Friday, December 31, 2010

The Best Albums of 2010

I try to avoid gimmick columns.

It can be the downfall of a journalist, especially as early as I currently am in my journalistic journey. Get attached to gimmick columns and it can completely consume you. I mean, there is a reason why I refuse to use Seinfeld comparisons as the basis for everything I write (because I totally could) or why I refrain from relating every column to some obscure Bob Dylan lyric (I could do it half-asleep). If I were to attack every column that way, I would soon get complacent, and my readers would soon get bored (assuming there are any to begin with). Sure, there are times when a column gimmick can be great and define someone in a good way (Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback comes to mind), but for the most part, it’s very, very thin ice. For this reason, I have largely steered clear of gimmicky columns…save for my year end Top 10 Albums list. I enjoy writing it, and “year-end Top 10” lists have become so common that people seem to forget how gimmicky they actually are. Things are funny that way.

In any event, the list is back for the third consecutive year. I’ve said it before, but let me remind you that this list is simply my favorite albums of the year – not necessarily the most popular or best-selling. By no means am I an elite music critic or anything like that, but I listen to a lot of music and feel that I have a decent enough ear and eclectic enough taste to select a list of musically accomplished albums. Nevertheless, it is simply my arbitrary judgment. And no, Glee did not make the list. Sorry.

Without further ado, here are my Top Ten Albums of 2010 (with a few extras), courtesy of a 21-year-old with no real music education and little love for the country music genre (although I am working on this). Let the accolades begin.

  • Close Only Counts in Horse Shoes and Hand Grenades

Broken Bells – Broken Bells; Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Mojo; Hot Chip – One Life Stand; The Roots – How I Got Over You; Local Natives – Gorilla Manor; Mark Ronson & Business Intl. – Record Collection; Minus the Bear – Omni; Eric Clapton – Clapton

  • The Honor Roll

Bruce Springsteen – The Promise

This one wins the award for Reissue of Previously Unreleased Material, if that makes any sense at all. I don’t like to group reissues or “new” releases of old material with current albums, but it was so nice to hear these original works from The Boss during his “Darkness” period, that I figured it at least deserved some recognition.

Taylor Swift – Speak Now

As I have written before, Taylor Swift currently has America wrapped around her finger (even Jake Gyllenhaal has the Swift-fever). And if you can still sell 1 million albums in a week, especially in this day and age, you certainly deserve more than a fleeting mention in a sparsely read blog by a dumbass college kid. Alas…

My Chemical Romance – Danger Days: The True Lives of the Dangerous Killjoys

By far the most polarizing album of the year for me. Every time I listened, I was constantly oscillating between hating it and loving it, thinking it was absolute genius to thinking it was kitschy crap. In the end, I figured an album evoking that much emotion with every listen deserved at least honorable mention.

  • The Top 10

10. Blitzen Trapper – Destroyer of the Void

Blitzen Trapper has the amazing ability to tell a story while singing a song, almost making you forget that you’re listening to an album, but instead imagining the crafting of an intricate painting, revealing the events of some far-but-not-so-far away journey. The vocals and overall sound of the band, led by Eric Earley, tend to evoke similarities to both David Bowie and Yes. This seems appropriate, seeing as how Bowie and Yes were two of the more story-driven, existential artists from decades past. Throw in some old-school Fleetwood Mac on a song like “The Man Who Would Speak True” and a tad of Paul McCartney on tracks like “Heaven and Earth”, and you have an assorted, whimsical narrative in album form. No, Destroyer of the Void is not quite Ziggy Stardust, but it does capture your mind in a similar fashion.

9. John Legend & The Roots – Wake Up!

I’m usually not a big fan of political albums, but the overall vibe and sound of this release trumped any reservations I may have had about an opinionated message. I could care less where one falls on the political spectrum, but I feel that too often it impairs an artist’s music if they focus too heavily on the message they are trying to disperse. Neverthless, John Legend and The Roots largely avoided this. The Roots have always been one of my favorite rap/rock bands, and they were able to mesh that with Legends amazing vocals, allowing them to venture into genres that would have otherwise been outside of their capacity. I loved the way the two artists joined together so effortlessly, almost as if The Roots had been backing Legend for years. The soul, funk, gospel and reggae sound was a nice change of pace, and using their talents to cover the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and Bill Withers gave the album an intrinsic credibility and voice.

8. Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record

Broken Social Scene is notorious for its big line-up (up to 20 or so members) and the collaboration between artists from other bands, such as Leslie Feist (Feist), Spiral Stairs (Pavement), and Emily Haines (Metric). The big line-up often results in a big sound with BSS, and that still comes through on their fourth album, especially on songs like the fantastic “World Sick” and “Water in Hell.” However, they were able to tone it down a few times on this album with songs such as “Texico Bitches” and “Highway Slipper Jam”, a new and welcomed territory for this band.

7. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Few bands in today’s world of music can put together an album quite like Arcade Fire. This was hinted at with their releases of Funeral and Neon Bible, but was finally proved true by The Suburbs. Win Butler’s crooning and construction made this easily one of the year’s top albums, and set the bar pretty high for where Arcade Fire will head in the future. Songs like “The Suburbs”, “Ready to Start”, and “We Used to Wait” show the full-fledged genius and capability of this group, and their music videos alone are almost enough to land them on this list. My personal taste may rank this release at #7, but it’s easily one of the most accomplished and impressive albums 2010 laid ears on.

6. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I don’t like reading reviews of things before I experience them. I try to avoid movie reviews or album reviews before seeing or hearing the product, mainly because I’m afraid of the review impacting my own response. Nevertheless, it was basically impossible to avoid the reviews for Kanye’s newest album. It was being touted as his best yet, and possibly the best of the year (as it later proved to be for top publications like Rolling Stone, A.V. Club, and Spin). In reading the reviews, I was afraid that everyone was over-rating the album, hyping it up to be something it is not, jumping on the bandwagon just to say they did. Turns out, they were all right. I still feel the same way about Kanye as a person (pompous, narcissistic, self-involved) and his music in general (slightly overrated)…but Fantasy was brilliant. Yes, it was aided by a great supporting cast, but it was Kanye’s lyrics and production that make it great. He’s like the black, rapper version of Radiohead. As much as I may hate to admit it, the album was great, and it put Ye atop the current list as Best Rapper Alive. And yet, it makes me wonder: is Kanye such a conceited prick because he thinks everything he does is so great, or is the album great because West is such a conceited prick?

5. Two Door Cinema Club – Tourist History

Probably the surprise album of the year for me. This band’s debut hits you in the face with a slew of punchy, upbeat, fast-paced songs. They remind me of The Strokes and The Killers (early on), not so much in sound but in vibe; they are always pressing, always on the verge of something louder, some big explosion. You can even sense a little bit of Dear Science and Phoenix influence, especially in the way they play with their sound, like on “I Can Talk” and “What You Know”. You can argue that their tone begins to become somewhat repetitive over the course of the record, but if it works, why fix it?

4. The National – High Violet

The National’s fifth and highest profile album is a good representation of the band and their style. As much as a band like Two Door Cinema Club has that pressing, on-the-verge-of-something sound, The National is an interesting contrast; the band always seems to be noticeably and purposefully reserved, defining themselves by their lack of tension and explosiveness, their embrace of suppression and reluctance. And as well being buoyant and upbeat may work for a band like Two Door Cinema Club, the contrary works just as well for The National, and it’s never more evident than on High Violet.

3. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

I suppose if a band is using literary references and influence to shape their style and sound, Shakespeare and John Steinbeck are two of the smarter role models to draw from. So is the case with Mumford & Sons and their debut LP, Sigh No More. The English band counts the two authors as inspiration for their music, giving explanation to their elegant and picturesque lyrics – sophisticated yet clear, calculated yet effortless. Their fusion of folk and bluegrass resembles a Fleet Foxes-type resonance, but not to the extent that it feels like a rip-off. The easy, smooth sound and vivid lyrics suggest that Mumford & Sons could be a staple in the indie-folk genre for years to come.

2. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt

“Rumor has it that I wasn’t born / I just walked in one frosty morn / Into the vision of some vacant mind.” Those words, droned by Kristian Matsson under his moniker The Tallest Man on Earth on the song “Burden of Tomorrow”, are the perfect microcosm for this artist. The experimental, folky sound always makes me feel like I’m looking inside the brain of Spike Jonze, or how girls probably feel while walking through the Anthropologie store. His voice is just raw and striking enough that it throws you off at first, but soon proves to be oddly beautiful in a slightly off-key way, similar to Dylan circa 1964. His sound is unique and whimsical, and you’d never guess there is just one man standing behind the outfit’s large name. This album also gets a bump in my eyes thanks to the September release of the EP, Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird, which too was fantastic. And no, The Tallest Man on Earth doesn’t quite make folk music cool again, but it certainly makes it interesting.

1. The Black Keys – Brothers

The Black Keys stay true to their established sound throughout Brothers, while at the same time making sure to venture into unchartered musical waters on more than one occasion. From the opening track, “Everlasting Light”, to songs such as “Never Give You Up”, the duo of Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney experiment with new sounds and styles. And yet, while the finished product of those individual tracks may not be quintessential Black Keys, it seems to fit in to the overall album. And instead of these fresh takes arising out of boredom, arrogance, or socially-driven feedback, the pair seem to simply be proving that no matter what direction they choose, they can still make it flow. Nevertheless, the best parts of Brothers are when The Black Keys are being The Black Keys, on tracks like “Unknown Brother”, “She’s Long Gone”, and “Ten Cent Pistol”. It’s amazing to hear the band’s evolution, from their first album as a couple of grungy musicians jamming in a garage, to one of the best blues-rock bands on the planet. And no, that is not hyperbole. How else could they possibly reach #1 on my Top 10 Albums list?

2011 smells good. Thanks for reading

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Dude Looks Like a Lady

The Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball team recently won their 88th and 89th consecutive games, continuing their record-setting streak that stretches back to the 2008 Women’s NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, simply winning 89 straight games wasn’t good enough to satisfy the national media, and it certainly wasn’t good enough to keep UConn head coach Geno Auriemma’s mouth shut.

Way back in 1974, a UCLA Bruins team, led by legendary coach John Wooden, completed a streak of 88 straight wins, a record that still stands in men’s college basketball today. And regardless of how many games the Lady Huskies win before their next loss, UCLA’s 88 straight wins will remain a men’s collegiate basketball record for the foreseeable future.

A big deal has been made (by the mainstream sports media, as well as UConn) about the Lady Huskies tying and surpassing UCLA’s mark, in turn setting a new consecutive wins record for college basketball – which to me makes no sense. And apparently it’s people like me that have UConn’s Auriemma running his mouth about what he perceives to be a lack of respect for his team and women’s basketball in general – which to me sounds a lot more like whining for what he perceives is a lack of respect for him.

First, let’s talk about this so-called record setting performance. The UConn women’s team is by far the top program in women’s collegiate basketball, and has been for some time. They deserve truckloads of respect and appreciation for their accomplishments; Geno Auriemma deserves just as much for his success as a coach. But to compare their winning streak to that of UCLA’s men’s streak is completely and utterly…dumb.

This is not a smear campaign on women’s basketball. I have no intentions of writing that men’s basketball is superior, or that UConn doesn’t deserve to be held in the same light as Wooden’s squads. My desire is not to disparage female athletes or athletics, or to state why men’s sports are better than women’s. I just want to explain why it’s idiotic to equate a men’s basketball record to a women’s basketball record, in the same manner that it’s idiotic to equate any athletic record to that of another sport.

The Los Angeles Lakers had a record 33 consecutive wins back in 1972, a benchmark that still stands today. And the reason it still stands is because the 88 wins by UCLA in 1974 had literally nothing to do with the Lakers’ win streak a couple years earlier. Sure, both teams played (men’s) basketball, but the records were different, because one took place in the NBA, while the other was at the collegiate level. Equating them would be pointless. On the same note, the Oklahoma Sooners won a record 47 straight games in collegiate football back in the 1950s, a record that still stands today, despite what UCLA basketball accomplished in the ‘70s. Each of those marks remains because they occurred in different sports. Sure, both streaks were achieved at the (men’s) college level, but anyone with half a brain would see the insanity in equating UCLA’s 47th straight victory at the time it occurred to the mark achieved by the Sooners nearly two decades prior. It wouldn’t make sense.

Do you see my point?

It’s stupid and wrong to equate the UConn Women’s 88 wins to the UCLA Men’s 88 wins, because the two streaks occurred in different sports. Yes, both teams played basketball. And yes, both competed at the Division I collegiate level. But the difference in gender supplies an obvious separation between the two teams and the records that they each set. If men’s college basketball and women’s college basketball are equal, then why do they play in separate leagues? How can they possibly be considered the same? I’m not saying that one league is superior to the other, or that one record is more impressive than the other. I’m just saying that they are different, in the same way that the NBA and NASCAR are different, or NHL and MLB are different, or the Olympics and High School sports are different. The winning streaks are two completely separate situations.

I also am not saying that it is idiotic to compare the two streaks; we do this with sports all the time. We can compare Cal Ripken Jr.’s streak of 2,632 consecutive games played in Major League Baseball to Brett Favre’s streak of 297 consecutive starts in the National Football League. We can compare Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak in baseball to Wayne Gretzky’s 51-game point streak in hockey. We can compare Martina Navratilova’s 6-straight tennis Grand Slams to Jimmie Johnson’s 5-straight Sprint Cup Title’s in NASCAR. We can argue which streak is more impressive, which was harder to accomplish, or which will stand for the longest amount of time. We can always compare and always argue. But to equate any of these streaks would be fruitless and dim-witted, and the same goes for UConn and UCLA. Their inequality is not a result of the difference in level of competition or ability or national interest, but rather a result of the inherent and undeniable difference in gender. Not better or worse – just different.

Sadly, the issue goes beyond that, thanks to Geno Auriemma’s post-game comments following UConn’s 88th win. Partly because the media was (wrongly) making a big deal out of equating UConn’s streak to UCLA’s, and partly because Auriemma had (wrongly) convinced himself that the streaks were in fact equal, Geno took umbrage with the manner in which the situation was being covered.

"The reason everybody is having a heart attack the last four or five days is a bunch of women are threatening to break a men's record, and everybody is all up in arms about it,” said Auriemma, following win #88.

First of all, I find Auriemma’s statement to be intrinsically false. UConn would only be breaking a “men’s record” if they had completed their 88 straight wins against men’s college teams. Instead, they are continuing their own streak of consecutive women’s college basketball wins, the previous mark which was 70, set by a previous UConn Women’s team. Again, this doesn’t make their accomplishment any less impressive (it’s actually extremely impressive), it just makes Auriemma’s statement incorrect.

Second of all, Auriemma is creating this idea that people are mad that a women’s team is breaking a men’s record, something that appears to be mainly concocted in his own head. Yeah, I’m sure there are some old-school college basketball fanatics out there who are angry about a women’s team breaking UCLA’s record, but it is a small and relatively unheard faction, and one that is incorrect in their misplaced anger, for reasons I have already discussed at length. As dumb as it is to equate the two streaks, it is just as stupid to argue over which team had more talent, was more fun to watch, or would win in a head-to-head match-up. The best NBA team in the history of the league would pulverize the best high school team in the history of high school basketball. (Duh). But does that make the high school team any less impressive? (Of course not). It's wrong for people to equate the streaks, and it’s ridiculous for people to be mad about UConn’s streak simply because they are a women’s team. It’s worse that Auriemma suggested this sentiment is some wide-spread prejudice.

Even still, Geno wasn’t done.

"Because we're breaking a men's record, we've got a lot of people paying attention," Auriemma went on to say. "If we were breaking a women's record, everybody would go, 'Aren't those girls nice, let's give them two paragraphs in USA Today, you know, give them one line on the bottom of ESPN and then let's send them back where they belong, in the kitchen.' "

And with that, Auriemma made the situation one of gender and anti-feminism, instead of consecutive collegiate basketball wins. Or at least that was his intention.

Auriemma would love for the media, fans, and anyone paying attention to this streak to believe that he is actually angry about a lack of respect shown towards women’s basketball. He wants us all to believe that he’s mad that the Lady Huskies aren’t getting enough attention from fans, enough admiration from the media, and enough equality in the athletic realm. He wants people to think that his disdain is towards those who somehow feel women’s basketball is below men’s basketball. He wants us to believe this is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

He doesn’t want us to know he’s lying.

For the most part, this is really about Geno Auriemma’s massive ego. He’s not as mad about the disrespect towards women’s basketball as he is about his own perceived lack of respect as a women’s basketball coach. He’s not as mad about the lack of attention given to the UConn program as he is about his own perceived lack of attention from college basketball fans and media. Geno considers himself to be on the same level as the great John Wooden of UCLA, and he is finally getting all pissed off at the fact that he’s not being considered or treated in such a way by everyone else.

If you know anything about Geno Auriemma, than you know how he is often perceived by others in his sport, the media, and general public. Simply put, he’s not very well liked. If this were a mainstream newspaper or magazine article, Auriemma might be described as pompous, conceited, narcissistic, arrogant, or ostentatious. But because this is a blog written by an uncompensated college kid, we can describe Auriemma as he truly is: a douche. That’s right…a giant douche.

Auriemma’s ego has always been prevalent, and frankly, always overshadowed his own success as a coach. Regardless of what sport, competitive level, and gender he is coaching, his accomplishments are extremely impressive. He makes millions of dollars because he is very good at what he does. His bank account would suggest he’s a highly esteemed man in his profession. His ego, however, is convinced that he is disrespected.

Geno’s Ego thinks he is on the same level as John Wooden, Phil Jackson or any other great coach in the history of basketball, and Geno’s Ego feels he should be valued in a similar fashion. He has convinced himself that he deserves a higher level of greatness. He thinks that because he’s a man coaching women’s basketball, people somewhat belittle his success. He thinks that if Pat Summitt were in this same position, she would be receiving a lot more recognition and praise.

(In many ways, this is probably true, and one could easily argue whether it’s right or wrong to factor Geno’s gender into his success as a women’s coach. However, Geno is overlooking both his own personal massive inferiority complex about being a man coaching girls, as well as the fact that people have always liked Pat Summitt a lot more than they like him.)

Geno’s Ego feels that because men’s basketball is so much more popular than women’s basketball, it is viewed as the superior sport, played by superior athletes, in turn making his accomplishments somewhat less impressive or devalued in comparison to a men’s coach.

(In many ways, this is also true. It is no lie that men’s basketball is more popular, and is generally held as a superior sport. I, for one, find men’s basketball much more enjoyable. I really don’t like watching women’s basketball at all. But I also do not think that makes men’s the superior sport. I have little to no interest in the NHL and NASCAR. I could care less about the Tour de France. I have only marginal interest in Premier League Soccer or the PGA Tour. Does this somehow make those sports inferior to the NFL or NBA or College Football? No, it just means I like the NFL, NBA, and College Football better. Popularity and superiority are two very different things. If Geno wasn’t so thin-skinned, he might realize this, and rise above those who look down on the sport simply because it’s played by women.)

In the end, Geno Auriemma has convinced himself that he is disrespected.

He thinks he deserves reverence and deification when applause and esteem are acceptable responses. He thinks his track record makes him equal to the legendary John Wooden, and he thinks he deserves to be treated as such. He thinks his greatness is a foregone conclusion, and he’s using archaic gender biases to try and prove his point. I, for one, am not fooled. Because in reality, Geno and Wooden are about as far away from equals as my writing is to Shakespeare’s.

Auriemma could win 1,000 games in a row and 25 championships, and yet he will never be on the same level as John Wooden. Stats aren’t the only thing that make the coach. John Wooden won a lot of games, but he’s a legend because of his character and his respect for the game of basketball. Wooden is revered because he taught the game the right way and lived his life the right way; he made sure that any player or coach to come under his tutelage understood that playing the game with fundamentals and respect was more important than on-court success, and that becoming a good person was more important than becoming a good basketball player. Wooden was great because he was concerned more with the character of his players than winning games.

Auriemma, on the other hand, is more concerned with how winning games will enhance his own recognition.

Women’s basketball being disrespected? Age-old partiality sparking hatred towards female athletes? Yeah, there is undoubtedly a grain of truth to that. But if you believe that’s the reason Geno is up in arms about how his team's 80+ game win streak is being covered, then his mission is accomplished.

It’s wrong to think that men’s basketball is superior to women’s basketball, regardless of which of the two you prefer. It’s wrong to equate the UConn Women’s winning streak to the UCLA Men’s winning streak, regardless of which you believe to be more impressive. It’s wrong for chauvinism or anti-feminism to shape your opinion on an athletic accomplishment, but it’s worse to use those things as an excuse for your own greed and perceived lack of respect (not to mention that its absurdity gives off an anti-feminist vibe of its own). And it’s wrong to put Geno Auriemma in the same stratosphere as John Wooden when it comes to coaching. Equating them would be…well, I'm assuming you get the idea by this point.

Geno Auriemma is a great coach. But as much as he’d like to think otherwise, he isn’t even worthy of holding John Wooden’s clipboard. And as much as he’d like to think (or convince you) otherwise, it has nothing to do with the gender or sport in which he coaches.

Thanks for reading

Monday, November 29, 2010

One Teen To Rule Them All

The ability to have millions upon millions of Americans eating out of the palm of your hand is not as challenging as one might think. Sure, it’s practically impossible for a regular Joe Schmo like you or me to achieve this (apologies to any non-Joe Schmo readers …although the chances are slim), but if you have reached an echelon of fame or achievement equal-to-or-greater-than one of the girls on Teen Mom, you have a shot to own the country, even if only for a few fleeting moments.

Basically, if you are somewhat talented, at least semi-attractive, and not a complete and utter moron, you can have a good chunk of society in your back pocket. And the longer you sustain these qualities, the longer you get to wear the crown. George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Halle Berry, Derek Jeter, Bruce Springsteen – every one of them is revered in this country. Yes, at varying moments their talent and appeal was undeniable. But they didn’t exactly have to maintain their peak of greatness to stay on top; they simply had to refrain from screwing anything up.

Not everyone will have the opportunity to sit among the American Pop Culture Kingdom. But the list of possibilities is a lot lengthier than you might imagine, and a candidate can sweep you off your feet without even realizing it.

Enter Taylor Swift, stage left.

Yes, the young Miss Swift is currently in the company of all-time pop culture greats like Clooney, Berry, and Springsteen. Whether you want to admit it or not, Swift has had America bowing at her feet for nearly half of a decade now. She wooed you without you even knowing it, just like Matthew McConaughey or Josh Duhamel would do in one of their crappy chick-flick movies…you know, where they start out as the sarcastic d-bag, who then turns out to have a troubled past or sensitive side, almost instantly forcing the girl to fall for them, before Matt or Josh inevitably screw something up, then apologize and talk about how the girl has completely changed their life in like a 32-hour span and that they can’t live without her, leaving the girl to give in to her romantic inhibitions while a cover of Cheap Trick plays in the background. Taylor Swift is McConaughey and Duhamel, while the rest of us are the B-list actress that almost subconsciously got swept off our feet.

And as is the case with most of those that find themselves in Swift’s position, she didn’t get their by accident. A series of smart decisions has allowed Swift to exploit her own blessings and talents in a way that makes her popularity and adoration practically a guarantee.

It started from the beginning. At a young age, I’m sure it became pretty obvious to those around her that Taylor Swift had talent. By about 14 or 15, a lot more people – more important people – began to notice the same thing. And while her talent and looks would have more than likely allowed her to shine and reach a prominent level of success in whatever path she chose, not every path was equal. In fact, the country-pop singer/songwriter path probably offered the highest ceiling, as long as Taylor was up for the job. So far, she’s nailed it.

Yes, Taylor Swift can sing, but she isn’t a top-tier melismatic singer like Alicia Keys or Mariah Carey; teen diva would not have been the best choice. And yes, Swift can play the guitar, but she isn’t an axe prodigy, which ruled out instrumental aplomb. And while she is certainly gorgeous, her look isn’t exactly that of a bombshell-pop-star look, like Brittany Spears had or Katy Perry perfected. And sure, she can write songs, but she isn’t Bob Dylan or Joan Baez, so she needed a trail where “obvious” and “cliché” would be embraced instead of abhorred. Plus, her young age (16 when she hit the scene) pretty much prevented her from going the slutty/crazy/kitschy route (see: Gaga, Lady), unless of course she wanted it to blow up in her face (see: Cyrus, Miley).

What Swift needed was a road that allowed for the perfect fusion of her young age, cute looks, promising but adolescent songwriting, and good-but-not-great singing and guitar-ing. Lo and behold, country music fit her like a glove.

Swift’s talents and appearance made country music the ideal avenue for her to pursue. Even her personality, which appears to genuinely be one of a sweet, nice, wholesome, “aw shucks” kind of girl, was exactly the type of persona that female country music stars shine with. Add all of that to the fact that her sound proved to be just “middle of the road” enough that she wasn’t too country not be mainstream (and vice versa), and her potential audience was bigger than normal. In seemingly no time at all, Taylor Swift grabbed that audience by the balls...which is of course a statement that Swift would immediately be taken aback and slightly disturbed by, before inevitably forgiving me with a kindhearted smile.

It didn’t take long for people to get hooked. Swift’s first single, entitled “Tim McGraw” (which was also genius), was an autobiographical song about a 16-year-old girl that is in love with her older boyfriend, but knows that he will soon have to move away and leave her behind – or in other words, the cocaine of teenage female country songs. When she followed that single with an album filled with songs about love, heartbreak, and feeling overmatched or misunderstood, she was a luminary. Every girl in the age range of 13-29 immediately took to Swift, feeling like her songs were written exactly for them. Every mother saw a little bit of their daughters in Swift, while at the same time reminiscing about their own lives and feelings at that age. Every father saw a potential role model that their daughters could look up to, and one that wouldn’t wind up making a sex tape or booting black tar heroin. And Taylor’s songs were just catchy and upbeat enough that every boy in the age range of 13-29 would crank up the radio and sing along while riding alone in their car or hide her songs on their iPod under a playlist titled "Gangsta Rap", and then of course never admit to it. She was a hit across the board.

Taylor Swift kept true to form even as the fame began to build. Despite millions of teenage boys drooling over her and millions of teenage girls wishing they could be her (or even just be friends with her), Swift was still able to churn out songs about being in love with guys that didn’t feel the same way, or being in a relationship that no one else could understand. And whenever there was even a hint of controversy or scandal, she was out in front of it so fast, it was nearly impossible for any backlash to get close to her.

When her (relatively) high-profile relationship with (somewhat) celebrity Joe Jonas began to crumble, she pumped out a song (“Forever & Always”) about how he had torn their relationship apart and left her heartbroken. She immediately became the victim, preventing any chance at a smear campaign in Tiger Beat or on Disney message boards. We’ve seen her repeat similar patterns with Taylor Lautner and John Mayer, always either playing the victim, getting out in front of the story, or some combination of the two. And never was she at the top of her game more so than at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards; the Kanye West incident became her masterpiece.

The story is well known: Swift wins an award for one of her music videos, Kanye crashes the stage during her acceptance speech and talks about how Beyonce should have won, and Taylor is left there on stage, the victim of Kayne’s heinous drive-by mic robbery. Swift never lashed out or said anything derogatory about West, but rather embraced the role of the wounded. People immediately leapt to the defense of Taylor, from Beyonce to the mainstream media. Did we make too big of a deal out of it? With most people, yeah, it probably would have been. But when notorious douche Kanye West embarrassed sweet and loveable Taylor Swift, America reacted like Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor again. In the months following the event, Swift went on every talk show, wrote a song about what happened, and accepted Kanye’s eventual apology. She couldn’t have played the situation any better than she did. She was golden.

This is essentially the way Taylor Swift has played out her whole career. She broke on to the scene as an adorable sweetheart; she handled fame by remaining an adorable sweetheart, avoiding any type of public scandal, and never saying anything stupid, insensitive, or offensive. It’s almost impossible for people to dislike her. Her target fan base (females of a mainly conservative middle-America) has eaten her up with a spoon, allowing her to spread that popularity to other demographics of the world. Her talents and brilliant choice of career path made her a star. Her subsequent behavior and decision making have kept things that way. She’s too sweet, too genuine, and (most importantly) too smart to screw things up. As D’Angelo Barksdale would say, “The King stay the King.”

People have become so enchanted with Taylor Swift that her fans immediately identify with her, embracing that her lyrics and songs speak the truth. It was the same thing that endeared people to Dylan, just now in a more upbeat and less sophisticated package. When Swift writes a song about a breakup or about being in love, we immediately associate that song with honesty. When she writes a song titled “Mean” about a journalist that was cruel and malicious, we side with Taylor, despite the fact that the majority of us have no clue how or why this journalist was being so mean. We have no evidence that her songs and lyrics are true or accurate or that her sweet personality is completely genuine, but we believe her anyway. She’s yet to give us a reason to assume otherwise.

It is popular in this country – in this society – to say that we hate predictability, hate playing it safe, and hate the politically correct, when in fact this is inherently false. We revere and worship those that are publically perfect and thrive on bashing and crucifying those that stumble and screw up. People like Taylor Swift, Tim Tebow, Phil Mickelson, and Will Smith are all evidence of this. There is a reason why Swift became the youngest to ever win a Grammy for Album of the Year (Fearless), and why she might be the only artist on the planet that can still sell a million albums in one week (Speak Now). Every decision she has made has been smart. Play it safe, and you get to wear the crown. Taylor Swift is living proof.

Swift will turn 21 in December of this year, only a few weeks away. Her young age makes her ascension into the Pop Culture Kingdom an amazing feat, while at the same time serving as a curse and a blessing. A curse, because she still has plenty of time to screw up, and a blessing, because she still has plenty of time to redeem herself if she does screw up. And if there is anything America loves more than a fairytale, it’s a redemption story. Either way, it certainly works in favor of Taylor Swift.

The King stay the King.

Thanks for reading

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Great Expectations

“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There's no better rule.”

-Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

I’ve been trying for weeks to write something about the Cincinnati Bengals, but to no avail. Despite my throngs of readers and fans (umm...hi Mom) pleading with me for almost a month to give them something, anything, about what is going on in Bengaldom, I keep coming up empty. Every time I sit down to put words to my thoughts, it inevitably ends with me swigging hard liquor straight from the bottle while glaring at old pictures of Marvin Lewis, Carson Palmer, and Chad Ochocinco in a dimly lit room – and that’s no way to spend a Tuesday afternoon.

But the truth is, the 2010 Cincinnati Bengals are a bad, bad team. We may look good on paper and running around in pre-game warm-ups, but we can’t perform when it counts. This season was shot since Jump Street. The expectations were great, but the Bengals found a way to disappoint.

So what’s wrong with this team? How can we go from a 10-6 AFC North Division (sweeping) Title and playoff berth in 2009, to a pathetic 2-7 sham of a ballclub in 2010? A quick comparison of rosters from each season would only lead one to believe that the 2010 squad is more talented, more experienced, and more prepared for greatness – more prepared to fulfill those expectations. Things should be even better this year. But as Bill Parcells used to say, “You are what your record says you are.” Well our record says we suck…and it’s not wrong.

There are plenty of places to point fingers. You can point them at Carson Palmer (which I already spent 1,600+ words doing), who is an utter shell of his former self. He is still a great guy, hard worker, and physically gifted quarterback. But when the situation gets tight or a big play is needed, Palmer falters. Case in point: I was watching the Bengals and Steelers on Monday Night Football a couple weeks ago with my roommate John (not a Bengals fan). It was 3rd down with 15 to gain, when I said that I hoped the Bengals run a draw play or screen pass. John, believing I was being sarcastic because of the low probability of those plays resulting in a first down, asked if I hated when a team did something like that. I stated that I used to hate it, but that I would rather my team run the ball on 3rd and 15, as opposed to Carson throwing a pass into triple coverage that gets picked off.

Well, guess what happened. Carson airmailed a pass into triple coverage…and it was picked off. Not 15 seconds after I specifically stated what I thought (or knew) would happen, it did, just as I said it would. John was shocked. Unfortunately, I was not.

But I’ve spent enough time on Palmer, and he’s not the only one deserving of blame. Because as bad as Palmer’s play has been, it has certainly been aided by his ring leaders at wide receiver, and the circus act that is the play calling.

I was hesitant about the signing of Terrell Owens this offseason, especially when we already had the loose cannon of Chad Ochocinco. True, both players are extremely talented wideouts that will play hard to get catches and win football games. But when the passes aren’t coming their way and the points aren’t piling up on the scoreboard, the frustration of each comes out. Chad is another guy I’ve spent plenty of words on in the past, and I still think he is a great person that works hard and wants to win. But he drops waaaaayyyy too many passes, doesn’t always run crisp routes, and his frustration becomes slightly destructive when the team struggles. I understand (and even appreciate) the fact that he shows emotion, but I would much prefer that he took it out on opposing defenses instead of his own team. And while he still attracts double teams and can make spectacular plays, he’s not the player he once was, and he might be the last to realize it.

TO, on the other hand, is a little more complex than Mr. Ocho. I think TO is a great player that still has the capacity to be a great receiver. I think he plays hard, and I think he wants to win. But I think he makes up his own routes at times, and his body language when things go bad is equivalent to that of a preschooler. And the thing about TO that really hurts the team is his lack of willingness to make the tough catch. He can fly by and through defenders with ease, but if a pass isn’t within 6 inches of his chest, he’s not trying too hard to haul it in. He has chronic alligator arms, and if it is not a relatively easy catch for him to make, he doesn’t put much effort into doing so.

Even still, the characters at wide receiver and shaky QB sure aren’t getting any help from the gameplan. The offense has become so stagnant and predictable that most Bengals fans can guess the next play call before it is even made. No trick plays, no creativity, and heaven forbid we run a play action pass. The amount of talent you have on your team (or even lack thereof) is irrelevant if you can’t keep the opposing defense somewhat in the dark. And if I can sit in my living room and know what play is coming, then I’m sure a bunch of NFL coaches can too.

Unfortunately, the blame train doesn’t stop there. The Bengals feasted on their run game last season, making up for the failings of the pass game by grinding out the clock and holding possession. The defense finished 4th in the NFL in 2009, with lock-down coverage and sure tackling. This season, the run game has faltered, and the fact that we are always playing from behind doesn’t help to get it going. The defense, despite only adding talent, looks like a completely different unit, unable to pressure the quarterback, prevent big plays, or get big stops. And of course the sputtering offense leaves the defense in bad field position and always catching their breath, so it’s really just a vicious circle of hell all around. Add in injuries, stupid penalties (which this squad attracts like a magnet) and shoddy special teams play, and it’s no wonder we look a lot better on the depth chart than we do on the field.

And yet, all that I’ve said still doesn’t clarify why such a formidable and successful team last year has taken such a drastic fall this season; it explains the “what”, but doesn’t really get to the “why”. Why is this team failing in every facet in which it succeeded last season? Why are we committing dumb penalties? Why is the play calling so elementary? Why is the defense and run game crumbling? Why is our quarterback – and on a larger scale – our team, choking in big moments and continually coming up short???

Expectations, that’s why.

If you’ve watched the Bengals this season, then you know that we are arguably the best team in NFL history…when we get down by three scores. Palmer gets in a rhythm, the offense clicks, the blocking tightens, the defense gets big stops, and the team starts to look like we hoped it would. Carson is throwing bombs to our high profile receivers like it’s 2005 all over again, the line is opening huge holes for Ced Benson to plow through, the defense is hitting the quarterback, the secondary is locking down receivers, and the coaching staff starts to show some gumption.

And then you look at the scoreboard and realize that half the game has already gone by, and that a couple good possessions doesn’t put you back in the lead. It happens like clockwork. We get down by 20 or so, mount a comeback, and then come up short. We wait until the pressure is completely gone, claw our way back, and then coddle into the fetal position once things get intriguing. The 2010 Bengals are always flirting with victory, but still end up going home alone at the end of the night, a tease that can’t seal the deal when it counts.

Last year’s Bengals were coming off a four win season with no expectations of greatness. Winning tight games and shocking opponents was easy, because no one ever saw it coming. But once the target was on our backs, with people buzzing about back-to-back playoff appearances and a shot at a Super Bowl run, the Bengals buckled, crumbled, and collapsed. In the words of Public Enemy, “Don’t believe the hype.”

But somehow, it still gets to me. Regardless of everything I’ve told you, it still tears me up week after week to watch my team waver. I enter the game accepting of their faults and expecting them to struggle, and yet it still sticks in my craw all the same. It’s like watching The Perfect Storm over and over, and still being shocked and upset every time that little boat gets demolished out at sea.

Eventually, things will turn around for the Cincinnati Bengals. (Really, they will.) It’s why I hang around, and why every fan of every sport hangs around through tough times. And when the tide does finally turn in our favor, it will undoubtedly be worth it. It just won’t be this season.

The Bengals have some major decisions in the near future – coaching, personnel, and attitude decisions. Maybe things will change. Maybe next year, when the heat has died off and expectations are far from great, the team can turn it around. Maybe they can change their fortunes for the next five years. Maybe even 10. Either way, I’ll rely more on proof than hype, more on the walk than the talk. Expectations are wasted if the evidence can’t live up to them.

There’s no better rule.

Thanks for reading

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Rise and Fall of Carson Palmer

"I can see that it won't be long / You grow cold when you keep holding on / You know you've changed and your words they lie / That's something you can't deny."

-David Bowie

A few weeks ago, I went home for the weekend. My dad and I were talking about our beloved (and struggling) Cincinnati Bengals, and most notably the play of Carson Palmer. The former #1 overall draft pick and two-time Pro Bowl quarterback was once the anointed one, chosen to lead us out of purgatory and remove the long-standing Curse of the Bengals. But now…I don’t know. Following the knee injury in 2005, Carson has been steadily rolling down hill. It took us Bengals fans a while to admit it, but it’s impossible to ignore. His numbers dropped in ’06 and ’07. He had the elbow injury in 2008 and a “game-manager” Division Championship season in 2009. And now, well…

When I was talking to my dad, I told him that I was going to give Carson three weeks. Three weeks to show what he had to offer. Three weeks to go against the Panthers, Browns, and Buccaneers, defenses that “2005-Palmer” would have chopped up like a chef at Benihana. Three weeks for Carson to prove who he was and what type of quarterback he was going to be.

The three weeks are up, and all I’ve learned is that our quarterback, and (subsequently) our football team, is just not very good.

Let’s start with Palmer – the sad and tragic story of Carson Palmer. It’s tough to find a place to begin. Anyone that remembers the Palmer of 2005 knows that this guy was the real deal. Over 67% completion rate, over 3,800 passing yards, over 30 touchdowns, and over a 101 QB rating. He earned a spot at the Pro Bowl and led the Bengals to their first Division Championship since Bush Sr. was in office. He was easily a Top 5 quarterback in the league. Aside from Manning and maybe Brady, there wasn’t anyone you would rather start a franchise around.

You probably remember what happened next. On the second-play of the playoff game, eternally-damned Kimo Von Oelhoffen rolled his fat-ass in to Carson’s knee, shattering our chances at winning the game (which we would have done) and altering the future direction of our franchise. From that moment forward, everything turned south. You can argue whether it took a more mental or physical toll on Palmer, but it’s obvious it had an impact. There was never a sudden or sharp decrease, yet Palmer’s play has been trending downward ever since.

It was tough for Cincinnati fans (and honestly, many people outside of the city) to admit that the current version of Palmer isn’t the same guy as “2005-Palmer”, which speaks a lot to the type of person that he is. Carson has always been well liked by fans around the city and by talking-head sports analysts around the country. He’s a nice guy. He never points the finger at anyone else. He’s quiet, works hard, and goes about his business. You’ll never hear about him calling out another teammate, getting a DUI at 4:30 in the morning, or texting pictures of his private parts to the team’s cute sideline reporter. He’s just an overall good dude, and a great example that a person’s character can cloud the perception of their overall performance.

For the past few years, there have been plenty of excuses made to account for Palmer’s sub-par play. He was coming off the knee injury. He had a new offensive line. Chad Ochocinco didn’t come to offseason programs. He had an elbow injury. He was coming back from the elbow injury. He had a new batch of receivers. His offensive line was inexperienced. His team was focusing more on the run game. You name the problem, and people had an excuse for it – teammates, coaches, opponents, analysts, fans…whoever. But maybe, just maybe, it was Palmer’s fault all along.

We make excuses for the people we care about. Ask anyone that’s ever had a stupid, incompetent but good-intentioned family member. It’s human nature. We defend the people we like, and vice versa. If Ben Roethlisberger comes back from his suspension and plays terrible, it will have nothing to do with his receivers or the offensive line or his coaches. It will be on him, because most people think Roethlisberger is a giant scumbag (which he is). People didn’t defend JaMarcus Russell. People didn’t defend Ryan Leaf. No one made excuses for those quarterbacks. That’s not a coincidence.

I am as guilty as anyone of being a Carson Palmer apologist, for all the same reasons that I just mentioned. In Cincinnati, Carson was the knight in shining armor, the leader, the messiah. We had a legitimate quarterback that stood up for our team, always took the blame when things went wrong, and never sexually assaulted a college student in a bathroom stall. Sure, he was easy to love when he was throwing 30 touchdown passes. But even when he was throwing 15-20 picks with a QB rating in the low 80s, we still talked up all the positives, and just tossed aside the other stuff. He was obviously talented, so his struggles couldn’t possibly be his responsibility. For years, we – you, I, the media, everyone – made ourselves believe this. And as hard as it is for me to admit, we were lying. We were wrong.

Carson Palmer is a mediocre quarterback, at best, right now. He has proven this to me over the past three weeks, and in all honesty, has been proving this to everyone over the past three seasons. If you want proof, you can look at his stats, but those don’t even tell the whole story. Just watch him play, and you’ll see a guy who doesn’t sense pressure well, nor does he respond to it well when he does sense it. He locks on to receivers, forces passes into coverage, takes bad sacks, and doesn’t know when to throw the ball away. And even worse, his physical skills still seem to be fine. He has the arm to make all the throws. It seems like it’s all in his head. And that’s an injury that is damn near impossible to get fixed.

Palmer has become that smoking hot girl you marry right out of college. She has it all. She’s gorgeous, smart, funny, comes from a good family, and has a limitless future. You would be an idiot not to wife-her-up. And for the first couple years, she’s everything you ever dreamed of. Then things start to change. She gets sick of her job, and her best friend moves away. She always seems down in the dumps, and isn’t nearly as much fun as she used to be. She has a couple kids, and her body never really goes back to the way it was. But what’s worse, she is so depressed and feels so unattractive, that she does nothing to fix it. She stops taking care of her body. She doesn’t even attempt to fix herself up anymore, and no matter how hard you try to cheer her up, nothing works. She’s a shell of what she used to be. She says she’s fine when you both know she’s not. She even makes you feel depressed. You try to reason that you know the girl she once was and that she’s just stuck in a rut, but you can’t get passed it. You try to ignore the (lack of) attraction aspect, but her disheartened attitude just makes it even more glaring. You want to stay together for the kids and to try and get back what you once had, but in reality, the relationship is ruining both of your lives. As sad as it sounds, the best thing for the both of you might be a divorce.

The Cincinnati Bengals are not a good football team this year. A lot of that is due to Carson Palmer. A lot of that is also due to other things wrong with this football team (which I won’t go in to at the current time). But I’ve accepted it. I’m not happy about it, but I’ve accepted it. I will still root for them just as hard, will still wear my Bengals gear, and will still refer to the team as “we”, same as I always have; that doesn’t change. But I am no longer operating under the idea that our team is going to have a successful season. I’ll hope for the best, but anything more than that is just a shovel for my own grave.

There is no use lying to myself. Our team, who steamrolled through the division last year on our way to an impressive record and deserved playoff berth, is not good. Our quarterback, who once had elite NFL status, who once had the league at his fingertips, the adoration of a city at his feet, and opposing defenses by the balls, is not good. It pains me to say it. It tears me up inside. But it’s the truth.

I’m no fan of country music, but there’s a Toby Keith song where he sings, “I ain’t as good as I once was / I got a few years on me now / But there was a time, back in my prime / When I could really lay it down.” That should be Carson Palmer’s theme music. There was a time when you could argue he was the best in the game. Alas, that time is no more.

It’s been a long and tragic fall. And as sad as it sounds – as tough as it is to admit – the best thing for both parties just might be a divorce.

Thanks for reading

Monday, October 11, 2010

Running Diary of NLDS Game 3 - Phillies vs Reds: The Day Cincinnati Sports Died

Welcome to Great American Ballpark in beautiful Cincinnati, Ohio. The Cincinnati Reds, down 2-0 in the NLDS to the Philadelphia Phillies and on the verge of elimination, are about to begin their first home playoff game since 1995. What had set up to be one of the most exciting days in the history of Cincinnati sports, with the Bengals playing at home earlier in the day, is beginning to look bleak. The Bengals completely choked away a late game lead to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a few hours prior to the first pitch, which certainly hasn’t helped the mood for the evening’s big match-up. Nevertheless, the park is packed and ready to go. The city seems to realize how rare days like these are.

Brian Anderson and Joe Simpson have the call for us on TBS…

8:01 – Hall of Fame and Big Red Machine second baseman Joe Morgan throws out the first pitch, and the Cincy crowd is pumped. A lot of respect shown for Joe. Although in all fairness, I could have thrown out the first pitch and they would probably still go nuts. That’s what a 15 year playoff-drought will do to you.

8:07 – Reds’ starter Johnny Cueto’s first pitch is a ball, as the flashbulbs go wild. Impressive how juiced up this crowd is, like a new freshman girl during her first weekend at Ohio University.

8:09 – Polanco singles up the middle to start the game. Not a good start.

8:13 – Phillies’ first baseman Ryan Howard hits a bloop single to left. Runners on first and third with two outs.

8:17 – And the sports day from hell picks up right where the Bengals left off. Cabrera fields what seemed to be an inning-ending grounder, but the throw pulled Joey Votto off the bag at first. The error scored a run, giving Philly a 1-0 lead.

8:22 – Drew Stubbs comes to the plate first in the bottom of the inning and beats out an infield single.

8:23 – Victorino robs a Phillips liner in the gap, a sure extra base hit that would have tied the game. Great American would have exploded if that had found some grass.

8:35 – Did you guys know Conan O’Brien was getting a new show on TBS? They’ve been pretty quiet about it.

8:44 – Jay Bruce smacks a two-out single, but Cabrera follows up with a strikeout to end the second. Pitchers are looking good so far in this one.

8:54 – Cueto fans Chase Utley in the third, and the crowd loves it. Mainly because Utley is a greasy haired cheater with stupid facial hair.

9:06 – You know what makes me think of October playoff baseball? Yup, you guessed it TBS: Kid Rock. (“I was booooorrnnnnn freeeeeeeee!!!!”)

9:14 – Cueto finishes off the Phils in the top of the fourth. If it wasn’t for the blunder by Cabrera, this game would be knotted at zeros right now.

9:17 – I switched over to the Sunday Night Football game during the commercial (PHI @ SF) just in time to hear Cris Collinsworth say, “Patterson got Frank Gore through the back door there.” Yeah, I giggled.

9:22 – Scott Rolen just smacked a single up the middle for his first hit of the postseason. As one of the most experienced players on this young Reds team, we really needed him to have a good series. Hasn’t happened so far.

9:29 – Joe Simpson, talking about Cueto’s slider, said: “He might try to get it in the back door here.” Yeah, I giggled again. I’m such a child.

9:32 – Uh oh. Utley hits a solo homer to center field, 2-0 Phils. Some Cincy fan did his best Bartman impression, although I don’t think Stubbs could have gotten to it. Still, what kind of people come from this town?

9:41 – Reds send Miguel Cairo in to pinch hit for Cueto in the bottom of the fifth. Cueto’s stat line: 5 innings pitched, 5 hits allowed, 2 runs allowed, only 1 of them earned. Great game by Cueto tonight; he really showed up. Too bad the bats didn’t.

9:45 – Hey, I think Conan O’Brien has a new show starting on TBS.

9:53 – Rolen mishandles a grounder to third. I didn’t expect him to light the world on fire, but I would have never guessed he would struggle like this. The man had eight errors all season, and already has two in the series. And on that note, Brandon Phillips, who had three errors all year, had two in Game 2. And finally, a team with only 72 errors through 162 regular season games, has seven errors through their first three playoff outings.

10:04 – Likely NL MVP Joey Votto goes down swinging; Hamels goes 1-2-3 to end the sixth. He’s looking good tonight. The Reds are not. (Literally though, Hamels is a good looking guy. Don’t hate, just appreciate.)

10:25 – Jay Bruce hits a hard liner to right, but directly at Phillies’ outfielder Jason Werth. The Reds hit three balls right on the button this inning, and only had a Ramon Hernandez double to show for it. They can’t catch a break tonight. Still 2-0 Philadelphia.

10:48 – Flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman comes in to pitch the 9th for the Reds. Get your radar guns ready.

10:53 – 105? How can you hit something that small when it’s going 105 mph?

10:59 – And we head to the bottom of the 9th, the Phillies still holding a 2-0 lead. If the Reds have any tricks left in the bag, they better show them now. By the way, Conan is on TBS

11:02 – Phillips rips a single to left field to start the inning. Crowd is going ballistic. Have to give them an A+ for effort tonight. Votto is coming to the plate. If it was ever going to happen, I think it has to happen now.

11:05 – Votto grounds into a crowd-silencing double play. It doesn’t look like it’s in the cards for us this year.

11:08 – Rolen, our last hope, goes down swinging on a high fastball. The symbolism is astounding: we gave it our best shot, but couldn’t quite keep up with the big boys. Philly sweeps. It was fun while it lasted.

Rough series for the Redlegs. It was nice to be back among the league’s elite teams, and yet disappointing all the same. But before we break out the booze, let’s tip our caps to the Cincinnati Reds; Division Championships don’t come around like rainy days in April.

Somehow, I feel like the Bengals loss earlier in the day had an impact on this one. This city (as most seem to) lives and dies with its sports teams. Today, we died. There could be a lot of DUIs and suicides in the Queen City tonight.

But hey, at least we aren’t Cleveland.

Thanks for reading

Thursday, September 30, 2010

And This One Belongs To The Reds

Tough to script it any better.

As the crack off of Jay Bruce’s home-run swing rang out in Great American Ballpark, a sound amplified by both the sweet part of the bat and the gravity of the situation, the Cincinnati Reds clinched the National League Central Title. The game ended, literally and figuratively, with a bang.

For the first time since 1995, the Cincinnati Reds are in the playoffs, earning a postseason berth with a 3-2 victory over the Astros on Tuesday night. The Reds – the first professional baseball team back in 1869, a team that beat the 1919 “Black Sox” in the World Series, a team that dominated the 1970s as the “Big Red Machine”, a team that shocked the league by winning the title in 1990 – are finally back at the top of the standings.

The last time the Redlegs were playing ball in October, Barry Larkin was MVP, Larry Sanders was in his prime, and Bret Boone (not Bob Boone, not Aaron Boone) was in the midst of his stint with the ballclub. It has been a long, loooonnnggg drought since then, save for a ’99 season that resulted in 96 wins, but no playoff berth. There was a lot of blame to be passed around during those years. Now, there are finally a lot of congratulations to dish out.

First and foremost, a great deal of credit is due to Walt Jocketty, General Manager of the team. Since being named to the position in 2008, Jocketty has promised to bring success and championships to Cincinnati. I, among many others, was skeptical at the time. Some of the moves and decisions he has made since then left me scratching my head and feeling even more skeptical. Turns out the man had a plan all along, which is why he is the General Manager of a baseball team, and I’m just a jackass college kid writing this column.

Credit should also be served to both CEO Bob Castellini and manager Dusty Baker who brought respect and experience to an organization that desperately needed it. Baker is a man that has taken a lot of flack in the past for coming up short and not being able to get things done (most notably in Chicago), but it’s hard to argue that he had a positive impact with this team. He did a great job of managing the mix of veterans and youngsters, and I think his loyalty to his players (which some have said has aided in his past shortcomings) really paid off with this squad. Castellini deserves recognition for taking a mid-market ballclub with a mid-market payroll to the top of the division, especially in one that includes the bigger-payroll St. Louis Cardinals and mega-payroll Chicago Cubs. That’s not an easy thing to do in a league with no salary cap.

But even with all the work that Jocketty, Castellini, and Baker have done to reach this point, you certainly can’t neglect the players. Joey Votto (who should be named the NL MVP this year) has paced the team all season with his Triple Crown-esque numbers, and proven that St. Louis no longer has the best first baseman in the game. Brandon Phillips was a rock in the field and at the plate. Scott Rolen and Orlando Cabrera have added stable, calming, veteran influence, something that was necessary on a team with a bunch of youngsters. At the time, the signings of both players seemed about five seasons too late. But again, I’m just a jacka…well you get the point.

You also have to applaud the young, everyday players like Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce; true, their play throughout the season was more erratic than the mood swings of a 17-year-old girl, but they always seemed to come up big when they had to, something that was never more obvious than during the clinching game on Tuesday (Bruce with the game-winner, Stubbs with a 2-run homer-robbing catch earlier in the night). The bench came up huge too, with guys like Hanigan, Heisey, Nix, Janish, and Cairo filling in very well when called upon.

But the most impressive aspect of the team, far and away, was the performance of the young pitching. Bronson Arroyo served as the elder statesman, setting the stage for the youthful cannons of Cueto, Volquez, Wood, Leake, and Bailey. Oh, and then there is flame-throwing reliever Aroldis Chapman, fresh off the boat from Cuba, who makes throwing 104 mph fastballs look easier than selling cocaine to Lindsay Lohan. Sure, the kids had some hiccups along the way, but for a bunch of guys barely older than me to come in and play the way they did this season, remarkable doesn’t even begin to describe it.

And finally, the best thing about all of this – the players, the management, the season as a whole – is what it means for the city of Cincinnati and major league baseball. The truth is, the game of baseball is better off when a team like Cincinnati plays well and has success, similar to the Chicago Bears in football, the New York Knicks in basketball, and the Montreal Canadiens in hockey. Aside from that, it’s great for the city. Ask anyone who was around during the 70s (umm…not me), and they’ll tell you how electric Cincinnati was, all because of guys like Rose, Morgan, and Bench.

The city, which most would probably consider a “middle-class” area, has been hit hard by the economic downturn. A good baseball club helps to alleviate some of those problems. Plus, for the first time since the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, both professional sports teams are relatively successful. The Bengals (whom I promise to comment on in a couple weeks) went to the Super Bowl during the ’88-’89 season, followed by a Reds’ World Series win in ’90. A pair of Division Championships between the two teams (Bengals last year, Reds now) might not exactly measure up, but at least it’s a start. Cincinnati doesn’t always get a lot of credit for being a downtrodden sports town (thanks largely to the LeBron-less losers up north), but for the better part of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, we were bottom-rung. At least for now, we are dregs no more.

Can the Reds keep it going? Can they streak towards an NL Pennant, or even a sixth World Series ring? Hard to say. The San Francisco Giants don’t exactly put the fear of God into me, and the Atlanta Braves don’t appear to have the horses to keep up. But the Philadelphia Phillies are a juggernaut, and there are numerous clubs in the AL that will give the Reds more than a little trouble. Nevertheless, the Reds have a shot, something you couldn’t have said for the past decade and a half. Heck, if they can keep this squad intact and focused, they could have a shot for the next few years. But that’s not important. What’s important is where they are now. It’s not quite the top, but it’s getting close. And at the present time, the air up here smells pretty damn sweet.

Thanks for reading