Sports writing

From lineman to lensman


The past looms large for Tony Mandarich – almost as large as the man himself. The NCAA colossus and NFL underachiever has just clambered out of his black monster Jeep in front of his photography studio in North Scottsdale. Unlike his ride and most everything else about Mandarich’s outsize life, the studio is modest.

Mandarich is 6-foot-5, 295 pounds and sober. Twenty-six years ago, when the Michigan State All-American offensive lineman was drafted No. 2 overall by the Green Bay Packers, he was 30 steroid-enhanced pounds heavier – and meaner, drunker and higher. Often dubbed the

Tony Mandarich

biggest bust in NFL history, he left a well-documented legacy of chemical misadventures. They’re vices he’s urged to revisit in every interview, public appearance and random conversation with a stranger; he does so casually, candidly. Unlike his haters, who fixate on past transgressions, Mandarich has his feet planted firmly in the present.

At 49, Mandarich is a guy without a quit button – a self-defined “grinder.” He’s hardly a saint, but he did kick a drug addiction and alcoholism thanks to a life cleanse and a healthy workaholicism. He averages 10 to 12 hours a day at his photography job, but says “it’s hard to call it work.”

Mandarich moved to Arizona from his native Canada in 2004 in pursuit of two long-time loves: landscape photography and a college sweetheart, Charlavan. The couple, who married and partnered in several ventures, are finalizing a divorce, but Mandarich plans to stay. After the din of his darkest days, he appears to have found his passion, and some peace, in Phoenix. The arrogant abuser who used to tape the tag “EVIL” to his helmet now revels in stoic semi-anonymity. “I’m more infamous than famous,” he says with a laugh.

Mandarich’s 2009 memoir, My Dirty Little Secrets: Steroids, Alcohol & God, is a grim read that details the voyage from his altar-boy youth outside Toronto to steroid abuse at Michigan State to his lost years in Green Bay and after, when he flamed out on a diet of booze and prescription painkillers. The book recounts how Mandarich started to take pain medications after dropping out of MSU and moving to California to prep for the NFL draft; a trainer introduced him to the painkiller Stadol to ease the agony from his training regimen. Many of the book’s anecdotes are beyond the pale, such as when Mandarich bailed on his dying brother to go on a drug run. In one skeevy tale with a local twist, Mandarich cops to popping barbiturates and mainlining pain meds in the Sun Devil Stadium locker room during a 1991 Cardinals-Packers game.

Tony Mandarich seems like a guy you’d like to knock down brews with, but that’s not on the table. “There’s nothing in my life that a drink would make better,” he says.

He kicked his habits in 1995, made a three-season comeback with the Indianapolis Colts in the late ‘90s, and swears he hasn’t taken anything more potent than Advil since. Now, sporting a beard and a Michigan State jacket, he lounges comfortably in his own skin at Mandarich Studios. He seems like a guy you’d like to knock down brews with, but that’s not on the table. “There’s nothing in my life that a drink would make better,” he says. “I went from making 250, 300 grand a year to $40,000 and a photo job, and I had a better time with the 40K than the 300. But you know what? I’m happy. I’ve been drunk and messed up and wealthy, drunk and messed up and broke, and I’ve been sober and broke and sober and wealthy. I prefer sober and wealthy, don’t get me wrong, but I’d rather be sober and not wealthy than either of the other two.”

Mandarich now pockets considerably more than the $40,000 he pulled in his earliest days as a photographer. For that, he credits two lens artists with Arizona roots: Paul Markow and Joel Grimes. Markow taught him the basics. Grimes elevated Mandarich’s work in 2011 when he introduced him to the photographic movement of compositing – the process of digitally stitching multiple-source images, often by layering pre-shot portraits onto virtual backgrounds. It’s a novel tool for shutterbugs that produces stunning aesthetics.

Mandarich has always trusted his own instincts – for better or worse – and says he wants his vision to be singular. One Mandarich approach involves Popsicle sticks. “Most of the times when I’m

Tony today

visualizing a shoot, I’ll diagram out – with stick people – what the series of shots are going to be. If it’s a girl, I’ll add a little S-curve to her body,” he says. His clients are principally celebrity athletes and fitness buffs who hire him to do portraiture.

He remains a divisive figure in sports circles. “He’s a smart guy. I think he gets a bad rap,” journalist Kory Kozak says. A defensive end for Big 10 rival Rutgers University, Kozak has followed Mandarich’s career since playing against him in college. Now a coordinating producer for the Golf Channel, Kozak penned a by turns blistering and empathetic column about Mandarich in 2009 for Kozak termed the drug-era Mandarich “a mutant” and “the bust to end all busts.” The Tony of today, Kozak believes, “is embarrassed by many of the things he said and did back then. I don’t think that’s the real Tony. I think the soft-spoken guy who lives in the desert . . . is much more the real guy than the almost comic-book-villain-like football player from the late ‘80s. I don’t know if he cares that people call him a bust or joke about his steroid usage. I do think he is at peace with himself now.”

Taylor, swift


At 6:15 on a May morning, three months before the start of the 2016 Olympics, controlled chaos reigns at Scottsdale’s Cactus Aquatic & Fitness Center. Fifty-plus teens from Scottsdale Aquatic Club’s elite National Team dart about, huddling and chatting, preparing for a practice in the center’s Olympic pool – one of nine punishing sessions they will have this week alone, on top of full course loads at school. But most of them want to be here, swimming laps for hours at stupid o’clock on a Saturday morning. 

In the midst of the mayhem, Taylor Ruck stands tall, surrounded by a squirming mob of fellow swimmers. It’s not hard to pick Ruck out of the crowd. Slightly over 6 feet tall with an elastic, rail-thin body reminiscent of Michael Phelps’ unusually elongated frame, the 16-year-old Scottsdale phenom towers above many of her teammates. She stands out in other ways, too. 

“She could be one of the best in the world,” says Kevin Zacher, head coach of SAC’s National Team. “I’ve never had an athlete that wants to get her hand on the wall first as much as she does.”

We’ll see if she can come August, when Ruck goes for liquid gold on swimming’s grandest stage – the XXXI Summer Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro. As the Chaparral High School junior bends to take her mark

Taylor Ruck going for the wall at the Canadian Olympic trials.

at practice, doing an impromptu booty bop to one of the funky pop songs being pumped into the pool area, she seems like the quintessential all-American girl, but she’s not even American. Ruck was born in Kelowna, British Columbia, and will swim for Team Canada at the Summer Olympics. 

Despite struggling with bronchitis at the Canadian trials, Ruck qualified for the 200-meter freestyle relay team with a time of 1:58.67. At press time, Ruck had a shot at adding two additional events: the 4×100 free relay and the individual 400-meter free. 

To be sure, Ruck improved her Olympic qualification odds by swimming for Canada and not for the United States, where “300,000 swimmers [are] registered with USA Swimming” and, of those, “2,000 make the trials and 52 go to Rio,” according to Zacher. Drawing from a much smaller pool, Canada will take 29 swimmers to Rio.

But the odds did not compel Ruck to choose Team Canada, she says – nor do they explain why she will never swim for Team USA. It’s a frequently asked question. Though Ruck has grown up essentially American – she’s lived and trained in Scottsdale since she was an infant, and hopes to swim for the University of California at Berkeley or USC after high school – her Canadian roots run deep. Her father, Colin, now a Valley-based management consultant, played in Canada’s Western Hockey League. Her mom, Sophia, swam as a teen for the Kelowna Aqua Jets. Everyone in her family is a Canada native and citizen. 

After practice, Ruck fields a few questions. Notoriously nervous around strangers,  she gives mostly brief and guarded answers. Asked – for probably the umpteenth time – why she chose Canada over the U.S., Ruck says, simply, “I’m Canadian.” She opens up a bit when the subject turns to Canada’s chances in Rio. “What I hope will happen would be that Team Canada could medal in the 4×200 free relay,” she says. “That would be amazing. This new generation [of Canadian women swimmers] is really fast.” 

Even so, Ruck’s Olympic heroines are speedy Americans. She says Team USA stars Katie Ledecky and Missy Franklin, who made Olympic debuts at the London games, sparked her ambition to swim internationally: “My first real excited swimming memory was 2012. Katie Ledecky’s races, and how she was just killing everyone in the water, and Missy Franklin’s races. I didn’t realize that it would be so soon that I’d make it [to the Olympics], but it was definitely one of my long-term goals.”

In London, Ledecky and Franklin won fistfuls of medals for the U.S. at age 15 and 17, respectively. At full health, and given her raw power and speed, it’s not unreasonable that Ruck could rock the pool in

Taylor Ruck

Rio. Her stellar time of 53.92 in the 100-meter free at last year’s FINA World Junior Championships was the third-fastest ever recorded by a 15-year-old, behind only China’s Chen Xinyi and Li Zhesi. (Zhesi was dropped by the Chinese National Team in 2012 for taking a performance-enhancing drug, making Ruck’s time even more significant.)

If Ruck finds Olympic success at Rio (or, more realistically, at Tokyo in 2020), much credit should go to Zacher. During drills, he is a take-no-crud kind of guy. One on one, the former Iowa State University swimmer is thoughtful and frank. He’s groomed hundreds of swimmers for high-level success and obviously cares for his charges. Says Ruck, “Kevin is very understanding when it comes to what I need.”

Zacher’s fond of her, too – except on those days when she decides to act her age. “Taylor has an amazing feel for the water,” he says. “She’s tall, has long arms, great length. There are some days where it’s tough, though, because I’m expecting her to do a certain thing and it’s just not there. I know how much talent she has, so it’s, like, ‘Ahhhhhhh.’ I have to take a step back and understand where she’s at, not just physically in the water, but emotionally, mentally. She’s still got to mature and come to a better understanding of [her] gift.”

One Ruck attribute that’s fully formed, Zacher says, is her competitiveness. She wants to touch that wall first. She wants to swim laps at stupid o’clock on Saturday morning. “She’s a gamer,” Zacher says. “Some swimmers just go back and forth in the pool without giving it much thought. That’s not Taylor. It’s very much about the swimming.”

Belle of the brawl


When the NFL season started in early September, Jen Welter’s well-publicized coaching internship with the Arizona Cardinals officially ended. But the social tectonics set in motion by her hiring certainly didn’t. Many experts inside the world of sports propose that female coaches may have an abiding future in male pro sports leagues.

Believed to be the first woman coach in NFL history, Welter, 37,  was hired by Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians as a summer intern, tasked with coaching inside linebackers. Her hugely publicized

Jen Welter coaching the Cardinals

internship lasted less than two months, but many experts believe her trailblazing stint with the Cards (and her distinct way of connecting with players) will influence NFL decision-making in seasons to come.

Becky Hammon and Nancy Lieberman are blazing a similar trail with the NBA. The intense, unflappable Hammon, who retired last year from playing for the WNBA’s San Antonio Silver Stars, became the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history when she was hired by the San Antonio Spurs in August 2014. She then earned the plum job of head-coaching the Spurs’ NBA Summer League team, leading it to the 2015 title. Lieberman, a whip-smart ambassador of ladies’ basketball and member of the Phoenix Mercury’s seminal squad in 1997, became the NBA’s second female assistant coach in 2015, when she was hired by the Sacramento Kings. As this issue went to press, the Oakland Athletics announced Dr. Justine Siegal would be a guest instructor at the team’s fall instructional league, making her the first female coach in Major League Baseball history.

Still, Welter was the one that made us go “Whoa.” Her sports psychology background and particular blending of tough and tender made Welter the perfect choice to tackle the NFL’s unwritten Catch-22 regarding women. (Haven’t been there? Can’t do that.) In 2014, Welter became the first woman to play running back in a men’s pro league (for the Texas Revolution of the Indoor Football League). At 5-foot-2 and 130 pounds, Welter took pops from guys twice her weight and kept popping back up.

She was the first woman to play running back in a men’s pro league. At 5-foot-2 and 130 pounds, Welter took pops from guys twice her weight and kept popping back up.

In the NFL, being whacked by man-beasts equals instant credibility. Dan Manucci would know. The former quarterback for the Buffalo Bills now co-hosts AZ Sports Talk with Roc and Manuch for Phoenix NBC Sports Radio affiliate 1060 AM. Though the ex-pro was initially skeptical about a rookie female outsider’s chances coaching NFL talent, Welter won him over with her grit and poise under pressure. “When she was hired, my perspective as an ex-player was, ‘Well, this will be interesting,’” Manucci says. “But what she did was brave. I think it was a great breakthrough. The key for her is that she’s lived it and breathed it. She has what I call a benchmark of what it’s like to be out there, to get hit, to run, to block, to tackle. She was very good at showing guys technique, and helping in any way she could.”

One unorthodox flourish was Welter’s habit of crafting personalized notes to her players before preseason games – this in a league where a pat on the rear is the usual motivation. “She thinks differently, but it’s really good to have that on your staff,” Coach Arians said of Welter during camp. “The way she approaches [coaching], it is a little bit different than a lot of people because she is female.”

Charli Turner Thorne, head coach of the ASU Sun Devils women’s basketball team, has parlayed “thinking differently” into the winningest record in ASU women’s history. She’s a big supporter of progressive thinking like that of Arians and Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who hired Hammon. She’s also a proponent of Moneyball-style analytics and motivation by alternative means, à la Jen Welter’s inspirational notes. “[Welter’s] background is in sports psychology, helping your athletes to peak-perform,” Turner Thorne says. “Coaching is about building that trust and having that close relationship, being able to motivate and inspire. I think there’s probably plenty of people thinking that maybe women are too soft, or not qualified, but I think in terms of getting the most out of

people and being able to push the right buttons, and everyone will get up and do their best. I hope Becky and Nancy and Jen add a lot of value, which will only make other organizations look a little deeper into their hiring practices for women.”

No one knows for certain what Welter will do now that her NFL coaching internship is over – possibly not even Welter herself (Welter was unavailable for an interview for this story). She can make a living via public speaking and continuing to practice sports psychology, but some believe she’s waiting by the phone in case another NFL team comes calling. But whatever happens now, her position as a coaching pioneer is secure.

“I don’t know that it’s going to be an avalanche” of women coaches in the wake of Welter, Lieberman and Hammon, Turner Thorne admits, but “it’s pretty fantastic that it’s happening at the highest first: the NFL, the NBA.”

Persistence is futile


There’s a reason baseball has plummeted to third place in the national-pastime sweepstakes. In a word: ennui. In a few more: great, shrieking, tedious torpor.

This is true of most places in this year’s drama-challenged MLB, but nowhere so much as Phoenix, where the 2009 Arizona Diamondbacks have suffered through one of the most endless, pointless, grievous campaigns in recent sports memory.

From Brandon Webb’s opening-day blowout to Conor Jackson’s extended bout with Valley Fever to Eric Byrnes’ endless succession of infield pop-ups to A.J. Hinch’s highly questionable installation as manager, watching this team systematically implode has been like slashing a rusty razor repeatedly across my retina.

Or maybe it just seems that way to us homies, who only thought that we (as long-suffering, thick-skinned Cardinals fans) knew the pain of folks in sports sinkholes like Cincinnati and Kansas City.

But this hurt, because it wasn’t supposed to.

Back in spring training — despite ample red flags from last year’s exasperating underachievers — we couldn’t have envisioned a scenario in which the D-Backs’ season would be over by May, and the San Francisco Giants would still be playing meaningful ball in late September.

For local fans, it’s the Same Old Cardinals Syndrome transferred to the diamond, the difference being that the old-school Cards were never boring. Sad and pitiful, but not boring. In fact, in those bad ol’ days, I’d often forego “real” football on Sundays to catch the Cardiac Cards doing their Keystone Kops routine.

For the D-Backs, even up is down in this Through the Looking Glass season. Slugger Mark Reynolds, the team’s newly minted megastar with his 43 homers and 100 RBIs, this week smashed his own Major League record for strikeouts, topping 200 for the second consecutive time. And he’s still got nine games left to pad the stat.

“So what?” Reynolds barked when asked about the anti-feat the other night. “So what?”

On one level, of course, he’s right. As Reynolds and so many sports wags have argued, his other numbers are strong, so why flog the negative?


Because only one guy has ever done it in 140 years, and dude’s done it twice.

It’s a style-points thing. A quality-of-life thing. A quality-of-baseball thing. An erosion-of-quality thing. Another brick in the wall for the 2009 Diamondbacks.

Our Great Blond Hope — who whiffed in five of his last nine at-bats in the recent series against the Giants, as well as four of his last five against San Diego on September 16 — is a hacker.

It’s just damned dubious.

That’s what.

It’s fitting that Reynolds and the D-Backs will close their ’09 home slate this weekend against fellow National League West stinkeroos the San Diego Padres. It’s the ultimate who-cares match-up, though should they sweep, the Bad News Snakes could at least position themselves to leap-frog the pitiful Pads in their remaining six games (all on the road against the Giants and Cubs) and finish out of the cellar.

It’s a weak goal — not to finish last — but about all the wretched reptiles have left to play for in this season of discontent.

How ’bout them billionaires?


Take it from a Dallas native and lifelong Cowboys nut: Beneath its bluster, Big D is an insecure little kid of a town. It compensates with a need for domination that, in sports terms, produces cartoon megalomaniacs like Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban.

Cowboys owner Jones is the World’s Richest Redneck, and he reigns over the Britney Spears of pro sports franchises. Mavericks owner Cuban is 50 going on 12. The multi-billionaire is currently facing a

Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban: yuck.

lawsuit on allegations of small-stakes insider trading – doh! – and is infamous in NBA circles for his baby-man tantrums and inability to keep his trap shut.

Neither mogul is stupid, just morally obtuse, and each begs the question, what price victory?

The staggeringly talented, karmically challenged Cowboys seem as far removed from the Super Bowl as is Jones’ salvage project Adam “Pacman” Jones from winning Man of the Year at the local Rotary Club. The Mavs have mad skillz, too – for a perpetual seventh seed in the West.

Like their owner, the regular-season wonders are powder puffs. Take Mavericks superstar forward Dirk Nowitzki, who’s a Top 5-caliber NBA player when he’s not vanishing into the woodwork come crunch time. In fact, scroll up and down the rosters of both the Cowboys and Mavs, and good luck finding a true difference-maker like a Brett Favre or Tim Duncan.

Or someone with the lion’s heart of a Kurt Warner or Steve Nash.

Mavs point guard Jason Kidd comes closest to filling that bill, but at 35, Kidd’s difference-making days are done. In fact, the Mavs franchise seems more or less cooked as currently constituted. Jason Terry? Josh Howard? Erick Dampier? Yecch. Hell, Mark Cuban could charge an NBA championship on his credit card if he had any kind of clue. Thankfully, there really are some things money can’t buy.

Snake oil and swine tarts


A few weeks back, I was chortling while listening to the wildly optimistic worldview of Arizona Diamondbacks president/CEO Derrick Hall on one of the morning talk shows.

Hall’s team may be bad, but dude’s an ace.

He’s the sort of enthusiast who could sell Otter Pops to Eskimos, firewater to the Devil. On this particular day, with his beloved D-Backs in the midst of a seven-game slide, gung-ho Hall was jabbering on about how his Diamondbacks were just a nip and a tuck

Derrick Hall: The Diamondbacks’ No. 1 devotee

away from contention. A player here, a break there. No, really! There are no bad players or organizations, just bad luck. Though the D-Backs’ No. 1 D-votee didn’t say that, you could hear the wheels spinning, along with this pursuant thought: Damn this losing! If not for all this losing, we’d be winning!

I wonder if Derrick Hall ever goes home from work, loosens his tie, lays his head in his hands and weeps.

Now would be a good time.

On Tuesday, his Bad News Snakes passed the contemptible San Diego Padres — going in the wrong direction, south in the West. Yep, preseason NL West fave Arizona’s back in the basement with a record of 62-79. Only two National League teams, Pittsburgh and Washington, sport worse records, and that’s certainly not the kind of company lovable zealot Hall’s looking to keep. Perhaps worse (for Hall’s bottom line, not we fed-up fans) is that the D-Backs have only two home stands remaining this season, and the hind end of the first one — tonight through Sunday — is against the . . . ugh . . . Milwaukee Brewers.

No particular offense to the 66-73 Brew Crew — they, at least, were in contention for a few fleeting moments earlier this season — but other than the Pirates or Nationals, is there a worse draw in this endless season of woe?

Derrick Hall would need controlling interest in Max Factor to tart up this particular pig. 

Do you wanna pay biggish Chase Field bucks to see:

— onetime D-Back fave Felipe Lopez flirting with a 200-hit season for Milwaukee?

— Brewers’ first baseman Prince Fielder waddling around the bases like Ghostbusters‘ Stay Puft Marshmallow Man?

— a Milwaukee starting rotation staffed with the likes of Braden Looper, Dave Bush, and Manny Parra?

Milwaukee Brewers 1B Prince Fielder

Speaking of swine in need of a makeover (how much longer, O Lord?), D-Backs manager A.J. Hinch will counter with the largely unalluring trio of Doug Davis, Kevin Mulvey, and Max Scherzer.

Lay your head in your hands.


Luck of the draw


“Charmed” seems an odd descriptor for the 2008-09 Arizona Cardinals, who lost — no, were crushed in — four of their last six regular-season games. Yet here they sit, all warm and snuggly at 9-7, hosting a first-round playoff game at home in the Red Zone.

Meanwhile, a couple of teams they lost to by a combined score of 61 points — the New York Jets and New England Patriots — sit idly at home. The Patriots finished 11-5, and are only the second team in NFL history to finish with that record and miss the playoffs. At 2-1 odds, New England was Las Vegas’ preseason fave to win the Super Bowl (then QB Tom Brady went down for the season). And heck, they thumped the Cards 47-7 only two lousy weeks ago.

That’s cursed — a karmic spanking for the Bill Belichick videotaping scandal, perhaps.

This is charmed:

Ken Whisenhunt’s middling-good Cardinals handily won the NFC West, which lived down to its “NFC Worst” nickname this season thanks to two of the sorriest squads in pro ball (Seattle and St. Louis) and another mediocre showing by the San Francisco 49ers. To their credit, the Cards swept the West, 6-0.

They did it with a creaky old graybeard of a QB named Kurt “Pop” Warner.

Kurt “Pop” Warmer

They did it with a big, fat zero of a running attack and a porous defense that surrendered 56 points to the Jets, 48 to the Eagles, and the aforementioned 47 to the Patriots. (Quick, NFL students: What wins games? Right. Rushing and D.)

Last but not least on the count-your-blessings list is the Cards’ first-round playoff draw, the Atlanta Falcons. No disrespect to the southern raptors intended. It just could’ve been much worse for the Cardinals than a team rebounding from a 4-12 record and a dog-fighting scandal. Entering the final weekend of the regular season, the other two first-round possibilities for the Cardinals were the Carolina Panthers (perhaps the most balanced team in the NFL) and the Dallas Cowboys (who flamed out in the end, it’s true, but would’ve been hard-pressed to lose to the Cards twice in one year).

Atlanta’s Matt Ryan

As things turned out, it seems fitting that our blessed flock of birds will meet the NFC’s other enchanted avians, who are led in the post-Michael Vick era by a big, burly Cinderella Man named Matt Ryan. The smart-cookie rookie QB from Boston College, drafted third overall by Atlanta, was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year on December 30, and he’s been mentioned in most of the conversations about league MVP, though he won’t win that one. Still, get a load of these year-one numbers:

Passing percentage: 61.1. Yards: 3,440. Touchdowns: 16. Interceptions: 11. Passer rating: 87.7.

Sheesh! And though we haven’t seen that much of Ryan — Atlanta still not being much of a national draw — we hear the numbers pale in comparison to the dude’s leadership qualities and poise, things that, like rushing and defense, one can’t have too much of this time of year.

Ryan and first-year Coach Mike Smith have the Falcons sitting pretty at 11-5, having won five of their last six. The Cards, despite being a division winner hosting a wild-card team in a stadium where they’re 6-2, are a two-point underdog to Atlanta. Makes perfect sense to us, as does Vegas’ totally valid disrespect in giving Arizona the longest odds of the 12 playoff teams to win the Super Bowl. 40-1? Might as well be 40,000-to-1, but getting to Tampa Bay hardly matters at this point, anyway.

This game makes or breaks the Cardinals’ season, and that’s the sort of X factor Vegas has trouble computing. As ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd noted on his New Year’s Day show, Sin City bookmakers are driven purely by a desire to make a buck. No politics. No team affiliations. No emotion. That’s why Vegas is right nine out of 10 times, and the bookies’ elegant dissection of the Cards/Falcons game cites Atlanta’s clear superiority in playoff-critical areas such as rushing (the one-two punch of Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood), line play (the Falcons’ mobile DE John Abraham versus Cards’ offensive linemen Mike Gandy and Levi Brown), and special-teams play. But the nine-times-right formula makes Vegas wrong a 10th of the time, and the Cardinals have had one of those 1-in-10 kind of years (literally, if you want to go back to their most recent previous playoff berth).

On paper, Atlanta’s the better team. But given the X factors — all of which the Cardinals hold, including home field and playoff experience in key areas (QB Warner, RB Edgerrin James, head coach Whisenhunt, and assistant head coach Russ Grimm from his days with the Steelers) — this game’s a pick ’em.

Busting ghosts


Color Terry Bradshaw red, for he has seen the light, brother.

After ragging on the Cardinals all year, the shiny-domed former Super Bowl MVP announced his conversion on the FOX NFL Sunday postgame show following Arizona’s shocking dismantling of the Carolina Panthers last weekend.

“These guys [the Cardinals] have burned me too many times this year. I’ll never pick against the Cardinals again. I’m saying this on camera,” yelped Bradshaw in typically histrionic fashion, as his usually jaunty broadcast partners Jimmy Johnson, Michael Strahan, Howie Long and Curt Menefee looked on, ashen-faced and silent.

Fox’s Terry Bradshaw laughed at the Cardinals all season.
Now he’s on the Cardinals’ bandwagon.

Others riding the Big Red bandwagon following the Cards’ 33-13 upset of the Panthers are former Baltimore Ravens head coach-turned-NFL commentator Brian Billick, Colin Cowherd of ESPN Radio, and C. Douglas Baker of, all who pick the Cards to take care of business — and the favored Philadelphia Eagles — in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game in Glendale.

Though we beat the virtual bushes in search of additional Cardinals love, Bradshaw’s, Billick’s, Cowherd’s, and Baker’s seem to be the lonely voices in a yawning wilderness. The prevailing wisdom among the experts is that Arizona is a running joke on a two-game lucky streak.

A sampling:

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bob Ford: “Even after beating the [Atlanta] Falcons and Panthers, [the Cardinals] are still at least one interchange away from the Respect exit ramp.”

Under a headline reading “Let’s Book Eagles for Tampa,” ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski wrote, “Tim Tebow and the Philippians have a better chance of strip clubbing with Pacman Jones” than the Cardinals have of beating the Eagles.

John Tournour (a.k.a. “J.T. the Brick”) of FOX Sports Radio: “If the Cardinals get to the Super Bowl, they should cancel it.”

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Phil Sheridan, following the Eagles’ defeat of the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants to get to the NFC title game: “The hardest part of the job is done.”

Ouch? Puh-lease. These guys are paid to make such cutesy, empty-calorie proclamations — as is Bradshaw for being a male drama queen. It’s the nature of the sports-gab biz.

If the Cardinals can twist all of the claptrap to their advantage, more power to ’em, but whether they belong at this level, or don’t, will be determined on the field at University of Phoenix Stadium (which the aforementioned Wojciechowski calls — and we dig this one — the “Jiffy Pop”).

Here are some pro-and-con factors to weigh before kickoff:

Cardinals have:

  • The steadying influence of head coach Ken Whisenhunt. The  Whiz is Arizona’s ace in the hole; many Cardinals agree. This from All-Pro safety Adrian Wilson: “In the past, it was always one person saying one thing, another saying something else. The coaching staff was never on the same page. We’ve never had one voice until now.”
  • Home-field advantage. Counting their Wild Card Weekend victory over Atlanta, the Cards are 7-2 at the U of P this season. And as with last year’s Super Bowl, the stadium will be configured to seat 70,000-plus. Most of those fans will be Arizona Cardinals hardcores seeking to exorcise 20 years or more worth of demons.
  • The revenge/respect factor. Philly humiliated the no-show Cardinals on Thanksgiving night.
  • Clancy Pendergast. Though the Cards only ranked 19th in total defense during the regular season, their defensive coordinator has a crafty, underrated mind. Panthers fans and most experts laid the Panthers’ loss at the feet of Carolina QB Jake Delhomme and his five interceptions. Sure, Delhomme had a bad day, but no QB with Jake’s skill and experience is gonna have that bad of a day. Pendergast schemed the bastard.
  • Kurt Warner. He has big-time playoff experience and leads the NFL’s fourth-ranked team in  total offense. Plus — knock on wood — he’s been taking care of the ball of late.
  • Larry Fitzgerald. Fitz will be the best wide receiver that the Eagles’ shutdown corner Asante Samuel has faced in the playoffs.
  • Anquan Boldin. The Cards have proven they can win without him, but who wants to try? The hamstring-challenged wide receiver swears he’ll play.
  • Sheriff Joe. Dude’s a pragmatist, we’ll give him that, but on general principles, we’ll place Arpaio’s pick of Philly to win, 24-14, in the Cardinals’ positive column.
The bandwagon’s getting mighty full. Sheriff Joe’s jumped on it, too.

Eagles have:

  • Playoff experience. The Dirty Birds have scads of the stuff, and of recent vintage, too. Plus, they’re on one of those fated postseason tears à la the Giants of last year.
  • The 48-20 factor. The Eagles believe they’ve got Arizona’s number after the Thanksgiving-night massacre, in which they held Arizona to 25 yards rushing and picked off Warner three times.
  • Jim Johnson. The Philly defensive coordinator (a former Cardinals assistant) is one of the tremendous thinkers in pro football, and is more than a match for any NFL offensive coordinator, including Cards OC Todd Haley. Johnson’s D ranked third in total defense behind Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
  • Blitzkrieg warfare. Simply put, the Eagles’ defensive line is superior to the Cards’ offensive line, and will pressure Warner. Unless Arizona’s O-line plays above its talent level, as it has for the previous two games, this factor will send Philly to Tampa.
  • Asante Samuel. Samuel will be the best cover corner that Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has faced in the playoffs.
  • Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook. Quarterback McNabb, who’s been to four previous NFC Championships, is undergoing a personal renaissance after being benched earlier in the year. Running back Westbrook, when 100 percent, is the single most dangerous offensive weapon in the league.


Vegas says Philly. The Sin City oddsmakers list the Cards as 3.5 underdogs, but Arizona’s been costing those cats some serious scrip of late.

Confound the experts and the oddsmakers. We say the Cards will bust some more ghosts, 19-16, and earn a berth in Super Bowl XLIII. And you know what happens then.

Human sacrifice!

Dogs and cats living together!

Mass hysteria!

Super Bowl XLIII preview: Arizona Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 


The Arizona Cardinals are going to the Super Bowl, and the world didn’t end. Despite their myriad critics, maybe that means they belong there. Dangerous corollary for a young team: Maybe they’re beginning to think they belong there.

Luckily for our historically star-crossed Redbirds, who’ve been thriving in the role of underdog, the oddsmakers aren’t buying it. After Arizona beat the Philadelphia Eagles 32-25 in the NFC Championship in Glendale on Sunday, Vegas installed the Cards as early 6 1/2 point dogs to the AFC-champion Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII on February 1 in Tampa, Florida.

That may seem like more disrespect, but it’s actually the opposite for a team that entered the regular season at 45-1 odds of making the Super Bowl. Even though Vegas can’t bring itself to make Arizona the favorite, a 6.5 under to the Steelers, the best team in the NFL’s best conference, is a sort of back-door duff of the hat to the Cardinals. Imagine what sort of astronomical number it would have been for a Cardinals-Steelers match-up three weeks ago, before the Cards robbed Vegas blind three weeks running with playoff upsets over the Atlanta Falcons, the Carolina Panthers and Philly.

You want astronomical? How about the odds that we would ever find anything printable to say about Cardinals owners Bill and Michael Bidwill or their lackey Rod Graves, the team’s vice president for football operations, but here’s credit where it’s due.

Back in January 2007, when they were searching for the replacement for the calamitous Dennis Green, the Bidwills and Graves actually smacked one out of the park (we know, mixed metaphor) when they selected Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt over the other finalist, Mike  “Blah” Sherman.

Whisenhunt’s history with the Steelers — and the fact that Pittsburgh chose Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin over Whisenhunt to succeed Bill Cowher — will be a central storyline leading up to Tampa. But the story’s not so much that Pittsburgh passed on the Whiz, ’cause Tomlin rocks. And it’s not that Atlanta and the Miami Dolphins also passed on Whisenhunt, ’cause both franchises returned to respectability this season under promising first-year head coaches (Mike Smith and Tony Sparano, respectively).

No, the story is that the Cardinals didn’t pass. Their choice of the fearless, aggressive Whisenhunt cut against the grain of 60 years of franchise futility and dunderheadedness. The ultimate payoff came yesterday with Arizona’s equivalent of “The Drive,” the 14-play, 72-yard, all-the-marbles answer to Philadelphia after the Eagles had put the Cards on the ropes with that Donovan McNabb-to-DeSean Jackson 62-yard bomb.

Fourth quarter waning, down 24-25 after surrendering 19 straight points and a 24-6 lead, no momentum, shaky running game, choke-point Charlie situation of 4th-and-inches at midfield against the NFL’s third-rated defense. What do you do?

Mike “Blah” Sherman would’ve punted the ball like it’s radioactive.

Ken Whisenhunt got together with his offensive coordinator Todd Haley and called a running play for Tim Hightower.

The Arizona Cardinals go to the Big Dance, where they’ll face the anti-Cardinals. Before Sunday, the Cards were one of only six teams in history never to go to a Super Bowl (the Chicago Cardinals did go to an NFL Championship in 1947 before they called the Super Bowl).

The Steelers have won five of the six Super Bowls they’ve played in. Pittsburgh has the top-rated defense in the NFL, and one of the top all-around players in strong safety Troy Polamalu, who iced the franchise’s seventh AFC championship on Sunday with a fourth-quarter pick-six against Baltimore Ravens rookie quarterback Joe

Pittsburgh’ all-everything safety Troy Palamalu (43)

Flacco. The Steelers have visionary ownership in the Rooney family, an experienced QB with a championship under his belt in Ben Roethlisberger, a solid running back in Willie Parker, and even those damnable Terrible Towels.

But Arizona has its own little piece of Pittsburgh in Whisenhunt, and we’ll see if the Whiz has brought a bit of that Steeltown grit and magic with him come February 1 in Tampa. We already believe that he has.

Foul play 


Suppose for a sec that the San Antonio Spurs’ Robert Horry, on the morning of May 14, 2007, had looked in the mirror and said, “Today, I’m not going to be a total dick.”

True to his nature, though, Horry decked Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash during the waning seconds of that night’s Western Conference semifinal game four, almost certainly costing the Suns the key game five. The Suns lost that heartbreaker in Phoenix, 88-85, to the Spurs thanks in large part to the absence of Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, who were suspended for “leaving the bench area” following the Horry/Nash incident.

If the Suns had won game five, they’d have been up 3-2 on the Spurs with the potential seventh game at home. They might have slain some long-festering ghosts that year, both of the San Antonio variety and of the “Suns can’t win the championship” ilk.

Instead, Horry’s foul play left the Suns and their fans with the ghost of a dream, one that turned outright nightmarish last season. Like a b-ball butterfly effect, Horry’s simple, thoughtless action caused a hurricane of change for this franchise, not much of it good.

The coming of Steve Kerr.

The going of Kurt Thomas.

The fall of Shawn Marion.

The rise of Shaq.

A first-round playoff exit (victims once more of the Spurs, of course) in ’08.

The departure of head coach Mike D’Antoni and the Fun ‘n’ Gun.

The arrival of Terry Porter.

The trade of Boris Diaw and Raja Bell for Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley.

The fall of Terry Porter.

The rise of D’Antoni acolyte Alvin Gentry and the rebirth of the Fun ‘n’ Gun.

The loss of Amar’e to an eye injury.

No playoffs last year despite a winning record of 46-36.

The end of Shaq.

The re-signings of Grant Hill and Steve Nash.

Which leaves us with . . . what, exactly? Are the Suns rebuilding, or can a stable mix of players led by graybeards Nash (35) and Hill (37) and a coach in tune with his players’ wishes propel the Suns back to the nosebleed section of the Western Conference?

As the Suns prepare to open the regular season tonight in L.A. against the Clippers, no one, not even Kerr or Gentry or Nash, seems to have much of a clue, and the 4-4 preseason raised as many questions as it answered.

Here’s what little we do know:

1) Expect scoring — lots of scoring — and a large dose of small-ball with speed; Coach Gentry says he’s tried to model this year’s team after D’Antoni’s undersize but 62-game-winning 2004-05 squad.

2) Starting lineup: Nash at point, Hill at forward, A’mare at power forward, Shaq replacement Channing Frye at center (himself subbing for injured C Robin Lopez), J-Rich eventually at shooting guard (Richardson is suspended for tonight and tomorrow’s games in connection with his DUI; word is either Leandro Barbosa or Jared Dudley will start the first two games)

3) Despite the departure of Matt Barnes to Orlando, the bench should be a team strength, what with the general hustle of players such as Barbosa, Dudley, Louis Amundson, a much-improved Goran Dragic, and, hopefully, a decent contribution (especially on D) from rookie forward Earl Clark.

4) Shaq’s mouth is half a continent away, but so is his rebounding, and that promises to be Phoenix’s Achilles’ heel — or their second, after defending the pick ‘n’ roll.

5) Speaking of which, I’m betting Amar’e betters his pick ‘n’ roll D, since it’s his contract year and all; if not, and his eye is healthy, he should be offloaded before the trading deadline.

6) Making the playoffs in any capacity would be a plus, of course, but if last season was any guide, the Suns need to win at least 50 games to avoid a possible opening-round playoff execution versus the L.A. Lakers.

7) Phoenix also wants to circumvent another early-rounder against — who else? — the Spurs, who’ve spiced up their aging lineup with the additions of Antonio McDyess, Richard Jefferson, and draft pick DeJuan Blair.

8) As for the wretched retiree Robert Horry, may he find grubworms in his Malt-O-Meal.

Fire Whisenhunt


As Da Cards head to Chi-Town for a Soldier Field showdown with Jay Cutler and Da Bears on Sunday, many in Da PHX are still smarting from the Birds’ 34-21 mugging by the Carolina Panthers and the world’s worst quarterback, Jake Delhomme, last weekend in Glendale.

The fragrant home loss underscored, yet again, the need to address the Arizona Cardinals’ out-of-whack offense and slovenly 1-3 record at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Personally, we’re not sure what the angst is about. To us, the answer is as clear as the polka dots on Bill Bidwill’s bow tie.

Fire Whisenhunt.

Okay, stop screaming. I like the dude, too.

Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt

What I mean is that it’s high time Coach Whiz shed his play-calling duties and “demoted” himself to the position he was born to hold: NFL head coach.

When former offensive coordinator Todd Haley took the head job in Kansas City, Coach Whiz — who’s done almost everything else right during his tenure in the desert, including replacing the middling defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast with promising Bill Davis — decided to handle the OC/play-calling duties himself. It seemed like a natural fit. Kinda sorta.

Whiz was OC in Pittsburgh for three years before taking the Cards gig, and he helped mold Ben Roethlisberger into an NFL-caliber QB. Hell, Coach Whiz and Big Ben even won a Super Bowl together following the ’05 season.

But as this season grinds on, with the high-powered, highly paid offense repeatedly sputtering and the maddening checkdowns to Tim Hightower mounting, it becomes increasingly obvious that Todd Haley and QB Kurt Warner had a special chemistry — and a knack for inventive, complex offensive machinations — that Whisenhunt and Warner lack.

Outgoing coach Todd Haley and QB Kurt Warner had a special bond.

Haley dreamed up balls-out, talent-specific schemes. Whisenhunt is trying to run a Steelers-style O with Arizona Cardinals players.

Consider Warner’s grim stat sheet from last week but even the QB’s five interceptions and a fumble against the Panthers don’t tell the tale. The weekly looks of frustration on Warner’s grizzled mug say a mouthful. So do Warner’s carefully crafted postgame quotes, which contain the sort of veiled criticism that this ultimate team player rarely dabbles in.

Here’s a telling example from a November 4 Arizona Republic piece: “We haven’t been as good [this year]. . . . I think we haven’t been as tight in our details as we were last year. Where we weren’t real tight in our route running, we made a play. Where I wasn’t perfect with my reads, we made a play. When we didn’t have perfect protection, we made a play. We had guys make up for some our deficiencies.”

Oh, yeah — and you had offensive madman/perfectionist/genius Todd Haley calling the plays.

For his part, Whisenhunt is either being pigheaded or dense about the Cards’ offensive woes and the (fairly obvious) solution of kicking himself back upstairs and hiring a dedicated coordinator to call the on-the-field shots.

We suspect pigheaded, ’cause Whiz is not stupid. Regardless, seems there’s no way this coach would make such a (balls-out) move during the season, so prepare yourself for nine more games worth of a scowling Warner tossing dinks-and-dunks to Tim Hightower.


End game


A mere week into the new season, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ top pitcher is on the disabled list with a sore wing and the D-Backs couldn’t hit a slow-pitch grapefruit with a two-by-four. You think they’ve got problems?

This year’s star-crossed campaign for Your Phoenix Suns mercifully comes to an end sometime after 9:30 tonight when the clock runs out on their 82nd game, versus the Golden State Warriors, and a season that began with loftier aspirations than ninth place in the Western Conference and a lottery pick in the NBA draft.

So what’s next? Well, there are really only four dates that matter to Planet Orange hardcores: 

1) Tomorrow, when those Suns players who aren’t summering in Aruba hit the links.

2) May 19, when the team learns its draft position in the lottery.

3) June 25, when the draft itself is held.

4) That still-amorphous date in late October ’09 when the new-look Suns take the court for their next regular-season game.

Will they be new-look? Let’s put it this way: You’ve got as much chance of seeing a starting lineup of Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Jason Richardson, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Shaquille O’Neal again as the Suns have of landing the top pick in the draft (i.e. Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin).

(Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Bulls pulled it off last year, snagging Derrick Rose, despite having only a 1.7 percent shot at him, but the Bulls’ luck only narrows the odds more for Phoenix. And those odds couldn’t get much narrower, at 0.5 percent for the first pick, 0.59 for second, and .72 for third. Expect the Suns to pick in their default slot: 14th.)

Nash might be back, if… a) Suns owner Robert Sarver and general manager Steve Kerr decide to exercise his $13 million-plus team option for ’09-10 instead of trading him and b) Nash “approves” of whatever plan Sarver/Kerr put on the table for “revamping” the team.

Steve Nash needs to stay, Please, please, please?

Our guess: gone. His offensive skills will be attractive to other point-deficient teams, and cash-poor Sarver will have $$$ signs flashing in his eyes at the thought of taking some of those Nash megabucks off the table.

Hill: back. At least we hope so after the magical, age-defying season this 36-year-old, 13-year pro just had. 

J-Rich: back. After his inconsistent play and brushes with the law, who’d eat his $12 mil-plus salary?

Stoudemire: back, with a caveat. The savviest scenario for the Suns is to hold on to Amar’e for now, start him throughout the fall and winter to make sure his eye is healthy, then — given that the Suns haven’t miraculously reversed their fortunes and/or Stoudemire hasn’t magically learned how to guard a pick-and-roll — ship him off before the February trading deadline for young players/draft choices.

Buh-bye, Shaq,

The least-savvy choice would be to give the injury-prone, D-deficient dude a max contract, so there’s at least a 50/50 chance that that’s exactly what the Suns brain trust will do. 

Shaq: buh-bye. We’ll be seeing you somewhere — maybe Cleveland, maybe Dallas, maybe L.A., maybe some other burg where there’s a need for a big-baby blowhard who can’t shoot free throws — but we couldn’t be happier that it won’t be here.

Don’t drink the orange Kool-Aid. Yet.


Just two weeks ago, in my secret heart of hearts, I was ready to consign 35-year-old Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash to the dustbin of history. Unless you’re Steve Nash’s mom, you were, too. Be honest. Then came that last-minute beauty shot in the Suns’ regular-season opener against the Clippers, the 20-assist game against Golden State, the 30 points and four treys against Miami, and the massive 21 point/20 assist effort to lead the Suns back from what looked like certain defeat in Philly.

As he did in the Mike D’Antoni years, Nash is engendering (way too) early MVP talk as the centerpiece of a Phoenix Suns team that pulled off tough road wins against the Heat, Celtics, Wizards, and Sixers in less than a week.

It’s a team with a gritty, hybrid style of play that incorporates selflessness, the opportunism of the Fun ‘n’ Gun, and (gasp!) D.

A team that’s scored 100 or more points in each of its first eight games, and that’s had more balls bounce its way in eight games than it did in 82 last year.

A team with a crank-ass bench led by Sweet Lou Amundson and Jared Dudley that frequently increases leads when the starters hit the pine.

A 7-1 team that finds itself — almost unaccountably — in first place in the NBA’s Western Conference, ahead of the world-champ Lakers.

Hey, I wanna drink the orange Kool-Aid, too, but remember getting a little green around the gills after chugging it last season, when Team Shaq opened at 6-2 before plummeting to an eventual playoff whiff.

I might be willing to take small, circumspect sips of the titian brew if Nash, hot-shooting Jason Richardson (29, 22, and 34 points in his last three games) and company can take care of business against the New Orleans Hornets and avoid getting embarrassed on prime-time national TV on Thursday in L.A. against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.

Yes, it’s a different Suns team, but recent history hasn’t been kind to the Suns where these Western Conference rivals are concerned.

The Hornets, especially, have treated the Suns as their personal voodoo doll/chew toy since  D’Antoni split, winning all four meetings against the Suns in 2007-08 and two out of three in ’08-09. After a magnificent, breakout year in ’07, the Hornets struggled to make the playoffs last year, finishing 49-33, and are off to a rocky start in ’09 at 3-5 (1-4 on the road).

Someday — and here’s hoping it’s not today — the Hornets will get their act together again under one of the NBA’s tops-on-paper 1-2 punches: All-World point guard Chris Paul (who’s averaging 26.3 points and 9.8 assists) and 6-9 forward David West (16.1 points, six boards). Problem is, the team’s talent level dips precipitously after Paul and West, especially on defense. New Orleans has been wilting against top teams — losing big to the Spurs, Celtics, and Lakers — and has coughed up 100-plus points in five of its eight games. The team’s one marquee win to date was a 114-107 home W against Dallas.

The Hornets are, in short, a team that’s seriously out of whack. That’s a familiar feeling for Suns fans, who’re watching their own whack crew turn into a team before their very eyes.

And getting their Planet Orange blenders out of mothballs.

The Bucs stop here


Think your Diamondbacks stink? What to make, then, of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who, before their 8-5 victory against the Brewers on July 20, had been Milwaukee’s bee-yatch for more than a year? Before that W, the Pirates had choked away 17 straight to the Brewers (the Brewers!) over 14 months. It was the longest winning streak by one MLB team over another in almost 40 years (or the longest streak of baffling impotence, as the put-upon fans in the Burgh looked at it).

What the D-Backs see when they scout the Pirates is a slightly distorted impression of themselves. Like the Diamondbacks, Pitt has no real stars (though rookie center fielder Andrew McCutchen is a budding five-tool threat à la Justin Upton), a hot-and-cold offense,

The Pirates’ talented Andrew McCutchen

middling starting pitching (anchored by 2009 All-Star backup Zach Duke), and a young and intermittently problematic bullpen. In fact, if you compare the teams’ styles of play and overall records (Bucs: 42-52; Snakes: 40-55), you’d think they were twinkies who’d been separated at birth.

But the Pirates are better, and deeper, than they appear on paper. Arizona’s worse, and shallower.

While the Diamondbacks are underachievers in a historically underwhelming division, Pittsburgh’s a decent team fighting traffic in the overcrowded and ultra-competitive National League Central. Much more frequently than they’d like to, the Bucs have to face the Cardinals, Cubs, Astros, and, God help ’em, the Brewers.

Another major differentiator between Pittsburgh and Arizona is the bonehead factor (or lack of one, in Pitt’s case). With its potent double-play combo of shortstop Jack Wilson and 2B Freddy Sanchez, Pittsburgh’s ranked second in the league in team fielding, right behind the world-champ Phillies. The Diamondbacks are — doh! — next to last, mere percentage points ahead of the execrable Washington Nationals.

If Pirates general manager Neal Huntington and the rest of the Pittsburgh brain trust can avoid doing what Arizona managing general partner Ken Kendrick and GM Josh Byrnes have done here — i.e. royally screw the pooch — the Pirates might actually be a team with a future. Even though they’re in last place in the NL Central, the Bucs are only eight games behind mighty Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals.

That team-with-a-future stuff’s a mighty big if, though, ’cause the Pirates brain trust always mucks things up, usually by offloading the salaries of good players when they climb above poverty level (read: Adam LaRoche; Andrew McCutchen, this is your future). Still, the glorious win over the Brew Crew (the Bucs ended up taking two of three from the Brewers) and the Pirates’ decent play out of the second-half gate have sown seeds of optimism in BuccoNation. As one fan wrote in a recent online posting: “Good time to be a Bucco fan. Winning baseball will be back in the Burgh soon.”

Well, maybe — if they can find a way to move Milwaukee to another continent.

Motley crew


Schlemiel, schlemazel, Hasenfeffer Incorporated . . .

It’s temptingly easy to dis Milwacky — er, Milwaukee — a small-market town that’s home to Laverne De Fazio, Shirley Feeney, the Fonz, happy drunks, mutant sausage racing, folks who actually buy into the burg’s Chamber of Commerce nickname (“The German Athens of America”), and a baseball team that’s been irrelevant since before the invention of beer.

But you shouldn’t, and I won’t — at least not when it comes to the Brew Crew.

The D-Backs take on the Brewers tonight through Sunday at Milwaukee’s Chase Field-like Miller Park, kicking off Arizona’s first extended road trip of the season. Those who think that equates to four easy wins for the D-Backs either 1) haven’t been paying attention to the D-Backs or 2) haven’t been paying attention to the Brewers.

The 2009 Brewers are essentially mirror images of the 2009 Diamondbacks. Both teams are packed with potential, but sport middling (to poor) records because they’re significantly flawed on one side of the ball. Even with the team’s best pitcher, and player — Brandon Webb — out for six weeks or so with a suspect shoulder, the D-Backs field an above-average rotation. Milwaukee’s No. 1 starter is journeyman righty Jeff Suppan. ‘Nuff said.

Manager Ken Macha’s hard-whacking Brewers, on the other hand, have bounced back from a miserable 3-7 start despite glacial hitting from two of their key starters, first baseman Prince Fielder and catcher Jason Kendall. Arizona’s best hitter to date is shortstop Felipe Lopez. ‘Nuff said?

As the D-Backs (9-12) have been riding the coattails of Dan Haren and his infinitesimal ERA, the Brewers (11-10 and coming off a sweep of the Pirates) have thus far stayed afloat in the tough National League Central, thanks to veteran center fielder Mike Cameron (.309, .632 slugging percentage, five homers, 13 RBIs), budding-superstar left fielder Ryan Braun (.333, .577 slugging, five homers, 16 RBIs), and a lineup jam-packed with long-ball power. The Brewers have been at or near the top of the NL homer heap all season.

Pitching might trump hitting on paper, but if the Diamondbacks’ front-line hurlers can’t contain Milwaukee, the D-Backs will likely have trouble playing catch-up against a run-generating pinball machine like the Brewers. Especially on the road. And if they try, they’re likely to run into closer Trevor Hoffman, in his first year in Brew City after 16 seasons with San Diego. True, the 41-year-old ain’t what he used to be, and he’s been out most of the season with an oblique (muscle) injury, but MLB’s all-time saves leader has thrown goose eggs in his two most recent starts for the Brewers. Plus, with his famous entrance to AC/DC’s “Hells Bells,” he gives Miltown something it’s never really had: baseball with attitude.

Blame D’Antoni


The New York Knicks were eliminated from the playoffs last Saturday, less than 24 hours before the Phoenix Suns were in every way but mathematically terminated by the Dallas Mavericks. Anyone but a Mike D’Antoni/Planet Orange hardcore might see humor in that ironic turn.

Probably not Mike D’Antoni himself. He’s a self-serious dude, and he doesn’t like to lose, which is about the nicest thing I can say about him. Well, okay, and he dresses nice.

If D’Antoni’s still coaching the Suns today, they’re the two or three seed in the West, most likely the two. Sure, they’ll get pistol-whipped by the Spurs or Lakers, but they’re in the dance. The sports-radio yahoos are screaming about the lack of D, and demanding off-season changes. Opining that making the playoffs isn’t enough for the Phoenix Suns.

Here in the real world, both Mikey D and the Suns are out of the title hunt (forget the math; the Suns are toast). That’s Mikey D’s doing, and don’t let any yahoo tell you otherwise. Suns owner Robert Sarver and general manager Steve Kerr are hardly blameless, and neither are the players themselves, but it was D’Antoni’s little turf tantrum regarding Kerr’s purported “interference” at the end of last season that sent Mike packing to Gotham and the Suns sliding into a giant sucking sinkhole of mediocrity.

116-140 to the Mavericks — in the must-win game of the year? I’d say the Suns finally reached the bottom of the monstrous sucking pit, ‘cept there are still five games to go, starting with tonight’s against Chris Paul, David West and the Hornets at New Orleans Arena.

Hang on, ’cause we’re about to see the final purge of the D’Antoni Era.

Shaquille O’Neal’s got exactly five games left in purple and orange. Dude’s gone (and good riddance). If they can find anyone who’ll give ’em a semi-square deal for Amar’e Stoudemire and his bum eye, so’s Stat. After watching the devastation in Dallas on Sunday, we’ve finally come to the conclusion that Steve Nash’s defensive liabilities outweigh his heroic offensive attributes. The Suns should offload the aging superstar while the offloading’s good — and don’t be surprised if Mike D’Antoni’s on the other end of the line when that deal goes down.

I’d laugh if it didn’t hurt so much.