Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ten-Year Old Raises Awareness for Lighthouse Project

Meet Matthew Pemberton, a fourth grade student at Connolly Elementary School in Glen Cove.
Over the past few weeks, Matthew and his parents, Brian and Tina, along with many Long Islanders, have had growing concerns over the progress of the Lighthouse project’s approval process. But what makes the Pembertons are a bit different than a growing majority.

In the days leading up to the 180th information session held by the heads of the Lighthouse project, Matthew took it upon himself to do his part for both his community and his favorite hockey team. Over the course of seven lunch periods, Matthew walked around the school cafeteria collecting the signatures of his friends and teachers to help raise community awareness for the Lighthouse project.

After returning from school, Brian Pemberton, Matthew’s father helped him type the names to better organize the list.
“It had, I would say, 130 names on it,” said Brian. “But we weren’t really sure how to get this list to the Islanders, until I got an e-mail from the Lighthouse project telling me about the meeting at the Mariott,” he said. “So I said to Matthew, 'do you want to go?' ”
Matthew’s answer was an emphatic yes. The family attended the meeting that drew over 1,000 people, according to Newsday.

As Charles Wang, the Islanders' owner and financier of the Lighthouse, walked to the podium start the meeting, he made the audience aware of Pembertons’ efforts. The family then presented Wang with the list of names in favor of the Lighthouse project, and received a standing ovation from the crowd.

The Pembertons, who had been attending Islanders’ games casually for a few years, began following the team more closely after Matthew came home from school one December day with two free tickets to an Islanders’ home game.

As part of the “Islanders in the Community” project, the team sent a staff that included former player Steve Webb and team mascot Sparky the Dragon to a number of elementary schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties, and Queens. Each student was given two free tickets to an upcoming home game, in addition to an assembly about how teamwork is important in every facet of life.

Since the Islanders’ school assembly, Matthew and his family have attended roughly 10 games this year. His parents also threw a birthday party for him and some friends at the March 8 game against the Phoenix Coyotes. The Islanders won 3-2 that night, with Kyle Okposo, Matthew’s favorite player, notching the game-winning goal.

The Islanders have reached out to thousands of children all over Long Island to increase interest in both the Islanders and hockey in general. The Pembertons have even gone ice skating a few times recently, and Matthew has a growing interest in playing hockey.

But with the help of 130 of his friends, it was Matthew who was giving back to the Islanders, and possibly, all of Long Island.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Sheridan Out, Forcier In for Michigan?

According to ESPN's Adam Rittenberg, Michigan QB Nick Sheridan will miss 4-6 weeks with a "small fracture in his lower right leg" suffered at Tuesday's practice. This news seems have just affirmed the notion that Rivals.com four-star recruit Tate Forcier will be the starter under center next fall for the Wolverines. Though Sheridan won't need surgery, the feeling coming out of Ann Arbor is that he will be lightyears behind Forcier when preseason camp begins in August in a battle he was expected to eventually lose, anyway.

Forcier, a dual-threat player who's a perfect fit for Rodriguez's spread offense, would be the third true freshman to start for Michigan in the past five years.

Before Tuesday, it was expected that Sheridan, who started four games last year, would be in competition with Forcier through the spring and into the start of the season. But with Sheridan out of commission until the middle of May, the Wolverines are left without a quarterback with any starting experience for the remainder of their spring practices.

Forcier, an early enrollee from San Diego, will take over the first-team duties through the rest of the Spring.

The Wolverines are coming off a season in which they lost nine games and failed to qualify for a bowl game for the first time in 34 years, ending the longest current streak in the country. If Forcier is given the starting job, look for the Wolverines to bounce back and contend for the Big Ten title.

Michigan fans are hopeful that a year after missing out on Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, Forcier can be the catalyst that can take the Wolverines' anemic 2008 offense (109th in the nation, 108th in passing) and turn it into the high-flying show that Rich Rodriguez previously put on at West Virginia.

Monday, March 23, 2009

2009 AL Preview, without the bias.

Okay, now that we've all read Wes' belligerent predictions for how the American League will shape up in 2009, let's explore what might really happen. Finally, thanks in large part to a terrible performance by their starting pitching, the American players that took part in the World Baseball Classic will return to their respective spring camps, except for those that decided to take the rest of the tournament off. I'm looking at you, Pedroia.

Tampa's improbable last-to-first turnaround and subsequent run to the World Series last year took America away from the Yankees and Red Sox of the world for the first time in years. And despite all this discussion about PEDs, it renewed some faith in the game, as well as solidifying that the game's five best teams come from the east coast.

Speaking of the east coast, there have been enough storylines to fill the gap between November and March better than the NFL could've ever tried to. Between big ticket free agents landing in New York and Boston, the construction of two new glorious stadiums in the Bronx and Queens, the Torre book, and of course A-Roid*, the media circus never went away.

But as teams play out their final spring training games, and start naming Opening Day starters, that familiar sense of spring optimism takes hold in anticipation of the start of the regular season. So now, here's a more realistic take on how the American League will shape up this season.

A.L. East-
1. Tampa Bay Rays - Prediction: 98-64, A.L. East champion
Three words: Pat the Bat. You can't say enough about how much he will influence the way pitchers go after Longoria and Pena. Look for Pena to be near the top of the American League in home runs, like he was in 2007. Burrell takes a good lineup and makes it scary, but the strength of this team is on the bump. Top prospect David Price is expected to start the season in AAA Durham to make room for Jeff Niemann, another former first round pick who's out of options, but it won't be long before the big lefty will be giving major league hitters fits. Regardless, a rotation that includes Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, "Big Game James" Shields and Andy Sonnanstine will be playoff bound for years to come.
Name to remember: SP David Price, SP Wade Davis - the crown jewels of the Rays farm system. Both will start the season in the minors, but expect to hear their names called every fifth day by August.

2. New York Yankees - Prediction: 94-68, A.L. Wild Card
You were expecting.... the Red Sox? Yeah, good joke. In the inaugural season at the new Yankee Stadium, the Bombers will pull out all the stops to ensure there is October baseball being played in the Bronx. The Yankees will be in contention with the Rays for the division until late September. The question will be how they will hold up without A-Rod until May. However, the common theme with the Rays and Yanks will be depth on the mound. The Yankees will also start their top prospect, Phil Hughes, in AAA with Scranton Wilkes-Barre. The worst case scenario for Yankee haters everywhere is that C.C.'s big frame will finally break down and A.J. Burnett will inevitably get hurt like he does every year (except last year, I guess, when he won 18 games and led the A.L. in strikeouts). But the emergence of Hughes and Alfredo Aceves in addition to a very underrated bullpen will spell relief for the Bombers. Wait what? They signed Mark Teixeira too? Oh yeah, Boston have a chance.
Name to remember: RF Xavier Nady - X has been the subject of constant trade rumors already since the Teixeira signing, and is playing out the last year of his contract. Will he justify a big payday heading into 2010?

3. Boston Red Sox - Prediction: 89-73
The Red Sox also made some noise this winter, albeit considerably smaller noise. After losing Mark Teixeira to the Yankees over $10 million, president John Henry claimed they simply could not compete with New York's ability to sign players. $10 million, John. Not a deal-breaker. The Sox instead went out and made a number of low-risk, high-reward signings in Brad Penny, John Smoltz, Rocco Baldelli and Takashi Saito. While Epstein, Henry & co. deserve praise for this, there is very little guarantee that Penny and Smoltz will have a definitive impact after missing significant time in 2008 with injuries. The Yankees considered trading for Penny early last season before they discovered he had a severe shoulder problem. That should say enough. The American League East's walking wounded should concern themselves a little less with New York's injury risks and worry about their own, i.e. Drew, Pedroia, Youkilis, Penny and Smoltz. They will also need David Ortiz to hold up for the entire season, which he failed to do a year ago.
Name to remember: SP Jon Lester - I'm convinced the Cy Young winner will come out of this division this year, what with at least seven legitimate candidates (Sabathia, Halladay, Chamberlain, Beckett, Kazmir, Shields, Lester), and the Red Sox' lefty ace could be the one to prove me right. After recently signing a contract extension, Lester seems poised to expand on his breakout campaign last year and become one of baseball's elite starters.

4. Toronto Blue Jays
- Prediction: 80-62
Well Wes, I'm pretty sure Roy Halladay pitches in Canada. And yes, he's very good. This Blue Jays lineup has some firepower, but not nearly enough to hang in this division. As the Hamstring Turns, starring Vernon Wells, will make its rounds and give fantasy owners fits by July, and one can't help but wonder if Alex Rios will ever live up to his 30-30 potential.
Name to remember: OF Travis Snider - Baseball America's fourth best prospect for 2009 will be a star, the only question is how soon. He will start the season as a corner outfielder for Toronto, and has potential to be the best left-handed batter they've had since Carlos Delgado.
5. Baltimore Orioles - Prediction: 70-92
Had they signed Mark Teixeira, they may have been able to make some noise this year. But after an offseason filled mostly with disappointment (apart from picking up Felix Pie from the Cubs), the O's find themselves as the prey in a divison full of predators. Nick Markakis will have another productive fantasy season, but that's really the only bright spot on this team.
Name to remember: C Matt Wieters - The top prospect in the nation has been tearing up spring training, but will start the season in the minor leagues. Scouts can't stop salivating over Wieters' trememdous hitting prowess, though. It won't be long before he's a big leaguer.

A.L. Central -
1. Cleveland Indians - Prediction: 93-69
Last year's hottest second-half team will turn a lot of heads this year in the Central. The addition of Mark DeRosa will bolster an already deadly lineup, with Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner fully healthy again. Grady Sizemore, coming off an outstanding 30-30 campaign, will challenge for MVP as well. Reigning Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee will come back down to earth, but will still be the ace on a staff that's good enough to win a less-than-stellar division.
Name to remember: 2B Mark DeRosa - Coming off a career year with the Cubs, it will be interesting to see how DeRosa handles the switch to the American League.

2. Minnesota Twins - Prediction: 85-77
Good pitching and sound baseball has been the Twins' formula since 2002 under Ron Gardenhire, and they've failed to reach 80 wins once. They'll get past that again this year, but with lingering concerns about Joe Mauer's health, the lineup doesn't look so daunting all of a sudden. On the other hand, Francisco Liriano will be 100% healthy after fully recovering from Tommy John surgery, but buyer beware. Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn round out a slightly above average pitching staff, but it doesn't look like this team will go very far.
Name to remember: RF Denard Span - The speedy outfielder is starting his first full season in the bigs, and had a relatively productive rookie season, hitting .294. Expect an increase in steals from 18 into the 30-40 range.

3. Chicago White Sox - Prediction: 81-81
This team is one that's stuck in a transitional state, with players like Carlos Quentin, Chris Getz and Alexei Ramirez on the rise pulling deadweight like Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski. The rotation is no different as veterans Mark Buehrle and Jose Contreras are surrounded by two of the most productive young pitchers of 2008, Gavin Floyd and John Danks. This team has some of the pieces together, but is still a good year or two away from contention.
Name to remember: SS Alexei Ramirez - Last year's A.L. Rookie of the Year runner-up is a versatile player that plays a lot like B.J. Upton. He and rookie second baseman Chris Getz make up one of the best young middle-infield tandems in baseball.

4. Detroit Tigers - Prediction: 79-83
Don't think that last year's nosedive was a fluke. This team fields one of the toughest lineups in the league, but trots out very few starters that give them a chance to win every fifth day. Justin Verlander will need to have a stellar bounceback season in order for this team to float near .500.
Name to remember: SP Rick Porcello - The Tigers' first round pick in 2007 has been tearing through Spring Training, even though he's never pitched professionally above advanced A ball. It's rumored that the 20-year old will break camp with the team, but even if he doesn't expect him to get the call when Detroit is searching for pitching in May.

5. Kansas City Royals - Prediction: 66-96
The Royals have been trying for years to build a strong team through the draft, along with a couple of free agent signings that haven't exactly panned out. Juan Cruz will join Joakim Soria to make for quite a devastating 1-2 punch in the latter part of games. The question is, how will they get a lead so they can put it into action?
Name to remember: SS Mike Aviles - Aviles broke into the league last year at age 26 and had a very productive year, hitting .325 with 10 HR and 51 RBI in just 102 games. With one major league season under his belt, and more at-bats to come this season, look for those numbers to improve.

A.L. West-

1. Los Angeles Angels - Prediction: 89-73
Even though they're a shadow of their 2008 selves, the Angels will win this division going away. Bobby Abreu won't be able to make up for the two huge voids in the lineup left by Mark Teixeira and Garrett Anderson. The starting rotation may not look as good without Francisco Rodriguez saving all those one-run games, but Brian Fuentes will do a fine job closing most of them. Lucky for them, they play the Mariners, A's and Rangers nearly 60 times.
Name to remember: SP Joe Saunders - Saunders won 17 games in 2008 with a 3.41 ERA. He also surrendered less than a hit per inning. It will be interesting to see if he can follow it up with another successful year.

2. Oakland Athletics - Prediction: 80-81
Billy Beane's deal with Colorado for Matt Holliday nearly reshaped the landscape of the division in one fell swoop. However, even with a vastly improved lineup with the additions of Holliday and Jason Giambi, the rotation still seems too weak to contend with the Angels.
Name to remember: OF Matt Holliday - Billy Beane holds the key to this year's trade deadline with Holliday's expiring contract at season's end. Chances are he'll be traded, even if the A's are reasonably within striking distance at the deadline.

3. Texas Rangers - Prediction: 75-87
Talk about a good lineup and poor rotation! This lineup trots out two of last year's top five fantasy players in Ian Kinsler and Josh Hamilton. However, they've got worse pitching than the A's. Kevin Millwood is their ace, enough said.
Name to remember:
SP Neftali Feliz - He is the reason the Braves regret trading for Mark Teixeira in 2007. Feliz is the Rangers' best pitching prospect, after trading Edinson Volquez to Cincinatti for Josh Hamilton last year. He won't start the year with the big team but expect him to make his debut in July or August.

4. Seattle Mariners - Prediction: 69-93
Ken Griffey Jr.'s swan song is going to be a rough one in Seattle. The Mariners don't boast a particularly strong lineup, outside of Ichiro and an aged Griffey. Their rotation includes Felix Hernandez and oft-injured Erik Bedard, who is a sleeper to many fantasy gurus after missing significant time in 2008 with a bad throwing shoulder.
Name to remember: OF Endy Chavez - It will be interesting to see what Chavez can do starting every day for Seattle. He was never given a fair chance in Queens, and with his speed, he can really make things happen.

Most Valuable Player: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit - .293 avg, 41 HR, 131 RBI
Cy Young Award: Jon Lester, Boston - 18-6, 3.15 ERA, 210 IP, 160 K
Rookie of the Year: Matt Wieters, Baltimore - .314 avg, 22 HR, 76 RBI

Playoff results:
Tampa Bay defeats Los Angeles, 3-1
New York defeats Cleveland, 3-0

Tampa Bay defeats New York, 4-2

Friday, March 13, 2009

Far be it for me to agree with Jon Papelbon but...

(Photos by AP)

...that was awesome.

I can't help but applaud the Red Sox' oft-moronic version of Michael Flatley for his comments about Manny Ramirez in his interview in the April edition of Esquire magazine:

"Manny was tough for us. You have somebody like him, you know at any point in the ballgame, he can dictate the outcome of the game. And for him not to be on the same page as the rest of the team was a killer, man! It just takes one guy to bring an entire team down, and that's exactly what was happening...

...Once we saw that, we weren't afraid to get rid of him. It's like cancer. That's what he was. Cancer. He had to go. But that was the only scenario that was going to work. That was it for us. And after, you could feel it in the air in the clubhouse. We got Jason Bay - Johnny Ballgame, plays the game right, plays through broken knees, runs out every ground ball - and it was like a breath of fresh air, man! Awesome! No question."

A cancer. Wow. I could not agree more. I'm just shocked someone in that clubhouse finally had the guts to say what their front office has been alluding to for years. Now normally, I hate Papelbon. And for a die-hard Yankee fan, what's not to hate? His overbearing attitude, his outstanding fastball, and Red Sox fans adament claims that he belongs in the same sentence as Mariano Rivera. But this is the second time I am taken back by Papelbon's comments, rather than his devastating splitter.

Last summer, in the days before the biggest All-Star celebration in sports history in the Bronx, Papelbon deferred what would be a potential ninth inning save opportunity to Rivera. Despite asserting the fact that if he were managing the game that he would close, he and AL manager Terry Francona decided to give the spot to Mo should it arise, also known as the right thing to do.

For any member of the New York media to take Ramirez' side in this just because he doesn't wear a Boston uniform anymore is simply idiotic. There is a bigger problem at hand with Ramirez, and that is his extreme lack of respect for the game. You'd be hard pressed to find any player in the league with less respect for his profession than Manny Ramirez.

Papelbon's comments about Ramirez weren't good-natured at all, but they were absolutely accurate. This doesn't make him a "jerk," as some brilliant Newsday blogger suggests, but rather it only solidifies his role as a leader on the 2009 Red Sox. Comparing Manny Ramirez to Alex Rodriguez is a joke, to say the least. Alex, despite making some boneheaded decisions away from the field, will always be committed to the game, whereas Ramirez has sat out many pivotal games, costing his team greatly over the course of his career.

I remember watching Baseball Tonight's trade deadline show last July, praying the Red Sox would hold onto Manny. I still believe to this day, that if they hadn't traded him the Yankees would've made the playoffs. That clubhouse would've imploded in August and September, rather than thriving off Jason "Johnny Ballgame" Bay's stellar play in left field.

This morning, Papelbon refused a chance to apologize for his comments. He opted to rather solidify the idea that Jason Bay was the cure for the burden Ramirez put on the clubhouse. "I'm not going to sugarcoat anything," he told The Boston Globe.

Nor should he. If he were to change his attitude now, he wouldn't be the same. Red Sox fans wouldn't love him as much, and Yankees fans wouldn't hate him as much. And as much as I hate him with every Yankee-loving bone in my body, he is forcing me to respect him.

Friday, March 6, 2009

An Open Letter to Post-Lockout Rangers' Fans

Dear Post-Lockout Rangers' Fans,

Please stop embarrassing the rest of us.

You know who you are. You are the type of fan that gives the team's true supporters a bad name. You don't know anything about the game, but that doesn't stop you from asserting your stupidity whenever possible. Just a few years ago, I'm sure most of you didn't know what a hockey puck was, or why there weren't any around in 2004-05. Before the lockout, or the "strike" as you so often and inaccurately called it, you guys were nowhere to be found. That's not to say the Rangers didn't have fans before the lockout, despite their constant ability to miss the playoffs. But that those that stuck around through that seven-year drought knew what hockey was. If anything, they sure knew what bad hockey looked like, since it was on display at the Garden 41 times a year.

Surely most of you picked up on the team somewhere through the 2005-06 campaign, though I'd venture to guess that 85% of you can't tell me who was the captain of the team that year.

Stumped? I thought so. That's because no one player wore the captain's "C," but rather a group of players that included Jaromir Jagr, Darius Kasparaitis, and Martin Straka sported As on their sweaters. Now that you've exposed yourselves, let's quickly recap that season, shall we?

That year, the Rangers were picked by every expert in the know to finish dead-last in the Eastern Conference. However, on the shoulders of a Rangers-record 54 goals by Jagr and the outstanding play of a rookie goaltender (you know him as Henrik Lundqvist), the team surged to take the sixth seed in the playoffs.

The problem is, your numbers are growing. It seems like every day there are more and more Rangers' fans that know very little, but claim to have been a fan from the beginning of time. It's become an epidemic for hockey fans of this generation, and probably for those to come as well. How can I prove it? Well, many times you guys do the work for me. Let's see:

- You yell "SHOOT!" repeatedly whenever the team carries the puck into the offensive zone, or even sometimes in the defensive zone when on the power play.
- You think Potvin's first name is Felix.
- You had no idea who Harry Howell or Andy Bathgate were before this year.
- You can't name three players from the 1994 team who's jerseys haven't been retired.
- You thought inserting Petr Prucha into the lineup would solve all the scoring problems.
- You think Brandon Dubinsky could be the next Messier or Graves.
- You refuse to ackowledge the talent of some of the NHL's elite, such as Mike Richards, Zach Parise and worst of all, Sidney Crosby purely out of hatred for them.

Now, with all that said, it could be worse. This is never more evident than the day after seeing a game in Nassau Coliseum, the home of the most pathetic fans in New York. When the Islanders score a goal, the fans in attendance, which aren't many, stand up and chant at the opposing goalie, rather than celebrate a goal for their team.

Really, guys? Watching the Islanders play a home game is like being at a very bad college hockey game. The atmosphere is sadly juvenile, what with a dragon mascot doing the chicken dance and all. It's enough to make hockey purists vomit.

For not being anything like this, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Rangers' fans, both post-lockout and life-long supporters.

I know that you're passionate about your newfound favorite team. But for the sake of the true fans, try to learn something about the game before making a joke out of yourself. Hockey is a great sport that doesn't get enough attention. Bringing back the casual fan is the only way the NHL will truly make its way back into the same conversation as the other three sports leagues in this country.

So although I can't stand most of you in many respects, I understand that we need you, in addition to a major market team winning the Cup, to make this league breathe again. So if I've offended any of you, which I'm sure I have, take this letter not as an insult, but as a guideline. A guideline on how to not sound like a moron at a hockey game.

The rest of us would really appreciate it.

Mike Salerno