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Things On My Sports Mind

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Josh Hamilton, the NBA Finals, and NFC Power Rankings are under the microscope this week.

On Tuesday morning, June 15, the Rangers found themselves both 63 games into the 2010 season, and in first place by the narrowest of one-game margins. Nevertheless, the team’s mantra of “it’s time” seemed highly debatable at moments. Do the Rangers have the necessary depth and supplies to hold off a hard charging Angels squad that can never be fully counted out?  It would seem their bench is extremely thin, their rotation is in need of help, and they still await Nelson Cruz’s health and Ian Kinsler’s bat.

But, through it all, they are 99 games from the finish line, in first place in a mediocre AL West, and feeling OK about their position – given the complete and total disconnect with any sort of resources that resemble purse strings or the help of an actual owner who could fix some of the issues that they have. If they only had an owner.

As you look at the Rangers’ season, it is clear what is making this team click. They entered the season with some gigantic question marks from a number of their players, but Colby Lewis, CJ Wilson, and Vladimir Guerrero, who were all thought to be gambles at their positions have paid off in large fashion. All three have not only met, but exceeded all reasonable expectations through 10 weeks of the season. If they continue these levels of production, anyone who follows this team will have no choice but to admit extreme delight.

Others, like the aforementioned Kinsler and Scott Feldman were expected to make runs at their 2009 seasons. So far, that looks like an extreme long-shot(although there are many who would suggest Kinsler’s 2009 wasn’t so hot, either – me, I think 30/30 is better than most years from 2B). 

JOSH HAMILTON

But, I would very much like to visit a bit this week about the curious case of one of the most fascinating stories in 2010 that has perhaps not received the ink it deserves: Josh Hamilton.

Whenever I talk about Josh, I am left without feeling like I have enough evidence to know what he is. But, on Sunday, he surpassed 1,500 ABs in his major league career, so it is time that we should feel like we know what to expect, right?

Well, as of about a month ago, it was often being said that the 2008 season of Josh Hamilton (32 HR, 130 RBI) – a season where he appeared to be making a MVP run for much of the summer – might just be a faded memory that will not be indicative of future results. His 2009 was far more pedestrian (10 HR, 54 RBI), and the gulf between those two seasons was the difference between a superstar and a guy.

So which was he? And how do you sign him to a contract? Is he an All-Star CF who can drive in 130 runs? Or is he an average LF who cannot seem to come up with a hit when you need it? Of course, when you add in the off-field adventures of J-Ham, which is certainly eventful enough that you could write a book about it (He did!), you can understand the lack of clarity on the issue of contract extension as it pertains to the Rangers decision which is looming.

Luckily for the Rangers, they always could fall back on the year-to-year arrangement that arbitration provides for those who lack service time. With three years of ML service time entering the season, the Rangers could actually do this all the way the 2012 season. They settled on $3.25m in 2010 (year four) and are tickled with the results so far. 

Below are Josh Hamilton’s statistics from Opening Day to June 13 of the past three years:

2008:  18 HR, 72 RBI                        .319/.362/.599            279 ABs
2009:  6 HR, 24 RBI                         .240/.290/.456            125 ABs
2010:  15 HR, 46 RBI                      .309/.357/.576            243 ABs

Understanding that 2008 was insane (Josh had 72 RBI in 67 games), it is easy to wonder why more people are not talking about Josh’s great start to 2010. Especially, if you consider his April was nothing to write home about (.265/.351/.494), but May (.294/.322/.505) saw his HRs start to shoot up and his run production really soared. Then, his first 51 ABs in June (.412/.444/.863) have been positively silly. 

The Rangers have problems with their roster and their line-up. But, if Cruz can get and stay healthy, and IF Vladdy and Josh continue what they have started, you can understand why Jon Daniels may feel like he could already have what he needs in the offensive department. 

As for the question about what do you do with Josh with regards to an extension, I suppose you just continue to wait. But, if the ownership situation is resolved this season, and if he finishes 2010 with another season where his RBI totals require three digits, you might attempt to get some salary certainty for both parties this winter. 

And then JD and Nolan can figure out what to do with the other contract issues on the horizon:  Wilson, Cruz and, of course, young Elvis gets closer to scaring Rangers’ fans to death with each tick of the clock on his service time. And if you think I am crazy, check back in two years if he is still not extended. But, that is another issue for another day.

NBA FINALS 

Win or Lose, I have come to the conclusion during these NBA Playoffs that the Boston Celtics are certainly worthy of mimicking. What a run they have been on, and the fact that the 2010 Finals so closely resemble the 2008 Finals where they drag the cocky and confident Los Angeles Lakers out into the deep waters and make them fight for every breath just makes you marvel at what their team concept is capable of. 

Homecourt advantage in Game 7 could prove to be the saving grace for the Lakers, but if they do pull the rabbit out of the hat, it will still not erase the Celtics imprint on all of our minds about what team basketball and a team attitude can accomplish.

In 2008, they swarmed and frustrated Kobe Bryant and finished a storybook campaign that most thought was far fetched when they assembled various parts from various places the summer before. Then, in a year where LeBron James was pretty much presented with the NBA Title back around Christmas, the Celtics made the Cavs cry for their mommies in six brutal games a month ago. 

Doc Rivers seems to generally out-coach his opponents with his team that appears to contain 12 mentally hard, physically strong soldiers that do his bidding. The players that come off the bench may not possess the talent, but they certainly possess the resolve. 

Of course, as a Mavericks’ obsessed observer of the 2010 Playoffs, I continue to look at the current evolution of the Mavericks and wonder how our Mavs could deal with either of these two teams over two weeks of fists, knees, collisions, and pain. Actually, I am pretty sure I know how they would deal with it:  Not well.

So, is it the coach who puts this mentality in his players?  Or is it the players who are just waiting to be assembled in such a way that you might think they are a pack of Dobermans?  Of course, the answer is both. It takes both to be able to have the mental and physical resolve to survive this time of year. You cannot have a meek team that can survive the gauntlet. It requires a relentless spirit that will not be denied. And during an NBA Finals where we are wondering whether the Lakers have enough resolve, I fear to think what the Mavericks might do against Doc Rivers and his team.

Watch what the Celtics have done against Kobe Bryant. The greatest competitor in this generation of the NBA, Bryant has spent most of Games 3, 4, and 5 making shots from 20-25 feet away. Now, make no mistake, he has done very well, but this idea that he can get to the rim whenever he feels like it is just not true. 

Meanwhile, Pau Gasol has been the real key. The Celtics have known that “Kobe will get his” and that they need to keep another player from dominating. Gasol has been riding shot gun with Kobe for a few years now, and some have mistakenly assumed that Gasol is a superstar. He, is not, of course, and the Celtics have proven this for much of the series. If you pound on him, he will show courage early, but can he stay relentless for two weeks?  Or, if dealt punishment from Perkins, Garnett, Davis, and Wallace, would Gasol slowly but surely change his game? 

Yes, he would. He has meekly faded out of these games. He has been bruised and battered and has changed these games in a negative fashion for the Lakers. At times, Kobe has looked like he is out there by himself. Ron Artest is not capable of helping on offense. Lamar Odom has proven he will disappear when you need him most. But, Gasol was the Lakers hope. And if the Lakers are to pull this trick off in Game 7 at home, Gasol will have to dig deep and find another performance inside of him that most think might be done for the summer.

Could Dirk survive a similar onslaught?  Especially without Kobe’s help?  Forgive me, but this NBA Finals has made me grow a bit more pessimistic on the immediate future of my favorite NBA Franchise.

Only the strong survive in this sport. And, strength might be the Mavs biggest weakness. 

NFC EAST  

There are not many things that bring me great sporting joy after the NHL and NBA Finals wrap up in the sports calendar. Sure, the US Open is wonderful and Wimbledon will kill some time, too. The World Cup this year will make time fly, but most late June to Labor Day stretches are not very sports-awesome. I do enjoy baseball, but for me, it is generally contingent on the baseball in question being of great quality, and if you also follow the Rangers, you know how appetizing 14 games back on the Fourth of July generally is.

I said all that to say this:  There is some joy to be found in various NFL wise-men coming down from on high to share with us their initial thoughts about what teams we should fear when the greatest league in the whole wide world fires up for business in early September to give us roughly 22 straight weeks of pure sports joy.

And this week, the honor went to Rick Gosselin, he of the Dallas Morning News, who offered his first “Power Poll” of 2010. Even he admits it is early and that nobody had the Saints winning the Super Bowl last year (wait a minute, I did!!!), but it is always sure fun to see what the “Goose” thinks.

I invite you to read it all, but a quick look shows that he expects the Super Bowl in Arlington, Texas to contain the Indianapolis Colts and the Dallas Cowboys. That, of course, would be both a rematch of Super Bowl V, and the first time ever that a team has played a Super Bowl in their home stadium. This will make Jerry Jones explode with delight if his master plan actually comes to fruition. Wow, what a day that would be.

Then again, based on the idea that almost none of the June predictions ever come true, I suppose that would make this the ultimate kiss of death. Anyway, if you read on, you see that he has the Saints at No. 8 (as they will not be able to find the magic again on defense), The Vikings at No. 6 with all 22 starters back (Favre pending), and the rest of the NFC East looking rather weak:  Giants No. 13, Eagles No. 16, and Redskins in at No. 25. 

That is the first time in recent memory that I don’t recall seeing 3 NFC East teams in the Top 10, so if he is right, perhaps the Cowboys will be allowed a bit of breathing room as they attempt to get some home-field advantage in January, too; Thus, avoiding the Metrodome this year, and never having to board a plane once in the post season.

You and Jerry surely hope.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.