Saturday, July 20, 2013

Braves need to stay healthy, reduce strikeouts to win divisional title

Be more consistent.

The Atlanta Braves have led the National League Eastern Division from day one this season, but all may not be as good as it seems.  The Braves were hot in April, opening the season with a 12-1 record.  This has been good enough to put them in first place, but the going has not always been easy.
Since mid-April, the team has only been slightly above the .500 mark.  The primary reasons for this inconsistency have been injuries and an up-and-down offense.  The Braves have also benefitted from the woes of the Washington Nationals.  The Nationals were the consensus pick to win the division but have sputtered around the .500 mark all season.  However, the Nationals have too much talent to keep floundering like that, meaning the Braves must pick up the pace to win the division.
Injuries have hurt the Braves a lot.  First baseman Freddie Freeman, catcher Brian McCann, and right fielder Jason Heyward have all spent time on the disabled list.  Plus, right before the all-star break, the entire starting outfield was injured and missed time.  Though more focus has been on the injuries the Nationals have experienced, the Braves have been right there with them when it comes to important players missing time.  In addition, the team received two potentially devastating injuries when relievers Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flarety went down with season-ending elbow injuries.  The bullpen has remained a strength (leading the National League in ERA for a large portion of the season), but one has to wonder if any wear and tear will emerge as the season progresses.
As for the offense, the team has lived and died by the long ball and have repeatedly demonstrated the inability to manufacture runs when the home runs are not happening.  Simple techniques like hitting behind the runner and executing sacrifice bunts have been a struggle.  Because of this, too many dry spells have doomed the team at times.
The most consistent hitters have been Freeman and third baseman Chris Johnson.  Both have hit above .300 for most of the season while McCann surged right before the all-star break.  That surge is likely why he was selected to the N.L. all-star team as a late injury replacement.
That’s the good news.  There has been plenty of bad news.  B.J. Upton has been a bust so far, hitting below .180 for most of the season.  Second baseman Dan Uggla once again has struggled.  His first two seasons with the team ended with a batting average in the .220 to .230 range, but this year he has not been able to even do that.  He has gotten his average above .200 lately, but when he does not hit home runs, he provides little of substance to the offense.
Also, Justin Upton and Jason Heyward have been streaky.  Upton began the season with a bang, hitting 12 home runs in April, but since then, he has wavered.  Heyward was sidelined early with an appendectomy and really did not start hitting consistently until June.  During a 36-game stretch in June and July he hit .280.
As the season unfolds, the Braves biggest helper could be the schedule.  In an unusual occurrence, the team does not have anymore long road trips to the west coast.  As a team in the east, this is especially significant as the grind of the season wears on.  For the rest of the season, the furthest west the team will go is St. Louis.
The bottom line is the division is there for the taking, and it likely will be a two-team race.  The Phillies could still be a player, but the potential for that may be how they handle the trade deadline at the end of the month.  If the Phillies are sellers, they will likely not be a big factor down the stretch, leaving just the Braves and Nationals.
So, the Braves need to pick up the pace.  If the team can avoid more critical injuries and can consistently put the ball in play, a divisional championship could be the result.

Those interstate blues

It is easy to take basic necessities for granted, and I think I do that a lot when it comes to our access to Interstate 24. For most of my lifetime, it has been there and has been a pipeline to quickly get somewhere if necessary.
The interstate has been especially helpful to me because I have commuted to the Nashville and Murfreesboro area for more than 10 years. Commuting can be a drag, but it would be considerably worse if the interstate was not a mile from my house. I can’t imagine having to take U.S. Highway 41 up there every morning especially when school is in session because traffic is worse then.
Still, driving this distance can be a challenge because coexisting with my fellow drivers can be a chore sometimes. Driving in traffic with some people can be beyond aggravating.
I’ll start with the obvious, and it is those people who treat the highway like it is their personal race track. For better or worse, the legal speed limit on the interstate is 70 miles per hour, but more and more people disobey it. Dealing with these people has to be a huge challenge for our law enforcement personnel. There are people who seem to believe the interstate is nothing more than a demolition derby, and they intend to come out on top.
Almost as bad are the people who drive too slow. At least once or twice each day, I am driving in a pack of cars going the speed limit, and I have to hit the brakes because somebody is only going 50 or 55. When this happens, I usually get stuck behind the slow car while everybody zooms past me.
I am not referring to truckers because many of those trucks are programmed to go below the speed limit. I am writing about those who go way below the speed limit for no apparent reason. Going too slow can be just has hazardous as going too fast sometimes.
Also, there is the issue of motorcycles. I am conflicted on this because I have considerable compassion for motorcycle riders on the interstate. Many car and truck drivers are simply too lazy to watch out for them, and it can lead to dangerous situations. This is not just on the interstate. The road belongs to motorcyclists as much as it does to drivers of cars and trucks. Not understanding this can be deadly.
However, motorcyclists could stand to be more obedient on the interstate, too. I know it can be an overwhelming temptation when it comes to all the power they are riding on, but some cyclists need to go slower. I know punching it while in the rural areas of the interstate is fun, but it is also dangerous.
It is even more dangerous in the urban areas. The scariest encounters I have ever had are when motorcyclists blow by me during rush hour traffic. Because the traffic volume is so heavy, the cyclists zig and zag around other cars and trucks. It sometimes looks like a video game, but the stakes are much higher.
After having written all of this, I have to confess that I am also not the most patient driver. Especially in the afternoon, I have occasionally pushed the outer limits of how fast a Ford Focus can go. Like everybody else, I want to get home and relax, but that is no excuse for exceeding the speed limit.
However, we all have to do a better job when considering others while driving. It is great that we have the interstate close to us, but we should not abuse it.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Barbecue sandwich at the Jiffy Burger

Saturday afternoon, a couple of friends and I stopped by the Jiffy Burger in Manchester.  I had a barbecue sandwich and batter-dipped fries (pictured above).  I don't really have a lot to say about it other than it was excellent dining.  If you are viewing this right before lunch and only have a ham sandwich to look forward to, I pity you.

The George Zimmerman media circus

Unless a person has been living under a rock, most of us already know the George Zimmerman murder trial has been the latest “trial of the year” as anointed by the national media.
Of course, the Zimmerman trial dealt with whether he was justified in using force that resulted in the death of Trayvon Martin. Regardless of how a person feels about the trial, the bottom line is one person is dead and the other person’s life will never be the same. The circumstances regarding how this came to be should be sobering for us all. It shows how lives can change in an instant based on the decisions we make.
The following comments are not meant to trivialize the circumstances of that case because it is all serious business. However, this trial is another example of how the national media can become fixated on one subject to the point that it ignores other important topics, including ones that are more important to us as a nation.
We see this happen time after time.  Just a few weeks ago, it was the Jodi Arias trial that the media crammed down our throats. With its tales of explicit sex, it was a classic example of a subject chosen for national coverage for its ability to titillate. In the Zimmerman trial, it has been race that has been used as the drawing card. Zimmerman is of white and Hispanic heritage while Martin was African-American.
It is a crying shame that people continue to exploit issues as basic as race, but we have seen this happen in this case. Though race relations have improved dramatically in our country over the last 50 years, it is still not where it could be. Problems remain, and they are challenging. These problems remain all the more challenging when we have large corporate entities like the media trying to pull the scab off wounds.
The bottom line is the overexposure of the Zimmerman trial is another chilling example of the national media at its laziest. It greatly reduces the cost of doing business for the media if all it has to do is rehash the events of the case until it is ground into a fine powder. Seriously, do we really need “experts” telling us the same thing over and over again when we have the information right before us?
Because of this commitment to repetition, we see other stories that are more important to us as a nation go underreported. For example, the extraordinary events going on Egypt right now have the capacity to impact us more as individuals than a second-degree murder trial in Florida.
Egypt is our most important Arab ally in the Middle East, and it is not every day that we witness a military coup of a country that important to us. Our leaders in Washington will not necessarily call it a coup because that could interfere with the more than $1 billion the United States provides the country each year. Since most of that money goes to fund the Egyptian military, we are not overly upset the coup happened even though the overthrown president was elected by popular vote.
There were other stories that have been underreported as well, including the deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona. I could go on and on and on.
The result of this approach by the media winds up hurting us all in the long run. However, I cannot entirely blame them. The media is big business so if money can be earned this way, why is this a bad thing?
The media gives us what we want. It’s too bad we can’t get what we need.

Monday, July 8, 2013

A meaningful conversation: Jesus and Nicodemus

Many would argue the art of good conversation is becoming a lost art. There are many reasons for this, ranging from the evolution of technology to people just not being that interested in what others have to say.
These people have a point. After all, technology now allows us many ways to communicate with each other without directly talking. E-mail, text messaging, voice mail and other forms of communication emphasize convenience more than interaction.
And maybe we like it this way. For some of us, talking to tons of people each day can be exhausting. While this is so, we are really missing something if we are easing the art of conversation out of our lives.
Sometimes the most fascinating conversations can be ones in which we are not involved.  They can be ones we observe or maybe read the transcript of.
When I think of a meaningful conversation, my mind often wanders to the encounter that Jesus had with a man named Nicodemus as it is recorded in the third chapter of the Gospel of John in the New Testament.
This was an important conversation. Jesus’ earthly ministry was in its early stages and He was drawing lots of attention. Some of this attention came from people wanting to stop Him, but others sought Him out wanting to know more.
Nicodemus fits the second category. He was not just an ordinary man. He was a person of high standing in his community and a member of the Sanhedrin, which was a Jewish leadership body.
Despite his stature, it was he who made the effort to seek Jesus out. Perhaps the first fascinating aspect of this conversation was the circumstance in which it took place. Verse two points out that it took place at night.
Why did Nicodemus approach Him at night? We can only speculate, but there could be a couple of reasons. It could have been for convenience. Jesus had been drawing crowds, and if a person of Nicodemus’ standing had approached Him during the day, it could have been a wild scene.
A more likely reason is that Nicodemus did not know what to make of Jesus who was already becoming a controversial figure among the religious establishment. Therefore, at night, he could approach Him without drawing attention to himself and causing more controversy.
The conversation itself is a dialogue between two heavyweights. Jesus pointed out the need for people to be born again and Nicodemus was struggling with the concept while asking probing questions.
The conversation culminates with probably the most famous verse in The Bible. In the sixteenth verse, Jesus states:  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
It is not everyday that a conversation produces a quote that is remembered almost 2,000 years later. I have never said anything that will be around 2,000 years from now. For most reading this essay, it will be forgotten almost as soon as the wind changes direction.
However, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is one that still carries tremendous weight and is as relevant today as it was back then. Even non-followers of Christianity are familiar with the verse quoted above. Scan the crowd at a football game and inevitably, there is at least one person holding a sign that states “John 3:16.”
The bottom line is the art of conversation will never die as long as we have examples like this to remind us how meaningful personal interaction can be. A little effort can result in much gained if we try.