Wednesday, July 2, 2008

This Month in Sports: June's Best and Worst

The month of June, at least for two major sports, is championship month, a time in which the NHL and NBA seasons come to a close and baseball comes into focus as the premier sport to follow. In the 2008 edition of June, the Detroit Red Wings manhandled the Sidney Crosby-led Penguins, a championship run that not even a diehard NHL fan could savor, considering that the majority of the NHL's docket of playoff games airs on the Versus Channel, home of bullriding and the Lance Armstrong-less Tour de France. June had its share of ugly moments (the shameful firing of Mets manager Willie Randolph, the rise and fall of yet another Triple Crown hopeful, and Floyd Landis's official loss of the 2006 Tour de France title), just as it had its splendid ones, as compiled for you on this latest edition of the V-List's look at sports.

5. Manny Being Manny
ESPN personality Peter Gammons (who would have my vote as the next baseball commissioner) once remarked on Manny Ramirez's power stroke, stating, "The guy could pull a speeding bullet over the Green Monster if given the chance." A recent addition to the 500 HR Club, Ramirez has done quite a bit to infuriate baseball purists. Where to start? Aside from his atrocious play in left field, Manny, on one momentous occasion, went inside the scoreboard at Fenway to relieve himself, nearly missing a fly ball hit his way. On an inside fastball thrown by Roger Clemens (during the 2003 ALCS, in the midst of an at-bat where the ball came nowhere near him), Manny charged the mound, which precipitated the infamous Zimmer/Pedro scuffle. He has oft-traded his ballcap for a do-rag and has demanded many a trade to leave the confines of Boston. His latest accolades were perhaps the most telling and disturbing of a laughable career rife with head-scratching moments. This past Saturday, while the Sox were in the middle of an interleague series with the Houston Astros, Manny requested sixteen tickets for use at Minute Maid Park. Boston's travelling secretary Jack McCormick refused the request, as this particular inquiry (not uncommon by Manny's standards) was exorbitant. This prompted Manny to throw McCormick to the ground, complete with a verbal berating: "Just do your f&%*in' job." A common quip for such actions? That's just Manny being Manny. I would love to be forgiven for tossing one of my superiors to the ground (as of press time, the Red Sox did not plan to discipline Manny in any way).

4. Josh Hamilton: The Natural
On the last day of June, Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers recorded his 80th run batted in, a substantial feat when you consider where his life had taken him. Drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1999, Hamilton was a can't-miss prospect, a player projected to be the next Mickey Mantle. By many scouts' standards, Hamilton was a five-tool player (an athlete packaged with the ability to run the bases, throw the ball, field anything put in play, hit for average, and hit for power), with a sixth tool primed for use in his arsenal: character. Choosing him with the number one pick was a no-brainer. As he was chosen straight out of high school, Hamilton was on his own for the first time, away from a tightly-knit family that was present at every stage of Josh's baseball life. During his stint in the minors, Hamilton hung with the wrong crowd, getting mixed up with crack users who lured him to a debilitating demise. It was these actions that ultimately led to his removal from baseball, one that was self-inflicted and heavily influenced by his overpowering addiction, tattoo obsession, and the racy life of a strike-it-rich baseball star. While Hamilton was at rock bottom, he visited his grandmother, who was moved by the sight of young Josh, who was a ghost of his former self. She saved his life by forcing him to check into a rehabilitation clinic. During this experience, Hamilton found Christ and a number of mentors willing to tend to him. By 2006, Josh was drug-free and ready to take another stab at baseball. It was during this time that the Cincinnati Reds, after drafting him in a Rule 5 exchange with the Chicago Cubs, took a chance on him. During the 2007 season, preceded by a 16-game stint with the Hudson Valley Renegades at the end of the 2006 campaign, Hamilton played in a mere 90 games, a time in which Josh hit .292 with 19 homers and 47 RBI's, a small sample of what he has become in 2008. Traded in the offseason for lights-out pitcher Edinson Volquez (a player who, at this rate, will unanimously win the NL Cy Young Award), Hamilton will more than likely start in the outfield at the All-Star Game, the last ever to be played at Yankee Stadium. Very fitting, when you consider that Josh was labelled as the 21st century rendition of the Mick, a distinction he is still capable of reaching. The sports fan in all of us root for something like that to happen.

3. Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.!
The last time the Boston Celtics were contenders for the NBA title, Kevin McHale was still running the floor of the Garden, a dazzling superstar who toiled as part of a dynamic lineup that included Larry Bird, Robert Parrish, Dennis Johnson, and Danny Ainge, the current front office executive for the Celtics. Now, as current Minnesota Timberwolves' vice president of basketball operations, McHale orchestrated (with Ainge, nonetheless) one of the most lopsided trades in league history, bringing Kevin Garnett and a championship to the city of Boston (for a truckload of peanuts and a poor man's Kevin Garnett, Al Jefferson). In combination with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen (acquired in another trade with Seattle), and the underrated Rajon Rondo, James Posey, and Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett, beaming with confidence and the enthusiasm of a school boy looking to make the varsity squad, vanquished Los Angeles in a hard-fought NBA Finals, accentuated by a 131 - 92 drubbing of the Kobe Bryant-led Lakers. The Celtics, through all they accomplished in the most astounding one-season turnaround in NBA history, played a brand of basketball that brought fans, including myself, back in droves.

2. Cubs Win! Cubs Win!
Although this slot could belong to the Tampa Bay Rays (see what happens when you drop the 'Devil' from your name: Tampa is on their way toward sweeping the Red Sox in a three-game set), the Chicago Cubs have earned it, compiling a stellar 31 -13 record at home through the month of June. The Cubbies have been without Alfonso Soriano for a lenghty period of time, a superstar who is currently enduring his second stint on the disabled list. In addition, Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano has missed substantial time and is due back on the mound this Friday evening. Although swept on the road by the Chicago White Sox (who, conceivably, could be their 2008 World Series opponent), the Cubs have maintained the best record in the National League, thanks in part to the mythical presence of instant-hit Kosuke Fukudome, the resurgence of Kerry Wood, the surprise hurling of reformed ace Ryan Dempster (who predicted that the Cubs would end their 100-year World Series drought), and the fiery managing of one Lou Piniella, whose leadership has changed the culture for the North Side's most lovable losers. Harry Caray, this one's for you!

1. Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open
Tiger Woods is the Professional Golf Association, past, present, and future. Woods's most recent triumph, a 91-hole run to the U.S. Open championship at Torrey Pines, resulted in another Majors conquest for Tiger, a classic win that brought him one step closer to Jack Nicklaus's Majors total mark of 18 (Tiger has 14 at the ripe young age of 32). After besting Open hopeful Rocco Mediate in 19 playoff holes, Tiger Woods attained the type of acclaim that is worthy of Paul Bunyan status: as it turns out, Tiger played those 91 holes with a stress fracture in his leg and a tear in his ACL (both of which will require season-ending surgery). Foolish? Perhaps. Legendary? No doubt about it. The 2008 U.S. Open victory will go down as one of Tiger's, if not the PGA's, best ever. And, as if Tiger didn't need the drive to fuel his dominance, he is doing this all in the name of his late father Earl, who passed in May of 2006. (NOTE: Below is one of Tiger's most recent Nike commercials. To hear a father speak the way he does about his son will truly bring tears to your eyes. Should it not, you have no soul).

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