Monthly Archives: May 2012

Another lackluster Shocker season

My sense is that Wichita State baseball fans, many of them at least, want to at once pat Gene Stephenson on the back for a career well done but at the same time kick him in the pants for a run of mediocrity that will almost certainly keep the Shockers out of the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row.

It has been 16 years since Gene Stephenson took Wichita State's baseball team to a College World Series and four years since the Shockers played in the NCAA Tournament.

WSU lost a 7-0 snooze-fest to Missouri State on Wednesday afternoon in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament at Springfield, Mo. The Shockers were unceremoniously dumped out of the double-elimination tournament in two games. Two miserable games during which nothing went right for WSU, especially its offense.

You’d be right to point a stern finger at Shocker starting pitchers Josh Smith and Kris Gardner, both of whom suffered through difficult first innings and helped dig Wichita State’s hole. But this offense continues to baffle.

The Shockers scored three runs against Southern Illinois during Tuesday’s 6-3 loss, all in the sixth inning. In 17 other innings, Wichita State was held scoreless and failed to produce an extra-base hit in the tournament.

Going into Wednesday’s game, Wichita State ranked 163rd nationally in on-base percentage and 107th in slugging percentage. There were 125 teams with a better batting average. After being two-hit by Missouri State, WSU’s offensive numbers sunk lower.

I know offense all over college baseball has been marginalized because of new bat restrictions, but everybody is playing by the same rules and with the same bats. The ranking of Shocker hitters in these categories cannot be ignored.

Neither can Wichita State’s won-loss record, which since getting to within one game of a College World Series appearance in 2008 is 145-97. Considering the Shockers had won in the neighborhood of 75 percent of their games in the 30 seasons previous, a .599 winning percentage isn’t so hot.

I wrote a few weeks ago that a change is needed, and that’s something I still believe. I think the Shockers have gotten stale and that much of the fan base – a far larger chunk that WSU administrators should be comfortable with – has started to question Stephenson for a variety of reasons.

Is it time for a change at the top?

I don’t think it’s blasphemous to consider. But, obviously, it’s a tricky dynamic because Stephenson was at the forefront of the tremendous success enjoyed by the Shockers for three decades, including seven trips to the College World Series. Stephenson built Shocker baseball from the ground up.

But that ground is less stable now. There has been no CWS for Wichita State since 1996. College baseball has changed dramatically since then; more universities are pumping up their baseball budgets and building new facilities. Eck Stadium, once one of the top three or four facilities in college baseball, has probably fallen a few spots.

Still, though, WSU treats baseball well, from facilities to salaries for the coaching staff. No doubt, it’s tougher to recruit these days. But “tougher” doesn’t mean impossible, and there’s no question that the Shockers’ recruiting, especially when it comes to position players, has been less successful.

Brent Kemnitz’s pitching staff remains a constant, despite some iffy moments in Springfield this week, especially from the two starters. The Shockers have always been able to pitch, though, and while there have been seasons in which that pitching has been a little up and down, it has been amazingly consistent.

Hitting is and has been the Shockers’ major bugaboo for a while now. And while it’s easy to blame the bats, the difficulty of recruiting and the growing popularity of baseball in the Sun Belt and the SEC specifically, it’s also fair to blame the Wichita State hitters and those who are coaching them.

Even with bats that restrict the kind of hit-crazy game that college baseball used to be, there’s no shortage of offense in the game. According to NCAA statistics, 27 teams are hitting .300 or better. It’s not like you can’t do damage with these bats.

During the past four seasons, Wichita State’s team batting averages have been .275, .296, .280 and, this season, .277. And if you take away a robust four-game offensive explosion against North Dakota in March, when the Shockers scored 62 runs in four games, the team’s batting average falls to .266.

Something is wrong here and instead of pretending it isn’t, Stephenson needs to figure out what to do about it. The time for business as usual has passed.

There are other issues with the Shockers. Base running and fundamentals in general have become shoddy. While the defense was better this season than it was in 2011, there is still improvement to be made. And the pitching staff isn’t without fault, either. The Shockers lacked dominant starting pitching this season, which is a rarity.

Mostly, though, Wichita State’s issues are about a lack of offense. This team just doesn’t hit.

Through all of the muddle and different theories about what’s wrong with Shocker baseball, that simple fact cannot be denied.

 

The LeBron haters

People, except for fans of the Miami Heat, don’t much care for LeBron James.

We know why.

LeBron James needs to stop talking and win championships.

Mostly it’s because of the way he went about moving from Cleveland to Miami in the summer of 2010 and the inordinate amount of attention he drew to himself by making his decision in prime time on ESPN.

Then, shortly after signing with the Heat, James proclaimed that his new team would not just win one, not two, not three . . . yeah, it’s not easy to like a guy who went out of his way to make us all think he was an arrogant, spoiled athlete, just like so many others.

Before all of that, we liked LeBron. We liked what he stood for and that he was willing to stand by a franchise – the Cleveland Cavaliers – that really didn’t have much standing for it other than James.

Yet when the discussion is about most-loathed athletes, LeBron James’ name is always among the first mentioned. He sullied a reputation quickly and, apparently, permanently.

The only thing James can do to win back his former fans, I guess, is to follow through on that championship thing. He painted himself into a corner and, fairly or unfairly, there’s only one way out. James and the Heat have to win titles. Not a title – titles.

I was a LeBron hater after that ESPN debacle. His intentions, to raise awareness for Boys and Girls Clubs, was honorable but the show came off as a long pat on the back. James kept other franchises in the dark about his decision until the last second, and when he uttered the words: “I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” most of us felt an immediate disdain for everything associated with Miami, including Jackie Gleason.

James can be his own worst enemy. He sometimes says things that should never have escaped his lips. In an effort to smooth his rough edges, he usually just ends up creating more rough edges.

But I have forgiven him and moved on. I even want James and the Heat to win a championship, although I’m not sure I want Miami to win this season’s championship. I like too many of the teams still remaining – namely Boston, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and to some degree even Indiana, the Heat’s Eastern Conference semis opponent – to pull full throttle for the Heat.

I wouldn’t be disappointed if Miami won, though. In the critical Game 4 against the Pacers, I pulled for the Heat. I was happy to see James, who takes the brunt of the criticism from the national media when things don’t go well, have a humongous game with 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists.

There’s not really much for me to like about the Heat. I’m not a fan of Pat Riley, the general manager. I respect and like Dwyane Wade, but I’m not over the moon for him. I want James to succeed because I think he’s a good person. And like many good people, I believe he sometimes doesn’t come across that way.

I appreciate his loyalty to his hometown of Akron, Ohio, even though many in his native state still and forever will feel scorned by his “Decision.”

I think he’s a solid team guy, which used to be one of the best things you could say about an athlete. Now, though, James is frequently criticized for being too much of a team guy with a reluctance to take over games when they need to be taken over.

Some of the criticism of James is warranted, but much of it is not. He did a dumb thing two years ago by taking himself much more seriously than he should have. He should have handled his free-agent decision with more aplomb and class, but he chose to go to the biggest stage. Which, I will point out, was offered to him enthusiastically by ESPN, which was looking for big ratings and got them.

I just know that watching James play basketball is an experience like no other. There have been a handful of better players than James, and his lack of championships is a resume-killer, but there has never been a player with the combination of speed, power and skill that James possesses.

These athletes are human and sometimes they don’t think as much as they should before they act. It’s one of the things that makes them like us when so much else about them bears no resemblance whatsoever.

So you who hate LeBron and will never forgive him can go about your business hoping he doesn’t win championships. That’s your choice and to some degree it’s one I understand.

But I’m moving on and accepting the greatness of LeBron James without holding his imperfections against him.

I don’t like what he did two years ago any more than anyone else. But it was two years ago and now James is the most scrutinized athlete in the world. Perhaps even the most disliked. I think it’s unfair and I hope others start to slowly find their way back to the greatest basketball player in the world.

 

Friday musings

* What’s happened to the Wichita Thunder? This was a dominant regular-season and playoff team before meeting up with the Fort Wayne Komets in the CHL Finals, but Fort Wayne has dominated the Thunder in a way I didn’t believe the Thunder could be dominated. True, injuries to Alex Bourret and goalie Adam Russo haven’t helped, to say the least, but this is a team that has prided itself on quality depth and, more importantly, toughness all season long.

* Now the Thunder finds itself down 3-0 in the best-of-seven series with Game 4 to be played Saturday night in Fort Wayne. The last two games have been blowouts, over almost immediately. There’s nothing that feels like the Thunder will be able to eek out a win in this series, which would be a difficult way to end what had been a marvelous season.

* Playoff sweeps stink, no matter whether they come in the first round or the finals. I expected more fight from this bunch. I never thought a team coached by Kevin McClelland would be pushed around like the Thunder has been pushed around by Fort Wayne.

* This curiosity about the Thunder’s plight isn’t to short-change the way Fort Wayne has played in this series. The Komets have taken it to Wichita from the very first puck-drop for Game 1 at Intrust Bank Arena. It’s been a thorough and complete domination.

* It would be a shame if the career of New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera ends like this. Rivera, for those who don’t know, suffered a torn ACL in his right knew while shagging balls during the Yankees’ batting practice session before Thursday night’s game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Rivera has been shagging fly balls for years and calls it one of his most enjoyable experiences. But at 42, and with at least a year needed to recover, it’s possible that Rivera’s career is finished.

* If it is over for Rivera, his legacy as baseball’s all-time best closer is entrenched. Rivera might be the best postseason pitcher – starter or reliever – in history. He is the game’s all-time leader in appearances (1,051), bullpen ERA (2.21), saves (608) and, believe it or not, blown saves (73).

* Sorry to hear about the passing of Adam Yauch, one of the three founding members of the Beastie Boys. He died Friday at 43 after battling cancer since 2009.

* Four contestants remain on “American Idol.” I believe Joshua Ledet and Jessica Sanchez are far and away the two most talented and should be in the finale. They could be superstar singers, in my opinion. I also think Skylar Laine and Elise Testone, eliminated in back-to-back weeks, have what it takes to be stars. I’m not so sure about Phillip Phillips, who just doesn’t connect with me. And I go back and forth with the fourth remaining singer, Hollie Cavanagh. There are times I think she’ll be star and times when I doubt she’ll even get a record deal.

* The “American Idol” tour hits Kansas City’s Sprint Center on July 12. Am I going? Let me get back to you on that. There’s a chance I will. A decent chance, because my wife always really enjoys the show. Road trip, anyone?

* Tiger Woods and Albert Pujols need to become buddies.

* As I write this, it appears Woods will miss the cut at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte after a second-round 73 on Friday and a two-day total of 144, even par. That is expected to be one shot short of making the cut and would be only the eighth time Woods has missed the cut for a PGA Tour event.

* Pujols, meanwhile, has now topped 100 at-bats for the season (104) and is still without a home run for the Los Angeles Angels. I have no idea how this is even possible for a guy who had homered once every 14.8 at-bats previously in his career. It’s way, way too early to think Pujols is in major trouble with this lack of power production, but it’s a fascinating start to his Angels career, to say the least. Pujols also has only five RBIs and has walked only six times in 26 games. And the more he denies the frustration, the more evident it becomes that it’s something he’s struggling with.

* It doesn’t help that the Angels are off to a 10-16 start after being expected to contend with the Texas Rangers in the American League West. Barely more than a month into the season, LA trails the Rangers by 7 1/2 games. That’s going to be nearly impossible to make up on what might be the best team in baseball.

* It also doesn’t help that Pujols has not been able to gain a comfort level in his new digs. Trust me, going homer-less in 26 games to start a season with a new team after signing a 10-year, $240 million deal is not comfortable. Baseball is a team game, of course, but you have to wonder what the rest of the Angels are thinking about Pujols. Sometimes, it’s what isn’t said that can drive a guy crazy.

* As a Cardinals fan, am I getting any satisfaction from Pujols’ early struggles in LA? Yes, I suppose I am. And I’m not proud of what that says about me. But I just can’t help it. I’m petty in some ways.

* Former Wingnuts right-hander Will Savage is 5-0 for the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes with a 3.34 ERA. He’s started three games and been in relief in five others. It’s always a great story when a player or pitcher who spend time in the independent leagues gets a shot at getting to the majors, and Savage could be on the cusp.

* Also good to see former Wichita State third baseman Conor Gillaspie getting an early-season promotion to the San Francisco Giants after SF third baseman Pablo Sandoval suffered an injury. Gillaspie, who was 1-for-3 in his Giants debut on Thursday, was batting .362 at Triple-A Fresno with three homers and 13 RBI. He figures to get a long look with the Giants now that Sandoval is on the shelf. Gillaspie has always been able to hit and I doubt that changes in San Francisco. Whether he’ll generate enough power to be an every-day player has always been the question for Gillaspie.

* Rumors are swirling about the possibility of Florida State and Clemson leaving the ACC for the Big 12. Those rumors are everywhere. I just did a Google search and found dozens of references, though it’s not a story that has gotten much run from major websites or publications. But it sounds like it’s something to keep your ears open about.

* You know one of the first tasks for incoming Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, formerly the athletic director at Stanford, will be to find a way to expand the conference to at least 12 teams so as to re-establish the Big 12 football championship game. Florida State and Clemson seems far-fetched. But most of the changes that have led to conference re-alignment across the country have seemed far-fetched. I’m just saying, this could happen.

Thanks for reading, everyone. And have a great early-May weekend.

 

My KSHOF ballot

One of the neatest things about my job is getting to vote on stuff.

People always ask me to vote on things and I’m a big voting guy. I want my opinion known, right or wrong. I spend hours inside the voting booth on election day, simply savoring the process. When someone asks me for their vote, I grill them for hours to make sure

I believe it's time for former Kansas State All-American Willie Murrell to be inducted into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame.

they’re worthy.

Voting is the foundation on which our country was built.

Today, I filled out my ballot for the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame. Voting and Halls of Fame are two of my favorite things in the world, and they go together so well.

Ted Hayes, the executive director of the KSHOF, is kind enough to include me among the voters. It’s not a responsibility I take lightly.

This year, there are 10 names on the ballot. Those of us who vote were asked to list our preferences, one through 10.

It’s a strong group of 10 from whom to pick. Here is the group, in alphabetical order and with a brief bio:

Michael Bishop, Kansas State quarterback, 1997-98 — Heisman Trophy winner in 1998 and winner of Davey O’Brien Award as nation’s top quarterback. Led Wildcats to 22-3 record and 15-1 mark in the Big 12.

Larry Brown, Kansas basketball coach, 1984-88 — Led KU to two Final Fours and the 1988 national championship. Finished with a 135-44 record at KU.

Kurt Budke, Salina native — Two-time national junior college coach of the year who won four national championships at Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College. Had a career junior college winning percentage of .898. Later coached Louisiana Tech to three straight NCAA tournaments and coached at Oklahoma State for seven years. He was killed in an airplane crash late in 2011 while recruiting.

Brenda Shaffer-Dahl, Washburn — A former first-team NAIA All-American, Shaffer-Dahl is Washburn’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder with 2,613 poitns and 1,106 rebounds. A Topeka native, she played high school basketball at Shawnee Heights.

David Jaynes, Kansas football — The Bonner Springs native finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1979, when he led the Jayhawks to a second-place finish in the Big Eight and a spot in the Liberty Bowl. He graduated as KU’s career leader in passing yards (5,132) and touchdown passes (35).

Harold Manning, WSU track and field — Wichita’s first national champion, Manning won the 1930 NCAA 2-mile run while setting the NCAA record with a time of 9:18.1. He is a native of Sedgwick and had a great track and field career after graduating from WSU.

Willie Murrell, Kansas State basketball — Murrell played just two seasons at K-State, but helped the Wildcats to Big Eight championships both season. Murrell averaged 22.3 points and 11.1 rebounds for Kansas State’s Final Four team in 1964 and averaged 20.6 points and 10.7 rebounds for his career.

Nicole Ohlde, Kansas State women’s basketball — Ohlde, from Clay Center, was a two-time Big 12 player of the year in 2003 and 2004 and a first-team All-American in 2004. She finished her Kansas State career as the school’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder with 2,241 points and 995 rebounds.

Wayne Simien, Kansas basketball — Simien, from Leavenworth, was a first-team All-American for the Jayhawks in 2005 and scored more than 1,500 points to go with 884 rebounds during his KU career. The Jayhawks were 110-28 during Simien’s four-year career.

David Snyder, tennis coach — Snyder, a native of Winfield, retired as one of the most successful tennis coaches in NCAA history in 2000. He led Texas and Arizona to 697 wins during a coaching career that lasted from 1959-2000. He was also a member of the state doubles team at Winfield in 1950 and won state singles championships in 1951 and 1952.

Bud Stallworth, Kansas basketball — Stallworth was the 1972 Big 8 player of the year. He averaged 25.3 points per game during his senior season, still the fifth-highest mark in KU history. Stallworth scored 50 points against Missouri in his final game at Allen Fieldhouse.

Brenda Stolle, Emporia State softball — Stollen was the national softball player of the year in 1981 and a two-time All-American pitcher. She led Emporia State to an AIAW national championship in 1980 and was 66-15 during her career with a 0.33 ERA.

Good list, isn’t it?

Here is my top 10:

1. Willie Murrell

2. Michael Bishop

3. Wayne Simien

4. Harold Manning

5. Larry Brown

6. Nicole Ohlde

7. David Jaynes

8. Bud Stallworth

9. Brenda Shaffer-Dahl

10. Brenda Stolle

What do you think? Where am I wrong? I’m curious as to your thoughts.

Thanks for reading.

 

Some NBA questions

It’s playoff time in the NBA, the only time when the NBA really matters to me.

I’m especially looking forward to some second-round match-ups in the Western Conference, but some of these first-round series are compelling.

Here are my Top 10 postseason questions moving forward:

Is San Antonio for real?

What a ridiculous question, on the surface. The Spurs tied Chicago for the best record in the NBA during the regular season at 50-16.

Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs are my pick to win the NBA championship. But there's a long way to go.

They’re almost unbeatable at home and were the hottest team in the league going into the playoffs. But last year, SA was unceremoniously dumped in the first round by the Memphis Grizzlies after compiling the league’s best regular-season mark. It’s an older team, although the sprinkling of youth the Spurs have mixed in with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. This is a much deeper team than the one that lost early last season. I think San Antonio has as much a chance of winning a championship as any other team with the possible exception of Miami. And Gregg Popovich is one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. I challenge you to dispute me on that.

Is Miami this good?

 The Heat are one of those teams that can sleep-walk a bit during the regular season, making you wonder if all the great parts really add up to a championship-caliber team. But, finally, LeBron, Dwyane and (to a much lesser extent) Chris look capable of bringing a championship to South Beach. Miami has manhandled a mystified New York Knicks team so far in the first round, building a 2-0 lead. And with Derrick Rose injured in Chicago and the Boston Celtics getting older by the breath, it looks like Miami has clear sailing to the Finals. But we all know clear sailing can quickly turn turbulent. But it looks like the Heat are focused on winning a championship and that a good-but-not-great regular season is in their rear-view mirror.

Which of the underdogs could make a run?

Tough one. I suppose Philadelphia has a chance against the Rose-less Bulls, even though the 76ers are down 1-0 in that series going into tonight’s Game 2. I don’t sense a lot of upsets in the first round, though. Do you consider Atlanta to be an underdog to Boston? Seeding suggests that isn’t the case. But Atlanta’s not a team I take seriously at playoff time. The Hawks have a way of under-achieving. I would love to see Denver make a series of it with the Los Angeles Lakers. I think Dallas is an underdog in its series against Oklahoma City, although the Mavericks are the defending NBA champion and made Games 1 and 2 difficult for the Thunder in OKC.

What is Amar’e Stoudamire thinking?

Clearly, he’s not. I don’t give the Knicks much of a chance to come back in their East series with Miami. But thanks to Stoudamire’s bone-headed decision to punch a glass case that housed a fire extinguisher after a Game 2 loss on Monday night, any chance the Knicks have has been, well, extinguished. Way to think of your team, Amar’e.

Did the LA Clippers really come back from 27 points down to beat Memphis?

Yes, that really happened. I didn’t see it with my own eyes, because when I saw the Grizzlies leading by 20-plus points in the fourth quarter, I went to bed. This looked like the most entertaining of all the first-round match-ups going in and Game 1 certainly didn’t disappoint. I think this will go seven games. I think it’ll be a lot of fun. It’s great that the Clippers and Grizzlies are playing one another. I love this series.

Does Boston have one more run?

Down 1-0 to Atlanta and without spark plug point guard Rajon Rondo in Game 2, the easy answer is “no.” And that’s also probably the right answer. I think the Celtics have finally hit the wall, even though the Hawks or another team will have to stab this proud, veteran team in the heart to get them to die. Any team with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rondo – as long as he’s not bumping officials – is going to be difficult to beat.

Why, Bob, don’t you like the LA Lakers?

I kind of grapple with this one. I guess it goes back to the great Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 1980s when Larry Bird, my guy, battled Magic Johnson, their guy. I’ve grown to love Magic, but at the time I was against everything the Lakers stood for. I suppose I haven’t been able to let that go. And let’s be real here, it’s not easy to love a team that Andrew Bynum plays for. The guy’s a child, in my opinion. A very big child who can really rebound. I do respect Kobe Bryant and consider him one of the top 10 players of all-time. But I don’t care for Pau Gasol and I think Meta World Peace is a joke.

Is there a real dark horse to win it all?

Does Indiana count? Can a 3-seed in the East be a dark horse? I think so and since this is my blog, I’m making the rules. I was shocked that the Pacers lost Game 1 at home to a Dwight Howard-less Orlando Magic team. And the Pacers struggled some with Orlando in Game 2 before taking charge. I’m guessing most people, even NBA fans, can’t name more than two or three players on the Pacers. But it’s a team I kind of like, again probably more for the association with Larry Bird, the general manager, than anything else. I do think Danny Granger, David West, Roy Hibbert and Paul George – that’s four players, somebody stop me – are a nice foundation. And the Pacers have a bunch of other guys who can contribute. I think Indiana might be heard from.

Who do you like in the Finals?

Oklahoma City is a sexy pick in the West, but I don’t think the Thunder is there yet. OKC isn’t good enough in the half-court to win a title, I don’t believe. I think the Spurs and Lakers will meet in the Western Conference finals, with San Antonio winning in seven games. In the East, it looks like a Miami walk in the park. Can any other team in the East get in the Heat’s way? Chicago can’t, not without its best player. Boston can’t. Indiana? Atlanta? Oh, who am I kidding. It’s a Miami-San Antonio Finals.

OK, then, so who wins?

Gotta be the Heat, right? Not necessarily. I think San Antonio matches up well with Miami, although I’m not sure the Spurs have an answer for James and Wade. But who does? This would be a fantastic series, one that I could easily see going seven games. Since San Antonio would have the home-court advantage, how can I pick against the Spurs? Yet I’m hesitating. I’m doubting. I’m thinking too much, to the point of making myself queasy. Can I really pick San Antonio? Sure, why not? Spurs in seven.

Thanks for reading.