Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Light at the end of the tunnel in Philadelphia sports

Think about where things were in Philadelphia sports at this time just over a year ago. The Eagles had just wrapped up an extremely controversial offseason with Chip Kelly. The Phillies were in the infancy of a rebuild that was long overdue and were in for a long summer. The Sixers finished 18-64 in a season in which neither of their lottery picks from the 2014 NBA Draft played a game. The Flyers missed the playoffs for the second time in three seasons and were looking for a head coach.

At the time, the Eagles were thought to be the saving grace of the city coming off of back-to-back 10-win seasons. Except then the flurry of moves blew up in Kelly’s face and led to his pink slip. The Phillies saw their manager Ryne Sandberg resign, and while they made several trades to move the rebuild along, the team ended the season with 99 loses and an important decision to make regarding its next general manager. The Flyers took the path less traveled and hired a college hockey coach to be their next man behind the bench. The Sixers ended up with one out of a possible four first round picks in the 2015 draft and spent that pick on yet another big man, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor.

All four major sports teams missed the postseason in 2015 and subsequently there were varying amounts of skepticism surrounding the respective futures of each team. The Eagles’ coaching search led to Andy Reid disciple Doug Pederson and many felt the team was trying to recreate the Reid era that ultimately fell short of a parade down Broad Street. The Flyers started 2015-2016 slow and it looked like it would be another year out of the playoffs for the orange and black. The Sixers were on their way to the second lowest win total in a single season in NBA history and the Phillies were again projected to be one of the worst teams in baseball.

                                            Julie Jacobson/Associated Press
Sixers' coach Brett Brown poses with NBA Deputy Commissioner
Mark Tatum after the Sixers win the NBA Draft Lottery.
But today, when you take a look at the state of each team, maybe you’ll conclude it’s not so bleak. After three years of tanking, the Sixers finally won the NBA Draft Lottery last night and are in position to select potential superstars in LSU’s Ben Simmons or Duke’s Brandon Ingram first overall next month. The team’s glut of bigs figures to lead to some interesting trade possibilities this summer. The Flyers overachieved to make the playoffs and pushed the Washington Capitals, this year’s President’s Trophy winners, to six games. The Phillies have been one of the more surprising teams in Major League Baseball almost two months into the season and are 23-17 through 40 games. The Eagles made a blockbuster move up in the NFL Draft to select North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz second overall in hopes of finally getting out of purgatory at the game’s most important position and having a franchise QB.

Despite a long, arduous, and painful last three years in Philadelphia sports, it looks like there’s finally hope. There’s lots of promising young players with each team. Maybe this could be the beginning of something new instead of the continuation of a very stale and despondent time for the city’s professional sports teams.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The All-21st Century Kentucky Derby

In less than 24 hours, the 142nd Run for the Roses gets underway at Churchill Downs. One year after American Pharoah ended the sport’s 37-year drought without a Triple Crown winner, the field of 20 is set for the first leg of horse racing’s marquee month. There are always debates in major sports about historic teams of today against historic teams of yesterday. This year the popular debate was the Golden State Warriors against the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls after the Warriors finished 73-9 to break Chicago’s record of most wins in a single season by one game. So with another Kentucky Derby having arrived, and considering we’re one year removed from history in the sport, it seems like a good time to look back. Here is my own field of the best 10 horses in since 2000.

                                                      David Quinn/Associated Press
Victor Espinoza aboard American Pharoah.
*The years each horse ran in the Triple Crown races are listed in parentheses.

1      American Pharoah (2015): Duh

2      California Chrome (2014): It looked like this was the horse that was going to end the drought after winning the Kentucky Derby comfortably and holding on in the Preakness after Ride on Curlin made a late charge. But it wasn’t to be at the Belmont after California Chrome ran out of gas and finished in fourth place.

3      I’ll Have Another (2012): This horse had perhaps one of the more exciting bids to win the Triple Crown narrowly edging out Bodemeister in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and coming from behind to do so at Pimlico. However, I’ll Have Another was scratched from the Belmont with tendonitis a day before the race.

4      Rachel Alexandra (2009): The 2009 horse of the year won the Kentucky Oaks and took down Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird at the Preakness. Ironically, her normal jockey Calvin Borel rode Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby. She was the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years.

5      Big Brown (2008): He captured the first two jewels of the Triple Crown with relative ease, winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness convincingly. However, Big Brown made history no one wants to make at Belmont Park becoming the first Triple Crown hopeful to fail to finish the Belmont Stakes. Following the race, a picture showed a dislodged shoe on his right hind leg that could have resulted in Big Brown being eased.

6      Barbaro (2006): The Philadelphia-area horse claimed the Kentucky Derby going away, winning by seven lengths. However, a false start two weeks later at the Preakness resulted in a severe injury to Barbaro’s right hind leg and in January of 2007 Barbaro was eventually euthanized.

7      Afleet Alex (2005): After a monumental upset in the Kentucky Derby saw 50-to-1 longshot Giacomo come out on top, Afleet Alex rallied to win the final two legs and had a huge comeback on the final turn at the Belmont. Jockey Jeremy Rose’s only two triple crown race wins came aboard Alfeet Alex.

8      Smarty Jones (2004): This Kennett Square-bred horse looked like he would be the one to end the drought. He made a late move on Lion Heart to grab the Kentucky Derby and smashed the field at the Preakness. He was the first horse since Seattle Slew to enter the Belmont Stakes undefeated. Then Birdstone stole the Belmont Stakes and the wait for a Triple Crown winner continued.

9      Funny Cide (2003): No horse has finished with a faster time at the Kentucky Derby since Funny Cide’s 2:01.19 thirteen years ago. He would claim the Preakness as well before finishing third on a muddy Belmont Park track.

10   War Emblem (2002): The field starts and finishes with a Bob Baffert-Victor Espinoza trainer-jockey combination. The two ended the Triple Crown drought last year but got two-thirds of the way there 14 years ago with War Emblem. However, War Emblem finished a disappointing eighth at Belmont Park as Sarava at a stunning 70-to-1 took the final leg.

Now go debate who would win this race.