“The Pure Swing of Joe Panik” – A Giants Rookie Arrives on the Big Stage

Panik's swing looks effortless from the left side (photo by Jason O. Watson)

Panik honed his effortless swing growing up in upstate New York (photo by Jason O. Watson)

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

The first time I met Joe Panik, we were standing in a dirt parking lot at dusk in San Jose, under the post-game glow of the low budget lights at “The Muni” or “San Jose Municipal Stadium” down the street from San Jose State University. The home of the Single-A Giants, The Muni is certainly not short on charm, but it also isn’t long on amenities either. An untouched relic of a bygone era of minor league baseball, The Muni does exactly what it is designed to do: cultivate the dreams of 20-year-old kids as they take their marks on the race to the major leagues.

The reason for my visit with Panik was a mutual friend, Mike Carozza. A baseball nut from the same upstate New York hometown as Panik, who grew up playing on the same little league fields as the younger Joe. Now they were both out west, attempting to make a name for themselves in San Francisco one way or another.

The three of us talked at length on that random South Bay summer night. The conversation probably wouldn’t have lasted as long, if it wasn’t for the fact that Panik was scheduled to make a public appearance at a team function later that evening. Public appearances have never been Panik’s thing. He’d much rather just talk the nuances of hitting outside his car after game 109 of a long minor league baseball season than glad-hand a bunch of people at a corporate event. But that’s just Joe.

Earlier that night, Panik had made a baby step toward his current post as the starting second baseman for the Pennant winning San Francisco Giants. He had shared the clubhouse and the infield with Pablo Sandoval, who was down in Single-A San Jose on a rehab assignment. By that same October, Pablo was hitting three home runs in one World Series game versus Justin Verlander and the Tigers, en route to the Giants’ second World Championship in three years.

Panik spent that same October of 2012 back in his hometown of Yonkers watching the World Series with his dad on Fox like the rest of us. Fast forward two short years and now Joe Panik is a far cry from Single-A San Jose, as he’s found himself in the Fall Classic himself, still just 23 years of age.

In a word? Pure. (photo by Nhat V. Meyer)

In a word: Pure. (photo by Nhat V. Meyer)

I haven’t talked to the soft-spoken, humble-as-can-be Panik since his call up to The Show. I can only guess as to what his experience has been like as a member of the Giants. But before Panik was called up to play for San Francisco, he made a stop in Triple-A Fresno to play for the Grizzlies. And Carozza and I were there for that pit stop as well, earlier this summer.

We were in Sacramento to be exact. Site of yet another nameless, faceless minor league weekday day-game. The kind of game that attracts more serious sunbathers than serious baseball fans.

We talked to Joe after this game too. This time it wasn’t in a dirt parking lot, but rather a sterile open-air shopping mall type deal in Sacramento. We ran into some veteran pitchers at the same restaurant. Pitchers that had already been up in the majors and had been sent down to Triple-A, forced to struggle their way back up. Panik discussed in earnest about how he was going to navigate his way up to San Francisco. It wouldn’t be easy, he admitted. As cliche as it sounds, he was close, but so far away. As much as he looked like a big league baseball player at that restaurant, no one was even close to recognizing the Giants’ top prospect. He would still be a nobody in the minors, until he proved otherwise.

On June 21st, young Joe got the call. And somehow, thanks to someone, an unknown blog that calls itself “Section925” was there to break the news. By this time of the year, the Giants had tried their hand with seven players at second base, including the high priced slugger Dan Uggla and World Series hero Marco Scutaro. Even so, Brian Sabean finally chose to look past Panik’s small home run totals and instead decide to focus on his picturesque left-handed swing, his steady glove, and his even steadier .300 average. Sabean’s decision, one might argue, came up aces.

In the 73 games Panik played in for the Giants this year, he hit a staggering .305. And in the League Championship Series versus the Cardinals, Panik hit a dramatic home run to help push the Giants into the World Series. If Brian Sabean wanted more home runs, he got one.

A veteran he is not, but don’t expect Panik to be overwhelmed by the World Series stage starting Tuesday in Kansas City. For anyone that has ever met Joe, knows that he never gets too high or too low. We won’t compare him to that other Joe who played football at Candlestick Park, by way of Pittsburgh, but you get the idea. The Joe Panik coming out party started in June, and it has been slowing gaining steam. Look for the party to hit it’s peak this weekend at 24 Willie Mays Plaza. At the World Series.

Jeff Kent never managed to win a World Series. Can Joe Panik do it in his first year? (photo by Thearon W. Henderson)

Jeff Kent never managed to win a World Series. Can Joe Panik do it in his first year? (photo by Thearon W. Henderson)

“Moneyball vs. Mojo” – A Lament On What Ails The Oakland Athletics

Billy as a kid in 1989, pre Mt. Davis.

Billy as a kid in 1989, pre Mt. Davis.

By Tripper Ortman III (@Tripperino)

As one of the identified elder statesmen of the group, I agree that since the days of Vida, Catfish, and Reggie, the A’s success has always been driven by personalities and team chemistry.  In the 70’s it was the team against Finley and the World, in the late 80’s and early 90’s it was LaRussa masterfully managing a mix of back-to-back-to-back ROYs, reinventing the careers of washed up pitchers (Stewart (yes, washed out of LA), Welch (same), and Eck (yes, before he started closing)), and giving them all a swagger that could only have come straight outta Oakland.  Those guys had personality, chemistry, and confidence, plus unbelievable support from the best owners in baseball.

Between and after those dynasties were some very lean years.  The Rob Piccolo, Bruce Bochte, and yes, Shooty Babbitt years.  Then, after the early 90’s success the Bordick, Brosius, Berroa, and Browne (Jerry “The Governor”) years — entertaining and marginally successful.  Like all organizations, the A’s had to rebuild, and they needed new ownership after the second dry spell.

They got it, and they got Beane, a benchwarmer on the ’89 World Champs.  While I personally blame ownership for hamstringing Beane and trying to ruin the legacy of the A’s, their fans, and their ballpark, what Beane has never seemed to understand is the Oakland mojo — that unique, funky ingredient that gets our teams to exceed their potential and bring home a championship.

Walt, Mac, and Hendu. Mojo personified.

Walt, Mac, and Hendu. Mojo personified.

For example, he chose Chavez over Giambi and/or Tejada (I know ownership would never have allowed him to sign both).  For all his defensive prowess, Chavez never had the mojo on his own.  He hit 30 HRs and drove in 100 only when Giambi and Tejada were here.  He was never a “get on my back, I will take you there” kind of guy.  Giambi and Tejada were (I recognize I am ignoring the Juice issue, but humor me).  It wasn’t just the numbers, not just the glove, not just the bat; it was the leadership, the goofy Oakland mojo that made those two perfect for Oakland.  Beane didn’t understand that.  Maybe because Beane was a can’t miss prospect (if you looked at the numbers) who never had the mojo and apparently couldn’t relate to his ’89 teammates that did.  Who knows why.

In addition, Beane has shown a proclivity for making a decision about a player and sticking to it, whether that means keeping a guy too long (Chavez, Barton) or never really giving a guy a chance (in my opinion, Milone).  Moreover, as Moneyball confirmed, Beane doesn’t believe in intangibles.  He doesn’t believe in mojo.  And that is frustrating to people who believe that teams and players can overachieve with the right chemistry, inspiration, and wacky fan support.  It has been very frustrating to me over the years.

Every GM makes mistakes, and Beane has always been given leeway because we all understand that he is operating under economic constraints from ownership that sees baseball as a purely profit-driven business.  That bugs me too, but was the Yo trade a mistake?  Maybe, and apparently from a mojo perspective it was.  Given what I have said here, you might expect me to say it was.   Get ready for the curveball.

I would have made this trade.  Lester is money and when the trade was made, we were in the AL West driver’s seat.  We needed a playoff pitcher and we got the best one.  If you look back at our cursed string, we were all pretty excited when the trade was made, despite the loss of a favorite player.

We got Gomes and SuperSam to play outfield, and while neither has Yo’s arm, both beat him in the hustle department.  Their numbers are actually comparable to Yo in many ways, but of course, neither gave us the “oh shit” factor.  I think Beane realized that, and so we got Dunn, the best he could do in this market.

I don’t think we can honestly say that Beane has not built this team to win and win now.  And bring home a championship.   There is still plenty to mojo in the tank in Oakland.  In the dugout and in the stands.

As a pop star recently noted, players gonna play play play play play play play and haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate hate.  Beane has done what he can do, now the players gotta play play play play play.

This is our time.  Let’s do this.

Tripper

Sent from my iPhone.

"Game 2, 2013" (photo by Thearon W. Henderson)

“Game 2, 2013″ (photo by Thearon W. Henderson)

“Oakland A’s And Affiliates Weekend” – From the Farm To The Show and Back

"Adiós Yo" (photo by Jason O. Watson)

“Adiós Yo” (photo by Jason O. Watson)

By Josh Hunsucker (@JPHunsucker)

Long before this summer began, my wife locked in “La Potencia T-Shirt Giveaway” tickets. The idea was that we could get away for three hours, and be grown-ups for an afternoon, in the wake of a whirlwind summer spent holed up in the DeRosa Center on the UOP campus studying for the California Bar Exam. The day after the bar exam felt like I was living in a power vacuum. I felt like I should be doing something and by about 2:00 PM I was getting stir crazy. I needed something to do and the A’s game was a day away. I checked the Ports schedule, out of town until Monday.[1] Then I thought to myself, “eff it” let’s go to a Rivercats game, Sacramento is only a 45 minute drive. I made the pitch that the boys would like the fireworks (if they could last that long) and I was going to murder someone if I didn’t get out of the house and double down for a “Triple-Header Oakland A’s and Affiliates” weekend. Rivercats for Friday fireworks, Oakland on Saturday for Lester’s first start, and back to Stockton for Dollar Monday.

Sacramento

Sacramento's Raley Field in all its glory (photo by Lisa Ouellette)

Sacramento’s Raley Field in all its glory (photo by Lisa Ouellette)

I am always amazed at the amount of logistical considerations for a baseball game with two kids (4 and 2). It’s basically like packing out your kit for a 12-hour attack on a fortified compound defended by ISIS. You NEED everything. Water, snacks, snacks, snacks, dipers, wipes, extra underwear, PJs and pull ups for the ride home, snacks, sunscreen (even for a night game apparently), paper towels, napkins, a flashlight, scuba tank, and baseball gloves. We got to the game about an hour early to soak in the pre-game. I humped our gear and my 2-year old on the shoulders so that we could make the 5-minute walk to stadium in under an hour.

We got to the seats in plenty of time, as the grounds crew was watering the infield. It just so happens that one of my old buddies is the head grounds keeper for the Rivercats. Having no baseball action on the field to look at, the boys were immediately restless so I decided the best thing to do was heckle the grounds crew and introduce my boys to the time honored tradition of being loud idiots at the ball park (zero beers deep at this point, just for the record). Our “Hey, there’s a drought, THANKS FOR USING ALL THE WATER!” heckle got some mild laughs from the sparse crowd. Not bad. We continue to provide some bad heckling and cheap entertainment for the 20 and 60-somethings in the crowd until I notice that only one kid is with me.

Just as I turn around my 4-year old has bolted up the stairs and into the crowd. He emerges with two bobble head boxes. It was Addison Russell gnome giveaway day (now a member of the Cubs). Apparently, it was going to be an awkward giveaway weekend for the A’s. Immediately, I think he has stolen them from someone and am about to start yelling at him when he says “that nice lady gave us these.” My man. Haggling random grandparents for free ball-park swag and saving me around $20-$30 in crap that will keep their interest for 5 minutes at home, THANK YOU.

I don’t really remember what happened during the game because I was basically a free safety making sure that no kids got loose into the stadium but I remember wondering why Andy Parrino hasn’t gotten more playing time in Oakland and being amazed when Daric Barton hit not one but two balls for a hit.

In a semi-miraculous turn of events the boys kept it together and we made it to the fireworks. After the fireworks my buddy let us onto the field and the boys ran around the bases, played catch, and ran the warning track. Not bad for a Friday night game on a whim.

Oakland

Jon Lester, dealing... (photo by Ezra Shaw)

Jon Lester, dealing… (photo by Ezra Shaw)

My wife and I had illusions of grandeur that we would get up early and get out on the road to the O dot CO by 8:00 AM. Getting back from the game at midnight deferred that dream to about 10:00 AM. The logistics were much easier for round two: dump off the kids, have a backpack full of beer, sunscreen, and peanuts, and bomb down I-5 for Dublin BART. A short stop off at the Tracy Nations and we were ready to go. Is there anything more satisfying than crushing beers and Nations on BART en-route to an A’s game by the way?[2]

We got to the O dot CO about an hour before Jon Lester took the hill and 15-people short of a La Potencia shirt. Maybe I was super sensitive to the Cespy trade and more perceptive of the jerseys being worn by the fans but if I didn’t know any better I would have though it was “Dearly Departed Day” at the ball park. And I’m not just talking the abundance of #52 jerseys. Let’s get a roll call: Chavez (at least 4 people), Street, Ellis (I almost wore mine), Sweeney (I didn’t realize those were even made), Holliday (I booed him), Honeycutt, Grieve (mesh jersey), Foulk, Durazo, and Hudson. Sadly Olmedo Saenz received a DNP.

My main concern with the Lester start, aside from the awesome and awkward shirt giveaway, is the dichotomy with fanbase’s head and heart regarding the trade. From a heart perspective of course it kills to see one of the most beloved A’s get traded to a team that will likely sign him to a long term deal for much more money than the A’s are willing to trade. From Cespy’s showcase video, to the moon shots, playoff home runs against the Tigers, his back to back Home Run Derby exploits, laser assists from leftfield, and general awesomeness the A’s haven’t had a player this dynamic since Miguel Tejada. The fans loved everything about the guy, and the fact that he was from Cuba and didn’t speak English allowed him to be somewhat sheltered from fans criticizing his character and created a perception of mystery that enhanced the Cespy Experience. So looking at the trade that way I get it, it sucks to lose Yo. The fact that we traded him for essentially a mercenary, a Hessian in our revolution for the world title, didn’t cushion our fragile Moneyball hearts.

My head on the other hand loves this trade. We tried to trade Cespy last year, he only had one more year left on his 4-year $36 million contract, and unless you are insane or were going to buy the team from Lew Wolff, we were not going to resign him. All of the Youtube clips above basically show that his value couldn’t be hirer than right now and if you are going to make a run at the title pitching wins championships. See Giants 2010 and 2012 titles. Also, look at the last two seasons: Verlander and Sherzer won those ALDSs (although Cabrera didn’t hurt). Lester is a two-time champ and shut down ace, bottom line. If that takes us to the SHIP, I can sacrifice Yo even if my heart hurts a little bit.

With that said, Lester took the mound. I couldn’t have been more proud of the fan base either. They knew what Lester was walking into from an emotional standpoint and showed him extra love. The crowd answered the call and made Lester feel like the rebound girlfriend who we are trying to prove we are over our last girlfriend. The crowd got to their feet at all of the crucial moments, kept Lester going when he got into jams, and gave him a deafening Standing-O when he left in the 7th, complete with noticeable increase in noise when Lester reciprocated with a tip of the cap. If this works out, he may be the greatest rebound girlfriend/mercenary pitcher ever.

Stockton [3] 

The vastly underrated Banner Island Ballpark in Stockton

The vastly underrated Banner Island Ballpark in Stockton

If you have never been to Banner Island Ballpark you are missing out. First, it is basically a mini-Raley Field that features an intimate setting, outfield grass, centerfield lounge seats, and a great bar on the first base side. Second, tickets are $10 for behind home plate. Third, the A’s have had and continue to have some great prospects that generally made it to the show. This year they feature the top three prospects in the A’s farm system and 6 of the Top 10 (although catcher Bruce Maxwell just got called up to Midland). Basically their entire infield is in the Top 10. Daniel Robertson is the future at shortstop since Addison Russell’s departure to Chicago. Matt Olson is a better version of Daric Barton that can actually hit for power (34 HRs) and Renato Nunez, who played in the futures game, looks like a sturdier Eric Chavez (.287 AVE, 27 HRs, .907 OPS).

We got to our seats with two 24 oz beers per man and big league dreams in our eyes. In the bottom on the first, the aforementioned Nunez hit a bomb out of the stadium that hit the Stockton Arena to take an early 2-0 lead. Four home runs later, the Ports took home a blowout 8-1 win and we left over 100 ounces of beer richer and headed to B-Dubs to watch the end of the A’s-Rays Derek Norris walk-off win. 72 hours of A’s baseball. 72 hours of wins. 72 hours of new faces and hope. Green Collar.

[1] That’s basically the only ticket in town.

[2] No, there is not.

[3] Open invite to all Section 925ers for a Ports tilt. Accommodations included.

“A Shark In Bay Waters” – Jeff Samardzija Finally Finds His Way Out West

"Welcome to Oakland, Shark." (photo by Ezra Shaw)

“Welcome to Oakland, Shark.” (photo by Ezra Shaw)

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

Whether you like it or not, the Bay Area has never quite been a hotbed for college football. Conventional wisdom attributes this truth to the fact that there is “too much to do” around San Francisco and Oakland to expect fans to spend every Saturday of the fall tailgating from dawn til dusk. Too many sunny days, too many trips to wine country or Tahoe, too many NFL teams to distract us a day later. Moreover, Cal has been rebuilding over the past few years (literally and figuratively) and Stanford is challenged to sell out their cozy stadium even during runs to the Rose Bowl. Any way you slice it, The Bay is never going to obsess over amatuer pigskin.

Neither is Jeff Samardzija.

Yes, he was an All-American wide receiver at football crazed Notre Dame University, but the 6 foot 5 inch Samardzija never seemed to take the game of football too seriously. He just happened to be really good at it. Kind of like every other sport he ever played.

Samardzija was once a Jesus-like figure on the campus of Notre Dame. (photo by Matt Cashore)

Samardzija was once a Jesus-like figure on the campus of Notre Dame. (photo by Matt Cashore)

“Yeah,” Samardzija told Dan Patrick in an interview earlier this year, sweeping aside a wavy chunk of his Serbian-influenced locks. “I don’t really watch a ton of football. I don’t always follow it. But I realize I have to while I’m on the Cubs, because people are constantly coming up to me in Chicago and asking ‘hey Jeff, how are we (Notre Dame) gonna be this year?’”

Now that Samardzija has been traded out to Oakland (for top prospect Addison Russell, et al) he can rest easy knowing that he won’t be bothered by golden domer questions any longer. And if he wants to try his hand at surfing or skiing (see Zito, Barry and Byrnes, Eric), he finally can.

“I’ve been begging for this for a while,” said Samardzija the day he arrived in the A’s funky, no-frills pressroom. “Begging” most certainly wasn’t the most PC word to use in such a press conference, but no one in Chicago or his hometown in Indiana seemed to mind, they knew Jeff was a nice guy who was just tired of losing. And if you look deeper, maybe Samardzija subconsciously knows he belongs out west.

Jeff grew up in Valparaiso in a household run by a former semi-pro hockey player named Sam. That tells you a lot about the upbringing of Jeff Samardzija. He played football and soccer in the fall, basketball and hockey in the winter, and baseball in the spring. On Saturday afternoons, he did what every other kid in Indiana does growing up: watch Notre Dame football.

By high school, Samardzija had his sports choices narrowed down to three (football, basketball, and baseball), and according to Indiana lore, Samardzija started in 160 high school sporting events in a row without getting injured. To say Jeff Samardzija was a natural athlete would be like saying the Chicago Cubs were usually a bad baseball team. It went without saying.

Regardless of how well Samardzija’s persona would have meshed at a school like UCLA, CAL, or Oregon, there was no way he was going to escape out of Notre Dame’s backyard. And sure enough, he didn’t.

As soon as Samardzija arrived on campus in South Bend in 2003, he made an immediate impact on the football field, playing in 12 games as a freshman. It was at that point that most people expected Samardzija to finally put away his baseball glove and focus on football once and for all. But Jeff couldn’t stay off the baseball diamond. “I’ve always been a happy guy when I go to the baseball field,” Samardzija told Dan Patrick. If anyone had the athleticism to play both, it was Jeff, so he went for it.

No one has ever accused the Bleacher Creatures of being A students...

No one has ever accused the Bleacher Creatures of being A students…

It was in the spring of 2004 on Notre Dame’s baseball field when, according to Jeff, he first acquired the nickname of “Shark”. “It all started my freshman year,” explained Samardzija to UND.com. “I was new on the baseball team. I showed up, didn’t know anyone. I was talking to a fellow pitcher and out of nowhere they called me ‘Shark’ because they said I looked like the shark (Bruce) on Finding Nemo. It started during a game while I was pitching and they yelled at me from the dugout. Then coach picked up on it and it just snowballed from there. I guess I look like a shark.”

Turns out, Samardzija does indeed look like Bruce from the 2003 hit, Finding Nemo. From Samardzija’s angular face, all the way down to his teeth, the Notre Dame benchwarmers were spot on. It would be Shark Samardzija from that day forward.

Despite a record setting career for the Irish football team, The Shark finally was able to let go of his multi-sport persona and focus on a professional career in baseball. Naturally, he was selected by the Chicago Cubs, keeping him in the midwest for yet another chapter of his life. And for the majority of his time in Chicago, he loved it, sometimes maybe even too much. Asked by Dan Patrick if he ever pitched a game at Wrigley hungover, he could not confirm nor deny. “You know, I never took a breathalyzer going out there,” laughed Samardzija. “Possiblé.”

Unfortunately, most games in Chicago past July don’t call for much sharp focus, as the Cubs are usually out of the race by then. Not the case in Oakland, where the A’s are consistently contending for and competing in the playoffs.

True to form, the 2014 version of the Oakland Athletics are most certainly competing for a playoff spot. In fact, they are the best team in baseball. The low-budget Swingin’ A’s even managed to send six players to Minnesota for the All-Star Game. Seven if you include Shark. But even despite the A’s hot start to the season, which included the best ERA among starting rotations in the A.L., Billy Beane still decided to double down in preparation for the inevitable battles with Justin Verlander and Miggie Cabrera come October. So excuse Jeff Samardzija if he is a bit thrilled about his recent move to the Bay Area.

Through four starts in the green and gold, Samardzija already holds a winning record of 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA. Compare this to a ten game stretch in Chicago earlier this year in which the Cubs lost 8 out of 10 games Samardzija started. Shark had a 1.68 ERA during said stretch (second best in MLB).

So when you see Jeff Samardzija galvanize the Coliseum crowd with a 95 per-hour strikeout followed by a Dennis Eckersley-esque fist pump, just remember he is probably just as happy as you are to be wearing an A’s hat. No more lovable losers, no more polar-vortex, no more crazed Notre Dame autograph seekers. The Shark is finally out west on the pacific coast, pitching with one thing on his mind: the playoffs.

Shades of the Eck. (photo by Ezra Shaw)

Shades of the Eck. (photo by Ezra Shaw)

Section 925 Podcast Episode 37 – World Cup Recap

Quite a run indeed. See you in Russia... (Photo by Jamie McDonald)

Quite a run indeed. See you in Russia… (Photo by Jamie McDonald)

With the 2014 World Cup in the books, Connor conducts a ménage à pod with a couple soccer aficionados. Section925 staff writer Bryan Maag (@HalfBAM) makes his first ever appearance on the pod, while Robbie Repass (@TrashmanReeps) chimes in for his second time. The three discuss how the USMNT somehow escaped the Group of Death, as well as Jürgen’s 4-year-plan headed toward Russia 2018. Some NBA and NFL talk is also sprinkled in at the end.

Click to listen: http://section925blog.podomatic.com/entry/2014-07-21T18_42_11-07_00

“The Little Wizard from Rosario” – Messi v Germany for the World Cup Trophy

What does Messi have in store for us in the biggest game of his life? (photo by Ronald Martinez)

What does Messi have in store for us in the biggest game of his life? (photo by Ronald Martinez)

By Bryan Maag (@HalfBAM)

We have finally arrived at Maracana Stadium for the World Cup Final. Last year at this time, in the Confederation Cup Final, Gerard Pique received a red card tackling Neymar in the box. A red card that signified the weak mentality of the Spanish team. All of Brazil celebrated a young team they thought would bring back the glory of Cafu, Pele, Ronaldinho, and Ronaldo in the 2014 Cup. Unfortunately the squad Brazil picked for a month long tournament could not compete against the world’s best. The crowd carried them as far as possible but their loss was inevitable. Neymar and Thiago Silva are two of the best players in the world and were not able to play in the semifinals. The Brazilian coach, Scolari, came out with a horrible game plan that left out Willian and Dani Alves. How do you leave out two of the most talented players on your team in the biggest match of the year?

But enough about the massacre, we need to talk about Mascherano. Masch was transformed from a defensive midfielder at Liverpool(EPL sucks in my humble opinion) to a center back at Barcelona and showed everything he has learned in the semifinal. Masch was knocked unconscious (American football player take note, if you ever have to go through a concussion test, you answer all questions “YES”). Masch came back in said game and had the defensive awareness to deny Arjen Robben in the 90th minute.

So, how did we get here? 

Lets take a second to look at the how the Amazon took a toll on the tournament.

The Brazilians traveled twice as many miles as the Germans and Argentina traveled 1,800 miles less than the Netherlands. The Netherlands also played two extra time games in the past week totalling an extra 60 minutes played. (look at the US total! You can go to Pearl in London roundtrip with a discount for that expense.)

I have to say that all reports coming out of Brazilia are great for the Dutch, German and American sides. The three squads went out to the favelas and interacted with the impoverished people of Brazil. The Americans are probably lumped into this group due to having a German coach that is a bit of a humanitarian. It is worth taking note that the social compassionate countries from Europe have progressed the farthest. Indoctrinating yourself might not always be a bad thing.

Germany's Mesut Ozil withe the kids of Brazil (photo by Felipe Oliveria)

Germany’s Mesut Ozil with the kids of Brazil (photo by Felipe Oliveria)

Argentina: The Beginning

Messi!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

…There is not much more to say. The “little wizard from Rosario” turned me on to the beautiful game when I was lonely in Barcelona years ago. I did not ever think it would slowly turn into a passion of mine. But it has. He moved from Argentina to Spain at the ripe old age of twelve because nobody would pay for his hormone deficiency drugs. Barca picked up the tab and has won three euro championships on the back of the diminutive maestro. Messi had the option of joining the Spanish team in his youth and would have participated in their last Cup winning campaign. However, that wasn’t to be. Instead, he denied the opportunity so he could wear La Albiceleste, the shirt of MARADONA.

If there is a pivot to this team it is Mascherano. It says something about Busquetes at the club level to knock Masch back to a center back role. This might change with Lucho taking over Barca this fall. Messi is the the figurehead of the team but Masch will continue to be the real captain. He is cut from the same clothe of a young Puyol. He made his Argentina debut prior to being a starter for his club team at River Platte.

I also want to mention the roles of Angel Di Maria and Kun Aguero. These two players are nursing muscle injuries and are real big question marks for today’s game. It is going to be a big gamble placing either of these players in the starting lineup. Di Maria is a huge matchup problem for the defense because his stamina allows him to move all over the field. Aguero is a quick and lethal forward that is able to keep the defense honest. If Aguero is healthy, he will be able to open up space for Messi. The Argentinian defense was a large question mark coming into the tournament. The back four led by Mascherano have stood tall, and by shutting out the Dutch, they proved they are no pushovers. Other than Aguero and Di Maria, I do not see Argentina making any tactical changes.

Thomas Mueller finds the back of the net vs. Brazil (photo by Jamie McDonald)

Thomas Mueller finds the back of the net vs. Brazil (photo by Jamie McDonald)

The German team is looking extremely sexy at the moment. Everyone is young and talented. They are almost all from a Bayern Munich team that dismantled Barca 7-0 in the Champions League semis a year ago. I hate to admit it but the Germans took the Spanish model of youth development and improved upon it. The German squad could have made it to this position in the tournament with their bench players alone, that’s how deep they are. The German attack is extremely versatile with many of the players able to play multiple positions. This allows the players to switch around in the attempt to lose their defensive cover.

Having so many quality players on the team can create a dilemma when picking the right starting group. So far the German starting lineup has remained relatively consistent. The only players that have been moved in and out are Sami Khedira in midfield and Miraslov Klose in attack. I believe Khedira will start the game in midfield due to his larger stature and familiarity with Lionel Messi from playing at Real Madrid. Klose will probably start the game on the bench and be subbed in later if they need some fresh offensive punch. Manuel Neuer has been a standout defensive player in the tournament. He is a hybrid goalkeeper and sweeper. Neuer’s flexibility allows the team to run a very high defensive line and is extremely talented at starting the counter attack.

Who to watch for (Beyond Messi)

Mezuit Ozil (Germany): Ozil is a fluid attacking midfielder that has finishing capabilities. I think he is going to be a nuisance to the Argentinian defense because of his pinpoint passing and long run capabilities. Ozil moves around the pitch very well and is very tough to track. He should have a good amount of space to work behind Tomas Mueller

Javier Mascherano (Argentina): Masch is the key to the Argentinian engine. He dictates the pace of play and is the linchpin of the defense. He is suffering from some nagging injuries and it will be interesting to see how he has recovered over the last few days. Mascherano should be able to work the ball from the back and feed the ball to Lionel Messi and Di Maria. Mascherano will have a lot of defensive duties and needs to remain diligent as the German attackers change positions.

Prediction:

I am going with Argentina. By a count of 2-1. I do not care about the players and skill, I just really want them to win. Gaucho Pride.

“Sunday Night Fútbol” – USA v. Portugal: A Preview

(photo by Lawrence Griffiths)

(photo by Lawrence Griffiths)

By Bryan Maag (@HalfBAM)

Let’s be clear, even though I was born and bred in the glorious 925, this is stil my first post so give me some patience…

The World Cup is in full bloom and America is starting to embrace the “beautiful game” slowly. I appreciate the posts and pods on The Section relating to our world’s number one sport and I want to add my two cents. So here I am.

Before I go into USA V Portugal I want to take this opportunity to address some issues I have had with the fútbol community as a whole.  I took a bit of exception to The Section’s pod on the build up to the World Cup. The commentator, I believe he went by the name “Trashman”, believed the Premier League was the best in the world. Sure, I used to tell chicks I like Friends over Seinfeld to get in their pants, but give credit where credit is due. We all know the real genius on the soccer pitch is found in Southern Europe. No talented player wants to knock around the rock on a cold rainy night in Stoke. I see this as a fundamental flaw to analyzing the game and its players.

The Premier League broadcasts internationally and is the highest grossing league in the world with owners coming from as far as Qatar, tulhe USA, and Asia. The product does not matter as much as the name on the back of the jerseys to create a marketing bonanza. People constantly state this league is the most competitive in the world and if you look at the numbers this is completely false. Just like the other leagues there is a rotation of three to four teams that consistently qualify for Champions League play. Your Sevillas, Napolis, and Real Sociedads nurture and develop Europe’s next generation while competing for trophies. Chelseas Europa Trophy after a champions league triumph shows the results of a pay to play system. Little Putin in London will not be close ever again. Now that I am done with that rant, lets get on to the game that will make us scream ‘MURICA…

Cristiano Ronaldo is about as talented as they come. (photo by Clive Brunskill)

Cristiano Ronaldo is about as talented as they come. (photo by Clive Brunskill)

America V. Portugal (A.K.A. La Liga Lite)

Believe it or not, we control our destiny going into the second game of group play. With the world number one bowing out in two games, the USA is in the envious position of controlling their destiny on Sunday. It is becoming clear that this cup is a young man’s tourney. The humidity and heat of the equatorial region is wreaking havoc on all those tired European knees. I would litske to point out that futbol players are the most taxed athletes in any sport. The european leagues start in August and go through May. World class players get 3 weeks off in the middle of summer then go back to the grind. For reference sake, Lebron has been bitching about playing the Olympics and playing in an air conditioned stadium (except in San Antonio) for 10 months of the year.  Futbol does not stop. The average player runs a 9 km a game. The World Cup gives you 4-5 days off in between games, and your group draw is critical. The USA was drawn into what many called the “Group of Death”. At this moment I would like to present this video of what other countries think about their group of death…….

What to watch for on Sunday:

Ronaldo has to be at the top of your list. He is surely one of the top players in the world but he does not have the supporting cast he has at Real. There is no Benzema to hold up play and suck in two central defenders. Ronaldo is the captain and holds the country’s hopes and dreams on his sleeve but he cannot do it alone. Nani runs the wing. He is a fleet footed attacker that plies his trade at Manchester United. He has been injured most of the year but is coming back into a bit of form. I believe the USA can exploit his eagerness and use the space he exposes between the lines to start our attack.

The portuguese midfield is a melting pot of hacks from across Europe. This was the weak link of the team up until their first game. The midfield lacks creativity and is undisciplined. Bradley should have enough time and space to control the game. The back four of Portugal was the strong point coming into the tourney. Contreau (Real), Pepe (Real), Bruno Alves (Fenerbahce) are all out of the lineup due to injury. These are three stalwarts that usually run the backwall for Portugal. Contreau was able to flank the winger in attack and create space i. It will be in the corner. It will be interesting to see how the team performs with them left out. As much as I want to see the USA beat a full squad, we need to take advantage of their weakness.

Our young squad is a mesh of what america is. Our servicemen have spread their seed around the world and we are reaping the benefits of our industrial might. We lost Jozy Altidore to a muscle tear in the first game which will hamper our current style. The USA has been really good at sitting back on defense and making a break when they get a chance. I want to see us exploit the gaps in the portuguese lines with creative passing and work the ball from the back. We should not be pinging the ball up the field hoping for a gratuitous bounce. Being from the bay area, I would like to see Wondo leading the front. We showed in the first game that we have can utilize our height in set pieces, which will be an advantage with Pepe out. It might be my football past but when someone lets near your line, you raise your level up. Bradley tossed arround errant passes in the first round, but i hope we can get a little Pirlo out of him for the match. Klinsmann is a fitness guru and I believe is the right coach for our squad. He has been bashed for his tactical awareness by Philip Lahm(german captain) but I believe he is good for our squad. Tournament play is a different beast than a long season. I want coaches out of their chair cheering and hugging. Uruguay just stated their physio put off cancer treatment to treat suarez,I can see the passion other people have for this tournament. It is time for the USA to come out of the shadows and put us in the knockout round.

Prediction:

USA 2 -Portugal 1: (plus one moment of Ronaldo brilliance)

Hope this went well and I hope to see you watching the game that has no commercials and a global following…

P.S.: Here is the water usage (toilet flushes) in the city of Berlin during the Germany – Portugal match: http://i.imgur.com/tOpYFEI.png

…and a nice little video on the Chilean Miners: http://youtu.be/QjVPAyQa7Kc

I’m Bryan Maag, and I’m out…

(photo by Lawrence Griffiths)

(photo by Lawrence Griffiths)

Section 925 Podcast Episode 36 – World Cup 2014 Preview

The USA's starting 11 in their final tune-up vs. Nigeria on Saturday (Photo by Mike Zarrilli)

The USA’s starting 11 in their final tune-up vs. Nigeria on Saturday (Photo by Mike Zarrilli)

Fresh off his Saturday visit to Jacksonville to soak in the US Men’s National Team’s 2-1 victory over Nigeria, Robbie Repass (@TrashmanReeps) calls into the podcenter to discuss the upcoming World Cup in Brazil. A rare Texas-born English Premier League guru, Reeps tells you everything you need to know before the Cup kicks off on Thursday down in South America.

Click to listen… http://section925blog.podomatic.com/entry/2014-06-09T20_45_00-07_00

Section 925 Podcast Episode 35 – Spinelli Tours America’s Ballparks

(Photo by @Spinelli37 on Instagram)

(Photo by @Spinelli37 on Instagram)

The venerable Adrian Spinelli (@Spinelli37 ; EverythingEcstatic.net) is currently driving across the continental United States, making stops at various Big League ballparks along the way. He called in from the road in Mobile, Alabama to update us on his journey thus far. 

Click to listen: http://section925blog.podomatic.com/entry/2014-05-04T18_01_05-07_00

“36 Hours in Vegas” – A Short, Strange Trip to the WCC Basketball Tournament

The ultra intense Rex Walters led the USF Dons to a near upset of BYU (photo by Ethan Miller)

The ultra-intense Rex Walters nearly led the USF Dons to an upset win over BYU (photo by Ethan Miller)

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

When deciding upon my mode of transportation to my inaugural visit to the West Coast Conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas, I felt it was only appropriate to take a bus. I figured you fly to a major conference basketball tournament like the ACC or the SEC, but you drive to a mid-major conference tournament. That’s just customary. So I ended up riding a Tufesa bus out to Sin City (via Salt Lake City), one that proudly markets their ability to transport you from Mexico to the Southern United States comfortably in the middle of the night. This particular Monday morning trip only produced a total of four passengers.

If you take the Tufesa to Vegas, the closest they’ll get you to the WCC Tournament is out front of the Excalibur Hotel on the strip. From there, it is up to you to hail a cab, or use the empty pedestrian overpass to simply walk over the crowded freeway in order to get to the Orleans Hotel & Casino. The Orleans is located off the strip in a relatively seedy area. One of the more prominent landmarks surrounding the Orleans is a Deja Vu “All-Nude” gentlemen’s club. Across the street lies various cheap eats and convenience stores ready and willing to soften the blow of some bad-beats on a the blackjack tables.

Walking through the parking lot approaching the main entrance of the Orleans, there really is hardly any sign that a Division 1, ESPN televised basketball tournament is going on inside. It wasn’t until I reached the glass front doors of the casino and saw some “WCC Tournament” stickers that I was able to confirm I was in the right place.

As is true with all Las Vegas hotels, the Orleans casino floor is an intentional maze, free of clocks or useful maps, designed in way that makes you completely give up on where you were originally going in favor of just sitting down at a table with half drunk strangers and gambling.

By this time it was just 10 minutes until the Saint Mary’s Gaels and Gonzaga Bulldogs were set to tip-off in a semi-final tilt, and I was literally lost in the middle of the casino floor with a standing room only ticket in my hand.

“Can you tell me where the basketball game is going on in this place?” I ask a tired-looking poker dealer. “Yeah,” he responds. “Walk down past those slot machines, make a right at the T.G.I. Friday’s, and you’re there.” Easy enough, I thought to myself, and proceeded to make my way past the slots in search of the T.G.I. Friday’s landmark.

As dedicated as I was to WCC semifinal basketball, the lure of T.G.I. Friday’s happy hour potato skins and discount Bud Light proved too much for me to ignore. Minutes later, I found myself placing my order with a muscle-bound server in a Friday’s uniform chock-full of flair.

The game was on a flat screen TV, my thinking went, and how incredibly good are potato skins after a 6 hour bus ride?

“Hey man, you going to the game?” asks a heavy-set man from Washington state. “As a matter of fact I am,” I respond.

Steve was his name. And he was “In Vegas for a little while for various reasons,” some of which were to soak in both the WCC tournament and the PAC-12 tourney the following week. He, like so many other Gonzaga fans I encountered over the weekend wasn’t an actual alumnus of the school, but a fan nonetheless who “has been watching the Zags play for a long, long time.” (i.e. since the 1999 Santangelo, Calvary, Frahm team.)

One of the many backroads to the Final Four

One of the many backroads to the Final Four

By halftime of the Gonzaga v. Saint Mary’s semi-final, I had managed to settle up at T.G.I.’s, ride along the flat-moving-escalator to the Orleans Arena down the hall, and find my standing-room-only seat among the other degenerate basketball junkies in attendance.

The atmosphere inside the Orleans is a bit weird. The home to minor league hockey’s Las Vegas Wranglers, the arena is a far cry from the homely feel of McKeon Pavillion in Moraga or War Memorial in SF, or the Kennel in Spokane. Aside from the die-hard fans who flew in from their respective WCC campuses, most of the spectators inside the arena almost just seemed to be there by accident. Maybe they were gambling on the game, maybe they were just looking for some more Las Vegas entertainment, maybe they were staying on the 12th floor of the Orleans and wanted a break from their wife and teenage kids, maybe they liked basketball just a little too much.

Concessions sold garbage food like nachos and dippin’ dots (“the ice cream of the future”), but no beer was allowed to change hands. You also couldn’t place a bet on the game inside the Orleans Casino. To do that, you’d have to seek out one of the countless sportsbooks outside the Orlean’s property line. Somehow, this rule helped protect the integrity of the game.

On the court, Gonzaga was a flat out better team than St. Mary’s. David Stockton (John’s son) controlled the game throughout and Kevin Pangos played like his efficient self. In the post, Sam Dower dominated Brad Waldo. With Matthew Dellavedova gone to the NBA and Gonzaga laden with senior experience, the Gaels proved to be no match. The Gonzaga faithful, outnumbering St. Mary’s supporters by about 5 to 1, reveled in the victory over their arch-rival from the Bay Area. As St. Mary’s players walked into the locker room after their convincing loss, all they could hope for was a bid to the NIT. Their dreams for another trip to the Big Dance had been dashed.

Game two of this night of semi-final matchups pitted another Jesuit school visiting Sin City (University of San Francisco) versus the mormons of BYU. As it turned out, this game ended up being a Las Vegas late-night instant classic.

The upstart Dons of San Francisco, coached by the fiery ex-NBA sharpshooter Rex Walters, played above their heads against the Cougars of BYU. Walters, who earlier this year watched his starting point guard Cody Doolin quit the team after a inter-team fight in practice, was a joy to watch coach. Screaming one second, laughing the next, Walters provided a welcome sideshow on the USF sideline. He was gunning for a huge upset win and his freewheeling coaching style was on full display. The Dons took the Cougars into overtime, but eventually fell two points shy of the upset, 79-77. Walters, gracious in defeat, will hopefully be back in Vegas next year for another crack at the big boys of the WCC.

Not long after the Dons loss, I found myself sitting in the lobby of the Palms Casino food court, eating the only food that was readily available, which happened to be a McDonald’s Extra Value Meal. ESPN announcers Dave Flemming and Sean Farnham apparently weren’t hungry, as they slowly walked by with loosened ties, only to disappear into a sea of slot machines. However, it wasn’t long before a couple members of the USF team arrived at Mickey D’s, jonesing for a postgame meal of any sort.

Tim Derksen, USF’s sophomore guard who played valiantly in the OT loss, sat quietly with a couple college buddies wearing “USF Sixth Man” T-shirts. Far across the casino floor, the Palms Sports Book’s giant big screen TV is airing SportsCenter on loop. Derksen’s friend nudges him on the shoulder, encouraging him to look up and watch his highlights play out on the big screen. Derksen raises his head for a moment, only to look back down and resume eating his french fries before the ESPN anchor can tell us who won. He, like the rest of the patrons at this late-night Vegas McDonalds already knew the outcome.

The Dons would ship out of town the next morning, while I would stay one more night to watch Gonzaga win the 2014 West Coast Conference crown. Only one team from the WCC would get to head back home a winner. The rest of the league would have to concede that Sin City had gotten the best of them. As history shows, it’s never easy to leave Las Vegas on top.

David Stockton cuts down the nets after Gonzaga's win (photo by Ethan Miller)

David Stockton cuts down the nets at the Orleans (photo by Ethan Miller)

 

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