I’m not cruel enough to make you relive the 2011 sports scene in Chicago. What hopes and dreams fans can still cling to are all playing their way into the 2012 season.
That would be the Hawks and the Bulls for those of you not really paying attention.
I will, however, share some of my hopes for 2012. Fortunately for you, my hopes happen to occur in alphabetical order.
For the Chicago Bears: Here’s hoping they get a clue. A team with no depth and limited skills is not going to be a threat to anyone but their practice squad for years to come.
For the Chicago Blackhawks: Just keep doing what you’re doing. Oh, and now that the amazing Mr. Dahl is among your employed ranks, you might consider throwing us a bone now and then. A T-shirt or a couple of tickets wouldn’t kill you, would it?
For the Chicago Bliss: Here’s hoping the LFL gets its head out of its ass and runs the league professionally for a change. For a sport that offers a lot of fun and is fan friendly the amount of locker room acrimony is disturbing. Even if it is justified.
For the Chicago Bulls: Here’s hoping you get to hoist that trophy this year. Yes, I know, it’s a silly looking thing. Almost looks like one of those German designs from 1923’s Bauhaus movement. It doesn’t matter. If you win it, it will be the coolest thing in the world.
For the Chicago Cubs: Here’s hoping that the Theocracy that has come in hasn’t bitten off more than it can chew. Clearly the team has a plan and that plan is predicated in rebuilding a long ignored farm system. That is why they are signing guys who no one has ever heard of. That’s all well and good but, at some point, they are going to need 25 guys to wear the Cubbie blue and show up to work at Wrigley. Right now they don’t have that.
For the Chicago Fire: They discovered how much harm an idiot president can cause and then discovered how much good can be done once such a person is replaced. Here’s hoping their fans can, once again, get used to the idea of winning and winning a lot.
For the Chicago Red Stars: They went through hell just to field a team in 2011 and ended up missing being WPSL champions by a goal. Here’s hoping that they continue their success and get the publicity they so rightly deserve.
For the Chicago Sky: I hope that they can finally become relevant. It’s not fun being in one of the best sports markets in the world and watching a team stink year after year. They have plenty of talent and they seem to have good coaching so I don’t understand why they are a WNBA afterthought season after season.
For the Chicago White Sox: Here’s hoping that everyone at 35th and Shields hasn’t gone completely bat-guano crazy. I know that tempting fate and defying common sense can be good for the soul, sometimes. But tossing all rational thought and conventional wisdom into a flaming pit is a slightly different concept. For the last few years the team has signed players that neither field-management nor fans wanted and then blamed both said management and the fans for losses and shrinking attendance (respectively). Now they’ve fired the guy who didn’t want the players he had and replaced him with a guy who’s so unknown that even his family isn’t sure who he is.
For you and yours: Here’s hoping that you have a safe, happy and prosperous 2012.
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Our favorite stalker, and cook book contributor (raccoon, really?), Mike Flores has made a request of humanity; “I think I’ve heard enough of “bootie call”, “hoes”, I need your help. If each of us uses the word GROOVY just once a day in public- I think we can get it back. Think about it. It was a groovy word, capturing a groovy time, with groovy friends. BRING BACK GROOVY IN 2012!”
As soon as I flipped open the sports section I knew the word would fit today’s theme. Because in the wonderfully delusional world of Halas Hall, everything truly is groovy.
Brian Urlacher’s hurt? Not a problem. Grab this quote from the evil Mr. Mumbles when it was mentioned that Urlacher had missed practice all week; “We need everybody and of course Brian realizes that, so I assume he’ll be ready to go.”
For a completely meaningless game against a barely breathing opponent?
And it appears that Mumble’s mania is spreading to the other players as well. Brad Biggs interviewed Lance Briggs and found out that he just loves - and I do mean L-U-V - the Bears’ upper management.
He’s also fond of sparkly pink bunnies, but that was edited out of this article.
Wholesale changes at the top of the Bears organization wouldn’t solve any of the team’s issues in the estimation of Lance Briggs.
The Pro Bowl linebacker called it a “championship team” that was undone this season by a string of key injuries — hardly a group in need of an extreme makeover.
“It’s not going to solve anything if you get rid of all of the folks that put this team together,” Briggs said. “This year was unfortunate for us all. And even though we didn’t get in the playoffs, we are a championship team … and we’ll get there.”
Of course, it’s in the best interests of Briggs, 31, to play nice with the front office. He announced before the season he wanted his contract redone halfway through a six-year deal he signed as an unrestricted free agent. Now four years into the deal, and after his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl season, it’s unlikely Briggs’ stance has changed.
Asked about it Thursday, he talked around the issue.
“I didn’t catch the question,” Briggs said. “I believe you said, ‘Earlier in the year, you had mentioned contract issues and you decided to put that under the rug and forget about it and play and it seemed to enhance my play this year, and do I hope that the Bears get the message going into the offseason?’ I’m going to leave that as a no comment.”
Briggs isn’t alone in his belief the Bears, who were 7-3 before quarterback Jay Cutler was lost to a thumb injury, are near the NFL’s elite level.
“We feel like we have the talent to do it and the players to do it,” linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “We’ve shown that. We’ve just got to put it together and do it.
“We want to win the division every year. That’s our ultimate goal. We want to win the Super Bowl. It just makes it harder now because Green Bay is so good. They’re in our division. They’ve been the best team in the NFL the last two years. It’s going to be a big hurdle for us to get over, but there’s urgency every single year to accomplish that goal.”
Here’s some more bad news about Green Bay, they are the youngest team in the NFC North. They have 11 players on their team who are under 30 years of age, including their QB. They can lock and reload for the next decade without blinking. The same cannot be said for the Bears. The Lions are the next youngest with 9 players under 30. I should note that they have a couple of vets who will probably retire this year and be replaced by rookies, so they’re just getting stronger as they roll.
The Bears have 6 players under 30 and the Vikings have 5.
If both those teams had their vets 100% healthy for the entire season then maybe, just maybe, they might be a playoff threat. At least for the first round.
And next year they are going to be even older.
They’re going to have to kill the beer ads and get sponsored by Metamucil if this keeps up.
So what do the teams have to play for this Sunday? According to Matt Bowen, not a hell of a lot. But the game may be important to a few individuals.
The Week 17 throwaway game. Empty seats and low TV ratings.
For the established veterans, pack up the car and keep it running in the players’ parking lot Sunday.
You just get through this game as a vet. Play hard, protect your knees and get out of town with a healthy body.
Beating a run-down Vikings team without Adrian Peterson? They don’t plan victory parades down LaSalle Street for this one. A pat on the back maybe, but that’s about it in Week 17.
I’ve been there as a player. By the fourth quarter, you start looking up at the scoreboard, waiting for the clock to run out. The season is over. Move on, turn in your gear and shut it down.
After the late-season collapse this Bears team has been through, I don’t blame any veteran who wants the offseason to start.
The Christmas night whipping at Lambeau Field before a national audience just compounded a brutal stretch over the last five weeks.
Get home. Take two weeks off (or a month if you need it) and start training — again. Minicamp can sneak up on you.
But what about the rookies, young talent and those select veterans who will find themselves on the roster bubble in Chicago or another NFL city again this August?
This is another interview. And regular-season game tape sells.
For Josh McCown, it’s another opportunity to show general manager Jerry Angelo and coach Lovie Smith he can be Jay Cutler’s backup in 2012.
Make a couple of throws, run the offense and produce points? That could lead to a locker spot at Halas Hall after final cuts next September.
Others can make an impression, such as Kahlil Bell. The young running back showed some explosive talent Sunday against the defending champs, but he also put the ball on the ground twice.
If he plays with speed, production and ball security, Bell could buy himself another year in the league.
This game tape also is valuable for Dane Sanzenbacher, Armando Allen and others.
Put on your dress attire and approach this game as a job interview for the Bears and 31 other teams. This game tape will be passed around, studied and analyzed by every pro personnel department.
And they always are looking for upgrades.
Maybe the Bears will make major changes this offseason and some of the young talent is let go, cut via a phone call to their offseason homes in early March.
Hey, that’s life in the NFL.
But if you have that game tape, you can sell your talents, get an invite to a team’s offseason program and have a career for at least one more season.
This game versus the Vikings isn’t going to buy the Bears a ticket to the playoffs, nor is it going to erase what has transpired after the 7-3 start. Those days are gone.
The established vets know it and will treat it as such.
It’s a different story for the guys who are trying to find solid footing in the NFL. This Sunday is a real opportunity.
And you don’t get too many in this business.
The Week 17 Audition Bowl, brought to you by Metamucil .....
Yeah. That could work.
Here’s what we know. The Bears have no Plan B anywhere on their roster. And in cases where they accidentally do - see Bell behind Forte as Example A - they bench Plan B and play someone else. Which is why Barber still gets to wear an NFL uniform. They do not know how to develop talent, they do not know how to recognize it either. That is a bad combination.
Add in the fact that the team’s old and you have a recipe for an 0-16 season in 2012.
Speaking of recipes, don’t forget to download your free copy of the Jay the Joke 3rd annual Holiday Cookbook.
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A buddy of mine likes to compare Lovie Smith to traditional serial killers. Normally I ignore him, at least on this topic since he’s very funny on several others, but I decided to press the issue last night and am glad I did.
Serial killers are methodical. Well, we all know how much Lovie likes to practice. It seems he likes the prep better than the actual game.
Serial killers repeat behavior, even if the behavior fails. Well, he’s got me here too. Lovie loves the prevent defense that he refuses to call a prevent defense - he claims it’s a version of Cover 2 - and that he uses it even though it fails more often than not.
Serial killers use personalized names for things so that no one else can claim them. See immediately above, although no one in their right mind would want to claim that defensive formation.
Serial killers depersonalize everyone else. They aren’t people to them, they are objects. Well, check out these two responses to questions about specific players; “We continue to talk about getting the ball to the tight end. And that’s the plan each week. Some weeks are easier than others.” - AND - “We talk a lot about their defense, and I’m going to continue to talk a lot about our defense.”
That last one makes no freaking sense whatsoever. But it was said with authority.
Serial killers believe they are never to blame for anything. Check out these two; “We let one get away from us today. We have to find a way to finish the game.” - AND - “The situation is different for different positions.”
I’m not even sure what that last one means. He was asked why he called for a running play on 3rd and 13 when they were down by 7 with five minutes left to play.
Serial killers tend to be sadistic. Just see the way he lets Martz toy with the offense and that one’s a given.
Serial killers tend to demand control of situations even when it isn’t deserved. “You should trust me as a head football coach to put us in the best position to win.’’ — Lovie Smith, Feb. 20, 2007, the day the Bears parted ways with Ron Rivera.
Serial killers tend to have low I.Q.s. People with low I.Q.s tend to hide behind mumbling and have trouble making eye contact. See every press conference as Exhibit “A”.
But the one dominating trait that all serial killers have in common is that they will go all gangsta on your ass if they are put in any uncomfortable situation. And that, according to Brad Biggs, is exactly what happened yesterday.
Instead of saying he would wait until the end of the season to address the future of his coaching staff, Lovie Smith snapped Wednesday when asked if Mike Martz will be back next year.
Smith’s uncharacteristic reply gave a glimpse into how strained things have become in recent weeks as Martz has been forced to address his name being linked to college openings and then a report that he will not return in 2012.
“What kind of question is that anyway, at this time?” Smith said. “What kind of question is that? Why would you ask a question like that anyway?”
The reason is simple: At the end of a 7-8 season headed nowhere, the future of the offense is first on the minds of many. While the team understandably wants the focus squarely on Sunday’s finale in Minnesota, others are awaiting the offseason. Martz, who hired Smith as his defensive coordinator for the Rams in 2001, turned down a one-year extension during the offseason, and his job security has been a distraction for weeks.
Martz said he didn’t know how his name was linked to Pac-12 openings at Arizona State and UCLA, and the latest rumor at the NCAA level is Martz poked around the Hawaii job that went to Norm Chow. NFL sources have said for weeks Martz is mentioning he’s a viable candidate for the Jaguars’ head-coaching opening.
He was asked again Wednesday if he expects to return to the Bears.
“I’ve addressed that already and obviously I would sure like to be back,” Martz said. “This is going to be a great football team and I would like to be a part of it. We’ll just see how it works out. We’ll address that when the season is over.”
General manager Jerry Angelo said earlier this month that it will be resolved after the season. But Smith controls the makeup of his staff and Martz declined to say if he has heard from his superiors about the future.
“All of those kinds of things, I would never discuss,” Martz said.
Players are reluctant to speak on the record on the matter. They point out the offense averaged 32.2 points per game in a five-game winning streak before quarterback Jay Cutler was lost to a broken thumb. But were the distractions in-season unacceptable for Smith?
The Bears can’t make a move for the sake of change. If they decline to re-sign Martz, they need to have a plan for improvement in place.
Offensive coordinators often come with their own line coach. Surely, the Bears don’t want to lose Mike Tice, who is being praised in league circles for his work with the line despite getting only six quarters of action from first-round draft pick Gabe Carimi. In the interest of continuity, the Bears could consider offering the job to Tice, who doesn’t have play-calling experience. But that would create another hole. The Bears hired Tice before Martz in 2010 and could pair him up with a new play-caller.
It’s a situation Smith will have to discuss soon.
“Next week, after the season, we go through the evaluation process like we do each year,” Smith said. “I would never talk about who is coming back or who I think is coming back during the season — on players and coaches — and I can’t believe someone would ask that.”
He shouldn’t be surprised.
Ah yes, Mike Tice. Someone who’s respected league wide, who has the respect of his players and who has no contract after next week.
That Mike Tice.
I see that becoming a train wreck.
How about David Toub? Another guy who’s respected league wide, who has the respect of his players and who has no contract after next week.
Or, as the wonderful Mr. Biggs notes, that would be the David Toub who’s getting the hell out while the getting is good.
Contract negotiations with Matt Forte will dominate Bears’ news in the new year before the deadline to use the franchise tag arrives.
But the Pro Bowl running back isn’t alone as a priority free agent. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub also will be a free agent if the Bears do not re-sign him, as will be offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
The 49-year-old could have major opportunities ahead of him as ESPN’s Adam Schefter identified him Monday as a dark horse candidate for the Jaguars head coaching position. It’s one of two jobs currently open and there could be another six clubs in the market for a head coach next week. There isn’t a long A-list of candidates to fill those spots.
Toub has been recognized among the finest at his specialty for some time, and there is an impressive history of head coaches who got their start on special teams, including former Bears coach Mike Ditka and currently John Harbaugh of the Ravens.
Toub also could leave for another special teams job after a 15-day exclusive negotiating rights period for the Bears that begins Monday, standard protocol for assistants across the league.
“It is very important to be back here,” Toub said. “But now is not the time to talk about it.”
Smith won’t comment on Martz’s future and he’s not going to consider Toub’s right now, either.
“He has meant a lot,” Smith said before praising all his coaches.
Like Martz, Toub received a one-year extension offer during the offseason and declined it, choosing to work to the end of his current deal.
With one game to go, the Bears rank third in comprehensive special teams rankings. If they hold on, it would mark their fourth top-four finish in the last six seasons. The fake return play Toub designed vs. the Packers in Week 3 was wiped out by a penalty, but Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers called it “the most incredible play” he ever has seen.
Toub’s units haven’t just been highly ranked, averaging a top-six finish over the previous seven seasons, the Bears have scored 23 touchdowns on special teams, tops in the NFL, and have blocked an NFL-best 22 kicks. Eight players have been selected to the Pro Bowl under Toub.
“He is the best at what he does,” long snapper Pat Mannelly said. “Obviously, we have some pretty special players in certain positions but those guys wouldn’t be able to do what they do without some of the ideas he comes up with.”
Returner Devin Hester agrees.
“He designs stuff that fits the players,” he said.
Cornerback Charles Tillman, a member of punt return and field goal block teams, says replacing Toub would be “tough.”
“He has a creative mind for how we attack the other team,” Tillman said. “He finds the little things that some people overlook.”
Coach Lovie Smith puts an emphasis on special teams and his support has been key, especially this season with 10 players on injured reserve. That doesn’t count the loss of special teamers Brian Iwuh and Sam Hurd, both released. The trickle-down effect has butchered the depth charts Toub uses in what the Bears are calling “one of those years.”
In any case, Toub doesn’t sound like a man motivated to see if the grass is greener on the other side.
“Everything is established here,” he said. “Lovie’s philosophy, love it. I couldn’t ask for any better situation than what we have.”
In the past, Toub made it clear he wanted to remain here until his son Shane’s football career at Carmel High was concluded. Shane will graduate in the spring. After eight seasons, he’s now in position to shop his services if he desires. Does he think he will be a hot commodity?
“We have a game to prepare for,” he replied. “Do you want to talk about the game?”
Let’s be blunt. Neither Tice nor Taub have any valid reason to stay. Neither can really advance, or succeed, given the current management structure and neither has been allowed to go elsewhere even when opportunities existed.
Lovie has often said how he wants his coaches to succeed. What he leaves out is the rejoinder “under my regime and no other.”
Which is another serial killer-like trait.
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Watching sports can be fun. Cheering for your favorite team is a tradition that dates back to the Spartans on the road to Thermopylae. Most fans do not ask that their team be champions every year, the Yankees being the obvious exception to that rule. For the most part fans ask only that their teams play hard, play well and give their best effort every game. That last one is the hardest for teams to accomplish. Everybody has an off day once in a while.
Still and all though, fans will accept a team that doesn’t make the playoffs if that team has left its heart on the field. The 2002 White Sox are a good example. “The Kids Can Play” wasn’t just a motto, it was a fact. They couldn’t play at the level they needed to to win, but they went out and busted their butts every game and fans appreciated it. In 2004 the Blizzard of Oz arrived and fans watched the team morph into a more aggressive and defensive brand of baseball than had been seen in a long time. Players who didn’t like it were let go and the next year the team won the World Series.
Then Kenny Williams seized control and we are where we are.
Sometimes it can just be the addition of a player or two that will give fans a reason to believe. When the Bulls signed Derrick Rose we knew that something special was coming so we abided the growing pains that come with youth. When the Hawks put their core together fans knew there would be a couple years of pain but that they were witnessing the birth of hope in a building where hope had long been forsaken.
At least on the ice.
Now we have the Cubs unveiling their master plan and asking fans to stick with them. While I’m not a Cubs fan I hope they do. If for no other reason than they are actually trying to assemble a team and not just toss out a couple of parts and pray for tourists. The Sox, too, have a plan. No one seems exactly sure what it is but we are told that it exists. I imagine this plan, such as it is, will be revealed as the season progresses when everyone finally figures out what kind of team they have to begin with.
I mentioned the Bulls and Hawks. The two teams that reside in the re-minted Madhouse on Madison. It may not be as loud as it once was but it still gets plenty loud when the crowds get going. And the reason that it gets so loud is because fans bought in when each team was holding a tent revival and now they are allowed in the church.
Hallelujah brothers and sisters! Can I get an Amen!?!?
I got a little carried away.
Anyway, let’s step back for a moment and take a look at where each team is now. Our favorite nabob of negativity, K. C. Johnson, takes a look at the Bulls.
Derrick Rose always will have Nov. 21, 2008, to remember with fondness.
In his first trip to Oracle Arena, Rose had 25 points and five assists in the Bulls’ 115-110 victory over the Warriors, his only triumph in four career games in the Bay Area.
Monday night continued a poor pattern for Rose, who has averaged 17.8 points on 41.4 percent shooting, 6.8 assists and 5.3 turnovers on the road against the Warriors. That includes woeful 1-for-14 shooting (7 percent) from 3-point range.
Maybe bad Bulls karma lives in the building. Michael Jordan broke a bone in his foot visiting the Warriors three games into his second season.
Players and coach Tom Thibodeau bemoaned the team’s defensive woes after Monday’s eight-point loss that felt like 18 points. However, with much of the core unit back from a team that led the NBA in most defensive categories last season, that department should find its norm, even if Kurt Thomas and Keith Bogans aren’t around.
Offensive improvement is what much of the offseason hand-wringing centered on, with an eye on getting past the superstar-laden Heat. Rose’s game-winning floater against the Lakers saved a wretched, teamwide second-half offensive performance featuring 25 percent shooting.
Then the Bulls turned it over 20 times Monday, hardly inspiring offensive cohesion.
“We have to get our offense going so we can get easy baskets,” Rose said. “That’s what I’m real concerned about. Last year, we rarely got easy baskets. This year, we have to find a way.”
During training camp, Rose had talked about deferring more, particularly with the addition of Richard Hamilton. Look for that to change Thursday in Sacramento.
“In the first quarter I have to establish myself a little more,” Rose said. “I see that being laid-back is just not doing it. I think both games in the first quarter I shot the ball just one or two times. So next game, I have to change it up.”
Rose is 1-for-4 in the first quarters of the first two games. More alarming, he has attempted just four free throws in the first two games and went the first six quarters without going to the line once.
“I have to push the ball, get to the rim, be more aggressive,” Rose said. “We tend to slow the ball down a little bit, getting a feel for how we’re playing. I really haven’t caught on to it yet.”
Hamilton, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah all sat the entire fourth quarter Monday as Thibodeau rode a smaller, quicker lineup featuring shooters in C.J. Watson and Kyle Korver. It’s clear the offense still is adjusting to Hamilton’s arrival and an abbreviated training camp.
“We have to get him shots and into the flow of the game,” Thibodeau said of Hamilton.
That duty falls on Rose, as most things do in the Bulls’ offense. Two games aren’t enough for panicking to ensue. Four games — Rose’s career total in Oakland — isn’t really a body of work either.
But in the spirit of pessimism that seems to be gripping Bulls fans, is now the time to mention Rose committed five turnovers in that Nov. 21, 2008, victory?
Way to find that black cloud in front of every silver lining. Let’s face it, the Bulls are better this year than they were last. They were better last year than they were the year before. I think you can see the pattern. Yes, things have changed as they’ve matured. For the fans as well. I had to disband my Vinny del Negro fan club, for one. But, I survived and you can too.
Are the Bulls better enough to knock the Heat out of the playoffs?
Maybe. The cool thing is that we will find out.
Speaking of teams with deep playoff aspirations, I need look no further than the Hawks. As Chris Kuc notes, this team is smoking hot right now.
It took the Blackhawks 36 games to reach the 50-point mark. The last time they did it in 36 contests was in 2009, the season that ended with the Hawks hoisting the Stanley Cup.
Let the comparisons begin.
“It’s natural people will probably start doing that,” captain Jonathan Toews said Tuesday. “It’s nice to hear those accolades. Maybe it’s always easier to keep cruising when people are believing in you and giving you high praise by saying that we’re comparing our team to the one we had two years ago.
“We knew right from the get-go this season that we had that type of potential to go far, but we’re not looking too far ahead.”
Instead, a look back at the team that snapped a 49-year championship drought can provide a blueprint for this season. That group managed to win games even on nights when it didn’t play particularly well, something at which this team is becoming adept.
“Even if we don’t play our best game, we know we can find a way to win,” Toews said. “One of the biggest things about our team a couple of years ago was that we had different guys stepping up every night, and we’re seeing more and more of that right now.”
Confidence in the dressing room emanates from the core group of players from the Cup team, and the newcomers this season have picked it up, especially veterans brought in via free agency such as Andrew Brunette, Daniel Carcillo, Jamal Mayers and Sean O’Donnell.
“The feeling and the way guys step up in the room and the voices … we have (are) great,” center Dave Bolland said. “We have that kind of team we had two years ago.
“We have that depth, we have all four lines and all six ‘D’ going. We’re moving the puck and getting it deep. We have that kind of (personnel) in this room to do it again.”
The 2010 Cup champs finished the regular season with a 52-22-8 record bolstered with a 29-8-4 mark at home. This time around the Hawks again are using the United Center to pile up points. When they face the Kings on Wednesday night, the Hawks will be seeking their sixth consecutive home victory, and they have captured at least one point in 16 of 18 games at the United Center with a 13-2-3 record.
To help matters, they have an opportunity to continue to stockpile points at the United Center with seven of their next eight and 10 of the next 12 at home.
While the numbers are gaudy and the confidence is brimming, there is no sign of the Hawks going on cruise control.
“There’s no reason to be complacent or comfortable with where we are,” veteran winger Patrick Sharp said. “There are areas we can improve in, and we plan on doing that.”
Added Toews: “We always focus on what we have to do. The same way we do when it’s not going so well. We’ll keep working. We know we have a lot of room for improvement as a team, and we’ll look at it that way.”
Not surprisingly, coach Joel Quenneville also sees room for improvement for a team that has won seven of its last eight games overall and posted a 9-1-1 mark during December.
“Whether it is defensively or our puck possession game or the four lines all giving it to us game in and game out, shift in and shift out, that’s where we can be better,” Quenneville said. “There are so many good teams in our league. … I still think there’s growth in our game.”
9-1-1? Pshaw! I will accept nothing less than 11-0.
My friend Suze is a die hard Hawks’ fan. When they were sucking diseased clown droppings she stuck by them. When Dollar Bill was making a mockery of pro sports, she stuck by them. Suffice it to say that when they won the Cup she needed no man to satisfy her. She was in such an orgasmic state that it would have been redundant, at best.
Now, with the Hawks a threat for years to come she is one of the happiest people in the world.
I point all this out to let the Bears know that fans will always be fans. But, as the Hawks discovered with tons of empty seats, they do need some reason to shell out their hard earned scheckles.
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I’m sorry. I just can’t do another column about the Bears. There are rumors swirling around the Halas toilet bowl that the newest McCaskey, this one’s named George, is a real go getter and a gung ho guy who really, really, wants to win. And, because of that, he is going to keep Jerry Angelo and his merry band of miscreants gainfully employed.
Now you know where the word “oxymoron” comes from.
And now you know why I can’t bring myself to write anything about them. This is an organization that rewards, actually encourages, mediocrity. Maybe George is the real deal. Maybe he’ll be the one who comes up with the magic formula that winning teams seem to use regularly. Maybe he’ll be the one who leads this team to the promised land. Maybe. But, for now, all evidence points to the same old sh...stuff.
So, instead, I’m going to take a look at two teams with actual plans. I’m not saying they’re good plans, but they are plans nevertheless.
We’ll start on the Northside where the Cubs have hired a guy who took one look at the roster and came to the same conclusion fans did in the 80’s. This team has no depth. None whatsoever. So, like any boss who’s faced with an impossible task, he’s decided to start at the beginning and work from there. And if that means tearing the whole damn thing down to the ground and starting over, so be it. Carrie Muskat busts out a list of important things you should know about the 2011 Cubs.
One of the things the Cubs learned from the disappointing 2011 season is their need for quality depth.
When they met in Mesa, Ariz., in February, the Cubs felt they were eight to nine deep as far as starting-pitching candidates. But just five days into the season, Andrew Cashner and Randy Wells were injured, and Chicago couldn’t recover.
More injuries thinned the roster, as Geovany Soto, Marlon Byrd, Matt Garza, Kerry Wood, Darwin Barney and Carlos Zambrano all spent time on the disabled list. Every team has injuries, but the Cubs didn’t fill the gaps.
The offense struggled to deliver when needed, and former manager Mike Quade had a tough time finding a lineup combination that worked. Quade remained optimistic but seemed to lose the players. He engaged in a shouting match with Ryan Dempster in the dugout in Pittsburgh in early July. Prior to a 10-game road trip in late July, Quade said the team could still contend.
“I’m not a lunatic,” he said. “I understand there’s a lot of work to do ahead of us. But we’re playing the right clubs, and let’s see if we can’t put something together.”
But the Cubs responded to that pep talk by losing to the Brewers, 3-2, on July 26 to end their first three-game win streak of the season.
They suffered deflating losses, dropping 44 games in which they had led, tied for second-most in the Majors with the Reds.
Another fifth-place finish prompted Cubs ownership to make major moves, including ousting both Quade and general manager Jim Hendry. New president of baseball operations Theo Epstein promises to build “a foundation for sustained success.”
Here are five storylines from 2011.
1. Changing of the guard
On July 22, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts told Hendry that he was being dismissed. But, in an unusual move, Hendry stayed one more month on the job to help through the Trade Deadline and sign Draft picks. It wasn’t until Aug. 19 that he officially left his office.
“We didn’t win enough games,” Hendry said. “You don’t win enough games, you can’t fight change.”
Ricketts made major changes once the season ended, signing Epstein to a five-year contract as president of baseball operations, then letting Epstein pluck his former Red Sox running mate Jed Hoyer to be general manager. The Cubs named another former Red Sox exec, Jason McLeod, to handle scouting and player development.
“I was ready for the next big challenge,” Epstein said at his introductory news conference.
He vowed to build “a foundation of sustained success,” which he said starts with a commitment to player development. Only time will tell whether Epstein & Co. can end the Cubs’ 100-plus-year wait for a World Series title.
2. Carlos Zambrano
Hopefully, someone is keeping notes of Zambrano’s roller-coaster life. It’ll be an interesting book. In Spring Training, Zambrano said the time spent in anger-management therapy was beneficial. The goal for 2011, he said, was to stay healthy and do his job.
“I just want to focus on pitching and not talking,” he said.
He was bumped from being the Opening Day starter, ending a streak of six consecutive years as the No. 1 pitcher. He had to come out of a start in April because of cramping in his hand, and in June, criticized closer Carlos Marmol after he gave up a game-tying RBI double to Ryan Theriot in the ninth en route to the Cardinals’ 3-2 win over the Cubs. After the game, Zambrano blasted the team, saying players should be “embarrassed” and they were playing like a “Triple-A team.” Said Zambrano: “We stink.”
He went on the disabled list in early July because of a strained lower back, and in late July, returned and took a tough 2-0 loss to the Brewers. In his postgame session that day, Zambrano said the Cubs needed to make some changes, but wouldn’t be specific. His frustration boiled over Aug. 12 in Atlanta. Zambrano served up five homers, then was ejected after throwing inside to Chipper Jones. He packed his gear and left Turner Field, telling teammates he was retiring. Zambrano was placed on the restricted list and did not pitch again.
Still under contract for 2012, Zambrano met with Theo Epstein in November and was told he had to earn his way back. Stay tuned.
3. Colvin, Cashner, Castro
The 2011 season was supposed to be the coming-out party for Tyler Colvin, Cashner and Starlin Castro. But Colvin, the No. 1 pick in 2006 who hit 20 homers in a promising 2010, struggled throughout the year and finished with a disappointing .150 average and more at-bats at Triple-A Iowa than anticipated. He was traded in early December to the Rockies along with DJ LeMahieu for third baseman Ian Stewart and a Minor League pitcher. Cashner, the No. 1 pick in ‘08, won a spot in the rotation but made one start, April 5, and then was sidelined most of the season because of a strained right rotator cuff. He was able to pitch in relief in September, and also in the Arizona Fall League.
Castro, who batted .300 his rookie season in 2010, showed no letdown offensively and led the National League in hits with 207. He was named to the All-Star team. But what was disappointing was his erratic defensive play—he led the National League with 29 errors—and the mental lapses. He was embarrassed during an ESPN broadcast when he was caught by TV cameras not paying attention to the game action. Quade benched the shortstop the next day.
“I’m real embarrassed,” Castro said after the incident. “There’s no excuse for that. That can’t happen in a game. That will never happen again.”
Quade was a great story. He was a local boy, having grown up in the Chicago suburbs, and he paid his dues as a coach and manager over 17 seasons in the Minor Leagues. He took over the Cubs for the final six weeks of 2010 when Lou Piniella retired and guided the team to a 24-13 record. Players backed him and “Q” got a two-year contract, starting in 2011. But the good vibe didn’t continue. He had public disagreements with players, tied a club record for most ejections in a season (seven), finished with a 71-91 record and was dismissed on Nov. 2.
“You’re disappointed, you’re bitter, you’re mad—a million things,” Quade said. “I woke up this morning, grabbed a fishing rod, had a cup of coffee and was managing the Cubs. Now you’re not.”
5. Ron Santo, Hall of Famer
Cubs players wore No. 10 patches on their uniforms in honor of Santo, the popular third baseman and radio analyst who died in December 2010. A bronze statue was unveiled at the corner of Addison and Sheffield outside Wrigley Field in his honor. One year after he passed, nearly on the exact date, Santo’s family got the news he’d been waiting for. He was elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Golden Era Committee. Santo was one of 10 candidates on a ballot representing the era of the sport from 1947-72.
“To have this come after his passing, it just shows you can’t give up,” his wife, Vicki, said. “I’m a believer in what’s meant to be. I believe he was meant to be in the Hall.”
Santo had failed to make it into Cooperstown in his 15 years of eligibility on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot and also in numerous forms of the Veterans Committee. He needed a 75-percent vote, and received 15 of 16 votes cast. The news was greeted by joy and sadness. It’s a shame Santo himself wasn’t alive to celebrate.
Can we, and I don’t mean this to sound crass, put the whole Santo thing to rest now? Yes he got hosed. Yes he should have been in years earlier. And, yes, he died. All of that has been duly noted ad nauseum. Other than the day he’s officially inducted the Cubs should say no more about it. Otherwise they’re just wallowing in the past. Which, believe it or not, is something Santo would have loathed. So, honor the guy by building a solid team, not by indulging in endless maudlin memorials.
Yes, Carrie used the phrase “a foundation of sustained success” twice. I can cut her some slack since that crazy kind of thinking has never been seen on the Northside. At least not since Tinkers, Evers and Chance roamed the infield. And there’s no one reading this blog today who was alive then.
Not even our beloved Slim. And, as far as we know, he was around to help the Apostles get bulk rates on sandals and wine.
As to the rest, I note that there’s nothing about Ronnie Woo Woo, which is a good sign and there’s nothing about “continuity” which is an even better sign.
What it all comes down to is that the Cubs are going to be run like a professional baseball team. Whether or not that will work out for them remains to be seen, but it is certainly very different than the way they did things before.
On the Southside they too are embarking on a new plan. Their plan is a little more complex. They have half their payroll tied up in three guys who redefined the term “futility.” They also helped clarify the definitions of “failure” and “pathetic.” To make matters murkier, the guy who railed against hiring these types of players was let go and the guy who got them into this mess was retained. Obviously, in times like this, common sense dictates that you get a field manager with a lot of experience to hold the team together during the turbulent times ahead.
Well, common sense took the first bus out of Dodge and the Sox hired a guy who’s never coached at any level. Not even T-ball. Scott Merkin takes a look at some of the changes that the dismal season brought to the Southside.
By agreeing to terms with free agents such as designated hitter Adam Dunn and right-handed reliever Jesse Crain, not to mention bringing back Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski, the White Sox went all-in chasing a World Series title for the 2011 season.
Approximately one year later, the team looked to be on the verge of going all-out—but really and truly finds itself in a state of offseason limbo.
That switch in status from all-in to all-out over the last 365 days seems almost too easy of a shot coming off the team’s 79-83 debacle—and the White Sox current retooling or modified rebuilding process isn’t exactly a complete turnaround in outlook from this past season. Yet, there have been quite a few changes on the South Side of Chicago.
Ozzie Guillen’s eight-year run as the White Sox manager came to an end in late September, two games before the season’s close, with Guillen moving on to take over the Miami Marlins. That departure also signaled the conclusion of a tempestuous two years involving the friendship between Guillen and general manager Ken Williams slowly dissolving.
Robin Ventura became the 39th manager in franchise history, bringing his low-key demeanor and astute baseball mind to his first professional coaching job of any kind. Meanwhile, Konerko reached 30 homers and 100 RBIs in the same season for the fifth time in his career, not mention picking up his 2,000th career hit on Aug. 23. Pierzynski recorded his 10th straight season with at least 1,000 innings caught.
Mark Buehrle, the White Sox model of consist excellence for over a decade, won in double digits, pitched at least 200 innings and made at least 30 starts for his 11th straight season. Then, Buehrle signed a four-year, $58 million deal with the Marlins in December.
Here’s a look at the Top Five moments changing the franchise over the past year, ultimately changing the White Sox outlook for the next campaign.
5. Buehrle takes his talents to South Beach
Not just a staple on the field but also as a clubhouse leader, the easygoing Buehrle entered free agency for the first time in his storied career. The veteran southpaw joked at the end of the 2011 season about not being sure of other teams having interest in him. He also told MLB.com that a change to the National League appealed to him, after 12 years in the American League Central and an Interleague career high in victories.
Somewhere around 14 teams expressed interest in the 32-year-old—with the Nationals, Marlins and Rangers his most serious pursuers. The White Sox never made an official offer to Buehrle, but gave Jeff Berry, his representative, the parameters under which they were operating. When Buehrle’s camp came back one last time to the White Sox with their offers in hand, all they could do was wish him good luck.
His presence was extremely valuable with regard to everything from helping younger players to his charity work done with wife, Jamie, to even regularly catching the ceremonial first pitches. Buehrle’s consistency on the mound leaves a huge void in the rotation.
4. Are they rebuilding or are they retooling?
Williams used the “R” word for the first time in his 12 years at the helm while sitting with Chicago media during the recently completed Winter Meetings at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas. But the only trade to date made by the White Sox GM was shipping closer Sergio Santos to Toronto for Minor League starter Nestor Molina.
Santos was under affordable team control for potentially the next six years, after agreeing to an offseason multi-year deal. The White Sox still felt strongly about rookie Addison Reed eventually being able to fill Santos’ closer role, and felt even stronger about getting younger with a Major League-ready talent such as Molina.
So, are the White Sox rebuilding or retooling? The five-year, $65 million deal agreed upon with new staff ace John Danks, which has yet to be officially announced, would suggest a move closer to going back all-in than even retooling. But that question will be more clearly answered by the Major League locale of Carlos Quentin, Gavin Floyd and Matt Thornton when Spring Training starts in late February, not to mention if the team pursues Cuban center fielder Yoenis Cespedes.
3. Dunn’s forgettable debut
Actually, the first game for Dunn in a White Sox uniform featured a home run, double and four RBIs during a 15-10 victory over the Indians at Progressive Field. The DH’s fortunes fell quickly and precipitously after that opener.
An emergency appendectomy slowed Dunn in the season’s first week, but he never came close to finding his swing the rest of the year. Dunn hit a meager .159, with just 11 homers, 42 RBIs, 36 runs scored, a .292 on-base percentage and a .277 slugging percentage.
Offensive struggles from Alex Rios and Gordon Beckham, and Jake Peavy’s ongoing injury recovery, contributed to the White Sox shortcomings. But Dunn’s four-year, $56 million deal was at the heart of the $127 million franchise-record, all-in campaign. The team desperately needs the accomplished slugger to bounce back in 2012.
2. Two years of turbulence clears
An offseason dinner involving Williams and Guillen—and the White Sox picking up Guillen’s 2012 option at SoxFest 2011, before the ‘11 season began—seemed to smooth over any residual hard feelings from the year before. But this on-field working relationship since 2004 closed out when the White Sox agreed to Guillen’s request to let him out of his contract to pursue other opportunities.
It took Guillen about 24 hours to finalize his new deal with the Marlins, after the White Sox declined to talk about a contract extension with the manager who spearheaded their 2005 World Series title run. As for that brief era of good feeling between Williams and Guillen, another slow start didn’t help the cause. A dispute over whether Minor League sensation Dayan Viciedo, who was Williams’ choice, or leadoff man Juan Pierre should be playing every day in the outfield in early June seemed to re-start tensions. Basically, both sides needed a change at this point. Hitting coach Greg Walker moved on to the Braves in the same capacity, while bench coach Joey Cora joined Guillen in Miami.
1. Ventura returns to White Sox as manager
Names such as Sandy Alomar Jr., Davey Martinez, Terry Francona, Tony La Russa and even Ryne Sandberg were thrown around as possible Guillen replacements. Then, on Oct. 6, Ventura was named skipper and given a three-year deal.
To say the move was a surprise would be a bit of an understatement. Ventura, a good friend of Guillen and an organization favorite who worked under director of player development Buddy Bell for part of 2011, hadn’t expressed much desire at becoming a full-time coach over the past three or four years—but wasn’t really asked about managing. Joining Ventura on his first staff are third-base coach Joe McEwing, hitting coach Jeff Manto and bench coach Mark Parent.
So, is Ventura a sock puppet for K-dub’s whims or will he turn out to be a real manager? According to my buddy, a pro MLB scout, Ventura was clearly hired to be the former but will probably be the latter. As he pointed out, once you remove the profanities and love of Hawaiian shirts, Ventura and Guillen are a lot alike. K-dub may have hired an animal he can’t control. And that could make life on the Southside even more entertaining than it was under Ozzie.
Also, since my buddy was in Vegas when we chatted I asked him to see if he could get a proposition bet on the Marlins facing the White Sox in the 2012 World Series. While all would take it as a straight up bet, none would give odds. Not even a hint of odds. But one bookie did say something telling.
“It’s one of those things that will happen this year or not at all. A lot has to go right for both teams now. That being said, I won’t rule it out. Neither team is the Cubs, after all.”
So, strap yourselves in kids. This is going to be an interesting year in baseball.
BTW, thanks to Victoria’s Secret for the pic today.
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