs are eleven points below the league average with runners in scoring position at .252. But it gets worse. They are hitting .229 with men in scoring position and two outs. Even the Royals think that's awful. Overall, the team hasn't hit, but not only that, they haven't hit in crucial situations. To kick a dead horse, the team, just over a month into the season had six regular starters hitting over .300 (Byrd, Soriano, Soto, Theriot, Fukudome and Lee), but were in the lower third of the league in runs scored. The Cubs have blown more quality starts than I can count on two hands thanks to both poor offensive production and middle relief pitching, but the starting pitching isn't without blame. They've only helped their (nearly) lights-out closer, Carlos Marmol, get 19 save opportunities in 89 games.

New Cubs Owner Tom Ricketts (center-left) and his sibling partners enjoyed their new toy. But that was before the season began.
So we're about to begin the second half, and it's time for most Cubs fans to start pointing fingers. Lou Pinella has been less than outstanding as manager, but he can only make use of the players the organization has under contract. I doubt that after spending $600 million just this past winter, Tom Ricketts is interested in looking in the mirror and wondering if he's good enough, or smart enough.

Hendry has good reason for that mess in his pants, even considering his positives. He's begun to resuscitate a minor-league system that had nearly flat-lined when management gave away Old Trusty's heart pills, desperate for a championship run after the Bartman incident in 2003. But today we have Tyler Colvin, Andrew Cashner and, certainly foremost in the minds of most, Starlin Castro, who appear to be the real deal and look forward to being solid contributors.

Marlon Byrd - File Under: Great Signing
Milton Bradley - File Under: Terrible Signing
Such contrast has been a hallmark of the Hendry era.
And the contract situation? Ted Lilly has earned his money. Ryan Dempster has been good. Ramirez wasn't a bad deal, even including his atrocious season so far. It was an under-market deal at the time, and his 2010 wasn't something that even the greatest of baseball minds predicted. And to say that Marlon Byrd is a solid professional would be on par with describing the death of George Steinbrenner as merely the passing of some baseball guy.

But then there's Soriano. Alfonso is still producing like a respectable major leaguer (if you discount his defense... deeply), but is not worth anything near his contract. Hendry can thank Carlos Silva for bailing him out of the Milton Bradley fiasco (lest we forget how hopeless that situation looked at the end of last season). All things are now normal on planet Zambrano after his meltdown and decommissioning. The crazy bastard isn't performing near the level to make him worth the headache of having him in the clubhouse, let alone take home an ace's salary. We continue on to Fukudome (who many fans love, but just can't put together a complete season), Jason Marquis, John Grabow (only a two-year deal), Scott Eyre, et al.

Carlos Zambrano in his natural state.
Considering the evidence, Hendry shakes out to be an average baseball GM with an above-average budget. Given a lower limit on payroll, he probably would have made the same mix of good and bad deals with different players. It's not like he wandered over to the Cubs front office while the Pirates were in town. The average MLB GM tends toward below-average results. Results that, as they say, are good enough for government work. Tough they claim otherwise when addressing the ticketholder, organizations tell us all exactly what they consider acceptable by revealing the amount they're willing to invest in their product (See: Los Angeles Clippers). The average MLB payroll in 2010 is $86,761,528. Cubs ownership has budgeted Hendry for nearly twice that, and he is about to find out that when you spend $145 million of someone else's money, every year, "good enough" tends to last about as long as Mel Gibson in South Central. We should know better than to ask, "What's that smell?"

Friday, July 9, 2010

Man Overboard on the USS LeBron

So everyone in Miami now loves LeBron. Everyone in Cleveland hates him. What's left of the rest of us who appreciated his skill, but never boarded the USS Mint?

Perhaps it's just me, but these shenanigans have turned me sour on a man to whom I previously had no emotional reaction.

Really? An hour special on ESPN is required to break the hearts of everyone in a town who have grown up loving you? An hour special is needed to announce the signing of the biggest name in basketball who hasn't won anything? Last I checked, Peyton Manning knows better than to pull a stunt like that with his next contract, and he has won a championship. And last I checked, he was an icon of his sport and an endorsement cash machine, too, LeBron.

This is just another shameless all about me ploy from an over-coddled, superstar athlete, with no sense of his place in the world. We're working on a parade for the time when we get unemployment back below nine percent, and Mr. James thinks what the world needs is a full hour dedicated to him and how much money he is about to make? Disgraceful. And that counts for the fans who sat watching with bated breath, as well.

LeBron has shown himself to be a callow creation of his day in age, fully costumed in whatever way would bring he and his associates the most money... straight from your pocket. And you're expected to thank him for it as well. Every day, we're faced with another revelation of a former child athlete who wants everyone to think that they "get it," but only as far as your holding tight to that image will inflate not only their pocketbook, but their never-say-boo-to-me ego as well. Tiger Woods, anyone?

And that isn't to say that LeBron owed anything to Cleveland. Is he a better story in Cleveland? Yes. Would it build a bigger legacy if he brought not only one, but several championships to Cleveland? Yes. So if this move is not about LeBron, but "winning" why bolt? Even if he does win in Miami with his superteam backing him (which is not assured, as I believe that at present, the Heat barely have enough players under contract to field five for tipoff), how will that build Brand LeBron? How does that fit into the legacy?

There are those who claim that LeBron would never find the support he needed to win in Cleveland. Could Cleveland have made better moves? Only those with more inside information into the world of NBA general managers than I can answer. But the organization showed effort. He wasn't with the Clippers. Anyone who paid attention to the 2010 playoff series against the Celtics could have deduced that the debacle wasn't entirely on the shoulders of the supporting cast. For someone who wants to be the next or even surpass Michael Jordan pulled a pancake in ways that I don't think Jordan ever saw even in his nightmares.

Regardless, even in your departure, LeBron, Cleveland and her fans deserved better than you felt obliged to bestow.

In pre-July 8, 2010 America, this guy could have probably won a popularity contest with Jesus. How about today? Give it at least a moment of consideration before answering. The stroke-session we saw last evening, lubricated by the smooth lotion of Stu Scott and friends, narcissism front and center, may be LeBron James enduring image. It's at the very least an image that sports fans will long remember. I doubt a championship of three will erase that travesty from the minds of true and pure fans and historians. And I hope that Mr. 'Bron, sir, you considered that risk into your calculations, as your greatest gamble could prove to be a tragedy of Oedipal proportions. And I, for one, will not shed a tear. We are all witnesses, indeed.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Movie Perspective: The Last Airbender

Throughout the course of M. Night Shyamalan's adaptation of the Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender, I wondered who was more to blame for the film's state. The writer? the director? or the producer?

The question was answered in full during the first screen of the credits, when I found that Shyamalan occupied all three roles.

The story revolves around Aang, a boy monk and the last of his kind, who is to be the savior of the world. Not necessarily original, but the depth of the world created in the cartoon, consisting of four nations at war, each able to control a single element of Air, Earth, Water or Fire, finds charm in the fantastic hybrid creatures and characters, both human and spirit, that our hero encounters on his journey as the only soul who can master all four of the elements.

The adaptation is a demonstration in what not to do when condensing a ten-hour season of animation into a ninety minute movie. The storytelling is jerky, and unfulfilling, as Shyamalan manages to miss the essence of nearly the entire cast of characters with his script. The direction is equally poor, as the performances are substandard across the board. There is no emotion in the execution of the already stiff dialog. This could be attributed to the poor skill of the actors, being relative unknowns, we have no base line for comparison with the mostly youthful cast. But considering Dev Patel's (Prince Zuko) performance in Slumdog Millionaire, and Shyamalan's poor handling of Mark Whalberg and Zooey Deschenel in his last effort, The Happening, our judgment is certainly guided away from the acting talent in this case.

The high point of the film came as the credits began to role, and I was finally sure that we would not be subjected to Shayamalan's forcing himself into a pivotal role in the film. The Last Airbender should be the last in the line of Shayamalan films, but somehow, I fear that there will always be one more Hollywood executive willing to put him at the helm yet again. Shyamalan, whose career started so brilliantly with The Sixth Sense and to a lesser extent, Unbreakable, must be nearing its final curtain. We are left to hope that if the man is given one final gasp, studio executives finally find some semblance of sanity, and limit Shyamalan's influence to but one role in the production.

The film was heartbreaking only in the fact, that the soulful and entertaining cartoon was stripped of life and meaning, ending in a production filled with clunky lines and voice-overs, all situated in order to convey plot points that had been handled deftly in the hands of television animation writers. Anyone who wants to truly enjoy this charming story should do so by purchasing the animated collection, and fans who have viewed the series will be amply disappointed in the film.

Aang, you deserved better.