Saturday, August 01, 2015

And Now Their Watch Has Ended

Major League Baseball's trading deadline was yesterday, July 31. In the days leading up to it, the Reds made two trades, divesting themselves of two free-agents-to-be, both pitchers, in Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake.

Cueto signed with the Reds out of the Dominican Republic when he was 18 years old. He came up to the big leagues in 2008 as a highly regarded prospect. The 2000s are often referred to by Reds fans as "the Lost Decade"--heralded by the return of prodigal son Ken Griffey, Jr. and with generally pretty decent offense around him, the team's powers-that-be failed to put together any decent pitching staffs during that team, leading to a string of losing seasons that all seemed to start with promise and then go nowhere fast.

Cueto's entrance to the big leagues was one part of the end of that trend. Looking at the box score for his debut, you'll see names like Griffey and Dunn in the lineup while young guys like Votto and Bruce were not; looking at the list of guys who pitched for the Reds that year, you can see the transition that was being made in that area. Cueto joined a staff consisting of guys like Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang that would help them break a 15-year playoff drought just two years later, in 2010.

I watch pretty much every Reds game that's televised, and it's been that way for as long as I've been interested in baseball (when I first got interested, games on TV were much less frequent than they are now, when just about every game is on). Needless to say, during the "Lost Decade," I saw a lot of losing baseball. So it's not just about watching them to see them win (although obviously I prefer when they do). I watch for a variety of reasons, not least of which is seeing young players perform and develop. I can say without hesitation that watching Johnny Cueto develop into one of the best pitchers in the game has been one of the great delights of being a Reds fan over the past seven years. Even last year, when the Reds fell out of the playoff race pretty much right after the All-Star break, Johnny provided a reason to watch as he strove to become the team's first 20-game winner since Danny Jackson in 1988; seeing him do it on the last game of the season wasn't as good as making the playoffs, but it was pretty damned exciting nonetheless.

In a perfect world, Cueto is a guy the Reds would love to keep around. Unfortunately, baseball's economic realities make him a luxury they can't afford. As a free agent this offseason, Johnny is going to command huge dollars. The money is one thing; the years are another. Chances are good that he'll be looking for (and probably receive) a five- or six-year deal. He'll also turn 30 this offseason, meaning that he'll pass the mid-30s mark toward the end of that deal, and whatever team signs him will be paying a premium for a pitcher whose best days are behind him (physically, at least; I feel like Johnny is such a smart pitcher and hard worker that he'll continue to be effective even as his stuff declines).

Cueto is a bigger loss in terms of pitching, but, while I hate to lose him, I have to say that the trade of Mike Leake makes me a bit sadder. Another cog in the Reds' pitching renaissance, Leake was drafted in the first round of the 2009 draft. He then made the team the following spring and made his Major League debut without ever pitching in the minor leagues, quite a rare feat. It fascinated me, and as it turned out, his first start coincided with a bit of a rough time in my own life. To distract myself, I decided to drive down to Cincinnati to catch his debut in person. It was a good decision, even if I did end up with a hellacious sunburn (it was a Sunday afternoon game, and I forgot to take sunscreen, a cardinal sin for someone with fair skin). So I've always had a little soft spot for Mike.

As the deadline got closer, I kept hoping against hope that they'd keep and re-sign him instead of trading him away. Sadly (for me), that didn't happen; he was traded in the wee hours of Friday morning. It didn't seem like such a stretch. He won't command nearly as much money as Cueto will, and, as he'll be just 28 after the season ends, a 5- or 6-year deal is less likely to be an albatross toward the end of it. Alas, the Reds' front office did not see it the same way I did.

Those were the only two trades the Reds made, although there was plenty of chatter about other possibilities. It sounded like they seriously entertained offers for outfielder Jay Bruce and hard-throwing pitching phenomenon Aroldis Chapman. I was actually a little disappointed they didn't trade Chapman, although I love watching him pitch, mostly because he could have commanded an awesome return. As big of an asset as he is, I feel like the Reds have mishandled his career--he's so dominant, he's wasted pitching fewer than 100 innings a year as the team's closer. He should have been developed as a starter, and with just one year remaining on his contract, that option almost certainly won't be explored with Cincinnati (and probably not anywhere else, either). I'd be a little surprised if they didn't continue to explore trading him in the offseason.

Bruce, on the other hand, I had mixed feelings about. The Reds have the makings of a pretty potent offense; what they really need is someone (or someones, ideally) who can get on base a ton and set the table for big bats like Votto, Frazier, and Mesoraco (assuming he comes back healthy next year, which I have no reason to believe he won't). The problem is that most of the starting position players are firmly entrenched, so even if you find a guy like that, there's nowhere to put him on the field. As of now, left field (currently manned by Marlon Byrd) is the only real possibility; trading Jay would have opened right field as well. Keeping him isn't a bad option, though. He's another of the big bats like the ones listed above, and while I'm not sure he's as reliable as those guys, the pop he provides can't be denied.

So the main drama for the rest of the Reds' regular season will likely be whether they can maintain their hold on fourth place in the National League Central Division or slip into last, it's certainly shaping up to be an interesting offseason. With these trades augmenting the talent they already have in their system, they have a ton of young pitchers vying to fill out next year's staff. I expect a trade or two to hopefully find that OBP machine they need, and I wouldn't mind seeing them find a crafty veteran to plug into the rotation as well, to mentor the young kids and take some innings load off the bullpen--coming off an injury, I'm not sure you can count on Homer Bailey, the one returning vet, to fill that role.

In the meantime, I'll be keeping an eye on Cueto (now with the Kansas City Royals) and Leake (San Francisco Giants--I expect him to thrive in the NL West) and pulling for them to do well with their new teams. Since the Reds aren't in it this year, it's nice to have a rooting interest in the pennant race (other than hoping the Cardinals get knocked out early in the most humiliating fashion possible).

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

The Dark Side...and the Light

You know this about me: I'm a Star Wars nerd. I was born in 1977, about a month and a half after the first movie came out, so it's always been a part of my life. Sitting here now in my recently Christmified living room and facing our tree, adorned with several SW ornaments, I can't help but think about how entwined Star Wars is with my childhood Christmas memories. As a kid, I couldn't wait for the tree to go up. I'd slither underneath and reach up into the branches, pretending I was Han Solo fixing the Millennium Falcon. My wishlist was always filled with action figures and vehicles from the movies, to the exclusion of just about anything else, and I'd lie awake long into the night on Christmas Eve, wondering what I'd find the next morning. To this day, I joke that I'll be up early on Christmas morning to find out what Star Wars guys Santa brought me--only, to be honest, it's not that much of a joke. If I found a pile of action figures under the tree, I'd be one pretty happy 37-year-old man. Judge me as you see fit.

I was lucky to grow up among other Star Wars nerds. When the teaser for the latest movie, The Force Awakens, came out last Friday, my old friend Patrick initially indicated on Facebook that he hadn't watched it. When finally he did, and indicated that he wasn't sure if he'd go see it or not, it wasn't entirely unexpected. I advised him to go see it with the hope of being pleasantly surprised, but I also said I had much more to say on the topic. And here it is.

To start with, I totally understand his trepidation. We turned six years old the year that Return of the Jedi came out, and for a very long time, that was it as far as Star Wars was concerned. Three movies and out. This was before even VHS was particularly common; I remember how excited I would get when one of the movies was going to be on HBO, because that was the only time you could see them. Luckily, there were plenty of action-figure adventures, and later on, video games, but Star Wars experiences were rare. It kinda sucked, but on the other hand, it also made them very special when they came around.

I've noted before that I didn't immediately jump on Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire when it was published in 1991. Eventually I did--the pull of Star Wars was too strong for me to resist for long--and I was glad. Those were great books. But they opened the door to a ton of Star Wars books down the line. I read all of them for a long time, but eventually it became too much to keep up with, at least if I wanted to read anything else (which--well, I majored in English; of course I wanted to read other stuff), and so few of the books were any good. Now we're at a similar point with the films. The Force Awakens will open in theaters a little over a year from now; from then on, it sounds like Disney plans to put out a Star Wars film each year. Right now there are six movies (two trilogies); five years from now there will be eleven movies--three trilogies and two standalones--and it will likely go on from there. At what point does the Star Wars experience cease to be special?

And then there's that second trilogy to consider. When The Phantom Menace was announced, I was all in. It was hard to believe that, after sixteen years, there was going to be new Star Wars on the big screen, and I was stoked. And then that movie turned out to be a complete dog. Attack of the Clones was a little better, and Revenge of the Sith was a little better than that, but still, that trilogy was nowhere near what it could or should have been. There's certainly a chance that future installments will be bad as well.

And yet....

I mentioned to Patrick that one thing I learned from The Phantom Menace was that nothing could diminish my love for those first three movies, and that's true. The Phantom Menace sucked, but I still have Star Wars wallpaper on my PC and ornaments on my tree. The Force Awakens can suck and I'll still smile when I put up a Christmas tree each year, longing to climb underneath and ask for someone to hand me a hydrospanner.

That's all, I think, is the thrill I feel sitting in a darkened theater and seeing an opening crawl accompanied by that iconic theme. Will that fade some now that I'll get to do it each year? Maybe eventually, and probably faster if the movies turn out to suck. But, on the other hand, if they turn out to be decent, maybe that feeling will stick around. Maybe it'll even be enhanced.

I'm an optimist. I have a good feeling about the new trilogy and about the people working on it. Much love to George Lucas for the machine he set into motion, but I'm glad he's out of the picture. I'm looking forward to seeing what other people have to add to the story, while also looking forward to seeing familiar faces in familiar roles, at least briefly. I think that's one good thing about there being a long string of Star Wars movies on the horizon--there's leeway for a not-so-great one here and there, knowing that different writers and directors are going to be involved in each one.

So yeah, count me in for The Force Awakens. I'll be there on day one, most likely at the midnight showing, like I was for all the prequels. And probably more than once.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Trojan Postmortem

Last night was the first Friday of November, bringing with it a full moon and the opening of the high school football playoffs in Ohio. As a member of Division II, had Troy made the playoffs, they would have played last night, and I would have been there. Alas, they did not, and so instead I watched one of their opponents from this season (Cincinnati Northwest) play on television. For what it's worth, they lost to Kings.

The years pass and football seasons come and go, but one thing that never changes from year to year is how the end of the season always sneaks up on me. During the non-football portion of the year, it's what I look forward to, what I'm thinking about in my quiet moments, and that time seems to pass so slowly. Then August rolls around, the first game kicks off, and the next thing you know it's November and it's done, and back into waiting mode for me.

In past years, I know I've promised season recaps and then failed to deliver them. In 2012 and 2013, finishing both seasons with losses to Piqua and ending with disappointing records, I've been a little too disheartened to actually look back, despite the best of intentions. Not that this year was any less disheartening--just look at that 1-9 record, and unfortunately, the "1" wasn't the season finale with Piqua--but this year I have some things I definitely need to say.

It's time for some real talk: I have no idea what has happened to Troy football.

I think back to the late '90s, the teams that were led by Ryan Brewer, by far the best high school football player I've ever seen or expect to see, and that were just loaded with talent all over the field. Then I go back earlier than that, to when I was in high school, starting with the '91 season. Troy only made the playoffs once during my high school days, in 1992, but even then, those teams were never anything less than solid. When the OHSAA announced its plans to expand the playoffs to include eight teams per region instead of four, I remember thinking that Troy would rarely if ever miss the playoffs again. That expansion happened in 1999, the first post-Brewer season for Troy (had it happened a year sooner, the Trojans, at 8-2 and #7 in their region, would have made the playoffs in all four of Brewer's seasons); in the sixteen seasons since, the Trojans have actually qualified for the playoffs just four times.

So. Obviously I was wrong about how the Trojans would fare under the expanded system. It seems to me that the talent available to the Trojans football team has thinned considerably since those heady days of state rankings and relatively frequent playoff berths, and I am at a complete loss to explain why. I've been out of Troy for much of that time, but I don't feel like the demographics of the town have changed so much. I've heard some people point to the establishment of Troy Christian High School as a possible explanation; while it may have some very small effect, it can't be the sole factor--it's a small school, Troy is not the only community they draw students from, and they only have twenty players on their team.

One thing I do wonder about: it seems that football has been (at least somewhat) de-emphasized in the grand athletic hierarchy at Troy High School. There used to be a "Touchdown Club," a booster group dedicated solely to the football team; I'm pretty sure that no longer exists, and has been rolled into the all-sports booster group. If that's the case, I have to wonder in what other ways focus has shifted away from football, and what kind of effect that can have on the program. I have no idea - just blue-skying it here.

I also have to wonder about the offense. In the last few years of his tenure, longtime head coach Steve Nolan (now the head coach at Troy Christian) was adding some more modern elements to his traditional ground-and-pound Wing-T offense, but it remained a conservative, run-heavy offense. When Scot Brewer came aboard as head coach in 2012, he scrapped the Wing-T entirely, but has stuck with the run-first philosophy. In an era of uptempo spread offenses that like to air it out, I have to wonder if this philosophy is one that kids don't want to play in. Again, I doubt this is much of a factor, but is it one at all? Honestly, no clue.

Whatever the case, something has to be done about the offense, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty dreadful this year. That's what I would point to as the main cause for Troy's final 1-9 record this season. The defense was pretty stellar, all things considered, but the lack of offense was just too much for them to overcome. The Trojans only topped 300 yards of total offense once all year, with 388 in, not surprisingly, their 27-0 win over Sidney. Five times they failed to gain 200 yards, and twice they didn't even make it to 100.

I mentioned that Coach Brewer went away from the Wing-T when he took over, and indeed, this year Troy ran almost entirely out of a spread formation with the quarterback lining up in a pistol/shotgun. Despite that, 66% of Troy's offensive plays (344/519) were run plays. Now, my football fandom was established watching Coach Nolan's Wing-T, and I love a run-heavy offense...but if you're going to run a spread, I do feel like there needs to be more balance. The spread can be great for a running offense, but only if the defense believes they have to spread out to defend the pass. It was pretty obvious that defenses this year were loading up to stop Troy's run game, knowing they were going to rely on it, and willing to take their chances with the pass. Unfortunately, the Trojans didn't/couldn't make them pay for that. I'll note here that on their 344 rushing attempts on the year, Troy gained 3.31 yards per carry; on their 175 passing plays, they gained 4.87 yards per attempts, and 11.37 yards per completion. Now, the 43% completion rate (75/175) wasn't ideal, obviously, but still, a few more passes would, I think, have been a good idea.

It's also worth mentioning that the rushing offense was pretty apparently at its best when Elijah Pearson was getting the bulk of the carries. He had 52 rushing attempts in the first three games, and then I think he had some injury issues, and only carried the ball 34 times the rest of the season, including none against Wayne and just one each against Trotwood and Piqua. He finished the year with 445 yards on 36 carries, a respectable 5.2 per. No disrespect to Brandon Lee, a good, hard runner and fun to watch, but Elijah brought a different wrinkle to the offense that they just couldn't replicate with anyone else. Fortunately, he'll be back for the Trojans next year, and with Josh Browder joining him in the backfield and Hayden Kotwica back at quarterback, the Trojans will at least have some offensive weapons to work with.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Piqua 41 Troy 10

Let's get this part out of the way up front: my nephew Dylan was Piqua's starting center, and this was his senior night. That makes things a little uncomfortable for me. I wanted him to do well, of course, but no amount of nephews on the roster could actually make me want the team to win (against anyone, really, but especially against Troy).

Anyway, because it was Dylan's senior night, my dad came to the game with me, the first time we've been to a football game together in 22 years--another Troy-Piqua game, in fact: the 1992 playoff game at Welcome Stadium. I was a high school sophomore, and Dad took me and my friends Patrick and Jason down to the game. Superstitious folks might suggest I should reconsider asking him to future games, as both times resulted in Troy losses.

The night was cold, wet, windy, and mostly miserable. Sometimes that can be an equalizer, but that requires one team to be less affected by the conditions than the other. On this night, that was not the case. Piqua was, as their final 5-5 record would indicate, a perfectly average football team, but that still put them well ahead of the Trojans. (And yes, it hurt to type that.) Troy's defense held them in check fairly well for a long time, keeping the game close for probably longer than it should have been; it was only 14-3 at halftime. But with the offense unable to muster anything, the defense just wore out, resulting in long touchdown runs for each of Piqua's two backs and the lopsided final score (which included, yes, one more dose of the dreaded running clock--only for the final 2:38, but still).

Losing to Piqua sucks. Losing three in a row to Piqua sucks. Losing to Piqua to end the season sucks. Finishing the season 1-9 sucks; but, at the same time, the season being over also sucks. Plenty of suck to go around. Now the long wait begins for next season, exactly 43 weeks from now. Look for a season wrap within a few days.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Butler 38 Troy 7

What a difference a week makes.

As "on" as the Trojans looked last week in their first win of the season over Sidney, that's how "off" they looked tonight against the Butler Aviators. Missed tackles, dropped passes, turnovers, name it. They played hard, and at times they even played well, but they just couldn't put anything together. The defense couldn't get off the field when it needed to, and the offense couldn't get much going. The Trojans' lone score of the night came when a muffed punt by Vandalia gave them the ball in the red zone.

So. The less said about this one, the better. Now it's Piqua week, as the Trojans (1-8) and their northern counterparts (4-5) get set to meet for the 130th time, with Troy looking for their first victory in the series since 2010. No conference titles are on the line, no playoff spots, nothing but pride. A win in this one would be a sweet way for the Troy seniors to end their careers, and the rest of the boys to go into the offseason.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Troy 27 Sidney 0

Not everyone understands why I spend my Fridays in the fall chasing the Troy Trojans up and down the I-75 corridor or wherever else in Ohio the schedule may take them. That was true even when I lived in Troy and most games were just across town or a short drive away; it's more true now that we live in the state capital and every game I attend involves a long and often-maddening slog across I-70 and back into the Miami Valley.

I love the action on the field, of course, but that's only part of the story. More than that, when I watch sports--and this goes for any sport, not just Troy football--I'm interested in the story, the human moments that go along with the game, the season, the moment. The best illustration I can think of for this happened several years ago when I was flipping channels and stopped for a moment on an NCAA women's basketball tournament game between Ohio State and Duke. The game was nearly over, and an Ohio State player was shooting free throws to ice the victory; as she got set, the camera flashed to Duke player Georgia Schweitzer, a senior in her final game that was about to end. She had tears streaming down her she settled into her stance and got ready to play on despite them. That's always stuck with me, and that was in a game I didn't care about between two teams I didn't care about.

All of which brings us back to this year's Troy Trojans, 0-7 coming into this game and, all things considered, no particular incentive to do anything other than mail in the rest of the season. Well, no incentive beyond pride, of course--and, as it turns out, that's something these Trojans have in spades. Sure, one way or another this is going to end up as a losing season, atypical in the rich history of Troy football, but this year's crop of Trojans has played all year with a visible determination to give their opponents everything they have. On this night, that determination paid off.

These Trojans have played their asses off all year and, as I said, came into this game with an 0-7 record to show for it, due largely to a brutal schedule. So while, on an intellectual level, I couldn't agree with senior receiver Billy Smith doing a flip into the endzone after sprinting 85 yards for the Trojans' third touchdown early in the fourth quarter, earning a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct in the process, in practice I couldn't do anything but smile. The kid had pretty much just sealed his team's first win of the season. He wants to show a little joy? I can get behind that.

The Trojans just looked so solid tonight all the way around. The defense...what can I say about them? Lights out. Time after time they had to come up big to keep Sidney off the board, and time after time they did it. Even when the win was well in hand, they kept up their intensity, wanting to ensure not just the win, but the shutout. Seeing the kids celebrate and congratulate each other on the sideline as the clock wound down was another "Georgia Schweitzer moment" that will stick with me for a long time.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Miamisburg 45 Troy 14

Unfortunately, I have to begin again by decrying the new OHSAA mercy rule that mandates a running clock in the second half of a game in the case of a 30+ point deficit. The Vikings were up 38-0 at halftime, and the entire second half was played under the rule. Again, it's just too aggressive--if nothing else, they should stop the clock for penalties. A couple of times there were flags thrown and a ton of time came off the clock while the officials talked to each other, talked to players, talked to coaches, announced the penalties, marked it off, and readied the ball for play. Too much time. Each time got two possessions in the second half, and that was it. The Trojans scored touchdowns on both of theirs. Not saying they would have been able to get back into the game; just saying they didn't even get a chance to bring the score under the 30-point mark to get the game back to normal.

At any rate, there isn't much to say about this one. Miamisburg was just bigger, faster, better than Troy. Again, the Trojans played hard from start to finish, and there's talent here and there, but not enough to compete. At least not yet--most of these players are young, and gaining valuable experience.

On the bright side, it was a beautiful, picture-perfect night for football. I wore a long-sleeved t-shirt to the game and put on a sweatshirt as the sun went down. Not bad for what's technically still summer--normally nights like this don't happen until October.