Thursday, August 20, 2009

My Baseball Fandom Renaissance

Baseball has been part of my life forever. My connection to the game is part of what defines me. Yet, until now I never really had a favorite team. That's no longer the case. The Texas Rangers are my team. It's been an inexplicably long and winding road to get to this point.

I randomly became a Yankees fan at a very early age. My memory starts at age seven in 1985. The Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Cardinals and Royals were relevant to me and my friends back then. The Red Sox and Mets were already claimed by my friends. My uncle tried very hard to make me a Cardinals fan. Why it didn't work is beyond me. That left the Yankees and Royals. Even for a seven year old this wasn't a tough choice. Don Mattingly became my favorite player.

But over the course of a lifetime the Yankees went from historic but mediocre to Evil Empire. I just couldn't root for a team that bought championships and now they are probably my least favorite team, Red Sox excepted.

All the while I was playing baseball. I played through high school. This fact, coupled with those feelings of invincibility and superiority that mark adolescence, kept me disinterested from Major League Baseball. For some reason the further I progressed in the game, the less impressed I was with the players at even higher levels. This made no sense. The opposite should have been true. I know I appreciated their skills and talents. I now realize I was probably jealous and resentful.

I've now settled comfortably into middle age. The idea that one naturally gravitates towards teams in their own backyard makes perfect sense. I consider myself a die-hard (and lifetime) Oklahoma Sooners fan. Ditto the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Why did I never latch on to the Rangers? They are, after all, the closest team to Oklahoma City. Their Triple-A affilliate is based here. I know their roster because half of the players came through OKC on their way to The Show. It's all right there but I've been fighting it. Why?

I was raised to hate anything from Texas. I particularly loathe the Texas Longhorns and the Dallas Cowboys. It didn't help matters that people from Dallas, in general, seem to have a particular air about them that is both obnoxious and repellent.

I also blame the steroid era. As a former player I appreciate the more subtle aspects of the game. I love the hit and run, defense, triples, a play at the plate, an outfield assist, a pitcher's duel, a stolen base. I hated seeing fences being moved in and teams sitting on their hands waiting for someone to go yard.

Things have started falling into place the last couple of years. At the beginning of each season I've made the resolution to watch more games. ESPN became the Yankees-Red Sox network. This made me hate both these teams and forced me to look elsewhere on the dial. The Rangers, Astros, Cardinals and Royals are all on somewhat regularly. Non has more games on television than the Rangers. I began to enjoy Rangers broadcaster Josh Lewin. Then HD came to my house which makes any sporting event more fun to watch. So the Rangers can now be watched nightly in HD.

More than anything, the post-steroids era Texas Rangers are fun to watch. Jon Daniels, the GM, has revamped the minor league pipeline. Players like Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Elvis Andrus, Julio Borbon, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden are all home grown. They play great defense, they hustle, they run bases and they manufacture runs. It's pure baseball. To a baseball purist it's hard not to like.

I've found myself watching nearly every game this season. I'm keeping up with the standings, the Wild Card and who's turn it is in the rotation. I'm checking to make sure I know when the games are on. And so it dawned on me a couple of weeks ago that I'd found my team. That I'd rediscovered my love for baseball and for the first time I have a team I genuinely care about and root for.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Oklahoma City Thunder 2009 Draft Assessment

3rd Pick Overall- James Harden, G, Arizona State
If I were the GM of the Oklahoma City Thunder I would have taken Ricky Rubio. It would have been a decision based on emotion rather than what's best for the team. Last week I really believed Harden was the pick. But as it came closer to draft time I got caught up in Rubio mania.

James Harden has neither the buzz nor the sex-appeal of Rubio or Stephen Curry. But Harden is the right choice based on the dynamic of this team as it is currently assembled.

As I said the other day:

James Harden
The case for: He's a Shooting Guard in a Point Guard dominated draft class. He has good size and is left handed. He's a better athlete than people realize. He has a high basketball IQ and, by all accounts, is a gym rat. He does not need to be first banana and has a team-first attitude. He is probably the best "fit" in terms of sliding in and finding his role within the team and locker room.

The case against: He has a tendency to disappear in games. Um, that's about it.
The Thunder need exactly what Harden provides. The Thunder doesn't need an offensive savior. They need a guy who can play hard on defense, can get into the flow of the offense and keep opposing defenses from collapsing into the lane by knocking down outside shots.

Harden's character is what really makes him a great pick. Here's some quotes from an article by Mike Baldwin in The Oklahoman on June 16th:

"When the ping pong balls fell the way they did, I was ecstatic," [Harden's High School Coach, Scott] Pera said. "He wouldn't need to go in there and shock the world and save the franchise. Kevin Durant is there. Jeff Green is there. Russell Westbrook is there.

"(Harden) is what those guys are not and they're what he is not."

"He's one of those kids that's a throwback from a different era," one NBA general manager was quoted. "His background came back as clean as it gets. His coach and teammates rave about him. He's all business on and off the court."

"His game translates very well to the next level because of his length and he anticipates well, whether that's getting to a spot for a shot or defensively. In high school he led us in charges two years in a row."

"James has never been a super flashy, look-at-me type of guy. He just wants to win games. If he needed to dunk he did. If he needed to hit five 3's he did. If he needed three great passes that's what he did. His game will translate well to the next level."

Harden might not have the razzle-dazzle of Ricky Rubio but he will be a perfect fit for this team and this town. One can only admire Sam Presti leading with his head and not his heart.

25th Pick Overall- B.J. Mullens, C, The Ohio State
After swapping draft rights with the Dallas Mavericks the Thunder picked up B.J. Mullens, a project Center from Ohio State. The Thunder were rumored to be "intrigued" by Mullens and at one time were supposedly considering a trade with Detroit to move to the 15th spot to select him. So, it's fortuitous then that Mullens was available at the 25th spot. They did also give up a future 2nd rounder to Dallas, however.

Mullens is a guy who started two games for Ohio State last season as a Freshman. To say he is a project is being kind. However, the Thunder are filling a void by picking up a big body who can clog the lane. I'd much rather be in the Thunder's shoes taking a chance on a big man at 25 than the Memphis Grizzlies taking a chance on one with the 2nd selection.

Draft Rights Purchased- James Vaden, G, UAB
James Vaden will step in and be the old man of the bunch at 24. One of the interesting things that stands out to me in reading his bio from the UAB web site is the he was 5th in the nation his Junior year in 3-point attempts and 2nd in the nation in 3-point makes. Last year he was in the top three on his team in points, rebounds, blocks and assists. His shooting percentage is in the 35% range so that can improve. But he's similar in size to Harden (6'5").

Overall the Thunder drafted on need and based on the quality, or lack thereof, of this draft they did about as well as they could have hoped. Now comes free agency and a chance for the Thunder to add some veteran pieces to help all these youngin's grow.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

With the Third Pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, the Oklahoma City Thunder Select...

The 2009 NBA draft is just over 24 hours away. Many NBA insiders, columnists and bloggers are convinced this is the worst draft class ever. Maybe so. But I'm excited because it's the first draft for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Look down and to the right on your screen. There's a poll asking which player the Thunder will select with the third pick. It will be one of those players. Here's my case for and against each of them assuming they are even available when the Thunder are on the clock.

Hasheem Thabeet
The case for: He's a 7'3" shot blocking specialist. He will make anyone think twice before driving to the basket. This particular specialty was noticeably lacking from the 2008-2009 Thunder squad.

The case against: He's "raw", his offense game is a "work in progress" at best, his enthusiasm for the game of basketball has been questioned. Also, there's recent draft history of the Thunder/Sonics trying to draft a franchise Center.The list reads like a who's who of busts and includes such notables as Serge Ibaka, Mo Sene, Johan Petro and Robert Swift.

Ricky Rubio
The case for: For months this has a been a two man draft of Blake Griffin and Ricky Rubio. His passing has been compared to Larry Bird and Steve Nash. To paraphrase Bill Simmons, "He was put on Earth to make other players better". He has professional experience and he played well in the Olympic gold medal game. He's 18. He has by far the most trade value even with an expensive contract buyout.

The case against: They drafted the point guard of the future last year in Russell Westbrook. His shooting has been questioned which means the quad-fecta of Rubio, Westbrook, Sefalosha and Weaver might combine for one of the worst long range shooting backcourts of all time.

James Harden
The case for: He's a Shooting Guard in a Point Guard dominated draft class. He has good size and is left handed. He's a better athlete than people realize. He has a high basketball IQ and, by all accounts, is a gym rat. He does not need to be first banana and has a team-first attitude. He is probably the best "fit" in terms of sliding in and finding his role within the team and locker room.

The case against: He has a tendency to disappear in games. Um, that's about it.

Tyreke Evans
The case for: He's a good athlete, a hard worker and has excellent size. He's versatile in that he can play the point or off-guard. He might have the most "upside" of anyone.

The case against: What do you do with two Russell Westbrook's on the floor (could possibly be a plus)? The Thunder don't necessarily need another Point Guard.

Stephen Curry
The case for: He's probably the most dynamic player besides Rubio. He can shoot the lights out. He's versatile like Evans in that he can play both guard positions. Very high basketball IQ. Along with Rubio and Harden he's probably the most NBA ready.

The case against: He wants to be a true point guard. His size is a concern to some.

Jordan Hill
The case for: He's an athletic freak. He has lots of "upside". In a class short on big men he's probably the best outside of Griffin and Thabeet.

The case against: There will simply be better, safer options at the third spot. Forward is the Thunder's deepest position with Durant, Green, Collison and DJ White.

So, with the third pick in the 2009 NBA draft, the Oklahoma City Thunder select...

Rubio, Harden or Curry. In that order. No way it's Jordan Hill and I hope it isn't Thabeet. Evans is just the odd man out.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

John Hollinger of ESPN Ranks NBA Franchises; Thunder 12th

John Hollinger of has put together his ratings of all 30 NBA teams based on all-time history. He ranks the Oklahoma City Thunder 12th.

I'm sure this news rankles those in Seattle and their empathetic brethren. I don't blame them. In fact, the feeling is mutual.

It's flattering to be considered in the upper crust of the NBA. The Thunder are ranked five spots ahead of the Knicks and one ahead of the Pistons? Are you kidding me?

The fact of the matter, for good and ill, is that the Thunder are not the Sonics anymore. Sonics fans resent their history being attached to the Thunder. Thunder fans are more than happy to let Sonics fans keep it. I haven't met a person yet who brags about winning a 1979 NBA championship. No one claims Gary Payton or Shawn Kemp. You cannot and will not see any championship banners hanging in the Ford Center dated prior to 2008. There's a banner that says established in 2008, not 1967.

The Thunder should be 30th. Let us earn it. The Thunder could rise to 25 in 5-10 years judging by the current direction of some franchises. That would be a near meteoric rise really.

So thanks but no thanks Mr. Hollinger. We're still on the ground floor and just fine with it.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Hardin, Ibaka not in Thunder's Plans?

Here is a question I posed yesterday on an NBA chat with Hoopsworld's Steve Kyler:

Keith in Oklahoma City:
Please tell me the Thunder will not take Thabeet. He seems like too much of a project at 3 especially given their checkered past of drafting Center projects. Plus, they have Hardin and Ibaka to evaluate right?
Here was Steve's Response:

Steve Kyler:
Hardin was in for their vets mini camp and underwhelmed... he's likely off the board for them... Ibaka, whats a deffered pick... he may never play in the NBA, so scratch him off too... none of those guys were high level picks, so saying you struck out in the 2nd round is not the same as saying you missed on a top 5 pick.

I doubt that OKC takes Thabeet, but here is the case for Hasheem... at 7' 2.5" he'd be among the tallest players in the league... he can rebound and block shots, and does not need a single offensive possession to be effective... on a team loaded with scorers, he'd be a welcome relief.

The other thing to consider... almsot no one in this class plays major minutes as a rookie... most will split time with someone else.. so you have time to develop Hasheem... if you think you can do that, then you draft him.

I am not sold anyone believes they can make Hasheem into Mutombo.