Saturday, February 25, 2012

The reality of fantasy baseball

If we are reaching the end of February, then it means that fantasy sports geeks around the world are gearing up for the upcoming baseball season. I use the term 'geek' in an endearing way because I am one of them.

For 10 years, I have been quite active in fantasy baseball. For those who love baseball, it is a way to get even closer to the game. Of all the sports, baseball seems to be the most statistically driven, and this is a crucial element when it comes to fantasy sports.

With baseball, there are literally dozens of statistical categories that can be used to set up a competitive fantasy league. Though I have played in some wacky leagues over the years, most of them have revolved around more traditional formats. Fantasy sports and baseball is a perfect match when marrying statistics and competition.

In the next few weeks, I will be taking part in drafts in the leagues in which I will be playing. For those who know little about fantasy baseball, participants draft real baseball players for their teams and earn points based on their performance.

I have been in many drafts over the years, and I see a lot of common mistakes. Defining a mistake can be quite subjective because most people have their own unique strategy when filling out their team. However, there are certain things I will not do.

For example, I will never select a starting pitcher in the first round. For experienced players this seems obvious, but I see this happen once or twice every year. It does not matter how good he is (the Phillies' Roy Halladay, for example), he will only play one or two times each week. A first round pick must be an every day player. No exceptions!

In fact, a person can wait until the fourth or fifth round to begin selecting pitchers. This includes both starters and relievers. Each year, acquiring cheap pitching can be done, and less experienced participants often get nervous about not having a big name hurler. Trust me, good pitching can be gotten late in the draft.

Also, do not fall too much in love with heavily-hyped rookies or sleeper picks that experts love to tout. Too much of that will likely put a person out of championship contention by Memorial Day.

Always look for experienced players with a proven track record. Do not be the one who prides himself on finding diamonds in the rough. A conservative approach is often a winning approach.

Additionally, a person should never allow a personal dislike of a team to cloud judgment when selecting players. I will use myself as an example. I strongly dislike the New York Yankees. I am not sure why, but I always have and probably always will.

However, there can be no disputing that the Yankees are one of the best teams every year. And because of that, they have a lot of the best players. Especially when it comes to hitters, the team has several players that can hit for power and average. Second baseman Robinson Cano is in his prime when it comes to hitting.

So, even though I never want the Yankees to win, I do not think twice about having one of their players on my team.

Conversely, do not fall in love with players on teams that are personal favorites. For example, I am an Atlanta Braves fan, but I usually avoid having players from that team. A person cannot be an objective manager when sentiment gets into the way about a player.

So, have fun everybody. Pick your players and have a great season.

Tennessee Titans have appealing home schedule in 2012

The National Football League schedule will not be released until April, but the Tennessee Titans already know what teams they will play next season. Quite frankly, the home schedule looks pretty exciting.

In addition to playing their three AFC South foes, the Titans will host the New England Patriots, New York Jets, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers. I know some fans are bumming because their season ticket prices are going up, but at least they have an excellent slate of games to enjoy.

The Patriots are the defending AFC champion and have quarterback Tom Brady. The Jets have gas bag head coach Rex Ryan (and maybe Peyton Manning at quarterback?). The Bears will be good with a solid defense. The Lions are one of the most exciting young teams in the league and are coached by former Titans' defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. The Steelers and the Titans always mix it up good.

The road schedule is not nearly as appealing. In addition to the divisional foes, the Titans visit the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins (and maybe Peyton Manning at quarterback?), Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings (and maybe Peyton Manning at quarterback?) and San Diego Chargers.

The games against the Packers and Chargers are interesting, but the rest appear dull, dull, dull (at least at this point).

Music that makes a long drive a little more fun

I drive a lot every week day. A lot: two words. Let me tell ya that it can get tedious sometimes. Same roads. Same traffic. Same fields. Same cows. The only thing that makes these drives somewhat bearable is the music I listen to. Here are several I have been listening to lately. Maybe you will like these as well.

"Rolling in the Deep" by Adele
"Rumour Has It" by Adele
"Summer Wind" by Michael Buble
"C Moon" by Paul McCartney
"Junior's Farm" by Paul McCartney
"Goodnight Tonight" by Paul McCartney
"When I Paint My Masterpiece" by Bob Dylan
"Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" by Bob Dylan
"Love Rescue Me" by U2
"When Love Comes To Town" by U2 with B.B. King
"Morning Glory" by Oasis
"Don't Look Back in Anger" by Oasis
"I Heard It Through the Grapevine" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
"Hey Tonight" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
"Someday Never Comes" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
"Cortez the Killer" by Neil Young
"Campaigner" by Neil Young
"Winterlong" by Neil Young

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Quote of the day: Al McGuire

"You must try to teach your players that if there are creeps hanging around, there are reasons. It's like when you bring flowers home to your wife and say there's no reason. There's a reason." -- Former Marquette coach Al McGuire on gamblers who befriend college athletes.

No denying progress of Tennessee men’s basketball team

Despite losing today to Alabama, the Tennessee men's basketball team has shown progress as the season has unfolded. When the season started, the team had lost 75 percent of its scoring from last season and had a new coach. It was tough to know what to expect, and several preseason polls had the Volunteers picked next to last in the conference.

Initially, the team struggled with coach Cuonzo Martin's emphasis on defense and rebounding. The team played like a group of chuckers at times, and the initial results were not promising. The team began 3-6, including an improbable and embarrassing loss to Austin Peay. However, the team slowly began to turn it around when conference play began.

The team upset Florida then lost its next four conference games. Frankly, I was concerned the Vols might lose 20 games. However, another upset of Florida was part of a spurt that saw the Volunteers win four games in a row prior to the Alabama loss.

There has been some talk about Tennessee having a chance to make the NCAA tournament, but I do not see it. Right now, the Vols are 14-13 overall and 6-6 in the conference. The team's RPI remains above 100. Realistically, the only way the team makes the NCAAs is if it earns the conference's automatic berth by winning the SEC tournament. Tennessee has not won the SEC tourney since 1979, and in recent years, the team has not come close to winning it. So, don't hold your breath.

The NIT is the likely landing spot for the team, and that is good. It will gain more experience in post-season tournament play, and that will help next season. The team only loses two players so the nucleus for greater success will be there. Jeronne Maymon has developed into a formidable inside presence, and he can usually be marked down for 14 points and seven rebounds a game. Guard Trae Golden's ball handling has greatly improved, causing his turnovers to sharply decrease.

The future looks bright. Unfortunately, it may take another year to totally shine.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Unity through humility

For those of us who believe unity is lacking in our country, the obvious goal is to search for guidance that will lead us closer together.

There are many paths we can travel when it comes to this, but the most important teaching on this is in the Bible. Chapter two of the book of Philippians reminds us that humility is an important ingredient when it comes to people succeeding together.

Unfortunately for our country, humility is about the last idea on people’s minds these days. For many, humility is about as appealing as eating an onion sandwich. We live in a culture where we are encouraged to look out for only ourselves, and if that is at the expense of others, then too bad for them.

This looking-out-for-number-one approach is a major reason why our society is fragmenting. If our focus is squarely on ourselves without considering others, selfishness runs rampant and a cold chill runs down the collective spine of our community.

Don’t get me wrong; there are appropriate times when we need to put our individual needs first. However, if this becomes the single focus of our lives, we have lost sight on what is truly important in life.

So, what do we do? Philippians chapter two offers advice. The Apostle Paul writes beginning in verse two: “Fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.”

First, it should be noted that Paul was speaking about the steps people should take to maintain harmony within the church. However, I believe this passage has a universal application that extends far outside a church congregation.

Working toward the common good of our nation is something we should all be striving to do, but how “common good” is defined varies from person to person. Paul understood that people were always going to disagree, but their approach to disagreeing was key when maintaining unity.

If a person’s approach to disagreement is shaped by a “me first” attitude then the chances for unity are sharply diminished.

However, if people are disagreeing in the spirit of love and cooperation, then unity has a much better opportunity to survive. It does not mean disagreements will go away, but the managing of differences of opinions will be much less destructive.

It cannot be denied that we live in a country where the self-centered interests of a few can disrupt a lot of people. We see this often in politics on just about every level of government. If only a few wield power without consideration for the welfare of everybody, then many get left out in the cold. In our nation’s case, those being left out in the cold are likely the generations that will follow us.

After all, our federal government is currently $15 trillion in debt. Our generation seems to have adopted a “me first” mentality that is sacrificing the long-term prospects for our children and their children.

Even governments have to pay debts at some point. Right now, it appears most are only interested in doing what helps them and not what will happen later.

For all the rhetoric we hear, neither major political party seems committed to unity – only their version of what America should be. In the coming months, it will be interesting if they strive to unite us or divide us.

My guess is they will choose division. Unity and humility do not have a place in politics much these days.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Bob Dylan on songwriting and more

When musician Bob Dylan turned 70 last year, he received accolades befitting a living legend. While his popularity has ebbed and flowed during the last 50 years, his impact on popular music cannot be denied.

He has made notable contributions to folk, rock, country and even Christian music during his career. How many artists have a resume like that?

When I write that he has made notable contributions, I mean that he has written and performed songs that likely will be played 100 years from now. The scope of his achievements is breathtaking.

During his early folk phase he wrote songs like 'Blowin' in the Wind' that became an anthem of the civil rights movement, and 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall' perfectly reflected the anxiety surrounding the Cold War. 'Like A Rolling Stone' is a rock and roll song so forceful that it influenced a generation of songwriters, and the country-flavored 'Lay Lady Lay' is one of the most beautiful love songs ever written.

For insight into Dylan I suggest reading the January/February issue of 'American Songwriter' magazine. The issue is a tribute of sorts to Dylan and includes an interesting interview with him originally done back in 1991. It touches on many songs he wrote as well as other topics.

Though long known for his love of folk singer Woody Guthrie, Dylan said he considers Hank Williams the best songwriter. Dylan said: “Hank Williams never wrote 'This Land Is Your Land.' But it’s not that shocking to me to think of Hank Williams singing 'Pastures of Plenty' or Woody Guthrie singing 'Your Cheatin' Heart.' So in a lot of ways those two writers are similar.”

Other songwriters on his radar include Randy Newman.

"To me, someone who writes really good songs is Randy Newman. Now Randy might not go out on stage and knock you out, or knock your socks off. And he’s not going to get people thrilled in the front row. But he’s gonna write a better song than most people who can do it. You know, he’s got that down to an art."

Additionally, while he feels that turmoil is not always necessary when producing memorable work, it does help in some respects. This lends support to the belief that the greatest art is often produced during difficult circumstances.

"Your life doesn’t have to be in turmoil to write a song like that but you need to be outside of it. That’s why a lot of people, myself included, write songs when one form or another of society has rejected you. So that you can truly write about it from the outside. Someone who’s never been out there can only imagine it as anything, really."

Additionally, Dylan advises that being a poet is not all fun though some of his comments were tongue-in-cheek.

"It's within me to put up myself and be a poet. But it’s a dedication. It’s a big dedication. Poets don’t drive cars. [Laughs] Poets don’t go to the supermarket. Poets don’t empty the garbage...They behave in a gentlemanly way. And live by their own gentlemanly code. And die broke. Or drown in lakes. Poets usually have very unhappy endings."

Then again, this may all be a moot point for new musical poets because he feels the world may have enough songs unless there are special circumstances.

"The world don't need any more songs. No. They've got enough. As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain't gonna suffer for it...There's enough songs. Unless someone’s gonna come along with a pure heart and has something to say. That's a different story."

Dylan is fantastic, and this interview is worth finding for those interested.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Since I'm in a baseball kind of mood....

"My own little rule was two for one. If one of my teammates got knocked down, then I knocked down two on the other team." -- spoken by Don Drysdale, who pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1958-69.

That guy could have pitched for my team any time.

Friday, February 3, 2012

I'm feeling optimistic about the Atlanta Braves in 2012

For Atlanta Braves' fans, the conclusion to the 2011 season was a nightmare come true. The team experienced a harmonic convergence of problems in September that resulted in the team being eliminated from post-season play on the final day of the regular season. The hitters could not hit, the starting pitchers could not pitch, and the bullpen collapsed because of overuse. It was a miserable time.

However, the 2012 season is just around the corner, and I am feeling good about the team's chances. While I have a small concern the team might experience a hangover from last year and struggle, I do not think that will happen. The pieces are in place for a good season.

I am encouraged about the offense for several reasons. First, centerfielder Michael Bourn will be with the team for the entire season. He was acquired in a late-season trade last year, and he paid dividends. He gives the team an excellent leadoff hitter who hits for average and has speed. For the entire season in 2011, he hit .296 with 61 steals. Plus, his defense brings stability to the most important position in the outfield.

Next, second baseman Dan Uggla will almost certainly have a better season. Though he wound up leading the team in home runs (36) and RBIs (82), his batting average was miserable until mid-July when he was hitting .175. He rallied to hit .233 for the season, but he left tons of runners on base in the first half of the season. Expect that to change.

Third, Jason Heyward will be much better. After a breakout rookie season in 2010, he struggled with injuries and just about everything else last year. He only hit .227 with 14 home runs and 42 RBIs. Again, expect that to change. He is young and simply has too much talent to be a one season flash in the pan.

Toss in Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann and Chipper Jones, and the offense should be a consistent producer all season. 'Potent' would be too strong a word to use, but I would settle for a 'solid' offense. With the pitching the team has, that should be good enough.

Tim Hudson will anchor the rotation this year (though back surgery will likely have him out until May) and was strong again in 2011 with 16 wins and a 3.22 ERA. Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurjjens pitched well, but injuries curbed their contribution in the second half of the season. Brandon Beachy led the team in strike outs and Mike Minor looks ready to be a permanent member of the staff.

Craig Kimbrel had 46 saves as a rookie, but the entire bullpen showed cracks down the stretch after having been used too much. Could this happen again this year? Between the injury concerns regarding Hanson and Jurrjens and the inexperience of Minor, it could. If nothing else, last year’s problems could help guide the team through the challenges of this year.

The bottom line is I am a realist. The Philadelphia Phillies are the best team in the National League Eastern Division. Barring any type of collapse by them, the Braves are playing for second place. However, the Braves should be in the thick of the playoff race this year.

If not, it is going to be a long spring and summer.

Our world could use more compassion

The heart of our world has hardened in recent years, and it looks like this situation will get worse before it gets better. I hope this is not the case, but when studying the attitudes of many around us, I am not optimistic.

This has manifested itself in many ways. The current political campaign has blossomed into a full-scale blood bath. Despite pledges by the leading candidates to take the high road, campaign debate has often sunk into accusations about a candidate’s personal life.

While that type of analysis may have a minor place in the campaign, it is often a cheap excuse for one candidate to earn some headlines at the expense of others.

We see this lack of compassion in other ways. The world of sports certainly sees this play out. For example, consider the plight of San Francisco 49ers' player Kyle Williams in the recent NFC championship game.

Williams committed two turnovers that led to 10 points for the New York Giants as the Giants advanced to Sunday’s Super Bowl. How did loyal 49ers' fans repay Williams for his mistakes?

While some were supportive of him, others stooped about as far as people can go. Within 24 hours of the game, Williams had received at least two death threats. We all know the sting of our favorite team losing a big game, but has it come to the point where death threats are a legitimate form of self-expression?

Unfortunately, we are seeing more and more of this. It should be noted the threats against Williams came through social media. While outlets like Internet message boards and fan pages are great in some respects, they often serve as an opportunity to allow yahoos to boast cowardly threats.

Seriously, how much bravery does it take to post an anonymous threat on-line? Not much, but this is how more and more people express themselves. I would like to think that the threats against Williams were just a sick joke done by punk kids, but one never knows.

Williams and others like him are learning a painful lesson about what can happen when the court of public opinion turns negative. Unfortunately, America has become a 'what have you done for me lately?' kind of society.

People who have been put up on pedestals find themselves knocked to the ground with breathtaking speed. And, as we all know, when someone is knocked to the ground that is when people start kicking.

Though there should be plenty of room for criticism in our society, it appears we are having more and more problems when determining how much is enough. We appear to enjoy getting in people’s faces, and some of us relish the opportunity to heap the pain on others.

We are all guilty of this to a certain extent. We react emotionally to a situation and sometimes find ourselves wanting to stuff our words back in our mouths as soon as they have been spoken.

However, the thread of cruelty that has entered public discourse should make us all pause and think. This is especially true when discussing the lives of public figures.

Who would want to be a public figure these days? Not me. We are a nation of arm-chair quarterbacks who have all the answers yet many of us cannot be bothered to actually serve our nation and those around us.

Maybe this is just good, old fashioned cynicism. It is easy to be a cynic, but we should all understand that we have too much of that already.

Let's watch our mouths a little. We can be critical without tearing each others throats out.

Can't we?