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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Doesn’t Tom Watson Know How Old He Is?

Evidently the only person at the British Open (referred to as the Open Championship in England) who doesn’t know that Tom Watson is nearly 60-years-old is Watson himself. Playing against a field of golfers in which many are half his age, Watson enters the final round of golf’s oldest championship with a one-stroke lead.

Now there was a time when Tom Watson leading after 54-holes of the British Open surprised no one. After all, the only player with more Open Championships than the American is Harry Vardon, who last won the title in 1916.

However, just in case you weren’t sure, this is 2009, not 1977 or 1983. Watson is no longer the young golfer who won his first major championship at age 25 and all eight of his major championships before turning 34.

Instead, with his remarkable performance at Turnberry, Watson is the oldest golfer ever to hold a 54-hole lead at a major championship.

To put into perspective just how incredible Watson’s run is, the oldest golfer to win a major championship was Julius Boros, who won the 1968 PGA Championship at age 48.

If Watson is able to ride the wave through all the way to the title, he will beat that mark by more than a decade.

There have been other golfers of similar age to Watson to flirt with a major title, but none have been able to close the deal.

Sam Snead shot a final round 68 at the 1974 PGA Championships to finish tied for third, three strokes behind Lee Trevino, at 62-years of age.

Jack Nicklaus was 58 when he used a final round 68 to tie for sixth position (four strokes behind champion Mark O’Meara) at the 1998 Masters.

And just last year, 53-year old Greg Norman led the Open Championship by two strokes after 54 holes before finishing tied for third.

But what makes Watson's run particularly impressive, and perhaps gives him a chance to hold on for victory, is that he isn't simply surviving against brutal conditions or making a late tournament charge. Instead, he has been in contention from the very beginning and so far has responded to every challenge and overcome every potential pitfall.

Following an opening round 65 that left him just one stroke out of the lead, it looked like Watson was making the kind of fade from contention expected of a 59-year old.

He birdied the first hole of his second round to take the lead, but then had five bogeys in the next six holes to fall down the leaderboard. At the same time, Tiger Woods, the current number one player in the world seemed to be recovering from a tough start and headed to his rightful place near the top of the standings.

However, a curious thing happened on the way to normalcy.

Woods suddenly ran into a six-hole stretch where he went seven over par and ultimately missed the cut.

Conversely, Watson seemed to suddenly find the kind of magic he had displayed at Turnberry 32 years earlier when he registered back-to-back rounds of 65 to beat Nicklaus by one-stroke in the famous “Dual in the Sun.”

He birdied four of the final 10 holes to shoot an even par 70 and finish the second round tied for the lead.

Suddenly, the novelty of a 59-year old competing for a major championship was wearing off and the reality that no player left in the field has more championship success than Watson started to set in.

For much of the third round, Watson looked like an eight-time major champion. Making putt after putt, he maintained the lead while others around him started to implode.

Through eight holes, Watson was even for the day and continued to maintain his lead.

After a bogey on the ninth hole, Watson finally began to reveal some mortality as he missed relatively short putts and dropped strokes at the 12th and 15th holes to fall out of the lead for the first time on the day.

Then, for the second straight day, Watson seemed to channel his past glory and remember that he was playing for a record-tying sixth Open Championship.

He birdied the 16th hole and then got a very fortuitous bounce on his second shot at the par-five 17th that led to an eagle putt that just missed. He ended up with a second-straight birdie and a one-stroke lead.

When you look at the leaderboard heading into the final round, there is no Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, but there are a number of very talented golfers and former major champions that are poised to challenge Watson’s date with destiny.

Neither of the two players tied for second, Mathew Goggin and Ross Fisher, have ever won a major championship. While Fisher finished fifth at the 2009 U.S. Open, Goggin has never finished better than 36th in a major tournament.

Among the others in the top 10, there are three former major champions, Retief Goosen (tied for 4th, two strokes back), Jim Furyk (tied for 6th, three strokes back) and 2009 Master’s Champion Angel Cabrera (tied for 10th, five strokes back).

Also in contention are two players, Stewart Cink and Lee Westwood, who have both been close in majors, but never been able to pull out the victory.

It seems quite improbable that a 59-year old (he will turn 60 in September) who last made the cut at a major championship in 2006 and hasn’t been in the top 10 at a major since 2000 could actually beat all the other great golfers in the world over a four-day tournament at one of the most challenging courses in the world.

However, if it is ever going to happen it sure seems like Tom Watson is the guy to accomplish such an unimaginable feat. He is the essence of a professional golfer: steady, calm and single-minded in his focus.

As has been said more than once during the championship, even at 59-years of age, Watson doesn’t play the majors to be the ceremonial hand waver. He plays the majors in 2009 for the same reason he played in them 30 years ago, to win.

Sunday he will get his chance and you won’t want to miss it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Best Players Not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Defensive Linemen

Our position-by-position look at the best eligible players not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame now shifts from offense to defense as we look at the best defensive linemen who have not yet earned a bust in Canton.

From Art Donovan, Deacon Jones and Ben Davidson to Bubba Smith, Mark Gastineau, and Michael Strahan, NFL history is filled with charismatic defensive linemen who were recognized not just for their talent, but also for their showmanship and flamboyance.

Defensive line units have also regularly been fan favorites with names such as “Doomsday”, “The Fearsome Foursome”, “The Purple Gang” and “The Steel Curtain.”

Defensive linemen have also been well respected by Hall of Fame voters, as the position is second only to the offensive line in the number of modern era players enshrined in the Hall.

However, much like offensive linemen, because statistics are inconsistent and tell only a part of the story, ensuring that the most deserving defensive linemen are inducted is a tough challenge.

Though some recognition was given to the sack as far back as the 1960s and sack leaders were printed on Topps football cards in the 1970s, the sack wasn’t recognized as an official statistic until 1982.

This provides a challenge for some of the best defensive linemen of the 1960s and 1970s who were known for their pass-rushing ability, but don’t have the same “numbers” to show for their prowess as players of the last three decades.

There are, of course, also great defensive linemen who were primarily run stuffers and didn’t have impressive stat totals, regardless of whether they played prior to or after the sack became a recognized stat.

In selecting the best defensive linemen not in the Hall of Fame, I looked at the individual statistics of post-1982 candidates, but also looked at overall team defensive prowess for players from all eras.

I also analyzed how each candidate compared to players of their own era in regard to Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections.

Selecting the top 10, and event the best 25, was quite a challenge as there are many great defensive linemen who have yet to receive the call from Canton, but who were regular participants in the Pro Bowl or key performers on championship teams.

One player who ended up being ranked much lower on the list than one might expect is former Viking Jim Marshall.

At the time of his retirement, Marshall had played in more games than any other player in NFL history. On a line that included Hall of Famers Carl Eller and Alan Page, Marshall was generally considered to be equal to those two greats.

However, when comparing his credentials with those of other comparable defenders, Marshall surprisingly didn’t stack up. He participated in only two Pro Bowls and was never an All-Pro.

In addition, Marshall famously was man handled by a variety of offensive linemen in the four Super Bowl appearances for the Vikings.

Despite being eligible for the HOF for 25 years, Marshall has been a finalist only once, in 2004.

So, here is my list of the top 10 eligible defensive linemen not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I look forward to your comments, discussion, and disagreements.

Click Here to read more and see pictures of each player in the top 10.

10. Neil Smith – Kansas City Chiefs/Denver Broncos/San Diego Chargers – 1988-2000

9. Alex Karras – Detroit Lions – 1962-1978

8. Charles Haley – San Francisco 49ers/Dallas Cowboys – 1986-1999

7. Claude Humphrey – Atlanta Falcons/Philadelphia Eagles – 1968-1981

6. Roger Brown – Detroit Lions/Los Angeles Rams – 1960-1969

5. Chris Doleman – Minnesota Vikings/Atlanta Falcons/San Francisco 49ers – 1985-1999

4. Richard Dent –Chicago Bears/San Francisco 49ers/Indianapolis Colts/Philadelphia Eagles – 1983-1997

3. L.C. Greenwood – Pittsburgh Steelers– 1969-1981

2. Cortez Kennedy – Seattle Seahawks – 1990-2000

1. John Randle – Minnesota Vikings/Seattle Seahawks – 1990-2003

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Arnold Palmer Led the American Invasion of the British Open

The absence from The Open Championship (often referred outside of England as The British Open) of Tiger Woods last year and the decision by Phil Mickelson not to make the trek across the pond this year harkens back to a time when it was common practice for the top Americans to skip golf’s oldest championship.

Of course, both Woods (knee surgery) and Mickelson (family illness) have legitimate reasons for not competing in the only major tournament not played in the United States. However, had it not been for a decision nearly 50 years ago by popular American golfer Arnold Palmer to compete in The Open, it is possible that the list of great Americans not playing in the tournament would be significantly longer.

Though The Open, which was first played in 1860, was the oldest of the four major championships, in the 1940s and 1950s it was not a popular tournament among the top American players. The hassles associated with traveling overseas, the relatively small prize money and the stark contrast of playing on the links golf courses made it unattractive for most American players.

It had not always been that way.

Between World War I and World War II the top American golfers of the era regularly withstood the difficulties to participate in The Open.

Starting in 1921 when Jock Hutchison, who was born in Scotland but became an American citizen in 1917, prevailed in a playoff over England’s Roger Wethered, the Americans enjoyed a decade of dominance.

In 1922, Walter Hagen became the first American born champion of The Open and he went on to claim the championship four times in the decade.

Amateur Bobby Jones claimed the championship three times and in 1930 won his own unique “Grand Slam” as he claimed both the U.S. and British Open and U.S. and British Amateur Championships in the same calendar year.

Victories by Gene Sarazen in 1932 and Denny Shute in 1933 completed a stretch when seven Americans (including four born in the U.S. and three naturalized citizens) claimed 12 of 13 Open Championships.

The Great Depression and increasing instability in Europe limited the number of top Americans participating in the tournament over the remainder of the 1930s and an English player won the title each year for the rest of the decade.

After not being played from 1940-45, American Sam Snead hoisted the traditional champion’s prize, The Claret Jug, in 1946. Snead would not compete in the tournament again until 1962.

Similarly, the other great American golfer of the era, Ben Hogan, competed in The Open only once in his career, winning the tournament in 1953. During that amazing season, Hogan became the first player to win the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in the same year. He did not compete in the fourth major, the PGA Championships, that year.

In 1960, Palmer had a chance to match Hogan’s feat having won the Masters and U.S. Open titles.

Having never previously made the trek to play in The Open, it took persuading by Palmer’s business partner Mark McCormack before Palmer agreed to participate.

While most were focused solely on the golf tournament, McCormack saw the bigger picture and recognized the enormous potential for the charismatic Palmer to become a global giant.

Palmer just missed the title in 1960, falling by a single stroke to Australian Kal Nagle. However, subsequent victories by the American in 1961 and 1962 convinced other Americans that they could win across the pond and forever sealed Palmer’s legacy as an international golf superstar.

Once Palmer opened the door, the Americans quickly walked right in and made themselves at home.

Tony Lema claimed the 1964 title in his first appearance in the tournament. Jack Nicklaus won his first of three championships in 1966.

Beginning with a victory by Nicklaus at St. Andrews in 1970, Americans claimed 12 of the next 14 Open Championships.

Leading the way was Tom Watson, who claimed the championship five times–each on a different course–between 1975 and 1983.

Between 1984 and 1994 the Americans hit a surprising drought as the only title brought back to America was by Mark Calcavecchia in 1989.

The Americans returned to prominence beginning in 1995 when John Daly claimed the title in a four-hole playoff.

He started a string of 10 victories by Americans over the next 12 years. Leading the charge was Tiger Woods with three victories, including consecutive titles in 2005 and 2006.

Ireland’s Pádraig Harrington ended the Americans’ run in 2007 and repeated as champion a year ago.

In all, since Palmer made his fateful trip to St. Andrews in 1960, Americans have claimed 27 of the 49 Open Championships.

With Woods back in the field this year and a number of young Americans, including U.S. Open Champion Lucas Glover, on the prowl, there is certainly a good chance that the 50th tournament in the American Invasion could result in another American hoisting the Claret Jug come Sunday.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Great Moments in All-Star Game History: Part 3 (1990-2008)

Over the last two decades, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game has transformed from being simply a game to being a multi-day extravaganza where the game itself is simply one component. For that reason, the game has at times seemed to be anti-climatic, but has still produced some great memories.

After the National League dominated the competition throughout the 1960s and 1970s, including a stretch of 19 victories in 20 games, the rolls have completely reversed in recent years.

The American League has claimed 17 out of the last 20 meetings and has not lost to the National League since 1996.

In this final installment of the three part series in which we have reminisced about some of the great moments, games and players in All-Star history, we look at the most memorable games of the last two decades.

July 10, 1990 (Wrigley Field, Chicago)
The addition of lights at Wrigley Field allowed for the All-Star Game to be played at the storied venue for the first time since 1962.

The lights came in handy as the game endured 85 minutes worth of rain delays, which made it difficult for either team to develop a rhythm or establish a consistent pitching rotation.

The American League used six pitchers and the National League went through nine hurlers in the contest.

The game was scoreless until a two-run double by Julio Franco gave the AL all the runs they needed in posting a 2-0 victory.

July 12, 1994 (Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh)
In one of the most exciting All-Star Games in recent memory, the lead changed hands five times before the National League pulled out the victory in the 10th inning.

The NL jumped to a 4-1 advantage before the AL stormed back to claim a 7-5 lead entering the bottom of the ninth.

With Lee Smith, with 29 saves prior to the All-Star break, on the mound, the American League seemed poised to claim their fifth straight victory in the series.

However, Fred McGriff blasted a two-run home run to tie the game and send it into extra innings.

In his first All-Star Game, Moises Alou drove home the winning run with a double in the 10th inning to give the NL an 8-7 victory.

Given the excitement of the Midsummer Classic, few could have predicted that just one month later a work stoppage would end the season and deprive fans of the World Series for the first time in 90 years.

July 8, 1997 (Jacobs Field, Cleveland)
Eight American League pitchers allowed the National League only three hits as the Junior Circuit pulled out a 3-1 victory.

The game was tied 1-1 until Cleveland Indian catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. delighted the home crowd by blasting a two-run home run in the seventh inning.

Earlier in the inning, Javy Lopez became only the 11th player to hit a home run in his first All-Star Game at bat.

July 7, 1998 (Coors Field, Denver)
It was no surprise that the first All-Star Game played in a stadium known for producing runs would result in the highest scoring game in All-Star history.

A year after his brother earned game MVP honors; Roberto Alomar kept the award in the family as he had three hits, including a home run, to earn the honor.

Alex Rodriguez also homered for the AL and Cal Ripken Jr. drove home two runs.

Barry Bonds hit a home run for the National League and he and his father, Bobby, joined Ken Griffey Jr. and Ken Griffey Sr. as the only father-son combinations to hit home runs in All-Star competition.

July 13, 1999 (Fenway Park, Boston)
The final All-Star Game of the 20th Century is better remembered for the star-studded program prior to the game than actually for the game itself.

Many great Hall of Famers from the history of baseball joined the current All-Stars on the field for a special pre-game ceremony. Red Sox legend Ted Williams received the loudest ovation and was surrounded by current players as he made his way onto the field in a golf cart.

On the field, it was a current Red Sox star that took control of the game. Starting pitcher Pedro Martinez did not allow a hit while registering five strikeouts in two innings on the mound.

The AL scored twice in the first inning as Jim Thome and Cal Ripken Jr. each drove home runs. They also added two runs in the fourth inning to claim the 4-1 victory.

July 10, 2001 (Safeco Field, Seattle)
Few All-Star goodbyes have been as dramatic as the final All-Star appearance of Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.

Having previously announced his retirement, Ripken was elected as the starting third baseman. However, when the game started, shortstop Alex Rodriguez encouraged Ripken to switch positions and return to the shortstop spot where he earned 14 of his 19 straight All-Star selections.

In the third inning, Ripken permanently stamped his mark on the game by blasting a solo home run off Chan Ho Park.

A pair of sixth inning home runs by Derek Jeter and Magglio Ordonez sealed the 4-1 victory for the American League.

July 9, 2002 (Miller Park, Milwaukee)
Over time, the All-Star Game had transformed from being a battle between rival players in the two leagues to an exhibition with the primary mission being to get as many players involved as possible.

That change in philosophy led to a nightmare scenario in 2002 when the game was ultimately declared a tie after 11 innings when both teams ran out of pitchers.

The game opened with excitement as Torii Hunter leaped high above the fence to rob Barry Bonds of what seemed to be a first inning home run. Bonds was not to be denied in the third inning as he blasted a two-run homer.

The NL led 5-2 before the AL rallied with four runs in the top of the seventh to take a 6-5 lead.

However, the advantage would be short-lived as a two-run single by Lance Berkman in the bottom of the inning put the NL back in front.

The final run of the game was scored in the eighth inning when Omar Vizquel tripled home the tying run.

Neither team scored through the first two extra innings with AL hurler Freddy Garcia and NL pitcher Vincente Padilla each throwing two scoreless innings.

As the 12th inning approached, the two managers–Joe Torre and Bob Brenly–curiously headed to the stands to confer with Commissioner Bud Selig.

As it turns out, they were relaying to the commissioner that there were no pitchers remaining for either team. Left with no other choice Selig, who ironically had been the owner of the host Milwaukee Brewers before assuming his duties, declared the game a tie.

It was the first time since 1961, when rain ended the game after nine innings that the game ended without a winner.

To make a bad situation even worse, it was decided that no Most Valuable Player Award would be given. That proved particularly embarrassing because the award had recently been renamed to honor the legendary Ted Williams, who had died a week prior to the contest.

Following the tie, several changes were made to increase the competitiveness of the game and ensure that teams would not again run out of players. Additional roster spots were added and, for the first time, the league that won the All-Star Game would receive home-field advantage in the World Series for that season.

July 11, 2006 (PNC Park, Pittsburgh)
The City of Pittsburgh hosted the All-Star Game for the fifth time with new PNC Park serving as a picturesque venue for the Midsummer Classic.

The National League took a 2-1 lead following single runs in the second and third innings. Neither squad could muster another run as the game headed to the ninth inning.

With closer Trevor Hoffman on the mound, the NL appeared poised to break their nine game losing streak to the AL.

However, after Hoffman retire the first two batters, he allowed consecutive hits to Paul Konerko and Troy Glaus. Michael Young then followed with a two-run triple to give the AL a 3-2 advantage.

The AL then turned to its own super-closer Mariano Rivera and he was able to seal the deal for the American League.

July 15, 2008 (Yankee Stadium, New York City)
In the final All-Star Game to be played at the original Yankee Stadium, the American League continued their dominance of the National League by claiming a one-run victory for the third straight year.

Unlike when the two teams ran out of pitchers after just 11 innings in 2002, both squads were able to make it through 15 innings without repeating that disastrous outcome.

The NL took the early lead with single runs in the fifth and sixth innings.

The AL tied the score in the seventh on a two-run home run by J.D. Drew.

After each squad scored once in the eighth inning, the game remained tied 3-3 through the 14th inning.

In the bottom of the 15th inning, a sacrifice fly by Michael Young scored Justin Morneau with the deciding run.

Even though the American League has won the last 11 meetings, the National League still holds an overall advantage of 40-37-2 entering the 80th installment of the series at the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

It has been a series filled with great performances, dramatic finishes and unexpected moments and there is little doubt that more special memories will be created this year and on into the future.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

No-Hitters Aren’t Just For Baseball’s Elite

The no-hitter Friday night by San Francisco Giants hurler Jonathan Sanchez is a reminder that one of baseball’s most hallowed accomplishments is not just reserved for pitchers with lofty career statistics. Instead, for one night anyone (even a pitcher with a 16-26 career record) can look like a Hall of Famer and stamp himself a place in baseball immortality.

No-hitters have a special place in baseball lore because, while there are other accomplishments that occur with less frequency, a no-hitter is one feat that can seemingly come out of nowhere.

That was no more evident than in the case of Sanchez.

Having spent the last three weeks in the bullpen after losing his spot in the rotation–he entered Friday’s game with a 2-8 season record–Sanchez only got the start against the San Diego Padres because future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson (owner of two career no-hitters) went on the disabled list earlier this week.

The left-hander made the most of his opportunity, as he was nearly perfect. He struck out 11 batters and had a perfect game until an error in the eighth inning. He did not surrender a walk in the contest.

No-hitters are also a special moment for an entire team because, while the pitcher gets and deserves much of the credit, it is truly an achievement that is dependent on everyone playing at a high level for the entire game.

That was quite clear in the ninth inning Friday as Sanchez’s bid would have ended two outs shy of completion had centerfielder Aaron Rowand not made an incredible catch at the wall to rob Edgar Gonzalez of an extra base hit.

Sanchez is just the latest in a long line of pitchers with otherwise forgettable careers who will forever be recognized as having been, for one night at least, un-hittable.

His no-no is the 262nd in baseball history and 220th since 1900.

While there are many Hall of Fame pitchers who have thrown no-hitters, including Nolan Ryan (seven times), Sandy Koufax (four), Warren Spahn (2), Jim Bunning (2), Catfish Hunter, Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry, Tom Seaver and Juan Marichal, there are many pitchers with plaques in Cooperstown that never achieved such one-game greatness.

In fact, except for Johnson, the most recent additions to the 300-victory club never accomplished the feat. Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens combined to win 1,014 career games, yet none of the three ever threw a no-hitter.

Then consider that four pitchers who have thrown no-hitters this decade–Anibal Sanchez (15 wins), Clay Buchholz (5), Bud Smith (7) and Sanchez (16)–have a total of 42 career victories between them.

Other pitchers whose names may not be recognizable, but who pitched a no-hitter in the majors include Ed Halicki (55 wins), George Culver (48), Tommy Greene (38), Joe Cowley (33), Juan Nieves (32) and Mike Warren (9).

Of course, the most famous no-hitter in baseball history was the perfect game thrown by Don Larsen in the 1956 World Series. Larsen was never confused for one of the greats of his era as he posted an 81-91 career-record and never won more than 11 games in a season.

No-hitters also are magical because they can serve as the defining moment for pitchers who have battled against great odds and difficulties to gain, or return to, greatness.

The no-hitter in 1993 by Jim Abbott, who pitched 10 years in the majors despite being born without a right hand, will forever serve as inspiration for people trying to overcome adversity.

Similarly, the no-hitter by Jon Lester in May of 2008 served as his signal to the baseball world that he was completely recovered from the lymphoma that many thought might end his promising career just two years earlier. He went on to win 16 games that season and remains one of the key hurlers on the Red Sox.

It is not surprising that Dwight Gooden pitched a no-hitter during his career, but what is surprising is that it didn’t happen during his tenure as the best pitcher in the game for the New York Mets. Instead, it happened a decade later while pitching for the New York Yankees.

At the time, Gooden’s no-no seemed to serve as a re-birth for the former All-Star following his long-time battle with substance abuse. Even though his struggles continued following that moment, the memory of him being carried off the field by thrilled teammates illustrates the power a no-hitter can have to, in one night, turn mediocrity into greatness.

It is likely that Sanchez’s career peaked with his near-perfect performance against the Padres. However, for he and his father–who was in attendance–it is a memory that will never get old.

Plus, for the rest of time, Sanchez will know that for one night, he was the best pitcher in baseball.
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