Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Pleasant Surprise

Often times my role takes me away from hard core sports and to places where I meet the everyday heroes of life. Last week I went to see the daughter of Jackie Robinson, Sharon Robinson, give out an award at Lakota Ridge Junior High in West Chester. The award is part of the Breaking Barriers essay contest for students in grades 4-8. Sharon Robinson runs the program for Major League Baseball. She is a wonderful person who loves the students and gave an inspiring account of what made he father tick. It's the same thing that makes Lakota Ridge 8th grader Meggie Zahneis tick. She won the contest out of close to 10,000 entrants from the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Meggie is a terrific writer and made a big impression on Ms. Robinson. She also made a huge impression on myself and photographer Paul Mato. Here is a link to the story that aired on WLWT that evening. Meggie sent me a nice Thank You note for covering her event, and I thank her deeply for the nice note. Meggie also included the following narrative about the day. It is written from the point of view of her eyeglasses. Yes, she is a talented young lady and in the short time I talked with her she displayed a keen sense of humor. Thanks again to Meggie and Sharon Robinson for allowing us to meet such inspiring people and to be part of a nice, inspiring day!

If Eyeglasses Could Talk…

Finally! It was almost 6 a.m., and though the sun had started to rise, I was feeling pretty lonely after spending the night alone on the kitchen table. My owner, Meggie, snatches me as soon as she plods downstairs, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. The day starts fairly normally; after Meggie’s teeth are brushed and he backpack packed, she gives her mom the obligatory have-a-good-day kiss, and we head out the door. But today, surprisingly, was different. I could sense Meggie was a little jittery during first-period English, and I start to wonder what was going on as the day wears on. Meggie seems restless, as if anticipating something.

Then, at last, I begin to unravel the mystery that was her excitement. After 6th period, I hear a PA announcement calling Meggie to the guidance office. As she practically runs down the hall, I catch a glimpse of a woman in the office window. I don’t know who she is, yet her face looks vaguely familiar and I can’t help thinking I know her from somewhere. But where? As Meggie impatiently yanks open the office door, I instantly become enveloped in a giant hug from the mystery woman, and caught in a blur of excited voices. It’s then that Meggie finally sheds some light on the woman’s identity, with an ecstatic uttering of, “It’s so great to meet you, Ms Robinson!” So that’s who it is! Of course; Sharon Robinson! I’d seen here face before, on the dust jacket of her books. She’s the daughter of Jackie Robinson! After being temporarily jarred by her monster hug, I recover and revel in Meggie’s big moment. But I still don’t know why on earth Sharon Robinson is here, at Meggie’s school, right in the middle of 7th period!

I soon find out. Meggie joins a posse of relatives, teachers, and classmates in the school gym, which is packed full of students, teachers, and even a few guys with fancy cameras. What is going on here? Then the principal, Mr. Gendreau, starts talking and the gym suddenly gets quiet. I notice that for some reason, Meggie and I aren’t sitting with her classmates. Instead, we sit on some folding chairs next to a podium. My curiosity mounts as Mr. Gendreau reminds everyone to be a considerate audience. The secret is then finally revealed – he introduces Meggie as the grand prize winner of Scholastic and Major League Baseball’s Breaking Barriers essay contest!

Meggie then steps up to the podium, quivering with nervousness and pushing me up further on her nose, Then she takes a deep breath and loudly, clearly begins reading from what I guess is her winning essay. Wow! Am I ever a proud pair of glasses! It amazes me to see the world through Meggie’s eyes; I’m looking out at the crowd of hundreds of people gathered, listening intently to what she is saying, loving every moment of it, just as I know Meggie is. My lenses even start to mist up a little bit.

After the presentation by Ms. Robinson, I’m surprised to see a TV reporter rushing up to Meggie. He introduces himself as George, and requests an interview, which Meggie quickly grants. I sure hope by lenses are clean! I stare straight at the camera as Meggie fields George’s questions. Although I am excited, I can’t help but feel a little intimidated by the shockingly bright light emitted by the cameraman’s equipment.

Then, once the interviews are over, we quickly head to Meggie’s teacher’s classroom Mrs. Redman is waiting there with the class. Ms. Robinson signs copies of her book for everyone, and soon it’s time to go home and get ready again – I’m told Meggie, her brother Nick, and I get to go on the field at the Cincinnati Reds game!

We get home with just enough time for Meggie to tear open her new laptop computer, and wow, is it ever a nice one! It’s so think and light that at first I couldn’t believe my lenses. This day was beginning to feel more and more like Christmas morning in the middle of May!

When we got to the ballpark later that night, I couldn’t wait to me Lorrie from the Reds and get the party started! First, though, Meggie and I take in a little batting practice from the stands and meet up with some family members. Then we make our way to the ticket office, where we finally meet Lorrie and another Breaking Barriers winner. Before long, Meggie’s parents bid adieu and Nick, Meggie and I follow Lorrie around the park to the field. Along the way, we pick up Ms. Robinson and get a standing ovation from some people in the Crosley Room. I feel so important! Next, we head down through a tunnel, passing the visitor’s clubhouse, the umpires’ suite, and finally the visitor’s dugout, my excitement mounting all the way. At long last, we’re on the field! It’s truly amaxing to take in – I was astounded by the sheer size of the place. I’m still in awe of the whole thing.

Then Lorrie positions us on the field and tells us to look straight ahead at a camera I can’t seem to find. Regardless, Meggie and Jacob, the other contest winner, smile and wave happily, while I bask in it all, glad to be along for the ride. We go back to the seats and take in the game.

Later that night, after everyone has gone to bed and I’m once again alone on the kitchen table, I think back on what a great day it’s been. I know I’ll never forget it, but at the same time, I can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring.

Thanks to everyone who helped make it an unforgettable day!
Meggie Zahneis

Quick Takes On A Busy Week

I would have liked to have seen the Reds make their player moves a little sooner, but at least they haven't waited until it's too late. Mike Leake will get another chance, but I would be all for Dontrelle Willis if he were healthy. Chris Heisey needs to take advantage of the extra at-bats now if he wants to become an everyday player in the major leagues. No matter what happens on the rest of the road trip, the Reds will still be a player in the N.L. Central. Good Luck to Francisco Cordero getting career save number 300. He picked up his 299th Tuesday night in Philadelphia. It means a lot to the big guy. He will become only the second pitcher from his homeland of the Dominican Republic to reach that plateau. Cordero tells us that is a huge deal in the Dominican, and a big deal to his family. Coco almost becomes misty-eyed when he talks of being in the 300 saves club with fellow Dominican Jose Mesa. Mesa finished his career with a total of 321, so there is a chance Cordero can become the all-time leader among Dominicans before the end of the season.

I don't think it is posturing from Mike Brown. He will not entertain trade offers for Carson Palmer. That is silly and stubborn and in spite of what is good for the team. However, I believe should Carson sit out the upcoming season, Brown will begin entertaining offers before next year's draft. Mike probably figures he will only be getting picks in the 2012 draft for Carson anyway, so make #9 put his cards on the table.

By the way, the fact Carson had a chance to talk to the media at a golf tournament last weekend but declined tells me ta lot. He condones and agrees with the "trade or retire" demand we have yet to hear come from his lips. What we don't know is why. I'm sure he doesn't like a lot about the way the organization is structured and probably feels there is another way that would make winning more of a possibility. But the timing of the leak of the trade demand, and his silence about the rehiring of Marvin Lewis tells me he might have a problem with the coaching situation and that might be what drove him over the edge.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Edinson Right, But Wrong To Say It

If anyone but Edinson Volquez had called out the Reds offense, there would be no issue. After surrendering 7 runs, 6 earned, and not making it out of the third inning, Volquez opted to focus on the Reds offense after the 12-4 loss to the Indians. Volquez told reporters that "Everybody has to step up, start to score some runs. In the last five games, how many runs have we scored? Like 13? That's not the way we were playing last year. We're better than that."
Volquez should take a long look in a mirror and think about the 10 starts he has made this season. He has yet to work more than 6 innings, and he has only made it that deep into a game three times. But there is more wrong with the Reds at this moment that one pitcher who gets the ball every five games.
The offense is getting little or nothing from the shortstop position recently. And less than that from the struggling Jonny Gomes. Dusty Baker has stuck with Gomes longer than a lot of managers would, and now it appears others with start soaking up the at-bats.
What makes it seem even worse is the fact the Reds are heading to Philadelphia for a four game series. The Phillies have struggled offensively as well, but they can afford it when they have the best starting pitching in the game. Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay are Cy Young Award winners, while Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels have a history of getting the best of the Reds. Plus, the Phillies will get second baseman Chase Utley back, just in time for the series opening Monday night.
So while it seems bleak right now, the Reds just have to find a way to weather the storm. It's too early to get blown out, but they need to stop the bleeding. In 2010 they were able to do that, but they also suffered through two five-game losing streak last year. You know the bats will wake up, but can that wake up against the dominant starting pitching of the Phillies? That's a good question, but not one Volquez should be asking.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

That Didn't Take Long!

With another loss to the Pirates Thursday, the Reds hold on first place is over. It lasted five days. Of all teams, it appears the mighty Pittsburgh Pirates have the Reds number. That's what makes baseball a funny game. Like Jonny Gomes said after the Thursday's 5-3 loss, "Next year it will be some other team that has our number." But this year it is the Pirates. The Reds make the Pittsburgh starting rotation look like the Four Aces of the 1971 Baltimore Orioles. The Pirates have won 5 of their 6 games against the Reds this season, all of those games have been at Great American Ball Park. Charlie Morton has won 2 of those 5 games, allowing just 1 earned run in 18 innings. Kevin Correia was joined by James McDonald as the other two Pittsburgh pitchers to rack up quality starts against the Reds this season. Like they say, don't get mad, get even. But the Reds will have to wait a while for that to happen. They won't face Pittsburgh again until after the All-Star break. Plus, the final 9 games of the season series against the Pirates will all be played in Pittsburgh. That's right, the Pirates are through coming to Cincinnati in 2011 and can rest easy with a 5-1 record here.
Now it is onto the longest road trip of the season, and it is a doozy! Three games at Cleveland (first place in A.L. Central, best record in baseball), four games at Philadelphia (first place in N.L. East and best record in National League), and three games at Atlanta (5 games over .500). If the Reds come back with a 5-5 record on this road trip, I'll take it in a heartbeat. The offense certainly needs to find some consistency again for that to happen. But I feel this team is good enough to make it happen. Hang on for 10 days then the schedule softens up a little. Should the Reds roll on this road trip, great. But a .500 record will be plenty to let me know this team is once again built for the long haul.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Reds and Redbirds, A Red-Hot Rivalry

I feel like I woke up and it is the 1970's all over again. But instead of Pete Rose and the Reds staring down "Popeye" Steve Garvey and the Dodgers, it's Francisco Cordero throwing inside to Albert Pujols and the Cardinals. This red-hot rivalry didn't happen overnight, it just feels that way.
Think back to January, 2006, when Bob Castellini took over majority ownership of the Reds. That very day he talked of modeling the Reds after a team he used to have a minority stake in. That's right, the St. Louis Cardinals. Since then Castellini has poured more St. Louis winning ways into the Reds than Budweiser has poured beer into bottles. Exhibit-A is when former Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty became available. Exhibit-B is when Scott Rolen became available. Castellini had to make a large commitment of dollars to acquire Rolen when everyone else said the veteran third baseman was washed up. Rolen destroyed his ex-team this weekend and was a big reason the Reds snatched first place away from the Cardinals. Not all of the ex-Cardinal moves have worked. Jim Edmonds was at the end of the line when acquired by Cincinnati in 2010 and has since fanned the rivalry flames from the St. Louis side of the fire. The jury is still out on the signing of Edgar Renteria. But you don't need an entire roster of ex-St Louis players to foster a hard-nosed approach to winning baseball.
What you do need is something the Reds lacked for most of the past decade, and that is players who feel there is still some value in winning. That is a polite way of saying players who care. They've had those guys in the past, but not a clubhouse stuffed with them in every corner. Now they do. That comes from the top-down folks. A gruff guy who said he was embarrassed by the way the Reds had fallen on hard times has taken ownership of that team and turned it into Charlie Hustle. Finally, the Reds are standing up to the bully in the division. Sure, it was just a three-game sweep in May. But when a nice man like Francisco Cordero gets ready to throw down, the Reds are onto something.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Big Series, and Cedric Is So Right

The Reds series against the Cardinals this weekend is big. Even though it is early, it's always big when first place meets second place. That's the deal this weekend at Great American Ball Park. But it goes beyond that. As explained in this article on our main web site Marty Brennaman thinks the Reds need a big weekend from a mental standpoint. It should be fun, and there should be big crowds. The Reds need a three-game sweep to take over first place. But winning two out of three would leave Cincinnati just a half game back.

From the "Hammer, meet Nail" department: Cedric Benson hit the nail on the head with his comments about Carson Palmer. Not long after Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said Carson Palmer would be the Bengals starting quarterback if he returns to the team, Benson said it's a bad idea to bring back a disgruntled quarterback. Why do some coaches and front office people and owners find it so hard to see the obvious? Why? Carson is mentally checked out. Even if Carson has a change of heart (like figuring out walking away from so much money is foolish) the Bengals already know his true feelings. They completely blew it a few years back with Ochocinco. Don't blow it again.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Homer Helps

Having Homer Bailey pitch the way he pitched Thursday afternoon is a nice little boost to the Reds. His first outing for the Reds was supposed to be his fourth rehab outing in Louisville, but in retrospect it looks like the Reds caught a break when they had to reschedule Monday night's rainout. Bailey looked loose and easy as he allowed just one run and struck out seven in six innings. Dusty Baker looked relieved to have Bailey back, and will be even more relieved if Jonny Cueto can give a similar effort on Sunday. Bailey and Cueto were being counted on as two-fifths of the Reds starting pitching rotation, but both had injury setbacks in spring training. As Dusty likes to say, the Reds are almost whole again. Fred Lewis has made his way back from injury and contributed a home run off the bench Thursday. Now they await the return of third baseman Scott Rolen. He's eligible to come off the disabled list tomorrow, but that has been ruled out. He could return early next week in Houston. Speaking of Houston, that's where Homer will make his first start. He is a native of Texas and grew up about two hours away from Minute Maid Park. It's the sixth time Homer has visited Houston with the Reds, but oddly enough, he has never pitched in Houston. In fact, next Tuesday he will be making his first pitching appearance in the state of Texas since he was in high school. Homer talked about how crazy it is that he has been there a number of times but was never in line to make an appearance there. But if you are part of Bailey's hometown fans in Texas, get to him early. He said he will take care of as many ticket requests as possible while he is in Chicago over the weekend, but once he gets to Texas, it's all business. Homer also said "if you see a bunch of country people sitting in one section, they're from my part of the country."

Bengals Latest And Phillips Fakes

I made it out to see some Bengals players working out on their own yesterday at Ignition in Mason. Click here to see the story.

The Reds had another interesting ninth inning on Wednesday afternoon. Perhaps most interesting was Brandon Phillips plate appearance. With men on first and second with nobody out and the Reds trailing by a run, Phillips decided it was a good time to bunt. He squared around on the first pitch, then took it for a ball. The next pitch he doesn't square around and takes a strike. So now I'm wondering what in the world is going on? Is he bunting or not. Manager Dusty Baker was wondering the same thing. He didn't give the bunt sign at any point to Brandon. He wanted Brandon to swing away. Phillips just thought it was the right thing to do. He wanted to move the runners to second and third with one out. I thought that was the safe play too. So Phillips squared around on the third pitch but took it for ball two. So then Phillips looks down to third base and sees Mark Berry give a fist pump as if to say "hit the dang thing!" So Brandon figured what the heck, I'm giving up on this idea of a sacrifice and swinging away. He comes through with a single to score the tying run, and Jay Bruce finished the game with the walk off double on the very next pitch. Brandon's situation was very interesting for the baseball purists. If he hits into a double play, or fails to move the runners with pop out or a fielder's choice, it would have been "second-guess city" for Baker. But Dusty gives his players plenty of rope to allow his players to success, and it's worked very well with this bunch.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Bengals Move, Palmer Sits

While the dust settles from the NFL draft, the big neon sign from the Bengals war room says the Carson and Ochocinco era is over. Carson Palmer is the interesting subject here. When he went to Mike Brown and demanded to be traded, Palmer appeared to hold all of the cards. The second round choice of Andy Dalton changed everything. Now Carson will get his wish if there is an upcoming season. He will sit. He will retire. He will listen to the California surf as opposed to hearing cheers, boos, maybe a lot of boos, and referees whistles. Not a bad choice for a guy who has made the money Palmer has made. Maybe Palmer is flat burned out. Whatever the case, the Bengals no longer tie their future success to a guy who has lost his passion to play in Cincinnati. Unless someone bowls Brown over with an offer of draft picks, and it's contingent on the deal happening before the 2011 season, Mike has no reason to be in a hurry. The Bengals will most likely want draft picks (or a pick) for Palmer. Those picks are the same now as they will be after the 2011 season. Mike can't use those picks until April, 2011, or beyond. So why should he be in a hurry? He can afford to let Carson sit. Sure, there's a chance Palmer's value could deflate if he sits out a season. But based on this past weekend with teams reaching high for quarterbacks there is reason to believe someone will hold Palmer in high regard. If Jake Locker is worth the 8th overall pick, surely Palmer could fetch a late first round pick. Look at Carolina for an example of how quarterback crazy the league has become. They spend a second round pick on Jimmy Clausen in 2010, then the top overall pick for Cam Newton in 2011. So let's say any of the quarterbacks drafted this weekend are busts, then Palmer could be in high demand after the season. The problem for Brown and the Bengals, Andy Dalton better not be that bust.

As for the rest of the draft:
The Bengals appeared to help themselves with A.J. Green, Dalton, linebacker Dontay Moch, offensive lineman Clint Boling, and safety Robert Sands. This could be two solid drafts in a row. But drafting is half the battle. Development is the rest. Development has been a huge problem for the Bengals. Mike Brown points to the failed draft of 2005 as an example of how the Bengals development program came off the rails. Brown likes to pretend that draft blew up in the Bengals faces unexpectedly. But there were known risks with that draft. There is hope. Last year's draft picks all seemed to improve as the season went along. When finally given a chance Jerome Simpson (what took so long????!!!) was able to show he had learned a thing or two. Now the Bengals have new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden (a former college quarterback) and a respected wide receivers coach in James Urban. That should be a big positive when developing Dalton and Green.
(Although in Green's case, I don't know how much developing is needed. He appears NFL ready.)