2017 MLB Primer: Who’s Next?

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The 2016 postseason culminated in one of the greatest moments in the history of the game. How can 2017 possibly follow it up?

The 2016 MLB season was a forgettable one for this A’s fan, but a very memorable one for the sport as a whole. It finally happened, and it was amazing. What the Cubs pulled off on November 2nd, 2016 was as fitting a conclusion to a season as any in the history of sports. 2016 was a banner year for the sports world: the Cavaliers and Cubs reversed 3-1 series deficits to end their historic curses, the Patriots executed the mother of all comebacks to win their 5th title in 16 years, Villanova won a title with a buzzer-beating 3, and Leicester City’s Premier League title was an incomparable feat that transcends all description.

2016 off the field….was not a banner year. But let’s take a few minutes to step away from the dissolution of reason and logic, and the impending destruction of the planet itself, to discuss some baseball!

First things first, I’m the realest. No, seriously. I am not going to let my bias towards the A’s and against the Rangers, Angels, and San Francisco Wine Sippers skew my views about this season. There is as clear a pecking order in baseball in 2017 as there has ever been in the post-strike era. Nationals, Cubs, Cardinals, Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox, Indians, Astros. If a team other than those eight squads wins the World Series, I will be very surprised and Vegas casino owners will be very upset. There are some fringe contenders in Texas, Seattle, Toronto, Detroit, Queens, and Pittsburgh, but late-October baseball in those towns would be a stunning revelation.

I’m abandoning my traditional predictions article and giving you a power-rankings style breakdown of all 30 franchises heading into 2017. Don’t worry, I’ll still intersperse my traditional Erikstradamus prognostications throughout the rankings. Continue reading

UEFA Euro 2016 Preview – It’s Finally Here

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The World’s second biggest soccer tournament begins June 10th. Can the French win on home soil? Can Germany add another trophy to the case? Will Spain win an unprecedented third straight European Championship? Perhaps a surprise is in the cards…….

Since Mario Gotze’s World Cup winning goal struck the back of the net in July 2014, there hasn’t been a soccer tournament of that magnitude to celebrate. Well, it’s been two years and now we have TWO. The Copa America’s younger (and bigger) brother kicks off on June 10th in Paris.

The main storyline this time around is the expansion of the field from 16 teams to 24. While the improbable qualification runs of Iceland, Albania, Hungary, Northern Ireland and Wales are great stories, the group stage of the competition seems to have lost a bit of luster. Be prepared for smaller nations playing overly defensive soccer in an attempt to grind out a draw. 36 games will be played to whittle 24 teams down to 16, but when we reach that stage is when the tournament will really get going.

The 16 team knockout round promises an upset or two, with at least a handful of small nations (looking at you, Wales) looking to reach a major quarterfinal for the first time. There will be at least one Cinderella team in this tournament to reach the quarters, you can take that to the bank.

As for the top sides, major flaws in each squad threaten to derail their hopes. The smart money says one of France, Spain, Germany, Italy or England will win the tournament. However, with each of these teams, there is a major reason to doubt their chances. France is the best top-to-bottom squad and the host nation, but a susceptible back line leaves them vulnerable. Spain and Germany lack a true striker capable of taking a game over when need be. Italy’s attacking presence in general lacks creativity, and England boasts the finest attack in the tournament, but a young and attack minded defense could make each of their games a shootout.

All that being said, I’ll mostly go chalk here. A Cinderella will emerge, but the big boys and the suddenly elite Belgians will rule the late stages of the tournament.

GROUP A 

1. France 2. Switzerland 3. Romania 4. Albania

No points for the Albanians, a couple low-scoring draws for the Romanians, and a cakewalk for the hosts and the Swiss. The gulf in talent here is immense.

GROUP B

1. England 2. Wales 3. Russia 4. Slovakia

The England-Wales matchup is tantalizing, and might just be the best stadium atmosphere during the entire tournament. I like England a lot in 2016, with a potent strikeforce of Kane, Vardy, Sterling, Sturridge, Rooney, Alli etc. How can you bet against Gareth Bale when he’s given the freedom to run things? The Welsh will find a way to fend off the pesky and defensive minded eastern Europeans.

GROUP C

1. Germany 2. Poland 3. Ukraine* 4. Northern Ireland

This will not be easy for the World champs. I like Poland’s talent up front and in net, and Ukraine boasts a tremendous midfield. Perhaps the biggest underdog in Euro 2016, Northern Ireland will struggle to get a result. I think Ukraine moves into the knockout round with a solid win against the Northern Irish.

GROUP D

1. Spain 2. Croatia 3. Czech Republic* 4. Turkey

The Turks have been known to come out of nowhere and steal the show, but I’m not buying them as a more talented squad than their opponents. Spain is going to find a way to win the group, but this could be a tight final day, with the top 3 all in that meaty 3-5 point range.

GROUP E

1. Belgium 2. Italy 3. Sweden* 4. Ireland

The best and most entertaining group, all four of these teams will come in expecting to reach the second round. Other than Sweden or Ireland topping the group, anything seems possible here. Give me the incredibly skilled Belgians and the always solid Italians to qualify, with Sweden grabbing one of those 4 3rd place qualification spots.

GROUP F

1. Portugal 2. Austria 3. Iceland* 4. Hungary

Cristiano Ronaldo is a lucky man. The kindest group imaginable makes this effortless for the Portuguese. The battle for second may not matter, as 3 losses for the weak Hungarians almost guarantee the other three teams will move on to the knockout phase.

KNOCKOUT ROUND

Round of 16

France def. Ukraine

England def. Czech Republic

Germany def. Iceland

Spain def. Sweden

Poland def. Switzerland

Portugal def. Italy

Belgium def. Croatia

Wales def. Austria

I don’t think any of these would be considered monumental upsets, but its fair to expect one shock in this round (Croatia comes to mind). For the most part, the favorites should move to at least the quartefinals, where they could be joined by the incredible Mr. Bale.

Quarterfinals

Spain def. Poland

England def. Portugal

Belgium def. Germany

France def. Wales

The hopes of a Spanish three-peat remain, while Germany’s quest to follow up a world title with a continental crown come to an end. I think most everyone would sign up for a final four of England, Spain, Belgium, and France, myself included.

Semifinals

England def. Spain

France def. Belgium

The finest moment in English soccer in 50 years is at hand, as they’ll play in a major final with an upset win over the best team of the past decade. The strong French are buoyed by their home fans and a few Belgian jitters.

2016 UEFA EURO Final

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A new core of attacking stars led by Tottenham’s Harry Kane has England fans dreaming. 50 years on from the 1966 World Cup, is it finally the Three Lions’ time to shine?

If this scenario comes to fruition, it will undoubtedly be the biggest game in the history of the competition and one of the most significant soccer games in history. The buildup and drama of a final between the most bitter of rivals in Paris at the Stade de France would be immense. I, for one, probably wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before….imagine what French and English fans would be going through. As with my predictions for the Copa America, I love balanced teams, I love teams with identity and understanding between the players, and I love skilled attacking sides. However, I’m abandoning my adamant “never bet against the home team” mantra. There is something about this English team that feels different than any of the recent major tournament squads. I’m calling – and please bare with me here – an English win on penalties. The 50 year major tournament drought and the seemingly endless run of penalty shootout losses come to an end on a magical night in France. God Save the Queen. England 1-1 France, England wins 4-3 on penalties 

Copa America Centenario Preview – Party in the U.S.A.

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For the first time in 22 years, the world’s best are coming to America in search of a major trophy. 

While the growth of the United States national team hasn’t been exponential since hosting the 1994 World Cup, the fervor for the game in America has. A major international soccer tournament is being played in the good ol’ US of A for the first time since that fateful tournament, which saw the Americans eliminated by the eventual champions, Brazil. South America’s 10 member nations are joined by 6 teams from North and Central America for the Copa America Centenario, a Pan-American championship to celebrate 100 years of South American championship soccer.

It’s going to be a lot of fun. 16 teams, 32 games, 8 knockout round spots available, and countless storylines.

I’m interested to see the crowds and TV ratings, which should act as a good barometer as to whether the impending return of the World Cup to American shores will finally inject soccer into the bloodstream of the mainstream American sports fanatic.

I’m curious as to whether the traditional powers can muscle their way through to the final. Argentina has brought a full strength squad, headlined by Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, et al. Brazil has opted to bring a more youthful group, as Thiago Silva and David Luiz miss out while Neymar rests up for the Rio Olympics.

I want to see whether the two hosts can reach their full potential. Yes, I said two hosts. While all games will be played in the United States geographically, it is Mexico who will enjoy the greatest home-field advantage in the tournament. Can Chicharito, Rafa Marquez, Andres Guardado and Co. hoist their most significant trophy in front of their rabid fans? And what of Jurgen Klinsmann’s bunch? Can he survive yet another failure or will the Stars and Stripes find a way to pull the proverbial rabbit out of a hat?

There are dark horses to consider as well. Uruguay have won the Copa America more than any other side, and boast a 2011 title and two world-class strikers as credentials. Chile are the defending champions, but can they succeed with a new manager and without the attacking brilliance of Jorge Valdivia? Colombia have fallen a bit since their storybook run at the 2014 World Cup, and Jose Pekerman’s side will try to find the magic through James Rodriguez and the brilliant Juan Cuadrado. Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Paraguay could make some noise but aren’t expected to fight for the title.

When I try to predict soccer, I’m as hit or miss as can be. I predicted Leicester City to finish dead last this season, but I did correctly call the World Cup final before the tournament began last time around. I love this game, and afters thousands of hours of watching it over the last five years I think I can analyze it well enough to give you a pretty good idea of what to look for. Here goes:

GROUP A

1) Colombia

2) USA

3) Paraguay

4) Costa Rica

This group became a whole lot less interesting when Real Madrid’s outstanding goalkeeper Keylor Navas dropped out of the Costa Rica squad at the last minute. The Ticos’ chances are in shambles without their best player and last line of defense. In a three horse race, look for the quality of Colombia and the energy and tenacity of the Americans to shine through. I like the balance of technical ability and pace that Colombia has, and the pure athletic talent and lung power of the Americans. Paraguay will be hard to break down and rely heavily on their back line and goalkeeper Villar, but don’t boast enough of a threat up top to carry them through.

GROUP B

1) Brazil

2) Ecuador

3) Peru

4) Haiti

Let’s get this out of the way quickly: Brazil are the strongest team in this group by a landslide and Haiti are the weakest by an even larger margin. The real battle is between the high-flying Ecuadorians who are sailing through World Cup qualifying and the new-look Peru side who are experimenting with young players. In a toss-up between the two I’ll take the more seasoned and athletic Ecuador side, who are in excellent form.

GROUP C

1) Mexico

2) Uruguay

3) Jamaica

4) Venezuela

This is, on paper, the best Mexican team of all-time. Buoyed by raucous support and depth across the entire squad, El Tri should have no difficulties winning this group. Ah, those pesky Uruguayans! How does a country so small succeed on a level that would make nearly every soccer nation on earth blush? Coaching and identity, methinks. Oscar Tabarez has been Uruguay’s manager for a decade, and has instilled confidence and fluidity to all of the team’s facets – from the imperious Godin to the mercurial Suarez. The sturdy Jamaican side will pose a threat, but look for the two clear favorites to glide through to the knockout round.

GROUP D

1) Argentina

2) Chile

3) Panama

4) Bolivia

I’ve been waiting for the June 6th matchup between Argentina and Chile at Levi’s Stadium since the second it was announced. My chance to finally see Messi play in person is here. But never forget about the opposition….Chile are the defending champions, after all. Look for the supporting cast around the world’s best player to carry Argentina past all three first round opponents. Chile’s all-out attacking style will see them through as well, at the expense of the valiant and disciplined Panamanians and the hapless Bolivian national team.

KNOCKOUT ROUND

Quarterfinals

Colombia over Ecuador – Tactical acumen and technical quality over raw athleticism and tenacity.

Brazil over USA – A team with an abundance of talent usually beats a team with next to none. Workhorse mentality and home support can only carry a team so far.

Argentina over Uruguay – One of the great rivalries in the game is renewed, with the Argentine golden generation finally getting past their neighbors in this tournament.

Mexico over Chile – A game that could definitely become a boat race, with attacking talent on both sides and a vibrant atmosphere. I’ll take the home team.

Semifinals

Argentina over Colombia – Much like Steph Curry in the NBA, sometimes you have to just give your superstar the ball and let him decide who wins the game. I think Messi finds a way.

Mexico over Brazil – O Neymar Where Art Thou? Would this be considered an upset? I think the only team more talented than Mexico in this tournament is the one they’ll face in the final.

Final

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Mexico. Argentina. Shiny trophy. 80,000 fans. 

The June 26th matchup at MetLife Stadium will be the biggest soccer game played on American soil since Brazil defeated Italy on penalties at the Rose Bowl in 1994. Argentina is desperate for a title, having gone 23 years since their last major trophy. Mexico will need a magical moment from Guardado or Chicharito to outlast the Albiceleste. As a betting man, I’ll stick to the golden rule. When in doubt, go with the home team. Mexico over Argentina, 2-1. 

A couple players to watch:

Juan Cuadrado, Colombia: one of the fastest wingers in the world, has the ability to change a game and steal a goal against a superior opponent.

Christian Pulisic, United States: A New Hope. The best American prospect since Landon Donovan has a lot of expectations on his 17 year old shoulders. The Dortmund man will be fun to watch.

Gabriel, Brazil: The New Neymar? Umm…let’s settle down. He is a thrilling prospect, but let’s see how he does in this tournament before we anoint the kid.

Edinson Cavani, Uruguay: If Luis Suarez misses time with an injury, El Tigre will have to step up.

Lionel Messi, Argentina: I will make the case that he’s the greatest player of all time at age 28. A title or two with his national side will make that argument much easier.

MLB Preview – Expect the Unexpected

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Can the Cubs, this season’s World Series favorite, actually pull off the unthinkable?

No sport is harder to predict than baseball. In recent years, the correlation between money and wins has dropped as the underdogs find new, innovative ways to succeed without massive contracts. Sticking with the theme of the last few seasons, this year is a tale of parity in one league and domination in another. The American league is open, with even the small market A’s, Rays, and Twins coming into the season with hopes of a playoff run. The National League’s traditional powers will reign again this season, with the Cardinals, Giants, and Dodgers likely looking at more postseason games. The Cubs are the trendy World Series pick, and the Nationals and Mets will vie for the NL East in a two horse race.

My baseball picks have always been less successful than my football or soccer picks, but that’s because the game is as unpredictable as ever, and because I never ever pick 100% with my head. My passion for the East Bay team and disdain for the ones in SF, LA, Texas, etc. leads me to believe that this year might finally be the year everything goes how I want. I will be more reserved this year. I know the Giants will be good, I know the Angels will be awful. I have no idea what the A’s will be, but anything other than a losing season would be a major surprise. Let’s look at this season rationally, objectively, and without bias. (Full disclosure: I used to think starting pitching was everything, and then the Royals went to back to back World Series without starting pitching. I’ll factor offense and bullpen into my projections this year.)

NL EAST
Washington 88-74 (y) Bounce-back seasons for Rendon, Gonzalez key renaissance.
New York 85-77 Injury concerns, bullpen, weak lineup limit squad with MLB’s best rotation.
Miami 77-85 C/1B/Bullpen holes limit upside of talented team.
Atlanta 67-95 Lineup stronger than expected, but rotation is an abomination.
Philadelphia 56-106 As poor a squad top-to-bottom as MLB has seen in 20 years.
NL CENTRAL
Chicago 92-70 (Z) Bullpen remains only weakness on baseball’s most talented squad.
St. Louis 88-74 (X) Perennial winners find a way through young contributors.
Pittsburgh 83-79 Outfield talent, Cole fail to carry mediocre supporting cast to playoffs.
Cincinnati 65-97 Rotation is awful, depth, poor bullpen puts pressure on hit-or-miss offense.
Milwaukee 56-106 Horrendous everywhere, no upside besides Lucroy and Braun.
NL WEST
San Francisco 90-72 (Y) Lineup depth, bullpen only concerns on quality team.
Los Angeles 88-74 (X) Lack of depth, bullpen quality puts pressure on stars.
Arizona 82-80 Depth/overall quality around stars is lacking, bullpen is a question.
San Diego 74-88 Strong rotation hampered by anemic offense.
Colorado 70-92 As with every Rockies season, offense cannot cover-up abysmal rotation.
AL EAST
Boston 88-74 (Z) Strong lineup, top bullpen, new ace, I worry about depth, defense, and back of rotation.
Toronto 86-76 (X) Can MLB’s most powerful offense cover up weak pitching again?
Tampa Bay 84-78 C/1B/SS holes limit tremendous pitching/defensive upside.
New York 80-82 Aging roster, lack of depth/defense. Unstoppable bullpen can only do so much.
Baltimore 77-85 Strong offense, poor defense and starting rotation.
AL CENTRAL
Chicago 87-75(Y) Balanced lineup, depth, strong rotation, bullpen is a concern.
Kansas City 83-79 Rotation due for a dropoff, cannot repeat 2014-15 luck.
Detroit 79-83 Back of rotation, bullpen, defense limits offensive upside.
Cleveland 77-85 Depth in outfield, weak 3B, bullpen will drag down good rotation.
Minnesota 76-86 Unspectacular across the board, could surprise or slide.
AL WEST
Houston 88-74 (Y) C/1B/3B are major holes in otherwise complete team.
Texas 85-77 (X) Rotation, bullpen questions cloud potentially lethal lineup.
Oakland 78-84 Unparalleled depth, rebuilt bullpen, questionable rotation, lack of star quality.
Seattle 76-86 Holes in lineup doom strong pitching staff, culture of mediocrity remains.
Los Angeles 73-89 C/2B/LF/rotation and weak farm system leave future bleak despite Trout.
WILD CARD
Los Angeles (NL) over St. Louis, 3-1
Kershaw has to win one of these huge playoff games at some point to be considered one of the best ever.

Toronto over Texas, 6-2
Toronto’s lineup is as powerful as I’ve seen in the league. Texas’s pitching is better than it’s been in a while, but not good enough.
DIVISION SERIES

Chicago (NL) over Los Angeles (NL), 3-2
Arrieta, Lester, Rizzo, Bryant, Russell, Heyward, Schwarber, Zobrist, etc. They’re loaded.

Washington over San Francisco, 3-1
MadBum can only pitch so many innings. Cueto and Samardzija aren’t guys you want in October. Strasburg is in a contract year.

Houston over Chicago (AL), 3-2
I feel like neither of these teams will actually make it to this point, but on paper they look more complete. Houston is only going to get better.

Boston over Toronto, 3-2
David Price is the AL Kershaw. He’s got to get it going in the playoffs at some point.
CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
Chicago over Washington, 4-3
These are the two teams I’m most confident in across all of baseball. Which probably means they’ll be out of it by August. But I like Chicago’s across-the-board talent in a 7 game series.

Boston over Houston, 4-1
The David Ortiz farewell tour has to have a few Cinderella moments. Boston’s Jeter gets a better sendoff than the real one – a trip to the Fall Classic.
WORLD SERIES

Chicago over Boston, 4-2

In a battle of the cursed and once-cursed, MLB gets one of its dream matchups. In a moment 108 years in the making, the sports world stops as the loveable losers finally shed their nickname. Believe.

Why I Still Believe in Sports

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Blair Walsh’s missed 27 yarder against Seattle – the latest in a long line of stunning Vikings playoff losses.

 

 

 

After another soul-crushing, how-in-the-hell-did-that-happen, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me Vikings playoff loss, my mind turned almost immediately to baseball. For some reason, after the sports world failed me in spectacular fashion once again, I was looking for solace in another game that will likely fail me as well.

The way I view sports has changed. Over the years, my passion for the Vikings has dimmed a bit. The loss that ended the season definitely hurt, but not as much as that kind of a defeat would have 5 years ago. It’s hard for me to feel attached to the NFL anymore. As much as I might admire what Adrian Peterson does on the football field, there’s not much else to respect. The NFL has a lot of great men, but the stars of the game simply can’t relate to the average fan. Neither can the owners, or the general managers. Anyone who makes a profit off of professional football in this country just simply isn’t someone people can identify with.

Don’t get me wrong, I still LOVE the game. It’s as grandiose and entertaining as it’s ever been, but the governing body of the game, and those who play it, have worn thin on me. The parallels between soccer and football are becoming more and more apparent. FIFA is universally despised, but the game it enforces is beloved by hundreds of millions. It feels like the NFL isn’t far off. After what the owners just did to the cities of St. Louis, San Diego, and Oakland, and after hundreds of issues with players who just can’t stay out of trouble, it’s become impossible to mention the NFL as a whole in a positive light.

For completely different reasons, I feel a very similar way about Major League Baseball. Far fewer baseball players give fans real reasons to hate them or to question their moral fiber. Yes, I suppose the equivalent to the perpetual criminal issues in football would be PEDs in baseball. I get it. Becoming artificially stronger or recovering quicker is a crime against the game, not against society. The main reason I feel like the league is losing me is the influx of corporate influence into the game.

Player salaries are higher on average in MLB than in any other league or sport on earth. Media deals (for local TV markets) have soared into the 10-figure range for some teams. Ticket prices continue to rise. And yet, the seats remain full. How? Teams are upgrading. Upgrading to newer, more modern facilities. Upgrading their product, with more advanced stats and more well-run front offices. Most alarmingly, however, they’re upgrading their fan base.

Many teams across the league have effectively swapped their original base for a new, more affluent base. There was a time where profits were tied to ticket sales, and ticket sales tied solely to affordability and the product on the field. This is no longer the case. Teams strategically put a premium on seats to price out their less affluent fans, forcing them to watch at home. This has a two-pronged effect.

First, it brings greater revenue to the team at the gate. When more and more 6+ figure salary fans show up at your stadium, they are more likely to spend on additional goods and services at the park. Businesses are more likely to buy these seats and luxury boxes, sparing no expense for themselves or their clients.

Secondly, and by far most importantly, it drives the less affluent fans away. But not away from the team, it drives them to their televisions. As more fans tune in to stay connected to the team that just sent them into exile, local TV networks see their ratings jump. In order to keep these ratings and stave off competitors, these stations offer more and more money to teams to be their exclusive TV home. This is why profits are at an all time high. This is why a league-average pitcher now makes 10 million dollars per year.

It’s brilliant. It’s shameful. It’s the work of the best businessmen in the world. It’s the new model of the NFL, MLB, and NBA. Build an opulent stadium, cater to the corporate world, drive your poorer fans from the stadium to their TV, rake in media-rights money, repeat. Absolutely brilliant. Absolutely shameful.

As I’ve written countless times before, I’m always looking for something, someone, anything to believe in in the sports world. I’ve idolized countless athletes, obsessed over teams. I’ve been pulled in by amazing stories from other sports, namely Lance Armstrong. I’ve fallen in love with golf thanks to Tiger Woods, who isn’t exactly a role model. Time and time again the sports world fails me. Heart-stomping Vikings playoff defeats. Public crucifixions of my sports heroes. Spectacular falls from grace by teams and athletes I put my heart and soul into supporting. The sports world is supposed to be our escape from the world. Yet the real world interferes time and time again, reminding us how imperfect it all is. The greed of the owners, the conduct of the players, the cynicism of the media. Why, oh why, do I keep coming back?

The Oakland Athletics.

It’s as simple as that.

Sports, as much as we’re led to believe otherwise, has never had a golden era. There was no perfect past, where it was infinitely better than it is today. There was less money, and therefore less corporate influence. The game was purer, I guess you could say. In actuality, it was very similar to the way it is now. Owners made less money off their teams, so perhaps instead of today’s greedy con-men, we can refer to them as stingy penny-pinchers. They fought hard to keep salaries low. They wanted bare-bones facilities. But they also knew that their profits were solely determined by how many butts they could put in the seats. Prices were exponentially lower then than they are now. So were TV ratings for the games.

It was, as they say, a simpler time. Everyone could afford to go to a baseball game. With a few exceptions, famous athletes were everymen, who you could relate to and honestly root for. As a guy in his early-20s, I never experienced this time. I wish I had. There were no “jewel” ballparks or corporate ploys to commercialize the game beyond repair. It was the game, the players, and the fans. As pure as sports can be. There were warts, work stoppages and teams moving out of necessity, but it was decidedly better than it is now.

There is only one show left in town for fans of that simpler time. The Warriors, despite fervent and unprecedented support from their fans, are charging outrageous sums for their games in preparation for their move to greener (#thecolorofmoney) pastures in San Francisco. The Giants started this trend in 2000, leaving Candlestick Park for the corporate confines of AT&T Park. The 49ers followed suit in 2014. The Raiders are in the midst of a saga that will undoubtedly leave Oakland with either a massive bill for Mark Davis’ attempt at his own version of the owners’ scam, or no football team altogether. The A’s are all that remain.

It’s easy to imagine a Bay Area with only one affordable sports ticket left. We’re already living it. (Sorry, Sharks and Earthquakes, the demand isn’t the same for hockey and soccer and the prices are still pretty outrageous). When the Raiders leave or get a new facility, the Bay Area’s less-affluent fans will have only one option left if they want to see a major professional sporting event in person.

Average ticket-at-the-gate price, 2014-15: 49ers $388.18, Raiders $161.13, Giants $97.14, Sharks $76.61, Warriors $75.70.

Athletics $32.80.

These numbers paint a clear picture. But it’s not the only reason why the A’s are the Bay Area’s working-class team, and my one beacon of hope in the cloudy sports universe. If the Bernie Sanders corporate America v. working America route doesn’t explain it, maybe irrational homerism will.

Why do we all love sports? One reason: fun. Watching sports is fun. Playing is fun. Being at a stadium for a crucial game is insanely fun. Am I the only one on this planet that feels like sports are more fun when you’re attached to the players? Or are we all just rooting for the laundry? It’s the great debate. How important is the man inside the jersey compared to the logo on the front?

It’s been said that a team would sign Hitler if he could hit .300. Hell, the A’s almost signed Barry Bonds in 2008. We all wish our sports heroes could be saints, but really all we’re asking for is a good guy that we can relate to, and a little personality wouldn’t hurt. Can you honestly say that the overly polished NFL superstars (Manning, Wilson, Watt, etc.) with a positive image are people you relate to? What about those around the sports world with undeniable talent (LeBron, Adrian Peterson, Cam Newton, Bryce Harper)? You’re definitely aware of the Ray Rices, the Greg Hardys, the most troublesome athletes.

Who is left to root for? For me, it’s the baseball players who haven’t been in the spotlight their whole lives. The closest thing we have to everymen in the sports world nowadays are the ballplayers who worked their way up from the sports netherworld. Guys who might’ve made as much or even less than you at some point. Guys who’ve never been on TV, much less endorsed products on every other commercial. Guys who wouldn’t know what in the hell to do with the kind of money the owners use as pocket change.

There are smatterings of players like this across the NFL and NBA. There are dozens upon dozens of these guys across the baseball world. And nowhere is there quite as high a concentration of these cast-offs than in Oakland, where payroll constraints and an aging facility that literally leaks sewage leaves the team little choice but to rely on these guys.

In theory, this should be baseball’s worst team, and one of it’s worst franchises. For some reason, it’s the opposite. Since their move to Oakland in 1968, the team has won their division 16 times. They have won four World titles. 6 pennants. A total of 18 playoff appearances. How does a team that has always operated with one of baseball’s lowest payrolls have levels of success only bettered by the game’s richest team (NY Yankees)?

There are a lot of reasons why, and they’re the exact same reasons I love the A’s:

The team relies on young, homegrown players out of necessity. Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Jason Giambi, Tim Hudson, Miguel Tejada, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Sonny Gray. All these players were drafted by the A’s. All of them are all-stars with abundant talent. Four of them are Hall-of-Famers. Another thing you’ll notice is they all went on to play for different teams despite their immense talent (Gray is still an A, though he’ll soon join the ranks). Chalk it up to all the payroll issues I explained before. However, losing these superstars in the prime of their careers leads to the second reason I love this team….

We can’t afford cookie-cutter superstars or divas. There are two types of athletes that lay the foundation for an unlikeable team. The first is the Cookie Cutter Superstar (©Erik Stenholm 2016). These are commonplace throughout the sports world, your Peyton Mannings, your Derek Jeters, etc. Players who are so widely recognized and so well paid for their talent that they sacrifice all personality and likeability to limit their chances of a fall from grace. They do this to earn endorsements and to protect the cashflow. Nothing will stop them from maximizing their earnings and good PR. Not a political statement, not a tough stance on the game, not an opinion. Cut from the same mold. No straying from the course.

The second is the diva. They are few and far between, but not hard to find. Barry Bonds, Terrell Owens, Randy Moss. Players with undeniable and often times transcendent talent, who just do not get along with their peers, fans, or the media. They are almost exclusively players with sky-high salaries. It’s all about them, and everyone knows it.

Fortunately, the A’s rarely have a player that fits either of these criteria, and if they do, the player is as good as gone. Players only reach this status if they become so talented that the rest of the league pays attention to what’s going on in Oakland, which is a monumental feat in itself. The latest two A’s to reach these levels of talent were both traded in a 6 month stretch for……

Prospects and journeymen. Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes both came from humble beginnings and grew into superstars in Oakland, which naturally meant they had to be traded. Reports came out of Cespedes and Donaldson beginning to fit the “diva” mold, which meant the A’s needed to sell high before the players reached high-salary level and a drop in production ensued. It hurts. I wanted these guys to play in green and gold forever. But this is Oakland. It’s a team built on working class fans, young talented players, and journeymen who know that the O.co Coliseum is one of the only places left that will give them the shot they’ve never had. Out go the superstars…in come the kids and wash-ups. They just want a chance, and Oakland gives it to them. We relate to our players here, because they are either in a similar situation as we are, just trying to make it, or they’re too young to be anointed The Next Big Thing. It’s a formula that seems destined for failure, and yet…….

The product on the field, when compared to the budgets of their competitors, is wildly successful and borders on impossible. The 2002 Athletics won 103 games, more than any team in the league, with a payroll of 39 million dollars. The Yankees spent nearly 4 times that amount that season. The 2012 Athletics won 94 games and stole the American League West title from the back-to-back pennant winning Texas Rangers despite being outspent nearly 3-1. In 2013, the Athletics won 96 games while spending $60M on the team. The Dodgers spent $240M to win 4 less games. The Yankees spent $238M to win 11 less games. You get the point. Michael Lewis said that the A’s have perfected the “art of winning an unfair game.” I can give you statistic after statistic that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that what the A’s do is next to impossible, and yet it’ll keep happening. There’s just one more thing they have to do to finally turn the baseball world on it’s head and give their hard-working, middle class, everyman fans the moment they’ve been craving…..

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Winning a title in Oakland, at the Coliseum, with the game, the Bay Area, and the sports world in it’s current state would mean more than any title any franchise has won in decades. The Bay Area is slowly being gentrified beyond recognition. Rent is more expensive here than pretty much anywhere on the map. Tech money flows through this region and despite all the good things it creates, it is removing the very essence of what makes the Bay Area…..the Bay Area. Oakland is still a working class city. We have a working class team, full of everymen and young kids who just want their shot. Our tickets are cheap, our fans are loyal and wild, our stadium is a dump. We wouldn’t have it any other way. The sports world wants us to fall in line. Build an opulent stadium, cater to the corporate world, drive your poorer fans from the stadium to their TV, rake in media-rights money, repeat. It will happen eventually. But not now. There’s a window. It could be 2 years, it could be 20. But it’s there. Our chance to get one last title, one last triumph for the little guy before the sports world caves in on itself and becomes the antithesis of everything we want it to be – fun.

Join me. Join us. I promise you, there’s an open seat with your name on it. And if we do win that elusive title that shakes the sports world, it’ll be a whole hell of a lot of fun.

MLB Preview

 

 

 

2015 NFL Postseason Preview/Predictions

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The Cardinals, Panthers, Vikings, and Bengals all have top-3 seeds and are seeking their first Super Bowl titles.

 

Thanks to Andrew Luck’s injured kidney and the early-season Seattle struggles, my preseason predictions are not going to end up being as eerily accurate as 2014 was. I was only able to hit the mark on 5 of the 12 postseason teams. Much like my 2015 baseball predictions, I’m way off but I’m happy with the way things turned out.

My Vikings finally slayed the Aaron Rodgers-shaped dragon that resides in Green Bay and won a big primetime game for the first time since 2009. The Packers are in disarray offensively. The top two seeds in the NFC are the upstart Panthers and Cardinals. It’s not completely topsy-turvy, but it’s good to see some less traditional powers in the drivers seat.

Over in the AFC, it’s business as usual. Brady’s Patriots and Manning’s(?) Broncos have byes while Ben’s Steelers lurk in the shadows. Will the playoffs at least give us a surprise, or will we be in for the 274th consecutive installment of “Brady, Manning, or the Field?”

I tend to value defense in January, since weather conditions and injuries change teams’ offensive dynamics late in the season. There’s only 11 games to predict, I can’t screw this up that badly, can I? Well….I am picking a team that has never won a title to take home the Lombardi trophy….here goes.

 

WILD CARD ROUND

KANSAS CITY over HOUSTON – Give me an Andy Reid team over a team led by Brian Hoyer/whatever QB they’re trotting out this week. The only no-brainer of the weekend.

CINCINNATI over PITTSBURGH – This game depends on Andy “The Red Rifle” Dalton’s availability and effectiveness. Something tells me Marvin Lewis finally wins a damn playoff game. If the Rifle is out, switch this to Pittsburgh.

SEATTLE over MINNESOTA – My beloved Purple and Gold arrived a year ahead of schedule. Their best win in 6 years earned the Vikings a home playoff game against the back-to-back conference champs. Give me the tried-and-true Seahawks over my upstarts.

GREEN BAY over WASHINGTON – No matter what the stats say, or the recent form suggests, you take Rodgers over Kirk Cousins. Period.

 

DIVISIONAL ROUND

DENVER over KANSAS CITY – Two great defenses. Quarterbacks limited by ability (Smith) and age (Manning). An incredibly even divisional matchup that goes to the home team and their feared defensive front.

NEW ENGLAND over CINCINNATI – Belichick will figure it out. Calm down, everyone.

SEATTLE over CAROLINA – Cam Newton Heisman Winner. Cam Newton National Champion. Cam Newton NFL MVP. Cam Newton Super Bowl Champion. One of these things will never happen, see if you can guess which one! The Panthers luck finally runs out at the hands of a team that is simply better than they are.

ARIZONA over GREEN BAY – Carson Palmer is having his finest seasons in his mid-30s with a fairly unexplosive supporting cast. Kudos to you, sir.

 

CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND

ARIZONA over SEATTLE – Is it too much to ask Russell Wilson to win three road playoff games with that offensive line. He’s God’s divine holy heavenly gift to the great sport of football, right? That line needs more than a miracle. Congrats, Bruce Arians, you’re going to Santa Clara.

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The most prolific QB of all time meets the greatest QB of all time….for what feels like the millionth time. Can Peyton land the final blow?

 

NEW ENGLAND over DENVER – Brady v. Manning for the 830th and final time. It would be fitting if Peyton could end his career with a signature victory over his bitter rival. Nope. Brady’s will to win (or not to lose) is stronger than Peyton’s, always has been and always will be.

 

SUPER BOWL 50 – FEB. 7th SANTA CLARA, CA

7 Super Bowl appearances and 5 titles for one QB? Seems excessive. I’m of the opinion that the Cardinals are the best and most complete team in the league. Brady and Belichick are the best QB and best coach the sport has ever known, but the roster around TB12 is decimated. Arizona as a state deserves nothing, but the football team that resides there deserves this. Especially Larry, one of the finest examples of professionalism in a sport dominated by bad PR.

Cardinals 27 Patriots 24.

 

 

 

MLB Postseason Preview – A Chance at Redemption

I colossally screwed up my regular season picks. Too much learning about teams and buying into storylines led to a solid NL prediction and among the worst AL forecasts anyone’s ever had. Time to redeem myself. No buying into hype, no reading anyone else’s predictions and analysis. Just going with the gut and the stats.

AL WILD CARD GAME

Astros over Yankees

Dallas Keuchel is one of the 10 best pitchers in the game, and he happens to throw with his left hand. The Yankees haven’t hit well against lefties all year and have a depleted lineup. The ‘Stros young core of Correa-Springer-Keuchel is just enough to pull off an upset in the Bronx.

NL WILD CARD GAME

Pirates over Cubs

I want the Cubs to win the World Series this year, and with Arrieta on the mound they should advance. There’s just something so epic about this game that it just feels like….something magical will happen. Those things happen to home teams more often, give me Gerrit Cole and Cutch.

ALDS

Royals over Astros in 5

Blue Jays over Rangers in 5

As we’ve seen over the last few seasons, home field advantage means little in the playoffs. Don’t expect any sweeps, but the clear 1-2 in the junior circuit will move on.

NLDS

Cardinals over Pirates

Mets over Dodgers

The National League playoffs are going to be a BLAST. And not just because the Giants aren’t playing. All 5 teams can be considered true World Series contenders. You can’t say the same about the bottom three teams in the AL playoffs. Give me the experienced Cards and the young Mets. The Dodgers, once again, are built for the playoffs with Cy Young favorite Zach Greinke and world’s-best pitcher Clayton Kershaw. Methinks LA finds yet another way to choke on their own saliva.

ALCS

Blue Jays over Royals in 5

The Royals rode an elite bullpen and ultra-contact-oriented hitting to within a baserunning mistake of a title last year. The luck should run out against the best team in baseball, and God help KC if Tulowitzki is back for this series.

NLCS

Mets over Cardinals in 7

2006 redux. The series that Mets fans have been waiting for since Adam Wainwright’s strikeout to end game 7 in the 2006 NLCS. The otherworldly New York pitching staff, coupled with Yoenis “Suddenly the Second Coming of Babe Ruth” Cespedes, can spring the upset. Can you say Team of Destiny?

WORLD SERIES

No matter who ends up playing in the fall classic this season, nobody saw it coming. I picked Nats-Tigers. Oof. Most people liked Boston, Washington, Anaheim, Seattle, etc. But Toronto v. The Amazin’s? Are you kidding me? Old friend Josh Donaldson rides his MVP season to a title. David Price and Tulo end up being two of the most brilliant mid-season additions of all-time. Or….the Mets party like it’s 1969 and go from a dismal season and a sputtering offense to one of the more unlikely titles of the modern era. Hmmm. I set the over/under on number of times we hear the Bringer of Rain say something derogatory about Billy Beane as he hoists the trophy at 0.5. The Six finally has something to smile about.

Jays in 6.