Archive for January, 2008

A Better Hall of Fame Game

January 30, 2008

Major League Baseball announced that the 2008 Hall of Fame Game scheduled for Cooperstown’s Doubleday Field on June 16 between the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres will be the last.  Citing difficulties in travel, baseball officials have decided to pull the plug.  Most have already trotted out the familiar retorts including:  “Baseball doesn’t care about its fans or its roots and so on.” 

Let’s look at the positive side.  The Hall of Fame Game was nothing more than a mid-season spring training game.  By the third inning, most of the players were from the A and AA levels.  There is no doubt that the game was great for Cooperstown as 10,000 fans came to the little village to see baseball and spend some dough downtown.

But, there could be a happy ending here.  Why not make the Hall of Fame Game a “Celebration of New York Baseball?”  New York State has a plethora of minor league baseball teams, including three—Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse—-at the AAA level, and the Binghamton Mets at the AA level. 

What the Hall of Fame should do is have Syracuse, Buffalo, Rochester and Binghamton play one home game per year in Cooperstown, making that the annual Hall of Fame Game.  It makes perfect sense.  Most minor league teams play wrap around series that start on Friday and end on Monday.  Why not have the Syracuse Chiefs host three games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and move the Monday getaway game to Doubleday Field?  In successive years, let Buffalo, Rochester and Binghamton do the same.  And, if possible, why not pair two New York teams against each other? 

No, it’s not the majors, but it would be a regular season AA or AAA game that would count in the standings and thus, have real meaning.  And, if Cooperstown is the place to celebrate the great game of baseball, celebrating minor league baseball in New York State makes perfect sense.

C’mon Cooperstown, let’s get this done.

Johnny Furgele


A Can’t Lose Super Bowl

January 29, 2008

With every Super Bowl comes a story line, and Super Bowl 42 can’t miss.  If the Patriots do as the oddsmakers say and win, you have a story for all-time.  The undefeated, 19-0 New England Patriots, perhaps the greatest football team of all-time.  Books will be written, lore cemented and future generations will ask their parents and grandparents to retell stories of the 2007 New England Patriots.

If the Giants win, the story is just as delicious.  A Giants win could go down as the greatest upset in football history, and if not for the 1980 United States Olympic Hockey Team, the greatest sports upset of them all. 

A Giant win would compare with the best of the best, the upset of upsets:  the 1969 New York Mets, the 1985 Villanova Wildcats, the 2006 Boise State Broncos and many others.  

The game should be an interesting one.  Monday morning may be even more so.

Johnny Furgele

Djokovic: Borg’s McEnroe?

January 28, 2008

The 2008 tennis season is already better than 2007.  In 2007, things remained essentially the same.  Roger Federer won three Grand Slams; Rafael Nadal continued to be dominant on clay—beating Federer in the French Open final again; the Williams sisters proved that when they actually play can still win slams and Justine Henin continued to be the best grinder in the women’s game.

In 2008, however, a new wind may be blowing.  Maria Sharapova, hardly a new name, got back on track, winning her third career Grand Slam title and doing it without losing a set.  Runner-up Ana Ivanovic will continue to get better.  She’s now played in two Grand Slam finals and the guess is that nerves will become less and less of an issue in future finals.  The women’s game still lacks the depth and for the most part, the early rounds remain a bore.  But, the later rounds are becoming the crapshoot that sports fans love.  Jelena Jankovic shows promise as does Daniela Hantuchova and with Sharapova apparently 100 percent, it will be unlikely that the Williams sisters can take months off, show up at a slam, and waltz to a championship. 

The men’s side is even more curious.  Last September, young Serb Novak Djokovic met Roger Federer in the U.S. Open final.  He played well, and although he lost, was in every set and actually had a chance to force Federer to the brink.  That match reminded me of the 1980 Wimbledon final.  That year, Bjorn Borg was going for his fifth straight title at the All-England club.  Standing in his way was a young Johnny McEnroe.  Borg would prevail, 8-6 in the fifth set, but one could sense that a changing of the guard was nearing.

That fall, Johnny Mac took out Borg to defend his U.S. Open title, but the changing officially took place in July, 1981 when McEnroe beat Borg in four sets to win his first of three Wimbledon titles.  Gone was Borg’s invincibility as well as his number one ranking.  Borg retired later that year.

McEnroe took over the number one spot in the game, winning four more Grand Slam titles.  Ivan Lendl became the man to eventually drive McEnroe from the game and the changing of that guard occurred at the 1984 French Open final.  Down two sets to none, Lendl rallied past McEnroe to win his first Slam.  McEnroe came back to beat Lendl in the ’84 U.S. Open final, but in 1985, Lendl cruised past McEnroe in the U.S. Open final and much like Borg in 1981, McEnroe was done.  He would never make another Grand Slam final and in 1986, he left the game.  He did come back, but the vintage McEnroe was gone and gone forever. 

Lendl was eventually overtaken by German wunderkind Boris Becker and the cool and calm Swede Stefan Edberg (Sweden’s Mats Wilander deserves a plug as well), and those players were eventually toppled by Pete Sampras. 

Did we see the next star in Djokovic?  He certainly has a lot of things going for him.  The ground strokes, the coolness to pressure, and more importantly, at age 20, he’s six years younger than King Roger.  Tennis has always followed a predictable pattern.  A player emerges, dominates, then another one topples him.  Connors was toppled by Borg; Borg by McEnroe; McEnroe by Lendl and so on. 

We live in an era where our country club sports—golf and tennis—are dominated by two people, a man who goes by Tiger and Roger Federer.  As of today, nobody is near Woods and before the Aussie Open, nobody was near Federer. 

But, change is in the air.

John Furgele

Maria Sharapova: Not Just a Pretty Face

January 26, 2008

There is no woman in professional sports that makes more money in endorsements than tennis player Maria Sharapova.  She is beautiful, has sex appeal and yes, she’s hot, but make no mistake the “Siberian Express” can play some tennis.

At age 20, Sharapova won her third Grand Slam title, beating 20 year old Serb Ana Ivanovic 7-5, 6-3 to win the Australian Open.  Sharapova now is a French Open away from completing a career Grand Slam. 

In 2004, Sharapova arrived on the scene in stunning fashion, routing Serena Williams in straight sets to win Wimbledon.  Soon after, the endorsement money began to flow and most thought Sharapova might become the next Ana Kournikova and never win much else after the shocking win at All-England.

Not so.  Unlike many, the lanky Russian kept her grit, kept her determination and kept her drive.  Sharapova is a regular semifinalist at the majors, showing that even when she doesn’t win, she can put consistent matches together at the Grand Slam events.  In 2006, she reached the U.S. Open Final and routed world number one Justine Henin in straight sets to win major number two.

Winnng one major is a feather in the cap of any player’s career, but one major can be fluky.  Anyone seen Gaston Gaudio around lately?  How about Andy Roddick?  Winning a second major makes you a great player and more importantly legitimizes the first major.  After winning the U.S. Open in 2006, Sharapova really didn’t have to prove anything to anybody anymore.

Last January, Sharapova made the final in Australia, but this time, she was routed by the surging Serena Williams in straight sets.  Williams simply blew Sharapova off the court.  The rest of 2007 was not kind to Sharapova, as she battled various maladies, particularly her right shoulder.

She came to Melbourne in 2008 in better shape and with a better serve and for two weeks steamrolled her opponents.  Her 6-4, 6-0 dusting of Henin in the semifinals was about as perfect a match as one could play.

In the final, Sharapova started strong, but Ivanovic had a chance, leading 5-4 and love 30.  But, nerves seem to get to her, and after Sharapova rallied to win the set 7-5, you could sense that she would move in for the kill and that’s what she did, winning set two 6-3. 

Sharapova now has three Grand Slam championships in four tries and in those three titles, she has not lost a set.  Sometimes, nerves get the best of tennis players, but not Sharapova.

Three slams, millions in endorsements, and sex appeal.  That’s not a bad triple crown to have.  But, it’s the three slams that have to be listed first.  The rest is petty.

John Furgele

Federer’s Loss Good For Tennis

January 25, 2008

The King….has been beaten.  Roger Federer’s straight set loss to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open semifinals is actually good—very good for tennis.  Federer may go down as the all-time best tennis player, but seeing him win slam after slam is not good for a sport that has so many talented players. 

Tennis experts say that the sport has never been deeper, yet, in most Grand Slam finals (Australia, French, Wimbledon, United States), Federer wins or gets beat in the French Open final by Rafael Nadal.  If tennis is really that deep, other players have to beat Federer in the finals or even before the finals. 

Djokovic proved that he was the real deal in the U.S. Open final against Federer in 2007, and now he can cement that status with a win over another impressive young player, Frenchman Jo-Wlifried Tsonga.

For the first time in years, there will be great intruige in the Aussie Open final. 

John Furgele

Versus, NHL: Three More Years

January 23, 2008

The NHL has signed a three year extension to carry NHL games on the cable network.  Critics will argue that Versus is not a popular cable sports network, and the league would be better off going back to ESPN, but people forget that ESPN was unwilling to pay for the rights.  ESPN wanted to pay nothing to air the games and split the advertising revenue like the NHL does with NBC.

Versus pays the NHL over $70 (this year $72.2 million) per year to broadcast the games.  The NHL had to take the money.  This year, ratings are up with Versus averaging 261,000 people per broadcast, still very low numbers.   

Versus does a very good job covering the NHL.  They treat it well and give the games their due.  The studio show is good and they have a 30 minute post game show after each game, something ESPN didn’t like to do. 

I still think hockey has a long uphill climb to gain respectability in the sports world.  The games are just not that exciting.  Tha lack of skilled plays and skilled players is alarming.  Too many times, the puck gets smacked around and too often, the games lack any real flow.  Low scoring games don’t bother me like they do others as long as there is good flow and scoring chances, something that has been lacking this season.

Soccer, which I believe is not only closing in but has passed by hockey, has low scoring games, but more skilled plays, skilled players, and better flow.  If you watch an NHL game and an English Premier League Soccer game on Fox Soccer Channel, you will see that soccer is actually a much more exciting game to watch than NHL hockey.

Unlike ESPN, I won’t give up on hockey and the NHL, but many have.  That said, it is what it is.  The NHL should promote its game the way it is.  Caving in to those who demand that the league take drastic measures to open up the game is not a good idea.  The shootout rule is absurd; giving teams that lose games is even more absurd.  Playing overtimes with four skaters rather than five reeks of minor league.  What other sport changes its rules after 60 minutes of play?

Only the NHL.

John Furgele

Track Records

January 21, 2008

This is the fourth time that the New York Giants have won the NFC Championship and played in the Super Bowl.  The record:

1986 NFC Championship:  New York 17 Washington 0*

1990 NFC Championship:  New York 15 San Francisco 13*

2000 NFC Championship:  New York 41 Minnesota 0

2007 NFC Championship:  New York 23 Green Bay 20 (OT)

Super Bowl 21:  New York 39 Denver 20

Super Bowl 25:  New York 20 Buffalo 19

Super Bowl 34:  Baltimore 34 New York 7

This is the sixth time that the New England Patriots have won the AFC Championship and played in the Super Bowl.  Their record.

1985 AFC Championship:  New England 31 Miami 14

1996 AFC Championship:  New England 20 Jacksonville 6

2001 AFC Championship:  New England 24 Pittsburgh 17*

2003 AFC Championship:  New England 24 Indianapolis 14*

2004 AFC Championship:  New England 41 Pittsburgh 27*

2007 AFC Championship:  New England 21 San Diego 12

Super Bowl 20:  Chicago 46 New England 10

Super Bowl 31:  Green Bay 35 New England 21

Super Bowl 36:  New England 20 St. Louis 17

Super Bowl 38:  New England 32 Carolina 29

Super Bowl 39:  New England 24 Philadelphia 21

*won Super Bowl following championship game 

John Furgele 

Giants Win a Classic

January 21, 2008

The scene was perfect.  Lambeau Field, very cold temperatures (although the field is heated underneath and is 55 degrees, so I won’t use frozen tundra), and the NFC Championship and a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.  What more could one ask for?

The game lived up to its billing as the surging and surprising New York Giants defeated the Green Bay Packers 23-20 in overtime to win the NFC title and punch a ticket to University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona two weeks from today for Big Game 42.

The Giants moved to 10-1 on the road, a place they have come to adore.  Installed as seven point underdogs, the Giants were the better team Sunday.  Eli Manning outplayed Brett Favre, who despite a Super Bowl win, has been less than stellar in playoff games.  The Giants ran the ball better and their defense was certainly the better of the two.  But, thanks to some conservative play calling late and two missed field goals by Lawrence Tynes, the game set up perfectly for Favre to have one heroic drive in overtime after the Pack won the coin toss.

As we know, it was not meant to be.  Favre threw late and Cody Webster made the interception and suddenly the Giants were in business.  On 4th and 5 from the Packer 30, I thought the Giants would go for the first down rather than give the shaky Tynes another chance.  When Tom Coughlin sent out Tynes, I was sure he would miss again and the Packers would find a way to win.  But, Tynes drilled the kick, probably the best he’s hit a ball all year, and the road warrior Giants had won again, this time the NFC Championship for the fourth time in their history.

They have already been listed as 14 point underdog against the AFC champion New England Patriots, who are still undefeated, but appear to have some holes, albeit small ones.  They had to rally late in Week 17 against the Giants—of course, the game was a Giant home game—and they had to fight a scrappy Jacksonville in the Divisional Playoffs. 

The San Diego Chargers certainly had their chances in the AFC Championship Game today, but you won’t win many football games—and will never beat this Patriot team—by kicking field goals.  Tom Brady throws three interceptions, but still beats you by nine points; that says something about how good the Pats are.

I’ve always been a fan of the underdog, so I will root for the Giants to ruin the perfect season, but something tells me that the pressure is off the Patriots and they will play their best game in Super Bowl 42.  All year long, they had to take it one game at a time, unable to look ahead.

Now they can look ahead, because there is only one game left.  One game for perfection.

John Furgele

Nothing Better

January 19, 2008

The Super Bowl has become a national holiday, but the best pure weekend of the NFL season is Championship Sunday.  Two games, two champions, two celebrations, two tickets punched to Super Bowl 42.  Yes, the Super Bowl is the ultimate game because it has the ultimate prize, but the AFC and NFC Championship Games are pure, unadulterated action. 

Unlike the Super Bowl, the championship games are played in front of real fans in stadiums with real home field advantages, not in a warm retractable roof artificial playpen filled with corporate supporters.  The Super Bowl has become an event, a gala, with a football game sandwiched in.

The AFC and NFC Championship Games are what a football fan lives for and truly appreciates.

John Furgele 

Another Rematch

January 17, 2008

The NFC Championship Game is a rematch of the 1961 and 1962 NFL Championship Games as the Packers look to beat the Giants for the third straight time.  We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that Sunday’s AFC Championship Game is a rematch of the 1963 AFL Championship Game when the San Diego Chargers beat the Boston Patriots 51-10.

Keith Lincoln was the star performer of that game.  He rushed for 206 yards, had 143 yards receiving and threw a 20 yard touchdown pass in the rout, played at Balboa Stadium in San Diego.  In the 10 year history of the AFL, the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers played in five AFL title games, winning once.  Tobin Rote was the Charger QB, throwing two touchdown passes. 

The next year, the Chargers played the Buffalo Bills for the AFL title and Lincoln suffered a broken rib when he was flattened by Bufffalo linebacker Mike Stratton.  Linclon did not return to the game and Buffalo won 20-7 in Buffalo. 

The 1965 AFL Championship was a rematch as the Bills played the Chargers in San Diego, and the Bills once again routed San Diego at Balboa Stadium, 23-0.