Friday, November 24, 2006

You Read It. Now You Have to Comment.

---Who Do You Love?---

This is a question I've been pondering since shortly after I decided I eventually want to end up in sports talk radio: Is there a sports talk show host/play-by-play man/anchor that is universally loved? That isn't over 55?

Nationally speaking, Howard Cosell, in life as well as in death, is considered by many to be one of the best ever, despite a very staccato delivery. Dick Enberg was a member of the elite for a long time, and only now as he approaches the age of 72, has he been considered to be slipping a bit (a la Myron Cope). Al Michaels may actually be the king of sports commentator-ship. Many blogs and columns I have read have very little negative to say about him.

The ubiquitous Joe Buck seems to annoy most sports fans I've talked to. I don't know how much of that stems from the fact that he pops up like Bob Costas (another one who is often slammed) at the Olympics, and how much of it is from his over the top "disgust" at Randy Moss fake mooning a Lambeau Field crowd back when he was happier.

Viewers of last week's Steelers/Browns game were treated to the tandem of Gus Johnson and Steve Tasker. Mondesi's House thinks Gus Johnson needs to lay off the uppers. I think Steve Tasker is one of the reasons I hate ex-football players being allowed into broadcast booths. I mean, it's bad enough when Gus Johnson pronounces the Steelers Offensive Coordinator's last name "WISE - en - hunt", and when the CBS graphics department shows that Ben Roethlisberger's previous 4th quarter comeback drive was on 10/31/05 against BUF (sorry, guys. That was BAL). Throw Tasker into that fire, and you have someone who must have been trying to win a contest by saying "World Champion(s)" in relation to the Black and Gold no fewer than 8 times, and, my personal favorite, during the Steelers game-winning drive, saying, "The best case scenario is to score with no time left." Ok, I can roll with that. "The worst case would be...well...for something bad to happen."

He gets paid for these pearls.

Joe Theismann is regularly denigrated by the public at large (I can't say I disagree most of the time), and Joe Morgan of baseball has a popular website against his vocation (mostly in name, but they come around to address him often enough).

Turning the crosshairs, locally, most Pittsburgh commentators/reporters/hosts are constantly under fire. Without further deliberation, it would seem that a lot of that has to do with armchair broadcasters who think they could do better jobs. Heck, that's what started my foray into this whole thing.

Whether it be slamming ESPN 1250's Mark Madden for insulting his callers more than he talks sports, falling asleep to the Tim Benz/Joe Bendel bore-fest, wondering where the job listing for "Penguins Hockey TV Play-by-Play Man" was posted, or wanting to throw John Fedko out of a window for being extremely positive about the Steelers' playoff chances following a 2-6 start, there's a constant barrage of discontent with regards to the official Pittsburgh sports media.

Even I, a fledgling sports talk host/columnist at a fringe station in the Pittsburgh market with a fairly obscure blog, find "haters". I guess because my interview with Trenni Kusnierek did not include the words "Jello" and "Wrestling", I failed to provide an interesting biopic.

---Is this ad for a Contest or Mugging?

I've read everything from, "These guys will essentially call you stupid for sticking with a team that's had 14 consecutive losing seasons, then turn around and call you fairweather when you turn your back" to "Knowledge of sports should be a requisite for working in the business."

Nationally, I still like Enberg and Michaels. They have a way of staying both excited and objective no matter who's playing, or by how much.

Brent Musberger is also a rock, similarly objective and exciting. During football, he also is good about letting you know which players leave and enter the field.

Jim Nantz has acquitted himself better and better as the years go by. His usual broadcast partner, while better than 10 years ago, still leaves much to be desired, and can sometimes "cramp his style."

Mike and Mike. Particularly Golic. But their on-air chemistry is tops as much as Greeney can sound like a whiny puss-boy and has a tendency to get away from sports (interviewing "The Wiggles"? You kidding?). Chicago has an evening drive team "Mac, Jurko, and Harry," for whom I can say the same thing. Not always the best sports talk, but at least they never stress you out listening to them.

Locally, especially on radio, Pittsburgh is blessed with excellent play-by-play men. Mike Lange is the best hockey commentator, possibly on Earth. Folks out there make fun of his love for the bottle, but, especially since he's been sent to radio, his focus on the game is great, and his goal-calling is unmatched. "Hop in the cordova, baby. We're goin' bowling!"

Lanny Frattere is another stalwart. Not only because he's remained upbeat (on the air, anyway) about the Pirates through their futility streak, but because he virtually knows the entire history of the team. As days go by, you know this he's a dying breed. Steve Blass and Bob Walk are also more than competent color guys.

Bill Hillgrove. I used to mute the television and turn him up during Steeler games, and not just because of the "homerism", but because he was just that much better than whichever national guy was doing the game. After moving to Chicago, I didn't have this option, so I got out of the habit. Now with the weird delay times between TV and Radio, it's hard to watch like that.

Admittedly, I can't think of a local TV anchor that I'd consider "important" to the Pittsburgh sports scene. The best ones just tend to do their jobs, in my opinion. There's not much that sets them apart. I don't even hate Sally Wiggin when she does the Steelers pre- and post-game thing which seems to get under most Pittsburghers' skins. Of course, those that try to set themselves apart, usually do so in a negative light (Pompeani, Fedko).

So, guys, who do you love? And more importantly, why? If you've read this whole thing, you are now required to sound off on this. Just your thumbs-up votes for those broadcasters, etc, who are currently working in the national or local venues, television or radio (the list for "thumbs-downs" can get long).

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Some Bastard Stole My Coin

---Mike Goes, Pens Lose---

And I used to have a "home team has won the last xyz games" that I've gone to. Well, that didn't hold last night, as it seems to have gone haywire the last 12 months.

First of all, the pre-game happening that I'll remember for a long time is this arena employee outside before 6:30 (at Gate 3), equipped with megaphone, telling everyone that will call was at Gate 1. "If you need to pick up your tickets, you need to go to Gate 1. Go to Gate 1. That's where the tickets are." Pretty much repeating this as a mantra every 30 seconds or so. As a radio guy, repeated audio has a way of keeping itself lodged in my head, especially inconsequential stuff.

Got my Mario Lemieux Commemorative coin. As we (there were four of us) walked through the arena, everyone, and I do mean everyone were popping the bubble wrap the coin was packaged in. It was pretty surreal.

Once we got settled in, I forgot that the very annoying Alan Cox was let go from the X until I saw Vinnie. Of course, Cox had to go to Chicago instead of getting bumped down on the food chain.


The game. I have come to enjoy "ThePensBlog". Hopefully I can get a link swappage with them soon. However, I must disagree with Adam's assessment of certain portions of the contest. Maybe it looked different on the tube...

My boss and I were concerned about any jet lag or what have you, and pretty much from the get go, we were justified. The Penguins won the opening face off, but within seconds found themselves playing well over a full minute in their own zone. We were astounded at how many times the Lightning were able to pass willy-nilly without even being close to having one broken up.

Meanwhile, the Penguins must have accidently dipped their sticks in the same stuff that Steelers personnel have been bathing themselves in before their games, because their passes were not coming strong off the sticks, and the ones that weren't getting intercepted were skipping off of the Penguins sticks. It was never so bad as in the first period, that the Penguins were able to, in my opinion, escape down only 1-0. I remarked to my boss and his father that it looked like we'd come to a game out of last season.

With the exception of a 4:10 stretch in the second period, much of the game played like this, so I'll be nice to the dead horse.

To Nils Ekman's natural hat trick: two of the goals were, from our vantage point in section C20, Row F, damn ugly. The middle one was kind of nice. Of course, as a fan, I didn't care how ugly the goals are as long as they go in. And, I'd never seen a hat trick live, much less a natural hat trick, so that was definitely worth the trip. Penguins record, bonus.

He'd have been hard pressed to beat the NHL record for the quickest hat trick ever,though. I didn't know this (from "Former Blackhawk Bill Mosienko holds the NHL record for scoring the quickest hat trick. He scored 3 goals in 21 seconds against the Rangers on March 23, 1952."

Could you imagine being at that game and having to visit the restroom during that time in the game? Especially considering that the Rangers were winning that game pretty handily.

Anyway, the overtime breakaway goal by "Vinnie" LeCavalier was the play that had been waiting to happen all night. With the exception of Ekman's magical 250 seconds, Tampa was a step faster, crisper, dominated the boards, and pretty much deserved to win the game in regulation.

I think the consensus is pretty much that getting a point in the standings after coming off a long road trip, especially coming back from the west coast was a fortuitous thing.

Colby Armstrong. Was. Aw. Ful. His head was not in the game. At one point I shouted, "No wonder you were demoted!" Yes, he had an assist, but NO shots on goal in 19 minutes of ice time. And I do believe he was one of two Penguins who had the puck land right in front of his stick, in the slot, off a fortuitous carom. He didn't even get a shot off then, because he didn't see it until it was too late.

Jordan Staal was just unfortunate. That puck was afraid of him, never landed very solidly on his stick. There was even a moment during a TB power play where they were trying to clear, and puck slowly drifted toward him. He was turning to find it, and it slipped right past him. I don't blame him as much. Except that he was the other recepient of the prime scoring chance from heaven. I think it was his lone shot on goal, and it wasn't very strong. He barely was aware of it being there, either.

Evgeni Malkin had a great scoring chance, I don't quite recall when, but he was committed to shooting low on Johan Holmqvist. If he'd have even thought "top shelf", there would have been no overtime.

Sidney Crosby seems pretty content to spread the wealth, doesn't he?

Rob Scuderi actually didn't suck. He broke up a couple of passes late in the game when the Lightning they were starting to put on some pressure.

Gonchar, while infinitely better this year than at this time last year, still had a couple of WTF moments. One of which was just before an Ekman goal. Yet, Malkin's landlord led the Penguins with 4 shots on goal (20% of the team total).

Marc-Andre Fleury was just ok. He made some pretty solid saves. But there was one point in the 2nd period where he was damn near in the right circle and came all the way back to make a save that was far more dramatic than it needed to be. And he almost fell down at another point in the game in the same fashion as he did during the Sharks game. Of course, if LeCavalier's game-winner was an indication of Fleury was going to play during a shoot-out period, it's just as well that he scored when he did.

But 20 shots on goal... vs. 31. Mike's magic stat, -8.2 SOG differential, is now the worst in the league. Yet, tThe Pens have still scored 3 more goals than the team with the best differential (Detroit +11.1). As much as I'm hoping to be wrong and see the Pens capitalize on the few chances they get, the trend against this happening is pretty strong.

And the Delta Dental Penguins Patrol. The bottom two rows look goooood...

Anyway, the title of the entire blog... I had placed my commemorative coin between my program and the Pittsburgh City Paper I'd grabbed from "The Souper Bowl" under my seat. We never vacated the row during the game. We got up in shifts. When I picked up my "stash" after the game, however, no coin, though I didn't realize it right away. When I did, I made a B-line back for the seat. There were a couple of scavengers looking for freebies by the time I got finished. One of them asked if I was looking for free ones, too. I said, "No, I'm looking for mine."

I made sure I hadn't kicked it or something. I wouldn't have been able to prove it, but I think the folks behind me must have "relieved me of it" during my turn to go to concessions. I would have noticed it falling out from between the program and the paper. But before it even occured to me to ask if the guy I'd spoken to might have found one right where I was looking (like he'd have been honest anyway, right?) he had vanished.

This, of course, was a good thing. He seemed like the type who would have rubbed me the wrong way, and in my mood, it would have only ended up with me in jail and still coinless.

This is the first one listed on eBay. And someone else is trying to get $15 + shipping for theirs. Ah, woulda, shoulda, and definitely coulda...

But it doesn't matter, because I indeed have a coin now. Gentlemen, the moral of this story is that it pays to take your mother to her first-ever hockey game. (Sure, let the "mama's boy" comments ensue, I can take it.)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Mission: Impossible


Apparently, entering into the game, the Steelers offensive ranks were well improved over last year and their defense was only two places lower out of the 32 teams. Thanks to Pittsburgh-favorites Jim Nance and Phil Simms for those nuggets.

Of course, increased passing offense can be a sign of playing from behind an awful lot, and that has been the case with the 2006 Pittsburgh Steelers. They even trailed against Miami late in the game in the season opener. The only game they never really had to worry about was against the Kansas City Chiefs (who have meanwhile rebounded quite nicely).

Anyone who's watched 4 combined quarters or more of Steelers football this year knows that the main problem is turnovers. After today's -5 performance, Pittsburgh may very well be bringing up the rear in that department (we'll know Tuesday). The second biggest problem is critical personal foul penalties. Now, late in today's game, Anthony Madison was called for a personal foul after a punt, but Denver was not penalized for running into Chris Gardocki (!?), but linebacker James Farrior kept a drive going by kicking Denver center Tom Nalen after a 3rd down play that should have brought on the punt team.

It's like "watching" a broken record.

Third, but no less important, missed tackles. The powers-that-be have got to start keeping this statistic. I haven't had many qualms with Dick LeBeau's defensive play calling overall. Players have largely been at home. Execution seems to be on vacation. Denver scored at least two touchdowns today on fade patterns and the defenders couldn't get their heads around to break them up.

Last week, I, along with several others, drove the final nail into the Steelers 2006 coffin. Their 4 conference losses at that point (5 now with the Denver loss) made it virtually impossible to claim the Wild Card. The AFC West, especially, looks to have at least one of the Wild Card teams in the bag already, perhaps even the 2nd, depending on how things shake out with the Jets' and the Jaguars' seperate fortunes.

Yes, it's true I buried them last week, but, Pittsburgh faithful that I am, I still hold out hope for some kind of miraculous turnaround, the likes of which we all witnessed down the stretch in 2005.

What kind of homer am I, right? I'm sure there are others like me out there who will still tune into the New Orleans game next week and root for the same team while expecting different results. We first have to realize we're just a little insane to expect the dead to rise.

Yet, if you're looking for a pathway to the playoffs now that the Steelers have fallen to 2-6 halfway through the season, the mission (should they choose to accept it) is this: Win the AFC North.

First, I'll preface by saying that I recognize, at once, that it's neither realistic, nor impossible. A lot of things have to go right.

The Steelers, even if they don't have to win out, must win all of their remaining divisional games (we have to think tiebreakers here). Just combining this with the way things stand after today, the Ravens still lead the Steelers by 2 games and the Bengals are ahead by 1 game. However, the Steelers would have at least a one game advantage in the divisional standings, which, at this point, means nothing.

Continuing on:

Of the other games remaining on the schedule, the Bengals have to reap that First Place schedule that last year's division championship gave them. They have to play Denver and Indianapolis -- on the road -- in consecutive weeks, not to mention host a rematch against the Ravens.

Best (realistic) case scenario with the Bengals: They beat the Ravens, but lose to the Broncos and Colts. Add in the theorized defeat to the Steelers, that gives the Bengals 7 losses minimum.

The Ravens, meanwhile, have games remaining against the Falcons (at Baltimore) and the Chiefs (in KC). Unfortunately, they have the Bills, Browns and Titans.

Best (realistic) case scenario with the Ravens: First, they lose the two to the Steelers as mentioned before. Then they have to drop their games to Atlanta and Kansas City. This will give the Ravens 6 losses minimum.

Now turning our eyes to where this all really has to count...

The Steelers have not been playing complete games. Ben Roethlisberger has been as unpredictable as a season of "24". There is no reason to believe they're going to defeat any quality teams the rest of the way if there isn't some fire infused into these guys post-haste. Chukki Okobi can't be giving Ben low snaps. The equipment personnel can't keep doling out gloves sprayed with "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" (see above regarding turnovers and missed tackles).

Last year, they were chasing the prize, and they performed admirably to obtain it. However, they have not performed like Champions now that they're wearing the target.

Nevertheless, continuing the Impossible Dream in which the Steelers not only have to topple the tougher-than-expected Ravens (twice) and the chip-on-our-shoulders Bengals (in Cincinnati where there are likely to be playoff implications for them, if not for the Black and Gold), they have to travel to Carolina. If everything above plays out well into this December 17 match up, we, as fans, will have to find ourselves extremely fortunate to have had something to root for this long.

Best Case Scenario for the Steelers (this one not so realistic): Obviously, win out. If the other best (realistic) case scenarios work out, the Steelers win the division at 10-6, relegating the Ravens to finish in at least 2nd place by virtue of head-to-head. Should the Bengals win one of the tough matchups against the Colts or Broncos, they'd also be at 10-6, but bumped down a notch due to their 4-2 divisional record vs. the Steelers 5-1.

Each out-of-division loss that the Steelers suffer from this point, must also be matched by a loss by Baltimore and Cincinnati. If the Steelers lose to Baltimore or Cincinnati, the utopian door I open here is closed for good.

Everybody got that?

Even I realize how much would have to go right, but if the Steelers lose one more game, especially sooner rather than later, all that will be left to do is root against the New England Patriots.

Hell, I hope after Thanksgiving I'm able to report that we still have something to root FOR, not just against.

---Worst To First?---

The 2005-2006 Penguins, after 11 games, had a record of 1-5-5, good for 7 points. They ended up winning a total of 22 games.

The 2006-2007 edition is 7-4, good for 14 points and have almost one-third of the win total of the previous squad.

I watched the second half of the Pens/Sharks game last night. It was evident that the Sharks were more polished, yet it was a tight game. The Penguins are mighty fast, though, and their penalty killing is much easier to watch.

Last year, under Eddie Olczyk, penalty killers would shift around in the zone to keep opponents from getting too near the slot, making them shoot from a distance. This still allowed the opponent to cycle the puck and create a favorable shot when they could catch a PK'er out of position and maybe catch the goalie napping. This year, coach Michel Therrien has his unit pursuing the puck, giving the opponent less time to think about what he's going to do with the puck, rushing his decision to shoot or pass, creating turnovers and allowing Pittsburgh to clear.

The result: 11 PP goals this year surrendered by the Penguins (out of 30 overall) vs. 20PP goals over the same span last year (out of 53 total, shootout-loss "goal" to Carolina included).

Despite being 2nd in Goals-per game (3.55, 2nd to Buffalo's 4.23), they still surrender, on average, the 2nd most shots-on-goal per game (33.5, worst is Washington at 36.5). The addition of Evgeni Malkin may be what has been offsetting my fear that having a poor differential in the SOG for and SOG against makes for an early exit from playoff contention.

If the players are still learning to play together and haven't yet developed true chemistry, then happy days may be here sooner rather than later.

I'll be at the Igloo for the Pens/Lightning game on Wednesday. Hopefully the C-level seats will afford me a better view of what's happening behind the play and give me a better sense of which way this team's going to go.

They currently stand only one point back of the Devils and Rangers, and they're tied with the Islanders. However, the Penguins have at least two games in hand over each of these teams, so they still control their own destiny. Stay tuned. A playoff run for this team seems far more likely than any other team currently operating in Steeltown.

Whether they can turn all the way around and be one of the more elite teams in the league just one year after being one of the worst, obviously, remains to be seen.

---Toilet Bowl Bound?---

First of all, am I the only one who thinks the Pitt Panthers logo looks more canine than feline?

Rabid Dog-----------------------------Pissed-off Panther

In any event, Tyler Palko and Co. failed to deliver in a game that they really needed to have in order to keep from wondering which low-budget, no-one's-gonna-watch-this Bowl Game they might have a chance to be selected for. Even a win over Connecticut on Saturday will not wow the committee.

Pitt fans may have to hope for an old stand-by, the former "Continental Tire Bowl", which is now the "Meineke Car Care Bowl." There was some hearsay that a suggested motto for the new corporate sponsors was, "I'm not gonna pay a lot for this Bowl Game."

(edit: No chance for that one. Navy has accepted an invitation to play, and will face an opponent from the ACC)

Only strong showings (or, heaven forbid, a win or two) against West Virginia and Louisville may get them into a mid-level Bowl Game at this point. Cue the M:I music...