The SportsTalk Shop: 2016 Predictions: Mid-Year Update

Each December both here at the “SportsTalk Shop” and on our TV show, “SportsTalk”, panelists and I make some sports-based predictions for the new year.  I don’t get caught up in the prediction business ordinarily, but it’s become a bit of a tradition around the holidays to make a couple bold statements to go along with resolutions (of which I don’t do nearly as well).

While some sports prognosticators love to boast about how accurate they are with their futuristic insights, I make it a habit of going back and making public my predictions, and owning up to any that don’t come true.  (I’d also like to take a miniscule amount of credit for the ones that work out—I’m owed at least as much, right?)

Since we’re over the halfway point through the calendar year, and before we start ramping up our fall football coverage (which will be bigger and better than ever before!), I think I should take a peek at how some of my predictions are holding up and make myself accountable for any gaffes on my part.

Philly pro sports teams will win LESS games in 2016
The 2015-16 76ers certainly lived up to their end of my prediction.  Aside from forcing out the team’s General Manager, Sam Hinkie, they were near perfect in their quest for futility, reaching new levels of bad play, even with pressure from Jerry Colangelo (and the league office?) to try to improve.

My prediction will take a hit with the idea that the Sixers will try to go after some more recognizable free agency in all probability this offseason.  They might also win a few more games than expected if they select Brandon Ingram with the first pick in this month’s NBA Draft.  Selecting Ingram would make the team better—short-term—than if they select Ben Simmons or even draft down a few spots, but I don’t see that much improvement in November and December and still believe they’ll ring up more losses in the 2016 calendar year than they lost in 2015 (but the future is very bright for 2017).

I knew the Flyers were going to be improved, but had no idea that they would be as exciting to watch this past season as they were, to say nothing about making the playoffs and having a few good moments against the Capitals before losing to Washington in the first round of the NHL playoffs.  This team ramped up the speed of its rebuild and, with a few tweaks, will be a middle-of-the-pack playoff team, in not better, for next season.

The Phillies also have surprised me with better than average starting pitching, and the bullpen overcame a woeful start to the season and has pitched better, helping the team to a slightly better record than I had anticipated.  This, despite a woeful offense that had seven position players on the roster hitting below .200 after the first month of the season.

However, the Phillies fell (like a plummeting cannon ball) back to Earth hard and fast during the month of May and show very little signs of making a push to get back above, or probably even near, .500 this summer.

With less than half of the Major League baseball season remaining—which will still probably have more losses than wins, and an Eagles team in, at the very least, a retooling stage following the car wreck of the Chip Kelly Era, I’d say I still have a good chance at nailing this prediction.

The Wizards, Nationals AND Redskins – will have even greater success in 2016
With over half of the MLB season and the entire NFL season yet to come (and I’m looking pretty good for both of these teams), we only have the Wizards to look at.  And on the prediction that they would have a better 2016…I admit I put up a major “airball.”

Off a second-round playoff appearance and loss to a high-quality team, I thought the Wizards could improve and—with the right match-up–the Wiz could actually advance a round further.  However, not only did they take took a major step back in win total, they also didn’t qualify for the post-season, ushering in a quick replacement at the helm by bringing in Scott Brooks (formerly of Oklahoma City) as a new head coach.

Rumors of discontent and players “trading barbs” (according to the Washington CBS sports radio station) spread wildly as they limped home to close out the regular season out of the playoffs.  There are different reports as far as remaining free agent possibilities and other speculation about what direction the team could go in.  Also, players are a little less secure than this time a year ago and the forecast is more ambiguous as far as how good this team will be for the upcoming season, even with one of the most exciting, yet underrated players, in John Wall back on board.  I’ll stick to my guns and say they make a jump for the 2016-17 campaign.

Notice, I did NOT include the Capitals in this mix.  Their back-to-back premature failings in the playoffs have me worried about their future, and I’ll also continue to say (as I did following their playoff exit) that they might actually take a step back in the upcoming year.

2016 will be a successful District XI Wrestling season
I have never claimed to be a wrestling expert, but the fact that we had so many talented underclassmen returning for the 2015-16 wrestling season made it easy for me to say that the Lehigh Valley would have tremendous success at the state tournament in Hershey.

Not only did Bethlehem Catholic come away with convincing (mostly dominating) performances in the team PIAA competitions, but they accomplished this goal against the best the state of Pennsylvania had to offer, by competing in the 3A classifications (as critics had ask for, for a number of seasons).

Individually, District XI featured eight gold medalists and 20 overall medal winners.  Special props go out to Palisades’ Tyler Marsh, the lone wrestler in the RCN viewing area to receive the top scholar athlete award.

For an area that has had a long tradition of great wrestling success, it was a tremendous season all the way around for many different schools and I can unequivocally chalk this one up as one I got correct.

Stay tuned for more sports conversations coming up and don’t forget to check back later in the year as I take a look at the rest of my predictions to see how I fared.

Behind the Mic: Brotherly Love?

Philadelphia was certainly in the limelight this past week with the Democratic National Convention taking center stage.  All of the media had a presence there.  However, there was no national sports media.

I bring this up because Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mike Piazza were inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, July 24.

I watched the great Griffey, Jr. play with the Mariners and the Reds.  His numbers were awesome – 630 home runs, 13 All-Star appearances, 10 Gold Glove Awards, and the statistical list goes on and on.  He received 99.32% of the votes, the highest ever in Hall of Fame history.

Mike Piazza’s story was even more amazing.  As a favor to Dodgers manager, Tommy LaSorda, he was drafted in the 62nd round.  He went on to hit the most home runs by a catcher, bat .308 lifetime, and spent 16 years in the majors.  He was an All-Star 10 consecutive seasons.  He certainly repaid the favor – but mostly as a New York Met.

So what does this have to do with Philadelphia?  The ceremony in Cooperstown made me wonder who the last Philadelphia Phillie was to be inducted into the Hall.  I discovered it has been a while – 21 years to be exact.  On July 30, 1995, Mike Schmidt and Richie Ashburn entered that day.  And Philadelphia celebrated with an estimated 25,000+ fans showing up for the induction ceremony.

Twenty-one years is a long time.  And it will only get longer, it appears.  As you look at the list of “potential” Phillies to get a consideration, you come up empty.  Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Bobby Abreu will all probably come up short.  Jim Thome, Scott Rolen, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Curt Schilling could possibly get in.  Just not as Phillies.

And it’s not just the Phillies casting a pall over the Philadelphia sports scene.  The Eagles’ last Hall-of-Famer was Reggie White – 24 years ago.  The 76ers’ last was Charles Barkley in 2006.  And neither of these teams appears to be going to get someone in their respective Halls very soon.  Flyers’ fans certainly remember their Hall of Famers Bill Barber (1990), Bobby Clarke (1987), and Bernie Parent (1984), but their inductions were a long time ago.  Mark Howe was the last Philadelphia professional inducted in 2011 in The National Hockey League Hall of Fame.

So as much as we admire the Piazzas and the Griffey, Jr.s of the sporting world, Philadelphia fans would much prefer seeing one of their professional athletes in the limelight.  National politicians?  Not so much.

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS) 

  1. The Phillies are batting .218 in their home games this year and are scoring 2.92 runs per game at Citizens Bank Park. That’s the lowest run production in any home park in the major leagues.  Buy your ticket and see no offense at all.
  2. Because July 31 was a Sunday, the Major League Baseball trade deadline was extended to 4:00pm on Monday, August 1. As I write this, phone lines around the MLB offices must be buzzing with activity.  Someone might want to trade for the LA Dodgers’ ball girl.  On Sunday, she caught a foul ball traveling at 108.7 miles per hour.
  3. If you need a Lehigh Valley reason to watch the Olympics, then let Joe Kovacs be that reason. Joe, a Bethlehem Catholic graduate, is a medal favorite in the shotput in Rio.  He won the world championships last year.  The final for shot put is August 18 @ 8:00pm.
  4. Sunday produced another great “Major” finish in golf. The PGA Championship came down to the final putt of the final match.  Jimmy Walker (no, not of “Dyn-o-mite” fame) won his first major.  Every major golf tournament this year was won by a first-timer.
  5. The Patriot League Football Media Day was this week, so the pads will be thumping between now and opening day or night. RCNTV has Central Catholic at Freedom on opening night, August 26.

Behind the Mic: Announcing the Masters

As I hope you may have noticed, I have been away from my blog for a bit.  April is a quiet sports month for us here at RCN so it is a good time for me to reunite with my wife and with my golf game.  I managed to do both this past month – I went on a cruise and followed that up with a five-day golf trip.  Those obviously made the month fly by, but it is good to be back at the computer and looking towards the baseball championships coming up this month.

The last major sporting event that I watched prior to vacation was the Masters.  I have always been intrigued by the reverence that the announcers seem to pay to this event.  So I did some research and found that, in 1979, the radio and television announcers were given rules and a terminology guide from the Masters committee that they must follow.  Some have lost their job by not obeying the edict.  Here are a few of the rules:

  • Never refer to the gallery or patrons as a mob or crowd.
  • Never estimate the size of the gallery.
  • Never refer to players’ earnings.
  • Never refer to Masters prize money.
  • De-emphasize the players’ antics.
  • Do not compare any holes at Augusta National with those at another golf course.
  • The water in front of the 13th green is not to be called Rae’s Creek, but a tributary of Rae’s Creek.
  • Make no reference to Masters tickets having been sold out.
  • Make frequent mention of the presentation ceremony to be conducted at the end of the final round.
  • Do not guess where a ball might be.
  • Do not estimate the length of a putt.

 In addition, there is a Terminology and Style Guide which includes the following:

  • Augusta National Golf Club – not Country Club or Golf Course.
  • Patrons – the people in attendance are patrons, not fans or spectators.
  • Second Cut – there is no rough; the higher grass should be referred to as the second cut.
  • Bunkers – they are not sand traps.
  • First nine/Second nine – not front nine and back nine.
  • Groupings – not “threesomes” for rounds one and two.
  • Hole number 1 – not 1st
  • 1st round – preferred term for rounds and Final round for 4th

There are more rules and more terminologies, but you get the idea.  And… if you announce the Masters, you BETTER get the idea.  Gary McCord was fired in 1994 for saying that “bikini wax” was used on the Augusta greens to make them slick and that some of the bunkers around the course looked like “body bags”.  He has not been asked back.  Long-time announcer Jack Whitaker once referred to the gallery as a “mob scene” and the Augusta committee got him removed from the broadcast.

This Masters will be remembered for the collapse of Jordan Spieth in the final round, but I, for one, paid a bit more attention to every word that was spoken during the broadcast.  And, I am quite sure, so did every one of the announcers (if they wanted to keep the job).

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)

  1. Some good news out of Philadelphia – a new Eagles’ quarterback, the Flyers made the playoffs, and, better yet, the Phillies are winning. Light at the end of what has been a very dark tunnel.
  1. Speaking of Eagles’ football, Carson Wentz played for North Dakota State. I did a Lafayette-North Dakota State game in Fargo, North Dakota, back in 2011.  Boy, do they love their football.  It was a packed house at the indoor stadium with the loudest crowd I have experienced.  Lafayette lost 42-6.  There is not much else to do out there.  In the local pub the night before the game, dogs sat on the bar stools and they had a meat raffle!  What?
  1. I mentioned Bourjos, Hernandez, Herrera, Franco, Howard, Galvis, Rupp, and Goedel as the Phillies position players to start the season. However, it has been the pitching staff, both starters and relievers, who have been responsible for the success of the team so far.
  1. As I write this, every team in the National League East, except the Braves, is at .500 or better. The Phillies have the fourth best record in the National League and third best in the NL East.
  1. Jim Best will offer up his blog on this site next week. Thanks to him, John Leone, and Scott Barr filling in for me.

The SportsTalk Shop: Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down

One of the regular elements of the “RCN SportsTalk” program is that on each show, all of our studio panelists identify a person or a group of people in the sports world for doing something extraordinary (“thumbs up”) and calling out a group or individual for doing something excessively bad (“thumbs down”).    Most weeks, I don’t have much difficulty coming up with at least one “winner” to identify on each week’s show/podcast, but some weeks—like this one—I have a hard time trying to limit my choices to one, or even two.

I’m always interested in hearing what our viewers/listeners have to say and love hearing your feedback, and this week, I’d like to extend that invitation to you to help me figure out who is most deserving of these “honors.”

Here are the nominations…

“THUMBS UP” CANDIDATES
Washington Redskins
The rumors are that the Redskins, who had the number-5 overall pick a year ago will not be looking to make a big splash in this year’s draft.  Instead, the word is they’ll be looking to trade down to get more picks (we’ll have more on both the Redskins & Eagles draft options & possibilities on our April 21st “NFL Draft Preview Show.”   I like the idea of Washington continuing to accumulate talent and add capable bodies, in lieu of getting caught up in the hip of a “named” player and think the team is continuing to head in the right direction, fresh of their division title from a year ago.

Villanova Men’s Basketball
I put the Wildcats on here for several reasons…

Not just for the fact that they won a national championship.  Not just that they did it in dramatic fashion (for my money, the most exciting finish to the tournament, EVER).  Not just for the fact that they did not have any “big named” stars, but instead won with fundamentals, great team defense, an outstanding coach and a blue-collar, workmanlike approach in their victories.  BUT…they also handled themselves with class, before, during and after the game (unlike someone else—see below).  For more thoughts and comments on the Wildcats great run, check out last week’s “SportsTalk” podcast here .

Flyers
After some tough losses on Wednesday and Thursday of last week, the team rebounded with a tremendous win over Pittsburgh to not only clinch a playoff berth, but to sweep a weekend pair of games (the second win was against the Islanders) and pay tribute to their owner Ed Snider.  Ed was one of the most passionate owners in sports and tried to do whatever it took to put together a winning team each year.  The gritty effort by the Flyers for most of the season, and especially this weekend, was exactly what that organization was all about for many years, with Mr. Snyder leading the way.   He will be truly be missed by fans, players, coaches and everyone surrounding the Delaware Valley region.

Phillies
As I stated in the above video clip (with a great response by ESPN Radio’s Eytan Shander), there were WAY too many Phillies fans that were panicking last week when the team lost its first four games of the season.  Again, it is a REBUILDING year.  No one—including the front office themselves—is looking at winning anything this season.  Take this year for what it is—the team has accumulated one of the deepest prospect pools in all of the major leagues.  It will be extremely unlikely that at least some of the young players won’t contribute at some point.  Patience is what’s needed here, and it is an exciting time to watch these guys develop, along with a few other somewhat interesting storylines (eg., how will Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz’s final seasons play out, will Darin Ruf earn a full-time spot in the future, will Cody Asche bounce back and more).  The team rebounded with two nice wins in New York and will have their share of well-played games.  But please, stop getting carried away over the wins and losses of this year’s team.  The record isn’t what’s important this summer…the maturation of their young stars IS.

HS spring athletes
I know it’s not uncommon for the scholastic spring sports athletes to deal with unreasonably cold temperatures and poor weather conditions for the first half of their sports season.  I have many memories over the last few years (and once again experienced it last Friday) of sitting in a chair in an open space, trying to make notes on games and capturing video (which is hard to do with gloves on) while the cold, gusty winds blow…to say nothing about what the athletes have to endure (hitting a metal bat is one of the most painful ‘regular’ experiences one can have in sports).  With frigid temperatures all last week and snow cancelling games the last few days, many sports programs are going to have a grueling schedule over the next month playing catch-up to get all their games in, and it’s truly not fun, even playing a sport you love, when the conditions are this bad.  However, our area young people will continue to battle and give themselves a chance to keep playing meaningful games—when the weather finally becomes more athletics-friendly.

*******

“THUMBS DOWN” CANDIDATES
Philadelphia 76ers Front Office
I’m still shaking my head trying to figure out what the heck happened to the “Hinkie process.”  Was this purely a Colangelo-family hostile takeover?  Was the organization strong-armed by the league itself to make a change?  Or was there another conspiracy theory that hasn’t gotten much attention, as we speculated on last week’s program.  We’ll try to get a better assessment of the front office changes and the future direction of the franchise on this Thursday’s “SportsTalk” (live, 7-8pm, RCN-TV) as one of our guest will be Eric Goldwein (who runs the ESPN-affiliated site Hoop76.com) and also covers sports for the Washington Post.

Washington Wizards
Wow, what happened here?  Fresh off an impressive 2014-15 season and an optimistic-to-realistic chance to improve coming into this season, the Wizards fell flat and didn’t even come close to making a late run for a playoff berth—let alone not improving on their performance from a year ago.  There’s plenty of rumors as far as who gets the most blame (along with a CBS report of the players taking shots at each other).  Some long, hard questions will have to be addressed this off-season and the once promising future of this team, centered around the talented John Wall, is now very much in limbo.

North Carolina Men’s Basketball Fans
After losing the championship game to Villanova, the Tar Heel fans were so bothered by their upset loss, that they apparently lost their minds.  They are actually circulating a petition calling for the NCAA to reverse the outcome of the national championship because they questioned one of the referee’s calls.

Seriously?

North Carolinians couldn’t have just graciously accept a thrilling victory by the Wildcats and give them their rightful honor following a tremendous run in the tournament?  I know quite a few people that support the Tar Heels and really feel badly that some of their fellow-supporters tried to give all of their fan base a black eye for a tasteless attempt at redemption.

Chip Kelly
I still haven’t gotten over the way he gutted the team while harboring a nasty attitude towards just about everyone he came in contact with, then tried to take the ‘weasel’ approach after he left by saying he had nothing to do with the 2015 collapse.  I’ll probably keep him on this list for quite some time.

So, let’s hear it!  Who do you think deserves a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” the most?  Email us at rcnsportstalk@rcn.com and hear us read and respond to your opinions on our weekly show/podcast!

The SportsTalk Shop: Biggest Philly/DC Disappointments

Many national pundits had the Eagles going to the Super Bowl this year, and the Nationals were odds-on favorites to win the pennant.

The Birds were flirting with what could have been a catastrophic 1-4 start to their season (it was looking that way following Sam Bradford‘s second red-zone interception in the first half against the Saints on Sunday).  That combined with the fact that the Nats had already crash-landed well before the MLB playoffs got underway last week, got me thinking about some of the major sports disappointments that both Philadelphia and Washington, DC residents have had to endure.

Without question, there have been some horrendous teams in both of these cities.  But I’m talking about having even the most stoic fans getting caught up in a frenzy, ready to ride a sea of momentum to glorious new heights, only to have one’s hopes dashed to smithereens, leaving you feeling emotionally drained when your team failed to live up to the extraordinary expectations.

Just how does this year’s Nationals season and the Eagles slow start compare with the other major sports catastrophes in the region?  For argument’s sake—and to avoid using up too much of the internet’s bandwidth–I thought I better limit my Philly/DC-based disappointments to not more than the last 15 years.

Here are my thoughts on what have been the “other” biggest pro sports disappointments for fans in the RCN viewing area.

The Phillies 2011 Playoffs
From December, 2010 until the final week of the regular season, it seemed like it was a magic carpet ride for Phillies fans.  Launched into a frenzy over the signing of Cliff Lee, the regular season and preliminary playoff rounds were a mere formality, and everyone wanted to see the “Aces” baffling hitters right and left en route to another World Series appearance…and presumed victory.

For reasons I’ll never completely understand, nor agree with, Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel decided to play all of his regulars the final weekend of the season, instead of giving a couple blows to his everyday players, who had started advancing in years (by athletes’ standards, that is).  By playing their top players, and ultimately sweeping the series, the final three of those meaningless games (the Phillies had long since clinched the division title), the team missed an opportunity to rest its players, and knocked its opponents, the struggling Braves, out of the playoff race.  While the last three Phillies wins set a new club record for regular season victories for Manuel, it also gave rise to the hard-charging St. Louis Cardinals, a team the Phils did not match up against well, and positioned the Redbirds into the opposing slot to face the Phillies in the wild card playoffs.

Philadelphia’s tired hitters struggled to gain any traction against the Redbirds after the first game, and the team that everyone assumed would become the greatest Phillies team of all-time, went out with a game-five whimper—a 1-0 loss to St. Louis.  That team might have been the most talented club in the organization’s history on paper, but they failed to bring home a single playoff series win, and started what has become an incredibly long, drawn-out, rebuilding cycle.

The Redskins 2000 season
In 1999, the Skins were coming off a 10-6 season and had won the NFC East.  Mix in a renewed belief that the front office was “all in,” and that a promise of spending money in the offseason fueled the fervor that Washington was beginning to build another dynasty in DC.

They did, in fact, spend money and added some great players, including LaVar Arrington, Bruce Smith, Jeff George, Mark Carrier, Chris Samuels and–last and certainly not least flamboyant–Deion Sanders.  This complemented the return of the core of a talented offensive unit and a number of their defensive players.  Many expected another division title was a no-brainer with many people banking on Washington to at least get to the Super Bowl.  The Redskins won six of its first eight games, before the injuries set in to some of its key offensive players and…of all people, their kicker (sound familiar, Eagles fans?).   Then, Head Coach Norv Turner was let go (perhaps foreshadowing, Philadelphians, especially if the Birds don’t at least get back to 8-8?).

Instead of building on the ’99 team’s success and establishing a string of winning campaigns, Washington ended up losing six of its final eight games and failed to cash in on all the revitalized excitement that the ’99 team brought.

Marty Shottenheimer would then take over the head coaching reins for one fateful season the following year, going 8-8 that fall.  But the failure of 2000 started a seemingly endless cycle of revolving coaches over the last 15 years, with none of the seven subsequent head coaches to follow Turner owning a winning record while at the helm of the Redskins.

The Wizards’ “Michael Jordan Era”
After failing to win a playoff game for over 12 years, it seemed like the Wizards were finally headed back in the right direction when, in January 2000, Michael Jordan became the part owner and President of Basketball Operations.   Aside from his baseball experiment, everything that “MJ” had touched during his career had turned to gold.  His basketball playing career, his merchandising and advertisement campaigns…heck, I even liked “Space Jam.”  With his playing days finally behind him, he could focus completely on revamping the franchise using his acute basketball knowledge and business savvy.  Surely, Jordan would have the Midas touch to turn this franchise around and at least get Washington back into the NBA playoffs—whose eight-team format allows for even the most mediocre teams to have a shot at reaching the post-season.

In a short time, he made some positive moves by shedding payroll and unloading some of the dead weight that existed on the team and it looked like he was moving the franchise in the right direction.  Then came the 2001 NBA Draft and the selection of Kwame Brown (who ended up being traded to the Lakers after four inconsistent seasons).  Jordan brought in his former head coach in Chicago, Doug Collins, as the head coach, followed by his announcement that he, himself, would return as a player.

In his first year back (which followed his second retirement, for those keeping score at home), he battled injuries and the team he assembled was just not good enough to compete.  To his credit, he was active from a personnel standpoint prior to the 2002 season and tried to bring in headline names to improve the team.  While he continued to add talent and even agreed to take a reserve role for the betterment of the team (although he ended the year as the team’s top scorer), the chemistry never worked, and the team failed to finish at or above the 500-mark during his tenure, much less had a chance to make the playoffs.

Jordan was then unceremoniously fired as the team President and left the organization in disgust, pushing back the organization’s rebuild efforts for years.

The team finally has made great strides over the last few seasons, a trend I am fully expecting to continue this winter.  But the failures of Michael Jordan left Washington fans, along with MJ supporters around the world, with an empty feeling, and tainted the final on-court chapter of one of the greatest basketball players of all-time.

The 76ers 2001 Playoff Run
I know.   Philly sports fans could just as easily identify this team as one of its brightest moments over the last 15 years.

To be honest, I don’t remember glorious preseason expectations for the 76ers.  However, the way that the team played in the fall of 2000, led by the gutsy, and largely, very focused efforts of Allen Iverson that year, the 76ers quickly captured the attention of the entire Delaware Valley.  Iverson was living up to all his glorious potential, and the team won 41 of its first 55 games.  Even when starting center Theo Ratliff came down with an injury (he was initially supposed to miss 16-20 games per ESPN), it still seemed like the old-time Philly basketball mojo was flowing strong.  The Lakers were heavily favored to win the championship, but if Ratliff could get healthy, he could combine with Todd MacCulloch, Matt Geiger and Nazr Mohammed to form a formidable “hack-a-Shaq” tandem that could neutralize Shaquille O’Neil, and the Sixers speed could push the tempo and have an advantage against most teams in the post-season.

Until….

February 23, 2001, when the Sixers traded Ratliff, Toni Kukoc (one of just two players with NBA Championship experience) and others to Atlanta for Dikembe Mutombo.

Don’t get me wrong.  Mutombo is not only a wonderful person (he was incredibly gracious the few times I had the opportunity to interview him), a great humanitarian, and one of the best centers—when he was at his peak—of that era.  He was still one of the better centers in the game, but his slow, plodding-style kept the 76ers from utilizing its speed against Los Angeles in the championship round.  Furthermore, while that trade might have looked good on paper, the team never quite recaptured the swagger that it had before the Mutombo trade (the Sixers were 15-12 the rest of the regular season).

Iverson’s late game-one jumper and subsequent iconic stomp over Tyronn Lue became a sports moment few Philadelphians will ever forget.  But I remembered thinking when it happened, something along the lines of “yea, we weren’t suppose to be here, and we’re winning tonight’s game, and all things considered, we’re going to be proud of that moment.”  But the adrenaline rush soon subsided, and the O’Neil/Bryant pairing led Los Angeles to four consecutive victories, in which they outscored the slow-footed Sixers by 40 points in the final four games.

In retrospect, the Sixers certainly exceeded what most people had expected out of that team before the season started.  Much like the 1993 Phillies team, the entire Delaware Valley had gotten swept up in the blue-collar efforts and good vibes through that entire fall and winter season, but the feeling was never quite the same as the 76ers finished out their spring playoff run.  Did they overachieve?  Certainly.  It featured a tremendous team effort and the gritty performances of Iverson, Eric Snow, George Lynch and company.  But the team has never really been the same since, and what could have been still lingers among those long-time fans patiently waiting for the “Hinkie Plan” to develop.

Final Eagles game at the Veteran’s Stadium
If there ever was a time in my life when I thought I could bet the house—literally—on a game, it had to be the Eagles/Buccaneers game in January, 2003.  As someone who grew up—both as a fan and a reporter—at what had become an old, rundown ball field, I thought the “Vet” would work some magic one last time for its final professional football game.  And what a game it was.  The Birds were 12-3 coming in.  Donavan McNabb, the franchise quarterback, was living up to what Head Coach Andy Reid had envisioned when he drafted him.  The Birds had the defense, the offensive playmakers, and special team stars.  Even Mother Nature seemed to be helping out—and Tampa Bay had struggled mightily in cold conditions in previous games, and a wind chill in the teens seemed to be the final signal that the Eagles were finally going to advance to the Super Bowl.

Instead, Philadelphia looked flat, was manhandled physically and truly sent Eagles fans home dejected and with lumps in their throats—and not just because of the sorry way the team closed out its tenure at a worn-out stadium.

That game may be lost in an era of missed opportunities and “what could have beens.”  While optimists can say it was the golden era for Eagles football, one can also point examples of post-season futility.  During a ten-year span where the Birds won six division titles and finished second two more seasons, they lost two Wild Card games, two divisional round playoff games, three conference final losses and a pitiful end to the 2004 Super Bowl.

What are your thoughts on this list?  Should other pro sports teams be included, and where would you rank these, along with the 2015 Eagles and Nationals seasons?  Email your opinions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we might just read your comments on an upcoming “SportsTalk” program.

Behind the Mic: Philadelphia Sports Flops

Late Saturday afternoon, sports fans, I would think, were quite disappointed that they were unable to witness history when California Chrome finished fourth in his bid for the Triple Crown of horse racing. We now must wait for the 37th straight year to see if a 13th horse can win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and create, once again, the excitement generated this past Saturday for the 102,000+ in attendance at Belmont in New York and the millions and millions watching at home. The silence was deafening on Saturday when Tonalist, Commissioner and Medal Count all finished ahead of California Chrome. The empty feeling of disappointment got me to thinking about some of the high expectations and negative results for Philadelphia sports fans over the years. Much like the Belmont Stakes, Philadelphia fans have reached feverish levels of excitement only to be very disappointed in the end. Here are the top three that stick out in my mind:

The 1997 Stanley Cup Finals: The Philadelphia Flyers vs. Detroit Red Wings
The Flyers looked unbeatable throughout the season and Philly fans were ready to celebrate a Stanley Cup when they made it to the finals. Hope was squashed quickly as Detroit won the series 4-0. The Flyers scored only six goals in the entire series and their star, Eric Lindros, scored only one goal in the last thirty seconds of game 4. Even Kate Smith could not thwart this embarrassing end to such a highly anticipated season.

The 1993 World Series: The Phillies vs. Blue Jays
First, there was game 4 when the Phillies led 14-9 in the eighth inning only to lose 15-14 in the highest-scoring game ever. Larry Andersen and Mitch Williams could not hold the lead. Then they lost it all when they took a 6-5 lead into the 9th inning and Mitch Williams (again) served up a game-winning and Series-ending home run to Joe Carter. Ironically, both Mitch Williams and Larry Anderson were rewarded with announcing jobs with the Phillies!

The 2003 NFC Championship: The Eagles vs. Bucs
This was the final game in Veterans Stadium history and the Eagles sure made it “memorable”.
1. In the three previous games between the two, the Eagles outscored the Bucs 72-22.
2. It was cold – very cold – at 22 degrees. The Bucs were 1-21 in games played under 40 degrees!
3. The Bucs never won a playoff game on the road.
The Eagles scored a touchdown in the first minute of the game. A Super Bowl appearance seemed to be a sure thing.

But much like California Chrome’s bid for the Triple Crown on Saturday, the Eagles sent home a disappointed crowd by losing 27-10. At that point, the Eagles’ fans had suffered through 33 years of disappointment. Both horse racing fans and Eagles fans continue to hope that their high expectations for a Triple Crown and a Super Bowl win will eventually yield the desired result. Try not to get TOO excited for either.

 

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
1. By the way, if you bet $2 on the trifecta (picking the first three horses correctly in order), you would have won $3,390.50. Just betting $2 on Tonalist to win would have garnered $20.40.

2. Steve Coburn, the owner of California Chrome, ranted after the race that horses should be required to race in all three legs of the Triple Crown or, as some others have suggested, allowed longer time between the three races. It’s a five-week stretch now. To me, if you want to be listed with the other twelve horses that have won all three in one year, you have to do it the way they did it – all comers, in five weeks!

3. As of Monday, the Phillies had the worst record in the National League – yes, they were worse than the Cubs. There is absolutely no sign that they will get better either. They were 11 games under .500 and had lost 13 series this season. They got their first day off this past Monday after playing 20 consecutive games. Maybe that will help. Doubt it.

4. Continuing the theme of “flops” this week, how about the Rangers? They go to LA to play the Kings, get two goal leads in both games only to lose both in overtime. The Kings never led in either game until they did and the game ended immediately. When the puck is dropped Monday night at Madison Square Garden, it will be the first time a Stanley Cup game has been played there in twenty years.

5. The baseball draft was held this past week. In an “ah” moment, the Yankees drafted Mariano Rivera’s son, Mariano, Jr., in the 29th round. At Iona this past year, he went 2-6 with a 5.40 ERA in 12 starts and 70 innings. Last year, the Yankees drafted Andy Pettitte’s son, Josh, out of high school in the 37th round. He decided to go to college first.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: 4 Spring Observations

Most weeks, when I sit down to write my weekly blog, there’s one issue or topic that rises above all others, making my writing discussion decisions rather easy. However, as I sat down to started brainstorming (insert your own jokes here) about which topic to delve into this week, I found myself getting pulled in a few different directions. So instead of an in-depth commentary on just one issue, I have thoughts on four topics of conversation going on in the Delaware and Lehigh Valley areas.

1. The Flyers DO have a chance to advance.
I’ve been riding an emotional roller coaster with this team all season. From the coaching change early in the year…to weeks of spectacular play…to Craig Berube calling out his players for lackluster play right before the playoffs commenced…I really wasn’t sure what to expect for the Flyers’ postseason. I was leaning towards a Flyers series win over the Rangers in six games, but then I heard the ominous report on Steve Mason and was skeptical of any advancement. However, Ray Emery’s 31 saves in net on Sunday gave me and all Flyers fans hope and, just as importantly, tied the opening round series at one game a piece. Unless the Flyers sweep at home, they would have to win at least one more game at Madison Square Garden (Sunday’s victory was their first at MSG since 2011). However, the way Philadelphia was skating in game two and the quality shots they’ve been taking has made me a believer in this team, and I think they can win the series in seven games.

2. The weather is severely affecting the high school baseball season.
I know, the weather has made a mess for everyone over the last five months. During any given week, practice schedules change numerous times, game planning sessions are drastically shortened and young athletes are playing games at a rate in which the professional sports’ unions would be protesting in earnest if it was suggested they play a similar schedule. It hasn’t been fun for all the scholastic sports. However, in high school baseball, rules limit the amount of innings a pitcher can throw in a given week and the weather does give bigger schools and teams with more pitchers an inherent advantage. With most teams having to play four, five or even six games in a seven-day stretch, there are teams that simply don’t have enough quality pitching to compete. It addition to an uneven playing field, the games themselves are also affected. A “regular” pitcher may throw the first five innings of a game, but then may reach his innings limit, forcing someone who normally doesn’t pitch into emergency duty. The result? A 2-1 pitchers’ dual turns into a 15-13 slugfest (and then games that run too long might be cut short because of daylight issues early in the season). It’s not a fun way to play, but the local coaches and athletes have done their best under horrible circumstances.

3. It wasn’t pretty, but the 76ers’ season came to a merciful end.
It isn’t often that a professional sports team can guarantee how their season will unfold and then deliver on its promise. Armed with the “together we build” mantra and the preseason objective of trying to lose on purpose in order to enhance its lottery draft chances, the 76ers tied an all-time record for consecutive losses this past season. After stunning the world with a season-opening win against the Heat, the season quickly went south and the trade-deadline purge helped push the franchise to all new levels of futility. Ironically, their season closed out with a pair of wins – against Boston and a short-handed Miami team.

There were a few bright spots on the court: Michael Carter-Williams delivered some tremendous single-game performances and looked like he can run the point when/if the team ever makes a playoff push. Amongst the rubble of this horrific season, Henry Sims emerged as a serviceable big man who could be a key man off the bench for the team going forward. Tony Wroten also had more good games than bad, and role players like James Anderson and Hollis Thompson gave gritty performances throughout the season. The upcoming NBA draft will be key for the program to move forward, but even with a good draft, the Sixers will probably not be any better than a 30-win team one year from now.

4. High school lacrosse is finding its niche in Pennsylvania.
After becoming a sanctioned PIAA sport several years ago, the sport of lacrosse is gaining momentum. I have announced scholastic games in New Jersey where the sport has been around for decades. At many schools in the Garden State, lacrosse is as popular as basketball, wrestling or even football is at Pennsylvanian schools. While it will probably never ascend to that level in this state, the quality of play has drastically improved in eastern Pennsylvania. Most existing programs now have little trouble getting enough players to complete a quality team, and the skill level is definitely better than the first few seasons when lacrosse was labeled as a “club sport.” Finances and low enrollment numbers will keep many schools from starting a lacrosse program for the foreseeable future, but for the schools that have a team, the game is fun to watch and will continue to get better with improved competition.

How do you feel about some of these issues? What other sports events going on now should be discussed? Post your comments below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com to continue the sports conversations!

 

Is this the best time of sports year? – The SportsTalk Shop – March 4th

Is this the best time of sports year? Andy Williams (ask your parents about him if you don’t know who that is) may disagree, but if your sports-interests cross over many different areas, it’s hard to find a better several weeks of the calendar year than the time period we’re currently in – especially in the Eastern PA region. Consider:

  • If you’re a Flyers fan, this is traditionally the time of year in which you start to get your line rotations down and start looking forward to potential matchups for the post-season. The Flyers are also quick to try to tweak-and-improve heading down the stretch run. Things are never dull when you’re talking hockey this time of year in the Delaware Valley region.
  • Spring training is a time when hope springs eternal. Whether the Phillies are looking to return to the post-season, or hoping for a miraculous turnaround, the exhibition season is a time when you’re technically in first place for a month, you have younger and/or journeymen players hitting .400, mop-up men with ERA’s under 3, and areas where the “what ifs” of an organization show glimmers of hope that your team could actually be in the hunt for the playoffs. Even when the current core of all-time Phillies greats succumb to Father Time, and a World Series appearance is not a realistic outlook, spring training, at the very least, gives us a look at what’s to come—even if it’s just to grow envious of the people in short-sleeve shirts and shorts.
  • We may not have a perennial #1 team in the NCAA men’s or women’s basketball tournament, but the Big 5 is still one of the greatest city battles in the country. We’ve been blessed by having some great teams offer us some exciting runs in March Madness, from Mark Macon’s Temple team getting to the Sweet 16, to the outstanding guard play of St. Joe’s in the Big Dance a few years ago, to the hard working Liberty HS grad Darrun Hilliard, now establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with at Villanova, as the Wildcats look to continue knocking off some of the top teams in the nation. And let’s not forget the efforts of a team from Bethlehem just about this time a year ago making some national news by slaying the mighty goliaths of Duke. The beauty of the structure of league tournaments & March Madness gives even passive basketball fans a rush of excitement by seeing your local teams, whether you’re from that school or not, beat a couple teams this time of year.
  • Unless you covered the 76ers in the 1990s (like I did) and used this time to hope for horrible play (and often got your wish) for a chance at more ping pong balls in the lottery, this is also an interesting time of year. If the team has had any kind of success, you’re looking to make a push for the playoffs and maybe surprise some people with some upset series victories (as the Sixers did last year and again in 2001). Even when the team has hovered around or slightly below .500, there’s usually a few interesting storylines, young players to watch, et al to keep your interest and give us some semblance of hope for the following season.

So what do you say? Is this the greatest time of the sports year or not? Hey, even football fans have those involuntary “voluntary” camps sprinkled in and also previews of potential draft choices to chomp on right now. Let us know via email at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and/or post a comment below, and we’ll see what is YOUR favorite sports season.

The SportsTalk Shop – February 4th

“It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

That might just describe the state of Philadelphia pro sports right now. With the Flyers (as of this writing on 2/4) mired in last place in the Atlantic division, the 76ers six games under .500 and out of the top 8 playoff spots, and the Phillies coming off an off-season in which they did not acquire a “big name” power bat, following a season in which they finished out of the playoffs and a very mediocre 81-81, it’s easy to be pessimistic.

Those are the bad numbers … now, let’s check out the other side.

First, the Fly Guys are currently just 2 points behind the Rangers and 3 points away from the last playoff berth with one of the most aggressive front offices in all of sports. You know they will make moves (for better or for worse) to try to ride the ship and improve some areas in need of strengthening, especially help on the power play. They’ve also had more than their share of injuries and you can hope that would balance itself out with other teams, especially with the very aggressive four-games a week schedule teams have to endure because of the lockout. And about that condensed schedule, it does make it easier for a quicker reversal-of-fortunes than in normal years. Given continued solid performances by Ilya Bryzgalov in the net, a “hot” week or two could give the Flyers a 10 to 12 point bounce which should calm the anxiety of some of South Philly’s most loyal fan base.

The Sixers, of course, have their big man Andrew Bynam soon to make his long-awaited debut in Philly. He will certainly need time to adjust to his teammates and the new offense, but maybe the team doesn’t need him as much as fans think—at least right now. They certainly need a reliable — and consistent — presence in the paint. But even at 10 to 14 minutes a game to start will help with the team’s depth up-front. I also think his return will light a much needed fire under some other members of the frontcourt (see Spencer Hawes & Lavoy Allen) that have shown flashes of solid play, but not on any kind of regular basis. The team has been gelling better of late with all the new pieces to this year’s team. If their play improves, it will allow Bynam time to get his legs back to as-good-as-its-going-to-be condition for the playoffs, at which time he will have to step and deliver his much need his in-close to the basket skills.

And for the Phillies, who open spring training on February 13th, it is true that Ruben Amaro Jr. spent less money this offseason than the majority of other teams in baseball. He did, however, address every need the Phils had, albeit with some very questionable players. But his moves give the Phils some extra depth that he didn’t have last year at this time. For example, if Dom Brown slips again going after a routine fly ball and breaks his wrist, John Mayberry again can’t establish plate discipline until July, or Delmon Young develops an affinity for Tony Luke’s cheese steaks, the team does have a young stud in Darin Ruff, just chomping at the bit for a chance to bring his big bat to the Bank. The Phillies also have a multitude of options for the bullpen—the candidates for the remaining roster spots NOW have some big league experience. And if all of the options for the corner outfielders and third base positions fall apart and/or if health issues once again crop up for Halladay, Utley and/or Howard, Amaro still has an ace card to play. The team is roughly 7-million under the cap, and the team didn’t go over the luxury tax in 2012, meaning the team can go over in ’13 and not be penalized too harshly. With free agents-to-be like Utley, Halladay, Ruiz and others coming off the books at the end of this season, it wouldn’t surprise me if a big addition would be made during the year, if the team needs one.

Do you think any of these teams and make run for the postseason, and which teams have the most upside? Post a comment on our blog here or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us for the hottest local and national sports conversations live on Thursdays at 6pm on RCN-TV. Don’t forget, Villanova and LaSalle surprised us with some rays of sunshine over nationally ranked teams a few weeks ago. It isn’t that far out of the realm of possibility that the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies all make the playoffs this season…even if optimism’s not burning brightly here on these cold February nights.