April 4, 2007

It's a shame that only pro athletes and brides get entry music.  I can think of several times when I would have liked to enter a room to the tune of John Philip Sousa's "March of the Charioteers".  I can think of a few other occasions when Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage" would have been more appropriate for me.  I like the whole theme music gimmick if it's not overdone.  The best use of music in sports, however, is as background for game highlights.  As a quasi-homage to the movie "High Fidelity", here are my top five tunes for highlight music:

# 5: Fanfare for the Common Man - Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  This one was one of the first used by ABC's Wide World of Sports, a show without which there would be no Fox Sports Network or ESPN.  WWS was the granddaddy of sports shows and "Fanfare... " was the granddaddy of highlight music.

# 4: Ready To Go - Republica.  Whether it's the electronic or acoustic version, the intro is a quiet tempest that explodes into Saffron's high energy vocals.  The tune has a number of cymbal splashes that go perfectly with a big football hit, a slam dunk, a base hit, a strikeout, a knockout punch or a slap shot.  The tune drives well with the speed of real time highlights.  It's only flaw is that slow-motion highlights really fit in only a couple places and one of them is at the end of the tune.  

#3 Joy - Apollo 100.  An early 70s upbeat funky organ version of J.S. Bach's famous string etude, Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, this tune provides a perfect background for highlights that show the elegance of sports, in slow motion or full speed.  A running back dashing down the sidelines, figure skaters flying through the air, diving catches in the outfield... any clip where the beauty of human motion is on display, this tune frames well.  However, it doesn't particularly fit well with violent collisions, nor does it reflect the grit of sports.

#2 Sweet Emotion - Aerosmith.  This tune is the polar opposite of "Joy" - no beauty, just grit.  It has the driving beat to convey the motion of sports and the machine gun drum intro to the bridge would be perfect for a montage of big hits in football, boxing or other contact sport.  Plus this song just just sounds sweaty.

But the best tune for highlights is, of course, All Out of Love - Air Supply.

... just kidding.

No, the #1 tune for sports highlights is:

Fire on High - Electric Light Orchestra.  The spooky backwards masking intro of the album version is hard to match up with any sort of action highlight but works well with pregame footage.  The real magic happens once the music begins in earnest on the single version (about 1:20 into the album version).  The broad grandeur of the string and keyboard prologue followed by the driving beat, the catchy twelve-string guitar riff, the choir singing... it just rocks for any kind of sports clip, in real time or in slow motion.  For that matter, it just rocks... period.  The guitar riff works especially well with the style of editing made famous by NFL films, showing the same play from different angles with quick cuts from slow motion to full speed.  CBS Sports actually used the tune for a while back in the late 70s but I assume stopped around the same time that ELO pretty much went uber-commercial.  I'm guessing neither event was a coincidence.

Anyway, that's my top five.  I considered literally hundreds of tunes and there were a number of honorable mentions, including Unchained (Van Halen), Barracuda (Heart), Immigrant Song (Led Zeppelin), K-Jee (MFSP), Who Are You (the Who), Down With the Sickness (Disturbed), U Can't Touch This (MC Hammer), the music of Sam Spence and pretty much everything from the AC/DC catalogue.  That said, I'm sure I forgot some great tune or haven't heard the perfect hook, so drop me a note at trace@longgandhi.com if you have a top five of your own or a song you think sets up sports highlights really well.     

Speaking of highlights (booo! lame transition!), I've been watching a lot of games since early in spring training and I'm not convinced the Nationals will be nearly as bad as people are making them out to be.  

First of all, their bullpen is going to be pretty good.  Not as good as the Angel's bullpen of the last few years but still pretty solid.  With Chad Cordero closing, Jon Rauch, Ryan Wagner and a healthy Luis Ayala setting him up, they should be able to get three scoreless frames to finish most games.  Jesus Colome has the talent to be a shut-down reliever and both Micah Bowie and Ray King have stretches were they are effective.  Along with the Padres and Braves, this is one of the deepest and most talented pens in the NL.  

Secondly, they will be able to score some runs.  They won't lead the league obviously, but they have five guys in the everyday line-up who are quite capable of 20 homers and 35-40 doubles (Zimmerman, Lopez, Church, Kearns, Young).  And if I remember hearing this correctly, no team in the NL sees more pitches per at bat than the Nationals.  That sounds odd for a team that does not draw an excessive number of walks, but these guys do put the bat on the ball quite a bit and scatter a lot of foul balls.  As an example, Anibel Sanchez threw 91 pitches through 5.2 innings against them today, Scott Olsen threw 84 through 5.1 innings yesterday and Dontrelle Willis threw 100 through 6 innings on Opening Day... and that was when the Nats' bats were mostly silent.  The Nats' offense is going to get into just about everyone's bullpen pretty much every game and if, as we saw today, there are any weak links they are going to score some runs.

Defensively, they will be above average if Nook Logan can hit enough to stay in the line-up.  Ryan Church is a huge liability in center field, but isn't too bad in left field.  His reads on low flyballs and line drives are pretty bad plus he's not very speedy, leading to a lot of extra doubles and triples when he's in center.  Logan has the speed and the instincts to handle RFK's fairly spacious dimensions quite competently.  Cristian Guzman is pretty slick at short; Felipe Lopez can play there but doesn't have a very quick first step there which limits his range.  At second base, Ron Belliard is the superior defender, but Lopez is pretty good there, too.  Either way - Guzman/Lopez or Lopez/ Belliard - the choice is a plus defender at one spot with a decent glove at the other.   Brian Schneider is arguably the best defensive catcher in the majors.  He does so many things behind the plate that don't get recognized in the mainstream media or in the stats, but baseball people rave about how much he helps his pitchers. 

I'd like to see Manny Acta let Josh Wilson play while Guzman is out.  I've liked his poise at the plate and he seems to have decent range afield.  He did make two mistakes in his one real game but he might have been trying to do too much.  His numbers in Triple A the last couple years merit an extended look.

Compare these aspects to the 2003 Detroit Tigers who truly were awful.  Their starting offense featured five sputtering talents - Carlos Pena, Ramon Santiago, Eric Munson, Warren Morris, Alex Sanchez - with only Santiago being above average defensively.  Sanchez and Munson were pretty much awful in the field.  They also had a steeply declining Bobby Higginson, who didn't help defensively either.  Brandon Inge was the catcher and there's a good reason the Tigers felt compelled to move him from behind the plate and acquire Ivan Rodriguez.  This was a bad team offensively and defensively.  The only thing that Tigers team had in common with this National's squad was Dmitri Young.  

The Nats' big question comes down to the starting pitching.  The Tigers had Jeremy Bonderman in his rookie season, Mike Maroth, Nate Cornejo, Gary Knotts and Adam Bernero.  They also got eight starts from Nate Robertson and Wil Ledezma, so there was some quality but three of the guys - Cornejo, Bernero, Knotts - were obviously overmatched.  The Nats are similar in that they have a good-looking rookie (Chico) although he doesn't have Bonderman's upside, but Shawn Hill and Jerome Williams are pretty clearly more talented than the three weak links in the Tiger rotation that season, and John Patterson is a borderline ace.  Plus the Nats will have an infinitely better bullpen backing them than the Matt Roney, Steve Sparks, Chris Spurling, Franklin German, Chris Mears and Jamie Walker crew the 2003 Tigers had.  

Back to the Nats rotation, their performance so far... I think John Patterson's rough outing Opening Day was largely due to the lack of innings he got in spring training.  He looked rusty with the location of his fastball and seemed reluctant to really commit to breaking off his nasty slider.  He threw it a few times but it didn't have it's customary bite.  It wouldn't surprise me if his next few outings are a bit shaky as he warms his arm with a few more innings.  But by the time the Mets come to town at the end of April we should be seeing the guy who was such a revelation in 2005.  Both Shawn Hill and Matt Chico pitched reasonably well but made a few mistakes which got crushed by Miguel Cabrera, who seems as locked in right now as anybody I've ever seen.  I think he only missed three pitches the whole series.

This looks like the year we see the first of many monster years from Cabrera.  I never realized how put together that guy is - he's like a baseball version of John Cena... only taller.  Another guy who is a lot bigger than I thought he was is Hanley Ramirez, who at 6' 3", is two inches taller and looks about 20 pounds bigger than Jose Reyes.  Both Cabrera and Ramirez will have better years than they had last year.

Anyway, Hill and Chico will both have better days and the reason is that they, like Jerome Williams, work the bottom of the strikezone and should get a lot of groundballs.  With the Nats infield defense especially once Nick Johnson returns, that can only be a good thing.  

Whether Patterson turns in a great or merely adequate year could depend on the weather in Washington this summer.  In 2005, the temperature was cooler than normal for the first four months of the season and as a result the ball didn't carry very well.  It wasn't until June of that year that any team had a two-homer game in RFK.  However, over the final two months and pretty much all last season it was warmer than normal and the result was that the ball carried very well.  This showed up in the ballpark factors: through the first four months of 2005, the ballpark factor for home runs was around .600 but rose to .775 by the end of that year.  In 2006, it rose further to .859.   Patterson is the most flyball-oriented starter on the staff and with Church in center until Logan is healthy, a warm summer could make for a lot more excitement than he'd prefer.  But even in a loaded NL East, the Nationals are not a 100-loss team. 

Other observations from the first few days of the season... The Angels will finish with the best record in the AL this year. Adding Gary Matthews Jr. is going to be big for them and I didn't realize how big until I saw him play the first three games.  I didn't realize it before because it never occurred to me that the change in ballparks will make his defense all that more significant.  In Texas, he was fantastic, but because the ballpark plays so small he really was limited by how much impact his glove could make.  In Anaheim, the ballpark plays much bigger which makes his exceptional range all that more useful.  He'll cover lots more ground than Figgins or Willits or anyone else the Angels had out there.  That will mean fewer singles, doubles and triples allowed and perhaps a few less homers.  His own home run numbers will tail off but a lot of those balls will still fall in for doubles and with his speed and defense he will more than make up for the loss in over-the-wall power.  With him in center, Casey Kotchman at first, a full season from Howie Kendricks at second and a healthy Garrett Anderson in left, this team will have no problem scoring runs.  Once Figgins returns and/or they decide to work Brandon Wood into the regular line-up, they really aren't going to be any fun to face.  And then add presumably a healthy Bartolo Colon in May to John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar and Ervin Santana and oh yeah, and they have a pretty nice bullpen.  This might be the best Angels team ever.

The Yankees may have the best offense in the AL but that starting staff looks like a disaster waiting to happen.  Andy Pettitte is just a pitch away from his arm falling off.  Chien-ming Wang's hamstring is a concern because without healthy legs he's going to have trouble maintaining his mechanics.  Mike Mussina should be ok, but he's 38 going on 39 and that was the age Greg Maddux started to show his age.  That leaves Carl Pavano and Kei Igawa as the ballast.  Any time you're depending on Carl Pavano for consistency, you've already lost the battle.  I think this is the year the Yanks don't win the division. 

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