Summer Sports Roundup
Since we last published in May, there have been some major events in the world of sports. Lance Armstrong won his seventh Tour de France, steroids became an even better excuse to taunt Rafael Palmeiro than his Viagra commercials, and the Milwaukee Bucks drafted the next great Australian-Croatian center, Andrew Bogut. Of course with your internship in Beijing, you probably missed a lot of the little things that could have a major impact in the sports world for years to come.
The NHL returns to Pittsburgh
Before July 22, there were only rumblings. The NHL was coming back, but no one in the 'Burgh seemed even the least bit interested. And then it happened. With an 8.3 percent chance, the Penguins won the NHL Draft Lottery, securing them the rights to draft Canadian phenom Sidney Crosby. Crosby, only 18 years old, is what some might call "kind of a big deal." Even high school girls in Rhode Island know who he is, and he'll look to take over as the new face of Mario Lemieux's franchise.
Sparked by this superstar potential, the normally, uh, frugal Pens have made a big splash in the free agent market, surrounding their young guns with proven veterans like Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, John LeClair, and Jocelyn Thibault. The team's new focus appears to be solidifying its defense while letting the young players fire away on offense and learn from the veterans. While still not a championship team, this is a solid core of players who should make this team playoff-bound for the first time since the 2000-01 season.
A few questions remain, however: Can former number one pick Marc-Andre Fleury turn into the game-changing goalie he's slated to become? Can local product Ryan Malone follow up on a successful rookie season and become a strong second- or third-line center? Will Mario Lemieux still be effective at the age of 39? And, most importantly, will the Penguins still have Student Rush tickets, which allowed fans with student IDs to purchase the best available seats for a game for only $20? Only time will tell.
The Bassmaster Classic comes to the Three Rivers
Granted, it's not much of a mainstream event, but it brought some much-needed tourism and publicity to a city facing financial crisis. The fishing tournament brought some truly unique characters to the Steel City and helped bolster the idea that Pittsburgh is a fishing burgh. If nothing else, city residents were treated to impressive displays of outdoor life that most yinzers could enjoy.
But for most normal people, the biggest implications of this event were environmental. Even recently, no one would have dreamt of having any kind of fishing on the uber-polluted Three Rivers. Now, thanks to the efforts of the City of Pittsburgh, our rivers are healthy again, shown not only by the number of bass in the water, but also by the indicator species — mayflies, algae, etc. — that prove these rivers are clean enough for humans.
How does this help students? Well, unless you've got a boat, you probably don't care that much. However, businesses on the rivers now offer kayak and canoe rentals, giving people a new way to experience the city and at the very least, a decent alternative to sitting around and doing nothing on a hot Saturday in the city.
The NBA draft and free agency
After the Spurs won what was an essentially boring NBA Finals, the NBA draft turned out to be the more exciting event of the summer. In what may pan out to be the deepest draft of the past 25 years, experts everywhere were able to predict the top five to ten picks... and then nothing after that. The Knicks traded away their only rebounding big man (Kurt Thomas) for a center who was never that good in college and is as intimidating as a teddy bear (Channing Frye). The Lakers drafted a seven-foot-tall 17-year-old with a bigger MySpace profile than his basketball resume. The Clippers passed on at least five solid NBA rookies for a Russian guy named Yaroslav. In between that, the Magic picked a Spanish guy named Fran, who refuses to play in America.
With all the garbage in the early part of the round, established teams like the Pacers, Nets, Celtics, and Grizzlies were able to pick up prospects who will contribute to their teams, such as Hakim Warrick and Gerald Green. Even more surprising was the talent in the second round, when established NCAA players Ryan Gomes, Lawrence Roberts, and the injured but still talented Ronny Turiaf were all selected.
After the draft, major NBA franchises like the Lakers, Knicks, and Celtics all decided to continue to be mediocre with either puzzling or boring free-agent signings. The Knicks brought in Larry Brown to coach their team of shooting guards and undersized power forwards; the Lakers traded away a solid starter (Caron Butler) for a head-case high school center (Kwame Brown); and the Celtics traded Antoine Walker to bring in three white guys, one of whom is nicknamed "Veal."
So what was good about this offseason? The Eastern Conference got considerably stronger, with the Bucks, Cavs, and Heat all making significant upgrades to their rosters. The Houston Rockets signed Stromile Swift to give them a mean streak in their frontcourt and make them title contenders. And the Magic dumped Doug Christie, who is now ruining basketball teams with his weak play and his personal life. I could go on about this for pages, but I've got a limit.
The NFL preseason
Ricky Williams is back, but will he just screw the Dolphins again and hurt the development of young back Ronnie Brown? The Patriots look vulnerable after losing key players, but will they continue to dominate with a patchwork team of decent players? Can Ben Roethlisberger forget the 2004 playoffs and be a regular-season hero again? These are just some of the many questions that have come up during this offseason, and, as usual, the preseason has done little to answer them.
What we do know so far is that number-one draft pick Alex Smith of San Francisco is far from ready to take over an NFL team, and you might be able to say the same about Eli Manning with the Giants. The Steelers need to sign Hines Ward as quickly as possible to give Ben Roethlisberger a familiar and reliable target to throw to. Randy Moss will be more than worth the drama he causes as always, even if he smokes a little weed. And once again, the NFC looks like a crapshoot, with the Eagles and possibly the Falcons looking like the only playoff locks right now.
A few bold predictions for the upcoming season: The Titans' first round pick, Adam "Pac-Man" Jones, will set new rookie records for both number of posse members and number of times being arrested. The Eagles' Terrell Owens will increase his holdout demands by threatening to defect to the Canadian Football League, a threat he will quickly rescind upon learning about Canada. The Chicago Bears will use eight starting quarterbacks in the course of the season, including Ryan Leaf, Jeff George, and Kordell Stewart, who will go a combined 1-15. Finally, the New England Patriots will again lose to the Steelers in the regular season... but will again dominate Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
The Yankees can't beat the Devil Rays
As a Red Sox fan, I'll take the high road on this one. All I have to point out is a simple statistic — the Yankees record versus the historically awful Tampa Bay Devil Rays: four wins, nine losses, .307 winning percentage (WP). I'm not saying anything bad about the Yanks; I'm saying that good baseball teams beat the Devil Rays. In fact, the Pittsburgh Pirates versus the D-Rays this year: two wins, one loss, .667 WP.
Speaking of the Pirates, they gave Pittsburgh a ray of hope by climbing to a .500 record in the middle of June by beating Tampa Bay, and then promptly began losing games the way fans have become used to. Miles away from a playoff race, they've given their youngsters control of the team — and they haven't disappointed. Jason Bay has been the team's MVP and is on pace for a 30-home-run season. Jack Wilson, despite awful numbers at the plate, has been playing spectacular defense. Rookie pitcher Zach Duke is baffling hitters and putting the team on SportsCenter with every start. First-year players Chris Duffy, Ryan Doumit, Brad Eldred, and Ian Snell have all shown signs that they could lead this club back to the playoffs in time.
The biggest story in baseball now has to be the battle for the American League Wild Card. The Athletics, Indians, and Yankees are all battling for the spot with almost identical records. In the case of the Athletics and Yankees, both teams are within striking distance of winning their divisions and sending either the Red Sox or Angels into the race.
Around the rest of the league, the status quo has shifted considerably. The White Sox have put up the best record in the American League behind what may be the league's best starters. The Braves remain on top of the NL East despite fielding a lineup that occasionally features seven rookies. And the Padres control the NL West division with a sub-.500 record.
So while there have been a few major events in sports this summer, the most interesting ones have been those that haven't made the front page of a paper. With the Penguins looking like a playoff team, the Steelers ready to open the season, and even an NBA preseason game coming to Pittsburgh, it looks like it'll be a good semester for sports in the 'Burgh. Here's looking forward to a fall of great games and cheap beers.