Tuesday, July 27, 2010


At first brush, there didn't seem to be too much to add about the Royals' (no adjective necessary) 19-1 loss at home to Minnesota Monday night. If we're talking 19, then the Royals' 19-game losing streak in 2005 was far more embarrassing. They have been on the wrong end of plenty lopsided games over the last 15 years. They've blown 10-1 leads and seven and a half game All-Star break leads. 

For pure theatrics, the team has had plenty of one-time Three Stooges bits that have topped 19-1 by quite a bit (short list: player climbing the wall as a fly ball drops in the grass in front of him, player falls off first base and is tagged out, player is hit by a relay through and says it felt like he was shot, two outfielders converge on two-out fly ball before both trot to the dugout and let it drop, a player with a straight bush-league drop of a fly ball that would have ended the game, player gets stuck between the tarp and wall... on and on and on...). 

But instead, this smashing was disheartening simply that this is 2010, and these kind of shenanigans shouldn't still be happening. The team is definitely better, more professional, more legitimate, and yet they just equaled the worst loss in franchise history. Until being bailed out by a two-out, ninth-inning double, it was nearly the worst loss and worst shutout loss ever. Yes, the team has poor on-base and slugging percentages, but they lead the league in hitting. (or !) The defending Cy Young winner was starting. Has a team ever lost by 18 when the reigning Cy Young winner starts for them? Sure, Zack struggled, and when that happens, the team has almost no chance to succeed. The Royals never look so far away, so hopeless as when Zack struggles. 

As the Twins scored as many runs as the Royals had in their last five games, as KC yielded touchdowns like it was the Dick Vermeil era, you could feel the city's and the fan base's interest in our national pastime fade, ready to go on hiatus, like usual, until the spring. It's just one game, but also a symbol, one that can increase talk about the Chiefs and their training camp, that can turn fans toward summer movies and the pool, and just maybe push an aging roster a bit closer to mailing things in. Or maybe inspire them to bounce back. Or, better still, inspire management to realize it has nothing to lose by shipping its veterans off for whatever prospects it can get. 

Fortunately, most of the kids in the minors keep rolling along. The team may tear away another prospect or two at the trade deadline. The Moose is at Triple A. The first wave of GM Dayton Moore's crop of young talent is about to hit the shore, with more waves building up behind them. They could contend very soon. (Respectable in 2011, contend in 2012? Too much to ask?) 

In the years ahead, we may look back on last night's game and think, wow, that craziness was happening as late at 2010. Or it might not stop any time soon. One thing's for sure, as the Twins kept pounding KC pitcher after KC pitcher, it was hard to see the end of this mess. 

Monday, July 26, 2010

How to succeed at Phase 10 without really trying

Fair warning, this post may be unreadable to plenty of reasonable people. But if you want a solution in case you ever find yourself in a Vietnamesque game of Phase 10, or if you just appreciate a good "Eureka!" moment, read on. If you don't like the advice, well, find another person to help you out who has, you know, won a game of Phase 10. 

Now, for those who don't know what Phase 10 is, it's a card game, apparently named for an old Naval term meaning "unfinishable," but in a nutshell: each card has a color and a number, you seek to work through 10 separate phases (ex. two sets of three, seven in a row, etc.), you can only get one phase per hand, hands end when someone gets rid of all their cards, and you get penalized for the cards you have left in your hands when someone else gets rid of all their cards. The game includes Skip and Wild cards to spice things up. First to 10 phases wins, tiebreakers are decided by whoever has fewer "penalty" points for cards left in hand. 

Okay, housekeeping out of the way, now on to how to win, because this must clearly sound like a game that demands winning and competitive excellence. So here are three easy steps for how to win: 

(Disclaimer: I have now played a whopping two games of Phase 10. I was in the running for the win in the first, but the game broke apart after hours of stalemate. With several players, the game can drag out into Isner-Mahut absurdity. The second game, I had a horrendous start, figured out the below keys to success, and rallied, although I was unable to come all the way back, partially because I had to learn the below pearls of "wisdom" the hard way: through relentless failure. So yes, I'm 0-1-1 all time in Phase 10. Take this with about three or four grains of salt.) 

1. Build your sets and runs around high-numbered cards. Yes, you are penalized 10 pts. for cards numbered 10 or higher that you have left at the end of a hand, and 5 pts for cards 1-9, but at the end of each "play" a player must discard. Now players usually discard 10s, 11s and 12s to avoid the higher point penalty, so when you put yourself in a position to need cards 10-12 to finish your phase, the other players have motivation to discard the specific cards you need, which you have the option to pick up. The game is all about phases; worrying about penalty points accumulated is like extra points in football: they are on rare occasions the difference, but it's all about the touchdowns. 

2. After phasing, strive to end the hand as soon as possible. I made the ludicrously stupid decision to play a Skip card on another player who only had one card left, even though I had already phased, hoping I could get rid of my cards first. Shockingly, I couldn't get rid of mine, and another player (the eventual winner) phased as well. Again, having cards when the hand ends and getting penalty points isn't that important. The game is all about phasing while having the fewest number of other people get a phase. Everything else is window dressing. Obvious? Perhaps, but this discovery was a light-bulb moment for me. 

3. Be careful about when and on whom you play Skip cards. Don't mess with the soft-spoken girl playing next to you. She will bury you. 

And quite possibly say "Screw you" in the process. 

(I should have an actual sports blog up soon, for those of you who are taken aback by the ridiculousness of the above "writing.") 

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Backflips and backsliding

I want to like Carl Edwards. I really do. He's from Missouri, likes the Tigers, and enjoys bike riding, three things that help you be a good man. I got his autograph at Harpo's one night. His story is the story of many NASCAR drivers, rising from obscurity and dirt track racing, catching a break, then making the most of it. 

Jack Roush took a chance on him, and Carl came through, winning in just his 18th race. He finished 5th in the points in his first full season (2005) and won 9 races in 2008, finishing a gallant-but-defeated 2nd behind the invincible Jimmie Johnson. He recently got married. He and his wife had a baby daughter this February.  

But lately, as everyone has seen, things have gotten messy. A promising young career has turned ugly, uncomfortable, disappointing. There was the incident in October 2007 where Carl faked like he was going to punch Matt Kenseth, his far far far far more successful teammate, a driver who could/should have been a mentor figure for Carl. It was the first major chink in Carl's smiling, happy-to-be-here, good-guy persona. 

Kenseth has 18 wins to Carl's 16, but much more importantly, he has a championship and a Daytona 500 win under his belt. He deserves some respect. Carl looked entitled, spoiled, like a petulant child. It was a cringe-worthy moment, like Robinson Cano waving a bat at Derek Jeter. 

Then there's this ridiculous feud with Brad Kesolowski, which apparently started when Brad pulled the nimble feat of wrecking Carl at Talladega by driving in a straight line, holding his position when Carl wrecked across the nose of Brad's car in a futile, too-late blocking attempt. There was an ugly headhunting incident earlier this year at Atlanta, when Carl sought out and wrecked Brad late in the race, causing a vicious wreck. Then came last Saturday in St. Louis, when they two bumped back and forth before Carl finished things with an outright wreck job on the final straightaway. 

In Victory Lane afterward, Carl defiantly said exactly what he did and why, simply saying he wrecked Brad because he needed to win. This is in stark contrast to Dale Earnhardt, who after winning a race late in his career by spinning out Terry Labonte, actually tried the bizarre idea of showing some contrition, recognizing there's a line between "rubbin's racin' " and blatant wrecking of an opponent. 

But you mostly know the details, probably better than I do. That's not my point here. Rather, my point is a promising young career is falling apart, and Carl is lashing out, perhaps understandably, as he fades further into NASCAR anonymity. 

Carl currently has a 55-race winless drought, and is teetering on the edge of qualifying for the Chase for the Championship. One day you're Mighty Jimmie's top competition, the next you're a glorified Ryan Newman, minus Hello Newman's bizarre stumbling blindly into a win in the Daytona 500, the 50th edition of the Great American Race, no less. 

And this flap with Kesolowski is just sad, given what should be the driver's differing statuses. It's like if Matt Holliday and Mitch Maier developed a feud. And now that Carl is fighting with Keselowski in the Nationwide Series, NASCAR's Triple A, it rings of a junior high bully going BACK to elementary school to pick on an old nemesis. Trouble is, Brad has three Nationwide wins to Carl's two, and is 168 points ahead of Carl in the standings. (This is after NASCAR's tissue-soft penalty on Edwards, combined with the points he gained from wrecking Brad, actually resulted in a 19-point gain for Carl out of the whole thing. To be fair, Brad is also a Cup driver now, although he is still considered a Cup rookie.) 

NASCAR is working on a new rule to severely limit Cup drivers' participation, although Carl continue to make absurd statements on the issue, saying he is a Nationwide Series driver going for sponsorship deals at the Cup level... Huh? Just... Really, Carl? 

Then there's this, the most important, telling stat for the new, irritable Carl: 

Nextel Cup wins since the start of the 2009 season: 

Brad Keselowski: 1
Carl Edwards: 0 
(Matt Kenseth: 2, if you're scoring at home) 

But this can be fixed. Everyone gets worked up from time to time, and we all do things we regret. Carl is only 30 (he turns 31 in August). He may never be Jimmie or Jeff or Tony, but he can still have a nice career. He can be a role model for his daughter as she grows up. He can excite and inspire with his racing and actions. 

I just don't know anyone who was inspired by what they saw last Saturday night in St. Louis. It's time for this talented driver to rise above the feuding and focus on stepping up his racing... at the big boy level. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Alex and Albert

The Royals are heading to the New York this week to face the mighty Yankees. KC has an astoundingly awful 5-23 mark in the Bronx since 2003 (although they are 5-19 in their last 24 games there, the exact record of success that led Auburn to hire Gene Chizik away from Iowa State), so I tend to keep an eye out for other things in the series to entertain. 

The Yankees always offer plenty of sideshow. There's no shortage of star players. There's New Yankee Stadium, with its cramped dimensions and still-present new-stadium smell (Kansas City opted for a new-stadium-smell air freshener with those 2008 renovations). There's Lady Gaga showing up half-dressed, swilling whiskey, talking with Robinson Cano. There's The Great Rivera with that cutter and sub-1.00 ERA. 

Then there's Alex Rodriguez, a player with massive talent and an equally-massive salary. He's been linked to Madonna. He was seen with Cameron Diaz over the All-Star break... then stole the camera phone of the president of Kansas City's Sports Radio 810, who had taken a picture of the two. He swatted at Bronson Arroyo's glove in the ALCS in an effort to get to first. He yelled "I got it! I got it!" behind a fielder camped under a popup. He nearly had a donnybrook with Oakland pitcher Dallas Braden over the route he used to trot back to the dugout. He was busted for steroid use. He's going to be in a movie. He hit a home run to put his team ahead and started to celebrate what he though was a walk-off home run only to learn it was only the 8th inning. He's been called A-Fraud, Stray-Rod, a choker. 

He has 598 home runs. 

And 3 MVP awards, and 2,621 hits, and enough big home runs to make "choker" labels laughable. Yet all this is often lost in that sea of circus performances two paragraphs above. 

A-Rod has a great chance to hit his 600th career home run against the Royals, with four games against four Kansas City starters who are not Zack Greinke and that mercurial Royal bullpen. As a side note, Royal pitcher Kyle Davies gave up Rodriguez's 500th home run. He pitches Saturday, the day after Brian Bannister, who's been giving up homers at quite a clip, so there's a decent chance the lackluster Davies could yield both A-Rod's 500th and 600th home runs. I'll have to double-check, but this would surely be the first time in baseball history that a pitcher allowed both a hitter's 500th and 600th. 

600 is a monumental number, as only six players have ever hit 600. It's far more lofty than even the 25-man 500 home run club. Save the disgraced Barry Bonds and the quirky Sammy Sosa, the 600 HR club could be the game's Mt. Rushmore: Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Griffey. 

And yet, Rodriguez's pursuit of 600 seems to be generating little buzz, even with all the buzz to go around in the media these days. This is despite the countdown to 600 happening in about the perfect time in the sports calendar, with little big-time action going on.   

There are plenty of reasons, I guess. A-Rod has always been something of a caricature, as I mentioned, with his prodigious numbers overshadowed by the aforementioned sideshows and antics. He isn't really beloved anywhere, even New York. It's hard to even say he's respected most places. 

Also, he's young enough (turns 35 on July 27) that perhaps there's an idea that he's going to achieve even more impressive numbers, possibly even challenge the all-time home run record, so why get worked up over a weigh station along the climb up the long ball ladder? Plus he isn't quite hitting 'em out at the rate he typically has in his career, maybe a nod to his gradual aging. More on that in a bit. 

And, to state the obvious, it's largely the steroid thing. Rodriguez splits hairs, saying he only took performance-enhancing drugs certain years. Whatever. We have Steroid Era fatigue. He's just another one of "those guys" we want to move on from. Home run chases, numbers and records may never give people the excitement they used to because we all felt so betrayed by the steroid-fueled 1998 home run chase, and then we had to sit through Bonds' uncomfortable, sluggish takedown of Aaron's hallowed career home run record. 

I used to track Rodriguez's home runs about day-by-day, because I though he could break the home run record, make it "clean." This wasn't just because I'm some sanctimonious guy, but I didn't like how the fact that an obvious cheater like Bonds (who was a fine player, but he simply wouldn't have hit 762 homers without the drugs) had hurt the interest in the greatest individual record in sports. If someone not linked to performance-enhancing drugs could take back the career home run record, it would be like hitting the reset button on the Steroid Era, giving my order-liking mind some closure and the ability to move on. I think I'm not the only one who thought this way about A-Rod. 

So it was a letdown when we found out he cheated. It was less "How could he do that?" and more "Another one? Can't we ever be done with this?" Even more, injuries and an oh-so-gradual decline in his home run pace raise the question of whether Rodriguez will be able to threaten the record. He's on pace for about 26 homers this year, power numbers tend to go quickly as players move into their late 30s, and he's still 164 home runs away. 

So, if A-Rod keeps faltering, and if we want a cleaner, or at least more likeable, home run king, who do we look to? Of course, we have Mr. Albert Pujols, a long shot but still the kind of consistently brilliant player who would have an outside chance. 

So here is the plan I came up with last year, something to watch, for what it's worth: Starting with the 2009 season, if Pujols averages 37 HRs a year for 12 years, he will have exactly 763 home runs, one more than Bonds. (Pujols has 388 as of July 21 at 9:10 p.m., already a bit ahead of that pace.) Let's call it the 2020 Plan, as Albert would break the mark in 2020 at age 40 if he was somehow able to sustain this pace. A difficult pace, no doubt, but if anyone could do it, it would be Pujols. It helped that he hit 47 last year; he needs a few more years like that as insurance for later years. Not critical obviously, and Albert will probably go down as one of the best ever even if he doesn't approach 763 homers, but it's something to watch. Here's the year-by-year of what his total would need to be at the end of the year, just in case you want to track this absurd idea: 

2009 (age 29): 356
2010 (30): 393
2011 (31): 430
2012 (32): 467
2013 (33): 504
2014 (34): 541
2015 (35): 578
2016 (36): 615
2017 (37): 652
2018 (38): 689
2019 (39): 726
2020 (40): 763

One last disclaimer: THIS IS CRAZY TALK. Yes, I know, and I'm not just trying to set unrealistic standards. I'm just throwing it out there to give some perspective and because he is the game's best and most consistent hitter. Age, injuries and Pujols' great willingness to hit line drives could all derail things. If you want a more reasonable way to measure the greatness of his career, count his MVPs as they pile up, or career hits, or career average/on-base percentage, or his WAR (wins above replacement), if you're a modern type. 

In any event there's something (A-Rod's 600th) to watch over the Royals no-doubt wild weekend in the Bronx and something to watch over the next, let's see, 10 and a half baseball seasons, if Albert plays that long (or more, if he plays longer.) Either way, enjoy. 


First of all, welcome to my blog. Just as an icebreaker, here's the royals.com headline after Greinke's terrific start today: "Zack attack is back, as Jays held without jack." Either the best or worst headline I've read in a while. Beats my usual "City council meets" effort at the Monitor-Index. 

I plan to write mostly about sports, as that's often what I enjoy writing about. Expect plenty of college football and baseball, because they seem to give me the most writing ideas and I watch too much of them. I may delve into topics other than sports on occasion, you know, to be a Renaissance man. Or maybe not. I guess we'll see. Feel free to look around and comment on posts if you want to. Or to help me with my appropriately plain design.