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Monday, June 30, 2008

Spain Crowned UEFA Euro 2008 Champions

Germany 0 - 1 Spain

Game 31
Match Information
Stadium: Ernst Happel Stadion
Match Time: 19:45 UK
Referee(s): Roberto Rosetti (Referee)
Peter Frojdfeldt (Fourth Official)
Alessandro Griselli (Linesman)
Paolo Calcagno (Linesman)
Scoring Summary
Germany Spain
Fernando Torres (33)
Match Stats

Germany Spain
Shots (on Goal) 4(3) 14(8)
Fouls 20 19
Corner Kicks 4 7
Offsides 5 4
Time of Possession 53% 47%
Yellow Cards 2 2
Red Cards 0 0
Saves 6 4
Germany Substitutions
Marcell Jansen for Philip Lahm (46)
Kevin Kuranyi for Thomas Hitzlsperger (58)
Mario Gomez for Miroslav Klose (79)
Spain Substitutions
Xabi Alonso for Cesc Fábregas (63)
Santi Cazorla for David Silva (66)
Daniel Güiza for Fernando Torres (78)
Germany Yellow Cards
Name Min
Michael Ballack(43)
Kevin Kuranyi(88)
Spain Yellow Cards
Name Min
Iker Casillas(43)
Fernando Torres(74)
Germany Red Cards
Name Min
No Red Cards
Spain Red Cards
Name Min
No Red Cards

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How tiny Jamaica develops so many champion sprinters

100-METER MAN: Jamaican Asafa Powell has broken the world record four times.
Alfredo Sosa – Staff

Monitor photo director Alfredo Sosa and reporter Matt Clark talk with some of Jamaica's top sprinters and their coach.

As late afternoon trade winds drift into Kingston's National Stadium, the world's fastest man ambles back to his starting blocks.

Usain Bolt's performance in this training session is less than lighting-fast, however, and it fails to impress his coach, Glen Mills. "Make sure you do them good, otherwise you'll do them tomorrow morning – early," he barks.

A month ago, Mr. Bolt lived up to his name by breaking countryman Asafa Powell's world record in the 100-meter dash. The two hold the five fastest recognized times in the event and will go head-to-head this weekend in Jamaica's Olympic trials.

Yet these men are just two of dozens of top-flight Jamaican sprinters who are poised to put the tiny island nation on the map in the same way Kenyans and Ethiopians are known to dominate long-distance running. Jamaica's Olympic track team is so deep in talent that these trials will be like watching American NBA stars vie for a spot on ™basketball's famous Dream Team.

How does a poor Caribbean country of less than 3 million people produce such athletic riches? Improved coaching and a new system to develop raw talent at home have combined with a tradition of seeing sprinting as an inexpensive ticket out of poverty, observers say.

"Where we are today is [like] a flower," says Anthony Davis, the sports director at Jamaica's University of Technology (UTECH), whose programs and facilities helped shape some of Jamaica's finest runners, including Mr. Powell and Bolt. "You'd have had to plant a seed long ago to get where we are today."

And plant they did.

A little more than 30 years ago, former world-record sprinter Dennis Johnson decided to take what he'd learned at San Jose State University in the 1960s and set up a competitive, US-style college athletic program here in his home country. The goal: produce world-class athletes, especially track stars.

At the time, most considered this crazy talk.

Jamaica had long produced some of the world's top high school track athletes, but then they left the island. There was no place in this former British colony's college system for them. Postsecondary education is based on an older British model in which sports are merely a recreational break from the rigors of academia. The only hope of continuing track after high school was to get a scholarship to a foreign university.

Today, Jamaican sprinters still leave, and pad many NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) track rosters.

"In Louisiana, at a high school track meet, we'll find maybe one or two athletes that could be good enough for [Louisiana State University's track program]," says Dennis Shaver, head track coach of the 2008 NCAA championship LSU track team. "[But] in Jamaica, there are probably 50 women ready to fit right into the program every year."

"Jamaicans have played a significant role in the 31 track and field championships we've won over the years," he says, adding that Jamaica will be "very competitive in Beijing."

Competing in the top US schools was, and is, a fast track out of poverty. The problem, as Mr. Johnson saw it, was that too many Jamaicans never came back home, and some even ran for other Olympic teams. (Donovan Bailey of Canada and Linford Christie of Britain are two examples of Jamaican-born Olympic champions.)

That's why Johnson started a sports program at a two-year vocational college here, and that later became UTECH, a four-year college. Through Johnson's work, which has since passed to Mr. Davis, the program now has 280 student athletes and houses the top professional track teams in Jamaica.

By US standards, the training facilities are second class. Jamaica's top sprinters cram into UTECH's tiny gym to pump rusty weights, and they often practice on the school's basic grass track.

"We have to be creative, because we don't have the resources," says Davis, explaining that the lanes of the track are marked with diesel and burned because the school can't afford the machine that lays down chalk lines every week or so. "We had a choice: complain about the resources and do nothing or work with what we have."

Davis is pushing to attract more sponsors for UTECH's programs. The British sports drink company Lucozade now offers two full track scholarships to UTECH, and Davis is hoping that success in Beijing will lead to funding for scoreboards and an indoor track surface. And he knows right where he'd put a new athletic center, if he ever gets the money. "We want someday to be the sports center of the Caribbean," he says.

But UTECH's program is only part of the reason for Jamaica's sprinting prowess. "Coaches have played a very important role and are still playing an important role," says Herb Elliot, a Jamaican member of the International Amateur Athletics Federation's Medical and Anti-Doping Commission. "NCAA scouts come here in droves to recruit, but our athletes often come back [from four years at US universities] tired and mediocre," says Mr. Elliot.

Among the most effective Jamaican coaches today is Powell's coach, Stephen Francis, who founded the Maximizing Velocity and Power (MVP) team in 1999 after getting his MBA from the University of Michigan. "My background is different from most coaches, who were former athletes," says the rotund Mr. Francis, explaining that the Jamaican track establishment did not appreciate his maverick style.

"My philosophy is based on doing things the hard way," he says. "We don't recruit superstars." He looks for latent talent and chooses coachable sprinters who don't have supersized egos.

Brigitte Foster-Hylton is one of Francis's first success stories. When she started working with him in 1999, most didn't see her potential. But she's cut more than half a second off her time in the 100-meter hurdles and won bronze in the event at the 2005 World Championships. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the amount of time Ms. Foster-Hylton cut off her time in the 100-meter hurdles.]

Powell – who says in a matter-of-fact manner that he is still the world's fastest man despite Bolt's record run – is another Francis success story.

Powell struggled as the youngest of six siblings growing up in the Jamaican countryside. He was a good sprinter in high school, but not among Jamaica's very best. A few years ago, one brother was shot to death in a New York cab and another died of a heart attack. The tragedies might have derailed some athletes.

Both of his parents are pastors and he credits a strict upbringing for his focus. "I couldn't miss one day in church and my mom and dad still call to see if I'm going to church," he says. "None of this would've been possible without God, and I pray to him each and every day. But I know that God helps those who help themselves, so I try to help myself."

He says he's ready to win the Olympic gold medal that eluded him four years ago.

But given the recent convictions and confessions of steroid use by track and field athletes, some skeptics question the success of Jamaican sprinters. There have been no recent cases of Jamaicans caught using performance-enhancing drugs. "We are far in advance of the US record for [preventing] doping," says Elliot, who's the top enforcement official in Jamaica. "We preach, cajole, and test," he says. Jamaica makes its athletes available for sudden testing 24/7.

Besides, Elliot says, Jamaica won't tolerate cheats. "Sports is such a part of our culture that the disgrace [of doping] is so great that the Jamaicans that live here wouldn't even consider it."

For now, Jamaicans are reveling in having the world's two fastest men heading into the Beijing Olympics.

"In the sprints, we're as good as any," says Fitz Coleman, a technical coach on Bolt's team who is widely regarded as one of Jamaica's best hurdles coaches. "In fact, we just might be the measuring stick at this point in time."

Another reason for Jamaicans' success: their attitude, according to Mr. Coleman. "We genuinely believe that we'll conquer," he says. "It's a mindset. We're small and we're poor, but we believe in ourselves."

Original here

Fantasy Baseball Owner Rips Team In Media

BROOKLYN, NY—Mark Mendicus, 26-year-old Staples employee and principal owner of the fantasy baseball team Beat With Uggla Stick, blasted his underperforming team in the media Monday, going so far as to single out individual players, criticize their recent play, and question their commitment to winning.

"They all suck," a visibly frustrated Mendicus told reporters following Beat With Uggla Stick's head-to-head 8-2 loss to division rivals The Mark Currys. "[Alex] Rios sucks, Delmon [Young] sucks, Pedro [Martinez] fucking sucks. Everybody on my team sucks."

"The Beat With Uggla Sticks have a proud tradition of winning," continued Mendicus, whose team has made the playoffs the past two years, including a league championship win in 2006. "But apparently that means nothing to this group of players. Apparently they'd rather just lose every single 5x5 category. Apparently my players don't care about winning the 12-team Yahoo! Plus 'Mmm…Fantasy Baseball' league pennant as much as I do."

Mendicus had high expectations for his team coming into the season, but his players have been plagued by injuries and inconsistency, losing six of their first eight matchups en route to a 22-46-14 overall record. The historically temperamental owner did not hold back his opinions after their latest humiliating defeat, telling the New York Post that Prince Fielder "had better start hitting some fucking home runs already" before making several vicious personal attacks on the first baseman, calling him a "fatass," a "fat bastard," and a "fat fuck" in the course of one statement.

"I paid $38 for [Fielder], and this is what I get?" Mendicus said, directing reporters' attention to Fielder's "putrid" Yahoo! Game Log. "Twelve home runs. Twelve goddamn home runs. When you pay $38 for a guy, you had better give them a hell of a lot more than 12 home runs through the first half. I got you for your power, buddy, not your walks. This is a batting average league, anyway, not an on-base percentage league, so walks don't fucking matter. It's like these guys don't understand that."

Mendicus continued his heated rant, calling shortstop Felipe Lopez a "talentless hack whose multiple position eligibility is the only thing saving his ass from waivers," claiming that pitcher Ian Snell is "killing [him] in WHIP, absolutely killing [him]," and encouraging outfielder Brad Hawpe to "go eat shit." He then accused the whole team of not stealing enough bases and "not playing like true Beat With Uggla Sticks."

He did, however, reserve some praise for hot-hitting second baseman Dan Uggla upon learning that Uggla homered twice that day, saying, "That's you, Danny."

With his team already down 9-1 in this week's matchup against Gary Sheffield's Head Vein, Mendicus issued an ultimatum, claiming that unless his team delivers at least a tie, there will "be some changes around here." Mendicus said that "no one is safe," and had particularly strong words for pitcher Chris Young, who three weeks ago was hit in the face with a line drive and has not made a single start since.

"Toughen up, you little baby," Mendicus said. "You don't throw with your face, do you? I already got Phil [Hughes] in the DL slot, so you better get your ass back in action."

Mendicus has a reputation for following his players' performance with intense scrutiny and personal investment, often to a fanatical degree. It is rumored that he monitors their progress on multiple Yahoo! Sports box score windows on his computer screen, and will erupt into obscenity-laden tirades at work after a mere groundout or caught stealing.

"Fuck you Edwin, you good-for-nothing piece of shit," Mendicus was overheard as saying while angrily clicking the "Refresh" button on his web browser 14 times after pitcher Edwin Jackson loaded the bases with three straight walks. "Throw the ball over the goddamn plate. I need a win here, you idiot. I'm getting killed in wins."

For some players on Mendicus' team, the demand for instant results, the constant threats to be released or traded, and the nonstop verbal abuse is too much. Pitcher Jeremy Guthrie has been dropped and picked up by Mendicus seven times already this season, and he says he doesn't like playing under such volatile conditions.

"I wish he'd have a little faith in me," Guthrie said. "I don't like being picked up the night before my start and then simply dropped the next day. It wears on you as a player. And now I have to explain myself to my kids when they read in the papers that their daddy is a 'shit-for-brains asshole who can't even get five strikeouts when that's all we needed to win the category.'"

"I'm sorry, but when I have runners on first and third and one out, I'm going to go for the double play to get out of the inning, not the strikeout," Guthrie added. "Even though they don't give out 'points' for double plays."

Some players, however, praised Mendicus for his fiery attitude and desire to win, saying they prefer that to the kind of owners who treat their fantasy teams like nothing more than a fun distraction from their real jobs.

"It's good that he cares," said Beat With Uggla Stick catcher Jorge Posada. "Some owners, like Garrett Baldwin of the Smilin' Joe Randas, or Mike Broberg of Tiny Damon, they just sort of check in every once in a while to see how we're doing, but that's it. In fact, I've been on the Tiny Damon's bench since I went on the DL in April, and they don't even have anyone in the catcher slot. That's just shoddy ownership."

"But there's also a thing called caring too much," Posada added. "You can only be called a worthless shitbag after popping out so many times before it starts to sting. It's at the point where playing for Mendicus is almost as bad as playing for Hank Steinbrenner."

Original here

No-hit win makes no sense, except in baseball

Kurkjian By Tim Kurkjian

Baseball is the best game in part because every night you go to the ballpark, you might see something you've never seen before. No other sport can say that like baseball can, and Saturday night at Dodger Stadium was just such a night, a night that made no sense.

The Dodgers did not get a hit, yet won the game. The Angels did not allow a hit, yet lost the game. The final score was 1-0, marking the fifth time since 1900 that a team did not get a hit but won the game. The losing pitcher was Jered Weaver, who threw six no-hit innings but was taken out for a pinch hitter in the top of the seventh inning after 98 pitches. When he left, the Angels trailed, 1-0, thanks to an unearned run allowed in the fifth. This is the third time in the expansion era (since 1961) that baseball has had an eight-inning no-hitter: Boston's Matt Young threw one against Cleveland in 1992, and the Yankees' Andy Hawkins pitched one against the White Sox in 1990. Hawkins' no-hitter was officially considered a no-hitter at the time, but in 1991, the rule was changed, negating his gem. Now, according to major league rules, an official no-hitter is "when a pitcher (or pitchers) allows no hits during the entire course of a game, which consists of at least nine innings.'' So, the no-hitters by Young and Hawkins are not considered no-hitters, nor is the no-hitter thrown by Weaver and Jose Arredondo, who pitched the seventh and eighth innings for the road team Saturday night. So the Angels did not allow a hit but did not throw a no-hitter. Angels manager Mike Scioscia didn't have much of a choice but to remove Weaver. Weaver probably could have gone another inning or two, but the Angels were losing, they've had trouble scoring runs all season, they hadn't scored a run in the first 15 innings of the series at Dodger Stadium, and Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley was dealing. Weaver can blame interleague play for his removal. In the same weekend that the record for RBIs in a game by a DH was set by a National League player (Met Carlos Delgado), an American League pitcher was pulled from a game for a pinch hitter despite holding a no-hitter after six innings. There was a questionable scoring call in the fifth inning. The Dodgers' Matt Kemp, who runs very well, hit a little grounder that was spinning furiously when Weaver reached it about 20 feet from first base. He took his eye off it briefly, then was unable to pick it up. Official scorer Don Hartack, who's employed by the Dodgers, ruled it an error, which was the correct call. Some official scorers will tell you that the first hit of a game has to be a legitimate one just in case it is the only hit of the game. Some may say that Kemp might have beaten out the ball had it been fielded cleanly, and therefore it should have been scored a hit. But imagine the uproar if the Angels had scored a couple of runs, Weaver had allowed no other hits for nine innings, and that play had been scored a hit. It would have been viewed as a homer call for the Dodgers. In the divisional era (since 1969), there have been three no-hitters in which a run was scored by the losing team: Darryl Kile allowed one in his no-hitter in 1993, Joe Cowley in his in 1986, and Blue Moon Odom and Francisco Barrios in their combined no-hitter in 1976. (Cowley walked eight in his no-hitter. Then-White Sox coach Doug Rader jokingly said after the game that "Cowley pitched so badly, I didn't even shake his hand after the game.'') The Angels have thrown eight no-hitters in franchise history; the past six have involved either Nolan Ryan (four) or Mike Witt, who threw a perfect game in 1984, then pitched in a combined no-hitter with Mark Langston on April 11, 1990. The most recent no-hitter at Dodger Stadium was by Kent Mercker of the Braves on April 8, 1994. But those are still in play because a no-hitter was not thrown Saturday night at Dodger Stadium, even though the Dodgers didn't get a hit. This could only happen in baseball, the best game.

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The dying art of the knuckleball

Boston's Tim Wakefield, 41, has found longevity with the knuckleball and hopes to pitch until he's 50.
Boston's Tim Wakefield, 41, has found longevity with the knuckleball and hopes to pitch until he's 50.

By John Bolster, Special to

In the Red Sox clubhouse a few hours before the start of a drizzly, early-May game against the Rays, Tim Wakefield wraps his hand around a brand-new baseball and models his knuckleball grip. On television, Wakefield's grip appears claw-like and uncomfortable, but up close, it looks effortless: His hand envelopes the ball easily, fingertips lodged just below the seam, ball snug against his palm. It's a grip that has helped him to more than 170 victories and a solid, if sometimes strange, 16-year major-league career.

Since the low-velocity knuckleball is comparatively easy on the arm, Wakefield can pitch on zero days' rest when his team needs him to, and he routinely finishes among the Sox' leaders in innings pitched. He's 41 now, and could easily extend his career another six, seven, even eight years. (After pitching seven scoreless innings in a 5-0 win over Arizona on Wednesday, Wakefield is 5-5 with a 3.88 ERA this season.) Knuckleball legend Hoyt Wilhelm was one week shy of his 50th birthday when he called it quits. Phil Niekro, a.k.a. "Knucksie", pitched till he was 48. Wakefield says he'll pitch as long as he can -- even into his 50s.

"Barring injury or anything like that -- absolutely," he says.

Considering Wakefield's example (not to mention his current salary of $4 million a year), and the way the knuckleball frequently makes batters look silly, why don't more players try to learn this pitch? Why are Wakefield and Seattle's R.A. Dickey the only knuckleballers currently on a major-league roster?

It's been roughly 100 years since the knuckleball first wobbled into the sightline of a major-league hitter, and yet we're not much closer to understanding the pitch today than that first unsuspecting Dead Ball-era batter must have been, when he stepped in the box and saw it floating in his direction, spinless, hypnotic and uncertain. Indeed, almost everything about the knuckleball -- from its origins, to the best way to grip it, to its flight path, and even its future in the game -- is uncertain.

No one can say for sure who threw the first one, though pitchers Toad Ramsay and Old Hoss Radbourne delivered knuckle-like pitches as early as the 1880s. Those pitches, called "dry spitballs" or "drop curves," traveled with some velocity, and probably had more spin than a pure knuckleball, which sails toward the plate at about the national highway speed limit and (that being the only traffic law it obeys), darts this way and that, or wobbles and drops unpredictably at the last minute. Satchel Paige called it the "bat dodger." Tim McCarver said trying to hit it is like "trying to catch a butterfly with tweezers."

The first appearance of that pitch in the major leagues came in 1908, when Eddie Cicotte and Ed Summers started throwing it for the Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers, respectively. Ciccotte (pronounced SEE-COT) gripped the top of the ball with his knuckles, whereas Summers, like most of the other players who adopted the pitch, dug his nails into the cover of the ball to produce the same low-spin, high-flutter effect. Despite the fact that very few pitchers since Ciccotte have actually used their knuckles to throw the pitch, the name endures. So does the pitch, just barely.

It wasn't always that way. The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers lists 70 pure knuckleball pitchers in baseball history, adding that "literally hundreds" more have had the pitch in their arsenals. In the 1940s and '50s, by co-author Rob Neyer's estimate, "something like half the pitchers in the majors occasionally threw a knuckleball." The 1945 Washington Senators featured four knuckleball pitchers on their staff, and missed winning the American League pennant by a game and a half. (Rick Ferrell was their long-suffering catcher that year, starting 91 games, and allowing 21 passed balls. His backups, Al Evans and Mike Guerra, allowed 19, giving the Senators 40 passed balls that year. No other AL team had more than 18.)

But the flow of flutterballers gradually decreased to a trickle during the ensuing decades, and when Wakefield came up in 1992 there were only two other knuckleball pitchers in the majors, Charlie Hough and Tom Candiotti. That's roughly how it's been ever since: "Like some cult religion that barely survives," says former AL umpire Ron Luciano, "there has always been at least one but rarely more than five or six devotees throwing the knuckleball in the big leagues." After Hough retired in 1994, Dennis Springer and Steve Sparks arrived to swell the ranks to four. They were both gone by 2004, but others drifted through, including Jared Fernandez (three teams), Charlie Haeger (White Sox) and Dickey. Fernandez is out of baseball now, Haeger is back in the minors, and Dickey, before a recent win over the Mets, had been 0-3 with a 13.50 ERA in three starts for Seattle. So Wakefield essentially stands alone -- the only player with sufficient mastery of this unpredictable pitch to be an established major-league starter.

Phil Niekro had a Hall-of-Fame career with the knuckleball, winning 318 games.
Phil Niekro had a Hall-of-Fame career with the knuckleball, winning 318 games.

So what does it take to master the knuckleball? "I don't know if I ever did master it," says Niekro, a Hall of Famer who won 318 games with the pitch. "Even by the time I'd retired. I don't know if anyone ever masters it."

There's far more mystery surrounding the knuckleball than hard knowledge. Physicists don't even agree, exactly, on why the pitch does what it does; pitchers report that they can't see the ball's legendary darting movement -- relying on their catchers for word of how well it's dancing -- and most fans have never truly glimpsed one in all its hiccupping glory, either. Viewed from, say, the first-baseline seats, a knuckleball looks totally ordinary, like a guy playing catch.

The pitch gets its movement from the disruption of the airflow around the baseball's seams. The physics are as dizzying as the pitch itself, but suffice to say that the disrupted air causes a pressure drop along the leading seam, and the ball follows the low pressure. As the ball rotates -- slightly, slowly -- the low-pressure spot changes and the ball will shift in another direction. Several other elements enter into the process, including wake, and the Magnus Effect (a physical phenomenon where a spinning object creates a whirlpool of rotating air), but the bottom line is that the knuckleball pitcher wants about half a rotation on the ball from mound to plate, maybe one full rotation, but any more than that and the effect is ruined. You're left with a junior-high fastball spinning toward a major-league batter.

So the knuckleballer needs to muffle spin. That starts with grip. Yet there is no one way to properly grip the pitch; in fact, there are almost as many different knuckleball grips as there have been knuckleball pitchers. Wakefield uses a two-seam, two-finger grip, with his right pinky flaring off the ball on delivery. Niekro used two fingers, straddling the seam; Charlie Zink, a Red Sox prospect with Triple-A Pawtucket, also straddles the seam, Niekro-style, but uses a part-knuckle, part-fingernail grip. "I actually stick my index knuckle on the ball," he says, "and then my middle fingernail." The hybrid grip is working for him: through Thursday, Zink was 8-2 with a 2.33 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP.

The next step after killing rotation is learning to repeat your mechanics. Wakefield may look like your neighbor's dad soft-tossing at a backyard barbecue when he sends his floaters plateward, but there's much more to his delivery than meets the eye. It's not a gimmicky, trick pitch. "That's the biggest misconception," says Kevin Cash, who replaced Doug Mirabelli as Wakefield's catcher last season. "There's a lot of thought and detail that goes into what he does. He throws the knuckleball, but he's a big-league pitcher. And what he does to major-league hitters at 65 miles an hour, some guys don't have as much success doing it at 95 miles per hour."

While a conventional pitcher throwing a fastball strides toward the plate to increase leverage, and flicks his wrist at his release point to increase spin, a knuckleball pitcher shortens up his stride and keeps his wrist stiff. He also pushes his fingers out behind the ball, straight at the catcher, to kill spin. And it all has to be done just so, every time, or you risk disaster. "You can throw a fastball poorly, and if you have a good arm, it still might work," says Hough. "But a poorly thrown knuckleball never works."

With all its moving parts, and the need to repeat very specific mechanics, the knuckleball delivery lends ready comparisons to the golf swing. Both Zink and Haeger, the White Sox prospect, considered pro golf careers before committing to baseball. "Mentally, just the patience in golf and having to keep the same tempo the whole way through. That really helps you out with throwing the knuckleball," says Zink. "You can't overswing in golf, and you can't overthrow this pitch. So it goes along with what I do really well."

Wakefield adds that, as with the golf swing, there's very little margin for error in throwing the knuckleball. He talks about "going around on one," or "getting too far on the inside of one." Translation: "I'm either hooking it, or slicing it." Either mistake can produce spin, which, in turn, can produce a ball traveling "475 feet in the opposite direction," in the words of former knuckleballer Jim Bouton.

It takes a certain type to throw a high-finesse, low-velocity pitch into the teeth of major-league hitting -- when everyone knows what's coming. "You gotta be pretty calm, and yet pretty competitive," says Hough. "It's not a pitch you can muscle up on."

"You can't care what other people think of it," says Niekro. "Because I was called every name in the book out there on the mound: 'knuckle-brain,' 'pus arm.' Which was okay, because I knew they were frustrated and they didn't like it, they were having a hard time with it."

"It's gotta be somebody that has a carefree attitude," says Wakefield. "I don't mean 'carefree' like you don't care, but that you're not full of care or any less care, you're just in the middle. Where you're willing to take your lumps and not get down on yourself, because when you lose the feel of [the pitch] for a while, it can be bad. But just try to stay as even-keeled as you can."

"I know I get along with all the other knuckleballers," says Zink. "So maybe there is [a type]. We're all really laid-back. I'm guessing that's gotta help."

Through there aren't many knuckleballers in the minors, the Red Sox have one in Charlie Zink, who is 8-2 with a 2.33 ERA at Triple-A Pawtucket.
Through there aren't many knuckleballers in the minors, the Red Sox have one in Charlie Zink, who is 8-2 with a 2.33 ERA at Triple-A Pawtucket.

If the pitchers need to be laid-back, well, think of the knuckleball catchers. Take an already thankless position and, oh, quadruple the degree of difficulty of its fundamental purpose, namely catching the damn ball. Bob Uecker had a foolproof technique for catching the knuckler: "Wait'll it stops rolling, then go pick it up."

Next time you see Wakefield pitch, take a look at Cash behind the dish. He doesn't square up to Wakefield, but squats at an angle, his knees pointed toward first base. Cash says this gives his receiving hand a better range of motion because it removes one of his knees from the crash-landing area of the knuckleball. With only one knee in the center, instead of two on either side, he can move his catching hand from side to side depending on which way the ball knuckles. "The most important thing is to try to relax your hand as much as possible," he says. "And catch the ball deep, as close to your body as you can." He also uses an oversized "knuckleball mitt" provided by Wakefield. It looks more like a first basemen's glove than a traditional catcher's mitt. As unreasonable as the job may be, though, the ability to catch the knuckleball -- like the ability to throw it for strikes -- can be a ticket to the major leagues.

Which brings us back to the question of why more players don't learn the pitch. Hough has a good answer: "Why don't more guys throw 95 mph? Because it's really hard to do!" A lot of pro ballplayers break out their knuckleballs during warm-ups or downtime, but according to Zink, not many can throw one out of 10 well, just playing catch. "Then when you get on the mound," he says, "it's a whole other feeling -- and to have to throw it for strikes, consistently, is really difficult."

The casual look of the pitch disguises its degree of difficulty. Beyond that, the culture of sports has changed. How many drop-shot artists are left in tennis these days? Golf is increasingly power- (and equipment-) driven; the yardage at Augusta has increased from 6,925 yards in 1990 (and the previous 50 years) to more than 7,400 this year. Needless to say, baseball is no exception. Minor league dollars go toward developing pitchers with killer arms. The knuckleball is a finesse pitch, and a homespun (or not spun) one at that. Most guys learned it from their fathers, or taught themselves. Very few coaches can coach it. Niekro and Wakefield honed theirs for years in the backyard.

"I never played Little League, or Pony League, or T-ball," says Niekro. "My first organized game was when I was a freshman in high school. By that time I was already throwing the knuckleball, and had been throwing it in the backyard with my dad for years. No one ever told me I couldn't do it. But nowadays, what kid can go up to a high school coach and say, 'I want to be a knuckleball pitcher'? The high school coach will say, 'I don't know anything about that, I can't help you."

Knuckleball pitchers are found, or "stumbled into," in Hough's phrase, but rarely made. Wakefield started out as an infielder in the Pirates organization and was converted after one of Pittsburgh's coaches saw him fooling around with the knuckler during warm-ups. Three years later he made the big-league club, went 8-1 and beat Atlanta's Tom Glavine twice in the NLCS. Zink began as a power pitcher at Savannah College of Art and Design, of all places, where the coach was ex-Boston pitcher Luis Tiant. (Clearly the Red Sox, starting with Ciccotte in 1908, are dialed into the butterfly ball).

In 2002, a Red Sox trainer asked Zink to throw a flutterball during warm-ups. The trainer opted not to wear a mask -- a decision he regretted when Zink's first floater popped him in the eye. "He wanted to see it..." says Zink, chuckling. Zink had taught himself the pitch after watching Wakefield in the '92 playoffs.

At the moment Zink appears to be Wakefield's most likely heir apparent, but Haeger, who spent parts of 2006 and '07 in the majors, has pitched 65-plus innings at Triple-A Charlotte this season, and could yet make a return to the bigs. Cash has faced both pitchers and says, "they're definitely on the right track to throw it at the big-league level."

There are others, and rumors of others. Simon Ferrer is throwing the pitch with the Class A Modesto Nuts, a Colorado Rockies affiliate. Dickey throws a hard knuckleball and is experimenting with the slower "pure" version as he struggles to secure a place in Seattle." Sean Flaherty, a former prodigy (he threw the pitch regularly in high school), went to the University of Miami on a baseball scholarship in 2005, but has since left the program, whereabouts unknown.

It's common for end-of-an-era alarm bells to be rung when the major-league knuckling population dips so low, but it seems clear that baseball's most perplexing and charming pitch does indeed have a future. Which is a good thing, because what's not to like about the knuckleball? It's the tortoise-beating-the-hare; it's analog in a digital world; it's a curiosity -- and a seriously effective pitch. It also has a pronounced comic side: Niekro tells of striking a guy out on a pitch behind him; Zink witnessed a batter pull a ribcage muscle swinging at one of his pitches; and Wakefield once plunked Terry Steinbach with a 65 mph floater that landed "so perfectly square on the elbow that he had to come out of the game," he notes, with a grin. It's a finesse pitch and it's sly, but it's also in-your-face.

As Niekro says, "I was throwing the 'here-it-comes, the 'I'll-tell-you-it's-coming-now. Can you hit it? Go ahead and hit it.'"

Original here

Sunday, June 29, 2008

China Troublemakers on Lockdown for Olympics

If you are a troublemaker in Shanghai, then the China government has issued you a notice.

“In order to strengthen public order during the Olympics and ensure the Games go smoothly, these are the rules important controlled people in our area must follow from April 1 to October 31.”

“Do not pick quarrels in public places”, “Do not express any political opinion to foreign reporters” and “Do not distort the truth, intentionally spread rumours or use other methods to whip up and disturb social order”.

In addition to the above rules, the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy issue a statement to the so called “troublemakers“, petitioners, or anyone on the “controlled” list, ordering them not to leave the city of Shanghai during the coming Olympics.

They have also been instructed not to talk about their political opinions to foreigners, leave the country (which is odd since they can’t leave Shanghai to begin with), or store weapons and explosives at their homes.

Anyone caught breaking the rules from April 1 to October 31, will be detained or prosecuted, depending on the rule broken.

falun-gong China Troublemakers on Lockdown for Olympics picture

The 2008 Olympic games will open on August 8th in Beijing, China.

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Chinese Man Pierced 2008 Times for Upcoming Olympics

China has been buzzing with anticipation for the 2008 Olympics this summer. From putting up sexy Olympic street lights to naming 3,500 babies after the event, you can definitely feel the pride and excitement for the coming games.

Wei, a 60 year-old Chinese acupuncturist from Guangxi province, showed his patriotism for the upcoming Olympics by piercing his head, face, chest, and arms with 2008 decorative needles in five different colors.

The event broke his previous Guinness Record of 1790 needles set in 2004. Wei also hopes to share more about the history of acupuncture to the world.

Initially inspired after reading about a Canadian who had set a record for inserting 420 needles in his arm, Wei felt that it was “not much compared to our centuries-old acupuncture,” and began experimenting with piercing his own body with needles.

On January 13, 2007, Wei had also paraded through town with 800 needles in his forehead and even put on skates and skated around the streets to show he was not in pain and alright.

“I shook with fear when I saw his hedgehog-head. It seemed like he must be hurting himself.” said a lady in her sixties.

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How was Tiger Woods able to play golf for a year with a badly injured knee?

Tiger Woods golf ACL knee

TIGER WOODS holds onto his knee as he comes out of a bunker during the third round of the US Open championship.
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File

Tiger Woods revealed last week that he'd been playing golf on a bum left knee for nearly a year. And he hadn't been doing badly: Recently, he finished second at the Master's and won the U.S. Open after forcing a playoff last week.

We'll never know if perfect knee health would have meant another green jacket. What we do know is that he winced in pain after every shot and caused more damage to his knee.

Woods had torn the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee about 10 months ago. One of four rubber band–like ligaments that connects the thigh bone (femur) to the tibia (the bone that makes up your shin) the ACL is the primary stabilizer of the knee. It extends from the back of the femur to the front of the tibia and basically keeps the lower bone from rotating all the way around when you pivot on your foot, allowing you to make sharp turns.

Such tears are a common injury in basketball, soccer, football and skiing, in which cutting, turning and pivoting are important parts of the game. For a college basketball player an ACL tear is a season-ending injury. People who injure the ligament typically hear a pop as it ruptures and the joint seems to give out.

It's exceedingly rare for anyone to tear an ACL playing golf, and in fact Woods says he did it while running. Not only are ACL tears rare in golfers, but for a typical golfer, the injury won't keep you from playing.

So why did Woods decide to have his injury repaired, meaning he would need to miss so much golf?

It's probably because in Woods's case, his whole golf swing is all about rotation. He gets much more hip and lower-back rotation than any other golfer I have seen. The ACL is the only thing holding that rotation back, so his knee is under more pressure than the average golfer's. That means more pressure on the cartilage (the whitish tissue found at joints between bones) in his knee.

Without the ACL preventing it, repeated stress can soften and weaken the cartilage, which can break off. That's probably what happened in Woods's knee, and it squares with the fact that he had surgery in April to remove broken cartilage in that joint. The reason he didn't have the ACL repair done at that time, according to a statement by Woods, was that he wanted to play in June at the U.S. Open at the Torrey Pines Golf Course outside San Diego near where he grew up. Recovering from the cartilage surgery was only supposed to take several weeks, whereas the ACL surgery would have put him out through October or so.

He was able to play, but his knee may have held him back—and certainly kept him in pain. The rotation required to execute a Tiger Woods's swing is immense, and if Tiger can't rotate like Tiger, he can't play like Tiger. Tiger Woods at 90 percent can still win tournaments—as he showed last week—but being less than perfect falls short of his own demanding standards.

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Disappointing night for many early entrants


By Andy Katz

NEW YORK -- When will the underclassmen learn that the NBA draft can be a cruel and unforgiving process?

Mississippi State junior Jamont Gordon and USC freshman Davon Jefferson got a tough lesson Thursday. After leaving school early, both failed to be selected in the NBA draft. They flushed away their college eligibility, they lost their amateur status and now they'll be trying to make a team as a free agent.

Last month, Gordon chose to turn down an invitation to the Orlando pre-draft camp. The word was that he thought he would go in the first round.

Jefferson went to Orlando and at the time said he felt he was ready to make the jump to the NBA.

Both players better hope they get to the D-League and somehow make the NBA the hard way.

Even though a record 10 freshmen were selected in the first round, there were a number of disappointed underclassmen Thursday night. Clearly, a handful of early entrants got poor advice about their draft status, stayed in the draft instead of returning to school and plummeted below expectations.

Texas A&M's DeAndre Jordan left the Aggies after one season to go in the second round, No. 35 overall, to the L.A. Clippers. Jordan might have a shot to get a guaranteed contract, but clearly he didn't leave college for a second-round selection. He is a work in progress, but there was a theory that the work would be done as a first-round guaranteed selection.

Those close to Jordan during this NBA draft process raved about his raw talent, but the Aggies' staff had reasons for not playing him much toward the end of the season. They weren't enamored with his overall skill set, and that's why he'll have to earn his way in the NBA as a second-round pick.

New Jersey might have a steal in Memphis junior guard Chris Douglas-Roberts. But it still must have been a hard landing for CDR to go to No. 40.

Alabama junior Richard Hendrix, BYU junior Trent Plaisted and Kansas State freshman Bill Walker can't complain about going in the second round. Hendrix and Plaisted knew they likely had no shot to go in the first round when they decided to stay in the draft. Walker had to know that once he injured his knee -- again -- and decided to stay in the draft that he was likely going to go in the second round. There was some hope that he could go in the first, but that seemed to be less realistic as the night progressed.

Hendrix went to Golden State at No. 49. Plaisted went to Detroit (after Seattle traded the rights) at No. 46. Walker got dealt to Boston after getting selected by Washington at No. 47.

Kansas sophomore Darrell Arthur must be exhausted since he didn't get selected until No. 27 by New Orleans, which had already sold his rights to Portland. Arthur was then moved to Houston and eventually to Memphis.

Arthur was once projected as a lottery pick but might have dropped in the draft due to concerns over a reported blood test that showed a potential kidney issue. After he was picked late in the first round, he was traded for Donte Greene at the end of the night.

Greene, the Syracuse freshman, stayed in the draft because he assumed that he would go close to the lottery, if not in the lottery. Greene went No. 28 to Memphis but then ended the evening in Houston.

Chris Douglas-Roberts

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Chris Douglas-Roberts left Memphis early only to fall to the middle of the second round, where he won't have a guaranteed contract.

The big winners of the disappointed underclassmen actually might be Kansas junior Mario Chalmers and UCLA junior forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.

Chalmers didn't get selected until No. 34 by Minnesota, but he was dealt to Miami for two future second-round picks. This is great news for Chalmers since he is going to a team that coveted a point guard late in the first round. The Heat couldn't get another pick, and once they selected forward Michael Beasley with the second overall pick, they needed to get a point guard. Chalmers can be the answer as a potential backcourt mate for Dwyane Wade. Chalmers will likely have the best shot of any of these second-round picks to get a guaranteed contract.

Mbah a Moute knew he was a long shot for the first round, but he went to a team in Milwaukee at No. 37 that had interest in him for his defense and rebounding. Mbah a Moute will have a shot to make the Bucks.

While a number of underclassmen fell in the draft, Cal sophomore Ryan Anderson went to New Jersey at No. 21, higher than projected. Anderson took a gamble by staying in the draft, and it paid off handsomely for him. Florida sophomore Marreese Speights got a good situation when he went at No. 16 to Philadelphia. Nevada sophomore JaVale McGee (No. 18 to Washington), NC State freshman J.J. Hickson (No. 19 to Cleveland) and Ohio State freshman Kosta Koufos (No. 23 to Utah) were essentially picked in the range they were projected.

Still, the overriding question is whether there be lessons learned from Jefferson and Gordon. Will anyone ever pay attention to how far some of these projected lottery picks slid?

The sad truth is that a year from now, in the 2009 NBA draft, a few players will make the exact same mistake and leave school too early.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at

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Nets trade Jefferson to Bucks for Yi

By Ian Thomsen,

Forward Richard Jefferson (left) averaged a career-high 22.6 points last season.
Forward Richard Jefferson (left) averaged a career-high 22.6 points last season.

The Milwaukee Bucks have agreed in principle to trade Yi Jianlian to the New Jersey Nets for Richard Jefferson, two league sources told

The Bucks also are sending Bobby Simmons to the Nets. He has $20.5 million left on a contract that expires in the summer of 2010, when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh could become free agents.

This trade could be seen as a sign that the Nets truly are interested in getting involved in the LeBron sweepstakes, based in no small part on his close friendship with Nets minority owner Jay-Z. As a result of this trade, the Nets are no longer committed to paying Jefferson $15 million in 2010-11.

Yi's camp was said to be ecstatic about going to the rebuilding Nets and playing in a major market, which was one of the original concerns when he was drafted by the Bucks last year. Yi threatened to not sign with Milwaukee in hopes of forcing a trade to another team.

The Bucks, meanwhile, are providing new coach Scott Skiles with a veteran player who can help him win now. Jefferson averaged 22.6 points a game last season.

The Bucks also retain their No. 8 pick in the draft to further revamp their team. The Nets hold the No. 10 pick.

More draft buzz


• The top of the draft remained in turmoil less than four hours before the first pick.

A report Thursday afternoon that the Clippers had reached an agreement to move up to No. 4 in the draft, with the Sonics moving back to No. 7, was dismissed as premature by a league source with knowledge of the negotiations. It is a fact that the two teams have been talking, and that it could be consummated if O.J. Mayo is available at No. 4.

This could mean that the Clippers want Mayo to play for them next year as the No. 4 pick. Or, as another league source noted, it could suggest a bigger deal is in the works with Miami.

Under this proposal, the Clippers could send the rights to Mayo and Elton Brand to Miami for the rights to Beasley (the No. 2 pick) along with Shawn Marion. The Clippers could then either sign Marion to an extension or allow him to become a free agent, generating cap relief in 2009 when his $17.9 million salary comes off the books. The bottom line for the Clippers: They would get an exceptional talent in Beasley on a cheap rookie contract in exchange for the far more expensive Brand, who will make $16.4 million next season if he doesn't opt out this summer.

Miami has been putting out the word that it is interested in moving the No. 2 pick in hopes of following the example of the Celtics, who used their lottery pick in last year's draft to trade for Ray Allen as part of their successful attempt to win a championship immediately. The Heat would come out of this swap with the Clippers with Brand and Mayo to go with a healthy Dwyane Wade, which would enable them to challenge Boston and Detroit in the Eastern Conference one year after having the worst record in the league.

• Speculation of a trade involving Miami, however, was dependent on the Timberwolves' using the No. 3 pick to take Kevin Love instead of Mayo.

Word around the league for some time is that Minnesota VP Kevin McHale is enamored with Love. On the morning of the draft, however, a rumor about Love's knees was spreading around the league.

A league exec who has studied the medical reports said Love underwent surgery in his early teens to have his kneecaps realigned. According to that executive, his team doctor had studied the medical records and approved Love as ready to play in the NBA. Doctors with other teams were known to have made a similar assessment.

None of this information about Love's knees -- which NBA teams had known for some time but nevertheless was being discussed among league executives Thursday -- was not expected to serve as a last-minute impediment to his standing in the lottery.

• The Spurs (No. 26) and Celtics (No. 30) were said to be shopping their picks in an attempt to get out of the first round, according to league sources.

• As of Thursday afternoon, it appeared that the proposed trade of Jermaine O'Neal to Toronto for T.J. Ford had received the medical OK of both teams and was expected to be finalized (for salary-cap purposes) on July 9. The trade was always at risk until Ford was cleared by Indiana's doctors; the point guard has a worrisome history of injuries before and after his 2004 surgery to fuse two vertebrae in his neck.

The main reason the Raptors were looking to move Ford was to create room -- on the court and in their budget -- for Jose Calderon, a restricted free agent expected to be retained by Toronto this summer.

Indiana will also wind up with center Rasho Nesterovic and the No. 17 pick in the draft to go with its own pick at No. 11. The Pacers were expected to reach out for a point guard with their higher selection, but if Ford is on their roster they'll be able to go in a different direction. Many rival executives believe the Pacers could use the No. 11 pick on LSU big man Anthony Randolph, the player seen as having the biggest upside in the draft. The hope would be that he would become a star to eventually replace O'Neal up front.

The Pacers are expected to use the No. 17 pick for a big man to help fill in for O'Neal in the short term. I'm guessing they'll go for Georgetown's Roy Hibbert there.

• Nicolas Batum checked out OK. There was talk last week that the French forward might not be available because of worries about the condition of his heart. Now there is a feeling among some teams that these fears might have been exaggerated in order to place Batum with the organization of his choice. He underwent a full medical exam and has been cleared to be drafted. One possible home for Batum is Cleveland at No. 19.

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Behind the scenes of the Fresno ball girl video

NBA star LeBron James has a vertical leap of 44 inches, but he's got nothing on Fresno's ball girl.

MiLB Headlines
If you regularly peruse the World Wide Web, there is a good chance you have seen the "Ball girl Makes Incredible Catch" video making the rounds over the past couple of days. In the 39-second clip, a ball girl at Fresno's Chukchansi Park climbs the left-field wall to make an amazing leaping catch.

Well, at least some of what appears in that video actually happened.

This much is true: on April 17, the Fresno Grizzlies hosted the Tacoma Rainiers in an evening contest at Chukchansi Park. And at some point in the ballgame, Tacoma's Brent Johnson came to the plate against Victor Santos and lofted a deep fly ball down the left-field line.

What didn't happen (at least not in real life) is the catch itself. The ball girl was a stunt woman, working on behalf of an advertising production agency that was filming a Gatorade ad. However, this particular campaign was scrapped before the commercial could make it to the airwaves. The ad was leaked online instead, where it quickly became a viral video sensation.

As a result, Grizzlies Director of Media Relations Paul Kennedy has been a very busy man.

"I've been getting calls from all over the country and our website has gotten a lot more hits over the past couple of days," he said. "It's funny, because there's really no explanation for why something like this catches fire. I think what helped the video find an audience is that it's really hard to tell that it was a commercial. With the logos removed and no voiceovers, it really does look like unedited game footage."

The distinction between fantasy and reality is indeed a tricky one to make, largely due to the clip's attention to detail. The first 12 seconds is actual game footage from the April 17 contest, and Grizzlies announcer Doug Greenwald played a part in the ruse by later recording an authentic-sounding play-by-play call of the ball girl's acrobatics.

"Our facility provided the size and setting that was perfect for their needs," said Kennedy. "The production crew got their stuff set up in the morning, shot the game that evening, then worked through the night on the choreographed stunt."

While Kennedy estimates that eight or nine players and coaches were used as extras during the overnight shoot, it was Jake Wald who was featured most prominently. Wald, who is actually an infielder, stars in the clip as a somewhat humiliated left fielder who passively watches the ball girl's heroics from several feet away. He is currently a member of the Connecticut Defenders and regular readers of this site might also recognize him as one half of the mock-country duo Stache and Hawk.

For the Grizzlies, the question is how to cash in on their fleeting moment as YouTube sensations.

"It's tough, because we've been on the road and we're not in a position to immediately capitalize on this," said Kennedy. "But this helps get our team name, logo, and uniforms out there, and will only help our reputation grow. The bottom line is that there's no such thing as bad exposure."

And despite the unexpected popularity of the ball girl clip, don't expect to see any copycat attempts at Chukchansi Park anytime soon.

"Like most Minor League parks, we have the bullpen located down the left-field foul line," said Kennedy. "If a ball is hit in that direction, it's just going to be a relief pitcher chasing after it."

Benjamin Hill is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

Original here

Friday, June 27, 2008

Top 50: Chill, New England, there's no denying Brady now

I finally gave in, and some will say I had no choice. Not this year.

Tom Brady is the top-ranked player in the NFL. He earned it in 2007.

Tom Brady is not only dreamy, but a heck of a quarterback in New England. (Getty Images)
Tom Brady is not only dreamy, but a heck of a quarterback in New England. (Getty Images)
After balking at putting Brady there the past few years, infuriating the New England region by making Peyton Manning the top-rated player, helping to land me on the list of the least-liked people in Chowder-head country, I have finally done what many of those angry people have waited a few years to see.

Brady, glamour-boy quarterback of the New England Patriots, has edged past Manning in my rankings of the top 50 players in the NFL.

It's close, but coming off Brady's sensational, record-setting season, coupled with Manning being forced to play without his top receiver for most of last year, Brady has to take over as king of the NFL.

Brady broke Manning's single-season record for touchdown passes with 50 in 2007. Fifty. Brady also threw for a league-leading 4,806 yards and topped the NFL in completion percentage (68.9) and passer rating (117.2).

It was a magical season, comparable to the one Manning had in 2004. That year Manning threw 49 touchdown passes, had a completion-percentage of 67.6, threw for 4,557 yards and had a passer rating of 121.1.

Manning had an off year, by number standards, in 2007. All he did was go over 4,000 yards passing for the eighth time in his career, throw 31 touchdowns and complete 65.5 percent of his passes, much of that without receiver Marvin Harrison on the field.

Most quarterbacks would kill for those numbers.

The great thing is we expect Manning and Brady to do it again in 2008. Why not? Brady has his entire offense back, a coach who lets him throw it around at will, and another year's experience on his résumé. Manning expects to have Harrison back, and third receiver Anthony Gonzalez isn't a rookie anymore.

The first man to 40 touchdown passes wins.

Manning and Brady remain 1-2 in my rankings, only this time they are flip-flopped.

Tom Brady earned it.

It's about time, some will say. Right, New England?

1. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots: Can he do any more than he did last season? The scary thing for the rest of the league is, yes he can.

2. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts: Even Manning's down seasons are sensational. If Marvin Harrison is back this year, watch out.

3. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, San Diego Chargers: His failure to play in the AFC Championship Game hurts his rep some, but he's still the best runner in the game.

4. Randy Moss, WR, New England Patriots: Talk about resurrecting a reputation. He wasn't on many top 50 lists a year ago. Now he's a top 10 player.

There is nobody better at cover corner than Champ Bailey. (Getty Images)
There is nobody better at cover corner than Champ Bailey. (Getty Images)
5. Champ Bailey, CB, Denver Broncos: It's chic to pick his game apart. That's foolish. Bailey is still the best cover corner in the game.

6. Mario Williams, DE, Houston Texans: Williams is making the Texans proud for passing on Reggie Bush and Vince Young to take this pass rusher. He might have been the league's best defensive player in the final eight weeks of 2007.

7. Bob Sanders, S, Indianapolis Colts: The only thing holding him back is the injury issues. When he's on the field, the Colts have a different defense.

8. Carson Palmer, QB, Cincinnati Bengals: After Brady and Manning he's the third-best quarterback. The Bengals need to run it a little better to take the heat off him.

9. DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Dallas Cowboys: He was given more freedom in Wade Phillips' version of the 3-4 and played better in 2007. Ware is a speed rusher who has his best football still in front of him.

10. Kevin Williams, DT, Minnesota Vikings: He is a powerful inside player who teams with Pat Williams to form the best tackle tandem in the league. He is good against the run, yet quick enough to get pass-rush penetration.

11. Shawne Merriman, LB, San Diego Chargers: Merriman is a pass-rush force off the edge. His quickness and power are the perfect combination for the Chargers' 3-4 system. You have to account for him on every pass play.

12. Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings: He led the league in sacks last season with the Chiefs. The Vikings added him to give them the best defensive line in the league. Allen plays hard all the time.

13. Terrell Owens, WR, Dallas Cowboys: Forget all the theatrics. He's a star player. He bounced back from his off 2006 season to be one of the best last season. I'd take him on my team any day.

14. Albert Haynesworth, DT, Tennessee Titans: Before he got hurt midway through last season, he was on his way to a potential Defensive Player of the Year award. When motivated, he is as good as anybody inside.

15. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings: Peterson was special as a rookie and should be even better this time around. He is a big, strong and fast and can rip off the big runs with an Eric Dickerson-like ease.

16. Walter Jones, T, Seattle Seahawks: Jones is a rock on the left side of the Seattle line. He is a great pass protector who has improved as a run blocker.

17. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers: At 26, he's entering his prime. Roethlisberger has developed into a quality passer. Playing behind a bad line last year, he hung in tough and led the Steelers to a division title.

18. Charles Woodson, CB, Green Bay Packers: Ask Packers insiders who was better last season, Woodson or Pro Bowl player Al Harris. The answer is Woodson. After Bailey, I'd take him over all other corners.

19. Steve Hutchinson, G, Minnesota Vikings: He wasn't his usual self in his first season with the Vikings in 2006, but bounced back to his dominating form last year.

20. Brian Westbrook, RB, Philadelphia Eagles: It's scary to think what the Eagles offense would be like without him. He's a better runner inside the tackles than many expected and he's good in the passing game. He's a versatile weapon.

21. Steve Smith, WR, Carolina Panthers: He was hurt last season when Jake Delhomme went down. It doesn't help that Smith has little help on the other side. Defenses all double him.

22. Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis Colts: When Marvin Harrison was out last season, Wayne emerged as the team's go-to receiver. The guess here is that is that it stays that way. He's a true star now.

23. Ed Reed, S, Baltimore Ravens: He is the prototype modern safety: rangy and can still tackle. He is what safeties like Roy Williams wish they could be.

Antonio Gates is so dangerous that double coverage can't stop him. (Getty Images)
Antonio Gates is so dangerous that double coverage can't stop him. (Getty Images)
24. Antonio Gates, TE, San Diego Chargers: When the Chargers need a first down through the air, Gates is that guy. And he does it facing constant double-coverage.

25. Dwight Freeney, DE, Indianapolis Colts: He's coming off a serious foot injury, which is a concern. It's why his ranking is down. When he's truly healthy, he's a top 15 player.

26. Andre Johnson, WR, Houston Texans: Injuries limited him last season, but Johnson is one of the best when he's on the field. The Texans were a different team without him last season.

27. Jason Peters, T, Buffalo Bills: I love young, rising players like Peters. He plays with a mean streak. Watching him play is like watching a defensive player go at it.

28. Chad Johnson, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: He isn't nearly as good as he thinks he is. But he's still pretty damn good. He does have a tendency to disappear in big games.

29. Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, Oakland Raiders: DeAngelo Hall might get more attention on the other side this season, but Asomugha is a better player. He's been overlooked for the past two seasons.

30. Richard Seymour, DE, New England Patriots: He played hurt last season and wasn't the same player as in years past. But he's still one of the best when he's healthy.

31. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals gave him a new contract in March because he's their go-to guy. He teams with Anquan Boldin to form one of the top receiving duos.

32. Brian Urlacher, LB, Chicago Bears: A few years back he was overrated. He's not anymore. Urlacher excels in the middle of the Chicago defense.

33. Steven Jackson, RB, St. Louis Rams: The offensive line woes of the Rams really hurt Jackson last season. That line will be better this season and his numbers will go up.

34. Braylon Edwards, WR, Cleveland Browns: Edwards was second to Moss with 16 receiving touchdowns in his third season in the league. He averaged 16.1 per catch and will only get better as he hits his prime.

35. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints: For the second consecutive season, Brees put up huge numbers in the Saints offense. He might not be the biggest or have the strongest arm, but Brees knows how to throw the football.

36. Tommie Harris, DT, Chicago Bears: Harris is strong and quick. He had eight sacks last season, showing off his quickness. He can still hold the point against the run.

37. Asante Samuel, CB, Philadelphia Eagles: He had a big season at the right time, cashing in on a huge deal with the Eagles. He's great at playing the ball in the air, but some scouts think he freelances too much.

38. Shawn Andrews, G, Philadelphia Eagles: He's a huge guard at 6-4, 345 pounds and he shows off that power when blocking for the run. He improved in pass protection in 2007, although the Eagles line regressed as a whole.

39. Ernie Sims, LB, Detroit Lions: It's too bad more people don't get to watch him play. He's a fast linebacker who always seems to find his way to the football. He's a younger Derrick Brooks.

40. Lofa Tatupu, LB, Seattle Seahawks: He's a fierce tackler in the middle of that Seattle defense. He's not big at 6-feet tall, but he plays big. You can tell he loves the game.

41. Vince Wilfork, DT, New England Patriots: He was the best front-seven player on the Pats defense last season. He's a load in the middle. Moving him off the ball is tough for any center.

The Giants are minus Strahan, so Osi Umenyiora's role just got bigger. (Getty Images)
The Giants are minus Strahan, so Osi Umenyiora's role just got bigger. (Getty Images)
42. Osi Umenyiora, DE, New York Giants: His speed off the right side is a huge plus for the New York defense. Without Mike Strahan playing on the other side this season, it will be interesting to see how Umenyiora does now.

43. Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco 49ers: It didn't take him long to establish himself as a top middle linebacker. He is fast, active and packs a punch. In a year or so, he might be the best insider linebacker in the game.

44. Kellen Winslow, TE, Cleveland Browns: He has emerged as one of the rising stars for a rising team. His ability to stretch the defense is vital to the Cleveland offense.

45. Aaron Kampman, DE, Green Bay Packers: He plays all out all the time. Despite being light at 265 pounds, he holds up against the run at left end quite well. He has speed and strength as a pass rusher.

46. Tony Gonzalez, TE, Kansas City Chiefs: He's one of those guys who doesn't seem to ever slow down. He had 99 catches last year in a bad offense.

47. Marcus Trufant, CB, Seattle Seahawks: He led all NFC corners with seven interceptions. He also got credit for 22 passes defensed. He has emerged as a top-tier corner.

48. Wes Welker, WR, New England Patriots: Yes, he belongs on this list. He had an amazing season as a slot receiver in 2007. Even when teams knew he was getting the football, he made plays.

49. Fred Taylor, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars: Taylor finally got his due last season with his first Pro Bowl appearance. At 32, he remains one of the biggest home-run threats in the league. His 5.4 per-carry average was second best among the league's best rushers to Peterson (5.6).

50. Devin Hester, KR, Chicago Bears: I don't normally put return men on these lists, but this guy has earned it. It will be interesting to see how long he can maintain it.

Just missed: Julius Peppers, DE, Carolina Panthers; Larry Johnson, RB, Kansas City Chiefs; Patrick Kerney, DE, Seattle Seahawks; Troy Polamalu, S, Pittsburgh Steelers; Adrian Wilson, S, Arizona Cardinals; Antonio Cromartie, CB, San Diego Chargers' Terence Newman, CB, Dallas Cowboys; DeMeco Ryans, LB, Houston Texans; Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys.