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The Diamondbacks’ Cowardly Stupidity, and Kirk Gibson’s Vigilante Justice

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Kirk Gibson rounds the bases after hitting a walk-off homer in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. (Getty Images)

Kirk Gibson rounds the bases after his homer won Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. (Getty Images)

There are probably more famous home runs than the one that ended Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, but you’d only need a few of the digits on Kirk Gibson’s celebratory raised fist to count them.

Gibson won the ’88 NL MVP – somehow – but his pinch-hit two-run homer off Dennis Eckersley, which came as he was battling injuries to his hamstring and knee along with a stomach virus, made him a legend.

It was a narrative that was easy to love. The limping, battered star, down to his last strike and his team’s last out, taking the future Hall of Fame closer deep on the biggest October stage possible. Couldn’t get any bigger. Couldn’t get any better. Gibson, for at least that one moment that’s etched above almost all others in baseball lore, was a superhero.

In 2014, he’s a jackass. Just one of a few at the head of the snake in what’s become a truly pathetic Diamondbacks organization.

The steely-eyed glare of revenge. (AZCentral.com)

The steely-eyed glare of revenge. (AZCentral.com)

Call Gibson what you want – a heel, a meathead, a Neanderthal. The most accurate descriptor is almost certainly vigilante, since there’s apparently one thing that matters to Ol’ Gibby and the despicable club for which he manages: doling out justice for perceived slights and following baseball’s idiotic, hilariously anachronistic code.

Let’s run down the crown jewel of Gibson’s buffoonery, an encyclopedia of acts which – unlike his iconic homer’s place in history – require each finger on both hands of every child in an above average-sized middle school to properly document.

The scene of his latest crime was Phoenix’s Chase Field, spread out over three days last weekend but all stemming from the bottom of the ninth inning Friday. The Pirates, trailing 4-1 through seven innings, scored three runs in the eight and five in the ninth, allowing manager Clint Hurdle to eschew using closer Mark Melancon in favor of human batting practice machine Ernesto Frieri.

Frieri, you must understand, has no idea where the ball is going when it leaves his hand. That’s what led to the Los Angeles Angels – owners of baseball’s second-best record – giving up on him and shipping him to Pittsburgh for fellow relief cast-off Jason Grilli just a month earlier despite his propensity for being able to strike people out. Problem is, if you’re not whiffing against Frieri, odds are you’re depositing a ball somewhere between the outfield fence and three zip codes away. As of this writing, there were 1,035 pitchers over the past three seasons to log at least 40 innings. And 1,034 of them gave up fewer homers per nine innings than Frieri’s 2.38 in 2014.

"You know that pitch you throw that always winds up in the seats? Don't throw that one." (AP)

“You know that pitch that always winds up in the seats? Don’t throw that one.” (AP)

So it came as no surprise that Frieri, trying to establish the inside part of the plate against Paul Goldschmidt – a man with more homers since the start of 2013 than any player in the National League – would wind up plunking Goldschmidt on his hand. Not intentional in the slightest, simply a guy who struggles with his control trying to back a very good power hitter off the plate a bit.

Gibson now makes his living sitting in the Diamondbacks’ dugout looking for people to fight, which is a pastime that looks more and more appealing with every mounting loss during a 162-game baseball season. And he wasn’t happy with Frieri, nor was first-base coach Dave McKay, who barked at Pirates catcher Russell Martin at the end of Pittsburgh’s 9-4 win as Martin tried to explain that the pitch lacked any sort of intent.

Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero was also enraged, but the one player on that side who seemed to have a good handle of the situation was the man who got hit. “The guy’s trying to get outs,” Goldschmidt said. “What do you want him to do, throw it down the middle? They pitch inside as a team. We do too. We want our pitchers to be able to pitch inside. Obviously you don’t want to see anyone get hurt.

“It’s part of the game, being hit. I’m going to stay positive and think it’ll be OK.”

Unfortunately for Goldschmidt, it wasn’t. Arizona found out Saturday that its first baseman, who finished second in last season’s NL MVP voting, had a broken bone and was out for the season.

“The guy’s trying to get outs,” Goldschmidt said. “What do you want him to do, throw it down the middle?”

That diagnosis, however, had nothing to do with what happened Saturday. Ol’ Gibby and his dunce of a boss, general manager Kevin Towers, believe in an eye for an eye. “You hit our best guy, we hit yours!” “Baseball’s code must be upheld!” Whether Goldschmidt grew a sixth finger from Frieri’s stinger or had his entire left arm explode into a million pieces, the response was going to be the same.

Why do we know this for certain? Only because Towers said EXACTLY that in October.

“Not that I don’t take any of our guys from a lesser standpoint, but if Goldy’s getting hit, it’s an eye for an eye, somebody’s going down or somebody’s going to get jackknifed.”

"Sure, I'll admit that I condone violence. How many quotes do you need?" (Getty)

“Sure, I’ll admit that I condone violence. How many quotes do you need?” (Getty)

So we have a general manager of a Major League Baseball team on record that his entire organizational philosophy stems around retaliation, and he may intend to do so by luring them into a large vehicle with an attached trailer.

Only in this case, that retaliation didn’t happen right away. Reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen walked in the first inning Saturday, grounded out in the third, had an infield single in the sixth and another in the eighth before stepping to the plate in the ninth with the Pirates up 5-1. Gibson was long gone by this point, ejected after the second inning for excessively disputing a replay review. But hitting the showers early never is a reason for a manager to not convey his message. He wanted to avenge Goldschmidt.

And he did in the most cowardly way possible. Rather than going after McCutchen in the first inning of a scoreless game – which still would have been knuckleheadness of the highest order, but at least in line with baseball’s idiotic “code” – the Diamondbacks hit him down four runs in the ninth, with the game all but settled, and on a 2-0 pitch. McCutchen had a good idea when he stepped in earlier that he might wear one, but there’s no bracing for a beanball to the back after seeing two balls away from the strike zone.

That looks like it may hurt. (AZCentral.com)

That looks like it may hurt. (AZCentral.com)

“It got away,” was Gibson’s retort from the clubhouse afterward, three words that might as well wind up in quotes on his tombstone. They’re the same ones he said when Ian Kennedy nearly decapitated Yasiel Puig and Zack Greinke last June, moments that made the Dodgers’ decision to jump in the Chase Field pool to celebrate their NL West title that September even sweeter.

They’re the same words Gibson muttered on May 17, the date he chose to have reliever Evan Marshall throw at Ryan Braun. Sure, two Diamondbacks had been hit earlier by Kyle Lohse, but Gibson also happened to be wildly critical of Braun’s two positive PED tests, the first of which – surprise! – was revealed shortly after the Brewers knocked the Diamondbacks out in a 2011 division series. So Braun got hit in a game Arizona led by two runs in the 7th inning and, just like with the McCutchen incident, the HBP loaded the bases. Who needs the intentional walk when you can bean someone with a baseball at 95 mph?!? That one, of course, became even more moronic when Jonathan Lucroy hit a grand slam on the very next pitch.

But Braun and McCutchen aren’t the only superstars to have felt the Diamondbacks’ petulant wrath. In March, Rockies minor leaguer Tommy Kahnle hit Mark Trumbo in the back with a fastball during a spring training game. For anyone to think this was intentional would be absurd for exactly two reasons: 1) Kahnle was trying to make the major league club, which you generally don’t do by hitting folks, and 2) Trumbo makes an out more than 70 percent of the time, making him, in theory, an easy out to get.

No matter. The Diamondbacks weren’t going to take it. Wade Miley responded by throwing at the perpetually injured Troy Tulowitzki, hitting him in the calf.

Lest you think Arizona’s culture of horseshit is limited to Gibson and Towers, one of baseball’s legendary managers is here to assure you that’s not the case. Tony La Russa, who has the title of chief baseball officer for the NL’s 13th-best team, came to his club’s defense Tuesday in the most asinine way possible: by condemning the inside pitch.

"You can only throw the ball between my left hand and my right hand." (AZCentral.com)

“You can only throw the ball between my left hand and my right hand.” (AZCentral.com)

La Russa points to the fact that the Pirates have hit more batters than anyone in the majors, which deserves a bit of context. Nearly a third of those 61 have come from sinker-baller Charlie Morton, and a majority of Morton’s have come on a curveball that can seemingly dip and dive like an errant John Daly drive upon leaving his hand. I can assure you that Charlie Morton is not throwing at people, and that Charlie Morton is not hurting the folks he hits with a curve that average 78 mph.

(This is not to say the Pirates are completely above throwing at people. Justin Wilson was rightfully ejected after hitting Dodgers shortstop Justin Turner on July 22, one inning after Jamey Wright plunked McCutchen in the shoulder. It was stupid, Hurdle also got tossed, and Adrian Gonzalez hit a two-run homer immediately after. Winning the game > machismo, always and forever.)

But not 24 hours after La Russa railed on throwing high and inside, his GM immediately contradicted him. “If you don’t pitch inside effectively, you’re going to have poor results,” Towers told 98.7 FM in Phoenix while also claiming that the Diamondbacks “are not a dirty organization at all.”

He wasn’t done spewing stupidity.

“With social media and what happens nowadays – 20 years ago, this wouldn’t be a story,” he said. “Now, it blows like wildfire and it goes crazy.

“But I think the one thing we all need to remember is baseball is a dangerous game. I think a lot of people think it’s vanilla. I mean, the game can be very dangerous and I think we need to remind ourselves that guys are throwing the ball 95 and 96 miles per hour across the plate and guys are leaning over the plate, guys are going to get hit and it can be very, very dangerous.”

It’s a story because the coverage of the sport that has made you a very rich man is now vast enough that dolts like yourself have to be held accountable, Kev. Baseball is a petting zoo compared to the shark tanks of terror known as football and hockey, where concussions are happening at a far-too frequent rate due to nothing more than simply playing the game. No one is getting a serious injury in baseball by just stepping into the batter’s box unless the guy in charge of throwing the baseball is told to use it as a weapon.

The coda to all of this, of course, is that McCutchen exited Sunday’s game with an injury that on Tuesday was revealed to be an avulsion fracture of the 11th rib. And guess where the 11th rib just so happens to be located?

rib cage

cutch

It’s unclear how long McCutchen will miss and how much the Pirates’ playoff chances may suffer as a result, but that’s not the point here. It doesn’t matter if he was perfectly fine even after being pegged in the back due to a sick need to stick to a ridiculously antiquated code.

What’s perfectly clear is that Gibson, Towers and La Russa can’t be allowed to continue playing Batman to police what they believe is a rogues gallery of pitchers, managers and superstars whom they feel must pay for their “misdeeds.” Let Major League Baseball play the role of judge, jury and executioner in meting out punishment.

It can start by hitting everyone associated with the Diamondbacks’ clown show as hard as they chose to hit McCutchen.

Eye for an eye.

The Cavs, Andrew Wiggins and Love That Must Go Unrequited

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kevin love 1

You know what happens when you go to the grocery store hungry?

You arrive with good intentions. You’re there to pick up a few ingredients to throw in that jambalaya you’ve been dying to make ever since you saw Emeril “bam!” his way through the motions on the Cooking Channel a few weeks ago. You like the way the HD captures the close-up look of his flared nostrils when he gets excited about garlic. You finally set aside an afternoon to clean the shrimp, peel the onions, make homemade chicken stock and just generally kick things up a notch.

But to get to the seafood counter and produce and poultry, you have to walk through the bakery. And man, that German chocolate cake looks good. Oh, is that the rotisserie? Wow, they’re roasting whole pork loins on there now? Hey, look, it’s the deli counter! Are those … are those miniature croque monsieurs they’re handing out to shoppers? You don’t mind if I take two? Or three? Of course, ma’am, I’ll be happy to wash those down with a blueberry passion fruit acai peach smoothie that contains enough antioxidants to fell a rhinoceros and is spiked with a little bit of your premium tequila!

Screw the jambalaya. You can make it tomorrow. Or the next day. What matters is you were hungry, and now you’re not. It’s not important that the brioche and pig and gruyere and that buttery, fattening, highly caloric rich, velvety cake and random alien berries and rogue liquor are all floating around in your stomach.

You rolled the dice on glory and gluttony. And the fact that you spent the next 24 hours unable to emerge from the fetal position with a bucket an arm’s length away proves it might not have been the best idea.

Were those first few bites worth it?

*****

One of these men enjoys playing defense. He's not the one with the ball. (USA Today Sports Images)

One of these men enjoys playing defense. He’s not the one with the ball. (USA Today Sports Images)

Kevin Love is not a decadent ham sandwich (though if he were, he would certainly be the Jamón ibérico). He’s a basketball player who is, without question, one of the five or 10 best players in the NBA – an outstanding scorer, a practically unparalleled rebounder, an underrated passer and a phenomenally skilled shooter for someone who stands 6-foot-10.

After the initial shock of LeBron James’ return to the Cavaliers died down, the logical next question was “How can this team compete RIGHT FREAKING NOW?” LeBron is 29, at the peak of his prime, but he has some serious miles on those tires that have been running non-stop since he was 18. Sometime in the first quarter of the first game of his second stint in Cleveland, he’ll pass the 40,000 minute mark – playoffs included – for his career. Only two players, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone, have ever topped 60,000. He’s already played more minutes than Isiah Thomas, Dikembe Mutombo and Elgin Baylor. Sometime before Christmas, he’ll pass Allen Iverson and Magic Johnson. He’ll catch Larry Bird shortly after the new year. The two biggest preps-to-pros stars other than James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, are just north of the 54,000-minute mark. Kobe is coming off a torn Achilles tendon and a fractured knee, will be 36 by the time training camp starts and doesn’t seem to have much left. Garnett was pronounced legally dead sometime in late February.

Those precedents would figure to give LeBron, averaging 3,500 minutes per season including what figures to be fairly deep playoff runs, about five more solid years before he hits a wall. But he’s also a completely unique athletic freak of a specimen who has never missed more than seven games in a season. Think back to the most serious injury he’s suffered in his career. Tough, huh? It probably had something to do with this.

Love will be 26 when the 2014-15 season begins. He’s logged 11,933 regular-season minutes in the NBA and 11,933 total minutes because he’s never made the playoffs. That’s not a knock on the first guy to average 26-12-4 since Abdul-Jabbar and Bob McAdoo in 1975-76. The best teammate in his seven NBA seasons has been Al Jefferson, for the first two. The second is either Nikola Pekovic or Ricky Rubio. Fourth and fifth, in all seriousness, are probably Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea. Umm…

The concept of a Big Three worked out pretty well for James in Miami. Two championships, four Finals appearances surrounded with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh surrounded by a revolving door of young, inexpensive role players and past-their-prime veterans chasing rings. It just didn’t look particularly promising once Wade and Bosh’s age began to show a bit, and LeBron got out as soon as possible when it did.

The idea sounds great, in theory. Kyrie Irving just signed a five-year extension worth $90 million. He’s 22 and the reigning All-Star Game MVP. LeBron, for all the overwrought calamity drummed up when he ONLY agreed to two-year deal with Cleveland – and with an OPT OUT! – is around for the long haul, according to sources named LeBron James. Throw in Love and there’s a younger, spryer Big Three for James to mold into a championship club.

Love is heading into the third year of a four-year contract that can pay him up to $62 million, but he can opt out after this season and become an unrestricted free agent. He’s made no secret of his desire to get out of Minnesota, and while prevailing wisdom is that the West Coast native had a strong interest in playing somewhere in California, he’s reportedly intrigued by the idea of teaming up with James and Irving on a team that would instantly be the favorite in the Eastern Conference.

The Timberwolves would be fools to let Love walk at the end of next season, so sometime between now and the Feb. 19 trade deadline, he’s going somewhere.

As long as the cost is Andrew Wiggins, though, it shouldn’t be Cleveland. Let’s run down the reasons why trading the No. 1 overall pick from an absolutely loaded draft that happened 27 days ago shouldn’t happen.

That smiles fades quickly if Wiggins goes from playing with LeBron and Kyrie to Rubio and Mbah A Moute. (USTSI)

That smile? Probably gone if LeBron and Kyrie become Rubio and Mbah A Moute. (USTSI)

1. ) The Timberwolves don’t have much leverage – and it’s dwindling by the day

Golden State is the other known, serious suitor for Love, and, like Minnesota’s apparent requirement that Wiggins be included in a deal with the Cavs, the Timberwolves want Klay Thompson as part of a Warriors package or else that’s seemingly a no-go. Golden State hasn’t budged, but it has much more reason to do so than Cleveland. Thompson, currently in the final guaranteed season of his rookie contract, is eligible for an extension after next season and wants a max deal that would start at $15.7 million – not far behind what Love would get paid in his new deal. While Thompson is one of the league’s better shooting guards in a league severely lacking at the position, the looming prospect of that hefty extension makes him much more palatable to give up.

The Cavs control Wiggins for the next four years at a total of approximately $22 million. No team has a more valuable asset that it would realistically be willing to offer for Love, and that won’t change in the next seven months. Cleveland can pull out that trump card if it wants, but there’s really no need to. The closer this gets to February, the better a package of Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett and one or two first-round picks will look to Minnesota. Is it fair value for Love? No. Is 65 cents on the dollar the best the Timberwolves can hope for the longer this goes? Almost certainly.

2.) Defense

The last eight NBA champions ranked in the top seven in defensive efficiency, and you have to go back to the 2000-01 Lakers to find a team that finished outside the top 10. “Defense wins championships” is a cliché in the NFL, but it’s absolutely true in the NBA. Scoring has spiked in the NFL playoffs by an average of 4.5 points in the last five years compared to the 16-game season. You have to go back 12 years in the NBA to find the last time an average playoff game featured more points than one in the regular season.

This isn’t exactly breaking news, but Love is a below-average defensive player. There were 108 players who faced at least four shots per game at the rim in 2013-14, and Love’s opponents had the fourth-highest field-goal percentage (57.5) of that bunch. Defensive metrics are still very incomplete, but you don’t need numbers to tell you that Love doesn’t rotate well, provides nothing in the way of rim protection and often seems solely concerned with being in position to rebound.

Wiggins was a defensive stud in his one season at Kansas and was impressive in his four summer league (I know, I know, SUMMER LEAGUE) games with the Cavs, who badly need a defensive presence on the perimeter. Sure, LeBron will help in that regard, but remember that whole “miles on the tires” thing? Forcing him to stay in front of the John Walls and Derrick Roses of the world in crunch time and spending 35 minutes a night on the likes of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony is not a way to prolong a career. The trickle-down effect with Wiggins will be palpable. His presence not only gives James a breather on an opposing team’s best perimeter scorer, but he can rescue the defensively challenged Irving from having to stay in front of some of the league’s best ball-handlers as well. Cleveland’s defensive efficiency rankings since James left in 2010: 29, 26, 26, 18. His return alone won’t make the Cavaliers a top-10 defensive club immediately, but with Wiggins providing some help, they might get there.

3.) Flexibility

Give up Wiggins for Love and your Big Three is set in stone, assuming Love signs a long-term extension starting at around $20M per year next offseason. That would put the Cavs on the books for nearly $60M committed to just Irving, Love and James in 2015-16, a year in which the salary cap is expected to be around $67M. That number is expected to rise above $80M once money from a new TV deal starts coming in a year later, but Love and James’ salaries could be significantly higher than $20Mish apiece if they continue to choose short-term deals.

Keep Wiggins and the Cavs might even be able to carve out enough space to add a big free agent next offseason in a class that includes Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and, likely, Love himself. If I can trot out Irving, Wiggins, James and one of those three big guys, I’m willing to fill in most of the rest of my roster with guys on veteran minimums chasing rings.

4.) Patience

Two months ago, the Cavs were coming off their fourth straight season finishing well below .500, had legitimate questions about Irving’s long-term future with the franchise, had just watched their other No. 1 overall pick loaf through a disastrous rookie season, had no indication James was serious about returning and were looking at getting the No. 9 pick in the draft. Now Irving is locked up long term, Bennett is in shape and looked like a legitimate NBA rotation player in Summer League (I know, I know), James is back and Cleveland lucked into another No. 1 overall pick and a guy who was one of the most hyped players to enter the draft since James 11 years earlier.

Don’t the Cavs owe it to themselves to watch the pieces they have, even if just for 40 or 50 games? To see what kind of effect James has on Wiggins, Bennett, Thompson and Irving. To see if Wiggins is ready to contribute to a contender now or if he’s really two or three years away from making a big impact. Aside from suffering a serious injury, Wiggins’ stock isn’t going to plummet by the trade deadline. If he plays well, it goes up. If he struggles somewhat, he’s 19.

5.) Bidding against themselves

If Minnesota decides to move Love elsewhere between now and then, it’s not getting a piece that’s more attractive than Wiggins. And if it does deal him, the Cavs should be thankful they didn’t overpay for a player whom the Timberwolves were going to see walk at the end of next season.

The absolute latest rumors surrounding Love have the Bulls entering the mix with a package that includes Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler – fine players, but yawn – and the Nuggets being a possible suitor as well. Denver has nothing on its roster that should be even remotely compelling to Minnesota save for rookie Gary Harris, who would only be one of a few pieces needed to get anything going.

On Monday, the stance was held that the Cavs had not offered Wiggins. On Tuesday, according to some of the most connected national reporters around the league, they all of a sudden were. Sounds to me like the Timberwolves trying to drum up that fleeting leverage that we covered earlier.

Again, look at the suitors. Golden State’s best offer involves David Lee’s albatross contract and Harrison Barnes. Gibson is a solid role player, but he’s 29 and finished 30th in PER last season – among power forwards(!). Butler is a fine defender on the perimeter, but he’s also a shooting guard who can’t shoot. Below is a list of players who shot less than 40 percent over a full season and averaged at least 13 points in the past five years. Butler may need to change his name to JaBrandon Crawfings with a few more of these.

jimmy butler

The Nuggets have nothing but spare parts, most of which are highly paid. The Celtics have a boatload of draft picks, but so do the Cavs. Minnesota president/coach Flip Saunders is said to want to acquire pieces to help the team win now should it trade Love, which, in the Western Conference, sounds about as improbable as losing your hair, gaining 50 pounds and then beating a bunch of 27-year-old hedge fund managers who moonlight as romance novel cover boys on The Bachelor.

You don’t offer Channing Tatum when everyone else is coming to the table with David Koechner.

*****

kevin love 2

James isn’t going anywhere. The Cavs fell ass backwards into the services of the best player on Earth and one of the most promising players to enter in the league in the last decade. James figures to age better than Bryant and Garnett, but that’s even more likely to be true if he’s surrounded by a young, talented core that can pick him up and limit his regular-season minutes when he’s 32, 33, 34.

This team can contend for a championship as it’s currently constructed, and although it probably won’t win one in Year One, that’s OK. The Cavs will have a season to see what they need, and then the resources to go out and plug those holes.

Does trading Wiggins, Bennett and draft picks for Love make them a team with a considerably better chance of winning the 2015 NBA title? Probably not. Cleveland is arguably the favorite to win the East as is, and adding Love at the expense of those two isn’t likely to tilt the scales in its favor against whichever team emerges from the West.

Let this play out. Let those flavors meld together. That immediate hunger will subside once you get a look at what’s simmering.

It’s easy to go for the quick fix in a city that hasn’t experienced a championship since the same year the Beatles came to America. It’s just not necessary.

Sometimes, you just have to wise up and listen to Meatloaf.

 

Summer Sequel Starring LeBron Has Everyone Sucked In

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lebron1

The summer blockbuster isn’t dead, but there’s no Jaws, Jurassic Park, Star Wars or The Dark Knight flying into a theater near you in 2014. Our highest-grossing film is the third X-Men entry in the past four summers. Tom Cruise is starring in a well-reviewed action flick that finished $20 million behind a tearjerker about a cancer-stricken teenage amputee on its opening weekend.

Fortunately, there’s an even better avenue for entertainment if you’re into explosions, fantastic drama and money essentially being lit on fire. If sequels are your thing – and who ISN’T excited about The Expendables 3? – even better.

NBA free agency has been more compelling than its six-month regular season for a while, but when LeBron James is the centerpiece for the second time in four summers, it becomes a whole different animal. Superstars equal titles in the NBA far more than any other sport, and with the biggest one of all threatening to alter the league’s landscape again, it’s no wonder the rumors, sources and speculation of the sport’s insiders are spiraling out of control.

But, as Ian Darke so eloquently crowed after Landon Donovan’s stoppage-time goal that propelled the United States to the Round of 16 in the 2010 World Cup … you could not WRITE a script like this.

You know the background by now. Northeast Ohio boy drafted by local team, becomes two-time MVP, game’s most dominant force, global icon, can’t win city’s first championship in half-century, leaves for greener pastures in poorly designed, nationally televised display of narcissism, owner of local team pens childish letter of betrayal in childish font, ties severed for good.

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Two titles and four Finals later, he’s back on the market. And Cleveland, with the fewest wins in the league since James’ departure, is stunningly a frontrunner for a reunion that I dare say would be even more unlikely than Cory and Topanga getting back together.

Setting aside owner Dan Gilbert’s comic sans charade and Cavaliers fans – myself included – being quick to judge James as Mata Hari, the return would make sense on a number of levels. James has made no secret of his fondness for the area in which he was raised, and maintains a mansion in an Akron suburb. His wife, apparently allergic to the sun, ocean and drinks with umbrellas, apparently prefers Northeast Ohio to South Florida.

Most importantly, the Heat have little flexibility. The cracks began to surface in their NBA Finals no-show against the Spurs. Dwyane Wade isn’t getting new knees, and while a roster returning James, Wade, Chris Bosh and some spare parts may be favored to get out of the East, Miami would likely be swallowed up in subsequent Finals against five or six superior clubs from the West.

James and Kyrie Irving (USA Today Sports)

James and Kyrie Irving (USA Today Sports)

The Cavaliers have lucked into three No. 1 overall picks in the past four years, and can offer a core of Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, an offensive innovator in new coach David Blatt and a cache of draft picks and young, tradeable assets. Might some combination of Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett and picks be enough for Minnesota to let go of an unhappy Kevin Love? If James climbs aboard and Love lets it be known he’d actually want to play in Cleveland, the Timberwolves may have little choice but to comply.

But that’s all speculation grounded in some realm of logic. Let’s lay out exactly why NOTHING is more entertaining than NBA free agency. With James as the star, Bosh, Wade, Anthony as the supporting characters and Marcin Gortat, Kyle Lowry and Trevor Ariza lurking in the shadows, the following developments are what, in the past five days, have turned a James return from unlikely to possible. WARNING: Surprising levels of hilarity ahead.

Let’s start Thursday with a tweet from Cleveland sports radio personality Joe Lull.

Now let’s take a massive leap to one Friday from rapper and record producer Q-Tip, late of A Tribe Called Quest.

Is this getting crazy yet? No? How about this from a Cleveland-area personal trainer.

Or this, from someone within the Cavs’ marketing wing?

Now we’re on to Saturday, and a tweet from former Cleveland radio personality Kendall Lewis.

Then, perhaps in the ultimate sign that the apocalypse was indeed upon us, a Cleveland-area cupcake shop weighed in.

On Sunday, word broke of Gilbert’s private plane heading to South Florida, and predictably, Twitter connected the dots. Gilbert was on his way to make amends with LeBron, until he tweeted that he was enjoying the weather in his backyard in Michigan. Hmmm. No worries, the plane still arrived with general manager David Griffin and Cav-turned-Heat-turned-Cavs liaison Zydrunas Ilgauskas, surely there to bring James back home.

Until that, also, was debunked Monday afternoon.

Nonetheless, the whispers and angling and sourcing and silliness among those, um, LOOSELY connected to James were in full motion. We’d yet to hear from any of the key newsbreakers on the possibility of a James return drawing closer. Until …

The news cycle continued late Sunday night and Monday. USA Today reported that James was set to meet with Pat Riley this week to discuss his decision, and possibly, as Brian Windhorst speculated, to tell him he’d made one. Adrian Wojnarowski, the demigod of breaking NBA news, floated the possibility that James’ agent was pushing the prospect of LeBron-to-Cleveland Part II.

Later Monday, we learned the Heat – quiet up until now with Wade and Bosh non-committal about what salary cut they’ll accept to stay – agreed to deals with Josh McRoberts and a seemingly washed-up Danny Granger. It’s unclear if those were Riley’s desperation moves to keep James in an effort to recreate the 2010-11 Indiana Pacers roster – 37-45! – or merely the first transactions in a world in which he isn’t operating with the game’s biggest star.

By the time you read this, there certainly will be more layers off the onion. Perhaps Anthony will sign with the Lakers or return to the Knicks. Maybe Bosh jumps ship and takes the Rockets’ max offer of four years and $88 million. Gilbert’s plane could be dispatched to Canada to pick up Justin Bieber and Drake in one last-bit recruiting effort. Clam the psychic World Cup-prognosticating clam might make a prediction on where James will land.

I’ll join our bivalve buddy with one of my own: Whatever decision James makes will be better than your wasting $8 on 165 more minutes of Transformers.

Giving The NHL Playoffs The Oscar Treatment

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scarjo

For anyone who saw the outstanding Spike Jonze-directed movie Her at some point during this unending winter, there were a lot of things that made it an Oscar contender.

The futuristic yet not unrealistic setting, the fascinating questions about where human relationships are headed, the wardrobe choices – I’m looking at you, high-waisted pants – and Joaquin Phoenix’s subtly vulnerable performance were all captivating in their own right.

But nothing was quite as attention-grabbing as that voice. The sultry tone of Samantha, the operating system that made Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly begin to fall in love, was captivating enough to make even the audience forget it was actually coming from a computer.

The voice, that voice, was famously Scarlett Johansson’s, but you know whose it was supposed to be? Samantha Morton’s. Fine actress, Academy Award nominee, probably a nice person, but little more than your run-of-the-mill British accent.

Jonze brought Johansson in during the post-production process and, though no footage or audio seems to have been released with Morton voicing Samantha, the decision completely changed the experience viewing and hearing the movie. It’s a good flick if Morton’s is the voice you’re hearing Phoenix banter with for two hours, but the switch to Johansson made it borderline great.

The NHL regular season is a pleasant, satisfying Samantha Morton – always comforting, occasionally wonderful.

The NHL playoffs are ScarJo.

Steven Stamkos now has two healthy legs on which to celebrate. (Getty Images)

Steven Stamkos now has two healthy legs on which to celebrate. (Getty Images)

There’s a lot of playoff analysis and regular-season award chatter around this time, but instead of simply breaking down the first round or delving into who should win the Calder and Hart trophies, why not combine some postseason prognostications with a bit of talk about which individual hockey hardware belongs where?

Without further ado, Checking The Score presents … the NHL playoff Oscars as we head into the best postseason in sports.

8.) Best Writing – Adapted Screenplay

And the Oscar goes to … the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens.

Steven Stamkos missed 45 games with a broken leg and the relationship between GM Steve Yzerman and franchise mainstay Martin St. Louis was so damaged that St. Louis wound up being dealt to the New York Rangers. Yet here’s Tampa Bay, with 100 points and home-ice advantage against Montreal. Ondrej Palat, Valtteri Filppula, Tyler Johnson, Teddy Purcell and Alex Killorn stepped up in Stamkos’ absence and Ryan Callahan – over from the Rangers in the St. Louis trade – became a positive presence after a somewhat difficult start. The Lightning’s biggest adaptation, however, may be yet to come. Vezina Trophy candidate Ben Bishop has a sore elbow and won’t play in Wednesday’s Game 1, leaving backup Anders Lindback and his woeful .891 save percentage to start. The Canadiens, meanwhile, have gone from a team that relied too heavily on balance in 2012-13 – no consistent goal scorers, too much pressure on an inconsistent Carey Price – to one that has two stud scorers and a completely confident Price between the pipes. Max Pacioretty finished fourth in the league with 39 goals and Thomas Vanek had 15 points in 18 games after coming over for basically nothing from the New York Islanders at the trade deadline. It’s Price, though, who may make the biggest difference. He’s 12-4-1 with a .945 save percentage since Jan. 28 – and oh, by the way, he led Canada to Olympic gold in that stretch as well.

Post-Oscar buzz: Bishop should return at some point in the series and Tampa Bay is a far better possession team that Montreal and figures to keep Price busy. He may be up to the task in a series that figures to be tight and low-scoring – these two produced just 11 combined goals in four games this season. I’ll take a healthy Stamkos to be the difference.

Academy consensus: Lightning in 7

Henrik Lundqvist doesn't let the Flyers get much by him. (New York Times)

Henrik Lundqvist doesn’t let the Flyers get much by him. (New York Times)

7.) Best Visual Effects

And the Oscar goes to … the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers

There’s just something appealing about these two matching up in the postseason for the first time since 1997, and what’s so striking might be the contrast in styles. Only conference No. 1s Boston and Anaheim have scored more goals since Jan. 1 than the Flyers, and no one has allowed fewer than the Rangers in that time. Claude Giroux has been a different player for Philadelphia after a rough first two months that cost him a spot on Canada’s Olympic team, but like Price in Montreal, New York’s Henrik Lundqvist has been rejuvenated after leading Sweden to silver in Sochi. He’s 11-4-1 with a .939 save percentage since March 7 and he’s kind of owned the Flyers in recent years – if that’s what 13-3-0 with a 1.81 goals-against average in his last 16 starts means. He’s allowed 21 goals in 14 home games against Philadelphia in five years, and guess what? He has home-ice here. There are always questions in net for the Flyers and that’s no different here, with Steve Mason slated to miss Game 1 with an upper-body injury. That means Ray Emery, and that probably means trouble for Philadelphia.

Post-Oscar buzz: The advanced stats love the Rangers, who are fourth in the league in shot differential and far better in puck possession. The Flyers thrive on the power play but New York actually is four goals better overall in special teams differential. The Rangers are, quite simply, not a good matchup for Philadelphia.

Academy consensus: Rangers in 5

It's OK, this man is Swedish so he's allowed to wear this jersey. (USA Today Sports)

It’s OK, this man is Swedish so he’s allowed to wear this jersey. (USA Today Sports)

6.) Best Foreign Language Film

And the Oscar goes to … the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings have imported more Swedish products than Ikea for the last few decades, but it’s one of their youngest who helped push their streak of consecutive postseason appearances to 23. Gustav Nyquist had 14 goals in his first 18 games back from the Olympic break, keeping Detroit afloat while Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were down with injuries. Datsyuk is back but Zetterberg is no sure thing to return for this series. Even if he does, he’ll run into fellow Scandinavian stalwart Tuukka Rask, who’s 11-1-2 with a 1.68 GAA in his last 14 starts and was outstanding throughout the postseason while guiding Boston to the Stanley Cup final a year ago. Boston’s defense has a lot of youth in front of Rask with Adam McQuaid and Dennis Seidenberg out, but it also has Zdeno Chara, a top-seven penalty kill and the fewest goals allowed in the Eastern Conference. Chara, in fact, was one of eight Bruins to score at least 16 goals for a team that had the NHL’s best differential (plus-87) since Ottawa and Detroit topped that in 2005-06.

Post-Oscar buzz: The Red Wings didn’t just miss Datsyuk and Zetterberg. There are still injuries to Mikael Samuelsson, Daniel Cleary, Stephen Weiss and Jonathan Ericsson to worry about, which will severely test their youth and depth against what’s probably the league’s deepest team. Detroit played well down the stretch but this is an awfully tall task. Had the Red Wings jumped Columbus for the first wild-card and landed a series against Pittsburgh, they might have had just enough to pull the upset. Rask was sick in the Olympic semifinals and his absence cost Finland against Sweden, but he’ll get a little sweet Scandinavian revenge here.

Academy consensus: Bruins in 6

Jonathan Toews reminding Alexander Steen that he may win this series, but still lives in St. Louis. (USA Today Sports)

Jonathan Toews reminding Alexander Steen that he may win, but he still lives in St. Louis. (USA Today Sports)

5.) Best Original Score

And the Oscar goes to … the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks

This was going to be the second-round matchup for the ages, the defending Stanley Cup champs against the loaded, deep machine that was out to run them down. Then something funny happened: the Blues became kind of mediocre overnight. Starting with a 4-0 loss at Chicago on March 19, St. Louis went 5-9-0 down the stretch, totaling an NHL-worst 21 goals and breaking out the fine china to serve up the Central Division title to Colorado in a 14-course meal that would make Thomas Keller blush. The Blackhawks’ woes date back to their return from the Olympic break, as they went 11-10-1 down the stretch and lost eight of 10 on the road. The last 13 of those, however, came without Patrick Kane and the last six without Jonathan Toews, both of whom will be back for Game 1. The Blues had a lot of injuries down the stretch as well, and not all of their walking wounded are likely to be back as soon. Shootout sensation T.J. Oshie and center David Backes should be, but Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Tarasenko and Brenden Morrow may not be ready for Game 1. If the ‘Hawks and Blues are even close to full strength, expect some offensive fireworks. Chicago was second and St. Louis seventh in scoring in the regular season and neither Ryan Miller nor Corey Crawford was particularly impressive in net toward the end of the regular season.

Post-Oscar buzz: Aside from injuries, a lot of both teams’ struggles may have had to do with complacency. It’s difficult to get up for each of 82 games the season after winning the Cup, and in the Blues’ case, the Olympics seemed to do plenty to slow what to that point had been the Western Conference’s speediest freight train. This is a heavyweight title fight in every sense, and it’d be no surprise to see it go the distance.

Academy consensus: Blackhawks in 7

He's no Goldberg, but the Ducks are hoping he'll do. (AP)

He’s no Goldberg, but the Ducks are hoping he’ll do. (AP)

4.) Actor in a Supporting Role

And the Oscar goes to … Frederik Andersen

Jonas Hiller was a Swiss Olympian and Anaheim’s unquestioned starter through the first half of the season, but he might not even be the backup when the top-seeded Ducks open the playoffs against Dallas on Wednesday. The starting job belongs to Andersen, who beat out Hiller and fellow rookie John Gibson to be the eventual target of coach Bruce Boudreau’s ire. Andersen wasn’t exactly awesome himself down the stretch, posting a 2.72 GAA since the Olympics, but he’ll be the Ducks’ man – at least initially. Both Anaheim and Dallas rely heavily on their top lines, and this series may come down to whether Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf or Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin can produce more. Neither team has a particularly productive power play and neither has a starting goaltender with playoff experience – though Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen certainly isn’t without NHL experience. The 10-year veteran will get his first taste of the postseason since playing two games for Atlanta (remember them?) in 2006-07. He’s perhaps the best backstop in this series, though, having gone 13-5-1 with a 2.07 GAA since February and winning nine of his last 10 home starts.

Post-Oscar buzz: There doesn’t seem to be a lot of faith in the Ducks for a team that finished atop its conference, and with the questions in goal, many of those may be justified. Anaheim is not a great possession team and isn’t particularly good at faceoffs, and there’s a lot of pressure on Perry and Getzlaf to carry the team – particularly with the inexperience in next. The Stars haven’t been to the playoffs since 2008, but Seguin should have a vested interest in stepping into the spotlight after his 2013 postseason disappearing act with Boston. The Ducks went down in Round 1 last season after winning the Pacific, so why can’t it happen again?

Academy consensus: Stars in 6

Odds are Patrick Roy is angry with you right now. (Icon CMI)

Odds are Patrick Roy is angry with you right now. (Icon CMI)

3.) Best Director

And the Oscar goes to … Patrick Roy

After no playoff appearances in their last three years under Joe Sacco, the Avalanche made the ballsy move to hand the reins to Roy, who had no previous NHL coaching experience. And … it couldn’t have worked out better. Roy made his presence felt from his first game behind the bench, nearly challenging Boudreau and Anaheim to a fight, and the Avalanche seemed to take their cues from their feisty and often crazy boss. Colorado won 12 of its first 13 games but was playing perhaps its best down the stretch, going 8-1-2 in its last 11 to seize the Central Division from St. Louis and likely lock up the Jack Adams Trophy for Roy. The Avalanche aren’t without their warts, though. Leading scorer Matt Duchene likely won’t play in this opening series against Minnesota due to a bruised knee. They’re 25th in the league in shot percentage, meaning they’ve perhaps too heavily relied on Semyon Varlamov at times. The Wild, meanwhile, are hitching their wagon to Ilya Bryzgalov, who was solid in the final two weeks of the regular season but has a spotty postseason track record – unless a 3.70 GAA in his last 15 starts is your thing. Minnesota lacks Colorado’s depth up front – especially down the middle – and is going to have to turn this series into a bunch of 2-1 games to have a chance.

Post-Oscar buzz: With Duchene out and his team’s sudden offseason transformation from the second-worst in the league to the third-best, Colorado would seem to be ripe for an upset. The Avs aren’t a great possession team and they’re relying on a lot of youth in key areas, but Minnesota – for as well as it played down the stretch – isn’t the team to knock them out.

Academy consensus: Avalanche in 6

That baby face my never seem to age, but the Penguins' gap between Cups is getting wider. (Getty Images)

That baby face my never age, but the Penguins’ gap between Cups is getting wider. (Getty Images)

2.) Actor in a Leading Role

And the Oscar goes to … Sidney Crosby

Yes, Flyers fans, it’s richly ironic that we’re giving the diving diva of a man you all love to call “Cindy” an award for acting. Very funny, but go back to booing your grandmothers so we can all move along. The NHL’s leading scorer is a shoo-in for his second Hart Trophy – and it really should be his third or fourth, but they have to give Alex Ovechkin some reason to keep playing. All that being said, Crosby’s Penguins have earned the label of postseason underachievers the past few seasons. The captain himself shouldn’t shoulder a ton of blame – he’s averaged 1.39 points in the regular season and 1.28 in the always more tightly contested playoffs while his shooting percentage (14.8) is identical – but he hasn’t really elevated Pittsburgh come mid-April since the team’s Stanley Cup run in 2009. The pressure is on, yet in reality this isn’t one of the Penguins’ strongest groups. They missed 529 man-games to injury – most in the league and 180 more than the No. 3 team – but Crosby played essentially his first full season in four years. Pittsburgh is a poor puck possession team and relies heavily on its special teams to succeed, generally lousy things to rely on if you fashion yourself Cup contenders. The forward depth isn’t even as good as it was last season, when the Penguins were last seen scoring two total goals while being swept by Boston. Enter Columbus, which has never won a playoff game in its 13-season existence, yet has turned into a solid two-way club with a stud goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky under coach Todd Richards. Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy last season, but he might have to be superhuman to keep Crosby and the Penguins from advancing.

Post-Oscar buzz: The Blue Jackets couldn’t solve Pittsburgh in the regular season, losing all five meetings, and Bobrovsky has a career 3.38 GAA in 11 games against the Penguins. Boston completely shut Pittsburgh down in last season’s Eastern Conference finals but Columbus won’t be able to rely on Bobrovsky doing it alone. The Penguins have been vulnerable in up-and-down, high-scoring hockey games the past few postseasons, but Ryan Johansen is the only consistently intimidating offensive threat for the Jackets.

Academy consensus: Penguins in 5

Quick! Who was the last goalie to single-handedly win a Stanley Cup? (Getty Images)

Quick! Who was the last goalie to single-handedly win a Stanley Cup? (Getty Images)

1.) Best Picture

And the Oscar goes to … the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings

These games might be low-scoring, but not in an “Astros-Marlins can’t get out of their way” type. I’m thinking more along the lines of “Greg Maddux-Pedro Martinez throwing zeroes for nine innings” type. The home team won every game in last season’s 7-game second round masterpiece, which featured five one-goal margins, and four of their five 2013-14 meetings were also decided by a single light of the lamp. San Jose had the highest shot differential since the Cup-winning 2009-10 Blackhawks, peppering the net with nearly 35 shots per game, but there may be no goaltender you’d rather have facing those than Jonathan Quick. Twenty-two goaltenders have started at least five games over the last two postseasons and Quick’s 1.62 GAA is nearly a quarter-goal lower than the man closest to him, Boston’s Tuukka Rask. The advanced stats love the Kings, who rank first in Corsi and also happened to allow the fewest goals in the league. The Sharks, meanwhile, can empathize with the Penguins’ underachiever label – but at least Crosby and company have one Cup to show for their troubles. San Jose has finished with at least 105 points in six of the last seven non-lockout-shortened seasons and hasn’t even made it out of the West once, losing eight of the nine conference finals games it’s played in that time. With Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and a healthy Tomas Hertl, there’s plenty of firepower to make this year the year for the Sharks. But it’s hard to believe it until we see it.

Post-Oscar buzz: The Kings had identical 23-14-4 records at home and on the road, and when it comes to the playoffs, that’s probably a good thing. They owned the road en route to their Cup win two years ago, though they had no success winning in San Jose last postseason. In fact, they’ve lost 10 of their last 11 in the Shark Tank and scored a whopping total of … 17 goals. Quick is good, but the Sharks are better, and more importantly, they have home-ice this time around. One bounce will probably decide that series, and San Jose is finally due to have it go their way. This is a series worthy of a conference final.

Academy consensus: Sharks in 7

I Suffered Through ‘Draft Day’ So You Didn’t Have To

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DRAFT DAY

When I see a trailer for a movie, the first thing I ask myself is pretty simple: Who is the target audience? Who is the studio trying to pull in? When that Friday night of opening weekend rolls around, the butts in the seats of the biggest theater in a cinema belong to whom?

It’s usually pretty obvious. Big-budget action flick? Guys 18-35. Romantic comedy? Women, and the men who will reluctantly go with them. Period piece? A sophisticated older set. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot? Me. Nicolas Cage star vehicle? Everyone.

When I initially read that Draft Day was in the works, the first thing I did was dismiss the article as an Onion-type parody. Surely no one was crazy enough to actually make a major motion picture about the NFL draft, the offseason bellwether of the most powerful professional sports league on the planet but an event that hardly draws a diverse fan base. Surely no one would make a movie that’s ostensibly centered around the Cleveland Browns. Surely no one would ever employ Kevin Costner again after 3 Days to Kill.

We started seeing ads for the movie during the NCAA tournament We started seeing the NCAA tournament during commercial breaks from Draft Day trailers in mid-March, and by then it became increasingly clear: This is a real thing with breathing human actors and seemingly legitimate production value. This is not a Funny or Die sketch or an SNL commercial parody.

It wasn’t screened for critics, which is perhaps more of a red flag to a movie than your babysitter arriving in a windowless white van is to parenting. Despite all the warning signs to stay away, I couldn’t help myself. I had to see it. You can have your Starks, Lannisters and Targaryens. There’s no better fantasy out there than a man trying to save the Cleveland Browns.

Draft Day is advertised as a sports movie, but it’s not. It most certainly is never made without the page-to-screen success that was Moneyball, which also was more about what was happening on the phone than on the field. But that had Brad Pitt, a star-making turn from Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and a screenplay from Aaron Sorkin. Draft Day, based off a made-for-TV event hosted by Chris Berman, has a wooden Costner, Puff Daddy/P. Diddy/Diddy/Sean Combs and a pair of first-time screenwriters.

It’s reasonably well directed by Ivan Reitman, but Reitman’s background is in comedy – Animal House, Ghostbusters, Stripes, Meatballs. The last film on that list aptly describes his most recent directing work – My Super Ex-Girlfriend and No Strings Attached – and Draft Day is no different.

It’s a movie without an audience.

When Berman's voice is the first you hear in the movie, considering leaving the theater. (All photos courtesy Summit Entertainment)

When Berman’s voice is the first you hear, considering leaving the theater. (All photos courtesy Summit Entertainment)

Twenty million people watched the first round of the 2013 NFL draft on either NFL Network or ESPN, making it the most popular show on cable that night and nearly tripling the days’ next most-viewed sporting event, a Clippers-Grizzlies game on TNT. It’s an event that has turned from being little more than a teleconference as recently as the late 70s to a three-day television juggernaut, chock full of drama for fans hoping their team will begin a rebuilding process or find that missing piece to put them over the top.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t want to know the nitty-gritty of how this fictional absurdity goes down, scroll down. There’s a lot of ground to cover.]

There’s no such thrill in Draft Day. The movie telegraphs where it’s going from the moment it introduces Chadwick Boseman’s Vontae Mack, the stud linebacker from Ohio State who is apparently either going to be taken with the seventh overall pick by the Browns or fall to the late teens. Mack learns that Costner’s Sonny Weaver, Jr. trades Cleveland’s pick to Seattle – along with first rounders the next two years – for the No. 1 overall pick and, presumably, the right to take Wisconsin quarterback Bo Callahan.

OK, so Seattle has the fictional No. 1 pick. Probably not the wisest choice considering the Seahawks were coming off an 11-5 season during filming and have since won the Super Bowl, but I’ll overlook it. And the Browns trade the 7th overall pick and two additional No. 1s (we’ll assume those are around the 15th pick each year) for the top pick. According to this trade value chart Weaver overpays, but considering Callahan is, according to fake/real Mel Kiper, Jr. “the best QB prospect since Andrew Luck” (TWO whole years ago!), we’ll allow it.

"Yes, I'm a pass-happy stud QB from Wisconsin and my agent is Puff Daddy. ... Hello?"

“Yes, I’m a pass-happy stud QB from Wisconsin and my agent is Puff Daddy. … Hello?”

Callahan won the 2014 Heisman Trophy according to the movie, an impressive accomplishment considering the 2014 Heisman will be handed out almost seven months to the day AFTER the 2014 NFL draft. He’s by all accounts the real deal and a true franchise changer, which everyone seems to believe. Except for Seattle, which needs a QB. And Cleveland, which already has a serviceable if injury-prone QB and needs to “make a splash,” according to owner Arthur Molina (Frank Langella).

Weaver seems set on picking Callahan for just that reason, but wait! Mack somehow has Weaver’s cell number! That leads to the following completely believable set of events.

1) Mack tells Weaver to watch tape of the Ohio State-Wisconsin game, and pay attention to Callahan’s reaction after each of Mack’s FOUR sacks.

2) Weaver notices that Callahan looks scared on the play immediately following each of the sacks.

3) Weaver watches Callahan’s game-winning touchdown pass and realizes that (GASP!) Mack wasn’t out there!

4) But why?

5) Because after Mack sacked Callahan and returned the ensuing fumble for a touchdown, he handed the ball to a fan (his now-dead sister!) and was flagged by the referee. He then took off his helmet and was ejected.

6) Because this was apparently some hidden secret that happened in a game that was not televised or garnered attention in anyway. Ohio State and Wisconsin. That’s Home Shopping Network material, right there.

7) The team security guard tells Weaver that Callahan had a 21st birthday party and none of his teammates attended.

8) Weaver, who apparently hated his father and mother and can’t even have a real conversation with the woman he supervises at work and also recently impregnated (Jennifer Garner), is taken aback that Callahan’s teammates wouldn’t be there for his birthday celebration.

9) We haven’t even addressed that Mack is projected to fall to the late teens despite a) playing at Ohio State, b) being a premium edge rusher, and c) sacking the eventual Heisman winner four times in the HGTV Game of the Season.

Mack not only is a terrific outside linebacker, he's also apparently the movie's best scout.

Mack not only is a terrific outside linebacker, he’s also apparently the movie’s best scout.

Of course, he doesn’t drop. Weaver takes Mack, whom he could have drafted seventh, with the first pick. Coach Vince Penn (Denis Leary) finds a crumpled up note of Weaver’s, which we saw him write earlier in the day, that reads: “VONTAE MACK NO MATTER WHAT.”

So, to review: GM of downtrodden franchise needs to make a splash, or he’ll find his job in jeopardy. GM trades three No. 1 picks to take franchise QB. GM is scared off by QB not having friends. GM takes player at No. 1 he could have taken six picks later without giving up two more No. 1s. GM needs post-it note to remember what he plans to do, because remembering is hard. GM is about to get fired by cranky owner.

BUT WAIT! COSTNER AIN’T DONE!

While he’s in the middle of feuding with Coach Penn (Leary being Leary!), avoiding his baby mama, apologizing to his nerdy intern and yelling at his mother for her wanting to scatter her husband’s freshly minted ashes on the practice field (seriously!), IDEAS ARE FORMING.

Once Weaver passes on Callahan, every other NFL team is scared. What red flag did he find? We can’t trust our own scouting! If the GM of a team that hasn’t won anything in a half-century who fired his own father thought Callahan wasn’t worth taking, then our own eyes deceived us!! Callahan starts dropping.

What to do, what to do. …. Oh, the Jaguars are terrible! And they have a rookie GM! Let’s lob them a call. Weaver does and offers Jacksonville two second-round draft picks for the No. 6 pick and the chance to draft the QB who has imaginary friends and, suddenly, a drinking problem. The Jags’ clearly scared GM rebuffs Weaver, but when Weaver offers a third second-round pick the Jacksonville war room suddenly reacts as if they’d just been given the chance to acquire John Elway, a healthy Bo Jackson and a topless Scarlett Johansson to be the team’s mascot. Deal.

BUT WAIT! COSTNER AIN’T DONE!

Now Weaver has traded away the Browns’ first- and second-round picks for the next three years and has only Mack and presumably Callahan to show for it. He has a chance to save face after fleecing Jacksonville’s green GM in the new NFL Netowrk special Baby’s First War Room. Let’s go full circle. Let’s call up the Seattle GM and tell him how you’ve been reading the message boards and fan blogs and he’s being skewered for trading away the top pick. This is their chance to get Callahan and wind up paying him millions less.

Weaver wants his three No. 1s back. Seattle agrees.

BUT COSTNER. AIN’T. DONE.

“What else do we need?” he asks the war room. And Ali Parker, team salary cap expert/coffee getter/person who talks to Weaver in supply closets/carrier of Weaver’s child demands a punt returner! We have them over a barrel … DEMAND A SPECIAL TEAMER!

Denis Leary seems quite comfortable playing the role of Denis Leary.

Denis Leary seems quite comfortable playing the role of Denis Leary.

The Seahawks, clearly confused, are happy to oblige. At the end of the day they got the next Andrew Luck for a hefty discount and a punt returner. The Jaguars passed up a chance to take a franchise QB and wound up with three second-round picks, thus increasing the likelihood of the team moving to Los Angeles. And the Browns took a running back with the seventh pick and made Coach Penn a little less crotchety.

[END MIND-BLOWING SPOILERS FROM MOVIE WHOSE NEXT CALL WILL BE FROM ACADEMY OF MOTION PICTURE ARTS AND SCIENCES]

Despite all of those shenanigans, the biggest problem with Draft Day is that it’s boring. It’s empty phone call after empty phone call. It tries to set up the “twist” at the end as the big victory, but the only reason Weaver still has a job by the end of the movie is because the Jaguars’ GM was kidnapped by an assistant manager at Walgreens.

It’s two hours of NFL infomercial, complete with a Roger Goodell cameo. It’s trying to attract an audience that makes the draft a titanic production, but forgetting the reasons why the event is such a force in the first place: 1) alcohol, 2) genuine intrigue, and 3) booing Roger Goodell.

Get used to this shot.

Get used to this shot.

None of those really applies here, and even if they did, this is not a movie with any broad appeal. It’s not a blockbuster, not a date night flick and it’s not really a sports movie. Costner might as well be reading his dialogue, 70 percent of which is on the phone, off cue cards, while Garner doesn’t have much to do other than look perpetually worried. The only compelling performance comes from Boseman, who at least attempts to bring a sense of emotion to his interactions with Costner.

It’s not enough to make a difference, but I’ll give Draft Day this: The premise of the movie lines up identically with the action that permeates throughout.

It’s all about phoning it in.

How I Met Your Mother And Then Made Her Nothing But A Plot Device

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HIMYM 1

From the moment the wonderful, audacious, cleverly unique pilot aired back in 2005, there was almost no chance How I Met Your Mother was going to be able to stick the landing.

The concept was bold. It was sitcom brushed with mystery. Friends with a touch of Twin Peaks. There would be lots of humor along the way even without the hideous, canned laugh track, but the heart of the series would be Ted Mosby’s attempt to meet the woman with whom he was destined to spend the rest of his life. We met womanizing Barney, couple-since-college Marshall and Lily, and fledgling TV reporter and charmingly Canadian (mined often for comedic gold, eh?) Robin. It was New York, it was a bar, it was a group of friends in their mid-to-late-20s figuring out who they are and what they want to be. It was slap bets and playbooks and wingmen and career changes and kids and failed relationships and, even once, being left at the altar.

It worked so well for three or four seasons, when the writing was crisp and it was about the journey rather than the destination. The casting was spot-on, taking established stars Neil Patrick Harris and Alyson Hannigan, up-and-comer Jason Segel and virtual nobodies Cobie Smulders and Josh Radnor and turning their 22-minute exploits into something we wanted to be a part of.

But, as the show kept avoiding its own mortality and earning renewals, the characters never quite lived up to the actors portraying them. Barney wasn’t just a serial dater but a misogynistic dickhead. Robin was proudly independent and career-oriented to the point where she was unwilling to allow a man to be an equal part of her life. Marshall and Lily were the most real, but spent large chunks of seasons 4 through 8 as caricatures of their former selves. And with every neurotic, overbearing decision he made in each subsequent relationship, it became kind of obvious why Ted was still single.

The love triangle between Ted, Robin and Barney was one of HIMYM’s central arcs, but it became painfully clear that neither of those pairings would ever realistically come close to working. Robin didn’t, and as we later found out, couldn’t, have kids. Ted wanted a family. Barney wanted to be promiscuous and never settle down and continue to be a serial liar. Yet here we were, in one final, unnecessary season, an entire 22-episode structure dedicated to the 48 hours prior to Robin and Barney’s wedding.

I had checked our mentally on the show three or four seasons earlier. I was introduced to HIMYM sometime in the third season, binged to get caught up and was totally invested until it became clear around Season 5 that there was no reasonable end in sight. If ever a show was in desperate need of a defined end date, it was this one.

Yet there were still moments that kept me and millions of others around. The episode where Marshall’s father died was one of the most touching and difficult moments I’ve ever seen on television, regardless of genre. It felt real and, while a punch to the gut, turned into an interesting arc that would follow Segel’s character through the rest of the series.

Those moments were fleeting, but the promise of – at some point – finally meeting the mother was the ultimate hook. As annoying as Ted Mosby was, I was invested in how his story ended. He wasn’t going to be happy with someone who had a little bit of room for him in her life, like Robin. He needed someone whose life was completed by his quirky presence. He needed his soul mate.

He needed the female Ted Mosby.

cristin milioti

The final episode of Seinfeld’s seventh season was notable for (1996 SPOILER ALERT!!) George’s fiancé, Susan, dying after being poisoned by licking toxic wedding envelopes, but it also had an interesting plot involving Jerry. He met his apparent soul mate in Jeannie Steinman, played by Janeane Garofolo, and found out almost immediately that they had everything in common. But after realizing that he can barely stand himself and certainly couldn’t spend the rest of his life with the female version of himself, Jerry breaks off what became a sitcom-quick engagement.

Obviously Seinfeld’s complete surrealism makes it a bit hard to compare it with HIMYM, but Ted, all along, needed his Jeannie Steinman – a person who would laugh at his jokes, finish his sentences and even dress like him. And in what should have been the saving grace for a show that had overstayed its welcome, creators and showrunners Carter Bays and Craig Thomas found her.

Instead, it was – as Parks and Recreation’s once-great Chris Traeger would say – LITERALLY the show’s death knell. (In fact, this basically sums up a reaction I’d have had upon Bays/Thomas telling me the HIMYM series finale plot).

How Your Mother Met Me

Segel will go on to be at least a somewhat bankable movie star – he already is in some ways – but the prominent HIMYM cast member that does the biggest things going forward might just be the last one cast.

Cristin Milioti was introduced in the final moment of Season 8 and was a newcomer to virtually everyone who hadn’t seen her on stage in Once or couldn’t remember her from a few brief appearances late in The Sopranos. The reveal of the mother of Ted’s kids provided a little hope for Season 9, which turned into an otherwise completely unnecessary mess leading up to a Barney-Robin wedding that would result in divorce just 20 minutes into Monday night’s series finale.

Her scenes, though, were almost entirely phenomenal. She had excellent chemistry with Radnor, but it was more than just that. Her presence, fleeting as it was, was a shining light and a pleasantly scented Yankee Candle in a series that had permanently ventured into a musty old attic. She interacted glowingly with each of the four main characters besides Ted, but it was the show’s 200th episode, ‘How Your Mother Met Me,’ that gave us the most rewarding glimpse of what Milioti could bring to the table. She gave us not only a reason to care about the show again but a reason to care about Ted. She seemed too good for him but a perfect fit at the same time. The narrative structure of the show had been rushed to the point where we didn’t get much of her, but each appearance she made in the final season made me long for the happy ending we’d seemingly been promised nine years ago.

And then Monday night happened.

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER

It wasn’t hard to see coming. We knew, going into this series finale, a few things.

1) As hinted four episodes earlier and deeply implied as being the fate of The Mother, a woman isn’t going to be around to see her daughter’s eventual wedding.

2) For a sitcom, this show (Marshall’s father, The Mother’s own previous love) isn’t afraid to drop a death bomb and unlike, say, Seinfeld, it ain’t gonna be for the sake of uncomfortable laughter.

3) The show was practically beating us over the head with Ted/Robin “Will they or won’t theys” for years, up to and including the second-to-last episode.

4) The ending – at least the part with Ted’s two teenage kids – was filmed in 2006 to keep, for continuity’s sake, with the actors’ ages.

But surely – CERTAINLY – they wouldn’t actually KILL the mother, right? Yet that’s exactly what happened. That was the decision that was made as early as when Carter/Bays pitched the pilot more than a decade ago and definitely no later than the midst of the second season, when they apparently only conceived of an ending that sees Ted and Robin together. You know, for CONTINUITY’S sake. This meant Carter/Bays thought three things.

1) We thought Ted and Robin belonged together despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary for literally nine seasons.

2) We’d think they were so freaking clever for teasing us in the pilot with “Robin is not the mother,” which while technically true, wouldn’t preclude her from being the one Ted ended up with.

3) We wouldn’t be invested in the mother as a character.

Wrong. Wrong. WRONG.

I’d checked out on Barney long ago. His moment of redemption in the finale, when he has a supposedly touching scene in the hospital room with his daughter – the result of an oopsie pregnancy after he had sex with 31 WOMEN IN 31 DAYS – was bullshit. I’d buy Barney’s life being changed by being a father if they’d allowed a viable lead-up and shown seeds of change over time. Nope. Instead, Barney’s final season arc went like this:

1) Be a complete horndog asshole up until the moments before wedding Robin.

2) Make fun of the fact that Marshall and Lily, the lone semi-believable couple on the show outside of Ted and The Mother, had failed or struggled to keep their marriage vows.

3) Realize Robin is about to leave you for Ted and suddenly make a promise to always be truthful.

4) Lie, get divorced.

5) Have lots more sex and do nothing but look upon women as sexual objects.

6) Have a daughter and suddenly become THE GREATEST DAD EVER.

Robin, meanwhile, was always the least interesting character on the show. It was pretty clear that she was deeply invested in her career, which was all well and good, and that’s how it should have gone. When she walks out that door in Marshall and Lily’s apartment at the Halloween party, she should have never been seen again. She should have gone on to become a famous international newscaster in somewhere other than New York, where the emotional pain of dealing with the friends she doesn’t see and the two romantic interests she can’t avoid were too much to bear.

Ted blue horn

As for Ted, I didn’t care as much about his happily ever after as I did for The Mother, who we found out late in the finale was named Tracy McConnell. Shortly thereafter, she’s in a hospital bed, stricken presumably with liver cancer, having attempted to drink herself to death after spending too much time around Ted and his insufferable friends.

Her death was glossed over in about 30 seconds, but I’m really glad we all got to spend 30 minutes earlier this season on such heavy plot devices as “Will Barney successfully have his rehearsal dinner in a laser tag arena?” “Will Marshall stop to get pizza in Chicago with the random black woman who’s driving his rented Hummer across the country?” And my personal favorite, “Why is Billy Zabka here?

Life isn’t always happy endings and sitcoms don’t have to be, either. But the story of HIMYM from the start was how Ted Mosby found his, and we have nine years of evidence that Robin wasn’t it.

Carter and Bays might have thought it was in 2006, but things change. The idea of The Mother character kept folks around, and when they managed to cast the perfect actress for the show and for Ted, their perfect ending needed an audible.

That exit might actually have been legendary.

Your Opinion of Richard Sherman is OK (As Long As It’s Not Racist)

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richard sherman hear me

There’s concern of a female terrorist on the loose in Sochi two weeks before the Olympics, an abandoned cruise ship of cannibalistic rats is inching closer to the United Kingdom and Justin Bieber has finally been taken down for drinking one too many Zimas and getting behind the wheel.

All frightening news, to be sure, but none of it has captivated America’s attention over the past week like what happened Sunday evening in Seattle.

Nope, not the Seahawks’ thrilling 23-17 NFC championship game win that sent them to just the second Super Bowl in franchise history. A game for the ages? Absolutely. Two incredibly physical, supremely talented teams who staged such a thriller that it made the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning AFC title showdown look like an Introduction-to-AARP flag football game.

Seattle wouldn’t be packing its bags for New Jersey without Michael Bennett’s strip sack of Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson’s 4th-and-7 TD strike to Jermaine Kearse, but the play of the NFL season was also the last meaningful play of the game. Richard Sherman managed to get his hand on Kaepernick’s pass intended for Michael Crabtree in the corner of the end zone with 30 seconds left, tipping it to linebacker Malcolm Smith for a game-ending interception and stifling the 49ers’ comeback attempt. It was one of the best plays you’ll ever see a defensive back make and given the stakes, one of those plays you instantly knew would wind up being immortalized on NFL films.

Not sure why Sherman deflected this pass. Crabtree's so mediocre, he'd have tipped it to a Seahawk anyway. (USA Today)

Crabtree’s so mediocre, he’d have tipped this pass to a Seahawk anyway. (Getty Images)

Except within about 3 ½ minutes, everyone forgot about it.

That’s when Sherman delivered his exuberant postgame rant to FOX’s Erin Andrews, who looked somewhere between frightened, inconvenienced and pissed off. Here was the best cornerback in the NFL – Sherman’s words – being asked to sum up the play of his life just moments after making it.

While Wilson was kneeling three times to kill the clock as Jim Harbaugh sulked one last time on the sidelines, knowing he’d have to wait another 7 months to throw a sideline tantrum anyone would pay attention to, Sherman was hugging teammates, leaping into the CenturyLink Field stands to celebrate with fans, and generally basking in the glow of the best professional moment of his life.

But one other thing happened between Smith falling to the turf in the 49ers’ end zone with Seattle’s ticket to the Super Bowl cradled in his midsection and Wilson’s last, triumphant kneel-down. Sherman went over to Crabtree to shake his hand and tell him “Hell of a game! Hell of a game!” Crabtree wanted no part of the perhaps facetious consolation, shoving away the man that helped hold him to four catches for 52 yards. That, combined with the certain back-and-forth jawing during the game and, depending on whose story you believe, a slight that led to a fight at an offseason charity event, provoked Sherman’s very public, in-the-moment takedown of San Francisco’s top wideout.

It also led to furious reaction on social media’s usual suspects, with countless Twitter tough guys attacking Sherman’s character, calling him every racist name in the book. We were told by talking heads everywhere that it was a classless attack, poor sportsmanship and a slap in the face to the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE.

Not everyone agreed. Many folks though it was at best refreshing to hear a player channel his raw emotions and not spew clichés after such a monumental game, and at least pretty damn entertaining at worst. And if you didn’t fall into one – AND ONLY ONE – of these black-and-white camps, you were completely wrong, because it’s the Internet! And people must react harshly to everything! Immediately! Because everything is terrible or great and screw perspective and open-mindedness!

The spotlight? He's OK with it. (USA Today)

The spotlight? He’s OK with it. (USA Today)

If you want to hate Sherman for what he did, go right ahead. (Just don’t do it for racist reasons, because then you really are an idiot.) Maybe you were taught to handle winning with grace and losing with humility. Maybe you’d have preferred Sherman to give congratulations to the 49ers, tell Andrews that it was just the Seahawks’ day and that it’s a shame someone had to lose.

You know why it’s OK to hate Sherman? Because it’s sports. Half the fun of sports is manufacturing hate for people you don’t know. I hate LeBron James. I hate Bill Belichick. I hate the Philadelphia Flyers. I root against these players or teams because sometimes it’s fun to root against the best. Fans build up rivalries, and sometimes players actually, genuinely don’t care for each other. It’s harmless fun to build up distaste for athletes and teams because they’re people you’ll (hopefully) never meet. If you build up hate for your mailman, your dentist and your butcher, you have problems.

If your aunt’s brother-in-law only knows Sherman as the guy who said the mean things about the other guy and was kind of an asshole on national TV, that’s fine. If he wants to root for Denver and that swell fella who sells him pizza and occasionally finds time to also throw a football because of it, that’s fine too. And if you want to convince that guy at your Super Bowl party that Manning is actually getting paid by a Nebraska tourism board to bark “Omaha!” 67 times prior to snapping the ball, then you’re my hero.

But Sherman’s not a villain, or an idiot. And it’s not just because he went to Stanford, which Stephen A. Smith probably told you Monday morning when concocting his “he should have known better!” argument. If you want to hate him, know you’re hating a guy who runs a foundation to give children in need adequate school supplies. Know you’re hating a guy who is intelligent enough to write weekly columns on MMQB.com and is pursuing a Master’s in communications as his alma mater. Know you’re hating a guy who heroically called Skip Bayless an egotistical cretin.

If I found Sherman to be guilty of anything, it was taking the spotlight away from his team – himself included – after what was probably the biggest win in franchise history.

"Don't come at me with your mediocre pizza, Peyton! DOMINOS!!!." (Getty Images)

“Don’t come at me with your mediocre pizza, Peyton! DOMINOS!!!.” (Getty Images)

But consider this. Seattle is the first team since 1990 to be heading to the Super Bowl with not one player who’s been there before. It’s not totally surprising that the reaction to Sherman’s interview has lingered for the past five days with two weeks before the Super Bowl, but come media day next Tuesday every camera and every reporter will be keying on Sherman. The questions won’t stop, and while many will be good-natured, they won’t all be. Sherman, for better or worse, will have to continue answering for answering a question honestly with a bit of excessive bravado.

And maybe that’s part of his plan. Every camera that’s in his face is one less hounding Wilson, or Pete Carroll, or Marshawn Lynch, or Cliff Avril or Percy Harvin. More time to focus on defending Manning or formulating an offensive game plan for the Meadowlands’ swirling winds. If the shitstorm of Sherman having the audacity to call another player mediocre in any small way helps Seattle over the next 10 days, it’ll have been well worth it.

I think most of us would like to see a similar scenario unfold in the late evening hours of Feb. 2. Manning and the best offense in football driving late, down 6 against the best defense, the best secondary and the best corner in the game. Sherman tested this time by not the somewhat shaky arm of Kaepernick but the best passer to ever step on the field. Maybe he can make another spectacular play to save Seattle’s season.

Just don’t go mouthing off to Andrews about Manning being mediocre in the midst of the celebration.

He’ll send Papa John after you. And being drowned in garlic dipping sauce is no way to go.

papa john

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